At the Prospect Park Zoo, 1965

by

05/25/2008

Prospect Park Zoo, 11225

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

Billy Hederman and Eddie Babicke started the migration. So I applied and with their tepid references, “He’s OK, Bob,” I was hired. I was now an official busboy in the Prospect Park zoo cafeteria.

Others from my working class Catholic parish adjacent to the park signed up as well. Mo Maloney was assigned to the carousel where he would collect tickets and throw teens off the ride if they didn’t pay with the inevitable fights that he enjoyed. Franny Hayden was given a push cart full of cracker jacks, the sweet popcorn and peanut mix with the cheap little prizes at the bottom, ice pops and watery orangeade. Stationed somewhere in the park, Franny’s job was somewhat dangerous since this was Brooklyn after all, and in 1965, there were muggings and murders and all that stuff which is why my mother wanted me to work in the cafeteria where it was safe.

So for minimum wage, a whopping $1.25 an hour, I cleaned tables, prepared food and watched the thousands–blacks, Puerto Ricans, Hasidic Jews, ethnic whites like myself–pour into this Depression era zoo on hot weekends because they had nowhere else to go. With their kids running wild, they would stare at the two pathetic polar bears or the unlucky seals in their pool or walk through the stench of the monkey house where an old Parkie would whistle and one mischievous monkey would hurl a piece of apple at the people. He rarely missed. He was the good one. The bad monkey pissed on the visitors.

Rebuilt in 1935, the zoo was like Noah’s ark, only sad. There were elephants and a buffalo that was always shedding, a hippo or two, mangy lions and tigers always asleep, black or brown bears–who knew the difference, and a pathetic rhino that was the target of snowballs in winter. They all appeared healthy, but not happy in their small, barren prison-like cages.

We loved the animals and hated the people who reminded us too much of ourselves but different–having no money and only the public parks and beaches for recreation. Of course in Holy Name parish, we had the Church for CYO basketball games and dances and bazaars, but in the summer we had to depend on the City since we never even heard of the Hamptons.

But we had fun. On breaks, Eddie Babicke would hang out in the yak cage and every Good Friday would refuse to talk to any customer between noon and 3pm. And one particular scorcher of a day, my brother Richard and Eddie Keyes went swimming in the seal pool, but only after the zoo had closed to the general public and the old cop had turned his back, muttering something about crazy kids.

In New York City as a teen, however, you couldn’t just work; first you had to obtain working papers. Because I wasn’t quite 16, I jumped on the Smith Street bus, rode it to State Street near the Long Island Railroad terminal and was given a quick physical by an apathetic doctor. In return, some lady gave me my working papers. There on State Street Johnny Hederman had his first eye exam and was told he needed glasses that he still wears. I still don’t understand the rationale for the perfunctory process. Probably to protect kids from being exploited as was common a generation or so before. But I didn’t really care since all I knew was that I needed a job to pay me money.

So we were proud to get the papers and have a job since spending money was scarce on our streets of large families and working class dads. No one starved of course, but money pervaded our world–a rip of your good pants was a catastrophe engendering a crisp, painful slap or two. You risked serious injury, lowering the smaller kids down sewers or climbing roofs, for a 25 cent Spaldeen, the pink rubber balls with which we played our street games of stickball, stoopball, punch ball. Our bats were always old broom handles. All clothes were bought two sizes too big–he’ll grow into them. You wore your cousin’s hand me down sweater or jacket and didn’t complain that they were out of style. And if you were the last kid born in the family, your clothes were always given to a relative or friend. Nothing good was ever thrown away. Ugly shoes were bought at Mr. Gutters, simply because his were made like iron–lasting months. It also didn’t hurt that he kept a bottle in the backroom for the dads.

