Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Churning in Icy Water

Seventy-five years ago today, on February 10th, 1935, from the New York Times came a terrifying tale:
Yes, it was an actual, original sighting of an alligator in a New York sewer... as well as the origin of that long-contested urban legend, that because New York City is so big and so crazy... there are goddamn ALLIGATORS living in the sewers.

It started like this, placidly enough, in snow:
The youthful residents of East 123d Street, near the murky Harlem River, were having a rather grand time at dusk yesterday shoveling the last of the recent snow into a gaping manhole.
Salvatore Condulucci, 16 years old, of 419 East 123d Street, was assigned to the rim. His comrades would heap blackened slush near him, and he, carefully observing the sewer's capacity, would give the last fine flick to each mound.
Suddenly, Condulucci, who is very much alive aged 92, brought the slush-shoveling to a halt with a shout. Something was moving down in the manhole... something dark, thrashing. Peering in, he could see -- the headline writer nails it thus -- an alligator, "churning in icy water."

Condulucci and pals decided to drag the alligator to the surface with a clothes line, where it returned their mercies by snapping angrily at them, though the Times also noted, "weakly." So using their snow shovels they beat it to death! What were they expecting? Handshakes and tickets to a game?

Later, they carried the dead croc to a hardware store. It weighed 125 lbs and measured seven and a half to eight feet. The neighborhood lads eventually went home to bed, to dream, perhaps, of a great city, big and crazy enough that alligators lived in the sewers.

The story almost ends there, except that the police came, and confirmed that a real alligator, deceased, had been pulled out of the sewer by the group of boys. Then:
At about 9 P. M., when tired mothers had succeeded in getting most of their alligator-conscious youngsters to bed, a Department of Sanitation truck rumbled up to the store and made off with the prize. Its destination was Barren Island and an incinerator...
... and immortality.

As to how the alligator got to East 123rd Street, the neighborhood thinking went like this: there's the East River nearby, so therefore, a steamer "from the mysterious Everglades" must have cruised past the end of East 123rd Street, and the alligator jumped off into the freezing water. It swam up the sewer, where, half dead, it met the Condulucci consiglieri. And got whacked.

The Times story has the tone of one written by a reporter who had arrived after that truck had already left for Barren Island and the incinerator. One wonders if indeed the whole thing might have been a hoax, because of all the alligator-anywhere-near-a-sewer stories (there were quite a few in the 1930s), this is the only one that puts the alligator inside the city limits -- the others are upstate or Long Island.And also this one is almost too richly detailed compared to other reported alligator sightings. And so we are left wondering.

If it's strange wild animals in Manhattan you seek, there are plenty of places I could direct you to where you might wonder, "are those people or animals?" Or there's always Morningside Heights.