Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sally’s a Starr (Chapter 3)

A man can hide all things, excepting twain —
That he is drunk, and that he is in love.
     — Antiphanes, 408-344 BCE


Eventually, of course, television did overtake all of us and I began a lifelong affair with cartoons that continues to this day. Saturday morning was nirvana for the cartoon buff. In those days cartoons had not yet become full blown advertisements for merchandising tie-ins, toys, games and cereal. The best were still laced with political and other sophisticated references that zoomed over our heads but which delighted the adults forced into watching along with us. Each fall I poured over the latest comic books, whose colorful full-page spreads announced the season’s crop of new cartoons for the three networks. I had not yet succumbed to slothful coach potato status, and still found time to play outside. But I was like a firefly, flitting to the television’s warm glow before heading outside, only to cool down again and require another flickering dose. In and out I’d go, keeping careful eye on the clock lest I miss one of my favorites.

I spent every Saturday at my father’s boyhood home. Years after my parents separated and my absent biological father officially abandoned me to my stepfather at the stroke of a pen, my other grandmother stepped forward to fight for me. She presented herself to the court and told the judge though her son may be giving up his rights to me, that she had no intention of doing likewise. As a result, she was waiting for me every Friday when I got home from school and didn’t return me until Sunday right after supper. If not for her kindness, I don’t know where I’d be today. She was probably the single most important person in my life in terms of just sticking up for me. My weekends at her home were like trips to Disneyland. It was like a sanctuary, especially as I grew older. It seemed like a magical place. I suspect it was just as beneficial for my mother and her new husband to have every weekend alone, too, which may be why they never complained about the arrangement.

Occasionally there were cousins, too, and after a time we had a whole new set of neighborhood friends. Saturdays were filled with hikes in the sprawling woods that were my grandmother’s backyard. Bushie — that was my name for her — was spry well into her seventies. She loved to garden and hike with us up steep hills surrounding the area. We’d pack a lunch and head to one of the quarries up in the hills behind her house. She’d play games with us for hours, something my other grandmother never did.

She was a fantastic cook, made elaborate breakfasts and lunches and seemed intuitively to know what we’d eat. Her potato soup was easily my favorite, and I’ve never found its equal. Sadly, she never used a recipe so that when she died, so did that wonderful soup. It was creamy, never lumpy, almost like smooth, thick oatmeal might be, and with some unknown subtle spices that gave it that extra something. I can still almost taste the delicate flavors, smell its aroma and feel if burn the roof of my mouth as I did so often im my impatience to eat it.

Her husband Stosh, my other grandfather, died when I was still very young. I have only one vague memory of being bounced on his knee. He lives only in the stories that Bushie told me. In many cultures there is a third state of being that’s not alive or dead. It generally translates as being in living memory and I find it a beautiful concept. So long as I have the stories she told me about my grandfather, then he’s in living memory.
But it was the cartoons that really held me in thrall. My cousin — the weekends he was there — and I would wake early Saturday morning, usually around six and steal siilently into the living room to watch cartoons. Every season we’d work out our own schedule of which shows we had to watch, and which we could miss. That way we could plan our excursions outside to play during breaks in our cartoon watching. Bushie would lend me my grandfather’s pocket watch to use so we’d know when to come back inside for the next show. This went on for years, probably until our early teens. My cousin eventually outgrew cartoons, but I never did.

We lived an hour or so west of Philadelphia, and most of our local televisions stations were located there. They also created low budget programming for kids that ran before and after the networks shows, and on weekday afternoons, as well. There is a shared nostalgia for people of a certain age who grew up in the area where these shows reached. There was Gene London, Chief Halftown, Lorenzo the Clown, Pixanne, Wee Willie Webber and, of course, Sally Starr.

Sally Starr was a rootin’, tootin’ cowgirl whose cartoon show aired every afternoon, seven days a week, on channel 6 from Philadelphia. She showed Popeye cartoons and the Three Stooges, among many other cartoons in the public domain. She introduced cartoons on a low budget set that featured an old west-style fence and a fake tree. She wore a buckskin cowgirl outfit with fringe dripping off of every seam. Although she was in her forties by the time I was a fan of her show, she seemed youthful and a little sexy, at least in that pre-sexual way that boys pick up the social cues as to what is and isn’t sexy all around them. She had big, blonde hair — dyed, no doubt — and full lips covered in gobs of red lipstick. She swished and swayed when she walked in that exaggerated way characters in Tex Avery’s cartoons did. If our libidos were working, we undoubtedly would have become wolves, too, just like the men in those same Loony Tunes. But a true understanding of sex and sexuality was years away. Our adolescent crushes were more innocent it seems, in a way I suspect is more difficult today where sex is used to sell everything, including to our children.

Kids now seem like they sprint into adulthood, with less time to develop and enjoy the innocence that should properly be a part of childhood. Of course, that could easily be the onset of the “these kids today …” phenomenon that so afllicts the adult world, it’s hard to say. It certainly seems like every generation ages they complain about the one that follows them. I noticed it when I was a kid. Adults invariably delighted in telling me how better off I was compared to when they were children. Or that things were tougher on them, that was another favorite. It must be human nature that whatever generation you’re born into is the best that ever was and those that follow and came before you suffer by comparison. Previous generations are always hopelessly backward thinking and antiquated while the younger one isn’t as serious as yours or has been corrupted by some force that you’re above. It all seem like hogwash, of course, and it probably is since each person’s experience is relative. Each generation does face different conditions, but they’re rarely better or worse. Some aspects may improve childhood experiences but I suspect for every one of those there’s an opposite negative.
She was pleasant enough as a hostess but would, from time to time, stagger around the set fueling rumors that she was on camera drunk. My parents helped spread the rumor that she had visited Chit Chat Farms, a famous local rehab center in Wernersville where many celebrities reportedly went to detox. Whether it’s true I don’t know and it’s not really important one way or the other.

Once we figured out what “drunk” meant, my friends and I would watch her show, hoping to discover for ourselves when she was on camera drunk. And there were may times we thought we’d “caught” Sally Starr. It was a game to us, though to play it today would be mean-spirited even though at the time it ever felt that way. We weren’t judging her, we were just trying to catch her in what seemed like an inside joke that we were in on. We certainly didn’t understand what it meant in the larger sense for her to be drunk. We had all seen our parents drunk at cocktail parties and neighborhood backyard barbecues from time to time. Occasionally, an adult would slur their words and we wouldn’t be able to understand what they were saying. It was still innocent and almost funny.

I always imagined her drink of choice was Ortlieb beer, a Philadelphia brewery that had been around a long time. There was no good reason to suppose this was Sally’s beer, or drink for that matter, or even that she drank at all, but such is the power of our imaginations. Whenever I saw Ortlieb beer in bottle or can, I thought of Sally Starr.

This was around the same time that my stepfather, Eddie, was starting to come home drunk himself, more and more often. It seemed to worry my mother seemed, though I had no idea why. She’d put on a brave face but I could tell something was going on, I just didn’t know what. He’d come home late at night, usually after she’d put me to bed. I’d hear them arguing in hushed tones, and sometimes it would grow louder and I’d creep out of bed to the stairs, where I could peer through the slats in the railing and not be seen. From that vantage point I could see most of the living room and dining room. If I slipped down a couple of stairs and looked over my shoulder, I could see part way into the kitchen, too.

Eddie would be staggering around like he couldn’t keep himself from knocking into the furniture or walls. Sometimes I’d hear him demanding his supper, flying into a rage when it didn’t appear within seconds. He seemed even more like a child throwing a tantrum than usual. For the first few years they were married, my relationship with Eddie was remarkably good. We got along quite well, I think in part because Eddie was just as immature in his late twenties as I was in elementary school. When sober, he had a playful sense of humor and loved movies, especially old comedies on late night television. We spent many pleasant late nights watching old movies and it provided one of the few ways in which we bonded.

After marrying again, my mother switched to the night shift at the hospital where she was the head nurse of the OB/GYN section. Not only did it pay slightly better, but it allowed her to be there when I got home from school each day. So she left for work every night at 11, and got home just in time to wake me for school a little after seven in the morning. On those nights when Eddie was home — and sober — within minutes of hearing my mother’s car pull out of the garage I’d hear him call my name from the sofa downstairs. I’d hear “Jay, there’s good movie on tonight” followed by a reading of the TV Guide description of the evening’s scheduled films. More often than not, I’d roll out of bed and join him in the living room. We’d usually watch at least one movie and it wasn’t uncommon for me to stay through a second feature.

So from age five or six on, several times a week, I wouldn’t go to sleep until one or one-thirty and sometimes not until three or so. Then my mother would wake me up the next morning around seven and wonder why I always seemed so tired. I quickly got used to this schedule

She didn’t know about this for many, many years and as such it was one of the few benign secrets I shared with my stepfather. And I got a great education in old movies. It’s probably the reason I’m such a film buff today. Despite the monster that Eddie later turned into, I can’t help but credit him for my love of movies. Perhaps it’s a quirk in my own personality that I try to find the good in everyone, no matter how hidden it may seem. Because if my stepfather could turn into such a demon and still have any goodness in him — and I’m quite certain he did — then the same must apply to everyone.

It may be that the remove of time has allowed more compassion for him than might otherwise have been possible. Because I’m now much more able to remember the good days, the moments when I wasn’t wracked by constant fear. The times I spent with Eddie where the admirable qualities of his former self resurfaced, however briefly, were in a strange sense precious to me precisely because they were so rare and also since my real father was not a part of my life. With so many women in control of my life as a child I fairly craved father figures wherever I could find them and would accept cheap substitutes is that was all that was available. And so despite it all, I gave Eddie the benefit of the doubt longer than I really should have and far longer than he deserved.

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