It’s like this, Cat

I spotted a Sunda woodpecker in the DSO parking lot today. Actually, I heard it before I saw it, it was tapping away at a branch of the big rain tree like one of those german toy birds that slowly tap their way down a wooden rod because their neck is attached to their body by a wire spring.

I didn’t know rain trees had worms. But I do know a lot of bird (kingfishers, woodpeckers, etc.) inhabit the rain trees here. Nobody really disturbs them, and there are two avid birders alone in my lab. I would like to make a trip to Pulau Ubin one early morning to see what kind of wildlife they have there.

I’ve been slowly reading through the ERP lists they gave us when we were in primary school – those kids’ books are really good, far better than a lot of adult books in my opinion, which squeeze in too many adult things to the point of flippancy. Kids’ books introduce difficult subjects to children – divorce, mothers leaving their husbands and children behind, death – of a pet, a relative, or a friend, fatal illnesses, first acknowledgments of the opposite sex as interesting – and really treat them with the delicacy they deserve. Every word written means something, and humorous moments aren’t sarcastic or posturing.

One good thing about reading these books again is the number of places they talk about that you can now identify with because you’ve actually been there. Most of these books are written by American authors (Firstly as the country with the most English speaking inhabitants after India, and a country with a strong of emphasis on education and children’s literature) so the scenes and settings you’d expect are usually small American towns, or even big cities. The most recent book I read (It’s like this, Cat) has this particular picture:

Coney Island is made to be crowded and noisy. All the billboards scream at you, as if they had to get your attention. So when the place is empty, it looks like the whole thing was a freak or an accident.

It’s sure empty today. There’s practically no one on the street in the five or six blocks from the subway station to the aquarium. But it’s not quiet. There are a few places open – merry-go-rounds and hot-dog shops – and tinny little trickles of music come out of them, but the big noise is the wind. All the signs are swinging and screeching. Rubbish cans blow over and their tops clang and bang rolling down the street. The wind makes a whistling noise all by itself.

I lean into the wind and walk up the empty street. My sweater is about as warm as a sieve. I wonder if I’m crazy to have come. No girl would get out on a boardwalk on a day like this. It must be practically a hurricane.

She’s there, though. As soon as I turn the corner to the beach, I can see one figure, with its back to the ocean, scarf and hair blowing inland toward me. I can’t see her face, but it’s Mary, all right. There isn’t another soul in sight. I wave and she hunches her shoulders up and down to semaphore, not wishing to take her hands out of her pockets.

I come up beside her on the boardwalk and turn my back to the ocean, too. I’d like to go on looking at it – it’s all black and white and thundery – but the wind blows your breath right back down into your stomach. I freeze.

The only time I’ve visited Coney Island (in the noble pursuit of a Coney Dog) was in the dead of the winter with Gareth. I was staying at his apartment in East Manhattan and one day the two of us somehow decided to take off for Coney Island. I have rarely experienced this kind of crazy spontaneity in Singapore, and nothing is really ‘crazy’ here because our weather is good all year round (and by good I mean hobos won’t freeze to death). The whole place looked kinda wan and sad – the author has got it spot on when she says that Coney Island is made to be crowded and noisy. The journey on the subway to the last stop of the D, F, N, or Q train is pretty deserted. First you have to get through Queens, which is always an eye-opener, with the black kids flagrantly breaking the rules and tramping from carriage to carriage. The nearer you get to Coney Island, the more people fall out, like one big Amazing Race. Well it was winter.

And when you’re there, there’s the theme park, completely deserted. You feel like you’re the last one left on earth. The wooden rollercoaster at a standstill. I took a few pictures – fat seagulls, a bunch of roses discarded on the beach.

It was cold, but also not really freezing like in more inland areas, on account of the cold dissipating into the sea. They all turned out tinted with blue. It felt just like a Korean drama, like the last scene in Stairway to Heaven where Kwon Sang Woo hugs his wife and she gradually falls asleep for the last time. All wintertime beaches remind me of that.

Like the narrator in the book, we quickly got out of the cold and headed for Nathan’s, which serves pretty decent Coney Dogs. And which you can find all over NYC, in JFK, and also in your Aunty Anne’s Pretzel Dogs (not in Singapore), so you can imagine how foolish we felt for going all the way there for the original Coney Island Dog. If I am not wrong you can also buy their sausages from Wegman’s.

Nonetheless, without that experience, I wouldn’t be able to be right there with the children in the book, as they met their interesting someone whom they could talk to at length that crushed all your illusions of the opposite sex being icky, childish, and violence-obsessed. I suppose that first person for me was Hongquan, but I highly doubt I’d have left a toasty house in the middle of the winter to meet him on a beach just to talk lol.

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