Tag Archives: memoir

Carole Steele was born two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and she spent her childhood in rural North Carolina, and for a short while during the war, in Portsmouth, Va., while her father worked in the shipyards at Norfolk. 

While we were married, she often told stories of that childhood: her older brother, Mel; her hardworking father, Mutt; her peculiar grandfather, Earl Thaddeus, whom she called “Papa E.” They lived in a small house on the banks of the Dan River in Rockingham County, some 30 miles north of Greensboro, in the 1940s, where her family kept animals — a cow, some hogs and chickens. In her memory, this childhood was by turns idyllic, stormy, disappointing and exhilarating. It was for her, even more than for most, the persistent foundation of her adult life. 

In the years before Carole died, I tried to get her to write down her stories of life and childhood. Finally, we settled on a strategy: I would sit her down, and like George Burns saying to Gracie Allen, “So, tell us about your brother, Gracie,” and she’d be off to the races. Carole was like that: She had a million stories. I typed as fast as she spoke, and I got much down, but I’m afraid Carole did not live long enough to finish the project. 

Ultimately, we filled about 35 pages with her recollections. I hope that someday, granddaughters Carol Lily and Tallulah Rose will want to find out more about their Tiggy and will appreciate that this was written down and saved for them. 

These are Carole’s words, verbatim and unedited. She spoke like a great storyteller, and much of it sounds as if it might come directly from Faulkner. These are 10 episodes, from when she was about two years old until she was eight or nine. 

Papa E and the Easter chicks

When I was a child, Easter chicks were sold at Mack’s 5&10. They were dyed fuchsia, green, blue and purple. The purple ones were my favorites.

And one day, before Easter, I saw them in the dime store counter between the toy watches and the rubber balls. So, I bought a little purple one and took it home. I had a colored Easter chick every year, but the poor little things never lived long. The dye probably made them sick.

On this occasion, Papa E was home when I brought my chick in and he thought it was beautiful, too. So pretty that he went up to the dime store and bought 100 of them, all different colors. And he put them in a big metal drum with high sides; he put them under the back porch where the land dropped away toward the river. This open spot was my “ranch/mud pie bakery.” And I was thrilled to have the chicks with me.

I must have been 5 or 6 because I had to drag a cinderblock up to the oil can to climb up high enough to hang my ribs on the rim of the oil can to look down and see the chicks. They were wonderfully beautiful. All different colors. Fuzzy and peeping.

Papa E came down to check them after supper, kicked the cinder block away and held me up over the rim so I could see them again. And then we all went in to bed.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Papa E’s feet hurrying through the house. 

“Get your pistol, Mutt. A weasel’s got the chicks.”

Daddy grabbed his pistol; Papa E already had his. And I jumped out of bed in my pajamas, barefooted and ran behind them out of the house, where Papa E had already located the weasel in the dirt road.

We all went running down the road behind the weasel, with Daddy and Papa E each shooting their pistols as we ran.

The bullets would puff up the dirt under the weasel’s feet, but it ran zig-zagging from left to right, left to right, all down the dirt road and finally ran off to the left into our small swamp, where we couldn’t follow.

We had to give up, turn around, and walk slowly back home and I heard Papa E tell Daddy, “He  killed ‘em just for blood, Mutt. Just for blood, every one.”

Daddy said, “Don’t you look at them, Carole.”

But when we got back to the house, I ran to the oil drum in my playhouse and dragged up the cinder block again, climbed up and hung on my ribs and there they were, 100 colored chicks each of their necks bitten and no chick swallowed. 

Carole and the balloons

One day, when Mama Piggy was visiting, Daddy was at the shipyard; Mama Piggy, Mother, Melvin and I rode to Buckroe Beach in Mama Piggy’s dark blue car. We were walking on the sand when we came upon a man selling ugly brown balloons. Mother bought one for Melvin and as we walked on, I pulled at Mother and asked could I have one, too. This was a familiar situation because Melvin often whined for things and when Mother got something for him, maybe because she thought I hadn’t expressed a desire for the Dixie Cup of ice cream or the balloon, or a toy, that I didn’t need one or even want one. But of course, seeing a toy in Melvin’s hands made me want a toy, too. So we turned around and went back to the ugly brown balloons and one was bought for me.

They were each tied on to skinny wooden sticks. Balloons were very scarce during the war, as were bright colored things. Anything related to grease or metal or oil or oil byproducts was scarce. When we got home from Buckroe Beach, we lay down to take a nap. I stayed awake long enough to make sure that Mother and Melvin were actually asleep; then I pulled a safety pin out of Mother’s pincushion and sneaked into the living room where the thin sticks of our balloons were slipped behind the coiled spring of the front spring door. I selected one balloon to represent the one that belonged to Melvin and I popped it. As Mother and Melvin were waking up from the bang, I realized I would have to sacrifice my own balloon to deprive Melvin of his, and with my cold hard little heart, I popped the second balloon. Melvin was totally pissed, and I thought he would never stop whining and crying about it.

This experience was really rewarding to me, so I decided to try some other things. That night, after everyone went to sleep — at this time Melvin and I shared the big double bed — I pulled up on my knees on the bed and leaned over and looked in Melvin’s face. I made faces at him; stuck out my tongue at him; waved my fingers behind my ears; and became convinced that he was completely asleep. Then I raised up, balled up my right fist and punched him in the nose as hard as I could. He woke up screaming and crying with blood running down his face. After cussing me, he ran into Mother and Daddy, told them I had punched him in the nose on purpose. They assured him I would never do anything like that, that I was a sweet little girl and he must have had a bad dream and waked up with a nosebleed.

When he came back to bed, he didn’t hit me back, but he really hated me. But I had drawn blood. I wondered what else would draw blood. I really enjoyed hitting him.

The next day, he and Ruebel Jones got into a fight in the back yard. I was probably 3 and Melvin would have been 5, making Ruebel about 7. Ruebel had a little brother, blond, named Dewey. His nose always ran and his face was always covered with dirty snotstripes. They were both unsavory characters and Ruebel was certainly a bully. 

I had a Pepsi bottle that Mother had filled with ice water and I carried it around with me in the back yard. Ruebel hit Melvin in the nose and of course, Melvin started bleeding all over again. Melvin did not hit Ruebel back because Ruebel was much bigger, but I ran over to Ruebel and hit him as hard as I could on the head with my glass filled-up Pepsi bottle and Ruebel went down with blood running out of his nose. Bloody noses, bloody noses: I was a MAN.

Melvin was furious with me because Ruebel had beaten him and I beat Ruebel. Ruebel and Dewey both ran home crying. Melvin ran into Mother crying and tattling on me: one of his favorite things. I don’t know that I ever really hit another child after that in my whole life; it was too easy to win. All it took was a hard heart.

Carole and yellow food

Sometimes I got into trouble entertaining myself, on my own. 

I loved to explore all the containers in the bathroom. Sometimes I left great messy trails of bath powder through the house, or pulled all the tissue off the roll. Sometimes I opened the refrigerator and experimented. After the first banana I ever had, I pulled out all the yellow foods of the refrigerator because I thought yellow meant sweet.

I carried it all to the back porch and tested each item. The worst disappointment was crookneck squash.

Then I found a cake of butter, a one pound cake of butter, that Grandmother Bell had mailed to us in an oatmeal box. I thought it would do as a doll birthday cake. Mother and Melvin came back into the house just as I was finishing the last few bites. Mother was sure I would be very sick, but I didn’t suffer any ill effects. 

