In Praise of Lame White Dancing

During the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time dancing to African music at L.A. clubs, often with my wife. We did the best we could out there, given our whiteness, and besides it was fun and great exercise. Then a lot of the great visiting African musicians began to have visa problems, and the African clubs basically dried up. I will still put on a Tabu Ley mix and cut the rug at home once in a while if no one’s around, but I miss the experience of moving with a lot of people to tribal rhythms in a hot room.

There’s a weird flip side to this, though. One of my guilty pleasures for quite some time has been watching old videos of white people dancing extremely lame. Suffice to say, the Internet is a cornucopia of riches. Thank God soul music was born, because the late ’50s and 1960s featured some of the lamest white dancing we may ever see on the planet, and it’s all fantastic. Just feast on this gem for starters:

Granted, they’re amateurs, they’re kids, and it’s somewhere in Iowa, but the sheer lifelessness of that video is almost mind-numbing.

It’s also incredibly mystifying, because the Big Band Era just fifteen years earlier gave white people a dance craze that was fluid, snazzy and stylish. I mean, look at these people:

Pretty darn awesome. Of course, it didn’t take long for African-Americans to blow our asses out of the water in this regard…

Maybe we were just too intimidated on the dance floor, and it was time to retreat into our stiff, unsexy and creepily misogynist ways. Take it away, Royal Teens!

Not sure exactly when the “Go-Go Girl” was invented, but it was a staple of white dancing lame-osity throughout the decade. Whether it be during a performance by the Gentrys…

or “I Fought the Law” by the Bobby Fuller Four, a song so epic that the Clash covered it. Here, the go-go girls come complete with guns…

Did surf music and the Beach Boys help this dire situation? You be the judge:

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand was certainly not immune to the the lame white craze. Check out these boppin’ teens strutting their loafers and Keds to the Reflections’ “Romeo and Juliet”!

Maybe a black artist like Bobby Day and his hit song “Rockin’ Robin” could bring out some talented dancers. Nope, just more lame white people:

Perhaps foxy Joey Heatherton could be an inspiration on the dance floor. Errrr…sorry.

Hullabaloo along with Shindig were two ’60s TV shows largely responsible for keeping the dancing culture in years of quicksand. Here’s their classic rendition of the Batman theme song…

Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank, had a huge hit with “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”.  The performance? Walking is an understatement:

The Disco Era in the ’70s got us out of the doldrums for a while, but produced a whole new breed of lame white fashion and dance challenges that have lasted up to the present day:

My feeling is that if you’re going to go lame, GO LAME ALL THE WAY. I’ve posted this more recent Finnish video (not Swedish) at least once a year, because I simply can’t get enough of it.

But wait…What’s this? A white dancer who had every move in the book? This guy doing “The Nitty Gritty” in the ’60s was far and away the exception.

There is hope, though. One of the best ways to rise above white dancing lameness is to first accept it, then work and work until acceptable dance movement is reached. And no one understood this better than Napoleon Dynamite.

We can do this, white people. I think we can really do this.

On Not Giving a Crap About the 2015 Red Sox

10_crazy_red_sox_fan_dancingAUTHOR’S NOTE: This was originally written for Fire Brand of the American League, which is the official Red Sox Web site for ESPN’s Sweetspot network, but that entity appears to be either frozen in time or gone with the Internet wind, having not posted any new content since July 27th. An e-mail to their 20-something editor has gone into a similar black hole, so screw it, I’m posting my blog here instead. They don’t pay their writers anyway.

At some point during the 2003 season, months before a Yankee bastard son of Bucky Dent named Bret Boone drove another postseason home run nail through Boston’s heart, I had what I thought was a good idea for a baseball novel/screenplay. Three Red Sox fanatics, losing their minds because of the 80-plus years of their team’s futility, enter a time portal to the winter of 1920 and kidnap Babe Ruth to prevent him from being sold to the Yankees. I had the thing fully outlined and was working on a treatment when lo and behold, the 2004 Red Sox happened. Bosox Anonymous was stuffed in a drawer, never to be contemplated again.

