MY COLLEGE EDUCATION, OR INDOCTRINATION IN THE MAUDIAN PHILOSOPHY OF BEA ARTHUR
BY DAVID GOTTFRIED
At the time she was eighteen, Helen behaved like a bitchy thirty-five year old — she was jaded, angry, knew all about the world and hated it too. I met her when I was also eighteen and when we both started college.
She was cross-eyed. I find this interesting because most people who are very intimidating have eyes that are great at boring right into you, like a power drill. Cross-eyed people don’t have that skill. Nevertheless, her cross-eyed status did not in the least detract from her ability to intimidate. Even though her gaze seemed indistinct and ambiguous — even though you weren’t quite sure where she was looking if you tried to look into her eyes — there was something very intimidating about her eyes. Maybe they were more intimidating because of their wacky focus that seemed to gaze on one point, and then stare at another point, and then bear down — like light and a magnifying glass igniting fire — on two points in separate parts of the room at the same time.
And so while she might have appeared to have been busy consuming chicken breast and string beans, her brilliant and strange eyes caught sight of my plate, even though there were two students between us at the dinner table, and she loudly yelped, “David, peas are loaded with starch and they’re terrible for your diet.”
At that time in my life, I was a bit heavy, and not the least bit athletic, and so I periodically went on diets, which seemed to be such womanly and fastidious things. Real men never dieted. They either had big proud guts, or they pumped iron. In either case, they ate huge mounds of succulent spaghetti. Diets were in all respects a feminine thing. The melba toasts — a dieter’s bread of affliction — were so dainty. The sacharine pill boxes were such quaint little things to take out of one’s purse at a luncheon. The premiere diet soda of the time was something called “Tab”, which reminded me of a jingle for a laundry detergent called “Fab” (It went something like this: “Oh Fab, I’m glad, there’s lemon freshened borax in you.”), that seemed to say “Fag.” And half the diet foods were ornery, acidic things like scallions, and raw onions, and grapefruit which made the sores in your mouth light up with pain like a Christmas tree in lights, screaming at you like an annoyed little girl incensed at the way you slurped your soup.
In any event, of all the fattening and delicious foods in the world, we knew — in those days — that starch was the most reprehensible thing one could eat. Fat and cholesterol had been discussed, but it had not seemed to click in the collective consciousness of dieters who, often behaving like stereotypical women, are unable to entertain more than one thought at a time. And so the notion that a result may have more than one cause — that the accumulation of fat may be caused by fat and starch and lack of exercise and genetic predisposition and thyroid deficiency disease — suggested a complexity antithetical and inadmissible to their black and white minds, in which everything had the simplicity of an episode on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And so the ideal diet was a burger, accompanied by a raw union, sans the bun and fries. For dinner, one might eat steak, along with any old boring green vegetable cooked by common boiling. But starch was verboten. Potatoes were utterly impermissible. Pasta was veritably primitive, connoting images of irascible Italian men engaged in mafia killings and Italian mamas swathed in layers of luxurious fat.
“David, I told you, you really have to lose weight, and those horrible starches have to stop,” Helen insisted.
I wasn’t sure if it would be more appropriate to discard the peas, to prove my virtue and my fealty to the worthwhile endeavor of fitting into fashionable clothing, or to eat the peas, to establish some small measure of independence from Helen. And so I used my fork to rake the peas on the plate, as if the peas were boulders and my fork was some kind of heavy machinery to remove them from the earth.
Helen was now inconsolable: “David, there are people who are starving. Don’t you remember how great George Harrison was with that Bangladesh thing for the starving people. And you fucking play with your peas. You’re so fucking uncool. And you’re fat. And your shirt doesn’t stay in your pants. Oh, I can’t stand you.”
Helen now sat back, regal with her renunciation of my rapscallion behavior, while the other girls in our group, Michelle and Sandra, were deeply impressed with Helen’s display of “women power.” Women power was of course more important than anything.
Indeed, since we had started college, two months before, the feminist idea had been instilled with such frequency — when we met the faculty for freshmen orientation, all the male professors were silent while one woman teacher used the occasion as an opportunity to harangue the male world; the idea that we were supposed to receive some measure of orientation to college life was completely overlooked — that we got the idea that the goal of college was the inculcation of a feminist-friendly mind and a good natured faggotty disinclination to challenge anything ever said by a woman of power and substance. And, after all, college-educated men were so much softer, tamer and less robust than their cultural inferiors. The non-college sorts always exclaimed, exhibited and exploded like Archie Bunker. The college boys learned to demure, defer, decline and talk in indirect ways of culturally appropriate gobley gook. For example, when Robert Mc Nammara talked about plans to carpet bomb Vietnam, he did it with all the urbanity and salon-like detachment of a dowager reciting plans for a dinner party.
So while the women beamed at Helen’s brilliant and scathing indictment of my behavior, an indictment brimming with cunning and timely allusions to world hunger and the Fabulously enriching world of Fashion, I, and my male friends, Steve and Chris, sat mute.
Finally, it was time for desert. The girls and I — Chris and Steve had no weight problems and ate fruity cake with abandon — ate stewed fruit. Of course, what sort of fruit it might have been none of us knew. We only knew, or assumed, that it was fruit because it was described as “stewed fruit” in the dieters’ corner of the cafeteria. Essentially, it consisted of three forlorn, darkish, purplish, pock-marked things sitting in a styrofoam cup with a diameter of four meager inches. While strawberries beckoned with succulence as they sat imbedded in the creamy frosting of the Strawberry Shortcake happily consumed by Steve and Chris, our fruit had no bright colors, no gowns of red or burgundy, and no spherical shapeliness. Our fruits were wizened old things with big fat pits and not a drizzle of juice.
After dinner, we ambled back to our dormitories like eighty-year olds going back to their condos after partaking of the Diner’s “earlybird special.” We weren’t infirm. We weren’t prematurely gray. But we were as terrified of the new world of college as seniors trembling at the imminence of death. Also, because we had moved away from home to come to college, we were homesick, and this made us recreate our elderly relatives in ourselves: And so Helen was an aging lady with a rasping voice forever complaining to management about the bad service she received, and the guys, in their deference, seemed to emulate the doofishnes of old men who wear their pants several inches above their navels. Besides, none of us were having sex.
After we returned to the dorms, we studied our textbooks with the determination of seniors reviewing Medicare guidelines, and commiserated about tomorrow’s tests as if they were surgeries. Then we took a little something to help us sleep and washed it down with a few sips of Tab.
We slept fitfully and arose tired and dreary and terrified of the dawn. Our day began, very often, with a course taught by Ms. Shirley Langley. Ms. Shirley Langley was, as Steve once pointed-out, a woman who imagined she was the patrician former Senator from New Jersey, Milicent Fenwick. Although her voice did not really sound like Milicent Fenwick, and although I can’t recall exactly how she sounded, or what sort of accent she affected, it was a voice that always seemed, no matter what the decibel level, to be screaming to be acknowledged as the voice of Protestant propriety, privilege and intellectual profundity. Each and every syllable was articulated with all the care of a Grecian urn: Her voice was hard, lapidary, lovely and sleek. I rather think she was a Jew who chose as the supreme and monumental effort of her life the eradication of her identity, the purging of every shleping, dragging, meditative Yiddush- sounding inflection from her voice and its replacement with a succession of sharp and shining iambic meter more convivial to Greenwich, Connecticut and starched and parched garden parties.
When she assumed the stage at the head of the class, her five-foot, three-inch body seemed to be an optical illusion because her voice boomed like a trumpet sounded by a titan. All of the discontent and accumulated orneriness of fifty plus years of living seemed to surge up from her feet, through her heaving breasts, to be unleashed by her mouth like lava from a volcano. And what was she ornery and irritable about?
She was, first and foremost, mad about male chauvinism, and, as usual, the indignities perpetrated by the male sex provided fodder for the day’s instruction. Her insights were met without the slightest scintilla of resistance and penetrated and implanted themselves into her students’ passive, unanalytic minds like phalluses pounding into well-greased anuses. Although her pedantry resembled pederasty, she was nevertheless adored because she told the students that they were wonderful. From her we learned a few big words, and a few tiny ideas, and the belief that our youth and exuberance were sacrosanct.
We were convinced that our youth would be able to shine more flamboyantly given the location of the school: It was situated in a suburb of New York City, and since it wasn’t far from New York City, we decided we might as well say that we were going to school in New York City. And somehow education and feminism and New York all came together in everything we did and were subjected to: In those god awful Paul Mazursky films in which a woman always finds her true chic greatness by being a New York bitch and learning to hate men. (Since the films had a feminist slant, they were really quite educational and could substitute for four credits of English, don’t you think); in quiche loraine, which we learned was French and had a fancy name, and therefore was educational, and which, because of its adoration in the gay community, made it a sort of feminist delicacy; in learning that at academic conferences one must always have wine and cheese, and never beer and hero sandwiches, because the latter is the food of ruffians and reactionaries while the former is polished and polite, the chunks of cheese presenting the milky smoothness of choir boy’s buttocks.
Of course, there were times when our adoration of New York and our idea that we were in the vanguard of intellectual pursuits became so comical as to be pathetic. For example, the University at times scheduled group trips to New York City so that we idiots might partake of its cultural attractions, and for these group outings we would charter a big, boxy, and slightly battered yellow school bus which, when maneuvered through the serpentine and svelte streets of Greenwhich village, made us look, collectively, as a fat suburban wife browsing through the aisles of a boutique that specialized in G strings. The bus was also embarrassing on a very concrete level: It had a perpetual smell that was more than vaguely reminiscent of vomit and so I thought it was a vehicle used to transport retarded people to and from the plenitude of institutions, caring for the retarded, in our New York suburb. While we traveled in the bus, no one read, or listened to music, or had any conversations about anything of intellectual import. And so Stephen would then be called upon to give us a lecture on the Beatles as the Beatles were going through a huge revival throughout the late Seventies. (Of course, Beatles’ revivals arguably had been in progress, in one way or another, from the time of the Beatles’ demise until the ascendance of Ronald Reagan, or at the very latest Osama Ben Ladin, who refuted liberalism more emphatically than Ronald Reagan ever could. Beatles’ revivals perhaps constituted one of the largest dissipations of youthful energy since the Crusades.)
But eventually our New York trips really came down, in the final analysis, to a question of food. Just as people will spend thousands of dollars to travel around the globe to view fine historical treasures, only to rush through the tour of the Coliseum because of their desire to eat a fine Lasagna dinner that would not be in any way superior to the lasagna they could get in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, so we presumed intellectuals, brimming with arrogant, obnoxious elan, would only affect an interest in the utterly incomprehensible works of abstract art, the arty people who seemed more often than not to be not so much creative as simply maladjusted or just plain queer, and the modern poetry that was denuded of rhyme and meter, contained metaphors that we could never get because either we were too stupid or the author was too brilliant, and which, when intelligible, only seemed to be a callous and dehumanized recitation of personal and sexual injuries. And so we smiled and pretended, and raised our eyebrows or furrowed our brows, to show an intensity of aesthetic interest, but our interest concerned not Chinese or Italian sculpture but simply the question of Chinese or Italian quisine.
For Michele, one simply had to go to Mama Leone’s, a famous and now defunct Italian eatery, after going to the Theater. Indeed, the play was wholly secondary to the meal. I do not mean to be unkind, but, quite frankly, Michelle would have been just as happy if she had been watching the situation comedy “Rhoda” instead of live and fine drama. Of course, many of us dissented from Michelle’s choice, finding her preference for robust and hearty red-sauced repasts altogether plebian, provincial and, given the promiscuity with which pasta was deployed in every conceivable circumstance, terribly reminiscent of Plainview, Long Island and other conservative, and hence unintellectual, locales.
And so in those days if one wanted to be terribly avant guard and intellectual in one’s culinary choices, one ate Japanese. After all, wasn’t Yoko Ono Japanese? And, since the Japanese were our enemies in World War Two, and the Vietnamese were our recent enemies in South East Asia, the consumption of Asian food, for bratty, pseudo-intellectual, snot-ball children, was a means of slapping America in the face.
Of course, the most annoying and irascible gustatory choice would be French food because the French had a means of attacking America from the presumed left (only presumed: They invented the motto “think left, live right”) that was infuriating in its insincerity and con artistry: They attacked America for our involvement in Vietnam, but they had dragged us into Vietnam to save their oppressive, vulgar colonial empire. Many of my fellow students were Jews, and of course, two-bit, self-hating, Jewish intellectual snots would savor French food since France, on the eve of the 1967 war, when Israel’s survival was in doubt, abruptly decided not to send the Jewish state aircraft that had already been paid for. (And, ever since then, proceeded to attack Israel for not willing to immediately surrender territories on the West bank, and hence become nine miles thick and vulnerable to extinction, when France of course never explained why it needed to rule the territory of Vietnam to defend Paris.) Today, I know a certain Jew — whose sense of Judaism received a triple whammy in the form of homosexuality, a completely assimilated family that groveled before the icons of American Christiandom, and an excessive dose of wimpish, liberal higher education — who, in the days immediately after the fall of the World Trade Center, enjoyed telling me, in his small, bitchy, Truman Capote voice, that he went to Afghani and Arab restaurants to show his solidarity with the third world.
There were certain people who would be sure to opt for French Food. One of them was Bennet B, who always wore a cape which, psychosexually, killed three birds with one stone: It satisfied his desire to be an exhibitionistic, obnoxious, affected son of a bitch because it was the psychological antithesis of a T shirt; it catered to his rage and malevolence, which he would ascribe to his poetic and polemical insights but were instead the product of a rampaging infantile narcissism, because it suggested Count Dracula, or something worn in Translyvania, or something to wear while casting witch’s spells; and it made him feel feminine because it was like a stole or a wrap, and while he took a deep drag on a cigarette, he could tug at his cape and imagine that he comported himself with all the elegance of Bette Davis in “All About Eve.”
Bennet, brimming over with all the latest psychobabble in the Village Voice, and donning a cape and at times a beret, was one of the few men on campus whom Helen, and her coterie of dieters, liked. And so when they wanted to deviate from the dictates of cottage cheese and radishes, and they went to a French restaurant in the course of a cultural excursion to New York City, they loved taking Bennet B along.
In the restaurant, he would, in the oily, faggotty voice used by pseudo intellectual Americans who think that French is an inherently intellectual tongue, say “Garcon,” and utter other rudimentary French nouns, and maybe even dare to utter a noun and conjugate a verb in the barest of sentences, and thereby impress us with his multiculturalism, liberalism and savoir faire. Helen beamed at his sophistication and ate her pate de foi gras with mincing theatrical spikes of her fork into the food, followed by equally theatrical depositions of the mudlike substance into her mouth, that seemed to say that if she could not speak French, and did not wear a beret, at least she knew how to masticate and swallow with all the artistic flourish of a left bank intellectual.
Copyright, David Gottfried, 2002
BBS – BEFORE BARBARA STREISAND, I.E., BEFORE BULLSHIT, THERE WAS BROOKLYN AND THERE WAS STUYVESANT
And as Richard slept, his legs wrapped around his sheets, and his sheets clutched his thighs and butt and balls and cock, like a roman toga run amok with five naked Italian men. And Vinnie bawled him out, “Stop fucking pulling on the sheet.” And Rich told Vinnie to go to hell. And they fought in the street and they bled and were brother blood oranges, fresh fruit under a screaming sun. And they were long and lean popsicles that plowed mouths like baseball bats. And with a tang so tart it smarts, they made your eyes tear with cheers. And their sugar always endeared, and dulled and vanquished all your fears. And with the sweet and the sour, you romanced the midnight hour, and all the ghouls would glower.
And I fucking loved his pizza face, every zit a spunky spark of fire, revealing his mind’s happy dark mire. And the metal braces on his teeth were as cute as boys’ erector sets. And even the dandruff in his hair made him seem so debonair. An eighth grade boy with Tony Curtis eyes. Fuck Fuck Fuck. Only Brooklyn can make men so fine.
And Brooklyn was filled with grease, pizza and shmaltz. The grease of machine shops. The grease of bicycles. The grease of automobiles. The grease of male hormones surging in the Brooklyn summer sun. The grease and the gasoline and the smell of airplane glue. The smell of the funk. The smell of the Perpetual Asshole smell of the Cropsey Avenue Exit on the Belt Parkway. The smell of the old man who propositioned Richard, when he was fourteen, on the subway, “Hey, kid, I’ll give you a few dollars if you do me a favor.” The wizened smell of men’s rooms which had seen it all under the all-knowing bald and glaring light.
And I want the old man to see me in my nakedness all found-out. My cock popped-out of my pants abashed and hard and beautiful in abject intoxication. A mindless, mauling dart of love, adoring, always imploring. A jumping Geronimo gerund to the last of present tense insistency. It rhymes with ass, like a snake in the grass, listen to it hissing.
It’s whistling through its piss slit, with tart remarks regarding every piece of ass. Like a flute, with ears astute, it shatters all the glass, but after the crash you’re still in the trance and your ass will prance and dance.
And the boys are dancing in the sheets, in a primeval wrestle, where everything leads to an inexorable lock. And every vassal has a lord and every lord a vassal. Every protrusion fits in a cranny and every cranny cups an eruption. And while Mr. Colleti talked about volcanic eruptions in science class, Richard wrote a poem:
THE ORGANIC ESSENCE OF INORGANIC CHEMISTRY
Acid and base
Yields water and salt
With divine grace
The moles somersault
Spark Electric embrace
Bit part peons
Their selves they efface
Spies chlorine, bleached queen
They forswear their spears
Become a condiment serene
Richard Barton, Age 14, WilliamMcKinleyJunior High School, The Board of Education of the City of New York, 1971
And Mr. Colletti wanted to know why Chlorine was a queen.
And the class yelled back: “Because homos like to bleach their hair.”
And Richard was enchanted with commercials for shampoo and knew that women were most beautiful in shampoo commercials. And he loved a commercial that sported the song, “You can wash your hair every day, every day… with…. Every day, every day.” But he didn’t remember all the words, but he knew it was enchanting that certain creatures could be so petty as to find the prospect of washing one’s hair, on a daily basis, divine. And so he sang along with the commercial: “You can wash your hair, every day, every day.” And again: “You can wash your hair every day, every day.” And he fantasized that it might be fun to be a chick, to actually be so retarded as to find enormous pleasure in washing one’s hair on a daily basis. (And Richard still has not answered, as T.S. Elliot would put it, the “overwhelming question”: Why is daily hair washing restricted to those who use only a certain brand of shampoo?)
And he loved to walk through the aisles of drug stores looking at the rainbow colors in the land of the shampoo. There was red shampoo, for someone ravishing and radiant like Elizabeth Taylor. There was yellow shampoo, for Eva Gabor, to make her hair golden even while toiling on “Green Acres.” There was blue shampoo, for Mrs. Drysdale and her old money rectitude on “The Beverley Hillbillies.” But Richard’s Mother only bought Prell shampoo, the green shampoo of his family’s envy. And Richard looked for the shampoo that would make him look like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.
And then the boys in the sheets started snickering, “Bet Brian Jones is doing pencils like Gary Lasagna.” (So Richard opened his anal sphincter and farted on Mike’s big Jewish shnoz.)
Everyone knew of the scandal and allure of Gary Lasagna. This sullen, strange boy was known to stick pencils up his fucking ass. One day, Carol Tortellini borrowed his pencil to erase something in her notebook, and she screamed, “Gary’s got fuckin’ BM on his goddamn pencil.” This was the most exciting news since the school got into the New York Daily News because of a fight between the niggers and the wops. (David Gottfried, the school’s resident commie, said that the Jews proved their moral superiority by staying out of the fight, managing to unite the heretofore mutually antagonistic Italians and Blacks.) Everybody wanted to know why Gary was into pencils and how long he had been into pencils and it didn’t take long before pencils became a fad. The big fab fag fad. Pre fag hag. No Barbara Streisand going blab blab. As happy as a puppy dog with his tail going wag wag. Nothing like yanking on your dick when you got fuckin’ pencil up your ass. Soon there was a run on pencils. Circle jerks in the boys’ room with pencils up the fuckin’ butt. Wiping jism with New York City Board of Education paper towels that were as harsh as sandpaper. And then you know the harshness makes you hard. And then some guys turned to bigger things and took the subway to Manhattan. And in Manhattan, they met rich Protestant faggots from real American states, dumb places like Iowa where even straight boys seemed queer, and they had boring names like Anderson and Fuller and Full of Shit and they thought white bread was food. And in Manhattan, the boys from Brooklyn were taught that they were supposed to love Barbara Streisand, and they stopped being cute.
Richard also went on the subway to go to Manhattan. He went there to work for George Mc Govern in the 1972 Presidential campaign. And he even stuck with McGovern after having seen McGovern eat chopped liver on white bread with a glass of milk at Dubrow’s cafeteria, the same cafeteria where Richard’s Father may have been murdered in 1963, when Richard was six.
But Richard’s friends thought Mc Govern was a faggot for being against the war in Vietnam and that Richard, by implication, was a faggot too. So Richard got his revenge, as was his wont. He went to the roof of an apartment house adjacent to the schoolyard and started throwing bricks onto the ground below. And he heard the children shriek and cry and run. And then everything was nice and quiet.
And after Richard had climbed down from the roof, he was met by New York’s Finest. “Up against the Wall,” the men in blue hollered. And they searched him and arrested him and he was thrown-out of school, only to return to take his finals (Math: 100; Science: 94; Spanish: 93) and to graduate from junior high school.
Richard loved not going to school. It was June, the flowers had bloomed, and he raced his bicycle along the Belt Parkway in the morning, read voraciously and worked for Mc Govern every afternoon. And he escorted Robert Kennedy’s daughter through the streets of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn as she worked the conservative Catholic vote for Mc Govern.
And the summer was the season of the eternal hard-on. He was so horny and he was so frightened. And although he was officially in support of an interventionist state insofar as the economy was concerned, one that would spend money to ease the plight of the poor (Boring!), he really wanted the state to intervene in matters sexual. He wanted the law to compel all good-looking people to disrobe. To order and mandate sex. To fucking break the ice. He thought police should march up and down subway cars, determine who was eying whom, and to compel eyer and eyed to mount one another. He never understood why match-making was regressive. And then he met matchmakers in hippie guise.
