When Tom Matlack was a teenager, he used to count fat people at the zoo. Now he counts good people.
As a cynical teenager I once sat on a bench at the National Zoo and counted fat people. I was a boy when the pandas first arrived, but by my teen years wild animals had lost their interest. Like a card counter looking for face cards, I had a system: grossly obese scored a plus two; fat, plus one; fit guy, minus one; hot girl, minus two; “normal,” no change. At 100 I’d stop counting and start over at zero.
I positioned myself strategically on a path with consistent traffic slow enough that I could eyeball each person that passed by. In two hours I hit 100 three times, used the fitness deduct less than a dozen times, and never once used the hotness factor. It was my own sick way of coming to the conclusion, even several decades ago, that we are indeed a sometimes less-than-attractive people. At the time, I never considered the fact that the only thing my arbitrary counting proved was how unattractive I felt.
Since then, zoos have always been a place for people watching more than animal gazing (on those rare occasions I have made my way there with my three children). On Labor Day, my wife suggested we go to the Franklin Park Zoo, near our house in Brookline. Now, most Bostonians have no idea that we even have a zoo in our city—and even if they did, they would have no idea how to get there. Unlike San Diego or Washington, our zoo has always been an afterthought—something nestled into one of the poorest sections of town, to be sought out when and if the Sox are out of town and the Duck boat rides are sold out for the day.
Maybe it was the crystal-clear, post-Hurricane Earl weather, or watching my teenage daughter with my younger son, or the recently completed zoo renovation, but my experience on Labor Day could not have been any more different than my fatness count some thirty years ago.
The first thing I noticed was all the dads holding babies. Young guys with tattoos, a grandfather type in a Golden Gloves t-shirt, African-American dads, Puerto Rican dads, Chinese dads. These guys had a certain sway of the hips as they held their babies knowingly, smooched them on the neck, and had these shit-eating grins on their faces like they’d just swallowed a fistful of Prozac. Really, whatever has been written about guys walking out on their kids, I sure didn’t see it at the zoo. I didn’t see one father screaming at his kid, either. This day at the zoo with their kids must have served as a tonic to all the economic, environmental, and military calamities these guys had to face outside the zoo walls. The beauty of all that bonding brought a tear to my tough-guy eye.
A huge male lion lounged in the shade—the king of the jungle making good use of Labor Day himself. On the other side of a sheet of glass, just a few feet away, a pretty young girl in neon green sweatpants with PINK emblazoned across the rear clutched at a guy with a crew cut, army boots, black cut-off shorts, and huge silver chains dangling from his pocket. They couldn’t have been more than twenty. We all watched the lion intently for some time, but when the young woman was ready to leave, she silently caressed her boyfriend’s shoulder in a half tickle with her fingertips. He smiled at their private sign of affection and moved on.
The gorilla cage showed me once and for all how much the world has changed, or maybe just the lens through which I see it. Two dark-skinned families stepped in front of me, laughing as one of the mom’s pulled a baby out of a stroller to see the huge apes roll on their backs and leisurely scratch their stomachs with their big black fingernails.
I tried to sort out where these people had come from. They spoke a foreign language so quickly (and with such passion) that at first I thought it was some French-Creole dialect. Maybe they had come from New Orleans? Were they Katrina victims? Their skin looked African, so I looked at their hair for more clues. The women’s afros were ironed straight and the guys’ hair oiled into giant curls.
Then one mother got her baby up to the glass and spoke in rapid-fire Spanish—I was sure of it now—before spitting out “Look at your Daddy!” in crystal-clear English.
All the adults, and then all the kids, laughed hysterically, unable to speak for lack of breath. I felt like perhaps I had walked in on some uniquely Caribbean inside joke repeated only with loved ones at the zoo.
“Neither fat nor hot,” I thought to myself as I struggled for the right words to summarize the whole lot of them. Then, as I watched them leave for the snake aquariums, “Just beautiful.”
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In September, 2009, Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.