Chapter 4: Dr. Sixties and Dr. Snagglepuss
Postcard from Aunt Pudge at the end.
A grab-bag of bits about Kem and me. Roller-skating and old lady. Murder at the Vanities. Sutter’s. Dr Sixties useless. Mead and the Dewar’s Profiles?
Start off with Hoboken Holiday
What was wrong with Hornblower is that he didn’t watch TV and wanted to make kiddie shows. You should never go into something you don’t really know anything about. Along with those Orson Welles anecdotes Uncle Ted had a shaggy-dog story about a dentist who went broke trying to be an animated cartoon producer.
Dr Snagglepuss, story of the dentist whose patient had made an award-winning movie version of Harold and the Purple Crayon. Knowing nothing, the dentist thought this was a big deal. The dentist always admired animated cartoons, particularly the abstract ones from Czechoslovakia that win awards, which the Harold cartoon rather resembled. David Piel the patient introduces him to Hanna and Barbera. Dentist has never heard of any of these characters, but it sounds like the world of Dickens. Now that he is getting old he wants to produce a cartoon why not? He finds that for a reasonable sum he can option Snagglepuss, a supporting HB character they’re not currently using. He’s a pink mountain lion and a lot of people think he’s the Pink Panther, so even the breakfast cereals don’t want to used him as a spokesman. The dentist doesn’t know this. He plunges in. So he spends two years and lots of money, mostly his own, getting animators to write and produce this Snagglepuss film. An hour of Snagglepuss would be plenty, but that doesn’t sound long enough for a feature film, so he makes them add these extra scenes so it’s almost two hours of Snagglepuss goodness. It’s hard to watch. He shows it to a distributor. “You’ll have to cut at least an hour” distributor says, halfway through it, by which time Snagglepuss has somehow involved himself in a spy caper, a bank robbery, a tribe of savages practicing human sacrifice… He shows it to a friend with a distilling business, hoping to sell half-interest. Friend is polite, says, “Oh I see, it’s sort of a knock-off of the Pink Panther. Well here’s what I think. I think there’s only room for one Pink Panther at a time. I mean, after Mickey Mouse got boring, then those other people could do that other mouse in the cartoon, you know, the one with the cat. But for the first ten years, whenever that was, say 1928 to1938, there was room for only one cartoon mouse. So what should do is make this Snagglepuss character into a bear, or maybe a turtle.
And the dentist is appalled, he going livid, he’s saying, “Bear? Turtle? What is this, some Indian tribal tale? What, I’m supposed to snap my fingers and turn him into a turtle? I have spent a half-million dollars making a funny cartoon about a pink mountain lion. There was no pink panther when we started. Snagglepuss is the original. Listen to me.”
Ends up being sold to syndication with some old Fleischer Brothers cartoons. Dentist can’t retire, has to make his money back, works Saturdays. there’s a little TV in the waiting room for kids, and one saturday afternoon one of the kid patients is sitting there watching it and the dentist is waiting for the opportunity to tellt hat he produced. And the kid’s mother says, oh, look it’s the Pink Panther.
Chapter 3: Romulus’s Rebus
On January 2, 1974 we took a limo out to a splintery old pier in Hoboken. The SS Moondog, one of the last steamers ever to dock there, was an ancient freight tub (Maltese registry) with room for a half-dozen paying passengers. Uncle Ted chose the Moondog not because he was such an adventuresome sort or because wished to introduce Aunt Pudge to the vanishing world of tramp steamers—though I’m sure all this was part of it—but because each passenger got to take two tons of luggage. Two tons for Ted, two tons for Pudge. This more than covered all the Hobart dough mixers and Blodgett pizza ovens they were bringing aboard. Ted’s business partner (the guy who sent over all the weird illustrations of the Elliott Gould people) had instructed him to make the rounds of restaurant auctions and pick up lots of cheap second-hand equipment. You couldn’t get this stuff in Britain, not in 1973. That’s why they didn’t have pizza there.
I was watching the dockworkers wheel the last of the crates into the hold when Pudge grabbed my arm.
“It’s been nice knowing you,” she said, pumping my hand. “Behave yourself.”
“Lotsa laffs, kid!” shouted Ted, before bending down to peck me on the cheek.
“Cook good . . . food,” I babbled.
“Faw-haw!” roared Ted. “Who cares about good food! This is strictly business!”
“I hate food,” said Aunt Pudge, looking away.
Suddenly Uncle Ted wanted the newspaper. There was going to be a big article on the business page about an old friend from J. Walter Thompson. So the chauffeur and I went all over Hoboken looking for a newsstand. We drove off Rotterdam-McCracken Line pier and threaded our way through tiny, dark, one-way streets, half of them paved with stones and bricks. It was all red-brick tenements and cockeyed telegraph poles, with thick, tangled spaghetti-nests of wires that sagged down in the middle. Sticking up between the paving stones there were trolley tracks down the middle of the street, with old trolley cables hanging overhead…but no trolleys so far as I could see. I thought, if you wanted to make a movie that was set a hundred years ago, you could do it here, because that’s the whole world looked like then. We drove around and around and around and around and around. Around again. I figured the driver was lost.
Somehow we ended up near a train station where there was a newsstand. Finally! I dashed out and grabbed the last Times.
All the time we were driving around and around, the driver was telling me the history of Hoboken. Up until the War, he said, it was a very important place. A world-class shipping port, with more cargo and passenger ships than Manhattan. High-class people would come here to sail to Europe. I found this very hard to believe. And it was a manufacturing powerhouse too. Yes sir, ma’am. It made all sorts of things: coffee, pudding mix, foundation garments, slide rules, even Hostess Sno-Balls.
“Not too much manufacturing these days though,” the limo driver said.
“Maybe people don’t seem to want those things as much as they used to,” I suggested.
“Or the town lost its way. Everyplace does, I guess, sooner or later.” He waved vaguely in the direction of the river. This is when I spotted the newsstand and went out to grab the newspaper. As soon as I hopped back in, we took a sharp turn on the paving-stones and started us back down to the waterfront, while telling me how his grandfather came over from Germany and worked in the K&M slide rule factory for forty years.
When we got back to the pier, I was expecting to see them standing by the gangplank, patiently waiting for the newspaper. But they were gone, and so was the ship. Way out yonder, two hundred yards off in the North River, steamed the S. S. Moondog. A little Moran tug was nudging it about along the bow.
“What lousy luck!” My chauffeur was shaking his head and pounding the steering wheel with his fist. “They left without us! They couldn’t wait.”
We parked by the pier building got out and watched. As the Moondog came abeam of us it got more and more decrepit-looking. A long line of rust stretched along the hull, and at the waterline it had big ugly patches of white, like a car that had been wrecked and partly restored. It was listing a little to one side, maybe because of all the pizza ovens in the hold. I imagined one of those highly detailed cutaway illustrations, like the kind you see in Time-Life Books, with curving arrows pointing to the oven crates all stacked on one side…and then tiny little human figures in life-vests, tossing ropes and leaping overboard…and then a little mockup of a newspaper with a blaring headline: “INT’L PIZZA DREAM DOOMS LAST HOBOKEN FREIGHTER.”
We watched for a long time, at least ten minutes, till it got down past Canal Street and out of view. Then we headed back to town via the Holland Tunnel. I sat back and leafed through the paper. There wasn’t anything about a J. Walter Thompson guy on the business page. Pudge and Ted probably just wanted me to get lost, didn’t want any long goodbyes. Why didn’t they just send me back to the city, instead of putting me on that wild-goose chase? Big joke.
All the way to the tunnel, and through the tunnel, my limo driver kept chattering on. He talked too much, like someone who afraid of getting in trouble. “What do you want to do now? Want to stop somewhere? Do you need to make a phone call?” It dawned on me that he thought he had messed up by not getting me back to the boat in time.
“No no,” I said. “No big deal. I didn’t even have a ticket. I had to stay in town. Gotta go to school, you know. And work.”
“Work!” He squinted at me in the rear-view and let out a little laugh. “What kinda work you do?”
“Television,” I said grandly. “A little program on the educational channel.”
“No really. Oh cool. When’s it on? Maybe I’ll watch ya.”
“You watch educational TV?”
“Sometimes. I watch David Susskind. He can be very controversial.” He paused, waiting to see if I wanted to talk about David Susskind and controversy.
“We are not on the air yet,” I said finally, as we came out of the Holland Tunnel. “We are just taping episodes.”
“We have to tape a lot of episodes before we start because we are going to be on every afternoon. And we don’t want to run out, you see.”
“Oh. So what’s your program called?”
“They keep changing the name. Right now it’s called The New Quiz Kids.” (This was almost true. Hornblower was obsessed with the Quiz Kids.) “But I don’t think it’s going to be called that.”
“No. Why not?”
“Because that makes it sound like a game show. When it’s more like, science. And current events. It was going to be game show for a while, a quiz show, but that didn’t work out because when we did the first taping nobody knew any of the answers. So now it’s more like Zoom, except for older kids. Ever hear of Zoom?”
“I think I heard of it.”
“Everybody’s heard of it,” I agreed. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s actually seen Zoom. Supposedly it’s like our show, but with little kids.”
“Oh I feel much better now,” the driver said. “I mean now I understand why you couldn’t go on the big trip with your parents. You had to be on TV.”
“Well sure. And school.”
“Did they want you to come with them?”
“They sort of offered. But I get seasick. Anyway, they’re not really my parents anyway.”
“They just take care of you?”
“Naaw, they didn’t even do that.”
“Too bad! Haw! Maybe they’ll sink to the bottom of the ocean!” He slapped the steering wheel with both hands and accidently beeped the horn.” That ol’ rustbucket didn’t look none too seaworthy anyway. Haw haw haw! Bet it don’t make it out of the harbor. What ya think? Huh?”
“Betcha dollar. But better it goes down in the harbor than way out at sea. What ya think?”
“Jeepers,” I answered.
Traffic was backed up. We hadn’t moved more than two blocks since coming out of the tunnel. The driver suddenly turned into a side street and drove towards the river, and then north, along West Street and Eleventh Avenue, right there in the shadow of the West Side Highway, which was closed down of course. Traffic was bad here, too, but at least it was moving. We got up to Carryle and Elly’s neighborhood then turned east and got stuck again, near a big blue meat warehouse with a huge cartoon of a piglet and lamb dancing together on their hind legs.
The reason traffic was stuck here is that a quartet of squat swarthy fellows were rolling a long rack of beef carcasses across the avenue. The streets were all paving blocks and cobblestones, and the meat men were making slow and bumpy progress. Ka-lump, ka-lump, lump-lump-lump! Behind the carcass rack, there followed two more funny little guys pushing a high metal box, like a shower stall on wheels, with a door that kept swinging open, and metal shelves inside. On the shelves there were cow heads, or something that looked like cow heads.
Those cow heads bothered me for weeks afterwards. I told myself they couldn’t possibly be cow heads. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a real cow head, but they’re very large, like mooseheads (though without the antlers, of course). You couldn’t stack them up in a metal rack like that. So they weren’t cow heads, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, what were they? Maybe they were just calf heads, from very young and dainty calves. But then what were they doing with those huge beef carcasses? Perhaps there was no connection at all between the heads and the beef. And maybe I was on the wrong track entirely. They might not even have been real. They might have been toys or decorations, little cow heads you put in the show window of meat distributors…except meat distributors don’t really have show windows. Butchers, perhaps.
Or perhaps they were little promotional favors you gave away: you sign up a new meat client and you give him a little plastic cow head, for his kids to play with. I had a friend whose father did something like this. Actually he had been a milkman out in the suburbs, but he used to give out little plastic cows to the children when he signed up a new family on his route. A cow head would really be more useful, I considered: you could stick a sock in it and make a puppet out of it…
I didn’t have much to do in January, so as I say, I spent a lot of time thinking about this. When my Very Best Friend suddenly turned up in town at the end of January, I started telling her about it over lunch. I told her all about the drive in from Hoboken, and the talky limo driver, and the imaginary cow heads. Imaginary, because I now decided I’d hallucinated the whole thing.
“Oh no!” said Kem, palms up and eyes wide. “It all sounds very plausible to me! They were calf heads, no doubt. Many people eat calf heads!”
“What people eat calf heads?”
“Oh! French people, I suppose.”
We had a good laugh about that. We were in a French restaurant, the one where the people from Forbes came in for late lunches. Nobody ever ate anything there by hache frites.
“I’m going to throw up,” said the driver.
“Cow heads are considered a great delicacy in many parts of the world,” I said.
This was all taking an awful long time. Across the way, a pair of refrigerator trucks began to honk. Then some other vehicles honked. Finally Mr. Limo Driver honked too.
“Kee-ripes,” he said, as we finally got out of the meat market and drove down 14th Street. “They oughta just take a bomb and drop it in that whole area. You know? Rebuild it. Like Lincoln Center. Bring some culture here. These meat businesses, they have no business being in the city. You know? You ought to do a show about that, yeah. For your educational TV.”
I felt really foul and disgusted with myself when I finally got out. Trying to impress a limo driver was bad enough, but bragging about the Hornblower show was just pathetic. If I told Carryle and Elly about this, they would say I was going to have bad karma, or dharma. So I wouldn’t tell them.
Now, what happened to Aunt Pudge and Uncle Ted? So far as I know they arrived okay. I got a card from Pudge weeks later. It was an old dog-eared postcard, from the Green Mountain Inn in White River Junction, Vermont. One of those ma-and-pa motels with the big Quality Courts starburst sign, and (No) Vacancy and Free TV. I don’t why Pudge had it, but she’d been carrying it in her purse for years, sometimes using it as a bookmark. It was pretty grimy.
Food is awful, she wrote on the back.
My new home was the apartment of my Very Best Friend’s grandmother. I’d carried most of my stuff over in a taxi a couple of nights before—not too much, just a couple of cardboard boxes and my old Amelia Earhart suitcase—and dumped it off in the old lady’s foyer. She was already gone, had left the keys with doorman. Granny von Schlafen went away most of every January, on old-person retreats and art cruises with the Salmagundi Club, so I was basically all alone, knocking around around her apartment all by myself like a pea in a whistle, staying up all night drinking strong tea with honey and milk and eating TV dinners in front of the old dowel-leg TV, and sleeping much of the day. It was a big old place with lots of little rooms and a nice view up Fifth Avenue, but I never felt comfortable there. The whole place had a mildewy, abandoned smell, like a damp basement full of old newspapers, which I never really noticed. I also noticed that the apartment had too much furniture, most of it useless and serving only to collect dust and clutter—end-tables and lowboys and some glass-topped display tables in which Granny von Schlafen showed her “sculptures,” little figures that looked as though they were made of twisted paperclips and construction paper, with faces cut from magazine photos. A housekeeper came in twice a week to keep up with the dust and city soot that got in through the windowframes and radiators, but she completely ignored me, perhaps figuring I was yet another of the old lady’s relatives who periodically moved in with her for a year or two. She never learned my name, this housekeeper, and I never knew hers. “Move feet,” she’d say when vacuuming in the TV room, and that’s as close as we got to conversation.
January was January, grey and desolate. School was out for weeks, and the city was emptied of everyone except bums and colored people and all the tourists and suburbanites who came into town to see whatever movie was at Radio City Music Hall. Even Carryle and Elly were away. A couple times, feeling particularly lonely, I stopped by the Pickle Works on the pretext of asking them for Valium. But they were never in when I came by and I didn’t know their new telephone number so I couldn’t call.
Sometimes around five or six in the morning I’d walk over to the Christopher Street pier and look for Kohoutek. Supposedly this was our last opportunity to see it before it swept off into another galaxy. Did you ever meet anyone who actually saw it? I don’t think anyone ever did. It was pretty funny, how Kohoutek was the main item of news in the last months of ’73 (I mean once you got past Nixon and Watergate). Kohoutek was going to be big and bright and bring about the fall of governments, possibility the end of civilization as we knew it. It was in all the papers and on the cover of Newsweek. But if you went around asking people about Kohoutek six months later, they’d have no idea what you were talking about. Back in November we bought a six-foot telescope at school and installed it on the third-floor landing outside the science labs. It just took up room and gathered dust. Not that we could have seen anything from East 74th Street even under the best of conditions. But this shows you how we bought into the craze.
So there I was out on the dock. It was a pretty safe place to be in the early morning, and I usually had it all to myself. Sometimes I’d see one of the dockboy hustlers who liked to hang out in the old wooden shed and smoke joints all night, but usually it was too cold and early even for them.
Even if I couldn’t see the comet, there were plenty of other things to contemplate, and I never got tired of them. In that early-morning twilight I’d look across at the Hoboken piers, trying to pick out where I’d been standing when I saw the Moondog. Off to the right, there was the Maxwell House Coffee sign, with its huge dripping neon coffee cup. It got switched off at a different time every morning, about a half-hour before sunrise. Or if I turned to the left and looked way out to sea, there was the little silhouette of the Statue of Liberty coming out of the mist. I once overheard a fat bearded guy in a wheelchair describe the statue as “that thing that seems to be giving the Black Panther salute,” and I laughed because it was both apt and hilarious. This guy was one of the dock regulars, you’d see him there almost any time of day. He was one of those overly talkative, manic street people who like to chat up strangers and play the tour-guide.
