— Chapter Six: Metamorphosis —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
For the few short months that Stewart stayed with his mother’s sister and her family in Glenside, he attended third grade at the local public school. His family reunited in October, moving into a second-story flat in the same school district, so that Stewart could finish out the semester. After a troubling move from Glenside, the family’s next move was to a back-bedroom apartment in a row of homes on 13th Street in North Philadelphia, a few doors east of the house occupied by Stewart’s great-aunts Lizzie and Emma.
Stewart was then enrolled in January at the Simon Muhr school, two blocks north of the family’s small apartment.Stewart and his parents moved there after his father had one day announced a move to what proved to be a rickety rooming house in Mount Holly, New Jersey. When they arrived there the next day, the toilets were backed-up and drainage from the sink above their ground floor apartment foamed up with suds in their kitchen sink.
The family stayed there only one night before Dottie contacted her aunts for assistance. Lizzie knew of a furnished room with a kitchen for rent, three doors down from her, and so the family packed up its few belongings and took a cab to Philadelphia. Despite its small size and condition, the Littles occupied it immediately with the financial help of Dottie’s aunts.
The bedroom had two chairs, a cot, and a Murphy bed that could be pulled down at night and retracted into the wall during the day to provide places to stand or sit. The bedroom had been divided into two smaller rooms: the sleeping and living portion, and the tiny kitchen was occupied by a small stove and miniature refrigerator, as well as minimal storage space for food and utensils, which were also provided. Stewart’s cot was tucked into the bump-out for the bay window that overlooked a small garden in the rear of the building. A large round Victorian table, positioned to the right side of the room, served multiple uses, including a place for eating, writing, and playing games. When the Murphy bed was pulled down and into place, there was no room to enter or exit from any side, except from the left of the bed near the kitchen door, since all forms of entry were blocked by the cot, the chairs and the table. In order for Stewart to lie down on the cot at night, he needed to walk across the bed when it was lowered.
Stewart wasn’t unhappy living there. He was glad to be reunited with both of his parents, and his father wasn’t drinking. They had a radio, and listened to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on Sunday nights, mysteries and news about the war in Hungary and the fairy tale wedding of the actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Stewart understood that his father and mother had little money, but he always was fed lunch and dinner, as opposed to his mother, who was losing weight and growing paler each day. His father ventured out daily in search of loans to pay for the food and rent. Stewart had his American Bricks to play with, and learned from his parents how to play Rummy, Hearts, Poker and Canasta on the Murphy bed each evening using tattered decks of cards his mother had kept with her during the various moves.
On Saturday nights, Aunt Lizzie would buy the family ice cream cones from the candy store around the corner, and the old man who owned the house in which they lived would ask Stewart to run errands to the tobacco shop, from which he ordered “Uncle Jack’s candy, ”otherwise known as chewing tobacco. On each of these trips, Uncle Jack would give Stewart a nickel, which Stewart used to purchase between five and ten pieces of penny candy, depending on the type selected.
The corner grocery store was where the family got their essentials, which included a lot of spaghetti, canned peas and corn, and ham ends, which were the left-over portions of a boiled ham that couldn’t be sliced any further without risking damage to the grocer’s fingers. When the weather grew warmer, the store also offered snow cones which Stewart could purchase for a nickel, and ask for all of the flavors to be added instead of only one or two.
Stewart’s mother would walk her son back and forth to school each day; he had no homework and learned little during his classes. His teacher, though friendly and caring, taught lessons he’d already learned in second grade at Montgomery, or while enrolled in the public school in Broomall.
Stewart would often spend the entire day drawing space ships in colored pencils on his worksheet cover. He passed all of the tests, since there was nothing he hadn’t already learned, so he used his time creating various types of spacecraft based on memories he had from Space Cadet and Flash Gordon, which he watched on Saturday mornings when his family had a TV set.
During their time in North Philadelphia, Stewart’s father received a $500 bonus as an extra payment for his tour of duty in the Pacific during World War II. Though Jim had a lot of debts and owed a lot of money, he didn’t use the bonus to pay the money back, but instead bought watches from a pawn shop for the three of them, and took his family out for lunch and a movie at the Strand on Broad Street.
During their stay on 13th Street, Stewart’s father reconnected with his old friend John McCutcheon, and spun a story about Dottie’s dream of getting back to playing music, despite the fact that she hadn’t had a piano for more than two years. Stewart wasn’t part of the discussions, but apparently McCutcheon, who had always loved to hear Dottie play, stepped into their lives once more and rescued the family from impoverishment.
