True Untrue: Mark



Mark lived in Maple Grove, a suburb northwest of Minneapolis, in a pristine neighborhood of brick and beige homes surrounded by landscaped yards. I met him at his house on the audaciously named Vineyard Court.

I started shooting as I arrived. The houses were mammoth and held superfluous but expensive yard paraphernalia like reflective orbs, ironwork windmills, statuettes of storybook figurines set among the shrubbery. The edges of the grass on Mark’s street were cut as if by laser-guided apparatus. At one house on his block, a power washer sat atop the sparkling concrete drive, set there as if in a victory pose over grime. I circled the block and came back past this house again, the driver’s side closer, and made my shot one-handed with the camera. I slowed. There were troubling overtones about the scene, as if it advertised a wonderful machine that could bring flawless beauty into your domestic life, but there were dark consequences to this obsession. The chemicals down the drain. The whole earth headed towards scorching, and this sheen the height of superfluity.

We took Mark’s car, a maroon Honda Civic 2-door.

Mark liked to talk of other Marks. Referring vaguely to what he’d been doing in the house before I arrived, he brought up Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars). “I was thinking about Marks. Other Marks.”

I’d heard much of this before in our weekly meetings, and I knew it would be a feature of the footage.

My read on it was that he regarded other Marks not so much as role models but as mystical guides. They were his Namesake gurus. They perhaps stood in for a figure of fatherhood.

We raced for some time down the freeway, Minneapolis’ skyscrapers on the horizon looking down 94 East, an 8-lane highway that passed through some of the city’s toughest areas. Mark talked glowingly of Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur and sports-team owner.

As we dipped behind Target Field, the open-air baseball stadium, he said, “One time I was landing on a flight from Milwaukee at night, and we circled down to catch a runway. It brought us right over the stadium. I could read the big screen. Morneaux had just hit a home run!”

“Get outta here!” I said. “That’s amazing.”

But when we got onto Washington Avenue, in Minneapolis’ warehouse district, Mark put the question to me as to whether I thought Mark Hamill and Mark Cuban were “good guys.”

“Mark Hamill—I think he is a good guy,” I said.

In a way, this wasn’t what I wanted from Mark’s footage, but I knew it was only the start. There’s always the cutting room floor. I told Mark I thought Hamill would have to be to a good guy to play Luke as well as he did. I told him I thought Hamill was very likable, that young men everywhere identified with him. Skywalker was an archetype now, he had to have been good in some way.

Mark was not very confident in his opinions. Wearing a green vinyl jacket with hockey patches on it, he drove with his shoulders shrugged, and now he leaned against the door as if wanting to get away from the question, even if it cost him his life. I took this as a measure of his discomfort with expressing an opinion that someone might disagree with: a tendency of Mark’s that I knew from our meetings.

Gaining confidence with women was one of other things Mark spoke frequently about in meetings. In terms of women, he wanted to stop falling back on the things he tended to fall back on, one of which we were going to see now. I knew the place, having worked down the block years ago making closed captions and subtitles.

Anyway, whatever the question was, Mark wasn’t giving me an answer. I said, “Do you think an actor can just play the part of good person, a hero, convincingly, without actually being one—a good guy?”

“Nah,” Mark said finally. His Accord needed muffler work, and thankfully he spoke up to compete with the flutter of exhaust coming from under the car, where the leak was. Mark was present that way, very keenly aware of his environment, attentive to the attitudes and tones of others. (I had suggested he go to Jim’s auto shop to have the muffler looked at, but he said only, “Yeah, I might.”)

“I guess it would show through,” he said. “I guess that would be unignorable. I mean, when I was an asshole, I was an asshole even when I was trying not to be. I just couldn’t help it. I was an asshole in everything.”

We came upon 3rd Avenue and Mark nabbed a spot at a meter that gave us a view of the apartment building we’d come to see. He put the car in neutral, set the parking brake, and left the engine running. (It was late autumn, jacket weather; the heater was running.)

