“Nance” Encounter: Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965) as a Bad Date

This curated window at the Oxfam Bookstore, Aberystwyth, drew me in.

The themed window of our local Oxfam bookshop here in Aberystwyth was something to behold on that bright July afternoon.  A row of handsome, second-hand but well-preserved copies of once popular fiction beckoned, reminding me of the tag I had chosen for this blog devoted to unpopular culture upon its inception back in 2005: “Keeping up with the out-of-date.”

A novelist friend and avid reader, who had come from London for a visit, treated me to a volume of my choice.  Three of them, in fact, as the £5-for-three deal made it unnecessary to be quite so discriminating.  I passed up on erstwhile bestsellers by A. J. Cronin and Pearl S. Buck, both of whom had vanished from the display a day later, when I returned for another three titles (all six are pictured above).  My first choice, however, had been Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965).

I remember picking up Wouk’s tome Youngblood Hawke (1962), in a German translation, from my parent’s sparse bookshelves.  My grandfather, likewise, was a Wouk reader, even though his chief interest lay in the writer’s Second World War subjects, to which Opa Heinrich, a former POW, could relate.  In my late teens, desultory though my readings were, I enjoyed Wouk’s earlier City Boy (1948) and Marjorie Morningstar (1955).

Volumes I recent additions to my bookshelf

My next encounter with Wouk’s writings dates from my years of graduate studies in New York.  I had decided to ditch Thomas Carlyle as a subject and instead write a PhD study on US radio plays.  Wouk, as I discussed here previously, had started as a radio writer or gagman.  He satirized the industry in Aurora Dawn (1947) and reflected on his experience it in his autobiographical novel Inside, Outside (1985).  From the latter I snatched the phrases “Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?” – a reference to laxative commercials on the air – for the title of one of the chapters of Immaterial Culture to capture the dismissal of commercial radio as a legitimate literary forum by those who had written for broadcasting during the 1930s and 1940s but who gained prominence later as published writers and dramatists.

Long story short, I have a kind of casual relationship with Wouk as a writer, a relationship that at one point turned serious (or academic) due to my interest in radio.  So, when I spotted that copy of Don’t Stop the Carnival, an old book new to me, I felt inclined to get reacquainted.  It turned out to be a bad date.

Don’t Stop the Carnival is a story of middle-age.  The action, of which there is plenty, is mainly set on an imaginary island in the Caribbean, anno 1959.  The novel relates the misadventures of a New Yorker – Norman Paperman – who falls in love with what strikes him as a tropical paradise and decides to take over a hotel, having had no prior experience either with the business or with life on a tropical island.  Complications abound, some less comical than others.

Paperman is a Mr. Blandings of sorts, a familiar figure in American fiction.  He’d rather lay an egg elsewhere than suffer his ‘disenchantment with Manhattan’ a day longer:

the climbing prices, the increasing crowds and dirt, the gloomy weather, the slow bad transportation, the growing hoodlumism, the political corruption, the mushrooming of office buildings that were rectilinear atrocities of glass, the hideous jams in the few good restaurants, the collapse of decent service even in the luxury hotels, the extortionist prices of tickets to hit shows and the staleness of those hits, and the unutterably narrow weary repetitiousness of the New York life in general, and above all the life of a minor parasite like a press agent.

Perhaps, as his name suggests, Norman is not to be looked at as man but as a page – scribbled on, rather than blank, over the course of nearly fifty years.  He may feel like turning over a new leaf – but his life is already scripted in ink that is indelible.  Don’t Stop the Carnival sets us up for its conservative moral: stick with what you know, stop kvetching, and don’t even think that the grass could be greener than in Central Park in May.

While it responds to the modernity of its day – to the threat of nuclear war and the growing doubt in the progress narrative of the 1950s – the novel nonetheless shelters in the makeshift of retrospection: it looks back at the end of the Eisenhower years from the vantage point of the violent end of the Kennedy presidency to reflect on the so-called modern liberalism of the early to mid-1960s.  

Was this choice of dating the action meant to suggest the datedness of the views expressed by the characters? What were the attitudes of the author toward race relations, civil rights and liberalism? In other words, what comments on the turmoil of the 1960s did Wouk make – or avoid making – by transporting back the readers of his day and dropping them off on an island that, for all its remoteness is nonetheless US territory, and that is about to be developed and exploited for its exoticism and natural resources?

The titular carnival is both figurative and metaphoric – an extended topsy-turvydom (or chaos) in which black mix and mate with white, queer live along straight folks, and Jews like Wouk’s protagonist Norman Paperman mingle with Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, pagans and atheists.  He encounters bad infrastructure, worse bureaucracy, and political corruption.  This island ain’t that different from Manhattan – which argues getting away from his former life to be futile and pointless.

The Carnival is not only shown to be a dead end but a deadly one.  In the final pages of the novel, two characters are killed in quick succession – one central to the narrative, the other – the decidedly other – being marginal.  The central one is Norman’s island fling, Iris Tramm, whom he knew as a celebrated actress two decades earlier and is surprised or reencounter, washed up but still alluring, as one of the guests in the hotel he decides to buy.  

The island carnival is exposed as a tropical fever that means either death or cure – a cure for an uncommon warmth of non-traditional bonds and realized desires.  Paperman recovers, and his understanding wife takes him “home.”  His lover, meanwhile, must first lose the companionship of her dog, and then, trashing Paperman’s car while trying to reunite with her wounded pet at a veterinarian’s, her life.  Was this the only out Wouk could conceive for a white woman who was the mistress of a black official who dared not to marry her?

It is the treatment of the marginal character of Hassim and his swift, unceremonious and unlamented disposal that lays bare Wouk’s fear of change: the antique dealer Hassim, introduced as a “rotund bald man” with a “bottom swaying like a woman’s,” who openly flirts with young men.  In fact, the island is awash with middle-class homosexuals of all ages.  Even Paperman’s hotel is pre-owned by a gay couple. And although he must have come across some of them in his former job as a Broadway press agent, Paperman is uneasy in their presence when he and Iris, his illicit love, visit an establishment frequented by gays:

Norman found the proprietor amusing, and he was enjoying the songs of his youth. But the Casa Encantada made him uneasy. Men were flirting with each other all around him; some were cuddling like teen-agers in a movie balcony. The boy in the pink shirt, biting his nails and constantly looking around in a scared way, sat at a small table with one of the rich pederasts from Signal Mountain, a pipe-smoking gray-haired man in tailored olive shirt and shorts, with young tan features carved by plastic surgery, and false teeth. Norman was glad when the proprietor finished a run of Noel Coward songs and left the piano, so that he and Iris could politely get out of the place.

Hassim is shot dead by a policeman, despite posing no risk and committing no crimes.  The killing, which occurs in Paperman’s hotel and bar, the Gull Reef, is described in few words and elicits less of a response than the stabbing of a dog a few pages before this incident near the close of the novel.

“As a matter of fact, […] I feel sorry for the poor bugger,” is the response to the death of  Hassim by one character, “munching on his thick-piled hamburger” not long after the killing.

“I’ve known thousands of those guys, and there’s no harm in ninety-nine out of a hundred of them. It’s just a sickness and it’s their own business.  Though gosh knows, when I was a kid working backstage, I sure got some surprises.  Yes ma’am, it was dam near worth my life to bend over and tie my shoelace, I tell you.” He laughed salaciously.  His once green face was burning to an odd bronze color like an American Indian’s, and he looked very relaxed and happy.  “Actually, Henny [who is Paperman’s wife], I almost hate to say this, but I think this thing’s going to prove a break for the Club.  I bet the nances stop coming to Gull Reef after this.”

Such views are unchallenged by the narrator and the main character, who decides to sell his business – to the man expressing those views, no less – and return to New York.  “People thought that this [his death] was a bit hard on Hassim,” the narrator sums, “but that the cop after all had only been doing his duty, and that one queer the less in the world was no grievous loss.”  Case closed. Business open as usual.

Clearly, queers like me were not considered by Wouk to be among his readers.  Targets, yes, but not target audiences.  Even the academic treatment of homosexuality – the suggestion that famous writers of the past, too, might have been homosexuals – is ridiculed in the novel, with one PhD student, the lover of Paperman’s teenage daughter, nearly drowning in the sea.  

Wouk, who died shortly before his 104th birthday in May 2019, lived beyond the middle age of Don’t Stop the Carnival for more than half a century.  I doubt that I shall make him a companion again on whatever is left of my journey.

What Was I Thinking?: English 101, Phil Donahue and the Politics of Identity

I started college in the spring of 1991.  I had been visiting New York City since April the previous year, returning only once to my native Germany to avoid exceeding the six consecutive months I could legally stay in the US on a tourist visa.  The few weeks I spent in the recently reunited Vaterland that October had been difficult to endure, and for years I had nightmares about not getting back to the place I thought of as my elective home, the realities of the recession, the AIDS crisis, Gulf War jingoism and anti-liberal politics notwithstanding. 

