Phallus Aforethought: Gender Bender

ACT I -- FOREPLAY. EIGHT PENISES ON PARADE, 10 IF YOU COUNT THE two in capes. I've been invited to sit in on the Los Angeles auditions for Puppetry of the Penis at STAR 98.7's Jamie & Danny Show. Puppetry's producers and its two stars, Jim MacGregor and Mark Neal, will choose a few men to do guest spots on their show at the Coronet Theater. Will there be legions of John Holmeses snaking around the block? Adonises on polar-bear-skin rugs? Fig leaves? Frat boys? Frisky baby mole rats? All I know is, I won't have to get naked -- I'm a girl -- and even one penis trick will be one penis, uh, trick more than I've seen in some time.

ACT II -- PERFORMANCE. ANXIETY. AT half past 7, the hopefuls are seated in the waiting room -- it's as glamorous as a Laundromat, with more tension than an STD clinic. There's Jay, first name only, who is boyish in a nerdy Edward Nortonesque way; a jolly-faced Santa Claus type with wife; and "Reverend Pokechop," an 82-year-old man with the glassy-eyed stare of a retired serial killer. Invading my every thought are penises yet unseen, unsheathed, unbent. Every question becomes a double entendre: Is it hard doing this? Do you feel like you're up to it?

"So (penis!) what do you (penis!) think of the (penis!) competition?" I ask Santa.

"How can we know the competition with their pants on?" he answers. Several men nod in agreement, but nobody moves a muscle.

ACT III -- CLIMAX. AT 8 ON THE DOT, we're shuttled into a back room. Producers on one end, auditioners on the other. MacGregor and Neal loaf on the casting couch, capes wrapped around them like cocoons. The producers, in polo shirts and khakis, are clustered around a glass table, absently tapping pens on yellow pads. What they're looking for, they explain, is not just presence, but presence. Penis presence. That special spark.

"Let's get to it then, shall we?" Neal urges. The eight auditioners, corralled at the front of the room, disrobe. Oh, happy dagger!

"Are you going for the biggest bloody little dingo?" asks a guy in a postal-worker uniform. In Australian accent, he introduces himself as "The Cockodile Hunter" and then staggers like he's been speared in the groin. "This croc's a strong bastard!" he grimaces. MacGregor and Neal walk the guys through several of the show's infamous maneuvers: the "Eiffel Tower," the "Loch Ness Monster," the "Snail," which evolves out of the "Parachute," and the "Hamburger" (Santa Claus' is mostly bun). And then the boys improvise. One does an Elvis impersonation -- swivel pelvis, grab penis, sing -- while another nervously coaxes the clam out of its shell -- ("Sorry, I took an antihistamine this morning; I've got shrinkage.") Everybody except for Robbie XXX, who is a porn star and who knows better, keeps his socks on.

Robbie's penis prompts a bout of spontaneous clapping from the judges. Jay's is flanked by really, really red balls. I cannot see what Reverend Pokechop's penis looks like, but I'm okay with that. What I do note is that he keeps his shirt, cap and tie on, and that he seems in fact to have forgotten that the lower half of his body exists at all. Screw the "Loch Ness" or the "Hamburger" -- instead the Reverend launches into a standup-comedy routine about Harry S. Truman, a German brewing dynasty, slavery and the Civil War. It's a routine, he wheezes, that he's been perfecting since 1946, since "before the days of women's lib when my momma was a stripteasin', so no sir, I ain't no tittybagger. By the way, how many of you ladies would like to try some of this greasy-dick beer?" -- at which point he whips out a can of beer from a crumpled plastic bag, leers, pops the tab, and pours. The woman standing next to me takes a step back and whimpers: "I . . . am . . . so . . . afraid."

ACT IV -- DENOUEMENT. THE ENTIRE process repeats when the men are called into the DJ booth, only this time live and on-the-air. They march across the hall in groups of twos and threes. "Remember, everybody, we can't say cock on the radio," DJ Danny Bonaduce warns. His co-host, Jamie, is curled up lotus style behind the console. For reasons unknown, she's holding a glittery pink jelly vibrator shaped like a tongue. She bashes it on the table like a gavel and points to the first auditioner, Jay: "You look so normal. Why are you here?" The rest of us try not to look offended.

