Sunday, March 16, 2014

Deathman, Do Not Follow Me

In my eighth-grade "Language Arts" class, we had to do a book report-presentation combo. We could select a book of our own choosing, but it had to be approved by our teacher. We were permitted to pair up, too, and so a friend and I opted to read a YA entitled Deathman, Do Not Follow Me by Jay Bennett. I don’t remember much about the book, except that I really liked it as a thirteen-year-old. A kid by the name of Danny Morgan was the main protagonist, and he was daydreaming in history class at some point in time. I believe, too, that he inadvertently got involved with some art thieves or some such thing. Anyway, my project partner and I made the equivalent of an abridged book-on-tape before there was any such thing (or was there?). This was going to be our presentation part. As fate would have it, we didn’t have to go public with the tape. I don’t recall the reason, but it worked to our benefit. For starters, nobody would have understood what was going on. We flubbed our lines on occasion as well. My buddy, the narrator said “art expedition” when he meant "art exhibition."

What made me think about Deathman, Do Not Follow Me after all these years is an encounter I recently had with a passerby. I saw this man coming toward me who looked an awfully lot like someone I once knew—a man named Jerry who has been dead for thirteen years. What went through my mind as the distance that separated us narrowed—and he looked more and more, and not less and less, like Jerry—was what if he said hello to me as if it was him? What if it was like the occasional meetings we experienced for so many years—we lived in the same neighborhood—where we’d briefly chat about nothing especially important like his desiring a move to Reno, Nevada, a great "walking town." After all, if he’s standing there as Jerry and knows me by name, I couldn’t tell him that he’s dead and that I attended his wake. This potential scenario very literally played in my brain in the several seconds leading up to us passing one another. He was a dead ringer for Jerry all right, but it wasn’t him.

Had it been Jerry, what would I have done?. Would I have turned around and gone home, thinking I had either lost my marbles or was still in bed dreaming? Or would have I continued running my errands, believing that maybe—just maybe—I’d entered the Twilight Zone. Afterwards, I kind of wished it really was old Jerry that I saw on the street the other day. It would have certainly given me some food for thought. Then again, I probably wouldn't have written a blog about it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mr. C, Mr. O'B, and Sacco and Vanzetti

While poring over miscellaneous scraps of paper from my past recently, I encountered an eighth-grade history test, replete with both a matching column and "True or False" section. Mr. C, I’ll call him, hand wrote the test and had it mimeographed. That was the technology of the mid-1970s. One of the questions on it was: “In 1924 the first pizza parlor in America was opened by Sacco and Vanzetti?” I’m proud to report that I got the answer right as well as the previous question: “The 1920’s was a time of great hardship and depression?” As for the former test query, Mr. C, I suspect, would have to think twice today about associating an Italian surname with pizza pie. I'm certain somebody would turn him in for the offense—and toot sweet. Then again, everything is so standardized nowadays that a Mr. C history test—we called it "Social Studies" back then—wouldn't even reach the modern-day equivalent of the mimeograph machine.

Another snippet of paper in my archives was a handwritten summary of the "Best of Mr. O’B," my geometry teacher in high school. While I didn’t care much for the subject matter, Mr. O’B was a true original—both a good teacher and a performance artist extraordinaire. When the school year ended, and he reported that he wouldn’t be returning in the fall for another go-round—he got a better offer—I recall being profoundly saddened to think that I would never, ever see him again. His lectures were entertainingly frenetic and he loved nothing more than having fun with people’s names—both their first and their last. He was an Irishman who, above all else, enjoyed calling on kids with multi-syllabic Italian surnames. We had an awful lot of them in our high school. Somebody named Vanzetti in his class, for instance, would have had his name pronounced in a melodious sing-song:“VAN-zet-TI.” He liked one-syllable first and last names, too. A kid named “Bell,” I remember, rang well in the classroom.

From where I—and just about everybody else—sat, Mr. O'B's class is where entertainment met education, and his antics didn’t offend anybody. In fact, we wanted to be included in the show. "Oh, Nick...oh, Nick," are in my notes, so I was indeed, although I don't recall the context. More than three decades have passed since the Mr. O'B show and—so it seems—virtually everybody is conditioned to be offended for one reason or another. Mr. O’B very likely had to clean up his act at some point in his teaching career, if that is where he pitched his tent. (He probably was in his mid-twenties when I had him.) If this is what in fact happened, the irony is that his students from the 1970s—who adored him—did him in as the humorless, uptight adults they became.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

High 1978

The 2014 Academy Awards are yesterday’s news. I didn’t see a single movie that won an Oscar, or even one that was nominated and lost. I just haven’t seen any new releases in a while. And not for reasons of quality or any such thing. It’s just that movies and me nowadays are largely confined to Netflix, and even then I don’t watch all that many of them. For both business and pleasure, I just finished viewing seasons one through nine of Seinfeld.

Recently, I stumbled upon various scrap-paper “journals” that I haphazardly kept in my teenage years. They mostly chronicled events in my life with occasional editorial commentary. One such "journal" listed the movies I saw in the summer of 1978 in places ranging far and wide—everywhere from my very own neighborhood to Fordham in the South Bronx to the isle of Manhattan. I patronized theaters in Lavallette, New Jersey and Mattituck, Long Island, too.

What was most memorable to me about this summer movie potpourri was not the Academy Award-winning caliber of them—quite the contrary—but the aftermath of seeing Hooper, starring Burt Reynolds, which I didn’t especially like. On our way home from Fordham’s UA Valentine theater, my friends and I were accosted by knife- and belt-wielding street thugs. They were street and we weren't—and I'm kind of happy about that in the big picture. Where are they now? Although it was a humiliating decision on our parts, we opted to run for our lives and—with the exception of a few haphazard whacks from a belt—escaped lasting physical harm. The ride home on the BX20 bus felt pretty good, although the alpha-est male in our pack wished that—in theory at least—we had stood our grounds and defended ourselves with honor. However, one of the hoodlums had threatened to “slice up the fat one,” which was he—and he wasn’t all that fat. And since we weren't in a John Wayne movie—or even a Death Wish sequel—I still believe running away under those circumstances was a good idea.

Later that summer, I saw Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and James Mason, in a Manhattan theater. This was on the heels of witnessing an armed robbery on the subway ride down there. The fifteen-year-old me made note of the irony—Heaven Can Wait—which nobody appreciated. It was the 1970s, after all, and such things happened more frequently than they do today—and the muggers back then weren’t after iPhones, either. Heaven Can Wait was actually nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to The Deer Hunter, which I didn’t see in 1978 if I am to believe my paper trail.

If I had to parcel out an Academy Award in 1978 to my movies, I’d have given it to the one released in 1977, High Anxiety, which I saw a couple of times. While on vacation in Lavallette, New Jersey, I recall coaxing my father to see it. He was hysterical when Mel Brooks got drenched in bird poop. Simpler times for sure.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)