The Most Famous Man in These United States
I was the only adult in America who hadn’t appeared on television, but a number of people were doing their best to change that.
First was my girlfriend, Rochelle, whom you’ll no doubt recall from “But Would You Do it For Money?” She made the final round and would have won fifty grand had she summoned the will to re-ingest the pitcher full of partly digested french fries and warm draft beer she’d vomited just moments before. Yet her crucial failure of nerve in the spotlight had not dissuaded her of the medium’s power. After weeks of hints and suggestions, one night while we were seated in our common places—Rochelle on the couch, me on the floor, my back to the TV—she said, “It’ll get you noticed. Maybe that’s what you need to help you with your music.”
“You think?” I said. I still fancied notions of recording contracts, envisioned my name spelled out on marquees, but I’d been kicked out of every band I’d played in and had a hard time finding local clubowners who’d let me play a set before customers. The bulk of the wages, earnings and salary I’d entered on my 1040 E-Z came from teaching hollow eyed suburbanites how to thrash power chords like their idols from the music channels. Still, I was skeptical a TV appearance could help me. I said, “Isn’t the old-fashioned way of practice, practice, practice more meet? Evidence of merit rather than crass fortune?”
I didn’t believe this. Any short-cut to success offered was one I’d gladly take. What I presently wanted was to see Rochelle’s eyebrows knit, which they always did when she didn’t quite know the meaning of a word. I tried to determine which term, meet or merit, caused that lovely meeting of her sparse brows (a little browner now, as she was in between foils), but she shut her eyes, shook her head. She took my hand, pressed it against her chest. “Think what it’s done for me,” she said.
I did think about it—in between glances at her augmented breasts—then raised my eyes to examine her earnest face. She nodded preliminarily, as if to coax from me positive responses. Her brown eyes, blue behind contacts, grew round with pleading. She too was biracial, but with her creamy brown skin, and a hairstyle that looks windblown without nature’s assistance, she belonged on TV. Far more than I, a skinny mulatto with a jaundiced complexion and teeth stained from the well water I drank as a child. However, her looks didn’t distract me from my conclusion: her TV appearance hadn’t done much. She returned from California with a year’s supply of an herbal supplement subsequently banned by the FDA and a few anecdotes of sighting celebrities—“Other celebrities,” she was fond of saying—on the other side of Rodeo Drive. And since, though it was common for her to sign autographs whenever we were out, she hadn’t received a part in any of the independent films or regional plays she auditioned for. She’d even lost out an opportunity to model spring wear for a Dillard’s commercial.
Unsure of what to say, I stammered until Rochelle caught my chin in her hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “It brought us together.” Then she kissed me. With her tongue swirling rapidly over my molars, I couldn’t tell her I’d never seen an episode of “But Would You Do it For Money?” until after we met outside Juanita’s. Before that moment, the only TV I viewed at all was the one bolted to the ceiling in the Heights’ Laundromat. I decided to lose myself in the kiss, but allowed my hands to stray toward her shoulders, which caused her to pull back, her hands rising protectively to her head as she said, “My hair!”
Next was my mother. She called me to meet her for lunch at Sekisui—whose sushi was celebrated in Little Rock but quite counter to the deep-fried and gravy-covered cuisine my mother had served my older brother and I daily. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of months, and her physical appearance surprised me. She was tauter around the neck and her eyes no longer looked so tired. I suspected cosmetic surgery, but my mother was busy making known that I needed to show Americans I was a capable individual, a valuable contributor to society, and my multi-racial family had been a help, not a hindrance. “I’m seeing too many freaks on TV lately,” she said, suddenly expert with chopsticks and nimbly dunking smoked eel and raw tuna into shallow bowls of soy sauce. “Kids complaining about their parents, wishing they weren’t born, that sort of thing. You need to show they’re not the norm. You are.”
