Monkeys on the shoulder, attack dogs at the door, and bears in the living room—seven hilarious stories of what happens when humans and animals collide.
By Juliet Eastland
How I wish I could attribute my arrival in New York to noble motives—the Muse, for instance, calling me to a life of creativity. My inner savior, propelling me toward a lifetime commitment to the urban poor. But no, I came for one reason: to find a husband.
I’d been living in San Francisco. There are some straight, Jewish men in San Francisco, and I dated all three of them. There was the programmer who took me on our first date to a club—a sex club. The drummer, who confessed he’d never invited me over because he was sleeping in the park until his roommate “chilled out.” The architect, who canceled a date so he could attend a session with his past-lives guru. Lovely men … different priorities. Truth was, I was not a California gal. I’d left my Massachusetts hometown to find myself, and here I was, same east-coast shnook, just sporting do-rags instead of Dockers. Sitting at a drag show one night, I watched my work colleague lip-synching on stage, and it hit me: he’s got mile-long legs and a closetful of lamé, and he’s looking for a husband. I didn’t stand a chance.
It was time to try New York City on for size. My mother grew up among the delis and sturgeon shops of the Upper West Side, her mother in the Lower East Side’s Russian Jewish community; I had Apple in the blood. Rabbis, financiers, pretzel-vendors … somewhere in this jubilee of a city, my man was waiting. I just had to find him. I hit the road, tie-dye and tarot cards flying from my car windows as I headed east.
Once landed, I secured an apartment, a job and an online dating account. Ah, “online dating.” Have you dipped your toe into this Charybdis of poor grammar and purple prose? Despite my parameters—no smoking/drugs, local, LTR—I got messages from men who didn’t read carefully or, possibly, at all. I was propositioned by a teenager in Wisconsin. For a brief, heady period, I found myself corresponding with “married man ISO naked friend.” Managing my inbox began to consume me. To paraphrase the great Young MC, I was ready to hang myself with a celibate rope.
So when Avner emailed, my heart beat faster. His message was subtly flirtatious. Impeccably spelled. Funny. He referred to Maimonides, Madhur Jaffrey, and “Nixon in China.” He was a history teacher. And his photo: delicious. Could this be The One? We made a date.
It was divine. He was divine. He did not mention crystals or pescatarianism. He spoke of former girlfriends with respect while conveying, reassuringly, that he never wanted to see them again. He loved dogs, knew a wimble from a woodborer, and was reading a history of chess just because. By the end of my first beer, we’d moved in together. By our second bottle of wine, I was considering our married name: hyphenated, or should I take his? Sipping my postprandial cocktail, I envisioned our children. They’d have his eyes, I hoped—so blue!
Dinner over, we headed toward Central Park West, savoring the summer evening. I tottered, cocooned in a vinous haze, clutching the arm of my future fiancé.
And then, trouble. We approached a woman sitting on a park bench and holding a diapered baby in her lap. But as we got closer, even I, in my stupor, could tell the creature was not a baby. The tail, for one thing, snaking from the diaper and flicking like a live wire. And the eyes: two black holes peering out from beneath the lintel of a tiny, Neanderthal brow. We stopped.
“Whassat?” I demanded.
“This is Molly,” the woman said primly.
“Come,” urged Avner.
“Wait! Tha’s not a baby,” I continued confidently. “Tha’s a…”
“Monkey,” the woman filled in.
“Oh, cute!” Molly was a mangy, repulsive creature, clad in her shabby diaper, but I saw only her charms.
Before I could make a move, Molly leapt off the woman’s lap and wrapped herself around my shin. Avner hissed and took another step backward. Our first fight! Years later, we’d look back and laugh.
Molly shimmied up my leg like Mowgli scampering up a palm tree. She skittered up my torso to my shoulder and examined my earring. Then she hopped on my head, dug her fingers into my hair, and started grooming me. I was pleased. In my inebriation, I thought it would look fetching, me standing in a flirty summer dress with a monkey on my head.
“You’re looking for nits, aren’t you, pumpkin,” the woman cooed.