Hub Hawkins stutter

Papa E’s sister, Mattie, married Captain Jack Hawkins. One of their sons was Dewey Hawkins, who ran the pool room. And this Dewey was Papa E’s nephew and lifelong sidekick.

Mattie and Captain Jack also had a son, Wallace Hawkins. And Wallace Hawkins married Mama Piggy’s sister, Valerie. Susie inherited Great Aunt Vallie’s reddish hair and blue eyes. 

Captain Jack and Mattie also had a son who was called Hub Hawkins and Hub could not talk plain, and might have been a little slow.

One day, I saw Hub coming walking down Murphy Street toward our house. Papa E, whose real name was Thaddeus Steele, or Thad Steele, and Dewey were in straight chairs, leaned up against the front of our plumbing shop. They were wearing their pistols in their holsters as usual, which Captain Jack always did.

At this time, Captain Jack was the sheriff, or head policeman. He was the big policeman of the town in that day.

Papa E said to Dewey, “You know, Dewey, if Hub ever got mad enough, he could talk plain as any man.”

And Papa E and Dewey pulled out their pistols and began shooting at Hub’s feet. Hub was, of course, furious. 

And as he was hopping up and down in the middle of the street trying to dodge their bullets, Hub yelled out, “D-Dod D-Dam you D-Dad Deele.”

Papa E and Bucko

Papa E bought a bull for a pet and named the bull Bucko. Or maybe I named him Bucko. Because each day when I would come home from school,  Bucko would be chained to a telephone pole at the right side of our house, of our front yard. And he was always trying to buck the telephone pole down. 

Bucko was very ill tempered and I was afraid of him. His only role at our house was to be Papa E’s pet. Bucko managed to work himself loose occasionally and only Papa E could catch him. 

There was a sunken well in our back yard, a very dangerous place that Melvin and I were forbidden to go near. We had some wooden Adirondack style furniture in the back yard and Bucko butted it all into the sunken well, piece by piece.

On my way home from school, I always checked the telephone pole to see if Bucko was tied up; he was. So I went down under the back porch to my cowgirl ranch/mudpie bakery to check on things and when I came out, Bucko was standing loose in the yard with red eyes and steam shooting out his nostrils and ears. I tried to run up the back steps, but Bucko cut me off from the steps and I had to run toward the creek. Bucko followed me and I ran around the yard twice. Finally, I saw mother at the top of the steps with the screen door open, and I made a run for the steps. This time, I made it and mother pulled me in the door just as Bucko climbed the steps after me.

The next morning, I looked out the window to see if Bucko was chained up and Bucko was not there. 

I went out into the front yard to talk to Daddy to ask about where Bucko might be, and I saw Papa E loading Bucko into the back of the truck. I asked mother where Bucko was going and she said, “The glue factory.”

Tea with dead squirrels

In the glove drawer, I used to keep a little white cardboard jewelry box with a rattlesnake rattle that Papa E had given to me. Every time I came home from college, I would open the little box and shake the rattle, but the day finally came when I opened the little box and the rattlesnake rattle had turned to dust. Rattlesnake dust.

Papa E often gave me parts of little animals when he skinned them. He gave me many poofy little rabbit tails and furry rabbit paws. When I was 5, and we lived in a cabin, Papa E was taking care of me one day and we went hunting. Papa E shot two flying squirrels but first, he had me watch them and he showed me how they spread out their little arms and sailed from tree to tree.

After he shot the two squirrels, he wanted to continue hunting, but was worried about me in the woods, so he found a good playhouse tree for me and stationed me under the tree asking me to take care of the two squirrels and not to leave the tree. I collected a lot of acorn caps and made a tea set; I closed the little squirrels’ eyes and put them to bed for a nap at the base of the tree using dry leaves for blankets. I woke them up and gave them tea.

It probably sounds gruesome, but I had a wonderful time.

Papa E and the pond

When Papa E and I walked in the woods, there was one special day that I realized Papa E was teaching me important things that he wanted me to remember.

He took me around to all the trees and had me rub the bark and sniff the bark, pull a little of the bark off and feel how wet the wood was underneath. He showed me the leaf shape of many different trees and I remember he told me that sweetgum twigs make good toothbrushes, and to find a sweetgum tree, to look up in the canopy for leaves that looked like stars.

He said, if I saw a tree in the woods that looked like a ghost, it would be a sycamore. There was a big-leafed plant he showed me, and he called it elephant ears. He also showed me what poison oak and poison ivy look like.

And then, I found jewelweed and he told me it was a cure for poison oak and poison ivy.

He dug up a little piece of ginseng root and cut off the tip of one of the roots. It looked just like a little bloody toe. He said, he and great grandmother made a tonic of ginseng every spring. That it would keep you healthy.

But best of all the plants in the woods, and I think his favorite, too, was young sassafras. He showed me the three kinds of leaves: the mitten, the ordinary leaf, and a glove, I think. I’m not sure about the third leaf shape.

We dug up the roots from one and using creek water, we boiled it in a tin can and then drank the tea. It was wonderful.

There was another thing that Papa E showed me that day about the trees. One was to take off some bark and pull out a wet strip of flexible hickory wood, make a slash in one end of the strip and cut a notched point at the other end of the strip. Then you could thread that strip through a piece of meat to hang a rack of meat strips over coals to dry the meat. As the hickory strips dried over the fire, they shrunk and held the meat fast. He said you could use hickory strips this way to fasten many things.

He also said, small hickory limbs, branches are the best for slingshots.

Daddy often made slingshots and was a great expert in their use.

Daddy could kill as many bullfrogs as he wanted to with the slingshot instead of a frog gig.

On this day, we stopped at a little black pool in the woods and we lay down in the pool on our stomachs. Papa E showed me how to lower my chin and nose into the water so that the water came up just beneath our eyes and then he said, now look. The top of the water had turned into something like a wonderful skating pond and there were dozens of tiny insects, many different kinds, skating across the water, hopping, taking off, landing and I knew this must have been his favorite game when he was a child.

These days with Papa E were the beginning of my lifelong love of the woods and the woods were my retreat. I was very proud that day because I did not feel like Papa E’s grandchild; I felt proud because I believe he found in me, a sister.

Old man Ratledge

Janice’s grandfather, Old Man Ratledge was the meanest looking man I ever saw. He still had some black hair and always grizzly whiskers. He always smelled like whisky and was extremely grumpy. I just have to say he was very mean. He spent his days on the porch of the old Ice Plant rocked back on the two back legs of his chair. Occasionally, Janice and I would walk down to the Ice Plant and ask him if he would please give us a nickel or a dime and he would call out, “Goddamn it, you sons of bitches! Get away from me!” 

Hog killing

We also had hogs. Down the road some distance from our house. If Daddy happened to be at home and Melvin or I telephoned, when we asked “Can I speak to Mother please,” Daddy would always say, “She’s gone to feed the hogs and the hogs got her.”

The hogs were a real trial. We had one successful year of raising hogs and on the day they were slaughtered, Daddy made me leave the scene but I was too tempted. It was a very exciting morning already because Melvin and I had seen a cottonmouth at the creek and daddy had sent Charlie Mosely down to the creek to hunt the cottonmouth and kill it.

Since I couldn’t go down to the creek, and Charlie wouldn’t let me go with him to kill the snake, I hid around the corner of the plumbing shop and watched the hog killing. Daddy and the men shot the hogs in the temple with a pistol. I remember seeing the heavy hog bodies go lifeless. Then they tied the two back feet together and hung the hogs upside down. They put buckets under the hogs to catch the blood and cut the hog’s bellies open down to their necks. 

I have a strange memory of everything that happened next because I have confusion about Charlie coming up holding the dead cottonmouth by its tail, and the hogs entrails coming out of them. I have a memory of seeing a snake or a hog cut open and little live black snakes crawling out.

We took lots of our hog meat to friends and family. Mama Piggy came and helped mother make extra hot sage sausage and Papa Bell took the hams to salt cure for us. The tenderloins were the most prized part of the meat. We ate those right away and took them fresh to friends.

Mother made wonderful country gravy with the tenderloins and we had all of the tenderloins and pork chops that we could hold for a good while. 

2 year old’s paradise

This doesn’t belong to that time: but to a time when I was probably 2 years old.

We’d come to Mayodan to visit Papa Bell and Grandmother Bell and very early in the morning, our cousin Marilyn came and woke us up to go out and play. And we went down the hill toward Papa Bell’s turnip patch. There was a big concrete conduit pouring out toward the turnip patch. It had a little water in the bottom of it. We crawled up in there and splashed around for a while. Then we came out and walked into what I thought was a jungle: all kinds of weed were up to my shoulders and trees I’d never seen before. At the other side of the turnip field, I could see a rising bank and the back steps of a group of houses. One of those back doors opened and a boy came out with a white dishpan full of soapy water. His mother yelled at him and he threw the water out and went back inside. Birds were singing all around my head. The smell of the leaves and the weeds all around me was so intense that I will never forget that morning. I think it might have been the first time I was ever in weeds and the first time I heard birds singing to me.

Now, if I imagine paradise, it is that second when the birds were singing and I saw the boy come out his kitchen door. 


Nearly 40 years ago, I moved to Seattle and eventually got a job at the zoo. Not a glamorous job, but rather manager of the food services. That is rather a hyperbolic name for what it actually was: A set of three iron trailers spread around the zoo from which we sold popcorn, hot dogs, soda and candy bars.

It was a good vantage point to watch human behavior and even better to observe the functioning of a zoo. I’ve written about this before, and you can visit Part 1 of this zoo story at:

When I started, I wasn’t the only newby. There was a new director, David Hancocks, and as with every new administration, the old hands resented the changes being proposed. Later, Hancocks proved a farsighted and innovative head of this zoo, and later the Sonoran-Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. He won over the old hands in Seattle, but when he first arrived, there was suspicion and even hostility.

You have to remember that until the mid-1970s, zookeepers were low-level city employees. The bear-keeper had been a city garbage collector before transferring to the zoo. Few had a college degree, and Hancocks proposed to up the level of professionalism at the zoo.

Nevertheless, at the first meeting with the zoo staff, Hancocks impressed at least some of the keepers as a bureaucrat and they felt he had condescended to them.

“You know what he said at the meeting?” complained one of the monkey keepers. “You have to wash your hands after going to the bathroom. Geezuz, does he even know what we do all day? We shovel animal shit. I wash my hands before going to the bathroom.”

Everyone at the zoo was known not by their proper names, but by their descriptions: There was Monkey Man, Gorilla Lady, Large Pepsi No Ice — he was known by his perpetual order at the food stand. Gorilla Lady had a second career as a belly dancer in a local Greek restaurant. The old bear keeper, on the verge of retirement was universally known as “Grampa.”

There were Bandana Man with the giraffes, Macho Man with the apes, the Bike Woman who was in charge of the gates. I was single at the time and lonely in a new city and Bike Lady was attractive. I’ll get to her in a bit.

But I want to mention Tree. She worked the admission gate, was about six-foot-four tall and studying poison-arrow toads.

Periodically, the alligators had to be emptied of the pennies they had swallowed. Signs said not to throw coins into the gator pool, but people are jerks. If the beasts had not been disgorged of their pennies, the copper  and zinc would have poisoned them.

Needless to say, getting an alligator to cooperate was not an easy thing. They had to be sedated and a plastic hoop or funnel stuck between their jaws to hold them open. One of the first public-relations events to happen after I got to the zoo was a gator purging, and the press was invited, with TV cameras covering the event, and newspaper photographers gathered around. The gator was laid up on a table with the hoop in its mouth. A zookeeper stuck his arm down the gullet of the beast to scoop out the coins. His arm was not long enough to reach the stomach and he had to give up. A second keeper tried; his arm was not long enough either.

Finally Tree was called. She reached her long arm down, glommed onto a pile of coins and coagulated gator-gut goo and pulled it out. Everyone seemed content. Pictures had been gotten. Stories were writing themselves. But the moment Stick pulled herself out from the digestive tract of the reptile, the beast woke, snapped its mouth shut, cracked the plastic hoop into bits and writhed on the table. Talk about nick of time.

Then, there was Ape Man Jack. He was in charge of the lion-tailed macaques. Jack was a true misanthropist. He never had more than a grunt for another of his own species. But he would talk all day long with his monkeys. He had down all their idioms and seemed to fit into the troop very well. He was a sort of alpha-male to the monkeys, taking over from the dominant Junior, whenever he was around. Ape Man scowled around the zoo, glowering at everyone. But then he would come home to the monkey island and a broad grin would show — or at least he would bare his teeth to the macaques and reassert his dominance.

Grampa was a relief keeper, usually working the bears and sealions. Often, I would donate the day’s leftover hotdogs and the two of us would take them to the backstage of the grizzly bear enclosure and toss them down the bears’ gullets. Those maws were as big as the Lincoln Tunnel. There was no swallowing involved; the wieners just rattled down the chute to the bears’ tummies.

The main snack stand, where I worked, was right next to the large-ape house. I got to know the orangutans really well. They got to know me, too, and each day, as the hours wore down, I would visit Towan, the male, Chinta, his sister and mother of his child, and Melati, a small breeding female on loan from the National Zoo. Towan became my fast friend. I have a signed photo of him.

When the zoo had cleared out, the sun was setting, the peacocks screaming their banshee-calls, the siamangs whooping and the teens working for me in the stand were emptying the snot-thick hot water from the hot-dog boiler and mopping the steel floors, I would wander over to Towan. When he saw me approach, Towan would amble over to the front of his enclosure to greet me. Often, in a gesture of Orang generosity, he would stop chewing on his food and offer the chyme out to me on his extended lower lip.

We had a close relationship. He was like a bartender to me. I would pour out my troubles to him, complain about my loneliness, and he would sit opposite me, on the other side of the glass, with his forearm resting on the sill, staring into my face, listening intently. He would take the burlap cloth that was his main plaything and use it to wipe down the sill, like barkeep swabbing down the bar. It was a nearly daily routine.

In later years, after I was long gone, Towan took up art. He became famous, if that’s the right word, for scribbling with magic markers and paintbrushes on large sheets of cardboard. In this, he followed the lead of the former artistic star of the Phoenix Zoo, Ruby the Elephant, who had died in 1998, and whose canvases had sold for up to  $25,000.

I was saddened to hear, in 2016, that Towan had died, at the age of 48. He was the oldest Orangutan who had been born in captivity.

I had my name, too. Since Grampa was already taken, I was Dad to my employees — most of them high school kids working a summer job. Eventually I had two assistant managers, splitting the week between them.

One was Colin, who pronounced his name the way Colin Powell pronounces his. He was the son of a black geneticist from D.C. and a white mother. He said he was one of his father’s genetic experiments. Colin was gay and his ambition was to become a fashion model or an architect. Colin was very bright and what he lacked in dependability, he made up for in brains.

I was living at the time in a house with the world’s most obscene man and two lesbian doctors. Their names were Cam and Clink. Hard to beat that name combo. But Colin’s boyfriend was named Dick. Need I say more?

