The Topic At Hand: Lost and Found

“Ghosts are the successful dead.”  -Luc Sante

That Fucking Chair

My mom and her stepmother hated my grandfather’s chair. He spent 365 days a year parked in that chair, a once-vibrating, pea-green leather recliner dotted with burn marks from tobacco embers and still-lit matches; the wood frame poked through in back where there was an electric motor that stopped working in the mid-seventies, the chord cut to a nub to prevent grandchildren from plugging it in and electrocuting Papo. That’s what we called him.

His chair sat in front of two TVs: a small 22-inch black and white he stacked on top of a monster 50-inch rear-projection with PIP. He used the smaller to watch the stock market channel, and the 50-inch for everything else: the Today Show, Sally Jesse Raphael, Geraldo, Oprah, Judge Wapner, Matlock, MacGyver, The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, soft porn on Cinemax. When visiting, I spent a good chunk of time sitting on the couch across from him watching TV. I didn’t mind; I loved TV. I was raised on TV. And this mutual love bonded us.

My grandfather called me Boy. Hell, he called everyone with balls Boy—his stepson, his accountant, his lawyer, my brother, my cousin, my mom’s boyfriend.

“Come here, Boy,” he’d say. “I want to show you something.” If his wife or my mom was in the room, he’d pull out the aerial map of Wichita and tell me how he came up with names for streets in the neighborhoods he developed. “I always started with writers. Who doesn’t want to live on Longfellow Drive, Boy? Makes a man feel proud.”

Or he would show off the picture of his father as a boy standing with General William Tecumseh Sherman, his great uncle. “You know we’re Shermans, Boy?”

If we were alone together, I could expect a silver dollar or a sneak peek at some vintage pornography: a pen that when turned upside down revealed a nude pin-up girl; the 1954 Jane Mansfield centerfold he tucked inside his world atlas; or, his prize, a dog-eared Polaroid of my step-grandmother, topless, looking an awful lot like Jane Mansfield.

On one visit when I was in college, he called me over to his chair. “You know what this is, Boy?” He held up a vibrating, peach-colored clamp-on ring the width of a cucumber.

My mom happened to be walking by.

“Oh, Daddy!” she said. “Put that thing away.”

During commercial breaks he told me stories about his life. They’d always start with a question.

“You have a job, Boy?”

“Yes,” I would say. Not a lie.

“You know what my first job was?”

I didn’t have to say anything. We had a tacit agreement that he would continue anyway.

“I worked for my father. He had me serving eviction papers.” Papo would stoke the cherry in his pipe. “This was during the Depression, Boy. You know how many properties my father foreclosed?” Again, I wasn’t supposed to answer. His question was meant to linger in the space between us until the commercial break ended. With the next break came a new story.

man in chairIt was during these commercial breaks that I learned he was a captain in the Merchant Marine during World War II, transporting supplies for troops one way and coffins the other. And that when the war was over, he built starter homes for returning soldiers, and refused a start-up loan from his father. He gave the first house he built to his second-grade teacher who taught him how to read.

His chair smelled of pipe tobacco and gin with an undercurrent of urine, and that’s why my mom and his wife said they hated it. When Papo’s wife died, my mom moved to Wichita to take care of him. The first thing she did was have his chair carted to the dump.

“You need to get up and exercise,” she told him.

“Okay,” he said. He walked to the sunroom and poured himself a double scotch and sat on the sofa to the side of the TVs. This went on for a week and then she bought another Cadillac-type lounger, minus the massaging motor.

As soon as the new chair was set in place, my grandfather settled in for a test drive. He reached over to his pipe rack, packed his favorite with cherry tobacco, lit up, and stoked it so much the cherry popped out and landed on the armrest. Then he picked up the remote and turned on the TV.

