SKIM THIS! MY LIFE AS A RENEGADE READER (SO FAR)
As you may or may not know, the superintendent of the Dronx public schools,
Melville Kelleher, illegally diverted federal funds earmarked for Head Start to a program
called Slow Start designed to halt the progress of precocious students and thus spare
them an unhappy life of achievement in a borough where failure reigned.
My parents eagerly volunteered me for this evil experiment after I corrected
them regarding the diameter of Greenland and a few thousand other matters, in addition
to becoming a Christian Scientist whenever I had foul-tasting medicine to swallow and
reprogramming the Otis elevator in our apartment building so it behaved in the manner
of a peripatetic chicken coop, rising and falling as neighbors cock-a-doodle-doodled.
The Slow Start classroom was furnished like the felon’s suite at an S.R.O. and
staffed by a bad actress named Miss Tunney wearing a Bride of Frankenstein wig and
lipstick everywhere but the lips. She lay comatose on the couch, breath whistling.
Three other little geniuses occupied a dusty rug, looking up the party dress.
I warned them it was ALL AN ACT to retard our progress, a dangerous fiction–
as simulated abuse could be just as much harmful as the real thing. I cited cases of child
actors warped by appearing in Greek tragedies and innocent literature lovers–such as
myself–seduced by Sister Carrie and Allen Ginsberg ON THE SAME EVENING.
–In the same bed? asked the balding math whiz in the pinstriped suit.
–Put two and one together.
–What now? wailed a tiny female savant wearing granny glasses.
I unfurled the banner element of the cool shirt I had invented in my spare time:
WE WILL RESIST BEING DUMBED DOWN WITH EVERY SHARP IQ POINT!
–But how can intellect protect us when it is our worst enemy, like Principle
Prudhomme sang? asked the ordinary boy who had wandered into the wrong class.
I said Prudhomme was from an era when the recordings of Enrico Caruso had
too much influence on the American public. Then I assigned the trio to write lyrics to
accompany the mysterious jittery jazz masterpieces composed by Thelonious Monk, a
transcendent activity sure to confuse our clueless guardians and possibly result in
royalties we could split among ourselves and use to pay for lifetime subscriptions to
The New York Review of Books, Congressional Quarterly and The Financial Times.
While they were acclimating to that idea, I pulled a stack of 78 r.p.m. records
from my valise and placed “Blue Monk” on an ancient turntable that hummed.
A drum solo woke Tunney. She spit and took a swig of caramel water from the
whisky bottle prop. She spat again and, to her credit, actually vomited during roll call,
before handing out comic books.
I tore the frail text entitled Nancy in half.
Bowls of lead paint chips were served. I warned the best minds of my generation
not to eat the mind-damaging treat.
They scoffed at me and chowed.
I informed Tunney I had already eaten a banana for its potassium, fine brain fuel.
Desperately she offered Pramm’s beer and I countered with a request for orange juice.
It came–spiked with vodka.
It poured nicely into the high heel shoes the B movie actress had kicked off as
directed by the Otto Preminger script.
–Cut that naughty wet stuff out, Honey Pie! Let’s play Pong!
She switched on a television–there were 20 to choose from–and demonstrated
an insipid black and white video game an ape would have loved, no rules, just paddles
smacking a square ball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
I demanded access to legal counsel–not any lawyer, mind you, a barrister that
had clerked for a Supreme Court justice, preferably Thurgood Marshall
Tunney took a swing at me and missed, smacking a lamp. Sparks! Fire!
She covered the alarm with her hand so nobody could pull it and encouraged us
to fan the flames with comic books.
Smoke filled the model classroom for the gifted. (Which, by the way, the district
now claims never existed. Just as it denies the existence of many ill-fated schemes for
which it is liable, including arming truant officers, sedating inspired teachers, replacing
hall monitors with pit bulls, removing all words from textbooks, canceling lunch and
renting hundreds of playgrounds to the agency in charge of nuclear waste disposal.)
–Breathe in that delightful smoke! Smoke strengthens lungs!
The ordinary boy believed her and turned gray.
