Thursday, April 16, 2009
Fairfax High School, Class of '62
This stuff hit a nerve. Marsha Hartman, who seems as sweet now as she was in junior high from where I remember her most, kindly sent me photocopies of my 1959 Burr, our graduation from John Burroughs Junior High School, and the Summer '62 Colonial from our graduating semester at Fairfax High School.
These were accompanied by a CD with pictures from the Class of '62 45th reunion at an anonymous looking place in Los Angeles.
Put two and two together and you get nostalgia, amazement, curiosity, and a certain elegiaic sadness, not for what was -- I certainly hated that -- but for who is no longer with us. It seems way too early for any of us to be dead.
And it is impossible for such things not to stir up some sort of emotional firestorm.
I knew that Pete Melczer had died. That angered me. How dare he check out before I had a chance to tell him about the pivotal role he played in my life, something he could not have known, I am certain. But he did die, and I never told him! Although his role was played out at JB, for the years I saw him daily at Fairfax, and when I would see him at UC Berkeley, later, I never said "hey man, your hands were on the rudder that altered the course of my life." Not the only hands, to be sure, but there nonetheless.
If you glance through these blog pages you will notice that opera is a very important part of my life. It all started one night in 1958 when Pete, his Aunt Marge, and his cousin Marylouise were going to the opera and I went along. At that time the San Francisco Opera Company played a two month fall season at Shrine Auditorium, that horrendous barn. The opera was Tannhauser by Wagner. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. During my junior and senior years at Fairfax I would usher at the opera six nights a week during the season and, since I didn't have a car, I would have to take a bus back from Shrine Auditorium to Beverly Blvd. and Kings Rd., a very, very long ride, often at 11pm or midnight, and go to school the next day. The things we do for love.
Wayne Shapiro had died decades earlier; seeing his name on the In Memoriam list was no surprise. He was on his way to visit me with a couple of Laurel Canyon freaks we knew in common when he drove his car off Highway 1 in Big Sur and crashed. No sweeter lad ever lived; nor one less prepared to deal with the realities of this world.
We called him Wayne Wonderview because he was living in a great house with lots of windows on Wonderview Drive near Lake Hollywood. He always found great places to live; his charm went a long, long way. We would go to his mother's condo on the Wilshire Corridor and take her black Cadillac convertible out for cruises, three or four of us, driving to the ocean in the gorgeous Los Angeles April sun; I wore a silk scarf that I let fly like Isadora Duncan; the sun was scarcely as bright as Wayne's smile.
I knew Wayne because of Annie -- Ann Gerchik, always Annie to me -- and to see her on the In Memoriam page flattened me for a while. To me, then, and to me, now, Annie had mojo. She was beautiful and rich and sweet. During high school and college she lived in a splendid Art Deco palazzo on Sunset Plaza Drive, with a sumptuous pool and pool house and a black maid named Allie Mae who made dynamite sandwiches with way too much mayonnaise because that was how Annie like them. The stuff that dreams are made of.
Beneath her dazzling surface a somewhat enigmatic darkness was married to that marvelous sweetness. She loved to flaunt what she had been dealt in spades. One night she wanted to go dancing at Whisky wearing only her string bikini and her mother's full length mink coat. More than anything she wanted to be on stage and screen. She did get to dance in the movie version of West Side Story and, for a hot minute, was a go-go girl on Hullaballoo or some such sixties dance show and was one of Catwoman's Cat Girls on the camp classic 60s television "Batman." But she became, like her mother -- a gorgeous former model -- a school teacher.
Once when I was visiting from Berkeley, Annie's parents were out of town and I spent the night, after being roundly menaced about what her stepdad would do if he came home that night. It was pure theater. Her bedroom was in the back of the house; its windows looked across the pool into the hills and if the curtains were open (and I only ever saw them open) and the lights were on, it became a magic lantern and I imagine many telescopes in the hills were trained in that direction. Before we got into bed she lifted the mattress to show me something. The 10-inch blade of a hefty chef's knife glittered in the moonlight.
She and I were knit together in a web that included Bill Sperling, my room-mate our sophomore and junior years at college. If she was perfect -- in a purely external way -- he was perfecter. His clothes were from Mr. Guy, his hair was courtesy of Sebring on Fairfax, his face was like a Rick Nelson on a good day, sullen and ineffably handsome. He too was rich, privileged in the purest sense, and also gifted with the most extraordinary intelligence, a mercilessly self-reflective high-wattage glare. He and Annie and I were inseparable for a mad season on an adolescent psychosexual merry-go-round.
Annie and Bill and I went to a party somewhere in the Hollywood hills, and I remember "jerking" to the Righteous Brothers (All hail to thee, Phil Spector, our famous fellow alumnus and trainwreck). It was Annie's twentieth birthday and she looked ineffably sad. She put her arms around me. "We're not teenagers anymore," she whispered.
We were crossing the Rubicon into the rest of our lives.
Kip was nuts about Annie as well, all through high school; and he was my best friend at Fairfax. He first pointed her out to me. "Great tits," he said passionately. It was the highest accolade. He agonized over his mad love for her, and when he finally got the nerve to tell her, writing a tear-stained love letter that said he might not be able to go on living if she didn't accept his love, the sheer volume and intensity of his passion overwhelmed her. She didn't know what to do with it, and ran quickly in the other direction. He survived.
It was because of Kip's strikingly beautiful face, which got him invited, on a Manhattan street, to be in an underground movie, that I met Andy Warhol and spent a couple years in that louche and loopy orbit. It was because of Kip that Mahanttan became a reality in my life, contemporaneously deciding to drop out of college and dive into the deep end.
Kip was Doestoevsky to Bill's Tolstoy. Where Bill's emotions were cooly hyper-intellectualized, Kip's were tumultously, theatrically acted out. The tie -- now you see it, now you don't -- between the three of us was intellect. We are all like icebergs; what we consciously know, the visible surface, constitutes about 10% of the total entity; the bulk is submerged beneath the water of our apparent motivations and emotions. We three traded records and swapped opinions of them, of books and movies and events and people with a ruthless and dictatorial snobbery. By doing so, we facilely excluded most of the rest of the world from our circle; especially Kip and me. Others were dealt with on a provisional basis -- Bill fortunately was a quick study -- but if you didn't know the opus number of Beethoven's last piano sonata or pronounced Proust "prowst" or hadn't seen "The 400s Blows" at least five times, you were scarcely worth engaging in conversation. This sort of snobbery is the defensive reaction to a context which could not value what we valued most: us.
Among the social strata at Fairfax there was an amorphous entity which, for lack of a better term, I call the "smart kids," and which cut crazily across the other social groupings, throwing us together in the same classes for years. For some reason, I was always marginally part of this group, although a consistent under-performer. Kip and Bill got great grades, like Rachel Vorspan and Carolyn Carlat and Leslie Sheffner and Joel Goldberg. I didn't. Or I did occasionally, occasionally not. I was too distracted to care.
I would ditch school almost every Tuesday during my last two years and take the Beverly Blvd. bus downtown. Stuart would meet me at the main library and drive me up to his house in the hills above Echo Park overlooking Glendale. There we would listen to music and flip through magazines and have serious adult sex. It started when I was 15 and he was a devilishly attractive 25. He was the older brother of my friend Dennis, who was, perhaps, one of the most singularly wacky kids at Fairfax, a semester or two behind me. Dennis and I would walk home from school to his mom's house on Pointsettia Place and -- when other kids were playing football or sipping malts or whatever the hell they did -- we would smoke cigarettes and listen to Marlene Dietrich records and sometimes, if he was in the mood, Dennis would put on the green peau de soie suit Stuart had given their mother.
Stuart loved to drive me around on his Vespa singing arias at the top of his lungs. We would ride into the Hollywood Hills to visit his friends -- Norm, who had an antique shop on Robertson and lived in the Ronald Coleman mansion, Kate, the dancer whose husband owned the Ash Grove on Melrose, who staged group dance improvs to Bartok and Frank Sinatra in the salon of her Spanish villa, quite overgrown and lovely, high in the hills.
It was hard to concentrate on grades. I think I flunked chemistry; I clearly remember my lab partner, Nancy Asin, bringing a small container of martinis upon which we performed quantitative analysis by drinking them. But somehow Miss Weiskopf, in her inscrutible wisdom, kept me grouped with the smart kids despite all reason.
I was certainly insufferable. In our 11th grade Advanced Placement history class, I had to read my report on Woodrow Wilson in front of the class. Afterward, Ann Pollack gasped, "but that was in blank verse..." I shrugged. "I'm surprised you could tell..."
Time came, in that class, to select our class name for our senior year. I think Carolyn Carlat was manning the blackboard, writing down the suggestions. She looked surprised when I raised my hand, my being, normally, such an obstructionist; but this had been rehearsed in advance.
I got the "very good" nod of approval as she wrote "c-r-e-t-A-n-s," down on the board. Cretans, people from Crete; it had the right pseudo-mythological ring.
"No," I said. "C-r-e-t-i-n-s." Cretins -- congenital idiots.
That was me. Kip might think it was him. It was the kind of thing we generated between us on a daily, if not, hourly basis. We both cracked up. I'm not sure if anyone else thought it was funny, but it made our day.
Flash forward to 1975. Kip, now Bima, and Bill are sufis. Bill has become a physician. I am married and living in Chicago. I am a communist. I am on the editorial board of our newpaper. We are planning a demonstration against the American Nazis who are planning an inflammatory march into the Jewish suburb of Skokie. Annie is on her way to Afghanistan, where she is going to teach English. She stops in Chicago and stays with us. I tell her about the demonstration and tell her she doesn't have to come; that it might be dangerous; that the police will protect the Nazis. None of this phases her. She wants to go. She really wants to go. She does go. She grew up with a leftie. She knows the terrain. She dazzles my comrades.
And she goes on to Afghanistan. In the 80s, when I have done with my communism and we are both back in Los Angeles she tells me about being in Kabul when the Soviets invaded, taking a bottle of vodka and a vial of valium into the bathroom with the mortars exploding all around, and soaking in the tub until the bombing stopped.
A quick Google search retrieved Annie's obituary:
"Ann Gerchik Fagan McKechnie
Ann Gerchik Fagan McKechnie, 62, a Santa Paula resident formerly of Pacific Palisades, CA, passed away June 30 surrounded by loving friends, family, and soul mate Steve Lattimore. She was former head librarian at Santa Monica High School, a dancer, world traveler, teacher, writer, and beloved friend."
Sweet dreams, Annie.
Life is nothing if not interesting. It is an obstacle course but the rewards are not what you think they will be, nor are the punishments. My experience tells me that the reward for cycling through enough experience is not wealth measured in things, but wisdom, measured by the love we have given and received; and that the punishment for failure is neither poverty nor sadness, but tedium.