Nits. Oh, dear. How many critters, I wondered, was the potentially verminous Molly depositing in my hair follicles? Worse, how many was she retrieving? City apartments housed mites, bedbugs and lord knows what other horrors. I started to sweat. Surely this was too much information for a first date. I didn’t dare meet Avner’s eye.
But Avner had disappeared into the night. “Hol’ on!” I called. I disentangled Molly and handed her back. I headed off, but moments later tiny hands grasped my shin. I hobbled back, Molly clasped around my ankle like a convict’s iron. The woman bent and peeled Molly off my leg.
“Bad girl,” she crooned. She eyed me with approval. “She likes you!” I was flattered. I was also concerned that Molly’s affection for me was growing at an inversely proportionate rate to Avner’s. I stumbled down Central Park West, Molly jumping between benches behind me like a bolt of electricity. The last I saw, she was sitting on a bench like a tiny swami in a loincloth, chewing her fingers and contemplating my retreat.
“Monkey!” I babbled, when I reached Avner. “Can you b’lieve it?” Avner walked me to my door and backed stiffly down the steps, taking care not to touch me. I let myself in, still chattering. “Monkey! Monkey!” And then, I am ashamed to say, I opened the window, leaned out, and bellowed down the dark street: “Avner! No monkey business?” He waved weakly and disappeared around the corner. I passed out.
A few days later, I emailed an apology and update: according to Simon & Schuster’s Encyclopedia of Animals, Molly belonged to phylum chordata, class mammalia, order primate, suborder haplorhini, family cebidae, species saimiri sciureus: Molly, Squirrel Monkey. “Highly active and lively,” these miniscule monkeys gather in bands of twelve to thirty or more. They populate forests from Colombia to the Amazon Basin, where they feed on insects, seeds and birds. Gangs of monkeys have been known to execute coordinated raids on fruit plantations. I pictured Molly atop the bus stop shelter at Broadway and 103rd, casing out the corner fruit store and calculating the distance to the apple bin. How she’d navigated Colombia to Columbia, I don’t know.
Avner emailed back, thanking me and regretting to say he’d be busy for the foreseeable future. I never saw Molly again, either. Mirtsishem, she’s surviving. It’s a jungle out there.
Juliet Eastland is a freelance writer and primate enthusiast now living in Boston. She is, thank G-d, happily married (to someone else).
* * *
Grin and Bear It
By Steven Lewis
As near back as the end of the last century it was all pretty quiet up here in the Shawangunk Mountains of Upstate New York—you know, the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah … Mister Bluebird’s on my shoulder … yadda yadda of crickets chirping, chipmunks sniffing, birds tweeting, turkeys gobbling, Disneyfied deer nibbling green grasses as red foxes pad silently across the yard, monarch butterflies landing on the Rose of Sharon.
Indeed, one of the extra pleasures of rural life back then was to be able to taunt our urban, hyper-sophisticated, uber-allergic, Patagonia-wearing weekenders and daytrippers with the seeming ease of free range existence up here in the boonies. No crime. No smog. No noise. No additives. No rat race. No rats. I’d point to the hammock strung between the pines and they’d grow smog green with envy.
Then sometime before Y2K, it seemed, our formerly benign deer gained courage—or more likely lost territory due to development—and started eating our roses. Then the azaleas. Then the yew bushes that front the porch, stripped to ugly brown sticks poking through the white snow. Bambi was banished at Blockbuster.
Next, right on cue for the twenty-first-century apocalyptic film boom, we started seeing coyotes, howling beyond the tree line, and hearing the blood-curdling screech of fisher cats pouncing on cute little chipmunks, squirrels and bunnies in the dead of night. Then came the snakes. Snakes! More and more snakes. Big black snakes, garter snakes slithering out from the charming stone wall, a copperhead in the woodpile, an occasional rattler on the rocks.
And that was before the first bear, a 400-pounder, showed up in our backyard for some tapas: bird seed, suet and garbage. He was not alone. Soon after, we saw a mother bear and three cubs cavorting around the swing set and the little goldfish pond. RIP Carlton Fish, Carlos and Not Carlos.
