A chapter excerpt from Hardly Working, the tale of my circuitous career path to be published in December 2022.
I Believe in Santa
Gibson’s Department Store Lawrence, KS 1978
The first time I peered into the Gibson’s lunchroom mirror as a white whiskered Santa, I had to laugh. Sardonic laughter. It had come to this. My intention was to write a feature story for the Kansas City Star: “Santa Like Me.” Then I could explain to any who wondered that I was simply doing background research. By the end of the gig, however, I realized that writing about the quirky things that kids said and did— the angle that a Star piece required—would force me to tamp down my own feelings about this mythical, pipe smoking dude who had become a symbol of capitalism. Santa doesn’t ask kids what they need. He asks what they want. Needs are fine but wants are what matters if GDP levels are to continue upward. Santa was the be-whiskered, Coca-Cola drinking Pope of capitalism. The newspaper would never publish my true thoughts: that impersonating this beloved icon—for money—was a low point of my job cavalcade.
My suit and hat were made of stiff red felt-like material, cruel to the touch. The fake beard became a form of torture, causing a brutal rash to break out on my increasingly ulcerous upper lip, requiring gobs of Vaseline. Beneath the hideous whiskers, my philtrum glowed the color of Rudolph’s nose. My aviator style glasses were a dead giveaway of my fakery, and I had no money or inclination to invest in wire frames. My brown sideburns stood out against my white wig and beard. I was a cheesy Santa in a cheesy department store, who bellowed “Yo Ho Ho” (and a bottle of rum) instead of “Ho Ho Ho,” who jigged around his throne when things were slow, as if victimized by Saint Vitus’ Dance disorder. I was a madcap Santa ready for action.
In the late 1970s in Lawrence, Kansas, I was hardly working. Every morning, when Linda left for her job at the Casbah Café and later, when she began teaching first grade, I sat down to write for at least two hours.
My meager income to date had often relied on skills that required my back, my hands, and my patience—but never my writing skills. During these morning sessions I began to write short stories, primarily because they were short. Seemed easier to write something short. I attempted that one true sentence technique ala Hemingway. I bought a copy of the Writer’s Digest and versed myself in the art of the submission. A few of my stories received hand-written rejection slips with words of encouragement from the editor or publisher. Being politely rejected was progress of sorts. Most of the stories were never sent to anyone or seen by anyone but Linda and a close friend or two. They currently rest in a file cabinet to my right.
In this age, prior to personal computers, a yellow legal pad and a #2 and-a-half pencil or a ball point pen were my writing tools. I sat on the same upholstered chair every day, in the same tiny house—that we referred to as the cottage—legal pad on my lap with scattered stacks of other legal pads and loose papers at my feet and on the surrounding furniture. At the end of the writing day, I would straighten the papers into a stack, which Linda referred to as “my piles.”
During this time, I wrote lyrics for a song that I finally recorded in June 2021. Have a listen:
Chapter #1 from Hardly Working, my memoir of jobs and work.
Caddy in Clarendon Hills, IL. 1960
The first time I set foot in the clubhouse of the Hinsdale Golf Club was on the occasion of my 50th high school reunion. That October night, the club was crawling with weird, saggy renditions of my former classmates. I didn’t feel saggy, but I also looked far different than the picture on my name tag, taken during my senior year for the yearbook. Over 50 years before, the club had provided me my first job: caddying for the esteemed members. Though I had often been on club grounds, I had never seen its innards until this reunion night. It had been off-limits to me fifty years ago.
My caddy career began a few months short of my thirteenth birthday, when I still harbored notions of becoming a major-league pitcher. From 23 Blodgett Avenue in Clarendon Hills, I walked ten minutes down the street and across the peat bog, which had recently been turned into a park. On the other side of this ex-bog was Chicago Avenue. There sat the Hinsdale Golf Club.
Hinsdale is the next town east of Clarendon Hills on the Burlington train line, but the country club was—and still is—in Clarendon Hills. No club member actually lived in Clarendon Hills. That was against the rules. Members had to reside in Hinsdale, home of the rich uncle, the corporate titan, the live-in housekeeper, the afternoon martini, the sprawling, manicured lawn. Coach houses. Brick streets. Columns. A few old money families still employed butlers. Although it had a large section of ordinary middle-class neighborhoods, the town’s reputation was predicated on wealth.
