Tales of My Father #6
I am today resuming a narrative I interrupted here a few weeks ago. If you didn't read Chapter 3 of this series, you should go through it before you read the one below. And if you did read Chapter 3, you might enjoy the following more if you give Chapter 3 another once-over before you proceed…
Now then: I started writing professionally in 1969 and I did okay. I didn't always like what I was assigned to write but I always found someone to pay me for putting words on paper. (That's right: We used paper back then, having only recently upgraded from writing on tree bark and before that, slabs of stone.) From the start, I made a decent, if unsteady living. Since I was still residing at home with my parents, I didn't have to earn any particular amount per week but I kept applying the following test to my little ledger of bucks received: If I was on my own, could I make living expenses? The answer seemed to be yes.
But the amounts varied. Some weeks, I got in nothing; other weeks, decent sums. Different editors and employers needed or purchased different quantities of my writing each month and every one of them seemed to have a different method of taking weeks if not months to pay. A few never did. There was an editor at a local magazine who read some of the things I'd written. He called me in, offered me a number of assignments at respectable rates but impressed on me in harsh, threatening tones how vital it was that I meet every single deadline…
"I only work with professionals," he said. "And the number one mark of a professional is that he delivers on time. I cannot stand even the slightest tardiness. If you write for me, you need to do everything humanly possible to get me what I need exactly when I say I need it."
I told him I thought I could do that but he went on and on, impressing on me how Mankind as we know it would cease to exist if my draft was even a day late. Finally, I asked, "Do you then do everything humanly possible to pay me exactly when I say I need it?"
He replied, without the slightest note of irony in his voice, "No, the accounting department sends out checks when they get around to it and I have nothing to do with that."
I wrote one piece for him anyway and he assured me that pay would be forthcoming. If that check isn't here by 2015, I'm going to call and give that accounting department a piece of my mind.
Because my personal Accounts Receivable fluctuated so unpredictably, my father had trouble from the start wrapping his brain around the idea that I was off on a real career. It all sounded very part-time and temporary to him, like selling seed packets door-to-door or something. His occupation, after all, paid a firm and predictable salary. It wasn't much. Some weeks, it was less than I was making. But it was the exact same amount every Friday and he could count on it. That's what a job was to him.
While I was living there, he'd come home from work every afternoon and ask me, "Any checks today?" If one had arrived, I'd tell him what it was for and how much. Then he'd ask, "Can I see it?" Sometimes, I'd show it to him but sometimes, I'd already have walked it up to California Federal Savings and deposited it in my account. And sometimes, it was still in my room but I'd respond, "I told you how much it was for. Why do you need to see the check?"
It was years before I understood something that should have been obvious to me but wasn't. A lot of things are like that when you're that age. When he asked to see the check, I thought he was suspicious that I was lying about what I was making and he wanted to verify…but it wasn't that at all. He just loved seeing a check for any amount that said, "Pay to the order of Mark Evanier" on it. He had once dreamed of being a writer but had never pursued it far enough to yield a check with that surname on it.
My name was a big thing to him, maybe bigger than it was to me…and it was not just because half of mine was his. When I told him I'd just sold an article or a script, the first question he'd ask — even before "How much are they paying you?" — was "Is your name going to be on it?" It wasn't on a lot of the early things I wrote — which given their nature, does not displease me. I wish I could take it off some things where it did appear. I've always kind of envied writers named, like, Fred Wilson. When one of their bad jobs turns up, they can say, "Oh, that? That was by the other Fred Wilson! He's so terrible, I wish I could get him to change his name."
Years later, my name was on most of the things I wrote for print, including comic books, and that made my father happy. Seeing my name on TV made him really happy.
And seeing my name on a check? Ecstasy.
