Friday, July 13, 2007


Marshall W. Mason, distinguished theatre director, and myself shared a good friend in our undergrad years at Northwestern: William Burns Shaw. Just recently I made contact with Marshall because of his new book on directing, and Bill came up. Marshall called him “Hume,” because they met in philosophy class.

Bill was my biology lab partner because our names started with “s.” He was not delighted, but we reached an accommodation -- he did all the focusing because I kept ramming the barrel of the microscope through the glass slides and I made all the slides because his hands were too big. In time, we became fond of each other and would meet to sit in the back of the little auditorium of Annie May Swift Hall to audit acting classes. We sat together at biology lectures so we could pass notes back and forth.

Bill’s dad wanted him to be a doctor like his father, but Bill had no interest in medicine. His solution was to aim for psychiatry and he would be well-suited for this, since his brilliant mind dwelt at the intersection of analysis and compassion. I was even more child-like in those days that I am now on the verge of old age, so I think he took a sort of parental interest in me. There was never a physical interaction but we’d go to the zoo together or get ice cream. I was a bit like a monkey raised in captivity who had been turned out in the wild and didn’t know the right signals. He tried to clue me in.

When we were seniors and it was clear our paths would diverge for life, I bought him a big black umbrella with an antler handle for him to use when he became a psychiatrist. (He didn’t. He became a professor of education law; the umbrella worked for that, too.) But I wanted to give him something else, something really extreme and unique. He’d talked about some Inca skulls recently discovered, which had small tiles glued all over them, so that’s what I decided to create.

I found a plastic reproduction of a human skull, smalti (glass, maybe a half-inch square) tiles in shades of blue, and glued the tiles on according to the bone plates we’d learned the names of in biology class. Parietal, occipital, etc. Then I smashed a Coke bottle and put jagged chunks of glass in the eyeholes, painted the teeth silver, and put a graduation card between the spring-loaded jaws. I thought it was quite splendid.

In a summer rain (a Hopi might call it a “female rain”) on a Sunday afternoon I set out to deliver my object in person. I knew where Bill lived -- I’d done a bit of stalking. Went up the back stairs, waited for someone to come out, went in and knocked on his door. No one there. His door wasn’t locked so I entered and set the skull on his desk. Then, accurately feeling I was trespassing, I went plopping down the wet stairs in my big yellow oiled slicker and rubber flip-flops and started down the cobbled alley like a great big baby duck.

Heard running behind me so got over to the side to be out of the way. Elbow hooked over my neck. Dragged along. Realized some black man reeking of moonshine had grabbed me. Never thought of rape. Some hostile, malajusted person who didn’t realize who I was. Tried to knee him in the crotch, but I’d never practiced such a move and it’s not easy wearing flip-flops on cobbles anyway. Struggled and shouted, “Help, help, help!” He started to strangle me and I was blacking out. His finger was in my mouth and I bit it hard, but then I let up -- I didn’t want to bite his finger off.

A scrawny black cat came and walked in circles around us, meowing loudly. Remembering an article I’d read, with the last of my breath, I screamed, “Fire, fire fire!” The man, quite drunk, looked around for flames, which meant I could breathe and anyway he was out-of-breath, too, so we were leaning on each other, panting. Then I played my last card, “Bill, Bill, Bill!”

Some men came out of a garage that backed onto the alley and yelled. The drunk took off. The men came to see if I were hurt and I explained. “Do you think I should call the police?” I asked them. They thought I should. The cat left, then Bill came, and I explained again. We called from his room. More explaining.

The police kept looking sideways at the blue skull. It turned out I’d gotten it all wrong anyway. The remarkableness of the Inca discoveries was that they had glued on their tiles in straight lines, ignoring the natural bone divisions. They asked me to come down to the station and look at the mug files and Bill came along. The police didn’t ask what our relationship was.

The files were in big photo albums. They must have given us the sex offenders. The officer assigned kept asking me whether the man had “touched me.” If he did, I never would have known through that long stiff slicker. Pretty soon they brought in a black man in a red shirt with long scratches down his face. I couldn’t identify him. My glasses had been knocked off early on. The officer was disappointed but also aware that graduation was in a few days and I wouldn’t be around to press charges and anyway, what would be the charge? Minor assault. Disorderly conduct. The men from the garage couldn’t identify him either. If I HAD bitten off his finger, we’d know who he was.

What impressed Bill and I was that in those days they picked up gay men in public bathrooms and we recognized some professors. Such things had not really been in our consciousness before -- it was 1961. We had gay classmates but in the theatre department no one cared. Both of us felt the injustice of draconian punishment for human need.

But the case that stuck with both of us, that we talked about later, was an old demented woman who was repeatedly arrested at the El station for pulling her dress up over her head. She wore nothing underneath. She’d be arrested, booked, and released to the custody of someone until she showed up the next time. Either there was no cure or no one knew how to get it to her.

How to manage an orderly society that is protective at the same time? No real answers. I’ve tried teaching on an Indian reservation, working with animal control, serving in the liberal ministry, working for a city bureau of buildings -- all of these raised more questions than answers. Bill died young of a brain tumor or I’d call him up and see what he thinks now that we’re older and therefore supposed to be wiser. He had married Jean -- his high school sweetheart -- taught at Ole Miss, and had a scholarship named for him when he died. He had the two kids he told Marshall he wanted.

I wonder what ever happened to that blue and silver skull with the clenched jaw.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder too.
Fascinating vignette.