The orange-hatted, slender-jeaned young man with the “I-care-for-nothing” groovy hipster mustache gave a little cheer in spite of himself when the seal made it on the rock.
He — the man, not the common gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) — had previously let out an excited giggle when the seal used its front flipper to scratch its nose, a gesture that resembled both a wave and adorable military salute.
(“Look at the seal! Look at the seal!” a nearby mother commanded her confused little son in his stroller.)
But when the seal decided to pull itself out of the water in little galumphing half-hops, the young hipster watched with bated breath. Hop. Hoist. Hop. Hoist.
When the seal made it onto the fake rock in the Lincoln Park Zoo’s seal and sea lion pool, the young man gave a little cheer, slightly pumping his fist for the animal.
(“I see one!” a different child called to his mother.)
We were all at the zoo on a beautiful fall Tuesday, one of those afternoons that calls for hooky in the park. It’s too beautiful for work, too sunny and warm. Plus, we know a Chicago winter’s on its way. Now’s the time to eat that strawberry while the tigers wait, gather ye rosebuds and carpe the shit out of that diem.
(“I wish I could do that,” a middle-aged woman said to her friend as the seal stretched and gave a big pinnipedal yawn. “Take a nap.”)
So we went to the zoo, looked at a yawning seal. Many people were there with their children. Some conversed in French or Japanese — the sure sign of a tourist. Some talked in Polish or Spanish — the sure sign of a native.
We walked among the lions and monkeys, taking in another day that could be the last last last before the freeze.
(A young boy ran in a circle and yelled, trying to be annoying on purpose because he wanted to leave. His father got tenser and tenser.)
We gaped at red river hogs and African wild dogs.
(“What’s that? A hyena?” a camera-toting woman asked her husband.)
We cooed at sun bears.
(“Hello, sun bear!” a father called as his young daughter laughed and laughed. “Hello, silly sun bear! Hello, silly sun bear with the big, long claws!”)
Mostly we wandered.
(A gaggle of volunteers in matching corporate T-shirts hoisted papier-mâché Halloween decorations by the lion enclosure for a group photo. A breathtakingly attractive couple furrowed their brows looking for a polar bear that wasn’t in its pool. An old lady smiled at me when she saw I was people-watching too.)
A thought struck me as I watched the seal. It wasn’t a profound one, I’m sad to say. The seal was a Chicagoan.
That’s it. That’s my revelation. The seal sunning itself on man-made rocks to the gawks and giggles of passers-by was from the Windy City. The rhinos I saw later were Chicagoans too, as were the red river hog, the African wild dogs, the roaring lioness and the sun bear. They live here.
Destinations and attractions are oddities in a way. We know we can go to them and get our awe on, but we don’t think about the creatures or people who live those lives. We don’t think about the crews who go out on the lake every damn day, the souvenir clerks whose morning commute takes them to the Sears Tower observation deck.
We don’t think about the zoo animals either, sitting in their enclosures and — if they have the neural capacity for such thoughts — watching a stream of new faces go by. They live here as much as the squirrels, rats and people of Chicago do.
Tomorrow, there will be a new crop of people playing hooky at the zoo. The seal is the same each day. Only we’re different.