by RIP RENSE
slumbers under some massive, ugly power lines on a hill in the San
Fernando Valley, with a distant view of smoggy, grungy Sun Valley. Not that
the view matters to him. As a mutual friend put it, “guess he’s shakin’
hands with that ole groundhog now, to paraphrase Dr. John and Louis
What a hilarious image.
What a great cartoon. There’s a full moon. Coyotes bay. Electricity from the
power lines shoots into the ground, a grave opens up, and Farkash steps out
in top hat and tails, followed by a whole troupe of groundhogs, dancing the
jitterbug, or heidi-ho-ing like Cab Calloway. Maybe a bunch of soft-shoe-ing
skeletons singing background vocals, for good measure. . .
Mike would have liked it.
At least the Mike I knew would have. . .
I went to say goodbye
to journalist/playwright Mike Farkash the other day, at Eden Memorial
Park in the north San Fernando Valley. A rabbi who was either bored or
severely Xanaxed haltingly offered the most insipid of homilies (it’s not
the dates in the years of birth and death on the gravestone that count, it’s
the dash between them), and took the occasion to explain a bit about
Judaism, in case there were potential converts in the crowd. His most pithy
“I didn’t know Moishe
Raphael, so what can I say?”
Farkash would have been
No, the rabbi didn’t know
Moishe Raphael, and neither did I. I didn’t know the good son, good brother,
good uncle, and all-around Nice Jewish Boy they eulogized at Eden. He kept
that side for family.
And I didn’t know the
“Michael” that various actor-friends of Mike’s preciously, oleaginously
celebrated, talking about how “gentle,” and “generous,” and “giving” he
was (cough), and brilliant, blah blah. One guy made the stunningly
surreal claim that Farkash was “always surrounded by babes” and was a “great
lover.” For a moment there, I wondered if somebody had spiked the hand-out
yarmulkes. It sounded like a tribute to Rudolph Valentino.
Whatever Farkash was,
Valentino he most definitely was not.
This was a roly-poly guy
with a soft, insistent voice, protuberant soft-boiled egg eyes that stared at you
like Nosferatu, dark wavy hair (when he had it), and a slow, loping walk
that prompted his indefatigable friend Scott Paul to occasionally hum the
theme music from the old Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Farkash smoked cigarettes
like they were indispensable tools of thought, shook hands like an
effeminate priest, and his laugh was an almost maniacal explosion of teeth
and cackling. Generous? I think he once picked up a check---one out of oh,
five or six thousand, but who’s counting?
If this seems cruel, it
isn’t---at least no crueler than truth always is. And the truth of the
matter here is that this is a tribute to a one-time friend that I have to
write, despite decidedly mixed feelings. Or undecidedly mixed feelings.
It’s the laugh that I
will remember best. It came without warning, direct from the gut, often
with head tossed back, eyes crinkled shut, teeth revealed. It was so
amusing, so inimitable, so demented, that I once deliberately coaxed it from
him for a super-8 movie, “Rense Meets Farkashus.” It was robust, merry,
yet somehow conveyed the knowledge that everything is absolutely,
irretrievably, wonderfully, horribly. . .absurd.
And there in the stuffy
chapel at Eden, I was among the few old friends who alternately rolled their
eyes, suppressed laughter, and shook their heads at the theater of the
absurd before us, while the husk of Farkash presided up front, hidden in a pine box.
How absurd it was for him
to be dead. How absurd to send him off in such a glum, solemn fashion. How
absurd that he had let himself fall victim to diabetes, obesity, heart
disease. How absurd that he never stopped smoking. How absurd that he was
His loving sisters,
Debbie and Renee, mitigated the gloom and bogus dignity a bit by recalling
how young Mike once invited them to put their tongues on a frozen serving
dish, saying that nothing bad would happen to them. And how, after Mom and
Dad left town, the sisters home promptly hosted a mad all-night party---while
teenaged Farkash sat upstairs, eavesdropping and writing a play about the
goings-on, which he proudly presented to his parents on their return.
Prompting a good deal of household scandal.
And at least one of
his actor pals strayed from the maudlin stuff, too, allowing that while
reading for Farkash’s hit play, “Meat Dreams,” he had “no idea” what it was
about. And that even after he played the part for a few weeks, he still had
“no idea” what it was about. And how while he was happy to continue playing
it for six months, as it fetched him roles in TV sitcoms and a film, in the
end, he still had “no idea” what it was about.
That was more like it.
My opinion is that the
play---an L.A. Weekly critic’s choice which also snagged a great write-up in
the L.A.Times---was about nothing but Farkash’s obscure, idiosyncratic notions
human behavior. The premise had something to do with telling fortunes by
reading entrails; the characters were meant to be richly eccentric, but were
only peculiar. By way of explanation, the auteur once said to me, “It means
whatever you want it to mean, Rip,” prompting me to respond, “That's’s the
bullshit device of every poseur, Mike.” He then offered a genuine
explanation, which struck me as worse than the first.
Farkash, as he was
primarily addressed in my experience, was a vexing, complex, contrary,
and ultimately rather troubled character. There were two Farkashes, really:
the one I knew, and the one who became, briefly, a celebrated L.A.
playwright. The former was lighthearted, a prankster; the latter self-serious,
humorless. The former
was known affectionately by his last name or “Mike,” the latter as “Michael”
or “Michael R. Farkash.”
His last name, really, was at
the heart of his problems. He was good-natured about the kidding it aroused,
early on, but later he came to hate any “playing” with the moniker, and to
become poisoned by the hatred. Strange for a man of his intellect, but then,
the brain does not discriminate against foible. You can easily imagine how
college kids messed around with a handle like that, scatalogically and
otherwise, and I was certainly one of them. We were great pals back then,
Mike and I, at the Cal State Northridge Daily Sundial, and for another ten
or twelve years afterward---during which everybody called him “Farkash,” or
“Fackrash,” or “Fartcash,” or occasionally “Mike,” and did so with nothing
but affection. He was our version of a Dickens character, with a Dickensian
name. For a while, he even joined the fun with a delightful
self-deprecation, dubbing himself “Uncle Mike, the Kiddies’ Kike” in an
underground newspaper advice column, and mock-defending the nobility of his
surname with “It’s Hungarian for ‘wolf.’” (Which it actually was.)
And that was the best
stuff of Farkash. For whenever he entered the Sundial office, or a junky
Valley coffee shop at midnight, or a poker game, or your apartment, or a
party full of disaffected, disassociated, disinclined young Valley
intelligentsia, you knew the fun factor was about to go up. He loved to talk
to people, and he had a ready, highly literate, ironic, dry, goofball wit.
Well, best to also include the descriptor, “bizarre” in that previous
sentence, but bizarre in the practically quaint '50's
Which brings to mind a
favorite Farkash anecdote: how, when he was still living at home, his
mother complained that she had been gone all day and Mike had not bothered
to do the laundry, as instructed.
“But Mom,” he said. “It’s still radioactive.”
The Farkash memories are
fragmented now, and getting more so. You’d walk into a
newsroom and find him engaged in day three of a running chess game, or enter a party
and find him in sunglasses, Spiderman T-Shirt, shooting people with a toy ray gun. He
was apt to show up New Year’s Eve dressed as Sinatra, karaoke-ing “New York,
New York” with a boom-box strapped to his midsection, or on Hallowe’en in
blackface dressed as Barry White (once doubling the part with a certain Internet columnist.)
Everyone who knew him has thousands of Farkash snapshots embedded in memory,
most of the “you had to be there” ilk. One of mine: cruising around the
great, dumbass Valley in his ’64 Chevy around 3 a.m., stoned, laughing
louder than should be legally allowable, as a CBS Mystery Theater featured actors
unaccountably declaring “Men with no mouths! Men with no mouths! There’s another! Aiieeeeeeeeee!”. . .
More than anything, Mike
was a writer, and an obsessive/compulsive one. He spent most of his twenties
pounding a mechanical typewriter (filched from CSUN, I think), cranking out
countless science-fiction short stories. He was a living embodiment of
Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, endlessly coming up with plot after plot,
hammering them out---but unlike Trout, could not even get them published in
“beaver magazines.” This was no reflection on the quality of the work,
really, as lots of published science-fiction is far, far worse than
Farkash’s ever was. I’m willing to bet that some of those stories, now
languishing in filing cabinets with tons of rejection letters (he saved
them, perhaps for the day that he triumphantly met the press to discuss his
New York Times best-seller), are pretty damn worthwhile.
The only one I recall
offhand was very brief, and asserted that UFOs are actually hats left behind
Nobody I know wrote
more, or worked harder at succeeding as a writer, than Farkash. He
suffered for his art, that’s for sure. A coterie of loyal friends---and
fans, really---kept him going through the hard times: with food, parties,
encouragement, pot, and love. I was one of them, too. I recall a
cruddy period when Mike was living in an dilapidated barn converted to room rentals,
along with an old blind woman and her daughter. Real "Desolation Row" stuff.
His diet consisted largely of potato chips, cigarettes, and Coke; his
wardrobe a couple of flannel shirts and jeans. Yet he was nothing but
upbeat. In fact, I used to drop in on him in order to boost my own spirits.
That’s why you went to see Farkash, really. No matter how depressed he was,
or you were, you’d wind up laughing.
He worked a million
crappy jobs in those days, as he tried to become the next Philip K.
Dick, or George Clayton Johnson---including a
brief stint at what used to be called an “adult bookstore,” which he
chronicled in an article in the old Valley News. An excerpt recalled by one
of Mike’s editors at the time: a customer asked if he had magazines about a
particular arcane fetish, and Farkash politely responded something like “I’m sorry,
it’s my first day, and I don’t know what that is.”
