Forgetfulness of things past
L.P. Hartley famously wrote in The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” I know this all too well as I prepare to publish my second memoir, Screen Saver Too: Hollywood Strikes Back. It’s the follow-up to my 2016 memoir, Screen Saver: Private Stories of Public Hollywood. Both are based on the premise that I may not be famous but the people I write about are; the books are my adventures as a movie publicist and a movie critic (but not both at the same time) from 1970 to the present. In other words, as the saying goes, I drop names that other people can’t even lift. In these efforts I am blessed by Ben Ohmart, the publisher of Bear Manor Media, who likes my writing and agreed to bring out Screen Saver Too because, as he put it, “Any book that has both Linda Lovelace and Butterfly McQueen in it, I just have to publish.” (And it does; watch for it in October , 2017 from BearManorMedia.com and Amazon.com.,)
My Screen Savers are memoirs. Supposedly the difference between a memoir and an autobiography is that, in a memoir, you write about what you remember and, in an autobiography, you write about what actually happened. I cover my ass by saying that I’m writing a memoir, not a deposition. Many of the people I write about are dead anyway, so yadda yadda.
There is danger in trawling ones past. The truth is a deadly adversary and the only way to conquer it is to give in. Alas, my life has been boringly free of scandal. I can’t recall any particularly embarrassing moments; the worst thing that comes to mind was making a fool of myself in front of Keanu Reeves, and it isn’t anything that he would remember or I can forget. I’m sure there are worse things I’ve done that memory has repressed so successfully that even Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting couldn’t dislodge them. (Yes, I know that breakthroughs like that are bullshit, but the scene worked anyway.)
What I remember most about the past comes straight out of the Stephen Sondheim song, “The Road You Didn’t Take,” from Follies. If I’m going to lament, at least I do it with top-shelf material. At times I do wonder what happened to the people I used to know. Every now and then I’ll take to Facebook to see if I can track any of them down, especially those I was attracted to. It’s difficult; people my age don’t do social media. There are very few old friends I hadn’t already been keeping in touch with anyway, and a couple I have run across quickly reminded me why we had fallen out of touch.
This ghoulish exercise precludes high school reunions. Back before there was a commercial reunion industry in America, graduating classes elected their own reunion committees who would set them up when the time arose. Thus when I received the query from my inevitable reunion committee for my tenth high school reunion the first thing I asked them was why they were bothering me as I recalled that our class’s plans were for a twentieth reunion. Yes, the chairwoman said, but there was so much interest in having a reunion that they decided to move it up. (Bullshit. It was my guess that the reunion committee had rich marriages and fancy jobs and they wanted to show off.)
I have always held the belief that school reunions exist for two reasons: first, so that successful graduates can jam it up the asses of the unsuccessful graduates, and, second, so that separated high school sweethearts can link up again without their spouses getting suspicious. Having no interest in either, and being no fan of nostalgia, when the Springbrook High School Reunion Committee of Silver Spring, Maryland contacted me through my parents in January of 1976 – I was on location working on a feature film – I searched for an appropriate way to decline. A simple “no” or silence could not express the enmity I had been carrying for my high school experience. The Committee itself gave me a clue. My graduating class had 212 people in it and I was surprised to find a list of 86 names that the Committee had lost track of and was asking if anybody knew how to reach them. In my rejection letter I told them that I had remained in touch with anybody I wanted to see at a reunion, and, of those I was curious about, they were all on the list of lost people, and if they didn’t want to be bothered to go to a reunion, neither did I. I said a few more things – mostly how much I had hated Springbrook, the obnoxious class leaders, and the redneck administrators -- and ended by saying that my idea for the perfect class reunion would be like the prom at the end of Carrie. I never heard from them again, which was the idea.
There are better ways to find old friends than with the contrived nostalgia of reunions. Sometimes the ol’ phone book works, although it’s tough to locate women who changed their last names when they got married. Facebook searches are sobering. For some reason, everybody got old. The hot girls and studly guys I remembered from high school and college have all growed up. Now they are bald, wrinkled, or overweight. Not that I’m not all three myself, but in your mind you think of the people you knew “back when” as looking exactly as they did when you last saw them at graduation or working at Sears the summer after waiting for something better to turn up. (Then you realize that you got out of town and they didn’t, so maybe nothing better did show up for them like it did for you.)
Even more shocking are the ones you can’t find at all. There are only two reasons for this: either they have no online presence or they’re dead. After all, my high school class of 1966 and my college class of 1970 emptied into Vietnam, drugs, assassinations, and AIDS. Anything could have happened. Do I really want to find out? Or should I relish the mystery? As a book writer and critic I have a higher profile than most of my boyhood friends, so I depend on them to find me when I can’t find them. Some already have. Others are, I hope, reading this essay. And yet I’m not sure if I want to reconnect. I’ve done that a couple of times and we’ll exchange e-mails about what we’ve done in the last fifty years and swap promises to stay in touch, but then nothing happens and it’s just like it was before, except now we have each other’s current address. Like strangers from the same city who bump into each other in a foreign country and become fast friends until they return home, I wonder if these transitory reunions will be permanent.
Two quotes conflict in my mind. The first is Thomas Wolfe’s famous, ”You can’t go home again.” The other is Robert Frost’s, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Wolfe, writing in metaphor, got it right. Look at Facebook and you’ll see. You can go home if you dare, but chances are that everybody you knew has moved. As for Frost, he was a romantic. The past is not just a foreign country, it is a hostile one. The only way they’ll take you in is if you surrender.
I’m not someone who lives in the past. Mind you, if I could, I would, although it would be a pleasantly revisionist past. But what strikes me about people who live in the past is that they generally don’t have a lot going on in the present. The past is called “the past” because it’s passed. The past sucked – at least mine did – and I’m glad to be rid of it. Whether for a reunion or just to see if my heart still throbs over a memory that can never be recaptured, it’s healthier to look to the future. At least, in the future, there’s still a chance.
NOTE: Thanks to Howard Prouty for his sharp eyes
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff