“It should’ve been Chris. He wanted to sleep in a cell. Besides, he’s more antisocial than me.” —Reuben Kincaid
THERE’S A CABLE channel showing Partridge Family reruns. Between ads for incontinence products and life insurance, the tale of the widow Shirley Partridge, her five kids, and their musical career plays out to a horribly canned laugh track. I am pulled back through the years, trying to remember what I was like when the show first went on the air, September 25, 1970—a mere twenty days after my eighth birthday.
Part of a Friday-night ABC lineup that included Nanny & the Professor and The Brady Bunch, the Partridge Family quickly became my favorite show. I’d sneak down to the basement with something to eat and a drink, hoping my actual family wouldn’t join me so I could pretend I was a groovy sun-dappled Partridge in this mythical land of California. It wasn’t hard to imagine: the youngest Partridge was around my age and named Chris: “Wow! That’s my name!”
Played by young Jeremy Gelbwaks, who looked like a chimpanzee, Chris could always be counted on for some off-kilter remark. But Jeremy Gelbwaks was not the breakout star of The Partridge Family. That would be Danny Bonaduce, a man we’re still dealing with to this day. I wanted to be Danny because he was a smart-ass and always got off a good line and I wanted to be a Partridge because—unlike the antiseptic Brady Bunch—they’d snipe at each other, they were sarcastic, they’d argue and fight. Then they’d all burst into a catchy song written by Wes Farrel and some of our finest pop songwriters of the 70s, like Gerry Goffin, Bobby Hart, Tony Romeo, Paul Anka, and even Mike Appel.
The eight-year-old me heard I Think I Love You and thought “That’s a catchy number!” That’s how you can tell if it’s a catchy song. If eight-year-olds like it. I didn’t know how phony it all was. I thought David Partridge wrote all those songs and his family performed them. I watch it now and think “How could I have been so naïve?” First, they’re not really a family. Well, Shirley Jones is David Cassidy’s stepmom, but that’s it. They’re not singing. Except for Shirley Jones and David Cassidy. That’s it. They’re not playing. Except for David Cassidy. It’s not The Cowsills. A bunch of studio musicians nicknamed The Wrecking Crew provide the music. It’s phony baloney Hollywood time. But as I sat there in my darkened basement, peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one grubby little fist and twelve ounces of Nestle’s Quik in the other, I’d think, “That’s what I want. I want to go out across the country in a bus with my family and play at these weird little nightclubs where everyone sits at long tables. I want us to be a family that fights and argues but still loves each other.”
When the Partridge Family went on the air, the end was just beginning for my family. My parents fought constantly. My father was usually not home. My brothers and sisters and I were always at each other’s throats. And the only musical instrument in our house was a Harmony guitar my sister’s friend Rodney left behind, which replaced the baby grand piano we had around since before I was born. Just as the Partridge Family replaced the original Chris with another.
When the show returned to the schedule in 1971 there was a different Chris behind the drums, played by a non-simian looking kid named Brian Forster. Perhaps they took Jeremy Gelbwaks aside and said, “You look like a chimpanzee and we’re getting rid of you.” No. That’s not what happened. It turns out Dad Gelbwaks took a job on the East Coast and moved the whole family there. According to Partridge Family creator Bernard Slade, ABC received “not a single complaint about the switch.” Apparently, no one noticed. But I did. I continued watching the show but I found it impossible to see “Other Chris” without thinking, “Wow. You can be replaced. Just like that.” And then it happened to me.
The Partridge Family had been gone for three years. I’d taken up guitar when the show went off the air in 1974 and two years later was playing rock and roll covers in a band I dubbed Cobra, formed by my friend Billy and me. From Steve Miller to the Rolling Stones to Bad Company, we mastered the mid-tempo rocker. On my white Ibanez Les Paul copy, through my Univox amp, I put out quite a racket, playing rhythm and lead. It was the only thing I felt proud of. Pride goeth before a fall. Cue Chris Anderson. The Other Chris.
My brother Marc brought him in. I’m not sure how they met. It couldn’t have been school. Chris Anderson was a dropout. My brother was headed that way but he was still in school. Maybe they met at a party on Gilgo Beach? They were both into boats, as were most of the people I knew growing up on the south shore of Long Island. The Great South Bay was a few blocks from us but I had little to no interest in anything involving water. You can drown there.
