I started reading Playboy, predictably, as a teen, not too long before I started college. Like any other guy my age, I was fascinated with the women who appeared within its pages, for their inviting curves and beautiful if unavailable breasts. Even with that powerful distraction, I learned very quickly that there were other items of value within the magazine known for its bunny crest.
I remember the first Playboy interview I ever read: Timothy Leary, he of the "turn-on, tune-in, drop-out" movement of the late 60's, who made no bones about his use of LSD and its potential to turn American society upside-down. He was right and he was wrong back then, but the impression he left with me was undeniable. There were pieces on Vietnam, on the Right Wing of American government, and on sex and the politics of sex, the emergence of the feminist revolution, and too many other treatises to remember.
There was also the fiction. Playboy fairly swam with such work at times, stories by writers of the first water, from P. G. Wodehouse to Isaac Asimov. Some of these grabbed my interest with their first sentence; some were simply not on my frequency. A few of these riveted their word-drawn pictures into my mind, such as Arthur C. Clarke's intriguing "A Meeting with Medusa" or Howard Waldrop's whimsical yet bittersweet "Heirs of the Perisphere."
The work that came to mind today, though, was not about future trips to Jupiter or Disney robots in a post-apocalyptic world, but of a young boy who lives either in East Chicago or Gary, Indiana, in the years before World War II inflicted itself upon our nation and too many others. This lad in this tale styles himself as a serious fighting top-man - by which I mean that a spinning top was no mere toy, but a weapon in the hands of the knowledgeable and skilled, and our protagonist may be said to be such a one. His opponent is a hard-case, a bully from the other side of the tracks, whose lethal skill with a fighting top was likely only surpassed by his facility for spitting tobacco juice. By now I suppose I should mention: the boy mentioned above is Jean Shepherd, and the story is "Scut Farkus and the Murderous Mariah," which first saw the light of day some four-plus decades ago in the April, 1967 issue of Playboy magazine.
I remember learning about the literary concept of "local color" in high school, the ability of a perceptive writer to paint pictures with words and with them create a location and atmosphere which were one given place and could be no other. To me, Jean's story of the contretemps between him and Scut and their spikesie tops was thick with that kind of writing. Consider this brief description of where Jean searches for a top which can match up against Scut's overpowering Mariah:
Wait a minute. TOTAL VICTORY NEWSSTAND AND NOTIONS. It was a tiny, dark sliver of a shop, wedged in between two gloomy red-brick buildings, about the size of those places where a man sells celluloid combs and hunches over a lathe making keys. I swung over to the curb, squeaked on the brakes and dropped the bike in back of a derelict Hudson Terraplane. In front of the Total Victory, a faded-red-metal slotted newspaper display case leaned against a locked Coca-Cola icebox. The window of the store was impenetrable by human gaze, covered with a rich, dank patina of locomotive smoke, blast-furnace dust and the fine essence of Sinclair Oil from the nearby refineries. Faded posters hawking Copenhagen Snuff, Sweet Orr work gloves and Lava Soap, the mechanic's friend, completed the job. For a second or two, once inside, I couldn't see a thing, it was so dark and dingy.
Can you feel that place, feel its age, see the peeling paint, smell the diesel smoke? I sure could as a teen, and 40 years later, the pictures Jean created with his narrative are still fresh in my head. I enjoy writing, and I've done my share of fiction and non-fiction work ... but I don't know that it's in me to create the kind of verbally descriptive Kodak moment which was the above paragraph, never mind the whole work.
Now for those of you who have read this far, I hope you're asking yourself, "Okay, you've given us a taste. How about the whole story?" Well, I could refer you to a collection of Jean Shepherd's works, known as Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories ... and Other Disasters and have you consult Amazon.com or your local library. As it happens, I've done a little Googling this morning, and being that I do enjoy sharing amazing music and amazing words, allow me to offer you:
Scut Farkas and the Murderous Mariah
Please enjoy, and if you do, drop a note.