Paths crossed: Al Shanker and some challah dough

Al Shanker was a sexy guy who baked bread.

Richard Kahlenberg’s “A School Strike That Never Quite Ended,”¬†opinion piece in the Times reminded me about the 1960’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville public school upheaval, as well as a separate recollection of meeting Al Shanker, when he brought his home-made bread basket to my dad. It was Al’s traditional holiday gift.

Along with the basket, Al urged my father to start baking bread, and Dad did, for much of the rest of his life. (One day he called me into the kitchen. He had three portions of dough laid out on the counter, each with three separate strands connected at one end, the basic¬† challah set-up. He pointed at the dough and said to me, “Braid them.” I burst out laughing. “You mean you don’t know how to braid?!” I said. “Braid them,” he said again. I did. Laughing.)

My father, a writer with his own small ad agency, worked on Al’s Teacher’s Union Sunday NYT column which appeared as a paid advertisement in the op-ed section each week (and still does, now written by Randi Weingarten). Which is how Dad knew Al — although he probably met him much earlier. I think my father, once a teacher, was in some way involved in the original formation of the New York branch of what is now the AFT.

Don’t know what prompted Al’s holiday visit but in he came with that basket of baked goodies. I was fairly taken, for a couple of reasons beyond the bread. First, Al was very tall. Second, he was really sexy — in the full meaning of the word. You know.

This was a quality not apparent in Al’s multiple TV news appearances. It was sort of the reverse of what often happens when one meets a celebrated person face-to-face — and I can testify to this because I worked in the film business for years, and knew a lot of celebrities.

For one thing, most of them do seem a lot shorter than they appear on the screen, or on stage. They are in fact normal size but our minds have fully absorbed a 40-foot-high, beautifully lit version of them from movies. (Since so many people watch movies on TV now, I should inquire whether this mental image now rests in our brains at 52 or 60 inches, instead of 40 feet. Are face-to-face encounters now surprising in the opposite direction? “Wow, in real life he is SO tall!!!”)

On the other hand, a remarkable number of people who have not met a particular celebrity declare he is much shorter than he is. I once had a bemused argument with a dental hygienist about Robert Redford, whom I did know in real life. “He’s five foot six,” she said. Somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody had assured her it was a fact. I said, “No, he’s around five ten, five eleven.” She insisted she was right. (She wasn’t; I was.)

The other thing about famous men, especially, who are so notably gorgeous they make you swoon when you see them on TV or the screen: in real life they may be good-looking, yeah, but not swoon-inducing; they are just male human beings. Their transition from 40 feet high to human size also seems to reduce their god-like erotic power.

The only celebrity I have ever encountered who made people on the sidewalk — including me — stop and gaze upon him with wonder was Burt Lancaster. Really tall, radiantly awesome.

Back to Al Shanker. Have to say right now, my erotic proclivities have always leaned toward brains, even before physical appearances, and Al had brains. Which maybe explains this. But not entirely.

I am useless as to that day’s general conversation. I don’t remember any of it. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t about politics, or Ocean Hill-Brownsville, or other union concerns. But I’m also sure it was intelligent and witty. Because that’s what happens when you’ve got a small bunch of intelligent, witty people in one room, with fresh bread, and comfy sofas and chairs, and a fire in the fireplace.

Glad you asked.


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