Thursday, April 24, 2008

My ‘Driving Miss Shelly’ Story

Is this story what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day? Is it a piece of writing inspired by an actual day but then pleasantly embellished? Is it carefully crafted and completely fictional?

One Degree Of Richard Brautigan

In my Tuesday post [My Eric Von Zipper Story] I described how I met Shelby, Shelly and Jay-jay. I never got to know Jay-jay at all. Shelby and I became friends. I only went out with Shelly a couple of times but in hindsight I wish I had spent more time with her.

In terms of quality craziness, Shelly may be unique in my memory.

Shelly grew up in Evanston. If you look at the house she grew up in you think, wow, does Batman have his Batcave under that mansion? Does Professor Xavier teach mutant children in that mansion? Shelly received a degree in something or another from Northwestern and, right out of college, got a cool job for a big company in the Loop. But she always just shrugged about her job and said it was ‘something to do doing the day.’ After she got married I don’t think she returned to work.

I want to stress here at the start that these events happened back in the era that I bumped into Del Close at the bookstore. The events of today’s post happened right about the time Paris Hilton was being conceived.

What I’m getting at is that Shelly was Shelly long before Paris Hilton came up with her Paris Hilton schtick.

The afternoon of the evening I’m going to talk about began with me picking up Shelly after work. She was getting married in a couple of weeks and, for reasons that will be clear in a paragraph or two, she could only go out with people who were, umm, comfortable with odd times.

We went to a restaurant I had never heard of. I don’t remember the name of the place or exactly where it was. But it was pretty cool.

It was in one of the old, non-descript gray skyscrapers north of the river and between Michigan avenue and the lake. There was no sign out front. The lobby of the building looked like a normal lobby. There was a cigarette stand. A bank of elevators. In a far wall there was a plain wooden door and when you walked through that wooden door you found yourself in a beautiful restaurant all plush and steel, all deep shadows and bright lights. Big booths with lots of space between them. Everything very quiet.

I’m going to be quick about this part because basically I’m just setting up a conversation Shelly and I have in my car when I’m driving her home, but this stuff is good, too, and it is Shelly through-and-through.

We sat down in a big, plush booth and talked for a while and a waiter brought menus. When the waiter came back for our orders he looked at Shelly. She gestured to me to order first. The waiter looked at me.

I knew what was up.

I ordered cream of potato soup and Chicken Kiev. Couldn’t get wine or vodka because I was driving.

The waiter turned to Shelly.

She handed him her menu. “Nothing for me, thank you,” she said.

The waiter looked at Shelly, then back at me. It was the second time in my life I’d had a waiter give me that look. [I’ll get to the first time some other day.]

“Shelly is getting married in about a week and a half,” I explained to the waiter. “Even though she is very beautiful just the way she is,” I said, frowning at Shelly, “she is trying to go ten days without eating any real food because she wants to look even better in her wedding dress.”

The waiter smiled. “I understand. I’ll be back with your soup.”

“Can I have more water?” Shelly asked.

“Of course,” the waiter said.

When the waiter brought my soup, a second waiter brought a beautiful wooden tray with a wildly sparkling crystal pitcher full of water and a wildly sparkling crystal glass.

Putting the water in front of Shelly, our waiter said, “Our finest crystal, and our best wishes on your coming special day.”

It was a pretty cool restaurant.

Shelly gave the waiter a quick smile and let him pour her a glass of water.

Then the waiters left us alone with my soup and Shelly’s water.

“‘When we called out for another drink,’ I quoted, ‘The waiter brought a tray.’”

“‘Whiter Shade of Pale,’ Shelly said. “I always thought that song was just about falling asleep. I thought it was so cool that some musician wrote a whole song about his girl falling asleep. Did I ever tell you about the time I fell asleep during a police chase?”

Did you ever eat a full dinner while the person you were with just drank water? It’s a very strange experience. It’s almost something like a meditation exercise. It helps if the person you’re with is saying stuff that is almost as strange as the experience itself.

“You fell asleep during a police chase?” I repeated. “Were you riding in a police car as part of some school exercise?”

“No,” Shelly said, “I was in the car getting chased.”

“You had a crazy boyfriend and he drugged you and kidnapped you?”

“No, I was driving,” Shelly said. “I was drunk and the cops tried to pull me over for weaving all over the street. But I just didn’t feel like stopping. So I let them chase me for a while. But then I got tired and fell asleep and drove off the road. Luckily I didn’t hit a tree or a building or anything. Somehow I hit this big clump of bushes that cushioned the crash. The first cop who woke me up was very cute. That’s how I got my DUI conviction.”

I think at that point I told the story of how police and SWAT teams had closed off my block one night because a neighbor had seen me and my friend with our telescopes and thought we were snipers with fancy rifles. They had stormed down on us, guns drawn and pointed right at us.

“But I was never convicted of anything,” I said. “The cops—eventually—all just laughed and went home.”

Shelly smiled and sipped some water. “I was convicted,” she said.

So that’s kind of an introduction to Shelly.

