Archive for December, 2012

Mom was almost always a coiled spring – everything was a major, major issue. Whether we’re talking about school, or an audition, getting somewhere on time…you name it. Everything, even something as small as losing her keys temporarily evoked a semi-hysterical reaction. Even as a kid, I tried to tell her that running around flipping out isn’t going to help her find her keys – she needed to calm down and think about where they might be. My advice almost always went unheeded, and Tim or I were the ones who ended up getting them for her and calming her down. Sometimes she’d try to return something at a store and run into a problem  and some poor clerk would get nailed with the brute force of her hysterical anger. As I got older and more aware of myself, I started to feel embarrassment at these times – I’d grab Tim by the shoulder and we’d inch away, finding something – anything – else to look at or do. Even today, I’m extremely sensitive to reactions – if someone raises their voice, even imperceptibly – I inwardly think “Oh, shit.” and get ready to duck and cover. Grandma didn’t help matters much – her and Mom didn’t get along so well very often. And Grandma could hold grudges like…well…an old Italian lady. They were both extremely co-dependent…something I had to struggle with myself later in life. Looking back over my family’s history, though, almost everyone ended up living together at some point. What I mean is, my Great-Grandma lived with her parents until they died, Great Grandma lived with Grandma and Grandpa until she died, and so on. It was sort of just expected that everyone would live together under one roof, and everything was community property. I guess it’s a Mediterranean thing, I’m not sure. In the early days, we had a pager – Grandma was supposed to page us if anything was wrong, and we’d stop at a payphone and call her back. If she put “911” at the end of the page, we’d know it was urgent and to find a payphone right away. The problem was, once Grandma realized the code got us to return her calls faster, she used it for everything. This caused no small amount of conflict between her and Mom. I remember once, Mom got a “911” call from Grandma while we were in NY. She fed a meter and hopped onto a payphone with me in tow. It had been tagged with graffiti and smelled like piss.

Mom: What’s wrong?

Grandma: Well…what do you want to do for dinner?

Mom: Goddammit, Mom, I’m busy. I’m in the middle of something in New York and I can’t just drop everything to figure out what’s going on for dinner. YOU figure it out.

Grandma: Well, Donna, I just wanted to know!

Mom: But it’s not an emergency!

Mom usually ended up slamming the phone down on grandma, terminating the call. Mom would usually cool off after a couple hours and call her back.

Money was a constant worry. As I think I said in another post, I made hundreds of thousands of dollars. For several years running, starting when I was about 8, I made a minimum of a $100,000 a year. I haven’t sat down to do the math, but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say I made a least a million during my lifetime. Yet we were always short somehow – we needed a loan from Grandma, or Mom had to put something on a credit card, or whatever. We were always holding our breath waiting for the next royalty check to come in. It inevitably would, Mom would be elated, and we’d run off to the bank to deposit it in our communal account. Nothing was ever set aside, no financial planning was done – we just lived hand to mouth, despite the fact that I was making a modest fortune. Financially, at least, mistakes were not learned from – hell, Mom mortgaged everything to the hilt and beyond when she had to. Credit cards were maxed out, and overdraft fees were incurred. I assumed this all was normal, because I had nothing to compare it to – the constant buzz of worry pervaded everything.

 

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Whenever I told people what I did (acting, and the long commute back and forth) I always got the same question as a kid: “Well, what do you do for your education?”  I told them that I was home schooled – and I was. Being in school full time – even a private school – simply didn’t work out. I was pulled out of too many classes, and even when I could make up the work, there were major issues. I had a nasty teacher one year who kept accepting my homework, hiding it, and then insisting I never turned it in. She had a big axe to grind with what I did – she was Mennonite, and I think she thought it was sinful. She made comments about how it was “terrible what my mother was doing to me”. She wasn’t talking about the home situation (about which she knew nothing), she was talking about my career. This made me furious. Eventually, Grandma realized I was doing homework from weeks ago that I had already done. The teacher was reprimanded, I think, and the problem was solved by me being home schooled.

