A Death in Summer

by A. Jay Adler on August 5, 2010
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Among the many varied jobs of my misdirected young manhood – filling orders, on a rolling cart, in a watchband warehouse; selling wine to the upper crust of Manhattan’s Upper East Side; shuttling in my taxi among the island’s singles bars, heterosexual and gay, until 5 a.m., ferrying home the whacked out and the happily buzzed, the lucky and the not, and the tips to match, then falling asleep in my 8 a.m. sociology class at City College – was a job selling driving lessons over the telephone for the Automobile Club of America Driving School. We were a colorful crew, we voices in glass cubicles at Madison Avenue and Thirty Fifth Street, the better to be monitored, as well as overheard to be sure we kept to the script. We were future physicists and opera singers, only mildly bitchy and very kind, but unkempt and disheveled queens – just to wreck your typology – and voice artists who finally made the big bucks and left when his brother produced a landmark documentary history of the Olympic Games and gave him the voice over narration gig.

Amazingly, we mostly all liked each other, mostly because we were all committed to having fun through the long stretches of occasional calls, and then the madhouse ringing after the TV ads came on that were then, in the mid 70s, ubiquitous on the New York airwaves. We’d pop from cubicle to cubicle to share the latest absurdity of the latest call – sing or intone or render disquisition. Once, having asked according the script in which borough (of the city) the caller wished to take his lessons – consider my hands to have made whatever gesture over my beating heart your oath taking requires – the elderly Hispanic man with whom I conversed replied, “Oh, no, I don’t want de boorow, I want de caaar.” I quickly placed the call on hold and stumbled out into the corridor convulsed in laughter for all to see. Joined by my fellows for the cause of my attack, we were soon all in an uproar of hilarity, at which point I was stood straight and directed back into my glass booth like a woozy fighter pushed back into the fray.

On another occasion, having flirted quite stirringly with the young woman to whom I sold a lesson, I later inquired with the Bronx office manager, to whom I explained my interest. I was informed that the lesson had been canceled on account of the young lady’s not being able to fit behind the wheel. For the next week, in Auto Club offices all throughout the city, whenever the doldrums threatened, my erotic longing was invoked to lighten the mood.

But of all the fun-loving characters at the driving school, none was more so than Antony Alda, who could deliver the pitch and contort his face with a mock-heroic, lunatic sincerity for his fellows to see, above and beyond all other comparatively meager talents. Antony was the younger – by twenty years – half-brother of Alan Alda, both the sons of Robert Alda. Robert was a star of stage and screen in the 40s and 50s, and still working in later decades, though eclipsed in fame by his oldest son and little known to later generations. I was 22, then 23, when we worked at the driving school; Antony turned 19. He was attending Julliard and earning some money of his own.

For about two years, Antony and I were quite good friends, pitching in to paint each other’s apartments, commiserating with each other over the pains of young manhood. But while I was twenty-three perhaps some years older than I was, Antony was 19 going on 18. He was a born comedian and Antony – in impromptu pastiche, practical joke, or absurd insight – just wanted to have fun. Dramatically handsome with his face in repose, he had the broadest, toothiest grin I ever saw until I met Julia, and truth be told, maybe still. When he smiled or laughed, the mouth expanded to take up half his face, and his eyes flared very wide, as if God had just shared with him the ultimate scandalous secret.

I attended Antony’s wedding to Leslie Clark at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue and then the reception at the old Biltmore Hotel in Manhattan, across the street from Grand Central Station. (Amorously delayed with my lover at the time, we arrived in the church as Antony and Leslie were marching post ceremony up the aisle. Antony, who knew well my habitual tardiness, pointed at us as we scurried for a bench and laughed.) After the grand affair, Tony and Leslie repaired with all their peers to a hotel suite for hours more of celebration. I remember, still, Robert Alda, beaming in the joy of his youngest’s marriage, entering the suite and cupping my face with his hand in the beneficent pleasure he had to share with everyone that day.

At some point after, Antony and Leslie moved to Los Angeles. We lost contact. We were both so young, and the friendship had grown up around the driving school and its little community, and that was over. But then, maybe a year later, fleeing that terribly mistaken love affair and a life gone increasingly awry, I moved to L.A. too. My older brother, Jeff, had already moved out to seek his fortunes (in those days, it seemed everyone moved to California, or wanted to), and he and some New York friends had opened an antique importing and exporting business, and two stores. I went to work unloading forty-foot containers from England and making repairs at the back of the Abbott Kinney shop in Venice. Still have the bad back as a marker.

One late afternoon, heading back to Jeff’s Malibu apartment without him, so without transportation, I was hitch hiking home up the Pacific Coast Highway. A sedan that decided late to stop for me pulled over some distance up the road. I ran in its direction to see the driver and passenger emerge and begin to run toward me. It was Antony and Leslie.

“It’s the Arn!” Tony shouted. We reveled in the happy serendipity that would have been a delight to any person, but was a wonder of the universe to Tony. The two of them were at that moment headed to Robert Alda’s Sunset Boulevard apartment, at the boulevard’s end on the coast, for dinner with Alan and his family. I had, of course, to join them, and did. Alan had not been at the wedding, so I met him only that evening – the far older brother, whom Antony, the kid, wanted to be funny for his friend, but who, a sober adult, preferred not to perform over dinner. It was, instead, a lovely and warm family gathering.

The three of us spent time together again. Leslie confided to me that there were early difficulties in the marriage. Antony had a band, and, staying up late, jamming and cutting up with his friends – as if he weren’t, quite, married – was leaving Lori feeling the marriage neglected. Antony, despite the opportunities that might have been open to him for an acting career, wanted to make a life as musician instead, He never told me specifically that he wanted to make a different way from that of his father and brother, but it would be surprising if that didn’t play some role in his choice, however unaware he may have been of it.

It was a happy reunion for the three of us, but after only three months in L.A., I decided not to run away from my troubled emotional life and the life I really wanted, which was in New York. I went home, and I never saw or spoke to Antony or Leslie again.

Sometimes over the years, especially after the internet changed all our lives, I would search for what I could learn of Tony. It seemed he never made it big as a musician, at least as leaving one’s name in public records is a sign of it, and he did act. He did a MASH with his father and brother. He had a recurring role on a Soap. I think there had been a pilot or two, never picked up for production. That was about all I could learn.

A couple of nights ago, in preparation for the visit of one of my oldest friends from New York – l live now, oddly enough, in Los Angeles – I was doing some research into activities that she and I and another old high school friend who lives in L.A. might pursue during the week. I was looking into some theater we might see, checking out the latest show at the Mark Taper Forum. It is Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and I noted, on my computer screen, that in its cast is an actor named Ian Alda. Of course, I had to investigate.

Though I have lived in Los Angeles, now, for eighteen years, I never sought to find Antony, whom I last saw over thirty years ago. This had nothing to do with Tony. Julia, like the small town girl she is, though living far from that town, lives with her past as beside the houses of her neighbors on their quiet street. They are all there beside her each morning as she exits the door, a continuing part of her life, and the nourishing, ever expanding and growing community of her history. For me, the past is like the great, dark urban metropolis from which I emerged. The homes of friends can be found there, and the sunlight and music of childhood, but there are also old, forbidding houses at the end of lonely streets, dark alleys where bad things happened, interesting neighborhoods where something was lost and that I just stopped visiting. When something ended, and lots of things ended, I didn’t go back to it.

Sure enough, I quickly discovered from the many links that appeared before my eyes, that Ian Alda is Antony’s son. The twenty year old, the exuberant boy whom I remembered, had naturally not frozen in life as he had remained frozen in my memory. He had a grown son, probably not that far from the age at which I remember the father. And then – oh, I imagine it would be a sight, to look at the eyeballs of a face scanning the search results on a computer screen, rapidly wandering, darting and shifting – a word among all the random words jumped out, as if it had become bolded and raised from the screen – the word “died.”

Antony died last year, just over a year ago, on July 3, 2009, at the age of 52.

By now it was about 2 a.m. People who get emails from me, if they check the time, will know that I stay up late. I sleep only a few hours a night. For me, these days, feeling the press of time and of things to be done, and like a character in a story I’m currently working on, “sleep is just time taken away, death making deposits on a layaway plan, but I don’t want to sell.”

I searched more. There wasn’t much. Antony and Leslie had not made it. Tony had married Lori in 1981, and they divorced in the early 90s. There were some rumors about how he died. I found nothing authoritative, but the blog of friend said it had been from a liver disease. At 52.

And then I found the video on YouTube that had been made for Antony’s memorial service by his sons – he had two sons, the other named Zan. I caught up in this meager way, a little, on Tony’s life. There were photographs and home movies, excerpts from TV shows and films. In most of them, he was very much the young man I knew. Near the end, I got to see the man I never knew, forty and older, now no longer alive. People left comments, loving and appreciative. Someone wrote something about Tony not always having made the best choices in life. I know something about that.

It was now 3 a.m. and my sorrow was deep and discombobulated. Memory. Antony was only 20 years old for me. How could he have died? Somehow, I had entered A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.”

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

I thought that if I searched for Tony on the internet, I would find him there as I knew him, cyberspace and its universe of information somehow a reflection of the lies that memory tells, a place where time stops to preserve what we seek there, a Valhalla of eternal youth and promise.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Finally, I sought the sleep I resist.

* * *

Before Antony was married, he and Leslie lived for a time in New York in an apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. They invited me to have dinner there with both their parents. Just the parents, Antony and Leslie, and me. Tony wanted me to meet his father. And his father, he said, just had to meet “the Arn.”

When it came time for the dinner itself, I was told that the parents wanted to serve the young people. Tony and Leslie and I would eat first, and only after, the parents. I can’t recall anymore what I thought of that. It was a spacious apartment, so the three of us sat at a large dining table while the elder Aldas delivered to us what were pretty meager portions of soup. The conversation was a bit stiff and subdued. Then Robert Alda and his wife served up the main course, for each of us a plate with a single slice of beef, a couple of small new potatoes, and a few leaves of lettuce. Tony commented on how good the food looked.  I began to cut into my single slice of beef, when the room became a din of laughter.

“Did you see his face!”

“He was trying so hard to act normal!”

“He couldn’t believe his eyes!”

Antony was pointing at me, his mouth wide as a cave, his eyes ablaze with the joy of a joke. He was cackling. “Look at the Arn! He was just going to keep quiet and eat it!”

In a moment, bowls of pasta and salad, a side of beef, bread and cheese and wine all flowed from the kitchen in a hubbub of talk and laughter and the pleasure of the delicious practical joke hors d’œuvre that had been served.

I felt very loved.

* * *

In 2001, Antony wrote and directed a film called Role of a Lifetime, starring Scott Bakula and himself. There is an excerpt of it in the memorial film. Tony’s character says to Bakula,

“Isn’t it funny how you never know you’re asleep until you wake up? Like, if you didn’t wake up, you’d never know your were asleep.”

AJA

———-


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