More Rebel Than Revolutionary

Love Bus
My Road To Self-Entrapment

Three of us sit around the dining room table. We’re talking about the way the world should be, as if any one of us owns even an idiot’s notion of the way the world is at that moment.

I lick the hair that grows above my lip and wonder if it might get in the way of a kiss.

Pink wallpaper flowers bleed rust rings on the walls, and a spider weaves its web in a dusty corner near the ceiling. Dylan moans through stereo speakers about times that are achangin’. I ask myself how much change Bob earned by selling vinyl records.

The skin on Cord’s high forehead rises and wrinkles while he delivers yet another political harangue, giving me a hint of how he’ll look when he is old. At twenty-four his chest muscles pull at the seams of his madras-patterned shirt. A red, jagged scar interrupts his left eyebrow and serves as a reminder of his rugby days when we were college roommates.

Sally passes me a two-quart jug of syrupy soda. Her pale-blue eyes grow wide and liquid as she giggles. We’re both addicted to the carbonated drink, in spite of the fact that we claim to despise the corporation that pimps the poison to oppressed sugar junkies who ring the globe, from New York City to Saigon.

“Guess we’ll wait until tomorrow to quit,” she says. We clink our jelly jar glasses together and guzzle down the bubbly brew.

Our apartment is on the third floor of a typical Philadelphia redbrick colonial building in a bad neighborhood that we pretend is a good neighborhood that gets a “bum rap” because members of the bourgeoisie — whoever the hell they might be — don’t like hippies, poor people, revolution or reefer.

That’s The Line. The Line is required reading for any self-respecting counterculture college graduate dressed in bell-bottom bluejeans and work boots. In fact, this always evolving mission statement is an essential article of the The Movement’s constitution.

Each of us can recite this and every other article and subsection of the We Shall Overcome decree verbatim, because we study the underground newspapers that are stacked above ground throughout Center City, and we memorize the mimeographed posters that are tacked to telephone poles at railway stations.

This evening’s constitutional convention, however, has nothing to do with pontificated proclamations or reefer revolutions. Tonight we gather to display our denim uniforms and gorge our guts with a peasant’s proper battlefield feast. Yo, King Henry, pass me the second drumstick!

But our kitchen smells more like a farmer’s fart than a pheasant, because Sally cooked us Tuna Supreme. Again. Boxed mac and cheese, canned tuna and frozen broccoli, all swirled together inside the one cracked casserole dish we own, then baked in the oven until the broccoli struggles to the top and spits out noxious gas, and the cheese sizzles and splatters onto the oven’s floor.

Tuna Supreme is the only meal Sally knows how to make look edible. So whenever it’s her turn to do the honors Cord and I smile and say silly things like, “Damn, Sally, the broccoli came out tender tonight,” or “Did you use a different brand of tuna this time? It doesn’t taste the least bit fishy.” Keeping a straight face while flattering Sally — who knows she’s not being flattered or insulted — is an unwritten rule that Cord and I never needed to discuss.

We have several other House Rules, however, all of which we voted into our By Laws after intense but cordial debate, and then posted on the bulletin board that hangs in the foyer.

Four of these rules, paraphrased for sake of jocularity:

1. No kicking Sally’s cat, Lester, when it spits up hairballs on the vinyl-covered stairs, and I step in the cold muck wearing no shoes or socks at 4:00 am on a frigid winter’s morning. Instead, put on a pair of slippers and thank Lester for her contribution to The Cause (yep, Lester’s a she).

2. If the subject of sex comes up in conversation, talk about your appetite in respectful, cleansed and metaphysical terms. If need be, cross your legs and wait till later.

3. If you can’t play good guitar, then play bad guitar.

4. Be a man and wash the dishes.

Cord and I don’t mind washing dishes; not even Lester’s crusty metal bowl escapes our diligent attention. And we both love Sally, in a Platonic Way of course. As well, we respect the fact that Sally’s not supposed to be able to cook just because she’s a woman. Truth be told, not only is Sally a dedicated Communist; she’s also a Liberated Woman who owns a tattered copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971 First Edition) to prove her commitment to The Cause (whatever the hell that might be).

I stare past the mac and cheese that Cord just scooped onto my plate, through the tall bay windows of our apartment and then again through the shattered windows of the place across the alley. No one lives there anymore. Not one piece of furniture sits on the floor, because there is no floor. Not one picture hangs on the walls, because there are no inner walls. The building is a redbrick colonial that at one time matched our own, until an angry stranger — or maybe an insurance-money hungry landlord — lit the place on fire. Cord, Sally and I weren’t here for the celebration, but each day we’re treated to the pungent aroma of burnt wood.

