Monday, March 28, 2011

Lives of the Saints: Three Memoirs


When Eliyahu Teichberg left his domineering Momma and repressive Brooklyn upbringing, he successfully reinvented himself as Elliot Tiber.  But while Greenwich Village welcomed a struggling gay Jewish student in ways Bensonhurst couldn’t, Tiber still hadn’t found meaning in life.  Palm Trees on the Hudson describes how, in those pre-Stonewall years, interior decorating opened Manhattan’s glitziest doors—but one shady job nearly undid everything.

With dry wit and a keen eye for detail, Tiber recreates the transition from his Bensonhurst boyhood to the razzle-dazzle world awaiting one short subway ride away.  Finding his identity isn’t easy in that culture, but several chance encounters put him in the hands of vivacious mentors and eager sponsors.  Each little victory lets him discover that much more of the self lingering under the repressions of his conventional upbringing.

But Tiber’s sassy Momma never strays far from his heart.  His struggles to win her approval loom as large as his victories in the cutthroat interior decorating world.  Whenever Momma manages to bring him down, he finds solace in his life’s only constant: Judy Garland.  So when a big commission lets him meet his idol, while evading Momma, he grabs it, getting the chance to meet Judy barely a year before her sudden, untimely death.

Too bad Tiber’s boss proves to have deep Mob connections.  Suddenly, Tiber can only flee to the one place he’s constantly avoided.

Tiber’s highs and lows echo Pat Cooper’s life.  How Dare You Say How Dare Me! dishes dirt on the richest comedy career you’ve never heard of.  He didn’t hit the limelight until after thirty, but boy did he make it.  If Cooper’s name rings no bells, it’s because he’s done little TV or film.  He’s spent his life perfecting the possibilities of the stage, and along the way, he’s met famous names he doesn’t blush to drop on these pages.

Born Pasquale Caputo, Cooper too grew up resisting his conservative Brooklyn family.  But rather than fleeing, Cooper mined them for comedy.  He perfected outrage comedy before it was hip, and his laser-like dissection of society’s deep-seated issues gave him a ready-made audience.  Unfortunately, he also had enemies, because every joke ruffled somebody’s feathers.

As he rocketed to comedy’s upper echelons, he managed to offend every ethnic group, every community, and every musical act he ever opened for.  But the same gags that PO’ed big-name stars won over audiences, so he just kept climbing.  It seems like, the more special interests he angered, the more bookings he got, with bigger paychecks and more eager audiences.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of his career, Cooper managed to alienate his first wife and their kids—a breach he still hasn’t healed.  His family has orchestrated an Internet campaign to hold Cooper responsible for his past bad choices.  Several portions of this memoir seem notably defensive, so if you wonder why, Google his name.  You decide whose story you believe.

The past haunts the best of us.  Musician and humorist Reggie Dabbs has learned that the hard way, and also learned how to face his ghosts.  REGGIE tells the story of a man who started off with less than nothing, and made something of himself.

In second grade, Dabbs learned he’d been adopted.  His biological mother, a sixteen-year-old dropout with three other kids, made a desperate bargain to feed the kids she already had.  For the next several years, he struggled to understand his own identity.  Along the way, he discovered that his past might be fixed, but his future was his to mold.

A lifelong struggle with weight caused Dabbs endless grief until his build made him a football star.  Then he discovered untapped saxophone talent.  Suddenly he had a skill that could pay the bills.  But chance revealed the one talent that would come to define him, while letting him come to grips with his past: he proved to be a master at telling a touching life story.

Where Cooper writes for jokes, and Tiber writes for insights, Dabbs hopes you’ll learn from his life.  He makes parallels between his life and great events, literature, the Bible, superheroes, and more.  Sometimes he resembles a Sunday sermon, but when he does, he pulls back, tells an apropos joke, and reminds us we all live in the here and now.

Despite some rocky moments, these three memoirs, in their own ways, remind us that each life is made of possibility.  And each memoir is packed with laughs.  Keep living, folks; these guys show you how.

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