Michael imitated the actions of the animals described during the performance of this piece. This piece is an example of how Michael is able to draw together seemingly disparate events in his life or from literature, and weave them into his experience as an incarcerated person.
What came first — penitentiary tours or zoos? The first penitentiary tour was conducted at Walnut St. Jail in 1790. The first zoo in America opened in Philadelphia in 1874. So zoos were established 84 years after the first penitentiary tour.
A penitentiary tour consists of members of the public walking through prison observing humans in their un-natural habitat. Oh! How they try to conceal the stench of human incarceration with somber faces.
I am from the North side of Rochester NY; it’s 2 miles from my neighborhood to the Seneca Park Zoo. One day my friends and I grab our homegrown bikes (homegrown bikes are pieces of thrown away bike parts, a sprocket here, and a raggedy banana-seat there) and we paddled the 2 miles.
When we get there the grass is beautifully manicured, the trees are well groomed, I could only stare in awe. Damn, this looks better than our neighborhood! As we rode deeper into the interior we saw kids enclosed by a fence swimming in a pool. Damn! This pool is better than what the city lets us swim in.
The first animal I encountered was a Lama. Does Lama He strutted up to the woman standing in front of its cage and spit in her face: I wondered why he would do that? The zoo people had rescued him and were feeding him at least 3-times a day.
The next animal I encountered was a Monkey. Does Monkey The only thing I knew about monkeys came from reading Curious George. This monkey had no smiles for me; he looked at me with angry eyes. Then he turned his back to me; looking over his shoulder he intentionally scratched his ass: Curious George would have never disrespected me in such a manner. That monkey should be grateful he’s getting free bananas and he has a Jungle Jim.
Riding up to the next cage I see an Ostrich, and I am amazed it didn’t have its head in the sand. It prances up to the cage and gives me the once over. Does Ostrich The look made me feel dirty and ashamed for coming to the zoo: Why would this animal do that? As a human I have a right to invade its privacy, and taxpayers are paying for its food and keep.
The next animal I encountered was a Giraffe eating leaves from a tree. It glances at me from the corner of its eye. It walks over and looks down at me as if I am familiar, but I’ve never been on the Serengeti Plain. Then it peers at me like a disappointed professor wearing glasses. Does Giraffe I was perplexed. The Giraffe had trees and no lions to hunt it. Shouldn’t it have been grateful for being rescued?
One hundred and ninety seven years later–from 1790 to 1987 — is when I experience my first prison tour. Sitting in the cell reading a book, and down the gallery walks these people. I was surprised and shocked as they were. After I got over my shock, I had this uncontrollable urge to turn my back and look over my shoulder and scratch my ass.
It suddenly dawns on me why I never visited another zoo. I finally understood what those animals were trying to say.