In July, shortly after Stewart’s ninth birthday, his father had a meeting with a talent agent who, on McCutcheon’s recommendation, took on the task of representing Dottie with the hope of placing her in clubs and other musical venues in the Philadelphia area. Jim showed up one afternoon in a used ‘53 Pontiac, and announced that the family would soon be moving to a one-bedroom apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby. Jim, somehow, had money enough for publicly photos to be taken of his wife as well as for retouching them that would lower the appearance of her age from 43 to her early mid-30s, by erasing the bones in her neck and the worry lines in her face.
The day the Littles were scheduled to move into their apartment, a crane appeared in front of the apartment complex on Radbourne Road along with a van delivering a baby grand piano that the movers unsuccessfully attempted to swing over the balcony and into the apartment.
As the truck left, with the piano still inside, Stewart’s mother burst into tears at the loss of the oversized instrument, which later was replaced by a small spinet, cautiously carried up the steps and through the door into the living room of their apartment.
In addition to the rental of the spinet and apartment, musical scores of all of the latest tunes arrived in the mail and included the latest songs such as “Que Sera, Sera” from the film The Man Who Knew Too Much, “Till There Was You,” from the play The Music Man, and “I Could Have Danced all Night” and “On the Street Where You Live”, from My Fair Lady.
Dottie had few clothes other than those she stitched herself, and none suitable to wear to an audition. She also needed gowns required for her performances. One morning, she and Jim disappeared in the Pontiac, while Stewart remained at home, alone in the apartment. While away, Dottie was fitted for a new gray suit and two new blouses, a slip, stockings, black high heels, and two new cocktail dresses, one covered by a semi-transparent overlay of black polka dots. The second gown was pale yellow with a pleated skirt that, when she tried it on at home, reminded Stewart of the Good Witch of the East in the movie The Wizard of Oz.
The Littles went to drive-in movies that summer and early fall, and took a trip to The Great White Way in New York City. The first week in September, Stewart was enrolled in the 4th grade at Stonehurst Elementary School. Dottie practiced and refreshed her repertoire of standards from the 1930s and 1940s, and expanded it to include music of a more recent vintage, as provided by the scores received by mail.
Jim remained on the wagon, as he worked closely with the agent to find appropriate venues for Dottie’s return to the spotlight, after what Jim called, “eight years due to child rearing.” Dottie joined the musicians’ union in order to perform professionally.
Finally, the evening of her triumphal premiere arrived. She was featured on the small marquee outsideTthe Driftwood Room as one of two pianists who would share the stage that evening from 6:30 until 11:00 p.m. The Driftwood Room was a cocktail lounge and restaurant at 60th and Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia. It had seen better days, but survived on a base of customers, primarily older males, who enjoyed being entertained by, and talking to, the women who performed there.
Dottie wore her yellow dress and through Stewart’s eyes looked radiant, especially since he’d rarely seen his mother made up and fashionably dressed. His father wore his only suit, with a new Arrow shirt and bow tie.
The plan was for Jim to drop Dottie off, and then return at 10:30 p.m. to pick her up. On her insistence, Jim was not to stay, since she knew he would drink while she was playing, and she didn’t want any distractions.
Unbeknownst to Dottie, her contract stated that when she wasn’t at the piano, she was to talk with guests and drink faux cocktails with them. Although there was no stipulation that she be in any way intimate with the clientele, she was expected to encourage them to buy her drinks and offer lively conversation.
Her fellow pianist, Janine, was divorced, and had been playing three nights a week at the venue for the past three years. Janine gave Dottie the rundown on the kind of subjects she could talk about with customers, as well as how Dottie should respond to inappropriate and suggestive requests encouraged by the alcohol they imbibed.
Dottie was surprised to learn that her duties extended past her performance at the keyboard, as Janine made her aware that music was only part of the reason she was hired.
“Some years back I enjoyed a bit of success in the theater and at fancy clubs. Now in my forties, I have to take whatever gigs I can, “said Janine. “I use my sense of humor, conversational abilities, and street smarts to survive, more than I do my playing. I no longer can count on my charm and pretty face to attract and hold the attention of men, so I provide sympathy and understanding, a skill I didn’t have at 25.
“Pianists are a dime a dozen,” she continued. “Most men need to feel important, especially to women. So our business is built on stroking their egos and having them return with their friends, and even their wives, as I am now a hostesses of the night, rather than a ‘cute dish’ who can play a tune.”
