The most difficult thing to do when writing is to translate a personal moment into something with universal appeal. Case in point: in my opinion, the funniest things in life are not jokes everyone can relate to—“OMG, isn’t traffic crazy??”—no, gut-busting laughter usually comes from a memory shared between two (or several) people, an event so specific that the mere mention of what happened sends all involved into uncontrolled hysterics.
“Hey, remember that time when you sneezed…”
“And the thing with the shoe horn, and…”
Nothing more is needed; the two old friends begin laughing manically, with no one around them able to comprehend why.
I shared such a memory with an old friend today and loved every minute of it. His laughter was so genuine and pure; he hadn’t thought of the experience in years and joy overcame him as we spoke of what happened.
I will do my best to translate the tale; whether or not I succeed will be decided by the reader.
* * *
In 1991, I moved to Boston, MA, to attend the Berklee College of Music. Once there, I met a young man named Barrett Antar Goodwin. If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, he was (and remains) black. Or African-American. I forget which is more politically correct today. A connoisseur of fine fried chicken, perhaps? Either way, while most young black men have the unique ability to discover the back seat of police cars and the inside of jail cells, Barrett had his own special skills: the man could find pornography as easily as he breathed air. If in a dorm room or visiting someone’s house, without even meaning to he would reach between two couch cushions, or ask for a pen and open a drawer, or overturn the stack of newspapers sitting on a table and whoomp, there it was. Walking to and from school, he would pause as an internal radar began to guide him, and then head in an odd direction and without effort stumble upon whatever was around, be it discarded dildos, dirty magazines, or, on occasion, Polaroid pictures.
For those not in the know, before the modern age of digital cameras and Internet connections speeding wayward pictures around the world in seconds, the Polaroid camera was a beacon of high-society technology. Instead of taking a picture, completing a roll of film, taking it to the Photo Shop (or Walgreen’s or what have you), waiting a week (or, in later years, only “ONE HOUR!”), the Polaroid Camera gave you the freedom to take a picture and within minutes (and after minor shaking in the air), holy amazement of all amazements, you had, in your hand, an actual image! It was like magic!
(“I’m gonna make this pencil, disappear…”)
Most people used this device honorably, snapping images of family reunions, birthday parties, and the like. But, as in any society throughout time, there are those among us who look normal on the surface, but who—behind closed doors—act a little differently. Puritans tend to forget that people will always find a base use for anything and everything invented; Some cry that with cell phones came “Sexting,” but before cell phones came the Polaroid Camera, and before that the camera, and before that art, etchings and so on down the line.
(Case in point: a documentary on the Lascaux caves in France—the caves which contain the oldest scratchings man made upon its walls—along with the horses and other animals were nude women. These women were described as being quite well endowed, and even more so than the women of the time actually were, meaning man has always had a healthy imagination.)
So, as said, the Polaroid Camera gave you personalized freedom. Where you used to have to turn your film over to a stranger and have them judge your artistic eye, the middleman was eliminated. This created much in the way of freedom for those who enjoyed taking “candid” photos of themselves. Instead of picking up pictures from Walgreen’s surrounded by an embarrassed air of shame, a deviant never had to leave the comfort of their own home to create photographic evidence of inner kinks. This information in hand, we return the narrative to Boston.
One fine day on the way to (or from) class, as Barrett and I walked his Spidey Sense flared. Without breaking stride or doing anything out of the ordinary, he casually strolled over to a street corner and picked up a Polaroid picture. I asked him if it had caught his eye, or if some other stimulus had given him insight to the idea the picture was sitting there, but no, that was not the case. Something, some force drew him to the spot. He knew not why he was walking to the location, but once there it all made sense.
The Polaroid was of a nude man, bent over and facing away from the camera. While that might be an ugly enough mental image to deal with, the man in this situation had gone one further and stuck, of all things, a pencil into his starfish. One would hope the pencil was new and un-sharpened, because the eraser was clearly visible.
Of all things, I immediately had two thoughts: the first, “Yuck,” was a given. The second, “Well that’s a good way to get lead poisoning,” was a bit more awkward, but I’m assuming my mind was trying to distract my brain from what my eyes were seeing.
Now, the normal thing to do in such a situation would be to (a) not pick up such a thing, if having found it on a street corner, or (b) having picked it up, throw it away immediately, return home, and take an hour-long, hot shower. With bleach.
That is not the path we took. Barrett pocketed the picture, because for some unknown reason we thought a find of this magnitude was something worth sharing, like the Ark of the Covenant or George W. Bush’s actual National Guard records. I mean, when you are a good person, you share the bounty freely, correct? So, to the dorm we went, and in a casual moment where many were gathered, Barrett removed the picture from his pocket and distributed it around the room.
