Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The New Normal

When I first moved to Old Lyme from New York City I was warned that the local A & P supermarket happened to employ the grouchiest women in all of Southeastern Connecticut.  I learned this for myself right away when I was poking around in the produce department and heard one of them growl to the other, "I hate this fucking department.  I want to go back to the courtesy desk."

But Old Lyme is a small village and there's only the one supermarket in town so I became a steady, loyal A & P customer.  In fact, I've shopped there several times a week for 25 years.  And I've discovered that the women who work at the A & P -- and they are mostly women -- aren't grouchy at all.  They just don't like to be treated the way some of the people in town treat them, which is rudely.   But if you're nice to them -- if you talk to them like people -- they'll be nice right back to you.  More than nice.

In fact, I've gotten to be pals with a lot of them over the years.  Not pals who go out to dinner together but pals who catch up with each other for a few minutes every day to exchange tidbits of local news and gossip.  That's small town life.  It's a community where everyone is connected to everyone else.  When you go shopping you stop and chat with with your pals.  I'm pals with, let's see, there's Rosie and Sue and Yvonne.  There's the two Lisas, there's Tina, Marian and Mary Lou.  I've probably been pals with Terri the longest.  Terri was a cashier fresh out of high school when I first moved here.  Now she has a daughter of  her own in high school.  Terri and her husband Greg just adopted a black lab puppy named Riley.  I saw his picture on Facebook.  Terri and I are Facebook friends.

I know what goes on there with them.   I know whose husband is no good.  I know who can't get along with her mother no matter how hard she tries.  I know whose son just got back from Iraq. I know who has a new boyfriend and who wishes she did.  "I'm still searching for Prince Charming," she informed me brightly one morning.  "But all I ever meet are frogs."

And they know what goes on with me.  They always want to know when my newest Berger-Mitry mystery is coming out.  When it does they all read it.  They are some of my most faithful fans.

So it came as something of a blow to me when we were informed last week that our local A & P is closing at the end of October.   The market has been sold to another chain called Big Y, which intends to shutter it for a month and then reopen it under new management.  Only about 30 percent of the 88 people who presently work there will be retained by Big Y, and most of those people will be transferred to other Big Y markets.

I'm going to miss seeing my old friends every day.  They're going to miss seeing each other.  Already, they've begun exchanging tearful embraces.  And they're planning a major farewell blow-out party.  I know what they're calling the bash but I've sworn I won't tell anyone.

In case you're wondering why Big Y isn't keeping them around it's really pretty simple.    The A & P is a union supermarket and Big Y isn't.  So those lucky 30 percent who do hold on to their jobs will make be making less money and enjoying fewer benefits.  Which, of course, is what our economy is all about these days.  Squeezing more profits out of an existing business by taking money from the pockets of the people who work there -- if they're lucky.

I'm sure it will all be fine in the end.  I'm sure I'll get used to shopping at the new market and I'll make new friends with the new ladies who work there.  But it won't be the same.

It'll just be the new normal.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Signs Are Everywhere

It was a balmy 81 degrees yesterday here in Old Lyme.  In fact, it was so warm out that it almost felt like a long, lazy summer day.  But it's  not summer anymore.   The air smells different.  The sunlight slants much lower through the trees.  No, I'm afraid there's just no denying it.  Autumn has truly arrived in our little corner of Southern New England.

The signs are everywhere.  And I don't just mean the maple trees that are starting to turn a million different spectacular shades or red and orange.  Oh, sure, the trees are a dead giveaway.  But there's much, much more going on here as the seasons change.  You just have to look.  And listen.

There's our neighbor's rooster, Ugly Bob, who has taken to crowing from dawn straight through until dusk with newfound stentorian vigor.  I've stopped calling him Ugly Bob and started calling him Mr. Bob Goulet.

There are those squadrons of geese that have started flying low over the house in the first light of dawn, honking their heads off.  When Freddie was still a kitten the sound of those honking geese would send him darting from the foot of the bed to my night stand so he could watch them through the window, his ears up, tail swishing eagerly.  Now that Freddie is a mature gentleman he just opens one eye and says, "Oh, the fucking geese are back." And goes back to sleep.

There are the swarms of migratory birds like those grackles that paused yesterday afternoon to rest in one of our trees for a few minutes.  There were hundreds and hundreds of them perched there -- just like in Hitchcock's movie "The Birds" -- before a silent signal passed between them and they took off again in a huge, flapping cloud.

The monarch butterflies are passing through, too, on their way down to sunny Mexico.  They were nearly wiped out a few years back by a freakish winter freeze down there.  But they're staging a comeback.  A whopping six -- count 'em six -- spent some quality time basking in our butterfly bush yesterday before they resumed their long journey south.

Ed, the pickerel frog who took up residence in our herb garden a couple of weeks ago, has started to burrow around in the soft soil.  He's searching for a possible winter residence, we think.  Diana has provided him with a berm of composted leaves in the hope that he will stay with us.  We've gotten kind of attached to the little guy.

We had our first chilly morning on Wednesday.  It was 43 degrees.   My morning coffee tasted better than it had for quite some time, I must admit.  And, for the first time since Memorial Day, I had to put on something other than a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops.  Out came a pair of treasured old blue jeans and a flannel shirt.  An actual pair of socks, running shoes.  It felt weird to be wearing so much clothing again.  It triggered a powerful Back to School sense memory.  A feeling of pure dread, no question.  Followed by a wonderful sense of relief that I no longer have to go to school every morning.   I felt this same relief the first morning after Labor Day when I heard the school bus going by our house.  I was just so incredibly glad that I wasn't one of the kids on that bus.  Better them than me.  I suppose a day will come when I'm finally mature enough to not feel this way.  But I'm not counting on it.    

This is reputed to be a bumper year for acorns.  You don't have to tell the squirrels this.  They know it.   They are positively manic.  Scampering up and down the oak trees with feverish intensity, their cheeks bulging.  There are so many acorns up there that the squirrels have even taken to knocking them from the trees down to their brethren waiting there for them on the ground.  I can hear the acorns falling on our roof and driveway all day long.  It's a strange, crackling sound.  It took me a while to figure out what it was.

Very industrious, those squirrels.  Smart, too.  They know that winter will be upon us sooner than we can possibly imagine.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Truth About Rock Hudson and Me

I get asked every once in a while to teach a creative writing seminar.  I have to be honest with you, okay? I'm really not the academic type. In fact, whenever I walk into a college lecture hall I feel an almost uncontrollable urge to snooze. But I'm always happy to help young writers learn how to write.

Or I should say un-learn how to write.

I happen to think that we're all natural born storytellers.  We've been telling each other all kinds of stories since we were little kids.  Funny stories, scary stories, crazy stories, all kinds of stories.  The problem that a lot of us run into is when we try to put those stories down on paper.  That's when the awful crap they taught us back in high school kicks in and we suddenly get all self-conscious and lose our voices and choke.

Our teachers mean well, I suppose.  I really don't mean to dump on them.  But it's my belief that most educators manage to systematically suck all of the pleasure out of the writing process.  They turn it from a natural, juicy, joyful form of self- expression into a tortured, dry, foreign language that exists only in the academic world of term papers.  Term Paperese is not a language that anyone ever speaks in.  It's a dense, impenetrable language of convoluted, contorted grammar replete with multiple commas, gerunds and lots and lots of impressive sounding, empty words. It's a language of paragraphs that begin with phrases like "Having therefore concluded that he could no longer proceed on the existing course he henceforth proceeded to blah-blah-blah." It's a language that uses semi-colons.  Who the hell ever uses semi-colons? I don't.  I've written 20 books and I've never used a single one.  Because I don't talk like that. Nobody does -- outside of a term paper.

I think writing should be un-self conscious and fun.  It should be just as easy and natural as talking to a friend.  I'm a member of the Grip It and Rip It school.  Just let it go.  So whenever I teach a class my whole thing is to start out by trying to get young writers back to where they were before their natural voices got all suppressed by Term Paperese.  That's why I always begin with the following exercise.  You can try this at home.  It's easy.  It's fun.  And you will really be surprised at what pops out.  That's because every time you do this it comes out differently.

What the hell, I'll do it myself and show you what I mean:

The five most amazing things that absolutely nobody knows about me are...

1.  I once appeared onscreen in a movie with Mr. Rock Hudson.  It's true, I swear.  It was called "Pretty Maids All In A Row."  It was made in 1971.  It co-starred Angie Dickinson and Telly Savalas and was directed by Roger Vadim.  Rock played a high school football coach who was diddling a string of comely young female students.  I was an extra in a crowd scene of high school kids.  You'll need a microscope to find me but I'm actually on-screen with Rock Hudson.  I got paid $35 for a day's work that mostly consisted of sitting in the hot sun.  And a box lunch that consisted of a ham sandwich, a pickle, a cookie and an apple.  The pickle was limp.

2.  I was Art Linkletter's paper boy when I was a kid growing up in West L.A.  I used to deliver the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner to the famous TV personality every day.  He was a lousy tipper at Christmas.  Don't ask me why.  Cheap old people do the darndest things.

3.  All of the men in my family can wiggle their ears.  I can even wiggle one ear without wiggling the other.  None of the women in my family can wiggle their ears at all.  I don't know why this is so. It just is.

4.  Ruth Gordon once tried to give me her Oscar to take home with me.  Do you remember Ruth Gordon? She was that somewhat nutty, tiny old lady who starred in the cult movie "Harold and Maude." Anyway, she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress back in 1968 for "Rosemary's Baby."  And when I was a young reporter in New York in the early '80s I interviewed her in her palatial apartment overlooking Central Park.  She had just co-starred in a Clint Eastwood movie called "Every Which Way But Loose."  She and an orangutan called Clyde.  Miss Gordon was quite elderly by this time.  Also quite dotty.  After our interview was over I happened to notice her Oscar sitting there on a bookshelf.  I'd always wanted to hold an Oscar so I asked her if she'd mind if I picked it up.  She shot back: "Aw, hell, you can take that goddamned thing home with you for all I care.  Go on, take it.  It's yours. You want a bag or something to put it in?"  For the record, I left it right where it was.

5.  Everybody at Emerson Junior High School thought I was Kenny Handler's kid brother.  All of my teachers did.  Mr. Rudolf, the boy's vice principal, certainly did.  It was Mr. Rudolf who gleefully administered swats with a wooden paddle to my bare bottom whenever I committed a grievous offense like, say, coming to school with my shirt untucked.  God, I feel old all of a sudden.  Seriously, I actually went to junior high way back when they used to beat us.  Hard to imagine, isn't it? Almost as hard to imagine as, say, growing up in a world where filmgoers actually bought that Rock Hudson would chase after high school girls.  Where was I? Oh, yeah.  After Mr. Rudolf got done paddling the crap out of me one time he said, "Why can't you behave yourself like your brother Kenny?" Mystified, I asked my father, "Do I have a brother named Kenny that I don't know about?" "No," he replied.  "But you know who he is.  Kenny's a couple of years older than you.  He's probably in high school by now.  And his sister, Barbara, must be five or six years older than he is."  "Dad, what in the heck are you talking about?" I asked him.  "I'm talking about Elliot and Ruth Handler's kids," replied my dad, who happened to be in the toy business himself but was not related to Elliot and Ruth Handler, the founders of Mattel Toys.  But he did know that the Mattel Handlers had two kids named Barbara and Kenny and that they'd named the Barbie and Ken dolls after them.  Mystery solved.  It was just a simple, painful case of mistaken identity.  All of my teachers at Emerson may have thought I was one of those Handlers but I wasn't.  Because if I'd been one of those Handlers then there would be a Dave doll.  There's no Dave doll.  Never has been, never will be.  So near yet so far...

Okay, there, I did it.  That was kind of fun.  Actually, I'd forgotten all about Kenny.  Haven't thought of that in years.  It's surprising what pops into your mind when you do this.  Now it's your turn.  Don't hold back.  Go for it:

The five most amazing things that absolutely nobody knows about me are...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's Not Me, I Swear

Call me naive, but I really, truly thought this whole tawdry scandal would go away.  I was wrong.  The ugly rumors have continued to swirl throughout the New York publishing world week after week after week.  Sleazy tabloid journalists by the dozen have been e-mailing me and phoning me, day and night.  And here in my bucolic New England village of Old Lyme -- better known as Dorset to readers of the Berger-Mitry mysteries -- my friends and neighbors have taken to hooting at me behind my back at the hardware store even more than they usually do.

So I'm going set the record straight right here and now.  This will be my only official statement on the matter.  After this, I will not say another word about it because, quite honestly, I'm sick to death of the whole mess.

This (alleged) Chelsea Handler Sex Tape that has been making its way all over the damned Internet is not, repeat not, a tape of me having sex with some hot babe in a chic hotel room in Chelsea.  For the record, I've never even had sex with a hot babe in a chic hotel room in Chelsea.  Actually, maybe I have.  But never mind -- that's not where I was going.

My point is that this (alleged) Chelsea Handler Sex Tape is a tape of a blond television personality named Chelsea Handler having sex with, well, I don't know who the hell the guy is.  Or where their sweaty encounter took place.  But I do know this much:

It's not me on that tape.  I have no connection to the tape whatsoever.

Chelsea Handler is not, repeat not, my ex-wife, as has been widely and erroneously reported.  Nor are we related, as has also been widely and erroneously reported.  Chelsea Handler is not my sister.  Chelsea Handler is not my cousin.  I've never so much as met Chelsea Handler, although she seems like a perfectly nice person.  Actually, no she doesn't.  But never mind -- that's not where I was going.

To many loyal readers out there: Anyone who has tried to download this (alleged) Chelsea Handler Sex Tape thinking that what they'll be seeing is a tape of a certain sleek, hard-muscled mystery writer named David Handler having sex some hot babe in Chelsea will be seriously disappointed.  I apologize for the confusion.  I'm truly sorry.

Actually, no I'm not.  The truth is, I've gotten a ton of attention from this whole fiasco.  It's the kind of free publicity that an author like me dreams of his whole life.  In fact, I've gotten so much free publicity I've been thinking that I may as well just cash in and make a sex tape of my own.  You know, a tape of me having sex with some hot babe in Chelsea.  Or, better, yet, having sex with Chelsea Handler.  In Chelsea.  I wonder if she'd go for that. It sure would give my book sales a huge boost.  Maybe I ought to have my people reach out to her people.  But never mind -- that's not where I was going.

