My first glimpse of Chicago was through the smoked windows of a black stretch limousine. It's one of the many that zigzag between O'Hare and the NBC Tower, depositing guests such as myself at the nexus of talk show controversy. I'd never seen the Jerry Springer Show prior to that wintry February day, and my first glimpse of the man himself was under the bright lights of his stage when action rolled and Jerry asked me, "So, Salem, what's going on?"
What was really going on was that the love triangle I'd shown up as part of was actually a cohort from Seattle who'd brazened our way onto the show. But that's not what I said.
I answered, "Well, Jerry, about six months ago I met a fine redhead."
That was a true statement as long as one's definition of "fine" dwells in the nebulous realm of opinion. Nothing else I said or did had concrete value either.
Jerry turned to a redhead in the audience and asked, "Aren't you nervous?"
The audience was whooping with sadistic joy. I was a superfreak, exactly what they'd come to see. My hair was bleached Andy Warhol white, to contrast with my 29-year-old face, plastered down, and combed man style by the show's makeup artist. I looked P.T. Barnum prime time. Clad in an outfit provided by the show that was reminiscent of postman gear, I was a two-dimensional drag king. I did my best to be supremely faux, splattering my speech and actions with profanity and chauvinism. Jerry loved it.
"Don't let Jerry get a word in edgewise," a producer had coached me. "You do the talking. You provide the action."
This was no talk show. This was a freak show.
The redhead I'd joined up with for a video project six months before was Katy, a Seattleite in her 40s with a flair for the zany, a respectable job as a community grant writer, and a late-night Springer habit. She'd been dialing talk show guest-search numbers for a long time, to no avail. On February 16, 1-800-96-JERRY answered. From a menu that included categories such as "Are you having sex with an animal? Press one," and "Are you in love with an object? Press two," Katy chose the simplest formula, the love triangle. She pressed three and was given 60 seconds to tell her story.
She scrambled one together, throwing out my name as her lesbian friend and Fernando as her red-hot Latino lover. She was confused. She needed to make a decision. "It's kind of an emergency!" she squealed, leaving her number, hanging up.
A producer called the very next morning. "Katy, we want you."
I came home sick from work to a bevy of messages from the notorious redhead. A self-employed general contractor, I enjoy a somewhat schizophrenic lifestyle as blue-collar rogue-meets-writer. The weekend prior I'd shared the stage of our new world-class symphony hall with Seattle mayor Paul Schell and various city council members, and delivered a poem to a captive audience of 500. The poem was about one of our skyscrapers known as the black box. It was in the black box, working swing shift with a foreman, that I'd first heard about Jerry Springer. Night after night my foreman informed me with glee about the absurd and outrageous people he witnessed on the TV show. Little did I know I myself was primo freak-show fodder.
I called the toll-free number Katy gave me. A Springer producer answered right away. She wanted the nitty-gritty lowdown. Thirteen years in construction's made me a natural at hicktalk. I swerved and soloed--"When she's drunk enough, she'd fuck a rock!" The questions I was asked were few, their direction clear-cut.
"Never mind about his job. Tell me about the sex."
Well, there was no sex to speak of. But there were rumors. I improvised. The essential formula for love geometry Springer-style became clear to me. State your name, whose ass you want to kick, then start kicking. If you can't be that clear, that's OK too. Just curse and kick.
A few hours later another producer called to hone my basic statement. Again I rambled out of context, again the producer karate-chopped my persona down to a simple leg of a triangle. I complied, dumbing down, speaking in monosyllables when not cursing. The producer was thrilled. She crowed, as if she were Ed McMahon standing at my doorstep, "Salem, pack your bags!"
Reduced to an outline of my former self I replied, "I can't afford to fly out!"
"Don't worry, we'll take care of everything. And bring sexy clothes."
"All I got is jeans and T-shirts," I said. A true statement.
"You can't wear jeans and T-shirts. Don't worry, we'll dress you."
Cool. I surrendered. Just what would they turn me into?
Our pal Fernando is a walking Jerry Springer Show. But he wasn't available. I knew a chap nicknamed Doc who'd worked with me on several construction projects. At home nursing a sprained ankle, he claimed Merry Prankster ties from his hippie days and was game for a performance art adventure. How would we explain he wasn't even remotely Latin, but in fact a middle-aged Swede named Stephen?
Katy brainstormed, recalling the Abba song, "He's the Swedish Fernando!" With disco rescuing the improbable threesome, we headed for the airport. Katy had had a root canal the day before and was already flying at high altitude on Vicodin. Doc had shut down his neighborhood bar. I had the flu.
Our disbelief diminished to zero as a United employee handed us our tickets. Groggy, grungy, intemperate, we drank Bloody Marys. Katy prattled with a cellular phone rep seated next to her. Soon the entire plane knew we were headed for our 15 minutes of fame. Even the flight attendants got in on the story-angling. Laughter abounded.
No one chided us or derided us. It was pop culture, for crying out loud. Nothing more. Nothing less.
We never nailed down our story.
The limo hailed us at the gate.
In Santa Barbara, in Atlanta, and in a town in Tennessee, three other triangles won the Springer lottery too. Within 36 hours our freaky dozen collided in Chicago.
Interns met us curbside at the NBC Tower and corralled us in greenrooms. Nondisclosure forms were presented and a nameless Springer spokeswoman waited impatiently for us to sign them. By doing so we would pledge that our stories were true. Well, I hadn't actually said anything untrue. I glanced furtively over the form, stalling my signature with comments like, "You need a college degree to make it through this thing!" and "What's this about owning my image? If I want to use it, do I have to buy it back?"