So now it’s 2015, and the Red Sox are working on their third last place finish in four years. On most nights their pitching staff is an eerie hybrid of a cesspool and lava pit, and Don Orsillo is saying “Sox strand two” after so many innings it’s become a masochistic mantra.

Am I at my wit’s end, though? Do I need to find another time portal? Not at all. ’04, ’07, and ’13 were so spectacular, fortunate, and triumphant that they’ve reduced my anxiety about the team a thousandfold. This isn’t to say I don’t get upset if they blow a late lead, Clay Buchholz goes on the DL, David Ortiz grounds into two double plays in one at bat or Rick Porcello serves up five piping hot meatballs in the first four innings, but the feelings of desperation, of gut-punching pain, and of a lifelong curse have been erased forever. Realizing that the Cubs still haven’t won in 107 years, it’s not a bad place to be.

When today’s teams have a long losing streak going, I have no qualms about giving up their telecasts for a re-watch of the 2004 ALCS—a comeback I still can’t believe happened eleven years later—or the last three games of the ’07 one vs. Cleveland, or Game 6 of the ’13 series with St. Louis, a game I just can’t seem to erase from my DVR. It’s not that their losing isn’t painful to watch, it’s that I have confidence in the team’s management, love many of the young players they’re bringing up, and believe they’ll be good again in this decade, as opposed to another fifty years. While we’re waiting for the next good Sox team, why not enjoy the new excitement in places like Pittsburgh, Houston, Kansas City, and Toronto? Wrigley Field is even more fun these days, and nothing would be sweeter outside of another Sox title than one for the Cubs.

Since winning in ’04, Boston fans have acquired a reputation as spoiled whiners, and while I think it’s mostly been misdirected frustration and jealousy (Who says you’re supposed to stop caring for your team after they win?) there is some truth to the idea that we have very little to complain about. We have Mookie Betts, Xander Bogearts, Brock Holt, and a wonderful historic ball yard. In a down year for most of the AL East, it would be nice if we had some real good pitching, but that tends to come in cycles. Hate to sound like an old guy on his porch, but I started rooting for the Sox in 1963 in the days of Bill Monboquette and Jack Lamabe, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s patience.

Growing up with Channel 22 in Springfield and later with Channel 38 in Boston, watching Sox games was not just a ritual but our only TV baseball option outside of a weekly national telecast. The concept of watching any team you wanted on your satellite or computer or pad or phone was straight out of a Ray Bradbury novel. We were stuck with the Sox for better and worse, day in and day out, and it was only natural to become obsessed. Seriously, if I didn’t happen to be camping in the San Gabriel Mountains the night a ball went through Bull Buckner’s legs, forcing me to miss seeing that happen live, who knows if I’d still be here today? My remains they found at the bottom of that 2000-ft. gulley would still be sporting my faded Dewey and Pudge hat.

I guess I feel I’ve earned the right to take every Red Sox loss this season with a full pound of salt, to not give a crap and be fine with it. And if you look at the standings, it’s easy to recall that back in 1978, the Sox had a 14-game lead in August on the Yankees—

Oh right…The Yankees. Forgot that they’re in first place. No, no. This can’t happen. Someone has to beat them. If not for the division title than the wild card. Or in the playoffs! Damn it to hell.

Forget everything I just said. THIS SUCKS!!!!

Summers Unearthed

rs198x_2map2Those who know me very well are likely aware that for three consecutive summers in the mid-70s, I operated a roller coaster with four other guys in a huge New England amusement park called Riverside. Spread along the banks of the Connecticut River in Agawam, MA, the place was a teeming, humid metropolis of neon, sticky pavement, Saturday night stock car races, halter tops, endless screams, vomit and blasting music. Working the Wildcat coaster remains to this day the most fun job I’ve ever had. At roughly $2.20 an hour, it’s a good thing that it was.

The Wildcat wasn’t a traditional “train” coaster, but a smaller, speedier one, five individual cars making hairpin turns and drops that had to be stopped manually with two sets of hand brakes. The lines were enormous and endless, the job unbearably repetitive and tedious, but the worker camaraderie and packs of cute available women who visited the ride made up for that.

