I've been thinking about my maternal grandmother a lot, this week. She was born in rural North Dakota in 1922, to immigrant Norwegian parents...but lost her mother at three, and from that point much of her childhood was scarred by tragedy, deprivation, and outright violence, abuse, and neglect. By the eighth grade, she'd exhausted the limits of the local one-room schoolhouse for farm kids. To continue her education--and it must have been largely her own idea, because certainly no one was championing her talents at home-- she'd need to move to town, Williston, to attend the high school.
I've been to Williston, both as a small child and more recently, as the oil boom has rendered it utterly unrecognizable. In the late 1930s, I don't know that there was any such thing as an emancipated minor, so my grandma had to find room and board with a series of townie families. One of these was a Syrian family.
I'm *almost* more curious about their story, now--how on earth a Syrian family landed in Depression-era bumf*ck North Dakota in the first place. Grammy didn't talk about her childhood much, understandably, and so I don't know these people's names, their faith (though I suppose they might have been part of the Syrian Christian minority, because how exponentially more difficult would it have been to be Muslim in the rural frozen north?), how they'd come west, or when.
But the fragments of fact I know are these: that a family of Syrian immigrants, whose own lives couldn't have been easy, took in a malnourished wretch of a 14-year-old and fed her. Put a roof over her head. Introduced her to pita bread, which she spoke of with great fondness (and probably to garlic and garbanzo beans, too). Taught her that dandelion greens were edible (like Katniss, you guys!). Taught her to cook (...after a fashion). Let her work it off with babysitting, and claw her way to a diploma and a future.
There were other families, I know. Other jobs, before she wrote her sister in Seattle and pleaded a toothache (a lie), begged her to wire money for a dentist, and promptly cashed it in for a train ticket the hell out of Dodge. Probably, many or most of the same things would have happened to her. The same dominoes toppling, the same butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon to lead her to Seattle, to her husband, her daughters, me. But somewhere back down the line, I owe a debt to some Syrian refugees I'll never know. They took a hungry, desperate, terrorized child into their home, and helped save her life. The only response I can live with is to pay it forward.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
My BFF in elementary school was the coolest person I knew, a wry sophisticate permitted to use the oven by herself. She also had a finger on the pulse of comedy and culture in the wee small hours—or Army-crawled into the den to watch Late Night on the sly—and so she was the person who introduced me to David Letterman.I couldn’t stay awake. I was famous for conking out at another girl’s slumber party at 9:30 PM, on the hostess’s mom’s bed (perhaps the only reason I didn’t wake up to my hand in warm water or my training bra in the freezer). But I gleaned some of what I was missing from BFF’s recaps: the Velcro and Alka-Seltzer suits, a guy living—living?—under the seats, someone pelting the audience with frozen peas.
It was BFF’s idea to start an epistolary campaign, appealing to Dave on a weekly basis to put us on the show. Viewer Mail! I remember the plan, though I don’t think we ever put pen to paper. Maybe it would have worked. In someone else’s retrospective this week, I witnessed a blasé thirteen-year-old playing her nose as a Stupid Human Trick. So maybe they’d have booked a pair of idiot sixth-graders from the far coast, based on their sheer, dogged persistence. Which, it turned out, we did not possess.
I’ve kept a longhand journal/diary/scrapbook of some kind since I could write in sentences. Cut from a magazine and pasted into a volume circa February 1994, unattributed, is this:
On the set one night, during a commercial break in the middle of the show, the band was playing so loudly that it was impossible for Teri Garr, one of the show’s favorite guests, to converse with Dave. When she all but shouted at him: “How are you doing?” Letterman grabbed a pad on his desk and scribbled a note that he passed back to her. The note read: “I hate myself.” When Garr tried to reassure him that he was, in fact, a wonderful guy and talented star, he grabbed the note back, underlined “I hate myself” twice, and shoved it back at her.
That hit me SO HARD, spoke to me SO LOUDLY, that I kept it. Memorized it, nearly—enough that 21 years later I could track it to its source: an excerpt from Bill Carter’s The Late Shift, about the early-90s late night wars. (I remembered that the anecdote featured Teri Garr, and looked her up in the index: score, a direct hit.)
I was 24, scrabbling at the edge of the cliff-drop to Adulthood: about to finish graduate school, about to move in with my Serious Boyfriend. I needed a real job. I owed Sallie Mae thousands upon thousands of dollars to be parceled out over a decade, an unfathomable length of time. Together, Serious Boyfriend and I had watched Letterman’s departure from NBC and his triumphant ascension on CBS. I admired Letterman, relished his twisting a thumb in the eye of the boss, the network, that had forsaken him. I found him attractive in a way I couldn’t explain to myself: so gap-toothed and goofy looking, so irritable, this smart-funny-angry man, almost as old as my father, good lord, what was I thinking? Thus, more perplexing still was the idea that I had anything in common with a Successful Celebrity Grown-up Person. Letterman was the newly anointed king. He ruled late night, from beneath the colossal marquee at the Ed Sullivan Theater—maybe someday your name will be in lights. What excuse could he have, to not want to get out of bed in the morning? Here’s part of what I wrote, under that clipping: “What can I learn from this? Other than the fact…that [at $14 million a year] David Letterman can afford a lot more and better therapy than I can.”
(Another thing we had in common, at the time: Neither I nor Letterman had started a course of antidepressants yet.)
Here’s another journal entry, September 22, 2001. I was housesitting for friends whose honeymoon trip to Paris had been canceled, ruined; they drove down the coast instead, in the first glimmer of fall, and I lay awake in their strange bed (with the flattest pillows I’d ever seen, like a pair of two manila envelopes against the headboard, how did you guys ever sleep?? and would I ever sleep again, did it matter?) and watched their television.
Monday, Letterman returned to the air, with what I still feel is one of the finest, most riveting and wrenching hours of television ever, period. He spoke honestly, with grief and rage and pride, saying he wouldn’t have come back if not for Giuliani’s urging all New Yorkers to return to work if at all possible….It was stunning, perhaps the only honest thing I’d seen on TV all week.
His first guest, Dan Rather, crumpled into tears twice—this, after being in his anchor chair some 15 hours a day for a week. More heartbreakingly, he apologized for it: “I’m paid not to do this,” he sobbed. And twice, Dave took his hand to console him. “You’re a professional…but good Christ, you’re a human being.”
And then, his second guest: Regis. God bless Regis, who was grating and typical and borderline tasteless, and very needed after the anguish of the first half-hour.
I already owned and loved a copy of Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You,” before the man went kookoo-bananas. I’ve grieved a couple breakups to Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” that Serious Boyfriend from graduate school among them. It’s not an anti-Christmas carol, exactly, but it turns the usual sentiment inside-out somehow. It is beautiful, that Wall of Sound orchestration: it rings like a cathedral bell. And it describes that marshmallow world from Love’s other song on the record: Holidayland, awash in sleighbells and twinkle lights and falling snow. Celebratory crowds hustle down the sidewalk rosy-cheeked and bemittened; everybody is having the best time ever…except you. Trapped in the memory of happier times. It’s a song about holiday depression.
Letterman calls it the only Christmas song worth a damn, legendary crank and depressive that he is. And that suited how I felt, the first couple years alone, watching Darlene Love belt out regret while they made it snow in the Ed Sullivan. Always the last episode before Christmas proper, the Darlene Love show periodically aired on my birthday, which added another layer of personalization to it in my head, a ritual exchanged just between us. At first I commiserated. I wept. But. Over the years, I’ve memorized the Christmas episode, a liturgy I know by heart:
- Paul impersonates Cher singing “O Holy Night” (This year, I shouted at the TV: under a Victorian lamppost, Paul! Paul! You forgot the lamppost!)
- Jay Thomas tells his Lone Ranger story (They’ll believe ME, citizen!), and then participates in the Holiday Quarterback Challenge to knock the meatball off the top of the Christmas tree
- Some other hapless guest…is a good sport, basically
- Darlene comes out and blows the doors off
Somehow the show became a purification ritual, for me. I laughed at the familiar beats, could recite it along with the television. How would they introduce Aaron Heick with that big bari sax this time—fly him in on a wire? Have him strut down the center aisle? At some point, I put seeing that episode, live, on my bucket list.
Last December, I was still jobless. I’d taken the month off from the job search; I knew that hiring managers were all on vacation themselves, and I wanted to stretch my unemployment benefits into the new year. I had a couple free hotel nights and a ridiculous amount of airline miles about to expire. I was about to turn 45. Back at the office, I’d had a different magazine clipping taped to my monitor for months, this one a quote from Amy Poehler: “I will tell you that the good news is, both personally and professionally, I have a large case of the fuck its right now.”
So I got on a plane, and I queued up outside the theater at 9:20 on a Monday morning to hand in my request for the ticket lottery. They were taping two shows that Thursday afternoon, and I’d done my research, knew one had to be the Christmas episode. Eventually they let us into the lobby (heated) and then, one by one, behind a panel to talk to the audience coordinator in the (ice-cold) foyer. (I was delighted to confirm that tiny truth myself, that Letterman keeps the joint like a meat locker.) I hinted and winked and underscored Thursday on my application, and now can’t help kicking myself just a little, woulda coulda shoulda been more blunt—because my friend David and I got Thursday tickets…for the first taping.
It was still worth it. “My” David wasn’t
overinvested steeped in the traditions of the show like I am; he
enjoyed himself well enough, I think, but I was on high-alert, thrilling-detail
overload: How could the set be so small?
How could this tiny space contain the Beatles? There’s the Christmas tree!
There’s the meatball! Speared on a cheapo Empire State Building souvenir! Which
pierces a pizza from next door! There’s Alan Kalter, come to warm us up! There’s
Pat Farmer, sans Oprah transcript! There’s Biff Henderson! There’s a person
whose job apparently is to swap Paul’s empty mug with a full one during the act
They led us out past the next audience, clumped in the lobby waiting for the Christmas episode. I wanted to squeeze some stranger’s arm and call them a lucky bastard, wanted to hang around somewhere between Rupert’s Hello Deli and the dumpster, see if I could hear anything. But it was colder outside than in, and I was working on what turned into a nasty sinus infection, and I didn’t want my traveling companion to think I’d lost my entire mind. I’d had my Christmas, with my extended, estranged, adopted TV family. And if it didn’t go exactly as planned? If I didn’t get everything I’d wanted? It was still pretty goddamn great. Isn’t that the point?
I don’t have a proper conclusion for this. I’m not sure who it’s for...like, I don’t expect David Letterman to pick my blog post out of the sea of media tributes and accolades he’s racked up this month.
Another thing that’s bugging me: today, May 20, is the anniversary of my father’s death. I don’t keep track of such things, I try not to—but Mom was quick to remind me, this week. I know it’s pure coincidence. I certainly don’t equate Letterman with My Absent, Remote Father Figure. And then you put the sexual attraction factor in there and EWWW, GAAHH, WHAT IS EVEN WRONG WITH YOU. But I will admit that I am having some muddled, confusing farewell feels, tonight.
“Your whole personality has changed!” Mom told me recently—after leaving my last job, she meant. “You’re SO much happier, and more relaxed, and pleasant to be around!” I was glad that she thought so, glad that she’d noticed…and then there was a tiny part of me going “um, thanks?” It was a little left-handed, that assessment. Tell me how you really feel! How do you like me now?
But she wasn’t wrong. I have changed. I don’t, can’t know Letterman…but I feel a bit like I grew up with him. I identify with him. I too am weird, and intelligent, furious, hilarious. Moody. Fallible, and terrified of it. And, eventually, redeemed. Mellowed. A work in progress. And he was there, on the periphery of the living room, for an awful damn lot of it. Letterman’s had a profound influence on broadcasting and comedy for a generation. Maybe it sounds silly, and sentimental, to attribute my personal growth to him as well. He has also influenced a random ding-dong in the Pacific Northwest! But as Norm MacDonald noted on the show last week, the truth is not sentimental. And my truth is that I am sincerely grateful to a man I’ll never meet, who doesn’t know me from Adam, who will never scream at me via bullhorn from a sixth-story window (though a girl can dream). It has been one hell of a long, complicated, fucking funny ride, sir.