Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Birmingham, Alabama—Days 303/304

Well shoot. Being here in Birmingham makes me wanna talk like this. Seriously. It’s a struggle to not want to just pick up the y’alls just to blend right in.

Monday morning I went to the zoo bright and early—in fact, I arrived fifteen minutes before the zoo even opened. So I sat in my silver Pontiac and waited for the gates to open at 9am. Thank god for renting a car yesterday. I would have stood out in the cold if I had been dropped off by a taxi.

The zoo gates finally opened and I continued my tradition of being the first one at the zoo. I paid my admission and went in before even some of the staff walked in behind me. I had a map and figured out where the hippos were and set off.

Finding the hippos wasn’t hard—there were two of them in an inside enclosure. Problem was that the lighting was awful (not to mention the indoor pool that they were in) so I was eager to get photos of them outside where they had a nice big enclosure with a pool, albeit an empty pool.

So I watched them for a bit and decided not to ask the keepers working with the elephants next door about the hippos. I could wait until some sort of non-busy looking person walked by. Eventually, one did and it turned out that he was the hippo keeper! I asked him what their names were (Mama Petite and Tadpole—Tadpole being the male of course) and he enthusiastically told me that they would be fed outside after he did some work with the wolves. So I thanked him and set off to kill forty five minutes or so. I walked around the zoo, snapping photos of the flamingos and various other birds before ending up at the gift shop where I loaded up on zoo paraphernalia. After a substantial time had passed, I headed back to the hippo enclosure and sat on the bench outside, near the hippos’ outdoor area. I waited and waited, and could hear a bit of hippo commotion going on inside. So I went to look and it seemed like Tadpole and Mama Petite were getting anxious about being let outside.

I went back outside and sat down, as different groups of mothers and their children came and went, mostly in search of the elephants. I waited and soon the keeper came out of the door leading to the outdoor enclosure. A few more minutes! He yelled to me. I smiled and waved.

Then he and another girl whom I assumed was a trainee began laying out all of the hippos' food—hay, carrots, big fat brown pellets and lettuce—making four nice little piles of the goods. I doubled checked with the man about Mama Petite’s name (whether or not it was all one word or two separate words) and soon they were done with distributing the food. The keeper than gave Tadpole and Mama Petite their medicine which he did by dumping it into their mouths which were accessible through a small opening in the door between the indoor and outdoor enclosures. The door had been opened just so that they could stick their noses and mouths out but not their whole bodies. Once this was done, the keeper and the trainee went inside and the door opened automatically, letting Tadpole and Mama Petite into their outdoor enclosure.

Boy did they move slowly! It seemed a pained effort for the two to waddle themselves over to their food. Perhaps they were both just stiff—but the sure did take their time. Munch munch munch. I snapped away as they ate up their food. It was almost perfect—the two of them would rotate who was munching on the two piles nearest me (a.k.a. the best photographic shot) and would sometimes end up munching side by side. Click click click. I say “almost” perfect here because there was this annoying fence that was going across their enclosure which was just so that it got in my way. I had to lean over the fence in front of me and put my camera almost to my knee level to shoot through the fence to get a good picture. Sometimes the hippos would stop and look at me with that, what the hell are YOU doing look.

Yes, hippos can make that face. I swear.

I was at the zoo for a good two hours which meant that a lot of keepers would come and go by me, several of them commenting about me coming at the right time to the zoo “cause they sure don’t get out much those hippos” and things like that. Perhaps they were mocking me—I didn’t care. I didn’t think that they were, they were just probably thinking that I was completely nutsy. That’s ok, I’m used to it.

Photographing the hippos in the USA (so far) has been a complete breeze to what I have encountered in the world. I mean, how great is it to just GO UP to the keeper and ask them what the names of their hippos are? There is no gesturing needed, no translation involved, just the pure, simple question. Unfortunately though, what it lacks is the excitement, the stress, the satisfaction that has comprised the past 10 months of my life. Its just point, shoot, and you’re done.

I headed out of the zoo after the hippos were fully done with their breakfast and the two were standing waiting to go back in their indoor enclosure. When Tadpole took the opportunity to spread the love (ahem) all over the door to the enclosure, I figured my time was up. I headed out of the zoo and stopped to take a few pictures of the entrance before getting into my car.

“Get some good shots?” I turned around and saw three keepers walking towards the entrance. I smiled and shook my head, muttering to myself about how it is was my job to take pictures at the zoo thank you very much. They just laughed and I realized that talking to oneself doesn’t really make you seem less nusty. Oh well.

I spent the afternoon trying to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (a.k.a. Museum) but found it to be closed. Actually, I was told it was close by this great homeless guy who not only told me it was closed but proceeded to take me on a tour of the park across the street—the famous Kelly Ingram Park. As he showed me around, reciting the history of the area and the struggles that he and his classmates, family and friends went through in the 1960s, I had to admit I was captivated by it all. When my “tour” was done, I handed him what money I had in my wallet and thanked him for his insight. He told me that giving these tours was just his way of making a little bit of money.

Since the museum was closed, I had an entirely free afternoon ahead of me. This was spent driving around the outskirts of Birmingham and stopping at a local mall just to kill time. IT was killing me, this killing time. I was bored. Bored! Can you believe it! Its been 10 months since I had ever even felt the slightest twinge of being bored and now it was hitting me full force.

Time eventually passed and I made it back to the hotel with the only thing on my agenda for tomorrow being going back to the museum. I did just that—after waking up this morning (Tuesday) I spent a while figuring out the hippo situation in Florida (where I will head tomorrow for five days) and visited the museum in the early afternoon. The museum was truly amazing and I left the museum a few hours later feeling troubled and fulfilled at the same time. Birmingham was the most segregated city in the nation and this is where it all happened—the American civil rights movement. As I walked to my car I noticed my homeless friend from yesterday, standing there with his cane and hat on just as before, waiting as a group of people walked up towards him. He approached them and started talking, then started walking him over to the first sculpture in the park.

I smiled and got into my car, driving away back into the suburbs, the middle of nowhere.