My most recent contributions to the Berkeley E-Plaque Project, founded and chairmanned by the estimable Robert Kehlmann, have gone up: Robert Duncan; B.N.Duncan (no relation). You may read them, perhaps with some sleuthing required, at http://berkeleyplaques.org/
Here’s the natural follow-up to my prior post. It appeared on-line originally in the November 2010 “First of the Month” and was reprinted in “Perspectives by Incongruity,” DeMott, ed., 2012.
At the conclusion of a dream that included my descending in an elevator with a hooker and leaping a barrier to catch a subway train, I found myself on a park bench taking out a notebook to describe my collection of .45 rpm records to which I have not listened in thirty-five years. When I awoke, it still seemed a good idea. I quote lyrics from memory. I record history from memory too. What are we, if not what we remember?
I acquired most of these records at Treegoob’s, 41st & Lancaster, situated, as its ads proclaimed, “in the heart of West Philadelphia.” Treegoob’s sold used .45s, culled from juke boxes when their plays diminished, for nineteen cents, which was seventy cents below the cost of new ones. The discount was an inducement, but the mile and one-half journey to the store from the safer, whiter shores of our homes, enriched the value of the discs exponentially for my friends and self. Its perceived risks turned our quest heroic and the black circles we retrieved golden rings to win a princess’s hand.
My prime shopping years were between 7th grade (1954-55) and 10th (1957-58). I am uncertain why I stopped, but I suspect the proliferation of Fabian and his ilk, coupled with the rise of Top 40 programming (or even Top 99, which Philly had for awhile), stripped rock of the outlaw edge which had hooked me. Plus, in 1958, my friends and I began turning sixteen, which meant we could drive. And borrowing a father’s car opened excitements to us beyond those available in our rooms with a stack of vinyl.
The records I list below are not necessarily my favorites – and certainly not the era’s Best or Most Significant. But they are those that elbowed to the front of the line once I had awakened.
1. “Annie Had a Baby.” The Midnighters. Federal. Annie couldn’t work “no more. Every time we start to working, she’s got to stop and walk the baby ‘cross the floor.” Uncharacteristically, I paid full price at a South Street shop that Max Garden led me to one day after Hebrew school. But I had to have it. It was not the bad grammar that led to its being banned from air play. The Dictionary of American Slang may not confirm it, but we knew the “working” going on. And the idea that you could sing about it electrified. “Annie” blew the collected works of Patti Page and Eddie Fisher from our minds forever.
2. “By the River.” Wilt Chamberlain. End. “…neath the shady tree.” Just the Dipper, his baby and he. They “kiss, hug, cuddle close…” Absolute pablum, I grant you, but here was Philadelphia’s greatest athlete sticking his toe onto our side of the revolution. Basketball and rock’n’roll – just what little inner city boys were made of.
3. “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come ‘Round)?” Prince Patridge. Crest. “He bites the mailman, and he sees him every day, but when you come ‘round, he rolls over to play.” We liked the humor, the implications – and dogs. Plus what kind of name was “Prince” or, for that mater, “Patridge”? Where did he come from and where did he go? If he’d had a past or future, it was unknown to us. Greatness was forever existentially stamped transitory.
4. “Nite Owl.” Tony Allen. Specialty. Here he came, “walking through the front door,” and “Hoo, hoo, hoo” backed up The Champs, adding ornithological depth to the orchestration – or Dada-esq juxtaposition, depending on your point of view. But we all aspired to be what Allen claimed for himself. Out on the dark streets, boldly alone, unfettered by municipal curfew laws imposed to control our disappointingly tame delinquencies.
5. “Pledging My Love.” Johnny Ace. Duke. “Forever, my darling, my love will be true.” That silky, seductive voice. The promise of that eternally heated heart – set beside the chilling reality of Ace’s fate at the hands of Russian roulette. The hammer and the spinning chamber. The fickle, random universe at play. “What I want to know,” Georgie Woods, our favorite disc jockey inquired, “is did he win or lose?”
6. “Sixty Minute Man.” The Dominoes. Federal. “…fifteen minutes of teasing and fifteen minutes of squeezing and fifteen minutes of blowing my top.” Released before my time, but on a cross-country trip in 1963, Davey Peters and I stopped in a town in South Dakota because he wanted a pair of black jeans which, as I recall, he had seen James Dean wear, but which no place in Philly stocked; and in a five-and-ten I found a stash that contained this ribald classic. Maybe the last .45 I ever purchased. In the preceding few months I had acquired “My Favorite Things” and “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and was on my way to other things.
7. “Smokey Joe’s Café.” The Robins. Atco. “From behind the counter, I saw a man. Chef’s hat on his head and knife in his hand.” Early Leiber & Stoller (and wasn’t that really The Coasters, pseudonym-ed up for obscure contractual reasons?) An entire saga in under three minutes: a hint of sex; a threat of danger (we knew they had to be related); a bit of humor – served up over a plate of beans. Masterful.
8. “Speedo.” The Cadillacs. Josie. “Bum-bum-bum-bum-bop-bop- doodly…” His real name not “Joe” or “Moe” but “MISTER (emp. supp.) Earl,” and how cool was that? We knew no one named “Mister Bob” or “Mister Max.” Even our fathers weren’t “Mister Herb” or “Mister Sam.” When Stanley Kessler and I compared lists of Best Songs Ever at Camp Tacoma in 1957, I went heavy for super-charged do-wop like this and “Come Go With Me” and “Strange Love.” He out-sophisticated me with ballads: “Earth Angel,” “To the Aisle,” “Soldier Boy.” But it was to be expected. Stanley, the veteran of many more make-out parties, even claimed to have scored bare tit from Cookie Yosowitz (not her real name).
9. “W-P-L-J.” The 4 Deuces. Music City. “You shake it up fine. Get a good-good wine.” A tribute to the power of drink. More that the future promised but the present denied. And on the flip side (I kid you not), “Here Lies My Love” by Mr. Undertaker. Huh? What was that about? Was the universe trying to warn us about where such dissolution led? As if we didn’t have enough inhibitions snarling our progression.
10. “Zindy Lou.” The Chimes. Specialty. “…a girl that come from the hills and, oh hot dog (something about “thrills” or “chills” or even “I think that she will”). One of those girls we knew were out there and hoped to meet but wondered if we ever would. It didn’t help that her name, like Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” or The Valentines’ “Lily Maybelle,” was one that had never been called in any of our home rooms. Nor that the number became a dance contest song in the early days of “ Bandstand,” co-mingling with another land of exotically named, beyond-our-reach damsels: Justine and Arlene and Big and Little Ro.
Honorable Mention. “Jam Up.” Tommy Ridgely. Atlantic. Georgie Woods opened each show on WHAT with it. When he switched to WDAS (or was it vice-versa), he didn’t, and when Max Garden called to ask why, he learned the station’s library lacked a copy. So Max borrowed my copy and brought it to Woods in order that tradition be preserved.
At least, I think that happened. Max is dead, so I can’t ask him. And Davey’s dead, so I can’t confirm that part about James Dean – or if it was South, not North Dakota. And Stanley’s dead, so I don’t know if he is sticking to his story about Cookie Yosowitz. My dream had summoned me to reflect upon my friends, cup our history in my hands, and craft it for my purposes. All pasts lie forgotten in closets and on shelves, crumbling to pieces, some of which may be salvaged and refashioned to construct a present and, hopefully, influence a future.
This originally appeared, entitled “The Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” on-line in THE BROAD STREET REVIEW of Sept. 1, 2009. Because of the REVIEW’s proscription against using pseudonyms and my refusal to abide by it, I did not identify my fellow seekers by name. But they were Max Garden, Davey Peters, Mickey Kipper, and, maybe, Fletcher Sparrow.
I bought my first record when I was twelve: Little Walter’s “My Babe.” The film Cadillac Records reveals him as scotch-soaked, pistol-packing, tragedy-fated. But if I thought of him at all, it was as a tiny guy with the same name as my cousin. No cult of personality compelled the release of my eighty-nine cents. It was entirely the edgy, haunted voice, the scratchy, lilting beat – the sound alone stirring my placid blood. I had no “babe.” I had not transgressed my way into “cheating” – let alone any “midnight creeping” – but I divined a summons onto tempting ground.
Rock’n’roll/rhythm and blues began slipping into my life and those of my friends, drip-by-drip, during seventh grade (1954-55). Songs were popping onto our car radios, like “Sh-Boom” (The Crewcuts neutered version, not The Chords original) or “Ling-Ting-Tong,” causing our fathers to push the buttons to re-establish the priorities of Kitty Kallen and Eddie Fisher. From the play list of “Bob and Sherry,” who tutored us in the rudiments of box step and jitterbug and mambo in the lower floor of Beth Zion synagogue, we could hear, besides “Hey There” and “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (Bill Haley, not Big Joe Turner) and “Earth Angel” (Gloria Mann, not The Penguins). I don’t recall who tipped me to WHAT and WDAS and the raw authenticity at the far end of the radio’s dial, but soon I was fighting my father for the car’s buttons, and in my room all I listened to was Kay Williams and Mitch Thomas and, best of all, Jocko (“EEE-tiddleee-yock, this is the Jock”) Henderson and Georgie Woods, “The Man With the Goods,” ringing his cow bell and declaring everything to be “cool, calm and copacetic.” For my bar mitzvah, I requested my own .45 player, handsome plastic, pink and black.
In a recent Wired, J.J. Abrams lamented the loss of the need to leave one’s home in order to buy music – of having to “brave the weather, bump into strangers… (and) earn” it. Well, my friends and I earned the records stacked upon the spindles of our machines.
Treegoob’s, our primary source of supply, was at 41st and Lancaster, which was, in Georgie Woods’s terms, “in the heart of West Philadelphia.” Joseph Conrad could not have put it better. For in those days, Market Street drew a racial divide through our portion of West Philly, whites to the south, blacks to the north; and, from my house, once you crossed the shadow of the el, Treegoob’s still lay one scary mile away.
But every few months, on a Saturday morning, two or three of us made the journey. We did not ride bikes; bikes too strongly tempted brigands. We did not ask our parents for rides. (For out purposes, we probably would have preferred encountering brigands to begging rides from parents.) Across Market Street stretched a vacant block, where weeds sprouted and cabbage moths flitted among the husk of an abandoned Chevrolet. Beyond it lay home-based churches, whose Sunday sermon titles were misspelled in chalk on slate, and storefront emporiums offering sinks and toilets from their pavement or displaying fish we had not heard of from seas we would never troll.
We kept our gaze straight ahead. We challenged no stranger’s stare – and most certainly did not “bump” any of them. In truth, interracial violence, though present, was not extreme in our corner of the world. One boy I knew had been socked in the jaw when he refused to hand over an orange sweater. My brother had been forced to surrender his Halloween candy to a trio of older girls. And once word had reached Lea School that the Black Bottoms, a gang from Sulzberger Jr. High, intended to wreak havoc upon us for some outrage no one could identify. Seventh and eighth graders slid pen knives into their lunch boxes and pool cue butts down their pants legs; older male relations patrolled the perimeter. No auslanders appeared, but, following that threat, the term shvartzes had come into common usage among my peers. Still, in all our treks, over two or three years, the worst inflicted upon us were some muttered oaths and thrown stones.
Treegoob’s primarily sold appliances. But even its EZ Credit terms did not lure us toward console TVs and toaster ovens. We bee-lined for the record department. Overhead, from Riverside and Blue Note covers, Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk appraised us with indifference. But they were gods in a world more than our allowances kept us from entering. Our goal was the three trays stacked with hundreds of more accessible .45s, culled from juke boxes because their plays had slackened and offered for nineteen cents apiece – the best price in the known world. We fell upon them like harpies at Phineas’s table, fingering rapidly, front to back, in pursuit of the wildly admired, the thoroughly desirable, the trophies which would rain envy upon us. Those searches yielded me “Annie Had a Baby” and “Speedo,” “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Zindy Lou,” “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark” and “WPLJ,” “I Hear You Knocking’” and “Pledging My Love.”
It was not everything I wanted, but it was a lot.
We were aware that this exercise of our discretionary spending placed us on one side of a cultural divide. We recognized that our position was not championed by any authoritative adult. We understood that ours was a tolerated taste we were expected to outgrow. But each week we checked the Top Ten list at our neighborhood record store and tuned in radio’s Make Believe Ballroom and TV’s Your Hit Parade seeking our favorites vindication. We buzzed with excitement when “Maybelline” surfaced in the line-up locally. But it crept no higher than number nine.
Then, in July 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” became the best-selling song in America. To appreciate the magnitude of this achievement, recognize that, for the previous nine weeks, the bearer of the crown had been “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” – and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” had reigned the five before that. (Recognize too that it would be another seven months before a record with origins in the black market, “The Great Pretender,” captured the title.)
We knew that we were on the winning side of a revolution. In fact, our suspicions hardened that all our revolutions – even those we had not identified – even those where sides had not been dawn – were ones that we would win.
My pal Budd Shenkin is someone whose views I seek out on most political, socio-cultural, and theological matters — not to mention matters of national health policy, where his opinions are particularly indispensable. (The only area where he is shaky is in his revisionist view of our personal history, but I digress.) Anyway, Budd has taken my blog “Moral Shopping” as a launching pad for his own related views: http://buddshenkin.blogspot.com/2014/09/on-impertinence-of-others.html. I recommend adding him to your Favorites list.
