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An Unnatural History

[whitespace] Museum of Natural History
Robert Scheer

Still Life: The Santa Cruz City Museum of Natural History houses more than just stuffed animals and touch tidepools--stuff like swarms of writers.

A writers' conspiracy and the tidepool torture of a thousand touches

By Tai Moses

THE OTHER DAY I PAID A VISIT to the Santa Cruz City Museum of Natural History on East Cliff Drive. I hadn't been there in years, and I wanted to see if anything new had happened in natural history. Inside the museum, inhaling the pleasantly musty fragrance of the past, I was suddenly reminded of another museum experience that took place several years ago.

In New York City one fall, I spent numerous afternoons at the American Museum of Natural History, walking through the quiet hallways looking at the animals posed in artificial habitats. I was collecting impressions. I had it in mind to write a novel in which the main character was a night janitor at the museum. He was a lonely janitor--sensitive, isolated, intelligent but friendless, a man who swept floors and polished window glass and talked only to the silent animals in the tomblike rooms of the museum. (Of course, they didn't talk back--he wasn't a lunatic.)

A typical passage in my novel went like this: Harry (that was his name) sat and contemplated the caribou. He imagined it standing on the Arctic plain, he saw it flee across ground hard with frost, he heard the crack of a rifle report and he saw the caribou stagger and trip over its powerful legs. Now it was stitched back together so it could stand again, bolted to the floor next to a log covered with synthetic lichen and a cardboard boulder, staring out at him with sightless eyes. Such a meaningless death, Harry thought sadly. Such a meaningless resurrection.

I realized after writing 30 or so pages that my tale had no plot--just scene after scene of the janitor and the lifeless animals. Clearly the novel needed more characters. I invented a cab driver friend for Harry. His name was Ray, and he was a failed playwright who suffered from insomnia. I added a girl who sold soft pretzels from a cart in front of the museum. She would have a love affair with Harry, Ray or--conflict!--both.

I tinkered with my three characters for weeks, trying to make their lives intersect in compelling ways. But it didn't work--it was wooden, artificial. I couldn't breathe life into any of it. There was no reason any of these people would come to know each other.

Harry was a character who was incapable of love or friendship, unable to function outside his narrow universe. Poor man, it was not his fault: I had made him that way. Still I scribbled on, imprisoned in my pointless story.

Harry trudged wearily up to the dinosaurs. Although he didn't like to spend much time around those hulking forms, he needed to buff the floors.

After a couple of months, I began to suspect that there were other people at the museum who were also writing novels. In fact, I was positive. I recognized the same handful of faces every afternoon--there must have been five, six, maybe 10 other writers--desperate types who, like myself, could be seen jotting in notebooks, gazing abjectly into glass cases, pacing through the dusky halls and poring over the plaques that adorned the exhibits.

There may be eight million stories in the naked city, but apparently I wasn't the only one who hit upon the idea of a character who existed among the quiet artifacts of a museum, steeped in the mysteries of the past. I sat on my bench in North American mammals and pretended to ignore the intruders as a gallery of glass eyeballs watched the whole charade in silence.

Stitched-Together Lives

FINALLY, I COULD STAND it no longer. I turned in my monthly visitor's pass and sealed all my typed pages and notebooks in a box. I haven't been to a natural history museum since, and Harry remained absent from my thoughts until the moment I found myself in front of a stuffed sea otter entombed in acrylic water in the Santa Cruz museum. This hapless otter could have been the twin of the one I'd spent so much time with on Central Park West.

Of course, our museum is far more intimate than New York's four-story behemoth, but both facilities have the characteristic tranquillity that make natural history museums such pleasant places to spend time. It might be the atmosphere of carefully preserved antiquity--or maybe it's just the scent of the taxidermist's chemicals. Either way, the measured lighting, the even cadences of a docent's voice speaking to a group of schoolchildren and the permanently startled expressions of the stitched-together animals all conspired to bring Harry back.

I was admiring the mastodon skull in its Plexiglas case when the janitor materialized before me, holding his mop and wearing his eternally hopeless expression. Maybe, just maybe, I could resurrect him. Instead of a playwright, Harry could befriend a grizzled old surfer and they could hang out on the Santa Cruz Wharf. It would be like old times.

But just as I began to give this scenario some serious thought, there was a furtive movement in the corner. Huddled next to the fossilized remains of a sea cow was a man scribbling something on a pad of paper. I could tell immediately by his haunted look, mismatched socks and stubby No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil that he was a writer.

The sight jolted me back to reality. Harry became vapor. I moved on to another exhibit, a pair of coyotes staring rigidly into space. A sign above them read, perhaps unnecessarily, "Please Don't Pet the Coyotes."

A cluster of kids was manhandling a shell-shocked starfish in the tidepool exhibit. A little boy next to me was looking at a bobcat posed snarling in its glass case.

"Does that look real to you?" I asked him.

"No," he said flatly.

"Why not?" I said. He looked at me as if I were an idiot.

"Because it's not moving and it's stuffed."

He stared at me intently to make sure I understood this simple fundamental reality, and then he went back to the tidepool, where the real action was.

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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