Uncle Ponto and the Mushroom-Souper
“Uncle Ponto!” Jamsie screamed in fury as he reached for the door of
his apartment. “Uncle Ponto! This time, I’ll do it. By Jesus, I’ll
do it. You’ll see! I’ll do it.” He banged the door after him. As he
scrambled down the steps into the street and fumbled with the car
key, he muttered angrily: “That does it-permanently, eh? That does
it. I’ll fix you, you little bastard.”
Jamsie was shaking all over his tall, raw-boned frame. He was
gripped by a sense of frustration that put him almost out of control
of himself. His reddish hair and high complexion had always been
startling for people. But now his cadaverous face was flushed with
passion, his eyes were blazing. His appearance must have been
In a few moments he was at the wheel. Fumbling and cursing, he got
the car started, made a quick, jerky U-turn, and was immediately off
gathering speed as he headed away from San Francisco.
Jamsie was seething with an accumulated rage so great that he
continued to shake. He had put up with Uncle Ponto’s annoyances for
over six years. Finally he had had enough. Even though Ponto had
left him alone a lot of the time, and even though he had been able
to sleep in peace in his own apartment at night until fairly
recently, and even though he had at times even relished the eerie
company of Ponto and got a kick out of their encounters,
nevertheless, on this early Saturday morning, he had had enough.
Ponto wanted to move in completely and permanently and immediately,
to take him over, him and his entire life. And something had broken
inside Jamsie. He had to finish the whole thing now.
“You won’t bother me any more. You’ll get off my ass. You’ll . . .”
Jamsie’s voice trailed off. A glance in the rearview mirror was
enough: Uncle Ponto was on the back seat, that same uncouth smirk on
his face that always enraged Jamsie.
“I told you before,” Jamsie shouted violently into the mirror, “that
is a dirty smile. A pig’s smile! A foul, swinish smile!” Then in a
sudden excess of anger and frustration:
“Hell! Hell! Hell!” He paused to negotiate a corner. “Hell again!
Now you’ve asked for it, Ponto. This is it.”
He lapsed into silence, breathing heavily, and drove on. Now and
again he shot a furtive glance into the rearview mirror to reassure
himself that Ponto was still there.
Jamsie could see the squarish head ending in what was almost a
point, the narrow
forehead with the tiny zigzag eyebrows slanting upward, the large,
bulbous eyes with the whites so reddened that you could hardly
distinguish them from the deeply pink irises. And Ponto’s nose and
mouth and chin-what there was of chin-had always reminded Jamsie of
a long, thin pencil stuck in a very ungainly Idaho potato.
Ponto’s face looked as if it had been put together in the dark by
several people working at cross-purposes, with each part coming from
a different face. No one part really matched another part. Even his
face color, a brownish-black, clashed with his sparse blond hair,
which sat like a cheap toupee on top of that peculiar pointed head.
He would have been comic-looking-and Jamsie sometimes had a good
laugh at his facial characteristics-were it not for the normal
expression on Ponto’s face. For it was in no way the comic face of a
circus clown, in which irregularity and human feeling combined to
give a sense of pathos. Ponto’s was a caricature of a human face.
Where the clown’s face read: “Laugh!
But know that I mirror the
helplessness of us all,” Ponto’s face read: “Don’t laugh! But do
despair, because I mirror the real absurdity of you all.” And what
really prevented Jamsie from any constant amusement about Ponto’s
face was the thick transformation through which it could pass. At
times it did not look human at all. It was something else for which
Jamsie had no name-neither animal nor human nor even a nightmare
face born in bad dreams or shown in the Chamber of Horrors.
“All I’m asking for, all I ever asked for,” Jamsie remembers Uncle
Ponto saying softly sometime later, as they drove onto Highway 101,
“is that you let me come and live with you. I won’t be in the way.
You need a friend like me.”
Jamsie snorted with rage; his steering became erratic for a moment.
“You see,” Ponto continued in his primest tones. “You see! You
shouldn’t have got so upset. You’re not as good a driver as your
father, Ara, was.”
“Leave my father out of this,” Jamsie grated.
Ponto’s voice was something else again. Never loud, even when Ponto
was screaming, it had a painful effect most of the time. It left
ringing echoes inside Jamsie’s hearing, so that any kind of extended
conversation with Ponto ended up in jabbing earaches.
As a matter of fact, Ponto had only started to bother him long after
his father’s gradual degeneration from self-supporting artisan to
New York hack driver to part-time pimp to dope peddler. Yes, and
long after his mother’s taking to prostitution on New York streets
as a last, desperate means of livelihood.
Leave them out of this, Jamsie thought silently. What lay between
himself and Uncle Ponto was entirely personal.
In brief, Jamsie had had enough of Uncle Ponto’s harassment. Two
years of sudden appearances morning, noon, and night, and of
uninvited interventions that had wrecked his personal life, all this
had finally become too much. In the beginning Jamsie had even
welcomed Ponto’s unpredictable antics. They had provided some relief
to his boredom. At times he had been amused, stimulated, even
bettered and helped in various practical difficulties. And, after
years of creeping horror prior to Ponto’s first appearance, years of
being pursued by strange, intangible threats, Ponto was at least a
visible butt for Jamsie’s general anger at life and at people-and at
himself. But that had been merely the beginning.
It might have continued like that if Ponto had not changed his tack.
But, after a while,
Jamsie had found that Uncle Ponto was pressuring him. From being an
visitor and companion, Ponto had started to assume the role and
privileges of a
familiar, a close associate, an intimate friend. It was only then
that Jamsie had
received the full blast of Ponto’s twisted personality. And it had
been too much for Jamsie.
They were coming up to San Jose. Ponto had started to speak again.
But Jamsie had been taken in by Ponto’s put-ons before. He clamped
his lips tight, resolved to give Ponto the old silent treatment. It
had occasionally worked in the past. Jamsie had heard it all before:
what Ponto thought of his father and mother; how he, Jamsie, should
stay away from women and liquor (“Women are death,” Ponto dinned
into him; “booze makes you easygoing”); who really was Jamsie’s
friend in this life-Ponto himself, or people like Lila Wood,
Jamsie’s onetime girlfriend, and Lila’s friend, Father Mark. On
Jamsie had just passed San Jose and entered Highway 52, and was
heading eastward to Hollister. Ponto’s tone took on a note of
suspicion. “You told me you didn’t like San Benito County, Jamsie!”
A pause. “Jamsie!”
Jamsie kept his eyes glued to the road.
Ponto changed his tone. Now he was wheedling. “Just say, ‘Yes,’
Jamsie.” Ponto was almost plaintive. “Just say, ‘Yes.’ You’ve no
idea ... 1 don’t want to go back . . , All those homes up there . .
.” Jamsie glanced up at the houses dotting the hillsides. “There’s
no welcome for me up there in spite of their boozing and bitching
With no reaction or answering word from Jamsie, Ponto fell silent.
Jamsie stared ahead. Another long silence.
Sometime later, as Jamsie turned south on Highway 25 into the San
Benito River Valley, a sardonic smile crept involuntarily across his
mouth. I’ll show you, he was thinking. You little sonavabitch. This
will rid me of you, get it all over with, once and for all. Uncle
Ponto was agog again. He was becoming frantic. “Jamsie, you’re
opaque to me now. Stop THAT! You hear me!
Stop THAT! I’m getting bad
vibes, very bad vibes. All darkness and fog.” The memory of Lila’s
friend, Father Mark, came back to Jamsie again. “Mushroom-Souper,”
that’s what Ponto had derisively nicknamed Father Mark. On the one
evening Jamsie had visited with the priest, Mark had treated him to
mushroom soup made from his own recipe. Afterward, Jamsie had talked
with him into the small hours of the morning, telling him of his
early life, of Ponto’s harassment, and of his own deep despair and
continual rage against life. Mark seemed to understand much more
than he was able to explain to Jamsie.
