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The Apartment Menagerie by James Bloom

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

James Bloom
The author as a child with the Hungarian Sheep Dogs

If he accepts as true the dictum that childhood finishes at puberty, then his ended forty-five years ago already. That is ten percent shy of half a century, a fact he finds hard to believe when he so vividly recalls events from that era of his life, which concluded with the close of the third quarter of the last century, not to mention the previous millenium. When he has occasion to speak of that far off time, however, the stories others always find most difficult to believe are those of ‘the apartment menagerie’. Yet, the truth of them is there to see for anyone who cares to do the research, not merely in proverbial black and white, but in three color printing─ bright pink, lime green and light brown, if he remembers rightly─ in the illustrated children’s book about it by their famous downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Brandenburg, who still uses her first name, Aliki, as her pen name.

The book relates how Aliki’s daughter, Alexa, wants to go up to his father and stepmother’s apartment to announce that her pet mouse has had babies but if she does, then: “the baby will cry, the dogs will bark, the cat will escape, the owl will shiver, the skunk will shake, the magpie will call, the monkey will shriek, the hamsters will hide, the gerbil will race, the rabbit will twitch and her mice won’t like it either.” There is more than a dash of artistic license here though, so four and a half decades on, it is down to him to set the record straight. The truth is, there was never a magpie, nor were there gerbils or hamsters (too pedestrian) and the mice were not pets because they were kept solely to feed to the owls, of whom there were actually two, and the snakes─ of which there were a series, all of whose members were fairly short lived, which circumstance was either omitted by the author, or excised by her editors, for lack of cuteness. He must emphasize also that there was definitely no baby. His stepmother was an early animal rights activist and photographer who believed there were too many humans in the world already─ back when there were only half as many as there are now─ and who accepted children strictly on short term loan.

The first among all their creatures to be acquired, and ever primus inter pares in his father’s affections, was Bird, the Burrowing Owl, so named, or rather unnamed, in honor of the great Bebop saxophonist, Charlie Parker. His species, now well known to fans of owl memes on social media, favors making their homes in the abandoned burrows of larger rodents, from which they tend to peep out prairie-dog-like, often with their heads cocked at a winsome angle. They also like to run, stiff and straight on stilt-like legs, over sandy deserts and grassy plains. Bird would tip-tap along the parquet of the apartment. Like most of the birds and beasts who later joined him in the apartment menagerie, he was a rescue. He had been injured─ by a dog or cat, he thinks─ and had a damaged wing so that he could only flap up a few feet and then half glide-half fall back down from whatsoever height he might attain. Bird had a kerbside garbage-can-size, antique brass parrot cage with a couple of thick sticks on which to perch but this he entered only under duress, preferring to live free in the apartment, generally on a high shelf of the hulking Scandinavian-modern living-room wall unit behind several 1950s hardbacks of works by the classical economists.

Bird was under the delusion that he was still able to hunt. In order to help him maintain this, you’d take his mouse for the day by the tail and whack its head against a nearby piece of furniture to stun it, after which you’d skid it across the parquet floor in plain view of Bird who’d flounce (as in flap and pounce) down upon it. This was not a pleasant task for a child to carry out but sometimes, so he tells me, his stepmother would force him to undertake it, demanding that he stop being such a sissy and get on with it until he was too intimidated to protest any further. Briefly, there was another owl too, Bard, so called because she was a Barred Owl and, being one, bore a vague resemblance to a bad bust of ‘the Bard’. Bard had lost an eye and sustained brain injuries in a collision with a car, a common fate among her species, who like to hunt, swooping high then low, alongside country roads. She lived on lugubriously for many months on a tall T-stand in the corner of his bedroom, looking more and more haggard and eating her two daily mice─ she was twice the size of Bird─ with ever less enthusiasm until, one morning, he found her in a heap on the floor with thousands of tiny red mites streaming off her cooling corpse in swirling pools like animate blood.

Poppyseed, the surgically de-scented skunk, made her home in the crawlspace under his father and stepmother’s king-size gel-bed. In her youth, she frequently paraded about the apartment but, like some cats, she grew indolent in adulthood and would hardly venture forth from her den, as long as she was provided with food. Leading such a sedentary life, she gradually became so obese that, on the rare occasions she did venture out, usually when her living area was being cleaned because it stank, she looked like a cushion made from an over-stuffed skunk pelt with the feet, face and tail left on. The older she got, the more territorial she became, and whenever he approached the bed and she was awake, she would charge to the edge where he stood and lunge out to nip at his toes so that he could only enter the room safely with his work boots on. Luckily, this hard-wearing, thick leather, steel-eyeleted footwear was standard issue for Seventies hippy kids. Like many people who have a similar sedentary lifestyle and a diet of gelid, fatty meats, Poppyseed expired in skunk middle age from a heart attack brought on by severe arteriosclerosis.

Poppyseed’s vegan counterpart, Sesame, the woodchuck, had his den between the legs of the living room sofa. He was a friendly chap who liked to stand on your lap while he took carrot or celery sticks from your hand. When he was a juvenile it was possible to feed him small treats like green peas or kernels of corn one at a time but in adulthood, he grew into a serious snatcher who’d scratch you with his sharp claws in his greed to feed. He too became grotesquely fat, largely owing to his partiality for sugary fruits and calorific nuts. But in his second or third winter, he was betrayed by his biorhythms. His wild woodchuck body wanted to hibernate but his humanized pet mind would not allow him to. Yet, while he could not get down to his long sleep, as if he were in a dormant state, he entirely lost his appetite. He’d stagger out from his under-sofa den and drowsily take a slice of zucchini from your fingertips, but then he’d just stand there grasping it in a catatonic stupor. Sometimes he’d keel over in a fit of narcolepsy, still clutching whatever was in his paws. Starving himself as he was, his vast reserves of fat melted away so that his pelt hung from him in sagging folds until, ironically on Groundhog Day, he was able, at long last, to rest in permanent peace.

Briefly too, there was Dandy, the nine banded armadillo, so named for her terrible case of dandruff, which turned out to be leprosy. His father, stepmother and himself, along with anyone who’d been a regular guest in that malodorous apartment, had to be tested for the disease. As armadillos were then unequivocally classed as pests, in contrast to pets, the vet had no choice but to put Dandy to sleep, instead of treating her with the lengthy and costly course of antibiotics that would have been required to extirpate her biblical malady. A similarly awful end was met by Barnaby, the giant lop-eared rabbit, owing at least in part to his boyish carelessness. Barnaby was ever in search of something new upon which to nibble and one day his bulgy lagomorph's eye lit upon the electrical cord of the vacuum cleaner, which had been left plugged in. “You did this on purpose!” his stepmother had hissed at him, jabbing a bony finger toward his face.

There was no denying it was his fault. Helping with cleaning chores was a prime source of allowance income at his dad’s. He had gotten distracted and left the vacuum plugged in, despite having been warned time and again not to as there were animals in the house prone to gnaw. But to be accused of having done this intentionally to dear old Barnaby, whose long ears were so silky, who had such big, fluffy feet and whose soft fur looked like beautifully grained wood was too unjust. He had slunk out unnoticed and walked back to his mother’s immaculate, sanitized, lifeless apartment across town. His mother and stepfather were away for the weekend but he had his keys. Neither his father nor stepmother had noticed that he was gone for a couple of hours. Once they had, his father had no idea why and his stepmother had found herself obliged to offer an explanation. Nevertheless, he’d soon found himself persona non grata once again, accused now of having sought to deflect blame from himself for the jumbo bunny’s accidental death, on account of his carelessness, by having run off as if he were the injured party.

Then there were the dogs, A and B, for Anyush and Brioche, Hungarian sheep dogs called Komondors. Their coats, like those of the smaller and better known Hungarian Puli, naturally braid themselves into dreadlocks, which, like human dreads must be maintained with care to prevent their becoming mere matts. Whereas Pulis are black or brown, Komondors are all white, ideal for camouflage among the flocks they were bred to guard from wolves amidst pale mountain pasture and snow. This makes them resemble mops, but on an industrial scale, like the things that whizz around on rollers in drive-thru car washes. His stepmother aspired to show her dogs, although they were both middling examples of their exotic breed who only ever won a ribbon when there was next to no competition. Because he was small enough to stand in the bathtub with them easily, it frequently fell to him to help shampoo them, if he chanced to be present for the event, which always made him miserable because it made them so. Following their baths though, after being thoroughly towelled down, they were allowed to luxuriate on the gel-bed while being blown dry with yard long, aluminum versions of the blowdryers that were de rigueur in that distant epoch of high maintenance hairstyles.

On long journeys in the car, to dog shows for example, or maybe a nudist wedding or a ‘happening’ to mark the birthday of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, he was allowed to travel lying in the back between them. The car was a red, 4-WD International Harvester Scout covered pick up with a three person bench seat up front but he much preferred being in back with the hounds to being up front between his father and stepmother with their habit of in-vehicle bickering. One time, they drove way, way upstate to some remote township with a name like ‘Dullsville’ or ‘Doldrums’ to visit the home of an old lady wearing nickel-rimmed spectacles with her hair in an iron-grey bun, whose living room wall and floor opened at one end onto an inclined concrete chute with a wooden dog house over it from which beavers would emerge from time to time to sit with (or on) the old lady in her rocking chair, where they were fussed over, petted and given some sort of woody treats to chew. It could not be said that these beavers were well-behaved guests. They shuffled in leaving soggy trails behind them on the rugs, like careless children who run into the house from the pool without drying off properly. They waddled right up and nuzzled against you, taking your hand in their paws to check for a treat and slapping their scaly tails on the floor to show their appreciation when they got one, or their disappointment when they did not. Happily, no beavers were brought back with them to West End Avenue and 83rd Street on that memorable day.

There was no way for Aliki to have known it but, in fact, there were two monkeys, not one. First came little Felix, an adorable juvenile Woolly Monkey, always as soft and gentle as he was sad and sweet. He had been confiscated from a man who had acquired him to sit on his shoulder while he plied his trade as an old time organ grinder on the streets of the Theater District. The foolish fellow, knowing that monkeys liked bananas, had fed poor Felix almost exclusively upon them so that by the time he was taken away, he was horribly malnourished, suffering from both rickets and beri-beri, from which he never managed to recover. Felix was replaced by one, Ollie, a Barbary Ape. How she came into his stepmother’s possession he can no longer recall, if he ever knew, although he does recollect that she was eventually adopted by the Staten Island Zoo. Ollie had a single passion in life─ grooming. You’d pass by the old ‘maid’s room’ off the kitchen that was her domain, and she would chatter amicably and wave you over. But woe betide if you accepted the invitation and drew near! She would grab you by the hair and begin thoroughly checking your scalp for insects and dandruff. If you tried to escape before she was done, you were sure to get your hair pulled hard and, if you continued to resist, you might well get a nasty pinch or scratch, or maybe even a light warning nip.

Being fiendishly clever and having lived most or all of her life in apartments, Ollie was highly proficient at unlatching or unbolting windows and doors and, on several occasions, gained her liberty to enjoy the freedom of the building until she was found. Another famous neighbor was the jazz drummer, Professor T.S. Monk III. Captivated by the percussive music floating down from upstairs, Ollie had quietly let herself out one afternoon, scaled a drain pipe, and gone in search of its source. When the monk had been discovered on the window ledge of the Monks, they had known, straight no chaser, whence she’d come as it was well known throughout the building that his father and stepmother kept a menagerie in their apartment. When the doorbell rang, being nine years old and bored, he had, as usual, leapt to answer it. There stood their famous neighbor, accompanied by an older man with a graying goatee wearing a little hat.

“Your monkey is out on our window ledge, man,” the neighbor said, smiling warmly. The older man said nothing, seeming to look through or beyond him, while shifting his weight from foot to foot, as if swaying to music no one but him could hear.

“This is my dad,” the younger man added by way of explanation.

“I’ll go get mine,” he replied.

Despite being told by his father at the time, it would take another nine years for him to fully grasp that he had just been introduced, in a manner of speaking, or rather of non-speaking, to one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived.
Author James Bloom

James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of 22 in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water baliff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy, along with being a college admissions advisor. His memoir about his round the world tour in his twenties, Up Sticks published by Dogberry Books, will be available in 2021 . Other writing includes Departure and 45th at the 21

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