The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Message In A Bottle.

Every summer my family went to Florida for two weeks. My grandfather left my mother his house down there so we always had a place to stay. The average age of everyone who lived on the block was a hundred and five so there weren’t a lot of kids for me to hang out with. The year I was eight we left the day after school let out so I’d miss the start of summer with my friends in Nashville. Maybe that was what gave me the idea to put a letter in a bottle. Or maybe I just got the idea from something I read or saw. The message in a bottle, or even just the floating message, has been around for thousands of years, a floating idea. I’m not sure where I picked it up; probably from cartoons or comics where someone stranded on an island writes “Send help!” on a piece of paper, puts it in a bottle, and throws it out to sea. I always wondered about that. Where’d they get the paper and ink? For that matter where’d they get the bottles? I’d heard about milkmen who’d leave glass bottles of milk on the doorstep and even though there weren’t any in my neighborhood, and it would be a few years before there’d be Dead Milkmen, I heard there were still places where people got their milk delivered. I thought maybe that’s where lonely island castaways got the bottles. So each day they’d put a plea for rescue in one bottle and a note that said “No more cheese!” in the other. And there were even more questions. How’d they seal the bottles? And how would they make sure the bottles would make it past the waves and not just be washed back up on the shore? And perhaps most puzzling, how would anyone who found a bottle with a message in it know where it came from? If you’re stranded on a desert island chances are you don’t know where it is and if the milkman hasn’t offered to give you a lift he’s probably too surly to give directions too, or maybe no castaways ever got up early enough to meet the milkman on his rounds, which is understandable since living on a desert island must be pretty exhausting.

Anyway I got this idea that it would be fun to put a message in a bottle and see where it went. I wrote a note asking whoever found it to write to me and tell me where they found it and about themselves. I included my home address in Nashville which I thought might make whoever found it wonder how it got from a landlocked state to the sea. I also didn’t know anything about ocean currents so it never occurred to me that since we were in St. Petersburg where the beach faces west right into the Gulf of Mexico it was unlikely the bottle would go somewhere really distant like New Zealand or Poughkeepsie, but I still hoped it would find its way to a distant shore and be picked up by someone interesting and we’d become steady penpals and maybe someday meet and have a series of wacky adventures. Or at least exchange postcards.

My father gave me an empty plastic Coke bottle, and even though I had some qualms about throwing trash into the sea I thought a plastic bottle would be better than a plastic one since it would float better and be less likely to break. We always went to a stretch of beach known as Treasure Island which is less of an island and more of an overgrown sandbar. I walked down to the John’s Pass Bridge and threw it into the water. And then as I was walking back to the spot my parents had staked out on the beach I saw a kid carrying a plastic Coke bottle and I was annoyed not just that my message had been found so soon and so close to where I’d sent it on its way but he looked a lot like me, only a few years younger, and I was hoping for someone, well, not like me—someone whose perspective on the world would be different. Then the kid poured water out of the bottle into a moat of a sandcastle he’d built and I realized it wasn’t the one I’d released, so my bottle, and its note were waiting to be picked up.

It never was picked up, or if it was whoever found it didn’t answer the message. Even though plastic lasts a really long time it still breaks down, gets broken up, sinks. In the end it’s just an idea I had that’s still out there floating.

Enlightened.

So I was walking into work and saw the streetlights go out. It was a strange thing, and not just because it’s the summer and the days are getting longer which means the sun is pretty well up most days when I’m on my way into work. And unlike sunrise and sunset which are slow events the streetlights going out, or coming on, is a sudden change. Blink, look away, or just not look at the right time and you’ll miss it. It reminded me of when I was six or seven and had a strange obsession with streetlights. When I was riding in the back of the car at night I’d lean up against the window and look up at them as they went by, and I felt like they were looking back at me like giant cyclopean eyes—mostly amber, but also the silvery white ones, brighter than the moon. We lived on a cul-de-sac and I’d stand under the street light and look up into it, fascinated by the black blotch in it where insects had crawled in and died, and I’d watch moths bounce around it and wonder if they’d ever break free. Or I could turn away from it and see how our house cast a sharp shadow. It was so easy to step from light into infinite darkness and back again. Even then, even in summer when I’d be out in the street with my friends, it was rare that I would see the lights come on. It was as though it were something I wasn’t meant to see. Our house was also on the edge of a hill, and from my window in the back I could look out at the cul-de-sac parallel to ours, or at the intersection at the bottom of the hill. On humid nights or when there was fog or a light rain there’d be a halo around the streetlights, as though they were growing brighter.

