Saturday, July 4, 2020

In Memoriam: Carl Reiner 1922-2020



Unlike so many comedy icons who rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, particularly those born to Jewish immigrants and raised somewhere in New York City, Carl Reiner never played the Catskills. In fact, he was never really a stand-up comedian at all except when maybe after he already had become famous he was asked to emcee various show biz functions. The facts are murky, but Reiner seems to have started out as a straight actor. Somewhere along the way a now-forgotten Broadway casting director thought he might make a good straight actor in comedies--that is, a straight man, the guy who feeds the lines to some clownish character who then turns the whole thing into a joke. The more successful of these comedies were "revues", collections of skits and musical numbers, including Call Me Mister, which dealt with returning World War II vets (Reiner himself happened to be one in real life.) Television came along about this time, and the revue format made the transition to the new medium, where it soon became known as the "variety show". Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, was one early example. Another was Your Show of Shows.

Your Show of Shows had evolved out of the Admiral Broadway Revue (and later evolved into Caesar's Hour.) Ninety minutes long, it featured elaborate musical numbers, and, what it soon became best known for, comedy sketches. These sketches were enacted by host Sid Caesar, and costars Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner. Caesar, Coca, and Morris were three classic rubber-faced comedians who could changes their voices, talk with exaggerated foreign accents, and basically disappear into extreme comic characterizations. Mildly handsome back in the day, Reiner was anything but rubber-faced. Nevertheless, given half the chance, he could change his voice, exaggerate a foreign accent, and disappear into an extreme comic characterization with the best of them. But more often he maintained a normal, vaguely mock-dramatic presence that the other three could play of of. In particular as a reporter in an overcoat and fedora interviewing, and feeding lines to, Caesar's flaky German professor (Reiner: Professor, what keeps birds in the air? Caesar: Courage!) But if feeding lines was considered Reiner's chief asset onscreen, offscreen he soon proved to have a knack for inventing lines.



Sid Caesar wasn't just content to act in these sketches but also wanted some say in how they came to be written. And he thought, or hoped, his costars might want some say also. To that end the entire cast had an open invitation to the writer's room. Reiner took this invitation very seriously, so much so that, long before this week's obits appeared, he was regularly described as having been a member of the Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour's writing staffs, alongside such future comedy legends as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart. Yet he never received any onscreen credit. His contribution would have been hard to pin down anyway. Caesar's sketches were room written. A single person may have come up with a central concept (often Caesar himself), but then a dozen or so writers added jokes. That is, if they could be heard above the din as this highly competitive bunch weren't known to politely take turns (a young, introverted Woody Allen, who worked on specials Caesar did toward the end of the 1950s, hated the atmosphere, preferring to write a ton of jokes at home and then see if he could fit them in somewhere.) Watching the old kinescopes on YouTube, it's fun to speculate that "This joke could only have come from Brooks" or "That gag has Simon written all over it" but they were just as likely to have been written by Head Writer Mel Tolkin, well-respected in his field though never a household name. And even once the sketch was put down on paper, Caesar wasn't above ad libbing. Getting back to Reiner, since he wasn't listed in the credits, and there were enough writers already, could his be contribution have been exaggerated? I would say yes if it weren't for the fact that onscreen proof of his writing talents in a non-Caesar project was right around the corner.

Ironically, Reiner the non-writer writer was the first of Caesar's crew to write a book, an autobiographical novel titled Enter Laughing, which fellow Your Show of Shows writer (and future Fiddler on the Roof librettist) Joseph Stein turned into a hit Broadway play that Reiner himself adapted for the big screen. But Reiner hadn't yet given up playing straight man. In fact, he was primed to play straight man in one of the most celebrated, if intermittent, comedy teams of the postwar era.

One of the many friends the likable Reiner had made in Caesar's writing room was the aforementioned Mel Brooks. The two had cooked up a parody of TV news shows that had some eyewitness to history as an interview subject, which in the 1950s could have been a far back as the Spanish-American War. Reiner and Brooks wanted to go back further, all the way to ancient Mesopotamia if necessary. For whatever reason, such a sketch never made it onto Your Show of Shows or Caesar's Hour. But Reiner and Brooks kept the idea alive as a comedy routine they performed in front of friends at social gatherings (it certainly beats watching someone dance with a lampshade on their head.) Another TV comedy star of the day, Steve Allen, thought they should put the act down on record and even provided them the studio to do so, resulting in the comedy album 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. The 2000 year old man was just one character among many Brooks played, which included a Yiddish-accented astronaut and a Yiddish-accented rock and roll teen idol (!), but the twenty-centuries old Yiddish-accented geezer is what caught on, getting the two of them on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, and other variety shows. The success of the album raised Brooks profile considerably, as he was until then unknown outside of comedy writing circles. Reiner was again the straight man but as the act seems to have been a combination of previously-agreed upon exchanges and improvisation, he would often challenge Brooks one-liners, forcing the latter to come up with even funnier one-liners. While both men would soon (very soon, in the case of Reiner) move on to separate projects, they would revive the bit whenever asked to do so, even doing an animated version in the 1970s.

In fact, Carl Reiner had a much more ambitious project in mind. He would write, produce (along with former tough guy actor Sheldon Leonard) and star in a situation comedy called Head of the Family. Reiner played a New York-based TV comedy writer named Rob Petrie, who had young, pretty wife named Laura, a young son named Richie, and two co-workers named Buddy and Sally. If you recognized all those just named, then you know that no such TV series with Carl Reiner in the lead ever aired with any regularity. Ah, but the pilot does exist today on YouTube, where comparisons can be made with a later, more famous version. Head of the Family is funny enough, and Reiner is funny enough in it,  so why didn't CBS purchase the pilot? Reiner's Rob Petrie had a certain brashness about him, as well as a slight New York accent, which could be interpreted as "Jewish". At least, that is the prevailing theory. Now, it's not like a brash New York City Jew couldn't star in his own sitcom--Phil Silvers is a famous example--but as a suburban father? Not in that WASPish era. Reiner believed in the possibilities of his proposed sitcom more than he did in the possibilities of his own stardom, and so swallowed some pride and set about finding himself a new Rob Petrie. 

