I went to high school on the Upper East Side, back in the early-to-mid 80’s. It was a Jesuit high school in much the same vein as those depicted in books like Jim Carroll’s “The Basketball Diaries” or in the 1985 Andrew McCarthy comedy, “Heaven Help Us” (only without as much gratuitous corporal punishment). And while the Jesuits prided themselves on being an order of cut-the-crap hard-asses (kinda like the Marines of Catholicism), it was still a comparatively permissive environment. As upper-classmen, kids were allowed to smoke in the student commons (a glorified, basement-level cafeteria with battered, wood-paneled walls and a decrepit White Rock soda machine) and we were allowed out during our respective lunch breaks, relatively free to walk around the neighborhood for those forty-minute periods.
My personal lunch routine was to walk west to Madison Avenue and buy an order of French fries --- that’s it, just French fries -– at a tiny greasy-spoon diner called Jackson Hole. I’d then bring that back to the student commons and consume it, vainly swatting away classmates who’d try to swoop in to swipe one of my precious fries (hey, when all you‘re having for lunch is an order of French fries, EACH ONE MATTERS!). In retrospect, it’s somewhat astonishing that I survived on such a limited diet of greasy starch and tasteless-but-surgarful White Rock soda.
In any case, across the avenue from the fine epicurean establishment wherein I procured my daily order of French fries was a long-standing restaurant called Moby Dick’s. Given the literary allusion of its moniker, I assume it was a seafood joint, but I can’t confirm, as I never darkened its doors. Despite that, Moby Dick’s remained noteworthy as it featured a rather distinctive entrance. Perched precariously atop its ocean-blue awning was a ---- WAIT FOR IT – relatively large, grinning white whale. I don’t know for how long that presumably plaster whale had been holding court up on that awning, but it certainly dated as far back as I could remember, and was a bit of a neighborhood landmark. I always kind of enjoyed it. I mean, it didn’t make me want to eat seafood or anything, but it was cool bit of artful frivolity.
Dates get hazy here, as we’re talking about long goddamn time ago, but I want to say it would have been at some point during the tail end of my junior year (which would make it about the spring of 1984). A slave to my habits even then, I was making my daily trek to Jackson Hole to fetch my regular order of fries (although perhaps I’d branched out by that point, and augmented proceedings with an actual burger). While waiting for the light to change, I looked up to find something not quite right. It then struck me. The whale atop the blue awning at Moby Dick’s was missing. I mean, the restaurant still looked open for business, but their signature flourish was gone. It made no sense. Why would the whale have been removed?
Later that summer, I got the full scoop.
Back at school, we had a certain English teacher who – for the sake of this narrative -– I’ll refer to as Mr. Humbert. Humbert was a much admired fellow, as he boasted a quick wit, a youthful, rebellious demeanor and an endearingly insouciant regard towards the school’s administration. His classes were informative, engaging and even fun, and many of us looked up to Mr. Humbert, as he felt like “one of us,” so to speak. Members of my class weren’t the only ones who appreciated Mr. Humbert – who, given the humble income of educators at the time, moonlit in the summer months at the Baskin Robbins just up the street, as it happened, from Moby Dick’s. It was certainly odd to see one’s English teacher dispensing ice cream to snot-nosed Upper East Side youngsters, but I believe we all respected Mr. Humbert’s work ethic.
Now, honestly, I don’t recall if it was specifically prompted by some quip he might have uttered about it, or perhaps because it was such a prominent and obvious character from Humbert’s slavishly beloved American literature, but the missing white, plaster whale was allegedly liberated from its long-tethered moorings atop the awning of Moby Dick’s restaurant by a resourceful coterie of upperclassmen -- whose identities have never been confirmed, or at least not to me – and given to Mr. Humbert on behalf their entire class as a token of their collective esteem. Legend further has it that in order to successfully remove the unwieldy replica of the fabled aquatic marine mammal, they had to cut it in two. One wonders how this feat was achieved with any semblance of stealth, efficiency or finesse, but – somehow – they managed this bit of petty larceny and wanton vandalism.
There may be more to this particular story, but, honestly, it’s so long ago, that it’s hard to dig that far back. Last I heard, Mr. Humbert – who left our school shortly after my class graduated a year later – still possessed the two halves of the white whale, although I don’t know if he still does. After an umpteenth reunion a couple of years back, Mr. Humbert made a bit of a histrionic statement about needing to sever ties with us, for whatever reason, and move on with his life. So be it. Again, there may be more to this story.
Anyway, the only reason I’m discussing any of this here is because for the longest time, I’d searched the internet for an image of that stupid whale. I figured there had to have been some sort of documentation of it somewhere out there, but my search always came up empty. That is, until last week.
As I’m wont to do, I was perusing through YouTube and stumbled upon a curious clip titled “Impressions of Manhattan.” The description for same reads as follows…
Here are the first images committed to film by Joe and Hernan, while students at Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth New Jersey circa 1985-1987. This sequence features a look at New York City, part of a class trip organized by our "filmmaking" teacher (she was a photography teacher who was dumped into the fledgling film program by an administration that couldn't care less about the difference between still imagery and the moving kind). Whatever. We were 15 or 16 years old. While our friends were back in NJ doing algebra, we were let loose in NYC with movie cameras.
Now, I’ll argue with those dates, as I am fairly firmly certain that the events described in the paragraphs above happened prior to the end of 1984. Why do I say that? Well, because during the course of this video, not only is the viewer treated to a great array of images of NYC from that particular era, but the camera also ventures inside the very same Baskin Robbins Mr. Humbert worked in, then walks outside to capture … WAIT FOR IT … the white whale still sitting atop the blue awning of Moby Dick’s….
Watch the full clip here.
In 2017, the space Moby Dick formerly occupied is a Le Pain Quoditien. The space that was the Baskin Robbins Mr. Humbert served up scoops in is now part of a TD Bank. The Jackson Hole I regularly procured my French fries in is long gone, its building razed to accommodate a new one that is now a clothiers of some kind. My school is still there.