JUST WONDERIN', which I wrote and directed, features one of my favorite actors, Jim Noble.
Monday, May 5, 2014
JUST WONDERIN', which I wrote and directed, features one of my favorite actors, Jim Noble.
Friday, April 18, 2014
A FAREWELL TO ARCH
On his old TV show Steve Allen had a great bit, where he would open the daily newspaper and read aloud the Letters to the Editor, sent in by cranky readers. Steverino would declaim in a voice of sputtering indignation, making the complaints seem absurdly overheated. “Dear Editor: Now you’ve gone too far! This is too much! I am truly peeved! Enough is enough! You have lost my business! Signed, Irate!” And we would all laugh at the extravagant, operatic outrage being expended on the pettiest of grievances. The things people get worked up over!
Well, I am truly peeved. Someone has really gotten my goat.
I was on Facebook last week, and in the course of my browsing I glanced over at the Trending side-bar, which is an essential tool for the modern social-media maven (“What’s trending? Who’s trending? Am I trending?”), and there I saw three words that acted like a syringe of ice water to my veins –
“DEATH OF ARCHIE”.
Death of Archie? Archie who? Surely not ----?
Yes, Archie Andrews. Son of Fred and Mary Andrews, perpetual student at Riverdale High School, fickle beau of Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, habitué of Pop Tate’s Chocklit Shoppe, lifelong rival of Reggie Mantle, friend of Jughead Jones.
Archie is dead. Or will be, come July.
The bastards are killing him off. In the final issue of the infelicitously-titled “Life with Archie” series, the beloved comic book character will be murdered - knifed or shot, trying to help a friend, thus dying a hero’s death. I don’t know the specifics, but there’s a picture of Archie on the sidewalk, or maybe it’s a subway platform, and there’s blood pouring from his stomach, and Betty and Veronica are by his side while spectators stand by with anguished looks.
This is not the way I wanted Archie to go. I thought he would last well into his golden years, happily married to Betty (we all know that if he’d married Veronica first, the marriage would have foundered swiftly under the weight of economic inequality, and Betty would have snagged him on the rebound, fresh from her own misbegotten marriage to that slick-haired heel Reggie). They would have had a brood of little Archies, male and female, who would have followed in Dad’s madcap footsteps, and then there would be grandchildren and a whole spin-off industry. Archie would join the country club and drive a Prius, and finally succumb from old age, surrounded at his bedside by family and remaining friends. Jughead would be there, gray-haired and feeble but still wearing that inane pointy hat.
But no. Instead, he’ll be cut down in his prime, barely out of college, his whole fictional life ahead of him, leaving the rest of us with nothing but questions. No more Archie - how can this be? Why can this be? What backroom genius hatched this benighted idea, and who approved it? I can imagine the creative honchos gathered around a table, trying to cobble together a neat gimmick to revive their tired franchise. Up pops a bright young man with an outside-the-box vision: “How about this? Archie dies!” A bewildered pall sits over the gaggle, as the enormity of this suggestion seeps into their collective brainpans like oil from a leaky filter. “Archie dies? But Archie is our raison d’etre. Archie is our tentpole character!” “Tents are for wimps!” the young man replies, and with such savvy conviction that it almost appears he has said something meaningful. “This will be a game-changer! It’ll be hailed as a bold narrative leap, and a searing social statement! And it will make us a bucket of cash!” Now the idea passes around the room from one bean-counting head to the next, and a consensus forms. Somebody starts to do the Slow Clap, and the Young Man beams, besotted with himself and his transformative mind.
All well and good for the suits. For the rest of us, this is confounding. It violates everything we’ve learned about the comic universe. Nobody dies in the comics, especially not in Riverdale. Crusty money-grubbing Mr. Lodge didn’t die. Nor did the morbidly obese Mr. Weatherbee, or the dessicated Miss Grundy. So why Archie – Archie, the very spirit of youth and promise, the can-do kid, the guy you wanted to be best friends with, because he was popular but not stuck-up, he drove a cool jalopy and he had plenty of girls around him, including his foxy cousin Josie, who was a band chick and you know what that meant – a ringside seat at the submarine races!...Why does Archie have to go? What’s the point? Is the comic-book world really better off without him?
Not to worry, the publishers say. Archie’s not really gone. His earlier adventures will continue, in the regular Archie series, where he’ll still eat pizza and ogle bikinis. There will always be an Archie!
But it’s no fun now. How can I take pleasure in 17-year-old Archie’s juvenile escapades when I know that five scant years hence he’ll be clutching his punctured gut and gurgling a death rattle as he drifts up towards the light? His teenage life was ordinary enough; now it will retroactively become trivial and clueless.
And given this new somber direction, what’s going to happen at the funeral? Will Moose break down at the casket and declare his forbidden love for Archie? Will Big Ethel hook up with Dilton Doiley and repair to some motel off the interstate in a sad and desperate attempt to rewrite the past? Afterwards, will Veronica forsake her wealth and join one of Bono’s African crusades, will Betty start hitting the bottle and become a bloated mess haunting the aisles of WalMart?
Where, in other words, did all this gassy pretentious solemnity come from, and where is it going?
It all started, I suppose, with Marvel, and their embrace of the neurotic superhero. Prior to that we had the mighty DC crew: Superman, Batman, the Flash, Wonder Woman; simple, straightforward characters with no dark brooding inner torments. All they cared about was Truth, Justice and the American Way. They saved the world, and then went back to whatever they were doing. Then along came Spiderman and the Hulk and all those other conflicted Mutants with Issues. And people – that is to say, the more evolved nerds - lauded the introduction of mature themes and adult conflicts. Finally, comic books were growing up.
But why should they grow up? They’re comics, for christ’s sake. Books, with pictures, for kids.
Every Sunday after church, we would go to the stationery next to my grandparent’s house, and buy a handful of comic books. My grandfather would give us a dollar and say “Here, get some for everybody”, and my brother and I would pick out our favorites – Jack loved Superman and Action Comics, I preferred Batman and Flash, but in lieu of that we would grab Justice League of America, Green Lantern, Richie Rich, Beetle Bailey, Casper the Friendly Ghost – we’d get my cousin Gail a copy of either Wonder Woman or Wendy the Good Little Witch, but we would read them first – and we’d also grab an issue or Archie, or Betty and Veronica, or any of the various Riverdale collections.
And after breakfast we would sit on the overstuffed chairs in the living room and read them. We, the kids. Nobody else. Grandpa paid for them, but he didn’t read them. He read The Journal-American, and The Sporting News, and Grit and Steel, the official magazine of competitive cockfighting. He apparently read Playboy, which we occasionally found stashed in the back of the magazine rack, and I’m sure he enjoyed the sophisticated cartoons scattered therein. But he didn’t read comic books. Because they were for kids.
I have no problem with Marvel raising the stakes and making their superheroes complex and “interesting” (although I can live without the ponderous noisy semi-Wagnerian movie versions of same), but you can easily ride that gravitas train into a cul-de-sac of pomposity, where dramatic license checkmates common sense and the narratives become as weighty and overstuffed as my grandparent’s chairs. And killing off Archie Andrews is, I submit, the tipping point.
Archie simply doesn’t lend himself to serious consideration. He’s got freckles, and he wears varsity sweaters and sneakers, and he drinks milkshakes. That’s as deep as he gets. He also has some kind of hashtag on the side of his head, which denotes something inscrutable about his hair. The only major discussion his comic-book world has ever generated is the parlor game of personal taste that supposedly illuminates the landscape of the individual male psyche: Betty or Veronica?
The correct answer, of course, is “Betty” (just as the correct answer in the corresponding “Gilligan’s Island” is “Mary Anne”), and all guys know this. They know that no girl outwardly identifies with Veronica, the spoiled entitled rich Wasp, so to select her would ipso facto demonstrate a total lack of appreciation for a real woman.
In his secret heart of hearts, however, the true answer for any adolescent boy would be, I’ll take anyone: Veronica, Betty, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, whoever makes herself available. Like I’m in a position to choose?
An even more measured response would be, none of them. I would choose none of them because, hello, they’re not real.
Some would chide me here for being too literal and unimaginative. Don’t be so pedantic! It’s just a game! We know they’re not real!
Do we? Do we know that Tony Soprano is not real? Do we know that Hans Solo and Yoda are not real? Do we know that Bill O’Reilly is not real? (see, now it gets tricky)
The Betty/Veronica litmus test is harmless enough as a sociological experiment. It’s when the borders between reality and fantasy get redrawn more often than a Congressional district that we have to wonder, how much undeserved weight can we keep giving to these childish otherworlds before our ability to distinguish true value, and the value of truth, completely collapses?
Identifying with fictional characters or famous personages from the past is nothing new. There have always been people who thought they were Napoleon or Julius Caesar. But unless they had a great deal of money at their disposal, they were considered nuts. Nowadays, we’re not so judgmental. Maybe they’re channeling. Maybe they’re performance artists. Maybe they’ve stepped through a wrinkle in time.
This tradition of delusional identification is given a populist twist on Facebook, with the ubiquitous “What character from Harry Potter/Downton Abbey/Mad Men/Game of Thrones/ The New Testament/50 Shades of Grey are you?”
You answer a few flattering personality questions, and then you get to declare, “I’m Lord Grantham!” “I’m Hermione!” “I’m Gollum!” “I’m the Second Thief on the Cross, the one who befriended Jesus and told the other thief to shut up and die already!” (full disclosure: I’m Bates)
Now theoretically we all realize that we’re not these fabricated characters and they are not us, and we’re just engaging in a lighthearted lark. Right?
I'm not sure. When seemingly sensible people spend hours upon hours fighting XBox zombies and surfing cat videos and gorging on “reality” shows which are about as real as unicorns – watching semi-actors wrestle catfish and build duck decoys and buy houses in Costa Rica and raise octuplets – when our friends and neighbors spend half the waking day living other people’s lives - I have to wonder.
But as you see, I’ve fallen into the trap myself. I’ve started taking reality personalities and video avatars and comic book characters seriously.
When I was a kid, my favorite magazine of all time (before I lost my innocence and became addicted to “Mad”), was “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” It came out once a month, and featured articles on all the great monsters – Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. – both in their original Universal incarnations and their full-color Hammer revivals. Other monster movies were spotlighted too: The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Incredible Shrinking Man, the Amazing Colossal Man, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Monster from Piedras Blancas, The Thing from Outer Space…All manner of beasts were represented.
I loved monsters as a boy, and that magazine spoke to me like no other. It was edited by Forrest J. Ackerman, as heroic a figure to me as JFK. He treated monsters seriously, as I did. The worst monster films ever made were accorded respect in his pages.
In the back of this seminal magazine, as in all comics, there were ads and offers for all kinds of interesting novelties. You know, joy buzzers and sea monkeys, and the famous X-ray glasses which could see right through a woman’s clothes – yowza!
And one time, a set of Monster Decals. Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy… Six in all. Stick them on your wall, on your car window. Scare the bejeezus out of your friends! For a mere 3.99, these fearsome, frightening creatures can be yours!
I had to have them. I talked my mother into sending a check, and I paid her back with my communion money. My mind raced with the possibilities. I would put a Frankenstein decal on my bedroom door, and a Wolfman decal on my bookbag, and a Dracula on the refrigerator…!
I waited months. The ad said, “allow 6 to 8 weeks for delivery.” It took longer than that. Every day I checked the milk box where the postman left our mail. Every day, nothing.
Finally, a small envelope arrived, and I recognized the return address. Puzzled but excited, I opened the envelope, and pulled out a small single sheet. The decals were attached. There they were, Frankenstein, Dracula, the whole crew. Frightening and fearsome, and no more than two inches tall.
I was devastated. They were barely bigger than the ad. And their heads were comically oversized, so that they looked less like monsters than munchkins. It was reminiscent of that scene in “This is Spinal Tap”, when the miniature Stonehenge is revealed. This is it? I waited three months for this cheap crap?
Even though I knew they weren’t directly responsible and had merely sold the ad space to some third-party shyster, my faith in Famous Monsters and Forrest J. Ackerman was forever tainted. How could they allow their devoted readers to be rooked like this? How could they impugn the integrity of their own monsters?
That’s when I knew the game was rigged. Buy into our fantasy, swallow our belief system, and we’ll dash your dreams on the way to the bank.
It’s no different now. The Archie-killers can make all the grandiose claims they want about taking bold narrative risks and injecting gravitas and delivering a moral statement for our times, but we all know the real goal is to gin up sales before they close the books on an ill-advised business venture. They don’t have any real understanding of the Archie ethos, and they don’t care.
And if Archie were alive today, you know how he’d feel about this transparently craven assault on his legacy? Well, he’s too wholesome and all-American to say it, but I will:
And I think Pop Tate and Miss Grundy, and even Reggie, would agree.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
THE BALLAD OF BRUCE FOSTER
THE BALLAD OF BRUCE FOSTER
Every neighborhood bar has its roster of stock characters: the bullshit artist, the practical joker, the windy philosopher, the sports nut, the husband-and-wife alcoholic tag team, the insufferable know-it-all, the Wall Street asshole, the outright psychotic. It’s called Local Color, and it’s an inescapable fact of bar life.
Similarly, every bar has a Bruce Foster – a guy who seems to embody all the aspects of the term “loser”. A chronic screw-up, a bonehead, a reverse alchemist who can turn gold into dross. He’ll have a nickname like “Sully” or “Weed”, or maybe something ironic like “Chief”.
