In September, my grandmother took me to the zoo. My favorite animals then were the two polar bears, which on cool days you could watch lounging on the rocks or playing with toys that looked like ultra-durable beach balls, but the real treat was to stand at the lower level and observe through the glass when they dove underwater. Each dive created a frenzy of overstimulated children pressing pounding on the glass, shrieking and trying to get the bear to make eye contact. It must have been a nightmare for the bears. They had gouged a network of scratches into every inch of the glass on the inside. At the time, I believed it was a sign they were trying to escape, and I wondered if they dreamed of breaking out and killing us.
One of the bears was a female named Coldilocks. She was transferred as a cub from the Seneca Park Zoo to Philly in 1981 and lived until 2018, euthanized at age 37, the oldest polar bear in captivity. Given the planet’s decline, she may well have been be the oldest polar bear most of us will ever see. Coldilocks had never experienced life in the wild, but there is too much evolutionary history for it not to have been coded into her genes. There had to have been a longing, always, for some other life that she couldn’t quite identify. I’m often guilty of anthropomorphizing the animals; I want things to be symbolic and loaded with hidden meaning so that my own life feels consequential. It’s possible she was just happy to have a comfortable place to sleep, some water to swim in, and another bear to socialize with. Regular feedings. No danger besides disease. My understanding is that the average zoo animal does not consider escape because it is so far removed from its habitat that anything outside the enclosure is alien and sinister. Still, it’s hard to know how to feel about zoo animals, who are living a definitively unnatural life while also performing this important educational and fundraising function. During a period of professional crisis six years ago—I had lost faith in the institution of higher education and in my role in perpetuating it—I applied for two marketing and development jobs at the zoo. I didn’t get an interview, and I didn’t tell LauraBeth until after the crisis has passed. She thought I was joking at first, then she asked, “How do you know you’re not going to hate that job even more?” But the lingering part of me that once dreamed of being a marine biologist thought, at least I’d be doing something useful.
I presume the zookeepers never told Coldilocks that the polar ice caps were melting at alarming rates nor that her native ecosystem appears to be on the verge of total collapse. Even if she had been allowed to watch the news every evening, she would have still been ignorant, would have learned mostly about weather and inspirational cops and the sexual indiscretions of famous people, because the national media has never treated the climate crisis seriously, and has portrayed activists as naïve or hypocritical or insane. She never would have seen the viral videos of emaciated polar bears stumbling to their death in sweltering conditions. She would never know a single thing outside the boundaries of her pen. She’s dead now, and she lived as long as I have, and every writerly impulse in my brain wants me to make this a metaphor for something, but there are so many differences between me and a polar bear.
As my grandmother and I stood by the penguin enclosure that afternoon, we felt the ground shake beneath us. Within seconds, sirens wailed, and people began running, confused, in all directions. My grandmother pulled me aside and calmly waited to determine what had happened. If it were 2019, I would have assumed an active shooter was rampaging through the zoo, but that’s not a thing we worried about then ( “active shooter” wasn’t even a term anyone knew).
We would soon learn that the monorail—the first monorail ever at any zoo—had fallen off the tracks. This was the third monorail incident at the zoo in a two-year period. There had been an electrical fire in May, and before that there was another accident with an unclear cause. I have found one message board devoted to Philly nostalgia in which a poster insists the 1988 accident was caused by two teenagers having sex on the monorail, but I’m not sure how sex causes monorail crashes, and I’ve found no other sources corroborating this story.
I assume the tremors made the day traumatic for most of the animals, while it was mostly a curiosity for me. As the emergency vehicles sped past, my grandmother unfolded the map of the zoo and showed me where we were, asked where I’d like to go next, as if we were in no danger at all. She pointed to the small red cross on the map to show me where medical and emergency services were located. “This is where people like your mom work,” she said. “She makes sick people better.” This was a fundamental truth I have understood about my mom for my whole life.
One afternoon, while my mom drove my brother, Kevin, to his guitar lessons—I was in the backseat, reading a book—we were waiting at a red light on Ridge Avenue and saw a man collapse on the corner, hitting his head on the sidewalk. In my memory, she suddenly shifted into park in the middle of the road and hopped out of the car. She tells me now that her first thought was, “Oh shit,” because she didn’t want to get involved, but Kevin looked at her and said, “Mom, you’re a nurse, shouldn’t you help?” She felt guilted into pulling over. Kevin ran to call 911 while I stayed in the car. I lost sight of my mom in the crowd that had gathered. Thanks to TV, I assumed she was down on her knees performing chest compressions and breathing life back into his lungs, though I know it was all less dramatic than that; she says there were already three ICU nurses on the scene, so she stood by for a minute and then left him in their care. We were a couple blocks from a hospital and the man had collapsed due to low blood sugar, and he would be fine. My mom was wearing a shirt with a pattern of tiny swinging monkeys on it. It is impossible for me to explain why that’s the detail I remember most clearly. The next day, she found the fallen man in her hospital and learned he was going to be fine, more or less. When she tells this story, she emphasizes her reluctance to help, downplays her desire to check on him later (she often says she and I are the same person, apologizes to LauraBeth for it).
I know and am related to a lot of people who work in the healthcare field, and they have collectively seen so many people die that their understanding of the tragic is different from most people’s. They have this remarkable ability to convert a physical catastrophe into a series of protocols and procedures, with specific ends in mind. When people talk about First Responders, they revert to clichés about bravery and sacrifice, but I think it’s something more akin to pragmatism. They know how the systems work, and they let their bodies take over. They have a sense of confidence that I feel about almost nothing, besides (sometimes) writing sentences. What looks superhuman is just extreme competence. It doesn’t make for an exciting montage, but maybe if our movies celebrated heroism as the culmination of a life of patient and thoughtful practice, rather than random miracles performed by angry men, we would be an overall healthier society.
Five years after the monorail accident, the famous Simpsons episode about defective monorails further confirmed for me that these machines are death traps, and I was too afraid to ride the monorail at the zoo before it was decommissioned in 2006. I finally rode a monorail in Seattle with my wife two decades later and found it to be a perfectly fine way to get around, assuming you don’t want to go too far, too fast. The Seattle monorail runs from a mall to the Space Needle and back. From the top of the Space Needle, looking out over Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier, you can convince yourself that the world is as vast and beautiful as you’ve always wanted it to be. From inside the mall, you can get an Auntie Anne’s pretzel for two bucks. The only thing separating these two experiences is a single elevated rail.
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