Wednesday Wonders: Another curious route to a story

How buying a cheap pair of wireless headphones six months ago and a random discovery about a new computer led to an epiphany about the timing of nostalgia.

I can tell you exactly how this particular story came about. It all started when I ordered a pair of wireless headphones in order to do Zoom meetings way back in March, when I started a new job that is 100% remote.

Now, the problem was that I needed something that wasn’t BlueTooth, because my computer didn’t have that, so I wound up settling on an RF model. That is, one with a transmitter pack of the type that would plug into the computer’s audio jack, with the headphones themselves completely unattached.

It’s not really at all unlike what a reporter or performer would wear — a battery pack, usually taped to their back, connected to an audio source, like a microphone, with the audio signal picked up elsewhere.

It worked great, even though I did have to wind up buying extra rechargeable AAA batteries for the transmitter and a whole set of rechargeable 9-volt batteries for the headphones.

Side note: Something I learned during lockdown: Rechargeable batteries are the best investment you can ever make. Get enough for all the little battery-operated doodads you have around the house, and then double that. Sure, it costs a lot up front, but you’ll save an assload pretty much instantly.

Case in point: The two times early on that I forgot to turn off the headphones and drained the 9-volt battery would have cost me more in non-rechargeable replacements than five rechargeable 9-volts with recharger cost in the first place.

But there were two big issues with these headphones. Number one is that I could not leave them on all the time so as not to run them down, meaning that I would have to go through the start-up process just before every Zoom meeting started — power up transmitter, switch on headphones, push ‘activate” button and then “connect” button, and hope that it worked.

Still, not being physically tethered to my computer with a cable was totally worth it — and I’d accidentally wrecked too many of those at the business end by forgetfully walking away while they were plugged in and on my head.

And no, I’ve never driven away from a gas pump with the nozzle in my car, thank you.

Of course, a lot of headphones are also just cheaply made crap. Even the Beats by Dre ear buds that we were all given one year as an office present didn’t last long after the internal wiring crapped out on one side. I’ve had earbuds I’ve gotten at the 99 Cent store that lasted far longer and sounded just as good.

Surprise, surprise — cheapness turned out to be the problem with these. It wasn’t more than a week before the foam earcups just detached from the headset, and no way in hell I could get them back on, because the retaining edge had clearly been machined into the earcup, and I just didn’t have the machinery to do it.

Meanwhile, after a month or so, the control buttons on the right ear cup — i.e., the ones absolutely necessary to make the things work — suddenly pushed in, as in sank below the surface of the back of the ear cup, so became useless.

Still, since they were so cheap, I ordered another pair. These lasted a bit longer, although they still had the foam problem and, eventually, the part where the headband attached to the left ear cup just snapped, and not with any particularly sudden or sharp movement.

I’m not going to call out the brand, although I will say that, since they worked with a computer, these technically were digitAL earphones.

After the second pair died, I spent eight bucks at the Rite-Aid next door for a plug-in pair that didn’t have the greatest sound quality, but did what I needed, and so it went until a week ago last Monday.

That morning, I read a news story explaining why it might not be a good idea to update to Windows 11 right away, so I had to check to make sure that “auto-update” was not turned on. I only found out later that Microsoft is actually allowing people to opt out this time, miracle of miracles!

Anyway, in the process of looking for the setting, I inadvertently discovered, nearly six months after I’d bought it, that my new computer does, in fact, have BlueTooth.

I tested it by tethering to my phone and, sure enough, it worked.

Well, fuck me sideways with a wooden hanger.

Delivered the next day — a pair of BlueTooth headphones that have been working like a charm, and have the best of both worlds, and more. For some reason, they have an FM tuner built in, an SD card slot for off-line music listening, a built-in battery with 30-hour life that’s rechargeable via USB-C (the best of the USBs) and the ability to also connect to an audio device via a cable.

Not to mention that the sound is just lightyears better than that from either the crappy RF phones or the cheap wired ones. And so is the battery life. I’ve had them on most of today, after their first full charge, and have been through several Zoom meetings and lots of audio, and the battery is still at 60%.

So this led me to testing out their audio qualities, and I began searching left and right for things to do that it with. Eventually, a vague memory that led to a search for “Star Wars disco” opened up a portal on a ton of albums from the late 70s that were basically DJ’d into the EDM of the era, but all based on Big Band music from the 1940s, and that’s when I was reminded of the great Truth of Nostalgia.

Nostalgia runs in 30-year cycles.

Why? The simple reason for this is that this is the point when kids who grew up on something have come of age but have also achieved enough power within various industries to start shaping culture instead of just consuming it.

So 1980s kids were consuming pop culture. As grown-ass adults in the 2010s, thirty years later, they started remaking, reimagining, or reforming all that shit from their childhood. Right now, we’re seeing the 1990s coming back.

But this is nothing new.

Let’s go back to the 1950s, for example, when one of the most popular movies was Singin’ in the Rain. And what was the story about? Why, the transition of silent films to talkies in the 1920s, and how new technology threatened traditional art forms. Westerns and gangster films were also big. The former were a big film genre in the 1920s, and the latter were an actually thing in the 1920s, thank you Prohibition.

