back to the Black Table

It's Sunday and the Santa Ana winds have blown me out to La Habra, where I'm hanging with my friend, Craig Cook, and his service monkey, Minnie. Craig, 39, is dapper and self-deprecating, a day trader and a ladies' man. He's also a C5 quadriplegic, and has been for nine years. He and a client were out drinking one night. The client drove and survived untouched. Craig woke up with a metal halo screwed into his skull.

When his insurance ran out, they sent him home with the halo still intact. He recalls answering the door to his first hire—a caretaker who wanted to know if he wanted to eat.

"Food? Food's good," he fumed.

"They'd show up and say, 'Okay—what do you want me to do?' and I'd say 'I don't know!'"

Minnie and Craig: A match made in monkey heaven.

The adjustment was brutal, lessened somewhat by the arrival of the first competent caretaker, Renaldo, who was physically capable and intuitive at once. Renaldo stayed three years, and when he left Craig vowed to hire only male caretakers. Craig thought he would be embarrassed around women, and didn't trust them with the heavy labor. But when men started stealing from him—food, cologne, CDs—he started answering ads from women. He hasn't looked back since, and when the girls show up for his perennial casting calls, he makes sure they're extra hot.

Minnie is no exception. At 23, she's physically fit and has the sophistry of any girl from the east coast with a finishing school degree—her 2-year stint at Helping Hands Monkey College in Boston has equipped her with a peerless bravado and a staggering array of life skills. She opens sodas, whisks away trash, repositions Craig's feet, frisks pockets of strangers; she performs all of this for the reasonable tariff of nutritious treats, and will hunt and gobble small insects for free—all of this toothless, for though capuchins are not aggressive, their teeth are removed to avoid liability tangles. Which justifies her passion for whipped cream & Breyer's natural vanilla ice cream. But does not explain her love-hate relationship with "Offspring."

As a monkey, Minnie is technically illegal in the state of California; however, when apprised of the circumstances, the Governator overrode the long-standing ban on exotic animals for her, and Sacramento echoed him, eating the annual fee that exists mainly to gouge Hollywood studios.

It's not easy to get a monkey. Craig was in the queue for three years before Minnie came into his life in the spring of '04. An ex-girlfriend forwarded him the Helping Hands link in an email.

"The first thing that came to my mind was 'This is an animal that has hands'" Craig says. Her hands are deft and pristine, this is true—but her tongue is amazingly human. She licks peanut butter off my hand & if I close my eyes it could be just any old fetishist.

"Did you hear Paris Hilton got a monkey?" Craig says. "It bit her. My friends said 'I bet she saw you on one of those damn Good Morning America shows."

Craig was on the Today show last year, and the footage is choice. It starts by panning over an African veldt, with "o-wim-o-weh o-wim-o-weh " belting out in the background. Cut to Helping Hands monkey college, where I'm blown away to watch a room of baby monkeys w/pompadours getting full-on belly raspberries from their trainers. Craig identifies one of the monkeys as Aila; he is this close with the goings-on of the monkey college—Helping Hands, the Boston-based non-profit that trains capuchins and then matches them with quads, recently invited him to be on their board of directors.

Now, he reaches out to other quads in the area—a mother specifically contacted Craig hoping he could talk to her son, who's recently broken his neck. A series of phone calls go unreturned, but Craig understands.

"The first year is a living hell on any family."

Craig is on the verge of recommending a man he knows would be a good candidate—as soon as he owns his own house. Helping Hands is more cautious since they've been burned; Craig describes instances in which monkeys end up in crack houses, or where they're pimped out to cameo at kids' birthday parties. Approved quads get these monkeys—worth $35k—free of charge, so it saddens Craig to think of others profiting on monkeys who've been raised to save lives.

"This monkey has brought so MUCH to my life. She's really pulled me out of my funk. Even with the Yahoo dates. I can say, I've got a little girl, too!"

Craig's friends recently took the liberty of creating a Yahoo personals profile for him and it's going rather well. There are prospects

  scattered around the coast, and rumors of a visitation from an Oregon babe. This is a watershed, and Craig credits Minnie with improving his attitude toward women. Bitter roots still linger from the girlfriend he had at the time of the accident. Things were gangbusters—they were sunny cohabitants: she a fetching dental hygienist from Whittier with a charming toddler son, he a successful design engineer for Ropak Corp., the largest producer of rigid, plastic shipping containers in North America. He took care of her and she let him. He recalls  


wiping out her debt: "I said, 'Here, we'll pay off this one first, this one next.'" Then, after the accident, she backed off. Her parents, so recently admiring, counseled their daughter to look out for number one. She left him entirely. He was 29. The hardest part was not being able to see her son, whom he now thought of as his own.

"You know what—today's his birthday." Craig looks out onto his patio, where his friends love to gather for cook-outs and Angels games. "I sent him a card and money every year on his birthday except for this year." A long silence. Minnie is munching gnats in her cage. "You've got to move on."

Thus the personals. His responses have been overwhelming—and everyone, of course, is intrigued by Minnie. "How many people do you know that have had a monkey? I'm a hard-ass, I'm a realist, then here she comes and—boink!—new opportunities, board of directors...She taught me how to travel again."

Each year he ventures to Boston for the Helping Hands annual conference and Minnie, the first service monkey in California, goes with him. "The flight attendant chicks give her peanuts." There, he and Minnie are testament to Helping Hands' mission. He addresses the conference on "how much Minnie has changed my life, emotionally, visibly, physically, and personally—I'm happier, not as shy about my looks, I'm more active with my body, and I'm meeting new people—actors, TV personalities, hot chicks." And coming in 2006: Look for Craig & Minnie to throw the opening pitch at Angel Stadium. Once Helping Hands confirms that that Minnie & Craig have a solid enough relationship, it's a go.

Helping Hands benefits raised $1 billion in 2005, and Dana Reeve, on behalf of the Paralysis Foundation, gifted Helping Hands with $11,000. Craig's dream is to organize a mind blowing west coast benefit for Helping Hands—maybe in Anaheim Stadium, replete with Lakers Girls, Angels shortstops, The Black Crowes, Dana Reeve, Arnold, everyone. He has faith in their celebrity. "These guys are sitting around drinking beer saying 'Damn. I need a tax write-off.' Once they find out that a frickin' monkey is helping me..." He shakes his head—it's a no-brainer. "'Wow! I can give money to a monkey organization? How cool is that?'"


Becky Hayes is waiting out the big one in her Los Feliz kitchen, surrounded by chimera-chasing boho types and well-wishing small mammals.