SUMMER IN THE CITY
The summer was 6 weeks old and I'd just quit my job at the ID Bureau for the second time.
I'd quit the first time about a month earlier because I'd been assigned to fingerprint and photograph the guys who'd been held in the drunk tank over night. They'd enter my little cubicle one at a time, I'd ink their fingers and say, "turn to the right," and take their pictures. They were often pretty rude while this was going on. Another real negative about the drunk tank was the music. For decades, drunks held overnight in the drunk tank had spent their waking hours singing Irish ballads like "Danny Boy." But just around the time I was assigned to my duties, they had switched to show tunes. The hands-down favorite was "The Impossible Dream."
I told my boss I was sick of drunks singing "The Impossible Dream" and saying rude things to me all morning. He was sympathetic and reassigned me to fingerprint and photograph the guys who had been arrested for assault, arson, stuff like that. He said now these guys, I promise you, will not be rude to you.
This turned out to be true, amazingly enough. They didn't insult me. Actually, they just sort of stared at me. But somehow, when a guy who had just torched a warehouse was staring at me, it was worse than when a drunk was insulting me. I'm not sure why even now.
Anyway I quit and got a job as a Good Humor man, but I started getting fat and I was actually losing money because I was eating more than I was selling, so I came back to the ID Bureau.
Look, I said, I want to work here again, but I don't want guys insulting me or staring at me. Can we swing that?
The boss said no sweat and made me an autopsy photographer. No one was rude, no one was polite, no one stared--at least on purpose-- but after a couple of weeks I decided enough was enough. Two weeks of dead guys was plenty.
You know what your trouble is? said the boss. You're never satisfied. You don't like 'em when they're drunk, you don't like 'em when they're sober, you don't like 'em when they're dead. You just don't like people. You are not a people person, and you are doing the right thing quitting the ID Bureau because people is what this place is all about. He shook my hands and said there were no hard feelings and that was that. But I had to get a job because I needed money.
I was fortunate in one respect because I didn't need a lot of money. I was living in a boarded-up store front and paying ten dollars a week to Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He could afford to charge me so little rent because he didn't own the store front, though I didn't realize this at the time.
So, as I say, I didn't need a lot of money, but I did need some money so I could eat.
I thought about going back to work for Good Humor, but that seemed like kind of a rut. 2 weeks at the ID Bureau, 2 weeks at Good Humor, 2 weeks at the ID Bureau, 2 weeks at Good Humor. You fall into a pattern like that and one day you're 58 and you've never held a job for more than 2 weeks, and on top of that, it's always the same job... no, not for me.
So Mulberry Street Joey Clams got me a job. He introduced me to a man named Mr. Capalbo. On our way to meet him, Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, whatever he says, you just say 'yes', okay?
I said okay.
When we shook hands, Mr. Capalbo said, so you are the man who is going to teach my son Victor to play the piano, eh?
Yes, I said.
We set up a schedule for Victor's lessons and agreed to my fee. Mr. Capalbo was a green grocer. I was going to be paid in bananas, like a gorilla in a Warner Brothers cartoon.
On the way back to the storefront, Mulberry Street Joey Clams told me I'd handled myself just right.
Thank you, I said. But do you know I can't play the piano?
It's no sweat, he said. I went to school with some kids who played it real good and they were real dip shits. It can't be too hard.
So for the next three weeks I lived on bananas and I taught Victor Capalbo how to play the piano. At the end of three weeks Victor and his dad decided that he wasn't really cut out to play the piano. Do you also by any chance also teach the trumpet? asked Mr. Capalbo.
Alas, no, I said.
I had stockpiled enough bananas to make it to the end of the summer, and I would have, but one day I was walking home from the park and guys with tattoos were moving washing machines into my storefront. I ran to Mulberry Street Joey Clams' house and asked him what was going on. He told me the place was being turned into a laundromat. I said, but for Christ's sake, I live there, I'm paying rent!
Yeah, he said, but you're paying rent to me, and the thing is, technically, I don't own it. I just kind of busted in and put my own lock on it, you know?
I don't understand how this is possible, I said.
Well, he said after a long time, what can I tell you? There it is.
There it was.
CUBING THE CAR
There was nothing I had previously seen in the movies that had the impact of the cube scene in Goldfinger. There's a gangster named Mr. Solo (I remember the name because I found myself wondering if he was related to Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E-- maybe a creepy older brother, Mussolini Solo or Genghis Khan Solo or something) who gives Goldfinger a hard time, so Goldfinger has Odd Job drive Mr. Solo to a junk yard where Odd Job shoots Mr. Solo, leaves him in the car, and watches with an amused expression as the car containing Mr. Solo is picked up by a crane and dumped in a huge machine which crushes it into a cube about the size of a sofa cushion.
"Is that TRUE???" I whispered to my father.
"Of course not. It's a movie. These guys are actors."
"No, no, no! That machine! Is that real? Can they do that to a car?"
"Of course. Saves a lot of space at the dump."
"Can we get that for our car?"
"When our car is too junky to drive anymore, can we have it cubed? Can we?"
"Watch the movie, will you?"
"Can we, can we, can we?"
"Sure," said my father. The movie continued, there was some stuff involving spies and atom bombs and Fort Knox, but certainly nothing as exciting as that car getting cubed. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that NOTHING I had ever seen was as exciting as that car getting cubed.
I couldn't wait for our car-- a green and white '55 Chevy Bel Air-- to shuffle off this mortal coil. Although I didn't mention it to anyone, I cleared a spot in my room where the Chevy would go, between the cardboard box I used for storing my rubber masks and the bookcase containing every paperback novel I could find with a picture of either a floating eye ball or a ax wielding maniac on the cover. I figured I would screw some wheels or casters in the bottom of the cube, so I could move it around more easily; it would probably be pretty heavy. I would be the first kid I knew who was using the old family car as a nightstand.
'Cool looking table,' my friends would say.
'Yeah,' I'd reply, looking up from my copy of Martian Time Slip. 'Does it look familiar?'
'Sort of, yeah... but... naaahhh...'
'Yup. It's the old Chevy.'
'Whoa! Yeah! There's that scratch in the hood! An' there's the dashboard clock that doesn't work! Man, this is so cool!'
We'd put our soda cans on it and talk about how cool it was. I'd do my homework on it. My grades were bound to improve if I was doing my homework on THE CUBE. When I was older, it would be the coolest thing in my incredibly cool apartment. I'd have my feet up on the cube while the lava lamp pulsed to the Today Sounds of Nancy Sinatra.
"So, Dad," I said after dinner one night, "think it's time for a new car? The Chevy was making some odd sounds today when you pulled in."
"Ah," he said, "she's got a few years left in her."
"Dad," I said, my voice dropping into the register I used to convey sincerity, "I worry about you driving that old wreck. When it gets to be 5:15, 5:20, and you aren't home yet, I... I cross my fingers, Dad, I cross my fingers. I pray. 'Lord,' I say, 'please don't let that right rear wheel, which has been looking sort of wobbly lately, shear off as my Dad is changing lanes on Route 46, right at that real nasty merge at the junction of Route 3. Or, if it HAS to shear off right there, PLEASE don't let there be one of those huge 18 wheelers barreling along just a few yards behind, but if there is, PLEASE let the driver have recently had his brakes checked, because a lot of times people let that go.'"
"I'm touched," said my father, but he didn't look touched.
"Dad," I said, "safety considerations aside... and your obligations to the surviving members of your family also aside, I really think it's time to get a new car."
"Because YOU DESERVE IT," I cried, and attempted to give him a big affectionate hug. The attempt failed because of the Jim Brown-esque straight arm he applied.
"I'm trying to figure your angle here. I don't get it. Why do you want to dump the Chevy?"
"I'm only thinking of you," I choked. Actually, I was thinking of THE CUBE. For some reason I was envisioning it in my room, doing a hootchie-cootchie dance. I shook my head violently to dislodge the image.
Eventually my father bought a new car. There was a rough period when I was afraid that he was going to trade in the Chevy, or even sell it, but that didn't happen; my sister had acquired her driver's license and she inherited the ancient vehicle. But she didn't have it for long...
I was in my room painting my Aurora model of The Mummy when my mother gave me the terrible news. "There's been an accident," she said. "Now, don't get upset. Your sister is okay. She broke one of her front teeth on the steering wheel, but she's fine otherwise. She was--"
"The steering wheel? Was she in the car?"
"YES. She was only going 10 miles an hour, and--"
"What happened to the car?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. She was--"
"No, I don't mean how did it happen, I mean is the car all smashed up?"
"HOO-HAH! I mean, gosh, I sure hope Pam is okay." And I did, too; my heart swelled with brotherly affection. Thanks to Pam, I was going to get THE CUBE, at last!
Well, actually, I wasn't. The car really was cubed, but I didn't get the cube. I did get to watch; I screamed "DIBS! I GOT DIBS ON THE BEL AIR!" but the gentlemen in the scrap yard ignored me. "But, Dad," I wailed as we turned in our steel helmets and headed for the gate, "I want that cube! I've earned it! I'll never ask for anything again if you get me that cube!"
"If you can carry it, you can have it," he said. "Here. Try this one. This one looks like it might have been a Chevy."
I had, of course, expected the cube to be heavy. But for some reason it had never occurred to me that it would weigh... well, as much as a CAR. And, close up, the cube was much bigger than I had thought, too. Too big to make a good nightstand. Too big, even, to get in the door of my bedroom.
Defeated by the laws of physics, I left the scrap yard and went home, cubeless as the day I was born.
I was sitting in my cubicle at the Passaic County ID Bureau, ostensibly checking jury duty lists for convicted felons, but in fact drawing Bug Monsters on the backs of the file cards. I was relaxing. It had been a busy morning-- in addition to the usual assortment of drunks in the overnight holding tanks, we had an authentic murder/arson suspect awaiting arraignment. I had flipped a coin with Jackson, the other worthless teenage summer temp on the staff, to see who would get to do the fingerprinting and take the mug shot, and I'd won, while Jackson had been stuck rinsing specimen jars in the morgue annex. Jackson was still rinsing specimen jars, and I was drawing Bug Monsters, and all was right with the world.
There was a clanging and a bit of a commotion on the other side of my cubicle. The occupants of the holding tanks were being brought through the ID Bureau, en route to arraignment in the county courthouse across the street. One of the drunks was making a stink. I recognized his voice-- it was a fellow named Mike, who, in addition to D & D, was being charged with a variety of breaches of the peace stemming from his having smashed the TV set at his neighborhood bar with a stool during Monday Night Football. He'd heard one Howard Cosell sentence too many, was how he'd explained it when I was printing him. He was arguing with the cops about needing a hat. "I can't go out there without a hat," he said, "I gotta have a hat over my face, or my picture'll be inna paper."
"Nobody wants to see your picture, buddy," said a cop, "They want to see Mr. Shake-and-Bake here."
"But they'll take everybody's picture! They don't know what he looks like! We're both named MIKE! What if they screw up and put his name under my picture?"
"That could never happen," said one of the cops. "These newspaper people are professionals." This set off uproarious laughter from everyone within earshot except the unfortunate Mike.
"C'mon, you guys! Give a guy a break! Gimme a coat or a hat!"
"Look, you put a hat over your face, they'll definitely take your picture. They love that."
"How about a bag?" said one cop. "We could stick a paper bag over your head."
"Yeah," said another cop. "That kid who's always drawing cockroaches could draw a face on it." More laughter.
"C'mon, you guys."
"Well, you can't have my coat. I ain't gonna be in the paper in my shirtsleeves. Hey, where is that kid? Doesn't he have a jacket he's always wearing?"
I did indeed. It was my Order of the Arrow jacket from my Boy Scout days, a fake suede item with 'W W W' embroidered on the back (The initials stood for the Lenapi Indian slogan 'Wimmachatendiak Wingolousik Witahemway,' which probably translate as 'Please Kick Me') and my name ("JEFF") stitched on the front, and a variety of grotesque patches I had sown on all over the place. It was the most hideous jacket in the world and I loved it. It was draped over the back of my chair. I leaned over and swept out a file drawer with the idea of hiding my jacket until it was all clear, but the scream of the drawer grinding open on its metal tracks alerted everyone to my location and before I had even straightened up, a beefy cop-type hand was balling up my jacket and tossing it over the wall of my cubicle. "Here we go," said the cop. "Stick this over your head on the way up the steps."
"Ah, come ON," said Mike. "Ain't there another jacket??"
"Guy don't like your jacket," the cop said to me.
"I want that back," I said.
"Relax. This is a borrow." Before I could reply, the entire parade of cops, drunks, and arsonists was out the door and heading for the courthouse steps. I frantically shuffled all my file cards together so no one would see the Bug Monsters and followed at my top speed, a slow trot. There was a gauntlet of reporters and photographers on the steps waiting for the arsonist, who was the first prisoner up the steps, head high and uncovered. Flashbulbs exploded pointlessly in the bright sunlight. The rest of the crew waited across the street until the arsonist was safely inside the courthouse, and then Mike the TV Smasher was brought in, my jacket hung over his head, ála the Elephant Man. Photographers who had begun to drift away, lighting cigarettes and checking their watches, suddenly scrambled for their cameras and fired away. "What the hell is that thing on his head?" someone cried.
The next day, both Mikes appeared on the front page of most papers-- Mike the Arsonist under his own name, and Mike with My Jacket On His Head as "unknown suspect."
Of course, he was not unknown to anyone familiar with the jacket. My phone was ringing when I got home.
"Oh, so you made bail," said my uncle. "What's the scoop?"
