"Skepticism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Optimism"
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 14 - JULY 6, 2002
"He was a bold man that first eat an oyster."
On Bees, by Alexander Swartwout
Historical Notes on Bees, by J. Ephrain Underhill
On the Freezing of a Ballplayer, by Alexander Swartwout
July Fourteenth, by Henry William Brownejohns
Some Proposals for the Betterment of This City and its Customs, by the Editors
The Weather, by Eliza Anne Bonney
Return to Three Weeks Issues
FIRSTLY, AN UPDATE ON THE SUBJECT OF A PREVIOUS ISSUE, INCLUDING THE LATEST NEWS ON VERMIN
by Alexander Swartwout,
ALL MANNER OF INFORMATION REGARDING NECTAR-GATHERING INSECTS
It was only three issues ago, in this space, that Mr. Brownejohns so thoroughly expounded the merits of our companions the pigeons, the rats, and the cockroaches. Doubtless the reader has already forgotten our chief’s effort, as the typical plebe is endowed with not much more intellectual retention than the subjects of that essay, but let him be assured, the vermin were largely redeemed. And while the work was done for nothing better than the enlightenment of the public, and the ordinary motivations of timeliness and style were relegated to second thoughts, as so often happens with the labors of a prescient mind the expository essay of our eleventh issue turned out to happily coincide with current events.
Concurrent with that publication, it was announced that the fringes of the scientific community were hard at work in utilizing the despised rat for far more than dissection and mascara tests. Just as Mr. Brownejohns was revealing the rat’s rich history, and exploding its ill-gotten reputation, the noble rodent was found to be ideal for remote-control, and its potential for human assistance was increased by orders of magnitude.
Specifically, the alchemists at the State University of New York have devised a contraption not unlike a rucksack for the individual rat, with electrodes convenient to two parts of the rat’s little brain: his whisker receptors, and his pleasure center. An engineer with a remote control was able to stimulate alternately the left whisker-receptor and the right whisker-receptor, and generally persuade the rat to thus turn in either direction. By reinforcing the rat’s movement with an occasional surge of pure pleasure, the scientist effectively controlled the rat’s travel, even into realms where a self-propelled rodent would hesitate to venture, such as wide-open, brightly lit spaces.
Imagine a rat thus equipped, and armed with an on-board video camera, who is able to navigate otherwise impossible terrain. Recall Mr. Brownejohns’ revelations about the rat’s tremendous motile versatility through nickel-sized openings, across bodies of water, up vertical surfaces. Science is still several million years behind Nature in constructing such an efficient robot, and if the rat cooperates, he may provide an unparalleled ally in the exploration of hostile environments, from disaster areas choked with rubble to unsurveyable underground fissures, which have otherwise wreaked havoc on the efforts of our oversized industrial engineers. The final obstacle to the rat’s total utility to mankind is now merely mankind’s prejudice.
For, put yourself in the position of a victim whose house has come down upon him by virtue of an earthquake. The rescuers have dispatched these helpful rodents into the pile to find you and recover you but you are an ignoramus, and for no reason but this you see a rat and you panic and you probably expire. An enlightened citizen, such as one who can remember something of Mr. Brownejohns’ essay, would know right off that a rat is no more inclined to eat him or give him the plague than he is to paint him a picture; but there are so few enlightened citizens to speak of. Instead, the rescue rat remains hindered by the commoner’s acquired intolerance of the whole species. The scientists have accomplished their part, and the rats have done what they can. It is up to the sociologists now to teach humanity that their fears are unfounded, and may even cost them their lives.
It so happens that the remote-control rats are descended, as an idea, from a similar experiment conducted five years ago in Japan. There, however, it was not the versatility and derring-do of the rat that was harnessed by science, but that of the cockroach. Indeed, cockroaches have been as maneuverable as a child’s toy for half a decade, and it is only the cockroach’s considerably more daunting public-relations status that has kept it from becoming a household tool and a perennial Christmas morning favorite. If our base species could only overcome its vast inventory of hang-ups, we would by now be comfortably served by the rats and the roaches that instead unreasonably horrify us. Our mail would be retrieved by obedient cockroaches, our lost earrings retrieved by loyal and satisfied rats, and in our moment of deepest need, of most profound peril, these vermin would ignore millennia of abuse and attempted genocide and come to our aid, and save our lives, for nothing more than the simple sensation of pleasure which overwhelms their ganglia when they do so.
Adhering to the theme of pests allying themselves with humane and democratic causes, there is also the late report of the bomb-sniffing bees which may be of some interest. It has been discovered by similarly idle scientists that the common honeybee can be trained to search out whatever substance the scientist asks, in exchange for a nice glass of sugar-water. And it has long been known that the honeybee’s sense of smell is superior to almost any other creature on the Earth: he can detect an odor molecule in ranges of one part per billion, or thereabouts. Atop this talent, a single honeybee can alert a hive’s worth of his comrades to the presence of a favorable flower in the matter of seconds, utilizing a scantily understood dance and chemical communiqué. Apparently, the bees have some kind of taps upon their shoes, and are always keeping their ears open to the shuffle-step signifying a field of clover.
Bees do all of this, and men bribe and manipulate. Keeping to this role, we have convinced bees to seek not pollen, but tri-nitrotoluene, which explodes. They have been persuaded by our black arts to alert the hive when they have sniffed even a single molecule of the stuff; and if they do so, they are rewarded with said sweets. The result: a cargo container surreptitiously loaded with a bomb is soon swarmed by bomb-sniffing bees as if it were loaded with tulips, and the authorities are able to take over from there. Civilization is preserved, and the bees are fed their ambrosia for their hard work.
Just as the remote-control rats are hindered from realizing their full potential by the impracticality of human fear and prejudice, though, so are the bees kept from being truly useful for the same reasons. Bomb-sniffing bees are more accurate and more thorough than a whole fleet of like-minded dogs, but the general public will not consent to the presence of swarms of bees in the airports and bus stations. And until we do allow it, the bees will have to do their work in more scarcely populated places, like shipyards and railyards, though it is not realizing the full force of their utility. One only hopes that we do not regret our prejudice against roving swarms of bees before we are able to overcome it. It seems that the enlightened society we so long for will be one where all our pests and enemies have been allied to us, and serve civilization in its effort against its own fallibility.
