I learned swimming by being thrown into a foaming waterhole over a cliff by a bunch of 10-year-old punks, my so-called "friends." I decided to become a great swimmer after that and spent hours in the water breaking my own records for speed and endurance, a real feat considering that I carried a 50-pound ball of terror in my gut, and that every time I came up for air I felt like I was being reborn. My greatest fear, you guessed it, is drowning. I avoid possible drowning situations even if they cost me money. Recently, the National Geographic magazine tried to hurl me down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for one month, the month of February. That's when temperatures go to minus 40 sometimes, and the No. 10 difficulty rapids scream with hunger for fools. I declined, sadly, but I still have nightmares about it. I still swim in placid waters because I like being all alone in there with my fear. Which brings me to my second greatest phobia, agoraphobia.
I hate crowds. I was forced to march with the mob at about the same time I got thrown into the waterhole. I marched with the "Seeds of Productivity" krewe in the First of May parade in my hometown of Sibiu, Transylvania. We seeds had to wear these awful green hats while passing by a red stage jammed with scowling fat guys flanked by a line of uniformed Nazis with machine guns. They were commies, actually, but I liked to think of them as Nazis because of the way they made me feel. After this, I forced myself to plunge into the densest crowds wherever I found them, whether at a soccer stadium or at a demonstration. Squeezed in there by waves of sweat and anger I feel as alone and as panicked as if I'd been pitched into a raging torrent.
With my kind, agoraphobia is genetic. For Jews, fear of crowds runs deep and far all the way to Babylon, a fear that is renewed every two generations just in case that fresh taste of terror is starting to fade. I loved coming to America and going to football games. Thank God, I thought, they are calling for yardage not for blood. And that goes for all the sports in the world, God bless 'em. Also, the good thing about sports is that they keep the crowds corralled. Hopefully, by the time they let them out they are too emotionally exhausted to stampede. Mardi Gras crowds scare me as much as medieval pageants or passion plays in Arkansas. The saving grace for Mardi Gras is that everybody can pretend to be someone else and trying to figure out what it is usually takes all the emotion out of a person. The other good thing about Mardi Gras is the compulsory joy. Everyone is required to feel deliriously thrilled to catch some beads or get another beer or find a bathroom. That much pretending takes a toll and leaves no time for killing. At least I hope so. I'm writing this in my notebook surrounded by a mob waving either shrapnel or magic wands.