I explained about the confiscation of my jacket. My uncle snorted in derision and hung up. The phone rang again. All of my friends wanted to know what I'd done. My Aunt Jane called and without preliminary said "It's not drugs, is it?" At least two people, including one that I barely knew, asked to borrow my jacket. Over the next few days I discovered the world was divided into guys who no longer spoke to me and guys who wanted to be my new best friend; into girls I'd known all my life who crossed the street to avoid me and girls I'd never spoken to who suddenly gave me their phone numbers. It was amazing. And one of the out of town papers had, as Mike With My Jacket Over His Head had predicted, run his picture and labeled him Mike the Arsonist; which is to say they'd labeled ME Mike the Arsonist. I began to get used to people calling up asking for Mike.
Meanwhile, my jacket had not been returned, and tracking it down was long and arduous; it had been in the custody of a guard at the courthouse, of a janitor, of a social worker, of virtually everyone employed by the City of Paterson or the county of Passaic. I have up all hope of ever seeing it again after about three weeks. By now most people had stopped calling me 'Mike' and asking whom I'd murdered. Heartbroken, I began drawing the jacket on my Bug Monsters.
A month after Mike's perp walk, a cop strolled over to my cubicle and dropped the jacket on top of some files I was defacing. "You don't even want to know where I found this," he said. I didn't ask, just thanked him profusely. I wore the jacket home, and for the first time in weeks someone hollered "Yo, MIKE."
I decided to put the jacket away for a while, until I was certain the entire incident was forgotten.
Which should be any day now.
A COLLECTION OF SPORTS
One morning while we were rooting through boxes in Picarillo's attic looking for his dad's World War II souvenirs, Calvano found an old 78 rpm record. "Hey," he said, "This one's not busted. I think it's a song about CARS." We loved songs about cars, so we tramped downstairs and slapped the ancient piece of acetate on the ancient phonograph. Calvano had read the label backwards, and it turned out that singer was Cab Calloway, not the song, which was "Minnie the Moocher." This is the song with the refrain that goes "Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Hi;" first Cab sings "Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Hi," and then the chorus responds "Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Hi," and there's just a hell of a lot of 'hi-dee-hi-ing' and 'ho-dee-ho-ing.' we thought it was the greatest song we'd ever heard (which it probably was, given most of the stuff we listened to), and decided to share it. We spent about half an hour dialing random numbers and singing out "HI DEE HI DEE HI DEE HI!" to the baffled folks who shared our phone exchange. Most of these people hung up or yelled at us, but the 8th caller belted out the 'Ho-Dee-Ho-Dee-Ho' response without hesitation. We were struck speechless. "So what do I win?" asked caller number 8.
"Um-- Uncle Tug??" I stammered.
"Ah-- my beloved nephew! Just the man I wanna see. You and the rest of the Cab-O-Liers shuffle on over here, I got a MISSION." He hung up. Since he was a grown-up, we had no choice but to shuffle on over.
"Hop in the car, boys, we gotta pick up a sports collection. Guy lost to me big time in a poker game day before yesterday and it might be I need a hand loading up the car." We perked up immediately-- we were going to help Uncle Tug collect on a gambling debt!
"Wow!" cried Calvano. "And also, if the guy doesn't wanna pay up, we could lean on him for you!" It was like a dream come true. We scrambled into the car. Moments later we were on the Garden State Parkway. An hour later, after several spirited renditions of "Minnie the Moocher," we were still on the Garden State Parkway.
"Unca Tug," I said, "Where does this guy live?"
"Atlantic City," said Uncle Tug.
"Sh-shouldn't we of, um, called up our parents and told 'em where we're going?" asked Picarillo.
"Nah. They'd wanna know why and next thing you know they'd be telling you no. Then where would you be? Not in this car. Not on the way to ATLANTIC CITY. Which is the city they stole all the streets in Monopoly from."
"Wow! Can we go to Park Place??"
"Nah. But I'll guy you guys some actual Atlantic City cheeseburgers."
Soon we were chowing down in an incredibly crummy diner. Tug ordered a steak: "'Rare. I mean rare. I want it to moo when I stick the fork in it." The three of us howled with appreciative laughter at this bon mot. Calvano scribbled it into the notebook he always carried in his back pocket. He would use the phrase to excellent effect in the school cafeteria next fall.
When the hilarity died down, Calvano asked, "Are we getting' paid for helping you out here?"
"I wish I could," Tug said. "But there are child labor laws. Believe me, I'm takin' a big chance even buyin' you guys these cheeseburgers."
"You mean it's okay for us to like WORK for you, but it's not okay for you to pay us??"
Tug chewed thoughtfully. "I don't make the laws, boys, I just obey them, whenever possible."
Once we finished eating, we drove past the amazing Elephant Motel-- a motel actually shaped like an elephant, surely the most beautiful building any of us had ever seen without using a Viewmaster-- and pulled into the driveway of a seedy boarding house. Tug rang the bell. An older man in a smoking jacket answered the door and shook hands with Tug, who waved us in. "Santa's little helpers," Tug explained to the man. "Boys, this is Mr. Marcy."
"Charmed," said Mr. Marcy. He shook hands with us gravely, and fitted a cigarette into a holder. After some strained chitchat, he led us into the room that housed his collection. Tug's mouth dropped open.
"This isn't a sports collection!"
"I didn't say 'sports collection.' I said 'collection of sports,'" said Mr. Marcy.
"Where's the sports?"
"These are my sports," said Mr. Marcy. "'Sports' is another word for 'freaks of nature.'"
Mr. Marcy's collection consisted of a great many items, many of them jars filled with formaldehyde. Odd misshapen figures floated in the jars. Some of them had two or more heads. Tug was momentarily speechless, but Picarillo and Calvano and I drifted among the exhibits, mouths wide open.
"A one eyed owl!"
"A hand with 6 fingers!"
"Some kinda lizard with FIVE LEGS!"
"No, no, no," said Tug. "This is no go. I can't take this junk. How can I move it? Who the hell wants a lizard with 5 legs?"
"ME!" we all cried at once.
"Forget it. I want cash," said Tug.
"Uncle Tug!" I screamed. "Have you gone NUTS?? This guy's got a frog with TWO MOUTHS!"
"Boys," said Tug, "Let's have a moment of silence--"
"HEY!" said Calvano. "This two headed baby is made outta RUBBER!" Calvano had opened one of the jars and was holding a dripping figure in his hand. Out of the dark fluid, it was clearly identifiable as a Betsy-Wetsy doll with a second head affixed to the trunk, The second head, slightly smaller, was from a Chatty Cathy doll.
"What are you tryin' to pull here?" snarled Tug.
"Only the human items are bogus," said Mr. Marcy. "There are laws about such things, after all."
"You want we should lean on him?" said Calvano.
"Ah, the lads are learning a trade," said Mr. Marcy.
"Who are you callin' LADS?" said Picarillo. Mr. Marcy and Tug went into the other room for a few moments, leaving us among the floating sports, real and fake. When they returned, Tug looked mollified.
"We're all square," said Tug. "Let's hit the road, boys."
"Wait a minute-- are you LEAVING all these jars??"
"Unca Tug! Don't do it! Whatever he gave you, it's some kind of a trick!"
"It's cold cash, boys. The best trick of all."
"Hey Mister," said Picarillo, "How much for the lizard with the five legs?" Mr. Marcy did not answer. Tug motioned us all into the car. We sat in the back, sure that Tug had made a terrible mistake in passing up Mr. Marcy's collection in favor of mere MONEY, which after all, you could get ANYWHERE. Tug joined us moments later, a small box under his arm. We drove off.
We were Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Ho-ing somewhere just south of the Essex County toll plaza when Tug told us to open up the box. It contained, wrapped in tissue paper, three fake exhibits from the collection-- the six fingered hand, the plaster cast of a set of teeth with enormous, Dracula-like incisors, and a baby doll with lobster claws.
"Use them wisely, boys. Don't let them fall into the wrong hands. And whatever you do, don't tell anybody where you got 'em." He slowed down for the toll. "There are laws, you know what I'm saying?"
A Cow Pie
I heard the following story from several people and I believe it is substantially true, but I have changed the names of the various people, companies, and countries involved, and there are a few gaps in the sequence of events that, try as I might, I was unable to account for.
The Buoyant Energy Corporation was about to embark upon a major project in Eastern Europe and needed to set up a team in, oh, let's call it Slovoland. They sent one Peter Dingle to coordinate things, smooth over whatever needed to be smoothed over with the local officials, and so forth. Buoyant likes to use as much local talent as possible, and Peter hired Karl, a native Slovonian with an engaging manner and an impressive background in computers, to head up the data processing department. Things would get rolling in short order, but first, Karl was supposed to spend two weeks at Buoyant Headquarters in the US-- Hunterdon County, in fact-- where he would receive special training. For his part, Karl professed to be delighted at this opportunity to spend some time in America-- "A see-vilized Con-tree," as Karl put it, with which he had become very familiar over the years thanks to many episodes of "Kojak."
Peter booked a room for Karl at a motel near Boyant's corporate HQ; he called the motel several times on the evening that Karl was scheduled to arrive, but Karl never checked in; he called the airline, and established that the plane had landed on time, and that Karl was on board. When he got to work the next morning Peter found a message from Karl in his voice mail: "Isn't a LIMO goink to drive me to my hotel? Is there a bar in the hotel? Hello?" On a hunch, Peter called the Holiday Inn near JFK airport, and there was Karl.
"Just take a cab and get out here," said Peter.
"I can not. You must come and get me, and pay my hotel bill." So Peter set out to the Holiday Inn, but Karl wasn't there. Karl did not return to his room that day; Peter did not hear from or of Karl for two days, when he got a call from a bakery in New York. Karl was sleeping in the bakery. How he got to the bakery is one of those gaps I referred to above. He was snoring away in the proof box, which I gather is a chamber in which pans of bread are placed in order to 'proof,' or rise; the guy from the bakery intimated that given Karl's condition, they ought to call it the 60 proof box. In any case, the bakery employees found one of Peter's business cards in Karl's pocket, and asked him if he would please retrieve his friend. Peter drove out to the bakery and collected Karl, now more or less awake.
"Where are your bags?"
"I don't know."
They went back to the Holiday Inn, where the bags were, and Peter paid the bill.
"Where are we goink?"
"To the motel."
"Take me to a bar."
"I see. Pear-haps I haf been mis inFORMed about the level of see-vilization in thees con-tree."
Peter got Karl up to his room, and told him that he should report to work at 9:00 AM the next morning. Just to make sure, Peter sent his assistant Marian to pick Karl up and deliver him to the Buoyant building.
When came down to the lobby the next morning, Marian was surprised-- to say the least-- to see that, instead of a standard business suit, Karl was dressed in army fatigues and combat boots. I have no idea why, but every person who's told me the story agrees on this point. Possibly Karl had learned how Americans dress for work from old Chuck Norris movies.
"Where are we goink?"
"To work," said Marian, putting the car in gear.
"Take me to a bar."
"It's 9 in the morning. No bars are open."
"I was tolt thees was a see-vilized con-tree. Egg shelly, eet ees a cow pie."
Karl's training commenced at approximately 9:10 AM. At 9:15 AM, he asked to be directed to a rest room. At 9:30 AM, the guard who had been sent to look for him reported that he was no longer in the rest room, if he had ever been there. Since he was dressed like an extra from A Few Good Men, he should have been pretty easy to spot, but he wasn't. Some time later, when Peter and Marian were looking under cars in the parking lot, they asked a couple of co-workers returning from lunch if they'd seen anybody in combat boots around.
"Sure. We just gave him a ride to the motel. He said he wanted to get something from his room."
The something he'd wanted to get was a six pack.
At this point, his apparently inexhaustible patience exhausted, Peter told Karl to pack his things and get ready for a plane ride back to Slovoland. Peter personally put Karl in the limousine and told the driver to make sure Karl got on the plane.
"Take me to a bar," Karl told the driver.
"A cow pie," said Karl, nodding sadly.
Several hours later, the limo driver phoned Peter to report that Karl had gone to use the mens room at the airport and never returned. And no, he did not get on the plane.
Is Karl still at large in this cow pie of a con-tree? No; at some point he must have boarded a plane, because a few weeks later, when the Buoyant Corporation opened its Slovoland Office, Karl showed up to take charge of the data processing division. And was SHOCKED when he was informed that his services would not, after all, be required.
He is reported to have concluded his career at the Buoyant Corporation with the immortal words: "How can this be? Was all my training in America for NOTHING?"
LITTLE MISTER KISSY LIPS
Over the years I've met dozens of people from Texas, and not one of them ever knew what a Hot Texas Wiener was; and that makes sense, because these wieners are indigenous not to Texas, but to a tiny strip of road in northern New Jersey.
The thing that separates the Hot Texas Wiener from the everyday hot dog is the special Hot Texas Wiener sauce, which, Calvano once speculated, was made up of the same 20 or so flammable and explosive ingredients which Daffy Duck swills down at the climax of one of our favorite Warner Brothers cartoons, following which he swallows a lit match, following which Daffy blasts through the ceiling like a Roman candle; and if we never blasted through the ceiling, it was only because we left out the lit match. We loved Hot Texas Wieners, and whenever the weather was reasonably clement and there was no school, we would all hop on our bikes and race down Paterson Avenue, which turned into McBride Avenue at the West Paterson border and finally terminated inside the city limits of Paterson itself where the Passaic River made a right turn and plunged over The Great Falls. The last couple of blocks before the Falls were lined with Hot Texas Wiener joints.
Normally it took us only about half an hour to arrive in the Hot Texas Wiener District, but today Picarillo was slowing us down. His left leg was in a cast from mid-thigh to mid-calf and he was pedaling with only one leg. The broken leg was sticking out at an angle and he nearly smacked it into a parked car about once every 30 seconds. He was terrified and whimpering and drenched with sweat, but there was no way he was going to pass up a breakfast of Hot Texas Wieners.
