GRAB BAG SURPRISE
I’m this kid and I’m in the dime store. This is a dime-store culture we live in. Hardly any nation in the world has dime stores like America. How long has it been since you’ve been in Woolworths?
It is, in a sense, a microcosm. It’s really a condensation of everything there is. They’ve got the art department, they’ve got the plastic lampshade department with the plastic roses on them that light up in the dark. Oh yes! And they’ve got these enormous tigers with gold chains hanging on ‘em. Beautiful! Just magnificent! With gilt claws. And with diamonds in their teeth. Never saw anything so beautiful. They have these plaques that you hang up that look like African natives. Made out of plaster. Special sale on linoleum and a special on ping pong paddles. They’ve got a pet department with these plastic parakeets at a dollar-ninety-eight and the saddest thing of all I saw the other day was a pair of finches on sale, two for a buck. Life is cheap in these United States, let me tell you.
I’m fooling around down there in the dime store. I’ve always had a very definite weakness for dime store salesgirls. I don’t know what there is about that adenoidal-type girl who’s standing back of the candy counter selling the spearmint leaves and the artificial peanuts that taste like banana oil. There’s always a guy talking on the PA system saying, “Will all of you shoppers who have not received your free ballpoint pen please step over here to Aisle Seven. Aisle Seven.” And in the middle of it all they have goldfish for sale in little plastic bags.
So there I am, this kid, and I’m fooling around in the dime store where they always have maroon woodwork with gold trim wherever you go. I’m in the maroon and gold dime store with these big fans hanging down, and there’s the insufferable coffee and this gigantic barrel on which it says “Hires Root Beer. Draw Yourself a Real Stein” right next to the hot dog platter, and it’s a place where they sell jigsaw puzzles and the plastic roses and all the other objects d’art, which are so beloved by the hoi polloi of which I am a sworn, card-carrying member. I’m a true hoi polloi-er.
I’m flubbing around in the jewelry department, which in a dime store is in a sense, a true education in mores, attitudes, fear—the whole business. I’m flubbing around, planning to make a purchase for my father’s birthday, which is the kind of obeisance we pay to the great gods who have produced us. Obeisance, or perhaps, a sharp reprimand. I wonder about that interesting problem. We’re pulling both ways all the time. There’s the death wish on one side and the desire to grow into King Kong on the other. They’re pulling us all the time between them. King Kong is clinging to the Empire State Building and I’m living in the dime store world where you buy things.
Star of Stage, Screen, and Television
I had a couple of contacts with Lois Nettleton, as she had been important in the life and early New York work of radio humorist and commentator, Jean Shepherd. People I interviewed about Shepherd for my book, Excelsior, You Fathead! had talked about her. Here, two VIPs at the early Village Voice, and the cartoonist/playwright:
Jerry Talmer says, “Lois was a gorgeous woman—and Jean was so detached.” Ed Fancher comments, “Lois Nettleton—an absolutely gorgeous, wonderful, beautiful person.” Jules Feiffer complains that “…when I was with them, Jean only wanted to talk about himself and his own ideas, while Lois would ask about me.”
I became fascinated by her and collected many photos of her.
See a few of them below. (Horizontal=1-5, vertical=A-D)
Miss Chicago, semi-finalist in the Miss America Pageant, 1948 (1A). She studied acting before coming to New York. Critically acclaimed, she won various awards including two Emmys and an Obie—In 1969, in a Village Voice front page story, she sits between Jean Shepherd and Anne Bancroft (2A). She’s the wandering tourist in the documentary, Village Sunday (2B). She played Frank Sinatra’s love interest in Dirty Dingus Magee, and for over a year, Lois and Sinatra were “constant companions” (2C). Understudy and occasional performer as Maggie the Cat in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She starred in the1961 Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun” (3D). In The Golden Girls Season 2, 1986 she played Dorothy’s lesbian friend Jean (4A). She played George’s girlfriend’s mother in “The Gymnast” episode of Seinfeld, Season 6 (4C). Her frequent comment when signing her name was “Happiness” (5).
Lois expected to invite me to her apartment on East 57th Street when she next came to New York. I had composed so many questions to ask her and I’d been excited, expecting to actually meet her and talk with her. I was becoming obsessed with the idea—after all, when she’d received the copy of my book about Jean Shepherd that I’d signed and sent her, she, a Hollywood movie star, had called me from the Coast to thank me! She’d sent me a long, hand-written letter thanking me for writing my book about him. But before we could meet she became ill, and died in January, 2008.
Her good friend and executor, Hollywood director and producer John Bowab, invited me and I met him in the apartment Lois had used for over forty years. It had various mementos of her years living there with Shepherd, including several oils he had done in various modern styles. As we sat in her small kitchen, John gave me the dozens of notes she had written to discuss with me my book about Shepherd, and directly behind me on the wall she had hung one of his signed, original drawings of New York buildings.
Here I was in her apartment, just the way she’d left it and just the way I’d expected to meet with her face-to-face, looking in her eyes, touching her hand as we met, and shaking it and feeling her warmth. Being in the aura of her persona. Now that can never happen. Yet, I do possess some very personal fragments of her. In her sweetness and effusiveness she’d written to me:
As we sat in her kitchen, John asked if I’d like a cup of coffee and I said yes. He gave me a cup and spoon, and got down from a cupboard a jar of instant coffee and handed it to me. “Here,” he said, “you’re drinking Lois’ coffee.”