Who are all these women, hundreds of them in full swoon? And why are they standing in line in a department store, clutching Lewis Grizzard's book, vying for an autograph and a wink from a professional good old boy with a mustache and a drawl who wants their activities limited to rubbing his back, hugging his neck, baking pies, frying chicken and washing his clothes?
Why are they flashing Playmate smiles and slipping him phone numbers? Good grief, ladies of the brand spanking New South, has Revolution '84 come down to hustling Dixie's favorite syndicated male chauvinist?
Lewis Grizzard, 38, the red-clay phenomenon and columnist for The Atlanta Constitution, thrice divorced and a known thrower of underwear on the floor, kicks them and they keep coming back.
"I'd pick up his underwear anytime," says Kim Kamerer, 30, wearing tight red sweat pants as she inches down the long trail winding from Cookware through Children's Clothes and into Books, where, on dazzling display, is Grizzard's new tome, "Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself."
She is reminded that he cusses and carouses with the boys, preferring the company of Pete the Barkeep and a Labrador named Catfish; that he compares every woman to his mother, who spoiled him rotten.
"I think he'd be a lot of fun," she says. "He likes Georgia football, and so do I. He likes the Braves, and so do I. He likes to drink beer. So do I. He may be a little confused, but all men are confused." Pause. "Most men are crazy."
Four hundred women in two hours, one every 18 seconds!
Here comes Iva Veazey, 28, an organ-company sales rep: "I support myself. I do all the things a woman in the '80s is supposed to do," she says. "But something about old traditional ways doesn't sound so bad. It wouldn't bother me to sit home and knit doilies all day."
Wait a minute! Here comes a gray-haired grandmother trying to muscle in. "I can't understand why a woman can't hold on to him," says Mildred Morris, 72. "If I was younger, I'd like to give it a try."
Lewis Grizzard (rhymes with lard, not lizard) pulls down almost a half million dollars a year baiting feminists ("hairy-legged Yankee women"), gays ("queers get on my nerves"), TV preachers ("Oral's speaking to Jesus again, hold on to your wallets"), Georgia Tech ("had a cousin tried to get in, but he didn't have enough pimples") and McDonald's (terrible fries).
His column is syndicated in 143 newspapers in the South and West, and when he talks he gets $3,000 a pop. He talks 70 times a year. He banks royalties from five books, each having outsold the last. His latest, "Elvis Is Dead . . .," a paean to the Good Old Days before Boy George, has sold 75,000 copies in hardcover since October. It rides the New York Times bestseller list, reviewers be damned.
"Ain't po' white trash no mo'," he grins, still collecting from such earlier tomes as "If Love Were Oil, I'd Be About a Quart Low" (Grizzard on women), "They Pulled Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat" (on his open heart surgery at 35) and "Don't Sit Under the Grits Tree With Anyone Else but Me."
He preaches a southern-fried gospel, sort of an Everyman's George Will, standing tall for God, patriotism, pickup trucks, his mother, the University of Georgia's Hairy Dawgs, country music and cheeseburgers without mushrooms.
"Do you know what mushrooms really are?" he asks.
"Toadstools," he says. "Frogs go to the bathroom under them things when it's raining. You better not put them on my cheeseburgers!"
His column is his couch, whereon he analyzes three failed marriages, plays curmudgeon-at-large, glorifies his Georgia roots, evokes tears for an alcoholic father who split, confounds conservatives by backing abortion and gun control ("The NRA are bullet brains -- I'd like to see the animals armed."), and keeps Redneck Chic alive. He is to Dixie what Royko is to Chicago, Breslin to New York, Buchwald to Washington.
A live humor album is planned, maybe even a country TV special. He's among the hottest things down South since corn bread. Bumper stickers urge women to "Honk if You've Been Married to Lewis Grizzard."
So, what's his problem, you ask.
Consider his ideal woman: "She'd have to be from a small town in south Georgia," he says, warming to a favorite topic in the kitchen of his $350,000 contemporary home, cut into a hill of pines. It is 11 a.m. and he has just arisen to make coffee. He fires up a Vantage filter tip.
"She would be a recent graduate of the University of Georgia," he goes on. "I underline 'recent.' Whose daddy was president of the bank, taught a men's Bible class at the Methodist Church and owned three liquor stores."
It's a subject he has warmed to before in prose: "I want her to be good to my dog, take her own overheads when we play tennis and to lob when I tell her to . . . to be open and willing sexually, but not insist on anything acrobatic that will cause me back injury or get an eye put out. I want her to like country music and at least understand the basics of college football and . . . make deviled eggs to carry to the games . . . and if it happens to rain, I don't want to hear, 'How much longer is this thing going to last?'
"I want her to pop me popcorn on cold nights when we're sitting in front of the fire . . . make certain there is always cold beer in the icebox and that I never run out of clean underwear . . . talk sweetly to me on hung-over mornings after I've made a fool out of myself at a party . . . be afraid of spiders and call me to come and squish them when she sees one running across the floor in the kitchen."
Here in this kitchen there is a frog in his throat from a hard night's research. His dog, Catfish, is by his side. Grizzard sports jeans, a beer shirt and Guccis on bare feet. Guccis on a good old boy? (Readers would also be shocked to learn of the black Mercedes 380SL alongside his truck). Suddenly, a lovely 24-year-old named Jobeth (from Alabama) will arrive bearing red tulips, and they will smooch a bit. All this before lunch.
"Let's eat," he says, as his chauffeur and aide-de-camp lays out a Styrofoam-plate lunch of fried chicken, butter beans, cabbage and iced tea. It's from the carryout up the street. A booking agent, lawyer, business manager and secretary, all loyal members of Grizzard Enterprises, a sort of down-home conglomerate, make sure the lanky humorist gets to the planes on time, drive when the boss has been tippling, count the money and keep irate feminists, ex-wives and angry homosexuals at bay.
Grizzard tends to stir folks up. Gays howled when he urged them to take their sexual antics off the Chattahoochee River and back to a motel. And he recently bemoaned the fate of an Alabama man who was arrested after touching the posterior of a woman who wore tight jeans to a laundromat. The column was introduced in court on the man's behalf.
And it sparked a near revolt in The Constitution newsroom.
Almost 50 reporters and editors signed a petition condemning him. Even his secretary rebelled. Hundreds of letters poured in, with local feminists plotting to kidnap Grizzard. They aimed to strip their tormentor, tar and feather him and release him downtown at high noon.
"We wanted to show him what it feels like to be humiliated, raise his awareness," says Gloria Tatum, a local activist. Gays would have cheered. "He's so silly and irrelevant," says one.
"All he did was pat her on the ass," says Grizzard. "If you don't want to get patted on the ass, don't come down here wearing no blue jeans three sizes too small. It was just a little helpful hint for women who do not want to be sexually harassed. As a man, I can say we is attracted to your butts. I like to look at them. I like to occasionally touch one.
"Now, one of the ways to avoid this is not to wear real tight split skirts, hot pants or anything from Frederick's of Hollywood. If you don't want to get patted , get some old army fatigues, wear your hair stringy, put on some high-top Hush Puppies, don't wear no makeup, and probably nobody will mess with you."
Only a Georgia Tech PR man came close to getting even with Grizzard. He duped Grizzard into taping a commercial wishing the Yellow Jackets luck, "except when they play Georgia." Except the last phrase was cut, making Grizzard look like a turncoat. Irate Georgia fans pelted him with bottles at a Braves game. He threatened to sue; the commercial was recut.
Are we onto a new high priest of Redneckism?
"Redneck has been terribly abused as a term," he says. "Where I come from, a redneck was a farmer who worked the fields all day and got his neck sunburned. People made fun of them. They were rubes. Billy Carter reintroduced it to the world, and it has come to mean a racist, bigoted, fat, tobacco-chewing, beer-swilling, dog-lovin', woman-hatin' good ol' boy.
"Now, I don't think I'm a bigot or a racist. But I have a truck, a Blazer. I drink beer. There are some women I do hate. But I did write an ugly column about Anita Bryant one time. And I've got a pair of Gucci loafers on. So what does that mean? If you want a stereotype, I'm a quintessential southern male."
What about calling Atlanta's first black mayor a "pompous ass"?
"Maynard Jackson happened to be a pompous ass," he says. "A fat pompous ass. Look, I live in a city where 90 percent of the politicians happen to be black. It's a natural adversarial role. I write satire, humor. If the politicians were white, I'd make fun of them, too. But to cry 'racist' in 1984, albeit correct on occasion, is one of the great cop-outs. I don't attack black people. The black people I normally write about are billionaires or in high positions."
Few cows are sacred. Certainly not Andrew Young, mayor of what Grizzard calls "Andytown," derided for touting direct flights between Atlanta and Nigeria.
Young calls him "downright funny. He makes an art of poor-white-trash culture."
After Young called Mondale aides "smart-assed white boys," Grizzard claimed to have found out his true identity. At last, he wrote, "I am somebody." And SAWB buttons became the rage. The mayor twitted that surgeons had replaced his critic's faulty aorta valve with a pig's. "What can you expect from a guy with the heart of a pig?"
Counters Grizzard: "It was a pig named Jerome. Every time I pass a barbecue joint, I get all choked up. And every afternoon, I get a powerful urge to make love in the mud. That can ruin your sex life, since few women share similar urges."
Grizzard has paid a price for his humor, friends say. Behind the image of tart-tongued rural sage is a sad, confused little boy of 38, catapulted from humble roots in south Georgia.
Born in 1946 at Ft. Benning, he was raised poor, proud and patriotic. As for women, he blames his mother for his angst.
"She spoiled me. I was raised to think women had babies, stayed at home, and men worked. By the time I got ready to do it, I thought I had all the answers. Only somebody had changed the questions."
His father, just back from World War II with a Bronze Star and a battlefield commission, regaled him with war stories he never forgot, then was off to Korea, where he was captured by the Chinese. He managed to escape and returned a hero.
But then a small boy watched his father hit the bottle and go AWOL after 13 years. Then came a discharge, his parents' divorce and subsequent remarriage for both. He visited his father on weekends, before his death.
"I loved him so much," he reflects. "God, he was funny. Very cosmopolitan."
He married at 19. He marveled that once he was married, women were suddenly available. He graduated from the University of Georgia and found work as a sportswriter.
At 23, he became executive sports editor of the Atlanta Journal, a whiz kid of the genre. There was a painful divorce and remarriage. He became sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. In Chicago, wife number two split, inquiring what he did for dinner before he was married.
"I ate a lot of fish sticks," he said, unsure of what she was getting at.
"There are plenty of fish sticks in the freezer," she said.
He hated Chicago: the cold, the food, the overcoats. "You couldn't tell the boys from the girls," he says. "I was afraid I might ask somebody named Leroy for a date." He imported women from Hotlanta. They brought care packages from Harold's Barbecue. Then Jim Minter, editor of The Constitution, mentioned he was hunting for a columnist. Grizzard begged, "Hire me!"
He was an overnight sensation. Peachtree Publishers, a now-burgeoning regional publishing house with 30 authors, collected his columns, and Grizzard took off. He remains their top seller. "He's a Faulkner for just plain folks," says editor Chuck Perry. "He strikes a chord common people feel every day. I like to call him the Huey Long of literature."
His shtick is Confused '50s Man adrift in a post-'60s world. He dates his epiphany to the day Elvis died. It was 1977 and he took the news hard, sitting on the beach with his buddies and a case of cold beer. "The world had gone nuts," he muses. JFK, RFK and MLK were long gone. People had been spitting on soldiers. Grown men like Willie Nelson were wearing earrings.
He married again, a witty ex-debutante named Kathy. Both tried. She taught him how to order wine, and turned him on to Guccis, boxer shorts, velour bathrobes and Dior socks. She made him laugh. "He was my Pygmalion," she says, "but he was so hard to manage."
He was a hypochondriac. He blew up when socks came back solo. Where was his cash going, he wanted to know? She responded with her favorite game, "Drying For Dollars," wherein oodles of cash, stuffed into shirt pockets after a hard night at the bar, come tumbling out in the dryer.
They had fun, then he had a heart operation. Something happened, and it was Splitsville.
"All those women out there think they can change him," she scoffs. "But when he gets married, he wants to be unmarried. And when he's unmarried, he wants to be married . . . Ask Lewis what his favorite things are and he'll tell you, 'Playing tennis, drinking beer, and country music, poker with the boys, Georgia football and his job.' You notice I didn't make the top five. I could list 10 and maybe not make it."
They still see each other. He took her on a cruise, telling a girlfriend he was going hunting with the boys. Christmas Eve was spent together. "He smokes, cusses and drinks too much," she says, "but I'm very comfortable with him. We continue to amuse each other. He's like a teen-age son. You don't know whether to love him or hate him. So you just pray he'll make it home alive."
Jim Minter puts his feet on his desk and lights a cigar. "He's pricked some people once considered off limits to pricking," says the Journal and Constitution editor, savoring his find.
"He's absolutely the best of anyone I know at walking up to the edge of bad taste without being in bad taste. But he can sure tread in dangerous water."
He suffers the frustration of having too much talent, Minter reflects. "Lewis could make it as an entertainer in Vegas," he says. "Usually someone who can write real well can't speak. But Lewis can sing and dance. All he needs is a big bus and a band."
He mounts the local motel stage in a tuxedo, a hot number on the Jaycee rubber-chicken circuit, and the sheet-rock hangers, plumbers, construction men and assorted builders at the sales dinner elbow aside prime rib for dessert and Grizzard. He announces the title of his next book: "I've Seen England and I've Seen France and I've Seen Miss America Without Her Underpants." As for his current book, he says, microphone in hand, "It's about why I'd like to drown Boy George. I'd like to hold his nasty head under water 'til he stopped kicking."
"YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" they shout. He urges them to buy the book.
He praises these bedrock citizens for working hard every day, for spurning protest parades. They lap it up, and as the applause explodes, his face flushes, and just before they rise to their feet to clap some more, he leaves his people with one final morsel to ponder, the secret of his inspiration.
"Every time I get down and out and feel like laying back with the old dead cats of mediocrity, I think on these immortal words that once came to me in a motel in Oklahoma City," he says. "And I want you to take this little thought with you, pass it on to somebody else, and maybe the country will be better for it. Just remember this one thing: 'Life is like a dog-sled team. If you ain't the lead dog, the scenery never changes.'