Friday, May 20, 2011

COLLECTOR'S EDITION excerpt #1: The Paper Shack

My girlfriend refers to me as an “archivist,” a term far preferable to “anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive, time-wasting collector freak.” But regardless of the tag, since about the age of 12, I’ve been saving clippings from magazines and newspapers, compiling files of art, articles and pictures relating to topics of interest, be they comics, music, movies, TV, illustration or images of pretty ladies.

For a long time, I used the justification of the artist’s morgue. I had read that comic book artists kept files full of reference material of any physical objects that could work their way into stories they might have to draw. As a teenage aspirant of that vocation, I followed suit and compiled marker-labeled manila envelopes of clipped pictures of guns and cars and airplanes and animals and buildings and uniforms. I also had files designated, “Male Poses,” “Male Clothing,” “Female Poses” and “Female Clothing” (those last two being by FAR the most overstuffed envelopes).

Back in the days when I still lived with my parents, my files were primarily fed by what was known as “the Paper Shack.” The Paper Shack was a shed that sat on the property of the church that abutted my suburban cul-de-sac. It was the provenance of the Boy Scouts of America, a receptacle for paper recyclables that churchgoers and other local folk would drop off to be collected once a month and taken to the recycling center. This, of course, was in the pre-pick-up 1970s and early ‘80s, when recycling was a nutty novelty.

To me, The Paper Shack was a glorious treasure trove of free pulp, ripe for the pickin’ (it was also a place that I would go to make out with my 5th grade girlfriend, but that’s another, frankly secondary story).

The Paper Shack was about a hundred square foot, prefab corrugated white metal shed with a door that latched with a simple hook-and-eye lock. There was no floor, it sat on a bed of pebbles at the edge of the parking lot, within eyeshot of the rear entrance of the church. There was no lighting aside from what leaked in through the spaces in the metal and from the door, and after a good rain, whatever papers were on the ground were surely soaked. In the summer, it was stifling hot inside, with a musty odor that wasn’t altogether unpleasing. It was also a haven for bees, and more than once I walked out with a red bee-sting bump in addition to whatever magazines I happened to score that day.

The Paper Shack housed mostly newspapers, usually just the local rags, The Lancaster New Era (to which my parents subscribed) and the Intelligencer Journal. Papers from neighboring Harrisburg and Reading sometimes mixed in, as well as the odd Philadelphia Inquirer and every once in a while, a New York paper or two. The gold mine (as far as newspapers were concerned) was The Sunday New York Times. To me, living in what I later discovered was a “D market” for motion picture releases, the plethora of huge movie ads in the Times Arts & Leisure section was like a guidebook to a seemingly unattainable world of pop culture. At one time, an entire wall of my bedroom was papered with full-page Times movie ads (most for movies I hadn’t even seen). I think the first time I fantasized about moving to New York City was looking through the Sunday Times right there on a mountain of newspapers in the Paper Shack.

Of course, there was also the rest of the paper. While at the age of 12, I had little interest in New York politics, Travel & Leisure, the stock market or real estate, I did notice (as Woody Allen pointed out in MANHATTAN) that those lingerie ads were really erotic. A semi-obscured bra ad in the Sears Catalogue looked like a postcard picture of a Mennonite woman compared to a full-page ad of an underwear-clad supermodel shilling for Saks in the Times (Which in turn was nothing compared to when the Victoria’s Secret Catalogue made its way to the Paper Shack in the early ‘80s).

The other coveted booty of the newsprint variety was the comics sections from other towns’ papers. Lancaster’s aptly-titled The Sunday News had an okay comics section, with the main problem being a complete absence of the superhero strips that were common in the late 1970s. When I would snag a New York Daily News section, which carried both Spider-Man and The World’s Greatest Superheroes featuring Superman (quite a title, that) on nice white tabloid sized paper, THAT was a find, like a giant free comic book.

But even those newspapers paled next to actual magazines. As I dug through the mountains of paper, uncovering a big bundle of magazines was like hitting the jackpot. Again, usually, the stack would be disappointing, comprised of catalogues and a wad of boring mom-mags like Good Housekeeping or Redbook. Of the news magazines, I’d only take Newsweek, because I had a subscription to Time and the others didn’t have enough pop culture coverage (Sorry, US News and World Report). While People and US always made the cut, more general interest publications like Life and Reader’s Digest or supermarket tabloids like The National Enquirer would only come home with me if the pickings were otherwise slim or something on the cover grabbed me. Sports magazines, however, may as well have been used toilet paper.

The most recurrent worthwhile score was the fashion magazines. I was probably more aware of the differences between Bazaar, Vogue and Cosmopolitan than any other heterosexual twelve year-old boy in the world (or at least south central Pennsylvania). But this is the thing that I never understood about the stigma of being a guy looking at an issue of Elle: Fashion magazines are filled with photographs of beautiful women, often in clothing and poses as provocative as something out of a so-called “men’s magazine” (remember, it was an issue of Glamour that George Costanza’s mother caught him with in SEINFELD’s legendary masturbation episode, “The Contest”).

