Fat Larry existed -- or rather, did not -- on the fringes of the social spectra of W. Tresper Clarke Junior High School in Westbury/New York. This was Billy Joel's America, his 'peeps' and his time: Mid-80s Long Island. Even though the "Miracle Mile" of "Still Rock n' Roll to Me" was a stone's throw, I never did see a "set of white wall tires" and I guess that if you actually did pick up a stone and threw it, you'd probably have prompted legal dealings with one of the myriad attorneys who fathered most of the young Billy Joel fans in the region. We left the rocks alone.

Roosevelt Field shopping mall was West and Willis Hobbies, at the time, East. A strip of chromed all-night diners and the ill-fated Roosevelt raceway lay in the Great Between. There must have been more but it was all beyond the reach of a boy in his parachute pants atop his blue Columbia 10-speed (after Top Gun, we all got mopeds and worried our parents even sicker but that's another story - oy veh.). Besides, there were no cell phones at the time. How would I call?

Anyway, everyone in school knew fat Larry or they knew of him. You probably did too - remember? He was that kid whose parents got divorced when he was young (and thin) and to make up for what must have been the crushing guilt of parenting Larry in absentia, his father bought him things. Lotsa things. Shiny things of a kind most of us would have given our own fathers for if that didn't mean having to deal with our mothers directly and exclusively for the rest of our days without a buffer. That dog, as you know, simply won't hunt.

Continuing. Because of poor Larry's broken life, he overate. Because he overate, he was heavy. And because he was heavy, he was less than socially prized. Lying a lot and bragging about the shiny things that were rained down upon him probably didn't help matters either. Now you remember him? Anyway, while Larry was busy making his future therapist wealthier -- himself probably a parachute-pant clad, disgruntled 'autonomy vs. shame' doubter and long time paper-route sufferer from a nearby mall town -- I was busying myself with becoming perhaps the first genuine metrosexual in my admittedly small, temple-based, Hebrew-school-centric district. The Fab Five of Queer Eye fame were probably just then taking their first tentative spins around their respective front yards wearing mommy's pretty things and yipping it up on their plastic, battery-driven Fisher-Price SUVs, still ATVs then.

Already well-groomed, into theater and given to using words like 'lovely', it was at this time that I began, of all things, to listen to opera. And if I had a damn dollar for every one of my parents' friends or my relatives who came to the house, heard my opera and asked if that was Richard Tucker - well, Solomon Kelman (Sol to you and me; well, grandpa to me, anyway - Sol to you) was a man in love with show tunes. Perhaps he was the original metrosexual? Well, he also loved his cranberry Members Only spring jacket, a popular label in the 80s though he thought it a mite fancy for daily wear, says my mother. Oh, and he loved his grandchildren, my younger brother Seth and I. Through the years he accumulated quite the record collection; original cast recordings of Carousel, Camelot, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story and every other one -- popular and not -- you can rattle off.

A stoic man, reserved in his praise though quite warm and affable really, he hummed quite a bit. Apparently he used to put my mom to sleep by humming/singing the "my little girl" portion of Billy Barker's "Soliloquy" from Carousel. Hey, at least he was a shop teacher and that no doubt afforded him some street cred. As an aside, apparently someone left the ol' gene pool gate ajar at my house one night because chromosomal mutation 1p29q -- that mutation commonly seen in mid-west gentiles (and my grandfather) that codes for the ability to take a block of wood and plane it down into a graceful Dutch door -- has been MIA since I can remember. And though we always had an ungodly amount of tools in our garage, my father as often as not called his friend Norman over and plied him with coffee and cake whenever some hocknick needed to be clocknicked. No one in my neighborhood could refuse after a Danish. It was sick and low but the things in our house always worked beautifully. Norman used our tools, naturally - someone had to.

The story goes that my grandfather Sol was in some now defunct New York record establishment looking for his fifth copy of Carousel when he hears this to him unearthly beautiful melody. Well, my grandfather forgot all about our boy Bill and his musings on the product of a pregnancy right quick - he had to have that record. He hadn't a clue as to the singer/story/provenance or meaning but it struck him deeply and he just knew. He later learned, and so did I, that it was "E lucevan le stelle", Cavaradossi's death lament from Puccini's Tosca performed by the silver-toned Jussi Bjorling.

From that momentous moment onward, his show tune purchases were supplanted by a steady supply of opera purchases - La Juive, La Boheme, La Traviata, La Donna Del Lago and so forth. His hummings changed too and became, needless to say, much more Italianate - italicized with occasional open-throated though quiet vocalizations. The basement in my old Long Island home still bears the brunt of his record collecting; several milk crates worth. Billy Barker and Maria Callas fight for elbowroom in the abyss beneath the ping-pong table. And there's me without a turntable. No, I'm not currently fielding offers. And yes, I've rifled it for shaded dogs. Multiple times.

