Monday, June 25, 2012

Hollywood to Dollywood: Why The Lane Twins Are This Summer's Real Movie Heroes

Allow me to ask a few questions about this summer's movies.

Did The Avengers leave you thinking about your goals and dreams and how you might achieve them? Did Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter have you questioning your relationship to your parents and what's getting in the way of those relationships? Did Prometheus stimulate any thoughts whatsoever other than how a young woman could possibly perform a C-section on herself and then run around a space ship?

I'd venture to say the answer to all of the above is 'no.' Why? Because, in my view, none of the people involved in the making of these films took risks. They relied upon the safety of known comic books and a popular novel. They rebooted a dormant but once-lucrative sci-fi franchise. They didn't challenge themselves or their audiences. And for their efforts, they're floating on inner tubes across vast oceans of money, a margarita in each hand.

Meanwhile, there's Hollywood to Dollywood.

The independent documentary recently had two showings at Frameline, San Francisco's annual LGBT film festival, following more than 50 festival showings around the world. (The Huffington Post has a detailed story about the film worth reading.) 
Hollywood to Dollywood is about two twin brothers, Gary and Larry Lane, both gay, from my home state of North Carolina. The Lane twins, who currently live in Los Angeles, wrote a screenplay entitled Full Circle, which includes a part they wrote with Dolly Parton in mind. They love Dolly (who doesn't?), and they really want her to be in their film.

So how would these two young up-and-coming actors/models/screenwriters get someone of Dolly's stature to even consider their screenplay? How would they fast-forward past all the non-responses and rejections that inevitably await the vast majority of scripts by unknown screenwriters?

They made a movie about it.

Venturing Into Tornado Winds and Flood Waters

More specifically, the Lane twins made a charming, funny, suspenseful, and unexpectedly touching documentary about their cross-country trip from Hollywood to Dolly's theme park in Tennessee. Their goal: To hand-deliver their script to Parton during the 25th anniversary of Dollywood, a time when they knew exactly where she would be and when.

The Lane twins on the road to Dollywood
These guys rented an RV (which they nicknamed Jolene), assembled a tiny crew, and made the trek--venturing into tornado conditions and flood waters along the way--without any assurance they'd actually make contact with Parton.

Sure, they had some reasonable hopes, as we all know Dolly is a genuine and benevolent person. (By comparison, can you imagine making a trek cross-country in hopes of getting Patti LuPone to read your script?) But the Lane twins took a big risk--something that so many in Hollywood and on Broadway today wouldn't dream of doing. They invested time and money and emotion into filming a story the ending of which they couldn't possibly know.

That alone earns my heartfelt admiration. But the movie also spoke to me on many other levels. As someone who has also toiled on a script (a play) for four years, the Lane twins' guerilla script-submission-tactic is inspiring. I'm already scheming about the unsuspecting hands I'm going to thrust my manuscript into, though I hope I can do it with as much Southern charm and style as the Lane twins.

And their tactic, from a marketing perspective, is absolutely genius. You want to make sure Dolly is aware of how badly you want her to be in your movie? Make a movie about the trip you took to hand your script to her--a documentary, by the way, which has won lots of festival awards.

Leslie Jordan
I don't want to imply Hollywood to Dollywood is simply some shameless exercise in self-promotion. Yes, it's a story about ambition and living your dreams, however corny that may sound. But what gives the film such heart is that, ultimately, it's the story of two gay men who want to fully 'be seen' and accepted by their mother, whose religious beliefs has yet to allow that to happen.

All This, and Leslie Jordan, Too

That's the quiet sadness that runs throughout the film, though there are many comic high points--including cameos by the likes of Will & Grace's Leslie Jordan, the diminutive Southern comic actor.

The Lane twins come across as sweet, adorable, handsome, funny, intelligent, genuine Southern men of whom anyone would be proud. I'm happy to report that Nick and I had a chance to talk to them after a Frameline screening, and in 'real life' they're exactly as they are in the film. One minute of talking to them and you feel as if you've known them for years--or wish you had.

I could go on and on, but I'll close where I started: with The Avengers, Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the woman who gave herself a C-section in Prometheus. They're Hollywood's safe, risk-free action heroes. But for me, the real super heroes of the summer movie season, of the entire year in fact, are the Lane twins. And if you're at all interested in seeing their story, please buy the Hollywood to Dollywood DVD. It's only $20. You'll be supporting some terrific young Southerners. Ten percent of the sales go to Dolly's Imagination Library, which provides books to children. And most of all, it's a memorable movie. Besides, $20 is less than you paid for two tickets (plus popcorn) to see The Avengers--a movie you've probably already forgotten by now.

