(Artvoice 19 July 2001)

Mary Beth Spina:
The Circus Leaves Town

by Bruce Jackson

I don’t remember Mary Beth Spina ever beginning a telephone conversation with “hello” or anything like it. The phone would ring, I would answer, and she was already talking, like I’d walked into the room without knocking. Sometimes I wouldn’t get to say a word for 15 or 20 minutes. Mary Beth could have been one of the great all-night radio hosts or fundamentalist preachers. Had she been either, she’d have needed no telephone lines or former cripples and sinners coming forward to testify about seeing the light and being healed. She could fill every available minute herself.

She never had to identify herself when she called on the phone because no one else in this world had a voice like that. It was the voice of someone who had been gargling with gravel who hadn’t remembered to spit it all out, or what Tom Waits or Blind Willie McTell would sound like when afflicted by the sore throat from hell. Sometimes she’d talk particularly long, we’d hang up and I’d have my own raspy throat even though I’d only laughed a lot and gotten to say nothing more than “um-huh” a few times and “yes” or “no” once.

Mary Beth died in her Clarence home on July 8th. She was 59 years old. At this point, nobody knows what she died of. She was often in a huge amount of pain in recent years, and of late she’d been so short of breath she’d have to rest halfway from the front door of the building where she worked and her office. A good friend of hers wrote me, “Her nutritional habits were pretty horrible. In recent years her diet consisted almost exclusively of black coffee and things like potato chips, corn chips, cookies and Lil Debbie cakes.” She hadn’t seen a regular doctor for more than a decade because her doctors (the best in Buffalo, according to one of her good friends) hadn’t been able to fix whatever was troubling her so she gave up on all of them. She suffered from, among other things, Guillain-Barré Syndrome, aka acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy aka Landry's ascending paralysis. Some GBS sufferers develop it on their own, but a lot got it from a swine flu vaccination 25 years ago. It is a badly-understood painful and sometimes crippling inflammatory disorder of the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord.

From 1959 through 1969 she had been a reporter for the Johnson City (Tennessee) Press Chronicle, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, and the Buffalo Courier Express. To the end of her days she had the sweet savvy about the world and its ways that is characteristic of all really good newspaper people. She joined UB’s News Bureau in 1974 and became their radio/television coordinator in 1982, which is how I came to know her.

Newspaper writers and radio and tv producers would call her when they needed an expert or someone who at least sounded like one, who could say what needed to be said briefly (if they were TV or radio news) or at length ( if they were talk radio). Talk radio comes in three sizes: really smart conversation,  really loopy with half the callers and sometimes the host sounding like outpatients, and somewhere in between. Mary Beth was an equal opportunity booker: to her they were all perfectly legitimate. When she called to get me to do the really smart shows she’d say, “You’ll be doing a public service” and for the really loopy ones she’d say, “You’ll have a lot of fun with this.”

I don’t know what she said to the other UB faculty members on her list of regulars because she never talked about them. She was the communications equivalent of those great fabled courtesans of old, fully capable of making you feel unique in all the world.

Sometimes I’d say I couldn’t be available at the specified time or I didn’t know anything about the subject, or I just didn’t want to talk about the subject. She’d immediately turn me into a co-conspirator: "Who can do it? Who does know about it?” If I came up with a name she liked, she’d be gone in a flash, dialing that other person before my phone was back in the cradle. Other times she’d say, “No, he’s good for short interviews but not for the people who call that show.” She didn’t just hook faculty up with media people willy-nilly; she cast us.

Every now and then she came up with an idea of her own and she’d broker it, getting some radio or TV station interested in it and then finding a UB faculty member who fit the story and the venue. Some of those ideas were really good; some of them were really goofy. With the goofy ones, I’d wait for her to stop talking and I’d say, “That’s ridiculous, Mary Beth.”
     “Do you really think so?”
     “Yes. It’s really goofy.”
     “Well who should I get to do it, then?”
     If it was a goofy idea that I liked, I’d tell her to call Diane Christian or Leslie Fiedler, either of whom could talk brilliantly about nearly anything. If it was a goofy idea I didn’t like I’d tell her to call a guy in the sociology department who would talk about anything, whether or not he had anything intelligent to say about it.

Every time I performed she’d mail me a packet of Martha White Yellow Cornbread Mix. She knew I’d worked in the south a lot and we often talked about southern food. Both of us loved cornbread and loathed grits. She said the closest thing she’d ever found in the modern world to her family cornbread was Martha White Yellow Cornbread Mix. Once she gave me her actual family recipe and I tried it. The Martha White Yellow Cornbread Mix was clearly better. I told her that and she said she thought so too.

I couldn’t ever find it in Tops or Wegmans. I asked her once where she got it and that was the only time she ever went vague on me. I tried it another time and she said she got it in bulk at some discount place in Niagara Falls. “You wouldn’t know where it is,” she said. I asked how she knew that. “You just wouldn’t,” she said, and changed the subject.

Once she sent me a terrifically ugly wooden pink flamingo mobile.  It wasn’t for any particular performance, just something she thought I ought to have. She’d also sent one, she told me, to a talk jockey at WSYR, a Syracuse radio station she liked a lot. That ugly wooden pink flamingo mobile hung from my porch ceiling for years. It eventually fell apart.

Telephone calls with her were never short and you could not let your attention stray for a moment because the topic could, and often did, change in the course of a word. She’d say a word, she’d play with the word, and she’d be fuguing off on the topic the word suggested.

