Sundance 2022: We Need To Talk About Cosby, And I Don’t Want To.

by Coco Quinn

Artwork by Mary Quinn

This morning I woke up to a snowy view of my backyard, the Virginia weather still doing its best to make me feel like I’m writing from Park City. There’s a lake I look out on, and when I felt a sensation something was off, I realized it must have iced over.  Looking further out, I could see ripples in the distance where the surface wasn’t frozen of motion.

I made a cup of coffee, and settled in under some blankets on my couch, ready to watch my first Sundance premier. I’m glad it was sunny outside because it was about to get dark.

We Need To Talk About Cosby, and I don’t want to, because it’s uncomfortable. But we really do need to talk about these things. I think women should watch this movie with other women. Like we did with the Sex and the City movie. With cosmos or whichever cocktail pairs best with catharsis, and talk through what comes up.

Director W. Kamau Bell implores us that we can’t begin to heal without first having some hard conversations. He explores who Cosby was, from the groundbreaking to the terrifying, and what his achievements and actions say about America over the past 50 years. He challenges us to reexamine the culture that lifted Cosby to the level of “America’s Dad.” 

This four-hour-long documentary (in four parts) is airing on Showtime and I recommend it, but it brought up a lot for me. One of the interviewees in the film talks about how sometimes something is put in your drink, but sometimes it’s the drink itself that can cause a blackout. And you might never know which it was, but it doesn’t matter. The intent to incapacitate you is the same regardless of the substance.

I have a night I can’t remember all of what happened, and I’ve always wondered if I was just over-served or drugged by the waiter. He sent over an extra martini or two, on the house. He got my number by taking a picture of me with my friends and texting it to me. He would call and text me for months. I never answered nor responded, and it always scared me. It didn’t stop until I reported it. The brief clips saved as memories are clear, and the blank spaces, they’re still black.

I started just now to write I was okay, but is that really true? I ended up in the hospital. The feeling you get knowing you have gaps in your memory, but were walking and talking (about what and to whom exactly, you don’t know), can be panic inducing. And embarrassing. It’s been years and those feelings still flare up.

I don’t know many women who haven’t had a similar experience. I wish that were not the case. It’s hard to talk about, so usually we don’t. I know that I’m the only person that some friends have told about the moments someone intentionally erased from their memories before they’d even been made. It’s hard to hear it talked about in this film without feeling like that could have been me, or someone I love. That it could have been anyone. That it happened to way too many women. I’m so proud of them for speaking out. It isn’t easy.

When to speak out, or if you should, is hard to say. Especially if that person has cache. Makes you feel special. They impress your friends and family, like Cosby did with these women. When is the behavior bad enough to speak out? What about a famous man you thought was your friend for years and years and then you hear about something really creepy? What are you supposed to do? The easiest answer is fucking mind your own business. But look how that went with Cosby. Scores of people around him looked the other way.

What if you know of a famous man whom you’ve always considered to be one of the good guys, and then you find out he casually asked for revealing photos from a woman you love. And it freaks her out. And then when he next makes contact, she tells him, “What you said really upset me.” And then he goes on and on in a text about how he jokes about stuff like that with his comedian friends and he’s an idiot and was just trying to make a joke. But he’s a professional comedian. And the request wasn’t a joke. And it wasn’t funny. And this excuse rings hollow and weird, and your friend is scrolling back through years of texts wondering if she’d ever said anything to give him the wrong idea, and she hasn’t. And so, she scrolls through her Instagram and Facebook to see if any of her selfies were too provocative. And she’s trying to find where she was responsible for the strange behavior of this friend, and supposed ally.

And she’s feeling bad about herself and fixating on it for days. And the years of friendship feel like grooming because now this guy is acting like a predator. And did she just see behind the curtain? Is he doing this to other women? Girls? Are they sending him pics? What happens next to them if they do? What is his end game?

We Need To Talk About What To Do. Because I really don’t know. My first thought was she should call his wife, that maybe she could talk to her husband about how when someone does something like that to call out your body, especially if you’re a busty girl, that it makes you feel reduced to nothing but your physical appearance. That it makes you question your worth. Your perceived worth. That it shakes your sense of knowing who to trust, if someone you trusted and respected could make you feel so bad.

And now she starts to cry because she feels like she’s ruined him for you. Ruined her best friend’s favorite movie for her because he’s in it. Ruined the kind recommendation letter he once wrote for you, which you have framed on your desk to remind you he believes in you. And you look her in the eyes, and it’s like looking out at the lake this morning. You’re not seeing any ripples. Something is off, someone has frozen a part of her that usually sparkles.

So, you tear up the letter and tell her she didn’t ruin him for you, he did. And now your stomach goes queasy when he pops up on TV. Why is he on so much TV? And it’s not the worst behavior, but it’s not good, and the fact that it is subtle is such a fucking scary part of it, ‘cause it’s easy to blow off for him, but that’s the point if he doesn’t get what he wants, right? And the uneasiness and resentment aren’t going away. And you want to tell him how damaging it is, because he can’t possibly know, or he wouldn’t have done it. But then . . . he did it. And not only does he know, but that’s also quite possibly what he likes about it. And you introduced them, so you feel like it’s your fault. You thought he was a nice guy and you got it wrong.

And there goes one more woman, taking on the burden of a bad man’s actions.

Sundance 2022 Begins: A Starfucker is Born!

by Coco Quinn

The short film Starfuckers starts rather ominously. Plastic on the carpeted floor . . . was someone going to be murdered? An unsettling dynamic between a younger and older man. One of them is a bad guy, right? But which one? And then She appears. A drag Goddess who performs a lip-synch truly for the Gods. Even my brother was like, “Damn.” I had to call my sister into the room so she could see this clip of the film with me, watching her take it all in as I replayed it. At the end she said, “From now on my life is divided between before I saw that performance and afterwards.”

All three of us . . . Blown away by a true “Star is Born” moment.

Antonio Marziale is the face behind this captivating character. He’s also the writer and director of Starfuckers and says of the film, “At its heart a revenge story that explores power dynamics in Hollywood, but it also celebrates the art of drag and how it can be used to create an alter ego or explore alternate realities for oneself. We wanted to tackle serious subject matter with an element of buoyancy and surprise.” Tackled head on with both strength and vulnerability. I watched it twice already and still want more. These are the magical moments that make Sundance so special.

It was hard to get excited about the festival this year. I really wanted to go back to Park City. I have attended every Sundance from 2011 until Covid hit. I wrote my letter requesting press accreditation back in October, the night after I saw my first live performance in a theater since 2019. It was The Lion King. Broadway was back, baby! I was moved to tears in the opening number, masked and vaxed and so excited to be able to be a part of an audience again. I wrote about wanting to cover Sundance because, “Theaters are opening. I’d like to see how the filmmakers feel about reentering that communal space. There’s something magical there.” I shouldn’t have worried when it went away again. Sundance always works out exactly the way it is supposed to.

So, instead of Utah, I’m in my hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Instead of in the Egyptian Theater on Main Street, I’m huddled into my bed as Sundance weather comes to Virginia and snow starts to fall outside my window. I obligingly put on headphones and enter a virtual Egyptian space as an avatar of myself, a little cartoon body and flat, circular head displaying a photo of my face. (Pro tip: If you want to jump as an avatar, press the space bar.) We find seats, figure out how to sit our little bodies down, and click a box on the stage to make the screening fill our screens.         

The opening night film is 32 Sounds. There is a love story we learn about in the film. We hear moments of a phone call shared between these two women who will go on to have a ’til death do they part 47-year-long relationship, in the early days of their falling in love on the phone, long-distance. The giggles they share are charming and animated sound waves cross the screen, representing their voices reaching out to each other. It’s a tender moment. At the virtual hang after the screening, I meet some filmmakers and we wonder what we would sound like recorded in these virtual hangout groups. As with the nervous, new lovers, there are lots of giggles as we chart new territory in making friends.  

Sophia de Baun, Executive Producer of ChiQui, and I met and chatted in a bubble. She was in her bedroom in New York as the rest of her team were in another part of her apartment. They’d all tried to talk together as one avatar, but it was a bit much. “I’m wearing the turtleneck I bought for Sundance, even though I’m just in my apartment,” she told me. I loved that. We’re all committed to getting the closest-to-normal Sundance experience we can. And even though my camera works, so people can see me snuggled up from my fluffy white chair in the corner of my room with a scrunchie holding my hair in a pile on my head and no makeup on, there is a glitch and I can’t see the videos of anyone else. It doesn’t matter. The conversation in the bubble is lively and we’ve all been moved by the film we’d just seen, together, though far apart.

I watched 20 other films on Day 1. Most of them were shorts. Like Starfuckers, CLOSE TIES TO HOME COUNTRY was Written and Directed by its young star, Akanksha Cruczynski. Based on her real life. Oh my god. Akanksha hasn’t seen her sister in nine years. In trying to fill out a form to Homeland Security on her sister’s Moral Character she writes, “My sister is a badass.”  I’d fill one out for my sister verbatim. I loved her face, her sense of humor, her deep vulnerability. This film about people trying to go to and from India really took me on a journey. #RIPBisou

You never know who you’re going to meet when you pop into a bubble in the virtual Film Party of Sundance. I was testing out my video capabilities on a different computer, and entered a bubble with three guys who turned out to be directors of short films at the festival. Joey Izzo is premiering YOU’VE NEVER BEEN COMPLETELY HONEST. William David Caballero’s CHILLY AND MILLY is an animated autobiographical documentary. One of them said the third guy, Harris Doran, had the movie with the best name of the Fest. “What’s it called?” I asked.

F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K. It is a great name! And a great film! I’d seen it and got to gush over how much I loved his lead character, a queer Black aspiring Baltimore rapper played by DDm (Dapper Dan midas) who must outwit his vengeful day-job boss in order to avoid getting fired after accidentally eating an edible. DDm wins for best nails and dimples at Sundance, manicured hands down. He’s a real rapper who had never before acted, but Harris says he wants to do more now and I’m in favor of that decision. He gave a fantastically fun performance, and Kara Young as his coworker sidekick is who I’d want by my side.

A special section of shorts from years past were brought back in celebration of Sundance’s 40th Anniversary. One I was dying to see was the short film, Short Term 12. I was at the Premier of the feature length version in 2013 at South by Southwest, starring a young cast that would go on to win multiple Oscars among them. The only actor to be in both the short and the feature… and go on to an Oscar nomination of his own… was LaKeith Stanfield. In the short he’s only about 16-years-old and already a powerhouse talent.

Now, some shorts could really stand to be shorter, and my brother had watched a couple slower-paced ones in a row with me, so I was stoked to see SPIDER (2008) by Nash Edgerton was on the Anniversary Shorts list. I first saw it at Sundance, but not the year it premiered. One of my fellow critics couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it and showed it to me on their laptop between writing reviews from the kitchen of their shared lodge. Hadn’t seen it in a decade, but it held up. Nash plays Jack, a guy who causes all kinds of trouble when he tries to scare his girlfriend with a rubber spider. A sequel, BEAR, premiered at Cannes in 2011. Now, 11 years later, he’s rounded out the trilogy of short films with SHARK, where his new girlfriend is played by Rose Byrne. They’re silly, but make me laugh out loud.

I was walking back from yoga one day with a cup of tea, checking something on my phone when some kid threw a plastic snake on me, and then was like, “Oh, shit, look out!” and my brain just processed SNAKE and my hot tea spilled all over me as I dropped it and my phone, fell back onto the curb, bruising my tailbone. There was a group of young guys filming their antics on a cell phone. Not cool.

So when the first Indie Episodic I watched, CULTURE BEAT, took place a couple blocks away from where I went down across the street from my yoga studio, I just thought, “Dude. that’s my neighborhood.” This guy is acting deranged and volatile with a camera recording from across the street. This prankster is riding a recumbent bike into sidewalk diners and messing with traffic on a Segway, going in circles while dropping a laptop into the road. Fuck this guy. I lived in England when Ali G was a correspondent on The 11 O’Clock Show. I loved Ali G. It’s about punching up, right? Not fucking with people’s drives and dinners. It’s Hollywood. There are constantly folks doing way more crazy shit there. No need. Not. Cool. Go home.

On a lighthearted and upbeat note of people from my neighborhood, TRAINING WHEELS features a socially inept woman who rents a man to prepare to date another. Written, Directed by, and staring Alison Rich, a regular performer at the UCB Theater in Hollywood. When I first saw Alison perform, I was pulled on stage from the audience to participate in this hodgepodge comedy show, and she was in character as an old man with short gray wig on. The bit she improvised was that in everything he said, he found a way to hit on me. It was funny as fuck and even though it was fake, I was flattered. She’s a tiny, pretty girl who will get ugly for a laugh, and who you can’t help but be charmed by. Cameos by other hilarious UCB cuties, like Zeke Nicholson and Drew Tarver.

Rounding out the rest of my 21 films in one day of Sundancing we have:

RECKLESS, from Sweden, sucked me right into this world, visually, with special effects and a woman singing an eerie cover of a Strokes song. Haven’t seen a liquid this menacing since blood pouring forth from the elevators in The Shining.

PRECIOUS HAIR & BEAUTY A warm and inviting atmosphere of a beauty shop in the UK. Rich, delicious accents with sadly no subtitles to catch all the dialogue, which sucks, cause I liked these ladies. Divine little comedy.

LONG LINE OF LADIES Celebrates a young girl’s journey into womanhood by her whole community. The tradition was gone for decades because of sexual assault that accompanied the Gold Rush. It’s back. Amazing to watch the women lift each other up and the fathers support their daughters.

PRIMAVERA (an anniversary short) and THE RIGHT WORDS are foreign language films that deal with the complicated sibling dynamics of young teens. Made me think about how growing up is never easy, but I’m so glad there was no social media when I rode the bus.

CHIQUI Short for the lead character Chiquita, is an indie episodic pilot episode set in the late 80’s with all the MTV influenced hair, makeup, music and clothing you could ask for. It’s 1987. Pregnant Chiqui and her husband emigrate from Colombia to the U.S. to find a better life.

STRANGER THAN ROTTERDAM WITH SARA DRIVER The Rolling Stones were the second band I ever saw in concert, but I didn’t know anything about Cocksucker Blues. Then again, I was only 11. Fun little caper of a true story.

RENDANG OF DEATH Gross-out comedy with some real WTF moments.

YOU GO GIRL! In stand-up comedy as in life, it’s a real uphill battle.

BUMP. Stupid. Like in the way my Improv coach would say, “Stupid,” when we made him laugh. And just 3 mins long. Tops.

DADDY’S GIRL Girl. You are a mess.

Home is Where the Hurricane Is

by Coco Quinn

Artwork by Claire Binci. Claire currently is an engineer for Lamborghini.

The first thing I remember getting published was a poem I wrote in fifth grade for my elementary school’s anthology, “Tales from the Foot of the Volcano.” It was 1991 and I was living in Naples, Italy. I could see Mt. Vesuvius from my balcony, looking like two mountains next to each other as the crater into the active volcano was so wide and deep. When we hiked up to peer into that crater on a field trip our Italian teacher left the path dotted with holes from her high heels. I pictured her fashionable feet permanently arched like Barbie’s. I remember those tiny holes in the dirt along the path, but nothing of what we could see at its peak.

“Vesuvius is overdue to erupt,” I remember hearing. It had been dormant for many decades at that point. Any day now, and I could be frozen in ash like the people who’d been victim to it in Herculaneum, which had been another field trip destination.

It’s funny when you move a lot growing up. You’re subject to such a wide variety of impending natural disasters. Before Italy, I’d lived in Virginia Beach and Key West on the east coast. I had ten years under my belt of dealing with hurricanes. Fill the bathtubs with water, tape Xes over each window, and for a really big one, camp downstairs in the living room. In 1986, we got Hurricane Charley. I was seven with two little brothers and a baby sister. My dad was still out on a six-month cruise with the Navy. Charley knocked out the power. Mom set up a camping stove and battery powered black and white TV with a 5 inch screen. “The Peanut Butter Solution” aired during that time, and that movie was way more traumatic than the hurricane was. The day after the storm passed, we walked down the cul-de-sac, the sky fresh and blue, the air calm and lovely, just the pavement covered in leaves and branches, and the occasional car or rooftop dented in, to indicate how rough it had been out there.

Another thing about hurricanes, they give you a couple days warning. Not volcanoes, not tornados. I was home babysitting my sister in Mississippi (a truly culture-shock-inducing place to send a preteen girl after three years living in Italy), when I heard my first tornado. It sounds like a train. I hid us away in the tiny bathroom off of the kitchen, the only room in the house without windows, and felt like a sitting duck. The locals weren’t so bothered. My mom came home with my brothers from soccer practice, and even though the electric charge in the air had made my brother Jon’s hair stand on end, and the wind made accuracy in shooting impossible, their coach kept them on that field until practice time ended.