Postscript: Here's a recent Virgin America commercial featuring the Lane twins you may enjoy.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Elvis, Marilyn, Jim Morrison Holograms Coming Soon. But What About Bette?

The following is an update and expansion of an earlier blog post:
Broadway producers, I have an idea for increasing your ticket sales, going viral on social media, and injecting an element of shock and awe into your productions.

All you need are a few well-chosen holograms of dead celebrities.
This whole hologram thing came to life, so to speak, back in April, when the late Tupac Shakur performed "live" in concert with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Since then, the concept of insinuating dead performers into live shows is getting legs. Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison may all soon appear on stages again through technological magic (or sorcery, depending upon your view). Jim Morrison may even walk right up to you, look you in the eye, and sing to you, according to Entertainment Weekly. For the long-cold musician, perhaps it will be “Come on baby, light my fire”?
Most of this is just talk for now, except for Tupac. His likeness was projected onto a piece of glass on the concert stage, which then bounced the image onto a Mylar screen. Upon seeing photos of Tupac in the Coachella show, my first thought was: Look at those abs. Tupac should've changed his name to Sixpac.   
My second thought: Who else would I like to see digitally resurrected from the dead and interjected into stage productions?
Bette Davis, of course.
Let's say you're at a Broadway play and there's a scene in which two pretentious characters start speaking French to one another. Suddenly, in vivid black and white, there's Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve, quipping "Enchante to you, too!" That would certainly perk up the audience, n’est-ce pas?
You could make a Bette Davis hologram a recurring gag on Broadway. Audiences would never know when or where Dead Bette might appear and make a bitchy remark. In the recently closed Death of a Salesman, for instance, Bette as Regina in The Little Foxes could have suddenly materialized and said coldly to Philip Seymour Hoffman: "I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I'll be waiting for you to die."
Or how about this? Immediately after a love scene in a play, suddenly there's Bette from Of Human Bondage, shrieking contemptuously: "After ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH!"
Some other late, great, dearly missed performers I'd love to see pop up 'live' on stage, in no particular order:
* John Gielgud from Arthur. Whenever a character makes a boring or predictable announcement, Gielgud, as Dudley Moore’s sass-talking butler, would roll his eyes and say sarcastically, “I’ll alert the media.”
* Dixie Carter from Designing Women. No one went off on a tirade more fabulously than Carter. Imagine a dull scene (take your pick) in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, when, quite unexpectedly, Carter shows up to deliver her famous “And that’s the night the lights went out in Georgia!” speech. The result would be spontaneous, heartfelt, thunderous, leaping-out-of-the-seat applause, the likes of which I doubt the Spider-Man producers have experienced.
* Marty Feldman from Young Frankenstein. Want to squeeze a laugh from a script that is supposed to be funny but isn’t? Whenever you feel the audience’s attention waning, simply flash Feldman’s face on stage, with his cockeyed, impish smile. Even better, have him announce that his name is “Aye-gor,” not “Ee-gor.” And while we’re at it, throw in Cloris Leachman (who, fortunately, is still very much alive) proclaiming, “He vus my boyfriend!”
* Joan Crawford from the British horror movie Berserk!, in which she tromped around a three-ring circus sporting tights and a three-ring bun on her head. Picture a digital hologram of circus queen Joan, jumping from one swing to another effortlessly, high above the stage (Spider-Man again?) pausing to peer down with disapproval at the goings-on and command, “Clean up this mess!” To get an idea of a hologram Joan Crawford’s potential, check out the YouTube video in which Rick Santorum, in a TV interview, gets repeatedly ‘Joansmacked.’ And here's the latest Joansmacked video:

OK, let’s recap by doing the math: Holograms of Bette, John, Dixie, Marty, and Joan + viral sensations = theatrical riches. You’re welcome, Broadway!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Buck Naked in McCorkleville -- The Conclusion

At last, the conclusion to my epic miniseries is here. In Buck Naked in McCorkleville -- Part I, I wrote about how I came to rent the top floor of Miss McCorkle's Victorian home in Charleston, S.C. Part II thickened the plot, with tales of jello wrestlers and a scary lizard and how I rebelliously moved my own furniture into the furnished apartment--and upended her sofa in the process. (She was not pleased.) And now, the infamous 'eh conditionuh' incident and its aftermath. 

