Over the past eight or nine years, I’ve learned that freelance writing is feast or ramen. Either you have too much work to do, with a calendar that is decorated with increasingly frantic looking deadline reminders, or you’re staring at an empty inbox, wondering whether anyone is ever going to hire you again. I’m fortunate enough to have a number of projects right now, which means that I spend most days staring at a blinking cursor and panicking while I try to coax full sentences out of my increasingly reluctant frontal lobes.
My crowded calendar is also why I’m currently procrastinating, watching my fifth straight episode of “The Golden Girls” on Hulu. The streaming service just added all 180 episodes of the show, starting with the very first time that Bea Arthur bites her fist in the opening credits to the final show, the two-parter where her Dorothy Zbornak gets married and leaves the girls’ floral-and-rattan living room for the last time.
So yeah, the Golden Girls are back, but they never really went away. You could still find a rerun if you really wanted to (and if you were really procrastinating, because that 2,500-word feature wasn’t due for another five minutes) and the show has been celebrated with Lego tributes, a series of hard-to-find action figures and, as of this weekend, a Rue McClanahan-themed restaurant in New York that celebrates All Things Blanche and serves a slice of cheesecake in honor of each Girl.
I never stopped watching the show. In college, my roommate and I had a Golden Girls drinking game that involved downing something every time Rose mentioned St. Olaf, Blanche said something sexual or Sophia called Dorothy “Pussycat.” (This game, along with the fact that the show came on, like, eight times a day, may or may not be the reason that I failed economics).
Despite the fact that it originally premiered 32 years ago, the only outdated aspects are the shoulder pads in Dorothy’s pajamas. (Apparently there was a time when post-menopausal women could only sleep if they were dressed like New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor). The show remains one of the most progressive series that ever aired, addressing everything from gay marriage, AIDS, domestic violence, Alzheimer’s, drug addiction, poverty and racism with episodes that would still seem relevant and forward-thinking today —and it’s still funnier than the majority of sitcoms that currently air on network tee-vee.
My only real-life interaction with any of the Girls happened, weirdly enough, in Bethabara Park, when Rue McClanahan came to Winston-Salem for the annual Bookmarks festival in 2008. (This event was also notable, since it was one of the two or three times in my life that I’ve actually been on time for something). Picture it: a sweltering September day, when I power-walked past at least two dozen middle-aged women wearing T-shirts about menopause so I could snag a seat close enough to see Blanche Devereaux’s caftan fluttering in real life.
She was here to promote her autobiography, My First Five Husbands… and the Ones Who Got Away, and read several excerpts about her early acting jobs — she made $2 an hour working as a nude model for art classes — before slipping into Blanche’s familiar syrupy accent to share some stories about the show. Afterwards, she asked for questions from the crowd and I raised my profusely sweating hand, debating whether to tell her about that drinking game or to offer her two bucks to take her clothes off. Instead, I asked whether she had any idea that the show would still resonate in the (then) 20-plus years since it first aired.
“We had no idea that people who weren’t even born when we started taping the show [in 1985] would still be watching it today,” she said, shaking her head. She talked about how the jokes were timeless (they are), that the idea that of women of “a certain age” could still be sexually attractive was timeless (okay, sure) and that the clothes were timeless (aaaand you lost me).
“I kept all of Blanche’s clothes. In fact, I’m wearing Blanche today,” she said, gesturing toward an oversized yellow smock that made her look a little like she was wrestling Colonel Mustard.
She said she would take one more question before she started signing everyone’s recently purchased paperbacks.
“What’s the secret to a short, happy marriage,” a fiftysomething man shouted from the back.
“Honestly, honey, I don’t know,” she quipped. “I never had one.”
All of us bolted from our folding chairs and arranged ourselves into a line in front of the long, plastic table where she’d be Sharpie-ing our books. McClanahan was the undisputed star of the festival, and I remember looking over at award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni who was sitting by herself, picking at a plate of kiwi and wondering whether she wished she’d had a recurring role on “Night Court” instead.
After almost an hour, McClanahan’s handlers said she would only be signing four or five more books, probably because her polyester Blanche-wear wasn’t super-breathable. I was the last person to push my paperback into her impeccably manicured hands.
“Holy crap,” I said, respectful as ever. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Well, thank you very much,” she said, as a drop of sweat fell from my face onto her forearm.
She didn’t flinch. I kept talking. “When I was a kid, my parents were super strict with what I could watch on TV. I was allowed to watch ‘The Golden Girls’ but they’d change the channel any time Blanche was talking.”
A drop of sweat rolled down my nose and dropped squarely on the slice of cake in front of her.
“Oh my,” she said, looking around, perhaps for Bookmarks security. “That’s one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.”
She signed my book, addressing it to my former roommate who was, at the time, pregnant with her first child. (“Name the baby Blanche,” she wrote.)
I shook her hand again and thanked her, but stopped before I walked away. “Ms. McClanahan? One more thing?”
“Yes?” she asked, already signing the next person’s book.
“Could you say lanai?”
She paused, her Sharpie suspended in midair. She sat up straight, cocked her head to the side and said, with just a hint of a southern accent, “Lanaaaiiii.”
Rue McClanahan died two years later, having been preceded by Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur, respectively. (National treasure Betty White is the Highlander and will walk this earth forever, don’t you dare question this). But I will always love that these characters — and the very real issues they confronted and the ideas that they stood for — will live on. So yeah, I have time for one more episode today. And maybe a slice of cheesecake.