Girl Meets Boys

When I was twelve, my mom left my brother, sister, and me with our stepdad and took off with two friends from work for a ten-day “real estate strategy” trip to Puerto Vallarta. Turns out not a lot of real estate was discussed. My mom had a thing with a bellboy named Arturo, who helped her with her bags. She said he also helped her rediscover her rhythm and need to dance and a couple of other things I was too young to understand.

NO REGRETS is what she came home with, and she wrote it out in bold black Sharpie on a notecard that she taped next to a collection of Ziggy cartoons on the cabinet door above the coffee maker. LIVE PASSIONATELY went up next. These pronouncements gave my stepdad a ferocious eye-twitch, a physical manifestation, we figured, of the rage, suspicion, humiliation, doubt, and all the other emotions you’d expect to bubble to the surface when a wife comes back from a trip to Mexico a changed woman.

With the divorce came a serious dedication to dancing, and that came with a whole new wardrobe: legwarmers and jazz shoes, those off-the-shoulder sweatshirt dresses Jennifer Beals wore in Flashdance, and headbands. She took up aerobics, and even though she was a two-pack-a-day smoker—menthol 100s—within months she was teaching classes. You have to look fabulous and be in shape to be a disco queen.

Living in our house was like being on a yet-to-be dreamed-up hybrid reality dramedy: Family Ties meets Miami Vice meets Sex and the City meets The Real World set in Denver’s mid-’80s disco scene. Impromptu dance parties broke out on our patio by the pool; a band of twenty-something Moroccans would show up and throw together a late-night dinner of fried calamari, lamb tagine, and pigeon pie. I came home once, after sneaking out to toilet-paper a house, and found a graveyard of king crab shells and shrimp tails on our dining room table along with empty whiskey bottles and sour mix, and a living room filled with bodies grinding to “Purple Rain.” We had a recurring cast of characters, too: the Mexican windsurfer, the Latino construction worker, the Argentinean graduate student with bullet scars in his chest, the black rock ’n’ roller.

The summer I turned thirteen, she took us all to Puerto Vallarta so we could live the magic with her. I took along my best friend, Danny, who practically lived with us. We didn’t stay in the gringo hotel strip north of town. We stayed south, across the river, in a charmingly run-down posada with requisite pool and submerged bar in the courtyard, and broken glass bottles cemented on top of the walls.

Days began during siesta with a coffee or a coke and rum, and then a trip to the beach where my mom knew the owners of the beach bar where we’d have tacos and quesadillas with ice-cold cans of Tecate. If it wasn’t too hot, we’d spray ourselves with Ban de Soleil and work on a tan. With a good late-afternoon buzz established, we’d head back to the posada for a nap before heading out for the night. Living life passionately was exhausting.

It took my mom hours to prepare for a night out at the discos. First came the bath, then the makeup—foundation, rouge, eye shadow blended in a rainbow of colors to match the night’s outfit, lip-liner, then lipstick—and finally the outfit, all while smoking and dishing with my sister and her friend. By 10:00, we were ready for dinner at Señor Frogs, where we shared pitchers of margaritas and plates of bar food. Seriously buzzed, my friend and I would join drunk college kids dancing the rumba line through the aisles. My mom tolerated this place for us. It was just a way station to pass time with her kids until midnight, when the discos started to fill up with locals. She’d get fidgety around 11:00.

Dancing was the vehicle that transported her to another reality where she didn’t have utility bills due, a mortgage to pay, a lingering recession and housing slump to contend with; a place where everything had promise and was lined with possibility. I wanted to experience that too, and I begged my mom to take me with her to the discos. So every night, after Señor Frogs, we would all pile into a taxi and head to the disco on the hill, where she would ask the bouncer at the door to let my friend and me in. Every night the bouncer messed up my perfectly moussed hair, laughed and said no. And that’s probably a good thing.

