Friday, July 23, 2010

People Who Needle People (are the luckiest people in the world)


There is enormous buzz this week with the news that our own local eccentric, Marc Abrams, the Silver Lake Walking Man, a very tanned physician, who shirtless and squinting at a newspaper, logged about 300 miles a week, was found dead in his hot tub. I seldom went a day without spotting him and according to the outpouring on Facebook, neither did any of the other locals. I was surprised to learn via the Times that the Walking Man was married. I’d known that he was a physician but apparently he sold his practice last year so he could devote more time to reading and fitness. His routine, it is reported, also included miles swam in a lap pool and thousands of sit ups. The initial report indicates his death may have been by suicide, which if true would not surprise me as behavior this compulsive, even in an ostensibly healthful pursuit, suggests some sort of emotional instability. Mentally ill or just a happy eccentric, the Walking Man is an icon of neighborhood culture, commemorated in film, photos and on a local mural. This weekend there will be a memorial walk in his honor which I imagine will draw epic crowds and whether the Walking Man was plagued by demons that led him to take his own life or he was just a happy weirdo whose death was due to something else, I love living in a place that so warmly embraces eccentricity.

I drag Himself kicking and screaming to the Hollywood Bowl with our musician friend Nancy to hear a Mozart program. The tickets are a gift but from my position in the backseat I can see the steam coming out of my beloved’s ears when the Park and Ride shuttle isn’t in operation and we have to pay $16.00 to park at the Bowl lot. The conductor is British flutist Nicholas McGegan and the pianist Labeque sisters are featured artists. The gals wear the same sexy, waist cinching costume except one is bright red and the other purple. They are tall and slender and exotically striking. I ask Nancy, “What kind of career would they have if they resembled Eleanor Roosevelt?” Himself in his ordinary state of not listening to me later asks Nancy, “Where would they be if they weighed three hundred pounds and wore muumuus?”

Conductor McGegan is not willowy or exotic but short and squat. But, I have never seen anyone, in what I presume is a non-chemically altered state of consciousness, display so much pure joy in the throes of music. McGegan grins wildly and practically dances and his exuberance brings to mind the film history teacher I studied with in London in the 1970s.

I don’t know what I was thinking but I applied and was accepted to a film school that specialized in Russian and Eastern European cinema and flew off to England for a year. I was just a bit older than my seventeen year old who just this week demonstrated by rinsing food laden plates in the wrong side of the sink that after living with one for nearly 18 years, he has no conception of what a garbage disposal is or how it functions. Perhaps I was just about as clueless. I stepped off the Tube with my book bag and left my purse and found myself late at night and without money, house key or passport. Not knowing what to do, I presented myself at the local police station and two bobbies drove me home and scaled a trellis to the third floor and pried a window open. They invited themselves in and demanded that I make them tea but when I made it the only way I knew how they threw it out and demonstrated how it should be done properly.


I soon discovered that the film school existed mainly to sponsor Eastern European student visas in exchange for a hefty tuition. There was a single faculty member to keep up appearances but I was the only student to report for the first day of class. The lone instructor was Max Benedict, a film editor. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and was delighted to have a living student, particularly an enthusiastic one. He’d edited a number of films of gravitas like The Magus, Whistle Down the Wind and Lucky Jim but after Shaft In Africa, work was spotty. He was happy for the bit of income the fake school brought in but he had a lot of time on his hands. He immediately saw through my pretentious aspirations and made it his mission to educate me about American film history. We attended together two or three films at the British Film Institute every day for months.

Watching the childish delight McGegan takes in conducting reminds me of my old teacher. When Max was tickled by something his face would beam and he would tap his fists together rapidly like a kid saying “goody goody.” He’d be thrilled by a film or a song or a good wine and I have never been so delighted by another person’s delight. Excited at being able to buy liquor at the age of 18 in London I brought him a bottle of Mateus rose which seemed pretty hoity toity to me and I was a little disappointed by his measured enthusiasm for my sophisticated offering.

After over fifty years of human interactions, some fleeting and some intense and substantial, it is interesting that my most vivid memories come from opposite ends of the spectrum. There are quirky and generous people who were in my life for a moment like the British cops or decades, like Max with whom I remained close until his death, who are indelible. There is also though a category of people who selfishly and ardently reject certain social conventions that are also particularly memorable.

Over twenty years ago we stayed in the tiny Galway hamlet of Oughterard. It stayed light until 11 p.m. and we attended mass at the local church which was delivered at the pace of those old speed talking Fed Ex commercials. The priest was irate that some local youth had broken into a summer house and consumed beer. We stayed at a small inn called Sweeny’s. The owners had a sweet little terrier mutt named Leo who patrolled the lobby and dining room. An older couple took their meals at a table next to ours. The husband was German and I believe the wife was American because I remember eavesdropping on conversations that mainly consisted of him complaining about the weather, the hotel, the food, and the price of gasoline. Leo made himself at home in the breakfast area but the German man accosted the server and told her it was unacceptable for a dog to be present in a room where food was being served. To this day we remember him yelling at the hapless Eastern European waitress who barely spoke English about evicting the dog. “He schmells! He schtinks!”

I remember Himself got sick in the Netherlands. We drove from Holland to Alsace without knowing a single word of French that does not appear on a restaurant menu. I would just open my wallet at the toll booths and let them take what they wanted. We were stopped by the French police on the highway although we were never sure if it was because we were going too fast or too slow or driving in the wrong lane. The gendarme were so exasperated by our inability to communicate they just glowered and waved us off. We schlepped heavy bags up several flights of twisty stairs to a garret room overlooking the Amsterdam canals. We gawked at the cathedral and ate sausage and kraut on the sidewalk in Strasberg. At the medieval Unterliden Museum Himself told me the story of St. Sebastian.

