Once Upon a Scooter:
darkness behind the three boys in the foreground, and the
shadow across the eyes of the girl in the background, are
created by the Third Avenue El. Which was torn down in 1955.
This snapshot must have been taken in the summer of ’49.
As to who took it (who had a camera then?),
is unknown. But the film would then have had to be walked
over to Ritchie’s drug store to be processed,
and returned several days later. Things took time to develop
at the time.
The young girl with these three boys, is their
aunt (as in “ant”). An incongruity that might
often arise with Italian immigrants, who were given to early
marriages and large families. At age twelve or thirteen, she
is but five years older than the nephew on the left, who granted,
is a little big for his age.
But who could have made this scooter? Not
she? Yes, that’s a homemade scooter they’re clustered
about. And could this have been a day of first rides, and
therefore the need to capture it for posterity? Whatever that
The flag of 48 stars that adorns this gerry-rigged
vehicle, might have been the byproduct of a patriotism that
still ran high, what with The Greatest War ending only four
years prior. And as a further designing touch, those are bottle
caps on the beam extension—which serves as a bumper—
just under the right foot of the boy sitting atop the wooden
box, that forms the “chassis.” Who could afford
to buy a manufactured scooter? Say, at F.A.O. Schwartz, as
those living uptown and in unencomerbered light?
Just how did you make a scooter, a curious
curator of urban ephemera might ask?
First: you get a 2x4.
Where? Good question.
There certainly were no home improvement supply
stores in that urban enclave of tenament renters. A short
answer might revolve around “street smarts,” as
in a construction site or empty lot? After dark?
Then get one of your skates. Everybody had
skates. The kind with four steel wheels that clamped on to
your shoes (leaving permanent indentations in the leather),
tightened with a skate key. Take it apart. Be sure to remove
that rubber piece from the construction in the front wheels,
now leaving them free to turn. Nail the front and backend
wheels respectively, to each end of the beam.
Next, a wooden box. Which was easily obtainable.
That’s how fruit was shipped to Frank’s Fancy
Fruits, for example. And he was happy to pass them on
to kids whose mothers were customers. Who knew such utilitarian
throwaways (recycling was unknown), would become “vintage”
collectibles? A Borden’s milk box on eBay the other
day, was going for $125! “They got some set of stones,”
as an uncle would say. Anyway, nail this wooden box to the
beam, equidistanced on each side from the beam’s width,
Attach a couple of strong wooden sticks at
an angle atop the box, so as to serve as might “handlebars.”
And there you have it. A homemade scooter! And much safer
than the skateboards that would one day come to pass. Not
to mention those hover boards that burst into flames.
Almost forgot…you might nail another
piece of wood to enclose the bottom of the box, creating a
storage space for stuff (no one had a backpack), which wouldn’t
fall out in the course of a ride. Things could get be bumpy,
what with streets and sidewalks often in need of a patch-up
here or there, if not most everywhere.
Finally…as a way to express an identity,
you could paint your scooter in a mix of comic-book colors,
and/or accessorize it, as for example in this case, with bottle
caps and the star-spangled banner.
You were ready to ride.
Of course, there were no bike lanes (or scooter
lanes), and cars, though far less in number back then, had
to be negotiated along the way. That is, if one wanted the
thrill of a smoother glide upon tar. And only a sissy didn’t.
From a decidedly downward slope, starting
at the top at Chatham Square— the tip of Chinatown—
right on through St. James Place, you could feel what could
never be caught on a roll of black and white Kodak film: a
gathering of momentum, a sense of being at one with the beam,
then slowly rising from a crouch to a standing position, hands
free, a coming into your own, Cagney in White Heat,
“Look ma, I’m on toppadah world!” And then
do it all over again.
While a picture may be worth a thousand words,
sometimes even more are required. Who could tell that the
boy in white shoes was sitting atop a scooter— much
less how to make one—if it had not been spelled out?
But now, what also need be spelled out, and
why a return to a snapshot unearthed among a box of keepsakes
decades later, is that the third little boy, the shirtless
one in suspenders, died six weeks ago. Age 73. Nine years
after first being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Such are
the numbers in fate’s random draw.
Among many life achievements— a long
loving marriage and their raising three terrific kids—
he wrote a book along the way: Mythmaking on Madison Avenue,
of all things. As unlikely a book from a boy under the train
tracks, of which it was said: “…takes you
on a wild roller-coaster ride through Madison Avenue and the
human psyche. Sal Randazzo will forever change the way you
look at advertising, and certainly the way you look at yourself!”
Yes. He was a psychologist on the side as well.
I guess one man’s madeleine, is another
man’s scooter; a Proustian search for lost time. I didn’t
mean to take this route, to simply say, rest in peace dear
cousin. But of such rides are a lifetime made. And I remember
how much you enjoyed yours. And damn it, your scooter was
always better than mine.
