TOP SECRET NOTEBOOK
Calvano had a TOP SECRET notebook, like a kid in a comic book. It was one of those composition notebooks with a marbleized cardboard cover. He had slapped a couple of pieces of white surgical tape across the front and printed "TOP SECRET" "KEEP OUT-- THIS MEANS YOU!!" and other such nonsense on them in indelible black Magic Marker. Most kids who keep Top Secret notebooks are content to stop at that point, but Calvano actually wrote in his. Sometimes he would park himself on the steps of his house for a couple of hours and write down all the suspicious activity that occurred-- "10:13 AM-- car with NY plates drives down Lincoln Ave. Driver wearing HAT. 10:17 AM-- kid I NEVER SAW BEFORE walks across intersection of Prospect and Lincoln bouncing a basketball... or perhaps just PRETENDING TO." I know what he wrote because, like all kids who keep Top Secret notebooks, he would read it aloud to his friends at the slightest provocation, although he first went through the ritual of trying to swear us to secrecy. Early on we discovered that if we refused to take the secrecy oath he would read it to us anyway, although he would fidget uncomfortably and insist, "I could get inna lotta trouble for this," so we usually took the oath. Its amazing that he didnt end up writing letters to the editor explaining that he wears a colander on his head because the CIA is trying to control his brain with rays from their secret satellites. Well, I shouldnt say that. For all I know he did. Maybe hes watching one of those 2002 in Review shows even as we speak and crying out, "Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton BROKE UP?? Who could have ever imagined it happening! They seemed so much in love! Eee-yow, DEADLY THOUGHT RAYS are attacking my brain!! What did I do with my COLANDER??"
The Top Secret notebook contained not only Calvanos observations on the passing scene but sports scores, titles of monster movies he wanted to see, ideas for inventions ("2/19/66: a swivel-type chair that when you spin around it shoots oil out of this spout and your enemies slip and fall down, allowing you to make your escape. NOTE: perhaps an EXTRA CAN of oil could be stored on your BELT"), news stories that caught his fancy (generally Bigfoot sightings and cattle mutilations. He cut out stories about bus plunges (as in "Bus Plunge Off Idaho Cliff Kills 27") and pasted them in a separate scrapbook known as the "Bus Plunge Book."), and raw facts gleaned from various sources ("7/21/65: FACTS: (1) GUS GRISSOMS real name is VIRGIL I. GRISSOM (2) Butterfly taste buds are in their FEET (2) GREEN Milkbone Dog biscuits taste the best, ORANGE the worst. NOTE: Find out what the "I" in Virgil I. Grissom stands for"). But the random events occurring in front of his house took up the bulk of the book, and were his primary interest. He was looking for patterns and connections among these [seemingly!] random events. One year, shortly after Christmas, he began recording exactly when the various families on his block threw out the Christmas tree. The Moss family couldnt wait to dump theirs-- on the morning of December 27th, it was out on the curb. By the first week of January most of the trees had been discarded. The Passerettis hung onto their tree so long that Calvano began to suspect he had missed the de-treeing, but on January 22nd, it finally appeared.
Calvano being Calvano, he tried to frame a theory about the long tenure of the Passeretti Christmas tree. He employed a sort of reverse Occams Razor: the simplest or most obvious explanations-- in this case, inertia or an excess of holiday spirit-- were summarily rejected. Clearly, there were darker forces at work... perhaps some dark conspiracy involving cattle mutilations, or Bigfoot...
Calvano could not quite get his theory to gel. But, as so often happens when we spent all our waking hours trying to figure out the connections between the Passerettis Christmas tree and Yeti sightings, Calvano awoke with the answer.
Well, not the answer, but at least a semi-related idea. "All these people are throwing out their Christmas trees after Christmas, right? Well, what if next year WE got to the trees before the garbage truck got there, and we stashed them away till NEXT YEAR?? Then when the NEXT Christmas comes, we could get the trees and SELL THEM BACK TO THE SAME PEOPLE."
"If they wanted the same tree, theyd keep them in the first place," I said.
"Plus," said Picarillo, "arent the trees dead?"
"Yeah, but they were dead when they bought them the FIRST time," Calvano pointed out. "You cut down a tree, its dead. Trees, like icebergs, are mostly below the surface. Thats why we kept hitting all those roots when we were trying to dig the secret tunnel in Dr. Fergussens back yard."
"Boy, is HE a jerk," said Picarillo. "We had to pologize, AND they STILL MADE us fill in the hole! It shoulda been one or the other."
"Nobodys arguing with you, Picarillo," said Calvano. "He pays through the NOSE for his used tree. Anyway, the point is, a dead tree is a dead tree. Its not going to be any deader next year. People just buy a new one every year for the same reason you have to make your bed every morning even though youre going to sleep in it again that very night: because EVERYBODY DOES IT."
"If that isnt the most totally insane thing ever," I said, shaking my head.
"We can store the trees in the woods. During the winter the cold air will keep them even better preserved then normal, while in the wet months, rain will rejuvenate the parts requiring water."
"What about when its hot and sunny?" asked Picarillo.
"Those months will serve to DRY OUT the trees, so they dont get too wet." Calvano ostentatiously opened his Top Secret Notebook and made the notation, "NOTE: December 26th, 1967: We begin OPERATION--" He paused. "We need a name for project."
"Operation Christmas Tree!" cried Picarillo.
"Dont be an idiot," said Calvano. "If the TOP SECRET NOTEBOOK falls into the wrong hands, Operation Christmas Tree would give away the whole plan. It should be something THEY cant figure out."
Eventually we decided upon "Operation Rat Patrol," in honor of our favorite TV show, which had just been canceled. Calvano shut the notebook and we promptly forgot about Operation Rat Patrol. People bought new trees the following Christmas season, and continued making their beds every single day. Angolina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton were born, got tattoed, fell in love, got married and re-tattooed, got unmarried but stayed tattooed. Isnt that how it always is? And the top Secret notebook is probably still out there somewhere. We can only hope it hasnt fallen into the wrong hands.
The Greatest Christmas Song of All Time
From time to time I have had the pleasure of assembling a group of wide-ranging raconteurs to discuss and debate various topics for the edification of my readers. These symposiums take place at diners along the less traveled roads of New Jersey. The word symposium comes from the Greek [as do 90% of all good diners],"Simps," plus "Poseurs," plus "ums," (as in "I, um, believe that, um, Shemp is the, um, most underrated of the, um, Three Stooges..."). I have not conducted one of these for quite a while, and technically did not conduct the one with which I am about to edify you; I was asked to participate in one sponsored by someone else. Although sponsored might make you think that the someone else was paying for my pie, which I am sorry to report is not the case.
