Lowell A. Cohn
Where I came from everyone referred to condoms as scumbags. It’s not only where I came from. It’s also when I came from. I grew up in Brooklyn in the late 1950s and early 1960s and everyone I knew called condoms scumbags because the word was so descriptive and accurate and vivid. As time went on, the word scumbag has taken on a more metaphorical meaning, as in “Irving’s a complete scumbag,” implying the Irving in question is morally shaky or has a personality which makes him unfit for basic human intercourse. Some of my younger friends who currently use the word scumbag, always in reference to a person, have no idea of its linguistic origins. The loss of the original meaning is another example of the decline of the English Language, don’t get me started.
I bring all this up because recently I was thinking about something that happened when I was fifteen. It was a Friday night and I was standing in front of my apartment house on Avenue L with my friend Stuie. Neither of us had anything to do, which was not unusual. We never had anything to do. The sun had gone down and a chill swept along the avenue and we couldn’t decide whether to walk left or right when along came an older guy. He might have been sixteen or seventeen and his name was Kessler. He knew our names and we were flattered because no one knew us. For no apparent reason he said, “You guys want to see me buy scumbags?”
Stuie said yes sure definitely. And I nodded because I’d never actually witnessed anyone buying the items in question, least of all me who’d never laid eyes on the things and would have no need to see or buy that particular consumer aid for years to come. So we walked along East 19th Street toward the drugstore on Avenue M, and Stuie asked why Kessler needed scumbags and Kessler, his chest puffed out, said, “Why do you think I need them?”
Stuie didn’t say anything but I was impressed. I had no idea why Kessler invited us along and in my innocence was flattered by his hospitality. Then Kessler said he had learned a new word studying for the college boards.
“Do you want to know the word?” he said.
“Yeah,” Stuie said. “What is it?”
“The word is xenophobia.”
“What does it mean?” I said.
“It means fear of farmers.”
“Fear of farmers?”
“Yeah, fear of farmers.”
“Why would anyone be afraid of farmers?” I asked.
“Beats me,” Kessler said.
Just then we entered the drugstore called Musso and Michaelson’s and as we walked inside I was assaulted by the unique odor of drugstores, the cloying combination of perfume and oil of wintergreen and Juicy Fruit chewing gum and arthritis medication and plastic and rubber and God knows what else, so many smells mixed together they merged into a haze of smells.
“Watch me,” Kessler announced as he walked toward the counter. We were alone, just Kessler and Stuie and me, and Michaelson the druggist who had red round cheeks and always smiled like everyone’s favorite uncle. Stuie and I stood behind Kessler, and Kessler stared at Michaelson and suddenly he hesitated before the enormity of his request. Michaelson waited. He was a patient man. Finally Kessler, his voice a little hoarse, said, “I’d like to buy prophylactics.” I couldn’t help noticing he had used the formal terminology.
Michaelson didn’t react. He stared at Kessler. I thought Kessler was in trouble. Maybe there was a law against the under-aged buying prophylactics. Maybe Michaelson at that very moment was pushing a hidden button under the counter to summon the police like a bank teller who’d just received a note: Your money or your life. But that wasn’t it at all. Suddenly the warmest smile spread across Michaelson’s kindly face and he said to Kessler, “Do you want them monogrammed?”
Kessler didn’t get the joke, but Stuie and I, who always were in the smart classes, did. Along with Michaelson we laughed our asses off at Kessler and we walked out of the drugstore laughing, and to tell you the truth I don’t know if I ever saw Kessler again, and I don’t know if he ever got to use his prophylactics that night.
But years later I was in a Kessler situation, God was I. I had moved away from Brooklyn and was a graduate student in the English Department at Stanford and in 1969 had won a fellowship to study Joseph Conrad for a year at the British Museum in London. London had more cachet than Avenue L and Palo Alto and I felt like a big deal. At least I did at first. Although I was twenty-three, I was, unfortunately, still the kindergarten baby and was not prepared to be left on my own in a foreign city. The fellowship was called the Leverhulme Fellowship, and a real Lord administered it – Lord Murray to be exact. It wasn’t until I actually arrived in London that I learned the Leverhulme Fellowship, which suggested to my youthful imagination sherry before lunch and cucumber sandwiches and castles with sprawling green lawns covered with croquet wickets, was endowed by Lever Brothers Soap. So I was a soap fellow.
I had taken a room in a part of town called Kilburn because it was cheap. I lived right near the Bakerloo Line at the Kilburn High Road in a neighborhood which looked surprisingly like Brooklyn except older. And it occurred to me I had traveled all this way only to return to the beginning. Kilburn had small two-story run-down attached homes and everything was foggy and wet and to be in London in those days was to look at the world through a dirty window. I later learned lots of Irish Republican Army terrorists lived in Kilburn but no one ever tried to blow me up.
I shared a kitchen and a bathroom, which had a bathtub but no shower and it felt creepy sliding into a bathtub, naked skin to dirty porcelain, that perfect strangers used, and it made me feel I’d gone back to the 1940s. My room was large with a high ceiling that needed paint and to heat the room I had to drop shillings into a meter, each shilling giving me an hour of juice in a small electric heater in front of the bricked-over fireplace. The heater had one bar which gave off enough wattage to melt an ice cube. The meter didn’t take enough shillings to keep the heat burning all night, so I’d wake up at three in the morning to find a low pressure system pushing in through the water-stained wall. I could see my breath in the air and I’d taken to wearing a hat in bed to keep my brains from congealing.
I didn’t actually know anyone in London. I was supposed to meet Lord Murray for lunch so he could praise me for being a Leverhulme fellow and discuss my research, something about first person dramatized narrators and moral uncertainty in the fiction of Joseph Conrad. I wanted to tell Murray – I assumed we’d drop the lord business and be a couple of pals – well, I planned to explain to good old Murray that I’d made a breakthrough in the history of knowledge and then I’d lay my Lord Jim spiel on him. But I never got around to that. I never actually got around to the British Museum, either.
