Sunday, August 9, 2009

Filing Cabinet: Jungle for Sale: Pythons & the World Trade Center

I keep certain vague fragments of information in my head a long time—like this one, from childhood, about escaped monkeys running wild through the streets and buildings that were later demolished to make way for the World Trade Center.

That memory came from Jungle for Sale: America’s Leading Wild-Animal Dealer Tells His Story, a book of reminiscences produced by trader Henry Trefflich with the help of Edward Anthony.

My recollection was roughly accurate, as I learned when I rediscovered the battered old book while cleaning things out upstate.

My father had thrown my old books into boxes and tossed them into the barn, where, as you can see if you look at the mouse-eaten right edge of the book in the picture, they had some encounters with wild animals on their own.

I loved this book at the time. I might have a different reaction today—opening to the foreword, I felt dismay.

Trefflich, who died in 1970, begins with statistics. Between 1928 and about 1967 he had imported 1.25 million small monkeys, mostly rhesus, for a gross of about $25 million. He'd also sold more than 4000 big snakes, 4000 elephants, tigers, and other large animals, and several million birds. The jungle, it seems, was literally sold off.

Trefflich operated a large animal shop, which sounds like a quasi-zoo, on Fulton Street. According to his Wikipedia entry, he supplied monkeys for the space progam and to Jonas Salk for his work in developing the polio vaccine, and the chimpanzee Fred J. Muggs to the Today show. He also imported America's first Basenjiis.

In one of the book’s big yarns, he talks about how a handful of rhesus monkeys got loose from their cages and then sprung their captive comrades. In all, a hundred monkeys went off to wreak havoc in the neighborhood.

Forty were captured in a grocery store. Five more slid down the poles at Engine Company No. 10. A handful swung from the chandeliers during choir practice at the Trinity Church mission house. One swiped a whiskey from a longshoreman in a bar. The last holdout stayed on the run for three months, paying occasional visits to the neighborhood barber shop (52).

Wikipedia quotes an article that hints that Trefflich released the monkeys for a stunt.

Another yarn involves a visit from a gangster named Frankie, who persuades Trefflich to rent him an eight-foot python. Not long after a python slides in through a window in the middle of a downtown craps game—the players flee, leaving $42,000 on the table (135).

As it turned out, the World Trade Center passage I’d remembered also involved pythons. I’m not sure when I bought the book—its publication date is 1967, though I think I got it used—but quite likely it was around the time the World Trade Center was going up.

The second tower was completed in 1971, when I was 11, and undoubtedly I watched it rise. I must have been mesmerized by the thought of giant snakes under the sidewalks. That’s probably why this mischievous commentary stuck with me for all these years.

In 1950 I moved from the building at 215 Fulton Street, which I occupied on a rental basis, to one I bought at 228 Fulton Street. Both buildings are in the area—a sizable one that will involve the relocation of over 30,000 people—that has been condemned by the City of New York to make way for the much-discussed World Trade Center. …

When I moved from 215 to 228 Fulton Street, nine pythons escaped. Two were recaptured. The other seven, ranging in size from seven to thirteen feet, simply disappeared.

In discussing the disappearance of these snakes in a radio interview, I pointed out various possibilities. The reptiles could be dead or alive, depending on the conditions they encountered in their chosen hideouts. Anyone familiar with that part of lower Manhattan and the way the buildings are set in the ground knows that there is plenty of room under the sidewalks. That area would make an excellent field of operations for a group of pythons on the loose. There is sufficient water and an abundance of food.

Before the demolition crews start tearing down the buildings on my block, I plan to give the proper city authorities another reminder that some of my pythons could still be loose under the sidewalks. It is quite possible that some of them will be found. And of course they will have grown considerably in fifteen years. (66)

1 comment:

Joan said...

It is rough to revisit the favorites of one's bookworm youth. I was crazy about James Clavell, and I'm sorry to say I got interested in true crime early, picking Helter Skelter off a summer-cabin bookshelf. The finger-snapping 70s-tough-guy reporting would probably grate my nerves to the marrow today. (Geez, even my use of the phrase "finger-snapping" refers to a classic passage from The Crying of Lot 49, when I was on a teenage Pynchon kick that probably also hasn't aged well.)

Anyway, you of all people should be listened to about subterranean things, having written that great City Hall African cemetery article...