It's funny as long as it's someone else's family. I began writing "made up" stories about growing up in Amsterdam, New York in the 1970s. Some people said my writing made them laugh. So I enhanced some of my family members' traits, drawing them more broadly, but keeping their essences in tact. I hope you enjoy "This Functional Family"
From the corner of my eye I could see Peroxide rushing toward me. “Anthony, do you have a camera?” “Uh huh.” "I want you to take a picture of me and Ginger." Ginger was a Chihuahua that Peroxide had stolen from her former neighbors because they had a barbecue and didn’t invite her. Now that Peroxide had moved to another town, no one knew the thief’s identity, except of course, Ginger.
Ginger hated Peroxide with every Mexican fiber of her being. Whenever Peroxide walked into her own house, Ginger snapped and growled and tore through sofa pillows, her head doing frenzied figure eights until stuffing filled the air.
“Look at THIS, Anthony!” Peroxide beamed with pride. She showed me a sketch of a stick person walking a stick dog. “What is it?” I asked. “Flashleash!” “What’s flashleash?” “It’s a dog leash with a flashlight attached, so you can walk your dog at night!” I tried to be supportive. “That sounds like a good idea! But how are you going to keep the flashlight steady if it’s dangling on a chain?” I asked. Peroxide had thought it all out. “It’s not a chain. It’s a stick!” I tried to think of a diplomatic way to ask my next question. “Are you going to walk Ginger on a stick?” “It’s perfect!” she shouted. “I can’t believe no one’s thought of this before! That son of a bitch is gonna be sorry when he sees me on TV with this. This is a million dollar idea, Anthony!” She ran to the pantry and brought out a beheaded broomstick with a flashlight duck taped to one end and Ginger’s collar taped to the opposite end. “Ginger! C’mon! Let’s go for a walk!” For the next few minutes Peroxide wrestled Ginger into her collar at the end of a broomstick.
We stepped outside just after dusk. When Peroxide walked forward, Ginger was pushed ahead by the force of the broomstick. Ginger turned to curse at Peroxide, and the flashlight gave her demon eyes. If Peroxide moved her arm to the left, Ginger flew at a wide and involuntary 45 degree arc in a spotlight. “See? It’s perfect!” Peroxide cheered as she moved her arm back to the right, sending the illuminated Chihuahua sailing over the grass. For ten minutes we walked the field behind Peroxide’s home, waving a spotlighted Chihuahua this way and that.
The next morning I took pictures of Peroxide and Ginger next to the Cadillac. Peroxide, smiling broadly in a yellow pant suit with hair souffled atop her head, holding a broomstick with a furious Chihuahua taped to the end. Peroxide wanted the picture to go to the Patent Office. I thought it should go to PETA. “Maybe we should take a picture of just you and the Flashleash, and leave Ginger inside” I suggested.
I took several pictures of Peroxide holding a stick, first in the left hand, then the right. “See! Anybody can use it!” she shouted.
After dinner we began writing the instructional brochure which would accompany Flashleash. “That bastard can rot in hell,” she scowled. “Do you know what he used to call me? Lacksadaisy! I’m not lacksadaisy, Anthony! I work for my money! This is a million dollar idea! I’m gonna be swimming in money!” The letter to the Patent office was mailed the next day. The blueprints for Flashleash were stored next to the ones for the Aluminum Slider and the Dolly Dip Water Slide, in her filing cabinet, under “P” in a folder marked “Patent Pendy”.
I am a Bear
On my thirtieth birthday I had an acting job in New York City. I played Papa Bernstein Bear in a live stage show as part of Toy Fair. At 10:00am I told my coworkers that I was going to a meeting. I stepped outside the building to meet the director and begin acting. Over the next hour I would scar a generation of children.
We went to the ESPN Zone sports bar, where a wardrobe station had been set up. The bear costume was gigantic. I put on the body and overalls, stepped into the huge bear boots and awaited the head. The giant fiberglass, felt and fur head had a baseball helmet sewn into it. It balanced precariously on my noggin.
Once inside the costume I was helpless. I tried to walk out of the restaurant, but my big bear feet kept kicking chairs out of the way. When I tried to look down at my feet, my head fell off. My bear wife and bear children weren't faring any better. Staffers took us by the arms and led us out onto the Times Square stage like invalids.
Once onstage I realized that the costume was nearly soundproof. Staffers were talking into our mouths, probably giving us important information, but we heard nothing. Then the staffers left us alone on stage. In front of the stage there were 200 children behind ropes, all squealing with adoration. The ropes were removed, and we were attacked at the knees.
As children surrounded us, hugging our legs, tugging our arms and shouting, it seemed only natural to make eye contact with them. I looked down and saw a Chinese boy hugging my leg and staring up at me with affection. I was about to ruin him. The last thing I saw was his expression change as my head detached and smashed his little Chinese face. He let out a scream that sent the other children scattering across Times Square like little Cloverfield actors. I tried to grab my head but my bear boot knocked the little boy to the ground. It looked exactly like I had kicked the boy off the stage.
A staffer grabbed my head as it rolled down West 44th Street and she slammed it back on. The sight of that sent another wave of screams through the crowd. The other staffers rushed the stage, took us by each arm and led the mean, invalid bears back into the bar.
That was how I began my thirties. I was paid one hundred dollars to traumatize hundreds of children on my birthday.
It was unbelievable. I had accepted a job in Japan. Telling my family would be tricky. I had been unemployed for almost 2 years so, the news of having a job should be met with joy. "Well...if THAT'S what you want to do." The head shaking. The arched eyebrows. The tone of disappointment. Grouse encapsulated my family's opinion. "Japan?! What do you want to go there for? You don't speak Chinese!"
A month later I had sublet my place in Queens and decided to stay with my mom for a few weeks before leaving the country. "Let's go to the Chinese buffet tonight" she suggested. "You'll have to get used to eating that stuff." Mom always looked out for me. "There are Japanese restaurants in New York" I said. "I've had Japanese food many times."