The cover of my 1991 journal, with an image collage
borrowed from a copy of Entertainment Weekly

I was determined not to repeat the experience of that involuntary hiatus once the next six-month period would come to an end.  A close friend, who worked at Lehman College in the Bronx, suggested that I become a student and generously offered to pay my tuition for the first year.  We decided that, instead of entering a four-year college such as Lehman, I should first enroll in classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), an option that would cut those “foreign” tuition fees in half.

Having gotten by thus far on my better than rudimentary German high school English, I had doubts nonetheless about my fitness for college.  My first English instructor, Ms. Padol, was both exacting and reassuring.  She worked hard to make her students try harder.  Not only did she give us bi-weekly essay assignments, and the chance to revise them, but also made us keep a journal, which she would collect at random during the semester.

“This requirement for my English class comes almost as a relief,” I started my first entry, titled “A journal!” That it was only “almost: a relief was, as I wrote, owing to the fact that, whatever my attitudes toward my birthplace, I felt “so much more comfortable in my native language.” Back then, I still kept my diary in German.  

What I missed more than the ability of putting thoughts into words was the joy of wordplay.  “My English vocabulary does not really allow such extravaganzas,” I explained, “and even though the message comes through – in case there is any – the product itself seems to be dull and boring to read.”  This reflects my thoughts on writing to this day.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, I write to entertain myself and strangers.

In the days of the lockdown – which were also a time of heightened introspection – I scanned the old journal to remind myself what I chose to entertain notions of back in 1991.  Many entries now require footnotes, if indeed they are worthy of them: who now recalls the stir caused by Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan biography? Not that I had actually read the book. “Nobody will use this book in a history class,” I declared. Being “a compilation of anecdotes” it had “no value as a biography.” Autobiography, being predicated on the personal, cannot be similarly invalidated, as I would later argue after taking a graduate course in ‘self life writing’ with Nancy K. Miller at Lehman. What I knew even in 1991 was that a journal was not a diary.

Unlike the diary, the journal provided me with a chance to develop a writerly persona.  I was playing the stranger, and what my reader, Ms. Padol, may have perceived to be my outsider perspective on what, in one entry, I called the “American waste of life” was in part my rehearsal of the part I thought my reader had reason to expect from me.  However motivated or contrived, that performance tells me more about myself than any posed photograph could. 

In an entry dated 3 May and titled “O temporaO mores!” I shared my experience watching Donahue, a popular talk show at the time, named after its host.  The broadcast in question was “People Who Change Their Sex to Have Sex with the Same Sex,” the sensationalism of which offering served as an opportunity to air my queer views as well as the closet of a journal that, for all its queerness, opened by lexically straightening my life by declaring my partner to be a “roommate.”

After expressing my initial confusion about the title and my indignation about the “exploitation” of the subject, I considered my complicity as a spectator and confronted the narrow-mindedness of my binary thinking:

Like the audience in the studio I asked myself why anybody would go through such a procedure only to have a lesbian relationship.

But then I realized that this is really a very shallow, stupid and yet typical question that shows how narrow-minded people are.

It also reflects ongoing intolerance in this society.

The woman in question made it clear that there is a difference between sexual identity and sexual preference.  When a man feels that he is really a woman most people think that he consequently must be a homosexual.

I refer to myself in the journal as gay.  What I did not say was how difficult it had been for me to define that identity, that, as a pre-teen boy I had identified as female and that, as a teenager, I had suffered the cruelty of the nickname “battle of the sexes,” in part due to what I know know (but had to look up again just now) as “gynecomastia”: the development of breast tissue I was at such pains to conceal that the advent of swimming classes, locker rooms and summer holidays alike filled me with dread.  I had been a boy who feared being sexually attractive to the same sex by being perceived as being of the opposite sex.

Reading my journal and reading myself writing it thirty years later, I realise how green – and how Marjorie Taylor Green – we can be, whether in our lack of understanding or our surfeit of self-absorption, when it comes to reflecting on the long way we have supposedly come, at what cost and at whose expense.  We have returned to the Identity Politics of the early 1990s, which I did not know by that term back then but which now teach in an art history context; and we are once again coming face to face with the specter of othering and the challenge of responding constructively to difference.  I hope that some of those struggling now have teachers like Ms. Padol who make them keep a journal that encourage them to create a persona that does not hide the self we must constantly negotiate for ourselves.

