The World According to Ebert (Yes, it's YOUR turn Roger)
The Roger I knew...with producer Russ Meyer
Okay, let’s go there, finally.
Why does Roger Ebert “tweet” my posts?
Easy but sincere answer? Damned if I know.
Not so easy and scarier answer? I think he still remembers that tiny little ghetto girl who walked into the Chicago Sun Times totally unprepared and ‘way too young and naïve for the job.
There was something about my innocence, I think, that touched his heart. And for some very, very strange reason…I still do. Or…my writing does.
And that touches and astonishes me than he’ll ever understand.
There is, of course, a long story behind all this. And he will remember all the details better than I do, so in advance, Roger: mea culpa. I get fuzzier on the details by the day. But let’s start from the beginning as I remember it.
I arrived at the Sun Times having done some audacious little articles for local alternative newspapers and magazines--oh, and Rolling Stone and Creem, too. And also still believing that reporting was “writing,” based on the amazing OpEd pieces and reviews and “creative nonfiction” that I’d read by seasoned vets like the venerable Herman Kogan.
They wrote about life, love, places they’d been and places in the heart that we all knew about but couldn’t put into words the way they did. I wanted to do that.
I didn’t know that you had to work your way through a lotta “just the facts, ma’am” to get to do that. My being hired at the Sun Times after teaching for two years and being published for maybe less than that was rather like being shipped off to Afghanistan without going through basic training.
And I arrived during very tumultuous times. The evening paper, The Chicago Daily News, was rumored to be “folding” any minute. What that would mean to everyone at both papers was difficult to predict, but most of the vets were sure that if the Daily News went down, the top brass would use that as an opportunity to do some serious moving and shaking at the Sun Times, too.
I paid absolutely no attention to any of that. I knew nothing about the newspaper “business.” And I was living a fantasy life, traveling with bands I’d once idolized, interviewing movie and TV stars, going to parties and red carpet affairs most people only see on TV. I was on TV, and radio, often. My life was the stuff of dreams and diary entries.
Now, I had been warned that the party couldn’t last by some very, very smart men. Lester Bangs, the legendary Creem writer/editor lovingly lampooned in Almost Famous, was one. But he wasn’t a Sun Times colleague, so…that’s another story.
Among the Sun Times folk there was a wonderful reporter named Eliot Wald, who left to write for SNL and the movies before passing away far too young. He warned me that it wouldn’t be long before the music I wrote about wouldn’t be “my” music anymore. And that once that happened, I wouldn’t be very good at writing about it anymore, either.
He almost sounded like my mother, always warning me that I needed to find that “fall back” job, or at least move from critic to something more “substantial,” before I was too old to rock and roll.
The second was Gary Houston who was unceremoniously “let go” from the newspaper just in time to star in the very first production of Grease. He didn’t have to tell me anything. He was the kind of writer—and character--I liked. And they fired him for it.
And then I was asked, when Grease became the hottest ticket in town, to interview him for the newspaper that had fired him. The show was a hit, a movie was in the offing and Gary was their “inside man.” Wow.
When I hemmed and hawed and stammered trying to do a fast phone interview, he chuckled and told me that that was what he liked about me. I could still feel ashamed of awkward assignments like that.
And after he had given me lots of quotes to use without my having to ask him anything--because he knew what they were after having worked for them--he told me to be careful. And I knew, just because they were firing amazing guys like him, that I might be a goner, too.
The third wise man, easily the wisest of all…was Roger. Now, the Roger we know now is a little different from the Roger I knew then. But if he hadn’t been that Roger, he wouldn’t be the Roger he is now. Let me try to explain this as diplomatically as I can. The old Roger just knew he was “the shizznits.”
And that’s because…he was.
No, really, he was. No ifs, ands or buts. The guy knew exactly what he was doing and how to do it better—and faster--than anyone else. And for me, he was God the way Clapton was for some other people.
Every day he blew into the office like a hurricane and typed his latest oeuvre in minutes. Often giving us a "play by play" of the day’s events as he wrote them and almost always, as I still recall with envy, without needing to do a second draft.
