Harvey Job Matusow's
Cockyboo & the Stringless Yo Yo
an on-line autobiographical experiment
(include some dates? a brief summary of topics covered?)
Bored. What to do. Not the slightest idea of what I wanted to do. Continue in school? Get a job? It was all hazy -- misty -- the Bronx and boredom was misty. Sameness, everyday, sameness. Collect unemployment insurance in the G.I. 52-20 Club. Uncle Sam feeding you $20 a week for 52 weeks, a hand-out for veterans who were bored.
Strange rules for the 52-20 Club. Had to go to the U.S. Employment Office every so often so they could go through the motions of trying to find you work. If, like me, you didn't want it, they didn't push you too hard. They had to find you a job in whatever profession or trade you had before you went into the army. But if, like me, you had no job background, and were in high school before you went into the service, they had a system of taking whatever your military job had been, and classifying you in a comparative civilian job. It was all in a book: COMPARATIVE JOB INDEX.
First time I went there this lady took out the book.
That concluded the interview. She marked something on my card and told me to come back in thirty days.
I was okayed to get my $20 checks for the month. When I went back to the U.S. Employment Office at the end of thirty days I didn't see the lady, but was interviewed by a man. He was balding, paunchy, in his fifties -- one had the feeling that he was counting the days until his retirement -- his attitude was one of caution -- he wasn't about to make any mistake or decision which would affect that retirement.
He smiled politely, asked me to sit down He looked at the papers, got red in the face, almost looking like a walrus as he bellowed, "What kind of crap is this? Walrus hunter, walrus hunter -- who are you kidding, wise guy?"
I argued with him, but he wasn't having any. He got up, went to the back of the room, to see his supervisor or something. Was gone about ten minutes. I could see him behind the glass door of the supervisor's room, waving his arms, shaking his head. The supervisor pointed to some document, a rule or regulation which covered the situation -- it must have satisfied him. Took him off the hook. He came back, not saying anything. Scribbled some note in my file, stamped and initialed my card and told me to come back in thirty days.
Twenty dollars a week, even in 1946 it didn't go far -- it wasn't enough to break the boredom -- I doubt if any amount could have done that. The 52-20 Club wasn't the answer.
Registered in a technical school -- to study architectural and engineering. Lasted about six weeks. Drifting as confused as ever. All that time I was still taking night courses at CCNY at the downtown, 23rd Street school.
I was there because it was free. I was there because it was downtown, near Greenwich Village. All my boredom was directed into Hollywood-like fantasies of Bohemian romance in the Village. City College didn't mean education to me. It just filled time, gave me a little money, and most important, kept Kitty from nagging me about my future. So long as I was in college, didn't make any difference what I was studying, it was real for her -- having enough status for West Bronx values. I was conning her with a thin-shelled facade -- that I was working toward a future -- one she could understand.
I leave my classes at night and drift down to the Village, around Washington Square, in and out of the bars on Macdougall Street with dreams of meeting a Margaret Sullivan or Rita Hayworth down on their luck -- unable to pay the rent on the arty Village apartment, just waiting for me and the stereotype romance which all the guide books, advertising and promotion of Bohemia offered.
Being born and brought up in New York didn't give one a tailor-made key with which to unlock the love and mysticism of Greenwich Village. Even as a child, hearing about the Village -- living fourteen miles away in the far off Bronx -- thinking of it as a village, a country village. It wasn't strange, really, we had farms in the Bronx, so why not a village, village in Greenwich Village. Disillusioned when I saw it for the first time. I was about eight or nine, driving through in my uncle's car on the way to the Staten Island ferry. Disillusioned by the Sixth and Ninth Avenue El's coming together at Greenwich Avenue and 8th Street -- It was New York, New York, just like the Bronx and Harlem -- there were no trees or cows, just people, cars, trains.
Dreaming naive dreams of escape from Bronx Boredom. Not knowing what. Hoping, as if my magic, being in the Village would suddenly fill my head and body with art, literature, and music -- soft, thinking, philosophical women -- a live of dreams and things which were not material.
Walked on, down Eighth Street -- see a girl -- Does she see me? How to get her in conversation? She walks into a shop -- See another one -- How to screw up the courage to talk to her -- She walks on -- I talk to her in my head. "Hell, this isn't the Bronx, it's the Village. Bohemia, just like Paris. Had no trouble in Paris. What's the matter, why am I freezing up? I'm not wearing a uniform. They're not interested in chewing gum and coffee.
Get to Sixth Avenue, into the Waldorf Cafeteria -- the poor man's Bohemia -- cheap coffee, sit all night arguing poetry, politics -- Look around, get coffee, don't know anyone -- It's midweek, none of the weekend Bohemians -- These people are for real, I don't belong. Sit there for about an hour wanting someone, anyone, man or woman to feel my loneliness, my not knowing -- someone, please, take me out of my Bronx world. No toilet in the Waldorf, one way to keep the gays and junkies out. No one there to save me. Get a copy of the DAILY NEWS, take the "D" train back to the Bronx.
The Bronx, 1946. What to do? Something besides standing on a street corner, meeting "the gang," childhood friends. Were they all caught up in confusion and loneliness like mine?
Play cards, go bowling, see a local movie, just stand on the corner -- the pattern of the game never changes.
Maybe he was working, or perhaps he broke the code of the corner and had a date without telling us first.
There, six, seven, eight of us clustered on the corner. That same corner that we'd staked out claim on fourteen or fifteen years earlier -- we were older, but on that corner we hadn't changed.
Like longshoreman on the docks, shaping up waiting for the call that would tear us away from the boredom.
Someone, Boo Boo, Iggy, Dicky, Miltie or anyone might walk by with a girl. Look but don't touch. When you had a date you had to some time walk her past the corner -- the absolute proof that you had found a temporary escape from the street corner prison. If you date was from the block and the others knew her, you felt secure enough to stop for a few minutes, talk, and let the others pick over her in whatever fashion they wanted.
If she was new, you didn't stop. A polite hello and on your way. Especially with new girls, when you knew the scoring game would begin.
"Who let that dog out of the kennel?"
"Harvey, good thing a cop didn't see you walking that dog without a leash."
"Where did you hid her during the day? I hear she takes ugly pills for breakfast."
Always the same, regardless of which one of us had the date. The one-liners never changed. Sometimes they would be extra cruel. When that happened, you'd want to crawl into the nearest manhole.
Cruel? Insensitive? Stupid? Partly. Also, it came from the simple, black and white success values that hung in the air of my Bronx -- whipping, driving you through childhood to become a doctor, dentist, layer, like an express train doing ninety -- Driven on one track, going so fast toward its destination that none of the poetry between the stations is ever seen.
It was all there -- Words, talk, never conversation. Whatever was said was never heard -- all one-liners. Spend an hour talking about a great hand in a card game. Who was going to win tomorrow's ball game, and wasn't yesterday's game fantastic. Bet on a ball game, shoot dice near the stoop, pitch pennies, nickels or dimes to a crack on the sidewalk cement. There it was, it wasn't there. New job you want to get, how money are you making. Get a driver's license.
I was the first one in the "gang" to get a driver's license. Surprised when I came home from the Army. Herman had a car, first he'd had since I was a child before the stock market crash. A 1937 Chevy. He kept it washed, polished and clean like a new-born babe. I had a license in the Army, but had to take a New York test. Failed first time, then some one told me to leave a five dollar bill on the front seat. Don't look at it, don't say anything, just leave it on the front seat, make believe it isn't there and take the test. If the bill was there when you finished, you failed. If it wasn't there, you passed. It wasn't there -- the car was mine to drive.
A car to drive around New York. Not tied to the Bronx and the long lonely subway rides. Growing up in the Bronx gave one an added excitement in having a car, that farm and small town kids I don't think could ever feel.
Having that car in the Bronx, old as it was, it had wheels. Wheels had meaning! My God, it was freedom. Date girl from Brooklyn, which I did for a while. Just being able to drive from the Bronx to Brooklyn, giving me something to do away from that street corner. Better than the subways -- driving along the surface, seeing all the street corners where the boredom and conversations were the same as on Macombs Road.
Having a car for the first time made Brooklyn a joyful adventure. A mobility and flexibility I'd never known in New York. But under it all, the problems were still within. Move out of the Bronx, cut the daily ties -- yes, no, escape in the car, when I could borrow it. More street corner nights. Yes, no. Move, can I, should I? It was difficult. Danny was dead, still in an unmarked grave in the U.S. Military cemetery in France. All the focus was turned on me. Wasn't good, just adding to my confusion -- didn't want that much attention. Too much family. Too much worrying at me: "What are you going to do Harvey?"
"Where are you going to now?"
"When," "How much," "When," again, never stopping, hit, run, run, run, run, get the money, get the status, make us happy, make us happy. Get an education, get a job, get a profession."
