A Space Where We Can Forget Ourselves

A Relaxing Day

I recently spent a relaxing day at the local zoo. It was a hot summer day, and most of the animals were in various states of laziness. But the people watching was worth the price of admission.

Zoos fascinate me. Local governments invest huge amounts of money to collect exotic beasts and put them on display. They sink vast sums into recreating the tundra, the jungle, and the dessert, all for the animals’ comfort. And yet, the biggest appeal of zoos often isn’t the animals at all, it is the people who visit them.

A hot afternoon in the middle of summer is not the time to visit a zoo. The harsh sun, the hot temperatures, and all those paved walkways worsen the experience. The animals know better. Even dessert natives, like the camels, rest in the heat. Creatures who thrive in cooler climates disappear entirely into the relative coolness of their shelters. On a hot July Sunday, I knew we would spend a lot of time straining to see the fleeting glimpse of sleeping beasts. But summer is also the zoo’s busiest season and that made the visit appealing despite the laziness of the creatures who lived there.

Zoos bring people together. As one of the few sources for close encounters with live animals from far away, they draw together patrons from all walks of life. They transcend the things that divide us, putting people of different races, cultures, and backgrounds together for a common purpose: seeing cute, exotic, and fascinating animals. This commonality makes them a rich source for the casual people watcher.

Visitors at the zoo take all forms. They are flamboyant and reserved. They slide along quietly or charge through in large groups. They are black, white, and brown, rich and poor, young and old, all there together in that one special place.

As I walked among the exhibits, the people gathered wherever they could catch a glimpse of a gorilla or a zebra. There was a sense of peace in that united purpose. Adults stood back so children could slip through. Groups waited patiently for one another to snap photos of scrambling lizards or playful penguins. Strangers pointed out curious birds or reclusive snakes to one another, remarking as though they were friends.

As I stood in the summer heat, I watched mothers push strollers with happy, and sometimes cranky children. I watched fathers lift their daughters and sons so they could glimpse a sleeping tiger or a lazy baboon. I saw the elderly and disabled pushed along by their families, still eager to visit the newest additions to the zoo. Young, and old, they gathered together to see these exotic beasts set out on display.

And there, amid this melting pot of common experience, were the caricature artists. People paid to exaggerate our differences for the sake of humor. These skilled artists quickly sketched out oddly shaped heads, elongated noses, and goofy faces for our amusement. Set apart from the animal habitats, under a shelter between two food kiosks, the artists seemed almost out of place amidst the din.

I watched as a young black boy squirmed in the caricature artist’s chair. From the state of the picture it seemed he must have been sitting there for some time. He was a fine-looking boy – healthy and alert to the world around him. But the image the caricature artist drew showed something different. It showed large ears and bucked teeth, shining eyes and a dopey expression. Maybe, I thought, this artist was seeing this young man in a different light.

Next to the boy, a family gathered as another caricature artist finished their sketch. Each face, suspended in a swirl of color, could be recognized in the family pose. But again, the forms were distorted. Long, peanut-shaped faces, squinted eyes, large lips, and wispy hair smoothed out the depth on the models’ faces. The age, the wisdom, and the stories those faces told were all erased in favor of the light-hearted sketch.

I stopped to watch the caricature artists apply their trade. Looking at the samples pinned to the wall behind them, I saw themes emerge: Doe eyes, bulbous noses, shaggy hair, and big teeth. These were the commonalities the artists saw. For them, it wasn’t about culture, or community, or even animals. To them, we all could be reduced to a selection of impish features.

I began to wonder how that caricature artist would have seen me? What features would have stood out to her as she hurried to earn a buck with her art? Would it be my pointed nose? My glasses or earrings? Maybe my round face, or long braid would catch her attention. My skin tone or choice of clothes were just features to her, nothing more. Like the baboon’s red nose or the giraffe’s long neck. My race, class, and culture wouldn’t matter to her any more than they did to the lemur who stared back at me through the glass munching on his food pellets.

Maybe that is the true lesson to be learned from a mid-summer trip to the zoo. It’s not about catching a glimpse of a yawning lion, or hoping the otters will start playing. It’s not really about zoology or random animal trivia at all. It’s about providing a space where we all can forget ourselves and our differences and, for just a moment, simply be people.

So Moved

I didn’t want to move; and yet, Annie had a point. She’s often right about these things. But at my age the idea of packing up and moving half way across the country was anything but a pleasant thought.

Annie persisted, and the long and short of it was, her daughter from a previous marriage, Jan, she moved out to the city and got pregnant, and then there were twins on the way.

Of course the guy, what’s his name, he took off the second he got wind of it. What a cad!

“She needs us,” Annie insisted.

Jan was 22 and didn’t always make the best decisions. But Annie was right, she did need us; and there was nothing really keeping us there anyway. So Annie and me decided to move to the city and lend a hand.

I’d spent the better part of my life living amongst the corn, in central Kansas, in a small town called Ottawa. There isn’t much there, nor much to do. But it was my home and I’d scarcely left it before. All that nonsense about Y2K and then that crazy election … it got me thinking. Hell, no good could come of it.

