POST-OP WEEK 71
week of June 7
When my dad packed us up for the summer and shipped us to our summer house in Wisconsin (He’d drive us all up there in my mom’s station wagon, he’d do all the driving, then take an Amtrak back, leaving the car with mom.) I guess my mom packed my clothes, I don’t remember choosing and packing anything to wear. But I do remember choosing just the exact toys I wanted to bring.
I had these cool, rubber knives that I always liked. They looked real enough, at least to me, but made out of thick, red plastic. The top of their handle was some sort of hand holding onto a ball of some kind.
I’d pack my cap guns.
And I’d bring some G.I. Joes. I’d choose a few, 2 or 3, to go on a “mission.” At my peak, I probably had 20 G.I. Joes: redheaded Army guys, blonde sailors, each one with that scar on their cheek. They came out with “foreign” G.I. Joes after a while and I had some of those— a German, an Australian, a Japanese soldier. There were a couple of them that I tricked up, added an eye-patch from another toy line, I’d give them the cool looking rifles. They were the spies. They had a secret headquarters under my bookshelf in my room. It had a sliding panel that moved aside (when I pulled it) to reveal even more cool equipment. I’d pick a couple of those to go on the mission to Wisconsin for the summer. Of course, it wasn’t Wisconsin, it was a distant planet or a mysterious island that needed exploring.
I’d take their underwater gear, scuba suits or that cool deep-sea diving suit with the cool screw-on helmet and the little porthole window that could open up. I’d take them in the car; it was some sort of transport. I’d play with them on the beach or in the lake.
The problem with G.I. Joes, though: when you got them wet, they’d eventually rust on the inside. Their arms were held together inside with a big elastic band through the hinges in their shoulders. And when that got wet it’d rust out and his arms would fall off. My best friend, Jim tried to fix his (because his parents only bought him the one, I think, even after his became armless) with a rubber band tied inside, but he could never get it tight enough so his GI Joe went around with these limp arms that hung by his side all the time.
I’d just pretend my armless GI Joe got sucked into an interstellar vortex or some evil genius zapped him into another dimension and then I’d store them away in a box.
I had a bunch of my G.I. Joes arranged on this swinging chair thing we had on our swing set. They’d be clinging to various parts of it as a training exercise of some kind, then I’d push the swing chair higher and higher until they started flying off in all directions. This was fun until one of them cracked off a hand. I think I tried glue but ended up giving him a hook made out of a bent paperclip taped to his wrist.
When I’d come home from Wisconsin after the summer, the G.I. Joes would come back to base, to re-join their unit.
My dad got us season’s tickets for shows at the Auditorium Theater downtown off of Congress Pkwy. So four or five times a year, he’d stick my little sister and my mom and me in the car and we’d drive aaaaalll the way into the city to watch a ballet or western dancers leaping around to Copeland or the Nutcracker at Christmastime.
I don’t know how he did it, but my dad got us front row center seats. Maybe he “knew a guy” or paid someone off, I don’t know, but there we were right behind the conductor. Mom, dad, my sister, and me right down front. I’d hang over the wall sometimes and look into the orchestra pit to watch the musicians warming up. Sometimes the conductor would turn around angrily and shush us when we’d crinkle candy wrappers.
Now I’m spoiled, of course, and don’t go to many concerts unless I can get up close— which happens sometimes with my wife’s connections.
POST-OP WEEK 72
week of June 14
My dad had a best friend named Jack… I know he was my dad’s best friend because he told me once, thinking about Jack after Jack died: “If you get one good friend in your life… your LUCKY!” Gesturing with a beer, probably.
I’m sure they were friends from the old neighborhood. Even though my dad didn’t have the best relationship with his parents, he always spoke of his childhood with a reverence. But it was mostly about the times he “ran” with his “gang.” They were a gang in the sense of The Bowery Boys, or the Our Gang comedies— a bunch of kids hanging out all day getting into trouble that was just short of illegal (or sometimes just over the line).
I don’t know how much of it was true or how often these great episodes really happened but my dad would tell us every so often about what he’d do with his buds.
