Taking A Walk on The Wilde Side


“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.”  So wrote the acerbic, witty and unrelenting Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892.  Wilde openly led a movement of aestheticism and public decadence in a time when sins were expected to be committed with discretion out of the public eye of a highly pious Victorian society.  The age-old struggle of good versus evil and the ensuing black comedy that resulted from every human’s double life was his central theme – one as apropos today as it was during the time of this “wicked” Irish iconoclast.

As a recovering collegiate sybarite and literary enthusiast, I have always been fascinated by Wilde.  I am drawn to his sarcasm and often rely on his wit when trying to contend with a world that judges too harshly.  While I cannot condone Wilde’s lifestyle choices, I could never disparage his genius.  Like so many great writers and contrarians, his tortured soul and conflicted contempt for what Victorian society viewed as “decency” compelled him to persistently test its boundaries.  In doing so, he sealed his own fate but left us timeless footprints in the forms of quotes, stories and plays.  Wilde might have been considered a troublesome dissident by today’s standards — constantly prodding and testing our conventions and hidden hypocrisies.  Although I wonder if Wilde was born in 1964 instead of 1854, if society would have been more forgiving — celebrating his brilliance and choosing to not be so offended by his habitual testing of the status quo.  A few gems:

  • Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, fa...
    Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated, leaning forward, left elbow resting on knee, hand to chin, holding walking stick in right hand, wearing coat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    “ A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal..” My mother called it “compulsive candor.  Wilde’s strengths taken to excess became his weakness and ultimately led to his decent into a determined frontal assault on society.  However, the truth was too tempting to not flaunt in the face of a pious England that held itself in such high esteem while choosing to conduct its venal pursuits in far off places and under the complicated cloak of class and corruption.

  • “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them more.” There is indeed power, liberation and humor in forgiveness.  Making one’s amends and stepping up to apologize for your part of a conflict defuses a situation and gives you the upper hand.  One spiritual advisor once chided me to pray for my enemies.  “Perhaps if he gets exactly what he wants, he may no longer offend you or better yet, he may actually get what is coming to him. Either way, it’s out of your hands and it takes away people’s power over you to forgive them – especially without their permission.”
  • “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seems in a society that has come to judge material gain as a yardstick for personal advancement, we have come to understand how much everything costs but have lost our ability to understand intrinsic value.  Real moral and spiritual value requires a more complex calculus of living whose numerator is one’s impact on others – the lives we change and the legacies we leave divided by the price others pay as we achieve them. Many build wealth but may not recognize the intangible deficits they accumulate over a lifetime of misguided priorities.
  • “Wisdom comes with winters.” Our emotional intelligence is forged from the difficulties we endure.  The unexpected stone thrown through the bay window of our lives often forms the foundation for stronger character and a more resilient future.  Every winter holds the promise of an ensuing spring of insights, but only if we have the humility to seek these lessons.
  • “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” We often say be careful what you wish for.  “You want to make God laugh?  Tell him your plans.”  In praying for something, perhaps we would be better served praying for strength to deal with whatever is to come our way.  Our own best thinking and resolve to get our way usually get us into a tangled mess.  Perhaps our lives are best guided by a point of reference other than ourselves.

In the end, Wilde’s determined sybaritic lifestyle – “working is the curse of the drinking classes”  where “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”) – became his undoing.  In the midst of his physical and intellectual self-indulgence and his war against the English establishment, he penned brilliant works of literature : The Importance of Being Ernest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Canterville Ghost among others.

Wilde dared to suggest that human beings are a mass of contradictions.  We must periodically remind ourselves, as mistakes are made, boundaries broken and glass shattered, that it’s all part of the human condition.  As we move back and forth along life’s continuum between self and selfless, we should never forget that no one is without fault.

Wilde paid the ultimate price by flaunting his own self-destructive behavior in the face of an unforgiving society, then publicly challenging its hypocrisy.  He was imprisoned and died penniless three years later.  His “gross indecency” led to his mortal defeat, but also opened society’s aperture to tolerance and change.  He left us as an immortal — a fire that burned too bright, too hot and became too dangerous for the conventions of his day.  

Even now, as I finish this essay and tiptoe into a darkened kitchen in search of Easter candy hidden by my wife, Wilde whispers to me, “I can resist anything but temptation”.

