When I was in third grade and on my a.m. recess from Hebrew studies, I jaunty-jollied down Henry Street bouncing my spaldeen. My destination — Cheap Naftali’s — was across the street, next to my pastrami/corned beef deli. My mission: to acquire a couple of Israeli stamps. But before I could cross on the green, not in between, the neon sign right in front of me—a story up, two stories tall, about thirty feet from ground to apex — sent out its siren call. My attention deficit disordered me and now I was on to something new. I had to prove what had so quickly morphed from momentary musing to earnest belief — that I could toss my spaldeen up and over the sign, and catch it on the other side before it bounced. I went over the mechanics in my head, step by step, until I was certain of them. I turned my body at an angle to the sign, placed my left leg in front of my right, bent both slightly at the knees, gripped the spaldeen in my throwing hand, took a deep breath, cocked my arm, and hurled. It took only a nano after release for me to fully comprehend the hubris of my miscalculation. The ball hit the sign about a third of the way up. I watched in shock as the neon tubing crackled, broke into a billion pieces, and rained down on me. After an eternity of terror paralysis, I came to my senses. I didn’t even take the time to retrieve the red rubber instrument of my downfall, I just tore ass out of there as fast as my Keds could carry me — a plus-sized, baby-faced, wingèd Mercury, running for dear life.
I didn’t stop running until I reached the cafeteria in the yeshiva’s basement. I was farshvitst,1 huffing and puffing so wheezily I thought I might have a fatal asthma attack before I could finish the caramelized, crinkle-cut french fries, which, along with spaghetti and fish sticks, were the only things worth eating in Mrs. Ausfresser’s Maison de Feh.
The rest of the school day I sat in dread of the inevitable. It was as if I were mourning over the corpse I would soon become — the lay-away plan of sitting shivah.2 Surely someone had seen what I had done, had seen where I had run to. It was just a matter of time before I would have to answer for my crime.
In class that day, as the teach attempted to explain long division and simplify (ha!) the mystical process of mapping a sentence,3 all I could do was keep my ears peeled, listening for the stamp, stamp, stamp of jackboots as the Polizei clomped on the marble treads of the iron stairwell up to my home room. They would call me out, cuff me, haul me off to the hoosegow, the mean-spirited catcalls of my classmates providing the soundtrack to my perp walk.
The police never materialized, but that night, as I boarded the train to Hell’s Kitchen, I felt far from home free. And I was right. On this night the nest was just another anteroom in hell. Every time the shofar4 rang I expected my tale of transgression to be tattled to whichever of the parentals picked up; and the shofar wouldn’t stop ringing. With each new call I jerked about like a fish out of water, like I had stuck my tongue in an electric socket.
By the fourth or fifth involuntary twitch the womb’s maternal instinct kicked in and she started asking me the same question each time I seemed about to jump out of my skin: What’s the matta, Rob-it?
To which I would petulantly reply, Nuthin’, Mom, lee-mee alone.
With each passing iteration of the question her tone became more hysterical, mine more defensive. It was a Slavic standoff.
Knuckleheaded nine-year-old that I was on the day of the spaldeen disaster, having had a belief system best deemed Talibanic Yiddishkeit rooted into my very core, I totally bought into the deus ex panopticon model of the universe. With the same certainty I had that my aunt Debbie’s rugelach were the best on earth, even better than those to be had at Sussman’s or Gertel’s, I knew the Volcano God’s eye in the sky had seen what I had done and it was just a matter of time before my punishment would be made manifest. And so it was that, as the nuclear family gathered ’round our burning bush that evening to watch with awe, amazement, and perhaps even a smidge of disbelief as the platonic form of the Amurrican family went through the motions on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — pops in the club chair throne, womb in the wing chair of hysteria, and spawny old me supine on the couch of death — I was imploding with guilt, percolating closer and closer to critical mass. My heart was beating like the bongo in the belly of the boat in Ben Hur—my lub-dub-lub-dub-lub-dub speeding up like the ever-quickening tempo dictated by Quintus Arrius: Battle speed, Hortator… Attack speed… Ramming speed! — until ram I finally did, into the inescapable conclusion that the time had come today for me to tell the truth and face the consequences, that I must come correct before El Supremo smites me.
My confession refluxed up from my guilt-ridden gut, exploded out of my big motormouth.
