Here’s how it starts:
It’s February 2009. I’m driving down the FDR for the billionth time in my life, feeling sad and overwhelmed. I’m broke and living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Astoria, using my living room as a studio. I had come two months before to New York with a plan, and with solid work in place. But everybody I knew had lost their jobs. I remember that January being the longest month. I had been teaching, and doing production design, but it all kept falling through. Or you work on a project and receive a fraction of the pay you were promised or the check bounces. But my sister was in New York, and upstate was lonely…
Around 70th Street, as I approach the rust-colored supports of the Queensboro bridge, I start thinking about the Ruins – the collapsed Smallpox Hospital on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, in the East River. I peer left, out the car window, past oncoming traffic, to see the building that I have loved since I was a little girl. I look to it for the comfort it has always provided me, and instead, I have a vision: Butterflies.
There has always been this connection for me. As a child I the early 1980s I’d visit the city several times a week from New Fairfield, Conn. with my mother – a Bronx native. On the ride home we’d get stuck in rush hour traffic, and for me this only heightened my anticipation of leering at the Ruins. I saw the stone structure as an old castle, and I would imagine that someday I would renovate the palace and live there – the Queen of Roosevelt Island. Being a little girl, I always thought it was a castle.
My mom was only 33, and I was six or seven, and we’d have these adventures — a return to this magical place, had crummy cars breaking down, and whenever the car broke down, someone would rescue us. New York in the 80s was wild. We’d go to a diner and they’d give us free donuts.
Later, when I tell my friend from graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design about my project, she laughed. I always mentioned the ruins on road trips from Providence, she said. I have imagined them a thousand different ways over my lifetime.
But today, I see a swarm of shining yellow butterflies over the building, carrying it off, magically transforming the Ruins; completing, perhaps, an idea I started as a young girl. It was like a dream that had always been floating just above the spires of the old Small Pox Hospital, waiting for me.