Just before Christmas I always go out looking around at the Christmas world, and to me, there’s no place that makes Christmas better, that makes the scene more completely, than the dime stores. Whenever a kid goes out to Christmas shop, he doesn’t go to Bonwit Teller when his entire budget for six people is forty cents, he immediately goes to the dime store.
Woolworths and Kresge were my big areas of dealing and I was figuring it out for a month or so before Christmas. Figuring out what would really make the house complete, somehow that would make my mother’s life sing! I’d go to the dime store and look things over.
I’ll tell you what I did one Christmas. I had my eye on a thing one time. I saw this perfume atomizer. It was a silver one. It was glass but it had silver inside of it and it was vaguely frosted on the outside. Now that I think about it, it must have been one of the world’s worst-looking things Woolworths ever handled. It had a rubber bulb on it that was sort of jonquil yellow, and it squeaked like a little rubber mouse when you squeezed it, Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. That showed that it really had a lot of suction and a lot of power and would blow a lot of perfume.
This was maybe two or three weeks before Christmas and I had to debate with myself a lot because it was a tremendous investment. They had other atomizers there for fifteen cents, they had a couple of them for twenty cents, and I was looking at the high-priced line on the middle shelf there. Twenty-five cent atomizers. It was a full quarter. Yeah, it was going all the way—it was a quarter.
I kept going past and looking at this thing on the shelf. They also had some red ones, and they had a blue one, let me tell you, that would make your eyeball sweat, it was so blue. I don’t know where they got that blue. But somehow, the silver one with the yellow bulb was it. It had a yellow hose on the side, and the top was imitation gold, and I kept looking at this thing. And finally I decided—well, okay. And I’m in town with my brother, and my mother and father are going somewhere and they said, “Look. We’ll meet in front of Minuses. You be there immediately! Don’t get lost, because we don’t want to have to go searching around through the dime store for you. Exactly at eight o’clock in front of Minuses, you hear?”
Okay, we go off. Randy has a full thirty cents to spend, and as I was older, I have forty-five cents. I am going all the way out, and immediately I make a B-line for the cosmetics counter and false eyelashes. You aught to see Woolworths’ false eyelashes. They’re great, I’ll tell you that.
I’m looking around. I have to do one last survey of the scene to make sure that this atomizer is really what I want to get. So I go looking over the thing, and I look back and forth, and okay, I’m gonna pop.
Inspired by the elegance of some Japanese wood-block-printed books, including some erotic ones, especially by Hokusai and Utamaro, I made one of my own, a non-explicit one.
In New York City’s midtown area there was a large emporium, Takashimaya, a Japanese store full of varied household objects, including many Japanese-language imported books and magazines. I discovered that many middle-age Japanese men have strong sexual feelings for pre-adolescent girls (“Lolitas”) and many Japanese magazines cater to that, full of photos of innocent, partly clad young girls. I also discovered that one can buy blank, traditional, Japanese-style books in the same format as the woodblock-printed books.
I put those two discoveries together and created my own Japanese-style erotic book—my abstract layouts of photos cut from a couple of those men’s magazines. Playing with the viewer’s mind by cropping in ways that disguise the original subject matter, designs that only suggest erotic content, but are not in any way outwardly salacious–original photos aren’t from any explicitly erotic body part–just from backs, arms, shoulders, etc.
It’s a kind of homage to Japanese woodblock books in general and to those more elegantly done examples of shunga in particular. The title is a play on Hokusai’s “Views of Mount Fuji.” In fact, for me, I see the book as a playful exercise in abstract and evocative page design. The material is viewable for “general audiences.”
Front Cover and a couple of pages from my homage,
concluding with the final, surprise page design.
Now this is a different problem. It’s Christmas time—what do you say? “Oh, Tinker Toy! Just what I always wanted!” Or do you tell the truth? Tinker Toy! And my mother said, “I thought it would be best to get you Tinker Toy because you might cut yourself on an Erector Set and you could get a shock from the motor.”
