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


     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


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.”


“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.


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

News From Hell #3


I saw two foes facing, on a dim and dismal plain.
Each held aloft gray flags emblazoned with their names.
One was nothing special; the other just the same.
It was armies of the average versus divisions of mundane.

They met upon this grim tableau for another tepid battle.
These forces of the so-so, shuffling forth as human chattel.
Their voices droned and dropped away, as they slumped upon their saddles.
Commands were uninspired, with cries nothing more than prattle.

Even-keeled, sensible, and perfectly agreeable.
Ambassadors of the literal, and the easily foreseeable.
They approached each other warily, to find a groin that was knee-able.
But fierce was cloaked in fragile, and not able to be freeable.

They tried to fight and wage a war, but soon regretted what they started.
Determination sagged; they threw down their shields because they were halfhearted.
Their clash was short and sad, their courage then departed.
Shortcoming became forthcoming, and their war was all but thwarted.

These opponents so blasé and bland now realized their shame.
With tails tucked between their legs, they slouched back to where they came.
It was just another weak attempt, a mediocre game.
Another lame and listless day, for the average and mundane.

News From Hell is a series of satiric verbal collages made from words excised from New York Times headlines. These new headlines depict a world where all sorts of hilarious and unsettling things happen. Whether witty, absurd, or philosophical, each of these reconstructed headlines reinterprets the events of our times. Each entry is a thought worth pondering in itself – but when read collectively, News From Hell functions as wry poetic commentary and a socio-political critique on the state of our civilization, and the horrors and humors within it.

E Gladiatores


This sort of amusement gives pleasure to children, silly women, slaves and free persons with the characters of slaves; but an intelligent man who weighs such matters cannot possibly approve of them.

-Marcus Tullius Cicero, E Officiis

Lactic acid boiled in the towering domes of Turbo’s pecs. Veins throbbed like angry worms and his face flushed beet-reed as he pressed one hundred twenty pounds. He held it over him, arms trembling, breath pumping rhythmically from blown-out cheeks.

Fucking pussy! Do one more! Do it! You wanna look buff for the cameras? Get psyched!

He lowered the stack, sucked air, and with an explosive, back-arching heave, raised it a glorious thirteenth time. Searing heat bored through his sternum; his arms were scalding trunks, but he couldn’t stop—thirteen was a new record! Wait until he told Torch. One more. Just. One. More.

I’m a gladiator! Whirled the voice in his head. And he was—an American Gladiator. in a polyurethane and foam rubber arena he competed, using his six foot four inch, two hundred twenty-one pound Nautilus-spawned body to conquer travel agents, while a studio audience of preschoolers and adult mental defectives whooped like a rookery. It was cake—all he had to do was stay in shape, (which was easy, what with the nutritional supplements, the fat-fighting tablets of Chromium Picolinate and Inosine 500 he gobbled) fire tennis balls at leapfrogging accountants, and rake in his paycheck. Not bad for a second-string tight end two years out of USC with a degree in Health and Recreation. Not bad at all.

Steadily, he lowed the weight. One more and his pieces would be as fluffy as fresh-baked bread. Do it pussy!

But the stack refused to move. He grunted, gnashed his teeth. I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator!

Turbo heaved, muscles locked in agony, petrified, but the weight was a wall. He saw glowing patterns, orange motes, and like wisps of spiraling smoke, blackness crept in at the periphery of his vision, sweeping over the palm-printed mirror and padded machines.

He went limp and dropped into space.



With every ounce of his flagging strength Priscus lunged, parrying the thrust, the brutal clang of metal on metal reverberating in his ears. He dodged, whirling, and when the Gaul charged he hurled aside, watching him reel into the dust in a tangle of sprawling limbs and glittering steel. Gasping, he lowered his sword.

Shrack!—a hot lash stung his back. “Fight, Thracian!” cried the lanista.

His troupe of gladiators crouched beneath the broken pillars bordering the courtyard, their lances, shields and leg-greaves scattered round. Beyond them, over the low compound of stone huts, the dusky, scrub-flecked hills shimmered in the heat.

Priscus could barely raise his weapon; his arms were lead weights, thick and unmovable. Since noon he’d been battling the merciless Gaul beneath a broiling sun that heated his helmet like a kettle-pot. Dust clogged his throat. His feet flamed in his sandals. He was parched, ready to drop.

The legions had captured him near Phillipi, and after a week’s journey through the craggy, windswept mountains, they’d brought him here, to the ludus in Capua, where he’d been training with forty other expendables: Gauls, Saxons, Illyrians, slaves and war prisoners, temple robbers, the lowest of the low. Soon the caravan would start for Rome and he would fight for the emperor. There were two possibilities: the sweet palm-branch of victory, or dying alone on the blood-soaked sand.

The sun beat down. Hot breath and brute grunts peppered the air. The second stroke becomes the third!” screamed the lanista, dancing like a crab, flicking his whip, “Parry! Feint! And you—Priscus! Keep your sword up!”

Priscus smashed and swung, but with each blow the sword grew heavier. Sweat stung his eyes and he staggered blindly around. He was dizzy, roasting like meat on a spit. Sensing weakness, the Gaul closed in. Priscus saw a flash, a glint of streaking metal, but before he could react, the heavy blunt practice sword smashed into his skull.

The last thing he saw was the courtyard spilling sideways and dim yellow sky.



Turbo blinked heavily, rubbed his eyes, and the mind-wash of gray, indistinct smears spun into focus.

Pale yellow light slanted in through a barred window. Dust-specs glittered in the air. He saw chinked brick walls, an arched wooden door, a hard-packed floor littered with straw. A punishing stench—untamed by the balm of hygiene—rankled his nostrils, and from far off came the hushed roar of what sounded like a crowd.

This isn’t the weight room, he thought.

Something gray scuttled into the shadows. He lifted his head.

Three men with stony features and wild, brambly hair hunched in the corner. The middle one wore a straw-infested beard that clung to his jaw like an oriole’s nest, and jabbered in a strange tongue. He was pointing. At his feet.

Turbo gazed down, at his one hundred forty-nine dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers. Spangled in a hallucinatory web of black and white striping, the high-top, Velcro-laced sneakers looked like mounds of vanilla ice cream dripping with chocolate syrup, and glowed fluorescently in the murk.

The bearded one slid forward and lowered a gnarled finger to his sneaker-tip. Lizard-quick, he darted it back. With an awed murmur the three gathered round, poking and petting, enraptured by the shocking colors.

“Nikes,” he said. The men gaped at him, obviously confused.

This must be a joke. He was in the basement of the studio, that’s where, and these hippie freaks were part of the elaborate ruse the producers had concocted to get him stoked for the show. That was it.

Snickering at the attempt to bamboozle him, Turbo sprang to his feet, towering in the dingy space, a cornucopia of color in his bun-hugging red, white and blue Lycra unitard. He poufed his blond brush cut and unzipped his fanny pack. Whistling the first turgid notes of the Warrant classic “Cherry Pie,”—a self-motivational remnant from his football days—he dug past the vitamin pills, Q-Tips and tubes of Sportscreme, rooting for his Stiff Stuff. But before he could locate the spray can and weld his locks into place, the door exploded inward, nearly flying off its hinges as it smashed into the wall.

Two figures dressed like the U.S.C. Trojan football mascot loomed in the doorway. Turbo watched as they stormed in, grabbed the men by their ratty threadbare cloaks, and yanked them upright. The man thrashed, kicking and scuffling, but the guards, secure in their armor, had no problem hustling them out the door. Before leaving, however, the taller of the two looked back—and spotted him.

“Yo,” said Turbo, barely containing his laughter, “what’s up?”

The guard stood irresolute. Purple feathers fountained from his embossed helmet and the silver inlay on his shield sparkled. Turbo’s face folded into a knowing smirk.

“That’s some costume.”

The guard turned, yelled something he didn’t understand, and his mate reappeared. Before he knew it they’d seized him by the arm.

“Hey. Easy.”

But the rough manner in which they dragged him through the straw made Turbo realize something.

The studio didn’t have a basement.



Blaster stuck a sky-blue contact lens on his cornea and blinked it into place. Standing two sinks away, before the mirror ringed with light bulbs, Zip waved a fine-tooth comb, flicking his wet locks into a shiny black helmet. The stink of styling mousse hung heavy as they primped and posed, anointing themselves with the numberless lotions and gels scattered atop the counter.

“Getting’ psyched?” said Blaster.

“Dude, I can’t wait,” Zip said, “I’m ready to kick some butt!”

Between the lockers, Torch sat on a wooden bench, pumping his Reeboks. His auburn mane was the color of fall leaves, and draped over his leonine face. “You just gotta believe in yourself, that’s the key,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

“It’s all positive energy,” said Zip.

“Ex-actly,” said Blaster, sliding a second lens deftly into his left eye.

Torch pulled on his elbow pads and checked his watch. “Where’s Turbo? It’s time to go.”

“Pumpin’ up,” Blaster said, “Dude won’t quit.”

“He’s gonna pop a nut.”

No sooner had Zip spoken when they heard crunching footsteps. Metal clashed, jangling like an ambulatory junkyard, and the steps grew nearer, louder, before clodhopping to a stop. Then—with a click and a whoosh, a hand-dryer clicked in. A surprised grunt sounded, and the steps started again, picking up pace, their echo lessening as they left tile and found rug.

Torch rose up from the bench and peered down the hall. Blaster and Zip crept up behind.

The dryer shut off. The only sound was the splattering showers. And footsteps.

“What is he doing?” whispered Zip.

At the far end of the locker room, a metal blade angled out from behind a pagoda of pink towels. It dipped, scraped the floor, and reemerged. From its shimmering tip, fused in a sweaty, pretzel-like knot, dangled a size 28 Bike athletic supporter.

“Turbo?” said Torch.



To Gaius Slavius Capito, trainer of the Capuan troupe, the disappearance of Priscus and his replacement by the tall blonde in the tight tunic and zebra-skin sandals was a gift from the gods, and he did not hesitate to pay tribute. Incense was lit, and a white male he-goat—symbolizing the pale stranger—was sacrificed as soon as the guards brought the captive before him. Gaius called for a soothsayer, and the seer confirmed it: the muscular warrior had been sent by the war-god Mars, to test the skill and tenacity of his fighters.

After a brief, hapless interrogation—the stranger spoke in an alien tongue and could barely utter a word without bursting into tears—the white warrior was escorted to a vestibule where he joined the other duelists to await the procession into the Colosseum. Since he’s arrived weaponless, Gaius figured him for a retarius, and had him fitted accordingly, with trident, dagger and fishing net. Strangely, the big warrior seemed bewildered when presented with these implements.

Ah, the crafty Mars! To send a fighter of such magnificence, only to have him blubber like a woman moments before battle—obviously it was a ploy, a strategy to goad his opponent into thinking the giant was weak. Gaius smiled. The cleverness of the gods—it never ceased to amaze him.

As he waited in the wings, listening to the death-squalls of the Mauretanian ostritches and wild ibex being slaughtered in the arena, he brimmed with pride. Soon the African slave-boys would rake the sand, the hacked carcasses and steaming entrails would be thrown to the dogs, and his men—all thirty of them—would battle for the emperor.

But who should oppose the white warrior? Glauco, the Syrian? Or Enomaus, the murderous Gaul?



“Who the hell’s that?” said Mike Adamle, the host of American Gladiators.

“Some clown they found in the locker rooms,” said Bruce “Ducky” Mallard, his producer. “Thinks he’s a gladiator.”

The two stood in Gladiator Arena, the huge soundstage of ramps, platforms, and padded runways where the players competed. Several yards away, a dark, rough-hewn figure wearing a sword, shield, and bronze war-helmet stood mesmerized under the blinding insanity of the strobes.

“Must’ve spent a fortune on the costume,” Mike said, glancing up from his notes. “Call security.”

Bruce shuffled uneasily in his shoes. “Mike, I’ve got, uh . . .bad news. Turbo split.”

“What to you mean he split?”

“He’s gone. We’re one gladiator short.”

Mike narrowed his eyes, gazing closer at the strange costumed figure gaping at the studio audience. Whoever the guy was, he was ripped. He looked like a statue.

“Bruce, I’ve got an idea.”



The line of stone-silent men stretched into the shadows, the crackling torches casting an orange pallor upon their grim faces. Turbo sniffled, nervously clefting his lower lip with his incisors.

In the low grotto of arched stone, workers scuttled in the dust, grappling lumber and hulks of machinery. Men in white tunics dragged canvas stretchers; a grindstone wheeled past; and with a high-pitched wincing or rope against wood, a mule-drawn cart loaded with tottering urns skirled by two feet from where he was standing. Trumpeters rag-polished horns, and back-lit by the flickering sconces, two men wearing placards and laurel garlands chatted, pointing at select men here and there. They did not point at him.

Turbo steadied his nerves. His new strategy was to lie low, regroup, figure out what was happening. He’d tried to communicate with these people; he’d begged and pleaded, blubbered and wailed, and now, his emotions spent, he settled into a quiet befuddlement. Reality or dream, wherever he was, he’d ride it out. What else could he do?

With a jingly din, two black, bare-backed men hauled in a chariot of arms: swords, daggers, scabbards, lances,; a horde of lethal points loomed like metal thistles in an ominous display. Following the chariot were the two U.S.C. Trojans who’d dragged him from the cell and the gruff thick-set man they’d brought him to—the honcho in charge.

The gruff man shouted, clapped his hands, and the group shuffled forward. Turbo gulped and fell in line. The trumpeters took their place at the head of the column, as did the men with placards. Slowly, with funereal seriousness, the line marched on, to the splash of sun gleaming at the end of the tunnel.

Just be cool, just be cool, whirled the voice in his head.

But when the procession wound out of the tunnel and the trumpeters heralded their entrance with a bugling wail and the roar of the capacity crowd rocked his ears, Turbo was overwhelmed with a spectacle more majestic, more awe-inspiring than anything he’d ever seen—even the Rose Bowl game he played a series of downs in junior year. It marveled him, took away his breath, heaved his heart into his mouth and quivered it like a toad.

A crowd of people—all wearing grayish whitish robes—sat canted back in row after row of bleachers soaring to the heavens. He gaped around. He was in a massive, bone-white bowl, a stadium. A canvas apron skirted its top level, where arched doorways hovered like cavernous eyes and red streamers flapped in the wind. Across a prairie of topaz-colored sand, a gilded box festooned in bunting jutted from the stands, where a purple-robed figure lounged in the sun, fanned by a bevy of attendants. The trumpets blasted again; the column turned, stamping through the dust, and somewhere in the dimly-lit shallows of Turbo’s mind, it dawned on him.

He was in ancient Rome!

Turbo did not arrive at this stupefying conclusion through any percipience of the classics; he knew nothing of the Punic Wars, the Pax Romana, the satires of Juvenal—no, his understanding of this period was gleaned from stereotypical sources, based on modern, overly simplified interpretations of the era. So it wasn’t until he remembered the beer-splattered toga parties at the Sigma Chi house and the movie Ben Hur, that he put it all together.

The gruff man stiffened to address the tousle-headed figure in the robe, who sipped from a chalice and watched the proceedings with a thin, superior smile.

“Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant!” came the cry.

Turbo had no idea what that meant, but he hoped it was good.



Faced with stiff competition from the ESPN networks, the ratings for American Gladiators had been sinking for two seasons, before reaching an all-time low of 1.9 in the latest Nielsens. Recently, a memo from Four Point Entertainment, the show’s production company, had been issued to the staff, and unless “new and more visually arresting contestants” could be found, the show was in danger of being canceled.

Mike Adamle knew this. Whoever the costumed stranger was, he was the answer to their prayers. Having a “real” gladiator on the show was the perfect stunt, exactly what Four Point was looking for.

However, the stranger reacted violently when the make-up girl tried to buff his cheeks, and had great difficulty understanding stage directions. No matter. A production assistant was dispatched to assist him, and the taping began as scheduled.



War-trumpets wailed in somber salvos and the crowd settled into their seats. Cries and piercing whistles cut the air as the column filed slowly back to the tunnel, followed by the chariot and its attendant slaves. The intervals between cries grew longer, until a pall fell over the arena and all was silent.

“Hey, where you . . .going?” Turbo said, nervously zipping and unzipping his fanny pack. He stutter-stepped after them, but the gruff man and the Trojans loomed at his side. Before he knew it they’d wedged a trident and fishing net into his fingers and were prodding him to the middle of the arena, where a bowl of hard-packed sand made a sort of center-ring. The gruff man patted him on the arm and walked off.

Turbo heard a creak, a long, strident moan, and turned to the opposite end of the stadium, where a braced wooden gate tottered on its hinges.

Like an insect spidering out of its lair, a tall, powerfully-built figure slid from the shadows and prowled over the sand. He wore heavy magnificent armor, with bronze leg-greaves, a large oblong shield, and a helmet with blood-red feathers. A sheathed sword wagged at his side.

An icy centipede of fear skittered down Turbo’s spine as the old rallying cry bleated insanely through his skull:

I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator!

Finally, it all made sense.



Mike Adamle addressed the camera with his customary effusiveness: “Folks, have we got a treat for you! Because for the first time ever, a real live gladiator from ancient Rome will compete in Gladiator Arena! He winked slyly, pouring on the camp. “That’s right—don’t ask how he got here, but in a matter of seconds, he’ll battle Torch and Zip and the rest of our American Gladiators. Who’s tougher? The Roman? Or the Americans? Stay tuned!”

Slowly, mesmerically, Enomaus waved his sword, swiping left, right, getting a feel for it, gonging the mount against his shield. The crowd screamed barbaric slogans, writing like some massive ciliated thing, and he kept closer, gazing suspiciously at the towering figure in the tight tunic. Strangely, instead of circling in the sizing-each-other-up dance that always preceded a duel, his opponent remained stationary. The white warrior must be a superb fighter to stand so rigid and confident, he thought. He backed off.

After forging his nerves—and after being called a “eunuch” by a toothless sack-faced old hag in the front row—he charged.

“Our first event is ‘Swingshot,’ where gladiators leap from their cliffs and using the spring from bungee cords, grab red, blue, or yellow scoring markers from the center cylinder. We’re almost ready to go!”



White-flecked spittle flurried down; hisses, curses and boos stung the air as the crowd jeered, furious at the lack of blood. Turbo smiled uneasily, scuffing, back-pedaling through the dust.

“Look, I-uh, I’m not a real gladiator, like, like you are, okay? I’m an actor, on TV, and . . . this really isn’t fair.”

The man in the armor stalked closer. Wind whistled through the chinks of his armor as he fingered his sword.

“Do you think it’s fair? I mean, I don’t. So let’s—no, put that away. You win. I forfeit. Dude no, no. . . nooo!”



The underworld was nothing like Priscus had imagined. Instead of a murky realm of whispering shade and feathery spirits it was loud, alive, a pandemonium. Demons flashed swirling red eyes. Torches shed no flame and invisible dragons belched plumes of white smoke. And everywhere, stacked atop one another, the souls of the damned screamed, beating their hands in tortured agony.

The gods were angry with him. He’d died in shame, before competing in the arena, and now, like Sisyphus, he’d be tortured for all eternity. Why else had the servant of Pluto’s fastened the vine about his waist and brought him to this precipice?

He peered across the chasm, at the snake-men in banded skins atop the opposite cliff. He must conquer them—only then might the gods forgo his punishment.

A spirit with the markings of a zebra stuck a silver nut to his lips, and a trilling scream knifed the air. Priscus, flinched, arms treading wildly, and pitched over the edge.



From one end of the Colosseum to the other Turbo ran, with the clunking Gaul in hot pursuit. His one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers with the waffled outsole and snug ankle-high fit offered superior traction, allowing him to corner in the slippery dust, and the Gaul, having no such modern accouterments, lagged behind. After two orbits, Turbo spied a vague rectangle and sprinted towards it. The crowd was a seething mass, fifty-thousand voices united in a cataclysm of boiling caterwauling sound. His hamstrings felt like someone was pressing two red-hot irons against the back of his thighs and sweat stung his eyes but he made it to the door, plowing into it, bashing his fists.

“Open up! I don’t want to fight! Goddamn it open the goddamn door!”

Through the scrim of dust he saw the Gaul closing in, his sword waving like a crazy antenna.

For an agonizing second Turbo stood paralyzed, riveted to the ground, bur as the Gaul loomed over him, swinging the blade, a flash of the old magic that had earned him the title of “Mr. Football” his senior year in high school returned, and he faked right, spun, and dashed off.



“Torch and Zip are flying high, grabbing markers—and here’s the Roman with a huge leap! Looks a bit lost out there, but he’s up, and . . . look at this! He’s impaling scoring markers on his sword! Jabbing, thrusting . . . Torch has a yellow, Zip going high . . . ten seconds . . . the Roman’s got two more, three more, annnnd—there’s the buzzer! Two, three, he’s got six markers! What a performance!



Domitian scowled. This wasn’t a duel—it was a joke, two chipmunks chasing each other. He fisted the cloak of Marcus Aurelius Rufus, his prefect, yanking him near. “Find the imbecile responsible for this outrage,” he said.

“Yes, lord and god,” stammered Marcus.



Buoyed by his victory in “Swingshot,” Priscus made short work of Zip in “Tug of War,” pulling him from his elevated platform with one brutal, Herculean yank. (Zip’s gymnastic training, a plus against twentieth-century opponents, offered no advantage whatsoever against ancient brawn.) The next event, “The Wall,” a sixty-foot, toe-holed crag of vulcanized rubber, went just as smoothly, as Priscus’ tenure in the granite quarries of Thracia had bred the nimbleness of a mountain goat. He scaled the peak two and a half seconds ahead of Blaster, his nearest competitor.

After three events, Priscus led with sixteen points. Torch was second, with five, followed by Blaster with three. Zip, his shoulder purpling with a nasty bruise, was unable to compete.

Mike Adamle reminded Priscus that if he won the last event, “Assault,” he’d win twenty-five hundred dollars, and be eligible to compete in the Tournament of Champions.

Priscus was unmoved by this information.



Turbo’s heart thrashed like a hooked bass. Lungs heaving, he ran one more circuit, the stadium swirling in a kaleidoscopic blur. But right when he planted his ankle to zag across the middle, he felt a snap, a sickening rip. His foot slid, seemed to break through, and he sprawled face-first into the dust.

He spat grit from his teeth and looked down.

The white, tube-socked nubs of his toes poked out from a gaping hole of flayed rubber and ripped stitching, and the famous swoosh—sewn on by Indonesian seamstresses earning twelve cents an hour—hung by ragged threads, flapping in the sand.

His one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers had blown out from the turn!



Furry stones. Priscus patted one with his sword, amazed at how light it was. Green, too. He’d never seen such a stone.

The zebra-spirit blew the silver nut and galloped off. Priscus explored the labyrinth of Plexiglas and modular cones, and with a snapping fling, a greenish blur whistled by his helmet. There was a second fling, a third, and emerald-hued comets whizzed by inches from his leg, one passing directly between his knees, grazing his tunic. He looked up. Outlined against a nova of dazzling light, wreathed in smoke, he saw the snake-demon crouched atop a short tower, manning a catapult. Instantly, he sprang into a battle stance, shield raised, creeping stealthily on his flank, the soft stones pittering off his shield.

When he was fifty cubits away, he grabbed a stone, waited, and when a break came in the fusillade, bobbed up and threw. The stone sailed high, missed the snake-demon entirely, and hit a large spiraled gong.

A horn blew, and red lights flashed all around. Priscus sprang up to hurl a second stone, but the snake-demon was climbing down from his tower.

These demons looked fearsome, he thought, but they weren’t very fierce warriors.

They gave up too easily.



“Please—I’m just an actor, I’m not a gladiator, now I know. I’m sorry.”

But the warrior wasn’t looking at him. His head was cocked back, peering at the crowd. Turbo looked up, scanning the faces, and then he saw them.

Thumbs. One after the other, pointing to the ground.



With his victory in “Assault,” Priscus had swept all four events, attaining a record twenty-six points.

But when Mike Adamle went for a post-game interview, the stranger huffed by, shouldering into the crowd of parents and balloon-toting toddlers as they queued for the exists.



This blubbering coward had humiliated him, made him look like an ass. Enomaus swung, and in three quick, bloody strokes, it was over. The white warrior lay dead.

As they hooked the body and dragged it off in a smear of gore, he hung his head in shame.

Turbo’s unitard, fanny pack, and one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers were stripped from his body and his corpse was thrown to the hounds. The fanny packs and unitard disappeared, no doubt stolen by unscrupulous morticians, but his Nikes were saved and brought to the emperor Domitian. For several years the sneakers served as dinner party curiosities, with many a prefect of the Praetorian guard marveling at their bright colors and hexalite midsole construction. But after Domitian’s assassination in 96 A.D., they too, were lost.



In 2002 a British expedition led by Sir Nigel Smith-Caruthers unearthed an Etruscan grave-urn on the Palatine Hill, bearing the figure of a fleeing, teary-eyed warrior clad in swoosh-emblazoned sandals. The discovery caused a minor sensation in archaeological circles, but was soon discounted as a public relations stunt once Wieden & Kennedy, Nike’s advertising agency, featured the urn in a television spot hyping its newest and most expensive crosstrainer to date, the garish one hundred and eighty-nine dollar Air Hercules.



The producers of American Gladiators launched a nation-wide search for Priscus, as the show he’d appeared on garnered the highest ratings in history. A proposal for a spin-off called “Beat The Gladiator” made the rounds among programming executives, but was scrapped as the stranger could not be found.

Three months later, Dud and Ida McGivens, a couple from Barstow, California, after reading about the “gladiator” in TV Guide, reported seeing a figure matching his description near I-15, twenty miles southwest of Las Vegas. It is now believed that the Thracian is working in some capacity at Caesar’s Palace, where to this day, his elaborate garb and ancient ways remain undetected.

Nothing is so damaging to good character than wasting time at the games; for then it is that vice steals secretly upon you through the avenue of pleasure. . . I come home more greedy, more ambitious, even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings.

-Seneca, Letters 7.3

-First published in Vignette

Warriors of Peace


In the distance, a rumble. Low, full-throated, and ominous, it grows nearer and nearer. And suddenly, the idyllic spring day seems threatened by an ominous presence. Rising over the crest, they appear: a throng of whiskery, leather-clad bikers, seventy hard-eyed, bad ass mofos astride monster Harleys, announcing themselves to the world with menacing tattoos and growling engines, marauders of the open road hell-bent on finding peace, tranquility, and the gentle glow of spiritual enlightenment.

Wha . . .?. Wait a sec. Peace? Tranquility? Wouldn’t a crowd like this be looking for a bar? A babe? A brawl? Or all three? Conventional wisdom screams “hell yes.” But this horde of razor-challenged riders is anything but conventional. And they’re anything but threats to society, or middle-finger waving rebels looking to swipe a Cub Scout’s lunch money. In fact, they’re the exact opposite of bad behavior, as their name denotes.

Meet RedRum MC, the First Nations, Native American Bike Club, founded in 2006. Unlike other bike clubs or gangs, Red Rum is all about positivity. Built on the foundation of brotherhood, community, self-respect, family values, and charitable causes, the 80-plus members was formed in order to promote unity, peace and tranquility. Once you speak to club president Cliff Ke le Matias, it’s easy to see where the inspiration came from.

“I’ve been shot, stabbed, got cut with a sword, you name it,”‘ he said. Matias grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn, where RedRum is based, and like most members of the club, rubbed elbows with some sketchy characters while growing up, not to mention run-ins with the cops. Youthful defiance soon turned to the realization that he wanted to “make an imprint on society instead of the police blotter.” And so RedRum was born, as well as their motto of “spreading positivity on two wheels.” And they’ve followed that mission as naturally as inking another tattoo.

