Thursday, March 23, 2006

Those Animals in New York

There’s a cool story this week about a coyote caught in Central Park. It seems like most non-New Yorkers are mildly surprised by stories like this, but I’m surprised they don’t happen more often. Yes, you’ll find plenty of rats, squirrels, pigeons and other birds, but New York is hardly an isolated slab of concrete. There are parks everywhere, trees on every block and plenty of woodlands surrounding, especially along major highways that lead far upstate. The bridges leading into Manhattan from the Bronx, i.e., the mainland, aren't that long.

I’ve had some strange experiences with unexpected animals – let’s leave the human variety out for now. The strangest was getting attacked by a wild turkey one Earth Day back in the mid-90s. I was riding my bike in Fort Tryon Park, on the northern tip of Manhattan, along those unpopulated trails that offer amazing views of the Hudson River. (I’d recommend doing this with other people, as bad shit occasionally happens in that park, and you’ll often come across ornery gangs of kids in those woods, maybe just getting high or away, but you never know.) I was stopped along one of those trails when I heard a rustling in the bush, that rapidly became something charging towards me, not big enough to be human. Seconds later, a wild turkey emerged on the trail and rammed itself into the front wheel of my bike before gobbling and taking off in a flash in the other direction.

For a few years, I worked for management consultants with a midtown office on the 35th floor. The office has a large bay window facing south that offers an unimpeded view of Manhattan; the Empire State Building looms just to the east. 9/11 … we all had front-row seats to the carnage, although we missed the first plane, only seeing a gaping, inexplicable hole in one of the towers, but watched the second fly in. The images I saw that day from the window, during and after, are burned in my memory. The worst was that when the buildings fell, from that point of view a few miles north, there were these hazy gray columns where the buildings once were – we literally couldn’t tell if they had fully collapsed without checking the TV in the breakroom. But we could guess from the huge mushroom clouds of smoke that went up both times.

But in happier times, I sat on the northern side of the office, with one of my bosses, L, in his corner office facing Grand Central Station. L was a strange guy, a consultant specializing in SEC issues, who was a millionaire, along with his wife, a Manhattan attorney. Every day, he’d fish my 50¢ copy of the Daily News from my garbage can – and that’s where I learned the secret of how the rich stay rich. But he was a good person, and a bird enthusiast.

Many times, I’d walk into his cluttered office and find him leaning back in his chair, gazing through a pair of binoculars. Most money men would be bird-dogging hot chicks in near-by offices. L was watching the MetLife falcons. I’m not even sure what that large skyscraper in midtown is now called. But on the very top floors, in those concrete recesses that exist on all these buildings, there was a nest of falcons. You’ll find falcons all over Manhattan. With all the pigeons, they have a steady food source, and the upper reaches of skyscrapers tend to rarely see humans, save for occasional building personnel and window washers.

L loved to watched the falcons swooping in circles around the building, dive bombing prey in mid-air or coming to land on their concrete perches. There was a period of a week or two where he had us all hooked on watching a baby falcon learn how to fly. The small bird would walk to the ledge, flap its wings furiously for a few minutes, then back away. We never got to see that inevitable moment where it jumped from the ledge and took wing – but it was always a nice break from office drudgery to take a few moments with the binoculars and watch the falcons. Albeit not as fun as catching the occasional topless sunbathers on rooftop decks of luxury apartment buildings just to the south.

The most personal animal story I have concerns raccoons. Namely, a family of them that had taken up residence in what must have been a hole above the rain spout in my neighbor’s house in the Bronx (where I lived for close to a decade). My neighbor was a cab driver who looked like Bo Diddley – not a bad guy, kept to himself, and if you're familiar with the Bronx, you know how rare that is.

One night while sitting at my desk by the window facing his house, I heard something heavy thump twice against my window. This being the Bronx, I half expected to open the blinds and find some hollow-eyed crackhead clawing at my second-story window. But instead, I saw a very large raccoon, hanging upside-down by its hind legs from the neighbor’s rain spout, looking straight at me, separated by the window glass, but no more than a foot away. We stared at each other for a few minutes as he swung slightly back-and-forth. He barked at me in that strange, clipped tones raccoons have. I’d seen raccoons before in the Bronx – there are plenty of large parks in the Bronx, and they can live easily on garbage.

Stranger still, I heard higher-pitched barking sounds, looked up and saw three little raccoon heads poking out of the hole in my neighbor’s house. A family of raccoons. At this point, I figured, what the hell, I’ve seen it all, and this upside-down raccoon is probably the mother and getting ready to square off with me. So I shut the blinds. But it became a nightly occurrence to see them, with the mother first emerging, her claws clacking across the roof of my neighbor’s porch, then shimmying down the drainpipe to the ground, followed by her three scampering babies.

My landlord, a retired park worker who lived on the first floor, saw this, too, and he advised Bo Diddley to call the SPCA and have them removed – for sanitary issues and simply because the Bronx was bound to kill these animals. None of us had an urge to live out a Disney fantasy and befriend them. They weren’t going to start talking to us, or save us from drowning in the Harlem River (or some other such shit Lassie or Gentle Ben would do weekly on TV). But Bo didn’t seem to mind or care.

Sure enough, they started dying of unnatural causes. My morning run would take me along the street behind the house, Bailey Avenue, which was an unpopulated hill lined with small wooded areas on each side. A perfect place for bad people to be naughty. Empty crack vials and broken beer bottles glittered along the sidewalks. Every so often, a stolen car, semi-stripped, would turn up there, sometimes on fire; if not, civic-minded citizens would pick away at the car as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey in the fridge, leavings just a wheel-less chasis in a few days. I was always catching prostitutes screwing johns in their cars in the early-morning hours. One by one over the course of the next two weeks, I saw the baby raccoons on Baily Avenue, flattened by cars. The mother raccoon eventually fled, hopefully to whatever strange place raccoons find solace in the city. But it wasn’t so much sadness I felt as the inevitability of things, which is to say most of the times when you see the potential for something bad to happen, something bad will happen.

So I’m glad some cop dropped that fox with a tranquilizer dart and got him the hell out of Central Park, before some Indian cabbie doing 65 on that cross-park expressway turned him into roadkill. Point being, if you’re not a bird, you can’t fly away from this shit, and the city may very well get you in the end. Then again, I learned something valuable while helping my brother tear out our old sidewalk back home in Pennsylvania last summer to put in a new one. And that is once you take a pick to concrete, you don't have to go very far, maybe a foot or two, before you reach soil, and often soil crawling with life: ants, worms and maggots. That's something to keep in mind while walking around the concrete jungle; the real one isn't buried far beneath.

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