They all had nicknames, apparently. There was Whitey, Pinky, Lippy, and my dad’s nickname was Snoopy. Whitey had something to do with his hair, I think, he may have gone prematurely gray. Pinky was something about his pinky finger. Lippy, I know was called that because he’d smoke his filterless cigarette so far down, he’d burn his lip. One of them might’ve been Jack, I don’t know… They called my dad Snoopy because he was “always snooping around” — whatever that means.
My dad told a story about how they’d steal car batteries from the back of the junkyard (They’d lower a line with a hook over the fence, hook the battery and pull it up to them. Then run around to the front and sell them back to the junkman.) He talked about taking the streetcar to the suburb I grew up in to go swimming in the Des Plaines River: about four blocks from where we’d end up moving. They had an old clunker they’d go joyriding in.
Jack was how my mom met my dad… I always thought this story involved my uncle but my sister now tells me that Jack was how my mom and dad met. My mom had a blind date with Jack but he stood her up. A day or so later, she saw who she thought was Jack from across the street and started giving him crap. It wasn’t until she got right up to him and he turned around that she discovered it wasn’t Jack. The rest is my family’s history.
I don’t know how old he was at the time, but Jack died one day of a massive heart attack while waiting in his doctor’s waiting room.
A lady handed me her baby once. On Michigan Avenue. I never met this woman (or her baby), but she was struggling with one of those collapsible strollers while holding her baby. I was coming around the corner just as she was trying to get the thing open. I guess maybe a stopped for a split second, thinking that I might help her, pull open the stroller when she handed me her child.
I knew how to open strollers like that; we had one. I also knew how to hold a baby because we had one or two of those, too. So I guess I was qualified to do ether job. I just didn’t think she’d pick that one for me to do.
Of course, I didn’t kidnap the baby, I held her until her unthinking mom finished, then gave her back and kept on walking. Did I somehow look incredibly trustworthy or did that woman walk away and all of a sudden realize what she had done and freaked out?
POST-OP WEEK 73
week of June 21
Whenever you’d go over to my childhood best friend’s house, you could hear voices. That’s because his mom had her portable AM radio on. It was one of those round things you see in old movies of the 50s. Half the face was slits where the speaker was and the other half was a big dial that never left WGN talk radio. Someone built a small shelf under a cabinet in the corner of their tiny kitchen for the radio to sit on.
Wally Phillips, Roy Leonard, all the WGN radio personalities, day after day, all day, because she never turned it off. (I asked my friend about it once and he told me it continually stayed on.) It was at a volume just loud enough to hear it if the house was completely quiet which meant if there was anything going on in the house, any noise at all you couldn’t hear it. But that meant it didn’t “fight” with any other sound. I guess that made it perfect: there but not there. All day, every day. This little guy in the corner in the kitchen under the cabinet.
It worked for her.
I got rid of my black, tricked-out stingray at some point and got a new bike somewhere in grade school: a big purple stingray! Purple banana seat. Three-speed shifter on the middle support bar— it was like Liberace’s bike, but I thought it was pretty cool for a little bit anyway.
I switched to a big, ten speed with the ram handlebars. My dad picked it up at a police auction, he told me. It was beat up but I fixed it. Got it a new front wheel. At some point my brother-in-law painted it— the color of my car (so I must’ve been driving by then? Although it could’ve been that I had the bike for a while, then decided to paint it. I couldn’t tell you.)
POST-OP WEEK 74
week of June 28
I’ve been seeing these commercials for the new Jay Leno show that’s premiering in September. They’ve got Jay at a table full of writers and he going over some of his wacky headlines. I’m sure they’re all actors, or maybe they’re the writers, but you don’t see their faces, you can just hear them, off-camera, making comments that may or may not have been improved on the spot, but were probably written, recorded, and dropped in later.
Anyway— it’s not the way they did it as much as it’s the situation.
Those commercials made me think about my comedy career, such as it was. And a turning point. I had been doing improv/radio/stage comedy for years before I fell into advertising. In the months leading up to me taking that copywriter job, the guys in the comedy group and I were networking with the guy we all knew (my wife knew him, too) from the old Chicago comedy days who was now a big wig on Conan O’Brien’s new, not-yet-on-the-air late night show.
