All posts by Elayne Boosler

Piecework

 

In 1994 Ronald Reagan put Alzheimer’s disease prominently on the front pages. Around that time, my eighty-year-old Aunt Lily began her own slow descent into the same. She was a little Russian immigrant who worked hard in America for sixty-five years. With so few advantages throughout her entire life, leave it to her to still find a way to have the newest thing everybody was talking about.

Until Alzheimer’s claimed Ronald Reagan and actress Rita Hayworth, I didn’t think about it much, except in terms of myself of course: “Oh god oh god please don’t let me get that. Let me still be able to play Jeopardy at dinner when I’m a hundred”. Note: it just took me three tries to spell “Jeopardy”. Oh god oh god… Research says the mind is like a muscle to be exercised. Doing crossword puzzles (I do them!) and using the brain (I use it!) might help prevent dementia. Ancient Cities for two hundred, Alex.

Just plain old senility wasn’t this scary. We weren’t terrified by the image of our grandfather eating quietly at the Seder table. Not much is getting through, but isn’t that because he speaks mainly Russian? By the way, is there a Russian word for “shrimp”? Because our kosher grandfather is unwittingly going to hell courtesy of our sadistic mother. Does he not know it’s shrimp because he’s senile, or because he’s never seen it before? Or because once he escaped the Bolsheviks he forgot people like her existed?

My aunt Lily was a tiny dynamo, who wasn’t even close to coming in for a landing, though now no one was flying the plane. My cousin Harriet took care of her through it all. For her entire life, my aunt “went to business”, as she called it. She was a factory seamstress, bent over a sewing machine all day. At night she took home extra work, then made clothes for my cousin. You could show her a picture in a magazine and she made it for you. She could follow a pattern, a pattern for goodness sake. I can’t fold a map. My ShrimpPusherMother was quick to point out to anyone:

“She really can’t do sleeves”. She made the best cookies on earth. Pink and green button cookies; solid yet crumbly, velvety. Every birthday, they came in the mail.

“When is ya tour finished so I’ll wait ta mail them ta California?” The cookies would arrive cradled in egg cartons, wrapped in two weeks of the Jewish News (crosswords done, oh god oh god..) and twenty plastic bags, in a shoe box, not one cookie broken.

“How can she make cookies like this? They’re incredible.” To which my ShrimpSpoilerMother replied,

“She uses lard.” Second to her cookies was her coleslaw, which I loved. I was performing at the plush and elegant Kravis Center in Palm Beach. Into my dressing room comes the promoter, John Stoll, wearing an impeccable Armani suit. In his manicured hand he holds a huge Tupperware, wrapped in plastic. Milky white juice flows over his Rolex and drips onto his Bally shoes. I smell the finely chopped cabbage and vinegar. He announces,

“Your aunt Lily’s here.” Yes, she was here. Wherever I was, hers was the birthday card that found me. She never forgot. She never forgot anything, this woman who exercised her mind like a muscle. She knew how many stitches it took to make a coat, how many teaspoons of this and tablespoons of that it took to feed the family whose birthdays she never forgot. My faith in Jeopardy begins to wane. What chance do we have?

My nephew’s bar mitzvah was held at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. My aunt seemed still to be my aunt, dancing every dance. Afterward, back at my brother’s house for sandwiches (because everyone knows you can’t get full in an Italian restaurant), my aunt Lily sat down next to me, and a strange thing happened. She put her hand on my arm, looked seriously into my eyes and without preface, began to tell me her entire life story. Well, what’s a few minutes of my life? I think. And maybe she’ll say something about the lard. I listen to my aunt and I realize I don’t know anything about my family. This is amazing. So Uncle Joe drove a cab and got robbed at gunpoint? My grandmother was a landowner in Kiev and a bootlegger in America? She never got angry if you broke something? What? There’s forgiveness in this family?

After about two hours I had heard the life story of a woman who worked at a time when most women didn’t work, a woman who stood up for herself, who explained to her various slimy bosses that her husband “might be sickly, but if you eva say anything ‘of that nature’ to me again”, he would come down there and punch their lights out. That’s how you handled it back then. Just a little life, like most of ours, and she had just handed it over to me for safe keeping, so she could let it go.

