Dan Jenkins takes a swig of his J&B.
It is served in a glass the size of a vase.
He's been known to down 30 or 40 of those suckers between sunsets and still manage to light the right end of a Winston and chastise a flying waitress for not bringing enough smoked almonds while he's tapping out another column on "Why I Hate See-Through Jerseys."
The man is a legend. Larger than life its ownself.
Maybe it's because he's from Texas, where they put gravy on cornflakes and eat chicken-fried steak in snakeskin Tony Lama boots and the only thing hotter than the salsa is the latest scoop on the TCU point spread.
But here he sits, in this effete Washington bar, looking semi-dapper in his blue flannel blazer with pewter Wimbledon tennis championship buttons and a silver helmet of hair. He is polite. Reserved. Not at all the raunchy raconteur one might expect from the 55-year-old author of half a dozen irreverent, bawdy books including "Semi-Tough" and its recently published sequel, "Life Its Ownself: The Semi-Tougher Adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett & Them."
The reviews for the book, which serves up locker-room loonies, literary flea-flickers, racist, sexist screwballs, dope-head linebackers and a crooked zebra (also known as an umpire), have been rolling in like Riggins at first and goal. Hilarious. Outrageous. "Heartily raunchy and wonderfully impolite," says Roy Blount Jr., columnist and author of "What Men Don't Tell Women." "A lot of people are afraid to write the way people talk in bars. Jenkins is not."
"Awesome," says Pete Axthelm, Newsweek columnist and NBC sports commentator. "He has incredible retention. A lot of his lines in his books are ones I remember hearing one night in Elaine's years ago. The amazing thing is, most of us forget it. He doesn't."
"A perfectly horrible book," says gossip columnist and old friend Liz Smith, "which I couldn't put down."
Sonny Jurgensen: "There's a lot of truth in that book."
"I'm sure Pete Rozelle's not very happy," says Jenkins. "But I hope he can take a joke."
A Jenkins Sampler:
Rucker McFarland turned queer. He was the first defensive tackle to make a public announcement about his genes. We were all disturbed to hear about his problem, but at least it cleared up the mystery of why he had kept so many rolls of designer fabric in his locker.
Jenkins also likes to make lists. In one, he ticks off the lines a man is most likely to hear from a woman he has spent the previous night with. Among the Top 10:
"Hey, this is Saturday! I have the whole day free!"
"Are these towels clean?"
"That's a neat picture. Your wife is really pretty."
"It's actually in remission."
"You probably shouldn't drink so much. It would help."
"What were you doing with that pinlight last night?"
Jenkins says that even if some folks hate it, friends like Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Jake Scott and Alex Hawkins "will love it. 'Cause, hell, a lot of this comes from them."
Football players read?
"Most of 'em don't. But my friends do. And they all think they're these guys. There's an awful lot of Sonny and Hawkins and Meredith and Gifford in Billy Clyde. And me, of course."
But just the good parts, huh.
"Yeah. None of that bigoted stuff."
The seasoned sportswriter and self-described "ink-stained wretch" with a voice slicker than Tupelo honey on oilcloth says he would rather sit in saloons swapping one-liners than almost anything else with the possible exception of birdieing the ninth hole at Pebble Beach.
Things That Are Important to Dan Jenkins:
3. Happy Hour.
5. Not boring people.
He hates giving interviews. He says they all ask the same question: What's Arnold Palmer really like? He is visibly uncomfortable, crossing his shiny brown loafers, pulling at his gold tie pin, adjusting his tinted aviator shades.
"Listen," he says after 60 minutes of talking about Dan Jenkins His Ownself, "if nothing comes of this I'll understand."
He says he's not an intellectual, is bored by politics, can't appreciate Saul Bellow, would never see a psychiatrist, loves deadlines ("type fast, get it done and go to a bar"), thinks there's no such thing as the New Sensitive Man ("they're all acting"), still uses a manual typewriter and "never had any angst."
But that's not important. What's important is having a sense of humor.
" 'Cause most of what's going to happen is bad. You know that going in. You got to learn to laugh."
Axthelm recalls one particular Super Bowl. He, Roy Blount Jr., Jenkins and his wife spent six totally crazed days together, closing the bars every dawn and "picking up some hippie girl who sold flowers and making her queen of the Super Bowl. At the very end, nobody could move. June said, 'Jeez, we must have drank six cases of Scotch and smoked 20 cartons of cigarettes' and Dan looked up and said, 'I didn't realize we all came down here to quit smokin'.' "
Jenkins is known for his expertise when it comes to saloons. In fact, he is famous for choosing the unofficial "press bar" at various sporting events. Sonny Jurgensen recalls many nights spent with "Jenky," playing a game the author had invented. "It was called 'Blight Draft,' " Jurgensen says. "You had to pick one person" who had really angered you. "One person that was a blight on humanity and tell a story about them."
Says Steve Daley, sportswriter for The Chicago Tribune, "He doesn't have a happy view of the world."
Bud Shrake is a writer and old friend of Jenkins from Fort Worth. According to popular wisdom, the character of Shake Tiller is based on Shrake, who says Jenkins "has always outdone everybody. And he had always taken it for granted that he would have these things. Even when he had no money, he lived like Farouk."
Back in high school, a friend called Jenkins, and was breathless with excitement. "Guess what, Dan? Guess what? I just got a bike."
"Oh yeah?" says Jenkins. "I just got a car."
A new friend is someone Jenkins has known for 20 years, although he has made exceptions for certain members of the glitterati, including Bob and Lola Redford and George Plimpton.
"Dan's motto," says Bud Shrake, "is 'Don't trust anyobody who didn't go to Paschal High School.' "
"He's just like he appears," says Liz Smith, who did go to Paschal High School. "But underneath it, he's an extremely sophisticated person who clings to this protective coloring of his past as the thing he knows best."
"Dan's a real American primitive," says Larry ("Best Little Whorehouse in Texas") King. "He's smarter than just a good ol' boy. And the most opinionated sumbitch I've met in my life."
Says Jenkins, "I always thought it takes tremendous ego to be a writer. To sit down and put your name on it and presume to tell people. But I enjoy it. Because I goddam well do know more about it than they do and I want to inform them."
"Pro football is boring. Because the season's too long. They're overdosed on television. The players are too rich and too stoned."
Why Southern Men Like Football: "Because it gives them a chance not to be losers. They lost the Civil War and this is a chance to get back."
Are all football players dumb jocks?
"They're not," he says, lighting up another Winston. "They're all different kinds of people. They're poets. They're truck drivers. They're bigoted scum. They're dope-head millionaires. They're everything there is in life. They're not just big dumb jocks as a group. There're a lot of big dumb jocks out there, but there are a lot of fantastic wits out there. Smart people. Who are well read."
The plot of "Life Its Ownself" is so fantastic, it's believable.
"I tried to think of something really bizarre that might well be. I have sat in front of the television set and thought, 'I swear to Christ somethin's going on here. I think this game is scripted.' I know it wasn't, but I've thought so. I swear to God, those zebras are crooked. They must have bet the other side because all they do is make holding calls.
"It's my fantasy that the players are goin' south and the zebras are crooked and it's the only way that I can explain the fact that the game has gotten boring."
And the racism?
"Well, screw that. I'm sick of sensitivities being what they are."
When "Semi-Tough" was published in 1972, it was an instant success. Says Roy Blount Jr., a colleague at Sports Illustrated for seven years, "It was the first raunchy sports book." Jenkins says he wrote it for fun, with no agent and no publisher. It was an instant best seller, and later became a film starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh.
For Jenkins, the fame was overwhelming. "Terrifyingly so. It was hard to hold it together for a while. Having this amount of money thrust in your lap that you'd never been accustomed to."
But Jenkins came to his senses and after giving half of it away to the government, bought a house in Hawaii, one in Florida and an apartment on Park Avenue. His wife of 25 years, June, owns two restaurants in New York: Juanita's and The Summerhouse. Jenkins, his wife and Bud Shrake all went to high school and college together and it is widely rumored that the character of Barbara Jane Bookman is based on June Jenkins.
"Not really. But sort of," Jenkins says.
"Life Its Ownself" has already been sold to MGM for what Hollywood types like to call a major motion picture. Jenkins has agreed to write the screenplay even though Hollywood its ownself gets sacked in the new book. Jenkins says the material was gathered during an eight-week stint on the West Coast, trying to turn "Semi-Tough" into a television series. He wrote six scripts. Not one word ended up on the air. He lost every argument and the series was canceled before the second station break. "You're really dealing with children. We're talking idiots here. Serious idiots."
But Jenkins got the last laugh.
"That's how writers get even."
As a humorist, Dan Jenkins has often been criticized for his style, which is short on prose and long on one-liners.
"You could say the same about Mark Twain, not to compare myself with Mark Twain, but I'm not Milan Kundera "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" . I'm not committed to boring people. I'm not committed to long, drawn-out boring soliloquies. I basically write books that I want to read.
"I don't know why what's in here is of less importance than John Updike writing about a Toyota dealer."
He says the subject of what's serious and what's not is a constant source of frustration. As are "people looking for new ways to tap-dance on the language."
Jenkins was born in Fort Worth. His father, a salesman and a sports nut, left home when Jenkins was a boy. "My mother was semi-crazy and in the antique business. Made a lot of money and spent it on the doctors. I was raised by a grandmother and an aunt. I had the best of all possible worlds, because I was an only child. So much love you couldn't believe it and so much humor."
An avid sports fan, Jenkins got the Fort Worth Star-Telegram every day. At the age of 10, he decided to be a reporter.
"I think Clark Gable did it. Seeing him in an old movie at the age of 10, a guy with his press card in his hat who got to go through life" not taking any nonsense. That, says Jenkins, is "what made me want to be a journalist.
"My grandmother bought me a typewriter. It sat on the kitchen table. I would take the paper every day, put a piece of paper in and start copying the newspaper story word for word. One day, I started trying to improve on it. I thought, 'This guy's an idiot. I can do better than this.' It hasn't stopped since."
After R. L. Paschal High School, Jenkins enrolled at Texas Christian University, then worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 10 years as a sports editor and columnist. He joined the Dallas Times Herald for two years before Sports Illustrated beckoned.
"He was the quintessential Sports Illustrated writer," recalls Blount. "He knew everything and everybody. And his way of covering golf tournaments was legendary. He would sit there in the bar drinking and wait for the golf players to come in and tell him what they did."
"I've never seen him actually cover a story," says George Plimpton. "I think he gets most of it by osmosis."
But after 22 years, Jenkins is taking early retirement from the magazine to write a monthly column for Playboy.
"I got mad at them after 22 years. I didn't like the managing editor. We had a big difference about the quality of my golf writing, and since I knew a whole lot more about it than he did and since I had as much journalistic experience as he did and because I'd written more than 500 stories for the magazine I didn't think I oughta take that."
The editor, he says, "never liked country club sports as much as he likes sports where guys sweat."
After "Semi-Tough," Jenkins wrote "Dead Solid Perfect," "Limo" (with Bud Shrake) and "Baja Oklahoma," which many aficionados consider Jenkins' funniest book. Axthelm, though, says "Dead Solid Perfect" is the sleeper.
"He's got a secret discipline," says Axthelm. "He can be totally crazed for a while, and then disappear and nine months later another book appears."
Daughter Sally Jenkins, a 24-year-old sportswriter for the San Franscisco Chronicle, says her father never pressured her to become a writer, but offered invaluable advice and encouragement like "journalism is like golf. It's something you can play your whole life."
"One of the things he told me," she says, "was that writing is 80 percent confidence."
Of course, she always knew that as the daughter of Dan Jenkins, she would not be sitting in front of the tube eating Doritos.
"He always told us that we were going to have to go out and work, that there would be no inheritance," she says. "He's gonna spend it all."