I’m reading a book called Opera Offstage by Milton Brener (Walker & Co NY 1996) which is about the stories behind, around and among the great operas: love affairs and other things which led to their composition; extraordinary stories about premieres, the shadowy and sometimes shady characters who moved through the 18th and 19th C. opera worlds.
For instance: the Paris premier of Tannhauser (1861) by Wagner; the biggest fiasco in Paris music history until Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky (1913), was all because Wagner wouldn’t put an act-opening ballet in the second act.
Why, you ask?
Well, when being told he had to have one, Wagner said logically, that it made no sense dramatically, especially after the bacchanal in Venusberg in Act I. It doesn’t matter, said everyone, there must be a second act opening ballet. “No,” said Wagner. “Well, the Jockey Club won’t like that!” they said.
The Jockey Club was a bunch of aristos and upper-middle-class ne’er-do-wells who slept all day, lolled around, dined late and showed up at the opera in time for the second-act opening ballet, danced by, usually, their and their buddies’ girlfriends and mistresses. Anyway, they showed up to see lots of leg, the one place they could do that in a semi-cultured setting in 1861.
Well, Wagner didn’t put in a ballet. Opening night, the Jockey Club poured itself in after the first act with their police whistles and cowbells. The second act opened up on some guy center-stage singing. Out come the whistles, cowbells and catcalls. You couldn’t hear jack shit out there onstage but them.
The rest of the audience tried to yell them down. That added to the problem. The Jockey Club would quiet, the music would start again, the singer stepped forward and Clanga-danga-danga-wheet! they’d be off again. So it went.
Not only opening night, but for the next three performances. Fists flew around like cake at an Irish wedding.
Wagner withdrew the opera and left (as usual) in a cloud of debt.
Similarly with Puccini and the opening night of Madame Butterfly—not, this time, noise and scandal, but silence. I mean dead.
It was from a one-act play by David Belasco. Puccini and his co-librettists turned this into a (against convention) two-act opera (the second act being more than 90 minutes long). Before, Puccini had always had opening-night jitters; he knew Madame Butterfly was his best, so he wasn’t worried at all. He expected another triumph. He brought his whole family, which he’d never done before. The cast, orchestra and technical people were the best. (The stagehands had cried during rehearsals, so moved were they by the singing and the story.)
Here’s what happened to Puccini: hubris. And the sound of hubris, like in a Daffy Duck cartoon, is the sound of crickets chirping in the back of a packed theater . . .
The book’s full of stories, not just about disasters, but about snookered librettists, plagiarism suits, blackmail, censorship (for reasons you’d not guess in a million years, in some cases . . .) and sharp practices.
It’s a neat book, whether you know anything about opera or not.
But all this is prologue. I want to tell you about the time I performed with the New York Met in 1996.
But, Howard, you cry. The only thing you can play is the radio. You only know two tunes, like General Grant said; one’s the drum solo from “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” and the other’s not. What are you doing with the Met?
Well, one of my minors was in Drama at UT-Arlington (I’d been Nick Burns in A Thousand Clowns that semester, the Barry Gordon kid’s part). I was the only one who could do the Peter Lorre voice called for in Act I. I was a pretty normal-sized sophomore playing a supposedly 12-year-old kid. In one of the most surrealistically-performed plays in American college theater history, they used the simple expedient of casting giants in the grown-up roles. I was (and am) 5′ 6″. The Jason Robards Jr role was by a 6′ 7″er. The other 3 guy roles were between 6′ 1″ and 6′ 3″. The leading lady (the Barbara Harris role) was 6′ even.
Somehow it worked.
Anyway, the drama teacher told us The Met was coming to Dallas and they needed people. They were doing 3 operas in two nights and a matinee. The deal: you worked in one; you got a little pay and tickets for the other two. The call was going out to all the drama departments in all the colleges in the DFW area.
The three operas were, I think, Turandot, Otello, and Falstaff.
A bunch of us decided to do the Sunday matinee, Turandot.
We drove over to Dallas (@ 20 miles) in a couple cars on a blazing hot May afternoon. Where we were going was to the Texas State Fairgrounds, next to the Cotton Bowl, which had all been built for the 1936 Texas Centennial, 30 years before. The operas were in the Texas State Music Hall, a great Pennsylvania Dutch-looking 6-story barn, the kind with two balconies which actually had seats with pillars in front of them (you could hear but you couldn’t see). It had the acoustics of a 6 story kazoo.
Anyway, it’s an hour till showtime. They call about 30 of us out back. “In a minute, you’ll go in and get costumed,” said an assistant stage manager, who had on a suit, in a heat wave, in May, in Dallas.
“After that, we’ll give you some spears and flags and stuff. You’ll march in from each side, turn, go through the gate, and go up the two stairs and line up on top of the wall. There’ll be a guy already there in the middle—try not to bump into him when you line up. He’ll sing a lot of crap for a long time, then he’ll yell something that sounds like “HiYA!” when he runs out of wind. Turn to your left and march off the wall.”
It was the most succinct stage directions I ever got in my career.