Grouse met us in the parking lot of the Chinese Buffet. "Did you talk to Anitabeth today?" she demanded. Grouse was a prosecutor. "No. Why?" mom asked. "She's having Thanksgiving with the asshole." Grouse's daughter, Anitabeth, had been dating a dashing ex con who wore a shimmering anklet that pinged his whereabouts to the authorities. Grouse had refused all contact with the man after he got drunk at the fourth of July barbecue and called her a duze patzo. "I told her 'fine! have Thanksgiving with that asshole. And drop dead while you're at it!'" Grouse's emotions were absolute.
"Is that raw?" Grouse and I were standing at the Chinese Buffet's sushi/salad/pizza/fried chicken bar. "It's just carrot, avocado and cucumber" I explained, piling California roll onto my plate. "Yeah, but it's raw, right?" "It's just vegetables" I stressed. "Well, you're braver than me." Back at the table, Grouse pointed out to mom how brave I was. "Look what he's eating." "Oh God. I don't want to look" said mom. "It's just vegetables and rice!" "Well, he's gotta get used to eating that stuff" was mom's defense. Grouse prodded further. "And you really want to live over there and eat that stuff?" "You eat vegetables here, don't you?" I reasoned. "Yeah, but that's raw, right?" Then came Grouse's final word on the subject. "Just do me a favor, will ya? Don't be bringing one of THEM back HERE."
Peroxide had spent her life climbing the social ladder. Her first husband was a farmer. Her second owned a double-wide and liked to wear costume jewelry to Atlantic City. Her current, estranged husband owned a cabin, half a mountain and a pacemaker. She, herself, owned a 1978 banana-yellow Cadillac convertible that was never driven. It lived in her pole barn under a tarp and was only used as a prop in photos she had taken for personal ads.
"Anthony look at this." I had just woken up and hadn't had coffee yet. Peroxide put a piece of paper in front of me with a crude drawing of a stick person going down a slide. "That's nice" I said. "I'm gonna get a patent!" she announced. "For a slide?" I asked. "This is the Dolly Dip Water Slide. It's a water slide for Barbie dolls. It's my own invention. I'm gonna get rich and show that son of a bitch I don't need him. He thinks he's got money? Just wait till I make a million dollars with this! I thought of it Anthony. This is gonna make a fortune. I'm gonna get a patent!" "It looks nice" I reassured. "You know how to get a patent, right Anthony? That's what you did for work, right?" "Actually I worked in copyrights" I explained. "That's a little different." "Yeah but that's what I want to do" she insisted. "I want to copyright this so I can sell it and make a million dollars."
Other sketches followed. Stick figures at the top of the slide. Stick figures half way down the slide. Stick figures at the bottom of the slide, entering the water. Some had hair. She was convinced that these 'blueprints' would seal her destiny atop the Barbie doll accessory empire.
It had snowed heavily the night before and I was enjoying shovelling the sidewalk. The neighborhood looked like a Currier and Ives print. "Anthony come here. I want you to try this." Peroxide was standing on a snow bank next to the side of the house, clutching a gray rag. "Try what?" I asked. "Take this." She handed me what appeared to be a winter sock that had been cut open. "Now wipe here, on the aluminum siding." Dirt from the siding transferred to the sock. "Isn't that something?!" she cheered. "How much would you pay for that?" "For a sock?" I asked. "No" she explained. "This is the Aluminum Slider! I'm gonna make mittens out of this material that will clean the outside of your house!" Peroxide had visions of infomercials, and of all Americans wiping their houses with mittens made from socks. "This is worth twenty dollars, right Anthony?" "I guess so. But it would take a long time to do the whole house." She was one step ahead of me. "Yeah, but the whole family could do it together. That's what - a hundred dollars per family!"
After dinner we conferenced over 'blueprints' of stick figures holding mittens against a house. "That son of a bitch can eat my grits" she scowled, misquoting a 1970s sitcom character. "He's up there in that cabin, and he thinks his shit don't stink. I'm gonna be on TV with these, and he can eat my grits!"
Sportsman of the Year
For my seventh birthday my Father gave me a curious present - a football uniform. I was not a member of a football team, and had no intention of joining one. I laid the uniform out on the floor. A blue shirt, white pants, white socks, shoes with spikes, chunky white plastic pieces with straps and a big shiny head. I would need help getting into costume.
Strapping on the white plastic shoulders, I knew instinctively that this was ridiculous. Fighting to get the blue shirt over the plastic shoulders almost put me off sports entirely. Dad secured the helmet and I stood there for his approval, feeling unnaturally heavy.
"Go outside" he commanded. I sat on the steps in front of our home and stared at the clouds. After a while, a group of neighborhood boys, who had always enjoyed ridiculing me, walked by. When they saw me, they stopped and laughed. "Where's the football game?" one of them joked. "This is a BASEBALL uniform" I barked. They fell into each other with laughter. "It's a football uniform, you idiot!" "No it's not!" I insisted. "It's a BASEBALL uniform!" I yelled, my voice cracking. I stood up, spun my chunky, plastic self around and marched inside sobbing. I never wore the costume again. I never even saw it again.
A few years later I discovered tennis and learned that there really is an athlete inside.
In the summer of 1978 my sister began dating Marco Del Vecchio, who could have been quite handsome if his teeth had grown into their assigned slots. When he smiled, you immediately thought of a broken piano. A group of us spent our summers at the baseball fields - a quartet of diamonds next to McNulty Elementary.
July 12 was Marco's birthday. Although he didn't yet have his driving permit, he was handed a set of car keys by Fast Eddie Majewski and told to take a spin around the parking lot. Not yet old enough to drive, I sucked on a bomb pop and watched with disinterest.