Our stellar panel, as they used to say on the Joe Franklin Show, was to address the issue of The Greatest Car Ever Made in America. Not to keep you in suspense any longer than necessary, the answer is: the 1955 Chevy Belair. The other stellar panel members did not agree with this, but after 20 minutes or so the gentleman who gathered us together felt he had enough material to write HIS column anyway and shut off the tape recorder. Here followed 40 minutes or so of non-symposium stuff such as eating french fries and drinking coffee and saying hey when did juke boxes stop taking quarters. Then I suggested a second symposium so that I could get enough material for MY column, on a festive holiday topic of some sort. No one else wanted to do this but I did not take no for an answer. My topic was "The Greatest Christmas Song Of All Time." My other panel members were a guy with a hat, a guy without a hat, a guy with one of those things growing on his cheek with a hair sticking out of it, another guy with a hat, and the first guy with a hats girl friend, who did not contribute to the initial symposium but felt capable of holding her own on the subject of Christmas music.
The second guy with the hat suggested that the symposium was going to stink because they had not prepared anything in advance. The guy without the hat agreed and then said that his favorite Christmas song was Home for the Holidays by Perry Como. I noted this down, also noting that the second guy with the hat was sticking his finger down his throat and pretending to vomit. The guy with the thing on his cheek said The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole was, de facto, THE Christmas Song, although the first guy with the hat, heretofore silent, said the Chipmunk Christmas Song, the one that starts "Christmas Christmas Time is here / Time for [something] and time for cheer," is also called simply The Christmas Song. That is because you can not copyright a title, explained the guy with the thing on his cheek. The guy without the hat said well then he was going to write a song and call it Stairway to Heaven and probably get a ton of airplay before anybody figured out it wasnt the REAL Stairway to Heaven. You, said guy with the thing on his cheek, addressing the guy without the hat, are a moron. But that is okay since it is probably good to get the moron perspective on Christmas music. The girl friend of the first guy with the hat said she liked Sleigh Ride but didnt know who did it, and sang a little bit of the tune so we would know what song she was talking about. Yeah, thats a great song, said the second guy with the hat, and the FIRST guy with the hat said Dude, you dont even KNOW that song, youre just hitting on my girl friend. I cant believe you are hitting on my girl friend when Im sitting right here. The guy with the thing on his cheek said, Dude? Did you call him Dude? Hey, pal, youre wearing a hat because youve got a bald spot. Once you get a bald spot youre too old to call anybody Dude.
Hey, PAL, said the first guy with the hat, Im wearing a hat because its WINTER. He pulled off his hat to show us there was no bald spot, only there was. You know what other song I really like? asked the guy without the hat. Sunday Kind of Love by the Harptones. The relevance to the holiday season escapes me, said the second guy with the hat. Well, whats the holiday revelenece of Stairway to Heaven? said the guy without the hat. In the first place, said the second guy with the hat, revelence is not a word, and in the second place, YOU are the only person who mentioned Stairway to Heaven. The girlfriend of the first guy with the hat said When I was in high school, you k now what record I really liked? Cool It Down by First Edition.
GREAT song, said the second guy with the hat, but the first guy with the hat did not rise to the bait. At this point I called for a vote and we all wrote down our Top Three Christmas Songs of All Time, giving three points to # 1, two to # 2, and 1 to # 3. The results were:
(tie) Santa Claus is Coming to Town (3 points)
(tie) White Christmas (3 points)
(tie) Blue Christmas (3 points)
(tie) Theme from "Mannix" (3 points)
My favorite Christmas song is the instrumental Linus and Lucy from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Ive had the CD playing in my car for the past two weeks and everybody who gets into my car says "Is that A Charlie Brown Christmas?" and I say "Yes it is," and then they say "Could you turn it off please?" so my Yes it ises have been getting less enthusiastic each time and I ended up voting for White Christmas. Anyway, to recap: Best Christmas song: The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole. Best car: 55 Chevy Belair. The Chipmunk Christmas song is not called The Christmas Song, its called The Chipmunk Song. I dont know why.
WHITE PANTS: TRIUMPH & TRAGEDY
Many years ago I wrote a column about white pants-- or rather, about how we are supposed to wear white pants only between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Although I framed the piece as an Expert Guy column and the ostensible author was quite adamant about insisting that white pants should not be worn at other times of the year, many of my readers thought they detected ironic undertones and deduced that I thought the whole concept was silly. Sometimes the deductions that many of my readers make about me are incorrect. For instance, a letter arrived this week-- anonymously, Im sorry to say-- which suggested that I do not write my columns at a computer terminal like other columnists, but wedge a crayon-- well, lets say under my arm pit, although he mentioned another location-- and then slide around on a sheet of paper until "enough gibberish is produced to fill up a page." This, it goes without saying, is absurd. I have to fill up TWO pages, for one thing. But my readers were right about me and white pants.
And Im delighted to say that, thanks to that column, now we can walk about at any time of the year in white pants and no one will so much as snort derisively. It certainly isnt the most important thing to have happened as a direct result of one of my columns. Im justifiably prouder of what happened after I published "Grimshaw to Soviet Union: Its Not Working So Why Dont You Just Forget the Whole Thing?" and "How Many Movies Does Halle Berry Have To Take Her Top Off In Before The Academy Does the Right Thing?" The changes I wrought through these columns-- and many others-- have altered all of our lives for the better.
Yet I must confess I was not entirely disinterested in the outcome of the White Pants All Year Round Or Not issue. The fact is, at the time I was writing (1996), I owned a pair of white pants, and thought they would look pretty spiffy EVEN IN OCTOBER OR OTHER NON-MEMORIAL DAY-THROUGH-LABOR DAY-MONTHS. When I was fighting the good fight to restore little tiny diced up toppings to Pizza Hut Deluxe pies instead of the big stupid CHUNKS of stuff they switched to several years ago, I was fighting on behalf of freedom-loving people everywhere. When I fought for white pants, I was fighting for ME. And I won.
And yet, as with all victories when there is still about 500 words to go, there was a price to pay. James Bond movies can no longer employ Soviet spies with moles on their faces as bad guys; High Society Magazine has to run the same five pictures of Halle Berry over and over. Theres always a hidden cost. Mankind conquers polo, but inevitably, wolves devour more children because they are outside running around. [EDITORS NOTE: Mr. Grimshaw probably means "polio," not "polo," but that doesnt make any sense either, so were just going to leave it alone]. In the same way, emancipated from the closet for an extra nine months each year, the white pants spend less time hanging safely next to the Nehru jacket that will EVENTUALLY come back into style, and more time being exposed to the green gloppy stuff that youre only supposed to use a little of mixed with soy sauce and then dip your sushi roll into, but if you use too much you have green flames shooting out your nose and setting your menu on fire. Fortunately, though, many sushi places do not even HAVE menus, just pictures on the wall.
And so, something or other drips onto the white pants. Sometimes it comes right off if you apply water quickly. Sometimes it does not, and there is a dreadful maroon blotch shaped like that thing on Gorbachovs head, along the inseam at the top of the inner thigh. Sometimes the blotch comes MOST of the way out, just leaving a faint yellowish blotch along the inseam at the top of the inner thigh, and this is even worse. We wont even go there. But the point is, I spilled something on my white pants, and it looked like that was the end of them. White pants do look spiffy, but nothing looks less spiffy than white pants with a map of the Aleutian Islands slapped across one leg.
I could have cobbled an entire column out of my attempts to remove that stain. And it would have certainly been a better column than this one. But I prevailed. I used bleach sticks, bleaches, detergents, macaroons, stain removers, and other cleaning agents. I made progress with each of them, except possibly the macaroons, which, apparently, are some sort of cookie. I got to the point where the stain was visible only in very strong light, and then only if you were looking for it. One more time through the washing machine with a bleach, I decided. So it was back to the laundromat.
STAIN REMOVERS TEXT BOOK TIP # 7: Make sure you check the washing machine very thoroughly before bleaching your white pants for the last time, because even ONE black t-shirt will complicate matters.
Id like to say Im sorry about the black t-shirt, which isnt precisely black any more, and on which the picture of Eminem is now a little indistinct. Eminem would have been proud of the owners three-and-a-half minute rapid-fire expression of dismay at the state of his t-shirt / educated guess about my IQ. Although I cant help feeling Eminem would have come up with some better rhymes. But then hes a pro.
So I have these white pants, and here and there they have what look like (but are not) random patches of zebra striping. At the moment, these pants are unwearable. However...
Beginning with next weeks column-- ASK THE WHITE PANTS WITH SOME RANDOM PATCHES OF ZEBRA STRIPING EXPERT GUY- I intend to do my part to change the way we look at white pants with random patches of zebra striping. And you, of course, must do your part, by being the we in the above sentence and deciding that Im right on the money when I tell you ("we") that those random zebra stripes are pretty darn attractive after all. If we ("I") can bring the Soviet Union to its knees, we can surely do this.
MID TERM INTERVIEW
One of my far-flung correspondents alerted me to this interesting holiday tradition from the great Northwest:
"Each year, the University of Idaho and Washington State University spray their landscaping trees with coyote urine and skunk scent. This way, if anyone hacks down a tree to turn into a Christmas tree, their house begins to reek."
I spent a few hours trying to follow this up. I wanted to know, first of all, does one university use coyote urine and the other skunk scent? Or does it depend upon the type of tree, the way I use one kind of bleach for my whites and one for my colored garments? Maybe they use an incredibly pungent mixture of both? I also wondered whether these institutes of higher learning publicized their arboreal additive (to prevent their trees from being stolen), or whether they kept it a secret (to stink up as many houses as possible). I went so far as to call the University of Idaho and asked to be put through to whomever was in charge of the coyote urine, but I kept getting disconnected. So until the University of Idaho gets its act together and shells out for a decent phone system, the answers will have to wait. In general when Im faced with situations like this (HUMOR COLUMNIST TIP ALERT!!), I simply continue typing and hope something funny occurs to me before I hit the 1000 word mark. This time it wasnt necessary since my daughter was visiting for Thanksgiving and offered to be interviewed for the column. It would be nice to say she saw that I was having some trouble working up the column, but the fact is that she offers to be interviewed for the column every week.
ME: What do you want to be interviewed about?
EMMA: College life. You havent interviewed me at all since I went to college. Your readers probably want to know--
ME: How did you do on your midterms?
EMMA: Thats a really lame question. [Turns to her friend C-, who is also visiting for Thanksgiving] Isnt that really lame?
EMMA: Cuz college isnt about, like, test scores.
ME: What is college, like, about?
EMMA: Its about life. [Uproarious laughter]. Theres a guy on our floor-- he had a UNI-BROW. But I plucked it for him. We told him how nice he looked now, and how Indian women would like it. Because his mother only lets him date Indian women.
ME: Is he Indian?
ME: American Indian, or the other kind?
EMMA: Im not even going to answer that. Hey, my roommate Sylvia is from Canada. So when I knock on the door, I knock in the rhythm of "O Canada" so she knows its me. Like "Knock (pause) Knock knock-knock-knock (pause) Knock KNOCK knock knock-knock knock-knock."
ME: Why do you knock on your own door?
EMMA: C-, why dont YOU answer that one?
C-: Shes being polite. And otherwise she wouldnt be able to knock in the rhythm of O Canada.
ME: I see.
C-: I had a pink streak in my hair. I got really drunk and I asked one of the people down the hall to put a pink streak in my hair. They didnt want to do it because they thought I was too drunk. I also cleaned my room. I grabbed a swiffer-sweeper and started sweeping.
ME: A swiffer-sweeper?
C-: Uh-huh. I did a really good job.
EMMA: There are two Megans on my floor. One has blue hair and one is crazy.
ME: The one with blue hair is not crazy?
EMMA: Just a little retro. One Megan spells her name with an H, the other not.
ME: Wouldnt that be Hegan then?
EMMA: Geez, its no wonder they pay you the big bucks for your humor writing. Hey, Edward Norton jogs past my dorm every morning.
C-: Shut up!!
EMMA: True. Its the ONLY good thing about my dorm. Well, we have a Burger King, too. They know me by NAME because I eat there every single day.
ME: Ed Norton from "The Honeymooners?" Hey Ralphie Boy? Art Carney, you mean?
EMMA: Just STOP. The Olsen twins were visiting somebody one day too. They couldnt get into the building. Well, one had ID and could, but they wouldnt let the other one in. It was pretty funny. She was going, "Hel-LO! LOOK at us! Were TWINS!!" But they still wouldnt let her in.
ME: Is there anybody else of note among your classmates?
EMMA: The guy who does the Hey dude, its a DELL commercials. Hes a sophomore.
C-: Its kind of sad to think there are people reading this who are going, Wow, she goes to school with the DELL guy! Thats SO COOL!
ME: Do either of you take chemistry by any chance?
C-: I take physics. My physics professor is Russian and he talks about pirates. He went to the Pirates of the Caribbean thing at Disney World. I dont know if he went there because he was already interested in pirates or that got him interested in the first place.
EMMA: Either way its kind of sad.
C-: Yeah. Well, its kind of sweet if he grew up in Russia reading about pirates and when he grew up the Iron curtain fell and he taught physics in America, he finally got to see one.
EMMA: A bunch of them. Only they were ROBOTS. I wonder if he KNOWS?
C-: Hes a physics teacher, of COURSE he knows.
EMMA: Maybe he KNOWS but he wont ADMIT it to himself. THAT would be pretty pathetic. Hes like writing to his relatives back in the old country, "I hef seen at last mini pirates."
ME: Mini pirates?
EMMA: Its MANY in Russian accent. Roosian accent.
ME: Chemistry would be more helpful to me. I have a question about coyote urine.
EMMA: This interview is OVER.
ALL THE COLORS OF AUTUMN LEAVES
We didnt like to color. Not in school, anyway. In REAL LIFE, coloring was something elseyou had your own coloring books, which were full of robots and monsters and your coloring options were more or less unlimited. For one thing, in coloring BOOKS, the drawings were rendered with thick black lines that allowed you to slap colors on the page with the panache of a drunken abstract expressionist. You could press that crayon as hard as you wished, leaving a streak of green or red wax half as thick as it was wide. The coloring book paper was good PULP paper, kissing cousin to the paper our comic books were printed on.
