Zoo Date

—Sunday, April 15, 2012 —

New York City was filled with animals, but only a couple zoos. Its inhabitants routinely caged themselves in small habitats, mindlessly ate whatever the authorities told them to and sectioned themselves off in different parts of the city. They ventured out more than the mammals at the zoo, but to think themselves so highly above their four-legged friends was foolish.IMG_1964

Perhaps we had zookeepers of our own. Certainly, this was how religious people viewed the world, and even if I didn’t buy into that level of divinity, there did seem to be someone pulling the strings occasionally.  It almost felt like Holly and I had been corralled together by the dating gods.

I met Holly while on my Gay Date, which had been set up by my Winery / Wine Tasting Date, and made possible by my friend Danny, who had also gone to the show with a handful of friends, of which Holly was one. She caught my eye immediately and when my friend Dede, who had also attended the show, told me that I should ask her out, I didn’t think twice about it.

Though I couldn’t do it that night, I friended Holly on Facebook a day later and soon enough, sent her a message asking her out. She was interested in participating and had not only heard about the project from Dede, but had actually been at an Aziz Ansari show four months earlier where he had talked to me, a lowly audience member, about OHD. She had first heard about it then, directly from me, though I didn’t know who she was at the time. This much coincidence bordered on divine intervention, so maybe I did have to believe in that kind of thing.

That was how this date came to be: A series of coincidences and good luck had led us to a Sunday afternoon in April. I suppose zookeepers were probably more intentional in organizing their animals, so I’ll give that analogy a rest for now.

In other news, I was actually having a good hair day, which was a big thing for me to say, as I hadn’t been a fan of my hair since 2006 when it was much longer and inching down my back.

I arrived at our meeting place, 86th Street & Lexington Avenue, about 15 minutes early. The intersection was significantly busier than I would have expected on a Sunday afternoon, but then again, I don’t think I had ever been anywhere on the Upper East Side on a Sunday afternoon, so I had no clue. I texted Holly to let her know where exactly I was waiting and I proceeded to chill.

Holly arrived right on time and she looked incredibly cute. I gave her a hug and she asked me how I was doing. As we talked, I was distracted very quickly by her smile, her sunny hair and her bright blue eyes. I realized that I hadn’t actually seen her eyes that night at Joe’s Pub because of the lighting — they were beautiful. Holly was very pretty though, all around, and incredibly friendly.

She asked me all about my week and when I told her that I’d had various improv commitments, she asked about those as well. Though I had never run into her, Holly also did improv, which meant that we both operated in the same little underground world. We stood on the corner there for 15 minutes or more, just talking and getting to know each other. It was something we could have been doing on a train to the Bronx, but I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation because it was flowing so well and it was incredibly nice outside.

Eventually, after what I felt was a lot of me gabbing away, I suggested that we head down to the subway. By the time we’d made it to the 5 train platform, we had just missed a train. This had likely happened while we were waiting on the 4/6 platform, which was my mistake. The next 5 train wouldn’t be along for another 20 minutes and I felt like a real idiot. Holly’s reaction was perfect though. She seemed to accept the bad news with an attitude of, Who cares? That’s just more time for us to talk. I was lucky to have such an understanding date.

I liked her. Within 20 short minutes, Holly had already won me over. She’d really have to do something awful to lose my favor, which meant that the pressure was on for me — I would probably be the one to mess up our date!

We talked more about improv and a great deal about our jobs as we rode the rails uptown into the BX. Also, we discussed topics of “adulthood” — making a living, marriage and children — which was fun because we were in our twenties without much of an idea where life was taking us. She worked at a fitness magazine — something having to do with advertising layouts in the magazine. It sounded kind of cool, but she told me she was very used to it by now.

Somehow, I temporarily erased the directions I’d been following on my phone, which told us at which stop to disembark, but I figured it out in time to get us off the train. Once at street level, we saw signs for the zoo, which was a good indicator that we’d make it there.