Once when I was staying with my grandparents they took me to visit some people who had a basketball court in their backyard. They had a high power lamp that hung over it that looked like a streetlamp, and I thought, oh, they must have taken one from the street and put it here. I didn’t think of them as having stolen it. Instead I just thought how interesting it was that a streetlamp could be pulled up and transplanted, like a tree. I wondered if my parents could take one and put it in our backyard. Maybe, I thought, the streetlamp on our street is lonely and it would like a friend.

Seeing the streetlights go out also brought back a more recent memory. I was sitting in a coffee shop one evening, next to the window. It was just on the cusp of darkness but the streetlights hadn’t come on yet. A guy parked next to the sidewalk and got out and started putting change in the parking meter. He was bald and skinny and in the half-light his silhouette looked like Nosferatu. While he was still putting change in the parking meter a woman walked up and started hitting him. It looked like she was really hitting him hard, too. I wondered if I should say something, but “Help! Some woman is beating up Nosferatu on the sidewalk!” just didn’t seem like it would get much response. And he was continuing to put money in the parking meter—maybe he was using pennies, or planning to park there for three or four days. He seemed oblivious to the pummeling. Then the streetlights came on and I looked away from the couple for just a moment. When I turned back Nosferatu and the woman were hugging and then they began to rock back and forth slowly, and I wondered, for a moment, if I should yell, “Help! Nosferatu and some woman are slow-dancing on the sidewalk!” but I couldn’t decide if that was a bad thing or not. The whole scene had been so strange, as though it were something I wasn’t meant to see.

Dear John…

Restaurant patrons in New York have a problem: they can’t find the loo, the head, the john, the restroom, or the bathroom. Apparently the problem is that old buildings are being turned into gourmet restaurants, because with rising rent prices making it harder for people to actually live in the city the most important thing New York needs is more places that serve upscale kale, quail, yellowtail, pale ale, and escargot. And that reminds me of the time I was in an English pub and asked the bartender where the bathroom was. “Why?” he asked sarcastically. “Do you need to take a bath?” I said, “Well, we are in Somerset…”

What I don’t understand is why New York diners are treating the hard to find heads—such as the Crosby Street Hotel restaurant that, according to what I’ve read, requires people to go downstairs and through five closed doors, one with a sign that says “Beware of the leopard”—as an inconvenience rather than a feature. Why isn’t an outhouse that’s actually outside and probably formerly someone’s house seen as charming, fun, part of the adventure of going out to a restaurant? After all one of the rising industries is what’s known as—I’m not making this up—the “experience economy”, which is a new term for something that’s been around forever and encompasses everything from amusement parks to safaris. As businesses look for new ways to compete and attract customers many add features that may not be part of the original plan but that add that extra flavor that draws people in and keeps them coming back. And with these added features businesses can charge more, claiming to offer more bang for your buck, even if it is more like extra bangs you aren’t sure you wanted for more bucks than you really wanted to spend, or, as my grandfather used to say, “All the extras are free until you get the bill,” but that’s another story. A really good example of this I can think of is an Irish pub that used to be in downtown Nashville—although given its location I guess technically it was about as Irish as Lucky Charms. Still I liked it because it was a nice place to get a pint of Guinness, and they’d decorated the place to look like an old-fashioned Irish pub, and one room was even elaborately designed to look like a Dublin street from the 1920’s. They did kind of overdo it by having the waiters dressed up as Irish writers, though—having Oscar Wilde tell you “The only thing worse than having the fish and chips is not having the fish and chips” was a little odd, although not as bad as James Joyce bumping into tables and dropping hot soup in your lap because he couldn’t see anything, or Samuel Beckett who just never showed up. And then there were the restrooms. They weren’t that different from the restrooms you’d find in most other restaurants, but they had a recording of an Irish comedian playing on an endless loop, and I’d get so involved listening to his jokes that when half an hour later I got back to the table the only explanation I could give was that there was this nun and this priest forced to sleep in the same room, and the nun kept asking the priest to get up and get her another blanket. My wife would then ask me where the restrooms were located and, as she always does when we’re in a restaurant, she’d say, “Don’t point. Just tell me.” And, well, all those little extras the pub offered were enough to make the slightly higher prices, not to mention the headaches of trying to find a parking space in downtown Nashville, and for that matter the headaches the next morning from too many pints of Guinness, worth it.

It was the exact opposite of a dingy little dive where I’d worked years earlier, part of a chain of dingy little dives, but this particular one did have an added feature. Any woman who came in alone didn’t have to dine alone, even if she wanted to, because the manager made a point of always joining her. He also always made a point of letting a cigarette dangle from his lips while he cooked to give everything a nice smoky flavor, but that’s another story. Some women, I think, paid extra just so he’d go away, and I think his wife did too.

So anyway to come back to my original point, assuming I can find it, I’m pretty sure it was around here somewhere—I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque—the New York restaurants with distant restrooms should advertise that fact and give out maps with the menus, or GPS coordinates, to diners. They should make it a game, part of the experience du jour, and since diners might get hot and sweaty in their long search for a water closet they should include a place to take a bath.

Riddle Rough Drafts.

What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening, and when would be the ideal time for it to get health insurance?

A box without hinges, key, or a lid, but you followed the directions when you were putting it together. Did you save the receipt?

A train traveling at forty-five miles an hour leaves Vancouver heading east at 4:45am. A train traveling at thirty miles an hour leaves Poughkeepsie traveling northwest at 1:05pm. Explain to me again why this is so much better than flying.

You have two and a half bottles of conditioner and three quarters of a bottle of shampoo you swiped from a hotel. How many times do you have to travel before you have an even number of both?

On Monday there are five coffee cups in the office break room sink. On Tuesday there are four coffee cups in the office break room sink. On Wednesday there are eight coffee cups in the break room sink. Is anyone going to ask Kevin to just rinse one cup if he’s drinking that much coffee?

As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits, and what are the odds I turned around and went back when I saw what kind of people lived there?

You have three glasses of milk and three bowls of pudding. You drink one of the glasses of milk and, oh, wait, are you lactose intolerant?

What has no beginning, end, or middle and is circular and, oh, I just gave away the answer there, didn’t I?

A father and son are in a terrible accident. The father is killed and the son is rushed to a doctor. The doctor says, “I can’t operate on him, I’m a psychiatrist!”

Which came first, the chicken or the egg, and is putting mayonnaise on a chicken sandwich a double insult?

You’re faced with two guardians. One always tells the truth, the other always lies. Which one do you ask a question since they’re both major assholes?

There are four days that start with the letter ‘T’: Tuesday, Thursday, and I’ll tell you the other two tomorrow and yesterday.

Getting Things Done.

When I was a kid and we’d go over to my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would always start conversations by asking me, “What did you do today?” And I could never think of an answer. I’d just go silent and my eyes would glaze over, and I knew it was rude to not answer, but for some reason the question just wiped everything out of my brain. What had I done that day? Probably played with my friends, watched something stupid on TV, caught some bugs and put them in a jar and studied them, tried to build a log cabin in the backyard only to discover that it’s really hard to build a log cabin when all you can find are twigs, gone to school. We often went to my grandparents’ house on Fridays, so for most of the year having gone to school could have been at least part of my answer. Most days I took my lunch to school, but on Fridays the school served “fish” which was a square of breaded and fried fishlike substance warmed just enough that the slice of cheeselike substance draped over it would start to melt, and I thought it was the greatest food ever, or at least the greatest food the school cafeteria served, which, now that I think about it, it probably was. We all had to walk single-file to the cafeteria for lunch and each kid would get a turn being at the front of the line, and the day it was my turn to be at the front of the line just happened to be a Friday, so that was a pretty good day. And I’m pretty sure when my grandfather asked me what I did that day I couldn’t come up with a single thing.

Looking back I realize at least part of the problem was I wanted to tell him something interesting and, given what I knew about him, that seemed like a pretty tall order. If I’d turned the question around and asked him what he did that day he probably would have said, “Oh, not much. I finished varnishing the cabinet for a clock I’m putting together, pollinated a vanilla orchid in the greenhouse I built, reorganized my collection of fishing lures by color, size, type of fish, and date of purchase, rescued a snake that was caught in the rain gutter, went to the hardware store and demonstrated the proper way to calibrate the scale they use for bolts, and had a banana for lunch.”

Eventually I started anticipating the question. In fact, now that I think about it, knowing that the first thing my grandfather was going to ask me was, “What did you do today?” made me aware of both time and what I was accomplishing, or not. It made me start mentally listing what I’d done during the day, and also prompted me to try and do things, to stretch myself a little each day. Most days I didn’t think about it, but if I knew I was going to see my grandparents I’d try and do something that I could tell my grandfather about. And it’s not a bad approach to life, considering what you’ve done and using that as a prompt to try and do more, or do better, in the future. Maybe it’s why some people keep diaries; not so much to reflect on what they’ve done but as a way to push themselves forward.

Ask yourself, what did you do today? Just please don’t ask me because I know I did something but I’m pretty sure as soon as you ask me I’ll just go silent and my eyes will glaze over.

Beach Time.

April is National Poetry Month and the beginning of beach season, depending on where you are, so here’s a poem I wrote on a beach several years ago.

A “mermaid’s purse” is a black, leathery rectangle that’s the egg case of skates, stingrays, and certain kinds of sharks. They often wash up on the beach once their occupant swims away.

Mermaid’s Purse

I was also born out of the sea, out of rocky oyster shells and polyphemous waves,

Under gulls riding changes in the wind.

Tied To coral, to warped twigs in green light, cartilage congealed

Into a diamond-winged body, brown above and ghostwhite below, and a trailing tail.

Swimmers all of us.

What I couldn’t see from my point on land I connected

To things I recognized. It rained.

Water met water, a million drops disturbed

 

The surface.

But the fish only feel it when the waves grow heavy enough to drag

Them into the air. They feel it always. Even fused to their element

They breathe the threat

 

Above. Where

I walked gulls ran at the waves, caught quick bites, and picked at tidal remains. No sun

Breaks. Not since my birth has the sun come

Through to here, and the cold water runs wild and foul abandoned

To itself. I never noticed the currents above and below that shook me in

The tasteless pouch of comfort and unliving,

My dark home. The light broke, called me to follow, and my world split and was carried

Upward to the gull cries and foamy strings playing on the surface. I catch

It as it comes in

 

With the waves: a black leathery rectangle with wiry

Arms at its corners. It’s a mermaid’s purse, still thick with the smell of the sea.

 

On the sand

Nearby, half-sunk in foam and nearly invisible where it lies exposed,

Is a skate

Thrown onto the beach by an earlier wave, tail still

Touching the tide as it goes out.

 

I skim the bottom while threatening shadows of gulls pass over

My body blended with the background. Only touches of white where

My wings curl over reveal

Me, and the waves protect me for now. I prowl for the dead, scavenging for leftovers

 

Of storms, starvation,

And the hard black tides that strand and take back.

An offshore squall washed up blowfish, foam, and bubbled tresses of seaweed.

 

A strangled heron

Lies spread in flight on a pile of driftwood, cracked beak pointed toward

Sky-blue crabs clustered in a collective grave. A rust-skinned hook threatens nothing,

Though it lies close to a fish still and silver in the gray light. All around

Are fragments of sponge and coral. A string of bleached and broken shells has settled

Into a ridge to hold

The water as it comes in, puts its arms out to the things in its reach, and pulls

 

Them close. When

I broke from the blackness it was freedom, it was the beginning

Of the new tide.

The wind dies

Suddenly and the sun pushes through. From over the water, for a moment,

 

It becomes

The same sun under the water, rays reflected into sea urchin spines.

The farthest

Waves turn blue then, as they approach, they change to aquamarine,

Shedding skin

And mingling with white. They roll in. Smoky quartz

Carries the beat of sand against sand. They reach forward,

And water curls

Over land, over itself. Its edges end, then begin, in the moment when the foam reaches

The highest point and remains trembling in the wind.

Pool Rules.

All swimmers must shower before entering the pool.

All swimmers must be appropriately attired to use the pool and pool area.

All swimmers under the age of fourteen must first pass a swim test.

All swimmers under the age of five must be accompanied by an adult at all times.

Individuals with open cuts, sores, communicable diseases, or who are Kevin may not use the pool.

No glassware is allowed in the pool or pool area, including tumblers, highball glasses, shot glasses, vases, light bulbs, chandeliers, punch bowls, stemless wine glasses, windshields, Chihuly sculptures, champagne flutes, cake cloches, water coolers, butter dishes, marbles, condiment trays, pitchers, carafes, beakers, decanters, flasks, jars, urns, flagons, cruets, ewers, growlers, or amphorae.

No food or beverages are allowed in the pool.

No chewing gum in the pool area unless you brought enough for everyone.

No alcoholic beverages are allowed in the pool or pool area unless you brought enough for the lifeguard.

No spitting, nose blowing, or bodily fluids in the pool, and, hey, get out of here, Kevin.

No running in the pool area. If you can do it in the pool, hey, go for it.

No horseplay, including Equus, Ben Hur, or the Erik Satie ballet Parade.

In the event of severe weather the pool will be closed.

In the event of a fire calmly and quietly exit the area. Do not stand around and say, “Hey, how did a fire break out in the pool?”

If any object ball is jumped off the table, it is a foul and loss of turn, unless it is the 8-ball, which is a loss of game. Any jumped object balls are spotted in numerical order.

No person shall throw any item into the pool or pool area that could endanger the safety of any person. Items include weapons, chairs, other furniture, cans, Jarts, refrigerators, scissors, hazardous chemicals, angry housecats, housecats who are not angry but will be when they’ve been thrown into the pool, car tires, cars, suspension bridges, cider, very small rocks, churches, lead, ducks, black holes, needles, shoes, live electrical wires, half-eaten tuna fish sandwiches, bulldozers, and Kevin.

Except during specified times fishing with dynamite is not allowed.

A first aid kit is located somewhere around here.

Drowning is strictly prohibited.

Out Of School.

So the school year is coming to an end which, for the first time in decades, is of special significance to me because I’ve been auditing a class. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for a really long time—where I work allows me to audit one non-degree seeking class per semester, and while I wouldn’t say no to another degree, especially when it’s cold out, I’m really just interested in learning, and auditing a class is a great way to study a subject without any pressure, even though an audit is usually not an enjoyable experience, which is probably why the word “plaudit” doesn’t get more use, but that’s another story. I first became aware that auditing a class was an option when I was a senior in high school, too late for it to be of any use, although I did wonder why they wouldn’t let me audit algebra instead of making me take it a second time after I flunked it the first time around.

I was in college before I read Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar in which her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, in an event Plath probably lifted from her own life, is terrified she’ll flunk chemistry because science just isn’t her bag. So because she’s excelled in all her other classes she talks the administrators into letting her audit chemistry and sits in each class looking like she’s taking very serious notes when in fact she spends the whole time writing poems. And I thought, hey, I could do that—except for the excelling in every other class part.