Typically, when you’re home schooled, the parent is responsible for teaching you. They usually give you answer keys (which the adults are supposed to keep) and the textbooks go to the kids. Mom took one look at the stuff that came in – Math, Science, History, and English – and dumped the whole box in my lap.

Mom: I can’t teach this stuff to you. Just do it yourself. You’re smart enough.

So I taught myself. I read all the books – I had a hell of a time with math, even as a kid. The numbers all jumbled together and got confusing. I couldn’t keep track of them and usually ended up getting things wrong. The other subjects were a snap – they involved reading and memorization.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly self motivated when it came to school and Mom wasn’t terribly good at keeping me on schedule. I hummed along, reading my own books and writing my music, until a deadline loomed and we had to send in the tests. Mom wouldn’t be grading it herself, she would just be administering the tests – they would be graded at a facility somewhere down South. They needed to be received by a certain date, and I inevitably sent them in at the last possible moment.  I still remember Mom busting into my room one night.

 

Mom: You need to get your tests in tomorrow.

Me: Tomorrow?

Mom: Yes, tomorrow. Do the work. Just take all the tests now.

Me: That’s a lot of tests…

Mom: Then I will stop taking you to New York and send you to live with your father! And I will go to jail! Do you want that?

Me: No!

Mom: Then take your tests. Here’s the answer key. Get a couple wrong just to make it look good.

 

And so I sat on the floor and took the tests. Most of the time, I didn’t need the answer key – I knew the answers. With math and science I was a little more liberal – they weren’t my field of expertise, and although I read the books I wasn’t very confident and had to check my answers. When things got too down to the wire and I hadn’t studied, I just cut to the chase and copied the answers. I reasoned with myself that I knew most of this anyway (which I did), and Mom assured me that if I didn’t pass my tests she would got to jail and I’d go into foster care (or worse…live with my Dad). How’s that for test pressure?

I still remember a science test question, asking me to explain fossils. I knew all about fossils, and dinosaurs, and gave what I felt was a pretty thorough response. It was a very fundamentalist Christian school, however, and they felt that fossils were basically put there by the Devil to fool people, or God testing people’s faith. There were quasi-scientific explanations to back this up, but even I didn’t buy them. This was one of the few things at the time that really, truly annoyed me with my education. I could recite full names of dinosaur species, and I knew for a fact it wasn’t fake. But was I supposed to toe the party line in order to get a good grade? I asked Mom, and the answer, evidently, was yes. I changed my answer to be more suitable.

I got tutors, eventually – mostly for math (a subject that even proves difficult for me today). One might think this would take the pressure off, but it actually made it worse. Mom became paranoid that they would find out I wasn’t being taught appropriately and call the authorities. If the tutors seemed put out by an answer I gave, or perplexed that I didn’t know something, Mom would freak out at me after the session.

Mom: I am going to go to jail! Do you know that? They’re going to have me arrested and put me in jail!

Me: I’m sorry…

Mom: All because YOU didn’t know the answers. I thought you were supposed to be smart!

Me: I am, I am!

Mom: Well, then…what are these?

She waved her fingers inches from my nose.

Me: Um…fingers?

Mom: NO! THEY ARE PHALANGES! DIDN’T YOU READ THAT IN YOUR SCIENCE BOOK!?

Me: It’s actually not in there…

Mom: Well, pack your things, Danny. They’ll be taking you away any day now.