The latest book from my cafe pal Elizabeth Wagele, The Queen of Enneagrams, is out: “The Enneagram for Teens: Using your strengths to create healthy relationships and fulfilling choices.” I am one of those at the cafe who contributed themselves as a Case History from which instructional lessons can be drawn. The fact that Liz’s book was first published in Korea, and that Korean teenagers were thus imbibing life lessons from the denizens of our cafe was not without interest to me.
Anyway, the book is now available in Emglish, E-book, or print. Find out more at wagele.com.
We interrupt my journey into adolescence for another entry of the Life in These United States (or, at least, Berkeley) variety. I was thinking of it for BSR, but Adele didn’t think it developed enough. So until I decide to try again, here it is:
The Wheeze Board’s line began outside. It ran the store’s length, past the cheese counter, to the bread trays in the rear, then u-turned toward the cash registers in the front. I inched toward the baguettes. A man, early 60s, glasses, camouflage jacket, briskly walked to the trays and made his selection.
I stepped from line. I tapped his shoulder and pointed.
“What?” he said.
“He’s fine,” a woman, mid-40s, UC sweatshirt, said. She was not his wife. They were not together. But her – and his – point was that, once he had his bread, he would join the line and pay. Which – okay – but it still meant he would beat more patient people, like me, to their selections.
I returned to my place. Except the line had closed and moved on. My place was no longer apparent, and the woman, hair in a white pony tail, small dog in a shoulder bag, ahead of whom I attempted to step, refused me entry. Her point was I could not have been ahead of her because she had been waiting a long time. My point was I had to have been ahead of her because I was in line when someone had told her there was a line to wait in. Her point was it was absurd to make an issue of something so trivial. My point was then why not move behind me. Her point was it was demeaning for her to be even arguing about bread. By then I had realized that (a) she had also raced ahead to select her bread before joining the line and (b) no one, including the breadless, whose rights I had sought to protect from the camouflaged man, had rallied behind me.
I was feeling someone like Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” especially after the cashier answered my hypothetical by affirming my interpretation of proper etiquette. But, she explained, on days the store is crowded, some people feel they need not abide by it. Why the store did not enforce its policy… Well, some would say, that is Berkeley for you. I might say that too, except that every morning, when I arrive at the Wrench Café, I drop my bag on the available table I most prefer. Only then, no matter the length of the line, do I join it to order my espresso, which, not so many years ago, is also behavior to which I would have objected.
So maybe that first-stone-cast advising fellow had a point.
Regrettably retitled “Ready for My 15 Minutes of Fame, Me. DeMille,” this appeared on-line in the Nov. 7, 2009,”Broad Street Review.” It was one of my most satisfactory pieces to write, though, in that I literally knew nothing about my subject when I began it and had no idea in advance where this writing would take me. It also became the BSR piece of mine that received the most comments (three or four) from strangers, including a nephew of Ms. Manley’s and a woman in Georgia who remains an e-mail correspondent to this day. I assume whenever someone Googled “Peggy Manley,” mine was one of the only entries that bobbed up in response to their query.
Peggy Maley delivered one of the most famous set-up lines in film history: “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?” everyone remembers Marlon Brando answered. She’d tossed the perfect insouciant lob and he, slouching, slam-dunked it. But all the times I’d seen “The Wild One,” until I set out to write about it, I thought Mary Murphy asked the question.
But I’d always remembered Maley’s Mildred, the beautician. Buxom, pouty, her platinum blonde D.A. lodged between my synapses like an ember. She appeared an older sister – or, at nearly thirty, an underage mother – to the girls on corners or at soda fountains who had come to fascinate me. In tight skirts and tight sweaters and zipper jackets flashing with zebra stripes, they hung upon guys in pegged pants and box-toed shoes and pink shirts, the black undersides to their collars hiked up and showing. “Rocks,” we called them and, twenty years before Sylvester Stallone, “rocky” their style. Wary at first, Maley is quickly heated to party with the Black Rebels. But when they ravage her shop, there is pleading in her voice and terror in her eyes. “Please don’t do this, please” she begs before vanishing off-screen, lost, forever.
She was born June 8, 1924, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. At eighteen, she was named “Miss Atlantic City.” She never wore a larger crown, but, one year later, was in New York, a “chorine” noted for her resemblance to Lana Turner. That was enough – or a large part of “enough” – for Hollywood. In four years, she appeared in eleven films, usually uncredited, as a “show girl” or “dance hall girl,” “marine’s second girl friend,” “girl in officer’s club,” “pretty blonde neighbor.” One assumes she rarely spoke. One contemplates the acts she performed to secure these meager bookings. One wonders, from her position on her back or knees, how far up the heights that were Lana Turner she imagined she might climb.
