A couple of years ago, I read an excerpt from a book called “From the Mouths of Rabbis” while I sat in my therapist waiting room. I found it curious that my Italian born Tibetan Buddhist therapist, Rinaldo, had this compact little book full of Hebrew wisdom. Usually you would find books like the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or a tome of Zen esoteric philosophy by Shunryu Suzuki with vague passages about letting go of the self, or the transient quality of life. You know, a leaf flowing down the river of time and all that crazy shit that really bends your noodle and tries your patience.
I casually flipped through the Rabbi book, relieved that I didn’t have to think too hard on this one. Most of the writing was short and to the point. One passage struck me. This is what it read:
A young rabbinical student asked his teacher, a
well learned and wise Rabbi, how to live an
honorable life in the eyes of God. The Rabbi
thought long and hard, and finally stated,
“People are born like mice, live like mice, die
like mice. Don’t be a mouse!”
I thought about the text and smiled. The door to Rinaldo’s office opened, and a middle aged man came out. I sat up to go in and he quickly rushed to the door and left. Most clients would do that, like anyone could size them up coming out of a psychiatrist office and immediately peg their malady. Rinaldo came out of his office and gave me a big hug and kiss on the cheek and said, “How beautiful you look.”
If there was one thing the boy who came to the door on that Halloween day in 1975 was not, was mouse. My mother and grandmother led me from house to house that day, collecting candy from the neighbors. I was dressed in a ultra tight Superman costume my mother labored to get me in. The trick or treating was pretty rough going. I was a portly and out of shape 7 year old, and the only thing keeping my legs moving was the horde of candy that would be mine at the end of the day.
So, we walked up and down the hills of the suburban landscape, packed with houses that were exact clones of one another. Rarely did their shapes deviate: two story boxes on hillsides all in rows, just like in the Melvina Reynolds song.
This was Rockland County: a suburb north of Manhattan on the west side of the Hudson River. The town we lived in was Congers, a predominately Irish Italian blend with some German sprinkled in, and we all marched to that American drum: The fathers took that hour and a half commute into Manhattan, Monday through Friday, while the mothers raised their children, walked their dogs, cooked their dinners. Saturdays were for shopping, and if you could, squeeze in a quick confession at church. Sundays were for Mass, then cold cuts from the local deli pilled high on fresh rolls from Artuso’s bakery. Dad would watch the football game. Mom would cook the post game dinner: roast beef or pork chops. Then the week would start all over again. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Conversions ranged from trivial weather patterns to watered down politics. A conversation would start off about the weather, move onto how it was affecting their lawns, then once they were warmed up, they would talk about Watergate or Vietnam as heard on TV. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The Mashans were the exception . They lived at the bottom of a hill, away from the track housing, in a old decrepit farm house. While most of the houses in the neighborhood had well manicured lawns, the Mashan’s house was blocked by trees and bushes. You could barely see it, from the road. Walking up the drive way, you noticed the worn white paint on the front of the house, and a porch jutting out over a patch of untended ground.
My mother led her chubby little Superman up the stairs of Mashan’s porch. I looked up at my mother who was secretly smiling to herself. I knew she liked the Mashans. There was Rudy, his wife Amy, and their three kids, John, Nathan and 4 year old Ida. Basically they were hippies. Surprisingly, my father liked them too. They had some things in common. Both he and Rudy Mashan were artists. My father was a commercial artist, working for the likes of Westinghouse and Mobile, while Rudy eked out a living as painter. Both my mother and father were from the city, the Bronx to be exact. Rudy and company were from Greenwich Village. Shockingly, I found out later in life that my parents first tried Marijuana with the Mashans. I always thought my mother would have preferred to live like the them. However, despite my fathers artist ability, he lacked that radical edge.
My mother rang the door bell, the ding dong of it tried desperately to pierce the cacophony of rock music that was playing from deep in the house. There was the sound of a woman’s high heels clicking and clacking quickly to the door.
“Here’s Amy,” my mother said.
It swung open. My mother was expecting to be eye level with Amy. Instead, the three of us looked at Nathan Machan in black silk stockings, held up by a flimsy garter belt. The 13 year old was wearing a pair of 4” black leather pumps. He was bear chested, obviously in the middle of his halloween transformation. His face was heavily made up, and very beautiful, despite being quite boyish.
Nathan’s hands were at his hips, body proudly erect, looking with feminine intensity at us. My grandmother was aghast. My mother tickled pink. I was confused and disturbed. I could feel the blood rush to my face. I felt very uncomfortable, like one of the those dreams you have when you are walking around in public, stark naked.
“My! Aren’t you sexy,” My mother laughed. My grandmother huffed. With alluring female grace, he picked up a tootsie roll from a bowl by the door and placed it delicately into my orange pumpkin bucket.
“There you go chubbsy ubsy.” he whispered, looking coyly into my eyes.
“Nathan! Give him more than that.” Amy Mashan finally came to the door. “Don’t be stingy! Hi Joyce. Hi Thelma. Donald, how are you?”
“Ummmm.” I stood there embarrassed and red faced.
“Don’t mind Nathan. He’s doing it for the shock value. Every Halloween he tries to one up himself. Last year he was a German WWII Stormtrooper.”
My grandmother looked at him coldly.
“How bold.” my mother said, admiring the oddity in front of her.
My mother and Amy talked briefly, while I watched Nathan walk up and down the hall in his mother’s heels. Every so often he would glance at me and smile. He had me and he knew it. Nathan wasn’t going to let me go until the front door closed. Finally Amy closed the door and it would be the last time I would see a male dressed in female attire until much later in life and it would be the last time I saw Nathan trip the light fantastic and bust out his mothers heels. Nathan was not a transvestite you see, nor a homosexual, in fact, he grew into a handsome young ladies man living the bohemian life style his parents instilled in him. His passions lay with music however, not art. Like his father, he would be broke, but to me he was hip, sexy and darkly beautiful.
Except for a brief recounting of the incident by my amused mother to my father over dinner, the incident was quickly forgotten by all, except me. That night, I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept thinking of Nathan. Black high heeled shoes. Sheer nylons. Smooth chest. Then I started to fantasize that I was wearing the shoes and the nylons stockings. I’m not sure whether at that age I could get an erection, but I’m sure if I could, I would have. Some boys sexual life are triggered by seeing a naked girl in a magazine. Not me. It was Nathan and the vision he put there in my head. The vision was my malady and obsession. My shame and joy. A holy vision that dogged me.