All of this leads quite conveniently into an effort of Mr. Underhill’s, which hopefully shall do for the bees what Mr. Brownejohns has done already for the pigeons and the rats. It is now the heart of summer, and a few of us are likely to encounter a nectar-gatherer or two; and nothing tears at our hearts more virulently than the thought that some dunce, for sheer ignorance, might run from, fear, or worse, harbor malice towards, the benign bee. To prevent such a trifling tragedy, we offer
HISTORICAL NOTES ON BEES
A SURVEY OF THE INSECT AS IT RELATES TO THE RISE AND PROGRESS OF CIVILIZATION
or, BEES IN HISTORY
by J. Ephrain Underhill
Mr. Ernest W. Jennings, beekeeper, of Connecticut, was killed last year when attacked by a swarm of bees, which chased him for several miles, even as he fled in a pickup truck, and defended himself with a garden hose. An autopsy later showed that the specific cause of Mr. Jennings’ death was heart failure, which the medical examiner conceded was probably a result of the stressful situation Mr. Jennings found himself in. The bees, allegedly unaware that their goal had been already achieved, nevertheless proceeded to sting Mr. Jennings’ body a dozen more times, likely causing their own casualty total to be much higher than was necessary. A friend of the victim confirmed that one of Mr. Jennings’ three hives had been taken over by an aggressive group of local bees, who apparently were modeling their crime after those of the infamous Africanized, or ‘killer,’ bees, that have so notoriously infiltrated the Southwestern United States. That the bees responsible for this attack were indeed not of the Africanized variety, but were simply ordinary Northeastern honeybees attempting to copycat a killer-bee style attack, is a source of concern for residents of the temperate regions of the U.S., who had assumed they were safe from the hostile expansion of the warm-weather, Africanized swarm. Ever since, a low-level terror has gripped the nation, as it confronts, en masse, yet another topic that it knows nothing about. While pundits and crackpots condemn bees and call for the banishment of honey, THREE WEEKS would like to invite the thoughtful reader to consider some interesting notes regarding bees throughout history - almost all of which are true - in order to approach this delicate subject with some sensitivity and knowledge, and perhaps to salve a bit of the popular anxiety, which runs high. It has been, after all, a year now since Mr. Jennings’ death, and this was the last homicide in this country even remotely associated with bees.
To many, what follows will all be common knowledge. THREE WEEKS considers it all too likely, however, that certain individuals will be ignorant of these facts, and so to give these slow learners no further excuse for their benightedness, we persist. Readers who are familiar with bees may skip ahead.
To begin: a bee is any insect in a large family known as Apoidea, of the order Hymenoptera. It is generally four-winged, six-legged, and a gatherer of pollen and nectar. The majority of them are social insects, living in hives consisting of thousands of individuals, and many species produce honey a a wax by-product, which have been harvested by humans for at least ten millennia, as evidenced by cave paintings such as those found at Araña, in Valencia a pair of Paleolithic stick-figures represented scaling a crude ladder to reach a beehive in the cliffside. Bees are capable of a generally non-lethal sting, as the case of Mr. Jennings’ heart failure tragically illustrates. The infamous ‘killer’ bees, themselves, are only considered lethal by the force of their numbers; a single Africanized bee could no more kill a man than say hello to him.
In fact, the bee’s service to man has been far greater than his assaults on him. Consider that the Bronze Age was enabled by the bee, whose wax was used by the Sumerians for casting. Let the person who cherishes human civilization keep from ever swatting at a too-proximate buzzer ever again. The bee’s labor has enabled our own, and for devotees not of industry but of leisure, consider that the first fermented beverage made by Homo Sapiens was likely mead, an alcohol made from honey. There is evidence of the fermentation of mead nearly as ancient as the pictograms at Araña. It appears more and more clear that Mr. Jennings was but a small sacrifice to the underappreciated family Apoidea.
Of course, most of the bee’s appearances through history have been as symbols or elements in mythology. The Hindu love god Kama is armed with a magic bow and arrow, not unlike his Greek counterpart Eros. But the string of Kama’s bow is comprised of interconnected bees, and in this tradition, and many others, the sting of the bee was believed to be a love charm. Akin to this belief was that the bee was also responsible for the gift of eloquence, no doubt because the sweetness of honey was associated with that of verse. Socrates, for example, was said to have a swarm of bees fly into his mouth as a baby, accounting for his rhetorical skills as a man, and earning him the title of the Athenian Bee. The same story is told of Xenophon, and Sophocles (who was known rather as the Attic Bee), and a few centuries later of St. Ambrose (who, by virtue of this legend, is the patron saint of beekeepers).
The ancient Hittites, around 4000 b.c.e., told a story about the rain-god Telepinu, who, in a bad mood, went missing, leaving the land in a terrible drought. (“So angry was he that he could not even stop to put his boots on aright, but, clamping his right boot on to his left foot, and his left boot on to his right foot, he stalked off in high dudgeon.”) The other gods sent an eagle and a wolf to find Telepinu, but the eyesight of the former, and the endurance of the latter were both surpassed by a single bee, who had volunteered for the task, and found Telepinu sleeping in a cave. Coming upon him, the bee stung him awake, and then dressed the wound with its own wax, and coaxed Telepinu to return to the pantheon. (Incidentally, Hittite law decrees the penalty for stealing bees is five shekels, and six for stealing a whole hive though if the hive is empty, the fine is just three.) Besides expressing an early reverence for the bee, this Hittite story reveals an early belief that the bee-sting was a cure for paralysis, and in the medicinal qualities of beeswax.
A similar theme is present in the ancient Finnish epic of Lemminkainen, wherein the hero, being bitten by a snake and cut into pieces by his enemies, is reanimated by a single bee, using honey from the Ninth heaven which one must presume is the best heaven. Lemminkainen would go on to avenge his dismemberment, with the strength added by the bee’s attentions. A similar heroic figure, Beowulf, has a lesser association with the bee, but one I intend to exploit to the fullest. ‘Beo-‘ is a Germanic word originally the name of a small flower no doubt frequently occupied by the subject of this essay, and the eventual source for our word ‘bee,’ and of course ‘wulf’ is that for ‘wolf.’ Thus the first hero of English literature is the personification of those traits accorded Apoidea and Canis Lupus diligence, wisdom, cunning, strength, and chastity, among others.
The Egyptians were also in thrall to the powers of the humble bee, as beeswax was an important ingredient in the mummification process. Indeed, the hieroglyph of the Pharaoh of the lower kingdom was a bee - or else a badly-drawn wasp. The honey and beeswax industry was such in Egypt that bee-rafts, stocked with hives, were floated up and down the Nile, which allowed the bees aboard to gather nectar from the blossoms of the entire river valley which bloomed gradually from North to South, keeping the bees busy from spring through autumn.
It was the Egyptians, according to Herodotus, who devised the practice of burying the dead in honey, which preserved the body perfectly (bacteria are unable to survive in honey, possibly one reason why the stuff has for so long been presumed to possess those medicinal properties), until, for instance, a tomb was complete, or a corpse could be transported to its burial site. In a later age, Alexander the Great was said to have been buried in honey, perhaps so that he could be brought home to Macedonia from the reaches of his empire.
