There are those we admire up close and there are those we admire from afar. Tina from Pasadena is one of those I admire from afar — she’s behind bars, you see. She’s an alligator.
Tina’s address for the past 18 years has been 361 S. Raymond Ave. in Pasadena, just south of Del Mar Boulevard. The Pasadena Humane Society. AKA, the pound. Her neighbors can only be described as transient. They don’t stay long. Give a good cuddle, stick around for the neuter and move on.
I don’t know when I started visiting Tina, though I certainly was a girl when this strange pilgrimage began. I only that she has become my friend even if she doesn’t even know I exist.
On the usual rounds of a nostalgia-filled visit home, most of us have our little places we revisit. For some, it’s an obligatory stop at In-N-Out the second they leave the roundabout at LAX. For those headed back to Pasadena, it’s a Lucky Boy breakfast burrito or a Diane salad at Green Street. I have my places like anyone else. For me, it’s the comfort of the sound of old screen door swinging rhythmically at Vince’s Deli on hot afternoons.
These are fixtures we come to expect in our landscape. The San Gabriel Mountains, the lone archer practicing down in the Arroyo, and of course, Tina.
It’s rumored Tina was bred in captivity, was a part of a traveling roadside show along the road to Las Vegas. I can picture the hand-painted signs — “REAL LIVE ALLIGATOR, THIS WAY” — somewhere off the 15.
She’s “forever captive,” according to a Los Angeles Times article, “because she depends on humans for food and is not used to interacting with other alligators, shelter officials say,” subsisting on a few store-bought chickens per week.
When I open the barred metal doors of the pound, I hear the yapping of Chihuahuas, the howls of the basset hound, the crowds of children begging their parents for the puppies in the middle. And as I walk past the puppies and toward her cage, I worry she won’t be there, that she’ll be gone. Every time. But there she is.
We exchange human-to-alligator nods and though she doesn’t even blink, I hope she recognizes I’m in her presence.
I’ve never actually seen her move. Sometimes she is so still I wonder if she’s really alive anymore. The snaggled zig-zags of her gleaming teeth do remind me that yes, this creature can kill. But somehow I don’t believe it.
Perhaps it’s because she’s not up for adoption, perhaps it’s because she has only ever known captivity, but when I visit her, I wonder if she’s began to grow tired of her more than suitable waterfall-cascading pond built and donated by Ray Stewart of Waterworks Ponds in Glendale ages ago, of the rotations of neighbors across the way.
I think about all the things that happen out in the world, terrible things, wonderful things — things she’s lived through: countless Rose Parades just up the block, the advent of the iPhone, Vin Scully’s last day. Tina has never been to New York City. Tina doesn’t know that the Twin Towers fell. Tina didn’t suffer through fraternity parties with me in college. Tina is unable to watch the next outlandish debate.
I visit Tina from Pasadena because she is a marker of change — mine, not hers. Tina reminds me to slow down. That sitting still in one place is her experience, and therefore it’s beautiful, because it’s hers and only hers.
Last Sunday, I visited the pound after getting my hair cut in Old Pasadena. I curled around the cement corridors, letting the spritzers cool my face this hot October day, and as I made my way to her cage I stopped in disbelief. It was empty. No water in her pool, no Tina.
I found the first volunteer I could and asked, “What happened to Tina?” I was convinced she had passed away without one last goodbye.
She paused for a second and said in a can’t-be-bothered teenagery voice, “Oh, Tina? Tina got moved to the L.A. Zoo.”
Thank God, I told her. Overworked, she gave me a look that said, “Who is this crazy woman inquiring about an alligator, anyway?”
My fixture has moved ZIP codes. Pilgrimage I will make — if only to see the new Tina, hopefully swimming with some friends, mocking the flamingos next door, snapping her mouth at uninspired tourists, lest she forget her Pasadena roots and those who admired her from afar.
Nicky Loomis teaches journalism at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica.