HOME | THREE WEEKS | OTHER WRITING | FAQS | ABOUT THIS SITE | LINKS | NEWS

"In Spite of Every Thing"
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 11 - MAY 25, 2002

"Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"

Cover
On Pigeons, Rats, and Cockroaches, by Henry William Brownejohns
Editorial
A Letter on the Matter of the Payphones, by J.M. Tyree
Notable Losses
The Eavesdropper
The Weather, by Ephrain Underhill

Return to Three Weeks Issues

(home)


ON PIGEONS, RATS, AND COCKROACHES

 

A WORTHY COGITATION UPON OUR MOST UBIQUITOUS COMPANIONS

 

To Quell the Irrational Fears of the Urban Sophisticate

 

by Henry William Brownejohns

 

These pages have lately been devoted to the construction of ramparts against human idiocy, and the lobbing of incendiary Good Sense into its ranks.  We have been dwelling upon the barbarism at work in Europe, the Middle East, South America, the Subcontinent, and in our own weary nation, and though some minuscule good has surely been accomplished, it has been at the expense of your editors’ patience and optimism.  As a relief to us, and to improve the average decency of the characters under examination by this paper, we have this turn around decided to concentrate on vermin, instead of diplomats, politicians, and the entire global kakistocracy.  It has proved a great pleasure to study the benevolent intelligence of birds, the cunning liberty of rodents, and the practical genius contained within the insects, instead of the dour, blank expressions of our governors’ faces in the newspapers.  As circumstances require, we shall inevitably return to castigating our world’s paltry leadership, but for now, they simply aren’t worth our attention, and don’t deserve to erode our lucidity with their incessant moronism.

--- 

City-dwellers necessarily close down their senses to preserve their sanity, and to afford themselves even a little opportunity for reflection.  Thus we walk through extraordinary canyons of steel and concrete, bristling with business and noise and movement, and are still somewhat capable of holding a singular thought in our minds, close to, but not equal to, the quality and consistency of one held in the mind of an Iowa corn-farmer, whose surroundings offer few agents of distraction.  This is the urbanite’s great adaptation, but it comes at a cost.

Namely, we fail to appreciate much of the spectacle we are embroiled in, and if occasionally the broad principles of the city’s wonder leech into our thoughts, its details and minutiae are certainly overlooked.  Our civilization’s great achievement is greater than the height of the buildings or the clamor of the thoroughfare; it is the coexistence of a billion entities, designed by Nature for one former purpose, and able to discover in the artificial world a new one.  Our own adaptation from tree-dwelling and savanna-foraging to urban subsistence is relatively poor - most of us are unable to cope without frequent vacations and prescription relaxants.  Three far better examples are the eponymous riffraff of this essay’s title, all of which carry unduly low reputations in the hearts of men.  For the sake of holding high the better accomplishments of Nature, and improving both the urbanite’s appreciation of his surroundings and his inexcusably faint knowledge of subjects immediately adjacent to his existence, I offer the following exegeses of the honorable Pigeon, the magnificent Rat, and the marvelous Cockroach.

 

PIGEONS.

People disdain what is common in favor of what is rare, often without regard to any real judgement of value.  They kick at and dislike pigeons, for they are everywhere among us, and yet they would, to a pedestrian, stop and admire a dove, if offered one.  It is a testament to the power of public relations, and the depth of semantic naiveté, that so few realize pigeons and doves are one and the same.  Pigeons swarm, and stain our cities with excrement, while doves make holy wherever they alight, and bless the lucky soul who stands in the way of their deposit.  Pigeons are blamed for all the troubles of civilization, such as the coops implicated in the death of a Japanese tourist who was struck by a snapped cable upon the Brooklyn Bridge - the acidity of the pigeons’ leavings allegedly eroded the steel fibers; while doves are looked at as the bearers of the soul, and by a large contingent of cultists even as the embodiment of the Holy Ghost.

It is a matter of mere semantics that the impregnator of the Virgin Mary is not a mangy pigeon but a downy dove; they are both the same fellow in the eyes of Linnaeus: Columba livia, the common rock dove.  Doves have been sacred attendants of temples and processions for thousands of years; pigeons have been peasant’s food and a plague upon cities for as long.  The poor bird, whose walnut-brain is fortunately not large enough to contain the schizophrenic identity we humans have bestowed upon it, exists in a limbo of cultural acceptance - cherished when convenient, and patsied for the world’s ills otherwise.

Columba livia is one of dozens of species of pigeons, but it has surpassed all others in its adaptive success.  This common pigeon, the familiar blue-grey fellow even now probably somewhere within sight to the reader, is indigenous to the mountains of North Africa, where it was fond of nesting in the crevices and crannies of the cliffsides.  It was not long after Homo Sapiens began building settlements out of stone and mud before the pigeon took a liking to the eaves and windowsills of his buildings.  Thus the pigeon may well be the first varmint to find a home in our civilization, and its preference for our architecture has hardly abated.

Ten thousand years ago, people realized it was simply a matter of making a pile of mud and carving niches into it to attract pigeons to roost, and for societies always seeking sources of food, the pigeon’s good faith and meaty breast were too easy to pass up.  Primitive dovecotes such as these are evident at Neolithic sites throughout Africa and the Middle East.  The pigeons never seemed to catch on to the ploy - they would nest in the man-made mudpiles until their young were mature, and then the inhabitants of the village would harvest the young, and the pigeons would migrate back to the mountains until their next breeding cycle.  It so happens that this cycle is quite frequent.  Hatchlings reach full size in only one week, on a diet of so-called pigeon’s milk, which is produced by both the male and female parent, uniquely among birds.  This should satisfy the next schoolyard debate about why nobody ever sees baby pigeons - the young don’t keep the blush of youth for even the term of our publication.

If the Sumerians were the first city-dwellers, they were also the first to necessarily reconcile the ubiquity of the pigeon with the progress of civilization.  In those grand old days, cities were centered around temples, and all the best efforts of the builders went into them, the way our modern geniuses all plot to construct shopping malls or monumental corporate headquarters.  The pigeon is not discerning; he simply likes to sit high up in cozy little holes.  In the Sumerian city, the best opportunity for this happened to be found in the high walls of the temples, which were soon as rife with the rock-dove as the lobbies were with worshippers.  And as man is an associative animal, these early cosmopolitans began to suspect that the pigeons had some inside bargain with the gods, which set off thousands of years of sacred symbolism involving Columba livia.  Pigeons have roosted in every variety of temple men have deigned to build, and as a result, pigeons are seen as guardians and attendants of the gods in every culture from Mesopotamia to Greece to China to India. 

That we, in this country, and in this era, refer to the sacred aspect of Columba livia as the dove, and the profane one as the pigeon, is merely a by-product of our own prudishness, and the latent anxiety of the modern Church, well aware of its declining influence.  A frail Christianity simply can’t bear the uncouth image of a bird defecating into the ear of an ancient Semitic virgin - but this is exactly the picture offered by centuries of medieval Catholic doctrine, much less fearful of its public image, and much more in tune to the realities of avian physiology, and the habits of the lowly pigeon.  The folk-preaching of good luck being borne by the feces of the pigeon is founded, in the West, upon a long-held belief that this is the manner in which God conceived his son in Mary.  There are a number of intriguing old illustrations of this event, made by monks and artists remarkably more open to the facts of Nature than any modern vicar.

