Statler and Waldorf

Austin Kelley

The day the Muppets came to my neighborhood will forever be associated in my mind with the onset of my illness. I know it sounds silly. The Muppets obviously had nothing to do with my illness. In fact, when I look back carefully, I realize that my condition, a condition which would cripple me for months, had actually begun some time earlier. The first symptoms, a mild dizziness, started about a week or two before the Muppets arrived. That day was, if anything, a brief respite from my ailment, a day in which I felt perfectly fine. But one can't always choose one's mental associations, and I still can't escape the feeling that the events of that day, all of them, not just the bike accident, had some detrimental effect on me. The day clings to my mysterious condition, like wet tissue, and colors everything that followed.

It was one of those clear and cool days in late September when the smell of leaves and the crisp air moving in and out of my lungs overwhelms me with sense memories. Or I shouldn’t say, "memories." I don't actually recall another me smelling these things or breathing this way on any particular occasion. Those autumnal days just give me a feeling, dark and foreboding at times, but invigorating, a feeling that I associate with my youth. That morning, when I left my apartment, I found that my whole street was blocked off. There were police cars on the corner, and an ambulance hovered diagonally across the avenue. This wasn't that strange. The picturesque brownstone blocks near my apartment building were frequently over-run by TV and movie sets, and I knew there would be filming that day. For a week Carroll Street had been lined with signs proclaiming a temporary tow zone. When I moved my car the night before, I took a look at the fine print. They would be shooting a TV special, "Muppets: Letters to Santa."

Nonetheless, I was slightly perplexed by the police blockade in front of my door that morning. The signs had been on a street perpendicular to my own, not my block. I looked around for Muppets, but saw only real live people, making their way to work. It was early. Maybe the Muppets hadn't stirred yet. I mounted my bike and headed off.

When I think back on that bike ride, I remember a pleasant feeling, coasting downhill across the wet asphalt to the industrial neighborhood of Gowanus, where my office awaited me. I didn't have any paralyzing visions. I wasn't anxious at all. With the cool September day coursing through me, I was expectant, almost confident.


Let me explain my condition. When I was young I was afraid of nothing, besides people. I mean, I was deathly shy, but I wasn't afraid of the traditional things that scare children (or adults for that matter): monsters or ghosts or the dark. I enjoyed roller coasters and never understood why people were put off by them. If I didn’t like horror films, it was because they seemed boring and contrived, not scary. I liked flying in airplanes and riding in fast cars. The faster, the better; the wilder, the more pleasing. Nothing spooked me a bit.

Most of all, I loved heights. I remember spending hours in junior high walking on roofs with a disaffected rich kid named Brad. Brad had a Jim Morrison obsession — he even had leather pants — and one of the ways he liked to emulate the lizard king was by sneaking up the fire stairs and clamoring along the slanted roofs of his father’s condominium complex. Brad and I would jump from eave to eave, walking on our tiptoes along the center beams, six stories in the air. I could spend all day up there, just balancing and walking, leaping to a lower level, then climbing up again. I’d like to say there was a thrill to it, a sense of adventure. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I was testing my limits, as all adolescents do. But at the time I didn't feel like I was testing anything. I never felt a rush of adrenaline or a bout of nervous energy. I was just calm up there, removed from the world. My heart beat slowly. I didn't break a sweat.

As I grew older, I developed a sense of caution, as most of us do. Although I enjoyed the occasional rooftop party, I didn't go out of my way for heights. That's not to say that I became timid or fearful. I wasn’t the type to panic easily or to be rattled by the perils that hide under the surface of the everyday. I just didn't seek out danger. To be honest, I didn't give danger much thought.

Then suddenly, sometime around the Muppet day, a fear of heights seized me. It wasn't conventional vertigo, though. It was sympathetic or projected vertigo. It made me sick to see others in high places. If I passed an office building and spotted a worker on the third or fourth floor, I would be overcome by a vision of the figure plummeting to his or her death. I'd actually feel the worker's uneasiness, the anticipation as he lost his balance, and then the release into a terrifying slow-motion plunge.

