There was a time, not long ago, when turtles enjoyed a brief vogue in New York City. Turtles whose shells weren’t much bigger than a silver dollar were sold on street corners all over Manhattan, and people crowded around to buy them.
In the midst of this turtle trend, my friend Kip moved back to New York, after two years in Los Angeles, and it was only a few days before he was swept up in the turtle craze. "I got them on the street, in Chinatown, five dollars each," he told me excitedly. "That’s the great thing about New York. One minute you’re walking down the street and then all of a sudden you’re a turtle owner."
When Kip went to buy a habitat for his new pets, he found the store jammed with people looking at aquariums and inquiring about turtle food. "It’s turtle mania. I don’t understand it," the store manager said. Kip bought an aquarium, some props for inside the aquarium, including a fake plant and a brick ("to give the environment some architecture," he explained), and a supply of minnows, which functioned as scenery until the turtles ate them. Kip named the two turtles Kirby and Rod.
At first Kip acted like a new parent: he doted over the pair with a certain loving anxiety. He stared at them with wonder. He reported on their movement and behavior in detail, as if every little thing they did was of universal interest.
"It was so great," he would say into the phone, "Kirby was asleep, you know, all balled up in his little shell, just sleeping on top of the brick, and then he fell off the brick. He just fell off and floated down to the bottom, and when he landed he stuck his little head out and looked really confused." There was a great deal of speculation about Rod and Kirby’s relationship. Did they get along? Who was more powerful? And most importantly, were they happy?
It was around this time that the turtle phenomena began to make the news. They had been smuggled into the city from turtle farms in such far off places as Louisiana and Florida. The ASPCA–who were being inundated with calls from new turtle owners wondering how to care for them–raided a distribution center and confiscated over three thousand tiny turtles, whose scientific name has a pleasing sound: Trachemys Scripta Elegans. City and Federal officials–who were acting on a law which bans interstate turtle trafficking–cracked down on the street venders, and the turtle trade was eradicated. (The United States, it turns out, has elaborate turtle regulations.) Rod and Kirby were contraband.
Kip, however, was having his own, more private drama with Rod and Kirby. He had moved into a new, very small apartment, and was unemployed. His return to New York was not going well. I didn’t hear much about the pair until one day he said, "Rod and Kirby are starting to depress me. They paw at the glass. It’s kind of disturbing. They swim right up to the glass and kind of paw at it with their little turtle hands like they want to get out. I sit here all day in my little apartment watching them in their little aquarium. I feel like I’m their jailer." Kip began to fasten to the idea that he was somehow holding the pair captive against their will.
Then one day he decided to set them free. He found a place that struck him as a good turtle habitat, the pond in Central Park, and I met him there for the big event. He brought them in a portable aquarium, a plastic case about the size of half a gallon of milk, with some water on the bottom. It was a brilliant autumn afternoon, and Central Park was brimming with strollers. A group of ducks quacked and paddled festively in the center of the pond. The world seemed huge and full of possibilities.
Rod and Kirby, on the other hand, seemed extremely small. Kip set the aquarium down on the grass and we took a close look. Their shells were bright green and they moved around excitedly, sensing a big change. One of them came up to the plastic wall and started pawing at it. Kip was right. It was disturbing. After a few minutes he tipped the box on its side. There was a moment of confusion, and then the pair began to make their way forward, towards the water. Rod jumped right in and started paddling out toward the ducks in the center of the pond. Kirby was more reluctant, hesitating at the water’s edge for a minute before plopping in. He moved around in the shallows while Rod swam further and further away, a tiny speck of animated green just beneath the water’s surface.
"I wonder if they’ll stay friends," said Kip