Can a Hollywood animation icon make it in the harsh world of NYC reality? 1,386 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming
Mickey was awful tired. The snap of life was long gone. The heartbeats and thought-waves had died out when the drawing stopped. After that, animation was only a matter of machines, and money. Walt Disney, who wasn’t the nice man his conglomerate’s PR department sold to the world, was long dead, his severed head supposedly stuck in a San Fernando Valley deep-freeze. Minnie, the she-mouse Mickey was supposed to love, had turned into a block of black ice with long eyelashes and too much lipstick. Minnie had nothing to say anymore. She’d been clobbered by life or its simulation, stricken mute as Pluto, that distant animal star. Mickey knew how love felt, but he’d never been happy with what it really meant, to him.
He felt rootless, lifeless, old. Born from a bottle of India ink and a stolen idea, made to move by brushes with destiny, forced to express emotions not necessarily his own, he nonetheless felt the urge to return, somewhere. Back to the well of blackness, the life-blood that tasted like the end, which is where it all began, for him.
Mickey didn’t say goodbye to anyone at the Studio. Not a word to Huey, Dewey and Louie, or whatever Donald’s nephews were called. Not a word to his supposed friend, that buck-toothed monster from another species. He couldn’t even bring himself to say that stupid name.
He didn’t leave a note, he just left.
Hollywood didn’t say goodbye, either. Tinseltown was in the business of saying “Hello!” The factory’s cold silence meant, “You thought you were a big star, but we made you. You’re our product, now and forever, baby. And when the happy memories fade, we’ve got lots of other creatures coming down the pipeline — bigger, flashier."
Travel was once slightly troublesome for pencil-and-ink beings. There was paper involved, airtime, freight trains, trucks, mailmen or delivery boys. The new way was simpler, faster, and freer, but not entirely painless. Something always got left behind, some electron, photon, proton, or pixel, whatever those smug Studio punks called them. It hurt when you got out on the other end. You felt like you were less, smaller, poorer.
Cross-country in point-two nanoseconds. Can’t argue with that. But those constellations sparkled so bright, especially when they landed in Kansas City or Omaha, due to weather or to refuel. Cowpokes and clodhoppers clustered to stare at the sunglassed star people who alighted and looked around, dazed, disoriented and maybe a trifle spooked by the air of emptiness around them. The thought of having once come from these vast blank spaces themselves, and now of obliged by uncontrollable forces to return to it. The farm folk acted cool, as though they saw showbiz glitz all the time, but they knew they’d trade places with the high-dollar showoffs given the chance. Most of them did, anyway. There were others who felt genuine love for the land and for real animals, and they never left or never wanted to leave.
What little Mickey knew about New York City was stuff he’d gleaned from overheard telephone conversations between human beings who produced spectacle and business people who sold it in the office going over plans with the factory. Even at that remove, Mickey thought New York City zinged with life. The wonderful town’s violence and dirt were electric. Sparks flew through phone wires like energized rats scuttling through sewer pipes. He had a destination.
Mickey felt his atoms and his heat disperse. He went through the ether with no sense of anything, least of all himself. He pushed a button, and emerged in Times Square.
Everything looked wrong. He expected porn theaters, roaming drug addicts, penny arcades, roaming prostitutes, and loud funky music. What he got instead was more Disneyland, a fake version of The Magic Kingdom, if that was possible. Mickey hated The New 42nd Street, which was nothing but gratuitous noise and glaring light with no soul.
Mickey closed his eyes in despair. He stopped breathing and tried to erase his heartbeat. Over that slight inner thump, he heard an electric hum. He followed the sound, which came through an iron grate in the pavement. The low note sounded right. “Get down,” it said. “Get low, get in and go all the way, because that’s the only way.” He practically dove.
The blackness underground was wet, and hot, and stank like crazy. The flow caught him, flushed him, over and out. He was thrilled. Back in the black, back in the ooze, the ink. Alive again, for real.
“Oh, man, what a ride,” he squeaked when he saw the light on the other end of the tunnel.
“Yeah, that’s what all the tourists say.” The big rat who spoke was catching the sun under a rotting pier along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. “But we don’t get too many tourists out here, Jim. You one of those rats that wants to get back to his roots?”
Mickey pulled himself out of the dirty water. Worlds away from Lana Turner’s pool where he used to swim, on celluloid at least. All the stars, together, as friends, having a glamorous good time. Seemed like yesterday. He dusted himself off, a gesture left over from the Silent Era when he was just another kid out to make it. Neither he nor Unca Walt knew, then, that they were only in it together for the big bucks. Going through the old motions felt like eternal youth, recaptured.
Mickey ambled over to where the rat lounged, and sniffed the air
“Oh me, oh my,” he said.
Mickey stared spellbound at the scenery. A garbage barge called the Sea Cow pulled into the festering waterway and began to urk its load of brown salad dressing. Gunk spludged onto the quay, and it was all too fascinating for words.
The huge rat got behind Mickey and did what rats do naturally: establish dominance. Mickey was shaken from his trance. This was all new. First time, for a New York first-timer.
After the ritual formality concluded, there was no doubt about who was who or what was what. Such certainty was unknown in Hollywood. The only sure thing in showbiz was that they’re out to get you. Not just the studio people and your alleged fellow-stars. But the wide-eyed people in those cavernous overdecorated rooms all over the country want a piece of you, too. Sure, they’re buying tickets and clapping now. But what they really want is to cut you up, put some of you inside themselves, and then see you fall. The harder, the better.
Mickey felt as though his feet were on the ground. The earth felt as though it could be depended on to stay where it was, to be what it was: firm and unforgiving, covered with garbage, devoid of glitter.
The refuse would take Mickey in, as long as he accepted his surroundings and adapted to them honestly.
“Ya know, there’s something special about you, kid,” the rat said. “Feels like you been around.”
“You can say that again.” Mickey delivered the corny line with feeling, even though he knew someone else had written it, even though he knew he didn’t want to say those lines anymore. That was the last time, he thought.
“So the whole trip’s about coming home after all,” he said. “And here I thought it was impossible.”
“Tell you what’s possible, kid…”
“You know what? Don’t call me ‘kid.’ The way I’m used to living, I can whip out a machinegun or a rat trap any old time.”
“OK, OK, sheesh. You know what’s possible? Lunch is possible. Courtesy of the Sea Cow. Feeding time attracts a female crowd, so making lots of little rats and mice is also a distinct probability. In fact, it’s supremely likely.”
Mickey said, “You go right ahead. Maybe I’ll watch.”
The Sea Cow’s bilge was a perfume that drove any latent memories of Minnie and of Hollywood out of Mickey’s round black head. Down on all fours, he followed his new friend towards the filth that flowed ceaselessly, with no white gloves, no bulbous shoes, and a longer face. A naked tail swished out of sight, as the animal in front of it rushed to join the others in the vital darkness.