Things have a way of turning out so badly

Washington, DC — My pied-á-terre is in a building on the corner exactly between the National Zoo Red Line Metro stop, and the National Zoo — two blocks from each. The building is on the west side of the street, the side that the metro lets out on, so the side that most people cleave to as they make extended-family-sized, stroller-pushing pilgrimages in what sometimes seems an unbroken line between the Metro and the Zoo.

A friend of mine visiting asked how I felt about that, with implied sympathy for a blight on what is otherwise a pretty good deal (if ever you can call living in an apartment the size of a train car that I would have scorned in my twenties at a quarter of the rent, a good deal). But actually, the thing my friend asked about was, in those initial days of feeling otherwise a little screwed to be paying four figures for less than 400 square feet, the saving grace. Because where I grew up, if you had a stream of tourists surging up your street heading for the zoo, you were Jackie Onassis, or someone with a similar amount of money. What I like about it is not only living in a neighborhood that other people take a field trip to visit, but the oneness with the world, with humanity that the people-watching being in such a place offers.

But I have noticed a trend: The children sitting in the strollers facing south, heading back to the metro are almost always crying. The ones who aren’t are scowling. They are sullen. They look like they wish they had the vocabularies to say — Was that your idea of fun? Not mine! Worst day ever. The absolute inevitability of that — I am sure I have never seen a happy child in a stroller pointed towards the metro from the zoo — finally made me realize that fatigue (rather than disappointment, horror at the sight of caged fellow creatures or existential angst) is probably behind these children’s wails and dour demeanors. The bigger people, who tire slower, stayed too long. And then the departure unleashed whatever transition issues their children have.

Once I figured that out, the sight of a sobbing child in a stroller being pushed away from the zoo, makes me think, with some lightness, of the  last words of The Glass Menagerie: “Things have a way turning out so badly . . .”

I imagine the rest of the day, probably planned a week in advance, probably held out as a bribe, even (“if you eat all your vegetables, we’ll go to the zoo!”), was good. It just ended badly, the way eagerly anticipated things sometimes do.

And then the baby panda — unanticipated, but so long awaited, hoped for — came. And she came, the dear, tiny little stick of butter sized present to the nation on the same day as good news on the political front for, I believe, more than 47 percent of us, that someone had memorialized Mitt Romney’s contempt for the electorate on video. I realize the two events were unrelated entirely, but to me they were both part of a wonderful day in the neighborhood.

I was out of town when the news broke that the baby panda died, her mother’s “honks of distress” alerting zookeepers. The Washington Post published a beautiful story that included a glimpse of the zoo staff’s grief, with the quote from one of them mourning “all the fun we would have had.”

Things have a way of turning out so badly. And yet, somehow, we eagerly anticipate again, looking forward to the next great event that will make all the exhaustions, transitions, struggles worthwhile.


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