Friday, November 6, 2020

Only a Strong America

Not sure if these notes will find their way into the ruins book, so I thought I'd share 'em here.

It’s a humid late Saturday afternoon in 1953. A child pushes past the heavy double doors of a theater where her parents deposited her for a double feature. Dad will pick her up in about a half hour, so she’s got time to kill. She pauses by the cinema, one of those old Fox Theatres whose innards conjure up images of Egyptian kings and Greek water bearers, and gazes up at glass-framed posters that promise coming attractions. Mostly she prefers the serials -- thrilling strangeness like Radar Men from the Moon, the chapter story that features Commando Cody, and Zombies of the Stratosphere -- but the posters don’t advertise those. She makes a mental note to see War of the Worlds, which looks pretty scary. But she doesn’t want to dawdle. She’s on a mission. She spins one complete turn, just for the pleasure of feeling the wind play with her curls, and starts to skip along the sidewalk. Her destination is the newsstand at the corner. Dad has assured her that he’ll pick her up precisely at the turn of the hour. 

The newsstand is better than the library, as far as she can see. It’s such a jumble of tacky, glorious, engaging things, all the more with the thrum of cars and trucks pulsing nearby. And the man who runs the place on most days doesn’t mind if she flips through some of the pages, so long as she keeps her hands clean. It’s her stand, her favorite place, packed with wooden crates filled with soda bottles, cardboard boxes stuffed with candy bars, and a freezer stocked with cold drinks, and maybe some ice cream. But she’s not hungry or thirsty. She’s looking for something to read tonight after dinner. She has plenty of options. The racks are festooned with magazines, newspapers, and lurid paperbacks, most held tight by thin silver rods, and occasionally some fishing line. She heard once that the man behind the knotty wooden shelf sometimes sells paperbacks in brown wrappers to furtive buyers with strange proclivities, when the police officer can’t see. Once she thinks she saw one of those officers actually collecting one of those forbidden books. One day, she knows, she will convince the man to sell her one of those secret things. In the meantime she surveys the collection, rubbing her fingers over the ragged edges of a dime she saved from the show. 

So many choices! 

Television and movie stars tug at her attention, newspapers flap in the breeze. She wants a comic though. Her older brother always kids about her curiosity for romance titles, but in fact she prefers the science fiction and horror stuff. Monsters and ray guns and… There it is, the comic that she hid behind an almanac that never seems to sell. She stares and stares at the cover, the book she’s always been afraid to open. The image is horrifying but somehow beautiful too. It is a scene of devastation. A mushroom cloud glows red and orange and pink, with a burning yellow center. Flames roil and shoot over New York City. She recognizes the iconic structures being swept into ruin: the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, both cracking and shattering like, well, like nothing she’s ever seen before. Brick apartment blocks and gleaming glass towers crack and shatter under the sweeping torrents, the plumes of acrid smoke, the gust of hellish squall. Treasure! The comic announces that it was published in November, a few months ago. Every couple of weeks, she’d amble by and peer into its hiding place, hoping that someone else had not purchased the last copy. And here it is. And she’s got that dime. And she’s ready to buy.

She makes her purchase, speaking in her best grown-up voice and looking the man directly in his eyes, and then sits at the nearby bench next to where the buses churn on their hourly paths. New York City is burning and the towers are tumbling into holocaust. All for a dime. It all looks so exciting, so horrifying, but it comes with a message too. All comics must have one it seems. And this one is typically blunt: “Only A Strong America Can Prevent Atomic War.”