Today , October 26th, is my brother Jimmy’s birthday. He would have been 40. He passed away in 2008 and if there’s anything I regret in life is never having had Megan meet him. Granted, there were no opportunities to introduce the two, but she should have known her brother-in-law. He wasn’t perfect, god knows none of us are. However, as I reflect on his 40th birthday, there are some lessons I learned from him that I impart not only to Megan, but to any reader out there.
#5 – How to Play Pool
I can’t play pool. Not very well, at least. I’m like a walrus using a toothpick when it comes to pool. It’s like I get fat hands all the sudden – just meaty stumps slopped around a wooden pole. No, Jimmy didn’t teach me HOW to play pool. Jimmy taught me how to BEHAVE when playing pool. He had plenty of film fascinations but one of his favorites was The Color of Money. He loved the idea of hustling pool. When my dad bought a billiard table for his basement, Jimmy took to it like Steve McQueen to a Dodge Charger. I almost wrote “like Elvis to a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich” but that brings forth images of a graceless, uncouth, slovenly yokel smashing fat into his face.
Jimmy exuded cool when he walked that table; the way he sauntered around the table eying the balls like victims; the way he held his cue as if pounding it into the ground would force the balls to get in line. He racked the balls with precision and hit them with an easiness that made you feel uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. He used to suck his lips in and nod when you had a good shot – never really sure if he’s mocking or congratulating you.
If you want to see Jimmy in action, get The Secrets of Hustling Pool with Pretty Boy Floyd. One year he bought this VHS tape and watched it incessantly. And for good reason – it was one of the most entertaining “how to” videos ever made. It was great. I don’t think Jimmy watched it as much for the hustling tips as for how this guy held himself. It’s where I learned the phrase, “Don’t leave mad . . . just leave.” I used to have friends over for viewing parties.
Just watching Floyd reminds me of watching Jimmy. The difference was that this guy was hilarious – a grade A hustler the way a cartoonist would have portrayed him.. Jimmy? He refined that caricature. I remember watching the video with him on lazy Saturdays and we’d both just cry laughing – but I think Jimmy really used his tips. I’m sure he didn’t really go to Omaha pool halls and hustle people, but I like to think he did. It’s part of his mythos. Jimmy held himself high when he played pool. It was a sight to see. Pretty Boy Floyd would have been proud – and scared.
Which leads straight into . . .
#4 – Bull Shit with Confidence & Sincerity
I, in no way, condone Jimmy’s bullshit. But when he did bullshit someone, he did it with panache. Unless you were a seasoned Jimmy BS detector, you never really knew if he was lying to you or not. The catch was that he spoke to you with this unbelievable sincerity. It was like watching an academy award winning performance. He came off as knowledgeable about something but with such honesty that you felt like an ass for even thinking he was lying.
Once, we went to the drug store so he could get some cigarettes. The clerk asked him some harmless question – I honestly don’t know what – let’s say if he had seen a football game – in any case, I knew Jimmy was BSing this guy, but he was so good at it. He just answered with this honesty and friendliness, never once showing hints of not knowing what he was talking about. It was an art form. The lesson learned wasn’t to be a good bullshitter. I learned that whenever your dealing with people, be confident but compassionate. If you really want something in life, this is the way to go about it. It will get you through most confrontational situations.
#3 – Appreciation of Cinema
Jimmy was a cinephile. I mean, a huge cinephile. He was just shy of actually making movies. He loved quoting movies. He loved talking movies. He loved watching movies. Especially anything with DeNiro, Pachino or Nicholson. I am not sure I would be in film school if it wasn’t for him pressing movies on me. Towards the end of his life he spoke about going back to school to be a nurse. I thought that was great and admirable and all that jazz, but I really wanted him to study film. I thought if there was anyone in the world who understood the language of cinema and the nuances of screen acting, it was Jimmy.
However, when it came to films, Jimmy was a enigma. He hated popcorn movies. He loathed romantic comedies. He ran this strange gambit between intense dramas and goofy comedies. He loved Billy Madison and Goodfellas but hated Lord of the Rings. It was strange and wonderful at the same time. He used to take me to movies and talk about the cinematography and the editing and the acting. He was DVD commentary before there was DVD commentary. And not once did you feel like he was ruining the movie. He was complimenting it.
Jimmy introduced me to films like Goodfellas, The Godfather, Rivers Edge, Blue Velvet, Platoon, Heat, Full Metal Jacket, The Last Waltz and The Secrets of Hustling Pool with Pretty Boy Floyd . . . One of my fondest memories was seeing the film Hoffa with him. It’s not exactly up there with the greats – but seeing that film and talking about the transitions between scenes with him . . . it may have been a major contributing factor to me attending film school.
If anything, I hope that he’s proud of my films. It’s a path I think he would have wanted me to take.
#2 – Schadenfreude
I can say that my whole family has contributed to my sense of humor. From my dad’s Cosby-esque demeanor, to Patrick’s zany non-sequitor nonsense, to Sean’s innocent commentary to Larry’s “wah-wah” punch lines. Jimmy, though, taught me the value of Schadenfreude – the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. It sounds awful, but it’s true. It was the brotherly love of laughing at your siblings in their most painful moments. It wasn’t cruel and it wasn’t inappropriate. It was, well, it really just lightened the mood of any accident. He was really just allowing us to revel in the absurdity of the moment.
My favorite was watching him react to his own brothers fighting. When I was 14, Chris and I had a huge fight. It was the first and last time I physically punched him. He was holding me down by my arms and trying to spit loogies on my face. I freed my right hand and clocked him in the face, giving him a bloody nose. What was great, other than the fact that I finally got the upper hand (pun definitely intended), was that the whole time, Jimmy was laughing his ass off. For some reason, it was funny to him. He saw the absurdity in physical and emotional pain. Maybe it was because his trumped any of ours, or that he knew the frivolity of getting upset about minor mishaps. But whatever it was, Jimmy really found it funny. The scene in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci beats the living snot out of Billy Bats – during the whole scene – even when he starts stabbing him in the trunk of his car – Jimmy was laughing hysterically.
There’s an old equation in the world of comedy: Comedy = Truth + Pain. I think Jimmy understood that all to well.
#1 – Everyone – EVERYONE – is Essentially Good
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – Jimmy was no saint. He had his personal demons and they manifested themselves in some erratic and destructive behavior. When you’re an addict for two-thirds of your life, you build up a grimy shell that hides the good person underneath. My family was lucky because we saw glimpses of that good person Jimmy was struggling to be. Underneath the pain and the addiction there was this sweet, charming, caring man who desperately wanted out. It’s tough to see that in every person in the world, but if you take the time, find the patience and really search, you can find that most people really want to be good. Their behavior is almost always caused by circumstances beyond their control.
Jimmy, towards the end, was doing well and on his way out of the filth he had become accustomed to. When my dad was driving him through Omaha, Jimmy would see some homeless men and say, “Hey, that’s Phil. I gave him a sandwich once.” He’d offer to drive you anywhere you needed to go or he’d take what money he had and send you a care package while you’re in Michigan doing a theatre internship. Granted, it was full of chicklets and beef jerky – but he was trying.
It’s a hard lesson to hold onto because it’s so easy to see jerks and assholes as just jerks and assholes. You may not have to deal with them, but remember, they are more than likely kind souls who just don’t know how to get out from the tons of shit life has piled on them.
Jimmy was a kind, pool hustling, freakishly devilish, bullshitting cinephile with a heart of gold.
Happy Birthday Brother.