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Unexpected Encounter Echoes Tenor of the Times

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The knock came at 11 a.m. last Thanksgiving Day. I was expecting no one, had not ordered a turkey, had paid all my bills. The neighbors in my small apartment building were all out for holiday feasts. I had been on the verge of heading off to a dead-bird ceremony myself. I was . . . home alone.

Who could that be, I wondered aloud, walking reluctantly to the door. Last time I had opened it without first peeking through the window, I had been greeted by a burly, fearsome woman selling magazines. I explained to her that I had no money, which happened to be true, only to have her demand to know how I could afford to live in my (modest) apartment building. “Rent control,” I said, which was also true. Her response? “Rent control my ass!” I threatened to talk to her supervisor, and she threatened to beat me up. (That’s true too.)

With a vision of the woman having returned to make good on her promise, I guardedly opened the door.

“Good Moooorrrning, Mr. Rense!”

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There stood a towering gentleman dressed in a dark suit and dark sunglasses, with a chest not quite as broad as a bus. The voice, I figured, was inaudible perhaps in Europe. The IRS had finally caught up with me. . . .

“Yhh, hello.”

“I’m Joe Jackson!”

I let that sink in, as did, no doubt, much of the local population.

“You remember me! I wrote you a letter about Mario Lanza!”

“Uhhhhh . . . " And it came back. He had. After having written a piece about the late tenor-movie idol in this newspaper a couple years back, I received about 20 letters rhapsodizing about the power and beauty of Lanza’s voice. A particularly touching one had come from one Joseph Jackson Jr. In response, I had written a cursory thank-you note and passed his letter along to the Lanza family.

“I was in the neighborhood, and I thought I should stop in and see Rip Rense!” he said. “I thought anyone who wrote an article about Mario Lanza wouldn’t mind if someone else who loved Mario stopped in.”

There seemed some vague logic in that, and yet . . . newspaper people (I was one for many years) do not relish encounters with the public. There is a not unjustified notion that anyone who goes to the trouble of seeking out a writer does so for the purpose of committing grievous bodily injury. Was Joe going to teach me a lesson for having written that brushoff thank-you note? Best thing to do with members of the public, an editor told me long ago, is to humor them.

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“Come on in, Joe,” I said.

“I’ve never been to the Valley before,” he said with a laugh. “You don’t see many people like me in this neighborhood.”

That was true. Most of my neighbors were the color of unroasted peanuts. Joe wasn’t.

“But you know, I see people doing the same kinds of things here that people do everywhere!” he gibed with a wink. “Just a regular neighborhood!” His speaking voice was about as profundo as a basso gets.

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He sat down.

For the next hour or so, Joe told me, more or less, the story of his life. He worked as a Los Angeles County probation officer, which automatically qualified him as some kind of hero, as far as I’m concerned. He’d been at it for more than two decades, which qualified him for the key to the city and every other major civic award, as far as I’m concerned. Hell, just surviving in any bureaucracy for 20 years, let alone Los Angeles County, qualifies you for major civic awards.

I remembered from Joe’s letter that he was an amateur tenor (shocking, considering his deep speaking voice) who took his inspiration from Lanza. It seemed that Joe and I had similar lifelong dreams--we both imagined ourselves onstage, singing the lead in “La Boheme” or “Tosca.” The difference was that Joe could actually sing. I sound like Jerry Lewis.

“I just stopped at Holy Cross [the cemetery where Lanza rests] this morning to leave some flowers before I came here,” Joe continued. “I try to get by and do that whenever I can.”

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He produced a street map book of Los Angeles and proceeded to show me page after page of Lanza landmarks, carefully circled and annotated in the margins: an apartment Mario lived in, the church where he was married. . . . He recited Lanza history, chapter and verse, like he was discussing a close friend. And in a way, I suppose he was.

*

What on earth had brought him to the Valley on Thanksgiving, I asked--certainly not to shoot the breeze with a wretched freelance writer. No, Joe admitted, he had heard of a Valley restaurant that was hiring singers. Although he’d never applied for such a job before, he summoned his nerve and made the 90-minute drive from his home--only to find the restaurant closed, of course, for the holiday. As a consolation, he paused at a neighborhood bar for a glass of champagne, and then serenaded a handful of stunned Thanksgiving morning barflies with a schmaltzy old tune Lanza once recorded, “Love Is the Sweetest Thing.”

The Lord, he said, had next led him to my apartment. I responded that maybe the Lord had been having a consolation glass of champagne too. Joe’s laughter frightened sparrows off trees outside. And so we sat and jawed for a while, swapping stories about the inequalities and inanities of work, the, um, joys of married life, the unearthly beauty of Lanza’s voice (apologies hereby tendered to opera purists, who also sent me a fair amount of mail after the article). Then I had to head off to my session of Thanksgiving gluttony.

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As I escorted Joe to his car, I noticed the man glancing carefully around the quiet, mostly white working-class neighborhood.

“Looking for something?” I asked.

“No,” he said, adding in a melodramatic whisper: “You sure they let people like me into places like this?”

I offered that yes, they did, but if anyone saw me keeping company with an African American, they’d probably evict me from my apartment and run me out of town on a rail. (Again, frightened sparrows departed branches for quieter locales.) It stuck me as heartening that we could joke about that stuff, and tragic that we had to.

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*

We shook hands and said a cordial goodbye. I walked back toward my building, only to be interrupted by a honk. It was Joe, motioning me again to his car, where, without a word, he proudly produced a cache of homemade Lanza tapes that seemed to contain every song the man had ever sung. Holding up a finger, he popped one of the tapes in his cassette player.

The voice of Lanza flooded the air, blasted out the windows, and echoed up and down the quiet street. This was one hell of a car stereo. And Joseph Jackson Jr., tenor, threw his head back and sang along with Lanza, note for note, matching the voice in sincerity and sweetness. . . .

“When you’re in love . . . " sang Mario and Joe, until a tear or two ran down his cheek and the song faded away.

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We shook hands again.

“Thanks,” I said, “for the wonderful Thanksgiving gift.”

And he was on his way, singing another duet with his good friend as he drove into the distance. “Love is the sweetest thing. . . .”


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