We had the actual Bruce Foster. He didn’t have a nickname; he was Bruce Foster. Bruce wasn’t the original loser, the template for all losers to come, but he was perhaps the apotheosis. Clueless, bumbling, his own worst enemy, Bruce would instinctively put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was never the guy you wanted on your side, because he would always find a way to make things worse. As John Crimmins would say, “That guy could fuck up a wet dream.”
Everyone had a story about Bruce Foster. I have one too, and although it’s probably not the strangest predicament he’s ever gotten himself into - not the most precarious, nor the most ridiculous – it’s still a representative sample of the tribulations that regularly dotted his life’s path.
I’m guessing it was spring, because it was still light out at 6 o’clock, but would be dark soon after. Bruce was coming home on the 6:04 train. He was working at the time in Mineola, I think. Bruce was always working somewhere; you never knew where - sometimes the bowling alley, sometimes the car wash – and you never knew why. Because you couldn’t imagine anyone willingly employing Bruce. It had to be a desperation hire. “At this point I’ll take anybody!” Anybody was Bruce.
The bar was reasonably full that evening when Bruce came in the back door. He was wearing his default Bruce Foster outfit: faded black jeans, a blue plaid shirt and a NY Yankees hat. Bruce was a rabid Yankee fan, in the literal sense that he would almost foam at the mouth. Under the influence of various chemicals, he’d stand right beneath the television and scream with every base hit and shout profane imprecations at every error. Sometimes he’d wave a Yankee pennant right in front of the screen, antagonizing not only the sizable segment of bar regulars who were Met fans, but also the Yankee fans who wanted to see the game. “Get the fuck out of the way!” they would suggest, but he wouldn’t, because that was the thing about Bruce, he didn’t have an internal gauge on the corrosive effect of his behavior. He couldn’t sense when he was pissing people off. Just when he thought he was being brilliant and clever and entertaining, someone would suddenly punch him out, or a group of irate strangers would join forces to hurl him out the door, and it always mystified him. What was their problem?
No matter the slings and arrows that Bruce suffered, he always came back. People would break his chops mercilessly - he was such an easy target - and he would accept it as a natural consequence of his existence. Once we got a group together to go to Shea Stadium, and we took up two rows in the loge section. Bruce was sitting in front of us, wearing a hooded sweatshirt. In the course of the game – during which Bruce was doing his usual obnoxious screaming fan shtick, drawing dark hostile looks from the Met faithful – somebody in our second row had the inspiration of tossing an empty peanut shell into Bruce’s open hood. That opened the floodgates: by the end of the game the sweatshirt hood was brimming with peanut shells, contributed from all directions. He was completely unaware, of course – he went through life completely unaware - and it wasn’t until we were walking back to the train and it started drizzling that Bruce pulled up his hood and his head was showered with peanut shells. “What the fuck…?” He immediately looked up at the sky, as if the gods were responsible for yet another indignity, but then he caught us laughing. “Oh,” he said, “Real funny.” And it was.
Bruce had a girlfriend named Maria. Maria was a tough cookie, thin and hard, her sharp-angled body taking its lead from the hatchet-like nose that defined her face and her character. Maria was, to put it mildly, possessive. She had her hooks into Bruce, and she wasn’t going to let him go until she was good and ready. He belonged to her, and you got the sense that if he even tried to wriggle free she would kill him. She would actually kill him.
Accordingly, Bruce was always trying to avoid her. One day the bar phone rang, and Bruce gave a warning wave: “If that’s Maria, I’m not here!” I answered the phone. It was Maria. “Bruce isn’t here,” I told her. “Bullshit!” said Maria. “I’m sitting in the parking lot right now, and I can see him through the window! Put him on the phone!” Defeated, Bruce trudged to the phone booth, closed the door, and spent the next fifteen minutes nodding disconsolately into the receiver as Maria reamed him out. Then he emerged from the booth with a springy bravado, declaring, “It’s all good!”
Another time Bruce was sitting at the bar and Maria’s car pulled up in front, the wheels squealing to an angry stop. That’s all Bruce needed to see. He jumped off his stool and raced to the men’s room to hide. A moment later Maria burst into the bar like a charging rhino, and marched straight across the room to the bathroom door. She hammered on it with Thor-like thunder: “I know you’re in there!” She always seemed to know. She waited with arms folded and nostrils snorting until Bruce emerged sheepishly, head bowed, like a dog waiting to be beaten, and off they went without a word.
They were, in short, a perfect match. And yet it came as no surprise when Maria suddenly wound up engaged to somebody else. She was no bargain, but even she deserved better.
