Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Bless the beasts and children

Summoned by an unearthly bellowing from the end of the street, we went out to see what was going on. It was St Francis of Assisi Day, when the animals come to the Cathedral for the spectacular annual blessing of the beasts. From the outside, this annual ritual seems less about ensuring the spiritual advancement of iguanas and pomeranians than about providing eager city-dwellers with glimpses of creatures more exotic than rats or pigeons. Or, as Busytot put it, "Big cow go MOOOOOO!"

Among the flower-bedecked animals on parade were a camel, a horse, a pony, two llamas, a penguin, and a dog with wheels where its back legs used to be, the latter hoping perhaps for a miracle cure. Also spotted: a duck, an eagle, a goat, a snake, a sheep, a donkey, a large steer, and a cow. Urban animal-spotters thought the cow was a bull because she had large horns (never mind her prominent udder), and they thought the steer was a cow because he was gentle and black and white (never mind his lack of udder). There was no elephant this year; they've been on the banned list for some time after an unfortunate altercation with the camel. Another notable no-show: the urban tiger.

What Busytot knows about tigers would fill a book. Specifically, that would be the book du jour -- the Judith Kerr classic The Tiger Who Came to Tea -- in which an exceptionally well-mannered tiger knocks on the door, says "Excuse me," and invites himself to tea with a little girl called Sophie and her mummy. Imposing but not intimidating, the massive felid eats everything in the house -- except for Sophie and her mummy, fortunately. He then drinks his fill, making sure to scull "all Daddy's beer" (that's Busytot's favourite line, even though his Daddy doesn't much go in for beer). When the tiger is finished, he says "thank you" and politely takes his leave. What he doesn't do is move in upstairs, wee copiously on the floor, and get through half a dozen raw chickens per afternoon with his alligator pal, Al.

I'm referring to Antoine Yates and the 400 lb tiger who didn't just come to tea, but moved in and stayed for two years, outlasting the other tenants of the small apartment (Yates's mother and a series of foster children, as well as a lion cub and sundry other animals). This story has legs, as they say. Big stripey ones. Days after the news first broke (coinciding with poor old Siegfried and Roy's encounter with some fearful symmetry of their own) and everyone checked the calendar to make sure it wasn't April 1st, follow-up articles are still bulking out the pages of the respectable NY Times and the tabloids.

Gothamist has a nice summary. There are a couple of classic photos, including one of an armed policeman rappelling down the outside of the apartment building to peek in the window. Also some priceless quotes from neighbours, who flooded out of the woodwork to aver for the record that the tiger-keeper was a gentle fellow, good with animals, and that he had merely wanted to create his own little Garden of Eden.

What was Yates thinking? Perhaps he'd read too many of those technicolour pamphlets you get from the door-knocking evangelists, with their vivid images of the lion lying down with the lamb, the panda, assorted medium-sized carnivores, and a couple of rosy-cheeked children. A cramped apartment several floors up seems like an unlikely spot for such a neo-Paradise, but you can't fault the idealism. Maybe he's an animal-fan equivalent of Darius McCollum, the train fanatic whose passion for trains led him to become not just a spotter but a driver. Poor old Darius is doing time now, despite a presumptive diagnosis of train-fixated Asperger's syndrome. I think the punishment should fit the crime: a job at the Transit Museum for Darius, and an internship at the Bronx Zoo for Antoine.

The tiger tale is being billed as one of those "only in New York" stories, but I dunno -- it seems to me more a case of "only in certain parts of New York." It's been noted that there's a direct correlation between average income of a neighbourhood and the frequency of "quality of life" calls to the cops; the well-off Upper East Sider is apparently much quicker to register a complaint than the denizens of Harlem or Washington Heights. I don't know what the calculus is -- some combination of sense of entitlement and whether you see the cops as friend or foe -- but it's clear that in certain parts of the city you wouldn't get away with harbouring wildlife for nearly as long as Yates managed. If Cindy Crawford can be forced to put down carpets to insulate her downstairs neighbours from the "intimate sounds of daily life," then a quick call to the super should fix the problem of jungle beasts upstairs. "Hello, super? Tiger urine coming through the ceiling! I don't think so!"

Sharing a building with noisy strangers and their non-human companion animals, whether feline, canine, avian, or reptilian, is a New York given. You rub along, and what doesn't actually kill you makes you stronger, in an impatient, neurotic, twitchy sort of way. But last week some anonymous residents of our building posted a funny little letter under all the doors, inviting us to be a little quieter and more considerate of our neighbours, as noise tends to echo in the large courtyard at the heart of the building. Poor lambs; they might as well bark at the moon. I'd guess they're newly arrived in the city and are still in shock at the level of quotidian noise pollution.

The letter singled out a couple of "easily remedied" examples, including "the small dog with the annoying bark that announces its discontent to the whole building." I know the one they mean, he lives next door and yaps all the live-long day, but -- "easily remedied"? If I were that little dog I'd watch out for poisoned blow-darts across the courtyard. Thank god the letter-writers left off their list "the demon banshee toddler given to random blood-curdling shrieks that turn your brain to jelly. Sits by the kitchen window at 8, noon, 4 and 6 alternately torturing his parents and then kissing their ears better."

Ah, the joys of urban life. Not ours for much longer, alas. We ventured up to New Haven over the weekend to check out a promising lead on an apartment, and will be moving there at the end of January. It's a perfectly lovely ground-floor flat in a listed Victorian house, not large by New Haven standards, but positively agoraphobia-inducing for the city-dweller. The kitchen is big enough to keep livestock in (probably chickens rather than tigers) and there's a front porch and a back yard and a small deck shaded by a fine-looking wisteria. Also, to my delight, a tiny office, wood-panelled on ceiling and walls, with a crazily tilted floor. It feels like the cabin of a sailing ship.

After shaking hands with the landlady, we walked around the neighbourhood. Big old triple-decker wooden houses, lots of trees. In one direction, a little shopping street that reminded me of Old Papatoetoe. One block in the other direction is a wee cafe called Lulu's, as well as a wine shop and a little family-run grocery. It was Sunday, so the shops were mostly closed. We walked to the pizza parlour to pick up a pizza that was, by New York standards, huge, tasty, and cheap. The streets were quite spookily empty. Where was everybody?

As we walked back to the house to eat our dinner, Busytot voiced the same thought. "People," he said plaintively, "want see people." I can see there's going to be a bit of culture-shock when we leave the city, but on the bright side, we won't have to sing quite as many verses of that old bedtime favourite, "Who Are the People in Your Neighbourhood?" I'm thinking we can skip the verses about the dean of the Cathedral, the super, the handyman, and the doorman over the road, not to mention the yapping dog next door and probably the tiger.