Listen to What the Man Said
by Terry Barr
Paul McCartney and Wings had the number one song in the middle of July 1975. A song from the album, Venus and Mars are Alright Tonight. I remember this song well even though I didn’t especially like it. I wouldn’t have thought it was the number one song of that period, either: a semi-catchy ditty about a “soldier boy [who] kisses girl [and] leaves behind a tragic world.” The real tragedy would have been had The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” dominated McCartney’s verse over that period. Still, I thought more about absurdity than tragedy back then, in the summer I was nineteen. Mainly, I thought about my summer jobs and how to cope until college started again in the fall.
“I’m gonna smear this tomato sauce on the wall by this oven. I want you to see how hard it is to clean after it sits for an hour.”
Such was my first and only lesson working behind the scenes at my local Pizza Hut. My manager, Tim Raredon, kept testing me, mainly because the day before, I insisted on leaving work at eleven, the hour I had been told was quitting time when I got hired. Clearly the restaurant didn’t close at eleven, and there was much work left to do. A promise, though, is a promise, one I was now paying for on my second day.
Damn, he was right, too. Pasta sauce hardens and crusts over after an hour, and it’s a pain in the ass to clean. I scrubbed and scrubbed. It was now after 1:00 am, and I had been working since 5:00 that afternoon, mainly washing dishes but occasionally getting to form a deep-dish pizza for patrons I now had disturbing questions about. After my first two or three pizzas, Tim accosted me:
“You’re putting too much on them. Our customers don’t like too many ingredients, especially pepperonis. They like them evenly spread, like this.”
I don’t know. I’ve been a pizza-eating customer for a lot of years, and I pretty much like my pies overflowing with sausage, peppers, and everything else I order. After all, don’t we deserve more than one piece of rounded pork product per slice?
In the end, though, I couldn’t conform to Tim’s rules, to all that he said. When I woke up at noon, realizing that I was expected back at the shop in another hour for another ten-hour shift under Tim’s “instruction,” I resigned. When I called, I got the beleaguered assistant manager, the one who originally hired me, and the one who now said, and I swear it sounded as if she had tears streaming into her mouth, “You’re not coming in?”
A few days later, I had the guts to re-enter the Hut and collect my check for those two days, minus, of course, the red and white checked shirt they wouldn’t take back. I think my pay was $19.50.
I’ve never seen anyone, intentionally or not, smear pasta sauce on a kitchen wall again.
In the coming fall I would be the editor of our college newspaper, The Alabamian, not bad for an incoming sophomore. I’d beaten a rising senior in the spring elections—a guy who, unlike me, had never worked on the Alabamian staff before. Before the voting, each of us vowed that we would assist the other if he won. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about my own honor in the matter. My opponent, however, faded out of sight, if not completely off the campus, after the election, his words beforehand all any of us had left to remember him by. He had claimed to be an expert in offset printing techniques, a qualification that no one, apparently, quite understood. I beat him by roughly forty votes. Is it bad, forty years later, that my victory still elates me?
A month after returning to school, after my second edited paper hit the campus stands, I lost my virginity to a girl named Lisa. Even ten minutes before it happened, I could have honestly said that I never saw it coming, you know.
All of that was still to come, though. In late May, with the endless summer looming, I needed another job. Of course, I had quit the Hut before securing a new place. I lived at home, so technically, I didn’t need a job, but my parents and I had agreed that I would pay half of my tuition every year. That $19.50 might just cover my fall Biology book.
At church the following Sunday, an old high school acquaintance, Susan, asked if I were still seeking employment, and if so, would I like to be a maintenance man at our local Ramada Inn?
“Well sure. Who wouldn’t?”
“OK. Be at the front desk tomorrow at four!”
How do I describe the feeling of starting a job that I didn’t want? What did I know of maintenance? My freshman roommate and I cleaned our private bathroom exactly twice that previous year. Each. Four times in nine months. We called for campus services when our drain clogged, and when our TV went on the fritz, our solution was to bang its side, a technique that, surprisingly, worked about half the time.
So I had no experience, but at the interview, I must have presented well. I was told that I could start the following day and would be trained by the outgoing maintenance man, Rusty, who was a skinny kid, younger than me, with a braided ponytail.
“Not much to it,” Rusty assured me. “Just check the pool water twice a shift and be ready to run cheeseburgers from the restaurant to the rooms.”
That’s pretty much all Rusty said. He gave me his keys, showed me through the lounge and left in his rusted Gremlin. The next day, I appeared promptly at 4:00, my weekly shift running four hours every evening. On Sundays, however, I had the entire 8-5 duty, which meant I was responsible for cleaning the lounge, the C-Shell Lounge, named for the proprietor of the Inn, Claude Shell. Mr. Shell, pushing eighty, appeared once every two weeks or so, accompanied by his…companion…Phoebe, a woman roughly thirty years old. Susan had warned me that C Shell was not to be trifled with, and God knows, I wouldn’t want to suffer any wrath from a man who could “far me from my job,” as Gomer Pyle once remarked about his gas station employer, Wally.
“Phoebe is nice,” Susan said. “I think she and Mr. Shell are, you know, close.”
And I suppose Susan was right. Phoebe might have seen her companionship with Claude Shell as the means to job security and perhaps one day to his empire of chain motels. If so, more power to her. Phoebe was fair, with neck-length blond hair, curled up at the bottom. Slim, usually attired in lady golfer outfits, she also had semi-bowed legs. She kind of sounded like my third grade gym teacher, Miss Eddings, too. Or my grammar school friend, Reggie Bowen. “Country-froggy” would be how I’d describe her voice. I guess what I’m saying is that Phoebe was a bit on the masculine side. Susan said she and Claude stayed in the same room when they came to the Inn. The “Governor’s Suite.”
I hope Phoebe parlayed that experience into something less Saturday matinee-ish. Still, she was mainly nice to me; Claude probably wouldn’t have been, but the most he ever did when he saw me was smile. I never found that expression comforting, though.
Four-hour shifts were easy to endure, but when your main tasks are checking the chlorine level of the pool and “fixing” aberrant TV’s, four hours can also seem interminable. I think I had to add chlorine once during that summer, but the TV’s posed other issues. They were Zeniths, mounted on portable, moveable stands, which was a good thing, because they were basically worth crap. Does Zenith still make TV’s? Or when did the company fold? In any case, the most persistent tenant complaint was that the TV was fuzzy or had squiggly lines running through it. So I would be dispatched to room 121, etc., to check it. Sometimes, the cable wire running in back was bent and I could straighten it to get a fuller, clearer picture. But when that technological masterstroke didn’t work, Rusty had also advised me of the next, and final, course of action: “Move that TV into another room, and replace it with a good one. Just make sure the one in the other room works.” Sound advice.
It was like a shell game over that summer, moving those TV’s, and had the Inn been even half-occupied at any given time, I might have had to consult a greater managerial authority. I think in the three months I was employed there, I switched TV’s on the average of fifteen a week. Room occupants were next-to-ecstatic to get a working model, as anyone would be, stuck in a Ramada on the outskirts of a town like Bessemer. One occupant was so happy, he tipped me with a barbecue sandwich from Pike’s Hickory Pit.
“I only ordered one sandwich,” he said, “but somehow, they gave me two.”
I agreeably took the sandwich and sat on the other bed, eating with the guy. He was a nice man, and I think now that something might have been squiggly in this picture, but after finishing, I simply thanked him and suggested that next time he try Bob Sykes Barbecue.
“It’s so much better,” I advised. “We don’t care for Pike’s around here.”
I left him there, with half a sandwich in his hand, tuned to the local news, and went off to other chores. I find it strangely comforting, remembering how I kept a lonely man company for his meal.
My other chores, though, couldn’t keep me clear of the new manager, Freddy. Susan assured me that Freddy was a nice boss, and maybe he was to her. Before he arrived, when I found myself between chlorine and TV sets, I’d hang around the front desk, figuring that if anyone needed me, I’d be right there. For where else was there to be?
Not at the front desk, Freddy made clear to me. It wasn’t a good image for this impressive place.
“Don’t hang around where the customers can see you,” he said on that first day, in a snitty sort of way.
Like a long-distance magnet, though, that desk would lure me back, and mostly I’d linger just long enough to avoid Freddy who was always snappily dressed in either green or yellow business suits. One time, though, and to be fair, he had just emerged from a meeting with C. Shell, Freddy caught me: “Haven’t I told you to stay away from here? Don’t let me catch you hanging around this desk again. Go do something!”
I left, and followed his instructions. I did something. And what I did was use my pass key to enter an unoccupied room on the upper floor of the north wing of the motel, turn on the TV, and watch the first innings of the Yankees game. The Yankees went up fast, 4-0 by the second inning, and I could have easily settled into America’s pastime. The only problem was that I was so remote that I couldn’t hear my name paged over the motel speaker system, so when I left the room—Yankees still up 4-2—and returned to the desk, Freddy looked like a floundering tuna:
“Where were you? We paged you over and over!”
