It must have been one of Sam Gross’s New Yorker cartoons that started it all. We’re in Doggie Heaven, see: dogs are queued up to enter the Pearly Gates, and the little beagle in front says to the St. Peter dog sitting at his desk, “Is there any chance of getting my testicles back?” I nearly lost a kidney over that one, and I almost never emote—just how I am: so introverted it’s a wonder I have any exterior at all. Emotional reactions are routed directly to my spleen. According to my ex, I’m right up there with an outcrop of granite . . .
“You look dead to the world, Benjamin.”
“What am I supposed to do, Sondra dearest, staple the edges of my mouth to my freaking ears?”
“If you did, people would at least suspect you had a personality”
—which reminds me of Frank Modell’s cartoon where the wife wants to take a snapshot of her grumpy-looking husband, and says, “Do you think you can manage a smile? It’s only for a fiftieth of a second.” Except that I’m not grumpy; my face just looks that way. Is it my fault that I’m saddled with a mug that looks grumpy?
Sorry about that digression. I started to tell you about how the doggie heaven cartoon got me started collecting cartoons, thinking that they could improve my relationships with women.
I clipped cartoons that resonated with my lopsided psyche, placed them inside page-protectors and arranged them more-or-less thematically in a jumbo three-ring binder. They would be my introduction, as Emily Dickinson said of the day lilies she thrust into the hands of her long-time correspondent T. W. Higginson when he visited her. Rather than fret over what to say, I would reach for my cartoon binder and wait for my friend’s eyes to widen with surprise as I let the cartoons spark levity and—dared I hope?—of burgeoning romance.
Alas . . . I invited my colleague Clarisse over, ostensibly to discuss the metafictional elements in John Barth’s and Robert Coover’s short stories; but at what I hoped was an opportune interlude . . .
“Hold onto your sides, Clarisse, to keep them from splitting—” and I whipped out my cartoon binder. Instead, she slid to the far end of the sofa. Not even my prized cartoon specimens—the absurdist or savagely satirical ones—sparked so much as a flicker of romance in her.
“Okay, check this one out,” and I showed her Twohy’s New Yorker cartoon of a tombstone with the epigraph, “Never sick a day in his life—and now this.”
Clarisse suddenly looked at her watch and exclaimed, “Oh God, I forgot to put food out for my cat!” and before I could say “But you haven’t seen the real side-splitters yet!” she was rushing toward the door, twisting herself into her coat.
Despite that setback, I continued to believe that cartoons helped me come to terms with a baffling world. Some were like comic parables, as in Tom Wilson’s gem in which Ziggy stares bleakly at the ladder of success before him, the bottom rung ten feet over his head; or Paul Noth’s cartoon in which a young man says to his girlfriend as they walk hand-in-hand on the beach, “I can’t wait to see what you’re like online.”
Like many introverts, I fantasized being the life of the party (or the classroom); but had suffered from stage fright. How on earth did I survive as a teacher, you ask? Well, for one thing, I over-prepared. I scripted every class session right down to the jocular asides. For another—as backup in case my jocular asides failed, which they often did—I used cartoons relevant to the lesson at hand. For a discussion of word-play, say, I’d use a cartoon like Hilary Price’s Rhymes with Orange panel: “Honey, Congress just voted to change our genus to ‘Hetero-Sapiens.’”
Academe appealed to me despite my angst over projecting a public persona. After all, I could immerse myself in philosophical treatises as part of my job description. Nietzsche was among my favorites, not so much for his frantic Ubermensch proclamations that gave the Nazis orgasms, but for his intense, poetic prose. Perhaps you remember Bob Thaves’s Frank and Ernest comic strips from twenty or so years ago, especially his “Great Moments in Science” series. My favorite: “Zeno was late for work yesterday,” says Athenian Frank to Athenian Ernest, “and just wait until you hear his excuse!”
Whenever I found myself at a social gathering, despite my efforts to avoid them, I relied on my cartoon memory to initiate conversation; but it seldom worked. Once, when a colleague brought up the latest sexual harassment incident on campus, I chimed
in . . .
“Hey, that reminds me of Mankoff’s cartoon—the one showing one part of an amoeba quarreling with the other part.”
Despite his blank stare, I pressed on. “One half of the amoeba says, ‘Hey baby, wanna split?’ and the other half says, ‘I’ll see you in court, buster.’ And guess what the caption reads?” The blank stare became blanker. “‘Asexual Harassment!’”
All I got from him was a throat-clearing.
Nobody can outdo my colleagues’ ability to use silence to show their disfavor. Once at a meeting I passed around a Cheney cartoon showing a worker’s desk so cluttered with picture frames that his papers and phone had to be spread out on the floor, and the worker himself writing on his lap. Suddenly I felt like the nail being scoped out by two hammers at the bar in one of Barsotti’s cartoons, the bartender saying to him, “Take my advice pal. Drink up and get out of here.”
Even so, a few women over the decades had found me to be . . . intriguing. Take Regina Grosz, an adjunct-lecturer appointee in art history, who specialized in seventeenth-century Dutch trompe l’oeil painting. A dead-ringer for Rosalind Franklin (you know—the X-ray crystallographer whom James Watson liked to chase around the Cavendish Laboratory), Ms. Grosz seemed utterly self-effacing, and, most alluringly to me, never wore so much as a smidgeon of makeup.
“Wait!” you interrupt. “You find women who don’t wear makeup attractive?”
