Geraldo! Nothing makes you feel more crab-apple pie, more movie stars and stripes, more guns are right, more football hut-hut-hut, more '60s acid wash, more cherry-popping tree, more lightbulb, computer, big-time wrestling, get out of my way I'm trying to drive, more hours of endless television -- than Geraldo. This effect is increased tenfold when the sighting is in China.
Which it was. It was June 1998: One minute I was marveling at the incredible army of terracotta warriors, and the next I'm shaking hands with Mr. Geraldo Rivera, traveling with his camera crew to ask the American people on holiday what they think of Clinton's visit to the middle kingdom. Wow, Mao! It's Geraldo!
So I tell him about the surfing Buddhas. Being cool, he asks me what kind of boards they use. At first I didn't hear him, so I said, "What?" He repeated himself. It was one of those awkward celebrity meeting moments when you are trying to be breezy and light but you keep saying, "What? What did you say?" Knowing you're blowing it.
Knowing this is your chance to become the first poet to write for a network sleaze show. Knowing it won't happen because you can't understand his perfect television accent. You are staring at his mustache and finally he says, "You know, long boards or short boards. What do they ride?"
"They don't ride no boards, they ride crabs, mules, dolphins, flowers, cats, dogs, birds, fish. They surf the huge wave walls of the Bamboo Temple, carved 100 years ago. After the sculptor finished, he disappeared, mysterious, gone! One Buddha has an arm 20 feet long; another Buddha has 3-foot-long eyebrows. Otherwise they are very life-like, so much so that shivers run up your soul from all of them looking at you. I mean, there you are enjoying yourself like at any art attraction, when you feel as if you're being watched by some guy with an eye in his forehead or someone with his head opening up like a zipper with another head hatching out!
"There are about 100 of these surfing Buddhas, each as real as a face on the street, each with glass eyes that reflect your thoughts, each happy to be surfing, happy to be Buddha, frozen in this moment of joyous repose!" I'm speaking extremely fast, thinking this is very cool, and hoping Geraldo is thinking I must be cool too.
Even if you hate Geraldo, you have to admit that the real Geraldo, not the tiny electric TV image but the in-the-flesh Rolling Stone-kissing Geraldo, is mighty mighty. I'm feeling damn patriotic when he lights up the camera and asks what I think of Clinton visiting China, and I say, "The further away from Washington he is, the better he looks."
Then I remember a news talk show from the day before and start to quote from it as if I could really think of something like, "China has made a lot of progress but there needs to be more." Geraldo smells a rat and ends the interview saying I sound like a politician, which I know means "Don't call us, we'll call you." And I know I won't make it on Good Morning America and be discovered and become a TV poet guy.
Later I think I should have said, "Sheriff Starr and the Republican posse may think Washington isn't big enough for them and Clinton, but the American people love our sax playing, dope smoking, cigar-pussy licking pres. You are making it seem like we are obsessed with sex. Which we are, but why let everyone know? Besides, the scandal is lowering our exchange rate around the world, so kiss my liberal hole, you big self-righteous bullies!"
But that was hours after Geraldo had left town. That is my life; always thinking of what to say after, never during, which is what they must mean when they say, "Live in the moment." Which sounds good, but what does it mean?
There was the time earlier in our encounter when I said, "I don't know which is more exciting, the terracotta mudmen or Geraldo Rivera," to which he turned and smiled his 100 watt empty-vault smile. Now that's something to make you stand up and put your hand on your heart and say, "I pledge allegiance to this guy." Something, in the moment, American.
Gary Mex Glazner produced the first National Poetry Slam in San Francisco in 1990. He now spends his time waiting for Geraldo to call.