I AM INTRIGUED by the innocuous act of opening old boxes, unleashing ghosts, memories, dreams, cries, odors and particles from the past. Will the hobgoblins help me confront the future: aging, loss, disappointment, fear and mortality?
I have just moved to a 1917 Craftsman house with an unfinished garage I’m turning into a creative studio. It is jam-packed with umpteen boxes from three continents, several residences, two marriages, four children, and forty years of writing.
I’m thinking of doing an experiment with myself as the guinea pig.
I want to find out if the objects contained in these boxes can kindle a creative fire that lights up my life, and maybe yours too.
Hypothesis: It ain’t easy to banish the blues. But maybe, just maybe, what comes of this experiment may redeem the act of living.
Method: Open a box, record the contents, hold them in hand, savor their scent, muse on them, write impressions, memories, reflections.
Test them against the reagents of my nature: depression, anxiety, anger, fear, longing, hope, desire, regret. Note any changes in color, mood, understanding, personality, and action.
Commitment: I will try not to bore you. I will be as honest as I can be.
Can box therapy offer relief from my attacks of melancholy, arouse my creative energy? Or will it unleash my demons and set me up for further disappointment?
I am suffering a motivational condition (impediment) called Roadblockitis.
Symptoms: I come up with an idea and then automatically throw up a roadblock. The origin of this malady is embedded in my cells like a dormant virus ready to break out. The most recent outbreak was triggered by disappointment.
BOUNCE fell flat. BOUNCE is the most recent incarnation of a story I’ve been writing, on and off, for thirty-five years. THE MAN WHO’D BOUNCE THE WORD was published in Philadelphia in 1979. The sequel STANLEY SCUKA BOUNCES A BEAN was published in Basel, Switzerland, in 2010. Finally, the culmination BOUNCE was published in California in 2011. (See prior BOUNCE posting far below).
With great expectations, I took it to the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Here I am all excited in the morning, with fifty books ready to sign.
By the time the sun was high in the sky, I’d only sold six books. Desperate, I climbed into a cardboard trashcan plastered with illustrations and hawked, “Read my trashy novel.” Passersby avoided me like the plague. Can you blame them?
I’m smiling outside, but inside I’m humiliated.
To my overwhelming pride, and overweening shame, my wife sold out her amazing children’s book, ANGUS MacDREAM & THE ROKTOPUS ROGUE. I have to admit is a fabulous story with gorgeous illustrations. She wrote it for our eight year-old son, Lincoln, who enthusiastically sings its praises. Kids love it, and I believe it will be a commercial as well as literary success.
So why am I competing with my wife?
I’m ashamed of myself, frankly. By admitting this to you I’m publicly flogging myself with a wet noodle.
Before BOUNCE there were countless disappointments over other books and manuscripts, dating back to the rejection of my first novel C_____________ in 1973. I began writing it by hand on blue-lined paper in high school in Denver, revised it in college with my mentor the modernist poet Michael Goldman, and won the Cornell Woolrich Writing Prize at Columbia. The experimental writing was ridiculed as incoherent gobbledygook by New York publishers. I escaped down the Pan American highway to Brazil. The moldering manuscript lies buried in one of these boxes around here somewhere.
Each new rejection calls into question my very reason for living, an existential threat, so to speak.
Why live if I… blah blah blah?
Been there too? Send in your roadblock and a map leading out of it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three moving vans and one small miracle:
On Monday, June 20, the previous owners moved out, leaving a note, “Every house like every book needs a new chapter. Enjoy.” Liam.
On Wednesday, June 22, Norcal movers came to our rental house on Easton Drive, where we’d been living in crowded conditions since arriving from Switzerland eight months earlier. In a whirlwind, the team of four Spanish speaking gentlemen packed our possessions in ___ boxes, moved them about eight blocks, and dropped the boxes in our new digs. It took an exhausting eight hours, and this was just the beginning.
On Thursday, June 23, a moving van delivered ___ boxes and packing crates from Switzerland that had been in storage in a warehouse since the prior October.
