Devil with the blue dress

Devil with the blue dress

This, my friends, is just a quick little tale about the one and only time I rented an “adult movie” – an effort that, as per my usual bumbling ways, ended disastrously.

I’d had only a couple of encounters with off-color films, and they’d been innocent enough. When we were teenagers, my brother and I and a couple of our friends snuck into a drive-in to see a movie called Please Don’t Eat My Mother. I know what you’re thinking, but it turned out to be a tame little flick that didn’t even live up to its salacious name. As I recall, it was a comedy about a strangely sexy carnivorous houseplant. And although there was some nudity, I don’t remember any hanky-panky involved. Or maybe I just didn’t understand what I was seeing. Unfortunately, we were busted when my mother found the ticket stub in my brother’s pants pocket. Dang! We should have done our own laundry!

Later, when I was a resident at San Francisco State and chair of the dorm film program, a couple of good-looking, charming fellow movie buffs coaxed me into giving them a private showing of one of the 16mm prints I’d rented for the film program from a major Los Angeles distributor. (It was an Italian neorealist movie called The Bicycle Thief.) The guys noted that the movie was preceded by trailers (previews), including one for Fellini’s Amarcord. I locked up the print when we were done, but using some subterfuge that I never figured out, they later snuck into the A/V room, took the film to their room, cut out their favorite trailers, inserted some choice pornography, and returned the altered print to its shelf. I innocently sent the film back to the distribution house, at which point all hell broke loose and eventually the FBI got involved. A couple of federal agents came to the dorm to interview our dorm advisor and me. By then I’d told the advisor about my suspicions (this means you, Kevin Henry!), and he believed me from the get-go. The FBI guys seemed to believe me, too, because the nervous young dupe girl sitting in the hot seat did not appear to be an Amarcord-slicing, porn-inserting swindler. I was off the hook, and I don’t know what became of the investigation. (Are you still out there free as a bird, Kevin Henry?)

The incident at hand, however, happened in the early 1990s when I decided to rent a steamy little video that I will call, for the purposes of this tale, Lex Baldwin and His Peccadilloes. Lex Baldwin was the real-life leading man, and his co-stars were an assortment of men and women, all involved in a variety of scenarios in every conceivable configuration. The film had been recommended to me by my hairdresser. (I have no idea how on earth we came to have that conversation.)

In those days, of course, there was no streaming video and there were no DVDs. We had to rent videotapes from the Blockbuster chain or a local video store, watch the tapes on a videocassette recorder (VCR), and bring the tapes back like library books to avoid incurring overdue charges. I had never been assessed a late fee on anything in my entire life so I knew that that wasn’t going to happen.

Except that the tape got stuck in my VCR.

***

“Oh, no, nonononono!” I screeched, partly out of terror of the tape’s late fees (or, even worse, the total replacement fee) but also because of what I knew would be my impending humiliation and disgrace. I clawed frantically at the machine. But not only was the video jammed, the VCR would not even power on. I pushed every button 26 times. I tried sticking a screwdriver through the flimsy little tape door, to absolutely no avail. Then I decided to pry off the whole casing, but the “Do not attempt to remove the back of the VCR because of the possibility of electrocution” sticker dissuaded me. Finally I gave up, letting the machine sit overnight in hopes that the components would cool down. Sigh. No luck.

stuck videotape_abc news 2
My biggest fear

Today, someone in a similar predicament might very well simply throw away the entire kit and caboodle. Buy a new VCR, pay for the tape replacement. But that was not remotely an option for me in those days. I had no money whatsoever – certainly not enough to buy a new VCR, which would have cost me $400 or so (almost $800 in today’s dollars). I mean, around that time I was actually trying to figure out whether, to save money, I should stop my Chronicle delivery, which was costing me all of 10 cents a day.

I couldn’t very well discuss my plight with my mother, my usual go-to person who always knew what to do about everything from appliance repair to wardrobe malfunctions to food spoilage questions. No, this was far too delicate a matter.