 

As I got older, these threats became more hollow – nobody took me away, I was never forced to live with my Father, and I still did pretty much as I pleased from an education standpoint. I got by because I read so much and picked up material quickly – not by Mom sitting down and teaching me every day. I’d say pretty often that an entire school semester could have been condensed into 1-2  weeks for me. These inevitably had Mom screaming threats and fears over my shoulder as I worked out a test. Suffice it to say school was not a priority until it had to be. I actually don’t have a problem with this, because she was right – I was smart. I read the books fast, and I had a high GPA. But the threats, the fear, the paranoia? She was wrong to put all that on me, to vent it at me. Even if it was true. If she was concerned, she should have done things differently instead of dumping everything in my lap and then screaming in panic when things didn’t get done. But then, she’s not a normal person, and I can’t hold her to those standards. When it came time for standardized testing (mandatory in my school district, regardless of whether I was home schooled) Mom fought them tooth and nail – and actually won. She was convinced, for whatever reason, that I wouldn’t know any of the answers on the test – that the authorities would be called, my situation would be assessed, and she’d be sent to jail.

I’m a stickler for knowing answers now. If I don’t know something, it bothers me until I research it fully. I know lots of things. So when people asked me what I did for schooling, I told them I was home schooled. It was simpler than telling them anything else.

Mom’s delusions had now spun into an all out “war” between two rival Mob gangs – supposedly the New York and Philly gangs were fighting over who got to “make us”. As a kid, I believed this wholeheartedly – believed I must be very important, in fact. Mom believed this, and why should I doubt her? Today, though, I don’t believe this any more than I believe I am the Pope (which I don’t, in case you’re wondering). This stuff never happened, but it might as well have. Because since it “happened” to Mom, it happened to me.

Hits were ordered. We were tailed. Our phones were tapped, and would ring at odd hours. Messages 4 feet high appeared on billboards and marquees, and every thing I booked or didn’t book was important. I remember going up against Elijah Wood for Radio Flyer. I don’t remember how far I got, exactly, but I at least got callbacks – enough that they were taking a more serious look at me. Just to give you an idea, there are further steps, sometimes – 3rd or 4th callbacks, screen tests if necessary. I remember leaving Russ’s to sit in the car and read – the lesson was well over, and Mom had waited through the next person’s lesson to try to catch Russ and talk to him. Tim and I protested the waiting as usual – we felt the waiting was asinine, but Mom insisted. I asked for her keys and sat quietly in the car reading. She came out, looking very serious.

Mom: Danny, I just had a big conversation with Russ.

I reluctantly closed my book.

Mom: We got offered a slot.

Me: A slot?

Mom: Yes, a slot opened up and they wanted to make you. But they wanted to make you as a movie actor. They wanted you to give up music.

Me: And what did you say?

Mom: I told them no. You wouldn’t want to give up music, would you?

Me: Not really.

Mom: Well, that’s what I thought. So I told him to go ahead and give the slot to someone else.

I started to stress a bit.

Me: But will another slot open up?

Mom: I don’t know. Maybe not anytime soon. But you’re young, we can wait. Besides, you’d have had to give up music.

Me: Well, can’t I get a slot where I get to do both?

Mom: That’s what I told Russ to look for.

Naturally, I didn’t book Radio Flyer – the role went to Elijah Wood. I got a callback, but heard nothing further – that’s the way it works. If they’re interested, they call you. If not, you move on. I moved on. When the movie came out, and was widely acclaimed, Mom insisted that Elijah Wood was the one that “took my slot” and they were going to use this movie as a vehicle for his career. 25 years later, she still brings it up.

Anyway, around that time, I booked a huge commercial. It was about as up my alley as it could get – I was supposed to play an energetic kid singing and dancing. Well, I sang better than a lot of kids, and I certainly had stage presence. It was the equivalent of Babe Ruth getting a big, fat pitch down the middle. I hit a home run, and I booked it. It ran really, really well – in fact, there was talk at the time of expanding the ad to encompass billboards and maybe even other commercials. It didn’t happen, but it was still a major win for me (For those interested, the commercial can be found here).

