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Bushman lives, p.3
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       Bushman Lives!, p.3

           Daniel Pinkwater
 
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  “Yeah!” people in the crowd shouted. “How do they do it? Those rich bastards!”

  “It’s easy. They have a system. It’s a system for making everybody into zombies who will do what they’re told. You know what it’s called?”

  “What? What’s it called?”

  “It’s called . . . education,” the guy said. “They start working on you in kindygarten. They teach you how to behave, and they get you used to turning off your brain by making things so unbearable that you can’t stand the pain. You! Young man!”

  He was pointing at me. “Me?” I said.

  “Yes, you. Come up here.”

  “You want me to come up there?”

  “Just step up here. I want these fine people to see you.” He held out his hand. I stepped up onto the little concrete wall, about a foot high, where he was standing. “What’s your name, sonny?”

  “Harold,” I told him.

  “You and I have never met before, is that correct?”

  “Correct,” I said.

  “And I am assuming you attend some high school.”

  “Correct,” I said. I was looking out at the crowd, which was sixty or seventy people by this time.

  “Now, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to regard Harold here. He is a fine young man, appears to be healthy, reasonably strong. You are not congenitally feeble-minded, are you, Harold?”

  “Not to my knowledge,” I said.

  “Of normal intelligence. But observe the lack of luster in the eyes, ladies and gentlemen, the passive stance, the slack-jawed expression. Harold, while the fires of youth still burn within him, and while he has not yet been beaten into a lump of obedient human clay, is most probably doomed.”

  “The poor kid! He’s doomed!” people in the crowd shouted.

  “Harold, what is the first word that comes to mind when I ask you to describe your experience in the public school system?”

  “Well . . . it’s . . . boring,” I said.

  “Boring. Exactly. And Harold, what would any normal person do when confronted by something that is certain to be boring?”

  “Avoid it?” I said.

  “Precisely. And if you physically can’t avoid it, can’t get away from it, you learn to settle into yourself quietly, and wait for it to go away. And that is what we teach Harold in school. Sit still, turn off the brain, wait for the end of the day, then stumble out into the sunlight, brain slowly dying because it hasn’t been fed anything, and get a smoke, a Coke, a beer, or some other drug. Harold, do you hate high school?”

  “Yeah! I hate it!” I said.

  “Has it done you the least good?”

  “High school has not done me the least good,” I said. I was actually starting to enjoy being up there with the guy in the soldier hat.

  “Has it ever occurred to you that it is set up the way it is on purpose? How do you feel about the idea that the whole purpose of sending you to school has been to break your spirit and make you docile?”

  “It makes me feel better about the whole thing,” I said.

  “It does?” Soldier hat was not expecting this answer. I think he wanted me to say I was mad.

  “Sure. Because if someone is doing it deliberately, then they are merely evil, and if I have to pick, I’d rather deal with evil people than stupid ones. You can defeat or escape from evil people, but if the whole system is stupid, top to bottom, then you’re just sunk.”

  “That’s an interesting point of view, Harold,” the guy in the overseas cap said. “Is there something you plan to do, should you survive the school system?”

  I don’t know why I said it—I certainly had never thought about it before. What I said was “I’m going to try to be some kind of artist.”

  “Thanks, Harold. You may step down now. I want to explain to these people about capitalism.”

  I shook hands with the guy and waved to the crowd. “Bushman lives,” I said.

  “Bushman lives!” they hollered back.

  Chapter 8

  Heiss Hunden

  I wandered away from Bughouse Square, and as I wandered, I wondered if I really could be some kind of artist, and if so, what kind?

  My first pick would be to be one of these guys who makes up songs and picks a guitar—but the fact that I had been fired by my music teacher that very morning suggested I might do better to pick something other . . . than a guitar. Writing poetry would not involve any particular expense—a notebook and a ballpoint would be all I’d need—but then I had never made up a poem and didn’t find them all that fascinating in English class. Writing stories or books might be better, but there was something pathetic about being a guy who sits and does that all day. I didn’t know very much about doing paintings, or making sculpture, but I had enjoyed both in kindergarten and first grade. I was still getting a buzz from the painting I had seen in the Art Institute. It would be pretty neat to know how to make something like that.

  I could have thought more, but it was getting harder to think, and I realized why—I was hungry. My morning kippers had worn off. I needed to seek food.

  I looked around for a hot dog stand. Here is one of the great things about Chicago—if you have between thirty-five cents and a half-dollar, you can get first-class nutrition practically anywhere. There are hot dog stands all over, and the standard Chicago hot dog comes with everything you need to sustain life . . . until the bright green pickle relish catches up with you and you die.

  Some say there is a finite number of hot dogs you can eat before they turn fatal, but the number is different for different people and nobody knows what it is. In addition to the bright green relish, you get the actual sausage made in a factory on Damen Avenue, a bun with poppyseeds, yellow mustard, chopped onion, two wedges of tomato, a kosher pickle spear, celery salt, and two small but powerful peppers called sport peppers. There is a school of thought that believes it is the sport peppers that will kill you in the end, but others believe the peppers neutralize the relish and stave off death. It is a serious breach of etiquette to put catsup on a Chicago hot dog, and some hot dog stands don’t offer it. Other places have little packets of catsup, but they tell you to take your hot dog outside before putting it on.

