Begging your indulgence, dear friends...the vague malaise that was prodding at me a couple of weeks ago seems to be returning with a vengeance. I spent most of the weekend trying to determine whether the sore throat I’d picked up was an incipient head cold, another mysterious industrial pollutant in the neighborhood or a sign from the Fates that it’s time to freakin’ dust, already. I decided to sweat it out on the treadmill at lunch and was rewarded with a wave of exhaustion and what feels like a low-grade fever. Well, at least it will keep me warm when the blizzard rolls in.
Belated thanks and applause to nakedjen, Snowball and Kenneth, who answered my Five Questions so sweetly and thoughtfully. (Kenneth’s description of Reading Terminal Market is worth the price of whatever you’re paying for your ISP. For those of you who have never been to Philadelphia, trust us: Reading Terminal Market is the most wonderful place in the world, and he nailed it in four paragraphs.) Additional thanks and a round of lemon-drop shots to Alicia and goliard, who did not let me twist in the wind, but posted their own zingy replies to orionoir’s Five Questions. No thanks to orionoir for putting us through that. Dude, one of these days your luck is going to run out.
When I was on my sabbatical the week before last, feeling lonely, fractious and bumpy, the fabulous, sexy and not-at-all-evil Walt rode to my rescue by mailing me a pair of books that he knew would cheer me up. Indeed they did. (Walt is a genius at knowing when I’m down and in need of old Hollywood gossip and trivia: last summer he mailed me a copy of Louella Parsons’ Tell it to Louella, which I received on August 14, the day of the blackout.)
One of them is Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s. I haven’t started it yet because I picked up the other one first, but Walt says that there are good stories abounding in it, including some about Charles Laughton massaging his own genitals with stage fright. Friends, I don’t ask more from my Hollywood trivia than that. The other one, the one I am deep into now, is Alexander King’s May This House Be Safe From Tigers. I don’t know how I got this far in life without hearing of Alexander King (although the fact that both of his books are out of print; Tigers was published in 1961), but now that I’ve got him, I’m never letting him go. I asked Walt if Alexander King was famous for anything besides being a “poet, painter, cartoonist, raconteur and frequent guest on the Jack Paar show.” He has graciously given me permission to quote from his letter:
Alexander King is one of the stars of an unwritten book about the celebrities who rotated in and out of the Addiction Research Center of the US Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. They specialized in morphine and heroin and would take anybody, but there was a regular bus from NYC. If I remember right, Chet Baker for sure, Sonny Rollins, God knows who else, were his classmates. Wm Burroughs [Jr] wrote ‘Kentucky Ham’ about it. They used to dole out free drugs in exchange for permission to experiment on ‘em. To top that, they were experimented on by Dr. Harris Isbell, who was on the CIA payroll, and gave some of these poor guys LSD for 75 consecutive days.
He includes this informative, scary link.
But back to King. There are great, great stories in here, including a chapter on his trip down to Lexington, a polemic on the corrosive effect of advertising on the content of television shows, and some truly funny and inspired cartoons/slice of life vignettes. (A caveat: one thing that is less than great in here is King’s condescending and dismissive attitude toward gay people. It is not atypical of the prevailing mores of the day; in fact, it is probably much more tolerant than most of the prevailing mores of the day, but I’m still sorry to see it. I would like to think that if King had been born 30 years later, his attitude would have been different—but then again, if he had been born 30 years later, he would not be nearly the character that he was, shaped as he was by his time and place.)
There is not a single page that is not full of sublime, silly, profane, obscene, outraged, giddy language, and I’m afraid that given half the chance, I would quote the whole book right here. So instead I will try my damndest to not do so, and to leave you with this excerpt, which functions as an introduction to a tale of Alexander King watching a pair of seasoned, work-proud garbagemen and the sugarfoot trainee assigned to work with them:
These days I no longer keep any animals around the house, but once, quite a while ago, I was for some reason or another pretty deeply involved in raising hundreds and hundreds of tropical fish, andImust say I derived a great deal offun and even satisfaction out of this expensive pastime.
But I finally had to give it all up, because early one morning, while I was watching the stupendous accouchement of an overgravid fundulus gularis, a shattering flash of illumination came upon me. To tell you the truth, the effects of that bitter moment of enlightenment have never completely faded from my mind Even now I sometimes still find myself under the unhappy spell of it, although it all happened more than thirty years ago…
You must understand that it’s not that I’m afraid of being tempted back into my costly hobby again. No, no! Not a bit of it. Quite the contrary. It’s only that I can no longer bear to look at all those dopey fish opening and closing their goddamned mouths a million times a day. It just gets me down. It gets me down because I know that those poor bastards aren’t simply breathing or gasping for air. I know for a fact that they’re all really screaming - screaming - like crazy. Yes, screaming and giving off heartbreaking, soul-shattering submarine howls. And, do you know what it is that they’re all shouting?
They’re shouting, ”Look at Me! Please Look at Me! I’m so Original! I’m so Darling! I’m so Cute! Just Look at Me! and see how Unique I am! Look at me and Love me! Love me! Love me! Why don’t you Love me? Please! Please! Love me! Love me! Love me!”
That’s what these poor suckers are all saying. It’s awful!
And what makes it so terrible for me is that I know only too goddamned well that that’s exactly what everybody else is constantly saying too. I just don’t care to have a swampful of pop-eyed, screaming fish go on reminding me of it all the time.
Yes, I guess the pride in one’s own uniqueness is what keeps everybody going in this erratically operated sausage machine. I suppose that’s why a lot of people go off their rockers nowadays, because pride in one’s work, for instance, is certainly disappearing out of our world. It’s impossible to be proud of the crappy things that most people have to do to earn their living - and believe me, I don’t mean that any sort of real labor is ever debasing in itself. Just look at all our millionaires happily pfooshing around in their hobby shops, getting sawdust on their eyelashes and covering themselves with all sorts of decorative calluses which they can proudly show off at their clubs later on.
But what can be utterly debasing to the human spirit is if you have to earn your keep by performing some monotonous, mechanical gesture of such minute insignificance that even the smallest sense of achievement is totally absent from your endeavors.
Remember in my time I have known whimsical hod carriers, dignified sewer inspectors and even poetic chimney sweeps. Hey! I knew chimney sweeps...