The sensation reminded me of something I felt as a boy whenever I saw one of those glass-covered fire alarms which are often found in school buildings. They didn't have those in my private Quaker school so it was a relative rarity that I'd come across them. But whenever I did — whether it was at an away basketball game or at a public library — I’d see myself breaking the glass and sounding the alarm. It never failed. Whenever I’d see a fire alarm, my mind would set it off. It was like I was temporarily living an alternate life out of my control. Then in a snap, I'd return to normal. Only a second had passed, and the alarm was still there, untouched. But the feeling stuck with me, like a memory. Now this alternate life was popping up all around me in the form of horrible falls.

At first, my bouts of vertigo were relatively mild. A week before the Muppets day, I began to feel dizzy. I seem to recall that the dizziness came on whenever I looked up at people above, but I can't be sure. At the time I just knew I felt dizzy, and it grew steadily worse. Then one night, four days after the Muppets appeared, I had a date with M. We went to see "Man on Wire," a documentary about a daredevil who had walked on a tight rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I had been looking forward to the film. I had read good things about it, and I was excited to see it with M about whom I had a great feeling of possibility.  But as soon as the first image of a man teetering on the edge of nothing, alone against the gray and grainy sky, flickered before me, I felt myself plunging through space. I caught my own bile in my hand. I covered my face with a popcorn box and fled to the bathroom. It was horrible. My guts were tumbling. I was in uncontrollable free fall. At first, I didn't have time to be embarrassed. But then I saw myself hugging a toilet, having disgusted a whole theater full of movie-goers as well as M, a stylish and clever woman around whom I had only just learned to breathe. It was not a good time to throw up in her face.  If I could just get over it, I told myself, and return to the movie. But no. Even the thought of the gray sky brought back the feeling of free fall and deep nausea.

The next day I saw someone walking on the roof of the bagel store down on Fifth Avenue, and I immediately vomited my coffee and scallion cream cheese into the corner garbage. After that, everywhere I saw someone in danger of falling, I felt myself fall, and threw up.  People on fire escapes or scaffolding or tall ladders made me uncontrollably sick. My bike ride to work became a nervous mess. Eventually, I started walking instead, just so that I could keep my eyes down. When I occasionally had to go to midtown Manhattan, I would completely lose my sense of gravity. Walking among all those tall buildings was torture.

Simple stairs began to give me trouble too, especially if I was with M, who continued to spend time with me despite my increasing vertigo. I'd make her hold tightly to the rail. Then I'd look down, focusing on my feet and the simple motion. Step up. Step down. Push hard into the solid ground. And you'll be fine. Sometimes I was fine. Not always.


When I got home from work that autumnal day, I discovered two things that I now associate with my condition. The first was a group of Muppets — Fozzie, Gonzo, Kermit, the whole crew — sitting on a stoop. On the south side of Carroll Street, bright lights were shining on a group of puppeteers who crouched on the steps of a brownstone. The famous characters they held were each just a few feet high. I was star-struck by the tiny Muppets and delighted to watch them bobbing up and down — just like the Muppets do — from inside a giant cartoonish mailbag. I walked past the trailers to get a closer look, joining a huge crowd of children and their minders on the opposite side of the street. The puppeteers, I saw, were mostly young men with long hair and ragged clothes. They looked like 1970s hippies, like Muppeteers are supposed to look. The crew members, wearing headsets, spoke gently but firmly to us, "Ok, now everyone keep quiet please." A hush fell across Carroll Street.  Action. The Muppets began to speak loudly in their real Muppet voices. It was surprising somehow. I guess I had assumed that the voices were done in post-production not live on a clear September afternoon in Brooklyn.

I was standing next to a woman I recognized. I had seen her walking down the block with her family many times. She and her husband were tall and attractive and European-looking. Without much evidence, I had always imagined they were Dutch, and that their simple, elegant clothes were Dutch clothes, and that they lived lovely Dutch lives in their brownstone, which, I knew, was just around the corner from my apartment. The wife had recently cut her hair very short and looked like Jean Seberg in "Breathless." She spoke to me.

"I always loved the Muppets as a kid," she said, I didn't detect any accent, "especially Statler and Waldorf." She pointed out the two old critics who were sitting in a brownstone window above the other puppets.

I smiled, maybe too aggressively. "I didn't know they had names," I said.

"Statler and Waldorf," she repeated. "I really loved them as a kid and knew all about them. They were named after hotels. Waldorf even has a wife named Astoria." I smiled again, more naturally this time. "My son, Peter, he likes Elmo," she went on. "He can't get enough Elmo. They somehow get these kids early. Elmo's on their diapers, their juice-boxes, everywhere. Before they can talk, they love Elmo." I looked at the blond boy, Peter. He and some other children were trying to tear bark from the London plane tree. Its roots bubbled up from under the sidewalk like some kind of disease.

