The dream had to be put aside. Family starving. You'd taken the job as copyeditor and headline writer, poet of typography, zippy headlines produced in a seconds, somebody else's copy polished to a tight sheen, every word counting, as if there were a paper shortage.
At least that was more or less the job description. Desk man, or sub-editor as they say in the U.K.
Last person to see the copy before the mighty presses rolled. You processed the copy and wrote the headline; writers did not write their own headlines. There was the matter of advertising already dummied in. There was column width and depth. There were instances where you only had one column in which to write your head, so you'd use three or even four lines in that narrow space. Oakies did not like a movie about their town, so in those days you wrote:
Oh you had to be good. No fuzzy-eared Wordworths here. Speed and accuracy was the shibboleth.
Except that I was neither speedy nor accurate. And I had a big mouth and an ego the size of Newfoundland to boot.
Me? The published poet, short-story prizewinner, former Toronto Star man?
The music playing in my head, out of Charlie Brown: "Who me?"
He's a clown, that Charlie Brown.
Wife is pregnant again.
Buck up, fuckup!
I had initially quit my job at The Canadian Star Weekly so I could finally write that great novel. Ran out of money; ran back to what was by now called The Canadian magazine.
"Think I'll pass," said top editor Gerald Anglin.
Sure as hell can't go home again.
Over to the Toronto Telegram. They needed headline writers. I had a rep. I was soon in.
But you have to work nights to put the paper out in the morning. Two a.m. And three a.m. and four. Always working in the wee hours. And you had to be brilliant on demand, sleepy or no. These were the days before serious barbiturates. Mind spinning in the morning. Impossible to sleep. I drank.
Walking into work at three a.m., still half drunk. Actress June Havoc having an up-and down career. Head editor, or "slot man" wants an eight column headline, 36 points high to explain the story. You set HB pencil to paper.
"Havoc an apt name for showbiz game."
"Good," says the slot man. "But can you keep it up?"
You go back to the university. "Yes, yes, we can find a job for a recent graduate. But a mature man?
Things were so bad that at thirty, I was seriously thinking of going back to my faculty advisor. At thirty?
Catch Thirty. Here you were in your twenties, brilliant, you thought, bulletproof. Instant publishing for anything you wrote. Catch thirty. You'd already burned yourself out.
It was now that you had to pay for all those superiorities, the newspapers and magazines with so much of you in it, the yearbook, the student newspaper, the literary magazine.
Catch thirty. Like the -30- journalistic ending for a written piece.
"You've dug your last hole, Mole!". At least that's what had happened to a plug-ugly character in MAD magazine.
Now the novel has drawn you back, back to the cashing in of beer bottles, Mac' milk jugs, painting furniture for your mother-in-law. Hugo the Yugo, who owns the apartment complex, wants his money.
Then sudden, unexpected relief.
The mother-in-law wants to go to Florida. She is a little ill. She has no babysitter for her Florida vacation.
Does a cat have a tail?
I would be her constant companion, confidante, bottle-washer, bum-boy. My wife too, offered her services. And wouldn't my little boy like a Florida vacation?
Leonardo Arms, the famous condo in Fort Myers.
Gulf wind wafting through the white stucco penthouse.
Going shelling in the morning, shopping for momma-in-law at Winn-Dixie. Dolphins jumping up and down as your drive over the bridge to Winn-Dixie.
What a marvelous way to screw up! Did I know what I was doing when I let my life just float away?
Wife and chubby-chucks doing fine. Momma has big bucks. We suddenly had big bucks and a new station wagon to drive (Mother-in-law had to get around). Hey, this was just like downtown! But better.
Sharp stinging sense of inferiority all the same. I had been fired. I took it personally.
Had to make amends. Put pen to paper, did some golf course story and what do you know? Published in the Reader's Digest. I had killed the incubus, but did not yet give it a name, so it really stayed down there, tamped-down but ugly and accusing all the same. Deep down, you are a fuck-up. You are a turd.
Well, here we were, living the life of millionaires on Mommy's money.
And yet, deep down, I was a turd. I knew it, mother-in-law knew it; only my poor wife didn't know it.
Losing at Scrabble (some editor!); Losing at board games. A duffer at bridge. Piss-poor swimmer at the dive club.
Oh sure, it sounds top-of-the world.
But I was a turd.
Late at night the twelve-pack to feel like a kid again, the twenty cigarettes. "You're turning alcoholic baby," says wife.
I know. That's because I'm a turd.
Can not snap out of the lassitude. The worm gnaws away. I needed a karma mechanic. I prayed for a karma mechanic. Head of the household going mad. What shall we tell the children? My mother, though highly intelligent, as are most crazy people, had once been institutionalized. Like mother like son? Catch Thirty. You who have enjoyed life and sampled some of its pleasure, will die. And not only will you die, but you'll die crazy.
What will we tell the children? Well, at least I had bred out. I married someone as far from my gene pool as possible.
My mother, once she recovered, said, "Your son is lucky. He is a troika. Three ethnic groups in one. He will do well." He did.
But the search for the karma mechanic.
The more I drank, the more I seemed to disappear up my own aperture.
And then finally, the karma mechanic.
Would you believe it?
There was that long-suffering, almost angelic face on the TV screen. "There were seven Spanish angels in the altar of the Sun. They were praying for two lovers, in the valley of the gun." Well, I had certainly considered going out and buying a gun.
But the life story, Willie Nelson's life story. The sleeping in laundromats, the whiskey bottles piled up, history of family anxieties, divorce, orphanhood. And there he was, bright and angelic on TV, singing his life song and On the Road Again.
The snap had somehow been achieved. Suddenly I was free. And sane. And on the road again.
Back in the station wagon, back up 75 towards Detroit and Toronto.
I was going to take on those goddamn towers, write my book and bring the house down.