The New Yorker, August 25th, 2014
Alley Pond Park, in Queens, sounds small, as if it could fit between a couple of high-rises. In fact, the park stretches for more than a mile and a half and covers six hundred and fifty-five acres that seem almost to be in another dimension, coexisting as they do with the Cross Island Parkway, Northern Boulevard, the Long Island Expressway, the Douglaston Parkway, Union Turnpike, and the Grand Central Parkway, all of which insinuate their multiple lanes through and along the park and curl their intricate cloverleafs over the green of its map like sprung violin strings. On the highways, you’re barely aware of the park, and in the park the highways are a distant noise. One of the park’s entrances winds among tall, shadowy, redwood-size columns of concrete that support an elevated section of road.
Smokey the Bear was in the park the other day, walking around in an open, grassy area and having his picture taken with people. The occasion was his seventieth birthday; on August 9, 1944, the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council decided to use a fictional bear named Smokey as the mascot for their campaign to prevent forest fires. Later, a real bear who survived a New Mexico forest fire shared the name, but the classic Smokey remains the anthropomorphized bipedal bear in the poster, with the ranger hat and the shovel. As he strolled in a stately, slightly syncopated manner, well-wishers kept asking Smokey if he was hot in all that fur, but an occasional shrug was the only reply. He never once spoke. His eyes were set back under the brim of his hat and the overhang of his brow, and he made his point by silent moral authority. To look into his eyes was to hear the pulse of your own fire-using, match-tossing, corrupted human heart.
Maybe there were a lot of Smokeys at large in American parks on that particular afternoon. This Smokey had the sponsorship of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and its representatives had hung the pink crêpe-paper streamers in an oak tree, and set up the tables where kids could make birthday cards for Smokey, and provided the chocolate- or vanilla-frosted birthday cupcakes, and arranged for the various instructional booths—the N.Y.C. Fire Department’s Fire Safety Education, the D.E.C.’s Division of Lands and Forests, and the N.Y.C. Department of Sanitation’s Compost Project, among others. At the Fire Safety booth, the firefighters Lois Mungay and Stephen Comer were remembering some notable urban brush fires. “By Howard Beach, one time, the dry phragmites reeds were burning like crazy out beyond Cross Bay Boulevard, and we were hauling the hoses around back there in the brush,” Comer said. “We couldn’t even see where the fire was!”
“Yeah—you just hear a crackling in the distance, like a fireplace,” said Mungay.
“The chief was radioing us—‘It’s to your left! It’s to your right!’ ” Comer said. “Haulin’ those hoses everyplace in the reeds, finally I collapsed. They had to carry me out.”
“Did you have to go in the hyperbaric chamber?”
“No, it was just exhaustion. But, I’ll tell you, the experience gave me new respect for the guys fightin’ fires out West.”
Just then, Smokey ambled by the booth, giving the thumbs-up sign. “Hey, Smokey! But where’s his little sidekick—what’s-his-name, Boo-Boo Bear?” Mungay asked.
“That’s Yogi Bear’s little sidekick. In the cartoon. Not Smokey the Bear—different bear,” Comer said. (SMOKEY BEAR – OC-Control Freak Suzi)
A lot of other things were going on in this corner of the park. To one side of Smokey’s party, a group of about thirty mostly Asian young men and women were holding a get-acquainted picnic for the bridesmaids and groomsmen of a wedding planned for September. On the other side was a Spanish-speaking birthday party with a “Dora the Explorer” theme for a two-year-old girl. From a farther-off cookout, guys playing Frisbee and holding Solo cups in their free hands ran past Smokey without paying him much mind.
Smokey stood bare-chested (aside from his fur) and unshod (ditto); his ranger hat and a pair of Wrangler bluejeans constituted his only clothing. His head fit onto his shoulders so well that the seam could hardly be seen. In true bear fashion, his full-length profile increased substantially at the middle. A man came up to him and asked, “Hey, Smokey—what size are your jeans?”
Smokey fixed the man with a long, level, heart-stopping gaze. The man seemed to shrivel slightly. The bear crossed his forelegs across his chest twice, and then held them in a three-o’clock position: “X X L.” His expression didn’t change. ♦