My brother and Other Chris probably started talking about props or bilge pumps or cavitation plates and before long they’re hanging out, drinking beer and talking about girls. Then the party moves to our house, where Chris Anderson can be found every day. I dimly recall something about his parents throwing him out. I think he was smoking pot. And drinking. Marc somehow convinced my mother to let him move in to the storage shed my father built in our backyard. When I say “shed,” please don’t picture one of those tiny prefab structures for sale at the Home Depot. This was a two-story wood-frame building with a foundation. It had no heat or running water but my father did wire it up with electricity. Downstairs held the lawnmower and all the other implements needed to maintain a suburban home. Upstairs was a big empty room that had been carpeted and paneled. I’m not sure what it was intended for but once my parents got divorced and my father moved out, my oldest sister Diana moved in with her boyfriend Keith. They lived there for a few years, then got an apartment in town. Then Marc took it over. My mother had gotten a job but she made a few extra bucks charging her children rent to live at home: “If you’re eighteen you can pay rent or you can leave!”
She did the same with Chris Anderson, though I have no idea if he was eighteen. He looked thirty-five. Tall, sinewy, very tan, with a bulbous nose, pageboy haircut, and bad acne scars, he looked like the love child of Karl Malden and Mowgli from the Jungle Book. And like Mowgli, he went shirtless most of the time, which was a reproach to the overweight me.
The worst part of having Other Chris around, of course, was that I lost exclusive rights to my very own name. From the moment he moved in, whenever anyone else would say “Chris” I’d have to ask “Which one?” In my own house, with my own family. My mother would call “Chris!” and my response wasn’t “what?” it was “which one?” Only to hear “Not you. Other Chris.”
My mother and Other Chris became fast friends. She’d come home from work and he’d mix her up a screwdriver or vodka tonic and bring it to her in the living room. I’m sure he was mixing one up for himself, too. He seemed to be drunk more nights than not. They’d joke and laugh and I’d wonder to myself “Does she actually prefer this guy to me?”
I don’t know where Other Chris came from but his people must’ve hunted their food because he was always killing something. He’d go fishing and come back with half a dozen or more flounder. From our back window he’d fire his Benjamin air rifle into the trees by the barn and out would drop a pigeon. I found one once in our freezer wrapped in aluminum foil. I don’t know what I thought I was looking for in the freezer but I found squab. The next day Chris Anderson cleaned the bird, dressed it, and fried the meat in a pan. There wasn’t much meat.
“Fuck you, you whale.”
“Who said you could speak to me like that?”
“Why, what are you going to do about it? Whale.” I looked to my brother Marc. He walked away. Other Chris stood there and asked, “Now what?” Now what indeed.
I didn’t know how it came to this. I didn’t know how it happened that I was about to fight Other Chris. But it seemed I had to. I couldn’t back down now.
Why did we hate each other so much? It started out okay. He’d stay out in the barn, only come in to use the bathroom or the kitchen. But then he would hang out in the basement. Which is where I’d taken to sleeping. And satisfying certain urges. You know which urges. Like the ones I felt when I’d see Shirley Jones’s cleavage. Chris Anderson was thwarting my urges and their satisfaction. And my mother clearly favored him. She was always laughing when she spoke with him. Me, not so much.
The last straw was the name-calling. Whale. Fat boy. Blimp. And so many more.
The Other Chris and I stood at the back door, which led to the back yard, which is where we were to fight. He motioned for me to go through the door first, which is what I did. He hurried out after me, shoving me down the back steps. I stumbled, he grabbed my coat, and tugged it down, pinning my arms to my sides. Then Other Chris proceeded to pummel me. I fell down in the yard. He kicked me several times and left me there struggling to get the coat off.
When I finally pulled myself back inside, Other Chris was gone and my mother had left her bedroom and the tractor-beam glow of her Sony Trinitron to stomp into the kitchen and yell, “What the hell just happened?”
“Chris Anderson beat me up.”
“What did you do to provoke him?”
“What did I do to provoke him?”
“Why would he want to beat you up?”
“Because he’s an asshole!”
Things were different after that. I made sure I was out of the house as often as possible. I avoided Other Chris. Occasionally, our paths would cross and it’d be oddly cordial and deeply unpleasant. Before much longer he was gone.
The subject of Other Chris came up a few years ago at Thanksgiving. I don’t know who brought up his name. It might’ve been me. My sister said, “I saw him wandering the streets of Lindenhurst years ago. He did not look good.”
“He’s an alcoholic,” my brother said.
I told the story about him shooting the pigeon and putting it in the freezer. My mother laughed and said “He was always a pleasure to have around.” Shocked, I said, “Do you know that I felt replaced by him? Do you remember he beat the crap out of me?” My mother stopped laughing and quietly said, “I was drinking back then.”
I don’t know if Other Chris is alive or dead. I do know that if it ever looks like I’m going to be in a fight, I’ll invite my foe to step outside before me, kick him down the steps, and pull his jacket down so he can’t move his arms. Then I’ll proceed to pummel him senseless.