Sunday, March 10, 2019

399. The Magic of Trash: Finders Keepers, Ptolemy, and Voodoo


My latest:

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him For more about this and my other books, go here.  

Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books.  Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC."  For the whole review, click on US Review.

                   The Magic of Trash:
    Finders Keepers, Ptolemy, and Voodoo

         The streets and sidewalks of New York have tales to tell. One never knows what one may find there.  I don’t mean the big stuff like discarded furniture, but little stuff dropped by accident or thrown away as trash.  The Metropolitan section of the Times of February 24 of this year has an Album page with photos and  text by Sara Barrett.  Under the caption “Lost and Found” she lists lost items she has found on the pavements of the city, with photos that she began taking of them, framed as the items were by crosswalk stripes, cracked asphalt, and black dots of sidewalk gum.  The photos show a key, gloves, a small bag spilling out yellow sticks of French fries, a little toy truck, and one or two items that I can’t make out.  Each dropped item has a story, though one will never know it.   

         To round out her piece, Barrett adds an anecdote told her by a friend. One Thanksgiving the friend saw a man carrying out of Whole Foods a large tray with what looked like a family dinner: turkey, stuffing, cranberry dressing, mashed potatoes, cornbread, pie, the works.  Alas, he stumbled and it all went on the ground.  Food everywhere – what a photo it would have made!

         I too have my stories about dropped or lost items on pavement.  I’ll start with one that grieves me to this day.  I had done a freelance editing job for Johnson Reprint, an affiliate of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  By way of extra thanks, the in-house editor wrapped up for me a replica of Ptolemy’s map of the world, a 2nd century BCE map based on the geographer Claudius Ptolemy's Geography (circa 150 BCE).  Used for centuries thereafter, the map was featured in the text I had edited, which was to appear in a limited edition, a costly collector's item accompanied by the replica.  I was thrilled to have the replica and planned to mount it on the wall of my apartment.  As I walked through midtown to the subway, I stopped to rearrange the several items I was burdened with, and in so doing left the Ptolemy map behind.  Only when I got home did I discover its loss, too late to retrieve it: gone!  Whoever found it found a rare item, and must have wondered how and why it had been left on a midtown street.  I hope they found a good use for it.

File:Ptolemy World Map.jpg
Ptolemy's map of the world, as reproduced in a European monastery in 1467.  Accurate for Europe and North Africa, 
hazy for the Far East.

         In that case I was the loser, but I have often been the finder.  In or next to an overflowing trash can on West 4thStreet in the Village I once found a law student’s class notes, now discarded perhaps in celebration of getting his degree and moving on.  The notes meant nothing to me, but they were bound in binders that I could indeed use, so I tossed the notes and trotted off with the binders.

         A few years ago, on the day following the annual Gay Pride Parade in June, I found a discarded little rainbow flag attached to a splintered stick.  I grabbed it, repaired the splintered stick with tape, and display the flag annually every June.

File:Rainbow - DC Gay Pride Parade 2012 (7171189629).jpg
Tim Evanson

         Once a lost item delivered itself to me.  One windy afternoon I saw a large black umbrella come flying through the air.  It drifted up, then down, and finally bounced and skittered along over the pavement.  I quickly grabbed it, and discovered it was missing its U-shaped handle, but was otherwise intact and usable.  I waited for a few minutes, expecting to see its owner, holding the handle, come dashing after it, but no one appeared.  Finders keepers.  So I took my trouvaille home, and it served me well for years.

         For decades I have been the guy who finds pens, especially push-point pens.  I have found them on sidewalks in the city, in parks, along highways, and even on wilderness trails.  Half of them worked, half didn’t.  Thanks to those that did, I’ve rarely needed to buy new pens.

         Another item I keep an eye out for on the streets is feathers; I need them for my hats, especially my Aussie outback hats, of which only one now survives.   When new, these hats have a smart look with one brim pinned back to the crown; adding a feather gives them a nice jaunty touch.  Back in my hiking days I found bright yellow flicker feathers, probably the result of a hawk’s kill.  But those days and hikes are over, so I have to settle for pigeon feathers, which are only dull gray or a mix of white and gray.  How I yearn for color!

File:Feather on Grass.jpg
A pigeon's feather.  Not much color here.
Prosthetic Head

File:Yellow feather.jpg
Flicker feathers.  See why I prefer them to pigeon feathers?

         Another find: a panel of blonde wood, about 9 by 16 inches, that was leaning against a trash can on Seventh Avenue.  On an impulse I picked it up, admired its finish, and discovered why it had been discarded: a thin crack.  But the crack blended in nicely with the grain and was hardly noticeable, so I took it.  Today it sits in my downtown-facing bedroom window, with a Christmas cactus on it, though I hope to move the cactus elsewhere, so I can admire the panel itself.  I love woody things.

         The oddest find I ever had was not on the street but inside.  Going up the monumental stairs inside the front entrance of the public library building at Fifth Avenue and 42ndStreet, I found there on the steps what looked like a pair of men’s briefs.  Dumbfounded, I paused and looked again.  Yes, men’s briefs.  Why and how they got there, I will never know.  I went on up the stairs, wondering, and wonder to this day.

         If I included parks and gardens, I could add two items that litter such spaces throughout the country: orange peels and used condoms.  Such deposits cause foreign visitors to assume that Americans make lots of love and eat an inordinate amount of oranges.  But to these two items I would add a third: plastic spoons.  

File:Orange peels-02.jpg
Everywhere.  As for the other, you know what they look like.

