Spinning the 78s

28 Sep

They let loose John Hinckley, Jr. yesterday after keeping him in St. Elizabeth Hospital, a mental joint, for over 40 years for the attempt on Reagan’s life. Immediately upon reception of the news and coverage in major papers and other outlets, Patti Davis, the president’s daughter, penned an op-ed in . . . The New York Times or The Washington Post; I don’t know, these papers and their content sort of bleed into one another nowadays. I find myself scrolling and scrolling, reading the headlines, none of them aimed to inform or serve any purpose for the public interest. None of them of interest to me, at least. But I digress.

On March 30, 1981, I was in Social Studies class at Emerson Middle School in Lakewood, OH (a suburb of Cleveland). It was just before 2:30 in the afternoon that an announcement over the loudspeakers was made by the principal, one Mr. Moser (don’t remember his first name), that President Reagan had been shot. They immediately let us all go. Many of us, as you can imagine, were super stoked to get out of school early, although if I recall correctly our usual school day would’ve ended around 2:45 anyway. But hey, 15 minutes is 15 minutes. People have fame for that little time, and if you ask them if they harbor any regrets, they wouldn’t take back those 15 minutes for anything. I remember a classmate of mine, a resolute young lady, probably a long-time politician by now, gathering up her stuff and saying over and over: “I knew it. I just knew it.”

I don’t know how she knew it; maybe back then all of us students, especially the ones interested in Social Studies, were better versed in backroom politics than 7th graders are now. Maybe. I didn’t know how she knew it, but dammit she knew it. I walked home that March afternoon slightly more leisurely than usual. Our regularly scheduled, non-presidential-assassination dismissal from Emerson Middle was dangerously close to the 3 p.m. airing of Star Blazers, and I always had to book it out of there like a bat out of Hades so I could catch my anime on time.

On March 30, 1981 I had been in the States exactly one year and two months. I had already experienced John Lennon’s killing the previous December and, despite having immigrated from (then) communist Romania with a totalitarian regime that historically is thought of as one of the most brutal communist governments in Eastern Europe, I firmly believed that America had gone insane. Trigger-happy. Wild Wild West. Pistol duels at high noon. Mass shootings. Murders. Suicides. Land of the Killing, more like it. And I had arrived in it at the completely wrong time.

Living in Cleveland in 1980-81 (and half of ’82) wasn’t idyllic to begin with—the city was nothing like it’s been the last couple of decades. You took your chances walking down some streets downtown, even in daylight. My father, a former actor with some pedigree, clout, and popularity back in the mother country, was working in one of the most horrible, drug-infested, prostitution-riddled areas in downtown Cleveland as a phlebotomist. People looking to sell their plasma were coming in high on crack, PCP, and other tainted substances imported from Central and South America every day my father was on the job. In fact, it was strictly junkies that frequented “Plasma Alliance,” the center in which my dad worked. Later on, maybe in the 90s, he told me he got pricked so many times by needles that had been inside the veins of these crack addicts, it was “only due to the grace of God that I didn’t get AIDS.” Not sure what God had to do with that scenario, particularly as He was busy at the time with many more grave and serious issues, but it’s true—my dad never had HIV or AIDS.

I cannot remember following either case, John Lennon’s or Reagan’s, for too long after its perpetrators were smothered by onlookers or secret service agents and pushed through the American justice system. I was, after all, a 12-year-old boy having just come to America from a pretty shitty country (though I never really felt that way about Romania then). So, more pressing diversions took over my life: basketball, a certain 7th-grader named Mary Kay Vizdos who had no idea I existed, Barney Miller, The Empire Strikes Back, Pac-Man, skateboarding, David Bowie . . .

But I always remembered the names of the two trigger men: Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr. John Hinckley got the more consistent mention in the news cycle of the two—he was, after all, an attempted presidential murderer. And when I moved to the Washington, D.C. area at the beginning of the summer of 1982, his verdict (not guilty, by reason of insanity) was just about to come down (June 21) from the jury. The story was constantly in the news.

In our new home in Greenbelt, MD, a few Orange Line metro stops east of D.C., talk of Reagan at the dinner table, especially after his triumphal survival and comeback from the assassination attempt, intensified. My parents were staunch Reaganites. To hear it from them, he singlehandedly defeated communism. Well, not quite then, but subsequently. Then, the babble was more about The Gipper’s Superman-like persona and his incredibly insane, wacky, but maverick visions of a giant pellet gun out in space that would shoot down any Soviet-made missile—a military defense program exploitatively called “Star Wars.”

