Coo Coo Nutty Super Holiday Extravaganza


In general, the way things work, you go out trick or treating on Halloween and you go out Christmas caroling on Christmas Eve, and that’s that. But the year before we had gone out caroling on Christmas Eve and our first stop had been Pete Cook’s house. Pete Cook, a local "character" of some eighty summers, had thrown a tub of warm water on us, and that had pretty much ended the evening’s festivities.

So as we sat in Calvano’s bedroom a couple of weeks before Christmas, Picarillo and I both voiced our doubts about sharing The Gift of Song with our fellow citizens. "Well, look," said Calvano. "The whole reason we were out singing was to make a little money, to help orphans or something--"

"I thought we were going to use the money to buy monster masks," I said.

"That would be the ‘or something,’" Calvano explained. "Anyway, I’m thinking it’s time to up the ante. This year we combine Christmas AND Halloween into one coo-coo nutty SUPER holiday [Calvano was in the throws of a serious Rat Pack fixation that winter], complete with presents, trees, monsters, candy, and so forth."

Picarillo and I were dumbfounded.

"We go out Christmas Caroling AND trick or treating at the same time. We wear our werewolf masks, and also our Santa hats, thus getting the approval of both the Santa faction and the werewolf constituency. We will bring these two peoples together in one vast giving. A giving and a loving," he said. He snapped his fingers twice.

"Wow," said Picarillo. "A giving AND a loving. Wait a minute. Who said that?"

"Jerry Lewis," I said, "During the Labor Day telethon. Steve and Edie sang ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ and then Jerry got that big check from Korvettes. He was moved to tears."

"You know," said Calvano thoughtfully, "maybe we can work the Labor Day angle into this too."

"Donate our money to Muscular Dystrophy, you mean?" asked Picarillo.

"Er, not exactly. I meant we could take PLEDGES. We could call people up and ask them to make pledges, and then when we got to their houses, instead of them throwing us nickels, they would have to come up with the money they pledged."

"I bet my sister would work the phones!" cried Picarillo. In retrospect, I wish I had taken that bet, but of such regrets is the path of my life paved.

"I wonder if there’s a way to work some more holidays into this," said Calvano. "Fourth of July?"

"Valentine’s Day," suggested Picarillo. "More candy."

"Good thinking-- that means they’d HAVE to give us some chocolate, in addition to whatever else they were giving us. But the trick-or-treat thing is where we’re gonna clean up. You know why?"

Picarillo and I shook our heads.

"Because there won’t be ANY COMPETITION." The truth of this was self-evident; no one else would be out there on Christmas Eve, wearing werewolf masks and demanding candy. We would indeed clean up. We’d get ALL the Halloween candy in town. It was so obvious, we couldn’t imagine why no one had ever thought of it before.

"It’s like the record player," Calvano said. "Once you chop down a tree, say in 6000 BC, and you got this like circle of wood with all these circles inside it, any moron can look at it and think, ‘Hey, looks like a record.’ Yet none of them did. It wasn’t until thousands of years later that people started making records. This is exactly the same thing, only with trick-or-treating."

"Exactly!" cried Picarillo.

"The Romans could have had records," said Calvano. "Fact."

"But they would have been in Latin," said Picarillo. Calvano and I were silent for several minutes while this sunk in. I think we were both shocked that Picarillo was aware that the Romans spoke Latin.

"Well, they could have had instrumentals," said Calvano at last. "Like the Ventures."

"I still don’t think I wanna go out singing," said Picarillo. "Pete Cook threw water on us last year."

"Geez, Picarillo, you’re a BOY SOPRANO," said Calvano. "But not forever. One of these years your voice is going to change and you’ll be sorry you didn’t go out one last time before your voice changed into a hideous croak."


"And everybody would remember your voice EVEN MORE THAN USUAL if this last time it was coming out of, like, a WEREWOLF." Picarillo licked his lips. "Let’s get the ball rolling," said Calvano. He strolled into the hall and picked up the phone. He dialed a number at random. "Hello, to WHOM do I have the honor of speaking? Mrs. Pickhart? How do you spell that? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Now the reason I’m calling, Mrs. Pickhart, is we are taking PLEDGES. Some fine young men in our community are going around Christmas Caroling this year, and to save time, we’d like to know what you’d care to contribute to the fund. What’s that? The FUND. Oh, it’s this... FUND. You don’t need to donate money. Candy is fine. Or candy and money. No, it goes to the boys themselves. Yes, they are SPECIAL boys. They... no, not THAT kind of special. Just special in general. We... hello? Hello?"

In the end, the pledge thing didn’t work out, so our coo-coo nutty super holiday was limited to Christmas and Halloween. Picarillo was won over by the idea of trilling "What Child Is This" through a rubber werewolf mask. We decided, in light of last year’s debacle, to skip the Pete Cook residence.

We found it impossible to imagine any other reaction than utter delight when folks opened their doors to find three werewolves serenading them, and yet... when then first door opened and the five year old child within began shrieking in terror, we began to dimly apprehend that we had made some sort of miscalculation. The parents of said child chased us away with some extremely un-Christmassy language. No one else actually swore at us, but at the next house the people seemed more or less baffled, and no one gave us any money or any candy. We more or less agreed we’d have to make some adjustments in the presentation next year, but by then Picarillo’s voice had changed forever and the question was moot.



What is the difference between cappuccino and frappuccino?




An excellent question, Stumped. Cappuccino (from the Italian "Cappu," meaning ‘priced,’ and "Ccino," ‘over’) is coffee and milk; frappuccino (from the American "Frr-a-a-a-apppp!! BLAT! * poot! * poot! * Fra-BLATT!" and the Tasmanian "Uccino," ‘till the cows come home,’ is, on the other hand, coffee and milk. Which one you prefer depends upon whether you like coffee and milk, or would rather have coffee and milk. Decisions, decisions, eh, Stumped?

* * *


What kind of coffee bean is used in making frappuccino?


Doesn’t get it


Any kind of coffee bean will do. In fact, any kind of bean at all will do. You can make a splendid coffee using soybeans, or any of the beans used in 3 Bean Salad, or even using whatever those beans are they use to make the pork-and-beans type beans. Just grind some up in your coffee grinder and put it in your coffee maker and see if I’m not telling the truth.

* * *


Is cappuccino really just coffee and milk? I thought LATTE was coffee and milk.




Don’t be too hard on yourself, confused, it’s a fairly common mistake. Cappuccino is coffee and milk. Latte, on the other hand, is coffee and milk. Got it now? And whatever you do, don’t confuse either one with cafe au lait, which happens to be coffee and milk. Hey, what’s this in my desk drawer? Can it be... a bottle of Muscatel?

* * *


So is Turkish coffee also coffee and milk? I have to say it doesn’t taste like it.


Boy oh boy it doesn’t


No, Turkish coffee is not coffee and milk. To make an authentic tasting cup of Turkish coffee, fill your cup with powdered gravel, and then add two drops of water. Wait for the water to evaporate. Add more gravel according to taste.

* * *



I’ve always been under the impression that coffee is made from coffee beans. You know, those old commercials with Juan Valdez examining coffee beans in the Andes and selecting only the finest ones, etc. etc. Yet YOU say that any bean at all can be ground up into coffee. This makes no sense to me.


Thinks you’re wrong on this one


Try it and see. Grind up some, I don’t know, LIMA BEANS and brew the resulting powder in your coffeepot, and THEN tell me I’m wrong. ANYTHING you brew in a coffeepot is coffee. Try it with some dog biscuits. Then add MILK for a delicious liver-flavored cop o’ cappuccino. Mmm-mmm!

* * *


Did John Fred and the Playboy Band have any hits besides "Judy in Disguise with Glasses"? I keep thinking they must have, but for the life of me I can’t think of any.


Hope so


They had a couple of other minor top 40 hits, notably "Shirley."

* * *


We’re planning to go a tad upscale for our office Christmas party this year and pretentious coffee is probably just the thing for it. What’s an unusual blend you recommend?


Ready for something new


Hmm. Well, I assume that you want to avoid the usual Espresso-Cappuccino-Irish Coffee sort of thing. What about some moochalattebloogabloga? Or some scrumptious frappablappacrappaccinoblecha? Or if you’re really in the mood for something wickedly delicious, some gloppaboojasloppa? Or just add some more vowels and create your own custom blend. Be sure to add some Muscatel.

* * *


A tip for your readers for this holiday season: Instant coffee with a soup 篮 of brandy-- better than you might think, believe me.


Only to glad to contribute


Another tip: A bottle of Muscatel, without any coffee in sight-- WAY better than you might think, tho frankly any cheap bum wine will do. Believe me.

* * *


When hazelnut (or any other subtle flavor) is added to a milk-and-coffee drink, and topped with a dollop of whipped cream, is it gilding the lily to sprinkle rich dark chocolate shavings over it?


Don’t want to overdo it


Nope. The more junk you dump into your pretentious coffee, the better it is. Dump a meat loaf in it. I don’t care. From now on I am the Muscatel Expert Guy. Thank you.

* * *


Is there a pretentious decaffeinated coffee? I love pretentious coffee, but would like to get to sleep at a decent hour for once.


Pretentious but likes to sleep anyway


I’m sorry, the Pretentious Coffee Expert Guy is out, Oh You Tee. The Muscatel Expert Guy does not answer coffee questions.

* * *


It seems to me that last week this was the ‘specialty’ coffee expert guy, and that you changed ‘specialty’ to ‘pretentious’ even in the letters you received. Was this an editorial decision by your superiors, or did you do this on your own authority?


Not sure what to make of it


The Muscatel Expert Guy knows nothing about this. He is very busy. Go away.

International Tree Registry Inc.


In theory, the Holiday season should have been boom times for the Custom Neon Sign Shop, since there is no better time that Christmas to give someone a neon sign that says "Merry Christmas, from your cousin Vito." As is so often the case, however, Custom Neon Sign Shop reality did not quite measure up to Custom Neon Sign Shop theory, and we had no more clients during the first two weeks of December than we had had during the first two weeks of November (or October, or September, or...). So Mulberry Street Joey Clams decided we should get into the Christmas Tree business to carry us though the winter. We cleared some of the garbage cans out of the alley next to the shop-- this would serve as the Lot-- and I made a "Christmas Trees 4 Sale" sign using a piece of plywood and a marker--in theory (here we go again) this was just temporary, until I could make a NEON "Christmas Trees 4 Sale" sign. But since I averaged about a letter and a half on a good day, the temporary sign would probably serve all through the Christmas Tree season.

Now the problem was finding Christmas trees to sell. Mulberry Street Joey Clams was appalled to discover that you could not fill an alley with Christmas trees for free; you had to BUY them from someone who grew them, or failing that, you had to grow your own. We had not the money for the one nor the time for the other. We had virtually no money at all, in fact, because I had just purchased a star.

As I have written before-- most recently about a month ago-- I bought a star from the International Star Registry, who named the star after me and sent me a star chart with my star circled in magic marker, and a certificate certifying they had named the star after me. I think at this time it cost 15 or 20 dollars to do this. I proudly brought my certificate and star chart into the Custom Neon Sign Shop to show Mulberry Street Joey Clams, who was still brooding about the unfairness of having to buy the trees he was going to sell.

"This cost you WHAT?" he said, staring at the certificate. "Wow. This is great..."

"Yeah, I’m gonna have it framed..."

"Nah, not that you BOUGHT it. That just means you’re a moron. It’s great that they can sell you basically NOTHING and charge you 20 bucks for it. I’m getting an idea..."

He screwed up his face as the idea formed in his brain. It appeared to be causing him serious pain. This was apparently an idea with sharp edges. "Go to Woolworth’s," he said at last, "And get some coloring maps. You know-- the kind you gotta color in grade school. On white paper. Get a bunch of ‘em. They gotta be the whole world, not just America."

As it happened, Woolworth’s was out of coloring maps, but I found some at a stationary store down town. When I got back to the Custom Neon Sign Shop, Mulberry Street Joey Clams had finished writing the prospectus.

  • "INTERNATIONAL TREE REGISTRY. Purchase a tree anywhere in the world. If there is no trees growing there, we will grow one for you. Deserts, icy places is okay as well. We spare no expense so that we can charge you virtually nothing. It cost only $5. When the tree is big enough to be a 6 foot ($5) or 10 foot ($7.35) tree, we cut it down and ship it to you FREE OF CHARGE. This usually takes approx. 15 years but it is worth it and also that is why we are able to do it so cheap."

  • "And when they buy a tree, we give ‘em one of these maps, with the spot where the tree is growing marked. We’ll always make sure it’s in Siberia or some place nobody ever goes, so they can’t check."

    "Couldn’t we go to jail for this?"

    "Nah. We could get sued, but in this business, there is no such thing as a bad law suit." He seemed remarkably sure of this, given that ‘this business’ had existed for less than 2 minutes. "We get sued, and then there is a lot of publicity, and people decide to buy our trees. It’s win-win."

    "What if we lose the law suit?"

    "Well, there’s two things. One, they could put us out a business, in which case the joke is on them, because there is no actual business to put us outta. Second, someone could theoretically get a judge to say we owe them money, in which case the joke is still on them, because we won’t give it to them."

    I still had some doubts, but I was forced to admit I could find no flaw in his reasoning. Of course this is not too surprising, considering that I had just bought a star for 20 bucks.

    Another thing that may not, in retrospect, seem all that surprising, is that no one wanted anything at all to do with the International Tree Registry. "Maybe it needs a snappier name," suggested Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Like... SPANGO. Or FROOB! Something like that."

    "Maybe," I said, but he didn’t like the way I said it.

    "Or maybe people are hesitant about buying in because they don’t see US buying one," he said. "Maybe if WE bought one of our trees, it would encourage others to do so."

    "Maybe," I said.

    "So why don’t you buy one?"

    "Because I’m in on the scam," I said, "And it would be stupid."

    "Even though it would goose sales like nobody’s business," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "I see. Very good. Fine."

    "All right, fine yourself," I said. "Here." I threw a five-dollar bill down on the table. "Happy now?"

    "Let’s say happIER," he said. He put my five-dollar bill in his pocket and appeared to be even happier.

    "So where is my tree located?" I asked.

    We had one of our ‘coloring maps’ on the wall next to a painting of Frank Sinatra that Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ uncle insisted we display as a condition of his (the uncle, not Frank) providing seed money for the Custom Neon Sign Shop. Mulberry Street Joey Clams threw a dart at the map. It landed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He peered closely at the map.

    "Guam," he said. "Give or take a couple hunnerd miles."




    From time to time one or another of my readers will write and ask, "Gee, you seem to be such a sharp-type guy. How is it you have never pursued a career in the sciences, so-called?"

    Of course they never write and ask ME this, but I have given it some thought anyway. Because for one thing, I have indeed had a bent for the sciences since my earliest days. And for another thing, I had 5 dollars on the Lions this past weekend and you have to wonder what I was thinking. I know I do. I guess I was thinking that sooner or later they would HAVE to win a game. But now I know that science tells us it is entirely possible they will go the whole season and never win, or even cover the spread.

    I got a chemistry set for my 11th birthday. The chemistry set contained a whole bunch of chemicals and several test tubes, an assortment of beakers and retorts, a Bunsen burner, some litmus paper, and an instruction booklet. For my first experiment (details on page 3 of the instruction booklet), I mixed baking soda and vinegar (not included in the set, but both at hand in the kitchen), and established to my satisfaction that they fizzed. For my second experiment I set the instruction booklet on fire with the Bunsen burner. I dropped this into my wastebasket and poured the mixture of baking soda and vinegar over it. For my third and final experiment (or fourth and final, if you count pouring the baking soda and vinegar over the burning instruction book as number three) I mixed all the chemicals together in one big beaker. I had assumed that since the baking soda and vinegar mix was relatively exciting, and that was just TWO ingredients, a mix with 30 or 40 ingredients would be 15 or 20 times as exciting. It wasn’t, but it did smell very very bad, and that smell, plus the remains of experiment number two in the waste basket, served to put an end to my career in chemistry when my mom got home.

    Next my relentless search for knowledge took me into the realm of physics. The particular physic happened to be Ex-Lax, which, I inferred from reading between the lines of the warning on the label, could provide endless hours of amusement when it was pressed into service as the secret ingredient in brownies (it so happened that my investigations into physics coincided with my sister’s earliest attempts at baking brownies). I wish I could report that when I added my secret ingredient to her brownies, it became --however briefly-- the secret ingredient in her Brownie troop, but unfortunately her mastery of the culinary arts was such that no one in her troop could consume enough brownie for my secret ingredient to take effect. So I lost interest in this field of study, too. Chemistry and Physics, the most rigorous of the ‘hard’ sciences, were both clearly beyond my level of expertise.

    But my spirit of inquiry was undaunted. That doesn’t sound right. Unquenched? Definitely unsomethinged or othered. In any event, I was determined to master biology. My first project was reviving a gold fish, which had recently passed away. It had been observed floating in the fish tank; my mother assigned me the task of fishing it out with the little mesh net and flushing it down the toilet. I removed it from the tank as instructed, but instead of sending it home to the sea via the Grimshaw household plumbing and the Little Falls sewage system, I stored it in a baggy in the freezer for a couple of days (hidden behind the Neapolitan ice cream that my mother bought periodically on the off chance that someday we would encounter someone who wanted some Neapolitan ice cream). When I was sure the fish was frozen solid, I removed it from the freezer and deposited it back in the fish tank. I believe I had heard rumors that Walt Disney, recently deceased, had been similarly frozen and that eventually he would be thawed and revived. I figured if it would work for Walt, it would work for the fish. Perhaps there is more to this technique than simply freezing and then thawing; if not, I’m afraid I have some bad news for Walt. I removed the fish from the tank for the second time, and belatedly sent him on his way to the Sargasso with a single flush. There were, periodically, similar attempts at reviving assorted chameleons and those absurdly tiny turtles you used to be able to buy at the pet store for 25 cents (they were cheap because they pretty much dropped dead 40 minutes after you brought them home), and these fared no better than the first ill-fated foray into revivalism. Biology was clearly not my forte either.

    After this there was a considerable period when I rather drifted away from the sciences entirely, aside from eating Chinese food. Then, abruptly, I developed an interest in applied astronomy. My particular area of interest was the moon. Well, technically, my area of interest was the moon as applied to Morningside Park in Bloomfield, NJ, where my friends and I used to drive past kids from other schools at high speed. I did not have a driver’s license at this time, so my job was to provide the moon, and display it in the right rear window of the car. I was certainly better at this than I had been at biology, chemistry, or physics. But in the course of events, the police in Bloomfield interrupted our astronomical activities one evening and they were never resumed.

    And that spelled the end to any thought of a career in science. Every so often I would dabble in some science or other, such as electricity or jogging, but never for very long. Still, every so often I look up at the moon and think about what might have been, if not for the Bloomfield police.


    At 6 AM on Thanksgiving morning, my Uncle Tug called me to ask for a lift to my sister’s.

    "I didn’t know you were coming," I said, glancing at my alarm clock and noting the time in case the police should ask me about this call later. Although he denies it, Uncle Tug generally calls me only when it’s necessary to establish an alibi; some calls are less subtle than others-- my favorite was a 2 AM ring up during the spring of 1978, when I answered the phone and Uncle Tug said, "Hey, my watch stopped-- would you happen to have the exact time? I can't get to sleep unless I know exactly what time it is."

    "Well, nobody knows I’m coming. But I’m coming. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’ll call your sister later and give her the good news."

    My sister’s Thanksgiving meals are the stuff of legend. One year she misplaced the turkey-- she had taken it out of the freezer in the basement, placed it atop the washing machine while she adjusted her socks or something, and then, since it was out of her line of sight, completely forgot about it until two days later, by which time it was no longer a potential meal, unless you happened to be a buzzard (and even then it was kind of iffy). Another year she neglected to turn the oven on, so that the turkey, at the conclusion of his 5 hours in the roasting pan, had almost defrosted. Well, to be fair, various parts of the turkey did defrost. (Of course traditionally the entire turkey is defrosted long before you put him in the oven, but my sister Pam is no slave to tradition). I could go on for pages about Pam’s assorted Thanksgiving culinary triumphs-- and I have, as long time readers of this column are aware-- but suffice to say that the idea that Uncle Tug would go out of his way to experience another one when he hadn’t even been invited peaked my curiosity.

    "Oh," he said, settling himself into the passenger seat, "I was just in the mood to spend the holiday with my relatives..."

    "Well, that’s great. I figured you wanted to be out of the house because you were expecting the cops or a process server."

    "Nah. I can handle cops and process servers," he said. I thought he was going to continue, but he didn’t, so I don’t know what or whom it was that he felt he couldn’t handle.

    "You know, Pam really tends to use a lot of rich sauces and things..."

    "Yeah I know. And she better. Could you imagine if you actually had to TASTE what she cooked?"

    "Uh... well, I’d rather not, thanks. But what I was getting at, I was under the impression your stomach couldn’t handle that stuff any more."

    "Ha! Well, that’s my stomach’s problem, not mine. I just can’t DIGEST it, that’s all. It’s no big deal. I’m past the point where you worry about that. I eat for pleasure, not nutrition. Nutrition is overrated. You know what else is overrated?"


    "Hair," he said. Uncle Tug hails from my mother’s side of the family and shares with me the gene that results in a neat, clean looking (i.e. hairless) head. I assume that’s what he meant, but he may have been referring to the 1967 ‘tribal-rock-musical’ of the same name. I didn’t press it.

    Well, on to the meal itself. At first it appeared that it was going to be a major disappointment; all of the various side dishes were cooking away in various pots and pans, and the turkey itself was clearly browning in the oven. He-- I keep saying ‘he,’ but I suppose it was a she-- had a little button in the side that was going to pop up when he had been cooked through. There was always the chance that this wouldn’t happen for three or four days, in which case we would have another memorable meal on our hands, but it didn’t look that way.

    Just when it seemed I was going to have to find something else to write about this week, dinner was served. The turkey had been taken from the oven literally 4 minutes before landing on the table. It looked fine. I helped myself to some, and noticed that there was no steam rising from it. A first taste confirmed that it was, in fact, room temperature.

    "How did you manage to cool this turkey from 500 degrees to 70 degrees in 4 minutes?" I asked.

    "66 degrees," said Uncle Tug, glancing at the thermostat.

    There was no steam rising from any of the side dishes, either-- not from the mashed potatoes, not from the stuffing, not from the vegetables (possibly it was broccoli), not from anything. It was all room temperature. It was as though everything had magically transformed itself, instantly, into three-day-old leftovers. It wasn’t bad. It was just... well, weird.

    "Very tasty," said Tug. "And we’re all sure to leave plenty of room for dessert."

    Pam presented us with two dessert options: first of all, a Boston cream pie, from a local bakery, and second, vanilla ice cream. And of course we could also have the pie alamode, so I guess that’s three options. I went for the ice cream itself, since I had already had enough room temperature food for one day.

    "At least THIS is going to be the right temperature," I said. Appreciate laughter from those who appreciate remarks like that (basically me). I made a great show of going into the kitchen and getting the meat thermometer, and jamming it into the ice cream.

    68 degrees.

    "The ice cream is room temperature too," I said. The world seemed to shift on its access as I said this. I left the thermometer there, expecting the needle to swing over to the left and register something in the low thirties. Nope. 68 degrees. No sign of any melting, either.

    "Even you can’t do this," I said. "This violates the laws of physics." I touched the ice cream with my thumb. It was indeed room temperature. I took a spoonful.

    I could not bring myself to swallow it. "This," I said, "is POTATO ice cream. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is very finely whipped potatoes. Room temperature potatoes is no a big deal. Not particularly appetizing, but not exactly the front page story of the World Weekly News, either." I took a spoonful of the mashed potatoes hoping they might be vanilla ice cream, but they were potatoes as well. Shortly I took my leave of the family, Uncle Tug having decided to stick around to watch the end of the Dallas game after which my brother-in-law would drive him home.

    When I arrived back at my apartment there was a message on my machine from Uncle Tug saying that right after I left my sister had ‘found’ the vanilla ice cream and it was excellent, and I can’t help suspecting that I had deliberately been served mashed potatoes and chocolate sauce. The question is, whose idea was it? My sister would seem to be the obvious suspect, having motive, opportunity, and potatoes, but I can’t help wondering if there was some help in the planning stages from someone who went to a lot of trouble to establish he hadn’t even been invited.



    "I have decided we will be closed on Thanksgiving this year," Mulberry Street Joey Clams announced. The announcement took me by surprise, not because I expected to be working on Thanksgiving but because I didn’t realize he had entered the room. I was re-melting a glass tube and my attention had been fully focused on the job at hand.

    Well, "job" is not precisely the word I want here; earlier that day I’d noticed that one of the glass tubes (we kept a bunch of them around the Custom Neon Sign Shop on the off chance someone would hire us to make a custom neon sign) had a hairline crack in it, which rendered it incapable of ever becoming a fully operational Neon Sign. So I’d waited until Mulberry Street Joey Clams left on some errand or other, and I’d taken this flawed glass tube, and fired up the acetylene torch, and I was melting it.

    This was sort of my hobby. At first I’d just melted our defective glassware into puddles in the back room, which had a cement floor, but that ceased to be challenging after a while and I’d played around with the idea of melting the glass into various shapes using various Jell-O molds. I thought that possibly someone would like a glass version of a Jell-O... well, whatever you call those big blobs of Jell-O after they come out of a Jell-O mold. The main problem with this was the molten glass tended to melt the Jell-O mold, which brought us right back to the puddle thing.

    On this particular day my goal was... glass ice cubes. I was melting the glass into a clay coffee urn, and when I judged the glass had cooled sufficiently (but was still liquid), I was going to pour it into an ice cube tray. So far I had misjudged the temperature of the glass and had melted two ice cube trays, and the blob of glass I was liquefying had in consequence a rather high proportion of ice cube tray in it, but I had a good feeling about this latest attempt and was more disappointed than perhaps I should have been when Mulberry Street Joey Clams made his holiday announcement and startled me into knocking over the coffee urn and instantly disintegrating the wooden table upon which it had rested, along with Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ lunch and a Chinese restaurant flier that had been slipped under our door that morning-- I remember the flier because the words "NO MSG!" flared incandescently for an instant before everything was vaporized.

    "Great news, Mulberry Street Joey Clams," I said. "Although we’ll be sacrificing that normally heavy Thanksgiving custom-neon- sign walk-in business."

    "Was my lunch on that table?" he said when he could speak again.

    "Your lunch? No, I’m sure it wasn’t, Mulberry Street Joey Clams." I told myself this wasn’t a lie, since he hadn’t eaten it, and therefore it hadn’t been, and never would be, his lunch.

    "Awright. Anyway, we’re closing on Thanksgiving, so if you were gonna make any plans, you can go ahead and make them."

    "Uh-huh," I said, shutting off the torch.

    I had a horrible feeling that he was about to invite me to his family Thanksgiving. Again. I had gone to his ancestral home on Kenmare Street last year for turkey day, and the first thing he’d said upon opening the door was, ‘Listen... I dunno how to break this to you... my real last name is not ‘Clams.’ So don’t call my mother ‘Mrs. Clams’ or she’s gonna have a stroke, okay? And also don’t call me ‘Joey,’ because that part is also technically not my name.’ Unfortunately he never told me what I should call his mother, or him (his mother never called him anything but ‘Sweetie,’ which didn’t help me at all), and consequently the evening was a bit more uncomfortable than it might otherwise have been. I kept starting to say things like "These yams are delicious, Mrs. Clams," but catching myself so that it came out, "These yams are delicious, Mmmmrrruahgh." Not wishing to repeat this experience (and having made no progress towards learning the surname of my partner in neon), I said, "I’ve got plans already."

    "So what are you doing?" he said.

    I said, "Going to visit my parents in New Jersey." This was in fact a high probability, though I hadn’t confirmed it yet, on the off chance my then-girlfriend was going to ask me to visit HER family in Connecticut. But to my surprise, Mulberry Street Joey Clams exploded:

    "NEW JERSEY? Your folks live in New Jersey?? I don’t wanna go to New Jersey."

    I stared at him.

    "Well," he said, calming down slightly, "The thing is, see, last year you went to MY mom’s, so this year you were gonna invite me to YOUR mom’s. But I don’t wanna go to New Jersey."

    "Uh," I said.

    "Look, I don’t wanna let you down. I mean, it’s not like I CAN’T go to New Jersey. There’s no outstanding warrants out on me or anything like that. That’s all been taken care of. But there’s something about not being in Little Italy on Thanksgiving... it doesn’t seem... what’s the word... PLURAL."


    "Maybe that’s not the word. Anyway, look, I’m gonna hafta beg off, if it’s okay."

    "I unnerstan," I said. He slapped me on the shoulder and the way my Thanksgiving plan shaped up, (1) I got invited to my girlfriend’s, (2) canceled out on my parents, who took advantage of my upcoming absence to accept an invitation to visit with relatives in Maryland, (3) I broke up with my girl friend, and (4) come Thanksgiving dawn I awoke to the expectation of a quiet holiday spent watching football on my crappy portable black and white TV while eating fried rice from the take-out place on the corner.

    At 10 AM there was a knock on my door.

    "New Jersey or no New Jersey, I’m not gonna ruin Thanksgiving for my PAL by crapping out on him. Let’s go." Mulberry Street Joey Clams was at my apartment, wearing a leather jacket that presumably afforded protection from the brutal New Jersey climate.

    "Uh," I said. "There’s been a change in plans..." I started mumbling about my girlfriend, and my parents going to Maryland, and so on, and he interrupted me:

    "Cripes! Are you... an ORPHAN?" Because any other answer would have resulted in more questions, I admitted that I was. "And there never was no girl friend, right?" This was a tougher call, since he had actually met my girl friend several times, but I agreed that yes, she had been imaginary. I was hoping that these pathetic admissions would result in a quiet, pleasant, SOLITARY Thanksgiving. But Mulberry Street Joey Clams had other plans.

    "Fried rice? Whatta you, nuts? Nah, we’ll get a free turkey dinner. Let’s go." He threw me my jacket and I followed him down the street, like flotsam bobbing in the wake of a garbage scow. We stopped at the Salvation Army mission on the Bowery, where to our horror we were told that we’d have to listen to preaching in order to get our turkey dinner, and there was no guarantee it would be over by kick-off time. In disgust we headed back to my apartment, where we discovered that, unlike the guys at the Custom Neon Sign Shop, SOME self-employed go-getters did not stop working on Thanksgiving: my window had been forced up and my TV stolen.

    "We might as well go back to the Salvation Army," I said.

    "Nah. They’d never believe I was an actual bum in THIS coat," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

    "You can borrow one of mine," I said.

    "Nah, I got another idea," he said. "Wait here."

    He left, I waited. I waited quite a while. When I went to work on Monday I thought about asking him what his idea had been, but in the end I decided against it, since he might have told me.



    The column I was going to do this week was called "Urban Legends of the Fall." As a public service, I was going to list and address many of the urban legends that have popped up over the past few weeks and either confirm them as true or debunk them.

    For instance, the one about the secret ingredient in diet soda that can cause spontaneous human combustion if you drink more than 2 liters in a 24 hours period (NOT TRUE) and the one about the woman who melted a polyester leisure suit in the microwave, covered it with frosting and won third prize in a cake-baking contest in Indiana (TRUE). But this is not that column. First of all, the best thing about it turned out to be the title and the problem with that is: (a) odds are the column would get another title when it appeared in the paper because that’s what always happens and (b)"Legends of the Fall" is around 8 years old and wasn’t such a huge hit it’s burned in everybody’s brain, so you have to think for a minute to get the joke. And second of all, about 50words into it I received a phone call from my daughter, Emma-- with one of her friends (A-Rob) (that’s what it says here) aboard via Three-Way-Calling-- and was browbeaten into conducting an interview.

    EMMA: We need you to interview us about the Raccoon Party.

    ME: ???

    EMMA: Are you there? We need you to interview us about the Raccoon Party.

    ME: What’s the raccoon party?

    A-ROB: The Raccoon Party we held this week on the anniversary of last year’s Raccoon Party (8 Nov 2000), when [NAME OMITTED] suffered from the illusion that a raccoon was calling her.

    ME: what do you mean, calling her?

    EMMA: Eeeee eeeeee. Like that.

    A-ROB: Like an ‘e’ repeated.

    EMMA: Kmac thought it was a lesbian raccoon.

    ME: ????

    EMMA: Are you still there? Since the first Raccoon Party we use the raccoon call to communicate with each other between classes at school. If we hear "Eeeee eeee," we have to respond, "Eeeee eeeee."

    ME: Well... Okay. So what did you do at the Raccoon Party that made it so fascinating I’m supposed to be writing about it?

    EMMA: This year we rented "Orgasmo" and "Leprechaun." Nobody watched "Leprechaun."

    ME: Um... Isn’t "Orgasmo" rated NC-17?

    A-ROB: No!

    EMMA: Yes.

    A-ROB: Yes?

    EMMA: It’s okay. We’re 17. The girl at the video store had hickeys.

    A-ROB: Oh, yeah. Anyway, I didn’t rent them, I just ate mozzarella sticks.

    EMMA: Compton didn’t like them because they were flat mozzarella sticks instead of round ones...

    A-ROB: the cheese kind of spilled out everywhere.

    EMMA: That’s how mozzarella sticks are supposed to be.

    A-ROB: I have the same English teacher I had last year. He talks about "Is-ness."

    ME: Business?

    A-ROB: IS-ness.

    ME: He’s an English teacher and he says "Is-ness"?

    A-ROB: Also nothingness. Well, wait. He had K-Mac give a speech about Nothingness. She talked about a Tupperware Party she had in the bathtub when she was eight.

    ME: Uhhh--

    A-ROB: She got a really good mark on it.

    EMMA: She gave us all Fruit Loops to signify Nothingness. Because they were shaped like zeros. She got made because I built a pyramid out of mine.

    ME: How many Fruit Loops did you get, that you were able to build a pyramid out of them?

    EMMA: I was in charge of the box, so I had unlimited access. Everybody else just ate them or spelled out their names.

    A-ROB: He has a combover. And he does this quotation mark thing where he sort of claws the air with two fingers on each hand. It looks like peace signs except for the clawing part. We tried to bribe him into shaving off his combover but he wouldn’t. So I took the class again this year because I didn’t want to read all those BOOKS in the other class. And he gives the same lectures this year as last year, ver batum.

    EMMA: That’s Latin.

    ME: Um.

    A-ROB: I wrote an essay for him last year, about how I don’t like to write essays.

    EMMA: She got a 60.

    A-ROB: I was testing his boundaries.

    ME: Maybe we should get back to the Raccoon Party...

    A-ROB: One of the girls in gym said she didn’t like our English teacher because he’s always trying to make her think.

    ME: It can be pretty painful. Nothing else happened at the Raccoon Party?

    A-ROB: I pretended to be Emma and talked to a bunch of people on Instant Messenger.

    EMMA: I bought a huge thing of water and it was all gone by the end.

    A-ROB: I drank four bottles of it.

    EMMA: We thought [NAME WITHELD] was going to attack us. When we went to the video store and got back there were paper towels under the windshield. Like it just APPEARED out of nowhere.

    ME: I can’t help thinking Raccoon Party II was pretty light on raccoons...

    A-ROB: I was sleeping directly under the skylight. I was afraid [NAME WITHELD] was going to be on the roof and suddenly her FACE would appear pressed against the glass.

    EMMA: That would have been pretty scary.

    A-ROB: In the morning Compton made chocolate chip muffins. She put a whole BAG of chips in the mix. It made four muffins but without the chips it would have only been two muffins.

    ME: They were 50% chips?

    A-ROB: Yes. They were incredibly disgusting.

    EMMA: But really GOOD.

    A-ROB: Yes.




    Everybody knows that toenail clippers are much more, I guess the phrase is ‘heavy duty,’ than fingernail clippers. Why is this? Are toenails a lot thicker than fingernails? Some of my toenails are actually thinner than my finger nails, especially towards the little toe side. My impression is that this is true of most other people as well.


    Confused by the difference in size between fingernail clippers and toe nail clippers

    Dear Confused:

    Most of your toenails are in fact thinner than your fingernails. The problem is the BIG TOE toenail. If you remove one of your shoes and take a good look at it, you’ll see that it’s a monster. It’s about 2/3rds thicker than the thumbnail, which is the thickest of your fingernails. You can actually break your fingernail clipper by trying to tackle that big toe toenail with it-- as many people have discovered. But as far as the other toenails go, if you’d like to use a fingernail clipper on them, go right ahead. The only reason most people don’t do this is, we generally start clipping with the big toe and work to the outside. So rather than change clippers, we just go with that big bruiser we’ve already got in hand.

    * * *


    Almost everything these days is made out of plastic. But I have never seen a plastic toe nail clipper (or for that matter, finger nail clipper). Why is this?


    Why no plastic clippers?


    Plastic finger-and-toe nail clippers have been manufactured from time to time, but they’ve never caught on. While it would be possible to make a perfectly adequate plastic toe nail clipper, it would require a special hardened plastic in order to be as durable as the standard metal models, and would cost a good deal more. To justify the greater price, plastic clippers have often featured stunning visual designs. In the 1960’s there was a brief craze for plastic ‘pop art’ toe nail clippers, which were quite attractive if you didn’t look at them too long (more than five or ten seconds would induce a killer headache), but these were more for display than for use. There was also an even briefer craze for edible nail clippers, but the less said about that, the better.

    * * *


    Was that you in the booth in the back at Whats Your Beef on Rt. 587 last Tuesday? I thought you acted like a real jerk & you are going bald in case you don’t know.


    A friend

    DEAR A:

    I’m afraid I was ‘acting like a jerk’ elsewhere last Tuesday evening. And in regard to going bald, I fear that particular horse has been out of the barn for some time. Thank you for writing.

    * * *


    You know what? Toenail clippers make pretty good food catapults. You just unfold the handle and put it in position like you’re going to clip some toe nails only you leave your shoes on, and you unfold the lever thing and stick a glob of potato salad on the end, and you press down like you’re clipping a nail (but there’s no nail because you’re shoes are not off) and you release the lever and CHOOM! Somebody’s got this glob of potato salad in their hair. The beauty part is, even if they search you and find the toe nail clipper, they won’t realize anything is up, they will just think you are going to be clipping your nails.




    Well, the toe nail clipper is a versatile tool, no question about it. Keep us up to date if you devise any other uses for it, especially those unrelated to food.

    * * *


    Do people call you ‘Baldy’? I guess probably not, on account of you are also getting pretty fat. I guess they say ‘Yo Fatso!’ a lot, huh? I bet you are basically a chick magnet, being both fat & bald, huh. Plus the great personality on display last Tuesday. You are quite the package I must say. I didn’t get close enough to notice the breath (NOT complaining), but I know how I’d bet.


    Friend for life


    Not to rain on your parade, but I wasn’t there last Tuesday and I weigh 145 pounds. Possibly you are thinking of a different expert guy.



    I have always wondered: do celebrities carry their own toenail / fingernail clippers around with them? I mean I often imagine being a celebrity but if I were one I would not want to be the kind who is so lah-dee-dah she doesn’t clip her own tow nails. I would want my fans to know I do not think I am ALL THAT even though I am a big star.


    Not ALL THAT


    While many celebrities do indeed carry their own clippers and take a kind of pleasure in trimming their own nails (among them Larry Storch, George Will, and Mecha-Godzilla), others have a full-or-part-time trimmer on staff who handles these duties. The former celebrities display the common touch; the latter employ an actual common man, or in some cases, woman. There is surely something to be said for both positions, whichever type of celebrity you choose to become. (And by the way-- some celebs use the heavy-duty toenail clippers even for their fingernails, apparently under the impression it makes them seem more macho. In my opinion, it does not!)

    * * *


    Could you please forward this letter to the Fat Bald Obnoxious Expert Guy Expert Guy. Dear Fat Bald Obnoxious Expert Guy Expert Guy. Since you are the expert on fat bald obnoxious expert guys, maybe you can identify the one who was at the Whats Your Beef on Rt. 587 last Tuesday. He looks exactly like the toenail clipper expert guy only possibly not as fat and bald.


    Dying to find out who was there last Tuesday


    I’m sorry, but I don’t have the address of the Expert Guy you want to contact. If you have any questions about Toenail clippers, send them to this address and we’ll do our best to answer them for you.

    Follicle Registry

    Somewhere among the important documents stored in the milk crates under my bed is the certificate that lists the location of my star. It’s been a couple of decades since I took a look at it but my recollection is that my star is somewhere in the general direction of the Crab Nebula and can not be seen with the naked eye.

    When I say ‘my star,’ I mean the star that was named after me. Once upon a time there was a company called the International Star Registry which, for the tiny fee of $35, would register a star in any name you wanted. You could name it after yourself, after your girl friend, after your dog. The ads for this, uh, service promised that your star would be ‘internationally recognized’ and registered at the copyright office of the Library of Congress. And presumably, 10,000 years from now-- EARTH years, that is-- there might be colonists on the planet Myron Feinblatt IV, telling their puzzled children "If you’re going to the beach today, don’t forget to put on your Myron Feinblatt-tan lotion."

    I hope I’m not destroying anyone’s faith in humanity if I tell you that the only place that recognized the star names registered with the International Star Registry was the International Star Registry. But you did get this nice looking certificate and a star map with YOUR star circled in red magic marker.

    Now you may be asking, "Gee, if you’re so smart, how come you shelled out 35 bucks to register Jeff’s Planet with the ISR?" One possibility is that I was just, you know, fooling around, like my friend Chuck who paid 5 bucks to become a licensed minister with the Universal Life Church, the only well-known religion which advertised its theological degrees on the back pages of comic books. Another possibility is that I was young and stupid.

    Of course I was not just young and stupid 25 years ago. I was also hairy. The entire top of my head was covered with thick brown hair, of the kind found on the heads of young and stupid guys even today. Then, as I became less young and less, or anyway differently, stupid, my hair began to vanish. Perhaps it was being teleported, a follicle at a time, to Jeff’s Planet. In any case, there’s a lot less of it now than there was in 1976.

    Over the years I’ve done several columns about my vanishing hair, so many in fact that it seemed to me there was nothing more to be said on the subject, especially once very short hair became fashionable and I was able to walk around with a buzzed head as if the whole quasi-bald look was MY idea.

    But this week the hair over my right eyebrow fell out.

    When I say ‘the hair,’ I mean the single strand of hair that had remained steadfastly in place when the rest of my hairline retreated north. Years after its less hardy comrades had vanished into the bathtub drain forever, this one hair soldiered gallantly on, waving defiantly in the breeze, where I left it untrimmed even though, frankly, it made me look like some kind of a mutant. And now it’s gone.

    The heartbreaking loss of this loyal old friend made me take stock of the rest of my hair. There is now so little of it, it occurred to me, that I could actually count the remaining ones.

    And what can be counted, can be named.

    Hence my recollection of the International Star Registry.

    This week I would like to announce the launching of the International Hair Registry. For a mere 20 dollars, YOU can name a hair on my head. This name will be registered with the copyright bureau at the Library of Congress. You can name a hair after yourself, or a loved one, or a favorite celebrity. If all the kids in your 4th grave class want to pool your dimes and name one of my hairs after Justin Timberlane or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or something, so be it.


    Q: Do I get a certificate and a map showing the location of my hair?

    A: No. This sort of thing would only drive up the cost of registration. But if you email me I will tell you pretty much where the hair is located. ("Just over the right ear, maybe an inch and a half in from the hair line.")

    Q: May I choose whether I get a gray hair or a brown hair?

    A: All my hair is brown.

    Q: Who the hell do you think you’re kidding?

    A: Okay. There are one or two gray hairs. Science tells us that within 40 years or so, many of the currently brown hairs will have turned gray. At the moment we are charging $20 for a brown hair and $25 for a gray hair. This means that when your brown hair turns gray, you will have basically received a five-dollar upgrade for free. You just can’t beat that.

    Q: Can I visit my hair?

    A: No.

    Q: How do I know you aren’t just taking my money and naming the same hair over and over?

    A: Go to hell.

    Q: When Jeff gets a haircut, can the end that is snipped off MY hair be collected and sent to me for a substantial fee, in addition to postage and handling?

    A: Yes. We have not yet decided upon the price, but it will certainly be substantial.

    Q: If my hair falls out, do I get my money back?

    A: No you do not. When a hair falls out, it is the hair equivalent of a star going Super Nova. At such times, a star explodes and emits many million times the light of the sun. By rights, when a hair falls out, we should be charging you a huge amount of money. After all, a Super Nova explosion is far and away the most spectacular event in the heavens. And if past experience is anything to go by, YOUR hair-- follicle Ricky Fishbone or follicle RoByn Thompson or follicle Raheesh Jackson-- will be going nova before you know it.

    Register and name YOUR follicle now, while there are still hairs remaining to be registered and named. Don’t wait!




    By the time we were in 5th grade, Calvano and Picarillo and I had developed a ‘two-costume’ Halloween strategy. The primary costume, the one we would wear while trick-or-treating, would be a home-made monster outfit of some sort, usually but not inevitably derived from The Dick Smith Make-Up Book, which was not a book at all but a copiously illustrated one-shot magazine containing instructions from ‘Master Monster Maker’ Dick Smith on how to make yourself into a monster. There were something like 36 different faces he had designed, and the instructions were painstaking. Because some of them took over two hours to apply properly, we had to have a secondary, or ‘crappy’, costume to wear at school. But all the other kids wore crappy costumes to school, so this wasn’t as humiliating as it would have been otherwise. And of course they were going to wear the same crappy costumes when they went out that night, while we were going to be roaming the streets in state-of-the-art horror monster make up designed by an actual Hollywood horror monster make-up artist.

    Still, we came to school dressed as monsters. The whole point of Halloween, as far as we could see, had nothing at all to do with tramps, cowboys, ballerinas, or cartoon characters, and very little to do with superheroes except possibly Batman. So while our best efforts went into the primary costumes, we still upheld the spirit of Halloween by dressing as monsters at school. Strictly low-budget monsters, of course: Plastic or rubber Frankenstein masks, or vampires teeth and little trickles of blood drawn down the corners of the mouth with indelible magic marker that would take 6 or 8 months to wear off (lipstick would have made more sense, but NO WAY were we letting our moms get anywhere near our mouths with lipstick!).

    Then, three days before Halloween, Danny Corbin drew a werewolf in Miss Threlfall’s class. He was just doodling on the corner of his work sheet, but Miss Threlfall thought he was transcribing the pearls of wisdom which were dropping from her lips, and said approvingly, "I see that Danny isn’t going to have any trouble on the quiz tomorrow-- he’s taking notes!"

    Danny, horrified that anyone-- even Miss Threlfall-- might think he was paying attention in class, cried, "No, I’m not-- honest! It’s a werewolf!" He held up his paper. Miss Threlfall goggled. It wasn’t just a werewolf; it was a werewolf biting a big chunk out of a guy’s head.

    "WHAT POSSESSES YOU BOYS?!" she said, in all capital letters and multiple punctuation marks, just like I typed it there. She sent Danny down to the principal’s office. After school he told us the principal was confused about why Danny had been sent down.

    "He said I kind of screwed up the drawing because werewolf fangs stick up out of the mouth, and I had them sticking down, which is incorrect. He said maybe I was thinking of vampire fangs. I said yeah, maybe I was. He said he was glad to have helped me clear that up, but he thought maybe Miss Threlfall should have explained it herself instead of sending me to the office."

    Perhaps Miss Threlfall and the principal had words; in any event, she was in a remarkably foul mood the next day and announced a ‘No Monster Policy’ for Halloween.

    "Geez," Calvano blurted, "What is this? Russia??"

    After school, he said, "The principal was pretty cool about it. He said it wasn’t Russia, it was just Miss Threlfall’s class and he was glad to have helped me clear that up, but he thought maybe Miss Threlfall should have explained it herself instead of sending me to the office."

    "Well, what are we gonna do?" I said. "We can’t wear our monster faces, and I don’t wanna be a --you know-- NON-monster..."

    "We could be burglars," said Picarillo. "I got a striped shirt. Burglars wear striped shirts."

    "First of all," said Calvano, "Burglars don’t wear striped shirts. The whole point of being a burglar is to not let people know you’re a burglar. If burglars wore striped shirts, cops wouldn’t have to have line-ups and stuff, they could just grab everybody wearing striped shirts and throw them in the jug. Second, you can’t wear a striped shirt. Not horizontal stripes anyway. No offense, but it makes you look like a hippo. What you want are either vertical stripes or some unostentatious pattern. Nothing real busy. And with your complexion, autumn colors."

    "Well, we could be some other kind of crooks who wear striped shirts," said the undaunted Picarillo.

    "I want you to get the whole striped shirt thing out of your mind," said Calvano.

    "I think we’re either monsters or nothing," I said.

    Calvano picked up his cheap plastic werewolf mask-- not to be confused with his cool rubber werewolf mask-- and said, "You know what? We’re wearing the monster masks. But we’re not going to be monsters."

    "You think if you wear a werewolf mask she’ll believe you if you say you’re Popeye the sailor or something?" I said.

    "Better," he said. "We’ll be making an ANTI-MONSTER STATEMENT." [Historical note: In 1965 people, especially kids, did not say they were ‘making a statement,’ they just said things. But that was the gist of what Calvano said, even though it took him about 500 words to say it in real life].

    On Halloween we appeared in school wearing a cheap werewolf mask (Calvano), cheesy plastic vampire fangs (me) and a VERY cheap Frankenstein mask (Picarillo).

    "And you have been sent to my office today because...?" said the principal.

    "Miss Threlfall said we couldn’t dress up as monsters," said Calvano.

    "And you forgot. Well, that happens. Still..."

    "We didn’t forget. We’re not monsters," said Calvano.

    "And yet, if I’m not mistaken, that’s a werewolf mask."

    "Not exactly. See, I’m the VICTIM of a werewolf. I was BIT by a werewolf, and infected with lyncanthropy. It’s a sickness."

    "I see. And you?"

    "Bit by a vampire," I said. "I’ve acquired some of the vampire characteristics, but I’m not an actual vampire until I actually die."

    He signed. "And Mr. Picarillo?"

    "I’m a burglar," he explained. "See? I’m wearing a striped shirt. But I’m a burglar wearing a Frankenstein mask so I won’t get recognized."

    "Well, burglar or not, I think you want to avoid horizontal stripes in the future," said the Principal. "I’ll just write a note explaining to Miss Threlfall that you aren’t monsters. Is your friend Mr. Corbin in class today, do you know?"

    "I think so," said Calvano.

    "Make sure you and Mr. Grimshaw show him the orientation of your respective teeth. He’s been having some problems getting it straight."



    The Custom Neon Sign Shop van was a mess. We had purchased it for a very small amount at a police auction in Brooklyn. The original owners, who were now, courtesy of the State, making a Fashion Statement in bright orange coveralls and spiffy new short hairdos (20 years ahead of the current fashion) had left the van in rather poor condition, but we hosed out everything that hadn’t been removed for evidence and now it didn’t smell too bad. Or anyway you got used to it pretty fast.

    But we parked it on Mulberry Street, just down the block from the Custom Neon Sign Shop, and after a couple of hours it was covered with blue splats. Mulberry trees actually grow on Mulberry Street, especially inside the courtyard of the church, and mulberry trees abound in mulberries, which birds love. The birds ate the mulberries, and then after a brief tour of the avian digestive tract, the mulberries were returned in subtly different form to Mulberry Street and our van.

    Mulberry Street Joey Clams was philosophical. "We’ll kill all these birds," he said. "If they had thumbs and they could hold sponges, I’d make them clean off the van first. But they do not."

    "If we wait a couple of days," I said, "we won’t have to clean it. We’ll just have a totally blue van."

    "If I’d wanted a blue van, I’d have bought a blue van, assuming the cops had confiscated one from somebody."

    "I was just--"

    "YOU have thumbs," Mulberry Street Joey Clams pointed out.

    I sensed where this observation was leading so I grabbed a flier that had been slipped under the windshield of our van and said, "Hey look, Mulberry Street Joey Clams! We can get 20% off our next order at the Falafel Shop if we bring this flier!"

    "I’m hungry," he mused, "but I dunno about falafels."

    "My treat," I said, remembering the existence of my thumbs.

    This is why we happened to be sitting in the Falafel Shop eating falafels when Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ Uncle Danny came looking for us.

    "What’s wrong with you, eating this stuff?" He demanded. "You gotta finish up and get moving. We need some chairs for the party at the social club tonight." Since Uncle Danny was the financial power behind the Custom Neon Sign Shop, there was no question about not moving and getting some chairs.

    "This is like a meatball sub," Mulberry Street Joey Clams explained, "only I think it might not be literally meat. What happened to the social club chairs?"

    "You don’t need to know that," said Uncle Danny, and he left. I suppose at this point I should mention to my readers that we never found out what happened to the social club chairs, so if you’re reading this to find out, you might as well stop right now.

    "What’s this party?" I asked.

    "You know everything I know. Uh. Let’s see. Go to the church and tell the priest we gotta have 20 chairs. That ought to do it. I went to the church and told the priest we needed 20 chairs. Then I returned to the Custom Neon Sign Shop.

  • "The church won’t give us any chairs," I told Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He was outraged.
  • "They HAFTA," he exclaimed. "The Bible says so!"

    "Well, all I can tell you is, I told the priest we needed 20 chairs, and he looked at me like I was nuts and said he needed a new hot plate."

    "Huh? You mean he wants to TRADE?"

    "No, I think he means you don’t always get what you want."

    "Awright. I’ll handle this. You come too-- I’ll show you how this is done." We strolled down the block, past the ever-bluer van, and entered the church. The priest, who had seemed puzzled by my initial appearance, said "Ah!" The light of recognition suffused his features.

    "The NEON BOYS," he said. "I thought you looked familiar. So... the NEON BOYS want some chairs, eh?"

    "Twenty," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

    "Twenty. Well, NEON BOY, do you remember your SAN GENERO FESTIVAL sign?"

    Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I looked at each other. "Yeee-ah, now that you mention it," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Some lady ordered it. What about it?"

    "The lady was Sister Lillian," he said. "And do you know what happened to it?" We shook our heads. "I plugged it in and it blew up."

    We were amazed. And a little proud. Generally when our signs were plugged in, nothing at all happened, except the customer tried unsuccessfully to get his money back.

    "Well, it’s your own fault," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

    "MY fault??"

    "Look, a neon sign is a highly sensitive piece of whachamacallit. JEFF!"

    "Machinery?" I hazarded

    "Nah, but that’s close. Anyway, the point is, you can’t just jam the plug in the socket like it’s a toaster or something. You gotta use some..." He looked in my direction again for the proper word.

    "Rubber gloves?" I suggested.

    "FINESSE. That’s what you gotta use. It’s the same with any delicate piece of whodoyacallit. Anyway, that’s all in the past. Today happens to be the PRESENT, and it’s all about chairs."

    "Well, if you want some chairs, go buy some."

    "These are chairs for a party. A party that’s being given for ORPHANS."

    "Oh yeah?" said the priest. "Would any of these orphans happen to by under the age of 50?"

    "That I wouldn’t know," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, who was visibly taken aback by this implied challenge to his veracity. "Anyway, the point is, it says in the Bible that if a guy asks you for chairs, you’ve gotta come through."

    "Where’s it say that?" demanded the priest. "In the Second Book of Patio Furniture?"

    "You’d know better than me. I don’t have the whole thing memorized. So let’s go with the chairs."

    We went, but not with the chairs. Eventually we made due by gathering up all the chairs from the Neon Sign Shop, my apartment, Mulberry Street Joey Clams apartment, and my next door neighbor’s apartment. (He was away for the weekend and had given me a copy of his key so I could feed his parakeet). Uncle Danny accepted this motley assortment of chairs with ill grace. We unloaded them from our blue van and looked for a place to park far from the mulberry trees, but in the end we returned the van to the same spot and learned to love the color blue.



    Until two weeks ago I had exchanged insurance information with another driver only once. I was a senior in high school and I’d had my license for about 6 weeks. I was stopped at a red light. My car, a 1968 Malibu, had what today might be called ‘transmission issues.’ It had a lot of issues, in fact, and whenever I stopped for more than a second or two, I had to put it in ‘park’ or it would start to smell like a burning mildewed mattress. (Many boyhood afternoons at the nearby Tomato Smash Dump had made me familiar with that smell). So I was in ‘park,’ and the light changed, and I was a little lackadaisical about getting into drive, and the car behind me bumped into mine. There was no damage to either car but the other driver insisted that we exchange insurance numbers. Around 6 weeks later I finally realized I was never going to hear from him or his insurance company, but the stress-induced loss of hair from that incident continues to this day.

    Two weeks ago I was driving through Delaware-- I’d made a wrong turn on the Jersey Turnpike and discovered, to my delight, that Delaware was not just a RIVER, it was also a STATE. Just a few miles shy of the Maryland border I encountered a mobile home. If the mobile home had been either a tad more mobile or a tad less mobile everything would have been fine. It was mobile enough to drift into my lane, at which point I began applying the breaks, but instead of continuing forward, it came to a sudden halt when the driver was startled by a traffic light turning yellow. Like me, he had out of state plates, so he may have thought that in the exotic land of Delaware ‘yellow’ means ‘stop’ or even ‘STOP!!!’ Anyway, that’s what he did, and therefore that’s what I did, although he stopped on his own and I had a little help from the mobile home.

    From the time I applied my brakes to the time I came to a halt I went through the Seven Stages of Whatever It Is That You Go Through When You’re About To Ram A Mobile Home-- (1) Shock (2) Denial (3) Anger (4) Trying to remember whether I had clean underwear on (5) Suddenly remembering the name of the dwarf that I couldn’t remember in Providence the week before (Bashful) (6) Some more Denial (7) Thinking ‘Geez, when was the last time this guy took that thing to a car wash?’ (8) Realizing the clean underwear question was suddenly moot (I know this works out to more than seven stages, but the ability to count correctly is the first thing to go in these situations) (9) Skipping back to number (7) and wondering how you would get this thing in a car wash anyway? (10) The sickening knowledge that the last song ever to play on my car radio was going to be ‘Song Sung Blues,’ but IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I HAD THE RADIO SET TO ‘SCAN’-- (11) Impact.

    Which turned out to be pretty slight. A tap really. Hardly even felt it. My bumper was totally undented.

    Of course, that’s because the mobile home was so high up it missed the bumper entirely. The hood and everything under it were more or less pulverized, but the bumper and I were unscathed, as was the mobile home. The driver, a spry gent of perhaps 105 summers, hopped out of the cab and trotted to the rear, examined his vehicle without glancing at mine and said, "Everything’s swell as far as I can see. Let’s forget the whole thing."

    "Okay," I said, "But not till I get a column out of it." He looked at me quizzically. We exchanged pleasantries and insurance cards and then he drove off, and when the Delaware State Trooper appeared and took my statement, he said, "Generally you hit somebody from behind you get cited for inattentive driving, but the other guy didn’t feel like sticking around so what the hell. I’m goin’ with your story, Bub." I have met many excellent police officers over the years, as readers of my ID Bureau stories can attest, but this was surely the wisest and most excellent of them all.

    "You know that story you wrote about how when you were a kid you’d always wanted to have your family car cubed and then use it for a night stand in your bed room?" said the friend who picked me up from the parking lot where my vehicle managed to limp before finally expiring.

    "Sure. ‘Cubing the Car.’"

    "Well, now you can really DO it."

    "I guess I can," I said. Negotiations with the scrap yard unfortunately broke down-- they were willing to cube the car, but they balked at adding the table legs and the little drawer that I insisted on. Still, it was a pleasant dream while it lasted.

    * * *

    I just wanted to remind everyone that I’ll be appearing IN PERSON at the Clinton Bookshop this Saturday (the 13th) from 2 PM to 4 PM, signing my new book WING DING AT UNCLE TUG’S AND OTHER STORIES. Which is 18 stories featuring Calvano & Picarillo, and Mulberry Street Joey Clams, and all your favorites (including the aforementioned ‘Cubing the Car’), now collected between soft covers (= CHEAP) for your permanent reading pleasure. So if you’ve always wondered what I look like without my hat, this is your chance to continue wondering, since I will be wearing it, but anyway you’ll be able to meet me and get my autograph and eat free cookies.

    At least I think you’ll be able to eat free cookies. The fact is, I haven’t actually done anything yet in regard to the cookie situation and since time is pretty tight, it doesn’t look like I’m going to get around to it. So if any or all of you who are planning to attend-- and I hope that’s everyone-- would make some cookies and bring them, it would be greatly appreciated. Any kind of cookie at all-- crunchy, chewy, tasty, lousy, we want them all. In fact, if you made TWO BATCHES, you could keep one for yourself. The whole thing. No need to thank me-- it’s the least I can do. It’s just the kind of guy I am. I hope to see you there, and all your relatives, too.


    "So," I said, "did you finish The Grapes of Wrath?"

    "NO!" said my friend. She’d been reading it on her lunch hour for a couple of weeks and now she had a different book so I thought it was a safe question. "I will NEVER finish it, and I will never read another word by that man!" She’d been tricked, she said. There she was, sympathizing with Tom Joad for two or three hundred pages, and suddenly he turned out to be a monster.

    A monster? Tom Joad? The HERO of the book, the one who delivers that big speech, ‘wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there...’ etc., the character played by Henry Fonda in the movie, for Pete’s sake, a monster?

    Well, if I’d read the book, I’d know what she meant.

    As it happens I had read the book, and I didn’t know what she meant, and finally she told me. In Chapter 16-- 250 or 300 pages along, depending on the size of the type in the edition you’re reading-- Tom and his brother-in-law Al are driving along, talking away, and...

  • "...The truck rattled and banged over the road. A cat whipped out from the side of the road and Al swerved to hit it, but the wheels missed and the cat leaped into the grass. ‘Nearly got him,’ said Al. ‘Say, Tom, you heard Connie talkin’ how he’s gonna study nights? I was thinkin’ I’d study nights, too...’"
  • And Tom answers him, never mentioning that swerve at the cat. Al doesn’t mention it again, Tom doesn’t mention it, Steinbeck doesn’t mention it. It wasn’t presented as a bad thing done by otherwise good people; it’s given no moral weight at all. This is what seems to have horrified my friend. It’s just a bit of local color, with the implication that there was nothing unusual about a couple of guys driving around and knocking over the odd stray cat if one happens to pop up. 300 pages into Grapes of Wrath there has been a considerable amount of violence and cruelty, but that casual swerve made my friend realize she was reading about people in a whole different world and she wanted no part of it, even after investing all those lunch hours in Tom Joad.

