Banned Books and Ersatz Englishmen

When I was nine years old, I was taken to see the brand new movie version of “West Side Story” — and was wowed. Not since Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” had I come home so full of the story and music of a film. (I had driven my cousins, Frankie and Paulie, whose house backed ours, crazy by endlessly singing “I… know… you… I walked with you once… upon… a dream….”) Naturally I asked my parents for the book, and naturally they bought it for me.

It was a book of the screenplay — something not commonly seen in the early ’60s. I read it the way I usually read books back then in the days when my eyes were young: I devoured it and then I devoured it again. I don’t remember which reading I was on when Paulie, the older cousin, wandered in and saw me so engaged.

“Your mom lets you read that?” he asked, not impertinently; he truly wondered whether a child should be reading what he considered adult material. (I think he was 12 at the time; that was practically a grownup.)

I was flabbergasted by his question. It wasn’t that I felt my reading ability or maturity were being challenged; I simply never had heard of someone’s not being ALLOWED to read something! The very concept was mind-boggling to me then, and it still is, today.

What did not boggle but merely tickled my mind about having Frankie and Paulie as neighbors as well as cousins was Paulie’s rather peculiar habit of passing away on a regular basis. My sister and I would pad across the two yards to visit Frankie and Paulie, only to discover Frankie in mourning. Paulie, it seems, had contracted some nameless but swiftly deadly disease and had hula-hooped off this mortal coil. By amazing coincidence, Paulie’s distant twin brother had arrived from England to take his place.

I can’t speak for my sister but although these devilish cousinfolk didn’t fool me for an instant, Frankie-as-mourner was so convincing, and Paulie-as-English-brother was so charming and his accent so exotic, that I just had to go along with the game in order to enjoy the entertainment.

In defiance of all medical convention, not to mention the laws of physics, cousin Paulie himself always managed to resurrect himself some time later that same day, and by some miracle all extra siblings had been exorcised.

I still have my class photo from the fifth grade and I am the only child in it; everyone else looks exactly as I remember them, and since they were (and are) my peers, they look like people-my-age, which is 47 at the moment. They don’t look 47, but they look my age. (Don’t try to figure it out mathematically; that’s not the way it makes sense.) I, in the photo, am nine years old. Since I am no longer nine years old, I, in the photo, am a child. Those other nine-year-olds in the photo are MY age.

I don’t have any photos of Frankie and Paulie (or the English twin). Never having seen them as grownups, I remember them as being MY age, so they are, in my memory, adults.

See what comes of reading grownup stuff too early? You start thinking you ARE one.