“Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase.” —Marcel Duchamp, Life magazine, 1952
For many years I hardly told anyone that my grandmother’s sister Teeny was married to Marcel Duchamp, and before that to Pierre Matisse, the art dealer son of Henri. Friends I’ve known all my life have stopped me in disbelief when these facts have come up in passing—a disbelief arising not from the facts themselves but from my never having shared them. The first time I ever mentioned the connection to anyone outside the family, I was in college, sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue with my professor, the poet David Shapiro. “Wait,” he said, “Teeny Duchamp is your great aunt?!” I was surprised he knew exactly who she was.
Scrawny was my first thought. I’d babysat enough by then to place his age at just shy of a year. As my father handed him to me, the baby arched his back in protest, his chicken butt threatening to escape his diaper completely. I could tell that a man had fastened it, because the tape on the sides was all askew.
“Come, say hello to your brother,” Daddy said, smiling.
We are driving through downtown Columbus, away from the Greyhound station. I spent fifteen hours on a bus traveling from New York City to visit for Christmas, a holiday, my mother reminds me, that is not even about Jesus anymore. This is a thought she has reiterated over the years, yet it never prevented her from partaking in the holiday during my lifetime. The absence of a decorative tree and gifts reflected a lack of money, not a rejection of the commodification of religion.
We decided we’d stop for the night in Denver while eating at a Taco Johns in North Platte, Nebraska, and scanned the Expedia app on my phone. There was a 4-star hotel in the suburbs northwest of the city on sale for 86 bucks, so I reserved a room because it was the same price as the Best Western.
When I was seven years old, we moved from Cleveland to New York City. I remember when my parents announced the decision to me and my two sisters. We were eating dinner at the aluminum kitchen table of our suburban home. Their tone was excitingly conspiratorial. They told us not to tell anyone just yet, not until plans were settled. The aspects of the move that might have troubled me—leaving relatives, friends, my bedroom, and my school—paled in comparison to the fact that I had been entrusted with a secret.
I am a sixth-generation Texan who married a fiercely native New Yorker, which means I have a keen appreciation for the ways in which places shape lives. When I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the dead of winter last year, it was an odyssey that once again challenged my sense of identity. Cincinnati is worlds apart from both Texas and New York, and unlike those proudly parochial states, this city can lay a strong claim as the heart of America. It was settled in 1788 on the banks of the Ohio River, and at the turn of the century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow named it “the Queen of the West”:
Over the past forty years, Industrial Realty Group has acquired over a billion dollars of America’s obsolete industrial complexes, former military bases, and corporate campuses for retrofitting, conversion, and privatization. In 2007, the firm acquired the newly closed Hoover Plant, two blocks from my high school. Hoover once made the world’s most famous vacuums, and its old headquarters are still tremendous, a magnificent crowd of red brick and white windowpanes that run along a green lawn and announce themselves in white letters, “The Home of Hoover Fine Appliances.”
In the beginning, the Lord God created man in Adams County, Ohio, just north of Peebles and south of Chillicothe.
On the very western edge of the Appalachians, in the craggy countryside of southern Ohio, the three branches of a small river called Brush Creek converge in a valley lined with pitch pine and chestnut oak trees. A steep rocky bluff rises one hundred feet above the riverbed. And on top of this bluff lies an ancient mound of soil, waist high, built in the shape of a serpent. The snake’s head—120 feet long and 60 feet wide—faces the north end of the bluff, overlooking the river. From there, the snake’s body stretches southward 1,300 feet in loose waves, and ends in a tightly curled triple spiral.