News of “hairy crazy ant” swarms in the hundreds of millions led me to wonder if at any point in my life I have had a hairy, crazy aunt (no), or hairy, crazy uncle (no), or even a crazy uncle named Harry (I don’t think so). However, this got me to thinking about a sort of “black box theater” play someone should write. It’s about Harry, a Midwestern folksy guy in his late sixties, who loses his wife of 35 years and decides to pick up and move to New York. He arrives unannounced at the upper east side doorstep of his nephew, his only known relative, who hears the doorbell and spies the uncle from the window of his studio loft, where he’s banging some chick making passionate love to his fiancé.
The nephew can’t make out who the hell is down there ringing the buzzer, but he can see it’s a guy in a fedora, so clearly it’s not something he wants to deal with while his naked Israeli fiancé is there pawing at him. But then, the old man looks up and catches Ralph’s naked eye, and Ralph has no choice but to go down to see him.
Harry tells Ralph and Rebbekka (the fiancé) that Bea, Harry’s spouse of more than 35 years, has died, and he didn’t know what to do or where to go. Ralph is like, “You’re gonna have a great life, Uncle Harry. She was dragging you down anyway, the old bat!” But he’s misremembering this: the old bat was not his Aunt Bea, but rather his evil foster mother, whose name I haven’t yet decided on. Rebbekka is shocked by Ralph’s coarseness, and smacks him big-time, which is a problem because these two get hot for each other when they start slapping each other around.
Ralph and Rebbekka put Harry up for the time being, expecting that it can’t last long, but the days stretch into weeks, with Harry lying around in his boxer shorts and dark socks on the sofa where he’s crashing. Slowly he descends into a kind of couch-and-tv-fueled psychosis. Having this crazy old lump on the couch is a huge bummer, such that Ralph and Rebbekka snipe at each other and sometimes smack each other around, which makes them want to go to bed together, which just makes things worse because they can’t with the old man hanging out in their partition-free loft. Finally, Ralph learns that Harry is sitting on a cool 5 million dollars from some very savvy investing and divesting, slaps him around little, and finds him his own pad to rent.
Sparsely set, this play will make use of spotlights on the three characters, and well as rumbles of thunder and sudden bursts of lightning that blind the audience (just to mix it up a little). Note: the actors will be required to perform nude during some of the lightning scenes, such that we glimpse their bodies for fractions of seconds before being blinded for a quarter of a minute. The two young actors playing Ralph and Rebbekka should have hot bodies.
I did a stint as a writer for a few months in the late 1980s for a trade publication called ‘The Griffin Report of Food Marketing.’ I was in charge of turning press releases into something akin to reporting. A mass mailing would go out with a headline along the lines of “Star Market promotes Joe Blow,” and I’d add a few paragraphs about Mr. Blow and how great he was going to be as deputy regional assistant apple buyer for southeastern Massachusetts. Sometimes, I’d call up and interview these people to see if they had anything to say to their fans in the Griffin Report.
Once, I trekked out to Troy, NY overnight to interview the Freihofer’s bakery people. I wore a jacket and tie and brought my notebook to record the Friehofer story. It was a small operation, and they spoke of the “trust” that people have in the Freihofer’s brand. I didn’t mind that trip, despite Troy’s gritty underbelly, because I got to see the factory where they made the bread I had eaten now and again as a kid. The piece I wrote became an insert in the Griffin Report that the Freihofer’s people paid thousands for. I later did another insert – a bigger one – featuring SS Pierce, whose foodservice division had just been bought by Kraft. Those SS Pierce interviews were insufferable, as I sat in executives’ offices and listened to them lavish praise on themselves and their new bosses at Kraft. Readers might have noticed that these inserts were ads, not reporting, but if so it wasn’t because we made it plain to them. It would have been very possible for the “casual” Griffin Report reader to come to the conclusion that we thought S.S. Pierce was a fascinating company and decided to pad our newspaper with several extra pages just to give those windbags a place to sound off.
During the two or so months that I was with the Griffin Report, my friend Roy was dying for me to break some huge supermarket scandal, something dark and sleazy with high stakes that would turn the supermarket world upside down, like a simmering botulism crisis or horsemeat being added to ground beef patties. Instead, I came to learn that the owner of the Griffin Report had badly fibbed about the number of responses he had received for our “best buyer” survey.
As media lies go, this was a minor infraction: the declared winner had indeed gotten the most votes, but the article claimed that about half the ballots sent out had been returned, when the truth was it was far less than that. But I already had lost respect for the publisher of the Griffin Report because he made me do beer runs in the late morning so he could drink his lunch, and believed that “writers should have their own pens and pencils,” and thus refused to stock the supply closet with them. Ultimately, I quit in an unseemly confrontation over his refusal to correct the story’s factual error, though it was actually the sum total of bad experiences that forced my hand.
I did, however, stay on through the next deadline because I liked the editor and other writer, and it’s even possible that I allowed my byline to be associated with the results of the survey, though I doubt it. I may never know that for sure because I can’t find my copy of the issue in question, having used it to line a birdcage or make a campfire years ago.