Well, one day grandpa Sol was visiting and he said he had something he'd like me to listen to - a tape of his favorite singer. I remember we were in the den and my dad's Teac had lots o' buttons and a wonderfully rhythmically responsive multicolored meter. I ejected The Nylon Curtain and lay it aside. I put in grandpa's tape, found play and pressed it. The multicolored meter danced and the rest, as they say, is history. This was my first experience with the inimitable power and beauty of a legendary tenor in full cry and it was gorgeous. Perfect. I was drawn in and listened with him for 45 minutes or so while everyone else flitted about the home and chatted. This was Jussi Bjorling's voice, my grandfather's lifelong favorite and the one that had cast such a powerful spell over him that day at the record store in the show tune section. This time there were no breaks in the strands. I had all the appropriate genes and I was hooked. The tape hit the stops and auto reverse kicked in. Side B. Yep - Carousel.

Jussi Bjorling

As fate would have it, Fat Larry showed up a few days later on a shiny new 10-speed and we got to talking about the past month's worth of shiny things he'd gotten. One was the 10-speed he so precariously perched atop on my father's freshly blacktopped driveway and the other was a big black pair of... speakers. "You have to hear 'em! I mean, they're not as good as this kid's Klipsches up at boarding school (more isolation - pity) but they're amazing - way better than your dad's!"

I stood for a moment eyeing him teetering there on his ten-speed. Larry was not known for his veracity or, for that matter, his balance. "What the hell is a Klishp?" I challenged. "A Klipsch," Larry corrected me, "is German for 'speaker' - they're from Germany and they are the best." I felt like an idiot. Maybe he knew something after all. (Turns out they're from Arkansas, which is where I currently reside of all places. Fate? Dum dum dumdee dummmm.) I can tell you that not until that moment had I ever in my life given a thought to a 'speaker' per se other than as a place upon which to balance a houseplant - which is, I believe, precisely what we did with them in my house; at least with the ones in the den. Also, the two cats enjoyed what I now know to be grille cloths immensely.

Even better, I seem to recall us having a walnut-veneered pair of 2-foot high mini-coffee-table-70s-looking-things in our living room cleverly disguised as actual plant pots to which my dad referred infrequently as 'speakers'. I seem also to recall them functioning as such equally infrequently, causing my dad, in fixer-upper mode, to futz about with their wiring when he probably should have just put up some coffee, sent my brother for danishes and called Norman. Nonetheless, I think their lack of function was useful as they did sterling service for years in precisely the capacity to which they no doubt should have been born and the form they most nearly resembled - plant pots.

"There's no difference" I said, challenging Larry on his latest fish story, "and if there is - well, you can't hear it." This bickering went on for a bit until he bade me mount my considerably cheaper 10-speed and come by his house to prove such differences existed and that they could and should matter to the likes of me. His mom was out. Latchkey kids all of us to a man. I remember them as huge. There they sat in his circa 10 x 10 foot bedroom, all 4 and a half feet of them and they were like 3 feet wide to boot. I laughed. "What the hell? Larry - you're crazy. Whadya need with those monstrosities?" (I almost said behemoths in its modified form of belemuths that would later be applied by my father to all speakers I subsequently brought home larger than his plant pots).

"Help me drag my mom's Fisher upstairs!" "Your mom's what?" I always stayed out of those drawers. We each grabbed a handful of Fisher and with the aid of a spool of lamp cord, quickly leashed the 'Fisher' to the monstrosities. What followed were a few hours of Billy Joel, Lionel Richie and Men at Work at volumes great and small. We capped the session at my behest with -- that's right --Jussi Bjorling whom I had neatly stashed in my coat as we left. Larry hated it by the way. I on the other hand most certainly did not and pained me though it did to admit it, he was right. There most certainly was a difference and it was a clearly audible one. Immediately I began scheming as to how I could make my parents get a divorce. I had found my gig or at long least my lifetime avocation: HiFi.

Once back at the ranch (style home), I recounted my experiences to my father and begged for monstrosities of my own but no dice - the plant pots stayed. Eventually the accursed paper route was good enough to me that I was able to afford the luxury of ownership. I bought the monstrosities. Larry's monstrosities. Larry had moved on to another shiny thing and dropped those beautiful EPIs with the horn tweeters like a bad habit. I got 'em for a great price, one he just made up and that sounded good to me.

Foresight was not my strong suit and it took like four of us on 10-speeds to 10-speed those belemuths into my parent's den. I think we dragged them partway. The M.A.F. (mother acceptance factor) was vanishingly small and my friends and I encountered no small amount of protestation from that woman at the door. It was the perfect storm but we weathered it nicely. I mean, a deal was a deal and I had paid for them in paper-route blood money and that was that. Then she found out my father went halfsies with me and turned on him. I guess he was sick of futzing with the broken plants.