While all of this was fun—I would never give up a second of my childhood—after a while it left me feeling empty and disappointed and a little embarrassed that this was my life. I believe all the dancing and the men gave my mom a sense of security and calculated abandon. She knew that she was in charge of herself and her sexuality. That was good for her at the time. I just preferred my Polo pinstripe oxford and topsiders over the leather jeans and Capezio jazz shoes my mom got me for my birthday.

How could a couple of nights out at the discos compare with the soul-fulfilling role of Reagan-era mother extraordinaire?


It wasn’t long before I moved in with my dad.

Boy Meets Girl

I thank my dad for introducing me to my wife, Alison, who my mom complained was nothing like her; though I knew they shared at least one thing in common beyond me: dancing.

I transferred colleges midway through my sophomore year and when I put in the housing request for my new school, I asked for a room in either the Italian or French language houses. When the housing department called about an opening in the French house, made possible by a suicide, my dad said something like, “He doesn’t speak French. He speaks Spanish. Put him in the Spanish house.” I didn’t speak Spanish. But it was either brush up on my Spanish or room with a guy whose roommate killed himself over the holidays.

My new neighbor when I moved into the Spanish house was a delinquent named Alison, who, along with her roommate Katie, liked to throw Madonna-inspired dance parties in their room.

I’ve never been at peace with my dancing. I don’t know what to do with my arms and I’m perpetually aware of the lock-jaw, shoulder-hunch moves my mom lamented were unique to rhythmless white men. My dance style is a messy mix of moshpit hustle, Michael Jackson spins, and James Brown grunts and foot moves, usually cajoled out of me by the gods of THC and booze.

Before I transferred schools, my friend and I regularly hosted funk-inspired dance parties that were a mix of pre-disco rumble-your-soul funk, sappy Bee Gees disco, and late ’80s-early ’90s indie rock. One of our biggest inspirations was a mixed tape a friend’s girlfriend had brought back from a summer trip to London. The same friend I took with me to Puerto Vallarta. Rare Grooves. All funk, the mix was heavy on James Brown and the JB’s but also featured groups I had never heard of like The Rimshots, The Mighty Tom Cats, The Brooklyn People, and Jimmy Castor who sings, “It’s Just Begun.”

I finally began to understand the abandon with which my mom had jumped into her disco days. Dancing transported me, temporarily at least, to an alternate universe where anything was possible, like doing the worm or a backspin or the splits—well, the splits never quite worked out. Liquored up, drugged up, sweaty and lost in a deep groove, that essay on Kant due tomorrow or next week’s midterms melted away into pulsing lights, a thumping beat, and the girl breaking it down in front of me.

I had a huge crush on Alison but never asked her out and we never hooked up. There was my girlfriend—living across the country on the east coast—and there was Alison’s certifiable friend who had a thing for me, and there was my crushing insecurity and shyness that I cloaked by being a study hound. Alison and I ran into each other when we were both out for a dance fix: alternative-music keg nights at the student union bar; at the Underground, a Colorado Springs Goth club; and at personal dance parties we or our friends threw where the Grateful Dead, Phish, and all that other jam-band classic rock music never received airtime.

By the time I finally asked Alison on a date our senior year, I had become a young version of Papo, living in my own vinyl lounger—bought by my mom—where I suffered through insomnia-filled nights reading Baudrillard, Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault or watching daytime TV, infomercials, Cinemax soft porn, and countless movies and documentaries along the line of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog, Faces, and the Joan and Melinda Rivers Story, a made-for-television biopic in which they played themselves—all of which I planned on using in my thesis titled, “Beauty and the Bitch: Levels of Simulacra and the Hyperreal” about the dissolution of reality with the coming age of advanced telecommunications. Goodbye big brother; hello little brother, that geared-up populace obsessed with self-documentation and facilitating a worldwide pandemic of nihilistic voyeurism

That date with Alison saved my life; it gave me a little perspective. It cured my insomnia.