I didn’t tell her to quit watching TV, as I knew she needed the set on at all hours, even if she was in another room and could only hear its ghostly voices. I didn’t mention my brother or his incarceration. Besides, rice was crumbling into my soy sauce and the chopsticks kept falling from my slippery fingers. I shifted my attention to the soybeans, popped one of the salty devils in my mouth, which caused my mother to say, “Shell it first, dear.” She pointed to the pile of empty green skins neatly formed on her rectangular plate. “You’ll show the world,” she continued. “And help out all those biracial children who worry they’re so alone and so odd. You should hear some of the stories I saw the other night on the news.”
She had good intentions, my mother. But she and my father had had good intentions when they appeared on “Still Faithful After all these Years”—whose end punctuation, I know from Rochelle, transforms from ellipses to a question mark at the opening of the hour-long show. Because I never watched during that premiere season, I didn’t witness the episode that captured the end of my parents’ twenty-nine year marriage. I suppose it’s entertaining to bring unwitting married couples together on a cruise ship under the ruse their unions are being rewarded, then, at the first port of call, introduce a corps of scheming single women—skanks, Rochelle called the women after she auditioned (and didn’t get the part). And in fairness, next season’s edition, according to Rochelle, promises hot guys as the bait. However, I didn’t watch last year’s reruns and see my father, the first husband to fall, succumbing to the wiles of the woman—a year and four months younger than I—he now lives with in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Nor would I remind my mother of this as she finished her sushi and started eating mine. My thoughts drifted to pulled pork sandwiches with slaw, while she said, “I think you’d make an excellent role model. Honest. Well-spoken. Respectful.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said dutifully.
“Handsome, too,” she said.
Though conscious of her flattery—my brother was the good-looking one—I turned to her my good side. “You’ll do it then?” she said, summoning a single tear. “For me?”
I feigned a sneeze, another, then another and kept up the violent snap of my neck until my mother asked after my health. So much for honesty and respectfulness. By the time she’d become sure I wasn’t experiencing some allergic reaction to the sushi, her request had become foggy, and I made sure she forgot by asking about her latest suitors. They numbered two, one an attorney, the other a golf pro—both famed locally for their obnoxious commercials—and she was happy to discuss the virtues of both while I pretended to listen.
My older brother was next. I had for him some cigarettes and old L. Ron Hubbard paperbacks he’d been asking for, and was headed to the reformatory anyway. But when he came to the other side of the plexiglass in the visitor’s area, I felt uneasy at his carrying a phone-directory sized stack of papers. He looked well, as he always did, far better looking than I, with better posture, cleaner nails. For a moment, I envied him, then reminded myself who had to return to his cell in twenty minutes. I wonder what might have been his fate had he not become such a notorious crystal meth dealer that he landed on the local and national versions of “Crimestoppers, Inc.” But even then, especially during his videotaped capture on his third and final appearance, he looked well-groomed and alluring, a fact borne out by the letters he showed me from his many female admirers.
Now, though, he set down the stack of paper on the ledge behind the plexiglass, greeted me, and said, “You still pretending to be a minimalist?”
His vocabulary—never his strong suit—had improved, but I imagined a dictionary and a thesaurus on his cot, both turned to the M’s. “How so?” I asked.
“You still don’t own a TV?”
“My girlfriend,” I said. “She owns one.”
“Rochelle,” my brother said, stroking his chin as if to remind me how much more square and firm his was. “The one who flashed the Methodist convention and shaved the fat guy’s ass but turned up her nose at the second time around with those fries?”
I mulled over some choice terms to describe him: fuck-up, dope dealer, convict. “The one and the same,” I said.
“Well, she’s not why I wanted to talk. You heard about ‘Sibling Rivalry?’”
“Pardon?” I said, leaning forward. A guard walked near, reminded me that we had only fifteen minutes. As he returned to his post, I recalled his face—moreover, his enormous biceps—from a law enforcement arm-wrestling special Rochelle could not look away from, while I practiced scales.