Well, by the time they got us dressed and slapped some Oriental #3 makeup on us, it was time for us to go on.
What I’m dressed as is a Mongol @ 1300 A.D. I am in a goatskin vest and tunic. I have on a helmet, 1/2 authentic Mongol and 1/2 picklehaube, like the Hun wore in the Great War. We line up on both sides of the stage, march in, meet, turn toward the upstage gate, go through it, and climb the stairs in back of the wall. There’s a guy up there in the middle and we don’t bump into him much when we line up. Then he sings a lot of crap for a really long time.
I told you it was a heatwave in May. Out in the audience of the Music Hall it’s about 95°F. On stage, on the wall, under the Fresnels and Leicos, it’s like 147°F. I’m dressed in goatskins. I can feel the heat rash coming up all over me like Jiffy-Pop® on a stove.
I manage not to fall off the wall in a dead swoon.
The guy in the middle runs down after awhile and says “HiYa!” We turn to our lefts and march off down the stairs.
Intermission: the assistant stage manager meets us.
“Next part’s easy,” he said. “You march from stage left to stage right across downstage, run around quietly behind the set, and march across again. If you had a spear the first time across, trade out with someone with a flag. Do it till the guy with the fancy costume climbs the steps and the music changes. If you’re onstage when that happens, try to act interested in what he’s singing. Also try not to scratch your butts. When he’s through, march off stage right. Meet me out back after you get out of costume and make-up.”
Well, we do that. It’s hotter onstage than a recently-fornicated waterfowl. As soon as we march off the last time and take off for the dressing rooms, I grab my helmet by the earpiece and whip it off, forgetting about the spike.
“Yowwwch!” yells someone behind me, a real Met person, “careful with that thing, hombré.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Sonofabitch was cooking my brains.”
They ran us into the dressing room; they pulled off our goatskins and slapped cold cream over the Oriental #3 on our faces and arms and toweled it off and we dressed and they pushed us out, and we went out back.
We met the assistant stage manager out there, where it was at least 10° cooler.
He handed us $5 cash each and tickets to the two other shows and thanked us.
I think we gave him a round of applause.
So, that was my day with the Met on tour.
In a May heatwave, in Dallas TX, in a goatskin and boiling helmet, carrying a spear or a limp flag.
Heldentendors, Beware!: I take Large Steps.
The answer is, almost anything.
My paper of choice is loose-leaf, three-hole punch notebook filler paper, college-ruled, which comes around, back-to-school time, this time of the year, for as little as 18¢ for 150 sheets (limit 4, but there are lots of Walgreen’s and CVSs to stop at, aren’t there?) Usually they want about 2¢ a sheet for it—the rest of the year it’s @ $2.98 for the 150 sheets.
In my many years of cruising garage-and- going out-of-business sales, I’ve ended up with some really great stuff. Some of the best I picked up at a garage sale on Airport Blvd.—it was leftover letterheads from a one-person insurance agency on 49 ½ St ( by then, all residences ) that must have gone out of business in the early 1960s, before ZIP codes. It had a slightly crinkled finish (“with a nice tooth” as we say) and was printed on 50% rag content paper. It was still as white as the day it came from the printer, and this was in the early 1980s. A full real of it, to he best of my memory, cost me 35¢. I used it for years, but finally ran out around 1986 or so.
Them Bones was written, the whole manuscript ((More in a minute)) on the back of a 365-Day 8 ½” x 11” Kliban Calendar Notebook. The cartoons were printed on a slightly pulpy creamish-colored paper, and once again had a fine tooth for the fountain pen to grab and really flow, without, pulp appearance to the contrary, spreading or smudging which is what happens when you put ink to most construction-paper-looking stuff.
((I read Them Bones the same way the reader did, the first time I opened the book. I’d written all the sections separately. I shuffled the sections together after I typed it all up—section at a time—and put the page numbers on it by hand just before I sent it off to the late Terry Carr. All I knew when I started assembling it was that Leake VIII followed The Box VIII and both had to come after Bessie VI etc. etc. When I read the printed book, I was astounded by how much resonated referring back to the other sections as I wrote it.))
I wrote “Man-Mountain Gentian”—which I had to read at a convention in Dallas at 6 pm—sitting on my suitcase in the aisle of a packed Greyhound Bus (the bus was full—I said “I have to get to Dallas on this bus; I’ll stand up til someone leaves”—that turned out to be Waco, 100 miles away) on a Snoopy pad, the only writing surface they had for sale in the Austin bus depot. The pad was auctioned off for charity at the convention—Lew Shiner bought it (I’d had to go across the street from the hotel and pay, if I remember, 35¢ a page to copy it so I’d have a mss to type from when I got back to Austin Monday—I found a ride back so I didn’t have to stand up 100 miles again…).
I usually have my own paper with me when I’m doing that, i.e. finishing a story to read at a convention. Microperfed wireless notebooks are a godsend—you can write in them, or tear the pages out (without all those spiral notebook hanging-chads coming out all over the place with them).
