Something Good #13: A Couple of Things That I Thought About for a Long Time
I have this habit of hearing about something interesting, or coming up with a good idea, and then not pursuing the topic for a long time. Eventually, I usually get around to doing something about it, but it can take decades.
Here is one example. I used to go to a lot of book sales (McGill had a great, enormous, one every October) and pick up whatever seemed interesting. At least half of my library probably comes from one period of intense book-buying in my early 20s.
This was before we used phones to kill time. We needed an endless supply of printed text—magazines, newspapers, “bathroom books,” etc., to accompany all the pots of coffee, the cigarettes, the joints, the diner breakfasts we filled our days with.
That’s how I came across The People’s Almanac, a series of books by father-and-son team Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky. These were massive, massive paperbacks—the first one basically burst through its own spine—filled with historical anecdotes, facts, legends, and entertaining lists. (The popular Book of List series, classic bathroom literature, started as a chapter in the Almanac.)
It was while leafing through one of the Almanacs that I came across a story that thrilled me. I will have to be vague here, because so many of the details have flaked away with time, but it was about a historical Venetian gang leader and swordsman.
His daring thefts and capers were legendary, his narrow escapes breathtaking. After many near-misses, he was finally surrounded one night by a rival gang who, like him, all wore those famous Venetian carnival masks to preserve their anonymity.
There was one detail that I couldn’t shake: the image of his enemies bowing in respect before running him through with their swords.
Why did this story resonate with me so much? It promised worlds of intrigue, strange codes of honour, secret identities, archaic Venetian customs… it was everything my life was not, and it seemed too fantastical to be real. But it was, and that meant something to me as I emerged from the fog of my misspent undergraduate years and tried to figure out my place in a world I was only gradually begin to realize I understood very little.
The masked Venetian stayed with me through the years. I thought he would make an incredible movie, or novel, and I promised myself I would one day take the time to revisit, research, and who knows—adapt it. In the back of my mind I bound my future to this long-dead rascal.
That may explain why I lugged the two huge Almanacs I owned (volumes one and two) around with me from apartment to apartment for nigh-on 20 years, but I never actually got around to opening them again and revisiting the story that had captivated me, although I thought about it all the time. I always associated it with these two books, and promised myself I would one day sift through them again to find it, and maybe write about it.
Recently, going through the notes I keep on interesting historical characters, I decided to finally pull the Almanacs off the shelf and revisit my wily Venetian.
I spent an afternoon sifting through the nearly 3000 pages of tight, two-column text in both volumes, focusing on promising categories like “Extraordinary Murderers,” “A Chronology of Mysterious Happenings in History,” and “Footnote People in World History.”
And I found… nothing.
The closest story I could find to my remembered Venetian was the story of Casanova’s escape from the Leads prison in Venice, which, while exciting, featured no masks, no bowing swordsmen, none of the faint details I could remember.
What the hell? For decades I’d been schlepping these books around, always intending to one day crack them open again and find this treasured narrative, and now… nothing?
At a loss, I decided to go to the source. I looked up David Wallechinsky, the co-author of the Almanacs and although he didn’t have a personal home page and no social media accounts that I could ascertain, I did find a promising-looking email address deep in the “About” pages of an old website I’d read he founded years ago. I wrote him an email explaining the influence his books had had on my life, and asking my very specific question.
“I know it has been a long time, and the chances of stirring your memory with these vague details is faint at best,” I wrote. “But I wonder if that rings a bell for you?”
I didn’t reasonably expect a reply, but… you never know! And imagine my surprise when, on Monday night, I saw a message in my inbox with the subject line, “Respectful Killers.”
Thank you for your kind words. I've wracked my brain and don't remember this story. I also asked a friend who is a European history aficionado. No luck. If you do find out, please let me know.
Here is another example of something that I thought about for a long time. This one has a more satisfying ending.
The coolest video store in Toronto when I was growing up, and possibly the coolest place, period, was Suspect Video (RIP). This was a glorious and grimy den of underground VHS (and later DVD), its shelves packed with cult films and all kinds of weird bootlegs. It was staffed by a now long-vanished breed of ‘80s-’90s downtown hipster—Buddy Holly glasses, black bowling shirts, hair greying at the temples.
When I was in high school, a friend told me about a video he once rented from Suspect. Along with other oddities, it contained an episode of Star Trek with all of the dialogue cut out, leaving the story to be told with only dramatic entrances and meaningful glances.
I loved this idea. Of course, I never got around to searching for the original bootleg video—I’m not even sure how I would. Cursory internet searches, after I’d moved away from Toronto and Suspect, revealed nothing. But for years, I mean literally, decades, I thought about it all the time.
Until one day I suddenly realized: I know how to edit video. Why don’t I just make these imagined Star Trek re-edits myself?
So I did.
Although I always imagined the bootleg was a re-cut of an episode of the original Star Trek series, The Next Generation was “my” Star Trek growing up, so I used that.
Whether that original edit ever really existed, I may never know, but I was at least able to will an approximation of it into existence.
You can watch one of my versions here:
Thanks to all the readers who have sent in submissions for the #nojacketsrequired challenge! This week’s entry comes from Nicholas Amberg. Many more to come. If you have a cover to submit, please email it directly to firstname.lastname@example.org, as big attachments tend to bounce off the Substack mail server.
Extra special thanks this week to David Wallechinsky for generously indulging my ridiculous request. If anyone has any leads on my half-remembered Venetian, please let me know. (I am good, my adult life and self of sense no longer relies on this being true, but maybe we can collectively will him into existence somehow.) Also the original Star Trek re-edit. Who knows, it might be out there somewhere.
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