Halfway through the 1950s, I realized with unprecedented clarity that there was something very wrong with me, and something right. I wasn’t nearly as good at sports as I hoped to be, and my fearfulness (I was my mother’s son) precluded my being able to do things that other boys could do easily, like swim or ride a two-wheeler. Indeed, my fearfulness (in this case of the Unseen Evil in dread of which I’d been living since I first attained self-consciousness) even kept me from enjoying my mother’s love to the full. When I was in the third grade, my mother one day had a medical appointment that made impossible her being at our little apartment on Manchester Blvd. in Westchester to serve me lunch. I couldn’t actually eat at our little dining table what she’d lovingly laid out for me, as I was too afraid the Unseen Evil would sneak up behind me, put his scaly hand over my mouth, and abduct me. I dashed in a couple of times and grabbed things, which I then wolfed down outside the apartment. That night, Mom seemed hurt that I hadn’t remarked on the loving note she’d left beside my sandwich. I hadn’t remarked because, in my desperation not to be abducted, I hadn’t seen it. A million years later, I still feel awful about that.
Uncharacteristically, my very frugal parents, who'd been teenagers during the Depression, took me to Disneyland when it was still three rides and a collection of large puddles surrounded by orange groves. Walt Disney himself, who was walking around in the mud frowning at blueprints, glowered at my dad for disturbing him, but smiled at me. Maybe he didn't realize our ethnicity. I don't think we conversed, but I tell people we did so that I can claim to be the only person you've ever met who has chatted with both Walt Disney and Jimi Hendrix. Back home, I would often make my dad sit through an entire travelogue or nature edition of Disneyland, the TV show, in anticipation of being given a reason to live by the preview of the following week's show.
The something right I realized about myself was that I was smarter than most of my classmates. Reading at around a 7th grade level though I was in 4th grade, I absolutely devoured Howard Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, pausing often to marvel at Lawrence Beall Smith’s beautiful illustrations. I was myself good at art. I made a nice drawing of a jet one day, and the alpha boy in my class refused to believe that it could be the work of one so inept on the playground. I worried that if I tried to explain that there probably was no correlation between artistic ability and athleticism, he might punch me in the kisser. I began my first novel, a pirate story, and my dad importuned some poor typist at Hughes Aircraft to type it up, though it ended in mid-sentence. My scandalously sexy teacher, Miss Gabby, who I think made a great many of us boys aware of our heterosexuality early on, invited me to read it in class. It shut my tormentors up for maybe an hour, but then it was back onto the playground.
Psychologists speak of transference, whereby emotions and desires originally associated with one person or thing are unconsciously shifted to another. I transferred up a storm, treating the black ants that abounded in the driveway of my parents’ new house on Earldom Avenue as I wished I had the courage to treat my tormentors at school. I spent happy — wait, that might be an exaggeration — hours crushing them with my fingertips, which by afternoon’s end would be raw.
(And damned if I don’t still do it. The sight of a cockroach in the kitchen in 2015 turns me into an action hero. “How do you like this, motherfucker” I snarl Stallonishly as I send one back to its final rest. And how gleeful I am when I am able to run down one of the scurrying little bastards. And all the while I am questioning my own rage, for are these creatures not doing exactly what God or nature intended them to, seeking out microscopic bits of food, and scurrying? But they will nonetheless know my awful wrath!)
Sorry. Where was I? Oh, yes. My parents forgot Halloween. I was beside myself, on getting home from accompanying them to the supermarket, to realize their oversight. I wound up trick-or-treating, solo, hours after others had gone home. Neighbors would open their doors to me looking either annoyed or incredulous. My mid-childhood writ large! Alone, somehow…wrong and quietly miserable.