Wake Me When It’s Over

hibernating

“Every winter,

When the great sun has turned his face away,

The earth goes down into a vale of grief,

And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables,

Leaving her wedding-garlands to decay –

Then leaps in spring to his returning kisses”

–   Charles Kingsley

This first month of the Gregorian calendar is a time for reflection, self-flagellation and cynicism. It is the nadir of the solar year and the emotional equivalent of the basement level in the underground parking lot of life. January is named after a feckless Roman God named Janus – the God of all passages. Literally translated, he is the God of Doors and Gates. We essentially named the first month of the year after a guy who stands with a clipboard and velvet rope deciding which of us gets to go through into the new year. As jobs go on Mt Olympus, being an immortal doorman was not the best assignment.  You could be responsible for oceans like Poseiden or the underworld like Hades – where there were very good parties and no supervision. Personally, I admire the lesser known Gods like Lecheros who was the God of Greek fitness instructors.

Yet, I identify with Janus. I imagine him as class clown – overweight and acerbic sitting at the back of Zeus’ lectures as he wisecracked under his voice and passed notes to Aphrodite in hopes that she might go out on a date with him.  There were no mirrors in Janus’ house and he filled his garden with laughing hyenas.  He thought he was funny.  Perhaps after a tenth consecutive rejection from Aphrodite who was dating Apollo because he had biceps and a fast car, Janus snapped and made a flip remark about Zeus looking a little “prosperous” in his tunic.  “Has our divine father violated the laws of moderation or perhaps he has mistakenly sat on the empire of Gaul by mistake?“

The next thing he knows, Janus is passing out hand towels in the Mount Olympus executive bathroom.  After a millennia of squeezing soap into the hands of lesser Titans, Janus is finally promoted and immortalized as the Father of January responsible for the first 31 days of the year. In the Northern hemisphere, this assignment is clearly a punishment.  South of the equator, it is a pretty good gig especially January 1st in Rio.

A northern longitude January is not a time to be a mammal. As warm-blooded, propagating, card-carrying primates, we were designed to be dormant creatures in winter. It is our genetic predisposition to gorge on fatty, high carbohydrate foods, eat take out, and then root around for warm, dark places to hibernate. Some mammals choose to hibernate symbolically eschewing social engagements and hiding out under generous oversized winter clothing. Others retreat into mahogany cocoons of work.

It is a fact that our brain chemistry changes with the lack of winter light.  We become irritable and restless.  Sleep eludes us.  Our dopamine and serotonin receptors begin to flicker.  Our brains become a rolling brown out of highs and lows as we grow desperate for a 12 hour day of sun and the green grass of spring.

The first month of the year can be an endless squall line of Alberta clipper storm systems surging down from the Great Lakes that pull in moisture from the South – producing snow and myriad reasons to be lethargic.  Lethargy and self-pity are two overly maligned character defects that can turn even the most selfless among us turn into an effective whiner and complainer.  Janus intended that his month should have this effect on us. If he had to guard all doors and public bathrooms, no one was going to be very happy in his month.

He decided January would be a time for remorse, resolutions and a mounting physical and emotional pressure to change – preferably into a Greek God of War with a pimped out V12 car. It would be up to us as mere mortals to float above our weaknesses, fueled by the hot air and methane of good intentions, poor digestion and self-loathing.

A few brave souls seek to defy the laws of hibernation and embrace January.  They firmly rest their hands on their hips, throw their heads back and offer the God Janus their most indignant pirate laugh.  These mockers of the Janus own an entire super hero wardrobe of spandex, Gortex, okaytex, Underarmour, and polypro clothing.  They have snow shoes, ice axes, crampons, cross-country skis, snow skis, ice fishing shacks, snow sleds, snow mobiles and snow saws for building igloos. These hardy souls secretly want to hit a patch of black ice, skid into a ditch and use all their survival training until they are rescued and offered an opportunity to be featured on “I Shouldn’t Be Alive”. These winter-lovers are perpetually happy.   While you are scrawling “I hate winter” on the frosted mirror of your bathroom that never heats up, these psychotic winter sprites are outdoors shoveling snow or preparing for a Polar Bear plunge in Long Island Sound.

The Saxons referred to January as “Wulf-monath”, the month of the wolf.  Others considered it “the time of ice”.  The month has a bad track record in history.  Instead of just laying low, mortals feel the need to betray their natural instincts and crawl out of hibernation.  The need to get a head start on the Gregorian calendar has caused many well-intentioned world leaders to move across a denuded landscape of poor choices to attempt to influence the trajectory of a new year.

In 1644, Brit Guy Fawkes was convicted of attempting to blow up Parliament. It seems dissatisfaction with a two-party system and government waste traces its roots well beyond the 112th Congress. Fast forward to January, 1862, when the first income tax was proposed of 3% on incomes above $ 600 increasing up to 5% for incomes up to $ 10,000. I mean, really.  As if fighting the Civil War was not enough, the average American had to file their first income tax return.    In 1874, New York City annexed the Bronx.  Enough said. In 1899, the US liberated Cuba from Spain, presumably to gain access to some better public beaches.  However, they failed to outlaw bearded people wearing berets on the boardwalk which was our undoing.