Oh, my god! I had a Tinker Toy set that could make a windmill with paper vanes on it. I played with it for maybe seven or eight milliseconds. And I realized that a Tinker Toy was just not my sort of thing. It may be your thing and you may have loved it. I was bored out of my skull with Tinker Toy and Lincoln Logs.
I’ll never forget what it said on the Tinker Toy box—“A Wonderful Educational Toy.” And now I’ll have to reveal the worst. Twenty minutes later I get a phone call from Schwartz. He was ecstatic.
I said, “Schwartz, what did you get?”
“An Erector Set! It’s fantastic! I’m working on this Ferris wheel. Oh!”
Schwartz hit the jackpot! I said, “Oh well.”
He said, “What did you get?”
“A Tinker Toy set. You can make a windmill.”
He said, “That must be great.”
I knew what he was saying: “You lost, didn’t you, buddy. Heh heh.”
So be careful, people out there. Be careful, please. You think you’re doing something great for somebody, you think you’re doing good. Be careful. There’s nothing that a kid loves more than a dangerous toy. Dangerous toys are what life is made of. In fact, if you invented a truly dangerous toy it would be a toy that the minute the kid plugs it in, it blows up, and with that toy, he would be educated for everything else he will get and also educated in life.
NEXT SHEP STORY–HE GIVES A PERFUME ATOMIZER
In addition to the well-known Japanese woodblock prints, the lesser-known printed books, and netsukes, the traditional genera of Japanese art includes “shunga,” which is erotic art of usually the most explicit sort. Japanese artists produced overt and symbol-laden art focused on sex, both in netsuke and in the very common woodblock books usually called “pillow books,” because these “sex manuals” were supposedly meant to be placed under the pillow to help instruct couples in the art of making love.
Only in recent decades have these become more commonly known and reproduced in the West. I’ve only seen these works in photos and reproduction. They are outrageously explicit, detailed, and frequent use enormous exaggeration. (The inquisitive might google shunga and look at images.) From my impression, the most artful/elegant were produced by such great woodblock artists as Hokusai and Utamaro.
Utamaro, best known for his elegant portraits of women including courtesans, did what we call pornography as well as a set of books depicting the Yoshiwara district, the-then widely-known red-light district of Tokyo—these two volumes set the stage but don’t raise the curtain on any acts.
Utamaro’s Yoshiwara books, from my cheap set printed from re-cut blocks.
Prostitutes on display; prostitutes watching the artist touch up a painting.
A non-explicit double-page from
one of Utamaro’s erotic works.
The non-explicit halves of
Hokusai pages in (half) their elegance.
STAY TUNED FOR MY OWN NON-EXPLICIT SHUNGA
And then it finally came. Christmas—which seems to creep up so slowly, with little cat’s paw feet, when you really want something. When you’re giving something, it comes up like crazy—the minute you become an adult, Christmas comes so damn fast you can’t believe it.
Most people have Christmas morning for gift-giving, but at that point Christmas Eve was the big night. The old man would buy wine, we had walnuts in a bowl, and my mother bought pfeffernuesse cookies. We’d go out and come back, and magically everything was all lit up, the radio was tuned in to Christmas music, and there was the tree with all the stuff spread out under it.
This was the culmination of two months of sweaty anticipation. At long last, my Erector Set! I was going to make a life-size merry-go-round that I was going to ride on! A life-size crane!
And there was a big package with my name on it. It had to be the Erector set! I tore the paper off. There was a big white box. It had a picture of a kid standing next to what looked like a windmill with big paper vanes on it. Tinker Toy! Tinker Toy? Oh no! There was no joy in Mudville. I’ve got a giant set of Tinker Toy. Tinker Toy.