    It made me think of something that happened in my neighborhood 40 years ago. I’m changing the names but this really took place:

    Mr. Green was a tough old pipe fitter who had been born just a few years after the turn of the last century, so he was in his late fifties when he decided that his dog Bowser was better off dead. The way he put it, Bowser was in misery, wincing with every breath, but as far as anyone else could tell Bowser was just old and liked to sleep a lot. But he was Mr. Green’s dog and it was his call. He could have just taken Bowser to the vet and had him ‘put down,’ but for reasons known only to him he chose to do the job himself. He alerted every kid on the block to Bowser’s imminent demise. "You boys are old enough to understand this now. You should watch this, because it’s something you’re all going to have to do someday, when you become men." My recollection is that he literally ordered us to follow him into the yard where Bowser was lying on his side, snoozing away. He explained how miserable poor Bowser was and that this was the greatest favor any of us could bestow on him and that if Bowser could speak he would agree. He offered to let his nephew Curt, who at 14 was by far the oldest kid present, escort Bowser off this mortal coil. After much initial reluctance Curt agreed, took the gun, listened carefully while Mr. Green explained exactly what to do, shut his eyes, and shot Mr. Green in the foot. The explosion woke Bowser, who tore out of the yard and spent three or four more happy, totally unproductive years with the nearby Cole family before departing planet Earth on his own schedule. Mr. Green lost three toes. As far as I know he was not cited by the police for any of things he could have been. Maybe they figured the loss of three toes was punishment enough. In general people thought Mr. Green was a jerk, and they thought it was appalling that he’d given the job of shooting the dog to Curt (who told me years later that he’d wished he’d kept his eyes open, so he could have aimed a little higher), and that he’d misjudged the state of Bowser’s health, but nobody much disputed the idea that he had every right to terminate Bowser if that’s what he wanted to do. This was not some rural backwater during the Great Depression, it was a suburb 20 minutes from Manhattan, a year or so into the Kennedy administration. I thought of my childhood as being a million years and miles from The Grapes of Wrath, but in some respects it wasn’t at all; it was just 20 years and a short plane trip.

    My friend really has grown up in a completely different world, though. 15 years after Curt modified Mr. Green’s foot, my sister spent a staggering amount of money on knee operations for her elderly, flatulent, obese dachshund and half the people in her family called her an idiot to her face. Last year she spent even more on a back operation for yet another elderly dachshund, and the general consensus was, well of course. What else would you do if your dog needs an operation? That’s the world my friend has grown up in, and maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that she finds the casual cruelty of Oklahoma in 1936 utterly unthinkable.




     First, let me thank everyone who took the time this week to flip me the bird in appreciation of last week’s column, in which I voiced my approval for rebuilding the WTC with five towers, like fingers, the middle one being rather longer than the others. It’s not that unusual for my fans to honk at me, flip the bird, and then drive on, but 4 and 5 times a day is almost twice the normal rate and seemed a little excessive. Fortunately a couple of people who flipped me the bird also took the time to holler "Here’s the World Trade Center," or words to that effect, and I eventually figured out what was going on. I’m touched-- I mean in the sense that I’m moved, not in the sense that I believe radio waves from Saturn are being beamed into my brain or something-- but I think the point has been made and it’s time to move on, flipping-the-bird-wise.

    Speaking of flipping and birds, this past week was also the first leg of my Book Tour, during which I stormed the Northeast in support of my new book. This entailed doing a series of readings in places like Long Island and Rhode Island and possibly other islands. But that’s not important. What is important is that I was able to see how those various Island Peoples view the citizens of the state of New Jersey. The news I bring you is not good.

    The problem is not that they dislike New Jersey. The do not. They love New Jersey. The problem is what they love about us. You’re probably thinking ‘The Pine Barrens. Our lovely beaches. William Carlos Williams.’ Nope. It’s not even ‘The swamps of East Rutherford. Frank Sinatra. Going broke in Atlantic City." Although that’s getting closer.

    In Providence, Rhode Island I was introduced to the audience with: "...our featured reader this evening is Jeff Grimshaw, who’s come to us all the way from New Jersey. Please welcome..."

    As I stepped in front of the mike, someone in the audience yelled "Ba-da-bing, ba-da-bing!"

    I paused and stared. I intended to say, "Believe it or not, everyone in the state of New Jersey is not a gangster. In fact, I would go so far as to say that almost none of us are. I find the idea that you’d insult a guest to your state this way personally offensive. You should be ashamed."

    However, it came out, "That’s ‘Ba-da-bing, ba-da-BOOM,’ ya dumb bleep."

    When the applause and cheering died down, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes later, I said, "I’d like to begin with one of my Picarillo stories..."

    "YO!" cried the audience, or some unsavory elements thereof, "PICARILLO! YO!" I was rather surprised to find such enthusiasm for Picarillo, since as far as I was aware he was completely unknown outside the Delaware Valley. So I began to read, and after a few moments I was aware of some restlessness in the audience. I borrowed a hand towel and wiped as much of that the restlessness as I could off my shirt. My publisher whispered to me, "They don’t like this one. Better read a different story."

    "What’s wrong with this one?"

    "Picarillo and Calvano are kids in it," he said. "And they don’t kill anybody."

    "They’re always kids and they never kill anybody," I said.

    "Well, maybe you could just throw in a couple of lines about them driving a car or something, and then, I don’t know, maybe killing somebody."

    "Look," I said, "They don’t--"

    "I’m only saying for this particular audience, Mr. It’s-Ba-Da-Bing-Ba-Da-BOOM, you might want to make a few minor adjustments. That’s all I’m saying."

    "All I’m saying is, I happen to have something called ARTISTIC INTEGRITY, and I’m not about to--"

    While most of the audience was transfixed by the spirited discussion taking place before them, which they could not hear because I held my hand over the microphone, there were soon copious amounts of restlessness sailing over our heads. Not far over, though. It was just low enough, in fact, to catch my artistic integrity and kind of splatter it against the back wall.

    "Aw right. Back to duh story," I said, chastising the unruly crowd. "So. Where was I. Lemme see. Oh yeah. Ahem. ‘Picarillo turned to Calvano. ‘Wotta we gonna do with this?’ he said, pointing to Calvano’s brother Duff, who was rapidly approaching room temperature as a result of--"

    "Hey, wait a minute!" someone in the audience yelled. "What happened there? Go back!"

    "No," I said. "Youse didn’t hear what happened because youse wasn’t paying attention. Don’t innerupt me. Now where was I?"

    "Room temperature."

    "Right. ‘Room temperature. So then, uh, Duff and Picarillo picked up Calvano’s body and stuck it in the trunk of the car. ‘It’s a good thing I’m an adult, on account of I can legally drive and the cops won’t pull us over which they would if I was a kid," said Picarillo. ‘Amen,’ said Duff. ‘Just shut up and drive,’ said Calvano, ‘we gotta ditch this body!’

    There was a general hubbub in the audience. "Wait, wait, wait," said one of those people who are always saying ‘Wait, wait, wait." "Who’s in the trunk?"

    "You know," I said, "you don’t need to know that. All you need to know is that YOU aren’t in the trunk. So anyway. Let’s see. ‘They drove out to the dump and rolled Picarillo’s body down into the landfill. Suddenly there were sirens such as you hear on police cars. Uh. Lemme see... So they took off, really peeling rubber. "Hang on, Calvano," cried Picarillo, we’re gonna--’ "

    Some people in the audience were unable to follow what was going on and expressed their uncertainty in vegetable terms, some of which were fresh and some of which were not so fresh, but all of which were aerodynamically sound. I made a mental note about never again reading in places where they serve salads. Shortly after that, things got ugly and the exact sequence of events is kind of a blur. I remember I continued to stand up for the great state of New Jersey, though, I’m pretty sure.

    But the entire thing was taped, and I’m at work now transcribing the Picarillo story I was improvising. And I plan to run it as soon as I figure out who was in the trunk.

    Appropriate Responses


    From time to time one of my readers will recount a wacky anecdote or send me a clipping about some bizarre incident, or my daughter will stuff a bag of Doritos under my exercise mat, and I think, "This week the humor column writes itself."

    This week the humor column is not writing itself. I’m going to have to do it, and I don’t feel like it, to tell you the truth. On the other hand, I could really use a good laugh so I’m looking forward to reading it.

    One of the things I do when I have to write the column myself is make as many phone calls as possible in order to prolong the agony as long as I can. Got a lot of answering machines tonight, so maybe everyone is writing his own humor column and doesn’t want to be distracted. I finally called my father.

    "I can’t believe I gotta write a humor column tonight," I said.

    "You’re breaking my heart," he said.

    As always I appreciate the sympathy, but I can’t help feeling there might have been an element of sarcasm in it.

    The problem here: what should be-- as they say on TV-- the appropriate response (of humor columnists) to this war we are suddenly in? It seems grotesque to write about it here, and impossible to ignore it this week. We flipped a coin, and we’re going with grotesque, I guess.

    The day after the World Trade Center went down, this appeared in my inbox:

  • After careful thought discussion we have decided to go on as planned with tomorrow nights Toga Party as planned. In light of all that has happened in the last 2 days we were not sure if it is in good taste to get together with a bunch of friends, drink and party. But I think after 2 days of feeling the way most of us feel a break is needed. I can not promise that it will be the best show. I also can not promise that our hearts will be 100% percent into it....I don't expect tons of people to make it but I can promise I will be glad to see that all of our friends and Fangboy family that do decide to show up.

    I do not know the status of The Cheese Band at this time however I am sure that if they wanted to cancel they would have let us know by now... If they do not want to play we understand 100%

    Also for the few of you who read it.... I will not be updating Wolf's Blood this week.

    The Fleshhead Chronicles were updated on Monday you can reach them thru our main page.

    That is all for now.... I hope that everything returns to normal soon! All of our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone hurt by the events of the last few days. And let us all hope that the worst is over!!!!


  • Fangboy and the Ghouls

    Fangboy and the Ghouls (Yes, they are real, and they are really called Fangboy and the Ghouls, they are a rock and roll band operating out of Ventura, California), like many of us are having trouble with appropriate responses. Should we be canceling our toga parties or not? For those of you who make all your important decisions based on what you read in the humor columns-- that is to say, most Americans-- I’m sorry to say I don’t know. I suspect Wednesday might have been a little too soon, and that Ventura was probably host to the world’s most somber toga party. I find myself going back and forth between thinking ‘it’s not toga party time any more,’ and ‘nobody’s going to tell America when it can hold its toga parties.’

    I was going back and forth on how high I want the flag to be for a while. I want to show respect for the dead and keep the flag at half-mast; and I want it flying defiantly up as high as it can go at the same time. This dilemma solved itself spontaneously when discovered I was able to have it both ways: there are lots of flags out there. Flags in front of federal and state and even corporate buildings were at half staff; the far more numerous flags owned by individual Americans were generally up all the way. It felt right.

    The receipt of a proposed redesign resolved the other thing I found myself waffling about-- should the Trade Center be rebuilt. It shows the skyline of lower Manhattan with 5 new towers in a row, rather like fingers. The middle one is much taller than the others are. As architecture, it probably has problems. As a response, it seems... appropriate.

    A final word about tolerance: Almost certainly there will be a celebrity-studded "We Are the World" style self-congratulatory singalong in the works shortly, if it isn’t already in production. It’s going to be terrible, because these things are always terrible, and we’re going to hear it endlessly, because we always hear it endlessly. [LATE BREAKING NEWS: it’s already under construction, and judging from the list of participants so far announced, it threatens to make "We Are The World" seem like one of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder]. Try to keep your temper. Remind yourself that annoying celebrities are Americans too, kind of, and they mean well, possibly. Do yourself a favor and at the same time help the economy--buy some good ear plugs, or better yet, a Walkman.



    Some time during the summer of 1979 I bought a paperback book for 19 cents. It was by far the most satisfying purchase I ever made. The book was called "The 100 Dollar Misunderstanding," by Robert Gover and it was on a table of 19-cent books at the Barnes and Noble Sale Annex on 5th Avenue and 18th Street in New York City. I was broke that summer and 19-cent books were the only entertainment I could afford. I haunted that table at the Sale Annex; I probably bought 10 or 12 books a week there. The turn over of books was enormous. But one book that never turned over was "The 100 Dollar Misunderstanding." It had been there for at least a year and a half, always in the upper left-hand corner of the table. Even though it was a Grove Press book and there was a blurb on the back cover from Henry Miller himself, I had not the slightest desire to read it. Every few days I would stop by the table, and THAT BOOK would be crammed into the upper left-hand corner of the table, and finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I grabbed it, brought it downstairs to the checkout counter, bought it, walked outside with it, and slam-dunked it into the nearest garbage can. Even the quality of the sunlight improved instantly.

    I told this story to a friend of mine recently and he nodded and told me that he had bought over 15 copies of "The First Family" at various garage and rummage sales. "The First Family" was an incredibly successful comedy album, an affectionate satire on the early days of Kennedy Administration featuring JFK imitator Vaughn Meader. Everybody owned a copy of it. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year, back in the pre-Beatle days when comedy albums routinely won the Grammy for Album of the Year; I remember parties my parents threw or attended where "The First Family" was slapped on the Hi Fi and all conversation stopped while it played. After JFK’s assassination nobody played it at parties any more and a million copies of the album were immediately relegated to a million cardboard boxes in a million garages. You could find them at yard sales all through the sixties and seventies, on sale for 15 cents or in the "FREE!" crate (Other records ALWAYS available at yard sales: The first Monkees album, and at least one of the 800 or so Christmas albums released by Andy Williams), but at the end of the day they went back in the garage since everybody had a copy that was never played any more.

    So, I said to my friend, why is it you’ve bought 15 copies?

    Because I CAN, he said.

    At that point I more or less terminated the conversation. So I don’t know if he plays them or tacks them up on the wall or uses them for Frisbees. But it got me to thinking more about my own record collection. (By ‘records,’ I mean vinyl, of course). Like my library, it was assembled largely from items I found in the cut-out bins. Harmony Hut, the record store at the local mall during my teenage years, had a large selection of cut-outs priced at $1.99, at $2.99, at $.99, and at $.49. $2.99 was a little too rich for my blood, but you could find some bizarre stuff there and when I was flush I would check it out. My copies of the Moondog album (a blind jazz musician who played on street corners in NYC in the fifties and sixties, of Frank Sinatra’s "Watertown"-- a strange ‘concept album’ that flopped so spectacularly it hastened his mid-seventies ‘retirement’-- and, of all things, the two-piano version of "Rite of Spring" were all discovered in the $2.99 bin. The $.49 bin yielded very little of even marginal interest-- I think Tim Buckley’s "Lorca" and a couple of Turtles records came from there-- although I recall a lot of weird ‘easy listening’ stuff from people like Martin Denny that I would probably enjoy today.

    There were always great things in the $.99 and $1.99 bins. The Mercury release of David Bowie’s "Man Who Sold the World" was a perennial denizen of the $.99 pile, as was "The Johnny Carson Tonight Show Album"-- a legendary debacle. The word was it ‘shipped Gold and was returned Platinum’-- that is, orders from the record stores were through the roof, and once it went on sale, NOBODY bought it. Except me, when it hit the $.99 pile. Then there were the various Badfinger LPs. For reasons utterly inexplicable-- I’ve heard there was an accounting error-- Warner Brothers deleted their entire Badfinger catalogue, including a CURRENTLY CHARTING RELEASE, and I snapped them all up for 99 cents each.

    The $1.99 bins provided my introductions to Eric Dolphy, The Chieftains, and The Move. And there were also Canadian versions of records that were still in print (and full price) on American labels-- The Kinks, The Yardbirds, and Mott the Hoople all had Canadian labels that shipped their records to New Jersey with the sole aim, as far as I can tell, of allowing me to fill in the gaps in my record collection for very little money. Even in the early seventies $1.99 was not much money (I was living at home and therefore NEVER broke) so I never went to Harmony Hut without buying something from the cut out bins-- Balinese Monkey Chants, Nat King Cole, ‘In a Mellow Moog’ (don’t ask)...

    And then there was... The Soundtrack of Ned Kelly. The story of Rolling Stones related remainders would be a column in itself-- for instance, there was a record called "Jamming with Edward," an instant cut-out featuring all the Stones except Keith Richard (Ry Cooder was filling in), which gave off such a stink of death and failure that even I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. There were solo albums by Chris Jagger, Mick’s BROTHER (The first one was pretty good). And then there was... The Soundtrack of Ned Kelly. "Ned Kelly" was a starring vehicle for Mick Jagger. The powers that be at the studio didn’t do much to promote it, apparently feeling that the soundtrack (featuring the deathless ballad "Tell It to Lonnigan’s Widow" (Yes, I bought it) was going to be a monster no matter what. So they printed up about 6 billion of them, or 2 for ever human currently living on the planet earth. All 6 billion ended up in the $.99 bin at Harmony Hut. They mated and reproduced themselves at night and they ate all the GOOD remainders and then they ate all the retail vinyl and that’s why the CD had to be invented-- the ravenous Soundtrack of Ned Kellys couldn’t digest them.

    I haven’t seen a copy in decades. It’s one of those horrible things, like the influenza epidemic of 1918, that changed the world forever but nobody talks about it. Every now and then I find myself humming "Tell It to Lonnigan’s Widow," and I get the shakes. I’m getting them now. I’m sorry I mentioned it.


    [An interview with my daughter concerning the upcoming school year and how she prepared for it this summer, conducted in a booth at a Pizza Hut somewhere in western New Jersey]

    JEFF: I want to give the readers some sense of how you prepared for the school year during your summer vacation. What did you do this summer?

    EMMA: I slept a lot. I got a lot of rest. I had to read eight books for English.

    J: What were they?

    E: You’ve seen them. They’re sort of rectangular, and they have all these pages.

    J: Of course, it all comes back to me. What else did you do?

    E: Well, we spent a lot of time trying to catch the rat-cat thing that lives under Compton’s shed.

    J: What do you mean, ‘rat-cat’ thing?

    E: It might be a rat, or it might be a cat. Compton isn’t sure.

    J: I don’t see how you can’t tell whether it’s a cat or a rat. Usually you don’t mistake the one for the other.

    E: Well, you don’t KNOW, that’s all.

    J: I don’t know?

    E: Do you have a rat-cat thing living under your shed?

    J: No.

    E: Exactly. She tries to feed it but it never comes out.

    J: Why would she try to feed it if it might be a rat?

    E: Because it might be a cat. We’re writing a rap song about it.

    J: What kind of food?

    E: Ask me about the rap song.

    J: No. What kind of food is she trying to feed it?

    E: Not cat food. I’m sure of that, because she doesn’t have a cat, and I can’t imagine her going to the grocery store and actually BUYING cat food for something that may or may not be a rat.

    J: Okay.

    E: You know the actress that plays the mother on "That Seventies Show"?

    J: There are several actresses playing mothers on "That Seventies Show."

    E: The MAIN one. She’s sitting in the booth behind us. Don’t look. Oh, the other thing I wanted to mention, Jerry lost a lot of weight.

    J: Your cat, Jerry?

    E: Yes.

    J: He was pretty beefy. How did you manage to get him to lose weight?

    E: I stopped feeding him. He was so fat he couldn’t roll over. I said DON’T LOOK.

    J: That’s not the actress from "That Seventies Show."

    E: Then what show is she from?

    J: I don’t know that she’s from any show. I don’t even know that she’s an actress.

    E: And yet you KNOW she’s not from "That Seventies Show." Uh-HUH.

    [The interview continues over the phone approximately two hours later, with Compton, through the miracle of three-way-calling]


    J: When did you first see this thing?

    COMPTON: It was the beginning of spring. I was looking in my back yard for my front yard...

    J: What?

    C: Just say I was in my front yard. And in the corner of my eye, I saw some movement, and there it was. I thought it was a cat, so I walked up to pet it. It had poodle hair.

    J: Poodle hair?

    C: Yes.

    J: Did you actually--

    C: No.

    J: Could I finish asking the question? I was going to say, did you actually touch it.

    C: No.

    J: How close did you manage to get?

    C: 20 feet away.

    J: And from there you could tell it had poodle hair.

    C: Whatever kind of hair it was, it was not like cat hair.

    J: Okay. So your saying it had sort of nappy hair?

    C: Kind of. But it was probably a cat.

    J: Why do you say so that?

    C: It moved very swiftly. It ran around in three circles and then went under the shed. I would say it had ferret-like qualities.

    J: Ferret like qualities. Let me write that down...

    C: It stood up on its hind legs. And then--

    E: Robin Williams shaved his arms and chest for the movie "Hook." Stephen Spielberg made him.

    J: Uh--

    E: It was so little kids would identify with him more. He was playing Peter Pan.

    J: I don’t--

    E: Everybody was talking about HAIR. That was my contribution to the discussion.

    J: Thank you.

    E: You should shave YOUR arms. It’s really gross that you have hair arms.

    J: I’ll think about that. So it went under the shed...

    C: After it went under the shed I brought it water but it didn’t drink any.

    J: When was the last time you saw it?

    C: That was the only time I saw it.

    J: When was the last time you looked for it?

    C: I think the day after I saw it.

    E: No, because when you told me about it, we went to look for it.

    J: When was that?

    E: The 2nd day of summer vacation.

    C: That’s true, we did look for it then.

    E: You could double-check us on that by asking Compton’s sister.

    J: I don’t think that’ll be necessary--

    E: She says she’s a big Phillies fan, but she’s not. Not as big as she says, anyway.

    J: Okay.

    E: If the Mets had had Roger Clemens, they would have won the 1987 World’s Series.

    J: What?

    E: I just... nothing.

    J: The Mets weren’t even IN the 1987 World’s Series.

    E: I didn’t say they were.

    J: No, but... Well, it’s... I mean, you might as well say they’d have won the 1991 World’s Series if they’d had Ty Cobb.

    E: Well, if he was, you know, the YOUNG Ty Cobb, they would have.

    J: I--

    E: Don’t print that.

    J: Hey. If you don’t want to be quoted, don’t talk to a journalist.

    E: The Ty Cobb remarks are off the record. And the Roger Clemens, too.

    J: Too late.



    "The guy who invented monster hands was a genius," said Calvano. "You can have the greatest monster HEAD in the world, but nobody’s gonna believe you’re an actual monster if you got these stupid KID hands." Calvano held up his stupid kid hands.

    It was true. Calvano was wearing this incredible rubber ‘shock monster’ mask, I was wearing a not-quite-so-incredible Frankenstein mask, and our pink hairless, scar-free hands simply did not match our rubber faces. Picarillo’s face and hands did match, since he was eating a chocolate eclair and his rubber werewolf mask was pushed back so the wolf-face was on top of his head. We were sitting in Picarillo’s bedroom. It was mid-August and about 96 degrees, and sweat poured from beneath our masks, which we were wearing for no particular reason at all.

    "Let’s get going with the monster hands, Picarillo," I said. Picarillo did not like to rush his eclairs and gave me a withering look. All of the monster hands were being stored in Picarillo’s bedroom that week, in a paper bag. Calvano felt it was best if we shuttled the precious stash of rubber hands from place to place to confound our enemies.

    "Ah cripes!" cried Calvano. He’d found the bag--it was under Picarillo’s bed, near the jar with the cow brain-- and discovered the bag was filled with not only monster hands but also crumbs. "Cripes, Picarillo, we gotta RINSE OFF the monster hands! What’s the matter with you? How’d you get all this junk on the-- AAKK!" One of the ‘Shock Monster’ hands had some pizza sauce on it. Now it was on Calvano’s hand. He looked around for something to wipe it on. Picarillo tossed him a piece of white fabric that had been hanging from the night lamp. "Thanks. I don’t-- AAAAKK!" The white fabric turned out to be a pair of Picarillo’s underpants. Calvano convulsively tossed the loathsome object out of the room and proceeded to whack Picarillo in the head with one of Picarillo’s shoes.

    "You don’t want to look too closely at that shoe," I said.

    Calvano ignored my advice. "AAAAKK!!" The shoe followed the underpants out the door. Moments later Calvano and I were running down the street. I had the bag of monster hands and Calvano was still saying "Aaaakk." It may have been the very same "Aaaakk" he’d been saying when he threw away the shoe.

    "We need to find a better storage system for the monster hands," he said. "Picarillo is most of the problem but the bag idea isn’t so hot either. We need something sturdier, less likely to rip and stuff. Like a bank vault, only small and light enough to stick under your arm and carry around." I nodded. Bank vault. Small and Light. We brought the bag to Calvano’s house and stuck it in the kitchen cabinet next to the dog biscuits and completely forgot about it until we were rooting through the Reverend Mr. Twitty’s garbage later that week.

    In general we did our garbage rooting in the early morning, just an hour or so ahead of the sanitation department, but we happened to be skulking in the vicinity of Mr. Twitty’s home at dusk when we caught sight of him depositing an intriguing bag of garbage atop the lid of his aluminum can. The bag had edges instead of bulges. Even so, I was skeptical.

    "He’s a MINISTER," I said. "So there’s no gonna be anything good in his garbage."

    "Totally wrong," he said. "Suppose the PODS were going to take over the town. Who would they start with? Peter Cook?"

    "I-- I guess not..." Pete Cook was the town *ahem* reprobate. The Pods in question, it goes without saying, were the space pods from ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ which Channel 5 had been running every afternoon at 2 PM that week. At this distance in time, the connection between Mr. Twitty being possessed by Space Pods and his having really interesting garbage somehow escapes me, but at the time, it seemed to make perfect sense. We opened the bag and found it contained-- cigar boxes.

    "Whoa!" said Calvano. "It’s the MOTHER LODE!" We divided up the boxes between us and stuffed them under our T-shirts. If we’d simply grabbed the bag we would have attracted no attention at all, of course, but we felt it was somehow necessary that we divide the boxes between us and stuff them under our T-shirts. Probably we were confounding our enemies again. When we got to Calvano’s house, we retrieved the monster hands from his kitchen and began fitting them into the boxes. The monster hands were made of thick premium rubber and only one hand could fit in a cigar box comfortably. But that was unacceptable, so we crammed a pair in a box and then secured each one with a rubber band. "Perfect," said Calvano. "Nobody would ever suspect a thing." We piled the boxes into the kitchen cabinet and then returned to Mr. Twitty’s house, to see if he’d put out any more garbage. He had, as a matter of fact, put out another bag of garbage, but this one contained only... well, garbage. But Mr. Twitty himself was in his backyard, smoking a cigar and looking up into the sky. "It’s kind of like he’s... waiting for something," whispered Calvano. We didn’t wait around to find out what he was waiting for. "You know, we take his cigar boxes, and the next thing you know, he’s out back, with a CIGAR. Of course maybe it’s a mere coincidence."

    For the next few days we wandered around town carrying the cigar boxes. It was remarkably satisfying to think that none of the people we passed suspected that the cigar boxes contained Monster Hands. When we weren’t doing that, we were in Calvano’s yard, where we practiced ripping the rubber bands off the boxes and quickly slipping our hands into the Monster Hands. Calvano had a stopwatch. We got to the point where I could get them out of the box and onto my hands in 7 seconds, and Calvano could do it in slightly over 6. If an emergency requiring Monster Hands come up, we could have responded almost instantly. We returned to Mr. Twitty’s yard periodically-- two pairs of Monster Hands were still without a cigar box, and remained stuffed in the paper bag in Calvano’s kitchen. About three weeks after our initial find, there was once again a cigar box bagged and discarded atop Mr. Twitty’s garbage cans. When we got it home, however, we found it was not quite empty. It contained... a piece of broccoli. Calvano and I both stared at it.

    "He’s on to us," said Calvano. I shivered. Calvano shut the box and tossed it in the trash, broccoli and all. We stopped carrying the Monster Hands around and neglected our practice. "We’ll get back to it when the coast is clear," said Calvano, but we never did. It’s scary to think how long it would take me to get the Monster Hands out of the box and onto my hands today.



    "I need some advice," said my cousin Low-Low. Low-Low and I grew up in the same town, about three blocks apart from each other and when we were kids I would see him pretty much every day. Despite this degree of familiarity, I’m not quite sure what his real name is; nobody has called him anything but ‘Low-Low’ for at least 30 years. I’m not sure he could tell you what his real name is anymore.

    "My advice is, never ever get on line at the super market behind an old lady who’s buying more than 3 cans of cat food."


    "No kidding. They always suddenly realize that THIS can’s got a dent in it, and therefore Mr. Snookums won’t even look at it, and they’ll ask the cashier to get another can without a dent, and then when everything--"

    "I, um..."

    "...when everything is already rung up, they’ll go, ‘Oh, I thought the cat food was on sale this week.’ And then the manager gets involved, and of course they end up buying the cat food anyway, because Mr. Snookums has to eat, but the cashier and the manager are both going to get a lecture about how dare they take advantage of the elderly like this. The lecture usually lasts at the minimum 8 minutes. At the MINUMUM. And the thing is--"

    "See, I don’t do the groc’ry shoppin’?"

    "...the thing is, if there are a couple of people between you and the old lady, it’s no big deal, you can bail out and get on another line as soon as she starts piling the cans on the check out counter, but if you’re RIGHT BEHIND her, like I was yesterday, you’re pretty much stuck. So just don’t do it. That’s my advice."

    "What I wanted th’ advice about, I’m workin’ on my first novel this weekend."

    "Oh. Well, the main thing there is, make sure you’ve got a decent light," I said. "And a comfortable place to sit. You probably won’t be able to finish the whole thing in one sitting, so you’ll want to make sure you have a bookmark. Don’t dog-ear the pages. Well, you can if you actually own the book, though it’s still not a good idea, but if you borrowed it from the library, definitely use a bookmark. Otherwise, I can’t think of anything I can tell you."

    Low-Low blinked a couple of times. "Um. I’m not READING my first novel. I’m writing it."

    "Oh. Well, I’d read one first if I were you, just to get a general idea of what they’re like."

    More blinking. "I read a LOT of novels," he said.

    "Name one," I said.

    "The one with Anthony Hopkins," he said. "I forget the name, but they won’t let him watch TV."

    "Hmm. There are just so many novels where the main character is Anthony Hopkins and he’s not allowed to watch TV, they all kind of blend together for me, too."

    "I just saw the one. Read, I mean."

    "Okay. Well, your novel should be pretty much like that one as far as stuff like the number of words and dividing it up into chapters and so forth goes, but you should try and work up a better plot than not letting Anthony Hopkins watch TV."

    "That wasn’t ‘zactly the plot."

    "I’m glad to hear it. Anything else I can help you with, just let me know..."

    "I need an AGENT," he said. "A good one."

    "Of course a good one. Well, my advice is, never mind good, get the BEST."

    "Well, I was thinkin’..."

    "The best. Bond. James Bond." I hummed a few bars of the James Bond theme.

    "I meant the OTHER kind of agent."

    "Oh-- you mean an EVIL agent. An agent of S.M.E.R.S.H. Can’t help you there, buddy. Those guys play it pa-ritty close to the vest, you know what I’m saying? No listing in the Yellow Pages for S.M.E.R.S.H. agents."

    "I was figgering... Well, you writing for the newspaper and so on, YOU could be my agent."

    "I wish I could," I explained, "But I don’t have a license."

    "You need a license?"

    "Yes. A LICENSE TO KILL." I went into the James Bond theme again, this time for 30 seconds or so. Low-Low didn’t find it any more amusing this time around.

