Zerophobia, and Other Fears I Made Up

Posted on December 3, 2010

40



We had two heavy, black rotary dial telephones in our house. My older brothers told me that if I picked up the receiver and dialed zero, the operator would answer. This scared me, the idea that no matter when I picked up that phone, she would be there, waiting. “Operator. Can I help you?” Operator. Even the word sounded creepy. Did she perform surgery? Did she know where I lived? My brothers assured me that she did, but that she enjoyed hearing from customers, especially little boys who called her repeatedly for no good reason. I believed and trusted my brothers, even though these were the same two people who had once urged me to stick the handle of a metal spoon into an electrical outlet.

* * * * *

When I was around four, I used to watch a show called Captain Kangaroo. The Captain hosted an assortment of odd characters, but one in particular caused my heart to stop for seconds at a time. It was the Dancing Bear. He was exactly the height of a grown man dressed up in a bear costume, and most of the time he just stood in the corner. As the Captain and his friends entertained me with their playful antics, I’d catch occasional glimpses of the bear, motionless and silent. It was hard to remain amused, because I knew what was coming. At least once during every show, classical music would suddenly start playing and Dancing Bear would spring to life, waltzing around the room. This terrified me. It wasn’t so much the waltzing, which was surprisingly elegant for a bear (and especially so for a man dressed as a bear). Rather it was those times in between, when there was the possibility that he could start dancing at any moment. Not knowing when it would happen is what frightened me.

* * * * *

At the Bronx Zoo there was a small structure called the World of Reptiles. You entered through a door at the front and exited at the back. In between, there was nothing but darkness and thick air and people and glass enclosures housing lizards, turtles, and snakes. Black, silver, and brown snakes, wrapped up and tucked into the corners of the tanks like scaly fire hoses. You had to look for a while before you saw them, because they rarely moved. Sometimes other people tapped on the tanks, so I felt compelled to try, too. Petrified, I would reach out a finger and inch closer, pulling my hand back the moment a single one of my skin cells came into contact with the glass. That transparent barrier offered little reassurance. If the glass were a quarter-inch thick, that meant my finger was that close to the snake. It was the proximity that I found unsettling. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, to head for the sunlight and the pond where the otters and the seals swam. To this day if I’m reading a book that has photographs of snakes, when I go to turn the page, I can’t touch the pictures.

* * * * *

Our house was built almost right up against the house next door. My room was on an inside wall, and when I got into bed at night I could hear our neighbors talking. The voices were muffled, indistinct. It sounded like human speech, but I could never make out a word of it. At the time I didn’t realize I was listening to my neighbors. All I knew was that there were voices in my room, spooky voices that could have been coming from the closet, or from inside my head. Or ghosts. Or the devil.

* * * * *

My parents used to take us to visit friends of theirs, and in the summer we would all go swimming at a nearby lake. The water in the lake was never clear, and the bottom always felt squishy. What was down there? It felt like wet leaves, but it could have been an octopus or a bunch of eels or even decaying bodies. That lake is where I learned to tread water.

* * * * *

Diver Dan was another show I used to watch. These seven-minute episodes involved a deep-sea diver who wore an enormous metal helmet and had conversations with fish puppets. His enemies were Baron Barracuda, who was long and pointy and had sharp teeth, and Trigger, a stupid striped fish with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Whenever they were on screen, I would back away from the television. I did the same thing with the Wizard of Oz, near the end of the movie, when Dorothy is talking to Auntie Em in the crystal ball and suddenly the witch’s face appears.

* * * * *

One of my cousins lived in an apartment building with an incinerator. When they had something to throw away, they walked down the hall and opened a heavy green door. Inside was a chute that led to the basement and an enormous fire that burned constantly. Anything that went down to the incinerator was reduced to ash. I never touched the handle of that chute, or even the door. This was, I was certain, one of the side entrances to Hell.

* * * * *

Cartoons often used Venus Fly Traps to scare the wits out of us. This fear was especially irrational, I knew, because the fly trap was just a plant and I was pretty sure if I ever met up with one I could take it, no problem. I had the strength, the reach, and the foot speed. Also, my parents had hedge clippers. But again it was the idea that the fly trap was sitting there, waiting. And thinking.

* * * * *

Moldy food gave me the willies. Where did the mold come from? Was it in the food all along, biding its time? This thought made me want to stop eating altogether. I used to go to a restaurant that served salad with gorgonzola cheese sprinkled on top. It was the highlight of the meal. The thing is, the restaurant was really dark and I never got a good look at the cheese. Then I ordered it somewhere else, someplace with better lighting. When I complained about the mold, the waiter politely explained that all gorgonzola looked like that. I couldn’t finish my dinner.

* * * * *

I’ve outgrown most of my childhood terrors. But there are things that still bother me, things that seem to be remnants of those early fears.

I get anxious around ironing boards, staplers, umbrellas, folding ladders, and anything that can snap shut and pinch my fingers. This, I imagine, is somehow connected to the Venus Fly Trap. If I grab something in the back of the refrigerator that’s covered with mold, I become momentarily paralyzed; then, strangely, I find myself wishing for an incinerator.

I still don’t like swimming in lakes, or being submerged for any length of time. This is probably another lingering result of watching television as a child. I can still recall the episode in which Diver Dan was trapped in an underwater cave and rapidly running out of air. In those days, back in the late fifties and early sixties, the hero never died, but I had no way of understanding that. Today the hero doesn’t always make it, and when I watch a movie in which someone is struggling to breathe, I struggle too. The worst ways to die, I imagine, are suffocating and being eaten alive. That’s the reason I’ll never go scuba diving. It combines the two ways into one unthinkable possibility: I meet up with a barracuda and a striped fish and they decide to eat my oxygen tank as an appetizer. Then, when they’re finished devouring me, they both light up cigarettes.

Muffled voices still bother me. Working with electricity makes me nervous, but that’s a healthy concern and there seems to be little chance I’ll accidentally stick a spoon into an outlet. I’m also over my zerophobia, and if I ever visit another zoo I think I could even handle the World of Reptiles. But if the bears start dancing, I’m gone.

 

Advertisements