“Huh? Oh, right: My lies make the children cry.”
Yes, that was it. But for context: It was the second summer I was working as an actor at the Central Park Zoo, as part of Wildlife Theater. We performed short, informative audience participation shows for kids in both the children’s and main zoo. I’ve mentioned the gig before. As part of our zoo duties we were called on to narrate the three daily sea lion feedings. This was, in retrospect, one of the best parts of the job. It beat sitting cross-legged in the children’s zoo, hand up a puppet’s ass, singing a patter song. During most of the year the volunteers had the honor narrating of the feeds, but come summer our little troupe would take the mic and explain all the behaviors the sea lions engaged in during the feeds. This caused some friction between the volunteers and the actors, see, because we were allowed in the habitat. Up on the ladder. While the volunteers, mostly retired or semi-retired ladies and a few men, would be stationed on the ground, lest they fall and break a thing. I guess they weren’t insured? I suppose we were.
Anyway, the day in question I was up on the ladder, sun blazing down on me mercilessly, dressed in the oh-so-appealing khaki shorts and embroidered polo that was our uniform. The girls — meaning the sea lions, the three in Central Park are female– were in their various positions, going through their learned behaviors with the keepers and snarfing down fish. Doing the feed is not as easy as it sounds. Not only do you have to keep an eye on each individual sea lion and explicate the individual behavior to the audience from a set of memorized notes, but sometimes the feeds go long and when you run out of the ancillary facts, none of which I’ve managed to retain or I’d dole them out now, you just, well, have to vamp. In this instance, I’m midway through the spiel, sweat dripping down my brow, when I look down to my left and see this Hispanic woman frantically flapping her arms at me. Here’s the thing, on a good day the crowds can number between the mid-hundreds to the low-thousands. A sea of watchers completely encircling the pool. And the sound system is often futzy. Inevitably people in the crowd shout questions at you, imloring you to repeat something, flinging requests, what have you. All you really can do is to smile, nod, and keep plowing on, ignoring the patrons, or the whole feed will devolve into an utter train wreck. Still, this particular woman was insistent. I think I even gave her the “I’ll be happy to talk to you after but not now” palm-out hand signal.
The mid-day feed finished, the keepers gave the “all done” signal to the sea lions, who either dove into the water or returned to the shade of their little rock cave. I followed the keepers down the ladder and out of the tank, which they locked behind us, and switched off the mic, ready to return it to the sound booth and enjoy my brief respite before I had to hike up to the acorn theater in the children’s zoo. It was at this point the flappy-hand woman accosted me. The keepers, who let’s be honest aren’t really going to linger to chat it up with the public, had retreated behind the scenes. The woman was of an indeterminate age, anywhere from mid-forties to early-sixties, and immaculately coiffed — wearing a peach-colored blouse and a knee-length skirt despite the muggy heat. One thing was clear: she was not one of the nannies who routinely bring their charges to the zoo. She exuded an air of imperiousness tempered with the slightest whiff of crazy. The nannies on the other hand, the multi-ethnic coterie pushing their charges in tricked-out, all-terrain strollers, simply seemed complacent. I referred (though only in my head) to their charges as nacho babies — as in, take one look at little lily white Aryan in the stroller and then who’s pushing it and, “mmm mmm, girl, that is not’cho baby!” It was impolitic, sure, but I swear in the two summers I was at the zoo the nannies outnumbered the actual parents like, five-to-one. Would it have killed one of those 5th Avenue mommies to hoof all the way across the street to take her kid to play at the zoo? Yes, most likely. And! Half of the nannies who were there treated us as proxy babysitters, leaving us to tell entitled little Percival or Gingerly not to pull the silver pheasant’s tail or piss in the shrubs, while they sat fanning themselves in the one small spot of shade, leaving baggies of Cheerios and empty juice boxes in their wake. You’d think we’d have a common bond, the beleaguered nannies and us, fellow proles charged with the amusement of the blessed children, but no!
Sorry, tangent. Let’s cut back to me, with my microphone, and the vaguely crazy lady, standing right by the sea lion pool while the rest of the crowd disperses.
“My grandson, he dropped his pacifier in there.”
“Oh,” I say, “I’m sorry.”
“You need to get it.”
“Okay, well, I don’t have keys to the sea lion habitat. Let me see what I can do.”
She shoots me a withering look.
I walk over to the mainstage, which is located across from the sea lions, to get the walkie. Despite it being my second summer at the zoo, I’m still unclear as to walkie protocol. I just sort of glossed over the briefing we had at the beginning of each season. When we actors used the walkies, we usually just switched over to the empty channel to gossip or bitch about one another. The only thing I knew for certain not to do was to mention a “white out,” which was code that signalled one of the polar bears has escaped — aka, oh shit, panic. Pacifier Lady pads along behind me while I get the walkie, uttering a hasty explanation of the situation to two of my fellow actors guarding the stage. Unsure how to phrase it, I radio my supervisor, who tells me to contact Animal 2 (or Animal 3? Who can remember?) and explain the situation. Pacifier Granny is watching me the whole time, fuming, hands on hips.
I radio the message in and then just sort of, well, sit and wait. Granny isn’t having it in the least.
“You made my grandbaby cry,” she rails.
And suddenly I see the poor thing, tear-streaked red checks, clutching her skirt. Good lord, where had it come from? He wasn’t with her before, was he?
“You see? He’s crying? You said you’d get his pacifier.”
She is now puffed up and indignant. I assured her I radioed and that someone would be out to retrieve it.
“Why don’t you go get it?”
“I told you, I don’t have a key to the sea lion habitat.”
This does not pacify her. And the keepers, obviously prioritizing the welfare of the animals in their care over the lost pacifier, were not in a hurry to come out and retrieve it.
“You lied to me. You said you would get his pacifier and you lied.”
No I didn’t, I thought.
“I want to speak to your supervisor,” the lady said. “I want you fired.”
I gulped. Was she serious? I was following protocol. Even if I had been so chivalrous as to attempt to leap over the wall of the tank, I couldn’t have physically managed it.
“You get me your boss,” she said, finger pointing at the walkie talkie.
I radioed my supervisor, who clearly understood that the lady was batshit nuts, and told me to just wait but also to have security come over. She assured me the woman could file a complaint but it wouldn’t endanger my position. Yet, there we were, faced off like something out of a Western, her unblinking, me twitching and sweaty just praying it would end so I could proceed to the next part of my shift unscathed. At least I had two fellow actors as witnesses to the madness.
Finally one of the keepers showed up, Granny pointed to the side of the tank where the pacifier was dropped, and it was retrieved and returned to her. After which, I swear, she popped it, unwashed, into the child’s mouth. Not even a swipe on her skirt to remove the, oh, I don’t know, putrid water and sea lion shit that the pacifier had been steeping in, under a broiling sun, since this farce began. He was no longer crying, but he was probably now ingesting parasites and feces and fish guts. Well done, Granny! Anway, she trundled off behind security, her now non-crying grandkid in tow, exuding a victorious glow. Or maybe that was just a cloud of haze from the humidity?
I finished out my day, puppets and all, still irked at her ruining my mid-day break with her nutsy raving. Though the retelling of the encounter, with embellishments, helped alleviate the tedium of the afternoon.
When I clocked out, I was presented with a button — the education dept. had one of those insta-button makers — that said “My lies make the children cry.”
I wore it like a badge of honor.