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Gary Percesepe


Fragments of My Life in Pictures


I was born in Yonkers, New York to the children of Italian immigrants, though it seems strange to think of my parents as once being children. Photographs taken of my father and mother when they were young lovers hold a strange fascination for me. The fascination is primarily existential. Where am I? I do not exist, I am nothing; I am missing. What were they doing there in the picture? They are living without me. Did they love me? No. As yet, I am unknown, unknowable. I am in waiting; like Cinderella scrubbing, long before the ball, I await their love. I wait to enter the picture. When they are both gone (my father died in 1994) they will remain together in the photograph, but it is me who will go missing them. Always, it seems, I am one who is missing.


My earliest memory is of a house. The house is high, it towers above me. There are stairs, always stairs. There is a balcony, high above the Hudson. Below: the river, other houses, the tall trees scraping the gabled roof. Living this high there is always somewhere to fall from.


I like to watch, a habit I developed in childhood. Because I was a shy child, not particularly interested in disturbing the familial space with the sound of my own voice when so many other voices were competing to be heard, I was constantly being asked to say something, anything, even hello. When I spoke under these circumstances it always felt stagey, like I was auditioning words. I suppose I came to see it as a kind of acting. Entering a roomful of people as a young boy, I felt a heightened sense of awareness, of myself as a self, with the family voice thick in my throat—here was a room full of human meanings to be decoded. Always, I sought the corners of rooms diagonally farthest from the entrance. (I still do.) From the relative safety of this position, out of harm's way, with my back against the wall and the room in front of me, I watched what there was to see. I was an observant child.


Often enough it was TV that I watching. This activity took place also from the corner of the room. On November 25, 1963, like many American children I was at home on a school day, watching. For some reason, I did not want my parents to know that I was watching. I had out my marbles, practicing with a homemade circle of yarn on the thick piled carpet, for an upcoming tournament. I ignored the repeated calls of my mother and father to come into the room and watch. It was history, they kept saying, you should see this. I didn't want to see history; at least not from the center of the room. From my seat on the floor, from behind the end table, safely hidden from their view, from the corner of my eye I got the slant side of history on my terms, a kid's view. I watched the great black horse, Blackjack, unmanageable that day, with black boots backwards in the stirrups. I saw little John salute his dead father, and looked carefully at the pale skin of his sister Caroline, barely younger than me. I thought: they're just kids.


Growing up as I did in the nineteen-sixties, I heard often the voice of Walter Cronkite in my living room, a voice I still associate with grownups and the news, an alphabet of angst, with everything that spells disaster


I am old enough to remember John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, the young president coatless and hatless on a brittle January morning, 1961. That summer I had sold lemonade in a homemade stand in front of our apartment building: "Ask not what your lemonade stand can do for you, ask what you can do for your lemonade stand," I called out to the passing adults, giddy with the words I heard myself speaking. Playing marbles there on the carpeted living room floor in November, 1963, I allowed myself think of how it had been three days earlier, at 3 P.M. in P.S. 13. Our principal had waited until then to make the announcement over the P.A. In this disembodied, spooky way we heard the news for the first time. An older woman, with thick gray hair and a steely voice, our principal seemed on the verge of tears as she told us that the president had been shot. She did not say he was dead, though surely by now she must have known? Instead she asked us children to say a prayer for our president and his family, and for the nation. Wordless, we packed up our things, got our wraps, and trooped into the deserted streets. I followed the crowd down McLean Avenue to Saint Dennis. I had never before been in a Catholic church. I followed my Catholic classmates inside (they were all I had; the Jewish kids had disappeared to their homes, and I was the only Protestant) and looked with wonder at the font where they wet their fingers and crossed themselves. I dared not touch it. I said a short silent Protestant prayer (I do not remember what I said), and walked home, feeling shattered. I had liked this president, to the extent that a nine year old can be said to have liked a politician; he was the first one that I knew or remembered as a president. Now he was dead. Being a kid, I took my cue for how to respond by the actions of adults around me. They were shaken, alternately speechless, then jabbering. It was frightening to see them this way. That night my parents reminded me it was time for Cub Scouts. I tugged on my navy and gold uniform, with its sparse merit patches (I was not much of a Scout) and walked to the meeting place. The adults acted surprised to see me. There would be no scouts tonight, I was told by these adults, who huddled together in a tight circle, speaking in whispery voices. I felt foolish. I walked home and undressed. I would never again put on a uniform.


