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03.24.2005

Elephants Invade Manhattan

On Tuesday night I went out with friends to stand vigil at the mouth of the Queens-Midtown tunnel in Manhattan. There was a rumor afoot that circus elephants would be coming through at midnight, in what has become an annual event. The Ringling Brothers circus performs in Manhattan, and the only way they can get the elephants onto the island is by walking them bodily through the tunnel. In true circus style, they make a virtue of necessity and turn the elephant march into a spectacle that attracts many hundreds of spectators.

I was skeptical of this whole story, which sounded tailor-made for the gullible hayseed, but sure enough, when we arrived at midnight there was already a sizable crowd arrayed along the iron fence above the tunnel.

We stopped at that rarest of rarities, a midtown bar, to fortify ourselves with tequila, and then took up a chilly vigil high above the tunnel exit, hands on the iron bars. Every few minutes, a curious cab driver would stop to ask the dozens of people lined up along the high fence what celebrity was coming through the tunnel.

"Elephants!"

Not long after midnight, a lone police car drove out of the tunnel and parked itself leisurely by the central bridge support. More time passed, and every few minutes the tunnel would spit out another vehicle, like particles out of a weakly radioactive source. At long last, towards half past twelve, the policemen stood up straight, the people directly facing the tunnel mouth grew animated, and soon I caught my first glimpse of elephant trunk.

The elephants didn't walk out of the tunnel - they moseyed, trunks holding the tail of the elephant in front, looking utterly satisfied. I wonder what they thought of Manhattan, with all people waving and whistling through iron bars as if trapped in a giant cage. I had my suspicions - immediately after clearing the tunnel, the elephants stopped, turned to their left, and gave such a display of evacuatory power that I will not forget it to my dying day.

A poopmobile raced to the scene, and meanwhile the elephant handlers had the animals perform a few small salutes to the cheering crowd. There were ten of them in all, Indian elephants dressed up in circus garb, with a much bigger entourage of ponies and horses and other flimsy looking quadrupeds behind them. After doing a trick or two, the elephants turned, grabbed tails, and resumed their leisurely walk towards Madison Square Garden.

The elephants loped along at a relaxed, comfortable elephant pace, but to keep up with them you had to run rather quickly on your short human legs, and so the sidewalks choked up with people rushing along in a scene straight out of any New York disaster movie you've seen. The only difference was that the sedate troupe of giant animals was leading the crowd, not chasing it forward in a bloody orgy of violence. A pity.

I ran along for a few blocks and then watched the terminal elephant butt disappear into the night, with hundreds of running people in tow, followed by an improbable number of police cars, sirens flashing.

The blogger Zach Klein has some pictures of it all, if you don't believe me.

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