A pale woman in a large cotton dress and lots of make-up sauntered in with her daughter, who was dark tan and had tightly crimped brown hair. I asked if they thought this painting related to living in Kansas City.
"Fifteen years ago," the mother answered, "Kansas City was more a small town. I think of it being more a small town and of him as being more urban. This is one of my favorites in the museum, but this doesn't have the look of Hopper. You maybe get a hint of his other buildings in that one building with the sunlight on it, but the rest is a lot darker."
"My mother," she continued, "is from a more rural area; this painting looks more like the area she lives in, where you might find a split rail fence. Not many places look like that anymore. Gettysburg only does because it's a park."
The girl only shrugged that people at her school didn't feel isolated. "All teens want to belong."
The museum guard was stooped and tanned, with a prominent nose out of which grew piano-wire-thick gray hair.
"I am from Russia," he announced when I engaged him.
"Moscow?" I asked, and he replied, "No. Sofia, Bulgaria." I imagined that he said Russia because many Americans don't know the country Bulgaria. They did know the Soviet Union, that Bulgaria was part of, and that Americans often called "Russia."
"I have worked here five years," he said proudly. "This is a very popular work. Everybody like it [sic]. I learn about Gettysburg for my citizenship test. Sometimes, the kids, they act up. They don't respect it. In this country, I'm not allowed to touch them. There would be a lawsuit. Can't even raise my voice. But this is my country, so anyway."
As I was leaving the museum, I ran into the curator who had showed me the files. He was red-eyed and red-skinned, with an elfin nose and dark hair that seemed eternally damp. Like Hopper, he loved the Civil War, and he loved the museum's collection. He excitedly led me to highlights: Caravaggio's St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness and Rembrandt's
Portrait of a Young Man, as well as Franz Hals's two portraits of man and woman that were only recently reunited. At a Van Gogh,
he told me in a hushed tone, "The first time I saw this, I wanted to reach out and touch it, not only because of the texture, but also to feel a connection. I knew then that I had to be a curator." His passion for art was like mine for Hopper and was expressed by the quote above the museum's exit: "It is by the real that we exist. It is by the ideal that we live."