I decide to drive my own car, because, well, COVID. We have all just finished quarantining, so to err on the side of caution, I will breathe my own air on the 110-mile round trip. The parking lot is as big as the zoo itself. I am careful to note my location. I am in Gorilla 13. I check the sign a few times as I hike to the entrance.
Brookfield Zoo is massive. It sits on 216 acres. The kids have a family pass, so they go often and know the zoo well. The boys are excited to show Yia Yia all the exhibits. And they do. We ride the carousel, see the animated dinosaurs, and, oh yeah, lots of live animals. Alex gets a stuffed giraffe and James gets something that looks like a hedgehog to me but isn’t. They are happy. I am happy.
After a couple of hours in the heat, I have downed two bottles of water and a Gatorade and closed the exercise ring on my Apple Watch. The boys still have energy to burn, but I am spent, so we part ways and I head back to Gorilla 13.
I remember having parked about half-way down the aisle on the right side. I walk to the end of the row, no car. Walk back up the aisle. Focus, Janie. Focus. No car. Back down the aisle, checking multiple times to be sure I am in Gorilla 13. No car. Back up. Nope. Puzzled, and now really hot and tired, I decide to admit that somehow I got it wrong, so I walk one aisle to the right, which is marked Gorilla 11. Up, down, up, down, nope.
I pull out my key fob and hit a button in hopes my car will surrender its hiding place. The buttons on this fob always confuse me, so I hit a couple of them. Radio silence.
My stomach flips. I know Will and the boys are still in the zoo. What if my car was stolen? What if they left and I am stranded here? Mortally embarrassed, I reach for my phone to call Will and ask them to come out and help me find my damn car. No phone. What? My throat goes dry and my stomach flops. No phone. No car. Now what?
By this time, I am pretty sure I am looking wild-eyed as I size up the families flooding toward the zoo from the lot. At this point, I should probably mention that I am 65 years old, stand 4’11”, and my hair started turning grey when I was 18; now it’s white.
A man about Will’s age with two small girls about the same ages as my grandsons has just parked near where I stand sweating. He is pulling a stroller out of the back for his youngest.
“Excuse me. Can you help me? I can’t find my car and I have lost my phone.”
“Of course,” he says, his voice kind and his eyes full of compassion. He is probably thinking of his own grandmother. As he pulls out his phone, I realize for the first time that in this age of voice commands and address-book embedded phones, I have forgotten every phone number I used to have memorized except one; my husband’s.
I dial Dean’s number and as it starts to ring, I look up at this nice man with the two pretty girls and say, “He’s not going to answer,” and he finishes the sentence for me, “because he won’t recognize my number.” So, I text Dean instead, “This is Janie using a stranger’s phone. Can’t find my car, lost my phone, please call Will and ask him to come out and meet me in the parking lot at Gorilla 13.” I know this is a long shot, because Dean rarely checks his phone and always has the ringer muted–-something I should remember if I ever find myself in jail with one phone call allowed.
The tiny girls are being so patient. The oldest, a strawberry blonde about five years old, asks me repeatedly in the sweetest voice on the planet, “Where do you think you had it last?” I had it last in the open side pocket of the tiny purse I have strapped diagonally across my chest. It was there for easy retrieval to capture those adorable grandson poses in front of various beasts.
It is time to let them go capture their own moments, so I thank the nice man and wander around the parking lot a bit more, aimlessly, holding my key fob in my damp hand. I go back to Gorilla 13 and walk it once more, hoping my car will have magically appeared–-third time’s the charm. Well, it isn’t, and it doesn’t, and then I start to crumble. I look up to the sky and call out loud to my dead mother, “Help me!”
Perhaps she does, because I look down at the key fob once more and realize I have been hitting the wrong buttons. There is another button at the bottom clearly marked in red with the image of a horn blaring. I hit the button and immediately hear a car honking. I hit it a couple more times and follow the sound and there is my car-–a couple aisles to the left. Apparently, Gorilla 13 is more an area than a single aisle.
I want to just jump in my car and race home, but there is still a problem: on the outside chance Dean saw my text and called Will, they will be looking for me. The phone is history, but I must let them know I found the car and can get home on my own.
So I flag down another family, “Excuse me, can you help me?” I am starting to feel like a panhandler. A nice woman lends me her phone and I text Dean again. “Found the car. Still no phone. Please tell Will I’m heading home.” I thank the woman, imagining her saying to her husband as they walk away, “The poor dear…”
Frankly, I am starting to feel like a poor dear. Especially as I climb into my car and realize one more thing: I don’t even know how to get home. I have become so dependent on my Apple CarPlay, that I don’t even bother to notice where I am going anymore. I just turn right, turn left, jump on one highway after another, trusting that my phone will tell me what to do next to get me there and back home.
Then it dawns on me; I know where I likely dropped that phone. It was near the giraffes. I’ll bet it fell out of that purse side pocket when I leaned over to pour a fresh bottle of water into my lidded plastic cup.