    "Do you know any agents?" he asked doggedly. "One a those really HIGH POWERED ones, who can sell the movie rights and stuff like that?"

    I sighed. "You probably aren’t at the point where you need to speak to an agent yet. How much of the book is already written?"

    "That’s th’ other thing I wanted some advice about..."

    "You want me to read it, you mean, and tell you how much longer it’s got to be?"

    "Well. Not ’zactly. I’m kinda stuck at this one part, and I’m trying to figure out where I gotta go from here."

    "Not to the grocery store," I said. "Not if there’s a crazy old lady on line with about 50 cans of cat food."

    Low-Low reached into his back pocket and removed a sheet of ruled legal paper. He handed it to me. On the sheet was written:

    "The big guy got out a the car & pocked his gun."

    "Pocked?" I said.

    "It was spoze to be ‘picked up.’"

    "That’s spelled with an ‘i’ and there’s an ‘up’ on the end." I looked at the sentence again. "This is the whole thing so far, isn’t it? This is the novel-in-progress to date."


    "And you want me to tell you what happens next. Because you don’t have any idea."

    "Well. I’m kinna new at this."

    "Me too," I said. "Maybe the big guy was hired by Anthony Hopkins to take care of the people who won’t let him watch TV. That’s one way to go."

    "Is there another way t’ go?"

    "Yes there is," I said, and I went. I had this urge to head over to the supermarket and hang out in the pet food aisle until I saw an old lady loading about 50 pounds of cat food into her cart, and then stand in line behind her for the next hour or so. But instead I just pocked my gun and went home.

    If there are any literary agents reading this, please contact me care of this paper if you’d like to be notified when Low-Low finishes his novel.


    My father happens to watch a lot of TV these days. The fact that he’s in front of the set maybe 8 hours a day doesn’t stop him from complaining about what he’s watching. He considers it a matter of honor to assert-- more or less hourly-- that there’s "nothing" of interest on these days. Since he subscribes to virtually every premium channel offered by his cable service, he has well over 100 options at any given moment and surely, you would think, there must be one or two or three of them worth sitting through, even by his lights.

    In fact you would be wrong-- there are usually somewhere between 5 and 20, but that doesn’t stop him from longing for the halcyon days when there were three networks, seven channels, and he would routinely plough through all three volumes "Lee’s Lieutenants" a couple of times a year because the choice of shows presented to him during that Silver Age of Television (roughly 1958 through 1969) -- "Beverly Hillbillies" vs. "Gidget" for instance-- was unacceptable.

    Of course many of his current favorites were first aired between 15 and 40 years ago. This is largely a matter of men’s hairstyles, I think. It now takes him roughly 8- 12 years to assimilate a hairstyle. He used to switch off shows in disgust during the early seventies when he caught sight of a character with long sideburns. "Say goodnight, Gracie," he once snarled to the anachronistically hirsute Korean War surgeon Alan Alda, seconds before switching over to something less tonsorially threatening; by the early eighties, just as the style was evaporating, M*A*S*H reruns, long sideburns and all, became acceptable after dinner fare in the household. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of being present when my father was confronted with a male TV character with a pierced nostril or eyebrow, but I’m sure that once that fashion goes the way of the Nehru shirt, it will go unremarked upon when it shows up on the video screen of Grimshaw The Elder.

    But even though he complains about all the TV he watches, he’s still watching it, and my sister and I have been getting concerned. He should be out in the good weather, playing with his friends, not cooped up inside watching "Magnum PI" and "Bonanza." The effect of all this television on our oldsters hasn’t been studied seriously yet, but it can’t be good. Unlike kids who have been born into the age of remote controls and channel surfing, people my dad’s age often have an EXCELLENT ATTENTION SPAN, which puts them at a huge disadvantage when they start watching a show. They can not only follow what’s going on, but they often become engrossed in it. This can have awful consequences.

    A friend of mine reports that she phoned her mother last season during "So You Want to Be a Millionaire"-- and if you were going to phone somebody last season, it was hard NOT to do it during "So You Want to Be a Millionaire"-- and her mother said "I can’t talk now, I’m about to win a million dollars." Click.

    During the post-game conversation, the mother denied saying this, but my friend is adamant and I believe her. My dad has been saying similar things about some of the shows he watches. "You know," my sister said to me, "sometimes he talks about his show--" ‘his show’ being an afternoon soap opera that he NEVER NEVER misses-- "like it was really happening."

    "A lot of people do that," I said. "It doesn’t mean anything."

    "I’m not so sure," said my sister.

    I continued to pooh-pooh this until a recent visit. I settled into the incredibly uncomfortable chair beside his, and asked "So what’s going on with the show?" The show was about to start, and I usually need an update if I’m going to follow it. There’s one character who’s been married to pretty much every male on the show, and-- well, it's not important. The conversation when like this:

  • Dad: You should’ve seen Darleen yesterday. I told her, I said, you can’t wear that bathing suit. My Gosh, I said, everybody can see your bazooms. You know how jealous Lance gets. I don’t know what you’re thinking.

    Me: You, uh, told her?

    Dad: Oh yeah. You know me, I got something to say, I come right out and say it. I don’t beat around the bush.

  • Me: And, uh, what did she say?

  • Dad: Huh? [looooong pause] What do you mean what did she say? She didn’t say anything, you damn fool. She’s on TV. She’s an ACTRESS. It’s a TV show! THEY can’t hear us. It’s all on TAPE.

    Me: Uh--

    Dad: I don’t BELIEVE you! What are you, 45 years old? And you don’t know how a TV works? What do you think, all those little people live inside the box??

    Me: Er--

    Dad: Just a minute, I want to call your sister.

  • He picked up the phone and dialed. "Pam? Let me tell you what your brother, your 45-year-old brother, just did. He asks me what’s happening on the show, right? So I start telling him what happened yesterday and he goes, ‘Yeah, but what did the people on the TV say to YOU?’ I said, ‘Huh?’ and he says, ‘The people on the TV-- don’t they talk to you?’"

    "I didn’t say that," I protested.

    He held up his hand. "So I explained to him how the TV works. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. No, he looked at me like I was giving him big news. I know. I know. It IS incredible. Yeah, I think a rubber room sounds like a good idea. Uh-huh. All right, I’ll talk to you later." He hung up. "Your sister thinks you’re nuts," he reported.

    "No kidding. Hey, I didn’t say--"

    "Shhhh. The show is starting. Hey, there’s Darleen. MUCH better. That’s a much more demure-type outfit. Geez, I gotta tell you what my KID said a couple of minutes ago. Get this-- he thinks you can HEAR me when I’m talking in here!" He looked over at me and nodded. "SHE thinks you’re nuts, too."




    I weigh 387 pounds and my doctor says that I am a good candidate for liposuction. As he explained it to me, incisions would be made in my skin, and then fat would be sucked out. I like the part about the fat being sucked out, but I’m wondering if the incisions are absolutely necessary. The idea of incisions frankly doesn’t appeal to me.


    Worried about cuts


    I’m afraid there’s no way around it-- Your doctor has to have access to the fat, and one way or another he’s got to make an incision. If you’re worried about external scarring, there are some remarkable new alternatives to the standard procedures in development. In Sweden (the foreign country), doctors have been working on a single incision technique, in which a small hole is punched in the bottom of the big toe and a very long lipo-hose is snaked up to wherever the undesired fat deposits are located. I emphasize this is still in the experimental phase, and so far it has been used only on this guy Lars. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, scientists are working on a technique that would allow miniaturized army guys to enter the human body through the pores and remove the fat using these tiny shovels.

    * * *


    Why is liposuction called LIPosuction? What does it have to do with the lips? As far as I can see, nothing. Correct me if I’m wrong.


    What lips?


    You are not wrong. It has nothing to do with lips. ‘Lipo’ is a Latin word meaning ‘fat.’ ‘Suction’ is an English word meaning ‘suction.’ ‘Liposuction’ is pronounced with a long ‘i’ sound, as in ‘ay-yi-yi.’ If it were about lips, it would be called ‘lipposuction.’ (Rhymes with HIPPO-suction).

    * * *


    I am getting liposuction. What happens to the fat they remove? Can I keep it? Can they clone me from it? Will my clone attempt to kill me and then replace me? Would my wife be able to tell the difference? I mean before he started acting really evil?


    This could be more trouble


    I think they discard the fat they remove, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask if you could keep a sample. Yes, they can clone you from it, and if so the clone WILL attempt to kill and replace you. Your wife will not be able to tell the difference until it is too late.

    * * *


    When I get lipo-ed, can they shape me? I weigh 441 pounds. I would like to be shaped like a giraffe, or failing that, the Chrysler Building.




    First, allow me to compliment you on your taste in architecture. The Chrysler Building is a delight to the eye and if I wanted to look like any building, that would be it. But sad to say liposuction has not advanced to the point where you can be shaped any which way just yet. I know-- you would think with 441 pounds to work with the sky would be the limit, but all my sources tell me you’re going to come out of this looking more or less like a human-- like yourself in fact-- only significantly smaller. And one can’t help suspecting that when shaping is an option, giraffes and specific buildings will still be a considerable way down the road-- probably simply shapes, such as cubes or trapezoids, will be the first shapes offered.

    * * *


    How many celebrities have had liposuction?




    All of them.

    * * *


    I’m thinking of getting liposuction but it seems very expensive. I wonder-- is it possible to build my own liposuction device, and if so, would it be safe to operate it myself?


    How about it?


    It’s very easy. Any idiot can do it. And it’s completely safe. Just stick a really thin nozzle on the end of an industrial strength vacuum cleaner, make a little slit someplace around where the fat you don’t want is, and turn on the switch. When you’re happy with the way that part of you looks, turn off the switch. That’s all there is to it. If you can’t find a really thin nozzle, just make a bigger slit.

    * * *


    I’d like to get liposuction, but then I’d also like to eat a lot and not exercise and probably gain it all back and then some. Is there some sort of a plan I can sign up for so I can get lipoed every couple of months or so?


    Know My Limitations


    Yes. Every liposuction clinic has such a plan; in fact, many suggest weekly and even daily liposuctions. Speak to your liposuctionists and he will put together a very expensive plan that is perfect for you.

    * * *



    Will I be shorter after lipo?


    Short enough already


    No. Well, PROBABLY not.

    * * *


    I’m not fat, but I would like to get lipo. I’m wondering if they could vacuum out something else? Also I would like to get a tattoo of a picture of a skull with a snake coming out of one eye at the same time. Would the same guy do the tattoo and the lipo, or do I need to find two different guys?


    Twofer Hoper


    Most liposuctionists are also expert tattoo-ists. Check your Yellow Pages. As far as vacuuming out something besides fat, as noted above, ‘lipo’ means fat, so if it ain’t fat, it ain’t lipo. Sorry.

    * * *


    My wife is expecting our first child (she’s in the last trimester) and we recently watched an ultrasound image of the developing child. I couldn’t help but notice the kid is a little, well, chubby. Is there a way she could have some pre-natal lipo?




    Experts say you should wait until your child has been born and is at least 6 months old before getting any plastic surgery.

    * * *


    My big fat stupid cousin died and he was so fat they are going to have to put him in a big fat stupid coffin that they are going to have to build special for the viewing. I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be cheaper to get some post-mortem lipo? They wouldn’t have to be too gentle.


    In fact they wouldn’t have to be gentle at all

    DEAR IN:

    I can think of no more fitting show of respect for the recently departed than a gift of liposuction so they can fit into a chic, stylish coffin rather than a clunky ‘large and tall man’ box. You are to be commended for your thoughtfulness, and we can only hope it is the beginning of a new national trend. Thanks for writing.



    I was standing on top of the little refrigerator in the Custom Neon Sign Shop, changing the florescent tube that had blown out a couple of hours earlier. ‘Blown out’ in this case means that I had smashed it while juggling D cells. I’d been juggling D cells because I couldn’t juggle socks any more. For about a week I’d been bringing my neatly balled up socks to the Custom Neon Sign Shop and juggling them. Balled up socks are excellent for juggling because when you drop them, they don’t roll away. But one had landed in Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ coffee cup. The cup was just about empty and there was no hilarious situation comedy-type drenching of Mulberry Street Joey Clams, just a coffee cup with a pair of balled-up white socks in it. "Lemme give you a hand with your juggling," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, extracting the socks from his cup. He gestured for the other socks, which I tossed over. He stepped outside and beckoned me to follow. He glanced up and down the street, and allowed several cars to pass before hailing a taxi. He opened the back door and tossed the socks in, and handed the driver a five-dollar bill. "Take these bad boys wherever they want to go," he said, and slammed the door of the cab. The cab sat there for several beats, and then pulled away. "Everybody’ll be happier this way," he said.

    "Where are they going?" I asked.

    "What am I? A mind reader? They’re YOUR socks."

    So after a decent interval of three or four days (and of course carefully choosing moments when Mulberry Street Joey Clams was elsewhere) I began juggling D cells, which were not as good as balled-up socks, and in due course took out the florescent tube. So there I was, standing on the refrigerator and trying to snap the new tube into place, and Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ Uncle Danny entered the Shop, with a large black dog on a leash.

    "The nephew?" he said.

    "Out onna town," I said. I always said things like "onna" and "gotta" when speaking to Uncle Danny. Otherwise he would ask me "So are you a wise guy, or what?" I don’t know why.

    "Tell him he’s gotta take care a this DOG," he said, and tied the leash to the leg of Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ desk, and left. Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ desk was right next to the refrigerator. This is important, because if the desk (and therefore the dog) had been farther away, I would have been able to climb down from the refrigerator. As it was, every time I tried, the dog would growl and snap at me. I had been standing on the refrigerator for nearly an hour and ten minutes when Mulberry Street Joey Clams showed up.

    "Who’s this? Wotta you doin’ on the refrigerator? You got FOOTPRINTS onna top now. We gotta get a new one." He scratched the dog behind the ears. The dog shut its eyes, and I made my escape.

    "We can just wipe off the foot prints," I said.

    "Yeah, but we’ll KNOW they’re still there. And more important, the DOG will know. They can see things we can’t, like brain waves and ghosts. Fact. So what’s the story on the dog, anyway?" He suddenly stopped scratching and his visage darkened. "You didn’t take him in TRADE for a SIGN, did you?"

    "It’s from your Uncle, Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He said you’ve got to take care of it."

    "He said... wait a minute. Did he say WATCH the dog, or TAKE CARE OF the dog?"

    "Take care of, I’m sure."

    "Because, uh, ‘take care of’ can mean... well, a lot of things," he said. "Did he said like, ‘take care of the dog for a couple hours’ or just ‘take care of the dog?’

    "Just take care of it."

    "Huh. Well, I dunno." He gazed into the soulful eyes of the black dog. "Did you do something to honk off Unca Danny?"

    "Me?" I said.

    "Nobody’s talking to you right now. I’m trying to find out which kind of ‘take care of’ we’re supposed to be doing here."

    "Mulberry Street Joey Clams-- you think you’re uncle wants you to, uh, ‘take the dog for a ride,’ so to speak?"

    "I dunno. Until I find out, I better feed him. We need some dog food." He reached into his pocket. "I seem to have used up the petty cash fund this week, sending your socks out to Battery Park."

    "They went to Battery Park?"

    "I don’t know where they went, I’m just SAYING. Go get some dog food. And get a receipt, so I can pay you back in the event we ever make any money."

    At the grocery store I selected a box of dog biscuits shaped like little bones, in a variety of delicious flavors. The dog was unimpressed. He sniffed the biscuit I proffered, then did a rather Elvis-like sneer or snarl, baring just a couple of fangs on one side of the mouth.

    "He doesn’t trust you, because you were on top of the refrigerator," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "You gotta show him the biscuit is okay. Just pretend to eat one."

    I selected one of the green ones, which, I believe, was ‘liver-flavored.’ "Mmmm, this is just scrumptious," I said.

    "Look," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "don’t use these 600 dollar words. He’s a DOG, and he’s probally got a limited whatchamacallit."



    I said "Mmmm" again, and, before I realized what I was doing, tool a bite out of the dog biscuit. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and the dog both stared at me as if I were insane.

    In truth, the liver-flavored dog biscuit was... PRETTY DARN TASTY. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of Deja Vu-- I had eaten dog biscuits before! I was flooded with vivid memories of being 5 years old and sneaking into the kitchen to swipe the dog biscuits from the box where they were stored under the kitchen cabinet, and stuffing them into the bib of my Oshkosh overalls.

    This Proustian reverie was interrupted by the reappearance of Uncle Danny. "So where is it?"

    "What?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

    "Mmmpphhrrmm?" I said.

    "I wanted you to make one of those THINGS," Uncle Danny said. He slapped the dog’s leash by way of explanation.

    "A leash?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "He’s got a leash."

    "I wanted one like I saw on the SHOW," said Uncle Danny. "One that glows."

    "A neon leash?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "What show was this?"

    Uncle Danny poked me in the shoulder. "What show was it?"

    I was sampling one of the orange dog biscuits and couldn’t answer. I wouldn’t have been able to answer anyway, of course. Twenty years later I still can’t come up with any show where Uncle Danny saw a neon leash, except perhaps The Jetsons.

    "We don’t know how to do anything like that," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams in a rare moment of candor. In point of fact, since we were largely self-taught in the neon trade, and lousy teachers to boot, we didn’t know how to do much of anything involving neon. Or, for that matter, leashes.

    "Well, you coulda said something when I dropped off the dog," Uncle Danny said to me. He took the dog (whose name we were destined never to learn) and left.

    I was never to be compensated for the outlay of funds for the dog biscuits, but it was okay. As noted, they were quite delicious, and, it turned out, perfectly balanced, and therefore ideal for juggling.



    I have to admit, all false modesty to the side for once, I am a pretty doggone scintillating conversationalist, but I've never been able to figure out how to cash in on it. It's one of the many things I do real well -- drawing cockroaches, remembering the names of all the Seven Dwarves except "Bashful," and eating chocolate bars without porking out too much are others-- for which, nonetheless, I can not seem to turn a profit. When I say "drawing" cockroaches, incidentally, I mean "rendering the likeness of" rather than "attracting", although when I lived on the Lower East Side I was a pretty fair hand at both.

    In theory, a great conversationalist should be able to use this (rarest of) skills to support himself, since television abounds with what are called 'talk shows.' You would think that guys like me could show up at the Tonight Show or Late Night and just about write our own checks. "Sure, I'll go on the show tonight," I would say to the producer, "but I've got to walk the dog at 3:00, so you've got to promise I'm out by the second segment, okay?" And the producer would say "Absolutely, Jeff. What topics do you feel like addressing?" Now, the conversation probably wouldn't go exactly this way, because the fact is I don't actually HAVE a dog. But you get my point.

    The reason I'm not making the rounds of the 'talk show circuit'? One issue, I'm sure, is HAIR. Talk show producers seem more interested in whether their guests have hair-- especially TOO MUCH hair-- than whether or not they are superb conversationalists. Another problem is that the preferred topics tend not to be either old Mamie Van Doren movies or the way these snotty kids today don't show proper respect to slightly balding weekly humor columnists, two subjects on which I can hold forth for hours at a time.

    I had all but abandoned the idea of ever making a dime, let alone a living, from my conversational abilities, when an amazing item showed up on eBay and perhaps changed my life forever. The item was listed as "Best Conversation Ever" and it originated in Minneapolis / St. Paul. (Item # 1611347873, if you want to make sure I'm not making this up]. The description read:


    "Wonderful conversation, slightly soiled in parts; works for anyone ages 4 - 90... Don't miss out on this once in a lifetime offer. My friend Jeremy and I spend all day conversing via email. READ OUR PROPHETIC CONVERSATION! [blah blah blah] ...Read our everyday email conversation and be amazed at the nuggets of wisdom that spout forth. This is a ONCE IN A LIFETIME OFFER. We will not repeat this listing.

    What you get: The email conversation we had on 6/27/01 forwarded to you in its ORIGINAL FORM. Conversation ranges on[SIC] many topics but there is heavy concentration on:



    We solve the world's problems. Email with questions. DON'T PASS THIS UP!"

    This item went for $15.50.

    I didn't find out about this until bidding was closed. (And I have to admit that even had I known about it in time, and had I been tempted to bid on it, once the bids went over a dollar, I would have folded up) (Of course, if I had a decent EXPENSE ACCOUNT, that wouldn't have been an issue). So I can't tell you for sure whether this "Best Conversation Ever" (sounds like a Richard Scarry title, huh?) lived up to its billing or not. One has to suspect that "Best Conversation Ever" is a more of a slogan than a true description; unless perhaps it means 'best conversation between Jeremy and his friend ever.' It's the sort of exaggeration it's hard not to excuse-- after all, who would bid on "257th Best Conversation Ever" or "Moderately Entertaining Chat; Topics Include: Last Night's Dinner * My Boss Is Getting on My Nerves * Did You See the Third Rock from the Sun Episode on Channel 5? * and others"?

    Nonetheless, I was pretty excited. While I haven't seen the conversation itself and know nothing about the conversers (A word which my Spellcheck insists is nonexistent) (Not anymore, Spellcheck!), I can't help thinking that whatever excellent qualities the $15.50 email exchange possesses, MY email exchanges are much, much better, and therefore worth much, much more. I immediately went searching through my saved emails looking for a cash cow.

    I immediately turned up an EL PRIMO bit of conversational dazzle-- between me and my old high school pal Jay. This dates from May 2nd:

    Jay: [this part of file corrupted] [But since it's the other guy, so what?]

    Jeff: going to my dad's-- let me know if you want to get together > > >either Friday night or Saturday during the day.

    Jay: Jeff-- Friday sounds good at the moment we should be able to get together at some >point.
    > > Are you staying over on Friday? Let me know. >> > Jay

    Jeff: Yup, staying over Friday night, so as late as you want to go is fine. I can >call you when I get to my dad's, probably somewhere around 9 PM. > >Jeff

    Jay: Jeff-- That sounds good. Actually the later the better for me on Friday. Talk to you. Jay

    Now, I have to confess-- ALL my email conversations don't attain this level. Like everyone else-- Shakespeare, Beethoven, the Italian guy who drew on ceilings whose name I can never remember, but he was one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too-- I have my off days. But no kidding around, I have MANY MANY conversations archived which are every bit as good as this one. Some, believe it or not, are even better. Let's say the above is a $25 chat (which readers of this column have enjoyed for FREE); there are plenty of exchanges worth $30, $31, even $35! If demand is great enough, I will reprint excerpts in this space in the future. And that way, when the FULL CONVERSATION turns up for sale on eBay-- you're not bidding blind, like NON-readers of this column.

    Time to cash in those Mutual Funds-- first conversation is going up for auction next week!


    About a year ago I was introduced to the amazing musical stylings of one Eilert Pilarm, AKA "The Swedish Elvis." What makes Eilert unique among Elvis impersonators-- even, I assume, Swedish ones-- is his total lack of resemblance to Elvis, both physically and vocally. He looks like a 60-year-old green grocer. He sounds like... well, he sounds like he learned the songs phonetically, and not particularly well-- the line "The whole rhythm section was the purple gang" from the immortal ‘Jailhouse Rock’ emerges from the Pilarm vocal apparatus as "You vas riddem section, uh, vas ya purpoo la gang." Which is not only questionable in terms of content, but doesn’t even have the right number of syllables. Needless to say it took me about 35 seconds to decide he was my favorite recording artist of all time. I figured HERE was a one-of-a-kind performer.

    And then last week, another of my far-flung correspondents sent me word that practically right across the street from Eilert-- well, just a short hop over the Baltic Sea-- an even more bizarre Elvis manqu頨ad set up shop. This fellow is a Finn by the name of Jukka Ammondt, and, not having heard him with my own ears, I don’t have any idea how close he comes to capturing the Elvis sound. Probably not very close, since he sings in Sumerian, and the lines "Do anything that you wanna do, but uh uh honey, lay off-a my shoes" are delivered "nig-na-me si-ib-ak-ke-en, e-sir kus-za-gin-gu ba-ra-tag-ge-en." This, according to the wire services, is literally "but my sandals of sky-blue leather-- do not touch." There’s no word about how good his Sumerian pronunciation is-- whether it’s dead on, or whether his Finnish accent would have the Sumerians scratching their heads and saying, "Huh?" Of course it’s sort of a moot question since Sumerian has been a dead language for just under 4000 years. (We will politely ignore the question of how anybody knows how to pronounce words in a language that hasn’t been spoken since 1800 BC).

    Prior to this, Professor Ammondt (no idea what he’s a professor of, and not sure I want to know) recorded several Elvis songs in Latin. Says here (I’m looking at the clipping my correspondent helpfully sent me-- he trimmed it so neatly that I can’t even tell what paper it came from, but on the back there’s an ad for Mary Ellen’s Body Waxing Wonderland, with a 15% off coupon) (It expires on July 28th, so if anybody’s interested, let me know right away) that these recordings have "won him a following around the world, and an honorary medal from the Pope." A quick web search left me unable to confirm either the world-wide following or the honorary medal from the Pope, and neither the world nor the Vatican has returned my phone calls yet. I confess I’m not quite sure what an ‘honorary medal’ might be. Is it a medal or isn’t it? And why would you get one for singing in Latin? I-ay ould-cay oo-day y-may ole-hay olumn-cay in-ay atin-lay, ut-bay I-ay obably-pray ouldn’t-way et-gay a-ay edal-may or-fay it-ay.

    At first I wondered, why Sumerian? Wouldn’t "Blue Suede Shoes" in Finnish be wacky enough? Jukka SAYS he has a motive for it-- "I believe this record will give people an understanding of their roots and that we here in Finland respect those roots," he is quoted as saying. But since the record will give people an understanding neither of their roots nor of the fact that those there in Finland respect those roots, he’s probably lying. But if you’re going for a large audience, I suppose Sumerian gives you as good a shot as Finnish. We sometimes forget how big the USA is. It takes about a week to drive across it, and wherever you stop, "The Simpsons" is broadcast in English. The ticket you get for illegally passing on the left is in English. But you can drive across Finland in less than a day if you really push it, and once you hit the border, everybody looks at you as if you’re speaking Finnish. So why the hell NOT sing in Sumerian?

    Which brings me to yet another question that’s been gnawing at me, namely: what are they putting in the water up there on the Scandinavian Peninsula? One demented would-be Elvis might be a fluke, but two is a trend. You can bet there are a couple dozen more of these guys at least, and possibly several thousand, stumbling around the fjords and swiveling their hips almost-but-not-quite in time to the music. The only explaination I can offer: American pop culture has driven these guys insane.

    Very odd things happen when the products of the USA take root in foreign soil. The results are almost always fascinating. Sometimes you get a really spectacular mutation, like Akira Kurasawa’s great movie "Yojimbo," which transplants Dashiel Hammet’s "Red Harvest" to medieval Japan (and also invokes the wonderful John Ford westerns that served as Kurasawa’s deeper inspiration). And sometimes you get Italian comic books, Yugoslavian country-western music, Basque hip-hop-- and if you’re REALLY lucky, you get Eilert Pilarm or Jukka Ammondt.

    Jukka seems to me moving in the correct direction, further and further back in time and away from any chance at inadvertently really sounding like Elvis. I’m a little worried about Eilert, though, because over the years his English has improved a little and his sense of timing as well; these days he generally crams the correct number of syllables into any given measure. And as he gets closer to sounding the way he wants to (which is not to say he’s even in the ball park-- he’s not even in the same STATE as the ball park yet), he gets correspondingly less interesting. If he improves enough, he’ll be indistinguishable from the lousy Elvis impersonator at your local county fair. (Of course in all likelihood he will never improve to that extent, as his creator has endowed him with a phenomenal lack of talent, but the awful possibility remains.)

    I know this is a pipe dream-- but I can’t help hoping that someday, somehow, Eilert and Jukka team up. Jukka could do his own versions of Eilert’s greatest hits. I wonder what "You vas riddem section, uh, vas ya purpoo la gang" is in Sumerian?


    I don’t remember whether it was supposed to be a punishment or a privilege, but one afternoon I found myself staying after school in the chem lab making hydrochloric acid. I wore very thick rubber gloves and a thick rubber apron because you make hydrochloric acid by diluting sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid came in large glass jugs; I would apportion the contents of one of these jugs equally into a whole bunch of empty jugs, and then fill them up with distilled water. I’m not certain of the ratio-- maybe 10 or 12 to one in favor of water. But in any case you don’t want to try this one at home, because sulfuric acid is for all intents and purposes the same as the blood of the monsters in "Alien," which burns through 8 or 10 levels of titanium-plated space-ship flooring before it finally fizzes out. Given that, it’s hard to see the point of the rubber gloves and apron-- perhaps in the event of a spill they would have provided me an extra 10th of a second with which to review my well-spent life and heave a sigh of satisfaction prior to total disintegration. Well, it’s better than nothing, I guess.

    I felt a little bad about diluting the stuff at all, because sulfuric acid was a magical substance as far as I was concerned. From earliest childhood-- or anyway since the purchase of my first issue of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine (number 11, with Oliver Reed in "Curse of the Werewolf" on the cover)-- it occupied a substantial part of my imagination. It was, after all, the stuff that splashed into Lon Chaney’s face to turn him into the Phantom of the Opera; it was the secret weapon of the smog monster (who could fire a steam of it from a special gland located under his tongue) in "Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster"; it was the sparkling liquid that filled up the wine vat in the basement of "The House on Haunted Hill" that people kept stumbling into, whereupon they were instantly skeletonized. From the time I was 6 or 7 until I was 11 or 12, I badgered my father incessantly to install a vat of acid in the basement. Think of the fun at parties, I would say. But he felt it was an unnecessary expense, and opted for really crappy looking wood paneling instead. I was a high school junior at the time I was making hydrochloric acid and way past my childhood infatuation with H2SO4, but I had to come up with an idea for a midterm chemistry project, and as I filled one jug after another with distilled water I realized that sulfuric acid was going to be part of it.

    Just what part, I didn’t know. My lab partner, Karen, wanted to do some stupid experiment that made sense and did not involve anything that would kill us if we spilled it. She was explaining her idea to me-- I wasn’t listening so I don’t know exactly what it was-- when I noticed some green stuff poking out of her three-ring binder.

    "What is that?"

    "It’s asparagus," she said. "Bobby gave it to me." Bobby was her boyfriend, and he had the largest head, in proportion to his body, I have ever seen on a theoretically normal human.

    "Are you, like, a big asparagus eater?"

    "No." She was very puzzled, but of course a lot of high school boys don’t give their girl friends anything at all and even hit them up for gas money, so maybe she thought she was ahead of the game. If there was some rationale for the gift of asparagus it was never explained to me. I was musing on the subject when the teacher stopped in front of our table.

    "Okay," said Mr. Kiick. "Project?"

    "Uh, we’re going to dissolve asparagus in sulfuric acid," I said, "to create an asparagus-sulfuric acid solution."

    There was a very long pause while Mr. Kiick tapped the end of his pencil on the clipboard. "Well, that’s just DUCKY," he said. And then he moved on to the kids at the next table. One of the kids at the next table was named Corky Doran, which has nothing to do with this story, but I remember it because he had a rubber stamp made which said "Best wishes, Corky Doran" and stamped it on his picture in everyone’s yearbook.

    When Mr. Kiick had noted everyone’s project on his sheet, he returned to his desk and said, "All approved except Table 7." Which was me and Karen. "You can dissolve the asparagus in sulfuric acid, but the resulting solution has gotta be potable."


