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Goofy, Ernie and Me
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Professor Margolis had apparently made great strides in bridging the
communication gap that exists between animals and man. He had developed the
"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
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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