There is no record online of a Ms. Padol having worked at BMCC.  Then again, there is no record of my adjunct teaching at Lehman College from around 1994 to 2001, or at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center thereafter.  The work of adjuncts, and of teachers in general, lives on mostly in the minds and memory of the students they shaped.

I was more surprised at not finding any references online to that particular Donahue broadcast, except for a few mentions in television listings – two, to be exact.  The immediate pre-internet years, that age of transition from analog to digital culture, are a time within living memory to the access of which a minor record such as my English 101 journal can serve as an aide-memoire.  Whatever the evidentiary or argumentative shortcomings of anecdotes, by which I do not mean the Kitty Kelleyian hearsay I dismissed as being “of no value,” historically speaking, they can be antidotes to histories that repeat themselves due to our lack of self-reflexiveness.

Those of us who have been there, and who feel that they are there all over again – in that age in which the literalness of political correctness was pitted against the pettiness of illiberal thinking – can draw on our recollections and our collective sense of déjà vu to turn our frustration at the sight of sameness into opportunities for making some small difference: we are returning so that those who are there for the first time may find ways of moving on. Instead of repeating the question in exasperation, we need answers to “What were we thinking?”

His Name Was Montague

Holding on to Montague

Twelve years ago I introduced Montague on the pages of this journal.  Today, it was time to bid farewell.

Montague, a stout, furry Jack Russell terrier, developed a cancerous growth in his snout and the last few weeks were (mostly) painful for him; he quickly lost his eyesight, his hearing, and his sense of smell, even though, until the very last day, he still ate with relish as much as he could swallow with ease.

I stroked the sedated dog in his basket as the veterinarian administered the lethal injection; his heart was so strong that it required two injections to put an end to his suffering.  It even made me doubt, momentarily, whether he could not have pulled through after all.

I had never experienced dying before; that is saying a lot, considering that, in my youth, I worked in a hospital for twenty months and have been around since then for decades.

Adopted and at first reserved, Montague was the only dog ever to live with me.  Given his past, shadowy though it is to me, he was cautious and not overly attached to anyone in particular; so it would not be right to call him ‘my’ first dog.  He let my husband, me – and friends and relatives – take care of him as he saw fit; and I was glad of it.

He’ll stay in that carpet.

I had to go to work after the veterinarian appointment.  It was a gloomy Saturday, the day that Storm Callum caused the worst flooding in Wales in thirty years. When I walked to the School of Art, where I work, I heard organ music play in a nearby chapel.  I do not recall having heard music coming out of that place before, at least not in my presence, atheist that I am.  It felt like something out of Victorian melodrama; not that I, being late as usual, had time to dwell on the peculiar aptness of the music as a soundtrack for the moment.

On the previous day, my latest exhibition, “Travelling Through,” opened at the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University.  The wistful, melancholy title has added meaning on this day of loss.

I am prone to sentimentality; but, in this age of meanness,  discord and accelerating indifference, I am glad to be feeling sorrow – though some may sneer that I simply feel sorry for myself – along with the need to let it be known; not in the hope of letting it dissipate but of making it resonate.

Farewell, Montague. Little though I know, you taught me a lot.

A Night’s Wait: Hemingway, the Apocalypse and I

‘It’s not the end of the world.’  How often do we utter those words, whether to calm ourselves or to dismiss the concerns of others.  Well, I never found anything calming about that expression.  It is the belittling by hyperbole that irks me.  We tend to judge the gravity of a situation by the magnitude of its physical manifestations rather than the depth of feelings it produces in the experiencer.  I, for one, have experienced the end of the world in early childhood; yet there is no evidence of an event having taken place, no trace of its existence save for the lachrymal salt on a crumpled pillow that, I suppose, was disposed of decades ago.  No surface trace, that is.

How am I looking? Is this an expression of trust,
apprehension or a questioning of portraiture as truth?
One evening, in a working-class flat in the grim sterility of the German industrial town I was expected to call home, I overheard my parents make mention of the apocalypse.  Someone had predicted that the world was going to end, and the date was set for the night to come.  It was one of those doomsday prophecies that adults shrug off or subscribe to, depending on their intellect, faith and psychological make-up.  As a child, I had no recourse to experience.  I had no knowledge of having survived any number of doomsdays pronounced previously.  Nor did I yet doubt that adults knew all and spoke true.  I only had that night to go into, with a sense that it would be my last.

I was put to bed, and it felt as if I had been abandoned, cast out to face the unfathomable by myself.  I was going to be no more.  Everything I knew was to turn into unknowable nothingness.  No one seemed troubled to prepare me for this chaos, the void that I already felt lying alone in the dark.  I remember well the agony of that night, an angst that I now might term existential.