Well, there is some pressure on me, even if it’s mostly self-inflicted. I’ve been trying to keep up with the assignments and the readings, and I’ve done fairly well, although not as well as I hoped going in. I thought with my age and experience I’d be smart and cool like Val Kilmer in Real Genius, but instead I’ve been more like Rodney Dangerfield in Back To School, only not as rich, not as funny, and just as old, so I can’t even joke about why I don’t get no respect—I just get docked points for grammar. And the end of the class means a final exam. Fortunately it’s an exam and not a quiz—I’ve never been a big fan of quizzes since high school algebra, and while being bad at math was part of the reason I flunked it the first time around I think some of the blame should also go to my teacher Mr. Blankley. It’s bad enough that it was the first class of the day and I came in barely awake. Mr. Blankley looked like a bloodhound with a bad toupee and barely had the energy to breathe. He’d sit at his desk and stare at the wall behind us. And he spoke in a low drawl and would say, ““Studentsss, today we will have a quizzzzz on chapterssss ssssixxxxx and ssssseven,” and I’d be sound asleep before he could get halfway through that sentence, which usually took him about twenty minutes.

Of course quizzes, tests, and even exams have always been trouble for me, even when there was no pressure. I remember my fourth-grade teacher telling my mother, “I’ve tried to get him into a more advanced class just doesn’t test well,” which explained why there were a few times I was pulled off the playground and taken into a room with a nice lady who asked me questions like, “Can you define ‘brave’?” and of course I could in any other setting but as soon as I realized I was being tested all I could do was break out in a cold sweat and tremble and say, “I SWEAR I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THREE MILE ISLAND!” before jumping out the window.

And at the time I didn’t even know what I was being tested for.

It’s not that I’m completely hopeless. The fact is I really excel in situations where there’s no pressure, no one’s watching me, nothing depends on the outcome, and I’m not being asked to do anything.

So I’m going to take the final exam, if only to prove to myself that I have learned something, and also because I really have enjoyed going back to school, even to take just one class, so maybe if I fail the test badly enough I’ll be able to take it again.

 

Never Give Academia An Even Break.

Just for fun here’s my latest paper for the Jewish Humor class I’m taking. It should come as no surprise that I lean more strongly in favor of Mel Brooks, but I do think Eddie Cantor was a very funny guy who just made some awful choices.

Western Transformations
by Christopher Waldrop
The appeal of the American West is as a place of both freedom and opportunity for all people regardless of background, of wide-open spaces where hostile conditions mean survival depends on strength and wit, and where an individual can be, willingly or unwillingly, transformed. This makes it a place of special appeal to people seeking to escape persecution or simply looking for better lives. In Jews Of The American West Moses Rischin writes,

For Jews, the loose-jointed cosmopolitan socirty of the West offered not only economic opportunity but social acceptance and political place markedly in advance of other regions of the country. (Rischin, 28)

The West was also a place where an individual could remake him or herself. As Andrea Most says in Making Americans: Jews And The Broadway Musical,

Like the streets of New York City, the mythical nineteenth-century American West promised anonymity and freedom from conventional social hierarchies. The newcomer in a Wild West town was like an immigrant: he started fresh. No one knew who he was or where he came from, and so his chances of success depended on how well he inhabited the role he chose. (Most, 42)

Perhaps this is why the films Whoopee and Blazing Saddles, produced forty-four years apart, both deal with race and with transformation, albeit in very different ways.

