In the early 1980s, when I was 19, I lived in New York City on the Upper East Side. Like so many people who make their living in this business, at one time I had a job in a comic book store. The name was Action Comics and it was on Second Avenue between 84th and 85th streets. It was a fairly new business and I was the only employee aside from Stephen, the owner. I had already started dealing a bit in original art and one of the perks of working at the shop was being able to display and sell art.
One day a teenager walks in, maybe 13 or 14, and we start talking about comic art. He was a smart kid, I sort of remember him being better dressed than the usual comic fans. He had come in before and liked some of the art that was hanging in the poster rack and now wanted to buy some. He picked out a page or two and paid with $50 bills. It didn’t strike me as odd because this was an affluent neighborhood and it wasn’t out of the norm for kids to have that kind of cash, usually from birthdays or bar Mitzvahs. Over the next couple of weeks he came in a few times and bought more art.
A couple of days after the kid’s last purchase I was in the shop and the phone rang. A woman’s voice that seemed vaguely familiar came over the line and asked to speak with Scott. I told her I was Scott and she said, “Hi, Scott, this is Shelley Winters.” I recognized the voice as soon as she said her name. It was a surreal moment, I had never talked to an Academy Award winning actress before, let alone have one call me. I said hello Ms. Winters and asked what I could do for her. She asked me if her godson had been coming in to the store to buy art and paying with $50 bills. I said, “Why yes, he has been.” Sounding relieved, she said “Oh good. He’s been stealing that money from me but I was afraid he was buying drugs.” We talked for a few more minutes, about her godson. He was a good kid, she said, but he needed a friend. She asked me if I could take him to a baseball game sometime, do something with him. I politely declined; he seemed like a nice boy but I was 19 and had a girlfriend and didn’t want to hang out with a kid.
I never heard from Shelley Winters or her godson again. Their story became one of a number of anecdotes I would tell to friends from time to time. But these things have a limited shelf life; new stories gradually made their way to the front of my mind and I told this one less and less. Eventually it fell out of the rotation entirely. I didn’t give Shelley Winters and her godson much thought at all for a very long time, until I saw this blog by Dean Haspiel.
As I read about the death of Dean’s godmother I put two and two together; he was the boy who bought the art from me all those years ago. I felt sad for his loss but couldn’t help but be amused by the revelation. I told my pal Heidi MacDonald about it and we shared a laugh. It wasn’t the kind of story I would widely spread, it didn’t exactly cast Dean in the best light, but it was okay between a couple of discreet friends.
Fast forward to a couple of months ago. Heidi and I were once again talking, I was filling her in on my soon-to-be-launched blog. Immediately she said I should run the Dean Haspiel/Shelley Winters story. I wasn’t so sure. I had already decided not to recount anything that would hurt someone’s feelings or damage a reputation; I felt this fell into both categories. Heidi told me that Dean had a good sense of humor and he would find it funny. Since a fair amount of time had passed since his godmother’s death, I decided it couldn’t hurt to give him a ring.
I called Dean and we had a brief chat, got reacquainted. Dean and I don’t know each other very well but we had spoken a couple of years ago about a project at WS. While the book didn’t work out we parted on good terms. Then I dove in and told him about my blog--and that one of the stories I was toying with writing involved him. Understandably, he was surprised; as I said, we don’t have a lot of history together. I tentatively asked Dean if he remembered that we had met before, many years ago in New York. He did not. I asked if he remembered Action Comics. He vaguely did. I asked if he remembered buying some comic art there when he was a kid. He thought about it and said he never had. He said it in such a way that it left little room for doubt. Now I was perplexed; it’s one thing to not recall something, it’s another to be sure you didn’t do it. I laid all my cards on the table. None of it sounded familiar to him…until I got to the part about Shelly Winters and her godson. That triggered a realization; Dean hadn’t been that young boy who so worried his godmother--it was his brother, Mike.
Dean told me about Mike, how he had been stricken with Juvenile Diabetes at a young age and had experimented with a variety of drugs. Hence the phone-call from Ms. Winters; She really was relieved to hear he had bought art with the money instead of drugs. I asked how his brother was doing. Dean told me he had passed away a couple of years ago from complications of his condition, with his history of drug abuse being a contributing factor.
I told Dean I was sorry if this brought back any painful memories but he said it was okay. He had never heard the story before and he said it made his brother come alive for him again, if only for an instant; he was grateful for that. Then Dean asked if I would run the story in my blog. I told him I didn’t think so, that before it was just some goofy little story with a happy ending. Now it was something else entirely. Dean said he’d be okay with me writing it up if I wanted to. We left it at me seeing if I could manage to do it in a way I thought was appropriate. I had my doubts.
Last week I got an e-mail from Dean. He told me he had been reading my blog and liked it. Then he asked if I planned on running the anecdote or if it was canned. I thought about it a bit and wrote back saying I would give it a shot; if I was happy with the results I would send it to him. He replied, “Yeah, take a crack at it and see what you can come up with. No need to play it too safe…Just be kind and fair.”
So I started writing. I don’t know how happy I am with the way this has turned out but, if Dean agrees, I will post it. I can’t help feeling guilty. I know that probably sounds odd, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had just taken Mike out to Yankee Stadium on the #4 train and watched a couple of games.
Mike and Dean Haspiel, circa early 1970s
The last photo of the Haspiel Brothers