From 1947 until 1951, her cinematic credit line is empty. One assumes she returned to New York, for she is noted, in 1948, as “the only girl” in “Mr. Roberts.” She seems to have frittered away few other hours on employment. She “is seen” with a department store heir. She “gives insomnia” to a George DeWitt. (Even Google is no help here.) She throws a party in which a wastebasket catches fire. She “dates” Artie Shaw and “tells off” Buddy Rich for paying her insufficient attention. She has “a big romance” with Al Capone’s cousin. A Greek shipping tycoon leases her an apartment. A British lord hosts her in London. On the continent she “is kept” by King Farouk, who “showers her with… haute couture.”
By 1951, she is back in Hollywood. She is a “very close friend” of Frances Faye. She is a “good friend” of Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Shelly Winters. She is spotted at the Cresenada, Mocambo, Bantam Cock. She is linked with Farley Granger, the bon vivant and professional golfer Al Besselink, Corey Allen, ten years her junior, who will lose (or “win”?) the chicken race with James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” She is “one of Harry Cohn’s ‘girlfriends,’” a friendship which, since Cohn headed Columbia and Columbia produced “The Wild One,” may have profited her as much as Farouk’s. (It may explain, for instance, her billing over Yvonne Doughty, who, as Britches, Johnny’s ex-squeeze, had more scenes with Brando – and more lines.) In a single month (February 1953), she is noted to (a) “date” John Hodiak but (b) have “her mind on” Mike Ireland, while being (c) “the love of” Brad Dexter, Peggy Lee’s most recently divorced husband. She is said to have a “nasty mouth,” “terrible drinking problem,” not even “a dime to her own.” She is married for two months.
By 1960, she has appeared in eighteen more films and thirty-nine TV shows. She is a “showgirl,” “tavern maid,” “blonde stripper,” “blonde barfly,” “blond woman.” She is “Gladys,” “Midge,” “Marge,” “Gwen.” She appears in “Tarawa Beachhead,” “The Brothers Rico,” “Live Fast, Die Young.” She is on “The Untouchables,” “Peter Gunn,” “Dragnet” three times. One wonders if anyone who saw her in one role recalled her when they saw her in the next or if, in each appearance, she had registered no more than a firefly’s blink. Within one year of helping launch Brando into immortality, she is uncredited in “Saga at Red River” and “Drive a Crooked Road.” Within a few years of that, she has aged into “The Rookie”s “Aunt Mabel.”
Envisioning a career ripening into someone’s aunt or mother or worse seems not to have sustained Maley. She returned to New Jersey to manage her father’s bars. She never again appeared on stage or screen. Of her next five decades, “Glamour Girls” finds only three items worth reporting: (1) a visit to Las Vegas, during which a “male model” escorts her to a coffee shop, where, upon meeting Troy Donahue, she embarrasses her date with “non-stop” talking and “inappropriate” dress; (2) her marriage (1961-75) to a Long Island policeman, fifteen years her junior, whose name (Schoenborn? Schoenberg?) can not be precisely attained; and, following a twenty-five year gap, (3) her living “in California.”
It is a life I associate with those I glimpsed in “Confidential” or “Whisper” or “Stag” on my boyhood barber shop’s low table. These are lives – Linda Christian’s and Lila Leeds’s and Barbara Payton’s – conjured up for me by the scent of Wildroot Cream Oil or Bay Rum like Combray was by Proust’s madeleine and tea. Lives of beauty pageants and car wrecks, champagne and Percodan, weekends in Acapulco and marriages annulled. They are lives played out in the shadows of more sumptuous and more sustained tales – in alleys that could have led into boulevards but for one or two wrong turns. Maley’s is a skeleton on which I weave a flesh of thoughts and associations. The words that come to mind are “glamour” and “tawdriness” and “exploitation” and “her own bootstraps.” America sets prizes, like plush bears on a carnival’s shelves, that some citizens must have to plug the holes that riddle their walls. They contort and gyrate and strive – and soon only the motions are left, all doors slammed, all hopes locked in the trunks with the pageants’ scepters and tiaras. Was, one wonders, being kept by King Farouk – being lain upon by his heaving, fat – a pinnacle? a pit? a piece of business? an improvement over Pottsville? By how much? For how long? Who among us is sufficiently without cravings to judge?
I think again of her in Bleeker’s Café, happy, dancing, flirting with Brando over Gil Stratton’s shoulder. I am twelve or thirteen, when I first see Maley, and hoping to understand sex. I have danced the box step and, maybe, spun-the-bottle and have little beyond that in actual girl-against-boy experience to go on. She is telling me it is fun; it is exciting; it is to be held at arm’s length; it is to be feared.
