Shakespeare and the Moon
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…
(As You Like It)
We were driving on the Belt out to Manhattan Beach in Pappone’s big ’61 Buick Wildcat. There were five of us. I was in the back with Crazy Billy. Sophomore year was my Shakespeare year, and though I didn’t understand half of what I read, I was good at memorizing it. That was also the year that we seemed to moon all the time. And so this became our ritual. As Billy gradually took off his jeans, and finally his Jockey shorts, I would intone:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
At that point, the guffaws began in the front seat. Pappone, Short Carl, and Schwartz started breaking up at the word ‘moon.’
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
(Romero and Juliet)
At ‘cast it off,’ everyone was in full break up as Crazy Billy twirled his Jockey shorts on his index finger and looked to make eye contact with any driver unlucky enough to glance our way. He would point to his white bottom and shake it around at the unfortunate. After a good laugh at someone else’s expense, Schwartz would roll a joint and we’d be high by Manhattan Beach.
It was late on a fall Saturday night. Crazy Billy and I had just dropped off the bass player in our awful, terrible rock band, which had just completed another desultory evening at the Fort Hamilton NCO Club. I was at the wheel of my ’59 Impala and Billy and I were feeling good. The free beer at the Club helped with that. I was just making the turn at 79th and 12th when a big Caddy cut me off, and I gunned it to square up with him. Billy rolled down the window, and, holding the car cigarette lighter in my right hand like a dagger, I shouted:
Behold, I have a weapon;
A better never did itself sustain
Upon a soldier’s thigh: I have seen the day,
That, with this little arm and this good sword,
I have made my way through more impediments
Than twenty times your stop
At that the wise guy in the Caddy, pulled a 38 Special out of his glove compartment, and said:
“Ah’m gonna blow youse fuckin’ head off.”
That scared the hell out of us. I improvised.
“Sorry, sir. There must have been some misunderstanding. I thought you were my English professor, Dr. Nemerson. He drives a blue Caddy. Couldn’t tell colors in the dark. There’s no moon. But now I see yours is black. Really, really sorry. We apologize. Never meant anything by it. Just a joke, tryin’ ta show the prof that I learned my Shakespeare.”
“You, your teacha’ and Shake-fuckin-speare can kiss my ass. Get the fuck outta here before I start feelin’ like pumpin’ some shots inya, ya little pussies.”
Talk about your heart skipping a few beats. I dropped Billy off, drove home looking through the rear view. I tiptoed up the stairs to my room, gently closed the doors, and put the blanket well over my head.
Jane Newman was my Juliet, and, to my great despair, I apparently wasn’t even in the running for her Romeo. I couldn’t connect with her that way although she seemed to like me well enough. One night, after an Allman Brothers concert at the Fillmore East for which she had gotten me a ticket, and to which we went as a couple, but just a couple of friends, I guess, we were in her apartment off Flatbush Avenue. She lived alone even though she was barely twenty. Jane had thick, lustrous brown hair, which she wore long past her shoulders with bangs over her forehead. Her face was angelic and her eyes were large and liquid. She was short, but all curves. There wasn’t one part of her I didn’t want to squeeze, pat, fondle, lick, kiss, pinch and admire.
We were on the couch and I was doing my best to get her separated from her jeans. She was warm to me, but not close to heating up. She just gently pushed my hands away and put them in my lap. She went on talking to me in that soft husky voice that turned me on, allowing me a quick kiss when I said something that made her laugh.
“Jane, I think I’m falling in love.”
“Oh, really? And who would that be with?”
“Come on. You must know.”
“Yeah, you hafta know.”
“I think I do, Louie, but I’m not sure that I feel that same way.”
And with that, I dropped to one knee. I began:
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
(Romeo and Juliet)
Then I added, “Dearest, I hope these words of entreaty will not go unanswered. Marry me please.”
Jane giggled and then she smiled at me.
“Louie, you’re a funny guy and you’ve got a lot going for you. But I just don’t feel it. You know what I mean?”
And I did. I bid Jane good night and she gave me and hug and a friend’s kiss. She closed the door, and I left, sorry for myself and already pining for a girl I would never have. Walking to the Impala, I looked up and saw a round, full moon. I could just make out the man in the moon. He might have been laughing at me.
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth
(As You Like It)
It was a new moon in early April. The winter winds were turning into spring breezes. Crocuses were out on the ground and pussy willows were starting to appear on trees that dotted the strips between Brooklyn sidewalks and curbs. I was at my first classmate funeral. Russ Webster had signed up right out of high school. By the time troops were going to Vietnam in the hundreds and thousands, Russ had a first lieutenant’s bars, and he was bucking for captain when he went to Nam. He was gung ho Army and saw a lot of action. For this, his men hated him. He took every mission he could if it meant encountering Viet Cong. Russ came back in a closed coffin, and there were whispers that he had been fragged. I didn’t believe it. Russ might have been a little over eager, but everyone used to say he was a stand up guy. He wouldn’t have asked his men to do anything he wouldn’t do first.
I dressed in my only suit, with white shirt and black tie. I entered the Bay Ridge Funeral Home that spring evening, and saw Russ’ mom worrying a handkerchief in her hands; a black mourning veil hung over her face. I went up to her and said,
“Hi, Mrs. Webster. I’m Louie Finnochio. I was Russ’ classmate in third period history junior year at Fort Hamilton High. We played touch tackle on the ball field Saturday mornings. I really liked Russ. He was a great guy. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks, Louie. Russ never spoke of you, but I’m sure he’d be glad to know that you thought enough of him to pay your respects.” And with that she sobbed a bit, dabbing her eyes. I said nothing, but turned and walked to the closed casket. Staring at it and trying to imagine a live Russ, I said to myself in a whisper:
“Russ, I didn’t know you very well, but you were my classmate, part of my high school years. We had some good times in Kelly’s history class. I remember when you started the paper airplane flights behind her back and she had the damnedest time identifying where it was coming from. I remember our time playing touch tackle on Saturday mornings. You are, were a braver man than I am. I won’t go to Vietnam, but I understand why you felt you had to go. I’ll remember you, Russ. I’ll remember you.”
And I walked away, marking in my life calendar, this event that put a scar on my memory. And I recalled these lines.
Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
In a strange way, the quotation seemed to fit the sad feeling that I carried inside after seeing Russ. Where once he was so full of life, now he lay in his coffin devoid of even one breath. I realized how short life can be, and wondered if I would have the chance to live a long, full one or whether some unforeseen action on my part would occasion an early death.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history…
(As You Like It)
is of an aging writer, gazing out of his study window on a hot California afternoon, wondering where his lifetime went and whether he spent it at all well. Thinking of a Neil Young song he’d just heard, he mouthes the words, changing them slightly, Young man look at my life. I’m a lot like you are. Do we change? Do we not? Perhaps only decorum and physical limitation separate the were from the are.