Land of the Golden Giants
Corner of Church Avenue and East 43rd Street, Brooklyn,
Friday, March 10, 1961, 3:45 p.m.
My six-year-old brother Marc wants to stay in Grandma Ethels apartment with his Dennis the Menace coloring book and crayons. I want him to walk down to the candy store with me, but Marc says Soupy Sales is coming on TV and he doesnt like to miss a show. I like Soupy Sales, too, but the candy store is beckoning.
School is over for the week, and our parents have dropped us off with Grandma Ethel while they take Jonathan, who was born a month ago, to the pediatrician. I like Dr. Stein, but I associate the alcohol smell of his offices in Turner Towers with getting shots, and even though Dad said he would take me and Marc across the street to the Brooklyn Museum while the baby was seeing the doctor, we preferred to be with our grandmother.
Grandma Ethel makes sure I button up and tells me to look very carefully before crossing the street. East 43rd Street between Church Avenue, a shopping street, and Linden Boulevard, a big four-lane thoroughfare that goes all the way to the end of Queens, is a narrow street where the sky is blocked half the year by a canopy of thick leaves, but not now.
Its almost warm today, maybe 50 degrees, and theres nothing left of the snowiest winter I can ever remember. There were three big blizzards: one that started while I was in Hebrew school on Pearl Harbor Day in early December; one that blanketed the whole East Coast on the day of President Kennedys inauguration on January 20; and the one that struck just a few days before Jonathan was born four weeks ago.
I dont have to look both ways at the corner of Church because Mr. Rubin, the druggist, is sweeping in front of his pharmacy on the west side of the street and offers to cross me. I'm nine, I can cross myself, at least on little streets, but I let him feel good about himself by taking me across and depositing me in front of the candy store.
A bell rings as I open the door. The sign on top of the store with a Coke logo says Luncheonette, but we always called these places—there was one every three or four blocks on shopping avenues —candy stores. Mrs. Mogg is alone in the store, behind the counter.
Hi, Mrs. Mogg, I say.
Hi, Richard, she says. Hows your baby brother? Mrs. Mogg is a friend of Grandma Ethel's, and also her brother is married to Grandpa Herbs aunt, Tante Lebester. I've never met my great-great-aunt and uncle, but Ive been told they run their own candy store in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
Grandpa Herb has told me that Tante Lebester was one of the four beautiful Katzman sisters from Russia. The only one I knew was Bubbe Ita, Grandpa Herbs mother, who died a few years ago from cancer. She was my favorite person; I still have the Mickey Mouse cardigan she gave me although it stopped fitting me years ago.
My great-grandfather Isidore was a soldier in the Russian army when he saw Bubbe Ita as a girl of fifteen, swinging on a gate one afternoon. He sent his married sister to talk to her father, and a marriage was arranged. My great-grandmother always had skin almost without wrinkles, even though she was really old—seventy-three—when she died.
The other beautiful Katzman sisters were Rose, who married the notorious Depression-era bootlegger Ben Benny in Canada, and Rhoda, the only one who stayed behind in Russia. Rhoda became a chemist in the Soviet Union until somehow she died young in the mid-1940s. In that strange Jewish custom where people are named only for dead relatives of either sex, so long as the first initial is the same, I am named Richard after her.
I stand before the wire racks of comic books, which was really what I came in for. I buy only Superman DC National comics, not the stupid ones with the talking animals or the slightly dumb Archie comics, which I sometimes read from my neighbor Fran Bergmans collection. Theres a new Lois Lane, but it's another imaginary story where shes married to Superman and she's driving this weird little bubblemobile on the street, so that can wait.
The DC comics have lately started saying Still 10¢ and my Uncle Matty says that means the price will go up soon. I spot the May issue of The Flash, which is what I'm going to spend one of my dimes on. The cover shows this orange-skinned giant, bald and naked except for a green loincloth, being tied up by Flash and Kid Flash with a cable they are unraveling. In the background are snow-capped mountains.
The legend at the bottom of the cover says: “DOUBLE THE THRILLS—DOUBLE THE ACTION—DOUBLE THE SPEED—WHEN Flash AND KID Flash TEAM UP IN THE DOUBLE-LENGTH ADVENTURE…LAND OF GOLDEN GIANTS!”
I hand Mrs. Mogg a dime for the comic. She has only one arm, her left, with the unnecessary right sleeve of her wool sweater lying flat with the wrist end tucked into her pocket. Grandma Ethel says Mrs. Mogg was born that way and so she never really minded. To me, it looked like Mrs. Mogg could do everything with her one arm. Like make me a malted, which is what I ask her to do now as I hop up to sit at one of the round revolving seats at the soda fountain.
Chocolate? she asks, as if she has to.
Yes, please. And a pretzel. The pretzels are long salty sticks. I like to dunk them in the malted and then eat them although my friend Eugene says its gross. Eugenes grandfather has one arm, too, although he had his amputated because there was something wrong with it. Eugenes grandfather can even drive a car with one arm.
I lay the comic down on the table and divide my attention between the story and watching Mrs. Mogg go about making a malted. Eugene told me this joke about a genie who gives everyone a free wish. He goes to an old man who runs a candy store and the man wishes that he could go on his first vacation and the genie would run the candy store in his place. So the genie whooshes the man down to the beach in Puerto Rico and whooshes back to Brooklyn to take over the candy store in his absence. The first person who walks in the door sits down and asks the genie to make him a malted. OK, youre a malted! the genie says, and the man is transformed into the drink.
Using one arm, Mrs. Mogg fills up the big silver container with vanilla ice cream scooped from the freezer, chocolate syrup (some restaurant kind, not Hersheys or Bosco), milk, and two spoonfuls of malt powder, which gives the drink that nutty, on-the-edge-of-sour taste I like. The malted mixer whirrs like crazy, and a really pleasant smell, sort of like ozone after a thunderstorm, reaches my nostrils.
Land of the Golden Giants is really good. Barry Allen and his girlfriend Iris West, take Wally, her teenage nephew, on a scientific expedition led by a geologist who has this theory that the earths continents all used to be one big super-continent and have drifted apart. Thats why, the scientist says, not only does North Africa look like it would fit just above Brazil if Africa and South America were shoved back together, but also the same kind of animals and fossils appear in both places.
I think this idea is something my teacher, Mrs. Radiloff, would say sounds a little crazy, but it sort of makes sense to me. I am so engrossed in the story that I almost forget to say thank you when Mrs. Mogg pours the first part of the malted from the big silver container into my tall round glass and hands me my pretzel.
Theyre in Guyana now, the ship having landed there, and Wally is getting friendly with the scientists teenage daughter, Gail, but soon—when theyre in the Highlands—Barry and Wally have to get into their Scarlet Speedster Flash and Kid Flash costumes and whiz around because there are golden giants to be battled. The comic book people really shouldnt have made Flash and Kid Flash have the same costume, because the only way you can tell them apart is that Kid Flash is shorter and thinner and his muscles arent as big.
I always wonder how Iris, whos an intelligent newspaper reporter, not a goofball like Lois Lane, cannot tell that not only is her boyfriend the fastest man on earth but her nephew is the fastest kid on earth. Iris wears these great clothes and seems sophisticated. Her best friend is this man who is a famous fashion designer. Eugene says the fashion designer is obviously that way, but the man is friends with Barry/The Flash, too, and sometimes helps him solve cases.
I prefer The Flash to Superman for a lot of reasons. One of them is that unlike Lois Lane, who only loves Superman and cant see what a great guy Clark Kent is, Iris West truly loves her nebbishy but smart boyfriend Barry Allen; and while she likes The Flash, shes just friends with him and is not seduced by his being a superhero.
Back in my own neighborhood, when I ride my bike really fast, sometimes I pretend I am The Flash, racing to catch a kid falling from a height or to stop a robbery. Im riding so fast that you can see the blurry lines of me behind me, just like you can see the blur of his mostly-red (a little yellow, like his boots and the lightning bolt around his waist) costume behind The Flash when he runs.
I dont want to run this afternoon. I want to slowly drink my malted through the straw. Its very thick and chocolate-y and malt-y. Grandpa Herb says the malt in the malted is from barley, like in the mushroom-and-barley soup Grandma Ethel sometimes makes. The salty, crunchy bites of my pretzel stick go great with the sweet, almost sour taste of the malted, but Im down to the last bite and the end of the refill glass (from what was left of the malted in the container) is making a slurpy-gone sound in my straw.