He found one in the Midwestern born-and-raised, John Alden-descended, Tony Award-winning star of the hit Broadway show Bye, Bye, Birdie: Dick Van Dyke. The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on October 3, 1961, and ran for five years, only leaving the airways when Reiner decided it should go out on top. It very nearly went out on bottom, as CBS decided to cancel it after the first season. The network only changed its mind after sponsor Proctor & Gamble, which obviously believed in the show, threatened to pull all its afternoon soap operas, unless the sitcom was allowed to find an audience. Ironically, it found its audience when it was rescheduled right after the highly-rated The Beverly Hillbillies. I say ironically because TDVDS is often held up as the most sophisticated television that the 1960s has to offer, whereas the country bumpkins-turned-oil barons sitcom is seen (perhaps unfairly) as among the least sophisticated. To that end I wonder if there was some strategic decision behind Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman at the beginning of the second season (the first season's opening credits just showed photographs of the stars), a way of assuring the yahoos watching Hillbillies that nothing too hifalutin was about to follow. Actually, compared to later sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, MASH, Cheers, and Seinfeld, The Dick Van Dyke Show may not seem as sophisticated as it once did. But it remains quite funny, a mélange of workplace comedy, domestic comedy, physical comedy, and musical comedy, along with being a show biz satire (but then satire is merely a hifalutin form of comedy, isn't it?) In this revamped version of Reiner's original concept, Van Dyke's Rob Petrie is a smart, decent, but accident-prone family man whom, it's suggested, derives comic inspiration from his own klutziness. In fact, I sometimes think the slapstick may have been the most truly sophisticated aspect of the series, a reminder that no matter how good a joke a Rob Petrie can come up with on a typewriter, God, Fate, or Chance will come up with an even better one, that you can sidestep the ottoman, but stumble on the carpet anyway (as happens in later seasons.) Van Dyke was assisted by a terrific acting ensemble (none of whom were in the Head of the Family pilot.) The aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore as the pretty, now downright sexy capris pants-clad wife, Borsht Belt comic Morey Amsterdam as Borsht Belt comedy writer Buddy Sorrell (reportedly based on Mel Brooks), gravel-voiced Rose-Marie as the wise-cracking comedy writer Sally Rogers (reportedly based on Selma Diamond, who wrote for Caesar), Richard Deacon as the stuffy, sycophantic producer Mel Cooley (reportedly based on Mitch McConnell--no, just joking, that would be impossible), Ann Guilbert as the excitable next-door-neighbor Millie Helper, Jerry Paris as Jerry Helper, Millie's more laid-back husband (he has to be, he's a dentist), and Larry Mathews as Rob and Laura's son, who showed up every now and then to remind everyone that Rob was indeed a family man. Carl Reiner wrote over 50 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, including such classics as "Never Bathe on Saturday" (in which Laura gets stuck in a bathtub--you had to be there), and "It May Look Like a Walnut" (an Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody in which a zombified Buddy Sorrell asks "Did you hear the one about the nearsighted turtle who fell in live with an army helmet?") Eventually, Reiner handed over the writing to others, including writing teams Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson (who later co-created the 1970s TV version of The Odd Couple, and, separately, the former created Happy Days and the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1970s feature film Smile, a beauty pageant satire), and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (who later co-created That Girl.) Reiner stayed on as a producer. And made one other, in my opinion, huge contribution to the series.

There's a character I haven't told you about yet, the guy Rob, Buddy, and Sally works for. Technically, I suppose that would be producer Mel Cooley, except Cooley has no real power over that bunch and is in fact regularly insulted by Buddy--who shows no fear of getting fired--whenever he enters the room. Besides, Mel himself takes his orders from the star of the fictional variety/sketch comedy show, Alan Brady. I'm going by memory as the Internet is no help whatsoever here, but I don't believe we see Alan at all during the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Even in an episode ("The Sick Boy and the Sitter") that takes place in Alan's home, we don't see him. And he never visits the writers room. This, of course, isn't the way Sid Caesar did things (but it may be the way another 1950s TV comedy legend, Jackie Gleason, did things. According to Mel Brooks, Gleason had his writers slip his scripts under his dressing room door.) I'm not absolutely certain of this, but I think Alan Brady makes his first appearance in a second-season episode titled "When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen", but only the back of head. Now, it's easy to imagine what the front of his head looks like, because Alan Brady was played by none other than Carl Reiner. So why the modesty? Knowing that he had been only a "second banana" on Sid Caesar's various shows, and that CBS didn't think he should star in a sitcom based on his own life, Reiner felt nobody would accept him as a longtime TV comedy star (according to one 1961 episode, The Alan Brady Show already had been on the air about ten years.) And so for the next two seasons, when we saw Alan Brady at all, it was just the back of his bald or toupee'd head. Then, in season 4, in an episode titled "Three Letters from One Wife" Reiner was finally prevailed upon to show his face, and from that point on, he never looked back. Vain, egotistical, self-involved, insensitive, and motor-mouthed, Alan Brady is a bull in a china shop, with Rob, Laura, Buddy, Sally, Mel, and, in one story ("A Day in the Life of Alan Brady"), even Millie and Jerry, as the plates, cups, and saucers. Brady is the focal point of several episodes in the last two seasons, and in these episodes, The Dick Van Dyke Show becomes a wickedly funny satire of television and show biz, which it hadn't quite been up to then. And if the situation comedy itself had proven Reiner's skill as a writer, then the Alan Brady-centered episodes showed just what a great comedian he could be, his talents as a comic performer most likely wasted in his years as a second banana or straight man. In fact, in the scenes they appear in together, it's Van Dyke who comes off as the straight man!



After The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air in 1966, there were a few more stabs at producing and writing for TV, most notably The New Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran for three years in the early 1970s. As far as acting goes, Reiner got to star in what turned out to be a box office hit, the Cold War satire, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). But mostly, Reiner settled into a long, relatively successful career as a feature film director. In 1977, he had a huge hit with Oh, God! starring George Burns and John Denver, with a screenplay by old Caesar's Hour cohort Larry Gelbart. He then gave Steve Martin a big boost by directing him in three films in which they both worked on the screenplays, The Jerk (1979), the film nor parody Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), and my personal favorite, the mad scientist spoof The Man with Two Brains (1983). There was a fourth film that Reiner directed and Martin starred but which neither one wrote the screenplay, All of Me (1984), that has the latter possessed by a prim and proper Lily Tomlin. Reiner's final film was 1997's That Old Feeling with Bette Midler. I have a vague memory of once seeing an ad for it, and that's all. After the filmmaking career ended, he did many, many, many guest appearances on TV shows, and maintained his comic timing right up to the end.






