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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–Paperboy & Farewell, ARTSY

So I’m peddling along, nine-feet tall, and I’m throwing the papers and making the collections.  Two-and-a-half-hours later I arrive back at George the Greek.  Flick is sitting on the floor working on his book.  Schwartz is over there working on his, and Martin is over there.  Shepherd walks in, striding in there ten feet tall.

George is back around by the candy counter.  He says, “Hey, Shepherd!”

“What’s up, George?”

“Don’t give me that ‘what’s up’ stuff.  What did you do to the guy at ten fourteen Arizona Avenue?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just tell me what you did to him.”

I said, “Nothing, George.”

“What do you mean, ‘nothing’?  That guy called up here, he dropped all the papers and says he’s never gonna buy another paper from me again.  That guy’s been on our route for twenty years!  What did you do?”

That was big, fat, rotten, stale-beer Charlie of ten-dollar-bill fame.  Now, I ask you, friends, who won that battle?  Ultimately?  Let’s put it this way.  There are some people who win an occasional skirmish.  There are even some people who win an occasional battle.  But then—there are those—wondrous, favored few—those beautiful, wondrous, favored few—who win the wars.

Friends, I’m a guy who has won quite a few skirmishes.  I’ve even taken a battle or two.  The previous, true, paperboy story is a salute to misspent youth.

End of paperboy story. new kid story coming next.

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My previous ARTSY post completes all the 121 short illustrated essays on my life in the world of artsy-fartsydom. There may be more if some come across my old and frustrated mind.

Since late March I’ve sent book-queries to four major people in the art-and-literature field who I thought would find my artsy idea interesting and quirky enough to respond.

Since late March I’ve sent queries to five New York literary agencies I thought might be interested.

So far I’ve gotten no responses from any of the above. Maybe somewhere over the rainbow.

It’s a good thing I do my stuff for my own amusement.

Anything more would be gravy.

(I really do like gravy an awful lot.)

I still have 19 transcribed Shep Kid Stories ready to post. The next one is what I consider to be one of his best–it’s about him being “The Worm King.”

Gene B.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Early Toil-Paperboy & (121) ARTSY Much Obliged, AMB

I was sitting folding my papers one day and thinking about this, and it hit me.  It was an act with this guy, and there were about five people on the route doing this.  I turned to George the Greek, who ran the news agency.  “Hey, George, can I borrow from you ten dollars in change?”

“What do you want it for?”

“I want ten dollars.  I’ll give it back to you.”  I never had ten dollars.  “I want to collect form some guys.  Gimme ten ones.”

Now I’ve got ten one dollar bills stuck in my left-hand pocket and my working change is in my right pocket.  So I go out on my route this Saturday.  I’m peddling along.  Some people pay and some don’t.  I can hardly wait because I’m setting this guy up.  This stale-beer-smelling slob.  I knock on his door.  I’m ready.  I’ve got my book out, playing it like I always did.

The door opens and there is big, fat, slob Charlie.  “What do ya want, kid?”  He knows what I want.

“I’m here to collect for the paper.”

“Ah, ya woke me up.  Alright.  Hold on a minute, kid.”  He comes back out.  “I’m sorry, kid, ya got change for a ten?”

“Why yes, I certainly do.”

“What!”

“I certainly do.  I have change for a ten.”

“Ya hear what I said, kid?  I said do ya got change for a ten.”

“Why yes, sir, I have change for a ten right here.  Do you want it in ones?”  I take the ten ones out and his face falls—like a giant lantern that’s been blown off its hook.  All of a sudden he becomes a small child, just like that.

“You sure you got change for a ten?  Lemme see that.”

“Yes, sir, here,” and I count them out.  And then I realize—he doesn’t have ten.  He is faking.

“Well, listen.  Can you come back next week?”

I say, “Yes sir.  I certainly can.”  Down the steps I go.  I didn’t care—I didn’t get the dough but I won.  I really won.

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MUCH OBLIGED

ALLISON MORGAN BERGMANN

Allison seated in my faux-Eames Chair.

My wife, Allison, and I are a somewhat unusual couple. For one thing, I robbed the cradle: when we married, she was 33 and I was nearly 49. We met through the ad she posted in a booklet advertising adult evening courses:

Of the hundreds of responses Allison got, I was one of the very few who recognized her reference to the Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. We first met on the telephone, when we talked for thirty minutes, an experience I later described as my having fallen in love at first-phone-call. We immediately recognized that we shared numerous sensibilities, including interests in many of the arts, especially in literature. (She had a Masters Degree in Victorian Literature, and would soon have a masters in Library Science—I recall that I’d always dreamed of being a librarian and winning the Nobel Prize in literature.

Allison’s, previous totem was the owl. —It represents wisdom/the life of the mind. She has a considerable collection. Desiring something more cuddly and emotional, by the time we met she had switched to teddy bears (which also connects to Teddy Roosevelt, one of her favorite people, with whom she shares a birth date). She has a considerable collection. Owl and teddy bear are so wonderfully appropriate for Allison. As for the owl and bear:

           

Albeart is the Perfect Synthesis

of Intellect and Cuddliness

I’d once been asked what my favorite bird was—this would indicate my general attitude toward life! I chose two: 1. Hummingbird, because it can remain motionless in the air and is surrounded by beautiful flowers (art); 2. Penguin, because it is so distinctive/amusing.

A recent New York Times article (in the Style Section—which I inevitably dismiss as being superficial)–had a short article on the newest thing in wedding cake-toppers. One can have the little bride & groom with photos of the bridal couple, or even bobble-head representations of the couple. Allison, years before, had chosen our cake-topper and made the bear’s dress and headpiece:

Allison not only has the IQ genius of an owl,

but the loving/nurturing of a teddy bear.

Penguin & Bear: the Loving Couple.

Thank You, Allison Morgan Bergmann, for Supporting Me

in My Artsy Fartsy Activities.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–Early Toil–Paperboy & (120) ARTSY–Riff

I used to pretend I was involved in various sports.  It would vary by the season.  How many of you have sports fantasies when you’re doing things?  You come into the office and you take this piece of paper and crumple it up and zap, “Shepherd cans another one!  Wilt Chamberlain to Shepherd at the center line…. There’s a real playmaker, that Shepherd!”  If it was springtime Shepherd was always making these spectacular throws from third, picking off a runner—what a play!

These various fantasies are part of the day-by-day life.  I wonder if anybody’s ever written a major philosophical treatise on the daydreams of ordinary work.  The little satisfactions that carry us through our daily life.

When you’re about eleven years old and you’re delivering papers, you are almost at the mercy of everybody.  Because they don’t take you seriously.  So  then, the greatest satisfaction of all—and this is possibly why I turned out to be such a sneaky person—is out-euchring the great, unwashed, slob-public.  They are the ultimate enemy of the paperboy.  It took me about six months to realize I was being had.

There is a certain kind of customer, and you find this guy a lot in life.  Here it is Saturday morning, collection day.  The guy who hides behind the curtain is the guy who isn’t going to pay at all—he’s the deadbeat.  But I’m referring to the sharpie.  Sharpies are another thing, which is not exactly the same as being a deadbeat.  So I would come up to this door, like any other door.  I’d knock and the guy would come out.  “What do ya want, kid?”  He sounds hung-over and I smell stale beer.

“I’d like to collect for the paper, please.”  I have my little book out.  “You owe eighty-six cents.”

“Just a minute, kid.  Hey listen, all I got is a ten dollar bill.  Ya got change for a ten?”

When you’re making eighty-six cent collections you’re not going to have change for a ten.  And he knew that.  That’s why he did it.  “Sorry, kid, all I got is a ten.”  So there you are.  What are you going to do?  You couldn’t collect so you go peddling on.  Sometimes this would go on for a month.  What he was doing was seriously not paying.

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Acknowledgments

WILLIAM RIFFELMACHER

Early Image of Bill (Riff)

My close intellectual friend for over 30 year was known as Riff. We met as designers at a commercial exhibit company, and immediately knew we’d discovered someone special–with intellectual interests in books, art, music, dance, film. For decades we would meet Friday nights and see some foreign film, then walk to MacDougal Street and chat for hours about intelligent, artsy stuff while having coffee at Reggio’s. Riff admired steadfast defenders of the arts they practiced, such as Maria Callas and Frank Lloyd Wright. He took the day off from work to attend the opening of New York’s Guggenheim Museum so that he could see Wright in person. Together, Riff and my good friend Dick and I visited Wright’s Falling Water masterpiece.