If the BBC asks me to write an epilogue to the 3rd season of Downton Abbey, I’m ready. In this 2-hour post-finale episode, the ghost of Lady Sybil will be hugely prominent. Dressed in the same night gown she wore when she perished in a fit of seizures, she sneaks back to retrieve part of her ample wardrobe and abscond with it into the afterlife, but accidently runs into her husband, the Irish republican chauffer Branson, on the stairs. Branson has been secretly going into town clad in tatters to down pints anonymously at local pubs, returning home later to raid the sherry and eventually stumble and belch his way up to bed. Coming upon his beloved (and sheet-white!) Sybil on the stairs really freaks him out, but he keeps telling himself it’s the alcohol talking, it’s the alcohol talking while she explains (unprompted) that she’s come back to snag ball gowns for some parties they are throwing in the afterlife, and no William isn’t involved! Before leaving, she plants a wet one on Branson. She’s real! So he starts making out with her just as Robert comes to the stairs to see what the hell the ruckus is. What does Robert see? Branson making out with the air! “Get hold of yourself, man!” says Robert.
Sybil has evaporated, and Branson jerks his head around and sees what would apparently be the trail of her nightgown disappearing around a corner. And you know what? Cora sees it too! But Robert doesn’t (metaphor? he’s blind!). Cora’s all, “Who was that?” and Branson pushes past her mumbling about needing to barf. Robert gives Cora a hopeful look, and I swear the glare she shoots back just about knocks him on his ass and down the stairs.
In his bedroom, Branson finds a note from the ghost of Sybil saying that she’s going to be coming back now and again to retrieve stuff like tiaras and pretty things, and please try not to be freaked out. The next night Branson gets himself tangled up with half a bottle of Irish whiskey and comes to the dinner table weaving. There are two empty chairs beside him because Matthew and Lady Mary are “under the weather” (yeah, right, wink-wink!) and can’t make it. Sybil materializes in one of the chairs and this time has brought William with her. Robert is speaking but notices Branson staring at an empty space at the table, his eyes wide and jaw slack, and looks over at Edith, who shrugs, and then at Cora, who’s all, “Sybil!” Branson says, “You see her!” She does! But a close up of Cora reveals: she’s out of her mind! During the ensuing silence, where Robert, Edith, The Dowager Countess, and Mr. Carson all look at each other like “What the...?”, Sybil suddenly demands that Branson release her so she can move on with her afterlife, which includes marrying William. Branson’s thinking, You're taking up with the dead second footman?, but he can’t say anything because: a) he’s hammered; and b) he’s speaking to an empty chair.
The rest of this episode pretty much writes itself.
As of Tuesday, January 29, 2013, the Boston “Globe Reader” became a thing of the past, a relic of publishing history that had a brief life of – what – maybe five years? The Globe Reader was an installed program on your computer that delivered the Boston Globe newspaper to your breakfast table in a easily readable format without any ads. For a while, it had been promoted to old timers like me, who still pay real money to have some guy (or gal!) drive the print version to their home and hurl it at the front door, where it sometimes decapitates the tulips and, rarely, lands somewhere close enough for you to reach out and snag it from the porch without the neighbors seeing you in footy-pajamas or curlers.
Not long ago, the industry relied on mere children to get the days’ news from house to house. Paper routes were a rite of passage for youngsters like me, who started when we were barely tall enough to haul the sack of dead trees without dragging it through puddles. I delivered the Syracuse Herald Journal in an era when small Midwestern* cities could support fat versions of both morning and afternoon dailies. We walked our route and were told by the customer where s/he wanted the paper delivered (such as in the side door of the garage, where the family hound would quietly wait in the shadows, then leap out in a ferocious attack on the poor paper and, sometimes, your hand). The worst part of having a paper route was having to go door-to-door once a week to “collect” cash from the customers, then fork over money to the newspaper company that was paying 2 cents per paper to deliver the route (I know it sounds like 1910, when a nickel would buy you a cobblestone-size block of cheese, but it was really the 1970s). You’d go and ring the doorbell and say “collecting,” and they’d say something like “We’re eating dinner. Can you come back?” When you’d return they’d be watching All in the Family or mowing the lawn with a cigarette dangling from their lips – too busy to be bothered with paying the 11 year old kid – so you’d pay the newspaper company on the customer’s behalf from past wages and then collect for two weeks next time, when, inevitably, they’d claim to have paid you already.
I don’t know why I’m complaining. I made some money and got to “meet people,” like roughneck neighborhood dirtbags who’d want to kick my ass for showing up on their street from the other side of the main road. Anyway, at 11, if you wanted money it was either deliver the paper or trap muskrats, which some kids would do before catching the bus to school.
A not uncommon sight among the peers of my youth
I suppose I won’t really miss the Globe Reader, since I get the print version and can go to Boston.com to get the e-paper (if I could just remember my damned log in name and password). But for some reason that I can’t quite describe, I do miss the era of boys and girls ambling along the street in the morning or afternoon, pulling a wagon full of newspapers and sticking one of them between the inside and storm doors of each house. Soon, I'm sure there won’t even be guys in beat up sedans launching papers at front doors and decapitating the tulips.
*Syracuse, NY is, I contend, the eastern most city in the Midwest. Blog entry to follow, one day.