THERE ARE PICTURES of me from those days in my father's arcade, taken in the little take-your-own-picture booth which eventually rewarded the patient customer with a single blurry likeness in a tin easel-backed frame.
My mother has only one of the hundreds my grandfather and I sat for, but it is typical: too small still to reach the camera's focal point, I sat on my grim-faced grandtfather's lap and grinned up into the lens, making the red cowboy hat I so constantly wore fall back on my head. After the green light had gone out, I would stand by the machine, my hands -- as always -- clasped behind my back, shifting impatiently from foot to foot.
Distracted briefly by the covers of the magazines on the stands in my father's adult bookshop/arcade, I would wait until the little picture slid down the chute to me.
I am sometimes told it was no place for a child, that shop on 9th Street, home of the take-it-yourself picture machine, set in the heart of Washington's pornography district (not as colorful as New York's 42nd Street, not as notorious as The Block in Baltimore, but the wares are unquestionably the same).
These days on 9th Street, the legendary Gayety Burlesk House has been replaced by a parking lot, and the shooting gallery I once played in -- so long ago I can scarcely remember -- has been torn down in dubious favor of the new and characterless FBI building. It is hard to go there now and summon up pictures of The Old Neighborhood: so much of what my brother Danny and I recall is passe now.
In the old days, homosexuals trysted in the lower levels of the parking lot; ladies with hydrant-red hair and eyes hidden deep in coats of mail-order mascara chewed gum behind the thick glass fronts of the strip-show box offices; there must have been whores but I was too young to tell them from the rest of the people who passed by the Playland. That was the headquarters, the first floor of my father's "office" building, the smut shop I frequented (quite naturally, it seemed to me) the way Farmer John's kid haunted the henhouse.
My mother worked at the Playland -- behind the lunch counter that was there from the beginning, when the Playland was just a penny arcade -- for three years when Danny and I were very small.
Hoosier-born, daughter of a stern Dutchman and a strict Alabama Episcopalian, she followed my father from a tiny town on Maryland's Eastern Shore to a penny arcade on wicked Ninth Street, which -- no one quite remembers when -- added "dirty books" to its panorams and pin-ball machines "when everybody else did." She grilled hotdogs behind the counter and drove the cigarette truck when there was no one else to do it, and when she was gone she left us in the care of the store manager -- often an ex-Marine with hands like bed-slats and a broken nose -- or Pop, our grandfather.
The Playland was a tiny place, nowhere particular for us to go, and thus I was either left to make change at the front counter (until my grandfather would inevitably find me handing out three dimes for a quarter), to fidget in the back office where Pop counted the money, or to watch the legendary Dutch in his tattoo-stall until my presence there was discovered and I was lifted out by the seat of my Davy Crockett shorts. It was a haven for a child.
"How can you let those children go down to that place?" my mother's acquaintances would sometimes ask her. "Why shouldn't I?" she would say.
Lighthorse Harry came in every day, a tiny, fragile man with a fedora and a hearing aid I thought was a string you could pull and his mouth would open. But I was prevented from trying and thus was sure I was right, for I never heard him speak. Every day, he passed where I sat, leaning on the counter and looking at the pictures pasted on the for-sale-movie boxes until someone caught me. Harry would rap -- always twice, never more -- on the glass under my nose, and by the time I looked up I would see the back of his gray overcoat passing back into the panoram section of the store. When I looked down again I'd find a dime. A Mercury head dime.
The agreement was tacit, between Harry and the store manager and me: that this dime and I would venture two doors up to the Gayety, where Pearl Lake -- the owner's wife -- would grin from the ticket booth as she watched me shove at the heavy glass doors until they opened on the theater lobby, where the ice cream stand was.
My mission was voice-controlled: the store manager's perfunctory "Not past the curtain" was automatic as I left the Playland, passage from lobby to theater in the Gayety being blocked by a grubby beige curtain.
Sometimes I ate my ice cream in the lobby, so I could listen to the music. In evil moods I would pull the curtain back, just enough, and watch the show until the vendor caught me and sent me back up the street. Did I, in my red cowboy hat and matching high-top Buster Browns, catch young Blaze Starr? I can't imagine I missed her.
I was into the numbers racket before I could add. "Hey, Curly, gimme a parley" meant as much to me as my name. I can't recall when I didn't simply look up at the speaker and give three numbers off the top of my head, which was then patted by the prospective bettor, who left mumbling the numbers to remember, having sometimes come in to the arcade for the sole purpose of getting the information.
Pete, the numbers runner, bespectacled and tall and my first love after Eddie Fisher, stopped in daily for a hotdog and a chat, both of which I provided when no one was looking, because Pete would swing me and sit me on the counter and pull his bettors' quarters out of my ears. Pete was magic: He tickled me to the floor 'til my mother, if she was there, said "Honey, it's dirty," or Pop gave me hell just because you couldn't give children too much hell.
The dirty books were there; I can't remember when they weren't, or the mooning asses, breasts and foot-long penises ever impressed me as pertinent to my brother's body, my parents' or my own.
We weren't supposed to spend too much time around the book and magazine racks, but we weren't really interested: Behind the orange screen door big Dutch, the tattoo artist, was -- to my mother's horror -- painting huge ships and hideous snakes on sailors, and there was real blood. Dutch tried to tell us it didn't hurt, but we saw the blood ooze from white sails and "Lola's" eyes, and sometimes the sailors would squeeze my hands until I knew that tattoos hurt. If I looked up over Dutch's bald head, through his hatchway, I could see the displays of dildoes and switchblade knives.
Sometimes Jeep would start a fight outside on the street. Jeep loved us, probably loved everybody, a punch-drunk who sang "That Old Gang of Mine" and fought with anybody over anything because he loved to fight.
But the fight wasn't the best part. The best part was when the policeman arrived -- never needed more than one -- and cleared his throat loud enough for Jeep to hear over the noise of his employment. Sometimes, if Jeep happened to be fighting two and was thus more than usually occupied, the policeman might find it necessary to actually speak Jeep's name in order to make his official presence known. "Jeep!" he'd say, and Danny and I would watch -- our noses pressed against the arcade's glass door -- as Jeep disengaged himself, wiped his hands on his T-shirt, and caught his breath.
"Let's go," the policeman would say, and -- unhandcuffed, walking a respectful distance behind as the policeman led the way -- Jeep would walk down to the Second Precinct Stationhouse to be booked, again, for drunk-and-disorderly. Jeep has great respect for the law.
The kind of respect Jeep saved for the Second Precinct my brother and I reserved for my father. A tall, thin, swarthy Jew, my father represented the final arbiter of all situations to us, and early on we learned to abide quietly and quickly by his word.
He was not your garden-variety father: We didn't see him often because he was not the "home" sort, but rather the product of an aggravated broken home who carried the scars as deeply as I can imagine. Our natural childhood diseases chased him away for weeks at a time, and his absences lengthened until he was scarcely at home at all. But he remained a deus-ex-machina figure who swooped down, unannounced, to take us from our elementary school to the circus, and responded to the principal's angry dismissal of his intention by saying, "If it weren't for me you wouldn't have them at all."
His method of discipline was his own, governed by the watchwords "Don't do as I do; do as I say." And we did, for he wore a heavy leather belt that removed itself from his trouser-loops with dangerous swiftness, and a wise child curbs his transgressions when faced with that kind of talent. My father had not sired idiots: We trod softly in his presence and kept his belt in its safety zone.
My father was an old man to come to his line of business. His talents betrayed his nature: an ex-racecar driver with little education but a keen head for business; a mechanic of legendary skill (we marvelled at the nail on the small finger of his right hand, unnaturally long in the Greek fashion, and unbreakable -- or so it seemed to us when we watched him use it as a screwdriver); a man who cursed fluently and often (to the despair of my mother's mother); yet a remarkably pristine man.
Although the playland was second-nature to us, unremarkable in its remarkableness, he forbade his employees to comment on the magazines when we were in earshot. When I asked to go to the Gayety to see a performance by a stripper who'd been kind to me, he said, "When I think you're old enough, I'll take you." He never did.
When we were old enough to run the back-room shrink-wrap machines that sealed the raunchier magazines, we giggled with everyone else at the covers we wrapped and stickered. . . But when my father overhead us joking around, his anger was disturbed democratically: Danny and I were barred from the shrink-wrap area until the incident was forgotten.
Strangely, there was no allue to those stacks of magazines in their accessible state; it was our sole opportunity to flip through them without having to tear open a plastic bag, but we seldom did. For Danny and me, the attraction in the shrink-wrap room was a beautiful, ageless, Amazonlike black woman who had been there as long as we could remember. She taught my brother to dance when she thought it was time, and as the styles changed she taught him all the new steps, until finally she stood back and said, "Not bad, fo' a white boy."
We were never positive about her feelings toward us, though she'd known us all our lives. It was probably her racial attitude that shaped ours, but it was not untl years later -- after Danny and I had scattered into our own lives and returned to the Playland only as occassional visitors -- that she put it obscurely enough for us to understand.