On the other hand, in school we were given DITTO sheets to coverdrawings reproduced with faint purple lines on the same lousy paper we used for our arithmetic work, pathetic stuff that ripped if you applied too much pressure. If we were lucky, that is. If we were unlucky, we got typing paper, more expensive and bright white and virtually crayon repellent. And it goes without saying that the subject matterseasonal stuff, without a robot or a death ray in sightwas execrable. Even Halloween? Oh, ESPECIALLY Halloweenghosts, witches, and pumpkins. Greatwhite, black, orange.
As we shambled up the ladder of scholarship we were given fewer and fewer coloring assignments and by the fourth grade we were more or less crayon-free. This was, at least to those of us with artistic integrity, such as me, Calvano, and Picarillo, a relief. So it came as something of a shock to find ourselves in 6th grade with ditto sheets before us.
Mrs. Ruffalo was out with the flu, and our substitute had chosen to make life easy for herself by passing out Thanksgiving ditto sheets to color. Turkeys, cornucopias, pilgrims. We were all dumbfounded.
"Heres a tip," said the sub, whos name is now lost to history. "Do you see those ears of corn? Well, it would be much more festive if, instead of just coloring them YELLOW, you pretended they were ears of INDIAN corn. Who knows what colors the kernels of Indian corn are? Yes--" She looked down at her class chart. "Patty?"
"Red and brown and brownish red and orange and maroon and ALL THE COLORS OF AUTUMN LEAVES!" said Patty. Calvano stuck his index finger down his throat and pretended to vomit into his desk while the sub said, "EXACTLY right, Patty, and what an imaginative way to put it!"
Calvano began to color his ears of corn black, one kernel at a time. He was hoping the sub would ask him why he was coloring them black and he was planning to say that they waited a little too long to pick his corn and it had started to rot, "Like Pete Cooks teeth," but he didnt get the chance.
"What is THIS?" said the sub. She picked up Picarillos dittoed pilgrim. Picarillo had done a pretty fair job with the Pilgrims garb-- hed gone over the entire ensemble very lightly with the flat of his black crayon, so it was almost a delicate gray, and then added some purple highlights. It wasnt historically accurate, but as a fashion statement it was tops. That was not what the sub was objecting to, though-- it was the face of the pilgrim. Picarillo had colored the face a walnut brown, and fringed it with course brown hair. Coarse brown hair also poked out of the sleeves and covered the pilgrims hands. Picarillo had also REDRAWN the face, so that the nose now consisted of two large round nostrils. And he had changed the pilgrims closed mouth to an open one, in which an impressive set of fangs was visible.
"Explain this," said the sub.
"Well, its Thanksgiving," said Picarillo. There was a long pause.
"Thats right," said the sub. "Its Thanksgiving, not Halloween. So WHY DID YOU DRAW A WEREWOLF?"
"Its so... WRONG," cried Patty. Her lower lip was quivering. The idea that Picarillo would take a decent pilgrim and turn him into a werewolf had brought to the verge of tears. Tears of rage, perhaps.
"Its not a werewolf," said Calvano. "Its Thanksgiving. So its gotta be a GIANT APE. Im sure thats what Picarillo was about to say."
"A giant ape," said the sub.
"Yesm," said Calvano. "You see, on Thanksgiving, they always show Giant Ape movies. Its a tradition going back generations. They start out with "King Kong" at 10 AM, and then "Son of Kong," at noon, and thats a real short one, and then "Mighty Joe Young" at one oclock. An then they start all over again."
"Thats right," said Gary Rinfret, apparently astonished that Calvano was actually telling the truth.
"So you think this young man mistook this pilgrim for a giant ape," said the sub, "even though the pilgrim is wearing clothing."
"I think Mighty Joe Young wears clothes," said Calvano. "A diaper or something. Maybe even pants."
"No way!" cried Rinfret.
"Well, I dont usually watch "Mighty Joe Young." Its not really much of a Thanksgiving movie. Its got a giant ape, but he doesnt fight dinosaurs or anything."
"King Kong kills the tyrannosaurus by BREAKING Its JAW," said Rinfret.
"Rinfret is correct," said Calvano. "Q.E.D. He strangles a giant water snake. And he also beats a pterodactyl to death."
"Make them STOP," said Patty.
"He HAD to beat the pterodactyl to death, Patty. It was going to eat Fay Wray." Calvano turned to the sub. "Patty should probably celebrate Thanksgiving by watching just Mighty Joe Young. Its not as Thanksgivingy as "King Kong," but its better than nothing. At least its a large ape. I dont think we can really call him a GIANT ape. Hes not 60 feet high or anything. I think hes just ten feet or so."
"Why are all the kernels of corn in your cornucopia black?" demanded the sub.
"Are they?" said Calvano. "My goodness, youre right. I had intended to color them all the colors of autumn leaves, but PATTYS hogging all the good crayons."
Patty disputed this bitterly. Later in the playground we speculated that she probably wasnt going to watch any giant ape movies at all on Thanksgiving. Some people just cant get into the holiday spirit.
ROOTING FOR TRUFFLES
An interesting thing happened on Veterans Day, and you may have missed it. There was an international charity truffle auction. A whole bunch of truffles were auctioned off, and the MEGA truffle went for $35,000.
As I read the various newspaper and wire service accounts of this event, it slowly became evident to me that what I mean by the word truffle and what everybody else means by the word truffle are very different. I was always under the impression that it was either the cloth thing your grandmother drapes over the arms of her grotesquely overstuffed sofa, or else the thing you bang around in badminton. Apparently, it is not. Apparently a truffle is something EDIBLE.
So, in order to better understand what I was reading, I called up my cousin, who eats a lot, and asked him, and he said it was this kind of crappy chocolate thing. $35,000 seems like a lot to pay for a piece of crappy chocolate, but I did some leg work and visited the chocolate store at the mall, and indeed, it turns out that a truffle IS a sort of wavy piece of chocolate, and actually pretty good. Moreover, the whole box only cost me seven bucks (which in theory I can deduct from my taxes as a business expense, although the IRS has been operating under a different theory lately), so this prize truffle was obviously something special. It weighed in at 2.2 pounds, but while thats a pretty hefty amount of chocolate, my BOX was nearly a pound, so even if we assume the prize truffle was TEN TIMES as good as my truffles were, we should still be well under $100. I read the wire service stories a little more closely --in general when doing this kind of research I dont get much beyond the first couple of paragraphs, since the crazy lady next door is playing her record of "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" over and over again and it is VERY hard to concentrate-- and I came across the line:
"Joe Pytka, 64, purchased the rare, 2.2-pound mushroom during Sunday's fourth annual charity truffle auction."
This naturally got me to wondering, "WHAT 2.2 pound mushroom?" They were buying mushrooms as well as truffles? And theres a 2.2 pound specimen of EACH?
Well, at this point I may as well flip over all the card, as they used to say on "Whats My Line," and explain that truffle means not only the wavy chocolate thing, but also certain kinds of mushrooms, and this poor slob got suckered into buying the mushroom. However, believe it or not, we still havent gotten to the interesting part yet, so bear with me.
The following paragraph is verbatim as it appears in the Associated Press version of this story. I found something in here... rather odd. See if you can spot it.
