By Michael Willard
There are people with whom I would like to share the next bar stool. There’s just one problem. Elvis is long dead and that same misfortune was assigned to my literary light, Sinclair Lewis, on Jan. 10, 1951. Alcoholism, they say.
I grieve, but do not despair, realizing the difference between the two emotions is marginal, and that interests — mine and probably yours — change with the pressures of putting cornbread on the table and gas in the jalopy.
Besides, I was a tyke of six when the teenage wannabe King of Rock lived a few blocks away in another low rent housing complex near Lauderdale Street in Memphis. Memories are filtered by the piling up of years.
But, who knows, our paths might have crossed in the produce section of the Piggly Wiggly store where mama Gladys Presley shopped for peanut butter, grape jelly and banana for fried sandwiches for her irrepressible kid.
I was that same age when Mr. Lewis — against the advice of his doctor to stop boozing — took his final sip of an expensive single malt whiskey. He could afford the good stuff after capturing a Nobel Prize for Literature and a Pulitzer.
However, Lewis was the well-spring of my cynicism and skepticism which is the most natural — though certainly not lovable — characteristic of those of us who grew up to become writers for newspapers, wire services and journals.
It should be noted that the “Arrowsmith” author turned down the Pulitzer in 1925, but there seems no conclusive evidence that he also declined the prize money. He showed up in Stockholm for the Nobel in 1930 with bells on.
Both the departed Lewis and I distain industry awards, though probably for different reasons. My belief is that most are catnip for fragile egos, while the noted author felt such prizes were unfair to other writers. I am not that selfless.
In the advertising and PR game, which was my career domicile for two decades, I collected a couple of boxes of wooden, bronze, and glass awards over the years. For the life of me, I don’t have the slightest idea where the loot might be.
These awards, whether in public relations, advertising or literary endeavors, have very little relevance when winning them is about as difficult as fishing for catfish in a washtub — with dynamite.
Also, I note, there is little or no trade-in value in such tokens, and they don’t impress clients nearly as much as hearing the cash register ring. That’s what make sense to them, hang the supposed honor.
The point I make, however, has little to do with awards, and much more to do with the iconoclastic Lewis as a kindred personality, and a ghostly literary apparition and soulmate. He was the totemic master of what I want to be.
However, I confess only my sainted mother read most of my novels while she was alive — and, truth be known, she might have fibbed. She also, on occasion, complained gently about some of the language.
But what current figures would I like to sit next to me on that bar stool at the Red Carpet Lounge in Charleston, WV, a former perch of long, long ago? This might surprise you — and my wife — but the actress Helen Mirren would be nice.
She’s my age, and whether playing Catherine the Great, an assassin in “Red” or a television commercial for L’ Oreal, she does it with class. She’d look great with a longneck frosty PBR sweating on that old bar counter.
Plus, I bet she smells nice. She looks like she would.
Fact is, she was the daughter of a London cabbie, which, from my street level status, is a plus. My formative years were spent as a trailer park kid, and I take pride in my Disney-esque, Davy Crockett years being brought up in a green and cream aluminum tube.
In the musician category, as a guitar player, there are many folks with whom I would love to toss back a shot or three. The problem is most of them are no longer here, having indulged more than a shot or three as well as doses of the misery powder.
However, I wouldn’t mind blues master Joe Bonamassa joining us. Joe’s a retail music hustler who plays and promotes like a banshie. He’s like listening to B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughn stirred together to create a musical martini.
From politics, I would love a tete-a-tete with the former president, the on named Barack. To me, he is the closest thing to Elvis, minus the sideburns and saddlebag weight which helped kill the other King at age 42.
To be truthful, my admiration meter these days is retrograde. Seems heroes always look better in the rearview mirror, and here I go again, dreaming. Generally, the only occupants with me at the old bar are my alter egos.