The hippified creatures occupied a broken-down store front in the WestVillage. And the leader of the group was a fat man with a hacking cough who was a Santa Claus with LSD tablets that were as pretty as Flintstone vitamins. The fat man told everyone in the group what to do, and Richard, for a time, actually followed orders from an older man. And one day, in the old Nathan’s on 6th Avenue and 8th Street, the fat man ordained who everyone was to bed. Sarah was to bed Jacob. And Joshua was to get into Rachel’s pants. And Jonathan was deemed the proper fucker of Melinda. And David was ordained to screw Michelle. And on and on went the roster of beautiful, innocent Jewish names until it was decreed that Richard would screw Cindy, who was on a two-day pass from her facility for severely disturbed teenagers. And Richard and Cindy found a little rat-hole in which to do their business. Cindy took off her jeans, caked with generous helpings of dried dirt and perhaps shit and vomit as well. And then Cindy was down to her panties, which were filled with blood and dried blood and bloody tissue papers. She proudly told Richard that she was having her period, as if she were advising him that she had gotten into Yale, and Richard, somewhat intimidated by educated women who reveled in the blood of their menstrual cycles, was soft as a baby boy and utterly disinterested. And he vowed never to let women enjoy his penis again.
Richard happily put his pants on, secure in the white purity of his jockey shorts. He wanted the wholesome cotton smell of shorts and socks and t shirts and sneakers and saw silk, in its slinkiness, as deceptive and slithery as an eel. Like an oil slick poised to make you slip. And the bombast of a woman’s fat hat had the audacity of a general leading his men into war. And high heels had spikes because spikes made better weapons. And the beads on a necklace were the rosary of some fashionable form of religious witchcraft. And a woman, all put together and ready to do lunch, looked like an incongruous conglomeration of artifacts and totems from warring African tribes.
But soon he was going to a place that did not have many women, which did not have any women at all until recently. He was due to start Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s public high school for gifted students, in the autumn.
The school was situated in Manhattan, and bright boys from all five boroughs converged on the old bastion of all male excellence. To get to the school, Richard once again took the subway, the great penises of New York. And it might seem like a cheap and easy metaphor, but for Richard the phallic traits of subway trains were so pronounced that a train ride seemed like an inherently male homosexual experience. Subways were not only long and hard; they were also noisy, and the noise made them seem like quarrelsome, rebellious boys. They shook back and forth as if an angry, all powerful two-year old boy were shaking his playpen to and fro. They jostled you and could make your clothing appear unkempt, and the general effect was something in the nature of a molestation. They smelled raunchier than any asshole. The hoods shouted and harangued with more ardor than any scorned suitor demanding pussy. The transit authority personnel treated you like pieces of meat. In the summer, it was hotter than a sweaty Puerto Rican in skin tight clothing breathing hot sauce on your face. And, after all, why did guys on trains look so tough? To make it clear, with an accusatory glare, that they were not getting fucked up the ass; you were getting fucked up the ass. But, when no one was looking, even the toughest guys would relax and a beatific serenity came upon their faces: For now, the train was doing the fucking and they could sit back and enjoy the ride.
The boy penises of Stuyvesant all eventually had to transfer to the L subway train (And the Stuyvesant train had to be the L train, a letter that in its longitudinal loveliness seemed to be the very essence of the penile), and shortly before 9 A.M., the L train discharged throngs of brilliant penises into Stuyvesant, the high school of the most gifted penises of New York. And being bright, the penises shouted jism of Marx and Maoism and molecules, rapid fire, uncouth, staccato lines of machine gun logic that went rat a tat tat and were more soothing to Richard’s ears than any meditation tape that told one to calm down. And Richard could shoot as long and as fast as the best of them. And his jism reached its most ravishing and redolent heights in English class where Richard wrote uncommonly sick and funny adolescent drivel. (And Frank McCourt of “Angela’s Ashes” fame was his teacher, and he believes Frank remembers him because in one of his books, in the course of complaining that Stuyvesant guys were relentlessly pushy, he said he once had a student who complained of a grade of 95. And Richard did complain to Frank that a grade of 95 was too low.) Richard did not know what irony or paradox or ambiguity were, and he was a breathing ode to extravagance.
But Richard’s Mother and Psychiatrist did not like his extravagance, and they urged him to leave Stuyvesant and to enter a psychiatric hospital. And when he returned home from school at around 6PM on Monday, December 4, 1972 (he got home late because he was engaged in extra curricular activities), his Mother told him that a space had opened-up at the hospital. That night, while Richard’s Mother was at some sort of club or event at which pompous parents repeated “psychological” nostrums about child rearing and Richard’s Mother made like little Miss Anna Freud, Richard bought toothpaste and soap and a soap dish and packed for his journey to the hospital. On the following day, Richard became an inmate in a hospital, and when he had told the hospital staff that he had been in New York’s premier science high school, he was told that he was being delusional: After all, since he was in the hospital he was crazy, and crazy people don’t go to fine high schools like Stuyvesant. But Richard knows, somehow, that someone from Stuyvesant remembers him. Must remember him.
Because someone from that high school that not only had bright guys, but really great guys, called him up, at the hospital, and suggested that Richard had been placed in that hospital because, all in all, he was just a really neat guy who was a bit too sensitive. And that three-minute phone call, which had more therapeutic power than ten thousand bastard psychiatrists wielding twenty thousand thorazine shots, was the only thing that sustained Richard for the next two and one half years, after which Richard, thankfully, was no longer welcome in any hospitals (the insurance policy, thank G-d, was exhausted) and their satellite treatment centers for disturbed children and teens (at 18, he was too old for such nonsense) and Richard was free to take the SATs and join the Ivy League. And if I remember the name of that guy who called me when Richard was in the hospital, and this book makes any real money, and that guy needs any money, he can get a decent hunk of the proceeds. But I don’t think I am throwing my money around. The guy who called me was, of course, a fantastic guy and so the chance of him being alive is significantly reduced.
Copyright, David Gottfried, 2007
SYNAGOGUE BETH SIMCHAS HUBERT HUMPHREY AND THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
I think we all need a religion of one sort or another. I was raised as a Jew, and in my youth I endeavored to remain true to Judaism as much as possible. However, as I aged I became adrift from my Hebraic moorings and my Jewish identity waned until it was a mere gastrointestinal predilection centered on the consumption of certain Eastern European Jewish delicacies.
However, even when I was young I don’t really think I ever truly believed that there was a good G-d watching over me and the children of Israel, and most of my co-religionists seemed to feel the same way. We were too intelligent to believe and we had suffered too much. A long history of persecution capped with the crematoria of the Holocaust were enough to disprove the notion of a G-d that was all powerful and good. And our intelligence, and our love affair with science, made us find redemption in Medicine and Technology. If there was no G-d we could trust, we would place our faith in our ability to understand the world this fickle G-d has given us by creating vaccines, antibiotics, and developing a more and more meticulous understanding of the microscopic machinations at the cellular and sub-cellular levels of life. If we could not reach the heavens above, we would sink down into the nook and cranny of our bodies and personally root out the Pharoahs of cancer and all other maladies known to man.
For those who did not master science, the religious vocation veered towards the social and political and this meant the creation of a Heaven on Earth. This would be accomplished through the all-redeeming Humanism of Socialism which, we were sure, would enforce the Golden Rule. However, by the time I was born, Socialism had been largely swept under the rug in Jewish America. Stalin made Marxism suspect, and Joe Mc Carthy was certain everyone concurred. Besides, in the Fifties and Sixties, Americans were enjoying unprecedented levels of wealth, and the stark class schemata of Socialism seemed dated and out of place.
And so we found another religion, somewhat tepid, less than cosmic, and without the grandiosity of burning bushes. This was a religion of speeches, and position papers. Press releases and parades. This was the religion of Democratic Party Politics.
The Democratic Party ended the Depression, destroyed Nazi Germany, and, through Saint Harry Truman, recognized the State of Israel. And when I was a child, it was giving my elderly relatives, who gave me the manna of Gefilte Fish and Hannukah candies, medicare cards, which they proudly displayed upon receipt of same as if they were indulgences granting entry into Heaven.
We adored the Democratic Party. My elderly relatives could not get enough of Hubert Humphrey, who couldn’t shut up, and perhaps loved him just because he couldn’t shut up. His endless speeches were like a very long service in the Synagogue which might get boring at times but we knew were good for you. Quite simply, we were in love with all of the political progeny of Franklyn Roosevent, notwithstanding accounts that he was not sufficiently aggressive in rescuing European Jewry. We forgave FDR because we knew how the other side felt about us. We knew that the more conservative elements in this Country called Jewish refugees the refuJews, believed that every other Jewish refugee was a germ spreading infectious communism, and in law school we learned, in Hines v. Davidowitz, that the State of Pennsylvania had enacted a statute, struck down as unconstitutional, which would have restricted the ingress of Eastern Europeans into the territories of virginal, Christian Pennsylvania. Maybe Roosevelt didn’t do enough to save Europe’s Jews, but the Republicans would have done less, and you had to learn to deal with the hand you had been dealt.
No, politics was not about getting it all. It was about compromise and negotiation, and so we cherished such very ungrandiose and unheroic figures as Adlai Stevenson, who, brilliant as he was, never charged any gauntlets, never gave sermons on any Mount, and never split the Waters of any Sea. An oblique criticism of water and damn policies in the Far West would be more his style.
And so if you listen to old newsreels of Democratic Party politicians talking and debating, there usually are no thunderous roars. Instead there is this pervasive sound of respiratory and upper respiratory distress. Of tired men with raspy voices who sounded as if some evil Republican had shoved an emory board down their throats and scraped away their laranxes. Of perpetual bronchial and deep bronchial coughs, fulminating with mucus or dry as Lyndon Johnson’s ranch, and creating the aural spectre of pneumonia or tuberculosis or carcinoma of the lung. And this made them seem so very Jewish. Most of my relatives were old and sick, or made an outstanding effort to live the lives of old and sick people, and so I knew the Democrats, like my Jewish relatives, were always deep in pain. Jews and Democrats weren’t flashy and well groomed like Thomas Dewey. We Jews and Democrats weren’t obnoxious grand dames like Clare Luce Booth who flaunted her money and beauty in Depression-era New York like some pagan Cleopatra. We were more like Lyndon Johnson, getting appendicitis on the election night of his first run for Congress, getting kidney stones when he ran for the Senate, having a life marred by heart attacks, and even before the heart attacks, living a life completely obsessed by insecurity and illness, carrying around trunks filled with pills and lotions on his various campaigns.
Democrats were, in a word, a little bit miserable, and we were, in a word, more than a little bit miserable, and Democrats cared about the miserable people. We didn’t have those vast expanses of aristocratic Estates of Protestant Privilege that haughtily looked down on us from Westchester and Connecticut.
Connecticut, of course, was the worst. Although most people think of the NorthEast as staunchly democratic, they forget that until very recently it was solidly Republican. Although the NorthEast and Middle Atlantic States were flooded by immigrants in the years leading up to World War One, it took some time for those immigrants to become citizens, to vote, and to find their home in the Democratic Party. And until the Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and their descendants, made their presence felt, Northern votes were primarily white Protestant votes, and these votes were Republican votes for numerous reasons, not the least of which was that the Democratic Party was the party of Southern insurrection and irresponsibility.