Eventually, after I finish the book-length story in the comic book, I put down the coins for the malted. The story was really good even though there was no costumed super-villain this issue. The Flash has the best super-villains: The Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, The Trickster, Gorilla Grodd, Captain Cold. Maybe next issue. Changes of pace are good. Sometimes you want a malted, sometimes an egg cream, sometimes a lime rickey.
Part of me wishes that Land of Golden Giants wouldnt have ended, that I wouldnt have finished my malted and my pretzel, that I could sit at Mrs. Moggs soda fountain forever.
Say hello to your grandmother, says Mrs. Mogg. There are other people in the candy store now: kids buying Lik-M-Aid or spaldeens, men getting one of the afternoon newspapers, a lady drinking a Bromo-Seltzer to settle her stomach.
I will, I say as I leave the store and hear the bell that rings every time the door is opened whether you are going in or going out.
* * *
Bedpan Alley, York Avenue and East 68th Street, Manhattan, Wednesday, August 20, 1980, 11:00 a.m.
I am at my grandfathers bedside at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. The nurse comes in and says that my grandfather should be released by noon, but there are some things that they have to take care of first. Its nothing serious, just bureaucratic nonsense probably.
A few days before, when the doctor gave us the diagnosis of lung cancer—the spot had showed up on chest x-rays at the Board of Health in Rockaway, near the co-op apartment where my grandparents have been living for a dozen years—Grandpa Herb told everyone that he did not want surgery, that he just wanted to go home.
When they tried to put him in the CT scan, he shook so much that they couldnt continue. A few years ago, when we were at a garden party at Uncle Mattys house on Long Island, Grandpa Herb and I were sitting on lawn chairs at a table near the bar when all of a sudden he turned to me and said, You know, I just cant stop thinking about D-E-A-T-H.
Not knowing what to say, I nodded and shrugged.
Hes not all that old: hell be just 77 in December. But as the doctor said after laying out all the facts, Well, youre old enough to know what youre doing. Well do what we can to make you comfortable. The doctor was young—maybe younger than I am—but he treated my grandfather with respect.
I live thirteen blocks from my grandparent co-op in a studio apartment right on the Rockaway boardwalk by the beach. I pay $240 a month rent, but have had serious financial problems. In January, a cold turned into labyrinthitis and I was so dizzy for months that it was hard to teach my adjunct courses in composition and remedial writing. I ended up with only three courses at three different colleges, and there has been no work since May.
I qualified for food stamps and have borrowed money from my grandfather and from generous friends like Eugene and his boyfriend. I will pay them back in the fall, when Im scheduled to teach seven adjunct courses at four colleges.
Grandpa Herb is ready to get dressed. He may be right about not wanting surgery. They say that when they open you up, they expose the tumor to the air and it just grows. I dont know anything about medicine, though, or science, and that could be just an old wives tale.
Im going to drive him back to Rockaway today, back home to die—though it will be slow, because the tumor is pretty small right now. Maybe hell continue to feel OK for months or even years.
Ill have to remember to change my cars radio station from WQXR because listening to classical music makes Grandpa Herb nervous. Ill put on WEVD, a station old Jewish people like. Grandpa Herb once told me the call letters stand for Eugene V. Debs, the socialist for whom he cast his first vote for President.
Well, Ill go visit my friend for a while, I tell my grandfather.
Just get back here by twelve, he says. I dont want to stay here any longer than I have to.
I get up from my chair, and on my way out, I nod to my grandfathers roommate, the cartoonist Edward Sorel, who is looking over what seem to be galleys with his wife and collaborator, Nancy, a writer. They nod back and smile.
Grandpa Herb has told Ed Sorel that Id had a book of short stories published last year, that I got some nice reviews, but that I cant seem to make a dime as a writer.
You never make money from books, Ed Sorel told my grandfather. Grandpa Herb wasnt familiar with Eds work, but he understood he was kind of famous so I could tell he respected Eds opinion.
The temperature is in the 90s already. Crossing first East 68th and then York, I look forward to being back in the air conditioning of another hospital. Sloan-Kettering is always chilly.
After getting my visitors pass, I take the elevator up to where Janices room is. Unlike my grandfather and Ed Sorel, she is alone.
