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Back then, back in 1963, my friend Tommy and I shared a dream of someday opening a menagerie. To us, “someday” meant “tomorrow” or “next week,” not “when we grow up.” The original idea had been Tommy’s, but I got on the bandwagon pretty much the moment he told me about it. First of all, there wasn’t any competition; no one in our neighbourhood, as far as either of us knew, had or had plans for, a menagerie. Plus, we both liked animals. And we liked to be in each other’s company.
Until the fifth grade, Tommy had lived all the way over on the other side of the tracks, in the northeast section of Oritani – also known as the “Negro Section” and some worse things we weren’t supposed say. The summer after fifth grade his family had moved down the block from us. His was the first Black family in our West Tanglewood neighbourhood. Demonstrators had picketed outside Tommy’s house when they first moved in, but the hubbub subsided quickly. The cops parked a prowl car with a couple of bulls in it at the curb where no one could miss it. And then one of the neighbours put out a big sign that read,
IDIOTS’ CONVENTION TODAY!
whenever the picketers came around.
My old man told me to walk down the block, ring Tommy’s doorbell, and introduce myself to him and his family, something I noticed he himself hadn’t yet gotten around to.
“I hear the poor boy hasn’t met any of the other young men yet,” he said, “He’s probably lonely. Who knows? Maybe you’ll become friends!”
I was too self-conscious for that. It seemed like a creepy thing to do, and I already had plenty of problems with the other kids and their opinions of me – they thought I was an uncoordinated “shrimp” with thick glasses and a smart mouth, among other things – and didn’t need more. But my father made it clear it wasn’t a suggestion, even though he’d bent over backwards to make it sound like one.
Pretty soon Tommy and I were best buddies, sharing dreams of our future – not the usual Boys’ Life dreams of a being a fireman or an astronaut or something – but the kind of dreams we could start on immediately.
We were always sneaking off on our bikes over to the northeast section and down to the Armoury, which stood on a great bluff overlooking an oxbow in the Hackensack River, to see what we could turn up. There was nothing better than exploring that riverine landscape that had been shaped and reshaped over millennia into muddy flats, tiny ponds, sloughs and stands of reeds, and hardwood groves that tended toward flooding.
We’d been told not to go there. Everybody, including Tommy’s mother, said it was a dangerous neighbourhood and people, especially white people like me, weren’t safe. She wanted Tommy to make friends in his new neighbourhood, but we rode over there anyway. I was okay about it because Tommy knew a lot of the kids, and they were mostly just like the kids around where I lived; they liked racing their bikes, standing around the playground throwing rocks at garbage cans, stealing dirty magazines from the soda fountain, hopping freights to the edge of town and back. Stuff that would make our parents, from both neighbourhoods, go apeshit if they knew.
Tommy and I would ditch our bikes in the bushes and slip under the barbed-wire-topped cyclone fence that protected the Armoury from whatever marauders might be hanging around, using the cuts some of the older kids had made for their own purposes. Kids were always ahead of the army in this department; as quickly as the army guys could repair the fence some other kid would cut a new breech.
Tommy always said, “It makes you kind of wonder how they’re going to have a war with the Russians if they can’t keep a bunch of dumb kids out. I mean, what if we were Commie spies?”
Once we’d made it through the Armoury perimeter, we climbed the bluff above the river and clambered onto the seven-foot-high rock – one of the mastodon-sized boulders the retreating glaciers had rolled and polished and abandoned all over the Eastern Piedmont – that dominated the grounds, and we stared at the bronze plaque listing all the luckless schmoes from Oritani who’d died in various wars.
We could never resist the tanks and halftracks and stuff stashed out behind the Armoury. From the top of a low rise we would pelt the idle war machines with rocks and dirt clods, making a lot of noise but doing no damage.
“I don’t see what they need all this stuff for anyway,” Tommy would say, “If the Commies are just gonna A-bomb us anyway.” That year in school they had us doing drills, dropping under our desks and all that.
