In the Grimm brother’s Snow White the Queen gazes into the magic mirror that never lies and vainly asks: “Magic mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land.” Later, she gets the news: "My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But, Snow White beyond the mountains at the seven dwarfs is a thousand times more beautiful than you."
And so it goes with writers too. “Magic mirror in my hand who’s the best writer in this land?” Well, if we’re speaking of the hills and vales of Mendocino, Denis Johnson is long gone, and Eleanor Cooney (perhaps wisely) seldom says much when it comes to this place. Of course, there may be other dazzling writers hid out in the tan oak hills squirreling away words for a much bigger world, but when I also looked into the mirror, the mirror honestly replied: “Forget about it, hopeless. The best writer in Mendocino is Tommy Wayne Kramer who lives beyond the mountains in the land of Ukiah surrounded by dwarfs.”
Oh sorry. Pardon my want of PC etiquette — little people — small people who think they’re so much bigger than everyone else: crafty court house politicians; bungling bureaucrats by the score; arm twisters from SEIU; city council monomaniacs; social workers who tell us what’s best as society falls apart; school teachers who really can’t teach, and (not to forget) the culture of sniffy progressives who rule this woodsy county with their medicine dope and eco-theories shop- lifted from old Karl Marx. Yes, Tommy Wayne Kramer has a host of snarling, little midgets snapping at his heals — his just reward for telling the truth.
Recently, Tommy Wayne Kramer, whose given name is Tom Hine, released a book: Teach Your Dog To Shoplift. The title itself is a satirical, literary trope aimed at the garbagy plethora of how-to-do-it and self-help books. Thanks to the journalistic courage of editor K.C. Meadows at the Ukiah Daily Journal who publishes Kramer’s columns, Kramer’s book is a compilation of selected columns that have appeared regularly in that newspaper for the past five years. The compiled essays contain some of the funniest and soberly poignant writing one will ever read. Forget P.J. O’Rourke, if one lives anywhere within the medicine-dope and granola belt of Mendocino County and still retains a sense of humor that transcends the sober-faced zombies on NPR or KZYX, then Teach Your Dog To Shoplift is a book you’ve got to read.
The majority of Kramer’s essays and stories are set in Ukiah, which Kramer reminds us is a place “...overrun with hopeless derelicts and violent, drug-numbed weirdoes from other planets, or at least other zip codes. Every day on page two of the Daily Journal we see the Police Notes, which suggest a small sample of the problem: a man beating on a dog on East Gobbi; a woman urinating on the sidewalk in front of an elementary school; a stabbing here; an assault there, a few people screaming at traffic and throwing rocks on South State Street. There’s even an occasional arrest.” It’s a Brueghel-like, but realistic, depiction of our county seat.
And, Kramer’s not shy when it comes to pointing blame or the causal relationship between the trash on the streets and where it all starts. In fact, he readily admits: “I began writing this “Assignment Ukiah” column more than five years ago with the idea being I wanted to puncture some of the inflated egos and pompous personalities around town. Here’s an example from his book. “They (Ukiah’s Town Council) get all squeamish cracking down on the mopes and creeps that have invaded the town, and at the same time they rake in grant money by pretending to do something. If the problem goes away the grant money goes away.”
Sound familiar? Of course; it’s the boiler plate blueprint that goes on for much of what passes for let’s hire another consultant politics in Mendocino County. Kramer notes, that instead of facing the real problems that confront us, they (our local leaders) have “decided to save the world” by, for instance: “Banning plastic bags; buying a fleet of Priuses; and debating the wars in the Middle East...just some of the indulgent diversions carried out by local government.”
Kramer’s target acquisition is not confined exclusively to county officialdom or the pompous pantheists who infect the County. In an essay entitled Look at me everybody! Kramer gets specific. “There are plenty of candidates for the Biggest Jerk of the World Awards.” Here are some Kramer’s favorites:
• Oil company executives
• Methamphetamine cookers
• Social Workers
• NBA players
• Used Car salesmen
• Deepak Chopra
• Fitness instructors
“All are worthy of consideration as objects of our scorn, but I have a group (Kramer goes on to note) that towers above all others in terms of narcissism, arrogance and uselessness. I speak, of course, of bicyclists...I mean the dipwads who squeeze into yellow and black polyester outfits, strap on their vented ultra-high tech wind resistant DorkMaster helmets, mount their $12,000 titanium two wheel machines and take to the road exactly one half block ahead of you as you drive to work. It’s those smug, sneering pedaling creeps riding their hotshot bicycles I’m talking about.”