And yes, Singin’ in the Rain was most likely a subtle commentary on the threat that television presented to theatrical films at the time via new technology, since it parodied the reaction to Hollywood and the introduction of talkies — i.e., films with sound.

Meanwhile, a teen idol from the 1920s, Rudy Vallée, made a huge comeback in film and TV in the 1950s. Brace yourselves for Harry Styles coming back in our 2050s, at the start of which he’ll be (gasp!) 56.

Then again, in 1950, Rudy was already 49.

But let’s get back to the nostalgia pattern. The 1950s definitely locked onto the 1920s because they both experienced post-war booms that kind of petered out, transitioned from somewhat liberal to very conservative, and saw new technology changing life as they’d previously known it.

The 1960s, meanwhile, mapped onto the 1930s, because both decades were eras of protest and economic uncertainty, along with foreign wars (The Spanish Civil War and Vietnam) leading up to World Wars (WW II and the Cold War.)

Both decades were also periods of sexual liberation, even if the 1930s were more subtle about it, but, for example, in big cities, gay men and lesbians were absolutely accepted in certain fields, like theatre or interior design. In Hollywood, a lot of gay people were openly so within the industry, provided that any hint of it never leaked outside of studio walls and publicity dates with persons of the opposite sex could be arranged and manipulated in the press.

Talk about “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” although that ironically came back in the third wave of the 1930s/1960s, also known as the 1990s, which are coming back right now one more time, although I guess that the “don’t tell” part now refers to whether a woman has had an abortion.

One big phenomenon from the 1990s — groups like Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the whole swing revival. They were actually modeling the 1930s, not the 1940s. Two very different styles — neither of them involving Harry or watermelon sugar, which may or may not be Style’s nostalgic callback to Richard Brautigan’s 1968 novel, seeing as how Harry falls into the 1960s/1990s/2020s/2050s pattern.

But it was finding all of this music from the 1970s that made me realize the 30 year thing, especially the epiphany that disco was just a playback of 1940s post-war big-band music. In the 1970s, it was post-Vietnam and party time, while in the 1940s, it was post-WW II.

Both artforms, though, had the same goal: Drag asses onto the dancefloor and get them to all shake their booties, and, sure enough, in the 2000’s, Christina Aguilera came along to bring it all back with her song Candyman — aka the video that makes every gay man question his sexuality.

This was also right around the time when the successor to the 1940s and 1970s crash-landed on the scene as EDM, or electronic dance music, and went mainstream.

Guess which decade the 1980s lapped up. Yep. That would be the 1950s, and it’s abundantly clear in both New Wave music and styles — remember those skinny ties, black suits, and poofy skirts? They were just the 1950s with neon highlights.

And punk wasn’t immune from 1950s influence, either. In its roots, they were just a revival of the Rockers and Teddy Boys of 1950s England, with the New Wavers and second generation glam acts like Adam Ant and Boy George cast as the Mods.

Cinematically, one of the most interesting curious from the era is Walter Hill’s 1984 film Streets of Fire largely forgotten now. It’s mostly notable only for marking Willem Dafoe’s screen debut as the villain, which he performed when he was… 29, or just a year short of being nostalgic for what he was appearing in. He really broke out in the movie Platoon, made when he was 31.

But the thing about the movie is that it was completely ambiguous as to when, exactly, it was set. A lot of the design aesthetics were firmly stuck in the 1950s, but the soundtrack and the attitudes were decidedly modern. Well, for the time.

Jump ahead to the 2010s, and both the 1950s and the 1980s feature prominently, with films like The Master and Inside Llewyn Davis nodding at the eras. The former was set in 1950 and, while the latter is set in 1961, it’s still before the assassination of JFK, which really was the emotional border between the two decades.

And remember that Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight? Yep. Set in the 1980s, and so is Stranger Things, which debuted in 2016, and Call Me by Your Name, set in 1983 and released in 2017. So is The Wolf of Wall Street, which I have to honestly say is one of the worst movies I ever forced myself to sit through. The only redeeming feature in that hot mess is Joanna Lumley.

So here we are in the 2020s, with the 1990s, 1960s, and 1930s sneaking back into the zeitgeist. Once again, we have the sexually and socially liberated vs. the repressed would-be oppressors, the economic battle between the haves and the have nots, and simmering protests that break out into hot fires at the drop of a hat.

In the 1930s, unemployed workers took to the streets, protesting the same economic inequalities that we have now, all in the shadow of the Great Depression. In the 1960s, it was students occupying their campuses and taking to the streets, initially to fight for their First Amendment rights on campus, then ultimately to protest the Vietnam War. Remember, the military draft lasted until the 1970s, so they had a direct stake in objecting.

The 1960s also brought us events like the Watts Riots, echoed by the L.A. Riots in the 1990s, and the George Floyd BLM protests of this decade. and every one of these events happened for the same reasons: Police abuse and murder of people of color.

While the 1930s were a bit open about sexuality in a very hush-hush manner mainly in large cities where anonymity was much more possible, in the 1960s, the sexual revolution came roaring out of the closet, and not just for gay people.

Suddenly, women had The Pill (literally approved as the decade began), which gave them a lot more autonomy over their reproductive choices than relying upon trusting their partner to either wear a condom (without slipping it off)  or pulling out (without still managing to splash the target.)

Of course, the fun police in various states tried to make it illegal for married couples to use birth control because, um… “You must make babies, dammit?” At least Planned Parenthood was there to get these laws overturned through court battles, ensuring that a married woman could take The Pill and still bang her husband as of 1965.

The idea of sex before marriage being a sin also pretty much fell by the wayside as modern teens scoffed at old morality and started doing it left and right. By the way, these people are what are known as Boomers, although given their sexual behaviors in the 1960s — well, at least that of the cool ones — maybe some of them should be called Bangers.

The 1960s were also when the modern Gay Rights Movement got going with a little incident called the Stonewall Riots, which were the endcap on the decade.

In the 1990s, the gay rights movement really took off big time, largely in response to the absolutely abysmal response of the Reagan administration to the AIDS Crisis that had started in the 1980s. This was the decade when the first celebrities started coming out (Scott Thompson long before any of the others), gay characters started to show up in mainstream media and not as stereotypes, RuPaul first burst onto the scene, and someone being gay started to become not as big a deal as it used to be because of increased visibility.

In the 2020s, we’ve got all of that, plus the Nirvana Baby trying to sue the band and other entities over his appearance on the cover of their 1991 album Nevermind. Never mind that the grown-up version of that baby has reshot that cover three times, twice while underage, albeit with his dinky winky covered in the other versions.

And you know how old that baby, Spencer Elden, is now? Take a wild guess.

That’s right. He turned 30 in February of 2021, so his nostalgia meter is right on track, apparently. None of which absolves him of being an asshole, of course.

Update: Also right on track, the day after I wrote this story, this bit of news popped up. They’re creating a spin-off of That ’70s Show starring the parents from the original and it’s called… That ’90s Show. Guess when it’s set.

And does anyone remember That ’80s Show? It only ran for a few months. Premiering in 2002, it was a decade early and might have done a lot better in the 2010s.

Image source: paul bica from toronto, canada, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday Morning Post #80: Sunday Supper, Part 2

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I present the second of two parts, in which I steal from my own life — sort of. This is a highly fictionalized account of what I imagine my mother’s life was like when she decided to escape from her family back east and wind up in Los Angeles. In part one, we see her large family back home in action as she announces her big move to their shock, then arrives in town and gets a job as a waitress on Wilshire Boulevard. I think this is the only period piece in the collection, although all of the stories were written in 2000-2001.

The hours and the days and weeks went by, and Anne was enjoying herself, even though she was just covering expenses with very little left over. Things in L.A. were more expensive than back home, but the pay was better as well, and there wasn’t a coal mine in sight.

And she seemed to have become popular with the businessmen of the boulevard, who filled her stations as they piled in for breakfast, treated her politely and tipped well. There was one in particular she had noticed, a man who looked amazingly like that actor, Tyrone Power, but he always sat at the counter.

She was nowhere near forward enough to talk to him. Besides, there was an unwritten rule that the girls didn’t steal customers from one another. Still, she often contemplated smacking him with a menu as she went by, telling him, “There’s a really nice booth over there in the corner, honey…”

She’d had to buy new shoes after a few weeks and got them at Woolworth’s, cheap sneakers but at least her feet didn’t hurt as much anymore. That was about the only extravagance she could afford herself, even though it was no extravagance nor a luxury at all.

The luxuries lived behind the plate glass windows of the May Company, and every day after work she’d walk by to stare in the windows, watching as the fashions on the aloof mannequins changed from week to week.

It was a Tuesday in March, the first Tuesday in March in fact, that she realized two things. She hadn’t gone to church since she’d come here — she’d felt no need. And, tomorrow was Ash Wednesday, something she didn’t even remember until she heard a couple of customers talking about how disappointed they were that they couldn’t make it down to Mardi Gras this year.

She thought for half a second about finding a Catholic church tomorrow, getting the old smudge on the forehead, then realized there was no point. Her mother wasn’t here to watch her. No one was. Ash Wednesday had been one of those few moments of collaboration among the children growing up.

Every year, one of them would be designated to go to church, then they’d all meet up secretly near the playground and swap the ashes around, hoping Margaret would never be the wiser. At least they never had to include Jimmy in their plans. Margaret always took him to church herself, and he was too mentally deprived to fear or loath it.

At least Donal had stayed in touch. He wrote to her every week, and she wrote back occasionally, sending her letters to his office at the College instead of to home. He was coaching the school debate team now, and if they did well enough, they might be coming out to UCLA in the summer. She hoped they did. He was the only member of her family who had grown greater with distance.

And she stood in front of the May Company windows again, but since it was a special day, she decided to go inside, just for the hell of it, see what the big attraction was. She pushed her way through the glass and brass revolving door and found herself in Mecca, racks of clothes and housewares and all the latest fashions and technology of the day arrayed before her and above her. There were a thousand Siren calls in the place, but any approach would be dashed on the rocks of insufficient funds.

Still, she wandered and gazed, avoiding the helpful salesgirls with sorry downcast “Just lookings,” finally finding herself standing in front of a tall revolving rack covered with hats, each one lovingly balanced on a small velvet dome just so.

She turned the rack, admiring them all but not touching, and then her eyes fell on a simple low-brimmed cloche in tan, the exact same color as her one good pair of shoes, the ones she never wore because she had nowhere to wear them.

The ones that went perfectly with her green wool skirt suit, which she also never wore but kept wrapped in plastic in the closet so the moths could not enjoy it before she’d had a chance to. She imagined herself decked out in that outfit, wearing that hat, maybe even a purse to match, going somewhere interesting, having Sunday brunch served by someone else, perhaps running into that man who looked just like that actor, Tyrone Power, finding out who he really was…

“That’s a beautiful hat,” a Salesgirl had materialized, a perky young woman in a May Company blazer, hair and make-up perfect. “Here, try it on.”

“I… I was just looking — “ Anne protested, but the girl plucked the hat from its pedestal and placed it on Anne’s head, adjusting it to her satisfaction.

“Oh, you look lovely in that. Here, see?” The Salesgirl picked up a hand mirror and held it up and Anne caught her breath when she saw herself. The hat was beautiful, adding just the exact something to her appearance, her auburn hair emphasized by its fawn back hue. She stared for a moment, imagining herself owning it — then imagining it sitting in the closet, with her good shoes and green suit, gathering dust, a dream deferred, something to wear and nowhere to wear it.

She carefully took the hat off and set it back on the pedestal.

“It’s lovely, but…” she shrugged.

“You can never have too many hats,” the Salesgirl chirped, annoyingly perky. “We also have bags and gloves to match.”

“I really… No, thank you.”

“Okay. But if you change your mind, let me know, Anne.” Seeing a no sale, the girl vanished. Anne looked down at her blue and white uniform, realized she was still wearing her name tag and took it off, slipping it into her pocket. She looked at the hat again, turned the rack and looked at the others, which only made this one object more desirable. There was nothing else on that rack she wanted, but nothing she could afford.

Or, was there? She realized she had no idea how much that hat was, so she picked it up again, making sure the Salesgirl was nowhere in sight, then turned it over and fished out the price tag, turning it over, seeing the number.

Seven-fifty they wanted for it. That was dinner for two weeks, bus fare for a month. That was… it was ridiculous, is what it was. Maybe seven-fifty was nothing to all the women who came here to visit their husbands at work, then go shopping, then go back to their big houses with maids and tennis courts and swimming pools.

But to Anne, right now, seven-fifty might as well have been a million bucks. She put the hat back and quickly walked out of the store.

* * *

Celebrities lurked in L.A, and quite a lot of them wound up at Anne’s tables, although she didn’t recognize half of them. That was never a problem, though. Gladys, now one of her best friends, would always sneak over and whisper to her. “Do you know who that is at your station?”

And Anne’s reaction was always, “Yeah. So?”

Before she’d come to L.A., she’d imagined what it would be like to see stars in person. Her first encounter had been Lana Turner, in the grocery store, looking decidedly unglamorous. She wasn’t wearing a tight sweater, but a loose-fitting blouse, dungarees, and a scarf on her head. If she was wearing any make-up at all, it was nothing more than a discreet splash of lipstick.

She pushed her cart down the same aisles that Anne did, buying all the same things, although the more expensive versions. Anne had played the old game of staring while pretending not to and wound up quite by accident behind Lana in the checkout line.

When Anne saw that this screen goddess was buying TP and tampons, too, a lot of the truth about what L.A. really was sunk in, and she was never starstruck after that. L.A. was a factory town, just like Detroit or Muncie or Wilkes-Barre; the only difference was that instead of cars or clothes or coal, L.A. made movies.

“Guess who I saw at the store today,” she imagined the conversation in a motor city suburb. “The guy who paints the red parts on the Chevy.”

“Wow.”

And, after all, weren’t actors just the same? The visible result of all the work of many unseen faces? They were the tail fins and paint jobs; but the real heroes were the ones who designed the cars in the first place and figured out how to make them run.

In Detroit, the engineers were king. In L.A., the engineers who were screenwriters and directors and editors and stunt-folk could walk down any street at any time and not even be noticed unless they were someone like Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles.

“You hear about the Polish actress who came to Hollywood?” Shirley had told Anne once, one in a series of many off-color jokes.

“What about her?” Anne asked.

“She was so stupid she screwed the screenwriter.”

Anne supposed that if Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole had sat at her station, she might have been impressed and a little fidgety. Then again, Sinatra was, well, Sinatra, and Cole was, despite everything else, a black man, and Anne had never met a black man in person before coming to L.A.

Her first, in fact, was Otis, the fry-cook, who was always singing in the kitchen, but the two of them hardly had time to speak to each other, beyond cryptic shouts of “Adam and Eve on a Raft” and “Burn one!”

And, among the waitresses, eighty-six. This was an ancient secret code, and Shirley had told her that it came about because it rhymed with “nix.” It meant that the customer coming in was to be avoided at all costs.

Either they were a lousy tipper, or extremely demanding and petty, the type of person who would send their toast back three times because it wasn’t done exactly right. Maybe people could act like that at Ciro’s or the Brown Derby.

But this was Van de Kamp’s, for Christ’s sake, a store-front diner of good reputation but low prices for the working stiffs of the Miracle Mile. As far as Anne was concerned, if a customer was a royal pain in the ass, they’d get the same right back, and to hell with a tip. Politeness got politeness, and she refused to take any crap from anyone.

And, so, after a few months, Anne had developed a reputation as a hard-boiled waitress. The other girls were in awe of her ability to lay it on the line and tell the nasty truth to a customer, at risk of tips. Anne managed to offend a lot of the women who came in, but endeared herself to many of the men, who would take her abuse and leave generous tips, almost in spite of themselves.

Anne had permanently endeared herself to Shirley the first time Mrs. Rothburn had come in during Anne’s tenure. Mrs. Rothburn was somewhere between sixty and death, a specter of wrinkled parchment skin stretched tight over a skull, always wore the same red wool suit with matching tam, and always brought in her dog, a miniature Doberman, Baby. Mrs. Rothburn and Baby would sit in a booth, and any comments about violations of the health code would be met with a cold, haughty look that said, “So? Insult me and kiss your tip good-bye.”

And, for months, the other girls had silently served the two of them in their back booth, returning the toast to the kitchen four or five times, enduring diatribes about the runny eggs, and waiting anxiously for the moment when Mrs. Rothburn would clear the booth, leaving a lousy five per cent tip, opening up the space for a more gracious customer.

Until Mrs. Rothburn entered one morning, amid whispers of “Eighty-six,” and wound up at Anne’s station. Anne grabbed a menu from the rack, turning to Shirley to ask, “Isn’t that illegal? Bringing a dog in here?”

“You try telling her that,” Shirley spat back.

“Okay,” Anne replied, strutting to the booth.

“You can’t bring the dog in here,” Anne said by way of introduction. Mrs. Rothburn eyed her up and down with a withering stare.

“Baby and I have been eating here since before you were born, young lady,” she said, snatching the menu away and slamming it, unopened, on the table. “I would like the breakfast special, eggs over easy, not overcooked, toast well done, and a glass of orange juice for Baby.”

“I can’t serve the dog,” Anne answered, unaware that every waitress in the place was watching from afar.

“You certainly will,” Mrs. Rothburn shot back.

“I certainly won’t. It’s a violation of the health code.”

“Health code, schmelth code. You will get Baby her orange juice, or I will have her bite you.”

Anne inhaled, glaring at this strange creature. “Lady,” she said, stuffing her order pad into her apron, “Either of you bitches gets their teeth near me, I will bite that little rat right on the ass.”

Everything stopped for half a second, while Mrs. Rothburn stared back in disbelief. Finally, she stood, stormed from the booth to the door, and announced dramatically, “I will never come back to this place again. Really. The nerve.”

As she swept out the door, the other waitresses and the regulars applauded. Anne took a modest bow and, when Mrs. Rothburn finally returned two weeks later, it was without Baby, and she insisted on sitting at Anne’s station, was practically deferential and actually left a fifteen percent tip. Anne only wished her mother could see her now.

After all, she was the one who had unintentionally taught Anne how to handle difficult, pushy, obnoxious women by giving her plenty of practice in doing it.

She realized, though, the morning that Mrs. Rothburn came back, that this weird town called L.A. was her home now. Pennsylvania was a distant memory, with no reason left there to ever return.

* * *

Easter was approaching, only a few weeks away, and Anne felt that she had to do something. Despite the miles, that old Catholic guilt still lurked. No way she was going to waste her time following her mother’s old weekly rules, but it was The Day, the one day of the year when lapsed Catholics still felt compelled to play along.

There was a church down the block from her house, and for a long time she thought it was a Catholic church. It looked like one, it was named after a Saint, it was always jammed on Sunday. Maybe she’d go there. She’d almost talked herself into it when she walked by one Saturday afternoon, then read the sign for the first time.

It said, “Anglican Catholic Church.” Not Roman? She didn’t know there was anything besides Roman Catholic. Well, okay, there was that Armenian Catholic church back home that she had gone to with her best friend Beverly once, to Margaret’s consternation. But if it wasn’t Roman it wasn’t Catholic, as far as Anne’s mother was concerned. There was only one church, accept no substitutes.

She asked Shirley later if she knew the difference. Shirley’s father was Jewish, her mother was Lutheran and her husband was Catholic, and she’d actually had one semester of college, so she knew a bit about religion and history. “Anglican Catholic,” she explained, “is the church started by Henry the Eighth when he got all snippy about the Pope not giving him a divorce.”

“So… it’s Protestant?”

“It’s English,” Shirley said. “All the ceremony, none of the guilt, from what I hear. You’d almost never know the difference.”

“Really?” Anne thought about it. All of the ceremony. Everything necessary for Easter. And a good Irish Roman Catholic girl spending that holiest of days in an English Protestant church would be enough to make Margaret dig a grave and then roll over in it. If only she ever knew, which she never would.

Or, hell, maybe she’d just go to the movies on Easter. She assumed that, unlike Wilkes-Barre, the theatres in L.A. would still be open that day. It was still just a factory town, after all, and movie palaces were the real houses of worship here.

* * *
One late morning the Monday of Holy Week, Gladys grabbed Anne’s arm, whispering anxiously, “Do you know who that is at your station?”

Anne shrugged, balancing two trays.

“So?” Gladys stared at her. “You going to get his autograph?”

“Of course not.”

“Why not?”

“He came here to eat and be left alone, just like anyone else.”

Gladys stared at Anne’s customer, and Anne gave her a cautionary stare. Gladys vanished into the kitchen then, and Anne continued on to serve her stations, starting with her celebrity in the back booth; grilled cheese and chocolate shake.

And… he came in for an early lunch, the man who looked like Tyrone Power, with a couple of associates, and they took a booth in Anne’s section. She wasted no time in getting their menus to them, and as she passed them out and asked if they wanted coffee, she noticed the man look at her, then look again intently.

He glanced away before she looked back, but she stared at him a moment. He was handsome, with a brilliant smile, and seemed like the kind of man who would completely care about anyone he loved.

“‘Scuse me, miss…” It was her celebrity, two booths away. She walked over and he asked her for more water and she came back to refill his glass. He seemed like a nice man, too. Just a person, despite his fame, despite the fact that everyone else was trying to stare at him without being noticed. That had to be utterly nerve-wracking.

If that’s what fame meant, then Anne didn’t want it, didn’t want to be a product of the L.A. factory. Then again, Memphis was just a factory town, too.

And the man who looked like Tyrone Power seemed to take special notice of her when she came by their booth, smiling yet looking away coyly as he ordered, but doing nothing more. She was trying to think of a way to impress him when she noticed the wedding ring on his finger and her heart sank. So much for that.

But when she came back with the check, she noticed the wedding ring was gone, and the man looked at her name tag, said, “Anne is a beautiful name.”

“Thanks,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Bob,” he said simply.

“Hi, Bob. You know, there’s usually a booth when you come in in the morning. Much more comfortable than the counter.”

She walked over to her celebrity customer then, hearing the quiet comments from Bob’s friends. Yes, he was interested in her, and they all knew it and… well, she’d find out, wouldn’t she?

But she’d be cool about it. She always was. That was her other survival technique. Yes, she could fire off blistering retorts when offended, but she could also hold it all close to the vest when she was interested, and she was very interested in this man named Bob, even if he did have a wedding ring.

She gave the celebrity his check and went back to the order window, where Gladys was grabbing dishes.

“Are you going to get his autograph?” she asked.

“No,” Anne said.

“Can you, for me then?” she asked.

“Gladys, he just wants to eat and be left alone.”

“Yeah, but it’s — “

“It’s a customer,” Anne said.

And that customer was leaving now, but he called out thank you to Anne as he left and when Anne got back to the table, she found out that letting him eat in peace had paid off. Sitting there for his dollar-ten order was a ten dollar bill, and he’d written “thank you” on the check, signing his name beneath it: “Elvis Presley.”

She gave Gladys the autograph, but she kept the tip.

* * *

On Easter Sunday, Anne went to church for the first time since arriving in L.A., deciding to try the Anglican place down the block, and enjoying it very much. Shirley had been right. It was all of the pomp and ceremony, all the glitz and glamour of Catholicism, with none of the guilt.

The place was not oppressive or gloomy, and neither were the people. In fact, at the post service coffee klatch, everyone came over to introduce themselves, welcome her to the church, and mention how much they just adored her new hat.

* * *

Talky Tuesday: Weighing words from the past

The following piece is from January, 2000, when I was one of the founding-publishers, editors and critics for the site Filmmonthly.com, which is still a going thing even though I’ve been publisher emeritus for a while now. Still, in reading the sometimes harsh words of a younger me, one thing does really stick out: I still agree with how I felt about these films then, even now.

JON BASTIAN’S BEST AND WORST FILMS OF THE ’90S

So, once again, we look back at a decade in an attempt to catalogue and classify the best and worst. In doing so, I decided, first of all, that it’s much better to say this is my personal list of favorite and least favorite films released between January, 1990 and December, 1999. Your results may vary. Second, I know there are favorite films I’ve missed, and the original list was about thirty-five movies long. One day, I know I’ll suddenly shout, “Doh! How could I forget… blank?” Those are the risks of doing these things.

Both lists are arranged alphabetically because, once I honed things down, I really couldn’t give a numerical order to either list. I’d gladly watch any of my favorite films over and over. As for the least favorite list, some obvious choices are missing — Stigmata and Battlefield: Earth come to mind — but I tried to stick to films that I’m not fond of for reasons other than they’re terrible.

My Favorite Films of the 90’s

American Beauty — one of the most finely crafted scripts ever written, Alan Ball’s dark comedy holds the mirror in our face as his story unfolds just like the titular rose. And even though we know Lester Burnham is going to die by the end, we never see it coming but it all makes perfect sense when it does. All this, and some of the most memorable movie lines of the decade — you’ll be seeing American Beauty in revivals and retrospectives well into the next century. [Okay, except for all that Kevin Spacey shit. This one didn’t hold up, but only because of that — Ed.]

Boogie Nights — Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth film and second feature is the epic-length saga of the rise, fall and redemption of the adult film industry, embodied by the well-endowed Dirk Diggler, as the 70’s melt down into the 80’s. With a cast as large, and a time span as long, as Mr. Diggler’s dirk, Boogie Nights is a kaleidoscopic yet dead-on evocation of the era when disco died and cynicism was re-invented. If you lived through it, you’ll recognize it. If you didn’t, you need to see this film.

The Coen Brothers’ Collected Works — one decade, five amazing films. Joel and Ethan Coen obviously love movies, and each of their ventures pretends to be a genre piece, which they joyously subvert to create something more than it at first seems. They gave us, in order, neo-gangster Miller’s Crossing; noir-on-crack Barton Fink; screwy screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy; warped crime flick Fargo, and hippie Raymond Chandler The Big Lebowski. Always starting from an established genre, they give it one big twist and then take off from there. [And Lebowski just won’t leave me alone, thanks to a longer think piece I posted on Filmmonthly, a few months after this best/worst list — Ed.]

Eyes Wide Shut — a film that requires your close attention, but what Kubrick film doesn’t? On the surface, it seems like a simple story about a suspicious husband in over his head with a kinky group of swingers. But nothing is as simple as it seems. It’s up to the audience to decide what really happens and what doesn’t, whether we’re watching reality or a dream, and whether our hero is paranoid or prescient. It’s a film to start discussions that last long after the final frame has flickered. In other words, pure Kubrick. Boy, do I miss him.

Fight Club — this stunner from David Fincher is epic in scope and literary in nature, and tackles some really big issues in a story that oscillates between hilarious and scary. With style to spare, Fincher’s tricks nonetheless add to the story instead of distract. It all builds to an inevitable finale that is beautiful and apocalyptic. [Also a film whose fanboys totally miss that it eviscerates toxic masculinity. Plus it has two eerily prescient references to 9/11 that happen in the opening and closing moments of the film — Ed]

Last Exit to Brooklyn — it took non-American director Uli Edel to turn Hubert Selby’s quintessentially American novel into an amazing film that captures the feel and prose of the original even as it turns Selby’s five disjointed stories into one coherent whole. The strike-bound docks of 1950’s Brooklyn are the lower depths of hell, populated by junkies, whores and straight sailors with their drag queen boyfriends. Holding it all together are devastating performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tra La La, the self-destructive prostitute, and Stephen Lang as Harry Black, the even more self-destructive and very confused union steward. This is the 50’s that Ozzie and Harriet never wanted you to see. In other words, it’s real.

Lone Star — John Sayles weaves an intricate tapestry around the lives of several generations of residents of a Texas border town as the current sheriff tries to figure out who killed an unpopular former sheriff years ago. What puts Lone Star several cuts above other films of this kind is the gradual way it cuts through many layers of truth. Each successive scene wrenches our perception of previous events until we’re left with only one devastating but poignant truth and our hero is stuck with one very difficult decision.

Richard III — Sir Ian McKellen brings us this sly update of my favorite Shakespeare, set in 1930’s England during an imaginary civil war. McKellen is joined by Annette Bening, Robert Downey, Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith and Dominic West, among others, as ol’ Humpback Dick connives and murders his way into — and out of — power. If you normally find Shakespeare inaccessible, this movie is a good place to start. If you’re already into the guy from Avon, it’s hard to find a better version of one of his works. In comparison, Olivier’s film performance in the same role was about as complex as his fake hump and wax nose.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut — more than just a movie, it’s a political statement, a musical and the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, even on repeat viewings. The song Blame Canada losing the Oscar to that over-the-hill whining hack Phil Collins was one of the most heinous mistakes ever made by Academy voters.

Titus — a creepy, haunting, incredibly designed and perfectly cast extravaganza that overcomes the problems in Shakespeare’s weakest play. This one will linger in your head long after the last corpse hits the floor.

Twelve Monkeys — an utterly unique film from one of our most gifted auteurs, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is a complex, multi-layered experience that reveals more of itself on every viewing while defying any effort to pull apart its logic. Part mystery, part race against the clock and part love story, it’s also one of cinema’s best uses of the knots of time travel, ending with the mother of all strange loops. Bonus: Gilliam brings us the best ever performances by both Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt — no mean feat, that. [And, since it’s about a world-wide pandemic that kills off almost everyone and which was started by a religiously crazed American scientist, scarier and more relevant now than ever Ed.]

Velvet Goldmine — a giddy, glammy trip through the early 70’s, with Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers starring in this “What If?” fantasia on the lives of Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Practically a musical and yet not, Velvet Goldmine’s story grows with liquid logic, and it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a Ken Russell film that wasn’t made by Ken Russell. Keep an eye on director Todd Haynes to show up on all those decade-end “Best of the 00’s” lists. [And… he’s only made five feature films since this one, only two of which you might have heard of. Oh well. — Ed.]

La Vita è Bella — A sweet little tragicomedy that shows us how a man meets and woos his wife, then shows us how he uses his wits and sense of humor to save his family from death during the Holocaust. When I saw this film, the final seconds brought tears of joy to my eyes. If they don’t do the same for you, you have no heart.

Honorable Mentions — it was difficult to hone this list down, and impossible to cut it to ten. A few movies that I include as my favorites, but regrettably had to relegate to slots below those already described: Dead Again, The Matrix, Naked Lunch, Pulp Fiction, To Die For, Total Recall and Trainspotting.

My Least Favorite Films of the 90s

Any film with Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner in it — Costner is a wooden actor who lacks the talent to pull off the epics he attempts. I only need to mention two: Waterworld and The Postman. As for Gibson — he’s a homophobic asshole who could have just apologized for his comments over a decade ago. Instead, he continues to crank out jingoistic, mindless rightwing crap and goes out of his way to indulge his anti-gay stereotyping. Remember the future Edward II as depicted in Braveheart?

The Blair Witch Project — the emperor has no clothes on. You have to admire the makers of this dreck for creating the film and the hype on a zero budget, but only because they did it first.

Forrest Gump — the glorification of idiocy, drawn out beyond all coherent length. I’m not sure what the message of this film is, except maybe that it’s okay to be stupid. Perhaps Contact was Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to make up for this message but, to paraphrase Mr. Garrison from South Park, “The alien was her goddamn father. What a rip-off.” [It’s still one of my favorite science fiction films, though — Ed.]

Gladiator — an attempt to recreate the sword and sandals epics of the 1950’s that falls apart because its hero is left with only one emotion to play and the action sequences are so badly directed that you can only figure out what happened afterwards when the dust clears. The CGI models of Rome were pretty impressive, but they were the only thing in this movie with more than two dimensions.

Goodfellas — yes, that’s right, I hate this film. Let me give you a comparison here: what if Spike Lee only made movies about African American gangstas, glorified their lifestyle and made them the heroes, inspiring legions of African American teenagers to want to emulate these thugs. He’d get ripped a new one by public opinion faster than you could say “drive-by.” Martin Scorsese does exactly the same thing, but gets away with it by depicting Italian Americans. He only gets away with that because he’s Italian. When Spike Lee threw a few goombahs into Do the Right Thing, he got ripped a new one by public opinion.

Hurlyburly — an incoherent mess with some of the least attractive losers ever put on screen, it doesn’t help that this very 80’s story was plopped into the 90’s with little updating. The characters on display don’t make sense out of the context of the go-go Reaganomics era of venality. Imagine Wall Street set in the world of tech stocks instead of junk bonds; that would make about as much sense.

Jackie Brown — only a least favorite entry because it’s nowhere near as good as Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarentino took a great opportunity and blew it. Pam Grier is incredible on screen, as is Robert Forster, but the movie drags, and commits the cardinal sin of complicated plot flicks: it shows us the rehearsal for “The Big Heist,” then shows “The Big Heist” being pulled off flawlessly. In other words, we get to watch the same twenty minutes of the movie twice in a row. Boring.

Jurassic (anything) — it was a stupid concept the first time around, and then it just got worse. They’re making another one. Watch for it on my worst of list in 2010. [Jurassic Park III did not disappoint in making my worst of for that decade, either — Ed.]

Pleasantville — a very promising premise that just didn’t pay off, although I don’t know why. I also hear that in real life Tobey Maguire is quite a dickhead, which shouldn’t have any bearing on this film, except that he’s supposed to be such a nice guy here. I couldn’t buy into that.

The Prince of Tides — one of the worst vanity projects ever made, starring Barbra’s hair, nails and nose. Somebody really has to remind her she’s just a singer.

Titanic — yeah, the effects were neat and the ship sank really well, but the ill-fated romance between Leo and Kate upon which James Cameron decided to hang this story really doesn’t do any justice to the scope of the project or the price tag of the film. And if I never hear Céline Dion hyperventilate her way through the title track again, that’ll be just fine with me.

The Truman Show — once again, a good premise utterly squandered. This film started out with a lot of promise, and then the story suddenly screeched to a halt and we were treated to a documentary that essentially told us everything we’d been watching up to that point. To compound the error, it was during this detour that our hero made his most important decision and took his biggest action — and we never fucking saw it happen! It would be comparable to, say, having Russell Crowe’s final Gladiator battle against Joaquin Phoenix happen off-screen. Hm. Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

Twister — a meandering mess with all the Hollywood-obligatory but unnecessary character crap thrown in — they’re going to get divorced but then they chase a tornado together. Will they get back together? Who cares. And when the payoff to your biggest special effect is that your heroes can survive it by holding onto pipes, well, you’ve pretty much taken the wind out of everything else you’ve built up before then.

Original post from filmmonthly.com, © 2000 Jon Bastian. Used with my own permission.

Image by Nikodem Nijaki, used unchanged under (CC BY-SA 3.0)