My brother coughed, gained my attention. He donned a pair of glasses I’d never seen him wearing. He ran a palm over his graying hair. He began to read, haltingly: “Ever since the days of Cain and Abel, siblings have clashed against one another, over reasons as great as life or death or as petty as who gets the top bunk. Now, an opportunity exists for dueling siblings to fight it out, but within the ring, under the watchful eyes of skilled trainers and expert referees, who will ensure the safety of both participants. Got a beef with your brother? A spat with your sis? Well, let’s get it on, then, on ‘Sibling Rivalry.’”
“What is that?” I said.
“I knew you hadn’t seen it.” My brother sighed, shook his head at my ignorance. “It’s ‘Sibling Rivalry,’ like I said. This show that lets brothers fight, for three rounds, under Nevada rules. Dr. Gillis, the shrink here, he says it sounds very therapeutic.”
I really was stunned. So much so, that was all I could say: “I’m really stunned.”
“Come on,” my brother said. “It’ll be just what we need. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect in here and I think you and I have a lot of issues we need to confront.”
Therapeutic? Issues? Confront? My brother didn’t talk this way. Before his arrest his principal terms and phrases were “ounce” and “costs” and “It’ll fuck you up.” “What issues?” I said.
“Isn’t it obvious, for one?” he said, motioning to my face, then dragging his fingers across his face and forearms, calling attention to the color of our skin, though his always appeared a warm caramel, especially in comparison to my sickly yellow.
“What else though?”
“I resent you. Your life on the outside. And I’m starting to wonder if mom and dad liked you best.”
I summoned the memory of Xmases where he played with GI Joes, toy guns and football equipment, while I stared at clothes with growing room and books too young for me. The one gift I always wanted—a guitar—was never there. I had to save money from a fast-food job to buy one. “That’s not even true,” I said. “Mom and Dad doted on you.”
My brother slumped in his seat, snatched off his reading glasses, then leaned forward. “Just say you’ll do it. You don’t know what it’s like.” His eyes looked red and genuinely weepy—unlike my mother’s at lunch. (I suspected she had a tack in her shoe.)
“To be inside?” I said, wondering for a moment just how bad it might be. Never before had he complained, and during my visits the facilities resembled as much a dormitory at an alternative university as a house of reform.
He tossed his glasses on the ledge, shook his head. “No, to be on TV and not be able to get back. That high’s stronger than any shit I ever sold.” He grabbed the stack of papers, pulled out some documents. “Anyway, it’s not just me. The warden would love to have the show here. My agent’s worked it out so they’ll tape live from the ring in the rec area. Isn’t that awesome? All we need is your ok.”
“Davenport. My lawyer. He’s worked out deals for all his clients now.”
As if projected onto the plexiglass, the image of the two of us in shorts, mouthpieces and oversized gloves shimmered before me. I shut my eyes. I wish I could claim nobility of mind, base my unwillingness to fight on my revulsion at the idea of two men of color—brothers!—about to fight for the entertainment of others. But in truth I knew after his time in the penitentiary, my brother would clobber me. I wouldn’t even get in the one punch I’d wanted to throw for some time. So I stood, walked toward the exit without waving, and carried the shopping bag of paperbacks and cartons of cigarettes. “Wait,” my brother said. “We don’t even have to actually hit each other. A few weeks of practice and we can put on a good show where nobody gets hurt.”
The guard with the massive biceps stood before me, blinking. “This is for him,” I said, my back to my brother. The guard stayed with me until I reached the exit. While I waited to be buzzed out, he said, “He’s right, you know. The warden would like to have us on TV again, especially since the report on ‘20/20’ made us look so bad.”
The door buzzed open. I had nothing to say—I hadn’t seen that report—so I walked out.
Last there came a call from a television executive. He needed to be in Little Rock soon, he said, and he hoped to talk with me. Immediately suspicious—no one ever needs to be in Little Rock—I still accepted his offer, knowing Rochelle, my mother and brother—perhaps even my father and his new wife, Brooke—would learn of it, and browbeat me if I didn’t at least discover what the man had to say. I was instructed to arrive at a penthouse suite at the Peabody, and there was greeted by a familiar-looking man. Suave, tanned, darker even than I, he wore a blue blazer. His gray slacks and salt and pepper hair displayed the signs of a recent pressing. His shoes had been shined to a glossy sheen and his firm but not crushing handshake left on my fingers an oily and fragrant film. One hand on my back, the executive escorted me to a seat on a plush sofa, while with the other hand he gestured at the impressive view of North Little Rock and the Arkansas River through the suite’s floor to ceiling windows. After asking me if I wanted a drink—I refused—he fixed himself one, talking about how much he enjoyed any chance to visit any of what LA types called the flyover states. Here, he said, fishing for ice cubes with tongs, one got a chance to breath genuine air, of a type that wasn’t perfumed with greed and cynicism, and to be among real people. Salt of the earth, I believe he insisted. I asked if this was his first trip to Arkansas and he said, “No, been here dozens of times. I love it. The history, the natural beauty. Ah, the Volunteer State.”
I overlooked his error, as his mellow and smooth voice gave a note of authenticity to every word he uttered. Indeed, everything about him—from his graceful movement to the soft peak of his pocket square—suggested he never spent a moment feeling insecure or doubtful he’d not get precisely what he wanted at the rate he dictated. I was sweating and cursing silently the ineffective anti-perspirant I’d bought on sale a week before, when he sat down across from me, holding in both hands a crystal glass filled with amber liquid and ice. “Afraid you were told a little fib,” he said. “We hope you’re inclined to forgive. But our only business in Arkansas is you.” His eyebrows slanted together, then loosened and sprang in curves above his eyes. “No hard feelings?” he said. “We really want to talk to you.”
I made a note to joke with Rochelle about the executive’s use of the royal we, then thought better of it, wincing as if she’d already adopted that affectation. “Why would you want to talk to me?” I said.
The executive sipped his drink. He hadn’t a wrinkle on his clothes or his skin. I believed I’d have to touch my nose against his to see a pore. “You must know by now you’re the only person who still hasn’t been on TV yet,” he said. “We’re here to determine why that is, see if there’s anything you’d like to do about that.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” I said. I had. So many people had told me this, beyond my relatives and girlfriend. Rare was the day when someone in the checkout stand or at the bar told me I needed to join the crowd, and for that matter I’d be perfect on some such show or other, their titles as foreign to me as dental hygiene and manners appeared to most of my interlocutors. But I was skeptical of the claim itself. I said to the executive, “Certainly, the number of babies born each day cancels that out.”
“We’re working on that,” he said, “ ‘Welcome to the Real World’ is a pilot we’re kicking around. Camcorders to every expectant couple and their OB-GYN, that sort of thing. But put it this way, you are, as of this moment, the only person over the age of six who hasn’t appeared.”
All my life I’d been used to solitude and alienation, but after hearing of my extreme isolation from the crowd, I felt I’d been in constant violation of a fundamental American principle. As the air conditioner clicked on in the suite, I shuddered. “You’ve been on, as well?” I said, wondering if that’s why he seemed someone I knew.
“Sure,” he said, “but that’s ancient history.” The executive moved in closer, his hairless hands no longer holding a drink, but gripped together between his widespread knees, his smile managing to remain while he formed every word. “This is what we want to know. Just what is it that’s kept you off the screen?”
I shook my head and shrugged. I didn’t know. And that was all I could say: “I don’t know.”
“You’ve never been asked on the street for an opinion? Never made faces behind a reporter on location? Don’t you like TV?”