SEE END OF TINKER TOY NEXT
Erector Set and Tinker Toy–Part 1
I was about nine or ten, a very sensitive period. Can you remember having a fantastic yen for something you wanted? Man, you wanted it! When you get older you become a self-fulfilling agent. If you really want something, you go out and get it. But when you’re nine or ten that’s not very easy to do, especially if it runs into lots of cash. You’re depending on other people to fulfill your wishes. And that puts you in a very vulnerable situation.
The comic strips of that period were an area of downfall because they ran ads at the bottom of the strips. Terrific ads showing kids doing stuff and saying, “Hey, fellows and gals, why don’t you tell your mother and dad what a terrific gift this would make.” It showed these kids playing with a fantastic Erector Set. It said, “Makes Ferris Wheel.” “Makes merry-go-round with genuine electric motor.” Every week they had a different thing you could make. One week they had this drawbridge that went up and down with the motor. Gears and the whole bit. The next week they made a merry-go-round. The week after they made a derrick. “Operates with electric motor. Shows this kid running the controls and it’s picking up stuff. Wow, it’s fantastic!
Schwartz and I both suddenly got bitten by the Erector Set bug. I make a terrible confession—I never was bitten by the electric train bug. A lot of other kids in my neighborhood, I must say, weren’t either, because we didn’t need electric trains. They were all over the place. They’re still all over the place around northern Indiana. We just walked outside and could get run over by a real one any time we wanted to. Nothing like being run over by a big red, white, and blue diesel. So toy trains never really got us. At that period I always wanted to own a gas-model airplane, and I never got that, but the idea of an Erector Set, which was advertised like crazy in the comic strips, began to get Schwartz and me. We would talk about what we were going to build.
So Schwartz and I each laid the groundwork at home—what we wanted for Christmas was an Erector Set. Your mother always said, “Now don’t forget, if there’s anything you want for Christmas, be sure to give us a few clues and hints so we can pass them on to Santa Claus,” so I did. I said, “It sure would be fun if I had an Erector Set. You know what I could do? I could build a crane! With it I could fix our lawn!” I could dig holes and my mother could plant the iris with a crane.
I could see myself building this great stuff with the electric motor and I talked about it. Time went by and my mother would nod: “Mm, very interesting. Yes.” And I showed her the ad, because it said in the ad, “Show this to your mom and dad.” Do they still do that in ads? I remember getting really hung up on that Erector Set, and as Christmas came closer the ads get more spectacular. They were in color for one thing, and the Erector Set showed this merry-go-round and it was all red on top. You saw all these silver bars inside of it and it looked huge. It looked like the kids playing with it could get on it! In the background was a Ferris wheel they made. It was going, and the crane was going up and down. The ad said, ”Build your own electronically-driven automobile!” You could build a little truck with I-beams and stuff and put the little electric motor in it and it ran on batteries. Oh, I could taste it.
I’ve felt so strongly [without anything but circumstantial evidence], that Bob Dylan must have listened to Shepherd in the early 1960s that I once made up a list of questions about it.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man,
play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning
I’ll come followin’ you.
What questions would I ask?
Bobby, is That You, Woody?
Q: Mr. Dylan, sir, please, if I may, please. When did you start listening to Shep, please? Were you a Shepherd “night person”? Sir, please.
Q: How, please, did you find out about him, please?
Q: What about him got you interested in him, Mr. Dylan, sir?
Q: What were your thoughts about him then, and what do you think about him now?
Q: When did you stop listening to him and why did you stop?
Yes You Can–Love it!
Dylan quoted from a talk he gave in 2015:
“Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, ‘Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.’ Think about that the next time you are listening to a singer.”
[I intrude to amplify that by saying that Maria Callas and Frank Sinatra, without beautiful voices, convince me.]
Q: Are there any ways that you feel especially attuned to what Shepherd said and how he said it?
Q: Any specific ways you’ve thought/behaved/ created that you might feel have been influenced by his style?
Q: Any specific aspects of what he said that might have influenced your music/lyrics?
Nice Ta See Ya Smile, Bobby!
Q: He was very negative toward folk and rock–especially regarding you and Joan Baez–were you aware of that–did you care?
The King and the President,
who says he’s a big Dylan fan.
Q: What about your feelings about Shep–then and now?
Q: What do you feel are Jean Shepherd’s best attributes?
Keep on Rockin’
[Because Jean Shepherd in the 1960s demeaned both Bob Dylan and
Joan Baez, among others, I’ve often felt that not only did he dislike the
political protests they were part of, but that he did not objectively
listen to some of the better rock and other music of the time.
I wish I coulda talked to Shep and gotten him to listen carefully
to some good rock and to some fine Dylan,
and then gotten him to admit what he really felt.
I’d a started with “Mr. Tambourine Man,”
and worked up ta “Like a Rollin’ Stone.”]
Lusting after a BB gun present as pictured in the beloved Christmas film, is not little Ralphie’s/Jeanie’s only story of getting and giving during Shepherd’s childhood years. His stories about gifting don’t always conclude as satisfyingly as BB-gun-gained.
No gift, given or gotten, is quite as perfect as it should have been, and no story about it is quite as simple and straightforward as it could have been. Shepherd is famous for insisting he’s a realist—remember that Ralphie almost does shoot out his eye. And he is famous for his sometimes extensive and diversionary story-telling strategies. As, in the middle of nine-year-old Jean deciding whether to buy a chrome-plated tie clip for his old man, who would have expected from adult Shepherd as narrator, an extensive, quasi-serious blitzkrieg-like rant on the inadvisability of bringing a child into this world while Hitler marches across Europe? Shepherd marches us straight forward through Hitler, “slob-art,” and concrete statuary—and back to tie clips. The fun is in letting Jean Shepherd lead us where he will because getting there can be more than half the fun.
SHEP’S GIFTING STORIES COMING UP!
Granada, I’m falling under your spell.
And if you could speak what a fascinating you would tell
Of an age the world has long forgotten
Of an age that weaves a silent magic in Granada today.
Give him alms, woman,
for there is nothing in life,
nothing, as painful as
being blind in Granada.
Since early adolescence I have been obsessed with Spain, so it’s no surprise that when I toured Spain in my twenties, I meet Maria, a young woman from Granada, and, less than two years later, we married in her church of Granada’s patron saint, La Senora de las Angustias, which I sardonically translate as The (Virgin Mary) of the Anguishes.
We were married for about four years, living in New York, during which I cried almost every day. This, in part can be explained by the fact that Maria was an innocent, brought up in a culture obsessed with the rigid and reactionary environment in which anything deviating from customs and one’s personal beliefs must, by definition, be evil and the devil incarnate. (This seems to explain why the Spanish Civil War was so cruel, so bloody.)
So, in our comfy little Tudor-style house in Queens, New York, one Sunday morning, as I was constructing my hand-made Spanish classical guitar in our finished basement, an event occurred causing me to begin writing my novel consisting of autobiographically true short descriptions interspersed with fictional chapters inspired by the true parts [Cover design and rendering by eb.]:
It should be noted that “Granada”
is not only the name of the city,
but is the term for “hand grenade,”
and is also the word for “pomegranate.”
Like Granada the city, the pomegranate has a tough outer shell. Inside, the sweet/tart fruit is walled off by white partitions–these are very bitter to taste. The luscious fruit is delicious, but the inner seeds are hard to eat, so must be spit out. The fruit’s beautiful red liquid itself must be carefully kept from touching one’s clothing, as it permanently stains.
This novel tells the story of Gordon Roberts, a young American rifle expert in Spain, who dreams of righting the wrongs of the Spanish Civil War, thirty years after its end.
The fictional story opens with him on a hillside, rifle in hand, aiming at Francisco Franco, Spain’s vicious conquerer and dictator, expecting to kill him quickly and easily. Gordon’s Spanish friends are just testing him—the rifle shells are blank—he faces the first of many frustrations. He must prove his worth to his urban guerilla associates from Granada, Catalonia, and the Basque provinces, or be killed by them himself. The true story, as prelude, begins:
This is a true story. I stand in my house in New York backed against a wall into a corner by my Spanish wife who holds a carving knife pointed at my chest….I protect myself with an aluminum folding chair in one hand and rolled up Arts Section of the Sunday New York Times in the other. Hemingway would insist on courage: grace under stress. Spain has been my dream, my paradise of the imagination for so many years and things like this don’t happen to people such as I, they only happen in novels and movies.
The plot alters because the Prime Minister under Franco, Carrero Blanco, is assassinated by Basque terrorists in a horrific-but-true explosion:
And Franco dies in bed. Prince Juan Carlos, soon to be head of state, is to attend a musical event in the Alhambra and Gordon’s Granada friends decide to kill Juan Carlos there with a deadly string of granadas strung in a hidden cover on the overhead balcony ledge where they know he will be sitting. [True inspiration for the scene: Maria and I had attended a musical event in the Alhambra–the Prince and his wife seated five rows behind us.] Gordon, begins the assassination process and then, transformed by a multitude of Spanish images and feelings, cannot go through with it–he is saved by memories of intense flamenco songs he heard the night before and memories of gruesome, nearly abstract-expressionist smears of blood in a corner of Goya’s painting of an execution that he cannot erase from his mind.
He escapes and returns to New York.
Epilog to The Pomegranate Conspiracy
…. I look through photos–books of Spain, of Granada. I grieve at my loss. I wish to return. There are parts I have not toured, things I do not know well enough. I wish to see the tomb of Franco in the Valley of the Fallen. Actually, it is a slab of floor tile with his name on it. I want to stand on it and stomp my foot on it. And Granada. I want to see again the red-walled Alhambra from the town below. I long to walk Granada’s streets on warm sunny afternoons, bathed in her ambiance, and amble through the calles and up the Cuesta de Gommerez, past the guitar and woodworking shops. I want to pass through the opening in the outer wall and ascend the wooded path. I want to enter again the innermost rooms of the Alhambra.
Washington Irving wrote in the terminating paragraph of his book, Tales of the Alhambra: “With these thoughts I pursued my way among the mountains. A little further and Granada, the Vega and the Alhambra, were shut from my view and thus ended one of the pleasantest dreams of a life which the reader perhaps may think has been but too much made up of dreams.”
(A memorial poem by eb)
[More truth: Love/hate, disillusion, bitterness, animosity, lingering love; the four-line verse above on a ceramic plaque–about Granada, with a pomegranate–is a well-known poem, replicated on many of the city’s streets–I still have the one I bought, and I see it every day on our bathroom wall; several years after writing about Franco’s floor tile inscription, beneath which he’s buried in the Valley of the Fallen, on a Museum business trip I detoured to Spain and visited that plaque.]
I twisted the ball of my foot on it, like squashing a bug.
WORDS ARE WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Jean Shepherd Remembering A Great Reading Experience
And all of a sudden as I read, I could see the sun coming in through the venetian blinds. And I’m gone. The sun is quietly moving like a golden finger along the floor of time. I’d never read anything like this before. I could see the leaves on the hills I had never even known existed. I could smell the fall air. And down below the town, the river dark like some great, vast, prehistoric monster. And a curtain going up in my mind. Creeping. And the show was about to begin. And everything changed. Trumpets blew.
From that day onward I have not been the same as I was the minute I opened up that first page. I never read anything in my life that was like this. It was some vast organ playing somewhere and the words rolled on and on and on and on. It wasn’t that they made sense or not sense. They were beautiful. Great crashing waves of words rolling over the rocks.
And that great river flowed on, the web of life to unsung, untold, unopened doors. The stones. A leaf dropped. And from that minute on I realized that there was nothing ever in this world as more—as even remotely as powerful as words.