"The rare mushroom caused a spirited bidding war between Pytka, Tony May, the owner of San Domenico restaurant in New York and a dog named Gunther IV, heir to a large German fortune, whose bids were made by owner Maurizio Dial."
I read that maybe 5 times and it didnt make any more sense the fifth time than it did the first. I dont have a problem with a dog being the heir to a large German fortune. If youve got a large German fortune and you dont want to leave it to me, Hell, go ahead and leave it to a dog. I would suggest, in fact, that this Gunther be made the DEFAULT heir to all large German fortunes. "Horst, you ungrateful child! If you dont pick up your room THIS INSTANT, we shall disinherit you and leave OUR ENTIRE LARGE GERMAN FORTUNE TO GUNTHER!" But I digress.
The part I found confusing was "...whose bids were made by owner Maurizio Dial." So I continued reading-- and by this point "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" was really blasting, so believe me, it wasnt easy-- and arrived at:
"May bid from his New York restaurant, where a boisterous crowd of 120 joined the action. Gunther was at the castle of Grinzane Cavour, just outside Alba, which is home to the enormous white truffle. About 350 people were gathered at the castle to participate in the bidding."
Im sorry to say this is the last reference to Gunther in the story, so I have no idea how Gunther told Maurizio when to bid and when to say, "Enough. Too much! Let this Joe Pytka person have the mushroom!" (or, since Gunther is a dog, to say "Eruff. Roo rush! Ret ris Roe Rytka rerson raf re rushroom!")
Other unanswered questions include, but are not limited to: (1) how come Gunthers owner has an Italian first name but apparently swiped his last name from a bar of soap? (2) what kind of a name is "Grinzane Cavour"? It sounds like something from one of these crummy new Star Wars movies. Yet, it probably is NOT. (3) What in Gods name is Michael Jackson thinking about with that nose? It looks like he got it done YET AGAIN. Where does he find plastic surgeons willing to do this to him? At least that third nostril has finally closed up, but geez. (4) Why does Gunther the dog WANT this big truffle? What was he planning to do with it? (5) why does ANYBODY want this big truffle? I realize were talking about a BIG big truffle, the Anna Nicole Smith of truffledom, but still, its just a big mushroom. Gunther is a dog, so maybe he thought it was the chocolate kind.
The real big unanswered question, though, is: how come all these news organizations totally buried the DOG angle of the story? Ho hum, ANOTHER story about a wealthy dog in a bidding war over a giant mushroom. Zzzzzz. I admit its not quite as interesting as "Giant Mushroom in Bidding War Over Wealthy Dog," but still. You would think. You would just think.
Sometimes we are in the mood for pasta but we have no pasta. Or we have pasta, but instead of GOOD pasta, which is shaped like little radiators, it turns out to be angel hair, which you hate but you bought it because, well, who knows. The fact is there are a lot of things in your cabinet and your refrigerator that make little cartoon question marks appear above your head when you notice them. Tuna fish helper? Well, I guess we thought that someday we might want to help a tuna fish. Commendable, really.
No idea who we thought we would be helping when we bought the cous-cous. Certainly not me. Maybe we were thinking it would come in handy should we want to make bean bags with a sort of Middle-Eastern motif. And it makes a pretty cool sound when you shake the box-- kind of like those rain sticks that they sell at the those places where they sell stuff like rain sticks. You shake it and it goes cheeez cheeez cheeez. Maybe we were thinking about starting a band. There are real advantages to having edible instruments. This is assuming that cous-cous is actually edible, which is something we can not swear to, and wont any time soon, since the expiration date on this box is Nov99. No, the only thing we can say for certain is we are not going to call ourselves we any longer. Its getting crowded in here. And in the refrigerator, too. This block of tofu, for instance. How did THAT happen? Was I dating Jenna Elfman? Probably not, but its the only explaination I can think of. Unless I needed to make something out of PlayDough and discovered that tofu is actually cheaper. Heaven knows it doesnt taste nearly as good. And heres a bag of salad-- not the kind made out of decent, light green iceberg lettuce, which has no taste at all if youve got enough brains to smother it with ranch dressing, but some DARK GREEN LEAVES which have a flavor so strong that your taste buds start screaming for mercy before you even open the bag. I must have been in a fugue state when I was in the produce aisle. What IS this stuff? It might as well have come off some kind of... PLANT, or something. And now its three weeks past Halloween and theres not a single tiny little candy bar left. (Well, there wasnt a single tiny little candy bar left after breakfast the day after Halloween, but thats neither here nor there). Okay, hang on, Im about to switch pronouns again.
So thats the current situation. You WANT one kind of food, and you cant have it. You have to either NOT EAT, or EAT SOMETHING ELSE. If you decide on Option One [NOT EAT], you may as well stop reading this and get right down to it, and best of luck to you. If you go with the Eat Something Else option, you will soon come to another fork in the road: eat something which is on hand but which you dont like, or MAKE SOMETHING YOU DO LIKE OUT OF OTHER STUFF. The objective is pasta. So we begin with the question: just what IS pasta? Lets make a list of what we know about it. (1) It is this STUFF. (2) Its not so good when its uncooked, unlike, for instance, cookie batter, which is actually BETTER before its cooked. (3) It comes in a variety of shapes, which implies that in the larval stage it was relatively soft and shapable. Looking around the apartment for something that fills all these criteria, we come up with: (1) wet newspapers and (2) left over slivers of soap in the soap dish. Could one of these things be the elusive UR-pasta from which pasta itself springs? Probably not. So we need to return to the cabinet, the one with the Nov99 cous-cous, and see if we can find something else.
Ah-- a LOAF of BREAD. Now, rumor has it that pasta is made from grain, as is bread. In theory, we could solve our basic dilemma (hunger) by eating some bread. But that would be stupid, because we could have done that half an hour ago. No, instead we will take a single slice of bread, and using the heel of our hand, we will FLATTEN it. Now we have a piece of bread, which is both flat and smooth-- and also PLIABLE. Yes, when we eat this, no matter what shape it finally takes, it will taste like a piece of bread (at least if we remembered to wash our hands before we flattened it) but it is darn well going to LOOK like pasta. Our favorite pasta happens to be the aforementioned radiator-shaped ones, but that might be a little beyond us at the moment, and there is nothing wrong with penne or shells In fact, we are feeling pretty ambitious, so we are going to go for BOW TIES.
Well. We should have remembered that tying a bow tie is a lot more difficult than it looks, which is why Denzel Washington wore a clip-on to the Oscars last year. But the good thing about this flattened bread is, its very forgiving. You can make a fold, realize its a screw up, unfold it, and after a few whacks, its as good as new. We take another shy at the bow tie, but the folds are a little too sharp and the angles are wrong. It looks kind of like a paper airplane. It looks A LOT like a paper airplane. But turns out its not aerodynamically sound. Uh, I mean, Im GUESSING its not aerodynamically sound. But thats okay. I have just invented FOOD ORAGAMI.
Inventing a new art form makes you pretty hungry, so Im going to go out and get something to eat. Meanwhile, I invite all my readers to flatten a piece of bread and see what they can come up with, food-origami-wise. Since theyre edible, not to mention perishable, it would be best to share your work with us via photographs, rather than bringing them to the newspaper office, but use your own judgment.
ASK THE CROSS TRAINING EXPERT GUY
DEAR CROSS TRAINING EXPERT GUY:
For most of my adult life I have been an avid cross-country skier. Of course this requires a lot of strength training, especially in the off-season. Now that I am in my early forties, I notice that I seem to be losing some flexibility. What sort of cross-training can you suggest to improve my flexibility without sacrificing the strength Ive worked so hard to achieve and maintain?
AVID CROSS COUNTRY SKIER
First of all, my congratulations on your healthy life style. Cross-country skiing (or "X-Country Skiing" as we in the biz like to say) is a great way to keep in shape. And you are right to be concerned about flexibility. As we grow older, we lose much of our natural suppleness. You dont mention exactly what sort of strength training you are doing so its difficult for me to be precise in my recommendations. Generally speaking, an excellent way to increase flexibility is to drink a lot of beer. This will undo much of the unfortunate stiffness in the abdominal muscles, which occurs when we overtrain them via crunches and sit-ups. You will be surprised sat how a mere two or three six packs a day will dis-harden the abs in just a week or so.
DEAR CROSS TRAINING EXPERT GUY:
Im something of a gym rat, and my absolute favorite move is the dumbbell curl on the incline bench. It goes without saying that I have biceps to die for, not just big but long. However, as Ive increased the weight of the dumbbell, Ive noticed that my delts are also getting something of a workout, and Im not interested in delts, just in biceps. What can I do to isolate the bicep during this move? I realize that in a sense that this is kind of the ultimate ANTI-cross training question, but if you cant answer it, who can?
SOMETHING OF A GYM RAT
Your answer is embedded in the question itself. You say "...as Ive increased the weight of the dumbbell..." Well, keep the weight of the dumbbell down tom something you can handle easily for 20 or so reps-- probably about 30 pounds, certainly no more than 50. You need to be able to complete the exercise without moving your upper arm at all, just the forearm. Otherwise you engage the deltoid, and this is exactly whats happening.
DEAR CROSS TRAINING EXPERT GUY:
I have been practicing the Martial Arts for several years, with especial emphasis on karate. It seems to me that this training gives me everything I want-- speed, agility, strength, plus the chiseled look that chicks cant get enough of. I move like a cat and I can punch a hole in a steel plate with my toe. So my question is basically rhetorical: What could cross training give me that Im not already getting?
Some sports require so much of the devotee that to have mastered them, you have already engaged in cross training whether you know it or not. If karate were a sport, it would be such a sport. Unfortunately, as you have acknowledged at the outset of your letter, it is not a sport but an ART. While the Cross-Training Expert Guy has the highest regard for all of the arts, lets face it, they are for wussy-boys. So just keep on with your sissy martial ARTS, and dont worry your pretty little head about cross training. Leave that to the GUYS, Karate Boy. Hey, before you punch a hole in that steel plate with your toe, do you paint the toenail? Woo woo! Ooh-la-la!
DEAR CROSS TRAINING EXPERT GUY:
Ive been a runner for a couple of decades and I love it. But theres no question I could use some more upper body strength. What sort of work out would you recommend?
Two of the best upper body strength builders are: (1) Installing your girl friends air conditioner, and (2) playing air guitar. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and both also include the word air in them. If you go with (1), the downside is, you have to keep coming up with reasons why her air conditioner has to be taken out and put in the same window every couple of days. The big advantage is, you also get great flexibility training since air conditioner installing is inevitably followed by drinking beer (see letter one, above, for benefits of this). The great advantage of playing air guitar is, you can do it anywhere, any time, and unlike air conditioner installing, which requires a certain minimum expenditure of calories if youre going to get it in the window, you can adjust the intensity of your air guitar playing to fit your mood. You can even do one of those really slow, lame Pink Floyd type solos and burn so few calories you actually GAIN weight. Choose whichever upper body strength builder best suits your busy life style and embarrassment threshold.
IMPORTANT CROSS-TRAINING REMINDER!!
Dont forget to cross-train one of the 5 or 6 most important muscles in your body-- the brain! Without the brain, some of the other muscles probably wouldnt work properly-- and if they did, how would you know? Keep your brain strong and limber by THINKING ABOUT STUFF while working your other muscles. For instance, try to recall all seven of The Magnificent Seven. Everybody thinks the one they wont remember is Horst Bucholtz, but its not. Nobody ever forgets Horst Bucholtz. Some people have spent 20 years in analysis trying unsuccessfully to forget Horst. No, we all remember Horst, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Colburn, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn. The hard one is the OTHER guy, who calls Yul Brynner "You old Creole son-of-a-gun" in the hope that well go, oh, hes CREOLE, thats why he talks with a Russian accent...
DEAR CROSS TRAINING EXPERT GUY:
I am a body builder. Lately Ive noticed that my muscles, while they are getting larger and larger, are also sort of short and bulky, and I can no longer get as much extension in, for instance, my military press. What do you suggest?
DEAR BODY BUILDER:
This is a very common problem with bodybuilding. Basically, it happens because you guys are really, really stupid. Even a moderate amount of stretching after your weight training would help considerably. Any of the oriental disciplines, such as Yoga or Sushi, practiced twice a week, would be an excellent idea. *
DEAR CROSS TRAINING EXPERT GUY:
Last week my girl friend caught me trying on her angora sweater. Well, actually I was trying on her bra as well. Anyway, since then, things have cooled off considerably between us. How can I convince her that my predilection for wearing her clothing is not sick, just unusual?
I am the cross TRAINING expert guy. I passed your letter on to the CROSS DRESSING expert guy. He recommends free-weight training at least three days a week, alternating with a three mile run on your off days.
"Youre too old for this," said my dad. I was standing in front of the mirror in the upstairs hall checking out my ensemble. Sneakers, jeans, striped t-shirt, windbreaker. I turned up the collar of the windbreaker, James Dean style. I would have combed my hair back, but it was rubber, as were my pointed ears and my fangs. This year I was stuck with the cheap $3.50 werewolf mask and Picarillo got to wear the Deluxe Custom $25 over-the-head job with ACTUAL HAIR and mobile mouth feature, which allowed him to snarl and bare the ($4) Deluxe Ivory-ette Fangs. "Youve been too old for this for about 5 years," my father continued. "Youre just going to embarrass yourselves again."
