Tag Archives: writers

I Miss(ed) Roger Ebert

31 Jul

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When I was coming of age as a poet in Chicago, Roger Ebert was just the chubby-faced guy whose photo sat at the top of his film review column. I couldn’t have cared less about any iteration of his dumb movie review show with . . . that other guy, the skinny one. My opinion: Ebert wrote about the work of other artists; he wasn’t one himself. To me, in my teens and 20s, that was cause for dismissal. But after watching Steve James’s documentary, “Life Itself,” based on Ebert’s 2012 autobiography of the same name, I now realize that his life was art, and that I miss(ed) Roger Ebert.

I watched the James documentary last weekend on Netflix. I truly wasn’t looking to get interested — I was looking for something to background a nap on the couch — but I got interested when I heard these words, uttered by Ebert at the beginning of the film:

“The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And, for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

That was unexpected. And then a colleague read the beginning of his column for the Daily Illini newspaper, written in 1963 when he was 21 and co-editor of the paper, in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. He started out his article by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words to George Wallace: “The blood of these innocent children is on your hands.” Following that, Ebert’s own words were:

“That is not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood. It is old, very old. And as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away.”

How prescient he was. And how young he was: 21 and already a co-editor of a newspaper (albeit the student newspaper of U of I at Champaign-Urbana, where he was attending college). And that was another thing: he had wanted to go to Harvard, and there’s no doubt he would’ve gotten in, but his father told him in no uncertain terms that he was not going to Harvard — where would they get the money? Mom was a bookkeeper, dad an electrician. U of I, his hometown school, was where he was headed. (His bitchy TV buddy, the skinny one, went to Yale.) After college, after going to work at the Sun-Times reviewing movies — not a gold-standard position back in the ‘60s — he became one of those tough, hard-drinking newspaper types that just don’t exist anymore. James uses quotes from the autobio in the film, and this is what Ebert wrote about the bar wherein he drank hard, O’Rourke’s:

“It was a shabby street-corner tavern on a dicey stretch of North Avenue, a block after Chicago’s Old Town stopped being a tourist haven. In its early days it was heated by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove, and ice formed on the insides of the windows . . . When a roomer who lived upstairs died, his body was discovered when maggots started to drop through the ceiling.”

Not that it matters, but my feeling is: if you weren’t born in the actual city o’ Chicago — Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois — and you end up drinking in a place like that, you’re okay. A colleague of Ebert’s pointed out in the film that of all the well-known, hard-drinkin’ guy-writers associated with Chicago — radio personality Studs Terkel, Simone de Beauvoir’s other boyfriend Nelson Algren, and Nobel-winning Saul Bellow — only Ebert was born anywhere near Chicago. (I’m leaving out Mike Royko because you probably need to have lived in Chicago to know who he was, and that his Polish family owned a tavern on the northwest side.) So, there Ebert was, getting shit-faced in a dive every night and writing film reviews during the day. Interesting. I never woulda thought.

Then there was a montage of his columns from the ‘60s, clipped from the paper, and among them I saw “Early Godard.” I actually got up off the couch and hit pause, to see exactly when that paper came out: October 29, 1969. He wrote about “Le Petit Soldat” — made just after “Breathless” — and “Six in Paris.” So, he knew his stuff, and his stuff could be read in the pages of the Sun-Times, the working-class person’s paper. Oh — his 1979 “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” script credit. One of the funniest moments in the James documentary was Martin Scorcese saying, of the title: “Beyond the valley. It was beyond it!” (Get it? It was beyond!) I knew Ebert had written the script, but I guess I’d forgotten, because when it came up in the documentary I laughed out loud. Donna LaPietra, an executive producer of “Siskel & Ebert” in the 80’s, said, in the movie, “How on Earth did Roger Ebert write ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’?” Well, he was offered the job by Russ Meyer himself. Apparently, Twentieth Century Fox had owned the rights to the title, and was willing give it to any director who could come up with a script. As Ebert tells it, “The movie [Meyer explained] . . . would simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violet exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of the oft-times nightmarish world of show business.” Go, Roger.

Then there was his — fake, I had supposed — rivalry with the skinny guy, Gene Siskel, movie critic for the more effete Tribune. (Wait . . . how effete? Embedded in the Tribune Tower’s neo-Gothic façade are pieces of the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, the Great Pyramid, Notre Dame, the Great Wall of China, and Angkor Wat —to name a few.) Turns out the rivalry — the pure enmity — wasn’t fake. Here’s their banter, transcribed by me from the documentary, as they try to record a commercial for their TV show. After Siskel flubs a line, Ebert says, to someone off-camera:

“Did you know that for Gene speech is a second language?”

Gene: “Roger’s first language is, ‘Yes, I’ll have an apple pie with my order.’ He asks the McDonald’s girls if he can have apple pie with his order before they ask him!”

Roger: “And you know what Gene says when he goes into McDonalds? ‘Can I haf a athel eye wif my orther?’”

Another take ends with Siskel calling Ebert an asshole. It seems, however, that as the years went by, they came to agree on some things:

GS: “You know, they don’t get enough shit, basically, the WASPS.”

RE: “They don’t, they don’t.”

GS: “They run the goddamn country, and all of us . . . all of us . . . and I‘m speaking to anyone who’s eavesdropping right now: Come on, band together people, let’s overthrow the country!”

RE: “Protestants: people who sort of want a religion. The goddamn Catholics and the fucking Jews: we go back a few years together!”

GS: “Come on! We’re real! We’re real! We get down and dirty!”

RE: “We were banding together when Martin Luther was only a gleam in his mother’s eye!”

Then, there’s his relationship with his wife Chaz, who says in the film, “Roger weighed three hundred pounds when we first started dating. He didn’t care that he was fat. He thought he was just great. And that was so sexy!”

Chaz is black and Roger, of course, was white. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, interviewed in the film, makes note of this in relation to her own connection with Roger:

“It’s dangerous, as a black woman, to give something that you’ve made, from your point of view . . . to a white man, whose gaze is usually the exact opposite, and say ‘You are the carrier of this film to the publc. You’re the one who’s going to dictate whether it has value.’ And I had a lot less fears around that with Roger. ‘Cause you knew here was someone who was going to take it seriously, and come with some historical context, some cultural nuance. I mean, everybody knows Roger had a black wife. You know what I mean? It’s like an honorary brother. I mean: he lived with a sister? That’s a whole different understanding of black women!”

If you want to have yourself a good, cathartic cry (like I did), look at this, from Roger’s blog in 2011. Yes, that is DuVernay, as a little girl, in the photo, also posted at the top of this entry:

http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/a-photo-of-a-little-girl-and-memories-of-two-beloved-aunts

His relationships with two other filmmakers, Errol Morris and Ramin Bahrani are also explored in the film (Bahrani visits him shortly before his death) but the DuVernay friendship is especially touching.

Then there was his diagnosis, and the progress of his cancer. And that was where, for me, he became an artist, and where everything he did before became part of, and redefined, that art: he lived out his death in public, in front of Steve James’s camera — filming began five months before Roger’s death — and chronicled it himself, on his blog. We learn that in 2002 he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In 2003, he had surgery for cancer in his salivary gland. In 2006 he was diagnosed with cancer in his jaw, and had another surgery. A week after that surgery his carotid artery burst near the surgery site. In 2007 he lost his voice and began “talking” via a computerized voice system. He had surgery in early 2008 to restore his voice and reverse complications from previous surgeries, but the procedure was not successful. In the spring of 2008 he fell and fractured his hip, and in 2012 he had another surgery, to repair the hip. He went through rehab seven times. All of this, including various hospital procedures, is included in the film and is painful to watch. Through all of this, he writes on his blog, not only of his death but about his many interests. His blog is fascinating. I certainly don’t agree with everything he wrote there (and of course, I didn’t read it before this weekend), but reading it now I see a living spirit, a working class guy, a smart-ass, a too-big-for-his-britches (literally) jerk, a lover of art, a husband, a white stepfather and step-uncle to black children and adults, and supporter of up-and-coming filmmakers. Perhaps most importantly, an educator in the lessons of death. His last blog post, written — unbelievably — two days before his death is cogent and full of life:

“It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.” (Roger Ebert’s Journal)

Pondering all this, I can’t help but wonder if, back then, I wasted my time on avant-garde poetry when I could’ve been learning some truly interesting stuff about life itself — through the prism of film — from this chubby-ass guy who was really living it.

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Leaving Degraw Street — Cats (& Neighbors)

21 Nov

After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012.  Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate.  The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me lots of time to reflect and reminisce.  

4 — Cats (and Neighbors)

After I’d been in the apartment for about four months I decided I wanted a cat.  (I still couldn’t afford a clock, but a cat isn’t a luxury.)  So, I put the word out to Angie, my landlord’s sister, who lived a couple of doors down.  I figured if anyone knew who had an extra cat on the block, it would be Angie.  Sure enough, she told me that her next door neighbor, Cecilia, had taken in a pregnant stray a few weeks ago, and by now there were probably kittens.  She said she’d ask Cecilia the next time she saw her in the backyard.

A week later I was sitting with Cecilia (who was also pregnant, and wearing a brown corduroy jumper) in her basement, looking into a basket of kittens.

“This one is really rambunctious,” she said, petting a one-month old gray kitten with a wide face.

“That kitty’s got some long whiskers,” I said.  Cecilia laughed.

“So funny you said that, because I’ve been calling it ‘Whiskers’!  I think it’s going to be a real personality!”

That’s the one I took. Cecilia gave me a couple of cans of Old Mother Hubbard cat food and a card for Beastly Bite on Court Street because they were the closest pet supply store (in Brooklyn Heights!), and they delivered — a new concept for me.  I carried the little critter down the street wrapped in a towel — it was Memorial Day weekend, 1989.  Carl named the kitten Willie because we thought it was a boy, but a visit to the vet (also in Brooklyn Heights) for shots cleared that mistake up.  I changed her name to Willie Bird.

Willie Bird was definitely rambunctious, and she had a lot of personality.  She’d sit on my pillow in the mornings and wake me up by batting my head with her paw (I still didn’t need a clock).  I decided to find a friend for her, because I was out of the house so much, with school and work, and so about a month later I was walking past a vacant lot on Bergen Street near Pintchik’s and saw four kittens in a vacant lot.  Two ladies were standing there talking, so I asked them to watch my purse and book bag while I went in there to try and get a kitten.  The cats had gone to ground behind a bush, and so I just stuck my hand into the bush and when I touched fur I yanked it out — a tiny black kitten.  I put it in my book bag, stopped at Key Food for some extra food and a flea collar, and presented the kitten to Willie Bird, who was sitting on the kitchen table.  When Willie Bird gave the kitten — named, at first, Mr. Squeak, and then when we found out it was a female, Squeaky Bird — a head bump, I knew all would be well, as that’s how she communicated affection: by giving head bumps.  That’s how we communicated with each other all day long: by giving each other head bumps.

About a year later I ran into Cecilia.  She’d had her baby, and I asked her what she named him.

“Will,” she said.  “So how’s the kitten?  What did you name it?”

“Willie,” I said, and we both laughed.

Epilogue to Willie’s story: Willie passed away in 2004, at the age of 14.  As the vet (in Park Slope now, of course) put her to sleep she gave me one last head bump before she stopped breathing, as if to say, “This will be the bridge between us, until we meet again.”

Leaving Degraw Street — Kitchen Window

20 Nov

After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012.  Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate.  The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me lots of time to reflect and reminisce.  

4 — Kitchen Window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being on the third floor, my kitchen window has (has, because as I write this I’m still living here) a view of the backyards that abut ours, of the backs of the houses on Douglass Street, the rooftops of the surrounding blocks, and lots of sky.   When I first moved in, the trees in our backyard and in the backyards around us were not tall, so I could see into the back windows of all those houses.  I observed: a woman who regularly came out on her back deck to smoke pot at around 3 every afternoon; a big, black, pot-bellied pig sleeping in the shade, and two fat Basset hounds sniffing around; a starling on a rooftop harassing a sparrow for a piece of bread, and then a hawk swooping down and capturing the starling.  One summer night, as I sat in a chair in front of the open window talking on the phone, I could see a woman biting her toenails in a brightly-lit room.  Very surprised, I said (loudly) to the friend to whom I was talking, “Oh my God — she’s biting her toenails!”  The woman stopped, looked up, left the room quickly, and I felt bad.

On September 11, 2001 I was sitting in the kitchen, drinking green tea and reading page 73 of J.-K. Huysmans’ A Rebours / Against Nature  — “There were other drawings which plunged even deeper into the horrific realms of bad dreams and fevered visions . . . studies of bleak and arid landscapes, of burnt-up plains, of earth heaving and erupting into fiery clouds, into livid and stagnant skies . . . ” — when I heard a “pop!” like someone throwing a firecracker out of a high-rise window.  I thought to myself, “Hmm . . . guess the World Trade Center finally got blown up.”  I continued reading.  Then the phone rang, I let the machine get it, and my friend Ian was saying, “The most surreal thing just happened: I was sitting here on the couch drinking coffee, and then a plane flew over, and then it crashed into the World Trade Center.”   I jumped up, picked it up, said “What?” and he said, “Look out your kitchen window.”