Pigeons were at once sacred residents of the temple, and an easy meal (and so a holy one), prefacing the ambivalent relationship the bird would long have with urban man.  It seems to have taken only a few more centuries before people harnessed the pigeon’s other notable attribute - an uncanny ability to return to its coop, from even hundreds of miles away.  Beginning with the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the fancier will find a familiar yarn about a great flood being sent down by the gods to cleanse the earth; to test the eventual abatement of the waters, a pigeon was released, just as one was in the same story when it was told by the Greeks as the story of Deucalion, and in the Old Testament as that of Noah and his ark.  The pigeon always finds his way home.

The Assyrians used pigeons to transmit battlefield orders in their successful campaign against the Sumerians.  The Phoenicians, establishing a maritime empire, found pigeons far preferable for overseas communication than slaves in dinghies.  And in Egypt, the prosperity of which was dependent upon the annual flooding of the Nile, there was a series of dovecotes along the river, which were used to relay updates on the progress of the deluge.  All told, we are still a long way from the disdain these days harbored towards these helpful fellows, who not only have served civilization’s every primitive need, but have done so as willing volunteers.  No pigeon has ever had to be ordered - he simply does what comes naturally, without the capacity for malice or treachery.  They are loyal also to their mates, far more so than we can honestly claim to be, and for this pigeons have been even more deeply entrenched in man’s religious symbolism.  It simply wouldn’t do to have the icon of the human soul going off and philandering with other birds whenever the mood struck.  The pigeon has been honored since it first shat upon the village square, because man early recognized that the bird is better than us all.

Pigeons had been associated with Aphrodite in Greece, and followed along as she was transformed from a goddess of romantic love into the Roman Venus, who was a saucier damsel.  Thus pigeons could be found in the keep of Roman “dove-priestesses” in the temples to Venus, which were more like quasi-religious brothels than chaste houses of worship.  In Rome generally, Pliny relates a fad of dove-ownership, especially by the ladies of the house, who bred them with friends’ birds and showed them like Westminster puppies.  Victorious generals of the empire carried a scepter adorned by a pigeon, as would the future Saxon kings, and Charlemagne.

Christians took the bird more seriously, representing the human soul in its shape, and, with a bit of iridescence added in, portraying the Holy Ghost thusly.  Every time Jesus made another commute to heaven or back, he was said to be surrounded by pigeons, as he was at his circumcision - consistent with Talmudic law. The Talmud includes specific instructions on the proper means of pigeon-sacrifice, which was a necessary ritual for the child’s circumcision, and the cleansing of the mother after childbirth.  Joseph of Aramathea, during his tenure in prison, was sustained by a pigeon who would daily drop a cracker in the Holy Grail.   And throughout medieval literature, whenever that Grail makes an appearance, it is duly accompanied by a pigeon, as seen by Sir Lancelot and other chivalric notables.

In the twelfth century, the world’s first organized postal service was established in Baghdad, its couriers common pigeons.  An exercised messenger bird can travel about seventy-five miles per hour; a feral one routinely does around forty-five, which is still among the fastest flights in the avian catalogue.  Even in our modern utopia, an observant pedestrian can spot the occasional professional bird among the rabble, as his breast will be more fully developed.

The pigeon has been relaying messages regularly ever since.  They served the cause notably in the First World War, and a Continental tourist, if he knows what he’s looking for, can find an astounding number of memorials to the birds who delivered the news of the conflict.  Among them, there is one to a French pigeon who delivered its message from the Western Front, half-dead, through clouds of poison gas and nebulae of gunfire and artillery.  The bird was awarded the Croix-de-Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur, as well as its stele at Verdun.

There wasn’t a pigeon to be found in this land of ours until they were brought here in the seventeenth century as a food-supply.  It was only a short time before a few individuals made their escape and established the teeming population we now enjoy in our cities.  But even American pigeons have enjoyed days of better respect than they have today.  Pigeon-keeping was a gentleman’s sport as recently as a couple of decades ago, and the wild urban population was easily matched in cities like New York by pedigreed racing pigeons.  During World War II, five pigeons from every loft in New York were drafted into the Army, and their service was hardly less spectacular than that French bird’s twenty years earlier.

The British, who drafted even more of their gentry’s best culvers into the war effort, devised a little harness into which the bird was fitted, attached to a tiny parachute.  Birds so outfitted were dropped by the hundred into the French countryside, so that the occupied citizenry might attach a simple note about the German’s local activities, and release the bird from its strait-jacket, to find its way back to a battery of dovecotes constructed along the English Channel coast, and the intelligence services of John Bull.

If you are even now trying unsuccessfully to enjoy your lunch free from the beady stare of the famous bird, and thinking that its honorable days are all behind it, you will still be wrong.  Even today, there are as many as fifty private rooftop lofts kept in this city, and enough pigeon-culture to assert that the birds haven’t entirely lost their cachet.  Loft pigeons can be seen in flight now and then, swirling around in tight formations above the rooftops, where armchair birders are usually unable to identify them - thinking pigeons shouldn’t be so graceful or so social.  Among the city’s feral breed, quite a few can be seen to have coloration and markings at variance with the typical blue-grey with black stripes on the wings.  These outstanding pigeons, in white or brown or red, are strayed loft pigeons, or the descendants of them, who have been born of an unholy mixed marriage.  (Pigeons, who have shown us our own failings since we put up our first huts, are also very egalitarian, and if love is fated, then they do not recognize social division between the pedigreed and the proletarian.)  These colored offspring will give way to the natural blue-grey after three or four generations; but as long as a few pigeons in the crowd are wearing a fancy coat, you can be sure that somewhere in the city, there is a pigeon-fancier who still respects the long legacy of the honorable pigeon.

A few pigeon traditions are still carried out by those fanciers, who have not yet given in to the recent columbine cynicism.  In Orvieto, Italy, for example, (and a few derivative towns thereabouts) just prior to Easter, the spectator will witness the festival of La Palombella.  As fireworks have been banned in Italian churches for two centuries now, the festival is these days held outside.  A dove is tied with red ribbons into a frame adorned with smoke flares, which are then lit.  The bird is propelled by these fizgigs along a taut rope from the top of the Church of St. Francis over the piazza, to the Cathedral exactly opposite, where fireworks are ignited by the bird’s arrival, illuminating images of Mary and the Apostles.  The startled bird is then given to the most recently married couple in town, whose pet it becomes.  In the fever of my research, I failed to discover what significance this ritual holds, though I expect even the bishop of the village couldn’t actually give me a certain answer.

