A young man’s dreams look forward to what he imagines might become his future. He creates scenarios with equal energy and effort while he’s awake and while he sleeps. His dreams are malleable and oftentimes buoyed by a joyful sensation. His imagination knows nothing about death.
An old man’s dreams become the cherished memories of his earlier faith in infinity and eternity, a faith he lost in gradual fashion, as the wind tore off one flower at a time from his face, then bent his stem toward the soil that once fed him, and near the end began to insist that his roots must be ripped away from planet Earth.
Oblivion seems a sad place, and so we invoke fairy tales that describe an afterlife. A giant’s castle inside a cloud, atop a beanstalk. The giant falls, as fell Lucifer.
I am that old man now. I own neither future nor faith. My face no longer blooms with color and fragrance. The weight of life bends me forward; my gait is slow and hesitant. My roots begin to loosen their grip. Today I rage, along with Dylan, against the dying light. Yet, I wonder if I’ll go gentle or go gutted by a struggle against the pain of disappointment. Those who say we must surrender are hopeful fools. The truth is that we are surrendered.
I was once that young man charged with boundless dreams, most of which — as survival demands — had to be perforce abandoned. So many pleasant scripts, now no more than yellowed pages littering the archives inside my mind.
One such vision I created placed me center stage, dancing.
I owned a gift, a talent, and a flair for floating across a dance floor.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 6, 1979, I snatched my carry-on luggage from the compartment above the seat I’d occupied for six hours, walked through a snaking canvas tunnel, and met two friends inside the airport lobby.
I’d purchased a one-way ticket from Philly to LA.
My friends entertained me for a couple of hours, then drove me to the apartment where I’d sleep for the next two months, while the signed tenant traveled through parts of Europe.
I was born beside the Atlantic Ocean. I grew up with the aromas of salt and sand embedded in my nostrils. The air of land’s end filled my lungs with nourishment more important than oxygen.
So on that Friday evening, I unpacked my suitcase, found a clever place to hide most of the seven hundred dollars I owned, showered, and dressed my body in what I imagined to be LA Chic. (My polyester Guido outfit failed the laid-back LA test, but no matter.)
Splashed with an abundant amount of Polo cologne, as all East Coast Guidos are bound by unspoken oath to splash, not dab, I ran from the apartment, followed the street-sign arrow that pointed west, and walked a few miles until I reached the grand Pacific.
That night, tangerine sunset sky enriched with smog, I tapped the nearest shoulder and asked, “Where around here do people go when they feel like dancing?” In order to be understood I had to repeat my question several times. I spoke East Coast Rapid in nasal tones acquired in New Jersey.
I found the dancehall. I paid the cover charge. As was my habit back then, first I sat and watched. I searched for the best female dancer, one with whom I knew I could fly.
And yes, I flew. I twirled and I curled. I sensed and followed both the prominent and the offbeat rhythm. I lost myself in meditation, the only kind of meditation that I ever could accomplish. Today I wonder how many Buddhists know how to dance.
And yes again, the crowd backed away, formed a circle around us, cheered us on and clapped out the joy we shared.
The old man I am today dances only when he closes his eyes and entertains his memories. His legs lost their onetime flexibility. The stem leans, and the roots ache.
And yes one more time, this old man feels blue when he considers the fact that back then he lacked the confidence to pursue his dancing dream.
On a bright yellow morning in December of 1963 God taught me the reason a bald man needs a haircut, the fact that Jackie Kennedy didn’t care who shot her husband, and that I was supposed to hate niggers because I looked like one.
I was sitting inside The Buzzcut Emporium — across the parking lot from Snoozie’s Trattoria — smelling white powder puffing off the soft brush with a blond wood handle that Jimmie the barber was waving against the neck of the tall, skinny, bald man who sat in the swivel chair.
I didn’t like the way Jimmie made loud speeches while holding a straight razor close to the wiry man’s throat; and the bald man sneered and blew me a kiss. So I slumped, slouched and curled my body until I became invisible. Then I slid what was left of me back against the wall, and I leafed through a copy of Life Magazine.
I stared at the Abe Zapruder colored photos of JKF’s assassination. I stopped breathing when I reached the frame where his wife Jackie held her man still and wide open to the shot that turned one side of the president’s head into red mist.
“She was sad, but she was free,” said God. “The secret service man who climbed onto the limousine’s back bumper practiced his lines and moves ahead of time.”
I considered asking God a question about Calvin’s concept of Predestination, but the barber’s voice distracted me.
“You want I should blend the sides with the fuzz around your ears. That right?” said Jimmie.
“Yeah, that and give it a proper washing, maybe even lighten it up some for the summer months,” said the bald man. Then he pulled what at first looked like a squirmy guinea pig from the pocket of his permanent-press slacks and handed the creature to Jimmie.
Turns out the pig was his hair.