I have written on and in some of the goddamdest places and things invented by man. Choice of course, is on my own knocked-together desks in my own room, wherever that is. I have written on friend’s desks; various in-laws (and woulda-been in-laws if the ladies and I had been married) kitchen tables during blizzards; more hotel-room little writing escritoires and tables than you can imagine; in people’s borrowed hotel rooms an hour before a reading—Thanks, Pat Cadigan, at least a couple of times—in a papa-san chair in George R. R. Martin’s office (as he, quant suff. wrote “Meathouse Man” in 1976 in Grand Prairie, TX, in my living-room, and as we wrote “The Men of Greywater Station” in a hotel room shared by 13 fans in Kansas City in 1972, between visits to the Playboy Club up on the roof, the only decent overpriced bar in the place…).
I’ve written on the fold-down trays on jets AND typed them up, back in the days of typewriters, on my old blue portable stripped down and mounted on a thin wood base with a handle on it so I didn’t have to take the case and cover. (Usually the typing waited for the hotel room, unless I had a reading at, like three hours later, after I got to the convention.)
I wrote something on an electrical wire cable spool in Lake City, CO. I’ve written on top of an old Singer treadle sewing machine.
I’m getting old. I’d really like to finish my work in plenty of time, on the paper of my choice, at my very own desk.
Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.” as Hemingway said.
Next blogs somewhere: Howard re-encounters The Sugar Creek Gang in a mano-a-mano TX barbed wire death match after 50 years!
Last week I talked about typewriter ribbons in this Electronic-Cyber Age. ( These blogs, if you can’t scroll back, is written longhand, typed up on an Adler Manual Portable typewriter, and snail-mailed to Small Beer, who turn it into pixels.)
Let’s talk about the real work going on here: handwritten drafts.
As goes the typewriter ribbon ( $2.89 for all black cotton ribbons in the late 70s to bastard hybrid half-black half white ones for $4.00 in the 80s and 90s, to a now-again all usable all-black nylon one in the 00s for $5.95@), so goes the fountain pen.
(The difference: typewriters have always been working-class objects—if you’re a business person, you get a working-class person to type up what you say or write: fountain pens from the first were considered luxury items and signs of success—there’s always been a sucker-market for one-of-a-kind and designer pens—check out some books on fountain-pen collecting and see how many diamond-encrusted 24 kt gold-nibbed pens you see…)
Anyway: the pens I use more than any others are what was always a working-class pen—two Schaeffer Scripto cartridge fountain pens I got at least 25 years ago, still going strong. (I wore the nib off my oldest Schaeffer pen about 15 years ago that had been in service since just after I got out of the US Army in the early 70s…)
When cartridge-ink fountain pens came along ~1960, the fountain pen industry had the first viable challenge to the ballpoint pens that had ruled since the late 1940s (Biro, its American offshoot, Bic, and Parker) As long as fountain pens had to be filled by siphoning, or bulb reservoir or something—a messy precedure because the very instrument with which you wrote had to be submerged in an ink supply, and then cleaned, and was subject turning your new Christmas shirt into a wearable Rorsach test, the ball-point was going to be instrument of choice.
When the ink-cartridge pen appeared, all the mess was gone, and sales took off. For the first time, you had working-class fountain pens. You unscrewed the barrel of the pen, took out the empty plastic cartridge, dropped in a full one, where it was harpooned by a little hollow projection when you screwed the front end back into the barrel—voila!—you were an ink-slinging warrior once more.
The problem with ink-cartridge pens from the start was that each company had its own cartridge—there was no standardization. Its stuff only fit its pens. Mt.Blanc used itty-bitty ones that gave you around 2000 wds (because they were mostly used by executives to put their name or initials on some document): Wearever and Parker had big long ones that would dry up before an executive could use it all up; Schaeffer was the working-class choice of high-school and college students everywhere—a size cartridge halfway between the two. They came with colored barrels; transparent barrels so you could see the ink as it was used up; and translucent colored barrels for people who couldn’t makeup their minds. The two I still use have a solid blue barrel and a translucent green one.
Anyway, as electronic data took over (“the paperless office”) ink cartridges started getting scarce and expensive. (The Schaeffers were still 98¢ or $1.19 for six in 1970s.) The only Mt. Blanc I’ve ever owned was given me by friends at whose wedding I’d been Best Man. The price of cartridges killed me. Then I found that Wal-Mart marketed a substitute for it under the Stratos name. They came in a blister-pack of 6 for &2.99 (they also fit a bunch of calligraphy pens). I bought those for years and used the Mt.Blanc pen. Then suddenly you couldn’t find the 6-pack anymore—they only came in 12-packs for $5.99—twice the product for twice the price (but in my case meant I had to have $6.00 lose rather than $3.00…) I wrote the Mt. Blanc to a gallant Gallic-Swiss death: the front end of the barrel developed a hairline crack leading to great splotches of ink all over my writin’ hand, because the screw-down barrel was loosened… I buried it with full military honors, like they finally did Dreyfuss (the pen lasted longer than the marriage, by the way…).