Words are what it’s about. The one thing that makes us different from the giraffes and the turtles. I could not understand why Miss Easter said they didn’t give this to kids! The one group they should have given it to was kids.
This writer played upon the line, upon the language of some demented and some fantastically talented, insane dancer on the keyboard of an incredible wind-pipe organ of the gods, of the stars. Tom-toms booming in the distance. And I remembered the name of the book. Always, forever. He spoke of a stone angel, its sword pointing skyward, holding a stone leaf, the wind blowing over its stone arms and form. Look Homeward. Look Homeward, Angel. You Can’t Go Home Again. The Web and the Rock. Yeah!
Did you ever read any of those? Look Homeward, Angel. Now, who I’m talking about here is Thomas Wolfe, the original Thomas Wolfe. The real one. And the only reason I brought all this up—you know I have to say that that one book—I didn’t understand anything, I didn’t know what it was about. I think really great literature, you don’t have to understand what it’s about. You feel it like music. It’s a felt thing.
Here I was, about ten years old. It was a fantastic trauma, it really was. I remember taking this book home and reading it under the covers at home because of this rule that you had to go to bed at this certain time, and I had a penlight which my Aunt Glen had given to me for my birthday. This little fountain pen-shaped flashlight. So I was hiding under the covers reading Look Homeward, Angel. I didn’t know what it was about. I just knew I couldn’t stop reading it. It changed me forever really.
IT CHANGED ME FOREVER REALLY
MUSEUM CAVE ART
What I refer to as “cave art” is the art in which I’m in greatest awe. Of the primitive and surprising elegance and intelligence with which it was created. It is where we have come from in our world of art, it is the instant in human history when sophisticated art was born.
I refer to the great cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, and the great carvings such as the Venus of Willendorf. I visited northern Spain’s Altamira in 1966 when the public was still openly admitted. I remember how the guide instructed each visitor to lie on a flat, table-like rock in the cave, where, as he told us, the original painter must have lain while painting the image just an arm’s length above.
Over the years I collected replicas of a number of pieces, including the pieces I exhibit standing: two Cycladic female carvings and the Guennol lioness, about 3.5″ tall of about 5,000 years ago Mesopotamia, which I saw and first became aware of when it was exhibited just a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum. I immediately rushed to the Museum Shop and, as I’d hoped, found a replica for sale. I bought it and went back to the original on display, took out my replica and held it up to compare. It was very good. I have it displayed unsupported, just held up in sand, so I can grab it and hold it whenever I have the desire.
I arranged most of the smaller pieces in a long, glass-covered box, these artifact replicas nestled in fine sand. On the left are the two Venus of Lespugue replicas, the black-and-white of how it exists today, with a reconstruction of how it must originally have been. The rest are venus and animal figurines.
So one can imagine how excited I was when our Museum managed to gather a large collection of replicas on loan from European museums for a temporary exhibit showing them in their historical and intellectual context. Of course I visited the display numerous times.
So one can imagine how excited I was when, a couple of years later,
our Museum managed to gather a large collection of
on loan from various European museums for a temporary exhibit!
Before the objects were put on display for the public, I entered the exhibit space and spoke with one of the anthropologists in charge.
“I know that I can view the objects as much as I like once they’re in cases behind glass, but could I see them without the barrier of plexiglass hoods, with nothing but air between them and me?”
He took me into the locked vault where the pieces were being stored before installation. He locked the door behind us. He unlocked a large metal cabinet. I noted that there was thick carpet on the floor and the nearby tables—in case some anthropologist dropped one! He pulled out a large flat tray. There they were!
“Wow!” I said. “This is the thrill of a lifetime!”
“Would you like to pick them up?”
“Me?!” Not even with gloves! “Pick them up”?
He smiled and nodded ascent.
