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: https://richardnilsen.com/2013/12/13/memoir-life-at-the-zoo-2/
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.
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.