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FEATURE


Photograph by Richard Kelly, who holds copyright. Not for use without permission.





WRITER JEANNE MARIE LASKAS
HAS BUILT A LIFE AROUND TELLING THE Extraordinary STORIES
OF THE EVERYDAY PEOPLE SHE MEETS.



THE STRANGER
WRITTEN BY LAURA SHEFLER


Back by the train tracks, in a red brick house under the shade of a towering pine: This is where Jeanne Marie Laskas lives. On her narrow South Side street in Pittsburgh, baskets of red flowers hang from hooks on the house fronts. Hanks of grass push up between the bricks of the sidewalk. A child-sized plastic car sits proudly parked beside someone's door stoop.

This is a quiet and yet also a lively street, a place that looks busy even when no one's around. This is a place that will reveal its secrets, if you're willing to listen--if you believe, as Jeanne Marie Laskas does with all her heart, that everybody has a story.

"Take Helen across the street," says Laskas (Arts and Sciences '85), sitting back in a wide- armed wooden chair in her own side yard. "I've written about her more times, and she never leaves that house." Laskas' dog, Betty, as slender and springy as a deer, comes over and does some friendly sniffing around her chair, then takes off at a tear across the fenced-in yard.

Laskas goes on to say that her neighbor Helen has lived all her life in the same house. "She can hardly walk anymore," Laskas says. "She lives by herself, she gardens. That's it. But I have more stories coming out of Helen. She's probably in her 80s, and all of a sudden a man comes walking down the street, and it's this man she was in love with when she was 20. And she's so excited, and she's putting lipstick on. I had never thought of Helen as someone who was in love once."

Revelations of love and other unexpected passions pervaded Laskas' column, Uncommon Sense, which, until recently, appeared each week in the Washington Post Magazine. (In her new assignment for the Post, Laskas, who is about to buy a farm, complete with a barn and an old Ford pick-up, will write a series of essays about her life in the country.) In "Competitive Disadvantage," for instance, Laskas joins an informal basketball tournament, insisting all the while that she is "just not competitive." She and her teammates get twice trounced by another team of equally "noncompetitive" women. Suddenly Laskas discovers in herself a ferocious will to win. "I was a bulldog," she writes. "And not just any bulldog. I was a bulldog being let out of a cage after, like, 20 years."

Relaxing in the shade with her feet pulled up on her seat, Laskas doesn't look very bulldog-like today. Yet you can hear a certain animal determination in the way she has unleashed herself on her goals. She first discovered this determination at Pitt, where she earned a master's degree in nonfiction writing. Laskas came to Pitt from her native Philadelphia more or less because her then-boyfriend was studying here. But, she recounts, "graduate school turned my life upside down. I just fell in love with writing."

After graduation, she started working for Pittsburgh Magazine. Then, with several years as associate editor under her belt, Laskas quit, intent on making a leap to a national writing career.

"I had no money," she recalls, "and everybody told me I was stupid. Everybody told me, 'You have to move to New York.' Everybody told me, 'You can't make it as a freelancer.' And the more they said that, the more I wanted to do it."

Laskas rented an office in downtown Pittsburgh so that she'd feel like she had a "real" job. "It was like starting a store when you were a kid. You spend a lot of time just lining up the candies. I was lining up pencils and papers, buying computer equipment, spending reams of money I didn't have, all on credit cards. I hardly had any work, so I had plenty of time."

Laskas' original gamble has paid off in a way that many writers would envy. On assignment for magazines such as GQ, Redbook, and Life, she has traveled to Sverdlovsk, Russia, and to Branson, Missouri, where the Osmond Family Theatre "pops up next to a Belgian Waffle House," and Bobby Vinton's Blue Velvet Theatre is "extremely...blue." She has lunched with Susan Sarandon, toured with Axl Rose, and hurtled at 150 miles per hour in a race car driven by Tom Cruise. For a while, she was on the road two or three weeks out of every month.

Her traveling days started while she still worked for Pittsburgh Magazine. To supplement her income, she had started writing occasional stories for the Washington Post Magazine. Writing for the Post's magazine was an opportunity she worked hard to create. "They were considering me for a features editor," she remembers, "and I knew I didn't want to be an editor, so I said to them, 'I really want to write.' But they had plenty of writers and they didn't need any more.

"I read the magazine a lot and realized they were mostly doing political profiles and issues. So I said, 'What don't they have?'--which was regular people. You don't think of Washington as having regular people who wash cars or work in a bakery. You think of the Clintons or other power people. I said, 'Let's do profiles of everyday folks.' So they let me try one, completely on spec, no contract, nothing."

Laskas hit the road with a successful door-to-door Electrolux salesman who tried to sell customers new sweepers by vacuuming up horrific balls of dirt from their carpets. Over the course of the article, the salesman emerges as the driven-yet-bitter son of an unsuccessful Fuller Brush man. He admits, "I'll take a little old lady, and I'll sell her a new machine whether she needs it or not.... I've got a family to raise. My father would not do that."

The editors at the Post's magazine liked the story. They eventually agreed to publish what became a series of articles on ordinary people who turned out to be not so ordinary after all. "I would look in phone books. I would look through classified ads in small papers," Laskas explains. She found, among others, a psychotherapist for dogs and a traveling trainer of racing pigs. (As part of her research, Laskas spent a sleepless night in a trailer, shivering on the other side of a wall from an enormous pile of dozing pigs.) Several of these stories have recently been reprinted in Laskas' first book, The Balloon Lady and Other People I Know, published by Duquesne University Press. The book is a part of the Emerging Writers in Creative Nonfiction series, edited by Pitt writing professor Lee Gutkind.

When one of her Washington Post editors moved over to Life Magazine, new opportunities arose for Laskas. In 1991, Life sent her to Russia for six weeks. There, she met a series of people--guitar- strumming teenagers, workers striking for bread--whose lives reflected the social and political turmoil at the end of the Soviet era. Then there was the visit to the Biosphere in Arizona, where she became an early skeptic in the days when experts were only just beginning to doubt the scientific seriousness of the enterprise. For other stories, she covered an Amish barn raising and went behind the scenes with a 90- year-old beauty pageant contestant.

One of the exciting things about Laskas' career is that she has succeeded on her own terms, writing the stories she cares about rather than the ones a freelance writer is "supposed" to author. In her celebrity profiles, she is as likely to become fascinated by the machinations of "dragon lady" publicity agents as by anything the press-weary star--in this case Tom Cruise--might have to say. In these pieces, Laskas masters the art of reaching outside the bounds of an interview for the detail that reveals the personality--and sometimes the hypocrisy--of the interviewee. A leadenly serious Susan Sarandon asks, "Please make me sound articulate." The much-idolized country music singer Billy Ray Cyrus splashes his coffee on the carpet of his hotel room just for fun.

"A lot of the celebrity stuff is not that interesting, ultimately," she admits, adding that she prefers stories that allow her to make a connection with the person she's writing about.

"For a while I struggled with myself because the conventional wisdom was that you had to be a specialist," she reflects. "You had to write about music or you were a medical journalist or you were a food journalist, and I never could find one of those specialties. "What fires me up is going out and talking to strangers and finding their stories. My mother will tell you that it's so ironic that I do this because I'm really shy. As a kid I was so shy that I wouldn't talk to anyone. And if anyone talked to me, I just burst into tears."

Laskas jokes that she sometimes wonders whether she's trying to conquer shyness through her writing. "Certainly not consciously," she muses. But then she ponders the question further: "When I was little, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my first answer was always, 'I want to be a stranger.' Now I don't know what I thought a stranger was, but I meant it. After a while, it got a laugh, so I said it just for the laugh. But originally I meant it. There was something about the concept of strangers--people you don't know--that was fascinating to me. Scary as hell, certainly, for a kid.

"It's like a thrill," she says suddenly. "You know thrill-seekers that jump out of airplanes? To them that's a thrill? Almost dying is a thrill? For me, a thrill is talking to strangers. And the weirder they are, the better. If there's an element of wackiness, for some reason that gets me, because often the wacky people end up being really wonderful."

As an example, she brings up the twins she wrote about for the Washington Post Magazine: "They were women in their late 60s, identical twins, and they were married to identical twins. They lived next door to each other in identical houses. With identical furniture! Just amazing." Laskas went to visit them, hoping to discover what lay behind this seemingly bizarre arrangement. What delighted her about the twins was that, despite their unusual bond with each other, they carried on with ordinary lives. "I ended up loving these women," she marvels. "They became like heroes for me."

Despite her talent for rooting out wild and offbeat stories, Laskas' greater calling is to find the normalcy in seemingly outrageous lives. She writes lovingly, for instance, of her friend Constance Wolf, the "Balloon Lady" mentioned in the title of Laskas' book. The wealthy, eccentric Wolf, an accomplished balloon aviator, died a few years ago at the age of 89. She dressed in aggressively bright colors, and, for reasons she never revealed, always wore a black veil. In this scene in Laskas' article, Wolf is driving a 1965 Mustang convertible and getting sunburnt:

She didn't have a hat. She had a box of tissues. She jammed the box of tissues onto her head, jammed it down tight. She turned to look at me. I looked at her, this woman with the psychedelic pants and the veil across her face and the box of tissues on her head. "Am I embarrassing you?" she asked.

Laskas makes you see, all at once, how outlandish Wolf looks and yet how understandably she is behaving--understandably from Wolf's own point of view. This willingness to understand, to embrace the outlandish and the outrageous, has carried Jeanne Marie Laskas out into a large and generous sphere of existence. She lives on a quiet street, but she has made the noisy, crazy world of human emotion her home.


"THE VACUUM CLEANER SALESMAN"
FROM THE BALLOON LADY AND OTHER PEOPLE I KNOW

He strikes up a conversation with the lady. She is a kindred soul: She owns an Electrolux. And, yes, she likes it very much, thank you. Sklar offers to check her Electrolux, to make sure it's working okay, and she says, "How much will it cost?" and he says, "No charge," and she says, "Come right in." So he looks at her vacuum cleaner, and the housekeeper comes out to look at the vacuum cleaner, and so does the lady's young son, who is home sick from school, and suddenly everybody grows very concerned about the vacuum cleaner, especially when Sklar opens the machine up, runs his finger along one opening, then looks at his finger. "Oh, dear," he says. "Oh, my." He pauses. He sighs. The people look at him. "You gotta bunch of burnt material coming out of this motor," he says, finally.

"A bunch of what?"

"Burnt material," he says, informing the family that their vacuum cleaner is, in fact, very sick.

"What! How can you tell?"

"There's black stuff coming out."

"Oh, for godsakes," the woman says. "This is horrible. This is just horrible!" She runs her hands through her hair. Her day is now officially ruined.

Sklar looks at the woman, and there is condolence in his eyes. The woman had no idea her vacuum cleaner was bad. The woman had no idea she had a problem until Steve Sklar knocked at her door. Indeed, this woman had no idea that she is a fish, and that this stranger is a fisherman, and she has just swallowed a hook.

"How many times does the machine get used, ma'am?" Sklar asks.

"Well, once a week very heavily. And another time the children's rooms," she says.

"Heavily...the children's rooms...uh-huh, you've had this, what, seven, eight years?"

"Yes."

"It's got about 16-20 years' use on it."

The woman appears quite insulted. She shoots a glance at the housekeeper. She says, "Well, she is very hard on equipment," and the housekeeper disappears into the kitchen.

"Keep your fingers out of there!" the lady shouts at her son, who has his hand in the vacuum cleaner motor, where the black stuff is coming out.

"Yeah, you don't need to put your hands in there, son," Sklar says. He tells the woman that he will go outside and get his "tester." He says then, and only then, can he ascertain the true trouble with her machine.

"Keep your hands out of there," the lady says to the boy again.

"Would you wash your hands please? Now!"

"Why?" the boy asks.

"Because it's GUCK!" she shouts, while Sklar goes out to his van.

He is excited. He is a man rejuvenated. With gusto, he takes a brand new machine out of a box and proceeds to assemble it, there, in the lady's driveway. Sklar uses this strategy often. He will bring a brand new machine into a house, and he will call it his "tester." And he will show the lady how great the tester sucks up dirt, especially when compared with the old machine--a Hoover, a Eureka, an Electrolux, it matters not what kind of machine. Steve Sklar will give a free checkup on any make or model. And each time, he says, "Let me go get my tester." And he'll let you try his tester, let you get the feel of it. And he will let your housekeeper try the tester, your mother, your husband; vacuuming can be fun for the whole family, especially with a machine as beautiful as this tester. What? You want to buy this tester? Well. . . .

"And then in the end," Sklar concludes, "I can just go, 'Do you want this machine, or shall I give you one in a new box?' And it's a close."

And so, inside, suddenly, Steve Sklar's vacuum cleaner testing act turns into a magic moment of salesmanship.

"Jiminy Cricket!" he shouts, and with that he reveals a great ball of dirt. "Holy Toledo!" he says. "See what your old machine is leaving?"

The woman appears to be most disheartened. Here she was, going about her life, believing her house was clean. And here this man comes out of nowhere, plugs in a vacuum cleaner and destroys her whole happy illusion.

And here he is trying to sell her a new illusion. It will cost her $699, the theory being that if you pay a lot of money now, you will never again have to worry about dirt; the principle Steve Sklar sells is that the more you invest today, the freer and safer you will be tomorrow. Freedom from dirt balls. Safety from a mattress full of microscopic bugs nibbling at your dead skin, according to a poster hanging in an Electrolux office. Freedom! Safety! Who doesn't want these things?

Apparently, this lady doesn't. In the end, she doesn't buy; instead she opts to get a $200 overhaul on her old machine. "Don't sniffle on the man!" she shouts to her son as Steve Sklar packs up all of his equipment and takes it out of the house. He is silent. He wraps the hoses up and tucks all the machinery just so, back into its boxes, like puppets being put to bed. Finally, he blurts: "Baloney-head!" And he isn't referring to himself.

He gets in the van. He is silent. Angry. Pensive. He is fed up. From the dashboard, he takes out a tape recorder. He turns it on. He puts it on the seat between his legs. He heads over to Virginia to deliver some bags. He mutters louder than the voice coming out of the tape recorder. He mutters about life. He mutters about fools, crazy men, baloney-heads. "I didn't impress her enough with the dirt...the whole key is: How do they react to the dirt?" He mutters about his father. "He's cool, though, really. I love the man. High integrity, man." He mutters about himself. "Me, I'm like a damn fraud compared to him. He has integrity to a T. He would not do some of the things I do in selling. Me, I'll do certain stuff to a certain T in order to put food on the table. In other words, I'll take a little old lady, and I'll sell her a new machine whether she needs it or not--if she's got a lot of money. Because I figure, let her spend the money on me. I'm worth it. I'm young. I've got a family to raise. My father would not do that." He takes out a sugarless candy and sucks on it.

And, at last, he listens to the tape recorder. The voice coming out of it is his real estate teacher--two nights a week Steve Sklar goes to learn about real estate. He records every word emitted from the mouth of his real estate teacher. He is silent. He listens to the tape the way a man might read the Bible--with allegiance, hope, praise. "If this is the tax rate per dollar, you take the tax rate and multiply it by the assessed value," the voice coming out from between his legs says. And Steve Sklar says, "Man, this is beautiful. This guy is recharged. He is rejuvenated.

"He is reborn," he says, as if God Himself has come down in the form of some real estate teacher, some wizard, and as if the American dream itself were some vacuum cleaner. It is old, and it just isn't picking up the way it used to. There is black stuff coming out of it. Burnt material. GUCK! The motor is burning itself up. Maybe it's time for an overhaul, or maybe it's time to invest in a whole new illusion.



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