Friday, October 28, 2005

Pepi to Pepé to Peepee

Picking up "A Whole New Bird" in a moment of finish-a-book resolution, which is about the creation of the red canary, got me to thinking about Tweety Pie (though she is yellow), and Sylvester, and Pepé Le Pew, and the wise guys at Warner Brothers making fun of my aunties.

I grew up at 11 Broadway, three houses away from this house which is 21 Broadway. "21" was built by my mother's family in 1926 and occupied by mum and her mother, five sisters and one brother. Somehow they had it built without the knowledge of the father with whom they lived, along with another brother, up the street in Peabody, until moving day. Surprise! Some pictures of the clan at that time, found in the attic here at 21, are here.

Uncle David, aunts Nona and Margaret, and my mother eventually married and moved out. Their mother, my Grammy McCarthy, died here at 21 in the 1950s while we were living in Italy.

We returned from Europe in 1959 and after a year at Fort Devens, my father was forcibly retired from the Army, at the same age as me now, and in a fashion eerily similar to my "retire or else" package from Coswell's Cogs this month. We did what retired people were supposed to do, moved to Florida, where I attended 2nd grade. But my father was unhappy there due to an inability to find a suitable collection of alcoholic peers upon whom to pontificate, so we returned to Lynn and moved into 11 the next year. I was sent to nearby Pope Saint Pius V school for 3rd grade, and continued in Catholic school for the next ten years, my education entrusted to the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Xaverian Brothers, to whom I am in everlasting debt.

Still at 21 at that time were my three aunties Betty, Ella and Theresa, who never married. Having money and being apparently socially insecure they had had the house "done" by interior decorators from Paine's of Boston, each room according to some motif. The living room, the largest in the house, was a special victim of this treatment, crammed with uncomfortable Louis Quatorze chairs, figurines of some matching creepy Blue Boy and Girl on pedestals, oriental rugs, chandeliers, a Baldwin baby grand piano nobody knew how to play, and various ornate trinkets and gewgaws placed just so, around the faux mantle. All apparently considered fancy at the time. It was then closed off behind French doors for the next thirty years, too important and precious for daily living. I was not allowed to enter unsupervised--I might break something.

Aunt Betty, the boss, apparently thought this is what cultivated people do--they buy sophistication by the pound, mistaking the appearance for the fact. Eh, close enough! Similar to Saddam Hussein's Palaces full of imitation French Baroque furniture.

Puttin on airs. This was the "strive to be like somebody better than you" era, before the "be comfortable with who you are" era replaced it in those turbulent sixties.

The epitome of this store-bought sophistication was "Pepi"--a spoiled, expensive, horrible "French" poodle. (This image is not him, but it is a remarkable likeness--it must be a particular "look".) He was as yippy and neurotic as you might imagine a purebred could be, when raised by three childless and batty old ladies.

It is good that animals know not of humiliation, yet you wonder. Every couple of months he went to the "poodle parlor" and returned freshly pom-pommed and beribboned. Everyone hated him except Betty, Ella and Theresa because like the impressive furniture that you could not sit on, his unpleasantness was evidence of superiority. Naturally the likes of you could not appreciate such a chair or such a dog. He has hauteur--he is snooty--he is French! The more awful he was, the more he proved their point.

Of course they knew nothing of France other than that the interior decorators from Paine's had indicated that it was sophisticated. I wondered if Paine's just had an overstock of quasi-French hardware and unloaded it on these unsuspecting, grasping rubes.

Likewise my father harbored a misplaced aspiration to a European stereotype, but one of toughness rather than elegance. He put on airs of being Irish though he had never been to Ireland so had only a fantasy of the place. Hard-drinking, manly men--tough, but with a twinkle in their eye, ready to fight, or to sing about drinking or fighting, but mostly ready to drink and drink more than anybody else. I drink therefore I am.

Everybody in those days was identified not only by race but by ethnicity too--"that Greek from Peabody", "the Finn", "that Polack" among the charitable labels--even if they had been in America for a hundred years. In later years my father referred to me as Irish and I answered no pa, I've never even been there, nor have you. We're just Americans. He'd have none of it.

America was in thrall to the stereotype. Brucie Blasdale's family across the street also had a poodle, named "Pierre". Every goddamed poodle in America was named either Pepi or Pierre. In Fort Devens we had a Siamese cat named "Chan" after, I guess, Charlie Chan who wasn't Siamese but was "Oriental", sort of and again eh, close enough!

I loved my dotty pretentious aunties, because they spoiled me and I got to sleep over and watch the Jackie Gleason show and the fights on TV in their basement (now my basement, where I am typing this!) on Saturday nights. Betty cooked me hot dogs baked in bread crumbs with baked beans. Haut cuisine, fifties style.

And on the TV I saw Looney Tunes, and the character Pepé Le Pew, voiced by one of my childhood heroes Mel Blanc. Pepé seemed to have been designed specifically to poke fun at America's impression of the French as being sophistiqué.

By chance we got a cat marked like Pepé Le Pew, so she was named, of course, Pepé. But since her name is too close to that of Pepi, le chien prétentieux, we call her Peepee which is close enough to provide homage to the immortal Le Pew, and provides a source of amusement for the rabble who now occupy this house. Peepee--ha ha ha!

This is why I cannot finish books.

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