Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: Let The Voting Begin!

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!!

In two previous posts, I…

  1. Introduced two metrics, POINTS and Opportunity-Adjusted POINTS (“OAP”), to rank films by how often they are cited as “neo-noir,” allowing for how many reputable authors on film noir could have listed them.
  2. Selected 64 characters as contenders for “worst character in neo-noir.”

These 64 characters are evenly distributed across four loosely-defined categories: Corrupt Power, Crime Boss, Cunning Manipulator, Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin.

Corrupt Power

Harry Angel (Angel Heart), Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry), Noah Cross (Chinatown), Tyler Derden (Fight Club), Judge Doom (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Tom Farrell (No Way Out), Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Ras Al Ghul/Henri Ducard (Batman Begins) Alonzo Harris (Training Day), Mr. Hand (Dark City), Paul Kersey (Death Wish), Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs), Charlie Meadows (Barton Fink), Captain Dudley Smith (L.A. Confidential), Stansfield (Leon: The Professional), Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Watchmen)

Crime Boss

Frank (Thief), Marv (Sin City), Frank Booth (Blue Velvet), Jack Carter (Get Carter), Alain Charnier (The French Connection), Francis Costello (The Departed), Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn (One False Move), Don Logan (Sexy Beast), Rick Masters (To Live and Die in L.A.), Neil McCauley (Heat), Liam “Leo” O’Bannon (Miller’s Crossing), Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects), Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (A History of Violence), Marsellus Wallace (Pulp Fiction), The Joker (The Dark Knight), The Pin (Brick)

Cunning Manipulator

Catherine (Black Widow) Mike (House of Games), Jackie Brown (Jackie Brown), Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord (Red Rock West), Peter Cable (Klute), Lilly Dillon (The Grifters), Bridget Gregory (The Last Seduction), Andy Hanson (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) Woo-Jin Lee (Oldeuboi), Terry Lennox (The Long Goodbye), Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley, et al.), Leonard Shelby (Memento), Suzie Toller (Wild Things), Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct), Mavis Wald (Marlowe), Matty Walker (Body Heat)

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Kevin (Sin City), Vincent (Collateral), Walker (Point Blank), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Louis Bloom (Nightcrawler), Max Cady (Cape Fear), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), Jef Costello (Le Samourai), John Doe (Se7en), Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction), Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs), Loren Visser (Blood Simple), Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction), Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega (Reservoir Dogs), The Driver (Drive, The Driver), Rorschach (Watchmen)

This is a (relatively) diverse and fascinating group. Ten of the 64 are women, though nine of them are in the Cunning Manipulator category, which speaks volume about gender roles (in both senses of the word) in neo-noir films. The one woman not so categorized, Alex Forrest, is killed off at the end of Fatal Attraction, even though her initial “crime” was asserting her own sexuality. Setting aside the ethnically-uncertain Ras Al Ghul, literal cartoon Judge Doom, non-terrestrial Mr. Hand and possibly-supernatural Charlie Meadows, there are six people of color, excluding Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem. Jack Carter and Don Logan are British, Alain Charnier and Jef Costello are French, Keyser Soze is…Hungarian, I believe…and Woo-Jin Lee is South Korean. The Pin and Suzie Toller are high school students—while Elijah Wood was just 24 when Sin City was released. Tom Ripley and Catherine Tramell are both LGBTQI+; Lilly Dillon has a very unusual relationship with her son, though not the one Noah Cross has with his daughter.

There are two characters each from Pulp Fiction, The Silence of the Lambs, Sin City and Watchmen. Robert DeNiro portrays three characters—Travis Bickle, Max Cady, Neil McCauley—while Mickey Rourke (Harry Angel, Marv) and Kevin Spacey (John Doe, Keyser Soze/Verbal Kint) each play two; Bickle and Cady both appear in films directed by Martin Scorsese. If you count the version of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, director Michael Mann is represented by four characters (Lecter, McCauley, Frank and Vincent), as are Ethan and Joel Coen (Chigurh, Meadows, Leo O’Bannon, Loren Visser) and Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown, Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega, Marsellus Wallace, Jules Winnfield). Christopher Nolan (Ras Al Ghul, The Joker, Leonard Shelby) and Scorsese (Bickle, Cady and Francis Costello) have three characters each; six other directors—John Dahl, Jonathan Demme, William Friedkin, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez (with an assist from Tarantino and Frank Miller) and Zack Snyder have two characters each.

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To mimic the ordering used by NCAA Basketball brackets, I used the product of POINTS and OAP to “seed” characters within each category from 1-16. Do not take these seeds too literally, as they reflect awareness of the film as a whole rather than the darkness of any specific character.

Figure 1: Worst Character in Neo-Noir, Initial Field of 64

I used the following rough criteria to determine “winners” in the first two rounds:

  • Whether the character gets away with her/his scheme—not necessarily the same as surviving, as John Doe shows.
  • The number of people that die at the character’s own hands
  • The number of despicable actions besides murder—raping your own daughter, as Noah Cross does, being the classic example
  • Intelligence: Suzie Toller may be a high school student but her IQ is well over genius level–and she is willing to pull out her own teeth to make her scheme work. This distinguishes characters who are “merely” brutal, like Marv or Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega.
  • What is the scope of the character’s villainy? Is it global—like Adrian Veidt’s plan to end the Cold War or Ras Al Ghul’s desire to “save” Gotham City—or is it more personal and banal—like Walker wanting his share of $93,000?
  • Does the character have a redemption arc?
  • Similarly, do we root for the character in some way? Motivation matters: Walker has no grand design beyond revenge and getting his money, Carter wants to avenge his brother, Brown wants to be free from Ordell Robbie, Tom Stall wants to forget his past life, Frank wants to settle down and have a family, and The Driver (in the 2011 film) wants to protect his new friends.
  • Is the character the nominal “hero” of the film? I discussed this in the previous post in reference to Harry Callahan, Paul Kersey, Frank, Walker and others.

With these very rough criteria in mind, we commence Round 1 of elimination.

Round 1

Corrupt Power

Noah Cross over Adrian Veidt. This was surprisingly tough. Cross is a brilliant and power-crazed man who rapes his own daughter—and walks away with his daughter/granddaughter after his daughter is shot by police officers. And Chinatown is the definitive neo-noir film. But “Ozymandias” murders people with his bare hands, is one of the most intelligent characters in cinema history and is willing to destroy New York City to end the alternate-timeline Cold War. And therein lies the rub…his motivation, however twisted, is just other-serving enough to eliminate him here.

Ras Al Ghul over Mr. Hand. The latter is an alien, full stop.

Alonzo Harris over Judge Doom. The latter is a cartoon character, full stop.

Harry Angel over Tyler Derden. Yes, the latter blows up entire buildings and convinces men to beat each other to a pulp—and sort of gets away with it. But Johnny Liebling literally sacrificed a random stranger to make a deal with the devil—and there is a reason the source novel was called Fallen Angel: Harry Angel is pure evil, with or without “Louis Cyphre” guiding him. Derden is also, you know, only a figment of The Narrator’s imagination.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter over Paul Kersey. As despicable as I think Kersey’s actions are, he is the nominal “hero” of Death Wish (and its many sequels), and he acts out of grief. Lecter is a sociopathic genius cannibal locked in a maximum security prison.

Stansfield over Harry Callahan. This is an upset, a 14 seed beating a 3 seed. But while Callahan may be “Dirty,” he is not a pill-popping DEA agent who would gleefully murder a 12-year-old girl in cold blood.

Tom Farrell over Lou Ford. Ford’s sociopathy is local, Farrell’s criminality is global.

Dudley Smith over Charlie Meadows. There is enough uncertainty over Meadows’ true nature—or how much of Barton Fink is in the title character’s mind—to eliminate him. Plus, L.A. Confidential is one of the premier neo-noirs—and the cruelly calculating Smith makes my skin crawl; his casual shooting of Jack Vincennes remains my greatest shock watching a film in the theater.

Crime Boss

Don Logan over Marv. This is the supreme upset—a 16 seed toppling a 1 seed—yet it was not a close decision. After re-watching Sin City, I realized that as criminal and violent as Marv is, he reserves his most extreme viciousness for the truly evil characters in Basin City: Kevin, in particular. We genuinely root for Marv; motivations matter. Logan, by contrast, terrifies even the most hardened criminals in Sexy Beast.

The Joker over Alain Charnier. Everyone remembers Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight. I had to look up Charnier’s character’s name.

Frank Booth over Rick Masters. Masters is essentially an artist-turned counterfeiter who uses violence to protect himself in a mediocre movie. Booth is a drug-addled sociopathic sadist in a brilliant film who is among the worst movie villains ever.

Neil McCauley over Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn. This was a tough choice. I had forgotten about Pluto—the leader of the Los Angeles drug gang in the oft-overlooked One False Move. He is brilliant, patient and legitimately frightening. But McCauley simply operates at a completely different level. He plans intricate, massive-haul heists in broad daylight, and he is willing to abandon anyone at any time to save himself.

Jack Carter over Francis Costello. Two of the best gangster films ever made in Get Carter and The Departed. Two of the greatest actors of the last 75 years in Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson. Carter is someone we root for—he wants to avenge his brother—even as his violent depravity shocks us. Costello rules a vast criminal empire, untouched by the law, for decades. However, for all of Nicholson’s talent, Caine imbues Carter with an icy resolve that chills viewers…and, as I pointed out before, Costello is loosely based on “Whitey” Bulger.

Keyser Soze over The Pin. The Pin is a high school student, Keyser Soze…is Keyser Soze.

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack BARELY over Frank. A fascinating matchup between two very sympathetic—albeit violently criminal—men who just want to forget the past and be with their families. But their past won’t let them, so they must brutally destroy that past. The one difference is that we know Stall returns to his family, and his children (at least) welcome him. Frank’s ending is far more ambiguous.

Marsellus Wallace over Leo O’Bannon. Despite very little screen time, Wallace is the absolute dominant force in Pulp Fiction. Jules and Vincent work for him, the briefcase belongs to him (and, no, it is NOT his soul), Butch Coolidge is hiding from him and, well, there is that “medieval” thing. Not to take anything away from mob boss O’Bannon, but Miller’s Crossing is a long way from Los Angeles.

Cunning Manipulator

Matty Walker over Suzie Toller. I agonized the most over this decision, by far. Both of them get away with their crimes, perhaps ending up on the same tropical beach with the world thinking they are dead. Indeed, Toller does everything Walker does, with far more intelligence, dedication (she literally rips out her own tooth with a pair of pliers) and cool-headedness…and she is only a high school student. In the end, however, it boiled down to the “neo-noir” status of each character’s film. While I think Wild Things is very underrated, it simply is not the classic of neo-noir Body Heat is. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I extremely reluctantly chose Walker over Toller.

Catherine over Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord. The bottom line is this: Brown/McCord is not necessarily the worst villain in Red Rock West. Catherine is the only villain in Black Widow.

Lilly Dillon over Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown may be the most charming and delightful character on this list; I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Jackie Brown. By contrast, Dillon is…difficult to like.