Forty years ago this August I was fired, along with my foreman friend Paul, by our idiot of a boss for reasons I won’t bother to elaborate on, but I can still feel what it was like to work those hand brakes and empty the rolling cars as if it were yesterday. The job left a massive impression and played a huge part in building the character I have today (quick-thinking workaholic wiseass), and it ran so deep I wrote a coming-of-age screenplay based on the experience called The Madcat about ten years later. Finding no takers, I turned it into a novel twenty years after that, attracted a good New York agent and nearly got it published.

As for Riverside? The park was never the same after I left, soon getting sold and warping into the more sprawling and corporate Six Flags New England. New rides were added, old ones jettisoned, with the Wildcat being one of them. It was German-made, so I imagined it was easy to disassemble and transport—or toss into a junkyard. After spending so many hours working the Wildcat, and riding it at least 200 times in three years, I almost didn’t want to know what became of the thing. Hell, I had even filmed a short Super 8 movie on it starring my younger brother! Something I never owned but was a big part of my life had seemingly vanished from the earth.

Until yesterday.

Surfing Google Images for possible artwork for a company newsletter article on our first summer jobs, I did a search for Wildcat coaster Riverside and linked to this year-old blog on a Six Flags New England Website. Eureka! The Wildcat was gone from Riverside and sent to Rocky Point Park in Warwick, RI in 1982, where it was renamed the Cyclone. Rocky Point closed in 1995, and the “Cyclone” along with it.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 4.14.50 PMBut it refused to die. Sandspit Cavendish Beach Park on Prince Edward Island bought the ride, moved it to Canada, and it’s still in operation today! There it is in the background, nestled against the pines, lording over what looks to be a fairly relaxed, family-friendly spot. As I sat mesmerized watching the YouTube video below, it was obvious the ride has become a bit slowier and clankier in its 45 years, but the first drop is still spectacular, the climactic metal whirlpool of track dizzying.

It was like discovering an old friend you thought had been lost in Vietnam decades ago was alive and well and living in a forest cabin. It made my day like nothing has in quite a while, and one thing is certain: a little road trip up to New Brunswick and across to Prince Edward Island may be in the near future. I’ll bring along a plate of cookies or a big tube of hand moisturizer for the operators, and maybe they’ll even let me work the brakes.

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Don’t Forget It, Jake

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One of the fun by-products of living in the City of Angels is creating personal Hollywood tours for yourself on idle weekends. You can also share them with friends. We once had some good folks visiting from Kansas City who insisted on riding the O.J. Slow Speed Route and seeing the site of the Sharon Tate Manson Family murders, but that was a little morbid, to be honest.

Recently, I made two brief detours on the way to Dodger Stadium to show people Ida Sessions’ apartment. You remember Ida, right? The struggling actress who pretended to be Evelyn Mulwray in the very first scene of Chinatown? Well, she didn’t make it past the two-thirds mark of the movie; in fact, Jack Nicholson paid a morning call to her bungalow pictured above, only to find her dead on the kitchen floor beside a spilled cabbage.

Chinatown, the best movie ever filmed about L.A., was gorgeously photographed by John Alonzo in the early ’70s. In a time when icky soft focus lenses were all the rage in period films, Alonzo and Roman Polanski went in the other direction, displaying the city in widescreen clarity, using magic hour colors to give it a dreamy quality that was also totally natural. Anyway, Ida Sessions’ actual home address on East Kensington in Angelino Heights is supplied in the dialogue, as is the house on Canyon Drive where Evelyn is hiding her sister/daughter later in the film. There are plenty of other cool locations you can find on your own, and with the help of Google Maps, one of the great creations ever, I intend to visit them all soon.

