You send me wilted flowers

To cool my miserable heart

But they are only consolation.

With tears I water them

I kiss them with love

So they will revive again.

This I do to ask them a secret

Which I keep hidden in the heart.

Perhaps they know to tell me

Perhaps they happen to see.

–Drosis Logothetis, 1922

(Excerpted from the The Journals of Drosis Logothetis)

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

Keep Shoveling (excerpt)



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

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

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

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

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

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

That Jolly Green Giant


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

Lizard King Memories


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, Pavarotti


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s all you could say to him?”

“What?” I said.

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

“What was wrong with that?”

“It was disrespectful.”

“What was disrespectful about it?”

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

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

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

“Isn’t that his name?”

“Yes, but . . .” she said.

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

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

“Oh, never mind,” she said.

Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

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


     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