Connecticut, by contrast, was responsibility incarnate. It was old. It was settled by a plenitude of grim-faced English puritans. It was Yale. It was sure of itself, of laissez faire, of the infinite equity of devoting thousands of acres to golf while thousands of poor people lived on less than a few acres of land in the shoebox tenements of the slums. It was, after all, the Connecticut of “Christmas in Connecticut,” starring Barbara Stanwick, and after three centuries of establishing themselves and being responsible, it had become a land of trust fund brats, where upper middle class people always have every conceivable Christmas ornament, and a big fat goose for Christmas dinner, and were as conscious of financial worry as a fat and sloppy two year old.
And Connecticut, from its airy Northern Perch, ensconced in hills in Towns like New Canaan (I hated that name; it’s as if they were trying to eradicate the legacy and memory of Ancient Israel by resurrecting the name the land hand before it was settled by Abraham), looked down on New York City. They looked down on the teeming Irish and Jews and Italians crowded into tenements like raisons jammed into stuffed cabbage. They looked down on the subway cars, which hurtled us through cavernous tunnels and jostled us around in a world of ever-present economic anxiety so that soon the food we ate ran through our system like an A train going express from 59th Street to 125th Street. They saw us tremble, and they seemed to enjoy it so much that soon some of us, such as Woody Allen, made a living out of letting them see us tremble, creating movie after movie in which the protagonist is always the petrified, impoverished, pathetic, heart-palpitating Jew.
But, although Connecticut was beautiful and august and dreamt it was England and Rome and Greece all rolled-up into one, it was, relative to New York, sparsely populated. New York, by contrast, was overflowing with unwanted people like refuse not collected in the 1967 sanitation strike, festering, simmering, stinking for a fight. And so one square block in New York could cancel-out and negate the votes of a land mass a thousand times its size.
And so I became in love with election returns, whether they be current or whether they be results from mythic elections of long ago. The way some boys talked about batting averages, I talked about votes. I was in love with the Count, with the Big City Count, with the mammoth almost industrial quality of those margins from those sunless precincts where votes were stacked as high as cans of peas at the A & P: 437 for Johnson, 28 for Goldwater; or 557 for Humphrey, 56 for Nixon; or 896 for Roosevelt, 36 for Landon.
These were neighborhoods that made up their minds. There was none of that wishy washiness you found in some boring towns.. No 55 percent to 45 percent. None of the ambiguity of rich suburbs where the Republican orientation of corporate men was offset by the vague, wistful bohemian aspirations and purportedly liberal inclinations of very educated women who voted Democratic. Indeed, in our lockstep uniformity we seemed close to mocking the democratic ideal. We didn’t believe in political pluralism. We knew that an individual on his own in the economic landscape would be lunch for a corporate titan and needed a union. A Union. As in uniformity. As in something transcending the fairy tale idea that each man should vote in accordance with his heart’s true promptings.
So we belted out votes like guys in barroom brawls kicking the entire State of Kansas in the jaw with a left hook from the Bronx, where the Democrats pulled in over eighty percent of the vote. We turned all the granite of rock ribbed Republican North New England into dust with the firecrackers of New York’s ChinaTown and all its adjacent immigrant wards, wards which, at the turn of the Century, were more congested than anything in Bangladesh, were more concentrated that any spot on this Earth save Hitler’s worst concentration and death camps, wards where people lived five in a room, ten in a room, fifteen in a room and died like flies from cholera, TB, and diseases that you weren’t supposed to get anymore in the United States.
And then, like a thermonuclear explosion, the Urban Center smack in the Middle of America, the nation of Cooke County and its Capital City Chicago, negated all the Republican votes in what seemed to be a radius of a thousand miles around. Chicago’s Democratic mayors, their face aglow from Scotch, fulminated rage and heaped radioactive scorn on every prim Republican hamlet from Peoria to whatever itty bitty town in Wisconsin that was the home of Joe Mc Carthy. In Cooke County and Chicago, the Irishmen hadn’t rebelled against liberal democratic traditions of individuality and gone on to class based politics (And then, finding class-based politics too strident for America in the post war era, gone on to become progressive Democrats). They had never progressed, developmentally, to the point of liberal democracy and individuality. They were pre-Enlightenment, very medieval, clanishly Catholic, and perfect fodder for the Democratic armies.
I used to linger lovingly over passages of Theodore H. White’s works which recited, in compulsive detail, the utterly unbalanced and one-sided returns from steel towns, giving their hearts to John Kennedy, in 1960; Indian reservations and Chicano slums, voting for Robert Kennedy the day before the night he died, in 1968; and the wards of Central Harlem, voting for Lyndon Johnson, with extra special fervor to make up for the blacks who couldn’t vote for him in Alabama, in 1964. And I learned a few things about voting up in Harlem and other urban centers.
My aunt, who was not a committed liberal but whose Democratic identity was something that was almost as indelible as her sex, told me that in her day blacks were not the least bit apathetic about voting. “Oh they come out in droves to vote, they’re lined-up around the block to vote, the line is already over a hundred long at the time the polls are supposed to close, but they don’t have enough machines in black neighborhoods and they always break down.”
And so I learned that if the election is a close one, the Democrat will not win until after midnight, because the treasure chests of Democratic votes come from areas where the voting process is highly dilapidated, under funded and disorganized.
So the Democrats would win in the end, at the latest hours of the night, or in the early hours of morning, as the sun rose up with redemption. And so for example, in 1976, I decided at 12 midnight that Jimmy Carter had to win the Presidency because he was going to win New York (At that hour, as I recall, Ohio and Mississipi, which are today thought of as the nail biters of the election, seemed to be in Carter’s box), and I knew he was going to win in New York because he was behind by about 51 percent to 49 percent, and that meant he was going to win because at midnight the better neighborhoods had been counted while the crummier parts of town were still waiting to be heard from.
Sometimes, of course, the crummy parts of town are slow in voting because the polls are just a little bit fixed and a little bit rigged. And if they were, it was okay by me. When Robert Caro recounted Lyndon Johnson’s machinations to fix the votes in his 1948 Senate race, bussing in Mexicans across the border and giving them a shot of Tequila at the polls, I felt only admiration. When Teddy White told us that Cooke County ballots were thrown into Lake Michigan soon after they were counted, to prevent any recounts by annoying Protestant Republicans from downstate, I gleamed with party pride. Indeed, in 1972 I dreamed of copying a plan eyed by the military in Vietnam. The Pentagon had thought of seeding clouds with silver nitrate to induce flooding in key regions in North Vietnam. I thought that the skies above regions that were irredeemably Republican should be similarly corrupted.
And so with enough mass thinking and enough mass voting, and enough mass fraud to correct any deviations from the regimen of mass thinking and mass voting, we could at the end of the night, and at the beginning of the morning, provide a monolith of margins from the urban cores which would cancel out the suburbs, the prairies, the hills, the mountains from sea to shining sea.
And somehow, bunched-up together with so many other teeming masses in my miserable urban core of nameless, anonymous votes, I would imagine flickerings of Paris Communes, and general strikes and rousing Marches in New York’s Union Square, and I could simulate, for a moment, a feeling of unloneliness.
Copyright, David Gottfried, 2003
Teachers worked hard to make students fail in school. I knew this had to be the truth. After all, why else would they spend so much time screaming at you, assaulting you with a hail of facts that grazed your skull and scraped away your brain power, and telling you, as if it were the most definite, indisputable fact in the world, that you were stupid and incompetent. I can remember at least 4 of my teachers, in the New York City Public School System, screaming at my class: “I get paid whether you learn or not so just shut up.”
Now not every teacher was always belligerent. Indeed, there was some teachers who were rarely hostile. However, the relative benignity of certain teachers did not exculpate their race. No, I was irredeemably and irreconcilably opposed to teachers, to everything that they stood for and were, and if a given teacher, on a given day, behaved with kindness, or what I more accurately should say was purported kindness, I concluded that that abatement in pedantic pugilism was a passing affair, could not be derived from any real goodness on the part of the teacher, and was more like a military situation in which one’s opponent eased up on one front because he was so badly besieged on another. And so if my English teacher was behaving nicely, I reasoned it must be because I was battering the forces of scholastic sadism by getting honors in math, necessitating the School’s deployment of troops from English to Math.
Mrs. Brown, my fourth grade teacher, had a favorite way of scolding little boys. She placed her fingers around one’s biceps and squeezed, and mashed, and spiked them like stiletto heels decimating testicles. This metaphor is not as over-the-top as it seems. When little boys want to “make a muscle,” they flex their biceps muscle. The biceps is the prime muscle of Popeye, the muscle that is exposed in a T shirt, the muscle most emblematic of masculinity, and for little boys, who are not yet using their testicles in any meaningful ways, their skinny, struggling musculature is their manhood.
Now although Mrs. Brown did not seriously undermine the integrity of my muscles (although she did cause me tremendous bodily pain), she was quite adept at interfering with my ability to read. Before I encountered her, reading was not a problem; it was a joy. I learned how to read very easily, and after one learns to read all one needs is a book to augment one’s reading ability. And so by reading books, cartoons, cereal boxes, and any fragments of paper that came my way, I became more and more proficient in reading.
Then Mrs. Brown saw fit to make the peaceful web of words that I was coming to love a disordered stew of sentences that I could not comprehend; of phrases that no longer glided into one another but now awkwardly stuck-out, their separating commas no longer identifying them but only underscoring their irrelevancy; and of syllables that instead of forming words made only irksome, ugly little noises, each noise independent of all other noises, alone and autistic. She unraveled the lettered tapestry of language with something new, splashy, bright and big. This new thing was a teaching tool. It was all the rage. It was very big. All the loud language teachers loved it.
It was called “SRA.” I don’t know what SRA stood for, but those letters gave me such queasiness that I might as well have been a criminal hearing the initials FBI and IRS.
The letters sounded as sleek, decisive, and authoritative as CBS, NBC and ABC. Indeed, everything about SRA seemed sleek and authoritative. First, there was all the paraphernalia of the SRA program. There were shiny booklets, and shiny cards and big shiny boxes containing the shiny boxes and cards. And everything was done-up in shiny colors.
The colors were not placed together. They were as segregated as Alabama in 1935. There were brown booklets, where the English language was rendered in a uniform brown; red booklets, where the reading assignments all screamed with the letter red; gold pamphlets, for an alphabet of precious metals; and, in sum, there were about twenty different colors each with its own self- contained universe of two or three paragraph short stories, multiple choice questions, and assorted reading drills and quizzes.
It worked like this: At the outset of the program, everyone was given a reading test. (This was the only thing that wasn’t colored.) Then, on the basis of that reading test, the students were grouped into four colored groups. The students who received the lowest scores were placed in the lowly brown group. The next group was red, the greens beat the reds, and the greens were topped by the tans. There were about sixteen groups above this group of four, and, over time, we were all supposed to work our way up the SRA ladder and busily work for promotions to finer and more upstanding colors.
Now of course no one told us that brown was the least desirable color, that tan was better than brown, or that silver – or it may have been azure, or scarlet or some other beautiful sounding color – was at the apex of our color apartheid. But we all knew it. We all knew brown was the slowest group.
We all knew that the brown group was by far the slowest and least desirable group because they did not have the heart to call it the slowest group. They simply called it the brown group. In other words, because it was so definitely, indisputably inferior it could not be labeled what it was but had to be given a euphemism. But of course we children can always spot a euphemism and we know that they are only used when things are really bad.
Brown was so obviously bad and inferior because it was the color of black people. Everyone knew that. Oh, of course we were beginning to hear a lot about civil rights, and the idea that we should be nice to Negro people, but of course one is only told, in a solemn, morose way, that one must be nice to people when it’s clear that people don’t want to treat them with respect because treating them with disrespect is what most people do. In other words, hearing a teacher say that you should be nice to blacks was like hearing a teacher say you ought to be nice to sissies. And everyone knew that no normal person would be nice to sissies.
Now my best friend, Ernie, was black. I did not merely play with him in and around the school. In fact, to many people in the school, it seemed as if I practically lived with him. I spent a lot of time with him, and his family, because my Mother worked, was single, needed someone to take care of me during the day, and relied on his family to look after me. His Father was the superintendent of the apartment house in which my Mother and I lived, and it was all very convenient – we lived on the fifth floor of the building and Ernie and his family lived in the basement.
But the other students in the school had no idea that I lived way above him. They saw Ernie and I coming out of the same, beat-up car, a battered, boxy jalopy about a dozen years old, that lumbered up the street with all the agility and speed of a tortoise and was, quite fittingly, colored brown. And they saw me with his Mother, a big fat Aunt Jemima of a women whose arms, when she walked, always grazed her ample love handles; his Father, a worn and torn working man, with a couple of disfigured fingers from an accident in a factory or from a cotton gin, whose clothes seemed to bear the indelible stains of several decades of automobile grease, house paint, and all sorts of industrial carcinogens on the market; and his Sister, well on her way to becoming a big fat woman, who always held up her knee socks with rubber bands and staunchly reminded you that she was for Robert Kennedy because he “done a lot to help colored people.” For all I knew, my fellow students might have surmised that I lived with them all the time and that they had stolen me from my real white family as a pack of wolves would have stolen a human baby.
After the Johnsons and I had arrived at school, and had exited from the car, I would quickly try to separate from them, and I would also try to linger, on the street, before going into school.
I would linger in the street to air myself out and remove all the black people smells that may have accosted my person. After I was reasonably scented and freshened, certainly not as wholesome and chipper as Theodore Cleaver on “Leave it To Beaver” or Dennis on “Dennis the Menace” but still quite definitely white, I tried, with all the courage of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, to walk into the school and assert and prove my whiteness.
It was not an easy thing to do. I not only lived with blacks but also lived, as mentioned before, in an apartment house. Most of my fellow students lived in single family homes, with lawns, backyards and real plastic swimming pools, and most of them, with a couple of touch-ups, would have been sufficiently adorable to have their own family situation comedies. (The theme song to the “Patty Duke Show” alluded to Brooklyn Heights so I felt quite certain that situation comedies were being shot in my home town, Brooklyn, New York and that the networks might soon select a student in my school for his very own family situation comedy replete with an adorable Mother, so unlike my own, who never worked; a Father; one or two comical siblings; and an incessantly affectionate dog with poop as sweet as chocolate.)
Of course, next to students as bright and gleeful as a bunch of boy scouts and girl scouts picking red, white and blue flowers for Fourth of July decorations, I, was, in my Jewishness, relative poverty, Fatherlessness, and suspicious interactions with blacks in a dirty, old car, more than a tad colored. The SRA, color-coded and confederate to the core, would find me out.
And so when the SRA was introduced, and we were given our opening test which would determine what color would be our destiny, I was terrified that the test would “find me out” and mark me as a black boy. I simply freaked-out on the test, and I scored poorly.
I was relegated to the brown group, a sheepish bunch of morose students who picked up their brown reading assignments with all the vim of field hands picking up sacks to be crammed with the cotton crop. The next students, the reds, had the gaudy, loud confidence of a Marinara sauce served in the Pizzeria. The Greens, who lorded it over the Reds, were as stuck up as Rockefeller and Morgan sitting atop a heap of greenbacks. The tans, who stood at the zenith of the class, were as Imperial as a bunch of Englishmen – and everyone knew that the English, with their perfect accents, were the smartest people and had the highest reading scores – all dressed up in Khaki for a Safari, which might take them to Africa where they would make fun of the Brown people.
I became increasingly submerged in brown society. While I was given short stories with rural and agricultural subjects – which only made it harder for me to read because I knew nothing of farms or the country, and the only animals that I could identify were dogs and cats, roaches and rats — I was certain that my superiors, in more lofty colors, were reading elegant stories about life, perhaps on Park Avenue where Eva Gabor, from the TV show “Green Acres,” had made her presence known in the most exclusive salons.
And so I trudged through stories which had characters with names like Buck — which to a New Yorker, where no one is named Buck, seemed like the name of a well-meaning mental defective who was born to be amongst the brownest of the browns – who invariably had to correct some mishap, which I could never quite visualize, in a bicycle or a well or some other mechanical device and would then celebrate the repair of the wayward machinery with a meal that was steaming, bountiful and served by a momentously fat farm Mama and was, no doubt, laden with the lard and fat and grease which clung to every utensil in the Johnson’s kitchen. As I read these drippy accounts of hardy working boys in torn overalls, I felt myself, more and more, sinking into a sort of rural morass, saw myself in torn jeans indifferently whittling wood with a vacant expression, and felt my reading speed slow and slow until it inched along, with far too many prolonged stops at commas and fancy phrases, like the Johnson’s ancient, ugly car which stalled at stop signs and was passed by all the newer, brighter cars of happy colors.
I was, I was sure, becoming dumb. I was certain that I would not be able to become Bar Mitzvahed because, at this rate, I was sure that I would lose the ability to read Hebrew. I even began to feel too stupid to be Irish Catholic, given the exemplary verbal fluidity they demonstrated in the course of explaining, in a rapid-fire and authoritative manner, the different types of venal and mortal sins, the preciousness of holy communion, and the loveliness of Mary and Baby Jesus. I was slipping so far beneath my proper Jewish berth that I even began to feel inferior to the Italian Catholics, as when a bunch of Italian girls chastised me for eating pizza with my hands which they all knew, with the tastefulness of opulent Italians who adorned their homes with pink flamingos and imitation Versailles furniture, was supposed to be eaten with a fork.
Soon the only food fit for me would be the barbaric countrified concoctions – possum stew and gofer and other such things — cooked by Granny in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
So I slid deeper and deeper into mental mediocrity, dazzled and derided by the brilliant and lapidary colors of the SRA rainbow, haunted by colors that I had never even heard of but which sounded as beautiful as the fountains of colored water at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah reception, and mesmerized by colors as thirst-quenching as the prettiest Orange Soda, as refreshing on a hot day as a sea of aquamarine, and as haughty and regal as the plushest, lushest violet. (When I heard the term “ultra violet light,” I knew it had something to do with the fierce, pure sensuality of purple that shined at you like the most beautiful Christmas lights imaginable. Purple and violet were just very ultra colors. So of course Andy Warhol had to name one of his models ultra violet.)
But I was a far cry from the world of ultra violet. Instead of walking on runways, I was walked on. I was the good, stupid brown earth. A filthy mire of decomposing worms and ants and dog shit strewn about with rocks and gravel and rodents and sewer mains. I was the black boy of the solar system, and all the stars and suns glared at me in the angry night sky. The constellations were like the rich lady bracelets that my Mother could not afford, taunting me with their wealth, irradiating cosmic contempt.
Encountering the manic wrath of celestial bodies was of course a rather heady experience, and the tipsy tumult it engendered prompted me to explain, to my child psychiatrist, how I felt humiliated by going to school with black people.
I told my doctor that although I was “all for” black people, I simply did not want anyone to think that I had anything to do with them, as they were members of a lowly caste. I shuddered at what my classmates might think.
My doctor, as usual, was quick to the rescue with practical, potent advise which could rectify the problem. He explained that it was all very simple. I need only imagine and pretend that the Johnsons were a servant family who were obligated to cater to my whims.
Dr Biegelsen explained that some of the finest and most fashionable people spent a lot of time with Negro people because they were surrounded by Negro servants. My doctor told me that servants were very common on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and he suggested that I might watch “Gone With the Wind,” due to appear on television soon, which was a story about a wonderfully rich white girl who spent a whole lot of time with a black maid.
And so, as usual, with all the decisiveness of a lobotomy or a course of some dynamite electro shock therapy, the doctor solved my problem. I started calling Ernie Johnson’s Mother “Mammie,” and I started calling my friend Ernie “Jethro” after the name of the oafish country boy in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I walked into school as white and as snotty as Tipi Hedrin in “The Birds.” I was as confident as a confederate cop in “The Andy Griffith Show.” Sometimes I called my desk Tara. I was whiter than the Aryan snow of the Austrian Alps. And then I felt free to read.
Copyright, David Gottfried, 2003
MY EARLY MEMORIES OF THE BERLIN WALL AND MOVIES ABOUT NUNS
I think it all started with the Berlin Wall. I had only turned four when it was constructed, but it made a great impression on my febrile brain. Somewhere, a great, big, dark wall was set-up, and this was designed to keep people from fleeing from the place on the other side of the wall. The concept as articulated was simple enough for a four-year old to grasp. One did not need to hear William Buckley provide a long-winded refutation of dialectical materialism or expound on the superiority of Lockean philosophy. Any child’s fairy tale would suffice: There were ogres or witches or warlocks, and they kept people trapped in their dungeon, or their haunted house, by means of a big, cruel, evil wall.
As I said, I did not need to understand the particulars, but the particulars that I were aware of only served to enhance my obsession. First, there was the name, “Berlin.” The name was as tough and as hard as quartz. It had none of the lovely lulling sound of London, or the soft, sissified S’s of Paris. It was a big tough boy with a bellicose B, and it was a two-syllabic construction which knew exactly what it wanted to say and said it with assurance and confidence. Second, “The Wizard of Oz” made me think about the Berlin Wall. When I saw the wicked witch’s castle on the television screen, I was more impressed by the walls than by the castle itself, by Dorothy who couldn’t leave the castle because she was all walled-in, and by the legions of witch’s soldiers who marched along the castle’s walls chanting “Oh lee oh.” To find some part for myself in this fascinating battle, I marched around the living room, after Sabbath Dinner at my Grandmother’s house, chanting “Berlin wall,” assiduously aping the cadence and martial moroseness of the witch’s solders who chanted “Oh lee oh.” Finally, Berlin was in Germany, and I was a Jew. At this time in my life, I didn’t know what had happened in Germany, and I certainly had no idea that the Communists who ruled East Germany had vanquished the Nazis who had killed the Jews. I simply knew that evil was inherent in anything related to Germany or Germans.
Since I did not know anything about Nazis or Germans or Communists, my sense of evil was fun and entertaining. It didn’t have anything to do with getting killed. It was more like a good horror movie. And I wanted more of it. I loved horror shows, and I wanted to see and know as much as possible about all the evil in Germany and in Berlin with its forbidding, foreboding walls. Of course my Jewish relatives did not find my German fascination entertaining. And my Father had less reason than any of my relatives to be entertained by my Berlin fetish: He not only had served in the United States Military in World War Two but had been on the front lines in North Africa and Italy, and he had injuries, from an exploding shell, to prove it. Nevertheless, he either got a kick out of my obsession or accommodated it gracefully.
He did more than accommodate it. He let me experience my Berlin dream. He told me that he would take me to Berlin, to the other side of the wall. My parents were separated, and on one of the Sundays when he had visitation rights, he achieved the mission. Defeating and superseding all the rules of distance and technology and oceans, we managed to travel from New York to Berlin, to spend time in the forbidden city, and to return safely to New York within a single day by means of a single vehicle, My Father’s car, which was equipped with special powers that James Bond would envy.
Very simply, we went to the Yorkville Section of New York, a German neighborhood situated on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It wasn’t hard for me to believe that I had traveled to Germany. I wanted to believe, and for a child aged four or five, the shortest road trips seem like eternities. And, since I spent most of my time with my Mother, and given the parochial character of my Mother’s automotive perambulations, which consisted of trips that rarely exceeded two miles, a trip to Yorkville, which entailed a long trek North through Brooklyn of five arduous miles, passage over the Atlantic Ocean by means of the Brooklyn Bridge to reach the continent of Manhattan, and a steady, exertion North along the FDR Drive to reach the Teutonic precincts of New York, seemed like an expedition worthy of Marco Polo.
Of course, my Father was able to enlarge the voyage by circuitous meanderings, that would be the envy of any and all cab drivers, all around the five boroughs to enhance the sense of a trip interminable and extravagantly far. And so we went off the FDR drive, and lumbered in traffic to the West Side of Manhattan, and drove underneath the old elevated Westside highway — the elevation overhead and the grimness of not seeing the sun simulating the sense of Berlin. We plowed our tank through war-ravaged Harlem where the bleak and perpetually soot-stained buildings cast a pallor that said the Hun had been on the march through these forlorn villages of France. Our campaign then trudged to the massive bridges that unite Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, to the behemoth of Robert Moses known as Triborough, and the girders, and the steel, and the vast expanse of great industrial dirtiness, connoted a toughness and a grit that could only be military and had to be close to Germany. And when the car toured the sickliest side streets of urban decay and degeneration, where the teeming tenements, of ten people to a room, were besieged with an even greater number of rats, I had an intimation of those Germanic horrors that my relatives, when they thought I could not hear, would cry about in the night.
But I was five, and my tummy was crying, and the trip had gone on for so long that I would have believed that we had journeyed to that new item of interest in the news, South Vietnam. And so the tank became a car, and the car was parked, and we walked down the Streets of Yorkville to find a place to eat.
In the early sixties, Yorkville was still very much Yorkville and not what it is today, which is simply a more northern portion of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which, inundated with chain stores common to all of Manhattan, is indistinguishable from the rest of Manhattan. But at that time the buildings were staid and stout and stiff like a store’s awning that never fluttered in the breeze; the grid format of the streets seemed to make the right angles of Yorkville even more religiously perpendicular than in the balance of New York; and the storekeepers, peering out of their windows, scowled and sneered and wondered what you were doing in their special land. There were plenty of signs in German, and when the people walked, they seemed to stalk, and when you talked, you wondered if you had blasphemed some Prussian certitude which would incur the wrath of the ubiquitous secret police. The wicked witch of East Berlin was all around me, and I was a male form of Dorothy, and my heart throbbing fearfully made me feel more alive.
We finally entered a restaurant, which was as German as anything in the American imagination of Germany could have been. It was slightly dark. It was almost empty. The somber quietude murmured with agonized noises as I heard jail cells slam shut with every clanking of a fork on a gleaming white plate. The proprietors not only seemed to be miserably unhappy but looked as if they had always been miserably unhappy, as if anything but unhappiness were an unnatural way to be, as if their virtue could be measured in the long lines of despondency engraved deep into their chiseled, collapsing jowls. I loved it.
The food was not terribly delicious. There was no sweetness and light in the offerings. No flaky breads, flippant and carefree. The foods were restricted to one corner of the spectrum. There were no red foods, or yellow foods, or orange foods. There was nothing but an enduring brown and white in some sort of goulash or stew. It was as serious as a scholar’s study. It was food. That was all. That was the way it was supposed to be on this special mission to Germany.
I dozed-off to sleep in the car. When I awoke, I asked my Father where we were, and he told me that we were home, in Brooklyn, which was another way of saying America. I asked him how he had gotten across the wall, and my Father blithely said that he had found a weak spot in the wall and just pushed through.
A year or two later, two days before the day John F. Kennedy would be assassinated, my Father died while eating alone in a Brooklyn restaurant. My Father’s death and the President’s death are psychotically conflated in my mind in ways I have never been able to decipher, but among all the whirling thoughts, one thing endured and one thing was clear: I always was and would always be mesmerized by politics, war and history.
Although the cold war was less intense immediately after my Father’s death in November of 1963 than it had been at the time of the Berlin Wall or the Cuban missile crisis, my mind was leaping faster and faster and so I became more aware of the World and how terrible it was. And when the world as a whole was terrible, it made my life that much more livable. (Which reminds me that Lyndon Johnson, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin, supposedly once said that liberals are never as happy as when they can find something to be unhappy about.)
After my Father died, the wall still towered with all its august audacity, and Berlin bewitched like an evil City of mordant dreams, and although I did not know what the terror was, I could see it all the time. I saw it in the melancholic majesty of Jacqueline Kennedy; in Robert Kennedy’s stoic voice which always seemed just a tad away from being a tremulous, crying violin; and in Lyndon Johnson, who sounded inarticulate even when he read words as sweet as Byron’s because every word seemed part of an awful lie and plot.
But just as Robert Kennedy had to overcome his depression and get back to work by running for the United States Senate in New York, I had to arise after my Father’s death and get back into the swirling life of children. Since I was an only child, and needed to be with people, and to be, specifically, with other boys, my Mother pushed me out the door of our apartment building in Brooklyn and sent me into the world of the Street. And when I went into the street, it was not to play ball, or to engage in the other pastimes that the silly children of my situation comedies partook of. I went to the Street to wage politics and war and struggle.
I met a group of boys on my block, and they promptly enlisted me in the fight against Communism. More specifically, Thomas Fitzgerald and Steven Brady, and other Irish Catholic friends in my Brooklyn neighborhood, insisted that I join them in fighting the red peril.
We knew there was a Communist threat. And with my understanding of a communist threat, things were much clearer and more specific than when I was simply enchanted by the wicked witch of East Berlin from the Wizard of Oz. As an anti communist, I subscribed to the certitudes that were clear to any self-respecting seven year old. The Communist threat was explained perfectly by television: On the news shows, which indicated that the Soviet Union was poised to enslave the world; on the spy shows, such as “The Man From Uncle” and “Get Smart,” in which malevolent characters with Russian accents were always planning all sorts of espionage and mayhem; and on cartoons such as “Bulwinkle and Rockie,” which sported devilishly elegant Russian cartoon characters, like Natasha, a woman secret agent who was as deliciously slender, sleek and dark as a piece of A-one licorice from the very best candy stores in the neighborhood, and a stout, snarling Russian man, who seemed ready to start a thermonuclear explosion.
What we did not understand from television, we learned from the all-authoritative school. There were, as everyone knows, the ubiquitous duck and cover drills to defend us in the event of nuclear attack. But there was so much more. There was my second grade teacher, Mrs. Honigman. One day, for no apparent reason, she started screaming about Pearl Harbor, and how treacherous and evil the enemy was. That the enemy of World War Two and the enemy of today were different I – and perhaps many adults – did not know, but the point was that there was an enemy. What the enemy was after was not clear – when my teacher lamented Pearl Harbor I thought she was lamenting the loss of beautiful pearls, or the theft of her very special pearls, or attacks launched by a civilization that was against the beauty of pearls and the purity that they stood for.
Who the barbarians were we weren’t sure, but they were antithetical to our white pearls, our lovely white milk (The milk we drank seemed to have some intimate relationship to Mr. Honigman because the label on the carton said that it was “Homogenized.” It was approved or blessed as innocent and white by our teacher who lauded the whitest pearls of our white Pearl Harbor.), the beautiful white edelweiss that Julie Andrews sang about in “The Sound of Music,” and were, we figured, on the same side as the niggers. (In my Jewish family, I would have never used a bigoted term like “Nigger”; that was one of the joys of playing with my Irish friends.) Although the niggers hadn’t done anything to any of us yet, we knew that they wanted to hurt us. Actually, it made perfect sense: They lived in the crummiest parts of town and after the age of thirty most of them looked like black hefty garbage bags left out in the rain, sullen and frumpy and all worn-out. So of course they wanted to hurt us. They wanted to get back at us. Only we weren’t interested in seeing our land of pearls getting beat-up so we knew we had better be against them.
So we huddled in the gutter along 76th Street and readied ourselves against the Black and Bolshevik storm. A long and luxurious car coursing down the street might secrete a Russian agent planning to explode bombs at the nearby military base, Fort Hamilton. And the gum wrappers discarded by these wicked motorists, onto our modest gutter, might contain secret writings and codes and inscriptions about all sorts of plans and plots emanating from Moscow. And a candy that did not taste quite right might really be poison sent by courier from Castro to kill our gang of valiant seven-year olds.
Castro might as well have been the anti-Christ. All my Catholic friends knew this to be true. After all, he abolished Christmas in Cuba, and the recent Cuban missile crisis was constantly alluded to on TV. As a Jew, I couldn’t hate Castro that much for being against Christianity, but I knew he had something to do with the Bay of Pigs, and pigs were unkosher, and I imagined his naked, hairy body lolling around in a filthy muddy watering hole playing with lots of filthy pigs. So I was sold on the idea that we had to be against Castro.
But I wasn’t as scared of Castro as my Catholic friends. Castro was their passion. To fight Castro, they decided to be more pious, and this meant being more religious. And this meant watching nun movies and shows. The early and mid sixties were, of course, the hey day of nunism in American popular culture. First there was a movie called “Lillies of the Field,” in which Sidney Portier learns to be a good black boy and behave himself and builds a church for a bunch of nice, unhappy nuns. Then there was something called the “Singing Nun.” And of course there was the aforementioned “The Sound of Music” which showed us that nuns fought the Nazis while singing beautiful songs. And then finally, like manna from Heaven, wonderful nuns came to us not just when we went to the movies to see a film of religious uplift but every week. Suddenly, there was a new nun situation comedy, called the “Flying Nun,” which starred a nun who taught all the Puerto Ricans to be good Catholics. Those Ricans needed a lot of work because they were, after all, part nigger. In any event, with all the good work the “Flying Nun” was doing, the Ricans would learn to be more polite when they came to New York to wait tables for us. The “Flying Nun” was such a great religious television program that my friend Bruce Gejertsin boasted that he never missed a show. He figured it would ensure him entry to heaven. (But Bruce was always the most stupid boy in the group. He once decided to lie on the ground, in the filthiest part of the basement of our apartment house, with a piece of cheese so he could catch a mouse for a science class. The mouse caught his finger with its teeth, and gave him a very nasty bite, but he didn’t catch the mouse.)
