House of Horrors: Pet-Shop Window A Vision of the World

Last summer, I saw a man with a leash dragging a strange, scuttling creature across the big lawn in Prospect Park. Its ears were big, its tail was bushy, its face feline, but its body was hound-like.

“Excuse me,” I said. “That’s cute, but what is it?”

“It’s an aboriginal fox,” the man answered, trying to pull it closer to him. The fox dug its paws in and balked at the tug, twisting its head back and forth.

"He’s not much fun to walk, though,” the man sighed as he continued tugging. “He’s afraid of birds and trees and is constantly looking for cover.”

The fox was skulking as low as it could get to the ground, desperate to find a place to hide from the sky. It was hideous to see, really; the little fox in a sea of green, no hedges in sight, desperate for a way out.

"Where did you get him?” I asked, though I felt I already knew the answer.

There was only one place I could think of that would sell such a creature to a city dweller. I call that place the House of Horrors.

I first noticed the store one Easter about eight years ago, when its large window was verily dripping with pastel-colored, snail-faced parakeets. They hung upside down from the fluorescent light fixtures. They grouped and massed off each other in literal chains, piggybacking in long strings like bats do deep in the far reaches of dank caves. There were hundreds of them, possibly a thousand, crawling all over each other, squeaking and peeping, creating the illusion of a churning, kaleidoscopic pastel wall. That window held an image of reckless fecundity, of matter propagating matter to a meaningless result. It was simply and devastatingly a vision of a world without end. The brevity of their lives (pet-shop parakeets are a dime a dozen) underscored the larger thematic idea at play: the corruptibility of all flesh. It took my breath away.

The window was my first indication that the pet-shop owner was more than the keeper and purveyor of animals. I began to feel that, in fact, he may well be the leading dramaturge of post-postmodern window design, so powerful were the images of existential nausea and thwarted ambition he created. The dreary surroundings (the shop is located in the lower-rent section of Park Slope, where many things one sees are depressing) compounded the piece’s power. The parakeet performance ran for weeks. Finally, in an effort to alleviate the pressure I felt carrying around this image alone, I brought my pal Levine there one night to act as witness and reality tester. I advised him first to brace himself; then together we turned to watch the small birds squirm under the unforgiving light.

“Have you ever seen anything like this in your whole life?” I asked, my eyes wide.

“Oh God,” Levine whispered beside me in the semi-dark.

“It’s Swiftian,” I said.

“Beckettian,” added Levine. “Only more meaningless. Please, I need to go lie down now. I really wish you hadn’t shown me that. De-press-ing.”

Later that spring, the owner upped the ante by posting a Day-Glo sign in the window that read: “Free Parakeet with Purchase of Every Cage.” Ah-ha! I liked this abrupt shift of attention to the cage itself. This was an ingenious move, really—a brilliant aid for the densest part of his audience, and for those who knew better, a cool nod to Kafka’s line “A cage went in search of a bird.” Perhaps he was also playing with the Gnostic idea of the human soul imprisoned in the “cage” of the body, or was attempting a sociological comment on how contemporary man is “trapped” by the many confines he enters into willingly: run-of-the-mill enslavement to corporate structures, for example, or even (depending on the administration) the federal government. As in so much of conceptual art, this stuff could be unpacked in a variety of ways.

Depending on how you looked at it, the parakeets weren’t the worst—or the best—of it. One fall, one stunning window offered up a single giant turtle. His water bowl was a mossy, scummy mess; a lump of desiccated, graying hamburger meat sat in his food bowl. He stood there, nobly, not moving. He was a mailed monster, a crusted, reptilian footstool, an elemental, amphibious Buddha. He looked like he’d crawled out of the center of the earth. When I looked closer, I saw that he had a glob of hamburger meat on his head that he could neither feel nor remove. Our eyes met. He looked back at me from the bottom of his decades-old heart. My God, I thought, this guy is a genius! A lesser artist would have mined the whole “essential loneliness of existence” idea, but not this one. The key was the placement of the meat. Who among us has not felt such a correlative sting of shame? How often do we look the fool to everyone but our own selves? Viewing this turtle felt like looking into a mirror. Bravo!

April is (and was again this year) the cruelest month at the House of Horrors. For Easter, the window was full of the most adorable dwarf bunnies you’ve ever seen. It was bunnies, bunnies, bunnies all day, all night: Bunnies sleeping on top each other in fuzzy heaps, bunnies snoozing in the pellet dish, bunnies kicking over the water bowl, bunnies cleaning their darling bunny faces with quickly licked paws, then glancing their short dwarf ears with rapid swipes. Famously susceptible to respiratory disease, bunnies for sale (like their fellow actors, the parakeets) have a short shelf life, and so it was with a mix of relief and concern that I watched their numbers dwindle, either by death or by purchase. As their numbers dropped, what had seemed like another ode to fecundity was subtly changing into something else. Like a masterpiece of earth art, I sensed that the idea of erosion and time were important to its meaning.

Just last week, as I walked past the place (with eyes averted, since I’ve learned my threshold), I ran smack into Levine humping his groceries up the slope of our neighborhood’s name.

“Shall we?” he asked, and we moved closer to the window.

“Yeah, I’ve been watching this one unfold … its meaning is in flux—contingent on the needs of local shoppers and the integrity of the each rabbit’s immune system,” I said.

One impossibly small bunny froze as we approached and now appeared to watch us out of the top corner of its beady eye. So paralyzed with fear was this rabbit that it seemed to be holding its breath.

"I think we’re giving it a heart attack,” I said.

Levine’s eyes had drifted to the sign, once again back up in the window, though there wasn’t a bird in sight.

“He’s got that sign up again,” he said. “I’ve been thinking it would make a great title for my memoir.”

Together, we grew silent and pensive in front of the window.

“So, honestly, what do you think he’s after with this one?” I asked. “A play on ‘So many are called, but few are chosen’?”

But Levine was lost in thought. I felt he was suddenly very far away. He eyed one of the slumped-over critters closely.

“Have you tried the rabbit at Al di la?” he asked. He seemed to be talking to himself. “Braised in veal stock, served with black olives over a bed of polenta. Both a leg and a breast. Truly delicious.”

Et tu, Brute?” I thought. “Ah, Levine! Ah, humanity!”