Leaping ahead to 1945, January was the month where France was admitted to the United Nations to offset the heartburn of growing American hegemony.  France actually nominated Russia the following month but could not convince people that if allowed to join the UN the Russians would bathe more and only invade countries with names that ended in a vowel.

In 1946, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced he was not a God.  He was actually a pauper named Ichiro Kawasaki who had agreed to switch places with the real Emperor who was determined to abdicate his royal role to open a sushi bar in Soho.

In 1950, Ho Chi Minh began a campaign to rid the French from Indochina. Earlier in the month, President Eisenhower, suffering from a prostate infection, is misunderstood during a meeting with the coalition French President, Georges Bidault. As Bidault presses Eisenhower to renege on our commitments to Ho Chi Minh (who fought side by side with us against the Japanese) and support reintroducing French colonialism back into Vietnam, Eisenhower confides to an aide that he must go “wee”.  Bidualt is overcome with gratitude assuming the American president has just consented, saying “oui”. The rest as they say is history.

In 1959, Fidel Castro leads Cuban revolutionaries to victory over Fulgencio Batista and closes all public beaches and mafia owned casinos.  The Kennedy family fumes over unreimbursed hotel deposits and vows revenge. In 1978, The Sex Pistols performed their last concert at Winterland in San Francisco.  History as we know it, essentially ended on that January when nihilistic Sid Vicious hung up his angry guitar. A year later he was dead of an overdose.

January has its high points with the Rose Parade in Pasadena ( isn’t California in the Southern hemisphere?) We do have football playoffs, the return of the pro bowling tour and the reconvening of Congress. In between bouts of the flu and a false positive in the stock market known as the “January Effect”, mankind looks ahead to Fortunate February – a month that arrives faithfully with perfumed promises of Valentines and better days ahead.

Personally, I think we should be allowed to sleep through the entire month of January. The Northern hemisphere world be better off and we would really save on our electricity bills.  Why not just deploy the old Vonnegut “night canopies”, hibernate and wait until longer days restore our sanity and replenish the chemicals that fire our neurotransmitters. A little dopamine and a little less dopiness could make all the difference in a flat, crowded and discombobulated world.

That’s it. Hold my calls. I’m going to go lie down.

The Killing of Michael Malloy – A True Story

Profile of a Gangster
Image by ~ Phil Moore via Flickr

It was a frigid January night in 1933 Bronx, and Tony Marino’s dingy speakeasy was a warm escape for those choosing to drink away their troubles. For Marino, money was scarce and business bad. Only six months earlier in the summer of 1932, the Dow had hit an all-time depression low at 41.22. Unemployment in New York was running at 30 percent. Across the Atlantic, the National Socialists had elected a firebrand ideologue named Adolph Hitler as chancellor on promises that he would restore the country to greatness and reduce the estimated 25 percent unemployed. It was a time of despair and dark intentions.

Marino and his confederates had subsisted during these difficult times on graft, smuggling and murder. From a dimly lit corner booth, the gang that would be later labeled the Murder Trust; Marino, Joseph Murphy, a failed businessman turned bartender; Francis Pasqua, a local undertaker; Hershey Green, a New York cabbie; and Daniel Kreisberg, a local fruit vendor; spoke in low conspiratorial tones. It would be Pasqua who, momentarily distracted by a commotion at the bar as an alcoholic patron was refused further credit, would propose repeating a plan that had proved profitable a year earlier.

“Let’s take out another insurance policy on him.” He pointed to the patron who had been refused and was being summarily shoved from the bar like a broken scarecrow. “Him”; he pointed with lifeless eyes, “Malloy”.

The previous year, the five men had taken out an insurance policy on Marino’s girlfriend, a strawberry blond named Betty Carlson, who was mysteriously found dead in her apartment, stripped naked, doused with water and frozen from windows being left wide open. The coroner’s report declared cause of death to be pneumonia complicated by alcoholism. Her insurer immediately passed on a check for $800 to Mr. Marino along with his sincerest condolences.

In a period where insurable interest laws could be circumvented by a shady insurance agent or willing underwriter, the practice of murder for money held great appeal to an unimaginative group of thugs hungry for quick cash to plug the holes in their failed personal and business lives. Michael Malloy seemed the perfect victim, an unemployed fireman, a nobody – one of life’s cast offs and ne’er do wells that could disappear underneath the surface of the a dark urban ocean and not leave the slightest ripple.

Malloy had emigrated in the late 1800s from County Donegal, Ireland, seeking a better life and instead suffered a fate of unfortunate blows and disappointments so often preordained for first generation immigrants. The broken Gael was a frequent visitor to speakeasies and illegal establishments across the Bronx and chose to spend what meager earnings he made as a part-time janitor on whiskey. His alcoholism was advanced but his brogue and Irish charm still glimmered through the haze of his disease, enabling him to subsist on the kindness and amusement of patrons who would listen to Malloy regale them with tales of the old country. “They never got the best of me” was Malloy’s raspy punctuation to a colorful story.

The gang put their plan into action taking out three policies totaling more than $1,700 with the possibility of collecting double indemnity should Malloy die by accidental causes. In his advanced state of ill health, the group estimated Malloy would require no more than one week of an open tab before drinking himself to death. Marino and Murphy informed Malloy that due to stiff competition, drinks would be free for loyal patrons for one week. Each night, Malloy was only too eager to accept the house’s generosity drinking into oblivion and often passing out outside with little more than a shirt in the frigid winter night. Each morning, Malloy would miraculously return to the bar. After a week, the group became restless and decided to begin substituting anti-freeze for whiskey. Malloy downed the wood alcohol, and immediately lost consciousness. But like Lazarus, he miraculously rose from the dead, thirsty for another shot of that whiskey with a kick.

The gang was astounded at the Irishman’s resilience. They began substituting turpentine, horse liniment and finally arsenic into his beverages. Each morning, like a ghost, Malloy would stagger into the cantina anxious for a beverage and always quick to relate how the booze could not get the best of him. Marino was beginning to lose his patience and suggested they poison Malloy with rotten oysters saturated in wood alcohol. This entrée along with a sandwich laced with poisoned sardines, carpet tacks and metal shavings was offered the Irishman who engulfed the offering, bid everyone farewell and stumbled into the evening. To the delight of the Murder Trust, the next day came and went without an entrance from Michael Malloy. As they were readying their final phase of filing an insurance claim, a tired Michael Malloy walked in, apologizing for his absence and complaining of a slightly dyspeptic stomach. Pasqua and Kreisberg suggested a more drastic plan; a plan similar to the one that had succeeded in killing Marino’s girlfriend.

The gang proceeded to once again intoxicate Michael Malloy and waited until he had passed out. On a negative 14-degree bleak winter’s night, the group dragged Malloy to a nearby park, opened up his shirt and doused him with five gallons of water. His death from hypothermia was as good as guaranteed and the group awaited the news of the vagrant’s death. Instead, Malloy once again arrived at the bar, quite chipper after an invigorating evening spent sleeping rough in the park.

The group was now more than committed and the money that had seemed so certain a solution to their collective and individual problems was slipping through their fingers. They hired a professional, Tony Bastone, to assist them in tackling the seemingly indestructible Malloy. Once again, the group dragged an intoxicated Malloy out of the bar and attempted to murder him – this time propping him up in front of Green’s taxi which struck Malloy head on at 45 mph and then returned, for good measure, to run him over again.

For three weeks the group waited for a death notice that could be used as a certificate to collect on Malloy’s policies. Impatient to receive their hard earned royalties, the Trust attempted to murder another vagrant and plant papers on the body – identity papers belonging to the one and only Michael Malloy. The vagrant survived his brush with the murderers after a 55 day stay in the hospital. About this same time, Michael Malloy limped into Marino’s apologizing for his lengthy absence and sharing his terrible ordeal of a car that had tried to get the best of him.

The group had exhausted every means known to cause the accidental death of another human being. It seemed as if Michael Malloy was inhuman or possibly, immortal. As the group started to fracture in their resolve, Bastone, Pasqua and Marino took matters into their own hands and forced all the participants to drag a once again, drunken Malloy into a bedroom apartment where they succeeded in inserting a gas hose down his throat and killing him. The coroner declared the death a result of alcoholism and pneumonia. Malloy was quickly buried and the Trust began to debate over how to collect the insurance proceeds.

However, it seemed the memory of Michael Malloy would not die. While his mortal body was indeed deceased, his extraordinary resilience and the pending insurance reward began to divide his conspirators. Someone started sharing the remarkable story of the indestructible Malloy, while another murderer complained about his share of the money. The bickering escalated arousing the suspicions of the authorities. An investigation led police to the discovery of Michael Malloy’s body that was exhumed and confirmed as having been killed by inhalation of gas.

With the exception of Green, all four members of the Murder Trust went to the electric chair. Michael Malloy had found a way of rising one last time and making certain that even in death, his murderers would never get the best of him.