Independence Day at the Movies

In honor of Independence Day, I’m going to share with you some of my favorite films about independence, and many of these have nothing WHATSOEVER to do with the Fourth of July. Continue reading

Lightning in a Jar: Cat’s Out of the Bag

Chapter 11:

“Well, hello! And, who might this delicious young man be?”

Speaking with his usual flare for the dramatic, as if he were emoting on a stage, and not standing in the musty hallways of our high school, Max was referring to James. We were amidst a flurry of students who were in the process of getting to their next class, some of whom couldn’t help but stare at us, drawn as they were by Max’s gregarious persona.

I blanched. Max and I had been talking about venturing into the city, when suddenly James appeared out of nowhere. Having completely ignored the coda I had established—no speaking to me at school (except in geometry, of course)—James had nonchalantly greeted me as if I were any old friend whom he’d bumped into between classes.

Only, I wasn’t.

I was, however, in a clandestine relationship with him.  Emphasis on clandestine. Private. Mum’s the word, and all that.

Since that day in the park, James and I had become practically inseparable. Outside of school, that is. No one knew or suspected one iota. We’d meet surreptitiously after school, taking walks through his secluded, tree-shaded neighborhood. Then we’d head to his home, and slip under the covers of his bed. No going all the way, mind you–I wasn’t ready for that–just a lot of hot and heavy, shall we say, breathing. You get the picture.

I couldn’t get enough of him. When we were together, I felt more buoyant, more adventurous, and yes, more alive. Happier than I’d been in ages. Still, I’d tell no one about our relationship. As far as I was concerned, that’s how it had to be, mostly because of the embarrassment I felt in being with a younger guy. The last thing I wanted was to let the cat out of the bag. Still, every time we met, in my head there were many others in the room along with us. And, they were all judging.

whiteheat2as4

“Top of the world, Ma,” cries James Cagney in one of the best gangster movies of all time, “White Heat.”

First and foremost, my parents, who’d have read me the riot act had they known what I was up to, particularly since, in the six months that I dated Jake, I never stepped foot in his bedroom. Then, there was my best friend, Liza, who was smarter and savvier than I, and almost certain to see my interest in James as a sign of inopportune weakness.

As for my other friends, whom I’d party and hang out with, I could feel their disapproving eyes boring tiny holes into my back. Had this been one of those James Cagney gangster flicks, you would’ve heard me yelling, “Top of the World, Ma!” as my parents and friends riddled me with bullets for bringing a pox upon all their houses.

So, for these reasons, I lived my double life. Publicly, I continued to meet up with my friends, have lunch with George, and have the occasional sleepover at Liza’s. At home, I was the dutiful (sort of) daughter, doing my chores and homework, while my mother sewed my dress for the prom.  And, whenever I could, I’d sneak off to see James. Yes, everything was going smoothly.

Until Max.

I hadn’t counted on Max.

Max was a senior and the only openly gay guy at my school. Jake somehow knew him and had introduced us one night, just before a school performance of the musical, Good News. Max, who had designed the scenery, and the show’s posters which had been plastered all over town, was backstage doing last minute makeup touches on the female lead.

Upon meeting me, he took hold of my face and, holding it up to the light, cheekily remarked, “Miss Thing, don’t ever wear blue eye shadow. It’s absolutely not your color.”

I wasn’t wearing any makeup that night, but I figured, he must know what he was talking about. Most days, Max came to school wearing tons of makeup. He’d keep it on until one of the teachers sent him to the men’s room to wash off. He’d oblige but, first chance he got, you’d find him back in the bathroom, reapplying it. Max never stopped testing the school’s boundaries, and would often end up in the principal’s office.

I didn’t know what to make of him, having never met anyone who seemed to enjoy calling as much attention to himself as he did. Without fear of consequence. When everybody else was trying to fit in, he was embracing his own flamboyant self.

And now, he was commanding me to spend the day with him in the city, and there was no turning him down.

“Miss Thing, what is wrong with you?” He cried in mock horror. “I can’t believe you haven’t been to any of the vintage clothing shops in East Village. Looks like I’m going to have to take you there myself! This weekend, no excuses. Trust me, you will love it!”

I was skeptical. I’d never gone into Manhattan with anyone outside my family, except Liza, and our favorite place to shop was Macy’s or Gimbel’s in Herald Square, so I didn’t know what to expect. But Max knew I had a thing for movies of the 30s and 40s, particularly the musicals, and I did love the style–padded shoulders, sweeping skirts and cocktail hats–so, maybe it would be fun.

While we stood in the school hallway finalizing plans, James happened by. Max waited expectantly for an introduction.

“So, whom do we have here, Miss Thing?” He tapped his foot, impatiently. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

I tensed up, as a sense of doom crossed my face. I wasn’t sure James could hold his own with Max. In some ways, James seemed too innocent.

Max glanced from me to James, and slowly, he nodded, as if things were beginning to gel.

“Oh, I see,” was all he said.

“Max,” I began to stammer. “This is–”

Max cut me off, taking matters into his own hands.

“Dear boy, I’m Max and believe me, the pleasure is all mine.”

James shrugged, muttering a casual, “Hey,” under his breath.

“This is James,” I intervened. “A friend from geometry. He sometimes helps me with homework assignments.” I was hoping my words would convince Max that there was nothing more than a distant connection between us.

“You mean he’s in that remedial class you’ve told me about?” Max nodded, seemingly going along with the bill of goods I was selling. “Now, why didn’t I sign up for that class, I wonder?”

I could tell James was feeling uncomfortable by his keen interest in him. Frankly, so was I.

“Well, then,” said Max, “I don’t suppose James would like to join us for our excursion Saturday?”

Getting together with James and Sam was one thing, but James and Max? Out of the question.

“Probably not a good idea,” I replied before James could say anything. His shyness seemed to have kicked in, full throttle.

“No?” He feigned a forlorn look. “How disappointing. Oh well, I guess I’ll leave you two alone. Seems the lad is eager to help you with, ahem–your homework?”

With a smile and a flick of his hand, he tipped the fedora he was wearing to one side, adding,

“Until Saturday, Dear Heart! I expect a full report on your–what was it? Oh, yes. Your homework!”

And, with that, he strode off, disappearing down the hall.

“Uh, that was weird,” said James, matter-of-factly.

The bell marking the start of the next period sounded. There’d be no time for explanations. I simply nodded in agreement, and headed to my class, wondering what Max had surmised about me and James. Could he tell there was something between us? Would he even care?

Knowing Max, I’d be in for a grilling.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.

 

Lightning in a Jar: Chapter 1

James at 16 – continued

MM in High School

It is said that when we grow up, we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture our youth. Each in our own way, we long to relive the best moments and hold on to them forever. Like a roll of bright, shiny pennies we keep in our pocket for safe keeping. Or the pouch of jacks your mom once bought you at the five and dime. These are the things we treasure, the mementos of our life.

But here’s the quandary: You can’t go home again. You can’t get it back, and thinking otherwise is like trying to capture lightning in a jar. For me, it’s the memory of James at 16.  When I think of him then, I feel an ache of a thousand dreams, for the choices we make in our youth can reverberate for a very long time.

By the time I met James, I was already dating Jake, a senior. I was a junior, and dating a senior carried a lot of cache, particularly if he had a car. Meanwhile, James was a lowly sophomore. Our high school only went from 10th to 12th grade, so you couldn’t get more bottom of the barrel than being a sophomore.

I was giddy, head over heels in love. Jake was an amazing guy who was so dazzling and over the top, he was like the host of his own game show, unabashedly greeting the rest of us as if we were the audience–his legions of fans. And perhaps, we were.

With his razzmatazz smile, he’d be pumping hands and doing his best game show host appeal. Guys loved hanging out with him. There were always a few around who didn’t seem to have girlfriends of their own, and, the fact that Jake had a car, while most of us relied on bikes was key, no doubt. But more importantly, Jake always had on hand a stash of pot, and he was happy to share. He’d look you in the eye, flash his best TV host grin and dare you to figure out your utmost desires–did you want what was behind door number one or door number two? I could never decide.

