Cast VOTES in COMMENTS for DISGRACED CELEBRITY OF 2011…
Caitlin McCarthy received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Emerson College. An award-winning screenwriter at international film festivals and labs, Caitlin has two feature films in development: “Resistance” with Populus Pictures; and “Wonder Drug” with actor/producer Alysia Reiner. In addition to screenwriting, Caitlin serves as an English teacher at an inner-city public high school.
A SOAPY LIFE by Caitlin McCarthy
In 1974, when I was 4-years-old, the TV became my babysitter. Now don’t worry – I wasn’t planted in front of a TV all by myself. My great-aunts were right there with me, watching the entire CBS soap opera line-up. My parents both worked during the day, so my friend Michael’s mother would drop me off at my great-aunts’ house after nursery school. I had quite the set-up: a little chair before a marble coffee table, where I ate lunch and watched TV at the same time. My great-aunts surrounded me like guardian angels on the couch. Even Bijoux, my Great-Aunt Lulu’s beloved French Poodle, had a perch – the La-Z-Boy recliner – where he watched the soaps with his “missy.”
The afternoon would kick off with “The Young and the Restless” and end with “Guiding Light,” which my great-aunts (born in the late 1800s) had started following when it was just a radio show in 1937. When the music for GL’s end credits started, my great-aunts would turn off the TV, put on an Engelbert Humperdinck record, and then discuss the various shows at length.
This was my first master class in storytelling. I learned about character motivation, storyline development, plot critique – you name it. No wonder I became a writer later in life. I was surrounded by characters, both on and off screen.
Great-Aunt Lulu was, by far, the biggest character in my family. Of Acadian descent, she dated a fellow French-American named Napoleon for 25 years. Uncle Nap died 10 years after they married.
Childless, Great-Aunt Lulu treated her French Poodle Bijoux like a baby, sewing outfits for him and giving him a rhinestone collar long before bling came about. She refused to feed him dog food or let him eat of a bowl. Instead, she would place him on the La-Z-Boy recliner, tie a bib around his neck, and feed him a specially prepared “gruel” with a spoon. The poor thing hated having the spoon shoved into his mouth. But he developed a case of Stockholm Syndrome and only had eyes for his missy. He growled and snapped at everyone else, especially if they dared to sit on *his* La-Z-Boy.
The real-life characters weren’t limited to my great-aunts. My neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts was filled with them.
There was Moe the Repo Man, who lived next door to my family’s two decker and walked around nude with the shades up; Crab Apple Joe across the street, who hated kids and would throw crab apples at us if we walked on *his* sidewalk (hence his nickname); and the psycho teenage brothers everyone called Ronald McDonald and Goofy, who had German Shepherds named Satan and Sinbad and terrorized all of Worcester with their drug dealing, theft, and arson. In the late ‘70s, when the Haunted House (similar to SpookyWorld) burned down in Worcester, no one was surprised when Goofy headed off to Juvie for the crime. Years later, Goofy wound up in prison for murdering a woman behind a bar and dumping her body in a dumpster. Again, no one was surprised.
Every issue being played out on the soaps could be found in my childhood neighborhood. Pick a house and find a topic: poverty; alcoholism; domestic violence; drug abuse; mental illness; mob activity; criminal behavior; cover-ups; medical dramas; prison; affairs; divorce; and remarriage. As a kid, I didn’t know this wasn’t normal. I thought everyone lived like this.
My big sister Erin did her best to shield me from the chaos. When someone who hated Moe the Repo Man spray painted “FUCK” on his garage, Erin told me not to look at it. Much to her chagrin, I did – and fuck is now my favorite curse word. (Freud would have a field day with me.) When I asked Erin which finger was “the finger,” she said the pinky. She didn’t want me running around as a kid, sticking up my middle finger. (I admit, I gave my sister the pinky a few times and never understood why she found it so funny until years later.)
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the soaps permeated U.S. pop culture. At my Catholic school, a big battle broke out between the “Guiding Light” and “General Hospital” fans. It would get quite nasty during roller skating night at the Skylight on Park Ave. The GL fans would clear the floor whenever the GH disco song me on: “I just can’t cope without my soap…General Hospi-tale!” The GH fans would give us the finger (middle, not pinky) while rolling around, singing the words.
On the soaps, some characters have problems that last forever. My Great-Aunt Lulu mirrored this phenomenon: she was always on her deathbed, milking the attention for everything it was worth. She would dramatically ask if the nuns at my school would make novenas for her. The nuns took things one step further and asked the students in my grade to make “Get Well” cards for her. This started happening every year. A scandal broke out when this girl Michelle, always a bit of a bitch, created a card that said “Shape Up or Ship Out.” Michelle had to stand in the classroom’s dark closet for that one. (Nuns could whack you with a ruler back then, too.)
When Great-Aunt Lulu learned that she was *really* going to die, she went from everyday drama queen to DEFCON 1. She threatened to have her Toy Poodle Cozette (who had replaced the late Bijoux) put to sleep and buried with her – public health laws be damned! Great-Aunt Lulu didn’t want my family to take Cozette, because we treated our Yorkie Tish “like an animal.”
My sister Erin and I, big dog lovers, hatched a plan. We were going to kidnap Cozette, a scheme straight out of the soaps. I would lure Great-Aunt Lulu from the living room into the kitchen, while my sister crept into the house and stole Cozette off the La-Z-Boy. In the end, Great-Aunt Lulu pardoned Cozette from her death sentence. She gave the pooch to an aunt from out of town. Cozette was written out of my life – I never saw her again. But I heard she got to eat out of a bowl, finally.
As the years passed, so did all of my great-aunts. My family moved to a new neighborhood, but the drama followed us. We lived next door to an Assistant District Attorney who was arranging the surveillance and sting of a drug dealer down the street from us. It was straight out of “General Hospital,” which I had started to watch by this time. (My great-aunts would have highly disapproved of this!) Such crime and action, only no one looked like Mac Scorpio, Sonny Corinthos, or Jason Morgan.
My real life continued to mimic GH into adulthood. Frisco Jones discovered Felicia Cummings was royalty. I befriended a Danish guy in graduate school who turned out to be the Crown Prince of Denmark. Celebrities made “guest appearances” in my life. I’d randomly pass them on the street in Boston or New York, or sit near them at sporting events and restaurants.
When I moved into the entertainment industry, I started meeting actors from the soaps who populated my formative years. By far, the nicest actor was William Fichtner. He played Josh Snyder on “As The World Turns” before moving into prime movie roles (ARMAGEDDON; THE PERFECT STORM; and CONTACT). I was an apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, trying to decide between writing and acting. While waiting for an audition, he walked past me on his way to rehearsal. I said hello and told him I was a big ATWT fan. A smile crossed his face. He stopped and shared a few words with me. Before leaving, he gave me the ultimate advice: “Have fun.”
His words have resonated with me over the years. Entertainment is a tough business. If you’re not passionate about your work, and not enjoying the process, find something else to pursue. This is why I ultimately became a writer. It provides me with the most satisfaction.
No matter where I go or who I meet, I’m still that little girl eating lunch at my great-aunts’ coffee table and tuning in for another episode of….
It’s been a soapy life.
(photos courtesy of the author)