The Harriet Experiment

I first met Fake-Nose in kindergarten. His family lived in the ritzy part of town dominated by merchants who drove the Main Street economy, a good mile away from my more academic neighborhood next to campus. (Academicians have always earned a fraction of that by retailers). Tiny legs before we each were granted the freedom of bicycles guaranteed we wouldn't join forces until Louise Elementary School.

But when we did, we really did! Fake-Nose became one of my closest friends from age five right on up to my departing northward. Always dependable, always ready to prevaricate in a worthy cause, always ready for laughs. One of his favorite words (on a Friday or Saturday night while carousing) was "stunt." I had a girlfriend once who said, "I call that vandalism." But to Fake-Nose it was always a "stunt." When I learned of his death a year or two ago, that was the first word which popped to mind. I loved that guy.

What made Fake-Nose so interesting to me from the get-go was that he was a scion of a severely practicing Catholic family. Notice I didn't say devout. It was pretty clear to me in visits to his home that religion was not meant to interfere during the work week with boozing, smoking, cursing and a few other things I probably shouldn't mention. But on Sunday, genuflection, crossing one's breast, respecting, nay, fearing priests and nuns, and decorating every room with a crucifix was de rigueur. Oh, I guess there was that business of continual fish sticks on Friday to deal with, but usually nothing else to really indicate popery when I paid a call. Apart from the fact he had eight million brothers.

Speaking of crosses, I've always wondered about this. If the plural of index is indices, and the plural of appendix is appendices, then what is the plural of crucifix?

Say it aloud to get the full impact.

Still, Fake-Nose's cursory household Catholic observances were always a curiosity to me. Picking up at an early age on my father's overtly anti-Papist persuasion only added a certain piquancy to my interpretations. Actually, my Pop felt this way about all religions, just more-so for one centered on absolute authoritarianism. I suppose Fake-Nose's parents told him contrasting stories about the gay lives we Presbyterians led. But when it comes to religion, they're all in it together, if I may press columnist Donald Kaul's apt phrase into service.

It makes me think. In most of the United States, one must be age 21 to vote, drink and smoke. Exposure to religion ought to follow the same rule.

Faith should not be table d'hôte, but à la carte.

Early memories of Fake-Nose always take me back to his noisy flatus in the sixth grade. See The World of Tomorrow for a trifle more detail. By junior high we had formed a stronger alliance against the new proprietor of Sucher's Superette, as well as the local garbage man (whom he dubbed "Ape Man"). I can't really explain it, but we two took great pleasure in being as vexatious as possible to the various members of our little world. Two lads exploring sociopathy together.

Throughout grade school and junior high, Fake-Nose and I were pulling all manner of stunts, never getting caught. It was down to the wire, however, in the lavatory of the Varsity Theater one weekend. What added zest to this episode was that the theater manager was a well known prick who hated kids. Fake-Nose was unaware that Joe had just burst in and was standing there, pug face all aglow like a beetroot glaring at me, while my friend used some rather colorful language to describe what was going on from behind the stall door. We managed to escape, leaving a legacy of odious janitorial tasks.

It was about this era that Fake-Nose developed a reputation for having a trained peristalsis. While he took particular delight in exploiting it at the campus Catholic Church (that being the one he was forced to attend), Fake-Nose was quite liberal in leaving his own version of tithe at all churches. A non-denominational sociopath.

By high school, The Gang had expanded considerably as I've described elsewhere. In fact, it was large enough that we now had subcommittees, though all still fiercely loyal to one another. In particular, Sheel-Teat and I paired off, while Van-O and Admiral Andy went tandem. Fake-Nose and Dugg Bedd joined forces. Just a little later, when gigantic Harley-Davidsons entered our lives, Dugg Bedd realigned with Tiny. Whitey and Armpit were the wildcards in some ways. The former was a bit broody with redoubtable (to his eyes) parents, while the latter was always having girl trouble. So, the last two, while still great members, were not the ones you would turn to in exceptional situations.

In senior year, both Fake-Nose and Dugg Bedd participated in a program called Deca, I believe. This permitted them to leave after morning classes to their retailing jobs and fulfill certain school credits through apprenticeship. If I recall aright, Fake-Nose was in the produce department of a grocery store, while Dugg Bedd worked in the J. C. Penney store. Since they both got to split at the same time, they would often share a ride on Fake-Nose's Honda 90 motorcycle. A blue gas tank just sprang to mind; a half century ago, and I still remember.

One unseasonably warm November noon, they doubled up to leave for their jobs yet again. The motorcycle parking was close to the front of the high school, so while departing, they would have to navigate through the entire lot to join the main drag. As they passed car after car on the way out...all of a sudden...they saw something so outré it caused them to spin out of control and slide across the asphalt. Neither was hurt, apart from scuffed up knees and elbows.