Soon after I began my caddy stint, I started attending Hinsdale junior high. On many Saturday afternoons my father would drive me in the Rambler wagon over to the proverbial other side of the tracks to a newfound friend’s house. I recall one occasion when, in the midst of our pickup football game on the lush front lawn, a live-in housekeeper called to my new friend, “Hubbard. It’s time for your lunch.” Hubbard went into the house with his shoulder pads still on, to dine on pork chops prepared by the cook, to dab the corners of his mouth with linen napkins. Although this rather elaborate lunch struck me as far different than the baloney sandwich I might have had at my house, it mattered little to me at the time—wealth made scant impression on me as a kid. Most of my new friends from Hinsdale took their lives for granted, as did I.
My town of Clarendon Hills was modestly middle class. Most homes had one bathroom and three or four kids who shared bedrooms. It would be several decades before Clarendon Hills transformed into Hinsdale Lite, though the new muscular, trophy homes—too big for their lots—would never be the rambling mansions of an earlier era’s wealth.
For those who lived along the brick streets of Hinsdale, membership at the Hinsdale Golf Club was a must. “The Club,” as it was referred to, was a gathering place for those who had arrived. It was where like-minded, well-bred folks with similar aspirations gathered; folks eager to showcase their faith in the status quo while being catered to and smiled at. Club members shared a belief that they were blessed, that there was a divine element involved in their good fortune. Sure, hard work got them to this exalted position—maybe not their hard work, but someone’s. “We are so blessed to have all this” was a frequent mantra. These were God’s creatures, steeped in an aura of entitlement and a knack for conversations about golf swing mechanics, the renovation of the fourteenth tee, membership rules, recent purchases and investments, second homes, booze-fueled gossip, and how swell things are if we can just keep them this way.
To caddy at the Hinsdale Golf Club, you had to be at least 13. I was still only 12 but tall for my age, so I passed. Caddies were divided into three descending classes—A, B, and C—subject to the judgement of the caddy master. For the record, most of the C caddies were pipsqueaks. Numbers were then assigned to us, ranging from one to ninety-nine and the lower the number, the more qualified the caddy. At least that was the theory. In spite of my age but because of my height, I was assigned number A-13. Class A! Being tall is a natural confidence-builder.
What stands out about the job was not the actual caddying, or the members, but the caddy master, Doc, and his cohorts Moose and Harry. These characters were of a type I had never been around, and very different from the dads I knew. They were certainly not Little League coaches.
Doc was about 40 years old and clearly not from Hinsdale. He dressed like a golfer, wore thick glasses, and his beard was a permanent five o’clock shadow. He reminded me of Sergeant Bilko from the 1950s TV show; a bit of a hustler and a schemer, and definitely a gambler. Club members had a winking appreciation for this rogue in their midst. It was Doc who decided which little creep was going to carry which golf bag for 18 holes at the going rate of $3.00, a sum enough to keep me thick in baseball cards and milkshakes from Parker’s drugstore, where I had begun to ogle Darlene, the 15-year-old, tight-sweatered soda jerk.
Moose was Doc’s enforcer. He had a world-class menacing stare and didn’t hesitate to frighten a suburban caddy. Looking back, I’m not sure he had any other function than terrorizing us. His black hair was well-greased, his gut pushed out above the waistline of sans-a-belt slacks. He wore shiny shirts of a pattern and color unknown to the dads on my block. He was from an entirely different world. He was Moose.
Harry was downright scary. Gaunt. Way tall. Pock-marked complexion. Doubtful that he’d ever seen a dentist. The demeanor of Frankenstein. He was a professional caddy and a golf hustler who spoke double negatives through broken teeth. In downtown Clarendon Hills I had glimpsed him getting off the train in his cracked, wing tip golf shoes then followed him at a safe distance as he strode up Blodgett—right past my house—to his job at the Club. Was he one of those guys who lived on skid row?