Easier to dissect is the ancient sport of Triganieri, which has been played everywhere from Madrid to Peking.  It requires only a town where pigeon lofts are common, and involves the pigeon’s penchant for excessive sociability.  The competitor’s lofts are emptied out, and the pigeons, in their flock, swirl about through the sky above town.  The coops eventually interact with each other, and as is the pigeon’s nature, they begin trying to convince one another to join up.  When the pigeon-keeper thinks he has an advantage, he whistles back his coop, and if he is fortunate, his birds will have persuaded some of his competitor’s birds to come home, too.  In this way, the sport resembles a cooing, airborne version of marbles, or pogs, where the victor wins the pets of the loser.  In less civil circumstances, it is plain to see why Triganieri set off many a feud and not a few wars.

In China, in addition to the pleasures of Triganieri, pigeons contribute to the quality of the inhabitants’ surroundings, by allowing the attachment of a small cylinder known as a pigeon-whistle.  A pigeon in flight forces air through the tube, and thus creates a sort of inadvertent music.  Pigeon-keepers who attach whistles to their entire coop, and then set them out for a flight, will provide their community with a circumstantial symphony from above.  Contrary to the apparent religious purport of La Palombella in Orvieto, I am assured that the pigeon-whistle means nothing to anyone, other than by its capacity to make life in China more enjoyable.

The disgusted reader will notice that I have found little cause for the pigeon’s low status in this late age.  Its ubiquity did not seem to bother the thousand previous generations, and even its reckless manner of defecation was long perceived in a more sacred light.  Yet today pigeons are shooed from statues, blamed for the deterioration of our monuments, and by a few craven historical illiterates even hunted with ill-considered doses of poison.  Secretaries on cigarette-breaks jab at them with stiletto heels, and well-heeled businessmen sneer when a handful of them flutter into a deposit of nearby breadcrumbs.  It is no odd phenomenon that they are fed most often by the elderly - for even two generations ago, pigeons were still as revered as they might have been by a devout Sumerian.  The degradation of the pigeon’s good name is new indeed.

It is speculation only, but I propose that the modern city-dweller has finally become so saturated by shame and so disengaged from Nature, that the benevolence of the pigeon serves only to make the metropolitan’s failings ever sharper.  He is not as loyal as the bird, he is not as unassuming, he is not as unaffected.  He is in the absurd condition of being disgusted by the functions of his own body, unlike the bird.  He is too civilized to mount up to the top of a statue, though his climbing instinct urges him to.  Not so the bird.  And he is appalled by the concentration of others like him, the crowdedness of the modern city, and how dysfunctional such a society seems; and the bird, meanwhile, teems among us and thrives, and in flight, flocks of them even take on spontaneous formations, intuitive organizations, the likes of which not a thousand human committees or collegiate marching bands could replicate.  Thus, I propose, we wrongly despise the pigeon merely because we are disappointed with ourselves.

 

RATS.

A delineation of the rat’s poor standing is a less complicated one, if not less just.  I have been inadvertent witness to many rat-frolics upon unoccupied train platforms and in empty by-ways, and I have stayed my impulse to disgust, and wound up enjoying the vision of such little individuals at play.  But I know that most of us do not have the same control over their responses, and so the common occurrence of rats come to the surface for entertainment is more often a vision of horror, than one of uncomplicated vicarious joy.

The human aversion to rats is a more deep-rooted, and certainly more ancient, one than our ill-favor for pigeons.  Rats, like pigeons, seem to have joined into the metropolis as soon as such a thing was devised, originating on the steppes of Asia, and quickly finding their way to the developing civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates and the Indus.  The rat had been content for several million years foraging in nocturnal grasslands and burrowing into the ground during daylight, but the environment of human civilization indeed suited the rat even better. 

Rats will eat anything happily, and this is said without hyperbole.  The name of the rat, in dozens of human languages, is derived from the verb ‘to gnaw;’ which includes our own word, descended from an Indo-European locution something like ‘roet,’ though our printer informs me that he hasn’t got the right blocks for Indo-European, so I here estimate.  In any case, rats can chew whatever they please, and had better, for they are blessed with teeth that grow ceaselessly, and would add four full inches in a year if the rat’s constant chewing didn’t keep them at measure.

A human city is a better home for a rat for countless reasons, just the most obvious of which is that food is plentiful, in the form of garbage, building materials, plants, religious icons, and the rest.  Additionally, human civilization fits the rats’ schedule ideally, leaving plenty of time at night for their business to be managed without interruption, and making the daylight hours far safer for a slumbering rodent than it would be in a shallow hole on the steppe.  While we may pride ourselves on our efforts to control the population of our cohabitants, the rats still prefer us immensely to the birds of prey and large scavenging mammals that were their former persecutors.

As easily as they can chew through any obstacle, rats can also swim the breadth of any river without worry; they can navigate passages of the diameter of a Jefferson nickel; they can scale vertical walls; and they average ten litters of between six and twenty pups a year, a pup being mature after only two months, meaning their population grows exponentially.  I include all of this to suggest from whence our species-wide antipathy may arise - the fear of the unstoppable, the incessant pestilent.  We are all familiar with the sort of night-mare in which we are frantically throwing back obstacles, closing doors, desperately trying to thwart a mysterious and malevolent pursuer - but in futility, for we are still chased, they still come for us, and nothing we do slows their progress.  It is a common phobia, the failing escape, and the rats’ persistence may remind us of this, the impotence of all of our cerebral power against a mangy little rodent, chewing through our sturdiest blockades, swarming over our most ingenious bulwarks.

But since the rat has so thrown in his fate with our own, we should understand him a little better, and realize that he wants nothing more than to be close to us, to be our compeer, to share our cities and our prosperity. 

To the Irish, everything foreign is called ‘French,’ and the rat is no different; there he is the francach, or French mouse, because he is a newcomer.  Indeed, there was not a rat in Europe until the time of the first Crusades, and it would hardly startle History or Irony if they were verily introduced by returning crusader’s ships.  This first stowaway to the Continent was the Black Rat, and while they had done fine for themselves in the towns of the Levant, the congested cities of Europe were their utopia.  Once in Europe, however, the Black Rat encountered Xenoprylla cheopis, a particular flea, which at the time was in cahoots with the bacteria Pasteurella pestis.  The introduction of the rat to Europe was the completion of a lethal bridge from microbe to humanity, and the Plague resulted.  To contemporaries of the Plague, the connection was a mystery, although rats were quickly blamed, being newcomers, and also visibly affected by the disease as well.  It is a mistake to say the rats merely carried the Death around with them; they were subject to its effects as well, and thus the rat population eventually dwindled, and mercifully slowed the spread of the disease. 

The rat today common to our Great City is a different breed.  He is the Norway Rat, Rattus Norvegicus to the academic.  He also came from Central Asia, and also emigrated to Europe aboard the trading vessels of the time.  He made an immediate impression, and during the seventeenth century, almost entirely displaced the beleaguered Black Rat in Europe.  Though he is known today as the Norway Rat, none of his kin had made it to Norway until as late as 1770 - by which time he had also stowed away aboard some longer cruises, and found his paradise in America.  Only a few intrepid rodents needed to make their way into the cargo hold of a ship to successfully introduce the hardy species to the new continent, and in only a few years, the Norway Rat had set up firmly in all the major American ports, where he has remained since.  Our particular rat, to the chagrin of his disparagers, has never decimated the human population of any continent - he is innocent, the crime committed by his cousin, who is no longer influential enough to prosecute.

The rat, however, is not infallible, placing him opposite the moral divide from the divine pigeon, and suggesting more of an affinity with us.  For example, the lethal Hanta virus is known to originate in the decomposition of his excrement, and the Lassa fever, common to West Africa, emanates from the rat’s sneeze.  I am also obliged to report that rat-bite fever is not a schoolyard legend, but an actual pathology, and the name conceals nothing.  As for Saint Serafina of Tuscany, who was allegedly martyred by a pack of rats that came and devoured her while she lay ill, her tale of man-eating rats lacks much precedent or evidence, but I shall not rule it out, simply because the Christians have such terrible luck, especially with the animal kingdom.  The rats, anyway, have gotten a patron saint out of it.

And though they are despised, they are not despised universally.  The Jains consider the fellows sacred, as do the Chinese, who honor the rat with the first position in the zodiac, and the attendant attributes of hard work and prosperity.  And around the isles of the South Pacific, the tooth fairy is thought to be a rat, for who has better teeth?  And even the French gave tolerance a try, when during the eighteenth and nineteenth century rat gloves were the height of fashion.  Most recently the Philippines tried to dispel the stigma, when in a fit of entrepeneurialism during the 1970s, some capitalist marketed a canned meat called ‘Star.’  The inverted locution was not enough of a veil, and the rat-meat industry closed down before anybody had really given it a fair try.

As for the rat’s current condition, it is good.  In New York, the most conservative estimates declare that there is a rat for every person, and the better studied experts say we each have two.  They occupy thousands of dens beneath basements and connected to the various subterranean networks - sewer, subway, utility.  They are easily pleased, and well-fed.  And while the readily startled denizens of the upper world often claim to see supernatural specimens several feet long, the Norway Rat has a consistent genome, and most fill out at about one pound, and one foot from whisker to tail.  This is plenty to frighten off the pampered felines of the gentry, and I think it is only because their cats’ cowardice is so exposed that the New Yorker routinely exaggerates the size of the rodent in question.

Perhaps the rat’s best adaptation, however, is his distrust of novelty.  The rat memorizes his surroundings (and most rats, in their lifetimes, do not travel more than a few hundred feet from their nest), and as soon as anything changes, the rat reaches for his gun.  The noble brotherhood of exterminators have learned this, and so when charged with an assault on the rats, they must spend a week or so leaving out treats, to accustom the rat to a new object, before replacing it with bait or poison.  A rat sees a trap as a trap, and his trust is only earned through time and subtle treachery.  That we use the rat’s name for a conniver is but another irony, in that only our own devious nature is even close to capable of out-snitching his.

 

COCKROACHES.

Pigeons are suffering, at worst, from a sort of fad of negativity, a recently hatched bit of poor public perception.  The honorable rat is under a somewhat more serious cloud, formed over a few centuries of urbanization and lousy fortune.  The cockroach, meanwhile, is both far more ancient, and far more deeply reviled across the bounds of culture and time.

The order Blattaria, consisting of five families, is millions of years old.  A cockroach from the late Paleozoic and one from my bathroom sink might mistake each other for old school chums, and probably even speak the same lingo.  The cockroach was done right the first time, and Nature has had little excuse to change him around much.  Indeed, just as the pigeon and the rat were enjoying moderate success prior to human civilization, only to truly find their calling as companions of urban man, the cockroach, too, enjoyed a dozen geologic epochs before Homo Sapiens went ahead and built his ideal environment for him.  The common roach enjoys the heat and moisture on the fringes of our civilization more than we probably enjoy any of our own luxuries.  The better entomologists agree, that if we turned out the lights and shut off the water, and unceremoniously left the city to the roaches, the roaches wouldn’t take it, but would go where we did.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of flavors of cockroach, though only four common to our cities - American cockroaches, German ones, Oriental fellows, and the brown-banded variety.  And of these, only two concern me here: the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana), and the German (Blattella germanica).  This is because it is these two that will have startled the most of our readers, and even now are celebrating their liberty somewhere within this very office’s plumbing.

The American cockroach is the most familiar fellow, usually around an inch long, with a narrow physique, and a terror of light.  The German cockroach is the occasional celebrity that causes screams and urgent calls to the exterminator, because of the impression it gives of having grown to supernatural size.  The German tends toward two or three inches, and has the horrible tendency to make audible footsteps as he walks.  It should be emphasized that here are two separate breeds, both common to the area, and neither of which is dosed with plutonium.  The American cockroach resides, as we expect, in crevices with abundant heat and moisture, just about wherever he pleases.  The German more often sets up a base of operations in ground-level or below-ground fortresses with similar amenities, such as boiler-rooms and basements.  Thus the German is somewhat more scarce above-boards, and when he does get spotted, provides all the more fuel for human panic.

The Romans called them ‘Lucifugia’ - light-fleeing - and don’t seem to have passed down any advice for their eradication.  To the Spanish, they were known as ‘la cucaracha,’ which translates into the rather imprecise ‘mean little caterpillar.’  It was from this Iberian misnomer that our own word for the bugger arises, specifically from one Captain John Smith, who discovered them wreaking havoc aboard his boat, and wrote of “a certaine India bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch.”  From Mr. Smith’s poor ear, and the Spaniards lousy description, we have our fundamentally nonsensical name for the critter.

Incidentally, by the time “La Cucaracha” became the archetypal Mexican folk ditty - and the only thing gringos knew about South-of-the-border popular culture - the term had come along to signify not only the bug, but also a dried-out old lady, by way of the evolution of slanderous language.  This was the unfortunate nickname of one General Venustiano Carranza, chief rival of the esteemed Pancho Villa, so “La Cucaracha,” circa 1910, was a political taunt, and not any evidence that the Mexicans are joyously fixated on squalor.

It would do America well to have any comparable acknowledgement of the cockroach, but instead we remain bowed before its power.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, having a slow day, conducted a poll asking Americans which was their least favorite animal.  The cockroach was victorious, followed distantly by the mosquito, the rat, the wasp (a saccharine irony), and the rattlesnake.  And this survey was conducted well before the recent confirmation that the cockroach actually does anything wrong.  This new scientific vilification of the roach will surely not help its cause. 

The complaint is this: when the fellows die, they tend to dry up and turn to powder, and the keen eye of human knowledge has discovered that this powder is a primary cause of asthma in humans, especially children.  Now I concede that the roach has been indicted at last, but I maintain that neither does this validate two millennia of baseless fear, nor does it suggest that the roach is out to maliciously eliminate us.  I expect that when we die and turn into whatever goo is our destiny, there is some other member of the ecosystem who would rather have it another way, and finds our corpses a nuisance - but they do not accuse us of genocide. 

