Column: Watching the Academy Awards From Room 921 By Susan Parker

Tuesday March 07, 2006

This year I watch the 78th Academy Awards from the ninth floor, east wing of Oakland’s Kaiser Permanente Hospital. I sit in an ergonomically incorrect chair and crane my neck upward toward a small TV hanging from the ceiling. 

In a hospital bed beside me, my husband Ralph goes in and out of consciousness, an infection coursing through his body, multiple IVs attached to various parts of his body. 

I try to distract myself from the immediate situation by thinking about other things, such as the last time I watched the Academy Awards. It had been in 2003 with my 81-year-old friend Leroy Liggons. 

Leroy told me he hadn’t been to a movie theater in 20 years. The last film he’d seen on the big screen was E.T. Before that it had been 16 years since he’d been inside a theater. He’d seen James Dean in Giant. 

“One helluva good movie,” Leroy reported. 

But going to the movies twice in 36 years didn’t stop Leroy from having an opinion on everything that was happening at the 75th Academy Awards. He gave me a running commentary on who was who and what was what. 

“I don’t need to go to the movies,” said Leroy. “I can find out everything I need to know on TV.” 

He mentioned that he used to drink with Whoopi Goldberg at Nick’s Bar down on 63rd and Adeline in Berkeley. Leroy said that if you thought Whoopi ugly now, you shoulda seen her then. 

“Back in the day,” said Leroy, “Whoopi was you-glee. You know what that means?” 

Before I could make a guess, Leroy answered his own question. 

“That means uglier than ugly. But that Halle Berry, now she is some kinda good lookin’ woman.” 

Leroy sat real close to the TV screen and squinted. Despite his cataracts, he showed an extraordinary interest in what was under Halle’s dress. 

Leroy said that in 1957 he’d tried out for a part in Porgy and Bess. In 1937, while growing up in Omaha, he’d followed Barbara Stanwyck around during the filming of Union Pacific. 

“Barbara had pockmarks all over her face,” said Leroy. “I couldn’t understand how she could be a movie star. But you know, when she showed up on the screen, those holes were all filled in. They can do anything in Hollywood. Make a blind man see. Make a movie star outta Whoopi. Hell, they could even make a guy like me look good, if they’d only given it a try.” 

Leroy paused for a moment and then asked, “How much does it cost to go to the movies these days?” 

“Between eight and 11 dollars,” I answered. “Plus $5 for popcorn and another three for a soda. But you could get in for a little cheaper since you’re a senior citizen.” 

“Damn,” said Leroy. He spread out the fingers of his left hand and counted off the digits one by one. “Twenty dollars for dinner, 10 dollars for drinks, another 16 for the movie and 30 bucks for a motel room.” 

He threw both hands in the air and then brought them down hard, slapping his thighs. “You can’t hardly afford to go out no more, can you?” 

I stared at my octogenarian friend. It hadn’t occurred to me that Leroy could get a date, let alone persuade someone of the opposite sex to go with him to a movie and then to a motel room. 

“I guess I got better things to do with my time,” Leroy continued. “But you know, I wouldn’t mind seeing E.T. again. It came back around last year, did you know that? Ain’t that the damnedest thing? You live long enough and everything comes around again. Hell, I betcha Whoopi’ll be back at Nick’s one of these days. And when she shows up, we’ll all be glad to see her. She’ll be a damn sight easier on the eyes this time, that’s for sure. And who knows, maybe she’ll bring along Halle. Now that would be worth sticking around for.” 

A nurse comes into room 921, distracting me from the current Academy Awards ceremony and my thoughts of Leroy. He didn’t have a chance to stick around for Whoopi or Halle. By the end of April 2003 he was dead from years of cigarette smoke and hard living. 

I look over at my husband, see his pained expression, hear his labored breath. I turn my thoughts to Hollywood, to Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney and the rest of them. Then I click off the television and pay attention to the here and now. Like Leroy, I’ve got better things to do with my time.