After a few years of writing television, it became prudent for me to turn my finances over to a Business Manager. Thereafter, my father couldn't see my checks because I didn't see my checks. They went straight to Mr. Business Manager. But around 1988, I had a really big one coming in — payment for a project I'd worked on for months and months. If I'd been paid weekly on it, it would have meant a lot of little, not-so-impressive checks…but I was getting one cumulative one with a lot of digits on it.
By then, I'd come to understand what seeing my name on a check meant to him so I told the Business Manager not to deposit that one when it arrived. Instead, he messengered it over to me and when my father came to visit, I fibbed a bit to him…for a good cause. He was always offering to run errands for me and being disappointed if I couldn't send him to the post office or my local Sav-On Family Pharmacy for some floss or something. "Could you drop something off at my Business Manager's for me?" I asked. "I received a check. They were supposed to send it straight to him but it came to me for some reason."
I could hear my father's eyes sparkle. A check? "Could I see it?" he asked.
Acting as casual as I could, I showed it to him…and he was so proud, he actually started crying. Nothing I bought with that money made me as happy as showing him that check.
But that kind of moment came later, long after he'd accepted that his kid was a Professional Writer and could make a living as such. This is the story of how we got to that point and it occurred the second or third month I was writing, back when he just wasn't sure. What the hell kind of career was it where you never knew what you were going to make next week? Even with me showing him checks that totaled a decent income, he worried that I was setting myself up for a lifetime of precarious finances. This was a man who'd grown up in the Great Depression, remember.
My mother told me, "He's so worried about you…he sometimes lies awake at night. He'll read in the paper about some writer who just declared bankruptcy or there'll be a case in his office of one who's in deep financial trouble." More and more, I felt I had to do something…but what? How could I convince my father I could support myself as a writer in the long run when I was just starting out and had yet to fully convince myself? Then I got a most unusual offer.
I was at a local publishing house delivering an article I'd written and I got to chatting with another freelancer. "I hear you're real fast," he said. "Do you think you could write a novel in three days?" I asked what kind of novel — mystery? Romance? Western?
"Porn," he said.
I had never read a porn novel…and come to think of it, still haven't if you don't count the one this essay is about. Still, I couldn't imagine there was a steep learning curve there…or a need to be able to channel Dostoyevsky. The writer explained that he occasionally worked for a publisher of such material who was desperate to get a book written by the weekend. This was Tuesday morning. "I can't write what he needs that fast but if you want to take a stab at it, here's his number." I wasn't sure that I wanted to get into that line of work but I had this belief back then that you should at least look into every opportunity. Go meet with everyone and even if you say no, you might learn something in the process. I called the publisher and he told me to come right down to his office — which I did but it took a little while. I didn't drive in those days and so had to figure out how to get there by bus.
You may find this hard to believe but his office was in a seedy part of L.A. on the second floor of a building. The first floor consisted of a store that sold the kind of thing he published. Up and down the block were porn houses, including (I think) the one where Fred Willard got busted last year. That area…though it's been tidied up and sanitized a lot since 1969. Walking through it then, I felt like I wanted to spray anything and everything around me with Lysol. Including the passers-by.
Upstairs, there were no naked women, no photographers…nothing sexy at all unless you counted endless crates of dirty books and magazines. At a long table, three middle-aged women worked expressionlessly, opening envelopes and taking out rumpled currency and the occasional check. They'd address mailing labels that indicated in code what was to be sent to the purchaser, then they'd hand the labels to one of two young men who scurried about, locating the paid-for items, stuffing them into shipping envelopes, then affixing postage. It was an efficient operation but depressing…and even if you didn't know what they were selling, there was a sleazy air to it all. I momentarily calculated when the next bus home would be coming by and considered darting out and hopping on.
I hadn't quite done that when the publisher got around to explaining his dilemma to me and I was intrigued if only by the challenge. He was contracted to print four naughty novels that weekend — on a press that printed "four-up," meaning four books at a time. He'd had four ready to go, then found out that one of them was a book that its author had sold twice — once to him and once to another publisher who still had it in print. The other publisher threatened to sue and/or break legs if this publisher put it out…so this publisher needed another book and he needed it by Friday morning so he could get it typeset and ready for press on Saturday. The press run could not, for some reason, be postponed.