    "You gotta be able to DRINK it and not die, in other words. Or alternatively, you can figure out a way to make the asparagus sulfuric acid proof. Acid proof asparagus would be very useful if we ever get to the planet Venus. The atmosphere consists of sulfuric acid droplets, and very few earth crops can stand up to that."

    I said "Uh" several times. I was unable to say anything else because Karen was stomping on my foot over and over and over.

    Well. To make a long and entertaining story short and boring, I could find no way to make the asparagus acid proof or to make the acid-asparagus solution drinkable. At one point I had the idea of dissolving LOTS of asparagus in the acid, until the solution was about 99.99% dissolved asparagus and .01% sulfuric acid, but I ran out of asparagus long before this ratio was achieved. It’s possible the world would have run out of asparagus before it was achieved.

    A week before the project was due I told Mr. Kiick the project could not be completed. In response, he dissolved a little HUNK of asparagus in a beaker containing a few ounces of sulfuric acid. He diluted this with a pint of water, boiled most of this off, added some more water, boiled most of that off, neutralized the acid with a base, added a couple of scoops of bread flour and mixed this up until he had a thick paste, which he reduced with some sort of oil, and when he’d whipped it to the consistency he wanted, he pulled a slice of rye bread from his jacket pocket and spread the asparagus-acid residue (which by this time probably contained no asparagus and no acid) on it, and took a bite.

    And promptly dropped to the floor, dead.

    No, just kidding. He ate half the slice, then offered me the other half. I declined, but he said if I had any interest in going ahead with Karen’s idea and having a shot at a passing grade, I better eat the bread. So I did. I didn’t promptly drop to the floor dead either, but I was wishing I could, since that stuff was by far the foulest tasting substance I had ever encountered. My taste buds bolted for the door and hid out in the Pine Barrens for several weeks .I don’t remember what the project we eventually completed was, only that we got a B+ and that shortly afterwards my taste buds returned, although they have never permitted me to get within 5 feet of an asparagus stalk again.

    The Importance of Honesty


    Just about two weeks ago, Joseph Ellis made the front page of the New York Times by admitting that he lied to his students at Mt. Holyoke College. He told them assorted fibs about serving in Vietnam, and further fibs about later being an important leader in the anti war movement. I suspect it’s not exactly unprecedented for a college teacher to pad his resume a tad in front of a room full of wide-eyed co-eds, but Professor Ellis repeated his remarkable (not) life story to various reporters, who published it, and since it eventually included a (non-existent) stint on the staff of General William Westmoreland, someone checked on it. This would be pretty embarrassing for any professor, but of course much more so for Ellis; he was interviewed by all those reporters because he is not only a teacher, but a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Oops.

    Well, you might think I’m scarcely in a position to throw the first stone here, (a) because folks have been lobbing them for a couple of weeks already, and (b) because I have been known to embellish the truth in print myself on occasion. No argument on (a) of course, but in defense of the mass of half-truths, demented exaggerations, and total lies that make up the bulk of my collected non-fiction, I have to say: I only made stuff up when I am too lazy to actually do the research, OR when my research turns up facts I don’t like. Otherwise, I pretty much stuck to the truth, 90% of the time.

    But I have to confess I did not always cleave to such a high standard of honesty. If any of my old fellow scouts from Alataha Council’s 1969 National Jamboree Troop #2 are reading this, I want you to know I am not really the son of Peter Lorre. And I do not really speak with an Eastern European Accent, because I am not really a refugee from Eastern Europe.

    For the most part that if I told someone I was Peter Lorre’s son, I did NOT speak with the (very bad) accent and tell him I was from Eastern Europe. These were two separate lies, with two separate motives.

    I think the Peter Lorre story was an attempt to explain why, even though I was 13, I was fat and bald and kind of creepy. No one ever asked why, if Peter Lorre was my father, my last name was Grimshaw, possibly because no one believed that Peter Lorre was my father. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. This kid Larry did not know who Peter Lorre was, and HE asked my why my last name was Grimshaw. I had no idea.

    I spent much of the Jamboree-- which was held in Farrogut State Park in Idaho-- wandering around telling people that I had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain when I was a little kid, and I was very happy to be in America. I told people this in an accent rather like Ensign Chekov’s on Star Trek. You are probably thinking that I used the accent so that the refugee story would be more plausible, but that’s exactly backwards. I came up with the refugee story so that I could talk in the accent. I was really proud of it. I could pronounce "captain" exactly like Ensign Chekov: "Kep-din."

    Although my European background had been improvised to justify my accent, in short order the tail began to wag the dog. An older kid named Donald took me briefly under his wing and attempted to help me with my English pronunciation. "I know you unnerstand English pretty good," he said, "but a lot of times it’s hard for US to unnerstand you. You have to work on your ‘G’ sounds." I had been pronouncing ‘gesture’ with a hard ‘g’, like ‘guess.’ I had a wonderful time trying and failing to make sense of the letter ‘j,’ which came out as either a ‘g’ or a ‘y.’ (I think the ‘j=y’ thing is actually Swedish, not Russian, but what the hell). In the course of my English lesson, Donald would ask an occasional question about life under the commissars. And I would say the first thing that came into my head.

    By the time Donald had given up on getting me to pronounce ‘gesture’ correctly, I had come up with an exciting story of hairbreadth escapes and relentless pursuits, most of them borrowed from assorted Steve McQueen movies. At one point I was caught by the KGB and shot in the heart and left for dead in the Balkans. But the bullet had been deflected by the copy of THE BOY SCOUT HANDBOOK, which I always carried with me-- I had taught myself English from it, too-- and I eventually made my way to New Jersey and freedom. Possibly overland, geography, like plausibility, not being my strong point.

    My fabrications became more and more complicated. But the prime rule for being a successful liar is: Keep It Simple. With two entirely separate but extremely elaborate and stupid lies to keep straight, I should have been been tripped up pretty quickly-- especially since Troop # 2 contained a couple dozen scouts from my home town, most of whom were probably 80% sure that I was neither Peter Lorre Jr. nor Ensign Chekov. But somehow the Jamboree ended before anyone discovered my true identity, I went home, and the urge to speak in a cheesy accent passed.

    I might have forgotten the whole thing, but a few years later I was sitting on the steps of the high school following a play rehearsal and I was talking about one of the math teachers, and suddenly a girl who’d been listening burst out laughing and said ‘I can’t believe you don’t know how to say that word! It’s pronounced ‘UNIQUE’!"

    In point of fact she was simply unfamiliar with the word ‘eunuch.’ But rather than say that, I said, "I’m... sorry. English is not my first language." And then, under her sensitive questioning, the story of my escape from Eastern Europe unfolded once again. "If you listen carefully," I said, "you can hear my accent when I get a leetle... emotional." "Yes, I can!" she said.

    She was as dumb as a post but structurally quite unlike one and I thought my story was about to pay enormous dividends, but then her boyfriend honked the horn of his Chevy and seconds later she was gone from my life.

    Looking back on it now, and remembering that girl’s sweater, I believe my experience has given me a special insight into Professor Ellis’ motives, and he has my sympathies.


    Calvano and I went galumphing around the side of Picarillo’s house, careful to knock into the garbage cans and otherwise make lots of noise so that we could just barge in through the kitchen door without knocking. We tried to go through the door simultaneously, at which point that stupid law of physics about how two bodies can not occupy the same space at the same time kicked into effect, and we were stuck. We stayed stuck a little longer than absolutely necessary because Mrs. Picarillo was making cheese crackers.

    Cheese crackers were common things around the Picarillo home, Picarillo being a cheese cracker fiend, and it wasn’t the first time we’d seen Mrs. P in the act of creating them, but this time it was different. Instead of slicing little slivers of cheese from a block and sliding them onto the cracker, she was squirting the cheese from a can, as if it were whipped cream.

    "Hi, boys," she said. She gave the can a shake-- there was a rattling noise-- and shot another blob of orange cheese onto another cracker. "Have you seen this? It’s cheese in a can! It’s so much easier than the old fashioned way."

    I pushed my way into the kitchen, but Calvano remained transfixed on the threshold, eyes on the crackers. "Michael," called Mrs. Picarillo, "your friends are here! And your crackers are ready!"

    "Is, um, that special DIET cheese, Mrs. Picarillo?" asked Calvano. "And only, like, HUSKY boys can eat it?" There were 12 crackers on the plate (it was an Ike and Mamie Eisenhower plate which we had admired often at the Picarillo abode; among its many excellences, Ike and Mamie appeared to be wearing the same shade of vermilion lipstick), barely even enough for a Picarillo solo snack.

    "Oh, no," said Mrs. Picarillo. "Would you boys like some cheese crackers?"

    "Yes!" I said, and Calvano said, "Could I make mine myself? Please?"

    "Well," said Mrs. Picarillo, "I don’t see why not. MICHAEL! YOUR FRIENDS ARE HERE AND IF YOU DON’T COME DOWN HERE RIGHT NOW THEY’RE GOING TO EAT YOUR CRACKERS!" There was movement audible on the second floor, and then the sound of an enormous object crashing down the stairs. The enormous object entered the kitchen, sliding a few feet across the linoleum in his socks.

    "NNnnngghh!" he said, and attempted to grab the cracker out of Calvano’s hand. Calvano was too fast for him, and the cracker with its load of tangy orange cheese-product vanished into Calvano’s mouth as Picarillo’s momentum carried him into the counter top. Plates and cutlery tinkled for a few seconds, as if in the aftermath of a small but still memorable earthquake, worth maybe a half column in the second section of the local paper.

    When all was quiet again on the Richter Scale, Mrs. Picarillo said, "Michael! Mind your manners. YOUR crackers are over here." Picarillo fell upon the snack plate with gusto until Mrs. Picarillo cuffed him on the back of the head and made him say hello to us. Then, immediately back to the plate.

    "These are great," said Calvano, now wielding the can of cheese like an old pro. "Jeff-- here, let me make you one..." He made a delicate floret on my cracker and passed it over to me.

    It was beautiful to look at. It was like the delicate floral icing on a birthday cake, or the gothic blossoms carved into the headstone of some medieval troubadour. I savored the scent as I brought it to my mouth-- a heady cheddar fragrance with hints of something I could not identify-- chives, perhaps? I ate it.

    It was unspeakably terrible, of course, but I was 10 years old and routinely scarfed down Milkbone™ Dog Biscuits when my parents weren’t around, so I thought it was delicious. Calvano and I went through an entire package of crackers, and at the same time, Mrs. Picarillo made another batch of 12 for Picarillo. Calvano and I locked eyes-- without speaking, we could tell it had dawned on us both that this might be Picarillo’s 3rd or 4th or 10th batch of the afternoon. We tried to be polite and engage Picarillo in conversation, but he had absolutely no interest in any non-cheese entities. Calvano scrutinized the can of cheese.

    "It’s clearly some sort of SPACE CHEESE," he told me as we walked home a few minutes later. "Developed by NASA in order to allow astronauts to make cheese crackers without crumbs in a zero gravity environment."

    "Does the can say that??"

    "No-- but sometimes what the can DOESN’T say says it all. There’s no mention of outer space at all on the can-- not even a picture of a rocket ship. Did you ever hear the expression ‘Me thinketh he doeth protesteth too mucheth’?"


    "Well, anyway, that’s what’s going on here. And this is only the start. In the next couple of weeks... certainly by the end of the month... the CRACKERS will also be coming in cans."

    "They will?"

    "No question. You’ll squirt a little blot of cracker-goop out, and it’ll quickly harden into a cracker that’ll be indistinguishable from a regular cracker, except it won’t be exactly square."

    "Why not?"

    "The scientists haven’t worked that out yet. EVERYTHING will come in cans soon. Hot dogs. Spare ribs. Lettuce."

    "I hate lettuce."

    "That’s not the point. The point is, it’s all cans from here on in." I absorbed this information. We had now crossed onto Main Street, and we were standing outside the grocery store, and without even discussing it, we dug into our pockets and pooled our change. It was less than a dollar-- but, we quickly discovered, that was more than enough for two cans of cheese.

    The other thing we discovered was that we did not have the patience to wait until we were home to start squirting cheese. At first, we were just firing little bursts of cheese into our mouths. Then Calvano made a large cheese "C" on the windshield of a Buick parked nearby. While he was doing that I made a big cheese "J" on the back of his shirt. Then things got out of control. When I got home I was covered with cheese, or cheese product, and my frantic attempts to wipe it off had just made things worse. Despite a record number of baths, I smelled like cheese for about 3 weeks.

    "Well," I said later, when I smelled vaguely human again, "at least it wasn’t the spare-ribs-in-a-can."

    "Yuh," said Calvano.


    TOKYO -- Japan's best-known monster, Godzilla, is coming to stores soon canned. "Godzilla Meat," actually 3.5 ounces of corned beef from Tokyo toy maker Takara Co., is packaged with pictures of the stomping, fire-breathing, irradiated dinosaur made famous by Toho movies that started coming out in the 1950s. "People can eat Godzilla and become energetic and powerful. It's got dreams mixed in with fun," Takara spokeswoman Yoko Watanabe said Tuesday. "It's like Popeye and his can of spinach." The cans, slated to appear in Japanese stores in October, will sell for $4.75, Takara said. There are no plans so far to export Godzilla Meat, according to Takara, the maker of the Transformers toys. Also planned for sale in Japan this fall are Godzilla Eggs, a can of about 15 quail eggs, and Radon Meat, canned barbecued chicken named after the winged monster. Takara also plans to sell King Ghidora Meat, but buyers will find the taste of the three-headed dragon-like creature suspiciously like Godzilla Meat - it's the same corned beef inside.

    © Copyright 2001 The Associated Press


    Just out of curiosity-- did anyone read that paragraph and NOT think: "Gee, I wish I lived in Japan so I could buy Godzilla Meat?"

    I didn’t think so. Godzilla Meat is the greatest idea since... well, EVER. First of all, it’s actually corned beef, which I wouldn’t eat in a million years. But the Japanese have cleverly realized that even if I won’t eat it, I will buy ANYTHING if you label it Godzilla Meat. They could stuff the cans with the contents of my vacuum cleaner bag and I’d buy it. Second, it’s marketed by a toy company, which probably means that the FDA would have no jurisdiction over it. "Your honor, we concede the contents of the can are 6 years old and taste like upholstery. But we never said it was edible. It’s a TOY." Case dismissed, is the way I see it going down. Third, there are... ‘No plans to export it.’ This is probably a lie. Godzilla is extremely popular over here, always has been, and everybody would want to eat him if they had the chance, even if he was actually corned beef. The Japanese know this. If Godzilla wasn’t an A-list celeb with a huge US following, the Associated Press wouldn’t have even carried the story. The whole ‘no plans to export it’ thing is almost certainly a gambit intended to get guys like me to clamor for American Godzilla Meat. And obviously, it worked.

    On the other hand, do we really need to import? Don’t we have our own monsters? I’m tempted to say, "Let’s start selling ‘King Kong Meat™,’" but I believe Kong hailed from an Island off the coast of Africa. Of course he is forever associated with the Empire State Building and he did go berserk in NYC, but when you come right down to it, he’s basically a tourist. Although in the fifties there were a lot of giant grass hoppers and giant spiders and so on running amuck through the streets of our cities in cheap movies with bad special effects, you can’t really say any of them had the personality of Godzilla. Gorgo was British. Reptilicus was Danish, or anyway the people who made the movie about him were. There are some other cool Japanese monsters, some of which (see story above) already have their own meats, so they are doubly moot. (The ‘Radon’ Meat is clearly a typo for ‘Rodan’ meat, but ‘Radon’ meat is pretty scary too).

    The Blob might work, but corned beef would be an absurd choice for Blob Meat™. You need something blobby, which means you want to forget meat entirely and go with something like gelatin. Which is probably what they used to make the Blob anyway. The problem is, you don’t sell gelatin in a can, and if you have to mix up Blob Meat™ like regular gelatin, you completely destroy the illusion that’s it’s a chunk of blob. You need something like gelatin, but not gelatin. Maybe a big shapeless chunk of Gummy Bear™.

    The only problem with Blob Meat™ is that, unlike Godzilla, you don’t have 8 zillion blob movies, just the one with Steve McQueen, a sequel or two that nobody ever saw, and a remake that the same people who didn’t see the sequels also didn’t see. This might constitute a marketing problem. You’ve got all these cans of Gummy Bear™ stuff, and it’s sitting on the shelves because nobody wants it. What can you do?

    You can CHANGE THE LABELS. The thing about gummy-matter is, it can pass for almost any disgusting substance (except corned beef). Now it seems to me, with the video of this past winter’s mega hit "Hannibal" due to hit the stores any minute, you’ve got a real opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. When you think ‘Hannibal’ food, you’re basically thinking ‘Ray Liotta’s Brain.’ Would any of the fans of this movie NOT want to chow down on Ray Liotta’s brain? I think not. And since it would be Gummy-Brain™ and not Corned Beef™, it would be pretty tasty. If the label were attractive enough, there would be no trouble selling out the enormous stock of Blob Meat™ that nobody wanted. And if the same movie studio was responsible for both ‘The Blob’ and ‘Hannibal,’ so much the better. But time is tight, and they’d better get moving. In the best of all possible worlds you would sell Ray Liotta’s Brain™ in cans that were shaped like little skulls. Would there be time enough to mold all the cans into skulls? Or perhaps we could find the guy who left the 86 skulls at the bus stop in India last week [SEE LAST WEEK’S COLUMN™ FOR DETAILS] and see if he’s got enough extras to supply them wholesale.

    The only downside I see at this point is that there is, in fact, no ‘Blob Meat’ made from Gummy Bears™ that could be rolled over into ‘Ray Liotta’s Brain™,’ which means first they’d have to create and then utterly fail to market the Blob Meat™. And what if the terrible marketing plan failed and Blob Meat™ caught on in spite of it? They’d be caught without any inventory when it came time to switch over to Ray Liotta’s Brain™. It would be a complete disaster. The best bet is still to clamor for the importation of REAL Godzilla Meat™. Write your congressman. Wire the Japanese embassy. Badger the clerks at your local toy store. And keep watching the sky!


    This past week one of my indefatigable correspondents forwarded my way a dispatch from Reuters. It seems that about 375 miles north of Calcutta, a bag containing 86 human skulls was discovered at a bus stop. There had been some complaints about a bad smell for a while, the Indian police checked out the bag, and there we are. No clue as to how the skulls got there or who they belong to.

    Now, it could be that we’re dealing with 86 gruesome murders, or it could be we’ve got a couple of zany medical students playing pranks, or it could a bizarre promotional gimmick for the grand opening of the Calcutta ‘Skulls R Us’ store. The story is short on salient details. The guy who sent me the news item wondered in his cover letter how 86 people could disappear without anyone noticing, even in a place as vast as the Indian subcontinent. That’s an excellent question, but I have what I feel is a better one: Where did they find a bag big enough to hold 86 skulls? I can come up with dozens of reasonable (if disgusting) explanations for the skulls themselves, but the bag is a mind-blower.

    Traditionally, as any aficionado of the old Alfred Hitchcock TV show knows, you figure one skull fits comfortably in one bowling ball bag. Two skulls is probably pushing it, but maybe it could be done if the skulls were on the small side. So let’s say 86 skulls require 43 bowling ball bags.

    That’s a hell of a big bag. It must be the size of a Volkswagen. And it’s sitting at a bus stop for an unspecified amount of time, and until it starts to stink up the place, nobody says, "Helluva big bag over there by the gum machine. Was that there this morning?"

    (We will leave to another column the question of why a bag of skulls starts to stink. I always thought that once you and I reach the skull stage, our personal hygene problems will have come to an end. The older the skull, I assumed, the less roll-on deodorant it requires. Well, live and learn, I guess).

    My correspondent asks the question: "Did the guy stash them there in order to get rid of them? Or did he get on the bus and say ‘Aw, jeepers! I left my 86 skulls at the bus stop! Now I'll have to turn back!’ ?" I have to say I really like option #2, but since he didn’t turn back and retrieve the skulls-- despite having lots of time-- I think we have to go with the idea that the bag o’ skulls was left at the bus stop on purpose. He also suggests: "Maybe it's not a super-serial killer who decapitates 86 fresh corpses in a few weeks. It's a consortium of 86 killers who join together so save on the cost of disposing bodies. It's like recycling day for murderers! "Hey Rajit, it's Tuesday, time to put out the skulls!" You know, pelvises on Wednesdays, femurs on alternate Fridays, etc." Again, I like the idea, but unless a bag of femurs shows up at another bus stop next Friday, we should assume the skulls constituted the only disposal problem. No reason at this point to rule out 86 separate psycho killers, though.

    We still have to explain why everybody missed 86 murders. My correspondent, who should probably get co-writer credit for this column (but doesn’t want his name in the paper-- go figure), says, "Maybe it's a huge group suicide. That would explain why 86 murders weren't reported. All 86 people cut off their own heads. The 87th guy was in charge of the skull bag!" Problem here: Reuters reports that all 86 skulls were ‘neatly sawn off.’ I guess you could commit suicide by decapitation, but not by neatly sawing your head off. Well, maybe if you were REALLY focused, like, you know, the Dalai Lama or Clint Eastwood or somebody like that, you could do it. But 86 Clints all in one place at the same time, all wanting saw off their own heads? I don’t know. Seems to me it kind of stretches credibility.

    Much more likely, in my opinion, is the idea that there’s some secret CLONING project going on in the vicinity of the bus stop. In other words, it’s not 86 skulls-- it’s one skull, eighty-six times. Let me repeat that again using capital letters: it’s ONE skull, EIGHTY SIX times. This would explain almost everything. I passed this idea onto my correspondent who replied: "Or one dead guy, who had 86 heads, like a hydra! You cut off one head and two more grow in its place!" I phoned a friend of mine who works at the Columbia University Cancer Center and ran the hydra theory by him. He says it’s unsound, in so far as in all known cases when you cut off a human head not even one more head will grow, let alone two, so there you go. He also went into some detail about the length of the various necks you’d need to keep the heads from smashing into each other, and the increased skeletal strength necessary to support all those heads, but I’ll spare you the details; the main thing is, the hydra head theory won’t float.

    I sent a note to that effect to my collaborator, who suggested yet another tack: "Maybe instead of writing a column, u could make it a story about two guys trying to write a horror story and coming up with all these lame plots. It ends like this: ‘Suddenly the door blew open. A dark figure raised his ax and swiftly brought it down on the necks of the two would-be writers shouting, ‘That's eighty-seven, and that's eighty-eight!’ This stuff is gold!"

    Well, it’s a possibility. I keep coming back to the bag. There are a lot of people in India, and they must produce a lot of garbage-- maybe 10,000-gallon garbage bags are standard items over there. That would explain why nobody batted an eye when one showed up in the bus stop.

    Meanwhile, according to Reuters, the skulls are being sent out for forensic tests, so shortly we should know something about what happened.

    Personally, I suspect foul play.



    "Here’s the deal," said Ray, the president of Good Buddy Tours. We were sitting in The Incredible Shrinking Good Buddy Tours office on the 2nd floor of the Flatiron Building. Ray had been illegally subletting random chunks of his office, and the two of us could barely squeeze into what remained. "We got a group coming in from..." He flipped through a memo pad. "Huh. Either Australia or Austria. And they’ve signed up for our Deluxe New York City Hot Spots Tour."

    "Which is what?" I said.

    "You take them to the one or more of the World’s Formerly Tallest Buildings-- doesn’t really matter which one-- and THEN, on to THE hottest spot in New York--"

    "Studio 54?"

    "Uh, well, not precisely... 54’s a little past its peak, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to disappoint these people by dragging them to some place that’s totally pass鮠I was thinking you could take them to The Automat."

    For a moment I thought: has somebody opened a new club called The Automat? And then I realized he meant THE AUTOMAT, the magical place where entrees and salads and desserts were stored behind little glass doors in the wall, and could be ALL YOURS if you just inserted the proper coins in the proper slots. I sighed.

    "Are they arriving at Newark or JFK?"

    "Uh..." (flip flip flip) "...they’re coming by Greyhound..."

    "From Australia?"

    "Just says ‘Aus.’ Oh wait, there’s a ‘TEX.’ Must be Austin."


    Texans who thought they were going to be doing The Hustle all night long with Bianca Jagger and Grace Jones. And who would instead be staring through little glass doors, faced with the decision between the $3.45 meatloaf-on-rye and the $3.97 tuna salad platter. But maybe they’d still be overwhelmed by the trip to the fabulous Woolworth Building, which had been the Tallest Building in the World until the Chrysler Building had come along...

    It was going to be great.


    "Where are we going tomorrow?" asked the Texans’ group leader, whose name happened to be Bruce. Normally, when a tour group was expecting to visit, say, The UN Building, but instead was going to end up at, say, a deli somewhere on 28th Street, I found it expedient to give no advance warning. Some groups never noticed the change in itinerary. If they did, I would usually pretend I could no longer speak English, and eventually-- in a few days at most-- things would calm down. I didn’t think that would work with the Texans, so I said:

    "The Automat."

    To my shock, Bruce smiled. "We’ve HEARD about that, but we didn’t expect to get to SEE it! Wow! HEY EVERYBODY! WE’RE GOING TO THE AUTOMAT TOMORROW!" There was general gaiety. After dropping the Texans off at their hotel, I called Ray to tell him about this miracle.

    "Ray," I said, "You aren’t gonna believe this--"

    "Oh good, you heard," he said. "I think we can get everybody in at Stromboli’s Pizza on 14th Street tomorrow. You can tell them it’s famous, that, uh, somebody famous died there. Maybe, I dunno, Mama Cass... or, wait, that fat guy who used to play ‘Cannon’ on TV... or is he still alive..."

    "Ray-- what’re you talking about? They WANT to go to The Automat!"

    "Oh-- you haven’t heard, then. Cab crashed into the Automat this morning. Right through the front door..."

    "Geez," I said. "They really wanted to go..."

    "Amazing. Well, we can’t... Hey, WAIT A MINUTE! I got it! They want AUTOMAT, we’ll GIVE ‘em AUTOMAT! Meet me at the main concourse at Grand Central Station in 20 minutes!"

    "Huh?" I said, and hung up, and then, 20 minutes later, standing in front of a bank of lockers just off the main concourse at Grand Central, I repeated, "Huh??"

    "What’s the big deal about the Automat?" said Ray. "DOORS. Doors you pay to open, right? And what’s a locker? A DOOR YOU PAY TO OPEN. Not only that, but these doors are cheaper than those doors. In fact..." He took a deep breath. "THESE doors will be free. You’ve got 21 people on this tour. At 25 cents per, that’s $5.25. It’s ON ME, Buddy."

    I couldn’t bring myself to say "Huh?" three times in such a short time, but I thought about it.

    "The only problem I see," I said, "Is that the doors at the Automat have food behind them, while these doors will not. It’s a small difference, but significant, I think."

    "I’m going back to my apartment, and you’re going back to your apartment," said Ray, "And I’m betting that between us we’ve got the makings for 21 sandwiches. You have a jar of peanut butter home?"


    "I know I’ve got some cheese slices. They’re a little on the mature side, but I’ll break off the edges and they’ll be fine. And check in your cabinets, see if you’ve got some Oreos or something. I got a banana, unless Bernice ate it..."

    A few hours later we were back at Grand Central, stocking the lockers for the next day’s gala noontime repast. Ray had sprung for a box of Baggies, too, and a good thing: "Ray, there’s like this dead mouse in this locker."

    "Well, get it out of there. And make sure you put that sandwich inside TWO Baggies, just in case." Ray had considered a few portions of Jell-O, but time was tight. A 22nd locker was rented, for the storage of various condiments, and an extra box of cookies.

    The next day, I lead my charges to Grand Central and passed out keys.

    "It’s a lot bigger than I thought," said Bruce. "I always thought the doors had little windows, so you could see what you were getting."

    "This is more fun," I said.

    "One of the bread slices on this cheese sandwich has peanut butter on it," said one of the Texans.

    "Whoa," I said, "you got a Peanut Butter-and-Cheese. New York Specialty."

    "Whoa!" said the Texan. He took a bite, "No offense, but it tastes kinda bad."

    "Hey-- there’s just a jar of mayonnaise and a box of cookies in MY Automat," said a woman. "I’m not spose to put the Mayo ON the cookies, am I? Cuz I’m NOT gonna do that, no matter what."

    "Suit yourself," I said with a shrug. "It’s a free country."

    All This and World War II

    Somewhere about, oh, 17 hours into the new mega-monster hit movie "Pearl Harbor," the heroine tearfully says that things were going so well with her romantic life-- "...and then ALL THIS happened." Since ‘all this’ refers to the Second World War, this speech has been rousing audiences to uproarious laughter across the country, or at least those parts of the audiences that are still awake at that point.

    This not being a movie review column I won’t say anything else snotty about this incredibly soporific, politically correct (= historically inaccurate) 39 hour soap opera (excellent FX in the attack sequence, however) which, according to folks who DIDN’T nod out somewhere around hour 5, suggests that maybe we kind of had the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor coming, for cutting off the Japanese oil supply (no suggestion about why we would do something so nasty...). A couple friends of mine suggested it might be the worst World War II movie ever.

    It’s probably not. In fact, the now-immortal phrase "...and then ALL THIS happened..." brought immediately to mind the-- if not worst-- most insane World War II epic ever.

    You have probably never heard of, let alone seen, "All This and World War II." As far as I can tell it’s not available on video or DVD, and in all likelihood it never has been. But you probably have heard part of the soundtrack. Elton John’s 1976 top-ten cover version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" sprang from this movie.

    Now you may be thinking, "Why would a World War II movie have Elton John singing a Beatle song on the soundtrack?" The amazing answer: because "All This and World War II" is a * cough * ‘free form’ documentary which uses non-stop cover versions of Beatle songs over stock footage of the Second World War.

    I’ll just wait here while you rub your eyes and read that line over again. Yup, it says just what you thought it did.

    The music was released on a double LP that went immediately into the cutout bins. I owned it for a while, but the only cut I really liked was Roy Wood’s "Polythene Pam" and I eventually gave it away. There was no shortage of Beatle covers in my collection at the time, and these were for the most part neither good enough (with the exception of Roy Wood) nor entertainingly bad enough (well, there was that Frankie Laine assault on "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer") to justify taking up space on the shelf.

    On the other hand, if we had been in the video age, I would have been hard pressed getting rid of what would have been the crown jewel of my collection of Videos Too Stupid To Be Real.

    For instance, over footage of Hitler relaxing at Bertchtesgaden, Helen Reddy sings "Fool on the Hill." Rod Stewart sings "Get Back" over shots of German tanks being run in reverse. I forget what is playing under The Bee Gees’ version of "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," but that’s on the sound track as well. The Bee Gees in fact cover several songs from side two of "Abby Road" on this amazing project. Leo Sayer-- if you’re under 40 or over 50 you probably just said "Who??" -- is represented by three songs, including "I Am the Walrus," another song for which I have trouble imagining a Second World War context.

    Rumor has it that, following a staggeringly unsuccessful opening, 20th Century Fox pulled the film and stripped the negatives for their mineral content. Whether there’s any truth to that or not, the amazing thing is that 20th Century Fox ever gave this project the green light in the first place. What was the pitch?