The Forest Rangers were alerted. They essentially shrugged, telling us we had to take in the bird feeders each night and build bear-proof garbage bins. I did. But when one of the big fellas knocked over my previously immobile bear-proof garbage bin—and had his fill of my landfill—my only option was to nail it to the porch and hope he couldn’t knock that over too. He didn’t. But he (or another he) ripped off the front doors of the previously bear-proofed garbage bin, so I had to secure it with C brackets and a sliding 2×4. Just like my friends’ lofts in the city.
Right now, I’m winning, if that means I’m trapped in my house when the ursine hoards wander around my backyard—just like our closest, albeit unseen, neighbor-through-the-woods. She was working on her computer one afternoon when she looked up to see a fully grown male on her deck, his nose pressed to the glass, peering in at her. A breathtaking vision that quickly turned into the triple realization that she was trapped in her house, the refrigerator was empty and she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. And thus a few hours later, all ethical and moral considerations falling Maslow-like by the wayside, she phoned town for pizza delivery. The poor delivery-boy-cum-college-student saw the bear, dropped the box on her porch and ran for his life—no pay, no tip, but a new understanding of the precarious nature of existence to bring to his philosophy class.
A similar understanding of the nature of life arrived at my doorstep last summer. I was up late doing some work, my wife asleep upstairs, when I heard the back screen door squeak open and clap shut. I assumed it was our old dimwitted dog Gloria nosing it open to wander around outside. A few moments later I heard it squeak open and clap shut again. Gloria coming back in. Then it happened again: Gloria going out. Then again: Gloria coming in. So when the squeak-clap happened one more time I snarled bear-like at the dog to get back in the house—squeak-clap—and soon packed up the laptop, closed the back door and went upstairs to sleep.
Where I found Gloria already asleep on the floor next to my wife.
I ran downstairs, flipped on the floodlights and ran out into the cool night to find the bird feeders I forgot to bring in strewn about the yard, twisted and mangled. I looked back at the screen door.
I guess he decided, finally, not to come back in.
Or perhaps he came back in and was disappointed with our leftovers.
Although our visitors no longer seem smog green with pastoral envy, they do seem mighty impressed—even drop-jawed—with the perilous conditions we face up here in the provinces. “Bears? Bobcats? Snakes? I don’t know how the hell you can live here!” they exclaim. And that, admittedly, is almost as pleasurable and comforting as the shtick with the hammock.
Steven Lewis is a former Mentor at SUNY-Empire State College, a current member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute faculty, and an active freelance writer.
* * *
By James Folta
My general conclusion is that humanity’s earliest mistake was to invite feral wolves into our homes and think that they would bow to our whims. I see dogs as wild animals, still not to be trusted. I was attacked and harassed by dogs beginning as a toddler and have been jumpy around them ever since. I still switch sides with my friends while walking, to put their bodies between my own body and a potential dog attack. To me, dogs are primarily a threat. Take a look at their jaws and tell me we haven’t invited killers to share our civilization. I’m not calling dog lovers idiots, I’m just saying they’re a little delusional.
The city is the last place I expect to meet dangerous beasts, but I have run into some truly terrifying dogs in New York. I work as a carpenter for a high-end interiors company. One of our best clients is a kind, middle-aged multi-millionaire, an Upper West Side mom who regularly hires us for small jobs around her apartment. “Small jobs” here is a relative term: we’re talking $10,000 to $30,000 worth of work. This is pocket change when your place is crammed with capital-A Art: Andy Warhol in the entry, Jasper Johns used to cover the fuse box, Ansel Adams partially obscured by a window shade.
My boss likes art and raved about the collection. I was excited. A kind lady with great art sounded like a fine way to work for a few days. So when I padded through the laundry room and into the open kitchen at 8:30 a.m., the last thing I expected were the three gigantic monsters turning to size me up. One was a savage, crumpled-up bulldog, its pigeon-toed legs like weight lifter’s arms. But the other two made my stomach plummet. I don’t know their breed. Dire wolf? Werewolf? Hellhound? Whatever breed has hulking bodies as tall and broad as my chest and heads like anvils. These were beasts with something to prove. They could have been the leads in an all-dog remake of “The Wrestler.”
They stood tensed and quivering on the verge of some action, their claws clacking and scraping on the tile floor. The owner was behind them and stepped forward with a limp. Great—she’s slower than these demon dogs. We’re all going to be eaten. I scanned for exits as I tightened my hand around my tool bag.
