In 1954, when I was seven years old, my favorite adult-type TV show, which I watched on my DuMont with the religious fervor appropriate for a kid starting the second grade in yeshiva (Jew parochial school), was I Led Three Lives, in which Herbert Philbrick (Richard Carlson) found commies lurking like zombies round every corner. I rooted for him all the way because in 1954 I also was quite concerned with the Soviet threat to our way of life.
And even though it wouldn’t impact me in a big way for a bar mitzvah’s worth of years later, I would have been very upset, very gung-ho, had I known that in 1954 Vietnam had been partitioned North and South along the 17th parallel after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which signaled the end of French colonial rule in Indochina.1
I was a proud member of the tribe and a bull-goose Zionist as well, and I surely would have been out of my mind pissed if I had understood the significance of the fact that Nasser had beaten back the Muslim Brotherhood and grabbed the reins of power in Egypt, or that Alfredo Stroessner had taken over Paraguay and made that country safe for Nazi war criminals including Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death.
But what I knew all too well was that in 1954 the father-mother (see Creation of the Humanoids, 19622 ) moved the mishpuchah (family) from our edenic shtetl on Suffolk Street to Hell’s Kitchen, so that we might live above the store that made possible for us that day, and all other days, our daily babka. It was our own melting pot Downton Abbey and I was little Lord Rob-it. We even had a pair of tenants. There was an enclosed kiosk attached to the side of the building where a jovial ginger named Red, of course, shined shoes, and an extension in the rear of the building with a barbershop presided over by Lenny the Tonsorial Artiste, where I had my first experience with the joyful majesty that was the tittie magazine.
All we had done to get there that muggy summer morning was take the D to West 4th and there change for the A to 42nd Street. But the moment I stepped out of the Port Authority, with its cavalcade of belching buses, I felt more as if we had boarded a Strato-Sled with Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov, and landed on the Planet Mongo.
The legendary Bosco Brother Butchers—where sixteen years later Peter Kubelka bought numerous haunches of lamb, schlepped them up to the Southern Tier, and cooked all through the night an unforgettable feast for a cadre of enthralled avant-garde film acolytes who had already been captivated by his masterwork Unsere Afrikareise (Our African Trip, 1966)—was first among a brace of butcher shops that dotted the nabe, unlike any I had ever experienced in the kosher precincts of the Lower East Side. These places overflowed with offal and other exotic cuts—chunks of fatback covered in crystallized salt, oxtails, whatever the hell they were; bloody pans overflowed with livers and kidneys and brains and sweetbreads from lambs, pigs, cows, and calves. And hearts, hearts! They didn’t let anything go to waste. There were cows’ hooves and pig trotters; dead, furry rabbits hung from hooks by their little lucky feet, big floppy ears pointing straight down; outsized rounds of cheese hung right beside them. One had a pie slice cut out of it, had black flecks all through it. I asked my father what they were.
“Maggots, Rob-it, maggots. The Telainishe like maggots in their cheese, dey say it makes the cheese taste better.” (Many, many years later I learned that the cheese was provolone, the specks were black peppercorns, and they were dee-lish.)
I subsequently learned that the Telainische were part of the Bad Element, which included anyone who wasn’t a member of the tribe, all of whom, in times of deep economic or military crisis, will show their true, genocidal colors and scapegoat the chosen people at the behest of some latter day Führer, whose coming they await with as much conviction as we do that of Moshiach (Messiah to you members of the Bad Element).
I had been programmed to never forget the six million from the time I was a zygote. Now I found myself living on Mongo among the Bad Element who were itching to add the nukes and me to the body count. I had no friends, nor did I have the prospect of any; I was a displaced person on an alien planet. Is it no wonder my survival instinct kicked in and I became determined to get the lay of the land I had been dropped into? And so I went exploring.
But first I had to get past the parentals.
The grunts in the Nam spoke of home as back in the world. The Lower East Side was my back in the world. And there I had been a latchkey kid. I fully expected to be so on Mongo as well. Womb and seed had a different idea. But after a lot of breath-holding and blue-turning they relented, and so, on a lazy Shabbos afternoon, they gave me a key and laid down a pair of categorical imperatives before releasing me into the wild: I was not to talk to strangers and I must not conduct my cloacal business anywhere but home base—539 W 39th Street.