    Because, as much fun as it is trying to imagine this movie, it’s much more fun trying to imagine the producer convincing the studio it was a great idea.

    "It’s got EVERYTHING. It’s got Beatle music for the kids, it’s got World War II for the grown-ups. It’s nostalgia for TWO generations. And wait’ll you see the way we show the Bataan Death March with "She’s Leaving Home" playing over it. It’s so perfect, you’ll think The Beatles wrote it with the Bataan Death March in mind. How can it miss??

    "And wait-- we’ve got "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" over the Battle of the Bulge. Get it? Get it? And you know who’s singing it? Frankie Laine! Yes, THE Frankie Laine! Over the hill? Are you kidding? He’s riding a new wave of popularity since he sang the title song of "Blazing Saddles." The kids can’t get enough of him, the records are flying off the shelves. And wait’ll you hear Frankie Valli-- yeah, we got ALL the Franks and Frankies-- doing "A Day in the Life." The way it was MEANT to be sung. Over Roosevelt’s funeral, of course. The lyrics just fit so well-- ‘he blew his mind out in a car... I’d love to turn you on... 4000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire...’ --it just screams FDR..."

    It’s also fun imagining the initial audiences for this thing. A sneak preview full of people staring goggled eyed as D-Day rages to the strains of Jeff Lynne crooning "With a Little Help from My Friends." They must have looked like the opening night audience of "Springtime for Hitler."

    To refresh my memory for purposes of this column-- yes, I do research for these things; no need to thank me, it’s all part of the job-- I went to the Internet Movie Database, where I discovered AT&WWII has a considerable fan base. (I was going to say "to my shock," but the fact is that EVERYTHING has a considerable fan base and I’m not shocked by it anymore, just bemused or appalled, depending on how much caffeine is in my system at the time). My favorite comment, from Trevor Williams of Belfast Northern Ireland: "This is an excellent movie of its type."

    Yeah, I guess so. I’d go so far as to say it’s the BEST World War II documentary using Beatle covers by Helen Reddy and The Four Seasons EVER MADE.




    The Custom Neon Sign Shop work week started with Mulberry Street Joey Clams eating a cup cake. It usually got rolling with a donut, but the Snack Shoppe was out of donuts, and he couldn’t bring himself to buy a bagel (he thought of bagels as ‘really bad donuts’), so he went for the cupcake. "You know," he said, "we should probably have a little rack of snack food, such a cup cakes, here at the shop. Then even people who come in and browse but don’t buy any signs--" That is to say, approximately 100% of the people who stopped at the shop-- "would still buy cakes and things."

    "They would?"

    "Sure. They’d feel guilty about not buying a sign, and they’d buy one a these cake-type things to make up for it."

    I’d never noticed anyone acting guilty about not buying a sign from us, but then very few of the people who entered our shop realized we sold neon signs-- we hadn’t gotten around to hanging our own sign outside, nor taken down the previous tenant’s, so most of the walk-in trade thought they were walking in on

    Mr. TONY’S

    House of PeppeRONIS

    Certainly a rack of snack cakes couldn’t hurt anything.

    "In addition," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "we have to figure out what to do with our Neon Sign Waste Products."

    "Neon Sign Waste Products, Mulberry Street Joey Clams?"

    "When we clip little hunks of glass off the tubes, what do we do with the little hunks of glass?"

    "We throw them away."

    "It seems to me that when you’ve got like 25 one inch chunks of glass, that’s the same as having one 25 inch tube, you know? It’s like we’re throwing away money."

    "Yuh. Well, I guess the glass chunks could be melted down into tubes, but not by us. We don’t have the facilities."

    "I’m just SAYING," he said. "That’s all. But I’m not saying we should melt them down. Just that we should figure out something to do with them."

    "DO with them?"

    "Especially the ones with loops in them," he said.

    I gave this no more thought until a few days later, when to my amazement I bumped into Mulberry Street Joey Clams buying popcorn in the lobby of a movie house on St. Marks Place. I was amazed because it was a revival house, and the current feature was in black and white. Mulberry Street Joey Clams had told me on more than one occasion that black and white movies were a rip off. "They could be in color, but they’re NOT. They’re holding back on you, and they still charge you like it was a REAL movie," he once explained. "I can’t believe this is legal, it’s like selling somebody a record with no singing, just a piano or something. It’s INSANE."

    "Geez, Mulberry Street Joey Clams, I didn’t expect to find you here," I said. "I didn’t know you were a William Powell fan."

    "Chick dragged me here," he explained. "If I knew it was gonna be an OLD movie, I woulda... well, anyway, what’s done is done. I gotta--" We entered the theater auditorium. "I hate this," he said. "Your eyes get used to the lobby, then you go back inna movies and you can’t see your hand in front a... Hey!" From the timbre of the ‘Hey!’ I knew that Mulberry Street Joey Clams had just had an idea. I was almost surprised that the dark theater wasn’t suddenly illuminated by the light bulb which was surely materializing over his head. "Hey-- those little hunks of glass tubes-- if they were filled with NEON, you could hold on in your hand and FIND YOUR WAY BACK TO YOUR SEAT in the dark!"

    "Yuh," I said. "But I think that particular ecological niche has been filled by the flashlight, Mulberry Street Joey Clams."

    "Nah, this is totally different. Because there’s nothing cool about a flashlight, but if you were holding up like a GLOWING INITIAL ‘B,’ that would be EXTREMELY cool!"


    "I’m just using ‘B’ as an example," he explained. "ANY letter would work okay."

    "I know, I just..."

    "You know, sometimes we forget that a neon light is not only neon, it’s a LIGHT."

    "Hey, Neon Boy," said somebody a few rows away, "SHADDAP!"

    "If I had a neon ‘B’ here, I’d find that guy in two seconds," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

    The next morning Mulberry Street Joey Clams was at work long before I arrived. "Check this out," he said. "Item one: the neon BOTTLE STRIP." This was an empty beer bottle with a tube of glass inside it, like a fat swizzle stick."

    "???" I said.

    "Ya gotta fill the tube with neon for it to work, but basically the idea is, you know how you’re drinking a beer and you fall asleep and it gets dark and then you can’t find the beer? Well, if you slip this NEON BOTTLE STRIP inside the bottle before you fall asleep, you’ll find it right away, by the glow."

    "It’s a great idea, Mulberry Street Joey Clams. The only part I don’t get is how you fill the little glass tube with neon and run a current through it."

    "There’s a detail or two which remain to be worked out..."

    "And then how you keep it from shorting out while it’s submerged in the beer."

    "Well," Mulberry Street Joey Clams explained. "Item two: TINY NEON BIRTHDAY SIGNS." He displayed a cupcake with a glass "F" and a glass-something-which-might-have-at-one-time-been-intended-as-a-"K" stuck in the icing. "Now with this," he said, apparently anticipating my objection, "you can run a wire HERE and HERE and just hide the tiny generator behind the cupcake itself. Or even stick the generator inside this like DECOY cupcake."

    "I think the decoy cupcake is itself an incredible invention," I said.

    "Well, yeah, but I’d hafta split the rights with the inventor of the cupcake, probably, so it isn’t even worth registering."

    I tried very hard to convince him that the Tiny Neon Birthday Sign idea had some real flaws, but he wouldn’t listen. He bought several dozen cupcakes and, against my advice, turned each one into a Unique Work of Art by sticking a fragment of glass tubing into the icing. We were unable to seal these fragments off, hence unable to fill them with neon, hence unable to run a current through the neon, hence they were in essence cupcakes with pieces of broken glass in them, hence no one ever bought one. After they had all gone stale but before they had begun to rot, Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I plucked out the glass and ate all the cupcakes over the course of a couple of days. "This breaks my heart," he said. "It’s like if Edison had to eat the first bunch of light bulbs because they were going stale. But I don’t see any other course of action."

    "Me neither," I said.

    Butch Wax


    I was sitting in the Oxford Barber Shop awaiting my turn, thumbing through an issue of Popular Mechanics and trying desparately to give the impression that I was there alone, an impression my mother was not helping at all by asking me questions about how my day at school went every five seconds or so. "Fine, Mom," I said between clenched teeth, not looking up from the plans for a combination shoehorn / nut cracker or whatever the featured invention in Popular Mechanics that month happened to be.

    "Well, how do you think you did on your arithmetic test, sweetie pie?"

    "Fine, Mom." I glanced up to see if anybody had caught the ‘sweetie pie.’ The old bald guy next to the coat rack avoided my look a little too carefully, I thought; he was probably struggling to keep from laughing. I could tell when he got home, he was going to call the whole family together and give them the word. "‘Sweetie-Pie,’ she called him!’" he would gush, "and him a big boy at least 10 years old!" I was mortified. I could feel my cheeks turning red.

    At this point Picarillo walked in, three steps ahead of his mother, because he was a big boy at least 10 years old, too. He nodded a greeting to me and began to root through the drawer in the little table, where the comic books were kept.

    His mother sat next to my mother and they began to chat, ignoring us. As long as they kept talking to each other, the odds of either Picarillo or me being addressed as "Sweetie-Pie" or "Honey-Pie" or any other sort of pastry went way down.

    I showed Picarillo the plans for some sort of wardrobe on wheels, pointing out that although the article didn’t specifically say so, it could be lined with bullet-proof material and fitted with machine guns. "That would be pretty neat," Picarillo agreed.

    "Ooh," cried Mrs. Picarillo, "Look!" A display near the window had caught her eye.

    "Oh my goodness," my mother said.

    Picarillo and I followed their gaze. They were looking at a grooming kit.

    This grooming kit contained a comb, a ‘military’ brush, and a ‘dispenser tube’ of Butch Wax. Butch Wax-- I’m not sure if it’s a generic term or a trademark-- was, as you might guess, the WAX the barber applied to your BUTCH haircut. A butch haircut was sort of like a crew cut, but just a tad longer at the very front, where Butch Wax was applied to make this front part stand straight up. The dispenser tube had a grid over the end, so you wouldn’t apply TOO MUCH butch wax. Picarillo and I watched our mothers as they circled the display and took turns forcing just the right amount of Butch Wax into the tip of the dispenser. "Ooh!" said my mother, or his mother, or both our mothers, and we knew that we were both about to get BUTCH cuts, following which our mothers were going to purchase these grooming kits. Have I mentioned that the kits came in a nifty box with a picture of a smiling boy (with a butch hair cut, of course) on the cover?

    "You boys are going to look SO HANDSOME," said Mrs. Picarillo.

    "And you’ll have the SAME HAIRCUT," said my mother.

    "You’ll look like BROTHERS," said Mrs. Picarillo. Picarillo was one of my best friends but I did not want to look like his brother. I did not even want people to know we belonged to the same species, and I have no reason to doubt that he harbored similar feelings about me.

    Picarillo and I were so depressed we could not even work up the sarcasm to say ‘Oh boy,’ but somehow Picarillo found the inner strength to say, "Mom, call up Mrs. Calvano! It would be really great if ALL THREE OF US had these hair cuts, wouldn’t it?"

    "Oh, that’s so sweet," said Mrs. Picarillo. "And you could all dress alike! But there’s no time." The barber was motioning me to sit in the chair. In a few minutes Picarillo and I would be the Butch Brothers and Calvano would still be a normal (or anyway normal looking) human being, and It. Was. Not. Fair.

    Picarillo and I managed to avoid Calvano and most of the rest of humanity over the weekend, but on Monday we were back in school-- both wearing nearly identical blue and white ‘school shirts,’ since our mothers had had a lengthy sartorial coordination phone chat the night before.

    "HA!" cried Calvano when he saw us.

    "I dunno what’s so funny," said Picarillo. "We just got regular haircuts, that’s all."


    "My mom’s calling your mom tonight," I said, "and so is Mrs. Picarillo, and tomorrow you’re going to the barber and you’re gonna GET IT."

    "Ha," said Calvano, but much less enthusiastically.

    "It won’t be so bad," said Picarillo. "You’ll get one of these." He pulled the Butch Wax dispenser tube out of his pocket. Calvano stared at it.

    "Lemme see," he said. He put a small glob on the tip of his pinkie, sniffed, deposited it on the warm radiator near the window. It was May and about 80 degrees out, but the radiator was still generating lots of heat, possibly to make up for all the days in February when it had been shut off. The Butch Wax ran down the side of the radiator. "Doesn’t appear to be flammable, but we need more data before we can say for sure," he said. "But it’s definitely interesting stuff. We’ll find a use for it..."

    For whatever reason, Mrs. Calvano did not force Calvano down to the barbershop and into the Butch Brothers. But he was fascinated by our dispenser tubes, though he couldn’t figure out a decent use for them until the summer, when we strolled over to my Uncle Tug’s yard one afternoon and found Uncle Tug sleeping in his lounge chair. There was an empty 6 pack of beer under the chair, and Tug, in a striped sleeveless shirt, had fallen asleep with his hands behind his head, exposing his under arms to our scrutiny.

    "This is it! Picarillo," said Calvano, snapping his fingers, "Butch Wax." Picarillo passed the dispenser over. "I’d feel lot better about this if there were at least four more beer cans out here," said Calvano, removing the cap, "but still, this is a once in a lifetime chance..."

    Tug made a moaning sound as Calvano applied the wax and deftly sculpted Tug’s armpit foliage into two 5-inch horns that stuck out from Tug’s torso at right angles. For some reason we all found this incredibly funny. "Hoo!" cried Calvano.

    Picarillo ran home to get his camera. Tug resettled himself, this time with arms down. When Picarillo arrived with his camera there was nothing to photograph but Uncle Tug. Picarillo took the pictures anyway, and we treasured them. You can’t see the Butch Wax Horns of Hair but we knew they were there.

    "It almost makes havin’ these stupid haircuts worthwhile," said Picarillo as we flipped through the snap shots.

    "Ha," said Calvano.

    FAQ # 58


    I got distracted. The editor of a little magazine wanted to reprint a story of mine he’d read years and years ago, a story that had appeared in a now-defunct and exceptionally cheesy publication. I said go ahead; he wanted the copyright information-- had I copyrighted it, or had the cheesy publication, and in whose name? I didn’t know; in fact, I said, the odds favor it having never been registered with the Copyright Bureau at all, since the publisher was notoriously lax about such matters. And about other matters, too, like payment; mine came in the form of a rubber check, and by the time I arrived, out of breath and tire iron at the ready, at the magazine office to charm them into paying cash, the magazine was gone and a janitor was stenciling "AJAX TOASTERS" on the door. But my modern-day editor was a lot more scrupulous and wanted his copyright acknowledgment page correct. "What if your story was copyrighted by the magazine and I reprint it and they sue me?" he asked. "Sublet your office to Ajax Toasters," I suggested.

    Not even a smile.

    So I went to the website of the Copyright Bureau and found their FAQ page, where I learned that I could hire them to check through their files for 65 dollars an hour, which is about 62 dollars more than I wanted to spend. But I lurked around the FAQ page for a while anyway and educated myself about the copyright laws.

    Most of the FAQs were exactly the sort of thing you’d expect: "How Do I Register My Copyright?" "What is the registration fee?" and so on. I especially liked the answer to FAQ No. 46, "How long does my copyright last?" Sez here:

    "The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, signed into law on October 27, 1998, amends the provisions concerning duration of copyright protection. Effective immediately, the terms of copyright are generally extended for an additional 20 years."

    I’m not sure whether the act was sponsored by Sonny, or they just named it in his honor, but however it happened, it’s great to know that there’s something called The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.

    So in general, as I scrolled down the page, I found a lot of answers that I didn’t know, to questions that I mostly expected to find. But when I got to FAQ # 58, I have to admit I came across a question I did not expect. To wit: " How do I protect my sighting of Elvis?"

    And the answer is (These are the exact words, used without permission of the Copyright Bureau because, well, what’s the fun of writing an article about copyright protection if don’t violate somebody’s copyright?):

    "Copyright law does not protect sightings. However, copyright law will protect your photo (or other depiction) of your sighting of Elvis. Just send it to us with a form VA application and the $30 filing fee. No one can lawfully use your photo of your sighting, although someone else may file his own photo of his sighting. Copyright law protects the original photograph, not the subject of the photograph."

    Now this is pretty straightforward, I have to admit, but it doesn’t address MY real question, which is: HUH??

    There are exactly 60 questions on the page, from which I infer that these are the 60 most frequently asked questions handled by the Copyright Bureau. Even assuming that "Elvis sighting" stands for all bizarre sightings-- UFOs, Big Foot, etc.-- it’s a pretty remarkable entry in the top 60. And if "Elvis" just means "Elvis"-- nearly 25 years after he shuffled off to that big Graceland in the sky, and at least 10 years after the last big wave of sightings-- it’s absolutely amazing.

    But once the shock wears off, we are left with the incredible fact that: COPYRIGHT LAW DOES NOT PROTECT SIGHTINGS OF ELVIS.

    Which is one way of saying: It’s time to AMEND the copyright law! I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if Sonny were working on some sort of Elvis Clause at the time of his premature death. Certainly there could be no more fitting tribute to both Sonny and Elvis than an overhaul of these antiquated laws to allow for the registration of Elvis sightings. In fact-- let me go on the record here, since it looks like I might be coming in about 50 words short this week otherwise---- there is NO MORE PRESSING ISSUE BEFORE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE TODAY THAN THE AMENDMENT OF THE COPYRIGHT LAWS TO ALLOW FOR THE REGISTRATION OF ELVIS SIGHTINGS.

    It could be very simple. You could just jot down "Elvis-- outside Phillipsburg 7-11, 3:45 PM, 4-11-01" on a memo pad, and file that. Or the Bureau could provide more complicated forms (available on the Copyright Bureau website for easy downloading), perhaps with spaces to indicated whether the Elvis sighted was a Fat Period Elvis or a Hunky Elvis. (Or, if the volume is such that it is necessary, SEPARATE Fat and Hunky Elvis forms). There would be boxes to check, to indicate if he was purchasing something, and if so, what was it? That would be useful to know, as would what he was wearing. And was he with any other celebrities, and were they deceased? All of these things would be noted in case there is an Elvis sighting claimed by more than one person. If one reports a youthful Elvis wearing a leather jacket at the 7-11, and another reports a chubby Elvis wearing Bermuda shorts (which is how Elvis has appeared every time I’VE seen him at the Phillipsburg 7-11) (Well, except for one time), we clearly have TWO ELVIS SIGHTINGS, hence two legitimate copyright registrations; if both Elvises are wearing I’M WITH STUPID shirts and little hats with propellers on it (like he was that one time), then it’s a single sighting and precedence goes to... well, one or the other, I guess. Figuring out stuff like that is the job of our lawmakers.

    OUR job? To badger our representatives and ensure that this appalling hole in the copyright laws is fixed as soon as possible. Somewhere in this paper there is a list of our Senators and Congressmen, with their phone numbers. Let’s get to work!



    Help! It’s my girlfriend’s birthday in just three days and I need to make her a balloon panda bear (her favorite non-balloon animal). Please print the instructions, this is make or break time for our relationship!


    Love the Panda-Girl


    Inflate a size # 7 balloon about half way; secure the end; tie off a small bulb at the top (again, not fully inflated) with a rubber band (this will be the panda’s head), then push the air in the main section down a bit until you’ve got a panda-sized paunch, and tie a 1/4 inflated number 4 size balloon around the top of the paunch, where the rib cage would be. Make sure both ends of the # 4 stick out evenly, as these are the arms. Using a close hitch, knot a second # 4 and put aside. This will not be used in the construction of the panda at all. Glue some plastic panda ears to the head. Loop the # 6 sized balloon we forgot to mention previously around the flange. Spray the entire panda so far with rubber cement and add fur, if desired. Put in the microwave and bake on ‘high’ for 45 seconds. Remove and allow at least 6 minutes cooling time before you touch the molten rubber. Attach the gizzard. Now all you need is a festive pink bow, and you are in like Flynn with the girlfriend.

    * * *


    I hope you don’t think I’m out of line for mentioning this, but it seems to me that lately some of your responses have been a little on the snippy side. And I would find it easier to follow your instructions if you would print those neat diagrams, like you used to.


    Big fan


    Funny you should mention the snippiness in the same letter with the no diagrams, Big. The reason we don’t run the diagrams anymore is we have had our budget slashed and can’t afford to. We miss our diagrams and perhaps are getting a little snippy as a result. Interestingly, the budget for the Baroque Piano Sonata Expert Guy column has been increased by almost 30% even though it has no need for any diagrams. It happens to be written by the girl friend of the Expert Guy Chief Executive, but that is just a coincidence I’m sure.

    * * *

    CONFIDENTIAL TO "COMPLETELY BEFUDDLED": Where you went wrong was in using the staple gun. In the future, either tie knots in the balloons (preferred), or use rubber bands.

    * * *


    Although you seem to only write about the sort of balloon animals you make by twisting little balloons together, aren’t the enormous balloons you see in the Thanksgiving Day Parade technically balloon animals, too, and shouldn’t you be writing about them as well?


    More balloon diversity


    The huge helium balloons you are talking about full under the provenance of the Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy. You should ask him. He only works two weeks a year and makes more money than the Balloon Animal Expert Guy. If you don’t know the address, ask the Balloon Expert Guy Chief Executive, since the Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy happens to be his brother-in-law. Thanks for writing.

    * * *


    One of my balloon animals-- the antelope-- broke. How can I fix it? (There is a tear of about 1/4-inch length).


    Save me


    I’m sorry, but once they break, that’s it. There is no point in trying to fix it. Just make a new one. I need a drink. Antelopes are pretty easy, and you can make this one even better than the old one by applying decorative stripes to make it a striped antelope. Good luck.

    * * *


    I want to get started making balloon animals. What is the easiest animal to make for beginners such as myself?


    Ready, Willing & Able


    Try this one: inflate a number 6 balloon. Tie the end. Now show everybody your great new balloon snake! For added fun, inflate SEVERAL balloons, and show everybody you have a whole bunch of snakes. Watch the girls recoil in horror! Not enough fun yet? Tie a knot in the middle of your inflated balloon. Now you have a SNAKE WITH A KNOT IN THE MIDDLE. Ever see a two-headed snake? Well, now you can-- take your snake balloon-- with or without the knot in the middle-- and paint a face on each end. Okay, now the grand finale-- take a SOCK and slide the snake half way into the sock. This is a Snake shedding its skin. Write again soon for more tips on the Balloon Expert Guy’s EZ SNAKE BALLOONS.

    * * *

    CONFIDENTIAL TO ANYBODY OUT THERE WHO DOESN’T STINK: The Balloon Expert Guy is a little thirsty. Send something liquid to the Balloon Expert Guy. Right Now.

    * * *


    Who invented balloon animals?


    How has this been goin' on?



    Balloon animals were invented in 682 BC by President Taft. He was the fattest president ever, too. You can look it up.

    * * *


    Celebrities who are also expert Balloon Animal Creators: Gossip maven LIZ SMITH. Former Secretary of State HENRY KISSINGER. And Oscar® musical conductor MAESTRO Bill "Theme from ‘Rocky’ " Conti.

    * * *


    i have a collection of balloon animals. i have a balloon alligator, a balloon giraffe, a balloon elephant, another balloon elephant, and a balloon monkey. i want to give them good names. especially the two elephants so i can tell them apart. what should i call the elephants?




    Why don’t you name the elephants after the Expert Guy Chief Executive and his girl friend? This would give you a lot of options. You could call them "dumb & dumber." Or "vicious & stupid." Or "ungrateful & illiterate." Or "the big fat

    [The rest of the column did not transmit clearly. The publisher regrets the inconvenience]




    "Dad," said the voice at the other end of the phone, "Did you get today’s paper? Is there a review of the Tom Green movie that opened today? How many stars did it get?"

    "Uh... Let’s see... It got ZERO stars."

    Sustained cheering from the other end of the phone. Or other ends, rather, since thanks to the miracle of modern communications technology, there were multiple callers.

    I read the salient parts of the review-- which was essentially a list of every aspect of the movie, from plot points to performances to technical merits, followed by some variation on "...also stinks."

    "If this review is accurate," I said, at the conclusion, "this may be the worst movie ever made."

    "We have GOT to see this movie," said my daughter. "Dad, you have to take us!"

    Thus it was that the following afternoon I was driving my daughter and a friend to see a movie everyone in the car knew in advance was going to be abysmal. It goes without saying that some abysmal movies can be a lot more entertaining than some (allegedly) non-abysmal movies. Given a choice between watching a 70 minute crap-o-rama shot in 3 days for $5000 featuring non-talent 300 pound Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, or an Oscar ™ nominated Merchant-Ivory snooze fest starring the genuinely gifted thespians Dame Judy Dench and Sir Anthony Hopkins, I know which ticket I’d buy (unless Sir Anthony is eating somebody’s brain).

    But bad movies are a lot more fun when they folks making the movie are not in on the joke. I want to laugh AT you, not with you. So I had no desire to watch the Tom Green movie --whose title I am withholding only because I don’t remember it, and the paper with the review is all the way across the room. The game plan called for me to drop the girls off, sign my daughter’s ticket to assure the management that I was allowing her to watch a movie that she was still several weeks away from being able to watch without parental consent, and then going home.

    But there was a problem.

    "We don’t do the ticket signing thing any more," said the cashier. "You have to go in with them."

    Conference with the girls.

    "Listen," I said, "there is no way I’m going to watch this movie. You should pick another movie. Pick ‘Spy Kids.’ It’s got spies, it’s got kids, it’s got spy kids. They won’t let you into this one."

    "They will if you go in with us."

    "Well, I’m not going to--"

    "I will PAY for your ticket," said my daughter’s friend.

    "The money is not the point," I said. "I won’t--"

    "I’ll pay for your ticket and then you can leave," she said.

    "No," said the cashier, whose hearing was phenomenal. "You have to STAY."

    "I have to STAY??"

    "Yes. I can not sell you a ticket knowing that you are going to walk out of the theater and leave two unaccompanied children in this movie." It wasn’t clear to me whether this was a general policy for all disgusting and lousy R rated movies or just this one. In either case, it was a First. In 40 some years of attending the movies, I’d never encountered this particular policy before. When the MPAA rating system first reared its ugly head I was 14. My friends and I spent enormous amounts of time and energy figuring out ways to trick the movie cashiers and managers of America into letting us into all the R and X (this being back when X was a legit rating) movies, before we stumbled onto the secret: buy a ticket. I think between the time the ratings system was imposed and the time I turned 17, I saw every R rated movie that played in my local theaters, and a good many others besides, and lots of X stuff too (again, at this time movies like "Midnight Cowboy," which now plays on network TV with about 15 seconds snipped and three or four words bleeped, ended up with an X). I was challenged exactly NEVER. If I had the two (!) bucks admission, I went in.

    On the one hand, it is heartening that the theater, or anyway the cashier, has the interests of my daughter at heart. On the other hand, I don’t care.

    "All right," I said at last. "THREE tickets. And please-- tell me this isn’t as bad as everybody says?"

    "It’s realllllly bad," she said.

    So I walked the girls through the lobby to the proper theater, and as they entered, I pivoted and headed for the exit.

    "Excuse me, sir," said an usher. "Could I see your ticket?"

    "I’m leaving."

    "Well, you’ll have to take your girls with you, sir. You can’t leave them alone in there."

    "Well, hypothetically, what would happen if I just sort of walked out the door anyway?"

    "We would have to remove the girls, sir. Policy."

    "I see."

    I went into the auditorium where the worst movie ever made was about to begin. There was another usher stationed at the emergency exit. No help there.

    I went back in the lobby, ostensibly to purchase comestibles. I found a surly looking kid of about 13 playing a video game and gave him 10 dollars and some instructions. He didn’t follow them exactly-- in some respects I’m bound to say he actually improved on them-- but as soon as the lady he drenched with orange soda started screaming and the ushers came on the run, I made it to the exit door. Before I got to the car, I was pursued by some boys who, I assumed, were theater employees sent to drag me back into the movie, but they turned out to be from the Pohatcong or Lohatcong or anyway SOME hatcong recreation something or other and they just wanted money. I took off my baseball cap; the sunlight reflecting off my head dazzled them, and I was able to make my escape.

    This was my first experience sneaking OUT of the movies. If someone told me 30 years ago, as I forked over my money to see "Vixen" and "Cherry Harry & Raquel" at the Capital Theater in Passaic, that someday I’d be doing this, I would have thought they were nuts.


    The topic under discussion was Biggest Loser in History.

    In the past we have tackled The Big Questions by dragging 6 or 8 diverse experts to an all night diner, flooding their systems with caffeine, and then recording the results. (Although we have not been running verbatim transcripts, since by 3 AM all the diverse experts start saying things like "Well uh the thing is that you know when the uh thing we’re uh talking about is uh --hey are you gonna finish that pie? --is uh that you first have to uh you know..." no matter how much coffee you pour into them).

    This time around we varied the formula a little bit, by getting lost on our way to the diner so that we ended up at a different diner from the one all the various experts were gathered at. So my panel of experts was, essentially, me and this guy Murph, the only person at the wrong diner who was willing to talk to me while my tape recorder was on.

    Fortunately Murph proved to be an expert on Losers, at least certain varieties of them. He suggested limiting the discussion to the Biggest Losers in the Acoustic Tile Business in Lodi, New Jersey, and when we were forced to admit we might not be able to hold up our end of the discussion, not having been in Lodi since 1978 and not having been in the acoustic tile business ever, he suggested the Biggest Losers in Beatlemania History. We readily agreed, although we had some qualms, since everybody knows the biggest loser in Beatlemania History is Pete Best, the drummer who was fired and replaced by Ringo about 8 seconds before the Beatles hit it big.

    " if we’re agreed," we said, citing the facts in the above sentence, "I’ll just thank you for your help in solving this conundrum, pay for the coffee and try to find the right diner."

    But Murph did not agree with us. Certainly, he said, Pete Best is a sad case. On the other hand, his name is known to virtually every Beatle fan in the world, which, if sales of the most recent compilation reissue are any indication, means about 3 billion people.

    We conceded this, but insisted: yes, but he’s known to 3 billion people as The Biggest Loser in the World.

    Murph argued that The Biggest ANYTHING in the World, including Loser, was de facto a winner. He used the example of his cousin, or possibly uncle, Harry, whose number in the draft lottery was 4. It was a great number, Murph explained. If the number had been 18 or 32 or something, Cousin Harry would just have been another draftee. But he could BRAG about being Number Four. His friends would tell people, "I know this poor slob who’s got a draft number of FOUR." Pete Best is a permanent pop culture footnote. Hence, paradoxically, the Biggest Loser in Beatlemania History would have to be a Lesser Loser.

    We were now more anxious than ever to pay for the coffee and search for the right diner, but Murph was relentless.

    "Do you happen to have your own idea of who this lesser but greater loser might be?" we asked.

    Murph did, but he wanted to hear any of my other nominations before he allowed the name to pass his lips.

    We recalled that on page 43 of our copy of "Beatles Illustrated Lyrics Volume One" there is a quotation under a photo of the leather-jacketed Beatles circa 1962: ‘ "These boys won’t make it. Four groups are out. Go back to Liverpool, Mr. Epstein-- you have a good business there." --a major executive of a major British record company 1962. ’ Would any of these anonymous record executives who passed up the chance to ride the Beatlemania rocket qualify as Biggest Loser?

    No, according to Murph. He had a specific person in mind, not a rogue’s gallery of unnamed corporate entities.

    And that person was Leo Gorcey.

    Leo Gorcey from the Bowery Boys? we said.