The years pass, I make my usual Sunday call. My cousin asks,

“Can I put her on?” knowing full well my aunt hasn’t responded in years, but,

“Sure”, I say. I try to think of what could engage her memory. I hear my cousin forcefully directing,

“Take the phone, it’s your niece, your niece, take the phone.” Silence, she’s on. I shout. (Why am I shouting? She’s not deaf.)

“Hi aunt Lily. It’s me. I’m in California. It’s hot.” Silence. Who can blame her? People without Alzheimer’s would have no response to that.

“I’m in California. When are you going to make cookies? You make the best cookies in the world.” A shaky little voice,

“I don’t rememba.” In the background I hear my cousin let out a gasp, the good kind.

“Well I do. You’re the world’s best baker. I’m going to come to Florida and give you plenty of notice, so you can start cooking up a storm. Nobody cooks like you.” There. I’ve unfurled the Jewish driftnet: food. I get a bite. Tentative, she says,

“It’s nice when you do things and people talk about it.”

“Yes it is”, I say. “Yes, it is.”

That night I do two jumbo Sunday crossword puzzles before I fall asleep. At five a.m. I wake alone in panic and sit up; to whom will I tell my story?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Real First Ladies

Real First Ladies

America has been privileged through the centuries to have had so many First Ladies who made a true difference to the betterment of our country. By fighting racism and sexism, going to war, influencing their husbands to see women as equals, they helped bring about progressive legislation and human rights. We have had so many intelligent, evolved women for young people to look up to and model themselves after. These woman moved the country forward. Of course, some First Ladies do absolutely nothing, wasting the most valuable opportunity imaginable to make positive change in a world that needs it. What a shame. We don’t need First Stepfords when a true original can change the world.

There were so many women in the White House who were our best faces forward. First to come to mind is of course Eleanor Roosevelt, but so many more as well contributed to the betterment of people and country. They did so with their bravery, brains and moral courage. Here are some real women to admire:

Martha Washington (First Lady 1789-1797)
She remained beloved by Revolutionary War veterans, and was publicly known to provide financial support or to intercede on behalf of those among them in need.

Dolly Madison (First Lady 1809-1813)
A patriot in action, not rhetoric. In the hours preceding the burning of Washington by British troops during the War of 1812, she famously refused to leave the White House before being assured that the large portrait of George Washington was removed from the walls and taken safely away from potential destruction by the encroaching enemy.

Sarah Polk (First Lady 1845-1849)
She outlived her husband by about forty years. She had been such a beloved First Lady that during the Civil War, both sides respected her neutrality, and she entertained officers from both armies.

Lucy Hayes said in 1876, “Woman’s mind is as strong as man’s…equal in all things and is superior in some.” After the Civil War started, Lucy wished she could take up arms for her country. She spent a substantial amount of time with her husband in camp with the 23rd Ohio, earning the nickname “Mother of the Regiment”.

Lou Hoover (First Lady 1929-1933) said, “It is very possible to have both a home and a career in this modern age”. She created controversy by eliminating outdated social customs such as the refusal to receive pregnant women at the White House, and by inviting all Congressional wives, including the wife of African-American Congressman Oscar DePriest from Chicago, to the White House. For that she was highly criticized, but never regretted her decision.

Mamie Eisenhower in 1953 strongly campaigned to invite African-American opera singer Marian Anderson to perform at the inauguration. She also made sure her African American staff had accomodations in still segregated Washington, and were welcomed at all the Inaugural events.

Lady Bird Johnson’s accomplishments read more like a successful presidents tenure in office. She toiled for integration, campaigning without her husband through the south, where she was spit on by segregationist protesters and hit with a picket sign, and she never flagged in her dedication to equality. She raised the profile of women in education, politics and public life. She raised the President’s consciousness on the equal competence of women in public service and influenced his efforts to advance women. She said, “If you achieve the precious balance between a woman’s domestic and civic life, you can do more for zest and sanity in our society than by any other achievement…” She got project Head Start off the ground. She introduced “Beautification,” an umbrella title for a wide variety of efforts, legislation and public campaigns that were a combination of rural and urban environmentalism, national parks conservation, anti-pollution measures, water and air reclamation, landscaping and urban renewal.

