Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2010
Fiction: The Search for Tom Purdue (excerpt) by Howard Waldrop
- Chapter Three (partial)
The setting: the short novel takes place in early 1955 (“between the showing of Davey Crockett, Indian Fighter on the Disneyland tv show, and the airing of Peter Pan with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard.”) It begins in Jan. 1955 (“Time was I thought 1949 was bad—the calendar on my desk says January 4th and already 1955 is the worst year of my life.”) Mark O(vidius) Klass is a bookfinder and literary researcher. The day the story starts he’s been hired by a dying man to find a copy of a 1930s era stag film (“the Citizen Kane of pornographic films, to hear him tell it.”) the man saw at once at an Army airfield on the west coast just before Pearl Harbor. Although Klass is a movie fan and knows lots, he knows little of stag films and tries to convince the man to go to someone who’s more of a film insider. Klass borrows stag films from a friend who belongs to and is social director of three or four fraternal organizations and lodges (an earlier chapter is his description of watching all films.) He is eventually directed to Vinny the Moose, a stag film distributor feeling the heat from the Kefauver Crime Committee. When ask about certain things by Klass, Vinny answers, “That information can only be found at the intersection of Lingam and Yoni.” To another question he answers, “That information can only be found where Lincoln meets Jackson” and holds out his hand.
Through a single photograph from the client (traced to Movie Star News, of Betty Page-Irving Klaw fame) Mark realizes he will probably have to make a trip to the West Coast.
This section begins on Friday January 7th after the story started on Tuesday. It’s early morning and Klass leaves his second floor walkup office-apartment to go get some breakfast.
I went down two streets and over on. Middle of the block was a coffee shop the name of Great Day in the Morning that had been there since before the War. In all the time I’d been coming in since college, I’d never had a great day here.
I sat down at the counter. The young waitress, probably a Columbia girl before classes, locked eyes with me.
“Coffee. Cream. Three sinkers.” I said.
Back of the counter in the open kitchen there was a noise like from the compressors going when Ray Milland is tightening up the lug nuts on Gilbert Roland’s diving helmet, and you know before the scene’s over you won’t be hearing that sound anymore. It was the Ring King®. It went ka-chinka ka-chinka.
It was like watching a linotype or some other precision machine. I’m sure there were people who came in just to gawp at its workings. They should have put it in the front window to attract customers.
You put batter in the Ring King®; it made the diving equipment noises and what came out was row on row of perfectly formed batter doughnuts; they went into a fryer section; at some point they were automatically turned over in the grease and what came out at the end was lines of perfectly-cooked doughnuts. Once you put the batter in and turned it on, you only needed someone at the end to put trays down for the doughnuts to fall into. Untouched by human hands, 60 dozen an hour if you could keep that much batter going into it. A clean chimpanzee could have done the job.
The worker today was a Puerto-Rican-looking guy wearing the yellow sunrise-striped uniform shirt of the place and chinos. The waitress went over to the latest tray, grabbed up three fresh hot doughnuts with a piece of waxed paper (the whole place smelled of sweet grease and soapy dishwater) and brought them over to me and poured a cup of coffee and put down two small paper-stopped glass containers of cream, all in one smooth motion. Then she moved down the counter to help a guy with what looked to me like an egg addiction.
I put the cream and sugar from the shaker on the counter in the coffee and picked up one of the warm paper-thin-skinned doughnuts and dunked it in the java, not too long and not too short a time, just like Clark Gable in It Happened One Night.
I was nine and I was at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. We had stepped off the train at the entrance, and there before me, off in the so-called Theme Area, were The Fair’s symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere.
The Trylon was a three-sided obelisk, huge and 700 feet high—leading out from it was a long spiral ramp—the Helicline—down to the Perisphere which was a big globe like a giant white beach ball, 200 feet high.
I’d read up about them for months, so I thought I knew what a day here would be like. But now here I was; and I was hoping Grover Whalen, the chairman of the Fair and New York City’s Official Greeter, would be here to welcome us himself.
Here it was: the Future—that faraway year 1960, to hear the Futurama ride tell us—was coming with all its wonders. I’d be thirty years old then, a man with college behind me and a career. I knew, like all kids my age, I’d only have to wait 21 years for all of this to come true.
There were wonders enough (even without Grover Whalen) before you even got to the Theme Area. Girls on three-wheeled scooters would drive up in their light-green and white uniforms and offer to sell you ice cream on the spot. Behind the seats of the scooters, between the wheels was a carrier box and when the girl opened it, you could see curls of cold air coming up. My mom and dad took banana splits served up in paper cups and got little flat wooden spoons to eat them with. I chose an orange push-em-up with a stick the size of a #2 pencil.