Years later I would have recurring nightmares about that day. I am on the top floor of the Texas Book Depository in Dallas. I run in slow motion to an open window. A man stands hunched by the window with a rifle, waiting. I am always too late.

I suspect that I am not the only one in America who dreamed this dream.


Despite the horrors I had seen and heard from this talking box, I liked television. When I was in first grade my family lived on Stanley Avenue, a short walk from my school. I did not do well in school that year. We had recently moved from the big gabled house up on Prospect Drive, and I was having difficulty adjusting to our change of circumstance. When I couldn't keep up with the work, or didn't know an answer, I felt ashamed. School baffled me. I spoke to no one. My mother was called in. This made things worse. It was the most intense feeling of powerlessness, to be so lost, so helpless, so not knowing.

At three o'clock each afternoon school dismissed with a bell. Alone at last, I raced all the way home. It was the best part of the day: time for The Millionaire. The premise of the show delighted me: A mysterious stranger, never seen on camera, each day gives away one million dollars, for no reason other than because someone has been chosen. At the end of the show, having viewed so many happy faces, I felt empty. The un-chosen. My first remembered feeling of regret, that most ambiguous of emotions. Was I thinking of my own family, decent Americans who had begun the long descent, locked in a kind of downward mobility, huddled in a small apartment on a street that was questionable?


My parents entertained frequently when I was a boy. They invited mostly church folk, almost all of whom were relatives. Oddly, for Italian-Americans, we were a boisterous bunch of Protestants, loud as Luther. Four hundred years after the Protestant Reformation in Europe, my paternal grandfather, John Percesepe, had followed the example of the German ex-monk and reformer when he left a Catholic monastery in Italy. He was subsequently excommunicated. With a muscular faith and a biting critique of the mother church, he came to America. With my maternal grandfather—the red-haired, green eyed Federico DeFrancesco—and a passel of DiMarcos, DeMartinis, Contentis, Collarellis, Tarcinellis, Lombardis, Liberatores, and others, they founded the Italian Methodist Episcopal Church of Our Savior. The small brick church, which still stands on the corner of Park Hill and Waverly in Yonkers, is a stone's throw downhill from the Mount Carmel Catholic church.

When I say a stone's throw, I mean just that. Some of the Catholic faithful had difficulty accepting the idea of an Italian Methodist. Some of them are reputed to have expressed themselves with stones. It wasn't Northern Ireland—some church windows were broken, some words exchanged—but feelings in those days could run high.

Supported by the Methodist mission board in New York, the church was one of the first of its kind in New York (or anywhere else, for that matter). Services were in Italian. Attendance could run as high as two hundred during holidays. (Attendance dropped to a meager thirty or forty in the mid-sixties, when the dwindling congregation voted to merge with the Central Methodist Church on Morris Street.) The lovely, lilting ecclesiastical Italian spoken in this little church bathes my earliest memories. We were a close knit clan, relying on one another for encouragement and support. In those days, being Italian and Protestant was not easy. In fact, it was unheard of. There was, it seemed, lots to talk about. In the living room, at the dinner table, in the car on Sunday drives, or in the narthex of our church, it could get noisy. I didn't have much to say. Maybe I was unconsciously seeking to emulate my namesake of the silver screen, the manly Gary Cooper, for whom speaking seemed to be particularly painful. Like many Italian-Americans of his generation, my father had given all of his children the most American sounding names he could find, in the hope of more rapid assimilation. In our home, with few exceptions, no Italian was spoken. The idea was to become fully American, and the sooner the better.


