He was a writer but he had never written much, nor even read all the 'originals' he worked from, because it made his head bang to read much. But the good old silent days you got somebody's plot and a smart secretary and gulped Benzedrine 'structure' at her six or eight hours every week. The director took care of the gags. After talkies came he always teamed up with some man who wrote dialogue. Some young man who liked to work - From "A Man in the Way", by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
If you've never read The Pat Hobby Stories, by F.Scott Fitzgerald you are doing yourself a disservice. Toward the end of his career, and basically his life, FSF found himself laboring on screenplays in Hollywood for MGM. Based on his movie industry experiences Fitzgerald invented the character of Pat Hobby, an alcoholic hack who'd once been "a good man for structure" during the silent ages, but who now spent most of his time hanging around the studios, picking up the occasional "polish job" for $250 a week.
Fitzgerald wrote 17 Pat Hobby stories that ran in Esquire Magazine from January 1940 to May of 1941, the last five running after his death in December of 1940. Ben Nutty, and his stories, are my tribute to FSF, and the incomparable Pat Hobby.
Ben Nutty's College Daze
As Alaska Airline’s flight #4726 touched down at Portland International Airport, Ben Nutty adjusted his fedora and nudged his daughter who occupied the window seat next to him.
“Here we are, ‘Stumptown, USA,” he said. “Hold on to your hats, Portland, the Nuttys have arrived!”
Acornia rolled her eyes then turned and looked out the window as the plane taxied toward the gates. They had traveled to Oregon, ostensibly, so that Ben’s daughter could tour the University of Portland. With her high school graduation fast approaching, Acornia was feeling some pressure to choose a college. Given that Ben’s brother, Boris, lived in Portland, it seemed a good excuse to combine a visit with a campus tour. And since Ben had lost his corporate communications gig approximately 34 months earlier, Boris had offered to pick up the tab for the trip. As such, Ben found that he had plenty of time to escort his daughter on the tour circuit.
Gathering their bags, and a wilted cardboard box that Ben tucked under one arm, the two made their way through the jet way to the terminal where they were greeted by Ben’s much younger brother, Boris, and his lover, Theodore. Though the two had been together for more than 10 years, Ben was still under the impression that Theo was simply Boris’ “buddy” and roommate, never having quite got the whole “gay thing.”
“Uncle Boris!” Acornia said, throwing her arms around her uncle. Boris picked her up and spun her around.
“How are you, kiddo?” Boris said, placing her feet on the ground. “You look great; prettier every time I see you.” Acornia hugged him tightly.
“Well, what about me?” said Theodore with mock annoyance?
“Hey, Uncle Theo,” said Acornia jumping into his arms.
“Ah, my big brother Ben - ‘Ben the writer,’” said Boris opening his arms for Ben. “How the hell are you?”
“Fabulous,” said Ben sticking out his hand. “I finished tweaking my story collection a few months ago and self-published a dozen copies. I figure it’s only a matter of time before the big shots get a look at it. Then I’ll be entertaining offers to go the traditional publishing route.”
Boris smiled and shook Ben’s hand.
“In fact,” Ben said, dropping the box to the floor – the cheap packing tape barely holding it together – and prying it open, “here’s your copy, suitably autographed of course.”
Ben stood and handed a book to Boris. He then noticed Theo standing next to Acornia, his arm around her shoulders.
“Hello Theo,” Ben said extending a hand, “nice of you to come and meet us. Certainly going above and beyond the duties of roommate, but appreciated none the less.”
“My pleasure, Ben,” said Theo, a kind smile on his face.
Boris looked at the book cover: Slinging the Blues and other stories by Ben Nutty.
He opened the book to its cover page and read aloud the inscription:
To my younger brother, Boris: I hope that these stories, the fruits of my labor, adequately represent my thanks for having received the lion’s share of the family talent. Enjoy. Ben.
Boris emitted a puzzled chuckle and shook his head slightly. “Um, thanks Ben.”
