“Saw your picture in the paper this morning,” said the driver of the shuttle that runs between the parking lot and the front door of the southeast Missouri hospital where my mother is recovering from surgery. Three more people told me the same thing in the lobby, elevator, and fourth-floor corridor. By the time I finally got to her room, I’d figured out that a reporter from one of our two local papers must have come to my Tuesday-night lecture at the Smalltown Depot, and a quick look at the carefully folded copy of the Southeast Missourian conspicuously placed on her bedside table confirmed it: I’d received what small-town newspaper readers universally refer to as “a write-up.” What’s more, it was a good one, meaning that (A) I was quoted accurately and (B) my photo looked rather more like the fellow I see in the bathroom mirror than the one portrayed on my driver’s license.
Not that I would have expected anything different. Small-town newspaper reporters rarely go out of their way to publish hatchet jobs, least of all about the Hometown Boy Made Good who comes back for a nostalgic visit. The rules of small-town journalism are very different from those prevailing in the big city. Reporters are not your friends, I’ve told any number of friends and colleagues preparing to be interviewed by a big-city journalist for the first time. Some of them take my word for it and act accordingly, but others march off to their doom sure that I’m a hardened old cynic and thus not to be trusted. “I just had an epiphany,” one of the latter told me after emerging, somewhat scathed, from the lion’s den. “A reporter risks nothing by inappropriate revelations, whereas the subject risks everything.” I was kind enough not to say I told her so.
Be that as it may, I haven’t any complaints with the way the Southeast Missourian and the Standard-Democrat wrote me up. Besides, it was fun to be recognized on the street, though I can see how it might get old. Alas, my fame will last only through Friday, when I fly back to Manhattan and resume the genteel obscurity of a middle-to-highbrow critic who can count his network TV appearances on some of the fingers of one hand. I realized long ago that in America, there’s no such thing as a famous writer, only famous actors. My all-time favorite joke is about the, er, Polish starlet who, er, slept with the screenwriter. If I ever write a book about Hollywood, which isn’t likely, that’ll be the title: She Screwed the Writer. (Or something close to that, anyway.)
I returned from the hospital to find an e-mailbox full of increasingly urgent communications. Among other things, it seems that the producers of one of the shows I was supposed to review in next Friday’s Wall Street Journal have postponed its opening night, a decision which forced me to spend a full hour rearranging my schedule for the next two weeks, with further juggling in the offing. In addition, I have three thousand words of deathless prose due in the e-mailbox of a Manhattan editor at some point in the next twenty-four hours, though the editor in question was kind enough to call on Wednesday morning and offer me an unsolicited deadline extension, an act of mercy for which he will store up much heavenly treasure. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to get the piece in on time, but it does mean I can breathe a little easier tomorrow morning, especially since I’m supposed to tape a local radio interview at one o’clock, arrgh….
Sounds like I’m already back in New York, doesn’t it? I got a call yesterday from Bass Player, my great friend, kindred spirit, and fellow workaholic, who is somewhere on the West Coast this week for reasons not dissimilar to the ones that brought me to Smalltown, U.S.A., last week. We traded notes on our respective situations, complained about the work we’d brought home with us, then swore up and down to one another that in spite of everything, we were still managing to set aside A Little Time for Ourselves.
“You know what we sound like?” I said. “A couple of drunks bragging about how many days we’ve been sober.”
She laughed so hard I thought my cell phone was going to explode.
Enough already. It’s not too late for me to to get a good night’s sleep, so I’ll turn off the iBook and give it my best shot. You wouldn’t hear from me again until Friday if I had any sense, but who says I have any sense?