I KNOW A STORY
“I know a story,” said Trick the Dwarf, and the rest of them leaned in close: Nanook the Esquimau, and Ota Benga the Pygmy, and Yolanda the Wild Queen of the Amazon.
“What kind of story?”
Yolanda’s eyes bulged suspiciously, and it occurred to him again how she alone might actually be as advertised: tiny, leather-skinned woman with a mock feather headdress, betel nut juice dribbling out through the stumps of her teeth. A mulatto from Caracas, or a Negro Seminole woman from deep in the Okefenokee, at least.
“What kind of a story?”
He swiped at the last swathes of greasepaint around his neck and ears, and looked down the pier of the ruined park to the west before replying. All gone now, even the brilliant white tower festooned with eagles, its beacon reaching twenty miles out to sea. Gone, gone.
It was evening, and the lights were just going up along Surf Avenue: a million electric bulbs spinning a soft, yellow gauze over the beach and parks. The night crowd was already arriving, pouring off the New York & Sea Beach line in white trousers and dresses, white jackets and skirts and straw hats all quickly absorbed by the glowing lights.
The City of Fire was coming to life.
He could hear the muffled fart of a tuba from the German oompah band warming up in Feltman’s beer garden. Beyond the garden was the Ziz coaster, hissing and undulating through the threes lay the peculiar sound that gave it its name. Beyond that was the high glass trellises of Steeplechase Park, with its ubiquitous idiots face and slogan, repeated over and over STEEPLECHASEFUNNY PLACE STEEPLECHASEFUNNY PLACE beyond that ocean, where a single, low-slung freighter was making for Seagate ahead of the night. He could see even further. He could see into the past where Piet Cronje’s little Boer cottage had stood, or the Rough Riders coaster, before some fool sailed it right off the rails, sixty feet into the air over Surf Avenue. Where a whole city had stood, back beyond the ruined pier Meet me tonight in Dreamland Under the silvery moon
Soon, he knew, the soft yellow lights would be honed by the darkness into something sharper. They would become hard and clear: fierce little pearls of fire, obliterating everything else with their brightness. None of them now on the pier would se it, not Yolanda or Ota Benga or Nanook the Esquimau. They would be working by then, in their booths and sideshows. They would not see the lights again until they were on their way home, in the early morning; would see them only as they shut down, already faded into a fraudulent, rose hue by the sun rising over the ocean. Meet me tonight in Dreamland Where loves sweet roses bloom Come with the lovelight gleaming In your dear eyes of blue Meet me in Dreamland Sweet dreamy Dreamland There let my dreams come true.
They liked to sit out on the ruined pier during the dinner hour, between the heavy action of the day and the night shows. They slumped on the rotted pilings, where once a hundred excursion boasts a day had tied up, to smoke and eat, and spit and smoke and tell their stories: Ota Benga, spindly and humpbacked, no real pygmy but tubercular piano player from Kansas City, exotic moniker lifted from an old carny sensation of the past.
In the City everything was passed down, even the names of the freaks and the gangsters.
Nanook the Massive, Nanook the Implacable, slit-eyed hero of the north who was in fact a woman from some extinguished Plains tribe, signed on after her old man had tried to force her into whoring at the Tin Elephant hotel along Brighton Beach.
And then were was Yolanda. Immense frog eyes still staring up at him, curved beak of a nose, skin the color and texture of a well-used saddle. “It’s a love story,” Trick told her. “it’s a story about love, and jealousy, and betrayal. A story about a young man, the young woman who loved him, and a terrible villain a story about death, and destruction, and fire. It is a story about thieves and cutthroats, and one mans vision, and the poor man’s burden, and the rich mans condescension.
“It is a story about Kid Twist, the gangster, and Gyp the Blood, who was a killer, and Big Tim the politicians, and poor Beansy Rosenthal, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. It is a story about Said the whore, and the brave Esther, and the mad Carlotta, and the last summer they all came together in the great park.
“It is a story about the Great head Doctors from Vienna, and the rampages of beasts, and the wonders of the Modern Age. It is a story about a great city, and a little city, and a land of dreams. And always, above all, it is a story about fire.” “Ah, said Yolanda, satisfied now, leaning back and lighting up her pipe.
“Ah. The usual.”
ON THE BOARDWALK
Esther met him at the main gate of Dreamland by the angel of the Creation its great wings spanning the whole width of the entrance arch, perfectly formed breasts pointing the way to the future. He was waiting for her at its foot, in a white summer suit with a kelly-green vest that looked as cool and elegant as an ice cream sherbet gazing up at the angels exquisite teats.
