The Ed Sullivan Smile

It was the first time I witnessed this form of mental illness.  He seemed to be pretty harmless, just out of
touch with everyone around him.  In his delusional fantasies, I meant nothing to him, yet his smile changed my perspective on reality.

I saw him sitting at a café table at the bottom of the escalator in the mall.  He placed a chrome napkin holder in the middle of the table and smiled, waiting for his imaginary audience to quiet down.  Then, slowly and deliberately, he circled the salt and peppershakers around the napkin holder, then placed them on the top.  He smiled again and waited for the suspense to build.  Next, he circled with an ashtray and balanced it on top of the shakers.  Finally, he placed a butter knife on the ashtray.  It was clear from the expression on his face that he was confident that his Houdini-like talent had wowed the crowd.

Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to him.  I don’t know how many times I went up and down the escalators just so I could watch.  It was a grand performance. My 18 year old self from the country was deeply affected.  I wanted to giggle, and yet I felt sorrow for this poor man with his psychological problems. I never realized how out of touch with reality a person could be.  Some time later, I saw him again in a convenience store.  Like a stand-up comedian, he told his stories and waited for our laughter to subside, while he smiled his Ed Sullivan smile.

Ed Sullivan is generally known for pursing his lips and saying he had a “really big shew.”  When he smiled, he would break into a brilliant grin that began and ended at each ear, showing a full mouth of gleaming white teeth.

The man in the store strung numerous words together, but made absolutely no sense.  Most of those who entered were only slightly unnerved by his behavior and the clerk didn’t pay any attention at all to him.  I, on the other hand, lurked around the racks of potato chips and motor oil just to watch this amazing man.  I left feeling vulnerable.

What makes one person hold onto reality, while another lets go, if indeed they had any control in the first place?  I have spent many hours living in a fantasy world because reality can sometimes be boring or difficult.  If I don’t have a lover – or chocolate, I conjure up a great sex plot that can amuse me for days.  If I don’t have money, I win the lottery or Publisher’s Clearing House knocks at my door.  I keep it up until my need passes or I get bored or it’s too difficult to maintain a dual reality.

I have derided myself for not being able to stay in the real world and then quit fantasizing for a while.  But, like an addict, I come back.  I have wondered if a person could get stuck in their fantasy and never be able to return to reality when they chose to.  Is that what happened to the man by the escalator?

I have always yearned to be able to sing or play a piano.  In imagination, I pretend I am a world-renowned pianist and I sit down to play a beautiful sonata in a room full of people.  My fingers deftly move across the keyboard and people are amazed and blessed by my talent.  If I confused my fantasy with reality and acted out my scenario, would I see adoration in the faces of the crowd, or would I see horror, disgust, humor  and vulnerability?  Quite frankly, if I came back to reality in the middle of my act, I think I would permanently go back to my fantasy world. It would probably be the only hole big enough or deep enough for me to crawl into and stay hidden!

The man with the smile was my fulcrum.  He was my balancing point.  I trained myself to pull back before I went too far over the edge. It was then that I decided to become a writer. All my plots and grand schemes could be available for all to share.  There is also a bit of sadistic joy in having others read my stories, for if they enjoy and relate to them, they might be just as crazy as I am.

I love science fantasy, because I don’t do well with real world problems, so I travel to a galaxy far away.  In that world, I hash out the problems, and take it home when I am good and ready.

I also love watching other people to see if I can tell if they are in the middle of a good fantasy.  Sometimes, I think I can catch a glimmer in someone’s eyes or a hint of a smile, like the Mona Lisa.  What did Mona see anyway?  Was it real or imagined.  Was she sane?

There was a lady I watched on a bus who looked tired and worn out. She was hard to read, yet she had a look that showed her personal and private life may have been very rich with experience. My hope for her was that,
at least in her imagination, she had found her Don Juan or could walk the alpine trail in Switzerland.

I truly dislike phony smiles.  If you don’t feel like smiling, why bother?  The other day at work, a friend of mine and I shared an elevator with one of the managers.  We had been chuckling about something, and out of courtesy, included her in on the humor.  In a flash, this woman smiled her own version of the Ed Sullivan smile, and as quickly it disappeared.  It was not genuine and she must have assumed that we would not have discerned the truth.

I wondered if she were just responding to some polite social cue or if at that precise moment in  her fantasy she heard the expected laughter and applause from her unseen audience.  I wondered too, if she saw the play of horror, disgust, humor and vulnerability cross our faces.

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