Once Upon A Time….

Arrived  at the theater to see, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, Quentin Tarentino’s dramatic and visually enticing alternative fiction film,    bought a large carton of popcorn, leaned back with the plush faux leather mafia like chairs, pushed the side button as the front of the chair morphed into a lounger and took in the gargantuan screen.  After being bombarded with a series of trailers filled with violent images, with anticipation I watched Hollywood of 1969, a nostalgic year for me as I arrived on these shores in August, 1968.

The Hollywood  film and cowboy westerns were a foreign phenomena to me.  Watching the film with memorable camera work traversing the images of drive ins and  taco bell I could recall the “high” I experienced the first time I arrived in LA in 1970 in a chauffeured black limo with Andres Segovia in awe at the now familiar images.. LA was another planet.  I was swept away by the glamorous lifestyle of large convertibles and beautiful blondes set in lush gardens and subtropical vegetation. I actually wanted to move there and did not see the gritty side of Hollywood until many years later.  The murder of Sharon Tate was not on my radar.

In  the film the oversized somewhat grotesque but hot cars were mesmerizing, ironically recalling an important symbol from my past.    I thought about the big convertible my father owned in 1939, one of the first cars in Timisoara, Romania, my home town, where we romanticized a photo showing him doing  handstands on the side of the car. He couldn’t do much else with his much prized car as there were few paved roads. Even in 1996 when I returned driving from Budapest, the roads were unmarked with big gullies on each side- like driving on a runway- not to mention no lighting at night.  

Now with the wisdom of age and experience under my belt I sympathized with the lead fictional characters especially Rick Dalton struggling to  reinvent himself as the times change. Rick was preoccupied with being a ”has been” not sought out for lead character roles and seeking adventure that may be risky- perhaps defending against depression.      I often feel out of synch with a world obsessed and excited by violence; I took risks but gun violence as retaliation wasn’t in the forefront of my mind- similar to Rick. Despite the violence of WWII and the horrors that occurred a few hundred miles away from Timasaura, Transylvania there was relative tranquility on a daily basis as we were not yet bombarded with the daily violence highlighted in the news.  My preoccupation with violence was the killing of a pig at Christmas.

Between 1955 and 1958 (the years when we had a bit more money), we bought a pig every December, as did all assimilated Jews. No one ever told us that slaughtering a pig was a Hungarian Christmas tradition! Dad brought us with him to the market, chose the size according to the amount of money we could spend, then sent the poor animal to the butcher in a closed wooden crate. The next day the four of us cycled to the butcher on the outskirts of town. Overweight, middle-aged, and clad in a bloody white apron, the butcher looked like a pig himself to me. He would chase the poor animal around the muddy backyard with a big knife and eventually corner it, throw himself on top of it, and slit its throat. His wife would hold the pan to catch the blood. Then we would spend the day helping him prepare sausages of various types—blood, liver, head cheese, etc. The main attraction for us kids was the kolbasz—a mostly meat sausage with sweet paprika and other typically Hungarian spices.

I was both fascinated and repulsed by the scene. It was great to know that we would have plenty to eat. We would have food for the year from this 300- to 400-pound pig—bacon, sausage, and fat for cooking. The pantry near the kitchen would be filled with all kinds of goodies! At night, Gabi and I would raid it for sausage and salami.

Other years, there was no pig. Nor was there any refrigeration, just wooden ice boxes with tin containers in the middle where we placed chunks of ice that farmers brought to the city on carts. This had been one of my maternal grandfather’s businesses in the 1930s and 1940s (died in 1926). His workers would cut ice from frozen lakes, keep it in pits covered with hay, and then sell it in Timisoara in spring and summer. Even in the mid-1960s, no one in Romania had refrigerators. As kids, we would run behind the cart pulled by oxen or horses, trying to pick up shards of ice or stealing small pieces of it from the truck. Farmers also delivered unpasteurized milk daily. To get bread, you had to line up at the bread store at 5 or 6 a.m. If people saw a line, they joined it automatically and then asked, “What are we waiting for?” When I returned to my old hometown over Easter weekend in 1980, I was shocked to find people still lining up for a few eggs or vegetables.

Although repulsed by the killing of the pig, I still yearn for all the pork products I enjoyed during my childhood, from head cheese to pork rinds. When I came to New York, I was delighted to discover the Hungarian section of Yorkville, where I could get these high-cholesterol goodies from stores that have sadly disappeared. Now Gabi and I sometimes drive to a rundown neighborhood in Paramus, New Jersey, to a store called Kolbasz.com to get the provisions we loved as kids….and reminisce.

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