Pig, wig, what the fuck, I thought. This guy’s an independent thinker like me, or he’s a nut case like me; and in either event Johnnie Rebello was right to recommend that I write my next story about whatever might happen here on a Saturday morning.
I rubbed my hand through the mess of tight curls that sat on top of my brain, and I listened to the bell above the doorjamb jingle as a cop walked inside and approached Jimmie. That tinkling bell, I realized, appeared in far too many of the stories I wrote not to hold some mysterious significance inside my psyche. Something to do with arrival and departure.
The cop wore a hat. The kind the bread man wore in the early 1950s when I was too young by a slip to go to school. I think I was in love with the bread man. It was all about the way he smelled. Sweet and hopeful as lemon sunlight shining on baby-green grass.
The fact that the bread man’s visits interrupted the beatings my mother gave me for being a weird child who was born inside her gut and could get back inside her head anytime he wanted to go there served to deepen my affection for him.
He would knock on the door, and my mother would drop her weapon, quick stop screaming, and growl at me to suck up my tears. Then she’d start singing and smiling like a television housewife who smelled like lavender perfume even after lusty sex.
I was only four or five years old at the time, but my daily travels inside my mother’s mind led me to understand — in the vague but focused way that babies comprehend the complicated aspects of communication — the connection between the beatings and her intense sense of physical frustration. A few years later, when I learned how to make myself come, I realized what she’d been missing, and how the bread man’s visits fit into the picture.
“Come on in,” she’d say when she opened the door.
He was tall and handsome, and his fingernails were clean.
My dad was short and nondescript, and his hands were always dirty from working hard-labor jobs on the railroad. Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. Steam locomotives left over from World War II, dedicated to lugging tourists from Philadelphia to South Jersey and back again.
The bread man sported a fresh-pressed brown uniform and a snappy cap with a shiny black brim.
My dad wore grease-stained overalls and a pinstriped canvas hat that surrendered to his sweat.
The bread man filled the air with the aroma of sugar frosting and jelly doughnuts.
Dad stank of kerosene and coal tar.
And the cop carried no scent at all.
“Gotta stack of Wanted Dead or Alive posters here,” he said. His voice squealed past the fine hairs inside his nostrils and came out sounding like a sax gone sour. “Mind if I tape one to your window?”
“You know me, Bernie. Semper a Member of the Chamber. Here, I’ll hang one on the mirror, too. Who you lookin’ for this time?”
“Thug named Harry Felton. Guy wrote a book a few years back, then made himself drunk forever when no one but old ladies wanted to read the damned thing. Couple of months ago, he snorted down the wrong kind of cocktail and totaled a Packard automobile. Almost killed his own fat ass, and crippled his queer passenger, then escaped the hospital with the help of his agent just after we pressed him with a DWI. We suspect he went looking for an old dame named Gloria Lakeland. Seems like he had a score to settle with her.”
“Lakeland from down the road in Railsford? Did he find her?” said Jimmie.
“Yep, that’s the broad. She showed up yesterday lying in her own bed, naked, embarrassed and two days beyond dead. Her neighbors smelled her remains and called us. A note, written in red lipstick, was tacked to the headboard. Just two words: Epilogue Forthcoming. I’m not sure if I’m saying that right.”
“What’s this world coming to, Bernie?”
“I can’t answer that one. That kind of language is too twisted and high-falutin for me to want to understand.”
The cop left, and the bell tinkled.
“You’re next, kid,” said Jimmie. At first I didn’t know he was talking to me. I was too busy trying to stay invisible, and thinking about how much I hated Jackie Kennedy, to pay careful attention to the present moment.
And as far as present moments go, even back then I realized that time was a desperate concept we invented so we wouldn’t feel too dizzy and start to fall down. Being physically and emotionally tortured makes some children wither inside and turns other ones into hyper-sensitive psychics. I was a damned smart kid. Intelligence was the only thing I knew for certain that I owned, although intelligence disappointed itself by telling me that I could never be the best or the most.
“What’s wrong? Those big ears of yours not working today?” The tall bald man, who wasn’t exactly bald anymore, punched me on my shoulder and pointed to Jimmie. “Man’s talking to you, you bookworm faggot shrimp,” he said.
His trimmed and copper-toned guinea pig was sitting on top of his head. It slipped a little bit to the left as he bent down toward me. But his thin-lipped mouth tilted off to the right side of the universe, so on balance I made sense of the view.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I like your haircut.” I kept my facial muscles tight when I spoke, so as to be sure that my expression added nothing to my words.
Of course, I was being a wise-ass motherfucker by saying I admired his orange pig wig, but I’d learned from my mother’s beatings, and from the tough acting kids at school who spat on me and had wax inside their flat shiny ears, that given the choice between a subtly delivered wise-ass compliment and none at all, the insecure among us would always ignore the sarcasm and accept the compliment as a gift.
