When I first moved to The Bronx the Skyfari worked.
Like much of New York’s forgotten borough, the zoo’s miniature cable car had clearly seen better days and was occasionally prone to mishaps, say, breaking down and leaving tourists dangling above hyenas for an hour or two. Some fool even tried to jump off it into the lion's den. But there is no accounting for craziness wherever you are in New York, and the zoo is a zoo, after all.
As a newly-minted Bronxite and proud zoo member, the Skyfari wasn't a mere tourist attraction to me. It was a mode of conveyance, my little, rickety, airborne buggy. I used it to go shopping.
Beginning its ascent a few hundred steps from my door, just past the southern zoo entrance, there was no shorter route from our apartment in West Farms Square to Arthur Avenue, the Little Italy of the Bronx. The Skyfari was literally the way the crow flies. And free, too. My zoo membership soon paid for itself. What could be better than to cruise treetop-high over tigers, cheetahs and beasts from around the globe while heading to the local butcher?
As the modest green wire cage (calling it a gondola is an insult to Venice) clanked past the lift towers, it crossed my mind more than once that I might wind up as someone else's lunch while en route to purchase my own. Surely, pondering the food chain is part of going to the zoo? But mostly, like the antelope’s grazing away at long blades of grass, I was more concerned about getting everything on my list.
When you routinely pass through the zoo, you begin take its exoticism for granted. And there’s something wonderful about that. It’s a little bit like living in New York versus visiting as a tourist. You don’t have to go to see a Broadway show, just knowing what’s playing and that you could go, if you felt like it, is enough. I started to have that attitude toward elephants. And gorillas. And aardvarks. I was happy just to have them around and not to see them—although, I could smell them. No doubt this was mutual.
I understood how Michael Jackson must have experienced his private zoo at the Neverland Ranch. I imagined him in some spangled suit unloading groceries from his car in the garage and walking by a gazelle or an ostrich on his way to the kitchen door. Not totally blasé about this other life form but familiar, part of day-to-day existence. You recognize it, it might acknowledge you, perhaps a little eye contact, and you both move on. Dinner must be prepared.
At that time in my life, I was more or less vegetarian—less really, as I ate fish. This didn’t prevent me from shopping for meat for my girlfriend. I liked the frankness of the butcher shops on Arthur Avenue. There was no guesswork about where meat came from. The butchers’ windows were crowded with lamb carcasses sawn in half, pig heads and whole skinned rabbits. Bones and blood all on display. It took just a little imagination to pretend that the animals were slaughtered out the back like at some of the halal and Latino live meat shops in the borough. I preferred this to the sterile shrink-wrapped presentations in supermarket aisles. If you’re going to eat animals, at least acknowledge the process, just like at the zoo a few blocks east.
I’m convinced the butchers in their blooded aprons could sense I was a fraud—failing to project carnivorous confidence when ordering a rack of ribs or a few pounds of bacon. For them, meat is an affirmation of life—the prime measure of success. Nothing beats a rare steak to proclaim you’ve done well. Butcher shops and deli stalls are the very heart of the neighborhood, their ceilings trellised with rows of dangling sausages, and the endless chorus of chopping, grinding, pounding and slicing enveloping the banter with customers in English and Italian. The old culture of the neighborhood lived on in commerce and food while its playgrounds filled with Mexican children and Albanian waiters staffed its restaurants. Perhaps my insipid ordering was a further sign of this inevitable ebb tide?
After doing the best red-blooded American impersonation my semi-vegetarian Australian self could perform, I would relax and slowly gather up the other necessities and occasional treats that abound in Arthur Avenue. When my collapsible tartan shopping bag was fully extended and loaded up with provisions—meat, cheese, pasta, fish, vegetables, coffee, bread and wine—its slender wheels splaying on tiny axles, it was time to head back to the zoo.
The Bronx, thankfully, being the place it is, I don’t remember a single staffer ever batting an eye when I re-entered the zoo fully laden. No one seemed concerned that bringing pounds of raw meat and produce into a park packed with hungry wild animals posed any risk. And perhaps compared to riding the Skyfari the risk was minimal.
One day, I was running late. I scurried back with bags full of cuts of beef and pork, freshly made ravioli, mozzarella, Parmesan cheese and other fragrant foods, just making it past the zoo gate before it closed for the evening. Luckily, the Skyfari was still chugging along, ferrying the few lingering tourists toward the far exit. I climbed aboard and settled in, my shopping on the adjacent seat, digestible ballast steadying my journey home.
After a while, I noticed something strange, an odd loneliness. Dusk was approaching, a time when, according to the wildlife documentaries of my childhood, all manner of animals should be making their way to the watering hole. Instead there was an unsettling silence. Looking down, I realized the park was empty, not just of tourists; all the residents were gone too!
The deer and the antelope weren't playing. Where was the giraffe family? And mister lion? Suddenly their enclosures, so carefully constructed to resemble native habitats in faraway places looked like stage sets. Without the living creatures they lost their grip on reality, becoming outdoor dioramas, Disneyland au naturel. This mystery—Noah's Ark meets the Mary Celeste on dry land—deepened upon my descent. I had to solve it.
Grabbing my shopping, I trotted off the chair near the southern entrance. I glanced around; maybe the animals got wind of my sausages and stormed out of their enclosures ready to ransack me upon landing.
Walking cautiously in the direction of the gate, I spotted a zoo worker cleaning up.
“Hey, what happened to all the animals? Where’d they go?”
“They go downstairs at night.”
He was nonchalant. I was bewildered. Those wildlife documentaries of my childhood needed to be updated.
A few months later, we moved to the east side of zoo. I let my membership lapse. I joined the Botanical Gardens directly across Fordham Road, figuring, at least they don’t lock up the plants after dark. Eventually, the zoo took down the Skyfari, and I wondered if the animals ever missed the aromas of Arthur Avenue drifting overhead.
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