Last year-- when it had been MY turn to wear the Deluxe Custom $25 over-the-head job-- Calvano, Picarillo and I had encountered a great deal of resistance among the householders to whom we appealed for treats. We were all a full head taller than the other trick-or-treaters, and a lot of people simply refused to give us anything. The nadir of the evening-- perhaps of our lives-- was reached when we arrived at Dr. Fergussens house. The doctor told us to grow up and was about to slam the door in our hairy faces, but his wife admonished him, "George! Dont you understand-- these are SPECIAL boys..." She gave us generous amounts of candy and told us to give her best to Mrs. Entwistle, who was in charge of the, uh, Special Kids at school. This would have remained a private humiliation, with a silver lining that must have run to about 5000 chocolate-fueled calories, but Picarillo chose to brag about it the next day in school. Believe it or not, instead of being the objects of universal admiration and envy, some of our classmates actually chose to mock us. When Mrs. Ruffalo asked Calvano to answer a history question that afternoon, Victor Santella said, "Better talk ve-ry SLOW-LY, Mizz Ruffalo... Calvano is a SPECIAL CHILD..." Mrs. Ruffalo said as far as she was concerned ALL her students were special children, but Victor said, "Not THAT kind of special," and told her the entire story. At the conclusion, Mrs. Ruffalo laughed uproariously. Nowadays, of course, we could have filed some sort of Self-Esteem Depravation lawsuit, but at that time we could do nothing but turn the color of cranberry juice. Matters were not helped when Calvano had to ask Mrs. Ruffalo to repeat her question. When the laughter died down, she did-- VE-RY SLOW-LY. The laughter took a lot longer to die down that time.
So we had every reason in the world not to go trick or treating again. But Calvano wouldnt even consider it. "Were FINALLY big enough to be TEENAGE WEREWOLVES. FINALLY it makes total sense for us to be wearing our werewolf masks AND our normal clothes at the same time. Our whole lives have been moving towards this point. How can we NOT do it?" Picarillo and I had no answer. So here we were, slouching in front of our various mirrors with our hands in our pockets. Even our lousy posture was in character. It was going to be the best Halloween ever.
I was scrounging around for a suitable bag-- maybe a teenage werewolf would collect his treats in a gym bag? -- when the phone rang and Calvano told me that Picarillo was backing out. "His mom wont let him go."
"He should just GO."
"Of course he should. But shes bribing him."
"The chocolate cheesecake," I said.
"Well, wait. Hes got the Deluxe Custom $25 over-the-head mask this year."
"He doesnt need it if all hes gonna do is sit home stuffing cheesecake into his big fat mouth."
"No, he doesnt," Calvano agreed. I ranted for about two more minutes before I realized Calvano had hung up the phone and was, without question, already half way to Picarillos to get the Deluxe Custom $25 over-the-head mask for himself. I bolted down the stairs and out the door, my cheap rubber werewolf mask rippling in the wind like Old Glory.
Calvano was just crossing the Picarillos lawn when I tackled him. "You big stupid bum," yelled Calvano, "You had the mask LAST year!"
"You had it the year before," I said. I realized his argument had slightly more merit than mine did, so I kicked him in the leg. We rolled around on the Picarillo lawn in the gathering dusk until Mrs. Picarillo came out and invited us in. "Michael-- your friends are here..."
Picarillo was sitting on the living room couch eating chocolate cheesecake through the Deluxe Custom $25 over-the-head mask, thanks to the mobile mouth feature. "This is absurd," said Calvano. "Let us have the mask. Youre WASTING it here."
"S mine," said Picarillo. He swallowed another mouthful of cheesecake.
"You cant just SIT ON THE COUCH WEARING THE Deluxe Custom $25 over-the-head mask," I said. "Its like being the greatest... uh, some kind of like athlete or something, and then not... uh, like, well, I mean, just, uh..."
"Shut up," said Calvano. "Give us the mask, Picarillo."
"No," said Picarillo. He pointed to the TV with his cheesecake-festooned fork. "Yknow whats on? Caltiki, Immortal Monster. Its an ITALIAN monster movie. Only its in English. Sort of."
"Picarillo," I said, "Youre not even wearing THE FANGS!! I call, either you gotta wear the fangs or you gotta give us the mask. No call backs."
"No," said Picarillo.
"This is a stupid movie," said Calvano. "Its like The Blob, only instead of using Jell-O, they used a chicken liver or something."
"Yeah, but when it eats somebody, instead of totally absorbing EVERYTHING, it spits out the skeleton," said Picarillo.
"Whoa!!" I said. Calvano and I were not sitting on the couch. Mrs. Picarillo put plates of her chocolate cheesecake in front of us.
"Well, how about this," said Calvano. "Every commercial, you pass the mask to one of us. We take turns. Thats fair."
"You could wear it every other commercial. Youd get the mask twice as much as either one of us."
Caltiki spit out somebodys skeleton. Calvano and I had to roll up the bottoms of our masks to eat. We slouched on the sofa watching TV and glomming cheesecake for the next hour and half, the most authentic teenage werewolves ever.
"Youre gonna be dealing with the public-- probably for the first time in your life-- so there are a few things you gotta understand," the old guy was telling me. The old guy, Hank, was the manager of the Park Theater in Caldwell, New Jersey, and I had just been hired as an usher. "Number one, the customer is always right. B, if you dont keep your shirttail tucked in, the customer will lose all respect for you. Fourthly, sometimes this soda machine doesnt drop the cup at the right time. When this happens, and the customer comes to you, direct them to the manager what happens to be on duty, which will give them a form to fill out and send in to the main office in case they should want a refund. If they say they want a stamp, well, we do not provide that and say you are sorry. Lastly, make sure you shave even if you think its gonna make you a couple of minutes late because the couple of minutes is no big deal in this particular type job so long as you dont do it more than a couple times but you show up unshaved, and then people think somebody in the Manson family is showing them to their seat. And lastly, let a smile be your umbrella. Even if you feel lousy, keep smiling, because after all, what is a smile but a frown turned upside down." Hank shook my hand and asked if I had any questions. I told him no, that he had covered everything that I was curious about.
This was true, since I had not been wondering about anything related to my new job. Ushering doesnt require a great deal of training-- as Hank once said in an unguarded moment, "A monkey could do it if you could get him to shave and keep his shirt tucked in, but thats a lot of ifs. That J. Fred Muggs, though, he kills me." The usher comes to the job fully equipped to perform almost all of his functions, with one exception, which Hank hinted at in his address: the usher must be TAUGHT how to deal with disgruntled customers.
You are, lets say, a minimum wage usher. People will (quite rightly) complain to you about spilled soda on the floor, out-of-focus projection, the lack of toilet paper in the ladies room, and smokers in the non-smoking section [the Park Theater was operating back in the era when the smoking section was indoors]. These are all things that you can at least attempt to correct in your capacity as a minimum wage usher. Even the most clueless 16-year-old in the throes of hormonal upheaval can dimly perceive that patrons are entitled to toilet paper. Some customers will also complain to you about the horrible fake butter on the popcorn or the obscene price of the Milk Duds. There is nothing you can do about this sort of thing, but you can shake your head in sympathy and promise to speak to the manager about it. Possibly you may find yourself wondering how it is that you, barely literate sub-moron that you are, have been well aware that movie popcorn butter is horrible since you were about 8 years old, and that movie candy is overpriced since, oh, maybe 5 previous life times ago, while this middle-aged woman in the Lord and Taylor Gucci knock off or that 40-year-old man with the grotesque ponytail and the No Blood for Oil button is acting like this OUTRAGEOUS turn of events has JUST NOW come to her or his attention. Still, you do-- theoretically-- have the managers ear, so these folks are really just using you as a flesh and blood analog to those "Please Tell Us How You Liked Your Visit" cards at Friendlys.
