“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”

— Isaac Asimov

A nice older lady in the market was trying to get the best avocado away from me. She seemed annoyed when I grabbed the ripest one. Then she asked me when I was going to retire, as if retired people don’t eat avocados.

People ask me that question a lot. Do I suddenly look older? People don’t like long explanations, they like smart, sassy answers. So I usually just reply, “To what?”

But I was feeling happy because I got the best avocado, so I was nice. First of all, I said, very few of us ever make enough money to retire. Most of us don’t even make enough money to take a vacation or have 15 minutes to walk away from whatever it is we do for even a week. We who write for small newspapers actually think about which place has the cheapest coffee. Plumbers and electricians, who retire early, never have to do that.

Artists, writers, actors and gangsters don’t retire. We simply go on until we’re arrested, shot, or people and editors tire of us. Then we simply move onto another form, like writing ads or obituaries, and work at that until we gasp and fall forward face down into the keyboard.

Once, long ago, I heard a wonderful story about how writers really retire. There was this crazy old building where a lot of famous screenwriters of the ’30s and ’40s used to write. By chance, it was here that I met a wonderful character, an amateur Hollywood historian everyone simply referred to as Noonan.

Noonan, whose mother was once a silent screen star, managed the place and rented out all of the tiny offices for the unimaginable price of 20 bucks a month to writers who drank scotch and coffee from paper cups and wrote scripts on ancient typewriters.

After I rented one of the rooms, Noonan and I would often share a deli sandwich up on the roof of the building, a make-shift gravel and tar garden with lawn chairs, where he would regale me with true stories about old Hollywood, tidbits of gossip.

He told me the room I rented was the one in which a once famous writer had died. He wouldn’t tell me his name, but that he was about 88 and had been blacklisted in the Red Scare of the ’50s, so he was writing under a pseudonym. One hot summer afternoon, this old writer, after coming back from having his pastrami on rye with added sauerkraut at Nate ‘n Al’s on North Beverly Drive, sat down and started writing a synopsis for a dramatic hour show about the black list.

Noonan was right next door when he heard a loud belch, a gasp and a bang. So he went next door and looked in, and the 88-year-old guy was sitting with his face down on the typewriter keys, with the paper still in the carriage. Noonan called out his name, but he didn’t reply. So Noonan went in and put two fingers on the guy’s neck, he even showed me how he did it, and couldn’t feel a pulse.

Another writer, who was coming up the stairs, stopped and asked him what he was doing. He said he was feeling for a pulse. The other guy asked, “Don’t you have to do that on the wrist?”

“No,” Noonan said, “you put two fingers on the neck. Jack Webb showed me. He used it in a ‘Dragnet’ script.”

“No kidding,” the curious writer said. “I gotta use that.” Writers.

That’s one of my favorite true Hollywood stories. It comes back to me now so vividly, I can smell the tarred roof and pastrami. Some said Noonan liked to embellish. I don’t doubt it. It’s what old writers do. But I don’t think he ever lied to me, because the story he told me about Lana Turner turned out to be true.

I meant this to be a story about retiring, and then this story came back to me. I guess that’s what happens. The point is that we can’t retire, so we have to write until we drop dead with our faces on the keyboard. It’s going to be a lot easier now because we use laptops, and the keyboard is rubber and won’t leave any marks for the undertaker to cover over.

It’s time we got a break. Even a little one.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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