“For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin & glaring eyes.”
—Christopher Smart, from My Cat Jeoffry
Whenever my mother spoke of me as an infant, her story began the same way: he was born with impetigo. She said this with a wrinkling of the nose and shake of the head, eyes closing against the awful vision. Blisters! she would whisper, still shocked at the memory, rings of them all over his inner thigh. A contaminated baby. Can you imagine?
My childhood was marked for her from the very outset by filth. It took weeks to get him cleaned up. Of course, the fact that a fetus contracts impetigo’s staphylococcus bacterium from its mother was never considered relevant. All that mattered was that I emerged polluted by germs and was permanently tainted in her eyes, one more agent of the powers of darkness.
It would be difficult to overstate my mother’s loathing of stain, grime, infection, disease, or any other manifestation of what she considered Dirt. The only daughter of turn-of-the-century Polish immigrant Jews, she was hyper-conscious of the stigma associated with ghetto uncleanliness. Her fear of pestilence was like a tormenting memory of epidemics and quarantines that she never actually endured, a genetic inheritance. The sight or stench of rot was her living nightmare. She let everyone know she was an Uptown woman, from a family of furriers, born and raised on the opposite end of Manhattan from all those typhus-and-cholera-ridden former Old World shtetl dwellers.
Sepsis had replaced Cossacks and Nazis in her imagination of terror. Soiled hands, spilled drinks, crumbs, dust, sand, even outside air were all potential miasmic hazards, capable of breeding affliction. My mother could be reduced to tears by the sight of fingerprints on the walls or a drip of gravy on her tablecloth. She despised leftovers. Any food that might disguise contamination was distrusted—stews, chowders, casseroles. One of her commonest utterances was the world vile! stretched out to the length of a full sentence. That place? she would say, referring to a neighbor’s unkempt apartment Vile! Playing outside, I was not supposed to perspire or accept drinks from friends or pick things off the ground. I kept my hands to myself. The greatest threat was the Unseen. Our apartments required constant vigilance. I was not allowed to bring playmates home, or to take more than one item from my toy chest at a time, or to enter the living room unless my mother was present. If I wanted something to eat, I asked for it, barred from opening the refrigerator until I was an unstoppable adolescent. Windows stayed shut and locked, especially in summer, which was polio season. Once, when I returned from the hospital with my broken fibula in a cast, she kept me standing outside the door until all the loose plaster had been brushed away. Though she lived for 40 years within walking distance of the beach, my mother never set foot on the sand because of what might lurk there and how tenaciously it clung to the toes. Like the Sanitation Police of 1890’s New York City, she exercised absolute authority over contagion in her domain. She kept dustcloths tucked into the pockets of her housecoat and carried her feather duster like a Billy club from room to room. No one was permitted to eat anywhere but at the kitchen table or to touch anything after coming indoors until the washing ritual was complete.
My brother and I learned to scrub up like surgeons before every meal. We mastered the intricacies of a sterile field even before we learned to read. The great trick was to wash the backs of our hands as intensely as the fronts, fingertips to forearms, while leaving the bathroom spotless. Not a simple task for toddlers.
After washing, we went through two tableside inspections—one for the initial wash, one for the automatic rewash—before our mother allowed us to eat. Once, as a test, I turned on the faucet but did not stick my hands under the water during a second round of washing, and when I passed inspection it was impossible not to reveal my ruse. That cost me dinner and a week’s worth of TV.
My father was a Kosher chicken butcher, a trade my mother saw as profaned by Dirt. Her ongoing contempt for him was, I think, grounded in disgust over his work, his defiled labors. She saw him as, well, befouled. My father’s nails were always caked with dried blood, stained beyond the quick, and it was not unusual to find stray feathers somewhere on his person. He smelled, beneath the currents of Old Spice, like day-old sawdust and raw gizzards. In one of my earliest memories, he comes home from work and marches past me into the bathroom, where I hear the water running in the sink, and do not see him again until the next morning. I must have fallen asleep before he came out for dinner, but it feels more accurate to remember him washing up through the entire night.
It is hardly surprising that I did not have a pet when I was a child. Well, once, for about 17 hours. On a Sunday afternoon in early summer, my father bought me a chameleon at Ebbets Field. He did not actually intend to get me a chameleon, but between games of a Dodgers-Giants doubleheader he gave me some money to buy whatever I wanted at the concession stand near our seats. I strolled past hats and wall pennants, baseballs, yearbooks, food vendors, and froze when I saw the cart where a man was selling real live lizards. The man saw the look on my face and smiled, beckoning me over with his finger. Not only was I a dinosaur freak, I was also tired of sleeping with a beat-up old hand puppet that I kept under my pillow. At seven, even I knew I was too old for that. I knew what these little cuties were: chameleons were masters of disguise, ideally suited for camouflage in the face of danger, which more or less made them cousins to me. Anything you want, buddy.
