During the sultry summer preceding her ascension to middle school My Daughter the Conscience began a concerted campaign to be allowed to venture forth to school using pub trans—taking the Coney-bound F to Avenue S, then walking the remaining five blocks to I.S. 228 David A. Boody—rather than glide carefree, comfy, and, most importantly, safe to Didaction Junction in the little yellow school bus we had been resigned to pay for with our hard-earned rubles. I was adamantly opposed, the OP not so much. Conscience, who came factory-equipped with the divide-and-conquer gene, saw her opening and rammed her way through. By mid-August the OP, who, in my opinion, had been far too laissez-faire for far too long in her decision making when it came to our spawn and their relation to the streets, had hopped right on board. The two of them presented a united front, a gynocratic convoy of decisiveness they dared me to stand in front of. Even though I saw the inevitable outcome doing ninety round the bend, still I resisted because to me, Conscience bouncing toward Coney, ass end of the Medina, while everyone else was strap-hanging in the opposite direction toward Babylon seemed too damn dangerous a commute for any tochter of mine. And so, against all odds, I refused to melt from the white heat generated by their gyno-glower, and like the Maccabees at Masada, I held out for far longer than could have reasonably been expected.
Conscience, dumbfounded by my stubbornness, not used to my saying no and seemingly meaning it, had exhausted the tricks in her formerly foolproof Trove of Parental Manipulation. Her last-gasp attempt at getting what she wanted was to resort to the abyss of reason.
She threw a story at me from my way back, one I had thought of as a foxy cautionary tale decked out in sheepskin schmattas. She thought otherwise.
It went something like this: Each day, Sunday to Friday, from age seven on, much younger than Conscience was when she asked for her freedom, I yo-yo’d to yeshiva and back on the subway. Each morning I’d trudge through the Port Authority, descend to the depths, grab the train to West 4th, then down some more stairs where I’d catch the D to East Broadway. I knew exactly where to get on (third car from the rear), which door to stand in front of (second up from the back), so that when I got off, I’d be just past the iron railing, the first one up the escalator. Sometimes older kids in better shape than me—not much of a stretch—would vault the railing and beat me to the escalator, infuriating me. And that was only the first of many insults to body and soul visited upon hapless Rob-it during the seemingly endless school day that stretched from nine to six, including a recess and lunch hour in which these same mesomorphs-in-training had the opportunity to show me up in punchball and stoop-ball, spin their tops in circles round mine, and relieve me of my prized Ted Kluzsewski card in games of skill like off the wall and flipsies, games in which I never stood a chance.
By the end of the day I was an imploding, powerless little schlub, stewing in his own foul juices, revisiting, reliving my many moments of invisible outrage, plotting like a pint-sized Iago to bring down these fell creatures so blithely unaware of my very existence.
By six o’clock, when yeshiva finally let out, I was usually so exhausted from all the mental hoops I’d jumped through during the day in my effort to right all those wrongs done me that it was more relief than elation I felt upon hearing the closing bell. But hitting Henry Street, breathing in fresh air, energized me once again. With newfound pep in my step, I’d run to the station, zoom down the stairs two at a time, flash my subway pass, double-step down two more flights of stairs, hoping to catch an uptown D just before it pulled out. More often than not I would succeed. This thrill of victory—entering a train just as my ass brushed past its closing door—would make me momentarily forget that the sooner I caught a train, the sooner I got home to depresso central, the nuke nest.
But by the time I settled into my seat—the single by the conductor’s closet—in the nearly empty car (I was flowing against the rush hour tide), and even before we reached Delancey, the thought of hell-home would tsunami over me. In order to forestall thinking about the inevitable slurp and burp with Mother, Father, and My Brother the Other, I would escape into one of my default fantasies du jour, like the one inspired by The Window (1949), an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s urbanized boy-who-cried-wolf fable, set, in the movie at least, on the Lower East Side, a movie I watched obsessively every time it showed on Million Dollar Movie.
It’s summer. There is no AC on the L.E.S. save air-cooled movie theaters, so the kid decides to sleep on his fire escape. But instead of sleeping he watches his neighbors across the courtyard commit murder before his eyes (think of it as Rear Fire Escape). Worse yet, they see him seeing them. His goose be cooked. And because he’s spent the first act telling a bunch of white lies, no one takes him seriously. He finds himself navigating a world in which the father-mother are more concerned with what the neighbors think than what he claims to know, where the cops would prefer throwing him in the hoosegow to teach him a lesson about truthfulness to hearing what he has to say, and the neighbors are biding their time, waiting for the decisive moment when they can whack him and make it look like an accident.