I spent twelve years in LA, and the earthquakes never made me panic. The wildfires though . . .

I’m in Virginia Beach now, and went into the ocean again for the first time in fifteen years. There were red flags up for “danger,” on the lifeguard stands. The water was frothy with riptides 50 feet out along the shore. The wind made it almost impossible to lay out a towel and I had to anchor mine with all my belongings, which were immediately covered in sand. Hurricane Ida hadn’t hit us directly, but I could feel her on the shore.

Even in the shallows, the waves crashed so hard I was soaked from head to toe right away. The usually even and sloping sand was impossible to see under the water and so pocked with holes that I sank under water from my knees up to my shoulders with a single step. I duck-dived under a wave. I floated and let the stormy waters push and pull me to and from the shore.

I laughed out loud as the tide bounced my butt into the sandy bottom as I tried to make my way back to the beach. I kept an eye on my coordinates by the lifeguard stand near where I’d left my towel. One of the very stands I’d worked from in summers during college. I didn’t know the guards who were working there today, nor they, me. But . . .

The Atlantic, she held me, rocked me, welcomed me home.

The Catbird Seat

by KEM Huntley

The short story does not usually lend itself to a Dramatica Grand Argument. Moreover, there often is not enough “real estate” to properly explore all four throughlines. Nevertheless, it can be done. In answering key Dramatica questions, an analysis of James Thurber’s satire, The Catbird Seat, provides an example.

1. What is the title of the story?

The Catbird Seat

2. In a short paragraph, describe what The Catbird Seat is about.

This short story explored the horrors of “downsizing” long before the term became a fashionable catchword for the elimination of jobs and subsequent mass firings of loyal employees who often don’t see it coming. However, if you are one of those with an eye on the ball and few tricks up your buttoned-down shirt sleeve, you may just end up sitting pretty in the catbird seat.

3. Who is the author?

James Thurber

4. Where does the story take place?

New York, early 1940’s

5. Determine and describe the main character-the figure with whom the reader will most identify.

Mr. Erwin Martin: “Cautious, painstaking” (239)

6. Determine and describe the Impact Character-the figure that will have the most bearing on the main character.

Mrs. Ulgine Barrows: “Her quacking voice and braying laugh . . . . had appalled Mr. Martin instantly, but he hadn’t shown it. He had given her his dry hand, a look of studious concentration and a faint smile. ‘Well,’ she said, looking at the papers on his desk, ‘are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?’ Later: “The faults of the woman as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness. She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. “. . . Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?’ . . . Mr. Martin dismissed all this with an effort. It had been annoying, it had driven him near to distraction, but he was too solid a man to be moved to murder by anything so childish.” (239-40)

7. Determine and describe all the characters concerned with the overall story.

  • Mr. Erwin Martin-particular and remarkably efficient in his work; model employee
  • Mrs. Ulgine Barrows-loud, vulgar, crass; she has quite a lot of power
  • Mr. Fitweiler-the susceptible boss that is taken in by Barrows
  • Old Roberts-personnel chief
  • Joey Hart-assistant to Mr. Martin
  • Miss Paird-assistant to Mr. Martin; she is not above eavesdropping for Mr. Martin’s benefit
  • Miss Tyson-ex-employee
  • Mr. Brundage-ex-employee
  • Mr. Bartlett-ex-employee
  • Mr. Munson-ex-employee
  • Dr. Fitch-Mr. Fitweiler’s psychiatrist
  • Stockton-employee
  • Fishbein-employee
  • Mrs. Powell-employee

8. At the end of the story, has the Main Character changed or remained the same (MC Resolve)?

Mr. Martin is steadfast in his drive to maintain his filing department and his position as its head.

9. Does the Main Character need to grow out of something (Stop) or grow into something (Start)?

Mr. Martin must stop the madness that is Mrs. Ulgine Barrows.

10. What is main character’s approach to solving problems? Does he at first confront a dilemma head-on (Do-er), or does he adapt himself to the situation at hand (Be-er)?

Although quiet and unassuming, Mr. Martin is nevertheless a do-er. Once Mr. Martin believes his department is Mrs. Ulgine Barrow’s next target he knows: “He must act quickly. . . . Mr. Martin stood up in his living room, still holding his milk glass. ‘Gentlemen of the jury,’ he said to himself, ‘I demand the death penalty for this horrible person'” (241).

11. Determine and describe the main character’s use of linear or holistic problem– solving techniques.

Mr. Martin uses linear thinking to solve his problems. Not only is his daily life extremely routine, his plan to “rub out” Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is done step by step.

12. Determine and describe the actions or decisions that drive the plot forward.

Actions drive the plot forward, first described in the backstory:

. . . Mrs. Barrows had met Mr. Fitweiler at a party, where she had rescued him from the embraces of a powerfully built drunken man who had mistaken the president of F & S for a famous retired Middle Western football coach. She had led him to a sofa and somehow worked upon him a monstrous magic (impact character domain-psychology). The aging gentleman had jumped to the conclusion (overall story symptom-deduction) there and then that this was a woman of singular attainments . . . . A week later he had introduced her into F & S as his special advisor (overall story response-induction). (240)

Later, Mrs. Barrows’ actions are the cause of Mr. Martin’s decision “to rub out Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. The term ‘rub out’ pleased him because it suggested nothing more that the correction of an error-in this case an error of Mr. Fitweiler” (239).

13. Determine and describe how the story has reached its conclusion (Story Limit). Is it because time has run out (Timelock), or because all the options (Optionlock) are exhausted?

Mr. Fitweiler has the option to either believe Mrs. Ulgine Barrows or Mr. Martin’s account of what had transpired between the two in determining which one will remain employed at F & S:

“Mrs. Barrows is under the delusion (impact character domain-psychology),” continued Mr. Fitweiler, “that you visited her last evening and behaved yourself in an-uh-unseemly manner.” He raised his hand to silence Mr. Martin’s little pained outcry. “It is the nature of these psychological diseases,” Mr. Fitweiler said, “to fix upon the least likely and most innocent party as the ­uh-source of persecution. These matters are not for the lay mind to grasp, Martin. I’ve just had my psychiatrist, Dr. Fitch, on the phone. He would not, of course, commit himself, but he made enough generalizations to substantiate my suspicions. I suggested to Mrs. Barrows, when she completed her-uh-story to me this morning, that she visit Dr. Fitch, for I suspected her condition at once. She flew, I regret to say, into a rage, and demanded-uh-requested that I call you on the carpet. You may not know, Martin, but Mrs. Barrows had planned a reorganization of your department-subject to my approval, of course, subject to my approval (main character problem-reduction). This brought you, rather than anyone else, to her mind-but again that is a phenomenon for Dr. Fitch and not for us. So, Martin, I am afraid Mrs. Barrows’ usefulness here is at an end.”

“I am dreadfully sorry, sir,” said Mr. Martin. (244-45)

14. Is the outcome of the story a Success or Failure?

This is a success story. Mrs. Ulgine’s dismissal from F & S means the potential (overall story solution) for more departmental reorganization, therefore disruptions, is eliminated.

15. At the end of the story does the Main character feel Good or Bad (Judgment)?

Mr. Martin, without having to literally “rub out” Mrs. Ulgine Barrows has still effectively removed his nemesis, thus relieving his angst:

“I regret that this has happened,” said Mr. Fitweiler. “I shall ask you to dismiss it from your mind, Martin.” “Yes, sir,” said Mr. Martin, anticipating his chief’s “That will be all” by moving to the door. “I will dismiss it.” He went out and shut the door, and his step was light and quick in the hall. When he entered his department he had slowed down to his customary gait, and he walked quietly across the room to the W20 file, wearing a look of studious concentration. (245-46)

16. Describe the four points of view (domains): Overall, Main Character, Impact Character, and Relationship.

  • Overall Story-Universe: F & S is a company that thrives on its systems-and will employ whatever methods to make certain it runs with the utmost efficiency.
  • Main Character-Physics: Mr. Martin is a staunch defender of his department-even to the point of engaging in activities to “rub out Mrs. Ugline Barrows” (239)-the woman who threatens to dispense with it and he as its head.
  • Impact Character-Psychology: Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is a master manipulator. She has Mr. Fitweiler firmly under her thumb and the fate of the company in her hands.
  • Relationship Story-Mind: Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is determined to eliminate Mr. Martin’s department; Mr. Martin is just as determined to keep it intact.