Leonard Shelby over Andy Hanson. This is not close. Hanson arranges for his hapless brother to rob their parents’ jewelry store—no muss, no fuss, until the robbery goes horribly wrong. While he is an amoral jerk, Shelby lets himself become a serial killer rather than face the fact he is responsible for his wife’s death…assuming he still actually cares. He can always forget any despicable crime he commits, charming his way through life.

Peter Cable over Mavis Wald. These are two old-school, not especially interesting characters (1971, 1969) whose murders operate within a fairly narrow sphere. Cable was effectively a coin flip.

Tom Ripley over Terry Lennox. This is only a mild upset. Like Wald, Lennox is old-school; both emerge from classic Raymond Chandler novels. Ripley is also old-school, emerging from the brilliant mind of Patricia Highsmith. But Ripley keeps appearing in films, beginning with Plein soleil (Purple Noon) in 1960, and he is the poster-boy for manipulation, effortlessly becoming other people.

Catherine Tramell over Mike. This was a tough choice, as both are among the most skilled liars in all of neo-noir. However, Mike is primarily a phenomenally gifted con artist who only kills when absolutely necessary, and he does get defeated in House of Games. If I read the ending of Basic Instinct correctly, Tramell murders incessantly and gets away with it.

Woo-Jin Lee over Bridget Gregory. I admit to being at a disadvantage here: I have seen The Last Seduction twice, but I have not (yet) seen Oldeuboi. Still, here is what I do know. Gregory is driven by fear and revenge over her abusive husband Clay, played with slimy perfection by Bill Pullman. But she is not inherently bad; she mostly just wants to be left alone…though she allows an innocent man to pay the price for her crimes. Lee, by contrast, locks a man—admittedly no saint—in a room for 15 years, then maneuvers him into sleeping with his own daughter. The yuck factor alone propels Lee forward.

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Rorschach over Walker. For the second time, a 16 seed upsets a 1 seed. While Point Blank, along with Body Heat, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Taxi Driver, is of the five key neo-noir films—those with 20.0 POINTS or more—Walker is far too sympathetic to be a villain. He is left for dead at the film’s start, betrayed by his partners in crime. In fact, the entire film may be a revenge fantasy Walker plays out in his mind as he dies. Meanwhile, I suspect Watchmen, like Nightcrawler, will receive more recognition as a neo-noir over time. And Rorschach will take his place alongside Callahan, Kersey and others in the vigilante pantheon—though less sympathetic and more unsettling.

Vincent over Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega. Vincent is a meticulous planner, while Vega is a screw-loose thug.

Loren Visser over The Driver. As violent as the latter is, his redemption arc and the tenderness with which he moves Irene aside in the elevator before pummeling a hit man to death keeps him from advancing to the next round. Visser, for his part, is the textbook hired assassin: deadly, ruthless and unwavering.

Kevin over Max Cady. Cady is terrifying, almost animalistic in his single-minded quest for revenge. But Scorsese’s Cape Fear is a remake of a classic-era-ish film noir. And I have never felt a cold chill go up my spine like I did when I first saw Kevin appear in the doorway to Goldie’s bedroom, eyes hidden behind shiny glasses. Learning he is panther-like quiet, strong and fast—and a sadistic cannibalistic religious zealot—was my primary takeaway from Sin City. Elijah Wood has seriously dark depths.

Jef Costello over Alex Forrest. Forrest’s character gets a raw deal, full stop.

John Doe over Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill. These are the twin nightmares of this category. In one corner is the unnamed serial killer who haunts the unnamed city of Se7en, dispensing divine retribution for violation of the seven deadly sins—even to the point of mutilating and punishing himself. In the other corner is the serial killer of The Silence of the Lambs who kidnaps, tortures and murders women to build a new skin for himself. The one key difference is that while both men die at the end of the film, Doe remains in control of the situation even after that. In fact, he is in control for the entire movie.

Anton Chigurh over Jules Winnfield. They are the yin and yang of hired assassins. Chigurh is quiet, patient and slavishly devoted to the toss of his coin. Winnfield is loud, impulsive and given to misquoting Biblical passages. Both are extremely effective, terrifying and survive the film. But Winnfield has a legitimate redemption arc, however incomplete—and he thwarts the coffee shop robbery.

Travis Bickle over Louis Bloom. I agonized over this match-up almost as much as Matty Walker versus Suzie Toller. This process began when I marveled at Jake Gyllenhall’s emaciated performance in Nightcrawler. Coincidentally, I noted the strong resemblance between these two lonely outsiders who prowl the night city, feeding off its dark criminality—and understanding that their perception is distorted, a half-view of reality. Both men survive at the end of the film, though while Bickle, despite being hailed as a “hero,” has not grown at all, Bloom now has a thriving, expanding video news production business. Two things elevate Bickle, however: Taxi Driver’s iconic status and the number of people he kills himself (Bloom does not directly kill anybody).

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Moving on to Round 2

Corrupt Power

Noah Cross over Ras Al Ghul. Al Ghul genuinely thinks the League of Shadows are helping Gotham City by destroying it—and it is he who first trains Bruce Wayne. Compared to the narcissistic and greedy Cross, Al Ghul is downright sympathetic.

Harry Angel over Alonzo Harris. Harris is corrupt, but Angel borders on pure evil.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter over Stansfield. This was not as obvious as it might seem. In the context of Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter assists law enforcement in the pursuit of the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill. Stansfield, by contrast, is the unequivocal villain of Leon: The Professional, ritualistically popping pills and psyching himself up with classical music. Leon, the hired assassin, is the sympathetic character. This should actually elevate Stansfield over Lecter. However, Lecter is only able to help Clarice Starling because he is locked in his cell, or masked and bound. He is a violent cannibalistic psychopath—WHO ENDS THE FILM ON THE LOOSE. Stansfield is blown up at the end of Leon.

Dudley Smith over Tom Farrell. Farrell is contemptible, a Russian spy embedded deep within the American government, but he is not the killer being sought in No Way Out. Smith is a cold-blooded killer, determined to erase anyone—allies and foes alike—who prevents him from seizing full control of organized crime in Los Angeles. Yes, he dies at the end of the film, but Farrell is captured, making it a wash.

Crime Boss

The Joker over Don Logan. Joker’s ability to strategize, his nihilism and his disinterest in material gain elevate him over the admittedly-petrifying loose cannon that is Logan.

Frank Booth over Neil McCauley. McCauley is a master criminal willing to cut social ties to save himself, but he is not inherently bad. Booth is.

Keyser Soze over Jack Carter. Carter is vicious, relentless and fear-inducing—but in the context of Get Carter, he is the hero: we want him to succeed. Soze makes other hardened criminals scared of their own shadows.

Marsellus Wallace over Tom Stall/Joey Cusack. After all of his deranged violence—violence he neither sought nor wanted—Stall has a final tender, wholly silent scene with the family he loves. When last we see Wallace, he is about to, you know, get medieval.

Cunning Manipulator

Catherine over Matty Walker. This is another upset, a 9 seed eliminating a 1 seed, though it was close. Walker goes through the machinations of killing her husband once, but Catherine does it at least three times. Walker gets away with her crimes, but Catherine is defeated. The difference is that Catherine is motivated by more than simple greed. She is a serial killer, titillated by the careful planning, and—unlike Walker—will keep being the black widow indefinitely.

Leonard Shelby over Lilly Dillon. What sets Shelby apart from Dillon, professional con artist and thief, is his willingness to “forget” all of his previous crimes. He chooses to be a serial killer because, like Catherine, some part of him enjoys it.

Tom Ripley over Peter Cable. Ripley is simply more devious and deviant—and vastly more interesting.

Catherine Tramell over Woo-Jin Lee. I nearly went the other way on this, but I know too little about Lee to be confident in my decision. And, reviewing the plot of Basic Instinct, Tramell is far more deadly and dangerous than I had recalled. Lee ruins one life—well, two—but Tramell kills early and often.

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Vincent over Rorschach. This also was not obvious. Vincent feels nothing for his fellow humans; Rorschach drips with contempt for them. Vincent kills because he is paid to do so, and his brilliance allows him to do so effectively and lucratively. Rorschach kills because he wants to clean society of its filth, and because he was severely traumatized as a child. But, despite being a nominal “superhero,” it is difficult to root for him. Yet, root for him we do—and we are genuinely upset when Dr. Manhattan kills him at the end of Watchmen. We are not remotely upset when Vincent dies at the end of Collateral.

Kevin over Loren Visser. The cannibal serial killer eliminates the hired assassin.

John Doe over Jef Costello. The zealot serial killer eliminates the hired assassin.

Anton Chigurh over Travis Bickle. Chigurh is evil at its most banal: indifferent, patient and calculating. But for his coin, he would kill many more people. Moreover, by OAP, No Country For Old Men is the post-1966 most often cited as “film noir.” Bickle, by contrast, is less evil than deeply troubled, unable to cope with his surroundings. He does not kill for money or sport, but to “cleanse” society by rescuing a single child prostitute. And he is the nominal “hero” of Taxi Driver.

And with that, the Not-So-Sweet Sixteen is set.

Figure 2: Worst Character in Neo-Noir, Not-So-Sweet 16

It is now time to vote on Twitter, so please find me there @drnoir33! I will keep early votes open longer, but not more than 36 hours or so.

Until next time…be safe and careful…and please get vaccinated!

Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: Setting The Brackets

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!!

[Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this post, I neglected to include Woo-Jin Lee in my Cunning Manipulator list, so I correct this post by adding him and removing Hedra Carlson]

In a previous post, I used two metrics—POINTS and Opportunity-Adjusted POINTS (“OAP”) to identify 96 films most often cited as “neo-noir”: the 95 films in Table 3 plus The Detective. Within that group, I identified a 17-film core: Blade Runner; Blood Simple; Body Heat; Chinatown; Devil in a Blue Dress; Farewell, My Lovely; The Grifters; L.A. Confidential; The Last Seduction; The Long Goodbye; Memento; Night Moves; Point Blank; Pulp Fiction; Se7en; Sin City and Taxi Driver.

From these films, we can now begin to construct a preliminary list of the worst villains in neo-noir. Before we begin, though, I establish the first ground rule:

Ground Rule #1: Remakes of classic films noir are excluded.

This leaves out Jules Amthor, Velma Valento or Moose Malloy from Farewell, My Lovely. It also excludes anyone from remakes of The Big Sleep (1978), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and D.O.A. (1988). I will, however, make an exception for Max Cady from Cape Fear (1991). The original film was released in 1962, three years after the “traditional” 1959 endpoint for classic film noir, which is likely why Max Cady—played with villainous zeal by Robert Mitchum and Robert DeNiro—was excluded from the Noir Alley “March Badness” competition; that, and Mitchum as already represented by Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. I also exclude The Two Jakes because it is a lesser sequel to Chinatown. Finally, I consider “The Driver” from The Driver (1978) and Drive (2011) to be the same character, as well as homicidal police officer Lou Ford in the 1976 and 2010 versions of The Killer Inside Me.