I hadn’t been to this part of the Bronx since I had visited Fordham University as a senior in high school, I told her, but I decided not to go there because I was intimidated by NYC. [In actuality, I had last visited Fordham during my sophomore year of college, but whatever.] Both Holly and I had gone to wealthy white kid schools, mine in Connecticut and hers in Ohio, and both thought that it might have been better to branch out. It was a bubble growing up where I did and I didn’t want that in adulthood. Neither did Holly. We paused as we got through the gates to the Bronx Zoo and waited for a ticketing agent to become available.

Once at the ticket window, I paid the woman for our tickets and Holly thanked me for covering them. I knew I didn’t have to, but I wanted to do something nice for her. I thought she was so great.

We walked over to the large map of the park to find a route to follow. Giving the map a once over, Holly asked me what my favorite zoo animal was. Zoo animal? How about hippos? Are they in zoos? I told her that hippos won no matter if they were in zoos or not. She laughed. What about her? Giraffes were one of her favorites. Yeah, they were cool. They seemed funny too.

The map provided us with a number of different options and we debated where to go first. Holly was very agreeable, and as much as I liked women who had strong opinions, I also liked it when people were easy going. It was just, well, easier sometimes. We picked a general direction to walk and headed towards the camel rides first.

Camels — those dudes seemed super laid back. That had to be the life: sit around, eat hay, repeat. I guess the people riding on your back and the fact that you were a camel living in the Bronx both kind of sucked, but other than that, it seemed like they had it pretty good.

Next, we walked in the wrong direction toward the Wild Asia Monorail and some exhibit we’d have to pay pay extra to enter, so we turned around. Holly wanted to know why I liked hippos so much. I liked their duality. They were really cute in one sense, but also very deadly. They were lumbering beasts on land but graceful swimmers underwater. I liked that they were not always what they seemed. That was how I felt a lot of the time, so I related to them.

One of my other favorites animals was the capybara and I asked Holly if she was familiar with them. They were the world’s largest species of rodent and super cool. I had first discovered them at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, thanks to my Uncle Kelley’s gig as an imagineer, which I told Holly about as we turned onto a path pointing north.

There was a tram in our way and though we waited patiently for it to get a move on, it didn’t end up going very far, so we simply walked around it and up towards the lions. (The was a sign for lions, which was always a good thing.)

First, we walked by a group of peacocks and some deer-like animals. There were kids calling to them in a rather obnoxious fashion. I commented that children in general were very annoying, but then admitted that I would have definitely been the kid yelling at the animals.

Actually, my dad would be the dad genuinely attempting to call the animals, which I explained was because he was a deer hunter. I told Holly about growing up hunting, but she didn’t bat an eye at this. As it turned out, her dad also hunted, so she completely understood that lifestyle.

We walked along the path and saw more deer-like animals. I didn’t know what they were — gazelle, or something? They were pretty unenthused, whatever they were.

Rounding a corner, we came upon the aforementioned lions. I told Holly that my Magnet Theater team was named The Party Lions and that we had one of the best intro songs, which was the start of “Circle of Life” into”Party Hard.” These lions looked very bored though — nowhere near partying. It looked like they could have jumped out of their enclosure if they had really wanted to, but that was probably some kind of illusion.

Wandering around some more, we came upon some baboons. They looked bored too. And they also looked like they could get out of their enclosure if they wanted to. There was just some shallow water that separated us from them. Maybe baboons were super terrified of water? That seemed unlikely, but it was working.

Turning around, we saw some more peacocks, one with his tail feathers fully displayed. I wondered aloud if they knew that they were beautiful or if it was purely defensive for them and that they didn’t even think about beauty. It would be odd to not have that awareness. As humans, we were so conditioned to it.

There was also another, smaller male peacock, who tried to show off his tail feathers but they were pitiful by comparison. “That’s me,” I said to Holly as I pointed him out. This got a good laugh, which I was happy for. She humorously consoled the poor emasculated peacock and got a good laugh out of me as well.

