Thursday, October 1, 2009

For the Love of Comics #02: How Harvey Pekar Got Me Laid

Words & Picture: Seth Kushner

I met her in front of the Sunshine Theater on East Houston Street. I waited beside the poster of Paul Giamatti channeling Harvey Pekar when she arrived and it took me a moment to recognize her. I've often had difficulty recognizing women who I've met only once or twice. I find women can style their hair differently, or use more or less make-up, sometimes altering their appearance dramatically. I've been approached at parties by women who clearly knew me, yet whose identities were mysteries to me. I'm quite sure the same thing has happened to Harvey Pekar, the subject of the evening's film. The girl was attractive enough, and if the beer and darkness of the bar where we last met hadn't affected my perception, I would have been perfectly satisfied with the young woman who had greeted me with a warm embrace, but instead, I was a just a tad disappointed. She was on the smaller side, with a short, boyish haircut with a hint of Tatum O'Neil (circa Bad News Bears). She wore a pink polo shirt, and blue jeans, which were on the snug side, as I perceived her to be a bit bottom-heavy. Still, I found her attractive and was looking forward to the date.

I was just familiar enough with Harvey Pekar’s work to be able to discuss it with enough insight to at least mildly impress her, I figured. She, although not a comics fan, was an artist and seemed to have a healthy enough respect for the form. I had been on one date with her the previous week and though inebriated by date’s end, my memory told me she was attractive enough, interesting enough, and smart enough for it to be in my best interests to pursue her further. To put it all in perspective, this was a time in my life when I was dating a lot. A LOT. I had been badly dumped by a girl a year and a half earlier, and I was still six months away from meeting the woman who would eventually become my wife. I was far enough into my dating career that I knew when I called her for the second date that I should have something in mind to propose which would somehow cast me in a positive light. I remembered that American Splendor was opening that week and I thought – perfect! I would be stacking the deck in my favor. This was comics, I reasoned – I’ll come off as knowledgeable, and she’ll be impressed.

I hadn’t read much American Splendor at the time, but I had one of the collections, so I was way ahead of her. Also, I felt a sort of a kinship with Harvey Pekar, and I’m referring to something beyond just being a sometime schmucky Jew. In some of Harvey’s earlier stuff, chronicling the period of his life between his divorce from his wife and his meeting Joyce, he goes into detail about his depression over being alone and his trouble meeting women. I was in a similar place. Yes, I was dating plenty, but mostly without much luck. First dates were plentiful, but second dates were few and far between, and sex was something rare as the Dodo to me. So, I was hoping Harvey would help me find some success.

I had a fine time at the movies with her. It helped, of course, that the film was excellent. I drove her home afterwards and the fifteen-minute ride to her place was the perfect opportunity for me to impress her.

“What did you think about the film?” I asked.

“I really enjoyed it,” she said.

“Yeah, it was a great interpretation of Pekar’s work,” I said.

“Oh, do you read many comics,” she asked.

“Some,” I said, lying.

“I read Archie when I was little,” she said.

“I read lots of indie comics,” I said, neglecting to mention all of the Superhero books I obsessively buy every Wednesday.

“So, what’s the American Splendor comic book like?” she asked.

“Very similar to the film,” I said. “You see, Harvey Pekar is an important figure in comics because he was really the first one to write about his everyday, mundane life,” I said. “He’s the everyman, an imperfect human being the rest of us can all relate with.”

“That’s true – it’s interesting how he just decided to write comic books about his life, because really, anyone can do it, but not everyone does,” she said.

“Right, his brilliance is in believing he could do it, and in selecting the moments of his life to write about, and in the simplicity of how he tells these slice-of-life stories,” I said as we pulled up to her graffiti smeared building located in an industrial Williamsburg alley.

“Yeah, that’s interesting,” she said.

“One thing I learned in art school is that art can be whatever you chose to put a frame around,” I said.

“That’s very true. Do you want to come in?” she asked.

“Sure.” I said, trying to sound casual.

She lived in a converted loft space with four roommates. She took me into her room, which was a small, makeshift space with art supplies, book and CD’s strewn everywhere. It looked not unlike Harvey’s place, I thought. The only light came from a bare bulb inside one of those metal bowls that you would get at a hardware store. We sat down on the bed and talked for a few minutes, she about her art, and me about mine. Soon, I caught her giving me that look; the one that says a girl wants you. I hadn’t seen it that often, but I recognized it from the movies. I leaned in across her bed to kiss her, and she hurriedly moved in to meet me. She was the aggressor, so this was going exactly the opposite of pretty much all my other dates, and for a moment I forgot who I was.

I was a little disturbed by the speed of the events and on one hand wanted to ask her to slow down, but on the other, I didn’t want to blow it, (what would Harvey have done?) so things progressed until I was distracted by the sound of one of her roommates coming in the front door with her date. They were talking loudly. I asked the only partially clothed young lady who was lying on top of me if she would put some music on.

“Sure, what would you like to hear?” she asked as she crossed the room to her stereo. I finally got a good look at her then, as her hardware store lamp was pointed at the side of the room where she now stood and acted as a spotlight. She was in no way unattractive, but, as I said, I found her a bit bottom-heavy, which could come off as an unflattering comment in that it possibly portrays me as a superficial twit – which I might have been a bit of at the time and perhaps that might have been at least part of the reason for my dry spell. But, she looked at least somewhat like a girl from an R. Crumb drawing, and since Crumb featured so prominently in the film, I decided to it all made sense in the context of the evening. “How about some Jazz,” I suggested, again keeping things in the realm of Harvey.

She found something appropriate and bounded out of the spotlight and back to the shadows where I was lying and we continued what we had started.

As at least half a gentleman, I will refrain from sharing the salacious details of what had transpired, except to say that is was a less than stellar experience. It was ruined for me by several things, most especially by an issue of hygiene, which had turned me off to the point where my performance was far below that of even a Mexican soap opera actor. I, of course, assumed that the said (or mostly unsaid) issue was one that would not have stopped Harvey, as he is from a different generation and most likely not accustomed to the same modern grooming habits as I, though I could have been completely pulling that from thin air.

After it was all over and done with, she told me I was “wonderful," but I knew that she must have felt as awkward as I, and was just being kind to cover up the reality of the situation. I wanted to leave, but felt obligated to lay with her for a while, although I don’t know if that was something she expected or wanted. While in her bed, I found myself staring up at the ceiling. Because all the rooms in this loft were makeshift, part of the ceiling to her room was made of Plexiglas, like a skylight. Instead of sky though, I could see into the room above us. On top of the glass, rested a big dark box, and there were lines of what looked like dried red paint dripping from the box and across the glass. Looking to break the silence, and with nothing else in mind to say, I came up with the following –

"Are the bodies of the previous guys you did this with up there?"

Yes, that is actually what I said. As the words left my mouth, I knew it was stupid.

"Uh, no," she answered, sounding completely un-amused. What did I expect? It was a dumb comment and one that I’m sure even Harvey Pekar himself would not have uttered anything even remotely like.

I never wanted to be the kind of guy to never call again, but after the events of that night, I couldn’t see her, and I would imagine she felt the same. But looking back on it, I can’t help but think that Harvey Pekar had helped get me laid. True, it wasn’t a night of amazing carnal desire with the girl of my dreams in an exotic location. But, it was Harvey Pekar– America’s great curmudgeonly, working-class intellectual, hero and documenter of the ordinary – who was as my sexual cupid. What did I expect? My American Splendor turned out to be a night of imperfections, foibles and well, raw humanity.

Not completely unlike a Harvey Pekar comic.