This was not strictly a Hot Texas Wiener run; we were also planning to hit the Army-Navy surplus store and pick up some gas masks, which at that time went for about 2 bucks a piece. Halloween was coming. The plan called for us to have two or three Hot Texas Wieners, then cycle through the really ratty part of Paterson past this decrepit building with plywood sheets nailed over the windows and chains wrapped around the doorknobs. These aspects alone would have made it one of our favorite buildings, but the clincher was the legend carved in stone above the main entrance: PATERSON BOARD OF HEALTH. Rumor had it that the actual Paterson Board of Health had moved to a different location, but we sincerely hoped not. Anyway, after we'd paid our respects there, we would stop at the Army-Navy store for twenty minutes or so, trying on different gas masks until they made us buy something. Then back to McBride Avenue for a hearty lunch of Hot Texas Wieners. This schedule meant that breakfast and lunch would be eaten approximately 45 minutes apart, and that was kind of excessive even for us, but there was no way around it unless we were willing to have something other than Hot Texas Wieners for lunch, and we weren't.
We stopped at Ducky's for breakfast. Calvano and I waited in the parking lot as Picarillo gamely pedaled toward us; not only was his leg in a cast, but the cast was wrapped in ace bandages. This because Picarillo had fallen asleep during the health class movie which starred a talking molar. While he was asleep, and the lights were out, someone had taken an indelible black marker and written on his cast JUST CALL ME LITTLE MISTER KISSY-LIPS, and further enhanced the message by drawing flowers, hearts, and kissy-lips. Naturally Picarillo had been mortified; he'd painted the cast with red house paint, but the words still bled through. If anything, the bright red cast only made the message more noticeable. The black marker had cost $2.50, an incredible price for those days, but Calvano and I agreed it had been worth every penny.
Picarillo finally rolled into the parking lot. He had lost the ace bandage somewhere and he was soaking wet, but he was ready for breakfast. "Hey, you guys, you can't read what it says under the paint, can you?"
"Absolutely not," I assured him. We pretty much had to carry him in, since he was unable to walk without his crutches, and didn't bring them along. Calvano and I were hoping he would fall asleep again, so we could outline the letters in white.
"What'll it be, boys?" said Ducky. Ducky was sitting behind the counter lighting a cigarette with the end of the old one. All the counter men at the Hot Texas Wiener Joints did this, all day long. Probably some regulation from the Board of Health.
"Six Hot Texas Wieners, Ducky," Picarillo said. Ducky nodded and called back to the kitchen:
"SIX ALL THE WAY FOR LITTLE MISTER KISSY-LIPS!"
Picarillo made a noise like a refrigerator being unplugged: "Mmmwwaarrghhhh." Calvano slapped him on the back. We maneuvered Picarillo into a booth and waited for our breakfast. "Man, when I find out who wrote this on my cast, I'll... I'll..."
Ducky came over with the wieners. "Some chow for Little Mister Kissy Lips and friends."
"There is no way we can come back here for lunch," Picarillo said.
Calvano nodded. "I've always felt these were breakfast Hot Texas Wieners anyway. But consider this, Picarillo: do you want ALL the Hot Texas Wiener guys in town calling you Little Mister Kissy-Lips?"
Picarillo went white. "We GOTTA eat lunch here," he whispered. We each ordered one more wiener to tide us over the interminable 45-minute wait before lunch, and then we made our way to the surplus store.
"This is gonna be the greatest Halloween ever!" said Calvano. "Instead of, like, monsters, which everybody knows we really aren't, we're gonna look like GUYS IN GAS MASKS, which we could really be!"
"Once we have the gas masks on, we WILL really be," I pointed out.
"YEAH! YEAH!" We quickly paid for our gas masks, put them on, and headed back to Ducky's. We had never worn gas masks on our bikes before. The smell of the thick black rubber was intoxicating. We were all sweating profusely. It was great. We chained our bikes to Ducky's propane tank. Calvano and I supported Picarillo and we hobbled to the diner. Our goggles were completely fogged up. The customers roared as we walked in the door.
"Hey, Ducky," called a guy at the counter, "I wanna wear a gas mask when I come in this joint, too!"
"I bet they want some a yer Hot Texas Wieners," called another wag.
"I need a gas mask AFTER I eat 'em," said an intelligent looking fellow. "Or-- wait-- I mean, everybody else does. HAW!"
Ducky turned bright red. "You buncha bums! Whadda ya doin', comin' in here with gas masks?"
"We want some HOT TEXAS WIENERS!" cried Picarillo. The customers applauded.
"OUT! OUT! OUT!" said Ducky. "Hit the bricks, Little Mister Kissy-Lips! Out!"
We were banished from Ducky's forever. "Picarillo, if you hadn't been wearing that stupid cast, he never woulda known it was us," snarled Calvano. Picarillo refused to enter another other H.T.W. place as long as the cast was on. We waited by the propane tank, trying to bribe grown-ups into bringing us take-out to eat in the parking lot, like underage hoodlums hanging around outside the liquor store, but our gas masks made everybody nervous and nobody would help us out. We could not obtain Hot Texas Wieners at any price.
THE USE OF FLOSS
Cockroaches had taken over my kitchen, and it had driven me insane. I was setting off insecticide bombs three times a week. I was jerry-rigging flamethrowers with matches and Lysol spray cans. The roaches didnt care. They thought it was funny. They invited all the other roaches in Manhattan to the never-ending party in my kitchen: "Hey you guys! Grimshaw just bought a cupcake and he left it on the counter! Come on over! Wait till you see the look on his face when he sees us dancing on the icing!"
I was killing roaches by the hundreds every day and nothing happened except more roaches arrived. I was losing it. I figured maybe the trouble was the tiny brain of the roach: Id wipe out 80, flush the bodies away, and the survivors just wouldnt remember what had happened.
So I decided to find one single roach, and make an example of him that the rest of the roaches would never forget.
I went into the hall and banged on the door of the next apartment. "Hi," I said, "Im your next door neighbor. Can I borrow some dental floss?"
"You want to borrow some dental floss?"
"Borrow? You mean youll give it back when youre done with it?"
"I just need a foot or so--"
"And-- I just want to get this straight-- when youre finished using it, youll give it back, right? Because thats what borrow means, right? It means when youre done, you give it back, right. Because--"
"HACK!" The guy Id been speaking with was a short, emaciated guy wearing a rayon shirt with a pocket pen protector. The guy who had just bellowed "HACK!" was a towering figure wearing a ratty looking pair of gym shorts, wrap around sunglasses, and nothing else.
"HACK! Just give him the goddamn dental floss and shut up! You make me crazy!"
Here, I felt, was a man I could relate to.
"Im not going to use it to floss with," I explained while Hack sullenly went to the bathroom to get the stuff. "Im going to hang a cockroach with it."
The guy in the sunglasses smiled. "No kidding? Can I watch?"
"Sure." We introduced ourselves. his name was Stu Schunk. His roommate was Tom Hack. Even though they had names like a turn of the century vaudeville team, they were architecture students at Cooper Union. Theyd met while looking for an apartment and they didnt discover until a week or so after theyd moved in together that they hated each other.
"Hey HACK," called Stu, "What are you doin in there? Come on!"
"Im looking for your dental floss."
"I dont use dental floss, stupid. Only creeps like you use dental floss. Give him some of your dental floss."
Hack came out with a tiny strand of dental floss.
"If you dont floss, your teeth are going to rot out of your head."
"Yeah!" said Stu. As if to say, ah, how glorious to be young, clinically insane, and have your teeth rotting out of your head.
"I want this back," said Hack.
"Hack," said Stu, "hes going to hang a cockroach with it."
The corners of Hacks mouth twitched. "Can I watch?"
"Sure," I said.
We crossed the hall to my apartment. "This is the roach," I said, pointing out a hefty specimen Id already laid out on the stovetop. Id killed him with a squirt of Ivory Liquid. [ROACH STOPPERS TEXT BOOK TIP 173: Nothing seems to kill a roach as quickly and painfully as a blast of dishwashing detergent-- and it preserves the corpse as well!]
Schunk and Hack were both disappoint that the roach was already dead, but they both brightened up considerably when my first attempt to tie the floss around the roachs neck resulted in his head popping off.
"HACK! Get some of my airplane glue!"
"No!" said Hack. "Lets kill a new roach!"
Hack ran back to his apartment to get more dental floss. We were spraying Ivory Liquid and Windex at every roach stupid enough to amble into the open. Our eyes were tearing from the concentration of toxic fumes and we were laughing wildly.
Within a half-hour, we had something like 50 roaches dangling from the wainscoting. We pooled our money and sent Hack out to buy 6 dollars worth of dental floss. "Man," said Stu, "this is the greatest thing Ive ever seen. And it was. It was like the last seen of Sparticus, only with cockroaches. "Lets pick up some chicks and bring them back here to see this!"
"Yeah!" We laughed again, and suddenly there was a "MmmnnuuuggGGHHHH!!" from the ceiling.
"What the hell was that?" I said.
"Havent you ever heard that before? Its Box Boy. Box Boy lives right upstairs. Hes got this big black box the size of a Volkswagen in the middle of his apartment. Its padded. When he gets upset, he crawls into the box and screams."
"Jesus, what a maniac!" I said.
"Yeah," said Stu.
"MmmmnnnuuugggGGGHHH," said Box Boy. We shook our heads and waited for Hack to get back with the floss so we could hang some more roaches from the ceiling and then pick up some chicks.
* * *
BEAN BAG CHAIR
We were going to hang out in Calvano's basement, but his brother Duff had recently moved down there and created a swinging bachelor pad by slapping a couple of slabs of sheet rock up, stapling a psychedelic poster to one, installing a black light, covering his ratty mattress with a large hunk of orange shag carpet left over from the Calvano mom's redecoration of the TV room, and installing a bean bag chair. Bean bag chairs had only been around for a year or so, but this one appeared far older than its years, with several dozen strips of duct tape covering several dozen rips and punctures. Duff wouldn't let us hang out in the basement, but he was incredibly proud of his pad and gave us a tour. We--Calvano, Picarillo, and me-- all decided on the spot that when we were old enough to live in our basements, we would fix them up exactly like this. "What happened to the bean bag chair?" asked Picarillo.
"Got it from Mirshichenko's older brother. Five bucks."
"Including the duct tape?"
Duff's eyes clouded over. "I'm gonna cover it with some kind of a sheet. What happened, Mirshichenko's brother went out behind the reservoir with it, and-- did you guys all see "Bonnie and Clyde"?-- well, he had this idea for a movie kind of like that. Only instead of having people shot up in slow motion, he was gonna shoot up a bean bag chair. Well, he was gonna have these two guys like carrying this bean bag chair through the woods behind the reservoir, and then some guys in rubber Nixon masks were gonna shoot them up, right? But all the camera would show would be the bean bag chair being shot up, in slow motion from like ten different angles, and then when the bean bag chair was all shot up and the smoke was clearing the screen would slowly fade to black and the sound track would play "Strawberry Fields Forever" over the black screen and then after the second time the song fades out, there would just be this single title, "A Film by Jerry Mirshichenko". "
"The movie would start out with these two guys walking in the woods with the bean bag chair?" I asked.
"And we never find out anything about them, why they've got the chair, what they're doing in the woods, who the guys are who shoot them?"
Calvano and Picarillo also agreed it was cool. We wanted to see the movie.
"No movie. Chenko's dad wouldn't let him borrow the super 8 camera. So they just went into the woods and shot up the chair anyway."
"Did they wear the Nixon masks when they did it?" asked Picarillo.
"I think so, yeah."
"Yeah. It's like they made the movie without making the movie, you know?"
We asked whether Jerry Mirshichenko made any other movies. It sounded to us like Jerry Mirshichenko was an authentic cinematic genius and we wanted to see all of his movies.
"He did a screenplay I read," said Duff. "The screen is white, except for a tiny black dot in the center of the screen. You have this incredible macro zoom, and the back dot turns out to be a white rat..."
"Wouldn't it be a white dot?"
"Nah. It would register black against a really bright white background till you get real close. Then BAM! The rat gets cut in half by a meat cleaver! But the eye barely registers it, because on the action, we cut immediately to... A close-up of somebody pouring cranberry juice into a glass. Fade to black, while the sound track plays "A Day in the Life.""
"He didn't make this one?"
"Did he cut the rat in half anyway?"
"That's really sick. You guys are a bunch of mental cases sometimes, you know that?" He threw us out. He was going to invite some girl to come over and check out his pad and sit in the bean bag chair.
We went to the town park and snuck inside the World War I tank memorial, which we sometimes used as a base of operations when all our basements were off limits, and argued about these two unmade movies by Jerry Mirshichenko. Calvano argued that the bean bag movie had actually been made, it just hadn't been permanently recorded. We all felt pretty relieved that the rat movie had not been made. "I think it would be okay if you used a very old rat," Picarillo said.
"No," I said, "common decency would require the use of a stunt rat."
"My dad's got a super 8 camera," said Picarillo. "We could make the bean bag movie."
"It would be a remake," said Calvano.
"No," said Picarillo. "It would be a film recounting an actual event that took place just a few weeks ago in the woods behind the reservoir!"
This seemed incredibly exciting. We decided to use our own werewolf masks instead of purchasing Nixon masks to keep the budget down, and Calvano suggested that we use the actual bean bag chair in Duff's bachelor pad. "No need to tell him. We'd have it back in a couple hours, and he'd never notice a couple dozen more pieces of duct tape."
A few weeks later, while Duff was trying to pick up the check out girl at the A & P, we grabbed the chair, ran to the woods, put on our masks, set the chair atop a small hillock, and cocked our toy machine guns. Picarillo took a few cut-away shots of our gun barrels, our werewolf masks, our out of focus fingers on our out of focus triggers. None of us owned b-b guns, so we decided to simulate the withering assault of our weapons with those shitty little firecrackers you used to be able to buy from local hoods down by the laundry; we taped about 200 of these all over the chair, twisted some of Duff's extra fuse cord to the existing fuses(Duff's hobby--one of them--was, um, making things blow up), and lit the end. Picarillo wedged his camera into the crotch of a tree and hit the 'auto' button. We danced in front of the chair in our werewolf masks, firing our cap-machine guns at the bean bag chair. Some of the fire crackers went off, and some of the fuse cord just burned, and set the chair on fire. "Oh Cripes!" shouted Calvano. We tried to beat out the fire, with some success; the chair was only smoldering a little when it slid off the hillock. One of the holes must have caught on something, because the chair made a ripping noise and spilled its entire contents--beans? buckshot?--into a gully which emptied into the reservoir.
We put the charred, empty husk of the bean bag chair back in Duff's pad, with a note:
'Just needed to borrow some beans.'
"What the hell," cried Duff when he saw all this, "Sammy? Who's Sammy? Where are the beans? What do you little skanks think you're pulling here? Jesus, it's all burned up and there's leaves and shit stuck all over it!"
"We swear on the souls of our mothers that we don't have any idea what happened," said Calvano. Duff didn't believe us.
He tried stuffing the thing with wads of newspaper, but it was not aesthetically pleasing, and eventually he put it out for the garbage men, who refused to take it.
FESTIVAL OF ROMANCE
"Even it this was a GOOD idea, which it incidentally ain't, it would be STILL be a lousy idea," said Chuck. He was placing pieces of stale pre-popped popcorn onto a huge glue-coated sheet of oak tag paper. When he was done, there was going to be a big heart made out of popcorn which we were going to paint pink and hang in the lobby of the Park Theater. The big pink popcorn heart was a lousy idea, too, but it wasn't the lousy idea he was ranting about. THAT lousy idea was the weeklong Valentine's Day Film Festival, which we were hosting from February 8th through the 14th.
Generally we changed our bills twice a week; this week, we were changing it daily, in the hope that our love-befogged patrons would be returning to this festival of romance every 24 hours. The owner of the theater had advertised this magilla heavily-- fliers with the enormous headline "THE 14 MOST ROMANTIC MOVIES OF ALL TIME!" could be found in every barbershop window for, oh, just blocks and blocks. And just in case our customers were planning to show up for only one or two of our romantic double bills, there was the big pink popcorn heart and the promotional gimmick it represented: any patron who showed up at the box office with a piece of pink popcorn would receive a fabulous one dollar discount! How could all this fail to fill the ratty but still almost functional seats of the Park Theater? Chuck finished placing the popcorn and I turned the whole thing pink with a blast from my can of spray paint. That was the last fun I was to have that week.
The 14 Most Romantic Movies of All Time were an interesting assortment. Not one of them was advertised by name on the promotional fliers, because when the fliers were run off nobody knew what they were going to be. Our fearless owner felt it made little difference-- "Whatever romantic movies happen to be available at reasonable rates that week, THEY will be the 14 most romantic movies of all time." Chuck, the manager who did most of the booking, made a list of what he felt were appropriate movies, flipped through the catalogues of our usual distributors, and tried to line up a respectable Festival of Romance. The bill for the 8th of February was going to be "Casablanca" and "A Man and a Woman," but the owner over rode this ridiculous idea. "Boys! 'Casablanca' is a WAR movie! It's got PETER LORRE in it! No war movies! No Peter Lorre! Love, love, love! Kiss, kiss, kiss!" 'A Man and a Woman' got the heave-ho because the asking price was insane, i.e., commensurate with its popularity. Therefore our week of romance was kicked off by those classic love stories "Kiss Me Stupid" ("You can't go wrong with Dean Martin, boys. To America, he is MISTER Valentine himself.") and, I swear, "The Nun's Story" starring Audrey Hepburn, because, boys, you can't go wrong with Audrey Hepburn. Unless you book "The Nun's Story" on opening day of your festival of Romance.
Somehow 14 movies were scheduled, some of which should have brought in the lovebirds, and none of which did. By day three ("Elvira Madigan" and "King Kong"--"He really LOVES Fay Wray, boys, he really does."), I was stationed outside the Theater with a huge bucket of pink popcorn. I was supposed to pass this out to pedestrians with the explanation that a single pink kernel would entitle them to a dollar off at the box office, but nobody hung around to hear my spiel. Most people ignored me. Kids grabbed pink popcorn by the fistful, stuffed it into their mouths, and then spit it out into the gutter-- like the big pink popcorn heart, this stuff had acquired its rosy hue via spray paint and was completely inedible. On day four ("Pillow Talk" plus "Monkey Business"-- it was supposed to be the 1952 "Monkey Business" with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe ("You can't go wrong with Cary Grant, boys..."), but because of a screw up at the distributors, it was the 1931 "Monkey Business" with the Marx Brothers-- "He really LOVES Thelma Todd, boys, he really does..."), I was stationed outside with the bucket of pink popcorn, and now I was wearing a pink gorilla suit. I have no idea why pink gorilla suits should even exist, but believe me, they do. Where the previous day I had been mercifully ignored by almost everyone, today no one ignored me, and there was precious little mercy. And just in case someone was inclined to mercy, I had a hand-lettered sign affixed to my fuzzy pink chest which read: MEET PINKY THE PINK VALENTINE GORILLA!
I had trouble seeing out through the eyeholes in the pink gorilla head, so I'm not sure who stole my bucket of popcorn. It couldn't have been one of our customers, because we didn't have any. My head was supposed to fasten to the suit with fabric straps that were stitched to the jaw line and tied to metal loops in the shoulders. I didn't bother to tie the straps to the loops, so I could periodically remove my head and cool off. Seconds after my popcorn was stolen, however, someone pinned my arms to my sides while a confederate turned my head backwards and engaged the loops with impregnable granny knots. Then I was spun around several times and released. Blind and with my head pointing behind me, I knew I'd better get to the safety of the theater, so I staggered towards what I hoped was the door, while assorted townsfolk chortled merrily and said things like "Look! Pinky the Pink Valentine Gorilla has been POSSESSED! Call the Exorcist!" I stepped off the curb twice to the accompaniment of screeching brakes and uproarious laughter. Finally some kind soul offered to lead me into the theater. He took my arm and began to walk with me. We crossed the street, and then we crossed another street, and my rescuer said, "Hey Pinky, I just want to introduce you to some friends of mine before I bring you back to the movies, okay?" Whatever I said must have been muffled by the gorilla head. I was soon sitting on a barstool, still blind, a lit cigar stuck in my gorilla mouth (located at the back of my head) while my new friend recounted our totally spurious adventures to the other people in the bar. I guess everyone dreams at some time or other of bringing a pink gorilla with a backwards head into a bar, but this guy had actually done it, so he can scarcely be blamed for making the most of it. He dragged me to at least two other bars-- apparently if you bring a pink gorilla into a bar, you automatically get free drinks--and finally Chuck showed up, furious-- "We leave you on your own for ten minutes and you're hitting the bars! This suit smells like a brewery! And, for Christ's sake, your HEAD is on backwards!" The drunks cried, "Hey, you leave our buddy Pinky the Pink Valentine Gorilla alone!" but Chuck dragged me back to the theater where my head was removed and repositioned, and I went back on popcorn duty in my stinky pink gorilla suit. Later we sprayed the suit with air freshener and deodorant to remove the smoke and beer smells, but the result was not an improvement.
For years afterward Chuck told people the Valentine Week Festival of Romance would have been a roaring success if I hadn't gone on a toot in the pink gorilla costume, but it wouldn't have been, and anyway I didn't. I just want to set the record straight.
* * *
I'd been thinking about getting a new hobby for a while. My old hobby, which took up, oh, let's say 60% of my time from the moment consciousness dawned until my 11th birthday, was collecting rubber gaskets and insulators and pieces of rubber gloves, and storing them in old cigar boxes. I had these things catalogued according to texture, smell, and color; unidentifiable CHUNKS of rubber (the size of the cheddar cheese cubes that get mixed with the salsa and microwaved in that TV commercial) were very highly prized, as were torn gloves with three or four different layers of rubber(in different colors!)visible in cross section. It was an extremely satisfying hobby, emotionally and aesthetically, but one day my father noticed that I'd cut all the rubber off my sneakers, and off my sister's sneakers, and I was forced to give up my hobby.
"B-but, dad," I said, "a guy's GOTTA have a hobby! I read an article about it! If you don't have a hobby, you get dull an' boring an' you turn into a mental case!"
To his credit, my father refrained from making the obvious retort, which, however, I could read in the eloquent (though involuntary) wiggling of his eyebrows.
"Well," he said after a while, "You don't need this particular hobby. You should find another hobby. You could collect coins, like your cousin Glen." I repressed a snort of disgust; coins don't have much of a kick for someone who's known the joys of collecting rubber gaskets. "Or you could build something. Some guy in Kansas built a replica of the Sphinx, exactly the same size, out of bottle caps. In fact, his Sphinx is probably better than the original one, because it's got a nose."
I don't know exactly how I hit on the idea of digging a hole at Ground Zero; I was sort of adrift for a few months after my gasket and glove collection was broken up, and I spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly around, and one day I happened to stumble across Ground Zero. Ground Zero was located in the woods at the edge of my neighborhood. It was easy to get to, if you were willing to push your way through some nasty sticker bushes, but it was difficult to see; it was surrounded by dense growth on all sides, including a maple tree infected with some bizarre tree disease that manifested itself in large pointed growths(exactly the size and shape of store-bought chocolate chips, only green)on the leaves.
I had long wondered whether it would be possible to dig a hole through the center of the earth. Now it occurred to me that I could work undisturbed at Ground Zero; I could dig a hole 50 or 100 feet deep (my modest estimate of how much the average 10 year old could excavate in, say, five or six hours, if the weather held up). So I waited for the ground to soften, and on March 27th, it did. I was able to excavate nearly 7 inches of topsoil before hitting earth that was too hard for my efforts. This took me about 45 minutes, though it seemed much longer. It was getting dark. To make sure nobody found out what I was doing, I filled in the hole and I returned home that day happy, with every muscle aching.
As the weather grew steadily warmer and the ground became softer, I was able to penetrate ever deeper into the crust of the earth, and after three or four weeks, I had a hole almost a foot deep at Ground Zero, which I scrupulously filled in at the end of the day's work. That's how I spent the rest of the spring-- I'd get home from school, finish my homework, dig the hole, fill it in, go home. My life had a purpose.
However, though I didn't realize it, my parents were getting worried about me; I'd been skulking into the woods every day with a shovel for months, and I wouldn't talk about it (any more than I had talked about my gasket collection). One day they sent my cousin Glen to follow me and find out what I was doing. He reported--incorrectly, but understandably-- that I was burying something in the woods. My father later told me the debriefing went more or less like this:
Dad: Did you find any other holes?
Glen: Just the one he dug today.
Dad: Could you tell what he was burying?
Glen: I thought I saw a glimpse of a human skull, but I'm not sure.
My parents now took the incredible step of having the high school gym teacher (who apparently owed my Uncle Tug a favor) dig up my hole, and when he found nothing, to watch me and find out what I was doing. He was a more efficient detective than Glen had been, and one night my parents (and Uncle Tug, and Mr. Donnelli, the gym teacher) were waiting for me in the living room when I returned home from Ground Zero.
"What," said my father, "is the story with this hole you keep digging?"
"What hole?" I said.
"Cut it out," said Tug, "I got pictures. We know about the hole."
"Well, it's just this hole I dig."
"Why do you dig this same hole every day? You dig this hole, and then you fill it in. Every day. My sergeant made a guy in my unit do that 8 or 10 times in one day, but at least he was burying and digging up a cigarette lighter."
"What's the story? We just want to know why you keep digging this hole."
"And we got pictures, so don't give us a runaround."
"It's my hobby."
"Well, cut it out. It's nuts. You spend all your time digging a hole and filling it in. That's not a hobby."
"It's just this stupid thing you do every day that takes up all your spare time and doesn't make any sense."
"I thought that's what a hobby was."
"Well, it sort of is. But--"
"No. A hobby is..."
"Football," said Mr. Donnelli, "that's a hobby."
"It's a sport," said my mother.
"It's also a hobby, and a great one. Also golf."
"These are all sports."
"You can have a sport that's a hobby and a hobby that's a sport. There's nothing wrong with that. It sure beats digging a hole and then undigging it every day."
"Undigging?" said my mother.
"Horses," said Tug, "there's a hobby for you."
"No!" cried my mother.
"How come I can't dig the hole?" I said. "I like digging the hole."
"It's not so much that you like digging holes, son. It's that you like digging the SAME hole. It makes us worry about you."
"Did you hear," said Uncle Tug, "some guy in Caldwell got in hock to the mob and they found him in 57 garbage bags all over the Canadian north woods?"
"So what?" said my father.
"I'm just saying," said Tug. "Look, I gotta go. Don't dig that hole every day anymore, okay?"
"Can I dig it sometimes, once or twice a week like?"
"Sure," said Uncle Tug, and he and Mr. Donnelli left.
"What just happened here?" said my father.
"I'm not sure," said my mother.
I continued to dig and undig my hole at odd intervals for another 6 weeks or so, but now that everybody knew what I was doing when I went into the woods with my shovel it didn't seem like nearly as much fun, so I soon gave it up and found other, less edifying hobbies.
GOOD BUDDY TOURS INC
I was working as an office temp in a room about the size of a walk-in closet on the second floor of the Flatiron Building. The company that had hired me was actually this guy who had been in my class in high school and had started a Package Tour Company. It was called Good Buddy Tours; the name alone should have tipped me off that there was something amiss with the operation. Then there was the fact that the office was being illegally sublet from a company that was illegally subletting the place from yet another company which may not have had clear title to the property. And if that didn't start warning bells in my head, the fact that I was hired as an office temp when I typed fewer than 30 words a minute and had no other office-temp-type skills at all should have given me some clue. Well, live and learn.
At first, my job was to handle all the correspondence that arrived. People would write to us, asking about our rates for, say, a three-day bus tour of Manhattan for 40 people. I would say, "Ray, what are our rates?" and he would say, "Let's see... three days... 40 people... can't do it. No profit. Tell 'em we're overbooked." So I would. The money did not exactly roll in, but this was not much of a problem since overhead was light. My salary, for instance, came to roughly no money per week. I would say, "Ray, the check you gave me bounced," and he would say, "Screw up at the bank. Hang in there, buddy. Lunch is on me today." Then he would take me out to lunch, only he would leave his wallet at the office and I'd pay for lunch. But we ate at really cheap places, so it wasn't too bad.
This went on for two weeks, and then I said I couldn't afford to work for him anymore, so he gave me a promotion. "Hey, buddy. How would you like to be head tour guide?"
"But we don't actually take people on tours."
"All that is about to change, pal." To my astonishment, it did. Less than a week after I was promoted to head tour guide, our first busload of tourists arrived. "Here's your chance to shine, buddy," said Ray.
"Don't I need some, I dunno, training or something?"
"Aren't tour guides supposed to by licensed by the city?"
"In theory," said Ray, "yes. In practice, however, you don't have to worry about it."
"It's a matter of Paaaaaauuuuggghhhh," He explained.
"No problem." He took a drink of water. "Frog in the throat. So. You all set to lead your first tour?"
"And what's my salary for this?"
"I'm sure. But the amount?"
"I'd have to look it up. I believe it's right around, oh, Paaaaauuuugghhhh." He took another drink of water. "So you want to get some sleep tonight. Big day tomorrow."
"Wait a minute. What's the itinerary?"
"Oh, you know," he said, waving his hand, "The usual. Standard itinerary."
"No, I don't know," I said, "I've never done this before."
"I trust you, buddy," he said, slapping my shoulder.
"I'd really like a peak at the itinerary."
"Hey, you got it." He rummaged through a desk drawer, found a pen and a memo pad. Seconds later, he passed me a hand-written itinerary:
8:05: meet bus.
8:10: take bus to various places in Manhattan.
AFTER LUNCH: go to different places in Manhattan.
LATER: take group back to hotel.
see day one
As I read this over I could actually feel brain cells shriveling within my skull. "Ray," I said, but he cut me off.
"Don't feel bound by this. You're the head tour guide. You're The Man. I have confidence in you. When you greet the bus, make sure the guy in charge has a certified check for the balance of the bill."
"Which hotel are they staying at?"
"Whichever one I can get the best rates at. I'm gonna call around. And, listen, this is real important: at some point, if you take the group to regular tourist-type locations, there might be some guys from Consumer Affairs who ask to see your license and photo ID."
"I don't HAVE a license and photo ID."
"That's not important. What IS important is, you don't tell them the NAME of the company, or the location of this office. Otherwise there could be trouble. PROBABLY there won't be any trouble. Definitely, no trouble. But just to be on the safe side, no names, no locations. Knock 'em dead, buddy. You're the MAN."
The next morning, having spent a night having one dream after another in which I appeared in various public locations without any pants, I stopped by the office for any last minute instructions (the one I was hoping for was 'Forget the whole thing.) and, incidentally, to find out where I was supposed to meet the bus. Ray was showing the office to a guy in a pin stripe suit.
"I dunno," the guy was saying, "I was thinking about something a little bigger."
"Size isn't the thing here," Ray told him. "What you do is, you SUBLET the place to somebody, and use the money from that to rent a bigger place."
"Is it legal to do that without the owner's permission?"
"My friend, you have my permission, I swear," Ray said grandly. I interrupted and Ray told me where the bus was going to be. "Listen," he said, "I've been thinking about that possible contra-temps with Consumer Affairs, so I picked up something for you that should keep you out of trouble."
"You got me a license?"
"Better!" he said, and handed me a fake stick-on mustache. "Now get out there and make me proud. You are The MAN!"
I slapped the mustache in place and step forth to begin my short but eventful career as a tour guide.
I was into my second month as the head tour guide-- in fact, the only tour guide-- for Good Buddy Tours. The office was located in the Flatiron Building, but each time I went there, the office was smaller; the owner of the company, my friend Ray, who was illegally subletting the office from a financially strapped novelty company, was illegally subletting chunks of the sublet to other struggling companies. The office space was sliced up by movable cubicle walls, by slabs of plywood, by the accordion pleated room dividers you may recall from Sunday school. Some of Ray's illegal sublets were in turn illegally subletting. It was like there was some bizarre contest to see who could rent out the smallest possible fragment of office space. My money was on Ray.
"Got a terrific tour lined up," Ray told me as I came in. "63 people. You take 'em on 'The Chinatown Adventure Tour'."
"Which is what exactly?"
"Whatever you want, buddy," said Ray, shrugging his shoulders. "I leave it to you. Because you are The Man. Gotta be in Chinatown. Show 'em around, take 'em on some adventures. You know." I nodded stupidly. "Here's the only thing: Keep an eye on everybody, because sometimes these cats disappear into Chinatown. You know what I'm saying?"
"Well, apparently, a lot of Chinese tourists go to Chinatown and never come out again. There's some kind of trouble at home."
"These are Chinese tourists?"
"Is China the one with the big wall, or the one with Godzilla?"
"Right. Well, you got to keep your eye on everybody. Count heads. You take 63 in, you take 63 out."
"Did I say that? They are not. They are..." He picked up a piece of paper from his desk. "The Little Sisters of something. Some Spanish word with one of those 's' shaped things on its side over the 'n'. It's possible none of 'em speak English, which will make your job that much easier."
"You won't have to do any talking, right? Anyway, pick up is at the P----- Hotel in--" he looked at his watch-- "17 minutes. Get going. I'll call around and see if I can get a bus or something to meet you there."
More than 17 minutes later (but not much more) I arrived at the P----- Hotel, a notorious flea bag on the Bowery. Ray often put up his tour groups there because the rates were incredibly low, though not nearly low enough. I met my 63 charges-- Japanese nuns. I did not learn the name of their order; they were getting on board a bus, but not one that Ray had chartered. I had a brief chat with the sister in charge, who spoke excellent English.
"We are going to a different hotel. We are stopping payment on our check. Mr. Ray said we would stay in the most beautiful hotel in the city. There was a hole in the wall of my room, and someone stuffed empty beer cans through it. Mr. Ray promised that we would meet John Denver and Kojack. We have been in this terrible place for 3 days and we have not met ANYBODY!"
"You've been here for 3 days?" I said.
"Excuse me, we must go now." They went. I returned to the Flatiron Building and briefed Ray on the situation.
"Yeah," he said. "Well, I got 'em rooms at the P------, and then I figured I'd give 'em a few days to get over the jet lag, you know? Instead of draggin' 'em all over the place and wearin' 'em out. And are they grateful? Buncha bums, pal, that's what it comes down to."
"Did you tell them they were going to meet John Denver and Kojack?"
"Hey," he said, spreading his hands in a helpless gesture, "I was calling around when you walked in the door."
I picked up the phone. It was Ray, the owner and president of Good Buddy Tours. I worked for them occasionally as a tour guide, but we'd been having a minor disagreement regarding back pay that was owed to me. I felt they should pay it, they saw no reason why they should, since I did not own an automatic weapon.
"Buddy," Ray said. I hung up. The phone rang again and this time I let it ring 20 or 30 times while I thumbed through my copy of 'An Historical Lexicon of Scurrilous Invective,' one of the few truly indispensable volumes in any library. I settled on a particularly hair raising rant from the 17th century (the golden age of scurrilous invective), lifted the receiver, and read my selection in a clear voice.
"Phew," said Ray, when I finished. "Wait, don't hang up. Listen--"
"I owe you money--"
"Yes, you do."
"I'm going to pay you!"
"No, you're not."
"I am! Don't hang up! I am! I am! Today!"
"Where are you?"
"In a phone booth on 14th Street. I'm about to board a bus and take some folks from... [sound of paper rustling] some country that starts with an 'S,' it looks like... on a tour of wineries in upstate New York. But I have your money, and if you can get here before the bus takes off..."
I missed the rest of the sentence because I was already out the door. I covered 5 blocks in less than a minute and a half. The bus was just pulling away from the curb as I raced around the corner of 14th Street. Fortunately 14th Street has been undergoing repairs on a permanent basis since V-E Day and I was able to trot alongside the bus as it crawled towards the west side, pounding on the doors with my palms and shrieking my own scurrilous invective until we stopped at a red light and Ray opened the door.
"Hey, you made it, buddy."
"Money," I panted, hopping aboard. Ray nodded, pulled a checkbook from his jacket. "Whoa! You think I'd take a check from you? Do you think I'm insane? CASH. CASH. CASH." The folks from the country that began with an 'S' watched our exchange silently, and with great attention.
"You hurt me when you say things like that, buddy," said Ray. "But I'll have the driver stop at the bank, and I'll cash the check."
"Where's the bank?"
"Uptown a ways," said Ray. "Geez, you're wearing quite an outfit."
I was wearing cut-offs, sneakers with no socks, a bright blue Hawaiian shirt with orange and chartreuse palm trees. As usual. "So what?" I said.
Ray shrugged. A few moments later the bus pulled into a 'No Standing' zone in front of a bank, Ray got out ("Back with the cash in a flash, buddy."), and I waited. Then a wino stepped up to the door, unfolded an index card, and said to the driver:
"You have to... to move this bust?"
"Bust? Bus. This is a bus. You have to move it. You are in a no... par-par-par..." He turned the card over. "Oh. This is the part that comes first. Excuse me. I am... an undercover policeman? You... [turns card over] must move this burst. Bust. No par... parking!" He grinned, happily folded up his index card, and stumbled away. The bus driver obediently moved into traffic.
"I have a feeling that guy was no cop," I said.
"Well, you know," said the driver, though to tell the truth I didn't. The bus headed further and further north, and I said, "Shouldn't you just circle the block?"
"Nah." His radio buzzed. "It's for you," he said to me.
"Buddy," said Ray. "Got a little tied up. Listen, what do you know about upstate New York wineries?"
"Aggazah," I choked.
"You there, pal? Listen, I need you to do me a little favor. Just take these folks on a little, you know, wine tasting tour. Hey, the check I was gonna cash, it's on the bus. Look on my seat, under the book." There was the check.
"This is drawn on a bank in BUFFALO."
"Oh, is it? Well, good thing there's a winery right around there so you don't have to go out of your way. This is just a day or two, I swear."
"I don't know a thing about wineries. I don't even know the itinerary!"
"Use the book."
"This is a phone book!"
"Right. All the wineries are at the end, under 'W'. Just, you know, look for some good ones, and then call them up when you get to a gas station or something. I have great faith in your judgment. Or don't call them, you can just, you know, show up and tell them the office screwed up the reservation or something. You know how it goes."
"Stop this bus and let me off now," I told the driver.
"Sorry, pal. Mr. Ray says if I do that, he'll talk to the judge and get my parole revoked."
"This is kidnapping!"
There was a pause. "Your point being what?"
I clicked the radio. "You still there, Ray?"
"Yup. Hey, are we supposed to say 'over' when we stop talking, or is that just in the movies?"
"I'm not doing this. OVER."
"Hey. Don't make me stop payment on that check. Listen, you gotta do it. Those kids on the bus-- they're all... you know... terminal cases. This is one of those 'last wish' things. All those poor kids wanna do is drive through upstate New York and hit a few wineries. So I should have cleared it with you in advance. So sue me."
"Go ahead, I deserve it. But don't break those poor kids' hearts."
"Ray, there is nobody on this bus under 50."
Pause. "Maybe I'm thinking of the OTHER bus. But the principle is EXACTLY the same. Anyway, I'll meet you in Buffalo. We'll cash that check, and I'll pay you for THIS job right on the spot."
He named a figure roughly three times the usual amount.
"Well. If these folks want to stop at a few wineries, I guess I can handle that..."
"You're THE MAN," said Ray. He signed off. I caught my reflection in the windshield. 'All Day Sucker.' I sighed.
"Okay," I told the driver. "Let me introduce myself to the folks." He switched on the intercom. "Good afternoon," I said. "I'm Jeff, your guide. We'll be--" A woman in the back raised her hand. "Yes Ma'am?"
"Excuse. Where Mr. Ray? Why you not wear socks?"
"Never mind that," said another woman. "What time we get to Las Vegas?"
THE RETURN OF GEORGE METETSKY
Spring had arrived, and we were scrunched up inside the World War I tank memorial in the middle of the park reading comic books, drinking Yoo Hoo, and slowly mummifying from the heat. It must have been 150 degrees in the belly of the tank. The hatches to the tank memorial had been soldered shut decades earlier, but some enterprising young fellow with a chisel had come along and taken care of that problem around the time we were 8 years old. For a few years, the tank was the used as a hang out by the local teenagers, who left the inside of the tank littered with soda cans, Coke bottles, magazines, and a lawn jockey that had been stolen from Dr. Fergussen's front yard during one particularly exciting Halloween.
When the tank had become too packed with garbage for the teenagers, they abandoned it, and in due time it became the base of operations for Calvano, Picarillo, and me. We cleaned out the debris (not, of course, the lawn jockey, which we named "George Metetsky") and Picarillo slapped a 75 cent padlock on the hatch, and we were all set. The belly of the tank was a comfortable place to be, as long as the weather was dry and the temperature was exactly 60 degrees in the sunlight; any colder, and the tank was frigid; any warmer (and on this particular day it was about 75 degrees outside), it was like a blast furnace. Our bodily fluids were evaporating faster than we could replenish them with Yoo Hoo, but we didn't care. For one thing, it was our first visit to the tank in more than three months. For another, we were incredibly stupid. "If we fall asleep," Calvano said, "We'll dry out like three sticks of beef jerky. We'll cook so fast we won't even stink. They'll never find our bodies, not ever. We'll be perfectly preserved in the tank for 5 thousand years. Some future archaeologists will dig up the tank and find us. They'll call us The People of the Tank. They'll have pictures of our miraculously preserved corpses in LIFE magazine."
"How will they know we're here?"
"They won't. They'll probably be looking for something else."
"Probably for George Metetsky," said Picarillo. "I know Dr. Fergussen is still looking. My mom said he was in the supermarket just a week or two ago, and he was saying, 'If I ever catch the bums who took my lawn jockey, they'll be hell to pay.'"
"Yeah, that's right, Picarillo. In 5000 years, archaeologists will still be looking for Dr. Fergussen's lawn jockey."
"He's offering 20 bucks for it, no questions asked."
"Well, there you go. 5000 years from now, some guy with a head shaped like a light bulb will crack open the tank, see Metetsky, and yell, "Hey, guys! I found Dr. Fergussen's lawn jockey! We just made 20 bucks! Wah-hoo!" (It was general knowledge among intelligent 12 year olds in 1966 that in the future, EVERYBODY would be incredibly smart and have enormous brains which would be housed in enormous skulls shaped like light bulbs. Also they would be bald (ladies too) and there would be big veins all over the scalp).
"Now you're being sarcastic," said Picarillo. "But I still don't see why the tank will be underground."
"Because that's where stuff ends up, Picarillo. If it isn't underground, it ain't gonna last 5000 years."
"FINE. Could we change the subject?"
"Sure. So these future guys, they'll think we're, like, soldier guys?"
Calvano began banging his head on the wall of the tank. "That (BONK!) will probably (BONK!) be the assump (BONK!) tion, yes (BONK!)."
"Wow. Cool. Maybe we should wear helmets when we come here, just in case."
Calvano didn't answer, though he also didn't stop banging his head against the tank wall.
"You know," Picarillo continued, "I read this article in READERS' DIGEST? About quicksand? It said that quicksand was just regular dirt, but it became quicksand because of the way that water was flowing under it. This scientist guy diverted a stream under this pasture, and if he had the water going under at most angles, all he got was a muddy pasture, but if the water was going in a certain way, the mud had negative buoyancy, and it was quicksand."
Calvano stopped bonking. "We gotta get this article! You mean if we, like, stuck a garden hose in the ground at a certain angle under the tank, and turned on the water, the ground would turn to quicksand and the tank would sink?"
"Yup," said Picarillo.
"And then if we turned the water off, the quicksand would turn back to regular dirt? And no one would ever in a million years be able to figure out what happened to the tank?"
"Not unless they read the article," said Picarillo.
"What month was it? We could go to the library and RIP OUT the article, and then nobody would have a clue!"
"Well, wait a minute," said Picarillo. "First we gotta get the helmets."
"For US. So they think we're soldier guys."
"The FUTURE GUYS, with the HEADS."
"Are you out of your mind? Picarillo, we're not supposed to be IN the tank when it sinks. That would kill us, Picarillo. We would be dead."
"Well... probably they could revive us, 5000 years from now. They've got Walt Disney's brain packed in dry ice in a secret cavern under Disneyland, waiting for a cancer cure. Fact."
Suddenly we heard someone approaching the tank. We became silent, except for the noise of our bodies shriveling in the heat.
"Bruce, there's someone trapped inside the tank," said a woman. "I heard him tapping out a message. 'Bonk...bonk...bonk.'"
"You're crazy from the heat, Margie," Bruce said with what we assumed was admiration. "Nobody's been inside that tank in 50 years."
"Darn it, Bruce, I'm telling you..."
"HEY! ANYBODY IN THERE!?" Bruce yelled into the barrel of the tank. "See? Nobody there."
"I'm going to look in this hole," said Margie. Margie looked through one of the ventilation holes. If we had been perfectly still, we would have been as good as invisible in the gloom of the tank, but Picarillo decided to take no chances, and blocked the hole. He blocked it with the face of George Metetsky, the lawn jockey. Margie screamed.
"What the hell...? Hey, that's that goddamn plaster coon Dr. Fergussen's been looking for!" said Bruce. "He's been shitting up the town with fliers about that thing for three years. He's offering 20 or 30 bucks! I'm gonna get my chisel and bust it out!"
"Bruce, HE WAS BONKING TO US!" Margie cried, as they trotted out of the park. We slipped out as soon as we dared, but stupidly left Metetsky behind. It didn't occur to us to take the lawn jockey and score the reward for ourselves.
"Take the lock," said Calvano. "That moron is coming back with a chisel and he'll just bust it off if you leave it on." We dropped from the hatch onto the cool grass, and the sweat boiled off our faces.
George Metetsky was back at work holding his lantern high outside the Fergussens' front door within a couple of days, and Bruce was presumably 20 dollars richer. Metetsky vanished a couple of years later, the victim of a younger generation of vandals, never to be seen again.
Our quicksand experiments (which we carried out relentlessly over the spring and summer of 1966) were unsuccessful, and the tank still sits on the surface of the earth, where future archaeologists will never think to look for it.
WING-DING AT UNCLE TUG'S
My mother was baking one of those weird holiday mixes made up of various nuts, little pretzels, and what I used to think of as the "plaid" family of breakfast cereals (Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, etc) when Uncle Tug walked into the kitchen. He kicked the snow off his shoes and said, "I need one of those things." His hands described a shape in the air, but so quickly that he might have been demonstrating how to tie a clove hitch without a rope.
"What things?" asked my mother.
"I don't know what you call it, but..." he repeated his hand motions, which were just as cryptic this time.
My mother slid a pan of mix into the oven. "What does it do?"
"You hold it over the steak," said Tug, "and you turn the top part, and pepper comes out."
"Ick," I said, "Pepper on steak!"
"A pepper mill," said my mother.
"Is that what they call them? Well, I need one. I'm throwing a little holiday wing-ding, y'see."
My mother rummaged through a drawer, fished out the pepper mill. "And are we invited to the wing-ding?"
Tug's eyes widened in panic. "Uh-uh-uh-uh-uv course. Absolutely. That's why I stopped over. To invite you. Yeah. Then I remembered about the pepper thing."
After Tug left, I asked my mother when Uncle Tug's party was going to be. As far as I could recall, Uncle Tug had never held an INSIDE party before, just outdoor barbecues. They were always great. One year he couldn't get the charcoal to burn-- because the charcoal had been removed from the bag and replaced by black rocks, though that's another story-- actually, they were regular gray-type rocks, but they had been painted black-- so he served the hot dogs raw. "It's EXACTLY the same thing as baloney," he explained, "and who the hell heats up baloney? It's perfectly safe, this is the way they eat it in England."
"Who says?" asked my father.
"It's COMMON KNOWLEDGE. They serve everything cold over there. Not cold-cold, but room temperature. They serve the BEER at room temperature."
"Tug, you could cook these dogs in the kitchen."
"The ess-oh-bees turned off my gee-ay-ess," he said. "Check bounced."
"Well, let's see you eat one of these things raw," said my father.
"They ain't RAW. They've been thoroughly cooked prior to packaging. They're just cold. Not even cold. It's 75 degrees out here. They're warm, is what I'd call them."
"So let's see you scarf one down."
"A good host feeds his guests first," said Tug.
"My isn't this a perfectly lovely afternoon," said my mother, picking up a cold (or warm) dog and tossing it over her shoulder. It cleared Tug's fence and landed in the neighbor's swimming pool. Within thirty seconds, approximately two dozen hot dogs were floating in or drifting to the bottom of the neighbor's pool. Now that was a barbecue. So I was understandably eager to see what Tug would do with an actual indoor sit-down party.
"He didn't say when it was going to be," said my mother, "and I'm not 100% sure that I want to go to a party where Tug has access to a pepper mill."
For the next week I ran to the mail box as soon as the postman arrived, searching for Tug's invitation. I badgered my parents relentlessly. "Call him up," I begged, "otherwise he might forget to invite us!"
"Now wouldn't that be a tragedy," said my father.
One night we heard police sirens some streets distant. "Must be Tug's party," said my mother. My father snorted appreciatively.
So the next day I took it upon my self to contact Uncle Tug.
"Mom and dad are waiting to get the invitation to the big party," I told him.
"What time is it?" he said.
"I don't know. It's YOUR party!"
"No, I mean now? My clock ain't working. Oh, my head."
"Are you gonna invite us, Uncle Tug?"
"Sure, sure. Who is this?" The conversation continued in this manner for a while and when I hung up the phone I was far from reassured that an invitation would be forthcoming.
But a few days later, an envelope with Tug's return address appeared in our mail box, and in the envelope was the invitation I had been waiting for:
YOU ARE INVITED
A WING-DING & [something blacked out]
ON [something blacked out] DEC. 16th(this date handwritten)
FROM 8 PM until ????
PROVIDED BY MISS [something blacked out]
By holding the card up to the light, I could read the date he had blacked out (which happened to be, coincidentally, the night we'd heard all those police sirens), but the other cross outs had been done more expertly; I could make nothing of them.
"What kind of entertainment do you think he's gonna have?" I asked.
My father opened his mouth and my mother immediately said, "We have no idea."
"Do I have to wear school clothes?"
"I'll call Tug and see how formal it is," my mother said. When she got off the phone, there were deep lines in her forehead. "He asked me if I had a pepper mill he could borrow."
Any doubts that Tug had already thrown at least one wing-ding prior to the 16th were dispelled when we arrived; greasy paper bags from various take-out places had been swept--- or more likely, kicked-- into the corners of the living room, and much debris poked out from under the sofa. My mother's pepper mill sat on a folding table. She examined it. "Tug, did you put CHEESE in here?"
"Wasn't me," he said. "Everybody sit down, the show's about to start." The entertainment Tug had provided was first class: it was the annual Andy Williams Christmas Special. "This guy is a real pro," said Tug, approvingly. As we settled ourselves onto the couch, Tug brought out the munchies: a bowl of pretzels. Interestingly, none of the pretzels was unbroken, and some had dried dip on them.
"Quite a wing-ding," said my father.
"You heard about it? Oh, I mean, yeah," said Tug. My sister found a strange object under her cushion: a round piece of glitter-coated fabric about the size of a half dollar, with a tassel attached to the center.
"This has got to be a joke," said my father as Tug retreated to the kitchen to see if he could find some clean glasses. "He's going to bring out the real food in a few minutes." He didn't; he didn't come out of the kitchen. We waited through two commercial breaks, and then my father went in. "Wake up, Tug," we heard. Tug came out and watched the rest of Andy's special with us. When it was over, he told us he was glad we could come and we should do this again next year. As we numbly put on our coats, he handed the pepper mill to my mother.
"Annie, could you do me a favor?" he said. "I borrowed this from somebody-- I don't remember who-- and I can't get the cheese out, and they're gonna be honked when they find out. Could you take this home and see if you can get it cleaned up?"
In my neighborhood there was a creek of such insignificance that it had no name. It emerged from the ground on the far side of Lindsay Road, wound through a couple dozen backyards, and emptied into the Peckman River. Calvano and I spent Saturday mornings hunting crayfish in the creek. The banks were densely shaded by trees that had contracted strange tree diseases; oak leaves were coated with strange lumps and blisters, maple leaves developed odd protrusions that came to a point and looked exactly like chocolate chips right out of the bag, except for the color. Lots of gross little animals lived in the mud by the creek, but you had to know where to look and you had to be patient. You could find box turtles, salamanders, garter snakes. We wanted crayfish. They looked like tiny lobsters. Calvano had a vague idea about catching 20 or 30, gluing tiny plastic army helmets on their heads, and inciting incredible crayfish battles. "There's no reason they can't hold little spears and stuff," he said, "And the most intelligent crayfish can probably be trained to wield miniature axes made from razor blades--or so science tells us."
We had collected 5 or 6 miserable looking specimens in an old coffee can with rocks and mud at the bottom when we were distracted by some noises at the nearby Wilhorsky residence. "I want this crap OUTTA here!" Mr. Wilhorsky was saying, and suddenly a bear head came flying out the back window.
"That cost 15 bucks!" screamed Mr. Wilhorsky's 19 year old son, Little Steve. Mr. Wilhorsky was Big Steve. The bear head rolled down the slope of the Wilhorsky's backyard and into some bushes. Calvano dove through the brush and curled himself around the head like a lineman falling on a muffed punt. Big Steve and Little Steve continued bellowing while Calvano slid down the banks of the creek. "I can't believe this! This is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me! Look at this!"
The bear head was a mess. The hair was matted, the glass eyes were too big for the sockets, many of the teeth were missing, and worst of all, a large round (but not exactly round) spot had been shaved on the top of the bear's head, and written on the bald spot in what appeared to be indelible Magic Marker was:
TO LOOK AT
YOUR OLD CAR?
Undoubtedly the rest of the message was printed on the top of another bear head. "How many bear heads do you think he's gonna throw out the window?" I whispered.
"At least seven," said Calvano with remarkable confidence.
"I want every single one of these things out of the house by lunch time," Big Steve told Little Steve. We couldn't make out the rest of the conversation. Soon it became obvious that no more heads were coming out the window. We took the bear head and the crayfish container back to Calvano's house. We were going to hide the bear head in Calvano's room, but Calvano's brother Duff saw us sneaking up the stairs and swiped the head and gave Calvano Indian Burns until Calvano told him where the head came from. "The bear heads are mine," said Duff. "If they dump any stupid animals like mooses and deer, you can have those, but only if you help me get the bear heads. And any other cool stuff with fangs."
"You gotta help us find a source of gamma radiation so we can mutate the crayfish," said Calvano.
"Sure thing, you moron," Duff said amiably. "Let's go skulk in the bushes by Wilhorsky's and see what's what."
"He won't be laughing when we develop a breed of mutant crayfish with opposable thumbs," Calvano said.
Little Steve was loading his animal heads in the back of his dad's pick-up truck. A little way up stream, Mrs. Perelli's washing machine was sending its suds through a pipe in the basement that emptied into the creek. A huge mound of white suds flowed past us. "You think that kind of stuff bothers the crayfish?" Calvano said.
"No, you moron, they DIG it," said Duff. "Run up to Mrs. Perelli's house and ask to use the phone and call Little Steve. Say anything you want, but keep him on the phone for at least ten minutes. That should be long enough for me and your moron friend to abscond with the heads."
Calvano scrambled up the Hill to Mrs. Perelli's. When the phone rang and Little Steve went in the house to answer it, Duff and I raced for the truck. Two more bear heads, a moose head, some deer heads--all in horrible shape, smelly, disgusting, incredibly desirable. Little Steve must have seen us through the window. We heard his scream of rage. Duff grabbed a bear, I grabbed the moose, we ran for the woods as Little Steve boiled out of the house.
"You little shits!" hollered Little Steve, "Come back with those heads! I'll track you down and kill you both! You'll die like dogs!"
"Come and get us, you moron!" Duff called over his shoulder. But Little Steve didn't hunt us down and kill us. He gathered up all the heads we hadn't been able to get away with and drove them to the dump. I nailed my moose head to my bedroom wall. Then my father drove it to the dump and threw it away. The Calvano bear heads also ended up at the dump. For three or four weeks, kids would raid the dump in gangs and fight over the heads with the secret messages printed on the tops, but eventually the heads got too ratty and smelly even for us. Calvano was broken hearted. We went back to the crayfish war game project but all our crayfish were too stupid to master even the simple weapons we made for them. "I had high hopes for that summer," Calvano said many years later.
Early one morning last week I answered a knock on my door, and found one of my nice upstairs neighbors turning the oil burner switch (located right outside my apartment) on. "I was going to ask if you had any hot water this morning," she said, "because I didnt. I took a shower in cold water. And then I saw the oil burner switch was off. Who would do that?" I didnt know (and still dont), and we both shook our heads about this world where people went around shutting off other peoples oil burners, and I waited a good hour or so before I took my shower. But the situation reminded me of something for the first time in decades. This was not, I realized, the first time some nut case had shut off my oil burner. And that time, the nut case happened to have been me. But I didnt want to shut off the oil burner; I was trying to blow up the house.
I was about seven, and I had seen "The Bride of Frankenstein" so many times on TV that every frame was burned indelibly into my brain. I had seen all of the Universal Frankenstein movies and I loved them all, but "Bride" was my favorite by far. I am delighted to say that I have seen the movie recently and it stands up very well, unlike many of my childhood favorites, most of which concerned giant insects or lizards running amuck in the desert. "Bride" has a lot off great scenes, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was the climax. Dr. Frankenstein and his insane colleague, Dr. Pretorius, have just created a female monster (actually shes pretty cute, with a dynamite hair cut), a mate for the Frankenstein Monster in their tower laboratory. But the Bride takes one look at the prospective groom and starts screaming, and the heartbroken monster walks over to the wall and reaches for a switch. "Dont touch that lever!" cries Dr. Pretorius, "youll blow us all to atoms!" A few seconds later the monster pulls the fatal lever, and the tower blows up, in spectacular fashion.
The great thing about that scene is that switch. Not only is it never explained why that switch is there (WHY would anybody want to have a lever that blows up the place?), until the monster reaches for it, there is not even a hint that such a thing exists-- theres no foreshadowing, no scene where Fritz stumbles around the lab and somebody says "Watch out, Fritz, or youll bump into that LEVER, WHICH IF PULLED BLOWS UP THE BUILDING!" and certainly no scene where anyone says "Just in case we want to blow up the tower, wed better install a special tower-blowing-up switch." Its just there, as easy to grab as the thermostat.
Possibly because the existence of the switch is announced and accepted so casually, I never for a second found myself wondering what on earth it was doing there. Instead I simply assumed that it was standard equipment. At least for a tower lab.
One afternoon I discussed this with my friend Mitch, who, a year or so younger than I, was even more convinced that such switches were to be found in buildings. And not just tower labs, either; Mitch was certain he had seen such a switch in his house. I was staggered. I had seen no such switch in my house, and it didnt seem fair that Mitch should have a blow up switch when I did not.
"You probly do," said Mitch. "You just arent looking in the right place."
So with Mitch in tow, I set about looking for the switch that would blow my house to atoms. The first place we checked was the attic. This seemed logical, since in "Bride" the switch was located at the top of the structure, but we found nothing remotely resembling a lever. Next we checked the basement, and immediately focused out attention on the fuse box. The fuses themselves seemed promising, and vaguely suggestive of explosives-- we thought they looked like little sticks of dynamite-- but we could see no lever. The master switch would have done nicely, but that was in a companion box a few inches away, and that was wisely locked up with a padlock. We were both certainly the blow-up switch must be located in that box, and were to say the least disappointed that we couldnt get at it. We started up the stairs, and there, mounted on the wall just before the door to the breezeway, was THE SWITCH! It had to be, because it was painted bright red, and there was a little sign screwed into the fixture, which said Do Not Touch.
"Thats gotta be it," I said. "Is that what the one at your house looks like?"
"The one at MY house looks just like the one inna movie," said Mitch somewhat snottily. (Years later he admitted he had been lying, and his house was not, in fact, equipped with a blow-up switch).
"Well, lets check it out," I said. Naturally, we did not want to get stuck in an exploding house, though, so we opened the door to the breeze way and cleared some tied- up newspapers out of the way (this was years before recycling, so I have no idea what they were doing there), and got ready to throw the switch. First, Im proud to say, I checked the house to make sure nobody was home, even going to far as to check my sisters room; I must have been vaguely aware that there would be the devil to pay if I blew up the house while my sister was inside. Then we went back into the stairwell to the basement, braced ourselves for a mad dash out the breezeway, and I threw the switch. "RUN!" I cried.
We sprinted as quickly as we could across the street and into an overgrown tract called Fergussens Lot. We took cover behind a tree stump and waited for the house to blow. After about 15 minutes (or more likely, about three), we decided it wasn't going to explode after all ("Maybe its busted," Mitch suggested), and we wandered away.
About 8 PM that evening my dad noticed it was getting very chilly in the house, and checked the oil burner switch, noted it was off, flipped it on, and questioned me. Like all guilty people, I was quite resentful that someone dared suspect me. "I didnt know it was the oil burner," I said. "I thought it would blow up the house." I explained about "The Bride of Frankenstein" and The Switch.
"So let me see if I understand you. You thought if you pulled the switch you wouldnt turn off the oil burner, you would blow up the house?"
"So you pulled it?"
"Yeah. But nothing happened," I said with palpable disappointment.
"But you thought it would? Didnt you figure youd get blown up when the house blew?"
"No," I said, "In the movie, the tower like SHAKES and stuff for a few minutes before it blows."
My father was very silent for a moment, and then said, "Well, youre lucky you didnt find switch. That movie was made almost 30 years ago. Back then, they had much more primitive switches. Nowadays you pull the switch, and the place just goes BAM! Just like that." He snapped his fingers.
"Geez!" I said.
"Just for the record, where did you figure we were going to live after the house blew up?"
"Huh," I said. This was another factor I hadnt considered: once the house was blown up, we couldnt live there anymore. "What about that hotel we passed in Atlantic City? The one shaped like an Elephant?"
"Ah. The Elephant Motel." He appeared to be thinking about it. "Well, maybe," he said at last.
NEWS YEARS EVE WITH MUSHROOMS
"I got us invited to a New Year's Eve party," said my friend Barry. "Lots of girls gonna be there."
"Hang on one second," I said, and I put down the phone and quickly tightened the cap on the soda bottle I had been drinking from. I slammed the bottle onto the kitchen counter. It was a 32-oz bottle, and I flattened around 40% of the cockroaches that had been doing a hoochie-koochie dance on the remains of last night's attempted meat loaf. A year earlier I couldn't have done it, but now soda came in plastic bottles. O Brave New World!
"...only thing is," Barry was saying when I retrieved the phone, he having as usual completely ignored my request to hang on, "the neighborhood is really kinda bad. 13th Street and Avenue C..."
"Yow," I said. I was on 10th St. and Avenue A, which was about a minute and a half from the site of the party, and 99.9% of the world's population would figure I was in the same neighborhood, but I was not in the sane .1 % who realized that three blocks north and 2 blocks east it was a whole different world. The surviving cockroaches in my apartment were still hiding out; on 13th Street, they would have wrestled the soda bottle out of my hands and stuffed me inside it. Or vice versa. It was a tough neighborhood. About 4 years earlier I had been at the infamous 'Puerto Rican-Canadian Unity Day' debacle, when my friend Sam Konkin (Canadian) had held a party in his 13th St. apartment, to which he invited the neighborhood (Puerto Rican), via a large banner hung out of his window proclaiming 'PUERTO RICAN- CANADIAN UNITY DAY--FREE BEER.' The neighborhood did not attend, but a passing motor cycle gang (ethnic heritage unknown-- in fact, I'm not 100% sure about the species) did. We escaped to the roof next door via Sam's bathroom window. The gang would have followed us, but they were all too fat to fit through the window. They smashed all of Sams furniture into throwable fragments and threw them at us but they were so drunk they hardly ever hit us. Still, I wasn't real anxious to revisit the scene.
However, there were going to be lots of girls...
"...and Yvette says we should bring our guitars."
Well, that settled that. During this phase of my life (to be covered in Vol. 3 of my autobiography, "Grimshaw: The Grotesquely Stupid Years") I never passed up an opportunity to play the guitar and sing at a party, especially when Barry, my some-time songwriting partner, was also going to play the guitar and sing. I wasn't exactly good, but Barry was really terrible, so I figured I would sound like Django Reinhart in comparison. This was one of my many misfigurings during that halcyon age.
Around 10 PM on the big night-- unseasonably warm for midwinter-- Barry stopped by my apartment, I tuned both of our guitars, and we walked to the party, which was on the 6th floor of a six-story walk-up. There were about 25 or 30 people on hand. I didn't know anybody, and Barry only knew a couple of people. We mingled, we ate crackers, we tried to talk to girls. At some point we took out our guitars, and people began requesting songs, none of which we knew. "We write our own material," said Barry, and all interest in us immediately died. It was like we had suddenly become transparent. While Barry strummed aimlessly, I told the story of Puerto Rican-Canadian Unity Day, figuring it would go over pretty well, as it had occurred on this very block. A couple or three people who were unable to get away from us because of the crowding listened to the story, including our hostess, Yvette, who was attractive, and her room mate, Terry, who was downright pretty. "That's such a cool story," said Terry. "Hey-- it's too crowded in here to hear your cool songs. That story gives me an idea. Why don't we go up on the roof?"
"It's kinda chilly," said Barry. I stomped on his foot.
"Great idea," I said.
"Yeah!" said Yvette. "We might even be able to see the ball drop on Times Square from there."
"I'll get a couple of cans of beer," said Terry.
So the four of us wormed our way to the door of the apartment and out into the hall, and from there to the little stairwell that accessed the roof. It was chilly, but not uncomfortable. "Look," said Yvette, "Times Square!"
"Wow, can we really see it?"
"I think that's the clock tower in Union Square," I said.
"I think so, too," said Barry.
When we turned around, we were alone, and the door was locked. We could hear giggling on the other side. Which grew fainter and fainter.
"They'll come back in a couple of minutes," I said. "They probably went to get some, uh, chips or something. Look--" I pointed to a paper bag. "They left the beer."
Barry looked inside the bag. "Hey-- these are cans of mushroom gravy!"
Somehow the idea that they had left us on the roof with cans of mushroom gravy made the situation seem far crueler than if they'd just left us on the roof with nothing at all. We stomped on the roof from time to time but it didn't disturb the party, which got very loud somewhere around midnight. We figured they would surely come back for us once it was officially the New Year. They did not. At one point Barry screamed incoherently for about 10 minutes, but that sort of thing was pretty common on East 13th Street and it attracted no attention. I hunkered down near a heat duct and got some sleep. I came awake when I heard the unmistakable sound of a beer can tab being popped. "MUSHROOM GRAVY?!" I yelled, and hurled myself across the roof at Barry. The open can spun away, it's contents briefly describing a foamy arc against the East Village sky.
"I was afraid if you knew it was beer you'd drink yourself into a stupor and freeze to death," Barry said. I tried to wrestle the bag with the remaining can from him. It bounced off the roof and landed in the back of a pick-up truck parked at the curb. We stared at each other. At some point we fell asleep. We woke up sometime after dawn, when the truck started up. We hung over the side of the roof and watched our beer roll down the street, in the direction of the FDR Drive. "Happy New Year," said Barry.
I don't remember when or how we got off the roof, but we aren't there any more, so I'm sure we did.
NEW YEARS EVE WITHOUT MUSHROOMS BUT WITH LOTS OF OTHER STUFF
People are sometimes amazed when I tell them that I lived and worked in New York City for something like 10 years, that I often walked from my job on 50th Street to my apartment in the East Village well after 11 at night, and was never mugged or even accosted, that I never encountered anything dangerous on the subways, and that, aside from a few annoying burglaries(committed against, not by me), I pretty much had a wonderful time. "But," I am asked, "What about the criminals, the crazies, the psychos, the junkies, the maniacs? Didn't you ever see them?"
And I answer, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I saw every single one of them. In one night. What happened was this..."
A couple days after Christmas, the owner of the theatre chain I worked for called together all of his managers and assistant managers and told us that we were going to be massacred. He didn't put it quite that way, but that was the gist of it. "You boys ever seen what it looks like out there--" he waved his hand in the general direction of Times Square, where all but two of his theaters were located-- "On New Year's Eve? When the big ball comes down? There's a quarter million people out there, maybe half a million, and what do they do once the ball's down?"
"They run amuck," said Lee King, who managed the Embassy Triplex.
"I was going to say they don't do nothing, but it comes to the same thing," said the owner, Mr. Terry "Bergen" Belson, "Because they got nothing to do. Sure, they go to parties or clubs or they go home and get a snootful, those of them which have not started out with a snootful already. But what I'm getting at is, one minute to twelve, you got half a million people here, and ten minutes later you got 50 garbage men on triple overtime sweeping up confetti. Why don't they stay in Times Square? Because there's nothing going on here after midnight. What's the last show we got running? The 11:10 show at the Victoria, which gets out at 12:40. All you other guys are shut down by 11:30. But YOU--" he pointed to King-- "seat 1600 people, the Victoria seats 420, the Forum seats 410, or it would if McClosky would get that busted seat in the balcony fixed as he was supposed to do a week ago, and the Embassy # 1 holds 300. My point is, half a million people are here, don't you think some of 'em might want to relax at a good movie after blowing off steam in Times Square on New Year's Eve? That maybe one person out of every 200 might want to watch one of these excellent first run features?"
The answer to this question was obviously, 'No, we think it's very likely that not a single person in Times Square on New Year's Eve wants to see a movie, they want to get drunk and go on a rampage.' But just as obviously, it was not the answer Mr. Belson wanted to hear, so we were all silent.
"Midnight shows, fellows. We're going to make history. We'll put some extra ushers on, and we'll have you boys from the Guild 50th and the 72nd Street on hand too, just in case things get a little rowdy." I was the assistant manager of the Guild, and I wanted at this point to say something like 'A little rowdy? On New Year's Eve? In Time Square? Why ever would you think such a thing?', but I kept silent.
For the next few days, all of us were in sort of the same situation as a man falling off the side of a 50 mile-high mountain; we could see what was coming, and we could see when, but there was absolutely nothing to do about it except wonder from time to time just how loud the splat would be. The manager of the Forum, Mr. McClosky, dealt with it by locking himself in his office the next morning and quickly drinking himself into a stupor that lasted until January 2nd; Mr. Baker, manager of the Victoria, which was the theatre closest to the actual intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street and hence the one that would suffer the most damage in the shortest amount of time, showed a little more originality. "My God, I'm blind, I can't see, I have hysterical blindness," he cried a couple of days later, stumbling out into the lobby with his arms in front of him like Bela Lugosi in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman." His vision returned 8 hours into the New Year, but on the Big Night, the Victoria was managed by a substitute from the Guild 50th, i.e., me.
The crowds had been milling around Times Square for hours and we had been doing excellent business all night, since you could not come in and use the bathroom unless you bought a ticket, and everybody in the crowd needed to use the bathroom. Unfortunately, many of the them were not using it for the usual reasons, they were using it to-- how shall I put it?-- make like Linda Blair in everybody's favorite scene from the Exorcist. The ushers were very busy with the mops that night, and not happy about it; and when I went in to wash my hands around 10:30 and found somebody Worshipping the Porcelain God, I said, "C'mon! You don't have to pay 5 bucks to do that in here, you can do that out in the alley for free!"
"What *blurp* do you think I *wwwuuugghhh* am? A pig?"
Things got very hectic in the final hour before midnight; two of my five ushers quit, and the other theaters refused to send reinforcements; someone threw a bottle through the screen, though the hole was small and only noticeable during close-ups; a seemingly endless stream of drunks attempted to get in through the exit doors; someone emptied a garbage can--not a waste basket, a garbage can-- in the ladies' room; the projectionist missed a cue, and the screen was blank for about 15 very long seconds, during which time the audience grew a tad boisterous. Then it was midnight. "Well," I told my nervous staff, "This is it. But don't worry. After what happened already, things can only get better."
As the audience emptied out into the street, the street emptied into the theater. Pieces of fried chicken and beer bottles sailed across the lobby. One of my ushers quit when the main door was taken off its hinges, and another simply locked himself in the bathroom, which within minutes resulted in THAT door being taken off its hinges. I called the precinct house and was told that I'd have to wait because down on Times Square there was some kind of a problem. "I'M on Times Square!" I yelled. "Well, then you know what I mean," he said, and hung up. In the auditorium all sorts of objects, and occasionally people, were arcing through the air. Many people were playing boom boxes, though interestingly, no two boom boxes were playing the same song at any given moment. I told one of my remaining ushers--probably, it occurs to me now, my only remaining usher-- to tell everybody to shut off their radios or we wouldn't start the movie. He laughed. I laughed too. We had about 1200 people, all of them either drunk or really mad because they weren't drunk, crammed into a theater with 420 seats. The Forum, further down the square, called. "Can you send over an usher?" he asked me. "My guys are real busy seating people. We must have 150 people here. I just need a guy to tear tickets for a half hour or so."
"Quick," I told my usher, "Get over to the Forum! It's an emergency!" I thought that was hilarious. Having now made sure that I was alone in a theatre with a full scale riot in progress, I buzzed the projectionist to tell him to start the picture. He did not answer, having left the premises some moments before, when his door had been taken off its hinges by the fun loving crowd. The audience began chanting "ALIEN! ALIEN! ALIEN!", which was not the name of the movie we were showing, though on the other hand we weren't showing anything because there was no one to show it.
"Mister," said some guy in what appeared to be a zoot suit, "You better start dis movie."
"Why?" I said. "Do you think the crowd will turn ugly if I don't?" I stepped outside for a breath of air. Interesting noises began to come from the theater. I realized that I didn't act quickly and decisively, things would soon get out of hand. Times Square itself was pretty subdued. And why not? All the psychos in the city were sitting in the Victoria Theater, setting each other on fire and eating the seats. I strolled down to the other end of Times Square, to the Embassy # 1, where nothing at all was happening.
"Hey hey," said the manager, "I gotta say, I thought Belson was nuts to run these midnight shows, but it's working out fine. We got almost 30 people inside. You got a crowd over at the Victoria? Everything okay? What's up? What are you doing down here?"
"Just getting some air," I said. "You know the Victoria. No problem. Place practically runs itself."
* * *
A DAY AT THE BRICK WORKS
Of all the places that we were told in no uncertain terms not to play near, our favorite was the abandoned brick works. It was located just outside of town-- you had to cross the railroad trestle foot bridge 60 feet above the Peckman River, you had to follow a path that skirted the edge of the quarry, and you had to pick your way through a junk yard full of mildewed sofas and Chevy suspension systems to reach it, and then you had to hop the fence to get inside the grounds. Unlike most of the places our parents warned us to avoid, the brick works was legitimately dangerous; there were large, unstable stacks of bricks all over the place, and large cooling towers, and piles of unidentifiable waste material, and strange, perfectly round pits of varying depth; the place was an obvious death trap, and there were signs all over the place spelling this out in detail, warning against trespassing and listing all sorts of fines and punishments for unauthorized people caught on the grounds. We used to go there for picnics.
Sometimes it would be just Calvano, Picarillo, and me, and other times Calvano's brother Duff would come, and from time to time we would encounter picnickers from the nearby towns of Cedar Grove and Montclair and Caldwell. Sometimes there was a watchman on duty, but he always parked his car in the shade of the biggest cooling tower, where it was visible from the junk yard, and when we caught sight of it, we would find a likely looking decayed sofa, jump up and down on it a little bit to scare off the bugs and eat our lunch right there. But lunch always tasted better inside the brick works.
One afternoon, after we had finished our lunch and dumped our refuse in the deep pit which was, by common consent, used as the garbage hole, we were skulking around the brick works and took a path we'd never taken before; it lead down hill, past some small buildings that looked vaguely like industrial versions of beach cabanas, and terminated in a tailings pond. Actually it was more like a puddle than a pond, and the water was remarkably foul-looking and foul-smelling. We circled it. "I gotta feeling something's IN there," said Calvano. Undoubtedly, something was-- mostly, whatever refuse you could rinse out of the big kilns after a busy day of brick manufacturing-- but we knew what Calvano meant-- he meant something ALIVE. Something MUTATED. Something probably not unlike the hideous, flesh-eating Mud Beast in the most recent issue of Tales from the Tomb. "I think I see a b-bubble," said Picarillo. We began to back up the path. I thought I saw a b-bubble, too. But we were tough, gutsy kids, and we waited till we were a good 20 or 30 feet from the pond before we broke into a run.
We were all at that awkward age when you know there's no such thing as a mutant Mud Beast, and yet you wish there could be; when you know better than to mention to anyone that you saw the air bubbles of a creature rising to the surface of the pond because it sensed the presence of fresh meat, yet you can't stop yourself because it's far and away the most interesting thing that's ever happened to you, even though, of course, it didn't.
"You're all morons," said Calvano's brother Duff. "Everybody knows about the pond. It's a tailings pond, it's just the place they dumped their garbage. It's only like three feet deep. We go without rain for a couple weeks, and it dries up till it rains again. You know what's under there, when it's dried up? Scuzz."
"What kind of scuzz?" said Calvano suspiciously.
"Gloppy scuzz at first, then crusty scuzz. Smelly scuzz at first, then not-so-smelly scuzz when it's been dried out for a while."
Picarillo was sitting on the edge of the bed, playing with Calvano's rubber deluxe werewolf mask. "I saw this boat in the mud, down by the Peckman, when we were crossing the trestle the other day. One of those little boats? With the flat ends?"
"A punt," said Duff. "So?"
"I'm just thinking. Suppose we got that boat and stuck it in the pond, right? We charged kids like 50 cents or something to float out into the middle of the pond. Told them there was a monster in the pond. Had 'em sitting there for five minutes with nothing happening."
"Five minutes is a long time to go with nothing happening," said Duff.
"Yeah. And they'd all be complaining, wanting their money back and stuff."
"And then--" Picarillo stuck his fist in side the werewolf head and pumped it into the air. "--this MONSTER HEAD comes boiling up through the water!"
"Man!" said Duff, "That is a great idea! I gotta tell you, Picarillo, I didn't think you had it in you! I thought you were maybe slightly SLOW and all, you know? You got those like squinty eyes and you're kind of big and clumsy like the kids in special class, and you wear those shirts with the tail hanging out, but that is a great idea!"
"Thank you," said Picarillo miserably.
The hardest part of the job was transporting the punt to the brick works. The punt had been pretty beat up to start with, and dragging it up the hill, past the quarry and over the fence did not improve its condition noticeably. Duff brought a roll of duct tape to repair the bigger holes in the hull. "This won't hold too long," he said. "Next time we come, we'll have to bring some of that card board that comes when you buy a new t-shirt. We'll tape a couple sheets of that over the holes, for like added strength."
Lackadaisical as he was about the punt, Duff had put a great deal of thought and work into getting the wolf head to hit the surface on cue. Basically, he turned it into a low-powered rocket, with packets of baking soda and vinegar in the carefully sealed head, and an egg timer, which would go off after a few minutes and rupture the vinegar bag. It took nearly 7 tries to get this to work at all, and when it did, the head bobbed to the surface upside down. "Okay," he said. "I need to weigh down the bottom of the head a little, and I need a stronger fuel. And thicker gloves, because this water is making my hands all scaly and gross."
For a couple of weeks, Duff set his not inconsiderable brainpower to working out this problem. And he succeeded beyond anyone's wildest hopes.
"It's going to go in two stages," he said. "Stage one, a small charge-- no more of this baking soda and vinegar crap, either, we're talking HIGH GRADE COMBUSTIBLES-- will send all these bubbles churning to the surface. That charge, in turn, will detonate the MAIN charge, and the head will break the surface. They'll be about 5 seconds between the explosions, so everyone will be staring at the exact spot where the head will pop out. And we set off the first charge--" he held up a walkie- talkie-- "by radio! Just like bomb guys in the movies!"
"Or," said Calvano, "like when you wanted to get into the equipment shed by the football field last summer, an'--"
Duff whacked his younger brother in the head several times with the walkie talkie, the universally acknowledged signal for 'shut up.'
We crept out to the brick works very early one Saturday morning to try it out. All of us crammed into the punt, and floated to the middle of the pond. Duff carefully lowered the doctored wolf head into the water. "We don't want to be too close to this," he said, "in case something goes wrong."
What could possibly go wrong?
"HEY! YOU BOYS! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" It was the watchman, who, we now realized, did not show up for work until well after 9 AM. "I WANT ALL YOUR NAMES AND ADDRESSES! YOU BOYS ARE TRESPASSING! I'M GONNA PHONE ALL YOUR PARENTS!"
"My dad's name is Lawrence Talbot, The Wolf Man," yelled Duff. "He's taking a dip." He pressed the button on the walkie-talkie. "HEY, DAD! SOME RUM BUCKET WANTS TO TALK TO YOU!"
The wolf head broke the surface; three quarters of the head was visible.
"Waauughh!" said the guard.
"Oops," said Duff, "A tad too much fuel. That was just the first--"
The second charge went off. The head shot out of the water and sailed a good 40 feet through the air. It was burning. The flaming head slammed into the ground and rolled back down the hill towards the pond. Before it reached us, it blew apart like a hairy rubber bomb. A chunk of burning wolf-rubber landed in the punt with us. "Oh, Christ," wailed Picarillo, "The boat's on fire! Swim for it!"
"Don't touch the water!" screamed Duff, "It'll give you crocodile skin!" He tried to stomp out the burning rubber; his foot went right through the bottom of the punt. Picarillo and I unshipped the broken pool cues we had brought along in case of an emergency and began to push the punt towards land. "My shoe is on fire," said Duff, though his foot had now been submerged for almost a full minute.
"You're gonna have a crocodile foot," said Calvano, with perhaps a trace of envy in his voice.
The guard just stared at us as we beached the punt and trudged homeward, to watch Duff's foot mutate.