Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Goldilocks and the Five Washer Bears

I work at night, I live in East Hollywood, and I park on the street. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for six weeks now. At 3AM on Saturday mornings I walk through either Korea Town or Melrose Hill for five to ten minutes to get from car to apartment. Sometimes I run into a guy I’ve named “Richard,” who has a grocery cart, an Oakland A’s baseball hat, and a few things to say about the way the world works, but usually, I am alone.

This week, I saw my first neighborhood raccoons. Scuttling across the street to my right was one of those really fat guys who’s too big to be a cat, too nimble to be a dog, and therefore, for the second before I realized what he was, I was terrified. He ran onto the curb, then stopped, turned around, and stared. His eyes glowed, and his huge tail hovered an inch over the sidewalk. I don’t know if raccoons pounce. I only know this one seemed ready to. I got few steps further through the intersection, and then there was an alien commotion to my left, just around the corner. Three more raccoons shuffled into the storm drain. Another stayed behind. I crossed the street, then turned back to check on them. Raccoons #1 and #5 were still there, dead still, on either side of the block, watching me.

Okay, I thought. Five raccoons. Two of which appear to own this neighborhood. This seems weird. Is this weird? Or is it just me who’s weird, being out at this time of night, and they have lived here for years, perfectly normally?

The three of us stood there for at least ten seconds before a white truck with two boys inside who cared more about where I was going than why I might be standing still on the corner finally ended the stalemate. I waved the truck onward and watched a few grey and black stripes slip down the drain.

As it turns out, raccoons don’t usually run in packs. When they do, people aren’t sure why. Their paws, which are hypersensitive, seem to lose no sensitivity after long submersions in cold water or exposure to urban elements, which we also can’t explain. However, considering their current social status as “varmint,” I was surprised at how much research has been done on raccoons. Maybe the reason is: they are one of the few animals native to North America that has successfully adapted to city life. Maybe the reason is that they can carry rabies. They have played an important role in Native American mythology, colonial trade, plantation cuisine (for both slaves and white folk), and the vanity industry of the 1920s upper class (as both exotic pet and car coat). Now, most people ignore them, except for my grandma up in Oakland who fed a few particular raccoons wet cat food on a nightly basis. In other words, raccoons have traveled from the realm of the sacred, through every social class, into the invisible world of late-night scrounging and living in the storm draims. I wondered if my raccoons knew Richard.

Linnaeus called them “washer bears” and perpetuated the misunderstanding that they washed their food fastidiously in water because otherwise they could not swallow it. We now know that “washing” is a captive raccoon activity that has no real correlative in the wild, and that raccoons just like to touch everything a lot because that is their most highly developed sense. They are rambunctious and curious, and tend to disobey commands, even though studies have shown that they can remember how to solve puzzles and open locks for up to 3 years. In a Menomonee folk tale, the Raccoon is a crafty deceiver who uses practical jokes to teach people lessons about staying patient with each other, not getting unduly suspicious, and communicating better.

I like to think of my neighborhood raccoons meeting up in the storm drain after our encounter.

“Who was that?” says R1.

“She’s new,” says R5.

“People scary!” say R2, R3, and R4.

“I don’t like her,” says R1. “Did you see all that makeup she had on?”

“Don’t judge,” says R5, “she wanted to talk to us. No one around here’s wanted to do that for a long, long time.”


  1. Ohhh I love your acuracy! How you turn the racoons - an animal - into something fascinating! We call them "raton laveur", raton being a little rat. I saw a team of two opening the zipper of my tent with a great ability, looking at me straight into the eyes, taking the bread bag with their little human hands (like the Axolotl for Julio Cortazar!), still looking at me despite the flashlight I was pointing at them thinking it would scare them. They left idly with the bread! Humans are not a threat for them - isn't that impressing?