As I left the house that afternoon I was super excited. In my hyperbolic mind I was Rob-it Magellan about to map my Brave New World.
I turned the corner on Ninth Avenue, walked a block north, crossed the street, entered the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I walked east past the Food Fair, past the Book Bar and Leisure Time Bowling, past the massive bank of elevators and the always busy ticket windows, and past the vast newsstand opposite Walgreen’s. There I took an escalator down into the bowels of the 42nd Street station of the IND. I headed north toward the uptown turnstiles, past the umbrella and sundries kiosk and the Latin music emporium; opposite Cushman’s—where I would later discover that the best chocolate-cream-covered devil’s-food cupcake on earth could be had for a mere ten cents—I walked up the stairs and through the pocket penny arcade. The mechanical howling from the Shoot the Bear games served as soundtrack as I climbed the exit steps. Finally I emerged again into the light and saw for the first time the tack-tastic grandeur of Times Square.3
Thousands of miles away, Disneylandia, Walt’s wet dream, built on the bones of an ancient orange orchard, was under construction. He envisioned it as the final frontier of fantasy, where kids of all ages could enjoy risk-free adventure, could experience Tio Walt’s bucolic vision of tomorrow, today. But here, on Mongo, the theme park of the Hell Planet was already up and running, kitschy and crowded, as vibrant as the neon lights that shone everywhere and all the time.
The street teemed: there were people on the stroll and people on the go; there were people gobbling fast food, people gabbing to and past each other, people who looked as late and loony as the Mad Hatter. There were movie houses, ten of them all told, on both sides of the street, all claiming to be Cooled by Refrigeration. If it were a ’50s sci-fi movie I had found myself in, it would have been titled The Cinemas That Conquered the World.
Between the theaters were businesses, but like this nabe’s butcherias, they were heretofore unimaginable variations on the ones I was familiar with. Back in the world I went to restaurants,4 but here on Mongo things were very, very different. Bizarro delis like the Grand Luncheonette and Grant’s had flat-griddle franks but they also had onions (onions?), cheeseburgers, and malteds. Grant’s even had beer on tap! There was the incontrovertibly treyf—a diner on the northeast corner of 42nd and Eighth was named Ham and Eggs! Flame Steaks smelled like char, Worcestershire, and A-1, and Romeo’s Spaghetti Kitchen had a vat of boiling water just inside the window from which pasta was pulled and sauced nonstop: it was meta-entertainment—an action set-piece, framed for viewing, on the grindhouse strip.
There was Hubert’s Flea Circus and Museum of Freaks, admission 25 cents, closed Tuesdays,5 and nearby, Fascination, a penny arcade whose back wall was Skee-Ball alley. Across the street were two stores whose inventory consisted solely of gravity knives, R&B 45s and 33s, and Holocaust porn—paperbacks with titles like Auschwitz and Treblinka, a couple hundred pages each of black-and-white atrocity photos.
On subsequent recon trips I expanded the perimeter as far east as Fifth Avenue, as far north as 49th Street. Tad’s, between Broadway and Sixth, was dark, mysterious, with flocked, red velvet whorehouse wallpaper (though I didn’t know brothels from broccoli at the time). It smelled like a charnel house; yet it made my mouth water and my soul yearn for a taste of the proscribed, charred flesh. The kids’ room in the library of the double lions (which later turned out to be the logo of my favored Lebanese hash) initiated me, through circulating picture books of gods and goddesses, into the mysteries of the pagan mythos.
On Sixth between 42nd and 43rd there was a used-periodical dump, a treasure trove of back issue comix—Uncle Scrooge, Plastic Man, Sgt. Rock, Blackhawk, and banned ECs—as well as secondhand stroke-zines, which I would eventually get up the courage to buy and secrete back at cellblock Schneider. Next door was a record outlet where I got my first earful of the New Lost City Ramblers, Dave Van Ronk, Cisco Houston, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Woody Guthrie as well as Italian baroque and be-bop.
