Pinocchio in Port Authority

By Bruce Benderson

There are those boys-to-men whose slightened look seems built in, permanent. Are they beautiful through the sheer fact that they've been thwarted? With lithe, curtailed limbs and a taste for shiny, tailored clothes, they resemble jockeys. But when their heart-shaped faces are pinched by too many sleepless nights on the street, their wiry bodies take on a shrunken look. It is then one realizes that their delectable slightness may be the result of early drug use or their mother's own libidinal activities during pregnancy.

Such a creature was Pinocchio, marked by inheritance to serve pleasure. His only known biological parent—his mom—was a homeless rape victim, caught in a park and taken against a tree. The foster parent who'd tried to raise him before he ran away was an old Jewish bookbinder who'd been thrown out of a Soho loft to make room for an artist cum investor.  

Playland, a video arcade of jingling games, digitized grunts and groans, became the truant place where Pinocchio and his runaway friends passed the time and plied their wares. With the good nature of those people who have no attention span, Pinocchio attracted his fair share of admirers. He wore silky tank tops over miniature muscles with gleaming gold jewelry on his satiny patina, against which the daddies never tired polishing their voracious, slippery tongues. He also had a rakish grin. But his unreliability earned him some enemies that resulted in a growing number of gouges and nicks on his splintery rib cage. Needle marks and knife blades then marred the polished blandness of Pinocchio's underdeveloped looks. As times grew bad, his oversized pants slipped half-way down his nonexistent buttocks while his big aluminum elbow joints of a sallow color poked from his ripped sweatshirt.  

One day the most near-sighted and bloated of Old Fags came into Playland to beg. His dried-out pate was pitifully plastered over a greasy forehead. "Take pity on a man who has wasted his years and come back with me to my little Bowery room for a pittance," begged he. 

Pinocchio's pinpoint eyes sparkled with the fun of having caused such a sweet, needy reaction. "I'll go anywhere with you for a slice of pizza piping hot and a new, smooth twenty dollar bill," he said brightly. 

The Old Fag waddled discreetly to the door ahead of the giggly puppet. This was because a passing policeman could have been very disturbed at the sight of such an obvious couple leaving the palace of pleasure.

Out on the street Pinocchio's ebullient impatience made him skip in circles around the lumbering john. They made their way toward the subway past Pinocchio's cronies—runaways and petty thieves lounging against the grimy walls of the avenue. The thought that he had the power to throw some happiness unconcernedly the old whale's way made Pinocchio sparkle with celebration. He flashed gallant grins at the filmy coke-bottle lenses of the trick, but from time to time also sneaked mischievous glances to his lounging buddies, who all snickered at the sight of such an old bag of moldy jelly wheezing along next to the clattering legs of a young, brave marionette.

The Old Fag's room was just as decrepit as he was. Next to a lumpy mattress was a scratched desk and some tattered notebooks. And next to the notebooks was an old-fashioned ballpoint with a barrel made not of plastic but of some kind of metal. 

Pinocchio gave a cursory glance at an open page of one of the notebooks. Although he could not read very well, he was able to make out the title, which was, "How a Puppet Became a Real Boy." Writers, who were often failures, made Pinocchio bored and uneasy. Like a leaf, he floated away from the drudgeful writing and onto the mattress, surprised that even his negligent weight made the springs creak. His pointed face with its hard lines still held its rakish smile, for he feared not the greasy touch of the failure's lips on his little wooden knob. It had long ago become permanently stiff and practically insensitive, so used was he to poking it into slots that would yield some profit. 

Pinocchio fixed his eyes out the window on a fleecy white cloud scudding across the blue sky. He was sweetly oblivious to the drool leaking over his hard little thighs. That whimsical generosity that he had been born with made him hope that the Old Fag was experiencing pleasure. But then the trick did the one thing Pinocchio couldn't tolerate. With the nubs of his blunt, ink-stained fingers he began to fiddle with Pinocchio's hinges.

"Hold off, just a minute," said Pinocchio pulling back the head of the trick with his own splintery hand. "Those are not rust-proof hinges. As you can see, they are built in to protect them from the rain. I told you I did just about everything, but that's one thing I won't. I can't stand to be handled at my knees, ankles, wrists, elbows or other hinged places. It gives me a creepy feeling as if somebody were messing with my insides." 

He who had seemed humble and needy before now became overbearing and greedy. With his much greater weight he attempted to bend poor Pinocchio's legs over his shoulders so that he could lick the metal hinges that attached his thighs to his hardwood buttocks. But all the hinges in Pinocchio's body slammed straight with the force of a rattrap and the tips of the man's fingers, as well as the tip of his tongue, were nearly severed. 

The man sat up and pressed his throbbing fingertip against a forearm, and his bleeding tongue tip against compressed lips. The puppet had paled with rage and was almost the color of unfinished pine. "You've made a big mistake," said the Old Fag, talking like someone balancing a hot potato in his mouth. "Though I wasn't devoid of desire I was also well-meaning. You're a sad wooden thing that never really gets to be genuine. Consequently, you are doomed to repeat the same mistakes for the rest of your life. But by opening yourself to your own feelings and treating others with the tenderness for which you so secretly long, you might one day become a real boy!" 

"I'm realer than you'll ever be!" shouted Pinocchio. As soon as his lie had crossed his lips, his little nose, which up until then had resembled a smooth wooden button, grew. It became so big it could only have been the nose of some rare creature, an anteater perhaps, until finally it was so long and so big that it reached halfway across the room. And it was perfectly cylindrical-- like a Ninja chuck. Whereupon Pinocchio, panicking, began to whirl, and his long wooden nose struck the Old Fag a rude blow in the temple. 

The man's eyes bugged out, and he slid off the bed in a slump. When he did, Pinocchio's face, which had grown harder than mahogany, glared with triumph. 

"I was lying," he crowed, "for I've never been real and see no sense in ever being that. Real people must die, but wood is already dead and if it's well kept will last practically forever."

As soon as he told the truth, Pinocchio's nose shrank back to normal. However, it is likely the man did not have the chance to hear his words or see the nose shrink because he had already passed away. Pinocchio looked quickly around the room, realizing that now no one could stop him from stealing. There wasn't much, unfortunately, not even a shade on the window. He wondered if he should take the notebook with the writing entitled, "How a Puppet Became a Real Boy." He stared at the scratches on the page, but they just blurred his glass eyes. And besides, it must have been a very boring story. What self-respecting puppet would ever want to become a sappy boy? 

As for money, in the man's clothes and in his drawers was not even the twenty dollars he had promised, so Pinocchio grabbed the old ballpoint. He had suddenly thought that its metal barrel might make a good pipe. Off he skipped on his merry way, unscrewing the barrel of the pen and tooting on it in triumph, for although he had gained little from the encounter, he had his nose back and that was something to be glad about.

It wasn't long before the rumor spread throughout Playland that the police were looking for a notched, nicked, nasty puppet, last seen with a derelict whose carcass had been found rotting in a dismal Bowery hotel. Pinocchio almost went mad with worry. He couldn't go back to Playland because they were sure to look for him there. 

Before long he came to a large structure with a vast open mouth. It looked like a giant fish—a whale—with its baleens bared for feeding. And indeed, hundreds of figures, some that looked almost as important as minnows and others that seemed as insignificant as microscopic particles of plankton, were inhaled through these openings, while others seemed to be vomited out. This great fish's hunger must have been insatiable, for the eating and vomiting was continual. Pinocchio soon learned that the giant fish was really a building known as the Port Authority, and it contained all manner of men and beasts in its bowels. Some remained in it forever because they couldn't find their way out. No one, reasoned Pinocchio, will discover me here, for the stew of creatures is just too thick and perplexing. I'll lose myself on the staircases and in the restrooms.

Pinocchio let himself be sucked through the huge mouth-like entrance and buffeted about by the streaming crowds, and it was a pleasurable feeling. But since he was a puppet of cured wood, he kept one predatory eye always open. One day, as he stood at the urinal holding his wooden knob, he was struck by an image of wealth in the opposite mirror. It was a tall, elegant individual in a dark suit, holding a briefcase. The individual’s skin had a heavenly or deathly bluish cast, and what was even stranger was that his hair was blue, too. From his eyes, which seemed glazed, floated a kind look of renunciation.

Pinocchio didn't know it, but this was the Blue Fairy. The Blue Fairy had been lithe and attractive just a few months before and had loved every kind of pleasure—dinner parties and clubs, sex and leather. Then a spell had begun to transform him into an unwell, emaciated figure. But there was a look of purity to his ravaged body. In fact, it seemed worn and polished down into simple, elongated curves, much like Pinocchio's. 

Pinocchio was very attracted to the Blue Fairy and very excited to be standing next to him. Without looking down at Pinocchio's thing, the Blue Fairy glanced at Pinocchio and smiled sweetly. He wore a suit of such a perfect cut that Pinocchio was sure he must have lots of money.

Actually, the Blue Fairy was just as taken by the little puppet whose wooden knob stuck straight out toward the urinal but from which no liquid streamed. How wonderful, thought he to himself, to be made of wood and never have to worry about changing. And should you be reduced to splinters or even used as kindling, I bet it wouldn't hurt at all. For by then everything hurt the Blue Fairy. His legs ached dully and sometimes felt like they were made of wood, and his feet always felt like hot, streaming sand or a swarm of angry bees, and when he moved his jaw it felt creaky as if it were set on broken hinges. 

