Friday, July 29, 2011

Jack Kirby Loses Again

The film version of Thor was a smash hit a few weeks ago, the Captain America movie looks to surpass it at the box office this weekend, on the heels of The two Fantastic Four films, two more featuring the Incredible Hulk, and an entire franchise built around the X-men --- all Marvel comic book characters from the 1960s ... and all of them created by one man: Jack Kirby.

His estate suffered a crushing blow today, as the United States District Court in the State of New York denied his heirs any share in the wealth he created for so many venal, untalented mercenary shareholders and executives. It’s one more in a long line of tragic and despicable assaults on the dignity and the legacy of this extraordinary artist. He spent his declining years fighting with a steely-eyed, relentless Marvel corporate machine far more frightening than any villain he ever conjured with his pencil. He wasn’t asking for compensation, or fair treatment, or credit or even respect … he had given up on all of that long ago. All he wanted, as mortality loomed, was the right to take possession of the physical drawings themselves – the original art that he gone into the comics. They wouldn’t even give him that. Why did they hate him so much? Was it because he was so talented, so abundant, so productive that he made them feel small and puny and worthless? If so he was only a mirror and you can shatter a thousand mirrors without improving yourself at all. You’re just the same pathetic greedy parasite, standing in a drift of shards.

I suppose it’s the glory of capitalism that these people win and the great innovators and visionaries like Jack Kirby get beaten down. “He didn’t have much business sense,” the Fox and Warner Brothers executives must be chortling tonight as they pound the champagne with their cronies from Marvel: “What a sap!”

Let’s toast to that, you debased money-grubbing toads. Drink until you’re drunk and drive on some twisty road as fast as you can.

Kirby’s case is often compared to Jerome Siegel, who invented Superman and finally got credit as well as cash (albeit posthumously). But, due respect, Kirby was a far more significant figure than Siegel. Kirby invented more than the idea of putting a muscle bound do-gooder into spandex: He devised a whole heroic language and ethos, a whole richly imagined universe of grace and glamour, power and poise not in the stories he co-created with Stan Lee and later cooked up on his own, for DC Comics (the later stuff was just bad), but in the way he conceived the human figure and set it on paper. He characters had density and authority and style, and that style informs all the films made from his comics, and all the comics that came after him, even if they’re only reacting against the larger than life gusto and vitality of Kirby’s creations. More than that, they made this ten year old boy believe in some exalted and exhilarating form of heroic nobility. Kirby imbued his world with a grandeur that I had never really found anywhere else.

I remember so vividly growing up, those awful moments when I realized that Kirby had abandoned a title to a lesser artist and moved on. It happened all the time. He still did the covers, which exploded with movement and energy … but as soon as you opened the magazine, the flat lifeless replacement art made your spirit sag. Awkward an amateurish by comparison, they made you appreciate and hunger for Kirby’s gift. Sometimes he did ‘lay outs’, organizing each panel for the new guy, but even that didn’t help much. All the joy was gone. Kirby’s Thor is at the top of this post, with marvel journeyman Don Heck's version just above it.

Scroll up and take a look at them both.

I was trying to explain Kirby to my mother one rainy afternoon, and I showed her those two drawings. She couldn’t see any difference. Well, I couldn’t see the difference between Cezanne and Pissaro until I’d really studied them both. But this was like not seeing the difference between Van Gogh and Andy Warhol. These men were magnitudes of talent apart.

The decades have proved my point, as Jack Kirby's aesthetic rules the movies now and has made untold billions for the people who have appropriated it. And they won’t even give his widow and his kids some crumbs from the table he built and piled high with the bounty they’re feasting on. It’s a pity his characters aren’t real. They were all stern moralists, and I can imagine what Tony Stark, and The God of Thunder and Bruce Banner (AKA The In credible Hulk) and Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America – soon to be featured together in a movie about the team Kirby conjured so long ago – would have to say about this – the battle cry that always rang out before some malevolent crackpot or would be world conquering villain got his ass kicked big time by the super team:


But no. I’m kidding myself. There would be no battle royal with these spring-water sipping, limousine jockeys. They’d just sue the Avengers, and win their case in District Court and disarm them, and take everything from them, including their costumes. (“Those outfits are creating a public nuisance.Do you have a licensed for that shield? That hammer is a deadly weapon.”) And the Avengers would go along with it, because they believe in the rule of law, just like Jack Kirby did.


Leaving Dillon, Texas: Farewell to "Friday Night Lights"

The final episode of Friday Night Lights airs tonight, ending a scrappy five season run. It took the DirecTV satellite network co-financing the show to keep it on the air, in a unique deal that allowed them to air Friday Night Lights before NBC. So for Satellite subscribers the story of Dillon, Texas has been concluded for months. For Lights fans, those concluded episodes – and the delirious reviews they garnered – have been a kind of shadow broadcast, a resonance from the void. The show has been haunted by its own ghost, these last weeks. It was kind of appropriate. This cat had only five lives, after all -- not nine, and it’s lived in the shadow of its own mortality for every one of them.

It was never a hit. It always lacked the ingredients of escapism and weekly closure that make for profitable network comfort food. But that was what we loved about it. In the very first episode, golden boy quarterback Jason Street seems headed for a college scholarship and a legendary career in the NFL. He even looks a little like Tom Brady. Then Jason throws an interception and tries to tackle the other team’s free safety, as he runs it back for the touchdown. Jason makes the tackle but injures himself catastrophically. By the end of the show’s pilot we know that Jason Street has become a paraplegic. Peter Berg, the show’s creator, said somewhere that the NBC executives couldn’t quite believe this development. “He gets better, right?” they kept saying. “When does he walk again?”

“He doesn’t,” Berg told them.

