Lidz weaves a tale of family, life on fringes

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 19, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Uncle Arthur had the greatest collection of shoelaces abandoned by the rest of the world. Uncle Harry imagined he was boxing champ of nine different divisions.

Uncle Danny was a paranoid of such magnitude he thought Mickey Mantle was trying to aim fly balls at his head one afternoon at Yankee Stadium. Then there was Uncle Leo. He was the self-proclaimed Messiah of Washington Heights.

From such a family came Franz Lidz, who started his writing career in Baltimore when nothing else was working out and has now taken his stories and his gentle wit to Sports Illustrated, to Random House books, and to Paramount Pictures as well.

''Unstrung Heroes,'' his chronicle of family life, hits the bookstores this week. It's a tale lovingly told about his four unself-consciously eccentric uncles, but also of his mother's long dying of cancer and his father's emotional retreat in the face of it, and Lidz's childhood attempts to cope with it all.

The book came out of a couple of pieces he'd written about the uncles for Sports Illustrated, which has employed him since he left Baltimore's City Paper and Johns Hopkins Magazine a decade ago.

A literary agent named Kris Dahl called him one day and said she'd take him to lunch. She liked the stuff on the uncles and wanted to know if he had an entire book in him. He went home and typed up a couple of pages of notes.

''The next day,'' Lidz, 39, was saying yesterday, ''Dahl called me back to say we had a deal with Simon and Schuster.''

That was just the beginning. His editor, Susan Kamil, moved to Random House and took Lidz's manuscript-in-progress with her. Meanwhile, Kris Dahl figured it sounded like a movie. Paramount Pictures agreed, bought an option on the book, and paid a Hollywood script writer $00,000 to put Lidz's words into movie words.

It's not supposed to happen this easily. But then, much of Lidz's life has the ring of things that weren't supposed to happen the way they did.

In the mid-'70s, he was a senior at Antioch College, in Columbia, and simultaneously playing in a rock musical called ''Suzie Nation and the Yellow Peril.'' Lidz played a singing biker with a chain fetish.

''Nobody in the play had any idea what this thing was about,'' he recalled. ''It was incomprehensible, and survived on the energy of the actors. I'd get bored reading somebody else's lines, so I started making up my own lines every night.''

Meanwhile, he was driving a bus around Columbia when a girl from Oakland Mills High School boarded one day. Lidz liked her and paid her fare. The day after she graduated high school, he and Maggie got married and hitchhiked to their honeymoon. He says she still hasn't paid him back the bus fare.

When he finished college, Lidz sent out job resumes. Nobody was interested. When Maggie enrolled in college here, Lidz hooked on with the City Paper. They paid him $60 a week. It was 1978.

He started writing profiles on local characters: a Block manager of strippers who gave them names like Sheela the Peela and Rhonda Lay; the East Baltimore bookmaker Louis Comi; and Theodore ''Balls'' Maggio, who made a living fetching lost balls out of the Jones Falls.

Some of these characters reminded him of his own uncles, men who lived along the shoreline of legitimacy. He'd tell friends about the uncles, and everybody seemed intrigued, but he wasn't sure what to do with the stories.

In 1980, he tried for a spot with Sports Illustrated. It was a normal job interview. Lidz showed up on a hot August afternoon in a wool sports coat and black Converse hightops. The managing editor, Gil Rogin, was struggling to open a jar of orange juice.

''Here, open this and you can have the job,'' Rogin cracked. Lidz yanked it open and handed it back.

''When do I start?'' he said.

Right away, actually. At Sports Illustrated, he's written about a profusion of offbeat characters, including his Uncle Arthur, who had amassed a phenomenal collection of discarded shoelaces.

''The sports angle,'' Lidz explained, ''was that most of them were laces from running shoes.''

But he began hooking together the memories of his uncles with some of the characters he'd written about in Baltimore. Why couldn't he put his uncles into words the way he'd done with strangers?

The result is ''Unstrung Heroes,'' these four uncles who were ''smelly, screwy, astonishingly scrawny old guys who had abandoned everyday life. The world had packed them away in a back closet, like old sweaters. . . . As a boy, I happily enlisted in their conspiracy against sanity. Now, as I write about these flickering men, I realize they kept me reasonably sane.''

His own struggle is part of the book.

''That's the hardest part,'' Lidz said, ''all these years of writing profiles of other people and now writing about my own life. It's going from an observed life to an examined one. Now I understand the apprehensions other writers have. You're left naked and vulnerable, and waiting for the world to review you.''

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