Not Responsible and Anything You Want

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=Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Yesterday was a bright and sunny day in New York, with the temps rising up into the mid-50s. 

Reading the weekend headlines, all of them, enough to make you want to hide, I was oddly reminded of an interview I read in the L.A. Times years ago with a journalist named Adela Rogers St. Johns who had been a veteran entertainment reporter for the Hearst papers when I was a kid. Her readership must have been enormous because in the first half of the 20th century, Hearst papers covered the nation, and everybody read.

Adela Rogers St. Johns in 1922.

I can still remember reading Adela Rogers St. Johns reports from Hollywood in the Sunday papers spread out on the living room rug when I was a kid. She wrote about what movie stars were like in person. I can’t remember any of it but her name conjured up a style that stuck in my craw as distinguished amongst her peers. 

By the time I was living in Hollywood, still infused with that childhood wonder of Hollywood, despite knowing better, despite my adult façade, Adela Rogers St. John had long retired from the scene. I didn’t even know she was alive until I saw this interview one morning in the LA Times. 

She was born in Los Angeles in 1894. She died there 94 years later. Her father, Earl Rogers, a criminal lawyer, was a friend of William Randolph Hearst and got St. Johns got her first job at 19 writing for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. She eventually reported on everything — crime, politics, society, sports and then movie stars.

She’d seen the entire evolution of stage to film to television, from the creation of Hollywood as an industry to its complete deconstruction at the end of the studio system. She wrote books, screenplays, short stories, and covered many of the main events from the Dempsey-Tunney fight in 1927 to the assassination of Huey Long in ’35 to the trial in 1976 of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of her first employer. Mrs. St. Johns was 82 at the time. 

She was famous in America in her day. A real Brenda Starr. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, she was a frequent guest on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show.

St. Johns, fourth from the right in this image, accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon on April 22, 1970.

In this interview in the LA Times, which I read in the mid-1980s, she told the reporter she was planning to write her third memoir. And what, asked the reporter, could she say in a third that she hadn’t said already? 

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of life and I’ve known a lot of people and I’d like to write about how 99% of the people are better than they think they are.”

99% of us. Better than we think we are. Old Adela had seen it all. The question is what difference would it make for us in knowing that?

The mood in New York is No Mood. What fascinates me is watching all the people walking into oncoming traffic all the time, anywhere. All ages, types, even people on walkers. Of course not EVERYBODY, but enough to make you take notice. Mothers (and fathers — and of course Nannys) pushing their strollers and prams into traffic, or sitting them in the roadway while waiting for the light and checking their emails.

L. to r.: Adela Rogers St. Johns, Colleen Moore, Sam Taylor, Harold Lloyd with Walter Lundin at the camera, on set of Why Worry? (1923). Private Collection.

A couple of weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon I was riding in a cab coming home from Zabar’s. When we came out of the Park on the 79th Street transverse (with the light giving us the right of way) I noticed a young woman standing in the middle of 79th Street at Fifth, with two lanes of moving traffic on either side of her. She wasn’t looking in our direction but only away from us. Fortunately the traffic wasn’t too heavy and people could see her soon enough to move away from her. 

Nevertheless she was in a very scary situation and it looked it. Why was she there? I know why she was there: she was crossing the street just as the light had changed and it so happened that there was oncoming traffic. That was not enough to make her wait for the traffic to stop. 

“A great many of us have confused change with progress.”

So anyway, on this Saturday, as we passed the girl risking her life in the middle of 79th Street just so she could eventually get to the other side of 79th Street, I said to my cab driver: “How long have you been driving a cab?”

He said: “Nineteen years.”

“You see that girl we just passed,” I said to him, “don’t you see that everyday in this cab?”

“Every day all day all the time,” he said. He was shaking his head back and forth, then laughing as a shrug.

So then I told him how I’d lived in New York most of my life but I never saw anything like this — people’s relationship to their place, to risk, to danger, and to responsibility. Because the message that is clearest about this sociological behavior is: “Not Responsible.”

I’m always reminded of a Firesign Theatre Comedy Album from the early ’70s: “Not Responsible and Anything You Want to.” It was funny then hearing something like that. This was after Watergate and Vietnam. It sounded like the Politician’s love song and nothing else. 

It was prescient, however. This is the story. It’s found on all levels of society and behavior. It’s found in the financial markets which are heading into a catastrophic miasma. It’s found in the evaporation of common courtesy, of people relating to anyone outside of their cell phone or computer screen It is not anyone’s FAULT in this world of blamers, it is simply the way we are behaving as a result of the way we have been behaving coupled with this thing called technology.

I gave him the taxi driver rap and then I said to him: “In the 19 years you’ve been driving, has it always been like this?”

And he said: “No.”

And I said: “Well when did it start? When did you start to notice it?”

And he said: “When the financial crisis hit.”

And this is the worrisome part, to me: the financial crisis hasn’t HIT yet.

Bills always have to be paid. When agreements aren’t kept, in the words of that ole con maestro himself, Jack Rosenberg/Werner Ehrhard, When you don’t keep your agreements your life doesn’t work.

A lot of people don’t know this. They think it’s about the Russians or whomever. But because of that, because of the way of the world, we are going to find out the long way. Because bills have to be paid. Without it there’s no language.

I want something more than a downer, too. So I look around for it. That’s why I take all those pictures of the river and talk about the trees and the children and animals. Because they’re not a downer; they’re a pick-me-upper. I need it as much as the next guy.

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