Wednesday, 25 August 2010

New York Stories #3

Photograph: Joyce Hackett

The day I found an alligator in New York
Tales of giant reptiles in the city's sewers are one of the city's most enduring urban myths. Or so one local writer thought until last Sunday . . .

Joyce Hackett
guardian.co.uk
Tuesday 24 August 2010 19.00 BST

An alligator? A crocodile? We were stumped. But it was definitely, well, quite a reptilian reptile. Driving back from JFK airport in torrential rain, I had turned off the flooded, bumper-to-bumper highway. As I threaded my way back to my home in Manhattan through the side-streets of Queens, I noticed a crowd of about 30 people gathered around an old navy Datsun. I rolled down my windows, and signalled to the lady cop.

"What's going on?"

She rolled her eyes. "Alligator," she said, as if the overriding issue here was that she should already be on her break.

Ah, New Yawk, New Yawk. Recently, I was dining in a fancy Italian restaurant, and noticed a rat making its way along a high ledge above a wall of wine bottles. "A RAT!" I screeched loudly. The room went dead for exactly 30 seconds, after which everybody went back to their pasta. Rats and cockroaches, of course, are our constant companions, dining on every subway track, scurrying across every late-night sidewalk. But alligators in the sewers?

This celebrated urban legend begins in 1935, with a New York Times story about an alligator found in Harlem. The headline alone deserves a Pulitzer: "ALLIGATOR FOUND IN UPTOWN SEWER: Youths Shoveling Snow into Manhole See the Animal Churning in Icy Water. SNARE IT AND DRAG IT OUT: Reptile Slain by Rescuers When It Gets Vicious – Whence It Came Is Mystery."

Reading on, however, it becomes clear that the alligator is not a lurking predator living in our drains, but rather a sickly, exhausted, accidental passenger that has fallen from a Florida ship, then struggled to drag itself out of the icy East river.

Well, no matter. No matter that a recent new $400,000+ machine, built to clear the city's overloaded sewers, found everything but an alligator. And no matter that the man interviewed in a 1959 book, The World Beneath the City, about his campaign to clean out all the gators from the system had never been sewer commissioner. This is a myth with legs and traction here; one that jumps from children's book to horror film, from Thomas Pynchon's V to a bronze, subway-art sculpture in a 14th St station of a happy gator clambering out of a manhole to chomp on a baby. Nothing gives more pleasure than leaning over to a young New Yorker on the subway, who has just flicked his gum into your hair, and quietly introducing them to the concept.

Then, last Sunday afternoon, I pulled the car over, got out, and came upon a real, live alligator. Storm drains and gutters all over the neighbourhood were flooded from the downpour – maybe a wave had washed this creature on to the pavement of civilization, separating it from its pack? At a distance, people were snapping photos with big-lens cameras. Workers in overalls were throwing out names. One pulled his friend's finger towards the car, as if to offer him up for dinner. "Oh, scaly-pie!" he cooed. As we waited for pest control to turn up, everybody seemed strangely cheered by the appearance of a bad-ass reptile that could bite them.

I squatted down, and there it was on the wet asphalt, crouching motionless. Not an 8in baby alligator: this was more like 2ft. I thought of my dog, poised to hunt, and wondered if the gator's stillness was a prelude to lunging for the ankle of one of its hecklers. Looking away (no eye contact – I learned that trick early on when approaching my skittish dog), I held my iPhone at the edge of the car, and snapped, hoping for a shot.

I missed, so I looked again. And slowly, bewilderedly, the gator blinked. It seemed less like a menacing predator, more like an abandoned pet cowering under a car, forlornly hoping for tips on how to play its role. In fact, it reminded me of me, at every publishing party I'd attended during my first years in New York.

Here was a fresh-off-the-boat New Yorker, like the baby arctic seal seen floating on an ice floe on the Hudson near the Chelsea piers, or the handsome, bewildered coyote who managed to wander over a train bridge in Inwood that swings open and closed, and into Central Park. Maybe the gator would settle in among us, like the peregrine falcons who nest on the wide ledges of celebrities' fancy Fifth Avenue co-op buildings, or the flock of tropical parrots (released or escaped pets) that flourish year-round near the warmth of a Brooklyn electrical substation. I found myself imagining a happy life for the gator, in the streams that still flow below the basements of some of Manhattan's oldest buildings, fed by some gentle janitors.

