I was sitting in a bank the other day, applying for a loan when the bank officer asked me whether I had any other income besides my day job. “Uh, I made a little money last year as a freelance writer,” I said sheepishly.
“How much?” the banker said.
Sorta like this.
When I told her she didn’t laugh, but I could tell she was having a hard time stifling her reaction to the absurdly small figure I’d just mentioned. She had that Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon look–inflated to the gills, puffy. If somebody’d stuck her with one of those non-working ballpoint pens they chain to the marble counters in banks, she would’ve exploded.
Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton: Do you ever get tired dragging those names around?
As we were having this little tete-a-tete a young assistant who’d done a good job ignoring me just a few days before suddenly became interested. “You’re a writer?” she asked with girlish–and quite attractive girlish, I might add–innocence.
“Yes,” I said, hoping she’d lower her voice so that people didn’t think that was all I did.
“I’m an English major,” she said with a far-away look in her eyes, as if imagining herself at a book-signing for her blockbuster bodice-ripper “Love’s Tender Camisole.” “I want to be a writer, too!”
“DON’T,” I said with wild-eyed fervor, like the Ancient Mariner.
Ancient Mariner: “Stop writing NOW–before it’s too late!”
“W-why not?” she asked, gripped both by fear and by me, since I’d grabbed her arm to drive home my point.
“You don’t want to become a writer,” I said. “It a lonely, poverty-ridden business. You sit by yourself putting one little word in front of another, worrying about each one. When you’re finally done, you put your masterpiece in an envelope and send it off to a magazine or a publisher or an agent . . . and you never hear from them–EVER!
“Well, almost never. I sent the manuscript of my heart-rending short story ‘The Eskimo Rides Shotgun’ to The New Yorker three years ago, and I’m still waiting for my rejection letter.”
I saw the banker stretching out with her leg under her desk, probably trying to step on a buzzer to call security. I didn’t have much time.
“No, what you want to do is become–a playwright!”
Eugene O’Neill: You can still be grumpy if you want to.
The banker seemed to relax ever-so-slightly, and the girl gave me a perplexed look. “B-but, I thought playwrights were writers,” she said.
“Yes and no,” I said. “You’ll find playwriting goes much faster, because you don’t have to add all that exposition like Edward Bulwer-Lyton.”
“1st Baron Lytton, Privy Council, whatever that means. He’s the author of one of the most famous, most quoted, and worst opening lines in English literature–‘It was a dark and stormy night.’”
“That’s not a good opening line?” the banker asked. Funny how everybody wants to be a writer. Probably has a blog going in secret.
“It’s a trifle overwrought, almost as bad as ‘Indian Summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle.’”
“What’s that from?” the girl asked. Apparently she liked it as she took a pen out of her pocket and started writing on one of those pink “While You Were Out” slips.
“‘Peyton Place’ by Grace Metalious. Anyway, when you’re a playwright, you can put that sort of thing in stage directions.”
“So people won’t hold it against you?” the girl asked. I wanted to say “If I told you you had a nice body would you hold it against me?” but we were in a bank. There was probably an FDIC regulation against it.
“Nope–not at all.”
“Gosh,” the girl said as she sat down in the bank officer’s other chair. They always have two chairs in those little offices in case they need a witness for your signature when you turn over the deed to your house.
“Are there other benefits to being a playwright?” the banker asked. She had on one of those floppy bow ties that female bankers had to wear back in the 80s. My guess is they nobody told her that styles had changed in order to keep her looking dorky until she retired.
“You better believe it,” I said, and they both leaned forward. I had them eating out of my hand, but pretty soon I ran out of the bank’s free candy and we got down to business.
“First of all, it’s easier to get a play published than a novel or a short story.”
“It is?” the young girl asked, incredulous.
Waiting for Guffman
“Surprisingly, yes. America has thousands of community theatre groups starving for content. They need comedies, dramas, dramedies and ten-minute plays to feed the community theatre-industrial complex.”
“Wow,” the banker said. “So somebody could walk into a bookstore and see a play I’d written on the . . .”
“Did I say that?” I snapped, turning to the young girl for support.
“I didn’t think so. No, the publisher isn’t going to print up 1,000 copies just to flatter your ego. They’re in it to make money.”
“But . . . I could order a copy to show my friends?” the assistant asked.
“Sure you could,” I said, putting my arm around her back and patting her gently, with avuncular affection and repressed desire. “But the play’s the thing–not putting a hard copy on the crappy veneer credenza you get when you become vice president,” I said as I cast a gimlet eye at the crappy veneer credenza the banker got when she became vice president.
Shakespeare: “I never agreed to be in the same post as Bulwer-Lytton.”
“What’s so special about a play?” the girl asked. “I like movies.”
“Think about it,” I said, returning her gaze to the distance where she saw herself signing autographs. “You write a book, you don’t get to see the readers’ reactions. They’re off in their trailer par–I mean homes, miles away, invisble to you. Maybe every now and then you’ll get an on-line review–“i like this book alot because it was good three thumbs up”–but that’s about it.
“How’s that different from a play?” the banker asked.
“Glad you asked,” I said.
“You’re the one writing this, I didn’t have much choice.”
“A play’s different because you actually hear and see people’s reactions to what you write. They laugh, they cry, they get angry at the jerk boyfriend . . .”
“Who is actually you,” the banker said.
I had to shake my head at that one. If I weren’t an omniscent narrator, my characters wouldn’t be able to read my thoughts. It came with the territory.
“Okay, let’s say for the sake of argument an annoying character is me,” I said, glaring at her. “Everything’s happening in real time, they don’t know where I’m sitting–I get away with it as easy as robbing this bank.”
I noticed the rent-a-cop wake up from his minimum-wage slumber. He looked at the clock and saw that he still had an hour to go until the end of his shift, and went promptly back to sleep.
“The people in the play–they’re you’re friends and neighbors,” I said.
“That’s not better than a movie,” the girl said. “Movies have big stars in ’em, not some loser who lives down the street.”
“Don’t you get it?” I was getting exasperated. “It’s a communal thing–it’s almost tribal. It takes you back to the dawn of time, not some movie lot in Hollywood.”
The banker nodded her head but indicated she wanted to get back to work with a business-like expression. “Well, I’ve got sales goals to meet for all the crappy products we have here, like Christmas Club accounts.”
“Those are for idiots, aren’t they?” I was glad we’d found common ground.
“You got that right,” the banker asked.
“You know, I wrote a play about your predicament,” I said.
“What’s it called?” the girl asked.
Christmas Club Customer: “She gave me my money back–without interest!”
“Suburban Community Bank,” I said.
“Catchy title,” the banker said. “Where can we learn more about the strange but wonderful world of drama, and your stifled career as a playwright?”
“Well, I was once on Lost Coast Blues, an internet radio program, talking about my full-length play The Picket Line, when it was performed in New York.”
“You can listen to the radio–on the internet?” the banker asked, one eyebrow arched upwards to the milk glass globe lamps–and try saying that five times fast.
“Sure,” the girl said. “I listen to it all the time at my desk and . . .”
I cut her off quickly in the hope of maybe–just maybe–saving her job.
“When there are absolutely no customers around and it’s your lunch break but you’re still working–right?” I turned and winked at her with the eye the banker couldn’t see.
P.J. Proby: Gone, but not forgotten. By me.
“Ri-i-i-ght,” the girl said, getting hip to the cogitations, as P.J. Proby once said.
We all exhaled and relaxed a bit after what had been an intense–but illuminating–discussion. The banker asked how big a loan I wanted, so I began to tote up the expenses I’d need to cover for my next crappy community theatre play.
“Let’s see, $10 entry fee, fifty cents postage, I pay my actors $200 each and there’s four of them, plus around $15.49 in copying costs for programs at Staples, so $895.99–let’s round up to $900.”
The banker took a calculator out to check my numbers. “You’re right,” she said, with a look of surprise on her face. “How did you do that in your head?”
“I went to Catholic grade school, where we mastered basic math skills and learned the mysteries of life.”
“Like what?” the banker asked.
“Why everyone who works in a bank is a Vice President.”