By: Arthur Davis
The midpoint of my unforeseen journey began in this small, soundproofed enclosure, which boasted one television conspicuously absent a channel selector, four ordinary upholstered chairs, and sofa sitting on a sanguine blue-green oriental carpet. The Blue Room, as it was un-affectionately labeled in the trade, was poorly ventilated and had no windows but was universally acclaimed as the Holy Portal of late night entertainment, a rudimentary starting gate to prosperity and fame or an unstable precipice overlooking a landscape of disappointment and disgrace.
I sat on one of the chairs in my usual anti-social manner reflecting on my sudden elevation from the safety of obscurity rather than listening attentively to one of the guests confidently proclaim that, “once you get out there, pacing is everything,” or, like the teenage author lounging in tattered jeans and a purple sequined t-shirt, soberly contemplating the impact their brilliance had on society.
Of course, there was always the possibility that I, a clearly unworthy pretender to the throne would, in time, be unmasked and delivered to the dungeon master promptly negating a week of congratulatory plaudits from friends and relatives, neighbors when they learned that I would be a guest on the late night talk show. It was an unpretentious victory, an accident born of loneliness that lead a man to momentary stardom.
And everywhere envy and absolute, considered advice. What to say? How to act? Be funny. Serious. Don’t make a fool of yourself. Don’t be intimidated. I know life can be intimidating. People don’t. But I’ve been wrong before. I could have all this backwards.
“So, did you ever think you’d get this kind of response?” Kenny Lyle, the insincerely self-effacing late night show host asked after plodding through the particulars of my checkered record as an ordinary person.
Lights burned overhead. Cameras stalked me from every angle. A digital fiber optic transaction pulsing live from the studio to a cluttered, dimly lit, traditionally occupied bedroom out West. Maybe Mexico. Canada. Wife’s curious. Husband’s speculating. Everybody watching. Waiting. Expecting to laugh, be apprehensive or dance with the devil in order to avoid sleep and the inevitability of tomorrow’s boredom.
“I was as amazed as anybody.” Really? Did they believe that? My very first network fabrication. Honesty, weakly interwoven with passive reflection.
“But, how did you get the idea?” Lyle asked, sounding genuinely curious. Maybe he has to stretch this out. I don’t know how much time I’d been allocated. Audiences get bored very fast. Pacing. Keep it moving along. Respect the timeless sagacity from the established denizens of the Blue Room. Quickstep on and off the raised platform. Accept the prize of recognition graciously and try not to make an ass of yourself. Then back to a life of obscurity. Your fragment of personalized history bronzed in twelve or thirteen minutes of courage and terror sandwiched in between breath fresheners and compact car commercials. And don’t forget Pamela’s rule number one: Smile. Smile. Smile.
“I needed to do something.” I had practiced a more icy response but under the heat of the lights, it melted, liquefied, almost wetting my pants. “Nothing else was working.” Whose is talking now? The truth. They don’t want to hear this shit. The audience in the flesh and on electronic waves lives this. They don’t need it from you. Say something they want to hear. Relax. Sit up straight, dickhead. Body, slowly twisting into a shriveled pendulous corkscrew.
“I know the feeling,” Lyle said leaning back. Audience applauds. He nods knowingly. They’re his. He makes twenty-two million a year. In 1998 that’s a lot of dollars. He owns them. They want to be led. He presumes to be one of them. But he doesn’t know the feeling. Believe me; he can’t possibly. “So how many responses did you finally get?”
Pamela said this would be the pivotal question. Try to stay with it. “Give him a few key thoughts and he will do the rest. So just relax and have a good time. It’s easy. You’ll be fine,” his assistant continues to reassure as she escorts me to the Blue Room.
“Also,” she adds in speed-brusque, “Kenny has a habit of toying with his coffee mug. Fixing the knot of his tie. Don’t be put off. He’s not bored with you.”
Sure. But when do I cross my legs? Or is that a mistake? Which way do I look? When is it safe for me to breathe? I’ll never get a chance in life to spike the ball in the end zone so, can I at least wave at the cameras and mouth, “Hi Mom.” I’m not prepared for this. What will I do if he reaches for the mug, adjusts his tie knot, or starts humming “Malagueña”?
Pamela then repeats a similar litany to the other three guests as if we were all being sent off to battle the identical demon. There was the requisite sex therapist, a smallish, boxy woman with a controlling voice and distressed, curly golden hair tilted to one side of her thick-skinned face whose bias was in exclusively giving expert testimony in defense of rapists. The boxer who was stripped of his middleweight crown had his head between his legs trying to get oxygen into his brain or maybe he was simply preparing to crash after the first question. And the waif-like, self-contained teenage girl who wrote a brief, but bestselling book on male sexual fantasies. I fit right in here.
Almost proudly, as if I’d just accomplished something important, like winning the Nobel Prize in medicine or meaningful, like-making amends with the forgotten memory of my father, I finally respond to his question. The question. My raison d’être. “Four hundred thirty-two.” I said remembering Pamela’s rule number three: don’t talk directly to the cameras and, the more internally recognized rule number two: cocky kills.
“Four hundred!” he said falling forward into his desk in mock amazement, clapping his hands together to accentuate what he was really too inarticulate to verbalize.
“And thirty-two.” Audience laughs. I’m a hit. Don’t overstate or embellish my cousin and his mother warned in the same phone conversation last night. Take the victory no matter how small but give the stage back to him. He makes a fortune and can have any woman on earth. And his complexion isn’t hardly as disagreeable as the tabloids have made it out to be.
“Oh, forgive me,” he says sarcastically, one eyebrow raised over the other. “You actually got four hundred thirty-two women to write you back?”
“But not all with pictures.” Only a quarter sent photos. But he’s not interested in small numbers. A genetic American bias.
“That’s important, is it?”
“Unless you want to spend a lifetime in coffee shops interviewing women who think they look like someone they’re not.” Instant, close to catastrophic, mistake. Cocky kills, stupid. Who the hell are you to tell middle America which of the masses is worthy or not?
“So pictures are important here?” he asks, making an instantaneous and clever segue away from my insensitive, career-threatening comment. I knew he was worth the millions.
“Most every personal advertisement contains a request for a photo along with a letter. Women screen men that way too,” I add thinking of what it was like when the manager of the Personals section of the magazine called and told me she had a package for me. I thought it was a joke but she said I might want to come down and get the responses personally. So I went down and picked up the first batch. The halls and offices were crowded with respectably pretty women. Naturally, I knew they were disappointed when I showed up. And naturally I panicked, even though I got two whistles and an almost mocking wink.
“So these women don’t know what you look like.”
“No.” Nice simple answer. Can’t go wrong there.
“Well, now they do.” Laughter. He smirks, returning the familiarity of the audience. His audience.
However, the pancake makeup lady couldn’t understand why I wasn’t married. She said I was cute. Sometimes I am. Very. I think Pamela agreed but was too concerned with the teenager with the male fantasy bestseller to concentrate on how charming and attractive I can be. She and my ex-wife would get along swimmingly. What about her and my ex-girlfriend? For that matter, what about me and my ex-girlfriend?
“Here, let me read it,” Lyle says taking a sip of coffee and reaching for the magazine. “Four hundred. Unbelievable. I think even my overpaid assistant must have written you.” “She’s very pretty.” But she didn’t write.
“Oh, is she?” he inquires, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Of course she is,” I said still scrambling to get back into everybody’s good graces. Only a quarter of those who sent photos with their letters were particularly attractive. Almost all were more appealing than his assistant who probably had more hair gracing her upper lip than I did. The culling process is ruthless, insensitive, dehumanizing, and relentless. It is not designed to appease but to dispose.
“So Pam, are you two engaged yet or what?” he asks glaring obstreperously at the young blonde offstage gently manipulating the cadence of “Late Night with Kenny.”
“C’mon, you can tell me. Are you two lovebirds going to run off and get married? Tell me so I can start looking for your replacement.” Minimal insider laughter here. His two well-publicized marriages both ended in equally well-publicized divorces. Both women met him through his show.