The tall, skinny man twitched his head from left to right, the way a spastic entertains an uncontrollable tic. He pushed his polyester shirt down deep into his permanent-press slacks, scratched his balls while he was down there, smelled the fingers he pulled out and turned toward the Buzzcut Emporium’s door.
And by force of habit I listened to the doorjamb bell tinkle.
“Climb aboard, kid. Mind if I call you kid?” said Jimmie the barber. He placed a padded board across the swivel chair’s arms. I shrugged my shoulders in answer to his question, wiggled my ass into position, and wished I wasn’t short like my dad.
“Please. Can you give me a flat top? Leave it longer right up front?” I said.
“Flat tops are for real hair, not for what God gave you. You got nigger’s wool. Only one way I can try to fix it,” he said. Then he grabbed the electric razor and I listened to it hum like an attacking squadron of green-head houseflies.
“My dad told me I don’t have to get a buzz cut this time.” I heard the pleading whine inside my voice and hated myself for begging this bastard.
“Your dad’s the little guy who works the switch house down the way, isn’t he?”
“He works hard,” I said.
“Not hard enough at controlling his wife. But look, kid, you don’t want to go through this life looking like a woolly headed licorice baby, so just let me do my job. The only reason I took you in here was because Johnnie called me from over at the Trattoria and said you had potential in spite of your looks.”
“You know Johnnie Rebello?” I said.
“Like a man knows his brother, cause that’s what we are. I’m Jimmie Rebello, but most guys call me Jimmie The Razor. You’re still a young punk, though, so just keep calling me sir.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Rebello,” I said as I watched my nigger’s wool fall to the black-and-white tile floor.
“Johnnie says you’re an author. That the way it is?”
“I write stories, but so far no one wants to publish them.”
“Well, what do you write about, kid?”
“Melancholy dead guys who live in Happyland. About them and about everything else.”
I thought about how if I ever wrote this barber shop into a story I’d have to change all the characters’ names, because no one would believe that they all ended with the same sound. Johnnie, Jimmie, Bernie, Harry. Then again, I thought, life was odd and so were my stories, so maybe I’d leave well enough alone.
“That might be your problem, kid. Trust me on this. Dead guys can be melancholy, but not here in Happyland.”
“Your brother, Mr. Johnnie, told me the same thing.”
“Must have heard it from me. We talk a lot. On the telephone, that is. I can’t convince him he should leave his favorite corner booth, walk across the parking lot and visit me here. He tells me that exercise is for fools who think they’ll live forever. Sometimes I think he’s got a point.”
“Mr. Johnnie is a wise man.”
“So I eat free of charge at the Trattoria once a month, and in return I give him a haircut to match his restaurant’s decor.”
“Like I said, Mr. Johnnie is a –”
“Quit while you’re ahead, kid. I don’t need you to praise my brother.” Jimmie swung me around in the chair. “You see the mug hanging on my mirror over there? Guy’s name is Harry Felton. He’s an author, too. Old, drunk and on the run from the law. He let a temporary need for love ruin his life. Happens to all you brooding artist types. I’d be careful if I was you.”
I stared at Harry Felton’s photograph, and then at my own reflection in the mirror. Harry had nigger’s wool, too. Gray to my brown, but his curls were just as tight. True enough, he looked lonely and just about dead. But he held his head high and winked at me.
I climbed down off the board and out of the swivel chair. I pulled two quarters out my pants pocket and handed them to Jimmie.
“Glad I met you, Mr. Rebello, sir” I said. “But I don’t need love. I need success. And the next time I want a haircut, I’ll look for Harry Felton’s barber.”
I remember leaving the Buzzcut Emporium, but I can’t be sure that the doorjamb bell tinkled on my way out.
When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.
It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.
I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.
I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.
These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.
My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.
And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.
I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.
A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.
“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”
I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.
“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.
“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”
“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.
I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.
“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”
“I never really liked airplanes.”
“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”
With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.
“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.
I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.
“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to become you,” I said.
“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”
“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”
“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.
“I don’t understand you,” I said.
“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”
And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.
Two films with writers as central characters, same silly story.
Finding Forrester, 2000
Sean Connery plays brilliant, Pulitzer-Prize-winning, washed-up author William Forrester. Featuring yet another great hairpiece for Sean, that and his ever sexy lishp.
Rob Brown plays God-given talent Jamal Wallace, kid from the streets of New York who dribbles a mean basketball and rat-a-tat-tats an even meaner set of typewriter keys. Of course, no one knows the answer to the age-old question, “Are writers born inside a bubble made of miracles?” But after watching this film, your insides are sure to swell with the resounding answer “Yes! By God, yes!”