We walked around to where the wild dogs and hyenas were kept and I mentioned the Museum of Sex exhibit all about animals that I’d seen while on Museum Date and how some breed of hyena had females with long, penis-like vaginas. It was super weird, but Holly actually knew exactly what I was talking about, which was great because I didn’t have to describe what I was thinking of. I also mentioned that the bonobos portion of the exhibit was fascinating because it showed how important sex was in society’s hierarchy of power. Bonobos seemed to imply that if women didn’t need men for sex, then men would lose all their power. I wasn’t sure how true that was, but it was certainly food for thought.

There was a small building just past the hyenas and we entered it behind a few families. I held the door for them all and for Holly. This is always a good move if you are on a date. If your date loves children and families, they’ll think you’re kind and loving. If they don’t really care, they’ll still think you’re a decent person. Win-win.

It smelled pretty bad inside the building and I wondered why they would have such a stinky exhibit. I guess it was just unavoidable. Hey, mongooses! I had thought they were bigger than they were, but they were essentially rats with furry tails. It was amazing what a difference a furry tail made in regards to whether or not people thought of an animal as cute or gross. Additional evidence: squirrels.

We entered into a darkened cave-like room to see some kind of nocturnal creature, but we never found it. If that place hadn’t smelled terrible, hadn’t had kids running around or if Holly had been forward with me at all, this was probably where I’d have tried to kiss her. Literally none of those stars had aligned though, so I didn’t come close to going for it. Simply a passing thought encouraged by the cover of darkness.

As we exited the stinky den, we both took a breath of fresh air and continued walking south. At this point, the path we’d been following was leading us back around in a circle toward where we had begun. As we checked out some zebras, Holly and I talked about music and I took her through my history of bands I’d played in, how I currently only played for myself and all that jazz. (There was, in fact, almost no jazz.)

Past the zebras, we realized that we were coming upon the place where our journey had started. We’d been moving slowly around the zoo, taking time to look at all the animals and talk to each other. Holly told me about her family from Ohio. Her parents were divorced and her brother, whom she had previously referenced, was technically a half-brother. They had actually gone to separate high schools. Hers had been in a very nice town where her mother had moved, but her brother attended another, less awesome school in the town where their father lived. Her mom had gotten remarried following the divorce.

On our second pass around the park, we took a different path and found a little bamboo jungle to walk through. There was a red panda hanging out there and this dude was chill as fuck. He was just laying down on a little board, looking at us, and was perfectly positioned for us all to have a great view of him. I wondered if the zoo employed any tricks to get him to lay there in such a prominent spot. I was reminded of the techniques my uncle had told me that Disney used at Animal Kingdom like keeping rocks heated and periodically releasing food in a single location. I mean, the board looked cozy but I was sure he wouldn’t be right there if not for some kind of trick. What a cute little guy though.

We’d actually been wondering earlier how exactly giant pandas and red pandas were related and there was a little sign next to the enclosure that answered our questions. It told us that red pandas were more closely related to raccoons and giant pandas were more related to bears. So, the only two animals with panda in their names weren’t even related. Weird.

The cheetahs we encountered were mostly hiding in the back of their enclosure, which was no fun for us, so we moved on to the polar bear. As we approached the polar bear’s whatever-you-call-that-hellhole-of-a-living-situation (Habitat? Hardly!), I could tell it wasn’t going be too majestic.

The attempted winter wonderland was anything but. The enclosure was merely a shallow pool of water and a bunch of concrete painted white. It was honestly quite sad, especially with the warm temperature that day, which made him look like he was panting. Our big furry friend, whose coat was tinged yellow and brown by dirt and who knew what else, was pacing to and from a small door on the left-side wall, sticking his nose into it every few times. “That must be where he’s fed,” guessed Holly. She was probably right. Not only did this bear look dirty and not only was his habitat horribly unnatural, but he was hungry and desperately seeking grub. Poor dude.

We had joked earlier that the lions didn’t really seem too dangerous, and that such a demeanor was likely what got people in trouble with them. You might look at a lion and see that they are calm and furry, seemingly even friendly, but then you encroach upon their space and they murder you. This effect of looking similarly nonviolent could not have been more present than with this polar bear. I felt like all his panting was just begging for someone to jump in there and give him a hug. “Oh, gosh, you’re here,” he’d say. “Listen man, I am sweating my bag off and all these jerks are just standing around watching me. Can you get me food? A water? Or maybe, a cigarette? I’m dying!” Holly and I were going back and forth, pretending to be the bear, and we had ourselves laughing.

With heavy hearts, we left our white furry friend behind to visit his brown cousins.

As we watched the brown bears, who seemed to have a much more reasonable habitat and friends to play with, I joked around with Holly. A couple of them were in a little pool together and they were being playful. I wondered if, for them, maybe this was a flirty romantic interaction in the hot tub and we were all standing there watching them like creeps. You know: They were trying to fuck, but we were the cock block. As the humor reached its bluest, I was glad to hear Holly laughing. Between her laughter, smile and eyes, I couldn’t get enough. Damn, this woman was charming.

We returned to another familiar fork in the road and chose a path which would supposedly lead towards monkeys and birds. When given another fork at which to make a decision, we went towards the birds of prey exhibit, but I realized quickly that we were actually walking around the back side of it. I knew it probably wrapped around to the front eventually, so we stuck on that course.

Luckily, our detour brought us to a small pond and we saw that there were swans and ducks swimming there, and also, a small dock to walk out onto. A small child was on the dock initially, tormenting a mallard with a stuffed snake, but the duck eventually got away and the child disappeared, leaving the two of us alone by the edge of the pond.

Holly and I carried on our conversation and I had no desire to go anywhere else or see any other animals right then. I was fairly enamored and this would have been another good place to kiss, but hell, I really didn’t want to be overly forward and scare her off. So, I played it cool. There really hadn’t been any momentum leading in the direction of kissing; I just wanted it to happen and we were in a picturesque spot.

We talked more about work, discussed the project a bit and of course, we talked about improv. Holly told me more about potential plans for graduate school and more about her family. I asked how she had gotten into improv in the first place, and so I got to hear that origin story as well. It was all great.

It was at the tail end of this conversation when we heard an announcement over the zoo’s public address system that the park would be closing in 15 minutes. Oh snap. It appeared that we wouldn’t get to see everything we had wanted to see.

Leaving the little duck pond behind, we walked past the birds of prey, which were pretty impressive. The bald eagles were badass, but it was almost surprising that it was legal to keep these creatures, whose territory covered miles upon miles, confined to a cage not much larger than my bedroom. Especially when they were our national bird. Oh well, zoos, right?

We emerged back to what looked like a very central part of the zoo, or what must have been the original zoo way back when. It seemed that we had started at the bottom of the zoo and had actually missed the majority of what was near the main entrance, which looked to be important. There were old buildings there with impressive detailing to indicate which types of animals were originally housed within. It was all very cool. I wished we’d had more time to hang out here, and we tarried by the seals in the center fountain for as long as we could before the announcements told us that the park was officially closed and we needed to get out. The seals were such cute/fat animals — I loved them.

There was a large gate a ways away, lined up with the fountain straight ahead, but no one seemed to be walking that way, so we followed the crowd down and to the right of the main plaza. We made our way out of the zoo with everyone else and saw that they had led us to the parking lots, which wasn’t much help to us. There were signs towards some kind of train, but our plan had been to go to Arthur Avenue, the famed Italian stretch of the Bronx.

I figured I could map it on my phone, but when I did — woofGoogle Maps wanted to take us in some very roundabout, annoying route that looked like very long walk. However, I spotted a nature path through the adjoining park, and it looked like a shortcut, so we started in that direction. 

