Friday, April 17, 2009

The Zookeeper's Wife

The Lamb is in town this week with his wife and son. It's been quite a spell since we broke bread and put our noggins together. He and I like to bat around Big Ideas, like two kids with a whiffle ball on a city stoop.

He's got a lovely house in San Antonio and shares a spread up in the hills just north of that town where he can build things, plant vegetables, battle varmints, get dirty. I see the man become the intentional boy, curious, besotted by the sensual life, happy in his own hide, a clumsy dancer through whom others learn to dance. His boy loves birds, his wife loves books. Pretty good formula for fifty plus.

I remember one time Quist sayin, "Simple don't mean simplistic and love works best when you leech out the sentiment, poot. Don't know why human virtue has become so rare, but if you spot it, know you've found a prize."

The Lamb knows you can live like a prince in the dry Texas hills, but if you wanna do the hi-lo cultural boogaloo you gotta come to the City to find the beat. There are people who think the City is Gomorrah, there are people who curse the crowds, and there are people who get scared just tryin to swipe their Metrocard and get through the turnstile without pissin themselves. Some of 'em live just across the river, some of 'em live out in the sticks. The City is people. If you fear people, you fear the city. If you hate people, you hate the city. If you love people, the City is yours.

We went to see the lake and environs. The sky was a big blue yawn and the hilltops were sproutin green fuzz. "We got ourselves a day, bud."

We found we were drivin the Pulaski Highway through the black dirt fields of Pine Island talkin about books. Onion fields. The Lamb had just finished readin Diane Ackerman's book about Antonina Zabinski, The Zookeeper's Wife. It's a brilliantly told story about bein one's brother's keeper, about hidin the hunted in plain sight, about the unexpected sympathy between cruel humans and innocent animals, about a comic muskrat, about terrible suffering and unimaginable horror in wartime Warsaw. A story of moral courage amid a sea of savage immorality. Beasts are not bestial. Man is.

The Lamb thought Ackerman might've taken a few too many imaginative liberties reading into the heroine's diaries, I disagreed. But we did agree that it was a strong work, important and essentially true. He looked at me and said, "Back home, the guys I work with -- they're all nice guys, mind you -- none of 'em reads, none of 'em is interested in books. It's all sports and TV. That's what I miss."

We turned right toward Florida, New York, home of Jimmy Sturr the Polka King. Buzzards rose in the thermals over the pitch-dark earth as ancient tractors rolled back and forth makin furrows.

I thought to myself, I know what you mean, bud. I miss it just the same when we're too long apart.

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