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But this isn’t the gloom-and-doom addiction one might expect — Solotaroff looks back at even his lowest points with a wicked sense of humor, and he sends up the disco era and its excess with all the kaleidoscopic detail of Boogie Nights or Saturday Night Fever.
Written with candor and sarcasm, The Body Shop is a memoir with all the elements of great fiction and dazzlingly displays Paul Solotaroff’s celebrated writing talent.
Also by Paul Solotaroff
Group: Six People in Search of a Life
House of Purple Hearts: Stories of Vietnam Vets
Who Find Their Way Back
Copyright © 2010 by Paul Solotaroff
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
First Edition: July 2010
Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Except for family members, the names and some identifying details of individuals portrayed in this book have been changed.
For my father, who knew and knew
Go Down and Out, Moses
THE NOONER FROM PENN STATION pulled in twenty minutes late, which was steady as she goes for the Long Island Rail Road. I clomped down the steps into a lot void of cabs, squinting against the yellow glare. Two hours removed from the bed of a woman whose name I never quite caught, I was sporting the same splint-tight Nik Nik shirt I’d worn to work her daughter’s sweet sixteen. Its seams chafed the flesh of my upper lats.
The _______ ______ Temple was a steel and stucco eyesore eight long blocks from the station. By the time I’d walked them all, I was sheathed in sweat and incensed at my race for staging bar mitzvahs in the high, holy heat of August. The feeling proved mutual when I stepped in the door and my employers for the day, Barbara and Martin Weiskopf, got their first gander at me.
“What in God’s name… He’s a showgirl with muscles,” Martin said to his harried wife. “Of all the things to contend with now! How could you do this to our son?”
“Don’t look at me,” she flared. “Talk to your friend Raffy. He swore they only send Jews to work these functions.”
“Does he look Jewish to you, with the shirt open to there and—and sweating like the greaseball who does our lawn?” He shot me a hasty, fearful glance. “No offense to your people, of course.”
“None taken,” I said. “I’m as Jewish as you are.”
We were huddled in a room off the center stairs, after they’d whisked me away from the buzzing adults and the kids who giggled and stared: the erratically balding Martin; his pretty, stoop-shouldered wife; and her parents, who gaped in horror. “Pffuh!” said her father, as if gulping a bug. “They don’t make Jews like you and never will!”
“Dad, please, let us deal,” said Barbara. “Take Mom and go wait in the hall.”
“But for God’s sake, Barbara—Moses?” he said. “Who has these ideas, and where do they come from?”
“Where do you think?” snapped his son-in-law. “From Suzie ‘Big-Shot’ Mellman and the rest of that Great Neck crowd. They think it adds ‘zest,’ or some such nonsense. What was the word she used? Sizzle.”
“Sizzle!” Her father stumbled, and his eyes rolled skyward. For a moment I thought he was seizing. Then a door opened, and the rabbi entered, quick-walking toward us holding his shawl. A small, handsome man, no older than forty, with a beautifully kept, kohl black beard, he gathered reconnaissance as he came, casting his eyes adroitly from face to face. At a glance he sized me from head to toe, as if I was merely the latest strumpet to mistake his temple for the boom-boom room at Billy’s Topless. “How can I help things along here?”
“Ah, Rabbi, what a mess,” said Barbara, breathless. “So we hired this—this fellow on the say-so of the Mellmans to play the part of Moses at the reception. Not a speaking part, mind you. Just to stand there holding the tablets while they passed out hors d’oeuvres and brought drinks—”
“I’m familiar,” said the rabbi. “The Frandsens last week, though they, of course, went with Samson. But go on.”
“Well, so Martin was opposed, he called it crass, but I thought it brought—”
“Not crass,” said Martin, “just not serious. Our David is a boy who views life deeply.”
“And I object to the whole business!” roared Barbara’s father. “Today is a day we put away the dreck and focus on the contents of the soul: a boy’s pact with God and the men who came before him, not some shtarker from a—a Times Square peep show!”
“A Jewish shtarker,” I slipped in edgewise. “Let’s not lose sight of that.”
The rabbi gave a wincing frown. It encompassed the suffering of millions. “If I might,” he said. “In the interests of time.”
He laced his fingers at his lips, turning a thought around. “This family, the Weiskopfs, whom I’ve known for years, you surely see their side of it, no? They’ve struggled, inched forward, overcome losses—in short, the whole human story. Whatever you think of their moral traditions, let me assure you they’re earned and felt.”
“Well, fine,” I said, “but it’s ninety degrees out, and they jumped down my throat for not wearing a tux.”
“Please,” he said calmly, “take a breath out. Would you like something cold, perhaps a soda?”
His voice, an instrument of gentle candor, knocked me down a peg. It was his eyes that shamed me, though, held up a mirror in which I inspected myself: a big-armed preener with a rock-star shag and a dreadful sense of timing and decorum. Who’d raised me like this, to mock and strut, a butch burlesque of male pride? And who, more important, would knock it out of me before the sneer turned to concrete on my face?
“You’re right,” I conceded. “I should’ve worn a blazer. It’s just, I sweat like a horse in this heat.”
“And that’s your excuse?” scoffed Barbara’s mother. “This is sacred property you entered, which you’d know if you were any kind of Jew.”
“But I am,” I whinnied. “I’m honors English at Stony Brook, and my father happens to be a famous editor.”
This was wild embellishment on at least one count, and my father, while esteemed, was no household name, at least in the Weiskopf household. Invoking him now only deepened my gloom, conjured up his acid disappointment. Oh, Paul, I could hear him tut in horror, can’t you leave me out of your dopey stunts?
“Yeah? Who’s he edit?” she challenged.
Pinned to the spot, five pairs of eyes upon me, my mind went dust-bowl blank. “Well, lots of big writers,” I stalled.
“Yeah? So name one.”
I frowned, I groped, I searched dead air: nothing; just snow in my head. It was all the more dismal because I’d told the truth, but the truth was no friend in those days. I was much more adept at telling lies and found them easier to deploy than the facts. “Wait.” It suddenly came to me. “Harold Brodkey, for starters, and—and Ed Doctorow and Tom Robbins…”
“Who? Never heard of them,” she said. “Harold Robbins I’m familiar, but this other fellow, no. Who is he, the cousin?”
I continued to blank on the books my father midwifed and racked my head for the most recent roster of American Review, the definitive literary quarterly he put out. “Aha,” I said, laying my trump card down. “And, of course, Philip Roth.”
His name hung the air like mustard gas, poisoning the Weiskopf clan. “That bastard!” said Barbara’s father. “That lying fraud! He’s no more a writer than my shoe.”
“He should rot in hell for a million years and have to sit next to Himmler in the lunchroom!” said her mother.
“Wha-at?” I sputtered. “Have you read a page of Portnoy? Do you know what a comic tour de force it—”
“Wouldn’t soil my hands,” she said. “A pack of lies is what it is, about a boy who has sex with his mother’s pot roast.”
“All right, enough,” said the rabbi. “How is this constructive? What his father does is neither here nor there. He’s apologized for not coming better dressed, and you went to the expense of getting a robe made for him. If he washes himself up and maybe ties back his hair, is there a way that we can reach some accommodation?”
Martin and Barbara consulted in baleful looks. “But no talking to the guests, especially the children,” he said. “I shudder, what comes out of his mouth.”
“That’s fair,” said the rabbi. “Can we agree on that? You’ll just stand with quiet purpose and embody strength?”
“Not a problem,” I said. “I’m a professional.”
His eyebrows went up, forming a circumflex. “For that, first you’ll need a profession.”
THE WEISKOPFS, DECRIERS OF zest and sizzle, seemed to have made their terms with it for the day. At the mammoth reception, which could have filled a Macy’s and sent its overflow celebrants down to Stern’s, there were roving trios of folksong singers, a pinball arcade for the preteen set, and waiters dressed as great Jews in sports, resulting in some odd inclusions. Sandy Koufax? Naturally. Hank Greenberg? Doubtless. But Ron Blomberg, the Yankees’ part-time DH? It struck me as a stretch, and pass the knishes. Needless to say, the event was short-staffed, though they’d wisely doubled up on the Sid Luckmans.
As for me, I was no second coming of Moses. The costume, an off-the-shoulder, flowing robe, made me look like the ring card girl at a Friday night smoker in Newark. It flattered my chest and oiled-up delts but was sheerer than the hostess might have liked and allowed my string bikini to shade through. What I knew about Judaism you could put on a cracker and still have room for smoked salmon, but Moses in high-cut, leopard-print briefs? Render unto Caligula, sayeth the Lord.
Also no picnic was the long gray beard they had me plaster on. It was made of some fabric that itched like wool, though derived from goats, not sheep. Each time I tugged at its board-stiff backing, it connived to pinch me in a different place, digging at my day-old stubble. The wig was no better, a musty number that smelled like the pace horse at Belmont. As I stood there, gripping the tablets in one hand and a tall shepherd’s crook in the other, I couldn’t help wonder who had worn it before me and what karmic crime they’d committed. It beat trying to pin down my own offenses, which violated most of the Ten Commandments, several of them many times over.
For the first hour I posed by a wing of the partition that divided the room when closed. Guests milled past, giving awkward smiles or eyeing me over highball glasses. Standing there, wearing a freeze-dried look of what I hoped was holy rigor, I felt like a lobster at one of those seafood joints that lets you pick your dinner from the tank. It didn’t help that all I’d eaten that day was a sleeve of Hostess Sno Balls and that the buffet table, heaped with finger foods, was a five-step jog away. Some of those who stopped to pile their plates ventured a remark in my direction. “I’ll bet they didn’t have all this delicatessen when you were up on Mount Zion,” chirped a woman. She grinned, baring a mouthful of lobster salad; a mustache of Hellmann’s topped her lip. Her spouse, a gargantuan chap of sixty, gurgled like a backyard fountain. “And it was cold up there, for forty days and nights. I hope you dressed warmer than that!”
“Hey, watch it,” said a bystander, joining the fun, “or he’ll turn that rod to an asp.”
The big crowd kept building, as late-coming arrivals clotted the narrow foyer—the men in their wide-peaked blazers and suits, the women with bone-deep, melanomic tans and cheekily short, mid-thigh skirts. Everywhere I looked glowed the nimbus of money: the gold that shimmered off wrists and necks; the silver orthodontia in the mouths of kids; and the high-buff polish of ambitious poise in the bearing of the oldest sons. It was like a one-day version of those weeklong retreats in which the rich huddle together to swap ideas on how to wring more wealth from Third World labor. Or, to say the same thing self-indictingly, it was a convocation of the things I never was and stood little chance of becoming: contented, connected, en route to somewhere stable—a member, to quote my father, of the hive.
“You part Negro?” said a boy with a knowing grin, hovering with two of his friends. “You must be, because white guys don’t get that big. You gotta have some schvartze in you somewhere.”
He couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, but with a crown of thick hair and dazzling teeth, he had the panache of a high school senior. His pals hung back, either in awe of him or in sensible terror of me.
“Move it along. I’m working here.”
“No, really. Make a muscle with your arm.”
I glared at the kid but hinged a biceps, making it pop and jitter.
“Cool!” He traded pounds with the kid behind him. “Show’s over,” I said. “Go bother Dolph Schayes.”
Instead he drew closer, leaning in from the waist. “Actually, we came to see if you had some weed.”
I laughed out loud, drawing a flurry of looks from the people in the buffet line.
“Just a joint,” he begged. “We’re bored off our asses. I had some killer sess, but I left it home.”
“Well, that’s drugs for you. You get high and forget your stash.”
“Ah, pleeease. We’re dying here.”
I looked him over closely, then checked around again. “What made you think I was holding?”
“Oh, right. I’m the nigger by default.”
On behalf of blacks everywhere, and Jews like me who struggled to keep year-round tans, I should’ve sent the three of them on their way. But I was dizzy with hunger, more than a little hungover, and in a sourly subversive mood. I gave them my terms, which were nonnegotiable, and said I’d meet them in the first-floor men’s room during the changeover to luncheon service. “And if you twerps say anything to your little friends…”
“Don’t worry,” said Jake, flashing a gleamy smile whose cost could have built a treatment plant in Ghana. “We’re all, like, totally down.”
I SAT IN THE STALL with my gym bag open, mulling whether to fire up the amp of Deca-Durabolin while I waited for the kids to join me. It was past one p.m., and I was seriously late for the shot that started my day. Generally, it galled me to miss a morning, but my buttocks were a motley of blue-gray bruises in various stages of healing. Most of the welts had come courtesy of test cypionate, the oil-based bastard form of human testosterone that was much in favor with my crew. It grew big, freaky muscle in a short period of time, made you mean as a hornet by the end of week two, and raised some nasty blisters where you shot it. One way around those was to take a month off and use something like Deca that went in smoother. Alternatively, you could act like the junkie you were and start fishing around for other sites—the webbing between your toes, say, which didn’t show much, or the meat of the inner thigh. Or you could do what I did—stack Deca and test cyp—and hope that no one noticed the shiners peering out of your French-cut Speedo bikini.
I gauged myself for signs of withdrawal—arrhythmia, faintness, a flaccid prick—but wasn’t sure exactly what to look for. I’d heard Angel and the others use nebulous terms like “washed-out” and “naked” to describe it, but I didn’t feel much more exposed than usual, even in my Red Sea getup. All I detected was a coil of irritation pinging away under the skin. I had never, by all measures, been a cheerful sort and had set up sarcasm as my default mode since the end of my parents’ marriage when I was ten. The past several weeks, though, I’d been hell on wheels, an open chord of grievance with New York. In the summer of my life—or, more precisely, my new life, the one that had started only seven months prior, when I’d discovered the campus weight room and its alchemies—I was making cash money hand over fist; filling out my closet with hand-stitched shirts from that men’s store of the gods, Charivari; and having aerobic, if unskilled, sex more or less at will. Nonetheless, I felt ambushed, under barrage, the target of seemingly fluid and random events whose connection only I could see. The rainstorm that ruined my new Bottega boots; the hair dryer that shorted out before a hot date—they were all part of a loose (and anthropomorphic) conspiracy to keep me in my place. Putting fifty pounds of muscle on a skeletal frame and emerging from the molehill of adolescence, I had broken some cardinal law of physics, and someone, or something, was angry. You are what you are, said my fatalist mother, but I, for better or worse, had begged to differ.
The door banged open. I stashed the syringe, peeking out over the stall.
“You bring it?” Jake asked.
“Yup, but let’s see yours first.”
I fished the skinny joint from my pack of Winstons. “It’s shake, but it’ll get you high.”
He snatched it from my hand and flicked a lighter.
“No! Not here, dope. It’s a temple.”
“Right,” he said. “Let’s go out back.”
The fat one came forward and held it out. “The caterer counts his plates, so bring it back.”
I lifted the cloth napkin on my contraband: a thick but sloppily built corned beef sandwich with the fat kid’s palm print on the bread. “Whoa. Where’s my coleslaw and latkes?”
He shrugged at Jake. “I didn’t hear him say that.”
“Hey, don’t look at me—you’re the food guy.”
“But can’t I bring it later? They want us up there.”
“No, you can’t bring it later. Your word is your bond,” I said. “That’s the whole point of this day.”
Jake sniggered. “Where’s it talk about dope deals in the Ketuvim?”
“Don’t be a smart-ass,” I scolded. “I’m not the one who made all the waiters dress like Norm Van Brocklin.”
“So today at least pretend that you’ve read the Torah, instead of using it for one big score. And you can’t start fucking people over in business till you’re an adult and selling hi-fis at Crazy Eddie’s.”
They looked at each other in mystification, then made a sudden dash for the door. I started after them but was slow off the line and tripped on my shepherd’s crook. It glanced off the sink with an angry clatter; the straight end cracked where I’d tromped it. “Fuuuuck!” I screamed, not at the sacrilege but at the corned beef sandwich that had gone flying. It struck the unclean lip of the sink, then, like a drunk holding on to the arm of his stool, slid off sideways and went plop.
Now, we Jews, with exceptions, are a cleanly race, and many is the mother who’s been moved to boast that you could eat off her bathroom floor. This floor, however, no mother would claim, rife as it was with black heel marks and the film from a dirty mop. But panicked—I pictured Yiddish cops descending, their tin shields embossed with six-point stars—I went to my knees and salvaged lunch, shoving what meat wasn’t touching the tiles into my greedy gob. Mustard splotched the porcelain base, but that I sponged with hunks of rye and stuffed them into my mouth. I’d gotten most of the mess down in three or four bites when, as dusk follows dawn, I started to gag.