This guy was a nice guy; he actually took my calls, and was looking at whatever we sent him in hopes of getting in as staff writers. We’d put together packets of old stuff we did for radio or stage. And we’d put together new stuff we wrote just for the try-out. The comedy guys’d come over to my house and we’d write bits for Conan into the night, in groups of twos, or threes.
We’d Fed Ex our stuff out and wait for his call to get Conan’s critique, secondhand. It’d be: he liked that bit okay, didn’t like that one, the one with the mime seemed expected, etc etc etc. We came up with some pretty funny things, I thought, things I’d like to see on TV. I never went out there to New York, none of us did. We never met with Conan, never hung out with the staff, cracking jokes (that’s how a lot of other people we knew got their writer’s gigs at various shows— hanging out, sleeping on somebody’s floor, giving away freebies ‘til they hired you.) (Of course, none of them were married with kids, they were younger than us by 4 or 5 years.)
Then Conan’s show debuted.
I watched the first show from my wife’s mom’s summer home in Wisconsin. I thought it was pretty good. It was funny. I laughed at some of the bits. They seemed tight and well executed. I wrote some more stuff because our bigwig buddy told us the door wasn’t shut yet, there still might be hope. The next night I watched again and it wasn’t as tight. Conan took too long to get to the joke, spent too much time talking about setting up the bit. I didn’t laugh as much.
The next night was the same thing, getting less funny (at least in my opinion) than the night before. As time went on Conan settled into this groove, this haphazard, threw it together, unfunny sort of delivery of skits that were strange for strange’s sake. I was still sending him things for a while, trying to tailor my submissions to what I saw him doing on his show. I’d write for his monologue in his style based on things I read in that morning’s paper. Or I’d think of weird bits for him to do or running gags that might go with the tone of the show. I’d type ‘em up and fax ‘em into our buddy at the show from my temp desk at the ad agency.
After a while, I stopped hearing from our buddy but sometimes I’d see one of my bits in a commercial for the show (I stopped watching). It’s not like they stole it, I told myself. I was freely giving them the stuff, it didn’t take me a long time to send them, and I came up with this stuff anyway, blah, blah, blah.
And our buddy did try and help me, try and pay me in a way when he recommended me to the Tonight Show!! (I got a call out of the blue from Leno’s assistant saying they were looking for a writer who was strong at sketch comedy and this guy gave them my name. YIKES! She asked if I could send some samples. Luckily I’d been writing… so I grabbed my best stuff, typed up a cover letter, and headed over to Fed Ex.)
(Needless to say, they went with someone else— a stand-up I knew who’d performed with the group occasionally when he came through town. I didn’t think he actually wrote anything, let alone sketches— a lot of stand-ups just make up the stuff they say on stage, then say it again night after night. I never would’ve thought about a Jay Leno gig, I never watched him; I’m a Lettermen guy. I always thought Jay was funnier before he got on the Tonight Show.)
When I fell into that fulltime ad job, I stopped sending my buddy at Conan anything.
Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I pushed harder for the Conan thing… Or if the Tonight Show happened. I wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t “settled” for a coveted copywriter job at one of the biggest agencies in the city, and at the time, maybe the world.
Then I wonder if I really could’ve gotten in at Conan’s show, or if I had, how long I could’ve lasted. How long could I have written jokes I didn’t like for a guy I didn’t think was that funny delivering them? Could I have sat a table with Leno like in the commercial and laughed at his dumb jokes?
I had a bit of adjustment writing jokes for Jenny Jones when I worked on the comedy show she did in Las Vegas. I tried. I got it, sometimes, but I always thought she liked this other writer’s stuff better, this woman who seemed more connected to Jenny’s anti-men shtick. They had a better rapport.
I write lots of stuff now, in advertising, that my boss changes, or the account people or the clients change and change some more. “Show business” couldn’t be too much different than that. Except that they expect jokes and skits and I don’t know if you can fake that. I probably made the right choice.
I found a penny on the floor of the cab that took me from the airport to the TV studio in Las Vegas where they were producing the 30 “practice” shows for Jenny Jones back in ’89. I wasn’t a superstitious person until then, I don’t think. As a photo assistant and photographer I routinely walked under ladders. We broke mirrors and used them to reflect light on set. And every studio had a cat, some of them black. I didn’t knock on wood much or throw salt over my shoulder.
Then I found that penny.
I was still a limo driver before that. I’d worked on the Jonathon Brandmeier TV show for NBC, met some people, but then I needed a job and fell into driving limos. I was actually on a ladder in our old apartment, stripping paint when the phone rang. It was a producer from Jenny’s show calling to see if I could come out to Vegas for the weekend. A woman named Linda, a producer for Brandmeier, recommended me, said I was funny, said they should give me a call. They needed some funny sketches written because Jenny was going to be funny at first.
Balancing the cordless phone at my neck, I was trying to get the rubber gloves off, covered in paint stripper. I told them yes. It was, like a Wednesday or Thursday. They wanted me there Friday. They arranged the tickets, hotel, all that; all I needed to do was show up.
I had never done anything like that before. I’d only been on a commercial jet plane 4 or 5 times in my life at this point. My dad had us in trains or cars for vacations. And I wasn’t the fly-around-the-country ad guy yet. So getting on a plane in Chicago to Vegas, then getting off and hailing a cab to a TV station was new to me. It felt like the Big Time.
And here was this penny on the floor of the cab.
It had to mean something, I thought, no? Writing comedy for a nationally syndicated TV show (even Jenny Jones’) was this huge stroke of luck, wouldn’t you say? It had to have some significance. So I started picking up pennies. And I found a lot of them. On the street, at stores, cabs, cars, at work, inside, outside.
I found a lot of other things, too. Dimes, quarters, dollar bills. I found a $50 bill in a bar once. $60 on the train. And of course, cellphones, pagers, a checkbook (which I mailed to the guy on the front of the check). I found a transit check once on the sidewalk downtown, for over a hundred dollars.
[Transit checks are anonymous, there’s no name on them, but the person who lost this one paid for it out of their paycheck, so they’d be out that money. I asked the transit check woman at work if I could give it to her and she said there’d be no way for her to return it to its owner. But that the main office that dispatches them is in Boston. She gave me the number and I called them. They said they could get it back to its owner so I got their address and mailed it to them— I’m assuming they passed it along.]
But mostly I pick up pennies.
That first penny was in 1989. Of course, those Jenny Jones shows only lasted 2½ weeks but it got them to sign me up for the regular show when Jenny came to Chicago. The luck was with me, yeah! My stint at Jenny only lasted the first 11 weeks when they “changed direction” of her show (away from comedy and toward sleaze) and didn’t pick up my contract. Hm, guess the luck wore off, huh?
But I kept picking up pennies. And it kind of got a little weird.
I’d put them in a different pocket so they wouldn’t mix with my other change. Eventually, I’d take the found pennies and mix them so I’d spend them, send them out into the world. I was doing that for years until one day I told my daughter about what I was doing. She thought the luck thing sounded reasonable but she said I should keep the pennies.
I’ve been saving them ever since. I keep them in old jelly jars and salsa jars in my bedroom closet. I’ve got six completely full ones.
I try and tell myself that I’m picking them up and saving them because money is money. But I know I think, in the back of my mind, that it’s a weird luck thing. I’ll be out with the kids. We’ll get out the car in the Target parking lot, let’s say. They’re walking ahead of me and I’ll look down and find a penny. One of the kids, who’s just walked over the same spot grunts, “Uggghh! How’d you find that? I didn’t see a penny there!” Ah, but I did. Because it’s my luck.
I stop and bend down on a busy sidewalk to pick one up, ticking people off behind me. I’ll see one on my way up an escalator that I didn’t see until I passed it so I double back just so I can pick it up. I stop on my bike, racing for the train in the morning, to pick up the penny I rode over.
I’ve got to think it’s because I figure I’ve had a lot of good luck in my life so far. We had some lucky breaks in the comedy group. My photography “career. ” Getting a copywriter job in a huge ad agency. Four beautiful, smart kids, a cute, talented wife, a great house and a good job during a recession. (Just typing about those things makes me think I’m “jinxing” it somehow!) I didn’t die from a heart attack because they caught it early. That makes me feel lucky.
I’m not psychotic about it, not yet, I don’t think I am; I’ve let pennies go if I really couldn’t get to them. But, yeah, I’ve got a thing for pennies.
diary continues July 2010...