My Senior Year of High School

Senior year of high school found me attending acting school in Manhattan. It all came about because I was enacting some story in my head to Jimmy Hanley who looked at me with a half smile on his face and said, “You oughta be an actor.” Now I probably thought the same thing at one time or another like every kid thinks, but never really taking it seriously because the only thing I ever wanted to do since I became enthralled by E.B. White’s Stuart Little was write. I mean, I loved reading, loved the worlds I discovered in books, loved getting lost in other people’s lives which in books I seemed to be able to do so easily, and I thought I’d kind of like to do that, too. Create worlds people could get lost in, create characters people could care about, want to get to know, have coffee with, maybe, and watch logs burn in a fireplace as they traded stories. So writing is the only thing I thought I would ever do, but then this idea of acting, getting lost in characters in real time, seemed like an interesting complement to what I thought would be my life’s calling, so I mulled it over a few nights, then told my mother I was thinking of going to an acting school to see where it could lead. She, naturally, thought it was a great idea, being supportive of us as always, and so I thumbed through a Manhattan phonebook looking for the school I thought I remembered people like Gary Cooper studied at, and quite by accident picked the wrong one, but in the end it didn’t matter.
The New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. On 57th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. My new second home for a pivotal year in my life. The year I had the two most influencial teachers I would ever know and the year I made friends with people, though I lost contact with as the years slipped by, who would leave their imprint on my heart and mind for the rest of my life.
That year I had my senior English class every morning at 8 and was exposed to Dr. William Jaeger, called Wild Bill affectionately by his students, who opened my eyes to literature in a way no one had previously. We read over 15 novels and plays, poetry, etc., including 2 novels by Camus, J.D. Salinger (whose Catcher in the Rye was banned in the school district so he had us read Seymour: An Introduction & Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, which was his surreptitious strategy of sneaking Salinger into school), Jonathan Swift, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Stephen Crane, Orwell, Conrad, Sophocles, selected Dialogues from Plato, Shakespeare’s King Lear, which he would act out for us, and so much more. Each morning was an adventure in his class because you never knew what he would do. He was a big man, a part-time actor (I saw him in a small role on TV once), and he pranced around the room, his tie loosened at the collar, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his eyes flashing, his arms flailing in the air. We would sit in a big circle and he was in the center, like in a circus, with him challenging us to think every second of those class periods. I loved books before but he made everything jump off the page. And the class was the strangest mixture of students: honor roll scholars, student body officers, hoods, loners, geeks, athletes. We all couldn’t figure out why we were in the same classroom but a few years later I met another alumni of his who told me because he was that rare PhD teaching high school in those days, the principle let him have the top 100 IQs for his classes, regardless of their GPAs. And his stated mission was to save us before we grew up into adults. I don’t know how many he “saved” but he certainly changed my life.
Then there was Lee Stanleigh at night: my acting teacher. He used a distilled version of The Method to tap into our inner emotional lives in order to get us to “feel” the roles he assigned us for scene study. The breakthrough role for me was Starbuck in The Rainmaker, which no one in their right mind at the time would have thought me capable of. But Lee did. And he talked me into the role, as he talked me into roles like Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, with Big Ed playing Big Daddy and throwing me around the room in our version of the mendacity scene. Lee saw Tennesse Williams stamped on me and so had me also take on Tom in The Glass Menagerie and Shannon inThe Night of the Iguana, all tormented souls. And each time before I would get to go on, he’d talk me into the mood of the piece, sometimes for 10 minutes or so, and then let me loose with my emotions on my sleeve.
Between those two, my brain and my heart got a workout but I grew in ways I never imagined possible and found pain beneath my surface begging for a release.
And then there were my classmates, everyone older than me and from every possible corner of the city and social-economic class:
Big Ed, an alcoholic, from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and hung up on old Western gunfighters, telling tales he read from Western magazines right out of Zane Grey, his favorite TV show being Gunsmoke, had once worked as a runner for NJ gangsters bringing cigarettes and whiskey across state lines until his partner shot some of the competition in some bathroom in a bar and Ed got spooked enough to quit. His hands shook uncontrollably, his eyes were shot, I saw him suffer from the DT’s once, shaking on the floor, foaming at the mouth. I’d often sit in bars with him late into the evening listening to his stories and even took a bus out to NJ once to visit him in his lair. He was one third of the trio that spent time with Lee after hours, including me and my first real love: Karen Deene.
Karen’s real name was Karen Gross but she preferred her adopted stage name Deene. A NYC Jewish girl from the lower East Side, she grew up in Peter Cooper Village, one of the first middle-income housing projects built in the city. Her father was a doctor who worked for the city in a clinic somewhere, and Karen graduated from Hunter College as an Education major. She was 2 years older than me but graduated college when I graduated high school because she skipped a year in grade school and I lost a year due to contracting ringworm on my head when I was seven and had to stay out of school for 6 months, causing me to repeat third grade. Karen became the prototype of almost every woman I ever fell for: long, dark hair, deep, dark eyes, a sly sense of humor, book smart, cultured, intuitive, perfect in every way except she was in love with Lee who was married to Carol but was openly gay. The marriage happened because Carol had an hysterical pregnancy and got Lee to marry her, only to find out it was a false alarm. They stayed married for reasons I never understood but did not live together. For Lee, it was an attempt to go straight that didn’t work. It was a source of anguish for Karen which made it a source of anguish for me.
