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  • Last of the Cowboy Poets
  • Gerald Shapiro (bio)

"You ever written any . . . poetry?" Doyle Porterhouse asked. The word "poetry" came out sounding like "poy-tree." Porterhouse's head was cocked, his bushy eyebrows all askew; it was as if he were a shy girl asking Lenny Halperin to the prom.

"Of course. You bet I have," Lenny said. That was a lie, more or less, but he wanted this job, he needed this job, he wasn't going to go back to Kansas City and tell Joan he'd blown the interview. In fact he had written a poem once, long ago: a ten-line elegy called "Bang, You're Dead," composed in the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination. In study hall he showed it to his best friend, Alan, who read it, wadded it up, and said, "Don't quit your day job." Lenny didn't have a day job. They were in the seventh grade.

"Poetry's what this job is all about," said Porterhouse. "Rusty Boltz, Last of the Cowboy Poets, using his verse to speak out on issues of the day, offering honest hardworking folks a dose of good old-fashioned cowboy common sense. Radio audience of three million listeners, most of them fans for decades. That's brand loyalty. There have been four Rusty Boltzes over the years. Like Lassie. First fella really was named Rusty Boltz, if you can believe that. He lasted a long, long time. Nice guy, but he got old. Died with his boots on. Then there was Rusty Junior. He had . . . malaise. I think that was the word he used. What the hell's malaise? Rusty the Third got hepatitis. Then a couple of years ago we hired an actual cowboy poet, Laverne Hildebrandt. Rusty Boltz the Fourth. Laverne was the real thing. I mean the guy rode a horse and moved cattle for a living. So he had that whole authentic bowlegged thing going for him, and plus, he played the harmonica. He'd haul out old Sally—that's what he called his harmonica—and give out a tune. You don't play the harmonica by any chance, do you?" Lenny was about to say he'd take lessons, but Porterhouse waved him off. "Anyway, he ended up with prostate cancer. All the cowboys do, [End Page 12] from what I hear. Riding those damn horses. Does something to you." He thrust a sheet of paper across the desk to Lenny. "Here," he said. "Read this."

It was a poem titled "They Call This Mess Success," printed in large block letters. Lenny glanced at it and asked Porterhouse, "You want me to read this. Out loud?"

"Just give it a run-through. Just the first stanza, let's say."

Lenny shrugged, cleared his voice and began to read:

My wife wears silk every day of the week,And our friends all envy our life so sleek,But in the dark of the night, I'd have to confess,My life seems empty, hollow, and bleak.Oh, it's hard to say when more turns into less,Hard to say when love turns into emptiness,And that's why they call this mess . . . success.

"Damn," Porterhouse said. "That was good. You've got some pipes, my friend."

"Thank you," Lenny said matter-of-factly. There was no use in assuming an "aw, shucks" modesty; he knew he had a great voice; it had been the essence of him all his life. Here he was now, sitting in a dusty office in downtown Los Angeles, a room paneled in cheap knotty pine, auditioning for a job he didn't want, but none of that mattered now. He wanted to cry.

"You got to work a little bit on your twang," Porterhouse said, "but other than that, you got the soul of it. One read-through, bam, finished. You're a pro. I can tell that. Rusty Junior could do that kind of thing when he wasn't feeling suicidal. You're not suicidal, are you?"

"Not so far."

In a profile of Lenny Halperin published some years ago, Time magazine described his voice as "warm cognac poured over...


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pp. 12-28
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