Whatever. Night after night, conversations of Reagan and his virtues morphed into the auditory version of the grown-ups talking in Charlie Brown cartoons. The garbage that my homophobic, racist parents spewed while the 6:30 news (ABC News with Peter Jennings) aired every weekday while we ate dinner was a necessary evil that I learned to endure. And it mainly helped me. Because it was precisely an example that my parents were unknowingly and indirectly setting that I never wanted to follow. Ever in my life. My parents showed me exactly what not to think. And how not to think. Funny how that works out in households like mine. You’d assume the insanity would be perpetuated by the generation being reared by parents such as mine.

But after dinner was my time. Or, rather, I was on. All eyes and ears on me. After dinner, while moms and pops slowly drained a couple of fingers of Courvoisier, I would play my records on the turntable for them while they enjoyed their digestif on the couch. I gotta hand it to them, not only were they good sports, they actually enjoyed my music. My dad, especially and weirdly, felt being kept up to date with the latest music trends and tastes was beneficial to him.

I played vinyl from across the spectrum. I liked most anything. I played The Police, Bowie, ABBA, Boney-M, The Clash, Blondie, Queen, Black Flag, Edith Piaf, Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell, Elvis, Charles Aznavour, Nana Mouskouri, the theme to Superman by the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams, some kind of beat poetry set to bongos and recited by William Shatner. I even had a little 45 that had the abbreviated story of Apollo 11 narrated by Walter Cronkite, and stretched my tastes into Prog Rock with bands like Emerson, Lake, and Powell, Rush, Yes, Genesis, and Jethro Tull. Indeed, my homophobic, racist parents were actually good sports when it came to music. And so, in lieu of my playing the piano after dinner in the “grand hall” for the family as evening entertainment, like those musically inclined did in the old days, I played DJ.

One evening my pops gave me a set of 78s that he had found discarded on the side of the road in front of a house in our neighborhood. He was on his daily walk, and the collection of records was left out in the open, by the overflowing garbage can—obviously an invitation from the homeowners for anyone to help themselves to it.

I was stoked. I’d never before seen in real life or played 78s. I knew about them, spinning 78 revolutions per minute, but actually touching, owning them, was a first. The collection was something classical, I recall. Maybe Enrico Caruso? The label listed the copyright as 1918. There were 6 records in the nicely packaged box set. I took out one of the records, and it felt heavy. It was very heavy, in fact. This wasn’t vinyl, it was shellac! It was like a disk of concrete. When I dropped it onto the turntable and let the machine take over, running its programmed cycle, the disc nearly shattered the plate of the turntable itself when it dropped down. It was glorious: the mono recording, the scratches, the weight of the disc. I felt as if we were listening to a hand-cranked Victrola.

For the next several weeks, after dinner, I spun nothing but the 78s. So much so that my parents began to hem and haw: “why don’t you play something else? We’re ready for some variety again.” For me, the music on the 78s brought to mind scenes from The Shining, so I loved spinning those shellac disks perpetually and would not have been at all bored if I had continued to do so daily for the next year.

But, a DJ must keep his audience happy. So Enrico Caruso finally gave way to the likes of Big Audio Dynamite, The Cure, The Smiths, The Wedding Present, REM, Echo and the Bunnymen, and later Catherine Wheel, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and other “progressive” bands coming out of the U.K. in those days.

I started this piece with the release of John Hinckley, Jr. I am not quite so sure how I sailed from that to shellac-made 78 RPM records, but there it is. Working backwards, in a way. Ending up with what really should’ve started this piece, given the title. It’s how my thoughts flow at lunchtime at work, usually, when I’m not staring at words on a computer screen that need to be fixed in a database. You’ll unfortunately just have to abide this typical tangential reverse digression.

I’ll let you go (that’s how we rid ourselves of social situations here in the South, bless your sinful little hearts!), but remind me next time to tell you the story of the night we hosted one of the Iranian hostages for dinner and the power went out for hours during a tremendous storm. I say this because the Iranian hostages were in the news the other day, so it reminded me of the story.

But don’t forget to prompt me. My mind tends to lose itself down some convoluted strange ways (Here We Come.) Get it?

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