One morning I was out on the dock fairly late—6:45 or so, too late to see Kohoutek even with a clear sky—and I saw the wheelchair guy wheeling his way on down the dock, with the great big thermos of coffee he always had with him. Where does someone like that go to take a piss? I wondered. I didn’t want to insult him and I didn’t want to get caught in a conversation, so I walked the other way and pretended not to see him. This is hard to do convincingly when you’ve only got two people on the dock. Next time I went down to the pier, I made a point of clearing out by 6:30.
One important thing I had to do in January, before school started up again: I had to buy a Good Winter Coat. That had been on the agenda for ages. My old coat was ridiculous. I’d been wearing it since I was eleven. I got it the week Love Story opened, Christmas 1970. A duffel coat, fire-engine red. Now, of course, much the worse for wear. Somebody in my class once helpfully suggested that I go down to the Salvation Army and pick up a newer, cleaner version of the same thing for 75 cents…hahaha…since I obviously liked the coat so much. This was said without sarcasm, I think. Wearing things down till they were broken and threadbare was very much the done thing. (When Kem’s brother Mead was at Taft, the boys would patch up their penny loafers with duct tape.) We were always astonished when we got these new girls whose families had just moved to town from San Francisco or Dallas or one of those suburban places, and these new girls talked a lot about clothes and shopping, because back where they came from there wasn’t anything else to do. School couldn’t have been much fun for them since we had uniforms, but you could always spot these girls by their whistle-clean hair and neat little hairbands. They wore different shoes every day and kept calendar-lists of them in their diaries.
The only person who ever made fun of my coat, unless you count some negro girls who once pulled at it on the subway, was this snotty old lady who worked in the business office at school. “My aren’t we Christmassy!” she’d sneer when I showed up in the old red duffel coat a week or two before Thanksgiving. “Oh, look—red for St. Valentine’s Day!” she’d say when we passed in the hallway in early February, the start of the spring term. This woman was about four-foot-eleven, built like a fireplug, and never without full makeup and a black-black-black pudding-bowl bob. Quite a picture. I believe she grew up in the 1920s when being catty and snotty was considered quite smart. Probably carried a gin flask in her garter belt and quoted Dorothy Parker. She was always riding me about that coat. Everybody hated her, but the school wasn’t going to fire her because she was one of those old crones who work practically for free. Every school has one of those old biddies.
Once upon a time, around late 1972, my grandmother sent me fifty dollars to buy a new coat. I never actually saw the fifty dollars. It was a personal check mailed to Aunt Pudge. Pudge in her practical way put it into a safe-deposit box and forgot about it. I don’t know what became of it, but somehow I ended up with a $50 Bonwit Teller gift certificate. You are thinking that this was unfortunate as it limited my options. Actually though, it made my life easier. If you gave me fifty dollars and said, “Go find a coat,” I wouldn’t know where to begin to look. Now all I had to do was find my way to Bonwit Teller—it was somewhere on the way to the Plaza and Paris movie theaters, that much I remembered—and go up the escalators and find something acceptable and available and under fifty dollars. All clothes-shopping should be this easy.
Around the third week of January, right after the first big blizzard came and then slowly turned to slush that refroze into pebbly ice that covered every sidewalk, I decided to get up to Bonwit’s. I took some subway from West 4th to 53rd Street and walked around till I saw it. This was a Saturday. Midtown was filled with out-of-towners carrying shopping bags and squinting hard in the sun. They thought sunglasses were something you only wore in the summer. They all bumped into other people on the sidewalk, including me, though I tried to weave around them.
Then I nearly did something very embarrassing. Over at the corner of Fifth and 56th, I saw my long-lost very-best friend, Kem. She was carrying a couple of shopping bags herself. Only it wasn’t her, as I realized in the last half-second after I hop-skipped over cupped my hands to slap over her eyes: “Guess who?”
Fortunately something stopped me; I think it was the girl’s mother, who even with a hat on and from the rear was quite clearly not Mrs. von Schlafen. Kem’s mother was bird-faced and dark-haired, quite the opposite of the round-faced, blond Kem. This was, in fact, just another of those strange suburban pairings you often see around town on a weekend, a mother and daughter who look alike and even dress alike when they come into Midtown on Saturday to have lunch and go shopping. Mothers and daughters who are each other’s best friends. How sad. Talking about clothes and parties and will they have time to change when they get back if they return on the 4:55 to New Canaan. Absolutely nothing like Kem and her mother. Who by the way were thousands of miles from here. Kem was off in Los Angeles, Westwood actually, according to her grandmother. Kem’s parents meantime had moved to San Marino. They never saw each other anymore, never talked.
This was a shattering experience. I don’t usually go around cupping my hands over people’s eyes. I have no idea what came over me. I was so dizzy and distracted by it that once I got into Bonwit’s I bought virtually the first coat I saw (a respectable, nondescript black-wool thing, fortunately), put it on and ran out, leaving my ratty old red thing and the change from the gift certificate on the counter. The saleslady called me back before I got to the escalator.
After that, I started seeing Kem doubles everywhere. I got used to it, told myself it was all the result of sleeping most of the day and being up most of the nights and scarcely talking to another soul for weeks on end. That’s one explanation. The fact that I’d moved in with her grandmother and was sleeping in her old bedroom (that is, Kem’s bedroom) might have something to do with it too.
It gave me something to tell Doctor Sixties. I usually didn’t tell Doctor Sixties anything really important, but since these were just hallucinations, I had nothing to lose. Of course if you tell your shrink something, your shrink is required to pretend to read more meaning into it than is really there. So Doctor Sixties kneaded her forehead and stuck her tongue out the corner of her mouth and came up with the idea that I was seeing Kem everywhere because there had been some kind of Lesbian relationship between us. She didn’t use those words; they were too racy and clinical, even now in the age of Ms. Magazine; her actual words were something like “unusual intimacy.”