“Maybe we can hide here under the tanks instead,” I said. It seemed more secure than our desks would have been.
“Yeah, and then when we come out we can see all the dead bodies and go into everybody’s house without knocking and take anything we want.”
Inevitably, the fat-assed security guard would hear us and pile out of his shack, making like he was going to chase us. We knew he couldn’t catch us, but it was grand fun to run from him anyway. Adding to the thrill was the persistent rumour, handed down by generation after generation of twelve-year-olds, that government buildings, important factories, and railroad cabooses were equipped with special automatic cameras designed to capture pictures of rock-throwing miscreants like us and send them to our school for identification and possible prosecution or, worse, parental notification.
Our fleeing feet carried us out of sight of the guard and the real or imagined cameras and down a steep overgrown slope and into the green world of the riverbank, which was where we wanted to be all along.
There we stalked tadpoles, frogs, leeches, crayfish, worms, and turtles without much success. We turned over rocks and boards uncovering salamanders that twisted and flopped in the sudden sunlight. In the cattails, red-winged blackbirds screeked and warbled, overhead crows chased each other out over the water. Jays fluttered and coasted, fluttered and coasted from tree to tree. Tommy and I waded into the green-choked ponds, keeping our sneakers on to protect against the broken glass and petroleum muck on the bottom. Our mothers, both of them, told us over and over never to go in the water – neither of us could swim, for one thing, and the water was hazardous, filthy, and polluted as well; we were sure to drown or die of some dread, yet-to-be-discovered disease. We listened and nodded as if this was welcome and never-before-heard advice while behind their backs we laughed their predictions off as the fate of other dumbass children, not us. Certainly not us.
We stood belly-deep and giggling as scores of minnows nibbled curiously at our skin. If we stood still enough long enough they would swim right up to us. Tommy’s mother made us sandwiches, and we shared the bread with them and induced them to rest in our cupped hands, shimmering and glistening, their mouths gasping as if blowing us kisses. A few old guys with beer guts fished and dozed, once in a while causing a small hubbub by hooking a good-sized catfish or hauling in a snapping turtle. My old man claimed to know guys over in River Edge who bought up snappers cheap and cooked their meat in char-blackened trash barrels, making vile stews they would sell you by the roadside if you knew just where to stop.
We figured we were the only ones aware of all this natural abundance smack in the heart of a modern suburb, an area endlessly fascinating, and reckoned that eventually it would be discovered by the right people – naturalists or scientists – and set aside for future generations to study. But no one cared about it – no one was responsible for cleaning up the rusted-out cans and busted coolers delinquent teenagers had discarded or burying the charred wood left behind from their illegal fires.
Someone had to protect the riverbank for the future, but we had no idea how something like that even happened. We both agreed it should be made into a national park. Neither of us had ever seen a national park, but it sounded like a good idea. Who would we contact? No one at City Hall seemed to know when we called down there, and Tommy said, “Can I talk to the guy in charge of making the Armoury into a National Park?” They just transferred him from one department to another and put him on hold over and over again until Tommy’s mother told him to quit tying up the phone.
That’s when Tommy got the idea that the next best thing would be to start a menagerie to generate some interest in the National Park project by showing off all the animals that inhabited the area. We already kept some of the creatures we’d managed to capture in old mayonnaise jars and fishbowls in Tommy’s cellar: crayfish, leeches, a couple of tadpoles, spiders. We netted some minnows and put them in an old five-gallon aquarium and sunk a couple of rusting beer cans into it to make them feel at home.
Stashed in Tommy’s garage was some rolled-up, corroded chicken wire, and there were discarded window screens stacked around the back that we figured could be fashioned into enclosures for the possums and raccoons we’d snare and tame down. In the back of Boys’ Life, there were ads for Havahart Traps, but they weren’t anything we could afford on our weekly allowances of zero. If we could collect a dime or even a quarter from everyone who wanted to see the menagerie, we could probably afford a couple of traps after a time; but who was going to come to a menagerie that only had leeches and crayfish?
