“Is it the same as being in jail?” asked Dottie.
“None of them have committed a crime, so it’s not the same, not exactly, even though they’re all behind bars,” said Otis.
Dottie Riddman and Otis Arnold were at the Central Park Zoo. All the animals were behind bars. They were innocent, in their own way, but it didn’t matter to their keepers, no matter how well-meaning the keepers were. The lions might have bitten their heads off if they could, but they couldn’t.
“I asked Ezra to take me before school started,” said Dottie.
“What am I, chopped liver?” asked Otis.
“No, you’re Oats!” said Dottie, laughing gaily. “Do you know what he said?”
“No, what did he say?”
“If the zoo wants you, let them come and get you.”
“That wasn’t nice.”
“I think he meant he was busy,” said Dottie. “He had to do something for dad.”
Otis liked Dottie, even though he didn’t especially like children. They were needy, messy, and noisy. He didn’t dislike them, but he didn’t like them, either. Only Dottie. She was a tomboy as much as she was a 12-year-old girl. He liked that.
Children were always being told by their parents to listen, but what they did more than listen, tending to only listen to the voice in their heads, was watch, sizing you up. When they weren’t watching, they were imitating whoever and whatever was in the neighborhood worth imitating. When they weren’t doing that, they were moving around all the time, getting lost and found,
Or they were wasting their time. He thought it was OK for children to waste some of their time, but only if there was something in the wasting. Otherwise, it was lost time.
Dottie was 12 years-old – “No, I’m not, I’m almost thirteen!” – but she knew how to listen and talk and not size him up. She had fun going to the movies, the park, the zoo, but she didn’t play around at being playful. She wasted less time than most children.
Otis took the day off from Osner Business Machines to take Dottie to the zoo. Dottie took the day off from school. Otis had heard fifty thousand people tramped through the zoo on Saturdays and Sundays, so weekends were out. It had to be a weekday. School had just started, but it might be the last time Dottie could go to the zoo, and she convinced everyone it was worth playing hooky for. Stan wrote a note for her before he drove out to the far end of Long Island.
It wasn’t any stretch Otis getting the day off. He was the best repairman in the shop on the Upper West Side, two or three times faster than the other repairmen, and he got the stickiest jobs done with the least effort. It didn’t matter of it was keys or platens or carriages. It didn’t matter if it was a Royal, an Underwood, or a Smith-Corona.
Besides, he didn’t absolutely need a full-scale paycheck every two weeks. He lived quietly, for the most part, and had a nest egg squirreled away. Nobody knew anything about it. Otis kept some things close to the bone. He worked part-time at the typewriter repair shop and part-time for the Duluc Detective Agency. His cash savings were the payoff for being a part-time off-the-record do-it-all big city gumshoe.
Dottie and Otis ate breakfast together and he treated her to a cab ride to the Pond. They took a long walk around it, fed ducks with old lettuce Otis had torn into small pieces beforehand, and finally walked up East Drive to Park Road to the Central Park Zoo.
The Central Park Zoo was sometimes called the Robert Moses Zoo, because Moses had redesigned and rebuilt it twenty years before, from a rough-and ready place to a picture-book place of limestone and brick buildings. It was on the small side, maybe seven acres, but it had tropic, temperate, and polar animals, bird and monkey houses, and a sea lion pool in the middle of it. Eight outsize granite eagles were two-by-two on the four corners of the pool.
Nobody had to guess what was inside the animal houses. Friezes were everyone’s guide. Rocky Mountain sheep on the antelope house, a gorilla chewing on a twig on the monkey house, and marching penguins on the bird house. Every house had a chimney, too, and on every chimney was an iron weathervane of the animal inside.
The Arsenal, a hundred years old, had always been there and was still there. In its time it had been a weather bureau, a police precinct, and an art gallery. The front of the Arsenal faced Fifth Avenue. The turrets on the roof were offices for the parks department. In summer the office workers kept time for lunch hour by listening through their open back windows for the sea lions barking for their fish fillets.
Dottie liked the bearcats, which weren’t bears or cats, but like dust mops with a long tail and a pointy face. She liked them because they smelled like popcorn. “When they pee, it soaks their feet and fuzzy tails,” a zookeeper told her. “That’s what smells like popcorn.”
She wished her pee smelled like popcorn.
In the park near their apartment she had noticed, down on her hands and knees and her nose to the ground, that some of the ants smelled like lemon drops and the flat creepy crawlers smelled like cherry cola. She told her dad, but he didn’t pay attention behind his newspaper.
Otis was the Duluc Detective Agency’s jack-of-all-trades. He was the master of some of them. He could pick most locks in a minute. He knew how to start and stop anybody’s car. He operated all the photographic equipment and sound recordings. He was even good at lifting prints, if he had to.
He owned an Exakta and a new Leica. The Leica M3 was the finest 35 mm ever made, he reckoned. He had a Minox spy camera, which was handy when he was rifling mail.
He used a letter remover that didn’t disturb the gummed seals. He would insert the pincer-like device into the unsealed gap at the top of the envelope, turn the handle of the remover to wind up the letter, extract it from the envelope, photograph it, and carefully repeat the process to return the letter.
He had picked up a button camera, too. A coat button hid a lens that screwed into a small camera. A cord ran into a pocket. When he was ready to take a photo, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled a lever, shooting the still onto 16mm subminiature film.
He used a Mohawk midget recorder to wiretap telephones and a Minifon portable wire recorder with long play cassettes, a watch microphone, and a shoulder harness, when he was working face-to-face. Otis had a face like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, making everyone think they had seen him somewhere before.
