You’ve seen those inane little quizzy things on Facebook inviting you to, for instance, think of a band whose name starts with each letter of your own name. Wow, what a stumper! Sarcastic bastard that I am, I rarely fail to say something like, “I LOVE these brainbusters! They really get my cerebral cortex stimulated!” A few weeks ago, Mr. Joe Ramsey saw my comment on a thread that challenged the reader to think of a song title that contained a woman’s or girl’s name, and made his own comment: “Nope, I’ve got nothing.” Every time I think of that, I laugh aloud again. But more about Joe later.
Back in 1956, at almost nine, I finally learned to ride a bicycle, and felt briefly like A Real Boy, at least until I remembered that I couldn’t swim, nor traverse the monkey bars at school. I was really good at art and spelling, and no one cared in the slightest. Miss Gabby, who looked exactly like the flame-haired comic strip sexpot Brenda Starr, and was the sexiest woman ever hired to teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District, was unlikely ever to reciprocate my adoration, so I fell in love, compensatorily, with my classmate Jan Richter, who wore the hell out of a poodle skirt. The romance, of which I was too shy to advise her, ended when she threw up in class one day. I can’t abide a woman who can’t hold her liquor.
My family moved to a less genteel province, down by the beach in Playa del Rey, in a little ghetto of slipshod two-story duplexes that later came to be called The Jungle, probably in homage to the Upton Sinclair novel, and I am of course only kidding, but not about its having come to be called The Jungle. I fell in (eagerly!) with a little gang that vandalized any house plants other residents had been so foolish as to leave on their doorsteps, and redeemed empty soft drink bottles for cash. Tootsie Rolls tasted like actual food in those days. I began a stamp collection. I was mostly miserable and lonely in spite of my membership in the gang. The leopard doesn’t change its spots.
Sometime before my 10th birthday, I realized that, by virtue of not being Jesus (behold my acculturation!), I was mortal, and it scared me senseless. But the realization occasioned one of the tenderest moments of my childhood when I confessed my terror to my parents. They couldn’t have been sweeter or more loving as they pointed out that I had a long, long way to go before I needed to worry about such matters.
I’ve now come that long, long way, and am regularly consumed, if only briefly, by terror —briefly because one chooses between learning to suppress it, on the one hand, and, on the other, going insane. Only last week, I learned that Joe Ramsey, mentioned in the first paragraph, had died, leaving behind a wife and two beautiful little girls, and that the Elizabeth Taylor of my junior high school, after whom I and every other heterosexual boy on the premises secretly lusted (although not everyone as secretly as I, the shyest boy in sight), has a horrible degenerative disease that’s killing her. The stepdaughter of another Facebook friend I correspond with died in agony of cancer in 2014.
It occurs to me that the compensatory wisdom that one achieves after his beauty deserts him isn’t really wisdom so much as the skill of being able to pretend you don’t know what’s happening to you, or what awaits. And this one, ERA and Joe, is for you.