A Nice Place for George to Live: Class, Imperialism, and The Man in the Yellow Hat

I am obsessed with the Man in the Yellow Hat’s finances.

We’ve been watching Curious George, the show, on PBS as a family, and after watching the Man in the Yellow Hat take his monkey to his country house and back again to the two-bedroom apartment with terrace in a doorman building in the city, I too was curious.

“What is his job?” I asked my husband.

He looked at me, unsure whether to answer. “I think he’s a writer.”

***

I grew up out in the suburbs on Long Island, and for as long as I knew New York City existed I knew that’s where I wanted to live my adult life. Tired of the endless cycle of diners and Dunkin’ Donuts and Friendly’s, tired of standing around in parking lots trying to conjure up somewhere else to go and failing, I didn’t understand why anyone would choose to live somewhere with such a paucity of cultural offerings. I left as soon as I could to attend college in Manhattan and swore I’d never come back.

In college, I babysat for families uptown, and while I held no illusions that the whole-floor Upper East Side apartments with a private elevator were likely to be my future, I thought the post-war two-bedrooms with a terrace near Riverside Drive — the real-life version of the Man in the Yellow Hat’s apartment — would be within reach for the well-educated upper-middle-class professional that I expected the adult version of myself would be someday.

Nearly fifteen years later, the rowhouse down the street from my apartment in once working-class Sunset Park sold for $1.3 million, in a Brooklyn real estate market where cash sales and bidding wars were common. I was 31, a new mom and fully the adult version of myself. Someday was now, and I was no closer to that apartment.

***

We started to speculate that the Man in the Yellow Hat must be some wealthy eccentric in order to afford his multiple residences. He wears all yellow, after all, an entire closet of yellow button down shirts and yellow pants to match his yellow hat and yellow polka-dotted tie, and he has a pet monkey he brings everywhere he goes, whom people know by name, even while nobody refers to the Man in the Yellow Hat by name.

“His apartment building is yellow,” my father pointed out. “Maybe that’s where his money comes from; the rents of the other apartments.”

“No,” I disagreed. “He’s old money, and that’s just bonus.”

The real reason, of course, is that the Man in the Yellow Hat is a fictional character in a fictional city with a fictional economy, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

***

A child wreaks havoc on your life, which parents understand in the abstract but not in the specific, as in, I knew it would feel like everything changed but not that I’d spend so much time at urgent care that all the doctors and nurses recognize us. I appreciate the acceptance of chaos as status quo in Curious George and his relationship with the Man in the Yellow Hat. Until my son was a toddler I might have doubted the sanity of someone who invests emotional and financial resources into a relationship with a monkey, but there’s a reason “my little monkey” is a popular pet name for one’s toddler. They hang all over you, they stick their fingers in your mouth, and they play with their feces if not watched closely. It feels like domesticating a wild animal, albeit a cute one.

Until my son was a toddler I might have doubted the sanity of someone who invests emotional and financial resources into a relationship with a monkey.

Most of all, the chaos is a reminder that the illusion of control one assumes as the adult in the relationship is just that: an illusion. I understood this as true when my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and I realized that even my own body could not be counted on to follow prescribed instructions for how things are gonna be, but for many people living a comfortable life above the poverty line, the first time things really go off the rails, control-wise, is when they have a kid. A baby has any number of wildcards, and even the neurotypical ones are unpredictable in what challenges they’ll throw your way; how they’ll sleep, what they’ll eat, their moods during the waking moments. Crack the code and a few weeks later the code no longer works.

***

The Man in the Yellow Hat in the original books is an explorer of the Indiana Jones variety, in keeping with the other explorer characters of the 1930s. My son has a compilation of the originals and its his most-requested bedtime reading. I do a lot of on-the-fly editing to avoid some of the more problematic depictions of Native Americans and the propensity to use “young” and “pretty” as descriptors for women in a professional context, and to skip the part where Curious George discovers a bottle of ether and passes out, but I’m still navigating how to handle the entire premise, in which Curious George is living “in Africa” — no country is identified as it presumably does not matter to the audience — and the Man in the Yellow Hat uses his hat as a lure to trap George in a bag and brings him back to the United States on a boat.

Curious George, being curious, makes trouble on the boat and then in the Man in the Yellow Hat’s apartment, where he spends the night before being deposited at the zoo. The zoo is called “a nice place for George to live” and leaves no instructions for age-appropriate ways to broach the subject of a troubled history with slavery that is part of our shared past as Americans with a two-year-old drinking his milk before bed.

***

In this context I wonder whether the Man in the Yellow Hat’s wealth is similarly seized, unfairly appropriated, in ways that explain how he can afford that apartment with the bright, airy kitchen and the French doors to the terrace in an apartment building that allows residents to have monkeys. Somehow this is more comforting than remembering all of this is made up and the apartment in question doesn’t exist. If the Man in the Yellow Hat is part of a larger tradition of imperialism, and the apartment is financed on less-than-ethical terms, then it lets me off the hook. There was no way I was going to afford that apartment on a writer’s salary, and despite the nagging feeling I have otherwise, there wasn’t a lot I could have chosen that would have put me in a position to live the life I imagined years ago as a babysitter.

If the Man in the Yellow Hat is part of a larger tradition of imperialism, and the apartment is financed on less-than-ethical terms, then it lets me off the hook.

Right? Because when I see the Man in the Yellow Hat has a country house in what looks like Maine, especially if we’re going by the accents of the townsfolk on the PBS show, I am reminded that a Maine country house is the marker of a certain type of artsy intellectual New Yorker, in the style of E.B. White, and specifically the type of New Yorker I thought I’d be when I grew up. Which is why my husband was so hesitant to tell me the Man in the Yellow Hat was a writer — because if he were a writer, he’d be the writer I wanted to be: the New Yorker with the apartment and the Maine country house and the time to indulge hobbies.

The Man in the Yellow Hat may have inherited his Maine house — on the show he refers to what the property was like when he was growing up — and so it’s possible the house was inherited from his mysteriously absent family. He spends most of his working hours “helping Professor Weisman at the museum,” and his job seems to involve research and writing and supporting academics. It’s not the type of job one imagines would support multiple residences, or a family — even if the family is just himself and a monkey.

***

In the original books the Man in the Yellow Hat is fairly distant from George, seemingly unconcerned that this monkey he has kidnapped and brought to the city is breaking into apartments and upsetting traffic. But by the time Curious George Goes to the Hospital is published 20 years later, the Man in the Yellow Hat has grown into the role of parent, at least enough to notice George needs medical attention and to bring him to the hospital.

I can’t tell if he’s the worst parent model in the world for this, or the best.

On the PBS show, the Man in the Yellow Hat, though still George’s “friend,” is enough of a parent to George that parents in the audience can recognize their own struggles in him. The Man in the Yellow Hat exhibits eternal patience with his monkey/kid, though George is often making trouble by scattering groceries to lure a suspected dinosaur, or stealing the food and newspapers of all of his neighbors in order to participate in a recycling contest, or otherwise causing destruction in the name of curiosity. When the Man in the Yellow Hat discovers George’s mess, and the misunderstanding that led to it, he’ll correct George and apologize to the neighbors, but he’ll never discipline George. George is going to continue to be a monkey and invite chaos wherever he goes, and the Man in the Yellow Hat acknowledges this by accepting the chaos as part of the deal and moving on. He lives in the present. I can’t tell if he’s the worst parent model in the world for this, or the best.

***

I bought a house on Long Island after a year of searching. To my surprise, but not to the surprise of people who live here, it turns out there’s plenty of art and culture. While I can’t say I’ve mastered living in the present, I do try to accept that chaos is part of the deal with my little monkey, who in our time in the suburbs has gone from tentative first steps to walking to running, and from coos and cries to words and sentences, naming the world around him.

One of the movies calls the Man in the Yellow Hat “Ted,” but the rest of the books and shows refer to him only as “the man” or “George’s friend.” The Man in the Yellow Hat is not named in part because his only family, a monkey, is unable to name him.

My son asks me to read Curious George yet again before bed, “Mami, THIS one, Currus George” and settles in to drink his milk. In naming me the chaos subsides, if only for a moment. We are home.

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