A Real Jewish James Dean

Being Jewish in Los Angeles in the 50s made one stick out like a matzo ball in soup. It was unavoidable, especially as a man. Here you had all these bathing beauties and aspiring starlets, while you, a pale and hirsute creature from the black lagoon emerged only to find that all it took was the mere sight of you to send the goy girls (goyls) running. It was all Levi could take anymore. A man of his hormone-driven age (seventeen) could go crazy waiting for a buxom blonde to take him seriously as a sexual prospect. Sometimes, he would try his luck saying he was Harry Cohn or David O. Selznick to see if he could at least get them to flirt with him in an attempt to try securing a screen test straight from the top. It couldn’t hurt to let the head of a studio know you were willing to do whatever it took to get a foot in the door (via a dick in the mouth). Sometimes, he found a girl fresh enough off the boat (a phrase that took on a very literal meaning whenever he trolled the Port of Los Angeles or Long Beach) to believe him. To give a damn about him for at least twenty minutes’ worth of flattering conversation. Then, all at once, one of her friends would show up to tell her what was what. Or, more to the point, who was who. He’d then be left to finish both the drinks he just ordered, one of them usually an overpriced, frilly cocktail. He was really starting to hate dames. 

But one of his only non-Jewish friends, Hank, told him that all he needed was a new approach. The two were smoking in the parking lot of Fairfax High, late to class already, when Hank told him that maybe he “ought to get a bike.” Levi chortled, “What? Like a Schwinn 10-speed?” Hank shook his head. “Why don’t you come over to my house after school? I’ll show you somethin’.” If Levi had said a phrase like that, he would’ve somehow made it come across as homo. When Hank delivered the line, it was somehow dripping with machismo. Levi really despised being Jewish sometimes. How it seemed to make him inherently non-privy to some code of coolness that only the gentiles could comprehend. But maybe, at the very least, Hank could do his best to teach him how to comprehend. Or at least feign the arcane knowledge as best as he could.  

So it was that he chose to ditch out on his piano lesson that afternoon–a sin that would’ve made his mother beat him over the head with the Haggadah had she learned of his blithe wasting of his father’s hard-earned money–in favor of stopping in at Hank’s. He lived at the bottom of the Hollywood Hills, in the area called Hollywood Heights. It felt both sinister and exciting to Levi, who generally only remained within the confines between Melrose Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. He deliberately made sure to walk past Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where he could see some of the foot and handprints of Hollywood royalty he could never aspire to being like. A glimpse of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’ cement slab sent a shiver down his spine. He wanted to be an actor. But he knew the only job anyone would ever think him capable of was studio accountant. Or, at best, producer. He despised the way in which men like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner only perpetuated the notion that all Jews could do was work behind the scenes. Cruelly orchestrate the lives of the goyim while all they did was count pennies in their palaces. He wished he could express this to someone who would understand. Sure, Hank might be willing to listen, but he wasn’t Jewish, so how could he ever really fathom Levi’s plight? 

Hank wasted no time in taking Levi around to the garage, where he approached a non-car shape covered with a black tarp, only to unveil the most beautiful piece of machinery Levi had ever seen: the 1954 Harley-Davidson Panhead 74ci FL. In black, naturally. Red or blue would have given more ostentation than a body of work like this needed. No, the curves already spoke for themselves without needing a bombastic tone to reiterate the point. Levi realized he had been left speechless, prompting Hank to laugh at his stunned expression. “You wanna take her around the block?” Levi could almost feel an erection forming at the thought of himself on a bike like that. Then he remembered, he was Jewish. He would only end up falling off, making a fool out of himself. Or worse, he would be able to stay on it long enough for everyone to remark on how incongruous he looked. His self-consciousness getting the better of him, he shook his head. “Better not, Hank. Thanks for showing it to me though.” 

“Ah come on Levi, don’t be such a wuss. It’s easy. I can show you how it’s done and then you can give it a whirl.” Hank’s insistence was both touching and vexing. Couldn’t he leave well enough alone? Couldn’t he accept that Levi would never be able to attract a goyl? Would forever be saddled with the gentle Jewish ones his parents presented him with until finally, once they were married, she would unveil her true castrating nature. No, Hank needed to just stop it. To stop putting silly ideas in Levi’s mind that he could ever make the scene. Motorcycle or not. He obliged Hank by watching his technique, even went so far as to get on the bike himself afterward, but refused to actually ride it. “I wouldn’t feel right about it. What if something happens? I wouldn’t want you to hate me.”

“Suit yourself,” Hank said disappointedly, then left well enough alone. 

It was only a year later, in the fall of 1955, that Levi’s mind started to wander back to that bike. Sitting in a darkened Laemmle theater, the voice of Buzz telling Jim–James fucking Dean–“Hey Toreador. She signals, we head for the edge, and the first man who jumps is a chicken.” Like many other viewers, Levi assumed Jim would jump out of the car last before it reached the edge of the cliff. But it’s Buzz, who isn’t braver or more badass, but simply gets the sleeve of his jacket caught on the handle and can’t open the door before plunging to his doom. The more sensitive bad boy won out. And James Dean became Levi’s god. As such, he took it upon himself to learn all he could, including what motorcycle the Rebel Without A Cause liked best. Turned out, not a Harley, but a Triumph. Levi had to have one. Even if the word Triumph was still too closely related to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Leave it to the British to ignore such associations, likely assuming no Jew would buy their product anyway. 

He at last took Hank up on his offer to show him the ropes on how to ride, rolling his eyes at Levi for putting a helmet on for the small patch of a block he would practice on. Whatever it takes for a Jew not to feel skittish, I guess, Hank reasoned to himself, wondering if maybe being a loner altogether was better than serving as a messiah to L.A. rejects. On the day when Levi once and for all decided to go out on his own for a ride, it was early March of 1956. He was now nineteen years old. He opted for the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, where, feeling briefly insecure about his aptitude, he stopped on the side of the road near Santa Monica Beach. It was there his eyes met with Angela’s, a girl whose angelic blondeness matched her name. When she told it to him, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over his Triumph, he wasn’t surprised by it, so much as her interest in him. He didn’t even need to do much talking. The less he said, the more mysterious–the more James Dean–he was. He couldn’t figure out what had taken him so long to use this trick on women. But now that he had it, he was never going to give it up. He chose to ignore that James had only recently died in a car crash. But that made him all the more immortal in his coolness, and surely the same wouldn’t happen to someone as careful as Levi, Levi thought to himself as he turned around to kiss Angela at a stop sign, therefore was unable to see the oncoming carful of surfers who were too busy passing the reefer to notice him stopped there, plowing right through Levi and his new love. Hearing of the news, Hank thought, Yes, he was a real Jewish James Dean all right; he didn’t even need to be in motion on a motorcycle to get in an accident. 

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