A salesman at the neighborhood hardware store assured me that the bolts he had picked out would fit my drawing board. He said, ``You know how long I've been selling these? I supplied the nuts and bolts for the '64 World's Fair.'' I think he hoped I was too young to remember the fair and that I would be impressed: Consider the sheer quantity of nuts and bolts involved. But his remark struck me in another way. This salesman, who didn't look so ancient himself, had helped bolt together That Amazing Phantasm. I mean, of course, the very thing, the New York '64 World's Fair, where public telephones had push-button dialing long before my town did, where the telephones had video screens, and a rocket-propelled backpack allowed a man to fly free of airplanes. Not to mention the moving sidewalks that reduced strolling to an exercise of the past. Though I made only two day-trips to the fair, it was an immense preoccu pation while I was nine and ten years old and, particularly now that I live in New York, I can't figure out why so few seem to care about it. An indifferent grunt is apt to answer my peeping query, ``Do you remember the '64 World's Fair?'' Then I ask, ``But couldn't you see in it what I saw?''
In '64 I walked through the crowded entrance and a panorama unfolded before me: round towers, strange and exciting super-modern grayish-white pavilions, the Swiss skyride cruising above. My Instamatic 100 took it all in, and even today I could show you my shots of the giant plastic dinosaurs and the Goodyear Tire Ferris wheel. The World's Fair was, I thought, the bright vision of my space-age future, an adulthood in an aerial community such as the cartoon Jetsons, where I would program my car for its destination and drive on cruise-control while watching TV. Yes, I was being cradled by a generation of benevolent industrial scientists for a lifestyle so convenient that it was almost magical. I knew it could be, just as I argued that robots like Astroboy did indeed exist, and it would come about maybe by 1972.
Toward the arrival of this vision I aimed to do my bit, and became something of a junior scientist, in self-training to join the older ones who made the World's Fair happen. I experimented with a kiddie chemistry set and a telescope with a daytime sun lens, and for several weeks I tried to make stalactites and stalagmites by dripping a chemical down pieces of string hanging in a shoe box. I built a weather station with an anemometer of suspended paper cups and a barometer utilizing human hair, and twice succeeded in predicting rain. How was anyone to know that I wouldn't make a tremendous discovery in the dining room where I assembled my equipment? Or that the helicopter I tried to build in the garage wouldn't take to the skies? And that these would not move the world closer to a World's Fair-like place where a house, I think it could have been in the Japane se pavilion, possessed a backyard full of water over colored stones instead of grass, criss-crossed by raised walkways?
I have never forgotten the World's Fair. It reappeared one gray morning in 1975 as I rode in the back seat of a car returning to my dormitory room in Philadelphia from a New Year's party on Long Island. I scanned the hills of crammed-together gravestones along the expressway and suddenly realized it was there: the Unisphere, that very Unisphere. It gracefully loomed over the Queens apartment buildings, an image I still find beautiful. Yes, that was it. (I screamed.)
I'm thinking of visiting the site of the '64 World's Fair this weekend. Someone told me it's pretty run down, with a lot of rust. Will I see some of the old pavilions, maybe footprints where those plastic dinosaurs stood? Are there particles of paint, like police markings at the scene of a crime, pinpointing the old skyride depot and General Motors' labyrinth of moving history?
Perhaps you knew. I didn't and I'm not necessarily glad that I've learned. I mean, some birds have roosted in the bottom of the Unisphere. The nest rests somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and has sprouted a well-fertilized vine-like plant that hangs through a space in the steel girders. It results from neglect, but a visitor trying to view things in a happier light realizes that doves (it could have been starlings but it also could have been doves) should make their home in a structure dedicated to world peace.The Unisphere's bright fountains are dormant, and youths hold a party on the graffitied base, across an expanse of pipes.
As we walked through the gates on Saturday afternoon, my friend said, ``Ah! It looks like Disneyland 100 years from now!'' Or, you know, as in the ``Planet of the Apes,'' when the disembodied arm of the Statue of Liberty jets spectacularly out of the sandy beach. The property is a time warp created by an ultrahigh density of reminders of the past, from the blue and orange paint of the No. 7 train station to the living-room-sized elevator, meant to haul vast numbers of visitors, at the Queens Museum.
Boulevards, lined with trees and benches for resting in the heat of the day, lead nowhere in particular. Large unexplained open spaces, like certain places in Germany, convey a feeling that the past hovers eerily near.
After so much crazy thinking about the World's Fair and, one must admit, a certain disappointment, I feel I am entitled to experience a short supernatural communication with that singular event. Although nothing of the sort has happened to me before, I stroll down a boulevard imagining that I may glimpse a lingering photo-image of pavilions over the well-worn grass, or hear the chaotic voices of a million visitors. But, in the hot bright afternoon, I see only picnickers and soccer players and hear only the rattling of leaves.
I think about time and how I didn't know at nine that I would come back at 30 to find the World's Fair still there, but three-quarters vacant. I try to figure out the exact spot where I stood to point my camera -- click! -- to get that pretty-good-for-a-nine-year-old shot of the globe.
It was right here, somewhere, perhaps quite close, that I alighted on the edge of the Unisphere 21 years ago to be sprayed by the fountain water, to eat cotton candy, and to revel in the prospect of my future.