Henry Munoz was a Puerto Rican from Jackson Heights, Queens, who looked 16 but was almost 30. He worked in the graphics department of Penthouse magazine and was secretly gay. He confessed this to me while we were having ice cream after watching Zorba The Greek one Sunday afternoon in Lynbrook. He was afraid I would reject his friendship but since he never propositioned me, had always treated me with kindness and respect, I saw no reason to stop being friends. He would often come out to the house on Sundays to get away from his abusive father (he still lived at home) and have dinner with my family. My mother loved him, and he always brought her a gift, spent holidays with us sometimes, and we remained friends for several years afterwards. I lost contact with him, though, after grad school in Ohio and often wonder what became of him in the decades to follow with AIDS ravaging his world.
Alvin Miller, an African American from Springfield, Massachusetts who came down to NYC to study acting. He was a year older than me and lived in Canarsie, Brooklyn with his aunt who I later found out wasn’t exactly his aunt which explained why he was sleeping with her. She was very nice to me, and I often went out there to visit him, and he came to the house, too, many times on Sunday and as explained once before, ate 3 plates of spaghetti with meatballs and sausage. He moved out to LA in my freshman year of college and though we wrote for a while, I eventually stopped getting answers to my letters. He used to joke that he would end up like Sam Cooke, shot by some woman under questionable circumstances, and I always wondered if that didn’t happen one day.
Roger, from St. Albans, Queens, who introduced me to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and tried to get me to go out with his sister. They lived together without any parents around and I was never exactly sure what Roger did for a living since he rarely seemed to be working but always had money.
Nelson, who lived in Harlem and co-wrote songs with another guy I can’t remember the name of but can see him clearly in my mind’s eye. He was short, wore thick glasses, had a pencil thin mustache that looked painted on, and always had a hat on, a white shirt and sports jacket, no tie. Nelson was tall, athletic, handsome, with the sweetest smile, and questionable sexual preferences. There was a sailor from Haiti who lived with him sometimes and girls were constantly going in and out of his apartment. His New Year’s Eve party was held the same year that the subway strike happened at 5am on New Year’s Day and because of that, I didn’t get home until 4:30 the next afternoon. I slept, more or less, in the living room of Nelson’s apartment and sometime in the morning another friend from school, Lou something who was so in love with Barbra Streisand that he saw Funny Girl on Broadway four times, and I shared a cab downtown and I had breakfast at Karen’s apartment, meeting her parents and coming as close as I ever came to getting a real kiss. I think if I hadn’t been so shy around women then, I might have convinced her to go out with me, but I wasn’t able to read the signs right and whatever opportunity I might have had passed me by.
John Woods, Julian Richards, and Victor Stein and I used to spend two or three evenings after class at the Barney Stone a few blocks from the school on Eighth Avenue doing boiler makers, eating corned beef and cabbage or a ham and cheese sandwich while talking about acting, theatre, films. John was from Brooklyn, Julian from Jamaica (the island, not the section of Queens), and Victor was from Kew Gardens, Queens. Sometimes Big Ed would join us. Julian would sneak a pint of Canadian Club in under his coat and we’d spike the draft beer that we bought at the bar. I’d always get home late those nights, usually catching the 1:52am train on the Long Island Railroad, and get up the next day for school. And on Saturdays, I’d go into the city and meet those three guys along with Henry Munoz and sometimes Alvin at the Cornell Club where Julian worked. He’d get us an empty room and we’d drink, watch TV, talk shop until the evening, then most of us would go out to catch a movie, then go downtown to The Village to eat some more, find a bar, and stay till closing, talking about the one thing we had in common: acting.
And there were others, the names faded from my memory but not the faces, not the way they walked, danced in our modern dance classes, the way I would leap about in fencing class pretending to be Errol Flynn, the instructor shaking his head and saying, “Discipline, Len. Fencing is about discipline not jumping over chairs and slashing the air.” Of course I understood that, but would still jump over chairs anyway with John Woods playing Basil Rathbone to my Errol Flynn and Karen clapping with the others as the instructor gave up with a sigh. And the time we had to recite lyrics using our own stress and intonation patterns and I used the lyrics from the Bob Haymes/Alan Brandt song That’s All which I learned from the Sinatra and Strings album and though I could only look once Karen’s way, she understood and rested her hand on my head after I sat down in my usual spot next to her.
Later, after I drifted apart from them all when I went away to college, and performed the roles I was most proud of: the drifter in Hello Out There by William Sarayon, Leslie Bright in The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson, and Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and my formal education began, I really never learned anything those people during that year didn’t already teach me.
I remember it all. That year. The year that changed the trajectory of my life. And the people who helped put the finishing touches on the person I was and helped point me toward who I am today.

