"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Muddling Through, Showing Up, Hollywood, And The Dark Underside Of Small Towns

Woody Allen famously said that eighty percent of life was just showing up, and the English are famous for muddling through – two very modest appreciations for what it is to make one’s way in life.  No grand dreams to be dashed, no overarching ambitions to remain on the shelf.  No epiphanic, Lawrentian love affairs, no dramatic entrances, applause, or curtain calls, just showing up for marriage, parenthood, employment, and welfare.

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If it weren’t for Hollywood, we would never think twice about our modest and rather pedestrian lives.   It is because they spin impossible fantasies and because the doing of starlets, leading men, and the glitter and glamour of Oscar night, we would be just as happy in our routine lives as our ancestors a few hundred years before.  The first settlers on the Great Plains were delighted to find fertile, well-watered ground, a temperate climate, free land, game, and boundless opportunity.  There were the children, the livestock, the acreage, the church, and the community – all without strings, codicils, or riders.  With risks and hazards of course, but all simple, dutiful, and honorable.

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Some of us are more susceptible to the new glitz and glamour than others.  Arnold Darnay was one who was dazzled by the bright lights of Hollywood and Las Vegas from a very early age.  His life in the small New England town of New Brighton was monochrome, predictable, and dull.  His father was an accountant who worked in the Bank Building.  His mother was Chairwoman of the Ladies Hospital Auxiliary and Treasurer of the Junior League, who cooked dinner every night, took good care of the garden and her children, and never complained.

There was nothing gray about Hollywood, drenched in eternal sunshine, overlooking the Pacific to the west and the citrus groves to the east, the home of Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamarr, and Marilyn Monroe, goddesses of the silver screen, impossibly beautiful and seductive, so alluring and inviting.  it was the place Arnold wanted to be, if not actually, physically, in person; but virtually.  In the magnificent, tinsel, glittering world of show business.  The last thing he wanted was to repeat the lives of his parents and the burghers of New Brighton.  The world was his, and if he played his cards right, he could step out of virtuality into reality.

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Of course, what the naïve and unobservant Arnold missed was the New Brighton underground – the world of illicit affairs, shady dealings, and circus side shows.  Take for example, Melissa Blevins, wife of the Methodist minister, who like one of Tennessee Williams frail, delicate women lived a life of dutiful submission to her husband, to his faith, and to her two children; but beneath this patent veneer, she was a serial love, a promiscuous, demanding woman who satisfied the priests, doctors, lawyers, and dentists of her town without conditions or consequences.  She was a libertine, a woman for whom no settled, muddled life would ever be enough.  She, like her Victorian counterparts, was careful and canny in her planning and deceit, and her cinq-a-sept rendezvous were quiet, hidden affairs.

There were the Millers, a family of particular rectitude, one of the most respected families in the West End who, in defiance of all rules of propriety, decency, and mental health, kept their severely retarded son in the basement of their home.  For years it was only rumored – a glimpse of gnome-like, shadowy figure through a casement window after midnight, strange trash in the dumpster, and weird sounds that came from the chimney. 

Yet every morning Mrs. Miller, made up, chipper, and dressed in a bright pastel pinafores regardless of season, opened her front door at 8:30 exactly, walked briskly to the bus stop, boarded the 32 and headed off to her job as a dental hygienist in the same building as Arnold’s father.  Forty five minutes later Mr. Miller emerge, spiffily dressed, brown fedora in winter, straw boater in summer, into his car to head to his job in Wethersfield.  Arnie and his friends listened for moans and cries from the basement from the manacled and bound cretin son, but heard only the banging of the Millers’ old furnace, and the rattling of their pipes.

Marvin Epstein was a furrier the go-to place for matrons from New Brighton and as far away as tony West Hartford.  Minks, sables, ermine, fox – he had them all, perfectly made by New York tailors, elegant, and on display.  It was rumored that despite his lucrative business and standing in the community, Marvin was involved in questionable securities trading.  He was overheard talking about Grand Cayman, the Turks and Caicos, and the Canaries, but never went on vacations, and only traveled by the New York, New Haven & Hartford once a week – ‘to attend to business’, he explained to his poker group at the Jewish Club in Wethersfield, ‘nothing more, nothing less’, but everyone knew or assumed they new what he was up to.

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The point is not that New Brighton was a sinkhole of deceit and depravity – probably few of the stories rumored about were true – but that it was its own version of Hollywood that Arnold totally missed. To him, it was dullsville, the end of the line, the place where only duds ended up – no charge, no spark, and certainly, absolutely no glitter. 

What the young man missed, however was that ever small town in America was Peyton Place, the fictional town of early television which, just like New Brighton, was a model of rectitude, propriety, and good taste; but barely beneath this well-curated and –cultivated veneer was a smarmy, sex-smelling brothel.  What could be more dramatic? Intrigue, deceit, shameless sex and promiscuity, the fodder for Hollywood, was there for the asking.  No, it did not have the bright sun, tinsel, and palm -treed elegance of Los Angeles; and managed only a feeble sun in winter and cloying humidity in summer, but it had all the ingredients of hot afternoon soap opera. 

Who cared if Melissa Blevins did bed every dentist in New Brighton or not? Or whether the Puccini Brothers were actually local fronts for the New Haven mafia? Or whether there actually was a cretin chained in  the Millers’ basement?  It was the rumors, the innuendos, the offhanded remark, the raised eyebrows which gave life to this otherwise dull and unremarkable city.

Even if Arnold had had the curiosity to look beneath the sheets, past the factories on Arch Street, or in the barns and lofts in the East End, he would still have been disappointed.  There were no Lana Turners in New Brighton, especially in the East end tenements, nor even in his own well-heeled West End.  There should be a bell curve for beauty just as there is for everything else, but somehow New Brighton never even made it on the slope.  The particular admixture of Greek, Jewish, Italian, and Pole never worked out right, never produced the stunning beauties that each genetic pool should have.  No stunning blue-eyed, blonde-haired Slavic beauties, no Sophia Lorens, no Gal Gadots.  The only thing that could be said about the strange features of New Brightonites was that it confirmed everyone’s suspicion that there was a lot of sleeping around going on.

Still, thought Arnold, Hollywood! What he wouldn’t give to go there, live there, star there; but he was no more attractive than anyone else in his community and had no talent whatsoever.  Los Angeles was simply a dream, a chimera, a fantasy; but it was the same magical, mystical place for millions of Americans.  it was Paradise, the place to aspire to, everyone’s glorious end.

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Hollywood is so particularly important because it is an American state of mind.  Its real palm trees, Pacific beaches, studios and back lots only served as a fixture – a point de repère around which turned millions of virtual fantasies.

Just about everyone, with few exceptions, lead lives of quiet boredom; lives of repetition, predictability, and no surprises.  Inelegant lives. Routine lives.  We all show up and muddle through and for the most part do not complain.  We may dream of glitz, glamour, yachts, mansions, and arm candy, but they are on old, spare reels stored in our cinematheque.  Yet if it weren’t for the constant reminder of what life could be like – movies, the Oscars, People Magazine, E!, and endless hairdresser salon and dentist waiting room copies of Hollywood glamour and gossip, where would we be?

The problem is not that we don’t have Hollywood under our very noses; but that we never have the curiosity or the will to look for it.  What we might uncover beneath the tarps and wraps over illicit New Brighton would fill a thousand screenplays.  We are too timid to peek, and too fearful of joining in on what we find.

So, we are lucky to have Hollywood to look to for our fantasies.  It is an easy out from our lives of showing up and muddling through, a quick, accessible fantasy without having to deal with fantasy’s underside. 

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