Kid Twist grinned, and squeezed her hand when she came up, and she couldn’t help but grin back at him.
“I’m glad you came.”
“Didn’t you think I would?” she mocked him.
Inside, the park was just gearing up for the day, looking almost wholesome in the morning light. The pavement was pristine, the coasters making their first tentative whooshes around the tracks. A long line of the Dreamland cash girls filed by in the immaculate white academic caps and gowns, marching like so many novitiates to their registers.
“We have the whole day,” he said, and pulled her along.
They rode on the Alpine railway, past tiny Swiss chalets and frozen waterfalls, and pink snowy peaks. The little open cars shaped like sleighs, with bells that tinkled as they careened around the curves, climbed laborously up the Starnbergersee. They plunged over and a long, delighted cry rose from the women and children filling the cars ahead.
They rose in the back, the only couple on the train, squeezed into the childlike seats of their car. His hand was around her waist, dangling over her hip, brushing her waist and thighs.
They sped into a tunnel with a sign inscribed gratuitously NO KISSING ALLOWED IN THIS TUNNEL. As soon as they were in the dark she felt his hands on her, pulling her to him. He smelled like fine bay run, and peppermints, and she wanted to laugh to think of her first kiss with the cockroach boss, grappling in this room of coats. She shut her eyes and kissed him back, ignoring the women and children shifting and giggling all around them.
They pulled out of the tunnel, the other passengers laughing and pointing at them, but to her surprise she found she didn’t care at all. She turned her head away, smiling, staring dreamily down at the matrix of toy trains below her, whizzing in and out of their snowy little tunnels and caves.
In the streets of Cairo, men in turbans and caftans led their camels and elephants along the midway. A raven-haired woman undulated before a plaster mosque-its dome chipping sky-blue paint.
“The warmest spectacle on earth! She her dance the Hootchy-Kootchy! The danse du ventre if ya know whatta mean!” She danced out on the boards in stars and bangles: one forelock slicked down in the shape of a crescent moon, eyes painted into mysterious slits above her veil, a paste sapphire mounted in her navel. Her bare, rounded belly wriggled like nothing Ester had ever seen, suggesting whole new worlds.
“Anywhere else but in the ocean breezes of Coney Island she would be consumed by her own fire!”
She jiggled and shook slowly around, back toward the sky-blue mosque. A small knot of men, grinning sheepishly, shambled after her into the plaster mosque.
Later, when it got dark, he took her dancing out at the end of the Old Iron Pier. They shuffled slowly around, listening to the waves below them and singing along softly with the old favorites: My evening star I wonder who you are Set up so high like a diamond in the sky No matter what I do I cant go up to you So come down from there my evening star.
She had him request “After the Ball is Over,” which you could barely go a quarter of an hour at Coney without hearing, but none of the other dancers seemed to mind: After the ball is over After the break of morn.
It was late, and everyone was tired. The dancers slumped around the floor together, smelling each others rank, pleasurable scents of salt water, and sun, and fried food After the ball is over After the break of morn After the dancers leaving After the stars are gone Many a heart is aching If you could read them all Many the hopes that have vanished After the ball
It was late by the time he walked her to the train station. The fireworks were already going off, the last trains pulling out.
“Stay with me,” he told her meaning this time, really trying to convince her this time.
“No. I got work.”
She looked up at him and smiled, to show him how much she wanted to say.
“My little dove. Stay…”
He helped her push through the crowds to her train. On board, everyone was exhausted, the children already asleep in their mothers laps. She threaded her way into the car, and stood looking back at him through the open door.
“My sweet. My little crown.”
The warning bell sounded and he stepped across the threshold, into the train. Her eyes widened, not sure of what he could be doing, clutching onto the handrails. No one else cared but he had her in his arms by the door, as if they were married. Both of them staring at themselves in the darkened windows as they sped back through the ash pits and the coal yards.
They moved up through the sleeping neighborhoods of Park Slope, and Boerum Hill, and over the bridge into Manhattan, the train stopping more frequently now. Everyone exhausted, everyone too tired even to make any noise, the dozing families somehow intuiting when it was their stop, trudging off the train. Half the car cleared off when they reached Delancey and it was her stop, too, but she didn’t budge.
