Let us return to a version of the year 1957 on a rainy August night in Greenwich Village, and rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends in a speeding red Jaguar Mark VII driven by the ancient Mr. Philpot...
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“Not since Charles Dickens has an author given us such a rich panoply of characters – 'Big Ben' Blagwell, Horace P. Sternwall, Ferdinand the fly, Mr. Philpot, and, yes, among dozens of others: the son of God himself, Arnold’s good friend 'Josh'.” – Harold Bloom, in the High Times Literary Supplement.
I just realized now that I have forgotten to mention that while the immediately preceding events were transpiring – my brief chat with Josh, my going into the shop and bringing everyone out again, our getting into the Jaguar and taking off – while all this was happening I continued to suffer – along with an intense hunger for food, hot food and lots of it – multifarious and mounting physical pains. If I were a professional writer I suppose I would perforce go back and add the occasional sentence or phrase such as, “I winced, being still in pain, pain which was increasing each second, emanating from my various injuries to both my legs – primarily my knees – as well as from my head and hands and arms,” but since I am not a professional writer and, in a practical sense, also because I am writing these memoirs in marble copybooks in ballpoint, making revisions awkward and as likely as not illegible, I will merely remind the reader now and have done with it: I continued to be in pain from my various falls, and as the laudanum I had drunk wore off these various and manifold pains grew greater each passing second.
And now on top of everything else I realized that I needed to urinate. Well, we were going to a bar, bars always had men’s rooms, and the way Mr. Philpot was speeding and, yes, now blatantly running red lights, we should be there soon if we arrived at all.
No one seemed to mind how fast Mr. Philpot was going, and he was going faster each passing second, and, far from admonishing him for ignoring red lights, Ben and Ferdinand and even Horace whooped in encouragement – yes, even Horace, an avowed coward, but then he had probably drunk at least one jelly-glassful of 150-year-old British navy rum at Mr. Philpot’s, and that was on top of everything else he had put away this evening, not to mention marijuana and laudanum. Josh needless to say looked unperturbed. He may have wanted to be human, but he wasn’t entirely there yet; I think he knew he was still at heart divine, and, ergo, immune to death; and even if he did die in his current corporeal form he would only be returning to his father’s house.
As for myself, yes, I was afraid, if only by force of habit, even if I was in the company of the son of God, whom I might reasonably hope would protect me, or, failing that, at least take me up to his father’s house with him and perhaps give me a comfortable small room of my own; I was afraid also in spite of the fact that I currently existed in a fictional corporeal host, in a fictional world; I may well have been a character in a cheap novel, but I felt real enough to me. It may have been a preposterous self in which I was encased, but it was no more so than the self I still thought of as “me”, and, anyway, it was the only self I had at the moment.
Yes, I was afraid, but not gibberingly so, not to the point of screaming at Mr. Philpot to slow the fuck down for God’s sake, nor even of saying anything to him at all, and I can only suppose this silence, this absence of abject panic was the result of my knowing ahead of time that nothing I said or screamed would make a bit of difference to the ancient madman at the wheel, and because I was too preoccupied with my more immediate physical sensations: my aforementioned intense hunger, pain, and the need to urinate.
But then something occurred to me.
“Mr. Philpot,” I said, speaking loudly, because Ferdinand, Ben and Horace were all talking about cars, how the Jaguar we were in stacked up to other makes of cars, the sort of conversation which has never interested me, “you do know where we’re going, right?”
He looked at me in the rearview mirror.
“Bob’s Bowery Bar, right?”
“Yes, and you know where it is?”
“Of course I do,” he said
“Bleecker and the Bowery?” I said.
“Same place it’s always been,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Just, you know –”
“Jesus Christ, Arnie, relax,” said Ben, twisting around to look at me dubiously from under the visor of his old yachting cap. “Mr. Philpot knows this town, don’t you, Mr. Philpot.”
“Like the back of my hand,” cackled Mr. Philpot. “Why, I remember when you took your life in your hands walking these very streets!”
“The good old days, hey, Mr. Philpot?” said Ferdinand, still buzzing merrily around in the front-seat area.
“We’ll not see their like again!” said Mr. Philpot, turning to address Ferdinand, who had now come to rest convivially on Ben’s mountainous shoulder. “We had real gangs in those days! The Ball Busters! The Piccadilly Pips! The Purple Gentlemen! The Gay Trotters! The Bronze Nightcaps! The Highwaymen of Doom!”
“The Highwaymen of Doom?” said Ferdinand.
“A strange name, I grant you,” said Mr. Philpot, “as they mostly operated in dark alleyways, and dank subterranean dens of iniquity.”
“I have to say I’ve never heard of any of those gangs,” said Horace.
“That’s because you’re just like everyone else in your generation,” said Mr. Philpot, turning almost entirely around in his seat and glaring over it at Horace. “An ignoramus!”
Suddenly the car swerved, and I knew I was going to die, but fortunately Ben grabbed the steering wheel and an accident was averted, while Ben, myself, Horace and Ferdinand all shouted various permutations of the words shit and fuck.
My arrant cowardice got the best of me.
“Please, Mr. Philpot!” I yelled. “Keep your eyes on the road!”
“Sorry ‘bout that,” said the dotard. “I got the wheel, Mr. Blankwell, you can let go of it now.”
“Blagwell,” said Ben, letting go of the wheel.
“Whatever,” said the old man, and he ran another red light.
Horace was holding onto my arm, tightly, as if that would do him any good. Josh was oblivious. I mean that literally, he was asleep, his head on my shoulder, a lit cigarette in his hand, the hand resting on his leg. I took the cigarette from his fingers so that he wouldn’t burn himself. I thought of taking a drag, but didn’t. I wondered if Josh could prevent an accident if he were sleeping, and I doubted he could, but then, as Mr. Philpot zoomed through yet another red light, I saw a familiar corner zip by to the left in that pouring rain – I knew that corner! It was “my” old corner, Bleecker and the Bowery –
“Stop!” I screamed.
