The Detroit Zoo is not far from the street where I live. I’ve visited there regularly for years — have been a member for years. As they were growing up, my kids and I spent a lot of time there. My son had his first PB&J in his stroller while we watched the construction of the Polar Bear exhibit. Though at the time, I’m pretty sure he was more excited about the trucks than the animals.
As they grew older, I packed lunches and took them in a wagon. We’d arrive at the zoo when it opened and take the train to the back. Pretty much the first thing my son asked was when and where we were going to eat lunch. Lunch at the zoo always happened early in the trip. We’d then make our way from the back to the front, stopping at different exhibits along the way.
The Zoo has changed a lot over the years. The Elephants are gone. We have a Kangaroo exhibit and a chance to feed the giraffes. There are a lot of new food areas and the play area — where my kids and I spent a ton of time — is dramatically different and smaller. My kids have grown and so we spend less time there. But recently they added a beautiful new Penguinarium. So today, I decided to go to the zoo.
I arrived with thousands. I’ve never seen so many people at the gate. The road into the entrance was backed up onto the freeway. At 10:10am — 10 minutes after the official opening — I found one of the few remaining parking spaces near the top of the parking deck. I parked and headed in — without the cooler, wagon or stroller I’d taken for so many years. It was just me. And as I successfully crowd-walked my way to the entrance and into the Zoo, I happily gazed around to take it all in.
It was a beautiful day and there were so many families. So many school groups. So many kids. I couldn’t help but smile. I remembered those days … those end of the year school trips with kids full of boundless energy. And, as I donned my headphones, selected a playlist and began my walk toward the back, I felt joyful. I was at the zoo.
There isn’t one time I go to the zoo, though, where a memory of a play I was part of in college doesn’t come to my mind. It was called Zoo Story — a one act drama written by Edward Albee. My friend Donna directed it. My friends Matt and Gary played the two male characters. And my job as “Prop Master” was to make a sack of blood that Matt would wear until the final moments when he would bleed out on stage.
The play debuted in 1960 and explored themes of isolation, loneliness, miscommunication, social disparity and dehumanization in a commercial world. And days after the two tragedies in Orlando, these themes and that story rattle about in my mind and remind me that those themes still exist and that they have terrible consequences. See Albee worked his ideas out in the Theatre of the Absurd where goofy people act nuts and do really crazy things. But the Theatre of the Absurb is … life. It’s all around us. It’s prevalently displayed in the hate, in the intolerance and in the technologically-centered, disconnected society we have become.
In the play, there’s the self-satisfied, bourgeois Peter, who is just sitting on a bench minding his own business, and then there is Jerry the outsider — the outcast who disrupts his life and sets all the crazy in motion. It’s so normal as it begins that I see glimmers of it in modern life.
“I took the subway down to the Village so I could walk all the way up Fifth Avenue to the zoo. It’s one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” – Jerry
Okay … so back to the Zoo today. I stood a while and watched the Tiger. He was napping at first … seems a lot of the animals there are when I visit. But as I stood there, he awoke and gave himself a bath much the same way as my cat does … she is just smaller with fewer teeth.
But as I watched, kids shouted at the tiger, trying to draw its attention. To get it to entertain them or smile for the camera or other such weirdness. The kids yelled at these innocent animals who are trapped in a compound, commanding them to entertain them. And I thought about how crazy it is to cage wild beasts for the entertainment of the human population… the bourgeoisee … and well, it got me thinking about Albee and Zoo Story and how the very different characters in that play came together to remind us how separated and crazy we all are. That we are people who need people … and who desperately reach out to find acceptance and understanding. And we are aggressive and unkind to anything or anyone different who isn’t doing what we think they should be doing.
And I thought about my friends Donna and Matt, who I don’t see very often, but who played a really significant role in my life for many years — who gave me the gifts of acceptance and understanding during the tumultuous “college years” as well as more than a few years after graduation — and who still hold a special place in my heart today.
And I thought about how sad it is that there is so much hate that people like Jerry in the play have to reach out to find someone to talk to … to connect to. That they have to justify themselves or yell at others or or pull a knife or shoot people to get attention. And I thought about all the hate that prompts actions of distruction. I thought about Jerry and Peter fighting for a bench … and the blood … and Jerry’s final word.
“Oh, Peter, I was so afraid I’d drive you away. [He laughs as best he can.] You don’t know how afraid I was you’d go away and leave me. And now I’ll tell you what happened at the zoo. I think … I think this is what happened at the zoo … I think. I think that while I was at the zoo I decided that I would walk north … northerly, rather … until I found you … or somebody … and I decided that I would talk to you … I would tell you things … and things that I would tell you would … Well, here we are. You see ? Here we are. But … I don’t know … could I have planned all this? No … no, I couldn’t have. But I think I did…. You won’t be coming back here any more, Peter; you’ve been dispossessed. You’ve lost your bench, but you’ve defended your honour.” – Jerry
See … I’ve been to the zoo. And despite all the joy I feel walking about in the lovely summer weather gazing at beautiful animals and energetic children — as well as recalling the many happy moments I’ve shared there with my kids on the train, in the play area and among the animals, the Zoo also makes me a feel a little uncomfortable. My enjoyment of creatures confined to cages unsettles me. And the sometimes aggressive nature of the kids — and the parents as well — as they shout at the animals and each other upsets me.
And I think of Orlando. And wonder if the disconnect and the hatred and the visciousness began with someone feeling isolated like the characters Albee wrote. If it began with yelling at people or things that don’t do what someone decides they should be doing. I see resemblances to a play and a world where characters lives were shattered with bloodshed and how it all began with inability to communicate.
I see brokenness in people, relationships, and our world. I read it in Zoo Story … I see it at the Zoo.
Like the character of Jerry in the play, I’ve gone a long distance to come back to my point. See, Zoo Story the play brought me in contact with people that positively impacted my life … Matt and Donna specifically … and crafted lifelong memories of laughter and more and fused me to something bigger with lasting power. So we CAN choose to connect and find commonalities. To put down our cell phones to gaze into the face of someone we care for. To make time to understand instead of separate from someone different.
To stop yelling at the animals and just enjoy time in the sunshine at the zoo …