Tuesday, December 15, 2054

Chapter Thirteen

So, like I told you, I got home to find that the crowds were crowding, the masses massing and the throngs were thronging. My front lawn would never be the same.

The state troopers had been sent to keep the Press in line and the traffic flowing and I guess they decided it was part of their mandate to get me through my front door unmolested. I think I’m like most people when it comes to cops. I don’t actually have an adversarial relationship with them, but whenever I see one, my first reaction is to make sure I haven’t done anything wrong. Having cops there specifically to help me was a new experience. I thanked the nearest one for the help and he said, "No problem at all, Mr. Harkness. We've got your back." Yup, this was different.

Also, like I told you, when I got inside, the answering machine was overflowing. I was either going to have to shut the damned thing off or get a new one with a much longer tape. I poured myself a drink and sat down, resigned to an hour listening for the one or two calls I might want to return. I was amazed, in turn, by the sincerity, ineptitude, and audacity of the media requests. I had no difficulty ignoring them all. Until one message caught my attention.

You'll notice that so far, in this account, I've been fairly quick to acknowledge when I mishandled the situation. Sometimes I've stood by my judgment. Other times I've admitted I could have handled things better. On this subject, you may accuse me of naiveté, but I'll deny it to my grave.

I rewound the message and listened again. Twice. I returned the call. How could I not?

Every call on my machine had been from a producer, secretary or some other flunky...except for this one. E-Entertainment News?...Buzz Off. Barbara Walters?...Not my style. Jerry Springer?....Yeah, right! Nightline again?....Been there; Done that. Extreme Makeover, Home Edition?...WTF?

And then, the one that got me. This was a voice I knew. David Letterman. Himself. Not his booker, not his producer, not even Paul. Letterman himself. The voice said, "call my direct line or you can reach me at home tonight". He left both numbers. How cool was that? Hell, the White House didn't even give me the switchboard number and Letterman gives me the hotline. How could I not return the call?

Before you get the idea that I'm completely star-struck, I want to point out that there was a legitimate thought process going on in my head. I figured, Letterman...He'll show the tape of the rescue, flash a Stupid Human Tricks graphic. We'll laugh. I'll get a chance to apologize to the President. This is a good thing. Softball. Homerun. A few more days and back to oblivion.

Call me stupid but this is what I figured. Since then, I've figured out that I should do a lot less figuring.

So the next day, I found myself in a car the size of Rhode Island, moving through mid-town traffic on the way to Letterman's studio. While I was on the shuttle to Laguardia, there had been a Presidential press conference. They were playing back some sound bites on the radio. I heard Harper telling the world that I've got a past. He doesn't actually say anything slanderous but he closes the subject by saying, "I will say that the opinions of such a man have to be taken with a grain of salt". I found myself rethinking my apology.

So anyway, a little later, I'm hanging out in the greenroom waiting for the show to begin. There's plenty of snacks and I'm thinking "So far, so good". Actually, better than good.

I'm schmoozing with the other guests and they're treating me like I'm the biggest star in the room. Eric Clapton is there. He only has time to shake my hand and tell me its nice to meet me. He's going to sit in with the band, so he has to go.

Tom Selleck is there to plug his new movie and I'm actually sitting there chatting with Magnum P.I. I told him I mostly disagree with his views on gun control but I'm still burned up over the way Rosie O'Donnell treated him on her show a few years earlier. He thanked me. Sincerely. Like what I think makes a difference.

There's four 12-year old kids from some science fair. Their parents are there and they've got these Rube Goldberg contraptions they've invented. Two of the kids and their parents are all over me. One kid is having a meltdown because part of her machine has fallen apart. Dad's trying to console the kid while Mom unwinds a roll of toilet paper all over the room. Apparently, the cardboard core is the required part for the repair. The last kid is completely oblivious to everything else going on. His parents are taking turns holding up flash cards for him. A little Latin here; a little trigonometry there. I feel like asking his Dad why he's so determined to make his son into a locker room punching bag...but I'm not one to meddle.

Regis Philbin comes in. He's there to make one of his ubiquitous cameos. I'm a little tired of him but its still cool.

So, the show begins. There's a big monitor in the greenroom and we're all watching the intro. My first clue that I might have made a mistake? The opening titles run and the announcer reads off the list of tonight's guests. Mine?......"The man who dove into the Potomac and found himself swimming with sharks at the White House...Paul Harkness!"

Cute, but not exactly what I had in mind. A downhill moment.

