As winter gave way to spring, I received my get-out-of-jail free card—I had somehow passed the test for Brainiac High—and perfected the mechanics of stoop ball such that almost every time I slammed my spaldeen into the iron-nosed edge of the third tread up, it would explode off the step, not stopping until it caromed off the façade of the mesifta1 building across the street, and if not caught on the carom, on the fly, would be a ground-rule homer. But even though I had mutated into Schneider the Slugger, I still couldn’t whistle. And while my mind continuously reviewed the empirical data related to my parentally introjected homo-fate, never once concluding that I might yet develop an ability to whistle, my body confounded all that cerebral candlepower by never once allowing me to escape a subway car filled with Catholic school girls—a genus wont, on their way to and from Yushka High, to hike their demure, pleated school uniform skirts up way past the point of glorious indecency2 —without having to hunch my way through that thicket of thighs.
Though it was more than a smidge confusing, my need to gaze upon titties and shit remained unabated and unrequited. I mourned being locked out of the my personal Playboy mansion, while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge just whose fault that was, and was too craven to attempt acquisition of a tittie glossy off the rack at either a newsstand or my used zine store.
But then, one unusually warm early-spring day, the itinerant merchant named Cheap Naftali, making his usual rounds, appeared during recess with his well-worn, seemingly bottomless shopping bag full of merchandise for sale, some of it harmless, like candy bars and packs of baseball cards, and some of it proscribed, like fire crackers and loosies that went for a nickel apiece.
Seeing Cheap Naftali flog his wares on this particular midmorn generated a storm of the brain. Soon I found myself standing in front of the Nafster as he sat on a bench in the pocket park on the corner of Henry and Madison, counting his shekels. I asked him, squeaked at him more precisely, Hey, Naftali, you got any tittie magazines in there? pointing at the ratty shopping bag at his feet.
Cheap Naftali slowly craned his head up in my direction, focused his eyes on me, studied me, looking for anything that might give him pause, some tic or tell that would reveal me to be an undercover NIT (nark in training) out to nail him, to force his appearance before the Sanhedrin of the luftmensch rebbes of RJJ on a charge of satanic black marketeering. Satisfied that I was nothing more than a scared, horny little brat, he reached deep into his bag, rooted about in it, before finally pulling out a rolled-up magazine.
Funfzig was all he said.
Fifty cents! I croaked. That was a lot of money. I tried to hondell him; I delved into my jeans and after an appropriate interval pulled my hand out. In it were nestled a quarter and a nickel. I showed them to him: This is all I got.
Cheap Naftali gave a world-weary sigh: was this little doofus standing before him really trying to bargain with the master? Without saying a word he stowed the magazine I now had to have back in the black hole of his fraying bag and began the long, theatrical process of getting his creaky ass off that bench to leave the park, to leave me holding nothing but a useless quarter and a worthless nickel in my otherwise empty palm.
I pulled the Wimpy move: I’ll pay you tomorrow for a tittie magazine today.
This made him laugh. As he began trudging toward the cluttered cave of a store he had over by Canal Street, desperation sent my hand digging into my pocket, not daring to come out until it had secured another quarter. I ran toward him, calling out, Hey, wait up.
He turned, held out his hand, said nothing. In my frenzy to take ownership of the magazine, I poured all my change in it—the two quarters plus the nickel I had originally produced when I first tried to bargain. He swiped the money, dug deep once again, pulled out the same magazine, still rolled up, handed it to me, never saying a word, then turned and walked away.
After the initial mind-fogging ecstasy of acquisition had subsided, I realized I’d overpaid. You said it was fifty cents. Gimme my nickel back, I yelled after him, that nickel representing a Knickerbocker bar—cherry jelly enrobed in luscious milk chocolate, a candy bar I dream about to this day.
He didn’t even turn around. Instead he straightened his right arm, balled his hand into a fist, raised it ninety degrees so that fist and arm were a hypotenuse short of a right triangle, released his index finger, pointed it straight up. He then shook his hand side to side on a swivel: there would be no backsies for my nickel.
That was my first lesson in the laws of leverage.
The school bell tolled, signaling the end of recess. While the rest of the students headed back inside, I lingered in the pocket park trying to figure out what to do with my proscribed periodical. I went contemplative for a bit before I came up with what I thought to be an excellent solution. I’d just tuck it into my shirt. I unzipped my satin Dodgers jacket (a relic of the days before O’Malley broke our collective heart when he yanked Dem Bums out of Brooklyn) and was about to stow it away beneath my brown-on-brown, three quarter sleeve, paisley shirt (which had served as my woobie for about a year), when I realized how uncomfortable it would be to sit until lunchtime with this jugs journal nestled up against my ample tummy, its edges digging into my sensitive boychik skin. And I’d still face the same predicament I was dealing with now when the lunch bell rang. I returned to my ponder, now with some urgency—the street was empty, quiet; all the kids were now back in class while I was stuck outside and where I would remain until the problem was solved. I had my second storm of the brain in less than a half hour—a new record—when I remembered that when I first laid augen on the prize it was rolled up. Eureka! I took my left arm out of the jacket, rolled the loosened digest de jugs around it, then stuffed the arm back in the sleeve, secure in the knowledge that the jacket’s knit cuff would keep my treasure safely stowed away even if it somehow managed to slide all the way down my arm.
Once inside and seated I opened my Gemara, leaned it up against my desk, resting it on my stomach, essentially hiding within the vastness of the Talmud. As the Rebbe stood in front of the blackboard doing the Talmudic shuffle, I drifted off into daydream mode, musing about how wonderful it would be when I was finally alone, just me and my tittie mag.
The windows were shut tight, the steam was going full blast, sweat was running in streams down to my lard ass. I was now worried the magazine would become a soggy mess if it remained rolled round my sweaty arm, right below (one of) my dripping pits. I had to get my jacket off, and pronto.
It was a complicated maneuver I decided on. I would slip the magazine out and secrete it inside the acreage of my Gemara long enough to take off my jacket; then I would place the magazine back inside the jacket, which I would then fold and store under my desk secured by my book bag until lunch time, when I would be able to stow it inside the briefcase, safe from prying eyes.
Everything was proceeding according to plan until the moment I gazed upon the magazine nestled within my Gemara. Its title was Sir Knight, and on the cover was a color picture of a blowsy babe, her alluring parts blocked from view by an almost preternaturally thin and flimsy piece of cloth, through which the outlines of her massive titties could be clearly seen, as could those of her marble-sized nipples, which were threatening to bore holes through the sheer chemise.
Sir Knight was clearly a low-rent product, a package of crushed, off-brand potato chips in comparison to Playboy’s potatoes lyonnaise. There were few words and no names in it. But that didn’t make me no never mind. The moment I opened Sir Knight I became enveloped in a carnal cocoon. Everything else faded away. I no longer heard the rebbe didactisizing over the Talmud; I didn’t hear the constant leak of steam from the faulty radiator valve or the street noise filtering through the outsized windows rendered semiopaque by years of grimy buildup. There were only two things left in my world—me, and the photo layout I had fallen in love with. This object of my affection was so present to me, I had to give her a name. I chose Ann, for Ann Francis, the lubricious object of desire of the Forbidden Planet, so hot she was responsible for unleashing a monster from the id, a cousin of whom seemed to be running rampant in my chinos that very second.
Ann’s mouth was slightly opened, in an inviting kind of way. Ann’s eyes felt like they were looking right at me, through me, talking to me, telling me I should open the book up and look inside, where more, much more of her would be revealed. This was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
In one picture (disappointingly, the ones on the inside were all black-and-white) Ann had the cloth draped over one shoulder, the fabric covering only one of her perfectly globular tits, giving her the look of a slutty Greek goddess—Hera the Nympho. In another, the fabric was twisted at the cleavage, creating natural cups on either side, the better to house Ann’s glorious breasts, the fabric tied off tightly in the back to create a see-through, live-free-or-die Maidenform bra, the best ever. And in the last picture, Ann, given some lift from stiletto-heeled shoes, stood in all her natural glory, her right hip pushed slightly forward, her right knee slightly bent so as to shield her nethers from view, her unencumbered, uncovered breasts ripe fruit demanding to be plucked.
All systems were going, going, gone. I could barely breathe, I had an ache in my loins, my heart was beating like a tap-dancing fool, you could fry an egg on my feverish brow, time had stood still—just as it had when Joshua prayed to god to keep the sun from setting so that he and his army might finish the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jericho before the Sabbath began.
Ann so had my undivided attention that I didn’t even feel the first couple of blows raining down on me from somewhere outside; I couldn’t yet hear the epithets that punctuated each blow.
I was like the brontosaurus for whom it took several minutes for pain from its tail to register in its pea-sized brain. But register it finally did. And when I snapped out of my lust-laced fugue state, I found myself staring into the face of madness: my rebbe, an obese, foul-smelling, dentally challenged death camp survivor, torrents of spittle spewing from his yellow-crusted lips, was screaming at me hysterically (in the crazy, turn-of-the-twentieth, lady-parts sense of the word), repeating the same word, over and over, ahh-pee-kuy-ress (apostate), ahh-pee-kuy-ress (apostate), ahh-pee-kuy-ress (apostate), beating me about the head and shoulders with each iteration of his damnation, his dirt-encrusted fingernails contusing my sensitive skin.
