EACH spring, the 55 public fountains maintained by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation are brought back to life by an infusion of roughly 1.3 million gallons of water. Then they work their aquatic magic, self-sustained by circulation pumps, powered by hydraulics and in most cases protected by bromine filtration systems. (No chlorine because it's too harsh on century-old stone and bronze statuary.)Pennies from wish-makers are far from the only offerings made to these people magnets. Also tossed in are thousands of other coins, cellphones, jewelry, cameras, shoes, sandwich wrappings and the occasional dead rat. "Sometimes we fish people out of the fountains, but unlike the rats, they're alive," said Al Simoncini, who is responsible for making sure that Brooklyn's three city fountains run properly. "Technically, it's feasible for someone to drown in one, but to my knowledge no one has."
The fountains come in various guises. The city's first vest-pocket park, Paley Park, on 53rd Street, features one that looks like a water wall. The Delacorte Fountain in the East River at 49th Street was dreamed up as a rival to the Jet d'Eau, a spectacular geyser in Lake Geneva. But it spewed dirty river water into passing boats, among other misdeeds, and was shut down in 1986.
Audrey Hepburn cooled her feet (still wearing espadrilles) in the Barcaccia Fountain in "Roman Holiday," but do not emulate her. Bathing in city fountains is punishable by a $50 fine. The one exception is the Arthur Ross Terrace, outside the Museum of Natural History, which is designed for wading.
Unlike bathing in fountains, the custom of tossing coins in them seems irrepressible. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, estimates that its visitors throw $3,000 a year into its fountain, koi pond and other water attractions. But Mr. Simoncini, the parks department official, said his crews retrieved little money. "The homeless people go in there at night and do the job for us," he said.
One balmy afternoon in Bryant Park, Ellie Guilfoyle, 3, of Forest Hills, Queens, had her first encounter with a city fountain. Holding a yellow balloon in one hand, she used the other to plop in several pennies and bashfully revealed her wish: "A purple balloon." Her mother, Megan, copped to higher stakes.
"I threw in a quarter," Ms. Guilfoyle said. "I want a lot of balloons — with a house attached."