In the ancient Anatolian city of Ephesus one of Alexander’s capitals, and later famous as the site of the imprisonment of St. Paul - the economy was almost entirely based upon the production of honey, and the bee held a position of such high stature that its image appeared on the coins, opposite the city’s patron goddess, Artemis. In the surrounding countryside, Melisseus, the bee-god, was widely revered in local cults, and to some, was the most powerful of all the gods. Throughout the pagan world, wherever honey was an economic staple, the prominence of these folk religions persisted well into the Christian era. And the tradition which says that Christ’s tears turned to bees as he is raised to Heaven suggests that early Christianity itself was significantly influenced by the little fellows.
A bee was said by the Greeks to have brought a pot of honey to Mount Olympus that was so sweet that Jupiter, typically reckless with his favors, promised the bee anything she wished for. The bee asked that her sting should be lethal. Jupiter was hesitant about granting such a spiteful wish, and did so on the condition that if the bee should leave her stinger behind when she strikes, she would also die.
Zeus, of course, as an infant, was said to have been guarded by a swarm of Sacred Bees when he was hidden in the cave on Mt. Dicte or Mt. Ida, depending on which edition of the Theogony you adhere to. Anybody who has ever stood beneath a thick blooming crop of Greek oleander on a July afternoon will have no trouble recognizing how prominent the bee must have been to Greek culture. Of course, I say so on hearsay, as I’ve never been so fortunate during July. Apparently, the sound is remarkable.
As it must have been when, during the Roman civil war between the armies of Pompey and Caesar, the bee appears uncharacteristically as a bad omen, and a swarm descended upon Pompey’s altar before the battle of Pharsalia. Pompey’s forces of fifty-thousand men were thereafter defeated by Caesar’s twenty-thousand. While the bee was certainly a critical facet of the economy of the Empire as it had been in Greece, the Romans also gave to it a few instances of this negative association. The bee, as often as it appears as a protector or a sage or a good omen, also shows up as a symbol of sorcery or bad luck.
But the majority of the bee’s appearances in human history are of a benevolent nature. The Irish legend of Saint Gobnat of Ballyvourney, from the sixth century, described the chief of a clan at war who found his army inferior to his enemy’s, and prayed to the saint for her assistance. In a field adjoining the impending battle was a beehive, out of which issued a swarm, which then turned to an army of well-trained soldiers, which subsequently won the battle. Afterward, the hive was said to have turned into brass (or into a brass helmet, or bell), which is kept to this day by the O’Hierley family of County Cork.
Many centuries later, a Franciscan monastery in the south of Spain was said to have been saved from invasion by the Moors when the bees, cultivated by the monks for candle-wax, swarmed over the invading army and drove them off. The Muslims themselves were great devotees of the insect, even dedicating a chapter of the Q’uran to it. Muhammed was allegedly fed honey by Christ and the Archangel Gabriel when he arrived in Heaven, according to the Sunna; and as reported by the peculiar fourteenth-century author Kam al nil-Din ad-Amiri, the bee was the only insect which goes to heaven when it dies. The rest, unsurprisingly, are sent to hell.
The same posthumous good fortune is granted the bee by European folk traditions, and lives on today even embedded in the grammar. The French, when discussing the death of a bee, say ‘l’abeille meurt,’ and never ‘l’abeille creve.’ The difference is that for every other non-human creature, the latter is correct. Only humans and bees ‘die,’ everything else ‘perishes.’ German has the same idiosyncrasy, preferring ‘sterben’ over ‘crepiren,’ to express the death of the bee. And it is also worth noting that the French believe a bee-sting is the punishment for using bad language.
Elsewhere, bee-stings are thought to be inflicted upon the unchaste, the impure, the offensive, and the “sluttish,” according to Mr. Charles Butler’s groundbreaking 1634 apian study, The Feminine Monarchy. He also records the common conception that anyone carrying a beehive across a road should neither speak, nor look behind him; and reveals that for the best fortune in beekeeping, the first hive should be bought, the second hive should be a gift, and the third hive should be found.
Bees were also said to know the weather, and would snitch on a thief. Stolen bees, too, were believed to withhold honey, and then die. And a folk tradition exists which may be as ancient as the Egyptians, but certainly still remains in the villages of Western and Central Europe, where a hive of bees is to be told when its owner has died, or when there is any news in the family. The belief is that if they are not, the bees will make their way to heaven to find their master, leaving the family without their honey. The picture this forms of a beekeeper confiding in his charges that his wife is sick, or that his son has made the honor roll is only slightly less charming than the type of verses by which such news was conveyed:
“Little bees, our master is dead;
do not leave me in my sorrow.”
Charlemagne was a beekeeper, and wrote a fat body of laws upon their proper handling, which were not unlike those of the Hittites (which, incidentally, are almost the same as those of these United States, if one is enterprising enough to scour the tomes for America’s considerable regulations on beekeeping). And before him, the Frankish king Childeric I had himself buried with three hundred golden bees at Tournai; which tomb was uncovered early in the reign of Napoleon, who subsequently had three hundred golden bees embroidered on his imperial robes.
Aboard Mr. Columbus’ Nina, with the crew nearly mutinous, according to an account by one of the sailors present, Antonio Manetta: “...we were but a day from seizing the Ship, all weak, and ill, and hungry, when our silence was broken by a shriek, and gathering and inquiring, we found that the mate Vasco had been bitten by a bee. How unlikely, it seemed, to find such a creature upon the sea, unless it had been blown from land by the Wind, and no sooner did we conclude thus, that the watch alerted the deck of Land, thanks to God.” Sadly, this is a fabrication, but it fits well with the theme, and it is offered to the readers anyway, if they see fit to revise history to satisfy an author’s impulse.
In the Victorian era, during an age of public prudery overlying private promiscuity, a new symbolism became attached to the bee, quite contrary to its age-old association with chastity and courtly love, and here steamily illustrated by Mr. Walt Whitman:
“The hairy wild-bee that murmurs and hankers up and down, that gripes the full-grown lady-flower, curves upon her with amorous firm legs, takes his will of her, and holds himself tremulous and tight till he is satisfied...”
And the euphemism ‘the birds and the bees’ began to find it’s place in the careful conversation of high society.
On into our own era, which, sadly, lacks as many of those charming superstitions which make our ancestors such a quaint entertainment, and thus lacks the rich symbolic culture which has nurtured the bee through history. But we are not entirely without recourse consider the 1951 publication of Mr. Gerald Heard, one of the world’s first purported explanations for the new phenomenon of Unidentified Flying Objects. Mr. Heard proposed that these mysterious objects in the sky were saucer-shaped space ships from the planet Mars, surveying the Earth after being alerted by humanity’s first detonations of nuclear devices. Noting that these flying objects were usually reported to make drastic changes in direction at high speed, Mr. Heard says that due to the intense gravitational pressures exerted on these craft and their passengers, the only possible pilots of such a craft would be some sort of insect, whose exoskeleton could withstand these tremendous inertias. Mr. Heard goes on to elaborate on his hypothesis, that these secret visitors from Mars are in fact a race of two-inch long Martian super-bees, with an intelligence beyond that of any human: “A creature with eyes like brilliant cut diamonds, with a head of sapphire, a thorax of emerald, an abdomen of ruby, wings like opal, legs like topaz such a body would be worthy of his super mind. I am sure that toward it our reaction would be ‘What a diadem of living jewels!’ It is we would feel shabby and ashamed and maybe, with our clammy, putty-colored bodies, repulsive! Of course, we must allow that we should find it hard to make friends with anything that had more than two legs.” Mr. Heard does not speculate what the Martian bees’ ultimate goal might be. More troublesome, their existence can not as yet be proven; nor, however, can it be entirely discarded. Though it has been fifty years since the theory was formulated, I have never actually heard anybody take the time to refute it, and so perhaps bees have yet to have their most profound impact upon our civilization.
In any case, the proof is made: that bees have been with us since the beginning, have meant many things to us, and have little reason to change their ways. Often, when we come across one, we become irrationally nervous lest we suffer a sting. Few people are genuinely pleased to be in the presence of a bee, or two, or three. With these scraps of knowledge, though, just possibly, that has changed. In closing, one must remember that here upon our humble earth, there are many creatures, and some of them are bees; and we should hope, that some of them always shall be bees. 3W
UPDATE ON OUR ADVERSARY
Having put out a call for a worthy adversary several issues ago, these offices have yet to receive a satisfactory application. In fact, there has not even been a substantial criticism sent us in well over a month, let alone a body of contrariety that might suggest the ascendance of a capable antagonist. Our mail has turned to a collection of praise and support that convinces us the reading public is as easily swayed as a marsh full of milkweed. It is a well-worn rule that a person will tend to read whatever he is already most inclined to agree with, and it seems just this has happened with our hordes. We are persuading nobody. We are arguing only against the easily slain naysayer in the back of the agreeable reader’s mind, and not against stalwart opponents. The fact is, those who study these pages are looking not for a fight, but an ally, and we think this is as true of our pamphlet as, say, the New Republic, or Soldier of Fortune, or the Bass Fishing Almanac.
And if we had embarked on this project to build an army of indoctrinated pundits, then this would be a complaint. But our aims were not so diabolical. Rather, we have learned to content ourselves with a mailbox full of accolades and flattery, and the occasional moral victory over a telecommunications giant. We see value in preaching to our choir, if only because those eager choristers will eventually find their way out into the world, where there shall be countless innocents not so enlightened. It is the stubborn, lingering effects of intellectual labor which enthrall us, as if we were seeding not Common Sense but weedy ailanthus, a thing utterly resistant to eradication no matter the efforts of time and herbicide; a thing only less fecund than humanity itself.
These columns remain available to an eloquent disputant if one should arise, but we are not too hopeful, based on what we know about human nature, literary habits, and a contemporary shyness for good, substantial intellectual combat. The absence of such a figure shall not deter us from working to continually merit the nice things people have been saying about us in their letters; nor shall it slow us from trying to say something, anything, that is so novel and right and frank, that even our staunchest supporter is frightened into chastising us.
PREJUDICE AGAINST A PENINSULA
The Fountain of Youth being a bust, election reform floundering, the reefs laid bare to the oil conglomerates, and now the doubtful estate laws that have the children of Ted Williams bickering like old bitties, have all contributed to an unfortunate bias amongst your editors against the state of Florida. We know, in the better lobes of our minds, that such broad prejudices especially arbitrary geographic ones - are insensible, but at the same time, we have been entirely at a loss in discovering anything beneficial about the peninsular state. Therefore, we beg the readership to do some of the humane heavy-lifting that we have been doing now for fourteen issues, and remind us of something that Florida has given the world that the world is better off for other than a perpetual poor example and a mistake to learn from. We shall not accept the answer ‘oranges,’ either, because anybody who has ever tasted a Spanish, African, Californian, or South American orange, among others, knows that these are preferable for character and flavor to the relatively sour, but convenient, Florida variety.
As we have not yet given up on the entire state and its inhabitants, we await the rectification of our ill conception. For the forty-nine other states, the four of us have been able to generate at least one graceful note. Florida shall depend upon the burgeoning tolerance of our readers.
ON THE FREEZING OF A BALLPLAYER
by Alexander Swartwout
Consider that at this moment, somewhere out in the broad, teeming world you occupy, the body of Ted Williams is suspended upside-down in a steel tank of liquid nitrogen, frozen solid, thoroughly inanimate. Occasionally just such a mental exercise is necessary to shake off one’s natural self-involvement and recall how wide, eccentric, and marvelous is our realm; and how perfectly superfluous is fiction.
And once the image of the legendary ballplayer so disposed has been retained, let us open up a speculation as to why this development has enraged the same public that has sat inert for the dismantling of the public schools, the immense criminal conspiracy between the corporate sector and the government, and the escalating imminence of the third world-wide war in a century.
Immediately after Mr. Williams died, of heart failure, the newspapers and television sports-casters were seized by a week-long throe of apple-pie sentimentalism, not seen since the Rockwell retrospective. Suddenly, the modern world was a shameful approximation of the high civilization known as the nineteen-forties. Mr. Williams had been the premier four-bagger of that era, and his passing, typically, was thus interpreted as the passing of the golden age. His arrogance was eulogized as an admirable swagger; his abuse of the press was longed for by the very hacks whom he had pilloried; the secondary-status he was accorded to his contemporary DiMaggio was rued as the greatest mistake of the age, with a more solemn hindsight than the second-guessing of the atom bomb. In short, however the world had spited Mr. Williams during his life. it was regretted as if we had been hawking baubles in Solomon’s temple. Now he was gone, and the chance for redemption was lost. No matter that this was but a baseball player, unheard of outside his native country.
And then his dutiful son announced that Ted Williams was not lost, after all. As a service to posterity, the younger Mr. Williams was having his celebrated father frozen in a cryonics lab. Possibly, the future would discover the cure for heart failure, and have the wisdom to revive the dead. More practically still, the DNA of the baseballer would be preserved, so that it could be sold to desperate mourners, and deep into the marvelous future also grown into a new Ted Williams, so long as Congress has no objections. The man known as the Splendid Splinter, who was the last to hit for a .400 average, might also be the first to have two separate major league careers, with two different, genetically identical bodies. The question as to whether a cloned Ted Williams should be allowed a separate plaque in the Hall of Fame is being left alone, too morally complicated for our old-time consciences. But the decision to freeze him for such a purpose in the first place seems to be well within the public’s sphere of opinionation.