This is what Miss McCorkle's original AC unit looked like
It was late June, 1982. The stagnant days were languid and long drawn out. The nights were still and muggy, except after the occasional thunderstorm. The window unit eh conditionuh (Miss McCorkle's pronunciation) hummed in the living room window, barely cooling the room and doing nothing at all for the bedroom. And so, I had a choice: Sleep in the living room near the air conditioner (a window unit), on one of Miss McCorkle’s soufflé mattresses, or lie awake sweating on my firm mattress in the bedroom, far from the air conditioner.

For two weeks, I slept no more than a few hours a night. Finally, I’d had enough. I moved the air conditioning unit out of the living room window and into the bedroom.

I slept blissfully for three nights. And then, late on a Friday afternoon, I was rushing around the apartment, packing for a trip to Wilmington. I was anxious to get going, as the radio weatherman had said to expect an early evening 'summer squall.' It had been such a hot day that, even with the air conditioner running at full capacity in the bedroom, sweat beads clung to my upper lip. And so, I removed all my clothes and continued my frenetic packing, too busy to notice rain beginning to tap against the McCorkle roof. Suddenly, the shutters on either side of the bedroom window began to bang against the air conditioner unit. The rain became a torrent. I heard lightning in the distance once, then again, closer.

And then: a knock on my door. "Mr. Mahtin!"

"Yes?" Being buck naked, I didn't open the door.

"You got to move dat eh conditionuh! My shutters are bangin' against it! And besides, da bedroom, it ain’t grounded proper. You could start a fire, don’t you know!"

As if to make a bad situation worse, the wooden shutters crashed against the air conditioner again, this time even more violently.

"Okay, okay," I said. "I'll take care of it right now." I ran to the window and looked out. Fortunately the shutters were still intact. But the sky was black, the rain falling almost at an angle now, pushed by what seemed like tornado-force winds. I had no choice. I had to pull that air conditioner in now, before one more bang of the shutters, never mind the lightning crashing here and there. I placed one hand firmly on the air conditioning unit and with the other, I tried to push up the window. 

It didn’t budge.

Something Falling From the Sky

When I look back on what happened next, for some reason I always see it in my mind’s eye from an omniscient point of view. I see myself as this nude young man struggling to open a stuck window. I see this cranky old woman in the window directly below, gazing out at the storm, absent-mindedly towel-drying a dish. And then, the window that the nude young man is struggling with unexpectedly flings open. The air conditioner leaps out of the window and plunges to the driveway below, falling directly in front of the old woman’s disbelieving eyes. The nude young man stands at the upstairs open window, with only the air conditioner's severed electrical cord in his hand. The eh conditionuh lies in a dozen pieces on the driveway below, having barely missed the old woman’s Nova. Lightning strikes again, and the old woman, still standing at her window, shrieks, "Oh my God, my eh conditionuh!" Her plaintive wail travels straight up, through the rain and wind, into the nude young man’s ears and into his addled brain, where he—where I—can still hear it now.

I threw on some clothes and ran outside to gather the wreckage from the driveway. Hurriedly, I scooped up the pieces of debris and hauled them up the back steps into my apartment, making several trips. By the time I finished my soaked clothes, cold and heavy, clung to my body, and on one of the hottest days I’d ever experienced, I shivered.

I removed my wet clothes, threw them in the bathtub, and changed into a T-shirt and jeans. And then came the inevitable knocking on my door. I opened it knowing what I’d find, and I was not disappointment. There stood Miss McCorkle, in the throes of a full-blown hissy fit. 

“Now look what you done!” she raged. “You’re gonna pay me for dat eh conditionuh! Why did you have to go and move it in da first place? You shoulda left it where it was, now look what you done!”

She continued her harangue for what felt like 20 minutes but was probably only three or four. As Miss McCorkle screamed, she clenched and unclenched bony, spotted, blue-veined fists. I stepped back as she edged toward me, the vein in her neck bulging. She jerked her left hand upward and then stopped it, as if she had started to strike me and then pulled back. Or maybe she was about to have a stroke. I tried to focus on what she was saying. “You da worst tenant I ever had!” she screamed. “Pushin’ my sofa on its side, puttin’ a bed in da livin’ room, movin’ my eh conditionuh without askin’ me…oh my God, my eh conditionuh!”

I apologized profusely and promised to replace the air conditioner as soon as I could. Miss McCorkle’s shoulders, which had been elevated almost up to her ears, dropped slightly. She studied me as if I were in a police line-up and wasn’t quite sure if I was the one who had robbed her at gunpoint or not. “I shouldn’ta never let this apartment to you! Never!”

She continued to glare at me, awaiting my response. All I could say was, “I’m sorry.” She lingered for a few seconds longer before letting out a sigh of disgust, then turned around so forcefully that she almost lost her balance. Instinctively I reached out to catch her. Without looking back she slapped my hand away. As she turned to go, Miss McCorkle slammed my door behind her with shocking force. It was as if she had waited her entire life to slam that door. Minutes later, the squall had moved on, and in the silence it left behind, I heard Miss McCorkle's sister downstairs, crying.

Miss McCorkle: "I Should Know Better"

The next week, I found a used air conditioner window unit in excellent condition for $200. I'd nearly depleted my savings during my move to Charleston, and $200 was about all that remained. I installed the air conditioner in the living room window, where its predecessor had lived. To my delight, this unit was a vast improvement over the earlier one. It cooled not only the living room but the bedroom, too. I figured that was that. I was wrong. Knock knock knock. “Mr. Mahtin!”


"That eh conditionuh you bought is used!" Miss McCorkle said.

"But it's a lot newer than the one I broke, and it works much better," I replied.

"It won't do," she insisted. And for weeks after, she slipped under my door newspaper ads promoting new air conditioners for $400 or more. I ignored them. Eventually the ads stopped. Winter came and went, and I decided to move to another apartment. I gave Miss McCorkle 30 days notice. She complained once more about the eh conditionuh. I gave her a little extra money to try and soothe her. She took it but said I still owed her a new air conditioner. “People like you,” she said, pointing a skeletal index finger at me, “dey always try to take advantage of people like me. I guess I should know better,” she said, with a defeated shrug.

Seven Years Later

Seven years passed. In spring 1989, when Nick and I were living together in San Francisco, we returned to Charleston to attend the wedding of a former co-worker of mine. It was wonderful to see my old colleagues again. Gilbert hadn't changed much, though after Indira Gandhi's assassination, he had changed his phone book listing to Cory Aquino.

One afternoon, out for a walk, I found myself standing outside McCorkleville. I felt a drop of water on my hand and looked up; the air conditioner I had bought was still in the upstairs window, humming. I scanned the area for signs of my former landlady's continued existence. I didn't see her Nova, but I spotted a patch of pink impatiens growing out of the sidewalk in front of the house.

Overcome with curiosity, I rang the doorbell. A minute passed without an answer. I was about to press the buzzer again when the curtains on the front door window parted and revealed the familiar McCorkle face, gray eyes peering through square-frame glasses, her mouth forming its familiar 'o' shape, her rouge still three shades too dark.

The door creaked open, and before I could speak, she said, "Come in, come in," as if I had been keeping her waiting. As I entered her parlor, I realized I'd only been invited in this room once, during our first meeting. The same World War II-vintage fan whirred in its corner, stirring dust. The same tea set was untouched on the coffee table. The same doilies decorated the same tabletops. It appeared as if nothing had changed. I smelled potatoes boiling.

"You da fella used to live upstairs?" she asked, gesturing for me to sit. I took the chair she pointed to.
I said yes. "Where you been?," she wondered.

"San Francisco."

"San Francisco? Oohhhh," she replied, her mouth forming the McCorkle 'o' shape again. "I heard you don't have bugs dere."

Well, yes we do, I replied. “But we don't have palmetto bugs," I added. My mind flashed back to those hideous, huge, flying cockroaches that I’d inevitably encounter after dark on Charleston streets during the muggy season.

She squinted through her glasses at me, as if trying to put me into focus. “You married?”

“Well, no,” I said. “But I’m in a relationship.”

“Yeah,” she replied vaguely.

I asked if she still rented the upstairs. "A young man lives up dere now. He works at da Mills House," she added, rolling her eyes, in what I believe was disapproval of that high-priced hotel a few blocks away.

"What does he do?"

"He's the hostess," she said, matter-of-factly. "He works all hours of da night, don't you know. I guess he makes lots of money. He's always wearin' black pants and a white shirt and black tie." Miss McCorkle is still renting to gay men, I concluded. "What you doin’ out dere in San Francisco?" she wondered, folding her arms across her chest.

"I work for a business newspaper," I replied. "I write about computers and..."

A look of alarm suddenly spread across Miss McCorkle’s face. "A newspaper?" she asked, sitting up in her chair. "You used to write for da News & Courier?"

I nodded slowly. Was she now just recognizing me? Had she invited someone into her parlor even though she wasn't sure who it was?

"And…you da one dat wrote dat article about dose jello wrestlin' girls?"

I nodded again, a sense of dread overwhelming me.

"And you..." I squirmed in my chair, for I knew what was coming. I knew that as long as Miss McCorkle was alive, we would never be friends, no matter what I said or did. I knew this was one elderly Southern lady I would never charm, and how I loved to charm them, as they so often charmed me. I knew that my time in McCorkleville, however idyllic it had been at times, would always be a reminder of my foolish, headstrong youth, a landmark to reference in the years to come of how I once thought the world belonged to people like me, who were young and ambitious and full of hope, and not to people like Miss McCorkle, who was old and defeated and without hope. Now, in my middle years, I knew the truth: that the world belongs to no one, and that the young and the old and the in-between, we all just manage to live in it the best we can, until we don't live in it anymore.

"You," Miss McCorkle continued, rising in her seat and pointing her skeletal index finger at me one last time, "you da one who broke my eh conditionuh!"

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Buck Naked in McCorkleville -- Part II

Last week, I kicked off my three-part story "Buck Naked in McCorkleville" with how I came to live under Miss McCorkle's roof in Charleston, South Carolina. This week, the saga continues. 

One night, about three weeks into my stay in McCorkleville, I heard wailing.

The cries seemed to be coming from downstairs. I opened my door and stood at the top of the stairs, listening intently. Soon I heard the distinctive McCorkle voice raised in anger, while her sister caterwauled like a wounded animal. I didn’t know what to do. Should I knock on her door? Call the police? I decided to go downstairs. As soon as I stepped onto the staircase, the house went quiet. I waited. Still no sound. I crept down the staircase and paused outside Miss McCorkle’s door.

“Well, I don’t care if you’re tired of it!” Miss McCorkle said, peevishly. “We’re havin’ potato soup for dinner tonight, don't you know!”

This was what they had been arguing about? Potato soup? As quietly as I could, I crept back up the stairs, keeping my ears pricked up for the next hour, in case the caterwauling continued. I heard nothing but the sound of nearby cars on East Bay Street.

I had already concluded that Miss McCorkle was ornery. But was she also abusive?

Over the new few weeks, I noticed that my landlady rarely ventured outside. When she did, it was to: water the pink impatiens she had planted on a small square of grass on the sidewalk; broom-shoo a neighbor’s cat from her gravel driveway; or get into her early 70s Nova and putter off to the Piggly Wiggly. On Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings I’d often see her walking home from the Catholic church down the street, dressed in clothes not even fashionable in their day, deep red lipstick painted randomly over and around thin, tight lips.

I’d had had no more actual encounters with my landlady until one brilliant, unseasonably warm May morning. I stepped out onto the front porch and there she was, sitting perfectly still, staring straight ahead, a worn gray sweater draped around hunched shoulders, a net tamping down the blue-gray hair. The Newsless Courier, as wags called the local paper for which I wrote, lay folded in her lap. I wondered if she’d read my article in that day’s paper about female jello wrestlers?

"Good morning," I said. "How are you?"

Miss McCorkle turned her head and peered at me with her gray eyes through Woody Allen glasses, which fought against the oblong McCorkle face. "I'd be better off dead," she declared, with an exaggerated shrug of her shoulders.

I struggled for an appropriate response but Miss McCorkle continued, delivering a detailed accounting of her troubles: a lingering cold, an upcoming visit from the tax assessor, her ailing sister's hospital bills. Hospital?

“Yeah, my sister is sick all da time,” Miss McCorkle explained. “All da time.” I wondered if the sister suffered from malnutrition, what with all the potato soup. Miss McCorkle looked me over, as if suddenly wondering why she had rented to me. I became self-conscious of my pink Oxford cloth shirt. Had it occurred to her at this moment she had rented her top floor to a gay man?

“It’s all too much, too much,” Miss McCorkle continued, folding spindly arms across a defeated chest. “Last month I had to take one thousand dollars out my savings to pay da roof repair man.” A scowl seized her face; she began to sway in the loveseat. "If it's not one thing it's two, don't you know.”

At this moment my attention was diverted by a small green lizard, which appeared suddenly on the steps near my foot. Before I could stop myself I screamed and stepped back, for I’ve always had a terror of creatures with flickering tongues and tails that come off in your hand if you should be foolish enough to grab them.

Miss McCorkle frowned. “It’s just a chameleon,” she chided me. “Squash it!”