“Why?” yelled Mr. Philpot right back. “You don’t trust my driving? I was driving automobiles before you were born, you young whippersnapper! And before that I was jockeying four-in-hands and barouches with the best of them!”
“But we just went past Bleecker and the Bowery!” I whined.
“Then why didn’t you just say so?” he screeched, and then he made the tires of that beautiful car screech like the damned in hell as he yanked the wheel clockwise, turning the car in a vicious U-turn.
Josh woke up, almost falling onto my lap as the car wheeled around.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“Just ‘popping a yooby’ as the young folk say,” said Mr. Philpot.
While this yooby was being popped Ferdinand, Ben, Horace and myself again emitted various imprecations, but then, proving that miracles do happen, the big car suddenly came to a jolting stop without crashing into anything, and, looking past Horace out the passenger window streaming with rain I saw a red neon sign, and the sign said BOB’S BOWERY BAR.
“Oh, thank God,” I muttered.
“What?” said Josh.
“Thank you,” I said to him.
“For getting us here safely.”
“Oh, we’re here already?”
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Why thank me? I had nothing to do with it.”
“Thank your father?” I said.
“Arnold, old boy, sometimes things just work out. My father can’t be bothering with every little thing on earth. Why are you smoking a cigarette? I thought you quit.”
“It’s yours,” I said. “You fell asleep. I didn’t want you to burn yourself.”
“How thoughtful. Do you want it?”
“Not really,” I said.
“May I have it back then?”
“Of course,” I said, and I handed him the cigarette.
Mr. Philpot had turned off the engine, and he was unbuttoning his umbrella.
“Enough palaver,” he said. “Let’s get some grub! And some grog! The last time I was here I had a splendid grog! You chaps in the back, depress the lock buttons! This neighborhood is rife with criminals!”
I really couldn’t believe it. Not only was I alive, but soon I would be able to urinate, and then, perhaps, to eat. True, I would still be in pain, but I could mollify that problem with liquor and beer, which would mean I would awaken the next morning with the same bruises and pains, but with a hangover on top of them, but that was tomorrow, and this was now.
We tumbled out of the car, into that crashing rain, Mr. Philpot running into the bar under his umbrella after locking up his door, Horace and Ben rushing across the sidewalk holding onto their hat and cap respectively, Josh and Ferdinand and I sharing Josh’s umbrella, with me holding my precious book safely under my jacket.
The door of the bar was open in its recessed entranceway, and inside was the harsh shouting and bitter laughter of many drunken people barely visible through tobacco smoke, the thick hot odors of beer and whiskey and human beings, the sound of I believe it was Peggy Lee singing “Blues in the Night”.
Horace, Mr. Philpot, Ben, and Ferdinand went on in without a moment’s hesitation.
I waited while Josh clumsily closed and reopened his umbrella halfway a few times to get some of the rainwater off it. Then he closed it all the way and started to try to button it, but he was having difficulty doing this, swaying slightly, his cigarette dangling from his lips.
“You want me to help you with that, Josh?” I ventured to ask.
“No, I’ve got it,” he said, and he fumbled with the little flap that was meant to be affixed to a button, but he still couldn’t get it.
“Here, let me give it a shot,” I said.
“No, I’m, uh, you know –” he said.
But he still could not quite get the button through the little slit.
I was hungry, I had to pee, my legs hurt me more now that I was standing.
“Josh,” I said. “Really. Let me do it.”
“No, wait,” he said. “Here we go!” He had finally gotten it buttoned, and now he brandished the furled umbrella like a club. “Got you, you bastard!”
“Thank God,” I said.
“For what?” he said.
“Never mind,” I said. “Let’s go in, okay?”
He took the cigarette out of his mouth and smiled, shaking his head. “Relax, Arnold, we’ll get you some food.”
“I know,” I said. “But now I really have to pee.”
“Well, yes,” I said.
“It seems like you have to pee an awful lot.”
“Josh,” I said. “I’m human. I’ve been drinking. When we humans drink we must pee.”
“Doesn’t that get a little – tiresome?”
“Of course it does,” I said. “Life is tiresome. But look, let’s go in, because not only do I really have to pee, but standing here like this makes my legs hurt.”
“Your legs are hurting again?”
“Yes,” I said. “Actually, my head hurts too, and my arms and hands. I’ve had a lot of accidents tonight. But I’ll be okay if I can just pee and then sit down and eat something, so let’s go in.”
He stared at me.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“Oh, but it is,” he said. “You see, when I – we – that is my father, the holy ghost and I, you know – the divine trinity?”
“Sure,” I said.
“When we created all this –” he made a little gesture with his hand that held the cigarette – “not just this bar, but, you know –”
“The universe,” I said, trying to move things along, because now that I was so close to a men’s room I was just about ready to wet myself.
“Right,” he said, in a thoughtful-seeming way, and obviously in no hurry. “When we created all this we didn’t quite think through all the – the ramifications. Like, you know –”
“People having to urinate,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And suffering pain. And hunger.”
He continued to stare into my eyes. Then he turned and looked out at that crashing and clattering rain, exploding all over the sidewalk and Mr. Philpot's red Jaguar and the street.
I forced myself not to say anything. He was, after all, the son of God, and I still felt the need to show him some respect.
He took a drag on his cigarette, exhaled, looked at the burning end of the Pall Mall, tapped its ash off.
He sighed. He was definitely becoming more human that way, learning how to sigh.
He turned again and looked at me with a slight half-smile, a slight half-shrug.
“Mistakes were made,” he said.
(Continued here; Arnold still has a long way to go.)
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