I march back up this long newly discovered Gorilla 13 aisle to the entrance turnstiles, where I explain my situation for a third time, this time to a ticket taker. Can I please come back into the park to find my phone? I think I know where it is. She sizes me up and suggests I try Guest Services first because they can call Lost and Found, which is all the way on the other side of the park, and she isn’t sure I would want to walk that far. She is choosing her words carefully. Pretty sure she isn’t sure I can walk that far. I must look as bad as I feel. Part of me wants to protest: I’m not as old as I look, my watch told me I biked 10 miles at 10 miles per hour yesterday. But what is the point?
So I stand in line at Guest Services. When it is finally my turn, the woman in the booth calls the Lost and Found, then commences an interrogation, flipping between receiving questions from Lost and Found and repeating them to me, then repeating my answers back to them.
“What kind of phone is it?”
“She says it’s an iPhone”
“I don’t know, it’s old. It is in a flesh-colored case. It’s not the large version. I think it’s an iPhone 8”
“She says it’s an 8 in a cream case.”
“What is the picture on the phone?”
“The what? I don’t know. The icons come up.”
“There’s a picture when the phone is locked.”
“There is? Gosh. I don’t know. It might be a yellow flower? No. Wait. That’s what’s on my watch. Shit. I don’t know.”
“She doesn’t know.”
“You didn’t lose anything else with it?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“How about a brown eyeglass case and a pair of glasses?”
I look down at the ill-fated side pocked of my tiny purse and my heart sinks to my soles. Somehow I have managed to lose my car, my phone, and my glasses: a dementia trifecta.
“Oh my God! Yes! Those are my glasses and that is my phone. How far is it to the Lost and Found?”
“It’s pretty far. I’ll draw you a map.”
She does. I hike there with renewed vigor. Like that old joke about a Country and Western song played in reverse (you get your wife, your trailer, and your dog back), I am about to retrieve my car, phone, and glasses. I am feeling less pathetic and more empowered with every step.
When I get to the Lost and Found, it is like arriving at the Emerald City. The caretaker there opens the door just a crack and holds the phone out toward me.
“Punch in the pin.”
I do. VICTORY! He hands me the phone, my glasses, and a document to sign, and I am on my way back to good old Gorilla 13. I text Dean and Will: “Got my phone back. Heading home.” As I close my phone I realize to my amazement, while the picture on the phone is not the yellow aster that I was imagining from my Apple Watch, it is an orange/yellow tulip. Close enough.
A happy ending, for sure, but a sobering experience as well. As I drive the 55 miles home, I remind myself that I got along fine before cell phones. We all did. We mapped out routes and met people at agreed upon times and places. When I moved to Hong Kong on a three-year assignment as a journalist, I found my way from the airport to the hotel to the newsroom without speaking a word of Cantonese and sans Siri. The entire news operation shared a handful of brick-sized cell phones that rarely worked, especially when traveling around Asia. If I hadn’t found my phone at the zoo, I could have simply pulled into a gas station and asked, “How do I get to I-90 from here?”
And how about all those good Samaritans who helped me? Not only the two kind people who handed their phones to a stranger and the sweet little girl who tried to help me focus my mind, but also someone I will never meet who picked up my phone and my glasses and hiked all the way over to the Lost and Found–-which wasn’t easy to find and certainly not close to where I’m pretty sure I dropped them.
I’d like to forget this ever happened. But here’s the truth: no matter how many times a week I exercise, how many vitamins I take, I am aging. And it scares me. But the kindness and compassion so many showed me that day reminds me that even in those most vulnerable moments–-and this won’t be the last one–-I was not and will not be alone. I take great comfort in that.
When I get done with my pity party about having suddenly become a dotty old lady, I also remind myself of all the neurological research I have read on trauma and what happens when we feel frightened and vulnerable, and our reptilian brains take over. Malcolm Gladwell does a brilliant deep dive into this in his book, Talking to Strangers. This also gives me comfort. Hopefully, next time I panic, I will take a moment to talk myself off the ledge and breathe deeply until my reptilian brain goes back to sunning itself at the base of my skull. That way, my prefrontal cortex can get back in charge, because it would have definitely deciphered which button to push on that key fob.
I wouldn’t trade any piece of the wonderful technology that has improved my life in so many ways. I love my phone and I will probably never stop leaning on it. But I have now written down a list of important phone numbers–-twice; one list is in my glove compartment and the other is in my wallet. I also might start paying a little more attention to my surroundings, think a little more preemptively about Plan Bs in certain situations, and remind myself that gorillas would never just march down a single aisle in a straight line.
My Middle-Aged Baby Book is a best seller. It didn’t hurt one bit that Erma Bombeck wrote “A perfect gift for middle agers and those in denial.” Fans tell me that once unwrapped, the birthday girl or boy can’t resist reading it aloud, which turns many a birthday party into a laugh fest. Here’s a sample from the chapter entitled “I Forget.”
Available from Amazon or from your independent bookstore.