My point is:  It's not me on that tape.  I have no connection to the tape whatsoever.

At least not yet.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Writer's Best Friend

I first heard from David Thompson about 20 years ago when he sent me a hand-scrawled fan letter telling me how much he loved my work.  My third Hoagy and Lulu mystery, The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald, had just won an Edgar Allen Poe Award, which for you civilians out there is a moderately big deal in the mystery world.  David told me he worked part-time at a mystery bookstore down in Houston called Murder By the Book.  He was writing to not only congratulate me but to tell me how much he wished he could get his hands on some copies of the first two books in the series, The Man Who Died Laughing and The Man Who Lived By Night.  My publisher, Bantam, had let them go out of print.  He asked me if I knew when they'd be coming back into print.  Soon, I said.

Well, they did come back into print.  But it wasn't soon.

I didn't actually meet David face to face until a couple of years later at a Bouchercon in...I don't know where.  Seattle? St. Paul? He turned out to be a gawky, toothy kid with glasses who looked about 13.  For all I know he may still have been in his teens.  We had lunch together.  Or I had lunch.  He talked.  And talked.  And talked. I had never met anyone who loved to talk about mysteries and mystery writers as much as David did.  He was the most enthusiastic guy I'd ever met.  And it wasn't just mysteries that he loved. It so happened that I was still a sitcom writer in those days and, believe me, he loved sitcoms almost as much as he did crime fiction.  When he found out I'd written for Charles In Charge he got so excited I thought he was going to pee in his pants right there in the hotel coffee shop.  He peppered me with a million questions.  He was still asking them when the elevator door closed in his face.  He almost lost his nose.

He also asked me if those first two Hoagy and Lulu novels were ever coming back into print.  Soon, I said.

We stayed in constant touch over the years, especially with the advent of e-mail.  He became the kid brother I never had.  He was an incredibly sweet guy.  He was always writing to tell me how much he was enjoying my work and other people's work.  He was always peppering me with questions.  Had I ever heard of this new writer named Laura Lippman?  Yes, I said. I just met her at the Lake Mohonk Mystery Weekend.  She's very talented and nice.  Do I like Seinfeld? I didn't at first, I said.  But now I'm hooked.  Were my first two Hoagy and Lulu novels ever coming back into print? Soon, I said.

Constantly, he was begging me to come down to Houston for a signing.  I was able to make it down to Murder By The Book on several occasions.  I love mystery bookstores.  Hell, I became a mystery writer because my first apartment in New York was right down West 87th Street from Murder Ink.  But I'd never been in a mystery bookstore like MBTB.  That's because it's not a store.  It's a community center.  A place where people hang out and never leave.  Why would they? Everything, everybody they need is right there.  Dean was still managing the store the first time I went down there.  This was about ten years ago, if memory serves me right.  I'd just launched my Berger-Mitry series.  The next time I went down there David was managing the store.  And there was an uber-cool young woman who'd started working there named McKenna.  They were a couple, it turned out, and would get married a few years later.

After my signing they took me out to dinner and the first thing David wanted to know was -- you guessed it -- were my first two Hoagy and Lulu novels ever coming back into print.  I had to admit to him that I honestly didn't think they ever were.  That was when David started talking.  I swear, he didn't come up for air for 45 minutes.  He told me that he intended to bring those novels back into print himself.  He told me he was going to launch his own little publishing company that would be devoted to paperback reprints of books like mine that deserved to be back in print.  He was going to call it Busted Flush Press in honor of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee.  The first title he intended to bring out would be an omnibus of my long-lost first two Hoagy novels.  Would it be okay with me, he asked, if he contacted my agent Dominick Abel in New York to inquire as to how to purchase the reprint rights and so forth? I said sure.  Then I got on a plane and never thought about it again.

Until the crazy son of a bitch actually did it.  All of it.  He launched Busted Flush Press just like he said he would.  And he brought out my first two Hoagy and Lulu novels in 2006 just like he said he would.  Quickly, he brought out another Hoagy and Lulu omnibus.  And, believe me, he didn't stop with me.  Before long he was publishing writers like Ace Atkins, Ken Bruen, Reed Farrel Coleman and A.E. Maxwell.  He was assembling mystery anthologies.   He was commissioning original novels.  The guy was a total juggernaut.  Truly, I didn't know how he did it.

