Sunday, December 1, 2019

438. Rats, Coyotes, Voodoo in New York

           RATS,  COYOTES,  VOODOO                            IN  NEW  YORK

The Sunday Times is so huge that you couldn’t read the whole thing in a week.  Certain sections I ignore completely: Sports, Styles, Real Estate, and anything for kids.  Business gets a glance, Travel and the Arts a longer glance, and Books, Metropolitan, Sunday Review, and the newsy first section are looked at with interest.  The Metropolitan section of Sunday, November 24, of this year hooked me with two articles.

         The lead article, “Listen: It’s the City’s Call of the Wild,” tells of the city’s amazing wildlife.  I had covered this in my post #271, “Wild New York,” on December 11, 2016, which mentioned ravens, crows, osprey, the monarch butterfly, honey bees, and the raccoons of Central Park.  But much has happened since then.  For cities don’t eliminate wildlife; they develop a wildlife of their own. 

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A raccoon.  But don't pet them; they don't like it.
Above all, keep those claws away from your eyes.

        One bit of New York wildlife that persists, and that commuters often see on the subway tracks while waiting for a train, is rats.  So prevalent is Rattus norvegicus that I once devoted an entire post, #219 (February 14, 2016), to the creature, who can be up to 16 inches in length, with a tail just as long.  No denizen of the wilderness, he lives where people live, especially in cities, where he feeds on food scraps that we blithely toss away, or deposit in garbage cans that lack a lid.  Our parks often have signs warning that they have been treated with rat poison, but the pest still persists.  Mayors denounce them, and the city appropriates vast sums to eradicate them, and the clever creature still thrives.  Almost legendary was a video of “Pizza Rat,” showing a rat tumbling down some subway steps while dragging along a whole slice of pizza – proof that he’s one tough customer, not easily deterred.  A real New Yorker.

Not Pizza Rat, but a cousin. Notice the handlike claws.
Reg McKenna

        So what does the Times article tell us?  Tell us and show us, I should say, since it involves photos as well as text.  The article sums up its message succinctly:  “Scavengers scavenge, predators predate, decomposers decompose.”  In one photo a raccoon on a park bench seems to be trying to drink from a Coca-Cola can.  But the biggest news item for me was that a coyote was spotted recently in Central Park.  I knew that the Eastern coyote, which people often mistake for a dog, was making a comeback, and at last report it had reached the outer boroughs, especially the Bronx, where it was seen sniffing and poking about garbage cans in alleyways.  But now Wiley Coyote has reached Central Park, in the very heart of Manhattan.  

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A coyote in the wild.
Manfred Werner

Other creatures to be seen in, or off the shore of, various sites in the five boroughs: white-tailed deer, diamondback terrapins (a turtle), a painted bunting (rare), beetles, bats, dolphins, even whales.  To which I would add many species of migrating birds, and any number of wildflowers, including some so small, sprouting from cracks in sidewalks, that you can see only if you squat down on the pavement and look closely, which few of us are inclined to do.  Yes, the supposed urban wasteland is teeming with wildlife.

         The other article that hooked me revels not in life but in death.  “At the Festival of the Dead,” its caption informs us, ‘Voodoo Is Part of Us.’ ”  Yes, Haitian voodoo is alive and well in New York.  The article tells how in a dark club in downtown Brooklyn a woman sips Haitian rum while standing near an altar stacked with skulls, candles, cigars, rum, and bowls of (for most New Yorkers) exotic foods.  Her face is painted to look hollow like a skull, and she wear s a dark veil and  dark skeleton bodysuit.  She is the embodiment of Maman Brigitte, a Haitian goddess of death, and with a hundred people around her is celebrating Fet Gede, the Haitian Festival of the Dead, when Haitians dress up in costumes, revel, dance, and drink, in honor of their gods and goddesses, and also the ancestors, those who came before them.  It is akin to Mexico’s Day of the dead, and a distant cousin of our own Halloween, whose spooks are a feeble imitation of those the Mexicans and Haitians believe in. 

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A voodoo celebration in Haiti, 1976.
Fritz Rudolf Loewa

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File:Haitian vodou altar to Petwo, Rada, and Gede spirits; November 5, 2010..jpg
A Haitian voodoo altar during a festival for the spirits, 2010.
Calvin Hennick, for WBUR Boston

File:Haitian Vodou fetish statue devil with twelve eyes.jpg
A Haitian voodoo fetish:
a devil with twelve eyes.

Thom Quine

         Today many Haitians – not to mention most outsiders – don’t understand Fet Gede, and voodoo in general.  They think it’s all about black magic, pin dolls, and demonic prayers, whereas its believers insist that voodoo is part of who they are, the food they eat, the language they speak.  At the festival believers dance to rhythmic drumming, spray themselves with perfume, smoke cigars, scream, and make offerings to the spirits, foremost among whom is Baron Samedi, the god of death, who is also the husband of Madame Brigitte.  Far from dour and austere, the Baron and his consort welcome drinking, the erotic, even the obscene.  Some participants in the fete paint their faces white, with darkened eyes, nose, and mouth, and succeed in looking downright spooky.  To this outsider, the whole affair looks like a festival of joy and life, facing down and eclipsing – or almost eclipsing – the reality of suffering and death. 

         Just across the page from the article on voodoo is a photograph of a beaming older white woman --  decidedly not Haitian – in a dark dress adorned with a triple string of pearls.  Everything about her says health and joy.  The photo is an ad announcing the opening of 305 West End Assisted Living, “a new beginning on the Upper West Side.”  It announces itself as “the platinum standard in senior care,” and promises “expertise in the latest research-based programming for Alzeimer’s and dementia care,” delivered with grace and compassion by "a truly masterful team."  Unmentioned, of course, is the cost of such a facility, which must be astronomical.  Clearly, such ads are aimed at the privileged and the rich.  And the photo says WASP, of which group I am a member, though the West End facility is not in my plans.

         Given the brutal reality of our vulnerabilities, Haitian voodoo offers revelry that turns death into a festival.  We Americans, on the other hand, with allusions to dementia but not death, offer a luxury of services to the privileged few.  Voodoo vs. capitalism: take your choice.  And if you reject this blunt opposition as a simplification of a complex problem, what do you propose instead?  Politicians and clergy profess to help, but in the end it’s up to each of us, individually, to make our choice.

Source note:  This post was inspired by two articles in the Metropolitan Section of the New York Times of Sunday, November 24, 2019: "Listen: It's the City's Call of the Wild," by Dave Taft; and "At the Festival of the Dead, 'Voodoo Is Part of Us,' '' by Gina Cherelus.

Coming soon:  As usual, no idea.

©   Clifford Browder  2019

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