The Dolphin Show and an Orangutan

Sometimes, really good bits of a story need to be cut. That’s just the way it is. These portions may hold an enormous relevance to the author but conflict with an often emphasized writing mandate “show, don’t tell.” I’m currently editing a noir crime novel set in New York City of the early 80s. In its kitchen sink first draft, descriptions of the old Coney Island Aquarium and city zoos, originally construed as symbolically important to the setting and background, interrupted the busy agenda of a main character and his genre driven story.

I had visited the aquarium in that era solely to have a peek at the electric eel and attend its dolphin show. The electric eel remained suspended in the same tank, assuming the same posture I recalled visiting fifteen years before that, as a kid in the 60s, as if they stuffed him into a shopping bag one size too small and left him there. The aquarium of 1968 packed them in, before the city had become, as the infamous headline suggested, “ungovernable.” They’d insert a probe into the electric eel’s tank, there’d be a zzt-zzt and what sounded like faint thunder claps over a little loudspeaker. We’d all watch the needle of the galvanometer slowly creep up, eventually hovering around 900. The crowd would take one step back.

By the 80s, before the renovation, nobody so much as glanced at the electric eel, let alone crowded around his tank. The dolphin-show as well. But to my sensibility, to say it had been an extravaganza, would have sold it short. Most of New York didn’t know to attend. The aquarium didn’t advertise all that much, just the newspaper blurb if you were a zoo member; they mentioned the aquarium, gave an address, the hours of operation, that was it. Certainly nothing about a dolphin show.

Even on a good day, you’d sit on concrete bleachers with no more than seven or eight others. The dolphins, I forget their names, would do their thing. One of them had an agenda of his own. Let’s say his name was Ed: In human parlance, Ed had issues. The other two, call them Peleus and Neleus, jumped through hula hoops, back peddled, waved their flippers, and chattered like Flipper. All that was going on while Ed meandered around the tank. He came over to the side once the other two completed their trick, and raised his head above water while the trainer doled out herring. Of course, Ed didn’t get a fish because Ed didn’t do a trick. The show went on like that day after day, week after week. People sat in silence then left. I wanted to clap every time Ed’s shadow glided diagonally past me under the surface as Peleus and Neleus were airborne and horizontal, posing for photographs. If Ed could smoke, he would have smoked unfiltered Camels. As far as I was concerned, Ed was the star. I liked to think Ed sensed this as well; and that as star dolphin, he could damn well could do what he damn well pleased.

The aquarium, like New York, was honest in that regard. There were few niceties. The renovations brought concessions, modular design, streamlining and the capacity to accept more people during visiting hours. I had my two sons in the nineties, and we all went. They added a Beluga tank. You’d watch these ponderous creatures through ten-foot high myopic lenses, their new underwater viewing glass, and got the impression they were reading your mind as well as transmitting data to the mother ship.

I edited out these memories of zoos and aquariums, of concrete floors, iron bars and smell of urine. I couldn’t, with any grace, include it in the depraved action-packed story line even though these zoos and the aquarium were the city itself: Animals paced and talked to themselves with tufts of hair missing. As a kid, I certainly never thought it to be unusual observing people behave like that. Lindsay had been mayor, and several big mental hospitals closed their doors based on recommendations from psychiatric big dogs. New medications became available which treated psychoses in the outpatient setting as opposed to wasting resources on large overcrowded inpatient populations.

Well known Congressional testimony took place to that effect. At a House subcommittee hearing between Representative Leo W. O'Brien, Democrat from upstate New York, and Dr. Henry N. Pratt, director of New York Hospital in Manhattan, appearing on behalf of the American Hospital Association, the congressman asked the doctor: ''Do you know offhand how much New York appropriates annually for its mental hospitals?''

Dr. Pratt answered: ''It is the vast sum of $400 million to $500 million.''

Mr. O'Brien then asked:  ''So you see that, through a real attempt to handle this problem at the community level, the possibility that this dead weight of $400 million to $500 million a year around the necks of the New York State taxpayers might be reduced considerably in the next 15 or 20 years?

Dr. Pratt prattled:  ''I do, indeed. Yes, sir.''

The institutional flood gates opened but all that meant to me was, over on 8th and 9th avenue, I could count on seeing “the regulars,” just as I could count on watching the frayed and tufted polar bear pacing back and forth at the Central Park Zoo.

Interestingly, once, you crossed Fifth Avenue, the sophistication of the East Side madness was immediately apparent. A few blocks below Bloomingdale's, the woman in her soiled wedding dress maintained a perch atop a milk carton and belted out Puccini day after day. The remarkable thing was she attracted competition and you were treated to duets, although discordant ones, as two different songs were being sung simultaneously across the intersection. I once heard If I were King of the Forest from the Wizard of Oz in concert with Un bel di' from Madam Butterfly. These performers weren’t interfered with, by and large, as long as they didn’t cause undo disturbances. The police were overwhelmed, or beginning to be, and couldn’t afford to pay much attention. Back on the West Side, a thin man wearing white gloves directed traffic a few blocks below Columbus Circle and did so until rush hour when he was replaced by a member of NYPD. The man was my personal favorite as he took his job so seriously and was good at it. Even though I was nine, I recall thinking, ‘one day, that will be me.’

There were so many others and the golden age of public madness went on and on, not since duplicated in its scope. There occurred a lesser resurgence in the late 80s, about the time the zoos and aquarium were being renovated, following the real estate boom: Single Room Occupancy hotels were converted into condominiums leaving the lion’s share of previously displaced mentally ill without a place to live. The original notion that drugs alone would enable the burden of care for the insane to shift from institution to community clinics was insane in itself. People with mental illness needed places to live and that was just for starters.

Dr. John A. Talbott, while president of the American Psychiatric Association, came out and admitted their mistake: ''The psychiatrists involved in the policy making at that time certainly oversold community treatment, and our credibility today is probably damaged because of it.'

Memories of Ed the Dolphin, of civilian traffic cops and a growing unease in the streets as well, was my sense of New York City then. The cellularity or modularity or shininess was not part of it, but checking the bottom of your shoe for dog doo was. The greatest memory, also cut from the detective book, involved a particular day and a melancholic orangutan. He may have not been moody at all; he may have just had an exquisite sense of humor.

My father and I had arrived in front of the orangutan’s cage just when it was starting to sprinkle, a grey and dreary day. One of the zoo keepers had tossed a peeled banana through the bars of his cage. This was back in the days when they had cages. The Central Park and Brooklyn zoo habitats were concrete without fauna painted on walls or anything like creative playthings to suit a particular species: Three blank walls and a set of bars, empty and easier to hose.

The orangutan’s layers of fat struck me at the time, pulling him toward the cage floor as if he wore a lead apron. The piece of fruit landed between his legs. The orangutan right away flicked his lower lip with one finger, twice, stamped on the banana, peed on it, picked it up, and ate it, all the while never taking his eyes off us.

My father murmured, “Lookatim, gee gods.”

The orangutan held out his hand, like a stationmaster cradling a pocket watch, placed his lower lip over his upper, and stared. He was New York City. I’m taking his bit as well as Ed the Dolphin's bit and putting them here.