I'm standing at the grocery-store checkout counter watching a large-haired, gum-snapping clerk drag a bag of coffee over the laser scanner. She is nothing if not persistent. After three passes prove fruitless, she starts improvising. She holds the bag sideways; she slides it very s-l-o-w-l-y across the magic X; she zips it across quickly twice; she drags it vertically, horizontally, at an oblique angle. Nothing works.
Finally, she sighs, a sigh as big as her big cotton-candy hair. She glares at the bag, punches in a crisp 19-digit number, and wearily shoves the loathsome item to the bagging area.
The coffee, dammit, is checked. Unfortunately, it is only the first item out of my nearly full cart. Settling in for the duration, I begin to scan the tabloids.
Here's what I learned: Britney noticed she was "fat" and can't dance and now she's "so ashamed." Angelina has told Brad to "GO BACK TO JEN!" (Or Brad has told Angelina: "ALL IS FORGIVEN." Take your pick. There appears to be some sort of epic conflict between US Weekly and Life & Style.) Also, Angelina is too thin and Janet Jackson is too fat. And Lindsay is in rehab and has added sex to her collection of addictions. Also, Mary Kate Olsen is pregnant. Or not.
As one who has spent most of his working life in newspapers and magazines, I can't help but wonder about the folks who have to crank this stuff out week after week. I mean, you make your living the best you can in this crazy world, but I'm trying to imagine what it must be like to have a job where you spend your workdays just making up crap for mass consumption. It must be a little like being a fry-cook at Krystal — or Tony Snow.
To be fair, this kind of "journalism" didn't exist when I was a budding writer. But, oh, the money I could have made if Life & Style and TMZ had been around in the '70s. I watched Van Morrison slide off a barstool in mid-interview. I saw Michael Douglas go completely nuts, throwing a screaming tantrum on the set of The Streets of San Francisco. I interviewed Chuck Berry at a Denny's in Wentzville, Missouri. He and his three girlfriends invited me to come back to Chuck's place. What a story I could have had. But no. I had ethics. I held back ... Ah, memories ...
"Sir. SIR! Paper or plastic." Back to the real world.
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...