Over the past decade, Matias and his crew have not only provided a haven for part and full Native American riders by forming six chapters around the country—and several more internationally—but also rallied support for indigenous causes like land reclamation, historical education and environmental clean-up initiatives; they’ve raised funds for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, held and annual “Blessing of the Bikes” in Bear Mountain, NY, and on this weekend “Peace Run,” gave prayers at a white pine planted a white pine in the name of harmony at the Chuang Yen Monastery, in Carmel, NY. It is here where they boldly appeared out of the blue on a beautiful Saturday in early May.

After kickstands down and helmets off, the riders circled Matias to heaer him lead a ceremony of worship before the peace tree. Joined by his brother Dave on drum, Mathias played a Native American melody on the cedar flute, the traditional chanting drawing a crowd, the delicate notes cutting right to the heart. Then rider after rider lined up to crumble sacred tobacco into the soil, issuing silent prayers to the earth, their ancestors, and all things that are good in the universe. And when the music finally faded away, there was only the sound of the wind, which caused the small white pine to tremble slightly, yet remain firm and undaunted, reaching for the sun.

Then they said their farewell to the monks, throttled up their hogs and rode off to get some barbecue.

-As published in 1903 Magazine.

Product Placement Bible #2


As featured on

The Product Placement Bible questions what we really worship,  lampooning consumer society and organized religion in equal doses, using the format of scripture to blend the two realms into one very entertaining, unsettling read.

Design by Graham Clifford (

Keep Shoveling (excerpt)



“Gary lies in the gutter and looks at the stars.”

-Arthur Schumway

     Say the words, “Gary, Indiana” to most people, or better yet, mention that you grew up there, and the reaction is visceral and immediate. With wide eyes, those forced to hear these accursed syllables warily step back, gaping at you suspiciously, as if you’re going to whip out a linoleum knife and carve out their gall bladder. “That’s a rough town,” they’ll say, ever so ruefully, or “you grew up in Gary and you’re still vertical?” It’s either that, or as chipper as a cheerleader, they’ll chant the words “Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana,” from “The Music Man.” No other place ignites such an instant response, or one so at odds. One reaction involves terror. The other, happy go lucky insipidness. But from its inception, Gary has been a place of extremes, a crossroads of contradictions, a paradox incarnate.

For starters, Gary is in the state of Indiana. But it is nothing like the Indiana that comes to mind. There are no charming covered bridges in Gary. There are no basketball hoops on red barns in Gary. There are no fields of flowing corn, no combines or tractors plying God’s green earth, no bake sales, bucolic reveries, or Mellencampian heartland clichés. No, unlike the rest of Indiana, Gary is urban, ethnic, and gruesomely industrial. It’s a well worn, thoroughly used and abused area, like hardened scar tissue, or a scab that’s too thick too peel away from the healthier tissue growing around it.

To most people who experience it, Gary is nothing more than a horrific stench, and an even more horrific sight. Marked by dismal housing projects, dilapidated shacks, decrepit trailer parks, crumbling duplexes, boarded-up storefronts, grimy truck stops, junk yards, rail yards, garbage-strewn vacant lots, pockmarked roads, abandoned strip malls, charred husks of buildings, and countless smokestacks spewing out noxious emissions, Gary is a bleak, gray, depressing hinterland, a grim, hopeless-looking place to shudder at, ignore, or simply shake your head at in dismay as you zoom on to brighter, less threatening locales.

Gary is part of what is known as “Chicagoland,” as it’s only thirty miles from the Loop. But it’s light years away from Chicago in every possible way. There are no investment bankers trading futures in Gary. There are no world-class restaurants and chic, cosmopolitan cafes in Gary. There is no breathtaking architecture, no glimmering skyscrapers, no vibrant theatre scene in Gary. Gary is closer to Chicago than most Chicago suburbs, and receives the same television and radio stations as Chicago. But in spirit, mindset, and outlook, it is as far from Chicago as Prudhoe Bay. If Chicago is The City of Broad Shoulders, Gary is The City of Weak Knees. If Chicago is the Hog Butcher For The World, Gary is the Human Butcher For The World. If Chicago is The Second City, Gary is The One Millionth City.

Perched between these rural and urban polarities, Gary has always had an identity crisis. So it’s no surprise that its most famous native, Michael Jackson, suffered a similar fate. With his circus selves constantly shifting and evolving into various other selves, this desperate creation of plastic surgeons first grappled with who he was and who he wanted to be right over on 2400 South Jackson Street. Who knows, it might have been true—maybe Michael wasn’t sure who he wanted to be because he city he lived in wasn’t sure what it wanted to be, either.

Like the King of Pop, Gary burst into national prominence full of promise and infinite possibility. Hailed as “The New Industrial Utopia,” Gary was founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel. Hopes were high. A city brochure gushed, “Cosmopolitan Gary, the Magic Steel City, welcomes all comers to its confines, where health, wealth, and pleasure make it the most wonderful city of the present century!” But inevitably, like the Gloved One, Gary had nowhere to go but down, falling to pieces step by step, until the face it showed to the world was a grotesque atrocity.

This is due to two primary factors: pollution and crime. Upon entering its environs—usually by car, with every door being automatically bolted shut as soon as the road sign appears on the horizon—Gary announces itself immediately, with a nauseous, sulfurous odor. The smell is a stomach-curdling bouquet of contaminants including nitrates, cyanide, zinc, manganese, ammonia, barium, phenol, lead, nickel, and chromium among countless others.

The water in Gary is equally as foul. Suffering from over a century of environmental neglect, the brackish Grand Calumet River and its subsidiary, The Little Calumet, which wind through the city and its adjoining hamlets, seethe with pollutants. With PCBs, cyanide, heavy metals, mercury, cadmium, phosphorus, assorted dioxins, arsenic, fecal coliform, and other volatile solids like oil and grease commingling together in a bouillabaisse of poisons, it’s no wonder only sludge worms call the local “waters” home.

As for vice, corruption, gang warfare, and other crime, Gary is synonymous with it. Consistently ranking high or sometimes even first on various civic indexes in categories like “Most Dangerous,” “Most Miserable” and “Most Murders Per Capita,” the city excels in dubious honors. Now and then another town like Newark, Detroit, or New Orleans dethrones Gary of these infamous distinctions, but G.I. always seems to creep back up to the top of being the absolute bottom. An inordinate amount of murders, burglaries, rape, arson, car thefts, prostitution, and drug-fueled violence cement Gary’s reputation as one of the most notorious cities in America.

Mayberry eat your heart out.

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.

The Armageddon News



When the end of the world started today, everyone in the newsroom was shocked. We’d covered big stories before—that whole World Trade Center thing, Frank Sinatra’s death—but never anything like this. There was panic at first, but after realizing our duties to the network and its clients, NewsFive rose to the occasion, delivering a flawless broadcast, showing all of New York why we’re the top-rated news program in the Tri-State area.

As news director, all I wanted was to depict the grave situation as best as I could, with accuracy, brevity and clarity. I wanted to do it for myself, to uphold my own journalistic standards, but more importantly, we owed it to our advertisers: Burger King, Chrysler, Blimpie, they drop serious cash—a hundred and fifty grand for thirty seconds—and if we don’t get the viewers, what’re we here for?

And we did it. Dan Delaney, Sunny Greenfield, Dirk Malibu, Chip Simpletown—the entire on-air staff delivered, exhibiting the class and showmanship of the season media professionals they are. I tip my hat to them, to the whole department: the writers, producers, videotape editors—even the interns.

Hopefully, the eleven o’clock broadcast will go just as smoothly. If it does, I can meet my maker with a smile, knowing I’ve executed my job to the zenith of my abilities.


There was nothing unusual about Thursday, June 9th, 2003, certainly nothing to make you think it’d be the last day of planet Earth. I awoke at seven, had a bowl of Mini-Wheats, and cabbed down to Rockefeller Center, where the WNBC-TV newsroom is located on the third floor.

No sooner did I step from the elevator when I saw Sheila McNight, my assignment editor, and her red praying mantis eyeglasses. As usual, she’d camped in the lobby, waiting for me. “Doug,” she said, dropping Broadcast Media and rocketing off the beige lounger, “radar’s picking up some wild shit.”

“Morning Sheila.” She thudded after me as I made for the kitchen.

“The barometer’s going crazy. Comstar’s found strange cloud-patterns in the stratosphere.”

“Send Johnny up in the chopper.”

“What for?”

“I don’t know, we got the thing, let’s use it. Get some cloud shots.”

I got a coffee and holed up in my office, where I set my police scanner on HyperSearch and checked the wire reports. The red voice-mail button on my phone blinked like a tiny frantic eye and a stack of “While You Were Outs” sat paper-clipped on my desk. I sighed. A typical day—I hadn’t been in two minutes, and already I was swamped.

The morning passed. I screened audition tapes, talked with Fred Silverstein, our GM about Sunny (at 32 he thinks she’s “over the hill”), read press releases, and made a crude list of the stories so far. Besides another jogger raped in Central Park and a three-alarm fire at an ice cream parlor in Park Slope, the only good thing I had was the “crazy barometer” piece. I decided to see if Meteorology knew what it was.

I hit the newsroom, and couldn’t believe my eyes. Not a single person was at their desk. Walking the cubicles, I found steaming coffee cups, pushed-back chairs, and on Laura Mastrianni’s desk, a recently toasted, bialy whose pad of butter was still melting. I kept walking, but not until rounding a corner did I find them. Huddled three-deep, murmuring in hushed tones, the NewsFive staff stood by the windows, gazing outside.

Inky black murk filled the canyon of Forty-Ninth street, and herds of people fled down the sidewalk, darting between graffiti-carved delivery trucks and blaring cabs. Debris sailed in spinning circles. The wind threw light drizzle through the orange halos of streetlights and the windows in the building across the street glared a fluorescent white as the sun dimmed further. I saw shadows of office workers, men in ties, women cradling coffee mugs, all staring confusedly into the gloom.

I check my watch—11:32. Something major was happening, a freak midday thunderstorm, or—this got me really excited—a surprise eclipse. Either way it was damn good copy.

Right then someone tugged my arm. “I’ve got Johnny on the two-way,” Sheila said.

I followed her into AV, and watched as she fiddled knobs and dials. “Johnny, come in, over,” she said, between gusts of static. I heard garbled cries, broken-off words, but nothing intelligible.

“I just had him,’ Sheila said, slapping away the noise. “Johnny, what’s it like up there? Johnny come in.”

We tried and tried, but it was no use—nothing but static. “What did he say?” I said.

Sheila’s response was drowned out by a smash of thunder so loud it seemed to explode in my skull. It sounded like a giant whip cracking, snapped every cell wide awake, and sprawled me off my chair.

“Holy SHIT!” I yelled, scrambling to my feet. Sheila and I ran to the windows, elbowed forward, and what we saw simply defied belief.

I thought it was paint the Greek guys on the scaffolding had spilled, but as I watched heavy drops of it streak the windows and slice down the glass, my heart slammed into my gut when I realize what it was.



Perhaps my ignorance of Biblical studies explains why I remained calm. Of course, back then, I still believed in a scientific explanation, that the pulpy red downpour was a freak of nature, like the reports of it raining frogs I’d read as a kid in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. But as the windows ran with a wine-dark crimson, and the secretaries shrieked about angels and the “the seventh seal,” I realized what was happening was preternatural, if not divine.

Like most people, I’d never really thought about Armageddon. It was a topic reserved for evangelists or hardcore Jesus freaks. In a sophomore theology class at Syracuse I read The Book of Revelations, but I didn’t understand it, not without Cliff Notes. It was an outlandish concept, but given the state of the world in the twenty-first century, it didn’t surprise me.

See, my fourteen years in the newsroom had bred a callousness, a detachment from the severity of the events we covered. War, assassinations, plane crashes, mass murders, ethnic cleansing, AIDS, babies left to rot in the trash, the music of Mariah Carey, I viewed it all stoically, objectively, no matter how sickening or depraved, it didn’t affect me. It was all par for the course. Armageddon was no different.

And besides, I thought, strangely resigned, with all the misery in the world, why shouldn’t it end? It would sure spare a lot of people from suffering. I was sad, because I wanted to live—I had an eighteen hundred square foot loft, a new bitch-magnet Jag—but deep down Armageddon didn’t seem that impossible. In the news business you get jaded. After awhile nothing shocks you.

Of course, my coworkers took it harder, but once I made them realize their obligation to the city of New York—I decided to play that hand, that old “civic responsibility” angle—they quit panicking and got to work.

“People!” I screamed, as high heels and wingtips stampeded for the elevator, “Settle down! Now!”

A few faces turned, but most kept clamoring. I was jostled and spun, but thinking quickly, I grabbed a metal garbage can and hopped onto the reception desk. I gonged the can with an umbrella until I had their attention.

“Hey, remain calm! Quiet down!”

Davis, a newswriter, craned back. “Remain calm?” he yelled, his thin face pretzeled with fear, “It’s raining blood for Christ sakes!”

With a shout the fracas started again, and the elevator beeped and banged as the scrum of bodies swamped its interior.

“Yes!” I screamed, “You’re right. It’s raining blood. But people . . . do we have to act like idiotic children? Like fools? Remember. We have an obligation—we’re a news department.”

The crowd quieted some.

“This rain, blood, whatever it is, it’s just news. Big news—bigger than Okalahoma City, Bosnia, even O.J! Think of the stories, the dramas—Davis, why think of the copy you could write!”

Davis’ face relaxed, and he fingered his chin, considering my words.

Richie nodded. A few other stirred, buoyed by the emotion in my voice. I decided to go for the jugular:

“The people have a right to know. We owe it to them. All of New York’s counting on you, and you’re leaving? To got out there?” I pointed to the windows. “Ha. Well, go ahead. But I’m staying right here, and if I have to go on myself and read the goddamn news, then by God, I’ll do it.”

Blood drummed against the panes; thick oily curtains of red streamed down the glass and bubbled over the sill. It felt like we were in a submarine, forty fathoms deep in a corpuscle sea. They looked at me. I looked at them. No one knew what to say.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have copy to write,” I said, leaping off the desk.

