SUNDAY’S BROKEN TOILET

I’m busy these days. I have projects. And enthusiasms. All of them have to do with words, not things. I am not building a model of HMS Bounty in my garage. Not fixing the upstairs toilet. Not planning the garden for the coming (will it ever?) spring. But this Sunday I go upstairs to the bathroom with the broken toilet to look at it. I jiggle the handle. As I suspect, that isn’t the solution.

Behind me, the bathroom window gives out onto the hill that rises above the house, up seven acres or so to the top of the ridge line. I stand at the poured concrete sink and look up the hill at the woods. In winter they are stark against this year’s unusual snow and I can see where the logger has come once again to take what he can. We split the profit.

For twenty four years I have been able to look up toward the top of the ridge, impossible to see in summers, always there in winters. And this morning I forget the toilet and I think about the trees. That works for me, like jiggling the handle; but it works.

Just this morning, before coming upstairs, I have been reading The New York Times Book Review. Looking out of the bathroom window in the second floor up the ridge through winter’s trees, I think that reading a book review is like walking in these familiar woods in winter and anticipating these same woods when it will be spring—I know the rise and fall of the land, the seasonal directions of animal trails, what blooms and what does not, where the stream flows and from where. Suddenly I see a new path and I intuit where it leads; it is not necessary to follow it all the way, if at all, but I imagine the coming experience of it, having its trace before me. There is the same familiarity reading a book review—there is a lay of the reviewer’s land, a sense of where this is going, a revelation of slope this way or that, a hint of what is to come, a promise or, sometimes, a warning.

Then again, reading a book is like logging those same woods. I am in them until I finish, until I have chosen the trees to fall and cut each one, until at the end of the day the woods remain but that I have been there is undeniable; nothing is the same. When I come the next day it is to woods I have encountered, engaged, altered. Reading is a necessary, imaginary winnowing. Possibilities are considered, rejected, embraced. The author’s intent, like Nature’s, is less than secondary as I cut my way carefully through to a sudden configuration. When I have finished reading the book, it is still a book but it will never look the same to me again.

Writing a book is, perhaps, like being a, what is it, arborist? Intent on planting one good tree, I begin with all trees around me and where I plant is so dependent on how I understand how and why the others are there. Then, when I am done, the forest remains but is altered by the addition I have insisted upon. The new tree is singular but still the product of the presence of the other trees, seeded by some of them, protected by others, shaded too much and maybe stunted on one side by others. My book, the same, written in the protected swale here, shaded by some, shadowed by others, competing for room, desirous of continuity, hoping to leaf out, to cast its own shade or shadow.

Here in the country for twenty four years I have walked, cut, planted. But someone must fix the toilet.

OSCAR NIGHT

Oscar Night with all its …am I cynical? Illusion? Let’s leave it at that. If only because this problem of what you see versus what you would like to see is really what’s on my mind.

I‘m not after anything earthshaking here, no trenchant social critique. Just  pondering over the last couple of days…what do I look like? That is, is what I think I look like anything like what I look like. I know, I know! “To whom?” you ask. My answer, “I’m not sure.”

Let me start more concretely. Yesterday I looked in the mirror and thought, “I don’t look anything like Randolph Scott.” You youngsters don’t know Scott; he was a good-looking contract actor in the 1930s, wasted in drawing room comedies, despite his courtliness and southern accent. Then, after a few years as an action and drama “hero,” he decided he would make only “westerns” and held to that notion. Scott wasn’t much of an actor, was stiff, and had a vocal range of about ¼ of an octave. But he had a square face, proportionate brow, and a strong chin. He was sinewy and as he aged, lines in his face only enhanced his appeal. Every morning I expected to see Randolph Scott looking at me from the mirror. Or, I have wanted that to be the case, especially as I have got older.

In fact, I have often been told I looked like one movie actor or another. One evening, after work, at the corner of 9th Avenue and 59th Street in New York City—about 10:15—a drunk hailed me.

“Hey! I know you! You’re that actor!”

“No.”

“Yeah! Al Pacino, right?”

If you know me, or Google me, you’ll realize just how drunk this man was. But these sightings come in pairs, perhaps. Not a week later, after class, two students stopped me in the hall.

“Did anyone ever tell you, you look like that movie actor?”

“Well,…”

“What’s his name?” she turned to her friend.

“Al Pacino;” the words formed in a thought bubble over my head.

“Karl Malden!”

Google him.

When I was a teenager, the comparisons were, if not accurate, at least in synch with the times. A sophomore girl in high school thought I looked like Ed “Kookie” Byrnes on “77 Sunset Strip” It was my hair, that cantilevered shelf of a relaxed pompadour that shaded my forehead from the Louisiana sun. Back in those days, children, you had your choice of a Kookie Byrnes or Frankie Avalon pompadour or an Elvis “DA.” The “DA” stood for “Duck’s Ass”—your hair swept back from your temples over your ears and came to a sort of horizontal crest in the exact middle of the back of your head; from both sides, hence the similarity to a duck’s behind. That we were all, including Elvis,  no more than one generation removed from the farm, explains the metaphor. (Digression: You can now understand why the Beatles were such a phenomenon.)

