Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

lunes, mayo 28, 2012

The Count of Monte Cristo and the Scarlet Pimpernel Saved My Life

I know, confessions are so out of style. Forgive me.

When I started school, I began my struggle against authority. Put simply, I hated school. I hated my elementary teachers. I hated the rules (sit in your seat, raise your hand, do not talk to your neighbor etc). And I had absolutely no intention of obeying any of them. If the teacher asked me to try to write with my right rather than my left hand, I resisted. If the teacher asked me where my homework is, I shrugged. If I was asked to read about Dick and Jane and their dog, I rolled my eyes and delayed. I said, “I can’t. Please ask somebody else.” If I were asked to do anything, I politely refused. Back then, they didn’t give people like me a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder. No. We were just rebellious. A problem. Bad. Defiant. And ultimately, we were predicted to become punks. To become convicts.

So, of course, I became a punk. It was almost preordained. Why not? It seemed to me when I was in junior high school that the worst guys got the best, hottest girls. The worst guys were the most popular. The most exciting. So, it made sense, to hang out with Nicky and his friends, to smoke behind the school, and to hope beyond hope that one of the many blossoming girls who were attracted to bad guys would take an interest in me. This made complete sense to me.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to read. Maybe it was my second grade teacher, the young Ms. Sinahopolis, who was new that year who made sure that despite my being completely uncooperative and defiant and on a campaign of total resistance, I could read. I’m not sure how she did that. She didn’t tell anyone I could do it (that would have been shameful to me). But she made sure I could read whatever I wanted to. Once she found out I could actually do that, she more or less left me alone and stopped bothering me about everything else, which, of course, I would refuse to do on principle. It was as if by reading, I had earned an amnesty from authority.

My defiance, however, didn’t end in second grade. It continued until I was in junior high school, the ninth grade. I hung out with Nicky and his pals. I did what they did. I smoked. I cursed. I drank beer. I committed minor crimes. I shoplifted. And I hoped beyond hope that one of the girls in the class would be interested in me. And, of course, I continued taking the risks that my friends felt were essential to being in their group.

One day there was a car with keys in the ignition at the curb near the school. Nicky and I and two other friends were wandering around. We didn’t have anything to do. We were looking for excitement. Nobody was around. But we saw the car. And the keys. And we all had the same idea at the same time: let’s go for a ride. Of course, none of us could drive. No problem. We jumped in the car, Nicky got in the driver’s seat, cranked the engine, and off we went. For about 500 yards, when to my utter surprise, he drove the car into a parked car. Not good. I can hear myself saying, “I thought you could drive.” “Yeah, so I did I.” “Then let’s get out of here.”

Right. The police arrived immediately, as if they were waiting for the crash. They dragged all of us into the black and white car with the blue lights. They pushed us around and threatened us. They said with smiles on their faces, “You kids are in trouble. We’re going to take you home.” I leave this anecdote with my mother saying, “Wait till your father comes home. Go to your room.” Not good. What today would be characterized as “child abuse” was expected, if not demanded in such cases.

When I was in eighth grade, I was constantly I trouble. All kinds of trouble. With the school. With the cops. My rebellion continued. Everybody who was a grown up was a jerk. And the enemy. Teachers, especially. Cops, especially. I seemed to be constantly in detention. Or suspended. Or being driven to my parents’ home. Or pushed around by donut eating cops. And this being brought home by the gendarmerie always led to big problems.

It was about this time that Nicky’s older brother, Carmen, saved my life. Said he, “Man, you got to read about the Count of Monte Cristo. Massive balls. And, the best part, the guy gets even with all the mfers who messed with him.” "Really?"

I didn’t ask Carmen how he knew about this book. He himself was blazing a path toward incarceration and being constantly in trouble. But he was older. So, incongruous as it was, I said, “I’ll get it out of the library.”

Oh my goodness. First of all, I didn’t read novels at the time. And this was a hefty one. But, since Carmen was what would later be reverently called an “original G,” some diligence was required on my part. Some respect. So I had to read it. Oh my goodness.

Here are the two important things about the Count of Monte Cristo from my perspectdive. First, he gets falsely imprisoned, so he has to escape from prison. It takes 14 years, but the way he does it is brilliant. He gets thrown in the sea as if he were the dead body of his friend and teacher. A zillion points for outsmarting authority. A zillion points for having balls. Second, he gets even. He completely destroys the three people who lied about him and got him imprisoned. He’s patient about this. And methodical. And he completely and thoroughly gets even. Yes. Perfection itself. Justice for screwing with him.

When I finished this, it was as if I were no longer living in Newark. I was somehow living in France in a century or two ago. I loved that. Well, I thought, that was great, that was a great ride, I bet there are other books that will take me out of here, out of my life, out of everything, and bring me to some distant, all absorbing, far away place. Stories that are gripping. Stories that satisfy me. The Count doesn’t knuckle under to authoritarians (like teachers, like cops). No. He’s like me. He accepts their constant abuse and conniving, and then, and then the best part, he gets even with them. He inflicts justice on them. He gets his complete and total revenge.

The book rocked my world. I told Carmen, “Wow, that was an incredible book. Do you know of any others that are as intense? I love it.” He said he didn’t. No problem. I went to the library. I found the librarian. I said, “Excuse me. I just read The Count of Monte Cristo, and I loved it. And I wonder if you can recommend some other book I might like.”

The librarian smiled. He said. “Let me think.” Then he said, “Did you like the escape or did you like the revenge or what?” “Yeah, all of that,” I said. “I like all of it. Especially the escape. The Count had guts.”

“Oh,” he said. “I know. I bet you’d like The Scarlet Pimpernel.” “The what?” “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”

Oh my goodness. So I lugged the Scarlet Pimpernel home. What a crazy, unusual story. But I loved it. The Scarlet Pimpernel is secretly saving French nobility from execution on the guillotine, and obviously, there are those who want to capture and kill him. Even his wife doesn’t know that he’s the Scarlet Pimpernel. He’s a secret agent. He is embedded in English and French society. He, of course, is very well disguised, and he repeatedly escapes notice. Even from the guy who is dedicated to finding and killing him. He even appears as an old Jew, and is severely beaten in that disguies, but he doesn’t reveal his secret, who he really is. The guy has incredible balls. And he’s really smart. Ultimately, he escapes to England with those he has saved. In other words, he succeeds in outsmarting authority and lives to tell about it.

What an incredible story! The guy is doing all of these incredible things, but nobody can figure out who he is. It’s better than Bat Man or Superman. You have to be a moron not to know who their secret identities are. This guy takes all of that to another level. Even his wife can't figure it out.

That story broke my head open. I mean: look at some of the incredible things that could and do go on in the world, that I believe can go on, that are so much larger, so much more profound than my little life being a junior high school punk. Being a “hood.” Being a wise ass. My life is going to get me locked up. Or hurt. And for what? I’m not saving French nobility from the guillotine, I’m not getting revenge for my unjust imprisonment. I’m just fighting everybody all the time. I’m just breaking whatever trivial laws there are. Because I can. Because I want to. It’s like in the movie. Marlon Brando is asked, “Hey, what are you kids against, anyway?” He replies, “What have you got.” That’s me. What have you got. I'm against everything and I'll fight about it, too.

So I stopped. And I started reading. I spent hour and hours and hours reading. And I am delighted at all of the time I have spent in so many other worlds. These other worlds saved my life.

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