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STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
I’m going to tell you about the time I was knocked down by a bolt of lightning. On this July day, it was a Saturday, and my old man was working a half a day. The house was quiet. We lived in this five-room house.
The front bedroom, which was on the front of the house, was my bedroom, my own thing. It was right on the corner, so there was a window on my left and on my right. I had put posters all over the walls and I had my amateur radio rig there. In the corner of the room was my desk, which was my great pride and joy. I’d built my amateur radio rig on the top of this desk, on a rack I had built out of angle iron. My whole life revolved around that amateur radio transmitter. Up on the roof of the house I had an antenna, a twenty-meter dipole, just stuck up there.
On this beautiful Saturday morning, it’s the beginning of July and our school vacation has just begun. I am sitting at my desk and I’m on twenty-meter CW at the time. The band is very lively with a lot of stations on.
Now, around my house, as in the case of all kids versus their parents, there is a great gap between my mother and me and my old man and me. It is always thus. In the front bedroom I am doing what they call, “Making all those noises.” Anybody who’s ever played with amateur radio as a kid, always hears, “Would you cut out all that noise up there, we’re trying to sleep!” And, “You’re making that sound on the radio again! Will you stop it!” It’s always called, “Making that noise.” Well, of course, what you were doing was involve yourself in worldwide electronic communication. You weren’t “Making that noise,” which was way above and beyond the ken of anybody else in my family. My old man’s technical knowledge stopped short of how to use Simonize. My mother’s technical knowledge consisted of how to get the most mileage out of a Brillo pad.
And so I was sitting in there doing this mysterious thing. And I was always on the defensive about it. They couldn’t understand what all those beeps were. My mother would see all this stuff—I had rectifier tubes that would glow blue when I put my key down. They looked spooky to both my father and my mother. It not only looked very spooky but it looked unbelievably dangerous. Which, incidentally, to tell the truth, it was.
Let’s face it, I had a power supply that delivered fifteen-hundred volts at two-hundred mil. That’s quite enough to knock the front end off of your house any time it wants to do it.
So I’m sitting in there working away with my rig on this day and my mother’s out in the kitchen. Every time I got on she would look in my door and say, “Now, be careful. You’re going to get a shock. Be careful with that. And stop making those beeps so loud. Can you turn it down?” And she would go back into the kitchen. She always thought I was going to get a shock—playing around with electricity.
Well, I had gotten my share of shocks and, I might add, RF burns —Radio Frequency—which is another story. When you’re tuning up a section network and you start getting an arc off of the knob—I got an RF burn one time that caught me in the thumb and burnt me all the way down to my ankle. It bore a hole in me. So I had my share of it, but I never told my parents about it.
(More lightning to come.)
In the early 1960s, with graffiti and all other kinds of mayhem burgeoning, I noticed some billboards that were torn in—shall I say—“interesting and artistic” fashion. Either by wind and rain or by human intent. I began photographing them. The one that first attracted my attention and led to my fascination, was the “I got my job through The New york Times” poster in the subway. Note his job. I returned with my camera, and so began my extended interest. To point out the obvious–for me, finding stuff to photograph involves two aspects: one is having an eye for good possibilities, and the second half is closing in on and, from the entire scatter, shutting out the excess and forming a strong composition. All billboard photos shown I took circa 1963-6. I did not tear or in any other way alter what you see here.
Under highway overpasses, on subway platforms, elevated platforms. I began using a tripod. A subway cop stopped me, saying I needed a permit to photograph in the subway. I got one, and though it lasted only a few days, that didn’t curtail my artsy activity.
At the time, I didn’t realize that a couple of known photographers had done torn-subject photos before I got the idea. But they were somewhat different—many of mine tended to have a rather bold, abstract expressionist look. I had some of my 35mm slides converted to color prints. Surprisingly, the color translated well to prints. I sold a couple at the Greenwich Village Art Show in 1963. I showed a selection to Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski. He liked my photos and wanted to show some of them in a slide show he was putting together—that show never happened.
John Szarkowski as quoted on the Internet
“Photography is a contest between a photographer and the presumptions of approximate and habitual seeing. The contest can be held anywhere… “- John Szarkowski
“The study of photography touches the broader issues of modern art and modern sensibility.” – John Szarkowski – In B&W Magazine.
I framed some photos and keep others in a portfolio,
which I glance at maybe once or twice a decade.
Here are more.
“A photographer’s best work is, alas, generally done for himself” –John Szarkowski
[Might we equally say the above about one’s thoughts and writings?]
My good friend, Riff, suggested I photograph his eyes with the “HE PEOP” torn poster.
He didn’t like being photographed, but, surprised that I included his whole upper body, he accepted that my image of him included his hands and arms.