Returning to the core 17 films—minus Farewell, My Lovely—in most of them, the character to select is obvious:

  • Loren Visser, the relentless hired assassin in Blood Simple,
  • Matty Walker, who arranges the death of her husband in Body Heat—and gets away with it,
  • Noah Cross, the power-hungry landowner who rapes his own daughter in Chinatown,
  • Lilly Dillon, world’s worst mother and professional grifter in The Grifters,
  • Captain Dudley Smith, who uses the arrest of Mickey Cohen to set up his own crime and drug empire in L.A. Confidential,
  • Bridget Gregory, who uses her new lover to kill her abusive husband—and get off scot free—in The Last Seduction,
  • Terry Lennox, manipulative murderer in The Long Goodbye,
  • Leonard Shelby, a man who uses his anterograde amnesia to fool himself into becoming a serial killer in Memento,
  • John Doe, the religious fanatic driven to exact divine retribution in Se7en,
  • Any number of villains in Pulp Fiction (most notably Vincent Vega, Marsellus Wallace, Jules Winnfield) and Sin City (most notably Kevin and Marv)

And we begin to see distinct types of bad actors: the corrupted powerful (Noah Cross, Dudley Smith), the psychotic loner/hired assassin (Kevin, John Doe, Leonard Shelby, Vincent Vega, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield), the cunning manipulator (Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Matty Walker) and the crime boss (Marsellus Wallace and, arguably, Marv).

But…there are also difficulties distinguishing who the true villains are. For example, Daphne Monet cleverly manipulates events in Devil in a Blue Dress, but solely to be with her lover. Societal racism is the true villain here; we exclude Ms. Monet. The same applies to replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner, whose actions are effectively in self-defense. The Tyrell Corporation, which orders the blade runners to terminate the replicants, is the true villain; we exclude Mr. Batty—and all other replicants. Night Moves is so convoluted, it is impossible to identify any single villain; we exclude everyone from it.

This brings us to a genuine conundrum: not being to distinguish the badness of the nominal hero from the putative villain(s). Walker and Travis Bickle are the protagonists, respectively, of Point Blank and Taxi Driver, but they are arguably the most terrifying characters in their respective movies. Plus, both fit perfectly into the psychotic loner/hired assassin category. As a result, I establish the second ground rule:

Ground Rule #2: The protagonist can be selected.

To review, we have identified 16 worst neo-noir character—not villain, per sé—candidates, divided into four categories, to which—based on what I wrote in the previous post—I add Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler and Suzie Toller from Wild Things. I also add The Driver, Max Cady and Lou Ford:

Corrupted Powerful

Noah Cross, Lou Ford, Dudley Smith

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Kevin, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, John Doe, Leonard Shelby, Vincent Vega, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, The Driver

Cunning Manipulator

Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Suzie Toller, Matty Walker

Crime Boss

Marv, Marsellus Wallace

Selecting two hired assassins from Pulp Fiction, only one of whom is not killed on-screen, is redundant, so I remove Vincent Vega and establish the third ground rule:

Ground Rule #3: No more than two characters from any film will be considered.

This leads to a corollary, which is the fourth ground rule:

Ground Rule #4: There is no limit on how many selected characters an actor or actress may portray.

And, upon further consideration, Leonard Shelby is not psychotic—he suffers from a traumatic brain injury—nor a hired assassin, so I move him to the Cunning Manipulator (“CM”) category.

Corrupted Powerful (3)

Noah Cross, Lou Ford, Dudley Smith

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin (9)

Kevin, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, John Doe, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, The Driver

Cunning Manipulator (6)

Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Leonard Shelby, Suzie Toller, Matty Walker

Crime Boss (2)

Marv, Marsellus Wallace

The marked imbalance in the four categories means it is time to consider additional neo-noir characters.

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Films ranked #1 and #6 by OAP—No Country for Old Men and Collateral—introduce two remorseless, cold-blooded assassins in Anton Chigurh and Vincent, respectively, in the PLHA category. Rounding out the top 10 with The Dark Knight, we have The Joker. By extension, we also have Ras Al Ghul/Henry Ducard from Batman Begins at #54; the former is PLHA, the latter is Corrupted Power (“CP”). I considered excluding both because they are “cartoon” characters, but the powerful performances of the late Heath Ledger and Liam Neeson elevate them.

At #15, we have the first of three David Lynch films, Mulholland Drive (#15), with Blue Velvet (#40) and the underrated Lost Highway (#79) also in the top 100. While the character alternately called Betty and Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive is a classic manipulator, she mostly deludes herself, then pays the price at her own hand. The same applies to Fred Madison in Lost Highway, though Renee Madison/Alice is also a manipulator, but primarily in Madison’s “Pete Dayton” fantasy; ultimately, she is more victim than criminal. As a result, I exclude all three characters—as well as Edward Daniels/Andrew Laeddis from Shutter Island; his “worst patient” status mostly applies to his time on the titular island. The terrifying Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, however, is one of the worst villains in any genre, and is a clear selection for the Crime Boss (“CB”) category.

The same applies to Boston mob boss Francis Costello from The Departed (#17) and, I would argue, the character variously known as Tom Stall and Joey Cusack in A History of Violence (#20). Technically Carl Fogarty and Ritchie Cusack are the “villains” in the latter film (not to mention corrupt Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan in The Departed), but Viggo Mortensen’s Joey easily defeats them, with psychotic glee—all while the audience roots for him. Sullivan, meanwhile, may be corrupt, but he is also at the mercy of both Costello and his superiors. Thus, I exclude Fogarty, Ritchie Cusack and Sullivan.

Rounding out the top 20 by OAP is Black Swan (#16). Arguably, there is no true villain in this movie—except the obsessive desire for perfection in Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers—so I exclude it.

At #26, we find the second of three Quentin Tarantino films, following Pulp Fiction (#19), the groundbreaking Reservoir Dogs. While this movie is almost nothing but villains, the standout is clearly “Mr. Blonde” (aka Vic Vega), whose sadism ruined Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” for many viewers. Meanwhile, at #65, there is Jackie Brown, whose survivor title character lands squarely in the CM category.

This brings us to two related films: The Black Dahlia (#27) and True Confessions (#90), both based on the still-unsolved January 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. Because the “killer” in both films is the “actual” killer of Elizabeth Short—not an original character—I exclude them, leading to the fifth ground rule:

Ground Rule #5: Characters based on real people, however loosely, are excluded.

This also rules out the “Scorpio” killer from Dirty Harry (#37)—though not the vigilantist Harry Callahan himself—and anyone from Zodiac (#43), because both films are based on the crimes of the real-life The Zodiac. This also means we skip over the marvelous Hollywoodland (#36), since it never truly resolves the unusual circumstances of actor George Reeves’ death—though it is tempting to add Adrien Brody’s scumbag private detective Louis Simo to the list. The Bank Job (#44) is based on real events in 1971 London. Indirectly—and sadly, because it is one of my favorite films—this eliminates anyone from Hammett (#75), a fictionalized account of author Dashiell Hammett’s life in San Francisco containing elements cribbed from The Maltese Falcon. If I were consistent, this rule would also eliminate Costello from The Departed, given his loose modeling on Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, Jr. The resemblance is just superficial enough, however, that I keep him for now.

As wonderful as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (#28) is, we skip over it, because the villainy is almost beside the point. I argue this exclusion logic also applies to El Aura (#38), The Conversation (#52), The Cooler (#87), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (#94), because these are character studies more than anything else, along the lines of Jake Gyllenhall’s portrayal of Robert Graysmith in Zodiac).

The second of John Dahl’s three titles—after The Last Seduction (#13)—is at #29: the too-often overlooked Red Rock West. Once again, Dennis Hopper plays a psychotic gunman (“Lyle from Dallas”), but he is essentially a less interesting version of Frank Booth, excluding him. And it is Lara Flynn Boyle’s Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord who manipulates everyone, landing her on the CM list. As for the third Dahl film, Kill Me Again (#58), I simply note Michael Madsen was clearly warming up to play the far more interesting Vic Vega three years later, while Joanna Whalley’s Fay Forrester is weak sauce as the manipulative woman—both are excluded. The Hot Spot (#68), directed by Hopper, is also weak sauce, so I exclude it as well.

At #30, however, we find the astonishing The Usual Suspects—and elusive criminal kingpin Keyser Soze. Similarly powerful and/or psychotic crime bosses are Neil McCauley in Heat (#35; DeNiro’s third character selected), The Pin in the imaginative high school neo-noir Brick (#39), drug lord Alain Charnier in The French Connection (#60), the counterfeiter Rick Masters in To Live and Die in L.A. (#66), genius sadist Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn in One False Move (#69) and icy hot Jack Carter in Get Carter (#77). Looking just beyond these films, we find Liam “Leo” O’Bannon in the Coen Brothers film Miller’s Crossing (7.0 POINTS, #100) and the truly terrifying Don Logan in Sexy Beast (5.0, #111). However, as charming as Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (7.0, #109) is, Carl Reiner’s Field Marshall VonKluck is too parodic to take seriously.

Meanwhile, at #31 is the model for contemporary erotic thrillers, Basic Instinct, featuring one of the supreme manipulators in Catherine Tramell. Others in the CM category include Peter Cable in Klute (#32), Andy Hanson in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (#41), “Catherine” in Black Widow (#47), “Mike” in House of Games (#48) and Mavis Wald in Marlowe (#76). Digging far deeper down the list, there is the jaw-droppingly sadistic Woo-Jin Lee from Oldeuboi (Oldboy, 3.0, #154). I considered these characters from two terrific Coen Brothers films: Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo (#59) and Ed Crane from The Man Who Wasn’t There (#61), but they are too hapless to include; that goes for every other villain in Fargo. And Uncle Bud from After Dark, My Sweet (#49) and Laure/Lilly from Femme Fatale (#53) are a bit too generic.

I confess I do not know enough about San Taam (#42), Femme Fatale (#53) Croupier (#73), De Battre mon Coeur s’est Arrete (#80), I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (#88) and In the Cut (#89) to make an informed decision about whether any character from these films is a worthy selection, so I exclude them…for now. I also exclude anyone from every “reimagined” film except the superior Body Heat: The Deep End (#45), Against All Odds (#46), China Moon (#91) and The Underneath (#92).

That leaves only a handful of films to consider, beginning with the coolly beautiful Le Samourai at #50. The quiet assassin Jef Costello is perhaps Alain Delon’s signature role, clearly in the PLHA category. Arguably, this is a late 1960’s French reimagining of This Gun for Hire, meaning I am violating the spirit of Ground Rule #1, but the sheer quality of Le Samourai compels me. Looking much further down the list, we find the titular Leon of the blackly charming Leon: The Professional (4.0, #248). I thought long and hard about including him, but ultimately decided his redemption arc was too strong. The sociopathic Drug Enforcement Agency officer Stansfield, however, is the very picture of corrupted power. As, in a more cartoonish but no less terrifying way, is Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (6.0, #199).

Returning to the psychotic loner archetype, we have two extremes: the wholly unsavory Harry Angel/Johnny Favorite/Johnny Liebling from the surprisingly-good Angel Heart (#57) and the sympathetic Frank—the titular criminal in Thief (#64)—who just wants to make his photo-collage a reality. In the former, we are led to believe Louis Cyphre—a play on “Lucifer”—is the true villain, but DeNiro’s suave portrayal subtly upends our expectations. And Leo, the mob boss in Thief, is too cookie-cutter to be interesting. Returning to the devil for a moment, we look to one final Coen Brothers film—the surreal Barton Fink (3.0, #>500)—for…whatever Charlie Meadows is. Psychopathic serial killer? Devil incarnate? It does not matter, John Goodman’s performance is riveting, and on the off-chance he is more supernatural than natural, I classify him as CP.

Speaking of sociopaths, we at long last arrive at Manhunter (#67) and The Silence of the Lambs (#86). The brilliant cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most terrifying characters in fiction, period. However, he is also on the side of law and order in that he helps track down other serial killers in both films: The Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill; I place him in CP. I have little interest in the former, but the latter is the stuff of nightmares, even if he is loosely modeled on both Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, meaning I again violate Ground Rule #5 by including him.

Jumping ahead a bit, I again break the spirit of Ground Rule #1 by selecting the fascinating Tom Farrell from No Way Out, denoting him a clever Cold-War-era spin on corrupt power. Meanwhile, given how many characters have already been selected, we skip over some otherwise decent crime films from the late 1960s through the mid-1970’s: Hustle (#51), Madigan (#62), Hickey & Boggs (#93), The Outfit (#95) and The Detective (#116)—and the third Carl Franklin film, Out of Time (#63). One reason is that I have not yet seen these films. Another is that The Outfit, at least, seems like a less interesting version of the superb Charley Varrick (6.0, #219); the primary villain in the latter film, mob assassin Molly, is not different enough from “Lyle from Dallas” or Loren Visser to include. Varrick himself, while a thief and a brilliant schemer, is far too sympathetic to include.

This leaves only five films among our original 96: Bound (#70), Insomnia (#71), Death Wish (#78), Fatal Attraction (#81) and Dark City (#74). Going in order, we have the schemers Violet and Corky, and Violet’s money-laundering husband Caesar. The latter, while violent, is generic and easily manipulated by his wife and her new lover. Violet and Corky upend expectations by riding off into the sunset together, and the entire film has a charming tongue-in-cheek quality to it, so I exclude it. In both versions of Insomnia, the villainy becomes so entangled it is hard to decide who to select…so I select nobody.

Paul Kersey, meanwhile, the architect who turns violent to “avenge” the death of his wife at the hands of street thugs in Death Wish, is simply Harry Callahan without a badge. He arrogates the power of life and death unto himself, making him a clear CP. Jumping ahead to the magnificent and gorgeous Dark City—like Blade Runner, Se7en, and Sin City, film noir pushed to its logical extreme of corrupt night city—I select Mr. Hand, the most clearly villainous The Strangers. I almost excluded him because he is an alien, but if I am including comic book characters and cartoon villains, that ship has long since sailed. Along those same lines, I invoke editorial privilege and select two characters from Watchmen (1.0, #520 when including POINTS<3.0): the corrupted powerful Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias and the psychotic vigilante Rorschach. The former believes—like Ras Al Ghul, like The Joker, like John Doe, like Travis Bickle, like Judge Doom, like Harry Callahan, like Paul Kersey—that the only way to “save” a society is to destroy it, in this case by forcing (in an alternate timeline) the United States and Soviet Union to deal with a nuclear weapon destroying New York City. Rorschach, meanwhile, is a sociopathic force of nature, the vigilante’s vigilante, willing and able to take on an entire prison by himself.

Finally, I was genuinely conflicted over including Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction. There is a good argument to be made she is as much victim as villain, though, on balance, her murderous rampage is…extreme. I thus put her in the PLHA category. This gives us 60 total selections, somewhat more evenly split between the four categories, though there are still 18 in PLHA.

To round out the total to 64, with 16 in each category, I add the following names:

  1. Master of identity theft, Tom Ripley, from The Talented Mr. Ripley (5.0, #125) among other titles; CM
  2. Master of chaos Tyler Derden, aka The Narrator, from Fight Club (4.0, #212); CP
  3. Corrupt cop Alonzo Harris from Training Day (4.0, #113), CP

And I move Frank and The Joker from PLHA to CB, creating four categories of 16 characters:

Corrupt Powerful (16)

Harry Angel, Harry Callahan, Noah Cross, Tyler Derden, Judge Doom, Tom Farrell, Lou Ford, Ras Al Ghul/Henri Ducard, Alonzo Harris, Mr. Hand, Paul Kersey, Hannibal Lecter, Charlie Meadows, Dudley Smith, Stansfield, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin (16)

Kevin, Vincent, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, Anton Chigurh, Jef Costello, John Doe, Alex Forrest, Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega, The Driver, Rorschach

Cunning Manipulator (16)

“Catherine,” “Mike,” Jackie Brown, Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord, Peter Cable, Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Andy Hanson, Woo-Jin Lee, Terry Lennox, Tom Ripley, Leonard Shelby, Suzie Toller, Catherine Tramell, Mavis Wald, Matty Walker

Crime Boss (16)

Frank, Marv, Frank Booth, Jack Carter, Alain Charnier, Francis Costello, Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn, Don Logan, Rick Masters, Neil McCauley, Liam “Leo” O’Bannon, Keyser Soze, Tom Stall/Joey Cusack, Marsellus Wallace, The Joker, The Pin

Using the product of POINTS and OPA, I will “seed” each character 1 to 16 within each category…and in the next, and final, installment, assess each matchup so that only 16 characters remain—four in each category.

After that, let the voting begin.

In the meantime, watch your back…these characters are some of the worst of the worst.

Until next time…be safe and careful…and please get vaccinated!

That Time My Great-Uncle Helped Send a Man To Prison

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfolded. I compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 10 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Two agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One narrative thread I weave through the book is the story of John Rhoads Company, a successful West Philadelphia business founded by the Harrisburg-born Rhoads in 1886. On July 15, 1926, a 32-year-old Jewish immigrant from what is now Poland named Morris (Moshe bar Dahvid Layb) Berger bought the company, joined by his younger brother Jules. “Julius” had been born in a two-story Philadelphia row house in February 1904. Less than seven years earlier, the two brothers and their three sisters had lost their father under mysterious circumstances that made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But you must await publication for that story…and the shenanigans that transpired in the Spruce Hotel in 1937.

Instead, today I reprint this short passage from Chapter 1 (From Triumph to Tragedy…and the Tailor’s Daughter). It is the second half of the section titled “John Rhoads Company.”

Please enjoy.

It was on this land in 1886 that the former confectioner opened John Rhoads Company, a carpet cleaning, moving and storage firm whose original address was 736-42—later just 738—N. Holly Street. In 1894, this “popular” two-floor firm was the “largest in West Philadelphia.”[i] Less than two years later, on July 27, 1896, 57-year-old John Rhoads died at his home at 4003 Spring Garden Street, a few blocks southeast from his company. It passed through the hands of sons Daniel and John F., their wives and his daughter Mary A. before ultimately passing to John F.’s wife Annie L. G. Rhoads.

In the meantime, John Rhoads Company thrived, advertising “Carpet Beating, 3c Yard. Called for and returned free, also Six Months’ Storage Free”[ii] in May 1914, then “Storage, packing, shipping. Local and distant moving” and carpet cleaning in January 1919.[iii] By February 15, 1919, John Rhoads Company had changed its official address to 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue.[iv]

I do not know why Morris Berger decided to purchase John Rhoads Company, or why Annie Rhoads sold it to him. The likeliest explanation is that Annie did not want to run the family business herself and accepted a generous offer from a man who had started working at the business with his younger brother the previous year, bringing with them an excellent reputation in the used furniture business.

Five years later, on April 2, 1931, Morris Berger officially ceded ownership of the company and the land it occupied to “John Rhoads Co.” This way, according to a paternal cousin, Morris and Jules split their stake in the company 50-50, with an arrangement that if one brother died, the surviving brother would receive an additional 1% of the company, making him bare-majority owner; it is not clear how the remaining 49% control would be allocated.[v]

Jules Berger, now in his mid-20s, took the opportunity afforded by this success to travel in style, Great Depression notwithstanding. On February 1, 1931, he departed Havana, Cuba for Key West, Florida on the S.S. Northland. That summer, he spent two weeks at the Ford Hotel in Montreal, Canada, carrying $100 in cash (almost $1,700 in 2019), arriving August 6 on the S.S. Silvia after a six-day voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia; the ship’s manifest lists his profession as “rug cleaner.” And on March 4, 1933—the same day Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated 32nd president of the United States—he departed from New York City for a cruise through the West Indies on the R.M.S. Mauretania, then nearing the end of its run as the premiere luxury liner of the Cunard line.[vi] Twelve days later, the ship returned to New York City, having sailed as far south as La Guaira, Venezuela.[vii]

Six years later, 35-year-old Jules married 30-year-old Roslyn K. Blatt, who had graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Temple University in 1931. While I cannot recall meeting my late great-aunt, the name “Aunt Roz” rang a loud bell when I re-discovered it researching my family history. The newlyweds settled into the house at 444 S. 49th Street, connected by a small concrete walkway to Jules’ brother’s house.

In July 1946, Jules inadvertently launched the noir “fugitive on the run” story of Harry Merrick III. The previous February, Jules had been called to Merion Gardens Apartments, on the suburban side of City Avenue, where it intersects Wynnewood Avenue. There 23-year-old Harry sold my great-uncle rugs belonging to his father, H. M. Merrick, for $200 (around $2,850 in 2019). However, since the rugs did not belong to Harry, his father and my great-uncle jointly swore out a complaint for his arrest on a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses. Sentenced by Judge Harold G. Knight in Montgomery County Court in Norristown to 11-22 months in the county jail, he was transferred in November to the Montgomery County Prison Farm. There he roomed on the honor system with 20 other inmates and a single guard. On Christmas Eve 1945, Harry escaped in a prison truck, which was found in Philadelphia a week later, its identifying panels removed and its gas tank empty. Harry spent the next six months roaming the country, working whatever jobs he could, until he could no longer bear not seeing his 23-year-old wife Dorothy; the latter now lived with her mother in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. Arranging to meet at the city’s massive railway terminus, 30th Street Station, they spent nearly three days together, during which Dorothy convinced her husband to “face the music,” vowing to wait for him while he finished his sentence. “I’m so tired of being hunted,” he replied, and on the morning of July 26, 1946, accompanied by his wife and a lawyer named Thomas E. Waters, he turned himself in at the same courthouse where had had been sentenced the previous spring.[viii]

By the early 1940s, John Rhoads Company had expanded from a small carpet cleaning firm into a successful reseller of high-quality household furniture and goods, open every day. Advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer trumpeted “ANTIQUES, BRIC-A-BRIC, RUGS. Household & office furniture. Baby grand pianos, china. Best prices paid.”[ix] Similar ads over the next five years also highlighted “ORIENTAL & DOMESTIC RUGS” and “UNCLAIMED STORAGE SALE” of expensive rugs and furniture suites.[x]

In August 2019 I spoke to some current residents of N. Holly Street, who were exceedingly generous with their time and memory, and learned the giant door through which the trucks would drive in and out of the building was located on the right-hand side of the N. Holly Street end of the building, as you faced it from the sidewalk. This was also where the giant rolls of carpet were cleaned.