And he didn’t. Instead the first three seasons of the show dramatized this extraordinary young man’s valiant efforts to come to terms with his handicap -- from trying out for a professional ‘wheelchair rugby (he didn’t make the team) to working as an assistant coach to Eric Taylor and selling cars for Buddy Garrity, his girfriend’s father. Nothing works out for Jason until he lands a job as a sports agent late in the series. You can see how his persistence and passion could make him a success in that field. Along the way he loses the lovely Lyla Garrity to his best friend Tim Riggins, but not before Buddy explains in no uncertain terms that he won’t allow his daughter to throw her life away on a cripple.

Friday Night Lights was a show about a town, not just a football team, and Buddy Garrity is a perfect example of the program’s depth and humanity. He starts out as a loud mouthed overweight mover and shaker, the classic big fish in a small pond -- plankton in a thimble. He’s a salesman to the core, and the biggest booster of the Dillon Panthers, lobbying for a bigger stadium and a jumbotron … while the school can’t even seem to find chalk for the blackboards. This is an echo of the real Odessa, Texas where Buzz Bissinger lived for a year while writing the original book-length reportage. His harsh view of a dirt-poor, football crazed town earned him so much hatred that his cousin Peter Berg had to apologize, beg and grovel to shoot the film there. He kept his word: the movie was kinder to Odessa. The TV show left entirely, setting its stories in a wholly fictional town that somehow seems more real than its actual counterpart, a fully realized setting, as vivid as Grover’s Corners or Winesburg Ohio.

It’s a place where things don’t turn out well, as a rule. Buddy has an affair and gets divorced, loses his car dealership, and winds up running a local bar, trying to raise his estranged son alone. The smart people – like his daughter Lyla, get the hell out of town. Tim Riggins, lives the apex of his life as a football star and then just drifts. His dream of “living large in Texas” with football star pal Jason Street falls apart before they even graduate from high school. He tries college and fails – he only got through high school because of local nerd Landry Clarke’s relentless tutoring. He winds up running a chop shop with his brother and going to jail to protect him. In any normal Tv show, when Tim cme out of jail he would have chnged for the better -- taken some college courses, or found Jesus, as Lyla did. He would hve met some jailhouse mentor who would have steered him straight or given him some connections for a better life on the outside. Not on Friday Night Lights. Riggins comes out of jail bitter and angry, even more lost than he was before. And that's how we like it, because that's how it really would happen. If Tim finds any peace now, in the show's closing minutes, it will be in tiny increments -- reconnecting with old girlfriend Tyra, giving up his crazy dream of working on the Alaska pipeline, coming to terms with his brother. It's not much but it's what we've come to expect from a show that never blinks as it stares down the harsh facts of real life. The moment last week when Tim, working behind the bar at Garrity's, watched his old team-mate Smash Williams on TV, scoring a touchdown for his college team, reverberated with the whole history of their troubled friendship, and all the years we've spent with them in Dillon. This is literature, as well as drama, the depth of awareness that it would normally take hundreds of pages of rigorous prose to achieve.

Matt Saracen is another good example of the subtle way Friday Night Lights uses the high school players to reveal the life of the town around them. Matt is in love with the Coach’s daughter, and the primary custodian for his grandmother, who is slipping into Alzheimer’s. Matt’s father is serving in Iraq and his return to town only reveals the unbridgeable gaps between him and his son. Even the eventual funeral doesn’t solve or soothe anything. Matt is angry and frustrated and that’s the whole of his patrimony.

Fathers are scarce in Dillon anyway – star running back Smash Williams’ father is dead, Tim Riggins’ Dad is just gone. Season three quarterback J.D. McCoy’s father Joe is an overbearing prick; season five quarterback Vince Howard’s father is a drug-dealing ex-con. The mothers carry the burden of raising their kids, from force of nature Corinna Willams to fragile Regina Howard.

The primary intact family on the show is Coach Taylor’s. Eric and his wife Tami have the best, more believable, most nuanced and realistic marriage in the history of network television. The day to day struggle of their relationship -- Tami’s eighteen years of being a coach’s wife -- feel inspiring daunting and familiar to anyone who has tried to raise a family under less than perfect conditions.

It’s a dense, teeming world, developed lovingly over half a decade, and because there’s no ‘hook’ to the show (except high school football) it’s always been a hard sell, and not just for network advertising departments. I tried to get my ex-wife Kim to watch the show for years with no success. Even when it won a Peabody award she was un-moved. She just had no interest in football of any kind – but especially high school football., Nantucket is almost as crazy about the sport (Go Whalers!) as Odessa, Texas, and indeed Buzz Bissinger who knows the island well, was originally planning to write his book about our town.

In desperation I gave the DVD of the Friday Night Lights first season to Kim for Christmas one year. She never watched it. The next Christmas, after the presents were unwrapped and we were trying to digest the home-made sticky-buns, we were rummaging for something to watch and I found the still shrink-wrapped DVD in the cupboard under the television. Busted. She had no choice at that point.

Well, we watched the fist six episodes that day. Finally I had to leave. When I stopped by the next Day Kim was upstairs watching season two on her computer.


She’s mourning with the rest of us and she’ll be watching tonight along with a small dedicated group of die hard fans, as Friday Night Lights closes down its fragile, miraculous five year run. It’s audience over the years would have been enough to make a cable show like Breaking Bad into AMC’s biggest hit ever. It would have been enough to make any novel a bestseller to rival Harry Potter or Gone With the Wind. But it was on NBC, and it barely scraped by.

But the fact remains that watching this show felt like reading a novel, with a level of immersion it takes hundred of pages of prose to achieve. This morning I’m feeling the same bittersweet dread I’ve felt so many times before, turning the last pages of books as diverse but enveloping as and The Lord of the Rings or The Corrections.

I hate to leave Dillon, Texas, a fly-over fly speck I would never would have even wanted to visit in real life. Now I feel like some part of me will always be there.

Cancellation is a defeat, but this unlikely show had tremendous spirit, and admirers who fought for it, and it wound up doing much better than anyone ever predicted … just like the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Dillon Lions football team that Coach Taylor took to the state championships in this final season.

