When you think of a new bridge opening, or a subway debut, or a highway inauguration, you think of Omero Catan. Or is it Michael Katen? For these two brothers, it's no joke. For them it's

The Importance of Being First

You could imagine Hollywood making a movie about Omero Catan and Michael Katen, the two brothers with different last names but a shared passion for being first in line at the openings of new bridges, or riding on new subway lines, or skating on new ice rinks, or landing at new airports. Casting would be a breeze.

Let's see. Omero Catan. He's older now, with bugging eyes and an expanding midsection, but in his day he was quite a smoothie: thin, elegantly dressed, a suave mustache, and thick black hair often covered by a fedora. Right away you've got to be thinking Tom Hanks.

And as the older brother, Michael Katen? He's a little shorter, a little more muscular. Still good looking, but obviously a second banana. You'd need someone powerful and attractive, but not leading-man material. Maybe Ray Liotta. Or better yet Chazz Palminteri, that guy who got an Oscar nomination for Bullets Over Broadway. Yeah, if he's not too busy, get him.

You can see something light, something quirky. Open with Omero struggling to be the first to cross the Verrazano-Narrows bridge at its grand opening. A snappy montage would convey his zeal to pay the first toll, just as he has at so many openings before this. Then you'd see how, with his brother's cunning assistance, Omero narrowly edges out his competitors and is first through the booth. Cut to spinning newspapers that scream out the next day's headlines: "Mr. First Does It Again!"

Add the background about how Omero became Mr. First, throw in a love interest (Bridget Fonda would be perfect as Omero's wife), and top it off with the emotional scene in which Michael pinch-hits for his brother and opens the Lincoln Tunnel by himself while Omero selflessly serves in England during World War II. You've got a winner!

Maybe tack on an epilogue about the two of them living in their current homes, in Fort Lauderdale and Margate, at their current ages of 80 and 82. Have them recalling the glory days, sharing a soda pop and cracking jokes. It'll drive home that this is a true story, not the stuff of Tinseltown fiction. Siskel and Ebert will give it two thumbs up. Way up.

Too bad the movie can't be made.
Despite a hot Hollywood studio's offer of $50,000 for the rights to the brothers' life stories, it's not going to happen. Omero nixed it. He's holding on to a contract he signed with an obscure Wisconsin filmmaker for a mere $1000. Omero's decision to shun Hollywood, says his angry brother Michael, was a deliberate move to hog the spotlight. Counters Omero: There is only one Mr. First, and that means there will be only one person's story told or no story at all. Period.

A buddy movie couldn't have been made about these guys, anyway. Omero and Michael have talked only three times in the past fourteen years, even though they live just twenty minutes from each other. Michael says he wants to be friends but that Omero won't let him. Omero, on the other hand, thinks Michael has been trying to steal the Mr. First crown by being the first passenger on Miami's Metrorail and by having attended February's 50th anniversary of the opening of New York's Lincoln Tunnel. The flames of sibling rivalry were fanned by a recent New York Times article that treated them as equals -- the two brothers who've been first to open everything. That's the same Times article which attracted the attention of Hollywood filmmakers and the blistering scorn of Omero. "There's only one Mr. First!" he shouts from his mobile home in the Park City retirement village. "And that's me. I'm Mr. First!"

Omero spends most of his days in his baby-blue trailer home on the far west fringe of Fort Lauderdale. He hasn't been able to get out much since his wife broke her hip a few years ago, and he has his own heart problems to worry about. So the two spend a lot of time at home, rising before dawn to read the papers and to play with their distrustful alley cat, Kismet. Omero smokes fat foreign cigars and watches like a hawk as a repairman climbs a ladder to fix a leak in the trailer's tin roof. Mention the name Michael Katen and Omero's moist brown eyes bug out even more. "What it is, he's got a hold of something he wants," Omero says of his brother's connection to the Mr. First title. "Maybe he feels he can make money on it now. But he forgot how everything got started in the beginning."

The beginning was 1928. Brooklyn-born Omero was hanging out with his seven brothers and sisters at the Greenwich, Connecticut, home they moved to when their widowed mother remarried. (Katen is the family name. Omero changed to Catan when he was young. He won't say why.) An old family friend named William Goebel stopped by and was bragging about how exciting it was to be one of the first people to cross the Brooklyn Bridge after its grand opening in 1883. The boasting fired up Omero, a driven individual who grew to become a champion checkers player, who would collect more than 200 four-leaf clovers, and who one day would be inducted into the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame (see sidebar). Omero Catan is a doer. William Goebel gave him something to do.

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