Fear propels him as the killers chase him down fire escapes, across roofs, through alleys. In the end he exposes the bad guys. The cops congratulate him, and his parents, acting as if they always believed in him, kvell over his heroism. They live happily ever after.
Sometimes I imagined that I Led Three Lives, that I was Young Herbert Philbrick and that I’d just discovered that the folks claiming to be my parentals had kidnapped me and were using me as an essential element of their front as they plotted to turn Hell’s Kitchen into a satellite nabe of Commie World. Since I had been already living the lives of yeshiva bucha and dutiful son, it was now time to begin my third life as a counterespionage agent. In my fantasy I foil faux Mom & Pop and save my little slice of the Home of the Brave. Hero that I am, Ike naturally invites me to dine at the White House, which I agree to do with the stipulation that the menu for the Feast of Rob-it consist of fatty pastrami, greasy french fries, and Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry, with a seven-layer cake from Sussman’s for dessert. I’m beatified in print, my picture in Life and Look, Time, and Newsweek. On a special episode of This Is Your Life my heroic exploits are recounted in front of a huge TV audience. At the end of the show there’s a tearful reunion with my real, fantastic parents, the King and Queen of Chunky-land (making me Prince Chunky). I’m ensconced in the family castle, surrounded by loving pets and adoring, obeisant servants. I even have my own personal bowling alley in the basement and, of course, all the Chunkys I could ever possibly wish for.
In the fantasy I Geronimo’d myself into on this ride home I displaced Johnny Sheffield as Boy, heir to Tarzan’s throne, begat of Jane, aristocratic Brit fox—a real step up from the hysterical hausfrau I called Mom. The natives revered me, the animals followed me, and instead of a brother I had Cheetah, who played with me whenever I wanted him to, and who also helped me help my pops maintain law and order in the jungle. Best of all, I was lean and mean; I looked great in a loincloth.
On this particular evening Tarzan and I were routing a bunch of Nazis who had designs on the jungle. I was so busy savoring the ass whipping we were laying on the Von Douchebags that I lost track of where I was in real time and space and didn’t realize we had pulled into West 4th until it was almost too late. Jumping up and through the closing doors, I got everything out but my left foot. Mr. Panic, who was never far from my side, started weaving a fantasy of his own and I could now see myself getting dragged by the train as it pulled out of the station, I could see my head banging against each receding platform pillar (“It’s so musical"—Sam Fuller). In my desperation I called upon all the strength and fortitude I could muster and wrenched my foot out, leaving my wildly expensive Gerberich orthopedic shoe inside the train.
I was in a daze as I trudged up the stairs to the 8th Avenue line, one foot orthotically correct, the other falling flatly on each cold riser with only a sock to protect it against its own infirmity and the predatory germs I had been warned were out there, waiting to pounce, waiting for the opportunity to invade, conquer, destroy. At that moment I might well have welcomed a deadly fungus breaching the flimsy defenses of my holey sock, creeping up to my heart, and snuffing me before I had to face Mom and Pop and report the loss of the precious shoe that was performing the double duty of keeping both my foot from further flattening and their bank account from breaking out of the double digits.
Getting off at the Deuce I skipped my nightly soda vending machine ritual—watching the cup fall into place, the ice plop in, the twin streams of syrup and seltzer combine to produce neon lemon-lime effervescence. I didn’t peek at the toothsome cakes displayed in the windows of Cushman’s or walk up the half flight of stairs to the penny arcade where I usually tried my hand at shooting the bear, making it roar. So deep a despond was I in that I even walked right past Nedick’s, past the siren song of its bittersweet, world-famous Orange Drink sloshing through the glass-bowled ade-o-lator; past the seductive, aromatic perfume wafting from the terminally treyf, pork-based franks slowly turning on their revolving grills; past the world’s greatest jelly donuts, a couple of which I would inhale on a normal night.
I emerged from the Port Authority and zombie-walked out onto Ninth Avenue. As I walked past an ultra goyishe butcher shop, I suddenly felt a spooky chill. I turned and looked in the window and saw a pair of furry rabbits hanging from hooks by their little lucky feet, their floppy ears pointing down, their dead eyes staring straight at me. It was almost as if these Dead Leporēs of Goyville were sneering at me, telling me that soon, very soon, I’d be hanging up there on a hook, right next to them.
