POST-OP WEEK 45
week of December 7
One day it started snowing. But it couldn’t have been snow because it was so warm out: spring or summer. Then you could see— they were little flecks of paper floating down from the sky, off-white ovals, burnt around the edges. There were big pieces, too, with words on them, whole pages from books. They speckled our backyard.
I went out to investigate, picking them up and reading what they said. They were schoolbooks, for the most part, textbooks. I thought it was amazing, words falling out of the sky.
That night on the news they said a book warehouse or a binding factory caught fire and there was an explosion that threw hundreds of thousands of words into the air! It was miles away from us, too, this factory, but the paper traveled that far to get to us...
I found some “adult” movies in my dad’s metal storage cabinet in the basement. He never kept it locked and I was the nosey type. They were Super 8. No sound. Just a couple of those little reels, the kind home movies came on back when you sent them out to get developed. And one bigger reel— with three short movies spliced together.
This was after high school, I think, or maybe my senior year. I had already been making a few movies in school, for projects and such. So I knew how to work the projector, how to show my dad’s little treasures. So I took ‘em out, threaded up the ol’ projector, and had a little showing.
They were crude and grainy in that washed out color you see in old movies. Since there was no sound, they didn’t bother with even a small plot, they just got right to it. So, there I am in the basement, with the huge silvery pull-down screen and the projector whirring away. No one came downstairs, in shock, asking what I was doing, oh my God, Walter, where did you find THOSE? Friends would come over and I’d show them, too— hey lookee what I found!
One night, late, real late, I got an idea for a little “project.” These were silent movies— like Charlie Chaplin, only with his clothes off —what they needed, I thought, was a little background music.
[We got our first video recorder around 1974 or so, a Betamax, the first family of anyone I knew. My dad liked to be on the cutting edge, technologically. It was odd, really. He was so provincial in many other ways. But we usually had the latest equipment. In the 60s it was a reel-to-reel tape recorder. We had a color TV when they first came out. We had a Betamax before anyone; he got a video camera to go with it, too. We had a Quadraphonic record player— 4-speaker, surround sound that never caught on. They produced 2, maybe 3 records in Quad. We had a Super 8 camera that recorded sound— that lasted about six months then the video camera came out. We had an 8-track recorder! Maybe it was because he was an electrical engineer. Or maybe the guys at the bar he hung out in sold them this stuff after it “fell off a truck” as he used to tell me.]
Anyway— I set up the screen and the projector. Put the crude video camera on a tripod and aimed it at the screen. This cutting edge, ‘74 technology, of course, this video camera was like the kind you’d see up by the ceiling, in the corner of a 7-11, to tape hold-ups. The pictures looked a lot like Neil Armstrong jumping around on the moon in black and white.
I ran a wire from my stereo to the Betamax audio inputs. I started the movie and the video recorder then, on the fly, put records on the turntable that I thought might match up with the “action.” Whatever we had around. I started with Beethoven. Classical seemed right, like a soundtrack. But then I switched to a comic slant with “spoonful of sugar” from Mary Poppins and “We Got To Get You A Woman” by Todd Rundgren and whatever else I thought might be funny.
I never went back and did a second take. What I did that night was what I’d show the theater guys I was hanging out with back then. Over and over. Fuzzy, washed out crude color images videotaped in washed out crude black and white. But we thought it was funny. Greg from the group thought it was hilarious and requested it often.
ODD TRIVIA: I didn’t label the cassette I used for my little project; I kept it plain (plain, brown wrapper, maybe). There was already something written on the tape, though: the number 631. (I had been recording something else earlier and needed to write down the number on the counter but I didn’t have a piece of paper handy, so I wrote “6-3-1” on that cassette— which was blank at the time. After I did my little music dub, I kept it that way.) So forever after that, we called the wacky, porno movie dub: 631. “Hey, let’s watch 631 again!” “I don’t think Bob’s ever seen 631; we’ve got to show him.” Stuff like that.
ODDER, MORE TRIVIAL TRIVIA: My alarm clock is pretty much permanently set at 6:30. It seems to be the very latest I can get up and still have a comfortable amount of time to get ready and out the door. Anyway, it’ll go off and I’ll reach over to stop it, then lay back in bed for a little bit to wake up. When I sit up and swing my legs over, I turn to look at the time and it’s— taa-daa! 6:31...! Of course it makes me think of the movie. I can’t help it.
POST-OP WEEK 46
week of December 14
I used to take pictures at night. It was during one college or another (I’m thinking Southern). I’d be up anyway, awake until 2, 3 at night. During college I fell into my natural tendencies of staying up later and later— then waking up later and later. (This whole crack of dawn get on the commuter train to my advertising job thing is really against my nature.) I don’t know if it was for class or I was just in the photo mood, but I’d go out at midnight with my camera.
When you first start in photo classes, I guess everyone takes the same kind of pictures: birds in trees, fire hydrants, black guys sitting on a curb. One of my photo teachers told us once that he knows everyone is going to do it, he expects it, so he lets us get in out of our system. So, yeah, I did that. But then I moved on to the night.
The light is different at night. Everything is different at night.
It was summer and I was home in my peaceful, little suburb. I’d grab my tripod and walk around the neighborhood, exploring. It was quiet; everyone was pretty much asleep. (My crazy cousin Vojin from Yugoslavia used to say the middle of the night was a better time to create because everyone’s brain waves are inactive so all the “white noise” their brains made during the day is gone and you can finally think clearly. Hm.) I think, maybe, in any other town I’d be arrested but I was immune here.
They weren’t voyeuristic pictures, peeping into people homes. I liked the way the streetlights dropped this glow on the pavement and mailboxes and parked cars. With old-school film cameras you could set your aperture and shutter speeds to anything you wanted without worrying about blur, especially with a tripod. So shutter speeds were a couple of seconds, a minute. That made the light very soft. Everything was bathed in a kind of unearthly glow. In black and white, the effect is even nicer. I have one shot— the floor of a barbershop taken through its window —that I loved. The barbershop’s name is projected almost onto the carpet because the streetlight outside is shining through the name on the plate glass.
It was quiet and very peaceful. And, I don’t know, I think the photos remind me of that feeling.
When I was rooting around in the crawlspace looking for old Uncle Mikey cassettes and letters from my old high school girlfriends, I ran across all my old notebooks. When I started college I got a spiral bound notebook to do homework. There weren’t computers way back then, so most everything was handed in handwritten. The teachers in college let us use any kind/size/type of paper for the most part. A lot of what I wrote in these notebooks was homework so that means they had been pulled out and handed in and a lot of what was left of the notebooks was very thin.
I started the first one in 1975 and used one every year, maybe, after that. When I left college, I was in the habit of carrying a notebook, so I kept it up, filling another one every 18 to 24 months. I still carry one now. It was a huge stack, there’re probably 18 or 20 of them! I can go back in time and follow little snippets of my life for the past 34 years! I didn’t always write dates with years on individual pages, but I did on the first page and then, usually the last. So I can tell when each notebook took place.
I can see where I must’ve been planning/fantasizing about doing a two-man standup routine with my friend at Triton, Scott Scott. There are one-liners and intros to what our act might be. We never set foot on stage.
I can see the SIU years; there was much more philosophy/journal/dear diary kinds of things in there. I’d write to myself about how I didn’t like school or what I thought of my fellow classmates.
I can see where I was creating stuff for Uncle Mikey and later my Improv Group. I can see when I was a photo assistant because I have booking calendars and tallies of when and how much they paid me.
In the middle years— 1982 to ‘87 or 8 —the pages look they were done by one of those homeless guys wandering the streets making notes to themselves while they mutter to the voices in their heads. There’d be a list on one page: a woman’s name, followed by Ziebart (the rust-proofing place), Juan (the Hispanic gentleman who crashed into my car back then and was paying me $50 a month ‘til he paid off the damages), and maybe a photographer’s name or two. Some of them would be crossed off. But then two pages later I wrote the same list again, in a slightly different order: Ziebart, Juan, woman’s name, etc. Over and over.