I have no recollection of the morning after.  What followed, though, were years of nightmares involving the atom bomb, cold-war sweat inducing anxieties about nuclear fallout and the nihilism of the No Future generation, mingled, in my case, with an awareness of my queer otherness that made it seem impossible for me to go into those nights in a fellowship of the doomed.

No doubt, this is why Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Day’s Wait” appealed to me when I first read it as a teenager.  It is a story of a boy who, owing to a momentous misunderstanding, believes himself to be dying.  It is that story I chose to write about as an undergraduate student in English literature, even though it has often been dismissed as a minor work of magazine fiction beyond the canon of Hemingway’s supposed greatest.  I, on the other hand, was drawn to what I read as its theme of trivialized sublimity and the terror of that trivialisation.


Until recently, I did not consider that my first last night might have been the beginning of the end, not of childhood – a concept I have long come to question  – but of trust, faith, love and a sense of order and stability.  Now, as I am preparing for a lecture on gothic ruins, I am piecing together those haunting, Frankensteinean fragments of my past and present selves, and I wonder just how much fell apart that one nightfall … 

[This entry is dedicated to the students of my Gothic Imagination class, whom, during the last few weeks, I exposed to visualisations of nightmares, sublime views and dystopian visions.]

Immaterial Is the Word for It

“Etherized Victorians,” my doctoral study on American radio plays, had been lying for years in a virtual drawer.  A string of rejection letters made me leave it for dead.  Then, when I learned about an opportunity to get it out of that coma at last – from a reputable academic publisher to boot – I went for it.  I have regretted that decision ever since.  The anger welled up in me anew when I read this article in the Guardian, which a colleague of mine had shared via Facebook.
A toothy smile after years of anger and disappointment
It is not that I believe that should have let the book lie, that it did not deserve to be revived.  Rather, I feel it deserved a better home than the publisher provided for it.  Funeral home is more like it.  To send it there, I agreed to pay £1600 for the production of a book that contains no images, except for the cover art that was supplied to me by my artist friend Maria Hayes.  Besides, I did all the editing, proofreading and indexing myself.  I got no input from the publishers, Peter Lang, other than a list of instructions and some rather irritating feedback on my blurb for the back of the book, which was only printed as a paperback.

Turning “Etherized Victorians” into Immaterial Culture meant cutting back and stripping bare. It was an instructive experience, painful though it was.  I renegotiated but was nonetheless obliged to cut about 50,000 words, and I rue the quick decision to get rid of an entire chapter (available online, on my website). I also had to let go of the list of primary sources, the plays I discussed.  When I asked for corrections of errors or inaccuracies I spotted close to the deadline, I was first told that no further changes were possible and then threatened with a £30 per hour editing fee.  So much for academic standards.


Peter Lang did nothing, apparently, to promote the Immaterial Culture.  Living up to its new name, my study does not even show up on Google books.  I got my ‘complimentary’ copies, some of which I sent to a friend with connections to the BBC.  Nothing came of that.  I also walked one copy up to the theater, film and television department of Aberystwyth University, where I work for next to no pay, thinking I might give a lecture or make a course out of it.  I have not heard from the department since.

And who else besides a library or an institution of higher learning would bother to purchase a text that is overpriced at £ 52.00 ($ 84.95), thus too expensive to attract radio drama aficionados? Not that anyone potentially interested would have even heard of the book.  Apart from one long and highly complimentary review (in German), Immaterial Culture received no press, despite my filling out a great number of forms to aid in its promotion.

It is disappointing – let’s make that ‘pointless’–  to write for an audience that proves allusive and impossible to reach.  So, I decided to donate a copy of the book to the Paley Center for Media in New York City, where I conducted research for it.  It would be rewarding and reassuring to me if someone got use or pleasure out of it.  Why else ‘publish’? Never again will I let a publisher like Peter Lang kill one of my books; and, unless to show support for anyone in a situation similar to mine, I would never purchase any of their books or recommend them to fellow educators.

Immaterial Me

My study Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929-1954 has just been published.  So, as well as explaining the subject matter of the book and the objectives of its writer, I decided to devote a few journal entries to the story behind its production, to its birth and life in relation to my own journey.  There is also the small matter of its afterlife, a matter to which no parent, proud or otherwise, can be entirely indifferent.
Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here.  No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle.  And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.
Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct.  The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken.  Words that create images or match stored ones.  Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought.  Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.
That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it.  After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss.  I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles.  Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.  Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse.

Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …

Down Memory Street; or, Thanks for the Sesame

The sight was monstrous. There was shouting. They were shooting. Someone stood guard to keep strollers from trespassing while the action went on undisturbed. Few folks seemed to care, though, so familiar had such sights become in New York City. One could always catch up with it later, on television. Besides, this wasn’t a crime scene. It sure wasn’t Needle Park or Fort Apache, The Bronx. This was the peaceful, upmarket East Side, for crying not too loudly, and the wildly gesticulating savage in fur was of the Cookie Monster sort. Sesame Streetwas being filmed on location—and the location, on that May day, was Carl-Schurz Park in my old neighborhood of Yorkville.

It seemed fitting that the beloved children’s television series should be shot here, right in front of Peter Pan, the bronze statue that, some fifteen years earlier—when the park had gone to seed other than Sesame—was violently uprooted and tossed into the nearby East River like an innocent bystander who, some thugs decided, had seen too much. It seemed fitting because Carl-Schurz Park is a tribute to German-American relations—and, in a long and roundabout way, I came to New York City from Germany by way of Sesame Street.

As a prepubescent, I spent a great deal of time in front of the television, a shortage of viewing choices notwithstanding. My parents were both working and I turned to the tube for company, comfort and the kind of guidance that didn’t come in the form of a command or a slap. West German television had only three channels until well into the 1980s, and the third one, back in the early 1970s, was still experimental, reserved mainly for educational programs aired at odd hours. Odd hours would have been anything before mid-afternoon, when regular programming commenced on weekdays.

So, there was literally nothing else on when I pushed the knob of our black-and-white set (a stylishly futuristic Wega) to come across Ernie, Bert, Oscar and the Cookie Monster—and they all spoke, growled or squeaked English. That is how I heard them first and how, several years before I was taught English at school, I got my first lessons in a foreign language.

I had just gotten through the alphabet and the numbers from one to ten when, without “Warnung,” Sesame Street turned into Sesamstrasseand the felty, fluffy foreigners became German, even though they changed neither looks nor situation. Being beyond pre-schooling, I now tuned in chiefly for the puppetry and the antics of the Krümelmonster. That is the way the Cookie Monster crumbled. “Krümel” literally means “crumb,” suggestive of the state to which something solid could be reduced in the process of translation.

Educationally, the early dubbed version of Sesame Street was dubious, to say the least. Spoken and written words and images did not always match.  Sure, “A” is for “apple” as well as “Apfel,” and “B” for “banana” and, well, “Banana.”  But there was little use for “C,” since few words in the German language begin with that letter, at least they didn’t during those days before Computers.

I remember watching a lesson on “A” that ended in “Alles am Arsch,” an expression only a tad short of the exclamation summed up in the last three letters of “snafu.” For once, even my parents took note.

Never mind, I remained loyal to Ernie and Bert, whose odd coupling I envied; and once the magazine accompanying the series was launched, with images of the puppets as centerfolds, the pair became my first pinups.

If only Sesame Street (a pun that, too, is lost in German translation) had remained on the air in its original language.  By the time high school started, and with it lessons in English—British, if you please—I had all but lost the enthusiasm; for the next nine years, I learned reluctantly and none too well, being that we were forced to go through joyless Grammar drills to arrive at the point of meaningful self-expression.

As a child, I never associated Sesame Street with any real place, let alone New York City, the seedy ways of which, back then, conjured scenes of violence and decay: the turf of gangs, the marketplace for drugs, and the inspiration for nothing except TV cop shows. It was just as difficult to get that image out of my head as it had been to get English into it.

Indeed, my first exposure to the Big Apfel demonstrated that image to be truer than the pictures of it in glossy travel brochures; no doubt, I had spent too much time eyeing the Carringtons of Denver, Colorado. That I fell in love with old, crime-ridden Gotham all the same had more to do with hormones than with anything we traditionally understand to be “tourist attractions.”

Since the mid-1990s, Manhattan has cleaned up its act, even though it wiped out much of the city’s character along with the crime—so successfully, in fact, that I once was slapped with a fine for dozing off on a bench opposite Peter Pan because I felt safe enough to rest my eyes.

Sesamstrasse, Carl-Schurz Park, and the old Wega set (images of which I had to google to remind myself).  The neighborhood of memory sure gets crowded as you travel ever further down the road . . .

