Dodging lions and wasting time
“Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes!”
Back then he was nearly forty years younger and sported the bargain bin couture of one struggling to make tenure. The firmly pressed slacks and casual shirts were right out of a Montgomery Ward catalog, hanging on his wimpy frame with a dull yawn. Behind the cheap black plastic glasses there were these narrow little eyes, the piercing type that you’d expect to find on someone who counts cards at blackjack. Shifty! Yes, that’s it: he had shifty eyes, making trust a highly, perhaps laughably, improbable issue. I knew for sure I could never trust him and, by the barking little tone slithering out of his glistening, wormy lips, that I was in for his idea of a comeuppance.
He was getting shit from his Higher Ups about the brouhaha stirred by the most sensational story to hit the campus paper, the weekly student publication he oversaw from the English department. While its headlines generally meandered within the parameters of sleepy campus life (dances, poetry readings, basketball scores, weekend getaways), the fat black letters overtaking its front page on that fateful week in 1977 bypassed anything related to polite society and went right for the jugular. The school, it was reported, was coming under attack by that era’s pop icon of evil, Charles Manson, the very same Charles Manson who’d been under lock and key in a hoosegow clear yonder on the other side of the continent since 1971.
“WTF?” you might ask, as did so many at the time. It was certainly the question on my interrogator’s mind, although he’d never employ the dreaded ‘F word’ either in conversation or print. Old school to the point of self parody, his pet expression to underline anything from excitement to bewilderment to disappointment was “golly-gee-willickers.” It was as if The Sixties never happened. When he told his journalism students the highest paying publication going was Playboy, he blushed a deep crimson, surely recalling the shivering timbers that’d cap off his impromptu rendezvous with Miss October and Miss July and a packet of Kleenex. But I digress.
Now it would be appropriate to backtrack to the evening in which these events came to life, some Friday of binging in the smoky Rathskeller of a parochial university which silently subscribed to the archaic and wholly unhealthy belief of sexual abstinence through blackout drinking. Downing shots and brews, poontang was forever the target but rarely the prize, save for nights, or mornings, when we’d wake up next to a total stranger and the notion that ‘something’ had transpired just a few short hours before. As in when I awoke next to a nice young woman who looked like Doris Day, the kind of peaches-’n-cream lovely you’d see serving brownies to a pair of pasty, freckle-faced kids in the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, only now coming to in our bed of rumpled, cigarette-burned, slightly bloodied and beer-soaked sheets, the isolated notes of a Marshall Tucker song skipping endlessly on a Korvettes hi-fi, me having absolutely no clue of who she was or how I got there, and the worrisome thought that this poor young thing from a good home and wholesome values had blindly surrendered her precious virginity to whatever bullshit pledge I swore to uphold for an inebriated, flaccid and undoubtedly failed attempt at penetration.
But on the night in question there was no girl, no poon, no delusions summoning my flesh. No, there was only a rumor, and a very colorful one at that, which caught the ear during a flight of creative clarity, that elevated state that comes all too infrequently when one’s art transcends primal desire. I’d like to think of it as the magic hour enjoyed on occasion by the likes of Scott Fitzgerald or Toulouse-Lautrec, when their innate creative brilliance was fueled by the bottle or exotic smoke, converging in the formation of some future masterpiece. However, time has afforded me no Tender Is the Night in my repertoire, no “Seated Dancer in Pink Tights” in my portfolio. But the rumor of Manson almost made what then could be jokingly referred to as my career.
“It’s so scary,” said the muscular nursing student, her boxy physique prime for a future of pinning down nutjobs in the psych ward. “My parents are thinking of coming to get me and keep me home until the whole thing blows over.” Posing nearby at the jukebox, I leaned forward, eavesdropping on her and her table of concerned cohorts. They spoke of Manson, his notorious ‘Family’ lodged in nearby Niagara, that gray armpit of a town floating with little-to-no purpose in the dreariest reaches of New York State, and the university’s impending visit by guest lecturer Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecuting attorney who sent Chuck and his girls to the slammer and made a small fortune as author of Helter Skelter. What I was hearing was the Manson Family’s alleged plot to take out Bugliosi, the campus bloodbath that would inevitably follow, predictions of which had supposedly been made by pop astrologer Jeanne Dixon, the fiasco blossoming into a mass of outrageous conjecture and circumstantial evidence both flimsy and transparent, the kind favored by despots, propagandists and yellow journalists.
The latter ranks of which, I freely admit, I so quickly joined. For, with no possibility of getting laid, and a numbing stagnancy in the head that seemed to deter any chance of pass-out inebriation, I picked up a ninety-nine-cent six-pack of Carling’s Black Label beer, a bag of fried pork rinds and headed back to my dorm and the Royal manual typewriter I once believed would land me in the newsroom of a great metropolitan newspaper instead of the ghetto of fanzines where I’d end up wandering for decades, staggering like Old Man Gower in the topsy-turvy Pottersville of It’s a Wonderful Life.