   




Sunday, June 28, 2020

Intelligent Lives in the Universe



Around 1989 or so I was at the library flipping through a book the title of which I can no longer recall but it was something like Famous Gay People Throughout History. All the usual--and long dead--suspects were there: Sappho, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, etc. The book was breezily written, the author realizing that while the historical gayness of Sappho was a no-brainer, when it comes to someone like King James (best known these days for his Bible), it may be more a matter of conjecture. The fun was in the speculation. And the speculation got revved up quite a bit on the book's final page, which dealt with still-living celebrities who had not yet publicly announced their homosexuality. To avoid any lawsuits, the author had simply provided a page of initials, and it was up to the reader to figure out to whom these initials belonged. One set of initials read L.T. It didn't take much guessing on my part to figure out who that was. Not because of any rumors I'd heard but due to the fact that someone had penciled Lily Tomlin right next to it! Whatever anger I might have felt over the defacement of a library book soon gave way to a sense of intrigue. As a kid I had watched Tomlin on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and then, as I got older, watched her TV specials, the times she guest-hosted Saturday Night Live, the network showings of her feature films, and her talk show appearances. I found Tomlin funny, and considered myself a fan. Now to find out she was gay! Far from disappointed, I wanted to know more about this aspect of her life. Unfortunately, there was no Internet back then to do further research--remember, I was in the library flipping through a book--and the mainstream media of the day stayed out of Tomlin's personal life, as well they should. And really, it was none of my business. But if that mysterious pencil-carrying library vandal knew this about her, why shouldn't I? It was maybe another ten years before I pieced together not just the puzzle of her life but, as it turned out, her career, too, which has since become public knowledge. So, as this parade-less Pride Month quietly plays itself out, perhaps Tomlin's story can provide a bit of inspiration. It's not a float, but you won't have to go through the trouble of looking for a spot on a crowded sidewalk.





The daughter of Southern Baptists from Kentucky who relocated to Detroit during the Great Depression, Lily Tomlin attended Wayne State University originally intending to study biology, but soon switched her major to drama. However, keep in mind that drama is not always the same as dramatic. After college and in-between auditions and whatever roles she would have gotten from such auditions, Tomlin did stand-up comedy, first in Detroit, and then in New York City. In the latter location, she continued to study acting at the highly-regarded HB Studio. She appeared on TV for the first time in 1965 on The Merv Griffin Show. That and other television appearances brought her to the attention of the producers of the aforementioned Laugh-In. Original cast member Judy Carne was leaving, and Tomlin was brought in as a replacement. Tomlin ended up becoming the last great breakout star to emerge from the sketch comedy show. Among the characters she became famous for were Ernestine, the 1940s-in-the-1960s telephone operator, and Edith Ann, the philosophical, lisping little girl on the big chair. Declining ratings eventually forced the once-popular Laugh-In off the air in 1973, but that had no notable effect on Tomlin's career, at least not in the negative sense. Her first comedy album, This Is a Recording, peaked at #15 on Billboard, the highest ever for a solo comedienne, and won a Grammy. Naturally, there was a demand for an encore. It was how to meet this demand that now proved vexing. Out of economic necessity, Tomlin had written all or most of her stand-up material up to that point, but had never truly considered herself a writer. Her performances were limited  by what words she could come up with to put in her characters mouths. To her fans, that didn't seem like much of a limitation at all, but Tomlin wanted the act to have more depth than she felt she herself was capable. Now that she could afford one, Tomlin set about finding herself a writer.



Enter Jane Wagner. Compared to Lily Tomlin, biographical details are a bit harder to come by, even on her own website. She was born in Tennessee during the 1930s, wrote for the school newspaper, but was also interested in acting and eventually became a leading player at the Barter Theatre in Virginia. Then, like Tomlin, off to New York City to really make it as an actress. Instead, she made it as a designer, creating the  “Teach Me, Read Me” children’s bed sheets for Fieldcrest. Finally, writing. In 1969, when I was in the second grade, Wagner made her first professional sale as a writer, an hour-long children's special (almost immediately adapted into a book) titled J.T. Here's where that gap in her biography becomes, for me, particularly frustrating. Did Wagner send an unsolicited teleplay to CBS, or was this done through an agent? Either way, it was smart of the network to greenlight the project. Kevin Hooks, in an exceptional performance (of which there was another forthcoming in the feature film Sounder, and he was pretty good as Morris Thorpe in TV's The White Shadow, too), is the title character, a young boy living in Harlem who adopts a one-eyed alley cat. I was watching this on the computer a short while ago when I suddenly realized I had seen it the first time around! I remember liking it back then though my second-grade self was much disturbed by the feline's ultimate fate (honestly, my fifty-something self wasn't too pleased about it either.) J.T. went on to win the prestigious Peabody Award. Though ostensibly for children, it certainly can be appreciated by adults. One adult who appreciated it was Lily Tomlin, who then got in contact with Wagner, asking for help on her Edith Ann album. This I find a bit puzzling. J.T. may have been high-caliber television, but it wasn't a comedy. Tomlin never tells you where Edith Ann lives, but I very much doubt that it's Harlem. Nevertheless, Tomlin wanted Edith Ann to be less a caricature of a little girl and more like a real youngster, and Wagner wanted to show everyone that she, too, could be funny. According to Tomlin, when the two finally met in person, they immediately "clicked". 





The result was 1972's And That's the Truth. Unlike on Laugh-In, where Tomlin was dressed up as Edith Ann and addresses the viewer directly, here she relies totally on her voice to achieve the same effect since,  after all, there's no viewer, just a listener (well, there would have been viewers in the night club where this album was recorded, but even there I think she was out of costume.) But instead of being addressed directly, the listener gets to listen in as Edith Ann pesters a neighborhood lady (also voiced by Tomlin) walking to her home and then again at that home itself. The album did well, peaking at # 41 on Billboard's Hot 200 chart. Jane Wagner was also on the writing staff on all four of Tomlin's Emmy Awards-laden specials made between 1973 and 1981. The first three were produced by former Laugh-In writer and future Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. The fourth, Lily Sold Out, which ends with out heroine in a Las Vegas pool amidst a floating pair of push-up bra inserts, was produced by Wagner. The duo also collaborated on a couple of feature films, Moment by Moment and The Incredible Shrinking Woman, neither one of which garnered much in the way of critical acclaim or box office receipts, but that hardly slowed them down. Their real forte was the stage, where Tomlin got her start, except this time that stage wouldn't be in...



...some cellar nightclub.



In 1977, Tomlin became the first woman to appear solo in a Broadway play, Appearing Nitely, written and directed by Wagner. There were all the old standbys, such as Ernestine the operator, and suburban housewife Mrs. Judith Beesley, and some new characters such as Trudy the bag lady, elderly blues revivalist Sister Boogie Woman, and Rick, a macho habitué of  single bars (among other things, Tomlin pioneered male drag.) The show toured the country, and was made into an album, Lily Tomlin on Stage, that earned a Grammy nomination. But it was Tomlin's and Wagner's next Broadway show, eight years later, that remains their career-defining achievement as a team, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It's still a one-woman show, but this time, there's actually a narrative running through the whole thing. Trudy the bag lady is receiving alien signals through her tattered umbrella. It seems the otherworldly beings are curious about what we Earthlings are like, and Tomlin provides them with a cross-section of (American) humanity, both male and female. The play won a Tony for Tomlin as Best Actress, and was turned into both a book and a movie. And it's a tribute to Wagner's talents as a writer that the play is now occasionally performed without Tomlin (one Los Angeles production transformed it from a one-person to a twelve-person play, each actor playing a different character.)

