The 8:22 into the city from Greens Farms was crowded -- it made me glad I caught the train in Greens Farms and not in Westport, one stop away, and I probably wouldn't have gotten a seat. It was so crowded that I wasn’t able to get my usual: a window seat. Instead, I was on the aisle next to the middle of the car, near the doors, in that four-seater section that is primo when you're with a friend, because its two seats facing two seats and you can put your feet up. But when alone, it exposes you to being knee-to-knee with strangers.
I’m partial to window seats because no matter how hard I try to read on the train, I can’t. I am certain that I would have eventually become a reader on the train if I had stayed in Connecticut and become a daily commuter, but because of my amateur status, I just stare out the window. I try to read, I do, I bring the New York Times with me and I open it and I might get two paragraphs into a story in the Arts section and then, whoosh, I’m looking out the window or at the people standing on the platform in Stamford or watching the sailboats off Darien or marveling at the way the train travels in tandem with the speeding cars on I95 -- how we then veer away from the highway and we are speeding through some overgrown passageway and then row houses and the speed of the train distorts my sense of how fast we are going or not going . . . my eyes follow power lines that multiply and join and split off and then another train travels next to us for some time and I see a sleeping passenger through the window, his head is leaning against the glass and his mouth is open, and I wonder why he is so tired, and then I think the trains are so close together that its just a moment before metal touches metal, but we slow down and the other train must be an express and I lose sight of the man who was sleeping. See? I can’t read on the train. And I used to be very inclined to motion sickness and the only thing that kept me from succumbing to my sensitive inner gyroscope was to look out the window -- this worked for me in cars, planes, and trains. But these days, I just like to sit by the window and watch the movie of moving go by.
I even look out the window when the train enters those dark tunnels south of the last stop, 125th street, before Grand Central. The sun is gone and sometimes all you see is the reflection of your face in the window, but if you press through the glass, you can see the caramel lights of the city’s underground world wink by and in their glow, you might see something as exciting as construction workers soldering a nearby track and sparks cascade all around them like a waterfall and you hear the squeal of the train and you feel it lean and turn and lean and turn.
But as far as I can tell, reading on the train seems to be passé now. I was one of only two people in my train car that had the Times opened and everyone else was plugged into their iPods and they were furiously texting on their phones. There was a constant beating of fingertips on tiny keyboards like the buzzing of bees in a hive or the footfalls of ants in the forest. Beat beat beat, pause, ah reply, beat beat beat, yes, yes, meet you at 10:30 in front of the Starbucks on 57th street, beat beat beat, pause, smile, pause, beat beat beat, your boss is an idiot beat beat beat, pause, wait, oh you are gone now beat beat beat is that what you're wearing? beat beat beat . . . And it goes on like that until the train halts in the loins of Grand Central and deposits all of us like coins on to the hot platform.
And now for a small digression . . .The City . . . I just realized that some of you don’t know that when I say The City, I am referring to New York City . . . my friend T.S. Dogfish explains how us Connecticut folk talk, “back in those days when we'd take the Big Yellow Bus out of Westport, Connecticut into The City for field trips. For us, in Westport, The City meant New York City. There was no other city on the face of the earth - just large conglomerations of dirty architecture where humans congregated in rancid mobs. There was ONLY NYC, and that's where we went on our field trips to see Kulture.” I recently told a friend I went to Connecticut for vacation and also spent a coupla days in The City and she squinted and shifted her weight, and replied “Oh, which city?” and I had to think for a moment and then it dawned on me that she’s southern, and I somewhat impatiently replied, “New York City . . . Theee City.” and I thought dammit under my breath, dammit, what’s the matter with people that they don’t know what The City is? Okay, now that we have that squared away, I can go on . . .
