June 5, 2016

Morley and Me


[Author’s Note: I actually planned to write this before Morley Safer died, the story coming back to me when I first heard about his retirement. Then, well, he died before I even started. Which I guess now makes this a memorial.]

“Oh, look at that face.”

            Those were the first words Morley Safer said upon stepping through the door into my apartment. At first I thought he was talking to me, and I was about to thank him. A moment later I realized he was actually referring to Guy, my big galoot of a tabby, who was sitting on the bench inside the door, staring at him. Why, exactly, Morley Safer was in my apartment was the result of a chain of unlikely events and happy coincidences.

            When my first book was released some twenty years ago now, it received a long and decidedly lukewarm notice in the New York Times Book Review. Then for unknown reasons, about a week and a half later, the mysterious and powerful woman who edited the book review section wrote a more enthusiastic review of her own, which appeared on a Wednesday. Ironically enough considering what followed, not being a Times reader myself, I was informed of the second review by a neighbor who used to be a reporter for CNN.

            Anyway, at that very moment over in the offices of 60 Minutes in the CBS building, Morley Safer was putting together a piece on retinitis pigmentosa. He’d already set up an interview with Steve Wynn, the Vegas casino magnate and show-off, who owned a basketball team and went skiing in Colorado on the weekends. He’d also talked to some over-privileged, over-achieving and annoyingly optimistic teenager who was also going blind. But he apparently wanted something else, a counterpoint to all that success and enthusiasm. Time was running short, so he needed some drunken, bitter, blind loser, and he needed one quick. That’s when he happened to open that morning’s Times and see the review. The timing couldn’t have been better. He picked up the phone and called his producer, who in turn called my publisher. My publisher in turn called me at the office, warning me I would be getting a call from 60 Minutes, assuring me it was legit, and begging me not to hang up on them. Half an hour later Miriam, the 60 Minutes producer called and told me Morley wanted an interview.

            I admit I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of being on television, but I’d always admired Morley Safer’s old school reporting and elegant, no-nonsense writing. He also didn’t seem half the bastard that Mike Wallace was, and if he didn’t plan to get me indicted for something, all the better. Plus, I admit, it would likely sell a few books, so I agreed.

            Given as I said time was running short on their end, things moved very quickly. The next morning I tapped up to the CBS building to meet Miriam, who wanted to make sure I could speak coherently and tell a story or two. After taking me to lunch in the commissary downstairs, I guess she decided with that deadline looming they’d have to overlook that “coherence” bit and move on ahead with the interview anyway. They had to take what they could get at that point.

            The interview was scheduled for that Monday, at about ten in the morning, though the crew would need about two hours before that to set up. That’s when things started getting tricky.

            It’s no surprise and no secret that Morley, being an old school journalist, was a hard drinker and a chain smoker. He’d even hosted a cable series about the world’s best taverns, which at heart was just an excuse to drink his way around the globe. From what he was able to glean about me in those few days, he thought it would be a fine idea to conduct the interview in a bar. I thought that was a fine idea myself, so Miriam asked if I could make arrangements with one of my home bars to open at eight Monday morning so the crew could set up.

            Easy as milk, right? What scrubby little bar wouldn’t want that kind of national exposure? It’s 60 Fucking Minutes, after all, one of the most popular TV shows of all time, watched by trillions every week! Well, you’d be surprised. I knew the owners of three bars within spitting distance of my apartment, was in one or another of them most every day, so I started making phone calls over the weekend. But one after the other they all gave me a flat no. There was no hesitation. Since there was no money involved, it meant they’d have to open eight hours earlier than usual, bring in staff, and make all the arrangements on very short notice. It was too much trouble, they said, though I suspect the real fear was that since it was, yes, 60 Minutes, they’d be the ones who were indicted somehow.

            So the bar thing didn’t exactly work out. The only other option considering the interview by that point was about twelve hours away, was to do it in my apartment. At eight the next morning a van pulled up outside and, over the course of the next hour or so the producer and a three man crew hauled miles of electrical cable, a bunch of big lights, and a couple of cameras into the tiny shotgun apartment as my cats watched and my landlord yelled at them for keeping the front door open. He was the suspicious type, and was convinced something nefarious was afoot. When I tried to explain where they were from and why they were there, it only seemed to confirm all of his fears about me.

            Well, they set up a couple of chairs, the cameras, the lights, and I sat in the kitchen smoking, trying to stay out of the way. At ten, a limo pulled up outside and Morley got out alone and came upstairs. That’s when he met Guy and it was all over.

            I wish I could run contrary to all the accolades that followed his death on May nineteenth by saying he turned out to be an arrogant, self-righteous and downright awful son of a bitch, but it would be a lie. He really was charming and funny and smart and relaxed. And short. I’ll go on the record saying Morley Safer was a very short man. But he liked to drink and smoke, and even if we weren’t in a bar proper he wanted the two of us to be smoking and drinking throughout the interview. That was cool by me, since all the hoo-hah and the prospect of being on the television had left me a little parched and jittery. But the crew and Miriam nixed the idea, citing continuity issues—after editing, our cigarettes would get mysteriously longer and shorter, and the levels in our glasses would keep going up and down, like they do in most any Scorsese picture. So we compromised, setting an ashtray between us out of camera range and keeping our drinks on the floor while the cameras were rolling, then grabbing them up again and smoking like fiends between takes.

            Also between takes, we talked about books, art, all sorts of what-not. I’d been working as a guard at the Guggenheim when his notorious piece on the empty absurdity of modern art first appeared, and he seemed delighted to hear what a ruckus it had caused. He scritched Guy, scanned through my library, talked about bars and bartenders, and we had a fine time. Before he left, he promised to send me a couple of his favorite audiobooks, which he and his wife listened to while taking road trips.

            Well, a month or so later the piece ran, and even if I find it painful to watch and still regret most everything I said, it did indeed sell a few books. He never did send me those audios, though, but that’s okay.


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