We Are What We Pretend to Be (13 page)

BOOK: We Are What We Pretend to Be
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It was at Columbia that Berman’s life became, among other things, of course, a sequence of mind-bending substances, usually taken in moderation, and on the advice of friends who had tried them. The belief that one could thus fine-tune one’s wits or charm or place in the universe thereby was particularly reputable at Columbia, because several of the psychopharmacological artists calling themselves “Beatniks” had come from there. One, Allen Ginsberg, had written such good poems while a confessed drug-user that he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters! As for alcohol, which Berman was still drinking back then, Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck, not Columbia grads, to be sure, but
American winners of Nobel Prizes for Literature, were all certifiable alcoholics.
And the greatest of all mental-health theorists, Sigmund fucking Freud, was on cocaine.
The night that Berman, still an amateur comedian, premiered his routine about the impossibility of teaching evolution or anything else in a New York City ghetto public school, he first swallowed six two-milligram tablets of a patented amphetamine whose trade name was
, whose street name was
. The pills had been prescribed by a doctor for his roommate Barry Dresdener, who, still taking them, would go on to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice as a vice president of Microsoft.
Moments before Berman strode up to the microphone at Cutty Sark, he chased those “six little darlings,” as he called them, with two shots of brandy from the bar.
The mistress of ceremonies introduced him, then asked him, on mike, “How you feelin’ tonight?”
he said.
She topped him. She said,
Yes, and after being discharged from Caldwell for the second time, Gil Berman made up several jokes about sobriety. He called it “the drug of choice for kindergarten through the first six grades.” He said, “Sobriety is ten times more hallucinogenic than LSD or angel dust. If you haven’t taken a trip on sobriety, or as they call it on the street, ‘cold turkey,’ you ain’t seen nothing yet.” And he was so curious about what sobriety was doing to him that it might have been a famous drug he hadn’t tried yet, like “roofies,” say, the so-called “date-rape drug.”
He had a joke about roofies: “Lips that touch roofies will never touch mine.” He compared his detoxed self with what he had been when he made
Who’s Sorry Now?
That CD’s opening lines were these: “Listen: If there was ever a man who should never have been a husband, that’s me. If there was ever a man who should never have been a father, that’s me. If there was ever a man who should never have even been alive, that’s the boozehound and coke-head who’s here tonight to sell you on the many delights of de-destruction.”
That pre–Taj Mahal Gil Berman ranted on from there, interrupting himself again and again with guffaws of agony, to tell of the violence that had ended his first and only marriage and that had caused him to be jailed and separated from his then-pregnant wife for what he thought would be forever. He did not mention on the CD that the wife he slugged in the jaw was gravid, or that he’d wanted her to get an abortion. But he did say how pitiful she looked after he knocked her down. And sober Berman found himself now wondering, as so many critics had when the disc was released, how anyone could find that part of it funny.
When he recorded it, and was on snorted speed, he had thought himself hilarious. He now wondered if the CD’s popularity, in any case limited to persons his own age and younger, hadn’t been engendered by morbid fascination with such a grotesque act of self-crucifixion.
No such yowling atonement, or even a mild admission of guilt of any sort, had so far been part of what had come pouring out of him since his second discharge from Caldwell, the stuff he was now trying out before a live audience for the fifth time there in
Northampton. It seemed to Gil Berman that drug-free Gil Berman was much more at peace with himself, as though he had settled whatever problem or problems had made him so desperate in
Who’s Sorry Now?
He was familiar, as are all graduates of Caldwell, with this adage: that the problem in the life of an alcoholic is alcohol, and that the problem in the life of a drug abuser is drugs. Up to now, Berman had found this truism more of value to therapists than to patients. It gave therapists the simplest specifications for what they could call a cure. But Gil Berman, watching drug-free Gil Berman like a hawk, found him unimpaired as a wit and scourge of every sort of institutional stupidity and hypocrisy that was murdering not just common decency, but the planet itself.
What was lost? Self-pity. Another poignant line not original with Gil Berman: “Good riddance of bad rubbish.”
