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Guggenheim Audio Tour Weaves Staten Island Inventor's Life with Mermaids

By Nicholas Rizzi | July 13, 2012 10:59am

STATEN ISLAND — A new audio walking tour in St. George and New Brighton tells the story of Staten Island inventor Antonio Meucci and his wife Esterre, a mermaid.

"Teleffronotto," sponsored by the Guggenheim Museum, will tell a part fact, part fiction tale about the Italian-born Antonio Meucci, credited as the original inventor of the telephone before Alexander Graham Bell.

Named after Antonio Meucci's original patent for the telephone, visitors of the tour, part of the Guggenheim's "stillspotting nyc", will pick up an iPod loaded with the audio at a kiosk in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

They will then be guided to various spots in the neighborhood while they listen to the 90-minute tale about the real — and not so real — life of the Meucci.

The four weekend tour pairs sounds artist Justin Bennett and poet Matthea Harvey, and mixes ambient sound captured in the borough with the words written by Harvey. The duo started researching Staten Island history and eventually fell in love with the life of Antonio Meucci.

"The idea mostly came out of researching Staten Island," Harvey said. "We just became completely infatuated with [Antonio Meucci] and his crazy inventions."

Eventually, Harvey got the idea that Meucci's wife, Esterre Meucci, wasn't the lady who lived with 25 cats and died in the 1800s, but a mermaid who still lived today.

"I decided that his wife, Esterre was a mermaid, and that added another element," Harvey said. "In my version she's still alive because mermaids live for 300 years."

Harvey, a National Book Critic Cirle Award nominee, was no stranger to the mermaid subject.

Her poem, "The Straightforward Mermaid," was published in the New Yorker in 2010 and a short film based on the work was filmed in 2011. The poem also lead her to visit a mermaid convention in Las Vegas.

"I thought I was done writing mermaid poems," Harvey said.

As Harvey dug deeper into the Meucci's history, evidence of Esterre Meucci being a mermaid started to pop up.

In the classic mermaid tale, the transformation into human form is a painful process, Harvey said. Something mirrored in Esterre Meucci's life, who had rheumatoid arthritis and spent the last years of her life confined in the second floor of the couple's Rosebank home.

Also, Antonio Meucci's gravestone shows a man talking to a women in the water, which Harvey said could be a mermaid since her torso isn't seen.

"There was these strange moments where we felt like we were being confirmed in our fantasy story," she said.

The tour will take visitors through various spots in neighborhood, some connected to the Meucci's life, all woven into the 1story. Since the locations were picked beforehand, it made it easier to add them into the story, Harvey said.

"We could fit things around what the people are looking at," Harvey said.

The tour will stop at the St. George Theater, where the couple meet in the story.

"They meet at the theater," Harvey said. "She's a mermaid who's basically not looking for love but looking for sound."

The tour will also stop at the Atlantic Salt Terminal, where the city piles up salt used on the streets in the winter.

"It is just one of the most beautiful places that I've ever been too," Harvey said.

And for Harvey, who has lived in Park Slope for around 13 years, working on the project and walking around the St. George has made her feel like a former Staten Islander.

"Now its sort of a neighborhood I lived in but I don't live in anymore," Harvey said. "I feel like everybody should see these amazing things that are over there."

The walk will start this weekend, July 14 and 15, and run every Saturday and Sunday until Aug. 5. Tickets are $12, $10 for members, and free for children 12 and under.