Do you know that not more than a year ago, I was visiting Hammond, I was walking down the street, and who came out of the A and P, looking even more high-octane than ever before—Patty Remaley. My first thought was, don’t even notice her. But she looked at me and said, “Why, Jean, how are you?” She remembered me! My god, there’s still hope!
I said, “Hi. Gee, Patty Remaley, how are you?”
She said, “How are you?” She said, “Why, you’ve grown.”
I said, “Heh, you know, heh, those things happen. The sun hits you and you grow.”
We stood there for a minute. I thought—should I pour it all out? Then I said, no, no, I’m a grownup man. I said, “Good seeing you, Patty.”
She said, “Do you still have that red corduroy hat?”
I said, “Yeah.”
And we walked our separate ways. April Fool’s Day.
So “April Fooled” (as I’ve titled it) is the story Shepherd used,
in a recorded audio from a decade past,
to end his WOR broadcast career after 21 years.
Yes, he was unhappy.
One can only wonder exactly what he felt
as that story played:
“Why have they done this to me?”
[END OF “APRIL FOOLED”
NEW STORY COMING.]
TALES CALCULATED TO DRIVE YOU MAD
Around the time when Congress was beginning to complain about “sex-and-violence in comics,” and a book appeared, Seduction of the Innocent, decrying the influence of comics, I believe that EC Comics got worried, and, with the staff of witty writer/artists, came up with Mad, which would appeal to the same more advanced adolescent minds. (A few years into it as a comic, Mad changed format and, for me, lost some of its wit and much of its visual art. It became Mad Magazine, so it could no longer be persecuted as a “comic.” It was still funny, but less witty as it continued its burlesque of modern American culture. I kept up my subscription to beyond issue 100.)
Ad for the first issue of MAD Comic,
on the back of the front cover
of a late 1952 Two-Fisted Tales.
Covers of Mad‘s first issue and its “art” issue of 4/1955
Mad captivated a certain strata of youngsters who had a higher-than-average interest in words and ideas (including myself, I blushingly note.) As I put it in the intro to my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD!:
As a kid in the higher reaches of grammar school and early high school, I had the good fortune, along with countless others, to encounter Mad comics, which opened a kid’s eyes by making fun of our culture’s assumptions, clichés, fads, fancies, and popular arts—just at an age when a kid first begins to realize (but has not yet fully articulated) that the world constructed by parents and other adults has inconsistencies. In college I found Jean Shepherd.
Mad stories were quirky, funny, ironic, and usually made fun of the usual kid “comics” and other cultural items seldom criticized by mainstream adults–or even most kids.
For example, in “Blobs!” by Mad artist Wally Wood, one sees the future, in which everything is done for people to the extent that they can no longer even move around by themselves. One character worries that they will be in big trouble if the main machine that does everything breaks. His friend says it will never happen. At the end, the main machine breaks and the two are flung out of their motor-driven seats and are seen, upside down on the floor, conscious, but not mobile. A spider casually spins a web from one of their noses.
MORE MAD-NESS TO COME
Humiliated before the entire world. They heard! I couldn’t figure out why they did it to me. Why did they do this to me? And then I heard Schwartz: “April Fool’s Day! Wawawa.” I’ve been had. Ahhhhhg! You know, to this day I don’t know whether Patty Remaley ever heard about it. But she couldn’t possibly not have heard. She was also part of that little, hardy band of searches after truth, after culture. Oh, some nights early in the spring, when I’m walking through Central Park looking at those beds of flowers and I see those friendly little tulips looking up with their tongues sticking out at me and the sun shining down over General Sherman’s statue and all the pigeons are flapping around doing what pigeons always do around statues, I can hear those fiendish cackles. And I can say one thing. Patty Remaley never mentioned that insane episode out of my checkered life. Never.
I couldn’t figure out why they did it to me.
Why did they do this to me?
[It’s no wonder that Shepherd,
with the humiliation of being asked to leave
with several other long-time WOR broadcasters,
used this audio instead of doing a live broadcast on his last show,
April Fools Day, 1977.]
EC COMICS–not Graphic Novels but
“Graphic Short Stories”
(my invented name for them)
Most all comics in my grammar school and high school days were simple-minded, for little kids (an audience of childish, mindless, kids.): Mickey Mouse and Superman, or those sexy horror comics of interest to many young teenage boys. Then, somehow, I discovered EC comics, (Entertaining Comics) which were well-drawn, artistic, each artist having his own style and approach to a tale, and containing in their stories a goodly amount of intelligence and usually an O. Henry ending—irony and a moral.
Early EC Comics included two war-content titles, Two-Fisted Tales, and Frontline Combat; two sci-fi types, Weird Science, and Weird Fantasy; and three horror types, Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear, plus some even more gory titles I usually avoided. Most all of these have been republished in fancy, hardcover volumes for serious collectors who like to hearken back to their wet-behind-the-ears interest in the finer things in life (i. e. us nerds.). This series of creative, artistic comics, even had its own serious, quality fanzine and I still have a few of these. The name comes from words spoken by an alien species in an issue:
EC comics were not graphic novels, but, because of their artistic and literary attributes, they belong in the same context, so they are, in my invented term, “graphic short stories.” As an example of the ironic content, a science fiction story involved a man in love with a young woman. Being married, he couldn’t legally be with her, but had to hide his lover. He put her in cryogenic cold storage, and as part of a space-program, had himself and her shipped to another planet that was being colonized. As he lifted her out of storage to revive her, he tripped and dropped her body, which shattered into millions of frozen bits. END. Not high art/literature, but it caught the imagination of youngsters not used to such “literature” and ironic content. This sci-fi story, as were many other EC stories, was titled with a play on words=”THE TRIP.”
In another story, an Earth man astronaut lands on an inhabited planet somewhere and finds that the humans are medically primitive so people die of the simplest diseases. He cures them with his medicines, the people thinking it must be magic–godlike. In later years the astronaut, then having been tortured and killed, people think he had performed miracles so he became god to them–reminiscent of the story of Jesus. Again, with a play on words, the title=”HE WALKED AMONG US.” I don’t know if the publisher received protest mail. These are but two of the scores of well-drawn, sophisticated tales ending ironically. (Very sophisticated for us still wet-behind-the-ears nerds who had begun having an interest in art and literature.)
By Matt Groening in his former,
fantastic, cartoon strip, Life in Hell.
Still view-able by googling and in book-compilations.
(Now he’s better known for doing TV’s The Simpsons.)
Oh, there is so much more to come!
Patty Remaley says, “Jean Shepherd, mother. Tell him we don’t want any seeds.”
I say, “I’m not here for seeds. Tell Patty I’m…I’m here…I…”
Mrs. Remaley says, “Yes?”
“Patty, he says he’s here!”
And Patty says, “Tell him I’ll see him in school tomorrow—or something. What does he want?”
What does he want! I don’t know what to say to Mrs. Remaley. I say, “Well, tell Pattie that, an…I want to ask her if she got…ah…the third problem in arithmetic?” It is all I could think of.
Patty says, “Yes, the answer is thirty-two.”
I say, “Oh, thanks…ah…ah…”
Mrs. Remaley says, “Is that all, little boy?”
I say “Bye.” It is the first time I’ve noticed that my corduroy hat weighs seventy-two pounds. It is hanging down over my ears and I am sweating in it. I say, “Bye” again, and Mrs. Remaley closes the door.
I turned and I looked out, and the sun was coming down through the trees and I saw that Sherman Williams Paint sign and the Warren G. Harding School off in the distance, and in the windows all the paper cutouts kids in kindergarten had made.
And I walked across the porch and went down the steps and I had the feeling that Patty Remaley was looking through the curtains at me. What do you do?
Graphic Novels Part 4
Frank Miller, well known for his violent work, has expanded into movies such as his Sin City. His graphic novel Sin City is a visually dramatic book all in black and white. The film derived from it does a good job–only in the beginning–replicating the dramatic b & w effect used throughout the book.
Ted McKeever has done a number of works tending to depict unattractively drawn people in frequently strikingly colored environments.
This is a single panel from a page by McKeever.
I’ve been so taken with this image that,
when I met him at a store appearance,
he signed the image for me in the comic.
David Mark. This artist uses innumerable graphic styles in the same comic issue, creating powerful effects. Four separate pages from Kabuki below.
Harvey Pekar, author of American Splendor, with his wife, are the subjects of the biographical film of that name staring Paul Giamatti. In the series of graphic novels, almost all with the same name, Harvey’s subject is the various circumstances of what he considers his own very ordinary life. He is referred to as a pioneer of the the autobiographical form of graphic novels. He’s definitely the creator of graphic novels, but what‘s different about his work is that he cannot draw. He does page layouts with rudimentary stick figures and then contracts various comic book artists to work with him on the finished pages. Robert Crumb, a longtime friend, did some art for Pekar’s works.
At a comic convention, I sought out Harvey’s booth because I’d heard that he was a Jean Shepherd enthusiast. We met and I discussed Shepherd with him and his wife–and sometimes collaborator–Joyce Brabner. I bought one of his books from him. While Harvey watched and sold more books, Joyce and I grabbed a couple of chairs and sat for an hour talking about Shepherd. She volunteered to try to find a stash of audios of his earliest New York broadcasts–the holy grail for Shep enthusiasts. (Ultimately the quest was unsuccessful.) To demonstrate her enthusiasm for Shepherd’s work, she handed me her CD earpiece–she was playing his re-broadcasts, which she listened to on their business trips.
