Albany natives are always asking me: Don’t you miss the City? They are unfailingly serious while asking the question, looking me in the eye intently, which is something I’ve observed that people rarely do anywhere. Put it down to my mystique. For a guy who was born in Brooklyn and never left except to move his residence first to Manhattan, then to Jackson Heights, Queens, do you doubt that I have mystique-in-spades in the eyes of my fellow Albanians?
We relocated here in October 2007: the other half of ‘we’ being Rose who is regarded as equally mysterious, rest assured, by her female ‘buds’ on Elm Street. We live in a red brick, three-story row house built in 1871 (the first house either of us has ever owned – the co-op apartment in Jackson Heights doesn’t count since it will always be to my mind an apartment, not a house) on tree-shrouded, rightly-named Elm Street, with a garden you get to by walking through the den and country kitchen on the ground floor (called the ‘garden floor’ by the real estate lady) out to the garden that Rose’s green hand has turned into the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
So in response to my local interrogators, I pause pregnantly while engaging their earnest gaze (I feel I owe them this nickel’s worth of apparent soul-searching, the least I can do) then respond: “The Bronx Zoo, that’s it.” The inevitable look of incomprehension follows once they manage to get their minds around this piece of intelligence. I see the gears whirling in there (Broadway… Neon lights and sirens… The City that never sleeps… The Yankees, the Mets). Precious little they know about the Dark Side. Anyhow, I’m speaking the truth. The Bronx Zoo has always been my spiritual oasis.
In June, I led a safari into the beating heart of the Bronx: the Zoo. Rose’s two women friends, Rose and myself set out early that Tuesday morning (Can’t go on Wednesdays, it’s free admission for school kids) wearing trusty hiking shoes. The zoo is 265 acres through which the Bronx River flows. There’s a shuttle bus that drops you off at different sites around the park and a ride aboard a monorail through Wild Asia. That Tuesday, we split into two teams to cover ground: Rose and I, and Linda and Norma who are Olympic walkers (Me, I’m a dawdler, Rose is Olympic class). My team’s goal was to make contact with bears, cats, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, sea lions and gorillas. We lost track of our sister team as they headed into the interior.
We first met up with Grizzlies (Alaska brown bears), a surly lot whose open mouth looks like a sewer with fangs. They stand ten-feet tall on their hind legs and, it’s claimed, ‘can knock the head off a bison with a single swipe of a paw’ (How the hell do they know that? I wonder. Did they set up some poor bison for that?). We encountered the Indian Rhinoceros from the safety of the Wild Asia Monorail. He weighs a couple of tons (I’m hazy on the exact number because when they’re talking about someone who weighs more than me, I stop listening). As he stolidly eyed our choo choo train, he couldn’t have cared less that his ugly mug might one day grace a bottle of sunscreen, SPF Rhino. In the next door paddock, Patty the Hippo bathed in her mud wallow, a sensible choice in the 90-degree heat. I would have liked to join her in the pool.
The Formosan Panda is red and small enough to sleep in a tree, which he was doing while the elephants gave us scant notice, intent as they were employing their great trunks to toss dirt on each other’s backs to defeat the flies. The cats on Tiger Mountain were thrilling. Being a cat man, I was awed by the intent padding back and forth of the big, yellow-and-black-striped Siberian tiger; couldn’t help but wonder if there would be time to remark his beauty before he leapt on your back and ate you. After five hours, we rendezvoused with Team Two. Linda and Norma had met up with different species. For example, Bats in the Birds of Prey House. Having single-handedly captured nine bats winging their way around the top floor of my house (they drop down from the attic on very hot days, always after midnight, making me apprehensive that one night the Count himself may appear)—I’ve seen bats. Then the seals, great performers, diving and racing underwater in their contained watery world till they break the surface with a braying sound like a tuba. My observations confirm that only the male sea lions get to bray.
But I can never get enough of the lowland gorillas in their Congo Gorilla Forest. There is a glass wall between us. On their side, the Silverback honchos sit unmoving, silently watching, squatting on higher ground as the females and young go about their business for the paying customers. Then, the giant Silverback decides to amble down close to the glass to check you out. He stares into your eyes, unselfconsciously. He puts one giant hand against the glass in front of you and you put your child’s hand against his. He takes his away, then appears to examine yours before looking up into your eyes. Time stands still as you regard each other… Hey, bro!
When I die, I want to go to the Bronx Zoo.