Win or lose, just getting there was a triumph, and you could say the same thing about these remarkable five seasons of Friday Night Lights.

Or as Coach Taylor always said, rallying his troops: Clear eyes, full hearts – can’t lose.

The Bum in the Territory: Selling Encyclopedias, Summer 1971

This post originally appeared in the internet literary journal Numero Cinq

Salesmen Wanted

It was July, 1971 and Manhattan was molten in the summer heat. The air wavered over the softening asphalt and walking the furnace streets I felt like I’d been dipped in grease and dredged in grit. My girlfriend Marian and I were living in my Mom’s apartment on 82nd Street, looking for jobs. I’d been turned down everywhere.

It shouldn’t have been my first job, anyway: a nineteen year old should have some kind of resume, even if it’s only delivering pizza or babysitting. But my summers had always been devoted to leisure. At least I did my school reading and kept my room clean. It was my mother’s idea. She figured I’d be working most of my life and wanted me to look back fondly on these sun-dappled, unstressed months between school years, when I had nothing to do but dawdle and dream. I was grateful for that, but those years were emphatically over.

Still, I couldn’t find a job and the newspapers were no help. The New York Times ran plenty of ads for medical technicians and school superintendents, and ‘systems technicians’, but I couldn’t imagine even faking a resume for any of them.

So I was ready on a humid Thursday morning, when I saw the ad for “Encyclopedia Salesmen Wanted”. Marian was just as desperate, so we went down to the office together.

The Qualifier

The office was a dingy third-floor suite underneath a Judo studio. The place looked abandoned, with long folding tables like the ones they use for conventions or voter registration, unused desks, travel posters for Curacao peeling off the walls where the cloudy scotch tape had failed. But there were chairs set up in front of a blackboard and we sat with seven other kids and waited. A slim overly friendly guy in a perverse dark suit shook our hands and offered us tepid sodas: the greeter at an AA meeting. The air conditioner struggled with the solid sauna-bath heat. We listened to it whining, and the thumps and shouts from upstairs.

Finally he arrived, the star of the show -- Bob Craig: short, burly, full of barely contained energy, an attack dog in the Sphinx position, sizing you up, waiting for a command: that low growl of undivided attention. He had brown hair and brown eyes and an absolutely forgettable face. You couldn’t pick him out of a line up if you’d known him for twenty years. Blue shirt, Khaki pants, madras jacket: everyman.

“So Tad’s taken care of you?” he asked. “You all have drinks? No? Well, Tad takes his time. Don’t you Tad? You can’t rush tad. He takes an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.”

We all laughed. It wasn’t that funny but we wanted to please him.

“So let’s get started. I made twenty four hundred dollars last week – just from my own visits. I get commissions on what my people sell but I’m not talking about that because that doesn’t matter to you. I’m talking about one guy in a van, cold-calling families in Mawah new Jersey. Twenty four hundred dollars. You can make that kind of money here. But you can’t make it anywhere else. Unless you have a gun in your hand.”

Another laugh, but a nervous one. He seemed to like the idea of a gun in his hand: the perfect sales tool.

He picked up a heavy leather bound volume off a desk.

“This isn’t real leather,” he said. “We spend our money on the inside of the book. This is the Merit Students Encyclopedia. It’s the best of its kind. In the world. You don’t have to sell it. All you have to do is show it. Let people see it. It sells itself. I sold twenty four sets last week. Four a night, six nights. On the seventh day I rested.” He waited for the laugh, moved on. “One hundred dollars a pop, commission. This is the sample volume: it gives you a hint of what the set is all about. Look at it.”

He opened it, famed past pages of lavish color illustrations, acetate overlays, maps and reproductions of great art. It was impressive. He snapped he book shut.

“I know what you’re thinking. How do I even get inside somebody’s house? How do I even start? Well, kids, that’s the easy part. That’s science.”

He was right. Two nights later I was doing it myself.

Pitching and Striking Out

We drove out of the city in Bob’s big white econoline van, facing each other on benches running lengthwise like paratroopers waiting for the drop. “Take this crumby little neighborhood by storm!” Bob shouted. “Show no mercy.” He let me off at a leafy intersection of shaggy lawns strewn with plastic toys and tethered barking dogs. It was also the pick up spot, so along with everything else, I had to remember how to retrace my steps at the end of the night. I had no idea where I was. It felt like I could have been anywhere in the vast uniform suburban America that started at the New Jersey Palisades. I walked for a while, awkward in my suit, lugging my briefcase full of samples. Finally I steeled myself and knocked on a door. A tired looking woman opened it. I could hear the high pitched screeches and shouts of sibling warfare from inside the house.


“Hi,” I smiled, sticking out my hand.

“Gotta smile,” I could hear Bob saying, back in the seedy third floor office. “Big smile, fake smile, make your cheeks ache. And stick your hand out to shake. She will shake it,”

I stuck my hand out. She shook it.

“I’m doing some work in the neighborhood, talking to all the families. Do you mind if I come in and talk to you for a minute?”

I had the words right, but the words weren’t the important part. The important part was wiping your feet on her welcome mat.

` “She steps back, you step forward” Bob had told us. “It’s like a dance, kids. It’s a dance contest where you always win the prize.”

“She always steps back?” someone said.

Bob stared him down. “Always.”

“What if there’s no door mat?” some else asked.

“Doesn’t matter. Wipe your feet and walk right in.”

“I could never do that,” Marian had whispered to me.

“Yes you can,” Bob answered her. How had he even heard her? “Anyone can. That’s the beauty of it.”

So I wiped my feet on the non-existent mat and she stepped backward, just as Bob had said she would. I walked into house, made sure her husband was home, and began.

“Never pitch a woman by herself,” Bon had told us. “Her husband will cancel the deal when he hears about it. She can’t sell it like you can. She doesn’t have the tools. Okay. You walk in. You give her the Qualifier.”