The “Mar Vista Rest Home” where Jack and Faye Dunaway visit the unknowing elderly contributors to Noah Cross’ water scam? Right on Sunset Boulevard, near the corner of Bundy in Brentwood…

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The Mulwray Mansion where Gittes drove into the driveway in his spiffy convertible? On El Molino Avenue in Pasadena. Especially like the Halloween ghosties hanging from the tree in this Google snap…

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Here’s the beautiful Craftsman house where Evelyn was hiding her sister/daughter, just north of Hollywood Boulevard…

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The Hollenbeck Bridge where J.J. Gittes first spied on Hollis Mulwray with his vintage brown binoculars? Here ya go…

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Finally, I always assumed a spot beside a park where Gittes parked and followed Mulwray down to a rocky beach was in Pacific Palisades, but no. Try the Point Fermin Park and Lighthouse at the very bottom of San Pedro. The nightspot that’s playing wonderful 1930s jazz in the film is actually Walker’s Cafe, a biker bar/eatery that currently has, as Noah Cross might say, “a nasty reputation.” Its page on Yelp is riddled with unflattering reviews and comments, citing either bad food or an unfriendly, racist vibe to the place.

Walker'sCafe

What’s fascinating is that not one of the tons of commenters even mentions that one of the early, important scenes in Chinatown (with Gites placing watches under the tire on Mulwray’s car to “mark” the time he left) was filmed there. I will never forget Chinatown—I did name our son after Gittes’ character, after allbut apparently, many people don’t even know what they’re missing.

A Snappy Invasion of San Francisco

jeffyodoulsWell, my summer and early fall book event calendar for Mystery Ball ’58 is starting to simmer on the stove. Kicking it off will be a reading at Skylight Books in L.A. on Sunday July 12th at 5 p.m., which will also include a rockin’ baseball “in conversation” with author/journalist Dan Epstein afterwards.

Second, I’m in the preliminary stages for some public library readings up in beautiful Fresno in early August (exact date TBD), and in September, look out San Fran! On Wednesday the 23rd I will have a book party at the legendary Lefty O’Douls Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge at 333 Geary Street, with a possible preliminary event at the Double Play Bar and Grill at 2401 16th Street, right across from where Seals Stadium once stood! Both establishments are featured in various scenes in Mystery Ball, so they’re the perfect venues to read at.

As if those weren’t fun enough, the next night on the 24th I’ll also be spewing sinister Snappy Drake selections at the lovely Sausalito Public Library, just across the foggy Golden Gate.

Anyone who’s in the general vicinity of the Bay Area, stop on by!

These Are a Few of My Favorite Opening Things

One of the best parts of going to the movies is the lights going down, the sweet anticipation that you are about to be very entertained. Of course, the entertaining part doesn’t always happen, but the opening credits of a film are the perfect place for a director to stamp the next two hours with the story’s mood, to draw you into its fold with music, visuals, to hook you from the start. This also rarely happens, but when it does, and the movie lives up to its opening moments, it can give you the same goose bumps every time you watch it.

Without further ado then, but with some elaboration, here are my top ten favorite opening credit sequences, in reverse order:

10. AUSTIN POWERS, MAN OF MYSTERY

Most people seem to favor the R-rated penis-blocking credits of the sequel, “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” but for me, nothing beats this totally fun musical tribute to Britain and the mod 60s, all done to the strains of Quincy Jones’ classic “Soul Bossa Nova.”

9. CHINATOWN

The first of two Polanski entries on my list. Yes, it’s one of the greatest films of all time and arguably the best one ever about Los Angeles, but you tend to forget about the lush, nostalgic opening titles, complete with noir-ish Jerry Goldsmith music and an old-time movie credit roll. Rarely have we been dropped into a movie’s world so quickly and successfully.

8. FARENHEIT 451

Truffaut’s great adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s famous novel about a banned-book world has a brilliant opening, with all of the credits spoken rather than titled on screen. The effect is quick and disturbing yet thematically perfect, and Bernard Herrmann’s music doesn’t hurt.

7. VERTIGO

There are a handful of great Hitchcock credit sequences to choose from, (“Psycho”, “The Birds”, and “North by Northwest” among them), but this one’s a masterpiece, designed by the great Saul Bass, blessed with more of Herrmann’s creepy, ethereal music, and promising romance, mystery, and suspense that completely deliver.

6. THE TENANT

One of Polanski’s first movies after taking refuge in Europe in the mid-70s was this very creepy Paris thriller, in which he cast himself as a shy, sexually confused man who takes over the flat of a suicide victim and gradually goes insane. Fluid, sweeping camerawork by Sven Nykvist and Philippe Sarde’s haunting score fill you with dread before your seat is even warm.