I strolled to the kitchen and brewed a pot of Maxwell House—a two bagger. I’d need all the alertness I could get.

Well, my impromptu speech got them pretty riled, and the newsroom sprang into action: phones ringing, keyboards clacking, modems chirping static—the manic flux of a department operating at peak capacity. Obviously, I’d touched a communal nerve, made them see that in a time as grave as this, there was only one thing to do—our jobs.

Richie and the field crews hit the streets, searching for stories, footage, anything to define the unbelievable situation. Reporters Frank Dabney, Suzy Ho, Yolanda Rollins, and Abe Glickman followed behind. Davis and the writers got the AP UPI and Reuters reports and jammed out copy. Graphics, meteorology, sports, every department was ablaze. Marion, my secretary, microwaved a big batch of cheese popcorn, and in a hilarious stunt that further enhanced our camaraderie, the interns from Skidmore College cranked “It’s The End Of The World As WeKnow It,” by R.E.M. That really loosened us up!

More reports came in off the wire, and the enormity of the situation sank in. Incredibly, the bloodstorm was only the beginning—by twelve-thirty it was joined by flaming hail, tiny Chiclet-sized comets plummeting from the blackened sky in tracers of gold before fizzling out in the red muck that stained every surface the hue of viscera. Thunder boomed; lightning slashed, and the sky churned in a mosaic of streaking glittering fire. It was a massive hallucination, a kaleidoscopic swirl, a strobing lava-like stew of orange and red and gold.

And then there were the locusts. Without warning they swarmed from the subway, in Grand Central, Penn Station, Battery Park; from the IRT and PATH trains, the Lexington lines, every one of the city’s 229 stations vomited rasping wings and scissoring teeth. In a vast nimbus they poured down the avenues, their collective buzz prickling my skin with goose bumps. I watched them perch on the windows, slapping their wings, smearing bloody arcs on the kidney-colored glass.

Due to the severity of the situation, I called Silverstein and told him to pre-empt. He just laughed. “Tell that to IBM,” he said. I was dismayed, but I understood. To deny IBM the time they paid for would be unethical, not to mention losing the network valuable ad dollars. And besides, none of the other networks were preempting, why should we? So I’d have to do cut-ins.

But I didn’t mind. Ivy Ivers would handle things until the anchors arrived, and with Sheila in constant touch with the reporters via the cellular, I knew we’d have some killer stories.

At two-fifteen, Frank Dabney stumbled into my office. From head to toe he was crusted in blood, and a fine paprika-like dust flaked off him with every move. White lines creased his mouth and forehead where his skin had furrowed, and burnt craters singed his suit.

“I’ve got a rough cut of a locust piece,” he said, “ramming a three-quarter inch tape into my VTR. Over shots of flying insects, I heard his VO:

With a whir they started skyward, out of the broken earth in vast, black clouds. They had come to punish mankind, to make him pay for his sins, and pay they did. All across the metropolitan area, the pesky swarms attacked, dive-bombing out of the roiling skies with a vengeance. Nothing could stop them, as this Queens man found out, as he was walking his dog.

They came from nowhere, out of the sky. They bit my dog up and then they come for me.

Why do you think they’re here?

Don’t know. Just want em gone.

But by all appearances, the locusts are here to stay. Frank Dabney, NewsFIve New York.

Frank popped the tape. “Like it?”

“Yeah,” I said, slipping a gnawed Bic from my mouth, “lose ‘roiling’ thought. Too esoteric. And clip ten frames off the end shot.”

But that was only the beginning.

Abe Glickman shot a piece in the Sheep’s Meadow, with sound-bites from stoned Frisbee tossers who said they’d party right up to the end. “Like what can you do,” said one dreadlocked kid, puffing a Hebrew National-sized joint. I told Abe to use the R.E.M. song for background. “Gotcha!” he said, sprinting off. Yolanda Rollins shit Wall Street, getting fantastic shots of panicked traders and the plummeting Dow. And Suzy Ho came through with a tear-jerker about the diligent kids at P.S. 38 on the Upper West Side, who, despite the hopeless scenario, kept right on studying.

Things were going well, although we still hadn’t heard from Johnny Davenport in the NewsFive chopper. I hoped he was okay, but if not, I had a backup plan: we’d do an on-air memorial, a somber “line of duty” piece. That would sob things up.


At three o’clock, I held and editorial meeting in the small conference room with Sheila, Fred Silverstein, Davis, executive producer Ralph Busey, and our anchors, Dan Delaney and Sunny Greenfield. Our purpose was to decide what stories to do, in what order, and in what format. Usually the meetings lasted an hour, but today we decided to make it quick.

We all agreed that Franks’ locust piece was a highlight, and should run up top, after the global package Davis was writing. However, the Davis piece needed video, which was a problem, since Visnews and Imagique had no way of shipping us film. Around the world serious shit was happening—a meteor smashed into the Indian Ocean, triggering psunamis; monster quakes racked Asia-and we couldn’t show it. I considered dropping the piece, figuring Brokaw would cover the international stuff, but decided not to. We needed those stories, they were important. And time was running out.

Then Sunny had a brilliant idea.

Sitting at the long conference table piled with media schedules, program logs and scripts, twirling a finger in her frosty blonde hair, she squeaked, “Why don’t we used footage from disaster movies?”

As none of had ever heard Sunny say anything other than what ran on the TelePrompTer, a shocked silence filled the room. Then Silverstein shot up from his chair. “Perfect!” Archives has Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, every movie ever made!”

“There’s great scenes in The Ten Commandments,” said Ralph.

Dan nodded stoically. “That’ll work.”

Sunny looked bewildered, like she hadn’t expected anyone to take her seriously.

Fred was right—it was perfect. I sent Davis and an editor to Archives; the segment they[‘d build on the Avid would be our hard opening, and with Abe, Yolanda, and Suzy’s stories, and the celebrity piece Mindy Pug was shooting at Planet Hollywood, we had a good fifteen minutes. All that remained was weather and sports.

I called Chip and Dirk in. Chip was depressed, since all the ball games had been blooded out, but he’d cut together a “Great Moments” piece with film of the Yankees, Mets, Namath, Parcell’s Giants, the Knicks and Rangers, and it looked fantastic. All he had to do was introduce it and bang—three more minutes.

Dirk Malibu, however, was positively beaming. When a storm hits, weathermen get an almost sexual thrill, and from the mile-wide grin on his tanned, whittled face, Dirk was definitely aroused.

“I wrote a great intro,” he said flashing his bleached teeth. (Dirk also models for Tommy Hilfiger) He stood before us, templing his manicured hands. “As for the weather,” I guess you could say. . . all hell’s breaking loose.”

We must’ve laughed for a good minute. Dirk showed his scripts, and they were fabulous. I told him to have Mavis type them right into the TelePrompTer—they didn’t even need revising. I sent Dan and Sunny into make-up, and Sheila and I timed the copy and ran down the stories. The newscast was almost there, but we were ninety seconds short. Luckily, at that moment, Dr. Bernie rolled in.