Through the years I’ve had the Mt. Blanc; Schaeffers (the workhorses), Montefiores, some red plastic 4/ $2.00 Chinese pens I got from American Sci. and Surp. ( fine until the tin nibs got scratchy when the plating wore off, and the barrels loosened and leaked…) and a Lamy.
As late as two years ago, you could get the Schaeffer cartridges for as little as $2.49 for five, and you got around 5000 wds per each one; now, since a bunch of calligraphy pens are made to fit them, they go at both Michael’s and Office Mac for 5/$5.99—Office Depot, like so many other places, has quite carrying them entirely, and only carry luxury-market Mt. Blanc and Waterman cartridges. Wal-Mart has quit carrying the Stratos Brand altogether.
Once every drugstore and Five-and–Dime in American carried the Scripto cartridges, cheap. No more.
As I quoted Norman Mailer last time: “ You either change, or your pay more for staying the same.”
Then they do whatever it is they do, some arcane magic, and it turns into photons delivered to your house.
People (especially publishers) keep asking me when I’m going to get a word processor or computer or whatever.
“I produce words on paper,” I say. “ You print words on paper. How it gets from one to the other is not my bowl of rice.”
A tres charmant blend of practicality and Luddism, I think.
Norman Mailer ( who said a lot of crap, some of it very true indeed) wrote once years ago: “ You change, or you pay more for staying the same.”
Boy, did he have that right.
Just before they stopped making typewriters ( a fine tradition for @ 110 years) they got it exactly right. They began making true Universal typewriter ribbon spools—ones that fit almost every typewriter made after about 1920. They had two sets of perforations in the tops and bottoms of the spools, one side or the other fit the projections in the spool-carriers of almost anything. The ribbons were all-black cotton, and when you’d use them so long the ink was fading, you turned the spools upside down and used the part of the ribbon that had only been used when you pushed the “shift” key heretofore. If that didn’t work, you unspooled the ribbon, turned it over and respooled it to get at the new ink. With an all-black ribbon you got twice the usefulness.
They cost @ $2.89 in 1977 money.
But wait—when typewriters started getting scarce, the namby-pambies who didn’t want to ever see what was in a typewriter, demanded of the office suppliers they wanted Universal correcting typewriter ribbons; so for a while all you could find were half-white/ half-black ribbons that fit all typewriters. ( I cried out “ That’s what White-Out was made for! You effete snobs!”—but no one listened.) Or, horror of horrors, half black/half red, useless for a writer.
It was bad enough getting a half-correcting/ half-black ribbon when they first came out ( you were getting half the useful ribbon for a higher price, than formerly when they were still made of cotton. About ten years ago they changed them to nylon.)
That would have been a semi-viable alternative EXCEPT the ribbons tended to split and separate, jamming up in the ribbon guides sometimes, but most often being torn apart and jamming right in the business part where the keys strike.
Enough, enough I said. I went looking for something I could use.
I had spare sets of Universal spools—when even the second side of the ribbon became faint, I’d disconnect one of the spools, put the spool with the ribbon on it back in the box and writer –Used, 6/99 –or whatever on it, so I’d know how old it was.
(Many a time, finishing some mss on a deadline, I’d have to dig an old used ribbon out and finish the last three pages or so of a story—it was sharper and clearer than the ribbon that had just died on me while pounding out “ The Wolf-Man of Alcatraz” or “ The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew”—in fact, nearly all the xeroxes of my mss lately are sharper and clearer than the original typescripts.)
I found that OkiData, who still made ribbons for its printing calculators, used an all-black cotton ribbon for them, and that Carters—who were the people who had invented the Universal ribbon spools, were still making the replacements.
You guessed it: I bought the OkiData 62 Carters spools, unwound them and respooled them on the universal spools, a messy process, but one that left me with a ribbon that could be used twice, like in the old days. They cost, in the 90s, about $4.00 a ribbon, and they were about 15’ shorter than the typewriter ribbons had been.
Now, once again, there are so many Luddites still with typewriters, their voices have been heard, Carters is now making once again an all-black ribbon ( nylon now) on a Universal spool ( the kind men like!) They cost $5.95 @, or more than double what you paid in the 1970s for a better product.
But it is a lot easier than unspooling calculator ribbons on a cold winter’s night, and having to wash your hands in Go-Jo five times afterwards….
Next time : Pens!
I once used to live in Austin, City Of. Now I live in Austin, City Of, but in the part of Williamson County that sticks a little finger of tax-grab down into Austin. ( The rest of Austin is in Travis County, the way God ((and Democrats)) intended it.)
What this has to do with anything: Twice a year, usually April and October, but it rotated, Austin Solid Waste Services sent out an announcement to you U.S. Mail: the week of, say, April 13th will be Big Trash Day in your neighborhood. In other words, pretty much anything you could get to the curb, they had to take. There were rules; no broken glass, no nails in lumber, no demolition trash; don’t put anything near the mailbox or over the water meter; separate wood, metal and rubber—up to eight car tires at a time. Don’t put anything against a fence, blocking an alley, or under a low tree ( they have a flatbed truck with a big grappling device to pick stuff up on a long arm and put it in a regular garbage truck and they need, in the words of Larry Storch in The Great Race, “ some fightin’ room.” )
They also had Big Brush Day, another twice-a-year—yard waste; all the limbs that broke off during the last windstorm etc.—but that doesn’t concern us here.)
