Commentary &Photos 25 Nov 2012 08:03 am

The Zoo

- For Thanksgiving, Heidi and I drove to my brother John’s house in Connecticut where we were joined by his family as well my sister Christine and her family. It was a pleasant day. Since I don’t own a car in Manhattan – the garage costs are more expensive than the car – I rented one. Picking it up on Wednesday meant I had to return it Friday and pay for two days, instead of the one I really needed it for.

So we had a car on Friday. I suggested that Heidi and I go to the Bronx Zoo something we hadn’t done since the early days. You have to understand something, this is a big deal for me. Emotionally. My first job, at the age of 11, was working in the Zoo. I was a busboy during the summer. I wiped painted steel tables clean and cleaned the grounds while the crowds bubbled their way on through. Within a year or two I graduated to the hamburger guy and then quickly from that to the Head cashier. The top guy. I worked there part time until I went into the Navy, ten years later.

A lot of memories happened in those ten years, and seeing how the Park has changed has always been a surprise and a strong interest of mine. The Zoo was a good ten miles from my home in the Bronx, so either I had to pay for the two buses which would get me there or take my bicycle. It was usually a combination of the two depending on the weather, my financial situation, or my mood. The bike ride was a good one, easy and direct. The bus was complicated and took longer than the bike.

The Bronx River met us at the parking lot
at the eastern entrance of the zoo.

The river ran a block away from my home
when I was a child. We called it the creek because
that’s what it was at that far point of the Bronx.
It was also a great wooded park to play in.

As a busboy I had a few standout memories that still make me smile.
Kevin was another busboy and a friend. He came from Goshen, NY (somewhere upstate) but spoke as though he’d come from the deep midwest with a heavily twangy accent. In some ways, he wasn’t the smartest guy in the world, but he was a lot of fun. In other ways, he was sharp as a whistle.

The first pavilion we came upon was the bird house.
This is a relatively new exhibit – about ten years old.

Plenty of room for birds to move about in the simulated wild.

The two of us had found maraschino cherries in the kitchen and would often, during slow moments, dip our hands into the large jar of Red Dye #3 to grab a handful of the tasty, sweet, candied cherries which would go atop sundaes (they were made in the Zoo, back then, but are now prepackaged.) Within a short while Jonas, our manager, caught on to our cherry picking, and he suggested we not take any more. It had been getting a bit over the top.

Not all of the animals in this exhibit are birds.

However, there was the one time a couple of days later when I came out of the kitchen to find Kevin with a big smile on his face. He asked if I wanted a maraschino cherry. With that, he picked one out of his white busboy jacket pocket to share with me. After eating it, I couldn’t help but to burst into laughter.

One thing I have to say is that the birds ARE colorful.

Even ordinary ducks can look exotic
in a rainforest setting.

Kevin’s starched white busboy jacket had a big, wet, red stain on the pocket. Kevin hadn’t counted on his thievery being so obvious. That’s when the sly and understated Jonas was standing between me and Kev, talking first about the weather, then about the crowds and finally about the table umbrellas. As he left us standing there, he suggested that Kevin get himself another busboy uniform. One that was clean.
I screamed laughing; Jonas kept walking with that wry smile, and Kevin was almost as red as the stain on his jacket.


Birds were hidden everywhere in plain sight.

Harvey was the dishwasher. He was more than a little slow; he was marginally retarded, big and strong. Definitely slow on the uptake. Right out of central casting. He knew I was a big fan of soundtrack albums (at the age of 12). He was excited, one day, to tell me he’d bought the soundtrack to “Around the World in 80 Days” – this was back in the 60s.



Harvey loved the film so he bought the record as a souvenir. Unfortunately, for him it was just Victor Young’s music for the film. It took about half a day to realize he wanted to get rid of it and couldn’t bring himself to ask me if I wanted to trade something for it.


My older sister, Pat, had been a member of the “Columbia Record Club”. This was a scam operation where Columbia Records would send you albums and if you didn’t send them back right away, you owned them and would be billed – at a high rate – for the record. Pat ended up owning a lot of records she never listened to.



There was a relatively new Lanie Kazan album that she didn’t like and didn’t listen to. I offered this as the record of exchange to Harvey for his copy of “Around the World” – a film I hadn’t seen and didn’t really know. I did know Victor Young’s music. (He’d done the background score for “Samson and Delilah”, “The Road to Zanzibar”, or “The Court Jester”.) I thought this would be a good deal if I could pull it off, and I did.

Wild turkey for Thanksgiving?


Harvey ended up loving that early Lanie Kazan album and played the copy he’d made on audio tape, over and over in the kitchen. I, on the other hand, enjoyed owning the Victor Young soundtrack, even though I didn’t listen to it very often. I still own it. When I hired Lanie Kazan to do a voice over and a song for me in one of my half-hour shows, I didn’t tell her this story; I wasn’t sure if she’d see it as a compliment.

“Tiger Mountain” had other animals besides Tigers.
In fact, the mountain was little more than a hill
where some deer-type creatures roamed.

I was interested in the one male who was trying
to clear the brush from his young antlers.

Of course there was the one tiger who paced back and forth
endlessly as if it were in a cage.

Back and forth for the entire time I was there.

On work days I’d get in early enough and finish my prep for the day a bit before the cafeteria opened. Often I’d get about a half hour having coffee, reading the newspapers at the outdoor steel tables. Zoo personnel would usually come by and have their morning coffee and you could chat with them. I was pretty friendly with a lot of these guys.



