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Goofy, Ernie and Me


Harry Buschman

There were three of us. My best friend Ernie, "Goofy" Margolis, and me. Ernie and me were the same age, Goofy was a year older. Ernie and me lived in the same tenement. Goofy lived over his folks candy store on the corner.

We were all in the same class at school. Goofy had been "left back" at least once and still had trouble keeping up with the class. The three of us were close friends ... as close as kids got in those days. Why? we didn't know why, and that's the way it went with kids back then. Looking back on it now, I'm sure one of the reasons was that none of us had anything the other wanted.

Goofy Margolis' real name was Stanley, but other than his mother and father and Mrs. Martel at PS 9, I never heard anyone call him Stanley. Everyone called him Goofy. We even called him Goofy in front of his mother and father and they didn't mind. I guess they were glad somebody his own age cared about him. My mother once told me that something went wrong when Goofy was born -- she
never explained exactly what because matters of that sort were not discussed between parents and children, and it's likely she didn't know either. He was unable to make the simplest decisions and he took a lot of abuse. Other kids in school would give him a hard time -- they would pull his pants down in front of everybody in home room, and if it wasn't for Ernie and me, Goofy would have found it hard getting through a single day at school.

After school Goofy worked in his father's candy store. He would see to it that there were straws and napkins in the dispensers and he'd dry mop around the stools. His father wouldn't trust him to do much more than that.

After nine innings of stick ball in the street outside and just before we went home for supper, Ernie and me would stop in at the candy store to check up on whether or not Goofy did his homework. His father would usually make us a lime phosphate while we sat at one of his rickety tables in the back and helped Goofy with his lesson. Most times we'd do it for him -- it was easier than telling him how to do it.

He was slow. Yet there was something in him that you couldn't put your finger on. He knew when it was going to rain; he knew exactly when the IRT was pulling into the DeKalb Avenue Station two blocks away. But he couldn't get halfway through the times table. Ernie and me always said that if we found ourselves washed ashore on a desert island we would want Goofy with us, but if we had to parse a sentence in Mrs. Martel's English class, Goofy would be the last
person on earth we would want to help us.

Ernie and me would meet in the vestibule of our tenement every morning before school and walk down to the candy store. Goofy would be standing there, just inside his father's store waiting for us, afraid to come out on his own. Our route to school went past the Prospect Park Zoo, and at that hour of the morning the animals were just beginning to stretch and yawn. If you stood on tip toe you could see over the brick wall and watch them pulling themselves together -- getting ready for another day with nothing to do. That's how we got our first inkling that Goofy was something special.

We always knew Goofy could bark like a dog and whinny like a horse; so much like them in fact, that the animals would turn and stare at him in disbelief. But until we watched Goofy in action at the zoo we never realized how special his gift was. You couldn't tell the difference -- he could chatter like a monkey and roar like a lion. They would talk back to him and he would answer -- we'd have to drag him away. No wonder he didn't fit in at school. In the best sense of the word he was an animal at heart.

With the zoo so close to us, we spent a lot of time there, and on weekends our mothers would pack a lunch for us to keep us out of their hair for an hour or two. Goofy would be in seventh heaven. He had names for each and every one of them, not names like you and I would use for a pet dog or cat, but names in their own language.

One Saturday afternoon we were eating our lunch in front of a cage full of macaque monkeys who were having their lunch too. Goofy as always was as close to the cage as he could get -- just Goofy and the macaques, eating and chattering. Suddenly Goofy reached out and offered his apple to one of them who took it and looked at it carefully then passed a banana out to Goofy. We were stunned, along with some other people standing nearby as the exchange took place. Goofy told us that the macaque wanted to check out the apple before he traded it for a banana.

Ernie and me made the mistake of telling this strange story to our parents that afternoon and with Goofy's previous reputation for barking at dogs and whinnying at horses, they thought it might be good for us if we steered clear of him for a while.

Kids are resilient. They make friends quickly and drop them for new friends with no regrets. Ernie and me found other friends and eventually we forgot Goofy. When time came around for promotion, we moved up and Goofy got left back again. The school board decided it was time to consider alternate avenues of education for Goofy and he was sent to a school for special children. Goofy was special all right, me and Ernie could have told them that from the start.

As we grew older we all drifted apart, even Ernie and me, and it wasn't until I was grown and married that I read the piece about Dr. Stanley Margolis in Scientific American. I would have passed it by except the name Margolis is not a common one, and certainly not one usually encountered in the field of scientific research.

Professor Margolis had apparently made great strides in bridging the communication gap that exists between animals and man. He had developed the theory of "Talking Turkey," as it became popularly known. Rather than persuading animals to speak as we do, he attacked the problem by teaching humans to speak as they do. That sounded like Goofy to me. It brought back that memorable Saturday afternoon in front of the cage of macaques and how monkey and man had met and traded a banana for an apple at lunch. Goofy hadn't changed in all these years except that now he chaired Princeton's Department for Advanced Studies of Animal Behaviorism.

I considered writing a letter to Professor Margolis, or trying to contact him by phone -- but then, indecision, (a primary element of my adult years) took over and it seemed to me indiscreet to bring up our formative years which he might well want to keep under his hat.

Ernie and me got about as much out of life as we were destined to get. Both of us were successful, but nothing more than that. Neither of us advanced the quality of life forward a notch nor did we illuminate the human equation -- we made a living. Once in a while, when we thought about Goofy and what might have happened to him, we would look at each other and say, "Well, I mean, what could we do? Kids are like that -- besides, our parents ... " We never found a proper excuse for abandoning our friend when he needed us most. We shrugged it off and talked of other things.

When I finished the article, all I could say was -- "Way to go Goofy!"

©Harry Buschman 1996

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