The sheer idea made me cringe. Good Lord! Get some imagination!
C’mon Doctor Sixties, I wanted to say, didn’t you ever have a best friend who ran off with an old man and moved to the West Coast and you two couldn’t ever talk again because you’d have to discuss all the grimy details?
No of course you didn’t.
If Doctor Sixties had been a better witchdoctor she would have told me I was having premonitions. Now that would have been imaginative, and it would have been news. And it would have been true. Because a week or two later—about the same time I received from London a picture-postcard of an old Vermont motel— I got a letter from Kem. A real letter, on real airmail notepaper, not an old Quality Courts postcard. Hand-writ, you know— real ink from a real fountain pen. Like most people who can’t draw, Kem was mad about calligraphy. She was always experimenting with green and brown ink in these slant-nibbed Osmiroid fountain pens. Down on Fourth Avenue she found this old book, How to Print Like a Hi-Class Deb. It was an old, old fifteen-cent paperback with distintegrating yellow pages and a kangaroo on the cover. Kem took this book and sat down and practiced, practiced, practiced every day, forcing herself to print up-and-down italics with quick little strokes.
But it’s nothing like that. It turns out Kem was just visiting her parents over Christmas and New Year’s. Now back to LA, but she’s stopping over at Granny von Schlafen’s, her home for most of the time that I knew her. For a year-and-a-half, while Kem’s father was between postings and commuting down to Foggy Bottom every week, they moved in with Granny. As I said, they were poor as churchmice.
And now Kem is coming back for a few days, back here. This could be uncomfortable. I am sleeping in Kem’s old bed, her old bedroom. I can offer to let her have her bedroom back, but of course she’ll say no while secretly hating me for being there. So she’ll go sleep in her parents’ bed in the big guest room, or else in that little musty bedroom where they store the vacuum cleaner and sixty years’ worth of National Geographics. She is going to find out that I haven’t seen all her little bit parts on TV, and act as though she’s cool with it but really resent it. She’ll find ways of needling me. She’ll ask me how things are going with the Keen Teens, and I will act very insulted. I was through with Hornblower ages ago. Gawd, Kem, I can’t believe you’re asking that.
I went over to the pickle works to get some Valium from Carryle and Elly. I said I wanted it as a present for Kem, but Carryle and Elly balked, so I said actually it was for me. That just made it worse. Carryle and Elly gave me a stern lecture on how they didn’t keep drugs around anymore. Last year they were introducing me to pharmaceutical-grade cocaine, and now this.
Don’t you hate it when lesbians suddenly get religion? But then they realized they were acting like assholes, so they softened their tone and gave me some valerian tea, which they explained was made of the same stuff as Valium, only it was natural and organic.
Kem gets in earlier than expected next afternoon, while I’m around the corner getting vacuum-cleaner bags at the housewares shop on University Place. She dumps her stuff in the living room, and is sitting there drinking a glass of soda water, or maybe it’s a white-wine spritzer, when I turn up. She smiles a lot, forcing it but not too insincerely, and we do the little hug-and-squeal thing and go to the French place down 12th Street. The Forbes people are fond of it, supposedly because it is the sort of French bistro where you can get a soda-straw in your Coca-Cola. Nevertheless it’s a little grand and grown-up for us and we feel funny about going there. At least I do. The only places we’ve eaten together are Sutter’s bakery on Greenwich Ave. and a couple of Ukrainian places in the East Village.
The waiter tells us that since it’s after three o’clock, they only have a very limited lunch menu, so we both order haché frites. There are six or seven other people in the restaurant, and that’s what they’re all eating.
“And a Cokey-Cola!” says Kem, all wide eyes and cartoon grin, pointing her index fingers to the sky. She’s always had this little act, a goodness-gracious persona complete with funny little gestures, that surrounds her like a bubble of private space. She has some kind of Mid-Atlantic diplomatic-brat elocution, too, that she slides in and out of. Some people can’t get away with affectations, because they try to pretend that the phoniness is real. Kem’s persona is not like that. It’s all frankly superficial and fake, a little bit inept, like someone in a funny hat. So the more way-out she acts the more natural she seems. Meantime the act keeps everyone at a manageable distance till she gets to know them better.
It’s a brilliant defense mechanism. It makes her seem just exotic enough so you are not inclined to rip her to shreds the way you would most people. Why did she put this protective cover on in the first place? I can think of lots of reasons. Her family was poor and she’d never lived in any one place for long, and she was neither unusually beautiful nor particularly talented. If she didn’t hash together a phony persona she wouldn’t have one at all. Anyway this weird mask gave her a will of iron. She had no fear of falling down and looking like a fool. One day she and I saw rollerskates in a shop on Eighth Street, and Kem decided one day that we were each going to buy a pair and learn to use them that very afternoon. Which we did, though it took us more than an afternoon to stand up in them. It was a mighty strange thing for us to do, inasmuch as we were both totally uncoordinated and even more lazy and sedentary than your average thirteen-year-olds.
These were the new-style rollerskates. Not the old ones with the key, the ones you fastened to the bottom of your maryjanes when you were five years old, but the kind that came with own boot. A year later you saw them everywhere, but in the spring of ’72 we must have been the first to buy them. Kem and I went over to Gay Street on the other side of Sixth. This was a tiny, bent, street where there was never any traffic and you could practice all afternoon. Which we did, for a long time, through the summer. After we got half-decent at it we slowly lost interest. We discovered there were very few places to skate other than Gay Street and Washington Square Park, which got crowded on weekends and scary in the evening. And no one else was skating—this was just our weirdness.
This was all in the first year I knew Kem, when we were both the new kids in school, and I was still figuring out Kem’s act. I gradually realized they were affectations, then decided affectations were a very good idea. I looked for some of my own. For a little while I talked like Glynis Johns. That didn’t work at all; I think you need a bad facelift to really keep that routine up. Then I affected archaic slang, mainly jeepers and swell.
Finally Kem told me there was no need for me to do that sort of thing. I was weird and alienated enough as it was (she said).
I have seen her add things to her act. We used to go to old movies at revival theaters, and sometimes she’d pick up and remember some comic bit. There’s an old early-30s movie where Toby Wing does nothing but show up periodically and go “Oh Mister Ellery!” to Jack Oakie while sticking her hands on her ears. “Oh Mister Ellery!” This went into her bag of tricks immediately.
“Oh! You’ve had such adventures, I’m sure!” Kem’s palms are straight up, level with her shoulders. “You must tell me all! Does your Aunt Pudge still whip you?”
“Within an inch of my life,” I say. “Fortunately she is now three thousand miles away.”
“Oh! Then she’ll need a very long whip indeed!”
“She found a man to tame her.”
“Pray tell! Or if you wish, I’ll tell you my life first. I understand I’ve been regarded as quite the mystery girl!” Again the palms go up, this time to her ears. “Granny was sooo remorseful about accusing you when she thought I’d been kidnapped. Is it true she grabbed you right here while you were crossing the street? I thought that au-pair-in-Nova-Scotia touch was brilliant, by the way.”
Mostly it’s the same old Kem, though she seems a little different. Now this could be just her hair. She’s definitely done something with her hair. When I first met her she was 13 years old and was strictly braid-or-pigtails, and she was still that way last summer. Now, hair is lighter, shorter, cut blunt just above shoulder. There’re some kind of bangs involved, too. But I’m not going to discuss hair here. It was my great good luck to grow up in the hippie-dippie years, the post-pink-curler era. I know there’s still a world of beauty parlors and permanent-waves out there, the one you see in old ads and TV shows and those cartoons where the frumpy housewife comes to the breakfast table in hair-curlers. I know some version of that world is still out there, and it is not patronized exclusively by old ladies getting blue rinses and permanent waves. There’s always some new fad going around, like the early-70s one where women were getting white streaks in their hair (it didn’t last long; a lesbian mating call, said Pudge), or this strange fluffed-up feathery Farrah Fawcett-Majors thing that started going around a few years later. And models and actresses sometimes have their hair done for headshots. Personally, though, I have never been to a hair place, not since I was about six. Neither have any of my classmates. The whole idea terrifies me. I imagine lots of tacky people and dog-eared movie magazines with Liz Taylor on the cover. Hair is something that just grows. You keep it clean, and you decide whether you part it on the side or in the middle. Back in the late 1960s everybody parted in the middle. That’s looks really dated now. Doctor Sixties still wears her hair like that, will probably still be wearing it that way in 1999.
We tend to think of it as class-marker, this minimal hair-care, but it’s also regional. Think of those pom-pom girls from the South, the kind who at age 15 are already wearing full makeup and talking about what sorority they will pledge when they get to Ole Miss or Randolph-Macon. It’s always 1962 down there. They still do the curlers thing too. Anyhow we had a girl in our class from Atlanta and that’s the picture she gave. Lots of hairspray, even more than those tough Jewish and Italian dames you see on Saturday in their loud jewelry and eyeshadow, trying out makeup at Bloomie’s or Bonwit’s. When I wonder who’s going to keep the hair-salon and cosmetics industry going, I remind myself that there are a hell of a lot more pom-poms and JAPs and checkout girls with Farrah-do’s out there than there are normal people with scrubbed faces and untrimmed manes and Fair Isle sweaters. But the cosmetics people are onto us now, targeting us with things like Clinique: a line of supposedly wholesome “non-allergenic” skincare products—cleansers, astringents, a vast bar of hard yellow soap in a green tray; makeup too, but always so thin and insipid you might as well not even bother with it. The hilarious thing is, hardly anyone actually wears Clinique makeup, not after trying out the samples in the gift-with-purchase bag they’re always pushing. Brilliant marketing concept. You get the full experience of buying cosmetics without ever having to use them.
Kem is talking. She is telling me about her last few weeks in San Marino—SM as she calls it. SM: pretty, but boring. SM: near absolutely nothing My mind wanders while she tells me how for Christmas her family drove down to Rome, a seven hours drive.
“We saw the Pope from a great height,” she says.
Does she mean from a great distance? I imagine the von Schlafens in the gondola of a hot-air balloon, floating up near the ceiling of the papal palace.
I am checking out her makeup. The tiniest bit of mascara—Clinique, must be, and some of that very thin watery base that comes in the heavy little squarish bottles—and not much else, but it’s enough to put her over the line. They invited Granny von Schlafen over but Granny does not fly. Put mascara on me and I don’t look any different, but Kem has those fine, almost unpigmented lashes. Her brother Mead was over for a few weeks, and Kem tried skiing with him up at Cortina in the Italian Alps. Mead finally finished his Scholar of the House project at Yale. He wrote a monograph about hand-carved duck decoys. Now he is seriously talking about going to work for one of the ordnance firms that supply mercenary forces in Rhodesia. His parents regard the idea as a big joke and tell him to get serious. Mead says it’ll be useful experience someday if he goes into the Foreign Service. Kem says she has no judgment in the matter.
We have a little lull in the conversation when the food comes. I feel it’s my turn so I say, “Are you really going to go back to Wedgwood?”
“Wedgwood? What are you talking about?”
“Isn’t that where you’re living?”
“Westwood. Oh, that is so funny. Wedgwood.”
“Wedgwood, Westwood. Venerable and memorable,” I sneered. “Right up there with Paris and Damascus.”
“Oh-ho, the old East Coast snobbism. Didn’t get that in San Marino. No! Everyone wanted to know about L.A. The limo driver who drove us down to Rome. ‘My little daughter, she wants-a become movie star, you tell-a her how?’”
“I guess that’s the old cliché about people moving to the West Coast,” I said. “As soon as you move there, you’re supposed to tell everyone back East how snobbish and irrelevant they are.”