Her remedy was more abhorrent to me than the reptile itself. I stamped my foot near the lizard and it scurried away. “Well, I guess I’d better get to work…” I said, edging away from the steps. “I hope you have a good day.”

Miss McCorkle raised her eyes upward, as if to scoff directly in her Lord’s face, and said “Ha!”

“Well, it is a beautiful morning.” I continued to slowly move away.

“It’s too hot,” was her reply. "It’s only May. I hate to think how hot it’s gonna be come June-July."

"I can only imagine," I said vaguely. Just as I placed one foot on the sidewalk, Miss McCorkle called out to me again in her distinctive accent. “Mr. Mahtin,” she said, “I heard you running da eh conditionuh yesterday. It’s too early to be running dat eh conditionuh. My current bills, dey goin' through da roof too, don't you know."

The day before, it had been particularly warm, and I had felt compelled to give the eh conditionuh a trial run. A lot of good it had done me, though. There was just one unit in the entire apartment, located in a window in the living room. It was an aged model with only a handful of BTUs left to rub together, and it only slightly took the edge off the heat in the living room. As for the bedroom, or any other room in the apartment, it made no difference whatsoever.

"Okay, I'll wait a little while longer before I use it again," I said. “Well, I'd better go."

“Yeah, you’ll be late to work.” Miss McCorkle suddenly stopped swaying in the loveseat and pointed a skeletal finger in my direction. "Oh Mr. Mahtin," she said, suddenly animated. "I only let dat apartment to one person, don't you know."

She must have been referring to Nick. Though I had lived in McCorkleville nearly one month, Nick had visited me twice, most recently the weekend just past. It never occurred to me this would be a problem for her.

"I hope you don't mind if I have out-of-town guests now and then," I said, trying to hide my growing irritation. Miss McCorkle had not said anything until that moment about a prohibition on houseguests. If she had, I would have rented elsewhere, no matter how affordable this apartment was. And what did she expect of me, anyway? I was 24 years old. My life was just beginning. I wasn’t going to come home every night and die, all by myself, just so I wouldn’t upset her equilibrium. She was being unreasonable and churlish, and it was dawning on me that this was one little old Southern lady I might never win over.

 “Well, I do mind,” she said flatly. The McCorkle head turned slowly from side to side. "I don't like strangers in my house.”

“Then I promise not to let any in.” I smiled at her and scurried on my way without waiting to hear her reply.


Not long after that encounter with Miss McCorkle, I decided to move my own furniture into her furnished apartment.

Comfort was my primary motivation, though in hindsight, I suspect I was also rebelling a bit against my cranky landlady. Miss McCorkle had furnished the apartment with two narrow single beds, both with mattresses that sagged like fallen soufflés; a whitewashed wooden chair that collapsed the first time I set my 125 pounds on it; a wobbly kitchen table from the 1950s; a lumpy sofa covered with a green, itchy and scratchy fabric and cigarette burn marks; and a plain pine dresser.

Economics were my second motivation. I already owned a double bed with an extra firm mattress, for which I was paying $50 a month to keep in storage. On my reporter’s salary at that time (1982), such an expense was an extravagance I could barely afford.

I knew Miss McCorkle would not be pleased if I furnished her furnished apartment myself. And so, I concocted a scheme, which I was about to put into action on this particular Wednesday night.

Every Wednesday at six p.m., Miss McCorkle went to Mass and was usually gone two hours. As soon as she departed, I flipped through the Charleston phone book until I found a residential listing for Indira Gandhi. The phone rang not at the headquarters of the Indian prime minister but at a new friend's home.

Gilbert was a local eccentric I'd met a few weeks earlier. When informed by the phone company that it cost money to be unlisted in the directory, he had instructed them to list him as Indira Gandhi instead, and astonishingly enough, they did.

Earlier that day, I had told Gilbert about the squalid furniture in my otherwise choice apartment and the financial burden of keeping my own furniture in a North Charleston storage facility. “Say no more,” he had drawled, with a wave of his wrist. “Call me the moment the wench departs and I'll help you move your things in."  

Gilbert materialized within 10 minutes of my call, arriving at my back door, as I had asked. I opened the door and gave him a quick hug. As always, he smelled vaguely of mothballs. He wore a wide-brim straw hat that covered his prematurely balding head; a pair of large eyeglasses that made him look like a bug; baggy shorts that accentuated his skinny, white, hairless legs; and, most improbably of all, flip flops--hardly the sensible shoes one would wear for hauling furniture.