Farewell Once More: to my friend at Feng Chi Station by Tu Fu

Here we part.
You go off in the distance,
And once more the forested mountains
Are empty, unfriendly.
What holiday will see us
Drunk together again?
Last night we walked
Arm in arm in the moonlight,
Singing sentimental ballads
Along the banks of the river.
Your honor outlasts three emperors.
I go back to my lonely house by the river,
Mute, friendless, feeding the crumbling years.

Cassia Flowers by Li Ch’ing-chao

The twisted limbs break
Into ten thousand flecks of gold,
On layer upon layer of carved jade leaves,
Fresh and bright as the grace of Yen Fu.
The heaps of plum petals seem vulgar.
The lilacs seem coarse and contorted.
Your perfume has broken into
My sorrowful dream of the one
A thousand miles away,
And left me drained of emotion.

translated by Kenneth Rexroth & Ling Chung

Sunday Dinners

celebrationWe always had company on the weekends when my father was alive, especially his family, but after he died, they stopped coming and things grew quieter at home. It was also difficult financially which is why my Aunt Mary and my grandmother gave up their apartment in Brooklyn and came to live with us so that they could contribute to maintaining the house and helping my mother. Also, visits from relatives changed during that time and Saturday night was when we saw an influx of my mother’s family coming around. Sometimes it was my mother’s youngest brother Mike, his wife Vivian, and three of their four children, my cousins Theresa, Phyllis, and Michael. My older cousin Joe was married to his first wife by then and though they visited, too, it was generally on holidays. Saturday nights, though, became poker night as I mentioned in an earlier post and dominated by Uncle Joe (my grandmother’s youngest brother), his wife Bernie, and at that time, before the advent of Charlie, my Aunt Mary and that card shark in the family, my mother. My grandmother didn’t really play, but sat, watched, made coffee, spoiled her grandchildren with homemade zeppole filled with raisins, and sometimes made espresso which, as anyone knows, is a vital ingredient in any Italian household.
But I don’t want to write about Saturday nights. I want to write about what became for me my most cherished memories of those years: Sunday dinners. And to be even more specific, the Sunday dinners during the 3 year period from my senior year in high school through my two years commuting to my junior college.
Those dinners were just the family: my mother, my Aunt Mary, my grandmother, my three brothers (Johnny, George, and Robert), and me. Harry was there, too, for most of those years, sitting in his high chair and making my grandmother smile as he sang the Italian songs she had taught him. Sometimes a friend from my acting school would come as a guest. Either Henry Munoz or Alvin Miller which would delight my grandmother because Alvin could eat three helpings of spaghetti with meatballs and sausage which was a record in the family. Where he put it, I’ll never know, because he was skinnier than me, but it made my grandmother beam in wonder. The surest way to an Italian mother’s heart is to have seconds and even thirds of whatever they cook.
And, of course, there would be music playing on the stereo I bought for my mother one Christmas from Arnie’s Electronics in town. Arnie’s also sold 45s and it was the scene of George’s greatest ordeal when Johnny and I made him return the single Laugh, Laugh by The Beau Brummels 5 times because each single was warped. George had to do this because he was the youngest. We didn’t count Robert who was too young to be persuasive. This is probably the first real training George got in persuading a jury, though I doubt he sees it that way. Al Martino, Jerry Vale, Sinatra, of course, Connie Francis, and, for George, The Four Seasons so he could sing along. We all also sang along to Lou Monte’s Pepino The Italian Mouse and The Beatles’ Revolver album and Rubber Soul. There was always music in the house and it was easy to get my mother to dance by putting on Lou Monte singing Calypso Italiano. For a joke, I would sometimes put on the Kate Smith album my father had mistakenly bought for my mother when she was recuperating from her hip surgery. She would still remark years later how she would never understand how he got it into his head that she liked Kate Smith. But usually it was some Italian crooner singing about Naples, which translates into love with songs like Eh Marie, Eh Marie, a song my aunt’s husband Frank often sang to her before his untimely death.
We always ate at 2pm and it was always some form of pasta, though we never called it pasta, just spaghetti or macaroni, which was anything that wasn’t spaghetti. My grandmother sometimes made her homemade cavatelli which just melted in your mouth and was loved by all, just as we all loved her raviolis, which she made on holidays, both cheese and meat filled, and they, too, melted in your mouth. They were also huge and three filled a plate.
Ah, but I’m getting off-track again so let’s get back to Sunday dinners.
So we would all have to be at the table by 2. My mother waited for no one. If you weren’t there, you didn’t eat. Holiday dinners were like that, too, and I, for one, learned that lesson early on but my sister seemed to always be late (she had 5 kids to deal with so it’s sort of understandable) but our mother began serving at 2 regardless. So on Sundays, all of us were seated and ready to go at two o’clock sharp.
There was salad first (soap was served first only on holidays) which my brother George never failed to point out should be eaten with the dinner to aid in digestion but which everyone else ignored. George was always pointing things out like that which only resulted in Johnny making a face. And Johnny made a lot of faces at the table, often making caustic comments in response to George’s witticisms, and the three of us would banter back and forth, teasing each other, our mother, Aunt Mary, who would often laugh so hard she’d beg us to stop before she would “pee in my pants”. which never happened, nor did she ever have to run to the bathroom just in case. We never teased our grandmother, except maybe about those hot peppers she had hanging in the basement near the oil burner to dry, but instead would wander out to the kitchen on Sunday morning to watch her knead the dough for the macaroni she was making and take the piece she would cut off for each of us to eat. But afterwards, as we all settled back to coffee and cake, I would sometimes kid her about how strong the coffee was by pretending it dissolved my spoon. She always smiled, enjoying it all, the teasing of her daughters by her grandchildren, unconditional love in her eyes.
It was a Sunday dinner that was the scene of many a sisterly argument between our mother and aunt, mainly revolving around cooking which is something Aunt Mary could only do if our mother was not at home. This was usually lunchtime, when our mother would work as a teacher’s aide in the high school, one of two part-time jobs she had, the other being a babysitter for a Jewish family which would cause her to say, “When I come back next time, I want to be a Jewish housewife.”
Grandma’s eggs and potatoes sandwiches were indisputably the best, but Aunt Mary’s came in a close second. This was one dish our mother couldn’t duplicate. And Aunt Mary ‘s rabbit in tomato and wine sauce was also unequalled, though after her death I did cook that for a few Thanksgiving dinners until one year when I cooked an especially large rabbit and quipped that it was really a cat, no one would eat it except my sister and me. It was the last year anyone asked me to cook it again.
But back to Sundays and those arguments between the sisters. The most heated one occurred over what you call sauce. Aunt Mary insisted it was called sauce while our mother insisted it was called gravy. As a matter of fact, it was always called gravy in our house and the only time this was called into question was by Aunt Mary. Well these two sisters went at it for probably 5 minutes, which was a long time to argue in the house since arguments rarely lasted more than a minute. Grandma remained neutral, and we brothers tried to avoid anyone’s eyes lest we be dragged unwillingly into it. But our mother turned to us finally and asked, “Well? Who’s right here?” Now up until we all started going to restaurants, we would have unequivocally answered gravy, but since we never saw it called gravy on any menu that served Italian food in our limited exposure to menus, we had to side, though rather reluctantly, with Aunt Mary. Our mother was stunned. This was betrayal in her eyes. Didn’t she clothe and feed us? Do our laundry? Give us ice cream every other night and one piece of fruit daily? Wasn’t she the head of this household? How could we side with anyone but her?
That was a sad day at the table on Lyon Place.
Years later, after all the women were gone and I was alone reading the Sunday New York Times, I came across an article on Italian cuisine. And there, in the New York Times which has, as any NYer knows, “all the news that’s fit to print”, was the statement that in Southern Italy, where both sets of my grandparents came from and thus, where we all were descended from (albeit Johnny and George come from that land that we Italians discovered and Robert comes from someplace further north, they are all Italian in our eyes), sauce with meat in it was referred to as gravy. In fact, though this was true for just Southern Italians, any meat sauce was called gravy regardless of whether it was for a roast or a pasta dish.
So both were right, but I could not tell them, since they were just two of the ghosts that haunt me. But I called my brother Robert to tell him since he was the acknowledged chef in the family and prepared the “gravy” for all our holiday meals. And at the next family dinner with my brothers, I announced it to the table at large, thus finally vindicating our mother.
Sunday dinners. Even now, in Turkey, thousands of miles from what’s left of my family, I still make a pasta dish for myself. Sometimes a tomato sauce, usually with sundried tomatoes or fresh tomatoes, or a meat gravy, or just olive oil and garlic with salmon or shrimp. I miss using Italian pork sausage (something I can’t get here) and making my clam sauces (again, I can’t find baby clams here) but one does adapt. And Sunday dinners are, for me, still a family affair, even if I have no family of my own to share it with, there is still a tradition I do not have the heart, or desire, to change.

