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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Earl, Part One

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces that will serve as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

"Earl" was born on Saturday, September 17, 1983. He was 56 years old and unemployed. As for the "real" Earl who inspired this creation, I have no idea of his life story. It was during the Delhi Harvest Fest, a weekend-long celebration of the year's tobacco harvest (the area's best known crop). My father was a member of the Lions at the time: they had a food booth down on the main street right by the big beer tent. On that Saturday, I was helping out at the stand, taking people's orders and running cash. In mid-afternoon, I took a break, and wandered into the tent. (Even though they served beer, kids could still go in there during the daytime.) The joy of finally getting out to do something that day made me less introverted than usual, and I was nodding "hello" to people as I went in. The only one to return my nod was Earl, who was sitting at one of the picnic tables inside, drinking one of the several beers I would see with him that afternoon.

This guy was probably in his fifties, with short grey hair, chipmunk face when he laughed, plaid red flannel shirt, blue work pants, blue trenchcoat and a sharp pair of slip-on leather shoes. Why was it that all the boozers back in the day always wore nice shoes? I guess they still had dignity, one way or another. While I was standing over at the roulette wheel, still keeping an eye on this fellow (then as now, I was fascinated by "character" people), Earl had asked Al the bartender to buy him a beer. Al said no. Earl replied, "Well I bought you one three years ago."

I'm not sure who else heard this remark, but I laughed my ass off over it, and still spent most of the weekend convulsed in laughter at the mere thought of it. That night, I was with my father, his new wife and several of their cronies to see the Elvis impersonator, Glenn Bowles, at an event put on by the Lions. At one moment when everyone else but me in our party was up dancing, I had my head in my arms on the table still laughing. People sitting nearby turned to smile at me. They thought I was laughing at the woman with the huge rear end on the dance floor who was making a spectacle of herself gyrating all over the place. Nope. I was still thinking of Earl's comment.

Anyway, back to that afternoon. I learned that his name was Earl because Al's wife Judy (who was running the roulette wheel) called him by name to tell him to sit down and drink his beer or else she'd have the boys throw him out. At that remark, Earl proceeded to dance around, snap his fingers on one hand (beer in the other), and sing. Looked good on the drill sergeant. Another time I had seen Earl with a beer, and asked him, "Where'd you get the money for that?" His response: "Bummed it." Later that afternoon, I had seen him sitting on a picnic table outside the tent looking much more serious than before. As far as I know, that was the last time I ever saw Earl- however, at the next two Harvest Fests, while still working at the food booth, I may have seen him. In 1984, he may have been eating a hot dog in the tent; and in 1985  he may have asked me personally if they were serving beer in the tent next door. If either gentleman was indeed Earl, he obviously didn't remember me from that afternoon in 1983, but I certainly didn't forget him. And if he had, he certainly wouldn't have known how much of a mythical figure he would have become in my own creative output during those two years.

This brief encounter was all the inspiration needed to give birth to Earl's fictional counterpart- with much creative license of course. "Real life" Earl's visage, wardrobe and love of beer (especially paid for by someone else) were imbued into the character of Earl Taylor. After spending some weeks thinking about it, the script for the very first "Earl" adventure began at about 11 PM of Thanksgiving Sunday, when I was supposed to have had my rear end in bed before the big car ride commencing in a few hours. Tough turtle soup- creativity doesn't work 9 to 5. In fact, some of our greatest ideas come during that semi-conscious midnight state of delirium when inhibition and reason are tossed aside for whimsy.

The result was a comedy-drama set during that very same Harvest Fest weekend, combining the previously mentioned "Earl" vignettes with my own experiences, and -you guessed it- a lot of creative license. I had even written in my father and myself as minor characters. Within about two pages of script (things move fast in a Greg Woods Joint), Earl Taylor loses his job, his car and his girlfriend, and is threatened with eviction if he doesn't cough up some rent money pronto. Screenwriting 101 would dictate that Earl would spend the rest of the story trying to make rent and win back some of his self-respect. This scenario would have none of that- Earl simply didn't give a shit. All he cared about was who he could con next for a free beer. The story arc then was just a series of vignettes in which Earl and his pal Walt blurred from one party to the next on this boozy weekend. In more responsible hands, this would be a realistic look at an alcoholic whose only motivation is the next drink. To a naive fifteen year-old scriptwriter however, this story was about defiance.

Perhaps to my young eyes, Earl was a Chaplin for the modern age. In this sense, he was an outlaw figure who resisted authority in any fashion: cops, employers, and especially landladies- forsaking all responsibility for pleasure and spontaneous freewheeling adventure. Earl Taylor was conceived at the height of another economic recession, and for me, in some cockeyed way, he represented the freedom that most people wouldn't have dared.

This, and subsequent stories, chronicled the adventures of Earl and his pals raising hell on the mean streets of Delhi: boozing, gambling and bringing institutions to their knees. My conservative mother knew about the "I bought you one three years ago" story, and that I was writing all these "Earl" stories, but she was less than thrilled that I was making a hero out of "some drunk that you met". (During the Christmas season of 1983, I had even made a 1984 "Earl" calendar, with a different picture for every month depicting our hero in some zany misadventure. No, this calendar didn't display in the kitchen.)

(to be continued...)

1 comment:

  1. That was fun and interesting reading. I look forward to more!....