Otis and Dottie had a late lunch at Kelly’s Restaurant. A bronze statue of a tigress, her jaws clamped on a dead peacock, her young sniffing at her feet, was front-and-center in front of the eatery. Dottie clambered on top of it, straddling the tigress like a horse.
“Ride ‘em, cowboy!” Otis whooped.
“I’m a cowgirl!” Dottie yelled.
They sat outside on the terrace at a table beneath an umbrella. Otis was outnumbered ten to one by women and twenty to one by children. He had a broiled hamburger sandwich and stewed fruit. Dottie had a cold sliced ham sandwich and applesauce. Otis drank an A & W root beer and Dottie had an Orange Crush. He stretched his legs out and Dottie curled hers up underneath her.
“What do you like best about the zoo?” asked Otis.
“The smells,” said Dottie.
It smells like shit, he wanted to say. It’s a safe place to fart, that’s for sure. No matter how well the cage keepers did their jobs, animals urinated and defecated all day long. If human beings didn’t use bathrooms there would be one hell of a smell worldwide. Not only that, animals didn’t bathe. Their body odor was everywhere downwind. You could smell the zoo a mile away.
The zoo was hard on the flank of Fifth Avenue. What was it like every summer, on stagnant hot humid summer days, the nearby apartment windows open to catch a breeze, he wondered? Whatever breeze they caught, the wind was westerly, and Fifth Avenue was on the east side of the park.
“That goo that comes out of the beaver butts, it smells like vanilla, and those toads in the mud, they smell like peanut butter, even though the smell makes me sneeze and my eyes burn,” said Dottie.
“What else do you like about the zoo?”
“I like being in the park, the sunshine, and the animals, but I don’t like that they’re in cages.”
“No, I don’t, either,” said Otis.
“Why do they put them in cages?”
“They do that to protect us. Lions and bears can be very dangerous.”
“Are they the most dangerous?”
“No, people are the most dangerous. Animals only kill to eat or defend themselves. We kill animals to eat, too, like chickens and pigs, but we also kill elephants for their tusks, tigers for their teeth, and bears for their fur. Sometimes people kill animals for no reason.”
“Lions and bears don’t live in cages at home, do they?”
“No, they live in jungles and forests, which is too bad for them, because their cages are thousands of times smaller than where they used to live.”
There were two six-foot bronze statues on either side of the restaurant. One was Dancing Goat and the other one was Honey Bear. The goat was rearing up and ducks at his feet sprayed water out of their mouths. The bear was on its hind legs, twisting its neck and head to one side, and sticking his tongue out. There were bronze frogs spraying water at his feet.
“Dad says some people belong in zoos.”
“He means bad people, not zoos so much, but behind bars.”
“Nobody puts people in zoos, do they?”
“Not anymore, but they used to, they were the zoo, a hundred years ago. They were like traveling zoos, people from India and Africa.”
“What kind of people?”
“Strange people, different people, rope dancers, camel herders, Zulu fighters. There were whole villages, primitive people on display.”
“They didn’t mind?” asked Dottie.
“I don’t know,” said Otis. “I know I would mind.”
They watched boys and girls glide by on bicycles. Mothers pushed strollers, slow, slower, talking to their friends. A mime wheeled past on a unicycle, pretending to have great difficulty staying upright.
After lunch Otis and Dottie walked across the terrace to the sea lion pool. Dottie hopped on the bottom rail of the fence to get a better view. One of the sea lions was napping on top of a platform. Another one, across the gap from her, on the other side of the second, inner metal fence, was slip sliding on the wet ledge, barking at the sleeper. Other seals were sunbathing and three were chasing each other in the water.
“Let’s go see the real lions,” said Dottie.
“OK, let’s go,” said Otis.
The lion they saw spread out in his cage was seven feet long, or more.
“Jesus!” said Otis. “He must be three hundred, four hundred pounds.”
How do tamers get into the ring with them, he wondered? I wouldn’t dare. It would be like trying to stare down a crazy gangster with dead eyes and a Thompson.
“What does it say?” asked Dottie, pointing to the label screwed to the wall. Otis read the label to her.
“The Southeast African lion, also known as the Kalahari or Transvaal lion, is found in the southern parts of Africa. Groups of them called prides live in open woodlands, savannas, and grassy plains. They survive 10 years in the wild and up to 20 in captivity. Lions spend most of their time resting, napping and sleeping. They hunt at dawn and dusk.”
“Do you know what lion means?” asked Dottie.
“No, what does it mean?”
“It means king. That’s why they’re king of the jungle.”
“You’ve seen too many Tarzan movies,” said Otis.
“No, it was in my book.”
“What book was that?”
“Tawny Scrawny Lion.”
“It doesn’t sound like he was much of a king.”
“You have to read the book.”
Otis and Dottie were less than eight feet away from the lion. The big cat was a male, straw and leaves stuck in his short, light-colored mane, his face like a sphinx. He had a long tail with a black tassel at the end of it. He flicked his tail. When Dottie walked to the other end of the cage, the lion followed her with his bloodshot orangey brown eyes, turning his big head. She walked halfway back to Otis and stopped.
Dottie looked up into the lion’s eyes. She was excited and scared. The lion opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue, and panted several times. She took a step back. She couldn’t look away.
“Do you think he wants to eat me?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Otis.
“Maybe we should go. Can we stop at the monkey house before we leave?”
“Sure, Dots, let’s go,” said Otis, taking her hand.
They left the Central Park Zoo twenty minutes later. Dottie looked back over her shoulder, walking out the gate of the zoo, at the clock at the top of the musical clock tower. There were dancing bears and elephants on ledges beneath the clock. Above the clock was a cast iron bell. It was a quarter to four. It would be four o’clock by the time they found a cab.