But several times during that
conversation, Jamsie had found himself incapable of going along with
what Mark proposed: to get rid of Uncle Ponto. Always, at that
point, Jamsie felt an unaccountable fear. If Ponto no longer existed
in his life, what would happen? It was just as if Ponto represented
some security or as if in some way or other he had given his word to
He glanced at Ponto in the rearview mirror. Ponto was leering
contentedly. The sight of that gash Ponto passed off as a smile
roused Jamsie’s anger again. He could not restrain himself.
“You’re the son of the Father of Lies!” he shouted poisonously at
Ponto. “That’s what Mark said Jesus called him . .”
Jamsie’s ears were split by a high-pitched scream from Ponto.
“DON’T!” Ponto shouted. “Don’t mention that person’s name in my
presence. Don’t mention THAT!” Ponto’s queer face was contorted in
There was silence for a while. Jamsie glanced at either side. How
happy he had been
here in this countryside with his father for a few days of a
childhood visit years
before. Eastward stood the Diablo Range-an ironic touch to the
thought. To the west ran the Gabilan Range. Ahead lay the Pinnacles
National Monument. They should arrive within an hour at the park.
Got to get it over with, Jamsie began saying to himself over and
over again. But, as the memories of his childhood happiness passed
before his mind, he began to wonder. Got to free myself, he found
himself thinking. Got to rid myself of this “familiar,” got to free.
But Ponto started to chatter again and interrupted his thoughts.
Every time he started to think, really to think, Ponto would
interrupt. That, he realized, was what capped his resolution to end
it all: this perpetual muzzling of his thoughts and feelings. When
Ponto talked in his strange way, his words seemed to drown all of
Jamsie’s thinking. He could not think or feel.
Jamsie pressed down on the accelerator. He had to get to the
Then, without warning, pain blocked his memories and dulled all
thought. He felt the pressure inside his chest. He had experienced
it before when trying to resist Ponto. It began at his rib cage just
beneath his skin; and, as it had during the last few weeks, it
started to contract inward toward the center of his body. It seemed
to be pulling at his brain trying to force it down his spinal
All Jamsie could think of was the counterstratagems Mark had tried
to teach him that evening.
“Jesus,” he muttered under his breath.
Then he began to spell the word out letter by letter. “J-E-S-U-S,
J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S.” About 20 times. Next he spelt the name out by
running down the alphabet from A to J, from A to E, from A to S,
from A to U, from A to S. Then he started all over again.
He did not do this as a prayer. He had been taught it by Father Mark
as a means of blocking Ponto’s influence.
The internal pressure started to lessen. He could breathe again.
“Jamsie,” came the horrified squawk of Uncle Ponto. “You know I
don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. You know very well. I
can’t stand that. Stop it this minute, or I can’t go on. You will
lose me, you hear. You will lose me.”
Jamsie started laughing, first of all quietly in his throat, then
uncontrollably out loud.
“My friends and relatives won’t like this at all,” squeaked Ponto,
voice high-pitched, elbows beating against his sides, hands wringing
in the air. Jamsie laughed and laughed. This was what he used to
call Ponto’s “duck fit.”
At least that worked, he thought. He did not know why that name
disturbed Ponto. But Jamsie laughed from sheer relief nearly all of
the next 32 miles. He had a pain from laughing. He was profoundly
relieved to have got the best of Ponto for now, at least.
At times he stopped laughing when his thoughts became grim. Then,
catching sight of Uncle Ponto’s pointy little skull, heavy lids, and
chinless face covered with that fretfulness of Ponto’s “duck fit,”
he would start laughing again.
At the gate of Pinnacles National Monument the ranger took his
money. Jamsie parked the car beside the Visitor’s Monument, bought a
map and a flashlight, and set off across the chaparral of Pygmy
Forest. He knew where he wanted to go. And he was almost jubilant.
But immediately Uncle Ponto was by his side. Jamsie now paid no
attention to him. Something in the air exhilarated him. He felt
freer than he had for a long time. He started to walk quickly.
“Reservoir, here I come!” he hummed to the tune of “California, Here
Ponto started to wheedle him again. “Jamsie, sit down a moment.
Smell the hollyleaf
cherry, the manzanita, these wild flowers. Sit down and rest a
while. You were told to
watch your heart. You’re my investment. You’re home for me. You’re
not going to walk all nine miles up and down, are you? Please!
Jamsie! Please stop and talk it over with me. Please!”
Jamsie kept on. As he started to climb up to Bear Gulch Caves, he
opened the map.
“It’s no use, Jamsie,” said Ponto. “I tell you, it’s no use.”
Jamsie turned his back on Ponto, searching the map for his way to
the reservoir. But Ponto was up to his tricks again. Every time
Jamsie’s eyes and finger came near that name on the map, the name
shifted. It shifted and sidestepped and dodged him, zigzagging
across the map.
Jamsie began to get angry and then fearful. He slammed the map onto
a flat rock and plunged his finger at “Reservoir.” But it was too
late. “Reservoir” slipped off the map and shot up into the sky over
Jamsie sprang up, cursing and hurling profanities at the blue sky
where the word “Reservoir” danced and flowed around like a pennant
towed by an invisible airplane. He swayed as he squinted up.
Suddenly, “Reservoir, here I come” danced around in the sky. Then a
whole skyful of dancing words spelled out letter by letter-and
backwards: S-U-S-E-J, E-I-S-M-A-J, S-U-S-E-J, E-I-S-M-A-J.
Jamsie stamped on the ground. He was violently angry again. “To Hell
with you and your tricks, you filthy brute. To Hell with you and
your tricks ...”
But he only heard the echo of his own shout and knew he was alone.
He looked up. All was quiet. The sky was clear and blue. There was
no trace of Uncle Ponto. The dancing letters were no more. He was
He grabbed the map and stumbled on. Now his mind was made up.
After another half mile, Jamsie entered Bear Gulch Caves. He had
been here about 20 years before with his father, and his memory
started to serve him.
Halfway up through the narrow corridor of the cave, he began to hear
more than his own footsteps. At first, it was the splashing of
unseen cascades and the gurgling of underground streams. But quickly
he began to realize a voice was becoming audible. It was Ponto’s, of
“Jamsie, you know I will have to give an accounting for all this
foolishness. I am responsible.”
The voice came from above. Jamsie pointed the flashlight to the
roof. Long ago some huge blocks of rock had fallen across a narrow
fissure in the canyon wall and stuck there, closing it from the
light of day and forming a roof. Ponto was dangling in between two
of those rocks, his eyes glittering with malice. “Oh! I’m here all
“What the . . .” Jamsie was about to erupt; then all the fight
drained out of him. He suddenly felt weak and helpless. In a sort of
desperation, he started to run and stumble through pools of water
and over rocks, wetting his feet and scraping his shins and ankles.
Behind him, always near, came Ponto’s mocking voice: “This can only
end badly, Jamsie, if you keep on like this. You have to come back
to me in the long run, you know. You can’t do without me now. Not
That “Not now” pursued Jamsie in a thousand echoes. It increased his
panic and his need for flight.
Then he saw glimmers of daylight ahead of him. He scurried on,
pursued by Ponto’s voice echoing from every cranny. Finally he
clambered up the last few rock steps cut out of the cave walls, and
into the sunlight. Ponto’s voice seemed to die away into the
darkness he had just left. He was out of breath, perspiring from
every pore, and shaking. He had bruised his elbows, knees, and
ankles. His hair had fallen over his eyes.
But the sight now before him was a sudden distraction from his
panic: the reservoir, calm, blue, unruffled, glasslike, without the
merest ripple. And reflected in its face were the brown and gray and
black spires and pinnacles of the surrounding land, undisturbed
images intertwined with the greens and ashen-whites of the
vegetation. It was a perfectly still mirror world in which the only
movement came from the few clusters of utterly white clouds
reflected from the sky. There was no sound whatever from the great
things around him. Distance was telescoped. Time paused for him.
Then, in a little inner explosion of a new panic, Jamsie noticed the
Shadow over to his right. A tall finger of brown-gray crag jutted
out of the cliff wall over there. The Shadow stood beneath it and
out of the glare of the sunlight.