These are all the memories I can mine from what at the time was one of the most substantial experiences of my life. The angry German and the little dog are the most vivid. We have always told people we named the 17 year old after Himself’s Uncle Leo not wanting to admit even to ourselves that our first child’s name was most likely inspired by a dog.

Spuds invites friends from school to his Bar Mitzvah. One of the mothers of a kid, whose name I actually forget but I’ll call “Seymour,” phones with a litany of questions about what is to be expected at the event. She reminds me repeatedly, “We’re Jewish” but based on her questions she is quite out of the loop about Bar Mitzvah protocol. She asks if parents are welcome to the ceremony and for the party at our home afterwards and without explicitly saying, “Absofuckinglutely not,” I try to tactfully convey to her that the temple is very small and that the party later is mainly for the kids. Seymour’s parents attend the ceremony nevertheless and are first in line at the luncheon buffet, consuming several portions of the menu’s most expensive item, smoked salmon, before most of the invited guests have an opportunity to sample it.

I prepare the whole Kiddush at the temple by myself and except for the tacos, make all of the appetizers, side dishes and deserts for the party at the house too. I come home from temple tired and happy to loll about braless in a schmatta relaxing with Chris and Bob, who are down from Santa Cruz, for the couple hours between events. About two hours before party time, we hear a car pull up and the door slams. Spuds goes outside to inspect and comes in and announces deadpan, “It’s Seymour’s parents” which is a pretty good joke except later when the other parents begin to drop their kids off for the party, Seymour and both of his parents arrive. Apparently they’ve burned off the three plates of lox they’d scarfed at the temple because they make several visits to the taco truck before they ask if it is ok for Seymour to spend the night and then beat it, after helping themselves to a dessert doggie bag, when I capitulate.

Spuds invites a couple of other boys to sleep over and all of the other parents pick their kids up the next morning around eleven, after I make them a French toast breakfast and then collapse on the couch. Seymour is still there. I take Spuds aside and ask him what the deal is and he shrugs but considerately keeps Seymour out of my line of sight. The mom waltzes in to fetch her boy around two just as Spuds is finishing serving him lunch. She is eager to engage in chit chat but I am uncharacteristically unresponsive.

I usually lack the nerve to blow people off, not wanting to be unliked even by the unlikeable. Himself, despite other social issues that I have bemoaned here ad naseum, is more courageous with regard to imparting unfriendliness. Once an annoying mother comes to fetch her child from a playdate and makes herself comfortable in our living room. Across the room Himself and I are discussing our evening plans and she overhears and pipes up, “Oh, we love Chinese too. We don’t have any plans. We can go with you,” to which Himself responds emphatically and simply, “No.” The coda for the great Bar Mitzvah story, a permanent entry in Murphy family lore, is that Seymour and his parents are the only guests present who fail to acknowledge Spud’s occasion with a small gift or even a card.


We meet my stepmother for dinner at the same Westside Chinese restaurant we always go to. The place is mostly patronized by Jews so we do not expect library quiet but there is a Russian family at the next table, who, even though separated by a partition, make six dozen hungry Jews seem absolutely monastic. The kids chant and compete to be the loudest. The patriarch, in sweat suit, unzipped to midbreast to reveal a hairy chest and gold chains, makes sure that his voice of authority is heard over the children. The women, plump thighed in miniskirts with six inch spike heeled gladiator sandals cackle and drink. I have been embarrassed by the loudness of my own people in venues more genteel than a Chinese restaurant and regardless of cultural background it is always surprising that certain folks never adapt to going with the flow.

I am at a celebratory luncheon and am seated at a table with three great girls I have known for well over a decade. A couple in their 50s that I have never met is seated with us. The wife is wearing a very tight purple sweater and her udderlike breasts are not constrained by a brassiere. The husband, except for the name tag, is dressed to bag groceries at Trader Joes. Everyone else at the event is clad appropriately in business attire. The couple orders Caesar salads, which contain anchovies. Anchovies are the raison d’ĂȘtre of the Caesar salad. The salad arrives garnished with a fresh anchovy. The man curtly orders the server to take the salads back and not simply remove the offensive tiny fish but prepare new salads entirely, which will be of course dressed with an emulsion containing anchovies.

At the risk of self aggrandizement, I think my girlfriends and I are better than average conversationalists. We are witty. We avoid tales of tragedy and medical procedures. We banter about food, and travel and what we’re watching on television. We attempt to include the couple but she won’t engage at all and he informs us condescendingly that he has no patience for television. His wife remarks to him, not even in a stage whisper, “You must find this very boring. I know I do.” “Yes,” he agrees, “but we spent $20 on parking. I want to get my money’s worth. Maybe we should go to the museum.”


I remember acts of kindness random and ordered but it is also a comfort that the world also seems as to make room for the eccentric and the obnoxious. I think I will always remember the German’s umbrage at the dog Leo, the Bar Mitzvah schnorrers, the couple who thought three of my smartest friends and I are boring and the militantly unacculturated Russians. I collect memories of odd and outrageous behavior. Of course this makes me feel superior and courtly but there is a certain comfort in knowing that my species would most likely make accommodations if I do decide to break the rules.

2 comments:

FionnchĂș said...

Very fluid, and snappy. Even as the weekly object of criticism, the negative correlative, I concur! Now, when's dinner?

Barbara said...

I am falling off my chair laughing- almost every week yr POV echos so much of my own life experience! Our clueless almost 18 yr olds - are so different than we were that age - clueless in many ways - hopefully "better off emotionally" -
as you wrote in prior post.

I too wondered about the Dr - Walking Man.

Mazel Tov on the Bar Mitvah!