The last time I was down there was right after that big hurricane that flattened Houston.  He and McKenna were married by then and not only was Busted Flush Press roaring along in high gear but they were in the process of buying the store.  Or I should say she was.  Technically, she's the owner of MBTB.  But I couldn't imagine David wouldn't be involved in the day to day operations.  I also couldn't imagine how he found the time and the energy to do everything he was doing all at once.  Well, I found out on that trip.  There were still power outages at a lot of the hotels so I ended up spending the night in their guest room with McKenna's cat, Manolo, parked firmly on my hip for company.  And that was when I found out David's dirty little secret: He never slept.  The guy worked eighteen hours a day seven days a week.  He also seemed to subsist on nothing but fast food and caffeine.

When he took me to the airport I thanked him for all of his support and hard work.  I also gave him some big brotherly advice.  I told him that when I was in my 20s and early 30s I used to work the kind of crazy schedule he was working and I ended up getting deathly ill with pneumonia.  Seriously, I was coughing up blood like Doc Holliday for months.  You can't keep living like a college kid who's cramming for finals, I told him.  I urged him to slow down and take better care of  himself.  Get more sleep.  Eat better food. Exercise.  All of those things.

My advice didn't go in one ear and out the other.  It never went in at all.  He didn't hear me.

He just kept going.  More reprints.  More anthologies.  David never slowed down.  David loved what he was doing too much to slow down.  A couple of months ago, bam, he called me up out of nowhere and asked me if I'd consider writing a brand new Hoagy and Lulu novel for him.  He already had the subject in mind: Baseball.  And then a couple of weeks ago, bam, he told me that he was going to combine forces with Tyrus Books which, like Busted Flush Press, is a small outfit devoted to paperback reprints of long-lost titles.  He was very excited about the merger.   So was I.  "It'll give you a chance to slow down," I said to him.

He didn't slow down.  He just died.  His heart gave out last night.  Did he make it past 40? I'm not sure. If he did it wasn't by much.   I was really shaken by the news when my agent, Dominick, just called me with it.  I went onto Facebook and discovered that everyone in the mystery world is shaken.  Because David Thompson was a friend and supporter and kid brother to dozens of other writers just like me all over the country.  Hell, all over the world.  He loved writers and writers loved him.  This writer certainly did.

Goodbye, David.    

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rebel Without a Pause

One of the things I have in common with Mitch Berger, the hero of my mystery series, is that I'm a total old movie junkie.  I haven't seen every old movie ever made.  No one has, with the possible exception of Leonard Maltin.  But I've probably seen as many as your average ten people put together.

And so has Diana, who has been watching old movies with me for years and years.  This is a woman who I've dragged to see everything from La Dolce Vita to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Hmm...that's not a good analogy.  Both of those movies qualify as high art.  I'll try to do better.

Anyway, the other day we got into this argument about Rebel Without A Cause.  I noticed it was going to be on that night on Turner Classic Movies.  I hadn't seen it in at least 20 years and wondered aloud how well it held up.

"I wouldn't know," Diana said.  "I've never seen it."

"Yes, you have," I insisted, which makes me the butthead of this story.

"No, I haven't," she insisted right back.

"Wait, wait...did you ever see East of Eden?"


"How about Giant? Did we ever see Giant together?"


"Then do you realize what that means? Those are the only three movies James Dean ever made.  You've never seen James Dean."

"That's correct.  I've never seen James Dean."

Not that she's ever been able to avoid him.  James Dean has been a perennial American cultural icon ever since he cracked up his Porsche back in 1955, the same year that Rebel Without a Cause was released. I can't recall a time in my life when James Dean hasn't been a hero to young people.  Decade after decade, he has always been the definition of cool defiance.  Mostly, that's about Rebel Without a Cause, which co-starred Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo and was directed by the great Nicholas Ray.

So we had to watch it.  Have you seen it lately? Like I said, I hadn't seen it for a long, long time.  And I have to tell you -- it's not the movie I remember at all.  I think I must have conflated it in my memory with The Wild One with Marlon Brando.  Just for starters, the movie's title, which is one of the greatest in Hollywood history, is totally misleading.  Dean's character, Jim Stark, is a sweet, conventional kid who yearns to be...conventional.  He wants to be socially accepted by the cool kids in his new high school.  He wants his father to stand up and be a father to him.  What he doesn't want to be -- what he isn't -- is a rebel.

Like I said, not the movie I remembered at all.  It's actually much more interesting. And way weirder.

Here's what I remembered about Rebel Without a Cause.  I remembered the famous, fatal game of chicken on the bluffs.  I remembered Dean's cool red leather jacket.  And I remembered the scene in the police station when he moans at his bickering parents, "You tearing me apart!"

What I didn't remember were the film's truly strange and disturbing touches -- especially considering that we're talking about 1955.  I didn't remember that the pivotal scene when Jim begs his father (Jim Backus) to define honor for him takes place when his dad has just spilled a dinner tray meant for Jim's mom all over the stairs.  Their entire heart-wrenching conversation about the meaning of manhood takes place with Backus wearing a frilly apron over his business suit.