At the end of Kiss Me Deadly, Mike Hammer, in his quest for the Great Whatzit and to save Velda, the Damsel in Distress—his helpmate, his honey trap, his fuck buddy—bursts into the room where the Femme Fatale has just killed Dr. Soberin, the baritoned, sauvissimo, myth-spouting trafficker of Great Whatzits. FF turns her attention to our antihero and just prior to gut-shooting him invites him to Kiss me, Mike. I want you to kiss me. Kiss me. The liar’s kiss that says I love you. It means something else.
My mom was Fatale’s hysteric correlative. On most days, upon my coming home from school, she’d turn to me, from the stove or the sink or whatever she was worrying over at the time, a twitchy smile on her face just itching to turn upside down into a frown, toward which end she would say, So, Rob-it, tell me. Tell me how your day was?
There was no hoping for the best in the question, only the expectation of disappointment and the maternal despair that was its concomitant, and so . . . let the disappointment begin.
The rest of the nukes were seated. The Other had already spritzed himself a yahrzeit glass full of seltzer and was slathering oleo on the Pechter’s challah in anticipation of the Roumanian tenderloin to come, while Pop was preparing to down his preprandial J & B straight up. The table was set, the game was fixed, my chances were slim and none, but I spotted the delusory life preserver in this shitstorm. I took it, grabbed on with both hands, and began speed-palavering, hoping the lost shoe would somehow get buried in the nail-biting tension of the dramatic tale about to unfold, the story of how I saved myself from sure death on the IND that very eve.
I started by saying, A funny thing happened on the way home from school, I really did. I explained that I had fallen asleep on the D. I took a deep breath and, high-pitched and nasal, made my confession, tearing through my tale like a tainted taco in a turista’s intestine, like termites through a Burmese Buddha.
Then I woke up, just in time, saw the doors were closing, so I grabbed my briefcase, made a beeline for the doors, and I just got through, only my foot got caught. The conductah was staring straight at me but he didn’t open the doors. I was getting’ real scared, ’cause any second the train was gonna start movin’ and I was gonna get dragged, maybe even killed, so I yanked and yanked and yanked my foot until I finally pulled it free. The only problem was my shoe got pulled off my foot when I yanked it, so the shoe is somewhere in the Bronx right now, but at least I got out of the train and I didn’t get killed.
I gave ’em a big smile with my big finish, really trying to sell the upside about me not dying. And at first, when they were still smiling, I figured that maybe, just maybe, I was home free. But then my mother looked down at my feet and saw I was missing a shoe and everything began to unravel.
Rob-it, where’s your other shoe?
It was like she hadn’t been listening. Mom, I just told you, I got caught in the train—
Enough clowning, Rob-it, my father chimed in.
They stared at the lone shoe on my right foot, then looked at me. Neither of them was smiling anymore.
I spent the rest of the night deafened by the wrathful silence of the parentals. Shit got so oppressive I went to sleep early.
The next morning I padded off to the kitchen, and, as I ate my Frosted Flakes, the womb informed me that instead of going to yeshiva we’d be going to Brooklyn. Whys and wherefores were not forthcoming and I knew better than to ask. The question of footwear couldn’t be avoided. After settling on a pair of the Other’s ratty slippers, we headed for the train. I carried my briefcase, she her purse along with a mystery shopping bag. We took the A to Jay Street, went up a flight of stairs to the mezzanine, bellied up to the counter of the Subway Lost and Found. My mother pulled my shoe out of the shopping bag, showed it to the clerk, explained I had lost its brother on the D around 6:10 last evening. The guy looked at it, walked to the back of the storeroom, and came out holding my other shoe.
The gynocracy stared at me with a jury’s-in, case-closed, guilty-as-charged look on their collective face.
But the point of that story is that things have really changed, not that they’ve remained the same; that back then the city was more like a village, people looked after each other, so a lost shoe on the subway would naturally have had to end up in some long-gone, hard-to-believe-it-ever-even-existed lost and found on some mezzanine of some stop in fucking Brooklyn no less, which is totally different than the mean streets of serial killer city that this place has become.
Conscience just stared at me, her face a mask of amused pity.
On the first day of the school year Conscience was gracious enough to let me escort her down to the subway and see her off to her brave new world.