I introduced myself to her pear-shaped pony-tailed husband and sat down on an uncomfortable tilting armchair, facing them on the couch.

I talked about the importance of a good reference materials, the critical first years of a child’s education, the inconvenience -- and lack of privacy -- in the woefully under-funded public libraries, which were not always located in the best neighborhoods. How was a parent to assure their child of a quality education? With a home library, like The Merit Student’s Encyclopedia, which gave you a world of knowledge at your fingertips “Without ever leaving the home.”

Then came the big finish. I hated saying it.

“This is the knockout punch,” Bob had told us. “Learn it word for word. He took a breath and spoke slowly. “‘Do you think you could be interested in a program like this … or is your child’s education something you just don’t care about?’ Snap. There’s only one answer to that one, kids!”

Marian had made the same face I remembered from the night we ate my sister’s special mashed potatoes with whole grapes: disgust, disbelief, despair. I shrugged: this meal was just beginning.

And two night later I was saying it, and they were hastening to assure me that they were passionate about their kids’ education, and soon I was laying out the big sheets with the illustrated maps and the unfolding accordion placards showing the volumes and highlighting portraits of American presidents and the gallery of great art lovingly reproduced on the ‘fine, acid free pages’.

“Box them in,” Bob had instructed us gleefully. Trap them on that couch!”

It was working, They nodded and smiled as I outlined the study aides and described the yearbooks that would update the set forever.

Then we started talking business.

I explained that under our easy credit terms ‘for well-qualified buyers like yourselves’ the set would only cost a dime a day. Then I took out the piggy bank.

“It says right on it -- ‘An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.’” Bob had told us. “So you say – “

I got it out:, let them hold it, turn it over in their handsm read the inscription. “Do you know who said that, M’am?’

“Of course she doesn’t!” Bob had crowed at us. “And she’s starting to feel foolish. Do you finish her off and humiliate her and say ‘Benjamin Franklin’? No! You say –“

“George Pal, the President of our company,’ and they both laughed just as Bob said they would, so relieved to find out I was no better than them: a jolly fellowship of educational inadequacy, all of us wanting something better for our kids, friends for life now –

“ -- and she signs and her husband signs, and you’re out of there.”

But after almost an hour of high intensity selling they folded toward each other, nervous and embarrassed.

“We just can’t afford it right now,” the man said.

“It does look wonderful though,” his wife agreed.

“Maybe you could leave your card?”

But of course I had forgotten my card.

I was exhausted when I walked out into the dark street.

“It’s like learning a part in a school play,” Bob had told us. “You get the standing ovation and we all get rich. Do well enough and you get a week in Curacao into the bargain. Interested?”

Of course we had been. It seemed too easy. We both signed up, and agreed to meet there on the following Monday at four O’clock – this was an evening job.

Trudging to the van pick-up after that first miserable night I remembered walking down Eighth Avenue with Marian after Bob’s high-powered orientation. “I’ll give it a try,” I had said. “But I’d never buy an encyclopedia from that guy.”

Marian shook her head. “You’re missing the point, Steve. He wasn’t selling encyclopedias today. He was selling the job. And we both bought it. So did everyone else.”

Mr. Professor

Marian and I pitched each other over breakfast and lunch, walking in the park and riding buses uptown, shopping for shoes she couldn’t afford at Bloomingdale’s. We worked hard.

By the next week we were doing better. Or so we thought. I gave five qualifiers one night, and proceeded to attempt five pitches. Marian gave eight qualifiers but never got any further.

“Do your qualifier!” Bob had shouted at her in the van heading back into the city. It was 10:30 at night and were all exhausted. All of us except Bob. His beady feral energy never seemed to lag. “Do it!” he repeated.

So she started, and he interrupted her every few words. “Eye contact! Show some enthusiasm! You’re doing this woman a favor! Smile! You call that a smile? That’s a grimace! ‘Something you might not care for? That’s what you said? You can’t memorize ONE ENGLISH SENTENCE? Everybody. together: Or. Is. Your. Child’s. Education. Something. You JUST. DON’T. CARE. ABOUT? Again. Now you – Marian. Do it.” She jumbled the words and started crying. “Great! That’ll sell books! That’ll move merchandise. Cry for them.”

I should have stuck up for her, but I didn’t. Bob scared me. Anyway, it it was my turn next. I had given five pitches -- and sold nothing.

I was screwing up the pitch.

“Do it now,” Bob demanded.

“Come on –“

“Do it now or walk home!”

I had forgotten parts, mixed things up, used the wrong emphasis, but the thing that really infuriated him had to do with the giant glossy-paper fold-out map of Italy.

”Did you do the tour, point out the landmarks? The Coloseum, Saint Marks Square in Venice? Go on – now you.”

“Well … this campanile is the famous ‘leaning tower’ of Pisa,” I started


“Yeah, what? It’s the word for a tower attached to another building, and – “


“Yeah I just said -- ”

“You just made them feel like idiots because they don’t know as many big words as you do, Mr. Professor. That’s what you did. You lost them right there! Tomorrow night – stick to the script. Campaneely! Jesus.”

Once on the way home Marian had tried to call his bluff. “All hat fake negativity doesn’t fool me,” she said.

He twisted around in his seat to face her. Tad was driving, as always. His pout that precisely mocked Marian’s. He was a cruel physical mimic. “Oh no, I’m not gonna let that mean Bob Craig reverse me into making some money! I’m too smart for that.”

We went out for cheap dinners before the nights’ work and he routinely collected all out receipts – for the tax audit. He wrote off every one of our meals and God knows what else. “I love the tax audit!” he crowed one night. “It’s my favorite indoor sport. I made three hundred thousand dollars last year and got two grand back from the government. Oh man, they hate me so much.”

Once I griped about the ‘territory’ – I had picked up the phrase from him. The neighborhood seemed to be mostly older people who had no interest in a ‘students’ encyclopedia. Most of them already had the Brittanica -- clearly a better product, though you weren’t aloud to say so. Even The World Book was a better product.