I later got him
freelancing regularly at the Valley News, after leaning on various editors to
buy his (solid) work. This enabled him to keep eating, pay his slight rent,
and to persevere at science-fiction (although nothing would have stopped
that, I'm sure.) I spent countless hours by phone and in-person, encouraging
him to apply for jobs at newspapers all over the state, which he did, and
later to apply for a writing post at a new magazine that the Valley News was
producing. To that end, I lobbied the hell out of a Valley News features editor, and that
editor prevailed upon the female mag editor to give Farkash the gig (and get
him out of the barn.) But it
did not work out.
In a story that is
outrageously commonplace in journalism, the man was usurped---treated like a
slave, working 12-hour days for a “probation period” of four months,
writing up a storm---then was dropped in order that the editrix could hire a
galpal. It was a set-up. There had never been any plans to give Mike the job
full-time; he was used in order to help get the mag off the ground.
A colleague and I
promptly stormed the editor-in-chief’s office---my colleague almost
kicked the door off its hinges---and demanded that this injustice be
rectified. Idealism? Naivete? You betcha. When we got the cold, hard,
company line in response, we quit the paper on the spot in protest, and in
support of our friend, Farkash.
In the coming years, I
helped get Mike freelance work at a variety of venues where I was writing: the
L.A. Weekly, Emmy, and places I’ve since forgotten. I quoted him in articles
that called for comments about life in the Valley, or science-fiction (one
memorable photo accompanying a Weekly article about the Valley featured Farkash
floating in a pool, surrounded by armless and legless mannequins.) I once
typed his resumes and cover letters, as they were one aspect of writing he
never did well. He was a friend, see, and in my world, friends help friends. But this was not Farkash’s world.
Due to pride, or perhaps
because he was taken over by tiny reptilian insects from the planet,
Noogoonoogoo, Mike apparently never felt he owed me a thing. Or my colleague
who also quit on his behalf. Not even kindness.Years later, on several occasions, he insulted
the hell out of both of us. In one particularly comical instance, my car
broke down in the middle of the night on I-5, and I phoned Farkash for a
ride. He refused to help me out because I had, weeks earlier, addressed him
as “Vargas.” “You played with my name,” he said.
It all went south
permanently when I attended one of his awful plays, the name or premise of which I
thankfully no longer remember. All I do recall is that, at the end, several
of the characters lit up cigars for some reason, there in a 20-seat
playhouse, and my terrible asthma at the time drove me to quietly get
up and quietly leave.
Next time I saw him---him
being the successful playwright, “Michael R.Farkash"--- he
turned his back on me and walked away. Farkash would
never have done such a thing. I never spoke to him again, and I did not
see him for at least the last ten years of his life. I didn’t need the
He had a good run,
though, and I’m glad of it. The obituary that ran in his last place of
employment, the Newhall Signal, where he was a general assignment reporter,
was impressive, and duly so: A friend from college, John Rogers, had given him his first
full-time journalism job at the old Simi Enterprise, where he stayed as Entertainment
Editor for about a dozen years; he had gone on to copy-edit and write for
the Hollywood Reporter for quite a while, then the Antelope Valley Press and
the Newhall paper. One aspect of his character had remained a constant:
colleagues enjoyed his wit.
And as a protégé of John
Steppling, a playwright who is worshipped and adored by the phoney-baloney artsy-fartsy
Silverlake-y crowd, Farkash finally did enjoy recognition as a writer. All those years of living on
potato chips and Coke, and assaulting typewriters, paid off. He was the
toast of the town for a while because of “Meat Dreams,” and a second
play with one of those great Farkashian premises, called “Frozen Futures.”
The idea was that cryogenically suspended heads were successfully revived
two or three centuries later, but that there was no way to reattach them to
their original bodies, so they were put to work running machines. Taxicabs,
for instance. Yes, taxi-cabs driven by misanthropic, bitter, out-of-time,
It was a musical.
The reviews were mixed
(it lacked humor!), subsequent plays were less and less well-received, and
finally they were just brutally panned. I can’t say what it was about Farkash’s dramas that didn’t hold up, except that they were aggressively twisted and
just didn’t seem to make much sense. My guess is that he
was trying too hard to be “Michael R. Farkash,” and had forgotten how to be
“Farkash," which is a common enough sort of affliction. It was very hard for
him to accept the ebbing of success, and I suppose that he really never
managed to do it.
So ended the life of a
highly unusual, highly motivated, greatly enjoyed, indisputably flawed soul,
who certainly tried his best.
After the funeral, four
people who were his truest friends, probably---Rogers, Valley bon-vivant
Scott Paul (who never shunned him, no matter how contrary), ad executive and
old Valley News colleague Jeff Lam, and me---went to a lousy Valley coffee
shop that Farkash used to favor, told tales of the “good Mike and the bad
Mike,” and raised our glasses.
And it hit me, as I did
so, what his truest and greatest legacy was. Not the journalism, not the
plays, not even the earnestly written unpublished reams of science-fiction.
There was simply no
better person in the world to sit in a coffee shop with in the middle of the
night and shoot the breeze with. Farkash was guaranteed to keep things
interesting, and to keep them funny.
And I think that’s a hell
of a eulogy.
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