Typical of Riff’s way of thinking and responding was where we both worked as designers, a carpenter complained that he intensely disliked his own first name because it gave him the image of being a country hick: Homer (as in “Homer and Jethro”). Riff immediately disagreed, pointing out that Homer is the name of the renowned, ancient Greek poet of The Iliad and The Odyssey. One of Riff’s favorite sayings was, “If you get a lemon, make lemonade.”

Usually, when we met, Riff would be carrying a bag full of newspaper clippings for me on artsy subjects I liked—in addition to the comic strip pages. At a memorial gathering for him, I found out that he did similar thoughtful service for numerous other friends of his I didn’t even know. He never created great art, but he was a constant encourager of myself and others in whatever our efforts, artistic or otherwise. As he often said to me: “If you don’t write, you’re wrong.”

Riff was one of the best parts of my life.

Riff Didn’t Like Having His Picture Taken,

So Here’s His Drawing of Me,

Made Soon After We Met.

(I was driving an MG-TD at the time.)

I Believe He Would Have Liked My Artsy Fartsys

and Encouraged Me in Doing Them.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories, Early Toil “Paperboy”– & (119) ARTSY Cloth, Bone, Feathers

There was one specific doorway that I always remember.  I used to look forward to this point on my route.  There was a long stairway lit by light bulbs that went right up to the second floor on the inside of the building and the downstairs door was always open.  You could see the landing up there and there was a scrub pail set right in the corner.  The first couple of weeks I just threw the paper up on the landing.  One day, just by accident, when I threw the paper up, it hit the wall behind, and it went katunk!  It bounced right off that wall like it was a backboard on a basketball court, and landed in the pail.  Shepherd had canned another three pointer.

The next day I tried to do it and I just missed, but every day that was my big moment, and I got so I was really great at it.  Remember, I was riding on a bike—this was not a stationary shot.  I’d go swooping past this door—and zap!  Oddly enough, I never saw it go into the pail because I was already past the door, but I’d hear it go bump-bump and bang.  Oh!  That meant it was going to be a good day!

These little things are very important to a newsboy.  Another little satisfaction is to learn how to really fold papers.  You can tell how good a newsboy is by how small he can fold the paper.  The smaller the paper is folded the more you can get in the sack, the less bulk the sack takes up, and the better the paper throws!  At first I really envied the other guys.  Flick had started before I did and he was fantastic!  He could fold fifty papers in about five minutes flat.  Hard as a rock.  I had no more papers than he did, but my sack was gigantic, like Santa’s bag, and Flick would just have this little sack hanging on him.   He would take a ten-pound, end-of-the-week-and-full-of-ads Chicago Tribune and fold it to the size of an Eversharp pencil.  Unbelievable!  I began to work on my paper-folding technique and after about a month-and-a-half, I was one of the great paper-folders of our time.  Even Flick came over to me one day and said, “By God, you can do it!”  Like being told by Roger Maris, “You got a good swing, kid.”

You can handle this newspaper—it’s just a poor little piece of paper and you can learn to control it.  You can ultimately learn to be a pretty good shot riding a bike and throwing a side-arm shot to the upper deck.

More to come of “Paperboy.”

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FEATHERS

Featherwork has become an important part of

our household decor because of

an Inca belt and elegant feather hats.

This piece (a belt or what?), also bought in the Cuzco fabric store, is 38” X   2.5”, with the repeated feather-motif of llamas in orange, black, and white. I showed it to the world-renowned anthropologist who specialized in pre-Columbian textiles at the museum where I worked. He turned the feather work over to view the backing cloth and immediately told me that it was authentic Inca (pre-1520).

(He was amazed that it had cost me only $15. He seemed unperturbed that I’d bought pre-Columbian material. The younger anthropologist I worked with on our permanent South American Hall much disparaged buying this material, because those who found it were in the business of digging up pre-Columbian sites, thus removing the material that belonged to that country’s heritage and destroying accurate, scientific investigation of it–I understand that view in theory, but in practice, I’ve bought minor pieces. When I discovered, in an auction catalog, a large casting of a famous pre-Columbian piece for sale (the Raimondi Stela), he wanted it for our Hall, but would not set foot in the pre-Columbian sale gallery for fear of being seen there, so I went to the auction with Museum money and won the piece for our use.)

