Lost in History, Vol. 14 

Send my Regards to Fitz-Greene Halleck

We arrived at Grand Central Terminal not quite sure what to expect. The email post was a helter-skelter of witty generalizations, semi-informative yet questionable history, perplexing biography, off-kilter whimsy, and concluded with a time and place to meet. The three paragraphs describing the event promised a commemoration for Fitz-Greene Halleck, superb New Yorker lost to time. In no way did the announcement, in any capacity, mention Halleck’s contribution to our modern world. It described the man as one who could “pour wine in one viscous motion and chew aluminum as if it were cotton but he could not be graceful,” but wouldn’t pick or point his raison d’etre. It continued, mentioning that Halleck “would frequently spend seven minutes every Saturday night at Grand Central Station pondering the passing strangers, the graceless, hurried, harried, beleaguered, late for dinner and lousy strangers, dreaming of ways to lasso and deliver grace to and for all these mankinds.” By convening at Grand Central Terminal (its common “Grand Central Station” misnomer derived from a popular 1940s radio ad, but New Yorkers in the know call it GCT for the most simple of reasons — it’s the end of the line), these “heirs and heiresses” of Halleck promised to vindicate a man gone from the washes of history, through a series of “seven simple dances” constructed to engage both spectator and participant in a mass dance of commuting. But before we went, of course we were going to find out exactly who this Fitz-Greene Halleck was.

Halleck was a poet. Not just any poet, but possibly the most famous poet in America, circa 1820. Born 1790 in Guilford, Connecticut, Halleck went on to write his satirical and romantic verse with another one of New York’s forgotten scribes, Joseph Rodman Drake. The two might have been lovers, though a lack of conclusive proof leaves this question unanswered. Drake died at an early age, and Halleck’s most celebrated poem commemorates his young friend’s death. Later in life Halleck became the personal secretary to John Jacob Astor. After Halleck’s death in 1867, the first statue to commemorate an American poet was erected in Central Park, along the literary walk (mid-park around 66th st, near Bethesda Fountain), facing another, slightly greater-known poet, William Shakespeare.

Upon reaching the subterranean food court of GCT, we found a plethora of people with balloons tied around their wrists. The organizer, an effusive young man in a vest, tie, and with a flute slung around his back, was passing out extra balloons to willing participants, along with strips of paper with directions for dancers, as well as armbands of maroon velvet shag carpet to any volunteering “grace instructors.” The instructions were simple, yet fantastic. To quote from the paper: “Dance II: Hello! Goodbye! Dosie Do —  Approach another dancer. Raise your hands to them. Shout Hello! Welcome them back! Greet them as if they were your lover or mother or father or brother or daughter returning form college of battle of a 7 year adventure in India. As your paths cross, dosey do, and part, Weep. Mourn. release them reluctantly. Tell them to hurry back. Repeat with each oncoming dancer who crosses your path.” Also, the fanciful “Dance V: Commuter Collision — Hurry! Hurry! Don’t miss your train! Whiz towards other dancers (at an angle) but just as you’re about to reverberate against them and shatter your delicate bones Stop. Do a delicate barrel roll away from catastrophy (sic?) Collect yourself. Now Hurry! Whiz off to somewhere else! Avoid catastrophy with somebody else.” And five other bizarre, delightful, preposterous, easy-to-learn “dances”.

So we tromped upstairs to perform and interact with the crowds. There was a wedding in one of the upper restaurants, with bad 80s dance music reverberating through the marble masterpiece of GCT. And we danced. We whizzed, we waltzed, we reverberated, we slid, we stopped, we started, we shimmied and we shook our delicate bones. Each dance was interceded by a toot on the flute, which was admittedly hard to hear with the thumping mess of the background wedding music. However, with 50 plus performers, dancers, even some tweens in their wedding finery who, bored with the private party, came downstairs to take part in the balloons and mad dancing, it was a total victory, a pure expression of absurd delight. The officials weren’t too happy with the entire spectacle, but the closing dance, a zooming around the entire ground level of the Terminal, following an angel in angel wings, finalized the festivities. By that time we had succeeded in almost an hour of celebrating this total nobody, Fitz-Greene Halleck. Does it matter that Halleck died three years before the first ever Grand Central Depot was built, and a full 46 years before the current GCT was finished? Does it bother that Halleck couldn’t have possibly had heirs or heiresses since he never married nor had offspring? Of course not. Kudos to the young souls who gathered a bunch of New Yorkers in ridiculous, romantic, satiric commemoration for a forgotten part of this city’s history and people. Halleck (and his lover Drake) would have been proud.

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