All the evidence does suggest that Mr. Williams’ wish was to be cremated, like any hero of the Swing Era, and the majority of his surviving family is aghast at the eldest’s enterprising decision. So, if there were any such thing as democracy in family politics, the freezing of Ted Williams would be a breach of propriety. But there isn’t, and the deed is done though the courts have been alerted, and are sure to keep this trifle in the limelight for months to come. We may as well get at the particulars which have so titillated the public.
Certainly, we are not a culture innocent of the grisly preservation of our favorite citizens. The fingers of saints are maintained in ornate reliquaries in every self-respecting church in Europe. Indeed, the martyrdom of any Christian holy figure was shortly followed by a rude dismantling of his body by the faithful, the pieces to be distributed across the land. Even Jesus himself whose body was allegedly entirely transported from the Earth has left behind a few bits and pieces, which are ferociously coveted. Most significantly, the Holy Foreskin has at least a dozen purported keeping-places across Europe, which begs an extension of logic: once those cloning-mills really get to work, would we want Ted Williams back to show us how to improve our chances against a curveball, or Jesus, to explain, in clear terms, just who is right about everything. And with hairs from the beard of Muhammed being carefully preserved everywhere from Istanbul to Medina, the prospect arises for a truly monumental theological debate, between perfect copies of the prophets. The freezing of Ted Williams is a small matter to anyone with any perspective.
Which only proves that the American public has none, for it has been all a-tizzy since Mr. Williams’ fate was announced. Since there is nothing new in the macabre practice of keeping pieces of the departed around, perhaps the current objection is simply the same tired old discomfort with technology. If cryonics was available when St. Peter died, don’t think he wouldn’t have been promptly shut up in a tank by the forward-thinking. The instinct is ancient, to keep the hope of resurrection alive; only the technology has changed, and technology has never been popular among people with opinions. And perhaps, the conflict is heightened by the preposterous conception of Mr. Williams as some kind of icon of a better age, come into horrifying contact with the amorality and debasement of today.
For one thing, I reject the old folks’ assertion that Mr. Williams’ day was superior to our own. Things have been grim for a very long time, and it is at least a small improvement that there are consciences such as my own to acknowledge the trouble today. And second, for its troubles, I am able to find quite a bit about this age which is admirable. As a citizen of the modern era, I am remarkably unimpressed by spaceships, electromagnetics, moving pictures, obtuse artwork, and plastic; and think that for all this, I am more well-adapted to complex situations and problem-solving than any hominid who has ever walked the planet. I believe I could have taught Mr. Williams a thing or two about the quantum, for every item he could give me about the strike zone, and for that I would far rather be me than him. So not only was Mr. Williams’ day hardly an improvement on our own, but there is nothing about our technology that any greybeard should be ashamed to come into contact with it, if it will do his taxes for him, or preserve his DNA into the indefinite future.
What is overlooked largely by just those fogies who are ignorant of the progress of science - is the futility of cryonic technology. Not a single sleeper has ever been brought back from the icebox there is not even any certainty as to how a body will react to the thawing process, which remains untested. All of this precedes the problem of resuscitating a dead heart and failing organs, and re-sparking an extinguished consciousness. Freezing a fellow is really only a crude means of preserving genetic material, ostensibly for cloning or souvenirs, and it is a lot of money to spend on a reliance on that technology, which hasn’t even been invented yet. Mr. Williams would be exactly as likely to come back to play for the Red Sox if he were sealed in a jar of honey and buried in the outfield at Fenway Park, as he is in his tank in Arizona. But it is probable that the former interment would be preferred by the populace, simply because it lacks the mechanical detachment of the latter. Both are radical, quasi-religious solutions to the very practical and relatively mundane problem of disposing of the body of an old baseballer. Only the body is left over; the baseballer is gone. To get a jump on the inevitable debate the editors feel that the second Ted Williams will in fact be a different Ted Williams, and he should be born without the benefit of any of his donor’s laurels. Though we do feel it is worth inviting him to the inevitable pick-up game with Jesus, Muhammed, and Tutankhamen, just to see if he’s got the same old sweet swing, and if he can hit the Messiah’s knuckler.
WHAT THE AUTHOR DID THAT DAY
by Henry William Brownejohns
It seems likely that the Bastille gave way more easily in 1789 than East 60th street did this past Sunday, but your dutiful correspondent breached the throng anyway, in the service of your enlightenment.
This was the seventh consecutive year that the street has been closed upon the fourteenth and turned into a veritable fête, in honor of the French national holiday; which means that New York’s expatriate celebration has lasted longer than the egalitarian utopia founded by the Revolutionaries ever did. One wonders if next year the guillotine will be carted out onto Lexington Avenue, in place of the orchestra and chanteuse, and the year after a petite dictator will claim also 59th and 61st streets for the party.
On this afternoon, anyway, there was little concern for such historicism. Arches of balloons and banners of French and American flags were strung across the street, lowering the ceiling of the Manhattan canyonway, and making the claustrophobia more festive. Street vendors lined both sides of the row, but not to hawk the grilled meats and complex carbohydrates common to American independence celebrations. Rather, chicken- or duck-livers on baguettes were being slung to the masses, with a limitless supply of Orangina and Perrier to wash them down. Custard cups were to be had, along with plates of French sausage. But the order of the day were the crêpes (or ‘creeps,’ if you listened to the folks on line for them), made to order by a phalanx of intemperate chefs.
If there was an uglier scene in the city than the mob around the crêpe-stand, I would not have wanted to witness it. Marginally Francophilic Americans swarmed around the shanty searching for the end of the line, and so two or three separate queues formed, only to clash and conflict in the vicinity of the head chef, who angrily insisted that there was a fourth line, which was the correct line and the only one whose orders he would acknowledge, and anybody who wasn’t on it was doomed to wait another twenty minutes. The chaos funneled down to a solitary young woman in a beret, who, with the most possible cheer, took orders and handed out tickets. From there, the madness only intensified, because an American with a ticket is an entitled American, and there is no less tolerant creature on two legs. Crêpe-hungry ticket-holders stood their ground even as it caused an insurmountable bottleneck, and infringed on the rights of the crêpe-hungry non-ticket-holders, and burned the fuse of the chefs’ patience dangerously low. Shouting and shoving and jostling of paper plates and even an assault with a plastic fork somehow gave way to silent satisfaction once the customer was fed. The crêpe-stand was a transformative oracle which took snack-crazed Americans and converted them into a peaceful stream of powdered sugar-covered kittens. Mine was loaded with bananas and strawberries and jam, my thinking being that the weather was just too warm for the recommended Nutella.