Reaction was swift; when handed the item, many dropped it as if hellfire itself were burning their flesh. Many winced, some even gagged. All wondered what was wrong with us for saving such a horror. What was wrong with us? Nothing, of course. We had been simply running scientific experiments on our friends, our lab rats. They reacted to the stimulus; we took mental notes and then furthered our plan.
If my memory serves me correctly, Chris was the first victim. The next day, he was sitting in class naively innocent, with a notebook and pen (or pencil), listening to the professor. At some point while leafing through his annotations, Chris made a grisly discovery. As he casually turned over a page, the Polaroid fell out of the notebook and onto the floor. Chris let fly an immediate cry of disgust. All heads turned, and as quickly as he could he scooped up the offending image and tucked it away before anyone could see what it was. He then seethed to the point he was ready to boil over, and let Barrett and I have it upon our next encounter.
He also vowed revenge.
Now, the neat thing about telling someone you will have your revenge upon them is: it gives the person time to prepare. Not soon after that day, a devious dance began, with Barrett and I on one side and the rest of our friends on the other. The Polaroid would make its way back and forth between us, one day ending up in a book of mine, another day resting comfortably on the floor next to a classmate until they discovered it in horror, and then after that returning to Barrett’s possession, albeit unknown to him, as the whole point of the process was to embarrass someone as publicly as humanly possible.
The thing is, and I hate to insult anyone here or call them not smart, but Barrett and I won every single battle of that war, and did so easily. We had two tricks in our arsenal, and both worked fantastically well against the others. First off, when we discovered the picture, we did not react. It didn’t matter if we were in the middle of a test, at lunch, or studying. When the picture popped up, we’d smile, shrug, and tuck it away for later use. How this worked in our favor is easy: whenever anyone else discovered the photo, the reaction was always decidedly loud.
“UGH!” one would shout in class.
“Oh goddammit!” another would intone.
They were always giving auditory clues to their discovery, meaning Barrett and I knew our time was coming fast.
The second manner of avoiding embarrassment we used was so simple it’s not even funny: we actually shook our notebooks before class. If anything fell out, well then, there you go: we found it before being surrounded by others. Why no one else did this is beyond me, because every so often we would find the photo before class and had enough time to sneak it back into someone else’s possession. Then, in class while giggling in anticipation of our demise, out of their notebook would fall the offending picture.
This back-and-forth went on for months, until one person thought, as someone always does, things had gotten “out of control” and “gone too far.” It was one final instance that brought our Pornographic Olympic Games to an end.
Estephano was an odd black man. He came from Malibu, and was thus very well groomed, and very Republican. He dressed preppy, and had you talked to him while blindfolded you would have said, “That man right there checks the Caucasian box on the census.” He walked and talked confidence, because having been born with plenty, he never learned to want.
Estephano had a crush on a classmate, and unless you’re severely dense you can see where this is going. He was always looking for excuses to talk to the object of his affection; he would ask her for notes or head in her direction after class, even if out of his way. Suffice to say, the poor fool was smitten, and one lovely day she sat next to him in class. As the session was about to begin, she realized she had forgotten her notebook! Oh noes!! How so ever would she keep track of all the professor said that day? She turned to the black man with the easy smile at her side and asked if she could “borrow” some paper. Estephano was ecstatic; his heart started to flutter and he opened his backpack, pulled out his notebook… and to the floor it fell, the snapshot from hell: anus and eraser.
It sat there, staring up at them—“Hi! I’m a man with a pencil sticking out of my butt!”—as each person tried to digest the situation. She may have believed it was a self-portrait Estephano kept on hand like a business card—the man in the picture had the matching skin tone and could have been black, Italian, or well-tanned; poor lighting left much to question—and Estephano… well, he watched all his hopes and dreams fly out the window.
Causing a black man to blush is not an easy thing, but Estephano did so that day. Without saying a word he flattened his mouth, straight-armed the paper to the girl of his dreams, reached down and picked up the Polaroid that had made her gasp in disgust, then sat motionless the entire remainder of the period, facing forward, humiliated, embarrassed, and stewing.
Such a scene couldn’t have been written into a screenplay any better than that; the timing had been absolutely perfect.
Sadly, that was the last anyone saw of the picture. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and Estephano had suffered mightily at our hands that day. Recalling what happened all these years later, neither Barrett nor I could remember if Estephano was ever able to explain the joke to the girl, if he even attempted, or if she ever talked to him again.
We did remember that he didn’t vow revenge, though, which has us a little worried. Estephano may still be out there, plotting…