Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Day Under the Blue Whale


Beneath a cerulean ceiling in the Hall of Ocean Life hangs a replica of a blue whale the size of 24 African elephants.

Born just blocks from the American Museum of Natural History, I dreamt of a career digging bones or probing galaxies. As a summer intern, I roamed the empty halls after-hours. Without people, I realized, the museum is incomplete. One Saturday in November, I sit under the blue whale and observe.

11 a.m. The museum is mobbed with kids, slicked up for the day, hair clipped and carroty. In front of a video screen is a father in trail shoes, cradling a child. The purse of a pregnant woman is wide-open, inside is a crescent moon. A woman with cucumbers sits on the floor and unfolds a map. A girl runs by with pigtails going “ooochooowww” and a youth in flannel walks aimlessly, examining his world.

“Imagine a fish that long,” says a father in a gold necklace to a daughter in baby blue. “And what they eat are tiny, tiny.” They leaf through a lunch cooler. Another daughter joins, wearing a pink beret. She takes an apple from the cooler and crunches.

“Krill dad, sardines,” says the blue daughter, “millions and millions of them.”

With an underbelly grooved and speckled, more sleek than bulky, the blue whale is like a Buddha on its side. The ceiling is arched like a great train stations’ and cobalt shapes drift across, creating the illusion you are beneath waves. From monitors, sea birds squawk, whales bellow and bubbles grumble to the surface. A large screen on the lower floor plays an endlessly looping video: turtles swim through a sunlit column of water, wave’s pound a beach, jelly fish swarm beneath a glacier. The light in the room is grainy, like the light before dozing.

At the edge of the hall, scenes of the sea: dolphins glide against a pink sky stenciled with long-winged birds, elephant seals cavort in icy waters, seals nose-kiss on blanched rocks, corals reach jaggedly for the sun. On the wall is a monstrous crab with legs the size of human limbs.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” shouts a security guard from the floor above, “if you left strollers on the balcony you need to get your stroller.”

A girl with cow pants poses, her father has bright shoes.

“I gain, gain, gain gain gain people,” says a girl crawling over the floor like a crab.

“Wow, can you imagine how big,” says a dad in a morning coat. His daughter stretches out on the ground and looks up at the whale. “It probably died from all those barnacles,” she says.

Two babies crawl toward each other and nuzzle noses. One has thick dark hair, like a Native American.

A Chinese man in black sits silently.

“Look up,” says a mother to her daughter. “Isn’t that amazing, that’s the largest mammal.” The daughter lies down and begins paddling.

Many mothers are my age, which seems fantastic, because I am my age. I lie beneath the whale and drift.

“Excuse me, sir.”

A guard is standing over me. No sleeping on the floor beneath the whale, he says. Many are, and he wakes us all.

On the video, bright blue soldier crabs crisscross the beach, making clunky dragging noises. People photograph walruses, flashes reflecting red off the glass. A child spies on me from between his father’s legs. Kid’s feet smack the wood floor and pitter patter on the carpet. Three kids chase one another in circles across the floor. One has pink boots, electric white hair and is humming, “Doo-dah-dah, that I would be somebody...” Soon, she’s screaming for her mother.

“This room is excellent on a sweltering New York summer day,” says one father.

“It won’t fall down,” says a mother to a boy with a glowing red light around his neck, like E.T.’s heart.

“Daddy, look, a dance floor,” says a girl in a hand-knit vest with wild hair. She twirls, tracing an inexact pattern across the floor. Her father, in an Oxford shirt and combed hair, is calm.

A man with new Nikes eyes me cautiously. A girl in gold joins him and they go through photos on a digital camera. They laugh and speak a language I can’t understand.

A father with a flannel shirt wrapped around his head lies on the floor and places a baby on his stomach. He has olive skin and is very handsome. The child has blonde curls. The father says something in Spanish and points to his nose, then the whale.



Lunchtime. Snacks in plastic bags, one girl fingers Doritos, another, with a silver belt, eats something like a cream puff, a middle-aged woman snacks on Oreos. There are about three dozen people on the floor. Beside me is a black woman with big breasts, a wall of hair and a cross around her neck. She feeds a pair of boys with dark glossy hair pieces of bagel then doles out cream cheese and peels a citrus fruit. “Finish it,” she says to the smaller child, after handing him a juice. “You’re gonna be the one that’s thirsty and crying.”

“I’m gonna call the police,” she later exclaims. “You see this man, you see, he is watching.”

A girl with a plastic backpack nervously takes pictures. A blonde with a purse like a pillow twirls a camera. She is joined by two women with identical haircuts, one busty, one thin. They all lie on the floor and nap.

“Do you want to see the furry animals,” says one mother. “What, you want to watch TV?”

Students gather. One takes a close-up picture of a classmate’s face. “That’s the brightest thing in the world,” he says.

“It’s the worst death possible,” says another student. “Dark, deep trenches of the ocean suffocate and you die, blood in all your organs.”

“My name is Forrest, I’m going to be hanging out with you for the year,” says a white man in a beret, to the students. “I’d like you to write two poems, eight lines each. Poetry is about observation. It’s about recording what’s coming at you, it’s an art form, just like your sketches. I want you to paint pictures with words. Don’t tell me there’s a whale hanging from the ceiling, show me. Maybe it’s not, in your imagination. Look at the people, look at the children, spend the next 15 minutes writing this, give them to J.J., and I’ll see you next week.” Forrest walks away, I notice he has a cane.

A boy spills a bag of shiny toys onto the floor and arranges them in a line, then a circle. His sister fingers a fuzzy yellow toy cat and wraps a pink sweatshirt around her mouth like a gag. An Asian woman with delicate features nurses a baby and a group of men play cards. “You’re not supposed to look at all your cards,” says one player. “That’s cheating.”

This is the navigation room on an inverse spaceship. Crew and passengers have been ousted and space and star have come aboard to run a ship coursing through an infinite peoplefield. The secret of the museum is the secret of the city, that you are both the scenery and the ship. Explorations are boundless, need only the fuel. And what is fuel? That which can’t be described: the child’s rambunct, the urge to twirl, anonymous attraction, impulse, fright, the grand and spontaneous escape from our torment.

On the video are blue fish and black ones with yellow eyes like bright foam balls. A boy runs by with blinking shoes. A man with wispy hair and thick brows rests his cap on a sleeping child. A boy that has spilled toys across the floor wrestles his sister. She lies across his belly. Their father ends a cell phone conversation.

“Alright,” he says. “We’re going to see the dinosaurs.”

41 comments:

Kathryn and Caitlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathryn and Caitlin said...

We seem to have the same name, although we must admit that you had it first. We just wanted to stop by and say hello to our fellow absurd adventurer.

http://www.absurdadventurers.blogspot.com

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