It didn’t bother Bruce. He moved blithely on to the next adventure, the next disaster.
As in that fateful evening, when he got off the 6:04 train and strode purposefully through the back door of the bar like a man on a mission. “Hey Freddy” (he always called me Freddy, which was annoying in itself), “can I borrow your car?”
“My car?” I said in disbelief. This was an incredible request. I couldn’t think of any circumstances under which I would ever let Bruce borrow my car. I didn’t even like having Bruce in my car. He was the kind of person whom bad luck followed, to the point where you suspected that his mere presence in the passenger seat would pull an oncoming tractor-trailer into your lane like a magnet. And you dreaded the thought that everyone at your wake would be whispering about the strange turn of events that left you, in your last moments on earth, sitting next to Bruce Foster.
“I just have to run up to the house and get my wallet,” he said. He was sharing a house up on the hill in Colonial Park with a couple of friends (“friends” being the flexible term for a bunch of guys who needed a live body to share the rent, and were generally too coked up themselves to notice those qualities of Bruce’s that would make him a less than desirable housemate). “I’ll be right back,” he promised.
Now I had seen Bruce in action many times, and I had a pretty good idea of where his level of fucked-upness was at any given moment. As I studied him now, I was struck by the unnatural clearness of his eyes. He was probably as stone cold sober as I’d ever seen him.
I quickly weighed the pros and cons of this decision. Bruce definitely needed his wallet, because he had long since exhausted the privilege of running a bar tab, and without cash he wouldn’t be able to hang out. Did I want him hanging out? No, but still, a customer was a customer. If he was going to get drunk, he might as well do it here.
What about my car? It was a 1983 Cutlass Ciera, with plenty of miles on it, nothing special. The downside appeared to be small.
So I gave him my keys. “Come right back,” I told him.
“Oh yeah,” said Bruce, as he headed down the back steps.
Matt McDonnell, always a sage if cynical observer of the human condition, had been watching the transaction from a few stools removed. He was mildly incredulous. “You’re lending Bruce your car?
“It’s okay,” I said. “He’s sober.”
Matt shook his head. “You’re crazy.”
I knew he was right. Bruce was going to screw this up somehow, that was a given. But it was too late now, he was gone.
Not two minutes after Bruce left, a tall beefy fellow with a red face came in the back door. I recognized him as a Glen Cove city cop, Reggie something. He was off-duty now, and in a state of agitation. He surveyed the room, and didn’t find what he was looking for. So he came to the end of the bar and called me over. “Did a guy with a plaid shirt and a Yankee hat come in here?”
There are moments in bartending when it seems not only prudent but necessary to lie, and simply by observing the undulant rippling of the purple veins on Reggie’s forehead, I could tell that this was one of those moments. “No,” I said.
“No? Are you sure?” He gave me the classic cop look: eyes narrowing, back straightening, restrained menace in his aspect. His body language was clear: “Are you shitting me? Because you’d better not be shitting me.”
Nevertheless, I proceeded to shit him. “I didn’t see him,” I said. Be assured, if I thought this was official police business, I would have given up Bruce in a minute. As Rick Blaine would say, I stick my neck out for no one. But I got the impression that this was more of a personal matter, and I wasn’t going to toss Bruce to the wolves until I knew the exact nature of his folly. “Why? What happened?”
Reggie looked towards the two exits, perhaps hoping that the plaid-shirted Yankee fan would walk in now, and he could summarily take care of business without having to disclose the nature of his discontent to a relative stranger. But as there was no sign of Bruce, he finally came out with it:
“What happened? This joker exposed himself to my wife on the train! That’s what happened!”
I did not see that coming. “Really?”
“My wife. Just now. On the train.”
“Wow.” I was sincere in my horror. This was about as unpleasant and disturbing an image as one could conjure. Bruce, with his scruffy beard and Yankee hat, opening his pants on the LIRR and…yecch.
“Then he followed her off the train and into the parking lot. She was scared for her life. She said he walked down the driveway and came in here.”
“Really? In here? Well, I didn’t see him…”
Reggie repeated with extra emphasis, just to make sure I got the picture: “He was wearing a Yankee hat and a plaid shirt!”
Had this been a movie, this would have been the optimal moment for Bruce to stroll in the back door - in his Yankee hat and plaid shirt - and hand me the car keys. “Thanks for letting me use your car, Freddy!” And then all hell would break loose: broken bottles, chairs flying, Bruce thrown through the back bar mirror, etc.
But Bruce didn’t walk in, and I was eager to get rid of Officer Reggie before he did. “Maybe he went to Wimbledon’s,” I suggested. Wimbledon’s was a disco right down the street, and you could access it by cutting through our backyard.