R. Crumb’s cover art above.
Below, Paul Giamatti as Harvey, and Harvey.
Harvey died recently.
So I’m all dressed up, I go out and there’s Schwartz and Flick and Brunner playing ball. I go down the street and Schwartz yells, “Hey, here comes Shep. Let’s choose up a game.”
I say, “No, I can’t play.”
“Whatda ya mean you can’t play?”
“No, I can’t play. I have important business.”
“Whatda ya mean important business? Forget the seeds today. Come on, let’s go!”
“I am not going to sell seeds. I have important business.” Well, you know. Love. First awakening and all that stuff you cannot turn aside.
I go down the street. I figure I’d better be careful. If I walk down the street to Patty’s house, that is really giving them my secret. So I go around the block, turn left, go down the block, go down the alley, and I’m faking it. I go down around back of the school and back of the Sherwin Williams Paint sign. I cut through a couple of vacant lots.
I’m trying to wait until it is time to go in and see her. I’ve got this Mickey Mouse watch which tells this great time with these two big hands with yellow gloves. But you had to play it like a golf slice. The trouble was that the minute hand was loose. If you giggled it a little bit it would spin around about nine times. You never really knew what time it was. So I would always judge it by the hour hand. It’s pointing halfway between four and five so it’s now four-thirty.
I go sneaking back down Cleveland Street and I see the ballgame is over and nobody’s playing. I figure they’ve gone down to Ashenslogger’s Store to get some root beer barrels or something. So I go sneaking along the street and man, the excitement! Fantastic excitement! Patty Remaley is gonna make fudge! At her house!
I’d never been to her house. It was kind of aloof, just because it was her house. It was a girl’s house. A Patty Remaley house. I’d walked past it practically every day of my life and I’d think, “Patty Remaley lives in there! Patty Remaley eats supper in that house! She walks around in there.
MORE APRIL FOOLED TO COME
Graphic Novels Part 2
Graphic novelists, some of them, don’t last long for some reason—there’s not the money maybe, or who knows why. Some have succeeded in graphic work for newspapers, magazines, and other publications. Some of my favorite graphic novelists are:
Will Eisner. Credited with inventing the term “graphic novel” for his work, A Contract with God. Frequently his page layouts, instead of a series of lined-up rectangles, integrates the images with flowing art. He usually worked in monochrome (except for the earlier The Spirit comic book series), but for me, one of his most dramatically visual books is Signals from Space (The color version seems not to have been done by Eisner).
Bill Sienkiewicz. I originally discovered graphic novels one day while browsing a comic book rack and finding the first comic-book issue in a short series called Stray Toasters. I realized that Archie and Betty was not the only kind of visual thing out there!
The first three from Stray Toasters.
On lower right, page+ from his illustrated “comic book” version of Moby Dick.
David Sim, who, with Gerhard, created an extraordinary visual, black and white, three-hundred-issue monthly comic-book in a series of “novels” starring Cerebus,—are you ready for this?—an aardvark who lives in our human world. As someone described it, “By the time the 6000-page work was completed in March 2004, Sim had delved into politics, theology, metaphysics, and a controversial examination of feminism and gender issues.” I’ve never seen such unendingly fascinating graphic manipulations, nearly page by page for many hundred pages! One volume focused on the final years of Oscar Wilde and another depicted Hemingway. A character in one novel looked exactly like Groucho Marx. The original pen drawing Sim and Gerhard did for me as I watched them draw it, is one of scores they did at incredible speed at a New York comic book store during a tour.
Part of a double page and an original drawing by Sim and Gerhard.
Two double-page spreads in sequence.
(One signed by Sim and Gerhard).
Dave McKean does extraordinary art in graphic novels, sometimes with his own story, sometimes written by others. Below are two of his covers. (He tends to prefer sepia and golden color schemes.)
How come I didn’t get a valentine from Patty Remaley? The only one I got was from Helen Weathers and she’d said, “Before I give you this valentine, you have to promise to give me one.” So we exchanged valentines. The only girl who gave me a valentine. I was the only boy who gave Helen Weathers a valentine, too. So we weren’t shut out—skunked-out—entirely.
I’m sitting way back there in the alphabetical ghetto of the classroom where the Schwartzs and the Shepherds are, and I am about to be euchred. I remember to this day, it said, “Dear Jean. Holy smokes, am I in love with you! You are an incredible, fantastic human being. And the way you make that slide into third is incredible.” Signed, “Patty Remaley.”
Here’s what kind of symbol Patty Remaley was. First of all, Patty Remaley was rich. Patty Remale didn’t have an ordinary walking-around family. Patty Remaley only came to the Warren G. Harding School because her parents felt that she should know something about the hoi polloi. And we were the hoi polloi. She was studying us like bugs. And she did not take part in our little bug-like games under any circumstances.
