Role Models (Part 2)

Posted on March 20, 2011

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I used to tie a bath towel around my neck and pretend to be Superman. I would climb onto the kitchen table and jump, then run around on the floor with outstretched arms, flying off to save the world. We didn’t have a movie camera, so I’m left with only dim memories of how ridiculous I must have looked.

Then my Aunt Josephine gave me a real Superman costume for my seventh birthday. I remember unwrapping the box and seeing the big red S shining through the clear plastic. Everyone was there: my parents, cousins, brothers, and sister. And so I did the only thing that made any sense. I kissed my aunt, then picked up the costume and ran to my room. I stashed it under the bed and went back downstairs. They all wanted to know why I’d run off without putting the costume on. I shrugged my shoulders. Was there any point in trying to explain to these unenlightened relatives, these non-readers of comic books? Superman didn’t take off his pants in front of other people. Nobody got to see him change into his uniform. He did it out of sight, or at a speed too fast for the human eye. If my family wanted to see a superhero in their own home, they’d have to wait until they weren’t expecting it. That was how it worked.

* * * * *

Saving the world was a goal that developed over time. At first, I had identified the need to protect only my loved ones. There was one late spring day in particular. My sister was almost a year old, my brother was two, and I was four and a half. We lived on a regular street, one of hundreds that formed the basic grid of Bronx neighborhoods. The stores and restaurants were on White Plains Road, a few blocks away. We called it “The Avenue.” It’s where we went to get a slice of hot pizza for ten cents, or have an egg cream at the candy store under the elevated train tracks. Across the avenue from the candy store was the newsstand run by the man with no eyes. We’d been told repeatedly to avoid staring at him, but it was impossible not to look hard every time. He wasn’t just a blind guy. He had no eyes. If you were just blind, there was always some possibility that enough people would pray for you and your sight might come back. But without eyes, you wouldn’t have a chance because who was going to spend time praying for such an unlikely miracle? (Besides, would he have any idea we were staring?) I remember how focused he was on finding the right magazine, or making change. He knew where everything was inside that stand, and he moved quickly. He felt the coins with his ink-stained fingers, distinguishing nickels from quarters without fail. I never knew how he could tell a five-dollar bill from a one, but I suppose he relied on the honesty of others and his own intuition. The trains rumbled overhead every few minutes. The newsstand sat under the stairs that led up to the tracks. It was one of the great spots of my childhood, this place of legs moving in every direction, of hot pizza and egg creams and roaring trains and fresh newspapers and crisp magazines, and this eyeless man with blackened fingertips and so many honest customers.

We would walk on the concrete sidewalks up the right side of our street, with traffic running past us on our left. My mother would push the baby carriage with the big rubber wheels. The carriage had a round roof that adjusted to any height, and when it was fully closed it reminded me of the covered wagons I’d seen on television westerns. My baby sister was hidden inside, and I’d imagine we were headed across the frontier. It was a dangerous trip and my mother and sister needed someone to watch out for them. I’d motion for my younger brother to walk in front and to guard them against any threats, such as bandits who might try to snatch them, or that brown dog that was always chained to the tree in the yard at the corner. I also instructed him to step over the cracks — not just the straight grooves between the sections of sidewalk, but also the jagged lines that cut across the slabs. Placing a foot onto any one of those cracks, for even the briefest instant, could do some horrible damage to our mother. (I had been told this by an older boy on the street, so I knew it was true.)

I marched along the curb, peering ahead for any trouble that might be lurking up the block. It seems absurd to think of a skinny little boy keeping his family safe from speeding Chevrolets and wild animals on leashes. But I believed even then that it was my job to protect. Fortunately, it was 1960. The Bronx had its violence, though not the kind that threatened children and young mothers. That would later change, but we would be across the Hudson by then. Meanwhile, I could live out my early Superman fantasies. We walked to the avenue hundreds of times, and always made it back safely.

* * * * *

Shortly after acquiring my costume, I sent away for a pair of x-ray glasses. These I ordered from the Johnson Smith Company, purveyor of quality merchandise since 1914. Its catalog was jammed with black-and-white ads for wondrous gadgets such as hypnotizing disks, tiny cameras that looked like pocket watches, trick dice, and all kinds of books that would teach you how to throw your voice, levitate, and beat up almost anyone. They also sold fake vomit and hand buzzers, required items for any pre-adolescent boy. (Grown-ups seemed to fall for that stuff every time. All you had to say was something like, “Hey, Dad, shake!” Or, “Look, Mom, I threw up again!”)

The x-ray glasses turned out to be a major disappointment, as did nearly every other piece of junk I got from the Johnson Smith Company. In retrospect, I now know it was the anticipation I was paying for. Weeks of deliciously unbearable excitement culminated in the arrival of a package addressed to me, which I tore open in a fever, like a mountain lion disassembling a rabbit. Inside, always, was a small plastic item that bore little or no resemblance to the high-tech marvel pictured in the ad. Needless to say, the x-ray glasses did not allow me to see through walls, clothing, skin, or anything else. In fact, it was pretty hard to see through the x-ray glasses themselves.

Superman had other powers, of course. He could travel back in time by flying really fast in the opposite direction of the Earth’s rotation. One of my original goals was to go back to the 1960 World Series, when the Yankees lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the ninth inning of game seven. I intended to purchase a hypnotizing disk and several canisters of itching powder from the Johnson Smith Company, then sneak into the Pirate clubhouse, put all of their starting pitchers to sleep, and use the powder to give them each a terrible rash on some sensitive part of their body. My alternate idea was to order some of those books and learn how to beat up Bill Mazeroski. Then I remembered that I didn’t really know how to fly.

* * * * *

One night I was in bed trying not to fall asleep. My parents were in the next room watching the news on television, and at some point I heard my father say, “They’re going to blow up the world one of these days.” He must have been voicing his concern about the growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. I thought he was talking about a definite plan, as though the American military had decided to destroy the Earth. We’d been learning about the end of the world in religion class, when flames would consume the planet and Judgment Day would arrive. I had begun trying to figure out where a person could hide when the entire world was on fire. Then we were told that the cafeteria at school was a bomb shelter. What would that be like, I wondered: surviving a nuclear attack, but having to eat those school lunches for the rest of my life?

By the time I was nine years old, I already understood that the world was a dangerous place. My father was afraid. Even Superman was powerless. My supplier of magical devices and secret weapons turned out to be a company whose principal marketing strategy consisted of ripping off little kids. I missed those innocent days of youth, when I was happily leaping from the kitchen table with a bath towel tied around my neck, and safely guiding my family across the frontier.

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