This morning, cold and hungry, I approached a woman in carefully torn jeans who was stepping out of her Bentley near the Gucci store in Beverly Hills.
“Madam,” I said, trying my best not to appear frightening in any way, “I haven’t eaten in three days.”
“I wish I had your will power,” she replied jauntily.
For a moment I was sorely tempted to gnaw on her well-toned arm or take a bite of her Botoxed cheek. But having resolved not to give in to my bestial side, even as my skin started to turn to fur and my teeth began to jut out, I did my best to shrug as the woman headed off towards Pilates, or Botox, or perhaps to fight for world peace.
I am what’s known as a lycanthrope, which is a fancy way of saying werewolf. Lore about my problem — or species — or whatever appellation one chooses to describe beings like me — has it that we can only be killed by silver bullets or some such nonsense. For me, a far worse fate than having some yo-yo search from gun shop to gun shop for silver bullets is being ignored. Or ostracized. Or shunned.
Is it my fault that at times my skin becomes furry? Or that my teeth start to protrude? Or that my breath becomes, for want of a better term, animalistic?
I suppose I should blame Lon Chaney Jr, or Universal Pictures, or whoever it was who started making the films that have demonized my breed.
Even the medieval legends about creatures such as me, though farfetched and ludicrous, are nowhere near as vile or condescending as those willfully haunting but heinously incorrect movies.
That’s why I have resolved to be a fully sentient creature — humane in my own way — always as human as possible.
It’s not my intention to do harm, instill fear, or incite panic.
All I want is gainful employment. Plus some friends to talk to. And three square meals a day, especially if they’re accompanied by some good music. What kind of music? The truth is that my taste runs mainly to New Orleans R&B: Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and the great Benny Spellman. That owes to the time I stowed away on a ship that landed in the Big Easy. At the Mardi Gras I attended, thanks to the costumes that abounded, plus the amount of alcohol that was consumed, even when I was in what some call my altered state, no one batted an eye. But as to music, I also have a fondness for people as diverse as Erik Satie, Solomon Burke, Django Reinhardt, and early Cyndi Lauper. No one-note or limited being am I.
Still hungry, I hoof my way east, though I use that term loosely since my appendages only cease being what humans call feet when the rest of me goes through a metamorphosis.
Passing a gay bar on a street called Santa Monica Boulevard, I get eyed by two guys with tight-fitting jeans who flash smiles, then suddenly retreat. That, I know from experience, means I have started to morph — a process that takes me, in local terminology, from rough trade to gross. Without even glancing at my wrists, I sense that my skin is giving way to fur, which means that my teeth must be scary, and my breath off-putting.
Determined to use mind over matter, I duck into an alley, then focus on breathing deeply. I am at peace, I intone softly. I am at peace with the world and at peace with myself.
As I repeat those phrases, all while continuing to breath consciously, I feel the tension inside me beginning to subside. Je pense, donc je suis, I tell myself, summoning a phrase I learned in France. And thinking, plus the fact that I possess language, means that I indeed have a mind, which means that I am a higher form of life. Higher, I tell myself with a smile, not merely than the beasts of the wild, but also than those who fritter their time listening to rant radio, or devouring demagoguery on what passes for TV news. They, I state silently, are sheep, whereas I am of a loftier order.
And only then do I steal a glance at my wrists, which once again are covered with skin.
Though at times I curse my fate, there are moments when I feel privileged. Not for me to be a follower. Or a conformist. Or someone consigned to a dull, never-changing existence.
When I’m in the pink, I think of myself as an individual — one who sees the world as few others can or do. In that sense, I am an artist.
But sadly, I am an artist without a palette. A speaker without a microphone. A poet without a pen.
What I would give, I often muse, if only I could find a niche of some sort, a place where I could be — and be appreciated as — myself.
As I continue my trek eastward in a city where walking as a means of transportation seems almost nonexistent, I overhear someone telling a joke:
Q: “How do I find CBS?”
A: “Make a right on Fairfax, then look for the first place without a chicken in the window.”
Sensing this must be the Jewish section, I turn, then stroll past places selling corned beef, rye bread, plus lots and lots of chicken, all of which reminds me of my happy days in a part of Paris called the Marais. Before it got gentrified, before it became home to the Musee Picasso, I could walk there comfortably among the kids in yarmulkes, and the men in tefillin, and the women in the shops who would give me tastes of challah, gefilte fish, and ruggelach. To them I wasn’t a frightening creature. I was simply a strange-looking shabbos goy who earned his keep by spending weekends turning on lights, igniting ovens, and warming radiators.
Only when anti-Semitic thugs came into the area to do damage or wreak havoc did my other side — my alter ego, if you will — emerge. What pleasure it gave me to frighten the self-style toughs who preyed on the weak, the poor, and the defenseless. And, if some of the voyous were foolish enough to persist, I proceeded to make certain they were never seen again, whether in le quartier or anywhere.
I was a one-man… or one-creature… Jewish Defense League before there was such a thing. And it made me a Somebody in that world, a Judah Maccabee who had never even been Bar Mitzvahed.
But then real estate speculators started showing up in the neighborhood. In record time, thanks to apartment-flipping and rising prices, they turned the charming ghetto I’d come to call home into a haven for everything — and everyone — trendy. Gone almost overnight were the shops and restaurants I knew, plus most of the people I liked. In their place were strangers who wore designer clothes, fretted over carbs, and worried about where to park their fancy cars on narrow streets designed for pushcarts. Gone were the cafes where, like a Bohemian, I smoked Gitanes, sipped Pernod, and read books on art by Elie Faure, plus novels by Boris Vian and Raymond Radiguet. Gone as well was the rented room where I listened to records by Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, and Juliette Greco, then scribbled away on a never-finished autobiographical novel that would make the world see me — and my kind — in a different light.
In a world where, for a period of time, I had a place — perhaps even a privileged one — I was suddenly an embarrassment. An outcast. A pariah.
So how does someone get to be like me? According to the movies I so unhappily referred to, werewolves are kissing cousins to vampires, meaning that entrance into our ranks comes from being bit by someone who is already part wolf.
If you believe that, I’ve got some wonderful swampland to sell you.
My personal fate — indeed my family’s destiny — was determined by a curse. It started when my paternal great-grandfather, the son of a Scottish nobleman, fell in love with a beauty whose parents were traveling minstrels. Told to distance himself from the riffraff or risk being disinherited, he threatened not merely to walk away from the family fortune by marrying his lady-love, but then to thumb his nose even further by taking the maiden’s last name and leaving first Edinburgh, then perhaps even Scotland.
So angered was his titled father that he paid a visit to a local woman rumored to be descended from one of the witches in “Macbeth.” She, as the story has been passed down, chanted incantations while stirring up a strange brew. That potion was then thrown in the faces of my departing great-grandparents, with the promise that their progeny would thereafter be special.
Special, clearly, we have been, each and every one of us. Even though life can get lonely, it’s that specialness that’s the primary reason I haven’t yet sired children of my own. I feel that it would be wrong to do so until I find the right woman and the appropriate set of circumstances.
Continuing on my trek traversing Los Angeles, I spot a frozen yogurt place with a sign offering free samples. Famished, I enter and wait to be served, then do my best to appear uncertain as I taste one flavor, then another, then yet a third and fourth. With others waiting for their turn, I suggest to the girl behind the counter that she help someone else while I’m making up my mind, then as inconspicuously as possible, I, without any money, slink out the door.
What triggers my physiological changes? you might ask. Is it willful? Something I can do whenever I want or on command? Or must there be a catalyst — something that precipitates the transformation?
Needless to say, I’ve given considerable thought to those questions.
Since I have no definitive answer regarding everyone in the world afflicted, or endowed, with what we might call my condition, I shall speak subjectively. Autobiographically. Personally.
