Father’s Day brings up memories for me of my childhood in Brooklyn and my father, the lunatic. My dad was a beat poet, genius and manic freak. He performed white glove inspections, demanded straight backs at the table and personally consumed a plethora of illegal drugs.
It was 1972. Nixon was president, I wore canary yellow painter's paints and The Joy of Sex had just come out. At 8-years old I was reading superhero comics from the corner store on Church Avenue after saving my dime allowance. 1972 seems to be the year that everything happened; my whole childhood in that one year. Someday I’ll explain that but for now I digress.
My own kids (20, 8 and 7) love being regaled by tales of the boa constrictor getting away, the monkeys playing tug-of-war with my long hair and the maid vacuuming up the gecko. One tale they love is the funny story of Cecil the bear. I doubt very much that Cecil would find it funny but then again, she was a bear.
How did a middle class Jewish family living in a rough area of Brooklyn end up with a bear? Take one nutty dad, add four kids who love animals, one mom incapable of saying no and shake.
After school we walked into our brick colored, aluminum siding enclosed sun porch. We wandered past the cast-iron three-step-high racks filled with fish tanks that lined the wall. Then through the dark blue carpeted living room with a yellow half-circle sofa and silver globe lamp shade suspended in the center from an arching metal arm that ran behind the couch. Usually on the way through the kitchen, with the orange vinyl-benched nook, we would reach into the dark green cactus cookie jar for a snack. Finally we would make our way down to the basement, Ravi Shankar playing in the background, wood paneled walls, cottage cheese ceilings and orange shag carpeting.
That is how we discovered Cecil. She came to the house in a wooden box with a cage door (much like dog crates today but made of wood). We didn’t see her arrive. It was like that sometimes. We would wake up or come home from school, and there was someone new living in the house.
Did I mention there were 4 of us kids? Just like the 4 dogs we owned, which my father named He, She, Him and Her. They were the spawn of my father’s bitch’s bitch (his girlfriend’s dog). Her was the only dog who stayed in the family He, She and Him went to live in the country. Her ended up with my mother (who stayed married to my father girlfriend and all) and she renamed Her Randy.
The time we discovered Cecil, we went down to the basement and found a wooden box with a cage door on the front and a padlock. When we peeked in the box there was a ball of fur curled up in the back corner sleeping.
Cecil was a kinkajou. Kinkajou bears are nocturnal and more like raccoons than bears but she was in the bear family so we called her a bear. Being nocturnal Cecil was not that fond of being asked to get up and play during the day. Reluctantly she would submit to being pulled from her box by her long tail and swung about like a pendulum. To 8 year old twin boys this constituted play.
My father had a propensity for wild parties in the basement with black lights in the ceiling, a four-foot tall concrete bar with a fish tank in the center and loud music. The bear did nothing to dissuade him from his habits. The parties were at night and Cecil provided much entertainment for the guests pacing around inside her box.
Either someone left the cage unlocked one night or Cecil figured out how to open a padlock (we were always told she had). The day after one of my father’s memorable soirees he told us that he found Cecil the bear curled up behind the bar with an empty bottle of vodka clenched in all four of her feet with her mouth stuck to it like a drunk on the Bowery.
My father stuck her back in her box and locked the door. All of this happened early in the morning before his loving children were awake. He left no sign notifying us that Cecil might have had a rough night. As we were inclined to do with any new pet we got up in the morning and the first thing we did was play with her. We dragged her out of her box by the tail and began to swing her back and forth.
I’m sure it has been years for all of you since you consumed an entire bottle of vodka but imagine how that poor bear felt being swung upside down. Poor Cecil did what any of us would do in her situation, she dug into my leg (or my brother’s, neither of us can remember) with all 4 sets of claws took a big bite with some very sharp teeth and when she was dropped ran swiftly back into the dark corner of her box.
The next day we took Cecil to Sheepshead Bay’s version of the Culver City Star Eco Station. At least she survived, which is more than can be said for many of our exotic guests.
Even though my father was a complicated person and life with him could be challenging, there was something magical and fantastical about having all of these exotic animals as pets. It was a life that many children would wish for. While I have taught my children that flushing a caiman down the toilet is a bad idea, we share a love of animals, a respect for nature and a belief that magic is real.
My father passed when I was sixteen. He left me with memories, stories and experiences that I can share with my own three children every day and they never tire of hearing them.
Happy Father’s Day!