This is the tale of that time I inspired John Updike.
My parents’ friends called them one day in 1993 and said something like, Have you seen the latest issue of the New Yorker? Is it possible John Updike wrote about your daughter on the last page?
I’m from Beverly Farms, a part of Beverly, Massachusetts that is both Tony and Townie. (Note to self: new drag name= Tony Holmes.) We have private beaches, a small downtown, commuter rail service to Boston. John Updike was our most famous neighbor. We moved there in 1974, he moved there in 1982. My clever parents bought the cheapest house in the fanciest neighborhood for something like 35k. As middle class newcomers, we were neither Tony nor Townie and will never be. The house is an easy bike ride, a long walk, or a five minute drive to the beach. John Updike purchased a much fancier house with walking access to an even more exclusive beach a mile down the road.
In our town there is a wonderful annual church fair with a big used book sale. It was Updike’s church, and he would volunteer at the sale. He’d cheerfully sign any of his books people purchased. As you might imagine, he was a real draw for the sale. He appeared as anyone else working at the sale – you wouldn’t suspect he was a famous author unless you knew. This is how I first knew about him – I bought books from him, but had never read him.
My parents had a funny interaction with him in 2006 or so because his trash kept turning up across the street from them. Across the street is a cemetery, not an address where the sanitation department picks up trash, so my dad had to clean it up. He looked through it, and seeing John’s name, called him and asked him to come get it. (Back in those days, you could look up most people’s addresses and phone numbers in the phone book.) Turned out, Updike had a stalker who was stealing (and later selling) his garbage. (As an infamous lifelong trash picker, I understand part of this, but not all of it.) Updike was very angry – I mean, doesn’t a person have a right to protect his own trash? I don’t recall if John was leaving his trash there to throw his stalker off the scent or if the stalker was ditching the stuff he didn’t want there. I think the former. (Here I would like to take a moment to address a point in the Atlantic’s article – Updike’s house was on a private, dead-end road – not someplace that was on anyone’s route to the beach.)
In any case, in 1993 I was taking a break from college and living at my parents’ house again. I was very punk at the time (now I’m lazily punk). Blonde or dyed colors Mohawk, usually at ease, crazy homemade or vintage clothes, plenty of spiked and safety pinned jewelry.
I worked at the local library (where I’d worked in high school). I read the shelves, worked in Technical Services with a pregnant lady who only listened to classical music so her baby would be relaxed, and worked at the desk. I got my late fees waived and learned a lot about new releases. I met and dated a weird rocker guy twice my age who had just moved back from Berlin. A kooky guy said to me he didn’t write on his hands anymore (I had a note on mine) because “god told him to.” John Updike was a regular.
I also worked at the local convenience store, known locally as “The 350” because change isn’t real in New England -it was actually a Christy’s Market at that point. It was a fun job. I met a hot skinhead there. My friend’s mom used to come in “to buy cigarettes,” but she’d actually quit, so she would really just come in to say hi. Some young teenagers would hang out front. One time my friend was in there with me and this guy came in and was like “I used to be in a punk band but you probably never heard of us.” Try us, we said. “I was a drummer for The Modern Lovers.” WE FREAKED. My friend said, “I just heard Astral Plane on the radio the other night!” He was surprised. He did not, by the way, mention THE CARS which, at that time, would not have impressed us anyway. Those were different times.
My usual diet at “the 350”, where I worked 3-midnight or something, was a pack of cigarettes, a bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, a liter of Jolt Cola, which had a strange golf following, maybe an OK soda, and as much coffee and Blue or Red or Purple slushies as I could handle. My mouth and teeth were pretty much black by 7pm or so, and I was WIRED. YUM! I would read all the porn magazines behind the counter and try a new brand of cigarette every night. I could listen to any music I liked, but my radio only got the lame Boston “alternative” station. I spaced my smoking by only lighting up when a “good” song came on the radio. My standards plummeted. When I hear these songs now, I almost feel a jones to smoke. I could smoke in the store. Only once did someone complain, and he was a real pain in the neck! It was perfectly legal at the time, so I was like Give Me a Break!
Imagine all of this behind the counter, plus punk hair and attire and attitude. Plus a pretty much a black mouth. Wish I had pix.
I guess John Updike was a semi-regular customer. “Downtown Beverly Farms” is about 10 shops – gas station, liquor store, book shop, bank, restaurant, pharmacy, restaurant, convenience store, etc.. He came in to the convenience store now and then but I probably saw him more often at the library. We had one very memorable interaction. He came to the counter at The 350 with a packet of pre-packaged deli meat. One of my chores was to look through the products that had “sell by dates” and take out the old ones. I hadn’t gotten to the deli products yet on this day. He put it on the counter, probably with other items, and I said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t sell you this.” He said why not? I pointed out this baloney or whatever it was had LARGE BLUE SPOTS on it! I think he needed new glasses. I wish I had a photo. We both laughed. He wasn’t someone who was a bigtime laffer. He had really bad eczema that affected his face and hands, and it looked very painful. He had a kind face, just a smile away, but I imagined it would be a painful smile, with that red flaky skin.
So back to the beginning. For a long time, in the days before captioning cartoons, the last page of The New Yorker was called Shouts and Murmurs and was usually a comedic anecdote. This “Hostile Haircuts” story was clearly about me. I was both flattered and mortified. Mom said I had to get Updike to sign it, so I brought it to the convenience store and next time he came in we had an awkward exchange and he did sign it for me for my birthday. RIP JU!