A few years ago my wife, Allison, became interested in feather hats and has acquired over a dozen. (They were very popular from the nineteenth century until recent years when new ones were prohibited because of endangering various species of birds. One can still buy older ones in some vintage clothing stores.) They are truly beautiful and varied in their colors. We have some on the walls in our living room, dining room, and bedroom.

 

(Photos for “Cloth, Bone, and Feathers”

by Allison Morgan Bergmann)

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories, Early Toil Intro, “Paperboy”– & (118) ARTSY Cloth, Bone, Feathers

Not many youngsters can brag about delivering newspapers and being a renowned worm king and also selling cherry bombs and Roman candles.  These are three good stories describing early jobs Shep had. Shepherd accomplishes one on his bike, one in his basement, and one at his old man’s fireworks stand.  Between seeing Shep fling the news from a moving delivery vehicle in one story, and observing his sale of lethal rocketry in another tale, we learn how to cultivate worms for fun and profit—and even to become their friend.  (Note: Worms may turn some people off, but I consider this one of Shepherd’s best kid stories–it’s worth pursuing!)

•   •  •

Paperboy Skirmishes

There’s a lot of reasons why I’m such a bad person.  I think one of the basic reasons is that I spent three years of my life as a paperboy, from about ten to thirteen years old.  Delivering papers every morning and night on a bike.  Ain’t nothin’ that will teach you about life, L-I-F-F-F-triple E, quicker, more conclusively, more deeply, more solidly, than to have a good paper route for a while right at the very most plastic period of your life.

Everybody has his own little satisfactions, whether you’ve got a job out there or you’re going to school.  Man falls into this very early.  You start this as a kid.  If you get your assignment done just before it is to be handed in, this is a great satisfaction.  Maybe you have your notebook in especially good order.  These are all basic little things which are never talked about, which are private.

Well, as a newsboy, one of the great satisfactions is when you have difficult shots when you’re throwing papers.  A really difficult shot and you try different ways to throw it.

Part 1 of Paperboy Story. Stay Tuned.

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Cloth, Bone, etc.

AMAZON BABY CARRIER

The little dangling pieces are bone, incised with decorative patterns.

As the mother moves, the pieces clink against each other, making

gentle, jangly, soothing sounds to amuse the baby.

Three early-20th c. mantas on furniture

(the two Picassos and the Henry Moore aren’t originals),

and pre-Columbian cloth doll.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories, Half-time Sousaphone & (117) ARTSY Cloth, Bone, Feathers

Was he being sarcastic?  What was he being?  I’ll never tell.  All I can say is I learned a lesson.  I can’t figure out what the lesson is—yet.  I’m running it through the lab.  I’m trying a little titration on it, maybe a little litmus paper.

All I’ve got to say is, when you see that band and those half-time ceremonies marching out and striking into the wind, you are seeing a machine that few people understand.  Only those who have been in the middle of one know what it’s like.

I can still feel that little tingling around my lips once in a while when I hear a band playing “Semper Fidelis.”  That little chapped feeling of a guy who’s rehearsed long and hard on the second coda chorus of every known march that was ever printed.

Pumpapapumpapapum!  Drump-pum-pump! Drump-pum-pump! Drump-pum-pump!  Oh yeah!  Come on, Pick up them knees, you guys!  Come on, move out, move out!

Drump! Pump! Pump! Pump! Drump-pum-pump! Drump-pum-pump! Drump-pum-pump! Drump-pum-pum! Drump-pum-pump pump pump!

Rump-pump,pump,pump,pump,pump,pump,pump,pump

Pumpapapumpapapum! Here we go now!  All together now!  The torches light up, the crowd is going ape! Bababapooombapoooom!

[End of “Halftime Sousaphone” and Part 6]

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CLOTH, BONE, FEATHERS

CLOTH

My interest in cloth as esthetic subject began when I started doing a bit of research for my trip to Peru in 1980. I’d be spending time mostly in Lima, and the Inca highland capital of Cuzco which is a center for traditional Peruvian weaving.

We got the name of a good retail shop in Cuzco where we could get quality woven cloth from highland Peru and Bolivia. These objects are traditional ponchos and other pieces made for local consumption in the early-to mid-twentieth century that had been used and then sold, so that Americano tourists could buy and transport them back to adorn walls and furniture. Eventually I’d also buy some minor pre-Columbian objects from there and from other sources. (The photo shows the kind of serious fabric store one can find in Cuzco.)

Beautiful craftsmanship again expands my idea of “art,” though weaving still doesn’t make it to the highest levels for me. Mostly I’d say, it’s “quality, attractive craft.” Yet I enjoy looking at my few pieces and contemplating them.

My wife and I have two major walls in our living room, one with

musical instruments, the other with cloth and artifacts.

A variety of pieces including a poncho, a very long piece

that might be a scarf, a highland campesino’s hat,

a cloth baby carrier from the Amazon,

an Inca feather-work piece, a small, pre-Columbian cloth doll,

etc.

End Part 1 of 3

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories, Half-time Sousaphone & (116) ARTSY Brief Encounters–Henry Morgan

And then we stop.  They hit the last line of the coda and I scurry back in line.  I see the crowd applauding wildly!  Fantastic! The crowd is cheering!

I must have been forty feet out of the band and now I am back in line.  And next to me is Ernie Dunker, who is a superb marching sousaphonist.  And Dunker says, “You!”  I can hear him under his breath.  We are going down to the center of the field. Pump,pump,pump.  Pump,pump,pump. We’re going to make the great big block H now.  Dunker says, “Oh, you! Oh boy, wait until Davis busts you, dad!”

I can see Davis’ back.  The back of his neck is beet red.  Beet red.  They have rehearsed an entirely new formation.  And where was I?  Knocking down cheeseburgers in the Red Rooster.  Knocking down the cheeseburgers.  Drinking Black Cows.  Setting up the biggest public humiliation of my life.  Have you ever marched down the middle of a football field to twenty-five-thousand screaming people while the band is playing “Semper Fidelis” and you are whistling “Dixie”?  You can hardly hide when you’re in a sousaphone.  And who loused up?  And don’t think for a minute the crowd didn’t laugh it up.  They roared.

The rest of the evening went by in some kind of terrible nightmare.  I’m sitting up in the stands.  I don’t even see the game.  Stinky Davis doesn’t say a word.  He’s sitting three rows down below me.  His neck is red—all the way up!  Doesn’t say anything!  Nothing!

The weekend goes by.  Monday morning is hard and cold.  That is the day our school newspaper comes out.  Here, covering the whole front page, is a picture of the marching band playing “Semper Fidelis.”  Right there.  It says, SOUSAPHONE ACE MAKES BOO-BOO, and you see one sousaphone player in the upper left-hand corner heading out somewhere toward Nome, Alaska.  The rest of the band is doing this beautiful cloverleaf formation.  It says, “SOUSAPHONE ACE MAKES BOO-BOO.  Crowd laughs it up.  Friday night, at the big game between George Rogers Clark, a sousaphone player, seen in picture above, made the hit of the season.”  Oh god, no!

Well, I can hardly wait for the seventh period.  Which is band period.  Yeah, I can hardly wait.  Seventh period arrives, Shepherd drags in, looking sheepish, feeling like last week’s mashed potatoes, and Mr. Wilson is up on the stand.  The band sits down.  Ready for indoor rehearsal.  Mr. Wilson starts out by saying, “That was the best half-time show we ever did.  Whoever thought up that great comedy routine….”

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HERE’S MORGAN

Henry Morgan was a very funny, iconoclastic, satirical radio humorist who preceded Jean Shepherd’s days on the radio, and was somewhat contemporaneous with him—they knew each other’s work. He irreverently spoofed his sponsors. Most notoriously, he accused Life Savors of fraud for having holes in all their candies. As he later put it, “I claimed that if the manufacturer would give me all those centers,” Morgan remembered, “I would market them as ‘Morgan’s Mint Middles’ and say no more about it.”

NYT obit 5/20/1994. (died 5/19) Mr. Morgan earned strong critical notices when he used no script and a few notes and ad libbed his way through his broadcasts. He greatly admired the work of Fred Allen and Robert Benchley; he was unpredictable, iconoclastic, derisive about the media in which he worked….downright insolent and pointedly disloyal to his sponsors. Mr. Morgan always bit the hand that fed him.

HOW I MADE MORGAN LAUGH ON LIVE TELEVISION

Henry Morgan had his own live program in the early days of television. I was a young teenager, and would watch the show with my parents at the dinner table. His program was frequently preceded by an announcer’s voice:

“The ideas and comments on the following program

are not necessarily those of this station

or of any of its sponsors.”

On the program, Morgan would frequently complain about this–obviously, he’d say, the station was too timid to stand behind any but the most bland and inoffensive material. I sent him a letter about it. A week or so later, in mid-program, just before commercial time, he read on the air, word for word,  my suggested response :

“The ideas and comments on all the other programs

on this station are not necessarily those of myself 

or of any of my friends.”

Morgan laughed. The scene cut to commercials.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories, Half-time Sousaphone & (115) ARTSY Brief Encounters–Norman Mailer

I’m moving to the left, to the right, my mind is following the lefts and rights, I’m playing the horn, left counter-march, one, two, one, two, back and forth, we’re moving like some beautiful, well-oiled machine.

And now we are moving on out toward the thirty-yard line.  Stinky motions for number twelve in the big book.  This is the big one, the hardest number we have and it’s always one of the highpoints of our total show—“Semper Fidelis.”

Then he goes Pow! and we start playing it.  Shepherd rips into the first chorus.  Boy, moving like a shot!  Everything’s cool and copasetic.  Up to this point.  Shepherd’s moving.  Look at him!  Up ahead you see Singleton, two days before his last day in the band, which we didn’t know at the time.  And there goes Stunker moving on out making that beautiful right turn.  I can see those knees moving all around.

Rump-pump,pump,pump,pump,pump,pump,pump,pump  We have a beautiful pinwheel that we do at this point and we spin around.  Sousaphones moving on out in that great big pinwheel!  Each sousaphone is at the end of a line! Shepherd is spinning out there at the end!  Right in the middle of it all is Stinky Davis—he’s at the hub of this thing!  And he’s watching us.  Then he blows two quick, short blasts Waa Waa like that and pum! We come back together again.  Now we’re coming back.  Shepherd’s moving sharp.

Pumpapapumpapapum!  Drump-pum-pump! Drump-pum-pump! Drump-pum-pump!  Right in the middle of this third cadenza Pumpapapumpapa Stinky raises his baton and does something he had never done before!  He gives two quick blasts of the whistle and then a long one.  Wa Wa Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

What the hell is this?! What the hell’s goin’on? Then all of a sudden, all around me, I see marching figures going in all different directions! Crash! A trombone smashes right into me! I spin around! Where the hell am I going? I see three clarinets going this way. I see a sousaphone player going up and down and I follow him for a moment! He disappears! I see another clarinet going. I don’t know what they’re doing! And all of a sudden Shepherd is marching down the center of the field! All by himself!  Aaaaaaaaaaaaa!

I see the band forming. I try to catch up to them again. There go three French horns around me again! I hear another quick whistle! And once again Shepherd is all by himself!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! And I see Stinky Davis.  His eyes are two glowing coals. Is he bugged!

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BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

Teresa Brewer, Bob Dylan, Suzanne Farrell,

Norman Mailer, Marilyn Monroe, Lois Nettleton, Jerry Seinfeld, Vampire Lady.

(Listed alphabetically, so no one feels slighted.)

Relating a few brief encounters I’ve had with major celebrities of our day, the following short anecdotes describe how I happened to sort of engage with a couple of people whose names are familiar to most of us. These encounters include sharing the same physical space or sharing the same telephone connection. Oh, my goodness, how thrilling! (Some of this material you may find familiar, some not.)

A number of other people I interviewed for my book about Jean Shepherd also have rather august positions in our world, but as for those luminaries, I couldn’t manage to wedge them into this group—sorry, folk, you just did not make da cut. (I trust that, among others, U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Hugh Hefner will find their omissions amusing.)

NORMAN MAILER

MEETINGS WITH MAILER

What I mostly admire about Norman Mailer is his mind. No matter the subject he chooses (whether an “important one,” or another that seems crafted to help pay alimony debts), as a fundamental part, he incorporates his serious philosophical themes and agile writing style that pervade his work and make reading him an intellectual pleasure. Thus, no matter the subject, he continues to capture my interest through his mental and literary guile. He entertains my mind and inspires.

(I wanted to continue in the present tense, but he died—

before being awarded the Nobel Prize he deserved.)