Every station has a Dr. Bernie, some bookwormy freak with horned-rim glasses, tumbleweed hair, and a bow tie who offers a tidbit of advice or consumer warning; it’s another great way to fill up time. Of course, Dr. Bernie isn’t a real doctor, but who cares? This is TV!

“Can I read a PSA?” he said.

Dr. Bernie pulled out a scrap of yellow from his breast pocket and unfolded it. Through the underside of the paper I could see the inky swirls of his handwriting. He cleared his throat.

The end of the world is a difficult time for all of us, but there are ways to deal with it. The first thing to do—don’t panic. Remember: you can’t think if you’re screaming. The second thing to do is protect yourself. Stay indoors under a shelter of some kind, a strong table or ironing board. For those of you who live in apartment buildings, leave immediately for a nearby rescue center. If you’re going outside, dress in layers, and wear a cap. As for the locusts, spray yourself with insect repellent, Deep Woods Off! or one of the Cutter brands. We’re expecting some pretty severe weather, so please, keep these precautions in mind. They could save, I mean, prolong your life.

I checked my stopwatch: sixty seconds. With anchor chatter, we had our ninety.

Picking nervously at a hangnail, I hunched over the Grass Valley 2400 switcher in the control room, watching the red digits on the program clock slide to six o’clock. Technical director Tony Fazzio sat beside me. Rows of glowing buttons bathed our faces in shades of orange, yellow and green and the test and tone hummed an eerie flatness. No one said a word. I gazed into studio 6A, and saw Dan and Sunny propped behind the gray carpeted anchor desk, receiving last-second whisks of make-up.

At 5: 58 Dan appeared ten-fold on the bank of monitors. He adjusted the lavaliere mike clipped to his tie and stared blankly ahead.

I held my breath, hands slippery with sweat. The seconds ticked by. Then—the clock flashed zeroes; Tony punched a button, and with a zapping swoosh, our opening montage tumbled onto the screen. A soft, victorious “Yes!” escaped my lips as Dan read off the prompter:

The end of the world—fire, destruction, mayhem in the streets—Judgement Day is here and we’re live with the latest.

Good evening I’m Dad Delaney. The skies are black and the seas are red as Armageddon—the mythical battle between good and evil—rages in New York and all over the globe.

It started before noon, when as the Book of revelations foretold, the sun blackened in a terrifying eclipse. Next came thunder and lightning, followed by torrents of bloody rain and flaming hail that left New Yorkers scrambling for shelter.

I watched footage of fleeing pedestrians, then the global piece Davis cut from the Irwin Allen films ran—cleverly, he’d digitized the film, giving it the flat, muted look of video—with Dan’s VO:

In Asia and the Middle east, a series of mammoth earthquakes measuring 12.3 on the Richter scale has left those areas devastated. Baghdad, Hong Kong, Tokyo and other cities are in ruin, reduced to smoking rubble by the trembling earth. Billions are dead, and more are missing.

And to make matters worse, tidal waves triggered by a meteor plunging into the Indian Ocean are battering coastal areas. Astronomers say the meteor was a wayward asteroid, and may have been a quarter-mile in circumference. Residents are being evacuated, but as more quakes are due to hit, it doesn’t look good. Sunny, it’s a scenario right out of Hollywood disaster movie.

It sure is Dan. Here in New York, while the blood and hail has stopped for now, that doesn’t mean we can relax. Because as Frank Dabney reports, woes of a different sort loom on the horizon.

Frank’s locust piece ran, and I sighed with relief. Soon we’d hit the commercial break; after that, it was all downhill. But if I’ve learned anything from fourteen years in this business, it’s that nothing ever goes as planned.

Five minutes into the broadcast, I saw the fresnels in the studio swaying on the lighting grid. A low, subway-like rumble sounded, and the floor quivered under my feet. I heard a screech, like nails on a chalkboard only a million times louder, and with a sickening lurch the control room slewed sideways. Everything was a blur, a dizzying jumble of color and noise—crashes, explosions, horrid metallic splintering, screams, complete chaos. All I remember is diving under the console, where I was battered and slapped like a pinball, my head pummeling the floor. Then it was over.

I scaled a mountain of debris—torn cables, flayed wiring, broken-backed chairs—and peered into the studio. Lights dangled in eviscerated hulks, flanges of warped meal hanging from shattered bulbs. Cameras lay on their sides; glass-shards and plaster obscured the floor. Incredibly, Dan and Sunny sat behind the anchor desk, unfazed.

It looks like we can add earthquakes to the list of disasters, Dan.

That’s right, Sunny. I guess you could say we’re . . . all shook up.

Now that’s what I call commitment. But that’s the kind of crew I had—professionals, every one of them.

Once the technicians righted the cameras, we sailed on without a second of dead air. Dan and Sunny’s fortitude infected everybody—you could feel it. Never have I seen a department act with such purpose. Everything—the celebrity stuff, Dr. Bernie—went perfect.

The highlight of the show was Dirk’s weather:

As you can see on the satellite picture, there’s a massive low pressure system sweeping across the country, and right here, this giant mass of clouds, that’s where the blood’s coming from. Right now it’s a record 107 degrees in Times Square, with a low of 60 earlier in the day. One hundred percent relative humidity, and the barometer bottoms out at an incredible 21.02. The forecast for tonight calls for hurricane level winds and more flaming hail, so you may want to get the patio furniture inside. Tomorrow expect a high of 130 as temperatures skyrocket from comets and meteors battering the earth’s surface, and more earthquakes on the way, too. No, the way the weekends’ shaping up, you might want to stay inside and run the air conditioner.

Dirk never looked better. After Chip’s sports, Abe’s Frisbee piece ran, and as R.E.M. rocked over the credits, everyone whooped and shrieked and high-fived.


The newsroom is quiet, just the endless lashing of blood on the shattered windows and the chugging hum of the air conditioners. The place is trashed: felled cubicle walls, shreds of aluminum hanging from caved-in ceilings, smashed computers, and everything is swathed in dull, staticy gray from the television monitors flickering like ghosts through the room.

The staffers have left; it’s just Sheila and me, Dan, Sunny, Chip, Dirk, and some technical people. I guess that last tremor scared them off.

As I sit at my desk, reflecting, I’m filled with pride. Despite tremendous odds we accomplished our goal. Not even Armageddon stopped us! There were tough moments, but in the end we came through. I watched tapes of CBS and ABC’s broadcasts, and ours was vastly superior.

It’s ten-thirty now, and we’re almost ready for the eleven o’clock show. We’ve got killer stuff—Richie should be back form the South Street Seaport any minute, with footage of some fucked-up seven-beast thing with crowns and horns that emerged out of the East River. We should get a 10.0 share with that. Easy.

I feel content, like my life’s been worthwhile. I did a lot in thirty-eight years. Thank god for TV. I tell you, it’s the most powerful force in the world. It was an honor to be part of it.

My only regret is what happened to Johnny Davenport. J.D. was a top-notch chopper pilot, but even he couldn’t navigate the blood and hail. Poor guy.

That’s it, I guess. I feel good. I did my job. We all did. At eleven-thirty, the champagne will fly. Sunny wants to have an orgy, but hey, no thanks.

I’m not into blondes.

-As published in The Portland Review