“What time’s your night class?” Cord asks me.

I know that I answer his question, but only because I see Cord nod in recognition of my words. But I hear no more than what runs through my mind. “Why am I going to graduate school? I don’t want a career in academia. I just want to get out of this apartment, away from bad neighborhoods and  mimeographed revolutions and the pretense of The Cause. Tuna Supreme I can almost handle, although I hate the smell of broccoli even more than that of burnt wood, but the spider webs and the campfire atmosphere tipped me toward earning advanced degrees.”

Six days a week, Sally works long hours helping women who are victims of the depressed husbands who beat them up because they’re sick and tired of getting drunk and beating on themselves. Sally’s a witch, but a kind witch who owns an intense sense of loyalty. When my wife walked out, and I claimed the banner of self-pity, Sally first kicked my ass and then let me cry.

And Cord, I love Cord Cataleatto. Before Sally moved in with us, Cord and I signed the apartment’s lease. The cranky landlord thought we might be gay, which thought gave the crank cramps. So Cord and I said we were brothers, and we felt as if we told the truth.

Cord’s a romantic after the fashion of Lord Byron or Keats. His idea of springtime romance is taking a girl on a Saturday afternoon picnic in Fairmount Park, apples, cheese, and Rod McKuen’s corny poetry tucked into his backpack. Pink wine — sun-warmed, sweet and swollen — inside his leather canteen. The day topped off with lust dressed up to resemble love in a pool of evening shade provided by a maple tree.

The young man owns his serious side, too. He’s a self-styled community organizer, an upper-middle-class kid who tries his best to walk soul-to-soul with blue-collar steel mill workers, janitors and trash collectors. Organize! Unionize! Prod, poke and picket!

I leave half my meal uneaten. With my spoon and fork I scatter the remains around the plate in order to disguise the fact that I can’t stomach any more Tuna Supreme.

Cord volunteers to wash the dishes. I gather my textbooks, don my jacket that has an Omega sign patch sewn onto one shoulder, and make my way to the nearest trolley stop.

The squeal of train wheels combines with blue-fire sparks where pantographs meet overhead wires. I board the car and let my body rock and sway with it, so I won’t fall down. We dip down below street level, where the air smells like sweat and urine.

I pull the cord that signals the driver to stop and let me out on Broad, near City Hall. I follow a crowd of people whose combined stare is empty of hope or regret, and together we climb down the stairs that lead to the subway.

As I stand waiting for the next train, I plan and plot my escape.

Any escape, even the easiest one.

Inside my mind I am still running, as I walk into the classroom.

Does Your Website Brand You As A Rebel?

Two Clowns
Lap on the left, Rebel on the right

Today I’m thrilled, skeptical and chuck-full of warm fuzzies as I welcome one of my many oddball friends to join me here for a “Thirsty Thursday Blog Fest Conversation.”

Simon Schmidtlap, PhD, and I were boyhood friends back in the 1950s, that decade of winged automobiles, pleated skirts and scent-free sex. Simon was the successful, lemming blender-inner; while I represented the cynical and suspicious portion of our partnership.

Simon said, “Yes.”

I said, “Why?”

We grew up together in the Cattail Region of Southern New Jersey, where on many Saturday afternoons we hunted rabid muskrats, watched box turtles lay their eggs and cover them up with genuine Jersey sand, and chased Vera Thomas because our preternatural mixture of hormones told us we should.

We attended Breed Avenue Grammar School, which was just one block away from Gill’s Delicatessen. The teachers at Breed all had blue hair, wore vacuous smiles and smelled like cherry lollipops. They liked Simon better than me, because Simon was a worshiper and I was a smartass brat who didn’t want to shut up and listen.

I always felt jealous of Simon’s success, and I remain inclined to envy him now that we are both old men. Still, if it weren’t for Dr. Schmidtlap, my own quixotic sense of passionate battle might have shriveled up and fallen away from the rest of my soul a long time ago. And whether or not we admit it, we all know how a disintegrating soul can upset our stomachs and wreak havoc on our libidinal nightmares.

So as I swim inside the paradoxical pot of spaghetti sauce that has become my life, I oftentimes thank Dr. Simon Schmidtlap as he swims past me.

Nowadays, Schmidtlap lives in Fricassee, Texas, where only two percent of the population isn’t absolutely affluent, where everyone loves God and Country because poverty is all but non-existent, and where most of the houses are clean and free of fingerprints.

And as you already know, my recalcitrant fans, I live in a bayside town in California, where most mornings are romanced by fog, where the air oftentimes reeks of rotting fish, and the houses are just as kinky as the minds who inhabit them.

Professor Schmidtlap is today a famous fixture at Fricassee Fundamentalist University. He’s known to the students who butter him up for a good grade as Lovable Lap. He teaches one advanced placement course called How To Be Social When You Don’t Really Like People and one course for at-risk students called The Rebel Instinct That Can Ruin A Reputation.

Which brings us to the subject of this edition’s conversation: Does Your Blog Brand You As A Rebel?

“Good afternoon, Professor Schmidtlap.”

“So good to see you again, Anthony. And may I say, before we begin our probe in earnest, that you need not be so formal with me? After all, our shared memories of Vera Thomas still run through the river that runs through us, so to speak, hah hah. Just call me Lovable Lap, or Lap for short. That’s what the sycophants I teach each day call me.”

“I hesitate to begin our talk with a cliche, Simon, but you haven’t changed a bit. You’re still a lemming, and if it weren’t for the fact that I don’t want to die in prison, I’d lead you down the nearest corridor, get you lapped and looped on Poe’s amontillado, and then wall you up for good. Hah hah.”

“Ever the jester.”

“Perhaps. But as you are my guest for this Thirsty Thursday Conversation, you own the privilege of leading our little parlez vous.”

“Well, then, AVT — may I call you by your monogram, dear sir?”

“Sure enough, Lapster.”

“Well then –”

“You just said that. Do you want to ask me a question?”

“Why do you think I’m a successful published author and a recognized expert on the subject of expertise in the twenty-first century blogosphere, whereas you remain an unpublished, dismal failure? I mean you no disrespect by asking you this so soon, but I believe in the direct approach. Beating around the forsythia bush won’t find us Vera Thomas.”

“Because you live in Fricassee, Texas, where all the people are affluent and clean, whereas I swim with the fishes?”

“Living in Fricassee helps, yes, of course. And your allusion to an aspect of your ancestry is clever. But no, AVT. No, not at all correct. Your success with failure can be attributed to one key aspect of your personality and to one specific crime you committed back in 1954.”

“Now you’re making me angry, Lap. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you –”

“A thousand times?”

“Right. I never caught up with Vera that day we were hunting muskrat.”

“Relax. Do you mind if I puff on my Meerschaum pipe? Yes, yes, I understand what the doctors say about dying and the dentists say about bad breath, but blowing smoke helps me to maintain my sense of self-esteem.”

“Blow away, Professor. You’re my guest, so I’ll just hold my breath and force a smile. But if it wasn’t Vera Thomas you meant to mention, then what crime did I commit — that you knew about — in 1954?”

“Are you sure you want to reveal this sensitive a secret to your half dozen readers, AVT?”

“Why not? After all, the social media experts informed me yesterday that I’m not creating a viable platform here by twisting facts and torturing self-absorbed prose, that my concepts are fatally low, and my Klonk score is abysmal. So, sure enough, let’s make the leap, Lap.”

“Okay. I’m about to administer a kind of verbal Rorschach Test. Close your mouth. Then think about the following words –”

“Close my mouth? Why?”

“Because if we’re going to accomplish anything of worth by way of this conversation, then you first must perform an act that has to this date felt impossible to you.

“Good, AVT, now keep your mouth closed and inside what’s left of your mind blend these words in order to recall the memory of a distant sin. ‘Mrs. Schneider,’ ‘cloak room,’ ‘chocolate cupcakes,’ and ‘high heels’.”

“Cheesus, Simon! You remember that day? Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”

“No need, not until you began your hobbled attempts to embrace Cloud-based Social Networking and messed up everything, as usual, by asking too many questions and otherwise challenging authority.”

“You’ve heard, then?”

“No such thing as privacy anymore, AVT. This isn’t 1954, and in spite of your desire to dive off the train at Willoughby, Vera isn’t hungry anymore.”

“And I thought this idea of mine, this Thirsty Thursday Conversation blog bit would make my Klonk score soar, win me friends and convince readers that I wasn’t such a bad old fart after all. Shoot.”