One guy listened politely to my pitch and then spent half an hour trying to sell me a fire alarm.

Bob wasn’t interested in complainers.

“So I gave you a bum territory? Well I have news for you, kid. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A BUM TERRITORY! There’s just the bum IN the territory. And that’s you!”

Years later, I saw the brilliant documentary The Salesman about guys selling Bibles in the Midwest. I smiled when I heard that familiar line. I suspect Bob had absorbed the movie so deeply he probably didn’t even know he was quoting it.

That film was his Bible.

“Uh-Uh for a Week”

If you failed often enough Bob took you on a ‘retrain’ session: you followed him around and watched him work. He had already sold two sets the night a bunch of us followed him, when we knocked on the door of a house with only one light on upstairs.

“They’re probably asleep,” Marian whispered.

“They’re awake! They’re reading. See – no blue TV light. My perfect customers!”

He wound up pitching the couple in their bedroom, with all his materials spread out on the bed, with six of us standing around watching. It was surreal. The husband said no, but the wife was infatuated with Bob’s unassuming good looks and enthusiasm.

She turned to her husband and said in the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable, “Either we buy this encyclopedia right now, or it’s uh-uh for a week.”

So he sold a total three sets that night.

It was the same pitch I always gave. What was the difference? I once heard that the original choice for Rick in Casablanca was Ronald Reagan. And Paramount wanted Frank Sinatra to play the Godfather.

Casting is everything.

Success Stories

The year before the most successful team member was a petite blond named Jennifer. She was a little slow but very sincere. She had never grasped that she was actually selling a set of reference books. She though she was enrolling families in an educational program (the books were a bonus). They thought so, too. But they also believed that George Pal said that line about an investment in knowledge.

Tad got drunk one night, sat her down and told her the truth.

“You’re a salesperson, honey.”

“I am not!”

He took an hour to convince her. They had to go over the small print in the sales contract. She quit the next day.

The FTC made them change the pitch a few months later. We were giving the revised version.

The only two people who did well with it were Amelia, the chubby blond daughter of wealthy diplomats, and Joel D’Hue, a six foot four, jet black regally handsome impeccably polite Jehova’s Witness from the Seychelle Islands. I thought it was ironic that our best salesman had no interest in Curacao. It would be like offering me a vacation in Brooklyn. I think Joel intimidated people, not with his size or even his color but with his immense dignity and patience. You didn’t want to disappoint him. Even Bob was intimidated: Joel wouldn’t work on Saturdays and there was nothing the boss could do about it.

“Is there a Jehova’s Witness Protection agency?” I asked once. “I mean – you see someone turning a woman to stone, you could testify against the guy, put him away for a long time.” Not funny. “God is omniscient, Steve,” he said quietly. “You cannot hide from God.”

I did make Joel laugh once, though -- when I told him I liked mangoes. “Mangoes?” he said. “There are twenty varieties of Mangoes where I live. That would be like me saying to you I like ‘the car’ as if there was only one brand. Mangoes!” He laughed and laughed at that one.

“This is the Crap You’re Selling”

The first set I sold I forgot the Closer. I guess I figured it would never come up. Bob had to come in and finish off the paper work. I knew I was never going to live that one down. The second set I sold was to a military couple and they were refused because their credit wasn’t good enough. “But it’s only a dime a day,” I said to Bob. He cackled. “Yeah, for the rest of their lives. They wind up paying a grand for a two hundred dollar encyclopedia.”

How could it be so cheap? I found out the next night. I had barely begun my pitch when the man stood and said, “You’ve never seen this goddamn encyclopedia have you? Have you? Have they ever let you look at it?”

I shook my head.

“Well I bought into the whole education program bullshit last year, and I got the crumby encyclopedia – it’s on the shelf over there. Behind the ficus tree. Take a look. Be my guest.”

I was shocked. It was absurdly, comically cheap – bad paper, runny ink … and they had crammed every illustration in the twenty volume set into the sample volume. It was cheesy and bad. It reminded me of those X-shaped housing projects way up north on the East Side: grim and miserable.

“This is the crap you’re selling,” the guy said to me. “What do you say about that?”

I had nothing to say. I just got out of there.

The Real World

Outside in the street of the quiet little subdivision I could smell barbecue fires. I could hear people having drinks on their front lawns. They were at home, enjoying the night, relaxing with their friends. That was where I wanted to be. Marian felt the same way.

We both quit the next day.

“I don’t think I like the real world very much.” Marian said to me. She had never sold a single set. She actually talked one couple out of it.

We went back to school a few weeks later. We broke up that year. Maybe she’d seen me browbeaten by Bob Craig too many times. Maybe I was just one more part of the real world she wanted to avoid for as long as possible. I know the summer took its toll on us.

As for Bob and the gang, the FTC chased Merit Students Enclyclopedia all the way to Canada, where I hear Bob got to go back to his old, more comprehensively deceptive pitch.

I guess Bob didn’t like the real world much, either. I’m pretty sure Wikipedia eventually killed off the Merit Students’ Encyclopedia. I bet Bob Craig is still working it though, all these years later, sunning himself in Curacao, selling something else.

Maybe even Bibles.

The Hurricane Files: Confessions of a Tropical Depression

I just feel like a total failure, okay?

I had so much potential, that’s what everyone was saying, how much potential I had. I envy old people, no tells them about their potential, they don’t have to disappoint anyone. I started out great, I was so strong I felt I could really do something, make a difference. I mean, I was a category, four, man! They were taking pictures of me from these little planes, a couple of them almost crashed, and doing all these computer models trying to figure out where I was headed, what towns I was going to destroy how many billions I was going to cost in property damage and flooding and downed power lines and projectile lawn furniture and – I don’t know, all of that stuff. I could have even killed some people, I could have, are you kidding me? Those crazy birdbrains who try to wait out the storm. Oh yeah, I was looking forward to blowing in their windows, blasting them with shards, pulling their roofs off, knocking a tree down on them. Bugt there weren’t many, Everyone was evacuating. I love the sound of that word. Evacuating – those long lines of cars, packed with precious belongings and screaming kids and antsy dogs, running away -- from me!

