Chicken Scratching and the Avon Lady

The transmitter room on the 29th floor of the John Hancock Building was littered with empty nitrogen tanks, old racks containing dead tube equipment from another age, sections of burned out three inch transmission line and haywire circuitry representing the failed experiments of my unknown and unsung predecessors. Fluorescents lighting the whole sorry collection flickered aimlessly.

WBCN’s transmitting equipment amounted to a collection of junk. Woo-Woo had ordered a new transmitter to be installed atop the Prudential Tower, and it was my job to nurse along the old machines until the new equipment arrived and we could make the move. We had a 25 kilowatt Visual main transmitter and an ancient 10 kW Western Electric as backup.

This was high powered broadcast equipment operating at several thousand volts and around ten amperes; badly maintained and extremely dangerous. When I think how lucky I am to be alive I tend to remember surviving various alcohol and drug induced disasters rather than the intimate contact I maintained with these creaking, arcing, dying high voltage behemoths.

Woo-Woo showed me the clip leads bypassing the safety circuits of the Visual and told me to take them off. You were not supposed to be able to tinker with the insides while it was running. I removed the clip leads, but soon put them back after I realized there was no way to really tune the Visual without reaching inside the car-sized cabinet with a stick to bend things around.

The Visual was prone to “chicken-scratching”, a reference to the plot of its output power on the studio chart recorder. There was supposed to be a steady line traced on the paper chart as it ticked slowly along. Instead, a dense collection of dots appeared in a band, as if chickens were feeding on the chart, showing that the automatic power correction circuits of the Visual were seeking and hunting constantly, never able to stabilize the power.

When the Visual failed, after chicken-scratching for a few hours, perhaps once a week, it was possible by remote control from the studio to activate the Western Electric. I say “possible”, because only about one attempt in four was successful. Mostly there was just dead air. Ask radio station management how much they like dead air. To cope with the frequent outages Woo-Woo had gotten me an early beeper, a squarish object about the size of a large dildo. I enjoyed showing it off in the bars.

The Western Electric had been built around 1950. Replacement tubes for it had not been available for years. Probably it had never worked very well. It had a glass door through which, when I was able to coax it into running, blue filamentary sparks were visible running up and down mysterious plumbing in the final amplifier stage . These sparks were also audible on the air as a kind of grating noise in the background of Max’s show, which was when I usually played with the W. E.

One day I decided I was going to fix the Western Electric. But first I had better explain the mental state that led to that decision. The night before I had been to a record party put on by some record-turkeys at the Orson Welles. I forget which label. Kenny Greenblatt and Max had encouraged me to go, as if I needed any encouragement.

Taking the T Copyright (c) 1971, 2009 William J. Spurlin

Taking the T to Work Copyright (c) 1971, 2009 William J. Spurlin


I took the T to Central Square and walked to the Orson Welles. It was a March night and I still didn’t have a winter coat. I got there early because I was hungry and the spread did not disappoint, consisting of tables laden with choice meats and fish, tastefully and freshly prepared, with hors d’oeuvres, fruits, vegetables and salads to match. There was also, of course, an open bar. A band was setting up, and the record-turkeys circulated among the employees of WBCN. A friendly record-turkey woman approached me. She stood very close. She was probably about 22, with brown hair falling in ringlets over her bare shoulders. I noticed that although it was winter she was wearing a dress that would have been appropriate for cocktails on the veranda at Maui. (I had not been to the Hawaiian Islands at that time, but I had been to the Yacht Club at Acapulco – close enough). I am quite tall, and thus usually have to look down, (in a literal sense, Jamaica Plain Jane!) when a woman stands that close to me, and so I was able to notice, by peering through the top of her dress, the record-turkey’s lack of undergarments. I delayed as long as possible telling her I was not a D. J. She went to the bar and came back with a drink for herself and another one for me. Although there were plenty of joints, in little bowls on each table, enough for everybody, we passed them from person to person, mouth to mouth, as was the fashion, rather than smoking them individually like cigarettes. Then I blacked out.

It must have been about four hours later. The Orson Welles was dim. The party was ending. I was in love. I cannot remember her name. Her boy friend, Steve N., stood across the room, watching us, muscles flexing under the Superman shirt that he habitually wore. He believed that this costume would aid him in his perpetual campaign to become Mayor of Cambridge. Her hair was auburn, profuse, accenting her robust yet slender mammalian physique. “Will you go home with me.” I asked, forgetting that I had no car. “I would like to,” she said, “but Steve would not like it”. I was crushed.

So I went out on Mass. Ave., alone. It was two in the morning and the T had stopped running. The temperature was about 15 degrees F. I pulled up my denim jacket around my neck and headed for home through the back streets of Cambridge. It was fucking freezing and I didn’t know where I was and I was drunk.

Somewhere around Hancock or Lee Street I noticed a brownish ’62 Chevy parked under a street light in front of a 3-decker. Something clicked inside me … could it be? My hand was on the driver’s side door…locked…around to the passenger side…open! Quickly inside sliding across the cold vinyl bench front seat, I grasped the empty ignition switch and it turned! One of GM’s biggest blunders of the era, only eclipsed by the deadly front suspension of the 1959-62 Corvair, was the ability to remove the key from a Chevrolet while the switch was still in the On position. I turned it a notch further and the engine turned over and started. Slowly, now, no reason to attract attention..no lights until I get around the corner..this thing feels like a six-cylinder…good! It’ll warm up faster. What is that stuff in the back seat? Ahhh, here comes the heat. Turn it up, turn the fan up a notch. Where the Hell am I? Ancient twisted streets of Cambridge and Somerville, a labyrinth…

Hangover. Sunshine came through the dirty window onto the day bed. 7:30. I would never have gotten up this early had it not been for the headache. I remembered way too much of the night before – the Superman shirt, the Chevy. Creeping toward the kitchenette, hoping for coffee, I noticed something I had never seen before, or didn’t remember seeing: A brown, soft plastic box about twice the size of a shoe box. I picked it up – heavy. I put it down and opened the clasp. It folded open into two displays containing row after row of little brass cylinders and small disc-like cases. I extracted one of the cylinders and pulled off the cap, revealing a tiny purplish lipstick. The small cases contained make-up: Avon make-up samples. I had stolen the Avon Lady’s car.

I called the Cambridge Police to report a stolen car. “Where was it stolen from”? “I don’t know. Near the Orson Welles”. “Whaddya mean you don’t know? You don’t know where your own car was”? “No, no, you don’t get it – it’s not my car – I’m telling you where a stolen car is. It’s in Somerville …”. “Call the Somerville Police”. I called the Somerville Police, who told me to call the Cambridge Police. I gave up and decided to go to work.

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