If you say the word zoo I imagine a cartoon zebra. I’ve noticed that many of the basic building blocks of my imagination are cartoons. Not cartoons from any particular memory, but a sort of average pulled from many cartoon experiences. My friend Dan, who is around my age, feels the same way. I once asked my father, who was born in 1930, what comes to his mind when I say the word chair, and he described a wooden chair with rivets. When I tried to imagine along with him, I saw cartoon wood grain and cartoon-gray screws. But this is not how he saw it, he said it’s more like a photograph. The zebra I see when I hear the word zoo, unlike most of my cartoon-imaginings, has a very specific root in memory. It’s Ziggy the Zebra from Read, Write, & Type! I was given the Read, Write, & Type! computer game when I was three years old. It was produced by Talking Fingers Incorporated in 1995. It teaches you to touch type and to read.
Computers were new and my family gathered around the computer to watch me learn, as my father’s family would’ve gathered around a television in his youth. On screen were two cartoon hands that I modeled my own after as they hit a keyboard. I’d learn letters one at a time. Each letter represented a friend, like Ziggy, that I needed to help. By pressing the z key over and over again, I would move Ziggy across a yellow road, and this somehow saved him. The narrator would prompt me to keep my hands in proper position and make a zz sound every time I pressed the key. She said Ziggy needed me to do this to move. I knew that computers couldn’t hear me, but my parents really wanted me to play along. They would make the zz sound themselves, and their eyes lit up when I would too. I didn’t know if it was more important to them that I make the zz sound or that I believed the computer was magic — so I pretended.
These were some of the first moments I felt like I was taking care of my parents. It was like I was the star of a TV show they were watching, and they were never happier than watching me type. And I was taking care of them by being happy, alive, and childlike. But I always thought they were aware I was pretending. My parents couldn’t have believed that I believed the computer could hear me going zz — they had had my IQ tested and told me I was Highly Gifted. What they wanted from me, I thought, was the pretending. That pretending was what was childlike, not believing.
This had to be so because this was the happiest I’d ever seen them, and here they were pretending. I thought their inner children came out when they played pretend. I didn’t know that this had nothing to do with their joy. That their real joy was because I was learning to read at a rate that put me developmentally in the 99th percentile.
For much of my early life, I’d see Ziggy whenever I’d see the letter z, and my left pinky would feel a phantom tug to move to the third row position on the keyboard. Seeing any letter written on my kindergarten chalkboard would summon to my mind a friend I had helped moved across the yellow lane. I would hear my own voice sounding the letter out in my head, and my finger would cramp towards that letter on an invisible keyboard. I don’t remember any other Read, Write, & Type! friends other than Ziggy and a yo-yo. The yo-yo was yellow and had vaguely East-Asian-looking eyes.
I remember the villain in Read, Write, & Type! was a Virus. He was a beige blob that looked like a biological virus. His facial expression was pinched and very self-important. I would associate the Virus’s facial expression with the term Shiksa Snow Queen when, a few years later, my father told me about a kind of woman to avoid because she would never like my jokes. Dad said Ritvo men really rely on jokes and need to be able to let loose because that’s where we thrive, professionally and personally.
I used the Virus as a body double for a cartoon when I first was diagnosed with cancer at age sixteen. I wanted to make a character named Timmy the Tap-Dancing Tumor. I would use him as a narrator in a book of poetry. I thought Timmy was a really artistic and disturbing joke. He was, in retrospect, me letting loose. Timmy’s body was shaped like the Virus, but he had a dirty vaudeville hat, limbs like the M & M’s in the commercials, and wore big honking tap shoes. He had my father’s open, lopsided smile, and big bushy eyebrows just like him too.
I don’t remember the Virus’s name, and I don’t remember the racist yo-yo’s. Ziggy is the only person from Read, Write, & Type! who still has a name, and who can function in my memory like he’s supposed to.
Ziggy is a link between my mental image of a zebra, the letter z, my pinky finger, and — as of writing this — zoos. Zoos have a lot of interactive exhibits that seem to be built more to satisfy children’s hands than anything else. Stick your finger into this dark crevice to feel synthetic beaver fur. Pull this plunger to see how sticky tar is. Pull this other one to compare with water. Rotate this wheel to reveal different ape handprints. When I was a child, these levers were the first thing I interacted with at every exhibit. And it was never really about what the exhibit was trying to teach me — it was about enjoying a slightly different kind of mechanical resistance. In fact, part of the excitement was in not knowing what the plunger or lever was supposed to do. There was always a secret, irrational belief — butting up against all prior zoo experiences — that this one crank would be as exciting as a carnival ride, or my flight simulator joystick.
In a deep depression between cancers, caused by a Shiksa Snow Queen, I took my nephew Braylan to the zoo. I was surprised to see him interact with the exhibits exactly as I did when I was a child — plugging his arms blindly into the machinery as I tried very hard to recite facts about meerkats and lions from memory.
