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Happy Birthday, Ronnie

Happy Birthday, Ronnie.

Today is my cousin Ronnie’s birthday; he’s 58. (Sorry if that’s a State secret or a matter of national security, it’s just true.)

Ronnie is one of those people: tall, good looking, talented, smooth with the ladies. Great hair. A real nightmare. He was the closest thing I had to a brother growing up and by close I mean about two hours: he grew up in Brooklyn and I was in grey collar Northeast Philadelphia. The city mouse and the country mouse. 

Let me give you a mental picture: Have you seen Beauty and the Beast? Of course you have. Ronnie was Gaston, absent the inclination toward murder. I was LeFou.

Ronnie was painfully good-looking. In middle school I would invite him to spend Thanksgiving and Spring breaks with me in Philly to get a little extra attention from my own friends, like someone stuffing brisket in his pockets to get most-favored nation status from the dog. 

Ronnie is the only guy I know who could be born on Cinco de Mayo and actually be a bigger deal than the holiday.

Ronnie’s father, my uncle (may he rest in peace; when you’re Jewish you have to say that, it’s the law) was in the commercial film industry, based in Manhattan. I saw movies that were distinctively out of the multiplex world thanks to Ronnie. If not for Ronnie (and my cousin Emily, his sister) I would never have seen Tommy, and would therefore not have any idea that a boy could overcome violent trauma, sexual abuse and illicit drugs to become Roger Daltrey. I would never have seen Harold and Maude. Which, in hindsight, would have been okay I guess. I would never have seen The Man Who Fell To Earth, with David Bowie. 

Ronnie was already bored with things I only barely managed to unearth, and certainly before I had time to be excited by them. In 9th grade I visited him in New York and we went to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village. This was the original, where people first decided it was a good idea to dress up and pantomime the movie on stage in the foreground while the movie played behind. Newspaper, toast, the whole nine yards. I remember standing in a light rain outside, waiting to get in, and smiling at an attractive girl behind me. I elbowed Ronnie to point her out, excited that I had elicited a smile in return. Ronnie glanced behind me and, in half a second, said, “Yeah, that’s a guy.”

When we were young, both Ronnie and I showed creative leanings. While Ronnie was a talented artist, and could render a drawing in a heartbeat and snare a pretty young girl’s eye, I was a writer. I will let that sink in. Have you ever tried to impress a girl with writing? It’s like killing someone with a poison-laced needle: you have to be improbably close already, just to have a shot. I was the guy parents liked talking to while Ronnie was in the basement making out with their daughters.

Ronnie was a drummer, and actually gifted me his drumset when he realized he was better suited downstage, front and center. 

Because foreshadowing, Ronnie was a great visual artist and photographer. He never needed the “AUTO” setting on the camera. He took black-and-white photos, and knew how to develop them himself. (Kids, “develop” refers to the early part of the last century when photos were captured on something called FILM and you could waste an entire day taking crappy pictures, and not know about it until after it was all over and too late.)

As we got older, Ronnie went into film – behind the camera, a technical expert; and I did whatever it is I do. We both got married. Ronnie found Beth, an impossibly tall, beautiful, warm, wonderful girl, and started a family. Their wedding was held on the patio of a beach club in Malibu, white gauzy banners streaming in the ocean breeze behind them. At the precise right moment, with everyone’s eyes toward the newlyweds, dolphins breached the waves behind them.

Dolphins. Do you know how hard it is to choreograph dolphins? Even Spielberg struggles with dolphins.

Our kids are around the same ages; Ronnie and Beth had two sons, my wife and I had one of each. We’re on opposite coasts, and it’s been…I don’t know. Years is an understatement. Our kids are in their 20s and don’t know each other. They were toddlers the last time they toddled together.

In contrast to that, Ronnie was my “big brother” who stood taller, shined brighter; he was the guy I always wanted to be more like. But he never treated me like that. He never made me feel like the fat cousin from Philly, the wannabe, the hanger-on. 

Because the thing Ronnie was most good at, the thing I remember best, was making me feel like I belonged right there, with him, with his friends, on the beach, in the rain. He never once made me feel like he was doing me a favor by being my cousin and tolerating me. He never let on that he was the alpha. I don’t know if he didn’t know it, or didn’t believe it, or was just born with some divine, unearthly grace that didn’t allow him to show it. I’d like to think it was the latter.

Today is my cousin Ronnie’s birthday. I love you, man.


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