No Basement in the Alamo - How Pee Wee Changed My Life

I can quote every single microscopic second of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Saying the lines from that movie is like breathing to me.

“Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of us Amazing Larry?” I say like the exasperated Pee Wee when I’m stuck in a roomful of murmuring people or a crowd.

“A scale model of the entire mall!” I may yell at the end of a grumpy tirade, just like Pee Wee does when he’s formulating a complex plan to reconstruct the theft of his beloved bike.

Aside from spoken lines, I may even give someone a nice long monster-like hiss when I’m feeling particularly cold and miserable, just the way Pee Wee does to a mugger in a dark alley. (Tim Burton, the film’s director, made his cameo appearance as the mugger. This was Burton’s first full-length feature and it was a taste of all the whimsy of plot and formalistic design yet to come.)

I didn’t grow up with this movie. It came out when I was a kid. I watched it anytime it showed up on television on some lazy Saturday afternoon. But I didn’t have the same Rain-Man-like devotion to it that I did to Temple of Doom or Aliens.


I fell in love with the movie when I was twenty years old and adrift on the sea of early adulthood.

I got kicked out of college halfway through my junior year for insufficient financial aid and found myself having to seek truly gainful, fulltime employment for the first time in my entire life. I had odd jobs before. In high school, I worked as a library assistant, both at school and our township library. The summer after I graduated, I interned at the prison where my father worked. (That’s another story for another day.) During my freshman year of college, I worked in the library reference department.

By worked, I mean I spent my eight-hour night shifts pretending to be Count Chocula on message boards for people who identified as actual vampires. They hated me. 

I knew if I moved back to my hometown, I’d wither and die of depression and lack of opportunity. As luck would have it, a friend had an out-of-state internship that started in January. She needed a subleaser for her room in the house she shared with several other girls. So, I packed up my dorm room, Star Wars posters, Xanadu and Falco records and moved into my first ever apartment.

I got a job waiting tables in the dignified American institution that is The Olive Garden. The eighty dollars I could earn slinging spaghetti on a Saturday night felt revelatory. 

Rent was only two hundred dollars a month, so I had extra. I could come and go as I pleased in my saucy red 88 Sundance. I could watch movies in my room anytime I wanted without bothering a roommate. I was free. 

Without classes, without supervision, with a job that never started before 11:00am, all I wanted to do with my free time was watch movies. Constantly. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, specifically. Repeatedly. A brilliant and highly underrated movie about a man-child on a quest to redeem his stolen bike. The VHS cover called to me, Pee Wee Herman on his shiny red bike jumping in the pure white air…he looked free. He looked how I felt. 

Pee Wee was just the kind of fairy-tale, anti-hero, comedic genius that I needed in that moment. He had fortitude and strength of conviction, even in his lowest and most depressed moments. He was halfway between childhood and adulthood. So was I.

Sure. I had a five-thousand-dollar bursar bill to pay before I could go back to school, a seemingly insurmountable sum of money to me at the time. I didn't have a clue where to get started on that and frankly? I didn't care.

Pee Wee dreamed of his lost bike. He had nightmares of dangers, dinosaurs, and devils. I was silently stressing about the fact that I didn't even want to go back to school. It didn't seem to be getting me any closer to my dream of having some kind of creative career.

I watched the movie in whole and in part, with friends and alone, over and over and over and over again. It's the movie that best represents the year I was twenty. The year I became truly independent. All the terror and wonder of becoming an adult. Its soundtrack and mythology is lodged in my brain…in my heart. I think I love it the way some people think of nannies or kindly old aunts.

It only took a year to pay my way back into school, finish my undergraduate degree, and discover creative writing. But still...that's a lot of pasta, both served and eaten. 

Pee Wee found his bike and I found my life.