Typing instead of griping

The natty new baseball cap I ordered from The New York Times arrived the other day, and it’s a solid accessory/hair-hider. Though gaspingly overpriced, the black cap embossed with a gothic Times logo is as plush as a teddy bear and slips on with snuggly élan. (Now where’s the New Yorker tote promised with my subscription? Does anybody actually use totes?) 

The cap came speedily, an anomalous on-time arrival. The mail’s a mess. Of seven books I’ve ordered, three have gotten lost in transit and the rest have taken up to a month to come. I’ve received four refunds. The pandemic’s to blame, and The New Yorker was civil enough to apologize for the tote delay, citing the crisis. (I so don’t need a tote.)

The crisis. Damn. We’re whipped and we never had a fighting chance. Stuffed indoors, grounded from going out to play, we are occasionally embalmed in boredom. But there are things to be done. Typing beats griping. Thumb wrestling: a reliable time-passer.

This whole topic is as tired as we are, a cliché looking for a new angle, a brand-new nag. What am I going to do, write about the dog again? Regale you with what I ate for lunch? Chat about the movies I’ve been watching? 

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    The Marx Brothers: comic chaos

Done. I’ve rewatched some Marx Brothers, riotous rapscallions of Dada-esque anarchy, and the peerless noir “The Big Sleep,” in which Bogart’s smooth, smoke-wreathed private eye falls dangerously hard for the dangerously young Lauren Bacall while on a gnarled murder case. Howard Hawks crisply directs William Faulkner’s script, which is based on Raymond Chandler’s pungent detective classic. The movie sits in my personal pantheon of bests. Likewise the Marx Brothers masterpiece “Duck Soup.” (Speaking of soup, that’s what I ate for lunch.)

Outside, children shriek and gambol — my shriek and gambol days ended at 35 — their exuberant simian antics echoing through the streets and the trees and surely breaking social distancing guidelines. So what! They’re young and invincible! Barring them indoors is like corking a volcano. It’s gonna blow.

Children are not my tribe. I have none, and I’m grateful for that. I do not feel bereft in the least. Parents do not arouse envy in me. (In fact, I consider it this way: bullet dodged.) My nephews are terrific and as close to parenthood as I ever want to get. The only creature that calls me Poppa is the dog, which affirms twin beliefs that I’m part canine and he is made of magic.

After reading and a walk, it’s back to the keyboard, one of my few comfort zones. Warmth is not a comfort zone. Temperatures are rising, summer’s rottenness creeping in. People love this stuff — heat, sweat, sun — another popular phenomenon I spurn, like dinner parties, reggae and the American version of “The Office.” (I’m typing and griping.)

Which means summer hibernation will come naturally. I love A/C, loathe UV. But really, will there even be a summer, or will it just be streaming? Will people sit in wide, loose circles on patios, sliding down face masks to sip rosé and eat guac? The annual September block party — will that too be nixed? Maybe not. Eighty households can Zoom together at once, right? Surely. Hot dogs and deviled eggs, those are your responsibility.

The story behind my blog photo

People have asked me if the photograph above this blog is is a screen-shot from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” as it resembles a scene from that classic 1959 film. It is not.
It is Alfred Eisenstaedt‘s amazing picture of kids at a Parisian puppet show, “Saint George and the Dragon,” at an outdoor theater in 1963.
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Time magazine recently wrote about this enchanting photo:

Capturing the thrill, the shock, the shared triumph-over-evil that the children feel at the very moment when St. George slays the mythical beast, Eisenstaedt’s picture feels as fresh as when it was made, more than 50 years ago.

Here, the picture tells us, is an innocence that can remind even the most jaded of what it was once like to believe, to really believe, in the stories that unfold before our eyes onstage, or onscreen.

The master photographer himself said of this very picture:

“It took a long time to get the angle I liked. But the best picture is the one I took at the climax of the action. It carries all the excitement of the children screaming, The dragon is slain! Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.”

My best fiend: remembering a childhood pal

My best friend between ages 5 and 10 was a freckled scamp named Gene, who even at that age seemed to conduct life on the razor’s edge, courting trouble with a highly evolved sense of mischief and the occasional snap of malice.

Always cooking something up for us to perpetrate, be it leaving dog poop on someone’s porch then doorbell ditching or setting small fires with gun powder in his bedroom, Gene earned the nickname “Gene the Machine” from my dad, who didn’t know the half of it.

Small and short — he sat on a tall step stool at the dinner table — Gene provided my unsentimental education. He taught me every cuss word I know. When he blurted “Go to hell!” at a girl in our fourth-grade class, I was too overcome with snickers to be shocked. He introduced me to nudie magazines, some of which he buried in plastic bags in his backyard. He sold me on the rock band Kiss and the dubious pleasures of pyromania. 

Boy holding burning matchstick

Matches and firecrackers were always on hand. We scorched many things, including, by accident, ourselves. At our mildest we would torment plastic army men, igniting them and watching them melt, black, acrid smoke curling up. Eventually Gene, with another pal, burned down a large field. (That misbegotten episode attracted the authorities.)

Something of a holy terror when he was in form — like the time he tortured to death two frogs he found under a rock — Gene also exposed me to twin thrills: the breathtaking delights of high-impact rollercoasters and the gnarly waves at our Southern California beaches. To this day, a mean, uncompromising rollercoaster is a peerless high.  

And then he’d do something reckless, like toss shotgun shells into a bonfire or pour rubbing alcohol on the garage floor in a circle, light it and stand in the middle of it as if performing some kind of pipsqueak pagan ritual.

We were young and he made me laugh harder than anyone. Yet this incorrigible gremlin exposed me to dangers and things wrong and taboo, even illegal. (Where were our parents amid the devilry?) Once he convinced me to throw rocks off a cliff into dense traffic. A man, enraged, saw us and we ran like hell.

Even Gene’s jokes were warped, naturally. He told me that he was going to stick a firecracker in the neighbor poodle’s butt and light it. Seeing my horror, he admitted he was kidding. Thing was, I didn’t put it past him. (Then again, he was a bleeding heart animal lover, lavishing cooing affection on his dog and pet rat.)

After I moved, at 10, from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco Bay Area, Gene and I kept in touch, seeing each other twice a year to hit the next rollercoaster, smoke cigarettes on the railroad tracks and listen to heavy metal as our teenage years blossomed.

Gene picked up the guitar and played metal like a madman — he was good at whatever he tried, from surfing to skiing — and I continued playing the drums I started as a kid. We jammed, copying riffs we heard on vinyl by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Metal Church and Metallica.

And then Gene’s heedless path took him down bum detours, drug addiction being the worst of it. We saw less and less of each other as we hit our 20s — college, jobs. He struggled mightily with his demons, and lost. At 26 he was dead from an overdose. I was a pallbearer at his funeral with a few other guys I’d never met before.

I still have dreams of Gene — impish, funny, alive. He made an enormous imprint on me, shaping and influencing me in ways to live (loud, with a scrap of healthy risk) and not to live (like a kamikaze). Age has tempered, filtered and refined all that. I’m (arguably) well-adjusted, considering the Gene factor.

In the end, Gene was just a neat kid, scrappy and irrepressible, taking a bite out of life with enviable gusto if too little restraint and a sometimes shaky moral code. I facetiously call him that devil child. But, thing is, I don’t think he’s anywhere near hell.