Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Carriage Horses in Central Park

I would walk by those horse-drawn carriages as I frequented the Wollman ice-skating rink in Central Park as a child while my father played chess. They stood on 59th Street, across the street from the Plaza Hotel, lined up in a queue. I would also see them as I walked past the Pierre on 5th, the hotel where my school held fund-raisers. Walking through the park after school, I would often see those carriages chauffeuring a couple holding hands or a laughing group that was out on the town.

A city girl, I knew nothing else of horses other than what I observed about those lingering near Central Park. To me, those horse-drawn carriages with their coachmen in top hats and tails seemed romantic. I imagined them a part of the old idyllic pre-Soviet world my expatriate mother told me stories about, clattering over the cobblestones of city streets as she went shopping or taking her over the river and through the woods to and from boarding school. An avid reader, I imagined those carriages were much like the ones heroines of the 19th century European novels traveled in, on their way to experience adventure and intrigue. And I remember watching a Fred Astaire movie, where those carriages provided a romantic presence, particularly in a scene where their doors fly open and the singer dances in the park.

So, when I was a debutante at an expatriate East European ball, there was nothing I could have imagined I would enjoy more than to take a festive ride in a horse-drawn carriage though the park, with a tuxedoed escort and me in my long white silky gown.

Years later, my preteen daughter, in the city for a summer ballet program, took a carriage ride through the park with her classmates. For her, the carriages carried no memories, such as they did for me. The ride was simply a novelty, a fairy tale come true, a memorable treat among the many Central Park had to offer. She was still young enough to delight in riding the carousel at the children’s zoo, to climb the Alice in Wonderland statue, then to wander over to the boathouse and embark on a perilous adventure, losing the oars in the park’s lake. I still have a photo of her and her classmates, posing in the drivers' seat of the carriage, its dapper young driver in a tophat standing in front, and all of them mugging for the camera.

But now, after we returned to live in the city, it seems to me that Cinderella’s coach has turned into a pumpkin, the horses into mice. And those coachmen seem -- not majestic guides to an enchanted evening --- or even drivers offering up a memorable treat -- but ordinary fellows in worn coats, determined to take their carriages out for a turn in order to make a buck.

Could it be that the city has changed in my absence, or is it me? The Cinderella story, I always thought of as metaphor for growing up, for viewing life no longer with youthful flights of fancy, but as it is.

When I see the horses nowadays about the city, they seem incongruous, out of place. A ride in a horse-drawn carriage though the park in the springtime is one thing, but to see those horses standing near the curb in inclement weather or being driven through the rain, sleet and snow is another. And to see them on the very city streets, sharing the asphalt with traffic and the dodging cabs is yet another.

What a shock it is hearing again and again that yet another of those carriage horses had bolted and died in the streets. For me, at least, such incidents serve to epitomize the convergence of modern technology and these olden carriages, the clash of the contemporary city and what some call the “charming” and “quaint” reminders of 'Old New York.'

Yes, what some call “charming” and “quaint” reminders of "Old New York" do hark back to bygone and more tranquil days in the city when the animals were a form of transport, as the many bricked-over stable entrances in the city’s oldest buildings, particularly on the East Side, attest to. The clickety-click of their hooves echo back to the New York of Henry James and Edith Wharton. But the city has long since changed. To residents such as this one, their so-called “charm” has become tired, even cruel.

I chanced to walk by those horses on 59th Street on a cold and rainy Saturday. The daylight was already turning into an early dusk. The carriages looked shabby, not at all like the purveyors of privilege they seemed in my youth. A huge sign mounted on the carriages advertised their rates. Their drivers, calling out to tourists, seemed much like any other vendors hawking their wares in the city.

There were not many takers. The horses simply stood there, gentle, patiently waiting, docile, easily led. The carriage drivers, wearing dingy weather-proofed clothing over their overcoats, waited and waited for business. Theirs was a somewhat futile endeavor, given the darkness and the weather.

I took the occasion to linger and observe. Indeed, some of the animals seemed tired, haggard, like workhorses. I saw one of them take one step forward in line, following the lead of the carriage directly in front, only to be met with a threatening gesture from his driver. Not unlike a dog that has learned to cower, the horse immediately stepped back, with nary a neigh nor a whimper. I looked away.

Yet other animals seemed coddled. They were covered with blankets in the cold wet weather, treated more like trusty friends. One was fed from a store of carrots in a sack, was gently spoken to by name.

As I watched one or two of the vehicles finally take off with a rare customer in tow amid the rainy chill, I marveled at those stoic animals with blinders on, patiently plodding with that rhythmic clickety-click in their step, pulling their load. To me, they seemed a sad symbol of forbearance in a modern world somehow gone awry

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