“Hi, I’m James.”
“James! Hi, we’ve been expecting you.”
We couldn’t say anything else before the dogs cut the tension. Their heads dropped and they bellowed tremendously, barks like band saws fighting through corrugated steel. I cowered against the wall between a phone and a Dutch Master sketch, estimated value: unknown. I smiled but it was hard when I realized that I hadn’t told my loved ones how much they meant to me and I hadn’t spent enough time outdoors and I hadn’t destroyed my diaries and I desperately wanted more time.
The dogs kept hopping forward on all fours, stomping the ground. Each time, I shivered back and my elbows clattered against the wall. The client decided this was the moment for some quick facts:
“They’re former attack dogs! They’re trained to attack strangers!” she shouted. “They’ll calm down when you calm down! Calm down!” So these dogs were worse than wild; they were trained to be better killers than nature had made them. She repeated the phrase “calm down” a few times, as if shouting this would pummel me into tranquility.
“Oh, attack dogs, neat.” My small-talk bullshitting skills sailed above the fog of my fear.
None of us were calming down. So finally the owner put her hands on her hips and disappointedly conceded that it would be better to not have a dog attack over Tuesday’s breakfast. The beasts were moved into another room with a “tsk-tsk.” I spent the next forty minutes of work on edge, tightening the seat on a toilet until my hands stopped shaking.
I’ve been back to this apartment a few times and the dogs haven’t forgotten me. Each time they’ve seen me, they’ve charged me. I’ve been chased down a hallway as the dogs poured sinisterly around the corner like the elevator blood from “The Shining.” I’ve waited anxiously to be escorted from one of the apartment’s bathrooms, knowing the beasts were prowling around. I’ve tumbled over my own tools because one of them sneezed behind a door I was painting.
What’s most disorienting about having to run and cower from these ex-attack dogs is their juxtaposition with such a ritzy apartment. It’s almost offensive to be surrounded by millions of dollars in art while grappling with my Neanderthal brain’s fight-or-flight response. I may be surrounded by the best among humanity’s creations—espresso machines, Pop Art, dimmer switches and heated floors—but it all becomes secondary to my fear. Like a roof leak with fangs, these domesticated wolves are a grim reminder that nature will find me wherever I hide.
* * *
A Night at the Zoo, 1974
By John Gredler
Teague’s parents were divorced, too. His father had remarried and moved into an apartment in a building called Orwell House on the corner of Eighty-sixth Street and Central Park West. We were seventeen or eighteen at the time, and when his father went away on weekends, Teague would sometimes invite me down to the city.
One night we were sitting around drinking Ringnes beer. We played chess using a board Teague had drawn on a piece of white-painted wood and these little lead soldiers he collected. Later we watched Monty Python on the TV in his father’s den, Teague miming all the bits he now knew by heart. When it ended we were bored and decided to go out for a walk in Central Park.
Teague pulled out a pouch of Drum tobacco to roll a few. I grabbed some beers, the squat bottles fitting nicely into the pockets of our army surplus canvas coats. We took the elevator down to the lobby where Teague tipped an imaginary hat to the doorman, saying “Cheerio!” as we walked out. The doorman did not look up.
Both of us knew it was not a good idea to be going into the park this late but we didn’t care. Up at Belvedere Castle we stopped to look out at the shimmering buildings that corralled the park on three sides. Teague opened two beers using his teeth. We drank them fast, tossing the empties into the pond below, then headed south through the overgrown Ramble. Passing the Bandshell there was movement; cardboard shelters huddled on the stage shifting around as people bedded down for the night. We were alone walking the Mall, its canopy of trees forming a tunnel before us. At the zoo we stepped over the sagging chain with a green sign on it that read: “ZOO CLOSED.” We were surprised it was so easy, that there were no other barriers or gates to stop us from entering.
As we walked down the path, I looked left and saw a huge white mass of moving fur. The polar bear was in an enclosure surrounded by a high iron fence about twenty feet from the path. Another fence about seven-feet high ran next to the path, creating a sort of grassy buffer between the path and his pen.
“Let’s climb over and get closer,” Teague said.
