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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

The Fact That it Can Do This Without Falling Apart by Tia Anae

OBJECT: Rubik's Cube

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River

The evening skyline in late August looks cold from the High Line, but it’s 75 degrees with humidity. People are up here with me—the 22-year-old west coast naïf—but I’m the only one around watching the black sky and blacker water. A loud someone takes a photo to my right and the flash lingers, icy and white, when they walk away. I stand at the railing, pretending to look native, despite my backpack, and not clueless, despite the Google map I’ve got queued up on the phone in my pocket. I’m short a dad double-fisting a hot dog and a Big Bus brochure—which is my actual dad right now in our Times Square hotel.

I didn’t know until eavesdropping on a tour that this place is called the High Line, and I found it by following the water. I walked from Greenwich Village through I think the Meatpacking District then down a side street. In new places, I’m almost always geographically stupid, and here is no exception. In my solo ambling, I forgot New York had rivers, or honestly, water. So coming from California—a place well known for its water (and more recently its lack of it)—when I saw what I didn’t know until later was the Hudson, instinct reeled me in.

Another thing I didn’t know until later is that about three summers ago, a giant Rubik’s Cube sailed down this Hudson River for its 40th anniversary and its creator’s 70th birthday. Architecture professor Erno Rubik, who invented the cube to teach 3D movement, created an object that didn’t disassemble when it twisted and turned. Originally it was named for this phenomenon: the Magic Cube.

Walking along the High Line, I’m interested in the lookouts that line the path and face the river. I stop at one, a blue metal table and matching chair. Perched awkwardly near the middle of the pathway, under this low concrete archway, they’re inviting in a somber way. I sit there for the view of the water, which is not much of a view because of the arch, but I can see the white and yellow city lights twitching and poking out of the black sky. I don’t sit in this spot long because I soon feel in the way. A herd of people drifts by. Like a boulder in a current, I’m by no means a barrier—they slip around and past me after all—but I feel obtrusive. Too aware of my singularity here, I stand up and keep walking. And anyway, that’s how they do it here. No one stops.

Well, but I do. Two minutes later, I turn right and stop again at another railing to watch the water from a different angle. From here, I can see on the water’s surface the reflection of the W Hotel’s red ‘W,’ big and ostentatious across the river. The red light has lost its shape in the water and moves like crimson oil in the ripples. The surrounding water is deeply black against the skyline’s halation.

It’s almost ridiculous now to think of a massive toy floating downstream here. Maybe it’s the nighttime, or something high brow I’m sensing about this well-groomed High Line, but New York—while home to eccentricity, no doubt—seems severe; severe in a way that could call an icon ersatz or shrug off avant-garde as camp. A Rubik’s Cube on the Hudson sounded like Lady Liberty on ice. After all, the cube itself looks, despite its complex mechanics, elementary. And apparently this was intentional. When designing it, Erno Rubik needed a type of coding to orient the cube’s rotations. The simplest and strongest answer, he said, was color. So he assigned one to each of its six sides. The cube’s a black skeleton covered in color—blue, green, white, yellow, orange, and red—making it a kind of a geometric circus box. Maybe it’s fitting then that the giant Rubik’s Cube that floated down the Hudson River was inflatable. The ballooning that typically makes recreational air-filled things hard to take seriously actually made the scrambled cube immobile, and thus unsolvable. New York seems too smart to have missed this.

A couple joins me on the railing, so close to me that I try to slide away in that subtle polite way we’re taught to give space to people who didn’t ask for it. I’m out of railing though—we’re sandwiched between beds of greenery—so I turn away and rest my elbow on the rail’s edge. Watching the water this way is a neck cramp, so I look to the right and see a sculpture among the plants. I leave the railing for a better view; the sculpture is white and wraith-like in the evening backlight. Growing out of the black dirt in a line are four structures that look to me like melting steamboat cylinders. The plaque below tells me this is an abstraction of a hand called Amulet II, part of a multi-artist exhibition called Mutations. The High Line Art website tells me Mutations examines “how the boundaries between the natural world and culture are defined, crossed, and obliterated” and asks, “as technology becomes more invisible and genetic engineering more conceivable, how do the delineations between nature and culture shift and transform?” A woman in an orange cardigan moves to stand between the sculpture and me. I side-step her and twist through an oncoming wave of humans.

***

The Rubik’s Cube is made of 20 small cubes called “cubies”—12 edge pieces and 8 corner pieces—and a 6-bolt rotating core. Speedcubers, competitive Rubik’s Cube solvers, advise beginners to think of the whole cube in terms of these smaller cubies, rather than the stickers on each edge. They refer to memorized solution sequences as algorithms, which in math speak are instructions for arriving at a final state through successive, defined states. Some steps in the sequence affect others, some don’t—some have side effects, some are solo shifters with delayed realignment. There are 43 quintillion ways to scramble a Rubik’s Cube; if you had one cube for every permutation and laid them end-to-end, they would stretch 261 light years or cover the earth in 273 layers.

By now I’ve left the sculpture and found a chessboard, an art installation called chess: relatives. It’s an interactive piece and you play the game by replacing the chess pieces with people, who represent different family members. The board is white with 64 squares, each with the word “white” or “black” written on them. Standing beside it, I read that the artist, Darren Bader, “bridges absurdity and sincerity, resulting in humorous, tongue-in-cheek works that question how certain things—objects, events, thoughts, or concepts—come to be honored as art objects.” Given my conditioned fear of scolding for touching artwork, I don’t want to know the consequences of stepping on it. I make a point of walking around the board to get back to the path.

Rubik’s official website will tell you, “Erno has always thought of the Cube primarily as an object of art, a mobile sculpture symbolizing stark contrasts of the human condition: bewildering problems and triumphant intelligence; simplicity and complexity; stability and dynamism; order and chaos.” When I found this, post-High Line, I thought of the John Guare play, Six Degrees of Separation. I first saw the film adaptation in high school. Two of the main characters are an affluent couple, an art dealer named Flan and his wife, Ouisa. They own a double-sided Kandinsky, which in the film is painted on one side with his radical Black Lines (1913) and on the other with his geometric Several Circles (1926). There’s a scene where Flan spins the Kandinsky around and around as Ouisa chants hypnotically, “chaos, control, chaos, control.” In another scene, she tells her daughter about the theory of Six Degrees of Separation—the idea that each of us is connected by six other people. She says, “I find that extremely comforting that we’re so close, but I also find it like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the connection.” Years later, it was always her “chaos, control” bit that haunted me. But now it’s her frustration with this hex-web and her concern with human proximity—at once invisible, precise, and obvious—that either intrigues or depresses me; I can’t tell which.

I walk along the High Line a bit longer and search for a place to view the river one more time. I find it near the restrooms. When looking for a way to explain three-dimensional movement to his students, Erno Rubik took inspiration from the Danube River in Hungary. Watching it one day, he saw how the water moved around the rocks, and from this emerged the cube’s twisting mechanism. “The fact that it can do this without falling apart,” he said, “is part of its magic.”

Here at the Hudson, I lean over the corner edge of the railing and wonder what this water looks like in the daylight: if it’s blue or green, stagnant or depthless. Maybe during the day it’d be easier to see how it moves. I turn away from the water, and I notice for the first time that most of the passing pedestrians up here are, as far as I can tell, alone. They duck through and around each other deftly and without thought, sometimes reconvening a little down the path, sometimes not. Their flow is confounding and comforting and, I realize now, necessary. It’s a matter of physics: people here move to stay in motion.


Tia Anae recently graduated from Northwestern University's School of Communication. She's from the Bay Area and has been to New York exactly once. She currently lives in LA.