Before long Pinocchio sat in the Blue Fairy's penthouse and learned that he had been a stockbroker and still had a large bank account and very good disability and medical insurance. Weeks after that day, Pinocchio was still sitting there. He passed the time watching all kinds of cable stations on the big color TV. But sometimes he grew tired of this and his dry eyes ached because no one had given him lids and he could not close them no matter how tired he was. He even smashed the TV once, but the Blue Fairy shrugged it off as a tantrum and bought another. At other times, Pinocchio filled the big sunken tub in the bathroom with gallons of water and lots of bubbles. Then he would float on top of the water without sinking, like a piece of wood, staring—unblinkingly, of course—at the ceiling. 

As tired as Pinocchio became of the cable TV and the big tub, he stayed inside because he was afraid the police would be looking for him. The Blue Fairy, who didn't feel that well, began staying in more and more, too. Occasionally, the Blue Fairy asked Pinocchio to get on the bed. Then the Blue Fairy would slowly remove the clothes from his own emaciated body with its polished blue vellum skin. Pinocchio would wriggle out of his tiny undershorts. The Blue Fairy's bony pelvis would clink against Pinocchio's beveled wooden hips. Their heads would bump lightly against each other and sound like someone knocking on the door, and the experience would really be quite pleasant.  

         

In truth, blank, insensible surfaces often long for decoration, in hopes of raising their status, which is probably the reason why Pinocchio soon began to yearn for a gold tooth. He had always fancied one to set off the polished sheen of his little heart-shaped face and its surly wooden mouth. He wanted it right in front, where everyone could see it. Unfortunately, the Blue Fairy thought that Pinocchio was already hard and durable and shiny enough, and as he got sicker he was beginning to wish for something softer and more enveloping; so he refused to get Pinocchio the tooth. This led to terrible fights that exhausted the Blue Fairy and left Pinocchio pouting.

Then, one day, the Blue Fairy went out. As soon as Pinocchio heard the key turn in the lock, he leapt from the couch and began rifling through the Blue Fairy's drawers. And since he thought the Blue Fairy would be very angry this time and would never forgive him, he took all the money he could find. 

He ran to a jewelry store run by Chinese people in Times Square, which was still Old Times Square and no longer attracted many tourists. In the window gleamed a gold cap with a small diamond embedded in the center. The gold was very yellow, and the diamond glared brighter than a mirror. Pinocchio almost chipped his nose as he pressed closer to see and it bumped against the glass. He pointed to the gold cap and the Chinese man motioned him into the store. When Pinocchio had given the man half his money, the man took a large file and began shaving Pinocchio's upper front tooth away. 

Pinocchio's mouth filled with saw dust, and he was afraid he would choke to death. Finally, the man held up a mirror to show that there was a little wooden stub where Pinocchio's front tooth had been. Then the man took the gold cap with the diamond and slid it over the stump and clamped it tight by twisting it with a large pair of pliers that sent sparks flashing through Pinocchio's brain.

*

The next few days were a blur of pleasure as he paraded through his old haunts with the gold tooth always showing. He even got the courage to go back to Playland. No one, he thought, would identify him as the bad puppet now that he had the new tooth. The gold tooth was so spectacular that it made him look like a real person. And he was sure that people would pay much more to be with someone they thought was real, a realization that made him chuckle about his bright future.

In just a few days, the rest of the money was gone. Pinocchio still had the gold tooth, but his clothes were beginning to look rumpled. What was even more distressing was the fact that he had been trapped in the rain for a whole day. His shins and forearms were beginning to feel stiff, probably because of warping, and his joints made a creaking sound. The next day a whole gang of giant rats from the subway who had watched Pinocchio boast about his gold tooth and wanted it chased him down the Up escalator at inside the whale called Port Authority. The little puppet with the warped shins stumbled and went rolling down the escalator stairs with a crash. His head struck the railing, and the tooth popped out. One of the rats snatched it up and off they scrambled.

From then on, Pinocchio looked like a little puppet with a dizzy smile and a dark gap in his mouth. He never grew any bigger. Everyone knew he was a puppet, stick-limbed as he had become. What's more, his warped shins and forearms made him move in a jerky way that some found charming but others thought was a bit pitiful and robotic. Now and then he remembered the manuscript that the man in the Bowery had been writing and wondered what it might be like to be a real boy. But he thought of the possibility less and less. Thus, little Pinocchio found his calling early in life. Even as he neared twenty-eight, he was still stuck mimicking the charm of the wobbly-headed playmate, easily influenced yet unpredictable, accommodating yet wooden.

 

If this story has made you a bit squeamish, recall that those born in misfortune and toughened by hard luck endure with little complaint levels of suffering that to most are unimaginable. Theirs is the blank smile of constant hardship, unmitigated by others' pity and destined to repetition. Some become entertainers, because little wooden faces branded with sparkling eyes and shiny lips have been marketed as playthings through the ages. For a surprisingly long time, their noses and other aggressive appendages merely grow stronger and more insensitive the more they are abused.

 

Novelist, translator, and essayist Bruce Benderson is the author of a memoir, The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, winner of France’s prestigious Prix de Flore in French translation, Pacific Agony, and numerous works of fiction.