All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Yesterday, I decided on impulse to go to the cabinet and see if I could find the old album of stuff from earlier days. I did, and thus, I found a photo that showed me lying on my bed like Jabba the Hut, which, mercifully, was not included in an article from the Living section of a Detroit paper, for which it was shot.
The bedspread that does show in the newspaper has my name “MEL” appliquéd on it, how corny! Thus I am, in a manner of speaking, still on the bed. In those days I had to contend with choices I had not made for myself.
The photo reveals a view of my homemade Planetarium, with seemingly bright lighting that could not be seen, in person. Unfortunately, the ultraviolet illumination was captured by the camera, although, it was nearly invisible to the naked eye. If you have done any black and white photography, you might recall that blue photographs as white, and red as black. Therefore the ultraviolet glow was seen as white light by the film. Thus, the Peg board, which was already there before the heavens descended upon it, another remnant of my parents’ choices, did not show up as it does on film. The Peg Board represented a major flaw in my homemade firmament that I endeavored to ignore. It had too many black- holes, all evenly spaced. Around each star I sprayed a glow, a tiny halo of blue, applied by my heavy handed use of Air -Brush.
There was a kind of wonderment to the wall in person; the deep purple blue glow with all the stars and Planets, glowing, brighter still, in the rather cheesy range of available Day-Glo colors, and the sun, styled in the hokey "modernistic" look of the 50s. I sort of hated the sun, half real, half gift shop, especially the fact that only the top of it caught the ultraviolet light. And I never quite got over the unsettling feeling that, one night, it might fall down, while I was sleeping, and one of those lethal looking points I had fashioned from of copper sheeting, would hit me in the eye. Two “sun spots”, mounted on thin wires, told the time.
I cannot pass over this occasion without mentioning my Love Hate relationship with Day-Glo. I loved the way the audacious colors glowed, especially in twilight when the air was full of ultraviolet rays. It seemed like real magic to me. At the same time I rather Hated the colors, a limited range of seven or eight, fiery reds, hot pinks, screaming greens, a nasty orangey yellow, and later a blue that didn't really glow. The stars were luminous paint. I discovered that it glowed with a pale blue light under ultraviolet light. I also discovered that anything washed in laundry detergent glowed in the same way. A glow element is added to detergents to make you think your clothes are clean and bright, especially at twilight!
When Day-Glo first appeared, it could only be seen in small doses, and I could not spy it without experiencing a minute thrill. Freak that I was, I made myself more so by wearing Day-Glo socks. I still favor brightly colored socks, today, partly because they remain somewhat secret, and also because socks, underwear and neck ties were the only article of clothing, in which a full range of choices were available to me.
My shoes, size 13D, were only sold in one store, Florham’s, downtown, and in one style. And whenever I purchased a new pair, they would order one more to replace it. So I wore the same shoes, year after year. They were old man's shoes, nasty glossy, ox-blood in color, with pointy toes that made my feet appear even bigger and more clown-like than their size would require. It amazes me that I can shop for shoes in many places, now, and there are sizes there, even bigger than my own.
The rest of my attire was the uniform of the day. If available to fit me, it would bear the look of grown up's clothes. But I could do socks and I could and did replace my Ox-blood shoelaces with ones that radiated Day-Glo. I thought they were so cool! It never occurred to me that I was the only one in school, who wore them.
God, was I out of it. In cold weather I wore a silver jacket with elastic around the waist. The elastic band was, no doubt, intended to define the waist of those who had one. In my case, the elastic was the only reason, when stretched to its limit, that I could zip the jacket up, or fool myself into believing it fit me.
One time, well actually many times, my Father took me to the combination Flower and, could it have been Sportsman's Show? Gosh, I don't know what it was, exactly, but it had all kinds of hunting and fishing stuff etc. I don't know why he went, as he was no sportsman, and of course, neither, what an understatement, was I. But on that fateful day I came across a booth that sold all kinds of thickly embroidered patches. The images stood out like the pile of woolly carpet, which had then been trimmed and shaped.
They were done in the same style as the black velvet pillow covers they used to sell in the dime store to be embodied with tufted wool in all sorts of designs, Kitsch, Cutesy, Patriotic, and Religiously uplifting. My grandmother used to make these. It was a whole department and a hobby. I still have one she made, somewhere, of a Dutch windmill. I also have one I bought of an eagle and a flag, with “America Forever” emblazoned across the top. These had a kind of iconography that was unique, and seemed both traditional and symbolic, like Classic Tattoo designs.
