Living Through Television or How a Twig Got Bent


Binnie Kirshenbaum

1. Puppets

Back when you were a child, you were emotionally invested in a sock. The sock went by the name of Lamb Chop, and she was like a movie star except she was a star on television. Lamb Chop’s television show co-starred two other sock puppets, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy who were boys, and a human person named Shari Lewis who was Lamb Chop’s legal guardian.

You had two brothers and a mother who was beautiful like Shari Lewis. You had a father too, but you didn’t know him very well. When he wasn’t at work, he was with your mother.

There had been a fourth sock puppet, a black one named Crow who was the sock version of Buckwheat. But after the March on Selma, Shari Lewis feared that Crow played into a negative racial stereotype, and the black sock was dispatched to that great laundry hamper in the sky. By the time you and Lamb Chop became acquainted, Crow was long gone. You were innocent of Crow.

You were innocent, and you were ignorant. In general, children, all too eager to suspend disbelief, are wildly gullible. And you were more gullible than most. It wasn’t so much that you were eager to suspend disbelief, but rather that you had little disbelief to suspend. Your paucity of disbelief was coupled with a profound literal-mindedness that bordered on demented. Figures of speech, hyperbole and euphemism confounded you: If I laugh my head off, will it drop to the ground and roll down the street like a bowling ball?

Although you did understand that when the steamroller flattened Bugs Bunny down to an oil-splat shadow on the pavement, he wasn’t really dead, but nonetheless, you were physically attracted to Mr. Peabody’s boy, Sherman. You deliberated whether, when you grew up, you wanted to be Betty Boop or Natasha Nogoodnik. Both women had black hair, wore red lipstick and tight dresses that revealed bitty-booped cleavage. You were leaning toward Natasha because you were enamored of her sexy Eastern European accent. Also, she was tough and without sentiment.

Later, you learned that Betty Boop was Jewish.

Even later, your crush on Sherman was eclipsed by the arousal and subsequent climax elicited by Captain Hook while you were watching Peter Pan on television.

You did know that Lamb Chop was a sock and not a mammal, but just because a sock wasn’t a person didn’t disqualify the sock from being human. Lamb Chop was funny and sassy. She flirted up a storm with Charley Horse, batting her eyelashes at him. For someone who was a sock, Lamb Chop was very much of a babe. It was also obvious to you how much Lamp Chop loved Shari Lewis, and what made an even greater impression on you was how much Shari Lewis loved Lamb Chop.

Later, you came to understand why observing their love for each other left you feeling a little bit wistful.

Somehow, you learned that Shari Lewis lived in Scarsdale, which was very near to where you lived. Lamb Chop was practically your neighbor, and you went dizzy from the thrill of it. You asked your mother if she would drive you to Lamb Chop’s house, but she said, “No. It’s rude to go to someone’s house uninvited.” You then asked if you could invite Lamb Chop to your house? Your mother said, “We’ll see.” Even then you knew that, “we’ll see” meant “Never” although sometimes it meant, “Can’t you see that I’m busy?”

2. Meeting Miss Nancy

You have no memory of putting Lamb Chop behind you, but you did. You dropped Lamb Chop like a stone. Your new best friend now was Miss Nancy, and your other new friends were the whole gang from Romper Room, including all the boys and girls at Home, of which you were one. Romper Room was mind-blowing because you didn’t just sit there and watch. Romper Room was interactive. To join in on the fun with all the other kids was a transformative experience.

Despite the fact that you had two brothers, you were a lonely child. One brother was four years your elder, and nothing would’ve pleased him more than to learn that you were dead, which, according to the child-rearing books of the day, was perfectly normal. After all, your being born wrecked the whole set-up he had going as the young Dali Llama of Westchester County.

Your other brother was just an infant then. A repulsive infant, like a maggot, and, worse, his birth made you a middle child, which is such a shit spot in the birth order that it’s been awarded its own syndrome. Middle children often feel unloved because they are given far less attention and affection than the other children in the family. Other times, middle children feel unloved because they are unloved.

Miss Nancy wasn’t a bombshell like Natasha Nogoodnik and she wasn’t a cutie-pie like Betty Boop or beautiful like Shari Lewis and your mother. Truth be told, she was a frump. But she was reliable. Every day, Monday through Friday, Miss Nancy led you, hand over heart, in the Pledge of Allegiance. To recite the Pledge of Allegiance was, so you thought, an honor. To recite the Pledge of Allegiance made you proud. You were innocent. You were still innocent of Crow.