Those were good times. But nothing lasts. I was just kidding myself. Mr. Big Storm. I don't mean to sound sexist but how am I going to face Katrina and Dora and Carla and Helene and all the other girls now? “How did you do? How was your storm surge? I bet you had a huge storm surge.”

Well, I didn’t have any storm surge, okay? I unraveled like an old slinky toy. I lost it, I couldn’t keep a tight spiral. Then I got into the cold water and I hate cold water and I just saw the whole thing falling apart. No guts, no stamina. I could hear the news stories in my head: “Leaves are down all over Nantucket island!” Not power lines and hundred year old elms. Not even twigs. Just leaves! What a loser. I don’t even know why I bothered. There’s always stronger better storms coming up behind you. If you’re not in the record books you’re no one. You’re a joke. The ‘no name’ storm was better than me – they called it the perfect storm and no one even bothered to name it. What does that make me? The piddly storm? The puny storm? Windy drizzle, that’s the best I could come up with.And this was my one shot. Okay? It’s not like you get a second chance to make a first impression. You charge up in the gulf stream and make your run up the coast and that’s it. No do-overs, no excuses. Earl. I should have known something was up when they named me after some idiotic TV show, both of us cancelled. We can be neighbors in the trivia dictionary. I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about. “Did you totally suck? Me too.” Except Earl made through five seasons, and when people laughed it was in the good way. With, not at. You know the difference, People laughed with Buster Keaton. They laughed at Charlie Chaplin. But I'm not even in that class. I’m the crap comedian doing the midnight show that no one laughs at at all. I get the shrug. The big shrug. Fine, I deserve it.

I feel so guilty. I let everyone down. I kicked up a little surf, a few measly riptides, but that was all gone the next day. You’d never even know I was there. Just blue sky and people making jokes and taking down all the plywood they didn’t need, feeling stupid and blaming me. Well they’re right to blame me. They counted on me. All those weather girls and boys with their perfect hair look like worse idiots than ever now, hyping me the way they did. But you could see the real meteorologists, the ones with the bad suits and cheap glasses, the ones they didn’t let on camera very much, shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. They knew the real story. They saw right through me, right from the start. They knew I was a big fat nothing and getting less every second. They knew I was no Hurricane Bob. He made it all the way up the coast. People still talk about him. He meant something to people. Not like me. Not like good old Mr. Fizzle. That’s what they should call me. Mr, Fizzle. There’s just one thing in the world I’m supposed to do and I can’t even do that. What a waste.

I was thinking of getting my spin up, really hitting Maine and the Maritimes, but really, what’s the point? I just don’t care any more. I’m just going to take a couple of my tropical anti-depressives and go to sleep. So don’t bother putting away your lawn furniture, Canadians. I may never wake up at all.

That would show them, that would teach them a lesson.

They’ll miss me when I’m gone.

Mimi Beman's Nantucket: A Eulogy

It’s a common story: lovely small town or coastal community (Nantucket is both), languishes for years as the slightly seedy refuge for old money and new hippies, until the new rich people discover it, and start turning it into a warped version of their own gated communities in Summit, New Jersey or Houston, Texas. Eventually, they ruin the charm that brought them to the place … and they move on. Corrupting an unspoiled place with money must be like stomping through new snow in big muddy boots: painlessly destructive fun that lets you leave your mark on the landscape. For the people who actually live in the community, the process can be a painful one, and sometimes a single iconic event brings the whole sad down-spiral into focus. For some people on Nantucket, it was the saga of the Dreamland theater, a lovely old venue that was originally a meeting house that was floated down harbor and installed in town. Decades of kids saw their first movie there, or worked the concession stands. A whole era of the theaters existence was lived in the shadow of a potential sale. Few Nantucket families can resist the urge to cash in, but the tragic thing is that the theater could have been sold to the town or the Land Bank or some other civic organization and preserved in all its faded glory. But no, The place went to the highest bidder and has been passed from owner to owner, all of whose grandiose plans for it fell though.

Now the Dreamland is owned by a foundation under the control of Wendy Schmidt, wife of the Google CEO. She is the latest in the line of town saviors – it goes back to the seventies and Walter Bieneke. For Wendy, the Dreamland is a ‘game changer’ – soon to be a cross between corporate headquarters and major arts center, drawing talented people from all over the country, turning Nantucket into a hub of creativity and innovation. Yeah, well, Thanks, anyway. We just want the old Dreamland theatre back. We liked Nantucket as quiet little town. The new theater is almost twice the size of the original. It looks like a grotesque landlocked ocean liner, dwarfing the buildings around it, totally out of proportion to the town it's intended to rescue.

So that’s kind of sad and a lot of people are upset about it. But my feelings didn’t really crystallize until last Sunday’s memorial service, held in the library garden across the street. The deceased was our beloved bookshop owner, Mimi Beman. She died suddenly of cancer more than six months ago, and the funeral was private. Many people wished for a more public memorial and finally two wealthy women organized the ceremony.

I attended. I got the invitation several weeks in advance and was told that people were going to speak about her – kind of an open mike. I spent the days thinking about my old friend and preparing my remarks. I knew Mimi would want me to say something.

But the service was not what I expected and not what Mimi would have wanted. A select group of famous and prominent people paid their respects and then it was over. Apparently there was a list of approved speakers. I wasn’t on it, and was never told about it. Neither were many of the other old friends who wanted to say few words about this extraordinary woman.

