Perhaps you have guessed it. I am not the Lou Grant. The Ed Asner character. But I am a Lou Grant. I work at the Corporation as we called the CBC. Even though I operated a camera on several prestigious programs, I lived in another world. My world. (Canadian programming was so dull in those days.) Dreaming each day as the forty seven year old, bald, fat, grumpy, Lou Grant. Dreaming through all the episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. God, I loved Mary. I would… well, that’s for another time. I dreamed until I had exhausted all the scripts. And then I began to create stories of my own. They were innocent enough. At least in the beginning. In my stories I had the same staff members, the same offices as WGM of Minnesota. But my characters began to evolve, to become something more than they had been imprisoned in the original show.
My main writer, Murray Slaughter, was an odd fellow. Like myself, Murray had a reclining hairline, but unlike myself, Murray wore a toupee. He wore it shifted slightly on his head to one side like a French beret. Murray was quite the lady’s man and was not beyond boasting about his recent conquests, keeping a record of his girls, as he called them, in an album of raw Polaroid snapshots. This is somewhat at odds with the Murray Slaughter of the television series, but then, all of my colleagues had more of an edge to their personalities than was apparent on the tube. Murray and I got along. I made Murray laugh, especially when I insisted that he was not being true to his nature, which was as a devoted husband and father. Not that Murray didn’t love his wife, Marie. Murray had vices. The ladies was one: the ponies was another. They were related. Murray followed anything with a tail. It was never difficult to find Murray when he wasn’t at work. The Chez Moi, a small bar tucked into a side street near the corner of Bloor and Yonge in Toronto, was filled every evening with gamblers and low life drifters and Murray was always in attendance. I don’t know why Marie put up with him but I guess there are women who can’t live without some abuse, not that Murray ever hit his wife, not that I know of, not that it would have been any of my business. I make it a rule — never get involved with the private lives of anyone on staff. I hate personal stuff. I was not against someone having a vice; I have several of my own and cherish them as I do my own children. Everyone has their vices and it’s better that they are out front and not in hiding where they can suddenly rise up in moments of stress like relatives who only show up at funerals. But personal intimate discussions made my skin crawl.
Gordie was my weatherman. He was coloured, though he claimed he was Italian. I hate that word coloured. No one calls Italians brown, or Swedes beige, or Irish poke-a-dot. On several occasions Gordie was ready to bust my chops because I made some reference to his ancestry. “Nothing to be ashamed of Gordo,” I would say. “There’s no one I respect more than Martin Luther King.” This was before Dr. King was assassinated. Not that Dr. King’s assassination ever came up on the show. Generally speaking. Murder puts a damper on humor. Gordie was in denial. We wanted to put him in sports but Gordo had no interest at all in football, or baseball, or hockey. The only sport he showed any interest at all was the Tour de France and no one thought that our market share would increase with Gordo’s analysis of the flying Belgians. Gordie did the weather. He loved it. Said the weather was the sound of God’s bodily functions.
Ted Baxter was our news anchorman. Although he was a few inches too tall and had a little bit too much black in his hair (which I attributed to the use of Grecian Formula), Ted had the same bumbling bluster as his television counterpart. (In the original show, Ted’s hair was silver grey. Not in mine.) It was great having Ted around the newsroom, like having a portable and moving dartboard. Ted came to us directly from the movie industry where he had been doing promotional projects for various products. One that he was exceptionally proud of was a film done for the plumbing industry on industrial attire.
Although everything else was in place, our office had no Mary Richards. The newsroom lacked a certain sweetness and innocence. And until Mary showed up, I could still return to the real world, to my job as a cameraman at the Corporation, to paying my bills, to driving home to my wife and children each evening. Each world was separate from the other but all that would change the day she walked into my office.
It was a slow news day in mid-August. I think the Pope was praying for peace some place. Murray’s tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth as he opened the door to my office and stuck his head in.
“Guess whose here, Lou?”
I looked up impatiently. I hated being interrupted especially by chirpiness.
“You gotta guess, Lou!”
I let out a low animal growl.
LAUGH TRACK. Did you hear that? I hate laugh tracks but I cannot separate it from the show. It’s embedded in my head like some indelible character. Maybe it’s the devil gargling.
Murray stepped to one side and a lovely young woman stepped in. Murray smiled at me with those adult rated eyebrows. Murray introduced us. For a moment I was stunned and said nothing. I dismissed Murray and reached over my desk to shake that small trembling hand. Mary smiled nervously. Mary always seemed to be nervous around me as if she thought I might suddenly lunge for her throat. She’d just graduated from journalism, and was hoping that she might get a job in our newsroom, making copies, making coffee, and running errands. And then she started to cry. God, it happened so suddenly. I wasn’t prepared.
“Don’t…” I barked.
Mary wept harder.
LAUGH TRACK. You see what I mean. I hate that. This should have been a dramatic scene. My first meeting with the lovely young princess of our story, but the laugh track change it into farce.
Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a tissue. I would have used the name of a commercial product but these things were still being negotiated.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Grant. I don’t know what’s come over me. Oh this is…”
“Please. Miss Richards,” I muttered turning away. I can’t stand to see a woman cry. I never know what to do with my hands.
“You don’t know how difficult it is to find work, Mr. Grant. You can’t get a job because you don’t have enough experience and you can’t get experience unless you get a job. It’s a catch 32.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Grant?”
“Are you sure? My eye makeup is running. I must look awful. It’s just been one thing after another. Mildred died last night. Well, not really died. She was eaten by Jack. Rhoda warned me about Jack but I thought they’d work things out. I guess I turned a blind eye. I woke up to find Mildred’s sweet little head and feathers in the sugar bowl.”
“Jack ate Mildred?” I turned back to Mary who was dabbing her eyes with the tissues. She looked like a raccoon.
“Jack is my cat,” Mary explained.
“And Mildred is…”
“I really need a job, Mr. Grant. I’ll work free for the first month if you’ll just give me a chance.”
“My best friend.”
I thought for a moment. Dramatic effect. “Look. Miss Richards. We don’t need a gopher. We have Ted.”
Mary’s lip began to tremble. Tears welled up in her eyes once again.
“No, not again,” I pleaded.
“I can’t help it, Mr. Grant. You must think I’m just a foolish young girl. I really am quite bright. Graduated with straight A’s.” Mary rambled on for some time in this manner, swinging from a detailed account of all her academic accomplishments to bouts of uncontrolled weeping.
“Miss Richards!” I interjected when there was a pause in the action. “We have a position as a junior writer and if you would be willing to go through a period of…”
“Oh, Mr. Grant!” Mary cried, a broad smile sweeping across her face. I stared at her, amazed. I think I might have smiled. And laughed. I have this ridiculous laugh like Goofy, the Disney character. Mary smiled. I thought I heard wedding bells. I was falling in love with her. Everyone fell in love with Mary.