We’d talked about this. He’d given me the address. It goes without saying that I had his permission to film. I had a memory card cleared and the battery fully charged. Mark and the car were darkened, but there was just enough reflected street light to illuminate Mark’s eyes, cheeks, chin, forehead. Otherwise, he was cast in shadow.

“So tell me about this place here, Mark.” Whenever I gave myself lines for my behind-camera role as interviewer and friend, I tried to recite them with the blandness of many narrators I’d heard on This American Life. Vapid, a tonal blank slate.

“Yeah, okay,” Mark said, chuckling shyly. I could see nothing of his reddish, curly hair, but the druggy puff of his head was evident in the dim light. One of the anti-depressants he took had a side-effect of water retention. With his mustache and wire glasses, he looked like a parade balloon of James Joyce.

I knew Mark as a bashful and shame-haunted man, but he did seem to be gaining strength in the shelter of the dark. “This place is an apartment building,” he said.

And then just like that, he lost it.

“Where. I…”

He had questions about what I wanted from him, and I assured him nothing special. Just the straight story. What I often told my students in screenwriting workshops: there’s no wrong answer. “You’re doing great,” I told Mark.

“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath, running a hand through his hair.

I said I would ask questions, we’d try that.

I started rolling again. “So, we’re on 3rd Avenue, outside an apartment building. Maybe condos. Mark, whose place is this that we’re sitting outside of?”

“This is Pam’s place.”

“And who is Pam?”

“Pam is a woman I would call on the phone.”

“Oh, right. Calls that you would pay for, right?”

“Calls I would pay for. Pay a lot for,” he joked.

“Yeah, I’ve seen the ads. Like in the back of the local entertainment rags.”

“That’s the kind place Pam works for. Or worked for—I don’t know.”

“Oh, so you don’t make those calls anymore.”

“I do not. That’s inner circle stuff now, and I’m on 25 months here.”

“Good for you. Good for you.”

I didn’t want to think of it in these terms, but Mark is bipolar, and sometimes at meetings he is much more animated and verbal—I don’t want to say that’s him in a “manic phase.” Maybe that’s just a good mood, I don’t know. But one thing was clear, he was in a trough today. Not manic. Maybe even a depressive phase. There was more story to the building though. I just hoped I didn’t have to tease it all out of him.

This, I suppose, is the hazard of documentary: the subject is not always scintillating or eloquent. But really the subject doesn’t need to be eloquent so much as expressive. Sometimes in my academic circles I spend too much time with material that seeks to be literate more than true. In this film I sought to combat that, to refute it as an ideology, and that required battling with my own drive for success as well as the obligation to please the foundation who’d awarded me grant money to film people like Jim, Tom, and now Mark. But ultimately getting the work done and getting it done well required me to let go of my own character defects: perfectionism and impatience. That was the subtext behind all this, the thing I was praying for off-camera.

“So how did you come to know where Pam lived?” I asked Mark.

“Through means that are illegal.” He suddenly took a judicious tone, and smiled at his cheeky diction.

I was quiet.

“Well, maybe.” Again, the shoulders hunch: his stubborn self-doubts.


“I knew her real name. She offered that. Because I would call her so often, and she knew I was harmless.”

“So you would talk a lot?”

“All the time. And that’s the thing, I wasn’t just calling for the dirty talk. I would stay on with her for two, three hours.”

“Wow. But you were paying for it?”

“I racked up thousands.”

At my urging, we got out of the car. It was after hours, so Mark didn’t have to plug the meter. We crossed 3rd Avenue to the building.

“What I did is,” Mark said, standing against the brick wall near the entrance. “I looked her up. All I knew was that she lived in the Twin Cities. She didn’t say St. Paul or Minneapolis.”

“Latino, right?” I said.

“A Latino name, yes. But multiple entries for it.” Mark shoved his hands in his jacket pockets—not exactly the warrior pose of Skywalker with Light Saber poised, as we seem him on the trading card, feathered hair, burlap blouse. Nevertheless, there was a certain excited pride in Mark’s manner now: his actions showing his cleverness, he hoped. “I knew if I heard her voice,” he said, “I’d recognize it. I’d recognize it anywhere. We’d been talking over a year now.”

I gave Mark my then-what-happened? look.

“So I started going to addresses from the book. A website. This is the place that it turned out to be hers.”

“I see. So you wanted to see her in person.”

“Absolutely. I wanted to see her in person. I don’t know what I thought might happen. Part of me imagined sitting on her couch. But I knew she might not like it, me coming there.”

“So what happened, Mark? Did you use The Force and break down the door?”

I don’t know why I said that. I couldn’t resist. The guy just reminded me so much of those pudgy sad boys I knew in grade school who had no friends and were loathed by the girls.

He laughed. He didn’t mind a ribbing. It just took him by surprise. It was true I was deadly serious in this project at times. Maybe my remark came out because of my own need to release some steam? All this talk with these men about these times, it did have a tendency to draw one back into a mindset.

“Gary, can you show us the intercom?” I said.

“Sure, it’s around here.” He headed to the front, pausing to let some pedestrians pass.

We went in the lobby. There was no doorman, but there were cameras.

Gary stood by the intercom, with its digital directory. “I got her on the intercom, and I knew it was her.”

“I see. What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Hi, it’s Mark, from Night Moves.”

“Night Moves?”

“That’s the phone line.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Did she recognize you, acknowledge you?”

“Oh, sure. She knew exactly who it was. But she wouldn’t let me in—as she should not have.” (This was the kind of inelegance Mark was capable of.)

“She should not have let you in?”

“No. Definitely not.”

He looked up at the camera, and looked questioningly back to me. I nodded and gave him a smug look of it’s fine.

He scratched his head doubtfully and looked at me through tilted eyes.

I waved him on.

He took a breath. “Well in fact what happened was, not only did she not buzz me in or invite me up, she called the cops on me, and they gave me a warning. Came around to my house later that night. And then the next time I tried to call to Night Moves—“

“Wow, the cops came around to your place?”

“Yep, two men in blue came knocking. Gave me warning not to go near her building.”

“Wait—this building?”

“Yeah, I told you.”

“OK, I thought it meant near her in public.” Mark had told me about certain legal admonitions issued verbally.

“Her residence,” Mark clarified.


Back in the car, Mark wrapped up the story. The short of it is, because he had nearly been arrested, the woman threatening to file for a restraining order, Mark came to his senses about his attachment to the phone, and his other behaviors.

“It was a wake-up call,” he said.

It wasn’t nearly so cut and dried, but shortly after that Mark joined the Friday meeting.

“What do you think you’ve learned in that time?” I asked Mark.

Mark asked if we could get going.

We had a conversation off camera about whether the interview was over. Mark said he had to get to his meeting. His Wednesday meeting. Many people like Mark attend multiple meetings during the week, drawing on a stable of sober friends to manage what they alone cannot manage: the ability to be home alone with the: TV, internet, phone.































True Untrue: Tom


Tom is a doctor, and tall like a doctor. He stands 6 ’ 5”. He’s in my Friday group, the in-person group. He’s 55 years old, his shoulders are broad, his stature erect. He has a large brow, large chin, and his cheeks sag like leather coin purses weighted with coins. But his hair is thick and blond, so you don’t notice the gray much, and he could pass for 45.

We met in the parking lot of a wood-oven pizza restaurant near Lake Calhoun. I was coming from St. Paul, and I found Tom in his Buick Skylark with red leather interior. I had been expecting a Lexus or Audi, but here it was, this kind of Svengli, ‘80s vibe.

We had plans to drive by his urban lake home, on Lake of the Aisles Parkway in South Minneapolis. But first he wanted to show me his medical clinic.

I got in the car. Inside, it smelled of good cigars.

