Pale Male and Lifepartner

After a decade in New York City, I saw my first undomesticated roadkill yesterday. That is, unless it was a pet raccoon. I tried to take a picture of it as I passed it and nearly caused a pileup on the BQE, so just take my word for it.

I spent the entire traffic jam from the Kent/Wythe exit to downtown Brooklyn wondering where a raccoon could hide out in Brooklyn. Did it flop in McGolrick Park, chainsmoking brown cigarettes, drinking Spirytus by day with the clochards? Did someone throw it out of the back of a van rolled up in a carpet, mafia-style? The raccoon equivalent of Jon Voight in Midnight sick of the Catskill woods and moved to the Big City only to have his plan unravel?

One morning commute last fall I counted 16 expired deer along highway 41 in Wisconsin. Most of them were painted with large fluorescent “X’s” meaning they were tagged for pickup by the DOT. Imagine: there’s so much road kill, the state of Wisconsin has dedicated a bureaucracy to its removal. I brought up my road kill observations in class and it turned out a good fourth of my students were chomping at the bit that very moment to go hunting. They mentioned that the number of dead deer on the highway wasn’t a sign of deer depletion but proof of their overabundance; a problem they would shortly take on with rifles as their fellow SUV footsoldiers fought them on a second front with fenders.

The episode forced me to recall a Red -tailed Hawk that became a cause célèbre when it took up residence on Central Park West a few years ago. There was even a PBS special about “Pale Male,” as he was called, in which local Upper West Siders were interviewed about their relationship with him. One resident glorified Pale as a sublime natural wonder; another regretted its habit of eating pigeons in front of children too young to process life’s cruel lessons. Most spoke about it as if they were taking cues from Hakuna Matata in the Lion King, as if The Upper West was a natural ecosystem only with Grey’s Papayas instead of watering holes. After showing my class a clip from the show, their overwhelming response was, “Why are they treating it like a unicorn?!”

Apparently Red-tailed hawks are everywhere in Northern Wisconsin. No one would bat an eyelash if one swooped down and took a muskrat right in front of them. Someone suggested that if a Bald Eagle swooped down for a housecat it might be worth a double take. I said if a Bald Eagle came to Central Park they’d suspend alternate side parking for the week and change the colors on the Empire State Building for a day or two.

I recounted traveling to the Aldrich museum with two art collectors and a dealer a few years back. Along the way we saw some Canada Geese congregating off the road. One of the collectors excitedly referred to them “wildlife.” At the time the remark smacked as the kind of gross generalization that would start wars if said about a subgroup of humans. When I told the kids about the story, they guffawed and asked why rats don’t get the same reverence.

It was a good question. I said geese have a better PR firm, and you don’t see them dragging slices of pizza down the street backwards.

Later in class, I was going through slides I had taken at New York art galleries. One of my more observant students noted the vogue for forest dwelling creatures, antlers and rural rustica. That’s why I love teaching: naïve eyes are often the most objective. Eureka! When you live in an environment paved in asphalt and skyscapers block the sun, it skews one’s perception of what might be considered threatened wilderness.

I went on to note some of the dozens of artists I know who are engaged in mini-crusades to stem development along the New York waterfront or to expand green space in the city. This is usually in the form of portentous post-apocalyptic paintings or photos of unusual trash in the East River. All of it was anathema to my students, many of whom actually tend livestock in addition to going to school. Whatever the actual state of environmental degradation in the world today, it is safe to say that in Central Wisconsin there’s a justifiably lesser compulsion to announce the falling of the sky.

I told the students that I occasionally see a Red-tailed Hawk in my local park, too, but Greenpoint Brooklyn isn’t as glamorous as Central Park and doesn’t fetch the same press. I did mention that they film movies in McGolrick Park all time and it makes parking a bitch because they line the street with Haddad movie star trailers that take up ten parking spaces each.

“Movie Star trailers!!!! Wow, do they really have those? Do you ever see real celebrities just walking around?”

“Well if a Bruce Willis swooped down and grabbed a falafel from a halal food cart, it might be worth a double take.”