It was also a major win for Mom – she saw this as a slot opening up. Ross Perot was waiting in the wings – she even assured me that he was on the set somewhere. Possibly even several of the Russes were there, disguised. After a long day of taping, Uncle Carlo took us out to dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant. The food was awesome – I can still remember how the penne with meat sauce tasted – it tasted like success. Without all Mom’s nonsense and delusions about finally getting everything we’d ever hoped for, it was still a high – would have been for anybody. With the feeling that I was being given a blessing by a shadowy and mysterious organization, however, that high was elevated to epic proportions for both Mom and myself.

The long and (supposedly) bloody war continued – sometimes Mom would assure me there had been progress, that the two sides were agreeing, or sometimes she’d tell me elaborate tales of a Mexican standoff (although since we were talking about the Mob, I guess it was an Italian standoff). Even as sharp as I was, I had a hard time following the ever shifting details and reasons for “The War” (and when she would say it, you could hear the capitalization in her voice), but I got the general idea. One side (I think it was Philly) wanted to back someone else. New York wanted to back me. Both sides needed to agree for some reason, and somehow it spiraled into a massive war.

Uncle Carlo saw many, many famous people during my time there – some I even got to meet and sing for. Sometimes he even saw royalty – I remember meeting a Saudi prince once. He was a really nice guy. He told me he had a pet tiger, which instantly intrigued me. Anyway, Uncle Carlo once told us he wanted to take us to dinner (a frequent occurrence), but that he had some stuff to do. He asked us to wait in the back room (it was really a waiting room with a small black and white TV – I still remember the knobs, and how they clicked when you turned the channel). He told us to be quiet. Mom was instantly paranoid – why did he want us to be quiet? Why didn’t he just have us leave and come back later? She wouldn’t even let me watch TV, even at low volume. I sunk into a couch and started to read. Mom nudged me and pointed to the wall.

Me: What?

Mom: Pay attention. See if you can listen to what’s going on.

I tried, but the room was pretty well insulated – made sense, considering he was teaching music and probably wouldn’t want neighbors to hear or complain. Mom tried to listen too – I doubt she heard anything, but she insisted she did.

Eventually, Uncle Carlo emerged and took us to dinner. Unfortunately, this event spun Mom off into orbit and she added it to her arsenal of fantasies and delusions. She believed a Meeting (again, you could hear the capitalization in her voice when she used the word) occurred, and Uncle Carlo hosted. She believed, for whatever reason, that Philly and New York met there and came up with an Agreement (again, the capitalization). The Agreement was that they would come together and back me. Mom found further “proof” of her story in the fact that both PA and Texas plates were plentiful on the block. I have no idea why we would need to be waiting in the back during an underworld meeting, but I guess it made sense to her.

The events may not have been real – or real only to Mom – but the emotion…the extreme high of winning, of being “chosen”, the fear and paranoia, being in the middle of a gangland war – all of that was real to me.

Mom began seeing signs not just in billboards, but also in license plates. For whatever reason (one could assume Ross Perot‘s campaign may be the central, overriding factor) we started seeing a lot of Texas plates on the highway between New York and Philly. Mom took this as a sign that we were being watched – that we were being “considered”. We had to be perfect at all times – Mom had to learn a new way to dress, for example. She had to start wearing heels and makeup, and start dressing “classy” (I put this in quotes, because it wasn’t actually classy – just what she considered classy to be). Gilt shirts for example. Do you remember the kind they had in the 80’s and 90’s that actually were gold but also had that the shine to them? I even thought they were tacky as a kid. Anyway, she wore those. Make up, too – her face was always darker than the rest of her body by several shades (I guess that’s from a base that wasn’t matched right). She didn’t really know how to be classy, and it wasn’t her fault – she didn’t grow up in that environment. Moreover, she was a jock – in her younger days she was very into softball and other sports. Not exactly on the same plane as the world she was trying to enter.

When she didn’t see Texas plates for a while, she’d start to get upset and worry. She’d call Russ.

Mom: We haven’t seen “our friends” in a while. Where are they? I hope I haven’t done anything wrong…

Eventually she’d see some again (or thought she did) and all would be well.  She started asking Russ how and why he looked different too – this is one area she decided she didn’t want to pry too much into for some reason, but I do remember one particular conversation they had.

