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Tilted Arc sculpture

John P. Loonam

Even Richard Nixon

The F train was stuck just outside of the Smith Street station, high above the Gowanus. Through the broken air-conditioner vents the stench of the canal -- which had once meant jobs but was now just stench -- accompanied the rush hour crowds and me to my job. I was a research assistant for a law firm that needed very little assistance. I pressed my face against the glass of the subway door, and I could see the roof of my building, the cheap lawn chair I had dragged up for Fourth of July, the plate full of melted candle wax sitting on the tar paper.

As the train pulled into Borough Hall, passengers emerged from their heat-induced haze and moved towards the door. I allowed the flow of hot bodies to carry me off the train and towards the IRT. As I dragged across the platform, a young woman ran past me, the lapels on her blouse flapping in the breeze of her movements. I watched her squeeze through the closing doors of the train I had just left. The train began to move and I saw her pull a magazine out of her handbag.

It was almost August and Manhattan was deep into the hot slush of summer. By the time I reached Redd, Root and Lavarr, Attorneys at Law, I was sweating like a marathon runner. Murlowe had the air conditioner up full blast and the sudden noise and cold was like entering another dimension. Frank Murlowe, head of Legal Research, actually all of legal research, was pounding away at a Selectric typewriter. He wore a spotless white suit, a grey shirt, and a pink bowtie. A row of freshly sharpened pencils bounced up and down lightly on his desk. My desk, empty but for a lone yellow pad, pressed against his so that when I collapsed into my chair, we were facing each other, except that Murlowe did not look up.

Mr. Oakley always knocked on the door and paused before coming in, so I had a chance to grab one of Murlowe's pencils and appear to be writing something on the yellow pad before the door flew open. TJ Oakley, Attorney at Law, stepped into the room. He was a large man with a five o'clock shadow at ten in the morning and the confidence of one who felt being in charge was his birthright. He clapped his hands twice and bellowed like he was coaching a football team.

"Monday morning gentlemen and I need paper! The American Legal System runs on paper! The Pecola briefs are ready? I've got lawyers to deal with."

Murlowe pushed a stack of papers across his desk and patted the top of the pile. He avoided eye contact with Oakley in a way that sometimes seemed dismissive, and other times genuinely fearful. This passivity, and the fact that he was black, were all that kept him locked in this backroom. TJ Oakley may have looked intimidating in his tailored suits and pinkie ring, but he often had to read Murlowe's work twice in order to understand it. Together they made one complete and successful lawyer: a smart and capable person who appeared smart and capable.

Oakley swept up the papers and turned to walk out. Just before closing the door behind him, he called back to Murlowe: "Good work, Franklin. Sorry for the crazy weekend."

As the door closed, Murlowe reached across the Selectric and took the pencil out of my hand. He placed it back in the row of twelve on his desk, straightened the entire group, and returned to his typing.

"You should fire that guy," I swiveled my chair around to the coffee machine and poured myself a cup, covering its surface with white powdered creamer. "Let him try to get anything done without you."

"Even you must have noticed that it doesn't work that way." Murlowe mumbled.

"Yeah, well, Come the Revolution," I said, raising my coffee in salute.

"Come the Revolution," Murlowe answered, his voice flat and quiet.

"So what happened this weekend?" I asked.

"I worked on the Pecola brief." Murlowe answered, picking up one of his pencils and tapping the desk as he read over his latest page of typing. "My trusted assistant got drunk and got laid."

"You're half right," I sighed. "But that's not crazy," I said, picking up another of Murlowe's pencils and sketching a portrait of my mug on the yellow pad. "You work every weekend, and I...well, I don't." I made the steam of hot coffee roll up above the mug. "You work every weekend. What made this one different?"

"Don't you even read the papers?" Murlowe returned his pencil carefully to its place in the row. He spoke to the paper in his typewriter. "I mean I understand that legal research is not in your future, but I would think you would make it past Page 6 of the Post."

I worked the eddies of smoke into a portrait of Murlowe, his face blank with concentration. He typed.

"Nixon?" I asked.

Murlowe smiled slightly at his typewriter.

