Search this site:

The Commonspace

Jan 2001 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

Art Dog #21
By Chris King

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 worms.

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 me come!"

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 shoes."

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:

Chris King (brodog@skuntry.com) grew up in Granite City, Illinois, in a storytelling kind of family. His aunts were the narrative geniuses, though one cousin, Bobby Butler (or "Robert Olen Butler" on book spines), has won a Pulitzer Prize for short fiction. Chris studied literature at Washington University, quit grad school to tour with the rock band Enormous Richard and eventually settled in New York City. He is married to Karley, a former Olympic athlete from Togo, and edits a travel magazine for money. For kicks, he maintains two Web sites, www.hoobellatoo.org (an oral history/ field recording project) and www.skuntry.com (an indie record label), and writes an e-mail newsletter called "Art Dog" based on his travels and life in the big city. He still misses St. Louis.

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2001 The Commonspace