Oh. Not such a bad way to wake up, considering the alternatives. It’s a Saint Bernard, big, bushy, salivating intensely, licking my face with his mammoth tongue. Eventually, the beast gives in to his owner’s demands. It’s then that I notice the sun has risen, that I’d been sleeping for over two hours. Birds are chirping. Today is tomorrow. I am alive and well. I pack up my things and crawl out from under the tree to find the dog-walker right there, sitting on a rock. He is a dark-haired man, mid-thirties, with the serious, polished look of someone who works hard, goes to the gym too often, and, at present, doesn’t look pleased to see a stranger emerging from the brush.
“Good morning,” I say, smiling.
Day Two: The Bronx Zoo
Is there a more acutely narcissistic endeavor than breaking the law? The moment you hatch a devious plan in the private confines of your mind, something strange occurs: It’s as if the rest of the human population has receded into the background, and all eyes are on you. The sensation multiplies when the plan is enacted: You imagine helicopters circling overhead, code language whispered into walkie-talkies, men wearing infrared goggles using hand signals that resemble shadow puppets. Everyone is looking. Obsessing. Over you. I know you’re not supposed to say this, but breaking the law is awesome.
This is what I discover spending the night in the Bronx Zoo.
I arrive at 3 p.m., three hours before official closing time, out of the East Tremont Avenue subway station and into the zoo at the Asia Gate. I’ve never been here before and figure I’ll amble about, taking in the sights while covertly scoping out the grounds for the best possible place to hide for the night. Immediately, I discover some overgrown shrubbery twenty yards off the asphalt path running along the border with Bronx Park South, a bleak strip of cracked pavement, busted fire hydrants, project housing. No cameras, no lights: This is the place to crash. Just crouch down behind one of those trees and unroll the Therm-a-Rest. I file this information away. I’ve got hours to kill.
Zebras, ostriches, giraffes, wolf monkeys, bison, pythons, peacocks, polar bears lounging on scorching pavement, a horse-like creature called an okapi, a beetle the size of a softball, and a gigantic tour group of muttering, thick-calved Polish women who all look like my grandmother—these are some of the rare species I encounter. It doesn’t take me long to realize something about zoos: I hate them. They are places, it dawns on me, that mark three stages of your life. (1) Childhood: You see only the animals, the lions and tigers and bears, a thousand cartoons and coloring books come to life. (2) Adulthood: You see only the steel cages surrounding the heartbroken animals. (3) Parenthood: You see only the gleeful smile on your child’s face and laugh at your pseudo-serious, uptight, twentysomething self.
The zoo animals make strange gurgling noises that worry me less than the street sounds: sirens, car alarms, a few screams.
Or so I imagine. I’m firmly planted in phase two, a fact that becomes glaringly apparent as I enter the Congo Gorilla Forest, a place that, subway ads tell me, is incredible. I hike through the fake jungle. I study a fake snake as well as some fake monkey dung. Then, the grand finale: a dozen or so gorillas munching on leaves and scratching themselves in a glass cage that gives the impression that you’re right there with them. Hordes of people point and stare. Overwhelmed children weep. An ape that I imagine to be exactly my age in gorilla years approaches, pressing his hand against the glass and giving me a look that I interpret as follows: “I share 98 percent of your DNA, Mr. Homo sapiens, and, dammit, it’s that 2 percent that puts you on that side of the glass and me in here. My sister is getting on my nerves. My father is a silverback oaf who doesn’t get anything—just look at him. All he does is chew on that same stupid twig. Please help me . . . ”
Back outside, I notice a one-story bathroom complex low enough that I could climb onto its roof and spend the night there. This is better, right in the core of the zoo, not out on its periphery. Except for one slight problem: It’s nearing 6 p.m., and guards are starting to arrive, rent-a-cops sweating in pressed shirts and navy slacks, ushering stray wanderers like myself to the exits. One appears outside the bathroom complex. He is lean and muscular, sleeves rolled up to reveal a grim sea of shoddily executed tattoos, a man I imagine eats cinderblocks for lunch.
Five minutes later I’m back in the woods by the Asia Gate, leaning against a tree, wondering if that green stuff at my feet is poison ivy. Remember what I said about breaking the law being awesome? Well, it’s awesome for about an hour. I sit here, heart racing like a hamster’s, hearing guards roaming the paths, wondering if I’m going to get nabbed. A realization sinks in: No, I’m not, and this place doesn’t open back up for eighteen hours. Darkness falls. I close my eyes and attempt to meditate: gently crashing waves blend into a sunset, which transforms into my shower, my soap, a tray of bourbons on ice. Oh, never mind. I open my eyes.
In my imagination, I had the zoo to myself and the lions came out to play. I swung from vines with orangutans. I rode giraffes. Meanwhile, back in reality, a flash thunderstorm rolls in, leaving me drenched because I’m too nervous to open my umbrella. Every so often the animals make strange gurgling noises that worry me less than the sounds emanating from outside on the street: sirens competing with boom boxes, the occasional car alarm, a few screams . . . I doze off into a series of fitful naps. I begin to understand something else about breaking the law: Eventually, you want to get caught. Once you’re invisible, it’s not fun anymore. By the time the zoo reopens, and I’m long gone, I’m truly disappointed to know that none of the guards can see the stupid grin on my face.
Day Three: The Brooklyn Bridge
I feel a raindrop on my cheek as I step onto the bridge’s walkway by City Hall. Not a great omen. Now comes an icy breeze, then more rain, coming down steady. This will pass. It will. It better: I’ve committed myself to spending the night out here, and according to the neon watchtower sign taunting me from across the East River, it’s only 10 p.m.
Seven minutes later, I’ve made it to the first of the iconic granite towers, where there is some semblance of shelter. I scrunch into a ball on the wooden walkway, wedge my $3 deli umbrella between my knees, forming the world’s most pathetic tent. I think of those annoying people with the gargantuan, domelike umbrellas, hogging the sidewalks during even the slightest drizzle. I envy them.
Below me, cars speed past, causing the bridge to vibrate. There is thunder, too, and more lightning, the sky flashing like a strobe every 94 seconds (I counted). For a while, this is scary—being drenched, over water, on a largely metallic structure—and therefore kind of fun, or at least time-consuming. Then the boredom sets in. A lone man strenuously avoids eye contact as he shoots by on a bike equipped with battery-powered reflectors.