“I don’t think so.”
Teague was already up though, swinging himself over the top. He slipped suddenly and went crashing down onto a large flat rock on the other side. He laid there a moment, moaning. When I got to him he was sitting up holding his head and cursing: “My fecking coat got caught at the top.”
“Come on,” I said grabbing his arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No, man. I want to see the bear.”
I looked down. “Did you piss yourself? You’re all wet.”
“Oh shit, the beer bottle broke.” He laughed and did a little dance, shaking his coat, jiggling the shattered glass.
It was then that we both felt the presence of the bear, turning to see his large white head, those big black eyes staring back at us.
We walked closer to the pen. Teague tore a branch from an ailanthus tree and threw it over the fence. The bear picked it up, sniffed at it and tossed it away. He seemed curious about us though, ambling over for a closer look.
I was a few feet from the fence, watching the gracefully lumbering giant, mesmerized by his deliberate movements, when he reared up onto his hind legs, leaning his paws on the iron rails right in front of me. I reached up and touched the hard gray pad of his paw with my hand. His curved yellow claws were as thick as my fingers and almost as long. Teague did the same, touching the bear’s other paw. In a moment he was back down on all fours, turning to walk away.
We didn’t say anything to each other as we climbed back out and made our way to the center of the zoo. On the low wall of the sea lion pool we sat and shared the last beer while the sleek brown mammals churned ceaselessly in circles through the water behind us.
From the Cat House beyond I could hear a deep growling. I pictured the coal black panther with yellow eyes as I had once seen him, years before, his head low to the ground, nervous in his small cell, pacing back and forth, back and forth, hunting for a way out.
* * *
The Hand-Held Lions of the Cairo Zoo
By Ben Gittleson
It was like we had just committed murder.
Walking out of the lion enclosure at the only zoo in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, we could still feel the fur on our hands.
“Don’t post pictures of this online,” I told Tyler, as we turned our attention to the hyenas.
We had come to the zoo with one goal in mind: hold the lion cubs. It wasn’t difficult. The moment we pushed our way through the zoo’s gates, an employee spotted foreigners and led us to the cubs—they are, after all, the only reason non-Egyptians come to Cairo’s dilapidated zoo.
The facility sits on the west bank of the Nile River, an oasis of green in a sea of dusty yellow. Cairo has few public parks, and the zoo gives Egyptians a chance to both interact with the animal kingdom and enjoy a day under some trees.
But the Giza Zoo was becoming quite run-down and struggling to maintain a status as a real attraction, despite its proximity to the beasts of the African Serengeti and the deserts of the Middle East. The animals actually looked sad in their tiny enclosures. Black bears paced around in a caged area not much bigger than a shoebox Manhattan apartment, and a popular exhibit was devoted to common housedogs, where German shepherds wandered across a desolate patch of grass and dirt. Animal rights advocates have often cried foul about the zoo’s treatment of animals. This month, they were alarmed when zoo officials reportedly claimed a baby giraffe there committed suicide.
All this didn’t matter to Tyler and me, who were singularly focused on holding some cute, furry lion cubs. After we entered a back area and forked over our $3.50 each—a considerable sum in poverty-ridden Egypt—the sleazy zookeepers, who seemed more interested in a quick buck than the animals’ welfare, reached into a dark cage and thrust a baby lion into my arms.
Our delight almost immediately turned to dismay, as it became clear these lions were probably mistreated and definitely heavily sedated. Their eyes drooped, they moved lethargically and they seemed almost despondent, unaware of the world around them. Still, worried that my cub might snap out of it and bite off my hand, I quickly posed for photos and passed it on to Tyler.
We felt dirty. An activity that had seemed so novel made us complicit in what appeared to be the mistreatment of animals. With our wallets and a generous foreign exchange rate, we apparently enabled the zoo workers to make money at the expense of their charges. And we had photographed it all.
So we turned our attention to our fellow zoo-goers, distracting ourselves by watching the Egyptian families who had taken advantage of this urban refuge. They let their kids run amok, throwing down blankets for picnics and paying off workers who gave the children lettuce to feed the sea lions and ostriches.