So I called my friend Kay.

“OhmyGod, Kay,” I blurted as soon as she picked up, “I-got-an-X-rated-movie-stuck-in-my-VCR-and-I-don’t-know-what-to-do!” I was in a wheezing panic.

“Paula, calm down and let’s brainstorm,” she said. “Isn’t there a repair shop somewhere that could get the tape out without ruining it?”

“Well, there’s that electronics place out in the avenues, but I just know it must be run by a nice little old Irishman. How will I be able to show my face, Kay??”

“Paula, your worst fear is not going to be realized. There will be no little old Irishman. It’s going to be okay, and they won’t care! This probably happens all the time!”

I wasn’t listening. “I know, I’ll invent a story to make the situation more respectable. I’ll say I was watching it with my husband. I’ll say it was HIS fault! HE wanted to rent the movie!”

“Oh, brother,” she said. “I’m not sure why that is more respectable, but OK, I’m with ya.”

“And listen,” I continued. “I think I should look sophisticated and proper. Kay, you have a ring that looks like a wedding ring, don’t you? Can I borrow that? I’ll wear a simple blue dress and pumps.”

Kay did an eyeroll over the phone but nonetheless humored me as she hung up to go find her gold band. After rushing to her place to borrow it, dashing down to Macy’s to buy some pumps with high heels (my heels were way too low and clunky to be considered sophisticated), and calling Kay another 52 times for reassurance, I knew that it was finally time to pay a visit to the electronics shop.

Blue dress photo with copyright
The “My Husband Did It” ensemble, except that I didn’t wear the hat

When I pushed open the glass doors to the shop, carrying my disabled VCR – the proof of my sins – under my arm, I didn’t see anyone behind the counter at first. I clomped unsteadily towards the back of the store in my new high heels. It felt like it took me three hours to get there. I was relieved, at least, not to see a little old Irishman. However, much to my horror, as I approached the counter up popped a petite young Asian woman! Or a girl, even! She didn’t look to be much older than 16. I was awash in shame and mortification. “Oh, no,” I thought, “I’m going to ruin this poor young woman if she finds out what kind of tape is in that VCR!”

But there was no getting around it. When she asked what she could do for me, I launched into my long story about how my-husband-rented-the-tape-and-somehow-it-got-stuck-and-I-don’t-really-know-what-the-tape-is-so-please-just-fix-it,” etcetera. And then she said, “Well, let me get the owner,” and out came a little old Irish man.

Of course.

Then I commenced to relate the whole story about my husband again.

Unfazed, the Irishman told me that the VCR would be fixed in three days. I could practically hear the late fees adding up. Ka-chink! But I had no choice. I whirled around on my heels to leave and did a face plant onto the showroom floor.

For crying out loud, how many indignities would I have to suffer for my wickedness???!!!

Three days later I went back to pick up the machine. Once again I donned my outfit – dress, ring, heels, the entire ensemble. It was a different young woman at the counter, and I breathed a momentary sigh of relief that she wouldn’t recognize me as the raging degenerate with the X-rated movie. She went into the back room to retrieve the VCR and when she brought it out, Lex Baldwin and His Peccadilloes, with its title in gargantuan letters, was taped to the top of the VCR. Oh, I am a wretched disgrace.

It cost me about $100 to fix the VCR. A veritable fortune for me in those days.

The next day I clomped into the video rental place in my now-wrinkly dress to return Lex Baldwin and I launched once again into my well-worn husband story.

The manager waived the fees.

the end

 

 

 

***

 

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

2/7/72 [age 16]:

“When she was young and went to school
Some asked her what they’d taught her.
‘I just recall one thing,’ she said,
‘That I was principal’s daughter.’ ”

 

2/2/72 [age 16]:

THINGS I LOVE:

12-STRING GUITARS
HAIR (blond)
AMERICA [the band]
MR. BARISICH
SKIING
HAIR (Robert Redford’s)
Hearing the net go “swoosh” when somebody makes a basket
MY 10-SPEED
FRIENDS (they’re wonderful)
MUSIC
PAT SEARS
DOGS (all but ours)
LINUS
BLUE
Having a perfectly clear face (I don’t remember when I last had it but maybe sometime in the near future . . . ?)
NEIL DIAMOND
LEVI’S
GOD
DAYDREAMING
THE POLICE DEPARTMENT
PIZZA & LICORICE & HAMBURGERS & OREOS & EATING IN GENERAL
Staying home and turning up the record player so loud they can hear it in Alviso and my eardrums become so immune I can hardly hear the rest of the day
MICROPHONES
ARGUING
READING WALT WHITMAN
ROOT BEER
Jumping off the high dive into the deep pool and feeling really wierd [sic] on the way down
MR. ADAMS
AIRPLANES
BODY SHIRTS
GOATS
THE SANTA CLARA COUNTY FAIR
Riding the waves at Santa Cruz on an innertube and getting wiped out
WATERBEDS
CAMAROS
TULIPS
SAN FRANCISCO
“ALL IN THE FAMILY”
THE WORD “SENSUOUS”
All those wonderful times we have where the great kids on our block all get together and have one huge gigantic waterfight and we all sit around and drink lemonade and play pinochle afterwards
HELIUM BALLOONS
BEING SIXTEEN
CUTTING CLASS
LIFE

 

2/3/72 [age 16]:

“Once in the eighth grade we had this graduation swim party and once again I demonstrated my complete lack of sense. The water at Rock Canyon was freezing cold and something happened to my jaw. It kind of locked. I guess the nerves tightened up because of the cold. I could open my mouth, but only up to a certain point. Then if I opened it farther it popped and hurt like crazy. I guess I’m a physical freak. Anyway, it was pretty miserable and I got one of the kids who wasn’t swimming to call my teacher over. Sister Anne Maureen. She knew a lot about science so I assumed she knew about diseases. So I ask her, ‘Do you think I have lockjaw?’ I don’t know how she kept from bursting out in hysterics, but she said, ‘I really doubt it.’ And I said, ‘Well, I stepped on a nail about a year ago.’ Pure stupidity, I swear.”

 

2/8/72 [age 16]:

“My idea of heaven – I run away to a place on the beach. I adore the beach, but my parents hate it so I never get to go. There wouldn’t be any parents there. The temperature would always be a comfortable 82 degrees. I would have an AM-FM radio with a really loud volume. I’d have a stereo with ten speakers all over the house. I’d also have my bike and a lifetime supply of root beer, hamburgers, and onion rings. Add a couple people I like and – presto – Utopia.”

A patriot’s dream

A patriot’s dream

The woman who wrote “America the Beautiful” was not exactly a 19th century wallflower. She was a feminist. She was an activist. She was most likely a lesbian. And she was involved in a “Boston marriage” – a concept certainly new to me when I began to research this piece. Little did she know when she boarded a train in Chicago one summer that it would lead her to set down some of the most stirring words ever written about this country and its ideals.

***

Katharine Lee Bates 3
Katharine Lee Bates

As the spring semester drew to a close in 1893, a 34-year-old Wellesley professor named Katharine Lee Bates was offered the opportunity to teach a summer class on Chaucer at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. (Wellesley was, and is, a private school for women in Massachusetts.) Bates jumped at the chance. Earlier that year she had dealt with a severe bout of depression, and the travel, she thought, would do her good. A published writer and poet, as well as an experienced international traveler, she nevertheless was unlikely to have seen much of the country west of the Mississippi. So she was eager to get started on the roughly 2,000-mile train trip.

O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears

The first leg of the journey by rail ended in Chicago, where Bates would pick up Katharine Coman, a fellow Wellesley professor of economics and history who would likewise teach a summer class in Colorado Springs. They’d known each other for six years. Coman’s family home was in Chicago, and the two spent a few days there, visiting the World’s Fair and a recently-built monument to women in the arts and sciences. At the World’s Fair, Bates took note of an area called “The White City” that featured buildings illuminated not only by their painted-white exteriors but also by the multitude of streetlights lining the boulevards. It was the beginning of modern city planning.

“Thine alabaster cities gleam,” Bates would later write.

From there, “the two Katharines,” as they were often called, boarded a train on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail line. It was July 3, 1893.

***

Bates was an ardent member of a group of progressive Boston female academics and activists who were pioneers of social reform and concerned with immigration, labor union rights, women’s suffrage, and urban poverty. She was the author and editor of more than 40 works of poetry and literary criticism.

Katharine_Coman_(Yellow_Clover)_Wikipedia
Katharine Coman

Katharine Coman, two years younger than Bates, taught at Wellesley for 35 years and was the first female professor of statistics in the United States. Like Bates, she was interested in social reform, especially through political economics; she would take her students on field trips to tenements, factories, and sweatshops in Boston to teach about applying economic theory to social problems. In 1910, Coman would help unionize striking women in the garment industry during the massive Chicago garment workers’ strike. She was the author of The Industrial History of the United States, among other works.

Together, the Katharines – who were dedicated to helping the poor – had in 1887 founded the College Settlements Association, which assigned female students to help poor European immigrants who had recently come to America. The two women volunteered at the association’s Denison House, which was a Boston settlement house that distributed necessities like milk and coal, offered classes, conducted housing investigations, and served generally as a neighborhood center. Bates and Coman were totally committed to ensuring that immigrants and women could have the basic support they needed to get a foothold in society.

***

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain

With the land opening up in front of her as she rode the rails to Colorado, Bates saw vast open spaces for the very first time. The raw, sweeping West was so much grander in scale than the populous East Coast. Out the window of the train, in what was likely Kansas, she could see endless fields replete with “amber waves of grain.” Above it all were the “spacious skies” of the Great Plains. Overwhelmed, she scrawled some notes. It was the Fourth of July.

***

For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain

Bates had a lot of free time that summer, in between her Chaucer classes. She and Coman and other professors took group trips around the area, and on Saturday, July 22, they headed for Pikes Peak, which, at 14,115 feet, is higher than any point in the country to its east. (The area is named for explorer Zebulon Pike, so it baffles me that there is no apostrophe; it somehow got discarded along the way.) The little Cog Peak railroad that had been built two years earlier to convey sightseers up the mountain was broken down that day, so they ended up having to take a horse-drawn wagon halfway there, and then mules the rest of the way. A sign on the wagon read “Pikes Peak or Bust.” At that altitude, by the way, oxygen levels are dangerously low.

View from Pikes Peak_Shutterstock-2
Pikes Peak

The 360-degree panorama from that summit took Bates’ breath away. She was awestruck by the grand appearance of the Rockies, the “purple mountain majesties.”

“I was very tired,” she said. “But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there. . . . [We] gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and sea like sweep of plain. Then and there the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ sprang into being. . . . I wrote the entire song on my return that evening to Colorado Springs.”

***

Antlers_Hotel_built_in_1883_in_downtown_Colorado_Springs
The Antlers Hotel

Bates was staying at the Antlers Hotel, a rather grand lodge built in 1883 by William Jackson Palmer, who also happened to be the founder of Colorado Springs. The 75-room hotel was named for the collection of elk and deer racks that he installed there. Bates undoubtedly enjoyed her summer residence at the Antlers, especially because it was a fancy place for the time. No two rooms were alike. The guests enjoyed steam heat and hot and cold water. There was a music room, a Turkish bath, a barber shop, and a hydraulic elevator. It was all downright luxurious.

I don’t know whether Bates and Coman stayed together. But it was in her hotel room, when she returned from Pikes Peak that night, that Bates sat down to pen the original words to “America the Beautiful.”

