The Big TV and the Little TV
by Sylvia Math
I never read my dad’s comic books. I was not interested. Not even later, as a teenager. My brother shared his interest though, and together they amassed a huge collection. There were comic books everywhere in our house. So I knew a few basic things by osmosis. And one story in particular.
It was a story from a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic. In this narrative, two of the brothers were home alone, and a third—Franklin Freak, I think—went out. There was a large tv and a smaller tv at home with the two Freak brothers Franklin left behind. While he was gone, the big tv and the little tv had a terrible argument that went on for pages. It concluded when the big tv pushed the little tv out the window. And then fell, I think. Both televisions were destroyed by the time Franklin Freak returned. Franklin was kinda mean, and the two other brothers hapless stoners in comparison. They had no good explanation for what happened to the televisions. Franklin was cutting and sarcastic. I suppose it is not your fault, that’s what you’re going to tell me, he said. You’re going to tell me some bullshit, like the big tv and the little tv got into an argument, and then the big tv pushed the little tv out the window, then fell after it. The brothers were speechless.
The truth was so improbable, it was unbelievable. This Freak brothers story was shorthand in my family for various scenarios: the truth was too weird to be believed; truth stranger than fiction etc. Someone’s story was bullshit but probably happened. You could not possibly explain because it was too complicated, you had to be there, etc. If you declined to offer an explanation when asked, you could simply say “the big tv pushed the little tv out the window” and be understood.
When I worked for the agency owned by the efficient blonde sociopath, I was once asked if I would do a party call with “someone very unusual.” Very unusual how, I inquired. Well. There may be some mental health issues. And…it’s in a very large penthouse suite in (famous hotel. Let’s call it the X.)
It was a “poor choice” to agree to do it, in the current parlance of shitty decision making. But I was so so curious. I hadn’t lived in NYC very long yet, and I was curious about what sociopath blonde’s idea of “very unusual” was. In Northern California, I had known *plenty* of people who had “mental health issues” and were simultaneously using a bunch of drugs. I had helped check friends into emergency psych. I had seen meth and coke meltdowns into florid mania or psychosis.
Also, my family also had crazy people. My mother’s grandfather had decided that he could no longer bear the passage of time. Not one more day. He retreated from life and went to live in the attic, where he insisted it was still whatever day in 1952 he had made the decision. Food was left outside his door. A doctor came—whom he wouldn’t speak to—and diagnosed him with “melancholia” based on his “symptoms.” He died up there, still adamant it was 1952, a decade later. A lot of other people in my family seemed to have undiagnosed “melancholia” too, they just didn’t hide out insisting the clock stopped. And my brother is now on lithium.
In Cool House, we sheltered a paranoid schizophrenic named Berkeley Bob. Bob believed that he was the head of both the CIA and the KGB, and had protracted arguments with himself. A lot of people thought Bob was wildly entertaining. Tapes were made, with jazz playing in background, of Bob’s rants: The Berkeley Bob Tapes. People played these and listened to them over and over. They had cult status. Many of Bob’s sayings became treasured and were repeated amongst us. “What kind of an unprincipled KGB agent are you?!” For example. “And that is why adultery is the only electric chair in the Bible!” Was another. And “the carrot is the agent of the coleslaw!”
I really loved Bob. I spent a lot of time with him. I sat closer and closer to him as I built trust. He made a lot of notes on scratch paper that read like poetry. I fished them out of the trash or from the floor wherever he had been, had left them. I analyzed the recurring themes and symbols; tried to break the code of his syntax. Finally he let me sit pretty much right next to him. And I felt confident enough that I understood his language to talk to him. He cried and embraced me for a long time. After that, if Bob was too agitated, someone would come get me. Bob would calm down just seeing me. I was the Bob whisperer.
So, I was neither inexperienced nor put off by “crazy” people, nor was I inexperienced or put off by people doing drugs. Or crazy people becoming even crazier while on drugs. But Manhattan was the big leagues. I *had* to see New York’s idea of so crazy you might not be able to handle it…
What NYC had was just a garden variety crackhead, actually. But one probably worth close to a billion. He was a Florida real estate developer, and he came to New York to binge on cocaine for months at a time in the X. He wanted company, an audience. There were always 3-5 young women, and a drug dealer or runner or two. There was no sex, just “partying.” The only truly weird thing was that he had paranoically constructed an elaborate homemade tubing apparatus, that vented crack smoke from the enormous suite into the eye-popping wraparound terrace. The X very clearly knew what he was up to, and did not care. He was spending a lot of money there. I’m not sure why all the tubing, the venting. But he was very fussy about it, always tinkering with it. Also it was ridiculous—like a Rube Goldberg venting apparatus crossed with dr. Seuss, and put together by 7 year olds with ADHD. But none of us complained. It was our only task really, other than sitting around—assisting here or there when asked with The Vent. Hold this, I have to tape it more…
There was a very pretty brunette there, and I could tell she was very intelligent by eye contact. We started communicating via eye contact through the long evening. She was doing drugs; I was not. But she wasn’t doing very much; wasn’t wasted. Whenever something absurd was said or done, we made eye contact. I liked her, and she made the tedious evening bearable with her knowing eyes.
But I was very surprised to run into her a few nights later, at a small live music venue on the lower east side. My friend’s band was playing. Her friend’s band was also playing. They were on the bill together. We couldn’t speak freely because my friend was right there with me, as soon as he saw me talking to her. He wanted to put the moves on her; she was hot. How do you two know each other, he asked me. I made eye contact with her. She looked nervous. I signaled don’t worry with my eyes. I said, oh a couple nights ago we were on the same party call for an escort agency, with this billionaire crackhead in the X. The guy had a crazy homemade tube vent thing throughout his penthouse suite, and we made like 10 grand each just sitting around, getting high, and helping him put more tape on his bizarre vent contraption deal.
My friend rolled his eyes at me. I took a sip of my drink and said we met at a jivamukti yoga class in Astor Place. How often do you do yoga he asked her. I checked her eyes; she liked him. All the time she replied. I winked at her and left them alone. The big tv and the little tv had performed another of their epic fights.
Sylvia Math fled Williamsburg for Hell’s Kitchen, and is perpetually working on her memoir, Looks Bad on Paper.
Photo: Olena Bohovyk/Unsplash