The next fifteen seconds would scar us all, living until this day in slow motion memory replay. It was sunny. It was hot. It was the summer of 1978. Suddenly and without cause, Marco flew backwards out of his parking space. Like a rocket he smashed into a cadillac so hard that it jumped to another parking space. In an apparent attempt to undo time itself, Marco threw the car into drive, bolted forward and crashed into a red Dodge Duster. Losing his mind before our eyes, he once again reversed and plowed into the back of a pickup truck. There were screams of terror. There were belly laughs. Fast Eddie Majewski grabbed his feathered hair in disbelief. From the baseball diamond on top of the hill, old people descended in a panic, waving their baggy arms and yelling "Stop! Stop!"
Marco was denied a driver's license until his 23rd birthday. In less time than it took to eat a bomb pop, I watched as Marco's entire childhood vanished.
First Day Back in the States
The next morning I awoke after only 5 hours of sleep. The combination of cough syrup, homemade hooch and frosting had spun chakra roulette. I heard voices in the kitchen. Mom was standing at the stove making the kitchen thick with the familiar smell of deep-fried trans fats. Her oldest sister, aunt Grouse, jumped up. "There he is! Come here you." She pulled me in for a hug. "You're too skinny" she barked. "Your hair looks great!" I countered. "Yeah, what's left of it" she said.
"So how are you Anthony?" She seemed genuinely interested. "I'm great! I've just had the best year of my life." Mom placed a cup of coffee in front ot me and I felt my energy come back. Grouse said "yeah" with a subtlety of intonation that fell somewhere between a question and a statement. It caused me to pause for just an instant. She continued, "well that chooch that does my car wants 200 bucks to replace one lousy line!" Scientists could calculate the nanoseconds it took my brain to scan its limited knowledge of cars, while my internal censor searched its records for politically incorrect slurs from the 1950s. "Do you want some breakfast?" mom asked. "Do you have any yogurt?" I asked. "Oh geez" squealed Grouse. "You're not one of THEM, are you?"
"Can you believe Walmart was out of 4-roll packs of toilet paper?" Grouse led a difficult and unfair life. "I had to buy a 16-roll pack as big as my car. And there I am pushing this cart back to my car with these 16 rolls of toilet paper piled on top. I might as well wear a sign that says 'shit machine'." I suddenly remembered chocolate frosting. "Is there any cake from last night?"
In the afternoon I drove to my Dad's place. His black-haired, half-dog half-pig poodle demon spots me as I turn the corner onto his cul-de-sac. I hear barking. I see fangs. I bound up the stairs like the homecoming son in a Christmas-themed instant coffee commercial. "Hiya Dad!" We hug. "Anthony, how are you?" We un-hug. "BREE NO!" he bellows. The next few minutes are a schizophrenic mix of small talk interspersed with his screams at pig/dog. Bree regards me askant, as if I've come to steal the silver. "Anthony, you want some coffee?" "Sure!" Bree howls with alarm.
"So how've you been Anthony?" He's using my name a lot. Either he's trying to make me feel special, or he's on some new medication. "I've been great. How are you?" I was genuinely concerned. "Eh, good days and bad days. Ya know." We haven't seen each other for over a year and we're starting with platitudes. Before I could stir sugar into my coffee, my father told me of his not-so-secret wish to 'off' the governor. "You see these?" He holds up a pack of Marlboros. "If you don't keep puffing on them, they go out!" I was confused. "You set it down in the ashtray (he demonstrates for clarity) and it goes out in two minutes! You gotta keep lighting them!" My initial thought was that this was a good thing. It makes cigarettes safer and the smoker doesn't waste any of it. "I swear, for two cents, I'd put a bullet between the governor's eyes." Clearly my dad's freedom to waste cigarettes was being snuffed out.
I stayed for three cups of coffee. Whenever pig/dog woke from one of her obesity-propelled naps, apparently forgetting that she had already welcomed me, she launched into another red alert. Bree had never known a thin person and, like most in that town, she was xenophobic.
Welcome Home, Now Back to Me
As the Amtrak sputtered to a stop in Rennsallear I thought back to how my Dad would tap the breaks of the car, rendering my sister and I giggling rag dolls in the back seat. I had been travelling for 23 hours and my thoughts were skimming synapses as I struggled to stay awake. In one more hour I would be back home where I could finally relax. I had been living in Japan for a year. I had flown from Fukuoka to Tokyo to New York where I boarded a train for the final leg of my journey. In seconds I would see my mom. We would hug and kiss and drive to her house and, like a gallavant, I would entertain her with stories of the Orient.
"There he is!" I looked up and saw three fake blonds of varying wattage. Indeed, my mother, sister and aunt had all come to greet me. I suspected their change of hair color was unrelated to my arrival. I felt warm, wonderful and exhausted as I embraced all three Brady girls. Having grown up around women I knew that complimenting their hair had to be done immediately and convincingly. Years of theater improv training had prepared me to serve three separate, unique and rapturous reviews. There were giggles and details of who did who's hair, and how many times before it "took".
In the parking lot, the conversation quickly turned to how we were going to beat the other jerks out of there, the jerk who drove like a jerk while they were en route to the station, and what kind of jerks lay in wait on the road home. Something told me that all was not well in Hooterville, but I assumed that once we got on the road and I had time to answer all their questions about living in Japan, the trip home would be filled with laughter.
My 100-watt aunt was the first to mention Japan. "Anthony, how's Japan?" Where to begin. Should I start with the challenge of having to learn a new language after the age of 40? Should I delve into cultural differences which delight and infuriate daily? Should I begin with work? Simple answers are best to start with. "It's great!" I enthused, ready to pounce on the next question with quirky and hysterical details. But there was no next question. The subject of Japan had gone the way of hair color compliments.
"Well MY life isn't great!" howled aunt peroxide. "That son of a b!tch kicked me out of my own house and changed the fxxxing locks! He's got some nerve! I'm gonna get a shotgun, and I swear to God, I'm gonna blow his F...ING HEAD OFF!" The car went silent. I quickly scanned the faces of 60-watt and 40-watt for a clue as to how to proceed. They had endured the one-hour drive to the station in a cloud of F bombs and had shut down. 60-watt lit a cigarette.
I had been awake for 27 hours and was approaching invincibility so I dived into the conversation with the curiousity of Katie Couric. "Paul threw you out of your own house?" "It's NOT my house! The deed is in his name and he can do what he wants. I don't even have my clothes! He changed the locks Anthony! I swear to God I'm gonna kill THAT SON OF A B!TCH!" Fifty minutes later we pulled to a stop in front of mom's house.
I had caught a cold a few days before leaving Japan. When I coughed on the plane, the passengers spun around to glare at me like pilgrims spying a witch. As I pulled my suitcase up the stairs I kept telling myself that a few more minutes of strength would be rewarded with 12 hours of sleep in my old bed. The coughing, fever and ringing of F bombs in my ears would all be forgotten.
"SURPRISE!" I walked into my surprise, welcome home party. My nieces, cousin, chocolate cake and booze. Everyone's hair color had changed. More subtle compliments to be crafted. "Welcome Home Anthony" spelled out in sugar and butter cream. Home-made kalhua poured from a used one-gallon jug of Rhine wine. I had travelled 24 hours and 7000 miles, but it felt like I had never left.
Blame it on Farrah
In the mid-1970s no icon gripped the public’s attention tighter than Farrah Fawcett. The 1960s Love Generation, with its ‘natural is beautiful’ mantra, and the Woodstock kids with hay in their hair, were shoved off the screen by the California beauty with locks indescribable. Farrah’s hair seemed many colors at once. It was dirty blond bursting with lightning. It wasn’t a color found in nature, nor on another living human. The way her hair always landed in perfect, flattering ringlets was wizardry. Curling irons and blow dryers danced off store shelves.
Naturally, when school started in the Fall of 1976, every girl in Amsterdam showed up looking like they had wrapped their hair in hot dogs overnight. No one could quite understand the engineering behind Farrah’s loose, fabulous and sexy curls.
Everyone wanted to copy Farrah’s hair color too. Even in upstate New York, we all wanted to look like we had spent the weekend on the beach in Malibu. This allowed a passel of charlatans to hawk all manner of hair-lightening sprays and shampoos to an unsuspecting public. At the time, I was living with my mom and sister, so it was easy to get caught up in the dream of having ABC prime time hair. When Mom returned home with a bottle of Sun-In we were sure that, by morning, we’d be a band of little Fawcetts. The directions on the bottle stated very clearly that the product worked best when applied to wet hair and allowed to dry in the sun. Optimum effect could also be achieved with a blow dryer. What a load of poop.
The three of us went through two bottles of Sun-In in one evening – spraying and blow-drying again and again. By 9:00pm we looked like troll dolls. Our hair had become extra-terrestrial orange straw. It made our faces look almost greenish blue by comparison and every shirt we tried made us look like we had just walked off the set of Hee Haw. Our only hope was to try to shampoo away the orange. In the days before we knew what conditioner was, we became frizzier with each washing, until we all looked like RingLing clowns.
Mom kept telling us how nice we looked as we got ready for school the next morning.
As a freshman in high school, the last thing I wanted was to stand out in any way. I wanted to keep my head down, not make waves and get through the day without seniors noticing me or shoving my face into a sloppy joe. I could already hear laughter from inside the school as I approached the entrance from the parking lot. “Hey Bozo!” the kids shouted. It was all falling apart. Childhood innocence was being scraped away like old playground paint. My sister tried to divert attention from the damage by getting a perm and went through the tenth grade looking like a Halloween witch. To this day, we pull out the old yearbooks once a year and laugh until we cry.
Shortly thereafter, little by little, other trolls started appearing at school. The urge to look like Farrah swept across the nation like pig flu. Television specials were mounted to demonstrate how to get the Farrah look. Wig manufacturers keeled over dead trying to make Farrah wigs as fast as possible. Farrah look-alike contests at Pic-n-Save became national news. The entire country became obsessed with lightening and blow drying hair until we looked like a race of Einsteins.
Tastes have changed since then, but every once in a while you still see someone trying to be a Fawcett.
I was born into a family of illegals, barkeeps and the cosa nostra. My mom's dad, in a desperate attempt to flee the hell on Earth known as Sweden, stowed away on a boat bound for America. Upon arrival he settled in Chicago and set about impregnating the locals. After siring a few blonds, he moved to New York, where he met my Italian grandmother and began creating poverty-stricken brunettes. My mother was the fifth of eight children and her earliest memory is of her father stabbing her mother (not fatally, but still..) whereupon my mother grabbed a standing ashtray and started swinging like Babe Ruth.
By the time I was born, my father's parents had already divorced. My grandfather wheeled himself around the trailer we shared. My sister and I were instructed from babyhood never to lift the blanket from his lap, lest we discover that grandpa was only half a man. In his younger years he was a tall, dark and handsome carpenter who built many homes around town. Grandpa was grandma's second husband. By the time I was born, grandma was sharing a home with her former first husband - Ciao. Ciao was a retired army captain and retired mafia hitman. He sparkled with diamonds and gold, smelled of cigars and of course, wore a fedora. Ciao and grandma fought constantly and despite the abundance of standing ashtrays and knives, their confrontations never escalated beyond the snap of a dish towel.
Grandma was a well-liked tavern owner in town. She was known as Dottie until the early 1970s when her uncanny resemblance to a sitcom star had everyone calling her Maude. Rounding out the extended family I was born into was Blanche - grandma's companion, who wore men's' suits, shoes and hair tonic.
Grandma and my parents owned a succession of drinking establishments and I grew up in places like The Hideaway, The Landmark, The Homestead and the Grand Finale. While my classmates learned how to scout, tie knots and start fire with rocks, I learned how to break on a billiard table and how to shove the pinball machine just enough without the tilt light coming on.
The difference between my maternal and paternal lineage was always very clear. My father, an only child, was voted "best dressed" in his school. My mom bought her prom dress from the $1.00 bin. Christmas with mom's relatives was loud with laughter, singing, lasagna and fights. With dad's family it was icy blue lights, shrimp scampi, the lesbian and the hitman.
