Neil Simon On Playwriting IX

August 29, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

(When) my parents would take me to visit family, they’d offer me a cookie or a piece of fruit, but no one spoke to me, because they knew I had nothing to contribute. I wasn’t offended. I just thought it was the accepted norm. And that led me to believe that I was somehow invisible . . . . To me, invisible seemed the greatest thing you could be! If I could have one wish, it was to be invisible. First of all, you could go to any baseball game you wanted to. Free. You could go into any girl’s house and watch her get undressed! But it works another way too. It means there’s no responsibility. You don’t have to integrate, to contribute. This becomes a part of your personality.

I’m not quite sure who I am besides the writer. The writer is expressive, the other person can sit in a room and listen and not say anything. It’s very hard for me to get those two people together. In the middle of a conversation or a confrontation, I can suddenly step outside it. It’s like Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde without the necessity of taking the potion. It’s why the Eugene character speaks to the audience in the trilogy—because in a sense he is invisible. The other characters in the play don’t see him talking to the audience. They go right about their business. As I wrote it, I thought, I’m now living my perfect dream—to be invisible.

In all three of my marriages I’ve been accused of this separation: You’re not listening to me . . . .  I could be looking at (my wife) and not thinking about what she’s saying. It’s rude. It’s selfish, I guess. But it’s what happens . . . .  one of the worst and most frightening examples of that was the first time I was ever on television. I went on the Johnny Carson show . . . .  I walked out and froze. I thought, My God, I’m out here, I’ve got to deliver something, I’ve got to be humorous, that’s what they expect of me. I sat down opposite Johnny Carson and he asked his first question, which was fairly lengthy. After the first two words I heard nothing. I only saw his lips moving . . . . When Johnny’s lips stopped, I was on. But I had no answer because I’d never heard the question. So, I said something like, That reminds me . . . and went into something completely irrelevant that fortunately was funny and we just seemed to move on with the conversation. It happens while I’m speaking to students at a college or university. I’ll be talking. I’ll look over the room and see one face not interested, and I’m gone, I’m lost. I wish I were out there, sitting among the invisible, but I’m up there having to deliver . . . . In a sense, being in this office, I am invisible because I can stop. When I’m writing, there’s no pressure to come up with the next line. I always need that escape hatch, that place to go that’s within myself. I’ve tried coming to terms with it. I feel, as long as it doesn’t bother someone else, I’m happy with it. When it does bother someone else, then I’m in trouble.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part X of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Scenic Graffiti II

October 27, 2010

Around this time of year I’m usually in the mountains of Virginia, on the way to visit relatives in my hometown near the West Virginia line. And this season, on two-lane Rt. 32 West, which runs through Goshen Pass on the way to Warm Springs, Virginia, I pulled off as I always do at the nearly waist-high stone wall overlooking the Maury River, some 80 feet below. The view is beautiful but, as I said in last year’s post, it’s hard to photograph scenic images without resorting to visual cliché, so when I visit this spot I like to foreground the graffiti on the wall. New scribbles are added all the time and an update is in order—same place, one year later, but with fresh doodling. And you’ll notice in the last image this year I had photographic competition. (But wait, is the lady focusing on the graffiti, or the fallen leaves—or her foot?)

(Click images for larger views.)



Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Smooching the Mooch

October 13, 2010

By Jake Jakubuwski


Frankie was a gigolo. Mamie was the lady who supported Frankie. Frankie was twenty years younger than Mamie and Mamie was my mother’s aunt. Being just a kid, I didn’t know that Frankie was a gigolo. In fact, at the time, I didn’t know what a gigolo was. I only knew that he and Aunt Mamie were “together” and that Frankie spent a lot of time “stepping-and-fetching” for Mamie.

Frankie also had a lot of time (and Mamie’s money) to spend at the corner bar, and to buy supplies so he could do his “work”—fancy brushes, expensive oil paint, rolls of canvas to cut to size and attach to wooden rectangles. According to her, Frankie was an “artiste,” and she was going to make him famous. All Frankie needed was encouragement and the right break—and zero worry about where his art materials, meals and booze came from. What I don’t recall in those early years were pictures that Frankie actually painted—never mind the number of  dusty stretched canvas’ in their bedroom smeared with random colors. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing noteworthy about any of them—but what does a 13-year old boy know about art, right?

On a personal level (too personal, in my mind), Frankie insisted that I call him “Uncle Frankie” and he had a nasty habit of getting soused (most days by noon, sooner on Sunday) and when well-lit he’s say: “Come here and give Uncle Frankie a kiss.” Yuck! First off, I didn’t feel good about giving smooches to mooches—uncle, or not. Secondly, Frankie always smelled of last night’s beer, stale cigarette smoke, and some sort of embalming fluid he absolutely swore was an exotic, enticing cologne (attractive to Mamie at least). Finally, for me, just entering puberty, the idea of kissing a guy was simply revolting. Don’t misunderstand—except for his yucky compulsion to kiss the only other male in the house, Frankie never put a hand on me or made an improper advance. In fact, Frankie was a real part of our family. After all, he shared the bedroom of the lady who contributed the most to the rent and other expenses incurred by my grandmother, another aunt, and my mother—when my mother was around. So that gave him some stature in the pecking order. Unfortunately, I was at the tail end of the line, which made me fair game for Frankie’s boozy expression of affection.

I don’t know how Mamie and Frankie got together. One day Frankie was unknown to me and the next I had a new “uncle.” For some time it had not been uncommon for me go to bed on a Friday night and wake up Saturday morning with a stranger sleeping next to me. Just another barfly that came home with the crowd and spent the night. By way of explanation, and to make their presence more palatable, they were often introduced as “Your Uncle Fred from over near Laurel.” I had more Uncles and aunts then any kid for miles around (although I never woke up with an aunt in my bed!). But Uncle Frankie, it turned out, came to stay and become my smooching nemesis. And he was the mooch who (according to the family wisdom) was the cause of Mamie’s impending bankruptcy and future residency in the County Poor House.

I don’t remember the last time Uncle Frankie asked me for a kiss, or what finally happened to him. I had heard that as Mamie’s money began running out, he did too. Then, I heard he was in a detox unit. Six or eight years ago someone told me he had died. Mamie died nearly penniless in a two-room apartment in Eastport—just outside of Annapolis, Maryland. Over her bed hung a painting by Frankie—bold lines in primary colors and smears and splotches of the same tints. As an adult, I still couldn’t see the “art” in his work. But, as I say, what do I know? In any case, the painting wound up curbside awaiting a truck to take it to the dump. It seems to me that even the trash scavengers wouldn’t take the time to salvage the frame. I guess, when it came to art, they were as uninformed as me.

Several years later, My mother and two aunts were sitting around talking about Mamie and Frankie—those two had always been a favorite family topic—and the consensus was that it was Frankie’s fault Mamie died destitute, or nearly so. Translation: “There should have been some left for us!” My mother castigated that “damned gigolo” for taking everything Mamie had and giving her nothing in return.

I piped up and said: “But he did! He gave her hope. He gave her love and stability, at least for a while. He provided an older woman with whatever it was that she needed at the time. And in return Mamie gave Frankie a life-style he couldn’t manage on his own.” I wasn’t trying to defend Uncle Frankie so much as to just point out that it really does “take two to tango.” And Frankie and Mamie did—at least in the early years—really, truly do some fancy dancing!

So, finally, I’m now very happy to give him a little smooch for all that . . .

Copyright © 2010 Jake Jakubuwski.

Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label. (To locate more of Jake’s short pieces about growing up in the South Baltimore area, copy and paste—or type—his name into this blog’s sidebar window and tap “search.”)


A Memory

September 1, 2010

Cousin Raymond’s Schwinn

By Jake Jakubuwski

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I learned to tie my shoelaces—probably five or six—but it was my paternal grandfather who taught me how to do it. I do remember that training my fingers to perform the intricate contortions necessary to accomplish the task was stressful. Intellectually, I could envision what my fingers had to do, but making them do it was a whole ‘nother matter. My grandfather—not the most patient person—exhibited enough restraint to spare me bruises and bumps when at first I was unable to make my fingers obey. Then, suddenly (or so it seemed to me), I sat on the floor by Pop’s chair and flawlessly did the job from beginning to end. Pop reached down and, with a gentle tug, untied them. Then I tied them again!

I ran to the stove, where my grandmother was fixing breakfast, plopped down on the floor, and demonstrated my new skill for her approval. As I recall, she grunted something neutral and then, her attention still on her cooking, said: “Where in the world did I put the lard can?” Later, when she sat the plate in front of me, I wolfed down the eggs and toast and jelly, gulped a large glass of milk, and bolted out the door, on the way to my cousin Raymond’s house to show him my new trick. I had eaten so fast that as I ran up the street I burped and snorted at the same time, and had to return to the yard and wash off the front of my shirt at the water pump. In those days (1943-44), I was living with my father’s parents in Glen Burnie, Maryland. We did not have running water. Instead, there were two water pumps and an outhouse. One pump was under the grape arbor behind the house, and the other was upstairs in the “Summer Kitchen.” I used the one under the grape arbor.

Cousin Raymond was four years older than me and had an electric train; he had an air rifle; he could ride a two-wheel bike—God, I envied him! He was so cool. Raymond rode his bike like a pro. He would pedal his Schwinn full-tilt into my yard and throw it down into a sliding stop that would scatter dirt and gravel all over. He also had a real wristwatch with numbers that glowed in the dark. As I said earlier: I was about five then—maybe six. Raymond would have been nine or ten.

On that day, I ran up the back steps at Raymond’s and pushed through the door and into the kitchen where Raymond and my uncle and aunt were having breakfast. I blurted out the news of my recently acquired skill. Raymond was unimpressed. Aunt Sadie told me I did a good job and Uncle Pete gave me a fifty-cent piece. When Raymond was finished eating we went outside and into the wooded lot behind the house where he had his “fort.” Raymond wanted to know if I thought I could learn to ride his bike. Could I? Full of shoelace-tying confidence, I said, “Go get it and I’ll show you!” Raymond wheeled his bike out of the garage and told me that my lesson would cost twenty-five cents. Being fifty-cents flush, I didn’t hesitate—I gave Raymond the half-dollar. He promised to make change later.

Raymond held the bike steady while I got on it. I settled myself on the “saddle” and grasped the handlebars with a death grip. Raymond told me that when he pushed I was to start pedaling. We started down the driveway, Raymond running as he pushed the bike. He yelled: “Pedal! Pedal!” I tried—but I was on a 26” bike with legs that were not yet long enough. So, I had to stand up to pedal. Then pedal I did—frantically. Raymond let go of the bike and I zipped completely across Fourth Avenue, a busy Glen Burnie street. Cousin Raymond was now yelling: “Steer it! Steer it! Pedal! Pedal! Watch out for the curb!” Too late—I bounced over the curb, ran up a slight grassy incline and into Mrs. Sauers’ flower bed, then tilted over in what seemed like slow motion and nose-dived into the lower branches of a fir tree. At that moment Mrs. Sauers chose to come around the corner of the house. She was pretty calm about the flowerbed and seemed more concerned over the scrapes I picked up when I dove into her tree.

Once Raymond and I retrieved the undamaged bike, I was ready for another lesson. He said it would cost me another quarter, so I told him to keep the change from the fifty-cent piece. This time, Raymond decided it would be better if I rode the bike down the street towards our grandfather’s house. Before I know it I’m back on the bike. Raymond pushes me off to a rolling start. I pedal like a madman. The bike begins to fly down the street. I’m going too fast to turn into the yard! Raymond’s yelling: “Hit the brakes! Hit the brakes! Steer! Steer! Hit the brakes!” Unfortunately, Raymond had neglected to tell me where the brakes were or how they worked. The bike picked up speed and began to wobble out of control as I bounced over another curb. Raymond was further behind me now, but I managed to turn a blind corner, only to run into the back of my Uncle Joe’s 1934 Plymouth. No contest. The Plymouth won.

There must have been a lot of hollering. Raymond now yelling: “My bike! My Bike! Look what you did to my bike!” Me screaming in pain as I slid off the hood (Yeah, I went completely over the car) and into the loose gravel that covered the driveway. My Uncle Joe yelled something I couldn’t make out as he ran away from the Plymouth, which he had been washing when I dropped in—unannounced.

After he realized what he thought had happened, Uncle Joe carried me into the house and laid me on the old mohair sofa. Grandma brought a pan of warm water and some clean cloths. She cleaned my cuts and abrasions. Pop came in and demanded to know what was going on. Raymond was still hollering about his bike. Uncle Joe explained that I must have fallen out of a tree.

Grandma tried to shush us all and shoo us out. And, even though I hurt in places that I didn’t even know I had, I was smiling. In the space of only an hour or two I had learned to tie my shoes; ruined a flower bed; nearly destroyed a bike; dented the hood of my Uncle’s car—and lived to tell about it; had been gifted fifty-cents and had spent it on bike-riding lessons. (How well I rode the Schwinn doesn’t matter—I did ride it.) I figure it was worth every penny.

Text Copyright © 2010 Jake Jakubuwski. “Bikers” Photo Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label. (The photo at right is Jake at age 12 or thereabouts. To access all of Jake’s adventures as a Baltimore boy growing up back in the 1940s and 1950s, type his name in the sidebar search window and press the button.)



Crow Happy Hour

May 19, 2010

Photo Doodle

For me, the interesting thing about this picture is what you can’t see—and, perhaps, just as importantly, what you can’t hear. On a trip last fall to visit relatives in my home town, I spent two nights in Lexington, Virginia, which is  40 miles east of my destination. When I’m down that way, I camp in Lexington because it’s a small town situated in a beautiful spot just off I-81, in the gentle foothills where the Shenandoah Valley narrows between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains. There are lots of things to see and do nearby, in contrast to where I come from, which is also situated in a beautiful area much deeper into the mountains. My birthplace is a depressed (and for me, somewhat depressing) paper mill town very near the West Virginia line. Lexington, being a university town (Washington and Lee, Virginia Military Institute), has all the amenities that come with that, including many good restaurants. It’s a wonderful destination and not just a stopover. On my first evening there this trip, while killing time before dinner, I wandered around town with my new digital point-and-shoot camera and soon found myself in the graveyard in which “Stonewall” Jackson is buried. The historic site is in a residential area on Main Street, just a few blocks south of the business district.

I shot several pictures in the graveyard, but the one above is my favorite. I love the way the late afternoon light comes through the silhouetted trees and creates those long shadows, the darker edges of the image framing some of the gravestones. Of course I was thinking about that when I composed the picture, and that’s also when a sort of eerie-beautiful event took place. As I stood there (and I stayed in that one spot for at least five minutes), a large flock of crows began to swoop in and out between the trees, caw-cawing the whole time as they cavorted. I had seen this sort of “happy hour” bird behavior before during the “golden hour” just before sunset, a favorite time of day, it seems, for birds, photographers and cinematographers. But I had never witnessed it in quite so dramatic a setting and with such loud sound effects. (Imagine being in the middle the gathering-of-the-birds scene in that Hitchcock movie, but experiencing it as pleasant rather than threatening.) This may have been the only time while out and about photographing when I wished that I had video instead of a still camera. Another disappointment: I had hoped to catch a bird perched on the foremost gravestone, but no luck. Not one bird landed while I was there, and even if it had I doubt I would have been quick enough to capture the image. You see, I was still a pretty slow photographer at that point, consulting the instruction book for just about every move I made with my new camera.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.