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By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, June 18, 2004.
“I tell you what. If I ever find out who it is, I’ll skin that half-nigger alive.” These were the words of Gene, a man who’d just removed the head of his cheap gorilla suit and stopped by for a chat. Gene was an evil old fuck, portly, cranky, dumb as a ditch.
To complicate matters, Gene wore this fucking gorilla suit. That was his job. We worked at Mary’s Gate Village, the old fake 19th-century Englishe Malle that tourists had to pass in order to board the perma-docked Queen Mary, in Long Beach Harbo(u)r. Gene and his wife, May, lived in the parking lot there, in an old fucked-up R.V. that no one was ever invited into and no one ever asked to see. May, for her part, was an equal pleasure to behold. With a head like a bag of creamed spinach to which random swipes of orange lipstick had been applied, and a predilection for greasy, translucent floral frocks permeated with cheap white wine and cigarette smoke, no gorilla suit was required.
It was my job to stand outside, beside the ship, and operate a coin-defacing machine. Tourists would give me small round copper reproductions of Victor D. Brenner’s etching of Abraham Lincoln, I’d center them on a steel plate in the machine, rotate the big chrome-plated gears, and out would come flat copper ovals bearing the image of the Queen Mary. Raw desecrated pennies sold for 50 cents; gaudy earrings, necklaces and the like were available for a couple bucks more. Three thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., senators rabbled for a constitutional amendment to make the burning of American-style flags a felony; in Long Beach, I got $3.25 an hour to deface Lincolns all day.
And every day, there’d be Gene, wandering around in his gorilla suit, scaring people into laughing and taking pictures of him with his arms around their families.
I’d been kidnapped by my parents, forced to move across the country and finish high school in the Antelope Valley, a small patch of born-again desert just north of Los Angeles. Quartz Hill High School was the palest school I’d ever seen. Out of over 2,000 students, barely a dozen had enough melanin to appear brown.
One day, a brown guy named Cookie Wallace showed up at lunch. I’d heard his name mentioned before, but didn’t know anything about him. Only that everyone liked him (“Cool guy!” “The coolest!” “Is he here?”), a lot. Wallace attended the slightly less pale high school on the other side of town, a school famous for one thing: Frank Zappa made it out alive.
“Yeah, Cookie’s great,” said Allen White, standing a few feet away from me. He and his friends had been shooting the shit with Wallace for most of the lunch hour, and Wallace had just left.
“Yeah. Cool guy,” Kevin White agreed.
“Yeah,” said Eugene White. “He’s a pretty good guy. For a nigger.”
So I said (because it’s my nature), in a mild but menacing way, “Hey, Eugene. I’m half nigger myself, and I’d appreciate it if you don’t use that word.”
Ethically, I don’t know if that was a good thing to say; technically, it may have been a lie. But I liked the effect: a nice big silence from everyone within earshot, followed by an apology from Eugene and automatic cancellation of my unrequested membership in the local chapter of the Presumed Honky Club.
Two days after graduation, my parents kidnapped me again, this time to Long Beach, where I took a part-time job at Mary’s Gate Village. My boss, Clyde Jepsen, owned several shoppes there – butchery, bakery, candlestick makery – and had an identical 12-year-old son, Clyde Junior. Both Jepsens were pasty round Baby Huey-looking saltine crackers, with oversize Rush Limbaugh heads. Clyde Junior would come around once or twice a week to roam and annoy all in his path, especially his father’s livestock, such as myself.
One afternoon toward the end of summer, Clyde Junior stopped by the penny-smashery to say “Know what?” over and over, and then to tell me a story about someone who he’d apparently been taught was a “nigger.” So I said, “Hey, Clyde Junior. I’m half nigger myself, and I’d appreciate it if you don’t use that word.”
Clyde Junior said, “I’m gonna tell!” and ran off.
Sometimes Gene would take a break at the penny-smasher to tell me about life. (“Did you see those tits?” “How about those tits?” “I know what she needs. She needs Big Gene.”) The first time he did this was the first time I met him. On a break from scaring people, he waddled over and, with his gorilla head still in place, began shooting the shit as if we’d talked a hundred times before.
After I introduced myself and shook his paw, Gene removed his head and told scary stories about war and alcohol. Said he’d had some kind of injury during World War II, and that he liked to smoke Marlboro cigarettes and drink whiskey. I’d already guessed the last two: Nothing sets off the reek of a mean, fat, sweaty old cracker in a rubber gorilla suit like a pair of smoky old Marlboro lungs atomizing the fake fur with whiskey.
Twelve weeks later, on my final shift, before I was to leave for the privileged asylum of college and never return, Gene stopped by and removed his head, more ornery than usual.
“Know what I heard?” he growled. “I heard that someone working here is a half-breed.”
“Really?” I replied as casually as possible. “Isn’t that interesting. Here in the Village?”
“That’s right,” said Gene. “I heard it’s someone who looks white, but he’s not.”
“That’s right,” said Gene. “I tell you what.”
Gene told me what, as I’ve already told you, and I was certain he knew that the perpetrator was me, and that he was about to skin me alive when, out of nowhere, his wife, May, appeared. She said, “Did you tell him about the half-a-nigger?”
“Just now,” Gene replied. They kissed, like a cigarette butt and an ashtray. Then May nodded and squinted at me. “You be sure and tell us if’n you see anything suspicious. I swear to God I’ll boil that half-a-nigger in oil and serve him up for dinner.”
Gene put his head back on, and as he and May cackled on, louder and louder, I slipped away, unskinned and unboiled, to resign two hours early and throw up.