The bald boy and I climbed out a window and stood on the fire escape, singing
nonsense lyrics to “Blue Monk”–lubber dubber mubber scudder–and studying the
slum signage: PHONY BALONEY DELI, OXYGEN TANKS DECORATED,
PURSE STRAPS RESTRUNG, GLOBE ELECTROTYPE, ALEXANDER
GRAHAM GEL FOR HAIR, FUNNEL OF LOVE OPENING SOON, RACK ‘EM
UP AT KINGLY BILLIARDS, J.J.’S ARGOT HUT, GAG ARENA NEXT LEFT…
Custodian Max extinguished the blaze with a mop.
By that time it was noon. Tunney stuck her head out the window, asked what
we wanted on our uranium sandwiches.
–BUTTER AND JAM! for Baldie.
No sandwich for me, thanks. She extended a pack of Pall Mall cigs. I refused to
get cancer until she provided an elegant cigarette holder like that used by F.D.R. at
Bretton Woods. Instead she pulled a card deck from her brassiere and suggested UNO.
I said the University of Northern Oklahoma wasn’t high on my list of colleges
and challenged her to FINALLY get serious about the craft of teaching.
–Read Crime and Punishment aloud! Including all footnotes!
She screamed, ran into the hall. Gunshots. Or doors slamming. Anyway, minutes
later I was handed a high school diploma by Max, along with a purple coupon good for
90% tuition remission at a prestigious college on Paris Street called The Poorbonne.
My folks were crushed by this terrific development.
I’d gone from the womb to adulthood in less than ten years. Matter of fact, they
could not recall when I had been a child.
There were baby pictures, of course, but in them I was fervently scribbling on a
notebook bib. Generous translation–Mann: creator of characters not very likable yet
extremely sympathetic, i.e. Ausenbach (sic) in “Death in Venice” // To me the poetry
of ee cummings has the ring of computer coding. Perhaps a software program could
be concocted using the text of 95 Poems. // Carlyle says “No chaos can continue
chaotic with a soul in it.” Lovely thought. Put a soul in your story and it will find a
form! // The writing of Camus is tactile philosophy, a probing of the inexhaustible
realities of light (sun) and water (ocean) with honey the go-between, honey dripping
from cheap beach treats–the gold hue of light but liquid, bubbly as a wave’s crest.)
The night before I pedaled to The Poorbonne on my Huffy unicycle, I entered
the living room where, as was usual, Mom sat in front of the old T.V. and Dad behind it.
This arrangement allowed her to cultivate the fantasy she was married to Marcus
Welby and enabled him to lust after blue-glowing cathode ray tubes.
First I informed Mom that she was free to flee me, Dad, and the neighborhood of
Grovel–no reason to hang around, whipping up Alcatraz Olive Salad and other passive
aggressive dishes expressing her feeling of imprisonment.
Then I walked over to Dad and informed him that he needn’t ever again play
catch with himself or engage in other auto-patriarchal games that, if they were futile
before, would be positively existential with me on the other side of the yawning neon
canyon called the Dronx, using a name of my own concoction: Anderson Donnell.
Next morning they packed their carpetbags and trudged in opposite directions.
I haven’t seen them since, unless you count the strong resemblance of burnt
toast to their exasperated faces.
May they rest in peace. May they rot in hell. And may those experiences make
them better people.
The transition from third grade to The Poorbonne was a breeze thanks to stilts.
How taken Prof. Nordstrum was with my acrobatic ability to attend lectures by
standing outside the classroom window, a Thomas Hardy peeper.
How popular I was with wine-swigging beret boys, who trained telescopes and
opera glasses on my studying book-clad figure floating above the tree line.
How sad those conniving copy cats were when I arranged to have a lovely
Japanese accordion screen erected in front of the sill where I took tests, filling blue
books with musings on Flaubert, Groucho Marx, Stendahl, Jerry Lewis and Balzac.
How the petite coeds giggled after my pants dropped to expose splintery stilts
or wooden ribs of a galleon that went perfectly with my recitation of The Rime of the
Ancient Mariner, without a doubt the most romantic poem in the English language.
Beg to differ? Then you would be another sadly mistaken soul who believes
literature exists for the enjoyment and/or glorification of the reader.
Well, I can tell you this: literature is no dog or prostitute.