“All is not lost, my friend. If there’s one lesson I learned while living in Fricassee, Texas, it’s that people in clean houses are willing to forgive so long as you attend Sunday services. But you must first — here and now — describe this crime for sake of your half dozen readers, that they might go forth and multiply good will.”

“Well okay, then.

“Mrs. Schneider was my fourth-grade teacher. Our classroom was on the second story of Breed Grammar School. The floor was made of gray, dusty wood. The blackboards were really black back then. My desk was freshly varnished, so it smelled like vomit.

“Mrs. Edith Schneider was screaming. Again. She screamed at us every day. I shut out her voice and just stared at her. I swear, that’s all I did. I didn’t mutter even one word.

“‘If looks could kill, Anthony, I’d be dead a thousand times,’ she said. ‘I’m sick of your dirty black looks!'”

“I wanted to cry. I wanted to open the tall window beside my desk and jump out into the fresh air. I wanted to disappear.

“And most of all, I wanted revenge.

“But I continued just to stare at her. Until she commanded me to enter the cloak room and close the door behind me.

“The cloak room was a long corridor with no windows. The air inside was black. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made out the hooks where jackets and sweaters hung. I got down on my hands and knees and moved my back against the wall. I crawled along the floor, and stopped when I came to Simon’s lunchbox. I flicked up the box’s metal switch and pushed up the lid. The inside smelled like sour milk and peanut butter. That and chocolate. Simon’s mother always included a TastyKake three-pack of chocolate cupcakes.

“I listened to Mrs. Schneider screaming as her voice vibrated inside the walls. I tracked that voice. When I knew she was at the end of the classroom opposite the cloak room, I opened the three-pack and gobbled down Simon’s dessert. All three chocolate cupcakes. The cloak room wasn’t such a bad place after all.

“And next I must have fallen asleep.

“When I awoke, the air around me fell heavy and silent inside my ears. After maybe two or three minutes, I risked crawling to the cloak room’s door. One inch at a time, I pushed opened that door, to discover that the classroom was empty of people.

“Gym class, we called it back in 1954. P.E. is what they name it today. Jumping jacks, relay races and kickball.

“Mrs. Schneider forgot that she’d sentenced me to solitary confinement. So I crept into the room and walked up to her desk. There, on the floor, beside the legs of her chair, lay my revenge.

“Mrs. Schneider wore high-heeled shoes to school each day. But before taking the class out to Gym, she always changed into a pair of canvas sneakers. I grabbed those high-heeled shoes, ran to the tall window, opened it, and tossed those polished babies out and down. They landed behind some bushes.

“Then I returned to the cloakroom and pretended to be sleeping.

“The class returned. Mrs. Schneider bellowed when she could not locate her shoes. I giggled. Up until the moment she entered the dark cloak room and pulled me up and out by my ear.

“And no matter how much she badgered me and peppered me with the same accusation and the same question — ‘You took them, you no good brat! Where did you hide my shoes?’ — I just stared.

“Mrs. Schneider of course called my mother that night to report my latest crime. In 1954, mothers believed teachers and backed them up. Even screaming wrecks of human beings who claimed to be teaching something other than their own frustration, anger and depressed of view of the world; mothers backed them up and believed them, too.

“But I denied any culpability. And no proof existed. Not until the next afternoon, when Mrs. Edith Schneider caught me glancing through the classroom window. She took the unintentional hint and led the entire class on a scavenger hunt.

“And you, Professor Lap. You, you sniveling little lemming. You found Mrs. Schneider’s high-heeled shoes. You picked up one shoe, pointed its sharp heel at me, and said, ‘He did it!’ ‘Look, Mrs. Schneider,’ you said. ‘Look, his face is turning red! He stole your shoe!’

“It was you, Simon. You were the one who committed the greater crime that day. You snitched.”

“Well, they were my TastyKake chocolate cupcakes. But let’s not quibble over tangential issues. The point is, AVT, that day you became a confirmed rebel. And your rebelliousness is ruining both your blogomatic brand and your blogospherical reputation.”

“Brand be damned, then. Go back to Fricassee, Simon Schmidtlap! Keep hiding inside the cloak room you made for yourself! No more invitations to Thirsty Thursday Blog Fest Conversations shall come your way.”

So readers, what do you think? Is Professor Schmidtlap right about me? Is Rebel not a High Concept brand? Are chocolate cupcakes and high-heeled shoes — when taken together — injurious to one’s health? Do you think I can learn to forgive myself for such an act of treachery as this gnarled conversation amplifies?

Woe is I!