Tommy’s mother thought we had some pretty good ideas and encouraged us to donate our future earnings – our dimes and quarters – to the National Park effort. But donating our funds would only complicate everything and put the Havaharts even further out of reach.
“Donating the money will give people an incentive to come see your menagerie – that way the money goes to a good cause,” she said to us. “If you appeal to people’s better natures things always come out okay.”
In the meantime, we dreamed about foxes and bobcats returning to the newly established Oritani National Park. Could mountain lions and peregrine falcons be far behind? I wanted to be a herpetologist when I grew up and thought maybe I would lead an expedition someday to inventory the flora and fauna, with me specialising in the snakes and lizards and turtles.
My old man and Uncle Scrubby, both with cocktails near at hand, were sitting in sagging lawn chairs on our front porch, watching “that Cohen idiot,” our across-the-street neighbour, wash his car with a floppy sponge and a bucket of sudsy water, when Tommy and I told them about our menagerie.
They’d thrown the front windows open and turned the hi-fi up loud so they could hear it out on the porch – Harry James, “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” with Helen Forrest on vocals. My father had that sentimental look in his eye, the way he always did when he heard it.
My mother loved Harry James, too.
“I always hope this will nudge her in the right direction,” my father said, “if you get my drift.” Which I did, if only vaguely.
“Has that ever worked?” Scrubby said.
“Not so far,” my father said.
My father was neatly pressed, as always, dressed and at the ready should some unanticipated opportunity come up the porch steps. He was tall and wide, his forehead like a blaze, visible for blocks.
When Uncle Scrubby laughed, it sounded like a bad cough. Short and skinny, he bought all his clothes at the Salvation Army. He was neither my uncle nor was Scrubby his real name, but everyone but my mother had called him that since about the fourth grade. She insisted on Lloyd, believing it sounded more dignified. No one knew for sure where my father had first met Uncle Scrubby, but none of the smart money was on the library.
The Harry James ended and another record dropped onto the stack. : “I Got Rhythm,” hard, loud, and wild.
“Excuse me, fellas, but I don’t think all the neighbours appreciate the Dorsey Brothers nearly as much as you two,” my mother called from the kitchen. She had to raise her voice quite a bit over the music. My father and Uncle Scrubby pretended not to hear.
Both of them were, as usual, unemployed and all but broke. Until something came along, there was nothing else to do but sit on the porch. Uncle Scrubby was old enough to get away with telling people he’d retired, although retired from what was a question better left unasked. If my father had tried that same line, no one would’ve bought it, not in a million years. As was his practice, he’d smart-mouthed the boss once too often and was again washed up on the beach. Not that the condescending bastard hadn’t deserved every word of it.
They had nothing more important to think about than Cohen’s car and our proposed menagerie. We showed them a jar we’d brought along with water striders in it, another with a bunch of leeches.
“There’ve been great menageries through history you could model yours on,” my father said. “Hell, Regents Park in London, the Villa Borghese in Rome. Don’t forget Versailles. You can look all these up.”
“If you can spell them,” Scrubby said.
Both my father and Uncle Scrubby were huge circus buffs; they loved menageries, roadside carnivals, snake farms, and freak shows, no matter how rundown and cheesy; the cheesier the better, in fact. When there was money for gas, we were always driving all over the map in my father’s falling-apart, behemoth Buick Roadmaster looking for gypsy entertainments.
“All the great royal families of Europe – The Hapsburgs! All the Kings of Norway! Frederick the Great! – all maintained menageries.”
“C’mon, Rich. Where the hell these kids gonna put a thing like that? Where’s there room?”
“Well, there’s absolutely no reason not to think big. They don’t have to build an attraction on that scale, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind, as good a place to start as any. Start small but think big is what I always say.” He quoted himself often.
“Show ’em,” Uncle Scrubby said.
