I was nearing graduation at Farmingdale State College in 2011 with a degree in professional communications, but no job prospects. A friend, Evan, suggested that I volunteer as a tutor at SeniorNet in Huntington, a nonprofit organization that teaches computer skills to people 50 and older.
This intrigued me. I grew up in a family full of elder relatives. My grandmother lived near us in Commack, and various great-aunts and uncles lived close by. And I was accustomed to teaching my family how to use technology, from the remote control to eBay. In return, they passed along their love of classic movies and music.
At SeniorNet, I’d show a man how to print a photo of Dean Martin or a woman how to find Johnny Carson clips at YouTube. Many were surprised by my knowledge of these entertainment icons, and our generational differences faded.
One day, Evan asked me to fill in for him on lessons he was giving to a woman in Huntington Station. “It pays $25 an hour,” he said.
I instantly agreed.
When I arrived at Irene P. Eckert’s house, she greeted me with an excited hug. She explained she needed help compiling material on the film “Citizen Kane,” which she would present at a local library. She had decided to commit her retirement years to her true passion — screening and discussing classic films.
As we sifted through black-and-white photos and video clips, she told me I was too young to know about “Citizen Kane.”
“It was highly innovative for its time,” she said.
“You mean in 1941?” I said. “It’s one of the greatest films of all time! Great use of mise en scène.” (It’s a technique for the arrangement of a scene.)
Irene was taken aback. “How the hell did you know that, kid?” she asked.
From that point, our computer lessons transitioned into conversations about classic films over coffee and cake. Movies formed the foundation of our friendship. She taught me how films were commentaries on society and reflections of life. During those talks at her kitchen table, I learned about Irene’s own life as a maverick. She came to America from Italy at around age 5 in the 1930s depression and didn’t speak English. At 18 in the Bronx, she had no desire to become a housewife. Instead, she enrolled at Hunter College. Her mother was distraught. However, Irene worked at department stores and paid her own way through school behind her mother’s back.
She eventually did marry and have three kids, but later divorced her husband.
She taught history and other subjects at Northport High School for 36 years. A school desk plate on her shelf said “Hurricane Eckert.” I asked why people called her that.
“Because I was always running late to class down the friggin’ hallway like a hurricane!” she said.
Irene invited me to help her with screenings across Long Island. With audiences, she’d always ask, “How do you feel about this film?” I had never heard anyone ask that about movies before. Film historians I’d encountered just spewed facts in a professorial manner. Irene’s passion was contagious.
In 2015, I became director of publicity and promotions at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. In my new position, I wanted to repay Irene for her friendship and guidance. Today, she has her own regular series on Italian cinema at our theater, and it’s quite popular.
She visits me at work every week. In the cafe, we discuss classic movies over coffee and cake. Passers-by look at us and smile. I like to think we’re shrinking the generation gap.
Reader Raj Tawney lives in Port Washington.