A Bridge For Sale, the Train
Savant & the Island’s Sheep
Self-confidence is the New York currency. That’s why stories about the city and its citizens are borderline hyperbolical, lest no one be accused of being meek. No wonder; with 27,000 people per square mile, one needs all the distinction they can muster. Even if involves tall tales.
At least eight million of them, paraphrasing the 1948 classic Naked City. Then as now, all are outstanding. Heard the one about selling the Brooklyn Bridge? Or the guy who went to prison for stealing the subway dozens of times? But fear not, the sheep are safely back to town.
Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. Top of the heap. New Yorkers are fed up with slogans, sobriquets, and movies about their home being destroyed. Specially since it’s now far from the lawless wasteland some still expect from it. Just don’t try to sell cat hair, of course.
But urban myths about sewer alligators, or rats the size of cats, die hard. And so does the belief that residents are rude – they’re not, ok? gotta a problem with that? – or getting rich just by mining the streets. The thing is, real New York stories are much better than these.
So, yes, you hear this place is the greatest of this and greatest of that, and self aggrandizing is a competitive sport. But you’d better back up what you say or you’ll get your behind kicked before you can say, trump. As for that orange sleazyball, don’t worry: we’re working on it.
ONE BRIDGE IN GOOD CONDITION
Speaking of con men, and dealers who can’t close a deal, there’s a New Yorker who truly may’ve been the greatest of them all, or at least, one of the first of a long line of pretenders and liars: George C. Parker. Yes, he did “sell” the Brooklyn Bridge at the turn of the 19th century.
Not once, but twice a week, for 30 years. He was not the only one to try, but seemed to have beaten the competition. His scheme even inspired the Mae West‘s 1937 vehicle, Every Day’s a Holiday. By then, no fraudsters of that ilk were still alive, only their legacy.
Its present-day version may be the infamous Nigerian Prince Internet scam. But Wall Street has perfected it into an industry. The set up and the bill of goods may vary but some things are never missed: snake oil salesmanship and the gullibility of get-rich-quick believers.
THE SAD TALE OF THE TRAIN MAN
Darius McCollum may be many things: impersonator, trespasser, lawbreaker. He also has Asperger’s syndrome, and his feats flared up New Yorkers’ imagination – hey, his train was always on time. But one place he does’t belong to: Rikers Island.
And yet, he’s spent half of his 56 years in prisons like that. His deed: invading the subway system and conducting the train, without working for MTA. Or missing a stop. He did that many times since he was 15, and also tried his able hands on LIRR trains and a Greyhound bus.
Many believed he should’ve gotten the job that’d have saved him. Instead, every one seems to want to lock him up either in a mental institution or in prison, as the agency with a spotty record running NYC underground trains would prefer. As with most (more)
people, Darius’ fate is uncertain. He dared to dream but his dream jumped the rails, screeching. He crafted a skill he never had a change to put into a good use. But now there’s a documentary on him.
Darius’ tragic figure brings to mind Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s “Dodes’ka-den,” an allegory about a boy obsessed with his invisible tram and the vivid imagination of his father, both utterly destitute.
WHEN THE SHEEP COME TO ROOST
New York is about tall buildings, yellow taxis, and arguably, pizza. It’s also about sheep grazing peacefully in an old churchyard. Come again? For four years, the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral had “imported” the munchers to trim its lawn the natural (and cheapest) way.
The ewes who’d spend weeks “lamb-scaping” before being taken back to an upstate farm, have now been hired to trim the grass of Governor’s Island. The sight of them grazing is indeed soothing. It beats facial masks clogging the drain or police barriers ready to corral the hell out of everybody. Besides, they’re highly petable too.
The bridge, the savant, and the sheep. Not exactly only-in-New-York material, but still a pleasant study in contrasts, the kind this city never lacks. In the 1948 gritty Jules Dassin movie, that also inspired a long-running TV series, the famous line comes at the end. Now, those stories would be almost nine million; these are only three of them.
(*) Originally published on Aug. 31, 2017.