5. RAGING BULL

Poetry in black and white. Scorsese was robbed of a Best Director Oscar for this film, and in my opinion he could have won it just for coming up with this incredible title sequence. Hooded De Niro warming up in slo-mo to Pietro Mascagni in a smoke-filled arena? Uncanny.

4. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

A very underrated Spielberg film and DiCaprio performance, but what an opening! Spy movie jazz music by John Williams that is very non-John Williams, matched to early ’60s retro visuals by the Paris duo Kuntzel and Deygas that recall Pink Panther movies and the most imaginative period art, yet also manage to incorporate upcoming plot elements into its completely fun animation.

3. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

Because Sergio Leone’s credits occupy just a small part of what is a spellbinding, nearly wordless eight-minute opening scene, this isn’t always thought of as a great title sequence, but I’m sorry. It absolutely is. In fact, the rest of the movie slips a little for me after this intensely dramatic opening.

2. DO THE RIGHT THING

Spike Lee’s best film also has one of the great credit sequences of all time. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” at top volume with a dancing, boxing, hip-hopping Rosie Perez doesn’t quite match the simmering, humid energy of the film that follows, but it still knocks me out every time.

1. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgCejsyS0t8
This glorious black and white intro to one of the greatest dramas ever written or filmed is subtle, magical, emotional and instantly draws you into what will soon be a child’s narrative world. The voice of the playful, singing child is obviously one with a younger age than either Scout or her brother Jed, but the stark power of the tight images is unforgettable. Kudos to director Robert Mulligan and title designer Stephen Frankfurt for this little masterpiece.

Walkin’ Before Midnight

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By Annie Boots Polman

It was a warm night. I was itchy. The half can of Fancy Feast Savory Salmon went down like fishy butter just two hours ago, and I was wide awake after my ninth nap of the day. Where the hell were my masters when I needed them?

Annie Boots here. They gave me that name when they rescued me a few years back, but I’m no idiot. I know they prefer to call me Kitty or “TCH-TCH-TCH”, that weird noise they make with their mouths when they want to yank me away from Hummingbird Watch or lure me back into the house before bedtime so they don’t wig out about me being outside all night. Like I can’t take care of myself by now? I’m a frickin’ cat!

Anyway, they started putting their jackets and feet covers on around nine p.m., stepped outside and called “Kitty!” and it was almost a full moon and I hadn’t been around the block in like a week so I said screw it, let’s do this thing.

I have this awesome routine where I let them “walk” me but pretend that they’re not by tagging a house or two behind, catching up when I damn well feel like it, making them call me a dozen or so times until they basically give up and then I tear ass, cut in front of them and flop down on the sidewalk and roll around for a belly tickle, BECAUSE I CAN. Suckers. Anyway, as masters go they’re pretty cool, except for that day a few weeks ago when I had worms and they shoved me in a box and took me to a cat-torturer in some creepy building. Thank god it worked.

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Per usual, I walked along the curb and in the gutter, past refuse bins and under as many parked people-carriers as I could, making sure to sniff a few bumpers along the way. Didn’t smell any dogs nearby so that was a good thing. There’s a cat named Bob who’s a good dude and hangs near the bushes about four or five houses away but he wasn’t around. I took a quick whiz on his lawn to say hello and picked up speed.

There’s this big-ass dirt and weed patch at the first corner its owners created when they never finished planting grass. My masters like to call it “Kitty-Corner” which they think is funny but I find pretty demeaning. Anyway, I did a little more business there because it’s basically the biggest cat box in the world so how could I not, waited for them to disappear and get annoyed around the bend, then hopped back on the sidewalk and ducked under a giant trash dumpster beside a construction site. That one’s always good for a few minutes of master freak-out.

“TCH-TCH-TCH!” Yeah, yeah, shut the hell up, I’m coming. Skirted around the next corner pretty fast, because actually I didn’t want to be too far away from them. On our last walk in this area I smelled something big and scary and not cat or dog-like. Could have been a raccoon, or a possum or skunk or who the crap knows what, but I wasn’t about to stick around and find out. Even bushed up my tail just in case, like one of those feather dusters that masters use, but whatever the thing was it hid down a driveway. Phew.