My other assistant was a redhead called the Vixen. The Vixen had a temper that blew at least twice a day — as dependable as Old Faithful — usually when customers continued to ask her the same stupid questions. “You have root beer?” “No, we have Pepsi, Sprite and Grape.” “OK, I’ll have a root beer.”

The Vixen and I got to be good friends, but I thought it wise, as her boss, not to mess with her romantically. I stayed away from all my employees — I had about 25 during the summer. But later, I learned that The Vixen was gay, too, so the question had always been academic.

When the machinery was running smoothly at the zoo, I didn’t have to do anything but supervise my help. That gave me a great deal of free time at the zoo and I used it to get to know all the animals and keepers.

Then there was Carma, a volunteer, and her mother. Nancy was 38 and dressed and acted 15. She dated a different boy each night. She collected admissions. To the zoo, I mean.

Carma was indeed 15, but she was the adult in the family. I liked Carma and we went out for lunch occasionally. The world’ most obscene man liked her, too, and tried to date her. (“Imagine, if she were only a year younger, she could get into the movies cheap!”) But she fended off his drooling, or most of it.

At the zoo, we provided coffee every day for the keepers. We had several regulars and I got to be good buddies with them. They would take their breaks with a hand around a hot paper cup of rancid black java and we would talk. One of these was an alternate primates keeper named Macho Man. He would tell me  story after twisted story about his relationship with Bike Woman. Ah, Bike Woman.

He beat her and verbally abused her. She had aborted their accidental baby. He took that as an insult to his masculinity and beat on her some more. She had him arrested for assault and he asked me one day, “Do you think I should jump bail and get out of the state? That woman is crazy. She’s out to get me. If I stay here, she’s bound to get my ass thrown in the slammer. When I think of jail, it gives me the creeps, and all because I had the gumption to discipline my woman.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Not much. I just slapped her around a bit.”

Later that day, I talked with Bike Woman.

“That bastard saw me leaving the parking lot the other day and he rammed his pickup truck into my Rabbit. Then he jumped from the cab and pulled me from the car and started hitting me in the face, calling me a whore and a slut. When I escaped from him and drove home, he followed me, trying to bump into my rear as I drove. When I got to the house, he chased me and caught me before I could get to the door and he dragged me behind the bushes and started beating on me again.”

She had a black eye and welts on her neck and legs. I don’t know how they eventually resolved their battles. I hope Macho Man found out what prison is like.

Bike Lady was attractive, about my age, and clearly in need of a more sympathetic male friend.

I asked Carma about Bike Woman. “What is her real name? How old is she? And is she married?”

Carma had previously ruined one of my fantasies with the bulletin that Tree — remember Tree? — who had blond hair and a smile that melted me every time she aimed it, was married.

“Bike Woman’s real name is Joan and she’s not married. I think she’s a bit flaky, though.”


“Oh, I don’t know.”

“What else do you know about her?”

“She’s got two kids. One of them is under a year old.”

Not what I wanted to hear, but I still was interested.

The following day, I was walking from my little tin office to stand No. 3 when I hear the ratchet sound of a coasting bicycle behind me. The bike slows down. It was Joan.

“I saw you driving this morning,” I said. “I was disappointed. I thought you rode that bike to work every day.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s too far for that and besides, this old bike is too broken down. The brakes barely work.”

“So who needs brakes?” I said. “Just aim it at some children and you’ll slow down fast enough. Like a runaway truck into a sandpile.”

“I don’t think the kids are big enough to stop me.”

“So, just run into fat kids. There are plenty of them around. See, look there.” I pointed at a trio of grotesque monsters waddling along behind a grotesque mother. “The middle one is Grendel, but its’ the mama you have to watch out for.

“By the way,” I said, “Would you care to go out for dinner Thursday night. I was thinking of the India House. I haven’t been there in quite a while.”

“Well, let me think about it,” the bike stopped and Joan rested her feet on the ground. “I’d have to get a baby sitter … hmm … How about the next Thursday. That would be nice.” She gave me a broad smile.

I picked her up on the bus and we went to India. But the dinner didn’t go all that well. We were awkward together and the conversation went something like this:

“What I really want to do is go back to school,” she said.

“And what do you want to study?”

“Philosophy. I love philosophy.”

“That’s a pretty serious subject,” I said, “Are you an Aristotelian or a Platonist?”

“What are they?”

“You know, Aristotle, Plato.”

“Oh, but I mean, I’m into metaphysics.”

“Ah, but Plato is the great metaphysician …”

“No, I mean like the spirit world and astral-projection. My aunt was taken up in a flying saucer last year and communicated to them through ESP …”

My interest flagged.

But there was another woman I saw walking into the children’s zoo with Carma one day. A blond woman who looked at home in the pinstriped overalls that are a part of her uniform. She wore clear plastic glasses, totally unstylish, and my heart fluttered. No makeup, an assertive walk and interesting hands, such as you find on an artist or car mechanic.

Carma was my spy. When I needed to find out anything about anybody at the zoo, I needed only to ask Carma.

A few days later, Carma and I went up to Val’s Cafe for lunch, since we had been in the middle of a conversation when the lunch hour hit. Val’s was a greasy spoon two blocks north of the zoo on Phinney. It was run by the inevitable Greek and had to its credit two huge front windows with seats by them offering a sunny view of the gas station across the street.

Carma ordered a Denver omelet and I ordered a cheeseburger.

“Who was that blonde I saw you talking to the other day going into the children’s zoo?” I asked.

“That was Robin. She works in the CZ, with the springboks and at the Old Farm.”

“Well, how old is she?”

“I think she is about 28.”

“Is she … uh … marrrried?”


“Does she listen to classical music?” You can see I had special requirements.

“Yeah. They all do down at the CZ.”

“Does she have any … children?”

“No kids, Richard. Don’t worry.”

My brain was abuzz. I had asked my worst and Robin had passed so far with flying colors.

“Oh, wait,” said Carma. “I just remembered that she said the other day that she will be 30 in a few weeks.”

“Thirty!  … That’s even better.”

I was becoming intoxicated. Robin wore dresses. I hadn’t seen that on a woman in quite some time and it was quite a turn-on. The only thing blonder than her hair was the sun. It turns out she had been a professional swing dancer and had lived on a houseboat. But this saga is a sad tale for some other time.

313 DeGraw Ave. 1927

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble getting to sleep, I take six decades of my living and slide them aside, like a Japanese door, to open on the landscape of my childhood. I remember the house I lived in when I was five or six years old, trace its floorplan, walk out its door and wander the streets. What is most surprising is how much there is stored in the neurons, untouched for half a century, that can be re-animated. Each door I open opens into a room with new doors to open, that open on other rooms with other doors.

Mom, Sue and Stan as kidsAnd so, I remember the front room of the house where we lived with my grandmother, Nana, in New Jersey just after the war. It sat directly on the town boundary between Teaneck and Bogota at the point Degraw Avenue began its long westerly descent to the Hackensack River. It was the house where my mother grew up, where her father died when she was seven, where she then had to raise her younger brother and sister while her mother worked in Manhattan. It meant that my mother never really had a free childhood, and perhaps as a result, adulthood always seemed to feel like a burden.