From my kitchen window I once saw the word “She” written across the sky.

From my kitchen window I once saw a figure striding above the clouds, trailing ribbons.

From my kitchen window I often gazed with unfocused eyes in the mornings into the two honey locust trees that grew tall in the backyard.   Doing this created a strange but pleasant (almost ecstatic) sensation of an ethereal light growing brighter, brighter, almost white.  But then when I re-focused on the trees the light resumed its normal intensity.  I wrote about this sensation, in a poem:

the light that we imagine we see

with eyes half closed,

squinting into trees,

is the most beautiful

anyone’s ever seen.

The smaller of those two trees once cradled a tree from another yard that had cracked in half during a storm, and prevented it from hitting our building.

I was looking out at that window at a starless night sky when I spoke — for the first time in thirty-seven years — to the man who, as a child, had proposed to me in first grade.  He’d given me a red plastic ring with a white knight in profile on it, and said, “Now we’re just minutes away from marriage.”  The last time I’d spoken to him was after our last grammar school graduation practice, as we stood with our mothers on the steps of St. John of God Church, and he gave me Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” album.

I was looking out that window at a bright, clear November afternoon sky dotted with white clouds when my sister’s boyfriend called me to tell me she had died three days earlier.

I was looking out that window at a periwinkle blue evening sky when I spoke to her son, my nephew, on the phone after nine years.  The two of us had looked out that window together nineteen years earlier, when he was eight and visiting Brooklyn with my mother.  It was the only time either of them had left Chicago.

I was looking out that window on the last day of May, 2010, wondering if my sister had made it through the bardo okay, if her soul had finally found requiem.  And so I asked for a sign, something so cliché and yet so unusual it could only be a sign, and plus something not possible on a clear cloudless day: a rainbow.  And so I waited at the window, waited and waited, waited staring at the sky.  Fifteen minutes went by, and I was about to walk away when the boy next door appeared in the yard to water his mother’s flowers.  He went around the perimeters with the garden hose, and then moved to a far corner at the back.  As he shifted position the water arced high, opposite the afternoon sun that had not yet disappeared behind the houses, and the shimmering colors appeared in the swath of the water from the hose.

Against Nature, J-K. Huysmans, Penguin Classics, translation by Robert Baldick,1959

From “Just This” by Sharon Mesmer, from The Virgin Formica, poems, Hanging Loose Press, 2008

Leaving Degraw Street — Al (Neighbors, continued)

19 Nov

After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012.  Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate.  The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me lots of time to reflect and reminisce.  

* * * * * * * * *

It got to be a regular thing: I’d open the foyer door, Al would appear in the doorway of his kitchen and say, “Cup o’ coffee, Sharon?”  If I had some free time I’d take him up on his offer, and sometimes even if I didn’t I’d take him up anyway.  I knew he was lonely and wanted someone to talk to.  I knew someday I might be that way, too.

“Oh, excuse me, Sharon,” he’d usually say as I walked in.  “Lemme go put a shirt on.”

It wasn’t like he was shirtless; most times he had on a white Hanes v-neck undershirt (during the summer he wore a tank).  By “shirt” he meant a light, short-sleeved sports shirt — the kind our dads would throw on when they had to make a run to the hardware store in the summer.

Back in the kitchen he’d finish buttoning up, set the glass percolator on the burner, and ask, “Frankfu’ter?”  I’d say yes, and he’d quickly fill a pot with water and throw two hot dogs in.

“So, what’s new, Sharon?”

“Nothin’ much, Al.”

Actually, by the time I was down there regularly there was a lot going on: I was doing one-on-one tutorials with Allen Ginsberg as part of my MFA/poetry studies at Brooklyn College, Carl and I were having problems (and would soon split, after almost five years together), and my dad had been diagnosed with bladder cancer back in Chicago.

“You seem sad, Sharon.”

“Yeah, Al, I am.  Sad and tired.  There’s too much going on.”

“You know what the best thing for that is?  Just sit and talk foolishness.  Don’t think about your problems — just talk foolishness for a while.  Did I ever tell you about the time I went to a nudist colony?  My friend Armand — I told you about him; most brilliant guy I ever knew.  Oh, I’m tellin’ you — he had more degrees than a thermometer.   So Armand says to me one day, ‘Why doncha come with me on a picnic?’  I thought: a picnic?  Hey, I like the outdoors, you know?  So, we get there, and he says, ‘Al, you’re gonna have to drop your clothes off over there . . . it’s a nudist colony.’  Nudist colony?  Well, I was there, you know . . . I couldn’t just leave ’cause he drove me there . . . so, I had to drop my clothes!”

“Well, how was it?”

“It wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t half bad.  After an hour, you just get used to it, you know?  Only problem was, I kept worryin’ about my wallet, ’cause you can’t keep your wallet with you — where you gonna put it? ”

I laughed.  “But you had a good time?”

He furrowed his brow in a definitive way and nodded.  “Oh, yeah.  Armand knew how to live.  I mean, it wasn’t Carroll Street, but I had a good time.”

Al had grown up on Carroll Street, four blocks away, in the ’20’s.  He loved to talk about Park Slope back then.

“A girl never had to be afraid of walkin’ down the avenues then.  You know why?  The mafia.  Oh, they kept the streets safe.  They knew who was who, and who didn’t belong where.  You didn’t dare cross 5th Avenue if you had no business crossin’ 5th Avenue.  You know what I mean?  Because between them and the cops, everybody knew their place.   I lost count of how many times I got cracked across the head by the cops when I was a kid, for bein’ where I was wasn’t supposed to be.  Police brutality?  Gimme a break.  There was no police brutality then.  Cop said you weren’t supposed to be there, you got outta there!  And even while you were gettin’ outta there, sometimes they’d crack you ‘cross the head anyway, just for good measure.  Listen, you could be drunk as a lord on the avenue when I was a kid, and you didn’t have to worry about someone robbin’ you, ’cause the cops and the mafia took care of the neighborhood.  You know?”

Al was good friends with our landlord, Nick, and took the Union Street bus over to 7th Avenue almost every day to hang out in Nick’s office on Carroll Street, behind Manufacturer’s Hanover bank (now Chase).  Nick had been an accountant with Met Life for years, but at some point he and a partner, Fred, took off on their own and rented a second floor office on Carroll just off 7th Avenue — F&P Accounting, they called themselves.  For a few years, before TurboTax, Nick did my taxes.

(You think that’s weird, my landlord doing my taxes?  It is.  But Nick had a very different, very special relationship with his tenants.  Keep reading.)

Al would always report when he’d seen Nick, and that Nick had said to say hi.  After Carl moved out, and my college friend Marianne moved in, Al would always say, “Nick said to say hi to the girls.”

Around 1994, Al was diagnosed with some kind of cancer.   He never told me exactly what the diagnosis was, but from the change in his attitude I knew he wouldn’t live much longer.   One day he asked me what was a good wine in the $50 range.

“You’re askin’ me?”  I said.  “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no wines.”

“Well, what kind do you like?  What’s your favorite?”

I knew he was angling to buy me a bottle of wine, but I didn’t want him to spend his money on that.  I had a better idea.

“You know, why don’t you just buy me dinner?  I would love to have dinner with you, maybe at Aunt Suzie’s.  You like that place?”

I figured we’d go there, and I’d pass my credit card to the server on my way to the restroom, and treat Al.

“Okay, you got a deal.  But Dave won’t get jealous, will he?”  (My future husband, David, had moved in 1992.)

“Well, he’ll just have to deal with it,” I said.  “Besides, do you see a diamond ring on my finger?!”

Al was a little angry that I fooled him, but I didn’t care.  He was my first friend in Brooklyn, the first member of the family that I somehow managed to create around me, and buying him dinner was the very least I could do for him.   He died in 1995, in his sleep, around 2 a.m.  I knew because the next morning there was a squad car in front of the house, and the next day his son and daughter-in-law came by to begin cleaning out his apartment.

Years later, while visiting my mother, she handed me a letter Al had written to her after my father died:

“Mrs. Mesmer,

You don’t know me, but I live in the same house as your daughter.  No, we have different apartments.  I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Mesmer.  He must have been a heck of a guy, from what I hear from Sharon.  Mrs. Mesmer, I am not one to send Mass cards.  My wife always was the card sender.  I hope you won’t feel offended if instead of a card I am sending you this.  Please get a nice frame for his picture.  I’m sure you have a frame but it’s the least I could do for someone I’ve never met.   I’ve often wanted to write to him, but Sharon didn’t give me an address.  Sharon is a wonderful girl — we all love her and share her grief.  I won’t go on any longer, Mrs. Mesmer.  I’ll close.  I hope what I did has not offended you.  Please accept my deepest sympathy.

Al — Sharon’s first floor neighbor”

Next: Kitchen Window