"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Billy and Needles - New Brighton Socialists

It wasn’t long after Billy Barnes got yanked from the school play that he was caught with his pants down in the woods behind Mrs. Roberts’ house with Nancy Bosh.  He had no answer when his father demanded to know what the hell was he doing back there.  Billy was very communicative as a child, and in fact didn’t know how to shut up, which is why he got the lead role for the lead in the Sixth Grade play, Captain Martin, written a local playwright.  The playwright was a fan of Jack London, and taken with the socialist sentiments and rhetoric in The Sea Wolf and decided to adapt it for the stage.  Admittedly, the New Brighton stage was not much and catered more to Polish plays about the old country than anything so provocative as Captain Martin, but it was a stage nonetheless; and although Herman Neville had hoped for more than the Vance School Sixth Grade, it was still a premiere of sorts, and got some attention in the local press.

The only reason why the play was put on by Mrs. Olsson’s class was because she was a Socialist and Herman Neville’s lover.  This was the early 50s, and they could only meet in musty basements with a few other believers like Needles Fogelson who got his nickname when he was in grade school because he was tiny.  He had to constantly explain to his classmates that he had a rare digestive disorder and he could only eat cake. In fact he had a nervous disorder which gave him the shakes as soon as he got within five feet of the dinner table, and despite his mother’s attempts to feed him pot roast, spaghetti, or latkes, the only thing he would touch would be cake.  To get some nutrition in him, Mrs. Fogelson loaded the cake batter with butter and eggs, which sounds good in principle, but made the cake leaden.  It was more like eating custard, but Needles didn’t care.  It tasted good and he didn’t get the shakes. 

New Brighton was not a place where you admitted that you or any other member of your family had a psychological problem.  There were no psychiatrists, and if you went totally off the wall you went to a referring physician in Bristol, then off to the State Mental Hospital.  Being wacko was no picnic. 

In any case, Needles eventually grew out of his ‘problem’, but it took years of progression, graduating from sodden cake/custard to sweet potato pie to sweet potatoes to regular potatoes to French fries, and eventually to a normal meal.  More or less normal would be a better way of describing it because Needles had this thing about ‘bits’ in his food – a tiny fragment of a nut that strayed into the frying pan and onto his plate; or a strand of cheese that had not been grated into a fine powder and blended into the spinach (Mrs. Fogelson was tirelessly diligent in her responsibility to give Needles a balanced diet).  He even freaked out over pepper flecks that had somehow found their way from the edge of the McCormick’s tin to his food.  Actually, despite his progression and progress, Needles always had some kind of food tic.  He went through phases.  He would only eat fried eggs and only if they were cooked until the yolk was hard and the white rubbery and floppy.  Or he absolutely could not eat the crusts of bread.  He would bore out the soft innards of Kaiser rolls, peel bagels, and meticulously slice off the edges of Wonder Bread.

How all of this morphed into Socialism no one knew, except that maybe his empathy for the poor and downtrodden had something to do with his exclusion from any social group in New Brighton. At the school cafeteria he sat in a corner picking away at his food, putting it into his mouth so that the tines of the fork would not touch his lips, dividing the meal into exactly ten portions.  He was so tiny (this was before the days of Human Growth Hormone could be piped into his veins to bulk him up and give him some height) that gym teachers gave him a ball to bounce away from the other children.  He had to wait until the rest of the class thundered upstairs to Latin so he wouldn’t get trampled.  No wonder he ended up a Socialist.

The playwright, Mrs. Olsson, and Needles Fogelson were perfectly suited for each other.  They came to Socialism via very different but personally needy paths.  Mrs. Olsson’s father was a Lutheran preacher with the rigidity and ironclad morality of a New England Calvinist.  There was no give in this stern, unforgiving man who would have thrown the likes of Needles Fogelson down the coal chute before he would tolerate his selfish, egotistical behavior.  When his daughter, Margaret, entered puberty he tied,bound, corseted, and wrapped her more tightly than an Indian papoose.  Not only would her budding breasts be flattened out of sight, but he trussed her like a turkey to keep her hands and arms from making impure and provocative gestures. 

Her father was worse than the the rock-ribbed granite preachers of Nathaniel Hawthorne; more wild and fanatical than Faulkner’s Reverend McEachern who tormented Joe Christmas or his stepfather Hines who, in his demented religious vision, went after him with a shotgun. The Depression in which Margaret grew up was a sign from God that the end of the world was near, and that depravity, promiscuity, and godlessness would presage its coming.

Luckily for her, Margaret Olsson’s father fell off the roof where he was putting up a hundred lightning rods, inviting, he said, the full fury of an angry God who would hurl thunderbolts at the wicked, him included.  After his death, she and her mother moved to Akron where Margaret went to Normal School, and then to Connecticut where she got a job with the New Brighton schools.

Socialism for Margaret Olsson was the secular religion that she was denied in her youth.  Her father would have been pleased that at least some religious sentiment remained in his wayward daughter.  Her faith in the kindness, generosity, and equality of Socialism was as powerful a motivating force as the blinding and distorted religious passion of her father, just quieter, more temperate and measured.