Although the nun shows were a pleasant companion with a bowl of chocolate ice cream, I realized that they weren’t going to fight communism, and my friends finally accepted the accuracy of my sharper Jewish reasoning. So we realized that we had to surmount our frumpy ways, and that my friends had to overcome their provincial, impecunious Irish Catholic behaviors and mannerisms, and that we all had to become more worldly. Which of course meant more British. James Bond was the very best spy, and he was a model for “The Man from Uncle” spy show, and he was an Englishman and was especially adept at fighting communism. Also, the Beatles were from England, and their arrival made us smitten with all things British. That there might be some incongruity between a fierce anti-communist foreign policy and the Bohemian and dissolute leanings of the Beatles we were less than dimly aware. They were all part of the same thing: The Beatles, and James Bond, and Bobby Kennedy, and Jackie Kennedy were all beautiful and brilliant and suave and saving the world from Communism, of this you could be sure. Although Lyndon Johnson, they told us, was really the President, and supposedly more important than all of our icons, we considered him a wholly marginal figure, what with his slouching Southern speech that drawled like a ball game with no home runs. At best he was one notch beneath Ed Sullivan, who had the special honor of introducing the Beatles to America.
Besides, all my Irish Catholic friends were supporting Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Presidential election. They might have been poor, but they weren’t interested in the Great Society. Mrs. Fitzgerald’s idea of dinner for the family might have been baked beans, and nothing but backed beans, or macaroni and cheese, and nothing but macaroni and cheese, and although her Baked beans were a masterpiece of beans and bacon and other delights, a slow cooking saga in a big black pot to feed her nine children, in America, in 1964, middle class people usually put more than beans on the table. But Mrs. Fitzgerald did not want any special Federal help which she was sure would come entwined with the debasement of her Church and the debauchery of her daughters at the hands of the Niggers from the blacker parts of town. Instead she wanted crazy Barry to drop the big one on the Russians and to strike a blow for Jesus and Mary.
Although Barry Goldwater’s political views were antithetical to those of Robert Kennedy, none of this stopped my neighbors from supporting Kennedy. Kennedy was their romance because he was an Irish Catholic and he was gallant and he was brave and his brother was murdered. And so Bay Ridge, a strange demographic curiosity in predominantly liberal Brooklyn, a white enclave whistling in the dark against all the forces of modernity, voted overwhelmingly for Barry Goldwater and Prince Robert of Sainted Ireland.
While I watched my friends salivate for Goldwater and the Atom bomb that would herald revelatory apocalypse, I watched my maternal Aunt, who lived one flight above my Mother and I in the same apartment house, work for Lyndon Johnson.
My Aunt had no special love for Johnson. She supported Johnson simply because he was the candidate of the Democratic Party. My aunt was in all respects a Democrat, and she said it with the certainty with which she might have said she was a Jew. She had been born in 1921, knew of a time when the Republicans were a party of nothing but snooty Protestants who spat on the Jews, would close the doors to all Jewish immigration from Nazified Europe, and knew that it was the Democratic Party’s Harry Truman that recognized the State of Israel. And Goldwater simply required a Thorazine shot, which my Aunt would be all to happy to provide him with since she was a registered nurse.
Of course, my Aunt wasn’t going to work for Johnson merely because she wanted him to win. She was a logical person and she knew her work was completely unnecessary because Johnson was headed toward a very big victory in the Nation, and a resounding more than two to one majority in the State of New York. Rather, she worked for Johnson so she could chair an organization called Brooklyn Young Democrats for Johnson, and by heading this organization she could alleviate the discontent of being a lonely divorcee by imagining that she was young – because she ran an organization of young people. Of course, she was the oldest young person in the group. She was practically 43. And with a chronic illness, which ravaged, among other things, her hands — which had become gnarled, and stiff and progressively inflexible – she wasn’t fooling anyone. But by downing a glass of Cherry Herring booze – a sickly sweet concoction that was a Brooklyn Jewish matron’s idea of hard liqueur – and by putting on one of those long Diana Ross and the Supremes’ Gowns that she and my Mother loved to wear – they were long, moderately snug and festooned with hundreds of shimmering sequins — she simulated in her own mind, for a moment, the succulence of something seventeen.
After Lyndon Johnson was elected, everything somehow settled down for a long time. Just as I entered the Freudian latency stage – a period, that begins at the age of six or seven and lasts until puberty, when the child allegedly is free of the psychosexual tumult that governs the rest of this life – I seemed to have entered a political latency stage. For an extended period of time, the whole idea of war and conflict did not seem enriching. As my Father’s death and Kennedy’s death receded further into the past, my interest in Germany and apocalypse was on the wane. Perhaps, this was prompted by finally learning, when I was seven or eight, that Hitler had killed six million Jews.
But the interest in war and politics never went away. If my interest seemed to wane, it was only because I was so exasperatingly baffled by the battles. Among other things, I was perturbed because so many of the bad guys seemed to fight each other. The Germans were not the Russians, and they killed one another, and the Nazis and the Communists, my cousin Barry said, were fantastic at killing each other. I realized that something was left out of the simplifications that I got in class, and saw on TV, and I could not abide the fact that I couldn’t understand it and didn’t know what the politicians were really talking about.
This frustration finally fulminated in a great temper tantrum I threw at a marvelous party at Tom and Connie’s house. They were my Mother’s Italian friends, and I found it such a pleasure to meet and know Italians, as opposed to Irish people, because the former prepared such delectable foods. When I first ate lasagna, at Connie’s house, I distinctly concluded that this food stuff was one of the most brilliant inventions of Man.
In any event, after being such an adorable eight-year old, who lavished praise on the glories of the Italian kitchen, my hosts were suddenly treated to a political firestorm ignited by impish me. I don’t remember how it started, but for some reason either Robert Kennedy or John Lindsay, who had been elected Mayor of New York City in 1965, came into my consciousness. Since I had entered my political latency period after the 1964 elections, I forgot much of what or who Robert Kennedy was. I may have even forgotten that he was the brother of the man who died two days before my Father. (I did not forget who John F. Kennedy was.) But I associated him with Lindsay. Robert Kennedy and John Lindsey were two people with two salient qualities above all: Golden hair and winning smiles. These traits made them detestable because they appeared poised to win America not by argument but by eroticism and seduction. But the smile, more than anything else, was nauseating: The smile was a lie, and they were smiling because of what they weren’t telling you, they were smiling because they were getting away with something, they were smiling and not telling me the truth, about Berlin, about Germany, about the Nazis and the Communists fighting each other, about my Father fighting in Europe, about the evil people who grudgingly served my Father and me in the dreary land of Yorkville.
I started screaming, “They’re all lying to us. We can’t be against both the Germans and the Russians if the Germans and Russians are also against each other. And Bobby Kennedy and Lindsay are all laughing at us because you all vote for them no matter what.”
Since I didn’t understand the wars and conflicts of the adult world, I decided to make my own worlds designed with conflicts that I could understand. And so I made elaborate maps, of tumultuous continents, that were filled with raging nations divided by brittle borders. Since these were wars of my own creation, I could control them and understand them. And, unlike the conflicts between fascism and communism, which the schools and the television would not explain, these were conflicts that I created and so I understood. And I wanted very, very good reasons for the carnage because I wanted the carnage to be exceptional and long-lasting, and so I provided abundant reasons for irreconcilable conflicts that would keep the nations of my imaginary Europe at loggerheads for years.
I created a fish religion of numerous zealous adherents who suffered fantastic persecutions and butcherings. Some nations paid homage to the god of the fish; others did not; and something as trusty as religious hatred could ensure the annihilation of a few million. This would be compounded by economic conflict. There would be a nation of economic adventurists, and these hardy entrepreneurs would exploit the wealth of other lands, and then the nation of Capital and commerce would do battle with the teeming proletariat nations. I lied on the floor of my room and twiddled my pencil on the page, and imagined summit meetings that failed, and blistering generals whose spiked helmets were exclamation points of rage, and roiling crowds, brought to frenzies by great demagogues, boiling like witches’ cauldrons.
But I needed more. Every nation had to have a fine grand name. There were two nations to the West, not so very loosely modeled on Britain and France, and they were called Mc Namara and Jubillee. These names were perfect because to an American boy sold on the idea that American masculinity was preeminent and incontestable, Britain and France, forever needing American help, seemed somewhat irresolute and vaguely effeminate. And Mc Namara and Jubilee seemed too beautiful to be the names of truly strong and Spartan nations, were a touch too Athenian, and seemed as flourishing and as rich as a Strawberry shortcake served in a diner with imitation Versailles furniture. And the name Mc Namara gave me the opportunity to do something with Secretary of Defense Robert Mc Namara, who was forever in the news, was doing something in Vietnam, had managed to steadily escalate the war and increase the bombing, and had managed to look like a dove not because he was dovish but because he was so exceptionally indirect and circuitous in his articulation of just what we were doing in Vietnam. My other names were not as creative but they were damn good for a boy. My Great Eastern power was Kevar, and I still don’t know why I selected this name. Maybe because it represented Russia and I thought of my Jewish relatives from Russia and Jewish words that sound like “Kevar.” I suppose I could provide a further recitation of the names of my great nations, and the reasons why I might have selected them, but at a certain point an essay becomes sheer self indulgence and must be nipped in the bud.
And nip it in the Bud is precisely what my Mother wanted to do. My Mother, unlike my Father, saw nothing creative in my historical imagination. What’s more, my Mother was a keen and dedicated student of psychoanalysis, and consulted doctors, and made certain that I consulted doctors, and seemed more deeply in love with Sigmund Freud than his wife ever was. And my Mother’s doctors were aghast at my wondrous wars. And my Mother and My Mother’s doctors knew exactly what all of this was; they had the incisive intellectual insights to discern the precise paradigm of my pathology, and the august assembly of analytic powers convened a joint meeting of my Mother, My Mother’s doctor, and My Doctor and unearthed the most disturbing and diabolical discovery: My war maps were a sign of hostility.
Because of the patent pathology signified by my war maps, they all had to go. My war maps were destroyed, and I ceased and desisted in making them. Interestingly enough, I had a friend, Michael Saks, who was in my class and was also interested in war maps. He found my war maps fascinating because the boundaries of the countries sprawled and shifted and curved so unexpectedly, because the names of my nations were so elaborate and fanciful, and because I gave every nation a history and a saga of discontent to explain its slaughters. Although I found his wars relatively boring – they all consisted of essentially two superpowers which each had twenty satellite states, the binary conflict between the two sides was the whole of the conflict, and the war would be bereft of any motifs, or allies of shifting loyalties or intrigue – they received a smashing reception at his home.
His parents proudly taped his completed conflicts to the refrigerator, and this enabled one to know, en route to one’s retrieval of a popsicle, that the nation of trap had invaded the nation of zap, as Michael authoritatively explained with his fierce black pen which practically pierced the paper. His Mother was aglow and his Father was aglow and his little brother Stephen was aglow as well. Stephen, incidentally, soon entertained the thought that he, Stephen, could make nuclear weapons – he had industriously watched the right kinds of science shows on television – and no one thought Stephen was psychotic for his belief that any day now he was going to assemble odds and ends from junkyards and discount stores – for something truly critical he might have to go to a grown-up men’s hardware store, those perfectly masculine stores perpetually suffused with the heady aroma of grease and dirty machinery – and make an atom bomb.
