Of course, the cliché metaphor for a big city is an ant hill or a termite mound, but New York City always gives me the feeling I am a tiny mote on the inside of a great beast, a corpuscle flowing in some kind of animal plasma—the plasma of duty and desire. One of the main arteries in this creature is the elevated West Side Spur of the NY Central Railroad, gone sclerotic in 1980. It’s now a walking park curving for two miles, thirty feet above the neighborhood between 10th and 11th Avenues.
On my last visit, I sat on this extinct rail platform—called the High Line Park, opened in 2009—a pastoral narrow island landscaped with the native plants that had been springing up between the ties and tracks all by themselves. Started sprouting after the last train in 1980. Thirty years later, it’s been planted on purpose, lush and gridded-out for seasonal blossoming. For two miles, the trail winds through the most flamboyant and dream-like architecture NYC has to offer. Mixed in with antique relics, it’s a kaleidoscope of buildings and sky and people happy to be lifted off the street. It’s like being in a hunter’s blind where you can watch the hubbub—a lookout post removed just enough to make you feel like a correspondent reporting back to Central. The sidings of the tracks are made into viewing stations for particular vistas and bleachers have been set up at one spot at the 10th Avenue curve to look out of a wide picture window framing the view directly uptown, north—the avenue disappearing in the exhaust haze while the traffic slides right under you. This little amphitheater with its fashionable high-design benches sits in a lovely contrast against the weathered 1920’s era iron fretwork. It’s half full of people enjoying a September afternoon, enjoying the be-bop of cabs, people, trucks, towering buildings marching to the vanishing point, the sky. Couples with heads cocked toward one another, lounge in a spot good for quiet conversation—an eddy in the flow of mega-city clamor. Looking down and out to the pulsing of lines of yellow cabs, floods of pedestrians, the throb of a metropolis, amplified that feeling of heartbeat and surge. As I looked up at the Empire State Building, big shoulders, square above it all, floor after floor of windows—I imagined people inside at desks and inside the people, each body with trillions of cells, each body a blender of dreams and desires….I leaned into the idea of NYC as a creature itself and I swooned into a reverie back to high school biology class. DNA was a new discovery and biology was poised to move from taxonomy to biochemistry.
Musing away on the High Line, the yellow cabs and blue and white busses hurtling along in packets under me—sometimes like sap in a tree, sometimes like the rush of blood cells through a main artery, watching it all, and thinking of the newly discovered mechanism of the mitochondria, the steam engines of the cell. And I’m thinking of my teacher for this 1962 version of freshman biology—Jim Schenk.
Schenk was a fish out of water, on the defense, a country boy, facing a class full of smarties, high achievers who had taken exams to get to the place—an all-boys’ boarding school in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I liked Schenk, he was earnest and if anything, he was all biology—at least from the neck down. He was a flawless human specimen and his smarts came from hardscrabble vitality. You knew that he was the guy you’d want around when the Commies hurled their Nukes and we’d find ourselves wandering a radioactive wasteland of our collective, recurring, cold-war nightmare. He was a competitive weightlifter and a model for boys who were surveying their own biceps every time they passed a mirror. Mr. Strongman super-hero even if he was a little academically dim, his smarts were woods smarts. He actually knew how to get food directly from the world—a mystery to most of us. We’d just been reading Jack London’s Sea Wolf in American Lit class and Schenk loomed out of the pages as a real-life Wolf Larson, a Nietzschean Übermench, not so strong on the book-learnin’ brains, but showing off with one-arm chin-ups and going at the speed bag in a blur of fists.
Biology had my attention. And Schenk had my attention as a true show-don’t-tell guy leading us through the woods with a process-of-elimination key for tree ID. “There’re seven kinds of Oaks in these woods, men, (pronounced min), let’s go find ’em”. He brought Pebbles to class to demonstrate simian balance, holding her by the ankles her head grazing the floor as he swung his toddler to upright in a gale of giggles and perfect balance. “See, we’re still monkeys, min.”
The campus sat on the old Armour estate; the meat packer Armour who, taking advantage of the Eastern European immigrant flood in the 1900’s and the need for meat in the Spanish-American war and then onto WWI, grew to be a model for The American Robber Baron. this section could be written more clearly…The meat trains from Abilene were on the roll to Chicago’s stockyards. As the boss-man of the stockyards; Armour figures in (required reading), Upton Sinclair’s muckraking classic, The Jungle, (i dont know if this sentence is needed)required reading in freshman Englsh. Armour worked his people to death in the stockyards, built his dream-house mansion then lost a bundle in the 20’s. He sold the estate, his (?) vision of self-importance, in a scheme to leave his family some dough after the crash then died a suicide. The campus was carved out of his 300 acres of hardwood forest, about half left untended and natural. The main building, a three-story brick, ivy-crusted villa had a marble ballroom serving as the main dining room. On the back side, a bank of tall French doors looked out to formal gardens where clipped boxwoods and an Italianate pergola shimmered into a reflecting pond. The library was walnut paneled with garlands of carved birds and fruit over the three fireplaces.