My Mother, Part I: Cards

She was a force of nature, a short, dynamic, attention-seeking woman who charmed all who knew her. She would dance the tarantella in between serving courses at our family dinners, and sing off-key oblivious to criticism to Al Martino albums. She was a foot shorter than me but my long legs had to do double time to keep up with her when walking. And even though the weekly poker games at the dining room table were only for pennies, she took it so seriously that you would think they were playing for souls.
She actually played cards twice in my memory: Saturday nights with Uncle Joe (a cigar in his mouth, his green visor pulled down low on his forehead), Aunt Bernie (placid, accepting defeat before she even looks at her hand), her sister Mary (who fretted over each hand as if the mortgage depended on winning), Charlie (who was a reluctant card player), and then later, after death came round to our house again, during the week with “the girls”: Cousin Rose, Aunt Katie (my father’s youngest sister), Rose Interligi (my mother’s best friend), and Ann Montaleri. It’s only for pennies, but this is serious stuff, that is until break time when they have their coffee and cake, gossip about the TV shows, that rascal J.R. Ewing, some mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain, their children, grandchildren, those damned Republicans.
I stop in on my way home from teaching, make myself a sandwich, ask about Rose’s son Bobby, my old classmate, my cousin JoJo in California, my cousin Nicky in Queens, Ann’s granddaughter Annie who I once briefly dated, watch them resume playing, my mother asking if I have any pennies for her, she’s losing, it seems, which is not usual, and I think how lovely these old ladies are, old friends for over 40 years, some like my Aunt Katie and Cousin Rose, a lifetime, and I can’t help but wish I’ll always find them here, Al Martino or Jerry Vale singing in the background, their men, long gone, waiting for them at home, and me, eating my Sicilian salami on rye bread, leaning against the sink, with tears in my eyes because nothing, nothing ever lasts as long as we’d like.

Thoughts While Traveling By Night by Tu Fu

Slender grass, light breeze on the banks.
Tall mast, a solitary night on board.
A falling star, and the vast plain broader.
Surging moon, on the Great River flows.
Can fame grow from the written word alone?
This officer, both old and sick, must let that be.
Afloat, afloat, just so. . .
Heaven, and Earth, and one black gull.