When I was a kid, a young, bald white man used to pace the alley behind my house while holding a butcher knife up against his chest. He wore a long black trench coat, and he would stare straight ahead and just walk… up and down, down and up, never speaking, never breaking concentration. Like a master monk, but potentially psycho.
But don't worry, this was the mid-80s. Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers were still very much cherished in the hearts of us neighborhood kids. We would roam outside for hours, unsupervised, because our parents were busy getting rich on Wall Street (j/k), they were watching A Current Affair while solemnly performing their gender roles. There were no "activities" and parenting wasn't really a verb yet, so we had a lot of fun.
The neighborhood kids– including my older sister, myself, the Medona brothers, David and Lewis, and Sherry and Missy– used to spy this knifed stranger, who we nicknamed Kojak (shout out to Telly Savalas) with a blend of fear and fascination, but mostly fascination– at least for me.
This was, as I said, an amazing era for horror movies– Nightmare on Elm Street, Sleepaway Camp, Salem's Lot, to name a few of my faves. I loved them even as I was *almost* too scared to watch. Soon enough, I would fall for Stephen King after reading Christine, quickly followed by Carrie and Pet Sematary (one of the scariest, imho. I had nightmares about Zelda forever).
Scary stories thrilled me because– as the Duffer Brothers so deftly illustrate in Stranger Things– they turn the world upside down and uncover a flip side to reality, a realm of special occurrence. (Plus, Freddy Kreuger was hilarious.) And I was being gifted a glimpse of this realm in the daylight of everyday life, in the form of "Kojak." What had I done to deserve such riches?
For me, watching Kojak pace the alley with that knife and that stiff gaze was basically watching a horror movie. Unlike now, I never worried about dying, and though kidnapping was hot in the 80s, I never felt like I was in serious danger. For that, I was lucky. I was lucky for a lot of aspects of my childhood, and one them was having the neighborhood kids: a pack. I was part of a pack. Which, along with my hungry imagination, was the real reason I felt more fascinated by Kojak than afraid of him.
With the pack, I was protected. We had our hierarchies and gender wars and controversial crushes, no doubt. But we also had running bases and hide n' seek, sprinklers and bikes and Kool-Aid, hand-held camcorders and basement Atari (later Nintendo). We survived the drama, and loved each other enough to show each other our privates. When two of us played outside, soon enough, all of us were playing outside. If Kojak turned his blade on one of us, he would have five others to also try to murder. Which would be hard.
So one summer afternoon in the backyard, my sister and I had a Kojak-sighting. I don't remember if I felt more afraid because it was just the two of us, separated from our pack, because soon enough, a tiny sound began to emanate from the next yard over. Lo and behold, a baby bird, raw and featherless, had fallen from the tree and was lying on the ground, chirping.
Another thing I was lucky for: My grandparents, Stella and Bernie, lived in the coach house in our backyard, a little blue cottage with trellises and white-trimmed windows. My grandma was a renowned animal lover. At one point she had 9 cats. People dropped off strays in front of our house, knowing my grandma would take them in. She made peanut butter sandwiches for the squirrels. She found a litter of kittens living under a fence along the parking lot of our McDonald's, and made daily trips to bring them food. When she was a baby, her older sister Rose thought, upon hearing her cries, that she was a kitten.
So when that helpless animal fell from the tree, what else to do but call for grandma?
This leads to one of the best sights I was ever blessed to lay my eyes upon: My 60-something grandmother in her socks with slippers, and her signature summer house dress, marching outside out with a box in her hands, turning into the alley, and walking right past the dreaded Kojak, knife and all, no hesitation. She glanced at him and, with nary a sneer nor a flinch nor a quiver of fear in her posture, she carried on with her mission.
And here, maybe, is a moment of childhood fantasy clashing with extraordinary reality that must account for the power of this memory, and the feeling of awe it inspires in me. I may have been smitten with the kind of world a guy like Kojak offered. (And really, what was he up to anyway? Was he 16 or 36? Was he truly deranged, or just a stupid kid with a twisted sense of humor and an amazing poker face? Was he, like me, enchanted by the realm of special occurrence, a lover of the upside down? ) Whoever he was, whatever his motive, and whatever doorway he unlocked in my imagination-- he was no match for my grandma's real-life, in-the-moment, no-fear brand of love. Who has time for fear when there's a baby bird to save?
I wish I could remember how Kojak reacted to her. Was he the one to flinch at this Polish-American sorceress unfazed by his bizarre charade? I can't remember the expression on his face, but I can tell you this– he didn't do shit.
I already loved my grandma a lot, but damn, that day she became a sort of superhero in my eyes. If Kojak was captivating fantasy, my grandma was ordinary life, at its best.
The bird, of course, didn't make it. But it was the compassionate vastness of her attempt that mattered. Maybe, that day, as I grew up over the course of a few brief minutes, I identified in my grandma the fearlessness I wanted. Isn't watching horror movies all about overcoming fear, to some extent? To laugh at it, to allow it to amuse you as mere spectacle, or to feel it and then enjoy the release as it subsides?
At the time, I probably would've told you I'd prefer to live in a Stephen King novel over my actual life. But I think I recognized that what my grandma did, or more specfically what it meant to me-- because she wasn't aware at all of being brave, she was just doing what needed to be done, in the name of mercy. And that, my friends, is the true realm of special occurrence.