“She said he came in here.” Reggie glanced into the back room.
“He’s not back there, is he?”
“No. Go ahead and look.”
Reggie paced some more, clenched his fists a couple of times, and then issued his final word on the subject. “If this prick comes in, you tell him, if I ever catch him, I’m gonna bury his head in cement!” He turned and left.
I looked over at Matt. “Did you hear that?”
He heard it. “Bruce was waxing his bean!” he chuckled.
“He was dashing his dan, all right.”
“That guy’s gonna kill him.”
“Yeah,” Matt agreed. And we both laughed. Because, even if it weren’t true, it was such a quintessential Bruce move: exposing yourself to a cop’s wife. Classic!
About ten minutes later, I saw my white Cutlass cruising through the parking lot and pulling into the back driveway. I was anxious to give Bruce the news: he needed to get the hell out of here, and burn his hat and his plaid shirt pronto. It was truly a matter of life and death.
But when the back door opened, it was a very different Bruce who walked in. His eyes were red, his nose was redder. He was walking sideways. He was coked to the gills.
“Thanks, Freddy,” he said, tossing my keys on the bar and falling into a stool. “Can I have a beer, please?”
I couldn’t believe it. “What happened to you?”
He looked at me , his eyes watery and unfocused. “What?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.
“You were only gone ten minutes. How did you get so coked up?”
“I’m not coked up,” he insisted.
“You’re stoned out of your mind,” said Matt with flat disdain.
“No I’m not,” said Bruce, looking vaguely in Matt’s direction. Then he smiled in recognition. “Hey, Matty!”
“Listen,” I said, “you have to get out of here.”
“Come on, just one beer. I have money now.”
”A cop was in here looking for you.”
“A cop?” He gave a semi-smirk. “Why?”
“Because you exposed yourself to his wife,” I explained.
Bruce frowned, thought this over, and returned to the original subject. “Just one beer…”
“Bruce, did you hear me? You’re in a lot of trouble. This woman says you exposed yourself on the train, and her husband’s a cop, and he’s looking for you. He says he’s gonna bury your head in cement!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Bruce stared down at the bar. I could see he was still trying to figure out how to get a beer.
“You have to get out of here,” I tried to impress upon him. “He might come back any minute.”
“I don’t care. I’ll tell him she was wrong.”
“She was wrong? And what, you think he’s going to believe you? You’re totally fucked up.”
“I’m not fucked up. I’m fine. I’m not afraid of any cops. Can I have a beer, please?”
I had other customers to deal with, so for the moment I left Bruce to his altered mind-state. By the time I got back, planning to make one more plea to his sense of self-preservation, he had already come up with a new tack:
“Freddy - can I borrow your car again?”
“I ordered a meatball hero from Sal’s Pizza. I have to pick it up.”
“No, you can’t borrow my car. You’re totally stoned!”
“Will you get out of here? Someone is coming to kill you! Don’t you understand? You already dodged one bullet – now you want to go driving around when you’re all drugged-up?”
“I’ll be right back, I promise.”
I walked away, shaking my head. Why was I wasting my time with this guy? Let Officer Reggie beat the shit out of him. It might be the best thing in the long run anyway.
But Bruce wanted that meatball hero, and once again his marvelously stupid resilience came to the fore, as he spotted Lou Noon at the other end of the bar. Lou Noon was an older regular, and one of the nicest guys in the world. He would do anything for you. He’d even loan you his car, if he was awake.
Which at the moment he wasn’t. Lou worked a night shift as a security guard, so he had a tendency to fall asleep at any time, especially after a surfeit of Budweiser. Right now he was sleeping peacefully with his head down on the bar.
This did not deter Bruce Foster. He walked over and nudged Lou’s shoulder. “Hey Lou, can I borrow your car for a minute?”
Lou Noon raised his head sleepily. “Sure.” He handed his keys over, and then lowered his head and went back to sleep. I don’t think he even knew who he was giving his car to.
Keys in hand, Bruce headed out the front door. “Bruce…!” I called after him. “at least take off your hat!” But he was gone. Driving stoned in somebody else’s car with an off-duty cop looking for him…This couldn’t end well.
It was only fifteen minutes later when a police car pulled up in front of the bar. In the front seat was – Bruce.
“They got him,” said Matt. “Dashing Dan.”
But it wasn’t Officer Reggie driving, it was some other cop. What was this about? Why was Bruce in the front seat? And why did they bring him back here?
After a moment, Bruce and the Cop got out of the car and came inside. As the Cop waited by the door, Bruce waved me over to the side of the bar, obviously bearing some distressing news. He tried to break it to me as gently as possible.