“Think nothing of it. And Theo, I forgot to inscribe a copy for you,” said Ben, "but don’t worry; I won’t deprive you of an autographed, first-edition. Nobody panic! No tears!"
“It’s quite all right, Ben. I’ll just enjoy Boris’ copy and inscription.”
“Well, let’s get going,” said Boris, picking up Acornia’s bag. “I’m sure you’re hungry. We thought we’d grab a bite to eat on the way home. How does Little Big Burger sound to you?”
“Sounds great,” said Acornia. “I love burgers.”
“Little Big Burger?” said Ben, a confused look on his face. “I’d rather have a big little burger myself.”
“Then you can have two,” said Theo.
“That’s what she said!” Ben chortled. “Ho, ho. I got you good, Theo.”
“Yes Ben, you got me good.”
And with that, the foursome made their way to the parking garage, Ben bringing up the rear, his battered box of books tucked under one arm.
Finishing lunch, the foursome stood on the sidewalk in front of Little Big Burger.
“Truffle oil, huh?” said Ben.
“Yup,” said Boris. “Portland’s famous truffle fries.”
“I don’t understand what pigs get so excited about.”
Suddenly, they found themselves surrounded by a large crowd of people, chattering and milling about them on the sidewalk.
“Good Lord!” said Ben in a claustrophobic panic. “Is this one of those flash mobs?!”
“Relax, Ben,” said Theo. “They’re just part of a ‘foodie tour.’ Portland is full of them. “
“What’s a foodie tour?” said Acornia.
“It’s a tour for people who are into food,” said Boris. “Portland is a great eating and drinking town. We have a lot of eclectic little restaurants and bars. These people here are probably waiting to sample the ice cream sandwiches at Ruby Jewel. The food tours are quite popular with the tourists.”
“And apparently the chubby,” said Ben, albeit a little louder than he intended. “Some of these folks need an ice cream sandwich like they need a hole in the head.”
The heads and chins of several foodies quavered in Ben’s direction.
“Were you referring to us?” inquired a rather fleshy woman, her ensemble but a small Ruby Jewel treat away from detonating in a blast of spandex shrapnel.
“Um, no, no of course not,” stammered Ben. “What kind of person do you think I am? I’m an artist, and therefore a lover of mankind, no matter what its shape.”
With that Ben pulled his fedora low over his eyes and lurched down the sidewalk, leaving the others to make apologies.
“Very nice, Ben,” said Boris, after they had caught up with him at the car before the foodie’s could muster the energy to form a lynch mob. “I see your gift of delicacy has not softened with age. Thankfully we were able to convince her that you’d forgotten to take your medication this morning.”
“I’m an honest soul,” said Ben. “It’s the artist in me. Can I help it if others are too sensitive?”
“You can certainly help being so insensitive.”
“Pshh,” said Ben. “She’ll have forgotten it all by the next mouthful.”
They woke early the next morning for a 9:00 AM tour of the University of Portland. The tour was to commence after a brief meeting in the administration building, where the Dean of Admissions welcomed all prospective freshmen.
“Are there any questions before we begin the tours?” said Dean McDonald.
“I have a question,” said Ben, raising his hand from the back of the room. Recognizing the voice, Acornia and Boris turned nervously in their seats down front and glanced back at Ben, then at each other.
“How many successful authors can your English department claim to have produced? I mean, if one were to undertake the study of word-smithing at your institution, what sort of guarantees of literary greatness can you offer? ”
“Um, well that’s hard to say, sir. I can assure you that we have several writers of note on staff, however I believe that much of writer’s success depends on his or her determination. As the legendary short story writer, Andre Dubus said, ‘Talent is cheap, what really matters is discipline'."
“Angus who?” said Ben
Boris and Acornia hunched low in their seats.
At the conclusion of the tour, Boris, Theo and Acornia returned to the car to find Ben sleeping in the back seat.
“You missed a good tour, Ben,” said Theo. “Why didn’t you join us?”
“That Dean McDonald guy kept giving me the fisheye. Besides, I had a great idea for a story and wanted to jot down some notes before I forgot it.”
“A story about what, Ben?” Boris sighed.
“I don’t remember. I lay down to work out the plot and I fell asleep. So what’s next on the agenda?”
“How about we hit Powell’s Books?” said Theo.
“Yes! I’ve heard a lot about Powell’s,” said Acornia. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“We figured you’d want to check it out,” said Boris. “It’s a great book store.”
“I know, I’ve heard. I could spend hours in book stores,” she sighed.
“At three-stories tall and wall-to-wall books you can definitely spend hours there,” said Theo. “Let’s go!”
Powell’s Books had been a Portland institution since 1971, occupying a full city block between NW 10th and 11th Avenues and W. Burnside and NW Couch Streets. Upon walking through the front doors, Acornia stopped in her tracks as her eyes adjusted and took in the thousands and thousands of books.
“Wowie,” said Acornia breathlessly.
“Pretty impressive, isn’t it?” said Theo. “I’ve read that they buy over 3,000 used books every day.”
“Hmmmm….?” said Ben, before he wandered off amongst the stacks. The others watched him go, looked at each other and went in three separate directions, Acornia to the Young Adult section, Theo to genealogy, and Boris to antiques.
An hour later, Acornia, Boris and Theo met up near the registers, each lugging a heap of books. They smiled at each other over the swag of their successful explorations.
“Where’s your dad?” asked Boris.
“I don’t know. I saw him in the fiction department about half an hour ago.”
At that moment a ruckus arose from amongst the far aisles of fiction.
“Unhand me this instant!” wailed an all too familiar voice.
“Uh oh,” said Boris.
The three dropped their books and ran toward the back of the store. They arrived just in time to see Ben being dragged into a back room, his battered fedora hooked to the toe of one desert-booted foot, each arm in the grip of a Powell’s Burly Book Bouncer security guard.
“What seems to be the problem?” Boris inquired quickly before the door to the store room could be closed.
“Do you know this…person?” asked a tall, bespectacled man wearing a name tag that read: Fiction Expert: Ask my opinion!
“Unfortunately I do. He’s my brother. What seems to be the problem?” Boris asked again.
“We caught this bounder red-handed attempting to steal this book,” the man said, holding up the book for inspection: Slinging the Blues and other stories by Ben Nutty.
“Umm, I’m sorry but there’s been a mistake,” said Boris. “He wasn’t stealing that book, he actually wrote that book.”
“One of our security guards distinctly saw him pull it from the shelf and place it in his pocket,” said Fiction Expert.
“I’ve been framed!” hollered Ben. “My good name tarnished forever! I will have restitution!”
“Shut up, Ben,” said Boris. “What the hell happened; the truth?”
Ben looked down sheepishly and scuffed the rubber soles of his boots upon the laminate tile floor.
“I wasn’t stealing the book, I was leaving it.”
“I don’t get it,” said Theo
“I wanted a copy of my book to reside upon the shelves of the world famous Powell’s Books. I put it in the humor section, but then realized that it clearly belonged in literature, so I took it down and put it in my pocket. And, well you know the rest.”
“Good Lord,” said Boris. He turned to Fiction Expert. “I’m sorry, but I can attest to the fact that he did actually write that book. I’m also sorry that i can attest to the fact that he would attempt something so asinine.”
“Well I never,” said Fiction Expert. “The very idea that this, this tripe,” he held Ben’s book with two fingers, like a soiled diaper, “would deserve a place on our shelves. Ugh.”
He turned to the security guards.
“Please escort this person, and his literary refuse, OUT of the store.”
And with that, Ben, his hat and his book were summarily hustled out of a side door and deposited upon the gum-spattered sidewalk. Boris poked his head out of the store and said, “We’ll meet you later by the car, when we’re done shopping,” before allowing the metal door to clang shut.
After, they found Ben leaning against the car scribbling on his notepad.
“What are you writing now?” asked Acornia.
“Are you kidding, after that fiasco? I’ve got another story for the books!”