Saturday, April 7, 2007

Hunting for Your Inner Ahab, or Toast at the Actors' Studio

Although my motivation for wanting to do so is lost in the dimness of time, suffice it to say that the Dramatics class burned brightly within my middle school mentality.

Even though I was well launched on my hopeful path as a writer, Dramatics seemed to me the most wonderful, splendid goal, an achievement that I would remember the way others would remember first sexual encounter, and others still would remember such academic distinctions as The Dean's List, and yet additional legions would install some artistic triumph.

Mildred Cline stood in my way. She was the teacher of Public Speaking, the gateway through which all who wished to take Dramatics must emerge. To be given anything lower than a grade of B+ in Public Speaking condemned you to a purgatory in you were eternally audience. Mildred Cline and perhaps the added burden of my changing voice emerging more often than not as a squawk, and the burgeoning of my Adam's apple proved a severe firewall, resolved with what seemed like a good deal at the time.
I was guaranteed the grade of B+ in Public Speaking and a chance to appear in a kind of infomercial drama, written, I might add, by a girl on whom I had the vague-but-persistent designs of a thirteen-year-old boy on a fourteen-year-old girl. But no recommendation for Dramatics.

The infomercial play was a bust; I had two lines, for which my only conviction had to do with my inchoate designs on the playwright. In the actual performance,in which I thought to alert all those connected that I was deserving of entry in the Dramatics class, I delivered the last line first. Middle school actors are not as sophisticated as you might hope. In response to my gaffe, one lad, who went on to become student body president, socked me on the arm, one girl began crying, and after the performance, Mildred Cline shook her head.

All of which is lead-up to my being fired from my first job with the Foley & Burke Shows, a large scattering of carnival attractions on the California and Nevada County and State Fair Circuit. The job was being a shill, which is to say I was given a roll of coins from which I was to place bets at a booth in which a large, numbered wheel--think of a roulette wheel mounted sideways--was spun. Bettors were able to bet on numbers and colors. Depending on the number or color on which the wheel stopped--stopped being a euphemism; the wheel was stopped by the croupier, who leaned against or kicked a small lever--the player could win a ham, a pound can of coffee, a six-pack of Coke, a pound of bacon. My job as shill was to win the main prize, which as I indicated was heavily controlled by the croupier. The big prize was a five-pound ham. "You mean I won that ham for a quarter?" "That's right, sir. Try your luck again. See what you win next."

How, you ask, could someone be fired from such a job?

As the owner of the booth informed me, it was due to an apparent lack of conviction. "You can't win ham for shit," she told me, and to this day, when I am thinking of characters in stories, wanting something or being afraid of something, or disagreeing with something, I think of that boss, and inevitably, I think of Mildred Cline.

"I get winos and street bums and fruit pickers can win ham better than you. What the hell they teach you at that UCLA of yours?"

"I can scan poems," I ventured, but, alas, without too much conviction. "I can write compare-and-contrast essays. I can recite The Eve of St. Agnes."

"But you can't--" she began.

I nodded. She didn't have to finish. While she paid me--for half a shift--I noticed two youngish women watching the transaction. I didn't know either one, but knew enough about my environment to know that they were both "with it," which is to say with the show; they were what I longed to be, a recognizable carney, someone who was obviously with the show.

The taller of the two approached, sizing me up with, I thought, the practiced eye of a casting director. "If you're interested," she said, "I might have a spot for you."

"What do I have to win?"

"No, no. You have to lose. You can never win."

"Hey, Joyce," my ex-boss chimed in, "you may have got yourself a candidate here. College boy. Well meaning, but--" with an extended palm, she pantomimed a flip-flopping motion.

And so my new career was born. Joyce and her friend Lynne ran a Guess Your booth, in which the G or gimmick was to not be able to guess the customer's age, weight, profession, place of birth, and the like. You guess a fifty-year-old man's age for, say, thirty-five, and he says, "Hell now, I'm fifty." And you shake your head and say, "Well, you beat me, fair and square. You can chose any prize from the bottom shelf. Of course, you got to give me a chance to get even. Play again and if I don't guess, we move your prize option to the second shelf (where there were bigger plaster dolls and do-dads)." You had a good thing going because, frankly, you were that wonderful combination of a naive narrator and a dumb one. Well meaning, but--

Your next "challenge" was to guess this fifty-year-old, two-hundred-fifty-pound beer belly's weight. "Hmm, let's see. One eighty-five. Now if you'll just step over on this scale, specially calibrated by the good people at Sears--Why, I'll be darned, sir. You weigh an amazing two sixty-eight."

You work this right and you end up "losing" a lamp you could buy at a garage sale for a buck for the better part of twenty-five dollars.

After my first full day, Joyce signed me up. Reno, then Bakersfield, then Modesto. The full tour. Joyce knew vulnerable--and profit--when she saw it. I was a carney. Welcome to the world of marks.

It is no easy thing to move from the world of the carnival and being with it to the real life and not being with it, not, for that matter, being with much of anything except the great white whale all writers seek.

The trick is to recognize that quest and become quite like Ahab or, what the hell, like Melville, in the pursuit of it. Ahab probably couldn't win ham for shit, either, and Melville's later life was a kind of parody of Ishmael, a survivor with memories and impressions no one wanted to believe.

The carnival is surely a metaphor, the great white whale is a metaphor, and Ahab, too, is a metaphor, although the incumbent President of the United States has privatized him, at least for a time.

We must each of us find the mocha dick, the Moby-Dick to pursue and if we catch sight of him, send up a flare.

Quand' arrive, scrive, my father often said, exhausting his knowledge of Italian (no, I think he also understood pepperoni); when you get there, write.

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