To some, knitting a sock might seem boring. All the world is talking today about Armstrong’s drug confession, about Teo, about the Americans abducted in Algeria. The exciting narratives of the world.
To me, it is high drama.
The piling on of tiny knotted nuggets of sock yarn. The beginning a story of whether I can do this thing at all, this task I’ve set my mind to. I feel mildly victorious, not for finishing a chapter or a book or even a haiku, this time, but for finishing a row without dropping a stitch. And then, more amazing, dropping a stitch and managing to fix it with a needle and a tiny crochet hook. I’ve also added extra stitches and successfully taken them away, and mistakenly dropped loops off the needle and fetched them up before they were lost forever. Now that’s progress, and all in seven rows. Making mistakes, fixing them.
Story hung heavy in the air last night when I returned to the Union League clubhouse after visiting for their December Book Fair, this time to give a talk for members about I.N. Phelps Stokes and Edith Minturn.
This is why you go to the Union League if you’re lucky enough to be invited: besides the fine wines, passed hot hors d’oeuvres and rare roast beef, besides the vitrines of toy soldiers (a long-term loan from one collector, who personally dusts all 15,000 of the figures when he visits once a year), besides the animated, literate audience, they give you a thank you gift.
A bust of Abraham Lincoln engraved with your name.
Throughout the evening, everyone liked to tell the tale of the Union League’s involvement in the Civil War, how it was formed to support Lincoln, how it sponsored two Negro battalions, how it opened its commodious pockets to fund the good guys. Hence the name.
The story I told over dessert intertwined with theirs. I wrote about Edith Minturn, whose grandfather, Robert Bowne Minturn, was the first president of the club.
Minturn came from an illustrious shipping family, grew up in Manhattan, received some education in England, and was as well known for his charitable works as he was for his business acumen. He was one of the people behind the establishment of Central Park – then called The Central Park — along with his firebrand wife, Anna Mary Wendell. He created an association for bettering the lot of the poor of New York. He was passionately opposed to slavery. A story has him buying a number of slaves in order to set them free.
The Union League would appear to be a rather reactionary place now, but it took a progressive stance back in the 19th century, when the Draft Riots tore apart New York City and you literally took your life in your hands to back President Lincoln. The club did important things, has a good story to tell even now.
On my way back home, Pershing Place, the street near Grand Central Station, was blocked, oddly, by a series of horse trailers, with three sleek mares chomping out of gunny sacks hung from the side of one vehicle. For a moment I felt transported to the time of the Union League’s founding, when these horses would have made for an ordinary sight on a snowy January night. Now a crowd was clicking away with camera-phones, wanting a story, an illustrated tale to send a friend, to tell about our night in New York.
More story, in the train station, with Klieg lights and corridors blocked off under the western staircase. Blocked off, you say? New Yorkers will not be denied.
The hordes needed a good sighting of the hats, and it was all the production guys could do to wrap them them back around to the waiting room. It was late, 10pm, after a long day that started with slush on the ground, but we all wanted to know: What’s the story here? Is it a video, a movie, a commercial? What?
Back, back, called the exasperated production guy. We’re gonna do this shot a million more times.
That’s alright, I’m done with that business. I’m going back to my own small but crucial narrative, the story of a sock.