A soccer ball whizzed by my head as we approached a man painting whiskers and a mane on an Egyptian child’s face. Families sprawled out on picnic blankets and parents whipped out hookah pipes, digging in for a long afternoon at the zoo. Outside the gates, taxi horns blared, workers sweated through gridlock and the unemployed milled about, worried about how they’d buy bread that day. But for the small price of admission, working-class Egyptians got the privilege of taking it easy, savoring each other’s company, lounging in defiance. And checking out some exotic German shepherds.
We pushed the drugged lion cubs to the back of our minds and, in doing so, were able to catch a glimpse of life that, as foreigners, we might never have had the privilege of seeing.
Ben Gittleson works on ABC News’ Assignment Desk in New York and freelance reports from around the city. From 2011 to 2013, he was a freelance journalist based in Cairo, and he has filed stories from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan for The International Herald Tribune, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and a variety of other publications.
* * *
By Will Ellis
No one saw me poking around the old Fort Totten Post Hospital, except for a suspicious raccoon that seemed to be the unofficial watchman of the place. I ignored him and stepped through an open door at the back of the building. That’s when he must have followed me inside.
I hadn’t bothered to look over my shoulder as I made my way past ancient kitchen cabinets piled high with dust. I sidled through a two-story cave-in—a dimly lit hallway that visibly slumped a foot or two lower than any floor should. With as light a step as my husky frame allowed, I headed down a spongy staircase to the basement to check in on my favorite sight in the hospital—a mind-bending spot where you can look straight up through three stories of collapsed rooms to the dormer windows in the attic.
As a photographer who’d spent the last year-and-a-half shooting New York City’s decaying factories, institutions, schools and cemeteries, Fort Totten, a former U.S. Army installation in Queens, had just the right combination of history and dilapidation I was looking for. The defunct military base is gradually being improved as a public park, but vast areas of the peninsula are all but overtaken by wild things, and dozens of historic structures are falling to rack and ruin.
That day, I pushed my luck all the way to the top floor, through a sturdy stairwell in the heart of the building. It was just as I remembered from my first visit a year before, only farther gone. I settled on a bit of stable ground and assembled my camera. The hall was silent. And suddenly, it wasn’t.
Tiny footsteps emanated from a doorway just a few feet ahead of me. A moment later, the culprit presented himself, unfurling a banded tail. It was the same raccoon I’d passed on the way in, and he must have been following me around all morning. He froze when I spotted him and locked his eyes with mine in an expression of unfeeling animal curiosity. I fumbled to switch lenses and get a few pictures of him. There was no mistaking the question in his gaze—what are you doing here? I could have asked him the same thing.
I was backed into a corner and he was getting too close for comfort. He took two steps toward me with no sign of apprehension, making it clear that I was the outsider, that wilderness had laid claim to this forsaken place long ago. My animal instincts kicked in and I found myself acting out a ridiculous gesture of intimidation—stomping my feet, flapping my arms, hissing like a maniac. It was unnerving how long it took him to react. For what seemed like minutes, he just kept staring.
More out of boredom than fear, he wandered into an adjacent room, traipsing over wafer-thin floors that even the most foolhardy explorer would know to avoid. I set up my tripod and attempted to coax him into the light with the kind of tk tk tk sound that never fails to get the attention of house cats. Predictably, my companion was unmoved. He backed into a brightly lit dayroom and crept out of sight. I reframed the camera and waited for him to step into my picture. Ten minutes later, there was still no sign of him.
I left my gear and followed the direction of his movements, hugging close to the stairwell where the floor was still attached. Every door I passed opened into another scene of unbridled decay—vines overflowing from a broken window, saplings taking root in the floorboards, the bones of the old hospital bleached and rotting in the rafters. Tk tk tk tk tk? A breeze rambled through the top floor, stirring a bank of dry leaves. Tk tk tk? I reached the end of the hall where his tracks ended, but all I found was an empty room. I was alone in the dark again, back in the crumbling corridors, left only with his incisive question. What the hell was I doing there?
The floor gave a little. Through a doorway to my right, I looked straight down to the basement floor three stories below me and decided to never set foot in that building again.
Will Ellis is a freelance photographer, video editor, and the founder of AbandonedNYC.com.