The irony was caustic. To hear people speaking so poignantly about the old Nantucket and the changes they had weathered with Mimi’s support, during a service during which only the celebrated and prominent were allowed to speak – in the very shadow of the grotesque new Dreamland theater, icon of the worst excesses of new money Nantucket, was enough to make you cry for Mimi all over again. Does that really sound like her tombstone: “Only the famous matter.”? For her, it was just the opposite. If she was in heaven watching she would have been furious. I can just see her -- spitting out her mocha latte and lighting another smoke just to calm down.

So, Mimi, here’s what I was going to say:

Well … you finally got me out of my painting clothes. But I knew you’d disappointed if I turned down an opportunity to talk too much. I can vouch for Nat Puilbrick’s story: I carried hundreds of boxes of his books down to your basement over the years, and you hand sold every one of them. When I heard Mimi had died it was a horrible shock. She was as much of an institution on this island as the Atheneum itself. It was like walking into town and seeing a vacant lot at the corner of India and Centre Streets. It just seemed inconceivable that she could be gone. There’s so much to say about her. But I should start by saying – she was hot. She was a wildly attractive, charismatic woman with her big hugs and her smoky tenor voice and I had a major crush on her for years. She was a good friend. She hand sold hundreds of copies of my little self-published thriller, she let me barter for books by lugging the boxes downstairs. Her recommendation letter got me into graduate school. She was tough and shrewd about the business. When I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t sell my memoir, she said bluntly. “What did you expect? You’re not famous.” I didn’t go in to her store every day, and I don’t go into the Atheneum every day, either, But Nantucket would be different place without the library, and the world is a different place without Mimi Beman – not as much fun, not as interesting, not as exciting. There’s a quote she loved from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:

In Paris during the springtime the only problem was where to be happiest and if you could void making appointments, the days had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness, except those few who were s good as the spring itself.

Well she was one of them and I miss her. This is around the time when she’d be telling me to shut up, so I will.

What can I say? This was a memorial service built in the image of the wealthy matrons who could afford to pay for it. The town is being rebuilt the same way. Wendy Schmidt saved Mitchell’s Book Corner, too, leasing it to one of Mimi’s old assistants, just as she paid off the mortgage on the Basket Museum. I suppose we should all be grateful.

But I think of the lovely old house on the corner of Gardner and Main Streets, sold by the venal new heirs of a family which owned it for generations. The inside was gutted completely because the old ceilings were too low for the faux-antique furniture the new owners had purchased. Now the whole building is a faux antique, though it still boasts its Nantucket Historical Association plaque, endorsing the falsehood that anything remains of the original structure and its stubborn, shabby spirit. I guess the old house was 'saved', too. But it's hard to be grateful.

It deserves better. The Dreamland Theatatre deserves better. Nantucket deserves better.

And so does Mimi Beman.

Taking Out the Improvements: "Game of Thrones" & HBO

I had a lively a post-mortem conversation about Game of Thrones, the recently concluded HBO mini-series, over dinner with my friend Neil last night. Afterward I thought about a meeting I took at a Hollywood studio many years ago. They were looking for someone to adapt a certain well-known thriller to the screen.

“What’s your take on it?” the executive asked me, after we had settled down on the couch with our spring water and coffee. In other words: discuss your vision of the film, and the changes you plan to make that will brand it as your own project and the unique product of this company.

I had heard this same question too many times; or maybe I’d just had too many cups of coffee that morning.

“My take,” I said. “Is to be true to the book and not fuck it up.”

“Excuse me?”

“You spent millions of dollars to buy this book. Smart move. It’s well written, it’s well plotted. It’s exciting and it makes sense. I suspect the author knows more about story telling than I do and I’m certain he knows more about story telling than you do. The architect who designed this building probably knows more about how it was built than the tour guide who strolls past it every day. So I’d respect that.”

You guessed it: I didn’t get the job.

And they filmed the book and, put their stamp on it and ruined it, as they so often do. I was right in that meeting but it’s hard to make the case in any positive way because so few adapted films show any fidelity to their source material. “The book was better than the movie” has become a cliché for good reason. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Looking back to films as diverse as Women in Love, The Lord of the Flies and The Godfather, or more recently, the filmed versions of a variety of books, from Darkly Dreaming Dexter to Lonesome Dove, you can see the benefits of trusting the original author.

Of course those last two projects were mini-series, multi-part productions devoted to presenting a single work. If you want to avoid tragic cuts and drastic re-structuring, this is clearly the way to go.

Which brings me to A Game of Thrones.

I had heard about George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire but dismissed as one more tedious sword and sorcery epic, a Dungeons and Dragons drone for the reading impaired. I watched the first episode on HBO because I trust the cable network to make interesting shows. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary Tolkien retread. There was sex in it, for one thing; and many of the most interesting protagonists were children. I assume they’ll grow up as the story continues.

Westeros, the world presented in this ten-hour version of Martin’s first volume, is harsh and brutal and unforgiving. A King’s last will and testament is torn up like last week’s shopping list by the usurpers taking the crown; the foreign born queen carrying a king’s baby is blithely informed, as the King succumbs to festering wounds “If he dies, you’re nothing.” Characters who try to act decently get beheaded for their trouble. In many ways Westeros resembles the New Jersey of The Spopranos far more than Middle Earth or Narnia. There is magic but it only manifests itself as terrifying wraiths from the northern lands beyond the great wall. There were dragons once, but all that remains of them are some calcified eggs. Winter is coming and it can last for decades.

What illuminates this grim landscape, what makes this bleak narrative so exhilarating, is the characters, and the tough choices they make in the face of the ruthlessness and desolation around them.

Eddard Stark, the noble and well intentioned second-in-command to the bulging, blunt and boisterous King, Robert Baratheon; his children … Robb., the eldest, not quite ready to become a King in The North, as his ancestors called themselves; his younger half-bother, the bastard Jon Snow, committed to the Night’s Guard and a life of isolation and chastity guarding the wall; fourteen year old Sansa, madly in love with the creepy Prince Joffrey; eleven year old Arya, a classic tomboy studying fencing and determined to live her own life; and Bran, nine years old, irrepressible human fly, crippled after a being pushed from the wall of high tower after overhearing Queen Cersei Lannister and her awful twin brother Jaime plotting treason. There are other Lannisters, including the dwarf Tyrion, played by Peter Dinkelage in a show-stealing, emmy-grabbing tour-de-force performance. There are Tullys, too and Targarayens, including puny Viserys, who sells his sister Daneyris to the Dothraki Horse Lords in hopes of using them as an army to reclaim his throne. That doesn’t work out too well, at least for Viserys, who gets ‘the golden crown’ he longs for, Wars of the Roses style: a tub of molten metal poured over his preening, conniving little head.

The show is brilliantly cast, with actors -- even in the most minor parts -- attentively chosen, with one eye on the text. Yes, yes …Tyrion is described as ugly, and Dinkelage is astonishingly handsome, but I’m sure George Martin doesn’t really mind. Apart from anything else I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of readers just like me, brought to his books by the series, and multiplying the sales of A Song of ice and Fire exponentially with every new episode.

Reading the first volume now, I’m continually amazed by the rigor of HBO’s fidelity to the written word. Martin himself must be stunned, watching the series, at the precision and detail, from the look of Arya’s little sword, 'Needle', to the choreography of her fencing master’s last stand against the King’s Guard. Martin must approve – he even wrote one of the episodes himself. David Benioff, the main writer, is a novelist himself. That might have something to do with it.

Hard as it might be for the average film executive to understand, no ‘take’ was required here. Playwright George S. Kaufman famously sent telegrams to his cast from the back of the theatre. I suppose he’d text them today. “Am standing at the back of the theatre. Wish you were here.” One of the most famous of his acid messages went: “Dress rehearsal at 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, to take out the improvements.”

Well, no improvements were made here; no ‘fresh ideas’ or studio notes. No characters were softened or made more lovable or given better ‘arcs’. And the mini-series, which trusted its source material so completely, succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, almost tripling its audience in the course of its run.

Naturally, such success has its own built-in liabilities. “I can’t believe I have to wait two years to find out what happens next,” Neil said to me last night.

But he doesn’t.

There are four more volumes available right now at every bookstore in America,

The next one is called A Clash of Kings.

I’ll be starting it tomorrow.

Peter Falk and theLost World

So Peter Falk died last month, and someone posted the 41-year old video of his appearance on the Dick Cavett Show with John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara. It was exhilarating to watch, but also sad and profoundly disturbing -- a time-capsule message from another era, or perhaps another world altogether. I’ve tried to embed some of it here because I think you may have to actually see it to understand what I’m trying to say. Having given up on that effort, at least for the moment, I have to direct you to the link at the bottom of this post. It's worth the extra effort when you see them saunter on stage, instantly owning it, Falk with his cigarette, Gazzara with a drink and a cigar.

Of course the first thing that strikes you is how impossibly young they all were. Cavett looks good for his age now (75), but Gazzara suffered a stroke in 2005, Cassavetes died in 1989 and of course, Falk is gone , too. They seemed immensely grown up to me when I first saw that broadcast. Well, of course -- I was eighteen years old, they were pushing forty. They were my Dad’s age. The odd thing is they still seem more grown up than I am, though I long overtook the phantoms on youTube. In fact I’m now technically old enough to have been one of their fathers. If my girlfriend in college really had been pregnant during that terrifying month of October, as the Viet Nam war was winding down, our child would be 39 years old now, a year younger than Gazzara was at that taping, two years younger than Cassavetes.

I get a migraine just thinking about it.

So why do they seem so powerful, so charismatic, so adult to me, even today? Why would they overwhelm and triviliaze some parallel talk show moment … Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinksi on the Jimmy Fallon show, or Matt Damon and Ben Affleck chatting with Conan? Those guys are all kids – little boys, playing at adulthood in the Hollywood Frat house. They seem flimsy and posturing by comparison. But it’s not their fault, that’s the worst part. It’s not something simple like … we have a puny new group of movie stars cluttering the multiplex screens … if that’s even true.

It’s about the times, not the people.

The era: the late sixties and seventies, when America was still the most powerful nation on earth, riding the storm surge of power and wealth from World War II. Yes there were cracks and fractures in that world, but they were easy to ignore. Our parents smoked and wore blocked hats and gave big cocktail parties and drank from flasks of rye at football games; we protested and demonstrated and smoked weed and ended the war in View Nam and brought down the President. Heady times. Who could have guessed that our swaggering parents would get lung cancer from the smoking and cirhossis from the booze, and that we would become the safety first, rules-making, no-kid-rides-a-bike-without-body-armor scared of its own shadow generation, about to drag the world into insolvency with our collective medicare and social security costs?

What did faded movie star Norma Desmond say in Sunset Boulevard ? “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Well, it’s the whole world that’s shriveling now. We live in a diminished, attenuated world, one that seems to be running down like a hand cranked sewing machine. There are too many people, and too little of everything else – food, water, oil, education, breathing space. There was a kind of power moving through the world that Gazzara and Cassavetes and Falk inhabited, like the immense pulses of energy that move through the Pacific from the great Aleutian storms, creating the giant waves that break in Hawaii and the Northern coast of California.

That energy has drained from the world somehow, We’re all sitting in inflatable rafts in swimming pools, our new world tiny and tame and chlorinated. The power surging through their world made the success and charisma and swagger of those men possible: a world where a major studio like Columbia Pictures would finance a movie like Husbands. Today you’d have to shoot it on your iPhone and post it on YouTube; at best it might make the festival circuit and die a quiet death on the Sundance Channel. They were big stars making films for a major movie studio. America’s post-war wealth and confidence carried them along. It might not have created their stature but it gave them a place to stand.

Okay it was all an illusion, but it was a grand illusion and I miss it.
Watch the video. I think you’ll miss it, too.