I was so crazy wild in love with Jake, I thought this was it (Read more about him in my post, First Love). That we’d marry one day, and have a slew of game host children. He told me what I wanted to hear, wrote me poetry, spent hours with me on the phone, and said we’d have a future together. I almost stopped breathing, holding all that joy inside. I was that happy.

James was in my geometry class. We called it remedial math because it was for slow learners who needed that “extra push”—a year and a half to learn about isosceles triangles and the like, when most everyone else could do it in just one year. I took the class because I didn’t have a choice. Math of any kind was definitely not my forte. Blame my guidance counselor, Mrs. W., who never really took me seriously as a student and was just trying to put me anywhere she could in order for me to stop pestering her. Mrs. W., with her teased, bouffant hairdo and a look that always made her appear dumbfounded.

“Mrs. W.,” I’d say. “I want to sign up for chorus.”

“Mrs. W., I have a note from home that excuses me from debating in debate class the rest of the semester.”

“Mrs. W, is there another English class I can take? Everyone says Mr. D is a tough grader.”

“Mrs. W, is it too late to sign up for music appreciation instead of home ec?”

Honestly, you’d think that someone who showed as much interest in my education as I did, would get a break from the guidance counselor. But she never did, which later proved to be a tricky thing when it came to my college apps.

Anyway, back to geometry. I spent at least two months, maybe more, without saying bupkis to James. I sat in the second to last seat, in the middle of the classroom and had a great view of the entire class, except the back row—and guess who sat right behind me? Yep, James, and next to him was his best friend from grade school, Sam.

Somewhere around the third month of class, our teacher, Mrs. C, had a brain fart. Mrs. C. was actually really nice. She only looked strict and scary. Inside her was one of those hearts of gold. Outside, she was painfully thin with pale, taut skin. Wait—who am I kidding? The woman was ghostly white. Practically skeletal, with a smear of red on her thin, veiny lips. Her stark black hair was cut off at the chin. If you ask me, she appeared almost like an aging Snow White. No make that Snow White as an addict. Addicted to what? I don’t know. Parallelograms, I suppose.

On this particular day, Mrs. C. decided we should break out into small groups to do some team assignment. Ugh. I hated group assignments. It usually meant you had to produce some work and actually participate, demonstrating that you understood how the problem was solved. And then someone had to be designated as the spokesperson for the group. And, you better believe, it wasn’t going to be me.

When it came time to break into groups, Mrs. C. assigned me to work with, you guessed it, James and Sam. Being in the class was bad enough, but now I had to team up with sophomores?

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends were sophomores. Like Barbara. She and I would sometimes hang out during lunch and sing duets of old tunes like, “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” We were so good, we could’ve taken our act on the road. Okay, maybe not.

But, the verdict was out on these two yahoos. True, I had talked to Sam a few times and he was pretty funny. Acerbic and witty. My kind of humor. But, James on the other hand was shy. Super shy. I never really heard him talk. Perhaps he was thinking hard of what to say, but I didn’t have time to wait around and find out. On the few occasions that I had given him a nod in greeting, I always caught him gazing at me with some foolish grin on his face. Okay, maybe it was a cute grin. More like a half smile. But really, who smiles like that for no reason?

I turned my chair around and said, as I often did, as a result of watching too many late night Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney movies on TV, “Okay, you dirty rats. Let’s cut to the chase. Which one of you is going to do the assignment and which one is going to present?”

For a second, they blankly stared at each other. Then, James looked me square in the eye. Handing me a pencil, he replied, in his best Bogart impression, “Listen here, Sister, this is how it’s going to be, see? You’re gonna help us solve this problem, and Sam here, he’s gonna present. I’ll make sure of that. But, you’re in it for the long haul, see? Now, suppose we get to work.”

So, the kid could talk and hold his own, too. Feeling somewhat chastened, I took the pencil and moved my chair closer in. Maybe team work wasn’t going to be so bad, after all.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the High School Years page.

In Praise of Black & White

Several years ago, my daughter was having a sleepover party for her birthday. She had the whole evening planned. Pizza, board games, cake, a game of Twister, and a movie.

