It may have started with Flo. She’s appeared and reappeared as different characters in my life, like a recasting of Darrin on Bewitched. As the baby of the family, I could not have done any better than Grandma Flo in the grandparent department. Quite the prince, I was over at G&G’s, hence the kitschy embroidered pillow that says “There’s no place like home except Grandma’s.” A writer of poetry who dreamed secretly of being a ballet dancer, Grandma filled me with ice cream, chocolate milk, and her “girl” cheese sandwiches, gorgeously sliced into six identical slices for my dainty little hands. Even when I assured her I wasn’t hungry, good ol’ Flo was pulling out the bread and slicing the cheese; there was only one answer to “are you hungry?” in that house. Apparently these sandwiches left such a lasting impression on me that, in high school—a time in one’s young life when no one acknowledges the existence of relatives—I was writing poetry about Grandma Flo’s grilled cheese sandwiches. I went through the adolescent stages like everyone else, but for me, feeling different never really felt unfamiliar . . . yes, I have a family, and I’ll write grilled-cheese-sandwich poetry if I feel like it!
Based on the amazing day I had with my dear friend Sandy—a day filled with fried eggs, heirloom tomatoes, and oysters for which she coined the phrase “very happiness”—one would never guess that I was the most picky eater a parent could raise. Aside from grilled cheese, I refused to eat anything unless it came with French fries, and even then the main course was up for discussion. At Bobby McGee’s, one of those funky little restaurants from the ’80s where the waitresses were charmingly rude, I fell head over six-inch heels in love with a waitress named Flo. A memorable (but possibly exaggerated) characters from childhood, Flo was as “kiss my grits” as a woman could be, and I like to think that wherever life has taken her, those grits have remained just as cheeky. Absolutely confident that she reciprocated my heartfelt devotion, I begged Mom and Dad to take me there as often as possible. It was perhaps my first lesson in how to charm waitresses (and waiters, later in life) into scoring free food and free drinks. Flo would bring me extra fries with side of sassy, and I learned then and there that people like Flo will eat you alive if you don’t give the sass right back to them. I was one of those students who learned life’s lessons everywhere but the classroom. Well, that is, except for one classroom.
Before eBooks came along and transformed me from a copy editor into a data processor (boring!), I was told that the sales handle is the most important part of selling an upcoming book. If you had to come up with a single catchphrase that not only summed you up but also painted the perfect picture of you, what would it be? With little effort I came up with mine years ago: “When I was four, I took my Bette Midler records to preschool for show-and-tell.” Fortune smiled on my flow of Flos, and between Grandma and Bobby McGee’s, a second Flo entered my life in the hippie form of my first preschool teacher. While some teachers may have met a four-year-old boy and his impressive collection of Bette Midler records with a raised eyebrow, Flo instead pulled out the record player, and like a team of DJs, soon we had the whole class up ‘n’ dancing. Yes sir, from a young age I was determined to expose my peers to quality entertainment that existed long before we were all born. Thank you, Flo, for getting a kick out of me before I knew there was anything to get a kick out of . . . I’m forever grateful!
It’s not every man whose father hands him a DVD and tells him, “Oh you’re going to love Mae West!” When Dad was visiting a few months ago, we talked a great deal about classic films, current films (what’s with all the car chases?), my writing, his crazy mother, and the joys of wine tasting. When it comes to chatting about movies, we always have a little back-and-forth of “Have you seen” this one or that one. Somehow during brunch we got on the topic of Mae West, and I admitted shamefully that I just hadn’t gotten to her yet. We talked for a bit about the wonderful similarities between Mae West and Bette Midler, two of the brassiest lassies the world has ever known, and twenty minutes later I had a DVD set of five Mae West films, courtesy of Dad.
I’ve been through all five films, impressed and amazed that West wrote a number of the screenplays herself, but thus far my favorite has been I’m No Angel (1933). It’s not every actor who can throw out lines like “Beulah, peel me a grape” and remain lovable, sassy, and commanding within a span of four words. Usually I’m able to remember and recite movie lines on command, but this woman’s divinely dirty mouth delivers about ten zingers per second. West plays Tira, a lion tamer who agrees with little reservation to stick her head in a lion’s mouth . . . like her yet? Along comes the wealthy (and very young) Cary Grant, resulting in the hate, love, hate, love storyline that continues to hold our movie-going attention. But the romance fades away behind the talent of this woman who is described frequently as decades ahead of her time. I agree but in many ways, I feel Mae West was in the exact right place at the right time, saying all the wonderfully wrong things.
It turns out that Mae West, just like Bette, Flo, and Flo, has become a part of the past that brings my present its much-needed serving of sass ‘n’ class, often with a free side of cheese.