You bet! And drug-free Gil Berman was still saying, in one way or another, because it had to be said, what in
Who’s Sorry Now?
had provoked such pro forma outrage on the part of what he called “militant ostriches fighting the War on Drugs.” He was still saying that drugs, over-the-counter, prescribed, or against the law, were as pervasive in modern America as cars or TVs—“or, for that matter, Kleenex and toilet paper”—and as potentially beneficial. Drug-free Gil Berman was still saying that the government, instead of fighting “Keystone Cops battles” against popular drugs outlawed at random, should be teaching Americans about all of them and admit that most, but certainly not all, if used in moderation, could be “sort of life-enhancing, like Kleenex or toilet paper.”
Who’s Sorry Now?
: “Please join me in my war on Bayer Aspirin and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia. Call out the Eighty-second
Airborne! Aspirin makes the lining of my stomach bleed, and milk of magnesia makes me shit my brains out. And the only reason I’m not at war with General Motors is that state and local governments make sure people know how to drive a fucking Pontiac Trans-Am. Otherwise, I’d say let’s do to Detroit what we did to North Vietnam with such satisfying results, which is bomb it back to the Stone Age.”
Much of what Gil Berman tried out in Northampton in 2000 would be part of his CD
If God Were Alive Today
, put on sale in April of the year 2003. A few of those bits, all by themselves, including the one about artificial intelligences gossiping to each other about human beings, would be played at his memorial service at The Players, his club in New York City, in November of that year.
Cause of death? Morphine overdose, self-administered for permanent relief from the pain of the same cancer that had killed his mother. His age? Exactly forty-five to the day. Berman died in his business suit and basketball shoes, with a note pinned to his regimental-stripe tie. His regiment? The Coldstream Guards. His note? It was an epitaph he recommended for himself: “He lasted three years longer in that fucking Chinese fire drill than his dad did.”
He was indeed given that epitaph, which made history as the first instance, in modern times at least, of the word “fucking” being incised into a headstone. Gil Berman, one last time, in his farewell note: “Symbols for fucking are nowhere to be found in the Pyramids, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Elgin Marbles, or on the Rosetta Stone.”
Chapter 3
Quoting yet again from what Berman said in Northampton when he had three more years to endure: “Political correctness has made many old-time, ethnocentric, shamelessly racist Caucasian metaphors and similes as offensive as ‘shit,’ ‘fuck,’ and ‘asshole,’ say, would be if yelled in church. Our Constitution, after all, the Law of our Land, after all, for which sailors, soldiers, marines, and coastguardspersons are paid to die, says implicitly, although, I must point out, not explicitly, that persons of color are people. So be it. I can take a hint.”
Berman paused, as though ready to take up another subject. But then, as though driven to risk all in the name of common sense and justice, let the chips fall where they may, and said: “Listen. I say to the nonwhites in this audience tonight, and you know who you are: ‘Please, must American eloquence be so emasculated that no one, no matter what color, and I include yellows, can no longer use that most sublime metaphor for confusion and
hysteria in stressful situations, which is ‘Chinese fire drill’? If the firepersons don’t get their balls in an uproar about that expression, why should Chinks?
“Listen, I will make a deal with all yellows here tonight, and may their gods give them all good things: I will give up ‘Chinese jibe,’ if I can still keep ‘Chinese fire drill.’ Sailors here, and again I don’t care two pins what race they are, know a Chinese jibe is when you are sailing before the wind in a sloop, without a care in the world, and all of a sudden the wind wraps the sail around the mast like a World War I puttee. I swear on my mother’s grave that I will never again say ‘Chinese jibe,’ if only I can keep on screaming, whenever there is a monster fuckup on the order of this presidential election, ‘Chinese fire drill!’”
Again, this was the night of December 11, 2000, and the voting for the president of a nation of one-quarter billion, whether George W. Bush or Albert Gore, had been so FUBAR, so fucked-up beyond all recognition, that the justices of the United States Supreme Court were now holding a new election in private just among themselves. Berman: “I don’t know why we haven’t let nine political appointees choose our presidents all along. No chance for a tie! And I must say I am honored that you came to hear me tonight, rather than staying home and watching the electronic tantrums on your erasers. I call TVs ‘erasers’ because they have not only wiped away the entire human experience to date, but whatever it was they were wetting their pants about only fifteen minutes earlier.”
