Hugh McCracken, Ace Ombudsman

Like usual, I been a-eyein’ them newspapers and them TV news programs, and I’m a-here to tell ye I do not like what I been seein’. Let’s start at The New York Times for this here column. How’s that suit ye?

Little lady name of Curtis Sittenfeld had a Op-Ed article t’other day. Who is Miss Sittenfeld? She’s a lady scribbler who done wrote a book about the dirty business the young ’uns’ll get theyselves into when they is away at the boarding school. For some reason I could not figger, that book had itself lots o’ sentences that went and mentioned lacrosse, which is a Apache pastime. Them fellows will take willa branches and some bramble tendrils and hitch ’em up tight, and they go get a stone and they run at one another a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’. Now that book about the boarding school was a big seller, so this Curtis woman decides, “I will go back to the well and I will get lucre from The New York Times with a Op-Ed article about the same subject! And I will be a-laughin’ all the way to the A.T.M.!” The Op-Ed article she done wrote was about how she wasn’t gonna send no child of her’n to none a them boarding schools if she could hep it, but the only problem was the little lady ain’t got no little ones to send to no boarding school, and who knows—maybe she would send them after all once she had popped out a nipper and it had growed up some. After I read that blame article, I done scratched my head somethin’ fierce. But it was only them lice a-suckin’ and a-lickin’ at my scalp.

In that very same newspaper, you had a scribbler o’ the fair sex name of Alex Kuczynski writin’ on the topic of “Should I or should I not purchase a $4,700 dress and jacket, and would it be moral-like if’n I went and bought it?” Well, she reasoned, it sure was a purty dress, so maybe it was O.K.—but then she sets and wonders about them poor folk dyin’ in the hurricane down New Orleans way, and then she wonders some more. She never did say if she bought the blame dress far as I could reckon, but then I couldn’t make it to the end anyways because the dinner bell rang and I was a-rarin’ to fill my belly. As I done spooned that stew into the cavity situated between my mustache and beard, I figgered if I ever got my hands on $4,700, I sure as shit-fire would not be buyin’ no dress with it, not even if Miss Havershaw at the cat house asked me real nice.

Then I start to askin’ myself: Is this New York Times a newspaper, or is it one a them rose-scented publications put out by them ladies’ auxiliaries?

Then I start to wonderin’: But what about if Miss Havershaw was to whisper it in my ear real soft-like? Blast it, I would hand her that $4,700, I just know I would, and I would throw in a ticket on the stage to St. Looey.

Lately, them TV news folk been drivin’ me straight past distraction all the way to crazy. Men comin’ at you with the furrowed brow like they got important medicine to deliver when it really ain’t nothin but washerwoman gossip, Brian Williams being the biggest hokum in chief. Now, as a kind o’ corrective to the antics of him and his ilk, ye got Jon Stewart and them other funny fellows at The Daily Show kickin’ it to them big news boys purty good. But when the guest’s gettin’ ready to come out, Mr. Stewart gets all soft and lily-livered-like. And who done come out as the guest t’other night but ol’ Brian Williams hisself. Know what he done on The Daily Show? He done tried to take the tragic atmosphere that come off the big hurricane down New Orleans way and verily wrap hisself up in it—like he was as important as it. Of all the hogwash! And there was old Mr. Stewart, the fellow who’s suppose to be pokin’ holes in all them ego-bags, and he was a-playin’ along and a-laughin’, and he let that Williams do the thing he was a-trying to do.

I say we get up a posse. Until next time, folks, it’s Hugh McCracken, yer media watchdog—out.

A Fable

After a bombing in London, New York City police began inspecting bags of suspicious subway riders. These “suspicious riders” were often blondes with large breasts.

One day, three blondes with large breasts met in a dorm at New York University. Within the last six days, all three of them had been searched by police.

“I find their leers intimidating,” said the first.

“This ‘security’ is gratuitous,” said the second.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if we did have a bomb?” asked the third.

There was a pause.

“I am a chemistry major,” the first said.

Within a few days, she had built a small bomb. She gave it to a friend of hers—a brunette with small breasts—who set it on the platform of the 50th Street station. The bomb went off, injuring no one, but delaying trains for two hours.

This is how terrorists are born.


Mauro of Manhattan

“I’ve been Norman Mailered …. ”

The words of a 1966 Simon & Garfunkel song surfaced in my sleepy mind at 5 a.m. two weeks ago, when a costume designer at the Waldorf-Astoria told me: “You’ll be Norman Mailer, so you’ll wear a raincoat.”

I had arrived at the hotel one hour before, in order to perform as an extra for the day in a new Richard Gere’s movie, The Hoax. “Upscale people needed for Richard Geere’s The Hawks,” had e-mailed me a spelling-challenged casting-agent friend.

Why not?

“Do you want to extra for a gala at the Waldorf?” I asked Barbara, my Italian lady friend. She declined immediately, having been an actress herself in Italy: “I still remember the boredom you’ve got to endure while shooting.”