Then, he’d hit “send,” tell us a few hilarious celebrity stories he had either been part of or heard about through his also enviable Hollywood grapevine…and blow back out to do…whatever it was he did when he wasn’t in the office.
One of the things he did when he wasn’t in the office…he did with me. And a few others, when we could sneak away. We went to some of the restaurants within walking distance of the Sun Times and just sat there eating and talking and drinking and laughing. Only when Roger was there, he was the king and we were all his subjects. Not because he said so, but because we felt that way.
And if you listened closely during those conversations over linguini with clam sauce or…something else Italian (I only remember that particular restaurant for some reason—not the name, just the food) you would hear The World According to Roger. And if you remembered any of it after hoisting a few, and took the advice he gave you, chances were you’d do very, very well for yourself in journalism and otherwise.
He has told me that listening to me back then made him happy. Listening to him…made me realize that I was in the wrong business. You had to eat journalism the way you ate those clams. With gusto, loving every bite. I…like many a writer before me…did not like sticking to just the “facts.” Unless they were the facts I chose to write about the things I chose to write about.
When they sent me to the “news” side a few years later, as they always eventually did to help nervous novices become “real” reporters, I almost had a nervous breakdown. In fact, I did have one, but I was too young to know what it was or to tell anyone or ask for the help I needed to avoid it.
I muddled through for a while. And then I was sent to the airport, just after what was then the worst airplane crash in Chicago history, knowing first of all that the daughter of one of our colleagues had probably been on that plane and second of all that I was expected to interview the victims’ relatives.
It was my "worst case scenario." I was absolutely mortified. And terrified. I remember I did it the way rape victims “dissociate” and go through the motions. And of course that…is not good. But I was able to do it because I discovered what a lot of reporters know and use to defend themselves when people ask they how they can stand to do it.
I discovered that the relatives wanted to talk about their loved ones. They’re in shock, still, and they want to say the names, tell the stories to keep reality at bay just a few moments longer. I got great stuff. But I felt like I needed to vomit for hours, after.
That’s because I was also sent to the suburban home of a deaf couple who had lost their child. And I was not entirely sure that they knew about the crash yet. There, after the father tearfully bleated through the door for me to please leave them alone—in that “deaf” voice I will never forget--a relative finally came to the door told me, firmly and rightly so, to get lost. I knew the editors would have wanted me to interview that relative at least, but…I didn’t.
I got lost. In more ways than one.
I just could not understand why I wasn’t happy. It was a dream job—in fact, it was getting more dreamlike all the time. I’d gone to a reception for Prince Charles. I had taken Queen--the rock band, and thanks to Roger--to the Chicago premiere of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was the first face audiences saw after the credits in Continental Divide, John Belushi’s not-so-great movie about a real reporter at our newspaper that was shot at our newspaper with other real reporters. I’d dated Mr. Universe—you know that…Arnold Whatisname. Kirk Douglas had sat on my lap—never mind why.
Heck, I was sitting right next to Rick MacArthur when he called mummy speaking fluent, frantic French, demanding that they buy Harpers before it folded. I had not actually—God, how embarrassing—realized that our Rick was one of those MacArthur’s. The ones who pay for damned near everything PBS does. His father wrote The Front Page, the quintessential play about Old School reporters for Chrissake, but to me his son was just another crazy dude I saw moshing at some of the punk bars in town on the weekend.
I remember I turned to him that day and said, “Rick…what are you tryin’a pull, dude?” or something equally ridiculous. He said, “You’ll see…” with a twinkle. And I remained blissfully ignorant until I saw him on the Today Show the next Monday talking about what he’d been talking to mummy about behind me that morning.
I guess he showed me all right. You go, rich boy…
The beginning of the end for me was when the Daily News really did fold. And all heck broke loose. As I recall—and again, my memory is a wee bit wobbly—it was exactly like the scene in Broadcast News, people’s phones ringing or runners being sent to fetch this one and that one. And the Bataan Death March of pink-slipped reporters returning from “upstairs” to pack decades of memories into boxes.
I almost scooped the big guys upstairs, quite innocently, as I recall, a few days before the ax actually fell. I had been out to have my heinously infected tonsils removed and had received a strange call from the managing editor of our paper while I was still groggy with pain killers.