It was never hard, never nagging. I think that would have been easier to take and understand. It was never pushy, always soft sell, making it worse playing on whatever guilt I had. Wanting something for myself other than card games, ball games and street corner trivia talk.
I over-reacted to material things -- didn't hate them. I'd always been shy, uncomfortable and frightened of people. Fighting myself to overcome it, consciously compensating by tensely acting the extrovert -- pulling all the one-liners and street corner trivia out, and glibly throwing it at anyone or any situation which frightened me. Feeling the only protection I had was a fusillade of meaningless words which could stop people from getting inside me.
I wasn't unique, but I was me -- out of the Army, twenty years old, feeling old. I think if I had felt young then, none of this would have bothered me.
It was just after the mid-term Congressional elections in '46. A nice day, I had nothing to do, killing time, on the corner throwing a rubber ball against the wall. Julie, someone to say hello to, not part of our "gang," stopped to have some conversation.
I'd known him for a number of years but had never had a conversation with him except some polite talk in passing. It was the first time I'd seen him since my return from the Army. He wanted to know the usual: how I'd been, where I'd bee, what was the Army like, what was I planning to do now that I was out. It might have been the way he asked the questions, or perhaps I'd been holding it all in too long -- and just took advantage of his being there.
Found myself spitting it all out -- all the things that were bothering me. He listened, not pushing any of it aside or back at me.
He belonged to the local A.Y.D. (American Youth for Democracy) Club, and was politically involved, something I had never been. All my family and friends were also a-political. Politics didn't interest me at all.
My politics were simple. I was anti-fascist, supported the New Deal, Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, supported it because everyone around me did -- I'd never met anyone who said he was a Republican in the West Bronx. Wasn't old enough to be politically involved, couldn't vote. My sense and knowledge of history was based on the simplifications found in the high school text books.
Can't remember exactly what he said, or just how he put things, but I became interested. There was something attractive to me about the altruism of the Left Wing in New York at the end of World War II. The hopes, dreams, plans for a better world seemed to have a meaning far removed from the emptiness of the street corner.
My confusion as a child at the dumping of potatoes off the coast of Maine while people were starving in bread lines; the horrors of the war, the destruction, the rebuilding -- all these things dove-tailed in my head with my hunger for people, and the desire to have some meaning in my life, greater than playing cards, going to a bowling alley, or just working to accumulate material things.
This way my out, my escape. It didn't take long before I joined the A.Y.D., went to meetings, got petitions signed, throwing all my energy into a Cockyboo dream. The fear and hysteria of McCarthyism hadn't begun, nor had the Cold War moved into top-gear.
Communists, communism didn't frighten me or generate any feelings of hate in me. Just fought a war allied with them. Met quite a few of them in France. They were all anti-Fascists and fought and died. Didn't understand much of what they were about, but those who I'd met, I liked. I was hungry and hooked, wanting to explore this world, to relate to and try to better understand these people. It wasn't difficult at all for me to get involved in the Left Wing. American Youth for Democracy - what could be nicer than that?
"What are you doing Saturday night?" Julie asked.
"We're having a party near Gun Hill Road, why don't you come?"
I told him I'd be happy to come. He gave me the address. I didn't understand the relationship between the A.Y.D. and the Saturday night party. Every party I'd every been to was just a social party -- no strings attached.
Saturday night I discovered it to be an A.Y.D. fund-raising party. Everyone paid $1.00 to get in. First time at a party where I had to pay -- a bit strange and uncomfortable at first, thinking "I'm being conned. What's it all about?" Julie hadn't arrived yet. Didn't know anyone and was all left-footed about opening conversation with anyone.
It wasn't long before Julie arrived. He introduced me to some people, all members of his A.Y.D. Club. Found myself having a good time, more relaxed than Id been for months.
Unwound, lowering, just a little, some of the protective walls. Drank wine, talked a bit, but listened more -- strange for me, but I did.
Convinced myself that I liked most of the people there, and felt that they seemed to like me. Emotionally hungry and wanting so badly for them to like me -- convinced myself that they did.
They were all from the same areas of the Bronx that I knew and had grown up in. Yet they seemed different from my a-political "gang" from the Bronx street corner. The individual energy was the same, it was the direction which was different. They talked differently. Not that they didn't care about who won a baseball game. Some of them did. They also had room to care about other, bigger things. To me they moved differently, with a kind of self-assurance that I envied. There was a softness about them which also seemed to have great strength that I hadn't experienced or known before in my Bronx world.
I found in them an echo of the comaraderie which I had known in the Army in Europe. Wanted to jump in with both feet right there, but didn't. The feeling was for me, that everyone there belonged, being part of something bigger than themselves, working together, enjoying it.
