Lost & Found: Leah Schnelbach on George Selden

Leah Schnelbach

The first time I read George Selden’s Irma and Jerry I was 9 years old, visiting my grandparents in West Palm Beach, Florida. Once a week my grandparents would drive me to the library near them and I would get as many books as they allowed. Irma and Jerry was a small paperback. Its front cover showed an affronted-looking cocker spaniel and a sly-looking cat, sitting in front of a brick wall, next to a garbage can. The plot seems thin to me now: Jerry, a pampered cocker spaniel, moves from New Haven to New York with his family and meets Irma, an alley cat who drags him into adventures, on which they meet a tough canary named Mike, a shy goldfish named Sarah, and a whole cast of harried human New Yorkers along the way. This spine doesn’t hint at the truth and satire within the story—but for me, the reason it stuck in my brain was the way it dropped me in New York.

George Selden is of course the children’s book author whose classic The Cricket in Times Square was a Newbery Honor book in 1961. Selden wrote a series of stories starring Chester Cricket and his friends Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse, as well as a modern fairy tale, The Genie of Sutton Place, that updated an Aladdin story to 1970s Manhattan. Irma and Jerry came out in 1982 and takes place entirely in Greenwich Village. It reflects the changing neighborhood, with yuppies like Jerry’s family running into working-class beat cops and artists who can still afford to live there. Selden himself lived in the Village, and also wrote The Story of Harold, an adult book about a children’s book author that explores themes of bisexuality, S&M, and depression. Irma and Jerry, similarly, meditates on non-traditional relationships, depression, and even suicidal ideation, in intriguingly kid-friendly ways.

I was already pretty sure I loved New York, because of Reading Rainbow. LeVar Burton, my first celebrity crush, guided me through the streets of the city, up to tar beaches and into radio stations at night and bakeries at dawn. I already knew that this city was energy captured and made solid—and that I would live there, as soon as I could grow up and marry LeVar. (I wanted his library.) But Irma and Jerry celebrated the grubbiness of New York, which was its own thrill to my child’s mind. Here were alleys and fire escapes and overflowing garbage cans, and, behind everything, a sense of danger. Selden also embraces the idea that one person’s garbage can prove very useful, when he makes a literal bag of trash a central image of the book: Irma finds Jerry a paper bag, fills it with “a crushed pack of cigarettes, some aluminum foil, a broken chain, the foot of a chair, and a largeish nail,” and explains that as long as Jerry holds the bag in his mouth, people will assume he’s running an errand. Busy New Yorkers won’t care too much about one solo dog anyway. And for the first time in his life, Jerry is offered real freedom.

But will he take it?

The conflict of the book as it plays out is this question—one that I’ve never found in another book for children. Is it worth risking death for adventure? Is it worth discomfort and danger to feel truly alive?

Jerry lives with Professor Thompson and the Missus. Since Professor T. is a philosopher and takes Jerry to class with him, our protagonist self-identifies as a Platonist. His new friend Irma is an alley cat by choice—she was living in comfort with a couple, the Nussters, who lived an upper class life on the Upper East Side. But Irma hates comfort; she wants adventure, and she wants to throw herself into life, whatever the cost.

Irma tries to work at an Italian restaurant, a falafel place, and a laundromat, but each time gets “fired” for befriending mice rather than eating them (“Fired” in this case means having pots and hot irons thrown at her as she runs away). She tries instead replacing an elderly Dalmatian as a firehouse’s mascot. This career ends with singed fur. Next she embarks on a career in law enforcement by partnering with a cop, Big John Roccasciglia—but every time she hops into the squad car he tosses her back out. It turns out that John wants a lapcat. Irma takes a brief detour through academia, living with Egyptology professor Frieda von Aknefrei and modeling the goddess Bastet for undergrads. Then she models with an actual model in a furniture boutique, and finally takes up acting, playing Graymalkin in what sounds like a truly colorful production of Macbeth. The story ends on this gig, but there’s every indication that Irma will move on to another career soon—she gets bored easily.

At various points Irma goads Jerry into stealing a priceless Egyptian artifact (part of a scheme to force a meet-cute between Big John and Big Frieda von Aknefrei, foiling a robbery at the furniture boutique, faking rabies, and joining her onstage. While in most kids’ books these would just be wacky shenanigans, Selden gives the adventures actual consequences: Irma’s fur is burned most of the way off; Irma and Jerry are each nearly euthanized at different points; Jerry has to fake rabies; Sarah Goldfish narrowly escapes being flushed; and Mike Canary’s elderly human companion dies. Selden makes sure to emphasize that one of the “consequences” of these adventures is Jerry’s emotional growth. In the second half of the book, this growth leads to his bravery in rescuing Sarah Goldfish from being flushed, joining Irma in her acting career, and, finally, in the courage to confess his love to Irma.

One of the book’s through-lines is the strain between Irma and Jerry’s very different personalities. Selden also tinges their relationship with romance, which lead to interesting questions when I was a kid. Jerry is clearly in love with Irma, although, as I mentioned, it takes most of the story before he admits it. The pair cycle between flirting and fighting, and they take baths together to make up. Jerry also develops a crush on Sarah Goldfish, while Irma is in love with Big John, and Mike Canary loves the elderly woman he adopts—but more on her in a moment. Cross-species love is portrayed as completely real and acceptable—in New York. When Jerry lived in suburban Connecticut he barked at cats in order to be “a self-respecting dog,” but in the City he allows himself to love not only a cat, but also a goldfish. Mike Canary loves his “ol’ lady,” and explicitly sees himself as her partner. Jerry’s jealousy of Big John is is presented as a problem because it means he’s being possessive of Irma—the very thing she doesn’t want. The fact that she has a crush on a human and refers to him as “babe” is completely OK in the book’s universe. Selden makes it clear that all of these complicated emotions and complex relationships are OK, as long as everyone treats everyone else with respect. Given Selden’s TKTK, which explored open relationships and queerness in the Village, it seems to me, now, that a pretty clear line can be drawn between his work for kids and adults. I know that as a child the loving relationships Jerry found in New York seem a lot better and more interesting that the rigid social structure he followed in Connecticut.

