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Full Circle: He is What He is
My Cousin Martin wasn’t like most other men

It was 4 pm when the late Martin Sherman flipped the latch on the Cyclone fence and entered the 15-foot grass and concrete slice of paradise we called our backyard.

Cousin Martin was always late, but then Cousin Martin was always different. Who else would wear a starched and tailored long-sleeve dress shirt to a barbecue? With perfectly round glasses and very shiny shoes. He always wore bright colors, Cousin Martin, colors that most men wouldn’t wear. And he had a different way of speaking, Not like a man, not like a woman. Like Cousin Martin.

While other men talked about the Phillies or President Eisenhower’s golf game, he would tell us about all the auditions he went to in New York. On Broadway. Mostly musicals. Cousin Martin loved musicals.

“So, Martin,” my father would say to him, “when are you going to settle down with a nice girl and get married?” And Cousin Martin would blush and my father would laugh and my mother would punch him in the arm.

It was somewhere between the stories about Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe that I realized I was different, too. I was, so it seemed, the only other creative person in my family.

I wrote poems. Crazy poems. Poems no one understood. And I painted. Not just railings and garage doors. I painted canvases. People would look at them and say, “What’s that supposed to be?” And then they would laugh. When you’re different, people laugh at you a lot. When you’re different, people try to make you the same.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be a professional man,” my father asked Cousin Martin, “like an accountant or an insurance salesman?”

“Leave him alone,” my mother said. “He is what he is.”

My father looked at my mother and spoke as though Cousin Martin wasn’t there. “Acting,” he grumbled, “what kind of job is that for a grown man? Come on, he’s not exactly Clark Gable.”

Cousin Martin would just look at me. “So,” he said, “what do you want to be?” Usually, that was a tough question for a 10-year-old boy. But not for me.”

“I want to be a disc jockey,” I said, loud and proud.

“Oh, you must like music,” Cousin Martin said. “Show tunes. I just love show tunes.”

And then, he did it. In the middle of our driveway, he got up from his weakly webbed lawn chair and started singing, “Ok–lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.”

This was enough to summon the neighbors. Izzy Eisenberg, who worked with my father and lived next door, leaned over the fence in his sleeveless undershirt, the one with the ketchup stain on the front, and yelled, “Hey, Caruso, keep it down, will ya?”

“Cousin Martin’s going to be an actor,” I told Izzy. “On Broadway.”

“Actor?” Izzy said. “You can’t support a wife and family being an actor. Get a real job. Make something of yourself. Feygele.”

Feygele? I had heard that word before. My parents would speak Yiddish in the house when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about.

“What’s a feygele?” I asked my mother. And then she said, in a whisper, “It means little bird.”

“Why did Izzy call Cousin Martin a little bird?”

“Ummm,” my mother said, as if I’d just asked her how babies were made. “It’s, ummm, because he sings like a bird.”

I would learn much later that wasn’t what Izzy Eisenberg meant at all. Feygele had become Yiddish slang for someone who was like Cousin Martin.

But Cousin Martin had heard it all before. And he had heard much worse.

“I can’t be bothered by that,” he told me. “It just makes me want to word harder. Success is the best revenge.” Then he picked up a hot dog and asked for more relish.

The barbecue would end. Cousin Martin would go on to appear in many Broadway musicals and a number of Woody Allen movies. Izzy Eisenberg became the chief stock clerk at the toy store.

August 2013
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