In Japan, walking with his boyfriend Hugh through a forest in a snowstorm, David Sedaris saw a monkey, just ahead on the trail, glancing back at them. It was no surprise, he writes in his essay “Loggerheads,” because monkeys in that part of the country are an attraction. Still, he didn’t expect to share the trail with one or, thrillingly, to feel accepted by it. “Well, monkeys like me,” became a reserve consolation for him in the following months. Reading his essay again recently, I was taken back half a dozen years to a trip to Andalusia, a visit I made to Gibraltar, and the troop of monkeys I found there.
The quickest way up to the top of Gibraltar is in the gondola lift, and the car was filled on the summer day that my friends and I took it. They went every year, but for me the experience was new and exciting, and as the car swung up the face of the Rock, I looked out of the windows at the buildings we were leaving behind, the woods and boulders coming into view ahead of us, and as we neared the top, the bay below dotted with pretty boats.
As the car clanged into its dock, the operator gave us a quick safety talk. The monkeys won’t hurt you, but they will rob you, he said in a flat voice. Don’t take your keys out, don’t set your camera down, and keep a tight hold on your cell phone, he advised. If you have food, eat it now, before you descend from the car. If you don’t eat it now, I promise you a monkey soon will.
The windows of the car were open, and through them we saw the monkeys, sitting on the stone wall and the roof of the station building, watching us. They were big, bar stool height, just as Sedaris says of his monkeys, and they were not afraid. More ambled over to watch with the others, one chased off another, and then, with no more warning than a lazy look in our direction, a large golden and gray beast launched itself at the car, grabbed the edge of the window, and was instantly inside with us. I expected it to cackle like the Wicked Witch of the West riding her bicycle by Dorothy’s airborne house. But all the noise was from us passengers—gasps and exclamations. The monkey, hunched in the window, looked around. Again with no warning, it unfurled its arm as a toad will its tongue and instantly took possession of the bread that a toddler in a stroller had been holding.
At first, the child was too surprised to wail, and the parents too surprised to holler. “There you go, that’s what I mean,” the operator said as we all stared at the culprit with the goods in its hand. The demonstration couldn’t have been better timed and had come off without a hitch. Then the child wailed, the parents hollered, and the monkey, about to swing out of the car, glanced back at all of us. What was in that look? Disdain, I’d say. Such easy prey we made, all penned in.
The child’s mother pulled another croissant from the cellophane bag and handed it to the child, who immediately became quiet as she sucked on a corner. The father reached down and gently stroked her cheek, and she looked up. As the father grasped the handle and turned the stroller toward the door, the child spied the band of monkeys waiting outside. She sat up, already leaning against the belt strapping her in, her hand outstretched, waving her sodden food at them. Sedaris says being liked was equivalent to being accepted, which was simply not being feared. It’s got to go both ways, I suspect. While the adults still tittered and exclaimed over the brazen monkey, fastidious looks on their faces, the child was preparing to cement the friendship. I’d have gladly taken the place of child or beast. When, a moment later, a monkey trailing the stroller winked at me, as if to invite me along, I fell into step, just to see what would happen.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.