I STEAL A MATCHBOOK FROM MARILYN MONROE
THE HORNY AND THE DEAD
It’s 1961 and Brooklyn isn’t cool yet. It’s still a tributary, sending stenographers and piece workers across the bridge to mother Manhattan. Where colorful locals “tawk like dis” and mourn their departed Dodgers.
No war movie is complete without a “dese and dose” Flatbusher getting a salami from his mommy while he wisecracks in the Army. No B-musical can be filmed without a gum-popping Coney Island chorine who “knows the score.”
The Brooklyn Museum has a world renowned collection of hieroglyphs and papyri; the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens has the finest stand of Japanese cherry trees outside of Kyoto. But those joints (as we say in Brooklyn) are just for tourists and field trips.
Norman Mailer and Truman Capote are Brooklynites, not to mention poet Marianne Moore for whom the term “doyenne” was invented. But they live in Brooklyn Heights, a spit, which broke off from Manhattan Island after the Ice Age and has been trying to reattach ever since.
The real Brooklyn is a seething mass of sexual speculation. Three million people existing in uneasy intimacy with total strangers. Standing nose to nose and crotch to buttock on the subway. Adjoining each other in crowded apartment buildings where you can hear a sigh or smell a fart through thin walls. Looking at each other and wondering: “Does she want to?” “Is that a hint?” “Why is he staring at me like that?” “Should I say something?” ” What if Morty finds out?” “Jeeze, her boyfriend’s a fuckin’ giant…”
You want libidinal chaos? Try Coney Island on a summer weekend. The beach is a heaving mass of wriggling limbs, so jammed you can’t see the sand. Every age and variety of human anatomy is on display. You seesaw from repulsion to infatuation as you tiptoe between the blankets.
In my wanderings I see a clump of humanity, risen like a bush in the desert. That means there’s a hot bod on a blanket. I change course, trampling shrieking infants and dozing oldsters until I find myself on the fringe of a group of desperate men, all trying very hard not to look at what they came to see. A babe in a bikini pretends she doesn’t know she’s being watched and continues doing her nails, smoking a cigarette or, most excruciating of all, lying on her stomach while her friend spreads Bain de Soleil on the backs of her legs. She doesn’t have to be a beauty. A bit of boob peeking out of the bottom of a bra, a wisp of unshaven pube is enough to draw a frenzied mob.
Brooklyn is a place to be from, not to go to. This is proven by who dies and who buries them.
I’m working at Riverside Memorial Chapel, a funeral parlor on Park Circle across from Prospect Park. I’m a “removal man.” Every night I go to cluttered apartments in shabby neighborhoods where a very old person has quietly passed among his/her souvenirs. The deceased can lay undiscovered for days, even weeks, their death scent oozing out from under the door, obscured by cooking smells, gas leaks and general funk. Eventually, the uncashed Social Security checks in their mailboxes sound the alarm and cops arrive with crowbars. I show up soon thereafter, black suit and body bag my badge of office. I walk past stiffly posed photos of the old country, wedding pictures, Bar Mitzvah shots to a rumpled bed where a crumpled person in a cotton nightgown or striped pajamas settled in for a nap and never woke up.
I move bodies out of morgues in large hospitals. The attendant slides open a drawer on staring faces in the blue hospital gowns they died in.
I venture into Brooklyn’s vast, uncharted interior. To forgotten Jewish nursing homes in the encroaching black ghetto. The splintered steps creak. The warped screen door squeals. On the porch skeletons turn.
Is he here for me?
No Shmuel, you’re not dead yet.
The deceased is covered by a threadbare gray sheet. A friend sits by the window, nodding and licking cracked lips. They hand me a small valise and a shopping bag filled with used sundries. I belt it onto the stretcher on top of the body.
Two days later we bury them. The families show up all sleek and suburban in shiny sedans. The men are dressed for the office. The women wear dark suits, fur capes and walk in clouds of scent. The grandchildren bicker and fidget. Everyone has that extra layer of flesh that you get when you’re born in America.
A hired rabbi reads the prayers and gives a brief summary of the person’s life. It’s 1961 so we get a lot of “he/she survived the hell of Auschwitz;” or “came to this country at the age of nine with nothing but the clothes on his/her back; ” or “sent three children through college on a cutter’s salary…”
Occasionally, a cry of grief escapes like a hiccup.
“Momma, don’t leave me…”
“Forgive me Papa…”
It is answered by a brief of chorus of sobs and murmurs. The rabbi waits for silence, then concludes with the prayer for the dead. The chapel empties. We wheel the casket into the hearse. And wheel the next casket in for the next service.
Jews don’t bury on Saturday so Sunday is our busiest day. The manager is Italian, Anthony Sconzo, but he calls himself Yale Slutnick in deference to the clientele. On Sundays his wife cooks dinner for the staff, A big pot of veal pizzaiola with meatballs and chunks of sausage. Baked ziti with eggplant and mozzarella. Broccoli rabe. We eat in the back office, slipping on Orthodox burial shrouds so we won’t get sauce on our suits.
I don’t get this food in my mother’s kitchen so I am gorging myself when the phone rings. Sconzo listens for a while.
“Very funny, Angie” And covers the phone, shaking his head. “My stupid sister-in-law…” But then gets serious.
“Yes, okay, I understand…Sure…We’ll take care of it…”
And hangs up with a look of utter stupefaction.
We watch as he struggles to regain the power of speech.
“Why is this day different from all other days?” he finally gasps.
We pause, forks poised.
He rises and stretches his arms to the sputtering fluourescents, looking like Lazarus in his sauce-spattered shroud.
” Marilyn Monroe will be attending a funeral here,” he announces.
A scream issues from his limbic recesses.
“MARILYN FUCKIN’ MONROE!”
Next: THAT ARTHUR MILLER? WHO KNEW?