I first saw the gold crescent of renegade freedom dangling from the lobe of a nameless hairy hippy Goy, his scrawny, insolent neck bound by a red bandanna. He leaned with outthrust hip of impertinent American coolness against the miniature white plaster-like Arc D’Triumph that looms in meager solemnity over the leafy green, daggered streetlamps of Washington Square Park. Over his back he’d slung a guitar, hung by a strap embroidered with flower patterns. He smoked a cigarette and with his long-fingered, filthy hand tossed aside the long, limp, unwashed strands of hair from his face to better show off the earring. I just stood there agape.
Not that I hadn’t seen earrings on men. It was just that now my eyes were wide open, I was ready to be pierced. The coming prospect of my high school graduation inspired me to piracy. I was a Sinbad waiting to bust loose, a Crimson Pirate aching for a ship. At night, I sat at the edge of my bed with scissors, razors, shoe polish, ammonia, rags, hacking at the cuffs and collars and sleeves of all my clothes, defacing, shredding them, purposefully soiling and smudging and ripping and bleaching out their loser quality of ‘good boy’ conformity, teasing forth their buried gypsy essence of repressed daring-do, brutalizing them into fadedness. I tried to make them look as though they’d been worn for years of endless rebellious sun-beaten road travel, each loosed thread unleashing the dormant cowboy in my Bronx-crushed soul. For I was dying to leave the brick madhouse of ancestral guilt and mass murder memories in which I had grown up, strike out on my own across the western highways of America, reach some land of uncoralled freedom where no one had ever heard of Auschwitz or lay in fart-enshrouded, Yiddish-whispering defeat, agonizing over unpaid bills and gallstones.
It was only a matter of time before I could leave. Turning eighteen and a high school diploma would make the sundering of my mother’s apron strings official. I was college-bound with Simon and Garfunkel in my soul. I couldn’t wait to hit the City College campus running. So that, in the pocket of whatever shirt I happened to wear, I kept folded the now quite tattered acceptance letter from City College of New York: my passport out. For to me Manhattan might as well have been California, the Beach Boy’s surfing songs lullabies of Broadway. Whatever wasn’t the Bronx was Annette Funicello country, a golden land of singing promise, opportunity’s Nirvana was but a subway ride downtown away. With the admissions letter, I was eligible to apply for student loans which would, in effect, liberate me from the necessity to work. With it I could earn my degree under the new Open Admissions policy for only fifty-eight dollars per semester. At City College I could smoke pot, drink wine, wear my hair long, fuck coeds, write novels and discover the meaning of life.
Now I was rarely home anymore. It wasn’t really home now anyway, more a hostel for neanderthalic wayfarers. I looked upon my parents and brother as the primitive inhabitants of some Stone Age household among whom I had happened to plop down in my embryonic time machine. We barely grunted to each other. They moved like shadows, with jutting, shelf-like brows, flesh-and-blood Flintstones, preoccupied with their meat-gathering and laundry.
I left for school two hours early each day and arrived uptown at Dewitt Clinton High School at 7am, an hour when only the janitor and one or two fanatically devoted teachers were to be found about the premises. I trudged upstairs to the tiny bell tower office of the Magpie, the school literary magazine, on which I now served as editor-in-chief, and sat plucking at my earlobe, wondering if I dared take the last, final step that for once and all would expel me from the claw-like grip of my parents, the Bronx, the Holocaust, Jewishness—even my own idea of myself.
For I wanted to feel brand new, not two thousand years old, and the earring seemed to be the way. to do that. Just the thought of it opened my ear, exponentially expanded my spiritual acoustics, made me hear as if for the first time the thrumming growing sound that had been hemorrhaging around me from airwaves and stereos and lips and street corner-thumped guitars, of Dylan and the Doors, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young—a harmonica and bottleneck steel string sound of rocking blues America, revolutionizing catgut folk locomotive songs, drugs sex and fuck you Mister Jones, the sound of politically ignorant, passion-thrilling clenched-fist rebellion and righteousness in the hearts of teen kids rioting across the land.
Somehow, I had not heard this sound before, though it had been all around me, this swelling tumult blasting down the barrier wall of my darkling mind, a mind that was after years of parental and public school incarceration a prison yard still bounded by the silk of the Motown Sound, the Temptations and Smoky Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles. Elvis, well, he was too white bread-yokel sounding for this Bronx kid, and I just couldn’t relate to the Beatles. When I bopped down the Grand Concourse in my Clinton Football Jersey over sharp slacks and pointed black cockroach-killer shoes, it was Isaac Hayes that played in my head, not the Beatles.
