The Elephant and the Looking Glass
(Central Park photos by Bald Punk)
Under twilight skies, I climbed into a horse-drawn carriage, having to bow my head below the canopy, and plopped down in the rear seat. Not a second later the driver snapped the reins and gave a curt whistle. The horse snorted, sending up a fresh plume of smoke. The carriage jutted forward to the steady clop of hooves, shaking me on the bench seat.
The smell of cool mint filled my nostrils, seeming to encapsulate and hold me still—it was that strong.
I set my eyes ahead as we rolled through a frigid Central Park. The driver whose name was Felix, bobbed in a gentle rhythm on the wide seat. He wore a stove pipe hat and had a thick, woolen scarf that was flipped over his shoulder.
Next to me in the back seat was a thin veil of light. I had the feeling that if I didn’t turn in its direction, it would dissipate.
I turned to see the outline of a face. It was downcast, though the eyes jumped up to meet mine. The light in them matched that of a living being. The shape of the face would have been unremarkable, if not for the nose as the nostrils were as bulbous as the tip.
The apparition was that of circus pioneer, P.T. Barnum. His voice rang clearly in my head. Though as he spoke, my eyes began to trace what looked like a single thread spun from gold. It was stretched between Barnum and Felix.
“During my life,” Barnum said, his voice sounding like it came from a cheap radio, “I took great joy in perpetuating the merger between science, education, and entertainment. I saw to it that those disciplines were coalesced into a single, lively, high-spirited forum. My museums, theaters, and circus’ accomplished such feats and more. My varied successes were unparalleled, making me the richest entertainer who had ever lived.”
“Today, most everyone still knows your name,” I said, a little unnerved by such close proximity to a ghost. My eyes dropped to the golden thread that stretched between Barnum and Felix. It twinkled in places. When I looked back to Barnum, his eyes opened wide. It seemed he was appalled by my interest in the thread.
My knees were shaking, and I grabbed them. “You’re known as the greatest showman that ever lived!” I blurted, thinking something external seemed to be affecting me.
Emergency light flashed. Seconds later a patrol car slowly passed us on the otherwise vehicle-less street. I took in the blue and dark gray skyline of Central Park West as it rose above the treetops. I had the feeling if I didn’t turn back, Barnum couldn’t talk to me. And it seemed true, as the moment I did, he began to speak.
“There is so much more to my life,” Barnum said, his voice quiet but firm. “I changed the classification of what exactly was entertainment. Though more importantly, I changed attitudes. Many thought theaters were dens of evil. They believed them to be morally repugnant places. I changed that. And no one, young or old, rich or poor, was excluded . . .”
For the next few moments I leaned closer as Barnum’s image and voice grew faint. I think at one point I was holding my breath so as to hear his every word.
“ . . . one endeavor I was quite proud of was adapting Shakespeare’s plays into family entertainment, and in the process, made them palatable to all.
“I had my finger on the pulse of New York, and the world, for that matter. From my freak shows to the hoaxes I played, to my scientific and ghoulish exhibits—much of it was a reflection of real life traumas and calamities.
“People didn’t want to take a look at a cripple on the street, but clean him up, put him in a nice suit, give him a name, call him a human curiosity, and they would pay a nickel to leer at him, and would be honored to exchange a few words.
“Today, extreme poverty has been pushed out of view thanks to modern conveniences. In my day, it was this way and that way,” Barnum said, seeming to motion like he was pointing though I couldn’t see hands. “Just mere feet from the most ostentatious mansions on Park and 5th Avenue was a poverty so dire as to be unimaginable. In this very park, there were shanties and shacks, while in many cases, the tenement housing was worse. That is because the sole objective of a tenement was to force as many people as possible into tiniest of living spaces. The buildings themselves were death traps, overrun by rats, filled with disease, filth, and human decay.
“None had it worse than the thousands of homeless children. Their lives personified the shortcomings of Man . . .”
My arms were folded and I was shivering. I had moved to the other side of the carriage seat to hear Barnum. His ghostly visage was inches from my own, as was the edge of the bench seat.
“ . . . all while Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Morgan made riches far greater than one could imagine on Wall Street and through industry and trade.”
(Barnum’s Adolph and Rudolph – False conjoined twins)
“It was the gilded age,” I cried—more like a yelp as I twisted to follow Barnum’s movement. For a short moment, I thought he was in another dimension, pacing back and forth.
Felix turned his head and it was then I realized I was leaning down toward the seat. Barnum nodded and I moved upright to face him. The showman continued:
“The men who made the money made the rules. Corruption was at every level of society in my day. The graft defied comprehension. At the center of it all was William “Boss” Tweed who ran the Democratic Party machine called Tammany Hall. You would have thought he was the king of NYC. If he wasn’t more powerful than the president, he sure was more famous.
“There were many cartoons in my day that compared both of our career moves. I don’t know about him, but they always made me laugh.
“Everyone read the comics back then!” I cried, a frozen smile on my mug.
“Everyone, that is for certain, especially those who decried them as rubbish. They were the best kind of advertising, because they were free.
“On the streets, every day I passed the Astors and the Rothschilds, along with the little girls selling corn and their bodies.
“The girls selling corn went to your circus?” I said, stupefied, and took a deep breath. The mint aroma had become so strong, it made my eyes water.
“They all came to see the latest Barnum show! Though it took wild and new forms entertainment. But I brought them all together under the same roof. And what were my shows but a reflection of the ever-changing world.
“Some people took away new hopes and dreams, though in many cases, the dreams were ones they didn’t even know they could have. To see a Barnum show was to peer into a giant looking glass that reflected city life.”
“Was there an elephant in the looking glass?” I asked giddily.
Barnum laughed. “It was New York. There were quite a few roaming the streets!”
(Photo from Velvet-Sea.Blogspot.com – Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus in NYC.)
I blinked, realizing my body was contorted. The golden thread was around my left ankle. I felt like I was tipping over, and I couldn’t see what exactly was below me.
Best I could, as it took a small amount of effort, I stretched my right foot to the running board. “What do you want from me?” I asked.
He tightened his gaze. “I know something about your future.”
I dropped my gaze to see the thread around my ankle glittered.
Barnum stared at me and slowly began to smile. He laid what looked like four fingers over his bottom lip.”You’re going to write a fictional account of a massive NYC museum. One that encompassasses the whole city. All I ask is that you include my old museum on Ann and Broadway.”
(Barnum’s American Museum, Corner of Broadway and Ann Street, c. 1858.)
“You mean, I left it out?” I chuckled, remembering having written about such a museum in a novel I was working on. “No problem. I’ll put it in there.”
The carriage came to a halt. Next thing I knew, Felix had me by the shoulders, and guided me to a park bench.
I heard the clop of hooves again, which sounded in the same rhythm as a clock. Seconds later they were gone and the carriage disappeared. I thought I was by the Central Park Mall. And for whatever reason, I found myself looking for an elephant.
To my surprise, I realized I was all the way up on 110th Street, at the northern end the park. That was perfect because when I called my friends on my cell, they said they were just a few blocks away and would come and pick me up with our car.
Still very dazed, I found myself picturing a huge looking glass facing me. For a split second, an elephant passed right through the glass.
Here are the posts in this series: Episode Twenty-Four – December 2009/January 2010