It happened over twelve years ago. I remember it was a Sunday afternoon. I was working in my stuffy little office in the bowels of Wescoe Hall at the University of Kansas. No one else was around, so I left open the door to 1070 Wescoe even though it doesn’t help to increase the air circulation nor to decrease the claustrophobia. The building is locked on weekends, accessible only to those who have keys to the pearly gates, and who are foolish enough to work even on God’s own day of rest.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when, out of the corner of my eye, I espied a stranger scurrying along the corridor outside my office. This he did, not once or twice, but three times. He was tall and gangly, scruffy-looking, perhaps in his late 30s or early 40s, perhaps a disgruntled former student who has come back to wreck havoc and seek vengeance.
Summoning what little courage I had, I stepped out of my office, and saw the intruder peering intently at the sundry newpaper items and cartoons tacked on the door of the office next to mine. “Excuse me,” I mumbled, “can I help you?”
“Just waiting for Jack,” he replied vaguely. He was referring to Jack Healy, the affable Graduate Teaching Assistant who had the office next to mine. But Jack’s name was on the door for anyone to see, so that was no proof that the guy actually knew Jack.
“Oh? It’s Sunday afternoon. Do you have an appointment?”
“Jack said he would meet me here.”
“The building is locked. How did you get in?”
“The side entrance by the dumpsters is open. Someone has propped the door open.”
“We’re not supposed to do that.”
“Well, someone did. Maybe Jack was here earlier and propped it open for me.”
“Would you like to come into my office while you’re waiting? We can try calling Jack at home, to see if he’s on his way here.”
He came in as I looked up Jack’s number and dialed. No answer. Awkward silence. He was quietly surveying the odd knickknacks I had in my office.
“How do you know Jack?”
“We were in school together, in Nebraska.”
“Oh? And what brings you to Lawrence?
“I’m looking for locations for a movie I’m making. Jack said he would help.”
“Really? What sort of locations?”
“Hmmm.” Another awkward silence. “So, you make movies?”
“Yes, I’m a director.”
Then, skeptically. “Might I have seen anything you’ve directed?”
“Citizen Ruth was at Sundance in ’96, and Election came out in ’99.”
“You made Election?” I was genuinely astonished.
“Are you Alexander Payne?”
Again, he nods.
I start to gush. “Election is one of my favorite movies! You know how Reese Witherspoon scrunches up her little face when she’s deviously plotting her next move? That’s exactly the same look my dog Mykee gives me whenever she decides she’s really alpha and I’m omega.”
“Oh. And you know that scene where the jock says his prayers before he goes to bed?”
I paraphrase the line, laughing hysterically: “And thank you, God, for giving me what, I’ve been told by all the girls, is a large penis.”
He smiles again. “Chris Klein is a very funny actor. He’s like that, too, in real life.”
It’s all very convivial now. “So, you’re looking for fraternity houses for your next movie? What’s it called? What’s it about?”
Before he could answer, Jack Healy arrived, and off they went, to look at fraternity houses at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. As it turned out, the movie was About Schmidt (2002), with Jack Nicholson. But Alexander Payne did not use any of the fraternity houses Jack showed him that day in Lawrence, choosing instead to go with the ones he was already familiar with, in his hometown in Omaha, Nebraska.
I have, since then, followed Alexander Payne’s Hollywood career with personal interest. Although Election was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999, it didn’t win that year. But, all the awards would come shortly thereafter. About Schmidt won the Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2002; Sideways would win his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2004; and, no surprise to me, The Descendants gave him his second Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2012.
I left my office in the bowels of Wescoe a long time ago, finally moving up in the world, to the third floor of the same building, where the offices turned out to be equally airless and claustrophobic, but that’s no longer any concern of mine because I retired two years ago.
A recent email from Jack Healy indicates that he, too, is moving up in the world. After having been Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri, he will now be the Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.
As for my dog Mykee, she is now nearly fifteen years old, is severely deaf and arthritic, has not responded well to her second major surgery for cancer and her extensive chemo treatments, has now lost almost all her fur, and shivers pathetically in her nakedness every time I take her out to do her business. Interestingly enough, she still has a mind of her own, still scrunches up her little face whenever I catch her doing something naughty, but she no longer looks like Reese Witherspoon in Election. If anything, these days she looks more like Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. I dread the day when I have to drive her to the vet one last time.
But…onward and upward with Alexander Payne. At age 51, he is still remarkably trim, and there is nothing scruffy about him. He is graying nicely, and looks very distinguished indeed in his tux as he shows up at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards to collect his various awards. Needless to say, I’m a fan, and I’m looking forward to seeing the next one, and the next one, and the next one.