My New York Obsession

The Strange Painting That Saved My Birthday

How a tiger, a turtle, and a chipmunk roasting a marshmallow brought a family together.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Greenpoint’s Lake Street wears its Midwestern roots on its flannel sleeves: Michigan brewed beers always on draft, Prince illustrations on its coasters, and Minnesota Vikings football on game day. There are also several paintings of heartland flora and fauna on the brick walls, contributing to the place’s America’s-breadbasket-in-Brooklyn vibe. But one piece of art in particular has been on my mind since I first saw it a few weeks ago, and once I describe it, I’m pretty sure it will be on your mind, too.

The first element that seems out of place in this framed landscape is the Bengal tiger. The out-of-place beast (did it escape from the Indianapolis Zoo?) is taller than an oak tree. It leaps out from a scrawny shrub to pounce on a young couple in the middle of a romantic stroll through the woods. How did these two not spot an exotic tiger in their peripheral vision and think to themselves, Hmm, how…curious? Maybe they’re not so attentive: The girl did decide to wear a white T-shirt and pastel pink pants—easily stainable colors—while walking through the woods. Wait, is that guy pushing his lady into the tiger’s path?! She must have a great life insurance policy.

Wait, is that guy pushing his lady into the tiger’s path?! She must have a great life insurance policy.

Surrounding this tableau is your usual crew of woodland creatures—a raccoon peering from behind an exposed tree root, a baby deer running through the fields, an owl judging from afar—witnessing the startling scene unfold. To tie this weird setting together, there’s a tiny chipmunk roasting a marshmallow over a campfire in the bottom right corner. I’ll never know how the adorable rodent built that fire by its lonesome, but my world is much better for it.

Art: You know it when you see it. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

The sad realization is, I would have never discovered my new favorite piece of art if my birthday plans didn’t go up in blazes last month. Family brunch mainly went according to plan (minus a wacky mix-up involving me having two birthday cakes instead of one—who can’t relate?), but everything after the Bloodies and pancake stacks didn’t. The art exhibition I was anticipating for weeks was a dud. The bowling alley where I wanted to show off my gutter balls had a two-hour wait for a single lane. The brewpub I frequented many times prior was permanently closed for a future demolition. What next? Maybe a Bengal tiger?

Cut to my family wearily roaming the cold streets of Greenpoint, overstuffed on pancakes, perplexed by how we ended up in this situation. Just as we were about to succumb to the day, I realized that we were a mere two blocks away from my favorite Brooklyn haunt. I thought: There’s a very unlikely chance that my parents will actually like this, but maybe? Then I led my party of six into the bar I’ve never seen by the light of day.

Welcome to paradise. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

In fact, I’ve only been to Lake Street in the middle of debauched nights, stumbling my way up and down Manhattan Avenue for a laid-back place to cap things off before rolling off to bed. Those allotted final drinks I promise myself on those hazy nights always added up to multiple “final” rounds thanks in part to Lake Street’s cheap happy hours, alt-rock deep cuts, deadpan bartenders, and the longtime Brooklynites with whom I became night-long friends after a few minutes of casual conversation. Some patrons would say that the darkness inside, illuminated only by tea candles and red twinkle lights hanging above the bar, is part of Lake Street’s charm. That’s probably because they’ve never seen this bizarre painting, which can only be appreciated in bright wintry sunlight.

Fortunately for us, the six-top next to my quirky new obsession—also the hottest table in the bar, being squeezed into the front window shell—was available. My family cozied up in there while my brother ordered a round of Guinnesses, hot toddies, and whiskey shots in the hopes that we might salvage this celebratory excursion by getting very, very day drunk. Minus my dad, our beloved designated driver, who ordered his usual, a Coca-Cola with a lemon wedge on the rim.

“How is that chipmunk roasting a marshmallow? He doesn’t have opposable thumbs!”

Our group was quiet for the first few moments of our stay, focusing more on resting our weary feet than discussing the utter washout my Brooklyn birthday had become. And then my brother’s boyfriend noticed the painting.

“How is that chipmunk roasting a marshmallow?” he asked. “He doesn’t have opposable thumbs!”

The rest of us looked up from our drinks to behold the scene depicted before us. Like my brother’s boo, we each became confused, then enamored, by the series of curious incidents happening in the painting.

To call the painting an icebreaker would be an understatement. It had the power to make all of us forget about the nonsense we had endured earlier in the afternoon and ask some important questions, like:

“Why is that sparrow larger than the raccoon?”

“What happened to that girl’s face?”

“Where did that tortoise learn how to walk like a human?”

“Does that great brown bear in the background look like Homer Simpson creeping backward into a bush?”

A place in the sun. With a tiger. And marshmallows. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Instead of dwelling on the day’s disasters and the prospect of aging another year, I found myself happily tipsy, laughing with my family about this bizarre painting.

I’m not familiar with the artist and I can’t even imagine the painting’s title, but it will surely be the first thing I think of when I think of turning 30. Honestly? I wouldn’t want to start the year any other way.

Jess Bender is What Should We Do’s senior editor. Follow her on Instagram—and be prepared to get hungry!