My change… or morphing… or transformation, I have come to understand, is largely — in fact almost completely and invariably – outside of my own volition. Instead it is a reaction — one that happens when I feel frightened or threatened. Or challenged. Or in some way out of control.
Where others are ruled by a response psychologists call Flight Or Fight, I am dominated, to a degree that often disturbs me, by a metamorphosis that not only gives me wolf-like traits and tendencies, but also pools of strength, speed, and sensory skills, that, to this day, continue to surprise me.
Put in cruder terms, in my other form I am nobody to fuck with.
Do I have remorse once I’ve regained human form and consciousness? That depends. If I inadvertently frighten older people or young kids? Absolutely. No question about it. But with bullies like the ones bent on destroying the Jewish section of Paris? Not in any way, shape, or form do I feel contrition, sadness, or any emotion other than joy. In those situations, I savor and cherish the well-deserved pain I mete out.
In other words, a Zen master I’m not.
As I trudge up a street called La Brea, my rumbling stomach reminds me that neither man nor werewolf can live on musings or memories alone.
I am hungry, penniless, and without a place to spend the night.
Though it’s hardly a new condition for me, it’s still quite troubling. Indeed it’s far more troubling now than when I was young, naïf, and eager to see the world.
Now, instead of wanderlust, my itinerant existence seems to be driven by something else entirely — an inability to feel at home anywhere at all.
Is it the world that has changed? I find myself asking more and more. Or is it me?
But more important than philosophical questions is something far more basic: Where and how will I find the wherewithal to eat more than a few tastes of frozen yogurt?
No matter how diligent my effort to be transcendent, spiritual, and enlightened, there’s a truth I find harder and harder to deny.
I’m getting too old for this shit.
Seeing a sign that says Hollywood Boulevard sends a frisson through me for reasons I can’t quite understand. It’s not just that the name sounds familiar or iconic. Something inside me says This is it. This is where you’ll find what you need — if not forever, then at least for now.
Heeding my instinct, I cross over to the north side of the street, then turn right so as to head east.
All goes well, or as well as can be expected for someone hungry, broke, and worried. But as I continue on, I see what looks like a throng, which always troubles me.
Then someone bumps into me, which disturbs me even more.
For a moment I consider bolting. That, however, is made more difficult because of the number of people approaching from behind me.
Swept along by the crowd, I find myself being jostled repeatedly, which doesn’t bring out the best in me.
As we near something called the Chinese Theater, the sheer amount of mankind becomes more and more oppressive, to the point where I feel a familiar change coming over me.
“The wolfman!” a woman screams.
To my dismay, instead of fear, there seems to be something gleeful in her voice.
Could it be? I start to wonder. Then other voices ring out.
“Great costume!” I hear someone else yell.
“What a fantastic effect!” hollers a teenager.
Startled beyond belief, I look around and see that there are other strange creatures in the area. There’s a robot. And a character from “Star Wars.” And a Marilyn Monroe. And someone dressed as Charlie Chaplin.
I stand frozen for a moment as, in a way I never dreamed possible, people gape at me with approval, rather than fear.
Then up toward me comes the guy who’s done up as Chaplin.
“New here?” he asks in almost a whisper once he’s beside me.
“Then you’ll need this.”
Pulling a bunched-up hat from his pocket, he unfolds it, puts in a couple of dollars and a fistful of change, then places it on the sidewalk down in front of me.
Almost immediately, tourists and passers-by start adding to the kitty, tossing in dollars, coins, pesos, Euros, and who-knows-what else.
“Love it!” I hear as an old lady touches my furry hand.
“So real!” exclaims her friend.
Then a freckle-faced kid who’s been staring at me with what I can only describe as awe, musters the courage to speak.
“Wish I could be like you,” he says wistfully.
I don’t know if this will last, nor do I have any clue how long I will stay. But nonetheless, one thing is clear. For the first time in ages, I have a weird feeling that maybe I — and the world — will somehow be okay.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.