For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

A Night at the Zoo

by Nadyn Nelson


n 1953, when I was 9 years old, my mother had a baby. Things got very crowded for myfamily with four daughters (ages infant to fifteen) in our two-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up apartment on Clinton Avenue, between 181st and 182nd Streets.

My best friends were identical twins, Rose and Marie, and they lived in the apartment directly beneath us, also with four children. Needless to say, Rose, Marie and I spent as much time away from the crowded apartments as we could. For us that meant going to "The Zoo."

Every few days, the twins' mother put all the stale ends and leftovers of the Italian bread their family hadn't eaten in a brown paper bag and we would go to the zoo to feed the goats. We spent endless hours exploring and knew every path and nook and cranny in that complex. We found secret places, including an underground room with furniture in it that must have been a 'clubhouse' some boys dug out years before. It was close to the dried up bed of the Bronx River in an area we called the RSW (our secret code for Rocks, Stairs and Water). The rocks were the river rocks left behind when the old Bronx River dried up, the stairs were huge rocks that formed a natural stairway out of the small ravine that was the river bed and the water was the imaginary river that we could envision flowing through. We obsessed over this place and felt like we had discovered a new planet. We brought old blankets and whatever else we could find that we thought would be useful in our own little hideout. It was here that we started secret language because we spent a lot of time passing notes back and forth to each other from our fire-escapes.

Since we didn't want anyone to know about our secret place (or even that there was a secret place, it became necessary to write in code. We started to compile our code books (in those small, soft-covered, black and white composition books) and created a picture for every word we spoke.

As only really close friends do, we spent endless time talking and sharing the details of our lives with one another (not that there was much we didn't already know since you could hear everything that went on in the apartment next door or immediately above or below you.) In addition, the familiarity that all the tenants of the building shared was apparent in the way each mother felt comfortable to discipline any other mother's child. It was like we were all one big family.

Rose and Marie described their father's mean temper (no secret to me - I heard him yelling) and would show me the evidence of the broken wooden spoons that their mother cracked over their behinds. They decided to run away from home and, as their best friend, I would go with them. We plotted and planned (actually, thinking back on it, I would have to say 'masterminded') how we would do it. Where was never the question - it was always going to be the old RSW. We started collecting the things we knew we would need - toilet paper, cans of tuna, a can opener, jars of peanut butter and jelly, the old tins that Saltine crackers came in. Day after day, we took a few choice items and deposited them in the clubhouse. I heard or read somewhere that baby food was very nutritious so I started taking jars of baby food that my mother had for my baby sister. I can still recall my mother saying "I could have sworn I had another jar of -----", never dreaming that I was removing the jars from the apartment as quickly as she could stock up.

Finally, the big day came and we headed out in the morning, as we did so many other mornings, brown bag with stale bread clutched in our little hands. The only difference was, we wouldn't be coming home at five pm to have dinner with our families. We were running away and they'd never see us again and boy, would they be sorry they ever yelled at us or punished us! We spent the afternoon doing what we normally did at the Zoo - fed the goats, went to look at the seals, into the penguin house (one of our special favorites) and also to check out the chimps, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, named for the sisters in Little Women. They were a hoot and we could watch their antics for hours.

Later, we went to the clubhouse and made ourselves a snack - peanut butter and jelly on saltine crackers - and sat around imagining how scared and sorry our parents were going to be. Everything was just fine until it got dark. It got very dark. We were a little scared but we were fighting it until we started to hear a lot of noises. Perhaps there are animals that only make noise in the dark of night or maybe you just didn't hear it during the day with the hustle and bustle of people but all of a sudden we were hearing growls and roars and grumbles. We shook and shivered and at some point decided we better get the heck out of there. We started running and were chased by guards. Luckily, we knew the zoo as well or better than they did and we hopped a fence, ran across the roof of the peacock coop, jumped the fence at the other side and snuck out of the zoo the same way we always snuck in, skinny kids able to squeeze around the bars of the turnstile.

We ran all the way home and when we turned our corner, there must have been ten police cars on the street with a hundred policemen and neighbors out scouring the neighborhood for us. We were still afraid of what we left behind at the zoo and we felt pretty bad about putting our parents through that, but a little part of each of us took absolute delight in what we did.

What a different time it was back then. Can you imagine a mother feeling comfortable today to let nine and ten-year-olds go to the Bronx Zoo by themselves? Has the world changed so much in 45 years or were our parents out of their minds to let us wander around on our own at that age? Oh, for the good old days...

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