Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tales from the Otter Side

Every year I used to take a trip to New Jersey from Florida to visit friends. The last time I trekked up there was in September of 2002, just before the first anniversary of the worst thing that ever happened to America, at least during my lifetime. I had mentioned to my best friend, Stewart Bacheler, that if we had the chance, it would be nice to go into the city. Sure, he responded. He and his wife, An, lived in Toms River then, but they moved to southwest Florida a few years ago. They were the friends I always stayed with. Well, Frank, too. I've almost known him as long as Stew and that's been forty-some years now. I've written about some of my comical experiences with the illustrious and almost famous Frank Foran here.

After making some of the usual rounds spending time with friends and visiting old haunts, Stewart, An and I decided to go to New York City for the day.

"Will we be able to go near the World Trade Center?" I asked him.

"Sure. I've been by it many times." I had no idea it was business as usual down there near Ground Zero, well, as best as could be expected, anyway. But then again, this was New York, the most vibrant city in the world. America has always had a can-do spirit and New York City did it's best to put that spirit and drive into high gear. Not only did we drive right by that hollow, sacred ground, we were able to park nearby and walk right up to the chain link fence and peer into it. Construction crews were rebuilding the subway to link back up to the south side, down to the Battery. A lot of people were milling about. No one seemed happy. We all stole glances down into that giant void, thinking about what once stood there. Some guy was reeling out names of the slain. Tall and noble buildings that once flowed with activity lay dead. A giant American flag draped across one of them that was shrouded in black to hide the destruction. We spent a good deal of time down there. It was two days before the anniversary and satellite dishes were set up across the street, on the west side, to broadcast the solemn ceremony that was to take place. I have always been a very spiritual person, yet I felt nothing from the souls lost there. Nothing.

After paying our respects inside the sanctuary at Trinity Church and walking down Wall Street, we had seen enough. I will never forget that place. I had been inside the WTC years earlier. Once, on the roof. What a sight to behold. The second time, it was too windy and the roof was off limits, so we could only go as high as the building would allow. When I peered out at the other tower, I could faintly see the sway between that one and the twin I was standing in. What power they exuded. The whole city does and it's always been an inspiration to me. There's no place like New York.

We drove up to mid-town Manhattan and decided to window shop on Park Avenue and some of the surrounding streets. We needed to do something more upbeat after seeing what was left of the World Trade Center. We visited FAO Schwarz, where Stewart had worked earlier in his career. The year was 1988 and I remember calling my girlfriend. She and I had just seen the movie, Big, and weeks later, there I was. I had to call her. Did I get to stand on the floor piano? Yes, but it wasn't the same one used in the movie. Oh, Joy, she was so excited. I think the store still had a floor piano on my last visit, but I'm sure it was an updated model. After a while, shopping got a little old, so we settled on a visit to the Central Park Zoo. Why not? If I had ever been there before, I didn't remember it.

Central Park and the zoo are far contrasts to the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. You look up at the trees and magnificent buildings stand behind them as a reminder of where you are. Yet, man and the wild live together in a balance of harmony with nature. Here you stand, side by side with penguins and polar bears. Exotic birds. Seals and walruses and their trainers entertain crowds of children and their parents. Out in the park, people of all ages frolic in the open fields. Others sit on park benches as joggers and inline skaters race by.

We meandered over to the otter pool. One of the otters was swimming back and forth. He'd swim on his belly and push himself off the far side bank. Then he'd swim upside down to the other bank with his belly up in the air. Round and round, over and over. There were kids and moms standing to the right of us. This was where the friendly little otter swam, putting on a show in front of these children who were, quite obviously, thoroughly delighted. What a ham he was, too, and what a good time he was having.

Otter at the Central Park Zoo
Otter at the Central Park Zoo

"I'll bet I can get that otter to swim to us," I declared. I don't even know why I said that.

"Oh yeah? I don't think so," said Stew. Now, that was a challenge.

"Yes. I think I can."

"OK. Do it... We're waiting..."

I had to think fast. All of a sudden, I blurted it out. "UNGAWA!" and just like that, that little animal changed directions and swam straight at me, to the amazement of Stewart, An, the children and their mothers. "UNGAWA, UNGAWA," I said. He kept swimming back and forth to me.

"I don't know, Dave." An and Stew shook their puzzled heads. The mothers and children just looked at me. They would remember me as that guy who took the otter away. I stole their happiness in a New York second. OK, time to move on. We wandered around a while longer. About 15 or 20 minutes later, we heard the crowd of children screaming, "UNGAWA, UNGAWA... UNGAWA, UNGAWA, UNGAWA!" as they walked down a nearby path.

"Oh, great, Dave. Look what you started," Stew lamented, as if to throw a guilt trip on me.

"Yeah, I can hear them all the way home to New Jersey or Connecticut. Those parents are not going to be happy with me. UNGAWA!" We laughed.

We stopped by the gift shop and I bought a Central Park Zoo coffee mug for my mother. When we left, we went to Tao for dinner and to relax. After all, we had done quite a bit of walking that day. Tao is a very popular pan Asian restaurant. One of the appetizers was Kobi beef, sliced very thin, for $12 an ounce. We each decided to try it. When it arrived - there were about 4 or 5 slices for each of us - Stewart and An began dipping the meat in the accompanying sauces.

"Hey, Dave, how come you're not dipping your meat?"

"Hey, Stew, for $12 an ounce, I want to taste the meat, not some sauce." They stopped dipping. I will say, it was delicious, but had the kitchen run out of Kobi and given us Black Angus instead, I wouldn't have known the difference. Tao was a very nice experience. The food, service and ambiance were worth the price. I highly recommend it, although I guarantee the menu prices have gone up since we ate there.

Now, it was time to go home. It was a long day and darkness had fallen hours earlier. As we approached the Lincoln Tunnel, I fumbled around for my coffee mug.

"Oh no, Stewart! I left the mug at the restaurant. No way is it going to still be there."

"Hey, I'll turn around. No problem. Better now, while we're still in the city."

A good half hour had elapsed since we left, only to return. I ran inside, darted up the stairs and went to the first server I saw. "Excuse me, I left my Central Park Zoo coffee mug on our table." No way was I going to get it back.

"Oh, that's you? Yes, we saved it, hoping you would return." I couldn't believe it. "Your server and everyone around you said what nice people you were. Come with me." There it was, still in its bag. I thanked them profusely.

I don't get it. Some folks don't like New York. They say people there aren't all that friendly. Huh? For the most part, almost everyone has been nice to me, but I guess I was always used to seeing the other side of the city; the fun, positive side. Even from the otters.

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