In fact, the bulk of the roach’s time is spent cleaning himself, as if conscious of his guilt, and only wanting to try and impress us with what time he still had.  It is his fastidiousness that the wily exterminator takes advantage of when he puffs out the old boric acid powder behind the fridge - the stuff adheres to the roach’s antennae, and winds up in his belly after every cleaning.  For all of the advances in pesticide, this remains one of the most reliable.  The cockroach, marvel of rapid evolution, has yet to build any consistent resistance to the stuff.  Not so other poisons.  After centuries of trial and error, the Combat company declared that they had devised the perfect poison, an unimpeachable chemical slayer of Blattidae, and that not even Darwin’s best student could figure a way around its effect.  In 1983, the news broke that a new, better cockroach had been invented, and Combat was already changing its formula.  As cockroaches develop resistances, almost annually and over vast tracts of geography, the pesticide makers have had to alter their poisons as often.  The homeowner remains free to choose between a new version of the roach-motel every six months, or the keeping of a hedgehog for a pet, who happens to be the world’s most effective hunter and gourmand of the bug.

The former has been the choice of no less a prestigious manse than the House of Representatives.  Shortly after Mr. Reagan took office down the block, the German cockroach moved into the House in infestation force.  These particular bugs proved exceptional for their tolerance to poison, and a few of them were collected by the U.S.D.A. as a standard against which to study the effectiveness of insecticides.  The HRDC strain of German cockroach ( named after the House of Representatives, District of Columbia - which to the attentive etymologist should now ring as the District of Pigeon-land) is still resident in the government’s labs, and remains one of the most resistant critters ever naturally selected.  Its continuing prevalence in the House is presumed, although nobody is making any complaints anymore, perhaps having more pressing concerns, or fearing a flood-tide of easy satire.

Having infested our halls of government, foiled our supremacy in the chemical sciences, inflicted a wheeze upon the youngest of our generations, and generally startled far too many unsuspecting midnight-snackers, the cockroach has more than the rest earned some of its reputation.  But this is not to say we oughtn’t understand him a little better - if only to give our minds something concrete to grasp on to when we shriek in surprise the next time a late cup of tea calls us to the lavatory in the wee hours.  If you crave such intellectual assurances, consider this: the roach is graced with two primitive brains, at either end of his frame.  They are connected by a sort of high-speed neural network, of a superior quality to our own sluggish axons and dendrites.  By this device, the cockroach possesses reflexes that shame our own, and thus when he sees light, he can translate the motor command ‘scurry’ to his legs in about .045 seconds, a bit faster than we can blink our crumby eyes.  So do not despair if the cockroach escapes your slipper or your folded lingerie catalogue - this is Nature’s plan.  But for any bugs you do slay, be more proud of your prowess, and like all great hunters, respect your prey, by knowing him.

--

Even as the reader’s vicarious scholar, I am still prone to a few of the gross impulses of the layman, and confess that my eyes dart nervously to any small movements upon the floors of the kitchen when I arrive there.  I am as ready to leap as any dandy matron, even if I know every detail about the invader.  But after my yelp, and to the declining measure of my rescusitant heartbeat, I surpass the petty fear of the coddled urbanite.  I consider the breadth of these histories, the extraordinary circumstances that have brought some particular bird to my sill, or some particular rodent to my furnace room, or some particular insect to my medicine cabinet.  I preside over the vermin’s escape with that one endowment that has made me the finest pestilence to ever spread across the Earth’s surface - my capacity to think, and to think too much.  If there is a nibblesome rat, or a foul bird, or a skittering roach for every one of us, it seems more their misfortune than ours.      3W

(home)


EDITORIAL

In most instances, when we are given a bad grape, we simply pucker up and eat the thing down, before the rancidity gets too much to bear; but on some occasions, we will get a fruit that is just too putrid to take, and our breeding is forgotten and we spit the thing out half-chewed, for everybody to see.  Such is the rottenness of the offering this past week from Mr. Bush, of Washington, and his unlikable press secretary, the dowdy Mr. Fleischer.  At issue were the reports from the F.B.I. regarding a handful of memos that agency had issued, and overlooked, which in hindsight now glare as evidence of the zealots’ September plot, gleaned too late.  The question asked by the simpletons in the press-rooms was What did the president know?  On the floor of Congress, the question was a little broader, along the lines of What did anyone know?  Stripped of politics, reasonable queries; but such a purity of purpose is doubtful. In any case, Mr. Bush of Washington took the congressional inquisition personally, and showed himself to possess honor and dignity just shy of the tee-ballers he hosts every weekend on the White House lawn.  It quickly became the administration’s policy to single out, by name, every member of Congress they felt had overstepped their patriotism in calling for a complete accounting of the intelligence lapses. Not even in this paper’s skeptical offices is there any suspicion that the federal government somehow conspired to look the other way September 11th last.  Such an idea is crude, and frankly boring; but this is what the administration thinks we think, and proves how far from understanding their opponents, and their flaws, that cadre is.  We could in fact not care less who missed what signals prior to the attack - retrospect and regret are a waste of our energies.  Even if Mr. Bush himself were revealed to have ordered the inferno, it would interest us less than his childish paranoia against all manner of interrogation.  The Congress, and the American public, has every right to every manner of information, and their desire to know can have nothing to do with whatever vast political vendetta against Mr. Bush perceived by the president’s men.  But the names were read anyway, first by Mr. Fleischer, who sweats, and then by Mr. Bush himself.  

Mr. Fleischer, a few weeks aft of having personally accused Mr. Clinton of instigating the global Terror War, looked no more dignified this time out than a kindergartener tearfully informing his teacher which bully poured water down the front of his trousers - knowing all the while it was a frame-up.  And Mr. Bush, later the same day, merely wallowed more deeply in his indignity.  Far beyond forgetting that it is the Legislative branch’s constitutional duty to be a check and a balance to the Executive, Mr. Bush and Mr. Fleischer have failed to recall even the codes of decency forged in grammar school.  The success of the zealots’ invasion is far larger than the competency of the current president, and despite whatever biases we might hold against Mr. Bush’s general comport, we were prepared to grant him our objectivity upon this issue.  But then Mr. Fleischer read his (bipartisan) list of names, with the snivelling glee of the snitch, and his employer, rather than reprimanding his underling for petty behavior, simply seconded it.  Our wish is this: in scooping up an arbitrary handful of bureaucrats, to come away with at least one of quality.  This week, we have found nothing but rot, and that at the very top of the vine.

We know that in stating ourselves so, we, too, become traitors in their beady eyes; but we feel it necessary to put down for posterity that we are today governed by guileful and ignoble children, who can snipe at each other even at a funeral.  Nobody is at fault, and we wouldn’t really be interested if somebody was; but the prospects of accountability have exposed a bevy of sour characters, and we lay them before you, indigestible.    3W

(home)


COMPLAINT

 

 

A LETTER ON THE MATTER OF THE PAYPHONES

 

Our man in Astoria, Mr. Tyree, who was last heard making noise about the effects of insomnia, has delivered to us a missive regarding the recent uptick in the cost of telephoning.  We happen to know that this epistle has already gone off into the hands of its target, so for the sake of public accountability and ease of eventual evidence-gathering in any unfortunate missing-persons investigation centered around Mr. Tyree, we here publish his 

OPEN LETTER TO VERIZON.

