Magpie, definition, Cambridge Dictionary: 1) a bird with black and white feathers and a long tail, 2) someone who likes to collect many different objects, or use many different styles
Turn away from the enormous glass and steel buildings, like huge beached ships, on Sixth Avenue and head down 44th Street, the street of the Algonquin, the New York City Bar Association, the Harvard Club, the New York Yacht Club, and other Salter-esque environs. Stop at a seven-story Italian Renaissance Revival Building that looks like Hogwarts. This is the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. It’s compact, poetic: the gentry and the workers on one block, Upstairs Downstairs on a horizontal plane.
If you go into The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, which was established in 1820, and walk up the marble staircase past the enormous arm with a hammer in its fist coming out of the wall, you will find yourself in the Mossman Lock Collection.
With 370 locks, it is one of the largest lock collections in the world. There is no one else here, just cases and cases of locks and keys with small placards bearing their names. Among them: the American Secret Padlock, Seven Coptic Keys, the Magic Key Lock, a Very Complicated Lock, a 4,000-year-old wooden Egyptian lock, the Magnetic Lock, Two Old Padlocks, the Liquid Time Lock, the Fluid Time Lock, a Jail Lock, the Odd Key Lock, the Flat Key Hasp Padlock, the Sprocket Padlock, the Wilder Key Lock, and, of course, an entire display of lock picks. All of the locks are locked up, watched over by these guys:
These are not mechanics or tradesmen. These are the past presidents of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen; brass plaques at the bottom of their photos sport their names. Massed together like this, they look like exhibits in a Patriarchy Museum, on display along with the locks they once used to keep people from stealing their money, because most of these locks were made for bank vaults, according to The Lure of the Lock , an elegant brown book that you can buy at the museum. The Lure of the Lock includes a selection from “The Mossman Papers” tucked within it, which is mostly accounts of daring bank robberies and has section titles like “Bad Men of the Eighties.” (The 1880s, that is.) Most of the men, good or bad, in the pictures on the wall are dead, and the locks have nothing to do anymore except sit there and look unpickable. A fan whirrs.
The superintendent wanders up and asks, “Are you a locksmith?”
“No,” I say, and I laugh, because I don’t think the Magpie looks like a locksmith.
“Don’t underestimate anybody,” he says. “You could be.”
I want to ask him what a Fluid Time Lock is and if I can use it to tesser over to the sixteenth century, but I suspect he’ll give me a practical answer, so I don’t ask.
The emptiness of the room, combined with the lingering late-summer heat, the gleaming, intricate, retired locks, and the photos of the dead white men produces an uncanny feeling, a sense that something has gone missing or escaped from the game of bankers and robbers, leaving only blank gazes and complicated bits of metal that aren’t attached to anything.
I leave the lock collection and look at the arm with the hammer in its fist coming out of the wall. It looks like a part of Thing from The Addams Family that we never saw. Maybe Thing had another life outside that box. Don’t underestimate anybody.
“Hey,” says the super. “There’s another door. See it? You won’t believe it.”
Indeed, there is a large, wooden door in a corner of the hallway I hadn’t noticed. I open it.
Go up the tippy wooden staircase to the Dream House. A young man with long, wavy brown hair falling over his shoulders is sitting at a closed door, reading a book. Drop a donation in the Lucite box, take off your shoes, and go in the door. It smells of incense inside, the floor is carpeted in white pile, there is a dim rosy light, and in the first room, to the side, is a box of what seems to be twisting, illuminated smoke. Long, slightly varying tones play loudly, almost unpleasantly. The air conditioning is set to February in Norway. No one else is there.
Down a hallway in another larger room are two men sitting on the floor watching a slowly shifting umber, orange, and black image projected on what looks like a canvas on one wall; on the wall facing it are twirling circles of purple dots that also pulse; on a perpendicular wall is a very large figure that seems to be butterfly-shaped, if butterflies had a wingspan of about six feet. White pillows are stacked in one corner of the room. On the fourth wall is what looks to be a small altar, with a photo of a man with a long white beard propped up on it. The two men get up and leave. The umber projection clicks off, which is creepy.
Jung Hee Choi, Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest IX/Mela Foundation
How tender, these dreams. The dream of the door that will only open for you, the dream of power, the dream of money, the dream of the house that will always produce dreams and not, say, a fervent desire to escape.
I manage to sit in the dark on the white pile carpet, but not for long.
The Mossman Lock Collection is open from 11-5, Monday through Friday, at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, 20 West 44th street, in New York. Admission $10. www.generalsociety.org .
The Dream House is located at 275 Church Street, 3rd floor, in New York. Hours Wednesday through Saturday, 2 pm to midnight. Jung Hee Choi,“Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest X,” through October 8, 2016. Suggested donation $9. www.melafoundation.org .