Not chastened by the mishap, they were instead laughing their heads off riotously, neither able to catch his breath for a good minute or so. Tears flowed amidst the mirth.

For Fake-Nose and Dugg Bedd had just driven by an automobile in the high school parking lot completely bereft of windows. Well, actually, the glass was still all there, just lying on the seats in a multitude of shards instead of the frames. Every bit, from windshield, to side windows, to triangular air flaps, to the rear was out of its usual housing. I might mention that safety glass is specifically designed not to fracture, so this truly indicated the work of a committed individual. Probably a Taurus.

Defenestration is far too weak a word.

Anyway, they crashed while in hysterics, for they surmised not only the car's owner, but the reason behind it all. As for the perpetrator? Well, Fake-Nose and Dugg Bedd "recognized the lion by his paw." I suggest you do a Google on that phrase, by the way. Maybe also take at peek at Tiny.

This all led to the grand exit which has made so much possible in my life. Fortuitous on the whole, at least in the early days. 

I guess I'm telling things a bit out of order. Back up a few months to that insanely hot and muggy summer between junior and senior years. Fake-Nose's mother was dying of cancer, though we didn't know it at the time. I always liked her; she was a genuinely warm person and seemed to take an interest in me for some reason. Very real. Over the preceding year I had taught myself "Yankee Doodle Boy" on piano with voice, along with a few other Cohan songs and she would always ask me to perform them for her as though she truly meant it.

Around this time the Fake-Nose household took in a nanny, Harriet. Several issues converge here. First, as mentioned, this was an enormous brood, thanks to the Pope's latex allergy. The mother probably would have viewed a nanny as a godsend in any event, but certainly with the impending demise by cancer, it became essential.

Next, and here's where it gets really sad, not only were they booking a helper, but they were helping in return, probably at the suggestion of a priest. Harriet was a young college student, long blond hair, comely physique, intelligent as hell, liked to laugh (although that died off exponentially as summer progressed). She did have one main fault, though. She was Catholic.

Harriet was pregnant, by someone who had long disappeared or become forgotten.

I remarked she was Catholic, but that's not quite true. As I said, Harriet was smart as a whip which automatically disqualified her from being devout. Things have only marginally gotten better in the past forty-five years, but back then a young girl really stood no chance. The three P's ran the show big time: priests, parents and propriety. Though I was but sixteen years old, I saw what was going on. They had gotten through to her and Harriet resigned herself to being a second class citizen with no say in the matter. I know for a fact that those asshole priests from Fake-Nose's church browbeat her into submission. Maybe when rectal conception becomes a reality, the priesthood will finally see the insanity of it all for itself.

Anyone for a bit of Nathaniel Hawthorne?

I was definitely a sociopath by then, concerned in the main with only myself. And yet my heart ached for Harriet, for what that stinking institution was doing to a young woman's future for no good reason. To subvert any person's potential is the ultimate crime.

Eventually Fake-Nose's mother succumbed, and rather rapidly his father found a new-old bride. She was nice enough, but really thick compared to spouse primum. She too, I need hardly add, was really into the papist claptrap. Moreover, she was determined to be the only female in the establishment. Harriet, no longer essential, was sent packing. Sounds like a Dicken's novel, doesn't it?

So, as I started this episode, it's a hot, humid night in my hometown. Fake-Nose invited me and several of The Gang to go visit Harriet at her pad. She had an apartment, rather Spartan, downtown within shouting distance of King's Food Host, and on the second story right above The Bus Stop, that coffee house where King Jupiter staged a memorable performance. She lived alone. And I do mean alone.

Lights out, windows open to snatch whatever breath of air we could. A candle sputtering was the only light. Reefer passed. Harriet, quite bulbous now, slouched on cushions to prop her up. Fake-Nose, Sheel-Teat, Dugg Bedd, and a few others. All of us were some five years younger, which is why she preferred our company. We had no doxology, the one thing this pear-shaped girl needed less as D-Day approached. Between the humidity and the growth within her, Harriet lumbered, sighed and wheezed. Then and there, as a neophyte in life, I formed a cornerstone axiom: society and religion are pure evil. How could something so arbitrary divert this beautiful girl with a beautiful mind from fulfilling her destiny?

The burnt carpet aroma hung low in the darkened room, thanks to Pascal's law of gases (the dew point of 80 degrees or so probably helped). Then Dugg Bedd remembered he had a new phonograph record just purchased. He ran down the exterior staircase of the flea-trap to his motley blue Volkswagen Beetle and fetched it. Ripping the shrink plastic wrap off, he plopped it on Harriet's cheap portable phonograph. Back in those days, every machine was audiophile quality, even the cheapest of transistor radios. That's because our minds did the heavy hauling, not the ears. We heard epics worthy of Wagner in two-inch speakers.

A new Steppenwolf vinyl! And yet old. This was their fourth album release, but was in fact recorded much earlier, 1967 or so, live at The Matrix in San Francisco. It was so early, that it featured Mars Bonfire on guitar, before he left to be replaced by Michael Monarch. In fact, if truth be told, this really wasn't Steppenwolf but The Sparrow, the monicker they went by right before they broke the charts with Born to Be Wild. However, their production company released it under the newer name.

The platter began to spin. The dun atmosphere took on vibrant colors now, though the breathing was still labored due to the rain forest humidity. Still, the new sounds lifted our spirits, I think even Harriet's. For here we were hearing roots of what made Steppenwolf, Steppenwolf: Chicago blues. It was an epiphany for me. Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells, John Lee Hooker, and more. And best of all, there was my lover and hero, Mars, playing guitar. And playing it so well...

Another Zig-Zag marvel made the rounds, then Dugg Bedd flipped the record over. Lo! Here was their early version of The Pusher, prefaced by a heady improv that blew our minds. This was exactly the experience that made Joe Friday so fearful of youth, and I thank my lucky stars I was there to revel in it.

So, if you really should be interested in the sorts of things that have shaped me, then give this album a whirl yourself. The YouTube menu on the right of your screen will take you through all six songs that make it up.

      
But back to Harriet.

You probably remember reading that when John Dillinger was shot and killed by the G-men, bystanders dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood as a memento. Or how every mourner passing JFK's casket just wanted to touch it. Or that I walked right by Brooke Shields at O'Hare airport back in 1985 on the way to the annual Mathematics Meetings in Anaheim. We're always looking for a connection to the exotic we never get to achieve in the workaday world.

It was much the same hanging out with Harriet. Her quite obvious impregnation was living proof that people actually had sex and we (a bunch of horny teenage boys) had something to look forward to. (Not the fertilization, mind you, just the act prior). Let me make this clear. I, not least of all in The Gang, saw what this poor girl was up against in her fight against the world. Still, Harriet gave evidence that at least one person had climaxed. And that was a heady thought.

Back around that time, Fake-Nose laid his hands on a spicy novel entitled The Harrad Experiment, penned by Robert Rimmer. His surname always gave me the giggles, because of that excellent literary session with Sheel-Teat which put a bug in my ear (cf., On Pornography, elsewhere). Not too many years later, when Babs and I took up, the tittering ceased. In those days, I was ready--nay anxious--to try anything and everything, for myself. You might say I enthusiastically embraced empiricism when starting life.

The Harrad Experiment was a putrid novel, but it sure made us horny lads salivate and wonder what the future might hold. In a nutshell, it concerned a private residential college which had set itself the task of encouraging random coition. That's pretty much it. A few years later, Hollywood actually made a movie of this garbage, starring James Whitmore, if you please. (He was much better chasing giant ants in Them.) The promotional tagline was:
The Sex manifesto of the free love generation.
This was perhaps the first film I had ever seen featuring unfettered jiggling. 
 
I think that lays bare the précis. Inferior language throughout (recall that I had already read Lady Chatterley's Lover and Justine, so knew that randiness is only enhanced by beautiful prose). However, Rimmer's book served its purpose; it elicited satyriasis.

The point is, the novel made the rounds in the usual way, concealed from teachers and parents. For whatever reason it had a profound effect on Fake-Nose. Even in those early days, all of us in The Gang were playful with language. So, it was only natural that Fake-Nose rechristened it, The Harriet Experiment. Not out of cruelty, mind you, and never to her face, of course. Just because we were seeing with our own eyes someone who was having unlawful carnal knowledge. Which made us incredibly envious.

To put it succinctly, in those days before instant Internet gratification, to a teenage boy, knowing someone who had fornicated was almost as good as actually fornicating. Minus any aftereffects, of course. Yes, I really did recognize the unfair distribution of liberty between the sexes then.

So this tale includes a bit of sadness, a bit of anger, and fair amount of unbridled joy. I think of Harriet from time to time. She would be pushing 70 years of age by now. Looking back herself, I wonder how she views the detour an evil institution threw her way. There is no test-drive when purchasing the one life we're each given. And no used lots with pre-owned models, as they like to say nowadays.

And, of course, I think of my friend Fake-Nose. I just know he's pulling stunts in the afterlife. Do janitors use disinfectants in heaven? 

Next installment: Working

No comments:

Post a Comment