I’ll just be honest here once and for all, I had nothing growing up. In spite of my parents best efforts to give us everything they could, my brother, sister and I didn’t have much in the way of games or toys, or even luxuries such as the newest sneakers on the block that everyone wanted to own. We didn’t even get a computer until the late nineties, but what we lacked in material possessions we were more than wealthy with parents who would do just about anything to help the summer pass by with as many experiences as possible. Water parks, the zoo, carnivals, block parties, if it was in their power to give it to us, we were more than appreciative to accept it.
And I think that not being given every single thing under the sun helped us to learn to not only appreciate the little things our impoverished parents gave to us that put them out more times than we knew, but it also helped us to savor the experiences, and this helped us to learn to love things like comic books, and music, and most importantly, the movies.
My first time watching “Jaws” was with my parents while eating the greasiest fries of all time. I can still remember the gravy heavy fries searing my gums with their saltiness. And “Night of the Living Dead” was first seen by me while my mom tested her newly purchased VHS. My brother and I once stole my mom’s VCR and spent the day watching the horror movies she forbade us to watch. While my mom and dad were always keen on bringing us to the movies whenever they could scrounge up the money to get away and not focus on bills or the rent for a few hours they did.
But most of my experiences in the movies and with movie theaters were with my father. My father who never really had much of life with children was able to somewhat re-live his childhood by living it through my brother and I. As most men do, whenever they have sons, they see something in their young boys that gives them a chance to have something of a second childhood for better or for worse. With my dad it was for better as he gave us as much of as a fun childhood as he possible could with what little money he made.
As the first born, my dad always took the chance to soak in the awe I induced whenever approached with a brand new chapter in my life and always seemed to revel in presenting me with a new surprise no matter how big or small. And speaking as someone who used to share a room with my parents and little brother in our run down apartment in the Bronx before we managed to keep our head above water, every surprise was incredible. Once my little brother Robert came along, for a good while it was just the three guys of the Vasquez house hold who managed to experience everything together.
Fishing trips were epic, visiting our grandparents was always a blast, and of course, learning how to ride a bike was something of a coming of age event that my dad was proud to see us accomplish. Most of all though he searched for something he could do with the both of us that didn’t cost too much money, and he took us to the movies. And it was always a fifty-fifty trade even though we were kids. Sometimes he’d see the movies he wanted to see, and sometimes he’d go to see the movies we were most interested in like “Power Rangers,” or “Masters of the Universe.”
But for a man and two little boys, we shared a lot of similar interests so there was never any fighting or arguing among us. My dad brought us to see pure masterpieces like “Jurassic Park,” and “ET,” and took joy out of watching disposable fare like “Independence Day,” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” while also pretending to enjoy junk like “Meteor Man,” “Matinee,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Nevertheless it was something we convened on and constantly engaged in back and forths about.
We always came to a mutual understanding and even if none of us ever wanted to see the movie (I was dragged to “Armageddon”), we still had a fun time just sitting down to watch it with my mom and or dad. One of my absolute fondest memories in the movies was going to see Tim Burton’s Batman with my dad and brother. I can still affectionately recall the humongous cold dark theater and the three of us dwarfed by the large theater screen shining down the amazing Michael Keaton donning the Batman suit bringing down a criminal proclaiming himself to be Batman as we ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the intricacies of his costume.
Of course this wasn’t our first encounter with on-screen Batman as we later were taken to see “Batman Returns” which was also quite the amazing experience, especially considering Catwoman was one of the first female characters to give me a taste of puberty. But then, who didn’t get a taste of their manhood watching Michelle Pfeiffer in black stitched leather take sexual glee from battling with Batman on the roof top? When you’re a kid, most times you’re woefully unaware of the serious issues around you and parents will do just about everything they can to shield you from that. Even in those days, innocence was easily lost. On a scale of one to ten: ten being close to living on the street, we were always at an eight, financially. But we never really went a week without engaging in some entertaining activity. We never had enough money to eat for the week, nor did we have hot water, but for some reason my dad always found a way to take my brother and I to the movies.
I like to think this was his way of keeping our spirits up in times where we were just at our wits ends finding a way to keep alive, but I also think a part of him just wanted to savor his two boys in spite of working so hard. I can still vividly recall him coming home from work dead tired one evening at my grandmother’s house to pick my brother and I up to see “The Abyss” where we went to the movies to gaze in amazement at Cameron’s aquatic gem. The sight of the characters touching the aqua representation of a humanoid still lingers in my mind.
Much our best experiences were during the treks to the movies. My dad took my brother and I to see our first (and probably last) ever 3D movie which was “Freddy’s Dead,” a fun time had by all of us ending with a trip to the arcade, and whether it rained, snowed, was summer, or the fall, whenever there was a trip to the theaters in the cards, we arrived with bells on. I can remember the snowy Christmas night where my dad took me and my brother after work to see “King Ralph” only to sit in on the final hour of “Home Alone” after begging him to see it while trudging through the snow in a taxi.
We’d already seen it five times before that, and my dad seemed anxious to see “King Ralph” since he was a huge fan of John Goodman, but in spite of his need, he allowed us to see “Home Alone” for the sixth time as we sat in the taxi driving through the snow deciding what to watch. And there’s also our summer afternoon with our cousins to see the much anticipated “Honey I Shrunk the Kids.” We stood on line for what felt like two or three hours in a massive crowd just to see another Rick Moranis installment.
That’s another day I’ll remember as my dad and my uncle stood in line with me, my brother, and my cousins to see what we thought would be an utter masterpiece. In spite of not enjoying it much, we found ourselves loving it more than my dad and uncle did. The Parkchester theater in New York was so beautiful before it became a multiplex as it looked much more like an Egyptian theater with black carpeting, different floors, balconies, and a larger screen with a much more audible sound system. Meanwhile what made the place so incredible was the huge concession stand filled with unlimited goodies my dad always loved to indulge us in (only if he could afford it) while he also let us play the arcade games.
There were only four arcade booths at the time and they were always cut off from the rest of the theater like an exclusive corner, separated by the rope and we had about an hour to kill before the movie. That’s when my brother and I learned to play that famous game with the large ball being guided through a maze and along cliffs. I can still fondly recall marveling at the tracking ball that controlled this silver metallic ball and having a blast doing it. One of my favorite films of the last ten years was “In America,” because, while it was most definitely a far-fetched utterly Capra-esque family drama, one of the more interesting and realistic moments involve the poverty-stricken family losing their electricity and deciding to hide out in the movie theaters for a few hours.
They didn’t just hide from the heat, but from their problems, to commune with other movie fans to watch Spielberg’s fantasy opus about an alien and his human best friend. Because for many poor people, back in the time before DVD’s, and home entertainment systems, the movie theaters were where every man and woman no matter how rich and poor could sit down and watch something incredible, and forget life for a few hours. And for my dad it was a time for him to forget his job, his bills, the rat problems, our terrible drug infested building and just spend a day with his two boys and live through us and with us.
And that’s one of the main reasons why movies continue holding a near and dear place in my heart, and why movies will always be something special to me no matter how many remakes, reboots, or sequels Hollywood churns out for the mass audience. Deep down I’m still just that little boy with his little brother and his workaday hero experiencing something together only we could truly appreciate, even if we were sharing a room with dozens of people.