By Leonard Bishop
I am not secure in Kansas. During a depression a writer is as necessary as armpit boils. Where would I find work to support my family? While I’ve worked at a multitude of trades and professions, I never specialized. Who would employ me in Kansas?
When I was nine years old I saved a whorehouse madam’s frilly poodle from being squashed by a truck. She gave me work bringing towels and drinks to the rooms. I earned tips because I never peeked and would not remember faces or names. I understand that the whorehouses in this area have been shut down. An avenue of employment has been dead-ended for me.
In Detroit I worked in a pool room racking balls. You had to be tough, dumb, and mute. An ill-timed sneeze could get you beaten. You couldn’t tip off the regulars when they were being hustled. You brought the toughies drinks, lit their cigarettes, brushed the table after every game. The establishments I’ve visited in Kansas have miniature tables that gobble quarters. A one-armed paraplegic with earthquake shakes could clear twenty tables in a run. The cowboys and farmers slop beer on the surface and roar in triumph when they finally sink a ball. They have vitality, not skill. My disrespect would get me fired or killed.
In Main, I painted flag poles. I sat on a small platform attached to pull-rigging. I swayed and lurched and the thick pole became a fishing rod bending in the hard wind. I prayed more than I painted. Is there steady work for a former flagpole painter in Kansas?
I was a draftsman during World War II. I was the worst draftsman ever given a rating. I haven’t worked at it since, and old age and watery eyesight hasn’t increased my skill. In Long Island I sold baby pictures, door-to-door. There was a rapist terrifying the area. He always wore a camera around his neck. Women would not allow me into their homes. Now, I’m bigger and meaner looking. Women in Herington cross the street when they see me. I would never be able to sell them baby pictures. When I was a bum ‘on the road’ I picked peaches in Florida. Peaches are not a prevailing crop in Kansas. Is my greatest expectation in Kansas to apply for food stamps?
I went the ‘carnie-route’ and worked the game concessions and sometimes spieled the coochie shows. The G-string girlies wiggled and jiggled and bumped their wares and I barked, “Hurry, hurry, watch’m while they’re hot –you can look but you can’t take them home.” The carnivals in Kansas have Girl Scout programs, the Future Farmers of America being judged for the best cows, and contests for angel cake. No employment there. Someone help me, I’m getting worried.
I worked for a private detective in San Francisco. I followed wives engaged in infidelity and husbands who philandered. I was big, but slinky. I was never spotted tailing anyone. I could hide behind parked trucks, in shop doorways, crouch beside newspaper stands. Who would hire me, in Herington, to sneak after someone? Where could I hide? Everyone knows me. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone knows what everyone is doing. Besides, my wife assures me that such lewd dilly-dallying does not go on in her beloved town. Too bad. A juicy scandal always activates lazy thyroid glands. I’m feeling down-and-out already.
I’ve taught ‘professional writing’ at some of the largest and most important universities in the nation. Students have gotten published after attending my classes. Several times I tried to teach in Kansas. I sat in rooms as large as phone booths, as dank as morgues. I waited and waited and waited. I heard the skitter of mice, the lisp of caterpillars. Everybody wants to be a writer but nobody wants to write. Scratch another source of income in Kansas.
I must finish the novel I’m writing. Though I still have some money in the bank, the jittery economy frightens me. Reagan might be re-elected –or Mondale might become president. When two mediocrities run, you always lose money, no matter who wins. Oh well, I’ll bring a book along to read while standing on the welfare line.
(first published August 19, 1984 The Manhattan Mercury)