The Liker

 

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The fire was a distant stimulus. A more urgent one was before her, on her laptop—her Facebook page. While she enjoyed perusing the updates from her 3,004 friends to discern salient facts about them, scrolling endlessly through their comments and photos for more clues about their likes, habits and tendencies, she inevitably returned to linger over her own page. She was far more interesting and had far more likable habits than anyone else that she knew. But today something was amiss. She looked beneath her update, staring at the tiny blue and white thumbs up icon that signified that someone liked her post. And there was nothing there.

At first she thought there was a glitch in the system, that the whole network had gone on the fritz, been hacked or something, but when she opened her newsfeed and checked the updates posted by her friends, she saw an avalanche of likes appearing in a constant stream. Likes centered around tart political zingers, links to cultural events, inspirational memes, acronymic airport codes indicating flight itineraries, trenchant observations about loofah gloves, blinding allegiances to various sports teams, adorably cute pet photos, lunch time oysters and other food porn pics, faux happy marriage and family photos, obese commuters eating cheese popcorn photos, the when-I-had-hair photos from middle-aged men, the when-I-was-skinny photos from middle-aged women, and of course the inevitable tribute to a friend who had succumbed to suicide and was now, forever more, interred in the digital necropolis. Each and every update from her network of friends had several, if not dozens of likes. She looked back at her post, then glanced at the clock. Five minutes had passed, and there was still not one single like.

Her post was certainly likeable. All of her posts were likeable. She loved posting and she loved being liked. She was not sure that she was that well liked in life; she certainly wanted to be liked, and usually felt liked, but she was never 100% certain. On Facebook, though, she was always sure that she was liked. The thumbs up icon and the number of people who had clicked it were definitive, hard boiled, quantifiable proof of it. That was why she was here. To like and to be liked. That was the only reason to be here.

And now this. No likes at all. She looked at her post, wondering what she’d done wrong. For the fourth or fifth time, she read her words:

Even at age five, I had an
uncanny sense of style.

It wasn’t so much the wisdom or cleverness of her words that she thought people would like, it was the overall effect, the careful crafting of her image, the wry contrast between her words and the historical picture accompanying it, which was of a small, tow-headed schoolgirl wearing ill-fitting, high-waisted pants, a too-tight blouse, and a smirking, self-assured, vainglorious expression that conveyed overflowing confidence and, even at the age of seven, an obliviousness to all things but herself. It was another “Throwback Thursday” picture, a proven like-generator of hers for years now. These nostalgic posts usually involved juxtaposing her current virtues or desired virtues against retro imagery of her, to make a not so subtle communiqué about how she wanted to be perceived in the present. The gentle use of irony, she thought, saved her from sounding egotistical.

Or did it? Again, she remembered how many times the formula had worked. How many times she’d used self-deprecation to trumpet her superiority, in yet another “humble brag.” Of course, she knew that for every like she courted and received from others, she would have to return the favor, and that each like of hers was strategically placed for maximum effect, to align herself with everyone and sympathize with every one of their daily sagas—their dreams, their fears, their innermost feelings and most unusual idiosyncrasies. She knew that by accepting this reciprocal agreement of liking and being liked back, that she was dooming herself to liking everything unconditionally, automatically, but as long as she received just as many likes back, or, hopefully, a whole lot more, it was worth it.

Whether it was a child graduating from middle school or a horribly burned frittata or an oh-so-mischievous kitty lurking in the laundry basket, she kept liking and liking and liking without ever tiring of liking, as she cheered on the antics, causes and beliefs of her extremely likeable, equally like-obsessed friends. Because the more she liked them, the more they would like her.

This was her surface game, anyway. The feigned concern, interest and admiration of others. However, even these likes were only a prelude to another tactic of hers, a point of intersection where she would insert herself into someone else’s conversational thread and lamprey the attention away from the subject at hand to reflect it back at herself. It took a careful sleight of hand to affect this dynamic, and she often wondered if her more prescient friends noticed how she always coopted the topic and steered it back her way, but, thankfully, no one ever made the observation. She also knew that even if anyone did make the realization, it was far too inane and subtle to mention publically, let alone on-line. So it was a moot point.

To her, Facebook was her daily talk show, starring her favorite person, her. And boy, did this favorite person have a lot to say. From the minute she awoke, in the car, on the train, over lunch, at her desk, in meetings, in elevators, in the kitchen, in line, on walks, on the toilet, her every brain wave, silly observation, innate fear, or wayward thought, no matter how shameful, indulgent or inane, was voiced. Spoken aloud, they would have doomed her to being shunned. But presented on line, the effect was mitigated, for it was her persona rather than her person that was to blame, because the on-line her and the real her were very different. In fact, it hardly seemed like there was a real her anymore. The only her was the on-line her now. Within its world there was safety, security; in its sea of likes it was easy, because there were only two options, liking and being liked, and when you enjoyed both, well, it was a very likable situation, this Facebook.

Except right now. There was no like right now. Because after fifteen minutes of staring at her laptop, not a single person had liked her post. She felt a flush of white-hot anger soar up to her temples and before she knew it she was slamming the laptop shut without even logging off properly.

 

Outside the train window, the river gleamed in the morning sun. But it didn’t exist at all. Not for her. She sat there, riveted to her phone, opening up Facebook, ready to see the reaction to the post she had made right before bed. It wasn’t anything too risqué, but it was a bit more provocative than usual. After the zero likes of yesterday, she couldn’t take any chances.

As the page loaded and she looked at the small globe notification icon that registered how much activity and interaction she was getting from her 3,004 friends, she was surprised to see that there wasn’t a single number beside it. In a mild daze, she clicked on her image, and went to her profile. Everything was in order; the pic of her when she was thirty pounds lighter was still smiling out at the world, as was the timeline imagery of the Louvre and its stunning, glass pyramid entranceway, which was her favorite part of the entire museum. She quickly scrolled down to her latest update, and once again, could not believe what she saw.

Despite the fact that she posted it at 10 p.m. last night, and it was now almost 8:30 a.m. the next morning, there had not been a single like.

She quickly reviewed the unglamorous shot of her and her stubbly husband swaddled in their rumpled sheets and reread her post:

After hopping into bed and thinking about sex,
the old married couple quickly fell asleep.

Not a hilarious post, but an attention-getting one, she thought. The bedrock of her marriage provided an endless vein of material that she often mined for engaging content. And their sex life, or lack thereof, was her number one topic. As was the bumbling, well-meaning, sitcom-like image of her husband and the tough, savvy, still havin’ sex or tryin’ to image of herself that she projected. Each day, several times a day, the two of them became a digital Ozzie and Harriett, beaming forth snippets of their uniquely fascinating romance out to their thousands of friends: the office friends, childhood friends, neighborhood friends, best friends, casual friends, the friends of friends, every one of the legions of acquaintances, ex-coworkers and semi-strangers that they’d managed to ensnare in their vast, ever-expanding web of likes got to see the two of them front and center, entertaining them all.

Many of these posts drove home the thought that she was still sexy and desirable. It was easy to be sexy and desirable on Facebook. On Facebook, she could select the images of herself she wanted everyone to see and control everything. The only problem was when someone would “tag” her, which never failed to result in an unflattering image of her being offered to the masses. To combat those random, hopelessly quotidian images that others put forth, she posted updates defining her as fetching and coquettish, even referring to herself as a “cougar” once, although she knew she could never live up to the salaciousness of the term, or the sleek, feline insouciance it implied.

Her occasional, but well-placed references to sex, as well as her noble efforts to still practice it with her languid, always-tired husband of eight years were a constant wellspring. They also served to hide the painful reality that she was well past the petite years, graying, wrinkling, sporting lunch lady arms and wearing a saddle of cellulite around her wine-swollen haunches. This was why she confined her lascivious posts to close-ups of candy apple red Christian Louboutin pumps, or detail shots of her Maybelline-stained eyelids and floridly painted lips. Two-piece swimsuits were unthinkable, but tastefully composed macro shots with the right cropping could at least hint at how MILF-ish and desirable she still was, couldn’t they?

