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Thursday, March 29, 2012

One Can at a Time

From the Vault, Jimmy Breslin Edition: Twenty-five years ago, the movie Ironweed was filmed in parts of the Albany area, a process that included a makeover for the recently closed Miss Albany Diner. Back then I lived near downtown Schenectady, and recorded the following conversation at a long-gone State Street store called Baum's News. The piece was literarily enhanced for publication, but, as anybody can attest who's witnessed the weirdness celebrities can inspire in civilians, not by much.


THE NICHOLSON SIGHTINGS have been getting more frequent in my neighborhood, and I don't live anywhere near Menands.

“Oh, sure, saw him at the Price Chopper on Route 9,” said one old-timer, a guy named Pete. “He was buying frozen vegetables. Looked to me like Bird’s Eye.” Pete’s a stooper up at the track come summer, so you know he’s pretty observant.

But there are skeptics. “You sure about that?” asked Tiny Bob. “I seen those movies of his on cable. He’s pretty mean. If it was really him, I bet he wouldn’t stand for no snooping around his vegetables.” Tiny Bob’s kind of unique inasmuch as he really is tiny, about five-foot-zip with a hat on.

We were hanging out at the Newsroom. The afternoon paper had just come in with another piece of sensationalism about that Ironweed project. But we’re all pretty blase here in Schenectady.

“That sumbitch did that picture with Ann-Margret, I forget the name,” said Roy, clacking his dentures for prurient emphasis. We call him “Beef Liver Roy” because that’s all he eats over at Ruby’s since he got his new choppers. He made a high-pitched hog-calling sound and went out of commission for the next several minutes, submerged into an oblivion of Ann-Margret fantasy.

Bob T. took the floor next. “I talked to him,” he announced. Bob likes to be egged on.

Pete threw down the gauntlet. “When?”

“Oh, yesterday, day before. He was at the OTB over in Albany.”

“Where, Central Avenue?”

Bob T. nodded.

“Yeah, right, so how come he talked to you?”

Bob T. shrugged. “Beats me. He was having a drink at the bar, watching the screen and, like, nobody was recognizing him. So I sat down and told him I liked that Prizzi’s Honor.”

Roy came to long enough to murmur “Kathleen Turner” and was gone again.

“So what’d he say?” Pete demanded.

Bob T. sprang into his Nicholson impression. “He said, Thanks. Hope you like this one.”

Pete shook his head and frowned at the floor. “Nah. I don’t believe it. He don’t have to go out to no bar to drink. He gets that all sent in.”

“I’m tellin’ ya.”

Schenectady always has had a reputation for being tough on actors. This bunch may not be your avid movie- or play-going crowd, but they like to stay tuned in on the entertainment gossip.

Of course, it was Streep that they really wanted to see, so that jazz we were told about her commuting from her house in Connecticut hurt kind of deep. Bob M., who used to be a cook before he cashed out on disability, had an elaborate menu planned that he and his wife were going to serve after they persuaded Meryl to come by the house in Rotterdam for a snack. “She really needs some meat on those bones,” Bob M. said in his whiny voice. “I mean, nobody should be that skinny.” There was some serpentine family connection terminating in a former next-door neighbor to Meryl that Bob M. had planned to collect upon. But the whole scheme was based on a chance meeting he was going to arrange when she was just hanging out in town between takes. So much for that.

“Meryl Streep,” Roy exclaimed. “I seen her naked once.”

“Where?” Bob M. was sensitive about his actress, who was, after all, almost family.

“High Society. Magazine did a spread on her.”

“That wasn’t her,” Pete sneered. “That was some look-alike.”

Hatch, who runs the Newsroom, was gnawing on a chewed-off greenie and grinning with the other half of his face. “You’re all wet,” he said. “All of you. Nicholson ain’t gonna hang around the bum joints you guys hang around in. He’s gonna go home, mix a few drinks, talk on the phone, maybe have a little party just for movie people.”

“I met Anthony Quinn when he was here at Proctor’s,” said Pete. “He was getting into his car. I said hello and so did he.”

Hatch shrugged. “So big deal. I had Tony Bennett in here buying a paper once.”

“I bet that Jack Nicholson isn’t so tough at all,” said Bob T. “That’s just a big act he puts on. Like Jimmy Cagney used to do.”

“They all put on those acts,” said Hatch. “Bogie, George Raft – ”

“I met George Raft in Florida,” said Pete.

“ – all of ‘em. And Peter Lorre was, like, a professor or something.”

“All right. Let me ask you something.” Pete was getting annoyed. “Say you’re Jack Nicholson. You’ve been on the set all day. Ever since you got here you been eating in restaurants and you want to have a meal cooked at home – ”

“My wife and I could cook it,” Bob M. said brightly. “Maybe he could bring Miss Streep.”

“Shut up. So you want this meal, so you got to get some food. So where’re you gonna go?”

“So after all this,” and Hatch is grinning now, almost bit his cigar in two, “after all this, he goes and buys a sack of frozen vegetables?”

“Hey,” Pete protested. “He buys his groceries one can at a time, same as the rest of us.”

Metroland Magazine, March 5, 1987

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