On Broadway, the Pepsi sign (the lighter refreshment) featured a built-in waterfall, the Camels sign a dude blowing a smoke ring. To my mind they just had to be two of the who-knew-how-many wonders of the modern world. (The year after I first saw the smoke-blowing sign I discovered the principle Art follows life when I made the womb take me to the first run of Artists and Models and saw the sign and the smoke, inside and out, used as a Technicolor prop; the plot had an ur-Philip K. Dick premise—Jerry sonambu-screeches actual rocket science supersecrets and becomes the target of bad-guy spies—and it featured a standing-room-only, Frank Tashlin busload of childhood faves: Martin and Lewis, comic books, commie spies, and Shirley MacLaine.)
No voyage to the Va-Va World6 would have been complete without a visit to Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium, where the iron maiden, an inquisition torture/murder device (that I didn’t know at the time was built for the likes of this little Yid) always gave my spine a tingle and sent me into a meditative swoon on the nature of man’s inhumanity to man and (more to the solipsistic point) on the question of how would I/could I, whether through cunning, daring, or deus ex machina, survive an encounter with this objeto del dread.
But all these delights served as mere sideshow to the truly awe-inspiring main attraction—those ten movie theaters. It made me dizzy to look at all those marquees so close together, like I had discovered the elephant graveyard of cinema. But tragically none of the ten theaters sold tickets for children under thirteen. I was tall for a second-grader but I knew I would never pass. This vast mass of spinning celluloid would remain so close yet so far away.
Back in the world I had treasured latchkey larks to the movies. There were three—the Apollo on Clinton featured westerns and war movies, the Loews Canal screened newsreels, serials, and cartoon marathons, while top-of-the-ticket features would travel from Radio City to my part of the city to play at the Loews Delancey. All three had sections reserved for kids, sections ruled by an iron matron, short, squat, mean, dressed in white like a nurse out of a Hammer horror film. Armed only with a flashlight, a booming voice, and a requisite hatred of children, she ruled her world through fear like any good movie monster, like Kong, Rodan, or the Blob.
Short of the womb acting as matron—she too possessed a sincere hatred of children—movies on the Deuce were beyond my reach. But since necessity is the mother… and since it was absolutely necessary for me to be in rapport with the flickers, I developed a system by which I could vicariously enjoy the Deuce’s bounty without ever crossing the threshold of any of its theaters.
During the following years, on most Saturdays, post morning prayer, once freed from the shackles of an itchy, off-the-rack Robert Hall suit (where the value goes up, up, up, and the prices go down, down, down), stuffed on a lunch of chopped liver, double-boilered pot roast, and canned Spanish rice, after the Mr. Moto or Charlie Chan feature had played itself out and there would be nothing more on the tube (except for the endless repeats of Million Dollar Movie) until Saturday Night at the Movies, I would jaunty jolly to the Deuce and study the titles that were verboten. Allusive and poetic, they promised me worlds of wonder: Who was The Thing from Another World? What happened on The Day the Earth Stood Still? Would a Steel Helmet keep me safe on the road To Hell and Back? And would Fixed Bayonets be the only way to stay safe on the Sands of Iwo Jima? Would we be able to repel the Invasion of the Body Snatchers or survive an Attack of the Crab Monsters? In The Naked City could Gun Crazy Killers from Space make their Pickup on South Street? Why could Abbott and Costello Go to Mars but I couldn’t? And was the sphere they landed on The Angry Red Planet or simply Red Planet Mars? When was Bedtime for Bonzo? Was it later than mine? How would I ever be able to identify Invaders from Mars if I couldn’t see them in 3-D?
This was the nature of my thirst for knowledge and I had to figure out a way to slake it. As usual the answer came in an unexpected way. One afternoon as I waited for Lenny the Barber to cut my hair, I grabbed an outdated issue of TV Guide from among the periodicals littering the store. When I opened it I saw that it had a section detailing the movies playing on TV at all times and on all channels. As I studied it, I realized to my amazement that had I possessed this mag at its most relevant point in the space-time continuum, I might have been able to watch both The Day the Earth Stood Still and Sands of Iwo Jima not only in the same week but on the same day!
