Nine-thirty a.m., hunched over the computer in a friend's bachelor pit in Washington. Surrounded by dirty clothes like nesting material for a Norwegian rat. Cup of coffee you could degrease an engine block with. Stack of grocery-store tabloids: The National Enquirer, The Star, The World Weekly News. I'm preparing to mine the nether regions of the American zeitgeist as soon as I have a pulse.
I know. You thought this column got written on a sprawling wooded campus in the Catskills, with marble libraries, research assistants with nice shapes and plaid skirts and big brains. No. Sometimes I write it from a Dempster Dumpster in lower Manhattan. Laptops are wonderful for that. Anyway, on the screen wait twelve Viagra ads and a plug for breast enlargements. Maybe I'll get a breast enlargement. Or better, a codpiece. If it has a zippered compartment so I can keep my keys in it.
Some of this stuff is mysterious. 'Fred Reed! Do you want a larger penis?' Whose, I wonder. How much is shipping and handling? Is there a display case?
And how do they know what 'larger' is? There's probably a federal data base.
In front of me is a copy of the National Enquirer, the mother of grocery-rack eddas that chronicles the pervasive decline. It used to be good for keeping up with decapitations, space aliens, and manifestations of Elvis. It carried stories nobody else did: 'Woman Gives Birth to Trilobite.' 'Giant Carrot with Face of Dalai Lama.' 'Dwarves, Evicted From Posh Hotel, Honeymoon in Cardboard Box.'
Now it is about movie stars. Or parts of movie stars: 'Amazing Photos: Stars with Cellulite.' Does that not make the heart sing? A lot of people must have too much time on their hands. The cellulite in question belongs to 'Demi, Goldie, Nicole Kidman, J.Lo, and more,' none of whom do I know who is. They're probably important, like Aristotle. The photo shows what I took to be the back side of the moon, actually the back side of either Demi, Goldie . . . .
I worry about movie stars. A website somewhere shows photos of presumed hot tickets in make-up, and then in candid shots in the street. They run from ordinary to ugly. Some have the allure of golf bags, especially the ones trying to look thirty years younger with what seem to be injection-molded cosmetics.
What's the social undercurrent here? Strap in: We're about to probe a dark rivulet of the collective unconscious. In the groc-tabs, it's not 'Miss Jennifer Lopez' or 'Mr. Scott Peterson.' It's J.Lo and Scott, with the easy familiarity of a high-school sleep-over. The product here is artificial entr'. If you're forty pounds overweight, lonely or wishing you were, and stuck in some boring low-level job at the post office where you can't even shoot people any longer ' why, the Enquirer will put you on a first-name basis with glamorous over-promoted nonentities. For only $2.99, you can do a line of coke with Sylvester, or share a Cellulite Experience with Demi.
Television. That's what does it. It makes people in trailer parks, which for practical purposes is most of us, think life ought to amount to more than feeding the mortgage monster and bailing ungrateful kids out of whatever disaster they've most recently managed to create. In 1900, before television, nobody expected life to be fulfilling. And it wasn't. You could depend on it. Unless of course you thought it was fulfilling to lead a decent life and raise your kids happily in a small town in Missouri.
You didn't have any knowledge of the rich and useless. You knew they were out there, like malaria and the chupacabras, but you didn't have to look at them.
Now the lobotomy box rubs the aggregate face in the rompings of the California glitz kennel, where every guy is a hunk and every gal a babe, by definition golden and happy and smiling, and off to Paris by private jet to interminable gratification.
So people without jets think ponder their lives and think, Is this all there is? Yep.
I don't understand supermodels either. But the tabs love them. Face it: They're a mess. They've got no breasts, no hips, and no fannies, and walk as if they had something wrong with their feet. You've heard crossed eyes? They've got crossed ankles. Imagine that a mad Japanese scientist tried to design a human robot and came reasonably close. Or think of women designed by homosexuals.
The poor creatures prance down the runways wearing funny-looking clothes that no real woman would let her dog sleep on, looking pouty and sullen like spoiled adolescents'and they become celebrities. Yes. Everywhere women stop eating: They too want to look like broom handles. I don't get it.
Super-modeldom is probably treatable. Force-feed them Big Macs with lots of Secret Sauce, give them estrogen supplements, and tell them to drop the snotty expression or you'll drown them.
The Weekly World News is what really worries me. They should put something in the ink that sterilizes anyone who reads it. May 13: 'Viking Frozen in Block of Ice,' plus, 'Eight-Year-Old Pianist Has 14 Fingers.' Probably from West Virginia. 'Ancient Egyptians Invented Baseball.' I picture Tutankhamen sliding into home, spikes high, while an intermittently swooning Nefertete chomps hotdogs in the stands.
Who reads this stuff? I don't want names. A phylum will do.
I can understand, barely, reading about the cellulite of some talentless twit who may have been cute twenty years go, but probably wasn't. Given a choice, I'd rather pound my thumb with a claw-hammer, but I'm a curmudgeon. But movie stars actually exist to an extent. You might want to know something about them. Scientists study those weird funguses on the damp sides of trees that get all orange and purple and goopy. Demi's cellulite can't be much worse.
But . . . 'Gal Keeps Hubby's Corpse in the House'? You can hear the far-off mournful tolling of the bell curve.
I mean, do people actually believe this stuff? 'Satan and Saddam Were Partners'and This Picture Proved It!' A Photo-Shopped picture of a cloud over Baghdad with a diabolic visage, in need of braces, peering from it. Sure, an obvious plant by the Bush administration, probably straight from Ari Fleischer, the White House ventriloquist. If you can't have anthrax, go with a demon, I say.
But . . . but . . . do even, I mean . . . do even Weakly World News readers reckon the Devil His Own Self is now a weapon of Mass whatever? That scientists are going to revive a nonexistent frozen Viking? (How would they know when they had?)
If there's any hope, I tell you, it lies with bugs and plankton.