These frequent posts about their sex life always garnered lots of responses, as navigating the shoals of marriage and couplehood were easy triggers to react to. Only this time, every single one of them had chosen NOT to react. Why? Was she suddenly repulsive? Did everyone, overnight, decide to dislike her? Had she done something to mass-annoy three thousand people? What was making everyone, all of her 3,004 friends, ignore her?

She ground her teeth as the train bounced over the tracks. It was time to get serious. It was time for a monumental outpouring, a tidal wave of likes now.

 

In a wash of red carpet, flowing velvet curtains, and the glow of candlelight, Le Bistro presented its Yelp-approved splendors to her. But it might as well have been Port Authority bus terminal, for her iPhone was a far more captivating stimulus. She stared into it, and the pale glow of Steve Jobs’ gift to mankind bathed her in a soft, bluish tint, rendering her face a curious, moon-like orb in the shadows. She looked at her post and felt a shudder. She took a double sip of her Bordeaux, swallowed too quickly and examined the tiny screen and the image that took up most of it.

And what an image it was—the kitten was impossible to ignore. And, more importantly, the kitten did not have a single hair. Her reasoning was simple: anything with cats was a guaranteed like; after all wasn’t half the internet cat videos and cat pics? It was a smart move. But to that little bit extra, to go hairless, well, she still couldn’t believe she’d done it. After deciding on a cat, she found herself asking the pockmarked salesman at Pet Central to let her hold the strange, unnervingly smooth, scalded-looking beast that had been cowering in the cage beside the calicos. With its soft, gerbil eyes and obtrusive ears, the hairless little whelp, which trembled at her touch, looked so forlorn and hideous that she immediately knew it would garner sympathy from all. So she purchased it on the spot, took it home, got her phone out and snapped a few dozen shots of it looking cute—or as cute as the homely little mutant could ever look—and then she put the shots on Facebook. Once she’d posted all four pics and penned her update, all thoughts of the hairless creature left her head, as she had already banished it to the furnace room and was planning on returning it to Pet Central the next day. And now, here it was, the next day, and after eight hours of frantically checking Facebook every twenty minutes, her conclusion, once again, was the same.

Not one thumb.

Should she have written something else? Maybe saying “Meet Yoda, the newest member of the family,” wasn’t interesting or provocative enough. Maybe the lameness of that post deflated the power of the beast’s ungodly appearance. But she didn’t think she needed to be that clever, the cat looked preposterous, that should’ve been enough to attract people and get them liking. That and the “Star Wars” reference. Didn’t everyone like Star Wars? And Yoda? But she had been wrong about that. Dead wrong.

She took a too-big swig of wine. After setting the empty glass back on the table so gingerly that it didn’t make a sound, she sat there silently for a moment, until her mouth opened slightly in a rictus of shock, and her sad and vanquished eyes drifted away from her phone to gaze off into space.

 

Over the next few weeks, there were many things that she could have noticed or appreciated. The sound of the wind caressing the chimes in the screen house. The swaying of the crimson leaves before they broke free from their autumnal stems and spindled down to carpet the earth. The vermillion sunsets over the reservoir. But none of them held any appeal. Reality was nothing more than a bland tableau. She had no use for it. Not with her screens.

From iPhone to iPad to iMac, she monitored them constantly, checking her Facebook page over and over, every few minutes, until she finally decided to stay logged in 24 hours a day. Her phone never left her clutches; she brought it to meetings, meals, work sessions; she cradled it in bed, fondled it in cabs, gazed longingly at it on the sidewalk, peered at on trains, everywhere she went, its 4.7 inch LED-backlit widescreen led the way, until it became a de facto appendage. Eventually, her neck became stiff from constantly craning down to look at it every few seconds, and it wasn’t long before she was walking, or creeping along rather, with a stooped, almost anteater-like posture. But she ignored the pain, for the mental anguish was far greater.

It was the most insane thing ever. She could barely fathom it. The very terrain of her existence, its contours and shapes, had been scraped away. Because once again, there were no likes. Zero. Not a single one.

She’d upped her game. She really had. Each successive post had been more and more likeable, on the Like-O-Meter, she was red lining, peaked, running at full tilt. Some of her posts were so wise and heartfelt and passionate and caring that they would’ve made Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins or any other inspirational speaker vomit, while other posts were so scathingly funny, so piercingly insightful, and so painfully true that they might have humbled George Carlin. She dug deep, exploring every possible emotion, making posts that were sad, posts that were happy, posts that were goofy, posts that were smart, posts that were sobering, posts that were zany, posts that reflected the harrowing news stories of her sad and murderous times, posts supporting causes she’d never cared about; she made posts of every flavor, every nuance, and still, amazingly, infuriatingly, heartbreakingly, there had been not one single response.

She crouched at the kitchen table, whose orderly place settings were now obscured with crusty wine glasses, empty bottles, overflowing ashtrays—sadly, she’d recently started puffing away again after eight years of being nicotine free—and the innumerable crumbs, festering dollops and other food remnants that lay beneath and atop it all. It was the third day in a row she had called in sick, and for the third day in a row, she had spent it before her computer, but no matter how many desperate thoughts she arrived at, the fact remained same: her entire network of so called “friends,” all 3,004 of them, had spurned her.

She scrolled through her series of posts, eyeing each image, each link, video and article, rereading each line she wrote, pondering each topic she’d chosen, wracking her brain as to why none of her updates, not a single one, had resulted in a like:

Lunch break! Time to samba!

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

Thoughts and prayers for the victims in the Fort Wayne Bed, Bath and Beyond steak knife massacre.

Every sunrise brings hope. Every sunset brings peace. 

This is Tad, our neighbor. Tad has Down Syndrome, but he never lets it get him down. Especially with this miniature trampoline I purchased for him yesterday! #smilesgalore, #bouncyboy #DownWDownSyndrome.

 I miss my Mom.

Heaven just got a whole lot sluttier. R.I.P. Madonna.

 Thousands of Malawian children suffer from malnutrition. That’s why I’ve just booked a ticket to Lilongwe. I will be leaving to join the Doctors Without Borders Outreach Program and help bring sanitation, running water, and the internet to kids like Induku here.

 Really, guys? Not one like? Okay, deep breath. What if I said that for every like I get on this post, I’ll donate ten dollars to the Red Cross? Would that make you like me again? LOL. Not sure if this is a group prank or whatever, but you made your point. Now let me make mine and that is that I will contribute ten dollars to the Red Cross for every like I receive here! Time limit expires in 24 hours. It’s your move, my 3,004 “friends.”

To be loved is the greatest gift of all. But to be liked is even greater. 🙂

 

She’d tried every move she could think of, tugged every heartstring, every hashtag, but the result was the same. She sat there, staring into the aquarium-like depths of her screen. Outside, the rain was drumming against the windows and the night curtained down. As the exterior world grew darker, her laptop screen grew brighter and brighter, until its soft, blue glow was the sole light source in the room.

As she stared at the litany of increasingly desperate posts, an eerie calm began to settle over her. No one liked her any more. Even her husband, who had watched the whole nightmare unfold with a bemused expression—at least until the big fight they had after Madonna died, when she went storming around the house screaming about getting no likes for the thousandth time and he tried to calm her down but only wound up breaking her thumb, which created so much animosity between them that it made him take to living in the Standard Hotel—had turned his back on her.

Well, she’d turn her back on him now. And everyone else, including all 3,004 of her friends.

She fished the bottle of Valium out of her purse with her one good hand, and unscrewed the top. Luckily, her thumb cast and its wrap around bandage made a nice little bowl, and the pills poured right into her palm. After staring at them for a few seconds, she finally put cast to mouth and sent them on their way.

She didn’t have much wine left, so they grated on the way down.

It was only after one great, determined heave, that she felt the bolus of pills finally nestle into the walls of her stomach and begin their slow absorption into her bloodstream.

The light on her screen grew fainter. She stared at it until there was nothing left to stare at anymore, until the darkness slowly encroached on all sides, leaving only the Facebook logo there for a long, reverential moment, before that, too, faded to nothing.

 

A few days later, after the medical examiner had confirmed that acute ethanol and Diazepam intoxication had been the cause of death, after her husband somehow found the strength and emotional resolve to pen a glowingly heartfelt tribute to her, after he found the most flattering picture of her that he could find, and after he posted the image of her and his final goodbye to her on Facebook for all to see, there was only one thing that her 3,004 friends could do.

The liking happened in a frenzy, with the number growing higher and higher by the minute. It was almost as if her network of friends were making up for lost time. A few friends even thought that the post might get attention from Facebook itself, and qualify as record-setting, perhaps even registering on Facebook’s Leaderboard, under the categories of “New Likes Per Day,” “Total Likes Over Time (24 hr category),” or “Most Liked Comments On A Single Status Update,” but after the qualifying period expired, her husband admitted that they had fallen short and would not be winning anything now, or ever, as even the seemingly phenomenal onslaught of likes that she’d earned—which were over ten times more than the highest number of likes that she had EVER earned—made barely a blip on Facebooks’ table metrics and approval matrix.

To soften the blow for everyone, he put up a memorial page. A page with a gallery of thirty shots showing her doing the things she loved: shots of her on her iMac, on her iPhone, on her iPad, talking into her headset, playing with her Apple Watch, shots of her Googling, Tweeting, InstaGramming, SnapChatting, shots of her on FourSquare, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, all of the devices, and all of the on-line destinations that she loved so much, that had played such a central and defining role in her life, all of them were featured there, for all of her friends to see, forever.

She would have liked that.

-First published in The Satirist.

The Giant Women From The Victoria’s Secret Catalogue

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The hundred-foot tall women struck their aloof poses, blotting out the sun. They were dressed in frilly lingerie and their shadows fell over the city.

The brunette stood with her arms crossed. The blonde caressed her hair. The redhead stuck her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. They all looked immensely bored.

No one knew where they had came from, or why they had appeared. The people of the city were baffled, but one by one, they grew to love the gigantic women.

But soon the government intervened. They did not like the people to be so pleased, so appreciative, so in awe of something.

The army and navy bombarded the giant women for two weeks, but they remained impassive, mocking the attacks with their emotionless stances. Soon, the government stopped the bombings.

Now we sit all day in their shade, gazing up at them, singing songs in honor of their great beauty, and their even greater indifference.

Perhaps

You send me wilted flowers

To cool my miserable heart

But they are only consolation.

With tears I water them

I kiss them with love

So they will revive again.

This I do to ask them a secret

Which I keep hidden in the heart.

Perhaps they know to tell me

Perhaps they happen to see.

–Drosis Logothetis, 1922

(Excerpted from the The Journals of Drosis Logothetis)

NOTE: My grandfather Drosis immigrated to the U.S. in 1911 from the island of Lefkada, off the west coast of Greece. Over the course of the next twenty years, he made daily entries in a series of journals, telling of personal hardship, dreams and hopes, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, loneliness and longing, curiosity and intellect, responsibility and guilt. All of which my father, George Drosis Logothetis Sr, has copied in their entirety, and passed along to his own children. Many of these journals featured a number of poems (30 or 40 in total) that I am now editing, along with the best quotations and observations from the journals themselves. “Perhaps” is one of the poems that I have translated, rather clunkily, from the original Greek.

Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

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INGOTS

     My high school was a lot of things—apathy absorption center, teenage pregnancy retreat, day care for potheads—but it was definitely not academic. No, East Gary High was a glorified vocational school, the kind of place where learning about crescent wrenches was far more important than learning about the Fertile Crescent. Such a reality was not surprising, given the fact that our mascot was an ingot, a huge, ten ton, fifteen foot high, five-foot thick block of molded steel that towered before the front of the school. The ingot looked like a gigantic tombstone, thick and bulky, solid and immovable. Above all, it was utterly featureless, with no distinctive markings whatsoever. It looked like one of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only shorter, fatter, and somehow stupider. It was nothing more than a big block of steel.

A bland, ill-conceived monument to heavy industry, the ingot served as a grim reminder of what the future would be for the zoned out, half aware, Pink Floyd-programmed bodies that roamed the halls of my school. The ingot said in no uncertain terms that we were all faceless blocks, nothing more than automatons stamped out from the same dismal, blue collar mold. An ingot was something processed, one of many in a series of objects that were all shaped exactly the same; an ingot was conformity incarnate. To see it every morning as the bus pulled up was disheartening at best, and even when they painted it a bright crimson red one year, the ingot always looked aloof and out of place, like it had been distanced from its tribe, singled out and put on display unfairly.

Occasionally, the ingot, and the small sign below that read “Home of the Ingots,” looked inviting, like a big friendly slab you could climb up on top of, or whose shadow you could enjoy a sandwich under. But most of the time it looked bulky and at odds with its surroundings. Like it fell off a truck and didn’t belong there, all dolled up, surrounded by flowerbeds and made out to be this special and unique thing, serving as some sort of identity-less identity source for an entire community.

The ingot was supposed to represent strength. To underscore the value of hard work. Ingots were forged with discipline. Ingots were solid and reliable, with unalloyed pride. That’s what the town fathers and school administration probably thought when they conceived our team name back in the Fifties. But as years of attending the school passed by, it became clear to me that the ingot was an emblem of many other qualities that were far more widespread: laziness, ignorance and only the slightest of ambitions. The ingot set the bar nice and low, perfectly positioned for underachievement.

And the fact that, years later, it was eventually replaced by the continuous slab caster, a structure I helped build, which poured molten pig iron from the ladles and transformed it into a long, glowing slabs of newly birthed steel, made the ingot a perfectly ironic metaphor for the decline of steel mill jobs in the entire area.

Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.

That Jolly Green Giant

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Every inch of this jovial behemoth is stained a rich, hearty green—hair, skin, even fingernails. He is brawnier than most, with an uncommonly thick torso and strapping, tree trunk limbs. Pointy, Robin Hood slippers adorn his mammoth feet. His only attire is a skimpy green sash similar to the togas and ceremonial shrouds worn by the ancients, perhaps evidence of membership in a primitive or pantheistic nature cult. Although this tempting outfit rises well above the knee, skirting the groin, there is no telltale bulge or other evidence of his manhood, leading one to believe that he may be a eunuch. With leafy, windswept hair and a rakish slant of the brow, the Giant stands magnificent, both hands planted firmly and confidently on his hips, a mighty, ho ho hoing Colossus of Rhodes.

Lizard King Memories

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One day during lunch in the school cafeteria, my friend Paul slid a dog-eared paperback entitled “No One Here Gets Out Alive” across the table to me. I glanced at the cover, and was intrigued. It was hard not to be, since the character featured there—a hollow-chested, anorexic hippie with wild, feathery hair and skinny, outstretched arms—was so striking.

“Wow, cool,” I said, thumbing through it further and reading a few pages. “So why did he call himself “The Lizard King?”

“It was his nickname,” Paul said. He stuck a fork into his mac and cheese and lifted it out of his tray in a perfect, square-shaped block.

“Do lizards even have kings?” I said, admiring the shirtless, raven-haired form.

“Apparently, they are not a democratic species,” Paul said, placing the block of mac and cheese back into its compartment and leaving the fork sticking out of it. “Anyway, you gotta read it.”

Later that night, I did. I read how this man, “Mr. Mojo Risin’” he called himself, was really the reincarnation of an Indian shaman because when he was a kid, he saw a car wreck where there were a bunch of dead Indians all over the road, and one of their spirits entered his body. I read how Jim hated his father, who was a Navy admiral, and how this made Jim hate all authority figures. I read how Jim dropped acid on Venice Beach and formed The Doors. I read how Jim wore stinky leather pants and was a total alcoholic, but despite being such a drunk, became rich and famous and got laid all the time. I read how Jim hated being a sex symbol and was really a sensitive poet deep down, and how he may have even faked his own death so he could escape being a rock star and write his poetry in peace.

At sixteen, this sincere desire to reject everything, even super stardom, appealed to me greatly. But what appealed to me even more greatly was Jim’s hair. It was a sweeping, flowing mane, a shock of tawny, wind-kissed, gloriously unkempt brambles framing a lean, panther handsome face. A face that was smoldering and intense, a face that had the courage to live in fleabag hotels on La Cienaga Boulevard, quote Nietzsche and Celine, and flash his wang in front of twenty thousand teenyboppers in Miami. The more I read about this king of lizards, the more I liked. The posters of Paulina Porizkova and Christie Brinkley remained tacked to my bedroom wall, but soon they had a neighbor, and one who was far more enticing. My eyes could not help but meet his, and many a night I would stare for long, spellbound moments at the image of James Douglas Morrison, at that bold, daring face and visionary eyes that beamed forth with the unconquerable glare of an eagle or some other magnificent bird of prey.

It wasn’t long before I cashed in my paper route money, bought a cheap stereo, a few tapes, and barricaded myself in my room every night, surrendering my fragile young eggshell mind to Jim’s lurid poetry and Ray Manzarek’s wandering organ solos, which felt like Ray was pressing specific areas of my brain with each searing, conscious-expanding note.

I also surrendered my wardrobe. Like the dead Indian had taken over Jim’s being, the dead rocker took over mine. Shoulder-length, Lucan The Wolf Boy hair, check. Puke-colored, paisley shirt with baggy pirate sleeves, check. Pointy-toed cowboy boots, check. Belt with twin circular metal buckles, check. Spray on pants, check. Cheesy, dime store necklace of multi-colored beads, check. Mirrored, teardrop, gay commando sunglasses, check. Perpetually disinterested, quasi-tortured sneer, check. Willingness to say, “I wanna get my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames” at least five times a day, check.

Mercifully, these affectations only lasted about half a year, although various parts of the Lizard King’s ensemble would haunt my wardrobe for years. Mainly the hair, which I grew long and shaggy and flailed around at various times to help it maintain just the right amount of lift, bounce and playfulness, not to mention nurturing it, well into my thirties, with an endless array of gels, spritzers, and various styling mousses.

But it was Jim’s love of alcohol that was the biggest revelation, for as shortly after I closed that book, I opened my first beer: a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon pinched from my dad’s fridge out in the garage, which was enjoyed slowly in the moodily lit recesses of my bedroom, where the dark province of my burgeoning adolescent mind grew darker and darker with every sip.

Hey, Pavarotti

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Luciano Pavarotti. The most noteworthy tenor since Caruso, a legend whose glorious voice and commanding performances thrilled millions. Before kings, chancellors, prime ministers, presidents, popes, heads of state and other luminaries he appeared, gracing them with his titanic, larger than life presence. So imagine his surprise when instead of a person of extraordinary influence and notoriety, he encountered me.

I know precious little about opera. I’m a Hoosier. To me, opera is nothing more than the vocal meanderings of a sweaty, obese, tiramisu-swollen Italian guy in a too-tight tuxedo bellowing out mysterious syllables in loud, wavering, pinched-sphincter cries. Glorified wailing. I know this reveals me as being hopelessly uncouth, but opera just doesn’t do it for me. I appreciate it, yes. But I appreciate even more when it’s over.

So when my girlfriend Elaine mentioned that she had two tickets to see Pavarotti in Central Park, plus backstage passes allowing us to meet him after the show, I reacted with only slight enthusiasm. Elaine was a fashion babe who was the pinnacle of glamour and style. She was the promotions manager for a French jeans company and adored couture, and culture, in all of its many forms. And these free opera tickets were another chance to immerse me in her glitzy Manhattan world. We’d met through a mutual friend, and for some reason, Elaine found my easygoing Midwestern personality attractive. This did not stop her from taking steps to obliterate it altogether, through various “upgrades” like innumerable hairstyle reformations, culinary epiphanies, and endless wardrobe makeovers. She seemed on a mission to remove my every last normal habit or behavior, in favor of replacing it with a well-mannered sophistication, a tactic I never failed to chafe against.

Several weeks later, the big night was upon us. Since the concert was in Central Park, on the Great Lawn, and not in an ornate hall, there was no need for formal attire, much to my relief. Still, we were attending an opera, not a tractor pull, so I donned my customary trying-to-look-moderately-presentable ensemble of dark blue, non-pleated Ralph Lauren chinos, a slate-grey Agnis B cotton poplin button down shirt, and Tootsi Plohound half-boot lace ups. (All purchases recommended — no, commanded, might be a better way of putting it — by Elaine, who, as usual, looked as if she’d stepped right out of the pages of Vanity Fair, wearing a fuscia Alberta Ferretti drop sleeve miniskirt and a pair of matching Jimmy Choos that made her wobble on the grass like a fawn taking its first unsteady steps and were probably worth more than three months of mortgage payments back in Indiana.)

Over the palisade of buildings lining Central Park West, the sun gradually descended, and soon twilight fell upon the park. The Great lawn swarmed with people: families spread out on blankets, couples with coolers, and various semi-cultured-looking types milling about and getting settled as we arrived. As we strolled through the crowd en route to the V.I.P. area, I caught a whiff of brie and heard the crunch of Carr’s cracker, with corks popping and wine gurgling into long-stemmed glasses, every one of which was held forth in dainty digits by privileged bon vivants who were not only offering toasts to the legendary singer they were about to see, but to their own presence at this exclusive event as well. A moment later, we were led to the V.I.P. area, which was inhabited by an even sleeker version of personage, plus a complimentary bar serving white wine, champagne and other cocktails.

Immediately, Elaine and I nabbed a few lightly chilled Chardonnays and found our seats. Thrilled at how close we were to the stage, we sipped our drinks, feeling smug, pampered and oh-so privileged. After several episodes of frequent toasting and eyeballing the other exalted beings in this coveted inner sanctum, the sun faded further and the crowed hushed to near-silence, as everyone sensed the greatness that was about to appear.

A few minutes later, the curtains parted, and a shaft of light beamed down from above, illuminating a bearded, porcine figure clad in black formal wear and a ruffled white shirt blossoming from his lapels. All at once, there was a huge roar, and as the deafening applause rolled through the crowd, I settled my eyes on a large, orb-like man whose plump fingers seized the microphone and pressed it to his lips. The crowd was silent, totally enthralled. And then, with a casual determination, the creature known as Pavarotti erupted into song.

It began softly, like an incantation. At Pavarotti’s first utterance, the crowd gasped, awed by the raw emotion of his voice. The sounds that Pavarotti made were unlike anything I had ever heard, ranging from short staccato bursts that peppered my eardrums in repetitive quatrains to glorious, unrepentant yowls that rose up and up and up, until reaching one final, stupendously assaulting note that hung in the air for an eternity as Pavarotti squeezed every last shred of emotion out of it.

During these bowel-wringing notes, I feared for Pavarotti’s safety. Even standing fifty feet away, I could see the energy he was pouring into his performance, the sheer physicality of his lungs and diaphragm heaving like magnificent bellows, working quintuple time to create the booming stream of beautiful, totally meaningless syllables. As the note extended, sweat poured off of his meaty brow and rolled into his beard, while his face reddened into a swollen, pinkish ham. A network of veins bulged in wormy squiggles across his brow. On a sheer cardiovascular level, it seemed like the ultimate stress test, and I could only imagine how hard the best tenor of all time’s heart was trying to deal with the metabolic impact of it all.

Finally, the endless note ended, and Pavarotti paused, taking a momentary breather as he recovered from his outburst. The crowd remained fixated, awed, hushed, silenced into a few barely audible gasps. I raised my Chardonnay to my lips and took a sip, savoring it, while Elaine and I stood side by side, utterly enraptured.

For another hour and a half, Pavarotti held center stage. There was an ebb and flow to his cries, a rising and falling of his words, and while I appreciated his efforts — the supreme talent, effort, and remarkable poise it took to produce such an incredible volume of sound, and the obvious laryngeal afterburners that kicked in to produce those triumphant, blood-pressure increasing high notes, not to mention the simpering, weepy, piteous, almost whimpering cries of need, shame and vulnerability that slid out of his whiskered mouth that served as counterpoint to them — I gradually began to lose interest. I was appreciative, yes, but by that point I had gotten my fill of the whole situation and was starting to look at my watch, as the time, and my patience, slowly ebbed away.

Several Chardonnay’s later, Pavarotti’s moment of dominance and control over us ended. With a towering barrage of sound, his voice rose and rose, ever higher, skyrocketing, ballooning, increasing in volume and power, but also wavering somehow, bouncing back and forth between the scales, his well-trained glottis delicately adjusting each syllable, shifting them up and down the aural register. Then, with one final outpouring of emotion, the great man, sweaty, drained, and exhausted, concluded his performance. The applause was deafening and flowers and long-stemmed roses rained onto the stage.

The crowd milled about for several minutes, buzzing, as everyone marveled at the virtuoso performance, before queuing up near the exits and patiently awaiting their turn to join the throng of people all streaming off of the Great Lawn. Meanwhile, Elaine and I threaded our way through the crowd, towards an area adjacent to the bar, near a large hospitality tent, where members of the media were assembled. I caught glimpses of microphones, video cameras, and a few reporters, as well as officials from the Parks Department. A few moments later, Elaine found a small coterie of dashing young women — coworkers of hers, members of that same species of Cosmo-swilling “Sex In The City”-crazed women that now plagued the island. After a few kissy faced greetings and impromptu hugs, we ducked a velvet rope and joined another line, which streamed off between the hospitality tent, towards a large white trailer near the stage — the lair housing the legendary tenor, who, much to everyone’s delight, we would meet in a matter of minutes.

As we wound our way forth, a posse of armed policemen and security stood watching nearby. A few pressed walkie talkies to their lips and muttered commands, eyeing the line of agog, well-dressed people approaching Pavarotti’s trailer.

Each step took us nearer, until we finally ascended the steps. An air of reverential silence fell over us as we entered and began slowly filing forward, the pace of the line being expertly controlled by a burly security guard whose only words were the soft, but stern warning to “keep moving, keep moving.” Finally, we stood only a few feet away, with only one group of V.I.P.s blocking us from the legendary singer.

As we slid forward, Elaine and her friends were barely able to contain their exuberance. They quickly raced ahead, and I stepped aside, letting Elaine and the entire group of them pass in front of me. As we entered the room, I detected a slight tang of body odor, and no sooner had the smell tickled my nostrils, than the great singer appeared before me.

It was an inglorious sight. I had expected Pavarotti to be dressed in formal attire, like he had been on-stage, perhaps festooned with roses, or tended to by a staff of cuticle-polishing minions, or at least looking regal in some form, but much to my surprise, it was the complete opposite. Barefoot, and wearing nothing more than a long, flowing, cream-colored robe, the legendary singer was splayed back, Ferouk-like, sunken into an overstuffed leather couch, the creamy robe opened at mid-waist to display a towering expanse of belly marked by copious amounts of black body hair. Ridiculously, bringing every possible stereotypical image to life, Pavarotti clutched a bottle of Chianti in one hand, and a staff of plump, purple grapes in the other. As we gazed in wonder at him, he hoisted the bottle of vino up, taking a long, hearty swig and smacking his lips, before holding the bounty of grapes up to his face and nibbling off several of the lowest dangling fruits. The great man had satisfied a crowd of thousands, and we could only watch on, transfixed, as he now satisfied himself.

As he chewed, his jowls heaving and flexing, Pavarotti’s black, piggish eyes settled upon Elaine and the other women. He took another swig of wine, wiped his face with the back of his hand, and smiled, scanning the assortment of scantily clad young female flesh before him.

“Such a nest of beauties,” he uttered, his eyes flitting back and forth, surveying the group. His eyes lingered on them for a moment, then he turned to look at me. “And . . . you,” he said, his tone deflating into obvious disappointment.

For an otherworldly second, our eyes met. My mind whirled, as I wondered what to say. A second later, the whole room heard my reply.

“Hey, Pavarotti,” I said, offering a halfhearted wave. Elaine glared at me, while everyone in the room laughed nervously. Pavarotti did not respond to my greeting, opting for another swig of wine and nibble of grape, as more admirers pressed inside. We held our position for another thirty seconds, watching the great tenor guzzle down even more vino, before a security person motioned for us to keep moving.

As we left the room, I looked back at the world’s most famous opera singer, a performer whose vocal talents had enthralled people for so many decades. I longed to say something eloquent, something remarkable, something that would mark the moment for all time, something worthy of this man’s eminent position, but nothing came. Nothing except another set of words that were equally as underwhelming.

“Later, Pavarotti,” I said, strolling towards the door.

A half hour later, after we’d escaped Central Park and flagged down a taxi on Fifth Avenue and were heading back downtown, Elaine spun in her seat to confront me.

“That’s all you could say to him?”

“What?” I said.

“You know,” she said, shaking her head in dismay, “Hey, Pavarotti.”

“What was wrong with that?”

“It was disrespectful.”

“What was disrespectful about it?”

“It just sounded like you weren’t impressed.”

“I didn’t mean it to sound that way. I thought he was really impressive.”

“It didn’t sound like it,”Elaine continued, “Plus, you called him ‘Pavarotti.’”

“Isn’t that his name?”

“Yes, but . . .” she said.

“But what?” I said, “ What else should I have called him? ‘Dude? Bro? Homie?”

As the cab bumped and prodded its way into the Manhattan night, she looked away for a brief moment, staring at the non-stop blur of buildings and sidewalks whipping by.

“Oh, never mind,” she said.

Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

APAHEF06 - 01112006 - WIEN - OESTERREICH: ZU APA-TEXT WI - FEATURE - Archivbild vom 23. Februar 2005 zeigt einen Arbeiter in Schutzkleidung beim Abstich des 1470 Grad heissen Roheisens. Die Verhandler der Metallergewerkschaft und Arbeitgebervertreter treffen am Donnerstag, 2. November zur 2.Verhandlungsrunde wegen eines neuen Kollektivvertrags zusammen. Die zuletzt von Arbeitgeberseite gebotenen 2,3 Prozent Lohn-und Gehaltserhoehung sind fuer die Gewerkschaft nicht ausreichend. RAINER JENSEN/DPA

ROUTINES OF RUIN

     To be a laborer, all you need are sweat glands. If you have sweat glands, congrats, you qualify. A pair of hands, a strong back, and the willingness to be screamed and cursed at for hours on end helps as well. So does a streak of masochism. What is not needed under any circumstances is higher brain functioning or advanced cognitive ability. Thinking is strictly forbidden, unless of course, that thinking centers on the holy trinity of sex, sports, or hitting the lottery.

There is a rigid caste system on the construction site. As a laborer, please remember that you are on the bottom. You are one of the untouchables, the unholy ones. Unlike the carpenters, millwrights, ironworkers, operating engineers, pipefitters, and electricians, there is no apprenticeship program required for your trade. You are not a “skilled tradesmen.” No, to these exalted beings, you are a simpleton. You do not operate sophisticated machinery like levels, trowels, calculators, tri-squares, Skil saws, arc welders, voltage meters, spud wrenches, Vernier calipers, or overgrown Tonka trucks called end loaders, bulldozers, cherry pickers, steam rollers or backhoes. You do not swagger around with jangling tool belts or wear your hardhat backwards. You do not fire up Luckies with acetylene torches in emulation of the Marlboro Man. You are not a higher being who gets marginally dirty pounding a nail, soldering a wire, or working levers in an air conditioned cab.

No, you are part of a rag-tag gang of hillbilly goons, ghetto bozos, clueless dorks, hulking child-men, and other slobbering, half-drunk, half-educated buffoons. You are a desperate soul, one of the grunts, the shitbirds, the fuck-ups, one of the shuffling, shambling, booze-addicted zombies who will suffer any indignity, any torture, any horror, to get your grimy fists around $13.23 an an hour.

Your tools are the jackhammer and the shovel. The jackhammer is your enemy. The jackhammer is teeth jarring, bone numbing, and even when your ears are crammed with Kleenex, it is deafening. On top of the general clamor, the nonstop barrage of clangs, bangs, thuds, roars, hisses, alarms, and screams, the jackhammer’s rat-a-tat-tatting tears into the ear drums, blendering the brain around with each jarring strike of its metal fang. It sends shockwaves up the arms, twangs ligaments and tendons, plays entire chords on them. It stresses joints, rattles fingers, mortifies knees, inciting bruises and calluses, not to mention sending chips of razor-sharp shrapnel flying in all directions. If you like your corneas, keep your safety glasses on. Numbness, headaches, tremors, limbs that suddenly begin flapping and spasming in the middle of the night, all are demon children of the jackhammer. Even when the ninety-five pound beast is finally silenced, you will still hear it reverberating in your brain as you sit, shell-shocked, with shaking claw-fingers that can barely lift your Bud longneck.

