Odds are, these guys are real characters

September 21, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

During his stint as a feature writer for City Paper in the late 1970s, Franz Lidz wrote about Baltimoreans who would never have fit in at a Chamber of Commerce meeting.

There was Balls Maggio, who collected lost balls fished from the Jones Falls; Mr. Diz, Baltimore's unofficial greeter and emcee for Polock Johnny's annual sausage-eating contest; Larry Sanders, who owned a club on The Block and enjoyed naming strippers; Louis Comi, an organized crime figure from East Baltimore who would trail after his five Dobermans with a mop, cleaning up as they urinated on his pool hall floor.

He wrote about these men as if they were family. In fact, it felt like they were. Baltimore was simply the Lidz family writ large.

"What I liked most about Baltimore were all these characters," says Mr. Lidz, who grew up with a father and four uncles for whom eccentric is too mild a word.

His childhood in Long Island -- a lesson in the value of a life lived decidedly off-center -- is chronicled in his first book, "Unstrung Heroes," which has been made into a movie opening here tomorrow.

These days Mr. Lidz, 43, is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He lives on a southeastern Pennsylvania hillside he shares with his wife, Maggie, two daughters -- GoGo and Daisy Daisy (D.D.) -- named for the protagonists in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," three llamas, a handful of guinea hens and about a dozen chickens of various breeds, all named for cheeses cited in a Monty Python sketch.

Advance word on the movie version of "Unstrung Heroes" has been fairly glowing, with the Orlando Sentinel's reviewer saying he couldn't imagine seeing anything better this year. It's the story of a young boy growing up on Long Island, forced to deal with his mother's death, but able to retreat into the fantasy world inhabited by his two kooky uncles in Brooklyn.

Mr. Lidz does not embrace the movie as warmly -- although contractually prohibited from speaking badly of it, he says the book and the movie "don't bear too much resemblance" -- but he can't argue with one of its central premises: that the Lidz men were an oddball bunch.

His father, Sidney Lidz, was a designer and inventor who concocted a machine that let out an ear-piercing alarm whenever his son wet the bed.

Danny Lidz was convinced Mickey Mantle tried to kill him with foul balls. Arthur Lidz has spent the better part of his life hoarding shoelaces and old newspapers. Harry Lidz insists he is a world champion boxer in nine divisions -- even though he's never thrown a professional punch in his life. Leo Lidz, who spent better than half his life in a New York asylum, may have been speaking for all his siblings when he once told his young nephew, "I'm not all I'm cracked up to be."

"They were just like little kids and they could get away with stuff," says Mr. Lidz, whose sharp-edged profile and receding hairline call to mind his uncles. "I always saw them as playmates in a way, but very old playmates. My father just saw them as mischievous children. Everyone else saw them as just nuts."

Mr. Lidz seems to have taken them on as role models in the sense of his preference for a life lived decidely off-center.

Not that such a predilection for the unusual hasn't cost him. Several times, Mr. Lidz tried to gain a foothold in the world of traditional journalism.

Asked to send clippings and his resume to an editor at The Evening Sun, he sent an envelope full of hair instead of stories he had written. A job offer wasn't forthcoming.

He took a job as an associate editor of Johns Hopkins University's alumni magazine after realizing he and his wife could not live on the $60 a week he was making at City Paper. But his year-long stint at the magazine ended abruptly in 1980 when he wrote a profile of Hopkins alumnus P. J. O'Rourke, then editor of the National Lampoon, that featured "language not normally seen in a Hopkins magazine." Mr. Lidz quit, he says, before his boss had a chance to fire him.

But it's amazing how things turn out. Within months, he landed a job as a researcher at SI. His interview, he says, consisted of an editor telling him he could have the job if he could get the cap off a bottle of orange juice. He did.

Since then, he has mined much the same vein at SI that he uncovered in Baltimore, with stories about 600-pound sumo wrestlers, athletes addicted to soap operas, the world lawn mower racing championships.

His next project: a story about Shaquille O'Neal's latest movie, in which the basketball star plays a rapping genie.

Right now, he's basking in the glow of "Unstrung Heroes." As are Uncles Harry and Arthur, the only two of the Lidz brothers still living.

Last week, Mr. Lidz and his two uncles attended the film's premiere in New York City. Arthur, 80, who has trouble hearing, kept asking his nephew who all those characters were on screen.

Except for one. He recognized the guy who collected stuff.

Under the watchful eyes of his three llamas, Mr. Lidz smiles. He understands the old man. After all, he's a Lidz, too. He comes by his world view honestly.

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