Jackie Kennedy showed the world America had a brilliant, educated and thoughtful First Lady, back when education was valued instead of derided by people who think wallowing in ignorance makes them patriotic, and calling people who like to think and learn “elites”. She traveled abroad and spoke to leaders in their own languages. She campaigned abroad for American textiles and industry. She brought the fine arts to Washington, and made culture accessible and available. She restored the White House. Knowing she couldn’t ask congress for the restoration money it would take, she looked at how many people toured the White House every day, designed a little booklet of White House information and history, and put a dollar price tag on it. With this simple idea, she raised millions to restore the White House and its historical artifacts.

Hillary Clinton was a beacon of intelligence and modern ideas. Her health care plan was brilliant, just ahead of its time. Yet she did manage to get the Children’s Health Insurance Program passed, covering more than eight million children. She championed the Violence Against Women act, the Adoption and Safe Families act, the Foster Care Independence act, and so much more. You can’t be controversial if you aren’t rocking the boat, working for change, shaking up the old ideas and trying to bring the world forward. As First Lady she was a great ambassador to the world, showing what American women were made of and what we could achieve. She raised a brilliant and successful daughter in the White House, a feat in itself. She made America proud.

Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady, was a paragon of grace under pressure, and composure in the face of racism and ignorance. She was the Jackie Robinson of First Ladies, and despite the pressures on her every day, she carved out a magnificent legacy. With two Ivy League degrees, she launched Let’s Move! to combat the epidemic of childhood obesity. She got congress to pass the School Lunch Program, making sure children didn’t go hungry, and putting healthier foods in schools while also educating parents. She worked with the US Tennis Association to build/refurbish more than 6,200 junior tennis courts and sign up 250,000 kids to complete their PALAs, and train 12,000 coaches to help kids learn the sport of tennis. She worked tirelessly to make America better for all. She also raised two lovely daughters in a loving marriage, a role model indeed.

Right now the First Lady role is a vacuum. What a sad waste. Here’s hoping our next First Lady, whoever she may be, or our First Gentleman for that matter, values messages over massages, actions over infractions, “we first” over “me first”,  paving the way over wasting the day. You’re  not supposed to drop the mic until after you’ve said something.

 

Of Starbucks, Fried Chicken, and Twitter

Here’s a joke I posted on twitter yesterday, and while a lot of people liked it (got it), it also made a lot of people angry:

Crap! My friend and I just got arrested and thrown out of Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles because we were waiting for another friend and hadn’t yet bought anything. Thanks Starbucks!

I don’t explain the jokes. If they miss, they miss and I move on. It’s never been that big a deal. This is. For the angry tweeters who think I’m no different than Trump eating a taco bowl and proclaiming he loves the Mexican people, they don’t know me. These are the times we live in; we hold on to anger and outrage in this unjust, frightening, and dangerous climate, though it will beat you if you don’t choose your enemies better. For the guy who tweeted, “I can’t wait to hear her insincere apology”, this isn’t that, sincere or insincere. Making people upset or angry is the opposite of my mission statement of making people think and laugh. A great comic taught me, “Never complain, never explain”. He’s right. Twitter will find something new to be angry about today and go after that. I could just shut up and wait. But, my work has been comedy, both written and performed, all my life. If I missed the mark, for me it’s important to look at. And I want to honor the kinder hearted but wary souls who tweeted things like, “Can you explain this joke to me?” “Bleh.” “Nope.” “Wow. I find you incredibly funny. Have for many years and still do. Even taking my personal history and ethnicity out of the equation, I don’t see how this is funny.”

So, if I had done this joke from the stage, no one there would have suddenly decided I was the devil, because anyone coming to see me would have already known me, my work, my politics. If they didn’t, a ninety minute show would have made it clear. I looked carefully at the “Likes” it got on twitter. They came from people who already followed me, who “knew” me, who got where I was going and where I was coming from. I couldn’t find one publicly declared “MAGA” supporter, confederate flag avatar, or proudly declared racist among them. Then I looked at the people who tweeted “What the fuck is wrong with you?”, “#banforlife”, “mad racist shit”, and the usual go-to, the always popular and brilliant “political” argument: “has been”, “has been trying to be relevant”. Most of these people had never followed me, didn’t know me or my work, just saw retweets attached to angry attacks. Which means that for them the joke had no original context, and context is everything. If I heard Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer say “Some women say Harvey Weinstein called them up and sexually abused them. What’s the matter? Bitch can’t hang up a phone?” I’d be enraged. But when Chappelle said it in his special, I laughed hard. Context, it’s Dave Chappelle. I know he’s not hateful. A different woman could have thought: “Who the hell are you to comment on what a woman goes through? You will NEVER be raped or sexually assaulted by a boss. You don’t have the right to make ANY jokes about ANY women, ever. Especially when your jokes blame the victims. #mansplaining #MalePrivilege.” But I didn’t. Because despite the national hyper-sensitivity over cultural appropriation and who gets to comment on which group’s reality, I believe everyone should be allowed to think and speak about everyone in the search for truth and enlightenment. Especially comics.

What was the joke trying to say?  My reaction to two young black men (I haven’t seen their names printed anywhere) getting arrested at Starbucks was as it should be; revulsion, anger. What went through my head as I watched the news report of the incident was, “Where does this idiot think two black men DO ‘belong’, Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles”? Because yes, fried chicken IS the haggard cliché that makes the point that this was a racist action. If a Starbucks employee had called the police because two Hasidic jews were waiting for their friend to arrive before ordering, and wanted to use the bathroom, I would have written, “Where does this idiot think these guys should be hanging out? At a bank?” The old stereotype is exactly what makes the point;  that this action was unwoke and ridiculous.

From twitter: Replying to 

“Racial profiling and false arrest is ‘hilarious’ when you flip it and center it on folks who will never have this experience.”

But that was the point, using the obvious to magnify the culture; that white people don’t go through this, that this does not happen to us, that it should not happen to anybody,  that enough is enough.

 

Thank You Everyone, Drive Safely, Good Night!

On March 3, 2018, I exited 46 years of standup on a standing ovation (the first ever in that venue, the promoter told me. Nice!) Thank you everyone for your support all these years. Thank you for being there and sharing laughter, joy, hardship, sadness, and ultimately, life. I will be writing my books now, and I hope when they are ready we’ll all meet again somewhere down the road. And I truly hope I was able to give you all you gave to me all those years. Wishing you and yours the best for joy, health and happiness.

Be well, and take care of each other. Thanks so much for coming out. Good night!

Al Franken: Dick.

Sexual abuse is the worst. For women like me, who’ve spent a lifetime striving to be excellent at something, a close second is having the door of your profession slammed in your face, to the point where you can’t make a living, can’t move up, can’t work at the very thing you sacrificed all to master. When that happens, there is nowhere to go, no place to complain, no one to help. When those with a boot on your neck enjoy unquestioned support, you are just left for dead. And it appears to be all your fault.

There are many self-hating Jewish men in show business. Or maybe they just hated their mothers so much, they must grind assertive Jewish women under their feet. They don’t have to be Jewish, there are men who just hate women (shocking!)

In the early ’90s I had a meeting at Castle Rock Entertainment, to pitch a show about a female sports columnist facing obstacles being a woman in sports. I was on the road fifty weeks a year, I saw sexism first hand every day. At that time there were no women working in sports broadcasting, sports writing, no female voice of a team, none doing field interviews, no female voice of authority in sports. This is how bad sexism in sports was at that time: HBO was to receive a large check for “Comic Relief” during half time at a basketball game in Louisiana; a nice public relations move for all involved. Paul Rodriguez was to receive the check, but the weather was so bad, very few flights could get in or out. Paul was stranded. Chris Albrecht at HBO, knowing I was on the road and might be able to make it, tracked me down and asked me to fill in. Happy to. What a great arena, what a great crowd, what a great day. Except for one problem; they would not give me the check. The only thing they repeated over and over in their southern accents was this: “No women in the booth”. They would not make the presentation. By phone, Chris was appalled. I was appalled, everyone outside the booth was appalled. Real men often ride to the rescue, and who just happened to be present (and stopped the heart of this lifelong baseball fan?) Only the gentleman who made “The Catch” in the 1969 World Series, Ron Swoboda. You never know who’s a fan. Mr. Swoboda first apologized to me (he had nothing to do with any of it. He just apologized as a human being.) He then went into that booth and read those shit kickers the riot act, letting them know exactly who I was, forcing them to hand over the check, which was for charity for fuck’s sake. The point is, I knew how much sexism there was out there. This is what the Castle Rock executive turned my project down with: “Sexism is over.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Well dear, perception is reality, and my perception is that sexism is gone, so that’s the reality.”