Shoveling is hardly a joy, but it beats running the jackhammer. Say hello to Mr. Shovel and get acquainted, because the two of you are going to become very close. Mr. Shovel is your special friend. Your best pal. Your Lucille. Like Linus has a blanket, you have a shovel. You will do many things with your shovel. You will get to know your shovel immediately. The second you drive your shovel into something and tear away a big hunk of that something and throw that something somewhere else, you will bond with your shovel. Your shovel is there to do one thing, and that is to shovel. And being a laborer, shovel you shall.

You will carry your shovel in one of two ways. At the start of the day, after you choose your shovel, plucking it off the wall where it hangs with the other shovels, you will hold your shovel low, down at your side, gripping it at the hip, like a spear, with the blade pointed straight ahead. You will do this when you are walking into battle, when the phalanx of failures you are now part of marches into the BOP shop, or any of the numerous other chambers of horror that now qualify as your workplace, eight hours a day, five days a week.

When the eight hours are up and you trudge back to the yard, you will carry your shovel in a different manner, a more victorious and carefree manner. Casually, you will sling it over a shoulder, one arm curled over it as a counterweight, keeping it balanced perfectly across your back, its duties for the moment finished. Your familiarity with it is represented by this uber-casual carrying position, this slouchy, rifleman’s technique that implies a nonchalant mastery over it and a job that’s been well-done. Or at least done. The “well” part of any job, as you and your shovel have recently noticed, is entirely optional.

As you bond with your shovel and it becomes the fifth appendage of your body, you will gradually become so comfortable with your shovel that you will begin to perform tricks with it. When your shovel is lying on the ground face up, you will scoff at the notion of putting any additional strain on your throbbing back by bending over to pick it up. No, instead, you will perform the time-honored laborer’s tradition of stomping on the upturned blade with just enough force to make the wooden arm of the shovel spring back up towards you, then, ever so casually, perhaps without even looking at it, you will grab your shovel with a gloved hand and resume your task. Be careful, though. Too much force will send your shovel careening directly into your testicles, causing you to see flashpoints of white hot pain, impede your chances of procreating, and make you the laughing stock of the entire crew.

Shoveling is mindless, a series of rote movements that you fall into and conduct with a smooth, efficient rhythm. You must let your body get into this rhythm and go with it, become it. Place shovel blade on ground. Put right foot onto lip of shovel. Leverage foot. Utilizing body weight, push foot onto the lip of the shovel, stepping onto it, applying constant pressure until the blade of the shovel enters the earth. Lean over. Bend legs slightly. Place left hand halfway down the wooden shaft. Turn your torso into a pendulum, and using your legs and arms, hoist up your load, swinging shovel back towards you, building momentum. Now stop and swing it forward in one fluid motion, taking care to shorten the hurl and halt your shovel-throw, at the peak of its apogee, timing it perfectly, so the slag, dirt, rock or concrete is flung smoothly off of the blade. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Place shovel back on ground. Now do it again. And again. And again. Do it over and over and over. Do it silently. Do it without protest. Do it all day. Shovel.

Be advised. The only way to get through this monotony is to let your mind wander. But not too far. You can’t gallivant off into the lyrics of “Iron Man,” dwell on how great it would be to eat and fuck in outer space, or relive your days as an all-area quarterback who threw for twenty touchdowns and banged three of the four varsity cheerleaders, because there’s all sorts of dangerous shit around, shit that will leave you vaporized, maimed, crippled, blinded, double amputee’d or burned to a crisp if you take a wrong step.

No, it’s better to hover in an inert but aware state, alert physically, but vacant mentally. This way your task can be completed by rote, without knowledge of it. This is shoveler’s high, a condition that occurs when your blood gets flowing and the endorphins take over and the pain vanishes and you enter a zone of peaceful empty headedness. If you do it right, not even the ladles slopping out liquid steel and the glowing, red hot slabs sending off waves of heat and the furnaces charging and the mad, constant rush all around can penetrate your womb of isolation. Your glorious removal. The transition of your consciousness to a reptilian state: aware and reactive, but sedated. You must do this to conserve physical energy, and to let the body take over and do its muscle-memory thing while your mind drifts away. If you can tune out this din, this clamor, if you can keep quiet, keep your head down, sooner or later, when you look up, it’ll be noon and holy shit, motherfucker, where did the morning go?

As much as you hate this place and the people in it, already, you feel it. A strange sympathy, a glow of understanding. An acceptance. It’s the realization that sometimes, when a shaft of light angles down out of the dusty air the right way, or the wind changes and you catch a whiff of the lake and the rich heady swell of dead alewives and the lakeweed stirs your nostrils, working here really isn’t that bad. If you can find a small corner of the mill, say your own special little trench, and if you know Bob had to run to the sheet and tin mill and will be gone all morning, and if your special little trench is out of sight, then you can work nice and slow, have some smokes, take a few piss breaks, and get into an empty-headed timespace where the hours fly by. That is the perfect eight hours – one where you sail along, working at a modest clip, shooting the shit, smoking, sharing dirty jokes, farting as freely as an infant, and of course, calling everyone as many varieties of cocksucker as you can imagine.

Routine becomes more of a routine. The entire place is routine. Furnaces charging and slabs being dropped from overhead cranes and elecromagnets are certainties, and once you learn their rhythms they will become your rhythms, and suddenly the big mill begins to make sense. It becomes a fascinating interplay of incredible scenes, a grand spectacle of metallurgic wonder, a supernova of molten glory erupting every few minutes, perfectly synchronized, right before your eyes, and as you pour your concrete and shovel your slag a few feet away from such epic processes, it is mesmerizing. The heat bathes your body, and with your face aglow from the flames there is nothing else to think about except that exact moment, and marvel at how these puny, pathetically vulnerable, fleshy little creatures called man ever figured out how to melt down the elements of the earth, heat them to such fantastic temperatures, and shape them into this wondrous, glowing, molten life force, this metal called steel, in this incredible factory, this gargantuan kitchen from hell, this hometown Hades, this place of fire.

The big mill also provides one other working condition you will take advantage of—it is vast, sprawling, huge, so full of machinery and infrastructure that it is the perfect place to hide. Here in the maze of Gary Works, you can disappear. Visibility is murky at best. Armies of fellow contractors and mill employees, piles of concrete forms, mounds of earth, stacks of scrap, concrete foundations, holes, pits, sump pits, catwalks, scaffolding, trailers, giant earth-moving equipment, railroad cars, ingot fields, train tracks, ore bridges, blast furnaces, and other obstacles are everywhere. If you want to play Hide-N-Go-Seek, no one will find you here.

During your ten-minute coffee break or lunch, please remain seated. Lying down is strictly forbidden. Blame the rats, the hordes of hulking, gray-streaked brutes who patrol the ditches and trenches, the yellow-fanged rodents whose presence insures that you never, ever bring your lunch in a brown paper bag or turn your back on a ham and cheese.

If you snag some time and a half on a big pour and wind up working late, into the night, this world will become even more profound. At night in the mill, all of nature’s elements are on prominent display. The moon shines on the cooling slabs and turns the rails silver. Fire belches from furnaces and the orange glow of the flames is hot and bright amid the gloom, sending flickering shadows across the soot-streaked walls. The lake heaves and moans, tossing great swells of dark, forever waves against the rocky breakwater at the mouth of the slip, and when the wind picks up, the fires and the orange, still-glowing slabs glow brighter and even more vividly in the shadows.

Finally, mercifully, the day ends. You’re mangled, drained, aching, every ounce of energy squeezed out of your body. Hobbling out of the doghouse, you’re bone-tired, bleary-eyed, smoked-out, scorched, singed, scarred, bruised, banged up and battered. If you’re lucky you’ll remember where you parked your car, but it might take you a few tries to push in the door handle after you find it because your hands are as numb as a statue’s.

But there’s no way your hands are ever going to be too tired to grasp an ice cold bottle of Bud or a shot of Beam or any other container that holds the irresistible substance that removes all pain and suffering, the magical elixir of your tattered and tattooed tribe: alcohol.