 
As you may have guessed by now, or maybe even have known for decades (I'm talking to you, library book-defacer), Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner didn't just click professionally but romantically as well.  By the time And That's the Truth went on sale in record shops, they had become lovers, and have remained lovers ever since. And in 2013 they became more than that when they picked up their licenses and were married in a private ceremony. Prior to them tying the knot, they were somewhat discreet about their relationship. In 1975, Time magazine offered Tomlin the cover if she came out, but she said no (two years later, all the TV specials and first Broadway show got her the cover anyway.) Like a lot of celebrities in recent years, Tomlin and Wagner relied on a kind of osmosis to get the word out as the LGBTQ movement picked up steam. You can pass judgement on them for their lengthy discretion if you wish, but few couples, gay or straight, have so successfully merged their professional and personal lives, and for that they should take a great deal of Pride.






The above clip is from the feature film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligence Life in the Universe. In the original stage show you wouldn't have seen the inside of a car with rain pelting the windows, nor Lily Tomlin in three different outfits and three different hairstyles, the editing to pull something like that off downright impossible in a live performance. No, it would have been Tomlin wearing black pants and a white blouse throughout the whole thing, changing only her voice and facial expression as she switched from one character to another. Pure acting.

 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Vital Viewing (Wicked, Wicked Ways Edition)



Swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn was born on this day in 1909. As you can see, he was a very handsome man in the 1930s, when the above picture was taken. Alas,  he led a very debauched life offscreen (best described as liquor and Lolitas), and it eventually took a toll on his good looks. Here he is on a once-popular game show about two years before his death in 1959. He's barely recognizable, and in fact stumps the celebrity panel. See if YOU can spot him:


That's right, Number 3 was the real Errol Flynn, and you can plainly see what effect the ravages of alcohol abuse had on his physical appearance. It left him him severely underweight, which can happen when one's only nutrition comes from a rum bottle. As for his receding hairline, that--

OK! OK! Time to own up. The above clip isn't really from a once-popular 1950s games show. Rather, it's a parody of a once-popular 1950s game show (To Tell the Truth), taken from Steve Allen's once-popular 1950s variety show. Errol Flynn is actually the guy in the middle, Number 2. What I like about that clip, other than that it's funny as hell, is that it puts Flynn's barstool fall from grace in some kind of perspective. He's put on weight, he's puffy-faced, with perhaps only the faintest trace of his former handsomeness. Yet the movie star aura, the charismatic screen presence, is still there. After all, the whole point of the sketch, the punchline, is that it's absurd that anyone would ever confuse Number 3 or even Number 1 with the real Errol Flynn. And for the joke to work, you need the real Errol Flynn to provide contrast. To be sure, had it been the Flynn of the 1930s, the sketch would have been twice as funny. That it's funny anyway shows you that two years before he was felled by a heart attack, Flynn could make, if no longer high school girls hearts flutter, at least the forty-one-year-old Martha Raye fall backwards on her chair.

Speaking of Flynn of the 1930s, here he is in perhaps his most famous role, that of a medieval mugger with a social conscious:



Let's see Barney Fife do that!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Quips and Quotations (Copyright Renewal Edition)



Superman and Batman have been in continuous publication for over half a century, and it's never been true of any fictional construct before. These characters have a lot more weight than the hero of a popular sitcom that lasts maybe four years. They have become postindustrial folklore, and part of this job is to be the custodian of folk figures. Everybody on Earth knows Batman and Robin. 
          --Comic book scribe Denny O'Neil, circa 1989. You can do the math yourself, but those costumed cuties have now been around a heckuva lot longer than a half a century!

1939-2020

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Noncentral Heating





Hitching for a ride it looks like, but who are they? Well, I'm sure most of you recognize Mary Poppins and Bert the Chimney Sweep, aka, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but who are the two dudes flanking them? On the left is composer Richard M. Sherman (who turns 92 today) and on the right his brother, also a composer, Robert B. Sherman (who died in 2012.)  The Sherman Brothers composed many movie scores and wrote many movie songs throughout their decades-long careers, but are best known for their association with Walt Disney (not the corporate monolith we know today, but, at the time, the actual, living, breathing Walt Disney), in particular the classic Mary Poppins,  including this Academy Award-winning paean to carbon residue:


Sure, he's happy now, but wait till his doctor shows him the chest X-ray.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

A Word of Explanation



So where have I been all these months? No, I didn't succumb to the coronavirus, nor do I suffer from the malady mentioned in my most recent post. I admit it was very bad timing on my part to post about one epidemic when another was looming on the horizon. Truth is, I got so caught up in the writing that I paid no attention to the news coming out of Italy at the same time. Imagine my surprise the day after the President's speech--which I skipped--to find every thing had closed, including my beloved public library.


Ah, yes, the public library. As some of you may know, the past twelve years of Shadow of a Doubt has not been composed on any device located in my place of residence but on various computers provided by various branches of the Cuyahoga County Public Library system. Why did I do it that way? Well, it's free Internet they offer, which was very appealing back in 2008 when I was unemployed (in fact, a month before this blog began, I went online for the very first time to fill out a job application for Radio Shack, which so far has gone unacknowledged. Is there even a Radio Shack any more?) Also, I was very computer illiterate at the time, so if I made a mistake and the whole machine started hiccupping on me, I could just go ask the librarian for help, or, if she was busy, I could just, you know, go to another computer. They have more than one.

Alas, there were drawbacks. Such as, libraries close for the night. That wasn't too much of a problem when I was unemployed, or when I had a typical 9-to-5 job for about a year. But that 9-to-5 job disappeared along with the photo albums the company thought it could keep on selling in the age of Instagram. I soon found another job, but one that started when everyone else was going to lunch, and ended when everybody 40 or older began falling asleep in front of the TV. The latter is also about when the libraries closed for the night. That meant my only computer time during the week was about an hour in the morning, which I usually spent leaving comments on other peoples blogs. Weekends I devoted to my own blog (though I sometimes posted later than that to throw everyone--or maybe just one or two people--off-track.) Nevertheless, I got a lot done, and enjoyed myself doing it.

Well, you know what happened next. The world turned into an apocalyptic science-fiction movie. Except instead of this...


...we got this:


Look at Dr. Fauci on the far right.  He's hoping the Flesh Eater-in-Chief doesn't call on him.