They sang songs and drank wine -- the kind of songs I'd never heard before -- Folk songs, union songs, and songs of protest. It was for me, politics becoming real -- I could feel it, taste it and touch it.
I was hooked. My naiveté and hunger ganged up on whatever fear I had at the moment and threw me emotionally into the Left. Why not? They seemed to be working and fighting for all the "Cockyboo" fantasies I ever had, and having fun doing it. Excitement, great excitement. Movement, whirling in my head.
The feeling of belonging to something bigger, grander, more total than the limited world of the street corner -- and the girls, they were different too. No more childish games of parading a "new conquest" in front of the gang, subjected to virility scoring.
Weren't the Communists supposed to believe in free love? Professional virgins with middle-class dreams or material security didn't become Communists. Not that all the members of the A.Y.D. were Communists -- far from it -- but in my mind it was all the same -- I wanted some of it -- I wanted all of it.
I was no emotional stranger to the group. Not that different from many of them -- unable to fuse the past with the present, riding on immigrant dreams into Utopia. No sooner out of earshot of a meeting, of the hammering of slogans to do away with the draft, and save price control, of the rhythmic crowing of dogmas of a worker's paradise, or away from the sowing and reaping of signature on petitions, we always found ourselves wanting to go to bed with the opposite sex.
The confident Leftist, along like David, proudly going forth to do battle with the capitalist Goliath. Truly the struggle was great, using the sling shot and clean smooth Marxist pebble in the war -- all part of the newcomer's feeble initiation into the ranks of the working class struggle as seen through the eyes of the middle class West Bronx.
It was not easy for me to separate reality from the Cockyboo daydreams of tomorrow's Utopia. Not recognizing any of the dismal realities of life. Dreamers talking to dreamers -- and methodical organizing to alter life bringing it in line to fit snugly into the Utopian shape of things to come.
Someone gave me literature to read about the fight against Universal Military Training, and like a stumble bum in a Bowery mission, confessing his sins for a bowl of soup, I said, "Praise the movement, I believe." When only a few months earlier I'd been ready to join the Army and sit tall in a recruiting booth on Fordham Road selling a lifetime of adventure to any and all who wanted to see the world and help make the world free. Was invited to attend the local A.Y.D. meeting the following Friday. I accepted.
The party ended. Went home alone thinking of saving price controls, ending the draft, and which girl I had seen I would most like to go to bed with.
Didn't show up at the meeting that Friday. Met Julie a few days later on Macombs Road.
"Thought you were coming to the Club meeting on Friday?"
"Yeah. Sorry, I intended to, but something came up."
Something came up. My own confusion, not able to say no to a street corner suggestion. Four of us, down to the Village, boozing in one gay club after another. Drag queens, gays, all making out. Great fun, wide-eyed watching for four street corner kids, being entertained, not knowing what it was all about. Thin, skinny-ass boys, dancing with other thin, skinny-ass boys. Occasionally, a lonely, unattached, ugly, part-time gay would sidle up to the table trying to pick one of us up. Have a beer with him.Laugh, tease, drink, bur don't let him pick you up. Even if you want to, for what would your virile friends think? They sitting there with you, all wanting it -- the four of us united in the shame of Bronx virility. Wanting a girl, teasing a gay.
Friday night, getting drunk in the Village, looking at gays making love with their eyes. Wanting love, watching the gays. Wanting a woman, frightened of the women in the bathing suit ads -- girls with long, unreal, sun-tanned legs. Watching gays, dreaming about Europe where chewing gum, candy bars and coffee were all I needed to get a girl.
The "darlings," "dearies," "hello luv," shrill, high-pitched queer voices, skinny, sweaty, queer club -- thought of the Bronx, Macombs Road, the countless card games, nights of doing nothing, looked at the queers, felt alone, understood their loneliness.
Next night, Saturday, didn't start on the street corner, but on my own, down to the same queer club. Still didn't make it, didn't want to make. Watched two happy queers at the bar, each drop a raw egg in their beer. Glasses high, a noble toast shouting in unison, "Here's lead in your pencil." Sitting there alone, there's nothing as silent as being alone in a noisy, crowded bar.
As Julie again suggested that I come to the Friday A.Y.D. meeting, I remembered the queers in the bar in Greenwich Village, all the mountains of loneliness, all the uncomfortable sexual fantasies which justified masturbation, material goals, cockyboo dreams, now knowing who or what I was -- where was I going, what to do?