Saturday, September 19, 2015

My Bad

   Around the time Suzanne began to worry that her father might be consigned to Hell simply for being a Methodist, I developed an interest in exploring those Sins available to me on the streets of New York. Having come from a long line of lapsed Presbyterians, we'd had little instruction in the avoidance of sin, so when I came upon a slide show in Sunday School devoted to the subject, it was instantly apparent that all seven sins were an integral part of life as I knew it, or wished to know it. Indeed, far from being shunned, some of these transgressions, like Gluttony, appeared to be celebrated in the rush from church to the groaning board, where a Sunday dinner of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and Dusty Millers might be washed down with magnums of Merlot and buckets of Bloody Marys before even a soupcon of the Sermon had been digested.

   It was Lust, of course, that captured our imaginations. Wrath seemed to be a familiar component of my father's character and he'd have been the first to point out that it didn't appear that I had too much to be particularly proud of at the time. I'd already noticed Sloth lounging indolently around  my periphery but had yet to fully embrace it as a lifestyle - and most of us knew a little something of Avarice and Envy - but it was Lust that appeared like a distant peak that needed scaling simply because it was there. To that end a few of my schoolmates and I might ride the bus down to the Village on Saturday morning to gawk at dissolute Beats and Folkies before wending our way on foot back uptown along Sixth and Seventh Avenues, speculating on whether this or that passing pedestrian could be a hooker, might the red light at the entrance to any random alley indicate a whore-house or whether there was any truth to the theory that a pair of sneakers slung over the power lines might secretly signify a loose woman's apartment. Always more comfortable imagining Sin than engaging in it, when one of these working girls actually approached me a few years later to offer me a date, it took a full measure of stumbling confusion and chagrin before it dawned on me that she wasn't talking about a piece of fruit.

     The epicenter of Sin in the City, Times Square, was our ultimate destination. There we could buy a bag of Borkham Riff and a corncob pipe, maybe even a warm quart of Ballentine to share in the shadows beneath the tawdry marquees advertising such things as Topless-A-Go-Go and Girls, Girls, Girls! Lacking the courage to try to get in to any of these places, we'd content ourselves with peering through the plate glass of the porno shops, studying the posters of Candy Barr and the legendary Carol Doda and discussing the convoluted carnal hi-jinx that might be on display in such films as Mondo Keyhole and Sin in the Suburbs. After a slice or two at the Papaya King we'd turn our attention to the penny arcades and spend an hour or so playing pin-ball before buying a racy flip-book or nudie neck-tie and heading back uptown.

     On one such meandering trek we passed an ancient black man pressed up against a chain-link fence in the style of the Crucifixion, legs crossed, arms outstretched, his hands clutching at the links. A roaring fire danced from a trash barrel before him and as we passed his head lolled to the side, his eyes rolled to the whites and he cried out, “ You will burn! You boys will burn in the hellfire of the Lord's damnation!” We looked away and quickened our pace, as we had learned to do at all such urban encounters with the ravers and madmen. And as this brimstone faded into the cacophony of Gotham and the chill receded from my spine I wondered ...

     How could he have known?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What Makes the Muskrat Guard His Musk?

    At one point during the spider's relentless assault it occurred to me that my reaction might have been somewhat less than courageous. Not the massive, furry, saucer-sized monster that came clattering after me as I stumbled into his thick, ropey web strung between two gum trees in a Sydney park; in the throes of a muffley jet-lag I almost fainted dead away at that encounter. Not even the ubiquitous if somewhat less hirsute wolf spiders that occupy the corners of every window-sash in these parts, spiders that bite you in the night while you're asleep, leaving raised and itchy welts. This guy, a muscular and decidedly truculent specimen of the harmless daddy long-legs, had first caught my attention as he performed a bizarre calisthenic atop a stack of books on the coffee-table while I pondered last week's theme on “Heroism”. As far as I know I'd done nothing to cause the arachnid in question to behave this way, but after a few distracting moments watching his performance – he hunkered down in deep squat-thrusts, kicked out a couple of legs while waving improbably long antennae about in a frenzy before bouncing back up to his full height –  all the while facing off with me and looking me straight in the eye as if to say, “ You want a piece of me, Buddy?”, I did what most of us might have done; I took a deep breath and blew him off the table and into the far corner of the room.


     And that, you'd have thought, should have been the end of it. Within a moment or two my tormentor came rushing out of his corner like Rocky Balboa, made a bee-line for my armchair, scampered up the jacquard and reared back on what must have been his hind legs just in time to catch the full force of my finger-flick in what I imagine was a mouthful of bared teeth. This time he shook it off, climbed the plant stand and took up a position atop a clivia leaf a foot or so from my elbow. There he strutted about, crouched and reared, tossing a volley of threats and imprecations in my direction before climbing laboriously back down to the floor and rushing my chair again. It took him about three seconds to reach  my elbow, at which point, I confess, I got up and moved. A few steps away lay a stack of dog-towels and it was while reaching for one of these - preferring not to extend anything further of my corporeal, fleshy self towards this beast - that I was momentarily overcome by a flush of embarrassment at the realization that I was being chased around by a daddy long-legs; that I was allowing a daddy long-legs to chase me around.

  Mercifully, Suzanne had already gone to bed and there was no witness to my chagrin. The spider had crossed the back of the armchair, descended once more to the floor, climbed the couch and was scurrying towards me along the ridge of the sofa back when I let him have it with a snap of the towel. I gazed about for some sign of what had become of him, some peripheral movement in the shadows and, finding none, resumed my seat, picked up my notes and tried to give a bit more thought to Heroism. And there he came again, barreling out of the far corner at such a prodigious clip that I barely had a chance to hurl my notes in his direction, leap from the chair and douse the lights in an effort to retreat to the bedroom under cover of darkness. Finally reaching the safety of my bed, I crawled between the sheets and lay there in silence, trying to make sense of what had just transpired. “Oh look,” Suzanne said, brushing at the coverlet with one hand while reaching for the light, “a daddy long-legs!”

      Years ago I tried out for a role in our community's summer production of The Wizard of Oz. I had no particular expectation regarding my place in the cast, but certainly hoped to get one of the better parts. I  remember starting in on “If I Only Had the Nerve” for my audition - most of the other kids opted for “Good Morning Starshine”, a dreadful number from a current Broadway hit, and I thought I might get a leg-up with a tune from the show itself. Before I'd gotten through the first verse the director, a man imported for the task from another state, a man whom I'd never even met, rose from his seat and, waving his arms, shouted, “Stop! Stop the music. We've found our Cowardly Lion!” And, beckoning me down from the stage, he added, “ You're in, Kid! You're our Lion....You're a natural!” Of course, I was flattered and never paused to reflect on what this stranger might have seen in me, what hidden mastery might have clinched the deal so quickly. Nor did it occur to me during the curtain calls and ovations, the stream of adults pausing to compliment me or suggest -  for decades thereafter -  how perfect the casting had been, that I might have revealed anything of myself other than my prowess as an actor. Indeed, it wasn't until last week, laying in the dark of the bedroom, my mind alive with  arachnoid possibilities that the lyric came flooding back.... “Whatta they got that I ain't got?”