We were all red-lips and slurpy sounds as we raced with the sun to consume our Italian ices, cherry flavored, served overflowing in tiny paper cups. As the ice melted, and a thick red syrup dripped down our chins and onto our T-shirts, we found a garbage can, took our final slurps, and disposed of the sticky remains. Behind us the carousel pounded out its stout melodies: Song of the Clown, Doo Wacka Doo, The Carousel Waltz.
It was an insistent jamboree that emphasized what was already perfectly clear. The whole world was there for us: funny, strange, absurd.
We skipped to one of Central Park's hulking rocks, climbed it with our sticky hands, and draped over it with our sweaty prepubescent limbs. Val hung her head over the rock and Lana outstretched her fingers to feel its coolness. My legs were crossed and my hands rested under my head. We felt a great freedom, cut loose of parents, exploring the parameters of our shiny new worlds. Sometimes waves of a breeze cut through the sweltering air, and it intermingled our laughter with the tune of the carousel.
Lana told us a riddle and even though it wasn't funny, we giggled wildly, gagging and shaking. You see, when you are a twelve-year-old girl, giggling is more than a form of expression. Giggling is almost a religion. Giggling means you are an insider and that despite your youth, or because of it, you get the joke.
In the throes of our revelry, a man lumbered onto the opposite end of the rock. Like us, he lay on his back, facing the sun. Meanwhile, Val tried to top Lana's joke with her own, and we responded magnanimously. As our giggles rang and our slight bodies shook, I noticed from the corner of my eye another shaking movement, that of the adjacent man. Lana glimpsed this as well and tapped Val. Our giggles stopped mid-note, suspending themselves in the thick air. As his activities became increasingly vigorous, I struggled to appreciate what my eyes were telling me.
It was, after all, the first time I saw a real-live penis. Right there, beside us on the rock in Central Park, belly hanging out unceremoniously, was a man jerking off most earnestly.
We froze for an elongated second and then, as if on cue, we bounded up and scurried toward the crowd buying tickets for the carousel. Safe amongst these vertical people, away from the rock, we giggled harder than before.
That last round of giggles prompted me to recall a segment from a Channel Thirteen documentary about the evolution of human emotions. The segment depicted the emotional response called laughter thusly: Chimpanzee A grimaces while being pummeled by rival chimp B. The grimacing chimp is then juxtaposed with the insane smile of a boy riding a roller coaster. Apparently laughter, as evidenced on the face of the boy, is just one baby-step away from utter terror evidenced on the face of the chimp. You see, terror evolved into laughter as a means to cope.
Now, what I must tell you is that the incident at Central Park was not the last time I was the beneficiary of a masturbatory exhibition. Fast-forward five years and behold the stoop in front of the apartment building where I grew up.
The "stoop" area involved two steps leading up to the lobby and a three-foot high rail surrounding some modest shrubbery. Whereas I would often read on the steps, the rail was my choice people-watching spot, because it allowed me to look at the passers-by faces.
As I watched I would wonder where they were going and why. I'd speculate what I myself might want to grow into, and what I might search for as the horizon of adulthood advanced alluringly.
And there I was, in the bright light of a New York summer afternoon, casually sitting on said stoop. Squinting through the brilliant sun rays, I noticed a man sauntering down the sidewalk, his head tilting in my direction. He appeared to be in his thirties, of Puerto-Rican descent, was clean-shaven, his clothes respectably ironed and of medium height. He smiled widely.
"Do you live here?" He indicated the building with his chin.
As a street-smart kid I chose not to answer directly and asked, "Why do you want to know?"
"I'm looking for Joe," he offered. "Do you know him?"
Joe may have been the tall one in tweed, with the attractive but skittish wife.
"Does he have dark hair?" I asked.
"Yeah, sort of curly."
"Okay, I think I know him."
"How long have you been sitting here?"
"About ten minutes."
"Oh, I just missed you; I was here buzzing his apartment ten minutes ago. Did you see him since you've been out here?"
"No, I only saw Seymour the food critic and Bedrose the super."
"Well, I'm going to wait here. I was supposed to meet him."
He stood on the first step leaning against the rail, his body at an angle and his face toward me. For a moment I felt my space was being invaded, but I aspired to be open and nonjudgmental.
So we talked as I followed my line of investigation and he waited for Joe. This man, who introduced himself as Phil, had a lot of stories. He'd seen it all. He knew the entire history of Studio 54, had skated at the Roxy, and had dated Heather Locklear. He'd served in the armed forces. But most importantly, he knew that life sucked and people were scum. I'd begun to suspect this, and so was interested in the opinion of a philosopher.
As Phil leaned on the rail and inched closer towards me, I recognized I had three choices. One, I could let Phil intimidate me off of my own stoop. Two, I could respond to his inching toward me by inching away from him until I inched myself on to the pavement. Three, I could look straight into his eyes, and refuse to be intimidated while simultaneously remaining open and nonjudgmental.