Later, you refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it gave you the creeps.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, came the Do-Bee song: I always do what’s right/ I never do anything wrong. This was your least favorite part of Romper Room because you knew in your heart that you were not a Do-Bee. You were a Don’t-Bee, a big-time Don’t-Be, and you feared being found out. You tried your best to be a Do-Bee, but overall you did not succeed.

You were a peculiar child.

3. The Physics of Television

Television was like the telephone, except better. On the telephone, you could talk to someone who lived in another house anywhere in the world, provided they too had a telephone. On the television, not only could you talk with people who lived in other houses, you could see them and you could play together, provided, of course, that they too had a television. It could be said that you were something of a visionary, along the lines of Leonardo di Vinci, the way you imagined television to be like Skype. Miss Nancy, obviously, had a television. While you were fairly certain that you could hear the other kids who were, like you, at Home, you wondered why you could not see them the way you could see Miss Nancy and the kids at her house. Your father said, “That’s not how television works.”; When you asked him how, then, does television work, he said, “Not now. Where’s your mother?” When you asked your older brother how television works, he said, “Fuck off.”

You did not know what fuck off actually meant, but you did intuit that it wasn’t a nice thing to say. Prior to this occasion, whenever you’d asked your brother a question, he’d tell you to drop dead.

4. What’s in a Name?

To name a child “Binnie” as your parents did, was not doing the child any favors. All too often, your name was mispronounced or assumed to be a typo: Bonnie, Benny, Vinnie, Minnie. Your name rendered you painfully shy because to say “My name is Binnie” was asking to be laughed at. Children do not like to be laughed at. To have a name shared by no one else in the entire universe meant that you did not belong anywhere in the entire universe. Your name was not recognized in the world of what was normal. You did not exist in the sphere of personalized merchandise that other kids got to have: that cool little license plate with your name on it, the kind to attach to your bicycle did not come in “Binnie.” Good luck trying to find a “Binnie” name necklace. Ditto for “Binnie” stationary, a “Binnie” pencil box, a “Binnie” change purse. There was no Binnie.

Later, your mother tried to placate you with a name necklace that spelled out “Renee.” You were not placated.

Later, when you asked your mother what the fuck was she thinking when she named you “Binnie,” she explained that she named you “Binnie” because she didn’t like the name “Bonnie.”

6. The Twilight Zone

Romper Stomper, Bomper Do

Tell me, tell me, tell me today

Did all my friends have fun at play?

At which point, Miss Nancy would whip out her Magic Mirror to say Hello to all the boys and girls at Home. “Hello to Sandy and Hello to Mark. Hello to Tommy who is having a special day today, and Olivia who is having a special day, too. And Hello to Maureen and Bobby and Richard and Joanne.”

Day after day after day, with your hand up in the air, waving madly at the television, desperate to catch Miss Nancy’s attention, desperate for Miss Nancy to see you, to acknowledge your existence, you waited. You waited and waited as Miss Nancy said Hello to James and Michael and Jill and Craig who was having a special day—and what the fuck was a “special day” anyway—and when you asked your mother when was Miss Nancy going to say hello to you, your mother said, “Soon.”

“How long is soon?” you asked.

“Soon is soon.”

You should have known then that “soon” meant “never” but you didn’t know, which was why you hung in there. For some weeks more, you waited as Miss Nancy looked through her Magic Mirror, and said Hello to John and to Susan who was having a special day, and Hello to Anne and Carol and Hello to every other fucking white-bread kid “out there in Christianville.” You lost your patience, and knowing damn well that Miss Nancy could hear you because that’s how television worked, you shouted, loud and clear, and on the top of your little lungs, you shouted, “Fuck off, Miss Nancy. Fuck off. Fuck off. Fuck off.”

Your mother was beyond horrified at what she’d heard. You were made to understand that “Fuck off” was not a part of the Do-Bee’s lexicon. She said, “Nice young ladies do not use that kind of language. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” you said. You said, “Yes, I understand.”

Then your mother went back to whatever it was that she was doing before your little meltdown, and you—very softly and all to yourself—you whispered, “Fuck off. Fuck off. Fuck off.”

Miss Nancy never said hello to Chow Mein, either.

5. To Tell the Truth Was a Game Show

A family of black people moved into a house on the block where you lived. There were no other black families on your block. There were no Jewish families on your block either, except for yours. The black family had a daughter named Chow Mein, who was the same age as you. Chow Mein wasn’t her real name. Her real name was Charmane, which was also a weird name, but everyone called her Chow Mein, which was nowhere near as bad as other names they called her; names you did not, at the time, fully understand because you were still innocent of Crow. Chow Mein was your first friend who was not someone on television.