Quote of the Month
20 Questions (and
Then Some) About House Arrest
As of this writing, Paul Manafort
was nearing one month under house arrest. Or as it is euphemistically
called, “home confinement.” But he was allowed
to leave on Thanksgiving Day to spend it with his family.
(Is that courtesy extended to others I wonder?). Apparently,
he hasn’t been able, as yet, to come up with ten million
(unlaundered) dollars to make bail.
I’m assuming we still remember the charges?
Money laundering? Illegally working for a foreign government?
Fraudulent tax returns? To name a few. Anyway, I read that
along with his confinement, he also needs to wear some sort
of “GPS tracking device.” GPS? (“Turn
right at the kitchen 15 feet ahead, then bear left to the
House arrest is an interesting concept, raising
a lot of questions on exactly what is allowed when one is
so sentenced. In no particular order, here’s a few from
an incomplete list that strike me. Many are specific to Manafort;
others more generic.
1. When you own multiple houses (Paul owns
three?), do you get to choose the house of your incarceration?
2. Can you change houses in mid-sentence?
(Is boredom an acceptable plea?).
3. If so, can you buy still another house
(say, one with more room?), and add that to your choices?
4. If so, how are you transported between
houses? (Uber? Limo? Paddy wagon?).
5. Can you do any home remodeling at this
time? (If so, does Mueller have to approve the contractor?).
6. Paul was not allowed to drink alcohol
at that Thanksgiving “pardon dinner,” at another
location. Can he drink in his own home? (If not, how is
7. This past Halloween, was there a court order restraining
kids from trick-or-treating at Paul’s house? (Houses?).
8. Must a warning sign be posted near his
premises? (e.g. Beware: White-collar Criminal. He may
be highly lawyered).
9. Visitors: Can Paul have…
b. A cleaning woman (check her papers)?
c. A convicted felon? (OJ?)
d. A person of Russian or Ukrainian descent?
e. Trump (any and all)?
It’s not like someone is going to
slip him a file inside of a cake, for God’s sake.
10. Can Paul upgrade his cable TV package?
(Get video On Demand? Or given his circumstances, merely
11. Are there any restrictions put on his
computer usage? (e.g. Can he watch porn? Hard? Soft? Neither?
Come to think of it, is sex of any kind allowed in this
12. If he doesn’t already have a dog,
can he buy one?
13. Does the court assign a dogwalker?
14. Is he allowed to pay his monthly bills
from money (unlaundered of course), transferred from overseas?
15. Can he step out to get his mail?
16. If not, how does he get a U.S. Post Office delivery
person (with an attitude), to bring
his mail right to the door? (Is a court order needed for
17. Is he “free” to ever call
911? (He couldn’t if in a “real prison.”
It’d be superfluous).
18. Can he still do live remote interviews
on Fox News? (If not, what will the President tweet about
19. Can he go up on his roof? (And if so,
must he be accompanied by a Federal Marshall?).
20. Finally, given all the apparent hassle
of house arrest (especially that annoying GPS), can he throw
himself on the mercy of the court, to transfer him to one
of the 50 Best Prisons in the World (www.arrestrecord.com)
such as that ranked #3 right here in the U.S. in North Carolina—
the Butner Federal Correctional Institution?
Wow. I wonder if you get time off for good
beads, strings of twinkling lights
the Scotch Pine
sprinkling of dry needles
the cotton snow.
from the tree
of the Magi;
North Star in view.
just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
how do you mean?
Thus begins the journey of Benjamin Braddock
at a home-coming graduation party, thrown by his parents,
for their friends.
After the training wheels of college come
off, in which direction goes the ride? Many continue to ask
the same question today. Which is one reason (among others),
why fifty years after The Graduate opened on December
22, 1967, it still holds up. As such, the U.S. National Film
Registry by the Library of Congress, recognizes it for being
“culturally, historically, aesthetically significant.”
And AFI ranks it as the 17th greatest American film ever made.
I have loved it unwaveringly, on each of my
five or six viewings. Though I might be a bit biased. As a
young man of Benjamin’s age and graduating college in
that very year of 1967, this second exchange at the beginning
of the movie struck close to home.
guess… about my future.
don't know. I want it to be –
Yes, we “Bens” were all worried
about our future. We all wanted it to be different. Though
not entirely in the way he meant, given that the Viet Nam
War was all the rage.
That Nam is missing from the movie, drew much
criticism from those potentially most affected. As Mike Nichols
once said in an interview: “In college after college,
there was one question: Why isn’t the movie about Vietnam?
You had to be outraged about Vietnam or it was shit. No matter
what you were doing…”
Given that the movie closely follows the novel
of Charles Webb, which was written in 1962, such undergraduate
criticism was really unfair. It would be at least three years
before the war became fully blown and THE issue of the day.