Mom: How’d you get so tall? You’re really tall today!

Russ: Elevator shoes.

Mom: Oh, wow. Elevator shoes…

Russ was, I assume, making one of his jokes. Mom instead took it as further proof – an admission, even – that he possessed the tools to dress up as somebody else. Once again, why anyone (let alone anybody famous) would want to dress up as Russ is beyond me. But then again, I’m not crazy (which is a blue eyed miracle).

So yeah. This was kind of a big deal for a year or two in my life. No, Mom didn’t actually go to the White House but I’m pretty sure she was on a Secret Service watch list as a kook. It all started when Russ made another ambiguous, oddball comment – probably a joke, and probably related to something on TV or in the news: “I”m gong to the White House! Want to come with me?” Mom laughed, and took it for what it was at the time – a joke. The more she thought about it, though, the more she realized she had done something wrong. She should have jumped on his offer, and should have said “Yes! Of course I will go to the White House with you!” As she was obsessing over this conversation – and believe me, I got to go over it in minutiae, a new political figure came on the scene. Ross Perot was an independent running for the Presidency against Bill Clinton and Bush Sr. Mom got the idea that – wait for it – Ross Perot was actually dressed up as Russ that day and actually invited her to be First Lady. Surprised? No, me either. As I pointed out in a previous entry, she felt that the Mafia “made” people by choosing some Joe Schmoe, faking their death, and then having them step into the public spotlight as whoever – in this case, a politician destined to be President of the United States.

Gaffe, her one true love and Australian hit man, had supposedly retired to the sunny beaches down under – never to be heard from again. The new man on the scene was Ross Perot – affectionately called “R.P.” by Mom. She asked Russ about him repeatedly, sent Russ hundreds of atrociously long letters to be delivered to “R.P”, and went to Ross Perot conventions. She bought his biography, but couldn’t be bothered to read it herself (she was never a very good student). She flopped it in my lap one day and said “Read it and tell me about it.” So I did. She took pictures of Ross Perot on TV. Keep in mind, this is in the days before On Demand when you could pause a picture. She actually grabbed a throwaway camera, waited for him to show up on the news, and snapped pictures of him. Supposedly, she wanted to see if he was wearing a mask. She also secretly took photos of Russ while he was in a lesson with me – with the flash on. He was turned towards me, teaching, and then CLICK! FLASH. He looked at her, very confused, but he let it go.

We met Ross Perot (and by “met” I mean we shook hands with him at a rally) a couple times. She handed him letters, and some demo tapes of mine. Every time he had a rally in the area, she pretty much showed up with me in tow. After the first letter (and demo), the Secret Service started intercepting her in line as she pushed towards “R.P”. They took (and presumably screened) any packages, letters, etc she tried to give him. This really upset her. During one such rally, she supposedly ran into a woman in the bathroom and had a encounter with her, which she related to me.


Mystery Woman
: You think you’re going to the White House? You’re not going to the White House. I am! You’ve failed the tests and aren’t Good Enough!

As per usual, I was waiting for Mom in the hall outside the bathroom. I didn’t see anyone come in or leave other than her. I didn’t mention this to Mom, because she was very shaken up.

At the time, Russ Trolls were all the rage – you know, the ones with the big, florescent hair? Well…she found one that was in a suit and carrying a briefcase. Between this fact, and that it was a brand named Russ, she found great significance and bought it. She gave it to Russ to give to “R.P.” along with a thick envelope that no doubt contained another epistle.

She kept asking Russ when “R.P.” was going to come back – she needed to see him and talk to him. Russ resorted to his usual vagaries, which kept her at bay until she discovered Ross Perot actually had a wife.


Mom: That’s the woman I met in the bathroom!