Jay says he's on a dare, because his friends "are expecting it." Santa Claus and several others claim they're here for free tickets. The Cockadile Hunter says it's his patriotic duty. Robbie XXX says it's organic to what he does in other spheres of life; then, while curling his dick around his forearm in his signature "wristwatch" maneuver, and looking extremely pleased with himself, he says, "Hell, I didn't have anything else to do, anyway."  

"Aaw, man, I can't follow that!" cries a 50-something man in rainbow socks. He crosses his arms and sulkily refuses to take off his pants. Jay, naked except for red Converses, grins triumphantly. The show cuts to a commercial. As he exits the booth, Robbie hands DJ Jamie his business card. "If you ever want to have dinner sometime . . ."

ACT V -- AFTERGLOW. ON THE DRIVE home, I tune in to 98.7 to catch the finale of Jamie & Danny. Young dick, old dick, small dick, shy dick, big dick, red dick, creepy dick, sleepy dick.

Jamie: "The envelope please . . ."

Danny: "And the winners are: Jay; the Cockodile Hunter; and, coming soon to a theater near you -- the Reverend Pokechop."

--Gendy Alimurung

MAN AND MACHINE: Used Car Assurance

IT'S A LOVELY CALIFORNIA DAY AS I arrive in South Pasadena for what will be my last afternoon of used-car shopping. The sky is blue and cloudless and smogless as I park in front of the ramshackle bungalow where the prospective seller lives. My current car is hard to admire. It's a Kia, the latest in a rogue's gallery of rental cars that I've cycled through in the last year. They've served as a good metaphor for my fears, my flakiness, my lack of commitment, and the downsides of all that. At the height of my rental adventures, I drove a cherry-red ragtop down the 405 with the top down until I was so choked by the rush-hour exhaust of the surrounding cars that I had to pull off the road. At my lowest low, I ended up in a Ford Aspire for a full month, and yeah, all the obvious jokes apply: It only aspires to be a real car.

The seller was behind the bungalow, gardening with a friend and taking care of her 5-year-old daughter. She wore surf shorts and I forget about the rest of her apparel, but basically it was supercasual. She had an amazing complexion, black hair and freckles and blue eyes clearer than the sky that day, so clear I felt I could look into her depths through them and take measure of her mind and her heart. "Windows on the soul." Yadda yadda yadda.

When it comes down to it, used-car buying has a lot to do with how comfortable you are around the seller. At one point in my search I abruptly ended a conversation with one North Hollywood man who stuttered when I asked him how he could account for a 10-year-old Volvo having only 70,000 miles on it. But this woman, I thought, this one is a good bet.

She came out with me onto the sidewalk. We did a walk around. It was a tan '92 Volvo 240, a cute and boxy little thing. "The Volvo is the ultimate indie rock car," one of my friends told me, when he heard that it was my preferred make. "They're safe as hell, and a good balance of economy and luxury."

This one was a mess. The seller apologized for the pollen that coated the paint job -- she'd just got back from vacation and had left it parked under a tree -- and when she popped the trunk to show me how roomy it was, she apologized for the presence of beach chairs. You're supposed to clean out a car before you show it off to prospective buyers. Was she guileless or just clueless, or are these two things identical?

She tossed me the keys.

"So, this shouldn't take us so long," I said. "Do you have 20 minutes for a test drive?"

"I'm going to stay put," she answered. "You can take it out alone. I can't leave my daughter here by herself, and besides, I trust you."

Huh?

In the back seat was a copy of a college textbook titled Philosophy and Existentialism. Her kid's pink ballerina shoes were sitting on top. When I pulled the car up to the bungalow after an uneventful test drive, I was able to bargain her down on price from $5,000 to $2,500. Then I left and said I'd have to think about it.

The end of this story isn't pretty. For twice that price, I ended up buying a black '92 Volvo GL with tinted windows from a nervous man in Pasadena. On our test drive, he had a brief, apoplectic fit because he'd left his Palm Pilot and organizer on the curb where I'd met him, and he was afraid something might happen to it. This guy takes his car in for regular oil changes and servicing, I thought.  

My new used car looks like a budget Mercedes. That's my favorite way to describe it. Others have presented a less savory alternative: It looks like the kind of ä car a yuppie drug dealer might own. After dropping Junior off at soccer practice, Mom shuttles around making illicit deliveries to various drop-off points in the Hollywood Hills.

I wonder what people think of me for driving around in this thing? I could have bought a car based on trust. I went with cowardice. No doubt, the roads are the scariest thing about Los Angeles. All of us free agents, barreling along in our 1-ton death machines, taking it on faith that we won't get hit on the commute home, even when things get especially scary while, say, driving across five lanes of traffic on the 10 West at 6 p.m., blinded by the sunset.