Some Like it . . . How? Youth, Vampires, and Marilyn Monroe

Del Coronado mirage
There I stood, in the shimmering sands of Coronado Beach, California. I had come, of course, to see the famous Hotel—and to share the views once taken in by Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Some Like It Hot. Marilyn was here. Now I was. Footsteps. Sand. The old hourglass. I won’t indulge in such clichés here; but there is something pathetic about this kind of out-of-sightseeing, this belated catching up and impossible reaching out to which I am prone. The inclination to seek out what is long gone is more than morbid curiosity: it is an approach to life as a retreat from living in which even the here-and-now becomes dreamlike and chimerical. How did this get to be my way of not facing the world?

Marilyn Monroe died before I was born; yet her life and times became a fascination of my teenage years.  Mine were not erotic fantasies.  I did not long for her body.  Nor did I think of her as being gone.  She was never absent for long from the television screen, ever present on the iconic posters I pinned onto the wall above my bed.  Records spinning on the old turntable, her voice filled my room. I had no regrets about never being able to meet her in the flesh; rather, it was a relief.

The wonder of her incorporeal existence made living in the body I loathed more tolerable; and it made the physical relationships I dreaded easier to contemplate in the abstract.  Marilyn—and we call her by her first name because she is more familiar than famous, more girl than goddess—was not some facile paradox: “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “I’m Through with Love” she sings in the same movie, expressing the hurt and hunger that are far from mutually exclusive.

Our teenage selves are preoccupied with the demands that both nature and society make on us, propositions and impositions captured in that horrible phrase haunting and taunting us until death: “grown up.”  As a response to and rejection of the implied threat—the finality and premature stunting of our infinite potentialities—Marilyn’s afterlife was as much a reproof of society as it was a society-proof alternative: a twilight life, expired and undying, bright though snuffed out, a fragile, indomitable spirit-presence in whose shadowy glow I could luxuriate, just as many a young person nowadays revels in the gothic gloom inhabited by zombies and vampires, except that my imaginings transported rather than dispirited me.

No doubt, this twisted bent of casting myself into times preceding my birth is born of a desire to bring forth alternate selves of mine without having to bear the vagaries of the present or the uncertainties of the future.  Like a life presumably squandered in reverie, bending the past to our will is a testament to a vestigial will power—or would-be power—in which the retrospective becomes invested with the prospect of an ever glimmering what if . . .

His Mother’s Voice

Myself, age 19

So, there I was, at my grandmother’s side—a reunion twenty-one years in the making—when the phone atop the slippery hospital bed table rang us right out of our reminiscences.  I reached over, handed Ella the receiver and, in an impulse of synesthetic kindness, turned to look out of the window, as if our ears could be as easily averted as our eyes.  Unable to listen away, I could readily deduce the identity of the caller, both from my grandmother’s tone of voice and from the nature of her greeting.  It was her daughter, my mother, on the line; and being so close to the phone made me wriggle in the chair I wished I had vacated instead of deputizing my eyes to take a hike.

I knew that, in a conciliatory gesture, grandmother would eventually pass the phone to me, and with it the onus to act polite in the absence of the kindness such an imposition was unlikely to inspire. You see, the last word exchanged between mother and myself had been a reference to the very spot of my anatomy I was now itching to shift.

During that fateful call, the relationship terminating vocable formed part of an expletive suggesting the inconceivable meeting of the listener’s glossa and the speaker’s gluteus maximus, as if what escapes us in our often less than choice utterances did not suffice to render the propinquity of kisser and keister conspicuous.

The posterior in question had been mine, or rather the figurative proffering of same.  Thereafter, a silence lasting a quarter century, not counting the telling incommuniqués that are the occasional scratches on the surface of glossy picture postcards—those ocular proofs of our inability or unwillingness to hear out whatever say others might still be having it in them to impart.

My gut feeling was to sit still, now that the time to steal away had passed; but Oma had gone through enough, especially of late, to be made to endure such a display of filial disaffection.  So, there in the impersonality of a hospital room, I talked to my mother for the first time in what amounted to nearly half of my father’s lifetime—except that the voice I heard did not sound like the one I thought of as my mother’s.

The momentary lack of recognition bespoke our estrangement. Now, I hardly expected the phone cord to reach right down into my navel; but, as it turns out, there is nothing intrinsically umbilical about a mother’s vocal chords, either.  That I might one day struggle to match my aural memory of mother with the vocal presence of her had, barring dementia, never occurred to me before.

