The "Penis Man"

It was February 2nd, 1979 and my best friend, Eve and I had just finished reading “Harriet the Spy”, a book about  a 10 year old girl who loved peeking into the lives of others and recording everything into her black and white bound notebook.  By February 9th each of us had our own black and white notebooks into which we poured the thoughts, observations, ideas and experiences that we 9 year olds felt merited codifying.  

“Angela uses her hairbrush in public! That’s weird,”  Eve wrote on one of her pages.  “I wonder if trees pee,” I wrote on one of mine.   We packed the notebook with important facts: “I got a new barrette.”  “ Eve and I both love peanut butter.”    “Today, the Ms. Pac Man game was broken at the store so we bought hot chocolate instead." And so on.  It was mostly excruciating minutia from the lives of the one-digited age group, but the knowledge that these tidbits were being set into written history was sensational.

We would sit by the window of my parents’ bedroom, in their New York City apartment and peer down at the passersby below in Riverside Park, making up stories about each person, their history, their destination, the way they walked and looked around. We honed our observation skills in order to find clues that would be integral to solving the mystery of why people go to the park. There was a guy with brown shoes and a yellow down jacket who walked his dog every day and never picked up the poop.  We watched him looking around to see if anyone noticed him sidestepping away from the steaming pile.  We jotted it down in our notebooks, eyeing each other with knowing spy glances.  He hadn’t escaped our elementary microscope, and if the feds came searching for the culprit who left the load of dog doo on that grassy patch,  we’d be more than happy to give them a read of page 26 date March 31st, 1979. We felt in the know, guided by intuition and eager to put together puzzle pieces that would enlighten the masses about human behavior. 

I can only imagine the surprise of my Mom, who the following autumn, while cleaning my room, took a glimpse through my secret notebook. (Yes, “secret” was emblazoned on the front in thick black marker!) and while she perused the paragraphs about Pac man, peanut butter and ignored dog poop, suddenly happened upon the word “penis”.  And on further inspection, “THE PENIS MAN”- underlined and capitalized.

6 months earlier Eve and I had ventured out into the park for a typical weekend of afternoon sleuthing with our notebooks in hand ready to scribble down each and every slightly suspicious and non- suspicious activity that we witnessed, when “He” approaches us.  He is 60, thick bodied and grey haired with black glasses and an innocuous smile.

“Do you know of a place I can change into my jogging shorts around here?” he asks us. It seems a perfectly normal question to us.  “No,” we respond, knowing that the exchange will immediately find its way into our notebooks as soon as he departs.  Perhaps there is a secret clothes changing area that we haven’t yet discovered in the park. I begin to memorize how he looks so I can accurately describe him in writing.   But our stranger continues.  “Maybe you girls could look out for me while I change in the bushes”.   A quick flash of my Dad warning me about strange men who make strange offerings to little girls, ran through my head.  Was this what he meant?  No- the men in my Dad’s scenarios were offering me candy and treats and telling me to get into their Cadillac.  This fellow simply needed to change his pants so he could get some cardio.  

Eve and I look at each other, our eyes locking in   confused innocence, and after a moment, agree.  “Ok,” we say in unison. We follow him to a bushy section of the park.  On the way there he nonchalantly asks us whether we have ever seen a man naked before.  His tone is so normal that he might as well be asking “Have you ever had ice cream?”   “Uh, no,” we giggle uncomfortably and I muse to myself, “Boy, this is definitely going in the notebook.”  
“Well,” he goes on. “I can make myself bigger just by touching myself.”  Red flag! Red flag! Red flag!  Except, when you are 9, you don’t understand red flags, you only know that things are kind of weird but you don’t know what to do about them and you are already walking towards the bushes with your hand clenched around your notebook and your Dad’s face in your mind yelping, “What are you doing?” and your mind answering, “I’m sure this is nothing, we’re just trying to help him!”.  And suddenly there we are in the bushes with this strange, bespectacled lug and his pants come down.  And out “it” comes.
Eve and I are paralyzed, petrified, intrigued, horrified, stunned, immobilized and confused all at once. This scenario doesn’t make sense.  “It” does not look like the dangling member I’ve seen when my Dad periodically walked around his bedroom naked.  This is a whole different ball game and our stranger was not kidding about his ability to change in size with a simple extra handling.  We stare silently. “Do you want to touch it?” he asks.  We shake our heads, mouths in a permanent gape. Something about it seems incredibly odd and off and yet we cannot tear ourselves away from this dramatic scene.  Time inches forward while our cemented yet vibrating legs stay rooted to the ground.  Finally, without much fanfare, the pants get buckled up and it’s done. He pulls a wrinkled dollar bill out of his pocket, smiles, offers a pat on the head and says simply, “Don’t tell your mothers.”  

