Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Whoop, there it is.

Last night, on the bus, I saw a kid, maybe 8-years-old. He had a whoopee cushion in his hands, and a first aid kit strapped around his waist like fanny pack. He was clearly an experienced prankster.
He was riding the bus with what appeared to be his mother and what appeared to be his older brother. I say appeared to be, because I feel a sense of responsibility to this guy. Maybe it was an aunt and a cousin, maybe just people he knew. The point is, I don't know who these people are, where they were going, or what the series of events were that led to this kid riding the bus with a whoopee cushion and a first aid kit.
I wanted to say something to him, maybe bump his knuckles, ask him his story. I wanted to find out what he was gonna do with the whoopee cushion and why he decided he'd better bring along a first aid kit.
I never had a whoopee cushion of my own. When I was 7, maybe 8--no older because it happened in the house on 24th Street, and we moved from there the summer after my eighth birthday--my sister brought home a whoopee cushion from one of her trips downtown with her friends to get jelly shoes and Rick Springfield albums.
As a child, I was in love with downtown and I was in love with whoopee cushions. How could I not have been, when I read so many comic books?
At that point, mostly Marvel's Star Wars and Indiana Jones mags picked up at the 7-11, but my dad had lately started bringing me along to Westgate Books, at the far end of 22nd, just before Circle Drive, in the same ell-shaped stripmall as Duffers indoor minigolf, on his semi-regularly paperback-hunting excursions. Westgate, those first few trips especially, was the best place in the world (even though it wasn't downtown). It had shelves and tables overflowing with books, but it still managed to feel fairly open, unlike the smaller used bookstores in older buildings, which in their crampedness would later seem to me beguiling and romantic. Along the windowfront, facing the huge parking lot, were two rows of probably a dozen columns of comics. I would make my way through top row and then double back through the floor level boxes. Each comic had its cover-price halved (to the nearest nickel) in black grease-marker on the cover. Forty-cent comics, like the brilliant late 70s Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics--written by Denny O'Neil, with art by Alex Saviuk--were 20 cents, but so were the earlier, Mike Grell-drawn issues with a 35-cent cover price.

I didn't even know, back then, about O'Neil's earlier run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, with art by Neal Adams. Those comics didn't end up in the bins at Westgate, or if they did, they were picked up by keener hands than mine.
At that time, standard cover price for new comics was 75-cents, so single issues at Westgate topped out at 40-cents. You could get a lot of comics for just a few dollars, and I did. Merely from repeat, obsessive visits to the Westgate bins, I managed to secure nearly a complete run of Green Lantern comics, from the 1976 relaunch to just shy of the current issue (along with considerable chunks of the Cary Bates/Carmine Infantino Flash run, Jim Aparo-drawn Batman team-ups in The Brave & the Bold and DC's great anthology "Dollar Comics" of the 70s, Adventure and World's Finest (which often featured Green Arrow in solo action drawn by the dynamic Trevor Von Eeden!). It wouldn't be until 1988, during the Millennium crossover event that I even thought of buying new comics, and about a year after before I realized there were stores that actually specialized in selling new comics.