Add Nam to the script, and you have a different movie. And
one which might not be as timeless. In that era, a letter
from the draft board (compulsory military service has long
since been abolished), could make a discussion of your future
a moot point.
All of this said, the film is not just about
Benjamin and his plight. It has much to say, about Mrs. Robinson
and the archetype she represents: a desperate housewife and
mom…trapped in a sexless and loveless marriage…
whose dream to be something more—she was an art major
in college—goes unfulfilled… at a time when gender
roles were so rigidly defined… when choices available
to women were highly limited.
This became especially apparent to me, when
as a fledgling actor in drama class, I got to play a key bedroom
scene opposite this troubled character. Which began…
Robinson, do you think we could say a few words to each
first this time?
don't think we have much to say to each other.
for a month, all we ever do is to come up here and leap
into bed together.
you tired of it?
not. No. But do you think we could liven it up with
what do you want to talk about?
Anything at all. Do you want to tell me about some of
my God. Think of another topic.
…and went on from there.
My scene partner and I were no threat to the
legacy of Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom got
Oscar nominations for their roles. But didn’t win. Of
the film’s seven nominations, only Mike Nichols won
for Best Director.
This however, was a breakthrough role for
Dustin Hoffman in only his second movie. Yet what I had never
been aware of until reading that Mike Nichols interview, and
another with Hoffman himself, was that he might have been
considered too Jewish to be a convincing Benjamin.
The character as written, is blond, blued
eyed, tall, and oh so California. Which was not lost on Hoffman.
“I read the book, I talked to Mike
Nichols on the phone, and I said, ‘I’m not
right for this part, sir. This is a Gentile. This is a
Wasp. This is Robert Redford.’”
He goes on…
“I just have bad feelings about
the whole thing… I’m not supposed to be in
movies. I’m supposed to be where I belong—an
ethnic actor is supposed to be in ethnic New York, in
an ethnic, Off Broadway show! I know my place.”
But Nichols, ever a “true visionary”
as he has been called, had something different in mind for
“He had to be the dark, ungainly
artist. He couldn’t be a blond, blue-eyed person,
because then why is he having trouble in the country of
the blond, blue-eyed people? It took me a long time to
figure that out—it’s not in the material at
all. And once I figured that out, and found Dustin, it
began to form itself around that idea.”
And it was later said by Buck Henry who co-wrote
“After Hoffman, conventional good
looks didn’t matter as much as wit, or toughness,
or sexiness. A whole generation changed its idea of what
guys should look like… I think Dustin’s physical
being brought a sort of social and visual change, in the
same way you talk about Bogart.”
As I assume that this classic is so well known,
there is no need here to recount the storyline. But to cut
to the chase, there is that incredible and indelible last
It completes an interesting circle that I
had never noticed before, until a viewing earlier this year.
I don’t know if it was done intentionally, but in effect,
Benjamin goes from one mode of transport to another, with
nothing really resolved on the trip in between.
In the opening shot of the film, he is on
a plane… coming home… alone… frozen in a
distant contemplation… to the strains of “The
Sound of Silence” (another brilliant decision in having
Simon and Garfunkel do the soundtrack). At the end…
he is on a bus… leaving home… not alone
(with girlfriend in a wedding dress, no less)… once
more in contemplation… to “The Sound of Silence.”
Now what? What’s to become of these
people? “One of pop culture’s greatest mysteries,”
as one critic put it.
Much like good art, much is open to speculation
and interpretation. It leaves the viewer to consider Ben’s
new set of circumstances, and how they complicate a future
that was murky at the outset. That certainly isn’t lost
on the characters. But, movie over. No problem.
That said, if ever an ending all but cried
out “sequel,” this is it. And though that would
never happen, a book, regretfully would. Written by Webb again,
a mere 44 years later, and published in 2007, it’s entitled
It’s 11 years later (1974). Benjamin
and Elaine have settled into a suburban life in New York’s
Westchester County, and are home schooling their two kids.
This, in the early days of the home-schooling movement, when
it was actually illegal to do so.
Re-enter the estranged Mrs. Robinson (now
called Nan), into their lives. And with little need of persuasion
from her son-in-law and daughter, she indulges in an act of
sexual blackmail to entrap the local school principal, thereby
getting him to back off in his battle to end Ben and Elaine’s
None of this has a half an ounce of plot or
character-behavior credibility. It is simply awful. And it
gets worse from there. A critic in the Los Angeles Times
put it succinctly: “ ‘Home School’ doesn't
want to be a book about home schooling any more than it wants
to be a true sequel… it's a shoddy effort all around.”
Happily, a cinematic classic remains untainted
by any such shoddy attempt at a “Graduate II.”
So, on this 50th anniversary, here’s to you Mrs. Robinson.
And Benjamin. And Elaine. Heaven holds a place for those who
play. Extremely well. As did the late Anne Bancroft, Dustin
Hoffman and Katherine Ross.