Scene4 Magazine - Patrick Walsh

Patrick Walsh

Technicolor Ends Here: Valley Stream, New York

At one point in The Honeymoon Killers, a weirdly enduring low-budget “true crime” drama from 1969, Raymond Fernandez, one half of the film’s murderous newlyweds, shouts in frustration: “Valley Stream...Valley Stream, I hate it!”

Certainly . . . if you’re on the lam with a freshly planted stiff in your basement, it’s probably not an ideal locale.

Valley Stream is a town on Long Island in Nassau County next to Queens. You could tell with your eyes closed when you crossed from New York City’s outer borough into this “leafy” suburb: Valley Stream’s side of Hook Creek Boulevard, which forms the border, was smoothly paved while the city side was a patchwork of crumbly asphalt, hasty tar fills, exposed cobblestone, and potholes that routinely crippled public busses.

Hook Creek Blvd always reminded me of a scene in a cartoon (“Lucky Ducky,” a one-off Tex Avery gem on the Tom & Jerry show) where two dogs chase a duck past a sign that reads “Technicolor Ends Here” and suddenly everything changes to black & white, including themselves.

I moved to Valley Stream in the summer between my 6th and 7th grades. It was August 1979. As much as I mourned the loss of my childhood haunts in Woodside, Queens, my permanent change of address began with a most auspicious omen.

We were making the run to the new homestead with all our worldly goods and garbage, my family in one car and me and my cousin Michael in a U-Haul truck creeping along on the dreaded L.I.E. Only ten years older than me, Michael happily tuned the radio to WPLJ just in time for us to catch the debut of Led Zeppelin’s new album, In Through the Out Door.

Ah, as sweet a moment of sensory anticipation as I’ve ever experienced! What a delicious anxiousness as “In the Evening” began to uncoil in my ears, quietly at first with those unmistakably Egyptian airs whispering “Kashmir” on the wind and Bonham’s timpani rolls like rumbles of distant thunder which seemed to emanate from the earth’s foundations . . . or at least the truck’s chassis. And then the unleashing….

Valley Stream was gonna be alright.

Once upon a time, the landlocked Incorporated Village of Valley Stream was the cradle of engeniussed youths and bemulleted proles wearing Levi's denim jackets with hand-painted murals of the Swan Song logo, the Rolling Stones’ tongue and lips, and Roger Dean’s Yes album artwork; the domain of crazily hot Italian-Irish-blend girls with mind-destroying asses in Sergio Valente jeans and massive coifs of rigorously middle-parted, Aqua-Net encrusted hair; host to Green Acres Shopping Mall and its sprawling Multi-Plex movie theater, known to us as the Multi-Stab; home to blocks of modest 3-bedroom houses with postage stamp-sized lawns some of which were turned into Greco-Roman villas with faux-marble façades, ornate ironworks, and granite dolphins spitting out continuous jets of the town’s toxic drinking water; a place where you could walk into almost any pizza parlor and get perfect slices every time; a network of white concrete streets on which Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” was just as likely to spill out of a passing IROC Camaro or Pontiac Firebird as Van Halen’s “Unchained;” a land where the cicada sang his endless rattling wail on 110-degree summer days and a thousand window-mounted air conditioners intoned their collective Om each night to lull the town’s citizens to sleep.

It was better than alright: for a while there, Valley Stream was Paradise.

The town also proved to be an incubator for film and television talent. My friend’s older brother had a pal named Ken Buscemi who occasionally played softball with us. “Byoose,” as we called him, was an affable guy who cut a strong likeness to James Honeyman-Scott, lead guitarist and founding member of The Pretenders, and drove a pristine white Volkswagen Beetle. He had an older brother as well, Steve, whom we never saw, since, as Kenny told us, he was always doing auditions in the city.

The auditions paid off. But despite becoming a movie star, notably one of the Coen Brothers go-to actors, Steve Buscemi never forgot Valley Stream. In 1996, he starred in a cinematic homage to his old town, Trees Lounge, a film he also wrote and directed. The title comes from the name of a real bar that stood at a corner on Central Avenue.

I remember walking past the place, especially in summer, and that classic gin mill aroma wafting onto the street. They’d chock open the front door with a half-crushed beer can and it looked like the mouth of a cave—only there was something more. It was the abyss; when you peered into that darkened doorway you could feel the darkness staring back into you.

It didn’t seem so at the time, but it was a good feeling to have when you’re 13 years old, something unsettling, inexplicably disturbing, a bracing dose dealt by reality. Years later, when I saw Steve’s movie, it was much what I imagined life—such as it barely was—might have been like inside the bar.

Fred Armisen lived down the block and across the street from one of my best friends. He wasn’t the kind of kid who played whiffle ball with us in the street, but we hung out with him a lot, usually in his basement, where we’d tool around on his guitars and drums or listen to Punk records. I heard the Dead Kennedys for the first time down there. He cued up “Holiday in Cambodia” and it felt positively illicit. He said his favorite group was Devo. I’d never met anyone whose musical taste didn’t blow in one of The Four Cardinal Directions—The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, or Led Zeppelin. But Devo? Wow.

Fred was different, that’s for sure.

But there was something else about hanging out with Fred: it was like a game of comic Russian roulette. The most strangely entertaining kid you’d ever meet, he could have you choking with laughter . . . if you weren’t squirming in embarrassment. Even as a young teenager, Fred had a genius for exploiting the uncomfortable moment, the confused silence, for engineering comic riffs into a kind of magnifying glass of awkward self-consciousness—and woe if you were the ant with his sunbeams focused to a point on your head.

Fred sold me my first set of drums. He was upgrading to a serious kit and gave me his starter set for a song (I’ve since upgraded as well, to Roland V-Drums, but thank you, Fred, I got a lot of mileage out of those skins!) Pretty soon, Fred was in a Punk band of his own, KGB, playing gigs in the city with his new kit and we didn’t see him anymore . . . until he became a regular cast member of Saturday Night Live.

Seeing Fred Armisen on a TV show didn’t surprise me. I can say that even in grammar school we all had a sense that Fred was going to “make it” somehow in show biz. And the rest is ongoing history. He starred on Saturday Night Live from 2002-2013, an impressive tenure during which he created many memorable characters and skits. He co-writes and co-stars in Portlandia, an IFC channel comedy series. Following the footsteps of fellow SNL alum Paul Shaffer, Fred has been the leader since February 2014 of the 8G Band, resident musical ensemble of Late Night With Seth Meyers.

Some other notable actors who grew up in Valley Stream are:

Michael Brandon, the star of FM (a 1978 film with the sole redeeming feature of having given us a Steely Dan masterpiece by the same name) who was married for a time to Lindsay Wagner, aka the Bionic Woman.

Jim Breuer, (another) SNL castmember from 1995-1998.

Edward Burns, the industrious film actor, director, producer, and screenwriter who has shadowed me since 1968, being born in Woodside, growing up in Valley Stream, and attending Chaminade High School, though he had the good sense to quickly transfer.

Patricia Charbonneau, who attended Valley Stream Central High School along with Steve Buscemi.

Steve Hytner, who played Kenny Bania on Seinfeld.

Larry Miller, a TV and film actor notably cast as the doorman on his close friend Jerry Seinfeld’s TV show.

Along with Trees Lounge, Valley Stream has been a site of filming for Goodfellas, The Brothers McMullen (a film entirely crafted by Edward Burns), and, of course, The Honeymoon Killers. Contrary to Raymond Fernandez, the Incorporated Village has helped to launch a lot of careers.

As a place to return, Valley Stream hasn’t aged well. For some unfathomable reason, its residents cut down trees as if Boise Cascade paid them by the cord. Many of the unique stores that helped to give the town its character—Slipped Disc Records and the Rio Theater on Rockaway Avenue, Rivoli TV on the corner of Merrick Road and Central Avenue, even Trees Lounge—have been replaced by the ubiquitous chains that render so much of America’s human landscape interchangeable and, ultimately, joyless.

When Creative Day Camp was razed and replaced by slapdash, sardine can-condominiums, it was as if one of town’s most vital organs had been excised. Known to us simply as “Creative,” the playgrounds, buildings, pools, and open space that comprised the campers’ compound by weekday had been sacred ground to us by night and on weekends, our favorite place to play Manhunt, conduct BB gun wars, and generally savor the adolescent enjoyments of darkness.

I’ve lived in Princeton, New Jersey for nearly 25 years and the town retains its charm, its vibrant bloom. I still have that sense of Princeton as an enclave of green. One thing about Valley Stream has proven supremely durable: my closest friends are still the ones I made there. But when I actually go back to Valley Stream, it seems dreary and gray, as if the colors had been washed out of it somehow.

It’s as if I’ve crossed that line, the one marked “Technicolor Ends Here.”

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Patrick Walsh’s articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
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He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
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©2016 Patrick Walsh
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine




February 2016

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