Educational Television, the novel reconfigured as a memoir. December 18–25, 2021.
(Revisions to typescript from 21 nov 2008,19 Feb 2009, 26 June 2010.)
Chapter I: Our Shameful Secrets
When I worked in educational television it was so embarrassing I could never tell anyone about it. Not my teachers, not my shrink (obviously) and none of the people I knew at school. No friends. No parents of friends (good Lord!). And most definitely not the relative I lived with. That however was not an educational television problem. As a general rule you couldn’t tell Aunt Pudge anything.
You’d understand this immediately if you met Aunt Pudge. She was one of those unstable, unpredictable people. You’re always taking your life in your hands with them. Even just giving them the time of day. “It’s two pm,” you say . . . and then maybe they go la-di-dah and burst into song . . . or they bash your head through the wall. Aunt Pudge did both, though as time went on head-bashing became the norm. So mostly I stayed away from her, at least as far as I could in our three-room apartment. And I kept my trap shut.
But I was telling you about the kiddy show. And how I never told Aunt Pudge. Once she was well out of the picture, and I hadn’t seen her in years, I’d think back to our time in that squalid flat on Perry Street, and think, oh how funny and poignant it all was. It was just too bad I couldn’t tell her about the sordid kiddie show. Because, to be honest, if there was one person with a rich and full appreciation of sordidness and debasement, it was Aunt Pudge. Humiliation and suffering were her mother’s milk, or bread of life, or whatever the expression is.
For many years she worked a dead-end job in the disreputable end of the publishing world. She’d always tell people she was struggling to break out and better herself. But of course she never did. She’d been in that hole for fifteen years. Maybe she was mesmerized by the awfulness of her job. Or she just drank too much, or was just of victim of her generation, where everybody thought that bettering yourself meant sleeping around with strange men you picked up at book parties and bars. I don’t know. I didn’t know then, and I know even less now.
But anyway, right around the time that I was deeply involved with the kiddie show and planning and plotting my escape from Aunt Pudge, the weirdest thing happened. She met a guy who wasn’t weird at all. He was an advertising man, in fact, like someone you’d see on TV. Very normal. His name was Bertram but I was supposed to call him Uncle Ted. He’d been in advertising all his life, since the end of the War. Now he was getting on years, maybe 50 or so, and he wanted to do something new. He and a business partner had a plan to open a chain of “American” eateries in London. They’d been working on this project for a long time, six months at least, maybe a year. The eateries were going to be high-class even though they’d mainly serve pizza and spareribs. Uncle Ted hired professional decorators to fit them out with dark-wood paneling and phony gaslights and framed pictures of Honus Wagner and Edward G. Robinson. Because, you know, this was the early 1970s. “Nostalgia” was still a big thing.
Uncle Ted would come by Perry Street and bring long cardboard tubes with decorator sketches inside. He would drink some scotch, and Aunt Pudge and I would ooh and aah over the drawings. These were done with colored magic markers in a scribbly-line style. The people in the drawings looked really ludicrous, a lot of hairy late-1960s men in tuxedos and Elliott Gould hair and mustaches, with women in hoop earrings and white boots. And they were sitting in this dark-wood bar/restaurant, daintily feasting on spareribs and pizza, and a lot of big cocktails.
I wanted to think of something complimentary to say but couldn’t think of anything. So I asked if the food was good.
And Uncle Ted laughed—a mighty laugh! Haw haw haw! He said food was the least of his concerns. What really matters, he said, is that decor and location are tip-top. Because what we’re selling is a total experience!
“You shouldn’t think of this business as a restaurant (haw haw haw) . . .you should think of it rather as an advertising/public relations outfit that owns its own client. And the client here happens to be a restaurant with a unique and exciting theme . . . no, cross that out. It’s actually a whole slew of restaurants with different imaginative themes . . . you get that?”
I did not get that at all but I said yes, because Aunt Pudge was looking hard at me and I was quite sure she was going to hit me later. Though as I recall she didn’t. Uncle Ted seemed to be having a mellowing effect on her. That and the scotch.
Uncle Ted was one jolly ad man. He was always up, up and on, even when he was sober. He was full of stories about famous people, people like Henry Kissinger and Orson Welles and some other people. Mostly though he had stories about Orson Welles. I vaguely imagined that Ted was going to bring Orson Welles by one of these days, so I put out my big copy of The Citizen Kane Book on the cocktail table just in case, so he could autograph it.
Orson never came by, but Ted and Pudge did announce they were getting married. Start of 1974, Pudge chucked her horrible job at Time-Life Books and ran off with Uncle Ted and five tons of restaurant equipment. Second hand equipment, mainly stuff you couldn’t buy in England. They sailed with it, on one of the last tramp steamers ever to leave Hoboken.
I didn’t get to wave goodbye, because Uncle Ted sent me to get a newspaper, and by the time the taxicab and I got back to the dock the ship was out in the North River. And so Uncle Ted and Aunt Pudge sailed away, never to be seen again.
A month or two later I got a postcard from Aunt Pudge, sent c/o my school. It was ten or fifteen years old, dogeared. It had an English postage stamp and a Par Avion sticker, but the picture on the front was a Quality Courts motel in Vermont. This card had sat at the bottom of Pudge’s purse since forever. She didn’t write much:
“Food is awful. P.”
Chapter 2: Hornblower Returns
Just before leaving town Aunt Pudge wrote up a press release—two pages, stapled—and handed it out to everyone. She even gave it to the dry cleaners. Or rather, one evening when she was stewed she bullied me into giving it to the dry cleaners. She imagined they’d hang it on the wall, the way they displayed autographed headshots of their celebrity customers. (To Vinnie, You’re the best, Michael J. Pollard.)
Pudge had a theory that dry cleaning people were naturally warm and exuberant Mediterranean types, and they regarded their clientele as extended family. So emotional, always gushing. “Why you no come-a see me no more?” they’d say if you hadn’t come in for a month. And that’s why they kept those picture galleries.
And actually they did hang it on the wall. Pinned it up, that press release, under the framed 8×10 glossies of Bill Boggs and Pia Lindstrom. And it stayed there a long, long time, next to the business cards for the vocal coaches and rug shampooers:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 22, 1973
Contact: C. P. Parker
PUDGE PARKER TAKES POSITION AS INTERNATIONAL PUBLICIST
“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” I’d say to myself when I saw it there.
Pudge wanted me to stick the press release into the mailboxes in our building, too. This was pointless, and crazy, I thought. You had to fold the sheets five ways to stick them through that little slot. She wanted me to do this so the neighbors in the building wouldn’t be spreading the story that she had left publishing to go work in her husband’s restaurant. Which sounds pretty awful, let’s face it. But folded five ways it looked like the worst kind of junk flyer, so nobody was going to read it anyway.
I stuck one copy in the Dinkelspiels’ box, because that mailbox had a broken lock, and I didn’t have to squeeze it through the slot. The rest I deep-sixed a couple blocks away, in a trash barrel outside the laundromat at Waverly and Charles.
Through the window I recognized someone in the laundromat. I could only see the back of his head, but nobody else had a weird head shape like that. Wedge-shaped, it was. This was Mr. Hornblower, our producer extraordinaire, former writer for Cowboy Duke’s Science Show in Boston, and before that the What’s It All About Game on NBC. I didn’t want to talk to him now, but I was madly curious to know what had happened to him in the past few months. He’d abandoned us all up in Newport, Rhode Island last August, after our plans for the educational TV show went up in smoke. What happened was, he fell in with a rich lady he knew who had a job with the production of The Great Gatsby. That was the movie they were making nearby. Just about everybody in Newport, Rhode Island was working on the film, even if only as an extra. The rich lady had money, and Hornblower couldn’t go back to his little flat in the Village because he’d sublet it for six months. So Hornblower latched onto the lady and moved in with her, I think. I don’t think it was a physical relationship. Hornblower was mainly interested in a 16-year-old boy from Pawtucket named Rufus.
I say Hornblower abandoned us “all” but in reality there weren’t too many of us left in our kiddy-show company. When we were up in Boston, trying to sell the show, a couple of the swishier boys just walked off one afternoon and caught a bus for Provincetown. Then there was my best friend and classmate, Kem, who peeled off when we got to South Station. She didn’t get on the train. We never heard from her again. So now there was me, and two or three others, and then Rufus, Rufus from Pawtucket, who had a rock ‘n’ roll combo. Hornblower wanted him to be star of our show. If we had a show, that is, which at this point we did not seem to.
The reason we went to Boston is that that’s where Cowboy Duke Elkhart had his TV program, and Cowboy Duke had said that if Hornblower ever had a good idea for a kiddy show, Cowboy Duke would put it on the educational TV channel. We usually called our program Teentime!, though that wasn’t its real name. Hornblower changed the official name every couple of weeks. He liked weird and obscure titles, but we couldn’t remember what the latest name was. So, Teentime!
After we got to Boston it became clear that Hornblower wasn’t one for forward planning. Cowboy Duke was on vacation in Montana for all of July. When he finally got back we all went to meet him at his offices in the TV studio. And then, basically, he laughed us out of the office.
He did it nicely, I must say, shaking his head in pity at us clueless adolescents. Obviously Hornblower had suckered us all in. I don’t think we were really clueless, but that’s how it looked to Cowboy Duke. We’d pretty much figured out the Hornblower story by this point. We figured out that Hornblower had been fired from the Cowboy Duke Science Show because his ideas were too strange. But as Hornblower explained it, Cowboy Duke fired him because actually he was too brilliant to write for television. Personally I suspected Hornblower was fired because he always seemed to be stoned.
In Hornblower’s telling, Cowboy Duke had praised his imagination when giving him his goodbye handshake from the Science Show. “You have a brilliant imagination!” he said, Cowboy Duke did, according to Hornblower. “And you should do something worthwhile with it!” Hornblower decided this was high praise indeed. More than that, it was a promise! An assurance! Cowboy Duke was saying in effect that if Hornblower ever came up with his own kiddy-show proposal for educational television, Cowboy Duke himself would get it on the air!
So Hornblower was fired from Cowboy Duke’s Science Show, and now Cowboy Duke showed absolutely no interest in Teentime!, or as Hornblower was calling it now, Virgule. “What? I don’t even know what that means!” Cowboy Duke said. Then he told Hornblower that this educational TV notion he had wasn’t really a solid idea. In fact, it wasn’t an idea at all. It was an idea to have an idea of an idea. And this was a fair criticism. Initially Hornblower had wanted some kind of old fashioned panel quiz show, so we worked with that for a while. It seemed to be based on something he remembered from about 1953. Then he heard about a new kiddy show where the kids write and perform their own material, and he decided that’s what we’d be, too, except with older, smarter kids.
“But what makes your—concept—so different from the other kiddy shows,” Cowboy Duke asked. He asked this, scratching his head, about four or five times. And Hornblower would go, “Well we’re better. We’re smarter. We’re older. Not aiming for eight-to-ten-year-olds. No sirree. We’ve got 14, 15, 16-year-olds. Appealing to an audience market not being served.”
The meeting ran on for twenty, twenty-five minutes, and we were very embarrassed for Hornblower. But he wasn’t fazed at all. His mood was buoyant, or at least his delusions were copper-bottomed. He decided we should all go to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where there was this “beautiful booy” he was trying to recruit for the kiddy show.
“He so beautiful. Has big house. We can all stay. You want come with?” That’s how Hornblower talked.
His resourcefulness, his ability to live on air, was a marvel to behold. He’d been supporting himself all summer by borrowing money from friends and strangers. He’d get himself invited to weekend parties, in Dover, or the Cape or Nantucket, where he’d bring some marijuana and persuade other guests to buy “stock” in his proposed production company. The stock certificates were handwritten IOUs torn from a yellow legal pad. Maybe the proto-tycoons he was sponging off rationalized it by thinking, “Well $200 isn’t that much, considering we smoked some pretty righteous dope…”
So that was summer 1973. And now here we are, end of the year. If I really wanted an update on Hornblower and company, that would have to wait till 1974. Right now I had to go back to Perry Street and lie to Aunt Pudge that I’d stuffed all the neighbors’ mailboxes.
Uncle Ted was there, working through a bottle of Johnnie Black. Seeing The Citizen Kane Book reminded him of one of his many Orson Welles tales. I’d heard most of them, including this one, which came out a little different every time. It had to do with a time when Ted was living in Chicago, and working on the Studebaker account.
“No trouble at all selling this one in. Everyone’s interested in Orson Welles, whether they remember him for the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, or Rita Hayworth or whatever. Even Old Man Studebaker’s heard of Orson Welles. So we’re doing a two-hour spectacular, sponsored by Studebaker, with Orson Welles.
“But then there’s a mix-up, it seems . . .
“We were all told it was a two-hour biography with interviews and film-clips about Orson Welles and his rise and fall. And we’ve got him driving some Studebakers! But get this. It’s not Orson Welles.
“No! It’s Oscar Wilde! Do you know who Oscar Wilde was? Haw! Can you imagine! Nineteen Sixty-Two! A two-hour spectacular on Oscar Wilde, sponsored by Studebaker!” Uncle Ted had a good long laugh.
Aunt Pudge and I laughed a little too, though I felt I was missing something.
“But wasn’t Oscar Wilde dead?” said Aunt Pudge.
“Yes, and that made the whole thing even worse,” said Uncle Ted. “Can’t drive a Studebaker if you’re dead. So I had to go explain it all personally to Old Man Studebaker and Sherwood Egbert, the company president. Fortunately they did not know who Oscar Wilde was, and Sherwood’s mind was on other things anyway, because he had cancer and the company was going bankrupt . . . But at least you can’t blame us for killing Studebaker, ha ha!”
There were screams and banging noises.
“Hmm, are your neighbors brawling or something?” Uncle Ted asked.
It was the male couple at the end of the hall, having another knock-down drag-out fight. It sounded like they were beating a wall or floor with a chair. Someone was shouting in a whiny voice. Something like, “You never gave me no antsy-pantsy.”
“I love local color!” Uncle Ted chuckled. “You are going to miss this all this excitement.”
“Oh everybody in the building has fights. It’s nothing,” I said. I quickly corrected myself. “Most of them anyway… There’s this old hippie couple downstairs, the Dinkelspiels? They have the absolute worst fights. She throws him out and then she throws his clothes out the window. ‘Course they’re on the first floor so it’s only a few feet.”
“And Marty Dinkelspiel doesn’t own any clothes, really, just a couple pairs of jeans,” Pudge added.
“Oh. So that’s why there’s a pair of dungarees hanging on the rail out front,” said Ted.
“Yes,” I said, “the Dinkelspiels were really going at it last night.”
“Must be Jews,” said Ted. “That is one of their traditions, the woman gets mad and throws the husband’s clothes out the window. I worked with a Jewish fellow for years and came to have an appreciation of their ways. The other interesting thing they do is call the cops in when they have a domestic quarrel.”
“I suppose you have to do that sometimes,” I said blandly.
“Oh they generally don’t hurt each other, they just do it for the drama,” said Ted. “My friend explained it all to me.”
Chapter 3: Romulus’s Rebus
The other big thing that happened at the end of 1973 was that the West Side Highway fell down. The concrete pillars just shattered one December day, and down the roadway came in a pile of rebars and rocks. The whole highway south of 34th Street was closed. Though we really didn’t really notice it, because most of us didn’t drive, at least not in the city. After a few months everyone got used to having this big pile of rubble and broken roadway over on the West Side, like it was always there. I think it sat there for years and years.
We’d all been told to expect this sort of thing. It was because of Kohoutek. Comet Kohoutek, dancing through the sky. It would supposedly bring the fall of governments and civilizations. It’s true that President Nixon’s administration was getting wobbly, but he hadn’t toppled yet. I figured Kohoutek was a dud. No one could see it, not even with the big telescope we installed at school. We should have been grateful that at least the West Side Highway fell down.
Where it fell down was at Gansevoort Street, in a part of town you usually don’t want to go to, old warehouses and meat packers near 14th Street, by the docks. We had some friends, a lesbian couple who lived in an old pickle warehouse on Little West 12th Street and kept a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in their living room. (Couldn’t park it on the sidewalk, you know.) I’d walk a neighbor’s dog through the area and sometimes stop off and see them, Shelley and Darryle. They’d offer me cocaine sometimes. They claimed it was finest and purest in the world, but it was wasted on me. Cocaine just had no effect on me when I was 14 or 15. It’s one of those things you have to grow into, like hard liquor. Darryle and Shelley also had a sort of video and movie-editing lab in their pickle works, where they made cheap late-night TV commercials. Darryle was a rich society girl who’d just graduated from a party school in Florida. Now she owned that Harley and sported a spiky haircut and a black leather jacket. Shelley was a former Broadway dancer. She was also an occasional porn actress, though I didn’t know this at the time. In another year she’d be world famous (under a pseudonym) in a big production that played for two years at 57th Street and Broadway.