Off the Wall Cinema

Off the Wall
Off the Wall Cinema, Cambridge, MA

I just did a guided meditation online. Full disclosure: I am terrible at meditating. I fidget and squirm. Every sound around me demands my attention. My focus is anything but calm. Anyway, early on in this meditation, I was asked to picture a time when I felt totally at peace with myself and the world. After several minutes of frantically searching for such a time and place, I settled on Off the Wall Cinema, circa 1984.

Off the Wall was a very small theater in Central Square, Cambridge, MA. Instead of the usual theater seating, you sat at small tables. Coffee and pastries were available to snack on during the show. I went to a lot of movies during my first few years in Boston in the early-to-mid 1980s. That was when I discovered that popcorn and apple cider are a perfect combination. Most of the theaters I remember attending are now gone. Off the Wall is one of them.

As a kid I remember being a Laurel & Hardy fan, but at Off the Wall I also discovered and fell in love with silent stars Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. At Off the Wall I became a fan of animated shorts. (Favorites include “The Big Snit,” “Sky Whales,” and “Tony de Peltrie.” Look them up.) It was where I first saw classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. (I no longer think of the latter as the feel-good movie it is supposed to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) If you are getting the impression that Off the Wall was off the wall, you are correct.

Before moving to Boston in August 1983, I already had one year of college under my belt, so it wasn’t like I was freshly out of the nest, but it was in Boston that my world truly blossomed. The next few years were a time of exploration and experimentation. If there has been any period of my life I could live over exactly the way it happened the first time, that would be it.

Off the Wall closed in 1986, near the end of what I consider my short Golden Age. In 1987 I went back to school and cut my hair. I tried desperately to be normal. That was a bad idea. I’ve since tried to recapture the wonderful sense of endless possibility I felt during the glory days when Off the Wall was flourishing and I was young. I didn’t get there during my meditation session, but I did have fun remembering those happy days.

 

Trump

I confess; I once wrote a fan letter to Donald Trump. It was 1987-88. I had a First Edition copy of The Art of the Deal, and was just starting back to college after being out of school for four years. I was a Finance major at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. I subscribed to Money and Fortune magazines. Donald Trump fascinated me. Even at the time, he was famous primarily for being an egotistical blowhard with little skill, business or otherwise, but a great deal of chutzpah—enough to make him an interesting character and to make himself a lot of money. I regarded him as a modern day P. T. Barnum.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote about his plans to develop a large spot of land on the west side of Manhattan, the site of a former New York Central Railroad yard, into something called Television City. It was typical Trump: an audacious idea with an equally outrageous name. In my fan latter, I told Mr. Trump that I hoped to be one of the development’s first residents. Television City never happened. The project eventually morphed into Riverside South on a much smaller scale than the original plan, and was sold to various investors including some from Hong Kong and China. I do not live there.

I followed Trump for years, buying his other books as they came out, and reading about him in financial magazines and newspapers. I enjoyed watching him in interviews. He was larger than life, the embodiment of so many of the traits Americans highly prize even if we don’t want to admit it: abundant self-confidence, an unapologetic hunger for money and power, and an overwhelming sense of American exceptionalism. The late 1980s was the era of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street, and the hero worship of financial wizards like Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, and Peter Lynch. Okay, so some of them landed in jail, but the main thing was they made a lot of money!

When Trump threw out the idea of running for president in 2000, I initially thought he would be a strong contender. His stated views at the time were relatively moderate. Then when he made another short trial run in 2012, an online “Which candidate do I agree with most” survey told me Trump should be one of my top picks. Again, he seemed reasonably moderate…for a while.

Then he stated on the birther thing, insisting that Obama was not a natural born citizen. I started having second thoughts about Trump. By the campaign leading up to 2016, Trump had clearly decided to court the extreme right, including white supremacists. He ran a shock campaign, employing all the spotlight grabbing tricks he had learned over the years. His successful “reality TV” career had taught him that outlandish behavior and inflammatory pronouncements garnered impressive viewership ratings. The Donald Trump who had amused and entertained me was gone, and in place of that over-the-top but still likable character there was this repulsive bully spouting hatred and playing to the lowest common denominator.

I hoped the other Donald Trump was still in there somewhere, and that this new guy was just playing a game to get attention. I was wrong. His Republican rivals underestimated him, but the Democrats made a much bigger mistake. They assumed that since Trump had basically been laughed out of the election process early in the game in both 2000 and 2012 he was easily beatable. They were horribly wrong.

The letters I have been sending my Senators (Grassley and Ernst) and the White House lately have not been fan letters.