by Bob Schneider
Read “Part I”
But first I had to get past the parentals.
The grunts in the Nam spoke of home as back in the world. The Lower East Side was my back in the world. And there I had been a latchkey kid. I fully expected to be so on Mongo as well. Womb and seed had a different idea. But after a lot of breath-holding and blue-turning, they relented and so, on a lazy Shabbos afternoon, they gave me a key and laid down a pair of categorical imperatives before releasing me into the wild: I was not to talk to strangers, and I must not conduct my cloacal business anywhere but home base—529 Ninth Ave.
As I left the house that afternoon, I was super-excited. In my hyperbolic mind I was Rob-it Magellan about to map my Brave New World.
One day in the twilight of the sixties, my Friend-the-Film-Critic and I were strolling the Deuce trying to decide between a blaxploitation double feature or a pair of spaghetti westerns, when we noticed that Freaks was headlining a theater on the north side of the street, closer to Seventh over by the porno Bijou and the Ilse-She-Wolf/Olga’s-House-of Fleapit. J waxed rhapsodic: Do you realize that Freaks has been showing non-stop on this street for the past forty years?
While what J said was not literally true, he totally nailed the it-ness and that-ness of Times Square: Freaks and the Deuce were made for each other, like Barnum and Bailey, like Martin and Lewis, like the turkey and the axe.
I stepped out of the house, turned the corner on Ninth Ave., walked a block north, crossed the street, entered the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I walked east past the Food Fair, past the Book Bar and Leisure Time Bowling, past the massive bank of elevators and the always-busy ticket windows, and past the vast newsstand opposite Walgreens. There I took an escalator down into the bowels of the 42nd St. station of the IND. I headed north toward the uptown turnstiles, past the umbrella and sundries kiosk and the Latin Music emporium; opposite Cushman’s—where I would later discover that the best chocolate-cream-covered devil’s food cupcake on earth could be had for a mere ten cents—I walked up the stairs and through the pocket penny arcade. The mechanical howling from the Shoot the Bear games served as soundtrack as I climbed the exit steps. Finally, I emerged again into the light and saw for the first time the tack-tastic grandeur of Times Square.
Thousands of miles away, Disneyland-ia, Walt’s wet dream, built on the bones of an ancient orange orchard, was under construction. He envisioned it as the final frontier of fantasy, where kids of all ages could enjoy risk-free adventure; could experience Tío Walt’s bucolic vision of tomorrow, today. But here, on Mongo, the theme park of the Hell Planet was up and running, kitschy and crowded, as vibrant as the neon lights that shone everywhere, and all the time.
The street teemed—there were people on the stroll and people on the go; there were people gobbling fast food, people gabbing to and past each other, people who looked as late and loony as the Mad Hatter. There were movie houses, ten of them all told, on both sides of the street, all claiming to be Cooled by Refrigeration. If it were a 50s Sci-Fi movie I had found myself in (I was on Mongo, after all), it would have been titled The Cinemas That Conquered the World.
Between the theaters were businesses, but like this nabe’s butcherias, they were heretofore unimaginable variations on the ones I was familiar with. Back in the world I went to restaurants—I had three delis that I frequented, the one on Rutgers for their French fries, the one on East Broadway for their pastrami and corned beef, and Isaac Gellis on Essex for their franks. If it was milchidigs or pareve I craved, there was always the immortal, much mourned Garden Cafeteria, where I would invariably get my ticket punched for a vegetable plate—mashed potatoes, baked beans, and creamed corn—and wash it down with unlimited seltzer from the communal fountain, a stainless steel tub affixed with U-shaped push taps beneath the spouts. Here on Mongo, things were very, very different. Bizarro delis like the Grand Luncheonette and Grant’s had flat-griddle franks, but they also had onions (onions?), cheeseburgers, and malteds. Grant’s even had beer on tap! There was the incontrovertibly treyf—a diner on the northeast corner of 42nd and Eighth was named Ham and Eggs! Flame Steaks smelled like char, Worcestershire, and A-1, and Romeo’s Spaghetti Kitchen had a vat of boiling water just inside the window from which pasta was pulled and sauced non-stop: it was meta-entertainment—an action set-piece, framed for viewing, on the grindhouse strip.
There was Hubert’s Flea Circus and Museum of Freaks, admission 25 cents, closed Tuesdays, (its denizens documented for posterity by Diane Arbus who said: Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats), and nearby, Fascination, a penny arcade whose back wall was Skee-Ball alley. Across the street were two stores whose inventory consisted solely of gravity knives, R&B 45s and 33s, and Holocaust porn—paperbacks with titles like Auschwitz and Treblinka—a couple hundred pages each of black-and-white atrocity photos.
© 2013 Bob Schneider