My gratification, this trip, was how frequently my facts were precisely the ones the zoologists chose to put on the signs, and how the facts I shared that the signs lacked were often ones that excited Braylan the most — like baboon butts swelling to attract mates. But for the most part, Braylan was very bored by my facts. And bored by the animals. And I can’t blame him. Zoo animals mostly sleep and look vaguely out of sorts. I imagine it’s how I’d feel if I was trapped in my apartment and somebody replaced the fires in my stove with LEDs. But by some perverse magic the food kept getting cooked every day. At this point in my life I was still eating meat. I don’t know if I could go to a zoo today, even if I’d much rather be a zoo animal than an animal in nature.
Animals at zoos are rarely moving, and you can’t poke them to make them move. But you can poke the machines, and even make them go crazy. And maybe that’s what you really wish you could still do to the animals, like you could if it were 1930. Braylan plunged the tar plunger until the tar made horrible moaning noises, and spun the ape wheel until all the images blurred, and counted down until it stopped.
Another surprise of the trip: Braylan and I are attracted to the same zoo toys, long poles with a grabber on the end. In the nineties the grabbers were just red claws. But the Santa Barbara Zoo in the late aughts, perhaps feeling pressure to make a perennial best seller feel more like a wholesome zoo souvenir, morphed the grabbers into plastic animal mouths. Braylan wanted either a dolphin or crocodile. I was drawn to the zebra, who reminded me of Ziggy.
As a child, I loved grabber toys because of their superhuman, or at least, superkid, promise. I’d imagine myself picking up heavy cookie jars from high shelves, or reaching into a vat of bubbling green acid to pluck out a pretty girl without damaging my hands. Of course, the toy would always be too fragile to do much other than pick up slips of paper.
As Braylan and I took in the grabbers, I imagined having an animal at my beck and call, serving as my hand, clamping things in its mouth. I got upset thinking of Ziggy’s screaming face boiling off in a vat of acid. And the shiksa goddess I was trying to heroically save just thought Ziggy was biting her — not realizing he was attached to me the whole time — so she just got more frantic and swam away from me trying to save her. Braylan started to close in on the one he wanted to purchase, and I really didn’t want to get him one. I told him how flimsy and crappy they were to sour him on them. I pulled one out and showed him how it couldn’t even pick up a stuffed animal.
He then turned his attention to giant plush animal carcasses that you stuff full of foam and costume to your liking before a machine stitches them into stuffed animals, and — sensing an even greater personal crisis — I pulled him out of the gift shop, told him that cheap plastic toys were wasteful, threatened to give him another one of my famous sweatshop lectures, and announced we would get souvenir photographs instead, that photographs make for better memories than toys.
In the Santa Barbara Zoo photograph, a blue macaw sits on my shoulder. At first glance, it seems like one of those staged-with-an-animal tourist photographs where a street hawker pulls a dusty tropical bird or a monkey out of a filthy cage and settles it on you, and you smile and try not to move lest the terrified animal shit on you or bite you. There’s a similar photograph of me as a four-year-old in Maui with a blue macaw. That trip is called The Paradise Trip in my family. My only memory of The Paradise Trip is The Swearing Raft, an inflatable raft my mom and preferred sister paddled on out into the water beyond earshot of the other tourists. My mom explained that in certain contexts, it was appropriate to let off steam as long as you were doing so with trusted loved ones who understood what was going on. The Swearing Raft was one of those places, and we called each other bitch and fucker and pushed each other off the raft, and I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in my entire life. I felt so alive, and I felt like I could truly be myself with my family. But I also felt that this raft was like a theater or stage. We were pretending, the violence was pretend — mom had said so. It was a stage, just like the chair I’d sit in for Read, Write, & Type!
The Swearing Raft also really made me feel like One of the Girls — I felt like this wouldn’t have been OK if my dad were participating. That a man could never say bitch and have it be pretend the way I could. I have sought out that One-of-the-Girls feeling much of my life. It’s why I find the unspoken intimacy between the Sex and the City girls so moving, and why I wanted to be like Will in Will and Grace even though I’m straight. It’s why I asked my sister to teach me to braid hair when I was seven.
At some point on The Paradise Trip, I posed for the photograph with a macaw. I imagine it was an unhappy macaw, with an unhappy owner, and I’m sure the two of them had trouble telling me apart from the many identical sun-burnt Jewish kids who came before me, extruded from identical planes from Los Angeles into identical Lexus rental cars to be shuttled along identical itineraries across Maui. I’m sure many an identical photograph exists, in which a child’s blue eyes shine with a wonder synthesized by an identical experience.
This photograph sat for many years in the room of my other sister, whom I now love equally. It hung on her wall, which was made of teak and burnished bright orange, because it was a converted sauna. This tiny room had a tiny window the width of my elbow, and a steep sloping roof, and always felt very secret to me.
