For a program called Word Play in NYC on March 29, I read the following non-fiction pieces. The announced theme of the evening was experiences that were embarrassing or humiliating:
Will it surprise you to learn that I belong to an oppressed minority? A minority that has long been subject to humiliation, disgrace, and discrimination?
I grew up knowing I was different. I heard names, stereotyping, taunting chants in the schoolyard.
I hope you won’t find this too sensitive a topic—I belong to the 4 percent who have red hair—Yes! We who are called carrot top, copperhead,Woody Woodpecker.
We’re accused of being hot-tempered—And, boy, does that make me mad!!—Also, wildly lecherous. I won’t comment about that, since we’re also supposed to be untrustworthy and devious.
As a child, who would I identify with—Bozo the Clown?
In England, they even need a term for violence against the red-haired. They call it “ginger-bashing.”
No other group is singled out this way—except, of course, blondes—who are accused of being dumb and having more fun.
You may think I’m looking for sympathy, but no: there are those who find red hair very attractive—sometimes to the point of obsession—or, in fact, perversion—but, hey, you take what you can get. There’s even a loving name for a specific region of body hair: “fire bush.” (I’d be happy to explain, but not here.)
Despite centuries of vilification, we of the fiery four percent are gracious and welcoming. All you need to join our colorful cadre—which includes Vincent van Gogh,
Sarah Bernhardt, Henry VIII, and the current Prince Harry—can be found at your hairdresser or the drugstore.
So stand with us in expressing Ginger Pride. You won’t be sorry—you know what they say about us.
Every performer should be able to answer this question: “What was the worst egg you ever laid?” Here’s mine:
Sometimes it seems that anything can be the subject of comedy—even on television, and not only on cable. And, of course, much of the reality around us deserves a healthy dose of mockery. But an experience I had in the 1990s suggests that some topics will—or should—always be off-limits.
For a couple of years, I performed a sketch-comedy act with Myra, a friend and fellow writer. We played comedy clubs and several branches of the New York Public Library.
For a few weeks, we filled in at an off-Broadway theater on the nights-off of its regular attraction, a popular lip-synch artist who performed in drag. The device he used to obscure his male traits was always hanging next to the dressing room mirror—but that’s not what this story is about.
After either of us wrote the draft of a sketch, we would decide if it was worth rehearsing.
We explored romantic situations and the relations between boss and employee, or parent and child.
Myra played my mother in our version of the ballet Swan Lake—which became, in our fractured German, Shvan Lake. (It went like this: The prince tells his mother he vants to marry the enchented Shvan Qveen, and he vants the spell broken—not for her to stay human, but so she can stay a shvan. . . . You had to see it.) And that’s not what this story is about either.
Our method was the time-honored one of distorting some aspect of a situation to draw the action to an absurd conclusion.
In one of our work sessions, I mentioned Anne Frank, whose story I knew from acting in the dramatization of her diary. “What if she’d been like an American teenager?” I asked.
“How would they get her to go into hiding?”
Myra liked this premise and wanted to write the sketch. She had the excuse that her own father had been a refugee from Hitler’s Europe.
In Myra’s version, Anne asks if she would have to give up things like friends, lipstick, and strudel. Her father says, “Ja.” At the end, the strong-willed, selfish young woman
refuses to join her family. I know it doesn’t sound funny, but we counted on the appalling nature of the concept to make it work.
We decided to add it to our next performance, at a library on the Upper West Side,
which is a neighborhood known for its sophisticated, often Jewish, population. The building had a cozy performance space with a real stage. We had a good audience that evening, enjoying our literate comedy and mild social commentary.
As we got to the point in the running order for the new sketch, I whispered to Myra, “We can’t do it.”
Myra didn’t like last-minute changes. “We have to,” she said.
“We can’t,” I said.
We couldn’t go on with this argument on stage, so we started the sketch. As soon as the audience realized what it was about, the room became totally silent. Horribly silent.
In fact, they were aghast. As we went on, the silence—deeper than merely the absence of laughter—got even worse.
They didn’t applaud at the end of the sketch—at its clever, punchy ending—but we’d have been insane to expect them to. It was only after the next two or three sketches
that they were willing to respond to anything we did or said.
As Myra and I went on with the act in the following months, we never did that sketch again.
Then one night, after a performance for a handful of people at a dismal comedy club
(where at least the management didn’t treat us like garbage, which sometimes happened), we decided we weren’t young enough or hungry enough to go on in the comedy business. So our run was over.
Now, our agreement was that whoever wrote a sketch would own it. I’ve made use of several of the ones I wrote, including “Shvan Lake,” in print or in performances by various actors.
I’ve lost touch with Myra, so I don’t know if she’s done anything with that unfortunate sketch.
But I really doubt it.
When I was very young, I only spoke vowels. I think it was self-protection. If I left out the consonants, I wasn’t committing myself.
For some reason, people claimed not to understand me. Doctors assured my parents I wasn’t deaf or retarded; I would grow out of it. When I started first grade, in fact, I began to speak normally,
But something happened before that, when I was four. My uncle and aunt, and Cousin Judy, lived in the apartment downstairs. My father always said Uncle Martin married Beatrice because her family had a lot of money from the wholesale grocery business.
Judy was just six months older, so we were usually together—till one day I came upstairs crying. My mother investigated, and Aunt Beatrice said something astounding:
Judy’s elocution teacher said she shouldn’t play with me—because of my speech problem.
Elocution was one of those refinements, like piano and tap dancing, that parents forced on their little girls in those days. When I was older and went around the neighborhood,
I saw a sign in a first-floor window: “Olivia Merlof, Elocution Lessons.”
I knew Elocution meant some kind of recitations. Since Judy liked to order me around mercilessly—I could spend time with her now that my speech was okay—I didn’t know why the loss of her companionship ever bothered me.
Now fast-forward 60 years.
Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Martin had died years before. Judy had a successful career, managing many people. My mother had just died, so people were coming by to pay their respects. A woman said she was Mrs. Merlof from the old neighborhood.
“I was a dear friend of your Ahnt Beatrice,” she said.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “Did you used to teach elocution?”
She answered in a refined voice, “Yes, I did. Ages ago.”
“And you said my cousin shouldn’t play with me because of my speech? . . . I only said vowels,” I reminded her.
The 90-year-old former elocution teacher claimed not to remember the incident. I could see I’d made her really uncomfortable.
Now, it’s possible my aunt made it all up, afraid of downward mobility if Judy picked up speech habits from someone who sounded like an imbecile.
And maybe the desire to avenge past wrongs can spoil your present life.
Since I hadn’t thought about the incident over the years, this simply felt good, especially on that somber occasion.
Besides, Mrs. Merlof had to have noticed how nicely I spoke.
This next incident, I’m happy to say,involved someone else’s humiliation:
I was at the medical lab, along with seven or eight others, waiting for someone to draw a blood sample. No one was at the reception desk, since the company, to save money, had the phlebotomists sign people in and answer the phones, and they were all in the little back rooms with patients.
In fact, as we learned, the answering machine was on speakerphone.“Hello,” someone said after the phone rang, thinking he was speaking only to a machine. He gave his name and address, audible to all of us.
“I was told by Dr. Schultz to deliver a stool sample to your lab. Okay, but how do I get it in the little jar?
“Do I have a bowel movement as I usually do, and then scoop a little out? Won’t it be contaminated by the water?”
By this time I was rushing to the back rooms to find a technician. “The answering machine is broadcasting someone’s private details!” I said.
One of them rushed out. “It’s supposed to be off!” she said.
“It isn’t!” I told her.
The terrible thing was that I knew the caller. After that, it wasn’t easy to look at him with composure when we met on the street.
This is something I’ve been told I should be embarrassed about. And I am. I really am. But it’s complicated, as you’ll see:
In the 1970s I worked for a company that published educational magazines and books.
A poem of mine was used in one of the magazines. Since it was something I’d written before, and not work-for-hire, I retained the copyright. (Keep that in mind—it’s an important detail.)
This is the poem:
HOW TO AVOID CONTACT
If you keep your eyes straight ahead and your forehead tense
and your mouth straight, not frowning, not smiling,
then no one will try to talk to you.
Beware. If you let your eyes stray
even one quarter of an inch to watch another walker,
he may smile back, unless he too knows
and carefully observes these rules.
To bums who prepare with appealing looks
to ask for money, turn a brusque shoulder.
If someone bumps into you,
never say excuse me—nod, with a smirk.
Above all, avoid the tapping approach
of the blind man
and the slump and shuffle of the old.
They may ask you to help them.
The accompanying teacher’s guide suggested having students discuss topics like
irony and the value of compassion.
A few months later I got a letter from a Southern fundamentalist university that was often in the news for racism and other negative isms. Its publishing department wanted to reprint my poem in a textbook for Christian schools. If you remember, those were the private schools set up mainly so white kids wouldn’t have to attend the newly integrated public schools.
I ignored the letter, since I didn’t want any part of that university or its publishing venture. A few months later I got another letter, repeating the request. Two weeks after that, another letter came. The letters asked how much I would charge for the right to use the poem.
Because of my job, I knew what publishers were charging for reprint rights. These varied from $25 to use a poem by Robert Frost, to the $150 that T. S. Eliot’s estate demanded, even for one of his shorter poems. To get the university press off my back, I asked for an outrageous amount: $150. That was a lot of money in the Seventies, especially for someone a little less prominent than T. S. Eliot.
A few days later I got a reply. They accepted my terms and enclosed a contract for me to sign.
I realized then what must’ve happened: they’d gone ahead and printed the books, with my poem included, before they got my okay. This was before computerized typesetting and print-on-demand manufacturing. They’d have to destroy the entire stock of books if I denied permission, a loss of many thousands of dollars.
My own loss was sleep the next few nights, as the two little creatures on my shoulders fought it out. The angel on my right was horrified that I was tempted to take the money, because of what the university stood for. .
On the other hand (as the little devil on my left shoulder told me) the poem could encourage students to question the values of their families, their communities, and even the university that sold the textbook.
Furthermore, as a publishing professional, how could I sanction the destruction of books?
And, of course—the little devil was really clever—my appearance in the book would be an act of subversion, a poetic guerrilla tactic.
Last but not least, $150 would be very useful for the bad financial situation my family was in at the time.
Now, my friend Jim was the person I knew with the best liberal credentials. After college he organized workers for the Communist Party, which by then had been very much marginalized. Next he worked for civil rights in the South. By the time of my quandary, he was closer to the political center, after some disillusionment, and now that he was raising a family.
The next time we met for lunch, I told him the story. His response was: “Fuck it—take the money.”
And that’s what I did.
I wish I could say something dramatic happened. But no one mentioned seeing my name in the book or told me that his or her life was changed by experiencing my words. The money did, however, help us through a bad time.
Is that the moral then: Anyone can compromise his principles if the price is right?
Or is it: Struggle all you want with your conscience, but it may not matter anyway?
There’s a philosophical position I would probably take today: that ethics should be self-contained. That is, you do what’s right even if you’re the only one who knows, and no matter what the consequences are.
And yet a voice may be heard just below your left ear, saying:“Fuck it—take the money.”
I’m going to finish with an account of a recent situation:
A week and a half ago, on March 17th, in order to observe St. Patrick’s Day in the most tasteless possible manner, a website called Complex Magazine released a video called “Drinking Games,” which pitted 4 senior citizens against 4 college seniors. I was on one of the teams . . . . The senior citizen team.
I didn’t know ahead of time that the video would mean drinking beer, and could be seen to encourage binge drinking. Not only that, but we spent the day drinking real beer,
because they didn’t use ginger ale as a substitute, as we competed in Beer Pong, Cup Flip, and Anchorman.
A friend asked later, “Why would you do something so ridiculous?” and I answered,
after deep introspection, and with proper humility: “For the money.”
Well, this is the embarrassing part, now that nearly half a million viewers have watched it on YouTube and countless others on hundreds of sites around the world:
What if—after the stories and poems I’ve written, and the performances of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller—I am known for this—being one of four old fools getting drunk for the video camera?
Or as one website put it gracefully: Watch a Bunch of Old People Beat the Shit Out of College Seniors at Drinking Games.