December 2017




Once Upon a Scooter: In Memoriam



The 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 was.


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, for balance.


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 bathroom…”).


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 that monitored?).


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…

a. Sleepovers?
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)?
f. Other?


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 On Suggestion?).


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 arrangement?).


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? (Russia?).


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 that?).


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 that?).


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 ( 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 landscaping.







A Triptych-in-Christmas Haiku



                                 The sun northernmost;
                                           balls, beads, strings of twinkling lights
                                                   weighing on branches.


                                 Beneath the Scotch Pine
                                           a sprinkling of dry needles
                                                   on the cotton snow.


                                 Apart from the tree
                                          figurines of the Magi;
                                                  the North Star in view


                                                                                                   —Ron Vazzano









Mr. McGuire: Ben.
Benjamin: Mr. McGuire.
Mr. McGuire: Ben
Benjamin: Mr. McGuire
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly, 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.


Mr. Braddock:

What is it, Ben?

Benjamin: I'm just…worried?
Mr. Braddock: Well, about what?
Benjamin: I guess… about my future.
Mr. Braddock: What about it?
Benjamin: I don't know. I want it to be –
Mr. Braddock: To be what?
Benjamin: Different


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…


Mrs. Robinson, do you think we could say a few words to each
  other first this time?
Mrs. Robinson:
I don't think we have much to say to each other.
Benjamin: Look, for a month, all we ever do is to come up here and leap
into bed together.
Mrs. Robinson:
Are you tired of it?
I'm not. No. But do you think we could liven it up with a
  conversation for change?
Mrs. Robinson:
Well what do you want to talk about?
Anything. Anything at all. Do you want to tell me about some of
  your college experiences?
Mrs. Robinson:
Oh 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 Benjamin.

“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 the script…

“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 scene.


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 “Home School.”


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 home-schooling experiment.


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.










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