 

Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.

Mrs. Curly

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He said he was an actor. He said his brothers were actors. But they weren’t actors. They were fools. And my ex-husband Curly was the biggest fool of all.

I don’t mean to sound bitter, because people all over the world loved Curly. I did, too. Fifty years ago the man swept me off my feet. Actually, “boy” would be more precise—because that’s what he was: a child in a two hundred and sixty-three pound body. But I’ll get to that in a minute. Yes, for a brief time—fourteen months—Curly and I were happy, although looking back, I was never that happy. But I was young. A virgin, if you can believe. And to think now, that a Stooge was my first . . . my god, was I nuts?

My name is Ruth Howard Birnbaum, and it was my strange, unbelievable fate to be the second of Curly’s four wives. The other girls—Paula, Jean, and Anita—didn’t fare any better than I did. Wait, I take that back. Curly and Anita lasted four whole years. But he was out of show business then, and a lot calmer than when I met him, back in ’39. God, has it been that long?

The years have blurred our time together, but some nights, as I lie beside Irving, my husband of forty-three years, I can still feel that grubby bald head nuzzling against me, and that old maddening nyuk-nyuk-nyuk rings through my head like a curse.

 

I was working at Morty’s Furs on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles. Morty was a wholesale furrier who sold coats, stoles, scarves, hats and muffs. How he survived in 80 degree weather I never figured out, but he did. Anyway, I did secretarial work: writing invoices, typing orders, and occasionally, when Morty bought a quarter-page in the L.A.; Times, I modeled a fur or two. I was nineteen, brunette, and a real looker back then.

Well, it was Friday, and right before lunch, if I remember correctly. I was helping Morty wheel a rack of mothy raccoon pelts into cold storage, when I heard the front door jingle open, followed by a long, piercing wolf-whistle. I turned around, to see a bald fat man stuffed into a gray tweed suit two or three sizes too small. He wore a black bowler and a white lily boutonniere, and his slacks were hiked up around his waist in a futile effort to conceal his stomach. I watched as he lifted the bowler, did a quick drum-roll with it atop his shaved skull, and flared his eyebrows.

“Hiya, toots!” he said, in an ungodly squeak.

“Well, aren’t you fresh.”

“Fresher than a mackerel!” he said, bursting through the waist-high swinging doors.

I grabbed my purse and walked by.

“Hey, where ya goin?”

“To lunch.”

“Too bad. ‘Cause you’re one swell dame.”

“Excuse me?”

“My name’s Curly,” he said, his blue eyes sparkling. “Actually, my real name’s Jerome. Jerome Howard.” He offered his hand. “I’m an actor.” From the way he said “actor” I knew he was from New York.

“I’m late,” I said. A door-slam later I was gone.

That night, I had a date with Sherman—he was an eye, nose and throat doctor practicing in Brentwood—and Shermie drove us to one of our favorite haunts: the old Ambassador Hotel. Well, no sooner had we saddled up to the bar, ordered our gin rickeys and lit our Chesterfields, when who strolled into the lounge but you know who. He was dressed like Al Capone and the band stopped playing as he strutted through the crowd. Soon it was “Curly, let me buy you a drink,” and “You playin’ spoons tonight?” Curly laughed and hit the bar, where he was quickly surrounded.

The music started again, and all thoughts of this popular, pot-bellied stranger left me. I sat with Shermie, listening to him go on about septums, when suddenly, we heard a stir a the bar. There was conking glass, a quick mad cackle, and as Shermie turned to investigate, a jet of water blasted him in the face, sending his wire-rims across the room. At once we fell to the floor, and when we found the shattered lenses, we looked up to see who’d cause the outburst.

Standing over us, with a foot-long cigar crammed into his mouth, holding a seltzer bottle, was Curly.

“Sorry, mac,” he said, a sly grin spreading over his face.

“Why you—”

“Boys! Please!” I said, coming between them.

“Hey! You’re the dame from the fur store!”

Then with a brazenness I’d never seen in all my days, Curly asked me to dance. I was flabbergasted. How could anyone be so daring, so devil-may-care?

I don’t know what came over me, but as Sherman squinted in disbelief, I took his hand.

To my amazement, Curly was an excellent dancer, very nimble on his feet for a man of his size. We tangoed into the wee hours, see-sawing over the floor, and as Bobby Carlyle’s World Famous Players poured out the jazz, I laughed like a giddy schoolgirl. It was too much—the music, the cocktails—and I fell into Curly’s arms, captivated by the sheer oddness of his personality. As for Shermie, well, he huffed out and that was the last I saw of him.

Later than night, with the palms casting giant shadows and the lights of the city twinkling like a million fireflies, Curly drove me home in his tomato-red 1938 Buick Roadmaster convertible, and when we kissed goodnight on the stoop, I knew I was smitten. He was just so different. I’d never met a man like him. With most fellas it was “How do you do?” and “May I take your coat?” you know, real formal and all.

That’s why I fell for him. He was fun. He wasn’t the best looking guy, but did I care? After dating stuffy old Shermie, I just wanted to have a good time. And that was something Curly definitely knew how to do.

 

Over the next few months, we hit the town like a couple of sailors. McVickers. The Club New Yorker, Café Trocadero, we were regulars at every juke joint on the strip. Curly thought the way we met was destiny, and showered me with gifts,: jewelry, hats, patent leather shoes, even a parakeet! To my parents horror, we continued dating, and as I gazed into his eyes over a shared egg cream at one of the many soda fountains we frequented, I sensed it was all leading up to something.

Sure enough, one night at Charlie Foy’s Supper Club, Curly popped the question. If you’re imagining candlelight and violin concertos, drop the thought, because Curly proposed as only a Stooge could. Chewing greedily, with a mouthful of pork, he said:

“Warma seg me ga heech.”

“What?”

“Whaddaya say,” he grunted, finally swallowing, “we get hitched.”

I was stunned. “Okay,” I heard myself say. Curly burped, and it was done.

We were married at Temple Beth El, Curly’s parent’s synagogue on Crescent Heights. Moe was best man. Shemp was there, plus Larry Fine and Jules White, the director Curly and the boys shot with. Believe it or not, this was the first time I met any of them (Curly rarely mentioned his work—all he said was that he was an “actor.”) The ceremony was simple, and as my parents watched in dismay—I’ll never forget the look on Pop’s face—Curly slid the ring on my finger, and we were husband and wife.

That night in Reno, Curly made love to me. I don’t remember much, just squirming and chuckling in the dark, then it was over. Curly, bloated from the platters of corned beef and knish he’d packed away at the reception, didn’t have the stamina to go much longer. As he lay atop me afterwards, sticky and panting, I remember looking up at the rafters of the cabin, wondering what I’d done.

All in all, I’d dated Curly for two months, in a smoke-filled whirlwind of cocktails and late nights. Suddenly, as I listened to his peeping snores, I realized I barely knew him.

But I pushed my doubt aside. The marriage would work, I told myself.

It had to.

 

After the honeymoon, we moved into a seven-room home on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills. It was a grand old house, with hardwood floors, a beautiful garden, and a pool in the backyard. Quite a step up from my parent’s place in Manhattan Beach, that’s for sure!

Curly threw himself into his work, while I set about furnishing the place, picking wallpaper, hiring painters, decorators. Gradually, it became home, although I was the only one who enjoyed it, as Curly’s fall schedule busied him to the point where I only saw him n the morning, when he awoke for another sixteen hours of filming. I didn’t mind, though. I had plenty to do around the house, and with the garden, it was easy to lose myself.

Even at this point, six months into the marriage, I still hadn’t seen one of Curly’s films. I mean, he said he was a comedian, right? I figured he was like Red Skelton or Henny Youngman. It wasn’t until he started coming home with some peculiar ailments—black eyes, fat lips, whipped cream clogged in his nostrils—that I started wondering what he was doing.

One day, after Curly returned home from another long day of filming, I heard him whimpering in the bathroom. I threw open the door, to find him bent under the faucet, water spattering off his skull.

“I’m goin’ nuts! Get it out!” he yelled, his hands a blur as he slapped his face.

“What’s wrong?”

