His name was Phil. That I’ll never forget. His last name I’ve spent more than 20 years trying to pressure wash off my cranium in case we’re one day introduced at some social event and I see fit to murder Phil with my bare hands right there beside the punch bowl.
I hear there are consequences to that sort of thing
It was Phil who gave me the most euphoric news anyone’s ever given me about my career and it was Phil who for reasons I’ll never know swiped away that good news the way a master illusionist makes a caged elephant disappear.
It was there then it was gone.
But Phil purloined something to me more precious than a pachyderm.
Phil stole my swagger.
This was 2001. I was 35. My career — and this was way back when I actually had one of those — was progressing splendidly.
I’d had a solid newspaper career, been honored with industry awards and in 1992 embarked upon a promising freelance career, one I was sure would bestow me with a treasure chest of uproarious human interest stories I could tell over and over again and again (it did just that).
I worked for many of the top magazines — Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Men’s Health — back when that really meant something. I’d checked every box you’d need on the way to becoming an important writer, the kind studied in school, fought and fawned over by guys like Spielberg and Oprah.
And make no mistake. Greatness was my goal. Ever since 5th grade, my ambition has been to be known as a great writer. (Today, I advise 5th graders aspiring to become great writers that for the sake of homestead serenity, they should first master the bottom-line intricacies of becoming a successful writer.)
How did I intend to achieve greatness?
I wrote “The Last Baby Boomer.”
The origins of my first novel date back to a ’96 story I read about Kathleen Casey-Kirschling. Born mere minutes after midnight Jan. 1, 1946, she was America’s first Baby Boomer and she was turning 50.
By then, I’d grown strategically conditioned to think for story purposes in terms of opposites and extremes: The biggest, the smallest; the oldest, the youngest; the most, the fewest; the first and the last.
Kathleen’s story was interesting, but it was the inverse that sparked my imagination. Who’d be the last baby boomer? And what would they do with him?
I contrived it in my mind:
“Martin J. McCrae at the age of 112 in the year 2076 will be declared the last living Baby Boomer. The distinction will earn the chatty McCrae a luxury suite at a NYC museum where contestants pay $25 each to spend 15 minutes with him as part of the ultimate ghoul pool. If they're in the room when he dies, they win the $1.2 billion jackpot.
“It's a ‘round-the-clock global reality show where no one wins until death does.”
And here are the lines I foresaw them putting up top on all the movie posters:
“Because everyone has to die.
“But only one of us gets to die last.”
Beautiful, huh. How could it miss? I was so confident of success I didn’t trouble with small potato literary agents. No, I went right to the top.
I went to Phil.
Phil was a young hotshot at a prestigious agency. He’d snagged a six-figure movie deal for some first-time author of a trendy coming-of-age story.
Six figures for a coming of age story? I wondered how many figures he could score for my coming-of-old-old age story.
As was the custom in those pre-whiz-bang internet days I printed out a spiffy cover letter, the first three chapters and dropped it all into a cozy envelope destined for a Manhattan skyscraper.
The call from the 212 area code came just three days later.
It was Phil and what followed were two of my life’s most exciting minutes since the afternoon I lost my virginity. So the call was exciting for about 94 seconds longer than the romantic elations did.
“This is the best book I’ve read since Catch 22. I want you drop everything else, print out the whole thing and overnight it to me. This is a can’t-miss premise and your deadpan humor is the perfect fit. And what’s next? I want to hear all you got. Man, you’re going to be a big star!”
We said our hurried goodbyes and I returned the phone to its cradle (long time ago!). I distinctly remember my first thought being, “Should the Cadillac be black or red?”
A spiffy Cadillac would be an audacious exclamation point to overnight success.
I Fedexed the manuscript and waited.
In a sense, I’m still waiting because the day after Phil accepted delivery of “The Last Baby Boomer,” Phil became a ghost.
I waited three excruciating weeks before calling and asking for Phil.
“Phil’s not here.”
Where’d he go?
“No one knows. One day he just got up and walked out. No one’s heard from him since. He even left his coat. He took just one thing.”
What was that?
“Your ‘Last Baby Boomer’ manuscript.”
I don’t know whether they blame me — why would they? — but the agency closed down eight months later.
I still wonder what happened to Phil. I like to think he was too staggered by my genius to go on, that he does one-man recitations of the book in the grottos near Cabo or that he inspires Himalayan mystics with the now-tattered pages of the book he assured was going to make me famous.
As for me, I remain mystified the book’s now-torturous journey hasn’t yet led to the kind of success Phil so long ago promised. In many ways, it’s stifled everything else I’ve tried to do. I for years stubbornly believed the novel had to be a success before people would take me seriously.
Odd, because even I don’t take myself seriously.
My desperation for recognition became was so manic I stooped to fraud to mock the industry I was intent on wooing. Yes, I began to promote the book being the recipient of the prestigious TINARA Award for Best Satire. I even graced the book’s cover with a ribbon sticker announcing the honor.
But, lo and behold, the success of my other books seems to be providing daylight for my heirloom creation. I’m each week hearing the kind of praise I heard from Phil.
The biggest and most welcome gush came from a Barnes & Noble sales clerk. I needed to buy a copy of my own book, one with an authentic bar code, to submit to a marketing firm.
As the clerk was ringing it up, she said, “Oh, everyone loves this book. Our whole staff’s read it and everyone thinks it’s hilarious. It’s a real find. We’re recommending it to everyone.”
She had no idea I’d written it. I said, “I hear it was awarded The TINARA.
“Yeah, I heard that, too!”
So I remain ever-optimistic that my first, best book will one day soon fulfill its long simmering promise and find an enormous audience, thus giving me 20 years to answer that elemental question:
Should the Cadillac be black or red?
Oh, and about that TINARA Award …
TINARA stands for This Is Not A Real Award.
You can purchase “The Last Baby Boomer: The Story of The Ultimate Ghoul Pool” right here on amazon or at Barnes & Noble.
Or signed-TINARA editions available at Second Chapter Books at Ligonier or, as always and with all my books, right here at the fabulous Tin Lizzy