Monday, June 30, 2003

[6/30/2011] Perelman Tonight: "Move over, Asia" -- Part 5 of "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)


The S.S. President Cleveland: the largest single object
our children had ever been called upon to take apart
"Throughout the next few weeks, until it deposited us on an alien shore to become targets for malaria, dysentery, Singapore foot, bilharzia, frambesia, sprue, Delhi boils, tropical ulcers, monkey pox, dengue fever, predatory shopkeepers, and Heimweh, this gleaming gray leviathan would be home."
-- from the conclusion of "Low Bridge -- Everybody Down"

The Swiss Family Perelman

Chapter 2, Low Bridge -- Everybody Down
Part 3 of 3

Reports had latterly been seeping across the snows of the Great Continental Divide that as a result of extensive legislative snooping, the film colony was racked by fear and espionage and that nobody dared express his political convictions. In the MGM commissary at least, one saw no hint of it. True, the chair I sat in had a dictaphone concealed under it and a man at the next table took down everything we said in shorthand, but all about us people spoke their minds in forthright fashion, seemingly oblivious of consequences. The names of Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, and Samuel Gompers were bandied about on every lip, and one hothead, a partisan of Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Rider, even undertook to applaud the latter's dictum of "Bust the Trusts." Midway in his panegyric, he suddenly became aware of Adam listening to him with open-mouthed interest.

"Who -- who's that?" he quavered, springing to his feet and upsetting his yoghurt. I assured him it was only my son, but he was clearly unmanned. "He looks like an FBI agent to me," he muttered, sponging his forehead with a Q-tip. "Jeez, don't let this get any further. If Darryl or L.B. ever heard it, I'm out on my can."

The social life of the industry, into which we threw ourselves with the abandon of a couple of juniors home for the holidays from Miss Walker's School, had changed little in two years. It still consisted of an endless round of buffets full of people one had met the previous evening, all of them exactly one day older. Dinner-party conversation in a manufacturing center like Lowell, Nashua, or Wilmington usually deals with shoes, blankets, or smokeless powder, relieved with gossip about the foreman of the bleaching room niggling up to the stockroom babes. In Beverly Hills it dealt with previews, credits, and the boudoir escapades of any couple who had failed to attend that evening. Necks were engorged with blood and passions fanned to white heat as our screenwriter friends wrangled over their precise mathematical contributions to various current movies. "I did seventeen and one-fifth per cent of the original story idea of Wizened!" they shouted, "and thirty-two and five-sixteenths per cent of the additional dialogue of He Shot Her Bolt! Come on outside, you bastard!" Our impending voyage to the East was regarded with overwhelming envy. By turns each of the guests confessed to us that he would love to travel but the premiums on his annuities kept him in want. At the end of the meal, the ladies retired to their hostess's bedroom to compare handbags and hysterectomies, and the gentlemen, lighting cheroots, drank bumpers of Madeira to the Wunderkind of the week, typified at that point by Dore Schary. It was a piquant mixture of the Main Line, the Mermaid Tavern, and any lesser French penal colony like New Caledonia; and when, on the ninth day, we awoke with the characteristic roar in the antrums which betokens a surfeit of unreality, I knew it was time to load the felt yurts on the shaggy ponies and graze on.

Excitement was rife in the waiting room of the Los Angeles municipal airport as we straggled in. A mechanism similar to a jukebox, called the Insurograph and vending life insurance policies up to $25,000 at a quarter a throw, had recently been installed. Around it milled a dozen prospective air passengers, faces fever-flushed and chattering like ticket-holders at the Irish Sweepstakes. My attempt to curl up in a quiet corner with Peekaboo, a journal of the haute poitrine filled with angle shots of Dusty Anderson, came to naught; dragging me by the coattails, the children besought me to try my luck. Judging from the legend on the face of the Insurograph, "If good coin has been rejected, reinsert," parties unknown had already attempted to beat the machine. I fished a slug out of my change-purse and followed suit, but without success. After protracted bickering as to which portion of whom needed coverage most, I compromised by insuring my wallet, naming the Stuyvesant Cat Hospital beneficiary. Unfortunately for the grimalkins, who might today be rolling in salmon, our plane arrived in San Francisco in apple-pie order -- a demonstration at once of the folly of gambling and of removing one's eyes for even an instant from Dusty Anderson.

In the monstrous clangor of the embarkation shed, jostled by porters trundling baggage trucks and deafened by the crash of cargo slings, we stared mutely at the President Cleveland towering above us. Throughout the next few weeks, until it deposited us on an alien shore to become targets for malaria, dysentery, Singapore foot, bilharzia, frambesia, sprue, Delhi boils, tropical ulcers, monkey pox, dengue fever, predatory shopkeepers, and Heimweh, this gleaming gray leviathan would be home. For the children it was a challenge, the largest single object they had ever been called upon to take apart. To my wife, it was the opportunity she had been thirsting for, a chance to unpack her effects and scramble them so they could never be repacked. To me it was a peaceful haven between worlds, beyond the jangle of the telephone, where I could tot up the bills I owed and worry myself into neurasthenia.

"Well, folks," I said in what began as a portentous baritone and ended as a falsetto trill. "Les jeux sont faits. Cast off."

"What's the matter?" my wife queried, with that devilish intuition her sex betrays on the most infelicitous occasions. "Getting cold feet?"

"Listen, you," I said, my eyes as pitiless as flint. "Once I set my hand to the plow ----" Exactly what dread events transpired when I did so, she never found out, for the rest of the sentence was blasted into eternity by the bellow of the ship's siren. My wife sighed deeply, shook her head, and trudged after me up the gangplank.

"Move over, Asia," she said compassionately. "Poor old continent. You don't know what's coming at you."

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