Some time ago I told you all that I would go on a small pilgrimage this summer and I kept my promise. I pushed through the throngs at Grand Central and hiked up the stairs to gaze at that beautiful starry ceiling that echoes and sings to every soul that enters that building and then I was out the doors and into a cab on my way to the Museum of Natural History to find the wolves. I hadn’t seen them for at least 20 twenty years and I wasn’t even sure if they were still there. The cab pulled over on the park side of the street to let me out . . . the park, Central Park! I paid the man and got out and did what any good kid from Westport does when she gets to the Museum of Natural History for the first time in twenty odd years. She stands in line with a bunch of Russian Tourists to get a hot pretzel and a Coca-Cola. I sat on a bench just outside the walls of the park, and across from the main entrance of the museum which is under renovation so it was masked in scaffolding and canvas tarps that blew gently in the summer city breeze, which is different from the breeze you feel in the country, it doesn't seem to be generated by nature, its more a swirling of air born of subway vents and the breath of concrete. The only thing that made the museum entrance recognizable was the huge bronze of Teddy Roosevelt on his horse -- he was shouting orders, something about the Russians, what were all those Russians doing milling about with pretzels and Coca-Colas and small leather fanny packs? I agreed with Teddy. There were far too many Russians around for comfort. As I ate my pretzel, sucking on the salt and the warm dough, and washing it all down with Coke, the elixir of the Gods as far as I’m concerned, a man on one end of a leash walked up the side walk with an Irish Terrier on the other end of the leash. My father's father had Irish Terriers, but I had only seen the dogs in photos. I had never seen one in color and in person. I became an immediate idiot for this dog as he approached. The dog’s gaze met mine and he veered toward me on his long strong legs, the way most all dogs do when I engage them, its a thing I have, a thing with dogs. ANYway, he was taller than any other terrier of that class, Airdale Terriers, Fox Terriers, and such, and his elderly gentleman began to redirect him, but I stopped him, “That’s an Irish Terrier, isn’t it?” And the man let the dog veer back to me and I saw the dog was much more worldly than me and his dark eyes registered only this, “Yes, I am a terrific dog, but I don’t associate with blonds.” His coat was Rita Hayworth red . . . I am not kidding you . . . any ginger would beg this dog for his colorist’s number. The gentleman only replied, “Yes” to my declaration of the terrier’s Gaelic origins and I was allowed one pat between the dogs wiry ears and off they went, parting the Russian Tourists as they made their way along the West Side.
The pretzel was eaten, the Russian Tourists had dispersed in answer to Teddy’s call to arms, and it was time for me to find the wolves. Here’s a travel tip for you: if its early June and you’re in NYC, avoid major museums, such as the Museum of Natural History on weekdays. Why? Well, its the end of the school year and the schools have run out of ideas and tests and ideas, so the last couple of weeks for the city kids (and kids in Connecticut for that matter) is filled with things like Sports Days and Field Trips! They put name tags on all of them, put them on the bus and ship them to the city where they are turned loose in large institutions like the Museum of Natural History. Why didn’t I know this? Well, I’m not a parent in the Tri-State area and well, I’m just a tourist in my homeland now. So when I first got into the museum and stood in the very well organized line to pay my admission, because I was also going to explore the Silk Road exhibit for my mother, who is bananas for Ghengis Khan and anything born of Mongolia, I can’t go see this show, please go see it for me and send me books with pictures of camels and Mongolian ponies for my paintings, she said, so I happily agreed to see the show for her, because one: I want her to continue to paint as many paintings of camels and Ghengis Khan as she can, and two: it fell totally in line with my quest to revisit the wolves.
All was seemingly a normal Friday at the museum in the summer -- just me and more Russian Tourists than the State Department should allow to gather in one place despite the Cold War being over. But things began to change once I was hiking the Silk Road. There I was in the dark somewhere between Xi’An and Samarkand with huge camels wearing their woven packs containing silk, furs, dried fruits, medicinal herbs, teas, perfumes, and pottery, and the halls began to fill up with school children.
It was a slow inundation, charming at first, ah yes, I remember being that young in the museum. I smiled at the small crews of kids as the darted here and then there, little did I know that this was only the beginning of the maddening crowd. When I got to the end of the Silk Road, I did as my mother asked, I went into the exhibit store and bought her a full color book to help her with her paintings. I wanted to buy a silk scarf for myself, but my messenger bag was full, it was packed perfectly for the three days and two nights I would be staying in the city . . . a feat that my friend K. back in Westport was astounded by, “THAT is all you are taking for a weekend in the city?!” Yes, THAT was all I was taking, “BUT BUT, what about shoes?” They're on my feet. “Only ONE pair of SHOES?!” Yes, only one pair of shoes. So I couldn’t buy the beautiful silk scarf, and I would later regret it, and I was going to have to carry that book for my mother for the rest of the day until I got to my friend G’s apartment. But I did buy a little golden Chinese horse for myself. He was delicate and small and classic, you know him, he is the color of tumeric with a jade saddle and his head and neck are curled back toward his belly and his tail. I have always wanted that particular horse and here he was and he was lilliputian and so I could make the sacrifice and carry him too. I left the exhibit shop and went into the hallway, and little did I know I was on the Titanic and she was sinking -- she was taking on more school children than she could carry and keep afloat!