"I've tried to get him to watch the Muppets," she said, "but he just loves Elmo." She paused. The crew began rearranging the puppets for the next scene. "I didn't really relate to the other Muppets, not even Kermit," she continued. "I guess I thought Kermit and Miss Piggy and the rest of them were just like adults. They were sort of foreign to me. I felt more like Statler and Waldorf, watching from the balcony. I used to imagine whole conversations with them, commenting on what everyone was doing."

"OK, friends. Please be quiet now," said a young man in New Balance and a headset. The woman smiled at me and turned towards her son. A new scene began.


The other thing I discovered that day, besides a stoop full of Muppets, was a terrible accident. When I returned to my block, I found yellow police tape strung between two signs on the corner of President Street. It turned out that I was right to be confused about the police blockade that morning. It wasn't part of the Muppets set at all. A bike rider had been hit by a bus and killed directly in front of my apartment building. I discovered later that it had happened only minutes before I walked outside and, full of those September sensations, rode my own bike to work. One of those chalk drawings marked where the body had been. I went inside.

The next day was another crisp and beautiful fall day and another lovely ride to work despite the circumstances. When I arrived home, the scene of the accident had become a sort of shrine, which would grow over the coming weeks. First a few flowers appeared, fastened to the nearby street lamp. Then a note was taped above the flowers telling the story of the fallen biker. He was the same age as I was. Unlike me, however, he was deeply involved in community service. He had run a program, helping provide jobs for parolees and troubled Brooklyn teens. More flowers sprung up each day. They lined the metal pole and then spread across the sidewalk, wider and wider, a seeping ring of vegetation.  

Then came a bike parked at the scene as a memorial. It was painted completely white. The handle bars were white. The tires were white. The gears and the spokes, white. Everything was white. A few plastic blue flowers were tied to the frame. Above it, bolted to the street sign, there was a white placard that read in simple black type, "Victor Ramirez / 33 years old / Killed by bus / Sept. 18, 2011 / Rest in Peace." I had seen bikes like this, ghost bikes, in the city before. There was one, I remembered, on Houston Street, and another on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. I had always thought they were beautiful.

By the time the ghost bike appeared, I was already having serious bouts of nausea. The ghost bike haunted me too.  Its tires were flat — white and flat and misshapen. They looked like they were splattered across the sidewalk. I imagined the bike rider. For some reason, I saw him wearing brown tattered rags like a Disney version of "A Christmas Carol." He rode the bike soundlessly across the grey streets. The flat tires didn't seem to move. This vision was nothing like my scenes of falling men and women. It was just a weird daydream, and it didn't stick with me. But of course I now associate the two things, the image of a dead man flitting through my head and the physical breakdown I felt any time I saw someone removed from the ground.

The flowers disappeared, but the ghost bike stayed. And so did my illness, for the next two and a half months. Everywhere I saw people falling from apple-pickers, stairs, and windows. My stomach was a washing machine. I tried to make sense of my fears.  I knew that my that my vertigo had something to do with this death in front of my house and the ghost bike, even though my dizziness had begun before the accident and the full-blown vertigo had kicked in before the appearance of the ghost bike. In my mind, I kept reconsidering the "Man on Wire," M, and the bike accident. Then my mind would return to the Muppets, their weird little bodies, their squeaky voices, the mother who wasn't Dutch, Statler and Waldorf.  I didn't figure anything out. I didn't get better.


Then I did. I'd like to say that I discovered the cause of my illness, faced my fears, and dispelled them. Or at least, I'd like to tell you that I had watched, "Muppets: Letters to Santa," and it had cured me the way a second knock on the head often cures an amnesiac in a cartoon. But of course the Muppets hadn't really caused my condition, and they didn't relieve it. I did plan on watching the show, but then I forgot. At that point I was making holiday plans with M and was already having fewer and less severe experiences of vertigo. Gradually they disappeared entirely, and by the new year I could look up any time and, with a calm stomach and a clear head, see the sky, plain and gray, like it always was.

Author Bio: 

Austin Kelley’s non-fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, and other publications. He is the founding editor of The Modern Spectator. Austin has a Ph.D. from Duke, and he teaches writing at NYU.