It had been a long time since Dottie flirted. She was a mother now, and had to deal with much greater issues than flattering men. She hated Jim’s drinking, and couldn’t imagine having to talk to drunks, outcasts, and self-important men of any kind. During her first break that evening, she called the neighbors to find out how Stewart was doing. And by the second break that evening, she realized that this career was not for her. She played until the end of the last set, and was paid, but was not requested to return. Ten percent was paid to her agent, and a portion of her take was put away for union dues. When asked by Jim how the evening went, Dottie merely answered, “I’m never doing that again.”
There was never any discussion. Jim got drunk the next evening, and kept Dottie and Stewart awake most of the night berating his wife for her spoiled upbringing and feelings of privilege, while he had put everything on the line to help her use her talents to save the family.
Jim sold the car illegally, since it had been leased by John McCutcheon, and he didn’t have the title. He was never fully paid for it, but couldn’t argue with anyone about the price because he never really owned the Pontiac. The piano remained in the apartment until the rent for it was due, and the dresses were relegated to the bedroom closet, never to be worn again. The agent, having heard from the owners about Dottie’s performance at The Driftwood Room, refused to find her another booking, and resigned. And Jim, greatly embarrassed and aware of both his failure and that of his wife, never contacted John McCutcheon again.
Dottie found a part-time job as a sales girl in a card shop in the 69th Street shopping district, and Jim borrowed money from who ever was left to believe his stories. In his spare time he read detective novels, picked up and smoked butts of cigarettes from the street, drew lewd pictures for drinks, and spent the rest of his days playing solitaire and drawing postcards for relatives, remaining friends, and anyone with whom he’d became acquainted.
Stewart had never been acquainted with a cockroach until he moved into the 13th Street apartment in North Philadelphia. There were no cockroaches in the house in Havertown and none in Broomall, or in his aunt’s house, or in the two rooms rented weekly in Glenside. That all changed when he moved into the city. Stewart was familiar with spiders, mosquitoes, ants, ticks, flies, bees, grasshoppers, butterflies and other insects he’d come across outdoors, but he’d never encountered an insect as large and as gross as a roach. His introduction to the insect occurred when Stewart was searching for some nails in a jar in the basement of the house on North 13th Street. The containers holding screws, nails, hinges and other hardware were on a shelf above the workbench where Stewart was working on a toy model of a spaceship, and when he reached up to a jar to investigate what was inside, as many as 100 of the fat black insects ran out from it and scattered across the workbench in all directions, causing Stewart to drop the jar and creeping him out enough to run up the stairs and into his apartment.
Shortly after that, his father spotted a roach on the kitchen floor and squished it with the toe of his shoe in front of Stewart. A white ooze squeezed out as the insect died and Jim wiped it up with a piece of toilet paper and threw it in the trash can. Stewart watched his father simply return to the counter and finish making a sandwich.
“What was that?” asked Stewart.
“That, my son, was a cockroach — a disgusting insect that makes its home inside walls, and feasts on crumbs of any food or garbage left around.”
“I saw some downstairs,” said Stewart. “They were in the basement when I was working on a rocket... in a glass jar filled with screws.”
“Most likely, the jars hadn’t been cleaned properly before they were used as a container,” answered Jim. “They like living in the dark, so the jar must have been kept out of the light.”
“Yes,” said Stewart. “Why haven’t I seen them before?”
“Because we’re now living in a row home in the city filled with the dirty vermin who climb along pipes and electrical lines, and make their homes between the walls of buildings wedged together. They’re not easy to kill with insecticides, and will probably take over the world, the little bastards.”
“So there are many of them here?”
“Probably more than we could possibly know. Sometimes at night I can hear them hissing after the lights are out.”
“And you’re not scared of them?” asked Stewart.
“I lived with lots worse during the war. There were huge ones in Hawaii – more than 4 inches long. But they didn’t bite and don’t carry disease, so we learned to live with them.”
“When can we move from here, Dad?”
“I’m working on it, son. Until then you’ll just have to learn to put up with them, and kill them when you can.”
One night, when Stewart and his parents returned home from dinner at Aunt Lizzie’s house, the upstairs hallway light was off and they entered the kitchen in the dark. When Dottie turned on the lights, thousands of black cockroaches scattered from around the room to safety under the sink and cabinets and into any crevice they could find. Stewart ran to his parents’ bed, which was still pulled down and crossed over to his cot, checking to see if there were any bugs in his bed. He had a difficult time sleeping that night, and woke his mother up to ask if he could leave a light on in the kitchen to keep the huge bugs away. As he ran to the kitchen he heard them hiss and as he turned on the lights, he saw them scatter.
When Stewart asked his mother about roaches, she told him that she knew of them, but never had them in her home growing up because her mother kept a clean house. “Uncle Jack can’t see well enough to keep the place clean,” she told him. “And even Aunt Lizzie and Aunt Emma have a problem with them. But they won’t hurt you.”