I slammed my hand down on top of the desk. Pencils bounced out of position. "Nixon moved in this weekend!" I said. "Under cover of darkness, no doubt."

"I had to evacuate under a Secret Service escort," Murlowe laughed, actually looking up at me for a second.

"Richard Milhouse Nixon is our neighbor," I said, the awe in my voice more genuine than I had anticipated.

"You should have been here to protest," Murlowe said.

"Maybe its not too late," I said. "Maybe we can go up and chant a few 'Hell No, We won't go's'"

"You think they evacuated the building and left him alone up there?" Murlowe said. He dismissed me and returned his focus to the typewriter. "There's enough security to protect him from the entire McGovern wing of the Democratic party."

"I think we are the entire McGovern wing of the Democratic Party," I said.

"Speak for yourself," Murlowe mumbled. "Now let me get to work, I'll give you something to keep you out of trouble."

I spent the rest of the morning underlining incomprehensible passages in circuit court cases involving air rights and power lines. The more incomprehensible the sentence, the more often I underlined it. After a couple of hours I stopped reading and sketched a power line across the top of my pad.

At lunchtime, I took my mind off air rights by smoking a bit of hash my friend Terry had leftover from the weekend. We sat in our favorite spot -- the shade thrown by a new sculpture that had been hauled into Federal Square one dark summer night: Richard Serra's Tilted Arc.

"It's either an expression of the infantile revolutionary quality of bourgeois modernism or a radical commentary on the breakdown of the public sphere in this media driven age." I said, settling into a space on the cobblestones so that my back leaned against the wall of the Arc.

"Either that or a 12 foot wall of rusted metal." Terry responded. "Either way its good for lighting these matches." He struck a blue tipped camping match against the side of the wall. "Makes me feel like Humphrey Bogart." The match cracked slightly, and Terry lifted the crooked flame to his face.

We passed the pipe back and forth in silence. I looked up at the gray of the skyline.

"I almost forgot to tell you," Terry liked to talk while he inhaled. It gave his voice a high-pitched urgency. "I got that job with Green and Lowell."

"Congratulations," I said.

"My office will be right up there," He pointed at a nondescript granite cube of a building.

I took the pipe he held out towards me, but didn't put it to my mouth. I stared at the building, which I knew was 212 Centre Street.

"That's my father's old building," I said, passing the pipe back to Terry. "He worked there for something like 30 years."

""Whoa, wait a minute," Terry said, then inhaled deeply. "Does that mean he died in that building?" he squeaked.

"No," I answered. The rusty corner of the Arc cut across the bottom of my view of the building. "That happened in the ambulance on the way to St. Vincent's."

Terry nodded, then exhaled loudly.

I listened to his breath. The haze of the air was thick enough for me to hide in now.

"I think we need to go up and introduce ourselves to Nixon," I said.

"You think?"

"Like the Welcome Wagon."

Terry tapped the pipe against the wall. It rang out like a gong, so that several of the other lunch-time art lovers standing in its shade turned to look at us.

"Sounds like Murlowe represented us."

"Greeting the fallen leader of the Free World is not a task that should be delegated." I said. "Even to Murlowe. We should take the elevator up to the 11th floor and say hello. Make sure he has the right key to the executive washroom." I waited. Terry did not respond. I tried to say something funnier. "We could register him to vote in his new district."

"He doesn't live here," Terry said, sitting back against the wall beside me. "It's just his new office."

"Well he lives somewhere," I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the rust. "Even Richard Nixon must live somewhere."

The warm metal of the Tilted Arc pressed into my skull. I had studied Richard Serra in college. He was provocative and intellectual. Critics loved him. Then I declared pre-law. This piece had been commissioned to grace the plaza outside the new Federal office building, a block and a half from my father's office. I got accepted at Columbia, where I met Terry in Contracts 101. The Arc cut diagonally across the square, which was otherwise barren and ugly, but had become a popular lunch-time meeting spot. I dropped out after a year. "Tilted Arc" was a direct challenge to notions of public art -- it seemed to question whether truly public art was even possible. My father died the next fall. There was a lawsuit pending to have The Arc removed.

The haze glowed as if it were light itself. There were clusters of young office workers scattered here and there around our half of Federal Square, passing joints or brown paper bags back and forth, or just sharing sandwiches in the noon air. There were people hurrying to get back to their offices, or off to someone else's office. A heavy man with an overstuffed briefcase came barreling diagonally towards us, his head down, his stride rapid and labored. He would have hit the steel of the Arc if I had not banged on it with the flat of my hand and called out to him, "Hey, Look up!"

He stopped and tilted his head, listening to the ringing sound of metal, then stood for a moment looking up at the wall of rust, an expression of angry impatience developing on his face.

"What in the Holy Mother of Manna is this?" He called out, to no one in particular. He seemed not to have noticed us sitting at his feet.

"Art." I said. "It's a sculpture."

He looked up and down the length of the Arc, past Terry and I to his left, past the homeless man who was setting up a refrigerator box at the base of the wall to his right. Then he looked straight up. The Tilted Arc curved around him on both sides, and leaned just enough to press down on him.

"No." He said at last. "Art is green men on horseback surrounded by untrimmed shrubbery. This is something else." He turned and circled to his right to go around The Arc. As he passed the homeless man, who had draped a quilt over one end of the refrigerator box and was now sitting on a milk carton pulling stitches from a piece of cloth, he bent down and, without slowing his stride, stuck a dollar in the man's coffee cup.

When I got into the elevator with the bags from McDonalds, I pressed the button for 11 -- Nixon's floor -- and as the elevator rose I attempted to stand tall. I fixed the collar of my jacket. The doors opened to a large lobby room decorated to look stately and official. There was a Presidential Seal woven into the carpet, and a receptionist's desk that curved to face us and took up most of the far wall. There was no receptionist, but there was a switchboard with enough buttons to connect to every head of state and department of government. None of the buttons were lit.

There were three identical doors beyond the receptionist's desk. A man in a dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie, hands folded behind his back, not quite at attention, stood in front of the middle door, behind the dark telephone. He seemed able to stare straight ahead without taking his eyes off me. I stepped out of the elevator and held the McDonald's bag at shoulder height. I spoke loudly and slowly, as if to a crowded room: "I would like to see the President. I have brought him lunch."

"He does not see people without an appointment!'" I shouted to Marlowe to get above the sound of the air conditioner and to get him to look up from the book of case law he was reviewing. I squeezed the uneaten half of a Big Mac and watched the special sauce peak out the side.

"Look, he is the ex-President of the United States." Marlowe said. "People like that don't see people without appointments."

"Why not?" I put an extra dab of indignation into my voice. "He's sitting in that office with nothing to do," I didn't quite believe that, but I continued. "You think Reagan calls him for advice? You think Brezhnnev invites him to lunch?"

"He does have a law practice," Marlowe sighed and turned the page.

"I'm sure a lot of people go to Dick Nixon for advice about legal matters."

Murlowe looked up at me. "You're really getting something out of this."

I thought of that telephone full of dark buttons, and the calendar open to this week, with every day empty. I imagined Nixon listening to me argue with the Secret Service from behind one of those closed doors. I realized I really did want to meet him, I really did want to bring him lunch.

"No," I lied. "I just liked the adventure. I guess I should be glad I didn't get arrested." I placed my own hands on the edge of the desk and tapped quietly, listening to the empty drawers echo.

That was a Tuesday. Wednesday I proofread a brief for Murlowe and went home early. Thursday morning I took the elevator to 11 again.

That giant eagle spread his wings on the rug beneath my feet, and the fluorescent bulbs buzzed above my head. The receptionist's oversized desk was still empty. The lights on the telephone were still dark.

"Hello?" I said, my voice a bit quieter than I had intended. "Anybody home? One of your fellow Americans is here…"

The door behind the receptionist's desk opened slightly and the Secret Service Agent from the day before slipped into the lobby. He brushed a hand through his crew cut.

"May I help you?"

"Yes," I said, rubbing my palms down my chest to smooth my shirt front. "I'd like to see Mr.-- the President."

"The President is not in."

"Really?" I was genuinely surprised. Where could he be at this hour? "Did he leave a message?"

The agent smiled slightly. "For you?"

