Red Butterfly
  • Non-Fiction
  • Essay

Word Crazy

When I was a kid, my idea of paradise was to read all day long. Whenever someone interrupted my reading, I would get as irritated as a nicotine junkie jonesing for a cigarette. I was addicted. As soon as I woke up, I'd reach for whatever book or magazine was on the night table. If my grandparents allowed it, I never had a meal without cracking the spine of a book. (They usually forbade this, though.)

I don't want to give the impression that I was an intellectual. In fact, a large bulk of my reading material was literally trash: discarded fortune cookies, Bazooka Joe wrappers, labels, cereal boxes, signs, magazine fliers, aspirin bottles. A box of colored pencils made me happy, both because I liked to draw and because of the exotic hues: Ochre, Brick, Aquamarine, Ultramarine, Mulberry, Sienna.

I was ravenous for words, couldn't sit still without seeking them. I was especially fascinated by names or phrases that could be turned into titles. My Barbies had a long list of fascinating monikers, none of which I can remember now but all of which would've impressed any soap opera writer. While I walked the dog, I would invent all sorts of titles and run them over in my mind, the way other kids savored hard candy. I'd read a sign, say, "Park Closes at Twilight" and my heart would thump in my chest. "'Closes at Twilight' Sounds like the title to a depressing play. Fantastic!" I'd rejoice as I concocted an appropriately suicidal plot. What actually happened in the story was beside the point, though. Mostly I liked the sound of certain phrases and would whisper them aloud until the words became as meaningless and musical as a scat singer's warbling.

This habit followed me into adulthood when I began to take public transportation. The names of certain subway stops, highway exits, and streets sent me spinning into fantasy: Vernon-Jackson (on the 7) would be a smooth detective, an amalgam of Charlie Parker and Humphrey Bogart; Meeker-Morgan (off the BQE) was the typical good-looking all-American boy who was too modest to realize that the girl was pining for him; and Snedeker (a street that I discovered when getting out at the Smith-9th Street stop on the F), was there a better name for a villain than Snedeker? The more bombastic the soubriquet, the more inspired I felt. To me, naming a child Mary or John was as senselessly puritanical as refusing to cook with salt.

By my mid-20s, I began to plumb for meaning. I studied the names of past friends and lovers the way an English lit student regards those of fictional characters. Sometimes I had to turn to other languages. It made perfect sense to me that a boyfriend whose last name was Hieb -- Dutch for "punch", the swift kind you take to the stomach --was particularly adept at wreaking havoc wherever he went. A roommate by the last name of Luehrs charmed everyone in my group, only to skip out on rent and slander me to my best friend. I only wish my own last name had a more florid meaning than "short". And forget my first name, which sounds like "bitterness unto me" in Hebrew. I'd change it if it weren't for the fact that, given its rarity, it's got sentimental value.

God being a master ironist, now that I'm unemployed and have plenty of time to read alone all day, I am no longer famished for text. Instead, I often sit back and stare at my ceiling for hours. Blankness can be quite refreshing.

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