“Freddy – don’t get upset – but somebody stole your car!”
“I came out of Sal’s Pizza, and your car was gone! Somebody must have stolen it! I looked everywhere!”
Somebody stole my car? In the midst of the general madness, I momentarily believed him. But then I walked to the back door, and looked out into the yard. My car was right where he’d parked it.
“Bruce,” I pointed out, “My car is right there.”
Bruce went blank for a moment. He looked at my car as if he were experiencing some kind of miraculous vision. Then he started fitting the pieces into place, and it was a wondrous thing to see his slack face slowly crystallize into a Sherlock-Holmesian moment of illumination. “Oh!” he realized, and I believe he actually slapped his forehead. “I have Lou Noon’s car!”
By now the Cop had picked up a few intimations that things weren’t quite what they seemed, and he approached us looking for an explanation. “What’s up here?” he asked, with a definite edge in his voice.
Bruce was apologetic. “It was a mistake. I thought I had Freddy’s car, but I had someone else’s. It’s probably still at Sal’s Pizza. That’s funny.” He gave a rather goofy, stillborn laugh.
“So there’s no stolen car?” said the Cop. He looked pissed.
“No,” said Bruce meekly.
The Cop stared at Bruce a moment, probably trying to think of a good excuse to run him in. Bruce started to launch into a fuller explanation, but the Cop stopped him in mid-sentence: “Okay pal, you wanna get your fucking meatball hero out of my car?”
After the Cop had driven off, and Bruce had the sandwich tucked safely under his arm, we explained the train situation to him one more time. The intervening stress had apparently sobered Bruce up a little, because he was finally receptive to the story’s implications, and he quickly formulated a game plan. “I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
Which he did, taking his meatball hero with him.
And that was it. Officer Reggie never came back to bury Bruce’s head in cement, and we never did find out if Bruce had actually exposed himself on the 6:04 train or not.
Nobody really wanted to know.
About an hour later, Lou Noon woke up from his nap, took a last sip of beer, and walked out the door. He returned a moment later. “Where’s my car?”
Monday, December 23, 2013
AWAY IN A MANGER
(Midnight Mass at St. Edward the Confessor’s.
A church altar, with a crèche scene to the side. In the crèche there are statues of Joseph and Mary, Wise Men, Shepherds, and various livestock; but the manger crib itself is empty.
FATHER MIKE is at the altar, assiduously cleaning up the chalice after communion. Oddly, he appears to be humming softly to himself an amalgam of carols, from “O Come All Ye Faithful” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. After setting the chalice in place, he approaches the pulpit, just a bit unsteadily – he may have had a drink or two - and addresses the congregation)
We will close tonight’s Midnight Mass Service by the traditional placing of the baby Jesus in the manger and the singing of our concluding hymn, “Joy to the World” – always a moment to treasure - but first I have a few announcements.
(reads from a sheet)
(reads from a sheet)
I’d like to thank the Ladies’ Eucharistic Society for giving so generously of their time and talent in decorating the church for Christmas. The magnificent poinsettias gracing the altar, and the wreaths adorning the walls, were donated by Hick’s Nursery, and we thank them as well. The church has never looked more beautiful.
(Father Mike looks up from the sheet, checks out the altar, and shrugs. He resumes reading)
We also want to thank the custodial staff for getting the church cleaned up in time for tonight’s Mass. We had a Living Nativity for the children this afternoon, and some of the animals got a little over-expressive.
(points off left)
It was mostly over in this section. You can’t smell anything now, can you?
(back to the sheet)
Kudos once again to the adult choir, led by our esteemed choirmaster, Edward Fartstain – Fairsteen, I’m sorry. As always, they sang like the heavenly host itself. I heard notes tonight I’ve never heard before.
And of course a special nod to the New Ambrosian Bell-Ringers and their spirited rendition of one of my all-time favorite carols, “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead.”
(reacts to o.s. whisper)
What is it...? “Ding Dong Merrily on High”! - of course. Just kidding.
(tries a joke)
Speaking of bell-ringers, did you hear about the riot at the Quasimodo Look-alike Contest? Things were going fine at first, but then the crowd turned ugly.
That’s an old one.
(back to the sheet)
Looking ahead, the schedule for New Year’s Day will be the same as a regular Sunday; we will be celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family. Which in the old days was the Feast of the Circumcision. I guess somebody nipped that in the bud. Heh heh.
Anyway, that’s it for announcements.