“No, nobody thinks of Easterners as snobbish. How funny! They envision the East Coast rather as being this . . . vast . . . sprawling . . . slum! Indeed! West Side Story was on TV a couple of months ago, and somebody asked me, ‘Is the East Coast really like that?’ How hilarious. I laughed but then considered for half a moment. And I said, ‘Yes, you know, actually it is that way!’ I realized that in my mind’s eye the whole East Coast was now this enormous row of red-brick tenements, very squalid, with broken windows, and fire-escapes, and clotheslines, and colored people drinking out of paper bags . . . “
“The whole East Coast? Maine to Florida?”
“Precisely! That is my mental picture now. Go anywhere in the East and it’ll be this humongous tenement slum! Everybody on the West Coast has the same idea. You move to a place, and pretty soon you’re thinking just like the locals. Quite a phenomenon, like nurses who get their periods at the same time. You’ll see. You should come out and visit, you really should.”
“I can’t go out and visit. There is no transportation. That’s what everyone says.”
“Oh. Depends on where you live. Where I live I can walk everywhere. If I have to go farther, somebody drives me.”
She lives in a big, pastel-colored, sunlit house. I ask for interior details—does it have a lot of blond-wood, dowel-leg furniture, potted ferns, and magazines fanned out on the coffee table? It does! So I tell her she stole my life, and we have a good laugh about that. Her house sounds just like that fantasy apartment I was going to share with somebody when I escaped from Aunt Pudge. Only I always imagined my place around East 61st Street, in a white-brick stewardess building. Kem’s is at or near UCLA. There is some kind of hothouse high school connected with the university, and she’s does a little bit of school there. The family she lives with has twin sisters, daughters of a college administrator (who was also one of the creators of that new educational show that Kem was going to be in, the one that hadn’t gotten off the ground yet), and they are occasional actresses in that popular new comedy show you’ve never heard of, Comin’ ‘n’ Goin’. This particular videocom is supposed to be set in one of those public schools in out of TV-fantasy world, a school where all races and species of mankind are represented and on the best of terms with each other. Sometimes, if the script has a big group scene and they need an extra American kid, Kem gets to be in it.
Noise, commotion outside. We look out the window. A fight. The driver of an electrician’s van versus an old negro derelict. The bum has a shopping cart full of trash bags and objets trouvés. Bums like to collect trash in carts and then wheel it all over town. When the electrician’s van was parking it backed into the cart—just a nudge—and this sent the black bum into screaming fits. When the went around to the back of the van to get his tools, he came up close to the bum, who had pulled a mannequin’s leg out of the shopping cart and began to swing it like a club. The bum was yelling about having rights, and going to sue, and the driver was telling him he had no business being there. Swinging the leg against the back door to the van, the bum finally broke it in two (the leg, that is). The foot went flying upward to the roof of the van. The driver retrieved it, dropped it on the front seat, and relocked the vehicle.
“Muhfuh! Gimme back mah muhfuh foot. Need mah muhfuh foot,” the bum cried out. We could hear him distinctly from inside the restaurant.
The driver dithered a bit, then opened his front door a third time, put his toolbox inside, moved the foot over, and drove off.
“My word,” said Kem, “Such great entertainment value. What’s he going to do with the foot? I’d forgotten how much fun street life was here. In Westwood the hobo wouldn’t even be allowed.”
“You don’t have bums in L.A.?”
“We have bums, oh yes, and beggars, but they have to stay in certain restricted areas. Ooh. You know what this all reminds me of? That time we went to The Staten Island Ferry.”
“July ’72. Right after we saw Murder at the Vanities and Phantom of the Opera at Theatre 80 St. Marks,” I said.
That was a hot, muggy evening, just before or after the Fourth of July. Feeling like an adventure, we’d decided to go take a round-trip on the Staten Island Ferry. We’d just missed a ferry and had to wait in the terminal for nearly a half-hour. A nice piece of experimental street theater was taking place. An enormous black fellow in army boots and camo fatigues was slowly, rhythmically, stomping upon a semi-comatose bum who lay sprawled on one of the wooden benches. STOMP…Groaan. STOMP…Groaan. Over and over, a scene with no beginning or end, just an endless loop that we watched for a few minutes, along with clusters of other people, bored or amused. A young man of about 20, swarthy and Levantine, bearded and bohemian, stood nearby with three giggling Oriental girls. He sucked on an unfiltered Camel, making witty repartee while taking in the entertainment. “You know what the biggest difference is between Jewish girls and Chinese?” he was saying. The girls giggled. All the while: STOMP…Groaan. Then the next boat was ready and everyone melted away. I hardly remember the trip to Staten Island and back, just the terminal.
“That poor bum!” Kem trilled, sitting there at the restaurant on this cold January day and recalling that sweltering evening eighteen months ago. “Nobody stepped in to help him. Never any cops. Hey, how is Hornblower?”
“Ouch, an abrupt change of subject,” I said. “Honestly. You didn’t really think I was still in touch, did you?”
“Why? What happened?” Eyes open very wide.
“Last time I saw Hornblower was in Rhode Island. He was supposed to drive me to the train station but dumped me off in a swamp instead.”
“Oh no!” she laughed. “There must be more to it than that.”
“There could well be. I just like that very simple version. Hits you right between the eyes. Just think, if you hadn’t run away with Cowboy Duke you could have been dumped off in a swamp too!”
“Cowboy Duke was very good to me.” She looked up at me as she sucked at the straw in her Coca-Cola.
She was daring me to pursue the topic but I never learned how to be inquisitive. I might find out more than I really wanted to know, and I didn’t want to feel like a nosey parker. So instead I told her how everything in the city was falling down, including the West Side Highway up by Carryle and Elly, and that theater on Mercer Street where we saw El Grande de Coca-Coca.