Not just any movie, but, a classic: The Naughty Nineties, starring my personal favorite duo, Abbott and Costello. Who can forget the baseball routine, “Who’s on first?” This iconic comedy bit debuted in their 1945 film, “The Naughty Nineties.” Here’s a clip:

So, my daughter’s plan was to screen the movie. She couldn’t wait to introduce her friends to this comedic duo, who had given us hours and hours of laughs and guffaws. But, no sooner did the opening credits start rolling, when one of her friends said this:

“Black and white!?? This movie better be so good I forget it’s in black and white.”

And with that, my daughter’s excitement in sharing with her friends something she found thoroughly enjoyable was unceremoniously deflated, like a pin, pricked into a prized balloon.

Which makes me wonder, have black and white films become a relic of the past?  Today’s kids, accustomed to movies in color being the norm, not to mention 3D, and out-of-this-world special effects and graphics, seem to have little tolerance for the cinematic gems of the past. Or what I call, the golden age of the silver screen.

Yet, there’s so much these films still have to offer. Granted, they may look dated, but many of the story lines still resonate. Why else would today’s Hollywood moguls pore through the vaults of MGM, Paramount, and United Artists in search of movies to remake?

Films like, The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, which was remade into You’ve Got Mail, 1998; The Big Clock, 1948, became No Way Out, 1987; The Mummy, 1932 and 1999; The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951 and 2008;  King Kong, 1933 and 2005; Cape Fear, 1962 and 1991; and Father of the Bride, 1950 and 1991. And, that’s just naming a few. In fact, plans are underway for a remake of one of my favorites, The Thin Man, which will star Johnny Depp. Yet, when all is said and done, there’s nothing like the original.

Black and white dramas have timeless morals, and the comedies, wit and snappy banter that inevitably leads to a happy ending. The horror films are all the more exciting because they leave much to the imagination, and the singing and dancing are pure delight. It’s not for naught that the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films feature black and white movies in the top two spots: Citizen Kane and Casablanca.

If black and white cinema is a dying art (and thank heavens for The Artist for its attempt to revive it), then it’s up to us to take a second look at the legacy these classics leave us, and share them with the youth in our lives.

So, the next time you have movie night with your family, consider staying home and watching a black and white film. Trust me, you watch them long enough and, frankly, you do end up forgetting they’re in black and white. My kids started watching these films at a young age, and, as a result, black and white is second nature to them.

I have gathered a list of some of my favorites. They are in no particular order, and represent a smattering of the films my kids were raised on. Quite a few of these are Cary Grant films. (Hint: Look for the “CG.”)

Drama:

A Patch of Blue, a 1965 poignant drama about race relations and love, starring Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman.

To Kill a Mockingbird

A Patch of Blue

All About Eve (Bette Davis at her best!)

Mr. Lucky (CG as a bad guy with a heart)

Jezebel

The Miracle Worker

Film Noir:

Laura

The Big Clock

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Double Indemnity

The Lost Weekend

Alfred Hitchcock (He’s in a genre all by himself!):

Lifeboat

Rebecca

Suspicion (CG)

Notorious (CG)

Shadow of a Doubt

Mystery & Crime:

Myrna Loy, “Asta,” and William Powell star in the original, “The Thin Man,” based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet. Together, they made an additional five films for the series.

The Thin Man (see the entire series before you see the Johnny Depp version)

The Roaring Twenties

The Spiral Staircase

Angels with Dirty Faces

White Heat

Some Like it Hot (gangsters and comedy)

Comedy:

Harvey

Duck Soup

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade into Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty)

His Girl Friday (CG)

The Awful Truth (CG)

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (CG)

The Time of their Lives

Arsenic and Old Lace (CG)

Cheaper by the Dozen

I Was a Male War Bride (you guessed it, CG)

Father of the Bride

Bringing Up Baby (CG)

So, are there any black and white films you recommend? Please add your favorites to the comment section below.

Prisoner of Love

“My Men in Stripes” Revisited

When I first started blogging, my audience consisted of three friends, two relatives, my dog, Henry, and the lady who delivers my mail (on account that I would print my posts and discreetly leave them inside my mailbox, anonymously addressed to the Postmaster General). Of course, after a few weeks, I managed to alienate them all.

Yet somehow, despite myself, my readership grew over time. Which just goes to show you: Blackmailing people to get them to read your blog really works!

And, now that I have a couple dozen readers, I figure, it’s as good a time as any, to revisit some of my early posts, the ones I suspect many of you have yet to read, no matter how many arms I’ve twisted. Besides, with my daughter home for Spring Break, I’ve been crazy busy, with little time for blogging. So, I hope you enjoy reading my new and improved post on my Men in Stripes:

My friend, Sherri thinks I need to expand my options.  Which is why she says I should consider dating men who’ve made a killing—though not necessarily in the stock market. She’s talking men in stripes. Convicts. Felons. Jailbirds.

Or, as I prefer to call them, Prisoners of Love. Think Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. According to Sherri, the possibilities are endless.

Lawbreakers, like Scott Petersen. Remember him? The guy with the bad hair dye and goatee, headed for the border when the police found him, and who was found guilty of killing his wife and unborn child? He’s now on death row. Then there’s Drew Peterson, whose fourth wife went missing back in 2007 and is in prison awaiting trial for allegedly killing his third wife.

Or actor, Robert Blake. Handsome once, but who now has a grim-reaper sort of look about him and shaved-off eyebrows. What a hunk! Ironically, he portrayed a murderer in the film, In Cold Blood. As it turns out, Blake was acquitted of murdering his second wife, though later found liable in a civil trial for her wrongful death.

Then there’s Grammy Award-winning producer, Phil Spector, serving 19 years in prison for second-degree murder of an actress in his home.  Apparently he’ll be eligible for parole when he’s 88.

And, of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all, O.J. Simpson. The man who started the trend of charmers who think they’re so cool they can’t be tethered down to a wife or girlfriend. Furthermore, these men–and their egos–think that breaking up with a woman will hurt her feelings, so better to snuff them out once and for all. Besides, divorce can take six months or more, and they can’t take the time to wait it out like normal people do.

So, I have to agree with Sherri. They’re worth considering.  Which is why I’ve decided, before I settle on just one of these rebels without a cause, I’m going to invite them all over for Sunday dinner.

I’ll prepare a fabulous meal, so they see how well I know my way around a kitchen. Maybe a pot roast will help me worm my way into their bleeding hearts, assuming none are vegans, that is. I’ll prepare the entire meal myself, which means this is not going to be a potluck. For, after seeing Shawshank Redemption and other prison flicks, I know what they serve in jail, and I prefer not having that sop at my table.

I’ll have to put away all the items around the house that can be used as weapons.  Phil may insist on wearing one of his striking wigs, which is okay with me as long as it isn’t that porcupine wig he wore during the trial and as long as he’s not hiding a knife or tweezers beneath it.  I’ll ask Robert to regale us with tales of his film and TV days and find out if he has any kiss-and-tell stories about Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds or Truman Capote.

Since I don’t think Drew has had his trial yet, I’ll ask the other fellas to help brainstorm arguments for his defense.  I’m sure Scott will have a few tricks up his sleeve.  I’ll ask him, too, how his appeals are going, because I know that when you get the death penalty, there’s always a gazillion appeals. After all, I’ve seen Dead Man Walking.  Phil Spector will no doubt want to dance so I’ll put on some records and play songs produced by the man himself.

After dinner, Drew will help me with the dishes, while the other boys watch a prison movie, like White Heat and we’ll all yell “Top of the world, Ma!” when James Cagney is shot and goes up in flames.  I’ll then bring out a board game, like Clue, and, because of his temper, I’ll let O.J. win, when he deduces that Colonel Mustard killed Mr. Boddy with a gun in the conservatory. We’ll all have a good laugh over that one.

Finally, after we’ve had dessert (I’m thinking chocolate cake with toy guns and knives buried inside, for more laughs), we’ll play a round of spin the bottle.  And, as I look into the eyes of each of these hapless scoundrels, I’ll know which one is guilty. Guilty of stealing my heart, that is.  With any luck, I’ll be waiting a life sentence for a second date.