Friday, July 22, 2005

A Madness To My Method

With my fellow students already neatly arranged in the Rectangle Of Judgment, if not entirely recovered from what they had just witnessed, Selma Dombrowski began to question her reluctant class.

Many of them were not quite sure what the piece had been about; others were quite sensible and even-handed about what they thought of it; and a handful offered some very erudite explanations that had not even occurred to me. I filed these away for later just in case someone happened to ask me what it was I’d meant.

I won’t say The Star damned me with faint praise – he was quite fair about it and even gave me some credit for artistic bravery. But I could tell that at the heart of it lay a certain reluctance to admit that this piece of mine merited the same round-table routine that his had received. Who was this man with the paper bag on his head? What did he know of life, of suffering? Ripping up the script…hmmph. Who was going to clean that up?

There was one other little painful episode to come, however. Seated by his side was his ever-present sidekick, a tall, gangly and kind fellow we’ll call Al. Al had a great sense of humor and so, when it was his time to pronounce judgment, he declared, “I just think he’s nuts!” which got a terrific laugh from the class and especially from me. He did so well with it that later on, after a particularly obtuse bit of elucidation from someone, he said “I still think he’s nuts!” which got an almost bigger laugh. The Star shot Al a sideways glance as if to say, “Et tu, Al?” He had not only lost his singular claim to being the only student whose work was worthy of detailed explanation, but his sidekick had joined the enemy camp of the paper bag.

He must have retained a strange shred of respect for me, however, as he later asked me to try out for a production of William Saroyan’s The Ping-Pong Players that he was directing. This, however, is a tale for another time.

What I can tell you is that The Star did indeed go on to make a name for himself on the stage and screen. He changed his name and began to show up in bit parts in films. I remember being astonished when I caught a quick cameo of him in a Woody Allen picture. I couldn’t imagine being more successful than that.

He really hit it big, though, when he signed on to a syndicated TV show that developed a rabid following and even spawned conventions for its fans. There were websites devoted to him and his convention appearances were very popular. Eventually there was an action figure made of him. I remember my surprise when I ran across it during a periodic toy store run.

I picked it up and had to admit they’d done a fair job with the likeness. As I gazed at it, the doll’s features began to subtly swim before my eyes and change until it was once again shooting that sidelong glance at Al, as the Rectangle Of Judgment sat in mute approval. We had all witnessed a seismic cultural shift that day. Art had been kicked out of the Academy and packed into a brown paper bag like a school lunch, years before yams and chocolate syrup were even a glint in Karen Finley’s eye. I allowed myself a brief fantasy: an action figure with a paper bag on its head, accompanied by a handful of tiny accessories – water pistol, record player, and tiny script.

I wondered if he ever thought of me. I would later run into Al more than 30 years later teaching Hebrew at my synagogue, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask him about what had transpired that day. Would he have even remembered it? Or would he have said, without missing a beat, “You know, I almost didn’t recognize you without the paper bag on your head.”


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