By the mid-1970s, when my parents' marriage exploded in a finale of shattering mirrors, flying billiard balls, guns, blood and sirens, I began to develop a warped relationship with money. My father's family represented wealth, deceit and viciousness without a Frankenstein's amount of compassion. My mother's family found ways to joke about their poverty, find humor in tough times and drive the same car until the floor fell off. Naturally I began to equate poor with good, and rich with bad.
As I grew, I would see that I was wrong.
My Biggest Regret
In the Fall of 1973 a new student joined our class. Mario Muscatello wore shoes that clicked and he was the only boy in the third grade to use hairspray. From head to toe, Mario made the rest of us feel like pig farmers.
Mario was assigned the desk next to mine and he was well aware that I eyed his hair covetously. During recess, while the other boys chased each other like squirrels, Mario stood alone near the hedges, inspecting the small leaves like a coiffured botanist. I felt bad for Mario so I sat with him at lunch. Before long we were great friends, guffawing over Curious George books in the library.
Soon the other boys began mocking Mario's attention to his appearance. Admittedly, an 8-year old who sketched couture designs in his notebook was rare for Amsterdam, but the way the other boys taunted Aqua Net was unfounded. Eventually Mario burst into tears. I told him to not worry about the others; that I was his friend.
The other boys turned on me abruptly, like torch-wielding villagers in a Frankenstein movie. Not yet having developed any personal integrity, I caved faster than a Sichuan coal mine. I thought that calling Mario, Maria, made me clever. So did the villagers. I stopped talking to Mario. No more lunch. No more Curious George. I expected Mario to return to inspecting bushes after lunch but he didn't. When the others exited the cafeteria, Mario stayed behind alone, crying. His only friend had picked up a torch and yelled 'monster'.
I never apologized. At the end of the year, Mario moved on to another school. It is my deepest regret.
Jack and Jane Bennett were in their 70s. Every night in the early 1970s they sat in my parents bar getting smashed and bickering.
"He hasn't kissed me in 40 years" hissed Jane. "I already know what gin tastes like" Jack responded. For their 50th wedding anniversary they gave each other lottery tickets. "If you win, promise me you'll get lost" Jane pleaded. "And if you win, I'll shoot you and take your ticket." This would all seem funny were it not for the fact that Jack slept with a gun under his pillow, and Jane slept in a chair backed up against the wall facing the bed.
As customers piled into the bar and bought shots for the happy couple, their disdain for each other grew. Jack decided it was time to give Jane an anniversary kiss. He leaned into her in the smooching position. Jane turned to him and raised one, disapproving eyebrow. This caused Jack to lose balance and he slammed to the floor. "Will someone pick this Thing up off the floor?" Jane lamented.
They were back the following night. Staring straight ahead, drinking cocktails, smoking Winstons and trying to outwit and outlive each other.
You Gotta Have Magic
In 1981 our local community theater was set to produce the musical "Sleeping Beauty". Being on a budget, our medieval fairy tale included people in tights and french berets with feathers glued to the tops.
Since I was the only teenage boy to audition, I received the role of Prince Charming. I loved singing, but since my voice was changing, I sang like a prince with gender identity disorder. Our musical director found a way around my vocal limitations. He wrote a song especially for me. The ballad "I Have Dreamed", at four minutes long, consisted of two notes. It was a funeral dirge that nearly put Amsterdam to sleep.
The role of Sleeping Beauty went to pothead Ruth Zizlack. During rehearsals she meandered around the stage, staring at the floor and mumbling her lines. "Head up Ruthie!" the director howled. A few years earlier, Ruth and I had played african-american siblings in a racially precarious production of "The Miracle Worker". We weren't in black face per se, but we used all the base make up normally reserved for Othello.
Our community theater struggled financially, preventing Sleeping Beauty's fairy godmothers from performing any actual magic on stage. They couldn't wave their wands to make dishes clean themselves, or brooms sweep the floors unattended. But we did have flashpots. A flashpot is small wooden box nailed to the floor of the stage and filled with gun powder and an electric charge. At precisely the right moment, someone backstage pushed a button and the gun powder ignited, causing either a small or large explosion depending on how many beers Ed, the gun powder tech, had drunk the night before. Our musical director had an ingenious plan. He wrote a new song called "You Gotta Have Magic" in which guest characters from other stories would magically appear on stage and clean the house.
Half way through Act 1, when it came time to clean the fairy godmothers' house, the piano started it's intro into our original song. Poof! Cinderella appeared. POOF! Snow White appeared, slightly blackened. BOOM!! Seven dwarfs appeared, four on fire. The Disney princesses burst into song and began whacking dwarfs with dishes to put out the fires. "You gotta have ma-a-a-gic". Whomp! Amsterdam sat aghast as flaming dwarfs dropped and rolled across the set.
In Act 2 it was time for me to slay the dragon. The dragon was Bud and Ed Andreijezak standing in the wings, each holding a 2x4. Bud's 2x4 had a fabric dragon face on the end and Ed's had a fabric wing. As they waved the 2x4s up and down, the dragon appeared to flutter. My task was to throw my wooden sword between Bud and Ed so it would appear that I had slain the dragon. As a nervous teenager in tights, I threw the sword as hard as I could. It flew between Bud and Ed and hit Cinderella, who was backstage smoking a cigarette.
For nearly 25 years, The Adirondack Players brought quality theater to Amsterdam.
Ever since I cracked the language code, I've known that my sister is The Liar. She is one year older, and time after time has blithely led me down the path to punishment. When I was still in a crib, and she was in the bed next to me, she told me that the reflections of car headlights that ran across the ceiling at night were monsters coming to get me. After mom and dad painted our room, it was Liar's idea to add our own crayon touches. Always the artist, I agreed on the spot. When the interrogations began, Liar sold me down the river to cut a deal for leniency. She pointed at me. "Anthony" she accused. I was stunned. I wanted to say that since I still slept in a crib, and needed her help to get out, it couldn't have been my idea. But not having mastered the past-perfect tense, all I could do was scream.