I opened my mouth, but he waved me silent. “Before you answer that, you should know many of the people who now appear on some of our finest programs were once the most committed TV-Phobes. They thought it was phony, vulgar, too commercial, empty of social significance. And anyone thinking about the programming of, say, ten years ago, would be absolutely correct. It was a wasteland. Yet look at what we’re doing now. Have you seen ‘Critical Thinkers of Our Day?’ A wonderful panel show featuring our brightest and most attractive unmarried scholars under thirty-five. And what about our documentaries? The series on fraud in the film and recording industries is sure to get us a Peabody. Or at least a People’s Choice.”
His persuasive powers, I must say, were something to behold. Since the first phone call, I’d expected him to be glib. Never would I have believed, though, I’d be leaning forward in my seat, eager to hear more. I knew of the shows he mentioned. My eyes had been open when they were on, greedily devoured by Rachelle, but in truth I had never paid enough attention to determine quality, either way. “I’m not the biggest TV watcher,” I finally said.
The executive sat up as if lifted by invisible wires. After walking around the sofa twice, he said, “Fair enough. Smart guy like you doesn’t let his life revolve around the TV Guide.” He paused. As he’d extended his walking circle behind the couch I was sitting on, I’d lost track of him. So to suddenly see his face near enough to smell his cologne made me fall backward onto the cushioned sofa. “And,” he continued, “a certain somebody named Rochelle keeps you entertained.”
A foolish grin trembled on my lips, but the executive had already started walking again, now silent, as if awaiting my response. I had nothing to say, no salty aphorism describing how good in bed Rochelle was. His statement reminded me of the effort of being with her, hearing daily how close she was to breaking through and her need to keep the TV on constantly, lest she miss one tip or call for auditions. I wasn’t thinking of breaking up then, but if I came home and found a goodbye note, I wouldn’t have run out into the street calling her name in anguish, tears streaming down my face.
The executive didn’t have as much tolerance for dead air as I. After hanging his blazer neatly on the back of a chair, he said, “So, what do we have to do to get you on a TV show? What could we put together for you?”
His cadences amused me, and I tried to remember what show he’d been on. But it was hard going, as I’d never been one to stare at the screen long enough to remember the stars, let alone the also-rans. The executive continued. “Talk show? Sketch comedy? You’re not much of a sports guy, are you? News anchor? What?”
I leaned back in the sofa, recalling
whirling lights and shrieking female voices, while the executive moved
closer. “How about a documentary? How it feels to be you? Twenty-four
hours in the life of? No, no. I’ve got it. You’re a musician, right?
“Why me?” I said, my throat a little dry from inactivity. The executive made conversation very easy, as he did the speaking for both of us. But now his confident features slackened. If he experienced any uncertainty, the period was brief. “Because you’re our guy,” he said. “The man of the moment. And I do emphasize moment.” He snapped his fingers. “It’s go, go, go. Who knows, in two days everyone’s forgotten you and a Boston Terrier who can bark the national anthem has everyone’s attention.”
“But,” I said, “I am the only one who hasn’t been on. You said that yourself.”
“Comebacks, my friend. Happen all the time. That homeless guy out there who was on the news program about the underclass? He cleans up, gets a haircut and a new suit, boom, he’s on every Sunday telling you how to be just like him.”
He was stooped directly in front of me now. At last I could see the pores on his elegant nose. A few beads of sweat formed near his graying temples. “So what do you say?” he said. “We’ve laid out a bunch of options. Which suits you best?”
Now I remembered: he’d been the host of a mid-morning game show, opposite of Bob Barker, and my mother only watched when the Price is Right was a repeat. In the last months of its single season, he dressed up in all manner of costumes, and I could recall his smile straining beneath a hobo’s greasepaint beard. I chewed the inside of my lower lip, wondering whether I should pretend to mull over his requests. But I did not want to get the executive’s hopes up or laugh in his face. Besides, I was booked at the guitar shop for a beginner’s class that I knew would start with questions on how to set your instrument aflame. I put my palms on my thighs and pushed myself up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not your man.”
“Why?” He stood, clutching his side as if my words had wounded him.
The executive strode toward the door. Beads of sweat slipped down his face, leaving skinny tracks a shade lighter than his bronze complexion. “You know,” he said, “a lot of times a guy who doesn’t follow trends thinks because of that he’s in the right. Marching to the beat of a different drum, you know. But I’ll tell you, sometimes that guy is wrong. Dead wrong. He thinks those who’re following the crowd live unhappy lives while he’s like that Thoreau guy, up in Vermont.”
“Massachusetts,” I corrected. “The Bay State.”
“Whatever. But did he really have a
good time in life? Was his, what, integrity worth it? You tell me?
Because the people out there aren’t stupid. Not by a long stretch. At
some point, when you’re the one out of step, you’ve got to ask, are they
all wrong? Three hundred million men, women and children?”
His hands, suddenly clenched, shook between us. “You mean you won’t give up your integrity even if it keeps you out of step with the rest of the nation?”
There was that word again, integrity. Truth was, though, I didn’t have any more integrity than this blow-dried, cosmetically-altered failure of a game show host before me. In fact, I was a petty, selfish man who delighted in the foibles of others because it kept me from having to acknowledge my own. No wonder I enjoyed the company of Rochelle and visited my brother regularly. No wonder indeed I wasn’t making a therapist rich, whining about my parents’ divorce. All these people in my life kept me amused—far better than any TV show, fact or fiction—and I didn’t give them any emotional connection or genuine affection. But, like the executive, they ascribed to me a kind of moral superiority that I knew would be lost the moment my made up face materialized on the flat screens of theirs and countless Americans. Give that up? Not for the executive’s petty promises.
To him, I shrugged again, then stepped toward the door, out of his reach. When I turned the door knob, he tried again. “Anything you want. Just tell us. We want you on the air.”
“Sorry,” I said and stepped into the hall.
“Fine then,” the executive said, dusting his soft hands together. “You know, we don’t need your permission. Any day now, our lobbyists are going to remove all that blessed need for privacy and we’ll be able to shoot anyone, anytime. Won’t need a stupid waiver anymore.”
“Ok,” I said, leaving him behind.
“You’ll be on,” he shouted. “One day. Believe me!”
And I almost made it down to the lobby without a stab of regret. One of the many seeds tossed by the executive germinated, and I feared I’d turned down an important opportunity. What if I were wrong? Had I lost my one chance? My hand rose shakily and my index finger hovered near the button for the top floor. But then the door opened, and into the car walked a man who’d appeared as a young Frank Sinatra on “And We Sing Like Them Too,” which was Rochelle’s second or third favorite show, as she believed she was a nose job away from resembling Mariah Carey. Then, behind the concierge desk, I saw a woman who’d brought an oil painting to one of the antique appraisal shows my mother loved. She left knowing her “family heirloom” was worth little more than the canvas. And then, coming through the front doors, a pair of octogenarian identical twins, whom I’d read about in the paper. Their true-life story of separation and reconciliation had won three Emmy’s, though now they were each suing the producers for more money, as well as their wives for divorce—also twins, but fraternal—and appearing often on The Trials of Celebrity. All, though, were looking more at me than I at them, each with that gaze suggesting their minds busy at work trying to determine just why they were having trouble placing me. Being neither clearly black or white, I’d seen that gaze all my life, but this afternoon I knew it was different. “Are you on or off?” the young Frank Sinatra drawled.
I smiled and jumped out of the elevator before the doors closed, knowing I might be caught off-guard by some guerilla camcorder tactics or Barbara Walters would eventually interview me and I’d have a great story for why it’d taken so long for me to appear. (I’d even play for her my guitar!) It was inevitable, my joining the television ranks, but I could wait it out. For now I knew I was the most famous man in these United States, and I was just starting to enjoy myself.