Like the earliest humans, I put together my observations and came up with a picture of how things worked that was as ingenious as it was cockeyed. And like the earliest people, in my early days I was full of watching and figuring. I was curious from the first momentsnot as a pastime, but as a way to survive.
As I sat at the kitchen table that night, looking at the paring knife with the bent point, I was trying to figure out why I was supposed to not know what I knew. I was already wondering: Why are things like this? Whats really happening here?
There was plenty about my world to stimulate my curiosity. From my earliest days, I was standing off on the side, watching, trying to understand a world that fascinated me. It was a world of coarse jokes and laughter late into the night, a world of gambling and drinking and the frequent sight of the buttocks, thighs, and breasts of naked women.
It seemed to me that the world was very interesting. How could you not want to explore a place like this?
I was three years old. It was one in the morning, and I was walking down the
aisle of a smoky railroad car. I liked the feel of the train as it lurched and
roared under my feet. My father was in burlesque, and he and my mother and I
traveled from town to town with a company of comics, straight men, chorus girls,
strippers, and talking women. As I moved down the aisle, not much taller than
the armrests, I watched the card playing, the dice games, the drinking and
joking, late into the night.
I would fall asleep on a makeshift bed made of two train seats jammed together. A few hours later, my mother would wake me as the train pulled into Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Philly. Id sit up groggily and gaze out the window as she pulled on my woolen coat and rubbed my face where the basket weave of the cane seat had left a pink latticework on my cheek. As the train crept slowly into the town, I could see the water towers, the factories, the freight trains jockeying across the rail yards in the gray early light. This would be the first sight Id have of every city wed travel to, and my heart would beat with excitement.
And then, five or six times a dayat almost every showI would be standing in the wings, watching. There would be an opening number in which my father stood on the side of the stage and sang while chorus girls danced and showed their breasts. The person who performed this job in burlesque was called, with cheerful clarity, the tit singer.
My father sang well, and he was a handsome man. When he walked down the street, people sometimes mistook him for Cary Grant and asked for his autograph. But when he was onstage as the tit singer, no one looked at him.
After his song, my father would be the straight man for a comic. Or, there might be a sketch with a couple of comics and a talking woman. A talking woman was a dancer or stripper who could also do lines. When a woman was new to the company, the comics would ask, Can she talk?
Then there would be a strip. The lights would go out, and over the loudspeaker a voice would announce: The Casino Theater is proud to present . . . Miss Fifi.
In the pit, the drummer would beat out a rhythm while she kept time with her pelvis. She would slip off a piece of clothing and toss it into the wings. It would land a couple of feet from me, and a wardrobe mistress would pick it up and fold it carefully. The stripper would walk around the stage in time to the music and finally pull off the rest of her clothing. Except for some fringe where her underwear would go, she was naked. Blackout.
The muscle in her hip would graze my shoulder as she brushed by me. She would grab a piece of her costume and hold it against her bare chest as she walked briskly up the stairs to her dressing room.
Excerpted from Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda Copyright © 2005 by Alan Alda. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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