By Alan Alda
was four years old, down by the East River in Manhattan, playing on
a heap of trash with two boys about my age. The play got rougher
and one of the boys picked up an empty tin can and cocked his arm to
hurl it at his brother. I was standing between them and playfully,
with a deliberately comical air, I held up my hand and said, “Stop!”
He didn’t stop and his arm uncocked and the can came hurtling toward
me on the way to his sibling. As it came at me, time lost its speed
and I saw the can revolving, the jagged edge of its lid, having been
pried open with an old fashioned can opener, spinning like a
circular saw through the air. It spun end over end and, on the way
to its target, sliced through my scalp. I was almost immediately
awash with blood. The scalp is a generous donor at times like this.
Scared by the red Niagara pouring down my body, the boys escorted me
home and handed me over to my mother. She brought me to the hospital
and a couple of stitches later I was back home, thinking about what
Although we were staying at my grandmother’s brownstone house, where
I was born, and the trash heap down by the river was only a couple
of blocks away, I had led a life strangely sheltered from
experiences like this. My father was a singer and straight man in
burlesque. As soon as I was born we were out on the road traveling
from one town to another. My playmates were the comics and chorus
girls in the traveling show. To me, being funny was more than a way
to pass the day; it was a basic form of communication.
When I said, “Stop” on the trash heap, I was picturing myself in a
sketch. The violence would be no worse than the comic getting
roughed up by the straight man in “The Crazy House” or “Slowly, I
Turn,” sketches that made me giggle as I watched them from the
wings. The ragged edge of the tin can cut through this fantasy as it
cut through my scalp.
had lived in an exotic world of crude jokes and erotic dancing, but
I was unprepared for the ordinary violence a boy can visit on his
brother. As inappropriate as my world was for a child my age, it
was a world of illusion, play and laughter. It left me shielded from
and unprepared for ordinary life.
few weeks later, I was sitting on the running board of a car next to
a four year old girl. As I chatted with her, I must have said
something offensive; possible a rude comedy line I’d heard from the
wings, as I watched a burlesque sketch. Instead of laughing, the
girl looked at me angrily. She glanced at her mother who was
watching us a few feet away. “Hit him,” her mother said. Bang. I got a slap across my cheek. “Hit him again,” her mother said, and
I got another crack across my face. This neighborhood was turning
out to be a tough room to work in.
This was a long time ago and what might have been known about
childhood development by better educated and more sophisticated
people was pretty much unknown to my parents. The innocence of youth
would protect me, they thought, from the crudeness of our world. The
chorus girls’ dressing room was my classroom, and the alley outside
the theater was my Sesame Street.
Any step by step training in the real world that could have helped
me deal with aggression, my own as well as that of others, was
missing. But we only have the start we have and we adapt based on
what we have to work with. I began to see that given the way the
world worked and given my strengths and weaknesses, I had two
choices. I was going to have to learn to become a much better
fighter, or get a lot funnier. I went for funny.
Copyright © 2007 by Alan Alda. All rights reserved.
No part of this essay may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.