  Eating a Chicago hot dog requires skill—it takes practice to minimize how much stuff drips and squirts onto you. Serious gluttons favor sport shirts with busy patterns in colors including bright yellow and dark blotches so the mustard and grease won’t show. Really nice ones have images of the little peppers and hunks of tomato.

  There was a hot dog stand in the middle of the block. HEISS HUNDEN was written on the awning. I was pretty sure that was German for hot dogs. It was a small and dingy place—not one of the citywide chains with bright yellow antibug florescent lights and maybe a giant weenie statue on top. I went in and ordered a regular. I watched the fat, hairy, sweaty guy in the white paper cap and dirty apron assemble it, paid my fifty cents, and turned to eat it at the stainless-steel shelf while looking out the plate-glass window.

  It was okay. I experienced the snap as my teeth went though the skin of the hot dog, and I felt the spurt of hot grease. Then there was the strange chemical sensation in the nose—from the relish. I munched contentedly, feeling a kind of bliss as my body began to absorb the salt and fat and the odd vitamin and mineral.

  And that is when I decided that yes, I was going to be an artist. All I had to do was find out how to be one. Yes I said yes I will Yes.

  Chapter 9

  Old Town

  On October 8, 1871, Chicago caught fire. Four square miles burned to the ground, and as many as three hundred people died. The story everyone knows is that a cow belonging to a Mrs. O’Leary kicked over a kerosene lantern that caught the barn on fire and started the whole thing.

  The story not everyone knows, but I do because Christmas Royal showed me in a book, is that at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, 250 miles to the north, burned up with a bunch of other little towns and a million and a
half acres of forest, also about 2,500 people, making it the deadliest fire in American history. It didn’t get as much publicity as the Chicago fire because it was little towns and not a famous big city.

  And, also at the same time, the town of Holland, Michigan, on the other side of the lake, burned to the ground too! A hundred miles north of that, Manistee, Michigan, also lit up. Also Port Huron, Michigan, and a whole lot of territory around it. That was called the Great Michigan Fire.

  Those are a lot of big fires to happen at the same time in the Upper Midwest. On the next day, October 9, there was a big fire that destroyed the downtown area of Urbana, Illinois, 140 miles south of Chicago. Christmas Royal’s book put forth the theory that the fires were started by a meteor shower. This makes more sense to me than a cow kicking over a lantern. An evil plot involving a bunch of pyromaniacs would make more sense too. The newspaper writer who blamed it on the cow later admitted he’d made that story up.

  Anyway, the whole place burned down and the people of Chicago set right about building it all over again. The first load of lumber arrived while the last burning house was still smoking, and the city was rebuilt, and re-rebuilt, complete with skyscrapers and lots of fancy architecture.

  But this one neighborhood—which was burned flat, except for a tiny handful of buildings that somehow escaped—has some interesting features. There are little cottages, and shanties, and shacks, which must go back to right after the fire. Some of them look as though they were nailed together with whatever wood was at hand. Some of them have little gardens around them. They are in among bigger, more normal-looking houses of different styles and ages, and also brick two, and three-story apartment houses, also experimental-looking houses with a lot of artistic carving and decoration on them, and some big apartment houses and stores. There are some streets with big fancy mansions behind iron gates, with towers and turrets, and stone ornamentation, at least one block on which somebody pried up the regular city sidewalks and replaced them with inlaid patterns of glass and ceramic bits.

  It’s as though the whole neighborhood, which is fairly large, is made up of samples of anything anyone could think of, starting in 1871, right after the fire, and up to the present. The people you see in the streets show as much variety as the buildings—guys in turbans, also derby hats, women wearing dresses that look like tablecloths, or hats with feathers, beatniks in sandals and beards, people wearing weird metallic fabrics. It’s the artistic district and there are places that sell paintings, and you can see paintings and sculptures if you peek into windows. It’s an excellent neighborhood to walk around in.

  On Potawatomie Street there was this house. It was an old frame house three stories high with a set of stairs leading up to the front door, which was on the second floor. Stairs with handrails made of iron pipe. There was a little garden in front, with a low iron fence. Chimney on top. Windows. And here is the thing about this house—it was white. I mean it was white all over. The glass in the windows was white. The stairs were white. The iron fence in front was white, and the stuff in the garden, all dead, was white.

  Not just white, this house was, but chalky, deadly white white. And there were these two old people. I figured old because they were small, and because of the way they moved. You couldn’t see any part of them—they were totally swathed in clothing, with heads wrapped in cloth, scarves around their faces, sunglasses, gloves, rags wrapped around their feet.

  They looked like moving scarecrows. Each of them had a pail of whitewash and a brush, and they moved around, stooped and slow, painting white over the white. I could see that coats of whitewash had built up so the details of the house—the windowsills, the fence, the handrails on the steps—were starting to lose definition and turn soft and gloppy. They had evidently been painting it for a long time. I watched them as they moved around slowly and apparently aimlessly, like bees, dabbing with their brushes.

  As eerie and scary as this scene was, the guy on the corner and across the street was eerier and scarier. He could have been Emil Pfiff’s insane brother, with the white mustache and the little gold-framed eyeglasses. This guy was standing in front of a brick apartment house, watching the whitewashers with evident pleasure. He had a glass of beer, one of those tall pilsner glasses, from which he took sips. He was smiling, showing tiny teeth, and he was wearing a white apron with bloodstains on it. Either this guy was a butcher—only there wasn’t a butcher shop—or he was chopping up bodies or performing operations in his apartment.

  I don’t have to say that there was an air of unreality about all this. I noticed that when you are seeing something this weird, or surprising, things seem to go silent, as though someone has turned the volume down. It had been like that when I came out of the Art Institute after looking at the painting, and it was like that now. So it was without a soundtrack that I noticed one more thing that made me question whether I had just gone crazy, and that was a full-grown mountain gorilla lurching up Potawatomie Street in my direction.

  Chapter 10

  It’s (Not) Alive!

  I began to hear the wheels squeaking at the same time I realized the gorilla was not alive, but stuffed and mounted on a piece of plywood with four casters in the corners. A kid was pushing it along the street and having a hard time controlling the direction in which it rolled. This accounted for the realistic gorilla-like gait I had observed.

  As the kid and the gorilla approached the corner, one of them spoke to me. It was the kid.

  “Care to give me a hand with this?” he asked.

  “Sure,” I said.

  I helped him get the gorilla down the curb, across the street, and up onto the sidewalk. It wasn’t that heavy, just awkward. Obviously stuffed gorillas are stuffed with lighter stuff than live gorillas are stuffed with.

  “Bring it right in, boys,” the guy in the apron said. Of course! He must be a taxidermist! That would explain the bloodstains without it being a horror movie. Only, closer up, I noticed not all the stains were red. Some were blue, some were yellow.

  We wrestled the gorilla into the door of the apartment house, and down some stairs into the basement.

  It was a big room, set up like a classroom or a lab, with lots of tilt-top tables and stools, and a few easels. At one end was a platform, like a little stage, and the kid and I managed to get the gorilla up onto it. The gorilla was dusty and shedding. I spat out some gorilla hair and wiped some more off my face.

  “Thanks for the help,” the kid said. He was pretty ugly, a macrocephalic type, with a tall forehead, and bunched together toward the bottom of his face a pair of little pig eyes, a button nose, and a tiny mouth. His hair was combed into a pompador that added another two or three inches to his dome. He looked like a thug, and at the same time something on the cover of a science-fiction paperback. “Here,” he said. He held out a half-dollar.

  “You don’t have to tip me,” I said.

  “You helped. You want these?” he offered me a pack of Picayune cigarettes.

  “No thanks. I don’t smoke cigarettes, and if I did I wouldn’t smoke those.”

  “Well, I can get you into the class. Do you want to draw?”

  “Draw?”

  The kid held out his hand. “I’m Billy Zwieback. Arnold Zwieback, the guy in the apron, is my father. This is his drawing class. If I ask him, you can stay and draw. Ordinarily it would cost you three dollars and fifty cents.”

  “Draw the gorilla?”

  “There’ll be a model, too,” Billy Zwieback said. “I can lend you a sketchbook and some stuff to draw with.”

  “Yeah, I’d like to draw. My name is Harold Knishke.”

  “Okay,” Billy said. “I’ll fix it up with my dad.”

  “By the way, what’s with the whitewashers across the street?” I asked.

  “Leave them alone,” Billy Zwieback said. “If you get close to them, they’ll hiss at you.”

  “Are they loonies or what?”

  “Loonies, definitely.”

  Chapter 11
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  Drawing from Life

  The art students drifted in. They were all older than me, and looked sort of depressed. Among them was the chick who had spoken with me on the steps of the Art Institute. She didn’t appear to recognize me. I considered going over and greeting her, but she had this morose expression, as though somebody had just died. They all looked like that, and most of them had on black clothing. They sat on the stools and began adjusting their little drawing tables and unpacking their drawing materials.

  After a while, the model came in. She had a sort of flat expression, bored to death looking, and straight hair that was between brown and blond. She was wearing a bathrobe. She stepped up onto the platform with the gorilla, untied the belt of her robe, sort of shrugged it off, and tossed it onto a chair. I had a moment of unreality. She was naked. She was completely bare. I had never seen a naked female before, and therefore it was interesting—but in itself, not. She was on the old side, maybe in her late twenties, and skinny, stringy, wobbly, and saggy all at once. Later, during the break, when all the art students were standing on the corner smoking cigarettes, I heard them talking about her. They said she had a complicated body and was hard to draw, therefore a good model. Apparently cute is easier to draw.

  “Five-minute poses,” Arnold Zwieback said.

  The model froze, one hand on the gorilla’s shoulder, and the drawers began to draw. I tried to draw the model and the gorilla too.

  It took about thirty seconds for the discomfort of there being a naked woman in the room to wear off, and the discomfort of not being able to get the thick pencil Billy Zwieback had loaned me to do what I wanted to set in. Billy had also given me a big blue eraser, and I used it a lot.

 
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