“Something’s stuck in my ear!”

I ran to the kitchen and got a pair of needle-nosed pliers.

“Hold still.”

I stuck the pliers in and fished around. It took some doing, but finally I grabbed hold of the thing and yanked. Out it came, a rock-hard plug coated in wax. I held it up to the light, but only after rinsing the gook off did I realize what it was—a cherry pit! It must have been in Curly’s ear for weeks, I mean, it was starting to blossom!

That was when I decided to see one of his “films.”

The next day I went down to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and forked over two bits for the matinee. I knew something was wrong right as I sat down, because the only people there were drunks, servicemen, and kids playing hooky.

The picture was called “Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise,” and started normally, with Moe, Larry, and Curly driving through oil country. But when their jalopy got a flat and Curly hopped out to fix it, things took a sick turn. To my horror, Moe snatched the tire iron from Curly and conked him in the face! Over and over Moe smashed him, and I covered my eyes. The audience was in stitches, roaring like maniacs; I looked back at the screen, hoping the violence was over, but all I saw was Curly being kicked and slapped, all to excruciating sound effects. It was chaos; kids screaming, Crackerjack raining down—everyone went stark raving mad! I sat there, my jaw hung open in shock, and asd I watched Moe—his own brother—clamp a monkey wrench onto Curly’s nose and spin it around, I thought, “I’m married to that?” Reeling and in tears, I ran from the theatre, all the way down Hollywood Boulevard.

When I confronted Curly that night, he just smiled. “That’s what I do. I’m a Stooge,” he said.

“I thought you said you were an actor.”

“I am.”

“But all you did was let Moe hit you.”

“That’s actin’!”

“How do you mean?”

“Well,” he said, smirking, “I’m actin’ like Moe’s hittin’ me!”

From that day on, it was all downhill.

 

In a way I deserved it. But when you’re nineteen, you don’t know anything. Sometimes, love’s not meant to be—especially when you’re married to a Stooge.

My parents always said Curly was beneath me. I thought they were being snobs, but as time passed I began to see they were right. It wasn’t the double negatives he used, or his illiteracy—all he read was Li’l Abner, Nancy, and the racing forum—there was more to it than that. Once I saw those images in the theatre, our lives changed. I started to see that I wasn’t married to a man, but to an irresponsible child.

Of course, Curly didn’t help matters, because with each film, he grew increasingly unable to separate his on-screen personal from real life. That’s what wrecked our marriage—the differences, the lack of things in common, that was nothing. The big problem was that he was a Stooge twenty-four hours a day. So in a desperate attempt to save the relationship, I tried to change him. But the more I tried, the more he resisted. The Curly part of him—the only part of him I realized later—was just too strong.

All I wanted was for him to settle down, to act normal, but he was too busy being a comedian. Everything had to be a gag—eating, shopping, you name it. When he cleaned the house, he’d get tangled up in the vacuum cleaner hose, wrestling it like an anaconda. I’d give him a simple task like doing the dishes, only to find a room-full of suds and him sloshing around with soap in his eyes. None of those domestic ideas worked at all.

I don’t know how many nights we lay in bed, discussing the relationship, with him promising to change, only to have him ruin an hour of heartfelt words with one of his moronic sounds effects. And sex—you don’t even want to know about that. Let’s just say it didn’t work.

One night, we agreed to have a romantic dinner. The relationship was at an all-time low; Curly had been acting in George White’s Scandals on Broadway, and I hadn’t seen him in months. I’d gone to the market for T-bones, and it was Curly’s job to get the liquor. Well, he got it alright. And guess where it all went—every last drop of it, right down his throat.

When I came home, he was in the dining room, his shoulder pinned to the floor, running in circles, screaming whoob-whoob-whoob-whoob, like he’d gone cuckoo.

I just stood there. The room was in shambles, empty bottles and silverware on the floor, shattered china; it looked like a bomb went off. Curly kept spinning.

“Curly!”

He looked up. “N-yyAAAhh-AAAhh-ah!” he said, in that stupid nasal honk that drove me insane.

“What are you doing? “

“Mo and Larry stopped by and we—“

“Tonight was supposed to be special! Goddamn you, Curly!”

“Hey, let’s go somewhere,” he said, scrambling to his feet.

“I don’t want to go anywhere!”

“What’s wrong?”

I couldn’t believe it. Standing in the middle of the room he demolished, on the first night I’d seen him in months, he says “What’s wrong?” I dropped the steaks and stormed out.

 

Two weeks later, we were back together. Curly sent flowers, Candygrams, the whole shebang. He swore he’s shape up, that he’d be Jerome and not Curly. And I believed him. What else could I do?

But nothing changed. Oh, he was fine for a week or two, but as soon as Jules started filming, it was the same old Curly.

In bed he’d snore, or pass gas and laugh like a fool. He’d take baths and leave water and plastic boats all over the floor. He spent more time with his toy schnauzers Shorty and Doc than he did with me, teasing them into fits of barking that lasted for days. On weekends he’d go to the Saturday night fights and when he came home at dawn he stank of peanuts and cigars and his throat would be raw from screaming. Then, when he got up at five, he’d want breakfast. In bed.

Finally, I’d had enough. One day, after cleaning a colossal mess in the kitchen—Curly had tried to bake a poppy seed cake—I drove down to Columbia Pictures, past the security guard, right up to Lot 13, where Curly was filming “What’s The Matador?” his 62nd short.

“Where’s Curly?” I said to Jules, who sat smoking in his director’s chair.

“In wardrobe.”

I heard a tinkling of bells, and when I turned around there was Curly, wearing matador tights and a flowing red cape. A sad-looking bull trotted beside him.

“What’re you doin’ here, Ruthie?”

“I want a divorce.”

The bull separated and out of one half a sweaty-faced Moe appeared, followed by a sopping Larry at the other.

“Hey fellas! She wants a divorce!”

“Dames,” said Larry, “Hey, Moe. Got a smoke?”

“I’m serious, Curly.”

Curly started to speak, but a flurry of extras in sombreros ran by and Jules yelled into his megaphone.

“Stooges back on the set!”

Mo and Larry hopped off in the bull costume, leaving Curly and me alone in the dust.

“Curly stared at me, like he was straining to figure something out. He bit his lip. Then his face broke and he smiled.

“Why soitenly?” he snickered. “We’ll do it tomorrow!”

My heart sank, and as the sobs heaved out of me, I watched Curly skip back to the cameras, the only place, I think, he ever really wanted to be.

 

There aren’t many people who know all that. Oh sure, Irving knows, but he doesn’t care. He loves Curly. Saturday mornings he always wants me to watch the Stooges with him. But I can’t. I lived it.

The divorce went through, and we went our separate ways, I to a degree in pharmacology from U.C. Santa Barbara, Curly to a tour of U.S. Army camps in World War II, a round of feature films, and more shorts. Curly’s next wife, Paula, divorced him after five weeks. I must have been a masochist to stick it out a year and a half.

I’ve mellowed over the years, though. While Curly drove me crazy at the time, I realized now that he never acted like he did on purpose. He couldn’t help the way he was. I mean, with Moe and Shemp for older brothers, what chance did he have of being a normal human being? Right! None!

One day—six, seven years ago—I found a biography of him at Book Nook in the Twin Oaks Shopping Plaza. It was called Curly: A Victim of Soicumstance. And you know what? It made me cry. There was so much I never knew about him. Did you know Curly had a thick, beautiful head of hair? Jules made him shave it off because it made him look too “normal.” Ha. Thanks, Jules.

In 1946, six years after we separated, Curly had his first stroke. Shemp replaced him, and now partially paralyzed, Curly retired with his last wife Anita in Toluca Lake. He spent his last days playing with his schnauzers, and in 1952, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. I guess all those sledgehammers to the forehead took their toll.

I keep the book in an old jewelry box, up in the closet. Now and then, when I feel nostalgic, I thumb through it, and when I get to the black and white picture section in the middle, I stare into Curly’s eyes, the same eyes that Moe poked and jabbed and gouged, and I think back, to that strange, otherworldly time, when of all things to be, I was Mrs. Curly.

Then I laugh, and thank God I never had children with him.

-First published in Potpourri