Monday, December 23, 2013

Room for Both in This Polarized Age

It’s Christmas: classic holiday movie and television show time. If the sheer number of times that I’ve watched it is the barometer, then my personal favorite is The Homecoming by Earl Hamner, Jr., a TV movie that inspired The Waltons, which debuted as a weekly series a year later. 

I remember watching The Homecoming when it first aired in 1971, just days before Christmas. I was more apt to be mesmerized back then and this movie did it for me. I appreciated its starkness. It looked especially good. One could believe this was a family living in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1933, when times were pretty tough. When I first watched the movie in December 1971, I recall thinking how 1933 was such a long, long time ago—another world altogether from the perspective of a nine year old living in the Bronx. Thirty-eight years had, in fact, passed from when The Homecoming story occurred to when it was made into a television movie. Since it debuted, forty-two years have passed. Forty-two plus thirty-eight equals eighty.

The Walton family of The Homecoming lived in simpler times for sure—genuinely hardscrabble but simpler on a whole host of fronts. And 1971, from where I sat at least, was a lot simpler than today. All these years later, it’s interesting to witness how a fair number of folks, who just loved The Waltons as a weekly TV drama—but who had until recently never before seen The Homecoming—found the ipso facto pilot movie off-putting. A small percentage even became hostile on the message boards, as if The Homecoming was somehow sacrilege with its tough-as-nails mother played by Patricia Neal and decidedly less saccharine friends and neighbors on Walton's Mountain than seen on the subsequent television show. While lovably eccentric in the TV series, the bootlegging Baldwin sisters, for one, are certifiably crazy in The Homecoming.

We live in such a polarized age now. But you know: There really is room for The Homecoming and The Waltons—for diversity. I like them both, but I especially get into the former because, I suspect, it is closer to the way things really were. Had the TV show starred Patricia Neal instead of Miss Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, it might not have fared too well. After all, there are movies and there are TV shows. Coming into our living rooms week after week, she might not have played on the small screen. It’s hard, though, not to love The Homecoming once a year with its memorable cast of characters and unforgettable dialogue. Forget It’s a Wonderful Life, which I watched one time and one time only—way too intense for holiday fare as far as I’m concerned. No, it’s Scrooge, the musical starring Albert Finney, and The Homecoming that have stood the test of time for me. Very literally, I could perform a one-man Homecoming show. “What are you doing up there behind locked doors?” The answer we discover is writing in a tablet. Anything else, John-Boy? Simpler times and television for sure.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Man-Lady in the "Cream Sam Summer" of '78

Here is an excerpt from my recently published YA novel Cream Sam Summer. It's Kingsbridge in the Bronx, 1978, when neighborhood characters definitely had more character:
The Wheel is situated directly opposite the McDonald’s parking lot with a bird’s-eye view of the elevated subway tracks on Broadway, where the Number 1 train—the Seventh Avenue local—barrels back and forth day and night from here in the Northwest Bronx to lower Manhattan. We’ve christened the individual who owns the place the “Man-Lady,” because distinguishing the proprietor’s gender is not a slam-dunk. When all is said and done, though, the Man-Lady is the latter.
She wears what I call “maintenance man pants,” stylish “Vince Lombardi glasses,” and has a considerable rear end that accentuates her sartorial tastes. The Man-Lady walks with a pronounced limp, too, which adds further color to her incomparable persona.
When I was a mere lad, my palms would literally sweat and my heartbeat race whenever I walked into the Wheel’s poorly lit interior. One too many burned out and never replaced fluorescent light bulbs supply the place with a shadowy, dungeon-like ambiance. Really, it’s an apropos setting for the Man-Lady to ply her trade. While she’s an intimidating presence for sure, she definitely knows her stuff. When it comes to tightening bicycle brakes, I don’t know of anyone who can hold a candle to her.
I followed closely behind Richie as the two of us gingerly entered the Wheel’s gloomy showroom. Bells attached to the inside of the door alerted the owner, who was repairing a bicycle in a backroom, that she had a customer. The Man-Lady poked her head out to see who was there. I detected her beady eyes—behind the Vince Lombardi glasses—glowering in our general direction. In no particular hurry, she eventually waded through a labyrinth of bicycles—both for sale and for rent—to the front of the shop.
“What can I do for you?” she asked in the snippy tone of someone who clearly preferred fixing bikes, without interruption, to making nickel and dime sales with teenagers.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)