Through the years, on Big Trash Day, or the weekend leading up to when it starts on a Monday—I’d gotten several swell bookcases, stands, chairs, small tables etc. Absolutely nothing wrong with them except someone got tired of them, or they clashed with the new couch or something.
In South Austin ( and, I’m told, in Japan where they have Big Trash Day once a month, and the places are so small that if you buy anything new, you have to throw something out ) scrounging and scavenging is de rigeur. In the run-up to B.T.D., there anything swell put out at twilight is gone before dawn. Less nice but still servicable stuff may last right up until the grapple-truck turns the corner, but probably not. Every pile tends to get smaller; my guess is in S. Austin, the solid-waste people end up with about 60% of what was put out for them…
The last month I lived in South Austin, Doug Potter, who knew I was looking for a TV stand, called me—it was B.T.D. coming up in the next neighborhood and on his jog he’d seen a likely-looking pile with part of an entertainment center sticking out of the middle of it. I drove over in my ‘85 Toyota Tercel Wagon full of tools.
Well, that pile turned out to be a dud ( as many do) but the next one over was a goldmine—there was a pie-shaped formica-topped built-in corner desk that had once been part of a run of built-in cabinets. ( I may have mentioned this in reference to the tractor-desk I’d made, last time.) I could tell it had been custom-built judging from the style, in the 1950s, because the formica had been put on after the top had been nailed into the run of cabinets—over the nails.
Long story short: it didn’t work out as a desk ( balance problems after I put legs on it) but it’s now the yellow, half-moon shaped headboard of the bed in the new house, and a damned fine one, if I do say so myself.
This is high-tone suburban North Austin. Scrounging is not the Life Style. The great new is , every trash day is Big Trash Day. We’re on Round Rock ( the town that killed Sam Bass ) Refuse, and anything you get to the curb, they take. Every Thursday! Last week, at dawn, I went two blocks up the street, afoot, to see what was out. There, in three pieces, leaning up against a garbage can, was an, at least, 100 year old solid oak desk. I picked up the 3 ½’ x 5’ top (covered with hard rubber of the kind they haven’t used on desks in at least 80 years). It weighed around 150 lbs. I put it on my foot and pissanted it 2 blocks back to the house. I took the car back. The two side pedestals, filled with drawers, were too big to fit in the wagon without reconfiguring it completely, and the garbage truck was coming. So I took all seven 18” x 36” drawers, including one double-file drawer ( all solid oak) which I’m using now for files. The top and the other 6 drawers are out in the garage, awaiting my liesure attention.
Today, just before the first rain squalls from Tropical Depression Erin hit, I drove around the neighborhoods. A block down, in perfect condition, was a 40-yr–old Disney Hunny Jar Winnie-The-Pooh lamp with an illustrated E.H. Shepard shade, sitting on top of a garbage can. I brought it home, tried it out ( it needed a new $2.00 pushbutton socket, which had been replaced once already, as the socket didn’t have an Underwriter’s knot on the wiring) and found the sticker from the high-tone store it was bought at—$78.99.
I advise you all to check whether Your Town, USA has a Big Trash Day, or if it’s like Round Rock Refuse, every week.
Just because it’s out with the rest of the garbage doesn’t mean it’s trash….
“I love it!” he said. “You’re in some bookstore on Charing Cross Road or somewhere, and you come across a map of the sewer system of Florence Italy in 1517 and you say ‘I NEED that! I’m going to set a story right there and then.’ And you buy it.” Then he said, “And you really do believe you’re going to write the story you bought the map for.”
I’ve had moments like those; also the other way. I walked into a new used bookstore in Austin 15 years ago, and in the first ten feet were two books I’d been looking for for 25 years…Also I was fishing the Chama River in downtown (all two blocks of it) Chama, NM and there was a sign on the front of a house on the highway that said “Bookstore.” I walked in and found a book I was looking for right then: Wehrner von Braun’s The Exploration of Mars (Viking, 1955) with full color paintings by Chesley Bonestell. For $4.00. I had been looking for it right then, because I was going to give it to George R.R. Martin, who needed references to the Old Mars of our youth to write a story or do a screenplay or something. I gave it to him when I came back through Santa Fe on my way back to Texas. “Where’d you get this??” he asked, knowing I hadn’t been anywhere near a city for ten days. “In a house in Chama,” I said.
* * *
Then there’s the other kind of research—the kind that comes from the reading you did growing up. I was raised to young manhood being serially-fascinated with different writers. I read everything in the late 1950s and early 60s, by and about: Dylan Thomas; Eugene O’Neill; Thomas Wolfe and James Agee (“names totally unknown to most SF fans,” as Steven Utley would say). I tried being the next Eugene O’Neill in drama classes in college. Earlier I’d tried to be the next Dylan Thomas (til I realized I wasn’t a poet, didn’t like drinking all that much, and wasn’t Welsh.) I tried being James Agee, (especially the James Agee of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) and used to write 11-page stream-of-consciousness letters to my then-New Jesrey friend G.R.R. Martin (“letters so long it took 4¢ to mail them!” in George’s words) at least twice a week.