But on that night, out in the Village, while walking around without knowing a single living soul or with any understanding of why I was there, I saw the earring and it opened my ear and I grew desperate. I needed to do something now, before graduation, something nutty and outrageous that would declare my independence. I wanted my parents to know and see, in a way that nothing else would demonstrate, how completely free of them I was about to become.
I was growing my hair long, yes, strands at a time, a commando raid of follicular revolt. At each subsequent haircut, I asked the barber to leave it a bit longer, then coming home to see what my parents would say. Just now, it was over my ears, but just barely, and this hadn’t really earned more then a disgusted grunt from my cigar-dazed father and, from my mother, no comment at all. Lately, I had bought a peacoat too, to affect a more Bohemian look; even now, I wore Frye boots, though my football coaches had warned against their bad affect on the foot.
To get the earring, I called Arnold Razumny, my old schoolmate, who now ran, ear-pierced, with a pack of ear-pierced junkies, snorting heroin and nodding out in each other’s living rooms.
“Whassup, Big Man?” he asked with an affected jive accent.
“I’m cool, I’m cool. Hey, man, check this out: Where’d you get your ear pierced?”
There was a pause. Followed by: “You joining the earring elite, my man?”
“Thinking about it.”
“Well, stop thinking and check out Bobby-Ann’s earring store on Fordham Road. She’ll make you a hole, no problem. It’s not a biggie, my man, not a biggie, they do it just about every day. Go in there, slap down your fifteen bucks. You go in a cherry, and go out a gold-studded dude!”
Bobby-Ann’s was not what I imagined, though. No Aquarian psychedelic enclave this: sandwiched between the conservative shoe stores and Army Navy emporiums that lined Fordham Road, it was a real store for real women’s earrings. All the girls behind the counter were dressed in the sort of lime-green smocks worn by dental assistants. The place was a strange blend of jewelry store and surgical theater.
When I entered the place it went dead silent. All the women looked up. A girl my age with a kittenish face asked, “Can I help you?”
Red-faced I said: “What-do-I gotta-do ta-get my-ear . . . ya-know…pierced?”
The other women were still watching, one or two now with greater interest.
“SAN-DYYY!” the counter girl shouted. From behind the screened-off rear of the shop, a place ablaze with stainless steel lights, came rushing a chunky Irish freckled woman with green eyes penciled black like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, her enormous breasts wobbling in a doctor’s smock. She asked the nodding counter girl “Is this the one?”, took my hand in hers and dragged me into the back past a row of chagrined and envious faces, saying: “Right this way, honey. You want your ear pierced? Sandy’s gonna do you like you never been done before!”
“My friend Arnie sent me,” I said lamely.
“Never heard of him.” She shoved me down into a chair. “Stay put,” she said.
She whipped out a black velvet-lined tray imbedded with various gold and silver earrings and posts. “So, whatddaya like? You look like a post guy to me. Posts are cute for short-haired fellahs.”
Heart racing, I said: “I wanna crescent.”
“But you don’t have long hair!”
That news crushed me. Somehow I’d imagined that the carefully cultivated slightly longish curls and waves gathering blackly around my face was a free-flying flag. Now I knew for certain: no one was fooled. I was as square as a Rubik’s cube.
“Well, gimme a crescent anyway,” I said, defiantly. “Because I’m growing my hair long. It’s already started, you just can’t see because I made the decision just a couple months ago, OK? I want people to see it.”
“Allllllriiiight” she said warningly. “It’s gonna really show.”
She wrapped a white plastic bib around my neck. Then she hoisted something that looked like a cross between a ray gun and and an electrician’s drill. “This is gonna hurt, O.K.? You been warned. I’m not gonna bullshit you.” As she spoke she pinched my lobe repeatedly. “How’s that feel, honey, a little numb, huh? Is that number?”
“I still feel it.”
“Now? Not number? How about now?”
“Yeah,” I said
“Yeah?” she said.
But before I could answer, she hoisted the death ray to my lobe, slipped it between two metal teeth and pressed a button. With a sound like a hammer blow, steel shot through the meat of my ear and I yelped in pain. An instant later, the machine was holstered and Sandy was dabbing myear with cotton wool. In the mirror, I could see a lot of blood. “You’re a bleeder,” she said. “Oh, yeah, gosh, lookat dat. We got ourselves a bleeder here . . . . ” My own reflected, paling face looked dazed.
“Lets put some of this on,” she said, and the next thing I knew a wet dab of stinging fire sent me rocketing out of my chair as pure ethyl alcohol disinfected the open wound.
“Stay put,” she said, shoving me back into my seat.
“Do women always go through this?” I gasped in disbelief.
“Honey, women got more balls than any man could ever imagine, OK? How do ya think we have babies? Whaddya think a man would do if they came along and said, ‘we’re gonna take a nine-pound baby outta your nuts? Huh? He wouldn’t like that, would he? Hold still. I’m gonna put in the post.”
“But I don’t want—”
Painlessly, it was inserted. She screwed it very loosely. “It can’t sit tight in there, understand? You gotta keep moving it around so that it dosen’t heal with the metal in the skin. Otherwise, you’ll be up shits creek and you’ll have to come back for some unpleasant readjustment. Also, put alcohol on every day so it don’t infect. If it infects, you’ll be one sorry Van Gogh. Understood?”
“I understand,” I said.
“And here’s your precious crescent earring. First the post has to sit in there for a few days. Then you can start using this, OK? Lets have a look. You look great. A little too Jewish for Mick Jagger, in my opinion; more the Elvis type. I like Elvis.”
“Well, I don’t”, I said, standing up. I dug into my jeans pocket, fished out fifteen dollars. “Thanks,” I said.
“No problem. Send your friends.”
Out I marched past the row of scrutinizing eyes on both sides of the counter. Behind me a voice called out: “You’re cute!” and the place exploded with laughter.
When the door closed behind me, and I stood in the roaring noise and traffic of Fordham Road, I had to lower my blushing face a moment to orient myself. The dirty exhausted sunlight struck my already rattled nerves a glancing blow, as if to shame me for what I’d done. I stood there, defiant, scared, somewhat shocked, looking around me to see who’d notice the earring. No one seemed to care one way or another. I moved down the pavement a few yards, weaving between bodies among the tightly packed shopping crowds and turned my profile to them and stood still, ear offered for public examination. I noticed, now, a girl who reminded me a little of my ex-girlfriend Linda, snuck a glance at me, then looked away when I caught her curious eyes. This put a self-confidant smirk on my lips and I moseyed over to the window of a watchmaker’s store and leaned up against the glass front, one boot raised behind me to the wall. Crossing my arms over my chest, à la the nameless Village street gypsy, I just stood there with an expression of inscrutable calm, as though I were not a tangled wormy mess of insecurities and fears but rather as wide-ranging, open and easy as the Western plains. And pretending to be so made me so, if only for a few minutes. I don’t know whether anyone else was fooled, but I thought I spotted traces of doubt in the faces of a few passersby who couldn’t seem to tell whether or not I was the thing I seemed to be. I really thought that if I fooled them, I could somehow fool myself.
“LOOK WHAT YOUR SON DID, GEORGE!” howled my mother when she saw it. The way she ran before me, hands clapped to cheeks, I could have been a Cossack on horseback entering her shtetl yard, sword in hand. My father emerged in his underwear, cigar poking from the side of his mouth, took one look and scowled. “Are you crazy? What did you do? You know what? This time you really did it! I’m telling you, I’m fed up with you. Do us a favor! Get the hell outta this house already, will you, and give us some peace already! You put an earring in your ear!? An earring! What the hell is wrong with you?”
“It’s just an earring,” I said.
“Oh, My God! Do you hear, George? Just an earring? You know that he can’t get a Jewish burial because of that? They won’t bury your own son! I blame you for this! I told you you should give it to him more often. You don’t hit him enough! Now look what he did! He’ll have to be buried with the Goyim!” She turned to me: “I disown you! Your father and I disown you! You’re not our son anymore!”
“You disown me?” I turned to my father. “And you?”
“That’s right, Mistah. You’re disowned. Don’t ask us for nuthing no more ever again!”
“ASK YOU?” I snapped “ASK YOU? For WHAT? What have you given me? What could you give me? You’ve got nothin’ to give. Take your disownership and shove it!”
“Did you hear how he talks to us? Go, give him klep now. Be a man! BE A FATHER! Give it to him! Give him the belt in that stupid mouth of his! “ She rushed up, reached to slap me and I batted away her hand. I glared at my father. “Go ahead. Take your best shot.”
