Singing Telegrams

by Maxim Hurwicz

For a year or two, back in the early 70’s, my brother and I had a singing telegram company. I’d go out and sing to people dressed as a duck, bunny or panda bear. I wrote a custom tailored song every time, not canned stuff like the other singing telegrammers. I’d get as much information as I could about the recipient to write a song full of little inside jokes and congratulations.

Usually my little act was the highlight of the party so I felt a real pressure to make it special. It was nerve wracking to get the information, weave it into a song, and get to someplace I’d never been to at exactly the right moment to perform for three minutes and then fly out the door. But those few minutes were wonderful, when I could cut loose and be a duck or bunny, everyone was happy and nobody knew who I really was behind the mask.

One time I got a call for a Quackygram for a guy who was getting some sort of an M pin, like he’d been sober for five or seven years. I got a ton of material about his likes and dislikes, sayings he used all the time, funny episodes from his life and stuff like that. I didn’t know much about Alcoholics Anonymous, but it seemed like this was a bit more special than the routine birthday call.

Usually it took me about twenty minutes to crank out a 3 or 5 verse song, but this time I sat down, took over a hour and wrote seven verses, all to the tune of Jail House Rock. I started smiling as it took shape and when it was done I knew it would be a hit. It walked that triangular tightrope between teasing, ridicule and sappy congratulations.

Sometimes customers would ask me to be sure to put in some angle to make fun of. Maybe the guy was cheap or the lady had pictures of her dogs all over her cubicle. Usually it was no problem, I’d work it in at the crescendo. But sometimes I’d have some niggling doubts. One time a customer wanted me to make fun of the guy being bald and I said I didn’t think that was too good of an idea, even though I personally had hair back then. She said oh no, he’s a great sport. He laughs and makes jokes about it himself. So, against my doubts, I agreed to go along. The guy really was a happy sort of fellow. He enjoyed the attention and the whole song, except when I sang a line about how we know he’s bright cuz he combs his hair with a chamois. Man, his face just fell. I felt so bad. Thank goodness I was behind a mask. I plunged ahead and managed to recapture some of the happy thread, but it really stayed with me, that image of his disappointment when his moment of feeling special and loved became a moment of cruel ridicule. I never gave in to that crap again. I made a rule to never make fun of something that a person felt they couldn’t change about themselves. It’s ok to make fun of someone who’s constantly trying to lose 5 pounds, but not a hundred pounds. And it made me wonder about the sort of people who hired me to make someone feel bad, even if they didn’t know it.

So that made it a little bit tricky to write a song for a recovering alcoholic. But I felt like I had magically hit on a perfect balancing act of a song. I was so excited I arrived an hour early and parked a couple blocks away, so no one would see me coming. I reclined my seat back, relishing the upcoming three minutes of happiness when I got to sing it. Fifteen minutes to lift off I double-checked that I had all my costume pieces in the duffel bag and that my guitar was in tune. About that time in the process the old nerves always started to jangle a bit so I decided to walk over to the meeting hall to shake it off.

I arrived with just enough time to change. In the foyer I met the guy who hired me and he agreed to lead me into the AA meeting, escort me to the victim and hold up the Iyric sheet so I could see the words while I sang. All standard singing telegram procedure. I told him I had a great song written. I couldn't help gushing a little.

He showed me to a bathroom where I stripped down, wriggled into my tights, pulled on the big yellow fake fur body, slipped into the diving fins and, just before I crammed on the duck head, I went to slip the Iyric sheet into my wing, and realized I didn’t have it. I searched all over: inside the costume, in the guitar case, on the floor. Panic city. It was too late to go search my car as the guy’s award was coming up any minute now. Despite being a duck, flight seemed impossible. So I waddled out and told the client the awful truth and he said no problem, to just go ahead and just give the guy a hug or whatever. It would be fine. I said I’d do it for free and he said no, no, no he’d pay anyway. Here was my worst fear come true and instead of this guy losing it or criticizing me there was none of that. There was no sense of disappointment or judging me or even forgiving me. It was really disconcerting. It wasn’t like he didn’t care. It was as if anything I did or didn’t do would be good enough. A weird feeling, but I figured he’s a nut or an idiot.

So I waddIed behind him into the meeting hall and suddenly I saw it was a huge auditorium. Somehow I thought it would be a dozen guys and an empty bottle, but it must’ve been 300 people all turned towards me, Mr. No Words. I thought, criminees, this guy was nice, but doing a 30 second happy birthday song isn’t going to satisfy this crowd. I remembered one time when I performed on an amateur night in a bar, not as an animal, and people actually threw stuff at me. Crowds can be kind of weird in that they actually eat you up and either swallow you or spit you out. But as I walked down the isle I didn’t get that feeling of anticipation from the crowd that I felt in other similar settings. It was weird, unfamiliar, odd, unnatural. I felt as if I were being buoyed along on a wave of good feelings. It was like that good feeling you have at the moment you recognize you just figured something out. In the midst of that communal warmth I felt like a lifeguard towing a dead body to shore and nobody knew it yet. So I decided to let the body float off and waddled ahead. I let go and thought, heck, I’ll survive this after all. It’ll all be over in a minute or two regardless. The recipient was pointed out and I waddled up as near as I could get to him to sing him happy birthday. But instead of starting to play happy birthday, my fingers hit ba-ba! the opening chords to open Jail House Rock and the whole song I’d written, all seven verses came right out of my mouth. No stops, no hesitations, and no recall afterwards, so I can’t even tell you how it went. The whole crowd whooped and laughed just as I’d anticipated. The birthday boy was glowing with happiness. And then I lead the whole crowd, 300 strong, in a rousing happy birthday to whatever his name was. I gave the guy a trademark ducky hug and even left out the standard exit line “A good duck never hurt anyone.” It just wasn’t needed.

I wandered out in a bit of a daze. What a happy experience. My worst fears met my best time. Fear meets love or whatever that wave of good feelings was. The only time I ever felt like that again was when I dreamt the whole incident one night later on. It was great. I wondered if I’d ever feel that sort of thing again in reality.

I’ve been to a few AA meetings since then, hoping I was enough of a drugie or alcoholic to fit in, but I couldn’t make the grade. All my piddly stories sounded silly compared to the misery of the real drunks. I still wonder how you can find your way into that sort of acceptance. It’s still a mystery to me.

Copyright 2002 by Maxim Hurwicz

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