She was so remote that, as far as my knowledge is concerned, Patty Remaley never attended any kid parties. We had these parties where me and Schwartz and Helen Weathers and Esther Jane Albery played spin the bottle. Whoever it pointed to they had to kiss. That was the whole point. It was awful being kissed by Schwartz. You just can’t trust a Borden milk bottle. Patty Remaley would never get stuck in a spin-the-bottle game with me and Schwartz and Flick. She never even said anything to us, not even “hello.” Patty never said things like “Get out of my way.” She just walked through the halls, this magnificent blonde image. This glorious nymph, deep in the heart of a forest of erotic desires such as we knew her at the time.
END OF PART 3
A current master of the pop-up form is Robert Sabuda, who has designed and published dozens of pop-up books. He is constantly complex, clever, and elegant. Possibly his best-known single image is at the end of his Alice in Wonderland, in which the deck of cards flies through the air.
Sabuda’a Alice above. Dinosaurs below
showing 4 side flaps, which reveal more pop-ups.
One of my great favorites is Michael Foreman’s Ben’s Box, a seemingly minor, fairly small and slim volume. I especially admire it because of its self-reference-to-its-medium, contrasting its flat pages with dimensional ones–it uses the contrast between the mother’s prosaic real life (flat pages), with the boy’s fantasy (pop-up movement, dimension, and even sound.) The mother gets a washing machine in a big cardboard box. Mother is involved with the work-a-day machine and Ben creates his imaginary world with the box. The illustrations on the mother’s page-openings are flat. Ben’s imaginary world of the box is pop-up-dimensional and full of movement—and, in its exuberance, beyond adequately depicting here. I show the bland, flat image of the machine’s arrival.
Almost all pop-up books illustrate real objects or ideas, but David Carter’s pop-ups are pure abstraction. He artfully plays with the medium. Taking the medium and expressing the pure joy of its seemingly magical explosions into three dimensions.
I could go on for hours, just illustrating the variety of ideas and paper-engineering techniques—including even paper-created sounds made from the opening of the pages. For example, in a book on desert creatures, upon opening the page showing a rattlesnake, one hears the rattling—created by hidden paper in zig-zag cut, a separate stiff paper with its edge moving over the zigs, creating the sound.
I have dozens, and I’m constantly amazed that such complex dimensional figures, when slowly collapsed, enfold back into each other and close into a (usually bulging) flat book.
Some simple, older pop-ups are found in a few books
hundreds of years old,
simple shapes rising up, showing some scientific principle.
All good pop-ups are adventures–into the book-world
of paper engineering–into joyous wonders.
The next day me and Schwartz, Flick, and Bruner make a B-line to the alley. There’s a whole new bunch of teeth. This goes on for about three weeks. I’m collecting some of the greatest teeth you ever saw in your life. I’m hiding them every night under the bed.
One night I reach under my bed and the teeth are gone! My mother has cleaned out all the dirt and all the little grubbles that’s under the bed. All the footballs and all the shoes and junk are all neatened up now, but my cans of teeth are gone! My mother has been out shopping and I hear her coming up the back steps. Oh my god! I try to make it out the front.
“Stop!” she says.
“What do you want, ma?”
She says, “Whose teeth are these? Look at this!” She has the cans. Where did you get these?”
“Where did you get these teeth? I’m giving them back to whoever they belong to.”
“Aaaa…we were…me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner…aaaa”
“You and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner too?”
“Yea, we were coming home from school, aaaa…”
“Just a minute.” She gets the phone and dials and I hear her talking. “Mrs. Schwartz, will you please look under your boy’s bed.”
Then you hear out of the phone, “Arrrrrgh!”
She says, “I have cans here, too. I’ll call Flick’s mother. Yes. No, I’ll find out. You stay there. Alright.”
She dials the phone. I’m a fink. I can just see poor Flick walking around innocently when the phone rings. My mother says, “Mrs. Flickinger, will you please look under Flick’s bed. “ Pause. “Just look.”
I hear “Arrrrrgh!” They live only four houses down and I can hear it from the phone and also from down the block, like stereo. There’s a pause and then I hear Flick, “Waaaaaaaa!” The long arm of retribution.
My mother turns to me and says, “Alright now. Where did you get these? You can’t lie to me! Don’t lie!” How many times have you been told that as a kid? And how many times did you lie last week alone? Every time I hear the word “lie,” I taste my mother’s universal panacea for lying, a brand new bar of Lifeboy Soap, right in the mouth.
There is that pause. “Where did you get them?”
“Well…we…me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner…” I’m wildly grasping. She never really knew that me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner spent almost our entire kid world looking for stuff in the garbage. I remember coming home from kindergarten and finding stuff that was far more educational than blocks.
MORE TEETH TO COME.
Even to this day that scene goes on and on and on. The irises are out there growing. The chain reactions that we make in our lives. And every time now, when I pass a salesman in the hall, without fail I have that funny feeling down in the pit of my stomach. I have the feeling that somehow, I can’t explain it, that somebody is going to sentence me to go back to selling seeds again. Somehow it’s still out there, those doors—knock knock—“There’s nobody home I hope I hope I hope I hope.”
By the way, kids, that preceding lecture will be filed under “Real Education,” as opposed to the education you’re actually gonna get.
THUS, WITH A SHEP-LESSON-TO-BE-LEARNED, ENDS “SELLING SEEDS”
NEXT KID STORY FORTHCOMING
BOOKS Intro and Chapter 1 of 1
As a Boy Scout, Second Class, for the reading merit badge I began my list of books read, passed the test and got the badge. I kept up my have-read-list for about sixty years, and found that, over the decades, it averaged roughly three books a month read. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, various fiction and non-fiction titles, and lots of books on art and literature. I’ve written several unpublished novels and over 150 poems, of which two were published in a poetry journal.
When I’d already begun my fascination with books as a kid, I didn’t want to be an astronaut or a baseball star, I wanted to be a librarian or win the Nobel Prize in literature. I did neither, but I’m married to a librarian, and between us, spread throughout the house, we have about 7,000 books, some featured in our headboard.
Our King-size Headboard
Although I continue to read, my books-read list numbers fell calamitously. Now I read very little “great literature” (historically acclaimed novels)—I’ve been too busy researching and writing all my stuff about radio humorist Jean Shepherd. Regarding this current obsession, I’ve two published books and several articles in periodicals, and nine separate descriptive folders included in boxed CD sets of his recorded programs for syndication, and posted over 400 illustrated blog essays about him. Shepherd came along, probably, just in the nick of time to satisfy my need to read and write, as well as providing a birthplace to accommodate my ARTSY essays.
BOOKS–WRITING AND READING
In my own defense for not keeping up my pace of reading, I’ve written and designed
the potential covers for three unpublished novels:
The fictional story of a young American man who is convinced that he’s the modern return of Jesus. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters synopsizing chronologically, the entire history of the Earth in what I see as a vast outwardly spiraling evolution. (Outrageous.) Never published.
Inspired by my disastrous marriage to a young woman from Granada, Spain. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters—of my life. A young American fellow, inspired by reading about the Spanish Civil War, joins with Spanish terrorists in Granada to kill the Crown Prince. (Rageous. Dramatic.) Never published.
Inspired by my anthropology-based sojourn in Peru. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters—of my life. A young American exhibit designer bests (is sort of responsible for the deaths of) several American anthropologists, thus gaining the love of a young American woman. (Never published.) Except for no-cost self-publication.
Yes, the fictional protagonist of each of these extravaganzas seems like me. The true/fiction nature of my novels was inspired by the influence of two books that did similar things with truth and fiction: Moby Dick, and John Dos Passos’ U. S. A. Trilogy. And inspired by Carlos Baker’s critical analysis, Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, in which Baker describes how various real-life interests and experiences of Hemingway became the inspiration for aspects of his novels.
A Designed “Poem”
About Designing a Poem
Eventually, all readers and writers have got to try poetry. I read some, I understood little. I read books on what poetry means, how it’s written, and how to write it. I wrote over 150 poems, some not too bad. I got two published in a serious Canadian poetry journal:
Oh, Yes, and Poems Published in
The Magnetic Poetry Book of Poetry
The company that produces the kit with little magnetized words to be made into word-groupings to stick on refrigerators, devised a contest for a book based on poems that only use words from their kits. They published two of mine, one of which has a typo. (Discover below!) Decades later, the book can still be found in book stores, meaning that these two poems of mine have probably been read by more people than any poems by great American poet Robert Frost. (Holy moley!)
A Magnetic Poem
While in my poetry-writing phase, I encountered a poetry-writing contest at a crafts fair.
“In a few minutes, write a poem on the special star-filled paper provided.”
Tribute to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Worthy of my egotism as are the above mighty efforts,
I’m most proud of my multiple published and unpublished works
about that great American humorist,
Jean Parker Shepherd.
It’s getting kind of dark by now and I’m slowing up. I am no longer wound up like a spring. I’m getting real slow. I get down by the woods where the Beegees live. The Beegees are a large Germanic family. They all have very wide faces and they have wide-faced dogs named Fang and Claw. They live in the woods. They have about nine gigantic girls named Brunhilda. I knock on the door and a large girl says “Vat do you Vant?”
I say. “Seeds. I have seeds.”
“Ve don’t want no seeds.” Boom! Pow!
Down the stairs I go, I turn right and by now it’s suppertime. As I come home, my seeds are trailing behind me, leaving a whole long line of little nasturtium seeds behind me. I can see them shining in the moonlight.
I’m home and I take my seeds and I put them on the dining room table and my mother’s out in the kitchen stirring the red cabbage and my kid brother’s in the john. Home. It’s home for supper and stuff and I’m fooling around, I’m very depressed. I’m failing the World Book people and everything. We want the World Book for our own classroom. Every class should have a World Book and here I am lousing up already. No World Book—we’re going to have a rotten, lousy, terrible, terrible party at Halloween where there’s not gonna be any candy corn, not gonna be any streamers.
Then I begin to worry about the other kids. Obviously other kids like Jack Robinson and Maurine Robinson are out there selling like mad. I’m in the living room and my mother’s paying absolutely no attention. She knows I’ve been out with the seeds.
Finally the supper’s ready, the old man comes out of the basement. He comes in, sits down. I’m sitting.
My mother says, “How are the seeds? Did you sell any seeds?”
Well, I did not realize—never did I realize until that very minute, what kind of a life my old man must have had. Forever and ever and ever, it turned me away from the whole field of selling. I could never do it ever again. And I never realized until that moment what my father’s life must have been like all of his life. Nothing to do with Willy Loman either. I remember that always there was on the wall of my old man’s office a big thing called the sales chart. As a kid I thought it was great, ‘cause they had red ribbons on it. They had different guys’ names like Zudock, Gertz, Shepherd. I never realized that those lines were life and death to those poor clowns, and represented fifteen million hours of defeat.
The old man says, “What are you doing, selling seeds?”
I say, “Yeh.”
He says, “Well, how’d you do?”
“Mrs. Bruner’s gonna think it over.”
Mrs. Bruner is going to think it over. Oh boy! He knew the Bruners. Even at that hour we could hear Mr. Bruner starting to yell. He’s falling up and down the basement stairs. What he did—in the basement he made stuff out of raisins in between true drunks when he’d go out and buy stuff. I don’t know how he did it but he made it out of raisins and apricots, which they got from the relief. So Bruner’s yelling and falling and Mrs. Bruner’s thinking it over whether to buy nasturtiums. I, as a kid, believed it.
My old man says, “Oh, she’s going to think it over. Well, how many do you have? Let’s take a look at these.” Our family is definitely a non-garden family. Our family is also a non-dog family. I come from a long line of dog-kickers, actually. “What about the seeds? Let me look at the seeds.”
So I get the seeds from the dining room. My mother says, “These are very interesting.” The nasturtium seeds are falling out of the bottom. She’s looking. We’re all sitting around with the red cabbage. She says, “You mean you can grow these flowers?”
On the cover, of course, are these gigantic morning glories that are about three feet across, seventeen different colors and the hollyhocks are thirty feet tall. Red, purple, green, blue, white. So she says, “That’s very interesting. How much are these?”
I say, “Well, they’re ten cents apiece.” I had about twelve packages. The total investment was roughly a dollar and a quarter. My entire stock. That’s at retail. I don’t know what Miss Shields paid for them.
She says, “Very interesting.”
My old man says, “How do you sell seeds? What do you tell ‘em?” This is very definitely a non-seed neighborhood.
I take out the little folder. “It says everybody wants seeds.”
He says, “Everybody wants seeds?” Well, my old man works for a milk company. You would believe that everyone wants milk, wouldn’t you? Have you ever tried to go out door to door to sell people milk? More guys prefer beer. You’d be surprised. There are more non-milk drinkers, who, if told that everybody wants milk would bust a gut laughing!
So the old man says, “You know, that’s a funny thing.” He says, “That’s what they tell us at the office: ‘Everybody wants milk.’” Visions of Mr. Bruner are dancing in his mind, you know, trying to sell Bruner a half a quart of milk. Ridiculous scene.
So I say, “Well, everybody wants seeds.”
He says, “I’ll tell you what. Go get my wallet.”
I get it from the top of the refrigerator.
He says, “How many are there?”
I say, “There are ten or twelve.”
And he gives me a dollar and a quarter and says, “Is this enough, now?” And he takes the seeds.
He’s got a handful of packages and he throws them like cards across to my mother and says, “Here, you’re always hollering about flowers. You always want flowers. You’re always saying I never give you flowers. Here’s some flowers. Make your own. Here.”
[Well, gang, in one short spurt, ol’ Shep has denigrated (1) selling stuff as a way of making a living; (2) dogs as pets*; and, despite a positive mark showing his dad’s love/compassion in buying little Shep’s seeds, (3) his father exhibiting nastiness toward his wife.]
* Some time later, as he gives doggie roles in two of his video productions, he will apparently come to love his dog Daphne.
MORE SEED-SELLING TO COME
I got home with my kit and put it on the dining room table. My mother came in and she looked at that thing and she said, “Oh, no.” She knew. It was beginning to start—the business of selling the tickets, selling this, selling that. Selling the chances on the big mop they’re giving away down at the school, or on the Ford or whatever. “Oh, no!”
And I said, “Yes, I am going to sell seeds. Miss Shields says it’s very easy.”
That afternoon I began on my career, which has not yet ceased, I’d like to point out. Not yet has it ceased. I went next door to Mrs. Bruner. Big, old, fat Mrs. Bruner. Mr. Bruner had not worked for about five years and when he did work he drank it up immediately. About the only thing that Mrs. Bruner owned was a complete set of used clothespins. I went right up and she came out and said, “Junior’s not here.”
I said, “Mrs. Bruner, would you like to buy some seeds?”
“Would you like to buy some seeds?”
“Seeds? What kind of seeds?”
I said, “Peony seeds.”
Well, Mrs. Bruner’s backyard consisted of large pieces of tin, it consisted of old tires, it consisted of piles of wood and a couple of things that were dead.
She said, “Seeds? What kind?”
I said, “Peony. I have nasturtium, I have here morning glory. Look at these beautiful morning glories.”
She said, “I’ll think about it. You come back later.”
Well, there was a nibble. So I turned around and went down the steps and about fifteen feet away, at the next house, I’m knocking on Mrs. Vanhusen’s house. Mrs. Vanhusen’s husband ran away from her thirty-seven years before. Mr. Vanhusen was only a legend in the neighborhood. So Mrs. Vanhusen was a very angry lady. As a little kid you don’t think about these things. Tennessee Williams was only a rumor.
So I knocked on the door and I said, “Mrs. Vanhusen?”
“What do you want?” I’m a kid. She never had a kid.
“I have seeds.”
“I don’t want no seeds.” Bang!
Well, now I know, Mrs. Vanhusen, I understand. I know what it’s like when a kid comes around and sells dreams and flowers—nasturtiums and stuff.
So I pulled down my earflaps and I proceeded next door to the Emdees. I have to explain to you about the Emdees. That was another problem. The Emdees had the only true juvenile delinquent in the whole block. The Emdee kid was fantastic. I’ll tell you, you talk about a precocious kid? I think Emdee, at the age of about four or five months, was already making some of the more Freudian experiments in the neighborhood. And he was about seven when already mothers of daughters were calling up to complain. This is the kind of kid this guy was. I came up on the steps and I knocked on the door. Mrs. Emdee appeared, like the wrath of god.
Mrs. Emdee was used to people knocking on the door, and she said, “Dick is not here, and he’s not been here for over a month. He’s visiting his grandmother in Indianapolis. Now I don’t care what your mother says, tell her to come over herself.”
Oh boy. So I turn around and go down the steps. My little kit is getting heavy. I’m only in second grade, you know, and my seeds were dripping out. My nasturtiums were dripping behind me and they were getting kind of sweaty from my picking them up and showing them.
MORE SEEDS TO COME
FOUND IN TRANSLATION A Humument
A “treatment” of a corny, 3-decker Victorian novel, described as
“An 1892 Victorian obscurity,
A Human Document by W. H. Mallock,” transformed into
a modern artist’s book by Tom Phillips.
Browsing in one of New York City’s wondrous art book stores about a quarter century ago, I came upon a book I’d never heard of, A Humument, described as “a treated Victorian novel” by Englishman Tom Phillips. I flipped through it and bought it, fascinated. About 5” X 7” it had about 360 color-pages of strange artwork with words peeking through—the original text of the 1892 novel.
Eventually Phillips Produced 5 Editions,
Each With Some Changed Layouts.
The flyleaf of said marvelous book states:
In this unique fiction, word and image meet with a richness scarcely seen since Blake. Already with a cult following via literary and art magazines it is now available for the first time in book form produced under the direction of its author.
He writes “I took a forgotten Victorian novel found by chance. I plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems, erotic incidents and surrealistic catastrophies which seemed to lurk within its wall of words. As I worked on it, I replaced the text I’d stripped away with visual images of all kinds….
FOUR DOUBLE-PAGE SPREADS
I feel rather sorry for and yet envious of the original, forgotten author, W. H. Mallock, poor fellow-novelist, arbitrarily plucked and thrust into a kind of ignominiously glorious, wacky, and marvelous immortality. Creator Phillips ends the book’s introduction—which he places at the end of the book—“In a sense, because A Humument is less than what it started with, it is a paradoxical embodiment of Mallarme’s idea that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.
I SINGLE THIS ONE OUT
FOR ITS TEXT.