While the nature walk was pleasant, it was brief and all it did was bring us from one end of the parking lots to the other, which only got us further away from our goal. The end of the parking lots where we came out did not have a gate to East Fordham Road, which was the main roadway we were trying to reach, so we were forced to double back. Dammit. I felt very stupid. Not only was our mapped walk long and shitty to begin with, but now I’d added at least 15 minutes to that same journey. Holly didn’t seem to mind, but she’d been so nice all day, that I suspected she was just be being polite by this point.

My premonition had been correct — I was the one to mess up this date.

We finally found our way out of the zoo grounds and began our cross Bronx journey to Arthur Avenue.

It was warm out and I was afraid that I’d set us on the longest route possible to where we were trying to go. Nearing the intersection with East Fordham Road, I wasn’t even sure there was a sidewalk on which we could walk, but as we got closer to it, we indeed saw there was a walkway along the busy road. What should have been a 10 minute walk (Had we left out of that main gate straight in front of the fountain) turned into a 45 minute journey, but we eventually made it to Arthur Avenue. I was very lucky that Holly was both easy to talk to and inquisitive. She very much kept the conversation going and I don’t mean that she simply listened to me while I babbled.

Walking down Arthur Avenue, Holly spotted a bar that her Fordham friends had once frequented and I looked for the cafe that my friend from Fordham had recommended. It wouldn’t do us any good though, since it was just a cafe and we needed to eat dinner. I had no idea which restaurant to go to and I was just hoping that one would look overtly great. That didn’t happen though. Most places looked quite generic and the ones that did stand out looked like tourist traps.

We walked all the way to the southern end and crossed to the other side of the street before heading back north. After walking up and down past a few places — both of us being indecisive (Mostly me though, because Holly was fine with whatever) — we decided on a smaller place that seemed to have a good number of people inside, indicating that it was of decent quality.

Once seated inside, we soon found out that it was full of people because the service was incredibly slow. There was only one waiter working and he was really stretched thin. He told us of his extended shifts that week and how long it had been since he’d had a cigarette. Holly didn’t complain. If anything, she made funny banter about how terrible the service was when the waiter was not within earshot. In addition to how slow the service was, they were also out of a number of menu items, such as the first two things that Holly tried to order. This was a dining nightmare.

Holly’s good attitude got us both though the ordeal and we were able to entertain each other while we waited a fairly long time for our meals. The risotto I ordered was not very good and since Holly also ordered a risotto of some kind, I decided to not even ask her if she enjoyed it. I feared the worst and I preferred to simply ignore the fact that the food was also a failure.

Eventually, we made it through dinner and our waiter even calmed down once most of the patrons were gone. In fact, there was a very nice moment when he and the manager, who accompanied him on guitar, sang Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” to the only other couple in the restaurant. We were both surprised by the waiter’s pleasant singing voice and it was a nice end to a dining experience the had left a lot to be desired.

We attempted to figure out the quickest way to get home but there was absolutely no quick way to get home from where we were. It was another very long walk — nearly 30 minutes — to the 4 train. I had never walked through the Bronx and at times it was noisy and a bit intimidating. I felt bad once again, mostly on account of my poor planning, that I was making Holly walk a great distance. There had been a ton of walking that day. To her credit though, Holly kept an upbeat attitude and wore a smile the entire time, all while making conversation as she had done all day long.

Luckily, there were seats for us on the train, so we sat down and I held both of our takeout containers on my lap. We chatted all the way downtown and I wondered how I could possibly kiss her considering she was going to get up at her stop and simply walk off the train. We weren’t going to have a private moment to say goodnight. Should I offer to walk her home, or would that be too forward? I debated. Ultimately, I thought that anything along those lines would be overly forward.

When we arrived at Holly’s stop, I simply handed her the takeout container I’d been holding, stood up and gave her a very appreciative hug. I told her it would be wonderful to see her again and she got off the train.

The truth was that I wanted to be seeing her right then, but that animal inside of me had to be quieted for the time being and I returned home to my cage to rejoin the rat race the next day.