Of course; makeup makes women look like they’re on display, a commodity for male approval. Moreover, Sondra (my ex) loved to put on goopy eyeliner and blood- red lipstick that she took great pleasure blotting on napkins and on the rims of wineglasses. She’d smear that gunk past her lip line and then blurt out, “Kiss me, you fool!”
Anyhow, one day as Regina Grosz and I were streaming into the auditorium for the annual College of Liberal Arts convocation given by the Dean . . .
“Hey, Reggie, up for lunch at the Faculty Club after this academic broo-ha-ha?”
“Sure . . . Benjie, is it?”
“It’s Benjamin, please. Okay: touché.”
Over gardenburgers I told her about my cartoon collection, describing in detail several of the cartoons relating to education. “I love the ones that expose the travesty of this grossly overrated profession,” I said, munching on my pickle.
“I fail to see how this noble profession is a travesty, Benjamin. “But then again, I’m only an adjunct.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to prepare for my two-o’clock class.”
Yeah, I know: what a pathetic way to have handled lunch with a woman I’d been fantasizing about for weeks. But I refused to beat around the bush with women who expected men to jump through cliché-ridden hoops before she could so much as consent to a lunch date. Give me the woman who nervously commented on the fact that it had been partly cloudy for several days, the woman content to begin a conversation like that of the lady in the Thurber cartoon: “I love the idea of there being two sexes, don’t you?”
Sometimes I felt as if the very structures of reality were breaking apart all around me.
Unstable as I was, I had never been committed although perhaps I should have been. It would have been preferable to marrying before I knew what I was getting into—not that I wouldn’t have plunged off the deep end anyway because of my crippling introversion. Do you know what it’s like to shrink from society while at the same time longing to be the life of the party? I could have been a comedian if only I’d been able to overcome my dread of speaking to audiences larger than one. I could make people laugh, often before I even opened my mouth. Of course, it might have had something to do with the fact that I was cross-eyed and my teeth were uneven and that I resembled a Picasso portrait—like Duffy’s cartoon in which a woman at one end of a park bench says to the cherub hovering over her, about to shoot a love-arrow into her so that she will be responsive to the Picasso-faced man at the other end of the bench, “There’s a twenty in it for you if you just keep moving.”
But hey, things were looking up! Yesterday, when my colleague, Geraldine Grace Turner-Mallet, intercepted me in the mailroom to ask if I would give her feedback on her draft of a paper titled “Queering the Transcendentalists,” I not only agreed, but invited her over for wine and cheese with all the savoir-faire I could muster . . .
The moment Geraldine Grace arrived I surprised her with a lavish spread of liver paté, feta cheese, kosher gherkins, and a bottle of blush. “I really, really want to read your paper, G.G.,” I crooned in what I hoped was a convincing Maurice Chevalier accent, hoping that she would be delighted by the comic irony. But when she suddenly turned ashen, I realized I’d made a faux pas.
Undaunted, I reached for my cartoon binder. “But first, if I may, I’d like to tickle your cerebral funny bone with some very special cartoons—and I have a hunch which ones will particularly strike your fancy!” Without waiting for her to reply, I flipped the polyurethane sheets to Greenberg’s cartoon depicting a bus in rush-hour Manhattan displaying WRONG BUS in its destination window. “Is that a gem of absurdist wit or what?” I exclaimed.
Geraldine Grace put her hand over her mouth; I obviously had taken her by surprise. Next I turned to that delicious meta-cartoon in which two guys stranded on an island spot a boatful of strangers approaching and one guy grumbles to the other, “Cartoonists.” But Geraldine Grace suddenly leaped to her feet and gaped at me as if I’d turned into Nosferatu.
Suffice it to say that my efforts to woo Geraldine Grace never made it to second base, her taste in sophisticated cartoon humor clearly a notch below that of the Ayatollah Kohmeini.
What was I to do? I was at wit’s end. I still felt a strong need to share my cartoons with new female friends, especially those who shared my view of the world as an unending string of tragicomic absurdities—and who knew? Such a meeting of minds could lead to all sorts of amorous possibilities.
I had also begun assembling a second jumbo binder of cartoons—some of the most cuttingly sardonic ever. I was also rethinking my manner of presentation. For example, I considered introducing my cartoons later in the evening, after dinner, after several glasses of wine. Or I would ask my guest if she’d care to see my family album. Naturally, she would anticipate snapshots of my children at Disneyland, of my siblings and parents—and certainly of my ex. I could just imagine her gasp of delight when, instead of seeing Sondra and the kiddies sporting in the surf at Laguna Beach, she beheld Mankoff’s cartoon in which a writer is pitching his script to a Hollywood producer, explaining, “It’s basically ‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ but with animated penguins.”
In the way of preamble, though—just to get her into a perfectly receptive mood—I would carry out exquisite hors d’oeuvres (stone-ground crackers and at least four varieties of aged cheese), put on suitable background music (John Dowland’s Lachrimae, let us say, or Alan Hovhaness’s And God Created Great Whales), and dim the track lights. I doubt that I’d have to wait too long before waves of amour began to propagate, like spores in a Petri dish.
And then, at just the precise moment, I would get on bended knee before her, reach for my cartoon binder, and open it to the crème de la crème, coup-de-grace mother of all cartoons: the forlorn puppy-dog at the Pearly Gates hoping beyond hope to get his testicles back.