“I was away, doing something, fixing a TV in a tenant’s room.”
Maybe he should have fired me then, but real TV men are hard to find after hours, and so I was given more chances.
Those chances allowed for two other good things. One day I met a girl, just a couple of years younger than me. She and her family were travelling from their home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to somewhere, and of course, Bessemer seemed like such a logical place to spend the night, given the Ramada Inn and its fancy pool with precise chlorine levels. There she was in her one-piece swimsuit with a little skirt flaring from the bottom. She wasn’t a bit shy either. We talked for a while, very pleasantly, until her father helped her understand that motel maintenance men weren’t his idea of suitable companions for Lake Charles girls on the road to somewhere. I don’t blame him really, but I’m glad we had our moment. It was thirty moments, actually, out of her life, and I sometimes, hopelessly, wonder if she remembers me, the Ramada Inn pool in the summer of 1975, or Bessemer at all.
The other good thing was that my lack of taxing work or purpose allowed me time to become part of my best friend Jimbo’s theater troupe.
“Any time, any day
You can hear the people say
That love is blind
Well, I don’t know but I say love is kind.”
Blind, kind, tragic, or absurd. All I know is that when I found out that my best friend, Jimbo, would not be spending the rest of his summer at a theater camp in New Hampshire, I was overjoyed. It’s hard to explain the levels of love and friendship, but what I can say is that Jimbo was the friend I wanted to love best.
In hindsight, though, that blind part of love kept us from understanding that Bessemer, Alabama, was no place to stage a work by the very French and very absurdist playwright, Eugene Ionesco. Even worse, neither of us could see that staging this play, “Jack, or the Submission,” in the basement of the First United Methodist Church, while free, was fraught and laden with consequences, none of them good ones. For who in Bessemer, other than the two of us, even if we did only pretend to understand the play, would be willing to embrace this dramatic, existential dilemma?
Certainly not two of the original actors in our production, college students like us, who found the morals of the work quite objectionable. I don’t remember what their objections were exactly, just that they quit after the second night of rehearsal, stating that what we were doing just wasn’t appropriate for a church basement. If only they had known what else that basement had seen back in our glory years of full-blown adolescence!
Still, they might have been right to quit for all that; the church board, however, granted us permission to use the space, to sell tickets over three nights, to publicize the event on radio, TV, and in the local paper. Maybe they should have read the script first, but come on, would our minister, Dr. Winefortner, or the board itself—whoever was on it—have understood a play about characters with green wigs, fake noses—multiple fake noses on one face—and who were all named some derivation of Jack or Robert, even the females? They didn’t read it first, obviously, but not because we kept it from them. Oddly or not, Dr. Winefortner went on vacation during the play’s run. Where do ministers go on vacation, and when they go, do they still go to church, or do they take a formal break from the Lord?
WWIS (What Would Ionesco Say)?
Jimbo and I had performed in various plays throughout our high school years. Members of the Thespian Club, we helped bring such faire as “The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch,” “Harvey,” and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the stages and gyms of our high school. We condensed the Shakespeare a bit, or rather our advisor/director/English teacher, Bill McInerney, did that for us. Bill was ambitious for our troupe, and we paid him back, in part, by staging various streaking exhibitions in our school’s gym during play practice. It was after hours; nevertheless, since Bill wasn’t on the most conformist and, thus, best-liked teacher list, had our principal, a former football coach, found out about the nakedness, Bill would have surely been fired, or imprisoned, or sentenced to one day act in a play that we staged.
Still, how to describe the plot of “Jack, or the Submission?”
I can’t. I do know that “Jack,” played by my good friend Jim W., sat in a chair in center stage for much of the play. At some point, he had to carry his love interest, “Roberta,” played by Jim’s older sister Janice, on his back. I also remember that my character, “Father Robert,” had to waltz during the play. Another actress, an older woman, was my partner. Her name was Leila something, and she taught me how to do the waltz as well as she could. I never knew if I had it right, but in the end, that didn’t matter either. I don’t know why we had to waltz, nor do I know why I wasn’t supposed to waltz with my wife in the drama, Mother Robert, played by a woman named Nancy. Box.
I hate that nineteen-year old guys are the way they are about women and names.
I also hate that because Nancy and I were married in the play, some of my friends “jested” that we could be an item, that Nancy had stars in her eyes for me. Maybe we were little shits, or maybe Ionesco was. What is the difference anyway between the Theatre of the Absurd and the Theatre of the Cruel?
