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If I Could Talk to the Animals


Robert Schackner


I live in northern Connecticut. This is an integral part of the story so please
don't forget it. For those of you who may be geographically challenged, the
Bronx is one-fifth of the number of boroughs that comprise New York City
and it lies due South of my home. New Jersey is due West of the Bronx.
That said, please read on…

"You want to go where??!!" My wife asked in utter astonishment.

"The Bronx Zoo," I replied matter-of-factly. I had decided to take a well-deserved vacation, and since this was Wednesday, the third day of my vacation, my rainy vacation, I might add, I was getting cabin fever. The kids were on their Spring vacation, my wife was on her Spring vacation and I was looking to goof off for about a week. So far, my week was spent cooped up in the house because the temperatures were hovering slightly above freezing, with sleet in the morning and rain in the afternoon. 

"You really want to go to the Bronx Zoo?" my wife asked me again.

"Yeah, c'mon it'll be a lot of fun. I used to live there, you know?"

"Where, the zoo?" my wife queried.

A scowl crossed my face. "Aw jeez, no I didn't live in the zoo, I lived in the Bronx. My sister and I would go to the zoo almost every weekend. It was great and the kids will love it. I'll dial in to the Internet and get the directions while you go tell the kids. We'll leave at eight sharp in the morning. The zoo opens at ten, we'll get there nice and early. But we really need to leave at eight AM." Driving from northern Connecticut, I knew I could time it just right to be there after the zoo opened.

My wife countered with, "Alright, alright already. You're such a pain when it comes to going to these places. Maybe you should start seeing Dr. Sandler again. He seemed to help with your anxiety issues the last time. Anyway, we'll be ready. I'll get the kids up at seven and that will give us plenty of time. You want to know something? You worry too much. We'll leave at eight o'clock.  I promise. You'll see."

At nine forty-five we pulled out of my driveway and headed for the Bronx. Some thick, ominous snow clouds obscured the sun and the ambient temperature was about forty degrees Fahrenheit. My son was in the very back seat of our Windstar van listening to some really nasty-sounding music on his CD player. My daughter was sitting in the middle row listening to some really nasty-sounding music on her CD player. My wife and I sat up front and listened to some guy on the radio denouncing nasty-sounding music as the tool of the devil. We drove on.

After about an hour, my wife piped up, "According to the directions you printed from the Internet, we need to find I-95 since we're coming from Connecticut."

I moaned. "That's on the other side of the state. We'd be going east to go south. We want to travel southeast. That will cut our travel time by at least an hour. You need to find us a route that will cut across the state in a diagonal fashion." I handed a map to her.

My wife was looking intently at me, basking in the warm glow of my inimitable wisdom. She unfolded the map, and after a few minutes of studying it she spoke up, "I think I'm going to get carsick."

I slipped her a sidelong glance.

"It happens every time I look at a map when I'm in a car."

I turned and shouted over my shoulder to my son in the fifth row, balcony seat. "Excuse me, but I need your help."


"I need you to look at this map. Your mother gets carsick. You'll have to navigate for me."

As I looked back in the rearview mirror, I saw my son remove his headphones and scratch the top of his head. I handed the map to my daughter who in turn handed it back to her brother. He studied it for a minute or two, then turned it 180 degrees. Then he flipped it over the blank side. "Dude," he shouted up to the front. "I can't read this."

"Why not?" I called over my shoulder.

"I'll get carsick."

My daughter jumped right in. "Daddy, I don't get carsick. I can help."

I sighed, and asked my son to pass the map to his sister. She studied the map intently for about five minutes before asking, "Daddy, what is the arrow with the big 'N' mean? And why is this part colored blue? I like these dotted lines. These red and green lines are pretty cool too. I drew some blue ones in with my pen. Is that okay, Daddy? Daddy?"

I decided to go by way of the bush pilots of yesteryear - dead reckoning. I remembered seeing routes like the Merritt Parkway, the Schnaitz-Bateman Parkway, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Parkway, and You'll Never See Your Home Again You Stupid Fool Parkway. I followed the signs to the Bronx River Parkway and headed south toward the Bronx. I remembered we needed to get off at Exit 6. According to the directions from the Internet, (this is no joke): "By Car: Parking: Parking for the Bronx Zoo is located just off Exit 6 of the Bronx River Parkway." These people actually give you directions starting at their parking lot. How you get to the Bronx River Parkway is up to you.

I parked the car at 12:40 PM and we walked up to the ticket booth. As the lady behind the bulletproof glass was taking my 678 dollars, I casually mentioned that I used to live there.

"Joo lived in da zoo, Man?"

I frowned. "No, I didn't live in the zoo. I lived here - in the Bronx." My wife somehow had gotten to her before I did. Maybe she called ahead. Maybe she slipped her a note in the wad of cash I handed over. Maybe I was being paranoid. Perhaps not. Later on, I'd have a conversation with myself about it.

As she was counting out the loose change I had given her, I told her the Internet directions from Connecticut were not very clear and that we had gotten lost. She was negotiating a thick wad of Juicy Fruit between her cheek and gum. She champed on the gum heartily as she slapped the disks of her abacus viciously. My mind wandered as I started to imagine that she might be thinking, " I should have stayed in college instead of marrying that no good rat bas…" Her voice jerked me harshly back to the moment at hand. "Too bad, Honey," she said. "Joo shoulda come from New Joizey. Da directions are poifect from Joizey."

"B-b-but I live in Connecticut," I stumbled.

"Yeah, you said dat. I hoid joo. Hey Man, I'm not one of doze stoopit chicks dat dey hire for da kasession stands. I'm tellin' joo. Joo shoulda come from Joizy. Woulda saved ya a bucketload o' grief."

I took my tickets, and my change, but left some self-respect at the ticket booth. We walked in and headed for the kasession - I mean concession - stand. I bought four hotdogs, four drinks, and two lion-shaped lollypops. While I'm not entirely sure, I think I also paid for a three-carat diamond.

After lunch, we began to make our way to the sea lions at the front of the zoo. As we passed a boy and his father walking in the other direction, I heard the father say to his son, "No, no, no, I didn't say your grandmother looked like an elephant, I said she ate like an elephant!"

So on this fine, fair late April day, the sun finally peeked out from behind the clouds and we removed our parkas and snow boots and began to really enjoy the day. We approached the Congo Exhibit and got in line to see all it had to offer. As my family and I reached the head of the line, a woman stopped me dead in my tracks when she said, "Hold on there, Sport. The price of admission to this exhibit is two dollars per person."

My head spun around quickly as I looked into her cold steel-blue eyes and responded masterfully, "Huh?"

"Two dollars. It costs two dollars each to go into this exhibit."

I choked back the urge to get huffy, especially since she outweighed me by at least seventy-five pounds and she had a thick bullwhip attached to her Sam Browne belt. "But I paid a sum equivalent to last month's gross national product to get into the zoo."

She shook her head. "Don't matter. It's gonna cost you two bucks a head to go in."

Defeated, I paid my money and we went inside. We saw one gorilla. He was

We moved on to Himalayan Highlands exhibit. As I reached the front of the line, the same lady with the bullwhip and the Sam Spade belt said, "Hold on there, Freshmeat. It costs two dollars a head to get into this exhibit.

I replied, "Didn't I see you back at the Congo Exhibit?"

"Me? Nah. Wasn't me. Two bucks a head. You in or out?"

I looked at the hopeful faces on my wife and two kids. "In."

Defeated again, I paid my money and we went inside. We saw one tufted deer. He was asleep.

We shuffled on to the next exhibit known as Wild Asia. At the head of the line, the same lady greeted us with the bullwhip and the Sam Adams belt. I began, "Didn't I see you… Ah, never mind." As I imagined my self-respect floating gracefully down the Amazon River, I handed over my cash. We saw one stork. He was asleep.

After that, we walked and walked and after a while began to realize something was missing. All of a sudden, it hit me like a ton of blesboks. There were no monkeys, no tigers, no alligators, no marmosets, no Sambar deer, no gaurs, no zebras, no cheetahs, no hornbills, and no Red River hogs. We didn't glimpse a gazelle, never peeped at a pelican, couldn't stare at a sheep, were not able to review a rhinoceros, didn't eye an emu, there was no inkling of an ibex, never spied a swan or looked at a lovebird, and were unable to ogle an ostrich.

However, after driving nearly three hours, we got to see two sea lions, two elephants, two penguins, one wolf, three wildebeests, fifty-six peacocks, three teamsters from Totowa, New Jersey, and ten thousand pigeons. We also managed to see one of the most popular exhibits at the zoo, The World of Darkness. (Surprisingly enough - it didn't cost me two bucks a head. This one was free! However, it soon became evident why it was free). This exhibit is where humans can get close (but not too close!) to nocturnal animals and actually observe their habitat and behavior. As the name suggests, it's very dark in this exhibit. Why, as a matter of fact, it's so dark, YOU CAN'T SEE A STINKIN' THING! 

Picture this - you're in a building with rats, bats, snakes, and Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches (these things are so big, The New York City Taxi Commission issued a ruling stating they must have numbers painted on their sides for identification purposes. A sidebar here - I hate cockroaches. It is the only species of life on earth I have ever run into that will actually weird me out. I'm talking funky chicken-type weird-out. Like, don't be blocking my only escape route. I've found in my forty-five plus years of life that the only real method of killing a cockroach is to shoot it with a shotgun. That way you can kill it and not hear the crunch it normally makes when you step on it.

Hold on a minute - a shiver just ran up my spine, the kind that you get when you feel someone has just walked over your grave. Oooohhh. It's okay, I'm back now. I just need to make a mental note to call Dr. Sandler.

So while I'm in this concrete building where almost all of the light has been sucked out, I begin to wonder if that one-inch plate glass separating my family and me from all the creepy-crawlies is thick enough to keep us apart. I mean, what if the rubber molding around the glass has shrunk, rotted with age, leaving a one-inch gap wide enough for a few guests to hitch a ride home with us? Of course, I was also justifiably concerned about the animals on my side of the glass. The only comfort I felt about the wombats and the mole rats is that I felt reasonably sure they wouldn't try to pick my pockets in the dark or stick a knife in me.

It was getting late, and the kids were getting tired, so we decided to call it a day. We were on the other side of the park and it looked to be a long hike back. My son noticed we were very close to the Sky Tram (cable car) and that it would not only give us a stunning overhead view of the park, we could rest our legs and be delivered in comfort to the parking lot. When we got to the head of the line, I was ready for the lady with the bullwhip and the Sammy Sosa belt. "Here's my two bucks a head," I smiled offering her the cash.

"That's great there, Sugarbuns. It costs three bucks a head to ride this Sky

I started to protest until my wife tugged on my shirtsleeve and whispered in my ear, "Don't say anything. I think she knows how to use that whip, and I don't want to be the one trying to find your eyeballs in the grass if you get her ticked off."

Soundly beaten, I sighed dejectedly and handed over the money. We moved ahead and there was an attendant holding the door open for the next tramcar. My wife entered first followed by my son. Suddenly, it dawned on my daughter where we were going and how high we were going to be. She looked back at me, as expression of hopeless fear spread across her face. "I'm not getting in that, Daddy."

"It's okay, Honey," I pleaded. "It's safe. I wouldn't make us ride it, if I thought we could get hurt."

She began to sob and she put her arms around me and squeezed me tightly. "It's not that, Daddy," she whispered in my ear. "There's a cockroach on the seat. Daddy? Daddy? Dadddeeeeee?"

My wife sprang into action, quickly consoling my daughter. "It's okay Honey. Daddy's just fine. His eyes aren't staring blankly into space. He does not have a glazed look - he's just resting. Daddy will be fine." In a whisper I heard, "I hope." A sudden poke in the ribs from my wife brought me back to a very stark reality.

All of us walked past the lady with the bullwhip and the Samuel L. Jackson belt as we decided it would be healthier for us to walk to the parking lot anyway. We were shaking and twisting our bodies, performing dances somewhat reminiscent of those from the sixties, like the Watusi, Mashed Potato and the Frug. We carefully inspected my wife and son for any unwanted hitchhikers.

As we made our way to the parking lot where I left the van, I struck up a
conversation with a nice couple from Massachusetts. I asked if they had any suggestions about how to get home to Connecticut from the zoo. 

We finally reached the van, but not before carrying my daughter for the last
mile-and-a-half. I started the van, and both kids were fast asleep before we
even left the parking lot. Next time we'll phone ahead to see if more animals
might be available. They must have one heck of a union.

The sun was beginning to set as we began our long drive home from the Bronx to northern Connecticut. My wife asked, "Are you okay with the directions that guy from Massachusetts gave you?"

I smiled a knowing smile back at my wife. "Sure, no problem. I got this well under control." We drove off into the sunset, the shadows getting longer with each passing mile. We crossed the George Washington Bridge and spied a sign that read, "Welcome to New Jersey - The Garden State." I reached under the seat and removed the printed directions that I had downloaded from the Internet that morning. I looked at them carefully one last time - and threw them out the window.

As we drove along, my son woke up from his nap and shouted out from the back of the van, "Hey Dad - what's that thing crawling on your sleeve?"


The man at the body shop says we can have our van back in about two weeks. The whole thing needs to be repainted. He was particularly curious about the condition of the top of the van. "Hey man, how did you get the paint on the roof down to the bare metal? It looks like you slid about a half a mile upside down - just like a turtle!"

The doctor says the kids are fine and so is my wife. I'll be getting the stitches taken out tomorrow, and the casts will be removed in about five more weeks. My wife, understanding as always, just said to me, "Dear, I called Dr. Sandler. He said he'll be happy to see you on Tuesday."

I'll just bet he is.

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