So with the crowdfunding campaign for PANTHER HOLLOW in full swing, several old friends of mine have asked me if the story of Lucky Linda is in PANTHER HOLLOW. It isn’t. I wrote the story, but it was edited out in the early stages. I never really fit the larger story I was trying to tell. But for those of you who want to read it, here it is. For those of you that were there, I welcome any and all corrections to my faulty memory.
And Linda, if you’re out there – I would love to hear that my arrogant, 20-something cynicism was completely off the mark.
My wife and I went to Boston a few years ago. We took one of those historical tours where you walk endlessly around the city, led by a tour guide in mock-historical garb who related historical facts about the historical rocks. Our guide clearly had a grudge. Not against us, but against history. Every stop on the tour included a sarcastic recitation of the historically accepted story, followed by the “real” story. You know…the truth. “Paul Revere didn’t really warn us that the British were coming! He was a coward and someone else had to finish the ride! And that’s the truth!” After three or four of these historical corrections, I stopped caring about the truth. I wanted the good old-fashioned, George Washington and the cherry tree version of America. Not that I didn’t care about the truth – I did – but after an hour of listening to this kid scream at us, I realized that the truth was kind of an asshole.
When I was 25, I was living in a place called Panther Hollow in the middle of Pittsburgh and I was in a comedy troupe called The Susquehanna Hat Company, after the famous Abbott & Costello routine which everyone should google. We played a number of places in Pittsburgh, and more importantly we got paid. We were young, caustic comedians and whether we were willing to admit it or not, we all had dreams of being able to quit our day jobs so we could make people laugh 24/7. We would perform anywhere and everywhere. It was a desperate attempt to keep our youthful wit and vigor alive before we hit thirty. We did a gig in the basement of an Italian restaurant and our opening act was a guy that ate light bulbs.But who cares? Maybe if we played our cards right, we could become famous really fast and avoid adulthood all together. Then one night we were visited by an angel of the apocalypse named “Lucky Linda.”
Lucky Linda has gone down in history. Not text book history or “real” history. Lucky Linda has gone down in the shared personal history of my friends and I. It’s an anecdote that we don’t recount very often because just like real history, none of us understood what was happening or what it meant. These friends of mine are all in their 40s now and on the rare occasions when we see one another one of us will say the words “Lucky Linda” and no further elaboration is required. In our late 20s, we’d laugh at the memory with a bit of mockery. As we’ve gotten older, the truth of the Lucky Linda story has come into sharper focus.
Lucky Linda was a drag queen. Our agent contacted us and asked if we’d be willing to meet with him. Linda was new to Pittsburgh and was looking for performance opportunities. Our agent seemed to think that a drag queen and an improv comedy troupe would make a killer combo. I loved the idea. It was just subversive and irreverent enough to work. Maybe Lucky Linda and the Susquehanna Hat Company could take Pittsburgh by storm. We’d be the only Improv/Drag Queen combo in the country. There was one caveat. I hated lip-syncers. Lip-syncing is not a talent. If you want to trace the death of culture back to a specific point in time, it’s when we started holding competitions in lip-syncing and air guitar. I said that the Hat Company would love to meet Lucky Linda provided that she sang everything herself. No lip-syncing.
“She does,” our agent told me. “Everything you hear comes directly out of her mouth.”
All six of us arranged to meet Linda in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning. My roommates, Dean and Michael, worked in the prop shop. The plan was to meet Linda, then all head to Panther Hollow as soon as Michael got off work. Minutes before Linda arrived, Michael slammed his thumb in the giant, vault-like metal door of the prop shop. He was clearly in a tremendous amount of pain but Linda arrived shortly afterwards and our attention turned to her. Or, rather, him. Linda’s real name was Larry. For some reason, I had imagined him arriving in full drag regalia but that wasn’t the case. Larry was in jeans and a t-shirt and an old, brown jacket. His hair was dirty. His clothes looked lived in. He was carrying a beat up suitcase with a broken handle. We all shook hands and made our introductions. Then we drove down the hill and across the railroad tracks to my house. We settled into the living room. Michael made a cold pack for his smashed thumb and Larry told us his life story.
Lucky Linda, Larry’s stage persona, was born a year earlier, in Florida, just after Larry’s mother died. Larry had lived with his mother well into his thirties and after her death he decided to follow his dream of getting into show business. He packed up his mother’s wigs, dresses and eye-liner and spent his last few bucks on a bus ticket. He traveled from one small town to another, playing gigs in middle-of-nowhere clubs. In his busted up suitcase, he had a scrapbook containing the first $20 bill he ever made as a performer, as well as a series of hastily-drawn newspaper ads announcing his appearances. Larry slept on the streets during this cross-country trek, or in parks or playgrounds. I got the impression that’s what he was doing in Pittsburgh as well.
Larry told us some Lucky Linda anecdotes, most of which involved him being on the receiving end of broken financial promises. He told these stories without a hint of anger but with a dash of que sera sera. One story in particular has stuck with me. Linda agreed to perform at a man’s 50th birthday party. The guy was big, hairy and capital-M Masculine. His enormous family had spared no expense in hiring Lucky Linda as their birthday entertainment. After being escorted in a family member’s car to a large mansion in the middle of nowhere, Linda set up his performance space in front of the outdoor pool and began performing a series of Judy Garland numbers. Everything went fine until wine was consumed and the family grew more and more rowdy. Finally, the brother of the birthday boy dared his sibling to celebrate 50 years of heterosexuality by kissing Linda square on the mouth. The 50 year old balked at first and Linda got a little nervous but tried to play it off with laughter, standing there in the back yard of an unfamiliar house surrounded by drunk Italians. Finally, in a fit of drunken pique brought on by familial peer pressure, the birthday boy leapt forward, grabbed Linda and began forcibly fondling him underneath his dress, trying to force his hand into Linda’s costume to grab his penis. Linda was unsure of what to do. Isn’t the customer always right? The whole sordid affair came to an end when the man picked up Linda and tossed him into the swimming pool, to the sound of laughter from drunken siblings and cousins. Linda surfaced moments later, soaking wet in his Marilyn-Monroe-over-the-street-grate dress, pulled off his wig with a laugh and shouted “That’s show business!”
