at New York Botanical Garden’s annual Holiday Train Show.
A smart novelist named Christopher Moore said, Children see magic because they look for it. Yes, especially on Christmas Eve. Today. If you want to conjure up A Visit From Saint Nicholas, by another writer named Moore, Clement Clark Moore, go to the New-York Historical Society (so genuine a place they kept the hyphen). They have both his desk and the original manuscript.
Here at NYBG you’ll have to make do with a perfect replica. All the New York icons are here. A Macy’s behemoth.
A diminutive Bethesda Fountain, the original installed in 1873, presented here in a small jewel of a Central Park.
Everything is hand crafted of natural materials: pine bark, black cherry, eucalyptus stems, grapevine, acorn caps, magnolia leaves and many more.
The trains range from the traditional locomotive to the cutesy ladybug.
Childish wonder prevails. Most people are rapt.
Some not so much.
I hear a father counseling a bored pre-teen daughter: Just take it in. Another grinch opines in a loud whisper: Is there an adults-only time slot? True, there are many puffy coats jostling up against each other in front of the more popular displays, and lots of fidgety kiddos. But most visitors are delighted to be out of the deep freeze and crowded in to the steamy Enid A. Haupt Observatory, marveling and posing.
I think I love the most the way some structures glow from within.
And of course finding my old favorites here. The New York Public Library, complete with its lions, Patience and Fortitude.
Because it is New York, where we tend to color outside the lines, locations outside the city limits can also be found here at the train show. Like Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s snuggery in Tarrytown, complete with a perfect little wisteria vine.
The George Washington Bridge, of course, but also, nestled beneath it, the Little Red Lighthouse.
Always something new. I notice a rendition of the Freedom Tower, as if the Freedom Tower was constructed of glass. What natural material was used to create this effect? Dragonfly spittle?
If you can drag your eyes away from the trains you’ll find some equally amazing plant life. Goeppertia insignis hails from Brazil. Ripe green smell of the rain forest.
A wonderful program started in 1992 in New York City. Called Poetry in Motion, it features brief poems by famous and not-so-famous writers posted in metropolitan subway cars. Poet Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate whose work manages to straddle both critical acclaim and popular appeal, has said, I’m a great believer in poetry out of the classroom, in public places, on subways, trains, on cocktail napkins. I’d rather have my poems on the subway than around the seminar table at an MFA program. One of his poems, Grand Central, features a building here miniaturized.
The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe
and turns around the golden clock
at the still point of this place.
Lift up your eyes from the moving hive
and you will see time circling
under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.
At the train show, Grand Central is a standout. I kinda wish there was a tree stump large as this one framing the real magilla. That would be cool.
There are no subway cars here. I ask a Botanical Garden staffer to explain. The “MTA cars wouldn’t have the proper gauge to fit on the tracks,” he articulates before wishing me a Merry Christmas.
I don’t know why, if in this universe they can perfectly capture a vanished Coney Island, it’s not possible to produce a subway car with poetry in it.
Charles Simic also has contributed to Poetry in Motion.
Every morning I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.
Then I remember my shoes,
How I have to put them on,
How bending over to tie them up
I will look into the earth.
The art of the train show manages to be both mundane and sublime. Zora Neale Hurston wrote, Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. So do these small, intricate, perfect displays. What would New York be without its water towers? Look closely, they are here throughout.
By the way, if the holiday season finds you in need of poetic sustenance, you can make a toll-free call courtesy of the Poetry Society of America and hear the work of Pablo Neruda read aloud by Billy Collins. The number is (212) 202-5606. You can do it while standing in the cold at the New York Botanical Garden or in the steamy enclave where the Garden has perfectly reproduced itself.
Or just gaze in backlit windows of these sublimely silent tableaux.
You might relate to the following, The Moment, by Marie Howe, also from a subway car posting:
Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment
maybe half a moment
the rush of traffic stops.
The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be
slows to silence,
the white cotton curtains hanging still.
Bye the bye, my New Year’s resolution for this as every year is to eliminate the word should from my vocabulary. Life becomes more magical. It’s tough to do, but I think worthwhile. You should do it too.