While I was held hostage by the insurrection around the crêpe-stand, down the street, the celebrated waiter-race was being held, in which crisply-aproned bussers carry full glasses of water on trays at an accelerated walking pace, trying not to spill a drop, and win a complimentary trip back to the mother country. The prize tickets were round-trip, though I wondered whether a waiter who saw the scene at the crêpe-shack wouldn’t rather scalp the return trip for a profit, and enjoy the simpler pleasures of Gaul. I did not see which waiter won the race, but I inspected the ground upon which it was held, and found not a drop of wetness anywhere which suggested that the race came down to haste and not quality, probably not of much interest to any French who spectated.
Indeed, the whole event did not seem to attract many authentic frogs, who, I’m given to understand, don’t actually do much celebrating for Bastille Day. Those that I was able to ask said that their holiday would be spent much like the Fourth of July is spent by the typical yankee on a rooftop somewhere, cooking hot dogs and burning phosphor sparklers. But in France, apparently, a family will do even less. They will make a point of dining together, I am told, and possibly watch the parade on television; but Bastille Day hasn’t got the resonance of a Fourth of July. Possibly because its history is less clear-cut (was it even for the best, that riot? Most of the reforms of the French Revolution had already been passed; the storming of the Bastille has been viewed by some historians as nothing but the beginning of the excesses of the Terror), but more likely because the French simply aren’t inclined to be as self-congratulatory as we. And beyond self-congratulatory, where in France will one ever find another country’s national holiday being celebrated as raucously as Bastille Day was on the Upper East Side?
Out-of-towners probably ignorant of the significance of any of the noise were hustled onstage to take cancan lessons from a tarted-up woman who seemed to be in the process of losing her Texas accent. Scouring for any possible authenticity, I accepted that France is almost the same size as Texas, and so the dancer was probably selected for this significance, and wasn’t just the first available out-of-work showgirl.
Though I was already well content with my hard-won crêpe, the same corner was occupied by a stand offering “sizzlin’ chicken on a pita” and, of course, french fries. For a moment, the thing had the smell of just that sort of cultural imperialism that the French would so proudly go to war with us over, if they didn’t so deeply and secretly sympathize with our crudity. (Nutella?) In truth, the French are too much like us to hate us any way but superficially, and we, as evidenced by this street fair, are just too distracted by a search for the next good time to notice anybody’s opinion.
The traditions of the Republic are sound, in any case. As mentioned, the crêpe-stand was a far greater riot than the french fries even approximated; and with the lush foliage of the park finally visible above the blue, white, and red bunting, an oversized inflatable brie swung into view, like a float in a gourmand’s parade. Beneath the balloon, free samples of the real thing were distributed to a horde of New Yorkers all regaling each other with their embellished tales of Paris, all unaware that they had been reduced to eating cheese from a veritable trough by the very Frenchies they were there to celebrate Fraternitie with.
The only dignified thing to do on such a day is probably to stay home, and eat one’s brie alone or with his mistress. There he could drink wine without police intervention, as any liberated continental ought to, and as none of the 60th Street Bastille Day revelers could. But it is indisputably enjoyable, at times, to be unconcerned with dignity, and this is why it is so often nice to be American. This Sunday past, we tied up three city blocks for another country’s party, and then we didn’t even invite them, while we ate all their food and sang all their songs. Bruised, tossed, and still a little hungry very authentique - I was deposited on Fifth Avenue to consider the purchase of some conveniently displayed Toulouse Lautrec postcards; and neither was I proud of what I’d been through that afternoon, nor regretful. 3W
SOME PROPOSALS FOR THE BETTERMENT OF THIS CITY AND ITS CUSTOMS
by the Editors
It should astonish no one to learn that the authors of this periodical are just the sort of people who would tell even fair Helen if there was something caught in her teeth, or that she was generally looking a little run down, if it was the truth. There is no perfection that does not experience an ebb and flow; no beauty that is not more so or less, at times; and no magnificence that is beyond our wont and right to take the measure of, and lend our advice to. If there is something truthful to be said of anyone or anything, we shall say it.
And so it is with nothing less than this fair city, which is surely preëminent among the world’s. It is our favorite, our beloved, our incomparable home. And as only such a dear companion can, it thus merits our critique, and draws out our suggestions. Thus we might improve even the greatest city yet founded, and return in small part its favors to us.
This all may seem to the wary spectator like a deft introduction to our unsolicited opinion on the current matter of the World Trade Center site, which is a popular subject of late. This is certainly no such thing. Indeed, if lower Manhattan had not previously merited the technical appellation ‘ground zero,’ it surely has now, by virtue of the kilotonnage of boosterism and bright ideas that has converged there in the past weeks. Every mouth-breather from the shore to the hills has recognized the inevitable construction in Manhattan as his opportunity to inspire humanity and leave his mark on the future and the skyline. There are two hundred million new architectural geniuses, and the monumental task of replacing the towers simply must be left to each and every one of them alone. Perhaps never before, and never again, will the ache of insignificance throb in the heart of so many, who are so sure that they could do so much. In truth, the eventual construction there will not be the masterpiece of any five-borough Bernini, but the compromise of a committee of uninspired and unexceptional small fish which organization is the most refined fruit of our culture, just as the civic-minded polymathic genius was to the Renaissance city-state.
The World Trade Center fray is one we want nothing to do with. What was there before, it must be remembered, was loved by very few, though it impressed many. Build the new thing very, very tall, and it will satisfy us we have no better expectations, no care for the sentimentality of the memorial, no worry about the practicality of the street plan, or the square footage of the office space. Make it irresponsibly large.
New York is not reliant upon that development for anything but a half-decade of downtown busywork anyway the city’s identity is well formed and its image is too consistently unfixed to await some definitive flourish by a modernist hack with an exorbitant city contract.
No, reader; our suggestions for the betterment of New York are sketches for culture and custom, not architecture. They are small ideas, comparatively, but they would have, we think, better and greater effects than whatever grade-schooler’s prize-winning design winds up looming over downtown. We are fascinated by this city because it harbors so much peculiar and complicated custom, and it is our opinion that the city would benefit not by simplification and clarity, but by complication, by the conscientious adoption of even further elaborations on our daily life. We like big buildings and their effect upon our still too-primitive psyches, but to waste our breath proposing one would be to tell dear Helen to fix her hair when she already knows it to be mussed. No, but we might have some thoughts on what to perfume it with.
FOR THE IMPROVEMENT OF TRAFFIC AND MORALE.
To suggest the elimination of cars from the streets of the city is such an obvious proposal that it is embarrassing to even go near it. And it is one the City is already passively engaged in anyway, having concocted parking regulations so byzantine that it is like to telling time on a Mayan wristwatch, and which if they don’t discourage Knickerbockers from owning a motor vehicle in town, then will at least confuse the archeologists of the future enough to make them think we have been either masochists or mathematical prodigies.