This is what that section of N. Holly Street looks like now.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy.

[i] “BUSINESS HOUSES AND THEIR PROGRESS.” PI, December 16, 1894, pp. 26-28. The listing of West Philadelphia businesses is on page.28.

[ii] PI, May 25, 1914, pg. 12

[iii] PI, January 14, 1919, pg. 19

[iv] Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), February 15, 1919, pg. 17

[v] Letter from Source 1 to author, September 15, 2017

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mauretania-ship-1906-1935 Accessed October 19, 2019

[vii] “Steamship Movements,” The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), March 8, 1933, pg. 1

[viii] “Fugitive Returns On Wife’s Plea; Felon Persuaded to Give Up After 6 Months of Freedom,” PI, July 27, 1946, pg 11

[ix] PI, February 2, 1941, pg. 58.

[x] Per a small 1942 “For Sale” advertisement: “WANTED ORIENTAL & DOMESTIC RUGS Household and office fur., grand pianos” PI, February 8, 1942, pg. 52. They were open every day from 9 am to 5 pm (Mondays until 10 pm). Another ad on the same page announced an “UNCLAIMED STORAGE SALE” of expensive rugs and furniture suites. Similar ads had appeared in the Inquirer in 1941 (February 2, pg. 58; May 4, pg. 14) and earlier in 1942 (February 1, pg. 10), and would appear again later in 1942 (July 21, pg. 30) and in 1943 (January 4, pg. 26), 1946 (January 2, pg. 41).

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XIII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

I was wrong.

The ants came back.

They came back with a vengeance, in fact, after a few days of deceptive absence. I opened a kitchen cabinet to get a glass—and three or four of them scurried out of sight. Windex is their bête noire, at I grabbed the bottle from the window ledge behind the kitchen sink and sprayed it liberally in the cabinet, making a mental note to wipe down the glasses later.

Nell bought a set of ant traps, which she strategically placed in the kitchen; they have yet to venture much beyond there. [Eds. note: as of Tuesday, the traps appear to be working]

Saturday, April 18, 2020 was otherwise a quiet and mundane day in our sheltering-in-place haven. When I first checked my iPhone upon awaking, an e-mail from my sister Mindy’s long-term residential facility informed me she had recovered from COVID-19and returned to her regular building; given her age and chronic health conditions, this is remarkable.

For dinner, Nell made pizza from scratch for the third time—achieving the thin crispy whole-wheat crust I had loved the first time she attempted it. Even better: she had restocked our supply of cut pineapple, which I added to pepperoni for my personal pie.

While eating their own pies—our younger daughter’s still without tomato sauce—Nell and the girls watched the third Hunger Games film on our big screen HD television. Following that, Nell and I watched episodes five and six of season three of Broadchurch. And once everyone had gone to bed, I took an earlier bath than usual—I needed a night free from writing and class preparation—then settled on the white sofa to watch Two-O’Clock Courage on TCM OnDemand.

Despite being directed by Anthony Mann, renowned for both classic film noir and noir-tinged westerns, and listed as “film noir” by 12 different experts, I would not classify it as such. Yes, its beautifully-chiaroscuro opening sequence is broadly reminiscent of such iconic films noir as Detour and Scarlet Street, also released in 1945, and it follows the classic noir trope of the amnesiac investigating her/his own possible criminality—mirroring the excellent Street of Chance from a few years earlier. However, it quickly morphs into a standard, albeit mostly entertaining, murder mystery yarn, complete with bumbling police detective, wise-cracking crime reporter, besieged city editor and meet-cute romance.

For all that, I sat up with an animalistic cry of delight during the opening credits, when the name “Bettejane Greer” appeared on the screen. The then-20-year-old actress—with whom I admit to being rather smitten—would soon drop “Bette” from her first name. It was as “Jane Greer” she dominates the absolutely brilliant Out of the Pastone of my three or four favorite movies, full stop. And she steals every scene in which she appears in Two O’Clock Courage, as well.

IMG_3124

Sunday, April 19 was equally banal—in a good way. The night before, I had pulled out my vinyl copies of The Byrds Greatest Hits and a Buffalo Springfield two-disc “best of.” While eating my afternoon “breakfast” then folding laundry, I started to play Side 2 of the latter album—I particularly wanted to hear the propulsive “Mr. Soul”—only to be put off by the poor condition of the vinyl. The Byrds record, however, still sounded terrific, so I rocked out to both sides—especially Side 2, which I practically wore out in high school; at one point, Nell asked me to turn down the volume out of respect for our downstairs neighbors.

For dinner, Nell made a scrumptious all-vegetable whole-wheat lasagna, with a cheese-only version for our younger daughter. The former also stretched her baking chops by making whoopie pies for the first time, using a cookbook I had bought for her the previous summer. I can take them or leave them, to be honest, but these were wicked good. Mirroring the preceding evening, Nell and our daughters watched the fourth and final Hunger Games film, while I worked on my psychedelic rock slides for an upcoming “History of Rock and Roll” class. And then my wife and I wrapped up Broadchurch; I was frankly disappointed with the ending—but I leave it that to avoid spoilers.

Once Nell was in bed, I returned to my slides, easily the single best part of this enforced home schooling. I also confirmed that—despite the blue recycling bins and black trash bins sitting in front of a number of houses on our street—there would be no trash collection on Monday, April 20, a state holiday.

**********

I had a hard time falling asleep, then had a bizarre series of anxiety-driven dreams in the morning. Actually, I had dreamt the night before I was giving a PowerPoint presentation to a large group of people, but the slides showing on the screen were wrong, and I could not find the correct ones anywhere on my thumb drive.

As for Monday morning, meanwhile: while I never have recurring dreams, per se, I have dreamt on multiple occasions I am back in the Philadelphia area, and at one point I make my way to a 24-hour diner (which never looks quite the same) I know to be in a section of the western suburbs where a main road divides into two roads. No such roads or diner exist, and I can only vaguely describe where these roads would be—Conshohocken, maybe, or Norristown—but it is a joyous thing to go this diner. This is not surprising, given my life-long affinity for such places. In this instance, traveling to this diner—and having a strawberry milkshake?—was the culmination of a series of unpleasant events relating to breaking something behind glass in a hotel, and needing to escape, and being very unhappy in a hotel room at night until it occurs to me I can leave and go to this diner…

Oh…right.

About an hour after Nell brought me my first mug of coffee, I finally roused myself. And I had to decide what—if anything—to teach that afternoon, given that it was a state holiday. Nell told me the girls would be perfectly happy if I did not teach at all, given how well they were playing together at the moment. For her part, Nell had simply written out our older daughter’s schoolwork schedule.

April 20

I deliberated briefly, considering three possibilities:

  1. Watch episode five of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, as I had planned
  2. Skip class entirely
  3. Switch days: read for less than an hour from Chapter 1 of the book I am writing on Monday and watch Jazz on Tuesday

I ultimately settled upon choice #3. After spending 45 minutes having my quiet time with Nell, I finally got out of bed…and saw dried blood on the bottom sheet where my feet had just been. Examining my feet, I discovered that I had bled from the back of my right ankle during the night. Moreover, when I finally went downstairs around 3:15 pm, I saw a spot of dried blood on the white sofa where my feet would have been as I stretched out on it.

Here is what I think happened.

A combination of dry skin and chafing from wearing topsiders without socks—my right foot takes the brunt of my daily cavorting in the backyard with our golden retriever Ruby—had left the back of my right ankle raw. While I was on the sofa, something landed on my ankle, and I shook my leg to flick it off. I do not think I was bitten—there is no swelling or itching. Rather, I think I scraped the raw spot over a rough spot on the sofa, making it bleed.

Meanwhile, when I wandered into the classroom, I saw that our younger had been conducting her own classes:

No holiday on the white board

At 3:35 pm, the girls and I settled into our places in the classroom. After briefly reviewing the adventures of my paternal grandfather Morris Berger, our older daughter began to read about my paternal grandmother’s family—the Ceasars, captured beautifully in this photograph, perhaps taken on my grandmother Rae’s 1st birthday:

Ceasar family c 1903

About six pages in, our older daughter came to this passage.

It is Jewish custom to name a new child after someone recently deceased, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent, and it is Ashkenazic Jewish tradition not to name a new child after someone still living. The best explanation of this tradition is that “…it is a merit for a deceased person to have a descendant (or other relative) named after him or her. If the name is given while its bearer is still alive, this will no longer be possible (in the same family) after that person’s passing.[i]

Furthermore,

…it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name. Indeed, learning about the persons for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their own Jewish families and, by extension, with the history of the whole Jewish people. Some parents even add these personal explanations to the birth ceremonies for their children.[ii]

While I have never questioned using these draft chapters as way to teach history, Judaism and the nature of justice, inter alia, this external validation was still rewarding.

But our younger daughter had her own thoughts, which she politely raised her hand to share:

  • “Spirits cannot enter a different body once they are, you know, dead.”
  • “Perhaps this is why some people claim to have experienced past lives.”

Rather than point out these are contradictory ideas—unless I misinterpreted what she said—I chose not to go down the metaphor-vs-literal rabbit hole, Instead, I reminded all of us for whom each of us was named, spending a few moments with my regret that I will never meet the man for whom I am named—my paternal grandfather Moshe ben David Laib, later Morris Berger.

At this point, we were only a few pages away from the end of the chapter, so I simply read them aloud myself. As much as our older daughter loves to read, neither daughter objected. Within a few paragraphs, we reached a brief discussion of b’rit milah, the Jewish ritual of circumcising the male penis at eight days of age.

There were grimaces and grunts of disgust as I explained what this entailed. Reading a few more sentences, meanwhile, led our older daughter to exclaim, “You tell them what day your circumcision was?!?”

Well, I replied, they could easily figure it out for themselves—which is not technically true, since I was circumcised at 10 days of age, most likely because October 8, 1966 was a Saturday—the Jewish day of rest. And then it was Sunday…so why not do it on Monday.

I, for one, would not have raised any objections.

Two pages later, we finished the chapter. It was 4:06 pm, and I dismissed class for the day (“Wait, that’s it?”). After washing the dishes and wiping down the kitchen counters, I took Ruby into the backyard for our exercise ritual. To do so, I had to remove some large packages out of the way. One of them turned out to be more SodaStream canisters.

The other had “SNACKS” written on it in bold letters, along with multiple stamps of “Frito-Lay.” When Nell saw it a short time later, she said with some chagrin: “This is what happens when you buy food [online] when there are no salty crunchy snacks in the house.” Indeed, the box was filled with small bags of four varieties of Lays potato chips.

By 9 pm, I had already eaten two of them, with plans to eat more.

Dinner, meanwhile, was leftovers of pizza and lasagna. As Nell was pulling this together, we were talking in the kitchen, and somehow “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes came up. I may have been singing the tune, having bought it on iTunes the night before. In the few weeks I have been teaching the history of rock and roll, I have dropped something like 80 bucks on 56 new songs.

Nell told me how she will always remember the song: as the soundtrack to the moment fans of Moonlighting fans like us had been anticipating for two years. When I mentioned I planned to put the song on the annual birthday mix I was preparing for our oldest daughter, she said, “Well, maybe don’t tell her that part.”

**********

After falling asleep on the white sofa sometime after 5:30 am on Tuesday, April 21, 2020, I awoke to Ruby crying in her crate. As with her dinner, she thinks she only gets her breakfast if she begs for it. A few minutes later, Nell walked downstairs; to my groggy query, she told me it was 7:45 am. I got off the sofa, stretched for 20 seconds, rinsed out and put my empty kefir glass in the dishwasher, kissed my wife, then went back upstairs—where I promptly fell back asleep.

At 1 pm, I awoke to my iPhone alarm; I then turned it off, resetting it to 1 pm again. Maybe 15 minutes later, Nell came in with my first mug of coffee. As she pulled up the black shades, I saw it was a gray and rainy morning; in fact, I had to rescue one of our now-empty blue recycling bins from the street. Once Nell was settled in bed next to me, and I had sufficiently awakened, she told me Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker had ordered all schools in the Commonwealth closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year. We were expecting this announcement—in fact, we were surprised it had not come sooner.

The question Nell and I face now is when—or if—she and our daughters, including the four-legged one, make their way to Martha’s Vineyard, where they would stay through the end of the summer. When Brookline schools first closed, our initial plan was to home school for two weeks, after which Nell and the girls would go to the Vineyard to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has so reduced travel to the islands, the Steamship Authority expects to run out of money by May 31 without assistance from the Baker Administration.

The fear, then, is they would be trapped on the island for months, which nobody wants. For my part, while I would certainly miss my family, I would also welcome that block of weeks—even months—in which to complete a final draft of my book.

As Rachel Maddow would say, watch this space.

Meanwhile, this sequence of three headlines–the first I saw–on Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire elicited an “Oh, for f*ck’s sake” from me:

  • Barr Will Consider Legal Action Against Governors
  • Study Finds More Deaths from Drug Trump Touted
  • Kentucky Lawmaker Charged With Strangulation

When I went downstairs around 2:45 pm, I saw Nell had drawn up our younger daughter’s school schedule for the week:

April 21

Less than 15 minutes later, the girls and I settled into the living room to watch Episode 5 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns; it was only 87 minutes long, so class was dismissed at 4:42 pm. At one point, when the various commentators were discussing Glenn Miller, I paused to explain “damning with faint praise.”

Our younger daughter did have one of her should-be-patented “Ohhhh!” moments. In the segment “On the Road,” we learn how one swing band would cram 10 into a touring car, their instruments in an attached trailer. Confused, said daughter asked, “Why couldn’t they simply take turns driving the car while everyone else rode in the carriage? They could then put their instruments in the car.” Her sister and I started to explain there were no windows in the trailer—until we realized she was picturing a modern-day camper. Once we explained the difference, the light went on—and out came the “Ohhhhh!”

Hey, she was clearing paying attention, and that is all I can ask.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[i] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1158837/jewish/The-Laws-of-Jewish-Names.htm. Accessed September 16, 2017.

[ii] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/naming-children/ Accessed September 16, 2017.

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

Five weeks into our mandated isolation, we have settled into a helpful weekday routine. Nell is awake by 8 am or so to let our nearly-six-year-old golden retriever Ruby out of her crate—where she prefers to sleep—so she can frantically inhale breakfast out of her green ceramic bowl. Nell then takes Ruby out for the first time then gets our daughters out of bed and pointed in the direction of breakfast. Morning class starts at 9 am and runs until noon or so.

Once they have eaten lunch, our daughters are free until sometime after 2:30 pm—meaning they retreat to their respective bedrooms either to catch up with friends electronically or to spend time on various electronic devices. If the weather is nice enough, Nell sends them outside; our older daughter is perfectly happy to go for multi-mile runs, while her younger sister will reluctantly spend time on one of our three porches.

Around 1 pm—just as the alarm on my iPhone goes off for the first time—Nell flicks the switch on my coffee maker, which I set up the night before to make exactly eight cups of a half-caffeinated blend; for her own initial caffeine fix, my wife chooses between her Keurig machine, blue and white ceramic tea pot, and espresso pot. Once my coffee maker beeps its completion, she pours some into my navy-blue Yale mug and the rest into my daily-washed L.L. Bean thermos. She brings the mug of coffee upstairs and places it atop the light brown three-drawer Ikea chest I use as a bedside table.

I thank her, groggily. On rare afternoons I rouse myself immediately, but most mornings I doze off for a short time. By 1:30, though, I have generally completed my ablutions and gotten back in bed to check my iPhone. This also the hour each day Nell and I have to ourselves to converse as adults. After flicking through—and mostly deleting—my e-mail, I turn to Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire to read about the latest mischegoss, political and otherwise. I generally read the stories aloud; it is one of our inside—jokes is not quite the right word—that for members-only stories (I happily pay the nominal subscription fee), I lean over to tap her on the shoulder, saying in my best stage whisper, “This piece is only available to Political Wire members.” To which she responds, “Oh, thank God.”

While I intend to start my class at 2:30 pm, by the time I finish Political Wire, check the home page of FiveThirtyEight.com, the latest polls, my website and Twitter (“OK, who is yelling at me now?”), it is usually at least 2:15 pm. I shower and put on a pair of light tan or brown khakis and a button-down shirt, also from L.L. Bean, or a polo shirt if it is warmer; I need to exude some modicum of authority while teaching our hormonal pre-teen daughters.

Downstairs, I tidy the kitchen and living room a bit before having my, umm, breakfast—some form of whole grain cereal with a glass of orange juice and any leftover fruit smoothie Nell may have made. “A bit” means I gather every dirty mug, glass, dish and eating utensil—as well as the pot(s) and/or ceramic spoon rest on which used teabags get placed—and put them in the sink to wash later. I usually wipe down the kitchen counters as well.

Pouring a second cup of coffee from the thermos, I start to gather our daughters into either the living room or the “classroom.” Meanwhile, Nell retreats to our bedroom for some peace and quiet. When she is not napping, she watches videos on her iPhone. One such video teaches how to cut male heads of hair; indeed, she has been eyeing the ever-shaggier mass of curls above my neck the way a butcher eyes a large rack of ribs.

Around 4 pm, Ruby—who has been chilling with Nell—comes padding downstairs to begin to alert us to her impending 5 pm supper. If she is genuinely frantic, though, I call a short break to take her into the backyard. “Daddy” class is generally over between 4:30 and 5:30, after which I feed Ruby if necessary, then take her—and me—for a proper play in the backyard.

This has become my daily “exercise” routine. To make the repeated throwing of a small stick interesting to me, I try to throw it underhand so that it loops over a branch some 15 feet above the ground extending some ten feet over the yard, maybe 20 feet from where I stand. Complicating these throws are smaller branches growing around this thicker branch. Ruby finds this game absolutely delightful, as she gets to scamper up and down the steep, dark-soiled incline that runs from the edge of our yard five or ten feet up to the shared driveway. I try to keep the stick out of this driveway, despite how infrequently cars drive over it, but my aim is not always true.

I make this “shot” maybe 30-40% of the time. When I do not, I poetically berate myself out loud—trying to exercise the brain as well as the body. For example, after missing one recent shot I let out with, “Denied! Dejected. Depressed. Defeated. Determined!” Generally, though, I simply ring a series of changes on “Utterly awful. Tragically sad.”

As I wait for Ruby to return, affectionately emitting variants of the word “dingus” when she momentarily loses track of her stick—though she always gets a hearty “that’s a good girl” when she finally does what she went out there to do, I try to keep from standing still. I jog in place or do jumping jacks or simply jump and down. At times I do a kind of St. Vitus dance of waggling limbs and bobbing head, getting the blood flowing and my heart rate elevated.

After 10 or 15 minutes of this spectacle, Ruby has slowed down enough to head inside, albeit still with some moderate cajoling—and perhaps a toweling of the paws at the bottom of the stairs. This is also accompanied by a kind of reductionist Beat poetry: repetitive reformulations of words like repugnant, repulsive, repellant, reprehensible and reprobate.

Heading into the kitchen to wash my blackened right hand, I begin to tackle the dishes in anticipation of Nell making dinner. Every other day of late, this means loading and starting the dishwasher—always all-but-empty when I finally go to bed, even if that means I wash the dinner dishes by hand. So be it.

By 6:00 pm—6:30 at the latest— I am settled in my office to work for a few hours, while Nell and the girls eat dinner in the living room and watch either Disney Channel or Nickelodeon on our big screen HD television. However, more often lately they eat quickly and disappear back into their respective girl-caves, freeing Nell to watch diy Network.

The understanding is that Nell and I will reconvene in the living room just before 8 pm to watch MSNBC for a few hours (well, not most Fridays), interspersed with the 9 pm bedtime of our younger daughter. “If you are getting up,” Nell will say to me, “will you tell younger-daughter to brush her teeth. Pleasethankyou.” We often use the maximum live program pause of 25 minutes allowed by our television, albeit with the fringe benefit of allowing us to fast forward through commercials.

Between 9:30 and 10:30, Nell takes herself upstairs to bed; I follow shortly after with Ruby to spend some quiet time with her. Once Nell has turned off her bedside lamp, Ruby and I wander back downstairs; she either goes into our older daughter’s bedroom or outside one last time. At which point I get to work completely cleaning the kitchen, including readying my coffee maker for the following afternoon. They say Duke Ellington played orchestras like an instrument: that is how I wield the kitchen sink faucet and its two-setting detachable nozzle. I conduct a symphony in multiple water temperatures, vigorously scrubbing to my own internal beat with sponges and my bare hands, with the dish towels a second movement. Lately, I know not why, I have been using my left hand—which until recently was a kind of decorative appendage—for most of the counter-top scrubbing; maybe I want to rewire my heavily-left-dominant brain. Or maybe I just want to keep things interesting.

Along those lines, my sense of smell has vastly improved of late. Minimal exposure to outdoor allergens is likely the cause; I particularly noticed the opposite effect when I ventured out into the world on Thursday, as you will read below.

With the kitchen now ready for the morning, I check in our older daughter, old enough now to brush her teeth and put herself to bed on her own—and then I grab a jar of Skippy Natural peanut butter, a spoon and a fresh SodaStream in my commandeered green bottle (perhaps adding a squeeze of lemon and/or lime) and settle into my office. There I work until the wee hours of the morning. A long hot soak in a bath or a short hot shower later, I settle onto the white sofa to wind down with informative-yet-entertaining YouTube videos on our television. Drifting off to sleep for a brief time, I rise with the dawn—who knew sunrises are as lovely as sunsets—to drag myself upstairs to bed properly.

Rinse. Repeat.

**********

When I awoke on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, I learned a new four-letter word: ants. As has happened in previous springs, we have an infestation. However, as of Friday, they had mostly disappeared. As bad as they are, however—and as itchy as I have been via power of suggestion—this was nothing compared to the revolting infestation of pantry moths I tackled alone one summer nine or ten years ago; they had planted eggs in a basement-stored bin of dog food we still had from our former golden retriever. I still shudder with disgust thinking about it.

Perhaps to escape the ants, our older daughter had gone for a 2+ mile run in the neighborhood that morning. This remembrance of the outside world may have triggered her suppressed cabin fever. Otherwise, I cannot explain the madness about to befall us.

Tuesday is “family history” day, so we read aloud from completed chapters of the book I am writing. On this particular day, I began by tracing the history of the idea of the book, establishing inexorable chains of historic events running in both directions as one uncovers more—and more accurate–information.

Film noir personal journey

At some point, I noted my father’s time as a member of Philadelphia’s La Fayette Lodge No. 73, Free and Accepted Masons. This triggered something in our older daughter, as she yelled something about the Illuminati then drew this:

Illuminati

Once I dealt with this marginally-relevant interjection, our younger daughter read aloud the first page-plus of Chapter 1. Clearly, she and her older sister—who LOVES to read—have been immersed in The Hunger Games franchise lately, because the latter kept saying, “I volunteer as tribute” to read.

Meanwhile, I do not remember what set that same daughter on this path, but the next thing we knew she was telling her younger sister, in a grating cartoonish voice, “I baked you a pie!”

I baked u a pie

This was only the beginning, though.

When it was our older daughter’s turn to read, she calmed down and read. At one point, however, she misread the first name of my paternal grandfather Morris as “murple,” and it was as though someone had flicked the crazy switch.

It is possible she got this nonsense word from an episode of her beloved The Amazing World of Gumball. Whatever its source, for the next few days, she could not stop herself from loudly proclaiming the following ditty in the same cartoonish voice,

I baked you a pie!

My my my!

You did?!? What flavor is it?

Murpleberry!

Are there any other ingredients?

Yes, the sweet dreams of the children of Santa Claus!

I honestly thought it was going to be the “children of Saturn” the first time she regaled us. According to Nell, she has since used the variant “sweet tears.”

Somehow, we made it through the pages I wanted to read and adjourned for the day, but not before our older daughter had scrawled “I SEE YOU” in bright red letters on a piece of three-hole notepaper for her younger sister.

I had planned to eat leftover beef stew for dinner, but Nell threw me a curve by taking the bechamel she had made the previous day, adding what remained of our shredded cheese, and pouring it over cooked whole wheat penne. I could not stop eating this faux macaroni and cheese out of its pot, it was that delicious. Later, though, I did heat up some beef stew and eat it over some of the cooked penne left out of the pot.

You see why I need to keep jumping up and down in the backyard every afternoon.

**********

On the morning of Wednesday, April 15, 2020—the day our stimulus payment landed in my checking account—our younger daughter inadvertently missed two online meetings of her 4th grade class. When I came downstairs that afternoon, she calmly told me what had happened before bursting into tears; what I quickly realized was that thought she would be in trouble with me.

She was not remotely in trouble with me, which I made very clear to her.

Once “Daddy” school began on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, we settled into the living room to watch Episode 4 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, which broadly covers the years 1929 through 1934. At one point, I paused the program to explain the stock market crash of 1929 as best I could.

Otherwise, we watched in companionable silence—until about halfway through the nearly-two-hour-long episode. I forget what set our older daughter going again—perhaps it was her joyous cries of “Kashi” at the snack she had just obtained from the kitchen. At any rate, from the blue sofa, where her younger sister was snuggled under a comforter, I heard, “At least she didn’t offer to bake a pie.”

Really, kid, really?!?

And with that we once again tumbled down the murpleberry pie rabbit hole…though we did manage to complete the episode. Shortly after this, we received official notice from the Town of Brookline that protective masks are now required any time we leave our homes.

Dinner that night was leftovers, with me eating one of the two cauliflower crust frozen margarita pizzas I had purchased at CVS a few weeks earlier. They are tasty enough when you eat them, but the aftertaste is nasty.

**********

When I came downstairs on Thursday, April 16, 2020, I was a bit confused what day of the month it was; Nell had not been sure if it was the 16th or the 17th, so she left out the second digit, neglecting to add it later.

InkedApril 16_LI

The girls and I settled in the living room to finish watching Border Incident, which we had begun the previous Thursday. After its gruesome finale, I showed them the opening and closing scenes—the latter featuring some of the most striking chiaroscuro lighting I have ever seen—of He Walked By Night. At the start of these final scenes, the main character—and villain—has a small dog in the apartment in which he hides from the police. Our daughters were frankly more concerned with the fate of the dog than of its owner, even as they kind of wanted him to escape. He does not; it is unclear what becomes of his dog.

My plan then was to use a darkened room to experiment with photographing persons and things, comparing the traditional three-light schema—key (front), back and fill (side)—to the sparer cinematography often associated with the classic era of film noir. However, at that time of day—and it was a sunny day—it was not possible to make any room sufficiently dark, so we will try another time. Instead, we returned to the living room to watch the opening scenes of the Weegee-based 1992 film The Public Eye.

At that point—shortly after 4 pm, I believe—I was prepared to dismiss class for the day, given how long Wednesday’s class had been and how long I anticipated Friday’s class would be. Our younger daughter actually wanted to continue watching the film, but her older sister indecisively hemmed and hawed for a few minutes. Once I made clear class was no longer in session, though, she beat a hasty retreat into her bedroom.

As much as her younger sister enjoyed the film, meanwhile, once I pointed out Stanley Tucci, then a relative unknown, who plays a major role in The Hunger Games films, she became distracted by her love of the series; she has been falling asleep many recent nights listening to Audible recordings of the books. That was my cue to dismiss class for the day.

I then girded myself to drive to our local CVS to pick up refills of two of my four prescription medicines. It feels weird to put on socks these days, let alone a face mask and clean white rubber gloves, but I did so. I moved Nell’s Pilot onto the street before driving away in my Accord—this way both cars were started at least once this week.

Earlier that day, Nell had told me how many items were NOT available from the Wegman’s online shopping service, with cheese and breakfast cereals among the most notable. Thus, when I arrived at CVS, I hopefully looked through the refrigerated section—no cheese of any kind. I did grab a family-sized box of Honey Nut Cheerios…as well as three flavors of Haagen Dazs ice cream (butter pecan, dulce de leche, strawberry); one bag each of Doritos, Fritos and Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips; and a package of Fig Newtons. I generally try to limit my intake of junk foods, but these are not normal times. Plus, I get to jump up and down in the backyard nearly every day…have I mentioned that?

Tossing some non-food items into my overflowing plastic basket, I got in the line, separated six feet from each other patron, for the prescription counter; I am convinced strips of blue tape will be the future symbol of this era. Two white plastic folding tables blocked direct access to the counter: the card-swipe machines sat atop the tables. When it was my turn, though, I was only permitted to pay for my prescriptions—which, thanks to good health insurance, only cost $1.18 in total—there. I paid for the remainder of my items at the storefront registers and left.

Briefly debating with myself, I decided to brave our small local Star Market. As I parked along the side of the building, I noticed an array of orange traffic cones and those ubiquitous strips snaking away from the main entrance. However, nobody stopped me as I walked into the relatively-empty store. I found it well-stocked with cheese and cereals, so I purchased a wide variety of the former and two of the latter.

When I arrived home, marveling at how few cars were on the road at what used to be called “rush hour”—and having been heartbroken driving by a bar and restaurant owned by friends—Nell set to work washing the outside of nearly everything I had purchased. She repeated this process at 6:45 or so when our Wegman’s order arrived—26 plastic bags filled with varying degrees of skill.

For dinner, Nell made use of some salad greens about to rot and to prepare a delicious turkey taco salad; our food-contrarian young daughter had mini-burritos with melted cheese. Then, after the evening routine I detailed above, I completed the PowerPoint slides I needed to teach the history of folk rock Friday afternoon. This task took me until 3:00 am, after which I folded the laundry which had again accumulated on the blue sofa.

Knowing I needed to be awake at 9 am for our younger daughter’s virtual state-mandated annual Individual Enrichment Plan meeting, I sacked out on the freshly-laundered cushions of the white living room sofa and went to sleep.

I did not bother to set the alarm on my iPhone.

**********

I first stirred just after 8 am, when Nell awoke and fed Ruby. At 8:29 am, Nell took Ruby out for a walk. Exactly one minute later, the alarm on the iPhone Nell had left on the classroom table, went off…loudly.

That was my cue to go upstairs to bed until my presence was required, first turning off Nell’s alarm. At 8:57 am, Nell woke me up with a start, and I wandered sleepily downstairs, hoping this would not be a video meeting.

It was…but because other people could only hear Nell if she plugged her headphones into her laptop, I became a proxy participant only. I was perfectly content to sit on the white sofa—Nell sat on the blue one—and fiddle with a Rubik’s cube. At one point, I shuffled into the kitchen to replenish my water—it seemed foolish to drink coffee then. As I returned, not realizing Nell’s microphone was on, I belched.

Loudly.

Oops…sorry

The meeting went well, meanwhile, ending just over an hour after it began. Our younger daughter elicited all manner of deserved praise for her sunny disposition and hard work, and it was agreed she no longer required occupational therapy. Parental obligation behind me, I put myself to bed for real. Nell awoke me at 2 pm, so class did not begin until 3:16

Before presenting the 220 slides—many one slide broken into seven or eight slides to maintain flow—I sketched out how rock and roll, infused by musical genre or cultural influence to create each branch, rapidly expanded after 1964.

Rock and roll branches

Rock matures

Folk Rock

Early in the presentation, I had to reprimand our daughters for discussing The Hunger Games rather than pay attention to their loving, hard-working father. I appreciate that by Friday afternoon, it is hard to focus…but, c’mon The Byrds were freaking awesome!

Here are highlights of their reactions:

  • They were disturbed by how facially-hirsute The Beatles—“They used to be so cute!”—became in the late 1960s
  • The gyrations of R.E.M. band members in the “Wolves, Lower” video—an example of a later band heavily influenced by The Byrds—disturbed them.
  • They were quite taken by the young Joni Mitchell—finally, a woman! In fact, they were riveted by this video.
  • Our older daughter reacted positively to “The Sound of Silence”: “I know this song!”
  • They reacted to The Graduate—which both daughters thought sounded like the title to a horror fil—with “Who’s Dustin Hoffman?”
  • That same daughter decided Neil Young was pretty unpleasant. Profound influence aside, I agree: he just always seems to be angry about something.
  • She also liked “Marrakesh Express

As I was teaching, meanwhile, our older daughter was making herself hysterical “drawing” family members with her eyes closed:

Drawing 1 April 17

Drawing 2 April 17

Drawing 3 April 17

It took over two hours, but shortly after 5:30 pm class was dismissed—bringing week five of home schooling to an end.

For dinner, Nell decided we should lay off meat for a few days, so she made a mouth-watering asparagus and green pea risotto. At 8:30, we settled onto the white sofa to watch episodes three and four of season three of Broadchurch.

And that was that.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XI

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

I have no further news about my older, severely mentally-impaired sister Mindy, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week. Meanwhile, Nell’s mother Sarah has not yet tested positive, despite an outbreak in the critical care unit of her senior living facility, where she has been living since a bad fall last November.

In January, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, requiring Nell and me to clear out the bungalow in which she has lived since July 2013 by February 29. We managed that feat with hours to spare, in no small part due to the prior efforts of one of Nell’s first cousins. We relied heavily upon a storage unit we have rented as long as Sarah has been living in that bungalow. Nonetheless, a load of my mother-in-law’s furniture and belongings now resides in our half of a fairly spacious basement.

And it was into this teetering maze of tables, bookcases, boxes and storage bins I found myself venturing late on the afternoon of Saturday, April 11, 2020. Just two nights earlier, I had written a long e-mail to my maternal aunt and her two children in which I had neglected to wish them Chag Sameach for the second night of Pesach.

It was thus no small irony that what I—a Jewish-raised atheist—sought in the basement was the second of a pair of decorative Easter baskets Nell—an Episcopalian-raised agnostic—needed for the following morning. I was also in search of empty plastic eggs, which I saw almost immediately after insinuating myself into a narrow opening between a dining room table and a bookcase. And while an exhaustive search did not turn up the specific basket I sought—I did find an acceptable substitute—I happened upon two bags of paper grass, one purple and one green.

This was all very satisfying, even if I normally pay little attention to how Nell and the girls celebrate Easter. However, a short time later, as I was headed upstairs for some reason, our younger daughter came bounding into the living room excitedly proclaiming her anticipation of the following morning.

Perhaps it was because I was still irritated by President Donald Trump’s callous “HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY!” the previous day, even if I have no dog in this fight. At any rate, I demanded to know if our younger daughter, who is on the cusp between accepting and rejecting such entities as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, even knew what was commemorated on Easter Sunday. She actually did, it would turn later, but in the moment was unable to retrieve that information.

And when Nell also hesitated, it fell upon me—or so I thought in that inexplicable moment of prickly self-righteousness—to tell my version of the Biblical story of what happened to the body of Jesus two days after his crucifixion. To her credit, Nell then admirably filled in the gaps of my story, though she insisted on referring to Tetrarch Herod as a pharaoh. And that led us down a further rabbit hole of discord, which Nell and I then carried upstairs then back down into the kitchen. She berated me for saying our younger was not allowed to celebrate Easter unless she knew its backstory, to which I indignantly retorted I only said she should know it, not that she was disallowed.

The background music for this ridiculous contretemps was the movie Nell had turned to on Turner Classic Movies. There are a handful of movies I have essentially memorized–The Maltese Falcon, L.A. Confidential, a few Marx Brothers films–but it is likely the first one I learned this way was Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 masterpiece What’s Up Doc?. I could not help but recited the dialogue even as we were having our heated discussion. Such is the nature of good art.

But as is usually the case with the regular dust-ups between me and our younger daughter, it was over almost as soon as it had begun—with some tears and an apologetic father.

Well, except for one karmic postscript.

After Nell and I resolved our own quarrel, I took our golden retriever Ruby out for a needed visit to the backyard. We walked out our front door, down a few wooden steps to the sidewalk, then right to the edge of the driveway. Here, Ruby took off like a shot towards the backyard which slopes down from the driveway; I scampered after her. As I did, something small and furry raced by me in the other direction.

It was a small brown bunny.

Which I promptly relayed to Nell and our daughters with the winking addendum, “Make of this what you will,” which especially amused our younger daughter.

Soon after that, Nell and I settled down to watch a movie; I brought with me some of the same brownies as the night before. We had watched One Crazy Summer as a family the previous Saturday night, which got Nell and me talking about the relationship between Demi Moore and her ex-husband Bruce Willis. Which is why I recommended—it was my turn following Nell’s suggestion of Broadchurch—the 1991 crime thriller Mortal Thoughts.

However, once I told Nell how horrible Willis’ character is in the film, she hesitated a moment; he will always be David Addison to her. And the violent early scenes almost put her off as well. Still, she persisted, and I was rewarded with a “that was better than I expected” when it was over. I observed we had just watched one of two movies released in the first half of the 1990s, the other being Pulp Fiction, to feature both Willis and Harvey Keitel—but never in the same scene.

Once Nell and the girls had gone to sleep, and I had put in a few hours preparing many of the PowerPoint slides for Monday’s “history of rock and roll” class, I was inspired to watch a film which has likely ascended into my top 10 favorites, and which shares a key feature (which I will not spoil) with Mortal Thoughts: The Usual Suspects. Bryan Singer’s 1995 masterpiece gets better every time I see it.

By the time I awoke on Sunday, the Easter celebration had already ended, though our younger daughter has yet to find two of her stuffed plastic eggs. The classroom table was laden with numerous sizes and colors of chocolate eggs and one or two unwrapped chocolate bunnies when I finally went downstairs.

Nell was preparing to cook a large, delectable ham and a bundle of asparagus, much to my delight. First, however, I had committed myself to walking down the hill to a small local grocery store for a handful of dairy items I deemed necessary.

Thus, once I had completed the meal I call “breakfast,” I put on socks, a navy-blue windbreaker and my docksiders—along with one of the yellow and white cloth masks, complete with elastic bands, one of our downstairs neighbor shad sewn for us. In my shirt pocket were two thin white rubber gloves. I was carrying two of the white plastic shopping bags I had been given at a nearby Star Market a few weeks earlier.

I was about halfway down the hill, my sinuses already rebelling against the damp weather and the spring pollen floating in the air, when I realized I had neglected to take my wallet—or any of the other items I routinely put in my pockets before going anywhere; my Swiss army knife, Burt’s Bees lip balm, a pen and pocket-sized pack of tissues. At least I had my keys.

This is how out of practice at going to stores we have become.

I trudged back up the hill, retrieved the forgotten items then walked back down to the store. All but one of the few other customers wore masks as well. Somewhere in my journey, I had lost one of the rubber gloves, so I only used one gloved hand to pick up the few items I needed. Walking to the one open register, I saw blue strips of tape marking six feet gaps on the floor; a large clear thick plastic sheet was suspended in front of both registers.

When it was my turn to pay, I began to put my blue shopping basket onto the counter. “No, you can’t do that,” said the young woman in the gray Mount Washington sweatshirt standing behind the register. “Sorry,” I said, taking each item out of the basket with my gloved right hand, after which I put the basket on the floor a bit further away. I also bagged my groceries.

Once I had lugged those groceries up the hill and into the kitchen, I used a Clorox wipe to “disinfect” each item.  I then put my windbreaker through the neck of a deck chair on the porch off of my office to air out, while I stripped and took my second hot shower of the day. But not before I had distractedly scratched the stubble on my jaw my gloved hand, because, you know.

The four of us gathered for dinner in the living room not long afterward. As we ate, we watched the latest Buzzfeed Unsolved true crime video from “the boys”: the 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard. Given the relative youth of the episode’s hosts, I was not that surprised they nelglected to mention the enormously popular television series loosely based upon the case, The Fugitive. And that led me to explain why Philadelphia-born noir writer David Goodis had sued the producers of the series.

A short time later, after I had made significant headway in my nightly kitchen cleaning, Nell and I settled back in the living room to watch the first two episodes of the third and final season of Broadchurch. The epilogue to this was my finally finishing my PowerPoint slides just after 3:30 am.

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When I awoke—slowly, sluggishly, somnambulantly—on Monday, April 13, 2020, a violent rainstorm was blowing outside our bedroom porch doors. In fact, the wind blowing through the glass doors rattling the black, pull-down shade so that the wooden grip at its bottom knocked against the door had been waking me on and off for some time.

I finally roused myself, though, showered, dressed and made my way downstairs.

This is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 13

And on the always-popular white board, Nell had drawn this:

Its Monday Gerald and Piggy

I was running late, so I wanted to gather our two daughters quickly enough to begin class at 3:00 pm. Wandering into my office to collect my desktop computer, I noticed the remains of our younger daughter’s breakfast and her Harry Potter plastic wand on my desk. She now uses my office—to participate in online meetings with her fourth-grade teacher—because it is quiet once the door is closed.

This is fine with me, so long as she cleans up after herself, which she usually does; on this day, she was even more scattered than usual. Mildly miffed, I yelled out for her. When she did not respond, I marched over to her closed bedroom door and knocked rather vigorously on it. Opening the door, I pointedly told her what was on my desk. Apologetic, she scurried into my office to retrieve her dishes—though she still forgot her wand.

I was not actually that upset, but a short time later, as we were about to begin class, she burst into tears. Nell and I were standing in the kitchen with her, and we tried to puzzle out why she was suddenly so upset. She usually does not know in those moments, though I suspect I startled her with my loud door rapping; she reacts poorly to such things—and the loud weather did not help.

But these once again subsided quickly, and she and her older sister settled into the classroom to see this:

British Invasion

British Invasion

We worked through the slides, covering Beatlemania, the early days of The Rolling Stones and The Who, and a few other key British Invasion bands in good time, finishing around 4:45 pm. I did my best to “explain” the first of these, to which our older daughter sniffed, “They’re not that cute.” Our younger daughter was amused by the change from the “mod” Who of 1964 to the more outlandish Who of 1969–even if she is now convinced Animal was actually the Who’s drummer. And the only song our older daughter especially liked was The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Well, there had been one unexpected—and joyful—break in my presentation. The only YouTube video I had not been able to link to a slide was for Devo’s surrealist cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” When I came to that point in the presentation, I went to the URL I had saved. As I was fussed with my mouse to make the video full screen, the video for A-ha’s “Take On Me” somehow began to play.

This is our older daughter’s often-proclaimed favorite song, so I promised we could play it once the Devo video—which I played, along with Patti Smith’s seminal cover of Them’s “Gloria,” to demonstrate the durability of certain iconic rock songs—had ended. At which point our older daughter bounced out of her chair, crying, “I need some room to floss!”

Following both versions of “Gloria—our daughters were not quite sure what to make of Smith, with our younger daughter remarking, “It seems obvious to me stuff happened to her in her childhood”—class was dismissed.

This was my chance to, at long last, remove the slowly-discoloring wedge of lime from the green SodaStream I have commandeered as my own. It took a series of knives of various sizes, a long metal skewer and some very strong fingers to complete the task. I did not replace the soggy mess I removed with a fresh lime wedge, or even a lemon wedge.

The highlight of the rest of the evening was the mouthwatering faux croque monsieur, sans fried egg, Nell cooked for each of us from some leftover ham, despite earlier protestations she was too lazy to make a bechamel and our dangerously-low quantity of cheese. I washed mine down—albeit a few hours later—with a can of Wolfgang Puck’s delicious basil tomato bisque.

Sheltering in place with my beloved wife and daughters has its perks.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…