Whenever I visit a Target or a Rite Aid drugstore, whenever I visit the greeting card store in the local mall, whenever I visit any establishment that sells American Greeting Cards, I always make it my business to check the racks of humorous cards. I’m not looking to make a purchase. I’m not looking for a quick laugh at some clueless remark ballooning out of the mouth of our last president or some eloquent bromide from our present leader. I’m not even looking to kill time while my wife shops (although that is often one of the unintended consequences).
What I am looking for is myself.
Let me explain. Some four years ago in December and then again in May, I drove up from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, a trip many Steeler fans like to make every year, but in my case not for football, but for a photo shoot at the official headquarters of the American Greeting Card Company which is located in the home of the Browns. I was on my way to what I hoped would be a lucrative career as a male model — a male model for the geriatric set. It’s not that I consider myself particularly photogenic. It’s not that I consider myself a senior hunk. It is simply that my agent had sent them my headshot along with probably 50 others, and someone who presumably knew what they were doing had picked mine. Whatever they wanted, I had it. Whoever they wanted, I was it. So, who was I to argue?
“Bring some short-sleeved shirts,” my agent said. “Bring Bermudas. You got any with loud patterns?”
“It’s December,” I said.
“You got any with like a Hawaiian print?” he asked in a second phone call.
Hawaiian print and Bermuda shorts. Obviously they’re not looking for Brad Pitt, nor Sean Connery. What they’re looking for is one of the old funny-looking guys, maybe the one with a suppository in his ear. His friend says to him, “What are you doing with that suppository in your ear?” “Eh?” he says. What they’re looking for is an old coot with skinny legs and sagging jowls. Like I said, they’re looking for me.
In the December shoot, I and another elderly Tyson Beckford wannabe, each dressed in checked Bermuda shorts, shirts from the Waikiki Beach collection, sandals and black socks, are posed sitting on a bench in front of an American Greeting Card store they have set up either for visitors to the Greeting Card campus or as a set for shoots like ours. They pose us for two hours: him on the left, me on the right; me on the right, him on the left; him smiling, me frowning, him frowning, me smiling; him straight faced, me — well, you get the idea. What captions will go with these photos, they don’t tell us, but it is fairly easy to imagine they aren’t going to be very flattering. I’ve seen the cards with the guys with their bellies hanging out.
When the agent calls again in May, he tells me to bring one of those sleeveless undershirts. “You know,” he chuckles, “a wife-beater.”
“They want Marlon Brando?”
This time what we are shooting is a poker game. There are five of us: me, and four aged lovelies. The photographer decides against the wife-beater, opting for the shirt from the Waikiki collection — who knew that the Hawaiian shirt was the AARP’s equivalent of the little black dress? Again there are two hours of posing: the blue-haired ladies and I in a variety of combinations, dealing cards, holding cards close to our chests, grabbing for chips, peeking at each other’s hands, and so on. “We’re not doing strip poker,” the producer quips – “this time.” The ladies giggle. The gentleman, yours truly, blushes. Once again, we leave with no idea what they mean to do with the pictures. At least I know that they won’t be working with pictures of my sunken chest festooned beneath the wife-beater I leave in the dressing room.
And so whenever I visit a Target or a Rite Aid, for over four years now, I search for whatever it was — embarrassing and undignified or cute and cuddly – that might have come out of those photo shoots. Whenever I visit the card shop in the local mall I look for four ladies and an old guy playing poker on somebody’s birthday or anniversary. Whenever I go into any store that sells American Greeting Cards, I search for two old farts sitting on a bench in what looks like a mall saying who knows what for Father’s Day or maybe telling each other to get well.
It’s more than four years now, and I’ve yet to find them. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps the pictures were so terrible that they were unfit for use, not even good enough to be bad enough to laugh at; but if that were true, I reason, why would they call me back five months later? Why would they pay me to come all the way out to Cleveland for another set of worthless prints?
There is only one answer. They are holding them back, saving them, waiting for the right moment to unleash them on the card-buying public. So I keep looking, waiting for the day they send them forth. And when they do, when you see a semi-dignified, elderly gentleman in Bermuda shorts, sandals and socks, and a lush Hawaiian shirt, perhaps with a suppository in his ear, gracing the shelves of your local Target, you may well be looking at America’s Next Top Model — Geriatric Male Division.