Back to my situation. No library, no computer, but as we who made it this far in the 21st century know, that doesn't necessarily mean no Internet. I did have a smart phone. It was impossible--at least for me--to work on my blog from my phone, but I could still leave comments on other people's blogs. Which I did for a while. But I wanted to use the Internet for other things as well, and ended up pushing the phone's data capabilities to the limit. I spent a lot of time on Facebook and Linkedin, adding friends and connections, hoping if I got enough friends and connections, I might get out of the rut I find myself in. That was harmless enough. I also worked on my novel Gigi Freeman--longhand in a notebook at this point--and since in its own weird way it's historical fiction, that required quite a bit of research. One of the novel's major characters is the late Manhattan-based attorney, one-time Joe McCarthy sidekick, and alleged-Donald Trump mentor Roy Cohn, whom, unlike Gigi, was a real person (but don't get the idea that this is going to be anything like Angels in America--Tony Kushner's Cohn was Shakespearean, whereas my Cohn is more like someone you'd see on Gilligan's Island.) I found out Cohn's FBI file was available online, so I decided to check it out. Like you would check out anything else on the Web. Except when I clicked it on, this little word appears in the upper left-hand corner of my smart phone screen: download. All 750 pages of Roy Cohn's FBI was getting downloaded into my phone, and there was nothing I could do to stop it, not even turn the damn phone off, because once I turned it back on, it started downloading again! Once it finally stopped--all in all it took about ten minutes--I clicked the words "Roy Cohn's FBI file" off the screen. No way was I going to chance turning it on. I might end up with Ron Liebman's, Nathan Lane's, and Al Pacino's FBI files as well. So I just clicked the words away. But did they truly go away? My phone was never the same after that. It wouldn't let me stay on any web site for more than a nanosecond. And the keyboard stopped working. No, I take that back. It worked, but wouldn't stay on the screen long enough for me to type three letters in a row. The phone part of the phone still worked fine. That's when I decided to call the cable company.



Now, it just so happens that about the the time my phone started going haywire, I received in the mail a "one-time offer" of an Internet/cable bundle for under $50 a month. I'd been without cable for seven years now, and while I missed it somewhat, it wasn't the necessity of life that the Internet was gradually turning out to be (Take the IRS, for instance. While they strongly encourage you to file your taxes online, they will still grudgingly let you fill out a form. But how do you get this form? You guessed it. You have to order it online. Grrr!) I read the small print to see what the Internet all by itself would cost. Slightly more than it would as part of the bundle. If that was the case, why not also get cable? Except when I called the cable company, the person who answered the phone told me I had misunderstood the offer. The bundled Internet was just under $50 a month AND the bundled cable was just under $50 a month, so I'd actually be paying just under $100 dollars a month. I was about to hang up the phone when I got sucked into a bit of mild haggling. A different bundle was offered: Internet and phone service. I'd be paying a lot less than I was currently paying for use of a smart phone. The Internet would be a little less, too. No cable, but that wasn't originally my goal anyway. I did the math and decided it would be affordable.

I've shown this clip on this blog before, but I'm going to show it again, because I think it will give you a better understanding of the aforementioned math:



Life before pocket calculators.

So I went ahead and got the phone and the Internet. But now there was a new problem. I had a second-hand computer given to me by some friends about ten years ago, so it was about 15, maybe even 20 years old, thus making it...



...obsolete.

I didn't know that at first. I complained to the cable company, who, after I described the problem and told them the age of the machine, gave me Microsoft's phone number, and it was they who told me it was obsolete. It wouldn't be had I spent the last ten years getting upgrades, but now it might be too late. I called a couple of computer repair places, and they wanted nothing to do with it. Finally, a relative suggested I try uploading Chrome and see if that helped. It did, but just barely. It took about 20 minutes to access my email. I read three, each which took a minute to open. Then I decided to google "Truman Capote" (another character in Gigi Freeman) and that took ten minutes. Clearly, I needed a new computer. Both Wall-Mart and Best Buy advertised inexpensive laptops, but when I enquired further, both stores were out-of-stock and would be for at least two more weeks. Along with toilet paper, people were apparently hoarding laptops as well.



Amazingly, Target had a single $200 laptop still in stock the Saturday before Memorial Day. I ordered it on my new smart phone, and about 20 minutes later had it delivered to me in that establishment's parking lot. All well and good. Until I started using it. I now realize that for the past 12 years the Cuyahoga County Public Library system has been shielding me from the heartbreak that come with owning a computer. Library computers have been to obedience school, home computers need to be housebroken. A library computer is Lassie, a home computer is Cujo.



For starters, a library computer you just type in your password and start using it. You don't have to worry, care, understand, or even be aware of the difference between a browser and a search engine, between Microsoft and Google, between the company that manufactures the computer, and the cable company that wi-fis the content. It's all the Internet. Just jump in and enjoy! However, on a home computer, the browser and the search engines and the hardware itself seems to be in competition for your attention.  I guess I should be flattered except these things all need different passwords and my non-gigabyte brain can only come up with so many upper case-lower case-numbers-symbols combinations. Just why in the hell do I need a Microsoft account? Microsoft came with the computer. When I go to a bar and order a screwdriver, it's not like I need an account with Minute Maid. The word "security" comes up quite a bit, and I realize identity theft is always a concern. But, jeez, I drive a car that's older than the kid that works the drive-thru at McDonald's. In order to save money at coin-operated laundry machines I wash darks and lights together and often end up with some interesting shade in-between. Steal my identity and you just might end up a member of the working poor. Then there's all these boxes that keep popping up on my screen. Install this, upgrade that. Fail to do so and you risk being strangled in your sleep by the Ghost of Vacuum Tubes Past. And when things go wrong and the screen freezes up, who do I blame? Spectrum? Hewlett-Packard? Satya Nadella? Computer illiterate that I am, I should blame myself actually. But I'm willing to learn, and one way to learn is by reading. Reading instructions, for example. Unfortunately, the concept of an instruction booklet is held with as much regard in Silicon Valley or Redmond, Washington as the New Testament is in Tel Aviv. The one thing that doesn't freeze up is the software's box-making machine, this one telling me that if I have a problem, go to so-and-so's web site. But how the hell do I get to that web site if the computer is frozen? I know, I know. Use your cell phone, and as a matter of fact mine is sitting next to the computer as I type. But think for a moment about the significance of that. In order to survive in the 21st century, you need not one but two Internets! I don't particularly envy the life of a cave man, but there's something to be said for a time when the only technologies were the wheel and fire, neither of which needed to be upgraded every five minutes.

If the above rant was a bit too much for you to get through, perhaps this clip will make you better understand the technical challenges I faced:



Arthur C. Clarke was off by only 19 years.



Finally, I 've had to work a lot of overtime the last few weeks--I know, a rarity in these troubled times--and that's kept me away. But I managed to eke out this post, and they'll be more eking out to come. More quips and quotations, more vital viewing, more pop cultural observations, and more in memoriams. Also, another (this time disease-free) chapter from my nonlinear novel-in-progress, the aforementioned Gigi Freeman. I hope you'll be there.

Oh, and by the way, this song has been running through my head these past few months. Take it away, Gloria:



Lockdown, shmockdown!





Wednesday, March 11, 2020

1969 All Over Again



Last June I posted an excerpt from a work-in-progress titled Gigi Freeman, a comic/social/political/historical/science-fiction novel about an extraordinarily capable drag queen (an/or transgender woman) of color who works as a private secretary to a high-priced Manhattan attorney in the years before and after the Stonewall Riots. Well, I have another excerpt to share with you. Even though the bulk of the novel will take place in the late 1960s and early '70s, this particular excerpt takes place in the 1980s. Now, don't take that late date to mean I'm almost finished. The novel is non-linear, meaning I don't have to pay too much attention to a silly thing like chronology. That said, there may be a few things that you'll find puzzling, as they deal with events elsewhere in the novel. If you're patient and stay with it, about halfway though--I put in an image as a kind of dividing line--it becomes easier to understand as the characters talk about what to them is the here-and-now. Despite some facts sprinkled in, and that two of the more prominent characters (as well as a few mentioned in passing) were real people, the whole thing is fictional. Think of it not as a scholarly account of LGBTQ history, but instead my eccentric musings about that history. Also keep in mind the evolving nature of the English language, never more so than when it comes to describing the LGBTQ community. Some terms that are clearly defined and considered distinct from each other in 2020 (such as "drag queen" and "transvestite") may not have been so clearly defined or distinct from each other in an earlier era.

Let me set the time and place. It's mid-morning, August 02, 1986, somewhere in Greenwich Village...

   
     Saul found himself holding back tears and couldn't understand why. The man meant nothing to him anymore, and should never have meant anything to him to begin with. Other than an appearance on 60 Minutes, and the times he had popped up in the news (such as during his recent disbarment), he hadn't laid eyes on him in six years. And that was just, in hindsight, a disastrously misguided attempt to get his former--Guardian? Stepfather? Landlord? His nanny's boss?--to come out of the closet, one that had it been successful would have proven what exactly? That even fascists can be role models for gay youth? That even right-wing hypocrites deserve the Movement's support and understanding? Saul got enough criticism from certain quarters of that movement for caring more about quantity than quality when it came to outing celebrities. And those same critics might well have wondered how Saul knew such a person in the first place. So it was just as well that the coming out hadn't come off. But why did he feel like crying?


     "Saul, dear, are you still there?" asked the familiar voice on the other end of the line.

     Saul sighed and answered, "Yes, Gigi, I'm still here."

     "I know this must be as hard for you as it is for me."

     That proved the cure. Saul no longer felt grief-stricken but instead grievously insulted!

      "It's not hard for me at all, Gigi! Just tell me what happened."

     As he listened to Gigi describe what happened, Saul took no notice of the two intruders who walked unannounced from the outer office of the Manhattan branch of the Gay Emancipation League--there was no receptionist, secretary, or office manager to announce them as all three were now on sick leave--to the office of the Founder and National Director of GEL, Saul himself, where the two of them were now able to eavesdrop on one half of what remained of that telephone conversation:

     "A Von Hoffman showed up at the hospital?.........Well, I'm glad you said you were too upset to talk to him.....Deny! Deny everything!...What do you mean, what for? Gigi, tell me, you're not actually planning on going to the funeral, are you?.......You don't have to get testy with me! I was just asking....Aw, c'mon, Gigi........I know you two went back a long way but--Tell me, Gigi, how did you ever hook up with RC in the first place?......Don't you mean Club 82?.........Oh, Jesus Christ, not Hoover, too................Ever think of going to a temp agency?.........Oh, yeah, I forgot about that...Well, Gigi, it seems to me RC took advantage of your little psychological problem.........OK, Gigi, calm down! I was just joking!...I don't have time to explain the punchline...Dr. Joyce Brothers? No kidding...Say that again........If you must go, then, yes, I think you should go as Leonard. I doubt they'll let you through the door as Gigi.........Gigi, there's a big difference between a funeral parlor and Studio 54.........Well, I suppose you could wear a veil, but everyone knows RC didn't leave a widow......Am I going to the funeral?! Gigi, do you have any idea of my standing in the Gay Rights Movement?! How can you even..........Just asking. OK, Gigi, you got me, we're even....What's that?....RC left me something? DON'T TELL ME THAT ASSHOLE ACTUALLY NAMED ME IN HIS WILL! Gigi, if this gets out.........Oh...Well, I never heard of the deceased bequeathing something 'under the table' before, but I don't want any of RC's dirty money..............No, I don't have health insurance, but I don't have any symptoms either.......OK, we'll talk about it when you get back...I love you, too.......As a friend, we're not going steady...OK...uh huh...see you then. G'bye."

     Saul hung up the phone, looked up at the figure standing before him, let out a scream, and backed his swivel chair against the wall with such force he slammed his head against a bulletin board, knocking down a photo of the Broadway cast of  La Cage aux Folles.

     "Careful, Sauly," said Marsha.

     Saul immediately realized his mistake.

     "Oh, shit, I'm sorry, Marsha. I thought you were Gigi."

     Laughing, Marsha replied, "Oh, it's quite all right. I know us drag queens all look alike."

     Standing right be her side as usual, Sylvia remarked, "He didn't mistake me for Gigi."

     "That's because your wig is blond."

     Embarrassed, Saul tried to explain, "You see, I was just talking to her on the phone when I turned and saw you--" He stopped before he dug himself too deep. One funeral this week was enough.

     "I said it was all right. I heard you talking to Gigi when we walked in. Where is she, anyway? I know she left town in a hurry."

     "She's in Bethesda, Maryland. I'm afraid I have some--" he stopped himself from saying bad "--news--"

     "Heard it on the radio," Sylvia interrupted. "There's been a death in the family. Your family."

     Ouch, thought Saul. That was bitchy of her. Even more bitchy than usual.

     "Now, Sylvia," Marsha said in a mildly admonishing tone. "You enjoyed the man's hospitality, too."

     "Hospitality?" Sylvia lowered her voice to a murmur, mimicking the way RC talked whenever Gigi's friends were around. "Oh, um, hi, Sylvia, hi, Marsha, hi, Stormé."

      Thinking maybe this was an opportunity to nip a potential scandal in the bud, Saul said, "Look, girls, it's not the reason I asked you here today, but we can talk this over if you'd like."

     "So talk," said Sylvia. 

     Something was bugging her, but what? Saul had no choice but to continue.

     "Gigi said there's already somebody writing a biography of RC, and--"

     "And you want us to cooperate?" asked Marsha.

     Horrified, Saul sputtered, "No, no, no, no, no!"