(tosses the sheet aside, and takes a moment)
Now, on a personal note: as you may know, this will be my last Midnight Mass here at St. Edward the Confessor. At the end of January I’ll be leaving for another parish. I was hoping to stick around for the Super Bowl party at the Moose Lodge, which is always a blast, but apparently my new church needs me desperately. Although they haven’t told me where I’m going yet. Anyway, if I happen to win the pool, please give my winnings to the poor. Actually, I’ll send a forwarding address.
(loses his footing momentarily)
Whoa! They always put too much wax on this marble…Or maybe it's me. We had a little Christmas Eve get-together in the rectory this evening, and truth be told, I’m a little toasted. Not that this in any way compromised my solemn observance of the liturgy. I’ve been much worse than this, believe me. I’ve said Masses where I was half-blind. Father Andrew will bear me out on this.
In fact, he almost did bear me out one time. Last Pentecost Sunday, remember? - I was speaking in tongues. Gonna miss you, Andy. My old drinking buddy. Maker’s Mark!
(expels a deep breath)
Anyhoo…I’ll be going soon, and leaving behind a lot of memories. I’ve been here at St. Edward’s for 26 years, and as I look out over this congregation I see so many familiar faces. And I just want you to know that I will miss all of you, and by that I mean I will miss some of you.
The rest of my flock have left scars on my faith that will never be healed. I’ve heard things in the confessional that would turn most people’s stomachs. And by the way, I knew who you were, no matter how you tried to disguise your voices. Frankly it’s only because I’m filled with the love of Jesus that I can look at you without throwing up.
But - let he who is without sin cast the first stone, as the Good Book says. And in that spirit of humility, I’d like to make a few confessions of my own before I go:
You all know me as wise, affable, saintly Father Mike, but that’s not who I am. For one thing, my name isn't Mike. It's Gaylord. I didn't think “Father Gaylord” really sent the right message.
(points to his hair)
This is a wig. Not sure how many of you knew that.
For the last ten years, I’ve been copying all my sermons off the Internet. I didn’t even know what I was talking about half the time.
I never met the Pope. That picture in my office is photoshopped.
Remember back in ’96, we had that fire in the old rectory, and I was a big hero for saving Monsignor Keller and Father Tom, who were both passed out in the parlor? Well - I was the one who started the fire in the first place. I was smoking in bed, and I dozed off watching Letterman. As the kids say, my bad.
And then there was the time the Bingo money went missing, and we had to fire Carlos the landscaper, because I spotted him sneaking out the back of the parish hall with a brown paper bag?
(shakes his head)
Never happened. I took the money myself. Bought a nice big flat-screen TV at Best Buy.
As for that retreat upstate with the CYO traveling team, I still deny that anything untoward occurred. If it did, I was frankly too plastered to be responsible. That whole weekend was a blur. Maybe they took advantage of me – how about that?
But I can tell you this: when I’m sober, I’m as straight as a prize stallion. If you don’t believe me, ask Sister Mary Geraldine; or better yet, her obstetrician. I sometimes wonder what happened to that kid of ours. I think they shipped him to Minnesota. Maybe I’ll spend some of my free time trying to find him. Eh, whatever.
Finally, as I look back over my life in the priesthood – what, 35, 40 years – I am struck by the fact that it was probably a colossal waste of time. I don’t even know why I became a priest; I’m not really religious. But you know, I didn’t have a job at the time, and the draft was still on, and I thought it would be cool to be a bishop someday. Never happened. Never got to wear the big hat. And now that they’re shipping me out to pasture, I guess it’s Game Over.
(shouts up heavenwards)
Thanks a lot, pal! If there’s ever anything I can do for you…!
That’s a waste of time too. If there is a God up there, He sure as hell isn’t listening to me. I know, this is pretty heavy stuff for Christmas Eve, but what can I say? It is what it is. I’m not a sacred conduit, I'm not a vessel of divine light; I’m a powerless cipher. I can’t do anything for you. I can’t intercede, and I can’t forgive your sins. I can’t forgive my sins…
(after a beat; Father Mike brightens, and picks up the statue of baby Jesus)
But that’s why this little guy is here - right?
(faces the statue of Jesus out to the crowd)
Check it out, kid. Everyone came to wish you a Happy Birthday! Not bad, huh? Packed house! You’ve still got it! Okay, Manger Time - let’s do it!
(Father Mike staggers as he approaches the stable.
At the last moment, just before he crashes into the tableau, he suddenly pulls himself up straight, and gently places the baby in the crib. He kneels and bows his head in prayer. After a moment, he rises and turns to the congregation)
(As he walks off tipsily, the choir sings “Joy to the World”)
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