- Television Days
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In my memory, anyway, it was always there, and we were always in front of it, a hulking, nineteeninch, single-speaker Hitachi sitting in our front room in a cabinet my father had thrown together with a childhood friend from Brooklyn one drunken night years before I was born. It had faux-wood trim, a push-pull power button, separate dials for UHF and VHF channels. Beside it, standing on end, was the cable box we had only because in the middle of Manhattan we wouldn't have gotten reception without it. We'd lie there on the blue woolen couch each afternoon, my older brother, my younger sister and I, a tangle of arms [End Page 11] and legs, eating American cheese, Entenmann's Golden Chocolate Cake, Fig Newtons, even Oreos, still made with lard then, that somehow found their way into our mother's kosher kitchen. In those early days we watched Get Smart, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Joker's Wild ("Joker, joker, joker!"), The Adventures of Mighty Mouse and Welcome Back, Kotter. A captive audience, we watched greedily, singing along with every theme song, falling over ourselves at every punch line, following every story line as though they were our story lines instead of some schmuck's on the television. When Dr. Johnny Fever was forced to wear a disco suit to host a dance show, we shook with the outrage; when Mr. Kotter's wife walked out on him because of the Sweathogs, our hearts shattered; and when Bobby Brady got to play catch with "Broadway" Joe Namath, we fell silent with awe. Even commercials (Bumble Bee tuna, Sunkist, Lucky Charms) had us crooning along like maudlin drunks. Only those brief blank spaces between shows spawned bitter disagreements—about what to watch next, who changed the channel, whose foot should go where, who cut the cheese—followed by a flurry of threats and counterthreats, slaps and counterslaps, farts and counterfarts and, finally, a frantic chase around the dinner table, first one way, then the other, then back again, until like a bolt from heaven another theme song began, another story line commenced, and we'd silently find our places on the couch again.
We weren't supposed to be watching. But our father, who had threatened to "rip the goddamn television from the wall," was at work, as was our small, anxious mother, who, her best efforts notwithstanding, couldn't scare us if she tried. And certainly Dee, our slow-footed babysitter/housekeeper from Barbados, wasn't going to rat us out, since she herself spent the better part of each day watching One Life to Live, The Young and the Restless and Santa Barbara instead of doing what our mother asked. Toward evening, having hastily swallowed a few Tater Tots or fish sticks, we watched, ears pricked, as Fonzie prepared to jump his motorcycle over fourteen garbage cans in Al's parking lot or Gilligan and company hatched another doomed rescue plan or the Joker methodically lured Batman into another diabolical trap. We braced whenever the elevators rattled in their shafts, flinching when one opened on our floor, sighing when we realized it was just old Mrs. Kobin with her yapping mutt. Or our mother, distinguishable from our father by the idiosyncratic tinkle of her keys, who walked in, always a little breathless, the worn leather briefcase, the high heels that hurt her feet, the perennial [End Page 12] frown. "Your father will be home soon," she'd say, putting down her briefcase and becoming immediately preoccupied by one of the microscopic evidences of Dee's routine blunders: a vacuum-nicked chair, a scratched mirror, something discernible only to my mother's bionic eye amidst the chaos that was our apartment. "It's like she does it to me on purpose," she'd say sorrowfully before heading into the kitchen, pouring herself a glass of ginger ale and starting in on the one task she wouldn't dare risk handing over to Dee: preparing dinner for herself and my father...