I had forgotten how big the Museum of Natural History was and the maps in the hallways seemed to leave out some important information for me . . . now it might be that I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but there was not the usual You Are Here flag on the maps by the stairwells, so I gained really no knowledge from the maps as to how to get to the Hall of Mammals. I just knew that I needed to get to the Hall of Mammals to find my wolves. Next thing you know I was in the Hall of, well, Forests? yes Forests. And I had never traveled those halls. I found them astoundingly boring. I know, that’s awful. But it seemed to me a waste of diorama space --big dioramas with flora, but no fauna whatsoever. So I hurried through this hall, and I noticed that the kids were really starting to flood the place and next thing you know, before I get out of the Hall of Forests, or whathave you, maybe the Hall of Trees? ANYway, an alarm goes off, one of those really loud suckers, and its over somewhere behind the redwoods and the giant secoyas and this crowd of teenagers, maybe 8 or 9 of them come tearing out of the intense blackness of the forest and they are screaming and laughing and holding their stomachs and they are coming from where the alarm is coming from and I realize that they set the damn thing off and they are hysterical with their triumph. They almost run me down and one of them makes eye contact with me for just the briefest moment and I get the feeling that she thinks I might be someone of authority, well, I am an adult after all, but then, she must see something in my crooked smile and how I am weighted down by my messenger bag and I’m not dressed like a teacher, so she let’s go of me with her gaze and they disappear into a deciduous forest covered in snow and I am left wondering, how do I get out of these woods?
But I leave the woods and take a turn and to my delight I am in the Ocean. I am in the greatest museum exhibit hall of all time -- I am standing at the bottom of the sea in the middle of Manhattan and I am leaning over a balcony that is fathoms high and before me is a great blue whale suspended from the heavens and he is even more magical and more magnificent than the first time I saw him when I was nine or ten. That whale, oh that whale. And the hall was a drowning pool for school children -- never has the bottom of the sea been so noisy. But I had to push on, I descended the stairwell and stood beneath the whale. I wanted to lie on the floor and feel the utter terror that krill must feel before they are swallowed up and then it occurred to me, perhaps krill never feel fear at being devoured by a great blue whale, hell, they probably have no idea they have been eaten, until, well, they hit his belly and they are crustaceans, correct . . . crustaceans don’t feel a whole heck of a lot, I know, I know, I am going to get email from the Buddhists for that, but really . . . really? I did feel some terror though, and it came from being surrounded by all those kids.
For me, the thing about the Hall of the Sea, is not so much the fish I have seen in the sea -- they were interesting to me as a kid, cause I had never snorkeled or turtled, but the thing now is those deep sea creatures. The ones that live in pressure conditions that would make our skulls cave in and our lungs explode . . . those animals are BITCHIN’! They are straight from the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, with their bulging eyes and armored bodies, right down to those dealies that protrude from their foreheads -- absolutely unearthyy and yet, they are closer to the center of the earth than we will ever ever ever be!
But I had wolves to find . . . and so I surfaced, with a bad case of the bends, and pushed further into the museum to find the Hall of Mammals by way of the Hall of the Peoples of the Americas, you know, the Indians, in which I had to satisfy one small quest for my friend Jarret who had called me on the phone while I was admiring live silk worms in the Silk Road exhibit -- its not often that you find a living animal in the Museum of Natural History, so when you do, its important to spend some time with it! So the conversation went something like this . . . "Hello?"
"Hey, its Jarret"
"Jarret, I'm in the city."
"Oh well, I was going to see if you wanted to meet at the Starbucks in Westport again today."
"I'm in the Museum of Natural History. I'm traveling the Silk Road for my mother. The camels are exquisite."
"Will you do me a favor?"
"Go to the Hall of Indians or whatever that hall is called."
"Yes, that hall with the totem poles."
"Yeah, you know. Look for the big dugout canoe with all the Northwestern Indians in it. Its the one J.D. Salinger talks about in Catcher in the Rye. Do you remember that part? When Holden is in the museum?"
"Yes, I do remember that."
"Well last time I was there with Max, I couldn't find that canoe with the Indians. See if you can find it."
"And then you need to go to Bleeker Street for Italian Ice. There's this place there that sells hazelnut Italian ice and its the best Italian Ice I have ever had. You have to try it."
"But, I'm going uptown with G. to her neighborhood, Inwood. I will have to do Bleeker Street for you another time."
"Oh well. Let me know if you find the Indians in the canoe."
So you see there I was in the Museum of Natural History looking for all these things . . . going to The City is like that. People like to give you assignments when you go to The City.