Out of the sea I saw a beast rising.
The clock ticks toward midnight, inexorable. The days dribble away to a few, and every mind turns toward doom. Those who are convinced the world will shatter like glass come the millennium are already gearing up this New Year's Eve: practicing shrill cries of alarm; making sure their sackcloth is pressed, their ashes clean.
Even those of us who don't wake up in the morning and check the closet for Gog and Magog, however, find underneath all the New Year's revelry a thinly concealed dread, barely masked by paper party hats, cheap noisemakers, and booze.
Life is tough, after all, and the lost past always seems more attractive than the confusing present or the unknown future. The strong shake it off--realize that memory is an illusion, often a lie. We straighten our spines and smile and toast the striking of the hour, resolving to move on, to face what comes. To live.
But the weak ...
They squinch their eyes closed and tremble, anticipating the end, welcoming it, hoping deliverance will arrive swiftly and relieve them of their awful fear.
Among them is Bob Greene. Their leader, in fact, the drum major of fear and remorse, blowing a whistle and stepping high, leading his flock away from all that is confident and joyful and alive, back into his nightmare of nostalgia and pessimism and defeat.
Midnight approaches. Time to tally the toll. It's time again for a special year-end Bobwatch, a grim review of his horrific world in this year of our Lord, 1996.
The beast was allowed to mouth bombast and blasphemy.
At press time, Bob had written 178 columns in 1996. He leaned hard on his trusty pair of crutches: nostalgia and apprehension, with the pacemaker of repetition keeping his heart going. He seldom wrote one column where he could write three; subject matter sufficient for three columns provided fodder for 30. While he didn't approach last year's monomaniacal pinnacle of 59 Baby Richard columns, he did focus an impressive 29 columns on what I have termed the Baby Richard/Judge Heiple/Boy-We-Call-Joe Trinity.
Bob Greene's sympathy carries the same corrosive effect as praise from the Daily Worker did in the 1950s. Readers who would normally sympathize at the tragic unfolding of the Baby Richard case find themselves hating the child, based solely on the endless sweaty jig Bob insists on performing on his behalf.
Judge Heiple, on the other hand, a frightening and heartless martinet straight out of the Middle Ages, suddenly goes all soft-focus and squishy under Bob's lash. I was ready to send him a Christmas card.
And Joe? Well, suffice it to say that a hardened cynic would point out that Joe happened along just as Bob's access to Baby Richard ended, just in time to fill his columns with a new complex, endless case. Have you, as Bob would ask, read the complete court transcripts? You will.
Baseball columns also dwindled. With no pending strike, Bob needed only 11 columns to justify his Florida vacation, about half of last year's number. But this was an election year, so Bob used up 16 columns foretelling the doom of the democratic process, including one decrying the death of parliamentary procedure.
Attending both political conventions inspired Bob to perfom feats of spectacular repetition. August 12 he lamented the decline of speechmaking at the Republican convention ("Speechless in San Diego--the Wave of the Future"). Speeches es have become "pages of filler constructed around one meaty paragraph, that paragraph zinged up and tightened and finely honed so that it all but begs to be the one selected for television newscasts."
Bob liked that so much, he reprised the column less than a month later (September 11, Speaking of Speeches: How 5 Hours Be Became 6 Minutes.") Here he examined speeches and was shocked to find them diminished "in the age of
of television newscasts that have little use for any thought of more than 20 seconds."
The irony here is that on the rare days when Bob's column actually contains a thought that would take 20 seconds to express, his Tribune editors run to the plaza outside their building and celebrate by dancing around a maypole.
August 14 he fretted over the need for convention security ("Land of the Free, Not America, Not in 1996."). He flapped his hands in horror over "concrete-and-steel barricades" and "metal-detection sheds." September 4, he did it again ("The Barriers Are Up--in -Our Buildings, in Our Minds"). This time they became "crude metal restraining fences" and "layers of metal detectors."
A writer with a sense of history might point out that certain presidents--say McKinley, assassinated in the Elysium of 1901--might not have minded a few metal detectors. But Bob was satisfied with warning, "An invisible line has been crossed," six words that could very well serve as the motto for his entire oeuvre.
As always, security was a constant thread in Bob's writing. Bob couldn't walk through an airport metal detector without writing a column about how we all used to sleep in the city park in the summer with our money piled on our chests and nobody bothered us. He periodically collected all the gruesome crime stories his assistant could pull from the wire and flung them into our faces with a shriek.
Small wonder that, as observers report, Bob is loath to venture out from behind the gate of the Florida retirement community where he spends so much of his time, watching television, strolling the secured sidewalks, occasionaIly approaching the fence, but rarely passing outside into menacing reality.
It was granted authority over every tribe and people, language and nation.
