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And on and on and on. Conversation doesn't have to flow into logical segues, although any topic broached will ultimately lead to talk of convoluted conspiracies, numerology and the metaphysical meanderings of the ancients. Balducci is an avid reader of obscure and esoteric literature. In the corner of the basement is a space that looks like the most tantalizing area of a collector's bookstore -- spinner racks of comics from the 1950s, pulp magazines, scandal sheets, boxes of underground publications. "My library womb," remarks Balducci. "There are ideas gestating there that I tap into." Some of his pet pontifications include the fervent beliefs that human beings are the seeds of extraterrestrials; that the NASA moon landing was a hoax; that Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and the Masonic Order all conspired to have JFK killed. And Jesus Christ? "He never existed; he was history's greatest fraud." When this former altar boy gets going on religion, he's as unstoppable as a lemming migration.
"The pope's going to be assassinated," he says, regurgitating the prediction of 16th-century French physician/astrologer Nostradamus. "It will be in late spring. I'm not sure if it's this year or next, but it will be in a place with two rivers, which is Belgrade, Yugoslavia. That trip has not been announced yet. So he should stay out of there. The last one, the one that only made it through a month, John Paul I? He was poisoned. Oh, and there's only two more popes after this pope, and then the fall of the Catholic Church -- which is about time. We're going to party that night, pal."
"He's definitely a true artistic personality," says Kathleen. "It takes a special kind of wife, a special kind of mother, special kinds of friends to understand him and be in his world."
Glenn McCoy understands Rich Balducci -- sort of. The editorial cartoonist for the Belleville News-Democrat and creator of the syndicated comic strip The Duplex was a fledgling cartoonist when he responded to an ad in a college paper. "I dropped some stuff off at Snicker," he recalls, "and nothing came of it. I figured that Rich thought it was junk. And then I got better, thankfully, and my stuff was getting published in larger circles, and the next thing I know, my stuff that I had sent to him years back started appearing. In fact, the last time I checked, he was selling pirated T-shirts of my cartoons. So I'll have to hunt Rich down, see if he has a check for me."
McCoy gives Balducci high marks as a cartoonist but doesn't discount his cantankerous side. "I used to think he's a loose cannon -- more like a loose thermonuclear device," McCoy says. "He once tried to choke me on live TV during a spirited discussion on censorship. But now I think he's one of these people whose karma is tuned into attracting trouble or grief."
One person who found herself on the receiving end of that grief is greeting-card artist Mary Engelbreit. "She got my magazine kicked out of Artmart because of the 'Mary Engel-Trite' parody," gripes Balducci. He took Engelbreit's trademark gangly-girl character and put her in a compromising position -- bending over with a puppy humping her. "Apparently that was the fuse that lit the rocket," says Balducci, doing his Dustin Hoffman/Ratso Rizzo imitation from Midnight Cowboy.
"There's a big difference between parody and obscenity," sniffs Engelbreit.
Balducci just can't stand Engelbreit's art. "'Life is a chair of bowlies,'" he vents, referring to a popular Engelbreit title. "What the hell is that? Her work is so homogenized, so idyllic. It pisses me off that the world isn't the way she draws it, with doors unlocked and flowers growing. She spends $15,000 a year at Artmart, and if she asks them to do something, you can bet they're gonna do it."
Engelbreit acknowledges asking Artmart to remove that issue. Artmart's Keith Baizer says it was offensive and that he would have removed it anyway. He notes that Snicker still sells there from a newspaper box in the parking lot.
Those faded yellow secondhand newspaper boxes have become almost as troublesome as their owner. One morning, Balducci went to service a box on Delmar Boulevard, in the University City Loop, but the box had been moved. He lugged it back to the original spot and was stocking it when a guy emerged from the building, the Market in the Loop. "He demanded to know if it was my machine," recounts Balducci. "I asked for his name and title. It's always good to get the identity of the psycho coming upon you -- I was once stabbed in the head with a pen while doing the route. The guy said he was Mr. Wald and that he owned the building."
"I didn't realize it was still published," says Dan Wald, 49. "I've never seen anybody open the box, buy a paper out of there. The box had graffiti all over it, and the paper inside was all yellowed and tattered, looked like it'd been there 50 years. So I moved it down the street. Next day, I look out, I see the guy's moving it back. I said, 'Listen, we don't want that there' ... and the guy starts going crazy. He starts yelling, 'That's my First Amendment right.' I said: 'Just calm down, buddy, take it easy.' And then he starts coming at me and pushing me."
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