The New Zoo
Recent upheavals at the Bronx Zoo have been so extreme rumor insists the park exists only in the minds of the mad. What follows proposes a reasonable explanation for vagabond myths and is intended to help the potential visitor overcome his terror of new forms-still open to elaboration-that have spontaneously regenerated a necropolis. Now more than ever the Zoo is that 'ocean of life' its founders imagined. I should add that at this stage of the park's history, it is irrelevant to the Board if the solution to the problem was as extravagant as it was illegal.
In the first decade of the new century, lethal strains of rogue prions scoured the Zoo of animals, many of them very rare and obtained through the tireless industry of friends. Scoundrels and thieves, too, are essential to a world class zoo, and this fact, admitted by the Board after decades of denial, had much to do with the acceptance and adoption of the current situation, as did the Board's worsening eschatological mood, and the unique personalities of our president, Mrs. Ditmars Beerbower, and the astonishing Ms. Few Seconds.
After the plagues, the Zoo was empty for several years. Little by little squatters arrived to claim-first the small mammal house, then the bear dens. When summer came and a night watchman saw young people thrashing about in the otter pools, he contacted the president of the Executive Committee, Mrs. Ditmars Beerbower, who, along with members of the Zoological Society and the Board of Managers met with the squatters in the Administration Building at Baird Court. (Those who suggested we inform the city police were reminded by our President that the Society had assumed control of the grounds on July 1, 1898, and that the lands continued to belong to the Society. "Therefore, " Mrs. Ditmars Beerbower said in those unarguable tones we have come to admire, "this is not city business. This is our business.")
The squatters responded to the civil treatment they received and seduced us with the Event precipitated by Ms. Few Seconds who, marvelous in her mane of green hair and tattooed pinafore, explained with unexpected eloquence the diaspora of the floating population.
"We have come via the Bronx Park transit," she began, "Lenox Avenue, Bradbury Bridge and the Third Avenue Elevated. Some of us were already living at Fordham Station from which the Northwest entrance to the park is but a half mile distant. Some came up to the open man hole three blocks south of the Croton entrance. We have survived cut-rate narcotics, the Immigration Service, dumpster food, the City Planning Commission, voodoo, assault weapons, the epidemic of the winter of 2,016, evangelists and the N.Y.C.P.D."
"Some of us abandoned middle-class neighborhoods," Few Seconds continued, "others luxury condominiums, others, the subways. We have come singly or in groups from Union City and Central Park, the Devil's Kitchen and the Flatlands. We had fled Hackensack, Little Italy, Flushing and Rockaway Beach. Some of us were living in coolers at La Guardia, others in the heating vents at Yankee Stadium. Somebody survived in Bloomingdale's by sleeping upright in a coat rack; another camped in the General Theological Seminary's latrine. A junkie lived in Morningside Cemetery disguised as a corpse, and a queen shared a dog house on Utopia Parkway. We've come from all over New York and we are still coming."
Few Seconds is a beautiful specimen of animal vitality and she is eloquent, too. She explained that if the tribes were partial to piercings (her own nipples twinkled with stolen gems) they put their collective foot down on clitoridectomies and foot binding.
"Nor do we condone the sacrifice of fingers and tongues," she continued, flashing teeth stained with betel; "We feel no need for expiation, for guilt and punishment. We are not demented!" The tribes cheered at this. When they had quieted down, Mrs. Ditmars Beerbower said with conviction:
"You are Free Spirits."
"Yes!" Few Seconds agreed. "But we know there is no freedom without responsibility." She explained she had been a philosophy major at Rutgers and had dropped out when Humanities was bought up by the Soft Drink Industry and the Presidential Campaign.
"Tell us more, " said our Treasurer, pouring Few Seconds a Pisco Sour. "What rules you?"
"Mutability," Few Seconds replied without hesitation, "and Beauty."
We learned that the tribes are fluid and defined by families of forms characterized and elaborated by, for example, true and fictive horns, sham wings, stilts, hoops of fire, wickerwork, holographic peshwaz, big bottoms, battery powered tails, false noses and turbans-and by colors: red moleskin and mud is a popular disguise, as is birch bark, gold paint and indigo espadrilles. Few Seconds said that because she is currently green she has chosen to live in Parrot Hall:
"Tomorrow I may be covered with fur and join the Neo Berbers of Otter Pond," she smiled dazzling us. "Skin color and gender are rarely an issue although the Blue Hermaphrodites of Tortoise Yard insist gender matters to them."
"The tribes are vegetarian," Few Seconds' current companion Blue Niles added." Our furs are acrylic and should a vital organ fail we refuse animal replacement parts."
"Life ends in Death." Few Seconds said simply. The entire company: squatters, Board members, and Friends of the Zoo nodded sadly and spontaneously observed a minute of silence, some crouching cat-like and others standing erect on tiptoe like birds about to take flight.
In the New Zoo, history and the solar year have succumbed to the whims of fashion.
"Like astronomers," Few Seconds smiled, "we believe in appearances."
