As you sit there, struggling to turn the great white blank in front of you into a short story, novel, or screenplay, take heart from these three words: people love stories. Yes, I know, writers are competing for entertainment dollars and time like never before, what with video games, televised sports, news, music, concerts…but nothing beats a good story. Good stories endure, whether true or otherwise.
Some of the best and longest enduring stories are urban legends. You’ve heard them, everything from the one involving the choking doberman to the women on the elevator at a Vegas hotel with the big guy and his big dogs. They are stories which are not true, but which endure. We often know not from where they come but come they do, repeatedly. This was true well before the internet became so prevalent. One of my favorites involves the little hamlet which I live near which the natives call “Columbus.” It happened in June 1993. The internet was there, but it was hard though not impossible to find. AOL was a big deal; an online bookseller called “Amazon” wouldn’t start up for another year. Many people didn’t have cell phones (they were often called “car phones”). That didn’t stop the following story from spreading throughout the city, sans benefit of news media coverage.
The story involved a local celebrity. He was — is — a merchant who sold his wares via a series of television commercials which featured a two word catchphrase which found itself being heard in conversation all over town. Indeed, he even used it at the wedding of at least one of his children. A story began to spread near the end of June that said entrepreneur had been jumping the marital fence and that his wife, when she found out about it, had applied a hot curling iron to his smaller brain, if you will. People who spread this story swore that they had learned it from a friend who who was a nurse’s aide at a local hospital where the now-repentant victim was recovering in a private room. The story was put to pasture, however, when the celebrity — not manifesting any damage — accompanied by his very attractive wife, were seen smiling and grinning, hand in hand, at the local July Fourth festivities. The local newspaper, which had never reported the rumor, debunked it after the fact. The commercials continued and all was well, with the businessman’s wife taking a role in the selling as well. I happen to know quite well a relative of the people involved in this story, and have been told that the first question people always ask is, “That curling iron story…is that true?” The answer is always “No.”
Here is the rub, however. This same story with different principals cropped up across the country at about the same time from Pennsylvania to Oregon. In one city it involved a politician; in another, a well known doctor; here an attorney; there a restaurateur. The common elements were infidelity, commercials, and fame. These stories did not occur simultaneously, but rather over the course of a few weeks during that particular summer. And no, I never saw it mentioned in an AOL chat room, either. Someone playing telegraph, perhaps? How? It would be fascinating to try to trace its relatively modern incarnation, though well nigh impossible.
One more thing. The story did not originate in 1993, interestingly enough. As with most urban legends, it goes way back. Chaucer writes of a similar though not identical occurrence in “The Miller’s Tale,” and that story in turn may have been based in part on a persistent rumor involving a politician. As Douglas Adams has been credited with stating: “If you can think of it, it has already happened.”
So…for today’s exercise…tell us your favorite urban legend. Give us your own spin, if you wish. All that we ask is that you don’t use political stories. We all want to stay friends here. Thank you.