I didn't remember that when Natalie Wood's character, Judy, tries to give her father (William Hopper) an affectionate kiss he slaps her right across the face.  Hard.  The man is a portrait of torment, clearly inflamed and enraged by the illicit lust he has begun to feel for his own nubile teenaged daughter.

I didn't remember the overtly homo-erotic goo-goo eyes Sal Mineo's Pluto keeps making at Jim throughout the movie.  In fact, Pluto's thing for Jim is so gay it's hard to believe they let it on screen in 1955.

Actually, it's hard to believe they let any of it on screen. Especially the undercurrent of utterly blasphemous anti-American nihilism that runs throughout the picture.  I didn't remember that either.  I didn't remember the scene when Jim first meets Judy:

Jim: "Is this where you live?"

Judy:  "Who lives?"

I didn't remember the conversation Jim has with Buzz (Corey Allen) just before their fatal car race:

Jim: "Why do we do this?"

Buzz:  "You gotta do something.  Don't you?"

I don't remember Jim saying these words:  "I don't know what to do anymore.  Except maybe die."

Honestly? Rebel Without a Cause is a reminder that life wasn't all a Technicolor dream in Fifties America.  There was a dark side.  There were people who were lost and confused.  There were people who didn't understand what the point of it all was.  This is a much, much more interesting and disturbing artifact from 1950s America than I realized.  And Dean's performance is totally amazing.  He practically jumps off of the screen at you.  Check it out if you haven't seen it in a while.

ps. Diana liked it a lot.  Especially his cool red leather jacket.  


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Miss My Goodbye Hug

Ta-dah!  The big day's finally here!  I've just sent my newest Berger-Mitry mystery, The Blood Red Indian Summer, off to my publisher.

Several friends have asked me what it feels like to finish a novel.  So here goes.  Me, I feel elated and excited.  Truly, it's a day to celebrate.  I feel a great sense of accomplishment.  Really, really proud of myself.  I feel, let's see, relieved. I feel exhausted.

And I feel totally nauseated.  Doesn't matter how many years I've been doing this.  I get tremendous separation anxiety whenever I let go of a book.  After all, it's been mine and mine alone all of these many months.  Now I'm sending it out into the cold, cruel world all by itself to be scrutinized, judged and thrown under a bus by heartless strangers who probably worship at the altar of James Patterson.  In case you're curious, this separation anxiety of mine soon gives way to a much stronger emotion -- blind panic.  For the first time in a year I realize that I'll be waking up tomorrow morning without having the slightest idea of what in the hell I'm supposed to do that day.  Actually, this is something that happens to most of us.  Usually, the blind panic lasts about a week for me.  It goes away just as soon as I open my eyes one morning, rub my hands together with glee and eagerly get started on my next book.

But I have to confess that lately I've been feeling something new and different whenever I turn in a book.  And it's really starting to bug the hell out of me.  I'm not proud to admit this but, well, here it is:

I miss my goodbye hug.

I guess I'd better explain.  I've been writing books for over 20 years.  In fact, I've been writing books for so long that I wrote my first eight books on a typewriter.  Now those were good times.  If you wanted to make even the slightest editorial change to the final draft you had to retype the entire goddamned manuscript.  Or pay someone to do it for you at the rate of $1.50 per page, which was a lot of money in those days.  Come to think of it, it's still a lot of money.  Switching to a Mac made life a lot easier for writers.  Not so much when it comes to the creation of the first draft but the re-writing and editing part, which for me is where most of the work comes in.  I can input the changes myself and generate a clean, finished draft in minutes.  It's like magic.

I used to have a bit of a personal ritual whenever I finished a new manuscript and was getting ready to send it off to my editor.  I'd carefully bind up a fresh, clean copy with two rubber bands.  I'd place it there on my desk next to a neatly addressed mailing pouch.  I'd gaze at it with fatherly pride.  And, before I slid it carefully inside of its mailing pouch, I'd pat the manuscript twice with the palm of my right hand.  Not once.  Not three times.  Twice.  I've never told anyone this before.  It was a superstition of mine, I guess.  No, it was more than that.

It was my goodbye hug.  And I don't get my goodbye hug anymore.

Wanna know why? Because there's no more manuscript.  You just attach the file to an e-mail, hit Send  and off it goes to your editor. Whooosh and it's gone. Again, it's like magic.

Except that it's cold.  It's really, really cold.  And I don't mean to sound like a hopeless trog except, well, I am a hopeless trog.  And I miss my goodbye hug, okay? There, I said it.  


Monday, September 6, 2010

My Worst Job. Ever.

I'm lucky and I know it -- I get paid to write.   But I didn't always have it this good.  If it weren't for a certain individual who came along and steered me in the right direction I wouldn't be where I am today.  That's why I like to celebrate Labor Day every year by giving thanks to Mr. James Joyce.