The conventions inspired what many Bob watchers have identified as his low point this year: the already infamous "Boxes Within Boxes Within Boxes" column of September 1. In an astounding, Howard Beale-like breakdown Bob sits on the convention floor staring at a television and gibbering about how he can see the newscaster, in person, and also on the television. "And If you looked up into the arena, past the TV set in front of you, you could see the same four people in their anchor booths. From where they were sitting up there--in their bigger boxes--you could see only their backs. In the smaller boxes--the boxes on the TV screen--the other sides of them, the face sides, we were visible. Boxes within boxes within boxes.
He probably thought it was sharp writing (In the second person! Just like Bright Lights, Big City!) and his Tribune bosses, passed out on the couch, were powerless to stop him.
Pinpointing a nadir with Bob is always a difficlut call. Anyone who writes for a living was repulsed by the colun Bob wasted reprinting the first lines of novels--not to be confused with the column Bob wasted reprinting the last lines of novels. But I must pick a pair of columns that ran about a month ago, just for the stunning glimpse they offer at Bob's hidden shame.
On November 27, Bob reminded us of Jeff Maier, the 12-year-old who influenced
the outcome of the American League pennant by snaring a fly ball from the stands ("A Fact of Life for the Right-Field Kid: It's All Downhill"). Bob informed the kid, basically, that his life is over. "Nothing he can possibly do for the rest of his life will result in the attention to him that was paid because he happened to reach his hand over the wall at Yankee Stadium" Bob wrote, never realizing that he was also exposing a vital truth about himself
The reader's mind rejects it at first, stunned, the way you can't believe that man in the crowd, the one in front of the little girl, is actually pulling aside his raincoat. What Bob doesn't say, but makes perfectly clear, is that fame is the yardstick of his entire life. It is the central value underlying this column and most others. Who believes Bob would spend a moment with Michael Jordan if he were an equally skilled but unknown player, wowing spectators at city playgrounds? Does anybody think Bob's toupee would glisten for a single second under the lone sodium vapor lamp on the sidelines at a neglected urban court, admiring Jordan, worshiping him? Of course not. Bob nurses off Jordan's fame and Jordan, like an indulgent mother, smiles down at him and permits it, happy that Bob doesn't have his teeth yet. (Jordan sure wouldn't let Sam Smith nurse there. That would hurt.)
Echoed in the column is Bob's own sad life story: his moment of fame during the Chicago Seven trial and perhaps a year or two more,
before his sad decline into parody and irrelevance. "One of the worst things that can happen to a person," Bob says--for the kid and for himself: " Gaining spectacular fame early in life, fame that cm never be equaled or topped."
An honest miter in Bob's position might have expressed a bit of camraderie--perhaps offered to meet the boy at the Loser's Club someday. But Bob isn't that writer. He welcomes the boy to "real life," without fame, which he kisses off as "pale and muted," the bastard.
So what does Bob cherish, then, if not living? The answer was provided, ironically, two days earlier, in his column of November 25, where Bob stated his core beliefs with the clarity of a Hail Mary. He argued that Bob Dole was the real winner of the presidential election, because he gets to travel and be a celebrity and stay in nice hotels and he doesn't have to write my colu- whoops, do any work. Clinton lost, because he must govern and that takes effort.
Clearly, Bob would like to be in Dole's shoes. He'd like to appear on Saturday Night Live, yukking it up with the cast, instead of churning out that daily column rooting around with the grim purpose of a junkie searching for an unscabbed bit of arm where he can jab the needle in.
This laziness is the heart of Bob's crime. Bill Mauldin was in his 5Os with two Pulitzers under his belt and he still hit the street, getting his nose broken for photographing illegally parked cars at a Daley family party. Bob is watching television. Bob is on a plane. Bob is in his hotel room, staring out the window The only way Bob might break his nose is if Michael Jordan stops short one day and Bob rams it hard against his tailbone.
The whole world went after the beast in wondering admiration.
That's it. That's Bob. A lust for fame, forever unconsummated due to laziness, desperate clutching at the substitute anesthetic of riches. Or is it? Those explanations, while accurate, don't seem to cover th-e entire picture, don't fully explain the enormity of Bob's sin.
Midnight is near.
Isn't there more? Something inhuman and hideous? Fame. Luxury. Fornication. The Whore of Babylon. Of course! Amazingly, even after two years, the truth is slow to dawn on me: Bob. Robert. R-O-B-E-R-T. Robert is six. And Greene? G-R-E-E-N-E. Greene is also six.
The second hand creeps toward the 12.
But what of his middle name? It could be anything: Belial, Azazel, Putana, Tophet.--
Moments left now. How to find it? I know a source--"Who's Who in America." Bob would certainly be there. He'd see to it I race to the shelves, to discover his secret name, final mark of the beast. I turn to the page. There is the name. I count. And in doing so, in the moment of revelation, I wink out of existence like a snuffed candle.
Anyone who has intelligence may work out the number of the beast. The number represents a man's name, and the numerical value of its letters is six hundred and sixty-six.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jeff Heller.