     Marsha smiled her huge smile and said, "Calm down, Sauly. I was just joking, just like you said you were when you were talking to Gigi. How long does it take to explain a punchline, anyway?"

     How much of that phone call had they listened to? At least they couldn't hear Gigi's cutting remarks on the other end.

     Sylvia wasn't smiling. "So what do me and Marsha care if someone's writing a biography of Gigi's sugar daddy and your foster father--"

     "HE WAS NOT MY FOSTER FATHER!" How dare the bitch!

     Marsha was still smiling (but then she rarely ever stopped.) "Ooh, temperatures are rising! Soon it will be hotter in here than it is outside. We should all just calm down. Would anyone like to sample some of my Thorazine? It works wonders for me. I now look both ways before I cross the street!"

     Sylvia laughed at that, and Saul found himself laughing right along with her. He had forgotten about Marsha's mental condition. The new medication had restored her wit along with her sanity. In fact, she could be as funny as Gigi at times. But then he had never known a drag queen that didn't have a sense of humor. There was something about wearing a dress that made a man want to do shtick. Look at Flip Wilson. Or Milton Berle.

     Since the mood, however temporarily, had lightened, Saul decided to take one last stab at getting both of them to keep their lips zipped.

     "Look, now that RC is no more, there's going to be all kinds of reporters and, like I said, a biographer, snooping around, and Gigi's name could be dragged through the mud. She's our friend and I want to make sure that doesn't happen."

     "Wait a second," said Marsha. "You just got off the phone with her. Is this something Gigi is worried about?"

     "Gigi's very upset right now and can't think straight. She needs us to protect her."

     "When Gigi's upset, she can't think slanted. Are you sure this isn't about your own protection?"

     Ouch again, thought Saul.
  
     Surprisingly, Sylvia now came to the rescue. 

     "What about our own protection, Marsha? Look, Saul, I'm sorry about the foster father crack. It was a low blow, and I've always considered you a friend. But I'm afraid of getting dragged through the mud myself. I don't want everyone to find out that I've actually been inside that man's house!"

     "Well, Sylvia, we only went there to see Gigi," Marsha countered. "That's hardly a headline you'd find in the National Enquirer."

     Saul wasn't worried about the National Enquirer. He was worried about The Advocate, The Village Voice, The Nation, and now, apparently, Marsha.

     Nervously, he asked her, "So...you think...you might say something?"

     Marsha again laughed, and said, "Oh, you don't have to worry about me, Sauly. I didn't know about Mister Cohn's political past when we first met. I don't think I even knew who the president was back then. But I'm much more politically aware now. And I don't want the world to find out how close Mister Cohn came to derailing my and Sylvia's pet project. It would be rather embarrassing." 

     "What are you talking about?" asked Saul.

     "The trailer fiasco," Sylvia explained.

     "Oh. That's right. Gigi told me about that. But I thought it was public knowledge."

     "The trailer is public knowledge," Marsha further explained. "And the fiasco is public knowledge. But Mister Cohn's presence is not public knowledge. I don't want to have to answer a lot of questions about what he was doing there. So mum's the word!"

     Pleased, Saul said, "OK, then, here's the game plan. If some reporter or biographer asks about RC, just say you didn't know him. If the reporter doesn't believe you, then deny. Deny everything. If the reporter seems to have something on you, well, then, uh, you may have to talk, but talk off the record, and don't name names! Especially not the names of anyone in this room. Or Gigi's. Agreed?"

     "Agreed," said Marsha.

     "Agreed," said Sylvia.




     "Even without the trailer fiasco, Sauly, I still wouldn't say anything," Marsha added. "Like Sylvia, I, too, consider you a friend."

     Touched (as well as delighted that things were now going so well),  Saul replied, "Well, I consider you two ladies friends, too. We've known each other quite a while now, haven't we?" 

     "Ever since you were Pauly."

     "Well, I prefer Sauly, er, Saul these days." He thought he had put the old name behind him, only to discover later on that, etymologically, he couldn't.

     "You've been more than just a friend, Saul," said the now-affable Sylvia. "You've been an inspiration. I don't know if Gigi ever told you, but you're kind of the reason me and Marsha got into politics."

     "Really? No, she didn't. But that's kind of funny, because even though she's never seemed all that committed herself, it was Gigi who got me into politics, assuming you can even call what we do politics."

     "Well, what would you call it?" 

     "Making waves, rocking the boat, rattling cages, stirring things up, and, and that old favorite, rabble-rousing. I mean, those are things that I, and the Movement as a whole, have been accused of. When we're not being told we're going to burn in Hell. Politics? Whenever I hear that word, I think elections, people running for things. City Council. Congress. I'm not running for anything."

     "Ah, but you could run for something, Sauly."

     "What?"
     
     Her magnificent smile now in full force, Marsha proudly proclaimed, "President Florentino!" 

     Saul laughed, and replied, "I don't think so. For one thing, I'm only 34."

     "But the election is still two years away. You'll be old enough by then."

     "That's not all. It may not be unconstitutional, but I'm a high school dropout. Who'd want that in a president?"

     Sylvia laughed and said, "Hey, I'm a fifth-grade dropout, so you got my vote!"

     "You got my vote, too," said Marsha. "Though I did somehow manage to graduate from high school. For a street transvestite, that's like having a PhD!"

     "In that case, Marsha," Saul good-humorously suggested. "Maybe you should run for president. They already call you the 'Mayor of Christopher Street.'"

     "Oh, I'd rather be First Lady. Think about it, Sauly, you and me in the Rose Garden. We could make beautiful music together." She began humming "Hail to the Chief".

     It must be the Thorazine, thought Saul.

     "Wait a second!" Sylvia exclaimed. "I want to be part of this administration, too!" 

     "You can be Vice-President," Marsha replied.

     "Then I'd be over-educated. How about both of us be First Lady?"

     "Now, Sylvia, it wouldn't do to have a bigamist in the White House. But you know, now that I think about it, maybe Gigi should have first dibs on First Lady. After all, she's known Sauly the longest."

     Saul laughed and said, "Oh, I'd put Gigi in charge of the CIA. She'd be her own best agent." The conversation was getting to be a little too relaxed. After all, he had an impassioned plea to make. "Um, I have politics of a more grass-roots nature to share with you ladies." He got up from behind his desk.

     Marsha sighed, and said, "Community organizing always comes down to gardening." 

     Saul walked over to a closet and began opening the door.

     "I've got something for you girls to try on."

     "Oh! Is it the latest Paris fashions?" Marsha asked.

     "It better not be Benny Hill's old hand-me-downs."

     "That's better than Boy George's old hand-me-downs. What is that thing he wears anyway?" 

     Saul pulled out of the closet two black cardboard signs connected by straps.  