I wrote an article on Agee that was published in a fanzine. Off the top of my head I wrote a story about Dylan Thomas as a famous distance runner (he was a grammar-school miler at one time). I used O’Neill in a few places. When it came time to write “You Could Go Home Again,” the novelette about Thomas Wolfe and Fats Waller coming back to an alternate America after the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, I only had to read a few biographies published since the early 60s to get the job done.
I’d also followed (if that’s the word) the career of J.D. Salinger a long time. Holden has a cameo in “Why Did?” and Zooey Glass gets a mention in “Major Spacer in the 21st Century!”; he was after all, an early Fifties TV actor. Salinger himself—“Jerry”—shows up in “You Could Go Home Again” as the social director on the airship Ticonderoga. “What? you say, the most reclusive writer of the 20th Century a social director?” you cry? Well, in 1938, Salinger’s dad, a meat importer, sent Jerry to Europe to check on operations there. He got his passage over and back by working as an assistant social director (“Ping-Pong, anyone?”) on the Bremerhaven, or one of those fancy-schmansy liners that used to run back and forth to Europe every week between the Wars… Trust me.* You know these things if you read enough growing up; you don’t have to do much research to write a story, if you’ve been around the subject that long…
* Salinger could have ended up being Eugene O’Neill’s son-in-law, instead of Charlie Chaplin. Salinger squired Oona O’Neil around the Stork Club and other swank NYC watering holes before she moved west and met Chaplin. But that, as they say in Irma la Douce, is another story for another time…
I just moved, starting in February, and it took 6 weeks and the PO still hasn’t grasped the forwarding concept (some mail has been forwarded; most hasn’t and it’s a 34-mile round trip to pick it up at the old place. The mail that has been forwarded took 16 days from the postmark to get to the new place). The irony is, for two weeks, I’m housesitting at the old place….
Anyway, before the move, two things happened. I decided to paint my desk/table to lively myself up. I went to Home Depot to get two premixed (I didn’t want to wait for them to mix up custom colors from the samples, and I only needed two pints anyway) contrasting colors—I found some, and brought them home and began to paint.
Halfway through, I realized I was painting my desk in John Deere green and yellow. Not just sorta. The John Deere colors, exactly. I didn’t plan it, really.
So I can say, my writing pulls the plow.*
Or would have, had not Doug Potter called me one morning. In Austin, we have what is known as Big Trash Day, twice a year (I hear they have them once-a-month in Tokyo). Anything you can haul to the kerb they have to take away; special crews and trucks come around whenever it’s your neighborhood’s B.T. Day. (Back during the Black Mold scare of the mid-90s I saw a whole housefull of furniture out on the kerb, 50’ long piled 10’ high…). South Austin is full of salvagers and scavengers anyway (the old joke was that, when the Revolution came, in South Austin it would be a soft one: everybody would just move to the slightly-better house next door…) Anyway Doug called and said “You gotta come look at this stuff someone’s throwing out—I think maybe the stand you want is there.” He knew I was looking for a stand: I’d had a 13” TV: my friend Bud had gone up to a 54” HDTV and gave me his 12-yr-old 32”er (which took up 1/3 of the room I was living in…)
I went to look at the stuff: it was neat, but not quite right. But, next door to that pile was another; in the middle of it was a wonder: a formica-topped corner desk that used to be part of a custom built-in run of cabinets. I could tell because a) it didn’t have legs, having been supported by the ends of the cabinets and b) the formica had been put on after the table had been nailed to the cabinets. It looked like a big slice of gooseberry pie. It had two shallow drawers. I fell in love. I took it home; I liked it so much, like an idiot I put legs on it and reaaranged my room for it, then had to move everything to the new place. (Bud and Brad Denton brought their pickups; as I said once, “if you have a pickup in Austin, you have friends for life…”) It would have been much better to leave it alone until I got to the new place.
Then: problems. The corner desk, when legged, tended to buck up like a bronco when you rested your elbows on the front. I doubled the single (point of pie) leg. That didn’t help. The desk still tried to move (the new place had shag carpet in the room). I built a 1×4 extension from the front leg toward the center and put a fuckin’ cinderblock on it. The desk still moved slightly.
I also needed a headboard for the studio bed. It was backed onto the John Deere desk which is where the copier and paper racks sit, and all the file drawers and crates are stacked underneath it.
