The army ants died in the Natural History Museum last week before I had an opportunity to see them. This has happened before. For whatever reason, each time the army ants are introduced into the museum they seem to succumb to a mysterious plague that carries them off within twenty-four hours. Entomologists are at a loss to explain this phenomenon, but they remain hopeful that at least one generation of these ants will endure long enough for a public display. Army ants have an undeservedly bad reputation; contrary to popular belief they are not rapacious but are rather highly discriminatory in their choice of food, their diet consisting primarily of other insects. I would never have gone to the museum if it weren't for the prospect of seeing the ants. I hadn't been there for years. This is what I recall from an excursion made there long ago: a picture, hazy indeed, of a youngster (who must be me ) roaming about dark claustrophobic halls, a transistor radio held up to his ear. This transistor conveyed a recorded narrative meant to alert the attentive listener to the importance of what he was seeing. However, I remember never being able to match up what was on the tape to what was in front of me. There I was gaping up at the hulking remains of some antediluvian creature while all the time an insistent tinny voice continued to discuss Navajo basket weaving. I looked about me helplessly -- not a Navajo basket in sight. The recollection of such needless confusion, and even worse, of unrelieved boredom had kept me away all these years.I went to the museum with a friend of mine, an acquaintance, a young woman strangely excited by the idea of seeing a colony of army ants; as she was so expectant she was that much more disappointed to learn of their collective demise.
I met this young woman in a bar located a block from where I live. Hundreds of unread books like the shelves above the bar. People used to tell me that the movers and intellectuals of the Upper West Side always gathered here. While once I thought this was possible I no longer believe it. Most of the clientele exude a kind of melancholia. They look vastly depleted, their lives seem to hover on the edge of boredom. It is far more difficult for them to keep alive than they might have imagined. Some are teachers and bankers, others are computer programmers, junior executives or secretaries. Some are plain out of work.
Army ants are welcomed by villagers in Ecuador, anthropologists have discovered. The villagers simply leave their houses for a few days, abandoning them to the columns of army ants which proceed to devour all the insects they can find in their path. An interesting and economical form of pest control.
The women come in groups to this bar but the men are more often alone. On Friday evenings they all stand together packed between the bar and the oak- en partition that conceals the dining area. Intimacy is forced on everyone be- cause of the lack of space; embarrassment must give way to something like uneasy chatter and eventually to the exchange of vital statistics. If a conversation goes well for maybe ten or fifteen minutes the man will feel free to ask the woman for her telephone number. Generally shy, I am wary of going up to somebody and introducing myself. Nonetheless, if I notice a girl alone staring at me with curious intensity I feel practically obliged to strike up a conversation. It was in this way that I met my sometime friend. Attractive without being especially desirable, she had fashionably long hair (dark) and a sensibly proportioned body. A certain hardness both of spirit and expression was evident, particularly in her calculated gaze. She was the sort of young woman that I was accustomed to seeing on the Upper West Side; for some reason you didn't find them so very often cross town. We talked in a desultory fashion without the formality of trading either names or aspirations. From the outset she was honest about what she was doing in this bar. She said she was waiting for the man she loved (her head kept turning, her neck craning dramatically, as she scrutinized the patrons who entered ). She did not believe he was going to show up. He was a bartender at a nearby tavern, she said. Tonight he was off. Still she did not think he would come for her. She excused herself now and then to go to the phone booth and try calling him. Her coins kept coming back.
Hundreds of thousands of these army ants, always the female ones, spread out in search of food. They may cover as much as a hundred yards a day in their travels. Scouts similarly reconnoiter in all directions; as soon as they manage to locate their prey they hasten back to their column to inform the others of their discovery.
Finally broaching the subject, she asked me what I did."I work for a business magazine putting together news releases, preparing extracts from stockholder reports." "Is it interesting work?" "No• ..Now tell me what you do ." She refused, saying that she was too embarrassed. That wasn't surprising. Everyone in this place suffered from embarrassment. It was the atmosphere, I suppose. "Oh, come on. You can tell me," I urged, really curious by now. Sighing, she relented. She told me she worked in an information booth in the middle of Grand Central Station, directing the bewildered and the lost to their proper destinations."What's so wrong with that?"'She didn't reply but looked at me as if I should know. Naturally she had no intention of doing this sort of work for the rest of her life. She hoped to become an actress, a painter, a sculptor, a writer, I forget which, but she was taking classes: The New School, City College, The School for Visual Arts, NYU. One of those , maybe all of them. She was taking dancing lessons too -- ballet and belly dancing. She promised that she would do a belly dance for me. She said she possessed an enviable collection of anklets, bracelets and hand clicks which were meant to clink in unison as she writhed about, but she hadn't gotten it so they would. One day, she said, she would have everything coordinated.
As soon as the ants have found their prey they begin marking out a path back to the column; what they do is to discharge a certain chemical from their abdomens along the way.