I placed the chameleon’s box under my seat for safe keeping and my father never noticed it. He was busy working to open a miniature bottle of whiskey with a penknife and then Game Two began. I remember him using a rolled-up program like a megaphone to cheer when Duke Snider hit a home run onto Bedford Avenue. I picked it up at the end of the game to save for my collection and saw that it was stained with tobacco. Dirt! I could not decide whether the risk of bringing the ruined program into my mother’s domain was worth the pleasure of adding it to my collection, especially when I was already loaded with contraband. What the hell, it might distract her; I added it to my haul. When we left the stadium, he draped his arm across my shoulders and never asked what I was carrying.
The instant we crossed the threshold of our apartment, my mother said “What’s that?”
My father brushed past without registering her question. But I halted like a spotlit criminal. The program was now jutting out of my jacket pocket and I held the box in both hands, staring at the holes in its top. Guilty, two counts. The chameleon moved and both my mother and I noticed the box shift in my hands. I wondered if the chameleon had turned all white against his white walls. At the moment, as I stood before the gleaming white apartment door, that sounded like a brilliant move.
“Just a chameleon,” I said.
My mother screamed as though she’d been attacked. “Just a chameleon! Oh my God!”
She put her fist in her mouth and ran into the bedroom, slammed the door, and began shouting at my father. How could you do this to me? Just a chameleon! Why not a rat! A cobra that spits in your eye!
I was sent to bed without dinner, which was all right because I’d eaten well at the ballpark, and without my chameleon, which I hadn’t yet named but was thinking of calling “Rainbow.” The closed box was placed atop newspaper on the kitchen floor, in a corner beneath the window, with the understanding that tomorrow I would either give it to a friend, release the chameleon in the nearby vacant lot opposite King’s County Hospital, or flush it down the toilet.
But in the morning, the chameleon was gone. At first I suspected that my mother had thrown the box down the incinerator after I had fallen asleep, except that she was in a panic herself, searching the apartment, threatening divorce, threatening to have me locked away at King’s County where evil children were kept in darkened rooms beside murderers without food or water until they reached the age of 21.
We found the chameleon during a delayed breakfast, after the room-to-room search failed to turn it up. A peculiar smell began to emerge from the toaster as we sat in silence. When I looked inside, the chameleon was black even though the toaster itself was shiny silver. Adaptability apparently had its limits.
In 1953, when I was six, baseball cards became my most vivid companions. I did not collect them in the sense of assembling a complete set, or keeping them in the order of numbers printed on their backs, or using check-lists to ensure that I had every card issued. These were not at all like stamps or coins to me; they lived. I did not risk losing them to friends in flipping contests and I certainly did not keep them in pristine condition. I had fun with them the way my friends frolicked with their pets, down on the floor, talking to them, gazing at their faces, using them as playmates.
I teased Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella about the way he wore his hat, but secretly smashed and folded my own Dodgers hat until the crown resembled Campy’s. I asked Pirates pitcher Paul La Palmc if his teammates ever called him Paula, chatted with Phillies pitcher Ken Heintzelman to find out why he looked so depressed and practiced the unsmiling glare of Yankees first baseman Joe Collins. I liked to sniff the cards, which held a scent of bubble gum from their packaging, and sometimes stood the cards in a line against a wall with a gap left in the middle of the group, where I would place a photograph of myself carefully trimmed to match the size of the cards. Just one of the guys, Dodgers shortstop Floyd “Scooter” Skloot, born July 6, 1947.
I grouped my cards by teams, each team housed in double rubber bands with the catcher on top and pitchers on bottom, and stored them in a set of my father’s old cigar boxes. I traded cards with friends solely to assemble a particular team’s starting lineup. Pitchers were expendable and it made no difference to me whether a card was rare or a player was a star; if I needed George Crowe to complete the Boston Braves infield, I would gladly trade away an extra Cleveland Indians pitcher like Bob Feller even if his card were more “valuable” because he was great. Then, when I had a complete team, at least one player for each position, and had memorized the statistics on the back of each card, I would play my invented games on the carpet of whatever room I found myself hiding in. Cards arrayed in the classic diamond shape of the infield and arc of the outfield, I lost myself in the world of imagination, living out a game of my own devising.