There was one guy who used to take a tiger on a leash. These were years before they had “Tiger Mountain” with the animals living in a more natural environment. Back then, there was a Tiger house, where the tigers would live caged within the confines of the space provided. The young tiger on the leash was only three months old and would be taken on a daily stroll to give it some exercise. Since I knew the keeper and saw him daily, I got to know the tiger (which I think was named, “Natasha.”)



Slowly I got to watch Natasha grow up and was able to play with her a bit during that half hour coffee break. By the time she was six months old, she was almost fully grown and the walks were coming to an end.

The Administration Building featured a couple of Rhinos.
This was once the Elephant Building where Rhinos, hippos,
and Elephants roamed.

Every day I had to go to the Zoo’s administration building to have my “bank” for the day doled out – the money I’d use to operate the cash register. It was a ten minute walk from cafeteria to administration building. On one day I’d been half asleep when I turned into the building. “Natasha” on a leash was just coming out. I found myself on the ground underneath a fully grown tiger playing with me. Her keeper was nervous, afraid that I’d report an incident. Of course, not. I’d just had a great moment; one that I remember pretty vividly to this day. No wonder I liked Pi.

There was a carousel with bugs to ride instead of horses.


This was included in the price of admission,
so we rode.

Bees were a problem in the outdoor, summer cafeteria. People ran from the place rather than get stung. To counter this we did something simple. We filled a soup bowl with what was called “simple syrup”. We’d save packets of sugar that customers left behind and mix that sugar with some warm water. A heavy molasses-like texture in a bowl was left center table at two or three spots, a bit off the main crowds. The bees would come to drink, overdo it and drown in the syrup.


At the end of the day the customers wouldn’t have noticed the bees, so felt safer. However, you had a bowl (or bowls) full of dead bees that someone had to remove. I was usually that person. I wasn’t afraid of the bees and had no problem dumping them. It also bought me a lighter half hour at the end of the day when we had to clean fast and furiously to be able to go home. I never did get stung.

Heidi enjoyed it, though I was a bit offset by the music
which was calliope music not synched to the ride.


Later, we went to the Baboon area (I forget what they
actually called the pavilion.)

There was a hairy baboon who stayed in one small spot.
He was a handsome fellow and was primarily concerned with himself.


Back in the olde days, there were always things happening in the zoo. I remember, at one point, the Pygmy Hippo gave birth to two cubs. There was a wild scream early one morning, and people rushed to the cage, just across the street from our cafeteria. Apparently the depressed hippo mother turned on one of her cubs and began to eat the baby.

The keeper was eventually able to separate the mother pygmy hippo from her second so that both cubs wouldn’t be killed. The mother was, in time, reunited with her last living cub. Apparently, she’d had some type of postpartum depression and it was sad for the killed cub.

Alongside the baboons, the zoo had what looked like
a couple of capyboppys on display.

These look like three foot long rodent/guinea pig type creatures.

Outside the baboon exhibit there was a series of skulls
relating humans to the creatures on display.

Always information of some type is offered visitors.

I had many memories and many stories, and it helps to explain my fascination, still, with Zoos. I tend to seek zoos out when I visit other countries. The Paris Zoo is so different from the London Zoo, but both retain unique feelings. Amsterdam and Yokohama are very different from the San Diego zoo which is almost too large. Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo is similarly very different from the Bronx Zoo. And the Bronx Zoo has changed so drastically that I almost don’t recognize it anymore.

A group of goats, of some breed, mix with
the baboons in that same quiet area.

The two separate on their own, naturally.



The Terrace Cafe is almost identical to what it once was. Not much has changed. The same window slots to serve the customers and it had a similar placement of tables. This cafeteria wasn’t open, it being November; they’ve gone onto their Winter schedule.

A number of ostrich preened themselves
at the giraffe enclosure.

The giraffe were somewhat active moving about
looking as though they were seeking food.

Since there was little foliage in the trees
the giraffe had to bend down (always awkwardly) to eat.



My one bit of anxiety was that I might have run into Jonas Schweitzer, my old boss. I know that’s ridiculous. As a matter of fact, I would’ve enjoyed meeting up with him. He shifted to Administration after I’d left, and has certainly retired. But there was still the memory of him asking Kevin to change his busboy jacket so the bright red spot could be contained.

Some things never change, I guess.

The African Plain was our last stop.

It actually was a little hill with one male
and one female lion. He was over it and
was hiding, for the most part.

She just lay still.

3 Responses to “The Zoo”

  1. on 25 Nov 2012 at 8:51 am 1.Elliot Cowan said …

    The Bronx Zoo really is lovely but I have a real soft spot for it when the weather cools down.
    For a starter, there are fewer people there.

    We take Hugo to the Queens Zoo semi regularly.
    It’s a particularly good zoo for the kiddies as the whole thing is a single, reasonably small, circular stroll.
    The admission ticket also gets you into the petting zoo across the way and it’s a treat to see him interacting, up close with the animals.
    It really is so important for kids growing up in this metropolitan city.

  2. on 25 Nov 2012 at 10:08 am 2.steve fisher said …

    Michael: This is a wonderful photo essay that sensitively combines your personal experiences from younger days with your visit to the zoo of the present. Nicely told and photographed.

  3. on 25 Nov 2012 at 1:11 pm 3.Bill said …

    Michael, like a really good Thanksgiving dinner, your trip to the Bronx Zoo was done to a ‘Tee’! Perfect outing, especially with those beautiful shots! Thanks for sharing it. The Botanical Gardens across the street are no slouch either, especially during the Christmas season.

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