Nor did the words “Richard Gere, gala, Waldorf” resonate with her. To my surprise, she wasn’t impressed at all: “I’d rather meet him in a real gala …. ”

I had gone to the casting in a dirty Tribeca loft carrying my own tuxedo. It was one of the hottest days in the summer. I found myself emerging from the subway in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the Canal Street traffic. I began to suspect Barbara was right. After a one-hour wait I had to change in a rundown toilet, before passing the test.

I received a phone call from the casting agency on Saturday in the Hamptons villa of the Califanos, a really nice couple (she is a journalist for the main Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, he a scientist professor at Columbia): “Please be at the Waldorf at 4 a.m. on Monday morning.”

“Well, you know, I have to do a movie with Richard Gere,” I boasted. The rest of the weekend I was joked around about my “new film career.” I have to confess this was not my first contact with the movie business on the other side of the camera: Besides interviewing stars in America for the largest Italian weekly magazine, I had already been an extra last year in The Interpreter, with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn (and Catherine Keener, a secret passion of mine).

Having forgotten the pain of that experience, here I was again trying to please my mom, who loves to see me onscreen. On that weekend, I forced Barbara to skip the Southampton Madame Tongs after-midnight dancing: “I have to prepare myself for the early-morning wake-up …. ” I set up the alarm at 3 a.m., the time we usually come back from parties. I slept only two hours. While getting up I awoke Barbara, who nastily mumbled: “Yeah, the great actor …. At best, they’re going to make you play the double for Richard’s dick …. ”

As I entered the Waldorf, a group of stunning beauties was flocking out of the Park Avenue door in loafers and rollers. They headed to a van parked in front of the Café St. Bart’s, which was distributing breakfast for the “talent.” It looked like some crazy scene from La Dolce Vita: For a moment, I was proud to be part of the ordeal. The Empire Room was filled with 150 chairs and a dozen makeup armchairs in front of the wall mirrors. While queuing up to fill a voucher, I was befriended by a retired fireman from Brooklyn. Another veteran 60-years-old extra was sitting right behind me, already dressed up in his tux. He was telling the story of his life to his neighbor: “ … And this morning I took the bus from Asbury Park, N.J., at 12:45 a.m., arrived at Port Authority, slept there a while and then walked to the Waldorf …. ”

It’s incredible how talkative some people can be with strangers so early in the morning. Knowing that 70 percent of the extras’ time on set consists in waiting, I had brought with me I Am Charlotte Simmons, the Tom Wolfe novel so long that I am always some hundreds pages short of finishing. I was about the only one with a book in the room. We got live music all along, though, a wonderful string quartet rehearsing joyfully since 4:30 a.m.

Shooting started only at 9. I knew that, and I was confirmed in my suspicion when, around 5, a wardrobe man whispered to a colleague: “Slow down, we still have four hours.” But during this time I witnessed the incredible transformation that many ordinary women went through, thanks to their 60’s makeup, hairdo and dress. It’s out of question: that was the decade of Beauty. Everybody looked so wonderfully upgraded, scores of Sophia Lorens and Brigitte Bardots by 7 a.m.

That was also the time when I suddenly got de-Mailered: “He’s too tall to be Norman Mailer, and doesn’t have curly hair,” the costume director sentenced, downgrading me from “celebrity” to regular extra. From Norman to normal.

So, I had to leave the V.I.P. section, where sat the impersonators of Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow (married at the time), Lee Radziwill and others. The gala to be shot was a re-enactment of the legendary Black-and-White Ball which Truman Capote organized at the Plaza 40 years ago. During which Norman Mailer kept his raincoat on the tux. In the morning we shot the cocktail scene, with the arrivals and Mr. Gere fending the crowd. He plays Clifford Irving, the man who went to prison for selling a bogus Howard Hughes’ biography. He wore a mask, like everybody else. He looked rather small to me, despite the two inches gained thanks to shoes with inside and outside heels. Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi uses the same trick to enhance his not so statesmanlike stature.

In the afternoon we transferred to the Hilton Room, with the gala tables and the dancing scenes. We were given cigarettes to smoke (“It was the 60’s, folks!”), which the vast majority of extras refused with disgust. I was placed at the table with Truman Capote and Mia Farrow: “Massage Mia’s shoulders, you are supposed to be her manager.” Which I did, after watching over my shoulders the jealous Frankie’s whereabouts. An assistant director warned us: “Do not talk to Richard in between the scenes. He won’t remember you from Unfaithful, anyway. And don’t keep looking at him, he was a nobody in that party.”

We are all nobodies in this party, I was reminded at 7 p.m., when I signed the payment form and finally went home. As a non-union extra, I earned $75 for a day’s work. Because the working hours were more than 12, the amount was raised to $85. Minus 10 percent for the casting agent, minus the 8 percent FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act). Which sounds funny in Italian: FICA is the name for the female sex. First time in my life I had to pay for it.

—Mauro Suttora Hugh McCracken, Ace Ombudsman