Written by stephen d gross
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Friday, 26 November 2010

image for "Goodbye Joe, We Gotta Go, Me-O My-O" - The Death of Joe Camel

They had an open, Crush-Proof casket at Joe Camel's funeral last week. They tried to plump up his hump by stuffing it with rags but sadly, it had shriveled down to the size of a prune. One of those organic, non-sorbate ones. The wonderful lips, ordinarily flaccid and over to one side in Death, had regained their lifelike shape through the use of clever metal hoops. (1)

Late nights in smokey clubs and his four-pack-a-day habit had finally taken its toll.

An eclectic mix of raspy-voiced, squinty-eyed barflies, CEO-wanna-bes and rebellious adolescents milling about outside the Crystal Cathedral jostled each other for a better view of the Mad Ave icon's lifeless body. The Company had tried to keep the news of the infamous dromedary's death a secret so as not to shock and traumatize America's youth, but a mole at one of the tabloids got wind of his demise (you could smell him three miles away!) and leaked the story all over hyperspace.

Joe's widow Fern was at the funeral - weakened by emphysema, she almost never left her mobile home in Barstow - and although she was surrounded by Company security guards, I managed to slip her my phone number with a request for an interview. She called a few days later, breathing with great difficulty and hocking up phlegm, and told me I could come out and sit with her for awhile - if I brought her a couple of cartons of Kools (2).

It was kind of Fern Camel to allow me to interview her in her Barstow, California (mobile) home (3), and although our conversation was repeatedly interrupted by Ms. Camel's ( I think she'd prefer 'Fern') coughing fits, and necessary breaks for respiratory aids and refreshment, her candidness (or was it her 'candida'?) and salty good humor made for a very spicy interview.

Her collection of Precious Moments figurines rattled hypnotically in the display case jammed against the vibrating air conditioner. Old Keane paintings of children with eyes like bowling balls stared cadaverously from every corner of the Airstream. An Elvis in black velvet leered suggestively down from one wall.

Rapping the edge of a fresh pack o' Kools on her faux maple formica dining table, Fern reached for a Zippo with a vicuna pressed in relief on its face. Well-used, the brassing on the lighter's rounded corners gleamed in the pastel tide of the setting desert sun. The vicuna Zippo was a gift from her cousin, Mercedes, who lived in the hills around La Paz. She made a good living, Fern rasped, fertilizing the surrounding coca fields. Snapping open the veteran lighter with its characteristic mechanical click, she fired up a Kool and stared questioningly at a space somewhere above and northwest of her middle aged Norge

Fern was thinking about Joe, sitting beside her in his green naugahyde Barcalounger clearing his throat and laughing (but mostly clearing his throat) as they watched I Love Lucy reruns on their old 19-inch Sylvania. Her measured exhale turned staccato as she gasped for oxygen in the thin, dry air. I couldn't tell if she was working on composing a preliminary statement, or if she was just waiting for me to begin asking questions. She cracked open the Norge and handed me one of the 2 dozen Kiwi-Raspberry Snapples standing in its dark interior.

"Whatever's on your mind, you better begin spitting it out, sonny" she hacked in my direction, "I ain't got all fucking day!" Tilting the icy bottle's tail skyward, I took a long slug of the hybridized red fluid. I switched on my recorder.

S I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me, Mrs. Camel..

F Fern's the name - don't waste my time with this 'missus' crap, sonny.

S I hope it's not too hard for you to talk about Joe - I know it hasn't been ....

F Yeah, yeah, hard...talkin' about Joe ain't hard - Sucking enough air into my lungs to get a few words out - that's hard!

S I'll try to keep it short.....

F Never heard anything like that from Joe - horny bastard fucked like a guanaco on dexedrine. Tried to keep it long as long as possible....

S Where did you two first meet?

F ...between Joe and this goddamn emphysema, I couldn't find time to eat....

S I heard it was in Egypt - you were working in a Bedouin tent show and Joe was playing flugelhorn in the shadow of Cheops' pyramid...

F It was his lips - even before I inspected his southern regions I noticed those lips - the way they curled around the horn like the prehensile tail of a monkey...

S How did you get together?

F Big, floppy flap-jack lips! They looked like they could do things ....that girl camels only dream about

S So how did you meet?

F Some fat, white guy from Tarzana was in town making a movie. He put out a call for camels. 500 fucking camels. They dressed us like Puerto Rican hookers. We ate a lot - we drank whenever we felt like it. We screwed around, stayed up late. We got away with all kinds of shit. Joe was young and shaggy....

S This was in the Forties..?

F Yeah, long, shaggy hair and very cool....this was before the beret thing...

S And how is it you came to the USA?

F There were lots of camels with walk-ons in that flick - it took 2 years to shoot - and a couple of us got noticed because we were infinitely cooler than the others...

S What do mean 'cooler'?

F We chewed constantly and spit a lot, targeting the film crew whenever we could get away with it....plus, we were very floaty walkers.

S Get away with it?

F Yeah, like when they'd turn their backs, one of us would launch one and when they turned around to see who did it we'd all look disinterested, like we were preoccupied with other, more important matters...

S Ever get caught...?

F Yeah, but so what? Like Joe used to say, "I'm a fuckin' camel, ya' know? Camels spit".

S So how did you end up in California?

F The director of the movie had a rich friend who owned a chain of newspapers. He had a big spread overlooking the Pacific Fucking Ocean of all things, and he liked to have what he called 'exotics' running around the fields and meadows on his estate.

S Oh yeah, I think I heard of that guy...his name was....

F Don't matter what his name was. Never got to meet 'em. We met this New York guy on the boat on the way across. He liked Joe's looks. He'd come down to see us five-six times a day, bringing us treats - actually it was just Joe he was interested in, but Joe dug the way I dug his lips and he liked having me around for leisure time activities.

S So what was this guy up to?

F He was one of them Israelites, I think, and he explained that he was an account executive for a big ad agency in New York City, and he wanted Joe to come work for them. Joe had his horn on the boat and played a little Miles for the man, blew a little 'Trane and the guy was smoked. Know what I mean?

S What did he want Joe to do?

F Just help sell something legal, is all he said. No big thing. Been on the market for years. Pay Joe a lot of money....give him all kinds of perks...

S What about you?

F Joe wasn't goin' nowhere without his Fern. We were stuck on each other and you can picture that any way you like, sonny!

S So where did you end up?

F Joe signed a fat contract with the agency. We got a place in Palm Springs. We both dig the heat, you know? It's in our genes - as long as it's a dry heat...

S What did the agency want Joe to do?

F Promote product, sonny! What the hell did you think they wanted him to do? Make coffee? Fix the fucking plumbing....?

S Sorry Fern ...I meant....

F Yeah, I know what you meant - Sometimes I get cranky for no reason and I just enjoy giving people a hard time. When you're old and a widow you can get away with anything! Know what I mean?

S So what did he have to do to earn his pay?

F Hang out with other cool camels and get his picture taken. Sit long hours for billboard 'art'. Look slick, like he was high all the time and scoring with all kinds of chicks whenever he wanted.

S That sold cigarets?

F The agency wanted to have a model with an aura of ultimate coolness. They wanted kids to dig on Joe and see how he was making it with everything in sight, laughing it up with other late-night musician-type buddies, wearing shades indoors and like that.

S Did Joe enjoy it?

F Hell, yes....he'd stagger in loaded at 5am with froth all over his neck and muzzle tryin' to tell me he'd been hard at work. Yeah, hard maybe and really into his work if you get my drift...

S You mean he actually got into the role of the image, the persona the agency created for him?

F Well, shitake mushrooms, sonny, he'd been hanging by Cheop's bighouse blowing that horn for tourist handouts and now he was in the Big City digging on the bright lights, those fine-smelling cows and sense-tickling treats, and it wasn't like Joe was the strongest willed Camel west of the Sudan, ya' know? He got sucked into it...

S Wasn't it fun for you, too?

F Yeah, as much fun as a rubber cocoanut....He brought me along on his shoots the first few times, but when he saw how these cute, young cows were coming on to him, he started encouraging me to stay home - keep the home fires burning between the sheets, so to speak, just in case he had a chill...

S When did he start using the stuff? Did you guys smoke back in Egypt?

F You jokin', sonny boy? He was pushing Midnight at the Oasis out of his horn and I was bending over for any Bedouin who wanted to climb on for a ride. We were lucky if we could find a date, let alone a smoke....!

S How did he get into it?

F We got into it...Don't know if he would have spent coin on them but the agency was handing out freebies all day long, figuring if they get it for free, they'll smoke it, and if they do it when they're not working, it'll be like they're promoting it for free...

S By being so hip and cool....?

F Yeah, yeah - Joe and his buddies got lots of cheap gigs, and the customers not only got in for free, they were handed as many ciggies as they could pop between their gums and incinerate....

S Couldn't you get him to look at himself? To slow down?

F Joe got really into it, got used to the moony-eyed cuties diggin' on him, squeezed as much out of it as he could, burning his butt badly at both ends 'cause he didn't have the brains to slow down....

S He looked like he was having such a ball up there on those billboards over on Santa Monica Boulevard and La Cienaga....

F I was having a good time myself, you know what I mean...?

Made a few side trips to 'Vegas, saw ,my cousins, partied down with a few of the locals.... He was so busy partying himself....

S You sound a little bitter...

F I coulda dug some of the perks he was privy to...ya' know? All those fancy dinners, glamourous party girls, hot times in those after-hours clubs....

S Did he ever bring you along?

F He turned me into a smoker, too, and I liked my ciggies more after a shot of tequila, and I really started to look forward to those ciggies......but I got burned out on the party-camel scene early on and got into doing my own thing.....

S When did Joe's health start to slip?

F Soon as he was off his mama's udder, you know what I mean? He was fucked up from the go-go....but he was cool and he was mellow and he cruised....

S Didn't work hard...?

F Naw, he got by - Joe always managed to squeeze by - to get through one more day with a shot of rainjuice and just enough fat in his hump....

S But he looks so healthy on the matchbook covers, the sportswear and the billboards...?

F Shit, sonny - they not gonna stick up a picture of a consumptive camel? They're disgusting and immoral but they're not dumb!

S Was it awhile before you noticed his health deteriorating?

F His face started to look longer - his snout looked haggard and he started to hack and cough more and more..

S Did you say anything? Point it out to him?

F Had an ego like a brick wall around him - didn't mean shit what I said. The kids were suckin' up to his Cool and the agency was feeding him fat bucks so he didn't want to know from health crap....

S Wasn't he feeling worn out?

F Wouldn't admit it to himself at first - then he'd fade at one-two o'clock in the morning, the yummy, young cows weren't getting him as excited as they used to - he wasn't up for so much activity, know what I mean?

S Did he see a doctor?

F Not unless he could fuck her - he was still Joe Cool, God's gift to the race of Camels...

S Did his friends say anything?

F The agency noticed his deterioration right away - they were always looking for stuff like that - but they work magic with makeup these days and from a distance, nobody was the wiser.

S So when did he cop to it?

F By the time he admitted he had a problem, he could hardly breathe.... his clothes started to look baggy on him, he began to walk with a slouch - you know Joe always had great posture - he really held his head high, and I think that's part of what attracted the agency guy to him...

S He lost weight...?

F Lost his appetite - couldn't be bothered eating...too busy still trying to screw around....instead of enjoying a meal he would light up another ciggy..

S Was he still working...?

F Yeah, barely...had a hard time mustering that famous toothy grin anymore. Didn't look so bouncy, groovy and cool anymore...

They tried to hide it but it started to show....

S Was there any workmans' comp....?

F You making a joke, sonny? They could see we were unsophisticated - oh so cool but naive - so they took advantage any way they could. Joe used to think the small print tasted good...!

S They retired him?

F They fired his ass - they had a clause in the contract - an appetizer, Joe called it - which said they could dump him if he wasn't increasing sales... of course they could make the numbers look any way they wanted to...

S But I still see Joe's picture all over....

F Yeah, well, he sold his shaggy ass down the Avenue for a couple of figs and a pack of free butts....they get to do whatever they want with Joe's image forever....Joe, himself, they got no use for any more...

S When did he find out he had......?

F Cancer? The Big "C"? Heart disease? High blood pressure? Emphysema? Bad breath?

S He had all of those....?

F That's just the top of the list....you never hear about the hoof-rot, the swollen tongue, the blood-shot eyes, the stale stinkiness that impregnated every hair of his fine, shaggy coat....

S I heard he was not feeling well but....

F They hushed it up, sonny, they hushed it up! How they gonna sell a trillion teenagers on being hip, cool and "in" if their role model looks like he's been sucked out from the inside through a straw? He had more wrinkles than a barn full of shar peis..... He lost hundreds of pounds but the worse thing was he lost his Lip.

S He couldn't play horn anymore?

F He couldn't play horn, he couldn't play me, he couldn't skin a fucking kiwi....the Lip was on permanent vacation.

S How were you dealing with all this?

F Yeah, right...I was dealing with it! Screw Joe, I figured, he brought it all on himself - the big dummy! So I stared to spend more time cruisin', took a few trips to Vegas, hit the big fruit and veggie stands every day - treated myself well. That's how I dealt with it.

S Did he mind?

F Who cares? Did he ask me if I minded when he was struttin' in

at four am with Essence of Estrus on his mane? I didn't bitch. Didn't expect him to bitch. Even if he hadn't lost the use of his larynx...

S What finally got him?

F Shitty lifestyle, sonny! Bad habits - crumby camel karma - take your pick...

S You sound like you don't miss him all that much....

F I got a new beau - he's a little different but quiet, tall and handsome - the way I always liked them. Pretty, long eyelashes, very flexible lips....

S Sounds like he satisfies your needs....

F Hey now, sonny - you ever neck with a giraffe?

(Footnotes)

(1) A young enrtrepreneur from Berkeley discovered the hoops and returned with a strong magnet and a video camera. Using the magnet to make Joe's mouth move as if in speech, the young lady later dubbed in dialogue and sold it to "America's Funniest Home Videos", allegedly using the money to support her addiction to opium.

(2) A Kool smoker her entire life, Fern Camel had replicas of "Willie the Penguin" in the form of lighters, cigarette dispensers, framed ads, wind-up toys, etc., throughout her trailer.

(3) An 18-foot Airstream on cinderblocks with lawn gnomes and flamingoes and one dangling1938 Florida license plate.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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