Now here’s my favorite part of the evening. My favorite Shelly talk of all time. One of my favorite movie conversations of all time with anyone.

As I was driving Shelly home that night we passed a movie theater not far from my apartment. It was a cool, north side theater that sometimes showed new releases and sometimes showed special titles.

“I was here last week with my fiancé,” Shelly said. “There was some kind of charity thing going on. Did you go?”

I told her I hadn’t gone.

“Oh, you would have loved it,” Shelly said. “They showed some old Frank Sinatra comedy that was one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.”

“A Frank Sinatra comedy that was funny?” I said. “I’m not a big Sinatra fan, but I don’t even remember him making a great comedy. What film?”

“I don’t remember the title,” Shelly said.

“Well,” I said, “let’s see what Sinatra films I can remember. ‘High Society’ was okay. About a wedding.”

“No, it was something that had soldiers in it,” Shelly said.

“‘Von Ryan’s Express’ was cool, but I don’t remember it being all that funny,” I said. “About prisoners escaping an Italian prison camp on a train during World War Two.”

“No, I think this was supposed to be later than World War Two,” Shelly said.

“Was there singing in it?” I asked.

“No, no singing,” Shelly said.

“Black and white, or color?” I asked.

“Black and white,” Shelly said.

“And it was funny?” I asked.

“It was hilarious,” Shelly said. “I was laughing out loud.”

“Well, I think he made a film called ‘Assault on a Queen,’ about some ex-soldiers who try to rob the Queen Mary cruise ship.”

“No,” Shelly said. “There wasn’t a cruise ship. There were lots of strange scenes, I think, with Chinese soldiers.”

At that point I think my eyes went a little wide and I had to force myself to not stare at Shelly and put some of my attention on the traffic around us. Because at that point I was beginning to suspect what movie she was talking about.

I should have realized, earlier, maybe back in the restaurant when the waiter brought water in a crystal pitcher, that Shelly and I had crossed over into a magical world all her own. But I was beginning to catch on.

“You’re sure this is a comedy you’re talking about?” I asked.

“It was very funny,” Shelly said.

I picked my words carefully. “Was this movie about a friend of Sinatra’s who was also a former soldier and was his friend’s mother involved in politics?”

“Yes! Yes!” Shelly said. “Yes, part of the plot was about some politician about to get shot.”

“I think the film we’re talking about,” I said, “is ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ American prisoners of war in Korea are brainwashed by Chinese psychologists and one of the Americans is eventually programmed to kill a presidential candidate to help bring communist pawns into power in the US.”

“Yes! That was it!” Shelly said. She kissed me on the cheek. “I knew you would know it. It was really your kind of film. Wasn’t that a hilarious movie?”

I struggled not just for words but also to figure out what I wanted words to say.

“‘The Manchurian Candidate’ wasn’t a comedy, Shelly,” I said.

“Yes it was,” she said.

“No it wasn’t,” I said.

“Yes it was,” Shelly said. “Everyone in the theater was laughing.”

“Was your fiancé laughing?” I asked.

Shelly thought for a second. “No. But he never laughs at anything,” she said.

“It really wasn’t a comedy,” I said. “In fact, the film was so serious that for many years it couldn’t even get released.”

“It was a black comedy,” Shelly said. “You know, like ‘Dr. Strangelove.’”

“No,” I said. “It was just a drama.”

“You’re teasing me,” Shelly said.

“I wish I could have been sitting next to you in the theater,” I said. “Were you the only person laughing?”

Everyone was laughing,” Shelly said, again. “It was a comedy. You must have seen it when you were in a grumpy mood.”

“Maybe the whole world was in a grumpy mood when they saw it,” I said.

Shelly hit my arm with the back of her hand. “Oh, you’re just one of those people who can’t admit when you’re wrong.”

Okay, this conversation went on all the way to Evanston, but you get the gist of it. And this seems like a perfect place to end the story, with Shelly—convinced that ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ was a comedy [!!]—telling me that I couldn’t admit when I was wrong.

I can’t put into words how much I admire self-assurance. I mean, I am almost never certain about anything so when I meet people who are wildly confident about their beliefs—even when their beliefs are bizarre—I can’t look away.

Sometimes when you can’t look away you see things that are, at least, fun.

Shelly was nuts, but she was quality nuts. And fun.

I admired that combination a lot. I’ve tried to make it a goal for myself.

Quality nuts and fun.

I’m nowhere near as good at it as Shelly was, but, you know, I’m trying to get better at a lot of things and that stuff is high on my agenda.


Incidentally, this business of mistaking serious movies for comedies goes beyond just Shelly. Over the years, I’ve met quite a few young people—including a few who were cinema students—who believed passionately that Steven Spielberg secretly intended for ‘Schindler’s List’ [!!] to be viewed as a dark comedy, like ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ They even defend their stance, citing this or that aspect of the production design of the film.

The belief is so bizarre that I want to smile about it, but it’s so nuts—so low-quality nuts—that I can’t even take it seriously enough to be amused by it.

But I thought I’d mention it in passing since it’s on topic and I might want to come back to it someday.

No comments: