I was always a pretty kid, with my long Polish nose. Some people thought I was Jewish, which doesn’t bother me at all. Just let me play with the neighborhood kids and fight side by side with them—I am tall and strong—and we got into plenty of fights. Why? This is the great land of America, Mom and Pop always taught us. We’re all equal, no matter what our religion. But the wise-guys didn’t see it that way. Their parents should have washed their mouths out with soap when they called us Dumb Polacks, Money-grubbing Kikes, Greaseball Wops. You get the picture.
As we walked home from school we were taunted unmercifully and got into many a fight. My Jewish friend, Scotty, who I lost track of over the years, got his nose broken when he fought kids much bigger than he was.
“Their parents egg them on,” he said. “They have no respect for us.”
One night when my parents, my two brothers and I were fast asleep in our brick rowhouse, there was a loud knock on the door.
“Your house is on fire. Get out fast!” yelled Scotty’s dad, Mr. Sherman.
Pop answered the door and he and Mr. Sherman rounded us all up, and we escaped just as the dense gray smoke was pouring from the unseen flames into the attic.
“Get out NOW,” they shouted. “No time to take a thing with you.”
By now, every single one of us, Pop and Mom, David, Michael and I were coughing as if we were choking to death and ran outside in our night clothes. I did manage to take Pierre, my stuffed yellow duck, with me.
We stayed at my aunt and uncle’s while the cause of the fire was determined by the fire department.
When Mom and Pop heard it was arson, they were furious.
“Those lousy kids and their parents,” said Pop. “Haven’t an ounce of respect or conscience.”
Then, a few days later, they asked us at the dinner table, “What would you think if we moved to Los Angeles?”
Michael, David and I jumped up from our chairs and started cheering.
We finally settled in Burbank, California, which later became a haven for the film industry, or, “The Dream Merchants,” as it was called in Harold Robbins’ love story about the movies. Both my parents, the now- famous June and Julius Pulaski, worked for Metro Goldwyn Meyer as costume designers, script writers, assistant directors and finally directors in their own right. Not a day went by that I wasn’t totally absorbed in this fantasy world which became more real than my own.
In fact, Mom had me see a psychiatrist when I thought—and I really did believe this—that I was “Little Mary,” a role that Pop created for the movie “Was Blind, But Now I See.” To help me, Dr. Shoenberg suggested I take up photography. By taking photographs, he told my parents, I would clearly be able to discriminate what was in the photo and what was me, Elizabeth Pulaski.
Soon my camera and I were inseparable.
People teasingly asked,“What’s that fancy necklace you’re wearing around your neck?”
I attended the University of the Arts in London as I wanted to study abroad. Sure, I missed my parents and my two brothers, who were in film school and Cal Poly Tech back in California, but I wanted to have a rich experience in meeting people as different from me as were my friends back in Philadelphia.
My photos of nature won me awards. I was photo editor of the student magazine and up at all crazy hours of the night, typing on my Royal Portable from my third floor flat, while sipping on the occasional bottle of stout. When job time came about, I was honored with a position from National Geographic. National Geographic! Imagine me on an assignment to Borneo. I felt like Jane Goodall as I traipsed through this largest island in the world, dense with tropical plants and tall mountains which rose like in a picture book in the distance. An assignment I will never forget is when, clad in khaki pants, long sleeves, and water-proof boots, my team and I went into Deer Cave, as black as a coal mine, shone our lanterns onto the cavernous ceiling, and startled thousands upon thousands of bats who came hurtling our way.
They swooped down, like harried crows, then in a wild black cloud zoomed back to their rookery. I was clicking away with my huge black Nikon, having no time at all to feel frightened or even awed at that moment. Finally, I heaved a sigh of relief. My assignment was complete.
But it was when I met the native orangutans that I knew I’d met my destiny. Chimpanzees I was familiar with. The color alone of the orang knocked me off my feet. I simply stared. The flaming orange color was like all the golden autumn leaves back in Philadelphia. One of the orangs sat saucily in a branch of a tree, both feet twined around the tree branch, three green mangoes stuffed in her distended mouth. I laughed. She nodded her head, picked out a mango and tossed it over to me. Her baby, dark as a black cat, sat alert in her arms, staring my way with huge innocent black eyes. They were not afraid. They were fearless. I loved that about them.
You can imagine all the photos I took of them. The spread was called “Glorious Great Apes of Malaysia” by Elizabeth A. Pulaski and was featured on the cover of National Geographic.
After being away on assignment a good two years, I flew back to Burbank where the entire family picked me up at the airport in their safari-green Subaru. They dropped me off at a small three-bedroom house they rented for me. I was too exhausted to take a good look at the banana tree in front of the house, where green-tipped fruits hung upside down, reminding me of my acrobatic orangs. I sipped on a little Chardonnay awaiting me in the kitchen, and fell into bed. Who was I? A Malaysian? A Philadelphian? A Californian? Scenes played across my eyelids as I sweated in the heat of California, on my blue-striped sheets. Lying there, I found myself back on the noisy airplane staring out the window as we took off from Jakarta, its skyscrapers growing tinier and tinier, as the dark-skinned flight attendant brought me macadamia nuts in a sealed foil container; such peace I felt as we gained altitude. I had unstrapped my seat belt and leaned forward to see what movie to choose. Perfecto! A David Attenborough Nature Film about Australian Coral Reefs. How colorful they were. And in danger because of ocean pollution. The bright oranges, blues, yellows and dazzled my eyes. All under water and hidden from sight. The only creatures to view these glorious Darwinian creations were the non-sentient sea creatures. There was Attenborough, probably well into his seventies, paddling a blue boat and then snorkeling along the reefs. “Snorkeling, a must!” I told myself.