As I stood my ground, the inevitable procession of people passed us. Many, with stiff necks, looked stubbornly ahead, even more stubbornly than usual. Then Seymour the food critic emerged from his domicile, in pursuit of his vocation. His round cheeks pinkened somewhat as he passed and his greeting was quick, his head somewhat jerky. Another neighbor passed, one I barely knew, and she shot me a cold look.
As Phil talked about his world view, his jaw began to tighten, as if the thoughts were trying for him. His face turned flush. I began to want to leave, but other than home I had nowhere particular to go, and certainly didn't want Phil attempting to join me, even though the attentions of an adult man were flattering.
Then out came that man in tweed, the one with the beautiful but skittish wife, the one called "Joe," for whom this man next to me was waiting. His hair wasn't curly really; it was poofed up at best. He looked at me with only vague recognition. I waited for him to acknowledge Phil and for Phil to acknowledge him. But Phil was distracted, talking without focus, eyes slit, looking faintly toward the distance. I was scrutinizing the gaze of the man I believed was Joe when, finally, in that full bloom of a second, he laid his eyes on Phil. His eyes widened considerably, his neck twitched, but instead of greeting his friend he turned his gaze on me -- with disgust. Why didn't Joe say anything to Phil or Phil say anything to Joe? Perhaps Joe was mad at Phil for taking so long or, I realized, perhaps this was not Joe at all, for Joe was off like lightning and Phil did not seem to notice. So my eyes followed the path of Joe's, from the face of my companion downward. And there it was. Not big and red, but out there nonetheless, out there on the street in the middle of the day. I jolted upright, grabbed my key from my pocket, and all at once dashed into the lobby. He was not far behind me, lunging, but I managed to close the door in his face while he said: pussy bitch, or some such sentiment. I flew up the stairs and unlocked my mother's vacant apartment. After looking through the peephole and finding the halls empty, I did the only two things that I could do. First I threw my head back in a sigh of relief. Then I laughed.
Certainly there were times when I wondered if Phil would attempt to find our apartment, and again free his prisoner. I wondered why the tweed-wearing neighbor, the alleged Joe, never acknowledged the incident nor inquired after my safety. I also wondered whether other passing neighbors, such as Seymour the food critic, had seen the sight. But, fortunately, that is the end of my story about Phil and his member. It is not, however, my final encounter with a display of unimpeded public masturbation.
The final encounter happened during my college years, when my pal Molly traveled home with me to put her extensive research on Manhattan nightclubs into practice. After gallivanting about until 2 a.m., sick of the thick nightclub smoke but not quite sleepy, we resolved to walk the twenty blocks to my mother's apartment. People were out, here and there, hanging in front of the 24-hour Korean delis, pawing each other while leaning on a car, poised at traffic lights, barreling toward a newsstand. Each new block in New York reveals itself like a new hand of cards, especially at night as figures take form out of the shadows. Some people just blend in, taken up in the wave, and others appear isolated, lingering like a buoy in the lake. One such man was stationed on the sidelines, near the curb, as if he'd been there a while. Lanky, concave in profile, and somewhat hunkered, he bobbed lightly, wearing something red and wearing something green. We got closer and saw the deed in action, his hand running up and down his fifth appendage, and looking at us with an expression I can only call glee.
"Did you see?!" Molly exclaimed with a tourist's zeal. We laughed at the absurdity, a man jerking off in the shadows. Since we'd seen a lot of strange things that night, our late-night ramblings soon turned to other subjects, such as boys we liked and people we met and what we'd do if this or that happened with so-and-so and him and who? Then, after a couple blocks Molly grabbed my arm and under her breath screeched: "Another one!"
And sure enough, clear as day, was another lanky and concave man, standing in the shadows near the curb, pulling at his penis and eyeing us with glee. "They are multiplying!" I declared, feeling rather like the boy on the rollercoaster.
Giddy and tired, we were nearly upon that evening's third penis-pulling hombre when the lightbulbs came on and we both announced: It's the same man! And there he was, a block later, double-parking an old Mercedes at the end of the block, assuming his stance by the curb, and, with great purpose, producing his wares. This time we turned. And ran. And giggled. And caught a cab. We had the willies all night and laughed through breakfast.
It has been awhile since I've encountered a public masturbator, but I know they are out there. As I shake my head and snicker, I can't help but feel for these guys and their predicament. And I can't help but wonder: What was the meaning of all of those masturbating men? Maybe they were Jeckyls and Hydes, seeking a brand of excitement that contrasts with long days in office cubicles. Maybe they feared the proximity of sex with an actual woman or an actual man. Maybe they got off on intimidating teenagers and children --- or were merely caught up in an all-absorbing fascination with their own personal cock. Maybe, through their calculated attempts, they relished the opportunity to shock their way into another's consciousness: the grimace of the chimpanzee. Maybe this was their way of creating something, of living on.
And they have. Right here. Achieving a kind of immortality. Boldly going where no man has gone before: jerking off, forevermore, in this story.
©2003 by Julie Bolt