She insisted up and down that she had failed some sort of test and missed out on her chance to be First Lady. She was an inconsolable mess for weeks. Every time I turned around, she was either weeping and keening or had the thousand yard stare of a Vietnam Vet. She talked about how life was shit now, and how nothing mattered.

I don’t think she “got over it” per se, but I think her delusion morphed in some way and she was able to justify things somehow. She got better, but then she had a new obsession in her life – being “Good Enough” for Ross Perot.

The point of the blog for me isn’t self aggrandizement – it’s to say things as they were (or at least as I saw them at the time) flaws and all, including my own. So I hope you’ll forgive my use of the word “prodigy” and “boy genius” in regards to myself. In this case, they’re there to paint a more full picture of how I was seen by my Mother and certain others in my life. Not the least of which, they also illustrate how I felt. I was Extremely Talented, so much so that the Mafia either wanted to “make me” or assassinate me. Yes, it was a fearful time but it was also a time of great possibility and pride for me. All that in mind, you can imagine the blow to my ego when, years later, I finally put the pieces together and realized I wasn’t important enough for anybody to want dead. At the time, though, it was me and Mom vs. the World – along with a small cadre of allies (Uncle Richard and Russ, and Uncle Carlo).

By the time I was 2 1/2, I was carrying full on conversations with adults. By the time I was 4, I had written a short story (well…I call it that liberally. It was probably half a page, about finding a fox in the yard – so, a short short short story?). By 6, I had written my first song. By 10, I had recorded it in a studio, sang on it, and played on it. I somehow got the idea in my head – I’m not entirely sure where this came from, possibly even Mom – that I ought to be a published songwriter. I wrote and produced a jingle for a local diner (the theme of the diner was trains – I made sure the arrangement sounded very train like), and approached them. I remember standing red-faced with embarrassment in front of the counter, asking for the owner. When he came out, I asked him (eyes firmly planted on my shoes) if he would like to hear a jingle I wrote for his diner. He listened, and was delighted. Within a week, it was airing on a local radio station. It was in this way I became the youngest (or one of the youngest) published songwriters in the country.

I wrote from time to time, when the inspiration struck me – perhaps a song a month, or a few songs a year. Mom got it into her head somehow that we needed to keep Russ’s interest, and to do so meant writing a lot of songs. Like, writing songs EVERY DAY. Maybe several a day. Hot resentment bubbled up inside me – I did not like her stepping on my creativity. This felt wrong, this felt like an incursion. Yes, her nocturnal visits where she woke me up and asked insane questions were ridiculous, and yes her constantly dragging me into her rehashing sessions of what Russ said or didn’t say were exhausting, but this was a bridge too far. For the first time in my life, I actually protested. I insisted that creativity was something to be nurtured, it wasn’t a factory – I couldn’t crank out dozens of songs a week.

Mom: Then you’ll never make it. You’ll fail. And they’ll never let you in, or Sit Down and Talk to you.

I was quiet. I did want to be successful, but this felt wrong. In the end, I decided to do as she asked (not that there was really a choice – she would harass me endlessly until I did it anyway). I wrote a song a day, minimum – sometimes 3 a day if I could manage. I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, it was important to develop and hone my skills as a writer – the only way to do that was to write consistently and have Russ (himself a seasoned songwriter) critique it. But that also meant churning out what amounted to musical slush. I mean, I turned out some real turds. And I knew full well they were turds as I was writing them. But I bravely typed out the lyrics, recorded the music on my little tape recorder, and presented them to Mom and Russ. About every 10 songs I wrote, I’d hit one that was actually worthy of more attention. We’d spend the lesson with Russ reading over my carefully typed lyrics, listening to me play my songs, and considering what I had written.

Russ: Well…why on earth would you write a song about not being able to get to sleep?

Me: I don’t know…I guess I just felt like writing it.

Russ laughed. Mom laughed.

Russ: Uh. Not your best work, Danny. Next.