The confession that poured out of me was ululatory, a monosyllabic wail, sharing in common with the Mosaic Torah of Sinai5 an absence of starts and stops. Womb and seed were fascinated and horrified by my act in equal measure, managing the Oscar-worthy performance of showing parental concern and adult impatience at the same time.
While Depresso-Dad, spooked by his son’s emotional outburst, nestled himself even deeper into the fortress of solitude that was himself’s club chair, Hystero-Mom found herself in the cradle of her comfort zone; although she would’ve denied it, she was grooving enthusiastically to the beat of my yowl. She made her stab at soothing the savage beast in the only way she knew how — by rotating the potentiometer to twelve, screaming at me that she couldn’t understand a word I was saying, screaming at me that she couldn’t help me if she couldn’t understand me, screaming at me to explain what I was bawling about right this very second. Having lived with this level of hysteria since I was a zygote, I knew what I had to do. I took deep breaths that would have made a swami proud, regained a semblance of emotional control, and told my tale of crime and regret, all the while making it perfectly clear how very sorry I was, how very remorseful I was.
I closed my eyes. I expected the gnashing of teeth, the rending of clothes, the pulling of hair, the slaps and screams of outraged parentals.
That is not how it went down. After a beat or two I reopened my eyes in time to see the father-mother exchange a glance, after which the womb asked, Did anyone see you, Rob-it? Unwilling to state the obvious — that God had seen me — I went with the secular and said, No, I don’t think so.
Another beat. Another glance. And then the womb said, If nobody saw you, let’s not worry about it.
Henri-Cartier Bresson defined the decisive moment — a phrase he had coined — as the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.
The Island of Lost Souls recounts the scientific adventures of Dr. Moreau, evolution engineer, who performs metamorphic surgery without anesthesia on the beasts of the wild in what he chillingly, threateningly refers to as the House of Pain, the end result of which is a tribe of low-lumen ani-men, gathered together in a creepy crawl just outside the doc’s main gate, a jungular congregation who both revere and fear him.
Edward Parker, the straightest man in the South Pacific, is cast ashore on this island hell, and Moreau, his ulterior motive a plot point as yet unrevealed, opens his spooky mansion to him, offering comfort, sustenance, and the companionship of Lota, whom he represents as his daughter (but who is in actuality the Panther Woman whom Moreau created to play Eve in his newly minted, mad-scientist riff on the Garden of Eden).
After walking in on Moreau and his assistant-with-the-criminal-past (read backstreet abortionist) anatomizing yet another George of the Jungle, Parker takes the pliable Lota by the hand and makes a break from Bio-Hell only to discover that Vivisection Village stands between them and the safety of the sea.
Seeing Adam and his lab-made Eve makes the natives restless (this film being the source of that cliché). They launch a regression swarm. Just as it looks like this is the end of the line for the man and his metamorphized maiden, Moreau appears on a promontory above the tropic ghetto, a whip in one hand, a striker in the other; he one-hands the gong,6 snaps his whip, and gets the attention of his lab-made freaks. Aided by his high priest, the Sayer of the Law,7 he commences a recitation of a primitive, abbreviated moral code—the Three Commandments—that his creations must live by:
DR. MOREAU: What is the law?
SAYER OF THE LAW: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
BEASTS (in unison): Are we not men?
DR. MOREAU: What is the law?
SAYER OF THE LAW: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
BEASTS (in unison): Are we not men?
DR. MOREAU: What is the law?
SAYER OF THE LAW: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
BEASTS (in unison): Are we not men?
Then the Sayer of the Law soulfully recites the service’s final, mournful benediction: His is the hand that made; his is the hand that heals; his is the House of Pain.
The beasts are tranquilized, the Sayer of the Law slinks back to his A-frame hut, and Moreau, Parker, and the Panther Woman head back to the mad doctor’s manse, where Moreau fills Parker in on his backstory: I started with plant life in London twenty years ago… I performed a miracle… I stripped a hundred thousand years of slow evolution… by a slight change in the… germ plasm; it’s as simple as that. Following the discovery of an escaped dog much the worse for wear, Moreau had to flee London, the newspapers at my heels, aroused England crying for my blood. It was then he hightailed it to his present location, the Island of Lost Souls, where he produced my first great achievement — articulate speech controlled by the brain. Oh, it takes a long time and infinite patience to make them talk. With each experiment I improve upon the last; I get nearer and nearer… Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like god?
The doc’s off-handed assumption of divine powers thoroughly spooks Parker.