When things were slow, Doc, Moose, and Harry played cards and swore and accused each other of cheating or bluffing. This was my first exposure to real cursing. It wasn’t practiced in my neighborhood. At least not in front of the kids. When word came that a member was ready to golf, Doc leaned out of his office and peered through his thick glasses at the pathetic collection of caddy boys, all of us cooling our heels on the bench that lined the walls of the shack. He seemed to delight in this moment. He knew which members were ball-busters, and which ones had low handicaps and needed a competent caddy. Which scrawny kid would he pair with a captain of industry or the well-coiffed wife of the bank president? “Here, Bain,” he’d say, handing me a card with a member name and number on it. “Go pick up the clubs for Mrs. Templeton. They’re on the first tee.” I was always gripped with a moment of giddy anxiety on the way to the pro shop to pick up the clubs, knowing that I was about to undergo a three-hour golf etiquette examination.
The club had a no-tipping policy, with signs posted in the pro shop to reinforce the idea. Seemed a bit cheap even to my young mind. On occasion, though, a member would hand me twenty-five cents at the turn, golfspeak for passing nine holes, which I’d spend on a Baby Ruth and a Coke in the caddy shack. A quarter was a small amount to truly be considered a tip, but it still created a minor conspiracy between the member and me. The offer and acceptance made us both complicit. We were bending the rules together.
I recall a general air of indifference when it came to the members’ relationships with caddies. Some tolerated my existence, a few noticed that I was alive and breathing. Some ignored me altogether, an invisible arm handing them a club. Occasionally one would ask where I lived or where I went to school or if I played golf, pleased to be displaying a concern for the welfare of the help. Some wore plaid pants. Some had wives who drank too much. Some had red cheeks. Many owned the firm. All believed that golf is what civilized people did.
I had played golf a few times with my uncle, who was a real ace, and on public courses with kids in my neighborhood. Through playing, you pick up a sense of the rules. My only other training was the occasional tidbit from Doc or Moose about how to hold the flag or to be sure that my shadow didn’t cross paths with the line of the putt. Always keep your eye on the ball. Speak when spoken to. Never laugh at a duffed shot. Don’t make your player wait for you. And keep the clubs from clanking too much as you walk down the fairway.
Caddying provided a good opportunity to sing under your breath whenever your golfer was at least twenty yards away. If the member was good enough and he hit the ball far enough, I’d get to sing a whole song between the drive and his next shot. Most songs were two minutes or less. How long did it take to explain that Betty Lou Needed a New Pair of Shoes or that it was Finger Poppin’ Time? I didn’t yet know about Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter.
I eventually doubled my pay by doing doubles—carrying two bags at once. This also doubled the work, especially when one of your golfers had a slice and the other a hook. Golfers can get aggravated waiting for their pitiful caddy to help them find their Titleist in the rough even if the caddy has been waylaid helping his other lousy golfer 100 yards away in the bushes on the opposite side of the fairway. An aggravated golfer decreased your chances of the 25cent bonus at the turn.
One nice perk was that caddies could play free golf at the Club on Mondays when the course was closed for maintenance. We had to dodge the sprinklers and skip any greens that were being repaired but who cared? We played 18 or 27 holes, practiced our cheating, and tried out some of the cuss words. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, two sides of America were being exposed to my growing mind. Where else could I be hanging around Doc, Moose, and Harry one minute, then handing a club to Mr. Comiskey or Mrs. Johnson the next? Right off the bat, I’d stumbled into a job that revealed a swath of our social strata. As I matriculated through Hinsdale junior high and high school, I became friends with many club members’ kids, but I never thought to myself, “One day, I’ll become a member.” Not because I felt that I couldn’t, but I found Doc more intriguing than any of the members. Chalk one up for the salt of the earth. There had to be more options than either hitting the balls or carrying the clubs.
I had the Hinsdale Golf Club in mind when I wrote and recorded this decades after my stint as a caddy:
Note: A couple of years into starting my ad agency, Roger Bain Communications, I followed up on a lead that the Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana DQ account might be worth pursuing. Circa 1995:
Part I: The Big Meeting
I phoned the guy named John and before I could finish outlining my experience, he stated, “We need new blood.” I told him that my blood was in that category. The two of us then proceeded to have one of those animated conversations where you’re coming up with a new idea every thirty seconds and they’re all good and it becomes obvious you’re on the same marketing wavelength and the timing is perfect.
