Rodney Dangerfield Goes Literary (Day one)

        My wife let me out at the front door of the Tyvoli theater.  “Now honey, remember how your voice carries.  Don’t get too loud.”

        “Awh, Marfar.  I know how to behave.”

        “I know.  Just not too loud.  They’ll be doing some readings.  This isn’t gonna be a jam session.”

         “There’s always a first.”

         “Tommy!”

        “Yes, ma’am.”

         I walked to register.  “Hey, I’m Tom Bibey.  Y’all got a package for me?”

        A teenaged girl manned the desk.  “Are you a writer?”

        “A wannabe anyway.”

        “You look older than your picture.”

        “I was afraid you might not let me in if it was too current.”

         She handed me my packet without comment.

         I found a bench.  My cell rang.  “Hey, yeah… Signal Mountain?  Sure….”

       A woman shushed me.  “Young man.  Read your bulletin.”  I fished it out of the bag they gave me at the desk.  Her gray hair was pulled back in a bun and she wore those little half glasses tethered around her neck by a gold chain.  She looked just like my Typing teacher at Harvey High and favored a stern Aunt Bee when Opie had done wrong.  Her steely blues stared me down. 

       “The part about no cell phones?”

        “Yes.”

         “O.K.  I’m sorry.  When do they start up the readings?”

        “1:30.”

        “Good, I’ve got a little time to kill.”  I think she wanted to kill me. 

        A younger woman came over.  “She’s not as mean as she looks.  You just gotta remember here in Chattanooga this is right next to a church.   The Tyvoli goes back to vaudeville.”

        “Thanks.  I’ll ge a good boy.  Sorry.”

         “O.K.  Just don’t do it again.  Two strikes and the Gestapo will eject you.”

        “Have you seen this man?”  I showed her a picture of my agent. 

        “Yes, I know him.  The gentleman will be here precisely at 1:28 without fail.”

       I read over the schedule.  Will Campbell, Jill McCorkle, Robert Morgan, Louis Rubin, Clyde Edgerton.  “Ma’am, I gotta tell you this gig is gonna rock.”

        “If you say so.”  She rolled her eyes.

        I was restless, and can’t stand to waste even a minute, so I got my mandolin out and strummed a few bars of ‘Roanoke.”

         My agent rushed over. 

        “Hey, boss.  This mandolin is a hoss, huh?”

         “Damn, Bibey.  You’re like Rodney Dangerfield.”

          “I don’t get no respect?”

           “I don’t mean it like that.  But you gotta realize this is like church.”

        “That’s what I hear.  Like Jerry Clower says, if you hear it twice it must be scripture.  You been talking to my wife?”

         He looked over his shoulder and waved at the Typing teacher lady.  She peered at us over the top of those half glasses.  He went over to speak to her.  “Yes, Dorothy, he was just saying how he needed to put it away.”

        “Dang, boss.  Everyone here so serious?”

        “Trust me, they know when to have fun.  There’s time to play later.  We need to go on in. ” 

        Soon I realized why they were so reserved.  This was a group with some serious credentials.  Natasha Trethewey came to the stage.  She was a pretty woman; nutmeg skin, a Tiger Woods megawatt smile and dark eyes.  “Dang, boss.  I sure would hate to have to follow her.”

        “Hush boy.  She’s a Pulitzer prize winner.”

         By the time she finished her talk I was near tears.  She recounted her experiences as a child growing up in Mississippi in the 60s.  Her mother was black and her father was white.  This made her, at least according to the rule book, ‘against the law.’  

        I always have been against too many artificial rules.  I had to speak to the lady.  I told her I had grown up white and male in the segregated South, and had every opportunity in the world.  “If I hadn’t amounted to something,” I said, “it would have been nobody’s fault but my own.  You sure have my respect.”  I can’t begin to know how hard it must have been for her.  Anyone who goes deep into their heart and soul to figure out how they feel, and then tosses it out there to see if folks will stomp on them or not has my respect as an artist.  (and as a person) 

        On the way out an elderly man asked what I was carrying.

        “Oh this is my mandolin.”

         “I’d love to hear you play.”

         “I can’t get it out in here.  It’s kinda loud, and this is like church.”

         “I agree.  A very distinguished group, indeed.” 

         “I’m gonna go out to Signal Mountain Opry while I’m here.  Come out if you get a chance. ”

         He smiled.  “I might just do that.  My father played the banjo.”

        “Clawhammer?”

        “Yes.”

         “Excellent.”

         “Enjoy the conference, young man.”

        “Yes sir.”  Maybe I had started out like Rodney Dangerfield, but hopefully I’d win their respect.  Dang it, when am I gonna learn to listen to my wife (and my agent) from the get-go?

Dr. B

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12 Comments on “Rodney Dangerfield Goes Literary (Day one)”

  1. Billy Says:

    I just about choaked to death reading your blog today. Here I am sitting in a booth in the 19th Wheel Truck Stop outside Jackson, Ms.

    I was rolling in the isle trying to read your post to the waiter [they have hired Big Bruce Loper to wait on tables until he pays off his tab]. Anyway he was laughing too. Said you would never catch him in a writers conference so it must be like a church cuz you wouldn’t catch him there either.

    I never heard of a Writers Conference being called a church before. It must be different than the way Bluegrass boys behave. I guess writers walk to a different drummer.

    Hope you met some good writers there. I am mainly a reader but if you get published, I might try my shot at it myself.

  2. Smitty Neuse River Pres. Says:

    I know one thing, it was hard for you to attend a conference where you had to be quiet.The lady that you said was from Mississippi is a poet I believe. She grew up in the Gulfport area and if she wrote about the sixties in Mississippi, she has a story to tell. We have come a long way in the “Hospitatily State”. Jerry Clower use to say we have changed more that other states. I believe he was stating we had a long way to go. You know I could talk to you for a long time on the history of those times but that might need to wait until you or I have time to visit each other.

  3. drtombibey Says:

    Billy,

    Bluegrassers and writers have more in common than you might think. Both groups are very creative, and both believe in dreams.

    In some ways it ain’t like church. Both crowds like whiskey O.K. and writers cuss at least as much as bluegrass people. Heck, they even schedule special cuss hours, I guess in between drafts or rejection letters. I will post more on that later.

    That little lady with her hair in a bun almost cussed me. I was lucky it wasn’t 2:00 yet. I think that was her appointed time.

    Dr. B

  4. drtombibey Says:

    Smitty,

    Yeah, man, you are so right. If I can’t whup a man at golf, I might at least yak him to death.

    I have a touch of ADD you know, and spent my Sunday School years at the Gulf station drinking Co-Colas ’cause of it. (I have repented.)

    The lady poet, Ms. Trethewey, was indeed from the Gulfport area of Mississippi. You know what? She saw hard times as a kid, but she still loves her home state. My guess is she is proud of the evolution, and at the same time wants to push the envelope to keep on going.

    When I was down there, I got into a discussion with Mark at the Jamison about the New South. I bet he would like Natasha Trethewey’s work.

    Dr. B

  5. Felix Miller Says:

    “You just gotta remember here in Chattanooga this is right next to a church.”

    Oh, I laughed so hard. You got that exactly right. And Natasha Trethewey was powerful medicine, for sure. And Rita Dove. Every part of the conference made changes in my way of thinking and made me grateful I came.

    I love your account of the proceedings from the bluegrass perspective.


  6. Doc, I’m sure both your lovely wife and your boss would say you have to listen to them more – but I can secretly tell you that I think it’s wonderful that you’re keeping your spirit young and carefree and not caring about something like a “distinguished gathering.” It ain’t like you were picking your nose or howling like a monkey – you made an honest mistake about the cellphone and you were just picking some tunes! Rock on, I say, and don’t become rigid and dull, it won’t suit you!

  7. Karen Says:

    Oh Dr B. you make me laugh! You and my husband would get on mighty fine – he can’t bear to sit still for a second. (And just quietly I think he’s ADHD too.) But I think your Marfar and me might just have a thing or two to talk about too 🙂 Keeping you boys in line is a full time job. Sounds like that was a pretty big deal that you went to. Who knows? You might be one of the ones up on stage presenting in a few years – you’ve got your own amazing story to tell…

  8. drtombibey Says:

    Felix,

    I learned so much at the Conference too, and in spite of all my cutting up I have all respect for every one of those artists.

    My agent said the dinner was a must. “Bibey, you never know who will be seated next to. They might be from Germany or they might be from right there in Chattanooga, but you count on the fact they will interesting.”

    As with everything else in my writing journey, he has been right on target.

    Dr. B

  9. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. slightly,

    As long as they don’t make me wear a suit and tie (and I saw no evidence they would) and let me string my mandolin around my neck, I think I can get along with any group of people.

    To paraphrase a Scotsman, “with me God, me people, and me music I can get me by.” I wrote the vast majority of my book with my mandolin around my neck and played when I would get stuck, so why change now? (I couldn’t if I tried anyway)

    Dr. B

  10. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Karen,

    I’ll never forget the day I signed with my agent.

    I went home and told my wife. “Hey honey. Guess what? You are looking at a man who now has a Literary agent.”

    She looked up from her knitting and smiled. “Poor man. He has no idea what he is getting into.”

    I expect when we finally get to Australia, you and Ms. Mafar would become kindred spirits in short order.

    Dr. B

  11. Ted Lehmann Says:

    You just can’t take some people nowhere! I’m glad we never met, because I’d have to try to teach you a bit of northeastern reserve…some people call it arrogance, others snobbery. There was a time I would have called a southern writer’s conference an oxymoron, but I guess not. Good post. – Ted

  12. drtombibey Says:

    Ted,

    I am gonna look you up at MerleFest. A New Hampshire English Professor bluegrass photojournalist and a N.C. country Doc mandolin picker need to swap stories.

    Dr. B


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