Tuesday, January 29, 2008


The stories I was told were probably lies:

My mother committed suicide.

I was a paskudnyab (a parasite, like a tick or a louse)


I was a kholerya (which is cholera – a basically incurable, fatal case of diarrhea).

My mother was turning over in her grave to see my behavior.

If I didn’t behave I’d be sent to live in an orphanage or a home for bad girls. There I’d see what it was like to have not enough to eat, and no shoes, and I’d be cold, with not enough blankets at night, and I couldn’t get out of there – there’d be bars on the windows and the doors would be locked.

Then I’d appreciate all I had.

I would have to scrub floors and wash clothes and hang them outside, even in the freezing cold, and there would be no school, and no sleigh-riding in winter, and no swimming in summer.

And then I’d realize how fortunate I was now.

And my mother committed suicide because she was so unhappy.

And it was all lies.


ANNE by Billy Herman

1980 was the year that I thought Anne Rayburn in a red bathing suit was all that. And funny enough I still think that. Anne had formed a big ego and had strong opinions.

Unfortunately when I saw her up there in Lake Placid it was among the most confused, panic-stricken times of my life.

It took me a long time to calm down and focus. It took about six years. Then Anne finally called me but all she could talk about was herself. Goodbye I said, and she said goodbye and I thought I heard some of that old emotion in her voice, but she never called again and I never called her.

I mixed Anne up with young love. I thought she and it were the same thing. And oh how different is young love from the life I lead now.

There are people I am sure I will never hear from or even hear about again. They are the people who inflicted tremendous hurt on me. But Anne? Innocent or guilty I got it as anguish, then it calmed down and she became for many years Anne Rayburn in a red bathing suit, both of us about 22 years old, me a dropout and she just graduated from Potsdam State about to go to music school in Michigan.

Four years later I am a zombie and a failure. Two or three psychotic episodes behind me, two or three more to go. Desperate, on the wrong medication. I show up at her door in San Francisco, where she is again succeeding, about to get her master’s degree in music. And she hates me. She hates my desperation and neediness, my extreme depression. We are now both about 26.

She called me one last time about three years later, we were both about 29, and all she could do was talk about herself, innocent or guilty.

I confused her with young love. She called to put me down because she figured out I wasn’t a loser. That I could go through a lot of shit and still come out on top, and she didn’t want me to pull it off. She seemed to have it all but it was very important to her that I didn’t recover. Innocent or guilty.

Anne Rayburn in a red bathing suit. A manic reaction. The red glows in the summer sun.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


As a kid, I tended to be socially backward, out of touch with the Code of Boyhood, that amalgam of bravado and inchoate sophistication with which American males aged roughly eight to twelve typically confront the world. I was clearly atypical. For one thing, I performed well in school -- not necessarily a fatal flaw, if it was accompanied by, say, strong athletic skills in the playground. In my case, however, it was definitely not so accompanied, which left me vulnerable to the charge of being a “brain,” or, even less flatteringly, a “grind.”

I don’t wish to exaggerate my social problems. Certainly I had friends I palled around with, whose homes I visited and who visited my home. It was just that I was often made to feel, subtly or not so
subtly, an outsider — that there was a final measure of intimacy and confidence to which I was never admitted.

One basic tenet of the Code, of course, is a willingness to fight, to physically “stand up for yourself” if the occasion requires. But in this respect as well, I failed to measure up, shamefully failed; I was timid and terribly afraid of getting hurt. There was one day I recall in particular when with no provocation at all I was challenged to a fight. The challenger was a tough-looking, wiry, black-haired kid whom I’d only just met, and he was plainly acting not in anger but rather out of principle, fulfilling a solemn obligation under the Code of putting a new acquaintance to the test of a fistfight as a necessary preliminary to friendship, or at least continued acquaintance. I didn’t want to fight, didn’t want to get hurt or to hurt him. But there seemed no viable way of getting out of it, so we did mix it up briefly. He was in fact physically smaller than I, and I could probably have won the contest if it had gone to any sort of conclusion. As it was, although I held my own for as long as it lasted, I broke it off after a couple of minutes. I ended by feeling that I could and should have kept going, and had probably, though he said nothing, failed the test in the other kid’s eyes.

GROUNDLESS by Judith Benatar

Anthony’s was located about ten miles outside my hometown but not far from a larger, neighboring town on a curving backwoods road on the side of a hill. Decades later, the road would be straightened to make way for bigger and better destinations. But Anthony’s was a hangout to aspire to then, especially if you were underage and in search of adventure. The place had long been a fixture among an older, cooler, and occasionally dangerous clientele. Things happened there. As it turned out, Anthony’s pizza was so good that sometimes a group of us would use it as an excuse to get permission to go there after basketball or football games, where we would order a pie, listen to music on the huge, multicolored juke box, soak up the mystique, and try on adult gestures and expressions for flavor and size. A few of my braver classmates would smoke cigarettes and lie about their ages for a couple of drafts.

I had been there a few times with some of the kids I knew, always shy and self-conscious, tripping over myself in the intentional darkness of the place, having to pee really bad but dreading the sour stench and sticky floor, grimy toilet, and fetid breath of the leering men who deliberately got in my way, before I reached the bathroom door. There was a small dance floor, though, and the music at Anthony’s was always great. That glorious juke box seemed to cast the promise of romance into the low-ceilinged room, and the sawdust they put down fresh every day shifted patterns under slow dancing feet and bodies pressed into rhythmic carnal pleasure. We’d sit at a corner table and pretend indifference, casting furtive glimpses at people we might like to emulate, imagining ourselves older on a sultry night out.

It must have been a few years later, probably sometime just before high school graduation, that I somehow found myself at Anthony’s alone. I know I must have at least borrowed my parents’ car and driven myself there, but it was so unlike me, so out of character to do such a thing, take such a real risk, that I am at a loss to remember the circumstances or what I was thinking.

Anthony’s was jammed that night, as usual, the music loud, the liquid flowing. Nobody seemed to notice me at first in the half-light, and since I was shy, I had a knack for melting into the shadows. As I watched the goings-on, I suddenly found myself thinking of Cinderella pretending to be The Princess of Pots and Pans, and Melina Mercouri, a deep-voiced, sexy actress I had recently seen playing a wild and independent spirit who took on the world with a throaty laugh.

Right then and there, I made a conscious decision to put on an emotional disguise. I would look like I harbored an important, inner mystery and smile just a little bit with my hidden knowledge, personal strength, and quiet allure. To my considerable surprise, it worked right away. The bartender served me a vodka and tonic without asking for an ID, pleased to be of service. I took my drink and stood near a support pillar at the edge of the dance floor, sipping the alcohol, staring meaningfully now and then into the ice and lime, and beginning to enjoy immensely the persona I was taking on.

A much older man came up and asked me to dance. He moved well and was comfortable with himself. “Where are you from?” he asked, after a while.

“Further than you would know,” I said back, enigmatically.

“Maybe you should move here,” he suggested. “There’s no one like you for miles around, I can tell you, honey.”

“That a fact?” I responded.

By the end of the evening, I had danced with at least six different guys and had the time of my life, and for just a little while, I was the undisputed queen of Anthony’s Pizza. Eventually, my bladder insisted I call it a night – after all, mysterious queens don’t gag on sour smells, walk on sticky floors, or even think about grimy backwoods toilets.