And I’d show him the next one, again feeling those hot embers of resentment glowing in my chest. He was complicit in all of this and it made me very angry. I wouldn’t say I hated him for it – I didn’t hate him yet, not then – but I had hoped he would step in on the side of free creativity.

I wrote. I cranked out songs. Between running to auditions and banging out songs at the piano, those were my days, my weeks, my years. If I didn’t write, I was harassed either by Mom or Russ.

Mom: You need to write. You haven’t written yet today.

And I’d gamely sit at the piano and slush out a tune.

If I walked in and didn’t have anything for Russ (which was very, very rare) Russ would shake his head.

Russ: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work. You gotta keep writing, Danny.

The difficulty is that they were probably right – the best writers write every day. I think I just resent the way I was thrust into that world – kicked through the door, if you will. I still struggle with that issue. I still write – not all the time, and not as much as I should. When I don’t write, I’m beating myself up for not writing every day. When I do write, and it’s junk, I beat myself up. Maybe I’d have ended up with this same dilemma regardless of Mom’s machinations. It’s hard to say, but it is one of the bigger issues I’ve wrestled with out of my childhood.

By the time I was 13, I had 600 copyrighted songs to my name. By the time I was 18, it was over a thousand. I stopped counting after that, though I did keep writing. Let’s just say I am prolific.

Genius. Prodigy. Boy Wonder. Many strangers and friends pronounced these names over me. Maybe I was. Who knows? But it became something else to live up to – another pressure. I had heard somewhere that really smart people – people like Einstein or whatever – suffer severe depression. I think they struggle with – and sometimes collapse under – the weight of their own genius. I totally get that. Once that is declared over you, once that label is affixed, that is what you are. You can’t be average any more, you can’t be just alright. You have to be amazing. And that is pressure. And God, do I know it well.

My first thought was he lied at every word. That’s from T.S. Eliot‘s The Wasteland – years later, I would realize that applied to Russ. He rarely gave a straight answer about anything – if you asked him his opinion of something one day, he’d tell you one thing. The next, it’d be totally different. I’ve wondered for years if it was a defense mechanism to keep Mom from getting to know too much about him,  if he was sort of goading things along in his own way, or if he was just a people pleaser. Rarely did he give straight answers to anything – everything was almost always somewhat ambiguous. This was excellent fodder for Mom, but it sometimes annoyed me. For example, we never knew his birthday. It wasn’t that he made it into a state secret, it’s that he gave us a few different dates when we asked. I’m sure he thought this was amusing somehow, but it doubled and tripled his letters and gifts from Mom – ultimately reinforcing her idea that there were different Russes. After all, they all had different birthdays. They couldn’t all be the same person, right? I think he honestly forgot most of what came out of his mouth the minute he said it, because he seemed genuinely surprised when Mom brought him gifts on his “birthdays”. He’d tell us about people he allegedly knew in the industry – and I suppose he knew some – and he’d talk about how he was going to call them to see if they could help us. One day, he’d promise great things up and down. The next, he would have forgotten all about it and was back to speaking in vagaries. One thing I got from him that wasn’t bullshit – one of the few things – was musicianship. He was a hell of a musician. I remember him sitting me down one day and showing me something on the piano.

Russ: There’s only 3 people in the world that know this besides me, and 2 of them are dead.

I think he was joking. I laughed.

Me: What is it?

Russ: It’s the Boogie Woogie. See?

Me: That’s really cool…

Russ: Ok, let me show you how it is slowed down.

And we went on like that. He taught me songwriting as well, but that came a little later – he was always fairly critical of my songs. I think this was ultimately a good thing, but I also think he loved to burst my bubble. Russ would shake his head when I thought I brought in a monster hit.

Russ: Not top drawer stuff, Danny.

Mom’s opinion of things would instantly change once Russ’s opinion was voiced. If she loved a song before, and he said it sucked, she’d insist that it sucked and she thought so all along. If he thought an audition song was great for me – something she may have hated in private – she would suddenly love it. There were some exceptions, but they were few and far between. And still, at the end of every freaking lesson, Mom would intone the weekly benediction.

