THE STRANGER THAT WAS SPRING crept into town at 3:03 a.m. last Wednesday, and Donna Henes was waiting.
She had the usual 360 eggs, and her drum and her oils and some but not all of her loyal following. Come on, how many people are going to show up, where Christopher St. meets the Hudson River, at that hour, after an all-day rain, to try to stand an egg on end?
That's right, not many. We could print every one of the 50 names and still have room for their favorite omelette recipes. Henes has been New York's official greeter of the first minute of spring for the past 21 years.
Here she is, thousands of eggs later, and her enthusiasm for the subject is a wonderful thing to see. She has stood eggs at attention at Battery Park City, the World Trade Center, the Vietnam Veterans Plaza, the South St. Seaport, Ralph Bunche Park next to the UN, Santa Fe, N.M., Chapel Hill, N.C. and Jay St., Brooklyn.
"I have personally done it as high as the fourth floor," she says. "I know people who have done it on the eighth floor. I can't believe 100 stories would make a difference." She has a photo of an egg, doing its spring thing, on a cabin cruiser in the Caribbean.
One of these March 20ths she intends to hand an egg to a working flight attendant. She's thinking of asking a zoo if she can borrow an ostrich egg. I wonder if it's been done in a submarine and she takes the plunge. "That would be good to know," she says."
She's been told Albert Einstein stood eggs on end in the 1940s. The fat end. You don't have to be an Einstein to figure that out. NBC's Al Roker came by once, with a camera crew, "and he wouldn't leave until his egg stood up."
The ancient Chinese did it first, she explains, believing that it would bring good luck for the whole year. "I'm not saying that if it didn't stand up spring wouldn't arrive, or that you wouldn't have good luck if you couldn't stand it up," she says.
How did they figure it out, this beautiful thing between eggs and spring? Did the Chinese try to balance an egg every day of the year and discover they were batting the same one-for-365? She doesn't know. A Japanese physicist, visiting New York, came to one of her spring ceremonies "and he told me he wrote an article on the subject. He sent it to me." It's in Japanese.
Henes' home is a loft not far from Grand Army Plaza, where she shares space with Bud ("My All-American mutt") and Ola, a yellow-headed cockatiel who flew into her life while she was walking through the Botanic Gardens last June. So her enthusiasms now include cockatiels.
When Henes opened the door for me, Ola was on her shoulder. "I haven't eaten chicken since she's been here," Henes says, lowering her voice."
She does eat eggs. One spring, when arrival time was just after 5 a.m. (spring is never a little late), she collected the standees and cooked them on a grill. They had doughnuts and coffee, too. The ceremony celebrates the sun crossing the plane of the equator, making night and day the same length, "but nobody's wearing white robes or doing voodoo," she says. "Sometimes we have a drum." She has bags hanging from her clothes "with oils, that I hand out." But nobody's wearing robes.
"You hold the eggs," she says, "you balance it, and you can feel something. Maybe it's the yoke dropping down, I don't know. But it feels like it's getting heavy on the bottom." Suddenly, they're standing; brown, white, medium, extra large, Waldbaum's or free-range, it doesn't matter.
HENES ASKS THE CROWD to "promise to walk on the world as if we're walking on eggs. To protect the environment. If we're part of nature, we can act in more responsible ways." She cleans up the mess and goes home with 300 eggs, which she'll donate to a shelter.
Next year, the magic moment is 8:55 a.m. "That'll be huge," she says. White robes or no white robes.