Anyway, nobody here truly believes that motor vehicles should be eliminated entirely from our streets, or that it would be an improvement if they were. Our proposal is to reduce them in size, inspired by the scooter-choked streets of the European metropolis though not to go so far as to encourage a moped revolution. Rather, New York strikes us as the perfect city to utilize the three-wheeled passenger vehicle as developed by Mr. R. Buckminster Fuller, back when the geodesic dome was the wave of architecture’s future. The three-wheeler, already in use by the police enforcing those very intricate parking regulations, would allow for the carrying of one or maybe two passengers; the hauling of necessary cargo, such as sacks of organic rhubarb and ever-more clever pre-fabricated shelving kits; and much-needed mobility during the unkind Northeastern winter, which is not an advantage enjoyed by Romans on motorini.
It is a badly kept secret that American vehicles are getting absurdly large, and without a proportional increase in road-size or fuel-efficiency. Drivers of the ubiquitous ‘light truck’ within the lanes of Manhattan deserve everything you can give them, especially considering the preciousness of real estate in town. The square footage occupied by such behemoths ought to merit these narcissists a citation and a tax just for nerve.
Now conceive of a city where these dinosaurs are swarmed about and outnumbered by nimble Gothamites in their motorized tripods. Pedestrians would be spared from certain death in the event of a mishap; the parking capacity of the city would be quadrupled; traffic would be relaxed simply because the particles in flow will be smaller (do pebbles or sand flow more freely, doubter?); and perhaps most desirably, the liveliness of the city street would be increased exponentially. Oversized cars, occupied by just one or a pair of greedy sloths, simply sit and idle in the street, making for a dull, static scene. A bustle of tiny bikes and tripods, weaving around dutiful pedestrians, would be far more reflective of the true pulse of the town, that of the thriving marketplace which this city truly is. Essentially, we sense a hardening of the arteries of Gotham, due to the gluttony of oversized motor vehicles, and we are proposing a cholesterol reduction, which will consequently enliven the corpus urbanus.
FOR THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE PUBLIC APPEARANCE.
It has to be conceded that, for a world class city, or even a second-rate one, the public sculpture in New York is atrocious, and will make the city’s eventual excavation a terrible bore. No Neptune will be dredged up, holding his trident aloft, no Sphinx will be dusted off hardly even a Lord Nelson will be uncovered. Our city has only sporadically felt the need to beautify itself with anything other than advertisements, and even during those rare phases of epicureanism, the popular taste was so dreadful that the monuments they have left are hardly worth the shadows they cast.
The Washington Square arch, for example, is one of our town’s scarce triumphal arches, though we are hardly short on triumphs. (Why not raise one in the parking lot of Yankee Stadium for each of their World Championships, and do the same at Shea, just in case?) Compared with the same sort of monument raised by Marcus Aurelius, Washington’s is a hideous, half-finished maquette. There is no adorning sculpture the sides are bare and smooth, as if the Calvinists intervened before the thing could be finished properly, and the handful of figures tucked away in its niches are doing nothing but looking blankly up Fifth Avenue where Washington never went to begin with. A proper triumphal arch ought to be gaudy with narrative reliefs (imagine double plays and home runs in marble frieze, for the Bronx), encrusted with allegorical scenes, and enshrouded by graceful tableaus in sculptural stasis. And the arch itself should be located and oriented with at least a modicum of significance, and not plopped onto the edge of a potter’s field, announcing the entrance to a neighborhood unheard of by the memorialee.
Washington’s equestrian statue in Union Square is similarly arbitrary, though it is at least complete-looking. But he lacks the benefit of a fountain to set him off against the surroundings, and the arrival to his right of Ghandi, mysteriously gazing down University Place, as if longing for a fruit smoothie or an audited poli-sci class at NYU, makes no sense, and tickles the senses not a bit. There seems to be no capacity for wider vision, for the construction of a coherently-themed square, and yet if those future archeologists give us the benefit of the doubt, they will sprain their minds trying to figure out what New Yorkers felt General Washington had in common with the Mahatma.
Returning to the matter of fountains, why doesn’t the popularity of the Bethesda, in Central Park, suggest to any civil engineer that perhaps they are a foolproof aesthetic and civic success? Our entire superior city has not got as many public sculpture fountains as some individual plazas in certain obsolete European burghs. And it is not for lack of open space; the latest zoning laws require plazas to be built in front of any building conceived above a certain height, easily exceeded by the typical office tower. But to circumvent this noble attempt at municipal inspiration and beautification, the architects have given us those notoriously hideous pavement parks seen off every midtown sidewalk, usually studded with the painted steel hiccup of some unfortunate twentieth-century Modernist, where the peons employed in the adjoining skyscrapers will not want to relax any longer than it takes for them to choke down their hot dogs and iced coffee.
And in Central Park, on the Promenade, is the offense that has most riled our opinion on the city’s public artwork. At the Southern end of that tree-lined stroll is a spot called Literary Walk, conceived by one of those overactive social clubs of the late nineteenth century. Here, the idea was to install a pantheon of literary overachievers, each seated in bronze beneath the great elms of the park, as near to an equestrian bust as any elbow-chair author deserves. The finished row could occupy the whole length of the Mall, and would stand as either a tribute to the intellectual vitality that has ultimately been responsible for the ascendance of New York, or as a deception to those archeologists again, to persuade them that we were avid readers. But as all such utopian projects, this one was left unfinished, with only three statues ever erected, plus one of Shakespeare around the corner. It does not make for much of a walk. And as salt to the wound, of the figures present, only one is an American, and he Fitz-Greene Halleck. This is what gets us. For what monuments are made, there is hardly a decent shrine to Americans of any accomplishment; Shakespeare is given a pedestal, Dante is hoisted up next to Lincoln Center, and Robert Burns gets his casting but what have these fellows ever done for old New York? Even Sir Walter Scott’s dog is represented, before this country’s cognoscenti are even acknowledged. We insist that Literary Walk be revived, and that at least Mr. Irving and Mr. Whitman get their due, as both first-class wordsmiths and home-grown prospects. Doubtless a few more worthies could be conceived of, and ideally, Literary Walk in Central Park could be made to require actual perambulation to be completely seen, and save it from being as it is now, a Literary Craning of the Neck.
Perhaps its remaining plots could even be reserved for Americans exclusively, or even New Yorkers. It would not be unprecedented for a great city to celebrate its own in bronze and marble, and it should hardly be fretted over by the politically sensitive. None but popes and saints are allowed on the colonnade at the Vatican, and the gypsies there don’t complain. It is a tried and true tradition, and for some reason, New York has been too preoccupied to give it a try on its own.
It is never too late to remedy such a collection of shortcomings. The sculptors need not be Donatellos, but they should also preferably not be Serras, for this sort of work. The monumental history of our town is so far unrecorded in stone and metal, and it would hurt nobody to let a few half-competent classicists help with the catching up, without feeling compelled to push the envelope, or anything else. In fifty years, Literary Walk, for example, could have a dozen yankee scribblers enjoying their well-earned shade, with your four editors presumably in worthy company; and perhaps even the Washington Square arch could have been made a little more deservedly overwrought, for the sake of stimulating the tired eyes of the coeds at the university, if no one else. Today, these are hardly objects anyone will worry about defacing. If they were improved as we suggest, someday they would be more readily defensible, for they would truly be monuments.
