Jules Verne on the Thames?
From a distance, it looks as if one of Jules Verne's imagined flying contraptions has crashed in to the South Bank of the Thames. Next to Tower Bridge, the massive brown-and-gold item pokes up from the walkway, like the front end of a B-movie UFO – or perhaps some part of a ship's hull from 200 years ago – winning weird looks from passers-by. Is it a plane? Is it a time machine?
No, it's the Telectroscope, the wacky, wonderful invention of British artist Paul St. George. The story: Mr. St. George happened upon a stack of dusty papers in his grandmother's attic, which revealed that his great-grandfather – an eccentric Victorian engineer – had planned to bore a 3,471-mile tunnel from London to New York, allowing us Brits to gawk at you Yanks through the world's longest telescope. Now, St. George has made his great-gramp's dream a reality.
The truth is ... Oh, who cares about the truth? The point about the Telectroscope – a Victorian-style freakish fairground attraction – is that you believe, or you don't. And as soon as I look through it, I believe. There, on the other side of the "tunnel," as clear as day and as large as life, I see real-life, real-time New Yorkers.
I write a message on one of the white boards and hold it up: "Where's Matt?"
They look around and seem to call his name. One of them holds up a sign: "No Matt here."
Sprouting beneath the Brooklyn Bridge
New York is a hard place to be earnest. This is one thing newcomers learn fast, long before they've memorized the subway map or pinpointed their favorite pizzeria. The entire city – every electric, shaking, rattling square inch of it – consumes the ardent and the naive, chewing and grinding us with its big asphalt teeth, until we're all spit out together, several months later, as freshly minted cynics.
So how, exactly, to explain the appeal of the outlandish Telectroscope gadget, planted not far from the legs of the Brooklyn Bridge? Here's a toy, like Francis Drake's spyglass – studded with the odd, useless lever or meter – dropped amid the warehouses and art galleries of Brooklyn, and rimmed by a crust of rocks and debris, as if it had erupted from under the Hudson River.
Here's a device, connected to London by a fiber-optic cable running under the Atlantic, that allows New Yorkers to peer back at their British counterparts, to gawp, wave, laugh, make funny faces, and hold up white boards bearing salutations and cross cultural commentary. Here, in short, is a glorified, double-sided webcam, dressed in Victorian-era whimsy. But at the base of the Telelectroscope on the Fulton Ferry Pier in Brooklyn, dozens of adults are pressing their faces wildly against the glass, jostling for a spot at the front of the line, laughing, giggling, and shrieking.
As I dash onto the pier several minutes late and sweating under the midday sun, I see a man lift his dachshund overhead. "Here buddy," he smiles, as the dog peddles its legs anxiously. "Now you've seen the glorious shores of Jolly Old England."
In a city that prides itself on nonchalance, the Telectroscope (operating through June 15), seems to be that great leveler: a device to make giddy even the most cynical New Yorkers. And peering into St. George's toy for the first time, I find – against reason – that I feel giddy, too. It's a break in the space-time continuum; a chance to travel at the speed of light.
"Are you there, Brendan?" I say aloud, to no one in particular. "Are you there?"
The Brits' sardonic lens
This being England, there's a slightly sardonic attitude to the whole thing. "It's just a webcam," says a 30-something woman in jeans and sweat shirt. "I can hook up with New York through the webcam in my living room." Her friend shushes her, nodding toward a group of children excitedly waving to a confused-looking Brooklyn man in a gray suit. "They're loving the magic of it, so be quiet."
A young boy holds up a sign – "England 2, USA 0" – referring to the result of the big soccer game at Wembley stadium on May 28. His grandmother chastises him: "Oh they won't understand that. No one over there watches football. "
In fact, someone in New York gets it. As quick as a flash, a white-haired man with specs holds up a sign saying: "Yeah, but your football team didn't make it into the Euro Championships." Ouch. New York 1, London 0.
Londoners' cynical take subsides temporarily when there's a moving family reunion. A mother and her two young children leap with joy when the kids' dad – working in New York – appears on the other side of the tunnel. "I love you, dad," writes his son on the message board. There isn't a dry eye to be seen.
Quintessential New York
Planted firmly in front of the Telectroscope's gaping maw are three small middle-school students, each clutching a white board and marker. Teacher Erica Lazarow points through the lens.
"Over there, they're queuing," she says, and spells it out. "Q-U-E-U-I-N-G. Queuing. That's what they do over there in England. They love to Q-U-E-U-E."
Behind her, a water taxi drifts along the East River, finishing a run from Manhattan. St. George couldn't have picked a more idyllic spot. Here on the pier, where a Walt Whitman poem winds across the metal railing, one can stare up at the masts of the Brooklyn Bridge and catch a glimpse of midtown, with its hive of steely spires, and the spot in the sky where the World Trade Center once stood.
In other words, it's the most quintessential of New York scenes, equal parts spectacle and scale. It's a feeling deepened by the presence of the Telectroscope, which allows viewers to peer into a faraway world, but also enforces their own uniqueness, their own spot on the globe.
Eureka! It's Matt amid those Yanks
Through the Telectroscope, I catch my first glimpse of Matt, holding a sign: "Hello from Brooklyn."
"Ah, hello from London," say some of the people gathered near my end of the Telectroscope.
Matt's wearing a T-shirt and shorts. I'm wrapped in a leather jacket. "New York looks sunny. It's wet here," I write. "London is always wet," Matt writes back. Isn't it weird that, even when communicating through a contraption as mad as the Telectroscope, people talk about the weather?
In the end, the Telectroscope has added a frisson of fun to what has become quite familiar technology. We're all used to webcams; we take for granted the IT revolution that allows us to communicate with people thousands of miles away, and to send photos, messages, and videos to friends, strangers, and even enemies around the globe.
But it took the eccentric brass-and-wood Telectroscope, where one has to hold up handwritten signs to communicate with smiling citizens on the other side of the Atlantic, to remind us just how magic modern communication can be.
London blows a transatlantic kiss
Ryan, 13, says he's been to London before, and he's been standing at the Telectroscope for the better part of an hour, watching for a familiar London face. "I was pretty young when I was there," he says. "But it's a small world." "Shrinking every day," I answer.
The crowd thins for a moment, and Ryan and I stand looking through to the hulking outline of the Tower Bridge.
Two sisters on the other side of the Atlantic raise their fingers to their lips, and blow a long- distance kiss across thousands of miles.
For a moment, Ryan stands still.
Then he raises his own hand, catches the kiss, and blows it back.