The following morning, as Parker sits by the reflecting pool reading, Moreau the matchmaker pushes the Panther Lady at him. She snuggles up against him, purrs suggestively to him, gazes upon him, her eyes tractor beams of desire, until he can no longer control himself. He scoops her up in his arms and locks lips with Lota. Although Parker regains control momentarily, for Moreau it’s plain to see that a performance of the (half-literal) beast-with-the-double-back is inevitable.
But the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ mad scientists gang aft agley.
It’s paradise lost when Parker’s relentless Amurrican fiancée, la Rubia Ruth, who’s been combing the South Pacific for her man, shows up on Lost Soul Island in a tramp steamer captained by an old salt in sway to the demon rum, and from that moment the movie cascades toward its climax: Ruth takes Parker’s room, locks the door behind her; the simian Ouran, eager to get his letch on, lopes up the limb of a tree, yanks out a bar in Ruth’s window, and hops in, his tiny, pheremonic-fogged mind ruled by his jumbo frank; Ruth screams; the Cap and Parker come running and Ouran beats a hasty retreat; Back-Alley Abortionist, who has had enough of sado-surgery and would rather do his time in a more conventional house of pain, offers to help the visitors escape; Cap volunteers to race back to his boat for reinforcements; Moreau gives Ouran a one-time dispensation from Commandment Three and instructs the anthropoid to snap Cap’s neck; Ouran does as he is told; he drags Cap’s limp body to display before his coreligionists; the Sayer of the Law attempts to perform his eponymous task, to bring the hammer of primordial righteousness down upon the head of Ouran, but Apeman insists he did it with Moreau’s blessing; there follows a spirited, if intellectually challenged, ethical debate — is it permissible to spill blood if He says so?; the mob whoops and roars its answer in the affirmative; by applying the principles of logic for idiots, they go even farther — these once-they-were-animals, now-they-are-men conclude that if Cap can die, so can Moreau; the Sayer of the Law, now fully on board, articulates the tribe’s epochal epiphany — He can die, law no more!; cut to chez Moreau, where Doc Baby Killer produces a gun, and he, Parker, and Ruth make good their escape; coincidental with their escape, Moreau beats the gong, snaps his whip, in an attempt to flog his restless flock into submission; thrilled, liberated by their newly gained understanding that He can die, they have moved beyond his control; terror sets in for Moreau; he tears ass back to the safety of his gated community of one, but before he can secure the gate, he’s overpowered by his creations, who cart him off to the House of Pain, where they make good on their metaphysical discovery; going one step further than Freaks, the camera rolls as the creatures change potentiality into actuality, grabbing the tools of their torturous transformation to prove the proposition — He can die.
And therefore, Law no more.
You might think that I would have been relieved when the womb proffered a pass for my destructive miscalculation, but you would be wrong. Make no mistake, it came as a great relief to be spared the physical and mental pain of the parental kabuki of crime and punishment that would have included (but was not necessarily limited to) Pops smacking me while yelling in Yiddish or Polish about what a decisively rotten little pischer I was, while Mom would be initially wondering what she had done wrong to have deserved a kid like me, then insisting the hospital had to have switched their true offspring for the satanic changeling that stood before them, then building to the climax of her triune pity party: the prophecy that I would be the death of her yet, the yet both defiant and accusatory, which I understood to mean that my clear and ongoing campaign to kill her, though still not successful, could not at that point in the space-time continuum yet be deemed a failure. But my relief at this escape, as welcome as it was, did in no way shrink or disappear the great abyss that had opened at my feet8 when Mom made it clear that there was no such thing as real, prescriptive rights and wrongs, and that, in fact, the only thing that could be judged a bad deed, the only thing you could absolutely not get away with, was the thing you were caught in the act of doing.
And that is how I developed what could be called ethical Asperger’s.
1 Heavy duty sweat that can be caused by exertion, like tearing ass from the scene of the crime, or by anxiety (see Albert Brooks as the guest anchor in Broadcast News) or, as in this case, a combo of the two.
2 Jews spend seven days sitting on milk crates in rent clothes while relatives from the Men in Black branch of the mishpuchah, who only materialize during periods of group grief, gobble herring, inhale marble cake, slurp schnapps, and babble nonsense about the will of god.
3 I am to this day not certain that mapping a sentence was a core part of the elementary school curriculum or just something I hallucinated after I inhaled a pastrami sandwich on ergot-laced deli rye. In memory, at least, it would start out peacefully enough, like the morning the Japs sneak-attacked Pearl Harbor. We would just be taking our seats after having consumed a huge lunch, which left us collectively feeling a tad logy, when Mrs. Wolpinsky would screech that she was about to teach us how to map a sentence. And that’s when shit went banzai, bombs away. Mrs. W would turn to the blackboard, which ran the width of the classroom from door to window, and chalk on the most complicated sentence imaginable, fraught with subjects, direct and indirect objects, prepositional phrases, gerunds — the gansa grammatical gamut. (A sentence such as this — In December of 1972 some friends and I gathered at the home of My Friend the Gleaner, on the corner of Bergen and Flatbush, a top-floor, thousand-room slum, that looked like the set of a German Expressionist horror movie, parked ourselves in front of the Trinitron he had salvaged from an abandoned Rockaway bungalow, and passed the Thai stick, again and again, as we watched the first-round AFC playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers that ended with the legendary immaculate reception — the pigskin, having caromed off the colliding carcasses of Frenchy Fuqua and Jack Tatum, was mere microns from touching the astro turf when Franco Harris scooped it up and tore ass into the end zone with but ten ticks remaining on the clock, producing glorious chaos in both Three Rivers Stadium and Park Slope Brooklyn, where our circle of way wasted potheads could not fucking believe what we had just seen.) She would then go Otto Jespersen all over our foggy little minds. She first drew one long horizontal line to which she would affix verticals and diagonals both above and below it. She would write some of the words of the sentence in and around some of these squiggles. There would be arrows, turned inward, pointing outward, then more horizontal lines above and below the original to which were added the now familiar verticals, diagonals, arrows, and dots. By the end of her disquisition, the board was a tree of words branching everywhere—it looked downright Leibniztian, only with English words in the place of Greek letters and Arabic numerals. And while Wolpinsky rattled on and on, I would be sitting in the back of the room—we were seated as we were marched, in size order—absolutely lost, experiencing the feeling that education, be it of the elementary, high, or higher variety, was just not for me. And so I therefore gave myself permission to let it pass over me as if I had put a figurative splash of blood on my mental doorway so that the Angel of Boredom and Confusion might pass me by.
4 In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon created a vocabulary of hard-boiled Jew slang and assigned the word shofar (a primitive bugle fashioned from a ram’s horn) to designate the telephone.
5 In addition to the granite dos and don’ts Moish brought down following his tête-à-tete with the almighty, he also lugged down from the mount the Torah. But at the time of his descent Moish and the Chosen People were only halfway through Exodus — there were still three and a half books that hadn’t happened yet. The temporal paradox implicit in this was not lost on the young scholar Rob-it, and prompted him to wonder aloud why God would be handing out a crib sheet for the future. Instead of seeing my blurt as an egregious lapse of classroom etiquette punishable by a proto-plasmatic slap upside my head, the rebbe chose to use it to further his didactic agenda. He explained that it is the purview of god, and god alone, to know the future, and so, in order to keep Moses from co-opting the privileges of the deity, which would have left Yahweh with no other choice but to smite him, the scroll he handed down from his volcanic crib had all future actions of the wandering Jews spelled out as one seemingly endless word, absent diacritical marks (the Semitic linguistic equivalent of vowels), which Moses then decrypted as events transpired along the forty-year desert stroll.
6 In the process becoming a short, stubby stand-in for Rank’s Gongman — the trademarked superhero of the titles/credits universe and a ubiquitous target of satire in the Mad magazine of my yoot.
7 Bela Lugosi in what is not his most well remembered performance but might very well be his best.
8 While Charlton Heston was off on his Ten Commandments walkabout, the now leaderless yids began to second-guess the whole he-is-the-one true-God spiel. They decided to hedge their theological bets. They let Edward G. Robinson (the only known Jew in a cast of thousands, cast as Dathan, the Pharaoh’s house Jew, overseer and governor of the enslaved chosen people), who had played bad angel to Moses’s good angel and used every hiccup along the way to the land of milk and honey to wax nostalgic about and urge the return to bondage, appoint himself high priest of the cult of the newly minted Golden Calf. When Charly descended with the twin tablets of Jehovah’s top ten thou shalt and thou shalt nots and witnessed the orgiastic Dance of the Idolators, he lost his mind for what he was doing and hurled the slabs at the Dionysiacs. At the moment of impact, they felt the earth move under their feet, they felt the sky come tumbling down, as a great fissure opened and swallowed them.