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How a tortoise's wanderlust taught a New York snob to love LA




Mr. Lobell and Mr. Tenenbaum, at home
Mr. Lobell and Mr. Tenenbaum, at home
Danny Lobell

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I didn't love LA when I first came here. Moving was my wife's idea. I grew up in New York City, and I thought it was the best place on Earth. I was a typical New York snob. So I came up with a compromise: let's live in Florida for a few weeks. I figured even though LA's a step down from New York, it's a huge step up from Florida.

So off we went to Florida, where we lived south of Orlando in a town on Lake Tohopekaliga. We bought a tortoise there — not a turtle, a tortoise. We called him Mr. Tenenbaum because he looked like an old Jewish man I knew with that name.

When we got to LA, settling in was tough. The city seemed so big and spread out, and we felt very alone. Then, one day, Mr. Tenenbaum escaped.

Danny Lobell at Upright Citizens Brigade

By this point, Mr. Tenenbaum was a family member. We were devastated. For hours that day, my wife and I exhausted our eyes looking under every rock, over every fence, and in every little nook and cranny we could find until the sun went down. Then we put up fliers.

I stapled a piece of paper with Mr. Tenenbaum's photo to a telephone pole. It said on the bottom “Lost Tortoise.” I was worried people were going to think it was some hipster prank.  

I also went door to door to ask my neighbors if they'd seen him. I thought they’d laugh in my face, but they were sympathetic.

A desert tortoise NOT named Mr Tenenbaum
A desert tortoise NOT named Mr Tenenbaum
David Lamfrom

One woman did joke with me, though in all fairness, I was asking for it. I’m a heavy guy, and she looked at me deadpan and said, “Let me guess. He outran you?”

I also found out that a lot of people in our neighborhood owned tortoises. And, they escape all the time. One tortoise owner said, “My little homie slow rolled out on me. He turned up two years later in Robertson Park.” I thought about all those police helicopters with searchlights that woke me up at 3am. Were they actually looking for tortoises?

Where did Mr. Tenenbaum go?

Was he heading to Hollywood to act? My wife said that one day we’d be driving through Bel-Air, and we’d see him walking out to his front gate in a silk robe to pick up his morning paper. Or eating breakfast at Nate & Al’s with a bunch of other tortoises, all of them in track suits.

Or maybe he was going back to Florida to rejoin his family. He couldn’t keep up with the fast pace of the big city and longed for those early bird specials at Golden Corral.

Comedian Danny Lobell in his backyard with Peacock, his pet chicken.
Comedian Danny Lobell in his backyard with Peacock, his pet chicken.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

After two very long days, we got him back: a little girl two houses away found Mr. Tenenbaum munching on lettuce in her garden. Then we lost him a second time. And a third time. Once, we got a voicemail from the mail carrier. She said she saw Mr. Tenenbaum heading North. She tried to catch him, but couldn't.

See? It's harder than it looks.

The last time he escaped, it was for a week, and he was living with a guy in an apartment across the alley, who fed him Kibbles and Bits from a dog bowl.

We've gotten better since then - we put in a second gate and it’s been over a year since Mr. Tenenbaum’s last breakout.

I figured out the real reason Mr. Tenenbaum left all those times. Every time he escaped, he introduced us New Yorkers to the neighborhood that we now call home. He showed us that the people here are sweet, and kind, and eccentric. Just like in New York. It was our welcome to LA.