I’ll never forget that sentence. When I got home my agent called to tell me the exec called her and railed that it was the worst meeting he ever had, having someone dare to argue with him. He went on and on, how dare I?

Which leads us to Franken. I kept quiet because I care about keeping Democrats in congress, and who cares about my past woes, really. But the cat is already out of the bag. These women coming forward about him need to be supported, and perhaps a broader picture will help them. His and my paths crossed many times over the decades in the world of comedy; he was always dismissive. Fine. Not the first nor the last. We happened to be the only guests booked on 1993’s New Year’s Day CNN Crossfire show. They booked two comics because Michael Kinsley and John Sununu wanted a lighthearted, entertaining New Year’s Day show. While I was silly and politically funny, Franken was serious and ponderous. Great. We gotta be us, right? At the commercial break, Franken said, with all the condescension he could muster, “Hey. Nice jokes.”

“I thought they asked us here to be entertaining.”

Cut to 2003. By then I was known for my political material. I was a favorite guest on “Politically Incorrect”, appearing in the hot seat thirty- two times, when no one else wanted to go up against tough Republicans. (The gun show pitting me against Gordon Liddy, Charlton Heston, and Ted Nugent, was excerpted the following night on Entertainment Tonight.) I had moderated the Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate on C-SPAN for NOW. I had campaigned with Governor Gray Davis, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton. I did the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner for Bill Clinton’s first year, I also did the Ford’s Theater Gala, entertaining the President and congress again. I guested on local news for election returns for hours. I did the series of Larry King’s post debate shows, speaking for the Democrats (and clashing with Republican Ben Stein, who said to my husband in the men’s room afterwards, not knowing he was my husband, “I hate Jewish women”).  I alone hosted election night on the mall in Tennessee at  Al Gore’s request, as the results trickled in. Six hours of ups and downs during that election mess, in the rain, when many of the Hollywood celebs abandoned ship (they literally left and refused to appear when Gore was behind in the count. Cool, I confiscated their goody bags, which were awesome), and I was left to fill hours and hours in front of thousands of people, as Gore lost his home state! I was a political comedian, walking that fine line of current events, and still being funny. So of course when the radio station “Air America” was being birthed, my name came up.

My managers and I had great meetings with John Sinton, who was putting the “liberal radio station” together. Finally, something to go up against conservative talk radio. I was perfect for it and I couldn’t wait. I cleared my calendar for one solid year, committing to the show despite the large cut in pay for me. Negotiations were almost done, when suddenly the “Air America” people went silent. No one would respond to us, or tell us why they stopped negotiating. All we knew was it was all going ahead without me, and I was left with no live work for a year. Crushed.

We finally found out, that in order to get Al Franken to be an on- air host, which they desperately wanted, “Air America” had to give him an ownership piece of the network. And let him make the on-air hiring decisions.  Ah. “Air America” failed because it was heavy, preachy, ponderous, and had zero humor, lightness, or entertainment value. It took Stephanie Miller to finally successfully brilliantly host a liberal radio show. Nice jokes.

Karma’s the bitch you mistook for us.

P.S.  Sexual abuse is, of course, the worst. We all know that. But keeping women from working is part of the same power play of keeping women down, out, marginalized, and broken. I would never want an innocent person found guilty of anything. Franken’s not a child molester. If he’s innocent I certainly don’t want him to lose his seat. I want him to keep it and sponsor legislation that helps women, and others.