We were horrified at this story, of course, and it was made even more horrifying by the fact that Larry clearly thought this was just something he had to accept if he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. The road to show businesses was paved with broken hearts, broken dreams and entire families of drunken, sexual molesters.
I looked over at Michael and he looked abnormally pale. “I’m so cold,” he kept saying, pulling a blanket up to his chin. Sweat had broken out on his brow and he was shivering. “What’s wrong,” I asked.
“My thumb,” he answered.
We decided to speed the interview along so we could take Michael to the hospital, if necessary. But we still hadn’t heard Lucky Linda sing. Nor had we seen his promotional videotape. He popped the tape in my VCR and explained that he had borrowed a camera and a studio from a friend of his. “The recording isn’t perfect,” he said, “but you can see what I look like in make-up and costume.”
The image flickered to life in waves of static and we found ourselves looking at something that could have been, for all the world, the set of a snuff film. The walls were concrete and void of decor. The wood slates in the ceiling were only inches above Larry’s head. A spotlight had been placed directly behind the camera and it shined in Linda’s eyes and washed all color from her face. We half-expected to see a little girl with dark hair crawling out of a well.
On the video, Linda began her act – a series of extremely filthy jokes performed in a mock Mae West accent. The accent wasn’t bad, but these were jokes that would have made Mae West blush. It was clear that Linda didn’t have anything resembling comic timing. To make matters worse, there were obviously people in the basement watching the performance. They were not Linda’s friends. The laughter and snickering was clearly the work of a couple of stoners who couldn’t believe they were spending their evening videotaping a bad Mae West impersonator. The tape went on like this for at least a half an hour, with joke after joke coming out of Lucky Linda’s scared, lifeless face. To his credit, Larry didn’t seem disturbed at all. He thought the tape was great. He said nice things about the assholes making fun of him off camera. He knew that it wasn’t a perfect audition tape or even a perfect performance but when you’re starting out in show business you have to start somewhere, right?
I was holding out hope that once Linda sang for us, a magnificent voice might emerge and give this highly awkward story and a happy ending. She took out a framed copy of her black and white headshot and put it on my fireplace mantel. “I’m going to go in the other room and I want you to look at it while I sing,” he said. So we did. Larry took out a small microphone with a speaker attached and after several seconds of throat-clearing, he began singing, acapella, “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” He sang it at half-speed, letting the high notes linger in the air, pushing his vibrato to uncomfortable extremes. His falsetto voice sounded nothing like Judy Garland. It sounded like a man who lived with his mother until his mid-30s, then began grieving her death by dressing up in her wigs and hitting the road, pursuing a silly dream of fame and notoriety that every one of us in the room also shared. It sounded like a man trying to forget that he had been sexually assaulted and mocked at a birthday party and got paid for the privilege. He sounded like someone who knew he’d be moving on soon and would probably never see any of us ever again.
That’s show business.
We all laughed about Lucky Linda in the days after we met him. But the laughter was code. It wasn’t the truth. The truth was that we had come face to face with someone who had the same silly dreams that we did, but who had no idea that he was sliding further and further into a very dark place. Many of us found ourselves in that place later in life. Not just because we gave up our dreams of fame but because of battles we had with depression, the loss of loved ones and good old-fashioned struggles with the realities of life. Those were the truths we had yet to face.
And truth, as we’ve established, is an asshole.
But of course we didn’t know any of that was going to happen the night we sat there, listening to Lucky Linda sing “Over the Rainbow.” Toward the end of the final refrain, I looked over at Michael. His eyes were half-closed and his shivering had intensified. He must have noticed how alarmed I was because he pulled his hand out from under the blanket and showed me that his thumb had turned pitch black.
Every one of us took advantage of Michael’s potentially blood-poisoned, life-threatening thumb to apologetically let Linda know that we enjoyed meeting him and would be in touch. But Larry wasn’t quick to leave. He began packing his things but seemed very concerned about Michael’s health. He felt responsible for the whole thing and wanted to make sure Michael was okay. He volunteered to go with us to the emergency room. “No,” Michael said. “Really, I’m okay.”
“Are you sure?” Linda said. “I think you need company. You shouldn’t be alone.”
“No,” Michael said. “I’m fine.”
Larry began packing up his things – his scrapbooks, his microphone, his videotapes, and he took an unusually long time to do so. At the time, getting Michael to the emergency room was the only thing we could think about so it never occurred to us that Larry was lingering in an effort to stay in our company. Maybe even to stay in our house. After all, I really had no idea where he was staying. Given the state of his clothes, it’s possible he wasn’t really staying anywhere.
Ultimately, the rest of the company took Larry back into Pittsburgh while I walked Michael to the ER. He asked me to come back to the examination room with him and I did so. The doctor explained that he was going to have to take a needle, insert it under the thumbnail and drain the blood that had been building up all evening. After he left to get the nurse, Michael turned to me and said “Thanks for coming. I know this sounds really, really lame but I’ve never been to the emergency room or a hospital or anything without having my mother with me. So I’m just kind of glad you’re here and I’m not alone.”