     "What's that?" asked Sylvia.

     "A sandwich board," Saul replied. "The kind you wear." He began pulling a second one out.

     "You want us to advertise?"

     "More like a public service announcement. Here, ladies, please try them on. I'll help you get in them."

     Saul held up one side of the sign up as Sylvia kind of backed up under the straps, and then gently left the front board down upon her chest. He did the same for Marsha. After each lady was outfitted, Saul sat down back behind the desk. Each torso-concealing sign had a pink triangle amidst all the black. Beneath, in big, white letters it read:


                                                       SILENCE = DEATH


     "Well, how do we look?" asked Marsha. 

     "You girls look beautiful. Protest becomes you. But then it always has."

     "What's this all about?" asked Sylvia.

     "OK, girls, here's the scoop. Me and a few of my gay activist colleagues are thinking of starting a new organization tentatively titled AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT-UP for short. Really, at the moment we're just at the talking stage. If we go ahead with it, our public debut won't be until after the first of the year. Right now we're trying out different slogans, motifs, color schemes, things like that. What you're wearing is based on a poster created, or co-created, by an artist named Avram Finkelstein. Personally, I like it. It's short and to the point. Finkelstein has his own little group, or as he calls it, collective, but if we could somehow combine forces, I think this thing could really take off."

     "What about the Gay Men's Health Crises?" asked Marsha.

     "Oh, please!" exclaimed Sylvia, a sign of distaste on her face. "I went there about a month ago to volunteer, and they told me to leave and not come back until I was dressed in something more appropriate. I had on a white blouse and black pencil skirt. How appropriate can you get? I asked to talk to Rodger, but they told me he's not there anymore."

     "Rodger's with us," Saul said. "The GMHC means well, but at this point they're about as effective as the Mattachine Society. We need more. A lot more. It's 1969 all over again, and that means no more Mr. Nice Gay. Only this time around instead of a riot to motivate us, we have a plague."

     Looking around the office, with its many photos of the National Director of the Gay Emancipation League under arrest, Marsha remarked, "But Sauly, you have your own organization!"

     "I'm afraid I'm going to have to put GEL on hold. Before I can go around emancipating gays, I have to first make sure they're breathing."  

     "It's just a shame," Marsha said, as she eyed a framed photo of a bloodied Saul tied up with cable and being dragged out of the CBS Building. "You've really built up this organization. You now have, what, four branches across the country, coast to coast?"

     "You should see how much I spend on Greyhound tickets." Seeing an opening, Saul thought, now's a good time for my sermon. "I mean, I'll try to keep all the offices open if I can, but the staffs at all four locations have really been decimated by this disease. I have no one to answer the phones or watch things as I'm off zapping public officials or trying to convince gay celebrities to come out of the closet. And some of those gay celebrities have died before I could get to them, like Rock Hudson. At least his death made the headlines. But the media ignores the masses of AIDS victims who were never famous. 10,000 deaths so far! An entire generation of young men have been wiped out! And these aren't like heart attacks, where someone who seems healthy suddenly drops dead. With AIDS, you decompose before you die! I've seen beautiful young men who could have posed for Michelangelo's David transformed into scarecrows over night! And the epidemic is far from peaking. There's been more AIDS diagnoses this year than all the years combined.  And all the old prejudices, all the old discrimination is back, not that it ever went that far away to begin with. AIDS sufferers are losing their jobs, getting evicted, getting turned down for service in restaurants. I've heard stories of doctors turning away AIDS patients! Politicians, the kind we were just talking about, the ones that run for office, are running away from this thing as fast as they can. I suppose you can argue it's the same old shit gay people have always gone through, except this time there's no closet to take refuge in. People notice weight loss, hair loss, and splotchy skin. And while this is going on, all the AIDS researchers can do is argue about who coined the term "HIV" first. Nobody cares. As far as straight society goes, we're disposable people. The more of us that die, the less guilt they have for overpopulation. That's why we have to fight back! If we don't, the Gay Rights Movement will go down as the biggest folly in history!" 

     Saul leaned back in his chair, feeling as if the wind had been knocked out of him. He had been rehearsing that spiel in his mind for the last couple of days, and now that he had actually voiced it, he felt strangely nervous. But rabble-rousing was the politics he had chosen for himself, and what rabble better to rouse than the two streetwise streetqueens who stood before him, the most unlikely pair of political activists the world has ever seen? For the sake of identity, they had opted for lives of destitution, and all the homelessness, drug abuse, and mental illness that so often went along with it. Yet they both had social consciences. You might even say they were idealists. But there was an attribute other than idealism that Saul was interested in at this particular moment.  For all their fey theatricality, these faux females brooked no bullshit, as he had been reminded several times during the course of the conversation. If he could convince Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera of the need for a more radical, civil-disobedient approach to fighting AIDS, he could convince anyone. That was the real reason he had asked them over. But were they convinced?

     Marsha was smiling as usual. Except now there was something unusual. She slowly leaned her head back about a fraction of an inch, and then forward again.

     A nod!

     Sylvia wasn't nodding. She looked skeptical.

     "Nice speech, Saul, but are these No More Mr. Nice Gays gonna want a couple of No More Miss Nice Girls hanging around their crusade? In the past, we've been too radical for the radicals." 

     "Is that what you're worried about? Look, as long as I have anything to say about it--" Saul hadn't yet told any of his gay activist colleagues that he was talking to Marsha and Sylvia. "--you two ladies will be part of this fight. Besides, you both have a following now. You're practically, um, gay rights-historical characters. To turn you two away would be like, ahhh, telling Susan B. Anthony that she can't be on the cover of Ms. magazine." 

     "You're reaching," said Sylvia.

     "Still, I like the idea of being historical," Marsha remarked. "Think maybe they could make my park bench a national landmark?"

     Sylvia laughed at that, and Saul, taking that as, well, not a bad sign, decided to hurry things along. He opened up a desk drawer and pulled out a Polaroid One Step camera. "Girls, I want to take a couple of pictures of you. I'm going to send them to Larry to see what he thinks." He might as well as find out sooner than later about the two latest recruits for the Cause.

     Saul stood up and put the camera to his face. As he looked through the viewfinder, he once gain read the words on the signs. Silence equals Death. But how well does that work in reverse? Was there still something out there that could tie him to RC, the man the Left loved to hate? He seemed to recall there was, but it had been such a long time, he could no longer remember quite what.

     "All right, Mr. DeMille, we're ready for our close-up." 

     Saul lowered the camera and said, "Um, Marsha, no smiling please. I want you girls to looked pissed. Snarl if you'd like. We've got a social order to crash. Again."

     "I get it," said Sylvia. "Let the revolution begin."

     "Power to the people," added Marsha, who had finally stopped smiling.