The plot of Whoopee, starring Eddie Cantor and based on a stage play produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, is fairly straightforward. The film opens with a large musical number, and it was, in fact, the big screen debut of choreographer Busby Berkeley. The number announces and celebrates the wedding day of Sheriff Bob Wells and the rancher’s daughter Sally Morgan.
However Sally loves Wanenis, but can’t marry him because Wanenis is part Native American. As he explains to the hypochondriac farmhand Henry Williams, played by Cantor, “my great-grandfather married a white girl”, but has also become assimilated into white culture. He says, “Why, I’ve gone to your schools,” which causes Henry to exclaim, “An Indian in a Hebrew school!”
Unwilling to marry the sheriff Sally asks Henry to take her away secretly under the pretense that Bob doesn’t want to cowboys to get “too boisterous” and that they plan to marry in another location when she really plans to escape. She leaves a note for her father that she’s eloped with Henry. A chase ensues with Bob swearing to hang Henry. Henry’s nurse, Miss Custer, who is in love with him, also plans to kill him for his betrayal. When the car Henry and Sally are traveling in runs out of gas on a narrow mountain pass Henry suddenly demonstrates remarkable resourcefulness, if not courage, as he uses a gun Sally has given him to make a wealthy family give them some gasoline. Now pursued by both the sheriff and his men and the wealthy family (whose name is later revealed to be Underwood, giving Cantor a chance to make a joke about typewriters), Henry and Sally stop at a ranchhouse where Henry is hired as a cook, in spite of not knowing how to cook. When the owner asks him to make waffles Henry pours ketchup, Epsom salts, and flour into a bowl, singing “makin’ waffles” to the tune of “Makin’ Whoopee”, which he’d performed earlier. Miss Custer, dressed as a cowboy with a fake moustache, confronts Henry. She’s closely followed by Mr. Underwood who doesn’t recognize Henry and the two exchange surgery stories. When Sheriff Bob and his men arrive Henry hides in a stove which explodes, putting him in blackface. Sally calls this disguise “perfect”, and Henry fools Sheriff Bob and the others into thinking he’s someone else by singing and dancing. It’s difficult to bear the strain on credibility here, even for a musical.
When Henry’s blackface is wiped away and his true identity is revealed he and Sally escape again, only to be kidnapped by Native Americans who take them to their camp where Sally is reunited with Wanenis and they profess their love for each other. Henry, meanwhile, becomes part of the tribe, calling himself “Chief Izzy Horowitz”. The treatment of Native Americans is as problematic as the blackface, as they all speak in broken English and grunts, and insist that Henry smoke a pipe. There is also an elaborate musical number of Native Americans parading and dancing.
The arrival of Miss Custer again puts Henry’s life in danger, as does the arrival of Sheriff Bob and his men. At this point the chief of the tribe reveals that Wanenis was the child of white settlers. Wanenis is allowed to marry Sally, Henry, with some trepidation, agrees to marry Miss Custer, and everyone rides off on horseback, with the flivver Henry and Sally drove left to its own fate.
Unlike Whoopee which uses racism as a plot element without criticizing it Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks and with a screenplay with contributions by Richard Pryor, has a plot largely driven by racism as well as criticizing it. In conversation with Mike Sacks, Brooks attributes this to reading Gogol, saying that the Russian writer’s influence prompted him to write “about subjects such as racism for blacks, racism for Mexicans, the indignity suffered by Asian railroad workers.” (Sacks, 442). In the film’s opening an Asian railroad worker collapses in the heat and is docked half a day’s pay “for sleepin’ on the job”. The white overseers frequently use racial slurs and try to get the African American workers to sing. After Bart, played by Cleavon Little, and another worker barely escape drowning in quicksand Bart assaults the overseer Taggart and is sentenced to be hanged. He’s saved when the governor’s assistant Hedley Lamarr sees an opportunity. The railroad will have to be redirected through the town of Rock Ridge, and by appointing Bart the sheriff he can easily drive out the people and seize the land. Bart is threatened by the townspeople on arrival but tricks them into letting him go by holding a gun to his own head. Although Bart was clearly liked and respected by his fellow railroad workers, leading them in a performance of Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, this is the first time we see his resourcefulness, in much the same way that Henry in Whoopee only demonstrates wit under pressure when he robs the Underwoods.
Bart befriends Jim, an alcoholic gunslinger known as “The Waco Kid”, and shares the story of how his family came west in a wagon train. Because of their race his family was forced to stay far behind the main group, and the settlers are surrounded by “the entire Apache nation” and circle their wagons Bart and his family drive their own wagon in a circle. They then meet the Apache leader, played by Mel Brooks. Unlike the Native Americans in Whoopee Brooks speaks in Yiddish. When another starts to attack the family Brooks says, Zeit nisht meshugge (“Don’t act crazy” and tells Bart’s family to go abee gezint (“As long as we’re healthy”). While it’s not clear why he releases Bart’s family he does turn to another and ask in Yiddish, “Have you ever seen such a thing?” before adding in English, “They darker than us!” However these Native Americans are not a joke or the “noble savage”, and by having them speak Yiddish Brooks ties the long Jewish history of exile to the much more recent Native American history of forced displacement and exile.
When Lamarr threatens the town by sending the brute Mongo, who punches a horse (a nod to Sid Caesar who once did the same) and crushes saloon patrons behind a piano (music’s charms don’t always soothe the savage breast) Bart subdues him with an exploding candygram and wins over both the townspeople and Mongo. Lamarr’s attempt to undermine Bart by having the “Teutonic titwillow” Lili Von Shtupp seduce him also backfires. His other plans having failed Lamarr plans an all-out attack on Rock Ridge with every Western villain he can find, including Methodists.
There is no blackface in Blazing Saddles, since Bart’s intelligence and charm do the work of mocking racism, but when Bart and Jim sneak into Lamarr’s camp in Klan robes it’s one of Bart’s hands that gives him away. Jim tries to save the situation by calling him “Rhett”, but Bart unmasked, says, “And now for my next impression…Jesse Owens!” He then convinces the townspeople and the railroad workers to join together in racial harmony to build a duplicate Rock Ridge which they use as a trap to capture Lamarr’s gang.
The big fight scene seems at first like a parody of other westerns, with a shot of Bart and Jim accidentally punching each other in the chaos, but it quickly spills out into the Paramount lot and into another film studio where Dom DeLuise is directing a Busby Berkeley-style musical, albeit with all-male dancers in tuxedoes. This recalls an early scene in Whoopee where several of the men are dressed in tuxedoes for Sally’s wedding. The fight continues into the Paramount commissary and then into the street. Bart chases Lamarr and shoots him in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater where Blazing Saddles is playing. Bart and Jim then go in to watch the end of the film. Shooting the bad guy isn’t enough; there must be an epilogue in which Bart, back in Rock Ridge, tells the townspeople he’s leaving to fight injustice. The townspeople respond with a unanimous “BULLSHIT!” It’s funny, but also a stern reminder that racism cannot be solved by a single person. Bart and Jim then ride out to where a Cadillac waits to drive them off into the sunset. While Bart himself is not transformed, but rather, like Henry Williams, a character who draws on skills he always possessed, the people of Rock Ridge are left kinder and more tolerant, and the former railroad workers are given land on which to build homes. There is uncertainty and ambiguity in this ending, but, ultimately, I find the conclusion of Blazing Saddles much more satisfying than the fairy tale ending of Whoopee. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, though, as the experience of watching any film must ultimately leave the viewer transformed.

