“Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break! — Nikos Kazantzakis
I was a quiet child, passive, inoffensive, in no way troublesome, able to be left alone for hours, good, slightly curious, reasonably bright – unloved and untouched. No hand held me, no embrace told me I was unique, dearly desired and wanted. So, I unwittingly and unknowingly embraced myself. Like the sewers of Paris, I opened wide my eyes to the waters above; they entered my grates, became torrents and fled like rivers beneath the city of lights. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree. . .” Subterranean, I dwelt in Nod, east of Eden.
A catalogue of what children are denied, what is unavailable to them might serve a cautionary note.
Charlotte Russe, a confectioner’s delight of angel food cake topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry doused in sulfites, all tornadoed into an opened cardboard contrivance with an inner oval insert to hold the cake itself and a scalloped edge to serve as a diadem for the pile of schlag swirled on top. In the Fifties they were often arranged in a glass-tiered etagere at the corner candy store and the owner delivered to each eager child the Russe with a degree of care and mock awe.
Orange crates with a 2×3 inch wide sturdy end pieces, the decals were detritus then, and now collectibles (“Indian River”) — the side slats were carefully pried away, held in place by brads on each end. With this material innovation began. Two slats nailed together into a wider brace stock formed a rifle and affixed with a whittled bayonet. The remaining square pieces were cut and made into a cardboard gun. So in hand one had a wooden letter L, a nail affixed beneath the long barrel, an inch or so from the tip, the held the rubber band that stretched from beneath to over and down the barrel’s snout where it grabbed onto a notch. Cardboard squares, 1” x 1” were cut out from one’s father’s shirts; they came from the cleaners with cardboard in those days. Children were environmentalists.
Glass straws bought at the nearest drugstore that still displayed apothecary jars filled with blue and red waters, served as street assault weapons, for handful of dusty barley or rice in one’s mouth fed its opening and one spent late afternoons spitting these pellets at one’s friends. Water guns at the time were in one color, like Ford’s Model T; it was a black, 45mm replica and it leaked eventually and it did not shoot too far; it was for close encounters but it was not menacing. At the time no one feared it might be mistaken for the real thing.
Definitely missed are the stolidly dramatic cars, Studebaker, Kaiser-Frazer, Packard, Hudson, for their designs allowed one to leap back and sit upon their sides next to the hood, and one was not a youngster until an owner called, “Hey, kid, get off my car!” Oh, the “mischief.” And the only stalwart polish was Simoniz, swirls of mist dewy circles on the car as one waited until it turn slightly milked and then buffed it out – and always in the shade, the place where men tooled with the carburetor.
Marshmallow chocolate covered twists were two cents apiece, and the candy store owner dug deep into the ice cream chest below the soda fountain to pull out these “truffles,” recalcitrant little creatures so delectable to the taste; much the same for a frozen Milky Way, sold to you on Brighton and Coney Island beaches by a white suited, white safari-hatted young man schlepping a white box laced in khaki army belts as grips. Across Saharan sands, he lugged this white treasure trove.
As a child a beanie was essential and was constructed from the crown of a man’s hat, often dad’s. The brim was cut away, and edge turned up and scalloped – charms, pins, added to it. Hats? What are hats? They are the controller of men’s hands and a source of civility and politeness. They are the cowboy’s plumed helmet, his de Bergerac. Hats, then, were excuses to leave and reminders to go. They slept on beds.
What was an aunt if not a hat with a veil, perhaps black or white gloves – for every day wear; perhaps rouge, ah, yes, rouge. And what was folded tissue if not a blotter for thickly lipsticked lips.
I was texture and I was within a specified context.
An emasculated coat hanger left a metal Y. A thick rubber band tied to the end posts and then fed through the cushion of a nylon backing – nylons, seams, fixing seams, garter belts: oh, lust. The sling was fed with unripe berries from local street trees, city child as migrant worker, agricultural reaper.
Sleds were not oval or ellipsoid nor of plastic and composite but linear scarps, with metal runners, “American Flyers” – Rosebuds! – that one ran with and flopped upon snow – belly-whopping. Now one circles down a hill in a saucer as if in orbit, whereas before one crossed the continental divide, conquered a frontier.
Ice cream cones were 9 cents and came with a choice: spun sugar cones – too fragile, or the spiraled wafer funnel cones, Wicked Witch of the West hats. And the milk and cream content were biblically fatted. An occasional choice was the Mello-Roll, a cylinder of ice cream covered with paper than you unrolled and placed into a cone shaped like a sugar mallet, a diy treat.
Of all the Rosebuds of my childhoods, the blue Swiss phonograph my father brought home from a pawnshop in which he worked, gripped my fascination, for it was extremely compact, each black and gun-metal blue piece fit exquisitely – and beautifully – into its cramped confines, much like a trusted jack, each section in its proper position – and tightly aligned – in the trunk. The needle was thick, a stereophile’s conniption; however, it was on this well-tooled machine that I first heard Bozo the Clown and samplers from a series of 45 discs, if memory serves me right, of classical music. Tschaikovsky and Grieg still stay in mind. Alas, time has stolen this machine away.
I remember W.W. II fighter model airplane kits, balsa wood models that required sanding of the core fuselage, with decals, that could be assembled to one’s satisfaction if you did not rush, in a day or two, and then painted with gray “dope.” They taught us delay. The more advanced modeler worked with kits that came in a kind of spaghetti box. When opened dozens of long, stiff sticks tumbled out, skeletal bones of the plane to be, a conclave of stilt walkers. Additionally, a thin balsa sheet was enclosed, all the individual parts highlighted, from which with either a razor blade or an X-acto blade, one excised the struts, what-have-you, that made up the interior of the fuselage and wings. Gossamer tissue paper was included as well, to be used for the craft’s skin and that was a dicey effort to complete. It was an exciting and exacting project, much over my head, and only the patient youngster, the advanced obsessive, could put it together with finesse. The room would reek from “dope,” an unknown high of the time.
I would purchase a small tube of a black gooey substance with the feel of eely gum to; malleable, it came with a short plastic straw. I formed a round black pearl about one tip of the straw. I shaped and molded it, so when I blew into the tube – with gusto – a large balloon shape slowly emerged, often in wild, bulbous and Zeppelin-like figurations. I broke it off from the straw, quickly sealed the balloon by crimping it. It had heft and feel to it, this airy cherub and those that followed in quick succession. And how did I know then that the amount of either in this “toy” was enough to build a stairway to heaven.
At times I read thick, square fat little books with vellum-like pages, Tom Mix and Tarzan adventures, very much collectables now. . .or I “glued” paper “cockamamies” on my inner wrists, moist tattoos of all kinds – flags, puppies, stars, Mickey Mouse. Crackerjacks, then, as an aside, had metal, not plastic, gifts in their boxes, which took strong teeth to open – as if the seal was purposely glued shut tight to frustrate the young child: to create necessary delay before the reward within. As I think back perhaps the Fifties were a decade of delay.
Tinkertoys (is there a child today who is allowed to “tinker”?) came in a long tube, the Legos of the time, consisting of dowels and round wooden orbs, like space stations awaiting dockings. They entertained our fancy, for they required quirky constructional dreams in addition t coordination and experimentation. The one advantage, mild at that, over Erector sets, was they required screws, bolts and small wrenches. Tinkertoys was hands on. The found beach seashell brought to one’s ear and for a significant while, held interest – I was told they contained the sea’s crashing and I bought into the myth; better the myth than the scientific reason for spurring one’s imagination. Radio, not TV, held sway; imagination and creation as opposed to stupor and soporific moments. Analogue allowed the young child to tinker, turn a dial, sand a fuselage, putting a curve on a rubber ball, the immortal and ubiquitous Spaldeen.
The intimacy of my childhood was not with significant others, unfortunately. The childlike flora and fauna of my existence provided that. One’s “attention span” was not a moment or a span – it had breadth and gravity; mental bridges crossed from one point to another. And there were sufficient truss work to hold an idea in place and for some duration. I became Brooklyn Bridge.
A simple box camera, like Kodak’s Hawkeye, for one, could produce on large 626 (?) film, black and white shiny images with scalloped edges the chiaroscuro world of the post-war 40s and early 50s, film noir from a box, no less. Simpler pleasures were savored innocently, incorporatively, without knowing that. We acquired the honorable beauty of delay and frustration – that gratification meant so much more after an arduous journey (we were child analysts in training).
It was a time and a moment in which life reduced stress – at least for this child, and shaped the hours, in which seasons were ineluctable events and, like ocean waves, swept me into the deeper waters of childhood, the deep end.
One toy, one creative toy, my Uncle Seymour and Aunt Ruthie gifted me with was composed of a number of rubber molds, of people, clowns and animals – I remember not, in which I poured plaster-of-Paris (truly interactive). Placing the filled mold into a glass, its rubbery flanges overlapping and grasping the tumbler’s rim, it was cautiously placed into a refrigerator to harden over night – and then I had to wait.
Like Jello, I would test its surface waters with a finger tip, see if it was still liquid or if it had gone beyond gel to hard. To remove the rubber from the encased plaster led to errors and breakage, but finally, with patience, the statuary revealed itself and with the water colors that came with the kit, I began to color them, much like the Greeks who brashly poly chromed their marbles.
This is not nostalgia solely, although the first scent of this essence may strike you in that way. Rather, it is the latent configuring in all this that forms the human spirit to be. It is a child’s time, my time, a special elasticity over the years that provides the security of defined boundaries, outer perimeters from which one enters the forest primeval to forage and where the bravest of souls moves out from there to discover a clearing, or to ascend a rise – to master the terrain and one’s self. I would have to wait until the Sixties. At this moment all I can say is Ecce Homo who was this child.
It is to grow up with experience kneading you, not pushing or hurrying, just kneading you: preparing the flour that will rise like dough into bread, grain into the staff of life. We are all flour.
As I am much closer to my end than my beginning, I see the past clearer, apparently a consequence of aging. Short bursts of revelatory matter come to me – like quarks appearing on negatives, an indirect sighting, never seen eye to eye or in “reality,” but there, nevertheless.
I see the child I was that with the proper encouragement might have become the artist, the musician or the actor. I see the pip that grew into no tree, but only a rooting spring on a tree’s knot. I see the unbearable sadness of a will that might have soared. And, in a twist of fate, I became a scribbler, a writer of signs and symbols, runes. How odd. After all, to record is a surrogate living.
. . .
Dear Nikos: I know.
The bow is bent, the drawn cord attached, the tension taut. The pull is made, fingers and string brought close to the ear. The bow arced. And the quiver is empty, spent. To have an arrow to shoot, to expend oneself in thrust, in distance, to dynamically penetrate time and self and the world, has been sadly deferred.
And so I record, for each word mobilizes another part of myself, as I speed straight and true away into life ahead.