The zoo wasn’t really my first job. At 11 I had a paper route delivering The Tablet, the Brooklyn Catholic weekly that everyone read in my neighborhood. A real good job, simple, predictable–just like my world. And one summer, the wrought iron fence of our row house was rusting. So my mother made me take the wire brush and scrape away the rust, prime it, and then paint it black. Since all 70 houses on Sherman Street had the same fence, I found a profession and was hired by Mrs. O’Malley and Nana Quinn down the street and made good money. But at 16, I was too big for the paper route and those fences needed painting every 20 years. And a steady job meant independence, that you were a man, earning your own way.

The zoo cafeteria was functional with metal tables and chairs, constructed of red brick like all the buildings in the zoo. You grabbed your tray and were served sodas, hamburgers, fries, ice cream and milk shakes or malteds, the food that everyone ate before McDonalds took over. The place was run by Bob, an old guy with white hair, whose girlfriend Ann also worked there and liked me. Ann was married and in my parochial world, theirs was the first affair I had ever known.

My parents, like everyone I knew, had survived the Depression and World War II–my dad fought for 3 ½ years in Africa and Europe and never mentioned it. Their lives revolved around Church and family. We lived in a two family red brick row house across the street from where my father was raised and four blocks from my mother’s childhood home. My grandmother Nana with the brogue lived with us and our cousins were downstairs until they joined the exodus to the suburbs. Aunt Rita and Uncle Tom lived a few blocks away and Grandma Maysie lived closer. In our neighborhood, we knew everyone’s relatives, even those who lived on the Island or Jersey since we saw them at Christmas, First Communions, Easter, birthdays. Houses were always filled with kids running about and the parents talking, laughing, having a drink that would inevitably lead to singing well into the night.

Bob and Anne’s affair was difficult to comprehend not only because these were the days before Woodstock and free love but because they were old and physically repulsive. I’m sure some parents in my small world cheated, but to this day, I don’t believe it. And if they did, where could they? Not in my neighborhood–a small town in a city of 8 million. Playing tag, you’re it, I ran into the street from between two cars and was almost hit by a car with the typical screech of brakes and the driver cursing out the window. By the time I arrived home, my mother had already heard all about it.

On the nice spring days, the zoo was mobbed. When it rained, it was empty with only the Parkies, those who worked for the Department of Parks, sipping coffee for hours. The Parkies, in their brown uniforms, never really did anything except feed the animals. A strange eclectic bunch of generally uneducated simple men, and in my arrogant teenage mind, just too dumb and too lazy to do anything else. But they were the power in the zoo, so I treated them with respect and deference, which, of course, was my upbringing. This inherent respect for authority was forever lost a mere three years later during my freshman year at college when a sit-in was broken up by police who nightsticked and bloodied the protestors.

Cleaning tables and collecting half-empty cups of coffee with cigarettes mashed in was not my idea of fun. But this was work and work was never expected to be fun. We had been raised with a Depression mentality, where you didn’t complain about digging ditches in 90-degree heat–you were thankful you had a job so your family could eat. Get a job, work hard, save your money because someday you could lose it all. We were raised on the stories of how my mother walked a mile and a half to high school to save the nickel bus fare or how my father quit high school to work because his father lost everything in the Crash.

So that summer at the zoo we worked and learned. Life was not the simple routine of school, church and stickball. It was cleaning encrusted mustard jars and butts shoved in melted ice cream. And being polite to the customers–pathetic slobs that they were. We Holy Name kids stuck together like we were taught. And of course we knew how to work. So we flipped the burgers, cleaned the tables, became immune to the stench and the ignorance. But as the hot summer days became cooler what amazed me was that I began to like those pathetic slobs, the people my friends despised. Even the disgusting ones, the shiftless Parkies, the stupid, rude mothers ignoring their brats. They were interesting in their faults, their poverty of mind and manner. After all, they were people, just like me, struggling to survive, searching for a slice of joy on a hot summer day at the Prospect Park zoo.

 

Kenneth P. Nolan is a lawyer who has always lived in Brooklyn.

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