My friend Linda Konner, whom Ive known since second grade at P.S. 203, introduced me to Janice a few years ago. One night Linda took me to Janices house in Canarsie, near the terminus of the LL train off Rockaway Parkway, to play Scrabble and smoke pot and drink wine with Janice and her friend Dolores.
They were about ten years older than Linda and I, but I liked them both immediately. Dolores was earthy and warm and worked at a health food store in Soho. Janice worked as a graphic artist, but she also made her own art and was involved in starting a cooperative among visual artists in Brooklyn. They rented a storefront downtown, near Fulton Street, and used it as a gallery to display their work. But it was hard to get people to come from Manhattan to see it, as nobody believed that real artists would live in Brooklyn.
Janice was tall and rangy. She had a Halloween party one year and dressed as Fritzi Ritz, the aunt in the Nancy comic strip; I thought the part seemed like a natural for her. The first night I met her, I asked her what she thought of conceptual art.
I cant conceive of such a thing, she said.
Janice was a widow, probably the only person I know who had lost a spouse except maybe for some girls from the neighborhood who married guys who died in Vietnam. Her husband died of some degenerative disease. She didnt talk about it, but I once looked through her family albums. Hed been a handsome, robust Polish guy, a boxer, and you could see him fading away, picture by picture, month by month, until the photos were just Janice and her daughter, Ingrid, alone or with other relatives.
Janice didnt talk about her husband much. Once, when telling a nurse that she had a daughter named Ingrid, she said, My husband worshipped Ingrid Bergman.
They wont let me in Janices room right away because the doctors or nurses are doing something. I wait in the corridor and nearby is an old woman lying on a gurney, her skin a shade of green I have never seen before on a human being. It wasnt like the You look green when people are seasick or about to vomit. It was actual green green, like the skin of Jonn Jonzz, the Manhunter from Mars.
How were such things possible?
Janice got the breast cancer diagnosis just a week after I met her. So shes been sick throughout the few years of our friendship, and Ive visited her in other hospitals, like Brookdale close to home back in Brooklyn.
Brookdale, at the intersection of Linden Boulevard and Rockaway Parkway, was where Janice had her mastectomy. It was also the hospital where my brothers and I were born, back when it was Beth El Hospital. Grandpa Herb has told me that poor Jewish women like his mother, Bubbe Ita, would put nickels in a charity box every week in the 1920s to raise money to build the hospital for the community.
When she first told me she was going into Sloan-Kettering, Janice always referred to it as Sloan Catering. She called this stretch of York Avenue, with all its hospitals, Bedpan Alley. Now Janice is far too sick to pun. When I finally get to see her, I am grateful she recognizes me. The last time I was there, the nurse told me that she doesnt have much time left.
The last time we went anywhere together, I drove her to the Foundation Library to do some research for some artists grants she was trying to get for the cooperative. But she got very tired very quickly, and we couldnt go to an exhibit at Asia House next door as wed planned. I had to put her seat back so she could lie down on the drive back to Brooklyn.
Now Janice needs an oxygen mask a lot of the time. The cancer has ravaged not only her body but also her face. Her eyes look so old and tired.
Richie, she asks, do you have any paper?
Yes, I say. I can get it. What do you want me to write?
The TV is on, its channel 13, and they are showing some documentary featuring an ancient Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of the composer. Janices attention is momentarily fixed on the TV set, and she says, That woman loved Hitler so.
Yeah, I say.
And then Janice returns to what she wanted the paper for. You need to make a Percocet chart, she tells me.
Uh huh, I say, getting out a pen and taking out the receipt from the New York Hospital parking lot to write on.
Make a list of all the times and the times I can have another Percocet.
OK, I say, Im doing that right now.
Good, Janice says, and she watches Winifred Wagner for a while, occasionally glancing over to see what progress Im making with the Percocet chart. Mostly Im writing down numerals at random.
Richie, Janice says, all out of breath. Want to put makeup on?
I dont wear makeup, Janice.
No. On me.
I think girls look prettier without makeup on, I say. The natural look.
She smiles beatifically, closes her eyes, and I feel that I have said something good. When her eyes are closed for a while, I see that she is sleeping, not dead, and I sit there for about ten minutes watching her and looking at the Winifred Wagner interview on TV. Finally, I get up and leave quietly.