I don't mean James Joyce the writer.  I mean the James Joyce who managed the A&W Root Beer franchise on Santa Monica Boulevard near University High School in West Los Angeles.  Mr. Joyce was my very first boss after I turned 16 and joined America's workforce evenings and weekends for minimum wage, which in those days was the princely sum of $1.25 per hour.  We kids who worked there at A&W also kept a tip jar on the counter that we greedily divided up at the end of the night. Which didn't didn't take long.  It's not hard to divide zero three ways.

Mr. Joyce, or Jimbo as we called him behind his back, was fat, bald, cheap and mean.  A tyrant.  He hated everyone.  He hated his customers, his employees, his wife, his kids. If he'd had a pet gerbil he would have hated it.  The only pleasure in his life came from terrorizing the pale, knock-kneed high school kids who worked for him.  He was the only man I'd ever met who was meaner than a gym teacher.

The A&W on Santa Monica was a small fast-food outlet by today's Golden Arches standards.  We sold mugs of the famous root beer, of course, and a few other beverages like lemonade and coffee.  We sold soft-freeze ice cream for cones or root beer floats.  And we cooked up hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries and onion rings.  The place was mobbed after school -- it was one of the primary hang-outs -- and did a brisk business on sunny weekends.  There were about two-dozen tables outside if customers wanted their order To Stay.  A lot of people, like members of the LAPD, always took theirs To Go.  There was a police station not very far away and the A&W was popular with cops -- not so much because the food was good but because all cops in uniform ate for free.

A&W employees did not.  If Jimbo ever caught any of us sneaking a frosty mug of root beer or a burger he'd dock it from our pay.  He also believed each and every one of us to be thieves. We were guilty until proven innocent. I know this because when he totaled up the receipts after my first night of work he discovered that we were $10 short.  One of my co-workers had swiped $10 from the till knowing Jimbo would blame it on the new guy. And he did.  I was docked $10 even though I denied I'd taken it.  I spent the first eight hours of life in the fast food business working off that debt.

There were usually three of us on duty per shift.  All of us were guys.  Jimbo never hired girls. Probably thought they'd distract us. We needed a fourth man.  Actually, we had a fourth man --  Jimbo.  But Jimbo didn't work. He just sat there and barked orders at us.  We would rotate stations hourly because it was really, really hard to perform any one job at a high rate of speed or efficiency for much longer than that without collapsing with exhaustion.  The counterman took the orders from customers, handed them off to the cook, got the drinks himself and worked the cash register.  That was the hardest job.  You had to be organized and polite and not lose it when customers became abusive and, gulp, asked to speak to the manager.  If that happened then Jimbo would make you sorry you were ever born.  The grill man made the burgers.  That was the scariest job.  If you overcooked a burger or undercooked a burger or -- God help you -- flipped one onto the floor, Jimbo would make you sorry you were ever born.  The fryer man made the French fries and onion rings.  That was the worst job.  I hated being the fryer man. Have you ever stood over a deep fryer inhaling boiling, spattering grease for a solid hour? I don't recommend it.  The grease doesn't come out of your pores or your hair no matter how long you stand under the shower when you get home.  And, hello, burns?

The fryer man also had to work the parking lot.  If there was ever a lull in business Jimbo would bark at you to "clean up after the pigs," meaning sprint out to the outdoor tables and throw away all of the half-eaten food, dirty napkins and greasy wrappers that our customers had left behind for us.  A lot of people, I quickly discovered, really are disgusting pigs.  To this day, I never leave a wrapper or a coffee container behind anywhere. I always clean up after myself.  I have Jimbo to thank for that.

We were not allowed to ease the grueling tension by speaking to each other while we worked -- other than to convey food and drink orders.  Anyone caught cracking jokes or talking about last night's Dodger game or in any way having the slightest bit of fun was automatically docked an hour's pay.

As brutal as our high-volume rotating shifts were they weren't even the worst part of the day.  The worst part was the before and after.  Saturday and Sunday mornings we'd arrive at 8:00 on the button -- if you more than two minutes late Jimbo would dock you for the entire hour -- and spend three solid hours doing our prep work. That might mean filling the deep fryers with fresh, yummy oil.  Or making the condiments, such as the yummy gallon tubs of Thousand Island Dressing for the burgers.  Trust me, stirring a big tub of mayo, ketchup and pickle relish is not an appetizing job at 8:00 a.m.  Nor is chopping onions.  One Saturday morning I chopped onions for two solid hours. I could not get the smell out of my fingers until my mom suggested I soak them in lemon juice.  But the biggest prep job of all was making the famous A&W root beer.  In the back room we had a giant stainless steel vat that resembled one of those locker room whirlpool baths that NFL players dunk themselves in after games.  Into the vat we would dump a 100-pound bag of sugar (it took all three of us to hoist it up and in) followed by a gallon jug of special A&W syrup.  Maybe it was two gallons. I don't remember. It looked like molasses.  After that we would turn on the cold water and fill the vat up, up, up to the top.  Then we would lower the lid, seal the vat shut and hit the switch that would aerate it, positive it was about to explode and send all of us flying out into Santa Monica Boulevard.

After I'd been working at A&W for a week I stopped drinking root beer.  To this day, I still can't stand the taste of it.

Still, I haven't even gotten to the worst part of the job.  The worst part was clean-up.  We had to scour the whole place with cleanser and disinfectant after we'd served our last customer of the night.  That entire place had to sparkle before Jimbo would let us drag our weary bones home at night. Do you have any idea how dirty a fast food grill is by the end of the day? How dirty and disgusting the deep fryer oil is? How filthy the floor and walls are?  Everything had to be white glove clean.   Again, Jimbo never lifted a finger to help.  Just barked orders at us.

I would be too tired to shower standing up when I got home.  I'd just sit there on the floor, limp and greasy, and let the water beat down o me.

Truly, my stint at A&W was the worst job I've ever had in my life.  But it was the single most important, too.  I was 16 years old then.  I would be starting college soon if I wanted to.  Working for James Joyce taught me a critically important lesson: I wanted to.  Because if I didn't go to college and make something of myself then ... cue the drum roll ... I would be spending my whole life working at places just like A&W for mean fatsos like James Joyce.  This would be my life.  This was what I had to look forward to.

No way, I said to myself.  No way.

So thank you, Jimbo -- wherever you are.  And Happy Labor Day.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

(Don't) Send in the Clowns

Our next door neighbors here in the village of Dorset, I mean Old Lyme, have adorable three-year-old twins named Zoe and Shane.  I happen to know Zoe and Shane are three because Martha stopped over recently to let Diana and me know that they were throwing a birthday party for them in their backyard on Sunday afternoon.  Or, more exactly, warn us they were throwing a birthday party.  "We're expecting about two dozen three year olds," she informed us forthrightly.  "And things are liable to get really, really loud."

"Wait a sec," I said warily.  "You're not having a clown, are you?"

Martha turned pale instantly.  Looked ready to faint, I swear.  Which shocked me.  Right up until that moment I would have sworn Martha was not the fainting type.  She's a scientist who does something with, well, bugs.  She's also one heck of a strapping physical specimen.  I'm talking solid muscle.  Let me put it to you this way: If Martha and I ever come to blows one of us is going to end up in the hospital and it's not going to be Martha.  Anyway, after a long pause she gulped at me and in a weak, quavery voice said, "I hate clowns..."

"God, I hate clowns, too..." moaned a wide-eyed Diana, who worked her way through college in Iowa by hacking up turkeys at a slaughterhouse.  "They give me nightmares."

I have to tell you -- this was a major revelation for me.  All of these years I've been thinking I was the only one in the world who harbored a visceral hatred of clowns.  Now it turns out that everyone hates clowns.

I don't have anything against circus clowns or rodeo clowns or Bozo the Clown.  Check that, I never liked Bozo.  I always thought he was an asshole.  I'm talking about birthday clowns.  You know the ones who I mean.  Those mean, horrible guys who supplement their day jobs as rodent exterminators or health insurance claim deniers by donning a cheesy, moth-eaten costume and big red nose and showing up at some poor, unfortunate little kid's birthday to generate loads and loads of f-u-n.

Why do parents do this to their children?

It turns out that everyone has their own private clown horror story.  Here's mine.  And it's probably not that different than yours.  I was four years old. It wasn't my own birthday party.  It was someone else's.  I don't remember who the kid was.  Anyway, there were probably two or three dozen of us there in his folks' backyard.  Lots of cake.  Lots of games.  But the "highlight" of the party was the arrival of this clown who was supposedly there to entertain us.  He urged us to gather around him really close.  We did.  He asked us if we were having a good time. We were.

And then he attacked me.

Squirted me right in the eye really hard with this big flower that was pinned to the lapel of his stupid costume.  I let out the loudest scream you've ever heard in your life.  I was convinced that this horrifying, red-nosed freak had just blinded me.   I screamed so loud the bastard actually broke character and said, "Relax, will you kid? It's just water."  Which didn't calm me down one bit.  Why would it? The monster had just attacked me.  I screamed some more.  I screamed some more.  By now my mother had come rushing across the yard to find out what the hell was going on. It was only a matter of a few seconds before she was carrying me -- my arms and legs flailing -- back to the car and home, where I think I spent the remainder of the day under my bed.

That's my birthday clown story.  What's yours?  You must have one.  Everyone does.

ps.  Zoe and Shane's party was a big, big success.  Everyone had a lot of fun.  We heard tons of laughter and no screaming.  That's because their parents didn't invite a clown.