"No, I mean saying where he was and when he would be back." The agent opened his mouth to speak, but I continued. "Are you forwarding his calls? I notice that the receptionist is not here."

"Perhaps I can help you," he said. "If you have some message to leave, or some concern..."

There was a pause. I wondered what concern had driven me here.

"Could you get me an autographed picture?" I asked.

"Certainly," The agent turned towards the file cabinet against the right wall.

"I don't really want one. I want an appointment." And now it was true. It was still a prank, a college prank by an aging sophomore who just wanted to practice his best mock serious voice with a disgraced head of state, but it was also true. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to know what he did all day, how he managed to keep busy. I wanted to ask him if he had found some direction since Watergate. I wanted to see how he was getting along.

The agent turned to face me. He stepped towards me. I stepped back, towards the elevator.

"I don't think it would be appropriate to explain the nature of my business," I said, deepening my voice and talking slowly, as if addressing a tone deaf two year old.

As I spoke he continued towards me, and I backed away until my shoulders touched the elevator doors.

"He really is quite busy." I flinched as he reached a hand over my shoulder and punched the button to call the elevator. I could see now that he was older than he carried himself. His crew cut hid an almost bald head, and there were deep rings of wrinkles under his eyes. Still, his neck was tightly muscled, pressing against his starched shirt collar, indicating he was probably in better shape than your average 24 year old pot-head.

"Busy doing what?" I asked. I knew the question would appear especially rude to someone dedicated to this man he was protecting, who may not have thought Watergate was really as terrible as people made it out to be. I had intended the question to be impertinent beyond the point of being rude, as if I could raise my own status by going through rude to arrogant. But I heard a genuine concern in my voice. The hard edge of political certainty was laced with genuine wonder -- what do you do all day if you are Richard Nixon? The agent reached wearily into his breast pocket. I forced myself to remain still -- though I thought for a moment that he was going to pull out a gun and pistol whip me. He handed me a business card.

"You will have to call for an appointment." He handed the card to me. "I wouldn't get my hopes up, but you can say you spoke to Agent Howard."

I emerged into the hot wet street and wandered over to the shade of the rusting Arc. I held the card between thumb and forefinger, as I had when I took it from Agent Howard. It said, simply, Richard M. Nixon, with a phone number. The air was cool and metallic beside the arc, and I looked out at the early afternoon traffic -- a thousand people spread out before me, all races racing back from lunch; all creeds careening through the day, every class, worker and capitalist, pushing past one another, occasionally running up against the Arc and stopping, staring up at its height, turning their heads to take in its breadth, than hustling to the nearest edge, hurrying to get around it and back to work.

I tried to get in to see Nixon every day for the next week. Generally I stopped by in the morning, but on Tuesday and Friday I also went after work, and I went several times during lunch. In fact on Wednesday I ate my lunch in the reception area. I had brought Nixon another Big Mac, and offered it to Agent Howard. He refused with a politeness that seemed simultaneously genuine and official. I ate both Big Macs and most of Nixon's fries, smiling as I thought of the story I could make out of this, though I had no one to tell the story to. I had not seen Terry in a week. He had stopped taking lunch by the Arc, had deserted our usual bars, swallowed up by the work of the law. Murlowe was there every morning when I strolled in, his face buried in some law book; he was there every evening when I left, hidden behind a page in his typewriter. When I asked if he needed help, he asked for coffee. It was quite a performance, even by his standards.

It was Agent Howard I saw the most that week. The receptionist seemed to have disappeared. Though he stood at almost attention and seemed to regard me as little more than a potential assassin, he was also professionally polite and willing to answer questions, though often in single syllables.

Of course, my questions were largely facetious, slightly rude, and -- in retrospect -- wholly sophomoric. Is he with Pat? Do ex-Presidents belong to some sort of club, or alumni association? Does Jimmy Carter ever call? Eisenhower? Does Nixon ever actually use the phrase "expletive deleted"? But as the week wore on I began to find questions that I was generally concerned about.

"Somebody is with him, right?" I slipped a french fry into my mouth.

"Excuse me?" Agent Howard was sitting in a chair between the two doors, sorting through a pile of paper work, making notations in the margins of blue pages he held on his lap. ""You're here, completing some sort of record keeping that I am sure is very important, but Nix...The President is somewhere else. Somebody from the Secret Service is guarding him. Right?"

Agent Howard let a note of tired tolerance creep into his voice. "I am not at liberty to discuss President Nixon's security arrangements." Then after a long pause he looked up at me with eyes that seem to take my concern seriously. "But yes," he says, "someone is with him. He is protected at all times."

"Are you jealous?" I asked.

"Excuse me?" He said, and I thought I saw him pause. He was checking the blue records against a small notebook he had just removed from his breast pocket, and I thought I saw him freeze for a split second as I asked.

"Some other agent is actually guarding the President while you are stuck here guarding his empty office. Does that bother you at all?"

He wrote a few more notes, shuffled the papers together, and put them into a file folder. He stood up, slipped the notebook back into his jacket, and crossed to a file cabinet against the left wall, and placed the folder on top. He said "No," while still facing the wall, then, having answered his last question, turned and escorted me to the elevator.

I wasn't quite surprised when I arrived one morning and my office was empty. I had never seen Murlowe's chair without him in it, and noticed for the first time that he had been sitting on a white throw pillow with black trim. The file cabinet behind his chair had all four drawers open; three had been emptied.

I went to my own desk and found a pay envelope on top of my yellow pad. I heard Murlowe walk in behind me. He carried a brown file box that he placed on top of the vacant surface of his own desk.

"Moving out?" I asked.

He continued placing files from the open cabinet into the box. "They have eliminated the research staff. I'm moving into the main office." He moved a few files, then looked up, smiling slightly. "As an associate."

"Congratulations!" I shook his hand.

"Sorry I can't take you with me," He said.

I picked up the most recent yellow pad on my desk. It had a sketch of the street scene outside the Arc, a few pedestrians in mid-stride, a sliver of skyline and some murky clouds.

"Don't be," I said.

"I didn't mean it to come as such a shock to you. I had spoken to Oakley, but I didn't think..."

I waved a hand to cut him off.

"I'm not surprised," I said. "Even Oakley had to see that you deserved it, eventually."

"He said you could have till the end of the week to clean out your desk."

I laughed, tore the top page off that yellow pad, put it in my shirt pocket, and dropped the pad back onto the clean surface.

I would like to say that I took Agent Howard by surprise. Bolting out of the elevator at a full sprint, I hoped to get past him and into Nixon's office before even the Secret Service could react. I was not sure what I would do there -- I could clearly picture throwing open the door and finding Nixon at his desk, eating a small salad or working on the crossword puzzle -- but after that it was a blank. I did not have anything planned to say to him. I did not really know why I was breaking into an office protected by an armed Federal officer.

As it turns out, I did not need to know. Howard was pretty quick for a man his age. He cut off my path to the door and when I tried to get around him with a head fake, he thrust the palm of his hand into the center of my chest and I sat suddenly on the Presidential Seal, unable to breathe. I cried out hoarsely, then threw up on the eagle's left wing.

Agent Howard was very nice about it. He brought me a glass of water with another presidential seal on it.

"It's not unusual for young men to become obsessed with the President," he told me. "And not just Young Republicans. I've had to tackle members of the SDS who ran off the line on the White House tour, waving their souvenir photo book in front of them, calling for an autograph." Agent Howard was looking at some point over my shoulder, maybe at a clean spot on the rug, maybe the eagle's wing.

"I lost my job today," I said.

Howard looked me in the eye. "You didn't seem to be such a hard worker."

"You are a shrewd judge of character."

"Part of the job," he said.

We sat on the rug in silence for a moment.

"You could tell which tourists would try to run off the line, couldn't you?"

He smiled. "Part of the job."

Agent Howard patted my shoulder and helped me to my feet. I drained the water glass and returned it to him. He held it between his thumb and forefinger, gently. I wondered if he would dust it for fingerprints later. He moved me towards the elevator, and pushed the down button.