But the pillows kept slipping into the 4” gap between the top of the bed and the bottom of the table apron…
So here’s what I did. I took the 4 2×4 legs off the corner desk and built a new small regular desk, making a frame from the 1×4 cedar pickets I’d replaced on the fence at the new place. I used a piece of 26”x34” hardboard for the top. I moved the John Deere table over to the wall and put the files under it. I moved the new desk behind the bed, where the larger one had been. I took the old, custom built corner desk apart, crying all the time, and took the triangular top and bolted and nailed it to the bed as a headboard and a frame for a pinboard in front of the new desk. (People: do not buy a prebuilt pinboard for $15.00; buy a 2’x2’ piece of foamcore and cut it in the shape and nail it like you want—in this case, a pinboard in the shape of the back of the triangular headboard, above the desk—and save yourself @ $13.00…)
And I painted the desktop and the headboard Navy Blue, and I just realized while writing this, I can paint the headboard bright yellow, like a half-moon, and get some grey paint and put in craters and maria and make it a Half-Moon…
* * *
(for those who haven’t gotten the word: new address: Harold Waldrop, 12608 Wittmer, Austin TX 78729-7787, USA, no phone yet.)
* a line from a review, or blurb, by Harlan Ellison of someone’s work, much parodied by certain types of Internet clown. I never really knew what it meant til I looked at my finished desk.
Even in these enlightened, politically-correct times we live in, there’s still stuff (gender secrets) girls keep from guys. Not out of spite or meanness, or a secret closed cabal or coven, but because guys have always been too dumb to ask.
The classic case is Midol. During the 50s and 60s Midol was used as a pain-reliever for menstrual cramps. A guy usually only discovered it when he got a headache at his girlfriend’s place and she was out of Aspirin. “Here,” she’d say, “take one of these.” And the guy’s headache went away. “What the hell was that?” he’d ask. “That little pill? The pain was gone quicker than a mongoose can get on a cobra!”
“It was Midol,” she’d say.
Today we know it in its generic form as ibuprofen.
* * *
All those years, all those headaches and pains, and relief was just down the supermarket aisle with the Kotex and tampons . . .
Some other things are down there, too, guys . . .
I don’t know about you, but when I start screaming when I pee, and I’m urinating blood from a bladder or kidney infection (and those seem to be the discomforts of choice my decrepit old body is taking lately), the way I always deal with it is to drown my insides with cranberry juice. Three or four gallons in two days, and it clears right up and the urethral burn goes away and I start peeing clear again instead of, in Doug Potter’s words, “a fine root beer color.”
The cranberry juice raises the pH balance in the bladder and kidneys and kills whatever is making you scream. (The burn is because your urine has gone basal, rather than neutral, and if you remember your high-school chemistry, base + acid = some kind of salt, which, whatever else it does, doesn’t burn when it comes out.)
I remember 30 years ago a girlfriend got a raging urinary tract infection; c-juice wasn’t working, and she went to the doctor. He wrote her a prescription but forgot to tell her about the side-effects. She was in too big a hurry and too much pain to look at the label except for the dosage. About 45 minutes after she got home she went into the bathroom.
I heard a scream.
She was standing at the wall opposite the toilet, aghast, pointing.
“Look!” she said.
I looked. In the toilet bowl was a circular rainbow. She called the doc, thinking she was dying.
“Sorry,” he said. “I should have warned you. That’s a normal side-effect. You’ll do that for a day or so . . .”
She still wasn’t convinced.
* * *
Guys, if you have a urinary tract infection, wander down the Kotex aisle (“feminine hygiene” it’s usually called) and find something called Azo Standard (there are other Azos for other things). It’s the stuff my old girlfriend got by prescription only now it’s OTC. It’s essentially essence of the stuff in the acid of cranberries. Take it like the directions tell you: your symptoms will begin to ease in a couple of hours (like at the 1-gal., cranberry juice point, wherever that is for you). But, like my old girlfriend, you will pee rainbows—I have yet to produce a perfect multi-hued spectrum like she did, but have peed orange (most common), a bluish shade, and once, fluorescent green, in the couple of years I’ve been using it.
* * *
Women get yeast infections; female plumbing is an inexact thing, and for many reasons, yeast takes to it like a duck to a June bug. There are many products to fight it—the most common being Clotrimazole.
Guys if you have an irritation in your privates, as we say—and especially if you’re uncircumcised (if, like me, you were born in the Christian South before 1950, your parents had to ask for the procedure to be done; after 1950, they had to say they didn’t want one done)—and experience some swelling, irritation, etc., don’t go putting some greasy ointment all over Mr. Happy-head. Once again, wander down the Kotex aidle and get a Clotrimazole 3-Day Yeast Infection Treatment (generic ones are about $7.00 a box). There are all these plastic applicator things in there—you can throw them away or give them to nieces and nephews for finger-puppets. What you want is that little white 21gm (0.74 oz.) tube that’s in there. It’s greaseless and water-soluble and works wonders.
(I’m house-sitting this week and couldn’t find anything in this place to put on a really nasty sawcut on the back of my left hand: I used the tube of Clotrimazole I always keep in my toiletry bag, and it worked wonders on that, too.)
Gender knowledge is power.
