Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Two Coats




This week I saw "On the Waterfront" for the first time. I know. It's terrible. I am the opposite of Frank O'Hara. I never watch any movies. I've hardly seen any movies. When I lived in SF, Jocelyn Saidenberg would take me to the movies and because of her I saw La Dolce Vita, which I think is the best movie ever, but that's another story. But anyhow, I am TAPPING this semester and that's basically like being a TA in training. It's for a Cold War Culture class. So I had to go to the screening of "On the Waterfront". And it revealed a lot to me about my childhood. See, when I grew up in NJ it was the '70s. There weren't many white immigrants coming in from anywhere. We were sort of a fluke that way. At first we lived in an older suburban neighborhood that still had traces of its farmland roots. But by the time I was ten, Edison was all suburban sprawl.

My family was the only family in the neighborhood that I knew of, until my early teens, that wasn't American. My parents were professionals, so we didn't have any need of living in an urban area in a Polish community, or at least not after my mother got pregnant with me. So we were this Polish family in the suburbs. I had to go to the mall and ask the saleslady questions for my mom. She was embarrassed of her accent. That kind of thing. Of course there was a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn (Greenpoint before the hipsters came) but my mom always spoke of it as this terrible place filled with lowlifes. We never went there. So clearly there was a class thing separating my parents from the Polish community we could have had. I guess all I am trying to say is that we lived in the suburbs and everyone around us was non-ethnic white. Or at least that's the way I saw it as a kid.

So when I was watching "On the Waterfront" this weekend it felt really familiar in this strange way and I started to remember that when I watched TV alone as a kid I sought out films that I thought were set in "Brooklyn". Like, I think, I must have watched a lot of James Cagney movies without even knowing it. And I am wondering now if I hadn't watched "On the Waterfront" by accident. Because I remember always wanting to be a guy like that. A guy with a Jersey or Brooklyn accent and kind of tough and working class. I remember going into the basement and looking through old clothes, hoping to find a leather jacket and then finding some seventies blazer and putting it on and looking in the mirror and feeling like I was sexy like the Fonz. I was maybe six. But it makes sense now. All the guys in those movies are Irish or Italian. It's the closest thing to being Polish in NJ. It's like I watched this old black and white world to try to understand my own immigrant experience, which was neither urban nor working class. But that Hoboken or Brooklyn world seemed like where a family like ours should have landed and didn't. Of course all the guys in those movies were Catholic and Catholic School I had plenty of. I understood the role of the priest in all those films. Those people were white like me, I thought.

And so it was especially interesting to notice Marlon Brando's coat this week because it is a plaid coat not unlike the one in my novel. And the one in my novel is based on a real coat I bought on the men's sales rack in the mall in RI. But the coat, it was so much like Marlon Brando's and when I got it at 19 or 20, I felt like I did in the basement in that terrible blazer as a kid. And so I am wondering now, if I hadn't seen the film as a kid and if Marlon Brando's plaid coat is the only thing I remembered from it. And then there was another coat. A leather coat that I dreamed of in college. And after I woke I walked out of the dorm onto Thayer Street and bought a coat just like the one in my dream. And a few days later I realized it was just like the coat Springsteen wears in the band shot on the back of The River. And of course I wanted to be like him, too, when I was a kid. And even now, but I avoid playing air guitar in front of mirrors, lest I be caught. But Springsteen -- he was Irish/Italian Catholic, much closer in age and place to me, and the coolest thing ever.

So in college I got these two coats. One was for Brando and the other for Springsteen. But when I bought them I was really buying them for my six-year-old self, who really wanted to believe "I could walk like Brando, right into the sun, and dance just like a Cassonova." But, of course, I was just a nerdy middle-class Polish school girl, reading books and stuff. In my mind, though, I looked better. I was much cooler.

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