“You must,” said Pop, “come and visit the zoo and see the orangs,” this in response to my hosannas about these sacred creatures I met in the wilds of Borneo.
As luck would have it, a new baby had been born in the zoo, which had an orangutan habitat. The equivalent of a teenage brother was jealous of his dark-skinned baby brother. A new home was needed until “Baby Bruce” was old enough to fend for himself. The habitat, with its fruit trees – banana, orange, fig – was overcrowded. A new home was required for big brother “Charlie.”
We got my house ready for the arrival of Charlie. A trainer came out for an entire week and we succeeded in house-training this very smart and elegant great ape. The backyard was fenced in, so Charlie could go out to play on a tire swing we affixed to a tree. Various neighbors came by. Used to being with people, he was very gentle, but we discouraged young children from being with him. You just never knew.
He had the middle bedroom, where I pinned up posters of chimpanzees, orangs, NASA rocket ships taking off from Cape Canaveral, Jimi Hendrix in a red bandanna, and a big round mirror where if he wished, he could preen over his reflection.
One night I fell asleep with a National Geographic across my chest. I’d been advised to keep my door closed while sleeping, which I did, though I did not lock it. The moon shone in through the blinds as I heard the door knob rattle. In loped Charlie, a massive orange-colored animal, whose gait looked like a swagger. Straight to the bed he came, his fur illumined by the moonlight. Without hesitating, he swung himself onto my bed and mounted me, slipping under my satiny yellow night gown. I was half-asleep and wasn’t sure if this were real or a dream.
When I awoke in the morning, my thighs were covered with a viscous liquid, smelling of manhood. Frightened, I said not a word to a single soul. Charlie eyed me strangely the next day over our breakfast of oatmeal with blueberries and whole milk. From then on I locked my door by night and could hear him vigorously rattle the knob.
It was intolerable, so I made some excuse and Charlie was returned to his habitat.
Each day my terror grew. Was I pregnant? Was it possible?
Indeed, I missed my period, but told no one. My pelvic floor began to hurt. Terribly. I popped Percodans, left over from a root canal.
I visited my parents at their huge villa in the Hollywood Hills, once owned by filmmaker Preston Sturges. Standing by the Olympic-sized swimming pool, I wondered what to say to them. As if by magic, the lies slipped out.
“We’re having a class reunion in London,” I said. “Can you watch my house until I get back?”
Of course they would and I flew off to London and rented a hotel room at the fashionable Dorchester Hotel. I threw off my coat onto the lilac-colored bedspread and began to unpack, placing the pain pills on the cream-colored counter in the bathroom. I drew a bath and stepped into the tub, which had little feet. I began to massage my belly. I could feel it moving inside. The near-impossible had been achieved. Laughing to myself, I wondered what Sir David Attenborough would think of me. I imagined him saying, “It’s up to you, Elizabeth. Bring him up yourself. These things are not preordained.” Many new species had been named after the English gentleman. I laughed and said, “Thy will be done,” though I had no idea who “Thy” was, other than Attenborough himself.
I spent the days wandering around London. I took in The British Museum, viewing again the black Rosetta Stone, while furtively stroking my swollen belly, ensconced in a voluminous charcoal gray tent befitting a Muslim woman. I dined in outdoor cafes eating the delicious fare of London, which has been inaccurately portrayed as having bland food. My pork chops with raisin sauce was incomparably delicious, as was a peanut butter pie, billed as “the only peanut butter you will find in the UK.”
At the Tate Modern I discovered British printmaker Anish Kapoor’s. “As if to Celebrate, I Discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers” and showed Charlie’s baby the gloriously colorful reds and yellows swooping upward in pyramids. I would always hurry back to the hotel when I felt as if I were going into labor. What did I know? Was I supposed to join a LaMaze group and tell them I was giving birth to an orangutan? They’d have me committed.
I trusted my instincts to guide me. When the time came, would I call a taxi and go to hospital? Would I deliver the baby in the hotel room?
When I flew back to California a year and a half later, after telling my family I had been on assignment, my Jenny had been sedated and placed in the baggage area. She was still nursing, so as I sat in the airplane seat, my breasts were hard as mangoes and drops of milk spilled onto my lap.
I introduced her as an orang the London zoo had no need for. “She seems to have a strange birth defect that made her unacceptable to the other great apes,” I told Mom and Pop and my two brothers, one who had become an engineer for a private space program, and the other who had followed my parents into show business. I was certain they suspected the truth. David, who was designing a manned space ship for private enterprise, gave me a wink.
“Funny how pets grow to resemble their owners,” he said. “Jenny follows you everywhere and has decidedly blue eyes and a blondish cast to her, uh, fur, just like yours, Lizzy.”
“Save your imagination for your trips to Venus and Mars,” I said and drove Jenny and me home. At a year and a half, she was learning sign language, could do complex puzzles like putting Curious George pieces together, and was playing a four-string ukulele. She was certainly one of a kind and I planned to introduce her to David Attenborough on her third birthday and his eighty-ninth.