She stayed by the door with him, holding him. They could have had a seat now, but they stayed by the door, holding each other and looking gravely back at their own reflections. Soon the car was all but empty, just two or three single men who had missed their stops snoozing in the corners. They rushed up along the elevated tracks, tenements and new, block-long apartment houses sweeping by. So close they could peer right into their windows and homes and lives men and women reading or eating, comforting babies or making love, or just sitting under a dim light, having a smoke. They sped uptown, all the flickering, inscrutable little dramas running together, and he held his arms around her waist and began to kiss her. He kissed her neck, as he had on the Steeplechase, and she leaned her head back, and kissed him full on the mouth, and held her arms around his head. She broke it off, then kissed him again for a long time, and leaned back against him, both of them staring out the window at all the houses going by, the men and women leaning on their windowsills in the hot, still night, staring dully back at the train rushing past them.
THE GREAT HEAD DOCTORS FROM VIENNA
The funny little man flickered across the glasses of Sigmund Freud. Running, falling, eating, waddling forward with his odd little walk, dabbing at the black smudge of moustache just below his nose. He seemed to exist in a state of constant, frenetic turmoil: his black bowler hat bobbing along the tide of humanity that engulfed him whenever he stepped out of the door the same tide they had taken refuge from up on the roof garden.
Before the little tramp, up on the screen, there had been another frantic comedy about a gang of incompetent policemen who went charging around after a fire engine, wrecking everything. Before that some sort of kitchen drama from the ghetto with everyone, right down to the humble mother in her apron, throwing their arms about with the gestures of grand opera stars. It was the first time any of them had seen a moving picture. Freud had to admit they were innately engrossing, creating a world of their own on a two-dimensional screen. What kind of psyche would it create in the future, he wondered, once they perfected the process, and people were sure that they could see all of life?
Ferenczi especially seemed to love it, laughing out loud and clapping his hands like a little boy. Freud himself only smiled quietly, content to sip his beer and puff on his cigars while Jung, to his annoyance, was even more enigmatic, peering out at the screen through his large pince-nez like a biologist examining a rare bug.
“Herr Doktor,” the clinic is closed,” Freud called over to him, still smiling, noting to this further displeasure that Jung had returned to his abstemious ways. Since they had been in America he drank nothing but seltzer water, or a bilious tonic called celery soda, which the Americans claimed aided the digestion but which tasted to Freud like old socks.
“In our profession, the clinic is never closed,” Jung smiled back at him. “That’s the joy of it we never have to stop working.”
“Yes, I know,” Freud said quickly, but Jung cut him off, waving an arm to indicate the roof garden all around them.
“Take this place, for instance.” Think of how much is hidden here, between the palms.”
Freud gritted his teeth, and turned back to the movie. In fact, to his further chagrin, Jung was right. The roof garden seemed very strange to him indeed another thoroughly disconcerting American place. It as up in one of the newer districts of the city, on a street brimming with theatres yet just a couple of blocks from a slum; where everyone gleefully, even proudly warned them not to walk. The theatre itself was another mass of contradictions, a spectacular art nouveau palace called the New Amsterdam. Up on the roof garden, next to the whole louche scene the tuxedoed businessmen, fat as pigeons; the glittering, jaded women; hungry young gigolos prowling through the potted palms was a homey little recreation of the old New Amsterdam: complete with miniature windmills, and gabled Dutch houses, a real cow and a buxom set of milkmaids who sashayed around the tables, selling buckets of their warm, fresh milk to the customers.
“They are like children, these Americans, with their insistence on innocence,” Freud sniffed, faintly annoyed by Ferenczi still giggling like a schoolboy next to him.
There had been dinner, and dancing to a small orchestra, everyone around them laughing and talking so loudly they could barely hear each other. Then, out of nowhere, the great blank, white screen had been put up. The droning, clattering projector was pulled out, overruling everything else; everyone turning their full attention to the screen.
The whole trip had been just as strange and unsettling, from the moment they pulled out of Bremerhaven. He had grown close gain with Jung on the boat over. He had been Carl the crown prince, the good student, once more even proposing to give his own lecture about childhood sexuality first,, to break the ice for Freud by citing the case of his daughter, Agathli, and her anxiety over his wife’s pregnancy. Freud had been grateful. He thought it was a sacrifice worthy of the Torah, for Jung to offer up his own daughter. Agathli would need serve as an ideal battering ram, as it were, softening up their audience at Clark for the shocking idea that sexuality began before puberty.
Yet there was a price: Jung, he was aware, still wanted to psychoanalyze the Master. Freud had put him off. He had no intention of being stuck on the George Washington with a triumphant Jung, smugly confident that he had uncovered some part of Freud he had not previously suspected in himself. Perhaps not even telling him what it was.