I don’t know how long it took, but when he was finally all potched out, he stood over me, his breath coming in shallow, rapid wheezes. I was convinced his heart was attacking him and that any second he would fall down dead on top of me, my Talmud, and Sir Knight. As he continued to stare at me in disbelief, a string of spittle hanging from one corner of his mouth got longer and longer, until gravity did its thing and the drool dropped with a slimy splash onto my Gemara, which was still open, as was Sir Knight, from the pages of which Ann, naked and smiling, Delilah proud, stared up at the crazed cleric. This slaver shower seemed to rouse him, pull him back from death’s door. He rejoined the here and now. Looking at me and the filth I had laid atop the sacred text almost drove him wild, again. But after whatever his version of counting to ten was, he picked up the desecrated tome, slammed it shut with Sir Knight (and Ann) still inside, and wheeled and waddled out of the room to seek (guidance from) the yeshiva’s ginger principal, Rabbi Ginsberg. I followed behind at a safe distance, arriving at the glass door of the principal’s office in time to see the two holy men engaged in rat-a-tat-tat Yiddish, a quizzical, disbelieving look on Ginsberg’s face. Finally he had heard enough and, needing to get back to his kabalist meditation, gave disinterested, pointed at a pile of books indicating where my rebbe should place the tainted Gemara, and dismissed the raving Talmudist. That was my cue to scoot. I was safely back at my desk, trying to give remorseful and not pulling it off, when he returned and expelled me from his cheder (classroom).
As I stood up to go, I noticed blood oozing from a wound clawed by the filthy fingernails of Rabbi Cuckoo. It flowed in tiny rivulets down my left arm, along my hand, down my fingers, and departed my body in drips, each drop landing with a microsplatter on the filthy marble floor of the classroom. I draped my jacket on my briefcase, picked the case up with my unsullied right arm, and headed out the door. On my way out of the building I sneaked a peek inside the principal’s office and scoped my Talmud stuffed with my tittie mag on top of a pile of books on the side of Ginsberg’s desk. Between the blood and the confiscated book, any delusive hope I may have harbored that this was just a nightmare on Henry Street was dashed. No, this was something worse, far worse. This was a bad life, a miserable life, one which would be forfeit once the Father-Mother were hipped to the sordid, sacrilegious mess I had made.
I crossed the street and sat down on the stoop opposite the mesifta, on the very step from which I used to send my spaldeen into orbit back in the good old days when recess was for playing games like stoop ball, and not the departure time for an obsessive odyssey to Booby Island and beyond.
One of the bennies of the boho life, if you’re so inclined, is daily dinner with the mishpucha. After a long day of the Organizing Principle and me ramming our heads against the Great Wall of Show Biz trying to conceptualize the Pitch of Gold with (usually) only a headache and an existentially disquieting sense of desperation to show for it, and after Our Son the Moon and Our Daughter the Conscience trudged home and recovered from the doctrinal assault of education camp, we would sit down for a grub-and-gab, sharing with each other the trials and tribs of the day. If during one of these nightly slurp and burp sessions I would go to the woe-is-me place, one or both of the block chips would rub their index finger along their thumb and ask me what they were doing. Before I could guess, I’d be told they were playing “Cry Me a River” on the world’s smallest violin. Alternatively one of them might ask, Do you have a license to be driving this waa-aa-ambulance? or demand to see the permit authorizing the pity parade I appeared to be the grand marshall of.
Those bracing thanks-I-needed-that psychic slaps were, from where I sat as a pubescent dumpling of misery across from RJJ, light years away on the dark side of a faraway galaxy. I was still trapped then in Shtetlville USA, where it was clear that I was royally fucked. Nothing on that day stood in the way of my wallowing in a giant steaming vat of self-pity.
Self-pity is a salve for those of us too weak, warped, or unwilling to look at shit the way it really is. It is a weapon to be aimed at any convenient or contiguous target of opportunity upon whom blame can be transferred. Self-pity is the indispensible tool of self-deception.
As I sat on the stoop in a wallow, reviewing the events of the previous hour, as well as the events of the previous few months, my targets were manifold, my need to transfer guilt massive. There were the parentals, who had, for reasons only they knew and were not sharing, made every effort to damn me to a life without whistling. There were the religious zealots charged with my spiritual indoctrination who were the architects of the hot-house environment in which such a shanda3 as I had perped was possible, even fucking inevitable. There was Cheap Naftali, the money-grubbing, moral compass–missing degenerate who had sold that piece of wondrous radioactive trash to me, a confused and flaming hunk of pubescent tumescence. And there was Mr. and Mrs. Booze-and-Schmooze, who wrote the book on irresponsible when they hired the cretinous, hormonal wreck who lived down the hall to watch over their little Alvin Albatross and were so lacking in judgment that they left a powder keg of Playboys hidden in plain sight for him to blow his mind over.