As director, Jimbo admonished us that we had to be at practice every night, be on time every night. “Really and truly,” he said, “your first and only priority is to the play itself.” Of course, due to my job at the Ramada where all pool water must run clean, I was habitually late to rehearsal. What could Jimbo do about it, though? After all, it was I who came up with the name for our troupe: The Practical Theatre.
I fondly remember one of our first news notices: that something big was brewing in dramatic Bessemer. Birmingham News theater/movie critic, Kenneth Paul Shorey—a man in his forties whose “companion” was a girl a year younger than us, a girl we had gone to high school with—mentioned in his weekly arts column that “Jimbo Mulkin has a thing going in Bessemer that he calls The Practical Theatre.” When he then mentioned the title of our soon-to-be-staged work and its venue, honestly, wouldn’t you have wanted to attend just one night to believe it?
Or maybe you would have been tempted if you had watched one of those Sunday public affairs TV shows, hosted by future VisionLand theme park founder and Birmingham mayor Larry Langford (indicted later for questionable ethics and accounting), and seen Practical Theatre players Jim W. and Don B. trying to fill a 30-minute segment. They originally thought they’d be interviewed for maybe ten minutes and thus went to the taping just a bit high. Seeing them, you might just have been intrigued enough to ask what was going on in that Methodist church in Bessemer?
Our crew, at least, gathered in Susan’s basement to watch that recorded interview the Sunday night before the play opened on Thursday. About thirty seconds into the “discussion,” Jimbo turned to Don and Jim and shouted,
“Were you guys stoned?”
I keep wondering if anyone ever asked Ionesco such a question.
Could he have imagined us? Or, as it turned out, would we, our venue, our “ambition” be exactly what he intended when he conceived his theatrical vision?
Because I still have no idea about what actually transpired in his one-act adventure into Jacks and Roberts, I looked the play up on Wikipedia, a source that the playwright would have surely approved.
“The play is the first of two about Jack and his family (the second being “The Future is in Eggs”)…the thrust of the narrative involves Jack’s arranged marriage to Roberta, and when the first Roberta is not satisfactory, Roberta II. The play contains nonsensical exchanges…and surreal conceits (Roberta’s multiple noses for example)….” Or maybe the C. Shell Lounge.
Again, all I can say is that the house was full all three nights. Jim remembers that we got a standing ovation, but also admitted that after nearly forty years, he might be misremembering.
He also remembered that, yes, our beloved teacher, Bill McInerney, was in the play: requiem for a beleaguredly aesthetic soul.
Many of our parents attended. I remember my mother calling it the “silliest thing she’d ever seen.” Susan’s parents were there, too. It’s a thrilling achievement to have your mailman view your absurdity.
I think the moment that really got me, though, was when I saw a girl, Jane Piper, someone I only vaguely knew from high school, walk in. Somewhat tall, slim, dark curly hair and glasses. Someone, I think, who loved the arts. Someone very smart and, I think, very innocent. Someone I didn’t see afterwards or ever again.
Also fitting for the opening night’s charms, one of our techies—let’s say it was Paige Dunlavy, for why not?—accidentally kicked out a light cord, plunging us into darkness. We kept going until someone else plugged us back in, and with green wigs and all those noses, who actually knew that total darkness wasn’t part of the drama?
Three nights. Three full houses, and then the Practical Theatre closed forever. I remember hugging Nancy Box after that last show. All these years later, I still see her face before me. She had shown up to auditions hoping to work on the tech crew. She had no idea then that in Bessemer theatre history, she would always be remembered as Mother Robert. Thirty-five years after our final performance, First Methodist Church closed its doors too. The grounds and buildings of the Ramada Inn remain, but the franchise has assumed another name. I’m proud to say, however, that The Pizza Hut goes on as it always has, world without end.
“The wonder of it all…baby, yeah, yeah, yeah-ah.”
That was my summer of ’75. My own private theatre. The next summer, I painted our high school football stadium’s bleachers red, white, and blue, the city’s way of honoring our beloved land. Earning $2.00 an hour in the hot July sun, I received no barbecue sandwiches or visitors from faraway Louisiana dreams. But then, no one slung spaghetti sauce on those bleachers either. In the end, I was proud of my work.
Until, that is, the following summer when the city park superintendent—a man I never knew—ordered someone else to repaint the stadium green and white, apropos of nothing much really, except our always shifting, absurd, and arbitrary world.
Terry Barr is the author of the essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. His work has also appeared in Full Grown People, The Bitter Southerner, Eclectica Magazine, South Writ Large, Blue Lyra Review, and Bookends Review. He teaches Creative Nonfiction and The Religion of SEC Football at Presbyterian College and lives in Greenville, SC, with his family