Thursday, January 20, 2011

New York City Wildlife


 Vincent Schiavelli in Ghost

From The New York City Wildlife Guide by Edward R. Ricciuti (New York, Schocken Books, 1984):

      “The open waters of the city are visited by a handful of different  birds that are superb divers and swimmers, able to chase down fish under the water.  They are the loons, the grebes and the double-breasted cormorant, grouped together here because of their common habits and surroundings in which people are likely to see them.  They are not what could be called related, although taxonomically, the grebes and loons at least, are not that far apart.

Double-crested cormorants

      Cormorants are more gooselike in appearance than the [grebes and loons] mentioned above.  They stay in groups, often migrating in great V formations, leading some people to mistake them for Canada geese.  When flying, their necks stretch out in front of their bodies.  The bill of the cormorant is long but hooked at the tip.

      All three groups of these fish-eating birds sit low in the water.  The cormorant sometimes swims with most of its body below the surface so that only its long neck and head extend above it.  They all submerge head first with lightning speed.   One moment the bird may be bobbing on the surface,  and the next it is gone, as though it has vanished.   Actually, it is rocketing through the depths after a fish or other water creature.   They can remain under a minute or sometimes more, descending several yards, to pop up again, sometimes a long distance from where the dive began.”

Andre Kertesz, East River Esplanade 1948 

      When we lived on East 86th Street between 1985 and 2000, we used to jog early each morning along the East River Esplanade.  We began our run in Carl Schurz Park near the dog playground at the park’s entrance, climbed the stairs to the terrace and continued south on the esplanade to Sutton Place and then ran back.   Occasionally we would see familiar faces from the newspapers (one of them was Gerald Levin, erstwhile feckless Time Warner Chairman; I’ve never seen a man so grim and uptight) or people we’d seen on previous jaunts, but mostly it was a case of daily, predictable Manhattan anonymity -- as the kids today say, random.   Every day really was a new day, as it generally is in the Naked City.

Cormorant in characteristic low, surveilling flight  

      We did have as one constant companion, however, a lone cormorant who we usually sighted in the upper 70s, but whose range extended ten blocks in either direction.  It took us a while to identify him because cormorants were not supposed to inhabit the East River then and because he was always alone in the middle of the flow, making it difficult to see his features and coloring in detail.  Once we were sure he was a cormorant, we wondered whether he belonged to that exotic bird guide category of “escape”?   When we learned that cormorants did inhabit surrounding New York, New Jersey and Connecticut waters, we came to regard him instead as a loner or a rugged individualist.  (Apparently, since our departure from Manhattan, our friend has been joined by others and there now appears to be a cormorant  colony established on  one of the several sad looking rubble piles in the center of the East River.  The pile pictured below, phototographed from the Manhattan side,  is called U Thant Island, presumably because it is near the United Nations.)

Cormorant colony, U Thant Island, off Manhattan, 2008

      Our cormorant was incredibly handsome and his behavior was exactly as Ricciuti describes.  One day we saw him return to the surface after one of his dives carrying what was clearly an eel in his mouth.  The eel’s  slippery shape and fighting spirit, I’m sorry to say, made him unwieldy and challenging for the cormorant  to vanquish and consume.  It was painful (and frankly disgusting) to watch, but this bird’s chief characteristic was indomitability. You could see it in his fighting eyes, which seemed to glow red and shine bright and clear, even from the embankment.

East River Esplanade at East 73rd Street

      I was reminded of my diving cormorant friend yesterday when I found myself in the New York City subway on a miserable cold, wet day.  (“You dive from the street, holing like a rabbit”,  as Edwin Denby wrote in his marvelous sonnet The Subway.)    Unlike the avian, however,  who was gorgeous and dignified in every sort of weather, I felt soggy and abused, sort of a counter-cormorant, hardly the master of my universe. 