A year later I was shaken awake one night by The Liar. "Anthony! Do you want to go to Grandma's house?" It was the middle of the night. "I know what time mommy and daddy get up. C'mon! Let's go!" she whispered. We put on our winter coats and carefully sneaked out the back door and down the stairs. We lived on a highway outside of town and our nearest neighbors were a half mile away. Along Route 30, The Liar and I took off into the night. The Liar knew in which general direction to go, but since we lived miles from Grandma's home, it was just dumb luck that our neighbors picked us up on their way home from a party. We jumped into their truck, freezing, and they drove us back home. The Liar had her statement prepared. "It was Anthony." That was her story and she was sticking to it. Through my chattering teeth I kept repeating "no". We were both spanked.
When Spring came, Liar's thoughts turned to matches. Again I was shaken awake. "Anthony! Do you want to play with matches?" Of course I did. "I know where mommy and daddy keep the matches." It should have dawned on me that Liar awoke every morning craving danger. She spent her afternoons doing reconnaissance, tracking our parents' movements and habits, and plotting ways to have me removed from the premises. We sat in the middle of the living room floor, lighting matches, blowing them out and tossing them behind the TV set because, as Liar had noted, "mommy never cleans back there." When our parents were awakened by the smell of sulfur, they found a pile of burned matches behind the TV set. I saw, almost in slow motion, Liar raise her finger to me. "It was Anthony's idea." I was fed up. The truth had to come out. "You're LYING! You're a LIAR! You're LYING! She's LYING!! It was her idea! She's a LIAR!!"
Despite her best efforts, Liar and I were always punished equally.
But enough about You
I had spent 1500 dollars and travelled 5000 miles to enjoy the holidays in the warm embrace of my family. I had come from Japan with presents for everyone. Personalized chopsticks, goofy Kabuki masks, fashion scarves and slippers rested under the tree.
My sister, who had moved to New Hampshire last month for work, was also in town. And it had been years since cousin Pudgy joined us the last time. I didn't want to be one of those people who returns from abroad and starts every sentence with "well, in Japan we..." or "in Japan, people always..." That can get tiresome. But I assumed that someone in the family would express mild curiosity at least. Someone would ask how I was getting along on my own in a foreign country. Instead, the conversation at Christmas dinner revolved around the exotic and fascinating people of New Hampshire. "Well! In New Hampshire we put our recycling out on Fridays and our garbage out on Mondays." "Oohs", "ahhs" and "oh my gods" from the crowd. Grouse couldn't get over the fact that channel 6 was channel 15 in New Hampshire, and that Oprah was on at 7:00pm. "I don't know how you do it" complimented Grouse. "Well! In New Hampshire nobody buys the TV Guide 'cause there's a free one in the paper!" "That's it!" Pudgy declared as he slapped the table. "I'm moving to New Hampshire!" The table erupted with laughter.
I get my sense of humor from my family.
I Hate Gym Class
I always hated gym class. I couldn't catch a football. I couldn't dribble a basketball. And I was sure that every baseball was coming for my face. The only thing I was good at was running. I could run faster than a coked-up purse snatcher.
More than gym class, I hated our gym teacher - alpha guido, Mr. Martinelli. And I was sure that he hated me. I often "forgot" my gym clothes so I wouldn't have to endure Max Macho's ridicule. Instead, I stood in the back of the gym, watching the others.
In 1975 I wanted desperately to be Donny Osmond. That's why I went to school in a purple, crepe pirate shirt, yellow bell bottoms and white shoes. "What are you, a ballerina?" quipped Martinelli. The class erupted in guffaws, taking the puff out of my sleeves.
The following week I decided to bring my gym clothes. I planned to stand on the basketball court pretending to know the rules. Instead, when I walked into the gym, there were two ropes suspended from the 25-foot ceiling. "Today we're going to climb ropes." Overcome with horror, I clutched my face, like a silent movie actress. Surely he was joking. Surely none of us had the physical prowess to pull ourselves twenty-five feet upward. One by one, my classmates shot to the ceiling. Even Rosa Gonzales, who adored enchiladas. I was the last to go. I jumped up and grabbed the rope. Having the upper body strength of Olive Oyl, I didn't know what to do next. Thinking I might swim up the rope, I began kicking my legs wildly. Laughter pealed around the gymnasium. "Pull yourself up with your arms" chuckled Martinelli. I managed to pull myself up a few inches. "Now hook your feet onto the rope." Was he serious? I didn't even know what that meant. How can you hook a foot onto a rope? I kicked some more. The girls started to laugh. After another minute, Martinelli called an end to my humiliation. I walked to the locker room, staring at the floor, red-faced with exhaustion and embarrassment.
A few weeks later we were outside playing whiffle ball. Martinelli was pitching and he told me to play second base. I stood directly behind him, hating him, staring at his crusty, wrinkled elbows and his back fat. I was so involved in hating him that I didn't notice there was a runner on first base intent on stealing second. As Martinelli wound up for his pitch, the runner on first took off towards me. Martinelli spun around and threw the whiffle ball as hard as he could at my testicles. I think I was supposed to catch the ball. I fell backwards and smashed my head on the parking lot pavement.
I may not have been good at gym class, but I was good at making my classmates laugh.
Don't Mess With Della Dennzio
The Della Denuzio family had 13 kids. Anyone who passed through the Amsterdam school system from 1960-1985 received their fists, their bullets or their sperm.
Lucky number 13 was my classmate, Anna Bella Della Denuzio. The 1960s' drug culture, the 70s' "me generation" and punk scene had been passed down through her siblings, and in Anna Bella they distilled into an epic evil. She could burn us with her eyes.
In the fall of 1979, when Sister Bernard introduced the class to geometry, it was announced that we'd be working in pairs. Immediately, all eyes shot to Anna Bella and she grinned so broadly that I swear I saw fangs.
