The Quiet Gardens

Well, I’ve checked off a couple of items on my To Do While At Home On Vacation List, you’ll be happy to know. I’ve run into one of my elementary school teachers (Hi Mrs. Yehle! Love your nose ring!) at the grocery store, eaten delicious fried plaintains for dinner, and biked to the library (where the librarian still knows me) and then to the Quiet Gardens.

I don’t think the Quiet Gardens are actually called the Quiet Gardens by anyone except my mom. The sign on the front gate, such as it is, just says “Crandon Park Gardens, No Private Vehicles.” There is also a sign that “Crocodile Area, Do Not Feed Or Antagonize” in both English and Spanish. Now, alligators, I can see. Those are pretty much all over the place. But crocodiles? Rare, endangered crocodiles? In the Quiet Gardens? I didn’t see any, so I don’t know.

But maybe the crocodiles are remnants of the Storm During Which All The Zoo Animals Escaped, enshrined as such in local legend. The Quiet Gardens used to be a small, horrible, sixties-style zoo, with the big cats in cages smaller than my bedroom and the turtles all in a big pit and I don’t even want to think about what else. My mom says that we went there when I was a little tiny kid, when we first moved to Florida in the late seventies (we have pictures of me in hilarious seventies-style little silver baby bathing suits to prove it, apparently), but I don’t remember going then. It’s right by one of the public beaches. Marah, Ashley and I took our junior year school pictures there.

Anyway, according to the story, one year there was a hurricane-type event severe enough to evacuate the zoo, and some of the animals didn’t make it onto the flatbed truck or whatever they used to transport the poor animals to another version of zoo hell. In fact, I like to think all of them escaped, the beleagured jaguars and spider monkeys and whatever else there was, and went into hiding somewhere on the island, to turn up occasionally in peoples’ pools or garages. When I was a kid I heard there was some sort of python that did that for a while, and the library pond had an alligator that ate the ducks occasionally. Although that could have been just a regular non-zoo-escapee alligator, I have no idea. I never saw it or the python. I have seen (and heard, unfortunately), the huge flocks of green parrots that are the descendants of some of the parrots that zoo had. These parrots are very loud and like to perch on the plants outside my bedroom window whenever I am home and scream their green parrot heads off. They live in big communal nests by the soccer fields and are sort of like pigeons in terms of annoyingness.

After the zoo left the grounds were just left to rot for a while until some county parks division of some sort decided to fix it up. The old cages are still there, disturbingly, but the rest of the zoo is beautifully landscaped now, with some banyan trees and native plants and lakes with fountains in them and little benches and swings to sit in. It’s a bird sanctuary now, and it’s a five minute bike ride from my house. It’s wonderful.

There are a bunch of regular South Florida birds like egrets and ibis who just hang out there because there’s free food and nice water, but then there are a bunch of exotics too, like funny Chinese geese (I saw a pair that had eight goslings today) and various kinds of ducks and a family of endangered sandhill cranes that they thought would never recover from being injured but did. I was riding around and saw them out for a walk with their grown-up chick, just enjoying the evening sun, strolling around, occasionally doing a funny half-hopping half-flying thing when the mood struck them, then going back to their elongated walk. There were several peacocks and even, incongruously, a bunch of turkeys. A flock of turkeys. Plus lots of squirrels and iguanas, all doing their thing. Most of them didn’t pay any attention to me at all. There was one park worker in a truck that waved to me but otherwise I was the only one there.

I imagined the sandhill crane parents proudly watching their chick, who really looked just like them, only a little smaller, and remembering when they had been injured and the park was trying to get them to be allowed to live permanently at the Quiet Gardens, and when they didn’t know if they’d ever have children, and being so thankful that their chick had grown up and turned out so well. I thought about the father sandhill crane saying to the mother sandhill crane, “Never thought things would end up like this, did you dear?” I thought about the goose family I rode past, a little too close to their eight goslings, and imagined the mother saying, “Well, next year we are definitely getting a nest somewhere a little more out of the way, I know it’s very convenient to the feed buckets here, but really, the traffic is unbearable.” I wondered if the turkeys counted their blessings that they lived in a bird sanctuary this time of year, and if there were ever any disputes with the peacock flock about noise issues. I thought about the regular plain old ducks and ibis and egrets, eating bugs and weeds like regular birds, maybe formerly living the hardcore life in the library pond or a little culvert in one of the condominiums or even down south in the real swamps, rolling their eyes a little at the exotic and endangered birds and envying them their easy life but also having to admit to themselves that you could do a lot worse than be out here in the suburbs and it was a great place for the kids to grow up if you could avoid the damn swans who acted like they owned the place sometimes, always gliding around as if ballet music was playing, like, okay, we get that you’re swans already, you don’t have to look down your beaks at the rest of us, do you?

I thought about last year when Carl and I went there on New Year’s Day and counted iguanas (he hadn’t seen them wild before) and climbed in the banyan trees and sat on the swings and held hands and took pictures. I thought about the old zoo and of my mom taking her little seventies babies there in their crazy seventies baby clothes and their non-ergonomic strollers, and how I am as old now as she was when I was born. I thought about my junior year of high school yearbook picture (we posed in the old zoo cages) and how the drugstore where My Friend Amy worked that year is now a Blockbuster, and how I don’t recognize parts of the island anymore because all the old crappy houses have been torn down and replaced with those weird mansions on quarter-acre lots that seem so cramped and ridiculous. I thought a little about the part of my heart that wishes that my hometown had completely disappeared somehow after I left home so that I wouldn’t have to see it become stranger and stranger to me year after year, and about what it will be like here when I am thirty-eight and forty-eight. I thought about when the last time I ever come here will be and if I’ll know it when it happens.

It was a good place to think about all of this, with the fountains and the trees and the birds. The Quiet Gardens really were very quiet.

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