Thursday, March 7, 2013

The game and the story are always rigged

You first learned about what it meant to be "with it" from a book by Herb Gold, called The Man Who Was Not with It, a novel that also revived your awareness of the noun (as opposed to a verb) "mark," referring to a sucker or patsy.  Years later, Gold inscribed a copy of the book to you with a personalized note referring to one of the major dramatic forces in the book.

Thanks to Ron Lawrence, who arrived on your doorstep as you were about to leave for the border town of El Centro, where you would be a cub reporter for a newspaper, you instead became "with it" in actuality, then proceeded to ease your way past the plush rope separating the marks from the manipulators and makers of illusion.

"The game is always rigged,"  Lawrence told you.  "Even honest games, ones without a 'g' (gimmick) give the house an advantage.  If you're going to be honest, run a game--don't be a player."

The truth of this came when a 1941 Cadillac Lawrence owned and drove at the time, and was later revealed not to have a genuine Cadillac engine, developed operational difficulties in Lodi, California, a city of about sixty thousand in the northernmost Central Valley on what was then State Highway 99.  The mechanic wanted $275 to effect the repairs, an amount you thought somewhere beyond outrageous and exorbitant.

"You don't understand,"  Ron Lawrence said.  "We're in his store.  We're his marks."

"Cynical,"  you said.

"Worldly,"  he said.  "Besides, we haven't set up our store yet."  Later, and after Lawrence gave the mechanic a free pass to the Lodi Fair, he said, "Capitalism."

Although you stayed "with it," most Springs and Summers over a span of nearly five years, you were able to do so by reminding yourself you were an observer, in the process trying to run as honest a game as you could.  But all the while, you were haunted by Lawrence's observations about the world of marks and how today's mark or victim was entitled to his time of having those who were "with it" come into his shop.  There were times and experiences when and where this murky vision seemed to be so, but others still where it did not, and for these, you grew more grateful as they arrived.

A defining moment came one year after you'd left the carnival life and so had Lawrence, in favor of the merchant marine.  He was between ships and you took a journey of nostalgia, visiting two or three county fair sites, walking the midway once again as marks, intrigued by the guile and inventiveness the agents--for that is what you'd been called as well, when you were with it--showed.  For a day or two, you and Lawrence scarcely spoke about what it was like to be a mark.  You ate cook house and Ma's Eats food, chomped cotton candy, drank awful urn coffee, began once again to enjoy the midway burger, loaded with the grilled onions and French's mustard, topped with a splash of sweet relish.

Without any spoken agreement, you knew this part of the trip had ended.  It came when Lawrence dragged you off the midway to a place where he could get his favorite meal, a tuna salad sandwich and an egg salad sandwich, which he combined into one thick wedge.  You've never gone back and, at least until the last time you saw him, neither had Lawrence.  For a time, you'd get postcards and occasional souvenirs from ports in the Pacific and Europe.

At various times later on, you'd find yourself in places such as Times Square in New York or the large building housing the farmer's market in Guadalajara or some blocks in the North Beach section of San Francisco, getting flashbacks of the Midway.  For years, there was the yearly attendance at the major book event, then called the American Bookseller's Association Exhibition, held at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.  In later years, the name was changed to Publisher's Expo, held in such remote venues as Boston, Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.

Each of these streets and galas reminded you of the Midway and the distinctions between being a mark or being with it, being vulnerable to interests and treasures and illusions, or in fact manipulating them.  You'd gone from being "with it" to the carnival and Midway to being "with it" so far as the American Book Trade was in play.  You'd found your way once again beyond the plush ropes and into the places of parties, samples, interviews, extravaganzas.

You sometimes found yourself wondering if Ron Lawrence would have recognized you.

There are some similarities to the Midway and the worlds of books.  Sometimes, in a book store or when looking at a publication devoted to review and commentary, you can hear the books themselves, calling to you, offering you illusion and transportation.  Sometimes, working with a student or client, you can hear a voice coming out of the manuscript, and in a fugue-like state you can hear yourself, calling out over the Midway, "Hey, let's try the ball game.  Three balls for a quarter.  All you have to do is tip 'em [the milk bottles] over."

And after all these years, you sometimes wonder if Lawrence was more right than you'd thought.  You hear your own characters, calling to you, wanting to assure you how they deserve being cast in a story or a longer work, telling you how easy it would be for you to give it a try.

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