We walked on toward the Trylon and Perisphere where most of the crowd was headed. We had an Official Guide to the New York World’s Fair Inc. and I had a pocket guide that had come in an issue of Mechanix Illustrated that had come the month before the Fair opened (with a speech by FDR) back in April. I had memorized this map—where the Theme Area was, the Lagoon of Nations, The Court of the States and Territories, the National Cash Register Building—shaped like a calculator which gave the readout on the daily attendance as you watched and the turnstiles turned, and of total number of visitors to the Fair so far. I kept the guide inside the vest pocket of my brown corduroy suit. In the past few months I had thumbed the guide almost to pieces.
The official guide was even snazzier, in full color, though my father and mother kept it with them, consulting it as we walked. My father had on his salt-and-pepper wool suit and wore his grey fedora; with his mustache he looked very snappy, and today he reeked of Brylcreem® and Black Jack® gum.
My mother had on her best organza flowered dress, pinkish on the flowers and greenish on the rest, her tan silk stockings with the seams up the back, and her newest green ankle-strap wedgies which were not quite yet the bee’s knees. (My mom was always taking fashion risks, especially in those days, coming off for them a hard early Depression and a brand-new me, but a slowly easing one since Roosevelt’s second inauguration.)
There was just enough wind to keep it from being really hot yet. Pennants flapped everywhere; fountains splashed, everywhere there was something to pull at your eyeballs, something softly calling you to look and stay.
Uniformed guys waited politely with three-wheeled scooters in reverse; single heel in back, 2 in front with a nice comfy leather seat between them, ready to take you anywhere in the Fair for a small fee.
I had followed the progress of the 1939 New York World’s Fair from the gleam in the eyes of a bunch of businessmen and an empty wasteland in Flushing Meadow on Long Island, in magazines, radio broadcasts and flyers handed out on the streets, since I was seven, two years ago. And then to this now—the World of Tomorrow.
We waited on line at the Trylon; it curved around and up and you went inside and marveled at the engineering, but I knew it was but a prologue; we came out of it and went down to the Helicline into the Perisphere. We got into our moving chairs in the dim light, and the chairs rolled out and you looked down and got an aerial view of the brightly-lighted World of Tomorrow—huge cities along the banks of a river surrounded by farmlands, highways wide enough for six lanes of cars each way; the skies full of zeppelins and airplanes, the suburbs like something out of Buck Rogers but real-looking. There was an afternoon thunderstorm, and a voice telling us that the future would be run along scientific lines and cities planned so there’d be no haphazard growth and how we would all prosper under a free economy.
Then the chairs quit moving and we were back where we started in the dim light, and looking at other eager people waiting for our chairs, and you had to go out into the bright hammer of morning daylight, blinking, and make your way down the Helicline to ground level, over a man-made lake in which the Perisphere sat and you could see all the Moderne statues surrounding it, and at the end, incongruous in his eighteenth-century garb, the statue of Washington, for which the entire World’s Fair had been built to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his first inaugural in New York City, while they were still building the District of Columbia down in Virginia in 1789.
And after the Perisphere the Fair became a blur to me—the statue atop the 150-foot pedestal dubbed “Joe the Worker” at the Russian Pavilion at the Hall of Nations; the Hall of Fashion my mom wanted to visit which looked like a Deco ski-ramp and was surrounded by trees trimmed in square shapes and fronted by two 60-foot fountains enclosed entirely inside glass tubes—water shot up inside the tube, reached the top and cascaded down the other end of the curve. My dad and I waited outside on one of the benches and talked while my mom was inside.
People came by, paused, looked this way and that, went one way or the other, consulting guides and handwritten notes. There was more to do here, said all the advertisements, than you could do in a week. I mean, it was the future in all its aspects.
My father didn’t smoke; he was one of the few grown-ups I knew who didn’t, so he offered me a stick of his Black Jack® gum, which I took though my gum of choice was Fleers Banana Dubl-Bubl. I wondered if dad’s gum had been named for General Pershing. I bit into the licorice-flavored slightly salty stick of gum and began to chew.
I looked around. As far as the eye could see were buildings, courts, towers, glass. Every style of architecture known to man was here, from the newest Deco styles in Plexiglass and steel to neo-Classical stone and frontier log, and stuff that looked like it had been there since the late Roman Republic, but I knew that none of it was more than 20 months old. This World of Tomorrow looked as if it had always been here, just waiting for people to find it and make it work and show us its wonders.
My dad was people-watching—nothing new for him, he did it on our block at home. He worked in publishing—later I would find out for whom and what exactly he did but I was nine years old and didn’t care as long as he came home every night and was there on weekends and had two weeks off every summer.
My mom came out of the Hall.
“What did you learn?” asked my father.
“Nylon will replace silk,” she said.
“The DuPont people will be very happy,” said my father.
We knew we had to start moving if we were going to see 1/10th of what was there. We planned out what we were going to do and of course the plan became obsolete immediately when we got to the RCA Building, near the Hall of Communications, and saw ourselves on Television. I could have stayed all day, so could my father, watching people watching themselves watch themselves. But then we went over to the Westinghouse Electric Building and saw Electro the Mechanical Man count and talk and answer a guy’s questions. Also his dog Sparks. We also saw all kinds of appliances that would make our future labor-free and cheaper.
Out front of the Westinghouse Building there was a round portico and a round fountain, and into the round fountain a gigantic glass lightning bolt descended—I could tell it probably lit up like the Theater District at night. We’d likely be off somewhere else by the time that happened.
We hurried to the Railroads Building and watch the streamlined diesel train on its stand, wheels a-blur, going 60 mph to nowhere, and all the new electric engines that would provide quiet efficient transportation in all parts of the world. We waited in long lines at the Ford Motor Company Building where you got in a Ford and drove through the exhibit about the wonders Ford had in your future. We went to the Music Building where a guy played a thing called a theremin by waving his hands in the air. It sounded like a banshee was supposed to.
If 1960 were going to be like this, I couldn’t wait.
The day went on; me and my father had taken off our coats hours ago; he was smelling less like hair oil than dad; my mom glistened. We ate at the Horn & Hardart Automat; it was one of about 200 cafes scattered throughout the World’s Fair, plus innumerable stands and scooter-vendors.
I had wanted to see the place where they’d put the Time Capsule, supposed to tell the people 5000 years from now what we’d been like. They’d dropped the sealed aluminum torpedo-shaped capsule to the bottom of its long pipe-well, last fall, even before most of the Fair was complete, in a big ceremony. It contained books on microfilm, a Mickey Mouse cup, messages from important people, photos of Babe Ruth, cosmetics and hats, instructions on how to build a film projector in 23 languages, to run the films included. 5000 copies of The Book Of The Time Capsule, printed on acid-free paper, had been sent to selected libraries around the world, so that no matter what happened, chances were that some would survive the 5000 years to the world of 6939 A.D. and show that unimaginable future what we thought we were like.
Maybe they’d have to come back from Mars to dig the capsule up. Or Alpha Centauri.
It was near the Westinghouse Building we’d already been at, but in our haste to get to the Railroads Building I had gone by it, my mind a fog of 1960 wonders. Now it was behind. I’d have to see it on our way out tonight. I asked my mom to remind me. She said she would if she remembered.
It was toward evening and we were as tired as park pigeons. We hadn’t made it more than halfway into the Fair. (At the far back was the Entertainment Area and Billy Rose’s Aquacade and places I couldn’t go, because as my mother said, there were women with “unclothed upper torsos.”
We sat on a bench like so many other families around us, taking off our shoes, rubbing our feet because, in 1930s parlance, “our dogs were barking.” We were near one of the fountains and there was a little wind so it was cool. We were beat physically and our (mine anyway) brains were buzzing with what it would be like in the coming years—after the Depression—in a world of plenty and leisure.
The lights started coming on and what had been a wonder became something right out of the British movie Things to Come: lights, lighting, neon, animated light-bulb signs. Searchlights turned on into the long twilight. I expected a rocket to land on the tail of flame on one of the plazas, or at least a zeppelin to dock over at the dirigible-hangar-shaped Hall of Aviation.
Then I saw that over at the Theme Area, blue sky and moving white clouds were being projected on all sides of the Perisphere. There were plans, they said, that on Halloween Night, before the Fair closed for the winter, they would project a huge orange jack-o-lantern face on it, turning it into a huge pumpkin. Maybe it would scare people like Orson Welles’ broadcast of War Of The Worlds had last year.
We went back to the Westinghouse Building—the gigantic lightning bolt out front not only lit up and struck the fountain; there were also sound effects. We found the Time Capsule exhibit and I bought a brochure (I’d had a whole silver dollar to spend as I wished today, and I still had 15¢ at 9pm)—listing everything inside the capsule.
We joined the people heading out toward the depot and the parking areas.
“Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad.” I said. “This has been the greatest day of my life and now I know what the future’s going to be like.”
And then the fireworks started going off overhead, and music was playing, and people stopped walking and oohed and ahhed.
The fireworks were better than I had ever seen, anywhere, and they did this every night.
Just before we went out the entrance gate Dad stopped an 8 O’Clock Coffee scooter and bought three cups of coffee for us “so we won’t fall asleep on the train” and paid the 8 O’Clock Coffee girl 15¢ and we stood drinking them, our backs to the turnstiles, watching the skyrockets and aerial squibs exploding in the sky.
A hug skyrocket went off just as I finished my cup of coffee and the blue and white Perisphere and Trylon turned blood-red, then green, then Vick’s Salve® blue as the swirling stars from rocket changed colors as they spun and fell.
And then I was sitting in the coffee shop in 1955, the half-gone dunked doughnut still in my fingers. There had been the nastiest war in history; the Atom Bomb was hanging over our heads, and the World of Tomorrow was a Ring King® turning out doughnuts for regular schmoes trying to make a living looking for lost stag films in a world of fear and morons.
Ka-chinka said the Ring King® ka-chinka.