***

In the late 1800s in New England, female pairings were so plentiful that they came to be called “Boston marriages” or “Wellesley marriages,” in which two women lived together without – gasp! – any financial support from a man. These couples were not necessarily romantic, although my guess is that more of them were than were publicly acknowledged. Typically the women were well educated and had solid careers, often in social justice areas. If nothing else they were intellectual companions, and they provided each other with moral support in the unrelentingly sexist environs of the time. At Wellesley, specifically, female professors were usually forced to resign if they married, so if women wanted to keep their careers they often paired up for financial reasons at the very least. In the late 1800s, according to Lillian Faderman, “of the 53 women faculty at Wellesley, only one woman was conventionally married to a man; most of the others lived with a female companion.”

The Katharines lived together for more than 25 years. When they were apart, they wrote each other letters every day and pressed yellow flowers between the pages.

***

Samuel_Augustus_Ward
Samuel A. Ward

“America the Beautiful” took a crazily convoluted path. Bates’ poem, titled “Pikes Peak,” was first published as “America” in The Congregationalist newspaper on July 4, 1895. People loved it so much that at least 75 melodies were written for it (even “Auld Lang Syne” was matched to it for a while because the song’s meter fit the lyrics). Finally, in 1910, a publisher added a melody that had been written in 1882 by New Jersey organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. The combination was now retitled “America the Beautiful,” and Bates amended her lyrics shortly thereafter, in 1911, to the version we know today. Sadly, Bates never met Ward. He had died in 1903 and was never aware of his music’s legacy.

***

Katharine Coman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1912 and died on January 11, 1915, at the age of 57. Bates, who had lovingly tended to her throughout her painful ordeal, was so grief-stricken that she said, “So much of me died with Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.”

Seven years later, Bates published a book of poetry about Coman called Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance.

At least one scholar has disputed the now-accepted notion that Bates and Coman were lovers. I don’t think it really matters. Romantic or not, love is love.

Katharine Bates never left Wellesley. She continued her work there until 1925 and after she passed away in 1929, the flag at Wellesley’s Tower Court was flown at half-staff.

***

O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life
America, America, May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine

Because of its first verse, “America the Beautiful” is often seen as a lovely but innocuous song about the breadth and beauty of this country – the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains, the fruited plain, all stretching from sea to shining sea. But really, the song is just as much about principles, and about the rich history of people who courageously fought here. It’s about wayfarers who managed to settle a wild, sometimes coarse landscape. It’s about the heroes who loved their country more than themselves. It asks for God to mend our flaws (and heaven knows there have been many). It reminds the citizenry to reign in their newfound freedoms through self-control and the exercise of law, and to ensure that the pursuit and use of the country’s riches remain noble. And in the end, it expresses the hope that, years hence, our shining cities will be undimmed by the tears of the unfortunate.

It was a prayer, it was a caution, it was a patriot’s dream.

I doubt that the dream will be fully realized in my lifetime. But I do believe that both our idealists and our pragmatists continue to try to bring it to pass. Maybe that constant effort is actually what makes Americans who they are.

Happy Fourth, everyone.

***

Coda:

The 1976 Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” stands alone. There is no other version, as far as I’m concerned. It’s sung with sincerity, love, longing, and guts. Even if you’ve heard it before, please give it a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CILIBlQ2D0Q

 

“America the Beautiful”

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain 
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain 
America, America, God shed His grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea 

O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress 
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness 
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw 
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law 

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife 
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life 
America, America, May God thy gold refine 
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine 

O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years 
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears 
America, America, God shed His grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea

 

the end

 

 

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

4/2/72 [age 16]:

“We all went to [my aunt] Zia’s for Easter dinner today, and when we got back an unusual thing happened. We all smelled something funny [in our house] and we searched for a long time trying to see what was burning. Finally, [my brother] Marc discovered that I’d left my lamp on and my pet plastic monkey from Barrel of Monkees had fallen off the lampshade and had welded itself to the lightbulb in a glob.”

4/7/72 [age 16]:

“I don’t know why, but I got this sudden urge to read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I found out we [my parents] have it. One poem, “Tears,” is really good. I like good old Walt baby.”