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Do You Believe in Flying Saucers? 

click to enlarge LAUREN THOMAS
  • Lauren Thomas

A recent episode of the marvelous radio program/podcast "Radiolab" focused on "Candid Camera," the long-running hidden camera TV show. "Candid Camera" had its heyday in the '60s and '70s, and its technique of secretly filming people, ambush style, often in unusual situations or involving trick props (one memorable bit involved a vending machine that dispensed cans of soda via a human hand), is seen as a visionary precursor to the sea of reality television we now swim in. The show's creator, Alan Funt, sought to capture people at their most spontaneous and unguarded. One of the interesting psychological gleanings of the show was that people wanted to be on television, even after the camera was revealed—"Smile, you're on 'Candid Camera'!"—and they found out that they had been hoodwinked. People desperately desired to be part of the story, even if they played the fool.

Listening to the "Radiolab" episode flipped a switch in my memory. "Candid Camera" was an early influence on me as well.

Joey DiPietro and I were sitting around one summer afternoon, one of those impossibly long summer afternoons when you're 10 or 11 that seem to stretch out forever and there's nothing left to do. Every idea is hackneyed, played out. We'd reenacted a wiffle ball version of Reggie Jackson's three-home run game from the 1977 World Series. We'd played Parcheesi. We'd gone swimming. We'd played Stratego. We'd ridden our bikes around the block dozens of times, on each circuit pretending to be different characters from TV shows, first "Starsky and Hutch," then "Dukes of Hazard," and on and on. The game ended after we impersonated Lenny and Squiggy from "Laverne & Shirley." We'd set small fires behind the garage. We'd sat on the stoop asking each other, "Whaddya wanna do?" "I dunno, whaddya wanna do?" for what seemed like an hour.

We were bored. So we left the bright sunshine for the dark interior of the DiPietro household to watch TV.

For those who've grown up in the warm, bosomy light of nine-hundred station cable TV and TiVo and webisodes, allow me to explain something about the bad old days of TV in the `70s: There were three national networks, PBS (old people talking grown-up piffle, or the Public Bull Shit network as we called it), three local independent stations that played old cartoons for a couple hours in the afternoons but mostly broadcast amateurish snoozefests like "The Joe Franklin Show" or "Bowling for Dollars" (an actual game show, Scout's honor). Before the cartoons came on was the worst time of day to watch TV, all soap operas and "Donahue" and crappy reruns of "F Troop" and "Bonanza." (Joey's grandfather, who was off-the-boat Italian, having come to live with his daughter and her family after retiring as a bricklayer in Turin, loved "Bonanza," and was teaching himself English by watching the show. His typical greeting—picture Roberto Benigni saying this—was "Howdy pardner.")

On the day in question, Joey's grandfather was watching "Candid Camera," waiting for "Bonanza" to come on, I assumed. Squished on the plastic-covered couch between Joey and his chain-smoking grandfather, increasingly delighted by the pranks being played on unwitting passers-by, I had a thought: What if we made our own "Candid Camera?"

We didn't have a TV camera, so a cassette recorder would have to do. I had one of those, a top-loading job about the size of a small textbook. I used it mostly to record songs off the radio, hitting the record button and putting it face down on top of my circa 1962 hand-me-down radio alarm clock and hoping the DJ wouldn't come in too early to back-announce the song and ruin the end of it for me. The recorder fit snugly in a brown paper lunch bag. We would secretly record our conversations with people in the neighborhood. I can't remember how Joey and I landed on the idea of UFOs as the provocative topic we would discuss—Close Encounters of the Third Kind had just come out, so perhaps that was a factor. (Popular culture was an influence on us.) Part Alan Funt, part Alan Lomax, Joey and I decided to set off in the morning.

We walked around the neighborhood and asked people a simple question: Do you believe in flying saucers? The typical encounter went something like this: Joey and I walk up the steps to a house, brown paper bag with recorder not-so-secretly stuffed into it clutched to Joey's chest. Ring the bell. Ding-dong! Door opens, homeowner appears. "Good morning, Mr. Lavado, I'm working on a school project and I'd like to ask you a question." Cue Joey pressing down on the front of the bag to hit Record. The wheels of the tape recorder turning can faintly be heard. Mr. Lavado, skeptically eyeing the bag, says, "But it's summer, Brian." In my best bright-boy voice I respond: "Indeed it is, Mr. Lavado. I'm trying to get a leg up on 7th grade by doing a report over the summer on UFOs. Mr. Lavado, do you believe in flying saucers?"

For his part, Mr. Lavado gave us a buck and told us not to go around bothering people. He wouldn't talk. It was a long day. Joey and I had doors slammed in our faces. People laughed at us and just walked back inside. Old women invited us in and fed us stale cookies and wrinkled grapes and told us about their grandchildren, who looked just like us.

But some people did talk to us, like Mrs. Schwartz, a widow, who told a rambling tale about her husband, who was a pilot in World War II, and who had seen UFOs flying sorties in the South Pacific. And Steven Garvey's mom, who never came out of her house—Steven claimed she was sick but wouldn't say what of—said she had been for a ride in a spaceship and nothing more. And the construction worker on his lunch break, who opened up about an experience he had a few years before in the Bronx. It was the middle of the afternoon, he said, right on Grand Concourse, plenty of people on the street, when a flying saucer descended right over the intersection and hovered. Everyone on the street stopped. After a minute, the UFO flew up and away. People on the street exchanged glances, but nobody said anything and just walked away. After telling us the story, construction worker looked genuinely spooked by it.

And then there was Mr. Rappoport, retired subway conductor, who we ran into on the street, on his way back from the OTB. After some preliminary conversation about aliens, he confided to us that he written a theme song for the Boy Scouts, and would we like to hear it? Why, of course we would, Mr. Rappoport. Standing on the corner of 29th Avenue and 210th Place, Mr. Rappoport gave full throat to the song he had written, pumping his arms in a marching rhythm. I can only remember a snippet: Win square, lose fair, we're Scouts ya know / doing our duty, helping as we go / But when the flag's out, every Boy Scout / pledges his loyalty for-e-ver. Mr. Rappoport had sent the song in to the Boy Scouts, offered it to them free, he told us, but they rejected it.

People just want to be heard, be part of the story. And their stories live on in me, like that little snatch of Mr. Rappoport's song. I bet that tape is up in my attic somewhere. I hope I find it. There are more stories waiting to be unlocked.

Speaking of...

  • A young Brian K. Mahoney questions his neighbors about extraterrestrial life.

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