    Yes, said Murph.

    "I have to leave now," we said.

    Leo Gorcey, Murph said, physically restraining me, is not on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.

    "That’s true," we said, "but neither am I. Or you."

    Ah, said Murph, but once upon a time, Leo Gorcey was. There are 57 assorted celebrities pictured on the cover, aside from the Beatles themselves and various hairdressers’ dummies, and Capital /EMI said that permission had to be granted from each one, at least the ones still living. All of them readily agreed-- Sonny Liston, Mae West, Fred Astaire... everyone except Leo Gorcey, who was in the top row, directly above Karl Marx and between ‘The Varga Girl’ and fellow Bowery Boy Huntz Hall.

    "Huntz said yes and Leo said no?" we asked, astonished.

    Leo didn’t say no. Leo said he wanted 500 dollars. So for want of 500 bucks, Leo passed up the opportunity to be on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.

    "Well," we said, "500 bucks was a lot of money back in 1967..."

    Murph asked if we would have insisted on 500 bucks. We had to admit we probably would have been willing to pay THEM. Just so, said Murph. The point isn’t that Leo said no. Maybe he wasn’t a fan. If he didn’t want to be on the cover, no was the right answer. The point is that he didn’t say ‘no,’ he said ‘I want 500 bucks.’

    We had to agree the 500 bucks was pretty much a perfect loser number. If he’d said $20,000 or something, you could say he was trying to shake down the Beatles. That would be almost classy. But 500 bucks? Was he going to buy a new sofa?

    Murph convinced us that Leo Gorcey was the Biggest Loser in Beatlemania History, even if he did not convince us that ‘Beatlemania’ is an adjective. We went directly home without even trying to find the correct diner. There was a message on our answering machine: the diverse Loser Experts had chosen ‘The Guy Who Invented Chocolates With Gooey Junk In It’ as the Biggest Loser in (non-Beatlemania) History,’ which suggested to us that perhaps I had gone to the right diner after all.



    I needed the apartment cleaned up and my daughter needed money for Warped Tour tickets (don’t ask), so there we were.

    And there IT was, ‘it’ being my bed, upon which all my earthly possessions were being piled so that the various surfaces upon which they had been sitting in various states of decay (I’m thinking here especially of the bananas I purchased during the first week of March and then hid under a pile of Jimmy Olsen comics when a notorious banana stealing neighbor showed up on my door step) could be dusted or vacuumed or scrubbed with steel wool or purified by fire. Some of my earthly possessions, I have to confess, were pretty unearthly, and others struck no chord of recognition within me. Where, I found myself wondering, did this large dinner plate, decorated with a delightful painting of Niagara Falls, come from? Well, from some souvenir shop in Niagara Falls, obviously, but how did it get from there to my apartment? (I warn you-- you can read this article all the way to the end and you will never discover the answer to this question.)

    Another question with no satisfactory answer: why was I saving my Cable TV bills in a shoebox? I had a vague recollection of trying to convince the IRS that I was a professional television critic-- every coupe of years I write about the Olympics or the Oscars or channel surfing-- and claiming my Cable connection as a business deduction, but they didn’t bite-- or rather they bite big time, but not in the sense I wanted-- so what was I doing with this shoebox full of non-deductible expenses? I tossed it into the open 30-gallon garbage bag my daughter propped open. And I was immediately seized by panic: WHAT IF I’VE WRITTEN AN IMPORTANT PHONE NUMBER OR SOMETHING ON THE BACK OF ONE OF THOSE BILLS??

    This question had an answer, fortunately: In that case, you will never see that important phone number again. And thus reassured, I left the shoe box in the bag.

    Gradually items were returned to their proper place and the surface of the bed slowly became visible. And in the end, there was a tennis ball.

    This was odd, as I don’t play tennis. It was not quite inexplicable, because my daughter stayed with me for some weeks last year and she does play tennis. But she denied ownership of this particular ball. "I wouldn’t be caught dead using a tennis ball that color," she said.

    Me neither, frankly, and never mind what color it was.

    There was the possibility it was left over from a project of my youth. At one time, I spent a lot of my free time trying to find the perfect Martian eyeball. In general, ping-pong balls cut in half and then painted to look like insect eyes were pretty effective. They were cheap, easy to make, and a single ping-pong ball, properly sliced, gave you two excellent eyeballs. On the other hand, I had a sense that TRUE Martian eyeballs were probably much larger. So there were many experiments involving the soft hollow rubber balls we called ‘Spaldeens.’ If you sliced off the end of a Spaldeen so that the hole was exactly the circumference of your (non-Martian) eyeball, you could wedge the Spaldeen into your eye socket AROUND your eyeball, and you would have enormous Martian Eyes, which could be painted in any number of ways. The main problem was you needed enormous amounts of scotch tape to hold them in place, and no matter how good your engineering was, they fell out if you made any sudden movement or most unsudden movements. A slightly lessor problem was the incredible pain of having this rubber ball squeezing your eye. Blackouts were not uncommon. But, on balance, worth it, because it looked really really cool.

    The problem with the Martian Eye theory was the color of the ball: when I was doing my work at the cutting edge of monster eye technology, tennis balls were white, period.

    I picked it up and it made a noise. A kind of rattle. There was something inside the tennis ball. In fact, judging from the sound, there were at least two things inside.

    At first I thought the same thing anyone would have thought-- this is a special tennis ball for blind tennis players. They hear the "whack" of the ball being hit, and then, using the sound of the objects ratting inside the ball as it approaches, they track the trajectory and... Well, at this point some objections to the tennis-ball-for-the-blind idea occurred to me. I won’t go into them right now.

    Well, I’ll go into one of them. If you put objects inside the tennis ball, you are going to interfere with its aerodynamic properties. The tennis ball is apt to wobble unpredictably. So putting the objects inside the tennis ball is probably unrelated to the game of tennis.

    Therefore, the important thing is not the tennis ball itself, but the contents. Somebody-- a previous tenant-- needed to hide two or more small objects, probably in a hurry, (let’s say there were THUGS pounding on the door) and made a slit in a tennis ball, secreted the objects, and then... Well, since the objects are still in the ball, the thugs didn’t get them. On the other hand, since the objects are still in the ball, neither did the guy who hid them.

    Obviously, the thugs were questioning the guy, they got a little rough, he realized he was going to spill the beans, so he provoked them into getting a little TOO rough... probably ended up under the 30 yard line at Giant Stadium... and the thugs never thought to look in the tennis ball, so they left it here... with the objects inside... objects so valuable the previous tenant felt they were worth dying for... microchips, or possibly diamonds...

    I squeezed the tennis ball. The slit opened up. I turned the ball over. And out fell...

    Two pieces of raw pasta. The kind that look like little wagon wheels.

    This kind of disproved the thug theory (unless this was a DECOY tennis ball). I have no other theory to account for the presence of a tennis ball with a secret pasta compartment in my abode. If there was some sort of pasta shortage, that might account for it, but I checked and there has never been a shortage of pasta.

    Both wagon wheels will be on display in the Delaware Valley News office for the next couple of weeks if anyone would like to claim them, though the staff has been instructed not to surrender the pastas to anyone without a plausible story as to how they came to be in the tennis ball-- AND you must know the color of the tennis ball.

    Fulfill these demands, and you will not only get your pastas back, you will receive this really cool Niagara Falls plate, too.




    There was excitement in the air as we entered Mrs. Ruthkopf’s 8th grade English class. Mrs. Ruthkopf was smiling and humming "Happy Talk" from South Pacific. "What’s going on?" whispered Picarillo.

    "I dunno," I said. We scrutinized her face, which was almost unrecognizable with the smile muscles engaged.

    "You think maybe she had a stroke?" said Calvano. "Should I get the janitor?"

    At this point Mrs. Ruthkopf brought the class to attention so I didn’t get a chance to answer, or to ask ‘why the janitor?’

    "Boys and girls," she said. "I have some wonderful news. I have decided... that for the book report, which will be due in three weeks... you may report on ANY book at all. It does NOT have to be on the approved reading list that I handed out on the first day of class. Just bring ANY book at all into class on Friday so that I can write down the title."

    In fact she wanted us to bring the books into class so that she could make sure the books existed. Last year (Mrs. R taught 7th and 8th grade English) David Stickle had delivered a series of book reports on various books featuring Beatrice and Thelma Gnobb, the Gnobb Sisters. Mrs. R. didn’t realize that these books were imaginary until he delivered the report on "The Gnobb Sisters Take a Vacation," in which Beatrice and Thelma spent about 2/3rds of the book watching Joan Crawford in "Berserk." This gross-out fest happened to be playing at the local drive-in even as Stickle delivered his four-star review, and Mrs. R. smelled a rat. The Gnobb Sisters debacle was the reason we were given an approved reading list at all. But Stickle had moved away a few weeks ago (he was now free to unleash Beatrice and Thelma on another unsuspecting school system) and the all the Stickle Restrictions were now being phased out, one at a time.

    On Thursday, the ‘any-book-at-all’ provision was amended to ‘any-book-at-all-except-Valley-of-the-Dolls,’ but otherwise we were left to our own devices.

    I have to admit that some of us did not make the most of this opportunity. I opted for "More Than Human" by Theodore Sturgeon, which I had probably read at least 5 times by then. Calvano initially went for "Eat All You Want and Lose Weight," which had been lying open on the arm of the living room couch on Friday morning when I stopped by on the way to school, but I pointed out that somebody was apparently in the middle of reading it, so he ducked into the basement, which his older brother Duff had taken over and turned in a ‘pad,’ and returned with Duff’s copy of "History of Torture" by Daniel P. Mannix, which was exactly what the title promised.

    "She’s never gonna let you read that," I said.

    "She’s GOT to. It isn’t ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ right?"

    The discussion between Mrs. Ruthkopf and Calvano was brief but entertaining:

    Mrs. R: No.

    Calvano: But--

    Mrs. R: Absolutely not.

    Calvano: But you said--

    Mrs. R: I said what?

    Calvano: You said we could read anything except ‘Valley of the Dolls.’

    Mrs. R: I did not know that THIS book existed when I said that.

    Calvano: But--

    Mrs. R: No. You have until Monday to select a different and BETTER book.

    As if there could be a better book than "History of Torture." But she was delighted by Picarillo’s choice, the first book he’d stumbled across in a mad last minute search of the house. It happened to be called "Stewardess on Danger Island."

    "Well, Michael, this is certainly an unusual selection for a young man... but I must say I approve whole-heartedly! The rest of you boys would benefit a great deal from reading the adventures of plucky stewardess Eileen Madison. Yes, you may be thinking, ‘only GIRLS read stewardess novels,’ but they make EXCELLENT reading for anyone. As Michael can probably tell you. I take it you’ve read the previous ‘Stewardess in Danger’ novels?"

    He nodded haplessly.

    "Well, then I’m certain you’ll enjoy this one-- it’s my personal favorite! Although ‘Return to Danger Island’ is also excellent..."

    Picarillo was positively aglow, but Calvano turned the illumination down several notches by remarking, "Hey, genius, I don’t know how to break this to you, but you’re gonna hafta actually READ this thing, because Mrs. Ruthkopf knows the whole story." We all shuddered. The idea of actually reading a book for a book report [unless, as in my case, we had already read it a million times] was terrifying. But Picarillo manfully plunged into his Stewardess novel.

    This was not without consequences. Tough kids who, in high school, would blossom into full-fledged thugs, smacked the book out of Picarillo’s hand at every opportunity. But he was so caught up in the magical prose of "Stewardess" that he simply picked it up and went back to reading about the trials of Eileen Madison on Danger Island.

    During lunch he was hunkered down behind the jungle gym reading away for dear life (the tip of his tongue was visible at the edge of his mouth, a sure sign that he was concentrating fiercely) and George Miller (later voted ‘Most Likely to Be Gunned Down While Attempting to Shoot His Way Out of Sing Sing’) swaggered over.

    "Must be a very innerestin’ novel," he snickered.

    "Yuh," said Picarillo, who was immune to sarcasm. He turned the page. Miller’s gang slowly drifted into view, like the crows on the monkey bars in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

    "Eileen doesn’t know it," said Picarillo, "but her husband is trying to poison her."

    "Do tell," said Miller. He signaled one of his lackeys to move behind Picarillo.

    "Then she got lost while she was walking around the Island. And she found this skull."

    "Whose skull?" said Miller.

    "At first she wasn’t sure..."

    Miller’s lackey made a kind of ‘Now? Now?’ gesture, but Miller waved him off.

    "So who was the skull?"

    "Well, the thing is, she found another skull in the cellar..." The gang moved in closer. "See, right here at the beginning of Chapter Five: ‘Eileen lifted the lid of the chest. The bronze statue was nowhere to be seen-- but sitting on a bolt of red velvet was a human skull, cleft from crown to sub-orbital ridge by what could only have been a meat cleaver...’

    A late arriving member of Miller’s entourage suddenly trotted over and danced around Picarillo. "Oooh, he’s WEADING his WITTLE BOOK!" Miller made an impatient gesture, and two of his cronies dragged the baffled latecomer behind the equipment shed-- "Hey! What’s a matter with you guys?? I was just--"

    "Okay, Mike," said Miller as the noises behind the shed began to die away. "Get back to the meat cleaver."

    Calvano and I watched this bizarre scene unfold from the safety of the swing set. For the rest of the week, Picarillo read a chapter aloud every day at lunch while the gang listened, entranced. Anybody who didn’t listen entranced ended up behind the equipment shed.

    Needless to say, Picarillo aced his book report. Calvano ended up with a C- from Mrs. R, not so much for his lackluster report (on a book about a blind Boy Scout) as for his opening rant, "I couldn’t read ‘History of Torture’ and his whole stupid book is SKULLS and POISON and MEAT CLEAVERS!" Later we decided there was an important lesson to be learned from all this, but we still haven’t quite figured out what it is.


    Emma: We have a topic here...

    Me: I’m writing my column...

    Emma: Well, do it next week. We have a better...

    Me: Who is ‘we’?

    Emma: Compton is on the phone too. We have a topic...

    Compton: it’s really good...

    Me: Well? What is it?

    Emma: It was BLOOD DAY. We gave blood...

    Me: You gave blood?

    Emma: Well, I didn’t give blood, because I’m not 17, but--

    Compton: J** isn’t 17 either but she gave blood...

    Emma: She thinks she can DO things. She stole her sister’s ID...

    Me: She used a fake ID so she could give blood??

    Compton: She’s doing the English thing, too.

    Me: English thing?

    Emma: Oooh, that’s right! She’s in College Prep English, but she DECIDED she’s going to be in HONORS English, so she just...

    Compton: She just SHOWS up in Honors English...

    Emma: And after class she goes, ‘see you tomorrow’...

    Compton: And she’s BACK TOMORROW!

    Me: It sounds almost like you admire this person for--

    Emma: Eeewwwwww!

    Compton: Eeeewwwww!

    Emma: I really wanted to give blood...

    Compton: You SHOULD have!

    Emma: I’m not 17!

    Compton: I could have given you my sister’s ID!

    Me: Did everybody in your class steal their sister’s ID?

    Emma: That is so STUPID! I don’t HAVE a sister.

    Me: I meant--

    Emma: And if I DID, I wouldn’t steal her ID because I’m the OLDEST.

    Compton: I gave blood. They stuck a PIN in my thumb!

    Emma: What was THAT all about?

    Compton: I don’t know!

    Me: They always do that when I give blood.

    Emma: Well, why do they do it?

    Me: Uh, I guess they’re just testing the blood...

    Compton: They take like THREE TEST TUBES to test. Why do they have to stick a needle in your thumb?

    Me: Uh...

    Emma: Didn’t you ever ASK?

    Me: Uh...

    Emma: You just LET somebody jam a pin in your thumb? You aren’t even curious? Would you have asked if they’d stuck TWO pins in your thumb? Or three? I mean, at what point would you start to get curious? 15 pins?

    Me: Uh...

    Compton: Did you hear what A**** called E*****?

    Emma: Yes! She called her an EPITHET!

    Compton: Is it epithet or epitaph?

    Me: It depends on whether the person is dead or not...

    Emma: Ignore him. It’s EPITHET. She had to pay E***** 25 cents for EMOTIONAL DAMAGE.

    Me: You have a rule about that?

    Emma: I MADE her pay it. And she nipped C***** in the arm.

    Compton: Eeewwwww!

    Emma: And I asked her about it, and said said ‘oh, I do it all the time,’ and then she did it AGAIN!

    Compton: That’s so gross...

    Emma: Wait! So I said it was a NIBBLE, and they BOTH got mad!

    Me: Why?

    Emma: Wait! We have to talk about M***!

    Compton: He looks like a smurf.

    Emma: He looks like an OX-like smurf.

    Me: Eeeewwww!

    Emma: He’s been staring at me and E****** since November.

    Compton: He glares.

    Emma: J** is OBSESSED about him. And then if WE bring him up, it’s like , ‘Oh, YOU must have a crush on him!’

    Compton: He called me on my birthday.

    Emma: That wasn’t him.

    Compton: No, it was him.

    Me: Didn’t you recognize his voice?

    Compton: All boys have the same voice at that age.

    Me: Can we get back to the blood?

    Emma: Oh...

    Compton: Oh...

    Emma: They showed a movie before the blood thing.

    Me: Was it a cartoon, with a talking red corpuscle? They showed that one when I was in school.

    Emma: I’m sure they did. You know what they said in the movie? They said somebody gives blood every 3 seconds. A** did a count down. Every three seconds. It wasn’t funny.

    Compton: But it was annoying.

    Emma: Yes, it was BETTER than funny. Is that enough blood? You know what else M*** does? He stretches in his chair at lunch time and CASUALLY looks around. So it’s like, ‘I’m not really looking around, I’m just STRETCHING.’ And he rubs his chest, because he’s PIERCED.

    Me: Eeewwww!

    But I got him the other day. He stretched and I yelled STOP STARING.

    Compton: His whole table stares at us.

    Me: We keep sort of getting away from the blood...

    Emma: I think you have enough material for whatever it is your doing. We’re going now.




    Every now and then, as regular readers of this column know, I get together with a few friends and we attempt to decide what the Greatest B-side of all time was, or the worst British accent (Dick Van Dyke in "Mary Poppins, " hand down --nothing else even comes close), and other burning questions. After the last such column I asked, tongue in cheek, for further topics to explore, and to my dismay, some of you responded.

    J.L. of Pittstown and P.P. of Alexandria get the ‘great minds think alike’ award for suggesting ‘how about lamest idea for a column?’ P.P. gets extra credit for misspelling my name on the envelope-- Kudos to the Milford PO for delivering it anyway, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. One reader actually sent in a series of "Ask the Expert Guy" questions for me to answer; I am sincerely touched, and if my editor goes for it (the expert guy subject under consideration is a trade marked product, which could be a problem), I will run it with credit and thanks, and of course donate all revenues accruing from same to the Jeff Grimshaw New CD Changer fund. The old CD changer is acting kind of hinky (it refuses to play my Sonic Youth CDs. It appears to approve of everything else, though). Outside donations welcome. And speaking of audio equipment-- special thanks also to the youthful friend of mine who stopped by the other night to play a vinyl record he’d acquired somehow, but stayed to laugh at my stereo. It wasn’t that he’d never seen a record player before-- he’s a DJ, after all-- but the size of the spindle puzzled him. When I explained that it was designed so that you could stack 8 or 10 records on it, at first he didn’t believe me, and then when I demonstrated, burst into laughter. "Dude! That is PHAT!" I’m not quite sure why it was so hilarious, but the very fact that I don’t get it makes me feel even older than I am. Which I didn’t think possible. Thanks so much. Really.

    But very SPECIALEST thanks of all to reader D.B. of East Stroudsburg PA (I would happily print the full name, but he / she says no publicity, please) who sent me a coverless comic book with instructions to read the back up feature and agree or disagree with his / her opinion that it was the single dumbest story ever.

    Happy to oblige, D. B.

    The comic in question is "World’s Finest," # 113, November 1960. The back-up feature in question is a Green Arrow story. Green Arrow, I suppose I should mention, was a singularly dumb strip featuring a singularly inane hero. The Green Arrow and his teenage sidekick, Speedy, went around in a sort of Robin Hood get-up, firing arrows at various villains. The gimmick: he has SPECIAL arrows. When he wanted to stop a bank robber cold, he would fire off a BOXING GLOVE ARROW, for instance. Each arrow in his apparently bottomless quiver had a different function. One of them secreted oil slicks to make getaway cars skid off the road. But none of this is even remotely plausible to anyone who has ever shot an arrow; there’s a reason why people don’t slap boxing gloves on the end of their arrows in real life.

    What makes this particular Green Arrow story especially egregious and hence worthy of your attention: it features a THIRD arrow-slinging character, Miss Arrowette. Rather than synopsize the entire story myself, allow me to quote from the word balloons. You should be able to follow the ‘plot’ from this with ease: "My POWDER-PUFF ARROW knocked out their car-- now to capture them with some HAIRPIN ARROWS..." "I’ll disarm them, GREEN ARROW... Oh dear! I shot my LOTION ARROW by mistake... and they’re sliding down the chute right into the criminals’ truck!" "My HAIR TINT ARROW will leave a trail of droplets I can follow right to the criminals’ hideout..." "Why, she’s descending with a parachute of some kind!" "Correction, GREEN ARROW! This is my KERCHIEF ARROW..." "Your NEEDLE AND THREAD ARROW may get us out of here, Miss. Are you sure it’s strong enough to support our weight?" "Let’s hope her HAIR NET ARROW works the way she described it... Perfect! It billowed open into a huge hair net! The criminals are all tangled up! Let’s get ‘em!" "Thanks to you, Miss Arrowette, we came out of this alive... still, I can’t help thinking..." "I know-- crime fighting is not for girls like me. Well-- you’re right! From now on I’ll confine my bowmanship to the archery range." "A wise decision... and yet, I can’t help wondering, SPEEDY, if we’ve really seen the LAST of this girl archer..."


    It’s really a hard call. I have read some very dumb stories in my time, and written some as well. If I were in a diner with a bunch of friends and the topic was in fact ‘the dumbest story ever,’ this one would have to be in the running, there’s no question about it. And that coda, with it’s amazing implication that the writers were ready to BRING BACK MISS ARROWETTE if YOU, THE READERS, DEMANDED IT... well, the mind just reels. And I can’t swear that they never did bring her back. An editor capable of running this story is clearly capable of running another one just like it.

    This is all worth mentioning because every now and then I flip on the TV and find myself in the middle of a Brady Bunch marathon or some such thing and I find myself thinking that there nothing produced in any entertainment medium between, say, 1955 and 1980 is so crappy that someone in my generation won’t buy the rights to it, declare that it’s a CLASSIC, and market it successfully. As far as I can tell the fabulous adventures of Green Arrow and Speedy and Miss Arrowette have never been collected and republished and this is probably the single most encouraging piece of pop culture news I can report at this time. It’s not much, but it’s something.

    So keep those great letters and lousy comic books coming. Now excuse me, I’ve got to stack some vinyl and laugh myself sick.

    Shaking the Family Tree


    "Your cousin Low-Low is looking a little odd these days," said my father. This, I confess, took me aback. Low-Low is known to some of the older members of the family as "Mr. Five By Five" after an ancient Johnny Mercer song ("Mister Five-by-five /Five feet tall/ Five feet wide...") and although he long ago ceased to grow in the vertical plane, he’s been active enough in the horizontal to be rechristened "Mr. Five by Six and a Half" or thereabouts if anyone has a bottle of champagne they’d like to donate to the ceremony. In addition to his silhouette, Low-Low has had some interesting hair cuts in his time (his circumference doesn’t allow most barbers to perform the close-in work essential to most hair cuts. At this point no one can access the crown of his head without a cherry picker). So when my father tells me Low-Low is looking a little odd these days, the idea rather takes the breath away.

    "Oh?" said I. "How so?"

    "He’s kind of growing his hair out and using a lot of grease on it. And he’s wearing moccasins."

    "Well, the moccasins make sense, I guess. They stretch, which I would think must be a necessity for any article of clothing he wears."

    "Sure," said my Dad. Then we went back to watching The Young and the Restless. When I visit my Dad we always watch The Young and the Restless, but he constantly switches over to golf or hockey during commercials so I won’t realize he’s hooked on a soap. I was thinking about this rather than about Low-Low’s new look when the phone rang.

    "Unca Jim," said Low-Low, "I need Jeff’s phone number."

    I rattled off my number.


    "Yeah. Listen, I’ll talk to you when you call me at home. This German guy-- or anyway when he’s excited he sounds German-- just found out the baby isn’t his. He’s pretty honked about it, but he’s relieved, because he’s got no use for the mother."

    "I wanna borrow your W W W jacket."

    "Nope," I said, and hung up. Lending anything to Low-Low is absurd, but lending him clothing is absurd to the point of being grounds for permanent involuntary commitment. And lending him my W W W jacket?? This jacket dates from my days in the Order of the Arrow, an elite society of honor campers within the Boy Scouts of America. W W W stands for... uh, three Indian words which start with ‘W.’ I have no idea how to pronounce or spell the Indian words anymore, but they mean ‘Brotherhood, Cheerfulness, Service.’ Or possibly ‘Cheerfulness, Cleanliness, Purpleness.’ I think. It’s been a while. But whatever they stand for, they wouldn’t stand for Low-Low stretching them across his back.

    I forget how the German guy resolved the paternity issue. Or perhaps I never actually knew; sometime before the show ended, Low-Low called back and said, "I’m gonna come clean ‘bout why I need the jacket. Gonna open a casino."

    I hung up again.

    A few days later Low-Low phoned me at home and explained more of his plan. "Doin’ some genealogy research. D’j’ou know Indian casinos don’t pay taxes?"

    "Yes, I did."

    "So I’m looking into the family tree. Got some ideas. But I need the jacket."

    "You’re thinking because it has fringes and all those ‘W’s on the back that it will help establish your Indian heritage in the eyes of the government?"

    I could hear him blush over the phone. This would be a ridiculous assertion applied to anyone else, but Low-Low is the loudest blusher in the world. When the cacophony had died away, he said, "Nah. Nothin’ like that. Anyway, I wanted to know if you know ‘bout any Indians in the family."

    "No. In fact, I believe that my ex once did a pretty thorough investigation into some branches of the family and came away pretty much Indian-free."


    "But we are distantly related to Kepler."

    A long pause while various rusty circuits tripped and vast, long-darkened portions of the Low-Low brain were (ever so briefly) illuminated.

    "Well, that’s kinna innererting. Doesn’t help much with the casino, but I’ve always been a fan a his."


    "Yuh. He just died."

    "He did? He must have been a little long in the tooth."

    "Yuh. Close to 80."

    "I would’ve thought a little older." About 450 would have been my guess, but I didn’t say this aloud. "I mean, when did he come up with the idea that the planetary orbits were elliptical?"

    "They are? I mean, did he figure that out? I din’t know. I just knew he played Colonel Klink on ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’ "

    "I, uh... Uh," I concluded.

    "Pretty neat that he’s a relative, though. Love it when he got all upset and went ‘Oooohhh-- HO-gan!’ "

    "Me, too."

    "So you don’t know about any Indians?"

    "No. I seem to remember that the first Grimshaws in our line came over one step ahead of the law, though. I believe there was a bigamy suit or something of that nature."

    "Inneresting," said Low-Low. "Did he marry two people over there or over here?"

    "Over there."

    "So probally neither one was an Indian."

    "That’s how I would bet, if I were betting."

    "Yuh. Well, how about that jacket?"


    "Y’know, if I can... convince the proper author’ties about my * cough * Indian heritage, there would be a lot of money to be made."


    I did promise to check and see if Kepler had ever married a member of the Lenape tribe. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but, like the German guy on Young and Restless, I admit I am not optimistic about the outcome.



    I don’t remember the exact date the world ended. I know it was sometime during the summer of 1975.

    I was working at the Passaic County ID Bureau, ostensibly as a file clerk but in reality as general factotum, performing all the functions that everyone with more seniority than me (which is to say, everyone) found too tedious or disgusting to bother with. Some of my tedious and disgusting functions brought me into contact with the semi-permanent residents of the county jail. One of these, Mr. Trickets, gave me the word about the end of the world.

    Mr. Trickets was about 50 and had landed among us at the start of the summer, following a disagreement at a local watering hole. It was about whether to watch a ball game with the sound on or the sound off. Sound on would have meant listening to the dulcet tones of Howard Cosell, and Mr. Triskets could not countenance this, the upshot being, among other things, a smashed TV set and six months in a spiffy bright orange jump suit for Mr. Triskets.

    Away from the pernicious influence of the demons rum and Howard, Mr. Trickets (a veteran of Patton’s Sicilian campaign) was a sweet tempered old fellow, trusted to empty waste baskets in the I D Bureau and in fact pretty much allowed the run of the place. His favorite song was Hoagy Carmichael’s "Skylark," which he hummed constantly while going about his tasks.

    When he wasn’t humming "Skylark," he was telling everyone that the world was about to end. Mr. Triskets belonged to a religion that insisted we are in the final days. I don’t remember which religion it was-- there are several-- but unlike some, his had calculated the precise moment that everything would screech to a halt. As I said, I don’t recall the date, but I do remember the festivities were supposed to get underway at 9:37 AM, EST.

    When Mr. Trickets buttonholed me to give me the good news-- "You all set, son? Are you READY?" -- I never knew how to respond, but many of my co-workers enjoyed engaging him in lengthy debates. The general consensus was that whoever had set an actual date had made a huge mistake.

    "Mr. Triskets, if 9:38 AM comes and the world is still more or less intact--"

    "Not gonna happen, I’m afraid."

    "Right, right. But if it DOES... what’s your official position then? Are you going to admit the whole thing is a crock, or are you going to just pick another day?"

    "The Day has already been PICKED, my boy. Are you READY, is the question."

    Depending on your mood (which often depended on whether you had watched the ball game the night before with the sound on or off), this sort of thing could be hugely amusing or hugely annoying. My boss tried to get Mr. Trickets to bet, but Mr. Triskets wouldn’t do it. "It breaks my heart," said the head of the ID Bureau. "If the world doesn’t end, I’d get 50 bucks. If it does, he wouldn’t collect a nickel. It’s win-win."

    As the big day approached, the excitement grew. No one expected the world to end, of course, but everyone wanted to know what Mr. Trickets would do when it didn’t. As it happened, he was not in the ID Bureau office on the scheduled morning. At 9:36 one of the secretaries began tapping her pencil on her desk, and we all turned our attention to the office clock. At exactly 9:37 one of the other file clerks popped a paper bag. "Haw," said someone sourly. Then we all went back to work, except for some of the older employees, who went back to their Racing Forms.

    Mr. Trickets was not humming "Skylark" that afternoon when he came in to empty the ashtrays and wastebaskets. No one had the heart to ride him until nearly a week had gone by and "Skylark" was in the air again.

    "So," said Benny, who was in charge of the 3-D autopsy camera, "did you figure out what went wrong last week? Somebody forget to carry the 2 or something? Did your Big Cheese reschedule the picnic yet?"

    "No need," said Mr. Triskets.

    "Couldn’t agree more," said Benny.

    "Yup. World ended last Tuesday, at 9:37 AM."

    "I guess I missed that," said Benny.

    "Doesn’t surprise me. Most folks did."

    "So I sent in a car payment for nothing?"