George Tooker, The Subway, 1950, Egg tempera on composition board, Whitney Museum of American Art

      We originally moved from Brooklyn Heights back into Manhattan (during the period just following the Bernard Goetz subway shooting incident, an event whose imminence anyone who rode underground with any frequency could feel in the air) just to avoid taking the subway, but in these severely straitened times, I find myself back in the tube.  (Denby wrote in the same poem: “It's a sound effect. The trouble is seeing/(So anesthetized) a square of bare throat/Or the fold at the crotch of a clothed human being:/ You'll want to nuzzle it, crop at it like a goat.”  It’s a terrific poem.) 

Vincent Schiavelli as subway revenant in Ghost 

      Despite what anyone says (especially mayors, former mayors and city administrators)  about how the subways have improved, I find them the same demi-Hell as they have always been. The most positive thing you can say is that they’re merely tributaries off of the real Hell Mouth that is the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal and not the central shaft linking New York City and Dis. Revenants and other shades still ride the shrieking rails and all the old lessons about being alert, making quick, discreet entrances and exits from the system, and trying to protect your loved ones from the damnable and damned operation (watch out for the rotating blades) still obtain.

A rabbit hole 

      All that being said, the hazards and rigors of the day were survivable.  Amtrak's tawdry, cut-rate Keystone (the crew takes almost ostentatious pleasure in announcing services not offered on the Harrisburg-New York line) brought me through the tundra-like section of the Northeast Corridor back to my family on time, and I had some good conversations and met some interesting people I would like to work with.  Still, seen through the lens of this Depression, as well as the day's terrible weather, New York's looking worse and worse to me.  I know the city so well that I feel all changes acutely and intermittent attempts at adding new glamor and glitz around town seem not just superficial, but also doomed and dead on arrival and not possibly meant to last.  The older, more stolid landmarks are all looking worse for wear and everyone seems tired.

Bryan Ferry, Pre-Hello!, but forever and everlasting (like Mother-of-Pearl)

      Even the railroad station magazine stands have gone downhill.  Nothing offbeat is offered.  You can only buy what they want you to read -- conformist thought jacketed in a variety of covers -- but all the "content" contained within them is virtually identical.  And I won't read Vanity Fair (Justin Bieber cover issue) or the The New York Review of Books (a magazine supposedly dedicated to great art and good writing with an article by Paul Krugman, one of the worst prose stylists in history, on the cover -- what hath God wrought?  Silly question. In this case, I know full well.).  I would like to read Hello!, but it is no longer sold anywhere in Penn Station.  Hello! never lets you down.  Since you've only heard about half the people they cover, it's like reading a roman a clef or seeing a really  enjoyable television show or movie with a lot of cameos.  Its recipes are good also and it has its heart in the right place, strange as that seems.  As Helen Gurley Brown used to say about magazine essentials, "it sits down and visits" and "it's got a lot of me and you" about it.  Well, about me at least.

Bryan Ferry, 2009, with model Tasha de Vancolenos, post-Hello! and forever for a while 


  1. I loved this post. Also "Life is White". I don't think I'm quite as down on the NYROB as you are, but I have to agree that Paul Krugman has a hideous style.

    Have you listened to Arcade Fire at all? I think you might like some of their work. Somehow the quotations from PB made me think of them and you.

  2. Thank you very much for saying so. Several more inches have fallen overnight, ensuring that life, which was becoming kind of gray, is still white. I think the color is here to stay (2-hour school delay today), so I'd better shake the mood. I would like to listen to Arcade Fire. So far I've only experienced their career in print, which I know is silly. I expect I'd hear them on Sirius XM, but when I'm driving our car with satellite radio (it's terrible in the snow) I tend to listen to the Radio Classics (old time radio plays) channel, except when they're running comedies. Re Krugman, it's important to support the print journals you like, but I think he's crazy and repellent. I suspect he sells extra copies of the magazine, though, and there's nothing new about arts journals running explicitly political articles. I just can't read him even in the short-form version. He makes me feel well balanced, which is saying something. Curtis