Tom had agreed to let me film him. As I had with Jim, I told Tom that the footage would be shown on a website called True Untrue dot com, and at best shown in a gallery or two, perhaps screened at a café. With luck, I could get distribution, and a true pipe dream would be an award nomination. I did in fact end up saying more to Tom than I’d said to the other men about what I had planned for this film. I was more garrulous with Tom I think because, though he was dry-humored and kind of devious looking, as a respected doctor he was fatherly, and I couldn’t resist wanting to impress him.

I started rolling as we neared the clinic. (You can’t have too much car footage—much of it is garbage.) He showed me around. He showed me the front desk, and introduced me to the administration staff, everyone. He walked me, at a quick pace, down corridors, waving at examination rooms, nurse’s stations, etc. There were women nurses moving about in ocean blue scrubs, printing documents, tearing open medical packaging. Tom was the big cheese, it was clear.

In his office, I faced him. Though he wore khakis and a red Van Heusen for our appointment, you could see how at home he would look donning a white lab coat. He would present himself as stately, and his doctoral manner would be erudite and dry, as he always spoke at Group. Severe and humorless at times.

In his office, I sat in an arm chair, and with the door open we faced each other over his mahogany desk. Tom looked a little hesitant or threatened, and his blond hair was especially combed over, kind of Jimmy Carter. This was A-roll.

“Very nice clinic,” I said.

“Thank you.”

I remarked on his surname, which I’d only learned by coming to this clinic. Our Group uses only first names and last initials.

“Are you ready to go see your old place?” I asked Tom.

“We don’t have to talk about that here,” he said. Unlike Jim, he was not eager to go.

A discussion ensued, and eventually I stopped recording. Once he’d rattled off some figures proving the profitability of the clinic, describing its staff size and overhead percentages, he seemed satisfied. In a check-in meeting, Jim would have said that this was Tom’s addict talking: the one wanting attention, approval. But Jim didn’t strike me as arrogant as much as he was obviously bred to be competitive. He couldn’t help himself. (I believed that this would come across on film and redeem him.) Yet, Tom was protective of the knowledge of things he’d done. Who he used to be. How he used to act. His professional reputation was everything to him. I could tell he was nervous about riding around the Twin Cities having his story recorded, having a document made that could ruin him if it got in the wrong hands.

Finally, we left his clinic and went in his car up Highway 100 a few miles and east on Excelsior Boulevard, into the most famed of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods. Where Fitzgerald would have lived, if he’d lived in Minneapolis (instead of St. Paul).

When we got on the single-lane parkway that ran counterclockwise around the oddly shaped lake, called Lake of the Isles, Tom said, “So you want me to show you the place Debra and I lived, right?”

Tom and I had discussed this at length; he knew where I wanted us to go. Debra was his ex-wife. During the years of his marriage to Debra, Dr. Tom was, as he put it, “at the peak of his illness.”

“Yes, the place where you Debra lived,” I said, after a long pause, trying to draw out his unease.

We arrived at the house just as dusk was settling over the neighborhood. Filaments of sunlight through the tall oaks’ boughs. Red stone roofs. Lawns you could eat off of. There were pontoons in racks around one part of the lake, walkers striding on the paths, shaking out the long day behind the keyboard, at the Pilsbury, Cargill, General Mills offices. Best Buy. Target too.

During a long bend in the road, Tom slowed the car and pointed ahead. “Here it is,” he said. With my window down and the camera out the window, I shot it: a neo-Tudor castle with slate roofing. The snaky limbs of a spider monkey tree passing through the viewfinder. A three-season porch at one end of the house, in the yard a flowing water feature.

Tom took the next road off the parkway and circled back, then turned into an alley. Every house had a double garage or carriage house or both. He stopped the car at the end of the alley; we were behind his house now, and he shut the engine off.

He looked in the rear-view suspiciously, out each side window, peered into the backyards all around us.

In meetings, Tom was consummately poised, sometimes even eerily unflappable. He was fidgety now, and it was minutes before he sat back and sat still. In the camera’s digital display, he looked as I’d always thought he looked, since meeting him: like the type of doctor who just might put a woman under so he can feel her breasts. Audaciously, I zoomed in on Tom’s face. His eyes were looking what they call “half-lidded,” seemingly secretive.

“Are we going in?” I said.

“Going in? No. Jan and the girls are home….” He trailed off.

I said that was fine.

“Now you know what I mean,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“You’ve been to my clinic. You saw the nurses I work with.”

“Oh, right,” I said, in recognition. Tom had described in many meetings the temptation that was presented to him in the form of his female staff. He had never done anything that broke codes of conduct—or if he did, he never told Group about it. He still had his license to practice and his reputation. Maybe he’d looked through a cracked door here or there. It was more about the computer for Tom, as it was for most of us in Group.

“The women,” he said now. “Every day. Every day. That’s all I had on my mind, in the past. Now it comes to mind frequently, but I never let it stay on my mind. That’s the difference.”

I nodded, steadying the lens on him, staying quiet.

“Take Jacqueline, for instance. So what if she’s black and athletic? Goes to the gym. That’s not what she’s there for, to be a body for me to look at. She’s trying to do her job.” Tom turned and faced me. “I literally had to explain these things to myself like that, when I started treatment. Old habits die hard.”

I wished he hadn’t said that, but he did. Tom had often explained, in group, his belief that it “takes a lot of intelligence” to carry on at the levels he had carried on, running a business, raising a family, keeping a house, all that the same time. Diabolic levels of deception and secrecy. He’d had affairs with two married women, and gone through monumental challenges to keep his family—all women. But when he went for something with “old habits die hard,” I had my doubts.

I didn’t need to particularly, but I took out a lens cloth and wiped the lens, and as I did so, told Tom that in a minute I would ask him to talk about the house and times with Debra.

Tom nodded.

Soon I asked him, “So what’s it like to see this house? What’s it remind you of? What happened here?”

Tom cleared his throat. “Well, I wanted to bring you here, out back. I wanted to get a look at this garage, actually. This spot here…”

He pointed just outside the car, to an area between a privacy fence and the back of his old garage.

“This spot here is where I would smoke cigarettes. A doctor smoking cigarettes, can you imagine? I was always telling patients who smoked that they must quit right away. It was imperative.” He looked at the spot, and so did I. This was the cleanest city alley I’d ever seen, with signs everywhere for security companies. There was nothing nefarious looking about the spot.

That’s where I’d smoke,” Tom said. “And not only smoke cigarettes…”

Tom turned his head thoughtfully, as if regarding the site through a lens of passed time. He laughed, a light sniffle. “Jesus. Those weeds were so tall. Sometimes I’d get a rash.”

“So Debra’s in the kitchen….” I said, trying to provoke Tom to paint a picture of a typical scene which has him out here.

He picked up on my intent right away, snapping, “Oh, no Debra’s on the phone in the den, haranguing someone on the city council. Gossiping with other mothers. Mothers of our daughters’ friends.”

“I see.” I realized that by placing his wife in the kitchen, I had made a gaffe on camera that would need to be edited out, revealing myself as a stereotyper, or sexist. Gender normative! Shit! “I didn’t mean to place her there for any reason,” I said.

“No, I know. But Debra doesn’t do kitchen work. We had a cook, and a nanny. And anyway, when I was out here, she didn’t give two shits.”

“Did Debra know you smoked cigarettes?” I asked.

“No. Or she pretended not to. We weren’t intimate often enough for her to get close enough to smell. Or taste. I would brush my teeth, and go to bed.”

I asked Tom if he had ever gotten caught out here.

“When a car came up the alley, I would throw the cigarette across the yard, or if I was doing more than smoking, I would turn my back, pretend to be inspecting something. I don’t know what. The siding, I suppose.”

Tom was often openly contemplative in our meetings. Yet once he struck on a particular phrase, he would use it again and again. I had heard “inspecting the siding” before. But I had to remember that viewers wouldn’t have.

“I was under a lot of pressure at the time,” he said, his voice more tuneful than ever. “I was a workaholic. I had unbelievable financial burdens, as I still do, as well as staff I was beholden to. People’s incomes and families depended on me. And my demons were getting the better of me. I started to lose my mind.”

I asked Tom what he meant. I sat up and aimed.

“One time, I came out here…I kept the cigarettes in the garage, mind you, just inside the side door. One time, I go in to grab them, and I hear this strange sound, and I look up, there’s a snake up in the rafters. A big black snake, they come in 4 to 5 feet around here. He’s in the garage rafters, rising up, swaying around, like he’s in the African jungle, at home in the canopy. When you try to trap a snake, they just remain motionless and stare at you like they are immovable. They know you are more frightened of it than it is frightened of you. With a hockey stick, I did manage to get him in a crate with a lid, and I drove to River Road, set him loose on the riverbank, watched him slither down, the bastard. Granted, I lost my shit at that thing. I was cussing, nearly wailing. I hate the sight of snakes. I’m like Indiana Jones that way, detest them. They’re so stubborn. You’re yelling at them, at they’re looking at you. Mostly what I was irate about, though, was my sanctuary being interrupted. I was powerless to keep it… well, to keep them out. They weren’t invited. But they came, ugly, frightening, strange.”

I agreed that snakes filled me with a special kind of terror, too.

“So I get back to the garage, put the crate away, and go to throw something away in the trash can, lift the lid, and, BAM, there’s a big black snake a top my garbage, curled up amid the stink. Jesus! I fell over backwards and broke my glasses. Now, I don’t know if you know this, but black snakes all look the same. Identical. I wasn’t sure whether this was a second snake or the one I’d just relocated. Though it was irrational, part of me believed that it was the one I’d just set free two miles away! I thought I might be dreaming, or the snake had practiced voodoo, leaping through space. I was that freaked out. I managed to put the lid back on, and put the can outside. By this time, my hands are shaking as I get my cigarettes and go behind the garage—“

I asked Tom how come he smoked behind the garage rather than in the garage where neighbors couldn’t see him?

He said because of the smell. Debra would smell it in garage. It would get on his clothes. Outside, he could blow smoke away.

“So just as I’m getting involved in my other habit, there in the weeds in the dark, when a black slithering catches my eye. Then the licking tongue flickering and the eyes glowing in the dark.”

I said nothing.

“Were they the same eyes? This was like something out of a horror movie. The raised knife around every corner.” The doctor was more expressive now than I’d practically ever seen him. “Part of me was like, Am I really being pursued by snakes? You know, when something like this happens to you—I see it with patients—the rational mind kicks in. I’m reasoning with myself: snakes travel in packs, they’re harmless. But I was completely out of my gourd with their appearance. Why did they insist on this space to invade—my garage? I felt my rage growing.”

“Did you ever find out anything more about the snakes? Were other neighbors having problems?” I asked.

He said that he had not, and when he caught the snake a second time and relocated it, and a third appeared, he said frankly he couldn’t be certain he hadn’t hallucinated them all.

“I began to think of them as messengers,” Dr. Tom said, in what I was sure would be the long segment that would become the defining scene for Tom’s role in the film. “You know, the lore about snakes, in certain Native American mythologies anyway (and of course Americans have coopted this), is that they are signs of luck, fertility, whatever. Well, I didn’t see it that way at all. Not remotely. The invaded a place I cherished. That’s precisely why there were so frighteningly—and perhaps, if there is a god, why they appeared where they did, above my cigarettes, which was a gateway drug for my acting out. I was a basket case the whole week I moved those snakes. But it wasn’t long after that I began to make the efforts that got me into Group.”

I knew that Debra had left Tom upon his first confession to her of a problem, and only after tremendous efforts (purchases of expensive apology jewelry, setting of terms in writing, much therapy) did she return.

He still had his practice, his house, his family.

“Dr. Tom, you did well,” I said. “You still have your title. You still have your good name.”


A Grim Report

Tonight on America’s Superchannel, KBBS…

Footage clip: “This damned scat singing again!”

We see a man entering a café, self-consciously. He wears those horrible eggshell colored Dockers that are tailored about as expertly as the average weather balloon. The camera shoots from waist height: the view of one crouching, as if embedded on the scene, surreptitiously. (Implication: a scandal is being uncovered). The man carries a laptop bag.

A confiding voice-over narrator: Here at this neighborhood café, it’s being reported, not once, not twice—but three times, Ella Fitzgerald has played in the past week alone, with her bee-bopping and scatting like a house on fire. The very neighborhood café where this man (seen again, now seated) tries to work. But it turns out, the Lady, god love her, is not the best thing for productivity.

Scat singing. What is it exactly? Annoying, that’s what.

Narrator: “Then, in an exciting turn of events that no one saw coming!”

We see the man in the driver’s seat of his car, backing out of a parking space when his eyes dart to the radio as he hears the Lady herself rat-at-tat-tatting and zippity-doo-dooing! And wah-wah-weeing.

This time, it’s the radio! His usual talk program, All Things Considered.

“Is it all things?” the man asks, throwing his arm over the seat, continuing to reverse. “Or is it one thing?”

We hear the crash and see him wince as he smashes into a lamppost and the fender of his Dodge Fury falls to the pavement in the dark of the parking lot. And for good measure the hood pops open and steam billows out.

The parking space out of which I backed, hearing again the First Lady of Song.

Well, end the footage gag, because this was no film. This was my life. I am that man. I didn’t crash my Fury. That was for dramatic effect. I rolled out of that spot with the grace and elan of an All-State Preferred Driver Member Club Rewards cardholder, and on with my life.

But I did have my ears besieged by scat once, twice, then thrice; and I did hear Tony Bennett waxing ebullient of Ms. Fitz, as he is wont to do, saying, “Ella Fitzgerald used her voice like an instrument, and could improvise better than anyone I’ve ever seen. She would play in all the clubs in Harlem and Manhattan…” Then the reporter described how all the music publishers wanted her to record their songs. He reported on a set of 10 records in which Fitzgerald sang American standards by Gershwin and Cole Porter. Now Bennett again, saying how she redefined those songs, gave them new life. With so much feeling, etc.

Because those in the biz wanted her to record their songs first, Fitzgerald became known as the First Lady of Song.

The morning after this driving episode, I’m looking up a word online for this editorial job I’m on. And there on Merriam-Webster’s homepage is a link to a story about Fitzgerald’s scat singing. At Merriam Webster of all places. The friggin dictionary! Now the KBBS camera is back, and it zooms in on my caret-like brow as I behold the featured image on my browser: Fitzgerald in a glittering black cocktail dress, on stage, one arm thrust out majestically, her mouth open. Beside her is a Fu-Man-Choo’d guitarist in a suit, tucked into his business over the neck.

The title: “Making Sense of Lady Ella’s Scat Singing.”

Making sense, indeed. This was at my home office desk in the morning. Theresa was in the room, and we were talking. “Jesus, there’s that scat singing again,” I said.

Now here’s the exciting twist to this story, the handy insight that makes you want to subscribe to my newsletter and buy my products.

Starbucks, Kingston, New York, the cafe where scat singing was heard repeatedly.

As I’m writing about this, I’m back in the café where all this coincidental nonsense began. I am, once again, that man. I’ve donated my eggshell Dockers to Good Will and wear my best blue jeans. It is my fourth visit of the series in question.

Hold onto your seats, folks. If you don’t have fresh laundry nearby, call the maid.

Entirely unselfconscious, because I’m not performing for B-roll, I order my pour-over Sumatra. I enter the seating area and say hi to Ed, who is always here. We chit chat. I set up my laptop, then pop out of my seat with an “Oops” and to my car for my reading glasses, which I’ve forgotten. After a few minutes, I’ve got a hot coppa in hand, and I’m done with work for the day and free to tappity tap as I please. Yoga is in 90 minutes. I’ve got time, so I’m prattling about recent events, pervading themes and threads if you will, and the music that’s playing.

The usual kind of playlist is on. You know how it is at these places. Nothing to sonically challenging. Palatable music, not often terrible, but of a gentle, acceptable sort. Duke Ellington, then other jazz folks as I’m having my fun with turns of phrases, trying on voices, copping certain comical attitudes as a narrator.

Being on the page should be like being on a playground, I guess is my point about that.

Then, the kicker. Scratch the record. Hold the phone. Stop the presses. All those clichés and more.

Some golden-throated lady whom I’m about to Google sings, sultry like, “…in Webster’s dictionary.” The end of a melodic phrase.

Webster’s Dictionary?

Could it be…? It can’t be. It might be Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, or Nina Simone.

But no. Google confirms it. A search for “lyrics jazz singer Webster’s dictionary” gives me:

And we can all see that we have a 4th occurrence. “In a world…” You know the gag. “The Fourth Occurrence.” Theaters near you, etc.

“Too Marvelous For Words” is the song title.

Interesting title. What does it mean to you? Write in the comments below. Take part in the conversation. Call the hotline. Tweet us at @fuckthat.

Hold on, though. Now I’m getting word in my earpiece from the Editorial Interns here at KBBS, that there is no comments section. The hotline is down too. And the station has been banned from Twitter for propagating and promulgating fake news. Tragedy. So instead, folks, take part in the conversation on the nearest concrete abutment using spray paint. Take part in the conversation by boiling your attitude down to one ten-letter word and brushing it upon your fingernails in glossy polish, one letter per nail. Shake and blow it dry.

I guess the idea behind playgrounds is that they ought to be too marvelous for words, if you’re a happy kid. Find what you need to prance gleefully from the slide to the teeter-totter on the happy page of your happy playground. Your voice is your instrument, too—don’t forget that. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Tony Bennett.

And now, if I could write half as well as Bob Odenkirk acts, I’d capture the fatuous tone of Bob as newscaster Dale Peckenstiff on Mr. Show, circa 1995 (the last TV show I ever watched, the last show I ever needed). I shuffle my papers, and say, “Stayed tuned to KBBS, America’s SuperChannel. We’ll be back after these messages.”

As the camera withdraws, my anchor’s face reflects, in the lowering of my eyes, a sense of personal disgrace awakening within, which I try to disguise as a conscientious man’s saddened response to tragedy. For this has been…a grim report.

Happy Accident: A Gallery

I’m calling this gallery “Happy Accident,” because that’s how it came to be.

I was shooting video out my window: turkeys in the yard or the pileated woodpecker visiting—I don’t remember what. And when I set the camera down (a Canon PowerShot), I happened to set it on a printout of a short story I’d been working on. I was trying to navigate the camera’s menu (old man, tiny buttons) when I accidentally took a photo. The text in the frame and the text cut out of the frame made an intriguing fragment.

“…trying hard not to snicker…”

I’d always liked the camera’s macro mode. When you see a photo with a tilt-shift filter applied, this is what it’s mimicking: the narrow depth-of-focus that only happens at extreme closeup. That’s why a streetscape filtered with tilt-shift makes your mind believe you’re seeing toy cars and figurines. But what you see here is unadulterated. The only touch-up these photos have received is auto-leveling.

I shot more, flipping pages, letting the camera rest with the extended lens acting as its own monopod. The result? Call it what you will, an image-poem. A story sketch.

However the lines add up for you (or don’t), I think the images are sumptuous on their own. The white paper, the black type under close watch. Like reading, no? Of course, I am a bibliophile, but more and more, as the years pass and life is increasingly enmeshed in the digital, transacted via the touch of gorilla glass, the more I enjoy printing my drafts in bookfold, stapling them, holding and owning my own incunabula.

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