The Shy Shylock


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The legend is that you don't see the punches you get hit with. This, I am finding, is quite true. And it is a good metaphor for life. We don't see anything coming. We just stumble and muddle forward, like going down an unlit hallway to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Though occasionally in that hallway, we feel a body lurking there and we grab hold of that person with affection, maybe nurse on a breast, and the stumbling and muddling for a little while feels quite nice. For a little while.


I didn't think I was in a morbid mood, but it appears that I am. My mind goes round and round trying to figure things out, but I always come back to the same thing: Death. Maybe you have love and fondling along the way, but everything ends. I'm reading a book my father gave me. A legal thriller. And I'm reading it because he gave it to me. It's my way of loving him, respecting him, because I'm frightened of losing him. So by reading a paperback he happened to hand to me, I'm keeping hold of him, and perhaps saying to the gods, Look I'm reading this bestseller he gave me, this shows that I love him, so please don't take him away. And this is a father who drives me insane. But I love him. I'm afraid of the punches I am unable to see. I know they're coming, but I can't spot them.


On the brighter side, even as I feel I am marching along with everyone I know to our deaths, my life is quite odd and distracting. Whether it has any meaning or significance is unlikely, but it is often amusing. For example, my neck is feeling much better today, so I'm not regretting this mad and loony fight I'm involved in. It's an adventure and I like adventures. That, along with getting to affectionately grab a woman's beautiful ass or press my face to her bosom while in the hallway of my existence, is what keeps me going.


Last night at Performance Space 122 there was a wacky press conference for my big fight, my big adventure. A half hour before the media session started, I was standing in front of PS 122's building on 1st Ave. with some friends and my wonderful trainer Harry Keitt. I told Harry my neck was stiff, that the Irishman during our sparring session had given me whiplash. So right there on 1st Ave. Harry very kindly and unexpectedly massaged my neck and then lifted me up like I was a drycleaned shirt on a hanger?he's built along the lines of the former champ Larry Holmes?and cracked my whole spine. The benefits were immediate.


A little while later at the press conference, which was open to the public and not just journalists, my opponent David "The Impact Addict" Leslie and I fielded questions from the audience. One astute young man, most likely a reader of this column, asked me, "Jonathan Ames, are you going to give up masturbation while getting ready for this fight?"


It was a very good question. Quitting self-abuse will be one of the most difficult aspects of my rigorous training regimen. But it must be done. I need every ounce of strength and vitality that I can call upon. So I answered the bright young fellow: "My trainer Harry has told me that three weeks before the fight, I must give up sex, which obviously includes self-sex. And as I say self-sex, I wonder what category of sexuality that falls under. If I am having sex with myself is this homosexual behavior? And if I am thinking of another, am I betraying myself? These are deep questions, which we should all ponder. Anyway, there are six weeks to the fight?till November 10?so I have three more weeks to make a mess of myself each night before going to sleep. But then three weeks before the fight I will be a pillar of abstention."


This seemed to satisfy the young man's curiosity, and the evening went on with taunts and a weigh-in, which are the usual elements of a fight's press conference, but there were also a few odd twists provided by the presence of the three undercards: There were the two fierce women gladiators, Shelly Mars and Sarah East Johnson, who growled at each other menacingly as if they were loaded up with testosterone, but who were very feminine in their concern about their fighting weights; there was Michael "Soy Bomb" Portnoy, who staggered out feebly to the dais, spitting blood into a cup and using a walker, and who will fight five five-year-olds; and there was the goofy comedian Zero Boy, who will fight himself.


So last night when I got home from this bizarre press conference, it struck me that I keep getting involved in odd events and performances. What I do for a living?I've come to realize?is behave strangely. And who can complain about a life like that, even if I was complaining about it a few paragraphs ago? My mood is so volatile. Half an hour ago, I was thinking about death. Now I am thinking pleasantly about my curious adventures as a performer.


Just a few weeks ago I had a particularly good escapade at Joe's Pub on Lafayette St. I was the host for a night of storytelling put together by this group called The Moth, which has storytelling nights every two weeks or so at different locations?it flits around?though Joe's Pub, with its clubby, candlelit atmosphere, seems to be The Moth's favorite venue. The theme of the night I was hosting was "icons." So the performers told stories about icons in their lives, and in addition to my hosting duties, I also told a story?about my dear childhood pal, Jonathan "Fat" Eder, who for me is an icon of friendship and aberrant behavior.


All in all, there were six storytellers, including myself, and the last performer of the evening happened to be one of New York's?and perhaps the country's?best raconteurs: George Plimpton. To introduce Plimpton, I launched into the following monologue:


"Our next storyteller is George Plimpton, but before I bring him onstage I want to tell you a story about him. A few months ago, at a Moth event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, George was the host and this time he was calling me onstage to tell a story and he said, 'Many people don't know this but my middle name is Ames. George Ames Plimpton. So I think Jonathan Ames is a long-lost cousin. So please welcome my cousin Jonathan Ames.' This surprised me a great deal, but I recovered my wits quickly and when I got onstage I then said, 'What many people don't know is that my middle name is Plimpton. I'm Jonathan Plimpton Ames. And I guess George doesn't use the Ames part of his name because the initials wouldn't look very good on towels?G-A-P, which is not very classy.' Well, that whole little speech got a big round of applause, and then after the show George was hounding me on this issue of our being related. 'So are you of the Boston Ameses?' he asked me. I kept sidestepping the question and trying to move us on to other topics. I didn't want to tell him that I was Jewish, that there was no chance in hell that we were of the same blood, and so I shamefully retreated into Jewish insecurity and secrecy.


"In my defense, I have to say that it was thrilling for me that he seemed to be taking an interest in me, even if it was only because he thought we might be cousins, which is why I didn't want to disabuse him of his cousin fantasy. You see, I've always admired George Plimpton's work. As a young writer and as an ardent sports fan, I put him on a pedestal. He combined both my passions. Here was a writer who got to play pro football and hockey and he climbed into the ring with Archie Moore! And what did I write about when I finally became a journalist? Enemas, colonics and hemorrhoids. My action journalism all took place around my ass! I even self-deprecatingly called myself in one of my NYPress articles 'the George Plimpton of the colon.' And now here was the man himself, this icon of American letters liking me and thinking we were related.


"Well, after that show at BAM, we all went to a party and again George cornered me and inquired as to whether or not I was a Boston Ames. Now for years, I've often masqueraded as a WASP. It's sort of a hobby of mine. A fascination. I comb back my thin blond hair and I put on blazers and khaki pants and infiltrate WASP society. I call it religious crossdressing. But now I had gone too far. A high priest of the WASP world was ready to take me in as one of his own. And I should have said to him at the party, 'I'm an Austro-Hungarian Empire Jew named Ames. I'm sorry George, but we're not related!' But I was too weak and irrational. It was absurd, but I thought he wouldn't like me if he knew I was Jewish, and so all I said was, 'There are no Boston Ameses in my family.' And shortly after that, having turned my back on my heritage, I left the party. I was acting like Shylock, but with less self-esteem.


"Anyway, I've been thinking about all this, and I realize that George and I might be related after all. The Boston Ameses, I bet, were originally German-speaking Jews who ended up in England. But then because of religious persecution, they came over with the Puritans on the Mayflower. And since they were Jews and most likely rich merchants they could pay to get on the ship. Then once they were in Boston, they probably?like the Jews in Spain during the Inquisition?thought it best to hide their Judaism in the New World. And this kind of secrecy or assimilation isn't done out of Jewish self-loathing, but for reasons of survival.


"Anyway, the Boston Ameses, like the Spanish Jews, kept their secret so well, that over time they forgot that they were originally of the Hebrew faith, that they were children of Abraham. And so I believe that one of Boston's oldest families?the Ameses?is actually Jewish. Now George's middle name must come from his mother?in WASP families the middle name is often the mother's maiden name. So George's mother was probably an Ames, which means that she was most likely Jewish. And since one's Jewishness is passed on through the mother, George Ames Plimpton is actually a Jew!


"So ladies and gentleman, please welcome my cousin and Jewish icon, George Ames Plimpton."


Well, there was general pandemonium at Joe's Pub when I publicly outed George as a Semite. People were howling. If they had yarmulkes they would have tossed them on the stage with joy, which would have made an interesting image. Instead, they merely screamed and laughed, while George gracefully made his way through the crowd and then onto the stage, where he threw a left jab at me because he knows of my upcoming fight. I then retreated to the wings and George stood silently in front of the microphone, collecting himself and bringing the audience to the edges of their chairs. So we waited. And then stooping to the mic from his considerable height, bending at the waist in his WASP-issued blue blazer, he bowed his head and said in his great mid-Atlantic accent, "I've had some introductions in my day, but never one... Well, thanks, cuz."


And the audience roared its approval. It was all very pleasing. In one fell swoop, I had reembraced my heritage and had converted George Plimpton back into the Hebrew fold. I wasn't a shy Shylock anymore.


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