Now I'm working on getting the damn thing insured. I'm going the whole nine yards. Liability. Collision. Comprehensive. --Alec Hanley Bemis

WAR AND PEACE: When Doves Cry Uncle

SUNDAY NIGHT, ON THE SECOND ANNIVERSARY OF the latest Palestinian intifada, a select group of leftist Jews (select enough to cough up $1,000 for membership in the Shalom Circle, which supports the Israeli peace movement) gathered in the Versailles ballroom of the moderately swank Beverly Hilton Hotel ("Merv Griffin's Beverly Hilton," a sign on the podium declared) to listen to a couple of doves from both sides of the Middle East conflict. The crowd consisted mostly of well-heeled over-60s, peppered with left-liberal machers like Stanley Sheinbaum, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA. Following the standard chicken dinner ($65), everyone filed into the ballroom for a dessert reception ($250), a flurry of introductions to introductions, and two short speeches by the men of the hour.

Avshalom "Abu" Vilan, a genial kibbutznik and decorated veteran of three Arab-Israeli wars, as well as a Knesset member for the leftist Meretz party and activist in what's left of the Israeli-Palestinian peace coalitions, got up to speak. Like many military types in civvies, the barrel-chested Vilan looked as if his suit and tie were about to strangle him, but launched into a forthright briefing on the toll taken on both sides by the current intifada (626 Israelis and almost 2,000 Palestinians killed). He spoke of the need to give ä full civil rights to Israeli Arabs and to create two separate states for Israelis and Palestinians, each with a right of return to their own countries and with an internationally regulated buffer zone between them. He ruefully bemoaned the schizophrenia of Israeli public opinion: A majority believes in a political solution with the Palestinians; a majority believes that only hard-liners like Ariel Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu can lead them to that solution. He warned that Israel would pay a high price for an "unprepared" American war on Iraq without international cooperation. He was fulsome in his praise for the Palestinian speaker, Sari Nusseibeh, and apologized unreservedly for Israel's arbitrary closure of Nusseibeh's office at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, where he is president.

Nusseibeh, at once donnish and dapper in a pink shirt and blue spotted tie and a thatch of distinguished slate-gray hair, picked absently at his honeydew melon and listened with polite impassivity until Vilan had finished. Then he, too, rose to the podium, shook hands with Vilan with palpable affection, and in velvet accents that betrayed his Oxford University training as a philosopher, delivered himself of a discursive speech that was unexceptionably conciliatory in tone, and almost completely lacking in specifics. He declared himself mystified by what went wrong at the peace talks in Oslo and Camp David, and called for further study. He called the intifada a "major tragedy" for both sides, neither of which had a purpose, a plan, or a strategy, but both were leading the other into a further quagmire. He told a charming anecdote from his youth about crossing from his parents' house (the Nusseibehs are Jerusalem royalty who for centuries have held the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) through No Man's Land (which separates East and West Jerusalem) to Mea She'arim, the Orthodox Jewish quarter, and how it taught him to look at both sides of a question. More pointedly, he mirrored Vilan by arguing that Palestinian public opinion is militant and enraged on the surface, but realistic underneath. Nusseibeh wryly admitted to lacking the top layer, and concluded by saying that "the only sane thing to do is for both sides to sit down and talk to each other," and be clear about their goals.  

Coming from a man who has shown no want of courage in recent years, this was waffly stuff. Nusseibeh, who is hardly a favorite with the militant Hamas and must go about with bodyguards at home, has publicly said that the Palestinians must forgo the right of return to their former homes in Israel, and must recognize the historical and religious affinity of Israelis for their country. He and other mostly academic colleagues ran ads in the Jerusalem press decrying the suicide bombings. He's been called a traitor by his own people, and Arafat's "good cop" by the Israeli right. But though he's been the Palestine Liberation Organization's senior representative in East Jerusalem for the last year, Nusseibeh was as plainly reluctant to define himself as a politician as he was eager to play diplomat. When asked point-blank by an antsy audience member whether Arafat is relevant or irrelevant, he paused and replied, "The question answers itself. The fact that you ask it is significant."

As he wound down, Nusseibeh's cell phone rang. Apologizing to his listeners, he pulled it from his pocket, checked it, then looked up with a smile and said, "It says, 'Low battery.'" --Ella Taylor

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