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There was a whole string of good-sized parked cars, including a van I could go curbside with, so I signed up for that action, checking behind me the whole time because I’m telling ya, these streets can be dangerous for a girl like me at night. There was a skinny little teenage orange cat that was hanging around on this stretch for a while. Was always trying to get close for some reason and it spooked the friskies out of me, but my masters would usually step in and shoo it away. I guess they’re not as bad as I make them out to be.

Finally! The third and fourth corners of the trek, most of my favorite old elm trees, and back on home turf. Now it was time to jet in front of the masters, roll around on my front sidewalk just to be obnoxious and dart through their legs and back into the house before they could even cross the threshold. Cracks them up every time.

A couple mouthfuls of dry food for a nightcap, and then I was back on the master’s cozy old sweatpants. These journeys around the block are a hell of an adventure, but I have to say they keep me fit and definitely help me sleep.

Until it’s time to get up around 5 in the morning and tiptoe over my master’s crotch, of course…

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On Being Bookish

I weep whenever I hear of a book store closing. Living in Los Angeles, then, I weep a lot, and also grind my teeth quite often when I see a fantastic spot for a book store (like downtown Culver City) and one just won’t materialize there. Thankfully, though, public libraries tend not to be on the endangered species list.

Growing up, reading was a privilege and books were precious jewels. Devouring the great Classics illustrated comic series led me straight into novels, and then it was on to the local library. Back in Longmeadow, Mass. half a century ago, we had two completely different venues for this, each of them enchanting in their own way.

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Richard Salter Storrs was a famous clergyman who was born in Longmeadow in 1787, and the Storrs Library on tree-shrouded Longmeadow Street was built on the site of his former house in 1932 and named for him. To an impressionable young fan of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies in the early ’60s, the ancient library felt like walking into my own private House of Usher. Luxurious, hushed rooms, spooky paintings on the walls that always seemed to be watching you while you browsed the shelves, and a clammy kid’s section down a long flight of steps that was only missing a cask of Amontillado provided ample sanctuary on a wintry late afternoon. At the time, it also had a very stuffy staff and strange hours, but the place treasured books in a serious and profound way that certainly rubbed off on me.

imagesThen there was the little green bookmobile, which wondrously stopped at the suburban development corner in front of our house. I can’t seem to recall how often the contraption rolled by, but I imagine it wasn’t too often, because every time it did was an event. Neighborhood kids queued up by the dozens to climb inside, and an elbow in your eye was a small price to pay for checking out another Hardy Boys volume or Duane Decker Blue Sox baseball novel. Our house had a screened-in backyard porch, and during the long summer, kicking back on our plastic-cushioned lounge furniture with the new acquisitions was one of our favorite pastimes.

johnson%27s+bookstore+at+rigthtcroppedIf the libraries didn’t satiate us, there was always Johnson’s Bookstore in downtown Springfield, the Powell’s of Western Mass. Not nearly as big as that Portland, OR mecca, it was nevertheless a local institution. Its owner, a thin, taciturn older man in a suit who I  assumed was a descendant of the original Johnson family, never failed to be leaning against a center display with his arms folded when you walked in the front door, directing customers to the proper section, eyeing hot-fingered kids, and surveying his literary realm like Nero from his upper box at the Colosseum. We never spent much time in that part of Johnson’s, though, because the real prize was out the back door and across an alley to…

johnson'sJohnson’s Secondhand Bookstore! Two glorious floors of used comic books, sports annuals, and actual literature, a place where my brother and I bought Street & Smith Baseball Yearbooks by the pound, not to mention National Geographic, record albums, and an occasional old copy of Look magazine. And the best thing was that there was far less staff in there, and we were left alone to pore through their musty archives as long as we wanted. Sometimes we’d even remember to go home.

