Le Parker Meridien on West 57th is not the type of hotel where my parents took my siblings and me when we weren’t camping or staying with relatives. It wasn’t in my budget during the winter of 2000 either. At the time I felt self-conscious of each cold step taken across the hard marble floors. I looked furtively at my own shabby reflection in the mirrors covering the walls of the lobby. I was ashamed to hand my bags to the Hispanic doorman who could scarcely carry half the weight I could heft. That modern, efficient hotel glowed with hopeful iridescence of a glamorous New York that now seems impossible after working under dull fluorescent lights more than eight hours per day in the bursting city.
I stayed at the hotel one freezing February night while on assignment for a magazine from Buffalo. I wasn’t footing the bill and neither was the fledgling magazine. The room was on NBC’s tab.
As it turned out I didn’t much enjoy the minor luxury. I slept on a pullout sofa bed in the main room of a two-bedroom suite, my bed triangulated between a kangaroo, monkey and two poisonous snakes. The room oscillated between freezing and malodorous. I alternately opened the window to allow in fresh air and closed it to shut out the wintry night and din from traffic below.
Toward the window, in the largest cage, lay Red, a 130-pound adult male kangaroo. He thrashed his bulk against the cage, searching for comfort not to be found. There was an acrid odor from his lying in his filth all. Red would stir the stink and rattle the metal parts of the cage door before sighing for both of us and settling again.
At the sound of Red’s stirrings, Emmett, an excitable tamarind, whimpered from a cage that sat across the room perched on a chair. In my mind’s eye I saw through the darkened room to Emmett’s surprised expression. A slight repetitive sound may have been him sucking his thumb. It was more likely masturbation.
All night Red thrashed and I thrashed and Emmett whimpered while two snakes sat silently in transparent Rubbermaid containers tight-lidded with air holes punched into the tops. The green viper was frightening for its venom but the rattler’s irritation was as unnerving as a frantic tambourine.
The serpents had sat in their Rubbermaid under the passenger’s seat during the eight-hour drive from Buffalo. I sat atop it while Stephanie drove. Stephanie is husky-voiced with a healthy love of booze, cigarettes and punk rock, and a preternatural love for all animals – snakes included. If we crashed, I planned to flee the car before the snakes, once loose, could lunge at my legs. When I told her, Stephanie gave me a look of pity.
Our motel menagerie included more animals than humans. In one of the bedrooms slept a tall, rugged man from the Midwest improbably named Lee Huntsman. Lee’s tall teenaged daughter slept in the other bed. Scattered in cages throughout the room were a lynx, black leopard cub, and a young lion named Chance. Lee said the animal was named Chance because anyone who petted him was taking one. Lee owned all the animals in his room, plus Red and Emmett. He kept them on a small, private zoo, which he personally financed.
Stephanie and Jarod Miller shared the other bedroom. Jarod would handle the animals and a speaking role on Late Night with Conan O’Brien the following day. He is small which makes him seem even younger than he is but he commands a presence with his enthusiasm and seriousness about animals. At the time he was working on a bachelor’s degree in biology at a college upstate and augmenting his connections with zoos across the country by appearing on talk shows with exotic animals. Jarod was the subject of my magazine story.
We rose early the next morning with the sun low in the sun. In the early morning light I could see the snakes still snug in the containers. After breakfast, we walked through Columbus Circle to the Mayflower on Central Park West. Jarod dropped in to say hello and smooth over an incident from his last stay. The Post, Daily News, Times and television news had descended on the hotel after a rare bird escaped into Central Park.
The doormen greeted Jarod by name. The management chafed at the presence of a journalist, even one that wasn’t interested in revisiting the story of the escaped bird.
We returned to Le Parker Meridien where Lee paraded Chance through the lobby. The lion lay on the cool marble floor and yawned at his own reflection in the mirrors. Occasionally he let out a low growl that echoed off the hard surfaces and high ceilings. Passers-by flooded in from the sidewalk and timidly asked to have their photos taken with disposable cameras bought in the lobby gift shop.
Two fat twins took turns videotaping themselves with the docile feline. They worked for Cleveland R & B act “Bone Thugs-N-Harmony”. Members of the band showed briefly in the lobby and disappeared to their rooms upon seeing the crowd, either thinking it was for them or resenting that it wasn’t. The folk singer Sophie B. Hawkins stopped to stroke Chance’s velvety coat while he licked his paws.
