As it was calculated to be, it was one of those indelible moments, falling somewhere on the gauge of intensity between the memories of where I was when JFK was shot and the time I walked out of the first-grade little girls' room with the back of my skirt hitched up in my underwear: shocking.
One morning in 1989 I was driving across Memorial Bridge in Washington and -- honest, I was looking for National Public Radio -- my radio-channel cruising somehow landed on a man giving an animated description of what he saw when he bent over in a mirror -- and it wasn't the seam of his Levi's.
As a sort of deer-caught-in-the-headlights social paralysis passed, I couldn't help a furtive glance or two to see if people in other cars somehow heard the anatomic travelogue coming out of my radio. Then, I confess, I cracked up. My first encounter with shock radio's Howard Stern was not politically correct. He made me laugh.
It wasn't what Howard saw in the mirror that got me -- though you may doubt that -- so much as the fascination of witnessing the slow-motion train wreck he made of social convention and what's left of modern manners.
It's not supposed to be this way, but nearly every time I drop in on him on 1300 WJFK I cringe, but do the mental equivalent of covering my eyes and peeking voyeuristically through my fingers at his loud, crude collisions.
Just a sampling of what I can remember of his unfiltered Tourette's syndrome-like assault on the airwaves:
Howard arguing with a black caller about whether Rodney King is really a jerk and the L.A. cops who beat him were heroes. Howard, between burps, asking women their "jug" size. Howard and co-host Robin Quivers doing the dozens on the size of David Brenner's lips even while the comedian sat in the studio. Howard pressing rock star Sting's wife for details on her bathroom habits, and getting an amazingly scrappy wit in return. And the one that drove me to another channel but then ate at my curiosity until I had to return was when Howard, in his familiar cranky-aggressive tone, prodded his sporting but uncooperative mother about her sex life.
You can just hear the pounding of the offendeds' feet stomping away.
And probably that's the thrill of shock radio, because I can't say Howard's a guy I'd party with. And I definitely don't agree with most of his commentary. And, no, I'm not going to ante up for his book or his New Year's pay-per-view cable special.
But the critic's whines of "racist," "juvenile," "hatemonger," "scatological" sound somehow like those whiny girls in the schoolyard who used to cry "Oh, gross!" -- and then stick around -- when guys just like Howard would commit an outrage. He is all those things critics say, that's obvious. But after years of his schtick, it doesn't seem to be the point any more.
Howard amazes me. He breaks the rules -- at a cost of many thousands of dollars in "indecency" fines by the Federal Communications Commission.
How can he do this, I constantly wonder. And I guess that's why I've become a somewhat regular listener along with millions of others who tune in to make his the top-rated morning radio show in several markets. It's the spectacle of rules being broken. I definitely don't fit the randy-young-man demographic of the show: I am a 37-year-old journalist. I've interviewed heads of state. I wear pumps. I don't smoke, drink, or listen to Guns N' Roses. I like "Matlock."
More interesting, I am not alone. I know several like-minded women who are willing to admit to me -- though not to you, the public -- that they listen to Howard. I suspect there are untold others.
One friend says: "I can't take him seriously to get offended. There's so much pussy-footing around, being so careful about ++ being politically correct, that it's refreshing to hear his kind of adolescent directness in an adult. Yes, he can be racist but then he doesn't give anybody special consideration."
True. Whatever your race, whether you're straight or gay, a feminist or a redneck sexist, fat or thin, religious or godless, rich .. or homeless, and especially if you're a celebrity, Howard's going to dump on you. And Howard dumps on Howard as heavily as he does on anyone else.
Because his attacks are so indiscriminate and his sidekick Robin Quivers is a black woman, and because he is so adamantly monogamous (and I believe him because he
sounds -- and looks -- so much like insecure guys I've known who need the support of a strong, loyal woman) he's got a convincing protective armor that makes it pretty hard to take his sexism and racism at face value. They seem mostly an entertainment gimmick more than a strongly held political tract.
I sometimes use Howard as a cultural reference point without prefacing it with all the tiring social disclaimers and I get strange looks -- the reason I even have this space is that an editor thought it was strange I listen to Howard.
I'm sure psychoanalysts could fill a whole Oprah or Donahue show delving into the pain of "Women who listen to Howard."
But, just like back in school when class clowns would steal the show and liven it up for a while, I'd rather submit to the thrill of
the shock of listening to Howard make fun of us than get instructive help from Oprah or Phil.
Clara Germani is assistant national editor at The Sun.