One day, while I wrapped magazines with her -- "put 'em in feet first, honey" -- and listened to local black station WOOK, we heard a department store's advertisement for a white sale. She looked at me, grinned with broad white teeth and laughed, saying, "White sale? Who they gonna sell?" We had always been within the circle of her trust, but until then we had never really known.
My parents never thought of keeping us away from the Playland. My mother says now, "If I'd kept you away, you might have been ashamed of what your father does for a living. I considered my options and the decision wasn't hard to make: you could only benefit from being there."
My father said then, "Educated idiots, that's what they'll do to you. Keep your eyes open here and you might learn something." He wanted us to do well in school, and was pleased when we did. But he took parts of our education in his own hands to handle in his own unorthodox way, to make sure we didn't depend on books to run our lives. We'll handle our children the same way.
His uncle owned a yacht club on the Chesapeake Bay, a knot of little concrete cabins clustered round a network of catwalks and a central clubhouse. We never knew how our father became expert on the water. He could do anything; there was no reason for us to question him.
We had the run of the place, could do things the other children could not. We banged in and out of the kitchen, playing around the skirts of Grace, the timeless black cook who settled our disputes and stocked the refrigerator with clumps of parsley which we took in handfuls whenever we liked. We swam in the pool after hours and toyed with the band's drums when the clubhouse was empty.
In those days there were slot machines on the Chesapeake, but at my uncle's club they were restricted to the bar, where -- except for my brother and me -- children were forbidden to go. We found the slot machines hypnotic, irresistible. And when we were not very old -- my brother perhaps 10, I three years younger -- but tall enough to yank on the beckoning arms, my father looked up from his Cutty Sark and water (with ice, and a twist).
He was perhaps momentarily peeved by these brown-legged heathens in his life, but then he came to us and said, "You like those?" Yes, we did. And he went to the bar and bought $40 worth of silver dollars -- a rajah's treasure to a child in whose hand a quarter still looked huge -- and gave us each 20. He then dragged two barstools to the machines so that we could see when and how we won. "Play those until they're all gone," he said.
We felt the heavy coins in our hands and wanted only to take them down to our boat -- Fagele, the Yiddish word for "little bird" -- and play with them, lose them, feel them tearing away the pockets of our shorts. "Play them away," our father said. We knew enough to cross him.
We began to play them, winning and losing, sneaking the odd coin into a pocket and having it removed by my father's hand or the echo of his edict in our minds; our shoulders were sore from yanking at the machines' arms. We played the silver dollars away until they were all gone. Our having them had been brief and pointless. We had done nothing to earn them, but the pressure of them in our hands had been blissful. The loss of them had been hard work and we had nothing to show for it.
Weary, we turned empty palms to our father and we were shooed away from the bar. Should he have smiled at us for doing as he said and pulled a silver dollar for each of us out of his seemingly bottomless pocket? Perhaps a father inclined toward sentiment would have. But there was no sentiment in our father. He was a businessman. For $40 he had bought the desire to gamble from his two children. For two dollars he could ruin the deal. Our father was seldom wrong when it came to business.
He handled us the same way whenever a lesson was left to him. My father saw no sense in leaving until later the prevention of a potential mistake. Thus we smoked and dranked early but briefly, so that now I do neither and Danny -- a more social creature than I -- picks up and abandons both as situations dictate.
Were we overstimulated as children? Yes, I think so. But by a man unprepared to raise children and a frightened country girl with only her mother's example to guide her through situations her mother had prayed against all her life. Our friends tend to be fascinated by the stories Danny and I tell now, but to us they remain childhood memories, the backbone of the adults we have become.
Some people, of course, were not so amused by the turf we ran as children. My mother says, "It was a way of avoiding people sometimes. If I just didn't want to be bothered with some new people, I'd tell her what business your father was in. That generally solved the problem."
Even now my so-called "liberated" friends will ask me when I learned that what my father did was "wrong." Instead I tell another story, the last story. The fact is I didn't know my father's business was controversial until I reached the seventh grade of my Maryland public school.
If was the first year we were allowed to fill out our own pupil information sheets, and under "Father's Occupation" I printed "Sells adult books." My teacher came to me the next day and said 'd have to change the entry. "Nice people's parents," she told me, "don't do that." In a rare cooperative moment, I scratched through my original description and wrote "Businessman" instead.
I wasn't ashamed, but the incident began a new phase of my life that continues even now. I never broach the issue of my father's business with strangers, and even friends have to stumble into the subject to pry the information out. Still, Dutch's stall is empty now, the tatoo-man long dead, and his studio is the Playland's manager's office. It doesn't really matter who we tell: Anyone who wasn't there when it happened missed it anyway.