Destination, Unknown

Marc Friedlander

Destination Unknown


           There is a Starbucks on Cross Bay Blvd in Queens, at the northwest end of a narrow inlet from Jamaica Bay. Outside by the parking lot there are benches and you can sit and rest there, sip your coffee, gaze at the water, and just dream your dreams.  The homes across, on the east side, are nice ones – as homes built on waterfronts often are.  The Starbucks side of the inlet has mostly restaurants and some business, a few boat yards, and not many homes. 

            It is as nice and as peaceful a spot as a place in a busy city could ever be.  There are boats coming and going, and others tied up.  There are pilings in the water, piers and buoys, and all the sights, sounds, and smells of a quiet marina - including all the various seabirds that live and rest there.  You might miss them completely, if you are too taken up in your human life, with all its complexities and pressures, and all your responsibilities and obligations worrying you.  But if you allow yourself to free your mind, relax and take it all in, the experience can be uplifting.

            On Wednesdays I have a gig nearby, where I play guitar in a Spanish restaurant.  I like to get a cup of coffee and a snack at the Starbucks and pass some time while I wait for the gig to start.  Robin and I, by tradition, go to this spot on the eve of every Yom Kippur, to cast our sins (represented by bran cereal) into the water, and make peace with ourselves and our God.  We like to watch the small fish snap up our sins.  It is a cleansing experience.

            If you look around, you can see that there are all kinds of different species of birds that congregate there.  I can’t identify them all, but I can tell them apart and I get the feeling that they have a sort of community there, totally apart from our human society.  They live in their own little world there.  There are seagulls, of course, flying helter-skelter, calling out to each other.  There are cormorants, there are swans, there are ducks and geese, and there are pigeons that somehow always insert themselves into any avian congregation.  I sometimes imagine that the different birds are characters with names and voices that go along with their attitudes, habits, and appearance.  The black cormorant, perched alone on his piling, I call Mike.  The other birds give him a wide berth - maybe he has a bad attitude.  The seagulls play this game of displacing one another from the pilings.  One comes into land, and the one currently occupying the piling takes off, and moves to another piling, displacing yet another bird, who then swings around and bumps the first one off, ad infinitum.  I have seen this scenario – and variations of it – play out countless times.  I can’t help but think that the birds are all aware of each other.  They know what to expect from each other, and know how to respect each other’s boundaries.   They rarely seem to have altercations.  They each exist in their own space, doing their own thing, sharing their community without apparent strife.  There is a lot we could learn from them, and a lot we already have, as you will see.

            I was there last evening at about 6:00, and it was beautiful and clear.  As I sipped my coffee, I stood by the inlet and observed the local avian residents going about their business.    I noticed that there were 5 large Canadian geese on the far side of the inlet from me, calmly bobbing in the water.  There was a pretty stiff breeze blowing in from the south – the direction of the ocean.  The geese had caught my interest and I was watching them closely, a few hundred yards away. 

            At some invisible signal, they all took to the air at the same moment.  Now that REALLY caught my attention.  At first – right after they lifted off - they were just a foot or so off the surface of the water – and they were headed across the inlet in my direction - but after traveling a short distance they suddenly turned due south, directly into the wind, parallel now with – and directly over – the long narrow part of the inlet, flapping flapping flapping like crazy, moving pretty fast, and slowly gaining altitude.

            I wondered where they were off to.  I realized how hard they had to be working and was impressed at the effort it was clearly taking.  They flew south, down the inlet and toward the ocean, getting smaller and smaller, gaining height little by little, and always flapping hard.  None of the other birds ventured into their flight path – they all just know what to do. These geese are pretty big birds – at least 30 pounders, judging by what a 20 lb Thanksgiving turkey looks like.

            Wow, I thought.  Look at them go! I decided to keep watching them until they disappeared from view.

            I didn't take my eyes off them. In a few seconds they had gone a good distance down the inlet and they were really moving.  They were about a hundred feet up now, and then they suddenly all hung a left, turned east and flew a hundred yards or so, crossing over the inlet and were now over the houses on the far side of the inlet.  Now they hung a left again, and headed north, in the opposite direction from where they were headed moments before.

            What could they be up to?  They continued to gain in height, but it looked like they were headed back to their original location in the water.  I doubted they could be going back to where they started.  I had been thinking about how hard they had had to work to take off like that, and head south for that distance, and come back.  I don’t think wild animals burn all that energy just for fun, or for no reason.  WE do things like that, but wild animals can’t afford the luxury of expending their energy on nothing.  They had to have a purpose.  They really had me wondering.

            They did not descend – they continued gaining height and flew right over the original spot, continuing north.  I kept watching them.  They were very high now, hundreds of feet up - but I could still follow them.  They were miles away at this point.  Now I realized that they had executed this departure the way an airliner does.  A plane does not just take off in the precise direction it is ultimately heading.  It takes off on a long and narrow runway, taking into account the wind and the height of nearby structures.  The airliner rises into the air, gains height and speed, banks and makes a turn, and only then does it head off toward its destination.  The birds could never have cleared the buildings on the north end of the inlet had they started off that way.  They did their aerial circuit in order to first follow the direction of the inlet and gain enough height and speed to clear all the obstacles. Once safely in the air and far above the houses, they turned to fly off to wherever they were ultimately headed.  Did they plan all this among themselves?  How did they do it, in unison, like that, and in perfect balance and symmetry?  They performed this maneuver like the expert pilots, flight engineers, and navigators that nature had made them.  It became clear to me that the birds were our teachers in matters of flight.  The Wright Brothers and all the early aeronautic pioneers had observed birds very closely.  John F. Kennedy International Airport – where this take off procedure goes on all day and all night (and not with 30 pound birds but with enormous, multi-ton airships), is but a few miles to the east. 

            I kept watching until they were 5 pinpricks in the sky, still rising, now somewhere over the middle of Queens, and then I blinked and they were gone.  The whole thing had taken less than 2 minutes. It takes me 30 minutes to go that distance by car, especially in the stop-and-go traffic that you are bound to encounter when driving anywhere in NYC. For a moment I wished that I could join them on their airborne journey, zooming off to points unknown (to me), and live with them in their private world that we can never know.

            I went to my gig, in utter awe and amazement at what I had just witnessed.  It is still in my system.  It made me feel rather small, but at the same time, somehow empowered.  I can’t take off over the water and soar up to the sky, but they can’t play the guitar in a Spanish restaurant.

            I know that I am nothing but an atom in this vast universe - but without any doubt, I am indeed an atom in this universe, and that's saying something.

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