There was, as you can see, more than enough blame to go around, enough so that I could focus my anger on others while coincidentally diffusing my own shame and guilt. But the ameliorative benefits of self-deception are dramatically constricted when undercut by the astringency of self-examination. And I just couldn’t shake the question I’d been asking myself in myriad ways since I’d read Fleming’s fateful sentence a few months back—why was I, as someone unable to whistle, so obsessed with women? Why did my body belie my brain and reward me with a boner every time I ogled the passing parade of dames, all shapes, all sizes? They could be, as the Bluesman told his audience, young, tender, old, don’t make no difference, dem girls! If I really were a homo, why would the last thing my mind’s eye rewarded me with when I laid me down to sleep be the image of Marilyn Monroe in a tight white silk dress with a cherry print and a plunging neckline, in The Misfits, in a bar, on a bet, banging the shit out of a paddle and ball, her unencumbered titties, barely corralled, bouncing joyfully, hypnotically with each stroke, or, when Huston gifted us the reverse-angle view, that searing image of her sweet ass swinging, stroke by stroke, east-west, presto tempo, doing the boogie-woogie right in the middle of the floor?
When you’re barely pubed out, and all you have to worry about is when you’re going to scarf that next grease-blossomed bag of ketchup-coated fries washed down by a Mission grape soda or better yet a Wink, or how you wound up facing a looming tittie-mag-confiscation-generated force-five shit storm, the most pressing metaphysical question of the day might very well be—why did the moron throw the clock off the roof?
Because he wanted to see time fly.
Which is exactly how it played out as I sat on my tread of solitude pondering the condition my condition was in. The tiny slice of world in front of my frozen-in-thought self pixilated by as if rendered in time lapse: a quiet street save a pigeon-hunting feral cat or two jump cutting through the frame; the lunch hour in quintuple time—a mondo-frenetic basketball game, a dizzying, open-air baseball card trading mart, yo-yos looping the loop in defiance of the laws of physics, tops spinning at the speed of light, soda slurped, knishes scarfed in vomitous overdrive; then, just as quickly as the kinder chaos came, it went, replaced by an eerily empty street disturbed only by the appearance and disappearance of cars swallowed by black holes, and a garbage man pushing his wheeled wastebasket and push broom, magically sweeping the detritus of the day away in a wink. The sun, finally setting, its blue tones replaced by the warm orange glow of streetlamps, cued the Brownian bedlam of my fellow prisoners of piety making their eager escape from madrassah. Their mass exodus snapped me out of my reverie, brought me back into real time and space, where I found my meditation rewarded with two interlocked conclusions about the events of the day, the first conceptual, the second pragmatic.
The conceptual breakthrough came as a result of a provocative question I had asked during Talmud study earlier in my year of living dangerously: The Torah says that we have free will but it also says that God is all-knowing. But if God already knows what’s going to happen, which means he knows what anyone is going to do under any circumstance, how can there really be anything like free will?
He who was soon to become my tormentor, taken aback by the cogency of a frage coming from one so young and disrespectful as me, fumfered for a beat or two before commencing his jig on the head of a pin by quoting Maimonides, who said that both the propositions (man has free will, God knows all) are true, but that it is only God, infinite and omniscient and omnipotent, who can understand how these two antithetical propositions can be squared. He then cited Rebbe Akiva, who put shit a bit more koanically—All is foreseen, yet permission is given. Rendered in Aristotelian double-speak, even though God knows future contingent events, his knowledge does not annul the contingency of these events.
At the time of asking, the callow committed atheist4 I was cared little about the nature of free will and was interested only in generating a spiritual squirm. But from the perch of my contemplative tread, free will (which I had much less trouble with than my rebbe, since in the absurd universe I floated in what else could will be but free?) took on a much more profound meaning, one that led to its concomitant, my liberating practical pensée, the conclusion that came to me by way of Ockham’s Razor (In answering any question, the simple is preferred over the complex) mediated through the prism of Sherlock Holmes’s first rule of deduction (When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth), to wit: I was drowning at the bottom of the pickle vat because, whatever my perception of the intent of my parental nurturing may have been, I had come into this world factory-equipped with a heaping helping of free will, and with this ontological autonomy I chose (had no other choice, really5 ) to gaze with gusto upon the female form and that therefore, cogito ergo sum masturbārī.True that. I was, for sure, no homo.
