Image: Crazy Dave (left) and Gene Wilder (right)
Charity, if anyone ever pulls up next to you and says, ‘Hey little girl, want some candy?’ — don’t get in the car unless it’s Hubba Bubba.
(Crazy Dave, aka my dad)
When I make my first entrance,” he explained, “I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause. (…) from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.
(Gene Wilder on playing Willy Wonka, 1970)
My father gave up on the whole being-alive thing and snuck into Valhalla when I was nine years old. Here on planet earth, they called him Crazy Dave. He looked so much like Gene Wilder that I always thought of Gene and my dad as two versions of the same man, a magnificent elder-Golem all my own. After Crazy Dave died, seeing images of Gene Wilder helped gradually soften an extraordinary loss into something fluffy and distant, a cotton candy fiction as melty as memory.
Now that Gene Wilder is gone, there is no lovable Jewish thespian dad-doppelganger out there, no on-the-lam, just-kidding-I-didn’t-really-die guy. They’re having a dual funeral in a hall of mirrors.
Despite the similarities, Gene Wilder never made you wanna go hide underneath the house with the puppies. My dad was Willy Wonka with a restraining order against him; his Wonkavision was populated by televangelists in crystal cathedrals and druggy dybbuks deep in the orange groves of California.
No one knew if he was lying or telling the truth.
While walking home from elementary school one afternoon, a familiar yellow pickup stopped alongside me. A man with sandy-blonde curls and bright blue eyes leaned over the passenger seat and called out:
Hey little girl, want some candy?
All the kids looked on, horrified, as I got in the truck.
This was when kidnappers were everywhere in trucks and big ugly cars and white vans. The children are disappearing like rabbits! Men masturbated in public all the time and fed kids LSD and poison and razorblades on Halloween; the parents were on coke, the babysitters were Satanists, the Night Stalker was on the loose and we wore rainbow costumes to mitigate all of it. My grimoire was a sticker book full of hexes.
Crazy Dave was a prankster, a hustler, a charmer, a troublemaking storytelling taffy-puller. He was Jesus and Willy Wonka. Was there a difference? He could swindle a dying man out of his last dollar, lose the cops in a car chase, and speak in tongues, and he did all of those things.
What are you saying, I’d ask him.
Only Jesus knows, only Jesus knows.
I want a canopy bed, I told him.
We are the dreamers of dreams, said Willy Wonka.
I want roller skates, I told him.
If the good lord had intended us to walk, he wouldn’t have invented roller skates, agreed Willy Wonka.
What’s for dinner, I asked.
When you’re angel in heaven you can have anything you want, my dad said.
Willy Wonka lived in heaven. He was already there. He didn’t have to start a new day with Jesus, he had the Chocolate Factory. “I got the key to the kingdom and the devil can’t do me no harm.” Dave didn’t have the key to the kingdom. He was always barefoot and when the restaurant told him he couldn’t come in without shoes he used a pen to draw sandals on his feet, a joker-illusionist… the candy man can.
Weekends were like, get Daddy an Alka-Seltzer in water (fizzy lifting drinks!), here’s ten bucks, go buy yourself some candy. Little surprises around every corner but nothing (everything) dangerous! When Crazy Dave’s house got bleak, there was always Gene Wilder looking like a party where everyone actually has fun. It’s all shadowy, though—you don’t think about the whole reason for bringing those kids to the Chocolate Factory: Willy Wonka was on some kind of death trip, didn’t wanna do it anymore, or couldn’t. He was checking out, giving the keys to Charlie Bucket. He had to tell Charlie the candy-secrets before his Alzheimer’s crept in and he forgot everything. Let yourself in after school, make a snack, maybe I’ll be home later, just maybe.
We got kicked out of one of those makeshift churches when my weekend-brothers threw candy down the aisle during a sermon. It was probably Crazy Dave’s idea and it probably wasn’t a church we’d ever been to before, or after. We were church tourists, delinquents. Our miracles were slippery and secular. We’d go mining for fool’s gold, digging around at the dump, up at 5am to drive to the flea market, then the estate sales for ancient treasures. When we stopped at the gas station it was liquid sugar that came out of the pump and we’d drink it straight from the nozzle like water, thirsty and barefoot on the infernal California pavement, a feral cult of candy fiends.
Zooming along the freeway, we’d passed bedtime long ago and Crazy Dave slows down the truck and comes to a full stop in the middle of the lane. Time stops with us. What would it be like to lie down on the freeway and look up at the stars? Let’s find out! Dave and us kids lay down right there in a lane by the yellow Datsun pickup, our trusty lemon, and stare at the glittery desert sky. Total space cadets.
It’s true that when riding my black BMX bike home from the candy store one day, I hit a car and went flying into the air with my loot. Stripey glossy sticks, gummy globs, gobstoppers, chalky buttons, and nine billion rainbows went exploding all around me and I fell in slow-motion, landing not far from the dentist’s office where I got my first filling in third grade. On my back on the sidewalk, my bike somewhere else, I gazed up at the guardian-giant palm trees with the funny hair.
Crazy Dave was dead by then. The games had changed, but the gum was the same and I’d stick a-b-c pieces of it on the wall by my bed so I could revisit them later, the flavor less assertive than I remembered, the texture quieter, more night-timey, closer to dissolution…
Charity Coleman is the author of Julyiary (O’clock Press), and the forthcoming Billet-Doux (monoworld). Her work can be found at BOMB, Dolce Stil Criollo, The Fanzine, Joan’s Digest, Themecan, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.