Shaking his head, he looked away tiredly and shuffled back into the bedroom, all his steam gone. Her I shoved past and stormed into my room. She followed me to the doorway, where she stood and said: “You broke your father’s heart today! What made you do such a thing?”
But I was already packing. Pulling my meager wardrobe from the dresser and stuffing everything into a duffel bag, along with books, notebooks, and a poster of an Irish castle which I tore from the wall.
“I’m leaving!” I said. “It’s over! I’m finished! I’m going, do you understand! Going! Forever! I have shot my wad in this place. I have suffered so much here, so much stupidity and intolerance, so much brutality and insanity, that I cannot bear to live here a single day more. Not a single minute! Do you understand me? I am going.”
And I think that despite herself, something registered. She seemed, suddenly, against all odds, somehow to understand. Because of a sudden she stood quite still, watching. And for the first time in the history of that dingy room, with its pink walls and little cots that served as beds, the only sound was that of my own moving body as it prepared possessions for departure, her voice nowhere around. As though, in quieting herself, she quieted the entire apartment. And only at that moment was it real to me that indeed, this was it. As if I’d never had a moment’s peace to really contemplate such a possibility. The taste of it was thrilling, but the thought of it was so wrenching that I began to cry a little. “That’s right,” I said, “I’m crying! So what? It’s just nerves. Men cry, too! Men cry! Men like me who have lived through hell, we cry! And we are not ashamed! We are proud of crying! What haven’t I experienced at your hands?! And at his hands in there! And don’t you give me any of your Hitler did this to the Jews crap! You’re my Hitler! What about what you did to this Jew, huh? Your own son!”
“Il est fou!” she said in that eerie, detached French-accented voice, speaking to herself.
“Yeah, I’m fou, alright. I’m real fou! But I’m outta here, at last! I’m going! But you should know that my heart is broken. That you didn’t appreciate what a beautiful son you had! That you could have made me into something really wonderful instead of this wreck of lost dreams and fuse-blown nerves. I want you to know that I loved you and Pop and even that idiot brother of mine who’s never around and never got hit or called names because that all went to me, didn’t it! DIDN’T IT, you sick, sick woman! SIIIIICCCKKKK!” I shrieked, all control lost now “YOU SICK, MENTALLY ILL CRAZY COCKSUCKING NUT!”
She just stood there. Didn’t run to get a hangar or belt to beat me with, or shout for my father’s reinforcement. She had grown very still, solemn, and looked different somehow. She even nodded as I wept my heart out, holding my pierced ear, which burned painfully, probably from all the blood rushing to my agitated head. I felt a savage headache coming on too. And when I looked up, my father had materialized by her side. He was wearing his trousers.
“We won’t stop you,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know why we all don’t get along, but we don’t. It’s too much for us. We can’t handle you anymore.”
“I’m not a horse! I’m not a dog! You didn’t have to handle me. All you had to do was to love me like a parent loves a son. Instead, you treated me like a criminal. Like, like, like some kinda naked savage that needs to be kept behind bars for his own good. But I’m such a good person! That’s what kills me, how good I am. Not the monster you made me out to be! Not the eternal problem child you got me labeled as in your own minds. I’m a good boy! A good boy!”
“You’re not a boy anymore,” she said coldly. “You’re seventeen. When I was your age, I hid from the SS. It’s time you learned to grow up.”
“That’s right, Mistah. You’ll see what life is like on the other side of that door. Nobody’s gonna put no food on your table. Nobody’s gonna give you where to live or what to wear. You’ll see.”
The duffel bag was full and I fastened it closed. Then I walked past them to the hall closet, took out my peacoat and a black wool watch cap and put them on. Then I walked back to the bed, hoisted the duffel bag onto my shoulder and said, as if I were going to sea: “Well, it’s time to be off. Don’t ask where I’m going; I have no idea. Far away, though, I promise.”
My mother looked at my father to see what he thought of my declaration. “George,” she muttered, pulling at his t-shirt, “don’t let your son go like that.”
“Whaddya mean, don’t let him go like that? He’s a man. Let him go wherever the hell he wants. It’s none of my business!”
“GEORGE,” she said. “Please don’t be crazy. Stop him.”
“I’m not stopping nothing. You wanna go, you go, Mistah! But don’t think you’re coming back, understand?”