Archive for January, 2013

Aside from Dad’s issues with squirrels, he was also incredibly impatient. He’d never discuss his issues with you, or tell you he was running out of patience or that he was fed up…he’d just blow up. Or, if Mom was taking “too long” at a store, he’d abandon us there – literally. We’d be walking around and suddenly he’d be gone. We’d go out to the parking lot only to discover his rusty blue Bronco was also missing – he had just turned around and left. We’d use a payphone (this was the 80’s…nobody had cell phones) only to discover he was at home and not interested in coming back to pick us up. Inevitably, Grandma or Grandpa would have to come get us. If I was sick and had to go to the doctor, he’d be okay right up until the appointment – then he’d get antsy while we were being seen and take off.  No reason given, and nothing was said. He’d just be out of there so fast your head would spin.

Our doctor was an old family friend – a great guy I usually just called Doc. Our families went back several generations – my Great Grandmother helped him through medical school by having bake sales. His kids and my mom played together, and I am great friends with his granddaughter. He actually delivered my Mom and supervised my birth. Anyway, he was a field surgeon during World War II, and he got such a reputation for himself that the Nazi officers were asking for him by name when they were captured and wounded – even though he was an Allied surgeon. He nearly died, though, when he was leaving a medical tent. Some colleagues invited him to get some coffee over at the Red Cross tent, but he declined – he had done surgeries all day and was exhausted. As he and his colleagues diverged, a shell hit their camp and blew up the tents – his colleagues were killed, and he was thrown many feet into a ditch. They pronounced him dead initially, but soon discovered vital signs – he was no worse for the wear, except for losing an eye. Anyway, Doc was always looking out for us – he was the old kind of doctor that made house calls and mixed his own medicine – even as a kid, this kind of doctor was a dying breed. I don’t think there are any like him in existence anymore. If we called him up at 2 AM and said one of us was sick, he’d throw on a robe and come down immediately. He’d see us, give us antibiotics or whatever, and hardly ever charge us. If we insisted, he’d only ask for maybe $25. He didn’t do what he did for the money, he did it because he was great at it and he loved it. In my opinion, a good rule of thumb for just about anyone.

Anyway, Doc happened to be getting rid of a stove – it was still good and he wanted to know if we wanted it. We said yes, and enlisted Dad to help move it along with Clint, one of Doc’s sons. Dad evidently did not want to move this stove himself – looking back now, I see this fact rather clearly. He didn’t say anything directly, but he gave every excuse in the book why he wasn’t able to do it. He was already a probation officer at this point, and was enlisting “favors” from his parolees – if they came and did such and such a thing, like helped him paint or move a stove – he’d overlook certain violations or give them a good report. If not, well. Who knows what he might say? That’s just the kind of person Dad was. Anyway, he tried to enlist the help of ex cons to move the stove, but Doc hit the roof – he had medicine and equipment in his office, and he didn’t think it was wise for criminals (even ex criminals) to just be waltzing in and out. Dad pouted – literally pouted at this, and was forced to take the stove down a flight of stairs with the help of Clint.

Dad: I got it, you can let go now.

They were only a few stairs down.

Clint: Are you sure?

Dad: Yep.

Clint let go, and Dad dropped his hands to his sides. The stove slid and bounced its way down the stairs, finally crashing on the landing.

Dad: Oops.

The stove was broken, of course, and at that point moving it to anything other than a dump was unnecessary – Dad “won”. I have dozens of stories like this, but I hope that helps to illustrate exactly the kind of person Dad was. I watched his actions growing up, and decided that I would become the antithesis of whatever he was. He was short tempered and fussy? I would be long suffering and easy going. He was a nut that hoarded weapons and walked around armed to the teeth? I’d be a pacifist. He was a drunk? I’d never touch a sip of the stuff. I began to define myself by what I was not – and I began to be very proud of the fact that I was nothing like him.

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99% of the people I’ve ever worked with were total professionals – great people. I earned a bit of a reputation in the industry as “One Take Danny” – meaning I could give the client whatever they wanted in just a couple of takes. If they hired me, it was unlikely I would cost them more than an hour of studio time – sometimes even much less. I loved the feeling of getting a “day’s work” done in such a short amount of time – it was very gratifying. I think that has bred a need in me to see the immediate outcome of a project – it’s very hard for me to just put my head down and work on something for an indefinite period without seeing a clear result. It’s why I have an easier time writing short stories than novels, and why I have such an easy time blogging – I post it, it’s done, people read it and comment.

Anyway, sometimes I would get a client who didn’t know what they wanted – those were always difficult. I’d have to do fifty million takes.

Client: That was great, Danny. Now, listen, we loved the way you did that – we really did – but can you give us a little more…I dunno. Something. You know?

No, I didn’t know. But dammit, I tried. You might not think a lot of fretting went on about my inflection in the word “waffle”, but you’d be wrong. In some cases, you’d be very wrong. I remember doing a voice over for a Batman action figure once. For those who might not know, a voice over is where you walk into a recording studio and read a script. If it’s for TV, they’ll usually have everything filmed and want you to match it to the picture. Back in the day, the clients, director, and writers were all right there in the room with you. These days they do it all via internet – the client can be in Micronesia, it doesn’t even matter. Anyway, this Batman commercial was cool – I loved the comics, and knew every nuance of the characters. All through the session, though, I could tell this guy – I think he was a writer – was getting agitated. Sensing he wasn’t quite satisfied, I asked if there was anything specific he had in mind.

Writer: Yeah. Can you make a noise?

Me: What kind of noise?

Writer: You know, like the kind of noise the Penguin makes?

I imitated the Penguin.

Writer: No, not like that. Like a quack.

Me: A quack?

Writer: Yes.

Me: Like a duck?

Writer: No, like a penguin. Penguins quack, right?

I thought I knew what he was talking about – the cigar chomping, umbrella wielding Batman villain did make birdlike sounds sometimes. I gave him what I thought was a dead on impersonation of it.

Writer: No, no. I need you to grunt.

Me: Grunt?

Writer: Yeah. Grunt like the Penguin.

Like I said, I was pretty familiar with the character – and he didn’t grunt, as far as I knew. I did some more takes, and grunted as requested – which, in my opinion, sounded nothing like the Penguin. The writer was growing more frustrated.

Writer: No, that’s not it. That’s not right.

Me: Okay…

Writer: Just GRUNT! You don’t know how to grunt?

Me: Yeah…you mean quack or grunt?

Writer: Just grunt!

I did some more takes, which sounded like I was passing the unabridged Webster’s Dictionary. I was sounding less and less like the Penguin and more like a guy who hadn’t eaten fiber in ten years.

Me: Was that…better?

Writer: No! That sounds nothing like the Penguin.

No shit, dude.

Writer: Okay. Can you quack and grunt at the same time?

I was starting to seriously question this guy’s grasp on the characters in the DC universe – much less reality – but I gave it my best shot. I prayed to everloving Christ that I got it. He listened back to my takes, and hope crept into my heart.

Writer: No. No. That’s not it.

Me: Well, what do you want?

Writer: I want you to sound like THE PENGUIN!

Me: …okay. Well, you’ll have to explain what you want, then. Because I have no idea.

The guy put his hands over his face for a minute before he spoke again.

Writer: Okay. You know the Penguin?

Me: Yes. From Batman.

Writer: Yes. The umbrella guy.

Me: Right.

Writer: He GRUNTS! Do the Penguin.

I did dozens more takes – I imitated the Penguin, I grunted, I quacked, I even squeaked. By the end, nearly an hour had passed. My voice was raw from grunting and his co-workers were looking at him kind of funny.

He opened his mouth to speak and the lady sitting next to him stopped him. Her voice spoke in my headphones.

Girl Writer: Danny, that’s fine. I think we have what we need.

I walked out of there on watery knees, but the writer – the guy who seemed to want to hear the Penguin taking a dump –  was red faced and sweaty. He looked tired, pissed, and frustrated. I could relate.

 

I had hoped to get all the posts about my Dad out of the way in one shot – I think there are another 2, perhaps 3. The truth is, though, talking about him makes me feel mentally sticky and gross –  I need some sort of mental floss afterwards. Anyway, my point is I don’t think I have the wherewithal to subject myself (much less you) to concentrated doses of Daddy Dearest. Instead, I’m going to talk about something nice – food.

God, I love food. I loved it even as a kid. I don’t look Italian – in fact, I take more after the German side of my family in the looks department. But inside, I’m a fat little Italian boy (I’m fat on the outside too, but that’s a whole other issue). My Grandmother was an amazing cook – in fact, most of my memories from childhood involve her in the kitchen. And when she cooked dinner, she didn’t just cook one thing – she cooked 2-3 main courses and several side dishes. I’m talking home made ravioli with meatballs, sausage, salad, and maybe some chicken cacciatore thrown in for good measure. Maybe Italian wedding soup if she was feeling it. I have to stress that these were typical dinners. God help us if we had company over. You could easily double or triple the amount of food on the table – and still she’d worry she didn’t have enough. She used to get upset if people didn’t finish all the food.

Grandma: What, you don’t like it?

Me: No, Grandma it’s great. I had a third helping.

Grandma: Well, there’s only a little bit left. Here. Have some more ravioli. And don’t forget there’s dessert.

And God forbid a guest should leave the house bereft of leftovers. You remember the sweet old lady from the Wedding Singer who tried to hand Adam Sandler meatballs? Yeah, that was kind of my Grandma.

When I was a kid, I was chubby – I had to wear “husky” sized pants. Mom and Grandma kept telling me (and everyone else) it was just extra baby fat. But by the time I was 8, there really wasn’t any way around the fact that I was getting to be a bit portly. Mom started to get on me about being “too heavy” – not an unreasonable concern, but she had a difficult time following through with meal plans for me. The same day she lectured me about not eating right, we’d run through the McDonald’s drive through. I would be chastised for wanting the Big Mac (for me at 8, this was the bottom of my foot pyramid) and instead encouraged to order the Quarter Pounder, no cheese. The super sized fried and Coke were non-negotiable items. As an adult trying to lose weight, I can see that these choices made little sense – it’s like deciding whether you want to be shot or hung, nutritionally speaking. While my Mom pounded it into my head that I was “too heavy”, agents and casting directors agreed – albeit a bit more diplomatically. I was a “character actor”, they’d say – a nice way of saying not the leading man with perfect teeth and pecs. So, I thought “Fuck this. I’m just gonna be fat.” My “efforts” all throughout childhood failed – I see now that they were set up to explode, though. You can’t lose weight – not substantially, anyway – by eating fast food 3 meals a day. Or by feasting on Grandma’s endless ravioli or lasagna, with apple pie for dessert (the argument there being that it wasn’t too bad for me – the apples are at least a fruit). So by the time I decided in earnest that I was going to lose weight – really, really try – I had already become so used to failure I expected it.

Food was also a source of comfort for me – even as a kid in times of bereavement, I was offered ice cream and candy. Long hours on the road will make you bored, as I’m sure any long haul trucker can attest. Our frequent journeys to New York necessitated visits to truck stops for a Coke or Gatorade (the argument being Gatorade was “better for me” because it was “juice”), and a couple King Size candy bars. How I didn’t have a heart attack by the time I was 11 I’ll never know.

Today, at 30, I’m still trying – I hesitate to say “struggling” because that implies failure, at least to me. It’s hard, though, when Mom offers me chocolate covered peanuts (“It’s not *that* bad for you…it’s only nuts and a little bit of chocolate”) or when I have a particularly rough day and just need some sugar.

I still remember when I was in To Kill A Mockingbird, having my nightly dinner after the show. Even then, I was a creature of habit – I ordered a Shirley Temple, fried shrimp and fries, and a hot fudge brownie sundae for dessert. I remember seeing the director leaving with a friend, and he stopped by our table to say hello. He was a really, really sweet guy, and I knew he meant nothing offensive by it, but he gently let me and Mom know they were having to let my costume out for a 2nd time. My 8 year old self was happily chowing down on my hot fudge brownie sundae as I bid the director a good night. Mom grabbed my hand (the one holding the spoon).

Mom: You don’t want to be too fat to play the role, do you?

Me: No.

Mom: Well. Do you want that sundae, or do you want your career?

Right then, I just wanted my damn sundae. I just looked at her.

Mom: Well?

Me: My career, I guess.

Mom: You guess? You better know.

Me: My career, my career.

Mom: Okay then.

She slid the sundae away from me, and I watched regretfully as she finished it off. It didn’t matter in the long run, because tomorrow would be filled with Butterfingers, Egg McMuffins, and super sized Cokes. She would have forgotten all about her “pep talk” (which wasn’t a pep talk, really – it just served to make me feel angry and guilty) and back in her own little world. Another day, another drive thru.

 

On the one hand, I could say I never knew my father well. On the other hand, I can say I knew him too well. He’s been a bit of an enigma in my life – someone whose motives have always been a mystery to me, even as I look back from an adult perspective. He was an angry man, at least in my experience. Extremely discontent with his lot in life, though I’m not sure what specifically had him so angry – possibly my Mom, who was already exhibiting signs of mental illness, and definitely me. As I think I said in an earlier post, he hated me – almost from the first. It was almost as if I was a bastard – I had wondered periodically if I was somehow not his kid. Unfortunately, the resemblance is all to apparent. I don’t want to dwell on this person, or navel gaze about my “daddy issues” – I have better and more interesting things to write about. But where I think this becomes salient to the overall theme of the blog is how he shaped who I was as a kid and who I am today.

As I have said before, he was a bit of a drunk – I have very few memories of him without a beer in his hand or and empty six pack (or two, or three) by his feet. He had several jobs, which he quit as soon as he became successful at. He had a lucrative lawn mowing business, for instance. One day, he abruptly sold all his equipment and quit. He never explained why – the business had been going well, and he was getting clients hand over fist. He worked for a newspaper, but as soon as he began to climb the ladder he resigned. Finally, my Grandmother stepped in and got him a job as a probation officer – this happened to be the only thing he ever stuck with, as far as I know. But it’s something that someone like him – given his psychological makeup – should have never been involved in.

My Mom, for all her faults and all the things she did (and yes, she did some very nasty things which will probably piss you off, Reader. They certainly pissed me off) was, at her core, a good person. Horribly confused and selfish, perhaps, mentally ill definitely, but she was basically a good person. My father had a very nice veneer – a happy and outgoing guy, well liked by everyone – but underneath that veneer was, in my opinion, a violent psychopath. I genuinely believe with all my heart that he would kill another human being without a second thought – sometimes an icy voice tells me he already has, and they’re buried in his back yard.

He was very “manly” – tried very hard to do macho stuff. He worked out and lifted weights constantly, talked about cars and sports. He was disappointed – disproportionately so – when I wasn’t that interested in those subjects. He tried, once, to take an interest in my music. He sat down with me at the piano and tried to teach me to play a song. Even his teaching method was violent and reeked of machismo.

Dad: You gotta attack the note! Attack the song! Clobber it!

I’m not sure what he was trying to accomplish with this pep talk, but it left me confused and him frustrated. He had guns everywhere, and would pull loaded weapons on the rest of his family at the drop of a hat. He constantly patrolled the house – inside and out – at night. He paced and peered through the blinds, waiting for some invisible intruder to come in and “try” him.

Dad: I will kill whoever gets into this house.

It wasn’t mere bravado, I’m sure. Dad really, really, wanted someone to break in so he could kill them. It extended beyond home protection and into personal protection. He went around armed to the teeth – he had concealed handguns, a machete, knives, and a nightstick – for whatever reason, he had carved ICE into it. He really wanted to someone to “come at him in the streets” so he could “kill him”.

Above all else, the man despised squirrels. I don’t recall him being terribly fond of most animals, actually, but squirrels were a particular issue for him. He would go out of his way to hit them on the road, or squash the ones already dead. Sometimes he would shovel them up off the road only to bring them home. He would hunt them – God only knows why – for hours on end in the woods. He’d bring home piles of squirrel carcases and stick them in the freezer. Ostensibly, he used them to make his “famous” squirrel pot pie – nobody ate it, though. It was foul. He’d keep the frozen squirrels for months until Mom or Grandma would get upset and force him to throw them out. He would do so reluctantly and with great regret. Aside from freezing them, he played with them. I mean, he cut them open and dissected them – played with their organs, even. Once or twice, he even called me into the garage and forced me to hold a squirrel kidney or otherwise watch him poke around in the innards. I was revolted – at 6 or 7, I probably had no idea what to make of that. My reaction made him very angry.

He also beat me severely, usually with no warning and for no reason. He would kick or punch me to the ground and then drag me around by my hair (usually to my room or his) where he would continue to beat me. Sometimes with hangars, sometimes with belts (particularly the buckle end) sometimes with other things. I often had bruises and welts. I was always walking on eggshells around him – scared out of my mind that he would suddenly come after me. He was almost never angry when he did it – if he yelled, he didn’t yell much. He was very, very calm. In fact, one evening I had gone to bed (much too early for my taste) and decided I wanted some water. I opened my bedroom door and yelled down to him – I asked if he could bring me up some water. There was a long silence.

Dad: Well. Come down and get it yourself.

He sounded absolutely placid – perhaps even a little good-natured. I was concerned.

Me: It’s okay?

Dad: Sure. Come on down.

I went gingerly down the stairs to the kitchen, where he was sitting at the table. He wasn’t doing anything – not eating, not reading, just sitting there staring at the wall. I knew something was off, but couldn’t process exactly what. I grabbed a Tom and Jerry glass (my favorite) and started filling it with water. I felt the air change instantly and I knew something – I wasn’t sure what, exactly – had gone horribly wrong. I turned to find him staring at me – it wasn’t a father’s eyes, this was predatory. I panicked and dropped my glass. He was out of his chair like a lightning bolt, looming above me. I ran for the stairs – hoping to get to the safety of my room. In my fear, I thought perhaps putting a door between the two of us would stop his pursuit. I didn’t make it far up the stairs before I was kicked up to the landing.

Dad: Get up.

I wailed. I couldn’t get up.

Dad: GET. UP.

I cowered, and he grabbed my hair and dragged me the rest of the way down the hall. Perhaps somewhat mercifully, I only remember snippets of what happened – I was hanging on to the bed post for dear life as he wailed on me with his belt buckle. Grandma tried to intervene and was thrown off. I have no idea how long this went on for, but it was bad – very bad. So bad that Grandma took pictures. I had welts the size of walnuts. I had cuts and scrapes and huge bruises that were screaming purple and already beginning to turn yellow. I couldn’t walk or sit for 2 days. He stopped just as suddenly as he started – receded to his basement room to continue drinking and watching war movies (basically, he watched war movies and documentaries about war). I never knew why – I didn’t have the balls to ask, not as a kid. I certainly never posed the question to him. None of the other adults in my life seemed to know why either – what had set off this particular beating or why, in general, he did these things.

He drug me by my hair through the parking lot at Disney World when I was 4. I don’t remember this – memory can be vindictive but it can also be merciful – but have been told this by several family members. Our neighbors knew all about it. They heard it, they saw it – watched him chase me through the house or the yard. And you know what? Nobody said a goddamn word. Not a peep. No authorities were called – not child services or the police. That still makes me angry. My life would likely have been drastically different, but at least I would have known that someone had been looking out for me instead of just watching and doing nothing.

I was sitting in Uncle Richard’s studio one night, smelling the kerosene that came from the heater. There is nothing quite like the smell of kerosene and books – I have never smelled it elsewhere, and to this day when I smell something similar I am immediately transported to his little studio surrounded by oak trees. We had been discussing some project or another – he and I were always working on something. It might have been a musical (I started several, which I never finished) or a book (I have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd chapters of hundreds), or who knows what. We even worked on comic books. He was always encouraging me to stretch myself farther, to push the limits of my creativity.

Uncle Richard: You are a multifaceted individual. Do you know what that means?

Me: Like, a lot of interests?

Uncle Richard: Yes. A lot of abilities in different areas. You have a responsibility to each of those areas, to cultivate them. I don’t want to ever see you give up on yourself.

I nodded, and he settled further into his chair.

Uncle Richard: Do you know why I come here, to my studio?

I shook my head, but whether I answered or not would have made no difference – he was deep in thought. Ruminating.

Uncle Richard: I come here to get away from myself. And I can’t. I take me with me everywhere I go.

I chuckled, but his eyes flashed.

Uncle Richard: I’m quite serious.

Me: You don’t like yourself?

He thoughtfully shook his head. I could not believe it. This was the coolest person I knew – comfortable in any situation. If I ever had to be an adult, I wanted to grow up like him. Hell, he could have been introduced at Buckingham Palace and charmed the pants off the Royal Family. A guy who came up from nothing – literally – and had that amount of class and charisma remains impressive to me. I think he must have seen some of this on my face, because he looked dismayed.

Uncle Richard: Don’t look up to me.

But I did. I do. I can’t help it.

Me: Why shouldn’t I?

Uncle Richard: Because I am a coward.

He was growing morose – when he turned his eyes inward and started boxing with himself it was somewhat upsetting to watch. It was like Muhammad Ali vs Muhammad Ali – nobody won, but there was a lot of blood. I wasn’t sure what to say – he was smarter than I was, and anything I said he could counteract with an intellectual left hook. Besides, something was clearly bothering him. I was a skilled field surgeon in the area of the psyche by then – I was constantly picking out shrapnel from my Mom, myself, or my brother. This was one person I never expected to need my help – and in fact he probably didn’t. He was just licking old wounds. Every part of me wanted to help him, to say something as wise and witty as he always did, but I didn’t know how. I just sat there. He finally looked up.

Uncle Richard: You, though. You I admire.

I blinked.

Uncle Richard: You are fearless.

He put a hand on my head, a weary fighter taking a break in the corner of the ring.

Uncle Richard: Fearless. And don’t you forget it.

If only he knew.

 

My third project on the stage was On Borrowed Time – a play about a boy who traps death in a tree so that his Grandfather can live forever. I got to work with George C. Scott, Nathan Lane, and several other luminaries of the acting world. I guess I wasn’t technically on Broadway, though, since I was an understudy. Understudying can actually be somewhat heartbreaking – you learn the part, sometimes several parts, just in case someone calls out sick and you get to go on. It’s been known to happen – sometimes the main actors will be kind and be “sick” for a particular day, letting the understudy have their time in the spotlight. It’s a very cool thing for them to do, but in my experience it’s kind of rare. Sometimes lead actors are suspicious of their understudies – leads have been known to fall down the stairs after being “accidentally” bumped by those who would be interested in taking their role. In my experience this, too, is an overblown misconception – with only a few exceptions, every actor I’ve worked with has been 100% professional. It’s a job, and they’re there to do it.

George C. Scott was a bit of a card – I remember there was one guy in the audience who couldn’t stop coughing. He stopped the play and yelled: WOULD YOU JUST SHUT THE HELL UP? He insisted the guy be removed before he would continue the play. The scuttlebutt backstage was that he drank quite a bit. If rumors were to be believed, he rarely gave a sober performance. One night, a gun was supposed to be loaded with blanks – George’s character was supposed to shoot someone on stage. The gun didn’t go off, and George turns to the audience and breaks the proverbial Fourth Wall: YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO PRETEND, OKAY?

The Stage Manager was a cool guy – he was always really nice to me. Sometimes he let me leave a little early if the play was almost done and it was obvious I wasn’t going to go on. He seemed tired a lot – I expect he was a bit exhausted from dealing with all the backstage drama. Mom somehow got into her head that we had to become good friends with this guy, and that to do so we needed to give him some of my toys for his kid.

When I was much smaller, Grandpa had gotten me a plastic horse named Clip Clop. It bounced up and down when you rode it and made galloping sounds. I loved it. I was too big for it, but it was something I really loved and wanted to save it. Mom insisted for whatever reason that we had to give it away to this guy for his kids. I was pissed. Even as a kid, I had a sense of trying to preserve things – I was always trying to “save” a particular favorite toy or shirt or whatever. Putting things in boxes or Ziploc baggies. I think given all the death I encountered at an early age (my Grandfather, a close Aunt, and later Uncle Carlo) I knew that time was fleeting and I needed to hold onto the things I cared about. Mom and I got into conflicts about this a lot – I was saving “junk” to her. I suppose, at times, I became a borderline hoarder. Hell, I even saved candy that people gave me. I literally have chocolates that are 25 years old. Granted, they’re special chocolates – say, a musical note made out of fudge given to me on my 7th birthday – but it’s still 25 year old chocolate. It’s practically fossilized now, and I have no idea what possessed me to save it.

The kid that went on in my stead every night was from somewhere in the South – I can’t remember exactly where, but his mother was the picture of a Southern Belle (or pretended to be). She was absolutely obsessed with sex – even as a kid, this was fairly obvious to me. She kept sneaking into the men’s dressing rooms “by accident”. She’d make a big deal about it.

Southern Belle: Oh, my! I can’t believe I actually did that! I just got so confused! This theater is so big! Would you mind if I sat down and had a glass of water? I feel faint from walking up all those stairs!

By the 3rd or 4th time this happened, nobody was under any illusion that it was an accident. I thought it was pretty damn stupid, myself, and sort of viewed her scornfully. Granted, I wasn’t yet a teenager and probably didn’t have a concept of a sex drive, but even then I probably would have looked down it.

One of the coolest people I met there was an understudy like me named Kate. She was older than I was, probably in her early 20’s I’d guess. We connected, and I guess I had a bit of a crush on her. I thought she was really pretty but more importantly, she was really cool – she liked sci-fi and horror. She was even in Night of the Living Dead (the remake) and told me all about George A. Romero‘s zombie trilogy. I was fascinated and insisted that Mom let me see it at once. I wasn’t allowed because it was “too gory”, but I did sneak peeks of it when it came on TV. I have her to blame for my fascination with zombies. Anyway, she’d give me different sci fi or horror videos to take home and watch. We’d talk about it after I’d seen them, and she’d tell me about how important they were.

Kate: Have you seen the Twilight Zone?

Me: No. What’s that?

Her jaw dropped.

Kate: You *have* to. Promise me you’ll see it. It’s AMAZING.

Me: Okay, what’s it about?

And our conversations might go on like that. One night, she did get to go on – someone called out sick. She was thrilled, and I was thrilled for her. She was combing her hair in the mirror and seemed to have a thought.

Kate: Sorry you don’t get to go on tonight.

Me: It’s alright.

Kate: You’ll get a chance.

Me: I know.

Girl: Would you watch me? Let me know how I do?

Kate: Sure.
I watched her part from back stage, and I thought she did great. I had seen the rest of the play many times by that point – I knew all the lines and the blocking, and the rest didn’t interest me. Besides, I didn’t want to get in the way of the stage hands. I gave her a hug after, and told her she did great.

When the show closed, Katie gave me a video of The Day The Earth Stood Still. She told me to watch it and write her with my thoughts on it. The letter she gave me with it is long gone – it had her contact info, I’m sure, but also an in depth explanation of just how cool the movie was. By the time I had gotten around to watching the movie, I had lost the letter with her info.  The last time I saw her, she gave me a huge hug and promised me we’d both be big stars one day. She’s doing alright for herself these days, and I’m very proud of her. I never kept  in touch, which I regret – kids are pretty much rubbish at that – but I’ve been happy to see how successful she’s become.

 

I think most would agree I didn’t have a “normal” childhood in many respects, and social outlets were no exception. Between being home schooled and being on the road all the time, I didn’t have a lot of options to make friends. Most of the people I hung out with were adults – Uncle Richard, Uncle Carlo, Russ, and Mom. If they were not well educated, they were well traveled and wise. They were funny and interesting, and I considered them my peers far more than others in my age group. This cliquishness bred a bit of contempt for normal people – when I met “normal” kids, I could not believe how immature they were. They didn’t talk about books, or talk in depth about  music (other than what bands they liked – they wouldn’t tell me why they liked them, just that they did). Beyond video games, I had little in common with them. I was friendly enough, but they could tell I wasn’t like them and resented it. I didn’t play in the dirt – I despised getting dirty (still do). I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me. When it came out what I did – the music, the acting – even kids I had managed to become friends with would flare in resentment. I eventually learned to shut up about it, but this made me uninteresting to them. Neighborhood kids would sometimes come over if Mom ordered pizza. They’d pretty much eat the pizza and leave. If they did stay, they’d try to take advantage of me in some way – a lot of things went missing from my house, for instance. Not big stuff – mostly toys and maybe some video games would disappear. The big trend at the time was trading cards, and my brother and I got into Magic: The Gathering with the neighborhood kids. They played with us, but they laughed at us a lot. We traded cards with ignorantly (or sometimes gave them away when we were told they were “worthless”) – we got the raw end of a lot of trades. I suppose that’s fairly normal for kids to take advantage of each other, but I did feel as if this had an edge – I was the “rich kid” (I wasn’t, really, but everyone assumed I was).

If the normal world held little for me, I did find members of my own tribe I could connect with. I would see these kids at auditions, and we’d chat in the waiting rooms. Sometimes, if the stars were aligned properly, we would all go out to lunch or hang out. These times were pretty rare – maybe a few times a year – and a lot needed to fall perfectly into place. For starters, Mom had to be in the right mood – if she was grumpy that day, or distracted by her delusions, or wanted to race home in time to catch Russ at the studio, I was likely not going to get to hang out with my friends. My friends, of course, had to have nothing going on as well, but they also had to be doing something that interested Mom. If it was something “weird” (like grabbing Chinese food or watching a foreign film) she was instantly disinterested. Most importantly, of course, Mom had to like them – or at least decide they weren’t plotting against us. If she thought they were “in competition” with us, she’d never have agreed to hang out. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by that. In those days, you had a ” type” and you were sent out on auditions based on that. If they wanted a bookish kid, I got the call. Someone with red hair and freckles wouldn’t be competition for me – or a 300lb kid, or a Jewish kid, or a black kid…you get the idea. The people who weren’t likely to get the same calls as me were the people Mom would gravitate towards.

There used to be a pretty cool place in the city called Ed Debevic’s – it was a retro type place. It had a full on, unapologetic 50’s atmosphere – complete with waiters and waitresses on roller skates who smacked gum and were rude (they were supposed to be). Sometimes they’d even hop on the tables and sing. There was even a giant atomic warhead in the waiting area – I was a little skittish about it at first, because I wasn’t interested in getting radiation sickness. But my friend insisted it was only a metal shell, and I relaxed. My friend and I talked about Batman over dinner, and Mom even let us hit a comic store afterwards. I was euphoric.

Had I lived in the city and gone to school there (there was at least one school of “child actors” that probably would have fit the bill for me), I no doubt would have been happier socially. As it was, I lobbied Mom vigorously for more time with friends, and when I got it I treasured those times. Aside from having my brother, I was pretty freaking lonely. I have no idea what I would have done if I were an only child. Hell, I still have a picture of me and a kid I knew and hung out with a couple times – it sat on my dresser in a frame for a full decade after our last visit together. Like I said before, I eagerly held on to those times I was able to socialize with members of my own tribe.

I read in a book once that the universe subtracts. But I think it can also add and multiply. A lot of things are a tradeoff – I could have had a Dad who wasn’t a psycho. I got a bum deal on that count. But in return, I got not one but 3 incredible father figures. I could have lived a “normal” life and had “normal” friends and done “normal” stuff. Believe it or not, I longed for that normalcy and stability so much I could taste it. In return, I got a career in an industry whose veil few manage to pierce. And I did have friends – as a kid, I called them my New York friends  – and they were all vibrant people. I am, ultimately, who I am supposed to be. I know the people I know and experienced the things I was meant to. Sometimes I wonder how different things might have been – and even if as a kid I had wished fervently for things to be different, I embrace it today. The tradeoffs the universe gives you may not always be fair – they may not even always be what you want – but you need see them for what they are: they are a gift.