Earlier this month, a visit to the Brookfield Zoo with Mr. New Guy uncovered new depths of hidden obsessiveness in Yours Truly. I've always liked the place--it reminds me of a pancake-flat Bronx Zoo, minus the Bengali Express monorail ride through Wild Asia that I grew up riding. (My transit geekiness started young.) But there's one thing I unfortunately didn't grow up with at the NYC animal park: that childhood icon all living Chicagoans probably assume the whole world knows about--but doesn't, Mold-A-Rama!
New Guy and I did Brookfield on a chilly, drizzly weekend afternoon. As I only had eyes for him, I didn't mind the wet much. The pallid weather gave us the zoo mostly to ourselves, and kept the few potentially marauding yuppie toddlers in attendance snugly bundled in their plastic-domed, already-outgrown strollers.
Being a member and lifelong visitor, New Guy knew the best way to circuit the zoo. We entered from the South Gate and wended our way counter-clockwise around the Roosevelt Fountain starting with the Bear Grottos, then working towards the Seven Seas Dolphin Arena and on from there.
All the while, New told me tales of being a little kid making regular visits to the big zoo. He remembered Olga, the giant walrus (She used to come up to the edge and blow water at you; they didn't have all this Plexiglas here then), Ziggy, the chained bull elephant (He died right after they set him free), and the day Binti Jua rescued the 3-year-old who fell into her gorilla exhibit.
But walking into the Australia House, our relative calm shattered when New Guy saw the Mold-A-Rama machine in the entry alcove.
"Oh my God, those are so COOL!" he cooed like a little kid. "I grew up making plastic animals with them! Every time we came here, I used to beg my parents until they let me have one--just one. Eventually, we had a whole herd of plastic animals around the house. Did you have these back in New York?"
I swept my gaze over the ice machine-sized, 1960s-era blue monstrosity of dials, switches, pistons, and plastic. "Um, no," I replied. "I can't believe you people keep these things around, they look dangerous."
"Nonsense," said New Guy. "You don't know what you missed back there in New Yawk City not having these around."
I thought about his comment while we passed through the miniscule Down-Under exhibit. As we exited out the way we came in, I stopped by the gently purring machine. I told New, "OK, I want one."
He stopped me from pulling out my wallet, deposited two singles into the money slot below the big, clear plastic dome, and told me to watch. I was surprised at the ferocity of the rumbling that soon began. While the floor beneath us trembled, pistons pushed two metal molds together, hot plastic was injected in-between, and (as I would later learn) air blasted the molten plastic hollow, then anti-freeze brought everything down to a less dangerous temperature.
But still an uncomfortably warm one. "You have to be careful when you take them out," New Guy warned, as he reached inside the vending hopper and pulled out a newly minted pink aardvark. "You gotta hold them upside-down like this until they cool off, so no plastic drips out of the holes on the bottom onto your hands."
I wanted to make a snarky comment about potential liability suits, envisioning decades of ten-year-olds with aardvark-shaped burns on fingers and palms. But the thing was just so damned shiny.
"It needs a name," said New. "I know! Let's call him Artie--Artie the aardvark!" Artie smelled like a crayon on a radiator. But there was no denying it; he was amazingly, unexpectedly, kitschily cute. I felt the time bomb begin ticking before we even left the zoo.
The same weekend, New Guy gave me a dozen roses--orange ones, to signify desire, enthusiasm, and passion. The moment I saw the colorful blooms, I knew exactly how they'd be repaid.
The weather was less charitable than my mood when I made my clandestine visit back to the zoo the following Wednesday. Before I hopped on Metra for the 20-minute ride west to the Hollywood/Zoo stop, I visited a downtown bank branch to break a twenty into singles.
I told the clerk, "I need them for the Mold-A-Ramas at the Brookfield Zoo." The single look she shot me instantly told me she had fond childhood memories of the machines--and thought I was insane for visiting a zoo on an 18-degree day.
(Photo: Hey, which one of you guys ate the alligator?)
Never having taken commuter rail to the zoo, I was pleasantly surprised to find the walk from Metra to be a leisurely 10-minute residential stroll from station to the zoo's South Gate, a less-urban version of the similarly short saunter from the number 5 train to the Bronx Zoo's Asia Gate.
I paid my full admission, pulled my double-wrapped wool scarf a little higher around my neck, and headed towards the Dolphin Arena, where I remembered the first set of Mold-A-Rama machines I had passed with New Guy during our weekend visit.
Once there, I pulled out my wad of singles, grabbed one of several freezer bags I had stuffed in my computer bag, and proceeded to devolve into a pre-teen. As I watched a dolphin watch a workman scrape old paint off a viewing window ledge in the arena's otherwise empty lower level, I made myself a blue dolphin, an orange lion, and a black gorilla.
New Guy was right, I quickly learned to be ginger in my attempts to remove the still-semi-nuclear playthings from their creaky, metallic birth canals. Worried they would stay hot in my computer bag, I decided to forgo my simmering sense of embarrassment and sat with my potentially carcinogenic menagerie on a bench in the cold to let them cool.
It was a strategy I repeated--sitting outside the Pachyderm House with a gray elephant and a brown rhinoceros, outside the Australia House with another pink aardvark, outside The Living Coast with a pointy, white penguin. And each time a Mold-A-Rama machine vibrated the ground as it brought one of these animals to inanimate life, I felt an immediate, grade-school-boy urge to immediately find another one and do it all over again.
By the time I found the three dinosaur Mold-A-Ramas in the hallway next to the Perching Bird House, I knew I likely had a diagnosable obsession. The unexpected apatosaurus, triceratops, and tyrannosaurus rex molds had been brought in specially for this year's Dinosaurs Alive! animatronic dino exhibit. Sitting right next to each other as they were, I knew what I had to do.
I took six remaining singles out of my wallet, and a deep breath. Then I ran crazily from one machine to the other, inserting dollar bills as quickly as humanly possible, making three Mold-A-Rama machines simultaneously stutter to life in the same room. As the whirring, rumbling, thundering trio played its cacophonous mechanical melody, I rode the rush and tried to handle it.
I blame the fogginess of my following refractory period for having missed the alligator mold machine in the Swamp exhibit. No matter, I'm sure I'll be back, singles in hand. A perusal of several Mold-A-Rama fan sites informs me that the MARs change at Brookfield pretty frequently, so there'll be some new animal to mold soon enough.
(Yes, there are several fan sites. Yes, we rabid fans call the shiny molded animals MARs for short. Yes, all of this gives me pause, too.)
On the train ride home with my rubber fauna, I worried whether an appropriate 12-step program exists for someone who amasses a Mold-A-Rama menagerie in a mere two hours. I wondered just how far gone I was.
Not as far gone as some, apparently. I only gifted the ten Mold-A-Rama animals.
Mr. New Guy named them.