I grin haplessly. Can’t speak until I am spoken to. I hope that the female audience has forgiven my earlier indiscretion. I’m going to wake up tomorrow and feel that life and this moment has passed me by. All this because I broke up with my third girlfriend in four years. I knew it was over. It had been over for months but we both decided it was a secret neither of us wished to share. Except we couldn’t stop arguing and bickering and when the desire to reach out and touch her died, I wanted out and needed some immediate reassurance. I needed to take a conclusive, opposing risk to harden the break. But 432!
“… nothing to worry about Lyle, he doesn’t like blondes,” Pam’s faint, off stage voice instructs. “Doesn’t like blondes,” she repeats louder, as Lyle shakes his head and holds his hand to his ear.
Suddenly he puts it altogether. “Hey, you’re kidding. You really don’t like blondes?” “I never actually said that.” Don’t be defensive here. It’s not a crime. Yet.
“My crack staff says otherwise. They make a mistake, just one, and it’s out in the cold producing black and white driver’s ed films for Apex Technical.”
“In that case, your crack staff is right,” I said, noticing his very expensive suit. And the cigar. He smokes a cigar. I smoke cigars too. Nobody likes them. Maybe when I get my own talk show I can smoke my own cigar in public. I can’t stand inconsistent sentimentality. Especially, when I’m upstaged by it on my show.
“Boy, I don’t hear that very often.”
“Unless, of course, your crack staff is wrong.” Smattering of male laughter.
I received responses from as far away as the Midwest. One all the way back to San Diego who told me she would be in the city later this month. An urgent plea from a woman with three young children desperately seeking a connection. Only twenty-three women gave me a photo and a letter that rang true.
“If these women knew how fickle you are, no one would write back,” he says picking up the magazine and flipping to the yellow marker in the back where the personals are vested. “You’re right.” That’s it? That’s your lame response? You’re right? You’re blowing this. Completely blowing it. You’re pissing away your first and probably last ten minutes of fame, dickhead.
I hate this. I want to tell them I hate this and ask their forgiveness. I want them to know how badly I would fail the test if I first had the courage to respond to someone else’s advertisement. And, who am I to judge? How many wonderful, beautiful women feel degraded, humiliated by submitting a photo as if begging to be purchased by some benevolent farmer at the village marketplace? What about the women who crafted tender, thoughtful letters but sent photos of their dog or cat? How long ago was it when these very women had a sparkle in their eyes and weren’t so deadened by continuously deflecting mid-life ordeals? Don’t get maudlin here. Just keep quiet and watch out that he doesn’t go for his tie knot. And smile.
Take a breath. Just, not an obvious one.
“OK. Listen. For the few remaining inhabitants on the planet who haven’t heard it yet, here it is. When you walk down the street … say, you’re really famous because of this ad?” “Seems so.” I offer as modestly as modulation will permit. I’ve been approached by other networks, a producer who wants to make my experience into a film, a tentative feeler from a publisher, and sundry hangers-on who promise me everything.
Cautious glare. Some spotty laughter.
“From the beginning again. When you walk down the street with me you will feel more loved, cared for, and protected, more beautiful and sexy than you’ve ever felt before. And in my arms or wherever we walk, you will be happier and freer to be the spirited woman-child you’ve hidden for so long. If you’re a brunette between 35 and 45 years old, please send a photo with a note which will make me regret not having found your loving warmth, whimsy, and the power of your passion sooner.”
Applause drowns out the applause sign flashing indifferently overhead. I turn to the audience surprised. Kenny Lyle is equally astonished. This is magic. I’ve conjured up the genie of ‘rare’ and ‘remarkable.’ I’ve said something that touched people. Struck a primal chord in men and women alike. Reached into myself and resonated with the loneliness in everybody, everywhere. Powerful tool, truth.
Fact is, I can do it. I just can. Fact is that the first line of the advertisement was taken verbatim from a comment made by my next to last girlfriend. Always made women feel safe, beautiful, and sexy. Made them laugh and feel better about themselves. However, I never had one give me all of what I needed. Why’s that? Is my “one and only” costumed and secreted and waiting to be plucked out of my drawer full of responses ready to explode with warmth and whimsy and passion enough to fire my soul?
Right now I know what I don’t want. I don’t want my bedroom reeking of Caroline’s cigarette smoke or used dishes and glasses that required only a little help to find their way to my kitchen sink. And I don’t want the pressure at five-thirty in the morning and at eleven-thirty at night to run to Rebecca’s apartment and walk her dog so she could stay at my apartment overnight and make it feel like an “accommodation.” And I don’t want to spend the twinkling of another wink of time with any girl who can’t bear not speaking to me a half dozen times a day or who can’t keep her hands off of me in public or who can draw a breath of air into her lungs unless it spills from my lips first.
So I take a deep breath, raise my wooden stick, and swing blindly overhead until I am showered with possibilities exploding from the shattered piñata. Is she there in the colored cloud that rains down over me? Is she there at all? Maybe the pancake-lady is wrong about me. But I need to believe. Just like the 432, I need to believe. What other choice do I have?
And it’s a good thing my instincts prevailed over, “And in my arms you will stay young forever,” and, “I’m a pretty good kisser too.” I can actually guarantee both, but this would have been a clear case of overkill when obviously I needed much less of a pronouncement to reach the desired effect.
I was already taking a great risk for four hundred dollars scripting an ad that had no resemblance to the hundreds of other personals. After all, I wasn’t the socially integrated, perfectly chiseled, unremittingly athletic, six-foot tall brain surgeon with a fireplace filled farmhouse in the country and a bright red sports car who wanted to find the perfect lithe mate to share his wonderful, if not exaggerated, life with.
“When you walk down the street with me you will feel more loved, cared for, and protected, more beautiful and sexy than you’ve ever felt before,” Lyle says again as if the language was rare and the concept foreign. His hand comes precariously close to the coffee mug. “Can you really do this?”
Ready for this one. “Any man who genuinely loves women can do it.”
Hushed, uncertain silence from the audience. This is not funny. This is life. Their future we are talking about. Happiness. Love. A home. Children. Grandchildren. Everything.
“Can I do it?”
“You probably already do,” brings a round of good-natured snickers from the band and stage hands while the audience roars approval.
“I can make them feel more loved and cared for,” Lyle says to himself, broadly exaggerating the assumption. He studies me closely again, then asks, “Hey, don’t all men love women?”
Ready, but less sure here. Maybe too controversial. Let the abrasive, aggressive sex therapist handle it. “I can only speak for myself, but why don’t you ask the women in your audience.” Supportive applause trickles down from the balcony.
Lyle takes the cue and stands. More applause. Switch shot to camera on stage- right, hurridly swinging in to pan the audience. Pam rushes in to reconfigure positioning, barks orders into her headset, points and commands her troups to capture the moment.
Lyle walks down to the first row. “This is for the brass ring now, ladies. Think. We may shed some new light here. Change a few social institutions. And, hey, no coaching from the men.” No applause here.
I watch attentively. The ability to reach into millions of homes with an idea is a powerfully seductive responsibility. Suddenly I have newfound respect for the FCC’s mandate. Lyle’s network executives must panic at this spontaneous intimacy. But more than likely, it’s probably just this reason that he is worth the money. Everybody in the audience is waving frantically now. All cameras rolling in on Middle America. Many excited one and, high-degree of difficulty, two-handed “Hi Moms.”
“So, how many of you think men really love women?” A third of the female audience, which makes up about half the total, applauds feebly.
“That’s it?” He waits a moment longer picking up a few stragglers who are in the audience with their boyfriends or husbands. Lyle turns and mugs for the cameras. The band gives him the traditional, walking-back-to-the-desk drumroll. “We have to book someone on the show who knows what the other women think,” he concludes as Pam takes note. “I’m amazed.” He shouldn’t be. Voices from offstage echo his interest. He toys with his pencil and thinks seriously about the implications of the impromptu survey as if it had some personal import, then picks up the magazine.
Should I ask him a question? How about his sex life? What would happen if a talk show host put an advertisement in the personals section? No way to top that. Add a couple dozen zeros to my trivial 432.
“Hey, it really does say right here that you don’t like blondes. Your job is safe, Pam,” he nods thoughtfully to stage left.
“Actually, it just says that I’m more interested in brunettes.” Blondes and redheads also responded. A few very pretty women. You should have told him this too. Jerk.
“And the reason is …”
“Most of the women who are attracted to me and who I am attracted to have dark hair.” Sounds lame. Sounded lame when I rehearsed it at home. Even my mirror wasn’t impressed with my response. Probably offended the entire female audience now.
“What if a blonde wants to change the color of her hair for you?”
“I would prefer that she do it for herself. Not me.” This time, mildly accepting applause from both sexes.
He leans back in his chair measuring the movement. The direction. The context. Pick it up a bit here. Don’t want viewers channel surfing. He likes me, but he has to make a living too. “So, down to basics, how many women have you actually met?”
“Really, actually seen?” he asks, playing along.
“About two dozen.”
Surprise here. “At that rate, you’ll never get through four hundred.” Chortles.
“You may be right.” Too formal. Lighten up here. You’ll never see this moment again and you don’t want to stare at a videotape of yourself tonight acting like a pompous twit. “At this rate some very special women will probably be married by the time I get to them. But I never expected to be in this spot.”
While Victoria, a pretty blonde just-friend who would like to be more, tutored me and role-played to get me comfortable with interviewing strangers on the phone, I was always more interested in asking the women what part of the advertisement was the most interesting or provocative? What got them to make the effort? The beginning of their answers was as varied as they were individually, but by the end, it was apparent that the advertisement simply exposed the roots of their loneliness. No one had ever made them feel so wonderful, so much a woman, simply on a walk around the block. Others came right out and told me they never expected to experience what I suggested.
Tapping his index finger against his cheek. “You know I have a very pretty cousin,” he mentions casually.
“I know. She wrote me. Very pretty.”
“She’s one of the four thirty two?” he asks upgrading his seriousness to candid surprise. “Just kidding.”
He frowns at the audience, then back at me. “Hey, that’s my job.”
“Sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” Some very respectable laughter here.
Actually, I had managed to get to most in the month since the advertisement ran. One Saturday I met four during an afternoon sitting in a coffee shop as the tide, at half hour intervals, brought them washing up to my tattered black Naugahyde booth. A week later, five surprised women were rotated over during a three-hour stint in my favorite pool hall.
The magazine was equally flabbergasted at the return my advertisement drew. Average response is between 30 and 40 letters. “Great” is half again that number. The editor called to congratulate me. “Brilliant ad,” she said then hesitated for a moment and asked me if I would consider an “interesting” gourmet cook who was unfortunately, but honestly, prematurely grey and had two teenage boys.
And, it’s not a matter of getting my money’s worth, but rather of wasting even the remotest possibility of meeting the right girl. I’ve already sent notes to over thirty-eight women whose passionate, heartfelt letters were impossible to ignore imploring them to trust to a dime store snapshot rather than to my imagination, uninformed bias and limited time.
“You want any help,” Lyle asks sarcastically. “Like I could stand behind you and take what you pass up.”
Right. I’m not sure I can muster up sympathy for his lifestyle. “Sure, you can have my blondes.”
“All of them.” Laughter. He gives me his best, “askance” look. “You get the brunettes and I get the blondes, but I get to keep my talk show. If that’s all right with you.”
Laughter escalates into whooping guffaws. He eyes the audience. Steely sardonic annoyance. “Traitors. Just because he has all the women and all I have is this one wimpy show you want to throw me to the wolves.”
I applaud along with the others. Pam steps forward and points to her wristwatch. My time is running out. What else do I want to say? Did I ever want to say anything at all? Should I have come out here with a message? A message? I’ll bet the other guests came prepared. Not quite ready to quit, he opens the magazine once more.
“… power of your passion. The women’s passion,” he clarifies.
“All women are passionate. Amazingly passionate.” Audience gets this. Senses my honesty. Finally.
“And what about men? I mean, shouldn’t we have something to say about this fellas?” he asks, deliberately pandering to the audience.
“Try your audience again.”
Half the men in the audience announce their vote in raucous applause. “Sit down, you animals. Relax. OK. Just relax. Too much testosterone in the studio tonight.”
“Can never get enough testosterone,” I say which brings a more knowing, attentive male laughter.
“Well, I want to wish you good luck,” he says graciously accepting the fact that I was there with the testosterone joke before he was, “and remember, practice safe sex. The life you save could be your own.”
“It probably already has,” I throw in.
Audience laughs, senses end of interaction and applauds approvingly. Some movement backstage. Cameras start to reposition at the edge of the stage. Ready for the boxer or the therapist but have definitely seen enough of the lonely guy with too many women. Lousy in bed they probably think. At times, they will never know how right they are. And sometimes, they could never be more incorrect. Yin and Yang.
“Pam, can we have him back after he gets through them all?” he shouts.
She nods. He nods. Lips in motion. There is laughter backstage. “She says yes, if you last that long.”
“You know, I think I’d like to take Pam out to dinner.”
Serious, sustained applause here. He grins broadly waiving off their enthusiasm and the insistent watch on his assistant’s flailing wrist. He’s into this now. The boxer is going to have his time cut back because of me. I’ll probably be beaten to death after the show by his family. Lyle stands and motions Pam out from the safety of the shadows. She resists. Hooked to headphones, she mouths something. Shakes her head side to side.
“Bring her out,” he demands of the rest of the crew. Pam cups her hands over her face. Her desire overwhelmed by shyness. They’ve worked together too long not to respect each other’s limitations. He backs off. “The one that got away,” he says to me. “Oh, well.” “Well, it’s a standing invitation if you can get her to change her mind.”
So I’m making a fool of myself. And my posture is disintegrating and I think my socks are not covering my calfs and the right side of my face to camera is not my best and every person I know or meet on the street in the next week is going to tell me I was terrific, but …
“So, now you want me to shill for you?” he gasps, “I mean you got four hundred girls, throw away the blondes, make jokes on my show and you’re still not satisfied.”
“Something like that,” I admit, in mock embarassment.
He looks behind his chair for something to hold up. “Well, right now I have to sell something. If you don’t mind?”
“Not at all. Go right ahead.”
“Thank you,” he says still fumbling around in a corrugated box behind his desk. “You’re welcome.”
“Pam! What am I looking for?”
“Probably a bottle of women’s hair coloring,” I suggest.
Audience erupts. Convulsive, thunderous laughter. Freeform drumroll. Pam countering her broad, heartfelt grin with her shaking head. Lyle shakes his too. Eyes warm, commending, extolling, suggesting I will be invited back regardless of how many women I “get through.” He tosses the jar of spaghetti sauce in the air a few times considering his options, getting ready to move on. It’s time for both of us to move on. The commercial rolls across the monitors overhead. Pam comes out onto the raised platform, smiles like she does to everyone else and suggests that I move over and make room for the sex therapist. I was the first one out which means that I will be pushed off the end of the couch by the end of the night.
The boxer was the funniest. Poignant. The therapist revealed an unexpected vein of sincerity and considerable wit. Then came the teenage girl who was coarse and embarrassing. Pam will pay a price for that. She should have screened this group more thoroughly, or at least sent the nasal, high-risk kid out first. Probably regrets not having me on last. Can’t blame her. I nonchalantly adjust my tie knot, my mind fast forwarding to the entrance to the Carousel in Central Park tomorrow at noon and begin speculating about the very adorable, very brunette child psychologist with quiet, giving, cat green eyes.
Lisa was number three in the pool hall review. She showed up with a fudge nut brownie, which I mentioned I liked when we first spoke on the phone. She called me up the day after what was a lively diverse exchange in the pool hall and thanked me for explaining why they don’t use ivory cue balls anymore and being so patient with her draw-shot. She thought my two different color eyes were romantic and mysterious and enjoyed watching me double bank the six ball into the corner pocket. A purely lucky shot, I admitted. And, more importantly, with perfectly formed full lips the centerpiece of her suggestive smile, laughed at all my jokes. Lisa was warm, generous, and possessed a natural tenderness and, when I offered her a well-balanced cue stick, purposely let her hand brush up against mine.
What more could I ask?