The town, Lake Forest itself, was founded as a bastion for elites fleeing labor unrest in Chicago’s—“Haymarket Riots” of 1887. these riots (new sentence) spurred the town burghers to create a buffer zone of protection by buying and building Fort Sheridan as a kind of wall to make Lake Forest the first “gated” community, protected from the agitating proles by a 600 acre military base between Chicago and Lake Forest. In town you still can drive the Lake Michigan shoreline and see house after mansion, Gatsby-like, perched overlooking the lake with pristine hardwood groves separating each from the other.
I loved “nature study”. Doing my AP paper in Biology got my blood flowing, my newly excitable mind “on the case.” I leaned into the ideas of the structures underpinning plants and animals. The big question—how does eating an apple, a hamburger, become my heartbeat, my eyes blinking, dreaming? Such mysteries. Was there anything more biologically important than eating? But, how does food turn into action? We’d been studying the mechanics of digestion in Shenk’s class. He had us chew a chunk of bread beyond the impulse to swallow. Our mouths were filled with sweetness. Salivary enzymes acting on the starch made sugar. Transformational magic. OK, sugar, then what? Schenk didn’t have the answers. “Sugar is the body’s fuel, min” was all we got.
Schenk was an Arkansas Redneck, a good ole’ boy, a huntin’ & fishin’ guy who had a young and pretty, close-together-eyes-wife and a new little baby we all called “Pebbles” after the Flintstones baby. He was a bit flummoxed by the new bio-chem stuff like the Krebs cycle where that sweet glucose we tasted in our bread chewing exercise is made into energy the body can use. There was new information on just how sunlight is turned into that glucose. But he’d rather carefully drawn a blackboard illustration about why the Negro was so “fleet of foot” (trying to sound erudite). He explained because their tibias were longer and their heel structure flatter, they “can run like the wind, min”. (You could imagine Goebbels saying that to Der Führer after Jessie Owens’ 1936 Olympic triumph). Eugenics was a hobbyhorse he rode with some confidence.
Mitochondrion.i? So here came a new word for me—mitochondrion. I had the feeling you get when learning a new word and suddenly “your” word is everywhere, in every book. —like getting a new car and your car is everywhere on the road. I was seeing the word in TIME and LIFE magazines as well. After the success of the polio vaccine late in the Fifties, the popular press was scrounging for stories related to practical biology. Science surfed in on the “space race” science mania for getting ahead of the Ruskies. National Geographic ran a fully illustrated article on the mysteries of cell biology, including vivid depictions of little atom-spheres cycling through a metabolic path inside the mitochondria. Mitochondrion, there it was again. A popular and award-winning fantasy novel from 1962 (to date 10,000,000 copies have been sold), A Wrinkle in Time described the functioning of mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell. It seemed like a made-up science-fiction thing, as if mitochondria were seeds from outer space. But mitochondria were very real. Hundreds in every cell. Almost, 10% of our body’s weight is mitochondria. This information was brand new in 1962.
In this section I get a little lost… maybe stay focused on the paper you wrote and simplify the tangents to stay congruent with where you are headinf-your fascination with this unseen life and mystery!! In those days every high school science fair bristled with Tinker Toy® models of amino acids, nucleic acids, enzymes, ribosomes—and DNA—that simple spiral ladder reproducing a living, breathing anteater, a toucan, a starfish, an orchid. We got used to seeing red and white, black and blue balls representing atoms building into complex molecules. The Watson/Crick-Rosalind Franklin discovery of the double spiral ladder of a DNA molecule became a key opening mystery after mystery of our inner workings, revealing maps of complexity that every cell had within it, neighborhoods, unfolding an intricacy like a great city—and, in every cell. The interior, at an atomic level, was spacious like an Alpine mountain valley. There were complex structures called organelles, floating, swimming, manufacturing. The organelles were like departmental headquarters in a city each performing a function—the waterworks, the power plant, the police department, the department of transportation. A mitochondrion was one of those organelles. Mitochondria were depicted as tiny factories inside every cell transforming glucose sugar into a compound called ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate). ATP was energetically ready and rarin’. The breaking off of one phosphate molecule released a spark of energy and made ADP (di-phosphate). That was it?… Every eye blink, every word spoken, every walking step was because of the mitochondrion factory pumping out ATP. The fact of it loomed in my young mind like the secret of secrets. Every day you use up your body’s weight in ATP. My paper would be about these little factories, which as it turns out carried their own DNA as though they were bacteria invading the cell. And they were originally, in fact, invaders hiding out from the corrosive free oxygen. Free oxygen is so corrosive it can rust an iron chain into splinters.