313 degraw ave 1927 in snowThat two-family house divided at the front door. To the right was the front room of our apartment. Straight behind the front door were the stairs to the second floor, where Nana’s sister and her husband lived. Tante Esther and Uncle Gerry. That front room led through a wide arch to the dining room, at the far end of which were two spring-mounted swinging doors — one on either end of the wall — which led to the kitchen. Off the dining room to the left, underneath the staircase to Tante Esther’s, were the bedrooms and the hard-tiled bathroom with its claw-footed bathtub. At the back of the house, tucked behind the kitchen, was an addition my father had built where Nana’s mother came briefly to live and finally to die. She was a formidable woman, born Anne Gurina Kristiansen in Norway, but so old by the time I knew her she seemed almost like death already. The fact she died in what became my bedroom hardly registered on me. I was too young to understand.

Usually, I get drowsy by this time, and I descend into a nether world.
The basement, reached by the dark stairs behind the kitchen, was a dungeon in which a large beast of many white asbestos tentacles resided, sitting in the middle of the cavern roofed with rafters and ducts. A coal chute gave some light beyond the golem, and what was once a window to the backyard near the top of the wall was now dark, covered with the addition where the old lady died. A cat once gave birth to kittens in the crawlspace accessed by that window. My father hated cats. I don’t know what happened to the kittens, but it is unlikely he harmed them. More likely he called the dogcatcher to come and get them. At any rate, they disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

That golem, the furnace, played in the cast of the adventures I devised in the cellar, turning used Reddi-Wip cans into space ships, which I shot through outer space with noises I generated in my throat, shooting each other into oblivion. Some days later, my mother wondered what the bad smell was and discovered the remaining cream in the cans had soured, stinking up my cosmos. Reddi-Wip was invented the same year I was born.

captain video

Captain Video

That interest in outer space came from a mahogany box in a corner of the dining room, which had a tiny curved glass window in it on which I religiously watched Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, to say nothing of Captain Midnight. Television was new, quality was dubious, reception iffy, and programming spotty. We all knew the familiar “test pattern” that burned into the cathode ray tube before the day’s schedule began.

My father aided and abetted my fascination with space travel by fabricating for me and for my younger brothers what we called “space boards,” which were masonite panels we could hold on our laps, filled with various buttons and switches we could flip and push, in imitation of the control panels of our space heroes. It is amazing how easy it is to amuse a young boy with an active imagination.

But it wasn’t only space that captured my imagination, it was also cowboys. Because there was so little programming available for the early TV stations, they recycled endless movie re-releases to fill up the time. Many of these, at least on morning TV, were Westerns from the 1930s. I came to know and love Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele — the “Three Mesquiteers,” and above all, Hopalong Cassidy. William Boyd had struck a coup by buying up the rights to his old movies and now refitted them for television, and later making a whole new series of TV adventures. Boyd was my favorite.

At the age of three or four — at any rate, before I began school — I remember my grandmother getting on my imaginary horse, Whitey, with me and riding her from the kitchen to the front door to see her off to work in the morning. Cap guns and cowboy hats were always the preferred Christmas presents.

Richard Newburgh 1949 copyThis isn’t about nostalgia, however, but about how a small boy experiences life. As an adult, one has a well of experience to draw on, a series of related moments forming a net, so that each new occurrence has some resonance with its past. But as a child, each thing is new and as yet unconnected to the rest. There are things taken as given: family, the house, the yard; later, the school, the way to the grandparents house. All these things ultimately mesh together, but those early memories are discrete; it is only as I pull them together while trying to doze off, that they begin cohere.

In those first years, the world was largely circumscribed by the house and yard, with the rooms, the mystery of the understair closet, with its odor of dust and uncovered lathe, the cavern of the cellar, the apple tree in the back yard from which Nana made a yearly batch of applesauce, and the vacant lot next door, which was our cow prairie or our moonscape, depending on what we were playing that day. Or, for that matter, our jungle when we took our shirts off and “went native.”

Beginning with kindergarten, the world opened up. I walked the mile to school each day and the mile back, and the streets became tentacles of geography on which I built my picture of the world. Each street was a different reality. To give a summary picture of that geography: Degraw Avenue ran basically east-west; the few blocks on which our house sat was a plateau; down the west side, into Bogota and Hackensack, the road went downhill; and in the east, from Queen Anne Road on, it went downhill the other way toward the Meadowlands, Overpeck Creek and Fort Lee. That was the spine of my earth. Crossing it, almost like shoulders and hips, were Queen Anne Road and Palisade Avenue.

Home territory map

Our house was on the corner of Degraw Avenue and Farrant Terrace, which was the street that ran along the side of our house, took a 90-degree turn and continued down to Queen Anne Road as a kind of anastomosis, leading the same place as Degraw Avenue. My best friend, Tommy, lived in a house where Farrant Terrace bent. The Clems lived in the house next door to us; they were an older couple who treated us like an aunt and uncle. Their back porch had jalousie windows, a fact that much fascinated both me and my little brother.

The other arteries in this circulation all came off this main armature. It is difficult to express just how central this picture of the world was to one in the process of piecing together a whole self. At that age, I knew nothing of Nebraska or Timbuktu; it was the spine of my streets that were the core, the seed on which the crystal grew. From those first certain streets grew an internal sense of how the entire globe might be pulled together in a single flash of connectedness.

Ricky 20 mos copyOut the front door of our house and across the street was Crestview Place, which ran uphill steeply to Fourth Place in Bogota, where Nana’s mother-in-law, Aase, lived, upstairs in a house where her sister lived downstairs — Tante Marie. The two were very old, very wrinkled and very powdered. When I was still pre-school, Aase lived with her ancient husband Thorvald, who wore thick black wool suits with a vest and a pocket watch, had wire-brush whiskers and the distinctive smell of old man. He died early on in my life and Aase — whom we called “Bestemor (Norwegian for “grandma”) — lived on into her nineties. I spent many a day at Bestemor’s house, climbing into the attic to play with the toys she still had from the childhood of my mother’s brother, painted lead cars and airplanes.

Down the hill to Palisade Avenue is where my father had his hair cut by a barber named Dick, who wore a white coat and had one of those pencil mustaches one knows from Hollywood movies of the 1930s. It also led to Olsen Flooring Company, where my father worked as office manager and accountant.

Down the other way, to Queen Anne Road, led to the A&P, the delicatessen where we bought potato salad, and across the street from the deli, the bakery where we bought “mudballs” — a round, chocolate covered cupcake that we loved as kids.

At the point Farrant Terrace ended at Queen Anne Road was a tiny private grocery store whose floor was covered in sawdust — a common occurrence back then, now frowned upon by health codes — and a stationery we called the “candy store,” where I spent my nickels on Three Musketeers bars, Necco Wafers, and a particular favorite, a packet of five sweet jellies called Chuckles, whose flavors were cherry, orange, lime, lemon and licorice.

Chuckles Candies

By the time my mind wandered around to the candy, I would probably be asleep. But if not, if I still couldn’t drop off, I will wander around that circumscribed world as I did when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I walked to school every day and home afterwards, doubling that inner map of the world. A friendly policeman stopped traffic on Queen Anne Road to let me cross the street. I recall Mrs. Winters and my kindergarten class, the naps we took, the milk containers we drank from, the rhythm bands, the finger painting. I remember the playground around Longfellow School (now closed and turned into a church) and my Aunt Sally who was the school nurse, and little Willie Shydecker, whose fifth birthday party I went to in a house just two away from where Aunt Sally and Uncle Bernie lived. I sometimes wonder what ever happened to Willie.

former longfellow school streetview 1

Longfellow School today

But it was walking home from school that left its biggest mark on my being. I wandered. I didn’t always take the same route. I took what I called “short cuts.” These led me miles out of my way, exploring where other streets might lead. If I have traveled much as an adult, it was only a habit set in motion when I wandered down Fort Lee Road, past Amman Park with its small fountain, and up the hill and back down to Bogota and the broad mainline railroad tracks — at that time six tracks wide; now most of the tracks are ripped up and gone — which I would stand over on the bridge and watch the trains pass, shaking the ground. The boy is father to the man.