FOR THE IMPROVEMENT OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AND MORALE.
On the whole, we have long admired the city’s public transport, though only after we discovered that no other city had come up with anything near to it. To the native, such a network seems common sense, but New York is in fact an innovator. Such a success, though, has only come about because the polis is keenly tuned to failure, and adamant about correcting it.
And it has happened too often recently that one of your editors has found themselves upon a subway platform waiting interminably for a tardy train. That considered, we have postulated that the worst effect of slow public transit is not that it makes us late for appointments, but that it wears upon the frail fabric of our sanity. Other aggravated platform lingerers have been seen to kick angrily at garbage receptacles, to stare into their wristwatches until their eyes have strained, and to chew their cuticles past pain.
Clearly, trains will occasionally run late (though they do so on us with disproportionate frequency, we think), and it would require a more concerted engineer to devise a remedy for such a complicated scheduling flaw. But perhaps if we altered the customs common to the subway ridership, we might relieve some of the vexation that is more detrimental to our well-being than mere petty lateness.
As it stands, it is customary to say and do nothing when a train does at last enter the station. Many of you probably attempt to shoot a sinister glare into the conductor’s booth as he whirls past, but it is hardly satisfactory when you know he hasn’t seen you. The masses then meekly board the train, and bottle up their frustration. We have tried something else, and think it is helpful.
After an agonizing eleven minute wait for a mid-afternoon uptown train, at last the headlight appeared in the tunnel. Acting on a rare reflex, this author began to applaud, as if a featured actor had just strode onto stage. The act of applause was immensely satisfying, both because of the physicality of it the clapping of hands, the waving of arms but also because of the authentic gratitude it expressed.
Other impatient dawdlers followed my lead, and by the time the train was pulling full into the station, it was receiving a considerable round of applause. The lot of us boarded, and harbored not a shred of ulcerous ire. The applause had been contagious, and what’s more, it had entirely relieved our collective and cumulative aggravation.
Surely, to some of us, the applause was of the sarcastic sort, and duly so for the unforgivably slow train; but to many a modern soul, sarcasm is the finest form of ventilation. To others, the applause was a legitimate sign of appreciation which we felt was both granted to the hopeful riders there upon the platform, and to the train and its perplexed conductor, who had brought in his precious freight. For all concerned, the improvement in morale was immediate and lasting. The riders went about their business, entirely free of spite; and the trainman continued his day, unsure but not unhappy about the round of applause his tardy train earned at 14th Street.
So we suggest the readership give this new custom a try, and see if they are not only able to extend their supply of anti-anxiety medication, but to also perplex the out-of-towner standing beside them, who had not read in his guide book about certain peculiar, if sensible and civilized, New York customs. 3W
HEAT AND ELECTRICITY
Though we are in the third year of the third millennium, and fancy ourselves as residents of our parent’s future, it is always important to remember that these days will shortly be looked upon as antiquated, and when we tell our grandchildren about how they transpired, we will be speaking of quaint and clunky olden days, not the illusory high-tech present we now believe in. And thus it is worthwhile to memorialize those deficiencies in our contemporary society that we know must soon be outdated, if only so that the generation to come will have a record of the inconveniences we faced, and be able to gain a better view of their own age. Notably, I would like to establish a record of the unusual correspondence, in this city, in this era, between extreme heat and electricity. One must presume that such an antique mutuality must give way to a more civilized condition by the time our children’s children are sweating through the future’s July. But let it be known to posterity, that when it gets really, really hot in this city, something explodes and the lights go out. And let us try and convey some of what this peculiar circumstance entails, in a burgh of eight million, roasting beneath its midsummer’s preternatural haze and heat.
It was this author’s good fortune to be meandering about lower Manhattan this past week when the air temperature made its way through the nineties, and Consolidated Edison’s East Side power station caught fire, leaving the whole end of the isle in a pretechnological state. With the traffic lights extinguished, every street-corner was a fascinating study in civil anarchy and one which should discourage the radicals from their stance on the matter. As scarcely acknowledged as the lights may have been when they worked, without them, every intersection was instantly clogged by competing streams of traffic.
While electrical failure in the summer heat is nothing new to the metropolis, for it to happen to the chic-chic neighborhoods of lower Manhattan is quite rare. Rather than bodegas and tenements emptying out into the swelter, it was the bistros and cafés. Yet among the well-dressed crowds sipping iced cappuccinos outside by necessity, there was really hardly any complaining to be heard. The blackout was just a bit of entertainment for the bourgeoisie, and not so much a threat to a way of life as it is when it strikes the plebes uptown or in the boroughs. Sure, down below the street, the unfortunates were stranded in subway tunnels, with the conditioned air of the train cars quickly leaking out through the vents; but up above, it was a sort of sunny holiday, even as it forced thousands to risk sweating into their forty-dollar designer tee shirts.
For all the notorious uncertainty that Consolidated Edison has contributed to the simple act of switching on a light-bulb in this town, their efforts during this past heat wave were considerable. Not fifteen minutes after the outage, and there was a crew of blue helmets descending every manhole in sight; not to mention an army of jackhammers and backhoes powered by portable generators which promptly gored the surface of every street not choked with discombobulated motor vehicles. Thus the atmosphere in the streets was a chaotic and noisy one even as the sidewalks had turned into a fashionable block party. A movie crew was observed, idling, their efforts futile for prodigious noise and scant electricity. A few of them wandered over to a barbecue that had been lit up on the curb, in the hopes that neighboring restaurants might be willing to give up discounts on uncooked meat, rather than see it go to waste in a lukewarm refrigerator.
But by seven-thirty that evening, a few awning lights flickered to life, and the traffic signals were restored, though the streets had largely been evacuated by that point. Where other neighborhoods might have recognized this quick recovery as a blessing, the Village seemed a little bit dismayed. The blackout had instantly been made cozy by the denizens of that coziest district. It had become an occasion for candle-burning and midafternoon aperitif-sipping. With the lights and air-conditioners back in service, they were only reluctantly utilized, and the evening developed with a lingering feeling of incapacitation, though it was really no different from any other summer night. By the next day, the heat had returned, though the electricity stayed around to power the air conditioners, and in the late afternoon, as always in these months, a charcoal-grey thunderstorm ravaged the city, drenched it, and left it steaming and sultry. Electricity bolted down from the clouds, as easily made as anything could be, and one had to wonder when a city as progressive as ours would be able to generate a current as surely.
Elza. Anne Bonney