My father pulled back his shirt cuff to show us the disc-shaped scar on the back of his wrist. He told us it was where he’d been bitten by a giant anteater the owner of a gas station out near Carlyle, Pennsylvania, kept chained up in his parking lot. Tommy was bug-eyed, but I’d seen it a million times.
“This was back before the war when a good many service stations kept small-scale menageries to attract customers. It was something of a fad. Shit-nickel little outfits they were, but fascinating nonetheless. This particular anteater was either the first denizen or the last of this guy’s collection. They say those things don’t have teeth but I’m here to tell you that it isn’t so.”
“Whaddaya gonna name it?” Uncle Scrubby wanted to know, having lost interest in gas stations and giant anteaters. He directed all his conversation to me, as if Tommy weren’t there. When Tommy’s family moved in, Scrubby was going to join the picketers before my father talked him out of it.
“A bunch of ignoramuses,” he’d called them.
Uncle Scrubby took a second to think and said, “Not that I’m against it, them moving in…
“…fucking morons, those guys…”
“…but I ain’t for it either.”
“Then it’d be best to stay out of it,” my father had said.
We shrugged at Scrubby’s question. We hadn’t gotten as far as naming the place.
“Ringling Brothers is already taken, so’s Barnum and Bailey,” Uncle Scrubby said.
“You should look into getting a sign like P.T. Barnum had,” my father said, “one that says,
THIS WAY TO THE GREAT EGRESS!
to dupe the rubes into leaving out the back entrance.” He was a big admirer of Barnum and considered him a Great American.
“A man who was years – hell, decades! – ahead of his time,” he’d declare as proud as if Barnum were his own son.
“What about Clyde Beatty?” Uncle Scrubby said.
“Taken,” my father said, “And too small-time.”
My father said if we wanted to attract visitors to our menagerie we’d have to get something and impressive “like a bison.”
“People will travel many miles to see one,” he told us. “Especially if it’s a particularly robust specimen.”
“A bison?” Tommy said.
“Yeah, what kind of a respectable menagerie doesn’t have a bison?” Uncle Scrubby said. “I mean, without a bison what’ve you got?”
“A bunch of invertebrates,” my father said, “which is what you’ve got now. And in jars to boot. I mean, for Christ’s sake, boys.”
“Too little for anybody to see,” Uncle Scrubby said. “You gotta have something that’s visible from the street.”
“Yes, exactly. Something to attract a crowd commensurate with your ambitions,” my father said. That his ambitions and mine were identical went without saying. He always figured if I grew up and turned out to be exactly like him it would be best outcome anyone could imagine.
“I saw an albino one once,” Uncle Scrubby said, “in a zoo back home in Indiana, I think it was.”
“An albino bison?” my father said, intrigued. “Never heard of that. Didn’t know they came in white.”
“I might still have a couple buckets of whitewash under my porch,” Scrubby said. He pronounced it white-warsh.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” my father said.
Tommy and I retreated down the street to his house. Most of what my father and Scrubby had said baffled us. The only thing I knew about Versailles was that my mother used the word sarcastically to characterise our house. We thought about the sign pointing to the egress. The more we thought about it the more we couldn’t understand it. Why would we want people to leave our menagerie after having gone to all the trouble and expense of getting a bison to draw them in in the first place? We were baffled, but we sensed my father would be proud of us if we tacked up a sign like that, so we added it to the list of stuff we wanted to do.
Also, we had no idea where we could lay our hands on a bison. There were no bison found in our region – at least not anymore – and if they had once roamed the landscape they’d have been shot out along with the Indians and everything else. And even if there had been a few still around, they didn’t make a Havahart big enough for us to capture one. At least not one they advertised in Boys’ Life.
There was nothing in the Yellow Pages under Bison, Livestock, or Pets.
We went to Tommy’s old man to ask him about finding a bison. He owned the record store at the Port Authority Bus Station. He worked long hours, was always tired, and acted sore whenever you came near him. He said we should stop bothering him with our foolishness before we even had a chance to tell him what we wanted.