The lady cop cautioned me to be careful, but the poor thing seemed one of us, a stage-one New Yorker, blinded by its lights. I stared at it, thinking: "Little, lost alligator washes up out of the New York sewer and is menaced by tough New York rats, bureaucrats, and push-cart owners that almost run over its tail, until finally it returns to its safe, cozy sewer. Surely, there's a children's book in here somewhere." By now we were almost friends, so I reached in further.

"Careful!" the cop urged.

One thinks of novelists as inspired by muses, and living by their wits. But reality, especially the New York variety, is sharper and stranger than fiction. A few years ago, the spark came for the novel I am currently writing, a love story between a male abolitionist and a female suffragist. I had intended to read the papers of Frederick Douglass, the heroic, ex-slave abolitionist, and Susan B Anthony, America's legendary suffragist, just for background. But I could not put down their letters. Here was the staid, buttoned-up Anthony after a speaking tour engagement, chopping her way through a foot-thick wall of winter ice that had formed around the home of her hosts for the night. And who could have imagined that, beneath our concrete jungle, are streams that may once have hidden fugitive slaves from their hunters? As the cop in Queens remarked to me on Sunday afternoon: you can't make this stuff up.

Finally, I reached my arm completely under the car, and took a last shot of my new neighbour. The cop warned me again. Then I stood up and showed her my best shot.

"Wow!" she said. "Can you email that to me?"

"Did you ever expect to see an alligator on the streets of New York?" came a reporter's first, lead-footed question later that day.

Well, kind of. Because New York is a city where one expects the unexpected; a city where alien creatures take root, and whose gutters, basements, archives and streams serve up more stories than all its writers can think up. A city that writes itself.


Other tall tales from the city
by Joe Jackson

The money train
One popular rumour concerns the existence of a "money train" on the New York Subway, which collects cash receipts and rolls the money to an undisclosed location each night. This well-known yarn has been made into a film of the same name. The MTA, which runs the subway system, refuses to confirm or deny it, for security reasons. But one veteran hack from the Daily News says he knows it existed at some point – because he rode it.

Grand Central's whispering hall
Rumour has it that the palatial Grand Central Station houses a whispering wall. The unusual acoustics of the hallway outside the once-decadent Oyster Bar Restaurant allow people to stand at either end and hear each other's voices. Bar workers claim the effect disappeared for a while following renovations, but then mysteriously returned.

Jimmy Hoffa's grave
Macabre tales abound from the city's mafia heyday. One of the best-known is that Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union who disappeared from a restaurant outside Detroit in 1975, was buried under the old Giants' Stadium in New Jersey. The rumour mill went full throttle 20 years later when a self-described mob hitman told Playboy that Hoffa was cemented under section 107. The FBI quashed the claim and the truth is unlikely to emerge now – the stadium recently made way for a car park.

Pennies from heaven
Chief among the myths surrounding New York's most iconic building is the claim that pennies dropped from the 102nd-floor observation deck have killed passers-by. The Empire State Building and Observatories dismiss the story, claiming the physics make this impossible. The owners say coins tend to end up on the 86th-floor observation deck, where they are pocketed by maintenance workers.

The animal hospital
America's battles with obesity have left their mark: when a patient in need of a scan is too fat to fit into an MRI machine, doctors have reportedly turned to an unlikely alternative – the Bronx zoo's giant MRI scanner. Back in 2005, The New York Post reported that doctors referred a 407lb patient called Jennifer Walters there for a scan. The only problem? The zoo has no such equipment.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/24/alligators-new-york-sewer

2 comments:

  1. Greetings HBA Member,
    With the recent attention to the Horror Blogger Alliance and updates, I thought would be good to build a database for [over 350] the group.

    For More Info: http://horrorbloggeralliance.blogspot.com/2010/08/i-am-getting-our-affairs-in-order.html

    Please Update Soon... and if you have updated your information, please disregard.

    Thanks,
    Jeremy [iZombie]
    HBA Staff
    jeremy@jmhdigital.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Having lived most of my life in Florida, gators were a common occurrence. You haven't lived until you wake up to find a 10foot gator in your driveway! True story.

    ReplyDelete