The Unisphere

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, I did not know that the Unisphere is twelve stories high, nor that it weighs 700,000 pounds, nor that it is the largest structure on Earth made of stainless steel. All I knew was that it was huge and it was in the park where my parents would take us to ride bikes. I was always afraid it would fall over and crush me. I would ride around underneath it, thrilled by the perceived danger of this enormous globe falling, and thrilled by its sheer size. I could imagine the groaning, heaving sound all that falling steel would make as it toppled in slow motion.

When my friend and fellow Queens native Greg told me that he had his parents’ car for the day and that we should go for a drive, I couldn’t imagine where we would go on a rainy Thanksgiving Eve. But once we started driving, he said he knew just where to take us.

It was cozy in the car, with the rain falling outside and the music playing inside. I realized that one oddity of New York City life is that you don’t get much, if any, car time with your friends, since you don’t have cars. You miss out on that womblike togetherness inside a tiny box, the intimacy of retrieving something from the glove compartment.

Somewhere on the Grand Central Parkway I got the feeling that our destination was Flushing Meadows Coronoa Park. I just knew it. Between the tricks of mist and light, the BQE and LIE and Grand Central were totally otherworldly. It looked like UFOs had landed everywhere, and I wasn’t even stoned. Well, not very, anyway.

We exited the highway and drove along some kind of service road that paralells the park. I hadn’t been there in years, probably not since I was a kid. Even fifteen years ago, the park was a ruin. As we drove into the park from the service road, we realized why the park had always been a little scary. There is something Soviet-era about its landscaping and architecture. It doesn’t, as its name suggests, have meadows or any kind of discernable landscaping; it lacks the winding paths or approximations of nature that make Central Park or Prospect Park magical and friendly. Flushing Meadows is geometric and foreboding. Like much of the rest of Queens, it feels as if it was hurriedly constructed during a time of marked by a collective fear of annihilation.

I directed Greg over a bridge I recognized as the bridge on which I flipped over my bike handlebars when I was ten and landed on my head and was, as my mother predicted, glad to be wearing a helmet. Driving on the dark, empty paths, not a park ranger nor a police car in sight, I felt like we were going deeper and deeper into the strange wilderness that only exists in the middle of cities.

The end of the Wilco album we were listening to was fading out into several minutes of eerie, instrumental music that would have perfectly soundtracked the landing of a flying saucer. At this exact moment we made a turn and the Unisphere loomed, floodlit and silvery. We were a good quarter mile away and its size was already terrifying.

We drove up a long path to the globe and circled around it in the car. The lights were refracting inside the structure in such a way that it appeared to be sending huge bolts of light out into the gray-purple night sky.

We parked the car and got out to take a walk around. Amazingly, I saw an elderly man jog by, as if it were daylight in a crowded park and not a rainy night in a deserted, crumbling fairground. We looked around the weird concrete flying saucer towers I remembered my dad telling me used to be an observation deck and restaurant, and I told Greg how the pavillion with all the criscrossing cables on top had a map of New York State on the ground and you could walk on it. It was always so hard to imagine this scrubby collection of inexplicable, non-functional concrete monstrosities as a bustling theme park devoted to progress and technology. My dad, an avid Popular Science reader, digs the future, and dug it especially as a teenager at the World’s Fair. But by the time I played in it as a kid, the park’s version of the future had already become a hulking relic of a distant past.

We parked the car right near the Unisphere and I noticed that it was set up right in line with a series of empty reflecting pools leading up to sculpture of a contorted, classical male figure. The pools were full of wet yellow leaves.

The optical trick of the Unisphere is that it’s so enormous from far away, you can’t imagine how it could possibly get bigger, and yet it seems to multiply in size exponentially with every step you take toward it. We jumped right into the emtpy fountain that surrounds it, which I remembered doing in the winter as a kid, and suddenly we were standing right underneath it, looking up at its hollow interior. Its cables were warbling creepily in the wind.

I was scared, almost dream-scared. It wasn’t the fog or the floodlights or the emptiness of the park so much as the size. To be near something so big throws your sense of scale so far off that you quickly take leave of reality.

We circumnavigated the globe, pointing out places as if we were passing them on a train. Someone had tagged some of the lower beams that support the globe, and someone else had looped a few pairs of shoes around the lowest of the three rings that orbits it. These gestures seemed futile instead of bold. So much of the Unisphere was so sadly, terribly unreachable. When we stepped out of the brightly lit fountain and back into the shadows, it felt like we had landed from someplace very far away.

On our way out of the park we drove around a large duck pond. I never thought about how the ducks are always there at the park, even when it’s winter and nighttime and there’s no one else there. We stopped and observed two larger, white birds that stood out against the night. Swans! Two swans were paddling along, oblivous to the ominous Unisphere disappearing into the mist behind them.

“That is so fucking David Lynch,” we agreed, and headed back to Williamsburg to drink green tea.

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