There had been a disturbing incident, as well, a small thing, but one that had bothered him all the way over. On their second day out, they had run into another of the ships company after breakfast, a certain professor Stern, from Breslau, on his way over to Clark himself to give a lecture on the psychology of court testimony.
This Stern had had the temerity to question The Interpretation of Dreams in a review a few years ago, and Freud had neither forgotten nor forgiven. He prided himself on being able to endure any and all attacks on his person, but he would tolerate nothing against the Cause. He cut the professor himself, but Stern had succeeded in cornering Jung. While Freud waited a few feet away, impatiently tapping his walking stick, the little ekel had gone on and on, discussing theories of word association. He had finally felt obliged to call out to Jung:
“Now, Herr Doktor, when are you going to bring that conversation to an end?”
Stern had blushed then, and excused himself. Freud reclaimed his crown prince, hooking their arms together and guiding him off down the deck.
“Look at the shabby little Jew go,” Freud said with satisfaction, glaring back over his shoulder at the retreating Stern. In New York harbor he had stood by the rail, staring at the famous green statue of Liberty, standing like a colossus over her brood. It was modelled on the sculptors mother, he recalled from Ferenczis Baedeker.
“What a thing for the Land of Rebellious Sons: a stern mother figure, wielding a phallic symbol! But was its real purpose to substitute for the mothers they had left behind or to warn off more bad boys?
He left the question for later as their ship was towed through the bustling harbor, and over to the Hoboken docks. Contemplating the heroic statue, the soaring, vertical city awaiting him, he felt like a conquistador again, invincible and roguish, capable of anything. The mood lasted until the men from the American press came aboard.
“Isn’t this all about sex, Herr Professor?” one of them shouted out and the others had all laughed while he fumed and stammered, unable to get out a quick answer in their promiscuous, careless language.
“What are your lecture fees?”
“Do you expect to get many society clients?”
“Are any of you married, doctors?” this last query bringing another great laugh, as Ferenczi and even Jung blushed red as schoolgirls. They scribbled in their notebooks and popped their flash pictures until the doctors were quite blind and still obviously convinced their whole trip was no more than some kind of traveling con game, the latest sensation for their front pages. Even worse. He noticed the next day that his name had been universally misspelled as Freund.
“Professor, whattaya think of America so far?”
“Well, we have only just got in the harbor,” he hemmed, fighting down the impulse to point out what an astonishingly stupid question it was. Yet it was all the reporters really wanted to know.
“Professors, are ya gonna take in a baseball game?”
“Are you gonna visit the Grand Canyon?”
“Are you gonna go up to the Statue of Liberty? How bout the subway?”
“Well, whattaya think of the harbor so far?”
Dr. Brill, from Columbias Psychiatric Clinic, had finally succeeded in shooing the reporters away. Brill was an old friend; he had done his practicum at the Burgholzli, and had been analyzed for a time by Freud, and he took them in hand leading them off the boat, down through the endless tunnels to a taxi, then a train in the subway a deafening, terrifying experience and then finally back up more tunnels and through the kitchen of their hotel.
“It is a great world city now, New York,” Brill informed them.
“I will take you everywhere everywhere! You won’t want to miss a bit!” “I will be perfectly satisfied if I can just get to see a porcupine,” Freud tried his standard joke again, but actually, as it happened, he would have been satisfied if he had been able to keep anything down. The American cooking had proved unbearable, and since landing they had all taken turns being laid up with stomach maladies. At least it had given him a further excuse to avoid Jung’s demands to analyze him. Jung himself had recovered first, and thrown himself enthusiastically into American culture: jumping up on the rushing, clanging streetcars that swooped down like birds of prey on anyone trying to cross the street. Running out to buy the newspapers everyday. He was avidly following an inquiry over which man, Peary or Cook, had made it to the North Pole first.
“Can you think of anything more crazily American?” Freud scoffed. “Two men, risking their lives on such a race? And to where? Not even a continent, but a drifting ice floe! How can anyone determine a winner?”
“But what finer example of the hero myth in action?” June had chided him. “America is full of heroes or at least, people who think they are. That’s why it’s the country for us!”
“A whole country full of ubermenschen,” Freud said darkly. “But tell, me, please, what do such marvelous creatures need with us?”
“Surely, Doktor, there is always a need for analysis, even of the healthiest ego. When are you going to let me have a go at you?” Jung had baited him.
“Soon, soon,” he had muttered, flustered and annoyed again.
Since their arrival, he had analyzed Jung’s and Ferenczi’s dreams, but it had been a one-way street; he was not prepared yet to let his crown prince at his.
© Copyright HarperCollins 2001