April 23rd, 2002. 

Ivan Seidenberg
Chief Executive Officer
Verizon Communications

Charles R. Lee
Chairman
Verizon Communications

Lawrence T. Babbio, Jr.
Vice Chairman and President
Verizon Communications 

My Dear Sirs,
It has not escaped my attention that the Verizon Communications Corporation has embarked upon a novel experiment, videlicet, raising the cost of a local pay-phone call in New York City by 100%, from 25 to 50 cents.  Calls for Information, formerly offered free of charge – a gesture which did your conglomeration much credit, as did the free use of pay-phones during

the city’s tragedy last September – now cost 50 cents as well.  Given that your pay-phones offer no alternative method of obtaining information, such as a Yellow Pages directory, it now costs 85 cents (50 cents plus a further connection fee of 35 cents for the call itself) to determine the opening hours of a local restaurant or the nearest gun-shot clinic from a Verizon pay-phone.

I applaud you on the audacity of your decision.  Your rate-hike, by defying every law of economic competition, is a naked assertion that your company does not operate in a free market.  During a recession – which, gentlemen, I needn’t tell you this city is surely experiencing – companies typically consolidate their market share by lowering prices in order to drive out competitors.  By raising them instead, you are tacitly acknowledging that you do not, in fact, have any real competitors.  When it comes to pay-phones, New York, on its streets and more especially on its subway platforms, is  Verizon’s company town.  The few scattered, downtrodden remains of your competitors’ 25-cent pay-phones are, as you yourselves must know only too well, a force insufficient to pose any serious threat to your stranglehold on this most captive of markets.  If all Hondas suddenly doubled in price overnight, would that company not be driven out of business within days by Toyota, GM, and other automobile manufacturers?  But here there are not enough Toyotas to matter. 

May I also congratulate your deft attempts at cloaking your greed by pretending that the 50-cent phone call is actually a new service?  Here, I am referring, of course, to the fine print on your new phones that offers the consumer “unlimited” time for the extra quarter.  As an “unlimited” local call is a service that nobody using a pay-phone requires or desires, the new terms appear almost marvelously insulting.  Indeed, gentlemen, is it not the essence, the very definition of a pay-phone qua pay-phone, that one uses it “on the go,” and, therefore, for an inevitably brief and limited period of time? To offer New Yorkers “unlimited” calls on a subway platform, for example, where the call’s maximum duration is obviously limited to the time that elapses between trains, is but a hollow gift, a shell game.  On a deeper philosophical level, one might well ask if such a thing as an “unlimited” phone call is a logically coherent or empirically verifiable phenomenon.  Strictly speaking, would the caller not need to be immortal in order to live up to the possibility of a limitless call?  I see nothing in your equivocations except sophistry.

I am willing to grant that, as longstanding beneficiaries of 25-cent pay-phone calls, New Yorkers were being granted an especial dispensation, not enjoyed by the rest of the nation, that could not be expected to endure forever.  Indeed, local pay-phone calls, like haircuts, bleacher tickets to Major League Baseball, and dim sum, numbered among an unusual list of goods and services that, in clear violation of the general rule, could be had cheaper in this city than elsewhere.  Nevertheless, if this micro-economical climatic inversion had, inevitably, to end, I see no reason why the punishment for our days of grace need be so extreme and patently unfair.

100% price inflation is something most of us associate with war-torn nations, third-world regimes in hock to the international bankers, black markets such as the drug trade, or Weimar Germany.  If other industries followed your example, the United States would be on its knees, economically speaking, within days.  Were rents doubled, or the price of a bus ride increased to

three dollars (with information about their schedules an additional three dollars), protests and riots might ensue, governments could fall.  Should you argue that pay-phones are a luxury, not vital to the sustaining of city life, I might pose this question – if the price of diamonds increased by 100%, would there not be fewer marriages, less joy in the world? Is the case not similar with conversation?  A fellow returning home to his dearest in the dead of night may be less likely to call ahead while waiting for his train – does the possibility not intrude on your dreams? Why would anyone pay the new tariff when so many other companies continue to operate their phones at the old price?  Beloved consumer, Verizon is saying, We know you are too lazy and stupid to bother walking the extra block or two required to save a little change.  Oh, you may think that you will resist us, and perhaps you might make the effort once or twice.  But perhaps you will not save much money after all.  Perhaps your call will go longer than expected, and, having no smaller coins, you will have to use that second quarter anyway. In time, you will relent.

Yet I submit that something more than the inevitable outcome of deregulated cartel piracy is at work in your double-or-nothing ploy, something far more subtle and calculating. Can the 50-cent pay-phone call be regarded as anything but a form of psychological torture and economic intimidation aimed at that sector of the population who as yet have refused to succumb to the increasingly tyrannical  “necessity” of owning a cellular telephone?  Your logic, doubtless supported by an array of graphs, pie charts, and wistful sales projections, dictates that thousands of consumers, bewildered and indignant at the new price, will finally “give in” and invest in a cellular phone.  Ideally, gentlemen, would it not be a Verizon cellular phone, with a multi-year calling plan and all the fixings?  While you take with one hand, you can offer solace with the other, and thereby hope to become the beneficiary of your own bad deed.  What you are forgetting, my dear sirs, is that many of us are, at present, too impoverished even to contemplate your cellular brinkmanship.  We live in a bankrupt city, gentlemen, a city that has seen better days.  According to a recent report by the erstwhile consulting firm Appleseed, 110,000 of us have lost our jobs since last September.  The United Way says that evictions are on the rise and the lines at food pantries are up.  Many younger people, whilst vastly more fortunate than many of their fellows, are, as one report in The New York Times put it, “Educated, Experienced, and Out of Unemployment Checks.”  Although my own personal experience can only be a matter of anecdote, I can assure you that indulging myself in a cellular telephone has a rather low priority, coming long after potential investments in health insurance, a long-overdue visit to the dentist, Afghan land-mine charities, and other such small matters.  In short, gentlemen, much as I might like to oblige your lust for profits, shore up your growth projections, and contribute to the buoyancy of your stock, I can afford neither a cellular phone nor your 50-cent pay-phones.  No quarter will be given. Your actions strike me as dispiriting, not to say a little unpatriotic.  And their effect is bad for us both: now, I shall simply not call.

Pay-phones were already an indicator of one’s lack of social standing, a fact apparent to anyone who would examine the demographics of their use. Talking on the new phones will be an exercise in further public humiliation, ocular proof of one’s inability to participate in the wireless world. Just as the uninsured pay more for identical medical care, so too will those least able to afford it suffer most from the price hike. Paradoxically enough, the poor, in this case not so much nickel-and-dimed but quartered, will be double-charged to advertise their poverty to the world.  I am, Gentlemen, Your Humble Servant,         J. M. Tyree, Esq.               3W

(home)


OBITUARIES

 

 

NOTABLE LOSSES

 

THE PACHYDERM.