Penny baseball was, for me, both too dull and too random. My brother had showed me how to use a penny as the ball and a pencil as the bat, swatting the penny and seeing whether it landed close enough to a fielder’s card for him to “catch” it. But no matter how I tried to rig the results, a penny could roll anywhere. A slugger might dribble silly ground balls that got snagged in the shag carpeting while the weakest hitting shortstop socked one off a bedroom wall. I already had enough of the random in my life.
Instead, abandoning props, I held a batter’s card upright and would envision the pitcher winding up and delivering, then twitched the card to imitate a swing, made the sound of a ball cracking against the bat, and played out the results, moving my batter down the baseline, leaping across the carpet to a fielder who was chasing the ball, all the while announcing the action. There was no plan of how a game would unfold, just intuitive responses to the players’ looks and needs, to the dynamics of the moment. This was not a game of chance but a game of dreams. A full nine innings could take two or three hours easily, especially as I got older and began keeping box scores and statistics. I used a composition book to record each player’s performance, accumulating a season’s worth of statistics, making notes of spectacular moments such as the time Mickey Mantle hit a home run clear out of the bedroom and into the distant foyer. From a game of dreams I created an entire world, safe and relatively clean even if it did take place on the apartment floor, and I had the records to prove it. Everything was under my control here. No one got sick or hurt, no one endured a prolonged slump, no one was traded. They all got to play and eventually thrive; I unconsciously saw to that.
Despite my mother’s efforts, I was a sickly child, garlanded by a daisy chain of tonsilitis, ear infections, colds, asthma, measles, recurrent mononucleosis. By the age of ten, I had developed a seasoned terror of delirium that equaled my mother’s response to Dirt. I missed school in great chunks; broke a leg, a wrist, a rib; was knocked unconscious several times, scalded by coffee grounds, run over by a Packard, nearly drowned in a canal, bitten by a dog, stung in the eye by a bee.
My illnesses and injuries enraged and terrified my mother. She once removed a thermometer from my mouth, studied its findings, muttered 103.6 and slapped me across the face. I was the only child I knew who got punished for being sick, put to bed without television or books or even baseball cards, denied dinner and a goodnight kiss.
It was all very confusing. Being ill seemed just another form of being bad, being contaminated, something I should be able to control but could not. I felt guilty, soiled, helpless.
I remember having one dream repeatedly. Dressed in my pale blue one-piece pajamas which made me look like a miniature Lone Ranger, I would descend a staircase into a roaring subway station. The trains flashed by and I entered a car by simply passing through its skin like a germ. Though the exterior had seemed spotless and gleaming, inside the cars were filthy. I stood there swaying, unwilling to grab a pole for balance. I had no idea where I was headed, but in the flickering glow that came through the train windows I watched myself slowly dissolving, losing more and more of my body with each strobe of light. My hands, my arms, my feet. The conductor spoke over the loudspeaker in a voice I recognized as my mother’s, shrieking the same message over and over: YOU ARE ON THE WRONG TRAIN, YOU ARE ON THE WRONG TRAIN.
In 1954, when it was announced that we would receive polio vaccinations in the school gymnasium, I was astonished to see my mother sign the permission slip. She was actually agreeing to let them inject me with polio germs! The whole thing made no sense to me, no matter how often the concept of immunization was explained. I knew a trick when I saw one. Lining up with my classmates, I knew exactly what to do. It was easy to slip out of line and drift over to the nurse.
“Did you get stuck yet?” she asked. Aha!
I nodded, eyes filling with tears at the very thought. She slapped a band-aid on my left arm and I went back to class.
Within an hour, the principal came into our room. He carried a vial in one hand, looking grim, and whispered to the teacher before turning to glare at us. “Did anyone here miss his vaccination?”
I looked out the window. The light seemed to flicker. The principal left.
About six months later, our neighbor’s teenaged son contracted polio. My parents shook their heads as they discussed this over dinner and said how glad they were that I had gotten vaccinated. Children were at the greatest risk, and if a child got sick then his parents were at risk. The next morning, I confessed.
The whole family had to go to the doctor’s office for gamma globulin injections. I was made to watch as first my father, then my brother bared their buttocks for shots. Because he was so large, my brother had to lie there while the doctor unscrewed the syringe and screwed on another. The stubby needle top jutted from his flesh.
In the 1950’s, we did not have Nature in Brooklyn. With the exception of Prospect Park and Botanical Gardens, which my mother would not visit, it was as though the city itself had enacted her dirt-free policies. At least that is the way I recall things.
My core memories of childhood contain nothing but concrete, brick, cement, steel. Brooklyn is surrounded by the water, jutting into the Atlantic at Coney Island, bordered by the Upper and Lower New York Bays to the west and Jamaica Bay to the east, separated from Manhattan by the East River. But for us the borough was so densely urban that the notion of “land” or “sea” never arose. Earth was the name of the planet, not the surface of the world; soil, like dirt, was a bad thing.
Though I cannot picture them, there were a few trees in front of our apartment building. There they are in a wrinkled snapshot, confined within a low brick wall crowned by cement that extrudes iron spikes in one neat row like a hedge. The “backyard” was a small concrete plaza enfolded within the building’s wings. The building itself, which took up half a block, loomed over everything, our downtown mountain. When I looked straight up at clouds, I would see the exotic urban flora of fire escapes, a network of aerials and exhaust turbans at the roof’s edge. Across the street, where the State University of New York Health Sciences Center is now located, there was a vacant lot strewn with rubble which seemed to me to be our forest. I sliced open my knee playing war games there with friends and knew I must not go inside until the bleeding stopped, must hide the wound though it needed a stitch and left an inch-long scar.
Our family seldom traveled together outside the city. Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx were the borders of our world. When a cousin moved to King’s Point on Long Island, barely outside the New York City limits, our visits there seemed like foreign vacations.
There was one wildly exotic trip to Washington, D. C. , and Silver Springs, Maryland, where my father’s cousin Bert lived. En route, my father was ticketed for speeding in Delaware, which seemed to sour him on further exploration. The eight millimeter films he shot to commemorate this trip were all double-exposed, as though such travel were indeed a ghostly illusion, a trick of memory, and life really took place only in the familiar city. We stayed put behind the double-locked doors of our apartment fortress. We had paintings and statues instead of houseplants, china with images of vines painted on them, candy bowls in the shape of shells or leaves, gelatins molded to look like flowers.
When I was an infant, we did go to the beach at least once. There is a photograph in which my mother is holding me up, face toward the camera, with her arms stretched to their fullest in front of her body so that I dangle out there like a load of trash. I may have been sandy, or have soiled my massive diapers, or had a runny nose. Clearly I was not cuddly at the moment and was being exhibited before the camera like a dangerous substance. Avoid close exposure to this creature. I do not appear happy; my face looks like the face of a 50-year old grouch.
My only experience of the natural world occurred when I was sent to sleep-away camp for eight weeks every summer. From 1951, when I turned four, until 1962, when I turned fifteen, I was shipped north to the Pennsylvania mountains, the New Hampshire woods, or rural upstate New York accompanied by my brother and cousins, and visited one weekend each summer by our parents. These were grand lakeside adventures, surrounded by forests and mountains, and they only underscored the fact that Nature and Home were essentially separate worlds.
Now, at 54, my home is in the woods. Holed up here with my wife Beverly and our three cats, I am nearly as far from my childhood home as it is possible to be while still living in “the Lower 48.”
The nearest town, two miles down the hill, has a smaller population than the block I grew up on in Brooklyn. Its principal commerce is four antique shops that change ownership annually; to buy groceries or get a haircut or do our banking we drive a dozen miles north. I am in the middle of nowhere. Nature, with its inevitable Dirt, encroaches continually here, the forest eager to reclaim this tiny clearing for itself, and the nights teem with insects, birds, rodents, amphibians and sneaky mammalian life.
A few years before we got together, Beverly had built this small round house in the center of 20 hilly acres of rock-strewn basaltic land. It is an hour west of Portland and an hour east of the Pacific coast, in wine country, and we are officially Tree Farmers, with mostly second growth oak, maple and fir, with some wild cherry, cedar and one skimpy madrona that we transplanted ourselves from beside the road.
The property is overrun with poison oak and wild blackberries whose slender early summer blossoms litter the driveway now with petals and the promise of a good August harvest. There is wild rose, hazelnut. Earlier this week, looking out our dining room window while sitting down to dinner, I saw a mother skunk with her four kittens shuffle past the compost heap. Bees batter the screens all day, working hard at the hyssop and rosemary. I routinely share the grounds, and sometimes the house, with mice, voles, moles, rats, frogs, lizards, snakes, and squirrels. During the middle of a night several years ago, a bat flew into our bedroom through the cat door.