We jumped into Gilbert’s late 1960s station wagon, which smelled of suntan oil, dog dander, and bubble gum. He called the car his ‘portable drawing room,’ and he confided that he kept a bottle of tawny port in the trunk. Would I like some?, he wondered.

"No thank you," I answered, trying to imagine sipping port in a speeding station wagon.

As we entered North Charleston, Gilbert slouched as far down in his seat as the driver of a motor vehicle could without causing a wreck. North Charleston is an industrial city and military base much reviled among proper Charlestonians. “If I’m seen entering a storage locker in North Charleston…” he began, then shuddered at the imagined consequences. “Oh, eyebrows will be raised, questions will be asked.”

Within one hour we had shoved my bed, mattress and box springs into the portable drawing room and returned to McCorkleville. Seeing no signs of my landlady, we hurriedly moved my things in through the back door. Gilbert tripped on his flip flops more than once. Rather than cursing, he would say ‘Dang!,’ revealing his not-so-carefully concealed Arkansas roots.

To make room for my bed, we moved one of Miss McCorkle's two soufflé beds from the bedroom into the living room. And then, to make room for a bed in the living room, we pushed Miss McCorkle's hideous green sofa into a corner and stood it upright, on one of its sides. "Child, it looks as if your apartment had been decorated by Camille,” Gilbert observed, peering at me through his enormous glasses. “Hurricane Camille.”

Our covert operation was completed not a moment too soon, as about five minutes after we finished, I heard the downstairs front door open and close.

Gilbert lingered longer than I'd hoped, as I didn’t want to be upbraided by Miss McCorkle yet again for having house guests. I suggested we go out the back door and get a drink somewhere. He pleaded exhaustion and asked if I had any beer. I found two Miller Lites in the refrigerator and handed him one, which he consumed every so slowly. Eventually, after I feigned exhaustion, Gilbert finally departed. 

A few minutes later, there was a fervent knocking on my door. “Mr. Mahtin!” came the unmistakable voice. “I heard someone in your room!”

I opened the door, but not all the way. “I'm so sorry," I said. "It was somebody from work. He just stopped by for a moment." 

Jello wrestlers, of whom Miss McCorkle disapproved
Miss McCorkle looked even more comical than usual in her quilted pink bathrobe, clutched tightly over her non-existent bosom. Her hair was suppressed beneath a net, through which bobby pins protruded, like crab claws poking out of a fisherman’s net. She regarded me with churlish disapproval. “Well, I told you, I don’t like strangers in my…”

Suddenly the McCorkle mouth formed a small ‘o’ and her eyebrows, which had probably not been tweezed since Jean Harlow died, jumped upwards. “Mr. Mahtin, what’s my sofa doin’ in the corner? Standin' up on one side?” She shoved the door all the way open, pushed past me, and entered the apartment. “You…put a bed…in my livin’ room?”

I explained as best I could that I wasn’t able to sleep comfortably on her soft mattress and couldn’t afford to keep my own bed in storage. Miss McCorkle aimed a skeletal index finger at me and reminded me she had let this apartment as furnished and that’s how it should stay. I apologized and promised to move her sofa back onto all four of its feet. But there was no way in hell I was going to move my bed out, I thought.

As Miss McCorkle turned to go, her face having settled into a scowl, she looked back over her shoulder and said, ‘Who ever heard of a bed in a livin’ room? It’s not proper.”

As I started to close the door, she turned around again. "And I been meanin' to tell you, you should be ashamed of yourself, and so should dose girls!"

“Which girls?,” I asked, truly perplexed.

"Dose jello wrestlin' girls," she said. "I bet dere mommas don't know what they’re up to. And what business do you have, writin' about jello wrestlin' girls? In da newspaper, even!"

"I'll take up the matter with my editor tomorrow," I said.

Miss McCorkle glared at me as if she had more unfinished business to discuss but couldn't recall what it was, her thin lips struggling to form the words that would spew forth yet another accusation. At last she turned without anything further to say and descended the staircase, setting off a series of creaks that emanated either from her bones or the steps, which one I couldn’t tell.


Next time: Trying to make amends, the summer squall, and the big 'eh conditionuh' incident.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Buck Naked in McCorkleville -- Part I

I can pinpoint the exact moment when my relationship with Miss McCorkle, my elderly landlady in Charleston, S.C., during the early 1980s, went from barely civil to Civil War.

It was during a late-afternoon summer squall, causing the shutters outside my second-story apartment window to suddenly bang violently against her pink Gingerbread Victorian house. At that moment, I was buck naked, packing furiously for a trip, and yet I knew I had to do something right then about that damned air conditioner window unit. But more on that later.