"Surfaces are surfaces." Blue Niles agreed, languorously caressing his own azure skin. "We wish to be simultaneously gorgeous and unpredictable."
"The instant," Few Seconds added, "is all."
Creatures of the moment, the lives of the tribes are punctuated by make-overs and those events or 'pulses' during which they 'self signal.'
"That's when we get to 'strut our alchemy!'" Hi Fever-a lovely semi-salamander explained. The tribes believe psychology is a branch of aesthetics and eros the 'main event.'
"Everything's Eros!" Few Seconds told us. "Our justification for this sensuous levity is that there is no God."
"In their beauty and total atheism," Mrs. Ditmars Beerbower concluded, addressing the Board, "they are very like the animals they have come to replace." She then removed her blouse revealing to our surprise and pleasure a beautiful scarlet brassière trimmed with faux egret. "To the Aviary!" she cried, strutting alchemy to demonstrate her support of the tribes. All of us found ourselves swept up in the instant crying: "To the Aviary!" And, once we were there, "NO OPTICAL CONCESSIONS EVER!" The tribes passed out props.
Now let us explore the fabulous continent which was once the Bronx Zoo:
1. Arriving at the East 182nd Street Entrance, we pick up a safe conduct pass-those small red plastic cones some keep in a pocket but most tend to worry between tongue and teeth. Making a sharp turn to the right, we pass the Antelope Barns currently inhabited by the Topiary Tribes (fine specimens of proud, indolent and swaggering fops whose hair is coaxed up stainless steel rods screwed to their skulls.) Bearing left we descend into the valley of Bronx Lake. The approach is narrow and steep and we must negotiate a succession of treacherous steps. Very possibly our descent will be animated by an improvised fair: acrobat priests will, for a feverish glance, cast astrological charts or, in the cool of the evening, rouge the visitor's lips. The plain, when we reach it at last, is spare and crusted with salt; it is wise to bring water along as the walk to Agassiz lake is arduous. However, more often than not, a campfire enlivens the distance. We approach it, the pass held between our teeth, and, our identity assured, are offered thimble-sized cups of turkish coffee and some excellent hashish. Throughout the summer, days at a time may be spent in this section of the park in rambles and rides. (Donkeys are available at many major sites, and on occasion curtained palanquins. No fixed hour is posted for closing; throughout the park the absence of clocks is striking, as is the lack of money machines and public telephones. Public baths are plentiful, however.)
2. We choose the Bronxdale Entrance. Passing the psilocybin gardens on the left, we follow Few Seconds Path for a full mile. The path, edged by a brass railing carved with rampant phalli, conveys us to Linnaeus Point from where we may admire the Boat People of Agassiz Lake, a settlement of Marsh Avatars and the oyster beds and oyster roasts of New Jersey. If we follow the path to the bottom of the gorge, we will see the remains of the Pelham Avenue Trolley System. The trolley has not been replaced since the time of the Great Flood, but express steamers leave for the Bronxdale Exit Subway Terminus periodically, and they all serve milk and honey. While waiting we may dig for clams with the Cope Lake tribes, purchase a burnoose in the colorful souks above Agassiz Falls, or sip sherbets made with ice from the Catskill Mountains. Wandering self-signers garlanded in saffron knots and little else haunt this section of the park, and it is here, beneath the charming painted canopies that the New Zoo's anniversary is celebrated always unexpectedly. For several weeks after the air smells of myrrh.
3. The Cope Lake Exit is invariably wet and must at all costs be avoided in months of rain. Wearing galoshes, continue south several miles to Hunt's Point where the Beerbower Geyser-a jet of scalding water rising into the air at the rate of 4,000 gallons a minute, greets the astonished visitor. If the wind is good, climb aboard one of the 9th street wheelbarrows-all equipped with sails-and head for the Croton Reservoir. Here admire the swarms of carp: each wears a ring in its nose. The strata are much dislocated and the disturbing forces have left the entire area in confusion. The plain from 39th street to Battery Park is covered with efflorescences of salt and even fossil amber. This gives way in Brooklyn to a weary waste of sand. On clear nights Fez may be seen gleaming just over the horizon.
4. Finally, the Flatbush Entrance leads us into some of the most curious geological and libidinal areas of the park. Here the East River, always the scene of adventures and miracles, has forced a passage through the granite barrier of Greater Old Manhattan, creating a series of falls and revealing the grottoes of Grand Central Station. Rumor has it that these grottoes, known for their erotic illuminations and the massive new World Tantric Temple Complex-lead directly to the storage rooms of the Holography Museum and so may explain the quantity of first class illusions available in the souks. With any luck, visitors to the Temple Complex will be ambushed and tenderly ravished.
From the cliffs on both sides of the Union Square Ravine, cascades fall into the Harlem River. Behind this veil of green water the All Aquaria Acrobats beckon us and, as in a dream, we enter willingly into their uniquely irresistible morphogenetic fields for a brief, regenerating holiday-from which we emerge reeking of love, our fingers and mouths stained with betelnut and keef, hungry as bears, frisky as mares and-as the lights go up on Broadway, ready for anything.
- for Karen Elizabeth Gordon