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A Town in Search of Notice

A woman named Karen Cohen called last week to ask if I would be interested in writing about a surprise birthday party for her husband, Stan, a neurologist. She had rented the use of an RTD bench in Calabasas on which she had painted “Happy 40th birthday, Stan” and had hired a senior citizens ragtime band to perform. She was also going to call television stations to ask if they would like to film the party and wondered if I might want to attend.

It’s been years since I covered a birthday party, even a cute one, so I was less than enthusiastic with her suggestion. While clowns and balloons at a bus stop bench may be terrific for those overwhelmed with the enormity of their own ideas, they are not for me. A thing like that goes along with billboards and skywritten signs that say, “I love you, Meegan. Will you marry me? Harry.”

Nine times out of 10, Meegan marries the fool only to realize too late that he used up every shred of imagination and ingenuity he possessed in that one sign, but she’s stuck with him anyhow. Future public endeavors ought to be followed by a billboard from the woman that says, “Dear Harry, Please state your goals, your IQ, your education and whether or not there is a history of violence or insanity in your family. Meegan.”

“Why would you want newspapers and television to cover the 40th birthday party of your husband?” I asked Karen. There are a lot of 40th birthdays going on, and while Stan, the neurologist, might be a very neat guy, unless he’s slept with Jessica Hahn or beaten the hell out of Madonna, he isn’t news.

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“I just thought it would be nice to get a little notice,” Karen said.

It was an honest response to a churlish question, and it started me thinking. L.A. is a town that cries out to be noticed, and the psychology has trickled down to its people. It’s a place where a gimmick can catapult a guy from obscurity to a glory far exceeding any he would otherwise know, which is reason enough for a lot of people to cluster like shadows on the fringe of a spotlight.

Ideas with less merit than a party at a bus stop have become television series that have earned millions for sitcom producers whose idea of humor is an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Money is the reason producers hustle ideas, but, I have found, it is not the reason the wretched masses hustle their ideas. They want a little notice, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I used to wince at phone calls from people who wanted something written about their talking dogs or their 50-pound pumpkins, but I have become more tolerant over the years; not friendlier, just less inclined to mock a guy who swears his dog is shouting Food! Food! when the stupid animal is simply barking.

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I remember the man standing in the city room of the Oakland Tribune trying to convince me his dog could talk by emulating the animal’s bark and segueing slowly from Woof! to Foof! to Food! It proved only that the man could do it, not the dog, and a man that imitates a dog just isn’t that unique. Well, maybe it is, but I still wasn’t interested. As strange as it could sometimes be, the Tribune wasn’t “The Gong Show.”

I knew a shoe salesman whose single claim to fame was that he could whistle the Star-Spangled Banner with a dozen cigars in his mouth. He sold that one act from coast to coast and ended up on the aforementioned “Gong Show.” I asked Chuck Barris, who created and hosted the show, why anyone would do such stupid things for public attention. He said it was because everyone needs the spotlight and for some that was the only way they could get it. Then he added, “Why not? They’re having fun.”

I’m not sure that the quest for public attention always involves fun. Why, for instance, would a guy go on “60 Minutes” with the full realization that Mike Wallace was going to rip his entrails out? Why would a woman agree to marry in the nude while parachuting from a plane? Why would a mayor accused of stealing his staff’s baloney sandwiches from an office refrigerator keep calling me to write about him?

Their reasons, like the secrets of cosmic creation, are at best obscure, but maybe they don’t have to be explained. We’re not here too long, and if dancing on the brink of the abyss satisfies something within, then what the hell, dance away. Happy birthday, Stan, and maybe that dog was saying Food! Food! after all.

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