Conflict point numero uno (all good stories require seemingly insurmountable conflict points, right?): Sean Connery Forrester — and let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this production could have earned much cash if say, Mel Gibson or Alec Baldwin played our aging author — and Jamal, oh what a perfect up and coming name made in Liberal Heaven, Wallace meet by chance. If memory serves me well, Mr. Pulitzer finds himself in possession of the kid’s backpack, and the kid wants the backpack back.
Jamal requests Forrester’s help, although his strong sense of dignity forbids the possibility that he beg for such assistance. Mr. Hairpiece resists. We the audience, especially we writers in desperate search of inspiration, know that Sean William Forrester suffers the dread disease known to authors from F. Scott to Capote to Lil’ Ole Us as Writers’ Constipation.
Forrester has for so long born this backup that he’s become a recluse (another oh-so-original idea regarding burned-out and all-but-forgotten scribes).
I refuse to include a spoiler here, but one pivotal scene requires, yes requires that I comment. Sean Pulitzer sits before his typewriter. Jamal Meanstreets sits at his typewriter. The two stunning authors face each other. Sean begins to tap tap tap. Jamal hesitates. Sean asks Jamal, “Whatshthematter?” He goes on to tell Jamal, “The firsht rule for a writer is that a writer writesh!”
Oh, woe is I? That before watching this film I wasted so much of what might have otherwise become my stellar career seems an unintentional mortal sin! After all, I coulda’ been a contenda’.
Starting Out in the Evening, 2007
Frank Langella plays brilliant, washed-up author Leonard Schiller whose books are out-of-print. No fine hairpiece or sexy lishp featured in this one, just a flabby old man who still owns a well-toned mind, but we are treated to a hidden away photograph of Frankie, aka Leonard, when he was young and irresistibly hunky.
Lauren Ambrose plays God-given talent Heather Wolfe, rich, cute and erotically inspirational child (as in makes even an old man want to bed her for sake of the afterward intellectual conversation) from the mean quadrangle of your typical Ivy League University who hugs you because she loves your intellect and records the depth of a washed-up author’s personality in one helluva Masters Thesis. Of course, no one knows the answer to the age-old question, “Are writers born inside a bubble made of miracles?” But after watching this film and juicing up over Heather’s sensitive flesh, your insides are sure to swell with the resounding answer “Yes! By God, yes! I think I’m coming!”
Conflict point numero uno (all good stories require seemingly insurmountable conflict points, right?): Frank Langella Schiller — and let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this production could have earned much cash if say, Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman played our aging author — and Heather, oh what a perfectly delicate name made in Hubba Hubba Heaven, Wolfe meet by less than chance. If memory serves me well, Heather Hubba Hubba pursues Frankie, slithers first into his confidence and then into his bed (just to stare, not to touch, mind you) in order to commit research for her thesis.
Heather requests Schiller’s help, although her strong sense of dignity almost forbids the possibility that she beg for such assistance. Mr. Flabby resists. We the audience, especially we writers in desperate search of inspiration, know that Frank Leonard Schiller suffers the dread disease known to authors from Hemingway to Hellman to Lil’ Ole Us as Writers’ Constipation.
And of course, Schiller has for so long born this backup that he’s become a recluse (another oh-so-original idea regarding burned-out and all-but-forgotten scribes).
I refuse to include a spoiler here, but one pivotal scene requires, yes requires that I comment. Leonard Langella sits before his typewriter. Heather Hubba Hubba sits in the next room over, yet engaged in intimate contact with her mentor’s soul, pad of paper and magic pen in hand. The two stunning authors face each other through the ether. Leonard begins to tap tap tap. Heather hesitates. Leonard asks Heather, “What? You want to go to bed with me? Flabby old brilliant moi?” He goes on to tell Heather (with his soulful stare and not with words, mind you), “Well, all right, but remember that you cannot always interrupt me this way, because the first rule for a writer is that a writer writes!”
Oh, woe is I? That before watching this film I wasted so much of what might have otherwise become my stellar career seems an unintentional mortal sin! After all, I coulda’ been a contenda’.
So why do I call these stories silly? And why if I thought them silly did I watch them?
Second question answered first (this is a favorite trick that we writers born carrying the burden of God-given talent employ; it’s called Reverse Agitation).
I’m a sucker for a story about writers, even writers whose sexy lishps, Hollywood hairpieces and flabby bellies belie the reality of a writer’s boring life. After all, and as I already said, I coulda’ been a contenda’. And yet I’m not.
First question answered next.
In neither of these two films are we allowed to see or read the supposedly exquisite, award-winning and poetic prose that any of the four main characters wrote. I oftentimes tap away, or scratch pen point onto pad of paper, but somehow my writing isn’t award-winning material.
Oh woe is I! Maybe I should have been born tall and quick enough to dribble a basketball, or sexy enough to bring brain-dead authors back to life just by suggesting that they go to bed with me.