Dave makes his entrance. Short monologue. Banter with Paul. Introduce Eric Clapton. Banter, Banter. Instrumental version of Layla. Cut to commercial.

Letterman tapes his show in the afternoon, so there's no need to worry about the real length of a commercial break. They just start taping again when the music's finished. Clapton and Paul trade riffs on Layla for about 10 minutes. I'm wishing I was on stage for this. Hey, I'm here with Eric Clapton performing 40 feet away and I'm still stuck watching it on T.V.

Clapton winds it up and we come back from commercial. The crowd goes apeshit. I feel a little foolish when I realize I'm applauding a T.V. set, but I feel a lot better when I notice Tom Selleck doing the same thing. An uphill moment.

Then Dave launches into his Top Ten List: Top Ten Things Not to Say When You're Invited to the White House.

Oops! Downhill moment coming. Truly subterranean.

Number 10: So, is being Vice-President as crappy a job as it looks like?

Number 9: Go ahead without me Mr. President. I'm gonna stay here and talk nuclear non-proliferation with Vladimir.

Number 8: What does this button do?

Number 7: Jeez, the First Lady's much hotter in person!

Number 6: Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and the Pope walk into a bar...stop me if you've heard this one.

Number 5: Are the kids home from school? I have a great drinking game we could all play!

Number 4: [ INSERT FUNNY]

Number 3: [INSERT FUNNY]

Number 2: [INSERT FUNNY]

Number 1: Cuts to tape of me saying, “I haven’t actually decided yet. I usually wait until I can look at one of the candidates and say, ‘that guy’s way more qualified than me.”.

I have stepped into the abyss. Tom Selleck is going to be the first guest, so he's headed out of the greenroom. His shoulders are shaking as he tries to keep from laughing out loud. I must look shell shocked because he gives me a thumbs up and a sympathetic look as he leaves the room. A real gentleman.

I'm the last guest scheduled so I'll have to watch the whole show from the greenroom. Tom is on. He and Dave talk about Tom's new movie. Dave wants the inside dirt on Tom's co-star, a busty newcomer who's on the cover of half the magazines in America this week. "Come on, Tom; you can tell Dave". He leans over with his hand cupped to his ear like it'll be just between the two of them. This gets a big laugh.

Dave asks Tom if he'd like to hang around for the rest of the show and Tom says he wouldn't miss it for the world. Cut to commercial.

The next segment is a sketch out on the side street. Dave is dropping melons on the street while Regis is dodging them and yelling one-liners up at Dave. It's a lame bit, but Dave and Regis are goofy enough to pull it off. Cut to commercial.

We come back for the science project segment. I'm alone in the greenroom by now. This segment goes well, too. The little girl's machine (it sorts and rolls coins automatically), disintegrates. Change rolls all across the stage and Dave gets into a free-for-all with two of the kids trying to scoop up the money. One kid's machine is an automatic bacon flipper. Hot grease flies everywhere. Very Funny. I kid you not, the next kid's invention is a Doggy Diaper. No need for Pooper Scoopers anymore. We actually get to see a great dane take a dump on cue, shuck his own diaper and deposit it in a trash can. Dave's horrified reaction is priceless. Next up is the Poindexter with the flash cards. He's invented a machine that detects some sort of toxic mold that forms in air conditioning systems. The machine detects a huge amount of the stuff in the studio. The audience is looking worried until the kid explains that the mold he tests for can only occur in a Rain Forest environment and he thought it would be boring for the machine to detect nothing so he's adjusted it to react to oxygen. Ha-ha. You're all safe. Someone is definitely gonna kick this kids ass someday. Cut to commercial.

So, we're back from commercial. My moment of has arrived. I'm standing in the wings waiting for the Stage Manager to cue my entrance. The thing that's running through my mind is how different this is from Nightline. When you do Nightline, you sit in a basically empty studio with a few technicians. Chris is on a monitor in front of you and the whole thing is just a video conference. Easy. Now, I'm about to talk to Dave. Live...with a huge audience. I came back to myself as I heard Dave saying, "And now, a man who last week warranted no introduction, and this week needs no introduction.....Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Paul Harkness.

It all felt like a dream. Not in the really good sense, and not like a nightmare either. It just didn't feel real. I can see the whole thing now. I walk out calmly, like I do this four shows a week and twice on Saturday. The audience is on their feet applauding warmly. I'm waving to them. All very confident and self-effacing.

Dave shakes my hand. Tom shakes my hand. Hey, we're old friends; good to see you again. I sit.