Kem came back to the subject of Hornblower. I didn’t have much else to tell her. Carryle and Elly had told me he was back in town, planning yet another educational TV show. I certainly hadn’t seen the guy. Carryle and Elly gave me the further news that some remnant of our kiddie finally got on the air, after a fashion. It seems there was a tiny community-cable television channel up in Rhode Island. It had about a hundred subscribers. Hornblower put on a half-hour weekly program for five or six episodes. By then all the Keen Teens had dribbled away, so Hornblower filled up his thirty minutes with a 16-year-old boy and his rock combo.
“And that, my dear Kem, is the final disposition of Teentime!”
“That is so hilarious! So in the end it wasn’t really educational?” said Kem.
“I imagine they snuck some educational content in there. Between songs the kids would discuss world events.”
“How fun it would be to see Hornblower! Just drop in on him suddenly!”
“Good lord, the idea turns my stomach,” I said. “How would you like to go drop in on Mr. Smerm?”
When I said this, Kem tightened and raised her shoulders, like a turtle trying to pull its head in.
“How incredibly obnoxious,” Kem said.
Mr. Smerm was the obnoxious biology teacher who flunked Kem last spring. Then I suggested we look up a couple of old classmates, and she didn’t like that, either. So we ended up doing nothing, or very little. We did go to the Whitney and then came back downtown and saw a movie at Cinema Village. (The Day of the Jackal; we had no idea what it was about but, hey, it started in ten minutes.) Mostly Kem just hung around the apartment, throwing out most of her clothes and packing a few others. She put a big triage pile in the middle of the living room and sorted through it while we played backgammon for hours and sipped white wine mixed with club soda. Neither of us really liked backgammon, but Granny von Schlafen had a teakwood backgammon set that she left out as a decoration on the endtable by the fireplace, and we were too unmotivated to look for something more engaging. Backgammon and diluted wine: a good mindless way to get drunk slowly, while you’re picking through clothes.
Chapter 3a: Romulus’s Rebus
Kem’s clothes in the heap were the sort of clothes you just sort of have but don’t wear, stuff you drag around to four places in six years, in boxes and trunks and suitcases, stuff that’s too small for you or too silly but you have no place to put it because there’s no easy way to throw clothes away. I noticed a pair of hip-hugger pants, powder-blue with magenta embroidery and no pockets; they were, or at least were intended to be, jeans: girly-girl jeans for a ten-year-old. I don’t think you can find anything like that these days, at least not that a ten-year-old would wear. We were both fascinated by these hip-huggers, turning them over and over and studying the outlandish embroidery. Kem seemed to have no recollection of them at all. Weird stuff you drag around for six years!
Here’s a sociological conundrum I’d like to unravel. For a long time, kiddie-clothes manufacturers had a real problem with unisex. Why was that? They had no trouble at all making toddlers’ playsuits pretty much the same, but when it came to pre-teen girls, they had a compulsion to femme-up everything, and do it in a most disgusting way. It was as though they didn’t want to risk having the little girls look like boys, or, even worse, look as though they were wearing boys’ clothes. How could anyone care that much? In the 1960s even? Grown men and women were wearing bluejeans that were pretty much identical. Pre-teen years is when there’s practically no difference between boys and girls anyway. As I say, it’s a mystery of sociology, not the retail industry. It brings to mind something I saw way back at the dawn of consciousness. I think it was at Best & Co.—not the flagship one that was next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but one out in the suburbs, at one of those sprawling shopping centers next to the turnpike. I saw a saleslady show an old woman a pair of jeans for little girls. These were embroidered too, with some “western”motif– saguaro cacti, I guess, and a looping lariat. I’ve always thought there were words, too: California Cowgirl, or something like that. If I could read that it means I was four or five. Anyway, the saleslady was making the pitch, “These are dungarees for a little girl, and everyone will know that they are not boys’ pants because… because… the zipper is in the back! Very ladylike.” Very ladylike! For a toddler! Clearly we had here an old shibboleth about distinguishing the sexes, like that old notion about parting your hair on the right if you’re a girl, and on the left if you’re a boy—no matter how your hair naturally goes. I suppose the zipper business was a lot stickier and full of taboo. The boys’ zipper was always called the “fly” for some reason. A very suggestive word. It was going to fly open, you see, any minute now, and a little boy’s peepee would come flying out. An image that troubled many an old lady. So girls’ zippers were never called flies, and they were put as far away as possible. But the rear-zipper didn’t last long, it was too absurd. Certainly long gone by the time Kem’s powder-blue hip-huggers hit the racks.
She threw them to one side, then, a couple of drinks and backgammon rounds later, decided to try them on. She could almost fit into them, having been a little dumpling when she was nine or ten. She got the zipper halfway up, then struck poses in the half-length mirror opposite the fireplace.
“California Cowgirl,” I said.
“Oh? Huh? What does that mean?” Kem seemed very offended. She was reading something into it. Or was this just how she was when a little drunk? To prove I was not making a snide allusion, I started telling her the whole laborious story about the rear-end zipper. I don’t think she believed it. Nobody ever put a zipper in the ass-crack of a pair of jeans.
She ended up leaving the rejects pile in the middle of the living room floor. I said I’d toss it all or give it Goodwill, though really figuring I’d end up bagging it up and throwing it all back in some closet. We didn’t talk much on the way to the airport. Both hungover, both uneasy with each other. So this is how friendships end? Well maybe not. “I’ll probably be back around Easter,” she said in a monotone while we waited at the boarding gate. The wide-eyed goodness-gracious act was all sucked out of her, at least for that morning. “Or you come visit me. Go ahead.” Walking backwards she waved goodbye then turned went out the gate. I saw her get on, then I waited around till the L-1011 took off. I wasn’t sure how to get back to the city, other than paying for another taxi, and wanted to put that decision off as long as possible. I knew I wouldn’t feel good when I got back.