When they moved to Upper Darby, Stewart soon encountered a grosser type of bug, much bigger and with wings. He spotted it one night while in the bathtub, as it wriggled out, antennae first, from the overflow drain above the spigot. Stewart jumped up soaking wet and ran out of the bathroom without even a towel. Fortunately, no one else was in the home except his mother, who wondered what had chased Stewart away. When she found out, she laughed. “Yes, Stewart. Those are waterbugs, another type of roach. It seems that vermin are everywhere in my life now, along with all of the disgusting people I have to deal with.”
When they moved to the second floor of a twin on Richfield Road behind the Lit Brothers store, Stewart hoped that since they shared a twin house with only one wall separating them from their neighbor, that there would be no more roaches in his life, but he soon discovered otherwise. After hearing a rattling in a paper bag on the floor of his room, he opened it, and out popped a black roach. This type of incident became an occurrence that happened over and over again as he was opening a closet or using a bathroom, but the most disgusting encounter was a time when he was peeling potatoes for his mother and found three roaches munching inside one that he’d just picked up.
Fortunately, after moving from his parents’ home to Springfield, he never encountered a roach again until years later when traveling with his wife, Louise, on a trip to Savannah, Georgia. The couple had arrived during the day, and later were dining at a recommended restaurant along the riverfront, when Stewart visited the men’s room and spotted a large Palmetto bug climbing up the wall. He finished quickly and returned to his table, not mentioning the bug, but scanning the walls and curtains for others. Finding none, the couple finished their meal and began their walk back to the B & B where they were staying. Ascending from the river walk to the street, he noticed movement on the ground and watched as a sea of small roaches scampered across the sidewalk and parted into the darkness.
Louise barely took notice of the bugs, but a cockroach of any kind unnerved Stewart, reminding him of poverty, neglect, and lack of control he felt being invaded by the intruders in his past life.
Stewart and Louise traveled to Charleston next, and as he ran in the early morning on the walkway by the river, he sighted small roaches scurrying along the edges of the pavement. The couple’s final destination was New Orleans, a city where the ubiquitous bugs were difficult to avoid, and at that point Stewart knew it was best for him to avoid Florida and other southern states as much as possible, ever mindful of the creatures along with the life he had left behind.
Steward thought that success could keep him free of the most distasteful memories of poverty, such as the package of chicken necks his mother had the grocer split because she didn’t have enough money for the full package, and the horsemeat hamburgers that had a taste he couldn’t cover up with ketchup. The symbols were all still lurking in his subconscious until he became celebrated and successful as a cartoonist, and created a comic strip called Kafka, based on the Czech author’s novella “Metamorphosis,” in which the protagonist finds himself transformed into a giant roach.
The panels, which Stewart wrote and illustrated, ran in papers throughout America in the early 1970s. The strip’s storyline was based on current news, and often featured a roach dressed as a businessman, storekeeper, carpenter, or a member of the clergy. Stories ranged from three panels to several frames, and in each the roach tried his best to communicate his point of view, but no matter how fine he dressed, or how well-spoken, civil, honest, or correct the roach named Gregor was, the bottom line was that he always was, in fact, a cockroach.
Sometimes, Stewart drew panels containing two cockroaches talking side by side. In the cartoon, one would speak and the other would listen, until the final panel. The reader didn’t know which one spoke, or who was right and who was wrong, because they still remained cockroaches, and no one could learn from anything from a cockroach.
As did Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts, and Gary Larson’s single-paneled The Far Side, Stewart Little’s uncomfortable take on life sold well when compiled into several volumes of graphic books. The dark and brooding tales required time for the viewer/reader to fully grasp the meaning pervading each of Stewart’s tales.
Unlike most strips that continued until the creator lost interest, retired, or no longer found an audience for syndication. Stewart Little’s Kafka had maintained its following into a compilation produced by Simon and Schuster, and maintained a following past the cartoonist’s untimely death.
When asked about the book in later years, Little simply answered, “Gregor told me the tales, and I was a conduit to his tale.”
An interviewer might ask, “Yes, but you delivered a message to the world through the character you invented.”
Little responded honestly, “I know no more than you do of the mind of a cockroach. I began life as a mouse, and found my way to becoming a human. Gregor Samsa started out as a human and became a cockroach. I’m no more responsible for his transformation than he is for mine. And hopefully I’ll be able to tell my story before my time is up, as did he.”
Fortunately for Stewart Little, he had more time than Gregor did to explain himself. But as Little would often say, “Does anyone ever have enough time for that luxury?”