Her emails were just like her talk. Both had the same Brownian motion, the same unpredictable connections that were like a cueball on a frictionless table, caroming with a logic that makes sense only in retrospect. Capitals occurred only when she wanted to shout. A comma or semi-colon or period was sometimes merely a breath, and other times a turn onto a completely unsuspected Interstate of the mind. Half the misspellings turned out to be wild puns. The closest thing to Mary Beth’s talk and emails is the Molly Bloom stream of consciousness chapter that closes James Joyce’s Ulysses. But Mary Beth had a much better sense of humor than James Joyce.

Here’s an email she sent me in March 1999:

there ain't no guarantees in life with the media.but we do give it 'the old or new college try'. at best it's sometimes a crapshoot on a blanket in a new orleans alley.more true with printed word than with my electronic media who need somebody good for tonight's broadcast. they don't need anybody to write war and piece or a roger rosenblatt essay. my electronic are more like blanche dubois whose best lines were: "Nothins' been the same since daddy died and we lost belle rieve (I use this line a lot in explaining why i’m a not millionaire or 'it's too bad i wasn't born rich instead of so damn good lookin')have a bad hair day; or just about any other mishap ranging from inconsequential to truly tragic. When they're up against a deadline and need a good lookin' guy like yourself who's a great star in his own right. Or sometimes they're like blanche saying:  "i have become dependent on the kindness of strangers or mary beth and her stable of stars.' i reassure you pat and i always try hard and that some of the hoity toity print people are such elitists compared to my crowd of most grateful for help and guidance that it's no wonder the national inquirer is now steaming ahead of credability of some of the 'mainstream' media who licked their chops over the salacious details of monica and her cigar performance. or o.j. and the loves and fights of the late nicole brown simpson.all of which harkens back to the '20s when 11 newspapers in NYC were competing for the pennies of the folk with front page earthshaking news of young teenage peaches and older and richer 'daddy' browning  for sugar dadddy ; evelyn nesbitt, the girl in the red velvet swing, harry thaw and stanford white--all of whom were spoofed in that great ben hecht comedy "the front page". believe me bruce:the chronicle of higher or even lower ed bears no more resemblance to the paper in the front page than godzilla does to shirley temple. My electronic love you and now jay at wsyr thinks all we have at ub are great, bright and witty folks who do great interviews. i told him that i only give him those to call but that certainly we have at least 200 who love show business and can talk on the fourth grade reading level to explain even the most complex stuff on an understandable level in short order. for mymoney it's better to have two minutes with cnn than 100 pages with vanity fair. bult then i was pt barnum and maybe miketodd's late mother in another lfe. as always you are never underappreciated in the Texas Armadillo Afficiando Society; Yankees for Texas--GeeHa!!!--, or  'The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Us" (because when George Bush headed the CIA, he put a spy satelite over the state with a 'footprint' that stretched from Honduras (what ain't much of anymore standing') to downtown Tulsa. i hope after reading this you'll feel much better!! your faithful agent and fan, mbs.
In late summer and early fall 1999 she had me talking to WSYR in Syracuse, Associated Press in Albany, channels 4 and 7 in Buffalo, WGR radio with my long-time-ago student Tom Bauerle, and all 50,000 watts of WLAC Nashville. Several of those encounters focused on New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s jihad against the Brooklyn Museum (he wanted to cut off the museum’s funding because had been offended by its blockbuster show, “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” particularly Chris Olfili’s oil and dung “The Holy Virgin Mary”). I sent Mary Beth an email saying I’d really earned my Martha White Yellow Cornbread Mix that time. She responded:
I took a vacation yesterday (Monday) but yes, I confess (that rhymes you know) that I did place you over the weekend in all those outlets you mentioned. I am relieved you didn't tell them about being bribed by the Martha White cornbread mix. if you had, they would all have called and wanted some, too, and I have only limited quantities at a time which I only share with favored folks who have had some connection with the South and West and therefore can fully value and appreciate it. I also know where to get grits but since I think it is thinly disguised wallpaper paste (yes, it can also be used for that as a creative measure when papering a room) I don't know if you'd like some of that too. If so, I wil be able to obtain some for you locally and send it along although I think you have better cultinary taste personally. I have a friend in Clarence who is also from the South and said to me, "Y Ma Beth, I'm suah I could make grits you would love." Not wanting to be too unkind I replied, "That's awful nice of you to make that offah but  Ah think that disguising grits in any manner, shape or form is likeing putting lipstick on a pig. It is still a pig".
For several months last year, I had to work standing up because of spinal stenosis. Mary Beth would ask about it at the beginning of every phone call, and she started tucking little bits of medical advice into her emails. Once she recommended
dr. sheffild's muscle rub--99 cents at the odds and ends stores when and if it comes in on the trucks. i'll be happy to send you a tube to try. it's aspirin in a lanolin base and disappears into the aching muscle and doesn't smell like bengay to knowck you out unless of course you have clogged sinuses and need to breathe and walk and swing yur arms at the same time.
And now, no more gravelly telephone monologs and no more stream of consciousness Molly Bloom emails. I miss both enormously. This weekend I’m going to cook up my last two packets of Martha White’s Yellow Cornbread Mix. I keep thinking of these two sentences from the last email she sent me:
i am in various stages of writing my book called as a working title: The Circus That Never Left Town. I am always adding chapters because the circus never does leave town and in a way it's become a never-ending saga.
I have not a doubt that Mary Beth knew as well as you and I do that in real life the circus always leaves town and all the sagas stop. But just because you know something is no reason you have to let it take over your life, right? You sit halfway from the door of the building to your office to catch your breath and then you get up and go the rest of the way and get on the phone. And every once in a while you cook up some Martha Whites Yellow Cornbread Mix and apply Dr. Sheffield’s, which you get for 99 cents at the odds and ends stores when and if it comes in on the trucks.

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson
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