And the women in fashion magazines were not just gorgeous, they were often (of import to my ilk) famous; Erin Gray modeled lingerie for Bazaar at the very time moulting fanboys were drooling over her as Wilma Deering on BUCK ROGERS! I actually purchased this particular issue off the newsstand, loudly proclaiming that I was picking it up for my mother, so that the clerk wouldn't guess that I was buying it for Erin Gray wanking material.

One of the pitfalls of being pop culture obsessed is that you tend to have an inordinate amount of celebrity crushes. Sure, almost everyone mentally compiles a short list of unobtainable famous folk they’d smooch (etc.) if they had the chance. But few people are so pathetic as to actually clip pictures of them out of magazines. As someone who fell prey to the easy to navigate world of mainstream sex symbols—Diahann Carroll of JULIA was my first crush, according to my mother—I was one of the millions of males in 1976 that owned the iconic Pro-Arts Farrah Fawcett-Majors (as she was known at that time) swimsuit poster. But it didn’t stop there. I plopped down money at Spencer Gifts and through mail order ads in comic books for 2 x 3’ odes to Cheryl Tiegs, Susan Anton, Tanya Roberts and about five more different Farrah posters (my favorite being a 6' behemoth of Charlie’s feathered-tressed Angel straddling a bicycle in front of a sparkly blue background). I owned two, count ‘em, TWO posters of Loni Anderson, the only possible explanation being that it was 1980, my taste in women was still maturing and she had inordinately large breasts.

Naturally, there was a Lynda Carter Wonder Woman poster, which served as a crossover for my adulation of both sexy ladies and superheroes. And I even scored a huge poster of Blondie’s Debbie Harry in white go-go boots and shorts, clutching her naked breasts (not sure whatever happened to that one, it’s probably worth a fortune today).

My files of magazine-clipped pictures of women fell into two primary categories whose distinction is only pertinent to pop culture nerds: Famous and Not Famous. And while there were certainly images of unknown models that tweaked my hormones, they rarely delivered the impact of women from TV or the movies. In addition to the usual suspects, there were those sadly neglected actresses who were never immortalized by poster companies: Jan Smithers (Bailey from WKRP in CINCINNATI, the MaryAnn to Loni Anderson’s Ginger); MORK & MINDY’s Pam Dawber; Valerie Bertinelli, before she was sullied by Eddie Van Halen; Joanna Cameron (Ohhh Mighty ISIS) and the list goes on…

This is not to say that I had no interest in naked ladies. I certainly did. But in all the years of Paper Shack rummaging, there were only a handful of strikes that yielded that particular vein of gold known as the “dirty magazine.” When it DID happen, it was like stumbling across a Brinks truck with the door hanging open.

The first Penthouse Magazine I found at the Paper Shack (the May 1978 issue) left an impact on me that I cannot overstate. I had seen girlie mags before, but they were always of the tamer bent. One day when I was about ten, I found my father’s small stash of early ‘60s issues of Gent, Rogue and Playboy in a high cupboard over the oven in the kitchen. And my Uncle Tim always had the Playboy Playmate Calendar hanging in his basement workshop. But, while there was undeniably objectification going on, Playboy of that era seemed tempered by an air of respect absent in most media centered around photographs of chicks showing their tatas. (Remember, I’m talking about the magazine as it was up through the 1970s, I can’t speak for what it or Mr. Hefner evokes these days).

The women in those more genial publications were presented more along the lines of art to appreciate rather than pieces of meat to fuck. And they didn’t show the vag.’

So to my still forming tweenage id, sex was more mystical than dirty. Penthouse was the first time I’d ever gotten a bird’s eye (so to speak) view of the vagina. Hell, even in close-up! And then there was Penthouse Forum and Xaviera “The Happy Hooker” Hollander’s “advice” column, in which “readers” wrote in to share their erotic adventures, providing me with some serious “reading” material for frequent treks to the bathroom. But even Penthouse didn’t prepare me for the one time I came across a bag containing some even more hardcore stuff, ala Hustler, Club or Gallery. For the first time, I saw what anti-pornography feminists meant when they called such material violence against women. Aside from shots of genitalia so close up as to seem like gynecological textbook illustrations, the overall tone belied a sense of resentment towards women that I just didn’t like.

But whether I was foraging a Penthouse or a Newsweek, the omnipresent danger of being caught was the same. The optimum time to hit the Paper Shack was a weekday afternoon around dinnertime, when the church was usually completely vacant. The pastor, his staff and the groundskeeper had left for the day, so the coast was usually clear—but not always. As I’d dig through the paper bags and twined bundles, there was nothing worse than the crunching sound of a car pulling into the gravelly church lot. I would quickly grab my ill-gotten gains, stash the pile somewhere in the back for later retrieval and nonchalantly exit the shed as if I were simply dropping off something myself. The fact that I was usually covered in sweat and newsprint may have tipped off some of the more astute recyclers, but in retrospect, they probably didn’t care that some teenage dork was stealing newspapers from the recycling.

Still, the fear was strong, and so I decided I needed a lookout...
Excerpted from the forthcoming book
by and © Karl Heitmueller, Jr.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really great. I forgot about all those NY Times movie ads.