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
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.
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.
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