John wanted to give the lethargic local DQ ad program a kick in the ass and I would be the kicker. He arranged an introductory meeting with the Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana Dairy Queen ad committee. The local group was dissatisfied with their current advertising and appeared eager to try something new, but they were skeptical that Corporate would allow me to have the account. Wait a minute, thought I. Corporate? What? This was the first time I realized that it would not be the ad committee’s decision to engage me. It would be up to the corporation. John had failed to disclose that important bit of information. I had been speaking with committee members, not decision makers.
After some behind the scenes negotiating between John, the ad committee, and Corporate, the IDQ (International Dairy Queen) team begrudgingly decided to “allow” me to make a presentation at the big annual franchise meeting for Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana Dairy Queen. In attendance would be franchisees from 155 stores, a slew of folks from DQ’s corporate marketing department, and a half dozen account, media, and creative department representatives from the current DQ ad agency, Campbell Mithun.
Campbell Mithun and International Dairy Queen were both headquartered in Minneapolis. This client/agency relationship was as tight as it gets: two corporations holding hands. Representatives from each company sat on the other’s boards—a lot for me to overcome if I was going to get a piece of the account. The franchisees would have to exercise some newfound power instead of acquiescing to whatever the corporation dictated. My partner in crime, John, was wildly enthused at the new path he was spearheading. I looked forward to the opportunity with a mix of confidence and the anxiety of the unknown.
At least 150 people crowded into the large, generic meeting room at the Holiday Inn in the far south Chicago suburb of Matteson to witness this real-life David vs. Goliath showdown: a gigantic national ad agency with thousands of employees versus a solo ad agent. Six besuited C-M soldiers were prepared to do battle with me.
First up, the big agency boys. The Campbell Mithun suits gave their stunningly blasé presentation with pie charts and flow charts and stiff shirts and weak humor—basically the same presentation the franchisees had seen for years. They mailed it in. The room had little reaction. How much does a DQ operator want to hear about gross ratings points and cost per thousand?
After the Campbell Mithun presentation, John gave my introduction.” Here’s a guy with a different approach. I think we should hear what he has to say.” Showtime! I strode up to the microphone with my guitar slung over my shoulder. I was wearing slacks and a shirt, the only presenter not in business attire. The audience of franchisees was also casually attired. I was dressed like they were. Major franchise drama unfolding.
I stepped up to the microphone and surveyed the franchisees. “People already know who you are. You are an American icon. Dairy Queen means fun. Your advertising should be fun. Not contrived. It should be memorable and bring a smile to your face. Music on the radio is an efficient way to remind folks of your iconic, beloved brand. Rhyme, repetition, and melody are some of the most important tools we have to break through the drivel of advertising clutter. Songs about DQ will make people smile. Not jingles. Songs. sixty-second songs.” The franchisees were listening to the bald guy with the guitar.
And now I unveiled my secret weapon— Miss Rhoda Jean Kershaw. She was a redhead country singer I had previously collaborated with on a Tool TV song and she overflowed with genuine good spirit and a downhome voice. “Hi y’all”, she waved to the crowd. The room murmured “hi” back. I voiced a one-two-three countdown—just like at a corner bar gig—and Rhoda Jean launched into a song that I had just written, The Cake You Don’t Have to Bake, incorporating the current “Think DQ” tag line.
The room dug it! Whoops and hollers and applause. The franchisees were finding their voice. The suits at the back of the room conferred and huddled and attempted a vibe of indifferent nonchalance.
Other dramas were also playing out. During the performance, the bearded, truck driving, jeans wearing, outgoing local franchise ad committee chairman—he had just been voted out of office—was in the lobby bar sucking down his third beer, loudly and profanely getting in the face of some IDQ corporate players. This hubbub had wafted into the conference room and added a noticeable tension. When Rhoda and I began to sing and play, though, the room had lost its tension. The franchisees could sense something different brewing after years of corporate despotism. (With a tad of irony, Something Different became a new tag line a few years later.) I thanked Rhoda Jean, I thanked the franchisees, I thanked the corporation, I even thanked “the team from Campbell Mithun.” With my guitar again slung over my shoulder, like a working man with his pickaxe, I sauntered back down the aisle to the rear of the room as the sound of real applause delighted my ears. A successful performance. A successful song.
As I joined the crowd standing at the back of the room, a silver-haired account super for C-M—a guy with over thirty years of industry experience—complimented me with a bemused look of…envy? Or so I thought, though he may also have been thinking that it was not fair that I got to have more fun at my job than he did. “Nice tie,” I told him.
Especially abhorrent to the corpos was the fact that I was proposing that we use radio. This was sacrilege! IDQ and Campbell Mithun—and all big agencies— prefer TV because it’s “sexier” than radio, production budgets are more lucrative, it’s easier to buy and creative directors get to travel to LA for the commercial shoot. If you’re a hot shot creative director and you don’t have cocktails at the Chateau Marmont or the Polo Lounge a few times a year, why are you working?
IDQ and Campbell Mithun were singing from the same hymnal. I was singing a different tune. No matter how much the franchisees dug my presentation, there was still plenty for me to overcome.
I went on to create a couple of dozen DQ songs with my producing partner Chuck Kawal, Here’s a snippet of one of my faves, featuring Rhoda Jean and me in a call and response ode to the DQ Chili Dog.:
I was probably practicing a guitar lick in my Church stall, on a day the waterbed store was closed, when George called me to come downstairs for some cake. It was his birthday. As I descended the stairs, I heard a note from a pitch pipe followed quickly by the opening lines of the most over-the-top, enthusiasm-on-steroids, opera-style rendition of “Happy Birthday” I had ever heard. Belting it out was a short, sweating gentleman dressed in a blue blazer and red bow tie, his eyes ready to jump out of their sockets, his dark hair slicked back. The performance was post-eccentric. The volume he achieved was astonishing. Could have filled an auditorium. “Ozzie,” said George. “I want you to meet John-John.” John was an opera singing tenor who could hit high “C.” He was a friend of George’s from his Baker University days in Kansas—just the sort of person who would fall into George’s orbit. George had served as John’s protector from the louts who populated the pin ball parlor near Baker. He was the kind of person who had been mocked all of his life for being too boisterous, too different, too unique, too much.
Look around where you are right now, then proceed ten years into the future. How could I have possibly known that a decade hence I would utilize John’s talents to promote a television channel that no one had yet conceived, in an industry that had barely been born. At this moment, I was not conceiving anything beyond the birthday cake that John was devouring. This guy could eat.
Here is a compilation of some of my work with John Andrews, one of the most sincere and indefatigable performers I have ever encountered. The first video is pulled from Not For Chowderheads, the 1982 special produced by KTWU, Topeka. The videos that follow were part of a seasonal campaign for MTV while I was marketing director at Sunflower Cablevision in Lawrence, KS.
Live long enough and you will experience something new. America’s election of a black president was certainly in that category, but that was something I voted in favor of. The coronavirus was something new over which I had no control: an unseen enemy that lurks everywhere, that shapes the daily life of the world. Look out the window and all appears “normal.” But a collective uncertainty permeates the atmosphere.
A nagging feeling that life is passing me by set in, that simple things like shaking hands, hugging, inviting friends into your home, going to restaurants and music clubs, was now becoming a part of the past—with no clear understanding of when these social constructs would resume.
I was in Key Largo as the pandemic began its grip on our daily life. As I played my guitar each night after dinner ( often fresh yellow tail snapper), I had a clear view of the sunset. It looked and felt the same as it had the month before and the year before and the years before that. But the feeling was different. Because I knew. We all knew. Was it still possible to be funny? To laugh? Would laughter be best practiced alone, where droplets wouldn’t reach a fellow human?
I wrote many verses, tried several different chord progressions and melodies, before ultimately finishing the song in early summer after I had returned to my home in Arlington Heights. I recorded a version into my phone which I sent to son, Anthony, who suggested some edits to streamline the lyrics.
In August, I drove to Geoff DeMuth’s Little Pink home studio and recorded acoustic guitar and vocals. (Usually I take Metra but wasn’t keen on taking public trans.) Good thing that Geoff has a vocal booth that allowed for safe distancing. We wore masks the rest of the time and never got closer than six feet. In the ensuing couple of months, Geoff recorded Jim Seidel on upright bass, Victor Camacho on percussion and finally, his own pedal steel part. It’s a nifty little four-piece band. There is a tropical feel to the tune because the tropics is where it gestated.
Something that should have brought us together has torn us apart. Be kind, everybody. Enjoy the song!
Songwriters write about anything you can see, feel, taste, or think. Thousands of songs are about love, but two of mine are about the love of beans. I composed a brace of bean songs mid-decade during the 1970s and thought I had discovered a new genre of songwriting. Maybe I did.
Both of my bean songs feature the
pinto bean. The songs are quite different in musical style, yet each professes
bean love. Pinto Bean Blues is played in the style of Blind Lemon
Jefferson. The other song, Frijoles, is a Slavic march sung in Spanish.
I had been introduced to the wonders of pinto beans by an amiable fellow I hung out with in San Francisco in 1971, John Lopez, who was from East LA. John taught me to barely cover the dried beans with water, add salt, pepper and cumin, bring to a simmer and keep adding water as needed until the skin furls off when you blow on one. Usually takes a couple of hours depending upon altitude and kitchen vibe. John frequently made a pot of pintos, then refried them—mashed them in hot oil in a skillet. Spread this delightful result on tortillas with some chopped onion, shredded cheese, avocado and salsa and you’re set.
The inspiration for Frijoles! came in 1974 while Linda and I were staying at the Hotel La Riviera in Playa Rodedero near Santa Marta, Colombia. An eight-year-old girl from Bogota, Olgita, was vacationing at La Riviera with her dad and uncle at the same time. The hotel was situated a block from the beach next to a rubble pile with a trash heap across the street. It was lovely.
I conjured Frijoles! as entertainment for Olgita. After playing it one time, she and her drunken uncle made constant requests for encores. They were wild about the song. The uncle, a medical doctor from Bogota, would sit there plastered on afternoon rum and request a performance: “Rogélio. Toca Frijoles!” I am certain that Olgita, now a grown woman, would still remember Frijoles!
Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Clarendon hills, the beans we ate were green, often from a can. Nice that we have expandable palates. Long live legumes!
At a recent campaign rally, the President asked for volunteers to be shot on 5th Avenue in New York City. The entire rally crowd raised their collective hand. From the throng, the President’s re-election staff selected one hundred participants for the campaign stunt. The next day, at taxpayer expense, the lucky 100 were flown to JFK airport, where they crammed into a large MAGA bus and were driven to a spot in front of the President’s tower on 5th Avenue. There they huddled in an area roped off for the joyous occasion.
The mood was festive as the presidential “beast” pulled in front of the crowd. Some raised “Lock Her Up” signs. The President, accompanied by his attorney general, lumbered out of the back seat. The AG handed the President a holster and pistol, which, after some fumbling, the President managed to strap around his ample waste. “Are you ready?” shouted the President. The lucky 100 roared their readiness. The President first gave a rambling update on the wall he was building to make the country great once more, how the press was out to get him, how anyone opposed to his rule was a traitor, how climate change was a Chinese hoax, how he was clearly the most magnificent specimen the species has yet produced…then drew his pistol and shot into the crowd. His aim was high, and the crowd instinctively ducked. The bullet found no patriotic volunteer but instead smashed through the glass of the President’s tower and embedded into a new issue of Time magazine that perched on a rack in the tower’s fake news stand. The President looked at his attorney general. “What do I do now?” his expression seemed to ask. The AG whispered into the presidential ear. The Pres nodded, took a few steps toward the crowd, aimed the pistol at the head of a red-hatted supporter and squeezed the trigger from near point-blank range. Click. Nothing. The gun had been loaded with but one bullet.
“I know how the fake news media is going to cover this,” shouted the President. “Does anyone have a loaded gun?” inquired the leader of the free world. Many of the lucky 100 pulled out their concealed pistols. The luckiest one was selected by the President. “For the sake of American greatness,” proclaimed the President, as he blasted the gun owner in the face with his own gun. Bits of bone, gray matter and blood splattered the crowd as they roared their approval. Many seemed disappointed that they had not received the presidential bullet.
As the dead supporter lay in a pool of blood, campaign aides swarmed though the crowd with non-disclosure agreements for all witnesses to sign. The President shambled back inside “the beast” and was driven to an awaiting helicopter that took him to his nearby golf resort.
News of the shooting quickly overwhelmed social media. Opinion was divided along partisan lines. The opposition party condemned the shooting and called for the President’s arrest. The President immediately tweeted that he had done nothing wrong. “The shooting was perfect.” During a break at the impeachment hearings on capitol hill, reporters solicited reaction from members of the President’s party. “Democracy is a messy business,” said the senator from South Carolina, while rushing for the nearest exit. “Another promise kept by our President,” tweeted a senator from Texas. “All presidents have done this. Get over it,” opined the President’s Chief of Staff. “It’s troubling if it’s true,” offered a Senator from Utah. “This is a nothing burger,” said the President’s son. The White House miscommunication director floated the idea of similar events in the future. “ Let’s see if this lifts our poll numbers,” said the rinsed out spokesblonde. “If not, we’ll spin it as a suicide.”
The stock market remained flat at the end of the trading day. An iPhone update was rumored.
“We will never run
out of food,” stated a brochure for Naismith Hall, a newly opened, private
dormitory named after basketball’s inventor, James Naismith. I was a big
basketball fan—one of the reasons I attended KU—and in the fall semester of my
freshman year, Naismith Hall seemed like a good place to work. This would be my
first job in the food service industry. I had no qualifications other than the
fact that I was a student with a pulse who had properly filled out an
The promise of delicious,
plentiful meals was a motivating factor for choosing to work this gig but once
hired, I was given a choice of compensation: either $1.00 per hour or free
meals. Though $1.00 an hour was below the federal minimum wage standard, the
state of Kansas didn’t bother with such trivialities. I chose the money option.
What 18-year-old didn’t want an extra $10 or $15 bucks in their pocket in 1966?
It rankled me,
though, when I witnessed trays of perfectly good chicken fried steak, that
moments before had been served to the darlings, now must be thrown out. These
were the rules. But rules are for fools. When nobody was looking, I planned on
One of my duties
was trash detail. I was instructed to throw out everything that had gone
un-eaten except pie and cake, which had a two-day shelf life: A costly lunch
item one minute, became garbage the next minute. My system was simple: I lined
the inside of an empty five gallon can of vegetables or fruit with paper
napkins, nonchalantly filled the can with uneaten cheeseburgers—the most
popular lunch item—carefully placed the can in the trash barrel, wheeled the
trash out to the garbage dock, pulled out the can of cheeseburgers, then took
one bite of 25 different burgers. Seemed less wasteful then eating two entire
burgers and throwing away 23 whole ones. I also ravaged the day-old cakes and
When the staff
bakers made banana bread for the dorm, I requested they save the peels for me.
Time magazine (I think) had published an article about various methods that “today’s
youth” were experimenting with to catch a buzz. The inside of the banana peel
was purported to have a psychedelic component. The baker ladies thought I was
crazy, which I was just beginning to realize—I was. I scraped the insides of a
dozen peels, put the scrapings on a tray, baked them for a few minutes, emptied
the tobacco from a filter cigarette, filled it with the baked inner peel stuff,
went out on the back dock and proceeded to give myself a sore throat. Much more
pleasure could be derived from actually eating the banana. The same magazine
article also suggested cigarettes soaked in vanilla extract and some concoction
of rotted green pepper were buzzworthy. They weren’t. Obviously, I had no weed
The food service
manager at Naismith was a short guy with a crew cut named Preston. This guy was
an archetype of a square. There was not a molecule of hipness in his DNA. I’m
sure he went through life without listening to Miles Davis, visiting Amsterdam
or ingesting DMMDA. He had a white face and rosy cheeks and always wore a gray
suit. Or maybe every suit turned gray when he put it on. I had just turned 18;
he was about 28. He thought I was some cool guy because instead of saying “cool,”
I would say “boss,” a term I had picked up listening to WVON (the Voice of the
Negro) in Chicago. Then he found out my nickname, recently given to me at my
fraternity, was Bossman. He called me Bossman and thought he was cool by doing
During one back
dock feast, after I had shoved an unbelievable amount of food into my always
hungry mouth, Preston burst through the back-dock door. I jumped off the dock
with my back to the boss. “Hey, Bossman,” he said. “Do we need to do something
about all the sweat bees out here?” My mouth was too full for a reply, so I
began to furiously swat at imaginary sweat bees while flailing around the
dumpster, where I bent down low and spit out the contraband. “Yes, the bees are
bad today,” I answered with a straight face, licking a smear of chocolate from
the corner of my mouth.