I had come to live in Miss McCorkle’s home, which I decided to call "McCorkleville," under less dramatic, though still urgent, circumstances. It was the spring of 1982, and I had just accepted a job at the News & Courier in Charleston. The pay was minimal, but I was thrilled to be moving to Charleston, a jewel box of a Southern city.

I had only one weekend in which to find an affordable apartment, and I was determined to live in Charleston’s expensive but beautiful historic district. Having combed through the newspaper classifieds (remember them?) for unfurnished apartments, I found nothing remotely within my budget. Then I spotted an ad for a furnished apartment in the historic district, which promised to be ‘reasonable.’ Though I owned a full set of furniture, I dialed the number. Miss McCorkle answered my call almost immediately. I asked a few questions, then inquired about the rent.

“I don’t believe in discussin’ money over da phone, don't you know,” came the answer. She spoke in that curious old Charleston accent—a bit of Gullah (that curious Southern sea-island dialect) mixed with what sounded like a twist of Boston Irish, with a twinge of German thrown in to keep me completely confused.

Miss McCorkle agreed to show me the apartment and gave me the address. The house was in a prime location, in the lovely and (back then) untouristy Ansonborough neighborhood. It was the only Victorian on the block, if not the entire neighborhood. I had already learned that true-blue South of Broad Charlestonians regarded Victorian architecture as vulgar and desperate for attention, like a heavily rouged spinster.

6 Wentworth Street--formerly "McCorkleville"
I rang the doorbell. Presently Miss McCorkle materialized behind a parted front-door window curtain, her mouth forming a small ‘o.’ She appeared, at first blush, to be a heavily rouged spinster herself. “Come in, come in,” she said, impatiently ushering me into her parlor.

Miss McCorkle was blue-haired, bony, and wiry, with a long thin face that often contorted into an expression resembling an exclamation point. If some Hollywood studio had had the poor judgment to make a movie about a senior-citizen Popeye, Miss McCorkle would have been ideally cast as the octogenarian Olive Oyl.

I stole a few furtive glances around the McCorkle parlor. The shutters were closed tightly, blocking out as much of the afternoon sun as possible. Dust particles danced in the few cracks of sunlight that managed to break through, galvanized by the softly whirring blades of a World War II-era fan sitting atop a lace-doily-covered table. A complete tea set was laid out on a center coffee table, with four white porcelain cups, a small fissure in each one. Upon further examination, I noticed the tea pot was cracked, too. Miss McCorkle noticed me observing her tea set. I expected her to ask if I’d like some refreshment.

“You married?” she asked. Oh, how I hated it when little old Southern ladies asked me that question. 

“No ma’am,” I replied. I'd been with Nick for about a year at this point, but for obvious reasons, made no mention of it.

“I never got married neither,” she said. “I’ve lived in this house all my life. I was born here. My daddy built it. He was from Germany. My mother, she was Irish.”

“How old is the house?” I asked. Judging from its Victorian style, I guessed the house was circa 1900 and, judging from Miss McCorkle’s blue-gray hair and ambered appearance, so was she.

Miss McCorkle ignored my question. “Let’s go on up,” she said, leading the way to the apartment, which consisted of the entire upstairs: a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and an enormous bathroom dominated by a bear-claw bathtub with separate hot and cold spigots but, unfortunately, no shower head. The ceilings were about 10 feet high, the furniture rickety and uncomfortable, and the floral wallpaper faded and curling. There was a large  balcony, however, facing out onto Wentworth Street, as well as a back entrance.

Only at the conclusion of our meeting did Miss McCorkle reveal the rent: $175 a month. Even in 1982, this amount was an unparalleled bargain and my heart lept. She didn’t require a deposit or a lease, and she didn’t ask for references. I gave her a check for the first month's rent on the spot.

As I turned to leave, Miss McCorkle mentioned that her younger sister lived with her. “She was married to the mayor of Summerville,” she added with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. I wasn’t sure if Miss McCorkle was expressing disapproval of her brother-in-law, politicians, the town of Summerville, the institution of marriage, or all the above. “But he died and now my sister, she can’t take care of herself no more, don’t you know, so I got to do it.” This time, rather than roll her eyes again, Miss McCorkle moved her head from side to side to illustrate her displeasure--a look I was to see all too often.

Part II next week: Unearthly moans from downstairs, a disdain for strangers, and the first air conditioner confrontation.