My wanderings amazed my parents, who thought it odd that I would walk so far out of my way, but they never seemed to think it might be dangerous for me to do so. I think they were quietly proud of their boy for being able to find his way around so easily. They also showed me off to the adult world for my prodigy ability to name all the cars on the street by make from the time I was two or three. One Fourth of July at a fireworks display over the Hackensack River I was carried around by my father on his shoulders who showed me off to uncles and grandfathers by pointing at cars parked in the lot and having me name them: “Pontiac, Studebaker, Packard, Rambler, De Soto, Kaiser, Crosley …”

1949 Frazer sedan

1949 Frazer

Other times, he would test me, sitting on the front porch of the house and I named the cars as they passed on Degraw Avenue. From that time on, tests at school were never frightening; rather, they were a chance to show off again.

The odd thing remains that these memories of Teaneck seem to have a different reality from later memories, almost as if they were of a different person. I can draw a straight line from me at 68 back to me in fourth grade, me in college, me during my first marriage, me when I became a writer. But there is a kind of memory lacuna between that me and the me of these earliest thoughts. It is as if I have to dig down into the layers of soil separating me now from me then, like an archeologist, to discover this fragment or that, and then piecing together the shards into a full pot.

313 De Graw now

313 Degraw Avenue today

We all have a story-line in our memories, that continuous ego, that who-ness that we are. It is a novel told straight through. But these earliest memories are more of a collage, the bits and pieces reassembled in no particular order, the scents, the memory of being picked up and held, the doors swinging open to the kitchen, the golem in the basement. They are a preface to the story, oddly unconnected, yet, still of a piece. Tributaries to the river.

The box still has many pieces unrecollected here. I can take them out and play with them again next time a churning brain keeps me awake.

Sandro at Hatteras copy

Cape Hatteras is a place for pilgrimages.

It is a bit of sand that emerges from the ocean 30 miles out to sea off North Carolina. It is a place where you go to be reminded that you don’t live in an apartment, you don’t live in a city, but rather, you live instead on a planet.Hatteras cape point from lighthouse copy

For years in the late 1960s and early ’70s, my college friend Alexander and I went to Hatteras each February to experience the organ-point surf and a constant 20-knot wind that keeps your lapels flapping and your skin wrung raw. It’s a wind that can part your eyebrows.

Others may visit in the summer, when the ocean is tamed and the wind warmed, but February is the only real time to visit if it is a pilgrimage you are on.

Hattaras is much congested these days, but in 1968, at least in February, you could grab a mile or two of beach all for yourself.

In February, the last nor’easters of the season have blown through and chiseled the dunes into new shapes.

And each February, it seemed, there was a stretch of about a week when winter breaks and the temperature would climb each day to the mid-70s and the sun could warm your chill-chapped face.

It was then that Hatteras gave up its best.NC12, Hatteras Island NC copy

To get there, you take N.C. 12, a two-lane blacktop that runs the length of the Outer Banks like the vein down the back of a shrimp. For the 50 miles from Nag’s Head to the cape, the road runs straight between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Pamlico Sound on the other.

Sandro and the lighthouse copyThe Banks are a series of barrier islands that begin to tear away from the mainland in Virginia and reach their greatest distance from terra firma at Cape Hatteras, about 100 miles farther south.

At their skinniest, the banks are only a few hundred yards wide, with its single road protected from the stormy Atlantic by only the skimpiest of sand dunes.

And in February, it is not unusual for portions of the road to be flooded or blown over with sand.

After one vicious nor’easter, the road about five miles north of Buxton at the cape was nearly washed away. A vast pool of salt water covered what used to be highway. To make our way through it, Alexander had to take his shoes and socks off and wade through the icy water, feeling for the pavement with his bare feet. I followed in the car, driving at a cautious crawl through water that washed over the top of our hubcaps.

As befits a pilgrimage, we had our rites. We camped in the dunes and drank Alexander’s ceremonial hot chocolate in the mornings. His penitential recipe called for equal parts milk and Hershey’s syrup.

There were the whelks, Scotch bonnets, skate egg cases, dogfish carcasses, the 360-degree aural horizon of surf crash, the snap of the tent’s oily canvas in the wind, the intermittent flash of the lighthouse at night seen from our campsite, the squeak and squawk of the gulls and terns, the beef stew simmering in the black iron pan, the corroded spikes pulled from the wreck of the Laura Barnes — iron pulled and twisted like taffy — the swig of Courvoisier in the morning followed by that tar-thick hot chocolate.

There were those mysterious — to me anyway — channel markers land-locked on the mud flats near the Bodie Island campsite — the surf so far away — that unnamed wreck near the lagoon at the Cape, those Loran towers, the old dune-covered ruins of the former Route 12 near the light house that we walked along one evening and watched the stars through binoculars — the most stars I had ever seen.

A great deal has been erased and recorded over in my memory, but these items are indelible. I can even see it in these photographs awful as they are.

In all the years we went on this pilgrimage, two episodes stand out.

First, one inky night, we walked past the base of the lighthouse on our way to the beach. For some reason, the door to the lighthouse, which was always locked, was left open. There was no one around, and we didn’t hear anyone in the lighthouse tower when we poked our heads in, so we started climbing the iron spiral stairs.

It is a long way up the tallest lighthouse on the East Coast, and when we got to the top, we opened the door to the balcony that surrounds the lamp and walked out in the wind and watched the light flash over our heads and swing out to sea, where the tiny stars of ships shown on the black horizon.

The other episode occurred as we walked out in the dark toward the cape point, a mile or so from the lighthouse.

At the cape point, the surf crashes around you in all directions. You can lose your bearings quite easily, especially when you are below the dunes and can’t see the lighthouse.shipwreck Hatteras copy 1

The air is thick with the mist of exploded breakers; it collects in your beard and dampens your peacoat.

To make our way, I carried a hissing Coleman lantern that threw our shadows on the sand at our feet. And when we looked up to spy Orion in the sky, we were startled to see two giants walking in the air.

The lantern threw our silhouettes up into the sky, and we walked among the constellations.

In many ways the Outer Banks have become a place in my head — an eternal place in my head where all the adventures are always happening — and have slipped out of place in time.Sandro inside the Okracoke lighthouse copy

Which year did I photograph Alexander inside Okracoke lighthouse?

I want desperately to recapture every detail.

But in another sense, he always in that lighthouse, looking up its whitewashed core.

The author, Anders Vehus and old uncle Thorvald, 1966

The author, Anders Vehus and old uncle Thorvald, 1966

Old Thorvald was 87 and his jowled face was bristly with white whiskers. And like many elderly Norwegians, he was dressed in a loose-fitting black pinstriped suit with a four-button vest and starched white shirt, even though the two of us were out under the July sun with pitchforks, loading hay into the wagon.

In the southern tip of Norway, just north of Kristiansand, I was staying on a small chicken farm with a family distantly related to my own. Thorvald’s daughter, Marie, was married to Anders, who had raised money to buy his farm by working as a wood-floor layer in America. Their daughter, Ruth, was my age, and she made the rounds each afternoon, delivering eggs in their old beat-up Opel pickup truck. We ate eggs at most meals.