At dinner that night, after receiving numerous reminders that children were starving in Europe and that I was too smart for my own good, I told the nukes that my continued obeyance of their (oppressive, fahrcocktah, provincial, arbitrary, hypocritical, inhibitive) codes of behavior and study was contingent on the purchase of a subscription to TV Guide. To my surprise they agreed.
From then on I was in the business of watching movies.
1 1954 was also the year in which the Domino Theory, the conceptual foundation for our tragic, mass murderous, military intervention in Vietnam (and the cause of my Indochinese tzurris those many years later), was first floated.
2 This deliriously bazoo movie, purportedly Andy Warhol’s favorite, takes place in the post-nuclear future. The credit sequence features one mushroom cloud after another with a voice-over narration set to spooky electronica explaining that the atomic war, which wiped out 92 percent of the human population, lasted a mere forty-eight hours. Those humans that did survive were nearly sterile, exhausted, facing extinction. Technology’s answer to this Darwinian dilemma was to develop the magnetic integrator, neuron duplicator, which enabled the creation of the humanoids. Through the years, these machines became more and more lifelike, prompting reactionary humans to form the Flesh and Blood Society, a racist, terrorist org dedicated to exterminating those they referred to as the clickers and whose members traipsed around in Confederate mufti to hammer the metaphor home. As humans slept and automatons flocked to temples to get recharged by the central big brain—the source of all robotic life and learning known as the father-mother—Flesh and Blooders skulked through the negro streets tossing bombs into temples, wasting the helpless clickers within. The plot concerns Cregis, a top-dog Flesh and Blooder, who learns that his very own sister has a clicker servant—a full service machine. Not only does the bot clean and shop, he also presses her button and rings her bell; he grinds her coffee and fries her bacon, making sure to deposit plenty of grease in her pan; he puts a banana in her basket and a hot dog in her (jelly) roll. Horrified, in despair, Cregis kvetches that his sister is in rapport with a clicker. In the third act Cregis discovers that he is a clicker as well. He was killed in a terrorist bombing, then reanimated by Dr. Raven, a Lazarus of the laboratory, master of the thalamic transplant technique (an inspired phrase of pure sci-fi gibberish). In the end Cregis comes full circle and embraces his robot-hood even as he embraces his main squeeze, Maxine, who had been greased in the same bombing and similarly reanimated. Cregis and Maxine are R 96s, but Raven has figured how to add the final four points to their score, enabling this transistorized Adam and Eve to go forth and multiply and thus replenish a post-apocalyptic Garden of Robotic Eden.
3 One day in the twilight of the sixties My Friend the Film Critic and I were strolling the Deuce trying to decide between a blaxploitation double feature or a pair of spaghetti westerns when we noticed that Freaks was headlining a theater on the north side of the street closer to Seventh over by the porno Bijou and the Ilse She-Wolf/Olga’s House of Fleapit. MFFC waxed rhapsodic: Do you realize that Freaks has been showing nonstop on this street for the past forty years? While what MFFC said was not literally true, he totally nailed the itness and thatness of Times Square: Freaks and the Deuce were made for each other, like Barnum and Bailey, like Martin and Lewis, like the turkey and the axe.
4 I had three delis that I frequented, the one on Rutgers for their French fries, the one on East Broadway for their pastrami and corned beef, and Isaac Gellis on Essex for their franks. If it was milchidigs or pareve I craved, there was always the ever-mourned Garden Cafeteria, where I would invariably get my ticket punched for a vegetable plate—mashed potatoes, baked beans, and creamed corn—and wash it down with unlimited seltzer from the communal fountain, a stainless steel tub affixed with U-shaped push taps beneath the spouts.
5 Its denizens documented for posterity by Diane Arbus, who said, Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.
6 With a nod of the noggin to Prof. Daniel Czitrom, historian and explorer, who, with his brother, discovered the Va-Va World in the far reaches of adolescent space.
Column header by Art Spiegelman