I picked up the Venus of Lespugue. The original. In my bare hands. And gently fondled it.
I picked up the bison licking its flank. The original. In my bare hands. And gently fondled it.
I picked up several other originals, all over twelve thousand years old
that I’d only seen in photos in books.
Tears in my eyes, I thanked him profusely. “I cannot believe it!”
“Consider it a perk of working at the Museum.”
Great Crashing Waves of Words
I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who just don’t read. I wonder if they learn to read while in school. It’s just a question. Do people who don’t read know how to read? Or is it harder for them to do it? Is reading hard? That’s a question I’m asking. Rhetorical question. In short, to many people who are otherwise widely educated, is the actual act of reading and visualizing something from a printed page—is that a difficult process? Is it laborious to them? I don’t know.
It seems so natural to me. From the time I was a kid. I can’t remember learning to read. From the time I was a little kid.
I guess many many people are like that. But I’m surprised though, how too many of the people who ordinarily would read and who are fairly knowledgeable about what’s been written have very little understanding or interest in anything that has been written. I wonder what they think all those libraries are for. “Studying,” as they call it? Is that what it’s for? Studying? Or whether they think people are studying –math—in those libraries? What? History? I see. Well, alright, if you think it’s all history, then how much of that do you read?
Anyway, Miss Beverly Smith one afternoon was giving out book assignments for book reviews. Stuff like Ivanhoe, stuff like Silas Marner. She said, “I’m going to give you an additional book list. And I’d like to underscore a couple of books that, if you take them out, you may find really interesting, boys and girls.” Most of the kids just stuck them away. They were going to cheat on their book review anyway.
But I loved reading. So I took the supplemental book review list to the library. I walked into the library and I said, “Miss Easter, may I have this book?”
She said, “Let me see that. They’re letting you read that in school?”
I said, “Yes, there’s my book list.”
She said, “Well, we ordinarily don’t give that to children.”
I said, “Miss Smith said I could read it. It’s right there on the list.”
“Well, I don’t know what they’re teaching these days in school. I certainly think your mother should know what you’re reading.”
Well, at that point, “Wow!” I thought, “Oh my god, it must be fantastic!”
So she gave me this great big thick book from the adult section. It was the biggest, thickest, fattest book I ever saw. I took this book and I sat down in the library and I started to read it. At first it was very difficult. It was nothing at all like Ivanhoe and Lady of the Lake.
WHAT BOOK WAS IT?
The Library and P. G. Wodehouse
But little did I realize all the while, my true vocation was sneaking up on me. I think your true vocation often sneaks up on you. There isn’t a point in a guy’s life when he decides he’s going to be a Bowery bum. One day he finds himself sitting in the cart and everyone has gone to work. Next day he finds himself for the first time in his life sitting on the curb. Everyone’s walking by him. It just sneaks up.
At this time, all of us kids in freshman high school were reading serious books, official books. We had a reading list that included such beauties as Wuthering Heights, such unforgettable stuff as Silas Marner, Lady of the Lake, great stuff like that. I think one of the reasons why kids hate reading most of all their lives, is the stuff that they have to read. Oh, did you ever try to finish a book by Edith Wharton? Anybody who does that could well have been in their time a six-day bike racer had they stuck with that too. But there I am. I’m not anti-intellectual, but when you’re fourteen years old and suddenly find yourself deep in Henry James, that is heavy going. The mire and the muck get rather deep.
I’m sitting there in the library and it’s a hot spring day. I could hear the ping-ponging of tennis balls out somewhere on a court. I took this book off the shelf and it was the same author that guy had told me about. The same author who had done nothing for me weeks, months, years before! I began reading this thing. At first I sort of went, yeah—yeah—yeah—and then it hit me. My god, have you ever been so embarrassed by something that hit you when you were sitting in a crowd? I started laughing in the study hall and I couldn’t stop laughing.