On Friday, the same team delivered ___ boxes that came from our home in La Jolla, California. They’d been stored in a musty garage there for upwards of two years while we lived in Switzerland. We’d rented out the flat above the garage in La Jolla to a madman, but that’s another story. We finally sold the 1929 Tudor-style house where we’d been married and raised from babies, a house that I dearly loved and thought I’d never abandon. But that’s what happened after Isabelle’s company closed and I lost my shirt in the stock market crash of 2008, so much for maintaining stability in a financial catastrophe. It was probably for the better, because I’d been stuck in my ways living in bliss with the sound of the waves crashing on La Jolla beach. Though it was hell on Isabelle, who hated the merciless sun on her fair Scottish skin, hated the wildfires and the falling ash. I wanted to stay, she to leave; the conflict nearly wrecked our marriage until she was offered a job in Switzerland, and I said okay let’s try life in Europe. So we did. The company paid for the move, packed the bare necessities and furniture for Switzerland, and stored the good furniture and papers and books in La Jolla. This third shipment also contained books and files that had been stored in my ex-wife’s garage since 1996. The contents dated back to high school in Denver, college in New York, travels through the Amazon, Rio de Janeiro, Washington, D.C.; Spain, Portugal, San Francisco and San Diego. From 1968 to 2008 – forty years.
This final shipment was by far the largest, most expansive and exhausting. It took four burly men and me eight hours to unload. The boxes were piled in the driveway and lugged to locations in the house and garage.
It was a bloody hot exhausting day, but by the end a small miracle had occurred.
For the first time in the last forty years or more, I had all my books, papers, and effects in one place.
Saturday, I rest about 26 seconds. Then life comes knockin’ at my door. My eldest daughter rolls in from San Diego with her husband and their merry baby, Belle. She was born in Boston the day before Valentines Day, and attended her father’s graduation from Harvard Law School, a distinguished pedigree. I haven’t seen her in ages, actually four weeks. When I bend to kiss blue-eyed Belle’s little cheek, guardian pooch Scooter barks and charges to defend her from the enemy – me.
Madigan, Belle, and Scooter in more peaceful times.
My younger duo, Viva and Lincoln, awaken to the ruckus, pound their bare heels down the oak stairs, crying, “Belle’s here!” They are a proud Aunt Viva and Uncle Lincoln, although they’re young enough to be Belle’s older siblings. I’ve been blessed with children by two marriages, two sets of older sisters and younger brothers, who share certain traits and not others. On our family’s miniature globe, they point in four directions North and South, East and West like a compass rose.
We drop everything to be with each other. Sunday morning, my eldest son with a shaggy beard blows in from Santa Cruz driving a battered pickup.
Our family is usually spread out from coast to coast, the Rockies to the Pacific. This is the first time in a long time when all four of my children, ages eight to thirty, are together in one place. A homewarming crackling with emotional lightning, thunder, and the gentle rain of affection.
We buy Belle a baby elephant just like Aunt Viva’s favorite stuffed animal, Elle. Belle reaches for Elephant. It’s just like Adam stretching his hand toward God’s finger, sparking of the creation of man in Michaelangelo’s masterpiece in the Cistine Chapel. Well, sort of.
I don’t mean to be irreligious or cynical. There’s a touch of the divine in all of us that glows in babies and new parents’ faces and then grows deeper and darker like Renaissance art.
We take time off to visit a California winery, where Belle lounges in her umbrella stroller, while her parents savor petit syrah.
Next morn, they’re off to San Diego and a couple days at Maggie’s house overlooking Sunset Cliffs. Then they fly off to Chicago: new city, new job, new digs, and a new chapter of life in the Windy City.
Back to the boxes.
Lugging the damn things up and down two flights of stairs, from the basement to the top floor attic, where Viva and Linc room under the rooftop. After a hard work week conducting clinical trials of a top-secret experimental cancer drug, my wife tackles the wardrobe boxes, puts away all the kitchen goods and utensils. The Fourth of July passes without fireworks or a parade in Burlingame. Though we do retreat to Washington Park to play family softball. It’s Isabelle’s first American softball game — she grew up Scotland where kilt-clad laddies hurl wooden poles and Celtics kick soccer balls into nets for sport. Wearing a summery print dress, stylish straw hat and jangling earrings, she kicks off her heels. We designate an oak tree for home plate, bits of rag and plastic trash for bases. Izzy picks up a plastic bat and holds it high above her red locks like an Elizabethan axman preparing to execute Queen Mary.
Lincoln pitches a high ball and
By dark, the score is 18 to 5, kids smashing grownups. Oblivious to the score, Isabelle is leaping up and down shouting in her, “Victory! Yea, yea, look at me! I’m the winner!”
If enthusiasm and guilelessness mark a victor, Izzy rocks.
I’m limping around with a painful foot. Each time my sole touches the ground it feels like a rusty nail is being driven into my heel. I’ve been diagnosed with Plantor’s Fasciatus, which I picture as a Planter’s brand peanut giving a Fascist salute. It’s a fancy word for tendonitis caused by knotted calf muscles pulling my Achilles heel. I developed these bulging the hard way, cycling up Swiss mountains in the snow, and then forgetting to do stretching exercises. I’m too young to be hobbling around like a cripple! I curse my fate to the heavens, but come off looking like a poor loser.
Sunday night, I hit bottom, complaining aloud that my life has come down to drudgery. My life is over!
“You’re creating roadblocks everywhere,” Isabelle replies, turning away from the spectacle that she’s heard a hundred times before.
Today, Monday, I drop Izzy at work and kids at camp in South San Francisco. Coastal fog is blowing wraithlike hobgoblins onto Highway 101, the gloom of a wintry summer in San Francisco is spreading down the peninsula. I drive fast trying to outrun the doom and gloom, but its seeping into my body.
I have a childlike horror of being alone in a suburban home during the middle of the day when working people are working. I am terrified of coming face to face with my demons. I dread lifting the garage door and entering the haunted studio where the boxes with mouths taped shut give me the evil eye. I’ve home offices before, but always feel lonely and uncomfortable. So, I flee to the closest cafe, which in Switzerland was ten kilometers away, a hard bicycle ride through fields and farms before descending to cobblestone streets and dodging street cars and traffic to arrive at the No Fumar Cafe, in the walled Old Town of Basel. I risked life and limb to avoid working in a home office, and nearly broke my back carrying a heavy pack laden with my laptop, heavy chain bike lock, sundry notebooks, paperbacks, Swiss francs, a second change of clothes and parka, you name it. I set up my portable office on a tippy cafe table, superstitiously keeping my espresso off the tabletop to avoid frying my laptop and deep-sixing my writings. I was surrounded by strangers in the commotion of a crowded cafe, people confiding secrets, gossiping, reading newspapers, speaking mysterious foreign languages that I barely understood, nor cared to. I no longer felt isolated or exiled. To be with people, but not to have to deal with them, I was able to focus on my work. For the price of one coffee, I stayed for several hours and used the free wifi.
Then the alarm would ring and I would pack up my things, jump on my bike, and pedal like a demon dodging Euro cars and trolley tracks, pumping uphill, sweating under winter sweaters, and race against myself to arrive at the International School in time to pick up my kids at school. I wrote Confessions of a Hausmann and Stanley Scuka Bounces a Bean at that cafe, and thanked the Tibetan and Turkish waiters by putting their names in the dedication page.
It worked for me then, but not without . My papers were strewn across , or lost in boxes. Without my papers nearby I lost my direct connection to my life story, and skated on thin ice. What I couldn’t carry in my pack would melt before my eyes. I lived on the surface like Richard Maverick who work up in a strange land and fell “hopelessly in love with the surface of things.” It was a great first line, even the novelist John Gardner remarked on it in a letter he sent to me, via my mother, in Brazil. But the rest of the novel failed to live up to the first line, and it too may lie in one of these boxes.
To get back to the point, writing in cafes isolated me from my own history. Small and insignificant as it was to the world, it meant a lot to me. Yet I couldn’t get access to it, couldn’t search the web for newspaper writings published before the advent of the Internet, and so lost and forgotten as if they never existed in the Digital Age. I’d left the boxes in dank garages and musty store rooms where they were probably rotting, being eaten by rats or ground to dust by termites, for all I knew. And I missed them, wondered what lay inside them, a yearning deep down in my loins like the yearning of my younger self for my first love far away in France. I fantasized about the boxes yet couldn’t touch, smell, rattle, rip open and plunge my deep inside them.
Yet, now that they were all in one place, safe at last, waiting for me within the garage, I stand outside the garage door with trepidation. Finally, I punch in the code. Open sesame, the door rises on its rails. Bare concrete floor littered with debris, dusty boxes, unpainted walls, painted-shut windows, cobwebs in the rafter.
Will I be able to work here alone?
I sit tentatively in my old rolling desk chair that Maggie gave me for my twenty-eighth birthday in Washington, D.C. I gently run my hands over the round leather seat, carved oak armrests, scrolled legs, and a rattan back you can really sink into. Which I do, leaning the back of my head against the sturdy wood, hearing the oak creaking under my weight, the rusty casters rolling on the cracked concrete, I dig in my toes and thrust myself across the floor, swiveling my hips, spinning on my axis, touching the cool satiny finish of the green marble slab quarried in Italy with the marks of dynamite on the rough unfinished edge. I spin watching the boxes revolve around me like moons around a planet, the chaotic debris brought into orbit around the center of gravity.
I’m still terrified of being alone.
But I’m really not alone, am I?
But what can a nutty watermelon man, a spurned she-lawyer, a frustrated carioca journalist and a misanthropic parrot do against the power of the Brazilian coffee cartel?” —
You may wonder what Hausmann has been doing for the past few months.
Writing a fiction book, that’s what.
It’s called STANLEY SCUKA BOUNCES A BEAN. It’s the sequel to THE MAN WHO’D BOUNCE THE WORLD, published 31 years ago. The watermelon-shaped man’s epic journey continues in Brazil. l wrote the story and read it aloud to my daughter’s class. They liked it so much they created illustrations. A team of teachers, writers, editors, and friends from Switzerland to California collaborated on the project. Put it all together, and voilá — a 177 page book, with 26 charming illustrations. The limited edition is coming out in Switzerland on June 10, 2010.
The unlimited edition is in the works.
Hausmann comes out of hiding to show off the book he wrote at the cafe in the background.
Here’s the shameless promotional copy from the dust jacket.
Stanley Scuka is back in this amazing sequel to
THE MAN WHO’D BOUNCE THE WORLD.
When the watermelon-shaped café owner hears a cry for help from poverty-stricken coffee pickers in Brazil, he asks, “What can I do?” Thus begins his epic journey from the Big Apple to a Brazilian coffee plantation devastated by frost. Along the way, he meets a cranky parrot, an evil plantation owner, and a family descended from African-American slaves.
“You don’t know nothing about Brazil,” a reporter warns.
But Stanley brushes him aside to help the family from being thrown off the land. The mustachioed planter and his goons stand in their way. A mystery hidden in a Confederate Colonel’s treasure box may hold the key.
Can Stanley and his band of Scukanistas free the ‘slaves?’ Or will they cause greater harm to the people they’re trying to help? Death by frost, or death by fire?
“Anyone who loves comedy and fun with a bit of unexpected happenings will not be able to put this book down until the end!” – Audrey
“A light-hearted, humorous blend of the real, the fantastic and the funny… A story of ordinary people who set out on an extraordinary adventure, to change a world haunted by prejudice, greed and hatred.” — Saki
“I recommend this book to anyone. I love it. BREATHTAKING! — Harry
“Full of adventures, it has loads of superb, amazing parts where people are challenged” — Lena.
“As a young reporter, I covered a devastating frost in Brazil. While coffee prices soared, the poor pickers lost their jobs. Their faces still haunt me. Later, I wrote a book about a man who tried to bounce the world. It bounced him. One day, sitting in a café in Switzerland, I remembered the snow falling in Brazil. Stanley Scuka grabbed my collar and cried, ‘Write the sequel.’ How could I refuse?” My daughter’s classmates liked the story so much they illustrated this limited edition. And they taught me kids want to change the world.”
Jonathan Freedman won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, and is the author of several books. A Californian at heart, he enjoys cycling, skiing, and exploring the world with his wife and children from their base in Switzerland. He loves collaborating with kids & teachers to create books that delight and challenge readers of all ages to ‘bounce the world.’ He’s busy writing the next adventures of Birdbrain.
FASNACHT & CARNIVAL
By Jonathan Freedman
IN MY OVERSEXED TWENTIES, as an apprentice reporter in Rio de Janeiro, it was a supreme sacrifice for me to cover the orgiastic Brazilian carnaval for the Associated Press. But someone had to do it, and I persevered.
With a Brazilian press pass, I had free access to the escolas de samba (samba schools), the costume balls, and a front row seat at the delirious parade.
All year long, Rio’s humble folk prepare for a night of glory, when the rich become beggars, and poor become princesses. Maids and janitors spend a month’s wages to outfit themselves in satin and brocade.
After a grueling day at the sweltering A.P. office at Praca Maura, I escaped to the legendary samba schools perched on hilltop squatter favelas. Strictly as an impartial observer, I watched nubile Brasileiras perform gravity-defying feats of gyration to the incessant samba drumbeat. I tried the dance steps, but my clumsy feet did not obey. Carnaval defied poverty, but I suspected the money might be better spent on nutrition and education. Yet… who was I to judge?
And now the preparations were done. The hilltops echoed with drums. Rio held its breath for the big night, a noite do carnaval. Let the parade begin!
First came the phalanx of drummers beating the heart-stopping drums, then the nearly naked dancers shaking their Brazilian booties, followed by the ebony Bahainas swirling their lacy white skirts, and then the fantastical floats bearing mythological beasts, crowned by the fat King of Carnaval — Rei Momo!
Around 4 a. m., fireworks burst over the parade. I had an epiphany. To hell with grubbing for money, struggling for success, and worrying about failure. Life is carnaval! Let this be my guiding star…
A naïve wish that makes me sad just thinking about it.
Thirty-odd years later, I am a recovering editorialist and second-time-around father apprenticing as a novelista and hausmann in Switzerland. Here in Basel they celebrate their own form of carnaval, called fasnacht. It comes in the dead of winter, just the opposite of Rio. And the stereotype of the dour, sexually inhibited, penny-pinching Swiss is diametrically opposed to the exuberant, promiscuous, and profligate Brazilian. Beware of invidious comparisons: Today, Brazil’s economy is booming, and the largest Swiss bank may go bankrupt.
Nevertheless, over time and distance, impressions grow into caricatures. I left Brazil to celebrate America’s Bicentennial, and though I promised to return to Rio for carnaval, I’ve never made it back, except in daydreams and nocturnal emissions.
I never thought I’d be a hausmann looking after my adorable kinder while my talented Herren Doktor Isabelle Rooney, a clinical oncology researcher, brings home the bacon, so to speak. And though some might envy my freedom to pursue my avocation while the kids are in school, on certain days the grey skies turn me blue. …
So, with a twinge of carnaval envy, I await fasnacht.
How does it compare with Brazil? Do the Swiss wear fur-lined coats over their costumes? Do they have sex with strangers? Do they pull wads of Swiss Francs from their mattresses… to buy a moment of bliss? Do bankers disguise as beggars? (More on this theme, anon…) Do hausfraus and hausmanns strip off their aprons and kick up their heels? Do the law-abiding Swiss violate the verboten? Flush toilets after 10 p.m.? Park in an unauthorized zone? Smile on the street?
The Alps and the Amazon are antipodal environments, yet the Brazilians and Swiss and share this paganistic ritual, which the French call Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday. What repressed desire and spiritual hunger does carnaval-fasnacht-mardi-gras fulfill? Why them, and not the rest of us? Questions burning to be answered by a brave soul willing to endure pain for the mere possibility of pleasure…
At midnight, I gazed at my cozy family camping out in the attic of our little rented house at #2 Rosenweg – Rose Lane. It was the first sleepover in our new digs, and our furniture had not yet arrived on the slow boat from California. We had four sleeping bags, a Coleman inflatable mattress, two gorgeous Italian quilts, a Dell laptop with 24-inch monitor, a rose-scented candle and matches – everything you need for a cozy camp-in. The creaky old house was cold and empty beneath us, the radiators had not been turned on for weeks, and the pantry was bare. Rain fell on the skylights.
I plugged in the computer and blew the fuse. The entire house fell in darkness. Dang it! I stumbled down the staircase to the cellar and unscrewed the ancient ceramic fuse – then screwed it back in. Light!
We got the computer working and slipped in the DVD, an old Hollywood movie. Rain drizzled on the windows. Hot air from the furnace whistled in the flue. The 1920s-era house shivered its timbers. I looked out at the streets wet with rain, cold and deserted.
Hausmann, my indoorsy doppelganger, took me aside and whispered, “Freedmann, why are you going out there? Do you believe you can recapture carnaval in this frigid wasteland? Stay in this cozy attic with your wife and children…”
Freedman looked at his Hamilton watch, the same brand he’d worn in the Amazon. “I’ve got to hurry,” he said tersely. “Or I’ll miss the last tram.”
“But fasnacht doesn’t start till 4 a.m.!”
Hausmann’s words were silenced by the slamming front door, as your intrepid correspondent disguised as a ski bum ventured out into the night…
I boarded the midnight tram and arrived at the central train station around 12:30. Since this was the first night of fasnacht, I expected the streets to be crowded with revelers. In Rio, Avenida Rio Branco would be teeming with hundreds of thousands of marchers and spectators waiting for the carnaval parade. The incessant drumbeat would be echoing from the hilltops to the sidewalk cafes, and it would be sweltering hot….
The streets of Basel were nearly deserted. The cafes were closed. The park benches were wet. The banhoff was dank and cold. Where are the people, the costumes, and the marching bands?
“Got the wrong date, Freedmann?”
I sat down on a bench inside the terminal with a couple of deadbeats, and slunk down in my parka for warmth. The gloomy depot echoed with sharp commands – polizia rousting out bums. Move on…
I wandered around the streets for an eternity it seemed.
“Come back to your beloved family.”
I was tempted, but the trams had stopped running.
Around 1:30, I was startled by youths belting out a drinking song. To my untrained ear, they sounded like Storm Troopers singing the Horst Wessel song in a B-grade World War II movie. Paranoid, I ducked into the shadows and watched as they pissed in unison on a wall and roared off into the night.
I hurried on, hands thrust in pockets, ducking into my parka like a tortoise in a shell. The rain drilled down, soaking through.
Barfusserplatz, which means “barefoot plaza,” was virtually empty. A travel agency advertized flights to the Brazil. If I boarded now and flew west across time zones, could I arrive in Rio in time for carnaval?
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!” my grandmother Helen whispered in my ear from long ago and far away.
Look! A neon sign beckoned — RIO BAR. I pinched myself, but it was still there. I pushed through the swinging doors into a smoky saloon smelling of wet woolen socks and stale beer. I looked around the seedy joint. Hairy apes locked elbows, raising foaming steins, and poured beer down each other’s throats – a male bonding ritual. A mousy herren with pointy secretary glasses rocked out on her seat, while her droopy-eyed herr belched and fell asleep. The jukebox alternated between classic rock and Germanic beer songs. I snickered when they played Ringo’s “Yellow Submarine.” Then I remembered the Beatles got their start in Hamburg, Germany.
The Rio Bar was not exactly Copacabana, but being pressed against warm bodies revived me a bit. Then I realized I was the oldest dude in the joint. What are you doing here, Freedmann? Trying to recapture your wastrel youth?
The smoke made my eyes tear up, and I pushed out into the rain once again.
A church bell clanged twice — 2 a.m.
What are you going to do for two more hours in this rain?
Barfusserplatz showed a few signs of activity. Men in harlequin costumes… grotesque masks with huge noses… lugging bass drums… vendors setting up wurst stands. Charcoal embers sizzling in the rain.
A swank piano bar beckoned. I looked through the window at the rose-cheeked couples sipping champagne and highballs. Candlelight softened their sharp features, as the setting sun softens austere churches. And the raindrops on my glasses captured the glow like stained glass windows. The piano player decked out in a penguin suit tickled the keys, “Stardust.”
I yearned to join the sophisticated crowd, but caught my reflection in the glass – a bedraggled outsider with woolen stocking cap pulled low over forehead, dark eyes brooding under thick brows, unshaven cheeks.
I backed away from my reflection. It was raining hard now. Puddles forming on the cobblestones. The dregs left me feeling tired and heavy on my feet. I sought shelter under a spectral tree silhouetted against the façade of a darkened cathedral. Gnarled roots buckled the cobblestones, reaching deep below the pavement, tenaciously gripping the soil. What scenes had this tree witnessed over fasnachts past?
I sought its shelter and comfort. Looking around to see the police wouldn’t arrest me for loitering, I squatted down on my heels, rested my back against the tree, and laid down my heavy load. Above, the branches offered a small perimeter of shelter from the icy rain. I drew up my knees to my chest and pulled my feet inside the protective circle. Only my toes got spattered on. I pulled up the collar to my ears, grasped elbows around knees, and slunk down in the parka. Dry and safe from the rain, anonymous and invisible, I melted into the darkness. I felt warm and secure and grounded, nestled in my tent, and breathed warm moist air into the little hollow space. The Rio Bar sign blinked on and off, brushing the cobblestones with pastel pinks and blues like an Impressionistic painting. Two legged pigs strode across Barfusserplatz. A gigantic mouse hurried by. Drowsy, I closed my lids, drifting off…
Magically, I was back in Belem, at the mouth of the mighty Rio Amazonas. It was my last night in Brazil, and I’d planned it to coincide with carnaval in the steamy port town. The provincial parade was less spectacular than Rio’s extravaganza, but more intimate and inviting… Sporting a tattered Panama hat and linen shirt that stuck to my sweating chest, I blended into the crowd, joining a samba line. My feet lost their clumsiness, and my hips swayed with the rhythm.
I spied a gorgeous Cat Woman wearing a black mask, whiskers, and tail curling alluringly from her nearly bare derriere. Her chaperone was a bare-chested pirate festooned with golden bangles, brandishing an antique sword. I don’t know what got into me, but I followed Cat Woman at a polite distance, strictly as an impartial observer. The crowd surged, pushing me against her back. Her tail brushed my zipper. I jumped back, terrified of the pirate’s sword.
“Opa!” she cried, wheeling around. When she laughed, her white teeth gleamed in the darkness. She spoke a bit of English. “I’m Egypt cat goddess. Who are you?”
“Getulio Vargas,” I replied, channeling the legendary president of the 1940s, who sported linen suits… moldering in a grave.
“I present you my cousin, Julio Cesar,” she said.
The pirate smiled gaily, gave me a limp handshake, kissed his cousin on both cheeks, and got lost in the crowd.
We ended up at a little sailor’s hotel near the riverboat docks. She slipped off her cat suit, and I shed my linen suit.
We were making torrid love… when I saw a mini-Freedman conceived in passion, abandoned by his American father, growing up in misery… Panicked, I pulled back.
“What’s wrong, amor?”
“I forgot to put on my little hat.”
“Huh?” she asked, looking quizzically at the Panama.
I dug into my wallet, where I always kept a foil wrapped condom, just in case… and dove back into her arms.
“Ai, meu amor!” she cried, fluttering against me.
Joined like butterflies, we drifted off to sleep, borne on the tidal river rolling to the sea.
Later, a weary band passed under the window, playing a plaintive samba. I was awakened by church bells, calling repentant revelers to Ash Wednesday mass.
“My God, I’m going to miss my flight!” I cried, exploding out of bed.
We hailed a taxi, rushing past the carnaval carnage to the bush airport. In the daylight, we looked like an old married couple after a catfight. Sweetly, she accompanied me to the boarding gate. We embraced one last time, mascara running down her cheeks.
“When you come back?”
And then the plane lifted off, winging over the scaly river snaking through the rainforest — my last glimmer of Brazil.
Clink, clink… I heard a ringing sound on the wet cobblestones, and shivered my rain-soaked shoulders. CLINK! CLINK!
I forced open my eyes, peeking at the platz.
A murder of crows – drunken youths wearing immense beaks and black feathers— towered above me, laughing derisively and tossing coins at my feet. I didn’t understand their guttural slang, but I got the message.
“Wait, I’m an American.”
“Rich American beggar!”
I gave them the middle-finger salute.
“You fool, they’ll peck off your finger!” shouted my guardian angel, Hausmann.
But the crows didn’t take the bait. Maybe they didn’t recognize the obscene gesture, or just maybe they saw the killer in Freedmann’s dark eyes.
I climbed to my feet, maintaining a penny’s-worth of dignity, and walked away, leaving the coins in the crevices. Hopefully, a poor wretch would find them.
The crows cawed at the retreat of the American chicken hawk.
I ploughed through a gaggle of gawkers and climbed a steep lane toward a Kafkaesque castle. Passing through a stone archway, I found myself in Old Basel. A warren of streets leading back centuries. The windows peered down, arching their brows. I thought I saw one wink, but it was a lantern reflecting off the glass. The low doorways echoed softly, as if gossiping among themselves. I heard giggling and laughter. Above the doors antique numbers were painted: 1764… 1568… 1485. Addresses, or historical dates when they were built? Astonishingly, they were still being occupied!
Revelers dressed in velvet pantaloons, scarlet capes, and lace gowns were gathering in front of fasnacht clubs. Lights glowed inside, and Herr and Herren doktors, bankers, professors traded their suits for antic costumes. White-haired ladies and gentlemen raised fluted wine glasses to their lips, recapturing youthful romance, or catching up with old friends. Year after year, they reveled together at this hour, aging gracefully like fine old Swiss watches.
The venerable fasnacht associations dated back decades, perhaps centuries, and membership was a privilege and responsibility. Baslers took their fasnacht seriously, and preparations lasted all year. The societies also served as social clubs: members wooing, marrying, and inducting their children. The Swiss equivalent of the samba schools! But Old Basel was not a squatter slum.
I had no press pass, no entré to the parties, and no chutzpah to barge in.
“Go ahead, peek inside!” Hausmann cajoled, peering over my shoulder. “What delicacies are they serving? Look at their exquisite furnishings.”
“Go back to your inflatable mattress!”
I stood outside, looking in on a world lost in time. Courtiers bowed to ladies, knights saluted lords. A medieval bestiary opened its parchment pages, and parrots and griffins flew out. Each costume was unique, each lantern hand painted. Enchanting, bizarre, martial, scary, shrewish, and sublime. The masks were big papier-mâché affairs that fit over their heads, with protruding noses and grotesque mouths with eyeholes. They wore wooden clogs clomping on cobblestones worn smooth by the slow shuffle of their forebears’ feet in the processions dating back centuries.