And whenever, in the past, I hiked a trail that for a little while went alongside a highway, as I once did in Pelham Bay Park, the ground along that highway was littered with items thrown from cars: plastic cups and spoons, cigarette butts, empty matchbooks, crumpled tissues, newspapers and magazines, broken combs – whatever.  Motorists blithely toss things out the window and think they’ve disposed of them, which for themselves they have; but their trash hasn’t disappeared, it’s there for someone else to pick up – or not pick up.  Let’s face it, Americans are pigs.  We think a yard or garden is an ashtray, and a park a trash dump.  And we could do so much better.

File:"Viewing" Site for Visitors at Portland Airport - And the View They Leave behind Them 05-1973 (4272364454).jpg
Portland Airport
U.S. National Archives

File:Missione del Guaricano-discarica di Duquesa.jpg
It's bad in the U.S., but it could be worse.
This is in the Dominican Republic.

         And that’s not all.  Hiking on a trail on Staten Island, just past Moses’ Folly – the looming, unfinished overpasses of a Robert Moses throughway that Staten Islanders succeeded in stopping – I used to go down a steep descent to a streambed, and then up again to another stretch of canceled highway.  At the bottom, near the stream, loomed four or five strange shapes combining rusty metal, glass, and verdant overgrowth: abandoned automobiles that people had dumped there and left, and which nature had slowly covered with growth.  Well hidden, these relics at least were not eyesores; in fact, they had a certain weird beauty, a touch of surrealism.

File:1942 Chevrolet Army Truck (15381347214).jpg
GPS 56

         Getting back to the city’s streets and sidewalks, I will note that some items are strictly seasonal.  In winter, gloves., usually just one.  In spring, the shed white petals of the Callery pear tree (Pyrus calleryana), an import from China now planted as a shade tree.  The second most common shade tree in the city, every April it explodes into masses of white blossoms.  Everyone sees the blossoms, but apart from a few botanists, I’m the only one who knows the name of the tree, a source of great petty delight to me every spring.  But it’s best not to sniff the blossoms, since they smell of rotting fish and semen.   Whew!  And who or what is “Callery”?  No idea.

File:Callery pear pyrus calleryana tree blossoms.jpg
Lovely to look at; don't sniff.

         In summer, tiny wildflowers poke up through cracks in the sidewalks.  Not lost or dropped items, to be sure, but since I’m the only one to notice them and even seek them out, I include them anyway, so I can enjoy another great petty delight.  

         Similarly, in the fall the bright golden yellow of seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervorens) pokes out on the sides of numerous Hudson River piers, whose renovated parklike surfaces rest upon the rotten wood of the original piers. Cracks and crevices in those old piers hold the tiny pockets of soil that nourish the plants.  Looking down from the railing lining the edge of the piers, I rarely fail to see the goldenrod’s clublike spikes of flowers and thick, fleshy green leaves – the last goldenrod of the season to bloom.

File:Solidago sempervirens L. (ASTERACEAE), Flor de Cubres.jpg

                  Every autumn, along the streets of the West Village, one sees the fan-shaped, bifurcated leaves of the gingko tree (Gingko biloba) turn yellow and fall to the ground.

File:Ginkgo biloba 010.JPG
Being unique in shape, the leaves are easy to recognize.
H. Zell
Another import from China and the only surviving species of its family (it dates back some 270 million years), it does well in urban environments and is planted widely as a shade tree.  In the fall it litters the ground with its nutlike seeds, but few passersby even notice, unless they squash one on the pavement.  

File:Ginkgo biloba seeds-002.jpg
Gingko fruit.  But to get at the seeds is work; 
you have to crack the nut open.

But in Pelham Bay Park I have seen older Chinese women plucking the fruit up from the grass.  Why?  Because the seeds are used in traditional Chinese cooking, and in Chinese medicine as well – a medicinal use that Wikipedia insists is not justified by controlled studies.  Also, extracts from the leaves are sold as dietary supplements beneficial for cognitive function, but here too Wikipedia finds no supporting scientific evidence.  Wikipedia, it should be noted, is notoriously hostile to alternative medicine, and should not be taken as the final word in such matters.  The controversial nutritionist Gary Null endorses such uses of gingko, and rails against the prejudices of Wikipedia.  Personally, if I were afflicted with memory loss and lack of attention, I’d give gingko a try, preferably under the guidance of an experienced professional.  The seeds have also been used as aphrodisiacs, but then, what hasn’t? (Examples: chili peppers, avocado, bananas, chocolate, honey, watermelon, olive oil, figs, artichoke, cherries, pumpkin seeds, carrots, and oh yes, that much vaunted myth of my teen years, Spanish fly.)

         The weirdest of my finds occurred years ago in Van Cortlandt Park, when in an open area I came upon a burnt site sprinkled with chicken feathers.  A burnt site by itself is not unusual, for families often picnic in the parks.  But why the feathers?  Then it hit me: voodoo.  I know little about voodoo, but it is practiced here among the Haitians.  Farfetched, you say?  So I thought, at first, but upon reflection I was sure. There was something about that site that suggested it, something weird.  Voodoo ceremonies often involve fire and the sacrifice of animals -- in this case, chickens.  So back then voodoo was being practiced in Van Cortlandt Park, and may still be practiced there today.

.File:Voodoo Experience 2009 (31 of 37).jpg
Voodoo celebration in New Orleans, 2009.  
But nothing like this, surely, in Van Cortlandt Park.
Joe Van

Coming soon:  ???

©  2019  Clifford Browder   

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