The last time Gil Berman himself had voted in any sort of election was when he ran against Cynthia Gottlieb for the presidency
of their junior class at Knightsbridge High. Cynthia Gottlieb won, and she would eventually become, as Cynthia Gottlieb Schaffner, lieutenant governor of the State of Colorado, and then, even as Berman was performing at the Calvin, secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush. Bush, although the Supreme Court hadn’t yet elected him president, was already naming members of his Cabinet. People cynical about politics were already calling Cynthia Gottlieb Schaffner “a twofer”: both a woman and a Jew.
Berman said he visited Northampton’s public library that afternoon, wanting to find out about Lord Jeffrey Amherst, in whose honor a nearby college and town were named. “Turns out this local hero made the world safe for democracy,” he said, “by giving the chiefs of hostile Native American tribes blankets from the beds of Whiteskins who had smallpox.”
He really had gone to the library that afternoon. He had discovered that the silence of a library, somehow always on the verge of uproar, could mute the twang of his need for drugs, provided he had a mission there. On his way from his hotel to the library, though, to find out who Lord Amherst was, he noticed that he was being followed by a large woman who, in his own words, “looked like a driver of an eighteen-wheeler on the turnpike from Hell to Pittsburgh.” He was used to being sneakily tailed by plainclothes cops who, he supposed, were hoping to get fifteen minutes of fame by jailing a celebrity. Nor had such stalkers been invariably disappointed. Before his disorderly conduct at Trump’s Taj Mahal, they had caught him smoking a joint backstage in Toledo, Ohio; snorting powdered Ritalin, or “speed,” in a bus
station men’s room in Corpus Christi, Texas; and in deep conversation with a fifteen-year-old prostitute who looked twenty in Saint Augustine, Florida. He had not wanted to fuck her. He thought she might know where he could buy cocaine.
But as for the woman stalking him in Northampton, he had to ask himself: “What kind of cockamamie police department outside Nazi Germany would have duties for a Diesel-dyke that monumental?”
He thought he had ditched her by going in the front door of an art gallery, out the back, and into a parking lot that the gallery shared with the Nellie Prior Academy on the hill behind. But ten minutes after he got to the library, in she barged. She didn’t get anything to read, but sat down at a table twenty feet away from him, and stared everywhere but at him, and drummed nervously on the tabletop with her fingertips until somebody told her to stop it.
Here’s what that was all about: This person was Martha Jones, a deinstitutionalized lunatic sixty years old, turned loose with pills in Ithaca, New York, where she had relatives she could stay with. She had seen Berman perform there the week before, onstage at Ithaca College. She followed him to Northampton because she believed that the greatest prophets had preached goodness as stand-up comedians, only pretending to be unserious. She was convinced that after Jesus was through preaching “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” and “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted,” and “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth,” and “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after
righteousness: for they shall be filled,” and so on, he winked and said, “Only kidding, folks.”
And now she thought Gil Berman was a reincarnation of that joking Christ.
And there she was, front row center at the Calvin Theater, looking up at him with goo-goo eyes. He spoke directly to her. “I don’t deserve to look this good,” he said. This was compassionate. He was thinking how awful it must be to have to go through life so unattractive. She was a gerontomorph, with grossly exaggerated facial features usually taken to connote maturity. In a word: Martha Jones was a female Neanderthal.
But Gil Berman’s apology for his own paedomorphic good looks would in any case have been the segue into his next bit, which was about automobiles, to wit: “I read in the paper the other day,” he said, “about the death of what was believed to have been the oldest living thing in New England. It was a mulberry tree on Cape Cod, in Barnstable. It wasn’t a New World native like those to whom Jeffrey Amherst made the gift of smallpox. No. Its mama and papa trees had to have been in merry England, home of capital punishment for property crimes and the Magna Carta. When they counted the rings in its trunk, there were 283 of the motherfuckers! Just think: If that tree had had wonderful ears and a brain like lucky us, it might have heard people talking about everything from the French and Indian War, in which Lord Amherst so distinguished himself, to the War on Drugs, in which no one and everyone is a winner.” He paused, pretending to ransack his own brain for something else to say.
BOOK: We Are What We Pretend to Be
5.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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