Anna Bella was paired with Gerry Didziuliwicz who was so round, his uniform regularly popped and split. To Anna Bella, Gerry was a stabby toy for her compass. She flicked her blood-stained protractor at Gerry like a Klingon frisbee.
"Sister!" Gerry screamed. Sister Bernard wrapped Anna Bella's long hair around her Catholic fist and, like a big game hunter, she dragged the girl out of class. We sat agape as Anna Bella skidded backwards through the door, twisting and cursing like the demon Pizuzu.
Eventually Anna Bella was forced to sit in the front of the class facing us, like a gargoyle. Her hooded stare gave football players nightmares. Geometry became the most difficult subject in the 10th grade.
Rock Me Baby
I first noticed R&B music in the summer of 1973, thanks to the jukebox my parents kept in their bar. The hot summer days were filled with The Four Tops, The Spinners, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. For me, this music will always be the soundtrack to terror.
This was also the summer when my parents gave me the best gift any 9-year old boy could hope for - a plastic David Cassidy guitar. I've never known how to play the guitar, but I did know how to play David Cassidy. Watching The Partridge Family every week had taught me how to hunch my shoulders and toss my hair with the best teen idols. Day after day I stood on the merry-go-round in the center of the playground and screamed The Partridge Family's greatest hits while banging noise on the guitar.
Across the street lived our best friends, Tonino and Nico Romano. At age 9, Tonino already saw himself as a male model. He alone introduced plaid bell bottoms to Amsterdam, and his regal feathered bouffant was a marvel of engineering. Nico, a year younger, liked to burn things down and he delighted in pointy objects. Despite the fact that they lived in the center of the city, they kept a shed, fully stocked with 19th century farm equipment, which resembled an S&M emporium.
At any time, and without provocation, Nico could be seen darting across the street, squealing with glee and brandishing hedge clippers half his size. We froze in terror as his target screamed home with Olympian speed.
One Saturday in July, when I was in particularly good voice, I gathered a few kids on the playground to back me up on our merry-go-round stage. As we launched into The Partridge Family's #1 hit "I Think I Love You", a figure appeared at the edge of the yard. Dressed in black, grinning like a demon and carrying an honest-to-God sickle, Nico surveyed the playground looking for a slow fattie. In unison we screamed and dispersed like ants. Nico raised the sickle and raced towards the merry-go-round, laughing the way you imagine Satan would.
Once safely atop the jungle gym, I realized that in my panic, I had left plastic David Cassidy behind. When Nico reached the merry-go-round he spun it so fast we were sure the centrifugal force would open a gateway to hell. To my horror, plastic David Cassidy shot across the playground and smashed into the swing set pipes. He fell into three pieces, letting out his dying, stringy twang.
I dragged David home but, despite my best Elmer's Glue efforts, he was silenced forever.
Peroxide was on a mission to track down her estranged husband and exact vengeance. "Anthony, can you get on the computer and find out where he is?"
NCIS had convinced Peroxide that anyone with a computer could track GPS coordinates, access ATM security cams and employ facial recognition software. "I don't think I can do that" I said meekly. "You have the Internet, right?" "Yeah." "Do you have the same Internet as me?" "There's only one Internet" I explained. "But yours looks different" she insisted. I began to explain the choice of browser home page, but Peroxide does not brook delay nor techno-speak. "I just want to know where that bastard is!" she screamed. "Money talks and bullshit walks, right Anthony?"
Peroxide's pent up anger caused her to talk back to tv commercials for the rest of the night. "Yeah right" she huffed, "that stuff will get your clothes clean. It doesn't do SH!T !"
In this Corner...
In the summer of 1974 we moved to a new neighborhood that had many athletic children. Our first new friends were Tony and Rita Frazier. They were reknowned for their dark skin, jet-black hair and the savagery of their fights. It was not uncommon for Tony to hurl Rita down a flight of stairs, whereupon she would spring to her feet and lunge for the nearest butter knife. The announcement "Tony and Rita are fighting!" could be heard several houses away. It's allure pulled all the kids on James Street away from Wonderama as we dashed over to see blood, sweat and tears.
When Tony commented innocently on Rita's new breasts she spun to a fury, grabbed the dog's chain and, wielding it like a fevered rodeo clown, whipped outward in all directions, sending Tony running for cover into the bathroom. Whack! Whip! Smash! The bathroom door cracked from frame to frame.
Rita was subdued by Nadya Pryzblo - an unnaturally strong Pole.
We smiled broadly as our hunger for live violence has been satisfied. Rita cried, Tony sweat, and they both bled a little. Saturday was complete. Tony later covered the crack in the door with peanut butter.
Next to the Fraziers lived the Speranzanellis, Vito and Gina. It was a well-known fact that Vito was the fastest boy on James Street; which I couldn't understand since he only wore hard-soled dress shoes and at age 10 he already had a paunch hanging over his polyester slacks.
"My brother is faster than Vito" croaked my sister. I'd had plenty of experience running from bullies. A foot race up James Street was announced and on a glorious Sunday afternoon..."on your mark, get set, GO!" I sprang forward leaving the clickety-clack of Vito's heels in the dust. Vito, sweaty with defeat, waddled home and was heard saying to his parents in Italian "blah blah blah...ICE CREMA!"
My new-found notoriety came with spoils. When Indian summer came, an unusually hot day caused the manly Nadya to pin me against the sticky tar shingles of our house and ask, "Have you ever kissed a girl?" I was 10 so, no. She closed her eyes, tilted her pimply face and kissed me on the mouth. I stared at her receding hairline. She pulled away and ran home.
I had become the fastest boy on James Street.
The Christmas Pageant
In the winter of 1977 I was told that I would portray Joseph in the city's annual Christmas parade down Main Street. The pregnant Virgin Mary would be played by Jackie Quackenbush - a girl with the worst reputation a 15-year old could earn in Amsterdam.