I notice that the newspaper is dated 1957. This was late in the history of the wall; I must have done it several years before, as, I remember returning from Pratt, after my second semi year there and tearing the whole thing down. I took up the carpets, sanded the floor, and papered over the pegboard with newspapers, which I then painted white. I thought that I could be happy there. But this artificial artists pad, complete with pretentious easel, proved to be a less convincing illusion than the Swiss cheesy Universe it had replaced.
Back at the combo Field and Game and Flower Show, I stood transfixed admiring all the tasteless and audacious designs. My Father was always indulgent, when I made it clear that I desperately admired and desired something, anything from tropical fish to fireworks. So, he willingly agreed to purchase the one I wanted.
The choice was an easy one for me, for one patch stood out from all the rest. It was a large Pink Elephant, sitting on a barrel with "XXX" on the side of the barrel. In those days triple Xs did not stand for pornography, but rather, Moon-Shine, and not the kind on my ultraviolet bedroom wall. The pink elephant's eyes were a pair of "X"s too!
You see the elephant was, apparently, so drunk, as disclosed by his woozy demeanor and his XX eyes, that he was seeing Pink Elephants. Not just seeing one, but being one! Oh, the clever irony! It also reminded me of the “Pink Elephants on Parade” in Dumbo. All in all, the emblem, which was large, at least 10" tall, maybe bigger, and half an inch thick, was a masterpiece of tasteless vulgarity, but I thought it was Wonderful. And, once home, I sewed it, myself, by hand, to the front of my iridescent silver jacket. It had to be placed on one side or the other of a Zipper that ran down the middle. And I find myself veXXed and frustrated now, as I am trying to remember which side it was on, and I cannot. How could I forget something that I wore nearly every day, and was so close to my heart? Perhaps I have just figured it out. It must have been the left side, close to my heart! What a Freak! I looked like a silver lamé Sausage in that jacket!
Although the ridicule and teasing of my classmates was largely non-existent, and, in fact, only in my mind, I was keenly sensitized to it, not realizing till years later, that, as Eunice says, "Nobody Cares what another person looks like, they are only interested in themselves." But, being that is the case, I judged myself more harshly than they did. Still, they often called me "Elephant Boy". I took this to be obvious commentary on my SIZE! It was only after several years that I made reference to it to my friend, Ed Goodman, and he informed me that they were not remarking on my size, but, rather, the Goddamned Pink Elephant on my jacket!
This was a pleasant revelation to me. I never wore the silver jacket with the drunken elephant again. By that time, the vulgarity of the image and the fact that it was not up to Dumbo's standards, had dawned on me, and I had become considerably less enchanted with it, anyway.
When I went to California for the Disney Interview, Disneyland had just opened. I rode several rides, like Snow White and Peter Pan, and discovered, to my shock, that everything in them was painted in the limited spectrum of Day-Glo colors, and bathed in Black Light. I was repelled by the garish vulgarity of the look. How ironic, he of the pink Elephant and Day-Glo socks, judging something Disney, to whom he had once desired to dedicate his life, and finding it to be Dis-appointing, and Dis-gusting!
I grew to hate the sight of Day-Glo, but at the same time, a spark of fascination remains, and I have been known to use ever so tiny touches of it, here and there, to illuminate the blazing red dots of Monster eyes, and the like. Day-Glo, epitomizes the expression, "Less is More"
Looking back at this today, years after it was written, I realize, in retrospect, that there is something about Day-Glo I didn’t appreciate, at the time that, maybe, was, unconsciously, why it fascinated me. H.P. Lovecraft spoke of the possibility repeatedly, but never more extensively than in the aptly titled story, “The Colour Out of Space” of “Colors never before seen by human eyes”, which was another way of saying that they did not exist in nature; at least, not on this planet, at that time. I recall trying to grasp the concept and imagine what such colors might be like. Now I realize that Day-Glo is just such a phenomenon. I have also come to learn that Day-Glow was invented by two brothers named Switzer in 1935. One was a physician and the other a magician. They called their newly discovered colors, “Day-Glo”, because they glowed in daylight! Yes, Day-Glo colors are, in reality, “Colors never before seen by human eyes”.