by Chris Rostenberg
I learned about being a boy when I was boy. My earliest memory is from my childhood home of Old Mill Farm. My mother and I were standing by the living room window, and I wanted to know which color was blue, but didn’t know how to ask. I pointed at the wallpaper and said, “Blue?”
“No,” said my mother, because it was pink.
“Blue?” I asked her, pointing at the bureau.
“No,” she said, because the bureau was brown.
“Blue?” I asked, pointing at my shirt.
Another time, I went to the bedroom shared by all of us, and asked my mom, “Texas is Texas, but what are we?”
“This is New York.” So there were two New Yorks. I didn’t know what a state was or how to ask. I used to say to myself as we drove up the hill, “I will never forget this.” And I remember thinking that, but not specifically when or why.
I also remember promising to never surrender my childlike qualities. I made this oath on the swing-set at Harrison Avenue School, which was the biggest, greatest swing-set I have ever seen, that has since been torn down. I haven’t seen a big swing-set in years. Some people think they’re too dangerous. I think those people are too dangerous.
When my mother was pregnant with my sister, I remember being very excited and listening to my mom’s belly. My parents thought I would be jealous of my sister when she came home from the hospital, so when my mom came back to the apartment, she came in the back way, put newborn Kendall in her crib, then entered the front door to greet me. I exclaimed, “Where’s my baby?!”
My mother hung out with other women who had daughters, and I felt a little jealous that I would never have a baby in by belly. For a little while, I wanted to be a girl. Just for a little while – control your hormones.
The only things my parents have in common is that they have green eyes, are loners who like to hike, and they had me and my sister. So they got a divorce when I was 3 or so, when my sister was 1. Eventually, just my mother and my sister and I lived on Old Mill Farm.
Although we lived on a big estate, we were very poor like James Bond as a child on Skyfall, and we only ate ham cold cuts when my mother’s mother visited us. She was a professional nanny for rich people and freaked the little boy out when she took out her false teeth. He tried to take his own teeth!
My mother was too proud to go on food stamps. One year, the boiler blew up, and the pipes froze. Even the water in the toilet froze. We sat around a little space heater and my jacket got burned. I’ve always hated the cold. I remember sitting in the window, crying for my father, who was 20 miles away in Manhattan. He was doing his residency at Harlem Hospital. The main thing I remember about NYC in those days is that people did not clean up after their dogs. Lots of graffiti!
My mother wanted me to have my sister and I to have more friends, so she joined Parents Without Partners, a club of divorced or single parents, but she discovered it to be a place to find dates, which got on her nerves because she was not interested in dating.
She put me into the Cub Scouts, but unlike the other parents, my mother would participate in the soft-ball games, running the bases and everything. She would interject in front of my peers, “What is the difference between a run and a home run?” Who cared? And who wanted their mother with the Scottish accent thinking they were the star of the show and one of the Cub Scout soft-ball players? I slunk away and walked back to the Farm. It was a long walk.
My mother became a feminist and she wanted me to care about women’s rights. She wouldn’t let me play with toy guns or soldiers, and she built me a doll house, which I enjoyed. My second-grade teacher, Ms. Schwartz, was also a feminist and I said, “Equal rights is right!” to another child and got a big smile out of the teacher. I made a big poster promoting the Equal Rights Amendment. Ms. Schwartz let me sit in the back of the class and work with electronic equipment, making serial and parallel circuits while I was supposed to be doing work. On my report card, she wrote, “Christopher does not budget his time wisely.” She is my favorite teacher of all time.
I loved the Ms. Magazine classic children’s album, “Free to Be You and Me.” I remember those lines, “If we grow up, will I be pretty, will you be big and strong?” In dark days, I would imagine a little unborn baby girl singing to her unborn baby twin brother, swimming in their mothers’ womb. And on the album, the school principal told Dudley Pippin, “Most people spend their lives trying to become un-mixed-up!” The principal then produced a little blue flute and played a song that was sad and joyous. Try putting out a children’s album like that today, Ms. Magazine! Good luck!!
There was a man on the Farm who was in the process of buying it and he lived in the old stone cottage in the back. His name was Claude and he had a puppy named Pi, and I slipped on the ice, and Pi age my jacket. Claude taught me to play chess, and every day I studied it real hard and today I suck at it.
My Aunt Parker came and visited us on the Farm and she had a pink pinky, and that’s how I used to remember her. She lived in San Francisco with her husband, Andy, who taught me a few things about telling jokes. Keep them short. If it needs to be explained, it won’t be funny. Don’t expend all your material at once. The punch-line is on the third beat. I had this really cool Kryptonite rock that glowed in the dark, and I took Andy into the closet to show him it glow, and he pretended it killed him. That was so funny! He was in commercial real estate or something equally mysterious, and he had a wrist-watch with two buttons that said, STUN and KILL.
Out in San Francisco, Parker and Andy had met Robin Williams when he was a street performer. Then they got into “est”, a personal self-help seminar that became Landmark Forum. Parker got several members of my family into it, including me as a kid. They encouraged me to act. Not for the purpose of acting. For the purpose of having balls.
When the boiler blew up on Old Mill Farm, we couldn’t live in the apartment for a while, and Parker and Andy let us live with them on Park Avenue. Nice carpet! They had a great stereo and I used to crawl under the dining room table, put the headphones on and listen to Billy Joel, who was just hitting the scene: “I got a call from an old friend,/we used to be real close./ Said he couldn’t go on the American way./ Closed the shop, sold the house/ bought a ticket for the West Coast!/ Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.!”
Parker and Andy had a dog named Freddie, and when Parker got him, he ran into the Pacific Ocean and Parker said, “Well, it was nice knowing you!” But Freddie came back! Parker and Andy hated walking Freddie and were so happy when they taught Freddie to shit on the terrace. Good Freddie!
My Aunt Annette and her daughter Frieda came to live with us for a while on the Farm after they moved back from California, and I was happy to have their company. I was tired to talking to the donkeys. I asked Aunt Annette if she was a hippie and the adults laughed, but she was a hippie. She looked like all the ladies on “Sesame Street.” Frieda, my cousin, looked like all the girls on, “The Electric Company.” That show opens with the song, “We’re gonna show you to fly!” and I kept waiting for the episode where they would show me to fly. I practiced flying and had to get stitches.
Aunt Annette, like my mother, Parker and grandmother, are Scottish, and Annette wears the kilt and plays the bagpipes, but in many ways she is normal. If you’ve heard one bagpipe song, you’ve heard them both. She worked in the admissions office at NYU and I saw her and my mother graduate from that college, where they held the ceremony in Washington Square Park.
Annette has had a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village for nearly 50 years. Boy, has that place changed! I was driving up there during Covid, looking for the Strand Bookshop to buy some comics, and I became so disoriented! It was like they had rearranged skyscrapers or something. Women ask for directions … Democrat men use GPS … Republican men find their own way. I lost my way but didn’t lose my balls.
I got to the Strand and discovered their bathroom was now unisex, and there was a little girl using the toilet next to a man with balls hairier then mine. He was reading a book about Dr. Mengele. So I stole dozens of Star Wars comics, burned them, and mailed the ashes to Kathleen Kennedy.
Anyway, Aunt Annette watches the History Channel and gets really angry, saying, “England didn’t declare war – Britain declared war! What is English is English and what’s Scottish is Scottish and what’s British is British!” I learned that Britain is comprised of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. You never hear about Wales, though, and I wondered if it was a fairy-tale place like with leprechauns.
Annette would go on, saying, “Rob Roy McGregor had red hair – that’s what ‘roy’ means! They can’t dye Liam Neeson’s head red? Braveheart is bollocks! You Americans don’t know how to make a cup of tea! Who pours in the milk while the tea-bag is in? I don’t want hot water – I want boiling water!” Aunt Annette is really mean and when I get her angry – and I get her angry – she calls me a “cheeky bugger.”
My aunt was always embarrassing me. When she would come to visit on the Farm, Annette would be so relieved to be out of the city, that when we drove out in Westchester County by the golf course, she’d stick her head out the car window and sing. We would go to the movies and if Annette liked the song in the movie, she would sing along with it, right in the theater.
I had these little micronaut toys, which we so cool, but which were put out of business by the crappy Star Wars action figures from Kenner that they still make. One micronaut was a white robot with a spinning drill emerging from his navel. My Aunt Annette pointed out, “That micronaut has a cute penis!”