Happy Halloween, My Borgs!
In celebration of my favorite day of the year, I thought I'd share a Halloween-related piece that will appear in Borg Like Me. Hope you enjoy it and I hope that you're having a fun Halloween 2013.
Mein Führer, I Can Walk!
Halloween. My favorite holiday. Growing up in a Catholic household, it seemed like one of the more transgressive things one could “legally” be involved with. I was a huge fan of classic monster movies (I still am), and as a teen, I made many of the late 60s Aurora models: the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman, Dracula, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. So I got excited every year when All Hallow's Eve crept ever closer and I knew that all of those classic films would be making their yearly rounds on late-night Richmond television. With the weather chilling outside, the smell of burning leaves on the wind, and the night of The Great Pumpkin looming, it was extra exciting when my parents would go out for the evening and leave me at home to watch The Bowman Body on Shock Theater (Richmond, Virginia's shabby, stumble-drunk answer to such iconic late night horror hosts as Vampira, Elvira, and Seymour the Sinister). For all the lead-up, the actual act of getting together a costume and going trick or treating was rarely what I'd hoped for. We had very little of what could be considered crafting supplies in our house. If you couldn't make it out of box cardboard and Elmer's glue, using a pair of dull office shears, you were shit out of luck. I can't remember ever feeling like I wore a costume I could be proud of. My dreams of Halloween were frequent and vivid, but the reality usually boiled down to amassing as much candy as possibly, engaging in at least one act of minor vandalism to feel suitably “tricky,” and getting the hell home as fast as possible to catch whatever was left of the horror films showing that night.
So, when Paul Overton, editor of DudeCraft.com, approached me about a series he was putting together on people's childhood Halloween costume memories, I didn't have much to contribute. I've had much more Halloween dress-up fun as an adult, so I shared the following costume stories as my contribution to his feature.
My memories of Halloween as a child are fairly mundane, cookie-cut, a blur of cheap dime store plastic costumes, pillowcase candy sacks, and stutter-cut visuals recorded from inside of a sweaty mask with ill-cut eyeholes.
As an adult, I've tried to make up for these fright night fails by going all out whenever I can. I love the creativity of Halloween, the libidinal subtext of adult Halloween, and the pagan folk beliefs beneath it all, of veils between worlds suddenly becoming permeable, of spirits shambling into our world, the raising of the dead. And the raising of hell.
I have a reputation among friends of frequently dressing up in highly conceptual (read: incomprehensible) costumes. One year, the party theme was superheroes and I went as my own made-up caped crusader called Mr. Wonderful. Think: Superman as rendered by Liberace. The party was in the commune I was living in, in a mechanics shop at the end of a really long driveway. I managed to convince a guy who was visiting, a limo driver, to drive me to the party in his Lincoln. I made flags with a Mr. Wonderful logo I designed on them that snapped away on the hood, as if heralding the arrival of a head of state.
Another year, I went as John Glenn, on his third trip to space. It was 1998, and at 77, Glenn had just taken off on his second trip, aboard the Space Shuttle. I was in a wheelchair at the time, before my hip replacement, so I needed to think of costumes that could incorporate the chair. I got a silver lame flight suit at a costume shop, made mission badges for Glenn, Mercury, Discovery STS-95 (his shuttle mission), and Discover One (using images of the ship from 2001). I wore a skull cap and made myself up in old man makeup. I looked like the wrinkled, dying Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I made up an elaborate back story about being 100 and on my third mission to space, to Jupiter's moon, Io. Mostly, the whole get-up was an excuse to get women to sit on my lap to get their pictures taken with me. Lots of them did and I perhaps enjoyed playing the roll of a dirty old moon man just a little too much.
One of my all-time favorite, most successful, costumes was Dr. Strangelove. It was one of those truly serendipitous costume creations. I'd waited until the last minute, and by Halloween day, I still didn't have a costume, or even a decent idea for one. I finally hit on the idea of going as Dr. Strangelove. I needed to go in the wheelchair again, so the character was perfect. I also thought it'd be a relatively easy costume to put together. I had the '50s slim-cut suit, the glasses, the cigarette, the black leather glove, all I really needed was a blonde wig. My wife and I raced to the store to see if we could possibly pull this off.
The costume shop looked like it'd been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. There was next-to-nothing left on the racks or shelves. No blonde wigs. We finally dislodged a sad blonde beard tangled around plastic swords and demon horns out of a cardboard bargain bin. It'd have to do. We brought it home and she piled and pinned and trimmed, and I'll be damned if it didn't end up looking respectably like Peter Sellers' dramatic coif from the film. With the slim suit and skinny tie, the glasses, the one black leather glove on the dead hand, and the cigarette, I looked convincingly like Dr. Strangelove. I also shaved my beard for the occasion, for the first time in decades (the previous time had also been for a costume). I had found a few video clips from the film and even a sound file of Sellers delivering some of his classic lines (no small feat on a rather media-poor 1997 Internet).
At the party, a big DC artists' free-for-all in a downtown warehouse, I parked my chair at the edge of the dance floor. When a song came on that I really wanted to dance to, I'd start to shimmy and shake in my chair, like a crippled ex-Nazi being uncontrollably reanimated on the shockwaves of rock n' roll. I would then feebly spazz myself upright and cry out, in a croaking German accent, “Mein Führer, I can walk!” Then I'd start dancing in front of my chair like my life depended on it. People laughed and seemed to get a kick out of it. I put this routine on rinse and repeat a few more times over the course of the evening (legitimately needing to rest and recharge after every three or four songs). It was, of course, a goofy act, a way of incorporating a wheelchair into a costume, but there was a deeper personal statement being made.
In my late teens, as my arthritis worsened and took up full-time residence in my hips and spine, I'd headed down a very dark path emotionally, and had even seriously considered suicide for a time. One of the things that had yanked me back from that brink was discovering my passion for dancing. I love to dance more than just about anything and am actually pretty good at it, especially for someone without a spine (and if the '80s post-punk band Shriekback taught us anything, it's that the “spine is the bassline”). I discovered in dancing that the transcendent joy of it, that feeling of riding along and physically interpreting the sound waves of the music, is actually greater than any pain or physical limitation I experience while doing it. I can be in a lot of pain, and if an irresistibly danceable song comes on, it can feel as though I've been miraculously healed. I can instantly lose myself in the sensual, sonic gumbo of the music. For a few brief moments, I become a physically different person. I feel beautiful and free. Healed. Mein Führer, I can walk!
One of the years that my wife, Blake, and I were living at Gesundheit Institute, the whole house went as The Addams Family. That's Patch Adams as Gomez. I'm Cousin It on the left. My whole-body hair is made from fur-like rug material. It was hot as Hades in there and I couldn't see out of the constantly shifting eye-holes, which perhaps brings us full circle to those arrested memories of my youth.