Today’s revelers were bursting with zeitgeist like crocuses popping through patches of snow. They gabbled quietly, ignoring the rain. Slowly they began lighting up lanterns affixed to their headgear, or raised on poles. Once upon a time candles illuminated the lanterns, but now battery-powered bulbs served the purpose. They were brilliantly decorated with heraldry, surreal imagery, or cartoonish satire, and glowed like portable stained-glass windows. Amateur musicians pulled silvery fifes from pockets and waggled fingers on the holes. Burly drummers heaved bass drums on shoulder harnesses.
The block party gained momentum as revelers sloshed out of the clubs like mice fleeing from a flood. I shivered in the rain, gradually warmed by the fasnachters’ closeness, charmed by their gayety, basking in their camaraderie. I was drawn to the lantern light like a lost hiker to a stranger’s campfire. I no longer felt alien, nor old. Age was venerated by fasnacht, while carnaval worshipped eternal youth.
They were forming up, without my noticing. No one gave commands. No bustling. No shouts. No whistles. The orders were issued by their cultural DNA.
High above the street, a mother in a dressing gown held her babe to the forth-storey window. It watched, wide-eyed, as if beholding a magical caterpillar unfolding on a twig.
I heard the collective inhale and hold its breath, as the hour approached four o’clock. The witching hour when the ghosts fly about like bats in belfries.
Suddenly, the lights of Basel went off. Black as the night sky following a lightning strike.
In the darkness, the lanterns glowed more brightly.
Then the fifes piped up. The drums struck up. Rat-tat-boom! Clogs rose, legs swung forward, and the procession began. A slow march of thousands of feet moving in unison up the cobblestone lane. The lanterns bobbed on poles like caterpillar antennae feeling their way. The faces of the old houses flushed as the procession passed by, showering them with flowers. Creaky timbers limbered up; chimneys inhaled deeply, lighting hearth fires.
As my eyes adjusted, my senses sharpened. I heard the crunching of pebbles under wooden soles; smelled mixture of perfumed ladies and storm drains, felt the cool raindrops on my nose, and tasted water bubbling from a fountain.
I stood at a crossroads where four parade groups marched toward each other.
“Watch out, they’re going to crash!” Hausmann cried, waving his hands like a traffic cop.
The marchers rotated in a circle and did a complex crossing maneuver without breaking ranks. I got caught between parade groups and got shoved aside by some hefty line blockers.
“I told you so!” Hausmann gloated.
I glowered, losing him in the crowd.
After awhile, the fifes got on my nerves. There are more than 40 fasnacht melodies, I’ve been told, but they all sound like variations of “Yankee doodle dandy.” The monotonous drumbeat penetrated my teeth like a dentist’s drill. The slow parade blurred into a funeral procession. Yodelers can’t dance.
Brazilians are born exhibitionists. They strut, gyrate, leer, make obscene gestures, twirl bangles around their nipples, bump and grind their hips like steel blades grinding coffee beans. Carnaval crescendoes at dawn, into an orgy of exploding fireworks, leaders blowing whistles in a futile attempt to bring order out of chaos.
As I followed the fasnacht bands from the narrow streets, down the hill to the vast Marktplatz jammed with tens of thousands, the scale reduced the quality like a big screen TV showing grainy newsreels of the 1955 Macy’s Day Parade. On Marktplatz the fasnacht groups were bigger, the lanterns huge, the instruments louder and brassier. But ompah bands no longer excited me. Floats with sponsors rolled by, passing out candy and oranges. It seemed canned and commercial.
There were ugly scenes with men stuffing confetti down young women’s bodices. They laughed and squealed as if they enjoyed it. So what do I know?
I grew tired of the fifes stuck like a needle in an old record. I fell behind and yearned for carnaval.
No one knew me. What did I care?
So I let loose. I danced. I strutted. I capered. I leapt. I sang “Cidade Maravilhosa” and “A Noite do Carnaval.” I raised my hands above my head like Zorba the Greek. And sometime in the coldest, darkest hours before dawn, rain-soaked and shivering, I shrugged the years off my shoulders and was young and naïve once more. I reached the place where carnaval and fasnacht bridged the polarities, where winter turned to summer, misery transformed into joy.
Exhausted and purged, I caught the tram home and crept up the squeaky stairs, into the attic where my beloveds slept. I climbed gently onto the inflatable mattress, trying not to bounce my sleeping angels, and slipped between the quilts into a deep, untroubled sleep.
Do you have a parenting tip for Hausmann?