I asked how long it had to be. He said about 30,000 words and I did a fast mental conversion. My manuscript pages averaged 250 words a page so we were talking 120 pages in three days. Doable, I thought. I asked, "What would it have to be about?"
He said, "People having sex." I waited for him to say more but that was it: People having sex. I thought about it a second then said, "Hey, you know I think there's a movie in that" but he didn't laugh. Then before I could ask about money, he said, "Usually, I pay two cents a word for these so $600. But if you get it in by Friday morning at 10 AM, I'll make it $700. That is, if I use it."
"If I use it?" That was an ominous add-on. If the guy was telling me the truth of his dilemma, then he pretty much had to use anything I handed in that was in reasonably coherent English. I could only think of one reason why he might not use it. I asked him, "Do you have other people writing these?" My concern was that he had five guys banging out manuscripts at that very moment and would only buy the best (or first) that arrived. He swore to me, no, he didn't know anyone else who could get such a book done in time. Mostly on a whim, I said to him, "Then mine ought to be worth $800."
He grinned and agreed. "Okay, eight." Then he explained to me that I would have to write it around existing cover art he had. He showed me some bad line drawings of semi-clad people and told me to pick one. Most were of angry semi-clad people, some tying up or otherwise restraining others. The eroticism of such situations has always eluded me but, hey, whatever excites you. I've always believed that any kind of sexual activity is fine between consenting adults…but for me, most of the joy is in the consenting.
I had already decided that my book would be set in high school — write what you know, they say — and there was one drawing of a cute girl who was around the right age. More important to me was that she looked like she expected to enjoy what she was about to do with a young man of similar age…so I picked that one. The Porn King told me I needed a title and an author name. I made up one of each, he laid a few "rules" on me and I went off and caught the bus home.
On the way there, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into…but at least I knew I'd be clearing a pretty low bar. I also knew the timing couldn't have been better: That very day, my parents were driving to Las Vegas for a four-day vacation. It would be a lot easier to write a dirty book without my folks in the next room.
By the time I got home, I had a rough plot in my head. My father and mother were loading the car and I gave them a hand. It was polite and I was in a hurry to get them on their way so it would be just me and my typewriter. Moments before they departed, my mother said the same thing to me she always said when they left me alone for a few days. She said, "Okay, while we're gone, no orgies." The previous times she'd said that, I'd smiled and thought, "If only." This time, I smiled and thought, "If only you knew." Then they left and their son commenced writing smut.
Well, not really smut. Not by today's standards and maybe not even by 1969's. One of the rules I'd been given was that I couldn't use the "f" word or anything close to it. I could set the story in high school but I couldn't explicitly say that anyone having sex was under the age of consent. I was also not to make any mention of bodily fluids, saliva included, that might pass between lovers. Bill O'Reilly has written far dirtier books than I produced.
And I was operating under one other handicap: As I described the sublime feeling of sexual intercourse, I had to kinda guess what that felt like…so I probably didn't handle those pages very well. On the other hand, I did some really superb writing in the scenes about the teenage male virgins who were eager, verging on desperate, to find out for themselves. Sometimes, there's just no substitute for first-hand experience. Had I but written this book two weeks later…
I remember two main things about those long days. One was how much fun I had. This was only weeks after my high school experience had ended so I still had a lot of emotion about my classmates. I selected several of them, changed their names and had them do what I wished had happened. I more or less cast myself in the lead…but I also played any male character who got the gal of his dreams. I'd had a gym coach who hated me, mainly because he had the I.Q. of a jock strap and I kept pointing up the dumbness in his dumber utterances. He became Mr. Brick, the world's stupidest physical education instructor.
