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Friday, March 19, 2004
By Paul Ford
The elephants on their way through the tunnel.
The potential elephants excited my gathered friends, who cheered in anticipation as they stared into the empty tunnel, awaiting trunks. Soon the elephants would emerge from Queens, take a right down 34th, and head to Madison Square Garden.
I was glad to be there, but didn't fully empathize with the enthusiasm. I've lost my excitement in simple things, like elephants marching past the Empire State Building. Concerned by this, I tried to figure out the source, and I realized: I've been on a major New Yorker kick lately, and I've begun to see the city through the eyes of “The Talk of the Town.” I didn't experience the elephants; I experienced TotT observing the elephants; I've taken on the detachment of E.B. White and his editorial progeny as my own, coming up just short of hallucinating tiny accompanying ink sketches.
The circus is in town, so the other night the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey elephants came into Manhattan through the Queens Midtown Tunnel. Their march continues a tradition that goes back to the days of Fiorella LaGuardia, who once led the midnight parade wearing a silk hat and wielding a silver-tipped cane. A group of 300 or so enthusiasts huddled in the snow at the tunnel's exit, observed by a small team of sighing police assigned to “the zoo watch.”
It was patrolman David Crain's fifth year on elephant duty. He sat inside one of the NYPD's golf-cart-sized cars, as other officers kept the crowd on the sidewalk. “It's a long night,” he said. “The elephants are always late.” But his concern is for a human stampede: “Most of the job is in keeping people off the street when the elephants arrive. You get them wanting to touch the elephants, running right up to their feet.” He demurred as a clown in sweatpants offered him a rubber nose.
The Ringling Bros. elephants are the most famous in the world, and the most scrutinized. Far from the circus, in Hartford, Connecticut, Jacob Grames, the head of the ASCPA's large animal division, explained his reasons for boycotting that night's parade. “Where to start? Eight of the Ringling elephants have tuberculosis, but still will be marched through the snow. They pull the nursing calves from their mothers. They train them with bullhooks.”
Regardless, the crowd gave a great cheer as the first pachyderm, handler astride, emerged from the tunnel, naked save for some promotional headgear. It was followed by seven others, each trunk wrapped neatly around the tail before, an arrangement that kept order but ruled out the possibility of trumpeting.
The police geared up their carts, and a half-dozen or so clowns piled into a large, decorated bus (gone are the days of tiny cars) and turned onto 34th St. Then the elephants, unphased by flashbulbs, snow, and lusty accolades from the throng, trudged past in barely a minute, followed, inevitably, by a whirring, electric-broomed street sweeper.
(All fabricated, save that the elephants are trained with bullhooks and removed from their mothers, and do have tuberculosis.)