Alas, choking, I’m pained to say, was no novelty act. For months I’d been eating like a trash compactor, forcing all manner of half-chewed treif down in a death-march drive to gain weight, and once a week, minimum, a Frito or heel of pizza would catch in my throat and lodge. Usually, I managed to move things along with a lot of red-faced huffing and hacking, but this time nothing budged when I inserted a finger. I could breathe, with some effort, pulling in from the gut, and seemed in no imminent danger of dying, but I was terrified to think what would happen next if the opening in my trachea narrowed. I pawed at my tonsils, using two and three fingers, and turned on the hot water till it blasted, thinking the patchy steam would melt the meat. But the clump just sat there, wedged in solid like a punchball in a Cyclone fence.
Panicked now, I searched for something to push it down. There was, of course, the crook, with its loop at the top, but the curve was too broad to clear my molars. Ditto the handle of a toilet plunger, the taste of which brought me to stinging tears. That left my bag, and in it one option: the steel syringe and inch-long needle. I trembled at the thought of poking my pharynx with something sharp enough to split wood but opened my jaws as wide as they went and threaded the barrel in. It barely passed my tonsils when reverse peristalsis stopped it in its tracks. The clump, however, shifted the slightest bit. I fed the needle through again and pushed the plunger: the clammy, oil-based hormone greased my throat. I refilled the chamber with water and shot; the clump began to slide. I held my breath while gravity nudged it toward the cliff drop of my esophagus.
For several minutes I sagged against the stall, letting it prop me up till my heart stopped pounding. I listened vaguely to the thrush of plumbing and, through the wafer of drop-tile ceiling, a klezmer band. Slick with perspiration, I began to shiver, crouching under the downdraft of a vent. When I was able again to stand, I stumbled to the sink and gaped in the mirror, shamefaced. “What are you doing?” I said. “Are you trying to die, gorging like Mama Cass at a double wedding? This can’t go on. It’s eating your brain—the drugs, the stripping. It’s over.”
Good and worked up, I grabbed the syringe and stuffed it into the trash. That felt cleansing, so I went for my bag and tossed its contents out—the sluttish T-shirt and shorts so tight as to get me collared for exposure. Relief suffused me, a sense of pride reclaimed, of being back in the embrace of my tribe. I couldn’t say exactly what tribe that was, but such things would keep until later. For now it was enough to repudiate muscle and the deeply strange path it had led me. I had a nimble mind, according to my mother, who saw in me a future poverty lawyer. It bears noting, of course, that she thought the moon landing a fake, that Bobby Kennedy had paid to have his brother rubbed out, and that there was a fortune to be made selling big-butt mannequins to dress shops in Spanish Harlem. On that last, at least, she was a woman before her time.
Feeling ten percent smarter for having tossed my works, along with the man-whore togs, I blotted myself with paper towels and straightened the shaft of the crook as best I could. But pausing for one last glance in the mirror, I felt a ripple of panic go through me. Either I was crazy or my biceps had softened, the belly of the muscles a quarter of an inch smaller than when I’d measured that morning. I took a step back and shot a pose, holding it till my forearms shook. It was true, goddamnit, I was shrinking already, the Pump in reverse, but double speed. Was my body so graspingly steroid dependent that a half day off had me wilting faster than the flowers in a Broadway bodega?
I hit the pose again, checked and rechecked it, then launched myself headlong at the trash can. The short shorts could stay there, but where was that fucking needle, buried beneath paper and crusts of rye? Finally, I found it at—where else?—the bottom, the sharp in a wad of Dubble Bubble. Prying the gum off, I ran the syringe under water, cranking the tap high to mute my curses.
The Unbearableness of Being Light
Nine months earlier
IN THE FALL OF 1975, I was having such a rough go of it that even my hair was depressed. Styled on David Bowie of Aladdin Sane vintage, it was long in back and purportedly spiked on top, but drooped like Three Dog Night in a two-day downpour. Though I piled on half a can of White Rain Extra and did everything but toast it in a waffle iron, thirty minutes later the mop would crowd my face, mocking my glam-rock affectations. I stood six foot one, weighed 140 pounds, and hadn’t been laid since Nixon’s reelection, making me, like George McGovern, a landslide loser.
- On Sale
- Jul 26, 2010
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown and Company