TWO WEEKS AFTER HIS FORTIETH BIRTHDAY, Electricman still feels cheerful on the surface, dark and edgy underneath. Things seem to be going all right in both halves of his odd life, but he knows that “seem” is the only accurate verb for that sentence: if things really were all right, he would not experience these odd waves of panic and despair that boil up, unpredictably, from some hidden source felt to be more or less infinite. He knows of course that he is undergoing a mid-life crisis, a common, if not ritual, passage for men of his age. Upon entering their fourth decade, males, at least American males, tend go into mourning for what is suddenly perceived as their (cruelly) vanished youth and exhibit their (largely unconscious) grief by reverting to the patterns of adolescence: increased indulgence in drugs and alcohol, and frantic skirt-chasing. Many of the afflicted neglect their jobs and suffer the shock of abrupt unemployment.
Electricman has not yet reached this pass, in either half of his life. As Arthur Groom, he continues to fulfil, however grudgingly, his duties as author of “Don’t Ask Arthur,” an advice column published in an alternative weekly located in the East Village and syndicated in hundreds of journals throughout the country. That he can produce his advice column from his apartment on West End Avenue greatly facilitates that side of his life in which he is obliged to shuck his clothing, slip into a hooded, skintight outfit of black Spandex emblazoned front and back with a yellow lightning-bolt, dive into the nearest electrical outlet, fly through an immense nightwork of wires to pop out of a wall or a transformer convenient to a crime scene, and make hay with the perps, thereby rescuing the grateful victim. The obligation to become Electricman descended upon Arthur at the age of nineteen, when during a rain-drenched family picnic on the outskirts of his home town of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, he wandered disaffected beneath a giant oak to guzzle Gatorade he had previously spiked with Daddy Groom’s Smirnoff Platinum. A lightning bolt made smoke dribble from his ears and turned his eyes buttercup yellow. When taken home, he slept for three days straight and on the fourth day discovered, neatly folded beneath his pillow, the Spandex cat-suit he has worn ever since.
“Don’t Ask Arthur,” frankly, has become a bore. Once, getting paid for telling young men that their girlfriends sounded much too good to abandon and young women that their boyfriends sounded like manipulative creeps had satisfied something within Arthur, perhaps the same desire for order expressed more physically in his Electricman work. Whupping the malefactors and accepting the embraces of rescued damozels could never really lose its appeal, but of late it has become tediously repetitious, almost as much so as his column. When information of a crime in progress leaks from a nearby electrical outlet and awaken his Electricman-senses, he sighs, “Oh, hell, not again ñ mug, mug, mug, but at least it’s better than advising Larchmont Tiffany to dump two-timing Scarsdale Harry.”
In his unhappiness, Electricman has taken to wearing his superhero outfit throughout most of the day, even when he goes over to Broadway to buy a salami-and-swiss on a Kaiser roll, or to wander through a museum. It makes him feel better, it bucks him up ñ besides that, girls, even those who loiter in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, like a man in uniform.
“So you can sort of pick the crimes you want to foil?” asks Janet Hale, a very pretty example of the sort of young woman to be found loitering in the Met’s galleries. She and Electricman are having tea in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel, a place where Electricman can relax, uninterrupted by autograph-seekers.
“Oh, for sure,” says Electricman. “Otherwise, my life would be a nightmare. You have no idea what comes down through the wires. Hour after hour, day by day. Rapes, burglaries, hold-ups, arson. Assaults with Intent. Jury tampering. Mail Fraud. Coupon forgery. It never stops, not for a second.”
Now Janet Hale looks stricken by the sheer quantity of wickedness going on in New York. “Maybe you should think about moving somewhere smaller. You’d still be able to fight crime, there just wouldn’t be so much of it.”
Electricman sips his Darjeeling and appears to consider her suggestion. “Just out of curiosity, what do you like to read?”
“Lots of stuff, I guess.” She glanced up at the ceiling. “Don DeLillo and Donald Westlake. I read John Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach and Louise Gluck. Umm, who else? WellÖ Joyce Carol Oates, Henry James, Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, George Pelicanos, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, where are you from?” he asks her.
“Grand Rapids. Michigan. I moved here five years ago, right after I graduated from Ann Arbor.”
“Because you had to live here. Didn’t you feel that? I do. I think I could only find you, or someone like you, here in New York.”
“Ah,” says pretty Janet Hale.
“Here’s something else. Last week, I went out on two different nights, to two different clubs. Thursday, I went to this place called Smoke, a little jazz club on 106th and Broadway. In Smoke, people don’t give a damn if you’re a superhero, they’re too hip. It might be the best jazz club in New York. I heard a tenor player named Eric Alexander. He has a big, fat sound and great technique ñ he knows every single thing you can do with a tenor saxophone, and he always makes beautiful, exciting music. It’s like listening to a young Sonny Stitt, or a young Dexter Gordon. Then on Saturday night, I went down to the Mercury Lounge, on Houston. The people there thought I was wearing a costume, so they didn’t give a damn, either. I went to hear Future Bible Heroes, whose leader is an amazing genius named Stephin Merritt. It’s like chamber pop, or something ñ exquisite songs with weird, quirky rhymes and gorgeous melodies.”
“I begin to see the point,” says Janet. “Actually, I’m crazy about Eric Alexander and Stephin Merrit, too. But right now, I’m getting into Neil Halstead, Bangs, and that trumpet player, Dave Douglas. Do you know him?”
“Not yet,” Electricman says. “But I will, I promise you. Would you do me a favor?”
“I’d like you to call me Arthur,” he says. “I’m starting to feel a little more integrated than I have been lately. “ He signalled to a waiter. “How about walking over to the Frick? It isn’t far, and we could look at the Bellini St. Francis.”
“And that Rembrandt self-portrait,” Janet says, wonderfully.
“You know,” Electricman says, “I really am beginning to feel much better.”