Over on his left Ponto’s exasperated voice called out from the cave
mouth: “Well, if you have to do it, get on with it. Get it over
with! Go on, Jamsie! An ideal place for it!”
Jamsie glanced over at the Shadow. In the darkness beneath the crag
he thought he saw a movement, like someone sighing with relief that
the desired end was near.
Ponto’s voice struck at him again: “Go on, fool! Jump! They tell me
it’s okay now.
As Ponto’s voice died away, the Shadow moved beneath the crag ever
so slightly. It might have been bending forward a little in order to
follow more closely what Jamsie was about to do. Its outline, still
dim, became more visible in its general details.
What Jamsie now found strange was his own lack of rage and fear, For
the first time in three years, he felt neither. Instead, he felt
that relief and easement of body and mind somehow akin to what you
experience when you fill your lungs with air, after having held your
breath to the point of suffocation. Why am I calm now? was the
question he put himself.
He turned his head and gazed at the Shadow, as if he knew the answer
to that question lay in its direction. That question and others were
agonizing. His eyes calmly bored into the darkness surrounding the
In the few moments before the Shadow slipped back into obscurity,
Jamsie had enough time. The face, the head, the way it stood, all
the details began to fall into place for his memory. The Shadow was
tall, abnormally tall. And bulky. The body was covered in black
folds. He could see the two arms raised at the elbows, the palms of
the hands turned out toward him, the fingers clenching and
unclenching. The head was lifted up, thrown back, as it were, in a
fixed haughtiness, a resisting pride. Dimly he could make out eyes,
The shape of that face riveted Jamsie’s attention. It had all the
details of a human face. Yet it was not human. It was something
else. Where had he seen it? That face had been with him all his
conscious life, even in his childhood and during his teens. And from
the first day he had taken a job. Sure, it was Ponto’s face. There
was something of his father’s face there, too, the face Ara had late
at night when he was on a “job.” And others he had once seen but had
now forgotten. Many others.
It all took a few quick moments. As the Shadow receded noiselessly
into the darkness beneath the crag, Jamsie became conscious of
another element in himself. It was a tiny voice of instinct, a
primal part of him still alive and vibrant. He knew he had seen the
father of all man’s real enemies. The Father of Lies and the
ultimate adversary of all salvation, of any beauty, of each truth
throughout the cosmos of God’s working.
Beneath the crag there was suddenly only darkness. Jamsie’s eyes
fell away from the Shadow’s hiding place. His thoughts came back to
He looked at the smiling calm of the waters and up to the North
Chalone peak. He
remembered what his father had said to him when they had looked at
it together years
before: someday he would climb all 3,305 feet of it. Waters and peak
were clean-wholesome in some way Jamsie could not explain but did
feel intensely. He could not, he thought to himself now, he could
not soil them with his own dead and bloated body floating face down,
its back to the peak, its juices polluting the water. Just the
thought now made him feel uncouth, ‘ almost sacrilegious.
He looked away quickly from the clear surface of the reservoir. He
stood stock-still. His mind was blank, his eyes, unseeing. He no
longer desired to end it all here. But he could not think either of
returning to :!| the increasing torture of life with Ponto. “I have
no desires at all,” he, T thought helplessly. Then, as though
pointing out to himself something 1 he could not quite grasp, he
repeated again and again: “I’m in shock. | I’m in shock.”
Ponto broke in peevishly: “You can do nothing, desire nothing, are
nothing-except a human wreck about to kill yourself.” Then
viciously: “You”-a long drawn-out pause-“are finished”-again the
cruel pause-“dead already, but you don’t know it.” A short pause.
Then, like a pistol shot: “Jump!”
Jamsie did not budge, did not even shake or move. He was certain
that Ponto lied. He knew that his will was not helpless, although he
did not know what to do. He knew now that preserved in him was a J
deep desire stronger than any other. He felt tears coming to his
eyes; and he knew those tears were forced from him by that deep,
Alarm entered Ponto’s voice again. “Jamsie! Be a man. Get it over
Jamsie looked over his shoulder at the Shadow’s hiding place. It had
not gone. It
seemed to have lost its undulating ease and draped I complacency, to
have gone rigid in some way he could not fathom.
Then Ponto started to chant in his eunuch’s voice: “Jump-uh!
The words with their rhythmic extra beat hit Jamsie painfully as
hailstones lashing his ears. He sought some escape, some gimmick to
block those quick, stinging blows.
“Jump-uh! Jump-uh! Jump-uh!” went Ponto’s voice in a high, spiraling
tone, speaking quicker and quicker.
Jamsie’s thoughts started to go awry. The torment of that voice was
| becoming too much. He remembered Father Mark and his instructions.
The trick, that was it! The trick! He began desperately spelling |
out the name of Jesus again and again: J-E-S-U-S. J-E-S-U-S.
J-E-S-U-S. Then he ran all the letters together like an incantation-
But now, he found, those letters and their piecemeal pronunciation
meant more to him than a gimmick. The pain of Ponto’s chanting
diminished. Jamsie’s tears flowed more sweetly, more as a relief
than a gesture of suffering.
The tears blurred everything as he threw one more glance at the sky
and the water, then heard himself break the silence of all nature,
shouting, “Father Mark! Father Mark!” He shouted the name over and
over. The echoes came back at him from all sides, from above and
below, Father, Father, Father . . . Mark, Mark, Mark, and died away
over the rocks and pinnacles.
He stepped back a little, then a little more, then some more, away
from the edge of the reservoir. He turned back, looking toward the
cave mouth and then at the Shadow. He realized he would have to pass
by them both if he returned to the Monument Gate by Bear Gulch
The echoes died away. The Shadow beneath the crag had dwindled into
itself and was almost indistinguishable again from the darkness
beneath the crag. There was no sound from Ponto.
In the silence, Jamsie turned around and stumbled off down by the
Moses Spring Trail, hugging the walls of the canyon. He was alone
all the way down. The two hours of respite were welcome. When he
arrived in full view of the parking lot, he was still saying two
names, Jesus and Mark, over and over again to himself.
The ranger looked up from the magazine he was reading. “Need any
You look beat.” “The phone. May I use the phone?”
Within a few minutes Jamsie was talking with Father Mark. “Stay
where you are, Jamsie,” Father Mark told him. “Don’t drive back,
whatever you do. Wait for me.”
That evening Jamsie returned with Mark to San Francisco. They spoke
little on the way. As they approached the rectory, Mark sensed a new
unrest in Jamsie. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Ponto. He hasn’t said a’ word. He hasn’t appeared. I wonder if ...”
“Don’t. Just don’t.” Mark spoke firmly. Then he added drily, “Your
old Uncle Ponto couldn’t sit in this car.” Jamsie nodded. But he
As they entered the rectory, Jamsie was not sure if for one moment
he had not seen Ponto inside the gateway. The shadows cast by the
street lamps were playing against the gate pillars and seemed to be
a rustling cover for some rigid forms towering above him, leaning
forward in an askew fashion, watching his every move, waiting for
some moment of their choosing.
The case of Jamsie Z. presents us with an almost open-and-shut
example of what used to be called “familiarization” or possession by
a “familiar spirit” in the classical terminology of diabolic
possession. I say “almost” because, in Jamsie Z.’s case,
“familiarization” was never completed. Jamsie resisted, was
exorcised, and the intending “familiar spirit” was driven out of his
“Familiarization” is a type of possession in which the possessed is
not normally subject to the conditions of physical violence,
repugnant smells and behavior, social aberrations, and personal
degeneracy that characterize other forms of possession.
The possessing spirit in “familiarization” is seeking to “come and
live with” the subject. If accepted, the spirit becomes the constant
and continuously present companion of the possessed. The two
“persons,” the familiar and the possessed, remain separate and
distinct. The possessed is aware of his familiar. In fact, no
movement of body, no pain or pleasure, and no thought or memory
occur that is not shared with the familiar. All privacy of the
subject is gone; his very thoughts are known; and he knows
continually that they are known by his familiar. The subject himself
can even benefit from whatever prescience and insight his familiar
Although there was a definite connection between certain events and
traits of his childhood and the experience that culminated in his
exorcism, it was only after the age of thirty that he was openly
approached by a “familiar” spirit and proffered “familiarization.”
From the age of thirty-four onwards he was subjected to multiple
forms of persuasion by the spirit calling itself Uncle Ponto. But
Jamsie’s case does illustrate many of the traits of
“familiarization” and the inherent dangers for those who give even a
token consent to “familiarization.”
Jamsie was born in Ossining, New York. His father, Ara, was of
Armenian descent; his mother, Lydia, was of Greek descent. Both were
third-generation Americans. Ara was a carpenter by trade, and played
the clarinet in his spare time in order to earn extra money. Lydia
belonged to a Boston family whose large fortune had been made in
ship chandlering and on the stock market.
Lydia saw Ara for the first time at a small evening concert in Glen
Ridge, New York.
Improbable as it seemed to her family, she fell in love with Ara
then and there. And
Ara with her. On Lydia’s eighteenth birthday they were married, over
objections of her family. Even the threat of being disowned and cut
off entirely from the family fortune could not stop Lydia.
Jamsie was born one year later, in 1923. The family lived in
Ossining for another five years. But by 1929 Ara and Lydia had
decided to move to New York. He was not making enough money in
Ossining. Lydia’s mother and father were pestering Lydia to desert
Ara and to return to the family with her son. New York, Ara and
Lydia thought, would provide more work for Ara and a greater
anonymity for the three of them. Ara had a letter of recommendation
to a taxicab-fleet owner. He and Lydia had high hopes of success in
In October 1929 the family moved to New York, taking with them some
blankets, kitchen utensils, Ara’s clarinet, and an old family icon
of the Virgin that Ara’s father had left him in his will. They first
lived in a three-room walk-up in Penn Street. After a year they
moved to a two-room apartment at Lexington Avenue and 28th Street.
There they lived until Ara died in 1939.
Lydia, once more living in a big metropolis, wrote out a memento of
their arrival in large black letters and hung it beside the old icon
on their living-room wall: “Today, our first day in New York, George
Whitney bid 204 for U. S. Steel.” It hung there beside the icon for
years; and these two objects were the center of Jamsie’s earliest
But the golden age of New York which had begun at the end of the
Civil War was just coming to its close, although few guessed its
imminent collapse. New York’s strength and prestige as the source of
funds and leadership for the nation had been established in that
64-year period: great New York fortunes were made; famous New York
homes were built by a Brokaw, a Dodge, a Carnegie, a Stuyvesant, a
Whitney, a Vanderbilt, a Frick, a Harkness, the city’s big financial
district was created to sell the country all kinds of services.
After World War I, most of New York’s energies were turned toward
Europe. But the old leadership was gone, and New York’s
manufacturing declined. As one writer put it, the financial soul of
New York “worked itself up into a lather of paper profits and then
collapsed.” Ara and Lydia arrived just in time for that collapse.
Nevertheless, their first seven years in New York were relatively
happy ones. Ara did not immediately use his recommendation to the
taxicab-fleet owner. Instead, he worked as a handyman and carpenter,
first around his own neighborhood, and then venturing down around
Washington Square and up as far as Yorkville. Lydia at first stayed
at home with their young child. Then, as Jamsie started parochial
school, Lydia took a daytime job in an Armenian laundry.
In the opinion of the present writer, the New York which Jamsie knew
from his earliest years had something rather intangible but definite
to do with his later experience of attempted “familiarization.”
Between 1820 and 1930, over 38 million people had immigrated to the
United States, and a good one-sixth of these had stayed in New York.
The doormat for those “ragged remnants” was the Lower East Side.
New York was then a city of nearly seven million, with 25 foreign
languages in daily
use and 200 foreign-language newspapers and magazines to satisfy the
needs of this
heterogeneous population. “No one can become an American except by
wrote I. A. R. Wylie in the early 19305. And, for the long-standing
Establishment, New York, which was in the first third of the
twentieth century five-sevenths Italian, Jewish, German, Irish, Hungarian, Armenian, Greek,
Syrian, and otherwise foreign, was not American. The felt
differences between the
Establishment and the newly arrived was more than ethnic. The
adopted none of the ancient gods of the New World; they had imported
Christianity, which had no roots in pre-Columbian history. The
millions of immigrants came from lands where their religion (mainly
Christianity, with Jewish and Muslim minorities) had its roots deep
in ancient pre-Christian cults.
European and Middle Eastern pagan
instincts were never rooted out; they were adopted, sublimated,
purified, transmuted. In that mildewed baggage of morals, ritual
practices, folk mores, social and familial traditions, the new
Americans surely transported the seeds and traces of ancient,
far-off powers and spirits which once had held sway over the Old
Jamsie’s childhood until he was nine passed without any serious
disruption. Home life was orderly and secure. Mornings and evenings
he ate with his parents. Most evenings, Ara would take out the
clarinet and play for his wife and child. Every night, as a small
child, Jamsie knelt with his mother in front of the ikon and said
the night prayers she had taught him, while he looked into the wide
eyes of the Virgin.
His father took him to ball games and boxing matches. Some Sundays
they went roller-skating down Wall Street; at other times to the
zoo, or for nickel rides on the Staten Island ferry; and two or
three times a year he took Jamsie for a swim in a hotel pool. In the
summer months there were all-day outings to Coney Island.
The three of them left New York only once. It was a week’s vacation
in San Francisco made possible by a gift of money from Lydia’s
parents. Jamsie never forgot the outings on that trip with his
father, and their evening meals at Fisherman’s Wharf, and the day’s
visit they made to Pinnacles National Monument.
As Jamsie grew up, he gradually moved around the East Side and got
to know and like its ethnic mix, its smells, sounds, and sights. In
the early morning he picked his way to school past windows stuffed
with bedding and fire escapes where people were still sleeping. As
he wandered home, his ears were filled with the medley of dialects
used by pushcart peddlers and shopkeepers-Tuscan, Serbian, Yiddish,
Ruthenian, Sicilian, Croatian, Cretan, Macedonian.
Jamsie was in his tenth year when his parents began to notice a
strange trouble that seized him from time to time. Sometimes, among
the clutter of plaster saints, brass pots, secondhand garments,
Balkan stogies, mezuzahs, and other bric-a-brac that filled the shop
windows, Jamsie caught sight of what he called a “funny-lookin’
face” or “a face with a funny look.” Then he was seized with a
violent fright and literally fled home in a blind panic. He used to
arrive white-faced and trembling at Lydia’s side. She always knew
what had happened-or so Jamsie thought-and she was able to calm him
down and still his fears.
As he grew older, the “funny face” incidents became rarer, but they
never totally disappeared. As a child, he was never able to describe
that “face” to his parents. They, wisely, never insisted on details.
But from what they could understand, it seemed the child’s terror
was caused, not by any particular ugliness in the “face,” but
chiefly because of the curious conviction Jamsie had that the “face”
knew him personally. “It looks at me and it knows me. It does!” he
used to sob to his mother.
Gradually Jamsie worked out a sort of home geography for himself. He
made many friends among the Hungarians living between 82nd and 73rd
Streets. His father had distant relatives living there; and once a
month or _so, Jamsie visited them and was fed on goose-liver paste,
stuffed cabbage, and chicken paprika. He skipped the neighborhood of
the Bohunks (Czechs and Slovaks), who lived just below the
For it was lower down on Lexington Avenue, between 3Oth and 22nd
the Armenians, and with the Greeks in the West 305 and 405 that he
felt at home. He
spoke a little of both languages. His boyhood friends were there,
and he was never
frightened when with Greeks and Armenians. He never saw his “funny
face” among them.
In the late spring of 1937, when Jamsie was fourteen years old, Ara
made an important decision that ended forever the happy days of
Jamsie’s childhood. Ara was not earning enough money as a
handyman-carpenter, so he utilized that old but carefully guarded
recommendation to a taxicab-fleet owner. Very shortly afterwards, he
became one of approximately 25,000 licensed hacks in the city. He
drove a two-year-old Y-model Checker for Burmalee System, Inc.
Jamsie was very proud at first of his father’s cab with its silver
roof and the black-and-white checker band running around the middle
of its yellow body.
Ara worked a 12-hour shift, driving approximately 50 miles a day to
service 12 to 15 calls. On a good day he might bring home $3.00 from
the meter and $1.25 in tips. It was no good. The constant sitting at
the wheel, the endless war with the New York policemen, who were out
to eliminate cruising cabs, the weariness at the end of each
grueling day, the small earnings brought in by this labor, all
produced a change in Ara which alienated him from Lydia and
He no longer played the clarinet for them in the evenings; he locked
his “old stick,” as he called it, in a drawer of the living-room
bureau. There were no more family outings. Instead of the occasional
game of pinochle and hearts with some friends, he stayed out late
drinking with other cabbies. He developed ulcers, spent two weeks in
the hospital with kidney trouble in November 1938, and had a back
condition before the end of the year.
For a while, only his language grew coarser for Jamsie-“palooka” (a
cheap fare), “high booker” (a big fare), “rips” (fares over $2), and
so on were his father’s new expressions. But matters got worse. At
the beginning, Jamsie and Lydia took turns keeping Ara company as he
cruised long hours in his cab. When Lydia found out that Ara had
fallen into the easy money of occasional pimping, steering
out-of-town clients to hotels and parlor houses for a percentage of
the “take,” she forbade Jamsie to go with Ara at night. But Jamsie,
by now a boy of very strong will, disobeyed.
Now and then, as he sat beside Ara in the cab, Jamsie was struck by
some trait in his father’s face. Once, while he sat in the cab late
at night and his father was chatting on the curb with a pimp and two
of his girls, Jamsie thought he saw that trait on all four faces as
they laughed together as at some joke.
The “look” did not frighten him, but it repelled him. At the same
time he was fascinated by it. As time went on, he deliberately
looked for it. He found, however, that he only noticed it when he
did not look for it. It was as elusive as ever; he could not pin it
At times that “look” acquired a terrible intensity. Two related
incidents that happened in 1938 stand out in Jamsie’s memory.
With his father and some friends he had gone to see the Brooklyn
Dodgers play. It was at a moment toward the end of the game when all
the fans were on their feet cheering Cincinnati’s Johnny Vander
Meer, who was making baseball history by pitching his second
successive no-hit, no-run game. Shouting and cheering like everyone
else, Jamsie looked around at the excited crowds. And from deep in
the middle of the faces there leaped out at him that “funny-lookin’
face.” It was looking at him. It knew him, he thought. He froze into
silence and looked away in panic. Then he glanced back at the spot
where he had seen it, but it was gone. All he could see were the
fans shouting and gesticulating.
Exactly one week later Jamsie was sitting with Ara in the cab late
one night listening
to the Louis-Schmelling fight. As the fight reached its climax,
Ara’s face became
more and more contorted. In the last few moments leading up to Joe
Louis’ victory, Jamsie saw on his father’s face a very intense look
which was quickly developing into that “funny look.” There was,
again, something unhuman about it; and he could not catch sight of
any trait which he had always associated with his father’s beloved
face. With each of Louis’ blows to Schmelling, and as the voice of
the announcer got higher and more excited, the “look” became more
apparent on Ara’s face. With the gong and Louis’ victory, the
tension broke. The strange look passed quickly, and Ara became
normal and composed again. But Jamsie could not forget the incident.
As time passed, his fear of the “look” began to lessen, but his,
curiosity was greater. What was that “look”? And how was it that he
had seen it at the ball game and then again on his own father’s
face, blotting out the kindness and love Jamsie had known there all
his life up to that point? And what connection was there between all
that and the “look” or “funny-lookin’ face” he used to see as a
Around this time the family reached a low in its fortunes and
well-being. Ara was developing a serious drinking problem, and the
more he drank, the less money he brought home. Lydia, at first
frantic about their needs, finally became morose and gathered into
herself. Her young son was beginning to grow up. She began to feel
alienated from him and Ara.
Jamsie had already been hired as a pageboy by NEC. He left school to
take the position, partly in order to bring in more money to his
home, partly with the intention of pursuing a career in radio. In
the early days of radio, NEC hired young men as pageboys for a
two-year apprenticeship, then graduated them to guides, and
afterward trained them in some branch of the flourishing radio
Things went from bad to worse for the family. There was no longer
enough food in the house. Lydia was always in arrears with the rent.
And, unknown to Jamsie but with Ara’s consent, Lydia made her
decision. Jamsie found out about it late one night in March when he
returned from work at about 11:00 P.M.
At home, to his surprise, he found his mother dressed in her best
clothes. Her face was heavily made up. She was sitting in the living
room gazing silently out the window into the night. When he came in,
she did not turn around or say a word to him. But he knew she had
something to tell him. As he waited, his eye was drawn to the old
icon hanging on the wall behind Lydia. She had draped a black cloth
over it. He looked from the ikon to his mother and back again
several times before he understood that she was going to become one
of the prostitutes he had seen his father introducing to clients.
Lydia stood up then, as if she had heard him thinking. She knew he
had realized what was happening. “I’ll be late, Jamsie. Don’t wait
up for me.” He said nothing.
When she had gone, he sat down and remained there thinking for about
two hours. He knew without a doubt what his mother had in mind. It
was written all over her. But there was something else he now knew:
although he was alone as far as his mother and father were
concerned, he had the strangest feeling that he was in someone
else’s company. Finally he looked around the living room slowly and
then through the window at the city. When he went to bed, he still
felt deserted by his parents, but he was nursing some secret which
he did not yet understand.
Lydia became one of about 5,000 prostitutes in New York City. After
a few weeks of lone-wolfing, she got herself put on the calling list
of a parlor house in the West 405. Jamsie got to know her routine.
She slept during the day, rising about 5:00 P.M. If by 10:00 P.M.
there were no calls for her from her madam, she went out for the
She worked Fifth and Madison Avenues between 43rd and 6th Streets.
stop at the better bars, do some over obvious window-shopping,
always on the
lookout for clients. Sometimes she would give one of her clients a
call. She worked this way until dawn. Then she returned home to
After a couple of months she became a member of Polly Adler’s parlor
house on Central Park West. By that time, too, she had established
her own list of personal clients whom she called regularly. When
Polly Adler got into trouble with the authorities, Lydia simply
transferred her loyalties to another madam in the West 505.
As Jamsie got up each morning and looked in at his mother before he
left, he found that over the months the expression on her face was
changing. Instead of the look he had always seen there, he might see
various traits of that “funny-lookin’ face” of his childhood
terrors. But now there was no terror. Rather, he began to feel a
strange kinship with the look.
With the passage of time, Lydia noticed the difference in Jamsie’s
reaction to her, and they established a new respect for each other.
Ara, in the meantime, still driving for Burmalee System, Inc., had
tried to move in as a steerer for crap games in the 40th Street and
Broadway area. But the territory was already controlled, and the
incumbents let him know in no uncertain terms that there was no room
for him. Then he went deep into the numbers racket and illegal horse
betting. In those times, about one million illegal bets were placed
each day in New York. There was money to be made. As a numbers
agent, he got ten percent of the take on each bet handed over to the
collector. In time he himself became a collector, delivering bets to
the central “policy” bank.
Finally Ara found a source of easy money in drug traffic. There were
between 20,000 and 25,000 heroin addicts in New York of the 1930$;
and opium dens flourished on Mott and Pell Streets, as well as in
Harlem, Times Square, and San Juan Hill. Diluted heroin was sold at
$16 to $20 an ounce. A “toy,” or small tin box of opium, sold for
about $10 on the street. Reefers fetched 50$ each, or two for 25$ in
Harlem. In the beginning Ara merely bought reefers in Harlem which
he sold at a profit downtown. Then he became a runner, transporting
the little packets strapped beneath his armpits. There were times
during these months when Ara-and less frequently Lydia-were so
changed in their faces and so “funny-looking” to Jamsie’s eyes that
some of his old fears returned momentarily.
Ara had begun to build up a clientele and make some money in the
traffic of narcotics when he seemed suddenly to go to pieces. He
became gaunt and thin. His moods were unbearable in their rages and
One evening, a rainy Friday late in December 1939, Ara arrived home
drenched to the skin. He had been up for three days and three
nights. His teeth were chattering. He drank more than usual. He 1
coughed up blood during the night. The next morning, Lydia had not
come home, and Ara was in a high fever. All the strain of seven
years suddenly broke him.
Jamsie called old Dr. Schumbard finally. He said Ara was dying of
tuberculosis. Ara refused to go into the hospital. There was nothing
Jamsie could do.
The next few days were a nightmare. Lydia did not come for the
entire weekend. Ara’s fever could not be reduced. He was frequently
delirious and drank when he was not. Jamsie finally went out and
scoured all his mother’s haunts until he found her. Together, they
watched over Ara, waiting for the end.
While he was sitting one evening by himself at Ara’s bedside after
Lydia had gone out
for a while, Jamsie had the feeling again of someone being near him.
It was not
unpleasant and not at all frightening. He recalls that his feeling
was more or less
pleasurable, as if a friend or confidant had come to be with him
when he had no one
else. The sensation did not last all the time, and it varied in
intensity. About eight days
after he had collapsed, Ara suddenly sat up in bed one morning and
started to scream at the top of his voice: “I want my old stick! You
hear! All of you! My old stick. Just a few more hot licks! I want my
old stick!” His face was bathed in that “look.”
Jamsie and Lydia tried to hold him down, but Ara fought them off. He
scrambled out of bed in his bloodstained nightshirt, hobbled into
the living room, unlocked the drawer where he had hidden his
clarinet. He took it out of its case and screwed on the mouthpiece.
“Just a few more hot licks before we kick the bucket, heh!” gibbered
Ara, spittle drooling from the corners of his mouth. The silver
stops of the clarinet twinkled in the sunlight.
“Me old stick!” Jamsie heard him mumble.
Ara blew a few uncertain notes, tried some scales, went into a few
bars of the upper register, then low down, all the time gaining
fullness of tone and sureness.
As Jamsie and his mother watched, Ara began to adlib some blues. He
tottered and stumbled unsteadily around the room, scraping over the
worn carpet, bumping into furniture. He paused for a moment in front
of Lydia’s handwritten memento and cackled at it derisively. Then,
playing again, he stumbled away and then back, until he stood
looking at the old icon still covered with the black cloth. His face
got serious. There was silence for a second. Jamsie remembers
holding his mother’s hand in anguish as they both watched Ara.
Then Ara played the first bars of an old Armenian hymn to the
Virgin. He started to sway back and forth. Lydia and Jamsie both
moved quickly to help him, but they were too late. Trailing off in
the middle of his song, he doubled over, coughed violently, and fell
forward, clawing the air for support. His hand caught the black
drape over the icon, and it came away as he fell.
When they reached him, he was on his back, the black drape clutched
in one hand, the clarinet in the other. Above him, the icon
glimmered in the morning light with its old gold, blue, and brown
colors. For the first time in many years, Jamsie looked at the
tranquil eyes of the Virgin.
Then he looked at his father’s face, and a weight was lifted off
him. In death the “look” had gone. Ara’s features had returned to
something resembling what they had been ten years before. Jamsie
never forgot that change at his father’s death. He still could not
understand the “look,” but he was glad for Ara that it had gone. Ara
was buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood to sleep with the other 400,000
people already there.
The following week Lydia told her son he was on his own. Except for
two visits, Jamsie was not to be with her again until her death in
1959. As he walked up Broadway that day of parting with his mother,
all he heard were Lydia’s words:
“You’re on your own now.”
The old el had been torn down; and they were starting the 6th Avenue
subway. Jamsie stood for a long time watching the workmen. A flood
of resentment took hold of him. They were spending $65 million on
that subway, he had read in the newspaper. But his own father was
dead, his mother was an aging prostitute, and he had been helpless
to change any of that. It all made no sense.
A curious new feeling was building up in him. Without moving,
anything different or hearing an ethereal voice, he felt as if an
alternative to his misery
of loneliness was being offered him. It was accompanied by fear. But
also the same strange sense of companionship as on the night he
first knew his mother
would be a prostitute. He was alone, but he was not really alone. He
felt the loss of his
father very deeply. He had deep misgivings for his mother’s
well-being. Yet both of
them slipped into the background of his mind. In the forefront was
this new, unsettling, but rather welcome feeling of being wanted, of
not being really alone.
In that moment, for the first time, he was certain that there was,
indeed, some presence, someone or something present to him, and that
to accept it meant renouncing any genuine love for his father and
mother as he had known them in childhood and early youth.
In 1940 Jamsie was promoted to guide at NBC. Then, on the invitation
of a very close friend of his father, he went to live and study in
Oklahoma City. The friend provided him with enough money to follow
courses in journalism and broadcasting; he did part-time work to
supplement his income.
The years in Oklahoma City were tranquil ones for Jamsie. There was
no recurrence of the “funny look.” He rarely had a sense of the
strange presence, and he formed some solid friendships.
He moved back to New York in 1946, at the age of twenty-three, and
started to build a career in radio. Outside work, he lived a quiet
life. He spent most of his time either at home listening to records
and reading, or wandering the streets of midtown and lower
He always hoped he would find his mother. Nobody in her old haunts
seemed to know where she was or what had happened to her. Eventually
word reached him from an old family friend that she was living in
Flushing. He had one long visit with her there.
Lydia was much deteriorated. There was still a deep feeling between
them; but both felt and tacitly decided that, except for some
serious personal crisis, they should see each other rarely. Meeting
was too painful.
At the same time, Jamsie was also engaged in a search of a very
different kind. Once he set foot in New York again, he caught
glimpses of that “look”-in the subway, from the middle of crowds,
aloft among the neon signs, in movie houses, and sometimes late at
night, before he went to bed and when he stood looking out the
window at the lights of Manhattan.
And he now felt something else that was new and, in its own way,
reassuring: a violent and unconquerable persuasion that he had
always known what “it” was, who “it” was. His old fright was
transformed into an insatiable urge to remember. If he could only
remember what “it” was.
Sometimes, in off-moments, he seemed to be on the verge of realizing
what or who “it” was, of recalling the place and the time when he
had been told about it. He could not shake the idea that he had been
told about it.
But his efforts always ended in frustration. Just as names and
places were about to rush into his mind and to his lips, something
would happen inside him, and he would lose his grip on them. His
frustration at this continual defeat began to produce a rage in him.
Jamsie had one last meeting with Lydia. She had moved from Flushing
to lower Broadway. During those few hours he spent with her, all his
rage and frustration was dissipated. Lydia, by now living on church
welfare, spoke to him slowly and quietly about his father and about
his own future. This was the last experience of human tenderness
Jamsie was to have for many years. Later he left word of his
whereabouts with the local precinct and the church authorities who
helped Lydia, promising to keep them posted of any change in his
address. He kept that promise.
It was during this period of Jamsie’s life that his colleagues at
the radio station began
to notice that he talked to himself; even more oddly, he
occasionally flew into solitary
rages. Of course, the moment Jamsie realized other people were
watching, he became
a very amiable and smiling man, to compensate for any unpleasant
might have given. Yet, time and time again, he could be seen walking
alone on the streets or in the corridors of the radio station, or
standing in the washroom, his eyes wide and staring, his nostrils
flaring, and his lips drawn back over his teeth as if in some deep,
internal, all-absorbing effort.
After two years in New York, Jamsie was transferred to Cleveland.
Here he had his first paralyzing dose of what became commonplace in
his life a few years later.
One evening he was walking down Euclid Avenue on his way home.
All day his mind had been opening and closing on the endless puzzle:
when and where had he been told about “it,” about that “look”? Since
his arrival in Cleveland, all appearances of the “look” had ceased.
But this only seemed to increase his curiosity and his need to know
the answer. Tonight, it seemed to him, he was very near to recalling
As he walked on, memories and words began to gather up out of a deep
darkness of recollection and slowly to take shape. He was almost
craning forward as he peered within himself with profound intensity
to catch them. He began to feel excited, as he felt a growing
realization that this was the moment.
Suddenly, just as he was about to see those images and say those
words, the words and pictures-as he describes it-seemed to form
themselves into a long, quickly moving stream and “floated like
lightning” out of the top of his head and up into the sky. It had
all escaped him!
He jumped up and down on the pavement in frustration, looking up at
the night sky with tears in his eyes. Then, when he saw nothing up
there but clouds, he turned away and went dejectedly toward the
small restaurant where he normally took his supper.
At the door of the restaurant he stopped in astonishment. It was too
much! There, at the back of the dining room, among the crowded
tables and chatting people, he saw a face with that “look.” He
pushed his way past waiters and packed tables. But when he reached
the place where the “face” had been, he found two staid people, an
aging man and woman, eating their dinner in stony silence. They
looked at him briefly and disinterestedly, then went on eating.
From that moment, Jamsie was convinced that somebody or something
was playing hide-and-seek with him. But he could not figure out how
it was all done or why. It became frequent in his daily life for
words and memories to behave like the floating lightning and to
“dive” out of his skull. Sometimes he saw them silhouetted against
the sky before they disappeared far, far up into the clouds;
sometimes they went so fast he could not catch sight of them at all.
In successive years and at various stations where he worked
(Detroit, 1951; New Orleans, 1953; Kansas City, 1955; Los Angeles,
1956), the story was always the same. He tried once to explain it
all to a psychiatrist in Los Angeles, but he found the sessions with
him unproductive and infuriating.
He had one friendship with a woman in Kansas City that might have
become serious. But one evening, only a few weeks after they had
begun dating, Jamsie treated her to such an uncontrolled exhibition
of rage, frustration, and jealousy that she broke up with him then
Just about a year after his transfer to Los Angeles, he had his
first face-to-face meeting with the source of his trouble. He lived
in Alhambra at the time, and drove each day to the radio station.
One evening, as he drove home in the dusk, he again sensed that
curious presence for
the fourth time in his life. The car radio was playing a medley of
songs. Suddenly, as
“California, Here I Come!” was being sung, the words seemed to
all around the sky in front of him. He had already had a lot of
crazy things like this in
his life, and, while he could not ignore it, he could cope with it.
As “California, Here I Come!” continued to plaster itself around
him, Jamsie switched off the radio.
Then something caught his eye in the rearview mirror. It was a face.
As with so many of the strange things that kept happening to him,
Jamsie felt neither fright nor surprise. He seemed to himself to
have expected it, to have known it was there all along. The eyes of
that face were looking at him and he knew-without knowing how-that
he knew their owner.
There were no more words floating or plastered around him now.
Jamsie slowed down, waiting all the time in silence. But there was
no sound and no movement from the back seat.
He glanced again in the mirror: the large, bulbous eyes were still
looking at him. He could not believe they were really red. Must be
the reflection of the street lights, he thought. The face had a
nose, ears, mouth, cheeks, a funny chin much too narrow for the rest
of the face, a kind of high-domed forehead ending in a somewhat
pointed head. The skin was dark as if from long exposure to
sunlight. He could not make out if it was white or brown or
But something more than the vividness of that face puzzled him-the
absence of something. The face was certainly alive-the eyes glinted
with meaning, even laughingly. The head moved silently now and then.
But something was lacking, something he expected in a face, but
which this face did not show.
As he turned slowly into the driveway to his garage, he heard a
voice, chiding and familiar, in tones he would expect a eunuch to
have: “Oh! For Pete’s sake, Jamsie! Stop acting the fool. We’ve been
together for years. Don’t tell me you don’t know me.”
Jamsie realized that this too was somehow or other true: they had
been together for a long time. Everything, even this, had the same
curious familiarity about it.
As the car came to a standstill in the garage, he heard the voice
again: “Well, so long, Jamsie! See you tomorrow. Wait for your Uncle
As Jamsie entered the house, he thought he smelled a strange odor.
At the time he connected it in no way with Uncle Ponto. It was a
momentary thing, and he forgot about it immediately.
This happened on a Monday evening. He could not sleep that night.
And, although he did not know it then, Ponto’s visits would multiply
quickly until, for six years, he would be dealing with Uncle Ponto
almost on a daily basis.
The following Sunday Jamsie was driving the short distance to
Pasadena when out the window to his right he saw Ponto craning his
head down from the roof of the car looking in at him upside down
through the window. Ponto was moving his left hand as though
pitching a ball, and with each gesture he seemed to throw a word, a
phrase, or a whole sentence into the sky where it remained for a
while and then danced away over the horizon.
“WELCOME TO JAMSIE MY FRIEND!” ran one message. “GREATEST BLOW-OUT
FOR THE MIND!” was another. “PONTO! JAMSIE! PALS! REJOICE! PASADENA
HERE WE COME!”
And so it went. Accordingly as Ponto threw each message into the
sky, he turned back and grinned at Jamsie. When Jamsie swerved
dangerously because of the distraction, Ponto shook his finger in
mock reproof and flung a “LET ME DRIVE YOU!” sign across the sky.
Then he disappeared.
This was the flamboyant beginning of Uncle Ponto’s attendance on
Jamsie: Uncle Ponto, the spirit that was to harass him for years,
finally press his claims to be Jamsie’s “familiar,” and twice drive
him to the edge of suicide.
Gradually Jamsie got to know Ponto’s general appearance. But he
never saw him whole from head to foot at any one time. Ponto’s face,
the back of his head, his hands, his feet, his eyes, all were parts
of Ponto he saw from time to time. To Jamsie’s eye, somehow
accustomed before the fact to all these bizarre happenings, Ponto
was not misshapen, yet Jamsie knew that Ponto was hardly shaped like
a normal human being. And then there was that funny lack in Ponto’s
face. Something was Jacking.
His head was too large and too pointed, the eyelids, too heavy, the
nose and mouth always contorted by an expression Jamsie could not
identify with any emotion or attitude known to him. The skin was too
light to be black, too dark to be white, too reddish to be sallow,
too yellow to be sunburned. His hands were more like mechanical
claws. His body-seen in parts-seemed to have the flexibility of a
cat and to be thinner than his enormous, pointed head. His legs were
bandy and disproportionate-one knee seemed higher than the other.
Ponto’s feet were splayed, like a duck’s, and all the toes were of
even length and the same size.
Jamsie was sure Ponto was not human. Beyond that, he was sure of
nothing except that Ponto was real-as real as any object or person
around him. What Ponto did was real and concrete. So, for Jamsie, he
had to be real. At the same time, Jamsie again and again found
himself wondering why he was not frightened by Ponto. And
occasionally he did ask himself if Ponto was a spirit or a being
from another planet. But in the beginning each appearance of Ponto
merely fired his curiosity.
After a while Jamsie realized that he could anticipate an appearance
of Ponto by the queer smell he had noticed the first night; and,
when Ponto disappeared, the smell lingered on afterward for about an
hour. It was not a bad smell, as of sewage or rotting food. It was
just a very strong smell; it had a trace of musk in it, but laced
with a certain pungency. Jamsie could only describe it as the way
“red would smell, if you could smell red.”
The smell always gave Jamsie a feeling of being alone with something
overwhelming. In other words, the effect of the smell was not
primarily in his nose but in Jamsie’s mind. It did not repel, did
not attract, did not disgust, did not fascinate. It made him feel
very small and insignificant. And this bothered Jamsie more than all
the other odd things.
As far as he could calculate, Ponto’s overall height was about 4X2
feet. Yet whenever Ponto appeared to him, he seemed to be the mirror
image of something gargantuan hovering nearby, and in some confusing
way the smell was tied closely to that sense of nearness of
overwhelming size. If Jamsie felt any personal threat at that stage,
it had to do with the effects of that smell.
