I first watched The Jerk (yes the Steve Martin movie) when I was eight years old and it changed nearly everything about my sweet suburban life….let’s go with “for the better,” or maybe you should read this and decide for yourself.
After watching The Jerk nearly nightly and well past my bedtime, mornings were rough. They would usually begin with my mother shaking me violently, pulling the covers off of me, yelling at me to brush my hair and teeth, get dressed, and come to breakfast.
Eventually I would make it to the breakfast table where my sister Nanette-whose perfect barrettes matched her perfect dress (perfectly)-would be finishing the last few bites of her cereal while quietly reading another American classic (electively).
My mother often looked at me with a mixture of love, yes, but, really, something more mystified like “Really? This came out of me?” as she shook her head and prodded me to finish my pancakes. A honk in the driveway and there was Bus 24 idling by our house, waiting to take us on our long journey, 45 minutes away, to the next town.
the mysterious sisters
We lived in Great Neck, Long Island, a predominately Jewish neighborhood, and we couldn’t be more Italian if we tried. My father had a moustache (as did me and my sister). We ate dinner together as a family every night, went to church on Sundays and of course, like all good Italian families, my Grandparents lived in our basement. Since Yeshiva or the public school down the street was not an option, my parents sent my sister and me to the Catholic School in a neighboring town where we were the only two students from Great Neck and thus quickly labeled, “those weird girls.”
Since we were the only students on the entire bus that came from another town, mostly unknown to our peers, we were mysterious, and with mystery comes lots of whispers, stares and speculation. I’m sure the fact that I had one eyebrow (my mom refused to let me wax) and toted a rusted Monkees lunchbox from 1966 did not help my cause.
We were teased and made fun of relentlessly, until one day, I came to the realization that since there was already a big mystery surrounding who we were and where we came from, it was my obligation to exaggerate the truth just a bit and fill in the gaps. If we were going to be the talk of the bus, I was going to give them something to talk about.
My exaggerations (OK lies) were easy to get away with, as my sister had mastered the art of ignoring me and mostly stuck to her studies, so while I would be in the back of the bus holding court and “Big Fishing” it, my sister couldn’t have been further away from me, literally and figuratively.
The film, The Jerk would serve as my inspiration for my tall tales.
Me: “Yes, Anna Maria Russo, we have a bathtub shaped like a clam and a red billiards room”
“What’s a billiards room?” Tom Sweeney would ask.
“It’s a place to play pool and where you display your stuffed camel collection.”
As “Wow’s” and “Ah’s” and “What Else’s” were thrown my way, I realized I was LOVING this attention.
“Mary, do you really have a tennis court and a pool?”
“I have THREE pools, Little Frankie, and a water cooler that dispenses red and white wine and sometimes I sneak a little vino.”
This went on for weeks, the crowd on the bus growing larger each day.
At one point, I had the entire bus believing me that I had a disco in my basement, that my father drove a yellow Lamborghini, and that I had a dog named Shit-Head that could smell danger from miles away.
the play date
Then one day the unthinkable happened, a girl at school actually wanted to have a play date with me!? Yes, me, the weird girl that smelled like pancake syrup, with one eyebrow that lived in the “other” town. I remember being excited and terrified at the same time. I quickly told her “Yes!” and a date was set.
The days leading up to her arrival, I did the best I could to make my house have all the things I boasted it would. I put two blow up pools next to our existing in ground pool (I never told them what kind). I begged my cousin Scott to bring over his mini pool table and make shifted a billiards room in my basement, put a blinking flashlight in our spare “junk” room, disco tape in my boom box, and POOF I had a disco.
My mother asked me what I was doing while she interrupted me moving a fern from the living room into my bedroom to create a jungle for my “pet monkey.” I told her I was setting up for my friend Christina's arrival.
“Mom, please please please please serve us our pizza in a cup like in The Jerk?” I pleaded.
Again, my Mom gave me what I’ve come to call That Look, muttered something, and went back to the kitchen.
When Christina arrived for our play date, I was panicked. I took her quickly on a tour of the house to see all the things that I had fabricated, making excuses for why Iron Balls McGinty (my bodyguard and another character from my beloved film) wasn’t there to play with us, or why the arcade I boasted about having with its very own Ms. Pac Man machine had been destroyed in “the flood.”
“It was just terrible Christina, just terrible, our giraffe drowned in that flood too.”
Slowly, Christina started to realize that the only thing drowning was ME in my sea of lies. In the nick of time, my Mother called us upstairs for lunch. She had cut up our pizza and put the pieces into little cups with forks, just as I described. Christina smiled, sat down and began to eat her lunch.
I sat there waiting for her to get mad or angry, to call me a liar to tell me that she was going to expose my truth to the entire school. I waited and waited, as piece by piece, quietly finishing each bite of her pizza in a cup.
When she was done she placed the empty cup down, looked at me and said, “Mary, this pizza is really good. Can I come back tomorrow?”
if you can dream it, you can do it
So how to wrap up a story that starts with pancake syrup in my hair and ends with tomato sauce on my face?
I guess you could say that Christina’s “Free Pass” created a monster, because from then onward, I was deeply wedded to the idea that my fantasy life would always trounce anything that I’d experience in the real world. I’ve continued to believe this theory to this day, which makes sense and explains why I’ve made a living creating unique party experiences for clients that have “seen it all.” I encourage those on the fence, that turning their garage into a disco is always a great idea OR to take a chance by serving ONLY hot dogs and martinis at their next soiree AND when I suggest that we try to contact the real Chuck Mangione to play at the end of their event for the ultimate party WOW, I really do believe I can make that happen!
Point is….nothing to me (or Navin) is (was) impossible. If you can dream it, you can do it (or at least some variation i.e.: my horribly make-shift billiards room). But it’s actually more simplistic than that, because at the end of the day, when I get asked to speak at Women Empowerment luncheons or Females First fundraisers, I always think back to when I first discovered The Jerk and more specifically how my Navin Johnson-type optimism has propelled my career (and my life) forward and made me, in a word: Happy.
Oh, and for the record, the moment I felt that I finally “made it”, I went on EBay and purchased my very own Ms. Pac Man machine. Christina, feel free to stop on by anytime and take me up on that game I promised you thirty-three years ago.
Modern Pizza In a Cup
Deconstructed Pizza Skewers, Roasted Tomato, Fried Mozzarella & Basil Aioli
As good as I am, it’s quite hard to convince my clients to eat pizza out of a cup, so here is how I pay homage to my favorite childhood meal.
Yield: 24 pieces
Prep Time: 10 minutes * Cook Time: 15 minutes
3/4 cup lite mayonnaise
1/3 cup basil leaves
1/4 cup baby arugula leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
Salt & pepper to taste
1 half-pint container of red or yellow grape tomatoes
1 package small mozzarella bocconcini (24 pieces)
½ cup breadcrumbs
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