Updated: Dec 20, 2021
On the most important ranked-choice election of the year.
By Sona Wink
We locked eyes, Chalupa and I; her, gnawing on a leaf, me, sipping a decaf Lipton. I hadn’t expected to encounter goats on my travels through Riverside Park, but that fateful Tuesday afternoon, leaning against a fence, I stood beside a dozen horned mammals. The serendipity of the situation, combined with Chalupa's rectangular pupils and wild horns, made me feel as though I’d just encountered aliens.
A poster to my right informed me that this particular trip of goats had roamed two acres of thicket in Riverside Park, between 119th and 125th street, since mid-July. Chalupa and her pals were not just any goats—they were protectors of the environment, sentient lawnmowers eating invasive plants on the steep slope between the street and the riverbank.
Late that night, eating plantain chips on my bed, I looked into the circumstances of my animal encounter online. I soon entered the bizarre world that is the Riverside Park Conservatory’s goat PR campaign, “We put the Goat back in Gotham.” Last month, they conducted a “Ranked Choice Goat Vote” with contenders Chalupa, Skittles, Buckles, Mallomar, and Ms. Bo Peep. Each had a campaign poster accompanied by a lengthy biography cataloging their passions, TV preferences, and ideal vacations.
Chalupa, a member of the Grand Old Goat Party, enjoys Lena Dunham’s 2012 millennial comedy Girls. Skittles, of the Eat Your Greens Party, takes her coffee “light and sweet” and watches Seinfeld. Buckles would live in San Francisco if his family wasn’t pulling him toward New York. I pictured an English undergrad, bored with their internship, sitting at an ill-lit desk crafting literary gems like these: “Have you read Infinite Jest? Mallomar has. Well, not so much ‘read’ as ‘ate the pages,’ but he still found it to be a digestible work of literature.” There was something at once amusing, upsetting, and profound about the inordinate amount of detail someone poured into these goats’ imaginary lives.
This flashy, intricate campaign stood in stark contrast to the urban propaganda I’m used to. In my hometown of Philadelphia, public advertising is so mundane, so utilitarian, that subway riders actively avert their eyes: an eggshell-yellow background, a message in Ariel font about Narcan, image upon image of Mayor Kenney’s massive chin. These goat posters, bathed in hot pink with quippy, culturally relevant one-liners, grab your attention and don’t let go. Riverside Park Conservatory’s “Goat vote” is a masterwork of coalition-building: an eco-aesthetic to appeal to organic stroller moms; political jargon to entertain the Columbia activist sphere; cuteness and bright colors to enthrall the children’s vote. I underestimated the prowess of this Conservatory employee—their attempt to generate excitement about their projects clearly worked on me. It was no lonely undergrad typing out those slogans: this was the work of a professional. Whoever crafted this bizarre PR Narnia knew exactly what they were doing.
Weeks passed, and I forgot about the goat election. It was a chilly afternoon when I decided to take a walk up Riverside and visit the old trip. With no campaign to advertise them, they were still darn cute. When I arrived, the familiar corridor was empty. The campaign posters were gone from the fences; the goats, nowhere to be seen. I must have missed the election.
Down the path, I saw five posters leaned up against the side of a maintenance shed: Chalupa, Skittles, Buckles, Mallomar, and Ms. Bo Peep. Behind the Conservatory's wild spectacle were five mediocre goats. They had no real accomplishments or TV preferences; they didn't care about politics. They roamed, they ate, and they left.
Why does one conduct a goat election? What value can something so ridiculous bring to the world? I was initially captivated by its surface-level comedic value, but I stuck around for something more. The election acted as a mirror. We’re all just Chalupas and Mallomars, constructing identities out of meaningless combinations of TV preferences and coffee orders, pretending we’ve read Infinite Jest. In the end, no one actually has, and no one ever will.
I looked into Chalupa’s photographed eyes one last time. “Hungriest goat this side of the Hudson,” the poster boasted in hot pink italic font. Those oblong eyes, vacant yet content, looked beyond these petty human politics. Chalupa knows better.