When I was a kid–this was before television–the radio was my best friend. Lionel Barrymore, brother of fellow actors John and Ethel, great-uncle of Drew, was confined to a wheelchair and played the crippled Dr. Gillespie in the original Dr. Kildare movies. He also had a radio program where he would spout maxims and dispense homilies. In his authoritative, quavering voice, he once said, “Happiness is not a station you’ll arrive at, it’s the train you’re traveling on.” That single sentence immediately became my entire philosophy of life.
A few decades later, I would read in Hollywood Is a Four-Letter Town by James Bacon: “Lionel Barrymore once told me, as he sat in his wheelchair crippled with arthritis, that he would have killed himself long ago if it hadn’t been for [film producer] Louis B. Mayer: ‘L.B. gets me $400 worth of cocaine a day to ease my pain. I don’t know where he gets it. And I don’t care. But I bless him every time it puts me to sleep.'”
So happiness wasn’t a radio station you’d arrive at, it was the wheelchair you were traveling on, and for Lionel Barrymore it must have been an express trip all the way.
I remember publishing my satirical, countercultural magazine, The Realist (1958-2001). I remember People labeling me “father of the underground press.” (I immediately demanded a paternity test.) I remember celebrating the Summer of Love in 1967. I remember naming and founding, with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the Yippies (the Youth International Party) and going to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War. I remember the Woodstock Festival in 1969–the music, the mud, the sense of community, the bare breasts, the warning not to ingest the brown acid.
Suddenly I’m 72 years old. I have been automatically accepted into the league of senior citizens, except in Portland, Oregon, where they refer to us as “honored” citizens. Whatever title gets me on the bus and into the movies cheaper is fine with me.
I’ve noticed that the network news shows seem to be aimed at middle-aged and elderly viewers. They are all sponsored by prescription drugs promising to prevent erectile dysfunction. The Viagra commercial–with background music by Queen singing “We Are the Champions”–features men dancing in the streets, ecstatic at the prospect of asking their doctors if a free sample is right for them. Personally, I don’t have any problem getting a hard-on, but I’ve begun to worry that it’s really rigor mortis setting in, on the installment plan.
Although any part of my body can attack me without warning, for no reason at all (OK, maybe revenge), I’m in pretty good shape for my age, except for an awkward, twisted gait due to a police beating in 1979, while covering the trial of Dan White for the murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. I got caught in the post-verdict riot, and my injuries were exacerbated by hereditary arthritis. I went to a New Age healer who wondered if a brace might help. She placed one hand on my hip and with the other she held the hand of her receptionist.
“Yes,” uttered the receptionist.
“Yes,” repeated the New Age healer.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” I interjected, “but would you mind if I look for a second opinion… maybe from another receptionist?”
My friends have grown older, and the musicians we listened to in the sixties have grown older along with us. I imagine myself emceeing the Geezerstock Festival, standing on an outdoor stage, looking out at a vast audience of gray-haired hippies with paunches and granny glasses, as I speak in a slow, shaky voice.
“Are you having fun?… I can’t hear you!… No, I mean I really can’t hear you!… I have an announcement. The Port-o-Potties that are painted green should be used only by those who have to pee at least once an hour. The Port-o-Potties that are painted red should be used only by those who have to pee less than once an hour…. It’s now my pleasure to introduce the Rolling Stones. They’ve been very busy–gathering moss. Here comes Mick Jagger with the aid of a walker. And Keith Richards is being carried out on a gurney. Oh, wait, I’ve just been handed another announcement: Warning–do not take the brown antacid.”
Two years ago, I wrote a piece for the AARP magazine, Modern Maturity. When my subscription copy arrived–the issue that my article was supposed to be in–it wasn’t in there. I checked with an editor, who asked how old I was. I told her that I was 70, but I didn’t understand what difference that made. She explained that there were three editions: one for readers 50 and older, one for readers 60 and older and one for readers 70 and older. I was too old to read my own article.
My dentist, in his early 50s, had a copy in his waiting room. I felt like I was cheating as I leafed through the pages, but it did include my article. There was a time when I was considered too young to read certain things, and now I’m considered too old to read certain things. Apparently something must’ve happened to me in between. Like, say, my life? But, as Lionel Barrymore once said on the radio, “When you stop growing old, you’re dead.”
I still write columns and articles, I still perform stand-up satire–my sixth album, The Zen Bastard Rides Again, has been released–and I’m finally working on my long-awaited (by me) first novel, about a contemporary comedian, inspired by my friendship and association with Lenny Bruce. I’ve been nominated for a 2005 Grammy Award for my album notes accompanying Let the Buyer Beware, a six-CD Bruce anthology. I keep wondering what Lenny would be saying in these insane times.
In 1964 Lenny was unable to get work because he’d been arrested so many times that night clubs were afraid they’d lose their liquor licenses. Lenny’s work was his life, so, with his permission, I wrote his obituary–this was two years before he actually died. Several years later, a short-lived magazine, Cheetah, published a fake obituary of me without my permission. Associated Press called, and I explained that it was a hoax.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” I replied. “I’d tell you if I was dead.”
On WBAI radio in New York, Bob Fass was taking phone calls on his midnight free-form show, Radio Unnameable. Listeners were discussing whether that obit was legit. Then someone called and said, “You know, I didn’t even know that Paul Krassner was alive until I heard that he was dead.”
And, at that precise moment, my sense of false humility was finally restored.