Illustration by Mitch Handsone
Hector Schechner called at 4:45 a.m. to invite me to go pick up his father at the airport, now.
“Why can’t you pick him up?”
“Because,” said Schechner, “I’m still in Pittsburgh and/or Toledo. Or Cincinnati. Wherever I am, the plane was grounded because of a communist plot, so I won’t be home until tonight. My father’s 93. I can’t tell him to take a taxi.”
“Shit. All right. Gimme his flight number.”
I shot up with a half-pot of coffee and left immediately to idle more or less without motion on the freeway for two hours, then parked at the terminal, found the gate and sat down with more coffee until the flight landed and began spilling in, at which time I rose, positioned myself prominently in the crowd and presented my 17-by-22-inch MR. SCHECHNER sign to the unknown.
The unknown responded with an inordinately slight and frail white man, no more than 5 feet high and looking every month of his 93 years. It wasn’t easy to imagine this man as the father of Hector Schechner, who stands about 6-foot-2. But what really caught me off-guard was Mr. Schechner’s uncanny resemblance to my former employer Nicholas Chapro.
By now he must be reincarnated, or dead, or something like that. But in the summer of 1981, Nicholas Chapro lived happily (by my estimation) in the flatlands of Beverly Hills. My roommate, Beef, had been Chapro’s driver since the preceding November. When summer required Beef’s return to San Diego, I was enlisted to take over his Chapro-driving duties.
Mr. Chapro was what was known at the time as a delightful fellow. He’d grown up and married in Vitebsk, then moved to Paris, where he’d become some kind of businessman. In the late ’30s, he and his wife purchased a block or two of downtown Beverly Hills and moved into their current dwelling, just a few blocks north of that property, on Roxbury Drive. The comfortable old house was filled with artwork; most prominent was a famous painting over the fireplace, a gift from the artist Marc Chagall, one of Chapro’s childhood friends. Now well into their 80s, both Chapros stood a trim 5 feet. Unlike his less hydrophilic wife, Mr. Chapro could almost pass for Picasso, especially when he wore his beret.
Each morning at 9:30 a.m., I’d call Mr. Chapro and ask him if he’d like to go to the beach — to his small cabana at one of the private clubs just south of Will Rogers State Beach. If we went, I got 20 bucks and unlimited use of his car between drop-off and pickup time. If not, not.
Mr. Chapro liked to mess around with formality. Sort of a hobby. “Today I am quite well, thank you,” he’d reply to my telephonic query. “And how are you?”
“I’m also quite well,” I’d say, in the same tone. “Will you be going to the beach today?”
Then there’d be a pause as Mr. Chapro filled his lungs to capacity so that he could proclaim, with undue resolution and fanfare, “Yes! Today! I would like you to take me to the beach!”
I’d show up at the house around 10 a.m., help Mr. Chapro into the back seat of his Oldsmobile and strap myself in behind the wheel. Before I put the car into reverse, Mr. Chapro would poke his face up between the headrests and, with a big smile, ask, “Would you like to take me to the beach?”
“I believe so. Yes,” I’d say, and Chapro’d nod happily and pat my shoulder. Then he’d sit back and return to his standard residual Chapro personality, less animated but no less pleasant.
As we drove down Sunset, Mr. Chapro told me tales of Los Angeles in the ’30s, when Santa Monica was a small resort town, and Santa Monica Boulevard was the unpaved road leading there. He insisted that I drive slowly — only as fast as the limit allowed by law, which almost no one in Los Angeles obeys. “The beach,” he’d remind me anytime my foot grew too heavy, “will still be there when we arrive.”
When I started writing Hector Schechner’s biography about five years ago and found out that his family was from Lima, Ohio, I got excited. Lenny Bruce, you see, had done a routine in the late ’50s about performing there (“Lima, Ohio,” track 11 on Lenny Bruce Originals Vol. 2) and having dinner with an elderly couple of Schechners. How many Schechners could there be in Lima, Ohio?
“Two,” Schechner’d calmed me. “The ones who had Lenny over for dinner were the Insurance Schechners, from the other side of the B&O. We were the Dry Cleaner Schechners.”
But something in the way Schechner’d told his tale hadn’t rung true. So as I carried his father’s luggage slowly across the parking lot at LAX, I asked for a second opinion.
“Yes, it was us,” said Mr. Schechner, softly, politely — unlike anything Schechnerly I’d known. “We were the only Schechners outside of Cleveland. Why — is he still telling the story about the ‘Insurance Schechners’ across town?”
Mr. Schechner shook his head. “Poor Shecky. He’s still angry that he wasn’t home that night, that he never got to meet Mr. Bruce.”
I arranged Mr. Schechner in the back seat, and strapped myself in to drive, wondering how much else of Schechner’s self-proclaimed history might be false. The freeway was still stuck, so I figured we’d head up Sepulveda to Lincoln, take the coast route to Schechner’s pad on Lombard Street.
“A few weeks after the dinner, Lenny called Daphne and me and told us he’d made up this routine based on our dinner, and asked if it was okay to use our real last name, because he just liked the way it sounded, and we said that’d be fine.
“Of course, in Lenny’s version, things weren’t as they actually had been. For instance, he turned us into an elderly couple, even though we were still in our 40s, because it worked better as a story. Which I agree, it did. Hey!”
We were approaching the coast. A beautiful morning, both of us unemployed. Mr. Schechner smiled, a big goofy smile, and poked his face up between the headrests. “As long as Shecky’s not home until tonight, do you have time to take me to the beach?”