My daughter Elly spent one Sunday caroling at Lincoln Park Zoo for an event the zoo holds every year, hosting young people’s choirs from the area. Elly, who’s seven, sings with one of the troupes of the Chicago Children’s Choir. Last year they were allowed to take center stage, near the seals and sea lions. It’s the best spot; the animals there clap. This year the CCC was relegated to the reptile house; it’s hard to think what crocs and snakes might do to show their appreciation. As it happened, the children were spared a cold-blooded reception since the house is closed for repairs until next year. Two-legged mammals filled the hall instead, and they greeted the choir quite warmly and joined in the songs.
I generally feel a little cold-blooded myself around Christmas. I’m not one of ye faithful, and I hate having “The Little Drummer Boy” stuck in my head for six weeks every year. Nevertheless, having one of my own brood perform before the zoo crowd had me ho-ho-ho-ing all the way to the reptile house. I had an hour to kill before the caroling began, while the singers warmed up, so I wandered over to the zoo’s famed great-ape house. The weather that day, which seemed borrowed from April, along with the promise of song had drawn more people to the zoo than I’d ever seen there before. (No doubt the fact that the Bears–the kind that might be introduced into the wilds of Gary–put off their near extinction until Monday night left some families groping for a Sunday afternoon activity.) At 1:30 hundreds of people, many in reindeer sweaters and glittery Christmas tree sweatshirts, edged shoulder to shoulder into the ape house.
Since I’m a sucker for redheads I usually cut right for the orangutans, but this time I was stopped by one of the magnificent male lowland gorillas. For some reason he was ornery, which made him look four times bigger than usual. His ebony face glared like that stern idol, King Kong. Discarded vegetables lay scattered around the pen. Little apes, more jolly, swung and clowned out of sight nearby. The older giant wanted none of them. He propped himself on all bulging fours, looked at the multitude beyond the glass, then turned and mooned the crowd. After hearing the discussion this inspired, one had to wonder whether the ape didn’t perform the act to make an antiteleological point about evolution. Men with dates on their arms proved most atavistic in their comments, followed by several future men just out of diapers. When the ape reeled around, however, he commanded silence. Climbing up on one of the bare concrete perches he glared at the crowd, then thrust himself chest first into the glass, sending thunder and the shrieks of those standing nearby through the hall. It was the most profoundly grouchy thing I had ever seen.
The ape’s jump resonated strongly with me. I sure liked the way he shocked all those holiday-wrapped onlookers, as if he were a Christmas window gone haywire. Did it have to do with some big issue about society, captivity, the vanishing grandeur of nature? Then I heard a lanky, pasty-faced fellow standing next to me say of the ape’s rage: “It’s like working in a home office.” Suddenly the zoo looked like my work world, the world of small office-home office captives, a collection of cubicles full of grumpy creatures who don’t get out enough. Remnants of food lie everywhere in my work space too. When people come near me I think first of escape, then I growl. Kids playing nearby just make me meaner. Soon I was primed to go banging into glass myself just thinking about it.
I got back to the reptile house as the first strains of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” began to bounce brightly around the vaulted hall. My daughter, in a Santa-red vest and stocking cap, looked sternly at her music and struggled to sing over the brass in front of her and the yammering crowd beyond. Then, to introduce Good King Wenceslaus, the choir conductor turned to us and asked us to join in. The crowd went quiet waiting for his cue, then on the stroke of his baton sang, beginning surprisingly loudly and in tune. They hadn’t just stumbled in, they had come to sing. Standing next to me was the guy who made the home-office comparison, singing out in a round, honey baritone. On the choir’s risers, Elly and the other children perked up, lifted by the unified voices. I’m not Christian and I have no clue who King Wenceslaus was, but I began to feel lifted too, maybe not spiritually but at least back up the evolutionary scale.