Dave says, "So, Paul, it's great to have you on the show. How ya feelin'"?

I started to say, "Very well, thank you." Instead, I quacked.

The audience giggles.

Dave says, "Can I get you a refreshing beverage"? He's rummaging around on the desk as if he's searching for where he left all the beverages. The audience loves it. Dave looks off-stage and hollers, "Will somebody get this man a damn beverage"?

A page runs in with a glass and pitcher of water. The audience is rolling in the aisles. I take a sip, clear my throat and take another sip.

Dave chastises the page. "If Mr. Harkness here had this much trouble finding water he wouldn't be famous. Let that be a lesson to you young man".

The audience keeps laughing as the page beats a hasty retreat. I laugh politely.

Dave gets down to business. He says, "O.K., so we all know about that little hero thingy you pulled the other day. I want to know, what's the deal with you raining all over the President's garden party. What was that all about"?

Here's my chance. I said, "Well, I've heard what President Harper had to say about me today, and I have to admit to being more than a little surprised. However, regardless of what he may have said today, I still owe the President and all of you an apology for my behavior yesterday. I should have accepted the medal graciously and said 'thank you', Period".

Dave said, "Whoa, Nellie. You're not getting off the hook that easy. That was a lovely speech and all, but did you mean what you said or not"?

I could have said, "I was just running off at the mouth". I could have said, "Hey, I sell car parts. Who cars what I think". I could have said a lot of things.

What I did say was, "Dave, have you been listening to those guys. I mean, give me a break. Do any of them inspire you with all the crap their shoveling"?

Dave said, "Give me an example".

"O.K., I'm being too glib," I said, "Real issues are boring and they take too long to explain. So, every election degenerates into each candidate proclaiming himself America's Messiah with the other guy cast as Evil Incarnate. It's a system that panders to the least common denominator. But the candidates have no option but to campaign within that system. That and they let themselves get talked into some pretty stupid corners".

For lack of any better follow-up, Dave said "Such as"?

We could both see I was losing the audience.

I said, "Well President Harper would certainly be happier if he'd never met me".

The audience liked that. I had them back. Apparently I can go Hollywood with the best of them.

Dave said, "No really, give me a real example.

I hesitated a moment, glanced over at Tom, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying this. Paul and Eric Clapton and the band seemed genuinely interested.

"O.K.", I said, "Here's one. Remember a few years back Clinton got caught up in that whole thing about a national apology for slavery? I mean, who thought that one up. It got a whole lot of people pissed off for nothing. You had one bunch of people saying they weren't about to take the blame for something their ancestors did a hundred odd years ago; and a bunch of other people were saying "Don't look at me. My family got off the boat last Tuesday". Last, but not least you had a whole lot of Black people asking what good an apology was. They wanted to talk reparations."

"And the biggest shame of all is that it was a fine idea if it hadn't been packaged and marketed so stupidly. How many people do you think would have objected to a National Day of Celebration to commemorate the men and women who suffered under slavery, and to honor those who had the courage to abolish it? Anybody with any objection would have either had the sense to stay quietly under their rock or be dismissed as a wing-nut".

The audience hooted.

Dave wanted to end the interview on a high note. For Dave, a high note is either a laugh or bit of confrontation. He said, "O.K. Paul, one more chance. At the beginning of the interview you apologized to the President and that was all warm and fuzzy and all. But I can't let you leave without telling us what you really think of the President's press conference today.

Few people can look back on their lives and pick out the one instant that changed the rest of their lives. I can. I'll admit I was caught up in the moment. I'll admit that having an audience in the palm of your hand and having David Letterman hanging on your every word is a very heady experience. I'll also admit, that in spite of trying to hold the high ground, I was seriously pissed off about being attacked by the President. All of those things conspired to change the course of my life from that moment on.

I responded in a poor yet recognizable imitation of President Harper. "I will say that the opinions of such a man should be taken with a grain of salt".

The audience was dead silent and then exploded into thunderous applause.

I was a hit.


Nathan said...

Congratulate me folks. I've just had my first totally erroneous visitor based on a google search. This chapter came up as the first hit when searching for "Automatic Bacon Flipper".


Kisintin said...

Damnit. Why did I start reading this an hour before vacation. CANCEL THE FLIGHT! I CAN'T GO NOW!

Nathan said...

Yay, I gotcha!

Actually, I'm really glad if you're enjoying it. It's been too long since I posted a new chapter and I need the motivation.