I have a complete collection of the early “Rumpus Room” episodes and, watching them, it’s hard to believe that it’s me sometimes, for I’m completely contained by that costume and I never speak. Only because I know that, before 1972, no one else ever played the part am I able to convince myself that it must be me, inside the set, inside the suit, staring out at the future from television land. Television. The Greek word tele
means “far off,” and is said to be closely akin to another Greek word, palai
, meaning “long ago.” This always seems appropriate when I think of how old I was when I first appeared on the show. For me the early days of television are the early days of everything. Television. Hindsight. Memory. Long ago and far away. When I started playing Bee Good/Bee Bad, I wondered where they had been until now. I was seven and I had a notion that long before TV had even been invented, the world of “Rumpus Room,” with all its inhabitants, had been there, inaccessible, waiting for someone to tap into it. Waiting for Philo Farnsworth, the alter ego of my adolescence, though I didn’t know that then.
What I remember best are not the single scenes, the big, discrete events that happened years apart, but things that happened all the time, the “bits” we kept returning to as though they were all part of some large routine that we were trying to perfect, trying to get down pat before we went our separate ways.
My parents, in that other life, were teachers. My mother taught elementary school, my father high school, but neither one of them could find a regular job so they had to settle for being substitute teachers. Mondays and Fridays, the days that teachers were most likely to call in sick, were their best days. My mother was called more often than my father, the burn-out rate among elementary school teachers being greater than that among high school teachers. My mother was always worried about “The List”; that is, the department of education’s list of substitute teachers. How were names chosen from the List, was there some sort of rating or ranking system for teachers, were names ever dropped from the List? If a few days went by without one or both of them being called, she would start to worry. She wondered if my father’s having a beard might make any difference to how often he was called. Of course it did, my father said, claiming that, opposite his name on the List, the word “beard” appeared in brackets.
We lived on St. Clair Avenue, renting out our basement apartment. We had a succession of cellar dwellers, as my father called them, most of whom stayed only a few months before moving on, often skipping out on their last month’s rent, for people who could do no better than our basement tended not to have much money. Cellar dwellers. That, I knew, was what, in baseball, they called the last-place team. The losers, though in the case of the people who lived downstairs, the loners would have been more like it, for it seemed they were always alone. That, to these people, my father was the landlord, that they were afraid of him, was something I could hardly credit. When the rent was due, they went out of their way to avoid him, often not coming home until late at night, sneaking in to their own apartment as quietly as possible, sneaking out again early in the morning.
There was a man named Doyle, on each of whose hairy forearms an anchor was tattooed, a man about forty-five who would walk around the back yard, smoking cigarettes and drinking from a bottle of beer that, between swallows, he left standing on the picnic table. I would sit out there with him while he paced the yard. He had been the driver of some sort of delivery truck, a bread truck I think it was. He often wore what might have been his uniform, a light-blue shirt, pants slightly darker blue, and still carried in his back pocket, attached to his belt by a chain, one of those conspicuous, ever-bulging wallets, though there could not have been much money in it. He was from out west, had broken up with his wife, who was from Toronto, and was forever announcing his intention to go, at some unspecified time, by some unspecified means, back home.
After Doyle, there was Mr. Colicos, who told us that he had once owned a coin shop. He had a car which he could not afford to operate, leaving it parked across the road from where we lived and going out from time to time, mostly in the afternoon, to sit behind the wheel, smoke cigarettes, watch the goings on, now and then rolling down the window to talk to someone or to shake his fist at a car that he thought was going by too fast.
One woman named Ruth, who had convinced my father she was a secretary, turned out to be a prostitute who, though not herself Portuguese, had, for some reason, an exclusively Portuguese clientele. Ruth’s stay lasted three days, or nights rather. It took a while before my father realized what was going on. We woke, the first night, to an almost surreal combination of sounds: bedsprings squeaking with a mechanical, machine-like rhythm; the song “The Black Velvet Band” being played over and over at what seemed like full volume; a woman’s voice droning “Oh Mario, Oh Mario,” as matter-of-factly as if she were testing a microphone to see if it worked; and, finally, what might have been either a fistfight or some sort of group dance involving an indeterminate number of non-English-speaking men.
That there was no need for them to sneak around this way, that my father would never have hounded them for the rent, was something that most of them never realized. In fact, when they failed to pay it, he was more embarrassed than anything else, often making as much effort to avoid the tenant as the tenant made to avoid him, even though, as my mother reminded him, we needed the rent to meet our payments on the house. His softheartedness, she’d say, would put us in the poorhouse. “You shouldn’t let people take advantage of you,” she’d tell him, to which my father would reply that, if she wanted to collect the rent, she was welcome to do so. At this my mother would retreat.
Cellar dwellers. I thought for a while that every house on St. Clair had one, that it was simply the way of the world. My mother could never get used to them, was never quite able to ignore them as my father advised her to do. She often complained to my father that they were making too much noise. The gall of some people, he’d say, walking around, running water, washing dishes; why, before you knew it, they’d be talking on the telephone. To my mother, that we were unable to meet our mortgage without renting out part of the house was a shameful thing. The cellar dwellers were a constant reminder to her of what she called her disadvantaged childhood and the fate that she seemed to think we were barely keeping one step ahead of, the shame of ending up in someone’s basement. “We could just as easily be them,” she’d say, though this thought, rather than making her feel more sympathetic towards them, seemed to make her more resentful of their presence, as if she believed that, somehow, they might drag us down with them.
Excerpted from Human Amusements by Wayne Johnston. Copyright © 2002 by Wayne Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.