If nobody else is going to do it – and it doesn’t appear that anybody is – than I take it upon myself to here publicly eulogize Tuss, the elephant, New York’s most recently fallen.

Old Tuss – she was fifty – was the great-grandmother of the pachyderms at the Bronx Zoo.  Any elephant that wanted to get married or put a down-payment on a house had to get Tuss’s blessing, and usually she gave it, with a kindly bellow and a surreptitious gift of a few extra dollars tucked into her trunk.  The Bronx herd is now faced with the daunting task of elevating a new matriarch, though none of the family expects to replace her.  But outside of the confines of the Bronx elephant reserve, the rest of the city must reconcile, once again, with loss.

Tuss was born in India, early in the nineteen fifties, and spent her youth observing that nation’s tumultuous adolescence.  Having accomplished everything the subcontinent offers an elephant, Tuss then came to New York in 1976.  She not only became the alpha-female of the famous Bronx herd, entertaining hundreds of thousands of visitors, but she founded a successful professional career as well.  Tuss made countless public appearances, and accumulated an impressive set of television credits, including a recurrent role on “Sesame Street.”  In short, for millions of children and former children, in New York and elsewhere, Tuss was the elephant imprinted upon their memories.  If the definitive quality of the New York cosmopolitan is that he has seen it all, and what he hasn’t probably wouldn’t impress anyway, then Tuss the elephant has been, for decades, a two-ton assurance of that cherished jadedness.  Elephants?  We have seen elephants.  Magnificent elephants.

Zookeepers report that Tuss had fallen ill only recently, and as a result of nothing but her advanced age.  I presume that fifty is a good number for an elephant, but none of the experts have been able to maintain their composure long enough to confirm it for me.  They remain pretty broken up.  But as Tuss became more lethargic, and her thousand-pound appetite waned, the other elephants knew what was inevitable, before the zoological society did.  Good-byes were trumpeted, and Tuss made a quiet and dignified departure.

It is merely unfortunate that the press has not had the sensitivity to present this sad news more broadly, and that the governor, the mayor, and the borough presidents haven’t mustered the inner strength to comfort the public in this grievous time, as the guileless public so often requires.  It is just this sort of negligent humanity and misplacement of priorities that has provoked your editors into dedicating the bulk of this paper to animals and insects.  We are keeping count, and the number of times human beings have disappointed us lately is astronomical and rising, while our tally of animal underachievement is stalled at one (an incident involving a housecat, whose animality is only marginal anyway).  Until a prominent member of our own species does something honorable, dignified, noble, or even decent, I shall continue to prefer the so-called lower orders, like the good Tuss, who radiated such qualities to scale.        Axdr. Swartwout

 ---

THE PALEONTOLOGIST.

Mr. Swartwout hadn’t even finished marking up the preceding eulogium before the news infiltrated this office that Dr. Gould had also died.  Weakened already by the loss of the pachyderm, and the exertion of expression, Mr. Swartwout refused the second assignment, and I am able to do it only because my debt to Dr. Gould’s memory outweighs the distress at his loss.

Indeed, it warms one to consider how honored Dr. Gould would have been to share this page of passings with a figure such as Tuss.  Perhaps only a handful of human beings have ever possessed such a healthful and complete conception of his place in the natural order.  To Dr. Gould, an elephant that teaches a million children is as good as any professor, or even the static skeleton of a dinosaur, which so famously directed the paleontologist to his calling.  By submersing himself in the entire history and mechanism of life itself, Dr. Gould discovered a novel and admirable perspective on his own predicament, as an organism, a mammal, a primate, a human, an American, even a New Yorker, and most certainly, a citizen of modernity.  To any reader who has yet to partake of Stephen Jay Gould’s oeuvre, nothing can be said except that you lack a perfect conception of what you are.  The dozens of books, fractured like revelatory layers of sedimentary rock into hundreds of essays, provide just that haughty achievement – they explain the reader to himself, at the same time as revealing the fascinating protozoa in the Burgess shale, the significant conspiracy inherent in the size of the Hershey’s chocolate bar, and the spectacular human ability to see, in the mosaics of a Byzantine temple or the statistical scarcity of no-hitters in baseball, an analogy to the ascendance of life on Earth, and to the author’s own joyful, pedestrian existence.

As Mr. Swartwout previously complained, the condition of our species is dim, and the loss of Dr. Gould positively knocks the entire race to a lower bough.  Average men, of which there are hordes, have all become, by default, a few degrees above average; though their abilities haven’t improved, only the mediocrity of the crowd.  If anyone possesses sense, you ought to be exercising it in excess these days, because there is a sudden drought, made worse. 

But Dr. Gould did not fail to leave us with the tools for improvement.  His voice is very much among us, as his books are very much in print, and the contents of those books remain the most lucid and wide-ranging guide to the intricacies of evolutionary science, and its reverberations through modern culture that can be had.  It is true that, with zealots still prevalent on the boards of education, and theocrats pining for a general regression in human knowledge, the absence of Dr. Gould’s frequent editorials consoling the confusion of Americans, and scolding the superstition of the creationists will be sorely missed.  But it is just possible that his body of work will serve a newer generation as a sort of primer in the subtlety, intricacy, rationality, and inherent marvel of empirical thought, so that instead of a single omnipotent patriarch of reason, this civilization can have an entire litter of them.

Incidentally – and only incidentally – it was cancer that finally took Dr. Gould from this sphere, at the age of sixty.  It is some comfort to know, knowing only Dr. Gould’s nature through his work, that though the tumor may have overrun the paleontologist’s physic, it did not do so without being fully known, intimately understood.  Dr. Gould, who had survived cancer once already seemingly by sheer force of intellect, surely knew every detail of his condition: the statistics of survival, the chemistry of treatment, the biology of affliction.  The agony of illness is largely that of the unknown.  Dr. Gould’s ailment had no such satisfaction, and one can only hope that whatever eventually expires them, is as completely exposed, as unmysterious.  It is just this infatuation with the breadth of knowledge that made Dr. Gould’s arguments, and especially his refutations of the half-logic of the theocrats, so comforting. 

If the reader has any doubts about the nature and mechanisms of evolution, or those of  life itself – and most of you likely do, having suffered at the hands of the same inadequate educational system as the bulk of us – then you owe it to Charles Darwin, to yourself, and to the advancement of enlightenment to hear what Dr. Gould spent the better part of forty years saying.  It is only against incomplete knowledge that the ignorant are able to argue; Dr. Gould has provided, in the best tradition of science, a total conception of life, and human life, that does not even shudder from the salvoes of the medievalists.  Avail yourself of the efforts of this best specimen of the species, once you have overcome the tremors of apprehension sure to beset us all in these suddenly more doltish days.  Without the least hesitation, I can pronounce that he will make you a better anthropoid. Eph. Underhill

(home)


 

THE EAVESDROPPER

 

-I think of all the things she makes, that one is the most perfect.  This is good, but that is just perfect.

