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  • In 1969, New Orleans was famous for potholes, poor schools, a failing economy, ongoing civil rights struggles, and official corruption of a high order. But my father’s platform bypassed all these minor issues and went to the heart of what ailed the city: our zoo lacked a gorilla.

    If, as some say, one test of a good city is how it treats its eccentrics, Dad helped New Orleans set its benchmark. The Gorilla Man campaign was appreciated by some in the electorate for what they saw as Rodney Fertel’s sense of fun. But if there were a test for eccentrics—nuts, in my book—Dad set the curve.

    My father campaigned in a safari outfit, complete with pith helmet. Invited to ride in a parade during the election, Dad tracked down a man whose gorilla suit he had admired on the streets during Mardi Gras. They rode together in a convertible and every few blocks Dad would send the gorilla to the sidewalk to make a show, sniffing at some unfortunate Faye Wray and beating his chest.

    Dad printed his campaign slogan on business cards: Don’t settle for a monkey. Elect Fertel and get a gorilla. He promised if elected to “conduct a personal safari to the Belgian Congo at my own expense and bring back to New Orleans two live gorillas for the Audubon Park Zoo.”

    His obsession with gorillas was no joke. During our first trip to Europe together, he had discovered gorillas at the Antwerp Zoo and was thunderstruck by their massive presence and, to his mind, apparent intelligence. He talked long and often about how much you could learn, just watching gorillas. “Gorillas have their own language,” he once said in an interview. “If we could understand what they’re saying, we might solve all the problems of the earth.” That he wasn’t kidding did little to console me about such notions.

    Dad took his 308 votes as a mandate and somehow even before the internet learned of two gorillas for sale. Returning from Singapore, Dad brought back two baby lowland gorillas for the Audubon Zoo. He announced that he was the only candidate in history who had kept all his campaign promises, even though he’d lost. Coming from, sure enough, the Belgian Congo (we probably don’t want to know how), they were named Grandeza (“the great one” in Portuguese) and Boneca (“beautiful”). Dad informally launched a renaming contest, the informal result of which were the names he desired: Red Beans and Rice. The zoo in its wisdom went for plain vanilla: Scotty and Molly.

    “It looks easy when you see ‘em in the zoo,” he said, explaining his safari, “but I challenge anybody to go out and get gorillas. Anybody can buy an elephant or a tiger—just pick up the phone and go buy them. But try to get a gorilla.”

    Dad’s gift earned him entrée to the Uptown ladies who met on Audubon Place to discuss overhauling the zoo, at that time among the nation’s worst, so bad the Feds were threatening to close it. The oldest gated community in the nation, Audubon Place is the kind of enclave that sent for Blackwater security forces when Katrina struck. My mind reels at the thought of my father in pith helmet having his name checked off at the massive Green and Green stone gate, at the notion of former queens of Comus listening to his soapbox discourses in the hush of their elegant homes. Did they really give him a hearing? Certainly I didn’t. And yet in part because of him, the zoo was redone: the gorillas’ bars melted into moats, their cages into habitats.
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