Tommy’s older brother Boobie just sneered and called us dumb motherfuckers when we asked him if he knew anything about where to get a bison. He used any excuse to call us that.
We rode our bikes over to Kazmir’s Pets, the big store over in a run-down section of Hackensack that carried exotic parrots, monkeys, and baby alligators along with the usual puppies and kittens, tropical fish, snakes, lizards, frogs, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, white rats. We figured we’d ask Old Man Kazmir, the owner, an enormous man who was always dressed in an oversized white shirt with dog-food-stained shirttails. He was the closest thing to a biologist within biking distance. A lot of kids were scared of him because he’d lost both his legs to diabetes, which left him lunging around the store, wheezing and gasping, on aluminium crutches and wooden legs that didn’t seem to work very well. Some of the older Black kids brought him Red-Ears and garter snakes they’d managed to snag somewhere. Old Man Kazmir would give them fifty cents for them. The places they found these treasures were closely guarded secrets, only shared with other insiders. We were left to figure stuff out on our own. Kazmir paid better for spotted turtles and king snakes, pointing out pictures of them in the water-warped Golden Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians he kept behind the counter.
“Get me one of these sonsabitches and I’ll give ya two bucks,” he’d say, pointing to the corn snake illustration. If anyone could help us with a bison, it was Old Man Kazmir.
It was Saturday and busy. Old Man Kazmir was surrounded by a crowd just short of a scrum; : people seeking advice, wanting cat food, dog toys, monkey chow, clutching plastic bags and damp paper towels containing unfortunate purchases that had died just barely within the three-day warranty period.
“No refunds, only exchanges,” he’d say, his standard answer to practically every question from, “Why did my fish die?” to “Where’s the bathroom?”
He called each supplicant forward in an order known only to him.
“Yo, Yankee cap, you’re next.” Or, “Pretty lady! What’s up?”
He finally got around to us, “OK, Salt ‘n’ Pepper over there. What do you boys got?”
We asked him how to go about getting a bison. He looked at us with popping eyes, as if we were both crazy.
“A bison? Do you have any idea how much a thing like that would weigh?” Old Man Kazmir said, “And think about how much that sonofabitch would eat. Whattaya gonna tie it the yard or something? Not to mention the droppings. Holy Moses! A bison for Christ’s sake. Boys, someone is putting you on.”
As we slumped out of the store I said, “Maybe if we come back during the week he’ll have more time to talk to us.” I could tell Tommy doubted this, and I wasn’t sure I believed it myself.
We unchained our bikes from the No Parking sign out front, mounted, and headed back to Oritani.
“Hey! Salt!” Tommy yelled over this shoulder.
“What?” I shouted back.
“Hey! Pepper!” I yelled.
“What?” he said.
“Nothin’,” I shouted back. We cracked up.
Tommy slowed so I could pull even.
“Know what?” he said. “We should name it the Salt and Pepper Menagerie. How does that sound?”
We laughed and slapped five.
“Know what else?” he said.
“What?’ I said. We were pedalling so hard our bikes were rocking from side to side.
“When I die,” Tommy said, “I’m gonna leave my legs to Old Man Kazmir.”
Later that summer, on a perfect afternoon, in warm sun gentled by a soft breeze, Tommy and I were doing what we loved best, wading among the shining minnows in one of the tree-shaded ponds downhill from the Armoury – soon to be the Oritani National Park. We thought of the minnows as friends even though my father told me all the time that anthropomorphism was a serious breach of scientific discipline. It was nonetheless a great deal of fun to suspend the prohibition for an afternoon of undisciplined pleasure. The little fish were tickling our bellies and feeding on the scraps of bread crust broken up small we floated for them, when an eastern ribbon snake – an elegant slender snake that I recognised from hours spent in my room studying my own Golden Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians – glided smoothly out from somewhere behind Tommy, belly-swimming on the surface with its head held up full of pride – and whipped through our gathered minnows. He dipped its head, snatched one up, and dashed past me, a lovely comic thief fleeing with the fish crosswise in its jaws, struggling to swallow the unfortunate creature alive while trying to elude us.