Being a wise ass, I decided to coin a new adjective just for Preston—book. Man, that’s book. I wanted to hear him exclaim that something was “book.” When one day he informed me that he was feeling book, I felt that I had learned something about human behavior but wasn’t sure what.
The Barking Geckos hatched in 1975 during lazy Kansas afternoons spent catching a buzz, listening to Bob Marley, banging pots, pans, and tambourines and singing along with the Wailers albums. We began as a ragtag aggregation of non-professional music lovers with varying degrees of musical acumen, joined together by a lack of inhibition and the absence of demanding employment. We never advanced much beyond that stage, but we became legendary. Almost mythical. At least in our own minds.
Our raggedy improvisations were punctuated with frequent, spontaneous outbursts of joyous barking and yipping. My mission was to remind all that conformity is not a pillar of freedom. Absurdity is truth. The songs I was writing careened from the preposterous to the unconventional with an occasional dose of blues or rock. The Geckos were a perfect vehicle for the nonsensical.
We were the opening band on the opening night of Off the Wall Hall. It was not a paying gig because there were too many of us to pay. Our motivation was based in joy. It wasn’t monetary.
The lineup was Brian and I on guitars, an ever-changing cast on bass, drums, mandolin, harmonica plus a vast array of rhythm shakers that often ended up in the audience. As many as five Geckettes provided percussion and background vocals, though being on key was never a primary goal. Linda was a Geckette and would be the first to admit that she has trouble singing on key. We weren’t an on-key band. Geckettes roamed the stage yipping profusely between songs which in turn caused the audience to bark. Spontaneous barking was our signature sound. At times, I had to politely ask the Geckettes to quit barking and yipping.
The Gecko look was influenced by thrift stores, the Marx Brothers, Sgt. Pepper’s, the Beggar’s Banquet photo shoot, and a host of mind-altering substances. It was anything goes. When Jaw Harp Joe spent a dollar on a box of fifty aprons at a yard sale, he donated them to the cause. I wrote a song now lost for the ages, “Cheap Apron Fashion Show.” Each Geckette improvised a way to showcase her apron at our next gig, either as an anti-fashion statement or as a giveaway item for the audience, a gaggle of tripping hedonists assembled to witness a myth in the making.
For one gig, the Geckettes dressed as nuns in homemade pastel hued habits. At another, they stood behind ironing boards, playing kazoo and washboard. At another, a bagpipe player led them around the block as the rest of the band joined the goofy procession, gathering curious potential fans as we advanced through sleepy downtown Lawrence. I often wore pajamas and a pencil thin fake mustache above my lip. Our drummer wore a gas mask, just in case. Brian sported pantaloons tucked into high boots as he meandered about the stage tuning his axe before, during, and after each song. Jaw Harp Joe wore reflecto mirror shades and a towel wrapped high on his head. Others wore fake noses, leopard skin prints, and garish un-matching outfits picked from Salvation Army bins. The audience yipped and yapped and held up signs. Mimes circulated. I gave away fake puke and other novelty gag gifts from the stage. The whole thing was wonderfully life affirming
Our most noteworthy gig was at the
National Surrealist Party Convention, a brainchild of Firesign Theater founding
member, David Ossman and his wife, Tiny. Firesign Theater was an absurdist
group that began in the 60s and had recorded a few well-known comedy albums.
The Surrealist candidate for President was George Papoon, a guy with a brown
paper bag over his head. His campaign slogan was “Not Insane”.
The national presidential candidates in 1976 were eventual winner, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford, whose running mate was Kansan, Bob Dole, who we referred to as Bob Dull. The Surrealist Party Convention was an antidote to Dullsville. We were in opposite-land, at the far reaches of time and space. I have no idea how the convention came to Lawrence but when Ossman saw the Geckos he knew we were of the same cloth. And it wasn’t polyester.
The Geckos re-formed in 1980, a bit more rehearsed and elaborate. We had two shows, both at the Lawrence Opera House. The first performance, in 1980, was staged for Randy Mason’s “Bringing It All Back Home” blockbuster cable show on Sunflower Cablevision. All of the band members were different than the first Gecko iteration except for myself and Kurt Sigmon (RIP). We were on to something and should have continued but life got in the way. Tell your kids about the Barking Geckos!