And who hasn’t had similar thoughts as we drive up a long hill on our way to the store or a doctor’s appointment to encounter — as we pass a “Share The Road” sign — two or three (sometimes abreast) bicyclists in goofy, Lycra outfits pumping madly to obtain 8mph, blocking our lane ahead? The thing about Kramer’s writing is: he links his vitriol to the common person. His hyperbole touches the hearts and minds of normal people increasingly trapped in the madness of a libertine world ruled by a thousand cuts of insane laws. 800 new laws this year in California alone cooked up by elites who seek to control everything we do.
(Sorry, Kramer’s writing sets me off.) But this is not to say that all of Kramer’s essays and opinions are directed at specific targets. (Okay, one more: Prius drivers.) “Prius drivers care,” Kramer asserts. “They make a statement. They make a difference. They make me laugh.” Every “Prius man” is an “eco-warrior...common folks should admire their moral superiority. Peasants (truck drivers for instance)...” Kramer notes.
Tommy Wayne Kramer is also good at lampooning himself. “Did you know I was at Woodstock? Well, I was squirming in the muck just like all the other rodents at a barn dance. Woodstock elevated cheap pop celebrity status over actual achievement and the world’s been worse ever since.”
Kramer often lampoons some of his parenting skills, but the joke he pulled on his young teenage daughter and her best friend in a piece entitled A fun Summer BBQ with Dad when he told his daughter and her friend that he was taking them to a great party and barbecue but instead drove them to a cheap motel in south Ukiah with a fenced-in fetid little pool replete with a leering meth head looking on is priceless. The girls sat frozen in their seat until he told them it was all a joke.
Also included in Teach Your Dog to Shoplift there are humorous vignettes in the self-deprecating, first person voice of an imaginary Joe Six-pack character on crack. It’s funny and perceptive and goes right to the jugular of the hats-backward crop of current, moronic, American males. In Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin Captain Kangaroo “the “wife and I was out huffing paint fumes in the garage a week or so back when all of sudden from out of nowhere she decides she’s having a vision or idea that she wants to leave. Just another of them “I need to up and find myself on a voyage through life” kind of experience she’s prone to.” The wife leaves. Later the guy gets an email: “said she met some guy from Chippendale’s which as I understand is a high-end furniture making outfit. Hope he gives her something special to bring home.” While he awaits his wife’s return, the guy keeps a diary.
“DAY FOUR: Took the dog of hers up to a taxidermist friend out near Comptche who says he has a buyer who collects stuffed Golden Retrievers... DAY SIX: I quit feeding the cat and already have saved enough to buy me a bonus six-pack of Mickey’s Malt Liquor...
DAY SEVEN: Haven’t flushed downstairs toilet in some time… You suppose the City Council will give me some kind of plaque for water conservation efforts?
DAY 22: Cat died today or maybe last week. Gotta make it look like a suicide.” And on it continues in low-life Ukiah.
But Tommy Wayne Kramer is not all barbs and satire. He’s also a gifted writer of poignant, short prose. Several pieces standout. For instance: The Iron Man of Redwood Valley. “Question: What would you get if you spent 54 years in a small grocery store stocking shelves, stacking boxes, pumping gas and sweeping floors?” It’s a beautiful and true story; an homage to a local man by the name of Ralph McDill; the story a man retiring from the work of his life told simply and poignantly but without any tear-jerking gimmicks. Then there’s Von’s Rock Shop, the living fossil. “Yes, Von’s Rock Shop, that musty, dusty, cluttered old souvenir stand on Highway 101 a few miles south of Hopland, a place where time and the freeway long ago passed by…Von’s Rock Stop is still standing,” but in Kramer’s words, most of “those places are gone now, as gone as Route 66 or the sand-covered two-lane roads my family used to drive on vacation trips to northern Michigan, where we’d stop at stands selling copies of the Constitution alongside bullwhips with snakeskin handles, and homemade paper tubes containing peanuts with a prize inside.” Now there’s a vivid, pictured phrase that any halfway decent writer should be fully jealous of — copies of the Constitution alongside bullwhips with snakeskin handles and homemade paper tubes containing peanuts with a prize inside. America is sensed in these words: what we were and what we are, that great promise gone awry.
It’s a no-secret that Tommy Wayne Kramer has plenty of enemies in Ukiah — the smug and imperious who live in any small town with too many chiefs and not enough Indians; the Kings and Queens of nowhere who want to tell us what to do; the progressive, mental dwarfs who think they’re so damn smart. I doubt that Kramer even cares. And, he shouldn’t. His talent looms above them. His style is quick and funny; every sentence turns a page, and that’s a skill few writers have, and along with his sense of justice and his care for common, unpretentious folks (hidden skillfully in his words) Tommy Wayne Kramer knows these times as very few writers do.
Teach Your Dog to Shoplift is available at Mulligan Books on South State, Village Books on North State (couple blocks from each other) and at the Mendocino Book Company at Perkins and School Streets. (Ann Kilkenney at Mendo Bookstore says the book has been her No. 1 bestseller for a month or two.