As I go downstairs and again walk in the Manhattan heat across York Avenue to fetch my grandfather and take him home to Rockaway—where at least it will be ten degrees cooler—I think about my last lunch with Dolores and how upset she was, falling apart even, about Janices impending death. Id always thought Dolores was so strong, like an earth mother, and in that Soho restaurant I found myself comforting her. It was a reversal I didnt like.
Dolores said that Janices sister and brother-in-law would take over everything. Theyre so Italian, she said, although Dolores was Italian herself. So truly Canarsie.
Mostly she was worried about Ingrid, who was now fifteen. Janice wanted her to live with her cousin, another artist in the downtown Brooklyn cooperative, who wouldnt fill Ingrids head with all that Catholic stuff and conservative ideas that Janices brother-in-law and sister would shove down the girls throat.
But Janice hadnt made any provisions for guardianship, and Janices mother was too old to take Ingrid, so the girl will end up with the Di Falcos.
Shell be OK, I told Dolores. All Janices friends will look out for her.
My grandfathers all dressed and packed and looking like a hospital visitor, no longer a patient, in the chair beside the bed. Whats been keeping you? he asked. Ive been ready for quite a while.
I pick up his valise, we say goodbye to the Sorels, and Ed wishes me good luck with my writing. In the elevator, Grandpa Herb asks, Hows your friend?
Nicht gut, I say, wondering why I am speaking German.
* * *
Pompano Beach Civic Center, 1801 NE 6th Street, Pompano Beach, Florida, Saturday, September 21, 2002, 1:30 p.m.
Ive been in Fort Lauderdale for nine months now, having moved here to take a position as director of the academic resource program at Nova Southeastern University Law School. I havent really read comic books in years. But seeing an article in The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and feeling lonely and at loose ends on weekends—I dont have any family or close friends living here—Ive come to the Weekend Fall/Con, a comic book convention.
Im sitting in a small auditorium among a crowd of mostly males, nearly all younger than I am, a few dressed up in silly costumes like from the Star Wars movies or other characters I dont recognize. There are a few older guys, and I try not to think of the fat, pathetic Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons.
I deliberately sit next to a man around my age —OK, maybe a decade younger; he looks about forty—whos with twin boys in their early teens. The father is casually dressed, but hes got style: you can see hes got money and not showy money, either. This guy is more out of place in this crowd than schlumpy me, but of course hes got the excuse of having two young comic-book-loving sons.
Were listening to 86-year-old Martin Nodell, who lives in the area. He created the original Golden Age version of Green Lantern in 1940. Mr. Nodell talks about how he got the idea for the power ring and Green Lanterns weakness being wood and about Green Lanterns comic assistant, taxi driver Doiby Dickles, and Doibys cab, which was named Goitrude.
The Green Lantern I knew back in the early 1960s, the one whod team up now and then with The Flash, was completely different, and the stories had a science fiction bent, with lots of intelligent aliens and adventures on different planets.
That Green Lanterns secret identity was the test pilot Hal Jordan in Coast City. Hal worked for Carol Ferris, the CEO of a defense contracting company, and Hals best friend and assistant was Thomas Kalaku, an Eskimo married to an Eskimo woman, who had her own career. When I was 10, I might have been able to roughly define the words feminism and diversity, but I dont think I ever used them.
The Green Lantern of todays graphic novels is a completely different character. Id read about the latest comic book in The New York Times. Seeking justice for the vicious gay-bashing of his teenage assistant, Green Lantern infiltrates the Rikers Island cell of the boys attacker, levitates him upside down, and uses his power ring to extract the names of the guys fellow assailants. Then he breaks the violent homophobes wrist.
The current Green Lantern writer is Judd Winick, who was on MTVs The Real World: San Francisco with Pedro Zamora, the late AIDS activist whose surviving partner I heard speak at a symposium in Gainesville sometime in 1996, when the big news was that drugs called protease inhibitors were coming out, years too late to help Eugene or his boyfriend or all my other friends who died in New York during the 1980s.
Someone asks Mr. Nodell if he could have ever imagined this gay stuff in a Green Lantern comic book.
What hes doing, Mr. Winick, I have nothing against that, Mr. Nodell says. Artists exist in a wide-open area where they should think and say what they want to. The more they think in all different areas, the more power to them.
As we file out after the session is over, I say to the well-dressed fortyish man, Hes an impressive old guy.
Yes, very, the man says.
I tell him I really havent been into comic books since I was a kid back in Brooklyn. The man tells me he grew up on Long Island, but his wife was from Brooklyn. Hes younger than I am, so he was a Marvel person, not a DC person, and I tell him I was both, that discovering Spider-Man and Stan Lees other neurotic, New York-based superheroes was like hearing The Beatles or Dylan for the first time.
His twin boys have run ahead of us, into the room where theyre selling vintage comic books—some of the vintage ones seem to be from the 1980s and 1990s—and all kinds of superhero and science fiction tchotchkes. The mans cell phone rings, but the reception is bad and I hear him shout, Ingrid, Ill call you back in ten minutes. I promise were not staying any longer.
Then he tells me theyre just down in Florida for the weekend, to visit his wifes uncle, and she wants him back at the old guys condo.
What part of Brooklyn is your wife from? I ask him.
Canarsie. We still keep a place in the city, but we moved out to the house in Westhampton year-round now.
Westhampton is beautiful, I say. I was there once, in the summer of 1980, at the beach house of the artist Racelle Strick, whose son was the editor of my first book, and Racelles husband, the Broadway set designer Peter Larkin. It was only for a day, but it was one of the nicest days in an otherwise horrible summer.
Then I tell the man Im from around Canarsie, too, and say, Your wifes name is Ingrid?
Yeah, he says, suspiciously, as if hes getting the feeling Im a creep.
Her maiden name wasnt Bandyk, was it? I ask.
Wow, yeah, he says. You know Ingrid?
When she was a kid, slightly. I was friends with her mother.
He tells me how he met Ingrid and how they have a daughter named after Janice in addition to the twin boys and how Ingrid volunteered at Ground Zero and how they got involved with September Space, a community center on Eighth Avenue which helps people cope with the aftermath of the attacks.
He remembers that we havent exchanged names, so he says hes Philip Castiglia and asks my name. I tell him, but I doubt that Ingrid would remember me. Then I ask Philip what he does, and he waves his hand and says, almost apologetically, Oh, Im a director of a hedge fund. I nod my head.
Your mother-in-law was a nice woman, I tell him. A good artist, too.
Ingrids uncle says she was quite avant-garde.
I smile. Theres an entry for me in the reference book Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes. The little article, originally published in the early 1990s, says that I was once one of the most prolific young fiction writers of the 1970s and early 1980s. The author of the entry, Richard Kostelanetz, concludes, I speak of him in the past tense not because he has passed away, but at last report he has stopped writing and has entered law school.
I started writing again, even while I was still in law school, but my stories are no longer so innovative or so interesting.
Philip and I shake hands, say its been nice to meet each other, and then he goes off to find his sons and leave the comic book convention.
Alone, I stroll the aisles, looking at the rows of comic books. It is amazing how many of them I can recall owning. That issue of Metal Men in which Tin got melted down. That one of Adventure Comics, featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes from the 30th century. (Cosmic Boy must have been the only male superhero with a pink costume.) And I can remember exactly which of the five candy stores on Avenue N between Utica and Ralph Avenues where I bought that issue of Fantastic Four with the origin of Dr. Doom.
The only Brooklyn candy store Ive been to in years is Petes Candy Store, a Williamsburg bar for cool twentysomethings where a young local artist friend took me two months ago.
And then I see it, in the middle of rows of old comics covered in plastic: The Flash and Kid Flash tying up that golden giant. The woman who sells it to me for 50 dollars says its in very fine condition.
I tell her I wish I could say the same thing about myself, but Im 10 years older than the comic book.
She laughs. Its an old guys joke, but Im an old guy now.
The idea for this piece came to me when I was sick with pneumonia. After three days spent trying hard not to die, I felt well enough to concentrate on something besides mere survival. Lying in bed, I started to remember these incidents clearly, and I went to my desk to write this. I stayed up until 11 p.m. working on it, and the next day I felt worse. My doctor admonished me for writing this when I did. I told you not to work, Dr. Davis said. I dont care what you say—writing is still work.