“Wow!” Tommy shouted.
This would surely be my only chance to capture such a rare animal, and I was not about to let it slip though my fingers.
“I got it.” I exclaimed and plunged after it, laying myself out full length and groping for it as it went by, but it was too single-mindedly fast – its bright yellow longitudinal stripes enhancing the appearance of great speed, making my eyes think it was still somewhere it no longer was, leaving me grabbing at the spot it had just vacated – and disappeared into the mat of duckweed that covered half the pond. So fast I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it.
Empty-handed and soaked through, I struggled and splashed, working myself upright only to discover that the bottom had inexplicably fallen away. My sneakers like weights pulling me under, I didn’t touch bottom until the surface had closed over my head and an amniotic, green darkness enveloped me.
Tommy had started laughing as I’d thrown myself semitheatrically after the escaping snake and still thought I was fooling around even as I kept reaching for him every time I kicked to the surface, flailed – grabbing a mouthful of half-air, half-water, green pond scum, slobber running down my chin – and went under again. Gripped by unalloyed terror, I pushed off the bottom and for a second broke through into the sunlight but instantly sank into the green again. My toes hit bottom and I pushed off again and bobbed up for a tiny gasp of air. Each time I tried to scream to Tommy, but I had to cough out water from my latest trip to the bottom and take in air before I could summon an alarm. That next inhalation was mostly water anyway.
By the time Tommy caught on, I was going down a fourth or fifth time and had worked myself further into the hole, further out of his reach, further into strangling panic. He stretched out over the hole and caught hold of one of my panicked hands and pulled me toward him. I climbed his arm with a desperate hand-over-hand and grabbed onto him, my arms pinning his shoulders and my legs around his waist in a death grip, my ankles crossed at his coccyx, my hands laced and strapped across his shoulder blades, shivering in the sun-warmed water, holding on, smothering him, sputtering and clutching, laughing and coughing and gasping and thanking him all with the same limited breath. But it wasn’t over; my frozen weight was pulling him under. He twisted and thrashed, trying to free himself from me. Finally his heels found some small purchase on the bottom. He kicked strongly a couple of times, gagging on his own mouthful of green water and propelled us both into safer water.
With his feet planted well enough to steady the both of us, Tommy looked past my shoulder, his one glance covering the pond’s beaten-grass perimeter to determine if anyone was witnessing our awkward embrace. If any of the guys happened to be hanging around and spotted us hugging there in the middle of the pond they would surely take us for a couple of fairies, although what that constituted was only a vague notion. A lot of the guys already had their doubts about us; this we’d never live down. Tommy turned toward the shore and pushed me off of him, not violently but not gently either, into the shallows near the water’s edge. I came to rest sitting with the water up to my chin. The ribbon snake, as if on cue, raced past us, his half-dead minnow still held high, taunting us. I didn’t go after him again; he’d earned his lunch and his freedom.
It took a couple of seconds for what had just happened to sink in, that all the terrible fates our mothers had warned us about, all the things they’d told us not to do, all the things they had told us could kill us had nearly just happened. Tommy offered me a hand, like one athlete helping another up. We stood on the shore dripping and covered in muck. We looked at each and started to laugh, labouring to catch our breath and the same time wordlessly agreeing between us that from that point forward it would be like none of it had ever happened. We would never talk about any of it again – our dreams, our getting in over our heads, our near-drowning, our embrace.
Boobie continued to call us dumb motherfuckers on a regular basis, but more and more on general principles, less and less in specific reference to the menagerie idea.
My old man brought it up only when he and Uncle Scrubby were teasing us. Pretty soon they got tired of not getting any reaction out of us and moved their ridicule onto other targets, other, newer dreams. We had enough to keep them occupied for the rest of the summer.