Federal Plaza was deserted to the heat of the day. The crowds had gone off to air-conditioned offices and restaurants, or else retreated to the shade of the World Trade Center over on Chambers Street. The Arc was left alone to lean a few degrees off center. It had begun to develop shadows, a lighter patch where graffiti had been removed, a bit darker where the sunset's shadows had already crept onto the iron. It radiated its own challenge to the ugliness of downtown.

I crossed the square and pressed my back against it, felt as if I were melting into hot rust. I stared down at my shoes. They were my father's wingtips. I had borrowed them in my first year of law school as a kind of ironic commentary. I only wore the wingtips because, sometime around 1978, young lawyers had stopped wearing them. I was not going to make law review and get recruited by a big firm. I was not going to slave for the next twenty years trying to make partner. When he died, the irony drained from my father's shoes and now they were just scuffed footwear, down at the heels and adjusting themselves to my carefully constructed image of sartorial aimlessness.

The appearance of a second pair of highly polished wingtips came as a surprise, but I did not have to look up beyond the cleanly pressed cuffs on the grey wool slacks to know whom they belonged to.

"Mr. President?" I asked. I was surprised at my own deference. Just half an hour before I had attempted to storm his office.

"We should step out of the sun," he told me. Richard Nixon gently took my elbow and moved me as if I were extremely fragile along the arc into the shade that had gathered at its center.

Nixon began to speak, but hesitated. His nose was less prominent than I remembered it from political cartoons, but the dark shadows under his eyes lent his hesitation a completely exaggerated gravity. He stared at some point beyond my shoulder, then reached a hand back and patted the rust of The Arc. It rang out.

"It is a serious work."


"It's a serious work. An important piece," he said, rubbing a hand along the rough orange surface. "Public sculpture has fallen out of favor because we can not express what is happening in the public square." He rapped his knuckles on the metal. The rattling throb of its echo filled the air around us. "Generals on horseback won't do anymore, but what else do we have?"

I was silent a moment. I felt unprepared to discuss post-modern sculpture with an ex-President. He repeated his question, impatiently.

"What else do we have?"

"Nothing?" I answered, tentatively.

He seemed pleased.

"Still, it will have to come down."

"What will have to come down," I asked. "Sir?"

"This, The Arc. It's a serious work but it will have to come down."


"Because sometimes you can be right and still be wrong." He paused as if he had said something important, then began to repeat the idea, but after one word, "Sometimes," intoned with gravity and purpose, he seemed to lose interest, his voice trailing off, the final "s" floating a minute before drowning in the heat of the day.

"Agent Howard tells me you've had a bad day?"

"Very bad, sir." My voice cracked slightly.

Nixon pursed his lips. "I am not a counselor," he said, his voice containing that familiar gravel of dishonesty, as if, perhaps, he really was a counselor. "I don't suppose you've read my book? Seven Crises?"

"No sir," I admitted.

"I didn't think so." He stared at that spot over my shoulder again. "But you listen to Bob Dylan?"


"Carter called him a Genuine American Poet."

"Yes sir."

"Then maybe you know that he once said -- 'Life,'" Nixon paused now, as if this was the applause line at a State of the Union address, "'must sometimes get lonely.'"

I stood, silently, awkwardly shifting from one foot to the other.

"It would be better if you had read my book," Nixon said.

"Yes sir."

"I can summarize it for you."


"You are going to need a job. Whatever happens to you today, tomorrow, you're going to need to work. Work is important. Not working is..." He stared along the wall a moment. "Hard."

"Do you have any suggestions sir?"

"Make an appointment."

He used that voice again, as if he had said something very important. Then he rubbed his hands together as if to ward off some chill, and he left.

I remember Richard Nixon walking away from me, as if heading for Air Force One, his shoulders hunched forward, his hands in the pockets of his dark suit pants, crossing Federal Square, returning to his office. As I turned to leave I noticed a bit of rust on my own hands. I rubbed them together to brush it off, stuck my hands in my pockets and slouched towards the subway.

©2006 by John P. Loonam

John P. Loonam's work has appeared in Antithesis Common, The Fifth Street Review, The Black River Review, Here's Me Bus, Rubicon, The Mississippi Review, The English Journal, and been featured by The Mottola Theatre Project. He lives happily in Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.

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