True Tales from Interview Land: The Tiger Handler

This will easily be the longest blog entry posted to Part Time. "The Tiger Handler" is a long story I'm working on for stand up. I do a version that's maybe six minutes on stage, and it probably needs to be four. Here's the full, incredibly long, un-expurgated version. The story is true, certified not exaggerated by all relevant institutions (of which there are none).

The Tiger Handler

It was the summer of 2001, and I had just graduated from college. Like many, many people I graduated with, I had not yet found a job, was back at home living in my parents' basement, spending my days job hunting online and in newspapers.

In college, I'd studied Public Relations and Marketing, and in my last year I worked an internship at a company that specialized in producing pre-designed special sections for newspapers. What I learned at that internship was two-fold: I hated working in an office, and I particularly hated the work  involved in the marketing department. This did not make me feel confident about my future path.

When I moved back in with my parents, I developed a routine that consisted mostly of waking up in the late morning, browsing Monster and CareerBuilder for two or three hours, then reading the want ads, then putting together application packages for all the jobs I found interesting. At that time, paper mail was still the preferred application method, so I’d put together resumes and letters of recommendation and what not and mail them off every afternoon.

As the summer wore on, things steadily got to the point at which I was applying for anything and everything; retail, service, call centers…anything. Tension was building between my parents and their lay-about son. I needed a paycheck, but more importantly, I needed a reason to get out of the house every day. Then I saw it; a 1” classified ad, ironically in one of the pre-packaged special section templates I used to work on, that just had two big, bold words and a phone number. “Tiger Handler.”

So I called.

“Ja?!” the person on the other end greeted me. “Uhh…I’m calling about your ad—“ and he cut me off. “Ja! You come tomorrow 10:00 a.m.," gave me an address, then he hung up. He didn’t ask me my name, didn’t tell me anything about the job, just…that.

So I went.

Now, before I went, I googled the address, saw it was way, way in the middle of nowhere, but couldn’t find anything about a business being there or a zoo or perhaps a reclusive celebrity with exotic animals. But I figured I needed to go on a job interview, I needed to get out of the house, and I needed to see what this was all about.

As I’m driving out there, I’m getting deeper and deeper into farm fields, starting to wonder if maybe I made a wrong turn, when I see this inexplicable forest blooming out of the fields up ahead. There’s a driveway, with an address marker, and that’s where I’m supposed to be. I turn onto the driveway, which snakes into the forest, and a bit into the trees, I’m at the gates of Jurassic Park. The gates are maybe 25 feet tall and there’s cyclone fence with razor wire running off into the trees. At this point, probably far too late, my fight-or-flight instinct starts to kick in; I wonder if I’m about to meet the next Ed Gein. But I’m far too curious now, and I’ve driven an hour and change—I’m committed, and I roll my window down and hit the intercom button. A gruff voice on the other says, “Yeah, whaddaya want?” “My…my name’s Dan…I’m here for an interview?” I mumble.

Minutes pass, long enough for me to waver, and my hand is on the shifter, putting the car in reverse to leave, when finally the intercom crackles back. “OK. We’re gonna open the gate. Drive through, up to the second building and park. Do not get out of the car. Do not open your windows. Guenther will come get you.”

Guenther. Will come get me. What. The. Fuck.

There’s no turning back now, the gates begin to swing open, I drive through. When I come out of the trees on the other side, there are several cleared paddocks, with elephants and kangaroos and giraffes and even one paddock with freakin’ lions sunning themselves. I’ve found the Island of Doctor Moreau, and it’s in Northern Illinois. And Guenther is coming to get me.

I park. I wait. Guenther comes out, and he looks like what my mind’s eye predicted someone named Guenther would look like. Not too tall, older, bald, muscly, wearing a work shirt open to the navel with tufts of chest hair and blotchy tattoos underneath. He looks around, motions me out of the car. He says, “Come.” Guenther, as it turns out, is a man of few words.

We walk in the door, into a sort of antechamber. No windows, and another door on the opposite end. With magnetic locks. Guenther, without looking at me, says, “Tigers are in zere.” Then he punches a code in a keypad, the door unlocks with a ka-chunk, and we walk through. And immediately, I’m face-to-face with an enormous white tiger who is not happy to see me.

There was chain link fence between us, but still…maybe fourteen inches away. I’d seen tigers at zoos before, and I understood they were large, ferocious animals. But this close, the sheer size of the thing was just awe-inspiring. And it’s growling and howling and hissing and swiping towards me, the way a house cat might. But the sounds…it sounded like the heart of death.

Guenther, though, over the roar, just starts explaining the job to me. While he’s explaining the job to me, he grabs a broom that happened to be leaning on the wall, and starts jabbing the tiger in the ribs with it through the fence. Eventually, it just gave him a look that said, “Oh my GOD, Whatever,” (I swear, it rolled its eyes) and slunk off, plopped on the ground, and went to sleep.

“So, in here,” Guenther started, “ve keep ze tigers. Ve have fourteen, and in ze morning ve feed zem in zis cage. Zen zey shits. Ve move zem to zat cage in ze afternoon,” he motioned to the other half of the building, “and you clean ze shits.”

I nod.

“Zen, ve feed zem again, zey shits, ve move zem back. You clean ze shits.”

I nod.

“OK, follow me, I show you ze kitchen.”

We moved along to another room, which just had freezers and a big stainless steel prep table in the middle. On the prep table was what looked like at least five hundred pounds of beef parts. With a sweeping gesture, and the only emotion he showed all day, Guenther cracks a smile and says, “So you see vere all ze shits come from, ja?”

I nod.

And that’s it. The interview is over. He’s leading me back to my car. He says, “So, ja, $250 a veek, you live here, ve feed you, zen in August ve go to Indonesia, tour South Pacific, animals perform, ve come back by January. Sink about it, call me, ja? Oh, important…tigers, zey are dangerous animals. You stick your hand in ze cage…you don’t expect to get it back, ja? OK.” He claps me on the back. I drive home.

And I think it over.

I didn’t take the job; I just couldn't justify running away with the circus (although I might consider it today). But I've since worked many jobs, and many of them what you’d call unconventional. I've pursued a lot of different things in life. And a lot has been due to this experience. Because it’s proof, undeniable evidence, that extraordinary experiences are often just a phone call away, and you have to search them out.

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