Works Cited
Rischin, Moses and Livingston, John, Jews of the American West, Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1991
Most, Andrea. Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical, Harvard University Press, 2004
Sacks, Mike, Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, New York, Penguin Books, 2014
Whoopee, 1930 film directed by Thornton Freeland
Blazing Saddles, 1974 film directed by Mel Brooks

Unchained Malady.

How do you know if it’s a cold or an allergy? Here’s a helpful guide to distinguishing the two.

  1. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, or a sore throat.
  2. Symptoms include fever.
  3. Symptoms include itchy, watery eyes.
  4. Symptoms include general achiness.
  5. A skin rash is present.
  6. Caused by a viral infection.
  7. Caused by the immune system reacting to something usually harmless.
  8. Symptoms last several weeks.
  9. May be treated with an antihistamine.
  10. Only requires medical attention in extreme cases.
  11. Was the star of an ‘80’s sitcom.
  12. Speaks fluent Portuguese.
  13. Prefers West Coast hip-hop.
  14. Never leaves a tip.
  15. Always falls for spam email.
  16. Doesn’t make threats, only promises—oh, and a good pork roll.
  17. Doesn’t know the way to San Jose.
  18. Arrested several times for jaywalking.
  19. Can’t read cursive.
  20. Presents as blisters on the hands and feet after exposure to cold and humidity.

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