* * *
By Lili Holzer-Glier
It was a glaring afternoon, when all the snow reflects the sun into your eyes, and through your squint it almost seems like everything is black-and-white. He was alone in a small pen, pure white and prancing, a shaggy extension of the knee-deep snow. As the riding instructor grabbed my skinny six-year-old leg and tossed me into the saddle, the pony seemed giant, although in reality he was only four feet tall at the peak of his shoulder.
My mother, a lifelong horse person, had bought my first pony, a tiny Shetland, before I was even born, and she had me riding before I could even walk. Burned out from the early 1980s New York City art scene, my parents had done what many artists seeking space and peace did: bought a farm upstate. Way upstate—just a little too far from anything (an hour from Albany, an hour from Saratoga), Hoosick Falls occupies a forgotten corner of New York scattered with struggling farms and shuttered factories. My father turned the sheep barn into his studio; my mother took the corncrib and slowly began transforming the cow barn into a horse barn. The first equine to occupy the farm was a thoroughbred filly named Lilly, my namesake. By the time I was six, I had outgrown the Shetland pony and we were hunting for my next steed.
I asked the shaggy white pony to trot, and we bounced around the riding arena well enough. But then a black cat shot down the barn aisle, into the arena, between the pony’s legs and out the other door. Frightened by the flying feline, my fuzzy friend leapt sideways so spectacularly fast I found myself hovering in the air like a cartoon before dropping hard to the ground. Tears of embarrassment pricked my eyes, as I lay flat in the dirt, blushing with my failure. The riding coach brushed me off and threw me back up on the now wild-eyed pony. I didn’t fall off again, so naturally my mother bought me this rather acrobatic creature.
We learned that Andy the white pony had a paralyzing fear of adults, likely from years of previous abuse. Andy would run endless circles around any adult who attempted to capture him in the pasture, snorting, his head held high like an Arabian. Sometimes he would let you get so tantalizingly close, only to bolt off again, white tail streaming away. But I, a timid small child, could catch him. And he could read people. He knew I meant him no harm. That isn’t to say he never left me hovering in the air again, landing flat in the dirt and watching him streak out of sight.
A few months after we bought Andy, I was riding around the corner of the barn just when a repairman was folding up his ladder. That repairman must have looked like the devil himself because Andy took off at a full gallop. Being an extremely stubborn child, I refused to watch his rear-end sprint away from me once more. So as I was falling to the ground, I grabbed the reins and did not let go. That pony dragged me about a mile, at full tilt, across two meadows and into the woods. It proved difficult even for a pony like him to dodge trees and drag a small person, so he began to slow. I finally let go and he stopped, turning and peering at me quizzically. My face, chest, stomach and legs were streaked with bloodied drag marks, and I couldn’t move my right arm. Turns out he had damaged the growth plate in my wrist. Courtesy of Andy, my right arm will always be slightly shorter than my left.
About a year after that, a lawnmower came around the corner of the barn, spooking Andy, who then dragged me the entire length of our half-mile gravel driveway, gracing me with a scar that runs most of my left forearm. But after that incident, Andy never dumped me again. This was in part because I was older and stronger and had developed an incredible knack to cling to naughty horses like a stubborn spider monkey. But Andy and I also developed an immense bond—the frightened abused pony and the lonely only child, growing up with few friends in an isolated town of 3,000 people.
Every day after school I would leap out of the car to go see Andy. He and I would wander my family’s farm until we knew every creek, clearing, wood and meadow. I rode him without a saddle or bridle, only a rope around his neck. I let him pick his way through the fields, stealing mouthfuls of grass and watching the deer bounce by. Our meanderings were always at the golden hour, when the August sun streaked across the yellow hay fields. I rode him until I was really too big to be doing so—fourteen years old, about to leave the farm for boarding school, with long legs that could almost wrap around Andy’s belly. On one of my last days there, I rode him until dusk, and as we came out of the woods into a clearing resplendent with fireflies, we stopped and looked, a glittering goodbye.
Lili Holzer-Glier is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, PBS and Newsday.
Sophie Goldstein is a 2013 graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Pitchfork Review, Seven Days, Irene 3, Sleep of Reason, Suspect Device 3 and Best American Comics 2013.
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