Our visits to Westgate were hardly regular, though I remember needling both of my parents to take me there much more often than they actually did (the nerve!).
The 1970s were not so distant then, though I had no memory of them. My earliest memories are almost certainly from 1980, just prior to my brother Jesse's arrival. I remember Mayfair Playschool and my grandparents' acreage near Martensville--more than anything, I remember the Sunday night drives back into Saskatoon from the acreage: approaching headlights, the Husky gas station high above the highway near the overpass, a warm feeling sitting in there in the backseat, drifting off to sleep.
The stories in the comics from the 70s weren't that different from the more recent ones, mostly by the same handful of people (some of them still active today), but the ads from those older comics were amazing! Daisy air rifles, Lee Jeans, and Slim Jims seemed quite exotic and alluring. They presented an ideal of boyhood as outdoorsy and violent. Some of the oldest comics I picked up still had black & white ads for Charles Atlas self-improvement pamphlets and backpage, full-colour ads for Sea Monkeys. But the best ads I loved best were those cluttered paste-up jobs with tiny print and crude drawings, promising SEE BEHIND GLASSES, Scary Life-Size MONSTER GHOST, LEARN HYPNOTIC CONTROL, and of course, the fabulous whoopee cushion (occasionally sold as "POO-POO CUSHION", see above). These presented an ideal of boyhood that was urban, puerile and violent.
I could never screw up the courage to clip out the order form and send 35-cents off to obscure New York addresses that you never read about like Lynbrook or Westbury. It wasn't so much that I thought of even one of my comics as a valuable collector's item (despite the fact that some of them had those very words emblazoned across their covers) and didn't want to defile them as that, well, I recognized that these were old comics. There were no whoopee cushion ads in the Green Lantern comics by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons--my favourite era of the character, I might add. Those issues had ads for Dungeons & Dragons sets, primordial video games like Joust and Revell modelling kits, distractions of a very different kind of comic fan than I was or would ever be. These old ads, selling novelties and self-improvements, even by the 70s were throwbacks to the earliest days of comic books. The mighty M.C. Gaines--inventor of the saddle-stitched, four-colour, newsprint comic book, and father of Mad Magazine founder Bill Gaines--was, at the time of his inspiration, an out-of-work novelty salesman.
When my sister brought this whoopee cushion, this most sacredly vulgar item from the back pages of the comics that fired my imagination, I was beside myself.
"Let me try it!"
But my sister and her friend would have none of it. It was theirs and they were under no obligation to share with me.
I waited for them to be distracted by their new Rick Springfield record and then I took it! I held the flaccid pink rubber to my lips, inflated the cushion and threw it down on the nearest chair. My sister and her friend were sitting on the floor.
"Can I offer you a seat?" I asked, failing to conceal even a single manic twitch of zeal. They rolled their eyes.
I waited.
Maybe someone else would come into the living room.
No one did.
I couldn't take it anymore! I needed to see--to hear--the whoopee cushion in action. I sat on it myself.
I stoop up, looked down at it. It was still perfectly inflated. I sat down again.
I stood up. I looked around. I sat down again, as hard as I could.
I got up, the cushion had deflated, but had failed to make the appropriately flatulent noise. I brought it back to my lips.
"I hope you're not going suh-lobbering all over my whoopee cushion!"
Even as I blew, I could hear the air being released from the cushion. I looked it over, and, sure enough, there was a big rip in the seam. I had popped the whoopee cushion.
I was a failure as a kid! For generations, kids had been pulling genius pranks with whoopee cushions, eliciting demoralizing fart sounds from the pompous and the strict! Bullies could be brought to their knees with a single blast! But its power was beyond my capabilities. As a kid, I was incompetent.
I stayed away from whoopee cushions for many years after that, confused and saddened by my seeming inability to make use of that most basic element of boyhood mischief. It didn't occur to me until much later on in life that whoopee cushions were simply cheaply-made from flimsy material. I should have been surprised and disappointed if the damn thing hadn't burst.
So when I saw this kid on the bus, with his whoopee cushion (I understand they're self-inflating now) and first aid kit and a barely-contained glimmer of danger in his eye, I recognized him as a fellow traveller. Hail fellow well met, I thought as I passed him on my to the door, and our paths diverged. Me, back into the night toward home and adult responsibilities; him, onto great feats of artificial flatulence.

1 comment:

Pat said...

Oh man, I remember all those ads from my days picking through comic bins in Moose Jaw as a lad. I also recall spending an obscene amount of money on short-lived Marvel characters that no doubt seem questionable, at best, in hindsight (Sleepwalker? Really, young Patrick?). But goodness, those were the days. I even read the full-page industry-insider column attributed to but clearly not written by Stan Lee. And the letters! They were from kids just like me!

Never had a whoopy cushion though. Must be why my sense of masculinity lacks that violent element.