“We chopped through the night, and we chopped through the dawn.” This line from Dylan’s “Isis” was scribbled on my desk, a mantra for not giving up, a pep rally for full-bore composition, when blank pages fill so quickly with words, thoughts, notes, ideas, the body of text growing from slightly deformed fetus to something hopefully printable. I remembered The Fear paralyzing those students, and the rapid spread of the apocalyptic scenario from barstool to barstool. Didn’t Manson’s star killer Susan Atkins warn, “Better lock your doors and watch your own kids” before they carted her crazy ass off to the pokey? Then I remember wondering, what exactly is the story here? Is it this outrageous prediction of a Manson Family massacre nearly ten years after Tate/LaBianca? How can a prediction be news if it hasn’t happened yet? Or does the story itself come from a more scientific (if not sinister) place, meant to provoke and gauge a potentially widespread panic through the journalistic manipulation of a crackpot fantasy? By the fifth beer, I felt like Welles orchestrating War of the Worlds.
It was one of those inspired instances when the piece simply writes itself; you just sit there and watch the fingers fly. By two or three in the morning, a ‘functioning drunk,’ I’d rewritten and retyped it twice for the sake of flow and balance and a nice, neat presentation. For here was my ticket to the campus paper. Sure, they’d printed one or two of my letters of comment in the past, but never expressed an interest in my services as a regular contributor even though the staff worked for free. But the piece I now held in a manila envelope brazenly without a cover letter could change all that. Still an hour or two before daylight, I walked the chilly courtyards to the darkened newspaper offices in the student center and slipped my submission under the door.
From which point I rarely gave it a thought. Back to the dorm, to sleep, days of classes, writing, reading, a stray film or two, music, getting drunk, staring at girls I could never muster the nerve to approach, let alone chat with. A typical week until the shit hit the fan the next Friday. On my way to breakfast there was more activity than usual. Eight or nine in the morning, the place was a zoo. Cars, cars everywhere and parents. Was it Mother’s Day weekend? Was everyone going home to see mom? Had some tragedy struck I wasn’t aware of? Had neighboring Buffalo been nuked?
No, they were there because my story was page one news. At first I was jazzed over my byline — hey, how cool is that?!? — the headline atypically above the title of the campus paper, the words of the piece seemingly untouched (thank you, editor). Manson. Murder. Blood. “Death to Pigs.” The all-out slaughter of the innocent. Golly-gee-willickers, indeed. This was some pretty heavy shit that no one was taking lightly. Except me; I was still giggling over being published. And deep down I felt, who in their right mind could take it seriously? Surely there was a surreal glint on the edge of this knife. But I guess you really need to have the eyes to see it instead of focusing in on the menacing shape of the object slicing its way through your complacency.
“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” —André Breton
“You wrote that?” she shrieked. A week or so later, with Bugliosi’s lecture still miraculously on schedule, Jeanne Dixon checked in to say she made no such prediction. I was posing down the pub when word got out around the table that I’d authored ‘that story.’ The reaction became common though it always felt fresh every time. Some could appreciate the twisted humor; others regarded me like the dog who just peed the rug. The event hit the local news which, unlike myself, had an actual incident to report, the freak out that was engulfing an old, respected university. But the six o’clock news never knocked on my door for an interview; they were far too preoccupied with the panic.
Which brings us to where we began, me in that gray, cheerless room sitting face to face with the textbook nerd who was going to… what? Break me? Demand an apology? A retraction? He was using everything he had to appear tough, but the only thing separating us was his position as teacher and mine as student. “This article you wrote has no journalistic value whatsoever,” I recall him saying. “How do you account for these wild inaccuracies and falsehoods? Do you see what it’s done, how badly it upset people? Do you have any conscience about this at all?” With each word, he was escalating into a miniature frenzy, a gob of spit lathering his lower lip. Then it dawned on me I wasn’t at fault for anything. For even at that young age I’d seen enough Elisha Cook, Jr. movies to know I was getting railroaded to be the fall guy.
“Hold on,” I snapped, genuinely surprising him with the temerity. “What are you blaming me for? I didn’t print the fuckin’ thing.” Uh oh: there was that ‘F word.’ He winced. “Who’s the editor?” I demanded. “Who’s the publisher? Why aren’t they here? They’re the ones who ran the story.” He was visibly shaken as my index finger smartly hammered the wooden armrest of my chair. “Don’t worry,” he tried to assure me, “I’ll be talking to them soon enough.” “Well good,” I said, “because this completes our little discussion.” Was there any arguing? I was a crazy man with a hangover and a whole bunch of attitude. I charged like a pit bull. “I can write whatever the fuck I want. If I want to report UFOs have landed on the tennis courts, I will. And you’re not going to stop me. You’re not going to stop me from writing about anything. Aren’t there laws protecting me from guys like you? The culprits are the ones who printed the story. I expect them to be stripped of their responsibilities and expelled immediately.”
At which point I stood up and walked out. Seriously: he had no case and he certainly didn’t want to tangle with a crazy. This censoring bastard was merely trying to squelch my art. Had that Manson story been published today, Fox News would be courting me. As a postscript, next semester he was my journalism instructor. I earned a B+ and wrote the lead article for a biannual Western New York periodical about local government while the rest of the class sat unpublished and seemingly incapable of composing anything that wouldn’t send you to sleep. And he never brought up that Manson scenario again.