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Hell on Wheels



Culture is roughly anything we do and the monkeys don’t. — Lord Raglan

It was warm and sunny the Friday before Labor Day — a perfect day to go to the zoo, or at least that’s how most people saw it. For a card-carrying zoo member whose morning stroll includes a pass through the park, it looked as though my turf had been turned into Ellis Island for summer-vacation procrastinators. The park was congested with bumbling gawkers, a few of whom were with me.

It was Stephanie’s last day to play while she was in town, which meant it was the last time I’d see her for a while, maybe even another year. Though I love her to death, seeing Steph wasn’t enough to convince me to set aside my aversion to the teeming masses yearning to see pandas — I could have easily met up with the crew for drinks at the Prado after their excursion. What motivated me to get over my issues with the crowd was the idea of Cami negotiating her way through it on an electric scooter.

I met up with everyone at the rental booth. Because he hadn’t seen Cami hobble toward him, the guy behind the counter was nonplussed when the slender, young, sun-kissed blonde asked to rent “an old lady electric cart” for herself. Despite her healthy appearance, the tendonitis in Cami’s knee had gotten so bad she could hardly stand, much less walk. But she didn’t need to convince the man of her injury, she just needed to show him her driver’s license and hand over $35.

Cami placed her purse and sweatshirt in the metal basket affixed to the front of the scooter. We hung by the flamingos near the entrance while she familiarized herself with the controls, first jerking forward and then beeping backward. She gave us a nod and we were off — or, more accurately, Cami was off. She zipped ahead of us at a sprinter’s pace; I swiveled my head in search of a speed-limit sign as we chased after her.

Cami on the motorized scooter was a visual oxymoron. As she rolled along the path, heads turned and eyes scanned her in search of a reason for her being in that chair. The stares were shameless, as though Cami were on display along with the orangutans. Some people scowled at her, shaking their heads in disapproval when she zoomed by. They seemed to assume she was on a joyride.

When people didn’t step aside for Cami to see animals, I wondered how much of their inconsideration was related to their assumption that there was nothing wrong with her. By the third or fourth exhibit, Cami had grown tired of the unsympathetic multitude.

“Everyone’s, like, ‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ as they push by me,” Cami complained. “Next time I’m gonna be, like, ‘No, excuse ME! I’m here to see animals, too.’ ” In her frustration, Cami hit the brakes too late and crashed into the metal railing by the hippo exhibit with a clang. She looked sheepish for a moment but then shot me a satisfied smile.

It was while we were ogling the hippos that Cami’s first potential cohort appeared — a lady in a similar rented electric scooter. The woman was older, maybe in her 60s. Her face and hair were soaked, as though she’d poured a glass of water over her head, and her eyes were scrunched closed. The effort it took to hold a battery-powered fan above her head seemed to exhaust her. Her abundant skin had the texture of congealing lava — in fact, she appeared to have melted into her seat like a giant scoop of ice cream. She was the kind of person who didn’t elicit double takes for being in a motorized chair.

Cami scooted up to the woman until they were face to face. “You wanna race?” she said. Oblivious she was being spoken to, the woman continued to fan her wet face with her eyes closed. Rejected but not dejected, Cami backed up, the unnecessarily loud built-in beep resounding as she did so, and then she sped ahead of us in the direction of the tigers.

I gained a perspective for the trials of the disabled as I watched Cami clumsily maneuver around people, embankments, and up and down steep hills. For her, this was a temporary inconvenience at worst, a strange new adventure at best.

After an hour, the novelty seemed to wear off and Cami grew more frustrated with the throngs of people who stopped in her path or ignored her pleas to get close enough to peer into an enclosure. At one point, she stopped trying altogether, choosing instead to ride around and play with the Facebook app on her phone. When she accidentally bumped into a baby-filled stroller, I chastised her for texting while driving. “You’re operating a moving vehicle,” I lectured. “Same rules apply. Pay attention to the road!”

Nancy and I were in a shady spot observing the comical secretary bird that resides in the Elephant Odyssey habitat when Cami streaked by. “Was that what I think it was?” I asked. Nancy nodded. “Where did she get a beer? First texting and now she’s drinking and driving that thing? Aren’t there rules against that?”

“Should be,” Nancy said, but I could tell she wasn’t being serious. “Check it out — she’s going to do wheelies around the cougar.”

“Are you referring to the giant sculpture or that woman over there?” I quipped. We both watched as Cami chased Stephanie and Jenice around and under a giant elephant statue. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we came back here with Carole and we all rented one of those and formed some kind of motor-scooter gang?” I said. “We could take over the zoo. It would be awesome.”

“Sounds like fun,” Nancy said. This time, I couldn’t tell whether or not she was being serious. We found a place to sit in the shade and watched men dressed as tigers bounce around on a trampoline as part of a feline-esque acrobatic performance. When the boys were finished bouncing, Cami rushed to see the giraffes one last time and then raced ahead of us toward the exit.

Among our group, there was a collective sadness when Cami returned the electric scooter. But I imagined every employee, guest, and animal at the zoo breathed a sigh of relief when she handed back the keys.


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