My father was careful about assigning our middle names, lest we be cursed with a three letter combination that would induce ridicule from taunting classmates. My letter combination—GJP—was safe, as was that of my siblings, JCP, RTP; my youngest brother, DAP, was borderline. I think it's because my father wanted his youngest son to bear his name, Arnold. Doug was born the same year that Arnold Palmer won the U.S. Open by driving the first hole at Cherry Hills, tugging at his pants, chain-smoking, and charging hard. It always startled me to hear my father's golfing buddies call him "Arnie," but watching old black and white footage of that 1960 major championship recently on the Golf Channel, I have come to see the resemblance. It wasn't just his knock-kneed putting stance, or the powerful arcing draw he hit off the tee, his body contorting to the left as he inspected the ball's flight, his body english helping the ball find the fairway. Arnold Palmer was beloved by his friends, admired for his courage, and regarded as a "true American."


When I was a boy growing up in New York my favorite movie was Captain Blood, a film made in 1935 starring Errol Flynn. In those days WOR TV, Channel 9 would repeat the same movie several times per week, so that it was possible to learn the dialogue of a scene by heart, or tune in just in time to see your favorite parts. As young Dr. Peter Blood, who is sent into slavery for treating a wounded rebel, the 25-year-old Flynn delivers his lines with a light heart and an Irish lilt. Drawing his sword against Basil Rathbone on a Caribbean beach, or leaping from his pirate ship to an enemy vessel, shouting "All right my hearties, follow me"—well, I was ready to follow him anywhere. Throw in the lovely Olivia de Havilland, whose skin seemed luminous and magically aglow, even to a boy of ten, and—well, you get the picture. Watching this movie made me feel alive. As the music swelled and the closing credits rolled and Peter Blood sailed through the air and up, up, up the mast of his ship, I was at once ecstatic, surprised by joy, perfectly happy, up there with him, and seated safely in my living room. The combination continues to astonish me.


It is possible (though not always helpful) to think of your life as a movie, starring you. You are at the same time the star actor, the writer, the director, the audience, and critic. But more than anything, you are the camera.


I have always had a fascination with cameras. Mechanically, a movie camera is a simple machine. Mounted up front is a reel of unexposed negative. A take-up reel at the back pulls the exposed negative and rolls it up. In between these two are notched wheels that keep the film taut; turning at a constant rate of speed, the wheels pass though rectangular perforations in the negative, so that the film moves. Moving pictures. In the center of the machine is a lens. Light (natural or artificial) streams through the lens (wide angle, long, or something in between—the director decides) and strikes the negative. As the film moves on its wheels, a shutter comes down, blocking the light from hitting the negative. All of this happens very, very fast. The camera is actually photographing a still picture, one frame at a time. After a frame is exposed, the camera pulls the next frame into position, and so on, frame after frame. There are twenty-four frames per second, sixteen frames to a foot of film, one and a half feet for twenty-four frames. We often hear it said that "the camera does not lie." Well, not exactly. When projected back onto a screen by exactly the same mechanism I have described, the camera creates an illusion of images as if in motion, though what we are really seeing is twenty-four still pictures per second, or, as Jean-Luc Godard put it, "twenty-four frames of truth per second." The juxtaposition of truth and illusion in filmmaking seems to me an apt metaphor for life. The artist creates truth through a process of illusion and the distortion of time, space, and light. A one hour fifty minute movie is composed of eleven reels of film, ten minutes per reel. My life has gone on for considerably longer, but each frame, artistically, aims for the truth, and, I find myself hoping, some measure of grace. An aesthetic of existence. As actors on the stage of life even the most insignificant of our acts is recorded. One must be brave to live (the courage to be, said Paul Tillich), let alone to live well. The most important virtue for an actor is courage. The most courageous actors are the ones who are unafraid. There are few actors who are truly fearless, fewer who remain so as time makes claim to them. Those who are, are worthy of our love.


Movies shape our lives. Do we date ourselves—how we learned to be a man or a woman—by what we saw up there on the silver screen, and when we saw it? To this day I still refer to myself as "going Redford" when I pick a line of descent and carve my way down a steep ski slope in the Rockies, then afterwards become icily unavailable in the presence of someone I thought to care about (Downhill Racer). What little I know about courage, did I learn from Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Anjelica Huston, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, urged on by the story into emotional territory that stripped them naked, without shelter, towering on the screen before us with no place to hide, forced to travel to places in the heart they would rather not have gone?

Gary Percesepe is the author of "Me, Reading," published in Public Scrutiny. These two essays are part of a memoir he is writing.

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