In 1987, 11-year-old Juan Perez and two other boys scaled a fence at night and sneaked into the polar bear cage at the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, New York. Two bears mauled and killed Juan. The bears were shot and killed by police. “Hundreds of animal lovers,” according to the AP, called the NYPD to complain about the killing of the bears. Juan’s mother, Carmen Perez, said she could not afford a funeral.
Enter New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, who made a beeline for Perez’s home in “a neighborhood of old apartment houses that are packed with people who trace their beginnings from anywhere south of Virginia to the islands in the last waters of the Caribbean,” he wrote. Juan had just been starting to run the streets, he explained, six weeks after his father had died, beyond his mother’s control. “Perhaps,” Breslin said, “somebody should stop just for a paragraph here this morning and mention the fact that there are many children being eaten alive by this bear of a city, New York in the 1980s.”
The biting metaphor was peak Breslin.
Forty-six years ago this summer, principal photography was underway on Martha’s Vineyard, the island off Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, for the mother of summer blockbusters, “Jaws.” Spoiler alert: It is a movie about a great white shark and the ways a small resort community deals with its predation. In the opening sequence, the shark eats most of a young woman who has gone skinny-dipping, and a running battle ensues between the town’s new police chief, Martin Brody, and its mayor, Larry Vaughn, over whether to close the Amity Island beaches, with BEACH CLOSED signs hammered into the dunes, pulled out, and hammered in again.
Does this ring a bell? The entire movie was a biting metaphor.
Academic critics thought it was a post-Watergate tale in which the shark and the mayor stood for the corruption of the presidency and Brody was the white male middle-class savior. Killing the shark signaled the restoration of confidence in America. Others noted the shark was an equal-opportunity killer, unlike Breslin’s bear of a city.
And the movie played on, now in its 45th anniversary year, long enough that the shark could come to represent other things – such as COVID-19. In this version, President Trump, who has evinced more concern with the health of the economy and his related chance of reelection than with closing the beaches, is the loud, pound-foolish Mayor Vaughan. And we are still looking for our Chief Brody.
The shark’s second victim on Amity Island that summer is a boy, Alex Kitner. Halfway through, Brody is confronted by Alex’s mother, played by Lee Fierro, a Martha’s Vineyard islander in her first film role. She slaps Brody – which is like slapping Dr. Fauci – and sobs.
“I just found out that a girl got killed here last week, and you knew it!” she says. “You knew there was a shark out there! You knew it was dangerous! But you let people go swimming anyway? You knew all those things! But still my boy is dead now. And there’s nothing you can do about it. My boy is dead. I wanted you to know that.”
As she walks away, the mayor says, “I’m sorry, Martin. She’s wrong.”
“No,” says Brody, “she’s not.”
Earlier this year, Fierro, 91, died from complications of our great white shark, the coronavirus – and it is hard to know what to say about that other than it bites.