When I stopped writing last month, John Lennon was dead, Ronald Reagan was President-elect and I was awash in a sea of mental anguish and self-pity.
But before I continue I have to back up for a second since my sister Lori reminds me that she was visiting from South Dakota when John Lennon was shot and that shouldn’t go unmentioned. I remember it being a great visit with my wife Diane and I giving her the extended subway token tour of NYC. Riding elevators to the tops of tall buildings, ocean cruises on the Staten Island Ferry, buck-fifty dinners in Chinatown. We spared no expense. What I remember the most was braving a bitter Thanksgiving morning to head uptown to Central Park for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. If I recall, at some point we splurged and caught “A Chorus Line” on Broadway, which is probably a pretty solid recollection since I know I saw Chorus Line at least a half-dozen times with a half-dozen different out-of-town guests. It was popular, we were genial hosts, what can I say.
But all good things end and soon Lori packed up and returned home as Christmas approached.
Removed from the diversion of an extended out-of-town guest, things got kind of sour in our Canal Street loft that December. I can’t recall any specifics, and have no memories that might let me lay or accept blame, but tempers were short, and as Christmas rolled around Diane headed off to spent the holidays with her parents in New Hampshire and I remained in New York by myself.
While I can’t remember why this happened (let’s assume some variation on wounded pride and self-absorption for lack of evidence), I do know it was a big deal since Christmas and family had always been important to me and to suddenly find myself alone in New York on Christmas was stark.
I’m going to get back to John Lennon eventually, but first a bit of personal art history.
Back then I was making a living as a computer typesetter, which was basically the precursor to desktop publishing, back before there were desktop computers. There were not very many computer typesetting machines and even fewer folks who knew how to use them, so for a brief moment in my life, I was indispensable. I would work at Conde Nast on Madison Avenue one day, and then down at Drexel, Burnham, Lambert on Wall Street the next. I’d get paid a lot and I could still be an artist with an attitude, because nobody else could run the machines.
Artistically, I’d been doing a postcard series I called “Tacit” which I created on the typesetting equipment during downtime. Tacit looked like a miniature newspaper and contained short news items consisting of art and political satire, often continued on a non-existent “Page 17.” It was a media parody, sort of like what the Onion does today. Since no one as silly as me had easy access to technology that could create justified margins Tacit was unique and soon developed a following. I would create a postcard-sized issue of Tacit and mail it out to friends and a correspondence art list every month or two.
So anyway, back to Christmas day 1980. I believe it was the 25th.
I remember being extremely emotional that morning, a combination of being depressed that I was alone, and bitter about the state of my relationship and the world, and probably a bit miffed that there were no presents to open. It was a state of mind from which I’m sure I could have offered a withering condemnation of any human being who might be opening gifts with friends and family while I was staring out the window on Canal Street.
In an effort to be pro-active I left the loft, bought a pint of Jack Daniels and hopped the subway uptown to the movie houses around Times Square. (Mind you this was pre-Disney World Times Square, but they did have regular movie houses there in addition to the more adult offerings like XXX movies and Broadway theater productions.)
I know I went to two movies that Christmas afternoon, but for the life of me I can’t remember what they were. It would add so much flavor to the story if I could say with assurance that I saw “Raging Bull” and “Altered States” while I drained that pint, but for all I know it could have been “Flash Gordon” and “Popeye.” They were all in the theaters at the time.
What I do remember is that I managed to leave Times Square still fueled with resentment and now alcohol but I’d somehow managed to refocus it specifically on John Lennon’s assassination, guns, El Salvador and the newly elected President.
I went back home on the subway, sat down at the typewriter (yes, a real typewriter) and wrote the copy for a new issue of Tacit.
It wasn’t funny or even barely sarcastic, but it was cathartic. By the time my wife returned from Portsmouth I was almost normal. Over the next week I typeset the copy, laid out the card, printed it and mailed it out to folks around the country and the world. Not your typical Christmas card, but then it was not a typical Christmas.
The headline on the card screamed “John Lennon Murdered by Stupid Asshole in NY.” The photo was a picture of a handgun next to an El Salvadoran Sorpresa. Sorpresas (“Surprises”) are miniature ceramic tableaux hidden under a shell top. I had visited El Salvador briefly the year before as a consultant in arts and marketing for the village Ilobasco where they make Sorpresas. Civil unrest was on the rise while I was there and it provided for many more adventures than one encounters in a typical consulting gig. But that’s another story.
I returned to the US with strong, informed opinions that we were supporting the wrong side in El Salvador, and at some point I’d created this picture using a sorpresa I’d brought back and a handgun that belonged to a previous roommate. Since it had a gun in it and also since it referenced El Salvador I dug it out and slapped it onto my rant.
The text/rant was full of expletives and vitriol aimed across the political spectrum. In particular I took a shot at the new First Lady elect, Nancy Reagan.
In the wake of the Lennon assassination there was lots of arguing about the need for gun control vs. the need for more guns to protect us from all the other guns. (Sound familiar?) When asked for her opinion on the subject, Nancy Reagan noted that she was opposed to gun control and offered that she kept a tiny little gun under her pillow. This prompted me to write in my text: “Someone ought to take Nancy Reagan’s ‘tiny little gun’ and blow her tits off with it.”
Now realize I was mailing Tacit out as a postcard with just a stamp on the back, not in an envelope, so anyone who happened to handle the card could have read it. And so it was that the line about the “tiny little gun,” set in six point Times Roman with justified margins, apparently caught the eye of a postal worker in Denton, Texas who then apparently informed the Secret Service.
Did you know that at the time it was a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $50,000 fine to threaten violence to a member of the first family? Neither did I.
Still to come: Men in black and later paisley, roast pork and bean curd on rice, Julia Stiles’ first performance and more.