His earlier public performance persona (as one might refer to what got him into front-page stories rather than in the book section) was part of his bravado and manipulation of modern media for the financial solvency that came with notoriety, as well as for promoting his serious work. But with age, he was no longer the sometimes provocative and crude barbarian. The many times I attended his readings/signings of new publications at bookstores, he always dressed in a dark pinstripe suit and walked slowly with a bit of a limp. Like a conservative banker. During the question-and-answer session after his readings, no matter the shallow questions others asked, he looked the questioner straight in the eye and gave a serious, well-considered and extensive reply. He was an elder prominence and a gentleman.

Before attending each of his talks I would work hard composing a meaningful literary question regarding his work. I very much appreciated that he responded to me on an intellectual level, as though I were somehow, at least at that moment, his equal. I can only find one note I made–for the circumstance in February, 1991, in which I asked how he chose the subjects for what he would then write. In my partial note regarding his reply, he said that one should:

“…treat almost impossible themes with a modicum of decorum—

and that is my ambition.”

When I managed to locate an intermediary to present my snail-mail query regarding his acquaintanceship with the subject of my book on Jean Shepherd, his failing memory in written response was still sufficient for me to be able to use it in my book. When I had the temerity to send him part of one of my unpublished novels for comment, he had the courtesy and thoughtfulness to reply in a way that, for me, was not a “boiler-plate” response, but indicated that he had seriously contemplated my request and he had used a bit of the better part of his mind to respond:

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories, Half-time Sousaphone & (114) ARTSY Brief Encounters–Teresa Brewer

And they’re out there doing “On the Mall.”

I remember looking across at Pete.  I say, “Pete, it’s too hot to rehearse, right?”  And Pete says, “Yeah.”  He’s chewin’ away at his cheeseburger and I’m chewin’ away at mine.  And Big John, who runs this place, is back there mopping up the counter and dishin’ out the cheeseburgers to the guys who are goofing off from algebra class.

We can hear the band out there working.  It’s great!  There’s nothing more exciting than the illicit.  And they’re out there in that hot sunlight whistling.  I hate the whistling bit.  Ever tried to play a sousaphone for three hours in a hot sun, a spanking wind, and then try to whistle?  And we’re here knocking down the cheeseburgers.  I say, “I think I’ll have another one.” So I have another one.  Just enjoyin’ it.  It’s kind of cool in here, the air conditioning is going.

Five minutes before the end of rehearsal, I get up and sorta saunter out.  I know that I will join the crowd in the band as they come trickling back to the rehearsal hall.  And that is what I do.  The band comes wandering back all covered with sweat and I just sorta walk in among ‘em.  Along with Pete.  On top of it all—ol’ Shep.  And then came that moment.

 

That night I’m kind of takin’ it easy.  Remember this—I’m also a State Champion sousaphone player.  The year before I won a gold medal playing the sousaphone at the state contest.  I am a member of the crack marching band.  We have more medals that we could put in a hat—each one of us.

Now comes the big night.  We are standing out in the end zone.  Ready for the big show.  We move on out through “El Capitan.”  Everything’s cool and copasetic.  We go through the “NC-4 March.”  Beautiful!  We then knick off “On the Mall.”  Right down the line!

Shepherd is moving his knees, Shepherd is blowin’ that sousaphone like he’s seldom blown it before!

There’s twenty-five-thousand people watching every move of this great marching band and out ahead we have these two big banners.  One is the U. S. flag and the other is the big purple school flag, and behind it the big seal of the State of Indiana with gold fringe.  And on it we have all these little medals and patches sewn—various great awards that we had won.  Gold, silver, bronze—all over the world we’d won these great medals and our band is marching out.

And that drum section—boy, they are sharp this night.  It is a beautiful, crisp night.  One of those great nights.  We get down to the far end zone.

We countermarch.  We countermarch again.  Stinky Davis is moving us like some vast machine.  You get that great feeling of being on top of it, man!

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TERESA BREWER

When I was a young teenager (before rock and roll took over), my heartthrob was Teresa Brewer. In 1954 she released her most memorable song, “Till I Waltz Again With You.” I played my 45 RPM of it constantly, and saved it, so that on April 5, 1978, I still had it when I saw her perform at Carnegie Hall.

(Yes, Carnegie Hall. Teresa, referred to as the little girl with the big voice, began on an “Amateur Hour,” radio show–when I saw her she was headlining at Carnegie Hall–with guests Stephane Grappelli and Dizzy Gillespie. She had become, in her later performing years, recognized for her jazz singing.)