I didn’t feel what you’d call normal in London. Although the English were annoyingly polite they never actually wanted to be friends like, say, New Yorkers who would tell you go fuck yourself and then invite you home to dinner. I wandered the streets of London like a ghost never talking to anyone or doing anything worthwhile or thinking the least bit about Joseph Conrad or his dramatized narrators or, God forbid, his struggle with moral uncertainty. That was his problem. My problem was terminal loneliness and an irresistible urge to admit defeat and slink back to California and sunshine and people who knew me. Because I had no one to talk to, I had begun talking to myself, long monologues involving hand gestures and laughs and snorts. I would talk anywhere, my sense of social decorum having vanished.
And then one day I noticed on a bulletin board outside Queen Mary College, where I was theoretically enrolled, a notice that said concerned Jews were marching on the Soviet embassy to protest the treatment of Soviet Jewry. This was a subject I hadn’t given much thought. Soviet Jews had their issues and I had mine. But this was an opportunity. Not just to meet a friend. It was a chance to meet a woman, the right woman from my heritage, someone sympathetic, someone wise and beautiful who would understand the depth of my solitude and restore me to life. Forget that I hadn’t stepped into a synagogue in more than a decade, not even for the cheese and wine spread after a bar mitzvah. The next day I walked into a drugstore in Kilburn for the proper accouterments because I was sure whoever she was would fall in love with me on the spot and I wanted to be prepared. I was surprised how much this place looked like Musso and Michaelson’s. I almost expected Stuie and Kessler to come strolling through the door. I wanted to ask the man behind the counter for what I needed but I was having trouble with terminology, with how not to give offense, with how to make myself clear without actually saying prophylactics or rubbers or, heaven help us, scumbags. Several older women were hanging out near the counter buying hairspray and stuff like that and that didn’t help either. I waited for them to leave while I hid behind the sunglasses rack, but they didn’t leave. For all I knew this was the social hub of Kilburn and they’d be there for hours. So I took a deep breath and walked over to the counter. The druggist, the chemist, whatever they call them, looked my way. His face had a helpful, inquiring expression. At the last minute, I received an inspiration and was glad of it. I said to him, “I need something for birth control.” I noticed I had whispered the words as if I was trying to slip them past the posse of women clinging to the counter.
The druggist stared at me, and for the longest while he didn’t say a word. Then in a loud, clear voice he said, “Breath control?”
Breath control? Was this guy hard of hearing? A bolt of panic shot through my chest, although a part of me appreciated the concept. Breath control, people all over the world squirting anti-bacterial drops into their mouths for clean-smelling breath, a whole world free of halitosis. I tried again. I leaned over the counter, looked the druggist squarely in the eye and repeated, “I need something for birth control.” This time he stared at the women who also had leaned toward me when I’d spoken. “Breath control,” he announced to them. They all huddled up like the San Francisco 49ers gathering around Joe Montana. I heard the words breath control repeated several times. I saw heads shaking. Even though all of us were speaking English we were speaking a different language. One of the women said to me in a tone of accusation, “Are you Australian?”
I tried again. Slowly I said, “Birth control. I need something for birth control.”
A light bulb of recognition beamed bright above the druggist’s head. “Oh,” he said, “You’ve got it all wrong, sonny. Birth control isn’t for men. It’s for women.”
He turned to the women who were clucking their tongues and suppressing giggles. This was becoming a nightmare. I made one last desperate attempt to clarify. “Not for women,” I said. “For me.”
One of the women walked over to me and slid her meaty arm around my shoulder. “You mean condoms, dear,” she said matter-of-factly. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
I wanted to explain I was having linguistic difficulties, but I was sure she couldn’t understand. I walked out of there with a jumbo pack. I went home and took a greasy bath and washed my hair and combed it, although I never really felt clean in that city. It was as if centuries of old coal dust had settled on my skin and turned it gray.
I met the Jews near a synagogue and a monitor walked over and politely handed me a lit candle. I said thank you. We began walking toward the Soviet embassy, a whole procession of outraged Jews and me. It was dark and the procession stretched for blocks and the candles flickered and glowed. It felt good to be part of a group. I noticed a young woman walking next to me, dark hair, dark eyes, long dark eyelashes. I was sure her name was Rachel or Ruth or Sarah, some fine Old Testament name. I knew she could understand me. She had ripe peaches for breasts, let me climb among the fruit. I smiled at her. Rachel or Ruth or Sarah smiled back. Her teeth were as white as liquid White Out. I leaned toward her searching for just the right thing to say. “Sure is a nice march,” I intoned, breaking the ice. She smiled back. She didn’t say anything. I got straight to the point. “What are you doing later?” I asked.
The monitor hurried over to me with a stern look on his face.
“What’s up?” I asked.
And then the monitor told me, “This is a silent march.”
“A silent march?”
“Yes, a silent march.”
“You mean no talking?”
“Shush,” he said.
I looked at Rachel or Ruth or Sarah for support. “Shush,” she said.
I wanted to say to them, “To hell with your silent march. I need someone to talk to.” Now more people were shushing me. A confederacy of shushers.
At the next corner I dropped out of the protest. I figured the Jews could get along just fine without me. On my way to the Bakerloo line I dumped my candle into a garbage can. A half hour later, I slumped into my cold dank room and sat on the bed and saw the water drops near the ceiling and took a deep breath. And from some place down the corridor of years, I’m not sure why, I retrieved the memory of Kessler and I apologized to him because I had laughed at him, which made me feel like – well there’s no better way to put it – I felt like a real scumbag.