The reader lives at the pleasure of the classic text that is LORD AND MASTER,
often a CRUEL LORD AND MASTER, one might also add VENGEFUL AND SICK.
Even lightweight books exact a wicked toll–appealingly coy plot ploys and bland
words akin to cotton-swathed meat hooks sinking deeper and deeper and deeper and
deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and
deeper into the cerebral cortex. This may not come as a total surprise. Common it is to
hear the jolly phrase: I’m really hooked on this book! But when all is read and done,
the laugh is on the reader who reaches THE END and wants MORE, MORE, PLEASE
MASTER, MORE and purchases a ridiculous digital device called Book Extender that
prints out extra ghostwritten chapters of any novel. Or simply picks up a new book. In
either case, new hooks sink into the skull’s moist gray groin, YES, OH, YES MASTER,
the ordeal continuing until–too often–the book slave has the gall to consider himself a
WELL-READ PERSON. But is there any such beast? I think not. If a person is really
reading–absorbing every image, allusion, metaphor, idea, character, narrative and
linguistic nuance–the inevitable outcome is perpetual unwellness, a sickness akin to
that experienced by a guest at the 183 course dinner consisting entirely of dishes made
from cream and bacon. The finest critics and teachers, myself included, readily admit to
being UNWELL READ, and ask where the bathroom is and run there to pay the price
for having sampled every single dish. The well-read person, you can bet, walked the
length of the buffet, but cleverly tasted nothing. These are the individuals who “hang
out” in bookstores and look first at the author’s photograph and attend fancy book
clubs where textual anxiety is never a dirty issue because the night before the meeting
everyone crazily turned hundreds of pages to avoid the pain of accurately reading one
paragraph that is richer and stronger than them! More admirable is the ILLITERATE!
He puts on no airs. His is the universal language of stick figures and he does not flaunt
his knowledge, though he knows more than he is given credit for. Well-read dilettantes
or, as I call them: DILITERATES, pose and preen like sticky fish who have slipped
hooks baited with bacon. They name drop ceaselessly, conveniently confuse the
carrying of a novel with the reading of a novel and–when they talk about anything–
talk about how their real estate has appreciated. By age 50 they are sure it is their
destiny to run the nation. And, alas, it is. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t
like it. I don’t like it. A horrible place, this lovely world! Revolting beautiful miasma!
Strange lyric miracle springing from the tuneless abyss of loss! The good die young and
the bad live long! Hope is the fantasy, despair the reality! Appearances substituted for
depth again and again and again and again! Money wins all arguments in the short run,
assuring there is no long run! What is there to like but the disliking of it all? I thrive on
feelings of disgust and unwellness that when experienced long enough become LAWS
hinting at a HIGHER ORDER. If there was nothing else, there would be no mind and
soul and stomach unease! No dusty sacred pages to probe and agonize over, seeking
reasons for our cluelessness! Behold my latest shirt banner: DILITERATES MAY
RULE BUT CANNOT NOT GOVERN. TRUTH GOVERNS NO MATTER HOW
MANY PATHETIC CITIZENS IGNORE THEIR DUTY TO BE TORTURED
AND HUMBLED BY CLASSICS! JOYCE RULES! AUDEN RULES! BALDWIN
RULES! MILLAY RULES! SAPPHO RULES! BRONTE RULES! CAMUS TOO!
Six months after arriving at The Poorbonne I graduated with highest honors and
began a career in journalism at the Dronx Herald.
My daily column was called “The Skimmer.”
In it I told readers which portions of new novels to skip, pointing out the few
sentences worth reading, if any, and suggesting the saved reading time be applied to an
authentic masterpiece like Ulysses that offered the brain a gain in return for pain.
The first week I received many bags of letters from infuriated subscribers.
My successful run was brief, however, because the next week I got stuck in the
elevator with the author of a book which I had filleted: Confessions of a Desk Drawer.
He pulled a binder clip on me.
Pinched my tonsils. Bit my ear. Just one clip? It seemed like a school of black
piranhas were nipping ankles, arms, nose. Pant legs were clipped together: I tripped.
Yet for all that humiliation, the arrogant desk drawer got the worst of the surreal battle!
For I informed him about readincarnation–the cosmological fact that reading level is
the SOLE CRITERIA that dictates the next curious form that your life force will take–
the careful reader returning as royalty and the diliterate doomed to become a horse fly.
Of course he took off when the elevator door opened.
That day I quit the Herald. Too dangerous. Better I proofread the proofreading
of insecure proofreaders on a commission basis, a quarter for each error found.
My leaflets were scattered in high-rent buildings where many tenants were
living off Daddy and freelancing in a half-hearted attempt to assert their independence.
PAMPERED PROOFERS! YOU KNOW YOU ARE CONFUSED ABOUT
THE USAGE OF WHO AND WHOM, WHICH AND THAT, LAY–LAID–LIE!
WHY NOT LET ME CHECK POOR WORK RESULTING FROM FRUITLESS
YEARS OF HIGHER EDUCATION? NO JOB IS TOO SMALL OR LARGE!
PRIVACY ASSURED! I’LL BRING THE RED PENCILS, YOU SIT AND SMOKE!
The error rate was so high that sometimes I was paid in diamonds and gold.
Soon I had a large fortune. I could have retired at 15 and never worked again.
I waited a year, however, before donning the Robinson Crusoe castaway get-up
and sailing for a deserted sanctum of the main branch of the New York Public library.
Complete seclusion freed me to experiment with different reading styles,
including tearing pages from antique volumes and rubbing the print all over my face.
I ripped through Cowper, Gibbon, Holmes, Johnson, Dickens and Disraeli as
Cowper, Gibbon, Holmes, Johnson, Dickens and Disraeli had ripped through me.
Damon, another of the many saintly custodians I have known, provided
news of the Dronx I had left behind: BOMBERS LOSE 56TH STRAIGHT GAME,
TIDAL WAVE OF TARTER SAUCE DECIMATES AMBLE BAY, RUN ON BLOOD
BANK VEXES RED CROSS, ALDERMAN DROND ARRESTED FOR SOLICITING
VICE SQUAD POODLE, FORTUITOUS TINTERHOOK TURNPIKE ACCIDENT
LEAVES 501 FEELING BETTER, MOLTEN IRON IN FORECAST TONIGHT,
SUPERINTENDENT KELLEHER PROCLAIMS CAFETERIA STRAWS TO BE HIGH
IN VITAMIN C, SOUSA BAND FINALLY FREED FROM BARBED WIRE GAZEBO,
GULLIBLE SHOE STORE OWNER BREAKS WORLD RECORD BY ACCEPTING
10,356TH BAD CHECK, JANUARY MOVED JULY BY APPELLATE COURT…
From Damon I also got batteries, rice, club soda, soap, white chocolate, cologne,
socks, coffee and a new respect for the verb boogaloo and exclamation sheeeeeeesh.
Sunsets were sudden: bulbs flicking off at nine. From then until the sudden
dawn, I lived by the light of the Oxford English Dictionary, a thinking man’s tiki torch.
On all fours I puked dust balls, fingernails clicking against linoleum.
Plundered shelves cast the shadows of Neanderthal ancestors.
Silverfish, deprived of domicile, crawled into the traps baited with Defoe and
Hazlett. Roasted, these insects tasted as gamey and savory as the canon that they had
ingested! The ultimate brain food washed down with water tapped from a wall pipe.
Crude but functional furniture I concocted from ceiling tiles–a table, a chair and
a love seat to accommodate an intense affair with a found fountain pen named Sheba.
Sheba, my darkly dripping metal-nippled queen! Untold hours we spent on that
fireproof seat, jotting and doodling and rocking to the rhythm of intellsexual desire,
annotating a love story the world had never seen before and hasn’t since. How could
it? There are new playmates monthly. There was only one comely femme-shaft behind
the radiator and when her cylinder ran dry, I cried dust, grieving Beauty’s demise.
The outburst attracted a barefoot unshaven patron wearing tattered pantaloons
and a red bandana, an outfit suspiciously similar to mine.
He asked what was wrong.
I asked why he felt it necessary to mimic my dashing outfit and cheat himself of
the glorious process of self-discovery that life at its best can be.
He accused me of mimicking him.
I said I knew a copycat when I saw one, having been plagued by such parasites
since the day I arrived at L.B.J. Elementary with Kant in my lunch box instead of Kraft.