I guess over time the lists changed and eventually I stopped making them. The patch where I’m booking the comedy group into local clubs is filled with phone numbers and people’s names. I guess you could call it organized. But it seems scary-repetitive.
POST-OP WEEK 47
week of December 21
My mom used to buy me these pads of paper at the local five and dime store, Murray’s Murphy’s, something like that, in the strip mall in Berwyn. They were 500 sheets thick of notebook paper, blue lines, three-hole punched, bound together along the left edge with that blue waxy stuff. They had a cover, too, a thick, cover made of card stock with a line drawing of astronauts in blue.
I don’t know if I asked for the first one or if she thought I might like 500 sheets of notebook paper but I did— I LOVED them! Whenever I got a new pad (I had more than a few) it was like holding a sacred book.
I’d lie down in front of the TV evenings, doodling battle scenes: jet planes chasing flying saucers strafing little stick people and blowing up. Eventually, though, I moved up to creating my own comic book.
I called it: The Brain. The Brain was a super smart superhero. Radiation made his brain, and, therefore, his head grow twice its size. I wasn’t terribly good at drawing muscles at first, so I think that might’ve had something to do with that plot point. I also had trouble with chins, so I gave him a stick-straight beard. So The Brain was an egg-headed, breaded guy with weak arms.
But he had lots of equipment. Ships and weapons. An underwater base. I wrote and drew 5 “issues” in black pencil, then half of a sixth one in color pencil, the origins issue where I showed how The Brain got dosed with radiation and then his head grew. I still have it, saved in an old choir folder they gave us to keep one year when I was in that all-boys choir 6th through 8th grade. (I glued red paper on the front and back of the folder and wrote “The Brain” on it, but inside it’s a choir book with pouches for sheet music.)
You can see by the upper left hand corner of the cover that it was issue “#1” and it says “Jan” under it. Not like I drew a new one every month. Real comic books have dates in the upper left hand corner, so I figured this should have one, too.
Robotmaster was The Brain’s archenemy, meaning he fought him all the time. The Torpedoer, if I remember correctly, didn’t so much— he was the underwater villain, with a beard, as well.
I drew schematics, too, of all the ships The Brain had. Cross-section drawings of where the cockpit was and how his various smaller jets and submarines were stored and how they launched out of hatches and such.
I was about 11 or 12.
I had this mechanical pencil I just loved, a Pentel pencil, with little sticks of “lead” that came in small plastic tubes. They were numbered: 2, 4, HB. The pencil had a little eraser on the top you’d uncover from its silver cap. I actually think my brother-in-law got it from the bookstore at his college or something like that, and gave it to me. (Or maybe it was more like: he bought it there to use. I saw it and liked it. So I kept his pencil and he bought another one.)
Anyway— it made really fine lines, so I’d draw all this stuff with it. Just me and a straight edge.
I’m not sure why I stopped drawing The Brain, puberty maybe.
I seem to remember starting another series about a team of fighting men who lived in a secret mountain hideout as I got better at drawing muscles (and chins). I don’t remember what that one was called.
I also wrote my first “radio play” on those big pads of paper— Junk Man and Garbage —which was supposed to be a parody of Batman and Robin. That was around fifth grade. I’d write out all the parts, what everyone would say, music cues, sound effects. Then I’d coerce my best friend Jim, my little sister, whoever would volunteer to be my cast. I recorded it on this reel-to-reel tape deck my dad brought home one day, the cutting edge of 1960s technology. It was a Rosscorder.
My cousin from Seattle came to visit that summer and he showed me how to record something at a slower speed, speeakkinnng slllowwly and then playing it back at a faster speed for that Alvin and the Chipmunk effect. I did Junkman that way. I did three or four shows. I can’t remember anyone interested enough to listen to them.
The best part of those big pads of paper, maybe, was getting to that last page. You’re working your way down, working your way down, pulling off sheet after sheet. Meanwhile the blue waxy binding is hanging there out to the side more and more, until, yeeesss, the last sheet.
Then it was back to Murphy’s and start all over again!
My uncle Walter lived in an apartment. At the time, nobody I knew lived in an apartment. Everybody I knew as a kid was a white suburbanite. They lived in houses. Even my aunt Elsie and uncle George, who lived in the city, had a house with a teeny, tiny yard. But Uncle Walter and aunt Mary had an apartment.
The first time I visited them I thought it was strange, walking up a flight of stairs to get where they lived. I followed my parents up but I was confused. It was more like an office, not a house where someone lived. We were in a hallway with other doors and my dad knocked on one. The door opened and they let us into this tiny version of a house. It was compact. It had many of the things white suburbanites had, only compressed into this smaller space.
There was a kitchen and a living room with a couch, a bathroom. And uncle Walter had a bar! He’d serve drinks to my mom and dad and himself, I suppose. I was fascinated by the beer sign/light/thingy he had behind the bar. Not more than two-feet square. I couldn’t tell you the name brand (Schlitz, Hamm’s or Old Style, I’m guessing) but the design kept me staring at it for, probably, hours. It was mostly black with what looked like different colored lights that would “bounce” across. A blue box would come in from the side, arc up, then down, elongating as it did, turning to a point before bouncing back up again in another arc of a different shape— up and down across the blackness of the sign. The blue projectile was followed closely by a yellow one, then a red one, then green and blue again and red and on and on, one behind the other, bouncing. I was hypnotized.
(Years later I saw one of these somewhere, an antique store, maybe, and saw that it was just a black front with the arcs cut out of it. A backlit piece of plastic with multi-colored stripes on it scrolled across behind. At any given time, only little bits of the colors could be seen through the arc cutouts, so it only LOOKED like bouncing shapes. Boy, it sure fooled me all those years!)
Uncle Walter had a bird, a parakeet, that he let out so it could fly around the apartment wherever it wanted to. There were these little perches at various places around for it to sit on— suction cups on one end, like a sticky dart. Maybe they were sticky darts. Some of them were stuck to mirrors so the bird could perch and see itself and peck at its reflection. The bird’s name was Boozer. I thought it was a weird pet— I didn’t know anyone with a bird before. I remember thinking how small Boozer looked on Uncle Walter’s finger, uncle Walter was so big.
Uncle Walter was 6 foot something, 6’ 3”, 6’4”. He was thin with a beak of a nose and he slicked his hair back, flat to his head. I don’t think I ever saw him not wearing a suit. He was Russian, from Belarus actually, but it was Russia when his parents came from there to Chicago. My dad named me after him. That’s why my family called me Wally.
Walter was a reporter for various newspapers around the city all his life. He started at 17 or so as a cub reporter; was the first reporter on the scene at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Google it, it’s true. The story goes that they sent him there because they thought it wasn’t much of a story. He was a kid, so they thought they’d give him the crappy assignment. He gets there, finds out about the massacre and calls back to the office with the story. His editor hangs up on him because he thought he was making it up. My uncle calls back and convinces him that it’s true and gives him the details.
He was a reporter stationed in Italy during WWII. I couldn’t tell you his rank. He’d send my mom postcards that my mom kept and, somehow, I ended up with.
He was a crime reporter, usually working the night shift. He didn’t get a by-line very often because of that. When he did, my mom would cut out the article and save it. He ran with the Chicago news crowd— Mike Royko, John Drummond, those guys. For a while he showed up in stories about the rough-and-tumble old days of newspaper reporting when reporters carried guns. He was always pretty loud and talked with his mouth in an “Oh” shape so everything came out pinched.
He was a heavy drinker and after a while, it took its toll. At some point he quit drinking all together but he still ended up with colon cancer, I guess, cancer of the large intestine? They took out all but a short span of his large intestine, about six inches, I thought, I may be wrong. I remember hearing my mom say that because of whatever they did, he couldn’t eat various things— like lettuce.
He was president of the Chicago Reporter’s Association for years and years. I’m not sure what they did, but once a year Uncle Walter would organize a dinner; my mom called it Walter’s “Affair.” It was pretty much the only time of the year my mom and dad would dress up and go out. My mom put on lipstick for Uncle Walter’s Affair; I’d know because there was her lip print on a Kleenex in the waste paper basket of the bathroom where she blotted them and her bedroom smelled of Chanel No. 5.
My Aunt Mary was Walter’s second wife. And he was not her first marriage, either. She was one of those very short Italian women, always happy, always smiling. Even at a young age, when I was 12 or 13, I was taller than she was. She had a son from her first marriage named Mike, a jet mechanic in the Air Force stationed in Alaska who got out and went to work for United Airlines. He always played the accordion at our family parties in my Aunt Elsie’s South Side basement. I always liked Aunt Mary. (I shouldn’t speak of her in the past tense she’s still alive as far as I know…)
Uncle Walter died a month or so before my dad in late ‘96/early ’97… He was in his mid-80s by then. There were pictures all over the funeral home during the wake of Walter shaking hands with Chicago notables. I think that might’ve been the last time I saw my dad alive.
I was there with my family, my wife and three kids (# four wasn’t born yet) sitting in the same row as my dad. My sister brought dad there, she was rolling him around in his wheelchair. He was small and frail, lost in his polyester leisure suit and coke-bottle glasses. He had had several strokes by then, so his movement was limited to only his left side and his speech was pretty much a grunting sound. When the service began, my sister wheeled him over to our row, next to me. Something came over me that moment, who knows what, but I reached over and put my hand on top of his left hand, his good hand. I don’t know if I had touched him in a while, maybe not since the months I took care of him, a couple of strokes ago. Anyway, it had been years, but something came over me to touch his hand. He took a moment, turned his head to look at my hand, then jerked his hand away, grunting.
POST-OP WEEK 48
week of December 28
I have a few distinct memories from the first of two family vacations, the one to Disneyland in California when I was 10 or 11. (Actually, my two older sisters didn’t come with us, so it wasn’t, technically, a “family” vacation.) I remember the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, watching a Winnie the Pooh movie, getting stuck in the “Hall of Progress” exhibit. I remember my dad lost his hat at a pancake restaurant. And I remember getting Walnettos.
A popular TV show at the time, in the late 60s, was a comedy show called Laugh-In. They told jokes, silly ones, political ones. They did skits. One of them had an actor named Artie Johnson dressed as an old man— he was suppose to be a “dirty” old man, but I don’t know how much of that I understood back then. Anyway, in a black coat and cane, with a white wig under a black hat, Arte would sidle up to another actor on the show: Ruth Buzzy. He’d snicker, under his breath, lecherously, and say suggestive things to her. She’d respond by hitting him with her purse. Funny, 60s humor...
One of the suggestive things he said was: “Want a Walnetto?” and she’d hit him repeatedly with her purse. I thought it was funny even though I had no idea what a Walnetto was. I used to say it to my classmates at school, doing the leach voice: “wanna Walnetto?” Then on that trip to Disney, I saw a pack of Walnettos on a store shelf!!
Walnettos were candy!
They were pretty much just carmels as we used to call caramels back then. Only with a walnut or hazelnut flavor. It was a huge “ah-ha” moment for me then. This was a rare find, like I was searching the wilds of Florida with Ponce de Leon and stumbled upon the fountain of youth I’d heard so much about... It wasn’t like today with the Internet, where you can Google anything and then buy a case on-line from obsurecandy.com. This was the punchline from one of my favorite TV shows and I could own it and take it home and eat it, too.
Now when Arte came out in his white wig and asked Ruth the magic question, I was that much more connected to the joke; I was in on it now... “Wanna Walnetto?” Ha! I get it!
I got two packages, five or six little wrapped candies in each and ate them very slowly. Like one a week for months. I’d take them to school and show all my nerdy friends.
My mom had an unusual way of “scratching” an itchy ear.
Every once in a while she’d put a finger in her ear: usually it was her index finger, but sometimes she’d use her pinky with her hand facing down. As far as it would go— just like you’d do if you were plugging your ears from a loud noise. Then, with the tip of her finger still stuck in there, she’d shake her hand wildly up and down, real fast, in short movements (kind of like how a dog uses a hind leg to scratch behind their ear). It was exclusively my mom’s habit; I don’t think I saw my dad ever do it.
It must’ve looked like it felt good because I started doing it, too. I still catch myself doing it sometimes.
diary continues in January 2010...