There was a guy at school I hadn't gotten along with, in no small part because he was dating a young lady over whom I drooled. He became the villain, Biff, and in my story, she left him for the hero and then later walked in on Biff cross-dressing like a cheerleader and having sex with Mr. Brick. Naturally, every girl I'd fantasized over in high school became a character and those fantasies were put to good use. It was all very childish and adolescent and self-indulgent but I've never enjoyed writing anything more, nor have I felt more powerful. Alice Manning wouldn't even talk to me back at University High School…but you should hear what her doppelgänger asked of "me" in the book.
That was one thing I recall. The other was the extraordinary mix of adrenalin and teenage testosterone that kicked in. I barely slept. I barely ate. I just sat there night and day at my little manual Olivetti-Underwood, pounding out page after page after page. Every hour or so, I'd stop and refigure my pace: Okay, I've done this many pages in this many hours. If I sleep X hours and write at this pace for Y hours, I'll finish at 11 PM on Thursday. As it turned out, I finished around 8 PM that evening — 122 double-spaced pages.
The Porno Publisher had given me his phone number and told me to call — at any hour — when I was finished. I called and told him I was done and I'd be in with it first thing in the morning. "No, no," he said. "Tonight. Bring it down right now!"
I looked outside. It was dark and I thought of the long bus ride down to that grungy neighborhood. "I'm exhausted," I said. "I haven't eaten all day, I've barely slept…"
He insisted. "Bring it in right now and if it's what you say it is, you can walk out of here with cash," he said, vocally italicizing the word, "cash." There was a pause and then the man added, "You know, I do have a backup plan. I had to. I have this other manuscript I could use…"
I knew that was a lie. Just knew it. But I also wasn't sure I'd be able to sleep if I was worried about getting paid. And given how others were making me wait forever and a day to be paid, there was something awfully appealing about Same Day Compensation. "Okay," I said. "But it might take me two hours to get there."
"I'll be here," he promised.
I showered, dressed and walked up to a deli on Pico Boulevard with the manuscript in a manila envelope. I was trying to think of some way I could get it copied before handing it over but there didn't seem to be a way. All the Xerox places were closed and I couldn't see myself going into the nearby drugstore where there was a coin-operated copier, and standing there for at least an hour copying all 122 pages, one at a time for a dime apiece. So I ate a sandwich, then hopped on the first of three buses. All the way there, I edited, scanning the pages for typos or spots where I could have said something much clearer.
As sketchy as that area had been during the day, it was scarier after 10:00 at night. I saw women I was reasonably sure were hookers. Actually, I was surer they were hookers than that they were women. I saw men I instantly assumed were pimps and/or drug dealers. Maybe it was my imagination but I felt like they were all eyeing me and thinking I was the freaky one on that block. I wanted to wave my envelope at them and yell, "I belong here! I just wrote a sex novel!" I finally reached the publisher's office. He answered the door, snatched the manuscript from me and said, "Have a seat. I'll go in the next room and start reading."
I gasped, "You're going to make me sit here while you read it?" I wanted very much to be home, preferably with my $800.
He said, "I'm not going to pay you until I see what I'm buying" and he left me there in a room with crates of porn and an old, black-and-white TV. I turned it on and watched the last half of The Dean Martin Summer Show Starring The Golddiggers. As I've mentioned here, I had a "thing" for The Golddiggers back then and one in particular. I thought they were sexier than anyone in the crates of magazines that surrounded me. (A friend of mine who knows more about this kind of thing than I do said when I told him this story once, "The difference between porn back then and porn now is that porn now features people you actually want to see naked.) At the time, all I could think was, "I hope that guy took an Evelyn Woods Speed Reading Course. I want to get out of here."
I'd watched the 11 PM News and a bit of Johnny Carson when he came back in and said to my greatest of all reliefs, "I'm not going to keep you here 'til I finish. I've read enough to see it's good. In fact, it's so good I'm going to hold it for a later run. I'm doing some books next month with larger press runs and color covers. I want to put it in that batch." Off my baffled look, he added, "Remember I told you on the phone I had another book I could print? I have books all lined up for the series with the color covers so I'm going to print the weakest one of them on Saturday and use yours in the deluxe line." I felt a twinge of pride. True, I'd just written a sleazy book…but it was a deluxe sleazy book. Then he said, "Let's get you your six hundred dollars."
I said, "Eight hundred dollars."
He looked at me strangely and I thought, "Uh-oh. We're gonna have a fight." But then he said, "Eight hundred, right" and led me into the now-vacant room where the three women had been opening orders. There was probably around two thousand dollars in piles on the table, all in fives, tens and twenties — nothing larger. He had me watch as he counted out eight hundred dollars in twenties, handed it to me and had me recount. It was all there. He offered me an envelope to put it in but I declined and instead stuffed it into various pockets in my pants and windbreaker. "If you want to write a couple more of those for me," he said, "I'll take 'em. Same price." I thanked him and got the hell outta there, walking briskly back to the bus stop. As I glanced at the hookers and their agents this time, I was sure they knew I had eight hundred dollars in small, untraceable cash on me and were deciding which one would get to knife me and take it. Somehow though, I made it onto the bus and home.
The next day, I went up to California Federal Savings with the money in an envelope. As I emptied it onto the counter in front of a lady teller, I had the horrible feeling she'd inspect the bills and then bark, "Young man! Did this money come from…pornography!??" But she said no such thing; just deposited it into my account and handed me back my now-somewhat-more-attractive bankbook. I stared at the new total for a long moment, thinking, "Well, I can't show my father the check for this, partly because I can't tell him how I earned this money and partly because there was no check." And no, I did not pay taxes on it. I couldn't figure out how to do that when my father the I.R.S. man would be checking over my return.
I was out of the bank when I had another couple of thoughts. I'd already decided I wasn't writing any more of that kind of thing, no matter how well it paid. It was enjoyable once but so are a lot of things you never want to do again. It seemed like too easy a rut to fall into and wrong for me in so many ways. My biggest regret was that I never got a copy of the book, damn it. I'm not even certain it was ever published…but here's a standing offer: Eight hundred dollars for the first copy anyone sends me of The Student Body by Mary Margaret Underburger. And if you can find a copy for yourself, I'll even arrange for Mary Margaret to autograph it.
And I also thought this: I could do it again, if not for that publisher then for someone else. I didn't want to…but I decided that if my entire writing career were to crash and burst into flame, that was always available to me and as sordid as it was, it was still preferable to not writing. I've never had to go that route but the fact that I knew it was there convinced me once and for all that I could make a living indefinitely as a professional writer.
After I'd savored that realization, the next logical question, of course, was how to convince my father of that without mentioning the grand literary career of Ms. Underburger. It took me a few more blocks of walking before I suddenly thought of something that might seal that deal. That's when I turned and marched right back to California Federal.
Five days later, my father found a large envelope from them amidst his mail. In it, he was amazed to find the deed to our house and a form letter acknowledging that the outstanding loan on it had been retired.
He couldn't understand. He went to the phone, called the bank and told them, "There must be some mistake. I have eight or nine more payments to make on our home." Someone there told him no, the loan which he'd taken out in 1953 to purchase that two bedroom home — one bedroom for him and my mother, one for his year-old son — had been paid in full via funds transferred from another California Federal account. My father and mother didn't have their personal accounts there but he could think of one person in the house who did.
I was sitting at the typewriter in my bedroom, working on something clean when he came in, crying. He hugged me like he'd never hugged me before and said, "I guess my son can make a living as a writer after all." Then he walked out and almost never worried about that again. By then, I was crying too but I felt happy he'd come to feel that way, happy I had him as a father, happy I'd done what I did…
…and really, really happy he hadn't asked me what I wrote to get the money. And, oh yes — if my name would be on it.