That settled that.
My voyage back to Goyville was like hitching a ride on a cloud, my burden having been lifted as I came to realize that no matter what this douchenozzle Ian Fleming thought he understood about the ramifications of whistling within the Masters & Johnson/Kraft-Ebbing universe, he knew nothing about my world, about what made Rob-it tick. But by the time the doors on the AA opened on 42nd Street, my cloud had turned dark and stormy as I was slammed with the realization that no matter how happily my tale of homo woe may have been resolved, the piper had yet to be paid for the (Clue compatible) Sir-Knight-in-the-Talmud-with-the-boner incident. I expected that the particulars of my transgression might well have preceded me home and that when I opened the door, I would be greeted by the singular face of Father-Mother madness. I nearly shit my pants.
But it hadn’t, and I wasn’t, so I didn’t.
That evening when the parentals, My Brother the Other, and I sat down to a meat and two starch scarf session, I was so relieved by what I considered my close shave that I got cocky (characterological deficit #33). I proceeded to instigate a tortured convo about civil rights and the evils of Amurrica, which got Mom, Dad, and Bro so worked up, they had to remind themselves that the neighbors might be listening in order to calm themselves down. Womb and Seed were now so pissed at me for shit completely unrelated to the shit they really should have been angry at me for, I was certain a parental mushroom cloud of rightous rage would vaporize me if news of the nudie mag episode reached them later that night.
And so after dinner, when my peristalsis froze, I feared it might even reverse as I waited on the couch for the phone to ring and the other shoe to drop like a lead brick on top of my conk. But besides the sound of tommy guns spraying bullets on The Untouchables, it was crickets all night until I slid off to Slumberville.
The next morning as I ate burnt french toast—the womb always pushed the envelope with her frog toast, sometimes caramelizing the egged Pechter’s Chalah6 to perfection, and other times carbonizing it—I dissected the quandary of the confiscated Gemara like the Talmudist they were training me to be. I figured that if shit were to have hit the fan, it would have happened already, and that Ginsberg was either keeping his powder dry, waiting for a more auspicious moment, maybe the eve of the Day of Judgment, to drop the nuke on my nukes (and me), or (in the best of all possible, delusive-hope universes) had somehow forgotten about it altogether.
On the ride down to school, I weighed my options and concluded I had no choice but to take my own version of Pascal’s wager—to assume that the delusive-hope option might really be possible, that Rebbe “Lost in Spiritual Space” Ginsberg let all earthly shit go before schlufen and in the morning experienced secular amnesia thanks to a religious reboot brought on by morning prayer before he split for madrassah. If that were true, the bold choice was the only choice. And really, what could I lose? If I was right, I would be free at last, and if he was waiting for the right time to let the guillotine drop, better to make it sooner rather than later: in effect, I could put myself out of my own misery. Either way I would kind of, sort of win, though one way would be far sweeter than the other.
By the time I rode up the escalator at East Broadway, I knew all the steps in my die-trying plan to save myself from near-certain destruction.
I entered the mesifta building, practically flew up the two flights to the floor that was home to both my classroom and Ginsberg’s lair, took a deep, deep, deep breath, walked into the office, grabbed my Talmud like it was a chunk of found gold, the Sir Knight still peeking out from its heart, mumbled something about relief at not losing the holy book, and tore ass out of there before Ginsberg so much as raised his nose out of his whatever-the-fuck-he-was-studying. I then rushed into the bathroom, grabbed an empty stall, transferred tittie mag from Talmud to briefcase, flushed for cover, and entered the classroom praying I would get a free ride there as well, which I did.
And that was my first Hollywood ending.
1 Mesifta is the high school part of the yid parochial school experience. Although my candlepower was bright enough to warrant it, my behavioral issues kept me from skipping a grade on the secular side, but on the religious side, mishna study was a meritocracy which assumed brilliance would eventually overcome the crazy, and so I was force-marched to hebe high school in order to gobble Gemara and settle into the starting blocks of the rabbi track.
2 Hormone-mad, pheromone-radiating Catholic school girls who, as soon as they split school, rolled their skirts up over the waist band, twirled them over and over until you could practically see some righteous Catholic camel-toe, were really responsible for introducing the mini-dress to urban Amurrica.
3 Scandal in Yiddish. It’s poetic that the creator of that TV show should have a variant spelling for her first name.
5 This was the 50s, before we learned that substance abuse or gayness were not choices but rather the products of what you might call genetic determinism (see, there’s that word again.
6 Shtelville’s own personal sliced Brioche.