He said he knew a paranoid ink-stained scholar when he saw one.
I said I knew he had made it with a rubber plant or six.
He said he knew the look of a poisoned pedagogue who KNEW EVERYTHING
about his life and UNDERSTOOD NOT A SINGLE DETAIL.
I said I knew he would be kind enough to take that insult back.
But he did not. Instead, he told of his Pee H. Dee program run by a revisionist
historian with a garden grenade launcher capable of striking students who didn’t agree
with his ridiculous contention that the universe began with the invention of the personal
computer in a dark garage–all supposedly previous events, from the Roman Empire to
to the Miracle Mets, being myths created by programmers with Zeus-like imaginations.
I ordered the anal agrarian to run off and make it with another rubber plant.
He warned me not to interrupt and said his campus apartment had been bombed
three times, after which he resorted to hypnosis in an attempt to agree with this violent
department chieftain, but even the subconscious couldn’t buy such garbage so that left
no choice but flight into the far-flung stacks where history was still free to be history.
I warned him that there was no such thing as safety or freedom in a world so
dangerously off-track and sick. All anyone could do was pray that they were not next.
He gazed at empty shelves and asked where the books were.
I said that I’d read them.
He glanced at paper shreds on the floor and whispered: You–you tore them up.
I said that I’d bathed in them.
He asked me what my middle name was.
I notified him that flirtations were futile–no way was I going to pull off those
pants with my teeth and all the rest.
He said I was a sad lonely sort who mistakes a 19th Century Novel for an all-
I said: Pick your toilet brush.
He begged my pardon.
I said: Duel to the death! Go to the John. Pick blue or yellow.
He picked yellow. I grabbed the other.
Chivalry took its grand course.
The deep bold stroke. Steady scrub-a-dub-dub friction. Was I dead and sitting
on a steel wool cloud? Pain and exhaustion combined to produce vivid hallucinations.
A three-headed God wearing three pairs of Woolworth reading glasses. A motel roof
slung with old wool coats, an archaic heating system. Out of a pocket popped a beard
that said: I am Ezra Ounce the poet and have some advice for you. 1. Never write
when wearing deodorant. 2. When not writing, stay away from writers like me and
towering Wilt Whitman. 3. Edit as comprehensively as you pick your teeth after
eating plenty of pot roast. Baby squirrels in my socks? BABY SQUIRRELS IN MY
SOCKS EATING THE MEAT BETWEEN MY TOES! I fell into a piano playing Monk’s
“Mysterioso”–a song from the Slow Start lyric writing days–Miss you, Mister Ohso /
Ole Rio Grande kiss. My teeth melted. I was awarded a gold medal by the Phister
Society and my guts fell out, a pulsing organ stew. Then cottage cheese squirted from
my nose and my neck dislodged and attached to my back, essentially becoming a third
ass cheek. And so on. Yet for all that humiliation, Robinson Diliterate got the worst of
the surreal battle! For I informed him that it WELL COULD BE that no person in the
history of the world had lived the common human experience, that every person was
an aberration from a norm that–like Plato’s couch–existed only in the dream realm.
POOF! There was nothing left of him but a sweaty bandana.
Like a triumphant tribal chieftain who feasts on the nutritious heart of a
vanquished opponent, I sucked that rag.
But paradise surely had been polluted.
Emerging from the library on a sunny Tuesday morning…
I did not feel relieved. I felt conceived: new to the air.
A stone lion beckoned and I joined her on the pedestal above Fifth Avenue.
If she wanted to devour me, so be it. That was why I had been born.
But she did not attack. The Queen of the Concrete Jungle cleaned me like a
kitten as a crowd gathered, pointing and murmuring.
She licked ink off skin with that rough tongue!
She washed arm fur, upper lip fuzz, long brown hair.
She rinsed my eyes so I could see clearly what must be done next.
Read Carlyle again, only quicker, no lingering on each reference to God.
Ben Miller’s prose has appeared in Best American Essays,The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, AGNI, Raritan, Salmagundi and elsewhere. Awards include a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. “Skim This!” is a chapter from a comic novel set in an invented fifth borough of New York City. River Bend Chronicle, a work of non-fiction, is forthcoming from Lookout Books in 2013.