But I was without any war maps and any fantasies and so I learned to tow a new party line that was neither American, nor Communist, nor Nazi nor that of the wicked witch of the West. Rather, it was the party line of Freudianism, or rather the perception of Freudianism entertained by frightened American Jews in the Fifties and the Sixties, and this Freudianism mandated the sternest realism and precluded the faintest flicker of imagination.
I haven’t seen Michael Saks in almost thirty years. However, I saw an article of his, on the Op Ed page of The New York Times, about fifteen years ago. From what I have been able to gather, he’s been doing fine. I can’t say the same for myself.
Copyright, David Gottfried, 2003
MY REVOLUTIONARY YOUTH AT THE WORLD TRADE CENTER
I worked on the Ninety-Sixth floor of Tower Two of the World Trade Center and cursed the security of the machine.
Of course, it seems rather cliche-ridden to refer to the establishment as the machine, but I was finding it more and more difficult to articulate a revolutionary rationale, especially while working as an attorney in a law firm which represented insurance companies, and in my exasperation I regurgitated whatever dogma and rhetoric which might, if it could not adequately explain rebellion, at least give it a patina of glamour.
I worked there in the 1980’s, when Reagan was riding hide, Bush the Senior was the puppy dog heir apparent, and Dukakis stalked America looking like a hypogonadal depressive, afraid to tell anyone that he was a liberal even though everyone knew he was a liberal, making liberalism look that much more ridiculous. And so, if Dukakis would, in the manner of Oliver Twist pleading for a little more porridge, exclaim, in his inimitably wimpy voice, “Please, a little more welfare, pay equity and prison furloughs for Willie Horton,” I would express my dissatisfaction with the ruling class by being loud, brassy and obnoxious.
I routinely came to work very, very late, and then stormed through the crowds of out of town tourists, at the base of the towers, decrying their worship of Capitalist New York. Oh, why would they continue to gaze so lovingly at the skyscrapers, those phallic symbols of domination and exploitation. After all, our world Trade Center was merely two rectangular prisms which were our unthinking tourists adored in much the same way that a flock of apes adored a massive wall in “2001 Space Oddity.” And so, after grabbing my extra large very dark coffee, and a colorful splashy fruit Danish, I rammed through the women in Gingham dresses and men in Burmuda shorts as if they were pigeons scattering before the onslaught of my very expensive car. And, if in the course of my tumultuous charge a few drops of my angry, sizzling coffee spilled and burned their limbs, tough luck.
I of course had no time to lose. I wanted to get past the human detritus of the lower floors and reach my heavenly summit as fast as possible. And so I stormed into the express elevator to the seventy eighth floor, changed to the elevator which ferried passengers to the ninety-fourth to one-hundredth floors, leaped out at the ninety-sixth floor and barreled into my firm’s office for another day of battle with, among and against the titans of international law and finance.
Of course, it really was not anything like that. Although the dramatic size of the World Trade Center may have connoted business ventures in which billions of dollars were routinely negotiated and exchanged, most of the firms in the World Trade Center were comparative small fry. From afar we looked as august as a Tower of Babel, a giant boom box screaming at the Heavens with a capitalist rap dance of all American glory, but on the inside we were as mushy as a jelly doughnut. Most of the firms in the World Trade Center were engaged in less than fabulously lucrative ventures, many of the enterprises were in the non-profit sector, and a substantial number of occupants consisted of employees of local and state governments.
My law firm fit the mold of the World Trade Center firm to a tee. It was not grand, but it was not poor. It was outstandingly mediocre. It was the sort of firm that always assiduously endeavored to litigate with all the proper and purportedly professional trappings of a law firm — that always annexed its legal papers to legal “backs” (They are legally inconsequential but stylistically indispensable pieces of grammar school construction paper with fancy legalese written all over the place) cast in the most somber shade of blue, that always used a messenger when overnight mail would suffice, and that always prefaced all petitions for legal relief with a run on sentence, about two pages long, which consisted of about fourteen dependent clauses — but never managed to say or do anything terribly wise or brilliant.
While I worked there, I put our intellectual torpor down to the fact that the firm lacked a single bright attorney with the exception of your humble narrator — who of course managed to synthesize a form of jurisprudential reasoning that fused the incisive dialectics of Frankfurter and Pound with the rarefied critiques of Marx and Foucault — but in retrospect it wasn’t the attorneys that made the work product dull; it was the work itself.
Quite frankly, it would have taken about a dozen hits of some excellent acid in order to find anything the least bit interesting or philosophically profound in our work. We litigated in a field of insurance, a field of insurance known as fidelity insurance, and try as one might, fidelity insurance does not stand for anything other than fidelity insurance. Two millennia of western culture was patently irrelevant in this arid discipline in which sentences, though large and complex, had all the grace of Archie Bunker’s monologues; ideas, though dressed-up in fancy latin phrases, had all the incisiveness of a child’s butter knife; and issues, though stated in terms meant to connote all the seriousness of the testaments, came down to whether a big business would obtain X amount of dollars or Y amount of dollars.
The dollars at issue arose by reason of contracts of fidelity insurance, a form of insurance in which an employer is ensured against the dishonesty or lack of fidelity of its employees. In a nutshell, if the employee steals from his boss, his boss collects on the policy of fidelity insurance.
As I said, this was fairly mundane stuff. The pot didn’t exactly percolate with political and philosophical issues. The issues just sort of sloughed around and went nowhere, like the winds that ever so gently rocked the World Trade Center from side to side.
Now although I was not using any LSD to insert intellectual profundity into our hopelessly bourgeois and banal discipline, I managed to elevate our pedestrian trade into something with an aura of the dramatic and politically meaningful. Really, it was very simple: I decided that the crooks were the heroes and my firm’s clients — the insurance companies — were the enemies. I began to admire the myriad ways in which bookkeepers, shipping clerks, and cashiers large and small siphoned off thousands and sometimes millions of dollars from their boss’s accounts. Didn’t the Black woman who conscientiously stole five grand out of payroll every Friday remind me, in her stolid determination, of Rosa Parks? Wasn’t the Alergian chemist, who zealously snatched a few grand from accounts receivable whenever his boss wasn’t looking, a dead giveaway for Frantz Fanon and all of his anti-imperialist thunder? Weren’t all of these crooks wondrous moles eating away at the machine, biding their time, casing the joint, getting ready to strike like Lenin at the Finland Station in 1917.
I first thought that 1917 had come again in 1987, when the market crashed, a new depression seemed imminent, and my socialist friends heralded the coming of the redeeming pauperization of America by strolling down the canyons of lower Manhattan, looking up at the tall buildings, and shouting, “jump.” Of course the economy did not capsize, it hardly missed a beat, and the nation ready to implode was not the USA but the Soviet Union. Since Marxism and its mighty patron state was in its dotage, I decided that I would have to look for revolutionary troublemakers in new places.
I found the ideal revolutionist in a gay con artist, who was the subject of a lot of litigation at my law firm, who stole about ten million dollars from his company. He was, as gay publicists might put it, simply fabulous. He did not steal to make ends meet. He did not steal to support a drug trade. He did not steal to support a throng of half naked children in a village in Central America. He stole to live like Calvin Klein.
With his stolen millions, he rented the finest home in Fire Island, and then sent squadrons of helicopters to ferry the chi chi people from Manhattan to his Fire Island Taj Mahal for an evening filled with cornucopias of cocaine, as sybaritic as a sultan’s Levantine bacchanal. He bought scores of cars for his cutest gay friends, and their most expressive and hysterical fag-hag women friends, and the ensuing company of cars cruised down the streets with all the high fashion of bluster of a gay military parade. He bought enough jazzy and ingenious photographic equipment to make the Pentagon envious, and he bought enough flowers, for weddings, confirmations, births, deaths and just hanging-out, to lavishly appoint the funerals of the most portentous political assassinations.
He wasn’t exactly living life in the trenches. It was more like sipping cherry with princesses and queens. But, in my boredom and frustration, this great gay thief — let us call him Mr. Manicotti — became my ersatz hero, a Marx in an age of AIDS, a man who knew, in a simple, direct way what my leftist politics never understood, that the best way to destroy the rich was not to have a revolution but to rob them blind and party hearty.
Because I admired Mr. Manicotti, I could not bring myself to sue his accomplices — for reasons too numerous to go into my firm wasn’t suing him. And so I just went through the motions of instituting suit, all the time wishing that I were Mr. Manicotti, wanting to live the life of Manicotti, reveling in his glorious Machievellian deceptions. And so, instead of really getting the work done, and sending the summons and complaints to the process servers, I opted to drink coffee and talk.
I drank endless cups of coffee, stunk-up the office with cigarettes, and told everybody what I thought:
“Manicotti was not such a bad guy. It’s not so terrible to rob a big company to give your friends presents. I’m not going to be gung ho about this work. Certainly not for the money they pay me.”
Claire, the secretary and single mother who was going to vote for Bush over Dukakis because “Democratic men are all wimps,” scoffed, “David, instead of being a Juris Doctor I think the kind of JD card you deserve is Juvenile Delinquent. You moron.”
But I persisted in my protests and presided, in the smokers’ lounge, over a seminar of subversion. This country, I explained, was just too rich to justify lawful behavior.
“Man, look around you. Don’t you see how many stretch limousines, half a block long, roar down the street, are happy to run you over. Don’t you feel that Nancy Reagan’s jewels are glaring at you whenever they twinkle on her ugly wrinkled neck.”
“You sound like you’re doing drugs,” Nancy Marie, the fat Italian secretary from Bensonhurst, retorted.
Of course, when the secretaries make cracks about your alleged drug use, it’s not such a big deal. But this started to become a big deal when my boss, Mr. Monday, started to think I was doing drugs.
He simply could not understand why I wasn’t taking more vigorous action against Mr. Manicotti and his cohorts of thieves and swindlers. He glared at me, and his wife who wore a fur coat that consisted of forests full of animals glared at me, and then they all proceeded to scream at me. When Mr. Monday was tired of yelling at me, he had his loyal bull dog of a secretary, Margaret Mc Coughlin, scream at me. Of course, she did not know anything about the law, but she knew all about fights and scraps like any good Irish tom boy from Queens and she hectored me all day: “David, go after them. Why the hell don’t you go after them. Get them. Fight them. Do something to them.”
Sometimes the whole office went into a tizzy and Mr. Monday would throw fits about once an hour. One day was exceptionally weird. One attorney flew to St. Louis for depositions that were scheduled in Sarasota because like any good New York elitist fool he got his provincial cities mixed up. The messenger delivered briefs to the wrong judge. A clerk ran-up a five hundred dollar phone bill by calling sex lines.
But then I remember one night, in the winter, when the snow fell hard and fast and seemed to sever the World Trade Center from the rest of the City. The air was so thick with snow that we could not see the lights of the City below. Somehow, if we looked up in the sky, and what would have been the 150th floor of an adjoining buiding had an adjoining building been there, it felt closer to us, and more a part of our world that the common, darkened streets beyond our senses. We felt ourselves becoming celestial. Swayed by the powerful rocking winds of the lower Jet Stream, we became ethereal, heavenly, dead.
Copyright, David Gottfried, 2003