I hope you’ve noticed the symbolic recapitulation of American history on TV and in print ads lately. I’m talking about the Rozerem and the Alamo commercials. In the first (“your dreams miss you”), there’s Abraham Lincoln (in top hat and beard), an either stop- (or replacement-) motion or CGI to-look-like either process- animated beaver who talks, plus a guy in an old-fashioned diving suit (in the one set in the kitchen, he’s making pancakes) —anyway there’s this guy who’s not sleeping (no sleep = no dreams), Lincoln and the beaver are trying to get him to take Rozerem, a sleep-inducer (no side-effects, unlike the publicized troubles of Ambien CR, where you drive down to Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart while you’re sound asleep, or cook a 7-course meal at home, ditto—Rozerem supposedly has no side effecrs and is not habit-forming).
The Alamo car rental ads are a CGI’d buffalo and a beaver (with its tail doubled up and tucked in its Bermuda shorts) having trouble with the car-rental machines at the airport while trying to, in the old Fifties’ slogan, See American First.
You’ll notice there’s a beaver in both ads, the animal more responsible even than the buffalo for the settlement of the US from sea to shining sea.
You’ll also notice Lincoln is wearing a stovepipe (“beaver”) hat. It’s all surrealistically related.
In the 1820s, the European beaver (Castor fiber) had been hunted almost to extinction, about the time plug and stovepipe hats became popular.
The Louisiana Purchase had pretty much lain there since Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery to find what was out there. Mainly, Native Americans, a couple of trading posts, and the British and Russians out on the Pacific coast; to the South the Spanish (by the 1830s, Mexicans) in between. There were still a few Frenchmen out there, the same kind of malcontents as the Anglos who would later be attracted there.
The beaver changed all that: suddenly there was a rage for the pelts and skins of the (European) beaver that the American beaver (Castor canadensis) could fill. So we quickly got the Anglo mountain men out there on the headwaters of the Missouri and the Arkansas and over on the Columbia. Sterling types like Big Foot Wallace and Liver-Eater Johnson, running their traplines in pursuit of Castor canadensis and anything else with hair on it.
So we had a thin homespun-and-buckskin line stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific for the first time. Westward the course of Empire began to wend its way.
And along with everything else that was wrong with it (slavery, genocide and removal of Native Americans, some of whom lived in brick houses and owned slaves) the USA began to look at those lands being stubbornly claimed by a bunch of greasers . . . and of course, religion got thrown into the mix, and the Mormons pushed their handcarts to Deseret (which even the Native Americans didn’t want) and in 1846 there was the splendid cause of the Texas-Mexico boundary to go to war with Mexico over (the Republic of Texas had dissolved and entered the Union as a state in 1845. Later, Sam Houston was a unionist during the Civil War—“I worked too hard to get this damned state into the Union to see it leave”—and he flew the Union flag over his house til he died in 1862. As someone said, “You go tell Sam Houston,”—the only man to be governor in his lifetime of two states, the President of a sovereign Republic and leader of a Revolution—“to take down that flag.”)
And two years later, in 1848, we owned everything from sea to sea, except the lumpy parts of Arizona and New Mexico that we bought a few years later as the Gadsden Purchase.
Then we got busy killing each other in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry and then Sumter and the Civil War (“The War for Southern Independence” if you’re from the South.)
What about the guy in the diving suit in the Rozerem ad? After the Civil War and the croaking of Lincoln in his beaver hat (it was in his lap when he was fleetingly introduced to Mr. Booth that night), anyway, a couple of years after Lincoln’s death, we bought Alaska (completing our continental Rendezvous with Density, as Back to the Future has it) and we drove the Golden Spike on the Transcontinental Railroad linking the Union and the Pacific and we laid the Transatlantic Cable to Europe, putting us in contact with the rest of the world.
One of the advantages of the railroad was that you could shoot buffalo from the parlor car (since the railroads bisected the migration routes of the Northern and Southern herds of the Plains buffalo) and collect only their tongues to eat, and leave the carcasses to rot, so the Native Americans, instead of starving, would have to move onto the reservations and be given diseased, scrawny beef by the Great White Father in Washington (and his corrupt buddies and brothers). Hence the Alamo ads, with the beaver (alpha) and buffalo (omega) of Westward-immigrant-sucking wildlife resources.
I’m not sure all this occurred to the people behind the ads (I’d like to think it did). I think the Rozerem people were looking for some home-grown Surrealism: Lincoln, beaver, diver. And the Alamo people: two species of Western wildlife (see America first, before we’re gone).
If you think I’m wrong, consider this: the last US President to wear a hat to his inaugural was John F. Kennedy. It was a stovepipe (“beaver”) hat—probably silk in his case, and probably referred to as an “opera” hat. Anyway, it was there that he gave his “New Frontier” speech.
Coincidence or what?
Starting Tuesday we’re going to have a somewhat regular column-y/blog-y thing from that Master of the Typewriter, Howard Waldrop. Howard (author of tons of wonderful short stories, some of which can be found in Howard Who?) will type them out, mail them to us, someone here (or elsewhere, thanks Cindy!) will type them out, and we will try and post them once a week or so. Until one of us drops the ball.
Titled Blog Like Me, Howard will be writing on anything he damn well pleases. The first one, up tomorrow, is “Your (Manifest Destinies) Miss You” and is about recent TV ads, beavers, and the Louisiana Purchase, all tied together in that inimitable Waldropian manner.