“We didn’t want you to worry. You have a place at the Sun Times,” he said--or something like that. And I thought it was incredibly sweet of the Big Boss to call me at home. I thought he was reassuring me because it was taking me so long to heal--there had been complications. Adult tonsilectomies can be tricky and my throat was badly scarred from years of infections.
When I got back to the office, I told everyone how amazed I’d been to hear from him.
The room went quiet. A few people asked me to repeat what he’d said, word for word. I did. And a few faces went very, very pale.
A few days later some of those faces were tear streaked. And then, they disappeared. And in the weeks to come as editors came and went and reporters played musical chairs from department to department, assignment to assignment…I really thought I was going to lose my mind completely.
Each editor had his or her own ideas about what should be written and how. I was just finding my own voice to begin with and now…I was being told to change it, and to change it in a different way every few weeks.
Some of the editors were good, but left because the times weren’t. Others were not good, and were asked to leave quickly. My sole island of sanity throughout was…yep. Roger. He blew in…he blew out…he wasn’t the least bit worried.
He had written Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens with Russ Meyer--yes, that Russ Meyer. He had this TV show thing he was thinking of doing and…well…lots of irons in the fire. If they messed with him, they would be sorry. And of course, they knew that. So…they didn’t.
I, on the other hand, was the new kid on the block. And though I’d been assured that my job was secure…I was, after all, losing my mind.
It was right about then that Roger said or…I remembered him saying…I forget which…that a reporter who was still a reporter after five years was …I also can’t remember if the ending was “a failure” or “in trouble.” But the upshot was that he felt long-time journalists were in danger of becoming jaded and unable to “feel” the way you need to feel to care about the stories you write.
I knew that was just the raconteur speaking. Because I also knew that he would never stop loving movies or the people who make them. And I knew that I would never stop loving music or the people who made it. I wanted to write about them with as much love and real insight as Roger did, but…I wasn’t Roger. I was new. And that voice I’d been trying to find was now beginning to stammer.
In fact, I quit being able to write. I quit being able to think straight. I needed a miracle.
Mercifully, after a long period of self-loathing and doubt…I met one. A fetching young man who fell head over heels in love with me and helped me love myself again, too. About a year later, he decided to move West to be a mechanical engineer at a rather amazing salary for a recent college grad. And he wanted me to go with him.
Oh, you know I said, “Yes.”
I told my family and friends—they were gobsmacked. And then…I told Roger. He…was not pleased. So I reminded him of what he’d said. And of how I really felt.
“Lifestyle change,” he said—or something like that--with a pensive nod. “That…I can understand.” I was taking his advice, sort of. But his eyes told me he wasn’t entirely ready to let me go just yet.
Despite that, he and and some of my favorite people (Irishpie, who writes here sometimes is another), threw me a little going away bash…and I faded out of their lives and the newspaper business, forever, I thought. And then a few decades and one very unexpected Arizona Press Club award later—I did a very brief reprise at the Arizona Daily Star that only reinforced the fact that I do not like writing for newspapers--I was watching the news and heard that Roger Ebert was “gravely ill.” In fact, I expected to be seeing obits by morning, given the way they spun it.
Frantic for facts—for once--I ran to my computer and read everything I could Google up. And as I am wont to do when I want to know what the hell is going on with someone so badly that I don’t mind dropping names or pulling rank, I emailed Roger’s old Answer Man email address with my former name in the subject line—that’s right, isn’t it, Roger? I think that’s how it happened…
Anyway, he wrote right back. And I was very, very relieved to discover that contrary to those reports of his impending demise, he was soldiering on. Due for more operations, but determined.
I exhaled and smiled…and that was that for a while. Until…I began to write these little blog thingies. I sent him a link to one. He told me how good it was. And then he tweeted one. And then another and another. And then he kept doing it.
And I realized that in his own way he was picking up right where he left off: believing in me more than I believed in myself. I’m not quite as confused as I was then, though. And I can, at last, write about only the things that move me.
And one of the things that moves me most is that Roger is still there teaching and taking care of me the way he always did, even though I don’t really know why. It’s what he does that matters. The why…not so much.
I still love seeing myself through his eyes…even after all these years…