Our brand-new house on its brand-new dead-end street in the new Johnson County Kansas suburb stood and baked in the July sun. Depressingly fresh-paved blacktop, piles of gravel and patches of raw clay confronted me once again. The single young sapling on the front lawn echoed my gut-wrenching migration from New York to Philadelphia, sending waves of despair rising in my stomach.
It was exactly the same sick feeling inspired by the unwelcomed confrontation with that city for which I, nearly 15, now pined. The ranch-style home combined red brick with white siding, driveway, attached garage and picture window looking onto its opposite number across the street. Three basic designs of equally insipid, middle-class houses alternately lined identical streets for white middle-class families who could stand and afford to live there.
About half a dusty mile away there were a few shops, but it was too hot to walk that far. Green grasshoppers and daddy long-legs patrolled regulation suburban backyards wondering where the wheat fields had gone. I saw my first luminous praying mantis and began to explore the neighborhood which lay within the limits of Greater Kansas City, Missouri, actually located in the state of Kansas. Residents were obliged to spend hours explaining that we didn't really live in Kansas City, Kansas which was a different town. Less than a block away across the main road, in the corner of an overgrown strip, I had discovered a perfect nondescript, easily overlooked spot for a quiet smoke. Sheltering weeds and wild thorny brambles offered shade and privacy where I could interrupt boredom and sustain the empty hours. It had been easier to buy my own Luckies back at Lynnewood Drug store, but in a pinch, I'd slip a Pall Mall or Fatima from Mom's pack and tell her I was "taking a walk."
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Once off the block, I had only to cross the road, claim my tin-can ashtray from the assorted litter, settle down, light up, and breathe in a lungful of smoke to occupy, if only momentarily, the barren space around my lonely heart. Short-lived as the thrills of cigarettes were, they alone were worth getting out of bed for. And movies. The air conditioning alone was worth sitting through anything anywhere Mom would drive. Although I didn't like opera, I appreciated the intent of Carmen Jones with Dorothy Dandridge. The racist audience ridiculing the "all Negro cast" drove me out of the theater before the film ended. "Kansas City," said Pop, "is a northern town with a southern exposure."
Besides the fact that Victor Mature looked the same smiling as he did frowning in The Robe, but all I remember is one split second when, after a big battle, a dead soldier at the bottom of the cinemascope screen turns his head. Ah ha! But who could I share it with? The Barefoot Contessa story struck me as senseless but then again, Ava Gardner's heavy-lidded appeal did not escape me. Nor did Kim Novak's sultry glances as she batted them towards William Holden in Picnic, her lower lip trembling with vulnerability. The best part of Roman Holiday was when Gregory Peck walks into a palace and notes, "It ain't much, but it's home" to Audrey Hepburn, whose beautiful birdlike fragility reminded me of Mom. That aside, those films stayed with me no longer than the chill of the theater in the blast of afternoon heat. On The Waterfront was the second Hollywood film I knew to deal head-on with political truth as I understood it. The first was Broadway's Born Yesterday, made into a 1951 cinema comedy knockout. As Billie, Judy Holiday screeched "Whaaaaaat?" at Broderick Crawford, called him a fascist to his face and drove him wild with her quirky playing in a classic gin rummy game, where she continually reshuffled her hand and won, game after game. Judy Holliday stole the movie and updated standards for brassy blonde bombshell set by Mae West. At a time when the blacklist ruled, she was a "progressive" who spoke her mind and was denied work because of it and died of cancer before her time. In an industry designating blondes as dumb and submissive, she was neither. Gorgeous, brilliantly funny and powerful, she strengthened my belief in my mind and my respect for smart blondes. Betty Grable and Betty Hutton had vitality, but for me, Judy's personna was stronger, smarter and deeper than any showgirl before or since.