We know that sunlight and water and CO2 were the raw materials for the sugar factories making their own lunch and crapping out oxygen. It took millions and millions of years but a tipping point was reached when the earth’s crust could absorb no more oxygen. The earth had oxidized, had in fact, rusted. Just look at the red clay of Georgia or the red rocks of the Minnesota Iron Range. Now oxygen as a gas was saturating the air burning and corroding making an oxygen holocaust—most creatures couldn’t stand the corrosion. Strangely, this O2, the vital element we can’t live without, was a searing death to most things alive a billion years ago. The little fellahs that survived, survived by joining forces with those creatures that could withstand the blizzard of free oxygen—hiding out in a castle of symbiosis, a cooperative synergy of additive aspects of E Pluribus Unum. The mitochondria went to live inside of the first animal-like forms and the cyanobacteria inside of plants. Animals without mitochondria would be mere slime coating hot rocks and not the greater bird of paradise; plants without chloroplasts would be pond scum and not the General Sherman Sequoia tree. All complex life it seemed was based on symbiosis.
I handed in my extra-credit paper and Schenk liked it, said it opened his eyes. Gave me an A. I was pretty puffed up. A week later sitting at my cubby in the stuffy afternoon study hall, trying to stay awake in the closeness of over-heated air, pretending to read, dozing slightly—in the reverie of leaning towards the Thanksgiving trip home—the thought of a five-day weekend break from the Bastille of boarding school was splendid. Schenk stormed in, charged right at me, eyes ablaze, breaking my musing—he was in a fury. His voice was bouncing off the walls, heads turned. He’d decided I had plagiarized the paper. No sophomore could understand this let alone write about it. Slapping the paper down—”no credit.”
I actually had copied the paper—from myself. I had written it a year earlier. I was a transfer student and had written it for my 9th-grade science class. And, I had gotten an A. I was trying for a double-dipper using the same paper twice. I could only look at the veins bulging in Schenk’s body builder’s neck, a trapezoid pedestal making his head look tiny—I’m wide awake, stuttering—a baboon cub blinking at the alpha-male. As my explanations poured out he just shook his head. What could I say? All eyes were on me. My “but, but, but” drowning in a mix of shame and contrition, my pride, my pride. On the defense, I cast Schenk as a dummy, but his hunter’s intuition was working well. He’d hunted me down. I was trying for a double-dipper and somehow he knew it.
lesson learned from duplicity-tell the truth…
Back on the High Line, drifting into the thought of Shenk’s move to publicly shame me, I felt that moment had become a signpost pointing directly to the conundrum of being—the conscious knowledge of the rational flow of life’s processes in balance with the movement of the human psyche’s needs and desires. what is this conundrum, what is the existensial moment about-is it topics in biology or the moment your teacher confronts you or this realization on the high line? As an existential moment it was a lightning bolt—all movement inside our cells, all ambition moving through the world, all the hustle and hum of NYC, the long stream of life on Earth, the cosmos—on the High Line here comes Shenk, fifty years later, looming out of memory as a man utterly connected to the deepest basics of life. As I said, he was a fish out of water at a class-conscious Prep School, (the last I heard he’d taken a job with the National Forest Service) but he was a natural, well connected to instinct. These days, he continues as an active part of my imagination, popping up whenever I get the urge to be duplicitous. And on the High Line, his essential vitality, is a spindle around which this story grows.
Returning from the holiday break, Schenk and I had a coming together, of sorts, my contrite apology was accepted, though received through squinty eyes. I don’t think he believed I wrote the first paper. I did not get credit. It was early December in that nice time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, bookended with vacations. Outside the Bio lab, the gray trunks of hardwoods limned the yard like temple columns. Bare black branches etched against the sky. The first snow coming would change all this completely, overnight. First period, we were bored with Schenk’s version of Social Darwinism. “It’s a dog eat dog world out there Min, better study hard.” I was in the front row, taking notes, sucking up. We were distracted by a live pheasant in a cage behind his desk. Relative of the Peacock, a male pheasant, with iridescent green head and scarlet wattles, white ring around the neck and rust red body is a ravishing creature. Its show-off tail feathers were crammed in the cage. Schenk’d caught it that very morning. We perked up anticipating the bird coming into the room. He did bring it out of the cage, grabbing the scaly feet carrying it flapping and squawking into the room. The loosed down feathers in slow motion drifted to the floor. He grabbed the neck and with a lightening twist, like cracking a whip, wrung the neck; suddenly its limp wings fell in a final open release. “My dinner tonight, min. This is biology.”