This one appeared at The Broad Street Review on October 29, 2009. I had called it, unimaginitely, “Movies.” It called it “’50s Films that Stoked the ’60s.” It’s your call.
In the mid nineteen-fifties, when I was growing up in West Philadelphia, there were six movie theaters withing walking distance of my house. The Byrd, on Baltimore Avenue. The Commodore, on Walnut. And the Locust, Nixon, Rivoli, and State on 52nd Street.
The Rivoli seemed to show nothing but black-and-white films no ten-to-twelve year old would consider: “Niagara,” “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” The Byrd was good for catching up on Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle. The Locust played sophisticated fare – also of no interest – like “Mr Hulot’s Holiday” or the odd British import. The Commodore was where, during the opening of “It Came From Outer Space,” when the meteor shower rockets in 3-D toward earth, a new boy in the neighborhood, who had seen it before, earned his spurs by flinging a handful of pebbles into the air and setting everyone screaming. The Nixon featured cinematic excellence in the form of “Four Guns to the Border’ and “Riot in Cell Block 11,” and the State had the best Saturday matinee. Admission was fifteen cents. Candy bars were a nickle and a bag of popcorn a dime. You got, maybe, a Joe Penner short, three cartoons, a chapter in a Don Winslow or Dick Tracy serial, and a double feature (“The Crimson Pirate,” “Go For Broke”). Sometimes there were filmed races between funny men in cars or on bikes; and if your ticket stub had the winner’s number, you won a box of jujubes. During yo-yo season, you could come on stage to perform tricks and, even if you lost first round, receive a coupon for an ice cream sandwich.
Once you had attained a certain degree of maturity and wisdom – in my house this occurred between the ages of ten and eleven – you were permitted to take the 42 trolley (later bus) downtown, where another near dozen, mostly first run movies played. The Mastbaurm, Fox, Trans-Lux, Goldman (or was it Goldwyn?)… I forget the rest. Unable to wait for their general release, it was here that my friends and I pinned “House of Wax” and “Rear Window” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Admission cost more and bought fewer extras than in the ‘hood, but Center City offered other treats. Penny arcades filled with pinball machines. Army/navy stores loaded with the surplus of recent wars. Mustard pretzel carts and Horn & Hardarts automats. Book stores, where we peaked at nudist magazines, until the owners threw us out. Downtown took us a lot further from our parents than 52nd Street.
We did not go to movies for cathartic soul cleansing or philosophical challenge or the appreciation of montage and mise en scene. If we saw a comedy, we wanted to laugh. If we saw a western or war movie, we wanted excitement. But we could not help being schooled. We learned patriotism and foreign policy from John Wayne. We were instructed that the FBI would protect us from everything from Communists (“Walk East on Beacon”) to giant ants (“Them”). We understood that while it might be fun to ogle Marilyn Monroe, we really ought to settle down with someone perky and wholesome and steadfast like June Allyson. (I can’t tell you how shocked I was to learn, even fifty years later, that she had been two-timing Dick Powell with, of all people, Dean Martin.) And we knew to a certainty that evil-doers would be punished.
It went down as easily as vanilla.
Then, on December 30, 1953, a year in which I had rushed to see “Peter Pan,” a movie opened in New York City that would shake the world. I do not recall when or in what theater, I first saw “The Wild One,” but within the, oh, twelve months that I did – a year that also saw me imbibe “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle” – the experience, interacting with the hormonal additives by which age had seasoned me, so altered my viewing tastes that I was now plunking down my allowance for admission to “I am a Camera” (at, of all places, the Locust), “Man With the Golden Arm,” “Baby Doll,” “And God Created Woman.”
I doubt market researchers had fingered pre- (or even post-) bar mitzvah Jewish boys as “Wild One” material. Though commentators would link the film to “disaffected youth” and “juvenile delinquency,” Marlon Brando was nearly thirty when he made it; so was Lee Marvin; and Mary Murphy was twenty-three. (“Rebel,” with James Dean at twenty-three, Sal Mineo at fifteen, and Natalie Wood sixteen – though looking older than Murphy – was a closer demographic fit.) It did not bind to us with matching cultural adhesives either. The music on Bleeker’s juke box, to which the gang parties, was an assortment of anonymous instrumentals styled to rouse the temperatures of earlier generations. (“Jungle,” however, blazed with the embedment of “Rock Around the Clock” over its opening credits, a clarion hit of relevancy overshadowing the fact that when the students smash Richard Kiley’s records, they call for Frank Sinatra and Joni James, not Chuck Berry or Laverne Baker.) And motorcycles – motorcycles were about as forbidden to us as swastika tattoos or Gentile girl friends. But for the next decade and a half, when I would strike up a lasting friendship with a boy from Philadelphia or Boston or New York, one point of commonality on our resumes – not always, but often – was repeated viewing of this film, three times, six, a dozen.
It came down to Brando’s Johnny Strabler. He was revelatory: tough; sensitive; tender; cruel; leader of the Black Rebels but always apart; cat nip to the ladies but utterly contemptuous of squares. We were already receiving instructions about the evils of the establishment, the costs of conformity and the dangers of repression from “MAD” and Bob and Ray and Jean Shephard and other resisters of the Eisenhower ‘50s, which, a decade later, would help us establish the parameters of an actual counter-culture; and here was Brando, three years before Jack Kerouac, laying down the ecstasy of the road and the end-all and be-all of “Go.” His lines “I don’t like cops,” “Nobody tells me what to do,” and, most famously, in answer to Peggy Maley’s “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?” were catechistic and as valuable to us as Machiavelli’s instructions to the prince. We were assessing, building, equipping ourselves for our own futures with the salvageable and useful, whether we were to eventually to lodge as doctors or lawyers or something even further off the expected grid than tribal chief.
None – well damned few – of us would follow Johnny into the nihilistic pit where Stanley Kramer left him, no family, no job, no girl, not even the stolen runner’s up trophy from a race he had not run. Fortunately, we also had Dean’s searching, struggling, wrenching Jim Stark to draw from. In “Rebel,” it is Corey Allen’s – born, by the way, Alan Cohen – Buzz Gunderson who flaunts the “Wild One” ethic. “Why do we do this?” Jim asks before they race their stolen cars toward a fiery doom. “You’ve got to do something,” Buzz answers. That proves insufficient. “I want to do something right,” Jim tells his parents later. A boy has been killed, and they must not pretend it didn’t happen. “We are,” he says, “all involved.”
That sense of involvement, that wish for proper action would also surface. But first, I needed to get my hands on a motorcycle jacket, hoping its black leather and silver zippered pockets would offset my acne and horned rims.
This blog appeared, re-punctuated to its detriment, as “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” on line, in the January 29, 2010, Broadstreet Review. I have edited it to better fit the stream I have underway here.
In 1953, when I was in fourth grade at Friends’ Central, my father, partly because the contacts might help his law practice, and partly because three doses of Hebrew School a week might immunize me against the identity eroding effects of the Gentiles, who, for the first time, would form a majority of my associates, had our family join Beth Zion.
I thought this a terrible idea. I do not know when I learned the word “hypocrisy,” but once I did, I knew it applied. If religion was important, my pre-adolescent mind reasoned, why hadn’t we always belonged to a synagogue? If we were going to belong, why didn’t we attend services every weekend? Then there was the fact that, at nine or ten, I wanted to fit in with my new friends. I wanted to stay after school and play baseball. (My development seemed to cry louder for an ability to hit the curve than the mastery of any Four Questions.) I did not want to trek by Red Arrow and D bus, from the suburbs into Center City.
I also did not feature, once I arrived, facing the glistening novelty of finding myself stupid. I was placed with children who had already studied Hebrew for a year. I did fine learning about Abraham and Isaac and Judah Maccabee in our history text, which, sensibly, like all good things, was in English; but when it came to reading or writing or speaking those cryptic squiggles, I would have stood more chance wrestling, one-armed, Mr. Moto. (From four years attendance, I retain that “baruch” means “blessed” and “yelda” “girl” – unless it means “boy.”) The highlights of my matriculation were (a) Carol E., a classmate of great sophistication, explaining menstruation; (b) a take-no-crap teacher, recently emigrated from eastern Europe, hypnotizing Max Garden and setting him clucking like a chicken; and (c) cutting class one rainy afternoon, spotting Stan Musial and Red Schoendist in the lobby of a downtown movie theater, and having them autograph my lesson book. I was, otherwise, lost.
The Minotaur lurking at the end of this labyrinth was my bar mitzvah, an experience destined to limn Goya-esq depth into the term “travesty.” Once lessons began, my voice proved as incapable of carrying a tune as Richard Nixon an ADA-friendly precinct. Cantor Mandleblatt, a friendly and decent man, offered the dispensation that I might read my haftorah portion. But my reading was so strained and imbecilic, he was forced to reduce it by three quarters. I mean, I could sound out the letters, but I had no clue whether I was producing noun or verb or preposition. Emphasis? intonation? rhythm? I was at sea on a raft of squawks. The only portion of the experience that provided pleasure was reading “Battle Cry” in the back seat of my father’s Lincoln as we cruised toward the synagogue on my performance day – distracting myself with the adventures of “Andy,” “Danny” and “Ski” as the blue-and-white chromed tumbil headed toward the guillotine. I suppose I understood that the pass:fail ratio I faced was more propitious than, say, that of those aspirants-for-manhood sent by their tribes into the wilderness, armed only with a dagger, and told to retrieve the heart of a grizzly. But if, as we crossed the South Street Bridge, I had been offered a penknife, Center City, and Weimaraner as an option, I am not sure how I would have jumped.
Of the event, I recall mercifully little. No cabbages were thrown by the assembled Levins and Levines. No guffaws issued from the Rothmans and Rosenbaums. Neither Kelner nor Kelmer nor Kessler nor Katz demanded the re-attachment of my foreskin. This was a time before circus tests were required for post-ceremony festivities or acrobatic troupes deemed necessary to entertain the assembled, so everyone marched upstairs for a modest luncheon. I was released to a table with neighborhood friends, who, their own days of reckoning looming, regarded me as if I was departing Guadalcanal as they were wading ashore, and a few from FCS, who had come to experience another sect’s rituals like Margaret Meade to Pago Pago. I worked the room, and Buick dealers and GE distributors, car wash owners and cold cuts magnates thrust envelopes into my hand or pocket.
Even from the perspective five decades has provided, my passage seems to have had little to do with who I was – or was slated to become. Some things I found painful, like inoculations, or demeaning, like having to wait an extra year for my driver’s license, I am now fully – or in the latter case, mostly – able to credit to my parents acting in my best interests. But my bar mitzvah still seems mandated solely by my father’s need to shape me in his image. A part of him scorned his friends who’d discharged their sons from this obligation. It seemed to taint them with a weakness he would not allow others to perceive in him.
My father had come out of 10th & Baimbridge at a time when ethnicity drafted one into bloodier wars than it would me after we’d reached 46th & Pine. It had denied him jobs and barred him from clubs and taught him that, when our family stopped for the night on automobile trips, to send my mother into the motel to ask for a room because her eyes were blue. He took pride in how he had established himself in the face of these blows and constrictions, and he would not have his son drawn further from whom he perceived himself to be than seemed absolutely necessary. “Jewish boys don’t hunt,” he told me, when I came back from FCS one evening, asking for a .22 rifle like certain privileged classmates. “Jewish boys don’t play football,” he told me in fifth grade, when that option became available as a fall sport. By eighth grade, he’d changed his mind there; but my bar mitzvah had been non-negotiable, occasioned no second thoughts, stood a banner planted in the sand.
It does not surprise me now to think, given the cloak of infallibility within which my father presented himself in all matters, from the worth of Adlai Stevenson to the uselessness of Del Ennis in clutch situations, that despite my protestations, I may have adopted a portion of his belief as to the significance of the ceremony in question. For I also recall that when, following its conclusion, my family having flown to Coral Gables, on my first day in the Atlantic, a Portugese Man o’ War lanced me squarely on the tuchis, the pain nearly convinced me that there was a God, that a recording of my performance had just reached him, and this had been his fitting, critical judgment.
So before I start on filling in my junior high days, I will digress to discuss…
…Rick Atkinson’s “The Guns at Last Light,” the final volume in his trilogy on World War II, as it was fought in North Africa, Italy, and Western Europe.
Atkinson is a journalistic historian, writing clear, conscise, direct, ground-covering prose, unencumbered by deep thought or theory. He does a fine job caturing the character and personalities of generals and political leaders, especially in this book, Eisenhower and Montgomery. He is a master at the use of numbers to concretize his points, whether he is cataloguing the contents of transport ships, the extent of various diseases striking down troops, or the total of Camels cigarettes Ike smoked in the weeks before D-Day. And je superbly captures the morality murdering misery of infantryman, fighting and dying inch-by-inch across this terrain.
At the end, the sheer horror of war, no matter the nobility or necessity of the cause, is overwhelming. It put me in mind of a position taken by an anti-torture expert in the weeks following the Abu Ghraib story’s breaking. He was asked if it would be proper to torture an individual if that was the only way to find out where terrorists had hidden a nuclear device they were planning to detonate. His answer was, “No.” If you take the position the saving of a few hundred thousand lives does not justify abusing one person, must you not also conclude that perhaps saving a couple million lives does not justify killing several hundred thousand.
I recall that Nicholson Baker wrote a book several years ago which argued that the United States should not have entered World War II. I may take a look at it and report