The playwright, Herman Neville, was a different story altogether.  He was a mental drifter – an undisciplined dreamer who thought that Socialism with its lofty ideals was romantic; that theatre was romantic in its ability to distill human passion on the stage; and that the two together represented an apotheosis, a grand fulfillment of an artistic and intellectual vision.  He had no clue about Socialism or any political theory for that matter.  His plays were unformed plots within a brushy and indistinct setting.  His characters were indistinct, really only mouthpieces for his endless monologues which he thought were impassioned pleas for justice, but were just thuddingly boring ten minute rants.  His plays were no more than a series of overflowings, water pouring out of unwatched faucets and down the sink.

So Herman wrote the first draft of Captain Martin, Needles Fogelson edited, and Margaret Olsson produced it at the Vance School. She put as much energy in the play as a Broadway producer.  She was producer, director, set and costume designer, musical coordinator, and acting coach, all in one.  At the very least, the parents of the Sixth Grade would come, and because it was going to be performed on Parents' Night, many more would attend.  The message would, finally, get out to the reactionary Babbitts of New Brighton, even if it was spoken by the dismal students of the East End.

Margaret Olsson really loved Herman Neville.  When others saw in him a maddening imprecision and illogic and a total inability to make sense, she saw an ineffable spirit in touch with himself and the beauty of the poetic world of ideas and their theatrical expression.  Both Herman and Margaret were very unattractive, and unlike the true Socialists of the Thirties, eschewing fashion and style as bourgeois affectations, their frumpy, rummage sale look was unintentional.  Margaret’s hair, bound in a bun – one of the last holdovers from her trussed and corseted days – was never successful.  Grey straggles fell over her face like the beginning of the Medusa look of many years later.  Although she was a fastidious person in her personal hygiene, she always had grime under her ragged nails.  She simply forgot to take care of them.

Herman was no different and no better.  He didn’t exactly look like a bum, although some of the burghers on Main Street often mistook him for one.  He just had a tattered and disheveled look even though there was not a thread dangling from his suit jacket, nor a shirttail hanging out over his trousers.

Margaret and he had their assignations in his dingy tenement apartment on Arch Street. She went up the back fire escape and entered through the small door to his kitchen.  Some days after their lovemaking, they sat out on the fire escape in the dusk, watching the silhouettes of old industrial buildings disappear into black shapes and listening to the new arrivals from Poland yak away on their back porches and stoops. 

Their lovemaking was tender and simple.  It wasn’t as though they wanted to get it out of the way so that they could commune with each other and their ideas; but it was quick and perfunctory.  Actually, an unseen observer would have been disgusted at the sight of his bony back and spindly arms arched over her greyish body, his rhythmic humping more like the calibrated thrusts of the big water pump you could see through basement windows of Fafnir Bearing on Broad Street, cooling the lathes.

Needles Fogelson had no love life to speak of, but never expected any after the childhood he had had.  He had plenty of fantasies and tried to insert them in Captain Martin, but the playwright caught every innuendo, every oblique reference to sexual hijinks and erased them.  He accepted his lot, sublimated his passions to The Cause, and eagerly helped with the production.

Billy Barnes had the lead in the play and had his lines completely memorized.  He liked Captain Martin, although he understood absolutely nothing of what he said.  Despite Needle’s editing and moderation, he pronounced the most intellectually and dramatically garbled speeches ever.  Herman, Needles, and Margaret Olsson made no concessions to the fact that these were Sixth Grade actors and dumb ones at that.  The performance was to introduce the philistines to great ideas.  The supposedly lyrical language talked of mountains, birth, bedsteads, jousting, pillories, and visions with no rhyme or reason.  Herman’s inner eyes saw a Socialist vision in a very particular poetic way.  Needles focused only on doing his job as a good lieutenant, and Margaret, smitten with love and with The Cause thought it all made perfect sense.

On the afternoon of the performance, Billy Barnes started off well, than hit some kind of hysterical wall.  He saw Herman’s image of a great carrion bird carrying the hand of a capitalist over the heads of the damned, and began to laugh.  The absurdity and absolute ridiculousness of the play appeared to him as surprisingly as if he had actually seen some nasty bird overhead.  He repeated one line over and over again: “The bird of rotten flesh, dripping with carrion juices, flew over humanity, and dropped its decaying load”.   All he could see was this giant vulture with a bloody hand in its beak, shitting on everyone in Walnut Hill Park.  He tried to control himself, but his giggles continued, and were infectious.  The entire cast started laughing.  They too, like a contact high, had seen what Billy had seen not what poor Herman had written.  They started flapping their arms, crowing like roosters, and hopping around the stage. 

Mrs. Olsson, livid with rage, disappointment, and bitter shame grabbed Billy by the arm and roughly yanked him off the stage.  “Get up there”, she shouted to Art Michaels, the understudy.  She shoved a sheaf of papers at him and said, “Read these, you dummy”.  Art wasn’t a real understudy.  He was given the job of actually reading the play just in case, and he could fill in for anyone.  By this time, the auditorium was a circus.  Even the most prim and composed matronly mother had cracked a smile, and the rest of the parents were howling. 

The next day, Billy Barnes was asked by Nancy Bosh to play doctor with him in the woods behind Mrs. Roberts’ house.  On reflection, there probably really was no connection between being yanked from the play and having his little pecker fondled; just that the world of the pre-pubescent New Brighton-ites was far, far removed from the desperately needy adult world of Herman and his Socialist compatriots and far, far better.  Billy ended up on the railroad, and never gave a second thought to either the play or Nancy Bosh.

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