    "Wouldn’t know about that. But the REAL WORLD came to an end last Tuesday. For them as had eyes to see and ears to hear. As for this... pale shadow of reality in which we now dwell... this trick of smoke and mirrors..."

    "Even you aren’t this stupid," said Benny in disgust. Over the next few weeks several people (none of them me) tried to get Mr. Trickets to admit the world had not ended. But Mr. Trickets was adamant. No one could get him to budge. No one could even get him to raise his voice or fidget or stop humming "Skylark." He was serene in his acceptance of the end of the world, and contemptuous of our refusal to face reality.

    His serenity persisted until he encountered a like (but not identically) minded gentleman while hosing out the drunk tank one morning. How the conversation began I don’t know, but I came on the run from the cubicle where I was filing fingerprints when I heard Mr. Triskets yelling.

    "NO! NO! NO!" Mr. Trickets was saying. The veins in his temple and the cords in his neck were sticking out.

    "Oh, yes," said the gentleman in the drunk tank. "It was December 26th, 1957. Everything after that is simply illusion..."

    "NO! NO! NO!"

    "No doubt about it. It was calculated six ways to Sunday. There could be no mistake. If you didn’t notice that the world ended that day, at exactly 3:25 PM Eastern, well, brother, you aren’t alone, but that’s when it happened. FACT. End. Of. Story."

    "NO! NO! NO..."

    "Time to face reality, my friend. But I’ll concede that it’s possible that the SHADOW WORLD that existed after the REAL WORLD ENDED in 1957 may have ended a few weeks back, and this is a mere shadow of a shadow..."

    But Mr. Triskets wasn’t buying it. He was so shaken that we went without "Skylark" for nearly 3 weeks this time.



    Your column is a life saver. I am sure I speak for many readers when I say I can’t thank you enough for printing all these recipes for hors d-oeuvres and related helpful hints and so forth. It is always the first thing I turn to when I get the paper. Well, anyway, I have a question. If I give a party and the ONLY thing I serve is... or are... hors d’oeuvres, which are appetizers, is it still permissible to call them hors d’oeuvres? Even though they are an end in themselves and not whetting the appetite for an entr饠to come?




    Yes, it’s perfectly permissible. Rather than thinking of your hors d’oeuvres as ‘whetting the appetite’ for an imaginary entr饬 think of them as whetting the appetite for more of your (I have no doubt) scrumptious hors d’oeuvres. And speaking of permissible, while ‘hors-d’oeuvre’ is plural in the French, it’s singular over here, and "okay" to slap an ‘s’ on the end when you wish to indicate you’re talking about a bunch of them.

    * * *


    I have heard that hors d’oeuvres are called that (hors d’oeuvres) because when they were invented the secret ingredient was horse meat. I want to know if there is still horse meat in them. If there is, I don’t want any.



    DEAR NO:

    If you go to my web site ( and click on the FAQ link, you’ll find this very question addressed under the clever (if I do say so myself!) title "Horse Meat? Horse Feathers!" This rumor-- an urban legend, really-- has no basis in fact; ‘hors-doeuvre’ is a French word meaning, literally, ‘little bitty hot dog type things in miniature rolls and other stuff like that.’ On the other hand, this question has been asked so frequently (hence its appearance on my FAQ page) that I have (ahem) produced a pamphlet, "21 Great Horse meat Hors-d’oeuvre Recipes." (Yes, I confess! The Hors-d’oeurve Expert Guy is SHAMELESS!) This can be ordered on the web site, as can the vegetarian version, "21 Great Horse Meat Hors-d’oeuvre Recipes In Which Broccoli Is Used Instead Of Horse meat."

    * * *


    Could you address the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman split from the hors-d’oeurve angle? I am told (by someone who is in a position to know-- I can’t say more than that) that the break was precipitated by a disagreement about what kind of canap鳠to serve at a ‘Welcome 2001’ New Year’s party. Like all of your readers, I feel that my life has been endlessly enriched by the hors-d’oeurve-- but in truth, is something like this really important enough to scuttle a marriage of 11 years duration? Your thoughts, please.




    The thing you need to bear in mind here is that ‘canap鳦amp;#146; are not synonymous with ‘hors-d’oeuvres’-- they are a subset of them. To be a true canap鬠you (not you personally, Let’s) need to be a piece of bread with a savory food atop it. Needless to say, there are many hors-d'oeuvres which do not fit this definition. If La Kidman was attempting to foist off, say, sliced celery sticks filled with the delicious cheese-and-onion blend you can find in my pamphlet "32 Incredible Fillings for Celery Sticks" (available online-- just click the ‘Click Here To Order’ link on my website) as a canap魭 and yes, this is PRECISELY what the rumor mill says she did, please remember you read it here FIRST-- she was clearly in the wrong, and it is hard not to sympathize with Mr. C’s otherwise inexplicable rush to file divorce papers.

    * * *


    Is a can of nuts an hors-d’oeurve?





    No, it is not. But nuts may be used as a garnish or an ingredient in hors-d’oeurves. I have been at many a party where a bowl (NOT a can) of nuts has been placed on the table alongside the true hors-d’oeuvres. There is no real objection to this, but proximity to hors-d’oeurves does not make something an hors-d’ oeurve. If it did, I would have become one long long ago!

    * * *



    Help! I’m throwing a party, the guests are due to arrive any minute, and I have no hors-d’oeuvres on hand! Not only that, but I have no ingredients either! And I-- Yaaah! The doorbell! The first guests are here! Help! Help!




    First of all, calm down. Second of all, relax. Just let those first guests wait for a bit-- people who show up early for parties are generally real losers anyway-- and let’s focus. You say you have no ingredients? I bet you’re WRONG. First, we need something edible to serve as a SHELL. Check your kitchen cabinets and see if you have any corn flakes. Or any flake-like cereal. If so, we are in business. Spread several hundred flakes out on a plate. Now go into your bathroom and locate the toothpaste, preferably one with multiple colors. Squeeze tiny dollops of this onto each flake. Violᡍ Instant canap鳡 Now permit your annoying early arrivals entrance, and watch their eyes widen in admiration as you offer them a plate containing not the usual dozens of hors-d’oeurves, but hundreds!

    * * *


    Is it totally d飬ass頴o employ that cheese which you squirt from cans on your hors-d’oeurves?




    This may come as a surprise, but my feeling is that aerosol cheese is not only acceptable but preferable to other cheeses. Yes, it is technically ‘cheese product’ rather than ‘cheese QUA cheese,’ but the more steps that come between any form of cheese that I ingest and the original container, which is not infrequently a goat, the better I like it.

    The Floating Ladies Room

    I worked as an usher at the Park Theater in Caldwell NJ for close to two years. My friend Chuck was the manager at that time and worked there for at least three years. Before either of us worked there, we were frequent patrons. I’d guess I spent close to 2000 hours there, and Chuck considerably more. We both knew every inch of the place intimately. There were some parts I knew a lot more intimately, since I mopped them out. I can close my eyes and mentally walk through the Park Theater and there are no fuzzy parts where I’m not quite sure what was in this corner or that; I can see the facets on the fake Tiffany lamp on the little table next to the chair at the entrance to the inner lobby, and the duct tape repairing the padded seat in the phone booth outside the manager’s office. Everything I see is crystal clear, and, I’m utterly certain, accurate. Chuck says he can do the same thing, and I believe him.

    But one of us is wrong.

    Chuck and I disagree about just where the Ladies Room was located. I maintain that the Ladies Room and the Men’s room were both on the left-hand side as you entered the auditorium; first the Men’s room, and then a few steps down the (much larger) Ladies Room, with a common wall between them. Chuck agrees about the location of the Men’s Room, but he insists that the Ladies Room was across the auditorium, on the right hand side. "I can see it," he says.

    There’s no simple way to decide this. We can’t drive over to Caldwell and take a look, because the Park burned down on July 14th 1974. There’s a little bank on the site, and a large parking lot.

    I’m fairly sure I’m right about the Ladies’ Room, for a bunch of reasons I’ll go into shortly. But I’m not quite 100% sure, and that worries me a little. At some point in the past 27 years, Chuck’s memory or my memory has been corrupted. And it’s not impossible that they’ve both been corrupted.

    Chuck put in more total hours at the Park over a longer period of time, but I actually cleaned out the Men’s and Ladies Rooms on a regular basis and I can call up very clear memories of dragging the mop and bucket from the men’s room, turning left, and dragging them directly into the Ladies Room. I have not even the fuzziest recollection of ever bringing the cleaning stuff out and crossing the carpeted vestibule of the auditorium with it. That’s what I think of as my ‘inductive’ reasoning. On the deductive side, it just makes infinitely more sense to put all your plumbing in one place; why would anyone go to the expense and trouble of running the pipes all the way across the building? Chuck counters this with two arguments: first, that if the bathrooms had been set up as I maintain, all the traffic would have been on the left side of the auditorium. (My response to this: (1) all the traffic was on the left side of the auditorium and (2) so what?) He also reminds me that there was a small cafe located on the right side of the building and the Ladies Room could have shared pipes with that. In my memory the cafe didn’t extend back far enough to make this much of an option, but it’s a possibility, and the main reason that I have any doubt at all about my version of the past.

    But even assuming I’m right about the Park Theater Ladies Room, it still worries me. Chuck and I can both SEE the place, and what at least one of us is seeing is wrong. I can understand forgetting; I don’t like it, but it makes some degree of sense that if you don’t think about something for 25 years it slips away from you. But why should a dim true memory be replaced by a vivid false memory? Why is Chuck’s (or my) brain trying to put one over on him (me)?

    Somewhere Jorge Luis Borges argues that we should be sparing in the use of our memories-- that when we remember an event, we are really remembering the memory of the last time we remembered it; that eventually we are left with the memory of a memory of a memory of a memory. He uses the metaphor of a stack of coins, with the original on the bottom and each successive coin displaying the increasing faint imprint of the coin below.

    I don’t know how true this is-- Borges was a poet, not a neurologist-- but it feels right. Just as the tenth generation copy of video tape has altered color values and all sorts of static and white noise that weren’t in the original, perhaps an endlessly recalled memory contains any number of subtle distortions.

    If you call tossing the Ladies Room across the auditorium subtle.

    And how often does this happen? I’m pretty sure I’m right about the Ladies Room, but I’m also pretty sure that I must be wrong about something else. How often does this so-called brain of mine go thumbing through my memory files and decide, "Gee, this couch would have looked much better in THAT apartment... so we’ll just put it there. And while we’re at it... it wouldn’t hurt anybody if His Nibs remembered that date with Judy (5/26/73) as having gone a LOT better than it did... Of course to make room for that... we’ll just delete this memory from ten minutes ago about where he put his car keys..."

    I mean really, if your brain is going to do stuff like this, who needs one?


    This discussion was taking place in a diner after midnight, as probably 80% of all really good discussions do. The Most Important Event in History was the nominal subject of the discussion. It didn’t start out that way. Initially it was more along the lines of "What Event in the History of the World Would You Most Liked to Have Witnessed." I steered it away from this since a lot of the events the other participants wanted to have witnessed involved Anna Nicole Smith (during her pre-Lane Bryant period) and hence were unsuitable for this column.

    I may as well drop the other shoe at this point and admit that I myself had initiated this entire discussion with the sole idea of getting a column out of it. About 6 months ago I was able to cobble together a fairly respectable one merely by recounting the high points of a spontaneous late night diner discussion. I figured that if it worked once, maybe it would work twice. To this end I assembled what, on the old Joe Franklin Show, used to be called a stellar panel, consisting of (besides Your Undersigned) two guys wearing hats and two guys not wearing hats, in order to get a broad range of opinion.

    At this point (approximately 3 hours into the discussion), said one of the panelists (no hat), I believe the most important event in history would be the waitress coming over here and refilling my coffee cup, and I am willing to go on the record with that belief.

    A couple of the others agreed with this, and there the matter might have rested (even though it would have resulted in The Shortest Column in History) if the waitress had in fact wandered by and refilled the coffee cups, but she didn’t.

    Gentlemen, I said (everyone looked around to see who I was talking to), gentlemen, let’s limit ourselves to non-diner related Most Important Events in History.

    I was then asked if I were familiar with Chaos Theory in general and The Butterfly Effect in particular. I said that I was, but the questioner (hat) felt it necessary to give a brief talk on the subject anyway, for the benefit of one of our fellow panel members (no hat), who had perked up at the phrase ‘butterfly effect’ and had begun making coarse remarks in a very bad French-- pronounced ‘fraunch’-- accent.

    The Butterfly Effect [this is hat # 2 talking] takes its name from the idea that tiny events have enormous consequences-- a butterfly flapping its wing in China on Wednesday results, in combination with myriad other tiny atmospheric events, in a tornado in South America on the following Thursday. For want of a nail the shoe was lost, and so on, resulting in the loss of the kingdom. Hence there are NO non-diner-related events Most Important Events in History. Just as our (to all appearances) inconsequential discussion tonight will change in some unfathomable way the course of history, this discussion itself could not have happened without the Battle of Marathon turning out precisely the way it did. For instance.

    If the above explication had served to get no hat # 2 to stop wiggling his eyebrows and saying "Ooh la la!" it would have been worth every syllable, but it did not have this effect. In point of fact, the very next words he uttered were "Weh-tress-- these coop af co-FEE ease need to be feeled OOP."

    It seems to me, said another panelist (no hat, no Fraunch accent) that this butterfly thing, when you come down to it, means everything that ever happens is equally important. I don’t buy that.

    Not at all, said hat # 2. The tornado in South America is a more important event than the butterfly flapping its wings. Nobody will argue-- certainly I won't-- that a tornado that kills hundreds of people and leaves thousands homeless is not a more important event than a butterfly flapping its wing. The fact that the latter leads inevitably to the former notwithstanding, it is in itself a trivial event.

    I was now thinking that, should I assemble another of these panels in the future, I would probably not have as many guys wearing hats.

    Well, I said. To sum up: do we have some sort of consensus about the Most Important Event in History?

    In fact we did not. In order of appearance, the 7 most important events were: (1) The sinking of Atlantis. (2) Anna Nicole Smith Wet & Wild Volume 2. (3) Battle of Getty [I think no hat # 1 meant "Gettysburg," but I’m not sure]. (4) UFO attack [I pressed for more details, but couldn’t get any. Sorry.] (5) Feeling Oop Mah Coop af Co-FEE. (6) The thing about the Giant Butterfly. (7) The Electric Light. There was an eighth Most Important Event but that part of the napkin got damp. It might say "Lindbergh," it might be "Limburger," it might even be "Lime Jell-O," in which case it probably refers back to Wet & Wild Volume 2.

    Now, some of these things are not precisely events, and some of the ones that are events can not be said to be strictly historical, since they never happened. But on the other hand, the list does show that there was a considerable range of background and opinion among the panelists, which was one of the things I was hoping for. On the very very slight chance that I will again assemble a stellar panel for the purposes of getting one of those "Columns That Write Themselves" (which, incidentally, usually take about three times as long to do as the ones that I write), I took note of some valuable lessons. (1) Keep the topic specific. (2) Limit discussion of Chaos Theory to the car ride over (3) Foreign accents should be limited to people who actually speak with one. Or, failing that, the rule should be that either everyone at the table speaks with a cheesy French accent or nobody does.

    Anyone with ideas for future topics, or anyone interested in taking part in these discussions, should write to me c/o this paper. I will scrupulously ignore all such correspondence. Thank you.



    It was a little after 10 AM, and Calvano, Picarillo and I were sitting in a booth at Ducky’s Hot Texas Wiener Emporium on McBride Avenue, eating some Hot Texas Wieners for breakfast. A Hot Texas Wiener was a hot dog drenched in an extremely pungent special sauce, sort of like chili in terms of texture, but not taste. As far as I know it’s native to New Jersey; at least I’ve never encountered one elsewhere, and no Texan I’ve ever come across has heard of them.

    These were the first Texas wieners Ducky had prepared that day. "Usually I don’t have to break out the wiener sauce until 11, 11:30," he said to us. "Most folks tend to go for these as the second meal of the day-- they ain’t something your average Joe wants to eat on an empty stomach."

    "More sauce on the next batch, please, Ducky," said Picarillo.

    We figured to consume at least three wieners a piece before moving on (it was understood that we had to surrender the booth once the place started filling up for lunch). It was amazing to us that anyone would go to Ducky’s and order anything but the Texas Wieners, and yet there were five or six people at the counter and not a wiener among them; just coffee, scrambled eggs, bacon and eggs, and toast. The bagel had yet to penetrate this corner of New Jersey.

    Then a girl walked in and-- at 10:21 AM-- order a Hot Texas Wiener to go. We had been arguing about exactly what it was that Billy Jo had thrown off the Talahatchie Bridge in "Ode to Billy Jo" (Picarillo’s theory: a "big chocolate Easter bunny." Calvano and I had theories, too, but they probably made sense so I don’t remember them), but when the girl ordered the wiener our ears perked up and we fell silent. "It’s Jeannine," Calvano whispered.

    Jeannine was the girlfriend of Calvano’s older brother, Duff. She was kind of a spooky beatnik-type girl friend. She wore black sweaters and ironed her hair to make it straight. We had never associated her with Hot Texas Wieners; they seemed somehow incompatible with being a spooky beatnik-type girl friend. "It’s for somebody else," Calvano insisted. "Probably Duff wants one. Duff eats Hot Texas Wieners sometimes."

    Ducky ripped off a piece of butcher paper to wrap the wiener and Jeannine said, "No, wait-- you know what? I’ll eat it here. Thanks." Ducky put the pungent comestible in front of her and she finished it off in four bites, and then licked the sauce off her fingers. All three of us were in love with her before she even balled up the wax paper and tossed it into the trash receptacle.

    "Wow," said Picarillo, "She didn’t even wash it down with anything!"

    Had all this occurred a few weeks earlier or later, we probably wouldn’t have attempted to express our (pure and chaste, honest) (pretty much) love for Jeannine, but it was only 10 days before Valentine’s Day, and it seemed to us that we were therefore obligated to do something.

    "It’s gotta be anonymous," said Calvano. "So she doesn’t know it’s from us. Whatever it is."

    "And," said Picarillo, "It’s gotta be chocolate."

    "She won’t eat chocolate," said Calvano. "I heard her talking to Duff. She’s afraid it’ll give her zits."

    "B-but.. it’s GOTTA be chocolate," said Picarillo. "It’s just GOTTA."

    "How about a chocolate Easter egg?" I said. "Then she wouldn’t have to eat it. She and Duff could just throw it off a bridge." Calvano gave me an approving punch in the arm.

    "Ya GOTTA give her something she can eat," said Picarillo, pointedly ignoring me. "It’s for VALENTINE’S DAY." By this time we had abandoned our booth and were wandering aimlessly around Ducky’s parking lot, probably scaring away more customers than we would have by staying in the booth.

    I think it was nearly an hour before we realized that the one thing we knew for certain that Jeannine would eat was: a hot Texas wiener.

    Needless to say, it would have to come from Ducky’s (there were three other Hot Texas Wiener places along McBride Avenue, but while they were all excellent Ducky’s was the best). And obviously it would have to arrive in a special Valentine’s Day package of some sort. A Ducky’s take-out bag decorated (in crayon) with hearts just wouldn’t cut it.

    "And we’ll have to figure out a way to keep it warm," Calvano said. "a cold Texas Wiener isn’t much of a Valentine present."

    "Hey-- maybe you should check with Duff," said Picarillo. "What if HE’S giving her a Texas Wiener?"

    I think when Picarillo said this, Calvano and I had an intimation that a Texas Wiener was a really, well, stupid gift. "He wouldn’t do that," said Calvano. "Hey. On second thought, maybe we should..."

    "I’ll go get the wiener," said Picarillo. He headed towards Ducky’s entrance.

    "It’s TEN DAYS AWAY," said Calvano. "What are you going to do with it for ten days?"

    "I’m not gonna EAT it, if that’s what you’re thinking," said Picarillo.

    "Nobody’s going to eat a ten day old wiener," said Calvano. "It’s disgusting."

    Picarillo’s eyes widened. "Take it back! Or I’m gonna tell Ducky you said that!"

    We somehow managed to calm Picarillo down and convinced him to wait at least a few days before picking up the wiener.

    In the end, Calvano and I abandoned the plan to present Jeannine with a Valentine Wiener. Picarillo was made of sterner stuff. He took a wire coat hanger, cut off the twisty part, and impaled several (raw) hot dogs length-wise on the wire. Then he tried to bend this into a heart. Jeannine’s baffled father discovered this amazing meat valentine--actually a meat trapezoid-- on Valentine’s Day morning, hanging from his front door knob.

    "He just took it off and dropped it in the garbage can like it was... like, garbage!" Picarillo, who had been watching from the bushes, reported later.

    "He was probably confused because there was no Hot Texas Wiener sauce on it," said Calvano.

    Picarillo blinked. "Of course there was. I bought a little tub of it from Ducky and brushed it on all the hot dogs. Geez, you guys, if it didn’t have any sauce on it, it wouldn’t make SENSE."



    I had high hopes for a long time, but I’ve packed it in. I think it’s now official. It’s too late to save the ‘F’ word.

    I gave up years ago in my quest to keep "hopefully" an adverb (as in ‘"I think maybe I possibly got a C+ in Math," he said hopefully...’). If 99% of the English speaking world has come to the conclusion that "hopefully" means "I hope so," (as in "Think you’ll win the Super Bowl, Coach Fassell?" "Hopefully."), then that’s what it means. That’s how language changes. "Fullsome" means "disgusting" but it sounds like it ought to mean "big" or "filling" and now it’s used that way all the time even in restaurant reviews. ("A fullsome dessert. 5 stars")

    For now, using "hopefully" as an adverb is still permissible and I guess you could use the word in both senses in one sentence-- " ‘Hopefully,’ Coach Fassell said hopefully." (LATE BREAKING EDITORIAL CHANGE: better make that " ‘Hopefully,’ Coach Fassell said hopelessly.") Perhaps in time the adverbial use will be totally overwhelmed, like the signal of tiny WBLP swamped by the 500,000-watt transmitter of a distant station on the same frequency.

    The F-word, like the adverb ‘hopefully,’ has been in danger for a long time. Even as recently as the late sixties, it was relatively rare that you heard it in public, and even rarer that you heard it in mixed company. In general, if someone blurted it out, there was a fast apology. If you said it to the wrong person-- even in front of the wrong person-- you could get punched out. It was a word that had power. If a writer wanted to tap into that power, he took a good chance of getting his book banned, assuming he got it published at all. And the books that were banned acquired a reputation for scandalous excitement that persisted for decades; long after the barriers had come down following a series of court decisions, my mother insisted on putting a vinyl book cover on her paperback of Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1929, ban lifted 1962) even though the best seller lists were crammed with books far more explicit in both language and incident.

    The F-word had power, and I remember the frission that went through the movie audience I was a part of in 1969 when Bruce Davidson uttered it in the film Last Summer. The audience literally gasped. And when the word was uttered again, nearly an hour later, it gasped a second time. Believe it or not, in 1969 those two gasp-inducing syllables were enough to earn Last Summer an X rating. You can look it up.

    But with constant use, the power started to dribble out of the word. When Last Summer was re-released a few years later to capitalize on co-star Richard Thomas’ Waltons fame, it had been downgraded to an R. What would it be now? PG-13? PG?

    There isn’t space-- fortunately-- to detail how The Word went from a shocking taboo to a mere vulgarity. And now it’s just... a space filler.

    Nothing has brought this home to me as vividly as the now notorious Britney Spears "Rant in Rio." One minute and four seconds of Britney backstage in Rio, unaware her mike was on, and now available for download all over the net. Lots of faux-shocked headlines, most of them variations on "Oops! She Did It Again." When I first heard about it I thought it was going to be Britney screaming at a subordinate or something, but no. She’s a little anxious peering out at the audience, and she’s being rushed to go on stage before she’s 100% ready. The band is waiting for her, and she can’t understand-- me neither, frankly-- why they aren’t playing a vamp to keep the audience from getting restive. This is the whole text, though with The Word expurgated:

  • Don't tell me they're just letting the audience f---ing stand out there like that. Oh my God. Okay, let's hurry y'all, seriously. This is retarded. They told me they were gonna do a vamp. [Pause- maybe someone hands her a Gatorade or something] Thank you, baby.! Oh, nooo, what are they doing? Let me see... [Shrieking] Oh, my pants are too short! I grew! I thought they were gonna... I know... I'm not just gonna stand out there. I thought they were gonna f---ing vamp. OK, OK thanks. This is retarded.
  • A couple of notes: at some point in the past 20 years, The Word (in its gerund form) has become more flexible, and it can now be inserted anywhere in the sentence. For a long time it was an adjective (bleeping idiot), then an adverb (I’m bleeping tired of this), and now it just bleeping kind of bleeping lets you know there’s another word coming up. It’s basically being used here the way "like" is used in the recent Danny Shannahan New Yorker cartoon: "Like, I can’t, like, figure out, like, how my, like, wife, like figured out I was, like, having an affair with, like, the baby sitter." At this point it’s safe to say that The Word is almost totally powerless. Still vulgar, mind you, but that’s it. Britney got more grief for saying "retarded." For that matter, she got more grief (in the Brazilian press, anyway) for not wearing a more revealing bathing suit at the beach. (So the pants probably weren’t really too short).

    I like the "y’all," though. But now that Britney’s bleeping bought an apartment in Manhattan, she’ll have to bleeping work on that. Up north here, the proper plural for "you" is "youse."


    Over night, nearly a foot and a half of snow accumulated in front of the Custom Neon Sign Shop. The rest of the tri-state area accumulated plenty of snow as well, but only the sidewalk directly in front of the shop concerned me. Or so I thought at first.

    "Listen," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, when I showed up with the snow shovel. "I tole everybody on the block we’d shovel the whole thing. " He watched with interest as I hurled the snow shovel through the air. It landed with a satisfying "TH-WHACK!" in a pile of snow across the street. "Nicely done! Hey. Where you goin’? No, no, no! Listen. The man who controls the path of the snow shovel controls the way that people gotta walk and what stores they can go in and which ones they can’t. You get what I’m saying? We handle this right, and nobody goes down Mulberry Street unless they go right past our door, which is gonna have a sign on it like so--" He took a crumpled scrap of memo paper from his back pocket inscribed with the words

    "Free Hot Chocolate / Coffee.

    Compliments of Custom Neon Sign Shop.

    Stop on in for free hot coffee

    And buy a Sign."

    "Now here’s the deal. You gotta dig a tiny little path, see? Everywhere except right in front a the Neon Sign Shop, it’s practically out to the curb, get me? So anybody wants to go into the drug store, they gotta get off the path and slog through snow. But in fronta US, it’s clean as a whistle. Now. Across the street, not only is the path out to the curb..." He handed me a paper bag. "Here. Crescent rolls. Throw these all over the sidewalk across the street. Looks like a Great Dane went to town, you get me?"

    "No. Well, maybe it’ll look like a Great Dane dropped a bag of crescent rolls--"

    "Yeah yeah. Make some breaks inna snow by the curb over there so people can cross the street. And the only place over here with a clear curb-- is US."

    While I was excavating, Mulberry Street Joey Clams lettered the "Free Coffee" sign. His spelling and penmanship being dubious at best, this was generally the sort of job I handled, but today Mulberry Street Joey Clams said he would do me a favor and take care of it.

    When I was finished, we sat in the shop and waited for potential customers to begin streaming in, lured by that hot chocolate and coffee. Which was where? I asked Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He jerked his thumb in the direction of a file cabinet, where a Styrofoam cup sat in solitary splendor.

    "Mulberry Street Joey Clams, isn’t that YOUR cup of coffee from yesterday morning?"

    "It’s still warm," he said. "I had it by the radiator for a while. Anyway, once they get inside, we’ll dazzle ‘em with NEON. Nobody’s gonna care about hot coffee."

    This interesting theory was never tested, since no one stopped in that day. Possibly the crescent rolls across the street scared them off. But even when we closed up that afternoon, Mulberry Street Joey Clams was confident and optimistic. "Tomorrow is gonna be the biggest day in Neon Sign Shop History."

    Come the dawn, and the sidewalk in front of the Neon Sign Shop had turned into a two-inch thick sheet of ice.

    "This is bad, this is bad," muttered Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "We gotta put something on this ice. Though for the moment, so we don’t get sued..." He darted inside and grabbed the YOU BREAK IT, YOU BUY IT sign, and placed it more or less at waist level on the door, where anyone who had just taken a header on our ice would easily see it. "This should cover us from the legal standpoint."

    "It should?"

    "Yeah. It’s letting everybody know that if you fall down and break something, it’s YOUR look out. I’m no lawyer, but if this don’t stand up in court, something is very, very wrong with our legal system."


    "No ‘uhs,’ thank you very much," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

    "Shouldn’t we throw some salt down, to melt the ice? Don’t we have any?"

    "Well, we got some..." he drifted back inside and emerged with a 4 day-old McDonalds bag, which he rooted through. "Yeah, here we go. But we’d need like a million of these little packs just to clear the front door. We need something with CRUNCHNESS."


    "You know, when you repeat everything I say, it’s really annoying. When I say something, you should say something ELSE. Otherwise the conversation gets boring real fast, because I know what you’re gonna say before you say it."

    "There’s no such word as ‘crunchness.’ Yon mean ‘crunchiness.’"

    "Ooh, Crunch EE ness! Oui, oui, monsieur! Ooh la la! We must have le crunch EE ness!" While declaiming this extraordinary sentence, Mulberry Street Joey Clams had extended his pinkies daintily and was sort of mincing around, as best he could given the ice we were standing on. "Anyway, I got an idea. What’d we do with Order # 0539?"

    "It’s in the bathroom, under the sink."

    Moments later Mulberry Street Joey Clams emerged from the shop with Order #0539-- the "Happy Birthday Viny" sign which Vinnie had refused to pay for. (This sign was the reason why I generally handled all activities connected with spelling now). "I hate to do this," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "because, who knows, someday a Viny might want a sign and we’d be all set. Anyhow..." He smashed the sign on the ice. "Now walk back and forth over it. Gotta get some CRUNCHNESS here, so as people don’t break their necks."

    We’d been walking back and forth over the fragment of the sign for about three minutes when the beat cop showed up.

    "Hey! Hey! This is insane! What are you doing? This is broken glass! Stop this."

    "Listen," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "YOU wanna take responsibility for little kids fallin’ down on the ice and breaking their leg? The fact is, there’s NOTHIN’ better on ice than broken glass."

    "That’s just nuts," said the cop.

    "I’m saying if it’s BUSTED UP enough. Not big hunks of it. But if you bust it up enough, every little piece of Happy Birthday Viny works like a tiny MAGNIFYING GLASS, and melts the ice. FACT."

    "I dunno," said the cop. "I never heard of anything like this... but..."

    "You want more accidents like yesterday, when that old lady across the street tripped over a crescent roll and broke her hip?"

    "Well..." the cop nudged a pile of nearly powdered glass with the toe of his shoe. "I gotta admit, it does have crunchness..."

    And that’s the story of how the sad little ‘Happy Birthday Viny’ sign was changed into a JILLION MAGICAL MAGNIFYING GLASSES and saved the old ladies and little children of Mulberry Street from slipping on the ice with its wonderful crunchness.

    Take me back to the CRYSTAL DRUM PAGE

    Or maybe to a whole bunch of OLDER COLUMNS