Trading Bubble Gum Cards

Canter’s Deli on Fairfax

When the restaurants in L.A. started to open, Martine and I decided to go for our first restaurant meal in three months to Canter’s Deli on Fairfax. So on Saturday we actually found space in the deli’s postage-stamp-sized parking lot and wandered in wearing our required face masks. I ordered half of a pastrami sandwich on rye on a cup of bean and barley soup with iced tea. Martine had knockwurst and beans. We shared a plate of kosher dill pickles.

Okay, so it wasn’t a romantic choice; but my patronage of the deli goes back more than half a century. When I went to see movies with my film freak friends, we usually stopped for a late night feed at Canter’s, which at the time professed to be open all night but usually wasn’t. Over a corned beef sandwich or a plate of kasha varnishkes, we argued about which movies were super great and which were shit. These conversations were sometimes heated, as film freaks can be counted on to be opinionated. I referred to these sessions as “trading bubble gum cards,” as they were pretty juvenile.

Two of the friends I went to Canter’s with—who curiously were the most dogmatic in their positions—are no longer with us. Norman Witty died in 2013, and Lee Sanders in 2015. In a way, I miss those days when our opinions meant so much to us. Now, even when discussing even the greatest films, I am more inclined to shrug differences off. (Maybe that’s why I’m still alive.)

Martine and I enjoyed our meal. I know we were putting ourselves at risk, but we were impatient to return to normality even for a short time. As the coronavirus threat dies down, we will return more frequently; but however good Canter’s is, it’s not worth sacrificing our life for their food.


War Games and Random Play

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

As I read the words, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising. The book was Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968), about a demonstration against the Pentagon against the Viet Nam war. At the time, I was also under the political influence of another Norman, my late friend Norman Witty, who was very active with the Los Angeles draft resistance movement.

This is a good look at the sort of thing that influenced me some half a century ago:

On a day somewhat early in September, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up. That was not characteristic of Mailer. Like most people whose nerves are sufficiently sensitive to keep them well-covered with flesh, he detested the telephone. Taken in excess, it drove some psychic element of static ino the privacies of the brain; so he kept himself amply defended. He had an answer service, a secretary, and occasional members of his family to pick up the receiver for him—he discouraged his own participation on the phone—sometimes he would not even speak to old friends. He had the idea—it was undeniably oversimple—that if you spent too much time on the phone in the evening, you destroyed some kind of creativity for the dawn. (It was taken for granted that nothing respectable would come out of the day if the morning began on the phone, and indeed for periods when he was writing he looked on transactions vis telephone as Arabs look upon pig.)

To this day, I still feel that way about receiving telephone calls. Was it Mailer’s influence? Or is it some ornery impulse that makes it all right for me to make a call, but a damned imposition to receive one?

I was so impressed by Mailer writing about himself in the third person, with his occasional wry asides, that for many years I thought of him as America’s best essayist. Curiously, to this day I have not read any of his fiction, even his famous WW2 novel, The Naked and the Dead. Well, maybe later.




Norm at a Cinecon Show in Hollywood

Norm at a Cinecon Show in Hollywood

I knew that I was reaching the endgame, but not until today did I realize the suddenness and the finality with which a life can be snuffed out. Norman Witty has been a friend of mine for almost half a century, ever since he picked me up while I was hitchhiking on Wilshire Boulevard. He was a couple of years older than me, a chain smoker of unfiltered Camels, and—like me—a film freak. At the time I was a grad student in the UCLA film department, and Norm—well, he just watched a lot of movies. I had the feeling he had a trust fund or some other family income source that obviated the need for a job.

After a while, we parted ways for a while. I dropped out of the Masters degree program at UCLA because of faculty politics and went into the computer industry so that I could make a living. Norm, on the other hand, moved back East (he was originally from Massachusetts) and opened a comic book and film poster store in Northampton, Mass.

We re-established our friendship when he started coming out to Los Angeles for the Cinecon shows around Labor Day Weekend. By this time, Norm was fast approaching the point of total deafness. He offered Martine some money to help him interact with potential clients in the Cinecon dealer rooms. Martine and Norm communicated by way of a notepad, and Martine usually took the helm when Norm took a smoking break. This worked out well for both, and for me because I got to see a lot of free old movies at the Egyptian Theater down the street. We would go out to dinner together and have one of our annual food fights: Like many people who know nothing about preparing food, Norm had some curious requirements. He hated the ethnic restaurants I would “drag” him to, and Martine and I hated the white tablecloth joints with mediocre Euro food that he patronized.

This Labor Day, Norm did not come out for Cinecon. I have been in touch with him only by e-mail, and through a joint friend who visited him at his New York cooperative apartment on West 57th Street. Several New Yorkers whom we knew in common were concerned about Norm not seeing any of his friends and acquaintances any more.

Then the bombshell hit when I received an e-mail from Norman’s sister announcing that he had died early this morning of an aortic aneurism. Fortunately, she had been visiting with him and, in fact, was with him when he fell ill last night. He was able to get fast access to the medical care he needed, but his luck had run out.

I’ve written about Norm before, though not by name. You can see my blog from September 4, 2012 entitled “A Prickly Individual,” in which I expressed growing concern about his health.

In truth, Norm was prickly, but he was also generous and funny. He also had a store of knowledge about films which only began to wane as his hearing disappeared. At that point, he switched to silent movies and would buy and sell at the silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.