My Collector's Impulse and Macy's Cat in a Hat Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloon Accident in 1997
>> As an island, Manhattan's space is conspicuously finite. So it's probably no surprise that the little theater of one's life might collide at some point even headline news. But I was surprised some years back, when a scrap of metal brought this to my attention.
I collect old metallic objects, mostly architectural odds and ends. I'm not sure why though extended residence in old buildings has left me with a deep appreciation for the durability and ornamental flair of even the more utilitarian metal objects of yesteryear. So somehow the beach pails of seashells and rocks - the earliest manifestation of the collector's impulse - gave way to pieces of railing, fragments of tin entablatures, old hinges and nails. Go figure.
Fishermen lament the big one that got away. I empathize having found and lost some wonderful objects. Alas, some are too big to haul away; others too awkward for display and some, I've learned, have their own singular destiny.
A walk home one unseasonably warm February evening yielded one such - an arc of bottle green iron leaves. Approximately sixteen inches in diameter, it lay in an earthen well on Central Park West directly across the street from The Dakota near a lamppost in the same distinctive shade.
It wasn't old. I knew the post and its now shed bough had replaced the modernist aluminum cobra-head fixtures not long before, to recreate someone's idea of period ambiance for Central Park and environs. Like the post looming above, it was perfect. No scratches or chipped paint to suggest vehicular mishap or foul play. Still, it seemed that something must have shaken the decorative flora loose because by shielding my eyes from the glint of lamplight above, I could just make out a gap in the art nouveau wing scrolling between globe and post. It wasn't hard to figure the scrap at as a perfect fit for the missing section.
My companion that evening persuaded me to add the piece to my collection making the case that the item was inherently cool and a good compliment to my other holdings; moreover, it would look great on my coffee table. And that's where it came to light and where it stayed after we'd taken turns carrying it home, all fifteen pounds of it.
It was there the following November as I prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for a dozen guests - my maiden voyage in that most freighted adventure in culinary Americana. I don't remember much about the meal or the holiday. But I recall two types of stuffing, various permutations of squash and that from time to time, as I beat, trussed, whipped and mashed, radio newscasts made mention of an accident at the annual Macy's parade involving The Cat in the Hat.
The holiday passed as did the bloat of the weekend that followed and then a year. Older and evidently wiser, I accepted an invitation for the Thanksgiving elsewhere. I heard no more of the accident.
Then a follow up piece appeared in the paper, a where-are-they-now feature, recounting the slow medical progress of the hat-wearing cat's victim. I learned that a balloon representing the Dr. Seuss character had hit a lamppost which collapsed on a parade spectator and striking her head. There had been neurological damage and full recovery was not expected possibly ever. She'd been standing on Central Park West at 72nd St. directly across from The Dakota.
I thought of that night a year more than a year before when I'd claimed a chunk of a street light for my own. I was still puzzled. Just why had it fallen?
The author of the article sounded sympathetic when I called and gave me the phone number of the victim's lawyer who was seemed more irritated than sympathetic to receive a stranger's almost undeniably irrelevant call of a non-billable nature. After ten minutes of intensely dismissive cross examination - since I couldn't say if the metal was from the post that had struck the victim he could hardly see why it would be of interest to him or his client-he suddenly did an about face. Yes, I could bring the piece of metal to his office if I really wanted to. He didn't offer car fare and I didn't request it.
So I hauled it through Midtown on a particularly sweaty day, shifting the awkward load a dozen times or more before the lawyer's secretary relieved me of my burden. She pointed to the floor flanking her desk.
"Will I get it back?"
"I don't see why not. Leave your name and address."
So I did and then I left.
The calls started a couple of months later.
City agencies, legal counsel for Macy's, someone from the MTA, even a representative from the law firm retained by the victim all wanting to discuss the metal fragment I'd found on Central Park West.
I started keeping a file just to keep them and my Cat in the Hat appointments straight. There were depositions and more calls. In time, an attorney revealed that the lamppost which had struck the victim had a record of repair. It was possible that my metal fragment belonged to a perp. A final call on the matter came from a representative for the victim's attorney. He didn't sugar coat it, "Not to alarm you," he began. I was suddenly alarmed. "but you're on the witness list for the Cat in the Hat thing. We're planning to go to trial." Maybe, I told myself with a gulp, maybe they say that to all potential witnesses.
Some favor death over public speaking. I guess I don't, but I do try to avoid it when I can and the prospect of speaking in open court in what was likely to be a fairly high profile damages case, had me worried. At the very least, I wondered, what will I wear?
I shared my woe with a buddy at work, a no-nonsense type who put himself through Queens College driving a hack at night and a native New Yorker who sees it as a birthright to set others straight…for their own good. He's deeply suspicious of human nature and tends to view altruism as a kind of cult of which he has stated, "I don't believe in it." So you might rightly ask, what was I thinking?
"It's your own fault," he told me. "You should have left the metal where it was. It didn't belong to you, and you'll be lucky if you don't get arrested for boosting city property before this thing is over. And why did you have to call the lady's lawyer? This Good Samaritan stuff never works out. You should have known that."
I fretted for some days, less so, though, as the days became weeks.
Months later, I learned The Cat in the Hat Case was settled out of court settlement.
The victim would receive substantial compensation of an undisclosed amount. The City and its agencies, the Department Store and the MTA would be spared a lengthy trial and what might have been lengthier appeals. I wouldn't have to testify after all. I would also never learn what part, if any, the metal arc had played in the decision to settle, and I never got it back. When I inquired as to its return I was told a series of metallurgical tests had destroyed it.
I closed my Cat/Hat file. Still, the case lingered with me. But I didn't really notice until I found a compact but highly ornate old radiator one day sitting curbside in my neighborhood. I paused for a moment contemplating its detail and sighed. Then I moved on.
Article by Jean Jaworek. First published on 10/14/2007. Picture of lamp and Cat in the Hat balloon a composite by Karen Little. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.