You tried to interest Chow Mein in Romper Room, but she didn’t take to it. She told you, “Miss Nancy is prejuiced.” Not long after that, she told you that her family was moving away, “because everyone around here is prejuiced.”

“Am I prejuiced?” you asked.

Chow Mein shrugged.

When you asked your mother if you were prejuiced, she said she didn’t understand what you were asking. You explained that Chow Mein’s family was moving away because everyone around here is prejuiced. Your mother laughed at your mispronunciation. “Prejudiced. The word is prejudiced,” she enunciated clearly, “Pred-jew-dist”

“Are we,” you paused in an effort to pronounce the word correctly. “Are we pred-jew-dist?”

“I hope not,” she said, which came to you as something of a relief. Although you didn’t know what the word meant, you were pretty sure it wasn’t a desirable thing to be because it had jew in it.

Not long after, but still after, Chow Mein’s family moved away, you asked your mother what the word “pred-jew-dist” meant, and she said, “Not now. Another time.” Then she said, “Go watch the television. Dinner will be ready soon.” You asked how many minutes was “soon” and she said, “Soon is soon,” which was not a good answer.

Then you asked her, “Do you love me?” and she said, “Of course I do. You’re my only daughter,” which was not a good answer, either.

7. Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color

You could neither name nor describe that singular exquisite pleasure that happened to you, but you were able to pin it squarely on Captain Hook. From Peter Pan, the cartoon version, the Walt Disney cartoon version you watched on television.

You did not tell anyone about this, but then again, there was no one to tell.

You were too old for Lamb Chop; Miss Nancy was on your permanent shit-list; and post-Captain Hook, your attraction to Mr. Peabody’s boy, Sherman, had waned considerably. Although you did still want to be friends with him.

With reinvigorated purpose that you vaguely understood was connected to Captain Hook, you re-directed your attention back to Betty Boop and to Natasha Nogoodnik. You debated with yourself which one of them Captain Hook would like best, which one of them to best emulate. Betty Boop had a tattoo, which definitely would have appealed to a pirate. Also, she was very curvy, a zoftig cupie-doll, whereas Natasha Nogoodnik had no jiggle. Betty Boop sang, “Boop-boop dee boop” in a pipsqueak voice that was undeniably risqué, very similar to Marilyn Monroe’s voice when she sang, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Everyone liked Betty Boop. She had many friends. You did not yet know that Betty Boop was Jewish. Natasha Nogoodnik did not sing, but she had a throaty voice, and an Eastern European accent that you were sure drove men to distraction. She had high cheekbones. She was a Communist spy, which was dangerous and exciting. She was not at all sweet, and she had no friends, unless you counted Boris, which you did not. Boris was a moron. Natasha was evil, but she was smart. Natasha was the brains of the operation. Betty Boop, for all her good qualities, was a ditz. You did not want to be a ditz. You wanted to say, “Moose und squirrel in beek trubble now.”

Later, although not much later, Morticia Addams would, not exactly replace Natasha Nogoodnik, but subsume her. Morticia Addams was not a cartoon. She was a real woman who wore a body-hugging, full-length black dress that spread out over her feet and onto the floor like octopus tentacles. Her hair was black, her skin ivory pale, her lips red. She danced the tango, spoke French, cut the heads off roses and arranged the stems in a vase to best admire the thorns. She did not coyly bat her long black eyelashes, but she looked out from under them as if she were contemplating having you for lunch. She drove her husband to distraction. You never actually saw it, but you knew they did things like you wanted to do with Captain Hook. There was no other family on their block that was like the Addams family. It was as if they were Jewish.

Later, you would learn that Morticia Addams was a cartoon character but not the kind of cartoon character who was on television. It was the Morticia Addams on television who left an indelible mark on you.

Later, you would learn that Morticia Addams was really an actress named Carolyn Jones. You were not devastated by this news because by then you were reading books and you knew that characters were real people as much as people were real people.

8. Late Night TV

Later, you are no longer innocent of Crow. You learned that Walt Disney was a racist and an anti-Semite. You wrote a poem titled, “Miss Nancy and her ‘Whites Only’ Magic Mirror,” which you showed to no one because you had no one to show it to.

Except for “The Million Dollar Movie,” which came on at midnight, you no longer watched television. You didn’t have a boyfriend.

9. The Sequel

Later, you leave home. You go away to college in New York City. You dye your hair black, you favor tight black dresses, tattered black lace and velvet. You wear spiked-high heels and red lipstick. You have friends. You subscribe to The Daily Worker. You drive boys to distraction. You dance to The Clash. You go home to visit your parents. Your mother looks at you and says, “Halloween was last week.” On Spring break you go to Transylvania.

For a good long while, you are not lonely.