But my ability to be almost anyone but myself really paid off in the summer of 1956. That summer my parents and I moved to Hollywood. The ostensible reason was that my mother wanted to study deaf education at a center funded by Spencer Tracy’s wife. The Tracys had a deaf son and Mrs. Tracy had pioneered in deaf education research. My mother had been teaching without credentials at a school that had adapted second hand some principles developed in California. (If you have read this blog in the past, you know that I have, or suspect, reasons other than the ostensible ones, for every move my mother ever made. But those are other issues.)

As far as I knew, this was to be a permanent move; I was heading into my junior year in high school, my dad had given up his job at the glass factory, and it looked like we were pulling up roots and putting down stakes. We found an apartment in North Hollywood, on Fountain Avenue. Yes, the building looked like a noir set and it had one feature that I had never imagined. It was a one-bedroom apartment with a sunken living room; the bath, kitchen and bedroom were up a short set of steps on what I can only think of now as a mezzanine. But the grand feature was my bed. My folks, of course, had the bedroom and I slept in the living room, as I had done in 4th grade in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, those many years ago. My bed, however, was not a foldout couch but something I had never seen before. I HAD seen, in movies made in the 30s, a Murphy bed, a bed that folded up into the wall, made or unmade, occupied or empty. Many funny scenes could be built around a Murphy bed. But this apartment had the “demonic” version of a Murphy bed. The bed did not fold down from a hidden compartment in the wall; it slid out from beneath the mezzanine, just above the baseboard, into the center of the sunken living room. In this bed, you were doomed should it decide to retract while you slept; there was no headroom. When I saw it, the rhyme from my childhood, slipped into my head:

“Peanut sittin’ on a rail-road track

A word he would not utter.

Around the bend came Number 10…

Toot! Toot! Peanut Butter!”

Dad and my mother got jobs as sales clerks at the May Company, a downtown department store, and she started classes at Los Angeles City College.(She also began acting lessons with a character actor named Douglas Fowley [Google him] at his house in Malibu; but that’s another story.) I got the best job of all.

Arthur P. Jacobs ran a public relations company in Beverly Hills and he had employed, of all people, a young man from Shreveport  my mother knew (but that’s another story), as an office boy. That position no longer exists because we have interns but back in the day one would be paid a salary for sharpening pencils, delivering the mail around the office, getting coffee, and even answering the phone. Well, my mother looked this young man up as soon as we got to Hollywood and as it turned out he was about to return to college and, one thing and another, he got me the job as his replacement.

As it turned out, the job involved more than sharpening pencils. I delivered contracts and drafts of press releases (this was before faxing) to studios and clients. I drove all over Los Angeles in the days before freeways. I knew all the local streets. And I met people; Joe Pasternak, Ida Lupino (at her home I walked in on her haranguing her husband, Howard Duff, who was tied to a chair in the middle of their patio; rehearsing, she said); Bo Derek’s husband, John, an actor and photographer who, until Leo Di Caprio in “The Great Gatsby,” I would swear was the most beautiful man I had ever seen; and other B-grade actors, writers and producers. I never got to meet our BIG clients but, I touched their lives.

The first touch came early in the summer when our biggest client, Marilyn Monroe, went to England to film “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Monroe’s press agent, an amazing woman named Melvina Pumphrey, called me into her office and told me to drop everything; she had a job for me. I was to correspond with Miss Monroe weekly and keep her personal scrapbooks up to date; I must do as she directed and air mail the scrapbooks to her express, every week, for her..amusement? Edification? I was excited and did the job well and, of course, was too dumb to save even  a scrap of paper that had passed between us. Go figure.

Nevertheless, I had showed that I could be relied upon so I was put in charge of all the publicity mailing for Ronald Reagan’s western anthology show, sponsored by General Electric. I have felt responsible ever since for being so good at my job. Had I know then what I know now, I would have….., you know.

Then, in late July, a call from Art Jacobs himself.

“I want to take a look at you, kid.”

“Yessir.”

“I’ve got a job and this has to go to the right guy.”

“Yessir”

“You look the part, so I’m gonna give it to you.”

“Yessir”

“From now on, every request for a photograph for a fan made to Marlon Brando will be signed  by you.”

“Sir?”

“As far as the public knows, you are Marlon Brando. Sign those photos. Talk to Sid about what to say. It’ll work out. You look just like him!”

“Sid?”

“Marlon! You look just like Marlon!”

And so that was how the picture business worked in the 1950s. A week later, I was also given the Yul Brynner franchise. I can’t imagine what they saw in me for that.

Pacino, Malden, Brando, Kookie Byrnes, Brynner. Not Randolph Scott. The story of my life.