She thought she was too short though actually she was average in height. When she was still a teenager she barely measured five feet, she said, but once she'd entered college she gained another four and a half inches, a spurt as dramatic as it was unexpected. But she had never adjusted to the idea that she was no longer short and so she continued to rely on ugly, gaudy platform shoes to keep her aloft. Sometimes she stood as tall as me with them on. Inevitably she gave me her name. It was Andrea. That was all -- just Andrea. One night shortly after our initial meeting I happened to mention the arrival of the army ants at the Natural History Museum. "I'd like to go," she said. "I'm free on Sunday. We can go then if you want." I was pleasantly surprised; I had just been making conversation, I never considered inviting her to see them with me. But as I said once we arrived there, Andrea' s counterpart in the museum's information booth, a pale college grad, told us that the army ants had died earlier in the week. We walked through the museum anyway, but neither of us were very interested in what we were seeing. Besides we went through the rooms at such a remarkable clip that the only thing I remember is a blur of impressions -- Olmec heads and millions of dinosaur bones, African chants (taped ) and stuffed Kenyan elephants, samples of quartz and dead carrier pigeons poised forever in mid-flight. It wasn't so different from my first trip to the museum except that now I had a companion.
Returning from the prey, the scout begins running up and down the column, touching the other ants with her antennae and her body. This form of communication is surprisingly effective, perhaps more so than any system man could ever devise, and it is almost instantaneous in eliciting a response.
Afterwards we returned to the bar -- it was always the same one of course -- and ordered cocktails. She refused to accompany me to dinner. She didn't say as much but I guessed that she was afraid that her mysterious friend might come in her absence. She didn't want to take any chances. In fact, he did show up. "He's here," she whispered. I strained to see but I could not distinguish the man she was pointing out from among the others clustered down at the other end of the bar."Why don 't you go over and talk to him?" I asked. "He's with somebody else. That girl there. The redhead. "
While I was still unsure of which one he was, I did spot a redhead, a striking woman whose presence obviously animated the men about her. So we sat together, Andrea and I, as she continued her unhappy vigil. To her right, a man was trying to pick her up; he did not seem aware of me. He was balding fast, his stomach bulged hideously, his wide blue tie -- on which a single peacock strutted -- flapped listlessly as he moved, and he moved with big expansive gestures. A smile came on to his face and never left. Good dental work. He said he was a famous illustrator though he neglected to say of what. He drew an incomprehensible sketch on a moist napkin for Andrea whose expression of confirmed boredom changed slowly to one of resignation and then to some scant interest. "You want to go somewhere else?" he asked, convinced already that she would say yes. She did not reject his proposition as I had suspected. She turned coy instead. "Where? What do you have in mind?""Oh, I figured • ••My place." "Well, I'd prefer to go someplace where there are lots of people." "Hmm. Well, I tell you I often have lots of people coming to my apartment. Like Grand Central Station sometimes. "She winced but let it go. She fell silent. "Well, whaddya say?"
"I don 't think so." He and I both detected the uncertainty in her voice but he wasn't discouraged. "Look," he said, "it doesn't have to be my apartment. There's a nice club near here. It's quiet and cozy. We could go there, listen to some jazz, have a drink. Talk." More amenable to this suggestion, she agreed. "OK, I don't want to take too long though." She made it sound like an unpleasant but necessary business appointment. But he didn't seem to mind.Andrea bade me good night and went off with her illustrator, making a great show of it. She stopped before she got to the door and had her new friend light her cigarette. I assumed that she wanted to impress her estranged boyfriend at the other end of the bar but I doubt that he noticed cared if he did. I wasn't sure. I still didn't know which one he was.
Thirty seconds is all it takes before the ants react. They are immediately diverted from the column to begin following the scented trail that will guide them to their sustenance. In the first minute up to one hundred ants are conscripted in this enterprise. Then if these ants locate the prey of their own, they, too, return to the column and recruit followers.I remained at the bar, sleepless and inert.
Within twenty minutes or so Andrea returned to the bar. She was by herself. "He was an ass," she declared and sat down . I didn't press her for details, I didn't want to know.She resumed her staring. She concentrated as much on the redhead as on any man in her company. "I know that girl he's with," she said bitterly. "She's no great shakes. I've met her, I've talked to her. She hasn't got anything really."I was not about to dispute her. Still I suggested that it was doing her no good sitting there glaring. But she had heard this all before and paid me no attention .I couldn't stand it any longer . If she wasn't staring then she brooded. She remembered me only when she needed somebody to light her cigarettes. I finally got tired of her and left. She gave me a fragile, helpless smile. What can I do? she seemed to be saying. What can I do?
Army ants rely on numbers to overwhelm their prey. They only measure one third of an inch; the insects they consume are very often much larger, a wasp for instance. Without such an efficient method of procuring food, entomologists say, the army ants would starve.
I sometimes check the information booths in Grand Central to see if I can find Andrea. She is never there. I just ask for Andrea because I never learned her last name. But nobody seems to know her. "Personnel changes rapidly here," I'm told.
Sometimes I go back to the bar and at hours when I used to be sure of finding her . But she isn't there either . The bartender says he knows her. "The blonde, I remember," he tells me. "That's a different Andrea from the one I'm looking for," I say and then drink my beer in silence.I would like to find her, though, because I understand that a whole new contingent of army ants is to go on exhibit in the Natural History Museum very shortly and I think she will be interested. Maybe this time they'll remain alive long enough to be seen by the public , It would cheer her up a little, I think, for Andrea to have something else to look at other than her old boyfriend. But I can't say that my search for her is particularly intensive; I can't bring myself to try very hard. There are too many other girls like Andrea, more easily found, who sit in darkened bars waiting for some mysterious man to snatch them up. Still, I suspect none of them will take to the idea of army ants the way that Andrea did.