4.28.2009

I SHOULD DRINK LESS DIET DR. PEPPER

Every now and then I'll forget that I almost died once -- or twice, depending on your perspective. Then something will happen and I'll be reminded. Like I was yesterday.

I had persistent, flu-like symptoms for almost a month and, although the sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy-head, fever blah blah blah have dissipated, the headaches have remained.

It's those sinus headaches, the ones that feel like you've been blowing your nose every five minutes with sand paper, the ones that make the veins in your temples pulse like Morse Code, the ones that make you snap at cab drivers and waitresses (more so than you, or should I say
I, usually do).

So yesterday I decided to go to the doctor.

The problem is, I don't really have a doctor. Actually, that's not true. I have many doctors: a cardiologist; a neurologist; a dermatologist and enough other specialists to start a softball team. Or league. That's the great thing about having survived a life-threatening illness (or two), you make plenty of friends in the medical profession.

But I don't have a general practitioner, the kind of doctor who used to carry a little black leather bag and come to your house when you had a cold, and get paid with a chicken dinner and a cigar (back when it was still socially acceptable for doctors to smoke).

I had a "primary care doctor" for a while, but the problem was I wasn't "primary" enough on his list of concerns. I'd call the office on a Monday morning with an ailment and they'd offer me an appointment on Friday, a year and a half from now.

"Unless you're seriously ill," the low-paid, heavily accented scheduler would say when I called.

Let's ignore the fact that, if I were seriously ill, I wouldn't be going to a general praticioner, I'd be going to an emergency room. But the larger point is this: thanks to the scourge known as Managed Care, many of us who are lucky enough to have health care insurance are forced to use a single, over-worked doctor as the gate keeper for all ailments, great and small.

And that's why, when I signed up for my new Freelancer's Union insurance this year, I selected a plan that allows me to see specialists without the dreaded paper referral. This is good, because it allows me to go directly to the doc who can treat me without passing Go in the way-too-crowded GP's office.

But it's bad when I have regular, old, non-life-threatening ailments like a headache.


So recently I've been going to a walk-in clinic on the West side of New York City, a bustling facility staffed by a team of attractive young doctors who remind me a bit of the cast of E.R. (or Grey's Anatomy, for those of you under 30.)

I don't know if these doctors are all sleeping with each other, like doctors do on TV medical shows. But I hope so. I think frequent sexual congress contributes to a happier workplace, as long as the activity in question does not take place during business hours. (Unless it's happening in a supply closet where, apparently, all doctors like to get busy.)

The only drawback to the walk-in clinic is that sometimes -- like on the morning after an international pandemic has been announced -- lots of people are inclined to walk in at the same time.

Apparently, I was not the only one who added 2 + 2 and came up with swine flu. (cue music sting)

After all, my girlfriend did just come back from Cancun, not far from where those Spring Break kids from Queens stirred up a nice, steaming pot of international contagion. You never know if one of them wandered from the "party" beach to the "family" beach, puked up last night's wine coolers, and left the gift that keeps on giving.

At 11 a.m.I arrived at the office, signed in and made my way to the unairconditioned waiting room, where half the people seated were wearing Michael Jackson germ masks. Sadly, none of them arose and broke into a choreographed Thriller dance upon my arrival.

Good thing they were all wearing masks though, because they were coughing like Typhoid Marys with a two-pack-a-day habit. I wonder if they had the politically correct foresight to purchase their own masks, or if they were politely (but no doubt strongly) suggested by the front desk staff upon their arrival.

As I sat there listening to the cacophony of coughs spewing out into the warm, moist air, I began to feel as if i was in a WW II-era germ warfare study. If I didn't have swine flu, by golly, I was gonna git it -- one way or another!

After two hours of waiting I walked up to the counter and looked at the sign-in sheet.

"Our patient list is confidential," the male clerk scolded, pulling the clipboard away.

"Okay, but why is my name crossed out?" I asked.

"Because your chart has been pulled," he said. "But our patient list is confidential."

"Okay," I said. "So, confidentially speaking, how much longer do I have to wait?"

"There are five more ahead of you," he said dismissively.

"Really? That's funny, because my friend Abe Lincoln told me I was next," I said, slipping a crisp new $5 bill across the counter.

"Sir, are you trying to bribe me?" the clerk stammered.

"Of course not," I said. "I need change for the snack machine."

And then, armed with a bag of Dorito Munchie Mix, I returned to my (potentially) pox-ridden seat.

About thirty minutes later the nurse called my name. She led me into an examining room and asked me to have a seat on the examining table.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Well, I went to London about a month ago," I said. "Have you ever been there? It's nice."

"Sir, I mean what brings you here today?" she replied, looking at my chart.

"Oh yeah, anyway, I went to London about a month ago and I came home with a bad case of the flu. And some Cadbury Flake bars, which are delicious, by the way."

"So you have the flu?" the nurse asked.

"No," I said. "Not any more. It's all cleared up."

"Then why are you here?"

"Because I have a headache, which I think was caused by the flu, which I no longer have. Does that make sense?"

"No it doesn't," she said. "Let me take your blood pressure."

She wrapped the cuff around my left arm, placed a stethoscope on it and then deflated the cuff.

"What's my score?" I asked.

"114 over 80," she said.

"Is that good?"

"Very."

"Do I get a prize?"

"No. Have a seat. The doctor will be in shortly."

A few minutes later a pretty, blond-haired female doctor walked in, looking just like she belonged on a TV doctor show.

"Do you spent a lot of time in the supply closet?" I asked.

"What?" she replied.

"Nothing," I apologized. I have a headache. Sorry."

She asked me what medications I was taking. I pulled out my list from my wallet.

"Let's see," I said." I take Warfarin -- generic Coumadin -- 10 mg, 6 days per week and 7.5 mg one day per week. That's for my two prosthetic heart valves, the aortic and mitral. I also take Toprol XL, 20 mg each day, for a heart arrhythmia. I also take Cozaar, 20 mg a day, for my blood pressure, which your nurse said was very good, so maybe I don't need to take that anymore. That would be nice. Oh, and I also take a little bit of Celexa, for depression. I'm not sure how many milligrams because I cut it up into four pieces, which is better than cutting myself up into four pieces, which I might do if I didn't take the Celexa."

I then briefed her on my medical history: endocarditis, a bacterial infection acquired during oral surgery and undiagnosed until I was nearly dead; open-heart surgery, to replace two of the heart valves that the infection destroyed; non-invasive brain surgery, to repair an aneurysm that was caused by a piece of the bacteria that lodged in my brain. And high blood pressure, primarily caused, I believe, by excessive consumption of Diet Dr. Pepper.

"Wow," the pretty doctor said incredulously. "You should drink less Diet Dr. Pepper."

"Good idea," I replied. "So what about my headache."

She agreed that the headache was most likely a remnant of a sinus infection and offered to write me a prescription for antibiotics.

"When was the last time you had your blood thinner level checked?" she asked.

"Last week. It was high - the INR was 4.2. My cardiologist usually tries to keep it between 2.5 and 3.5."

"Well, as I said, it's most likely a sinus infection," the doctor replied. "But, with an out-of-range INR, there is always the possibility of a brain bleed. Considering your history, I'd like to send you for a cat scan."

"When," I asked, surprised at her suggestion.

"Today," she said. "We do them on 34th Street."

"Right there on the sidewalk?"

"No, in our radiology department," she said. "Come on out and we'll set it up."

Less than an hour later, I was lying on a long white table in a fluorescent lit room, about to get my brain scanned.

This is nothing new for me. If I had gotten frequent flier miles for every cat scan or MRI I've sat through - I mean laid through -- I would be in Mexico right now, which would bring us right back to where we started in this little story.

But the last time I had a cat scan was more than a decade ago, when I went back into the hospital to check on the progress of my brain surgery. Just between you and me, I had hoped never to see a cat scan machine again. Or a hospital, for that matter.

"Okay just lie there and it will all be over in a little bit," the radiologist promised.

"That's what I my wife said on our wedding night," I replied.

"What?"

"I'm sorry," I apologized. "I have a headache. And I drink too much Diet Dr. Pepper. Oh and by the way, I have two prosthetic heart valves that were put in -- what's the right way to say it, installed? They were installed in 1997. And I also had an aneurysm in the right central cerebral artery which was sealed up with glue, so you might notice that when you do the x-ray. Oh and I also had a little teeny weeny stroke, so you may see a small area of cerebral infarc. So don't be surprised at any of that."

"Wow," the technician said. "You should drink less Diet Dr. Pepper."

And then he walked into his little control room and closed the door. As you know, if you've ever had a CT scan (which I hope you haven't), the radiologist is not in the room with you when the test is being conducted. He is at the command center, taking pictures of your brain, and avoiding the dangerous x-rays that are coursing through your skull.

A few moments later I felt the table rise about two feet in the air, and slowly, pneumatically move backwards. It felt a little bit like lying in the thing that catapulted Spock's body into outer space after he (SPOILER ALERT!) dies at the end of Star Trek II.

In my (brain damaged) head I kept thinking: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one. Live long, and prosper.

The table came to a halt with my head surrounded by a large, white, plastic oval shaped scanner. Inside the oval, something started spinning, taking multiple images of my brain. I wondered if I should smile, or if this was like when you get your drivers license photo, where they prefer you to look right at the camera without emotion.

The table moved back and forth as the x-ray device spun around me, whirring like a dentist's drill. After about two minutes it was done, and the table zoomed back and down to its starting point.

"Okay you can get up now," the technician said. "When was your embolization?"

"It was in December of 1997 at Columbia Presbyterian," I said, as I stood up. "So how does everything look in there?"

"Well the head of radiology will need to review the films," he said. "And then we'll send the results to your doctor."

This is what always happens. Good news or bad news, the technicians always wear a poker face.

"But I'm not gonna die or anything?" I asked.

"Not from what I can see," he said, as he walked me out to the lobby.

But here's one thing he didn't say: "Good luck." In my experience, if a radiologist says good luck to you after a cat scan or an MRI, you had better write out your will. Because the news is not good.

And now, I wait. There is every reason to think that there is absolutely nothing to be worried about. But when you've visited with death once (or twice) before, you are always prepared for it to return, to complete the job. And it will some day, for sure. I just hope that day is a long way off.

In the meantime, I'm quitting Diet Dr. Pepper, cold turkey. I may be brain damaged, but I can still take a hint.

4.23.2009

MY TRIP TO THE AUTOGRAPH SHOW IN JERSEY - PART 2

When you walk into a sci-fi or horror convention, the first thing you notice are the people dressed in costume. And the Chiller Theatre Expo was no different.

I'm not sure what sort of brain wiring makes you want to walk around in public dressed as a fictional character. That is a level of oddness that I have never achieved, surprisingly enough. But it is a lot of fun to watch the costumed crazies mingle with unsuspecting hotel guests.

So much for that relaxing vacation in Parsippany.

What is different about Chiller, though, compared to a Star Trek or Dark Shadows convention, is its all-encompassing nature. Gatherings devoted to specific TV shows, movies, or genres tend to attract more costumed devotees.

Attendees at those events know that their fellow obsessives will get it, that they won't be barraged with questions like, "Who are you supposed to be?" Or, "Do you dress like this all the time?" Or, "Do you live in your parents' basement?" (Likely Answers: a Klingon, sort of, and yes.)

The modern memorabilia show is totally unlike a traditional Star Trek convention, or the Dark Shadows Festivals I used to attend in my geekier youth. At those events, there are usually three days (Friday night through Sunday) of very specific presentations designed to appeal to fans of that show alone.

Cast members (from stars to background players) appear and sign autographs (usually for no additional charge), but there are also Q&A sessions with actors, producers, and creative and technical personnel. There are skits, special performances (both by cast members and fans), costume contests, memorabilia auctions, video screenings, off-site bus trips, Saturday night parties and closing banquets. There are also dedicated "dealer's rooms" where memorabilia is sold, but, again, what's for sale tends to be specifically related to the TV show being honored.

The Chiller show (and the many others like it) are generalized pop culture marketplaces, focusing far more on commerce than on the celebration of a TV show, movie or genre. As such, you will find fewer people dressed in costume, but there are still some -- and they are usually in great demand for picture taking with attendees.

"Dressing up" doesn't just mean that you wear the regulation Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 uniform you bought on EBay. The fun can also be extended to hair styles, make-up, outlandish T-shirts, body art, piercings and every imaginable mode of self-expression. The only thing you are unlikely to see is a suit and tie.

The genesis of Chiller Theatre is the classic horror film, so there were people dressed up as vampires, even a makeup artist constructing temporary fangs on goth-loving fans in the dealer's room. But at this particular convention there were also guests from the world of rock and roll, professional wrestling and pornography, as well as a dizzyingly eclectic collection of mainstream TV and movie actors.

In that sense, the Chiller con is a clearing house for all manner of pop culture weirdness.

It's not unusual to spot 86-year-old star of F Troop star
Larry Storch chatting with a surgically enhanced Playboy playmate six decades his junior. Or a faded wrestling star like The Iron Sheik talking to the guy who played Eddie on The Munsters.

There is a core group of these performers who appear at shows of this nature all around the country, and they all seem to know each other. Many have the same representation. And almost all have the same career prospects.

Maggie and I walked into the Hilton on Sunday and practically stepped right into the main autograph area. There, in the spacious hotel atrium, in full view of all who had not yet paid their admission were Tony Curtis, Tippi Hedren, Dwayne Hickman, Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemmon, Erin Gray, Star Trek actors Walter Koenig, Rene Aberjonois, Michael Dorn and Garrett Wang, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees, his daughter, actress Ami Dolenz, botoxed '80s pop star Taylor Dayne and others.

Each was seated behind a 4' skirted table in front of a wall/sign adorned with their name and pictures of them in their younger -- and more successful -- days. Burly security personnel patrolled the perimeter of the square, preventing gawkers from wandering in without a wristband.

"Ya gotta pay first," one of them barked at me, in his best customer service representative voice, when I stepped over the imaginary line of death.

Guys who work at conventions tend to have the same sallow complexion and bad attitude as your local video store clerk. And they are probably paid just as poorly, which may explain their consistent level of dickishness.

After much searching, we finally discovered the line to pay for admission, hidden halfway across the hotel in a coat check room.

"That's $25. Each. Cash." said an extra large woman in a medium-sized t-shirt, grasping thick stacks of $20s in both hands.

Internal Revenue investigators take note: fan conventions are a cash business. Some of the vendors in the dealer's room now have mobile credit card readers, but admission, autographs and most of the memorabilia sales are cash-only. And no receipts either, so don't bother to ask.

Not that you can claim a deduction for an "autograph from the guy who played Jason in Friday the 13th," but it would be nice to try. I'm writing about it. Doesn't that make it a business expense?

With our official attendee wristbands in place, and my wallet $50 lighter, Maggie and I made out way toward the memorabilia marketplace.

I always tend to start in this room, although I rarely buy anything anymore. Typically you see the same vendors from show to show, often selling the same items. I can't imagine what kind of life that must be, packing and unpacking your wares every weekend, going from hotel ballroom to hotel ballroom, eating fast food and sitting on your ass for 10 hours. No wonder so many of them look like Jabba the Hutt.

When I was a kid, most vendors would sell old stuff, collectibles, valuable memorabilia from the original run of a classic show, like Star Trek, most of which was originally created and marketed for children.

For example: at one point, my collection of convention-acquired booty included the Barnabas Collins board game, the Dark Shadows View Master set and a large variety of trading cards packaged with 20 year-old pieces of gum. No, I didn't try the gum. Because to do so would have meant opening the package, thus destroying its collectible value. Duh.

Today's vendors primarily sell three categories of products: officially licensed toys and collectibles designed for emotionally stunted adult men; bootlegged (but nicely packaged) DVDS of cartoons, movies and TV shows otherwise unavailable through legal channels; and classic memorabilia, like original movie posters.

My -- actually my girlfriend's -- apartment is filled to capacity with all of my various collections, so our visit to the dealer's room was short and purchase-free. The only thing I was tempted to buy was an original poster from a cheesy horror movie called Blood Bath, but since I already have 17 horror movie posters on the walls of my -- actually my girlfriend's -- apartment, I decided against it. That decision was reaffirmed, not surprisingly, by my girlfriend.

And now it was time to get to the business at hand: autographs.

At most autograph shows, the celebrities are all packed in to the same general area, which makes sense for them and for us. But not at Chiller. There were at least six different areas of the hotel where autograph signing was taking place, and the organization of the celebrities was comically haphazard.

Noel Neill, the 89-year-old actress who played Lois Lane on the 1950s Superman TV show was seated next to LA Law star Corbin Bernsen, and diagonally across from Zach Galligan from Gremlins.

In an adjoining room, John Wesley Shipp of The Flash TV series was behind 1991 Playboy Playmate Cheryl Bachman (which I'm sure he enjoyed) and across from Sly's brother Frank Stallone (which I'm sure he did not).

And, out in a tent in the parking lot (which, by the way, was not easy to find) cast members from the 1960s adventure series The Land of the Giants were intermingled with 80's-era wrestlers like Nikolai Volkov and rock hasbeens like Mark Slaughter.

Nowhere was there a list of all the celebrities in attendance, or a grid of their locations or a map of how to get there. You just had to figure it out -- and make sure not to spend all of your money before you discovered another D-List treasure trove.

The trick is to avoid getting caught up in the vegetable soup of vaguely familiar names and faces, and to focus on the ones who brung you there in the first place. That was my plan, but not necessarily the way it turned out.

After scoping out the autograph areas in the immediate vicinity of Registration, and nearly bumping into Zacherly, the 90-year-old host of the the 1960s-era, Saturday night movie series on WPIX-TV that gave this convention its name, I came upon Elizabeth Shephard.

Shephard played the title character -- opposite the great Vincent Price -- in the 1964 horror film The Tomb of Ligeia, part of a very cool series of Edgar Allan Poe films directed by the legendary Roger Corman.

A confession: I have never seen
The Tomb of Ligeia. And I wouldn't know Elizabeth Shephard if I tripped over her on the way to meet Adam West.

But she was sitting right there, looking so pleasant, with a really cool poster on the wall behind her. And there was nobody at her table. And she made eye contact with me. And I do love Vincent Price. So I asked her for an autograph.

Sensing where I was coming from, Ms. Shephard signed "Fond Memories of Vincent..." on the picture I selected from the assortment available on her table -- a picture that featured Price's character prominently. We had a lovely chat, took a picture together and then said our goodbyes.


"Tell me again why you paid to meet someone you have never heard of?" Maggie said, as we were safely out of earshot.

"I love Vincent Price, but he's dead, so I can't get his autograph." I answered. "Plus I always need a warm up before meeting someone I'm really excited about. And she was really nice."

"I'd be nice too," Maggie added. "If you paid me twenty bucks."

I am not entirely comfortable with the paying-for-autographs dynamic but, as I said to Dwayne Hickman, that's what gets the actors to show up. They wouldn't drag their aging, formerly famous bodies out of bed to hang out in a hotel ballroom in New Jersey if there wasn't some cold, hard cash involved. That's life, and it can be soul-crushing, if you don't have the right attitude about it.

As the J. Geils Band once sang, "My blood runs cold. My memory has just been sold."


It can also awkward, particularly if you get to a table and the celebrity has a Chinese buffet of options: autograph only; autograph on an 8x10 we provide; autograph on an 8x10 or other item you provide; photograph, but no flash pictures, please; absolutely no video, etc.

Thankfully, most of the celebs have a second person at their table to handle the business side of the transaction, leaving them to sit there, smiling, as if they've been waiting their whole career just to met YOU. But other, lower-tier types don't have -- or don't want to pay -- someone to sit with them. They do the dealing themselves, and it can be a less-than-magical experience.

I prefer to interact with the handler first, pay my money and then address the celebrity once he commerce has been completed. Unfortunately, sometimes the actor will interrupt this plan and engage me in conversation. Sometimes when this happens I forget to pay, which leave me in the awkward position of returning after I have left with the fee. That's always fun.

In fact, that's what happened with Elizabeth Shephard. When I returned, she was already chatting with another fan. So I slid a $20 along the table toward her, like a tip to a lap dancer.

I also like my interactions with these people to be memorable both for me and for them, so I tend to prepare in advance. I do research on the Internet to learn unusual facts that I can whip out at just the right moment. That type of thing can create an interaction that goes far beyond, "I loved you when I was a kid."

You can only say -- or hear -- that so many times before everybody starts to get bored.

Next up at Chiller was an important one for me: Noel Neill, Lois Lane in
The Adventures of Superman. I wasn't around for the initial run of the series in the 1950s, but I watched religiously every afternoon in the '70s, back in the dark days when kids TV was relegated to black & white sitcom reruns and Looney Tunes cartoons from 2:30-5 p.m. on the two local, independent channels.

"You look amazing," I said to the now 89-year-old actress, after she had completed signing the picture I had brought with me, and another I selected from her table. I have learned to save the small talk for before or after the signing. You don't really want to distract someone when they're trying to remember how to spell your name, particularly when they are pushing 90.

"What's the secret to your longevity?" I asked Ms. Neill, after she had put down the Sharpie. "I'm 40 and I can barely get out of bed."

She pointed at a man seated next to her, who I assume was her husband. He laughed and waved it off.

"It's not my fault," Mr. Lois Lane said, with a chuckle.

"I always played a lot of sports," she added.

"What about vitamins," I asked. "Do you take a lot of vitamins."

"Nope," she said. "I'm supposed to, but I don't."

"Well It seems like you've got a good attitude about life, a
nd attitude is important," I said. "I'll keep watching the Superman DVDs and remember that!"

Exeunt.

Okay, it wasn't my smoothest interaction, but she's very old. And folks in that age group aren't always chatty cathies. Anyway, I've wanted to meet her since I was 5, so I felt good about it - even though I lied about owning Superman DVDs.


Next we headed for the atrium area, where the "headliners" were arranged in a large square, with attendees milling about in the center. Each actor had their own line, leading to their table.

We started with Erin Gray who is probably best known by TV audiences as the female lead in the 1980s sitcom Silver Spoons. While that that may be true, she is best known by me -- and other former young boys of the late '70s -- as Colonel Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the short-lived sci-fi series that attempted to capitalize on the success of Star Wars.

I introduced myself (always first name AND last), shook her hand, and asked the same question I had asked Noel Neill.

"You look great," I said, not lying (for a change). "What's the secret to your longevity?"

Unlike Ms. Neill, Ms. Gray had a lot to say, and it was all about Tai Chi. She swore by it and I'm inclined to believe her because she is nearly 60 years old and still smokin' hot. Either that, or I'm getting old. Or maybe both. Regardless, she looks good.

"I just did a movie and I was the oldest one in the cast," she told me. "But I was more energetic than people half my age."

She talked about the mind-body connection and how Tai Chi builds total-body wellness, not muscle.

"I think we have the makings of an infomercial here Erin," I said, as I noticed a line of fat, balding forty-something guys glaring at me for making them wait to meet their childhood crush.

"Thanks for asking about that," Erin said, after we took a picture together. "It really is my passion."


After my chat with Erin Gray, I moved down the line to Dwayne Hickman. And here is where I must add another confession: I never actually watched Dobie Gillis as a kid. It wasn't on in reruns in New York, at least when I was growing up. My awareness of the show has more to do with Hickman's co-star Bob Denver, who went on to play the title character in one of my childhood favorites, Gilligan's Island.

But, just like Vincent Price, Bob Denver has gone to the unchartered desert isle known as Heaven, where they have no autograph shows (at least as far as I know). So Dwayne Hickman will have to do in the meantime.

I pulled out a picture I had bought in advance, at a memorabilia store in Manhattan.

"I wasn't sure if you'd have pictures, so I brought this one that I've had forever," I lied. "I'm not sure what it's from though."

"Oh it's from Dobie Gillis," he said. "In the second season Maynard and I went into the military."

I might have known that, if I had ever watched the show. But I didn't mention that to Mr. Hickman. Overall it was a pleasant chat, but I found him to be a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing. I wondered if it was me, or just the experience of appearing at an event such as this for a guy who had long-since stopped acting and moved on to a successful career as a TV executive.

Also, I think his handler/son/grandson/whomever it was over-charged me, but I wasn't about to haggle. That would seem like bad manners.

"Again, you never watched him when you were a kid?" Maggie asked, after she had snapped the $10 picture.

"Nope," I answered.

"Okay," she said. "Just checking."

Next we visited the table of actor Tony Curtis, star of Some Like it Hot and The Sweet Smell of Success. The once-virile Mr. Curtis is 83 now, and mostly confined to a wheelchair, following a near-fatal bout with pneumonia. But the personality that made him one of the biggest stars of his era still shines through.

"I signed it 'Will he or won't he?'" Tony said to me, as I genuflected beside him. "Because your name is Will. Get it?"

"Yes," I said. "Thanks for that."

Argubaly, Tony Curtis was the biggest name, most successful, best known of all the talent at Chiller. And one of the oldest, and most frail. But he still made the effort to come up with a play on words, using my name. For lack of a better term, that's classy. That's a guy who is happy to feel the love and admiration of others, as he approaches his final act.

Seated next to Tony was Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Birds and his not-at-all-classic Marnie. She's also the mother of Melanie Griffith and a committed animal rights activist.

"May I shake your hand?" I asked, when she had not extended hers to greet me.

"No," she said curtly. "I don't do that. I think there's too much of that, all this hand skaking. I think we should abolish it."

"Well, that may take some work on your part," I replied. "How about a fist bump,"

Ms. Hedren acquiesed and we bumped fists, like Barack and Michele on Election Night. I then proceeded to ask her about her animal preserve, with Maggie (the animal lover) chiming in with her approval.

Like with Erin Gray, asking Ms. Hedren about something close to her heart elicited a lengthy answer, the kind that leads to impatient looks from the handler and (again) the line of fans behind us. But who cares? This will likely be the only time I ever get to shoot the shit with Tippi Hedren, and I was going to make it count.

"So you're almost like a lobbyist, when it comes to animal rights?" I asked.

"Not a lobbyist," she corrected me. "I have actually gotten laws passed in the state of California."

This continued for a while, concluding with a request (from Ms. Hedren) that Maggie write to her, so they could continue to chat. Maggie tends to have this effect, both on animals and those who love them.

Next we visited with Walter Koenig, who played Ensign Pavel Chekov on the original Star Trek series and in the first six feature films. Again, I have never been a Trekkie, but the sign above his head said $25. How could I turn down an opportunity to meet an origional crew member of the Starship Enterprise for less than I had paid for Dobie Gillis?

You see what happens to me at these things? It's all an exercise in justification.

"So what's going on in California with Prop 8?" I asked him, as if he was somehow responsible.

"Well, I think we're getting there," he replied.

For Maggie's benefit, I made a reference to the fact that Koenig had been George Takei's (Mr. Sulu) best man at his recent wedding (to another man), and how it struck me as odd that California and New York had been beaten to the legalization of gay marriage by the heartland state of Iowa. Koenig was perfectly polite, but clearly bored. And who can blame him. He's been doing shows like this for more than 30 years, and he'll probably be doing them until he boldly goes into the ground.

When I mentioned that Maggie was not "indoctrinated" (meaning that she wasn't a Star Trek fan), Koenig finally cracked a smile.

"And that is probably to her credit," he smirked.

"I'm going to make believe I didn't hear you say that," I replied. I laughed. He didn't.

"You don't even watch Star Trek," Maggie said, as we walked away. "I've never seen you watch in the 10 years I've known you."

"Yes I do. I mean I did, when I was little," I shot back. "Sort of."

"Do you even like him?" she asked.

"Ummm, yes," I said. "But less so now."

And that, of course, is the biggest risk in all of this. What if you meet your childhod idol and he turns out to be a dick? Let's put it this way: thank God Walter Koenig was never my childhood idol.

The final stop --or so I thought -- of my autograph tour was Micky Dolenz from the Monkees.

Unlike the majority of the celebrities I had paid to meet so far, I actually did grow up watching Micky. I enjoyed Monkees reruns on TV in the '70s, and went to see him in concert many times when the Monkees reunited periodically in the mid-80's and early '90s.

I had already met Micky once -- for free -- backstage at a Broadway theater when he was appearing in a play with the husband of a friend of mine. I thought that sharing this fact with Micky might inspire him to regard me as something more than a pathetic groupie, but sadly, no such luck.

He barely looked at me when he signed my picture, a group shot that also included a Peter Tork autograph I got last fall at a show in Boston. I then struck up a conversation with his wife about our mutual friend. She was interested. Micky was not. So I chose to forgo the extra $20 for a snapshot with him.

A note to celebrities charging fans to meet you: at least make an effort to feign interest. You can do it. You're an actor.

And then, much to Maggie's delight, we prepared to leave -- until somebody mentioned "the tent."

"Who's in the tent?" I asked one of the security guards.