In short, I am living in a place that embodies my mother’s worst nightmare. It also confronts me with many of the childhood terrors I caught from her like that case of impetigo. She can hardly bear to hear me describe the life I lead, interrupting my accounts to ask but can you get “The Tonight Show?” or how do you keep the place clean?
The dark is darker here, but the light is lighter, and I think that combination is what drew me most powerfully. Country life is supposed to be quiet, and sometimes is, but it is also loud with life, a Brooklyn of insect and animal life. It is impossible to control. I am isolated and exposed, but feel completely safe.
Daily life reminds me again that the powers of darkness are different for everyone. That is what makes them so sinister, so elusive. We must all learn to fend for ourselves, condemned to go solo against our own demons. To put it another way, no one’s darkness can truly be shared and no one’s light works in someone else’s darkness. In 1988, when I was stricken by a virus that targeted my brain and has left me totally disabled, it seemed at first to be almost too exquisitely ironic. Of course someone from my background would eventually be faced with a kind of Ultimate Dirt, a viral predator. Even the random can seem poetic. Brain damage—these grim lesions that eradicate specific functions such as short term memory or balance or the ability to choose the proper verb—makes its victims feel lost to themselves and their world. For four years I struggled to re-learn how to walk, to write, to think. That was when I realized where I needed to be living.
I moved to this place in 1993, leaving behind a small apartment in downtown Portland, where I was within a half dozen blocks of two cinemas, two auditoriums for live theater, three bookstores, a concert hall, a riverfront and my favorite Chinese restaurant. I thought I would miss them and need to return at least weekly for my urban fix. Instead, I find excuses to stay at home.
While Beverly, a social worker, spends her days assisting the elderly, the dying, and the temporary residents of a psychiatric hospital unit, I am here under the protection of three cats. Cats, I have come to learn, can be our allies in the fight against the powers of darkness. The electrical skin and glaring eyes that Christopher Smart, writing from the madhouse, spoke of in his poem about Jeoffry the Cat are certainly part of the arsenal. We all need electrical skin and a good glare. That sensuous alertness and fullness with which my cats move around the property demonstrate the integrity of a life lived directly. As Smart says later in his poem, a cat “counteracts the Devil, who is Death, by brisking about the life.” Bursting from stillness after prey, leaping up trees in exuberance, adding the occasional banshee howl to the act, my cats defiantly brisk about the life. Then they sleep. Theirs is life as Haiku, utterly simplified in form yet resonant with implications.
But the work of these cats is not simply in the expression of feline energy as a corrective to my own limitations. Yes, I knew I must simplify my life and I did. But I also had to learn what was within my powers as a person irretrievably altered by brain damage. My mother, it seems, was essentially right to believe in the threat of the unseen, though her tactics of vigilance and will were largely futile. After getting sick, I had my subway dream again for the first time in more than 30 years, but the voice over the loudspeaker was garbled. Since moving here, the dream has not returned, and I have never felt more certain that I am on the right train.
My ability to protect myself—not only against a virus but against the ensuing failures of normal daily function—has been compromised to the point where I seldom leave home. It would be easy to surrender to the powers of darkness. But cats are resourceful in making certain that we face up to our worst fears, which is the surest way to counteract them.
The answer to my mother’s question about how we keep the house clean is we do not. Cats, famous for personal cleanliness, their finicky licking of themselves and each other, track in all sorts of Dirt, bringing dried fir needles, twigs, bark dust, mud, deadlife. This, however, is our dirt, not theirs. When they greet us, our cats roll in the dirt, dusting their sleek dark coats a dull gray. When they vomit, they are careful to do so on the carpet or bed before exiting through the cat door. Their work is rich with symbolism, tapping into my dream matter to bring the imagery of my unconscious to light. Last winter, I woke up from a nap, sat at the edge of the bed and reached for my shorts only to find a live garter snake coiled in the crotch. Early this spring, in the deep middle of the night, we were awakened by the sort of scream that makers of horror flicks covet. Something flitted across our bed and upstairs, where we heard a sound like a modest square dance. One of the cats had brought in a live rabbit and released it near the sofa; by the time we got up there, the three of them, aligned in a neat triangle, had it frozen in their headlights. By now, I have learned to keep a pair of thick gloves by my bedside to catch such wildlife—a throwback to my old shortstop days. We managed to save the rabbit, at least temporarily, and set it free in the woods. On the way back inside, I looked up and realized that the night was aglow. Far from city lights, high on a hill under an almost full moon, I saw the sky as a dazzle of stars and clouds, and had no trouble finding my way home.