Thorvald smoked his pipe while leaning on the pitchfork and talked about his coming marriage, his fourth. He said he didn’t like the bachelor life and this new widow he had met was a good cook. His watery eyes brightened at the thought of food. He also said he didn’t like the weather, it was bad for haying.

It was the middle of July. Rains came every day at about 4 p.m. and left a rainbow over the rocky prominence at the edge of the property — Norway is all rock. That evening we ate fresh ham with its fat baked crisp around it — and eggs. We drank a warm, steamy ale that Anders had brewed in the kitchen. You might better have called it a ”malt cider.”

And in the evening that never seems to get dark, Anders played the fiddle and Thorvald strummed the mandolin.

Since they are Norwegian, they played hymns.

I mention all this because it is the little details that flesh out the recollection of travel: From travel years ago, I often cannot recall the major events, but I can taste, smell and hear the sensuous bits of which they are constituted.

The next morning, we drove to the little fishing town of Sogne, a tiny stone harbor ringed with immaculate red clapboard houses with white trim or white clapboard houses with dark green trim. There we boarded a bobbing fishing boat and headed out into the edges of the Skagerrak, the deep, cold rock-filled channel that separates Norway from Denmark.

Kristiansand, Norway, 1966

Kristiansand, Norway, 1966

The old boat putt-putted out into the iron-colored swell under a gunmetal sky toward a gray granite island with a single neatly painted wooden cabin on top.

In the arthritic wind, we hung a fishing line over the transom and dragged it behind us. The 25-foot boat rocked in the waves, scattering sea spray over us as its bow splashed up and down, slapping the water.

Ruth caught a 5-pound sea bass and wrapped it up in paper to bring home to her cat. Anders caught a bucketful of salmon, and I caught a chill in the salt spray.

Later that afternoon in the cabin on the rocky island, we cooked the pink-fleshed, sweet-fleshed salmon and ate them with potatoes and cucumber salad while we warmed ourselves in front of a wood fire and tried to dry out our sweaters in front of the hearth.

And when we came back to shore that evening, the sky still bright at 11 p.m., it snowed on us as we drove back to the farm.

It was the 29th day of July and we had snow. It was only a little flurry, but it was wet, clumping gobs of snow that stuck to the windshield.

Such little things, snow in July, are indelible.

We got back to the farmhouse, made the cat very happy and finally slept with the comforting, resinous smell of a wood fire in the kitchen stove.

Lion-tail macaques, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Lion-tail macaques, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle 1978

When I finally got a job, it was at the zoo. I was hired as a peon to sell popcorn. A week later, I had been promoted to manager and had the safe combination. The concessions stand at the zoo became my little kingdom; I ran it just as I wanted to. I hired the people I wanted and ignored company regulations when they seemed stupid. As a result, our zoo business made money even when the tourist season was over and all the other “restaurants” in the company were losing money down at the Puget Sound docks.

I worked in an iron box maybe 11 feet by six feet deep surrounded by Rube Goldberg steaming, fuming machines.

The concessions stand is a trailer, like those seen at little league games of county fairs, and at lunchtime, the lines for wieners and Pepsi stretch around the children’s zoo. I felt like some zoo animal myself, people staring as they walked past at this six-foot simian with a white snapper cap and striped vest smiling through his beard. But the real zoo was outside my steel cage:

“What do you have to drink?”

“Pepsi, 7-Up, Orange, Diet Pepsi and milk.”

“No grape?”

“No grape.”

“I’ll have root beer, then.”

One woman whose root beer thirst couldn’t be satisfied elsewise asked my to mix half orange and half Pepsi. (I tried it after she left to see if it was as vile as it sounds and it is.)

“You have peanuts?”

“No peanuts. We have popcorn.”

“I never heard of a zoo without peanuts. What do we feed the animals?”

(Under my breath: “That’s WHY we don’t have the damn peanuts, idiot.”)

One sweet motherly woman took us for an information booth and asked, “Do they mate the gorillas every day?”

“I think they pretty much let the gorillas do what they want.”

Early on one day, a young woman in a zookeepers uniform wandered by carrying a baby gorilla like a two-year-old in her arms. He must have weighed nearly 100 pounds. Around lunchtime, an elephant walked past, guided by two men who had to whip his trunk to prevent him from turning at us and snaffling popcorn. In the afternoon, the gorilla woman went by in the other direction with the gorilla twitching one hand on her breasts.

Bobo all grown up

Bobo all grown up

We sold only a few items. There were the aforementioned drinks, hot dogs, potato chips, popcorn, coffee, crackerjacks, Cheez-twirlz and an abominable nougat candy called Big Hunk. It was our only candy bar and no one seemed to want it, and considering the crap that they were willing to eat, that was surprising.

“What kind of candy you got?”

“Big Hunk,” I said, grinning and holding out a bar.

“Izatall? No thanks.”

And considering what we sold, I was amazed at the naivete of another with-it mother, who asked, “Do your hot dogs have any nitrates? We don’t want any nitrates.”

“Nitrates? I don’t know, but there are some mighty tasty fly legs, and if you look close, you can see the coagulated sputum.”

She also asked if the orange pop was carbonated, apparently wanting to protect her urchin from carbonic acid. She settled on a bag of barbecue potato chips “with no preservatives.”

The hot dogs were made of turkey and spices and anything else, and they sat all day bloating in a steel box of simmering water. When I picked up the little suckers with the tongs, they sometimes disintegrated. But they were better than the buns.

The buns sat in a steamer that hissed and sputtered all day, acting like some volcanic fumerole. If they remained too long, they turned into a finger of wallpaper paste and were as appetizing as jellied snot.

And with the bun steamer blasting, the pup steamer simmering, the coffee machine blustering and the tea pot heating that little trailer was one large Vicks Vaporizer. Steam condensed everywhere and the bottoms of all the shelves dripped, leaving the floor eternally sopping. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the infernal, brimstone appearance of all that venting steam. At least I enjoyed it the first day.

Meanwhile, I just had to enjoy watching people like the couple who walked toward us from the children’s zoo talking about how cute all the loose animals were. There were peacocks, guinea fowl, mallards, cocks and hens. Then a squirrel jumped out of the bushes and ran right up to the woman stopping just short of hopping on her leg. They stood there, startled, not knowing what to expect. The squirrel twitched his nose suddenly and the wife jumped behind her hubby, screaming and he, no John Wayne, couldn’t think of anything to do. The squirrel had made his point, and feeling reasonably superior, he dived back into the geraniums, looking for another victim.

And yes, I got to eat hot dogs free for lunch.

Woodland Park and Green Lake, 4 decades ago

Woodland Park and Green Lake, 4 decades ago

Of course, the zoo had its share of misfits, people who may well have belonged on the other side of the bars.

There was Bill Cowell, the old relief keeper. He had seniority and could vary his routine, taking care of whatever animals needed help while their regular keeper was sick or on vacation. Bill was getting on and had lost some of his former sharpness, but he still talked over the speed limit.

One day, he brought in a newspaper story about Johnny Weismuller, ex-Tarzan and faded Olympic star. Johnny was in a sanitarium and apparently senile, running through the halls, scaring the other geriatrics with his Tarzan yells. Bill brought out this piece of paper clipped from the Post-Intelligencer and started telling me, “You are too young to remember this guy, but maybe you’ve read about him. Johnny Weismuller, he used to swim in the Olympics. You ever heard of him?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He was Tarzan.”

“Uh-huh. He starred with, uh, Muriel O’Sullivan, I think it was. But you’re too young to know those movies.”