"I don't know," he said. That right there is what you should expect if you ever go to a Chiller convention. You're pretty much on your own.

"Really, haven't you had enough?" Maggie asked.

"Let's just go look," I pleaded. "I don't want to miss anybody significant."

"There isn't anybody significant," Maggie shot back.

"You know, you're becoming very saracastic in your old age," I said. "Let's find the tent."

We found the tent and it was packed with all manner of odd characters - dozens of D-list celebrities of all ages, shapes and sizes.

"There's Pat Harrington," I said to Maggie. "He played Schneider on One Day at a Time. I'd like to meet him."

"Why?" Maggie deadpanned.

"Because I actually did watch that show when I was a kid. And I actually did like it."

Harrington, who looks great at age 74, was seated next to Richard Kline, who played Larry on Three's Company. I briefly thought about getting Kline's autograph too, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Even I do.

"Your dad was in Vaudeville, wasn't he?" I asked Harrington after we shook hands.

"Oh yeah," he said, with a charming smile. "He was a song and dance man, and in between songs he'd do..."

"A little bit of patter?" I interrupted.

"Exactly," Harington laughed. "But the best part was the people he'd bring home with him. I'd wake up and there would be Pat O'Brien and Bing Crosby at the breakfast table. And my moher would have to make them all eggs."

Harrington stood up to pose for a picture with me, and laughed when Maggie kept shooting.

"Jeez, how many pictures is she gonna take," he said.

"She's just doing what she's told," I added.

"Hey thanks for asking about my dad," Harrington said, as he shook my hand. "Those are some great memories.

And that was it. My best, sweetest, most fun interaction was the one that almost didn't happen. I had spent a lot of money, more than I had planned (as always), but I had a great time, and ended up with some stories to tell.

We headed out to the front entrance of the hotel, I chatted awkwardly one more time with Dwayne Hickman, and Maggie and I boarded the shuttle to the train station, along with a KISS fan who had come to meet original drummer Peter Kriss.

"So how many of those people did you ACTUALLY watch when you were growing up?" Maggie asked me, as we rode the train home.

"That's not the point," I said.

"How is that not the point when you say that's the reason you like to go to these things?" she said.

"Whatever." I said. "It was still fun."

And it was. For a few hours, I got a chance to remember what it was like to feel like I belonged, like I was amongst people just like me. I got a chance to be a fan again.

Because no matter how cool I try to be, deep down I will always be that dorky kid, sitting on the train, proudly admiring all the cool new pieces in his collection.

4.20.2009

MY TRIP TO THE AUTOGRAPH SHOW IN JERSEY - PART 1

There I was, standing outside the Hilton in Parsippany, New Jersey, explaining to Dobie Gillis why I had come all the way from New York City to meet him.

Admittedly, I didn't make the ninety-minute train trip from Manhattan just to meet Dwayne Hickman, the 74 year-old star of the popular 1960s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. There were also plenty of other TV and movie "stars" of various degrees of descending illumination appearing at the Chiller Theatre Memorabilia Expo, each one available to meet fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures -- for a price.

"I come to these shows because it gives me an opportunity to thank people who gave me a lot of happiness as a kid," I said to Hickman, whom I had met earlier in the afternoon. "And that opportunity comes with a price, otherwise you guys wouldn't show up. I understand that, and I am completely comfortable with it."

In Mr. Hickman's case, the price was $30 -- $20 for an autographed 8x10, plus an additional $10 to take a picture with him, or of him.

"Thank you," he said, with a trace of polite discomfort. "That's very nice."

Hickman was waiting with his suitcase for a shuttle to the airport, to take him back home to Los Angeles. He had happened to walk outside with his wife and a young man (grandson?) who had served as the money-taker and deal-maker at his autograph table, just as my girlfriend Maggie and I were in the midst of a debate.

The topic: why I like to attend events such as the one we had just left, why I enjoy meeting fading (or faded) celebrities and why paying hundreds of dollars to spend a beautiful Spring afternoon in a New Jersey hotel ballroom seems to me like a good idea.

The answer is both complicated and not entirely consistent. Because what I told Hickman was true, but only partially. I enjoy the "thank you" aspect of these events yes, but perhaps even more so, I enjoy the experience of being in a room filled with weirdos who really like the same things I do, or once did.

I've been going to fan conventions of one sort or another for 30 years.

My habit started in the late 1970s with comic book shows at various, lower-tier hotels in New York City. My mother and I would hop on the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station, walk across the street to the Statler Hilton Hotel and enter what seemed to the 10-year-old me to be Xanadu.


Back then, I collected Richie Rich comics with the obsessive-compulsive passion of an historical archivist. I would buy my new comics at the local candy store (owned by a curmudgeon named Stan and his chain-smoking wife Pearl), read them carefully and then gently slide them into specially designed, acid-free plastic bags with an archival backing board.

The hermetically sealed comics would then be placed, in alphabetical order, into large, acid free cardboard cases called longboxes. Every title in my burgeoning collection was recorded on a charmingly analog, index card filing system, with the eventual goal of collecting every single Richie Rich title published since the character's debut in the 1950s.

I never achieved my goal (I made it to about 1,300 or so, all of which I still have at home, to my girlfriend's dismay) but I had a lot of fun trying.

In the world of late-'70s comic collecting, Richie Rich wasn't taken particularly seriously by the superhero-obsessed fanboys. This was good news for me, because it meant that prices for back issues were often affordable on a 'tween allowance. As long as I could tolerate the overweight, Whopper-chomping vendor laughing at me when I asked if "he had any Harvey's" (Harvey was the publisher) I would often walk away with a big stack of comics for far less than a big stack of cash.

While I roamed the vast hotel ballroom, filled with comics and the parents-basement-dwelling adult men who loved them, my mom would sit in the ladies "lounge" reading the latest works of Erica Jong, Sidney Sheldon or Ira Levin. You might say we shared an interest in the age-appropriate popular literature of our shared time.

On the train ride home I would carefully inspect my comic booty, still buzzing with excitement like I had hit the Lotto.

By the time I reached high school, my interests had moved from comic books to Dark Shadows, a supernatural soap opera that had originally aired on ABC in the 1960s. I first watched the show in reruns in 1982 and was immediately hooked on the larger-than-life quirkiness of vampire Barnabas Collins and his extended family of witches, werewolves and Frankenstinian monsters.

I began my own fan magazine, held club meetings with local fans in my Mom's crafts studio (also known as the family garage) and soon after became involved with the International Dark Shadows Society, an Indianapolis-based organization planning a convention in New York City. Working on that event I became acquainted with actor Jonathan Frid, the star of the series, and began working for him in various capacities.

That work gave me my earliest professional writing credits and took me to conventions all across the country. In many cases, I was involved in the planning and staging of these events, laying the groundwork for the career in corporate event production that I would later pursue.


I made my last appearance at a Dark Shadows convention in the early '90s, primarily to sell off the lingering remnants of my once-vast memorabilia collection. I closed that chapter, and got on with my adult life.

For the decade and a half that followed, I was convention free.


Two years ago, the daughter of one of my old Dark Shadows buddies found me on the Internet and invited me to a convention in Brooklyn. That event (which I attended with Maggie, doing her best to stifle her smirks) ignited the nostalgia bug in me, and I've been frequenting memorabilia shows ever since.

As we stood outside the Hilton on Sunday, and Maggie asked me why, I thought back to the feeling I would get as a kid when I walked into a hotel ballroom for a convention. It felt like stepping into Oz, a yellow brick road of colorful, cool stuff stretching out before me, as far as the eye could see.

In my epically troubled teen years, the Dark Shadows conventions were my refuge. I fought constantly with my mother and hated my high school and everyone in it, but I felt relaxed and at home amongst the convention crazies. I was popular, famous even, for my work with the star of the show and my broadly comedic appearances in the skits that played to capacity crowds in hotel ballrooms across America.

All my friends during my high school years were people I met through Dark Shadows. I even skipped my senior prom to attend a Dark Shadows Festival in Newark, where I managed to hook up with the hottest girl in attendance. I too lost my virginity on prom weekend, in my own uniquely dorky way.

The excitement of those days is long gone now, but I'm still reminded of that feeling when I go to a convention. It helps, of course, if I care about the subject of the event I'm attending. In my teens I went to a few Star Trek conventions in a effort to see what all the fuss was about. But, like that goatee I grew in my early 20s, it never really felt like me.

Prior to the Chiller Theatre Expo, I had studied the guest list and plotted my strategy. You can go broke at an event like this and, just like in Vegas, it's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. I've come home empty-pocketed from enough casinos to know when to stop, for the most part.

Maggie and I arrived from the city nice and early. This is key. Many of the people appearing at these events are elderly and, even though they are trained performers, their energy wains as the day progresses. I usually like to go on the first day of an event, while they are still happy to be there and optimistic about how much money they will make.

By Sunday afternoon, reality has set in and, if turnout has been low, the end result can be a bitter has-been who feels that he or she has prostituted him- or herself for less than he or she would like.


An that's some deep-rooted, psychological shit that you want to do your best to avoid. It can definitely harsh the buzz of meeting childhood idols.

Because when you think about it, it's got to be hard for these actors. Not so much the older ones, who haven't worked in decades. But for the younger ones, the ones that you still think of as "current," it has to be hard to come to the realization that your best work is behind you, that you need to sell yourself for $25 a pop in a hotel ballroom.

That's Maggie's perspective, I think, on all of this. I can see her point. There can be an air of tragedy and desperation, at times, to these events. That's why I choose to avoid the younger, more recent "celebs" and focus on the older ones.

My hope is, the further they get from fame, the more they appreciate a rare opportunity to bask in it again - even in the fluorescent limelight of a suburban hotel.


To be continued ...

4.17.2009

MOLASSES ON THE TABLE

I like my mother much better, now that she's dead.

I said that to a co-worker recently and she was shocked, as you may be. But it's true. My friend asked me why, and I had to think about it for a minute before I answered.

As a point of clarification, I am not happy that my mother is dead. I would much rather that she were alive right now, enjoying the company of the three granddaughters that made her happier than I had ever seen her. But, with more than a year since her death to reflect, I've come to the realization that many of the things I respect about my mother now, theoretically speaking, were the things that made our relationship prickly, practically speaking.

My co-worker suggested that it might be a case of "time heals all wounds." Now that she's gone, I absolve her from her sins because everything turned out for the best. That's sort of like the movie cliche of the tough teacher/coach/drill instructor who you hate because he busts your ass at school/on the court/in basic training, until you graduate/win the championship/become a soldier and beam with pride.

But that's not the way I feel. I forgive my mother her sins, yes, but that's got nothing to do with her being dead. That happened while she was still alive. As she devolved from a tall, overweight, physically imposing bully to a frail, wheelchair-bound old woman humbled by Parkinson's Disease, I made peace with the person that she had been in order to achieve peace with the person that she had become.

In that sense, she and I were able to salvage something of a cordial relationship in her later years.

I gave a speech at my mother's memorial and said things that I'm sure came as a surprise to some of her longtime friends, who remembered how she and I fought in my teens and early 20s. The theme of my speech (my father called it a "homily," in his completely non-ironic way) was that my mother was a teacher, that everyone in attendance had learned from her. People came up to me afterward -- a number of her former students, in fact -- and told me that I had characterized her perfectly.

Everything I said at the memorial was true, although admittedly spun positively in the spirit of the occasion. The fact is, I learned more from my mother than from anyone else I have ever known. Unfortunately, I learned more from her failings than from her successes.

My mother accomplished a lot, she touched (and taught) a lot of people and she had many friends who thought she was the most amazing person they had ever met. But she also was, at times, frustrated, regretful, bitter, petty and manipulative. And, although my family members might prefer I not say this, she was also physically and emotionally abusive.

My sister doesn't remember -- or has chosen to forget -- that last part. I understand that. It's in keeping with her "always look on the bright side" approach to living, and it's resulted in my sister growing up to be a much more pleasant person than I have turned out to be.

But I have not chosen to forget. I haven't forgotten about the hitting, slapping or hair pulling, or how strong she was, or how scared I was of her, at times. Nor have forgotten about the deft manipulation, both in what was said and what was not said, or the silent treatments, or the hurtful and emotionally damaging words and actions. Forgetting would mean deceiving myself. Forgetting means that you have decided to avoid the hard work of understanding why, which makes a tragedy even more tragic. If something bad happens and you come to know how or why it happened, you are less likely to let it happen again -- either to you, or by you.

My mother hit me more than she should have. Some people will say any hitting of a kid is unforgivable, but an important caveat is the era in which the kid was raised. Thirty-five years ago, standards were a bit different when it came to physical discipline by parents.

And that's a key point. If my mother hit me purely as a disciplinary act, that would mitigate her culpability. But it was more than that, and it went far beyond that. My mother lashed out at me physically and verbally in large part because she was frustrated and depressed, and because she lacked the courage, ability or ready opportunity to do something about it.

My mother's biggest problem was that she was too good at too many things. She was born to early. She was born too poor. If she had come along twenty years later, to slightly more well off parents, she would have gone to college, become a professional and, perhaps, married someone who was more her equal.

But none of those things happened. Instead, she grew up during the Depression and WWII, lost her father to leukemia when she was only 17, was forced to take on a pseudo-parental role with her two younger sisters and got married at her first opportunity. I have no doubt that my parents loved each other, but I also know that my mother wanted a one-way ticket out of her house. And my father had, as she later put it, "a good job and a new car."

Back then, there were plenty of women who got married for reasons like that, or worse. But most of those women didn't have the gifts that my mother had. She was brilliant, and good at many things, and it was that potential that both blessed her and cursed her. She found outlets for her talents, but never THE outlet, never one (I believe) that matched her true potential, or that she was truly satisfied with. I believe she never really figured out what she wanted to be, and it was that frustration that plagued her, until physical frailty made the point moot.

I feel the same frustration in my life, right now.

Like my mother, I can do many things proficiently, but I have yet to find the ONE thing that makes me feel like I am where I belong. The older I get, the more I fear I will never find that, that my life will end up being a collection of lateral accomplishments, rather than the forward line toward a unique destination that most people follow.

It took my mother's death for me to allow the air to clear, to look at the body of work that was her life, and to allow it to provide context for what she did -- and did not -- do. In retrospect, I feel her frustration and lack of control. I share it, and it allows me to retroactively understand why she acted out toward me and attempted to control me, while simultaneously building me up and encouraging me to pursue my dreams and goals in a way that she did not, or could not.

Whatever else happened before or after, it was my mother's actions during my illness that allowed me to continue that quest. She saved my life in a way that I could not, or would not, save hers a decade later.

I know that I failed her when she needed me most, at the end, when she was suffering, when she needed intervention and perhaps even rescue. But we are all guilty: me, my sister, my father. In ways both subtle and overt, she asked each of us for our help, but what help we gave was not enough. There are many reasons for that, all of which absolve us. But the end result is this: she is dead.

But, in death, my mother has become more powerful for me than she ever was in life. Something tells me she would like that.


4.10.2009

HOW TODAY CAME TO BE KNOWN AS GOOD FRIDAY

Today is Good Friday, the day that Christians around the world commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross more than 2,000 years ago.

I don't know who came up with the name Good Friday, but I'm relatively sure it wasn't Jesus.

I wonder how he felt about it when he rose from the dead three days later.

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Jesus Christ! Wow, it's really great to see you again, man. Seriously. It's kind of a surprise, but a good one, you know? Hey. Wait a minute. That gives me an idea. All of us apostles were talking about how we gotta come up with a name for the day you died. You know, for marketing purposes. So what do you think about Good Friday?

JESUS: Good Friday? Let's see. They made me carry a heavy cross up a mountain. Then they nailed me to it and left me there to die. Yeah, that was a pretty good day.

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Whoa, Jesus. You don't have to be sarcastic about it.

JESUS: I'm not being sarcastic. I'm just making a point, kind of like the one on the sword the Roman soldier stuck in my gut.

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Honestly, Jesus, you're being a little bit sarcastic. I mean it's totally understandable, considering what you've been through the last couple days. I was just throwing shit out there to see what you thought.

JESUS: You want to know what I think? I think we should nail you to a cross tomorrow and see if you think that is a good day.

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Okay, okay, point made. We'll go back to the drawing board. There were a couple other ideas.

JESUS: Like what?

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Well, Matthew suggested Freaky Friday.

JESUS: No can do. That's going to be the name of a Lindsay Lohan movie in 2003. I think it might be confusing for people. Plus, I don't want to make things any worse for her, what with the break up and all.

JOHN THE APOSTLE: That's nice of you. Wait. What's a movie?

JESUS: It's a long story. What else you got?

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Well, I have a list here. We have Jesus Day, Crucifixion Day, Nails-in-Hands-and-Feet Day, Hammer Time...

JESUS: Stop! Hammer Time!

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Can't touch this!

JESUS: oh-oh oh oh oh-oh-oh!

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Break it down!

JESUS:
Every time you see me, that Messiah's just so hype!
I'm dope on the cross and I'm magic on the mic!

JOHN THE APOSTLE: Too legit...too legit to quit! Hey hey!
Wait a minute. What's a mic?

JESUS:
You know what? On second thought, just go with Good Friday.

And that's how today came to be known as Good Friday.

4.06.2009

MY FIRST VISIT TO CITI FIELD

Tons of video of me, Maggie and the Mets' brand new stadium on my You Tube page. Watch it all here.