As I grew older, and many of my friends gave up reading for female pursuit, alcohol, and other distractions, I was never without a book in my hands during the summer months. There I was across the river in Agawam in July of 1974, sitting on a yellow bench underneath the Wildcat Roller Coaster I helped operate at Riverside Park. With cars crashing down hills and rattling the metal beams around me, I remained deep inside my fat paperback of The Two Towers, men, elves and Orcs clanging swords in the Battle of Helm’s Deep…

How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love the “Kimmy Schmidt”

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It helps to give almost anything time. A book. A relationship. A slow-cooked rump roast. And it’s often true for a TV series like The Wire, which takes about six hours before you realize you’re watching a filmed version of a modern-day Nicholas Nickleby.

If anything, the first 13 episodes of the new Netflix-bingeworthy series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt were a roller coaster ride for me. Loved the pilot, liked the second episode a little less, and by the sixth or seventh 25-minute escapade in the New York life of one of Indiana’s famous rescued “Mole Women,” I was ready to bail.

Then I took a few weeks off, started watching again, and by the penultimate 12th episode, thought I was witnessing one of the zaniest and most inventive situation comedies ever filmed. Kimmy just has that power to break your misgivings.

For those not in the know yet, the show is about a spunky, understandably naive young redhead named Kimmy who has been imprisoned with three other women in an underground bunker in Durnsville, Indiana for 15 years by an insane (and unseen) preacher named Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Preacher Wayne told them the apocalypse had happened and there was no reason to go back outside, and who knows what kind of psychological and sexual abuse may have occurred during their captivity.

After being freed, Kimmy travels to New York City for the first time with her fellow “mole women”, decides she digs the place and climbs off the bus to begin a new life. A liberated fish out of water, Kimmy smiles from ear to ear at practically everything, somehow lands herself a low-rent apartment with a furiously gay actor/singer wannabe named Titus, a nanny job with a hideously rich and uptight millionaire’s wife named Jacqueline Voorhees, and non-stop hijinks ensue. Mrs.Voorhees is beyond demanding, and her son and teenage step-daughter are different kinds of monsters. As Kimmy tries to adapt to the modern world, it’s only a matter of time before members of her imprisoned past return to plague her life even more.

The premise is not exactly a laff riot, and despite sharp characters, hysterical dialogue, and a frantic comic pace that co-creator Tina Fey seemed to have airlifted from the earl seasons of 30 Rock, I was having a major problem early on with the show’s tone. Abuse is a very serious problem in our society, and filtering it through a goofy, rapid-fire joke fest seemed wrongheaded and often squirm-inducing. What’s more, the story just seemed to be running in place and recycling the same Kimmy Out of Her Element gags.

Things pick up a bit when Kimmy finds herself in an odd love triangle with an Asian math student named Dong and handsome phony Brit from Connecticut named Logan. One episode later, the trial of Reverend Wayne gets underway in Indiana and the show takes a speed line to a higher level. With Jon Hamm playing the narcissistic, self-defending preacher and Tina Fey going full Marcia Clark as one of the inept prosecuting attorneys, the final three episodes are astoundingly good. For the first time I realized that Kimmy Schmidt was not just a weird 30 Rock knockoff, but a biting satire of our judicial system, carnivorous media, self-absorption and religious zealotry, all wrapped up in one beautifully acted, written, photographed and directed package. I was also wrong about the brand of humor; without one wasted joke-free moment, it’s actually closer to a Zucker Brothers movie than it is to 30 Rock.

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy is a career-making role. As the spunky, naive redhead receptionist on NBC’s The Office, she was one of my favorite characters in the last few seasons I was able to endure of that show, and here she’s spot-on perfect, certainly one of the easiest comedy characters to root for in recent memory. Tituss Burgess is way too flamboyant at times, but his sweetness and caring for Kimmy comes through, and some of his later episodes when he travels to the trial with her are some of the season’s funniest moments. As Mrs. Voorhees, Jane Krakowski, who also played 30 Rock‘s insecure actress Jenna Maroney, is an annoying joy, while her daughter Xanthippe (I can’t pronounce it either) is a masterpiece of morose ennui in the hands of Dylan Gelula.

The series has already been renewed for a second season, and after the events of the finale I just saw, it’s hard to tell what direction the tale will now go, but I think it’s safe to say that if you have a spare 325 minutes to binge watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, do so. Damn it.