I had always known I was destined for stardom. As the town beautician hooked the fiberglass beard over my 14-year old ears, I became St. Joseph. I could see myself being rejected at the Inn, befriending kings from far off lands and dispensing orange aspirin for children. Slowly and somberly we walked down Main Street as the citizenry beheld our magnificent costumes spun from nightgowns and aprons.
Suddenly Jackie's teenage hoodlum friends appeared from behind the Amsterdancer. "Hey Ma-ree!" they whooped. "Hey! Ma-ree's got a bun in the oven!" They roared with laughter. Without missing a processional step, the Virgin Mary turned and yelled "SHUT THE F.CK UP!" Behind me, a shepherd laughed so hard he farted.
Thirty minutes later we reached the church steps, where a manger had been preset among the cardboard animals. In the manger lay the blessed, plastic Suzie Splash-a-lot. For reasons I still don't understand, the pillow was never removed from Jackie's costume. So as pregnant Virgin Quackenbush gazed at blessed Suzie Splash-a-lot, I prayed that Santa would deliver on that snow-cone maker.
The City That Never Sleeps
Twice a year mom and Peroxide came to New York City to stay at my place. They slept a maximum of four hours per night, convinced that every pigeon on the fire escape, or every voice in the hall was a murderous drooling crack head.
The 3-hour trip on Amtrak had unraveled Peroxide. "How was your trip?" I asked. "They wanted five dollars for a ham and cheese sandwich!" moaned Peroxide. "Five dollars, Anthony!" It was clear I would have to defend every aspect of travelling outside of Amsterdam.
They would be staying with me for two nights and, while mom brought only an overnight bag, Peroxide came with luggage. "Let's go out this way so we can get in the taxi line." I led them through the horror that is Penn Station at rush hour. "Did you see that jerk?" Peroxide remarked. "He cut right in front of me! Boy! Money talks and bullshit walks. Right, Anthony?" On street level there were about 25 people waiting in the taxi line. Most of them tourists who kept asking the drivers questions like "How much to the Days Inn?" and "Can you take us to Madison Square Garden?" "Anthony, let's walk to your house." Peroxide thought she was being a savvy New Yorker. "I live in Queens. It's really far." "How far?" "It would take us two hours to walk there." Peroxide, whose thoughts were never far from money, pounced. "How much is a taxi going to be?" "About twenty bucks" I said. "Boy, they get you coming and going down here, don't they. Money talks and bullshit walks. Right, Anthony?"
It was still dark outside. I glanced at the clock. 4:10am. Mom and Peroxide were rattling around the kitchen. "Where does he keep his spoons? Does he have any sugar? Does this smell right to you?" I dragged myself out of bed. "Anthony let's go shopping. I want to see if I can jew them down." Peroxide was quaffed, fragranced and ready to roll. "Are you ready? Let's go" she said. "I have to get a pair of Easy Spirits and I want to find the dogs playing slots." I had to instruct. "It's not even 5:00am. I don't think anything's open yet." Peroxide was incredulous. "But this is the New York Apple! The city that never sleeps!"
New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Astoria needs its rest. I know that there is always something going on in New York at any hour, but unless they felt like hitting the White Party at a gay asian disco, or touring Port Authority, we would have to occupy our time in my flat at least until 7:00am. By 6:30am none of us could take it any longer and so we headed to 30th Avenue in Astoria. "I can't believe nothing's open!" hollered Peroxide. "Anthony, New York is the city that never sleeps!"
By 9:00am the shopkeepers were beginning to raise the metal grates to their stores. Peroxide was on the hunt for Easy Spirit walking shoes. She was angry that the Korean vegetable grocer didn't have any. "Anthony, I thought you could find anything in New York." "Well" I offered, "there are some discount department stores up ahead. Let's look in there." In upstate New York, mom and Peroxide can visit the exact same dollar store week after week, and spend an afternoon staring at the same items, reading this and squeezing that. But in a Queens discount store, stocked with everything from VCRs to fruit-flavored condoms, they were in and out in a flash. "It's all the same stuff!"
"Anthony, I want to find the dogs playing slots" proclaimed Peroxide. "The what?" "You know, that famous picture of the dogs playing slot machines." One of us was having a senior moment. "Do you mean the dogs playing poker?" I asked. Peroxide chortled at my ignorance. "Not poker. Slot machines. They've gotta have it here somewhere - this is New York!" Everywhere we went - discount stores, green grocers, Thai restaurants - she asked the same question. "You got the dogs playing slot machines?" No one on 30th Avenue in Astoria could understand the question. Peroxide became exasperated. When she simply poked her head inside Discount store #51 at the corner of 30th Avenue and 30th Street and screamed, "YOU GOT THE DOGS PLAYING SLOTS?!", the alarmed Pakistani owner's eyes bulged in terror and he yelled "NO!"
30th Avenue doesn't disappoint and we found a store called Easy Spirit, selling nothing but the best walking shoes. Peroxide emerged victorious, although she wasn't able to "jew them down".
Beyond the Amsterdancer
Along the New York State Thruway, a few hours north of New York City, lies the scenic Mohawk Valley. There are no Mohawk Indians; they've moved to Schoharie to build casinos, roll cigarettes and preserve their traditions.
Coming off the Thruway at exit 27, the city of Amsterdam sprawls in front of you. A valley city dotted with church steeples, factories, victorian homes and lots of green. There's a windmill near the exit and a sign that says the Dutch settled Amsterdam in 1796. As you enter Amsterdam you arrive at an old-fashioned Main Street lined with 19th century, three and four storie buildings and a line of store fronts. The first store front you're likely to notice is The Amsterdancer, with the explanation "dance studio" below the name. You look left, then right, smile and think to yourself "what a quaint little town!"
However, once you venture beyond the Amsterdancer, you see that this Italian-American and Polish-American city is, in fact, a bubbling cauldron of racism, ignorance, rage for rage's sake, bar fights, family divides, drug sales and Walmart specials. Amsterdam is a typical American town, where I grew up in the 1960's and 1970's. I'd like you to meet my family.