Mom: Russ…?

Russ: Yeah, Donna?

Mom: Am I ever going to see the Right One again?

Russ: Oh, he’s around. He’ll show up.

Mom: But when?

Russ: Just be patient.

Mom: Are they ever going to sit down and talk with us?

Russ: Oh, I don’t know…that’s up to the Powers That Be.

Mom: Wow. Who are the Powers That Be?

Russ: You know, the people who gotta approve.

Mom: Is the Answer coming back?

Russ: Yeah, someday.

Mom: Is the answer coming back yes?

Russ: We’ll have to see.

And on and on and on this went. Sometimes we’d be 20 minutes walking out the door. “The Answer” was her ultimate EVERYTHING all rolled into one. It was the Mob “making us”, it was finding the Right One, it was power, success, money and happiness. Somehow along the way, she determined that Russ said something about an “answer” and the answer “coming back” – I’m not sure he actually did, or if he did it wasn’t in any way shape or form in the context she took it in. Regardless, it became part of the litany of questions that she’d ask at the end of every lesson, or leave on his machine, or write in letters. Regardless of how long a letter was, or how long a message was (and believe me, his machine ran through more answering machine tape than you’d believe) it ultimately boiled down to this: Is the Answer Coming Back?

His response to the question would be dissected and analyzed and re hashed on the ride home. It would dictate her mood for the next day or week – at least until the next lesson. I always tried to put a positive spin on things for her, but it was hard to know what I was working with. She would insist they had these long conversations that I never heard – always while I was either in the bathroom, or too soft for me to hear. Even as a kid, I was skeptical – I was sitting right next to the man on the piano bench.

I would go to sleep in my room, and inevitably I’d be woken up by Mom. She had this irritating way of waking me during these times – it was very passive aggressive. I think the theory was: I’m not going to wake you, I’m just going to make some noise until you wake up. She’d pop open the door, shuffle over to the bed, and sit down at the end. She’d sit there, clearing her throat and shifting until I eventually woke up, fuzzily.

Me: What, Mom?

Mom: Dan…do you think The Answer is really coming back?

Me: Yeah, Mom. I guess. I’m trying to sleep.

Mom: Is it really?

I knew this was a minefield, so I always forced myself into mental clarity to handle her questions.

Me: Yeah, Mom. I’m sure it is.

Mom: Okay.

And then she’d get very quiet, and I’d think the conversation would be over. But she’d just sit there, at the end of the bed, sometimes for half an hour. Eventually I’d have to acknowledge her.

Me: Yes, Mom…what is it?

Mom: Did Russ say…

And oh, God. Thus began the Spanish Inquisition. I was grilled over what Russ said (or didn’t say) and HOW he said it and what his EYES looked like when he said it and what his BODY LANGUAGE was like. Her opening salvo was always “Did Russ say…” and good Lord, it was awful. I hated it. Even today, that phrase makes my skin crawl. Inevitably she’d follow up her opener with something cryptic and kooky.

Mom: Did Russ say…”we’ll see how the kite flies from there”?

Me: No, Mom.

Mom: Well, did he say anything *like* that?

Me: No, not that I heard.

Mom: Well, I think he did. It was just too quiet for you to hear.

It ultimately didn’t matter what Russ said (or didn’t say). It was *always* cryptic, it was *always* packed with more insinuations that I would ever be able to pick up on, and it was *always* “too soft for me to hear”.

I probably lost thousands of hours of sleep at night to these benign, nocturnal  intrusions. I sometimes would try to pretend to still be asleep, but it just drew the whole thing out. My patience would eventually run out, or Tim’s would (he shared the room with me). One of us would kick her out, telling her we needed sleep, and assuring her that we would talk about it in the morning. Like it or not, talking about it in the morning was one thing you could guarantee.