The woman said it was about reruns.
They were threatening to come after us for production costs if our stories weren't true, a grand total of $80,000. Sitting in the windowless greenroom, my first thought was, "If we bail how do we get home?"
The young woman sitting next to me--she was tramped up with heavy makeup and tight black clothes--nervously floated out her loopy signature. There seemed no turning back.
One by one we signed.
I asked for a copy of the form. I was not given one.
My companions were whisked away. A producer tamed me like a circus lion.
"Jerry's going to say, 'What's going on, Salem?' And you're going to say--?"
"Don't smile. Try not to use the words fuck and shit too much."
"Why the fuck not?"
"If too much gets bleeped, the home viewing audience won't understand what you're talking about."
"Can I use the word cocksucker?"
"That's a good one," she nodded in approval.
"Can I throw a chair?"
"That might not be the best idea," she responded. But she didn't say no.
The young woman in black was the only one left with me. She nervously chain-smoked and finally told me she was from Tennessee, that she and her girlfriend had been playing truth or dare a night or so before, and she'd been dared to call the show. She disappeared for a while then was returned.
"They told my girlfriend and her best friend to get into a fight," she informed me.
Having been transformed by the makeup artist by this point, I sat placidly on my couch, flu-faint but doing my best to maintain. My only response was, "Wow."
"You seem calm," she said.
"I ain't nervous," I answered. "Ain't you afraid you'll go back home and your town will have seen you on the show?" I asked.
"No, it's not like that. We're all out."
We stared at a Ren and Stimpy cartoon showing on a TV with the sound turned down. There was no way to turn to another channel. In our behind-the-scenes sanctuary we were as good as deaf, dumb, and blind.
An intern appeared. "We're ready for you."
I followed him across acres of linoleum and past a huge white partition. Across it was emblazoned in red, "The Jenny Jones Show." Past it was Jerry's studio. I was squeezed into a dark backstage chamber. Someone fitted me with a microphone. I could hear the audience roaring.
My producer slipped in. "Salem, when Fernando comes onstage, get out of your chair and chase him. And if you catch him, knock him over."
Holy smokes! A request for violence.
Thinking about my friend's bad ankle, I responded, "If I hurt him he'll sue you!"
"Don't worry," she placated me, "the whole stage is padded. And he knows you're going to chase him."
She never asked why Fernando wasn't Latin.
Her only real concern was that I might get cold feet. "You won't freeze up, right? You're going to put on a show, right?"
"I'll kick his ass!" I shouted with glee, wondering how I'd fake my way through a rumble if it came down to it.
A door opened and I was coaxed into big, bright Jerryland. Lights, camera, action!
And there he was. "So, Salem, what's going on?"
I rollercoasted my way through a pseudostory, leaving Jerry only enough room to make fun of me. I bit my cheeks in an attempt not to guffaw.
When Fernando appeared I leaped out of my chair and raced for him. Zooming deep into the audience he yelled down at me, "Crazy bitch!"
I showered him with profanity. There was no way to catch him. Security closed the gap and pushed me back.
I gesticulated and huffed, bouncing across the puffy stage. I was returned to my seat, but I repeated the scenario, chasing Fernando backstage. A security man grabbed me. Round and round we went until another security man, pretending to handle me, leaned into my ear and whispered, "Let Fernando tell his story now."
Even the bouncers were producers!
I complied. We traded insults and Katy was shoved onstage. Brain-fogged by Vicodin she headed toward me for a gaping root-canal French kiss.
Yikes! No way, nohow was I going to tongue this woman. Apparently she had no interest in tonguing me either. Her mouth hit my cheek and her wild maze of red hair gave me just enough cover to fake my way through this most unexpected smooch. She slithered into her chair and I put my arm around her like I was showing off the greatest piece of ass in the world. The audience was beside itself, exhilarated, for we were an absolutely gruesome threesome.
Incoherent Katy was classic. Jerry whined and mimicked her. We were perfectly outrageous, ridiculous, absurd.
The circus ride jammed to a halt and we were flushed out into our hotel. When we discovered we'd all been crammed into the same hotel room, Doc-Fernando called our producer and complained about having to share the same room with the woman that stole his woman. The producer replied it was the show's way of helping us to heal our differences. What? Did they think we were faking or something?
The Tennessee three, the two butch girls now bruised and scratched, were content. They informed me their story was true, but it had been a year since it happened and they'd already patched things up. One bragged about her domestic violence charges.
I dined with the Santa Barbara threesome, two gay men and a straight woman. They wanted to know how long I'd been with Katy.
I gave up my ruse. "She's not my girlfriend. I hardly know her." Each of the others confessed they were fakes.
"By the time they got done with us our story hardly resembled the one we gave them," one of the men told me.
Doc-Fernando told me they'd told him what to say verbatim. Katy said the producers ordered her to choose me over Fernando. Pushing her onstage they begged, "Go give her a big French kiss!"
Reviewing the episode after its premiere April 16, I realized that the production technique protects both the show and the participants. Better to pump up the fakery, scissor-snip the guests into sideshow stereotypes, and provide us with a skit than to risk real violence.
If the fights seem real to Jerry Springer, as he just testified before the Chicago City Council, the emphasis is on "seem." A practiced politician, he knows how to choose his words carefully.
His production crew knows how to help the guests choose words too.
At the tail end of our show, Jerry soapboxed his "final thought" from a TelePrompTer. He said, "The sexuality of each of us lies somewhere along a continuum." Just so the subtle continuum between fake and real.