Swans Commentary » swans.com January 11, 2010  



Hunting The Wild And Boring Banishees In Upper Michigan


by Art Shay





(Swans - January 11, 2010)   When I was a Life magazine desk reporter, I usually eschewed -- Gesundheit! -- walk-in stories emanating from odd people or places. In WWII England a half-tanked Ernest Hemingway (then a war correspondent) claimed to several of us admirers who hung on his every other word that he had a built-in shit detector that he applied to his own work and that of others importuning him to read their shit or send it on to his publisher or agent. Fame, the saying used to go, was only one connection away. The cream, as it were, was but one separation away. But from what? That was the rub. The US of A is the only country from which it's possible to kick a field goal or hit a home run from the grandstand and win the 15-minutes-of-fame prize Andy Warhol made more desirable, profitable, and accessible than a dynamite Nobel.

In those halcyon days, before I'd lived long enough or wisely enough to forgive assholalalia -- the normal emendations of the breed who simply KNOW how all the rest of us should behave, and long before I became puffed up with my inordinate storeroom of useless, surrealistic information, to never-do-again lists from my bosses, and useful sexual come-on lines...it was my job to screen the kooky, usually single-subject earnests who sought out my desks in New York City, Washington, San Francisco, and Chicago to see if there was the remotest possibility of a widow (single page) or a spread in their sincere ramblings.

On a bet with a sexy photographer who claimed that on a sleeper train along the southern hustings in the 1948 campaign she had first said prayers with, then slept with, the venerable fuddy-duddy Truman vice president Alben Barkley. This, of course, was before Veeps masterminded invasions of countries for their oil by civilian employees more numerous than GIs, then shot shooting-party guests but didn't report the felony until the next day and displayed greater interest in fucking the majority party than a single one of its nicely-racked ladies.

For fun I once foisted a merry Washington widow on my slavering New York bosses on a slow Friday. A Treasury Department engraver had shown up with a three-year-old kid, a thermos jug of ice cream, and a bag of lemons. With fotog Francis Miller focusing his Rollei, I'd held out an ice cream cone on this hot summer day. The kid would snub my hand. The next moment I'd hold out a lemon and the kid would go for it like a catatonic on a hot tin roof sprinkled with Prozac.

The story got in.

A here-and-there PR man from New York promised a great story if we'd follow him downstairs where his client's chef averred, "New York was so hot today, you could fry eggs on the pavement." The trick was that Sergio fried the eggs on a 48th street manhole cover, making them too dirty to eat, especially if you noticed that the back of each omelet was caparisoned with the sewer-cover letters spelling out "Made in West Allis, Wisconsin." In reverse. Didn't make the magazine. Editor Joe Thorndike thought it was disgusting. He was right. No one wanted to open their Life at breakfast staring at a dirty sidewalk scramble from West Allis.

To this day I wonder what happened to retired Colonel Balthus Van Eyck, who was devoting his final works and days to proving that at least one boatload of Vikings (led by Brett Favre?) had landed on Newfoundland two hundred years before Columbus found North America. The Colonel's proof consisted of summer digs along the Newfie littoral, unearthing Norse coins and artifacts of the 13th century. He produced similar ancient iron items from Oslo museums. Then he traced the New World iron from the hands of the Vikes into the clutches of the Iroquois, Canadian branch. These worked their way down to Minnesota, along with the gene pool's odd blue-eyed giant and blonde-haired shiksa from fjord country, heating up the DNA mix of the Iroquois, who pretty soon began amassing written glossaries of Iroquois words derived from the Norse. I still remember one word common to both tongues: oye -- for eye. Unless the scribes on both sides were Jewish and really meant oy.

At this point in my cultural and scientific articles I try to drop a clue as to where the fuck I'm going with this feuilleton: In the seventies, it was my hopeful duty to track down a bevy of grieving widows of Lake Superior sailors who had gone down on their ship during a storm. One of the ladies, a resident of Sault St. Marie, hid her grief by selling Encyclopaedias. I still have my set. If anything has changed since 1976 you can't tell it from my bookcase.

But after helicoptering onto a big lake ship at Sault St. Marie, word came to me that I should first talk to another, sexier widow. So the boat captain, touched with the notion of fame, had me lifted up, out, and down from the poop deck. So that's how I got to the town that caught my mind this morning reading about how Sault St. Marie's greatest university had done it again and come out with their annual List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness. A noble project.

Lake Superior State University, I see by Google, has all kinds of features, but none sticks out as prominently as the growing List. The 2010 banishees include: czar, friend as a verb, toxic assets, in these economic times, teachable moment, shovel-ready, and too big to fail, among others. From past lists and my own past piques: actual facts; behind closed doors; bling; bonding; awesome; at the end of the day; ballpark figure (lady with four bags under her eyes?); Baddaboom, baddabing; an offer he couldn't refuse; been there, done that; basically; baby boomers; begs the question; by and large; X is the new Y; almost exactly; all-time record; center median; and challenged (except for duel use).

It would be a cheap shot to note that the storied canalled city is known for its locks. But I wouldn't TOUCH the aura of wisdom surrounding the actual name of Lake Superior State University and its researches into the wild and boring banishees. Any school named after a whitefish is OK in my menu!


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About the Author

Art Shay is the author-photographer of more than fifty books, the former staff Washington correspondent for Time-Life and Life Bureau Chief in San Francisco. Shay has had 25,000 published pictures including 1,050 covers of magazines, books, and annual reports for such clients as Ford, 3M, National Can, Motorola and ABC-TV. His pictures hang in the National Portrait Gallery (Heffner, Durocher, Robert Crumb) in the Chicago Art Institute. His work is currently exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (through June 29, 2008) following an exhibition at the Gallerie Albert Loeb in Paris, France. The April 2008 issue of North Shore magazine (Chicago) says that "his pictures have the psychology of Dostoevsky, the realism of Hemingway, and the metaphor of Melville... He's in the Pantheon of great photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Strand, and Stieglitz." The Daily Herald (Chicago suburban) of May 5, 2008, called him "the pre-eminent photojournalist of the 20th century..."   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/ashay19.html
Published January 11, 2010