Several people I’ve quoted in this column called me to account the other day.
Well, OK they’re not real people. But they had a meeting and summoned me afterward. They said another newspaper columnist — this one in California — had been fired for making up stuff and putting it in the paper as true. For quoting people whose existence couldn’t be verified subsequently.
Don’t I commit similar and even more notorious crimes of manufacture in this rectangle on a fairly regular basis, these shades of convenience wanted to know. So why am I still on the mast and pulling down the bigs? Why haven’t I been sacked too?
This was a motley mutinous crew. Old domino players both quick and passed. Vacation Bible School acquaintances. Loud talkers from the Pine Knot Nursing Home. Legendary bootleggers, whoremongers, Pony League coaches, schoolmarms. And idiosyncratic neighbors, including Seymour Butz, who served as their chief spokesman. You may remember Seymour vaguely from your adolescence.
All clamoring for more exposure, more recognition. Their real complaint wasn’t that I made them up and put words in their mouths, but that I didn’t do it more often. They were of a mind and consensus to punish me for neglect.
Seymour, for instance. He was quoted in this column nine years ago concerning purple-hull peas, or global warming, or some such cosmic issue. He was grateful at the time for the notice, thought it might be a springboard to regular appearance as local-color commentator and wag, but has lately waxed impatient. Thinks nine years is long enough to have waited for new ink.
I told him, I’m sorry, Seymour, but that’s just the newspaper game. I can’t quote everybody. Once in nine years is better than what I’ve done for Doc or Mrs. Saltpeter or others in this stable of the disgruntled semi-coalesced.
“Well, it’s not enough,” he said. “They let Bill Clinton have a thousand pages. You won’t give me a single short graf.”
“I think I just did.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t mention ‘Under the Bleachers’ either time. How much would it have cost you to do that?”
“Consider it done.”
“It’s just a cruel kind of teasing,” he said. “Getting our hopes up, then day after day, year after year, bupkis, zilch. I just want to know why, BJ. That’s what we all want to know. Why?”
All right, I guess I owe it to them. I owe it to them if not to some Journalism Integrity Investigating Panel out of the Golden State. I owe it to them because they’re my wards in a manner of speaking, like Robin the Boy Wonder.
So here’s the deal, Seymour Butz, author of “Under the Bleachers.” The research shows that people stop paying attention real quick when a newspaper columnist goes stale, gets repetitive, and starts to rant and rave. They know what the gist of it is going to be, so why waste the time? So our weary scribe is reduced to trying to fool them with ventriloquism. He puts his rants and raves into the mouths of other characters that those readers haven’t already learned the hard way to pass over quickly en route to the funnies or the obits.
Of course to keep them fooled he has to keep changing the cast so he may wind up feeling like Cecil B. DeMille, but that’s just a hazard of the trade. He can’t let any one of these made-up characters hog the limelight, either, lest that character also become predictable and skippable. So once you’ve made up the good quotes, you have to spread them around, giving them to different interesting voices, like Ken Burns does.
Brutal sincerity on my part, but it didn’t placate Seymour or any of the others one iota.
So I went the second mile, telling them: I know it must be boring out there inchoate and virtual, but be assured you keep better company there than we do here in the too, too solid flesh. You have people like Jed Clampett and they do things like go out and shoot at some food and up through the ground comes a-bubblin’ crude. In our realm, you shoot at some food and the bullet ricochets and hits a lawyer, and the PETA people get after you, and there’s no end to the aggravation.
You have Robinson Crusoe and we have these “Survivor” phoneys. You have Mr. Kurtz and we have Bro. Falwell. You have Poor Richard and we have this drug-addict radio blowhard. You have “The Natural” and we have a bunch of steroid freaks. You have Rocky and we have Iron Mike. And hey, it won’t be somebody on the Track 29 of corporeal actuality who’ll come up to you and say, “Pardon me, boy. Is that the Chattanooga choo-choo?” Syncopated patter is all from your side.
Tapdancing, they called these earnest truths. Temporizing. Altogether inadequate.
I.P. Freely said we should switch places so I could see how it felt to be slighted so. Claude Balz, from the encounter with the wildcat, was also just plain hateful. And Roger Cockov, the STD expert. They all want their 15 minutes, then immediately start beseeching or lobbying or flat-out demanding 15 more.
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Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.