Sophie is beautiful in an unembellished healthy way. Her long wavy blond hair hung like a mane at the sides of her angular makeup-free face. Sophie remarked that she wanted to live in a world where a lion in a lobby wasn’t unusual. “I wish our whole world was like this,” Sophie said earnestly. “I would die to live this life to be with animals all the time.”
Her manager crouched at Sophie’s side like a sprinter waiting for the gun to spring her. She wore heavy makeup and carried a date book. She recognized an opportunity and talked about Sophie’s moral imperative to crusade against experimentation on primates at Columbia or St. John’s or both. I tacitly agreed it was horrible although her description’s graveness was only exceeded by its vagueness.
Back in the room, Jarod prepared for his performance on Late Night by handling each animal separately. Lee released Red from his cage. Erect, he stood approximately 6 feet tall and cut an imposing swath through the room with his long, powerful tail giving his frame the appearance of greater grandeur. Red stretched and hopped forward as far as his harness would allow. Lee held the harness fast. Red hunched and moved in a skittish manner as he surveyed the room. Seeing his reflection in the mirror, he reared quickly.
Lee spoke to Red in soothing tones to calm him and explained that fighting was in Red’s nature and that he seemed fond of it. He explained that the best resistance was to offer none because to fight back would only encourage Red to go on a rampage. I had seen black and white footage of a can of tomatoes bobbing around a ring with a kangaroo in boxing gloves. The man offered meager resistance and invariably was pummeled by the marsupial.
With his short arms, Red didn’t appear equipped for boxing. Lee explained that like so much else in the television tradition, kangaroo boxing was an inauthentic representation. As if demonstrating Lee’s narrative, Red, who stood a head taller, grabbed Jarod by the shoulders and grappled with him. Jarod calmly turned 45 degrees and attempted to walk away from Red’s grip. Lee reprimanded Red in a tone usually reserved for retarded adults who must cease doing something that is simply too tempting. By pulling on the harness and pushing down on his back, Lee managed to settle Red on his haunches.
Lee explained between heavy breaths from the exertion of wrestling an animal as large as he that male kangaroos in the wild fight for dominance or mates. In a fight, the idea is to rock on the powerful tails and spring into a kick with their powerful legs. A kangaroos’ feet are equipped with sharp claws, which can tear the flesh from a man. Or worse, they can emasculate.
After some minor grappling, Red returned safely to his cage. Thinking the demonstration was complete I called the hotel manager for an interview. I sat at a desk with a pen in hand and a pad lain out in front of me. The large desk sat pushed against a mirrored wall so that I could watch myself work and survey the room behind me. The manager and I talked about the policy of allowing animals into the hotel. She talked about dogs and cats and “making a house a home”. I saw in the mirror to my right that Jarod and Lee loosed the snakes from the Rubbermaid containers that might otherwise contain Rice Krispies Treats for kindergarteners. Jarod and Lee manipulated the rattlesnake with a hook, which resembled a golfer’s putter. The grip and shaft are the same as a golf club but instead of a putter at the base, there is a thin hook. Unlike a putter, which functions to shorten the distance between the ball and the hole, the hook intends to maintain distance between the handler and the snake. I lapsed into and out of the conversation as the snake sizzled in irritation like a frying egg. A little nervous, my throat parched, I croaked questions to the manager while trying to concentrate on her replies and write them while monitoring the movement in the room through the mirror.
I scribbled and listened and suddenly Jarod was at my elbow whispering for me not to move. I glanced at my sick expression in the mirror. The manager’s voice droned on the other end of the receiver. Lee cracked, “Don’t make any sudden movements.”
Through bits of dialogue I learned that Jarod and Lee planned to distract and capture the snake, which I imagined was poised to strike at the backs of my legs crossed under the chair. The rattle rolled to a crescendo. I recalled that Jarod said a day earlier that the snakes had been devenomized. He later said he thought they had been devenomized. Still later he said that devonomized snakes would eventually produce more venom.
Suddenly the putter was in the air, the angry snake rattling on it like a tambourine. I heard the container’s lid snap shut and the voice on the other end of the telephone became audible again. I stammered before interrupting her. “I wondered, have there ever been any incidents with the animals?”