When the Elephants March in Manhattan

The circus comes to Manhattan, but not before they march the elephants through the Midtown tunnel.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The elephants have returned to New York City. Every year around this time, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus takes up residence in Madison Square Garden. To get the elephants into the city, the trainers have to walk them into Manhattan in the middle of the night. New Yorkers are there to greet them every year. Last night, NPR's Robert Smith was there too.

ROBERT SMITH: It's just before midnight on 34th Street in Manhattan, and there are a lot of kids up past their bedtime.

Mr. LANCE KUMOE(ph): Lance Kumoe(ph). And I'm pretty much here to look at the elephants.

SMITH: You've never seen one in person?

Mr. KUMOE: Nope.

SMITH: Much less in the streets of New York.

Mr. KUMOE: Well, yeah. In between these big buildings, of course, I won't see none usually.

SMITH: A few hundred people have assembled here at the exit to the Queens Midtown Tunnel waiting for the elephants to come through. And this is more than just a promotion for the circus. This is actually a necessity. They've done this for decades.

See, the circus train is about a mile long and they can't really bring it into the city and walk the elephants up the escalators from Penn Station. So what they do is they park it over in Long Island City in Queens. They take the elephants off, and they walk them through the Queens Midtown Tunnel underneath the East River, along 34th Street to Madison Square Garden. Here they come now.

(Soundbite of cheers)

(Soundbite of elephants)

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) you need to back up a little bit.

SMITH: And it's a truly amazing scene. It's like a presidential motorcade if the motorcade were made out of elephants, with their trunks grabbing each other's tails. There's eight elephants walking down in the middle of 34th Street. And it seems that the bars have cleared out. People are coming out to take pictures, to scream and yell and to cheer for the elephants.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Unidentified Man #2: Go.

Mr. JOHN BALTHAZAR(ph) (Resident, Manhattan): Come on, elephants.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Mr. BALTHAZAR: (Unintelligible) I love elephants.

SMITH: So the guy who's probably most excited is this guy here. Come over here - you keep screaming elephants.

Mr. BALTHAZAR: My name is John Balthazar. Who doesn't love elephants? Not a damned person doesn't elephants, sir.

(Soundbite of screaming)

SMITH: Needless to say, this has created a little bit of a logistical challenge, let's say, for New York City Police officers who are lining the route.

Inspector JOHN SEVILLA(ph) (New York City Police Department): My name is Inspector John Sevilla, and I've been doing this probably now for about 16 years.

SMITH: Is there any special challenge to dealing with elephants on the city streets?

Inspector SEVILLA: It's basically just trying to keep them in a straight single file. We want to make sure that they're not making any excessive noise because they're traveling late at night. And certainly we don't want them to leave any unpleasant surprises for the people who have to get up early in the morning.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Woman: Look at his ears.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SMITH: And the elephants have ended up here at Madison Square Garden, where they've opened the big side entrance and now they're just lining up and getting ready to go in. The man who has ridden the lead elephant through the entire parade is Bello the Clown. He's coming over here - what was that like?

BELLO THE CLOWN (Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus): You know, I think I'm more excited than anything just to be able to ride an elephant down 34th Street, past Macy's. I mean, it's just unreal. Across Manhattan, now that's something else.

SMITH: And bringing up the rear of the procession is the least glamorous but probably the most necessary part of this parade, and that's the New York City Sanitation Department and the street sweeper.

Robert Smith, NPR News, Madison Square Garden.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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