Later, this sister lived in a room that was a balcony overlooking the living room. The balcony had a tall railing slotted down with bars. The bars were very elegant and baroque, but reminded me of zoo or prison bars. When I played in her room I would sit by them and grip them and moan and sing I got the blueeees to the melody of a Kraft Mac & Cheese commercial that had that phrase as a lyric. In the song, the lyric related to the blue box that Kraft Mac & Cheese was sold in. I was pretending to be a depressed prisoner.
My sister was always getting caught for doing rebellious things like painting in her room or being loud on the phone. When she needed privacy all she had were sliding wooden panels. Braylan, for his room, has similar panels of cloth to separate his bedroom from the kitchen.
My sister would sob and scream at the top of her lungs. She was thirteen. At the time, not yet having had my body grow very much, I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t just stayed in her very secret room.
The Santa Barbara Zoo photograph of me and Braylan at first seems to be like the Paradise photograph from the sauna, and you wonder how any modern zoo in a liberal state like California could have a cage full of parrots with their wings clipped for tourists to pose with. But, if you look at it more closely, you’ll see, in beaming Braylan’s hand, an impossibly tiny penguin, no bigger than my purse.
When we posed for the photo, the man told Braylan to hold his hand out, as if a little animal was standing on it. There were no gaudy backdrops or plastic lions, and there wasn’t even a banner for the zoo; he just pulled us in front of a nondescript bit of bush, gave Braylan this mysterious instruction, and snapped the picture.
Brandishing a big smile, he turned his camera around and there Braylan and I were on a little screen. He asked Braylan what animals he liked. He started to name animals and fiddle with buttons, and as Braylan’s eyes widened, the animals started to appear in our photograph. Otter? And an otter was suddenly in frame, hovering a couple inches above the ground. Panda? And a half-cut-off panda appeared on top of Braylan. Braylan said Penguin! And, a couple clicks later, a penguin was in frame. The man’s face filled with sensitivity and concentration, and with some more careful clicks, the penguin shrank. The penguin blinked in and out of existence, getting closer and closer to Braylan’s oustretched hand, just like Ziggy being clicked across the lane.
The man turned to me and smiled and asked me what my favorite animal was. I did not want any animal, and I think he could tell as soon as he asked. I was a cranky old man. But cranky old men can be brought around by whimsy. It’s just that we deeply love the reality we have grown used to. We only ever want reality to be elaborated on, never contradicted. The man put a credible macaw on my shoulder. It was what my father would’ve called A Wow Moment. It’s the first thing you notice in the picture.
I could’ve asked the man to delete it, but I was very depressed, and my face shows it in the picture. I am very sick, and it’s very likely I won’t live to see Braylan grow up. There might be a time where all he remembers of our zoo trip is this picture.
I may’ve been deeply unhappy when The Paradise Trip photograph, with the real macaw, was taken. My interior life has always been one primarily constituted of suffering. Nostalgia is one of the only things that makes me, in the present tense, at least a little happy because it activates a phantom past that is much happier than anything I feel myself capable of in this moment, in any present moment. If my memories were perfect recollections of present tenses, my life would be unlivable.
But if it’s the case that I was unhappy in the Paradise Trip photograph, this is the first time I’ve considered it. I can’t remember any details of my face or eyes at all. Most of my time looking at it has always been spent looking at the bird. At first, looking at the bird made me happy. Then, as I grew older, I felt guilty about the bird having to suffer to make the little Jew smile.
But in the Santa Barbara Zoo photograph, there is a perfectly guilt-free parrot for Braylan to smile at, instead of looking at his balding, tired Uncle, ravaged by medical poison and thoughts of heartbreak and animal murder.
And Braylan, if you are reading this one day — I want you to think of the parrot like this: It’s not me trying to mask the cancer and depression on my face, but me playing pretend. The most fun I have ever had, Braylan, is playing pretend, and bringing smiles to people’s faces. The only way I’ve gotten through any moment of my life, or had any fun, is by slapping a parrot on top of my frown. And in playing pretend with you, Braylan, I’ve had so much fun over the years.
I wonder, Braylan, what your mind is going to be like — unlike Pop Pop who imagines real chairs, but unlike me who imagines cartoon chairs. I wonder who your Ziggy is, and if instead of a cartoon, he’s a magic photographic zebra who can appear in a frame that any eye would accept as credible.
I wonder if being half-black changes the way you see the racist yo-yos, whether they hurt you more.
I wonder what it’s like to have computers really talk to you and really listen. What it will be like to never use your hands to write. What it will be like to live in a magic world.
I wonder if you will always be healthy.
I wonder if you will never, ever, have to pretend.
Max Ritvo was the author of the poetry collection Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016) and the chapbook, AEONS, for which he was awarded a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. He earned his BA from Yale University and his MFA from Columbia University. Ritvo's poetry has also appeared in Poetry, the New Yorker, and on Poets.org. His eight poems that appeared...