The regional Rhineland accent seemed far more pronounced to me who had been brought up by her speaking High German. The timbre, too, was altered.  The voice was lower now, as if to compensate for the robustness that had once been wanting in the listener, her only son, whose androgynous adolescence had called traditional definitions of manhood into question years ago.  The tone was as jovial as a pat on the back, a nudge, a kick in the ribs or some such gesture standing in for an embrace.  The sense of the words I scarcely took in, so taken aback was I by their sound.

Had I really crawled that far from my cradle no longer to know by ear the woman who bore me? What was that, triumph? A validation of selfhood? Or was it an indictment? The conceit of “mother tongue” never sounded more foreign to me.

The Couple in Grandmother’s Bed

I have said nothing yet about my trip to Germany.  It was not any old sightseeing tour, mind; nor was it a carefully mapped out homecoming, which makes it all the more difficult to capture in a few indifferent words.  The thing is, I had not been to my native country in over two decades; and, during that time, not going back to what folks presume to be my home evolved into a programmatic, defining rejection of the notion that home equals country of origin.  I vowed never to return, except in a pine box.  That I did go back at last, in the similarly confining encasement that is the cabin of a budget airline craft, required a great deal of preliminary introspection—and a leap over the shadow to which I had tried to relegate my past.

The department at the university where I teach was taking students to Berlin for its annual outing.  Previously, I had been on the departmental trip to Budapest; and while that adventure was an adulterated delight, owing to transportation problems in the form of a broken bus and a missed flight, I thought that it would be petty to stick to my principles and stay put while my partner, as head of the School, was joining our students and colleagues for a week in the town known for Cabaret, communism, and Currywurst.  Besides, Berlin is too far from my native Rhineland to be thought of as “home” or trigger unwanted back-where-I-come-from reminiscences.  So, to Berlin I agreed to go . . .
Now, a few days before we were scheduled to depart for the German capital—which hadn’t been capital at the time I left former West Germany for the East Coast of the United States—I received one of those infrequent e-missives from the fatherland that are reserved mainly for anniversaries, holidays, and assorted disasters.  My sister’s message read that my grandmother had contracted a virus while hospitalized for a fracture—her first hospitalization in well over half a century—and that, unless I acted posthaste, I might never see her alive again.
Unlike the mater of my father (both deceased), my maternal grandmother had kept in touch with me during my years abroad.  She had learned, decided—or perhaps never thought twice—to accept me, which, given her youth in fascist Germany, is a triumph of spirit over doctrine.  For years, she had been sending her regards to my same-sex partners, companions my other grandmother thought best accommodated behind barbed wire, if they were to be granted living space at all.
So, a few days before I was scheduled to depart for Berlin, I booked a flight to Düsseldorf to see Oma.  I suffered a great deal of anxiety going by myself, going to see relatives I had abandoned years ago and walking down streets I had known during what, not in retrospect only, was an unhappy youth.
Luckily, I had friends on whom I could count: a cousin came to collect me from the rather remote airport and old friends offered quarters and shoulders should my visit prove overwhelming . . . or my arrival too late.  Such comforts notwithstanding, it was disconcerting to visit Ella at the hospital, especially since it involved having to wear a protective mask that obscured my face so that she did not recognize me.  I had not announced my visit lest she might think that, if even the prodigal grandson was coming to see her, her condition must truly be touch-and-go.  It was sobering to be greeted like a stranger, but also deserved, I thought—until at last there was a look of recognition in her eyes and a warm smile radiating from her lips.
Not having booked a hotel room, I stayed in grandmother’s apartment that night.  There I was, sleeping in the bed of a woman who might not see another morning and who, as it turned out, would never sleep in it again, though live she did.
We all have our security blankets, I suppose.  Mine is made out of immaterial stuff, a fabric as gossamer and yet as tangible as the air on a sultry summer’s evening as I had known it well to the west of Wales.  Lying there, alone in Ella’s bed, I surrounded myself with voices at once strange and familiar; voices of a safe, distant past—a past that was none of mine.

On a night rendered restless by thoughts of loss and futility—a life in danger and a life wasted in the refusal to be faced—I belatedly tuned in The Couple Next Door, a late-1950s serialized radio sitcom.  Written by and starring Peg Lynch, whom I had once seen performing one of her husband-and-wife sketches during an old-time radio convention, The Couple controlled the crowds with which my thoughts were teeming.  It comforted like no cotton coverlet could, warmed like no drop of Scotch.  Though not soundly, I did sleep that night, wrapped up as I was in a cocoon of sound . . . a quilt to muffle the guilt I felt for not returning sooner and for being defined instead by a quarter century of negation . . .