May 12, 2013

We Have nothing to Fear but that Phantom in the Basement and Garden Hose


It’s true for all of us. At least I hope it is. When we’re kids, the world is a terrifying place. we don’t understand what things are, why they are, or how they work. We don’t understand grownups or pain. And the stories we read and see on Saturday morning TV (at least this used to be true) portray a frightening world full of monsters and curses and witches and behavior that is just plain bizarre. (“What do you mean she swallowed a spider to catch the fly, and that you guess she’ll die?”) The line between fairy tales and cartoons and reality is a very fuzzy one.

            Personally I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I loved being scared by things, because I never saw them as a real threat. The monsters and the curses were scary, but they touched other people. I was in the clear. As I slowly separated out the distinction between the creatures in Dr. Seuss and my neighbors and dogs, I found that a number of real, tangible fears had taken hold subconsciously along the way. Some of them are still with me today, and in most cases I know exactly where they came from.

            These weren’t the usual fears. I was never afraid of heights, or needles, or insects. I was never claustrophobic or agoraphobic and I never had a fear of flying or water. Nothing so general as all that. My fears tended to be very specific. Quite a few of these fears were completely rational and probably for the best. Like chainsaws. When my dad was cutting up tree limbs and logs in the garage, he’d usually call me out to hold one end of whatever he was cutting in order to keep it steady. The blade of the chainsaw would often come within inches of my hands. He couldn’t hear me over the growling and whining of the engine, but I was whimpering like a kicked puppy the whole while. Nothing bad ever happened, but it always felt like it was about to, and I wouldn’t have been surprised when the blade slipped and bit deep into my wrist. To this day I get a sick feeling in my guts whenever I hear someone start up a chainsaw. Same with lawn mowers. I was always so convinced I was going to slip, fall backwards, and pull the whirring blades over my feet that my dad finally had to take me off lawn mower duty.

            I had a fear of wooden stairs, if only because I was a clumsy child and used to fall down the stairs a lot. I had a fear of walking across logs because, yes, I always, inevitably, fell off. I mistrusted plants, but I can trace that back to an episode of Lost in Space in which Will Robinson trips and falls into a giant carnivorous plant. Scared the shit out of me. I still mistrust plants, but feel I’m justified.

            Other fears were more commonplace. Like any rational being I was (and remain) scared to death of clowns. In my case the fear arises from an actual incident at a low-rent Shriner’s Circus in Green Bay. (It’s a long story.) I was also afraid of people who weren’t clowns. And other children.

            When I told a friend in grad school that I had a terrible fear of garden hoses, she said, “Well that sounds pretty Freudian if you ask me.” But she was wrong. I know exactly why I prefer to steer clear of garden hoses. When I was very young, every time I passed someone in the neighborhood who was using a garden hose—washing a car or watering the garden—and I mean anyone from my dad to my neighbors to complete strangers, they would spray me. This happened every last fucking time. Today I can be walking down the street in Brooklyn, and if someone’s outside with a hose my steps will quicken and the muscles up and down my back will tighten as I anticipate the inescapable spray of cold water.

            Back when cars had those wicked metal bumpers, I was sure one of them was going to hook me as it passed and rip off my knee cap. I was very protective of my kneecaps. The switchover to cheap plastic bumpers helped alleviate this some.

            I’m always afraid bees will chase me. I remember hiding behind the car in the garage for hours, convinced that the bee that had just chased me around the house from the backyard was still out there looking for me. I wasn’t even allergic to bee stings—I just didn’t like the idea of being personally targeted by bees.

            Then there were the weird fears. I don’t know where these came from, and I can offer no rational explanation.

            I was absolutely convinced there was a phantom living in the back room of the basement. We were living in a small duplex with a cold, unfinished basement lit only by a couple of dangling incandescent bulbs. That basement was creepy enough as it was without a faceless creature in a long, hooded, dust-grey cloak lurking around. He lived back by the washing machine and the spare toilet. I saw him back there. In fact I saw him every time I headed back upstairs toward the safety of the kitchen. He’d come swooping around the corner from behind the steps (wooden steps, mind you), and he’d reach for my ankle with that cool, gray hand of his. Every fucking time. He never caught me, but I did end up bouncing down the stairs quite a few times. I held him responsible. Either him or my sister. When she learned about the phantom in the basement, she took to slamming the door at the top of the stairs whenever I was on my way up, then screaming “He’s gonna get you! He’s gonna get you!”

            I was very glad when we moved out of that house. I never saw him again.

            Through my college years, I suffered an absolutely paralyzing fear of ending up with dried ketchup on my hands. Any other condiment was fine. Mustard? Mayo? No problem. But ketchup? Jesus Christ, you didn’t want to be around. Such shrieks.

            (I eventually got over that one.)

            Probably the weirdest one of the lot involved chocolate milk. You know how when you made chocolate milk with a powder you always ended up with that residue at the bottom of the glass? That dark brown Rorschach test? There was no way around it. Stir it up as much as you liked, and you’d always still find that residue down there.

            Well, whenever I drank chocolate milk, I’d stare down into the bottom of the glass and watch as the milk disappeared. And as it did, as the level dropped and it slowly revealed that smear of chocolate powder stuck to the bottom of the glass, I was convinced—every last time I was convinced—it was a tarantula that would skitter up the glass and attack my face. I don’t know why I was so convinced of this, or what a tarantula might be doing at the bottom of a glass of chocolate milk, but I knew it was going to happen one of these days. Thing is, it never stopped me from drinking chocolate milk, any more than my fear of the phantom kept me from going into the basement. In fact I may have ended up drinking more chocolate milk as a result.

            Sometimes I wonder why, for all the shrinks I’ve been sent to over the years, not a one has been able to make the slightest bit of headway.


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