The First Time Ever I Saw Shea’s Face

Shea

In July of 1964, my parents took my older brother and I to the New York World’s Fair. It was a big trip for us. Most of our family “getaways” involved heading 25 minutes down to Hartford to visit relatives or tooling around the Berkshires on Columbus Day weekend for an afternoon of leaf-peeping. Driving all the way to New York, staying in the Piccadilly Hotel near Times Square, taking the elevated subway out to Queens to see the Hemisphere, rows of international flags and the Futurama show in the Westinghouse Pavilion? Now that was exciting.

But I had an additional agenda. Up to that point, the only big league ballpark we had seen was decaying, pint-sized Fenway for a couple of Red Sox games. In person it had looked even smaller than it did on TV. We’d also been taken to Pynchon Park just north of downtown Springfield a few times, the miniscule Eastern League home of the Springfield Giants. That place was sweet, and a ticket to get in cost just a little more than a double feature at the Bing or Majestic Theatre, but come on, it was still the minor leagues.

From poring through my Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook for 1964 a few months back I had read about the spanking new, ultra-modern Shea Stadium, home of the lowly New York Mets. How stunned and delighted I was then, to discover from my brother that it was built right across the entrance walkway into the World’s Fair!

So we checked in at the Piccadilly, boarded the IRT line and headed out to the Willets Point stop in Flushing, which at that time was the end of the line. It was a warm afternoon, and as we rattled through a tunnel out of Manhattan and up to our elevation over the streets, I caught a glimpse of what was approaching. To 95 percent of the passengers in the crowded car, it was the giant metal globe and fountains of the Hemisphere, the signature symbol of the World’s Fair, emerging over the tops of tenements out the right side window. For me, it was the monolithic, four- or five-decked (I couldn’t be sure) Shea Stadium looming up on the left.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’m sure I poked my brother a half dozen times and I’m sure he looked and was momentarily as excited as me, but then looked back over at the World’s Fair view. The train rolled to a stopped and I slipped outside with my family, peering through slats and around girders for another tasty shot of Shea.

We hit the wide outdoor concourse leading into the fair and fell in behind the throng advancing toward it. Without a moment’s hesitation, I turned 180 degrees and began walking backwards, gazing at Shea’s space-age magnificence as if I were an Indian beggar who had just stumbled out of the Periyar Jungle and come across the Taj Mahal. I was colliding with exiting fair visitors. Attempts by my brother and parents to turn me back around proved fruitless. I was babbling like a little baseball-obsessed nut.

Which, of course, is what I was. Just one year earlier I had made my first pilgrimage to Fenway and had become a miniature baseball lunatic hook, line, and sinker. I started reading box scores and standings and took up Strat-O-Matic. If we caught one or two Red Sox games a week and NBC’s Game of the Week on Saturday, we considered ourselves lucky. I didn’t realize it until that steamy day in Flushing, but what I really wanted to do was go to as many other major league parks as I could, and the sight of a structure twice the size of Fenway in which they actually played baseball had me over the moon.

So over the moon, in fact, that around 4 in the afternoon, after a very fun and fascinating day touring the World’s Fair—hours after I had given in and resumed walking forward—my arms suddenly began to itch terribly. As if I had been bitten by a swarm of mosquitoes or commando crawled through poison ivy. My mother looked at my arms and realized I had broken out in hives.

hotelpicadilly2So while my parents went out to dinner in the City that evening, I was holed up in our Piccadilly Hotel room with my brother, watching Hans Conried host Fractured Flickers on our dinky little TV, powder and some kind of gooey ointment from a midtown pharmacy all over my arms, legs, and chest. My parents insisted it was caused by the excitement of the Fair and being in New York, but I knew better.

* * *

One summer later, our dad took us to Shea for an actual ballgame against St. Louis. The traffic getting over the Whitestone Bridge was awful, the seats weren’t bad but seemed to be five miles from the field, and in 1966, for another Shea visit and July doubleheader against Pittsburgh, the temperature was 106 degrees and we had to flee to the shady upper deck, where even a Hubble telescope wouldn’t have helped.

There was little doubt about it: Shea Stadium completely sucked.

Still, that first time I saw the place? To this day I wouldn’t trade that case of the hives for anything.