That was in the past now, but people were still acting crazy, like they were the most shocking things that ever happened. It was time to move on. We were both pushing 50 – not getting any younger – and then there was Jan’s situation. That lit a fire in Annie’s pants – mine too, I guess.

I let Annie pack most of the kitchen stuff. It was mostly her’s anyhow. She loves to cook, and damn if she doesn’t bake the best pecan pie. We were hoping the new place would have a bigger kitchen, but no such luck. I guess in the city people just do without.

The movers came and man, did they have their hands full. A leather couch Annie and me got right after we were married, and a coffee table to match. Not really nice stuff, but you know how it is, you get used to it, and we couldn’t afford new stuff anyway.

We moved once before – our first place was even smaller – and the movers were complete idiots. When they loaded our oversized chair into the back of the moving van it came tumbling back out like a bull out of a rodeo stall. Landed right on the asphalt and tore the shit out of it. The company made good, though, and we got a new one. I learned an important lesson that day: never take the cheap rout when you hire movers!

Hard to believe that first move was almost 20 years ago. It was only across town, but even that seemed like too much work. This time we moved almost 1,500 miles and Annie said it would change our whole lives, but man, we didn’t know the half of it.

The day after Labor Day we finally got on the road, breaking up the two-day journey with an overnight in Cincinnati. We caught our first glimpse of the city just before sunset the following day. As we approached from the northwest the Empire State was majestic the way it dominated the skyline. I wondered what it must’ve been like when it was the skyline of Manhattan.

We arranged for a tiny, two-room apartment in Brooklyn and it took us a couple days to get settled in. I can’t say I liked it, but Annie said I’d better get used to it.

Jan’s contractions began just after dawn. Annie snagged a cab and went to meet Jan at the hospital. I fumbled around for my keys, dragged on my jeans and then I was out the door. It’d been only a few days but I could navigate the subway like a native. I jumped the ‘F’ at Jay St. and headed for the Village.

Twenty minutes later I exited the subway at 14th and walked up a block to St. Vincent’s. I found Jan’s room but I was too late. The nurses wouldn’t let me in, so I headed back down for coffee.

It wasn’t five minutes before I heard the most hellish CRASH! – so devastating that several near me literally stopped in their tracks. I can still see 8:46 on the wall clock as if it was yesterday.

Sixty seconds later people were rushing in every direction, and I saw a policeman heading for the exit.

“What the hell’s going on,” I screamed at him.

“Airplane! Hit the WTC,” the man gasp excitedly as he hurried off.

“WHAT?”

“What’s going on,” someone said behind me.

For a moment we both just stood there, paralyzed.

Suddenly, all I could think of was Jan’s twins. Scaling the steps three at a time I raced back to maternity. I ran down the hallway and, nearly out of breath, I took a hard left into Jan’s room.

I’d missed everything. The nurses were cleaning up while Jan and Annie, looking exhausted, were beaming. Soon two perfect babies were resting in their arms.

Excited and emotionally drained, I was instantly in the moment, like nothing else in the world was happening. Jan and Annie were content, unaware of the outside world.

Then came the second impact – CRASH! It was worse than the first, and this time it nearly took the wind out of me. Annie and Jan instinctively coward over the twins before looking up, expecting me to explain it to them, but I couldn’t.

The truth is, I really didn’t know. Some said we’d never forget, but for me it’s just a blur of confusion, associated with moving to New York. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but from that point on all I knew, all I cared about, was that we had two infants in the house, and they were pretty much all that mattered.

Memories Are The Essence Of A Caricature

Our memories of friends and family come from looking at their faces. We’ll always remember our grandmother’s laugh lines around the corners of her eyes. We’ll never forget the big bushy eyebrows and mustache of our childhood neighbor from three doors down. It’s almost impossible to think of a certain niece without her signature glossy red lipstick. A caricature is a humorous tribute to all our individual and unique features.

The caricature artist takes those dominate first impressions and translates them into a look and a portrait we’ll remember forever. A good caricature has a definite playfulness to it. The artist takes his pencils and markers to purposely exaggerate certain striking characteristics in order to create a humorous effect.  He is allowed to take liberties and say things with his keen eye, fast hands and sardonic wit that we dare not.  He recognizes Uncle Nick’s large and bulbous nose and Aunt Ethyl’s eyebrows that she draws on every morning are fair game. Unlike a formal portrait sitting, a caricature is a snapshot in time. It may be drawn at a graduation, a birthday party, a wedding reception or an amusement park. The caricature is sketched quickly and to the point. Bold splashy colors quickly fill the paper. There’s no do overs or embellishments.  The audience giggles and laughs as they watch the details come together. When it’s complete, we all weigh-in on how it looks. “It doesn’t look like me,” says the subject, but we all know better.

A caricature more than just a fun portrait done quickly.  It’s a flashback to that special occasion several summers ago.  It hangs on a refrigerator door, bedroom wall or bulletin board to remind us that we had fun on that specific day in time.