17. What is the Goal of the story? Describe.

How the “system” of F & S stands (Present) is the story goal. Although the company president, Mr. Fitweiler, has hired Mrs. Ulgine Barrows “to bring out the best in him and in the firm” (240), “. . . in Mr. Martin’s mind . . . . Mrs. Ulgine Barrows stood charged with willful, blatant, and persistent attempts to destroy the efficiency and system of F & S” (240).

18. What thematic conflict in the Overall Story is explored?

The workplace of F & S, has been in an uproar since the “. . . day confusion got its foot in the door” in the arrival of Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. Her attempts at reorganization, with no prior professional experience, are depicted negatively, whereas those who are suited for the task at hand are shown in a positive light (work vs. attempt).

19. What is the problem in the Overall Story?

Mr. Fitweiler’s total reliability on Mrs. Ulgine Barrows’ judgment (certainty) creates problems for the employees of F & S:

After Miss Tyson, Mr. Brundage and Mr. Bartlett had been fired and Mr. Munson had taken his hat and stalked out, mailing in his resignation later, old Roberts had been emboldened to speak to Mr. Fitweiler. He mentioned that Mr. Munson’s department had been “a little disrupted” and hadn’t they perhaps better resume the old system there? Mr. Fitweiler had said certainly not. He had the greatest faith in Mrs. Barrows’ ideas (impact character concern-conceiving). (240)

20. Describe what conflict (Concern) occurs in the four throughlines.

  • Overall Story-Present: A self proclaimed efficiency expert has insinuated herself into F & S-and is wasting no time in having it run her way (overall concern thematic issue-expediency). It is a situation of concern to all involved: “She had begun chipping at the cornices of the firm’s edifice and now she was swinging at the foundation stones with a pickaxe” (240).
  • Main Character-Learning: Mr. Martin is concerned to learn his department is next on Mrs. Barrows’ hit list; Mr. Martin is concerned that no one learns of his part in Mrs. Barrows’ “rubbing out.”
  • Impact Character-Conceiving: Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is influential with her ideas: “Mr. Fitweiler . . . had the greatest faith in Mrs. Barrows’ ideas. ‘They require a little seasoning, a little seasoning is all'” (240).
  • Relationship Story-Conscious: Considerations are the source of conflict between Mr. Martin and Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. Mr. Martin is sensible to the fact Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is contemplating a reorganization of his department which is problematic for him; Mrs. Ulgine Barrows underestimates Mr. Martin, not for a second taking his devotion to his department-and what he might do to protect it-into consideration.

21. Describe the sequence of events for the four throughlines (Signposts).

Overall story: In the past (Signpost 1) F & S was a staid, old firm operating quite efficiently, until the day:

[Mrs. Barrows’] . . . quacking voice and braying laugh had first profaned the halls of F & S on March 7, 1941. . . . It was competent, material, and relevant to review her advent and rise to power. Mr. Martin had got the story from Miss Paird, who seemed always able to find things out. . . . Mr. Martin came now, in his summing up, to the afternoon of Monday, November 2, 1942-just one week ago. On that day, at 3 P.M., Mrs. Barrows had bounced into his office. “Boo!” she had yelled. “Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel?” Mr. Martin had looked at her from under his green eyeshade, saying nothing. She had begun to wander about the office, taking it in with her great, popping eyes. “Do you really need all these filing cabinets?” she had demanded suddenly. (241) Much to Mr. Martin’s alarm, Mrs. Ulgine Barrows’ progress (Signpost 2) in turning F & S upside down includes the “reorganization” of his department. Mr. Martin shares his (phony) future (Signpost 3) plans with Mrs. Barrows that includes blowing up their boss. Once she reports his extremely out of character behavior to Mr. Fitweiler, her state of mind is questioned, and she is dismissed (Signpost 4-present). Mr. Martin is successful in stopping her from steam rolling his department and wreaking any further havoc at F& S.

