Willie and Kenneth


“I have a death voice,” Kenneth Greene said after interrupting a conversation I was having with my fellow employees on break. Kenneth Greene was the manager of this restaurant, and the only time he interrupted our conversations in the breakroom was to inform us that the restaurant was so busy that we would have to cut our breaks short to help the staff out. When he first entered our breakroom we thought that’s what he was doing, but he looked so insecure about it.

Kenneth Greene operated from a baseline of insecurity. Kenneth didn’t think the staff took him seriously enough in the first few months of his tenure as our manager, so he grew a Fu Manchu. Kenneth’s Fu Manchu did not have handlebars, a la Salvador Dali. Kenneth’s was more late 60’s Joe Namath. Kenneth would never admit that he grew a Fu Manchu for the sole purpose of generating some respect from his peers, but when that Fu Manchu grew to fruition, the psychological transformation was obvious. Kenneth Greene went from a greasy, overweight ginger with a mullet to a greasy, overweight ginger with a mullet and a Fu Manchu.

The psychological influence of the Fu Manchu became apparent when he progressed from a manager that asked his employees to cut their breaks short for business needs to a manager that told them to do so. Thus, when Kenneth Greene stepped into our breakroom the display of insecurity was noteworthy. It appeared that the Fu Manchu might have lost its psychological power. After a moment of hesitation, in which it appeared that Kenneth had something to say, he left without saying a word. When he returned, moments later, he stared at me with renewed confidence.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I have a death voice,” Kenneth Greene said.

“What’s a death voice?” I asked.

“I front a death metal band,” Kenneth said. “In my off time.”

Kenneth Greene’s goal, I can only assume, was to display a talent that matched the subjects of the discussion he interrupted. In that discussion, a friend and I spoke about the various artistic talents of those on the staff. Kenneth Greene wanted us to know that he had a talent equivalent to those that we were discussing, and that he was much more than a manager of a low-rent restaurant chain that would go out of business within a year. He wanted us to know he had a gift, and an artistic calling. He had a death voice.

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ is an expression that dates back, in various forms, to the Ancient Greeks. The reason such a notion exists, as Benjamin Franklin’s version of the expression states, is that at the core of one’s definition of beauty is an opinion.

I would never consider myself an arbiter of art, in other words, but I thought Kenneth Greene would have a tough road ahead of him if he wanted to convince those of us sitting in a restaurant breakroom, that we should consider a skilled death voice for our conversation of artistic talents. I was, as I always am, eager to have another prove me wrong.

I didn’t know what to do with this information, however, so I assumed that he wanted to show us. After several attempts to goad him into it, Kenneth decided against performing his death voice for us. I think he saw something in our faces that suggested that the moment after one lets loose a death voice in the middle of a restaurant breakroom, they become the person that let a death voice loose in the middle of a restaurant breakroom. When he invited us to hear it in person, at one of his shows, I could tell he knew we wouldn’t attend, but he needed to say something to get out of the uncomfortable situation he created.

***

I thought Willie Bantner was a real character when I met him. Willie and I found that our backgrounds were similar, and I thought this was odd considering that our outlooks were so dissimilar. Willie’s worldview was foreign to my own, yet there was something so familiar about him. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that stirred these feelings of déjà vu, until Willie revealed to me the actual character he was playing in life.

My initial inclination was the once one meets a significant number of odd characters in life they begin some overlap. There are only so many odd characters out there, in other words, and I thought Willie reminded me of one of them.

These odd, weird sensibilities were the reason I was so fascinated with Willie Bantner. It was the reason I would go to him with very specific scenarios. I wanted to learn what he thought of matters. The funny, thought-provoking things he said were the reasons that we became friends. This friendship lasted for over ten years. Over the course of those ten years, I grew so familiar with Willie that his peculiarities were not so peculiar, but there was still that nagging sense of familiarity about him that plagued me.

When we began to list the best television shows ever, we mentioned the usual shows that we considered the best of their day. When we entered into the list of what we thought should be on a list of honorable mentions, the list was lengthy. I mentioned the show Family Ties. Willie agreed that show should be on the list of honorable mentions. I added, “If nothing else, the show gave us Michael J. Fox, and the character Alex P. Keaton, and I think Alex P. Keaton was one of the best TV characters ever written.”

“I modeled my life after him,” he said. After some confusion, Willie clarified that he did not model his life after Michael J. Fox. He modeled his life after Alex P. Keaton.

Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the reasons young men swear so often is that they lack confidence. They don’t know how to articulate an opinion in a manner that will impress their peers. They are also unable, at this point in their lives, to provide detailed analysis of the subject of their opinion, so they choose superlatives to cover those holes in their as yet unformed intellect. If one person says that Marlon Brando was the best actor of all time, another may agree with that person. Rather than enter into a detailed discussion of that sense of spontaneity Brando brought to his roles, or the fleshed out nuances he brought to method acting that influenced a generation of actors, they say, “I’ve built a personal shrine to him in my bedroom.” When one person says that a movie was the scariest movie they’ve ever watched, another might say, “That movie was so scary that I didn’t sleep right for weeks.” In most cases, there were no shrines built or hours of sleep lost, but in the absence of detailed analysis, a young man thinks he has to say something over the top to pound the point home. I thought this was all Willie when he said he modeled his life after Alex P. Keaton. The more I chewed on it, however, the more I began to see a truth mixed into that admission.

I would watch him, going forward, with that admission in mind. The idea that the man modeled his reactions, his physical gestures, and his life after a situation comedy character became obvious once I knew what to look for. That odd sense of déjà vu I experienced earlier in our friendship was now obvious to me. It was one of those ‘I can’t believe I didn’t see this for what it was earlier’ moments for me.

It disappointed me how prescient my initial assessment of Willie Bantner was. He was a character, but not in the general sense that I intended. I was disappointed to learn that individual experiences did not inform Willie Bantner’s personality as much as I thought, unless one considers tuning into NBC’s early to mid 80’s, Thursday night lineup at 7:30 central to be an individual experience.

Willie Bantner made me think, he made me laugh, and I thought he earned it all with ingenious, individualistic takes. After his admission, I began to wonder how many of those comments were off the cuff, and how many of them he lifted from Family Ties. The personality I thought he cultivated became a carefully manufactured character created by some screenwriters in a boardroom on Melrose Avenue. The odd sense of familiarity plagued me as I wrote, but I can’t remember putting much effort into trying to pinpoint the core of Willie Bantner’s character. If I had, I probably would’ve over-estimated what influenced his core personality, but that’s what young men do. Even if I was able to temper my search to more reasonable concepts, I don’t think I would’ve considered something as banal as watching too much TV was the sole influence for what I considered such a fascinating personality, until he admitted it.

Now, I have no illusions that I’ve scrubbed the influence of TV characters from my personality. I imagine I still have some remnants of the Fonz in my cavalcade of reactions, and I’m sure that Jack Tripper is in there somewhere. I also know that an ardent fan of David Letterman could spot his influence somewhere in how I react to the people, places and things that surround me, but I think it’s almost impossible to develop a personality without some degree of influence from the shows we watched every week for years. To model one’s entire life on one fictional, television character, however, speaks of a level of insecurity I think the American Psychiatric Association should consider in their next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

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