Minor ARTSY FARTSY Note

Performances over, as the audience filed out, I noted people heading for a door at the side of the stage so I followed. I found myself in Teresa Brewer’s dressing room. The woman in front of me on line to see her said. “After all these years, I’ve dreamed of meeting you. My friends say that you and I look alike.” I handed her my 45 of “Till I Waltz Again With You” to sign, saying nervously, “For twenty-five years I’ve dreamed of meeting you.”

She looked up at my recently acquired beard.

“I hope your friends don’t say that you and I look alike.”

I treasure it still.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories, Half-time Sousaphone & (113) ARTSY Brief Encounters–Dylan

I am walking towards the practice field, I’ve got my jacket over my neck, sweatin’.  I’m carrying my sousaphone at rest—you carry it on your other shoulder when it’s at rest.  I’m draggin’ off towards the field and I see the band sort of half-assembled about three or four minutes before rehearsal time.  It’s Thursday.  We’ve got a big show we’re going to do Friday night.  I know everything!  It’s ridiculous.  I know the whole thing—we’ve been rehearsing this stuff every night for a week, I know every last step.  I’m tired.  I had a bum day.  I half-sprained my ankle in swimming class.  I was kind of bugged.  You know how you have those days.  What the heck.

I see Schwartz ahead of me lugging his sousaphone, and behind me is Snuffy Smith, who isn’t much of a marcher, but one of the best sousaphone players I ever heard.  The three of us are truckin’ out to that field.  What makes me do it, I don’t know, but I turn around and go back to the band room.  That feeling of goofing off—what the hell!  I slide my sousaphone into the big wooden rack in the band room.  I cut across the hall, out the side door, and five minutes later I’m sitting in the Red Rooster knockin’ down a cheeseburger and a Black Cow.

Sitting with me is Pete, who plays in the baritone section, who is also knockin’ down a Black Cow and a cheeseburger.  And off in the distance we can hear faintly, oh so faintly—we can hear the band, faintly, so faintly, just drifting in as they’re playing away.  Here are two top-flight aces from the band knockin’ down a cheeseburger with a little piccalilli and a little chili sauce, french fries, and a Black Cow, and the rest of the guys are knocking themselves out in the hot sun.

I’m cool, on top of it, see.  Little realizing I am laying the groundwork for one of the most embarrassing moments I ever lived through.  And I don’t know whether I ever did live through it.  There are people who say that terrible things that have happened to us in our lives never truly leave us.  Quite possibly, had this not happened to me, I could have gone on to become god-knows-what?  Johnny Carson, Soupy Sales, who knows what great man in this world.

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BOB DYLAN

I went to the Joan Baez concert at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium on August 17, 1963. Half-way through it she introduced a slouchy, unkempt kid I never heard of (though at least one of his songs I’d heard, sung by popular entertainers). He sang a song that sounded like an extended one-note melody with, at the end of each long phrase, a little one-note musical up-tick. Every line sounded like that. I can’t say I liked it. It was weird. But it caught my attention. His name was Bob Dylan.

The next day I rushed to a record store and bought the only two albums of his so far released. The song he had sung that night that captured my attention was “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I became a Dylan fan.

One day about a year or so later he had already made it big and I was one of a couple of people in a small theater lobby waiting for an avant garde film to start. About ten feet away, by himself, was Dylan. We looked each other in the eye, I wanting to go up to him, he probably hoping I wouldn’t. I didn’t. Now knowing that he probably would have bruskly shrugged me off, I still wish I’d been bold enough to try, but I was not yet artsy fartsy.

Over the years I’ve seen him in concert several times. He does not have a “good” voice. But, in a strange, aggressively modernist style, never the same, he artistically expresses meaning or gives the song a new, jazzy feeling. He uses his voice perfectly attuned to the genius of his music. Doing his own songs, few people but Joan Baez, who, with her gentle elegance, so unlike his unpredictable, rough and ragged, shaggy, magic voice, achieves some parity.

For me: “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, is very good; “Mr. Tambourine Man” (a great Dylan song) as done by The Byrds, has not even a touch of feeling–it is a soulless travesty; “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Peter, Paul, and Mary is an equally saccharine void.

 

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