Main Character: Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight were buying cigarettes. . . . If any of the staff at F & S had seen him buy the cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke, and never had (Signpost 1-obtaining). No one saw him. It was just a week to the day since Mr. Martin had decided to rub out Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. The term “rub out” pleased him because is suggested nothing more than the correction of an error-in this case an error of Mr. Fitweiler. . . . The project as he had worked it out was casual and bold, the risks were considerable. . . . And therein lay the cunning of his scheme. No one would ever see in it the cautious, painstaking hand of Erwin Martin, head of the filing department at F & S, of whom Mr. Fitweiler had once said, “Man is fallible, but Martin isn’t.” (239) Mr. Martin understands (Signpost 2) he must be very careful not to make any mistakes as: “If he ran into anybody, he would simply have to place the rubbing-out of Ulgine Barrows in the inactive file forever” (242). His plan is put into action (Signpost 3-doing) once he finds himself in her apartment: “Mr. Martin looked quickly around the living room for the weapon. He had counted on finding one there. There were andirons and a poker and something in a corner that looked like an Indian club. None of them would do. . . . When Mrs. Barrows reappeared, carrying two highballs, Mr. Martin standing there with his gloves on, became acutely conscious of the fantasy he had wrought. Cigarettes in his pocket, a drink prepared for him-it was all too grossly improbable. It was more than that; it was impossible. Somewhere in the back of his mind a vague idea stirred, sprouted. . . . The idea began to bloom, strange and wonderful. She put the glasses on a coffee table in front of a sofa and sat on the sofa. “Come over here, you odd little man,” she said. “Well,” she said, handing him his drink, “this is perfectly marvelous. You with a drink and a cigarette.” Mr. Martin puffed, not too awkwardly, and took a gulp of the highball. “I drink and smoke all the time,” he said. He clinked his glass against hers. “Here’s nuts to that old windbag, Fitweiler,” he said, and gulped again. The stuff tasted awful, but he made no grimace. “Really, Mr. Martin,” she said, her voice and posture changing, “you are insulting our employer.” (243) The following day, Mr. Martin learns (Signpost 4) his department will stay intact once Mr. Fitweiler deems Mrs. Barrows mentally incompetent, after she had reported a fantastic account of Mr. Martin’s evening visit.

Impact Character: Mrs. Barrows and her big ideas (Signpost 1-conceiving) are upsetting the apple cart at F & S. Her role (Signpost 2-being) as special advisor to the president has a profoundly negative effect on the company, and particularly on Mr. Martin. She comes dangerously close to becoming (Signpost 3) a corpse at Mr. Martin’s hands-but it is her self-righteousness that finally does her in. The concept (Signpost 4) that “such a drab, ordinary little man” (245) as Mr. Martin could cause her demise changes (impact character resolve) her from the office tyrant to a blithering idiot:

She stopped yelling to catch her breath and a new glint came into her popping eyes. . . . She glared at Mr. Fitweiler. “Can’t you see how he has tricked us, you old fool? Can’t you see his little game?” But Mr. Fitweiler had been surreptitiously pushing all the buttons under the top of his desk and employees of F & S began pouring into the room. “Stockton,” said Mr. Fitweiler, “you and Fishbein will take Mrs. Barrows to her home. Mrs. Powell, you will go with them.” Stockton, who had played a little football in high school, blocked Mrs. Barrows as she made for Mr. Martin. It took him and Fishbein together to force her out of the door into the hall, crowded with stenographers and office boys. She was still screaming imprecations at Mr. Martin, tangled and contradictory imprecations. (245)

Relationship Story: Whereas Mrs. Ulgine Barrows doesn’t give Mr. Martin a second thought (Signpost 1-conscious), Mr. Martin is very conscious of her threat to his department. He recalls (Signpost 2-memory) the description of her “ducky first-floor apartment” (242) as he makes his way to surprise her at home:

“‘Well, for God’s sake, look who’s here!’ bawled Mrs. Barrows, and her braying laugh rang out like the report of a shotgun. He rushed past her like a football tackle, bumping her. . . . ‘What’s after you?’ she said. ‘You’re as jumpy as a goat (Signpost 3-preconscious)'” (242). Instead of bumping Mrs. Barrows off, Mr. Martin acts out of character, fully cognizant that she will be driven to report his odd behaviour to Mr. Fitweiler the next day. She does, and to her great fury (Signpost 4-subconscious), finds Mr. Fitweiler thinks she’s crazy and her employment is terminated-much to the satisfaction of Mr. Martin.

Source Cited:

Thurber, James. “The Catbird Seat.” Studies in the Short Story. Ed. Adrian H. Jaffe and Virgil Scott. 3rd ed. New York: Holt, 1968. 239-246.