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Patrick Bringley on his book 'All the Beauty in the World'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Patrick Bringley suffered a profound loss and decided to seek shelter in the most beautiful place he knew. He would spend a decade there as a guard. Let's ask him to read from his new memoir, "All The Beauty In The World: The Metropolitan Museum Of Art And Me."

PATRICK BRINGLEY: (Reading) The mornings are church-mouse quiet. I arrive on post almost a half hour before we open, and there is no one to talk me down to earth. It's just me and the Rembrandts, just me and the Botticellis, just me and these vibrant phantoms I can almost believe are flesh and blood.

SIMON: Patrick Bringley joins us now from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.

BRINGLEY: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I want to begin with your brother - 26 and died of cancer. You were working in events planning at The New Yorker. What do you think the loss of your brother set off in you?

BRINGLEY: Well, when I was working at The New Yorker, of course, I - it was an office job, and I had my mind on office politics, and I thought I was sort of doing big things. But then, your brother gets ill, and you're spending all this time in quiet hospital rooms. And you realize that something momentous is happening in those quiet rooms that maybe makes what's happening over at the office feel not so momentous. And it set off in me a kind of desire, a need, to be more in touch with just fundamental things that are maybe painful, but beautiful as well.

SIMON: Because I think a lot of people will understand seeking a day or two of solace at a great museum - but you were a security guard there for 10 years.

BRINGLEY: That's right. Time works differently when you're a guard. And I think when I was inside that place and you have an hour and then another hour and then a day and another day and another month, your mind works on a bit of a longer wavelength. And I was very happy to have all that time to sort of soak in that place that's inexhaustible and kind of develop a more profound relationship to what's inside of it.

SIMON: How did you begin to relate to the art, seeing it day after day? I mean, were there old friends that you would look up?

BRINGLEY: Yeah. When I first started, my home section was the "Old Master" paintings wing. And I was very happy to be there because many of those paintings, which are sometimes very sad - but they're also so beautiful. They're sort of luminously sad. And I was happy to be there because it sort of reminded me of the atmosphere sitting in those hospital rooms. And there was something very consoling about that.

But you develop all different relationships with different works of art. And just like you said, in some ways, they're your companions. They sort of hang around on the walls, and you are leaning on the walls. And there are some that I thought of in my mind as kind of long-lookers, meaning ones that you keep returning to, and they get better. If you view them sort of passively, they shine a little bit more than they would if you just look at them, you know, briefly with concentration.

SIMON: Like?

BRINGLEY: Like, I always think of Pieter Bruegel's "The Harvesters." One thing I say is sometimes paintings feel like a window that just sort of cut a hole through the wall, and you're just looking into this other world. And this is a landscape from 1565, and it's quite large, and it has these gold and green sweep off to a distant horizon. So it seems like a picture that just encompasses the world. But then, your eyes follow the path forward, and you also have these peasants in the foreground, who are having a meal under a pear tree. And that also seems so relatable and so human. It just kind of encompasses it all.

SIMON: Is your job when you're a guard to watch the art or the people?

BRINGLEY: It's a little of both. I mean, they tell you, protect life and property, in that order. So if the place was burning down, we'd protect you before we'd protect the Rembrandts.

SIMON: You began to put labels on certain kind of visitors. Can I ask you about a few?

BRINGLEY: Sure.

SIMON: The sightseer?

BRINGLEY: The sightseer. So that's someone who is sort of galloping through the museum. They've got maybe five things on their checklist. They want to see "Washington Crossing The Delaware." They want to see the Egyptian temple. And that's great. You know, it's a big part of their trip to New York City.

SIMON: Yeah. What about the dinosaur hunter?

BRINGLEY: So this is going to be a parent with small children. Maybe it's their first visit to New York City. And they are peering around corners and thinking that they are in The Museum in New York City, and they're saying, why is there all of this art? And of course, they're thinking about the Natural History Museum right across Central Park. So they'll come up to me, and I'll say, I'm sorry, you have to go across the park to the west. But hey, here, we've got mummies. We've got arms and armor. Maybe your kids will enjoy that.

SIMON: (Laughter) I didn't know until reading this book that a lot of people who come to the Met just can't keep their hands off the art.

BRINGLEY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the ancients who had their Greek and Roman statues, surely they touched those things. Those things sort of call out to be touched in a way. They seem so smooth, and the stones seem so cold. So it's understandable. People just slap their hands down on it. But also, people just don't know. They don't know. I had a young man - he tried to climb a Venus statue. And I stopped him. He looked at her, and she had a missing head and missing arms. And he looked all around, and he said, so all this broken stuff, it broke in here?

SIMON: (Laughter) I wondered the same thing. At one point toward the end of the book, you find yourself rehearsing some advice that you would give to visitors. Can I ask you to rehearse a little of that out loud for us?

BRINGLEY: Absolutely. In some ways, it tracks the course of my 10-year career that I think you want to start out speechless. You want to just wander that place. Don't say anything to anybody, maybe not even a guard, and just lose yourself. Kind of shed whatever it is that you brought into the museum, your more sort of narrow thoughts. And you wander from Egypt to Rome to Mesopotamia just feeling tiny. There's a great sort of relief in that.

But at some point, too, you want to flip the switch, and you want to say, well, you know, the Greeks and the Egyptians, they were people just like I'm a person. And they had hands and hearts kind of like mine. And I'm going to use my head and my heart, and I'm going to think through these questions. And I'm going to pick favorites and decide what I like and what I don't like and decide what I think is true about the world. Learn from art, not just learning about the arts.

SIMON: Now that you're out of the Met, you have to pay for your own socks?

BRINGLEY: Oh, I do. Yes. I no longer get the $80 hose allowance in my paycheck. Simon & Schuster did not provide that.

SIMON: So there's an $80 sock subsidy.

BRINGLEY: There is. There is. I can't say that you have to put in receipts. So maybe some of those guards are spending it on beer at Carlow East. But, no, you get that $80 for socks.

SIMON: Patrick Bringley, his book, "All The Beauty In The World: The Metropolitan Museum Of Art And Me." Thank you so much for being with us.

BRINGLEY: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.