Rare Groove Refound

Our attic is a graveyard of useless crap Alison and I squirrel away for later use: empty appliance boxes, kids’ clothes, inherited holiday decorations, boxes of mixed tapes and VHS tapes, non-functioning electronics, and boxes of memorabilia: college notebooks, job files, floppy discs, Smurfs, journals…all of it crap with no dollar value, but dripping with sentimentality.

Needing the kids’ winter coats, I recently found myself in the bowels of our attic, knee-deep in boxes. I didn’t find the kids’ coats—Alison had already put them in the coat closet. However, tucked away behind the handmade lampshades we bought in Salvador, Brazil, I found the box of short films I made when we first moved to New York.

With money borrowed from Papo, I shot them in 1996 when I was chronically unemployed and harboring delusions of being the next Tarantino or Soderbergh. I spent my days walking the Village with my Walkman, listening to Rare Grooves, dreaming up short films. Shot just before the digital boom on 16mm black and white film, complete with in-camera special effects, these films were relics before they played their first festival. My gear consisted of a World War II vintage 16mm cast-iron news camera with three lenses—wide, medium, close—that rotated into place, a tripod, and a six-piece light kit, all of which was carted around on a baby stroller I found in the trash. I edited on an 8-plate Steenbeck flatbed editor, a car-size hunk of steel reminiscent of a microfiche on steroids.

I immediately brought the one VHS tape of my films downstairs and threw it in the VCR. Hearing the TV go on, both my kids came running from whatever corner of the house they were destroying.

“TVVVVVV!” they shouted. They only get half an hour a day, and any extra time is considered a gift from god.

The first film, about a guy who comes home to find his girlfriend hog-tied and his apartment ransacked, made them both anxious.

“Why’d you make this?” Henry said. He’s only six.

“I had to tell a story with three cuts.”

Then Rare Groove came on.

“Is that you?” Hazel asked. She’s four.

“No,” I said, “just a friend.”

“It looks like you,” she said.

When the music kicked in and the lonely guy got up, they both started dancing the same Frankenstein groove. This isn’t an uncommon event in our house. Dance parties break out all the time, and every dinner ends with Henry doing what he calls his “butt dance.”

“That is you,” Hazel said again.

Maybe she had drilled into my soul. The lonely guy isn’t me; but it is. It’s me at my mom’s poolside dance parties dreaming of escaping my life. It’s me in my apartment in college trying to summon the courage to call Alison and ask her out for a date. It’s me dancing around the Village with my Walkman on. It’s me at every junction in my awkward social life, sitting in the corner of the room, waiting for that liquid lubrication to take effect so I can go out there and dance that awkward conversational groove adults do. It’s me sitting on my couch tonight watching the Biggest Loser in the exact same spot I sat in last night to watch Dexter and Californication.

Our dance party peaked into a fevered mosh, our legs and arms all akimbo.

That lonely guy is also my mom, dancing her way out of one marriage and through a sloppy midlife crisis, dreaming of finding that right guy. It’s Papo, secure in his chair, dreamily grooving his way to Jane Mansfield. It’s everyone I know who has ever longed for something, to let loose, and found themselves a little stuck.


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4 responses to “Rare Groove: Breaking it Down”

  1. Gina C. says:

    Great work, Antonio! Brought me right back there with you..with some minor differences..

  2. Dan says:

    Ah, those days in Puerto Vallarta brought to life…also, I could almost taste Fetah's calamari. Still the best I've ever eaten.

  3. Heather says:

    Great piece Tonio. I tear up (with joy, memories) thinking about your house, your mom, your parties and those capezios.

  4. Vanessa says:

    funny isnt it how as a teenager any one else's life is better than our own. Glad you found Alison and hope she chucks out that chair before you pee in it! xx

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The Author

Antonio Aiello

Antonio Aiello is the online editor for PEN American Center where he co-authored and edited PEN’s Handbook for Writers in Prison. His most recent work can be read at or on his web site, He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife and two children. See all of Antonio Aiello's contributions to Revolving Floor here.

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