Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mother’s Day at the Mall

Staten Island is shaped like a human heart, the Staten Island Mall is shaped like a Klingon warship. In the busy center, where the battle bridge would be, are an array of kiosks, many primped for Mother’s Day. They sell bonsai trees, stuffed animals, handmade Ragamuffin Dolls, custom made piggy banks, ankle bracelets, old timey signs and exotic insects preserved in glass: lustrous blue butterflies, Morpho menelaus; black and teal ones, Papilio ulysses and splotched brown moths the size of dinner plates, Attacus edwardsii. There are also stick bugs, Sipyloidea meneptolemus. “It’s a very rare one,” the Asian proprietor tells me. “Not even the entomology book has it.”

This man resembles a bowling pin and has a squeaky voice, like bowling shoes on a well-oiled alley floor. “The female can regenerate 35 times without a male,” he tells me. A strange and exciting factoid. “How much?” I ask. “$110,” he says. A bit steep for an emaciated insect. Stick bugs are expensive, says the proprietor, because bringing them through customs entails paying a large fee. The way he says it suggests he didn’t bring them through customs at all, and I imagine the squeaky-voiced Asian in the scorching Sonoran with a terrarium filled with humungous stick bugs, alongside a cadre of drug mules and body traffickers. “Also the antennae,” he says. “It’s not easy to preserve the antennae after they die.”

When Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed through the narrow passage that separates Staten Island from Brooklyn in 1524 there were three tribes of Algonquin Indians living on the island; the Tappans, the Hackensacks, the Raritans. “We found a very pleasant situation among some steep hills,” wrote Verrazano. “The inhabitants not differing much from the others, being dressed out with the feathers of birds of various colors. They came towards us with evident delight, raising loud shouts of admiration, and showing us where we could most securely land with our boat.” But a strong wind rose, and Verrazano never landed.

Eighty-five years later another European did, Henry Hudson. “The people of the country came aboard of us, seeming very glad of our coming, and brought green tobacco, and gave us of it for knives and beads,” wrote first mate Robert Juet. “They go in deer skins loose, well dressed. They have yellow copper. They desire clothes, and are very civil. They have great store of maize or Indian wheat, whereof, they make good bread. The country is full of great and tall oaks…pleasant with grass and flowers…and very sweet smells came from them.” The stage seemed set for everything to go swimmingly. It didn’t, of course. On a sunny September Sunday, Hudson’s boat was visited by a pair of canoes. A skirmish broke out, and a man named John Coleman was shot through the throat with an arrow and killed.