At the end of his “visits,” and just before he disappeared, Ponto
took to giving Jamsie a questioning look out of the corner of his
eye, as if to say: Aren’t you going to ask me about myself? Jamsie,
naturally stubborn, resolved not to ask, not even to notice this
gesture of Ponto-if he could bring that off.
Ponto kept on appearing at the oddest places. Since his first,
chiding words to Jamsie, and except for the words he flung, floated,
and plastered all over Jamsie’s horizon, Ponto never said anything
in these early visits. He appeared in the back of the car, sitting
on the radiator in the living room, inside the elevator in the upper
corner, swinging from one of the overpasses as Jamsie traveled on
the freeway, in restaurants, on top of the cash registers, at
Jamsie’s desk in the studio, on top of the engineer’s table in full
view of Jamsie as he sat in the sound-room broadcasting.
Ponto pushed swinging doors in the opposite direction to Jamsie. He
placed money on
the counter of the delicatessen to pay for Jamsie’s groceries,
ripped the dry cleaner’s
plastic bags, turned on faucets, turned off the ignition of his car,
switched on the
headlights, and in a thousand ways kept a regular-though, for the
first few months of 1958, not a frequent-reminder of his presence in
front of Jamsie.
During the early months of 1958 Ponto never interfered with Jamsie’s
work, he rarely appeared in his apartment, and he never bothered him
at night. In fact, Jamsie found he could sleep all night
undisturbed. He had a feeling Ponto was somewhere near watching
him-or perhaps watching over him; he did not know which. After a
while, the bizarre antics began wearing on Jamsie and whittling his
patience and control very thin. Jamsie became convinced that he had
seen Ponto somewhere else or had known somebody very like Ponto in
previous years, though surely he would not have forgotten so odd a
figure as that little fellow!
Finally Jamsie’s patience wore out, and his curiosity-certainly
understandable in the fantastic circumstances-led him to his
greatest mistake with Ponto. He yielded to an impulse one day and
asked Ponto what he wanted. Ponto at that precise moment was
swinging from the lamp in Jamsie’s office.
“Oh, just to be with you, Jamsie! I thought you’d never ask!
Actually I want to be your friend. Did you ever know anyone as
faithful and as attendant on you as I am?”
Then he swung away into nothingness.
Jamsie’s innocent question opened floodgates. He now became the
object of a continual barrage from Ponto that went on week after
week. There would be no letup for years.
Ponto would start talking the moment Jamsie left his apartment to
drive to work. Most of his conversation was harmless and inane,
sometimes unintentionally funny, more often ludicrous, and quite
often with a twist to his remarks that caused Jamsie some inner
For a long time Jamsie kept himself under control; but he lost his
temper with Ponto for the first time when he sprinkled one of his
conversations with jibes about Lydia and crude remarks about the
female hyena! Jamsie fell into a frothing rage with Ponto, telling
him in a series of profanities to leave his mother out of the
conversation and to get out of his sight and hearing.
“Okay, Jamsie. Okay!” Ponto said resignedly. “Okay. Have it your
way. But we belong to each other.” He disappeared.
The experience left Jamsie shaking with rage. But, after a couple of
hours, restored to the normal world of his work, and being
reasonable, he began to ask himself seriously if he were not
imagining it all. He was sitting at his microphone waiting for a
commercial to end and the signal from his engineer to take up his
As if to answer his inner thoughts, Ponto appeared and began
plastering short words on the notice board the engineer used to pass
silent messages to Jamsie when he was on the air. “FORGIVEN!” it
read. “BACK SOON! CARRY ON, PAL!” In spite of himself, Jamsie saw
the twisted humor of it all, although he doubted that Ponto was
bright enough to be funny. Ponto was doing what came natural to him.
Jamsie found himself grinning at the engineer, who, taken by
surprise by this show of geniality on Jamsie’s part, grinned back at
Ponto’s conversations, except for some of the bits and scraps
reported here and dictated to me by Jamsie, escape Jamsie’s memory
now. They were nearly always inconsequential and only sometimes
annoying to the point of making Jamsie fall into a fit of anger.
But, because he answered Ponto sometimes or made comments on Ponto’s
behavior-all this under his breath-the people at the station
accepted the fact that Jamsie Z. “talks to himself a lot” and, as
one put it, “is a little looney on certain points-but aren’t we
In spite of everything, things went well for Jamsie’s career. In
fact, Jamsie’s reporting was good and his ratings were high.
In August 1959, news arrived that Lydia had died in her sleep.
Jamsie returned to New York for a couple of days to wind up her
affairs. Lydia had made a will by which Jamsie, the sole heir,
received two possessions: the old icon and Lydia’s handwritten
memento of George Whitney’s bid of 204 for U. S. Steel. Jamsie
brought them both back to Los Angeles and placed them in a closet
where Ponto had the habit of making himself comfortable. Ponto
objected to the icon very strongly, but Jamsie was adamant.
“Okay, pal. Okay. Okay,” Ponto said. “But some day we’ll get rid of
that useless garbage. Won’t we, pal?”
In the fall of 1960, Jamsie was offered and accepted a very good
radio spot in San Francisco. He moved up from Los Angeles, and after
he had settled into his new apartment, Jamsie arranged to drive over
and meet his new station manager.
“Jamsie, the hour of decision is approaching.” Ponto, of course, had
come to San Francisco. He was balancing at the moment on the fire
escape outside the apartment house and talking through the window.
Jamsie said nothing.
“Jamsie! Promise me! No sex and no booze! You hear? Jamsie! Promise
your old Uncle Ponto. Come on, pal, promise!”
Curiously Jamsie had never touched a woman since his days in
Cleveland. Somehow, all desire had left him after that first
experience of words escaping like lightning from his skull.
“Actually,” Ponto tittered ridiculously, “I don’t expect much
trouble from you along that line. Hee! Hee!”
Jamsie glared at him for a second, then continued with his
preparations to go out.
It was in what Ponto said next that Jamsie heard the strange note of
urgency that sometimes overloaded Ponto’s eunuch’s voice.
“Now we all have our place, you hear? And I can’t appear as often as
I like, and as often as I have in the past. I have my betters, too,
y’know. You won’t believe it, but I have.”
On the way to the radio station, Ponto, riding in the back seat,
seemed to be seized with a sort of hysteria. His speech started to
come faster and faster and to be deteriorating. Finally he no longer
made any sense at all. He prattled on about lasers and roast chicken
and whisky and the moon. Jamsie only recollects phrases such as
“Jupiter rotates every 9 hours and 55 minutes.” “Car necking,
masturbation, and good grades.” “Hurrah for the Golden Gate but
don’t go near the water!” “Its cheer creak.” Jamsie drew up at the
station, left his car, and started to make his way in. Ponto went
along, prattling incoherently all the while. Jamsie rang the bell at
the front gate, but no one answered. He wandered to the back. Still
Ponto kept talking, his words utterly meaningless. Jamsie tried the
back door. It was locked. He was about to return to the front when,
without warning, there was silence. Ponto had disappeared. In
retrospect, Jamsie is certain that any sudden disappearance of Ponto
meant the approach of someone Ponto feared.
“Are you looking for someone?” A balding man in his mid-fifties,
tallish, thin, wearing rimless spectacles, had come out from a side
door Jamsie had not noticed, and stood looking at him with his head
cocked to one side.
“I’m coming to work here,” Jamsie answered easily. “I’m looking for
the station manager.”
“You must be Jamsie Z.,” said the man. “I’m the station manager.
Beedem’s the name.
Jamsie shook hands and took in Beedem’s features. He thought for a
second he might have met Beedem before. He could not quite tie it
“Come in and let’s get acquainted.”
As they sat across from one another in Beedem’s office, Jamsie
scrutinized his new boss, trying to place him. Beedem meanwhile put
Jamsie a few questions and then proceeded to fill him in on his
future work at the station. He was a precise man, obviously, and
neat almost to a fault-shining bald head, carefully groomed side
hair, immaculately clean and tasteful clothes, slightly foppish,
good teeth, masculine hands with well-manicured nails. His face was
roughly an oval shape not very lined for his age. But his eyes and
mouth attracted Jamsie’s particular attention.