Taxis and Vermeer

by Rob Tiller

When I first arrived in New York right after college, it didn’t bother me that I had barely enough money to share a tenement apartment and eat.  It was just so great to be in the city.  I loved epic scale   — all that glass, all that steel, all that concrete.  All those details — sooty buildings with gargoyles.  The contrasts —  suspension bridges, Central Park.  The super charged energy of New Yorkers, with many ethnicities, languages, accents, customs, gestures, styles.   So many, so much.

I continued to feel that way about New York, and still do.  But by the time I left to go to law school five years later, I’d grown tired of being (relatively speaking) poor.  It wasn’t that I desired any particular worldly goods.  My ambitions involved freedom of movement.  I was tired of running for and missing the subway, and waiting on a lonely platform, or squeezing into a crowded car.  My great fantasy was to take a cab whenever I wanted, and never to look at the meter with anxiety.

Last week I had some great cab rides when I was in the city for two nights.  Catching them was as easy as in a dream:  one appeared almost every time I got ready to raise an arm.   Going up Broadway and down Fifth, up Madison and over on 59th.  The teeming pedestrians —  all ages, colors, and clothing styles.  I was briefly fascinated, then annoyed, by televisions in the cabs, and learned how to turn them off.    Many cabs, wonderfully, now take credit cards.

I was tightly scheduled with meetings, but managed to carve one hour free to see the Vermeer exhibit at the Met.  The centerpiece is The Milkmaid, loaned for the exhibit by the Rijksmuseum.  It was a subtle and powerful work.  The subject is as common as possible — a servant pouring milk into a bowl.  As in other great Vermeer portraits, the light seems natural at first; the impossible vividness of it becomes noticeable only gradually.  There is a hyper realism to the scene, and at the same time a dreamlike quality.

I disagreed with some of  Peter Schjehdahl’s review in the New Yorker, who argued that The Milkmaid did not deserve to be placed in such a position of honor in Vermeer’s oeuvre.  For me, it was worth much more than a cab ride, and perhaps even a trans-Atlantic flight.  But Schjehdahl reminded me that Vermeer, perhaps more than any of the Dutch masters, changes our perceptions of ordinary life.  After gazing at The Milkmaid, I was reminded that there was much more to see in everyday life than we normally notice.  Even within the commonplace, hiding in plain sight, is otherworldly beauty.  Thanks, V.