I was laughing like I was out of my mind! And people started looking over, “What’s the matter?” And I could not stop laughing. I just couldn’t! The hero of the book is climbing down a drainpipe of a house where he is spending the weekend, and he is bored out of his skull. Suddenly, below him, he sees this police officer who goes “Hoy! Hoy! Hoy there!” He tries to climb back up, the rain is coming down, the officer keeps saying “Hoy! Hoy! Hoy there!” And at that point it just hit me deeply. Every third or fourth line just absolutely cracked me up. And I was about fourteen or fifteen.
The character was Bertie Wooster and the book was Leave it to Jeeves and it blew my mind! I enjoyed Leave it to Jeeves so much that the next one I read was Leave it to Psmith and from that time on I was dead. The author, of course, was P. G. Wodehouse and I read everything this guy wrote. From that time on, to me, writing—as a writer—writing and performing has always been directed toward being funny.
“From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. It was not that I had any particular message for humanity. I am still plugging away and not the ghost of one so far, so it begins to look as though, unless I suddenly hit mid-season form in my eighties, humanity will remain a message short.” ―P.G. Wodehouse [P.G. Wodehouse: Portrait of a Master by David A Jasen, New York, Mason & Lipscomb Publishers 1974]
In addition to outdoor creations such as Stonehenge, some great paintings and sculptures have also been co-opted by weather and people so that they are no longer visible unsullied as they once wore.
Three’s a crowd.
BOTTICELLI’s BIRTH OF VENUS
Birthing a la smart phone in Florence.
Those of us who visited “Guernica” dozens of times at New York’s Museum of Modern Art were the lucky ones. When I first saw it after it had been sent to Spain, it was shown behind bullet-proof glass and with armed guards (for fear of old Franco-philes). Sorta took the esthetic edge off the experience. It can now be seen in Madrid unencumbered by glass, moldings, and Guardia Civil.
It’s only right and proper to mention that Michelangelo’s “David,” until it was brought inside to the Galleria dell’ Accademia for safety in the 19th century, had been outside in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio for hundreds of years. (Those who think they see the real thing now in the open Palazzo see only a replica.) So, many deluded ones have never even seen the real thing. (A cover story in the NYT Magazine of August 21, 2016 notes, among many other unpleasant facts, that “David” has possibly dangerous cracks in the ankles!) As for those who have seen the true creative hand of Michelangelo in the Accademia, neither I nor anyone else now alive has seen it where it should be truly appreciated—out there with the destructive rain, snow, pollution, falling furniture, and pooping birds. Sometimes preservation is a necessary evil.
The Library: My Whole Life’s Work was About to Begin
Sure enough, I go back to the library and this author had a lot of books. So I took one out. At first I didn’t quite understand it. But I stuck with it. There was something about it. I couldn’t quite figure what it was but there was something that made you keep reading. So I read two or three of these and backslid rapidly into the Oz stuff for a while, and then I found myself a freshman in high school.
I’m sitting in the study hall, which was also the library, and I was bored so I walked around and found more books by the same guy as before, so I took one and sat down. Little did I suspect that in the intervening years, something had happened to my head. You don’t know when you’re maturing. All of a sudden something makes sense that didn’t before. I’m sitting there not realizing that my whole life’s work was about to begin.
I wonder how many of us can actually trace our lives back to the point where we began to think about what we ultimately really would do in life. At one time I had desires when I was about ten. Yeah, it was that damn library! Every time I’d read a book about something that really got to me, really scored deep down in my soul, well, I decided that’s what I wanted to do!
For example, I read two or three books that were written by deep sea divers. For a while I couldn’t stop reading about deep sea diving. And then another thing got me. Movie stunt men. Particularly movie stunt flyers. I took a book with pictures out of the library and read about this. The captions said things like “Me flying a fighter plane through a barn” and “One of the most exciting moments in my early career—me leaping out of a dirigible.” Wow, man! So I decided I was going to be a movie stunt flyer.