We gallop back home to my parents’ apartment, dollar in hand, waving it wildly and pop into the kitchen where my Mom, ready with oatmeal cookies and milk – the appropriate thing to offer 9 year old girls -  greets us.  “We found a dollar!  we say, breathless and over eager.  “We were in the park and there was a dollar and we found it- just on the ground.  We just found it.  Look it’s a dollar!  It was on the ground and we found it!” My Mom, oblivious to anything unusual agrees to give us 4 quarters so we can split the amount, and we sit down to munch on the oatmeal treats that taste of guilt and bewilderment.

We recorded everything in our notebooks- each of us creating our own version of the scene- the words, used, who followed whom, what we had seen, how we had felt and the confusion around the motives of this stranger. One of us noted in writing, “I wonder why he never changed into his jogging shorts?”  For months, we told no one.  We knew something wrong had happened but had no way of contextualizing it.  We thought it was funny that we had seen someone’s penis and we decided to name him the only thing that felt appropriate:  “The Penis Man.  That defined him. He was, to us, essentially just a guy with a penis – no history, no background, no other reason to be in the park that day except to have a penis show it, and have us write about it.

We also thought the word “penis” was absolutely hysterical and we used it every time we had a chance.  It became a verb, an adjective and an adverb. “That person was running penisly!“  we’d screech. The more we said it, the less mysterious it was. We talked about “Him” periodically afterwards, trying to break down what had occurred saying, “Just think.  We could have been kidnapped”  “Just think.  We saw some strange guy's penis!” “Just think. If we hadn’t been in the park that day, this would have never happened.”  When we wanted to remind each other of this shared secret experience, we needed only to say “Just think” and instantly we were bonded in the same memory.  Every letter we wrote to each other that summer would end with “P.S.  Just think.”   “Camp is great.  I learned how to ride a horse! P.S. Just think.   “We went blueberry picking and my sister got stung by a bee!  P.S. Just think.”

The evening after my Mom found the notebook, she came to my room to kiss me goodnight.
“I want to talk to you about something,” she said.  I could feel my mac and cheese churning nervously in my stomach and my heart leapt to the kind of rapidity known only to me when I was playing Ms. Pac Man.  I knew instantly what she was there to discuss: “The Penis Man”.  
“I only want to talk about happy things” I stuttered.  But she would not budge.  How did she know? How did I know that she knew? Just think,”  I thought. “If I hadn’t said yes to the Penis man, we would never be having this conversation and my Mom would be just kissing me goodnight with well wishes for sweet dreams.”
“I know what you’re going to say” I mumbled and  10 year old tears started flowing, along with the story of our spying days in the park and the man with the black glasses, and the shorts that never appeared, and the truth around the crumpled dollar bill we had charged home with that day.  11 blocks away, Eve was living the same scenario - explaining thru sobs what had happened and why we had never told since we thought it was our fault, that we were foolish, and that the right thing to have done would have been to flee instead of going into a penis trance in some bushes in Riverside Park. 
We were not scolded.  We were not chastised as we had expected.  “What were you thinking?”  and “How could you have been so stupid” were the not vocabulary chosen by our omnipotent and omniscient parents.  Only “What do you think the right thing to have done might have been?” And “How are you going to make sure this never happens again?”  We each, with our respective family, verbally re-lived and re-played out that day, saying an emphatic “NO!  We are not going to come with you, Penis Man.  We need to go home and have cookies and milk”.   Hugs and kisses and tissues to dry tears were dispensed and all was well in the Purdy household. 

The following day, Eve and I, like two magnets, swooped into one another to each tell of our tale of the reveal.  The trust my mother had betrayed by reading my journal was far outweighed by the relief we both felt at no longer having to keep the Penis Man secret buried in our heads and in the Post Scripts of letters.
4th grade went back to normal, although the word “penis” remained a permanent fixture in our vernacular, and hearing the phrase “Just think”, forever jarred the memory.  The pages in our notebooks containing the details of that day in the park were torn out and thrown away to prevent any further snooping that may cast a shadow of doubt on our poor judgment.

We pinky swore to never let something  like that happen again,  to keep an eye out for strange offers and conversation from fellows we didn’t know.….Until we met… “The Belly Button Man” on the corner of 92nd street and Broadway right in front of the Baskin Robbins. 

Written in 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment