Some of you have children. Don’t deny it. I read the personals. You aren’t all twenty-three year old virgins looking for Mr. Right. Some of you met and married Miss Close enough or Mr. Sorta Right and are now divorced. Some of you were even there that Thursday night a few weeks ago when my son’s elementary school saluted Black History Month.
Phillip’s school is either very early or very late. We were a smidgeon early for his class’s Greek program a few months ago and ended up totally alone in the school for almost an hour. As Pete Townsend wrote, “We won’t get fooled again.” Phillip was to be at the school by ten after seven for the 7:30 program and I was determined to not be there a moment sooner.
Every single parking spot had long been filled when I pulled into the school’s lot at 7:07 that evening. Guessed wrong. So did the school. The custodian was still bringing out chairs ten minutes after the program was to have started. The gym was packed. Parents. Grandparents. When I reached twelve, I stopped counting the camcorders. They were everywhere. A few of the technologically deprived took snap shots. The sound and light of the flash seemed strangely quaint and intrusive. The children pretended not to notice. The video buffs adjusted their lenses with a quiet air of superiority.
The program was long, very long. Each presentation was enhanced by props prepared by the students and one group was choreographed by Justin Dennis of the Karamu Theater. The performers were children from the third, fourth and sixth grades of an elementary school in South Euclid. “Getting to Know You” was like a coming out party for blacks in American history. Scenes depicted the lives and successes of Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas and other black leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. Black and white children, mostly white, took their turns singing and reciting their lines. Black children portrayed both whites and blacks. White children portrayed both blacks and whites. Martin Luther king was played quite capably by a little white boy – not Phillip.
What struck me was how successful the program was. The little brothers and sisters of the performers played and fidgeted together, seemingly unaware of any differences in race or religion. I looked through the stands and saw adults of both races equally enthralled and bored. The ultimate equality is to have the right to sit on a bleacher in a stuffy gym for an hour for the privilege of seeing you kid recite two lines.
The assembly ended with two ladies leading all of us in the inspirational song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” In the movies, several hundred strangers stand up and sing like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We achieved an unparalleled level of mediocrity. Luckily there was a really talented tenor standing in the next row to balance my feeble attempt.
As Phil and I entered our home, he turned to me and said “Gee Dad, I wish we had a camcorder!”
It was about 10:30. Suddenly, I had this vision that I was a 6’4” tit. Just me and 10 million other tits around the country were sitting on our couches being manipulated – at first a gentle massage, now more forcefully – as Thirtysomething milked us and Nancy’s cancer like a sixteen year old boy reaching second base for the first time. Cancer. The Big C.
Prime time Tuesday night. All the hopes and fears of an entire generation were getting their weekly airing. Only Thirtysomething was up to the task of fleshing out cancer. Michael, Elliot, Hope, and Nancy wouldn’t trivialize a mosquito bite. No, this was a milestone, something worthy of the eternal whine they do so well.
Each scene was carefully set. Stark white sub-titles set in a field of black foretold each step Nancy took. NANCY MISSES HER KIDS. NANCY GOES OUT. Her angst. Her pain. Her loneliness. In case we were too dumb or unfeeling to know Nancy’s emotions, the show’s producers, Zwick and Herskovitz, prepared us. Each vignette led us, usually by the nose, towards the next revelation of Nancy’s condition. Director Peter Horton who also portrays Gary on the show, managed to skip a couple of close-ups in the beginning of the broadcast, but by the end of the hour, his baser instincts had overcome him.
There was a slight chance that even with all of the darkness we might not be appropriately spent by the time the show concluded. So when we saw Gary, Tuesday night, he was with Michael. Hope, and Melissa, instead of his new baby. And Nancy’s older sister, the nurse, referred to cancer as the Big C as opposed to the more commonly used medical term, ca. That is, of course, when she wasn’t fighting with her mother. And we got a different look at Elliot. We saw Elliot as helper. Elliot as loving husband. He cried. He loved. In two episodes he was transformed from Peter Pan to Alan Alda.
As the show draws to a close we find the Westons in the bedroom. The lights are low. The box of pizza is on the bed. An old Robin Hood movie is on the television. Son Ethan is overdosing on violence and junk food. Daughter Brittany climbs on her daddy and then, as usual, disappears. Elliot reaches over to his wife and kisses her. The show ends with the two of them contentedly snuggling, their eyes gazing into future episodes.
As the picture faded, I absent mindedly reached for a cigarette forgetting that I had quit six years ago.