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Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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confessions of a male model
february 1, 2008
There are some things in my life I'm proud of.
For example, I'm proud I didn't write that first sentence as, There are some things in my life of which I'm proud.
Fuck the scandal of ending a sentence with a preposition.
"That is a rule up with which I will not put." --Winston Churchill.
I'm also proud I know how to spell porcelain.
A lot of people don't.
And I'm proud of being a writer.
The thing about being a writer though, is that whole issue about being honest.
You try to say what's true.
A while back, I wrote about a kid I knew when I was growing up.
We were good friends through most of my childhood.
The piece was honest. I tried to capture the essence of him, as I remembered it. Although he was dead (he died years and years ago, from a heroin overdose), I didn't want to write a eulogy-type assessment, where nothing bad is said (where nothing truthful is said.) Telling the truth about someone doesn't necessarily mean saying something negative about a person, but it does usually mean presenting a portrait that is not completely positive. And a lot of people object to that.
The way others honestly view us isn't discussed much, it's a bit ego-deflating, but let's have a go. I'll be passing out Hors d'Oeuvres in a minute, Underwood deviled ham on toast points (I didn't get a chance to go to the store before you arrived.)
The fact is, most people don't have as positive an image of us as we ourselves do.
We knew that already, although we try not to think about it.
Exceptions exist, of course. If two people truly love each other, the person who loves you has at least as positive an image of you as you yourself do, and may even have a more positive image of you than your own image of yourself. That's the way it is for Mary and me, and for a lot of other lovers.
But we're talking about casual relationships here.
When Mary and I were living on Cumberland Avenue in Portland, Maine, in a third story apartment, one morning we heard our landlady, Mrs. Littlefield, down on the first floor, confiding to one of her other tenants. The twists in the staircase acted as a mild megaphone, amplifying her quietly-spoken words up to where we, smoking on the wrinkled white sheets of our bed, could eavesdrop.
She was talking about us. "They pay their rent on time. Not an easy couple to get to know. Bit stand-offish."
Not flattering, but probably true.
It's like the first time you hear your voice on tape, the first time you see yourself on camcorder, all those angles of you you've never seen in the mirror.
That's how my voice sounds? That's how I look? No matter how many times we see images of our face, don't we still stubbornly stick to the movie star face in our minds? (And movie star face could be Hollywood movie star face, or independent film movie star face.)
How an acquaintance truly feels about us isn't what they say to our face, but to someone else's face. That judgment may be overall flattering, but probably not quite as flattering as we'd expect.
The casual friend who delights in seeing you? Who knows how they describe you to a third person, when you're not around.
When I was an employee (I'm self-employed now), one of the presidents I reported to had a habit, whenever another employee called while the president and I were in his office, of putting the employee on speakerphone. While he talked to the employee the president's voice was always impeccably polite, but whenever the employee spoke, the president would look at me and roll his eyes, make silent gagging gestures. I guess I was supposed to be amused by that, but my first thought was, What does he do when someone else is in his office, and I'm the one on speakerphone?
There was a great cartoon years ago. The first panel was titled, How He Sees Himself. It showed a dark-haired businessman in a business suit, tie straight, handsome looks, strong face, exuding power and confidence. The second panel was something like, How His Wife Sees Him. Same clothes, but his hair is a bit mussed, his tie askew, his face portly. The third panel was titled, How His Fellow Workers See Him. Here he has thinning hair, jowls, pompous look. Finally, How the Secretaries in His Office See Him, and we behold someone balding, small eyes, triple chins, ill-fitting clothes.
I used to be a male model.
When I was a teenager, age nineteen, I worked in a stationery store in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. The store was called Cuff's.
To those of you who don't know what a stationery store is, it was an establishment that primarily sold blank paper (stationery), typing ribbons, paperbacks, magazines, newspapers, cigarettes and cigars, often candy, and a bunch of miscellaneous stuff (water pistols, fake money, rubber bands, Groucho Marx nose and moustache you attached to your face behind your ears, like eyeglasses.)
So anyway, there I was one day in Cuff's, typing dollars and cents keys on the cash register (the money tray of which the owners, Joe and Dick, left open each night after locking up, because stealing everything in the tray would not be as costly as some thief prying the tray open, thereby expensively ruining it), when a middle-aged man came in, buying the local paper and some smokes, and as I rang up the sale, he scooted his face left, right, to look at my profile from different angles, and asked me if I had ever done any modeling work.
That kind of remark would set off alarms in any teenage boy, as in fact it did in me, but it turned out he was a legitimate illustrator. He sold his work to a lot of women's magazines, like Redbook and McCall's, to illustrate their romance stories, and also did a lot of paperback covers for Fawcett.
He told me he really liked my face, and wanted to know if I would be willing to pose for him. He'd pay me two hundred dollars an hour. (This was in the late sixties. I was probably earning about three dollars an hour at Cuff's.)
So I agreed to give it a try.
I showed up at his studio a few days later, after my shift at Cuff's. The studio was located on the top floor of his home. His wife and daughters would traipse through during each session. He showed me a lot of his Fawcett covers, and in fact I recognized quite a few from the paperback racks at Cuff's.
The way he worked was, he'd have me pose in a situation, then take a picture. For example, in one session, I had to stand partially opening a bedroom door. Sometimes I'd hold a prop (phone, wine glass, lit candle.) He'd show me the story he was illustrating, and given the fact I was thinking of becoming a writer myself, I was thrilled to see this blue-penciled typescript by another author that had sold for thousands of dollars.
Each session, after he took several photographs of me, from different angles, he'd then decide on the best, and create his illustration based on that photograph. Gliding over a printout of the photograph with his brush, wet with reds, blues, fleshtones. The original photograph, in effect, was a preliminary sketch.
Whenever I pictured my face in my mind, that's how I saw it, from those illustrations. (It's funny how we don't often update our mental images of ourselves. We see our faces aging in the mirror each morning, but in our minds we're forever young, like the tiny photo from thirty years ago Dear Abby kept putting at the top of her advice columns. I grew a close-cropped beard in my late twenties, but for the next two decades, whenever I pictured my face, it was still clean-shaven.)
But now, whenever Mary and I are in a department store, looking for towels or sponge holders that have a suction cup on one side you can lick and press against the tall interior of your stainless steel sink, and we pass one of those four-sided mirrored columns department stores really like, I glance at the man with the black and gray hair going by and think, Who is that?
With Google, you can sign up for a free service where Google sends you an email every time your name gets mentioned on the Internet (home pages, discussion boards, blogs, etc.)
So I signed up for it.
Every once in a while, I get an automatically-generated email directing me to a site where someone is talking about me.
Usually, the discussion is flattering (and thanks, all of you, who have ever said anything flattering about me.)
But every once in while, the link leads to an opinion that isn't flattering at all.
One blogger said I was the worst writer in the world.
But that's okay. I'm like Popeye. I yam what I yam.
Anyway, I wrote a Lately several years ago about a kid I knew growing up.
I used his actual name, first name, last name, because he was dead.
So about a month ago, I got an email purporting to be from this guy, saying he wasn't, in fact, dead.
And he greatly resented me saying he was dead, and greatly resented what I had said about him in that Lately.
He called what I wrote "nonsense", although in fact all of it was true. Most of what I wrote was flattering, although I did touch on his drug use.
In his initial email to me he told me to DELETE ALL REFERENCES TO ME IMMEDIATELTY!
The problem was, I had been told by more than one person over the years he was dead.
So was this really an email from him, or was it an email from someone pretending to be him?
I wrote back, explaining that I would be more than willing to remove his last name from the Lately if he could establish he was, in fact, him.
I asked him some easy questions an imposter probably wouldn't know. What was the name of the street where he lived when we were kids, and what was the name of his youngest sister.
The person emailing me sent back an odd response.
Instead of telling me the name of the street where he grew up, or his youngest sister's name, he gave me a phone number to call to speak to his mother, who, he said, would verify whatever information I required.
That made me suspicious.
All I asked him for was the street name and his sister's name, and he couldn't provide that information? And what was the deal with sending me his "mother's" phone number? What if I called that number and it was in fact my dead friend's real mother, and this turned into some kind of cruel joke where an imposter had gotten me to reopen old wounds by asking my friend's mother if her only son were still alive?
So I never called the number, but instead insisted again on the street name/youngest sister information.
Which he then provided.
So in fact my friend from childhood was not dead. I had been misinformed.
I removed his last name from the Lately. He thanked me for doing so, but I email-sensed he still felt resentment that I had talked about him at all.
That I had been honest, rather than flattering.
I asked him to keep in touch with me, but he never contacted me again.
Which I understand. I had embarrassed him. I never meant to (how can you embarrass someone who's dead?), but it had happened.
But can I be honest with you some more?
As a person, I was overjoyed to learn my best friend from my youth, who I had shared so many secret kid confessions with, on the big boulders behind his family's home, was still walking the earth.
But as a writer?
My piece worked really well with him dying at the end. His death in Harlem from a heroin overdose had a great emotional zing, capping the column.
Then I find out he's still alive, and my piece has lost most of the poignancy "up with which" I had spent thirty-six paragraphs building?