-Mm-hm.

-It’s not too sweet - it’s like... What’s that Italian dessert we like?

-And that I don’t make well enough?

-No, no.  Not that.  What is it?

-Gelato?

-No, with layers.

-This really is good.  Look how it comes apart.

-She does everything well, but that really is perfect.

-Too bad we can’t come more often.

-Mm. Gives me something to look forward to.

-Well.  I didn’t know it had come to that.

-Simple pleasures, that’s all.3W

(home)


METEOROLOGY

 

 

THE WEATHER

 

RITES OF SPRING

May 28, depending on how prompt you are in getting to us, is either still tomorrow, today, or is already yesterday and then some.  In any case, it is a date worth noting if you are a Townie, for it marks New York’s unique equinox - and I think it is worth joining those few attentive urban Druids who already know this, and appreciating for a change the machinations of the universe, as opposed to high society.

Because old Manhattan is set about thirty degrees from true North, and its streets adhere to the same parallel, the ordinary Spring Equinox doesn’t mean much to its residents.  On that day, around March 20, daylight and darkness are meant to be in equality, thanks to the orientation of the Earth, and the Sun sets upon the bearing of true East - as it does only one other time in the year.  But to a New Yorker, North and East mean something quite different, namely, they indicate the direction of the Avenues and the Streets, and if the compass declares there is a different truth thirty degrees away, then the compass lies.  The fact that on the pronounced Equinox, the Sun is early hidden by buildings to the City-folk’s ‘South,’ is generally ignored, and strangers asking for East still get pointed straight along the thoroughfare.

May 28 is the end of the conflict.  On May 28, two months after the provinces have their day, the Sun sets directly into the center of Manhattan’s streets, as perceived from within the grid.  For one of only two times all year (look again July 12), old Helios will pervade every crevice from West Side to East, and the City will bathe in the belated warmth of Spring.  Well into the future, I like to think that it shall speak to the audacity of this city’s residents that they built the world’s most colossal stone-henge, and yet refused to adhere to the restrictions of the calendar.  Our archeologists shall not be able to mistake our self-centricity, and I announce this entire fact because I think it would be worth celebrating in our own time.

Mr. Bloomberg of City Hall has announced that on May 30, he will preside over a ceremony on the World Trade Center site that officially terminates the search for victims.  The buildings’ debris has been cleared and sorted, and a thousand of the lost have been accounted for, in astonishing short time and at a tremendously admirable effort, and it is high time to make the difficult decisions of convalescence.  However, the families of the victims - understandably hypersensitive folks, and frankly, in no condition to hold sway over major civic decisions - have complained that Mr. Bloomberg’s date doesn’t mean anything. 

I do not know if it is the fault of Oprah’s postmodern emotional empire or the whole screwy upbringing of the Boomers, but if society were to take its forward steps only on ‘significant’ days, we would be closed down all year except Christmas and on the full moon; and imagine, this coming  September’s anniversary would be so clogged with committee meetings and dedications and profound legislative votes that nobody would be able to remember what it was an anniversary of.  So it is fine that Mr. Bloomberg wants to hold the ceremony, and have it over with.  I suspect that it will make its own significance, and the Mayor is right in saying, if too boldly, “We have to just pick a day.”

But if the City needs a compromise, I offer that the ceremony could be held on the 28th, and the very particular gravity of the date could be explained to the Knickerbockers ignorant of the movements of the spheres.  I think it is an adequately significant day, particularly in that it is meaningless outside the streets of Manhattan.  Mr. Bloomberg announces that an empty stretcher will be brought out of the site, draped in a flag, to suggest closure to the recovery effort.  Were such a gesture made at sunset, on New York’s unique Equinox, it might be a moment of perfect heathen profundity that frankly embarrasses me for having concocted it.  In any case, it is a great relief to think that by our next number, not only will New York’s true Spring be well under-weigh, but the World Trade Center site will have been at once sanctified and secularized - in short, it shall be returned to the eager hands of its City, to be remade as the City would make it.

--- 

Elsewise, I have listened to too many identical reports from disparate sources about how sleepy everybody has lately been to fail to make some consideration of the trend.  Myself included, it has become vastly popular across the City to sleep an extra few minutes in the morning, and steal an hour’s nap in the afternoon or evening.  Everybody who has presented me this information has done so idly, mentioning it only in passing, as a sort of rhetorical query - how odd it has been lately, to be so drowsy.  But I find myself the locus of a hundred such thrown-away anecdotes, and in such a capacity, I see that something much greater is going on.  The sleepiness is not limited to a social class or an ethnic group; it is not more prevalent in one political party, or more common to any of the genders; it is solely the quality of making one’s home in old Gotham that has got the people dozy, and desperately needing an unconventional nap of my own, at the moment of this writing, I can affirm the depth of the problem.

The five boroughs have become something of an Island of the Lotus-Eaters, and we are eight million Ulysses.  Of course, there was a cause to his slumber upon that island, as there must be to our own.  His was the soporific effects of the flower, and I suspect ours may be as well, although I haven’t got a pollen-count to offer the empiricist, nor even a specific botanical culprit to name.  I simply suspect that we are in the springtime grasp of some invisible airborne opiate, one which the bulk of us do not even realize we have an allergy to.  The theory is consistent with the seasons, with the known reproductive habits of the plant kingdom, and with the urbanite’s tendency to overlook his susceptibility to natural tonics.  But there are other prospects.

One philosopher with whom I shared this information proposed that it was something to do with the rare alignment of the planets which has been occurring in the Western sky these past weeks.  Perhaps if you are not an astrologer or a conspiracy theorist, you did not know that for the past week, and not again for another forty years, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn have all been choreographed into a perfect little arc above the horizon just after sunset, and on  clear nights one could watch the waxing Moon traverse the chorus line.  Amateurs oughtn’t to get too excited, though, for this is not a formal szyzygy, merely a coincidence of visual spectacle, for our latitude solely.  And if it were a perfect alignment, I still ask: the planets have been in the sky for five billion years, and I have only been having trouble getting out of bed for the last three weeks.  What can the relationship possibly be?

There have been other, even less satisfactory hypotheses for the public somnolence.  It doesn’t interest me so much as the mere fact of our collective lethargy.  I am consoled when my legs and my heart and my mind all abandon me at eight o’clock in the morning, or when I have relinquished shame at four in the afternoon and I simply cannot bear to go any further than the sofa, that my symptom is as one of a community.  So long as my whole city, my allies and my enemies, are all as fundamentally weary as I am, then I am unconcerned.  It is the sweetest thing in the world to give in to sleep without guilt or foreboding, with an indefinite comfort, and if some invisible cloud is so afflicting the whole overworked municipality, then doze off and let it be.  Rather than resisting it with antihistamines, sleep, and count it as one of the graces of the season. Eph. Underhill

(home)