“I saw them all on television.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess they have been on TV. Well, read this. It’s real sad. I guess I’m next. But I really think someone’s trying to make him look crazy to get at his money, you know, like they did with Groucho Marx. I bet he ain’t crazy at all.”

Another time, he endeared himself to me when, on a busy Saturday, with crowds of kids screaming and spilling their popcorn and crying and parents at the end of their patience, he said, as he bought his daily hot dog, “These goddamn kids — Dont’cha just wanna run them over?”zoo bear

As in any retail business, whether it’s a tavern or a hot dog stand, you got to know regular customers by their orders. One regular was Large Pepsi No Ice. He was on the maintenance crew and picked up the mess we caused by handing kids all the paper wrappings they loved to strew across the grounds. LPNI was about 50 with a permanent 5-O’clock shadow and a view of the world honed on his dedication to professional wrestling. He was married but professed to hate his wife, saying so in a tone of voice I understood to be the tenderest expression he was capable of. Or the next tenderest: I remember him saying as he took a break to go over and watch the orangutans, “I’ve got to go see my babies today.”

He loved sports and Seattle was a good city for it. He brought me all the news everyday of his beloved Sonics. He also kept up with the Mariners and Seahawks. He had tickets to the last playoff game between the Sonics and the Lakers, but was torn between going to watch the roundball and watching his favorite wrestler at the Arena. he had tickets to both and finally decided to watch Nasty McGurdle fight Big Anastasio for a while (“There should be lots of blood flowing tonight”) and then move over to the Coliseum to catch the last half of the Sonics game.

We talked about how good it was that the Sonics got rid of Marvin Webster and then how Bob McAdoo was hurting the Celtics by being a one-man team. LPNI Liked McAdoo a lot, however. He explained himself: “McAdoo is like me; I’m a great pig fucker.”

Then there was Eugene. He was also maintenance. He was about 60 and black. He talked about when he used to live in Oakland, but I could tell by his rural accent that he used to live on a farm somewhere before Oakland.

“Yes, yes. I comes from Arkansas.”

He drank five or six cups of coffee a day, paying for maybe two of them. (“How about a heatin’ up for this cup?”)

“I don’ believe in doin’ no work. I never worked in Oakland. I jus’ hustled the streets. Made a good livin’ at it, too. But when I gets to Seattle, I finds a good woman and she makes me get this here job. I don’ mind it much, I guess. It ain’t hard. But this rheumatiz in my neck is gettin’ me. I got to go see a doctor ’bout it. I thinks the bones in my neck is grinding themselves and the marrow is comin’ out, like you see on a hog when the bone is wearin’ and busted. You ever see the marrow of a hog’s bone?”

And to anyone who hangs around them, the people working at the zoo are often just as exotic as the slow loris or Przewalski’s Wild Horse. There is the twitch-eyed monkey keeper who looks like his lion-tailed macaques, the avuncular bear keeper who likes to pitch day-old hot dogs down the bottomless maw of his grizzlies, the tropical-house keeper who has to dig down the throat of a questionably sedated crocodile to pull out the gobs of ingested pennies heedless zoogoers have tossed into his water.

But the oddest zookeeper of all is the night-keeper, who skulks around the grounds in the dark with his flashlight and walkie-talkie.

I met one  one evening just before closing time. We were both leaning over the rail in front of the orangutans.

“Fascinating, aren’t they?,” I asked.

“Oh, hell, they ain’t too fascinating,” he answered in a growling voice of a 50-ish blue-collar man who knows what it is to be an alpha male.

I said I thought he must have been a zookeeper too long, if the animals had lost their appeal.

“Well, I used to think they were fascinating,” he said, “but then I got to know them pretty close. They are stupid.

“As far as evolution goes, the orangs are just hanging on. They aren’t adapted well. They need a specialized habitat and it’s disappearing.”

A staccato of static blasted from his intercom and he answered something back, then stuck it back in the leather holster on his belt.



“Now, I’ve known some pretty smart gorillas, and a lot of mediocre ones, and a few dumb gorillas. And the chimpanzees — I’ve known a whole lot of really smart chimps. There are some stupid chimps, too, but not many. But I’ve never known a smart orang.

“Once, when I was in Sumatra, I was walking out in the brush and this huge male orang came walking up to near where I was. He came to maybe 10 feet from me and I stood stock still so I wouldn’t disturb him. I thought he knew I was there, but wasn’t going to give an inch of his territory. He was the biggest orang I ever saw and he was standing around digging up grasses and roots. He finally walked on without so much as acknowledging my presence.

“That was the start of my fascination with orangs. It wasn’t until years later that I found out the ape got that close to me only because he was too dumb to know what I was and what a threat mankind posed for him.”

“You seem to like the apes,” I said. “Do you know why this zoo doesn’t have any chimpanzees?”

“Well, a few years ago, a political decision was made somewhere in the front office that we didn’t have enough money to support all three great apes, so they decided to get rid of the chimps. It’s always politics that runs things, never what the zoo needs or how we can solve a problem.

“Someone in the administration, who probably had never even been to the zoo, decided to get rid of the chimps. It’s like the new displays that are being built.”

Towan, the male orang in the cage, looked through the glass and offered us some chime from his outstretched lower lip. It’s an orang’s way of saying, “grab a seat, make yourself at home.”

We talked about the new gorilla exhibit, one of those open-ground enclosures that replaced the dingy old glass-front cages that used to be used.

“It’s all political,” the zookeeper said, with some bite in his tone. “These people think it will be better for the gorillas to be out in a more ‘natural habitat.’ But, hell, our gorillas were born in captivity. They’ve never known what it is to be out in the open. We don’t know what will happen; chances are, the gorillas will be freaked out by the change. We introduce stressors in their life, saying it will reduce them. But it is only our own conscience that is calmed. Five of our gorillas were born in captivity. For them the cage is the natural habitat. I’m sure the stress will kill at least one of them. But I was never asked. Someone up front decided it was politically better to give them trees and concrete mountains. At least one will die.

“I guess I’ve been around and I know about as much about departing as anyone on this earth and I know that you don’t die without giving up. That goes for apes and humans, too. No one ever died without giving up somehow. Even a wreck on the freeway means that someone gave up.

“Disease is just partial suicide. You give up part of your will to live and you get sick. The human body was designed to fight off disease. But when you give up, you let the germs and microbes into your system. I haven’t had so much as a cold in seven years. Not that I don’t take care of my body. I eat good foods and keep myself in shape. But I haven’t seen a doctor in a long time and I intend to keep it that way. Doctors are like mechanics. You keep your car healthy and you don’t need one. But if you have a wreck or it breaks down, the mechanic can fix it, but it’s never as good as it once was.

“People get sick because their will is worn down by stressors. Just like the apes will be worn by moving them; they can’t take the stressors.”

Towan tilted his red-haired simian head and began playing peek-a-boo with the remains of the burlap sack he is given daily.

“Like the IRS,” the nightkeeper went on. “Every year they take a little more out of your pay and they figure out some new way to make life harder.

“I wonder if the federal government knows how much disease it causes by not living within its budget.

“It’s not the money they take out. We can afford to pay it, but every year they take a little more and each increase is a stressor and someone gets sick, maybe dies because of the federal government. It’s all politics.”

And somewhere in the increasing dusk, a peacock screeched and it was time to close.

Towan reached his long arms side to side and embraced the glass. Then he climbed up the steel posts that made for trees in his cage and he sat in his roost next to Melati, one of the females.

Sleep well, Towan, I thought. Life could be worse. You could have to file a 1040.