The song was written after the events of this story occurred, but the impulse behind both of them are the same.
The song is “American Pie.” It’s a long song, and large parts of it make no sense to me. But one part of it does. It’s the part at the beginning, where Don McLean sings,
“And I knew if I had my chance
I could make those people dance…”
That’s always been what I’ve wanted to do. With minor alterations. Replace “dance” with “laugh”, and, instead of “making them laugh”, I wanted to “create opportunities wherein people would want to laugh” I find the phrase “making people laugh” very unfriendly. “Making people laugh” sounds like there’s a gun to your head and somebody’s yelling, “Laugh!”
Of course, “making people laugh…” scans better than “creating opportunities wherein people would want to laugh”, so that’s what you say. But I still think it’s bizarre.
Generating laughs is what I wanted to do. No, that’s wrong. I didn’t want to do anything. Wanting implies a plan. I didn’t have a plan. I just knew that I got pleasure and satisfaction when I said something and people laughed. It felt really good. In some way, by the humorously original way I expressed myself, I was saying,
“I am here.”
And by their laughter, the people were saying – at least to my ears – “We like that you’re here.”
That’s as good as it gets.
FLASH BACKWARDS FROM THE SONG.
For fifteen months during the Sixties, I lived in London. It was interesting; I’ll tell you about it sometime. Consider this a preview.
I rented a bed-sitting room in a townhouse in Hampstead, an upscale suburb, populated by professionals and “creatives” who’d made money. Hampstead’s most striking feature is a vast park-like area called Hampstead Heath, beautiful in its naturalness, not manicured in any way. It’s like the parks people said, “We’re not doing anything to this place; we’re leaving it the way it is.” It was exactly the right call.
People walk their dogs on Hampstead Heath. I’d go there to sit on the grass, eat wine gums (chewy, jujube kind of sweets that threatened to pull out your fillings) and read the paper. Once – one of my favorite memories ever – I witnessed a “medieval tournament” on the Heath, complete with jousting, ax throwing and archery contests. It was like blinking your eyes and going back eight hundred years.
The townhouse, at 10 Church Row, belonged to the Tompkins family. Five pounds a week (about fifty-five dollars a month), with kitchen privileges. Mrs. Tompkins, who was Scottish, often engaged in behaviors that reinforced the Scottish stereotype of cheapness. One example:
Whenever the Tompkins family went out, and before they went to bed, Mrs. Tompkins would lock the only available telephone in the kitchen broom closet. Phone calls cost money, and Mrs. Tompkins didn’t want her tenants (there were three of us) taking surreptitious advantage.
One night, when I returned home late, I found a note, saying, “Your mother called.” My mother, living in Toronto, wasn’t wealthy enough or in the habit of casually calling Europe. Something serious must have happened. Of course, I couldn’t call her back, because the telephone was sitting in the broom closet.
As a result, I was forced to race to a nearby restaurant, where I struggled to explain to the Greek restaurateur, who spoke almost no English, that I needed to use his phone to call Canada.
The restaurateur eventually got it – or maybe he just read the urgency in my eyes – and he let me call home. When I finally got through, dreading the bad news I was about to be told, what I heard was my mother complaining, “How come I haven’t heard from you in a while?”
It was an interesting blend of feelings: relief and rage.
Here’s where the story gets interesting, or, hopefully, more interesting. We had a “notable” living across the street. His name was Peter Cook. If you’re familiar with English comedy, you’ll recognize Peter Cook as a member of a comedy group who starred in a successful revue called Beyond the Fringe.
Cook partnered with fellow Fringer, Dudley Moore, most memorably in a sketch where an agency (run by Cook) is holding auditions for the title role in a Tarzan movie and an actor (Moore) comes to try out for the part. The problem is the actor only has one leg.
The auditioner reminds him that the part of Tarzan is traditionally played by a two-legged actor, a condition to which the actor is deficient, “to the tune of one.”
“I have nothing against your right leg,” the auditioner explains. “The trouble is, neither do you.”
I loved Beyond the Fringe. It was the smart-comedy bridge between The Goon Show (featuring Peter Sellers) and Monty Python. The Fringers and I were on a similar frequency. I instinctively got what they did.
Okay, so Peter Cook’s living across the street. Maybe I’d bump into him. Maybe he’ll show up at my “local”, the Hampstead pub I frequented called The Horse and Groom. I wasn’t going to go over and knock on his door. What would I say to him?
“Hi, I’m funny too. You wanna hang out?”
Peter Cook seemed at no loss for companionship. Every Sunday afternoon, I would look across the street from my second floor window as a succession of Rolls Royces and Bentleys dropped off parties of celebrities at Peter Cook’s front door.
I say “celebrities”, but with the eyes I’ve been given, I could identify none of them. I just saw elegant cars and fashionably dressed people, not necessarily fancy, but even the jeans looked like, well, for me, a year’s rent.
I was witnessing a Peter Cook tradition: The Sunday Soiree.
Since I couldn’t actually see who passed through Peter Cook’s magical front door, I imagined “A-List” movie stars, the greatest funnymen in England and the Beatles. Oh yeah, and not me.
Somewhere inside of me, there’s this unearned but deeply felt sense of entitlement. Or at least equality. (Maybe it’s my “colonial” upbringing.) I felt I was as good as any of them. It ate me up that I wasn’t over there, consorting with England’s smartest and funniest. Why did it eat me up? Because
I knew if I had my chance
I could make those people dance.
I had proof I could do it. They loved me at the pub. A range of regulars, from doctors to policemen, were genuinely tickled my observations. I wasn’t imagining things.
I could make English people laugh.
Across the street was another level. Professional funny people. But I “got” them, and I was certain they would “get” me. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s the thing I’ve wanted more than anything else:
Acceptance by my peers.
I told Mrs. Tompkins about the Sunday soirees and how I was dying to be over there. I don’t know why I told her. Maybe I secretly hoped that she’d communicate my desires to her neighbor. It was a long shot, I suppose. But it was all I had.
In the meantime, I would stand at the window, envying the passing parade.
Two weeks later, Mrs. Tompkins called me downstairs. I thought I was evicted. It’s that dour Scottish tone than causes these misunderstandings. Everything sounds like a death sentence.
When I got to the kitchen, Mrs. Tompkins was standing there, holding an envelope.
“This is for you,” she announced.
I took the envelope and immediately checked the return address.
Peter Cook. 11 Church Row.
Back in my room, I tore open the envelope. It was like a fairly tale. I had wished something, and it had actually come true.
The note was hand-written on elegant stationery. This is what it said:
It has come to my attention that you are in the habit of spying on us from your window while not fully clothed. If you do not desist from this practice immediately, we will be forced to notify the authorities.
I’m sorry. Did I mention that I wasn’t wearing pants?