My best job, and likely the high point of my television career now and forever, happened in high school. I was excused from class, sat in Ed Debevic's diner before it opened, and reviewed movies for Sneak Previews. After Siskel and Ebert left the show, its popularity slipped, so the local PBS affiliate added a segment called "Screened by Teens." I was at an arts high school, and they were our agent when someone wanted young talent. A bunch of us were scooped up for the show, and I got a few episodes out of it before we were all fired for an “average kid” cast. Average kids didn’t go to arts schools, they wore color, and they probably wouldn’t say the cast of Meet the Deedles would have been better off committing mass suicide. Probably. Until then, though, I was getting a fat check for talking about Drop Dead Fred and Hook instead of going to Algebra.
At 16, I was going to an expensive (as hell) school while getting paid a couple hundred bucks for tv appearances. One year prior, my family was dodging the landlord and having our lights and phone shut off. The difference was we now lived with my mother’s boyfriend, and we were rolling in paid bills and awkward dinners lit by a fully compensated ComEd. We were to be very grateful, we were told way more than could possibly be necessary over breakfast.
When the show wanted a teen-opinion spinoff, they shot part of it in his house. This effectively killed that sweet gig for me, even before they hired public school normals. I was doomed as soon as I knew it would be a location, that they'd be anywhere near this guy and his belongings. His house was a masterpiece of embarrassment.
Mel was ten years older than my mother, and acted about 30 years older than God. He wore tracksuits with matching shoes and trucker hats, creating a one-color-per-day ensemble. Hundreds of hats and pairs of shoes went into making sure he never mismatched. For a casual look, he'd rock the t-shirt from his own 60th birthday party that read, "I shit you not, Mel's 60." It wasn't unusual for him (or his clothing) to refer to himself in the third person. His license plate read, MR. MEL; his towels were monogrammed.
Mel had a thick Chicago accent, so the "frunchroom" (that’s a “front room” to people who use their whole mouth to speak) featured a large oil painting of him wearing a white ruffled shirt, slightly open, framing a medallion on his chest. It would have read as a joke if the man had any sense of humor. I imagined he went into one of those oldey-timey costume photo booths at Six Flags and was like, "Put down the camera. I want you to paint it." It was like a vision board on canvas, Mel seeing himself as the creepy dance instructor he knew he could be.
I lived there with my mom and two sisters long before horrified Instagramming was a thing. Instead, I stared at this painting for years, just like I stared at the shadowbox shrines to his dead dogs, complete with cremains. Or the carpeted railing as I climbed the carpeted stairs to the carpeted kitchen. THE KITCHEN HAD CARPETING AND THE CARPETING WAS TILE-PATTERNED. I stared at the stiff, silver threaded furniture in the upstairs apartment where I lived, and I stared at the plastic before I tore it off the couch. My artsy, carefree, teen countenance was now tempered by mirrored coffee tables and polyester lace valances. Who'd have thought I'd have my first orgasm in that apartment? Not me. Not with that color scheme.
Then… then there was the basement, an opus of clusterfuckery. Wood paneled walls, white tiled ceilings, with the added flair of plastic stained-glass tiles. It really gave the room that desperate pool-hall feel most families yearn for. Support columns covered in tiny square mirrors, display shelves overflowing with tchotchkes: sports photos, a boob cup, a picture of a naked woman on a Freudian-looking man's forehead with the caption, "What's on a man's mind." In the corner of all of this unbridled masculinity was a dance floor. Because of course there was. A parquet floor and two whole walls of those square mirrored tiles. Plus a jukebox with white musicians sporting afros on it called, "Das Hit Parade," so you knew it was playing all the best jams available on 45.
We lived in this house because it provided stability my mother hadn't known for at least a decade. After my father took his life, the bank took our house. We moved quickly to a tiny two-bedroom apartment, attended the local high school that had race riots our first week, and wondered what the hell our life was. It was my mom's idea that I audition for the school. I never questioned how we could afford to send me there when we were eating all the canned goods in our pantry and staying with the downstairs neighbors because our heat was off. When Mom pretended she had money, I went along with it - I was a selfish teenager who liked stuff. Besides, no one was going to tell me the truth even if I did ask, and that Jean Naté bath set was baller. Suddenly, my mom was gone for a week on a vacation (with Mel) that she forgot to tell us about. Suddenly, there was diabetic ice cream in the freezer next to our frozen Kid Cuisines. Suddenly, Mom seemed happy.
Because she landed a bookie.
Mel was, of course, a bookie. He used the most unimaginative name possible when calling in bets to Vegas, Mr. X. The man had combination locks with 1234 as the password - swearddagod. I knew his bookie name because I had to take numbers for him when they went out of town. Some kids babysat in high school.
When the show’s crew filmed in the house, they changed my entire bedroom to look more like a "typical teen's room" instead of "depressing old goth lady quarters" so we could do a prom fashion section. It all went well, and Mel was practically invisible, perhaps passed out after not checking his blood sugar and eating a box of donuts again. And then the van broke down.
While the crew waited for a tow, Mel suddenly realized this was his big chance to entertain folks. He quickly grabbed the dog. Perhaps he thought this was his moment to be the Oil Painting Mel, rather than Skinny Old Man in a tracksuit screaming about his "eyesight goin' all wavy" due to The Diabetes Mel. He had taught the dog useless tricks like, "Circus Dog," which was just "Sitting Up" with waving paws. Sure, he also fed the dogs a shitton of people food until they got epileptic and died, but lookit the waving paws! So cute. He was a genius, no?
He did about 20 minutes of dog tricks and I'm certain I aged exponentially, wishing for death about 17 times. The camera crew left as quickly as they could, the producer muttered something about, "can't wait to see how it turns out," and I never heard from the channel ever again, except to be fired with everyone else. I started a telemarketing job instead, which was way less glamorous. But it still got me out of that damn house.