The view of the urban adult world was as striking to me as the adventures themselves. Brenda Blandin, the model, suffers through constant, frank harassment from her evil boss. The Missus occasionally goads Professor T. into helping with the housework with the caustic question: “Well? Are you modern?” Professor von Aknefrei is portrayed as a lonely hoarder. Big John is a grieving son. These were not the sitcom grown-ups I was used to, who had the world figure out and a quip for every occasion. One of the setpieces of the book is a chapter that sees Jerry trapped in a police station overnight. He watches in horror as inebriated adults are tossed into the “drunk tank,” a young woman is dragged in from a fight, still brandishing a knife, and most unsettling of all, Frank Ryan, a middle-aged man with a receding ruff of ginger hair, is brought in after he’s found crying on the sidewalk. There is no explanation given for his condition. One of the cops, Michael O’Reilly, gives him a coffee, the two men sit together, and Frank says that “it just got to be too much.” Then Frank pulls himself together and leaves. My nine-year-old self was confronted with an image of nameless, rootless depression so powerful it drove a man into a police station in the dead of night. Rereading it now, I realize that a police officer brought Frank Ryan for suicide watch. Where I think many children’s books of the time would have given us a scene of a happy Frank Ryan to give his character a positive emotional arc, Selden chose to include this image of unresolved sadness in his book, and allow his young readers to absorb it.

Then we get to a long interlude about Mike Canary and his “ol’ lady.” A “shopping bag lady,” she was married to one of the first train conductors on the newly-constructed subway. Mike only learns this because, in her dementia, she begins to relive her youth and talk to him as though he’s her long-lost husband, Franky. This is how Mike discovers that she saw her husband killed—“He got squashed”—in a train accident. The bird then relates her attempts to live first with her “creepy” pawnbroker brother, and then with a cousin in Jersey, but dismisses both men with the phrase “dey didn’t have nuttin’ to say to each othah,” so she set off on a different sort of life:

A note of pride lifted Mikey’s voice. That is, instead of being a baritone, he sounded like a dramatic tenor. “So den she became a bag lady! An’ one of da foist in New York. Maybe—wow—da very foist! A pioneer!”

At no point is any of this sugarcoated or watered down for kids. When I read this book as a 4th grader, I understood that the animals were being threatened with euthanasia, that Mike’s ol’ lady had dementia, and eventually, that both Mike’s ol’ lady and Big John’s Mama had died. But what Selden did that really resonated with me was the way he paired those moments of sadness with scenes of celebration and joy. When Jerry first meets Mike and his ol’ lady, the dog and cat help feed her, and then sing together to help her fall asleep. Mike roots through the tenement’s cabinets until he finds a can of baba au rhum, and the three animals feast on it, allow themselves to get drunk (“fried outta shape” as Mike puts it) and sing together for their own amusement. Jerry is struck by the pathos of Mike’s life, but Irma bops him on the nose and tells him to sing. Later, when Mike’s ol’ lady has died, he tells Jerry and Sarah Goldfish that she “died lookin’ ovah da Hudson Rivah. Dat really ain’t all dat bad. An’ da sun was comin’ up, too, dis morning” and so a good death is defined in very New York terms. The four animals all take a bath together in Jerry’s basement’s large sink—ostensibly to wash Sarah Goldfish’s bowl, but really as an act of communion between them, to reaffirm their friendship, and aliveness, after a loss.

A chapter later Irma and Jerry are on the outs again, this time because Jerry throws a fit and refuses to join Irma as an actor. But really, the problem is that Jerry’s letting his pride get in the way of pushing himself to try something new. He does some serious walking and thinking on the West Side, trying to figure out who he wants to be, and how much he’s willing to be changed by New York:

I walked right up to he concrete embankment. And—my word!—it truly was beautiful. They say the river’s polluted now, and dogs and men can’t swim in it, but Lord—Lord!—is it beautiful! It flowed beneath the October night. And the night was clear. The stars were as bright and sharp as needles, but the prickles they gave me were wonderful. And a new moon too. It hung up there like the edge of a little silver fingernail, or a sly silver grin, in the sky.

I walked my legs under me and just at down. You could jump, a part of me said to me. Of course, cockers can swim, but if I didn’t dog-paddle, I’d sink. And besides if the Hudson is that polluted, sink or swim, you rot anyway. What a way to go!

Leave aside for a second the fact that a dog is contemplating suicide: look at how this is framed. The Hudson is beautiful despite its pollution. It’s already been shown as nigh-heavenly symbol; now we see it as it flows through a New York night. The stars are compared to needles, and the moon is either a sliver of fingernail—again, detritus—or a sly grin. The night is, at best, laughing at him. Even as he seriously thinks of jumping into the river, he’s overcome with the singular, grimy beauty of New York.

Jerry decides to try again. He commits to life in New York, and life with Irma, because the city itself charms him. As a child I was much more a Jerry than an Irma, but there was something about the way Selden wrote New York that made me want to transform into the latter, ready to grab every possibility life, and the city, threw at me. I’ve been trying to live up to that alley cat’s example ever since.

Leah Schnelbach is a staff writer for Tor.com and a fiction editor of No Tokens journal. Her work has appeared in Joyland, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Madcap Review, The Boiler, and Electric Literature.