This weekend Art Dog had a puppy for real: my Godson Tyler, a seven-year-old
from the Bronx. This was my first attempt at squiring a child around
Manhattan in the rain during peak holiday shopping, no less. It was a
mad, grand jumble of circuses, puppets, umbrellas, monsters, French cinema,
subway connections, explicit Japanese novels and a quarter pound of gummy
The festivities began Saturday morning with the great Search for the Obscure
Digimon Action Figure. By the time I was chasing Tyler down the crowded
aisles of the Midtown Toys 'R' Us, I already had mastered the art of
simultaneously keeping him from a) being crushed by Manhattan traffic, b)
being stampeded by the pedestrian throng, and c) goring out the eye of
passersby with the spokes of his umbrella as he bopped down the sidewalk.
Still, seven-year-olds have a spooky sixth sense for what is where in a toy
store, so I endured one long panic attack as he darted down aisles and
disappeared until it finally became obvious that his obscure Digimon action
figure was nowhere to be found.
(Readers who are parents will no doubt want to know which obscure Digimon
action figure we were seeking. But alas, Tyler is waiting for three front
teeth to grow in and difficult to understand even when he is saying, "I'd
like a cheeseburger and an orange soda." Forget it when the utterance
concerns a monster named in an imaginary, vaguely Japanese language.)
Once the great Search for the Obscure Digimon Action Figure was abandoned we
ventured downtown to The Strand, which claims to have eight miles of books
in stock, most of them ill begotten. Which is to say, review copies - books
sent to critics in hopes of a review that would boost sales, that were
instead sold off to a used bookstore where they actually undercut the
publisher's sales. This is such a wicked system that I simply *must* have a
piece of it, and indeed, among my burdens were eight lame travel books that
had rolled into my day job. For my dishonesty the Strand rewarded me with a
paltry non-negotiable $12 don't spend it all in one place (unless it's
here), and indeed, in the bowels of the bookstore I found an experimental
Japanese novel and the memoir of a cartoonist that cost precisely $12
between them. Unfortunately, Tyler who wants to be a paleontologist when
he grows up found a multi-volume series of children's books about
dinosaurs that clocked in at $150, which exceeded Uncle Art Dog's budget by
at least $100. The poor tike's second crushing disappointment of the day.
Walking to our next subway stop, Tyler's toy-source antennae guided us into
a comics-and-collectors shop where he found, not an obscure Digimon figure,
but an opponent of Godzilla's named the Destoyer - a fierce, handsomely
crafted, affordably priced little monster. Destroyer joined our expedition,
and we jumped on the subway to the East Village to see Bread & Puppet's
Cardboard Celebration Circus.
Destroyer had competition for Tyler's affections at this point. In my
desperation to appease the boy in the aftermath of the failed Search for the
Obscure Digimon Action Figure and the pricey Dinosaur book letdown, I
approved a snack. He wanted gummy worms. I somehow let the guy at the candy
counter sell me a quarter pound of gummy worms. All I could think was: A
mass of gummy worms the size of a McDonald's quarter pounder was destined
for Tyler's digestive system, and only I could keep it all from arriving at
the same time.
Bread & Puppets is an edgy, hippie, anti-commercial troupe from northern
Vermont. Visually, they specialize in stiltwalkers wearing huge puppet
heads; thematically, they favor paganism and socialism. But their
stiltwalking pagan socialist holiday message, fascinating as it might have
been, was up against the Destroyer and a quarter pound of gummy worms. Which
made us a spectacle of sorts. Bread & Puppets attracts a hippie-commune sort
of audience, and all these earthy parents were looking at me like I was
Satan (or rather, Bill Gates, the subject of one scathing puppet parody) for
letting my child fondle a destructive commercially produced plastic monster
and devour nutrionless factory candy in the shape of worms.
I got over it. Tyler never noticed anything but his monster and his candy.
On our next subway connection, I entered a bizarre world. I was getting
deeper into the experimental Japanese novel "Almost Transparent Blue" by
Ryu Murakami and it was violently pornographic. Eventually, the novel
turns a corner and the reader sees a point to all the madness and pain, but
for awhile it's all U.S. Marines hitting up Japanese teenagers in the ass
with heroin and group sex scenes on floors littered with half-eaten boiled
crab and vomit. More retching than coming in this book, though here's a
representative passage with one of each: "Stimulated by my slippery, bloody
tongue, Jackson shot his warm wad. The sticky stuff blocked my throat. I
heaved pinkish fluid, mixed with blood, and yelled to the black woman, Make
You can imagine looking up from a page like that to say to a seven-year-old,
"Tyler, don't swing so wide on that pole. You're stepping on that nice man's
As if reading Japanese porn didn't make me enough of a parental derelict,
consider the following. I let him take candy from a stranger. I can explain.
I was watching the stranger, because she was sitting with the nice young man
whose shoes Tyler was stomping on. They were evidently enjoying how much fun
the boy was having on the subway, and taking his intrusions into their space
in a playful spirit. So I saw her when she a) opened the cellophane on the
box of candy canes, b) opened the cellophane on a candy cane and began to
lick it herself, and c) offered an unopened candy cane to Tyler. Admittedly,
it could all have been an elaborate set up. They could have a cellophane
wrapper at home, and they could leave the house every Christmas with one
carefully poisoned, secretly marked and rewrapped candy cane inside of a
rewrapped box next to some safe candy canes, and she could lick one that's
not poisoned just to bait some poor kid to accept the death-dealing one. But
I took my chances.
What next for uncle and sonny, after Japanese porn and candy from a
stranger? Only one thing, of course: a slow-paced French film full of subtle
visual gags and almost no dialogue.
There is a Jacques Tati festival playing at the American Museum of the
Moving Image right in my neighborhood, and Saturday night they were
screening a film called "Play Time." Nothing I read about it (e.g., that
it's a Modernist parody of architecture) led me to believe that a child
would like it, but the title gave me a little deniability. "Play Time"
what could be more childish? After twenty minutes into the film, however,
nothing had happened other than a few weak visual puns in an airport
terminal. Tyler had run out of gummy worms, and was exhausting the potential
of staging silent battles for Destoyer in the dark. And I was sick and tired
of the art film crowd. Every single person I saw there looked at me with
murderous eyes, as if my sole purpose was to mar their pristine French
cinematic experience with the noisy impatience of a child. I wanted to stand
up in the theater and give a lecture about the value of widening horizons at
an early age, and by the way, weren't all you pretentious obscure film
fanatics children once upon a time? But those faint airport sight gags just
weren't worthy of civil disobedience. We slipped out early.
Walking home in the rain, Tyler guessed that my wife and I have a lot of
money, because we were spending so much money on him. No, I said, we don't,
but of what little money we do have we set aside some to entertain him,
because he is important to us. We walked on in the rain, angling our
umbrellas so they didn't flop inside-out in the wind.
"I like my Godparents more than money," Tyler suddenly declared. Then added,
"I like money more than rain." And then, "Because if you have money you can
buy a house, and then you won't get wet from the rain." And then, finally,
"You need money to have shelter." Ouch. Damn. From the mouths of babes. On a
cold, wet night. In a season of charity. In a city of the homeless.
Here's a page of Bread & Puppets links:
Here's a recipe for gummy worms:
And an ode to gummy worms:
An interview with Ryu Murakami:
An excerpt from Ryu Murakami's book about the economic crisis in Japan,
subtitled "What Could We Have Bought With All That Money?"
A Tati page:
Home page for the American Museum of the Moving Image: