Big Fun in Little Gravity

I was floating outside the cargo bay of the space shuttle when I lost my grip on the wrench I was bringing astronaut Ron Tanner. Slowly it drifted away from me and pinged off the faceplate of Ron’s helmet. Whoops-a-daisy. He gave me a glare which roughly translated as, “Kid, your Stuff ain’t Right.”

Now, you think, surely he’s making this story up. He doesn’t expect me to believe that spacewalks are among his oddball adventures. Ah, but the tale is true. Again, the alert reader may have noticed a telling clue in the first paragraph. Wrenches may strike helmets in the vacuum of space, but, lacking a transmission medium for sound waves, they won’t ping. Water, on the other hand, is an excellent sound conductor, four and a half times faster than air. (The speed of sound in water was first measured in 1826 by Swiss physicist Daniel Colladon and mathematician Charles-Francois Sturm. Colladon rang a bell underwater in Lake Geneva and simultaneously ignited gunpowder. Ten miles away, Sturm saw the flash and measured the time it took for the ring to arrive using a trumpet-like device in the water. They determined the speed of sound in water was 1,435 meters/second, doggone close to today’s accepted value of 1,439 meters/second. I mention this because doesn’t it seem that all the really clever experiments have been done? What passes for ingenuity today are advances like the Slurpee cup with the divider that allows two flavors to coexist in the same cup!)  The incident didn’t occur in orbit. It happened underwater. If you caught this, call NASA and request an application.

Until those lazy scientists get off their duffs and invent the anti-gravity ray gun heralded by comic books for decades, NASA has only two ways of simulating weightlessness on earth. The first is a white-knuckle ride in a modified Boeing KC-135A turbojet. By roaring up from 24,000 feet to 31,000 feet at a forty-five degree angle, then pulling back on thrust and coasting up and over the top of a parabolic arc, the aircraft can produce about twenty-five seconds of zero-gravity for experiments and astronaut training in its padded cargo bay. If you’ve seen Kevin Bacon squirt weightless blobs of juice in his mouth in Apollo 13, you’ve seen the KC-135’s handiwork. The cast and crew flew about five hundred arcs in the plane to achieve the real weightlessness depicted in the movie.

But the KC-135 has limitations: short zero-g durations, cramped test space, and a gut-churning trajectory that produces a one-third barfing rate among first-time fliers of the “Vomit Comet.” It’s not the sort of place astronauts can practice putting a pair of bifocals on the Hubble Space Telescope. For large-scale rehearsals of space operations NASA has only one option: neutral buoyancy. Making things like satellite mock-ups, tools, and space-suited Ron Tanners neutrally buoyant in water—that is, neither rising nor sinking—is a matter of attaching lead weights or foam.

The Neutral Buoyancy Simulator (NBS) at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama is a cylindrical tank seventy-five feet in diameter and four stories tall, containing 1.3 million gallons of water. That’s enough water to, uh… give 1.3 million people a gallon of water. It’s also enough water to submerge a full-size mock-up of the space shuttle cargo bay.

Of course, NASA wouldn’t be NASA without 1.3 million safety checks, one of which is a crew of safety divers at the NBS. And that’s how I found myself irritating astronauts like Ron. MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory sent me and a dozen other students to Marshall for the winter semester break to fiddle with some widgets that might prove useful in building the space station, or in more fundable terms, to conduct “Time and Motion Studies of Large Space Structure Assembly Using Underwater Simulation of Weightlessness.”

When I heard about the program I had to sign up, in keeping with my rule to never turn down anyone willing to pay for my certification in an expensive hobby like SCUBA-diving. Plus the gig seemed positively spa-like compared to the alternative: enduring a scrotum-retractingly cold January in Boston, my teeth chattering like a teletype. The continuously filtered water in the NBS has a gin-like clarity and is as warm as a pile of laundry fresh from the dryer. As added incentive, the three best-looking MIT women were part of this program and the thought of spending eight hours a day in close proximity to their wet-T-shirt-wearing, SAT-acing bodies was a sacrifice I was willing to make for science.

I never understood much of the actual research. The “large space structures” we built were giant tetrahedra composed of PVC pipe. I think it was the connectors between the pipes we were prototyping. Basically, my comprehension of events in the tank was limited to thoughts like, “I wonder if he’s going to connect the astrowhozit to that whizdiggy over there? He is, he is! Oh crap, is that astronaut motioning to me? Does he want this dealiebob I’ve been holding? Okay, hold your Tang! Let me finish scratching my back with it.”

We were supposed to take breaks from diving throughout the day so we wouldn’t develop the bends, but being young and therefore indestructible, I ignored the dive tables. Happily, when we did take breaks, the tank provided ample opportunities for monkeyshines.

One of our pastimes was a variation on that convenience store game where you drop a coin in a water jug and hope it flutters into the shot glass. If it does, you win a prize. If it doesn’t, Jerry’s kids thank you. We stood on the upper deck of the NBS, used the tank as our jug, played it with lug nuts, and instead of a shot glass, aimed for each other’s heads. This activity was banned the day I beaned an astronaut, though I thought a periodic lug nut shower made the simulation more realistic with all the space debris in low earth orbit.

Another diversion of mine was laying on the bottom of the tank, taking a big lungful of air, removing my regulator, and blowing air rings, like a smoker blows smoke rings. The compressed air doubles in volume as it rises and the rings eventually become necklaces of tiny bubbles twenty feet in diameter when they reach the surface. These air-wasting antics kept the SCUBA tank refiller guy at the top of his game.

The NBS features a number of observation portholes into the tank and these provided my greatest source of merriment. The NBS was on NASA’s public tour itinerary and visitors would gawk at us several times a day. As an aquatic attraction, I felt a Shamu-sized desire to perform. Sometimes I would wave at tourists wearing my “Creature from the Black Lagoon” Halloween mask, but generally I would remove my SCUBA gear and float by the porthole—inverted, eyes rolled back in my head, limbs limp, ostensibly drowned. When I heard screams through the inch-thick steel tank wall, I knew I’d given the folks their money’s worth.

If we happened to be exiting the tank when tourists were present, they assumed we were astronauts and invariably asked for our autographs. The NBS director had warned us not to impersonate astronauts, so I was very careful to sign my name Yuri Gagarin. (I’ve never understood the fascination with autographs. Once I was working as an extra on the movie Arlington Road and my job was to cross in front of the star. Between takes an onlooker asked for my autograph, so I wrote, A Person Who Walked By Jeff Bridges Repeatedly.)

At night the bevy of technobabes found a use for me, but not the one I had hoped for. I became their make-up assistant and hair stylist for wild nights on the town with local men. We had worked closely for so long that I achieved dreaded “like a brother” status. My duties also included being a guinea pig for various products the girls bought to save their skin and hair from damage due to daily immersion in the chlorinated water. One girl’s remedy for chemically-fried hair was to slather a thick layer of mayonnaise on my head and bake it in with a hair dryer. Submitting to this was a huge deal for me—I abhor all condiments and consider mayo to be the devil’s jissom. But I was desperate to please and went along. The next day I wondered whether the prankster had become the prankee. My scalp smelled like potato salad for a week.

Between hijinks I managed to absorb a few morsels of wisdom from MIT’s waggish Space Systems Lab director, Dr. Dave Akin. A true space zealot, Dr. Akin has probably logged more hours underwater in his research than the USS Seawolf. His “Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design,” a compendium of engineering humor, has become very popular on the Internet. Some observations include:

In nature, the optimum is almost always in the middle somewhere. Distrust assertions that the optimum is at an extreme point.

Mar’s Law: Everything is linear if plotted log-log with a fat magic marker. (You may have to be an engineer to appreciate that one. If you’re not, trust me, it’s funny.)

The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field. If your analysis says your terminal velocity is twice the speed of light, you may have invented warp drive, but the chances are a lot better that you’ve screwed up.

von Tiesenhausen’s Law of Program Management: To get an accurate estimate of final program requirements, multiply the initial time estimates by pi, and slide the decimal point on the cost estimates one place to the right.

Mo’s Law of Evolutionary Development: You can’t get to the moon by climbing successively taller trees.

Atkin’s Law of Demonstrations: When the hardware is working perfectly, the really important visitors don’t show up.

January drew to an end and it was time to pack up the gear and return to Ice Station Boston. I couldn’t afford to fly so I volunteered to drive the equipment from Alabama to Massachusetts. It was a smooth drive and I even had time to stop in Lynchburg, Virginia to attend a birthday party a friend was having in her family’s Tara-esque antebellum mansion. I didn’t realize it was a costume party until I got there. Luckily, I knew where to find an outfit, proving

Altes’s Law of Improvisation: When you entrust an Apollo spacesuit worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a college student, you can be certain he will find an occasion to wear it. And do the moonwalk.

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Posted in Collegiate Capers, Essays, Federal Offenses, Hijinks, Space Cases

Bill Clinton Hit on My Wife

Part One: The Den of Iniquity that is Bill Clinton’s Basement

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Bill Clinton’s got an eye for the ladies. I know because he hit on my (then-, now ex-) wife, Barb.

Barb was a press advance person on the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign. For those of you who don’t watch C-SPAN all day for fun, advance people are the behind-the-scenes people, the small team that travels days ahead of a presidential candidate to stage events for the media. Each camp sends about 300 of these presidential carnies crisscrossing the country, renting stages, chairs, tables, stanchions, rope, generators, lights, U.S. flags, state flags, sound systems, mult boxes, CD players, balloons, drapes, bunting, and nowadays, high-speed Internet access. Their job is to get footage on the evening news and worry about the smallest of details, like bending clothes hangers into diamond shapes and duct-taping them to the backs of flags to make them drape elegantly behind the candidate.

They are professional worrywarts who leave nothing to chance because they know the press corps will make an issue out of anything. Heaven help the presidential contender who walks into the Merrimack restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire during primary season and orders a ham and swiss sandwich. For the next two weeks all he’s going to hear is, “Swiss cheese, huh? What’s the matter, Lord Fauntleroy? American cheese ain’t good enough for you?”

Barb had done the same thing in 1988 on the doomed Dukakis/Bentsen campaign and had many fond memories of those days, like the time Dukakis told a group of workers at a St. Louis auto parts plant, “Maybe the Republican ticket wants our children to work for foreign owners, but that’s not the kind of a future Lloyd Bentsen and I and Dick Gephardt and you want for America.” Dukakis’s advance staff failed to tell him that the workers he was addressing had been employed by an Italian corporation for eleven years.

Then there was the infamous tank photo op, when Dukakis’s handlers let him take a spin in an Abrams tank, wearing a goofy helmet three sizes too big, looking really uncomfortable and not unlike Rocky the Flying Squirrel.

Good times, good times.

Luckily, Barb’s fingerprints were on neither of those two debacles. And so, in the summer of 1992, in perhaps the only situation when the words “Dukakis campaign” looks good on your resume, she landed a job doing national press advance for the Clinton campaign.

Being of German descent, Barb had exacting standards for everything in life, from T-shirt folding to permissible carpet vacuuming patterns. Her perfectionism extended to advance work and she often called me from the road after the news aired a clip of her event. “What did you think? Should I have used more bunting at that rally in Amarillo?” she would ask, forcing me to actually have an opinion about bunting. At an event in Carbondale, Illinois, she learned a painful lesson: Make sure you know who owns every building in camera range and their political leanings. The owner of one building unfurled a huge Bush banner behind Clinton in the middle of his speech, making that the picture of the day. Hers was a glamorous high-stakes job, with stratospheric highs and benthic lows.

Meanwhile I slogged away in my cubicle. I was the Director of Business Development for a company that made remotely-piloted aircraft, fittingly called drones because that’s what I felt like. While Barb was having cocktails with Wolf Blitzer in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, discussing policy options for health care reform, I was drinking burnt coffee with electrical engineers in an aircraft hangar in Manassas, Virginia, arguing over who would win in a fight between Batman and Spiderman.

As if her life wasn’t cool enough, Barb even managed to land a cameo in the Clint Eastwood Secret Service thriller In the Line of Fire. Director Wolfgang Peterson incorporated digitally-altered footage of a Clinton campaign rally she staged in Denver, and when the film was released, there was Barb.

It was fitting that she appear in a film about the Secret Service considering how much interaction she had with them. Advance people and the Service have conflicting desires. The Service would prefer that candidates campaign by waving at people from inside a bullet-proof Lexan bubble. Advance people want the candidate pressing the flesh on the rope line, shaking hands and kissing babies. Or is it shaking babies and kissing hands? I always forget. Anyway, Barb was an asset to the advance team because she had phenomenal pull with the Service and usually got her way. Later I learned that her clout with these presidential guardians may have been enhanced by her willingness to let Secret Service agents hide their Oswalds in her school book depository.

When the truth came out, I asked Barb, “Why?” Was it the dark suits and sunglasses? The microphones in their sleeves? The concealed Uzis? Their laconic air of unflappability? Their heroic self-abnegation? Did her Secret Service fetish stem from overexposure to The Wild Wild West featuring Robert Conrad in skin-tight pants and his saucy little bolero jacket? Her answer: she just got bored after seven years of marriage to a drone. I suppose I should have expected as much considering Barb allegedly had sex with my best friend during our engagement. Yes, I realize that the fact that I married her anyway makes me as dumb as a bag of Tony Danza pilots.

Aside from her liberal interpretation of our marriage vows, Barb and I had other differences. While Barb is a political junkie, I’m more of a recreational user. I can take it or leave it. Sure I’d had some fun pitching in with the campaign here and there. I ripped “Bush/Quayle” posters off telephone poles, but that was just because I consider illegally-posted signs to be ugly street spam. I helped assemble the briefing book to prep Gore for the Vice-Presidential debate, but that was just for the free pizza. I agreed to drive a Lincoln Town Car in candidate Clinton’s motorcade, but that was just for the thrill of speeding through red lights with a police escort.

So you can imagine my tepid response when Barb asked me to fly from Washington, DC to Little Rock, Arkansas, on election day to join her and, with luck, celebrate victory: “I’ll only come if you get me some face time with the member of the Clinton family I admire most.”

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll make sure you meet Socks.”

While some believe spoiler Perot cost Bush the election, I humbly suggest to future historians that Clinton rode to victory on the strength of my wife’s flag-draping skills. That evening when Clinton made his acceptance speech on the front steps of the Old State House, Barb maneuvered us a position right next to campaign strategist James Carville. I studied him and decided it was grossly unfair of Republicans to suggest that Carville looked like an alien, or a serpent, or a shaved cat. These are terrible exaggerations of his actual appearance, which is more like a Sleestak from Land of the Lost.

At the victory party, a Clinton aide pulled us aside at midnight and told us that the phones in the Governor’s Mansion were ringing nonstop as congratulatory calls poured in from around the world. Would we mind manning the phones? Right now.

Answer phones for the president-elect? Visions of telephonic mayhem danced in my head. Leader of the Free World’s residence. Speak, supplicant! Boris who? Yeltsin? Never heard of ya! Click.

Little Rock, Arkansas, capitol of the New Confederacy. Guess what? We secede!

So off we trotted to the Governor’s Mansion: Barb to play her role in history, me to start World War III. A guard escorted us to the mansion’s basement communications nerve center which also doubled as the Clinton’s rumpus room.

Soon Bubba himself stopped by. I even made him laugh by saying, “So, now that you’re President, do you think you’ll get President’s Day off?”

“Heh, heh. Why don’t you look into that and get back to me,” he said.

“I will, Mr. President.”

Although technically the proper form of address was still “Governor” or “Mr. President-Elect,” I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to punctuate a sentence with the words, “Mr. President.” As presidential joke-writer, Mark Katz, has noted, they add a certain gravitas to any sentence you might say. Consider the sentences:

“Hooters buffalo wings are delicious.”

“Hooters buffalo wings are delicious, Mr. President.”

See? No contest.

Though Clinton and I spoke for several minutes, I have absolutely no recollection of anything either of us said after the joke. That’s because our entire conversation was drowned out by my own blaring inner monologue.

Oh god, I am talking to the President. Don’t say anything stupid.

Too late.

Jesus Christ! The President just said something to me.

Wow. He’s pretty funny. Laugh. Wait! Not too much. Don’t look like a suck-up.

He’s still talking to me. I am the one person in the world talking to the President of the United States right now. Not the National Security Advisor. Not the Secretary General of the United Nations. Little old me. I wish Tracy Nolan was here to see this. She’d be sorry she turned me down for junior prom!

Damn, he’s the President. He could order me to stand on my head or punch Al Gore and I’d have to do it.

Where the hell is somebody with a camera right now? A dozen shots of me and the Chuck E. Cheese rodent and not one of this? Oh fate, you are indeed cruel.

If I make him laugh maybe he will like me.

If he likes me maybe he will appoint me to some cushy special assistant position on the Federal Maritime Commission.

I don’t even know what the Federal Maritime Commission does.

I wonder if my lack of knowledge about maritime issues is hindering my career.

Holy shit, this guy is charming. He’s making me feel so special. I can see why women get weak in the knees around him. Whew, is it hot in here?

Ask me to punch Al Gore, Mr. President. Or at least give him a wedgie.

Oh my god, there’s a letter opener on the desk! For all they know I could be some wacko and decide to stab the President with that letter opener. That is so irresponsible of them to let some random guy like me in here.

If I lunged at the President with that letter opener, I wonder how quickly the Secret Service agent in the corner would react.

I bet I could draw blood.

Not that I want to! God, what a bizarre thing to think.

That agent would sure be surprised though. He’d probably be aghast and thrilled at the same time. I bet he dreams about stopping assassinations.

Why is that Secret Service agent inching closer to me? Did he notice my eyes darting nervously between the letter opener and the President’s jugular vein?

I wonder if the Secret Service still has a file on me from that little incident at M.I.T.

It’s so selfish of me to tie up the President. He must have important things to do.

Wait, Mr. President! Don’t go! Not yet.

Oh well. At least I’ll always be able to tell my friends, “As the President of the United States once said to me…”

Oh god. I have no idea what he just said to me!

After my mind-erasing encounter with Clinton, he greeted Barb like they were old pals and even knew her name. I was impressed. Next, Clinton gave what might have been the first executive order of his presidency. Barb and I were supposed to forward calls from heads of state and governors directly to him, patch threatening calls to the resident Secret Service agent, and take a message from everyone else. We took our places at a couple of desks and discovered the aide wasn’t kidding. It was pandemonium. Press calls, V.I.P. calls, family calls, even drunken Villanova frat boys and San Francisco wine-and-cheesers phoned to invite Clinton to their parties, already in progress.

Barb was far more competent at this telephonic triage than I. At one point late in the night, I fielded two calls simultaneously: one from German leader Helmut Kohl and the other from a deranged Kentucky man describing how he was, at that very moment, carving the initials B.C. into a rifle cartridge.

That’s when I committed the first of three major errors.

I accidentally got the lines crossed and patched Billy Joe directly to Clinton and forwarded Helmut Kohl to the Secret Service for a shakedown. I would have loved to have heard that conversation. “Sure pal, you’re the Chancellor of Germany and I’m the Queen of Sheba. Now why don’t you tell me where you live?” On line two, I noticed that Clinton kept the psycho on the phone for a good twenty minutes. He was probably sweet-talking the guy out of hating him. He’s just that good.

Around four a.m. the calls tapered off, so I took some time to scope out the artifacts in Clinton’s basement like some nosy date rifling a medicine cabinet for incriminating prescriptions, searching for insights into Bill’s character. My earth-shattering conclusion: This guy is a reader. Or someone in the family is. Bookcases overflowed with biographies, history books, political treatises, and not just for show. These tomes had cracked spines, dog-eared pages, and big highlighted passages throughout. I wished I had a book to plant. Can you imagine Hillary stumbling across The Joy of Sex with Bimbos on his shelf?

Just when I got tired of snooping, to my rescue came a certain quadrupedal member of the First Family. Socks looked a lot like my own tuxedo cat, and turned out to be very friendly, no cattitude at all. I noticed he still had his claws and imagined him using Mary Todd Lincoln’s celebrated rosewood bed as a scratching post. I stroked him, gave him little paw massages, and told him all about the fancy living quarters he’d soon be occupying. I told Socks not to worry since it had been twelve years since Amy Carter’s cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang, had traipsed around the White House and they had probably swept up all traces of her by now. I suggested that, issues of territoriality aside, Misty Malarky Ying Yang was a damn good name for a cat. My beastly charge purred his assent. At sunrise he got restless and started mewling at the door, so I let him outside.

Around this time, the racket returned as morning drive time DJs called and tried to trick us into putting them through to Clinton. They feigned ridiculous yokel accents and pretended to be Roger Clinton. They impersonated gubernatorial mistress Gennifer Flowers. One caller claimed to be Virginia Kelley, the President’s mother. I didn’t want to foul up again, so I interrogated her. “If you’re the real Mrs. Kelley, can you please tell me where Bill Clinton was born.”

“Hope,” she said.

“Nice try, lady. The answer is Hot Springs,” I said and hung up. I knew my Bill Clinton trivia. That’s when an ashen aide sidled up to me and explained that although Bill Clinton was raised in Hot Springs, he was born in Hope. That was my second mistake of the night. When Mrs. Kelley called back a minute later I apologized profusely and put her through to her son.

Then the aide asked me where Socks was. Turns out ol’ Socks had a photo shoot that morning—Cat Fancy magazine or something. I told her I let him outside. That turned out to be my third mistake. Apparently, Socks was an indoor cat.

It was, even for me, an unparalleled flurry of bungling. In just eight hours I had managed to aggravate the German head of state, put a potential assassin in direct contact with the President of the United States, hung up on the President’s mother, and lost the First Cat. After a tense 48 hours, Socks returned to the Governor’s Mansion. Amazingly, so did I, although I was relieved of all phone duties. Basically, I hung out in Bill Clinton’s basement for the week, pretending to look busy.

Barb, as usual, was performing splendidly and was assigned additional responsibilities. One of her new assignments was managing the deluge of incoming mail. Now I don’t know if all president-elects get such a motley collection of missives, or just this one, but from day one, people sent him the weirdest stuff: allergy remedies, black velvet Elvis paintings, used books, cat toys, baseball caps. It was as if Clinton won the election and all over America people got the same idea: Let’s send the President the crap in our basement!

Some mail required special attention: requests for Clinton’s signature on a football to be auctioned off for charity, autograph requests from terminally-ill children, and other tear-wellers. Now I don’t think I’m divulging a state secret when I say that not everything bearing a presidential signature was touched by a president. The word “autopen” has been in the public consciousness for years. But I didn’t know there were human autopens. My wife was one of them.

Clinton himself coached her in the fine art of presidential signature forgery. Before long her “Bill Clinton” looked better than his. Hers was neat, confident, and stylish. His appeared rushed and sloppy. Like some harbinger of disillusionments to come with his Administration, the signature subterfuge really bothered me. At least with the autopen you’re still getting the President’s own personal holographic idiosyncrasies, albeit mechanically reproduced. With this setup, you’re just getting conned. Clinton wasn’t the first president to disappoint me (I’m still waiting for my “Whip Inflation Now” button, Mr. Ford). And I did envy Barb. Being able to mimic the President’s autograph does present some intriguing possibilities. If only eBay had existed back then.

At the end of the first week Barb introduced me to the three new basement aides who would replace the floaters. They were all cute, young, blonde things and all named Michelle. Barb and the Michelles were not oblivious to their eye-pleasing qualities and immediately dubbed themselves the “Basement Babes.” Barb asked me to do a better job at looking busy while in the basement, because it was becoming apparent that, aside from pilfering official stationery, I had no real purpose being there. A few minutes later Barb looked over my shoulder and noticed I was hurriedly scribbling equations.

“What are you doing?” Barb said.

“Looking busy.”

“No. I mean what the hell is that?”

“Combinatorics. It’s a branch of probability theory.”

“Why?” she said, her patience gone.

“I just thought it was interesting that you and the three other permanent staffers in Clinton’s basement would be attractive young blondes, so I decided to calculate the odds of it happening purely by chance. See?” I said and offered her my sheet:

Capture

“Are you nuts?” Barb said, tearing up my work. “What if CNN got ahold of that? Jesus! After that stunt you’re now three times more likely to be killed by me!”

I guess I was getting bored and missed my fellow engineers. They were simpler people who didn’t worry about politics. Or fashion. Or hygiene. Or social graces. I felt more at home with them. But I had to admit, life was interesting in central Arkansas in November, 1992. Anything could happen. The next morning Barb and I decided to get away from all the hubbub. The press was swarming around the Governor’s Mansion like wedding guests around an open bar, so we drove an hour to Hot Springs to check out the famous geothermal springs and Gilded Age bathhouses. We were walking by Bill Clinton’s boyhood home when a camera crew pounced on us.

“Can I ask you why you came here today?” an ABC news reporter asked.

Barb, who never saw a TV camera she wasn’t eager to speak into, immediately starting spinning. “I came to Hot Springs because I admire Bill Clinton so much that I just had to see his boyhood home. It’s a tribute to our country that someone from such humble origins can still grow up to be the President. He’s a man of the people who hasn’t forgotten where he came from. And I think the family values of this town will always be the bedrock of Bill Clinton’s moral fiber.”

The reporter gave Barb a thumbs up, then turned to me. “How about you, sir?”

Barb’s revisionist Norman Rockwell whitewash rankled me. Family values? Whose family? Which values? We’d just finished a tour of the town and the locals made no secret of Hot Springs’s colorful past. It wasn’t called the “Las Vegas of the South” for nothing. So I chimed in. “I agree. Family values like bathhouses, speakeasies, gambling, and brothels put Hot Springs on the map and made it a destination of choice for gangsters like Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde. I’m sure Hot Springs made Bill Clinton the man he is today.” Barb elbowed me, a little harder than necessary, so I continued. “Say, are you familiar with probability theory?”

“Okay, that’s enough,” said Barb. “We’ve got to get going.” Our interview aired the next day on Good Morning America.

My final night at the mansion it became clear to me who wears the jackboots in the Clinton family. It was around one in the morning and I was busy cramming Presidential Transition Team letterhead into my briefcase so I could send some fake letters to my friends appointing them Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs and whatnot, while Bill was in the basement clowning around with Barb and one of the Michelles. They were modeling a cowboy hat someone had sent Bill. Suddenly, in walked Hillary wearing a bath robe and no make-up, her hair up in rollers. Her face was contorted into a scowl that made my balls retract into my stomach. It was truly an Elsa Lanchester moment. If she didn’t actually have a rolling pin in her hand, I think my mind just connected the dots and drew one in.

“Bill,” she hissed.

“Okay, okay, just a minute,” he said.

“Now! I mean it!” The subtext of the situation was pretty clear. Theirs was a frosty marital bed. A forlorn Bill silently skulked out of the room while the rest of us pretended to be too preoccupied with the nearest piece of paper to notice the whip cracking on our nation’s next Commander-in-Chief. I felt perversely sorry for the most powerful man in the world. We all did. And in that moment I got the sense that everything that had been written about Bill Clinton’s skirt-chasing ways was probably true—he needed the outlet. Because never in my life have I seen a woman more corrosive to libidinous urges than Hillary Rodham Clinton. The sight of her that night haunts me still.

The next day I flew back to D.C. leaving my wife behind. To work long hours in Bill Clinton’s house. In his basement. On the night shift. Dear God! What was I thinking?

A couple weeks later, on Thanksgiving, I was polishing off my Swanson’s Turkey Dinner when the phone rang. It was Barb. She said that Hillary put the kibosh on the Michelles and had them replaced with less alluring aides. Then she said she had a special guest who wanted to say something. Bill Clinton got on the line and said, “Steve, ah jus’ wanna tell you that I sure enjoy havin’ your wife in ma’ basement. I don’t think I can let her go.”

Thinking quickly for once, I replied, “Well sir, to paraphrase Nathan Hale, I regret that I have but one wife to give for my country.” Did my pun go too far? Did I tempt the president and invite the mischief to come?

I don’t want to name names, so let’s just say that one night in mid-December Barb found herself alone with a certain priapic president-elect of a certain North American superpower in a narrow corridor of his basement. In the midst of talking about correspondence, he pinned her against the wall between his two forearms, looked at her with puppy-dog eyes and said, “Ya know, even presidents need hugs, too.” Then he proceeded to hug my wife for a period of time which was, as she put it, “uncomfortably long, much longer than a normal hug, like thirty seconds.” Barb pushed him away, feeling shocked, flustered, flattered, and vaguely insubordinate at the same time. She got back to work and they never spoke about it.

A harmless hug? Doubtful, given what we now know about Bill Clinton. As Vincent Vega observed in Pulp Fiction, a foot massage is never just a foot massage. Well, sometimes a hug isn’t just a hug. I wouldn’t last very long in cubeland if I tried a little hallway frottage with the buxom hottie from payroll. I liken Bill Clinton’s technique with women to that of a hotel burglar. He goes down the hallway checking doorknobs, looking for easy targets. If it’s locked he doesn’t beat the door down; he just moves on and tries the next one. Eventually he finds an unlocked door.

Given Barb’s past you may wonder whether more transpired and I only got part of the story. I know Barb. She freely confessed all her other affairs to me, so I’d have been the first person she bragged to if she’d actually banged a U.S. President. In fact, back in 1992 when my wife first told me about the incident, I must admit, I was kind of proud. I mean, he was the ultimate alpha dog and he wanted my woman. It’s not like it was the pizza guy putting the moves on her. Subsequent revelations about Clinton’s choosiness have devalued the compliment considerably.

In a way, Hillary and I made the same deal with the devil, though hers was on a massive scale. It’s incontestable that Hillary ignored her husband’s infidelities because he brought her closer to power. Likewise, I overlooked Barb’s affairs because she brought adventure into my life. Once I discovered I could create my own adventures, I was able to end my hollow marriage. It’s a shame Hillary can’t do the same.

 

Part Two: Becoming a Footnote to Scandal

The preceding essay was sparked by a Georgetown book release party I attended in the spring of 1998. The Lewinsky story had just broken, the press was beginning a two-year run of sustained batting practice with Bill Clinton’s balls, and people at the party were arguing about whether any of it was true. “Of course it’s true,” I said. “Clinton’s a total horndog. Hell, he even hit on my wife.” Bill Thomas, editor of Washington, D.C.’s Capital Style magazine, perked up his ears.

“If you can prove it, I’ll publish it,” he said. I was reluctant, feeling it might be a tad disloyal, but I told him I’d think about it.

At home that night I tried to work out the moral arithmetic, aided by my mental lubricant of choice, cranberry juice and vodka.

Cape Codder #1: Barb will go right up the flue if this story becomes public! But does anybody want to read a “hug and tell” story? Plus, how am I going to prove any of this? And for all his faults Clinton is still a pretty likeable guy. Do I really want to pile on? I’ll call Bill Thomas tomorrow and tell him I don’t feel right doing this.

Cape Codder #2: Besides, the Clinton machine has lots of foaming political attack dogs eager to bite inconvenient mailmen like me. They’ll call me a liar on national television. Remember what they did to Kathleen Willey? (A year earlier a widowed campaign worker named Kathleen Willey accused Clinton of groping her in the Oval Office in a manner very similar to what my wife experienced. The White House and its unblushing apologists smeared Ms. Willey brazenly.)

Cape Codder #3: No, I definitely can’t do this to Clinton. For Christ’s sake, I’ve gone jogging with the man. (Though lacking in the fidelity department, Barb did come with a few fringe benefits. In 1993 she wrangled me an opportunity to jog with the President. Surprising fact: despite all the jokes about Clinton stopping at McDonald’s to scarf down Big Macs during his jogs, he’s actually quite a fast runner.)

Cape Codder #4: Okay, wait a minute. No omerta binds me. What obligation do I have to either my ex-wife or Bill Clinton? Why should I be worried about loyalty to a serial adulteress? As for Clinton, he made his bed. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

Cape Codder #5: Come to think about it, I’m pissed at Clinton. Those jerks on his Transition Team stiffed me! It’s only fair that I get paid for the story, considering how they owe me. (After my week in Little Rock I went home to Virginia, quit my job in the drone factory, and weaseled my way into a staff position on the Presidential Transition Team in Washington, D.C., working with astronaut Sally Ride scoping out new directions for NASA. The Clintonites promised me a salary, but were slow to pay. I continued to work while their excuses piled up. In the end they reneged, so I ended up volunteering my time for three months. This stuck in my craw.)

Cape Codder #6: Screw ‘em! I’ll do it. This is a true story. Clinton’s behavior with women is deplorable. (Full disclosure: I’m a registered Independent who has gone Donkey more than Elephant. I voted for Clinton in 1992, figuring he was our best hope for health care reform, and in 1996, as a favor to comedians everywhere.) Let the chips fall where they may. Maybe the story won’t get much attention anyway.

At that point I committed the grievous sin of E.W.I., emailing while intoxicated. I wrote Thomas and told him I’d do the piece. (To avoid having to write “Bill Thomas” and “Bill Clinton” every time, from now on I am going to refer to Bill Thomas as Thomas, and Bill Clinton as Clinton) The next morning I woke up a little worried about what I’d gotten myself into. But soon the fun of writing the piece overtook my misgivings and I got lost in the process.

I realize that many people, especially female people, might think I’m a prick for writing the piece. They’re probably right. Keeping silent would have been the chivalrous thing to do. I could offer the William Faulkner Defense and insist that a true writer will use any material or circumstance available to him to tell his story. Said he, “Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate. The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” I could argue that, though I’m no Keats, ex-wives surely cannot expect more compassionate treatment than mothers.

Or I could point to my lingering resentment stemming from Barb’s vindictive heel-dragging our divorce proceedings, making a six-month process take two years and needlessly costing me thousands of dollars. The lesson for Barb being: before you jerk someone around, ask if they plan on ever becoming a memoirist, because paybacks are a bitch.

But my primary impetus was the righteous state of mind I reached around the sixth Cape Codder, a feeling of solidarity with the Clinton accusers, whose ranks now included Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Willey, Dolly Kyle Browning, former Miss Arkansas Sally Perdue, former Miss America Elizabeth Ward Gracen, flight attendant Christy Zercher, and others. (At this point nursing home executive Juanita Broaddrick hadn’t yet publicly accused Clinton of raping her back in 1978 when he was attorney general of Arkansas, although I’d heard rumors about the incident when I worked on the 1992 campaign.) Their claims rang true to me based on Barb’s experience. Seeing the White House involved in efforts to discredit, bribe, audit, threaten and intimidate these women incensed me as a feminist. That’s right, I said it. Revoke my fishing license and donate my plaid shirts to Goodwill. Call me gay as a clutch purse at the Tony Awards, but the writings of Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi and Camille Paglia speak to me. I am a feminist—hear me roar. “Go ahead,” I said, baiting unseen political attack dogs, as I wrote the piece. “I dare you to call me a liar. You’ll rue the day!” Yes, I actually said, “rue the day,” the histrionic threat of the hopelessly outmatched. And, I’ll admit, a certain amount of shadow-boxing was involved.

A month later I sent Capital Style a version of “Bill Clinton Hit on My Wife” similar to the one here, minus the references to my wife’s marital lapses (how discreet of me!). Thomas called me the next day, sounding concerned. While he liked the piece he didn’t think he could run it. It seemed impossible to fact-check. I agreed. Verifying a six year-old clandestine embrace between two people, both of whom are highly motivated to deny it, does pose some problems. Especially since there were no witnesses. Thomas told me to come to his Capital Hill office and bring every shred of evidence I had.

I dumped on Thomas’s conference table the contents of my Clinton campaign shoe box, to wit, my Presidential Transition Team ID badge and some photos I took at the Governor’s Mansion. It was a strange assortment of photos: Socks sitting regally next to a flower pot, the back of James Carville’s head, George Stephanopoulos asleep on a couch with his hand shoved down the front of his pants, a photo of Clinton’s new Washington, D.C. driver’s license, aide Loretta Avent putting a pair of cowboy boots embossed with the Presidential Seal on Clinton, and… what have we here?… Clinton with my wife. On her knees.

A candid moment with George

Thomas stared in amazement at the photo, which showed my wife wearing a leopard-print blouse on her knees with an arm around Clinton’s shoulders. Clinton was slouched in a basement chair, legs wide apart, talking on the phone, wearing a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and a sweatshirt that said “City Year,” except the fabric puckered in a way that made it look like, “Oh Yea.”

“Wow,” said Thomas.

“Yeah. I know.”

“Do you realize your wife looks a lot like Gennifer Flowers?” he said.

“Mm-hm. They’re both big-haired, bottle-blondes who resemble Hillary, but without the hard edge.”

My credibility had moved up a notch. But Thomas still needed proof that something happened between them. “She didn’t write you any letters about it?”

“No, she told me over the phone and in person.”

“Did she tell anyone else?”

“Her best friend, Natasha. But Natasha would deny it. And I know she told a journalist, but I can’t remember his name.”

“I’m surprised the journalist didn’t run with it,” Thomas said.

“I think they were talking off the record.”

“Sorry, Steve, but if that’s all you’ve got, I’m afraid this story is dead in the water. But I’ll give you a couple hundred for that shot of Stephanopoulos groping himself. It’s fucking hilarious.”

Perfect, I thought. Another month’s work down the drain to go with my three months unpaid tour of duty on the Transition Team. My finances were shaky enough. I didn’t have the luxury of volunteering months of my time.

Then I remembered The Email.

The day after Clinton’s affair with Monica became public Barb sent me a nastygram telling me to keep my big yap shut. I couldn’t remember exactly what she had written, so I told Thomas there might be something else. I drove home and searched my email archives. There it was:

Subj: Loose lips
Date: 98-01-22 11:36:59 EST
From: Barb@xxxxxxx.com
To: SteveAltes@aol.com

I need complete confidence that you are not going to say a word to anyone. I’m staying out of this. Matt Cooper is a friend and he would never reveal what happened. Clinton is going down without my help, so it doesn’t make any difference. Anyway, I still like him, so I’m not interested in adding to the fire. Thanks. Go make your own news!

Classic Barb. Ask a favor then sign off with a jab. I appreciated her jogging my memory about Matt Cooper, the reporter she told about the incident. (Barb was dead right about Matt Cooper. That man can keep a secret. He’s the same Time magazine reporter who was held in contempt of court and was willing to do eighteen months in the hooscow rather than reveal his confidential sources in the Valerie Plame / Joseph Wilson / Robert Novak / Karl Rove / C.I.A. / Uranium from Africa / Man from U.N.C.L.E. Affair.) Her email convinced Thomas that I was telling the truth. He called Barb and told her he was going to publish the article. Thomas told me later, “Her reaction gave me all the confirmation I needed.”

Wednesday, September 23, 1998. The October issue of Capital Style hit the stands, featuring “Bill Clinton Hit on My Wife” in a highly edited form—about one-sixth the size it appears here. I guess I should have asked Thomas how long a piece he wanted. Stripped of humor due to space constraints, it was mostly accusation. Alongside the article ran the suggestive photo of Barb on her knees with Clinton, although Thomas had pixilated Barb’s face at my request. I didn’t want to turn her life upside-down. I just wanted to make people laugh.

Thomas called around noon and said that he was getting calls from journalists around the world. He wanted to know if I wanted to talk to them.

“No, I think the article speaks for itself.”

“Good plan. It’ll add to the mystery,” said Thomas.

I wasn’t trying to be crafty. But what was I going to say at that point? That I was an aggrieved husband who wanted to go all Aaron Burr on Clinton’s ass and challenge him to a duel?

“Have the journalists figured out Barb’s real name?” I asked.

“No. They’re referring to her as Barb Altes,” Thomas said. Luckily for Barb, she kept her maiden name during our ten-year marriage, so the press was busy hunting for a “Barb Altes,” who didn’t exist.

“Good,” I said. “I don’t want her dragged into this if possible. She still has to work in this town.”

A few hours later Thomas called back, sounding excited. “How does it feel to have the White House press secretary discuss your article in a press conference?”

“Oh god. What happened?” I asked, freaking out.

“A reporter asked Mike McMurry if he had any comment on the article.”

“What’d he say?”

“He ducked and weaved. Said he hadn’t seen the piece yet. But the reporter was persistent. Asked about it three times. Also, Extra and Inside Edition want to interview you. What should I tell them?”

“Tell them the author is in seclusion. No, tell them the author is in South America hiding from Clinton’s hit squads.”

I was kidding, but my paranoia was real. I’d just finished reading an article about the untimely deaths of a statistically large number of people who were witnesses in the numerous Clinton scandals. The article said that the average life expectancy for Clinton scandal witnesses had hit an all-time low. The median age of death was now just 45 years old. If this keeps up life insurance agents are going to have to ask prospective customers, “Do you smoke, motorcycle, skydive, or have any connections to Bill Clinton?”

I got up and made sure my apartment door was deadbolted. For the third time that hour.

Thomas said, “It looks like Page Six might cover the story tomorrow.”

“What’s Page Six?” I asked, revealing myself to be hopelessly unsophisticated.

“You don’t know what Page Six is?” Thomas asked incredulously.

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s Richard Johnson’s gossip column in the New York Post.” He paused, perhaps expecting me to say, “Oh that Page Six!” Nothing. He might as well have been talking to a cow. “It’s the first thing celebrities read in the morning. A lot of people would give their left arm to be written about in Page Six.”

“Cool. I’ve never been written about in a gossip column,” I said. “Do you think it’ll help me get into Studio 54?”

Thursday, September 24, 1998. The next morning I drove to my local Centreville, Virginia, drugstore and bought a New York Post. I flipped to page six but it wasn’t there. Rube that I am, I did not know that Page Six appears anywhere but page six. But on page eight, there it was: seven column inches on the story and the photo of Barb on her knees with Clinton. I stared at the caption in disbelief. Jaw agape, I read it several times just to be sure.

The caption said, “Clinton poses with the Little Rock ‘Basement Babe’ he is said to have propositioned after he was elected in 1992. Her face is pixilated because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime.”

Sex crime? Who said anything about a sex crime? This story was mutating faster than a Chernobyl fruit fly. In one day, it had gone from “hit on my wife” to “sex crime.” What would the headline be tomorrow? Clinton Gave my Wife a Dirty Sanchez? Suddenly I felt sorry for Clinton. Sorry I’d told the story. And afraid for my life.

I went home, turned on the tube, and just happened to land on the opening drumbeats of Inside Edition. Maybe it won’t be a big deal, I thought. Deborah Norville’s first words: “Another day, another indiscretion is being alleged against Bill Clinton.” Uh-oh.

Craig Rivera, Geraldo’s kid brother (double uh-oh), covered the story. He deepened his voice and added ominous color to key phrases like, “But there’s more.” When he got to the part about Clinton pinning my wife against the wall, the segment’s background music suddenly switched to a porno-sounding track and the stock footage of Clinton was slowed down, making him look blameworthy somehow. It’s a neat trick. For some reason our brains say, That guy moves slow! He must be guilty! I hear porno music. That guy’s gotta be a sex fiend! TV news producers know this and exploit it.

About this time the media figured out how to reach me without going through Capital Style and my phone started ringing. Journalists from all over the world—the United Kingdom, Russia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela—were doing stories and wanted to talk to me. Producers from CNN, ABC News, Fox News, and The Oprah Winfrey Show called. Tabloid reporters begged for exclusives.

Once again, I freaked out.

It’s a surreal experience to suddenly go from private citizen to tabloid fodder. You just don’t know when it’s going to end. Am I going to be the butt of jokes in tonight’s Leno monologue? Am I going to be the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question twenty years from now? I called Thomas for advice. He was an old hand in Washington, a seasoned journalist and author of several books on Washington scandals. Surely he would know what to do. He told me, “These media frenzies burn out quickly. My advice to you is don’t answer the phone and drink heavily.”

“Good plan,” I said. “Alcohol got me into this mess. Maybe alcohol can get me out.”

Friday, September 25, 1998. The calls continued and my answering machine captured a message of support from an unlikely source—Sydney Biddle Barrows, the Mayflower Madam. (For the benefit of readers born after 1966, the blue-blooded Ms. Barrows was busted for running a high-class New York escort service in 1984, causing quite a sensation. And she actually is the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.) I’d met her at a party a couple years earlier and was surprised she remembered me. No stranger to intense worldwide media coverage, she said she enjoyed my article and told me to hang in there. She then she offered some insights about notoriety being a blessing and a curse and, if you play it right, profitable. I wanted to write down her exact words, but in my alcoholic fog when I went to hit “repeat,” I accidentally hit “delete.” Tabloids and Mayflower Madams? I thought. This is not my life. Where do I go to get my life back? I wondered if Barb was thinking the same thing. Then I had another drink and contemplated the question, “exactly how big a bastard am I?”

Saturday, September 26, 1998. I awoke to the sound of—what’s this?—peace and quiet. The media had moved on. They were probably having a hard time figuring out whether the story was real. They couldn’t track down Barb. I refused to take their calls and had a history of writing humor essays. Maybe they decided the whole thing was a gag. Or maybe, it being Saturday, the media just decided to take a day off from covering The Hug of the Century.

Whatever the reason, I was simultaneously grateful and perturbed. Happy to have my privacy back, but annoyed that my rollercoaster ride was so short. In two days I had grown accustomed to the media hounding me. It made me feel important. Ducking reporters was just another vexation of celebrity, like finding a decent supply of melted glacier water for one’s Chihuahua or slapping injunctions on ex-lovers to prevent them from releasing your private sex videos. It was the price you paid and definitely something I could get used to.

It dawned on me that perhaps I’d played too hard to get. So I decided to do one, and only one, interview before the story got stale. The choice was easy—it had to be Matt Drudge’s eponymous talk show on Fox. My reasons were many. Drudge’s producer, Kristine Kotta, was the most persistent, charming and cajoling of all the producers who had contacted me. The Internet muckraker was the point man for Clintonian dirt. He broke the Lewinsky story, after all. The show was taping that evening and I could do it by satellite from the Fox News offices in downtown D.C. And, best of all, Drudge offered to interview me in silhouette, Mafia-informant style. What’s not to love?

Drudge interviewed Thomas and me for a solid six minutes. Thomas waxed philosophical about The Sociopolitical Implications of The Hug, sounding very intelligent and suggesting that it was part of Clinton’s “modus operandi” and “behavioral mosaic” and that “psycho-historians will look to this later to try to piece together what makes this president tick.” Meanwhile I hid in the dark and did a bad impression of Clinton’s cheesy pick-up line, “Even presidents need hugs, too.” Drudge closed the segment with, “Steve Altes, a brave man.” I had to replay this line several times at home on videotape and run it through my irony-detector, since “brave” is not the first word that comes to mind when discussing a man cowering in the shadows.

Sunday, September 27, 1998. By Sunday my life was back to normal though the story lived for months in the tabloids. It’s an odd feeling to be buying a bag of Double Stuf Oreos at the supermarket, look up and see the headline “Angry Hubby: Bill Tried to Force Himself on my Wife,” and know they’re talking about you.

Before long I got wistful for my fleeting moment in the spotlight. If I hadn’t been so worried about White House death squads I could have had more fun with it. Why don’t schmoes like me who thrust themselves into the limelight ever take the opportunity to say something entertaining? Why can’t the nightly news be more like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart? Why didn’t I stage a press conference and give absurd answers? It would have been a fun experiment. Would the media get it? Would they brand me a kook?

Here, then, is the transcript from the press conference I wish I’d held:

Q: Don’t you think the public is growing tired of these salacious accusations against President Clinton?
A: Well, I’m of the mind that, and I think public opinion polls will back me up on this, that as the economy goes to hell in a handbasket, there is no more pressing national issue than Investigating the President’s Genitals. And will said genitals withstand intense media scrutiny.

Q: Are you concerned about libel?
A: For that I refer you to the legal doctrine of “Is So vs. ‘Fraid Not.”

Q: Was your story fact-checked?
A: This story has more checks than a Prague phonebook.

Q: Isn’t this a tacky thing to do to your ex‑wife?
A: Well sure, in a perfect world I wouldn’t do this. But in a perfect world Superman wouldn’t be vulnerable to kryptonite, Krispy Kreme donuts would have zero calories, and I’d be wearing underwear right now.

Q: Isn’t telling this story being disloyal to the President?
A: Bill Clinton already turned the presidency into a three‑ring circus. I’m just selling cotton candy in the bleachers.

Q: What is your political affiliation now? Are you still a Clinton supporter?
A: I have switched allegiances to the Whig party.

Q: What caused the break‑up of your marriage? Was it this incident with President Clinton?
A: No, we got divorced for reasons totally unrelated to this. But, gosh, go into the reasons for my divorce on national TV? Such a tempting offer. But I think I’ll pass. Because that’s my private life and if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it is to see a person’s private life invaded by the media.

Q: Your reputation as a humorist has some observers questioning the veracity of your account. Can you confirm for us that this is a factual story rather than satire?
A: I swear by the rumpled fedora of Matt Drudge that every word I wrote in that article is the truth. As far as you know. Let me reiterate: I am not a liar. I’m writer. I’m a blabbermouth. I’m a liar. But I am not a porn star.

Q: Is the timing of your story politically motivated?
A: [with rising indignation] Are you telling me that an average citizen like myself can’t grow up to make lurid accusations about his own President’s sex life without getting hounded by you jackals? Are you telling me that fifty million men gave their lives in the Korean War fighting for my freedom of speech just so some cub reporter from a two‑bit fish wrap like The New York Times can tell me what I can and cannot say? You make me stink! Dan Rather is probably turning in his grave. This press conference is over! [storm out]

_____________________

An abridged version of this story appeared in Capital Style magazine and was all over the news for a week.

Posted in Essays, Federal Offenses, Hijinks

Reverend Me

As a life-long atheist, it occurred to me recently that maybe I was missing out on something. Everyone else had something to do Sunday mornings. All I had was sleeping late, coffee, and giving up on the New York Times crossword puzzle after concluding that “skizbit” and “fromple” cannot possibly be the answers Will Shortz was looking for. Maybe I needed more, I don’t know—divinity—in my life. So, two minutes and a couple of mouse clicks later, I became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church (www.ulc.org) of Modesto, California. Their website warns, “Silly submissions such as animals, plants, and cars are not recorded into the Church’s database.” So I immediately ordain my cat, ficus, and Buick Skylark.

Isn’t it divine?

My first order of business is to ensure that joining the clergy did not incite in me a desire to sodomize young boys. I scan myself for pedophilic urges. All clear.

My second task is to decide whether to order the ULC’s “Ministry in a Box” for $139. This puppy is crammed with all sorts of religious doodads: holy land incense, a Doctor of Divinity degree, a sainthood canonization document, a minister’s ID card, a ULC badge, a laminated clergy parking placard, and church bylaws and regulations. Although it is tempting to be canonized Saint Stephen, I remember Billy Joel’s wise counsel about laughing sinners and crying saints and decide to screw the paperwork. My ministry will be light on documentation.

Before you ask what good deeds I have done to merit this spiritual elevation, consider some of the things I have not done: unlike Pope Gregory IX, I never started a Spanish Inquisition; unlike Pope Urban VIII, I never imprisoned Galileo for saying the earth revolves around the Sun. I never burned anyone at the stake or started a Crusade. Seems to me these Popes set the bar for holiness pretty low.

Eager to put my theological credentials to use, I read my ordination message. It says, “Every rite is granted to you by the ULC to officiate and perform except circumcision.” I love that they feel it necessary to advise people that clicking a mouse does not qualify them to perform genital surgery on newborns. I can only assume this warning stems from a past incident. Foreskin, off-limits. I can live with that. But surely somebody around here must need a marriage officiated, a sermon, a baptism, or, if I’m lucky, an exorcism.

But before I start a-preachin’ I need the proper vestments. So I shoo Chaplain Tigger off my lap, water the Reverend Ficus, hop in the Minister Skylark and head off shopping.

I need an outfit that says, “this is a person you can trust with your innermost secrets and look to for sage guidance,” while at the same time saying, “this person believes there is an invisible, omnipotent, supernatural being in the sky, who, with the proper supplications, can be persuaded to affect the outcome of high school football games, while simultaneously maintaining a strictly hands-off policy with regard to epidemics, terrorism, and genocide.”

Basically, my look must strike a balance between caring and crazy.

At a vintage clothing store I hit pay dirt. I snag a hooded purple crushed velour robe, dress it up with some gold roping around the waist and a nifty multi-colored embroidered vest. One crucifix later and I’m done. I’m dressed, blessed, and ready to impress.

The Reverend Me

Time to tend to my flock. But first, I must actually gather a flock. I place an ad on Craigslist.org offering marriage officiating for $99. Two days later I get an email from David. He and his fiancée, Denise, “aren’t too religious, but want someone spiritual.” Ain’t that always the way? He asks for details about my services.

I tell him “my philosophy is that wedding services are too damn serious. My vows will draw inspiration from the ones Homer Simpson wrote, which began, ‘Do you Marge, take Homer, in richness and in poorness? Poorness is underlined. In impotence and potence? In quiet solitude, or blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated hovercraft.’ That’s my kind of ceremony!”

As a bonus, I throw in my “everlasting love guarantee: If I wed you and your marriage doesn’t last five years, I’ll refund your money!” What other minister can make that claim?

Amazingly, David emails me back and says, “that sounds like fun.” Luckily he doesn’t ask to see my credentials. He even pays up front.

Their ceremony is only three months away, those procrastinators. The night before the wedding I start writing their eternal vows, drawing inspiration from many sources: The Bible, TheOnion.com, a book of love poetry, the Farmer’s Almanac, fortune cookie slips I have amassed over the years, Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within, and some Hallmark greeting cards. Mine is an eclectic religion. I scrupulously avoid any quotations from The Prophet by Kahlil Gilbran. Is that guy overdone at weddings or what?

When I finally write the line, “By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife,” I get goose bumps. It has been my lifelong dream to stand before a group and say those words. I want people to look at me in awe and think, “Wow, there goes a man with power vested in him.”

At the ceremony I decide I need some catchphrases, to toss at people as they pass by. I settle on “Shazam,” “God digs ya,” “Bless your guts out,” and the whispered “You’re God’s favorite.”

The ceremony goes surprisingly well. The guests laugh at the right places. I deliver the line, “If anyone objects to the union of these two people, let him speak now or forever hold his peace” and pause a good long time for dramatic effect while I scan the room, hoping a wild-eyed fellow will burst in screaming, “I object to this unholy union! The bride is still engaged to my brother, who is in a coma.” No such luck.

After the service I dole out handfuls of dried frijole beans to the kids and tell them to pelt the happy couple while shouting, “Holy Frijole!” My pious little disciples can’t wait to perform this religious rite and immediately bombard the mother of the bride. I brandish my crucifix in defense against her evil eye.

Later, one woman says my vows were the most interesting she’s ever heard, though she says “interesting” in the same euphemistic way we use to describe someone’s ghastly new haircut.

David and Denise make a cute couple and I wish them well as they depart for Antigua. I hope they stay married forever. Or at least five years.

#

Next on my agenda is to deliver a sermon. I enter a cinder-block strip mall church and introduce myself to the minister as an Archcardinal Deacon Missionary of the Universal Life Church. I ask him if I could be a special guest preacher one Sunday. He says he has never heard of the Universal Life Church. Where has this guy been? The ULC’s website claims over 20 million ordained ministers worldwide, meaning one out of every 325 people on the planet is a ULC minister. That suggests that there are at least 307 ULC ministers in my hometown of Burbank, California. I doubt his congregation has that many members. I bring him up to speed on how the Internet (you know, the thing that brings you kiddie porn, Reverend) lets anyone be a minister. He scoffs at this notion but invites me to join his church. I bless his guts out and leave. Speaking in tongues.

I go home and rethink my strategy. I need an audience less critical, more captive.

An hour later I arrive at a local nursing home. I pop in the TV room and find seven drooling geezers watching a test pattern. I kill the tube and work the room, making crosses, touching people’s foreheads, softly saying, “The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you.” Who says I can’t sneak in a little exorcism?

Next I feed them Ritz crackers faux-communion style. “Body of Christ?” I say. “Would you like some delicious body of Christ today? He tastes best with peanut butter.”

Then I begin my sermon. Unfortunately, my knowledge of scripture is right up there with my knowledge of Etruscan history. But I figure I’ve inadvertently heard a whole bunch of preaching on the radio. I’ve seen Elmer Gantry and The Apostle three times. Maybe I learned something by osmosis. Besides, preachers don’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. I think the key is to speak in a soothing, monotone voice with random bursts of emphasis.

What tumbles out of my mouth for the next five minutes sounds something like:

“And Moses said unto Noah, ‘go ye verily unto the seas and take the filthy beasts with ye.’ And God said that it was good. And Eve said that it was good. Hail the mighty Noah! Hear ye, hear ye, I sayeth unto you, thou art smaller than a pygmy shrew’s belly button lint compared to God’s humongous excellence. For God is neither a slob like one of us, nor a stranger on the bus. Hallelujah, Jesus Christ, ye art truly a superstar!”

If I got some of the details wrong, no one seems to notice. Some smile; a few clap. I take a bow, feed them more Christ and leave with a flourish, my robe billowing in my wake like a cape. Shazam!

#

Having come this far, I think if only I could perform a baptism, my ecclesiastical life would be complete. The ULC’s ordination message says that how I choose to practice my newfound religion is up to me. I convene my Council of Elders (friends Ralph and Mark) for advice. Soon a schism develops. One faction wants to baptize people using holy water balloons flung from the roof of my apartment building. Another faction wants to baptize people by flinging holy water balloons from a different apartment building. While both these rituals have their appeal, I think the Elders are excessively fixated on the kinetic possibilities of holy water. No, I need more face-to-face interaction with my parishioners. I decide to anoint an entire public swimming pool, perform a mass baptism of unsuspecting swimmers, then hand out certificates.

The next day I put my plan in motion. Wearing my robe and a ceremonial crown (graciously provided by Burger King), I stand at the lip of a city pool. I blow a whistle and issue the terse command, “Abracadabra, water be holy.”

When swimmers climb out I congratulate them on being baptized into the Universal Life Church and hand them their commemorative certificates. One convert is so dazed by the purifying effects of my baptismal that he cannot even muster the strength to hold the paper in his hand. It flutters to the cement after a few steps. Besides littering, other popular responses to baptism are “Is this a hidden camera show,” and “Fuck you.”

One non-believer tells me pool water can’t be used for a baptism. I silence her with: “Well, the earth is mostly a closed system, like a terrarium. The same water that existed eons ago is still here. So the water I baptized you with today may have been stegosaurus piss millions of years ago. If the water tasted funny that might be why.”

I must say, since my ordination, Sundays have become a lot busier and heaps of fun. There’s no telling what might happen. And my matrimonial services are in such high demand I had to double my price.

Undoubtedly some people will find my venture sacrilegious. To them I say, “Have you seen the churches that call themselves the ‘Church of Jesus Christ, Scientist?’ Now Jesus may have been many things, but to call him a scientist is to seriously pad his resume. In a world where Christ can be a scientist, why can’t an atheist be a minister?”

And while they ponder that, I run away before they burn me at the stake.

_______________

This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in Urban Male, The American Rationalist, Freethinker, American Atheist, and Raven magazines.

Posted in Essays, Hijinks

Lots of Leaps, Not Much Faith

It happened the summer after my junior year in college. I was interning in the L.A. office of Hughes Aircraft Company (or, in intern parlance, “Huge Aircrash”), which had arranged summer housing in Loyola Marymount University dormitories. LMU dorms were nothing like ours back East. They were more like the set of Melrose Place, two-story apartment complexes surrounding a pool.

Three summer hires and I shared an apartment which had dozens of unsightly nails protruding from the walls, a gift from the previous occupants. Beer was our dietary staple but because we weren’t very enthusiastic about lugging empties to the recycling bin downstairs we used them as interior decorations. Specifically, we impaled the cans onto the exposed nail heads, solving two problems at once.

Our living quarters now comfortably appointed, we moved to the next order of business: discovering new and dangerous forms of recreation. One option beckoned. I thought it just might be possible to shimmy from the railing of our second story apartment onto the roof of the complex and leap into the pool.

Two physics questions loomed: (1) Was it possible to clear the twelve foot wide walkway below and (2) Would three and a half feet of water decelerate a jumper enough to avert broken ankles? There was only one way to find out: Persuade Bob to jump first. Bob, native Californian, surfer and all-around wildman, hesitated for three-tenths of a second before accepting the challenge. On his first jump his back came skull-clutchingly close to hitting the cement lip of the pool. Clearly the key was to take a running, rather than stationary, leap.

Our lemming routine quickly earned us a visit from the Resident Assistant. But upon entering our apartment she discovered a problem far more serious than courting shattered vertebrae—ohmigod, we were, “nailing beer cans to the walls!”

“No we’re not. The nails, they were… We just… It’s not what it looks like,” I stammered.

Too late; she was already out the door. The eviction notice, effective immediately, came that afternoon. Our suave roommate, C.J., decided to fight this judicial travesty and spent all day in the law library dredging up terms like “unlawful detainer” and “eviction subpoena.” Evidently, LMU could not summarily evict us. We were entitled to a warning, then, if we continued to act unruly, the law allowed us one month to vacate. Armed with this information, C.J. got us a second chance. But first we had to appear before a panel of LMU administrators to apologize, grovel and generally portray ourselves as upstanding residents who wouldn’t even line beer cans on the windowsill, nevermind nail them to the wall.

Contritely we filed into the RA’s apartment on Judgment Day and did a double take. There she sat with three nuns in full habit. Uh-oh, who picked this jury? It never occurred to us that LMU, as a catholic university, would have catholic administrators, that they would be nuns, that we would have to justify ourselves in front of a group whose idea of raucous behavior might be very different than ours, that we would face a Holy Inquisition. We began supplicating. “My name is Ken. I’m an electrical engineering major at MIT and I’m very sorry…” and so forth. I was last in line.

But first, the sartorial situation: I was dressed California casual—knit shirt and my only clean shorts, an all-cotton pair that had shrunk quite a bit in the dorm’s industrial-grade dryer. Pivotally, I also happened to be freeballing. Just as my turn came, I nervously clenched my hands into fists in the pockets of my already-stretched-to-their-tensile-limit shorts. “Hi, my name is Steve and…” Kapow! My zipper ruptured and a certain organ—not the kind commonly seen in church—unfurled.

Mortified, I bolted from the room, ran to our apartment and collapsed in a fetal position in the closet, half laughing, half crying in shock. We were supposed to charm the panel, not whip it out. How many Hail Marys are required for flashing a group of nuns?

Just as I was considering joining the French Foreign Legion, the guys found me. They said everyone had a big laugh about my exploding zipper, our request to be reinstated was approved and all was forgiven. One nun even asked me out on a date. Okay, that didn’t happen. But the rest is true.

So to recap: number of times in my life my zipper has burst open exposing my genitalia: one; number of times I have stood before a tribunal of nuns asking for clemency: one. I still can’t believe those events happened simultaneously.

_______________

This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in the Fairfield County Weekly.

Posted in Collegiate Capers, Essays, Hijinks

Nordstrom Is My Closet

As a model I have a dirty little secret to confess. No, it’s not the fact that I found Zoolander hilarious. My secret is about dirty clothes—clothes I buy, wear on modeling shoots, then return to the store for resale to unsuspecting customers. But as you’ll see I have no choice.

When stylists call, they invariably request clothes of a type and hue not found in my closet. I do not stock an assortment of grey pin-striped suits (I don’t manage a savings and loan), bright yellow pants (I neither golf nor fight fires), and heavy winter sweaters (I live in the San Fernando Valley, where the temperature seldom dips below “blast furnace”). Yet these are actual requests from the stylists of my last three print jobs. I have the basics, of course—knit shirts, khakis—but as a professional poser, one is somehow expected to stock the entire spectrum of apparel from Speedos to tuxedos.

“We need you to bring an off-white linen jacket, an ecru ribbed cotton turtleneck sweater, olive flat-front cotton twill pants, taupe Merrell nubucks, and lots of watches,” says the impossibly optimistic art director.

“No problem. I’ve got all that.” At least I will after a thousand dollar spending spree at my local department store.

“Great. And bring lots of options.”

“Fine,” I say as if my closet teems with variations on the aforementioned theme. “Just refresh my memory… what color is ecru?”

You may wonder why I don’t admit to the stylist that my wardrobe lacks variegation (I own just one suit and when I find a shirt I like, I’m apt to buy three exactly like it.). Chock it up to painful experience. When stylists pull clothes for me, the only ones they seem to find are size extra large gargantuan, despite my insistence that anything over medium will hang on me like a painter’s drop cloth. And so, just when I’m supposed to look my photographic best, I end up looking like a ten year-old playing dress up in his father’s clothes.

I’m not a total slob. I try not to sweat in borrowed clothes and if I do manage to stink them up I’ll wash or dry clean them. That requires removing and reattaching price tags, a process simplified by my Red Arrow price tagging gun ($21 on eBay). No model—no person—should be without one.

Why not keep the clothes? In a perfect world, we’d earn so much for every shoot that such clothing acquisition costs would be inconsequential. But back on planet Earth I might get three hundred dollars for a two hour shoot. Clearly, the clothes must go back to the rack.

Many stores have a liberal return policy—I’m looking at you, Nordstrom. But that doesn’t mean the register jockeys don’t try to make you feel guilty for being so fickle and saddling them with armfuls of clothes to credit and restock. I used to dread returning the garments, dodging the clerks’ skeptical glares (“So none of these cashmere sweaters worked for you?”), enduring their pained sighs as they unrang their sales commission on yesterday’s Visa-scorching purchase, a windfall they probably spent last night. Then I discovered a way to make returning the stuff fun.

“Was there something wrong with these shirts?” asks the peeved salesman, as he checks the sales tags and circles the various 27-digit manufacturer codes on the foot-long receipt.

“Yes. They’re haunted,” I reply. That generally motivates them to speed the transaction and be done with me. Other responses I’ve tried include:

“I’m a recovering shopaholic and my therapist says this store took advantage of me yesterday.”

“Oh, I won’t need clothes where I’m going.”

“Shh. I’m a secret shopper. You’re doing very well so far.”

Sales clerk scrutiny is compounded for stylists, who pull clothes for many models and end up returning an entire rack. One stylist I know had her charge card cancelled at a department store after too much buying and returning. They figured out what she does for a living and got tired of being her complimentary wardrobe department. Now she slinks from store to store, buying a little here and a little there, hoping she isn’t recognized, like some casino-hopping, black-listed card-counter dodging pit bosses.

I assuage my guilt by telling myself that the clothes I borrow get free advertising by appearing in other products’ advertisements. In fact, I feel better just getting this skeleton out of my closet. And returning it to Nordstrom for a full refund.

_______________

This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in Today’s Black Woman, Zink, Jazel, and Supermodels Unlimited magazines.

Posted in Essays, Show Business Humiliations

Bullets in the Bonfire

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and my father is from Vulcan. If you need a tricorder jury-rigged or a Class M planet analyzed for its ability to support life he’s your man. But if it relates to feelings his stock answer is, “That’s your mother’s business.”

“I miss you and mom. Should I come home for Christmas?

“That’s your mother’s business.”

“Okay. I love you, Dad.”

“That’s your mother’s business.”

He delegates all responsibility for emotions to my mother, which suits her fine.

He has a dignified and stoic manner, prompting many a childhood friend to ask after meeting him, “Is that your butler?” I’ve never seen him casually dressed. In fact, if you’re ever in Fayetteville, New York and you see a man in a business suit mowing the lawn, do wave hello to my dad.

Only twice in my life do I remember him getting upset. When I was eight years old I spent a Saturday afternoon gallivanting through the woods with a group of older teens. What a jolly time I had with this carefree band of hooligans—setting up a fort in an abandoned barn, blowing up roadkill with M-80s, busting soda bottles with slingshots, getting my first taste of Budweiser. Eagerly I told my parents about my new friends with the funny name for their club. “They call themselves the neato nasties or something like that.”

“The neo-Nazis?” my mother asked.

“That’s it! How did you know?”

Now here’s a tidbit about my father I didn’t know at that point in my life. In 1944 when he was twenty the Nazis wrenched him from his family in Occupied Holland and forced him into slavery in a German armaments factory, where besides enduring hellish conditions he faced the constant prospect of annihilation by Allied bombs. He nearly died there.

My father went Krakatoa. As he chased me through the house, all I heard were snippets, “You will never… that group… I forbid… off-limits… from now on!”

I may have been a whiz in math and science, but I had some major gaps in my knowledge of history.

#

Doug Dawson was the perfect childhood best friend. He was a loyal to a fault, he had a house full of dangerous stuff, and he made an excellent fall guy. One day when Doug and I were playing, my mom needed to take me into the village for a short errand. “Stay here, Doug, we’ll only be gone ten minutes,” I said. Plans changed and we spent the day with my grandmother in Syracuse. Twelve hours later we came home and there was Doug, patiently waiting in our front yard. He never complained.

Doug’s father was a member of the John Birch society and had an arsenal in his home. When I was ten years old I found this fascinating and pressured Doug to show me the gun collection. “Hey Steve, if you throw a bunch of bullets in a bonfire, will they pop like popcorn sending bullets flying everywhere?” Doug asked.

“I don’t know, Doug. But that sure sounds like something we better get the answer to right away,” I said. So we grabbed a box of .22s and we headed down to Bishop’s brook where most of our mischief took place. As boys Doug and I were like little cavemen—concerned about not getting into scuffles with larger predators (older teens) and obsessed with fire.

Doug’s dad quickly noticed the box of ammo missing and called my parents, who sprang into action. Just as our bonfire got roaring I heard my father’s amplified voice bellowing through the woods, “Stephen Altes and Douglas Dawson, come home at once!” He kept a bullhorn for such occasions. The bullhorn meant trouble. Doug and I kicked the bonfire into the creek and ran home.

Our parents knew about the bullets so we had to come clean. Luckily, as I mentioned, Doug was the perfect scapegoat. “Oh father, thank God you rescued me in time. It was all Doug’s idea. I had no idea he brought bullets with him. He just tossed them in the fire, cackling like a madman. I could have been killed.” As usual, Doug got grounded, spanked and possibly thumbscrewed, while I got hug from my mother and a stern warning from my father to “be careful around that dangerous Doug Dawson.”

Posted in Essays, Hijinks, Youthful Follies

How to Become an Author

In 1997 I became a published author with St. Martin’s Press. As a public service, I thought I’d share my secrets to making it in this highly competitive field.

The sequence of events which brought my Little Book of Bad Business Advice to print was positively rubegoldbergian in its complexity, but here it is—distilled into four easy steps:

  • Fail miserably at your job causing your boss to lose all confidence in you
  • Brood and write a dark, bitter commentary about the incident
  • Abandon writing to pursue a career as an actor
  • Befriend a Belgian Baroness

Step 1: Flop. I was in charge of sales for a high-tech company which made a laser positioning gizmo. The problem was our product sold for five times what our competitors charged for something similar. After six months I hadn’t made a single sale. My boss ignored the price differential and decided I was to blame: that somehow, I didn’t have the right briefcase or haircut or handshake. So he threw a stack of business books at me and ordered me to read them.

I was stupefied to discover that every book said the same things: “Networking is a good way to find a job. You have to take risks to get ahead. Be punctual.” Blah blah blah.

I felt like writing the various authors: “Thanks for the news flash, Scoop! Hey did you hear? Ben Hur won the chariot race.”

Step 2: Sulk. As an outlet for my growing hostility at my boss’s obstinacy and the business gurus’ platitudes, I started writing my own business advice book. And why not? Everyone else seemed to be doing it: Football coaches, management consultants, Navy SEALs, even Attila the Hun and Winnie the Pooh have business advice books out.

Except my manuscript veered toward the absurd:

  • Judge people at work not by their accomplishments, but by their knowledge of sports.
  • In job interviews, speak ill of your former bosses.
  • Give your file folders descriptive labels like “Boring Thing for Marty,” “Budget Lies,” “Tom’s Nasty Project,” and “Schedule Crap.”

This newfound distraction (writing on the job) did wonders for my already dismal productivity. I quit a nanosecond before I was fired.

Step 3: Give Up. Eureka! I had a manuscript that made my friends laugh. Now what? Try to get published? Nope. Shelve it and try something completely different. I have the attention span of a ferret on amphetamines. I change careers more often than most people change their oil. Before you can say “dilettante,” I was off to New York City to become an actor.

Step 4: Party. I didn’t make it into the big leagues, but I did land a recurring role in the short-lived “Central Park West.” An actress on the series invited me to her Fifth Avenue apartment for a soiree.

At the party was Sheri de Borchgrave: Belgian Baroness, sex columnist, and author. We talked for a while and I mentioned my manuscript. She said, “Send it to me and I’ll pass it on to my editor at St. Martin’s Press.” I did; she did; and three days later I had a book contract and a $5,000 advance. No fuss, no muss, no ugly rejection slips.

But being published isn’t all garden parties and massive doses of self-esteem. I have not gracefully executed a swan dive into the loving mosh pit of critical acclaim, where my every written word elicits a frenzied bidding war. The William Morris Agency is not on my speed dial.

There are chores to do. Like going to bookstores and rearranging the stock so your book faces cover out instead of spine out. Like forging ahead with your book talk when the only people who show up are the Barnes & Noble Event Coordinator and your girlfriend.

Sure there are fun moments. Once I was staking out my book in Border’s, waiting for someone to look it over. A woman started chuckling as she flipped through it so I said, “I’m glad you like that. I wrote it.” She looked at me like I had just announced that I was the Archduke of Ipswich and did she perchance have a zebra I might borrow to make a frontal assault on the Kremlin.

There is one drawback in going from unknown to known. I wrote a sequel called If You Jam the Copier, Bolt and had a hell of a time getting it published. The first time around I was pure potential waiting to be discovered. Now I had a track record that the suits could analyze, extrapolate, and forecast. They could examine reviews of the first book, which ranged from “inventive” (Michigan News-Herald) to “lacking inventiveness” (a reader at Amazon). And its paltry sales (under 20,000) didn’t exactly mean Scott Adams’ days as the reigning workplace satirist were over. Hail Dogbert.

#

I queried dozens of literary agents about the sequel, but no one was interested. Years passed and I completely forgot about it. Then, in June 2000, I received a letter from the Jeff Herman Agency, “Your letter from more than two years ago was found behind my couch. Sorry. Maybe we can still talk?”

Despite his unorthodox in-box, Jeff turned out to be a real mensch and was willing to sign me. He sent my manuscript to twenty-five publishers and received twenty-five rejections. He said he’d give it one final shot. The twenty-sixth publisher said “yes” and offered another $5,000 advance just as my savings bottomed out. Stamps are my lottery tickets; the more I mail, the luckier I get.

My second book hit the shelves in a huge blaze of no publicity on Monday, September 10, 2001. If the world cared at all about it on Monday, it sure as hell didn’t by Tuesday. And I and many others had entirely new definitions of lucky and unlucky.

#

Jeff was less enthusiastic about my next book. I could understand if he felt my second book didn’t live up to expectations. It was remaindered before the year was out. But poor prior sales wasn’t his objection. Instead he simply said, “a memoir like this can only work if the author is already famous, if the author is already someone who appears on the Tonight Show.” Famous in Some Field, now there’s a book. Obscure in Many Fields, who wants to read that?

I hung up with Jeff and cursed the Famous! Not only do the celebrated have an easy time interesting publishers in their memoirs, they win with the book-buying public no matter what they say. If they write something exciting, people are impressed. “So that’s what Bono did when he heard he was being considered to head the World Bank.” If they write about something mundane, people feel a kinship with the star. “I guess Bono has to trim his nose hairs, just like the rest of us.”

Didn’t Jeff realize that, since the Diary of Samuel Pepys, all the really interesting memoirs have been written by the obscure? They had to be worthwhile or no one would have published them. Star power wasn’t a factor.

Jeff’s fanciful suggestion that I get on the Tonight Show was still echoing in my ears the next day when I got a message from my theatrical agent asking if I could do the Tonight Show that evening. Take it easy, universe! Don’t pull a hamstring jumping to fulfill my wishes. In my haste to call back my agent I blissfully ignored the fact that I had no movie to promote, had no impish ring-tailed lemurs to unleash on Jay’s desk, and had not recently pogo-sticked across America backwards. Even though I had no apparent reason to be a Tonight Show guest, for a second I considered the possibility that perhaps my various disjointed stunts had reached critical mass. Maybe Jay was devoting an episode to people who were neither famous, nor anonymous, but rather languishing in the purgatory of obscurity.

Turned out they didn’t want me as a guest, of course. They needed me as a hand model to play the part of Donald Trump’s hands in a skit. Still, as I jauntily walked the three blocks from my apartment in Burbank to the NBC Studios that afternoon it was hard to take it as anything other than a clear sign that my book would be published.

_______________

This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Writer magazine.

Posted in Essays, Show Business Humiliations