Its hard to say what the disgruntled customer is thinking when he button holes you (you are still the 16 year old minimum wage usher, but now its 2002 rather than 1974 so I can toss in some current pop culture references for the kids who are still baffled about the J. Fred Muggs non sequitor) and vents his feelings about the inadequate acting, the inept plotting, or the sad fact that the people in some foreign films speak a foreign language. Surely the D.C. knows that you are not going to pull out your cell phone and berate Kevin Spacy for collecting that hefty paycheck for a disgraceful performance (What HAPPENED to you, Kevin? You used to be razor sharp and sleek as a weasel, and now youre going all warm and fuzzy! And meanwhile, Robin Williams, who the D.C. and I had written off about 10 years ago, after his 8th lovable doctor part in a row, has been born again HARD. Did you guys switch bodies, like Buffy and the evil girl whose name I dont remember in that episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?). He must suspect you arent about to call Miramax and tell them that, dammit, ONE MORE SCRIPT REVISION wouldnt have broken the budget. And yet, here he is, haranguing YOU about it. Possibly even demanding his money back.
People will demand their money back for some amazing reasons. While I was ushering at the Park, -- now were back to 1974 and you arent the usher, I am-- we ran a Frankenstein triple bill. "Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein," and "Son of Frankenstein," all starring Boris Karloff as the monster. I was prepared for people complaining because the movies were in black and white-- this happened often enough. I was prepared for people complaining that they had seen these very movies on TV for free. That happened fairly often as well. I was not prepared for complaints about Boris Karloffs costume.
"I would like to speak to the manager," said the disgruntled customer. "I think a refund is in order. I dont know what you think youre pulling here. Inna first two movies, Frankenstein wears a black shirt an a black jacket kind of thing. So far you following me? Then in the third one, all of a sudden hes wearing a SWEATER."
"???" I said.
"So how does Frankenstein get the sweater? Does he have a bachelor pad we dont know about, with all kinds of sharp clothes? I dont think so. I think somebody pulled a fast one. And I dont like being played for a sucker. Am I supposed to be so stupid I dont know the difference between a jacket and a big woolly sweater? It TOTALLY wrecked the movie."
I alerted the manager on duty. This evening it was not Hank but the assistant, Chuck. "Gennelman with a complaint about the movie," I said. Chuck listened attentively to the D.C.
"Why do you think were pulling a fast one?" asked Chuck when the customer repeated-- almost verbatim-- his plaint.
"Ill tell you what I think. I think you guys screwed up. I think theres a MISSING Frankenstein movie where he gets the sweater. And you guys forgot to get it."
"Ah. Im afraid youve got us. We tried, but "The L.L. Bean Catalogue of Frankenstein" was unavailable for this weekend. We were hoping you wouldnt notice."
The customer was speechless for several beats, and then said: "Frankenstein shouldnt be wearing that sweater."
Chuck said, "Hes not. If youd been paying any attention to anything but sweaters, youd know Frankenstein is the name of the DOCTOR, not the MONSTER."
"Oh yeah? Well, then whats the MONSTERS name?"
"I. P. Daily," said Chuck. This effectively ended the conversation. I was kind of awestruck. Chuck had managed to pacify an angry patron of the arts WITHOUT giving him a refund.
And, I had learned the real name of the Frankenstein monster to boot.
I would have put the t-shirt in my gym bag, but the cop made me nervous. Im not one of those guys who gets nervous every time a police car appears in the rear view mirror, but this cop wasnt in my rear view mirror, and I didnt have any pants on.
Well, I guess I should say I didnt have my pants TOTALLY on. I had one trouser leg pretty much all the way up, but the other leg--the LEG leg, not the trouser leg-- was caught in the steering wheel. It had been this way for maybe three minutes when the cop showed up. Three minutes is not a very long time, but when your foot is caught in the steering wheel it seems like a very long time. In fact, the only reason I know that it was three minutes and not eight minutes or half an hour is, I had the radio on, and the same song was playing when the cop showed up that had been playing when my foot got stuck. I forget the name of it, but it was a big hit a year or so ago, some girl singer wanting to thank somebody for the best day of her life. It was a hit single so it got to be three, three and a half minutes, tops, but just before the cop showed up I remember thinking, this is the longest song Ive ever heard.
"Excuse me, sir," the cop said. "Is everything all right?"
"Not everything," I admitted. "I wonder if you could maybe unhook my foot from the steering wheel? I cant quite reach it."
The cop put his gloves on before he would unhook my foot. This might be department procedure, and then again it might have something else. Personally, I feel sure it was the former. When my foot and the steering wheel had once more gone their separate ways, the cop said, "So."
"Thank you, officer," I said.
"You know sir, I was parked over there behind the dumpster, and I was observing you for a while--"
"Why were you parked behind the dumpster??"
"Sir. Bear with me. I saw you pull in here, which in itself is unusual, since there are plenty of parking places in front of the store--"
"Yes. But there are PEOPLE there, too."
"Yes sir. So I found myself wondering if perhaps you werent pulling into this area BEHIND the story because you didnt wish to be observed doing whatever it is that you were planning to do."
"Exactly, officer. See, I have a yoga class today."
"In your car."
"No, no. Well, the fact is, I have two yoga classes today-- I had one that ended about an hour and a half ago, and another one that starts in about an hour. So I drove over here to have some lunch at the food court, and then I decided it would be a good idea to change my clothes for class--"
"They dont have bathrooms at this yoga place."
"Well, they do, but its almost all girls. You know what that means."
"For one thing, it means the lines are endless, and for another thing, it means nobody else can use the bathroom while Im in there, so the lines will get even more endless. So out of politeness, I thought Id better change before I got back to class."
"Sir, while I was observing you, it appeared that you changed several times."
"No, no. See, first I took off my pants. Then I took off the gym shorts I was wearing this morning, because I kind of sweat right through them?"
"Are you asking me or telling me?"
"Telling you? I mean, TELLING YOU. I sweat right through them. So then I put on my OTHER gym shorts."
"Do you always bring multiple gym shorts?"
"No, but this is a three-day INTENSIVE, and yesterday, which was day one, I sweat through my clothes, so I figured today I might too, so I brought an extra pair. And a good thing. So I put on the other gym shorts."
"Now at that point, sir, I would have thought your job was done..."
"Well, yeah. No reason in the world I couldnt have driven back in my gym shorts."
"Just what I was thinking."
"But I wasnt. Thinking, I mean. So I put my pants back on. And THEN I thought, as you did, no reason I cant just drive back in my gym shorts."
"So this is the point where you take off your pants again."
"I got one leg off. Then I thought, Well, wait, I got the pants ON, I might as well leave them on and at that point I got stuck." I wanted to say For THREE MINUTES, but I thought the cop might think I was accusing him of dogging it.
"A lot of guys would have gotten into the back seat to change. Would have taken the steering wheel right out of the equation."
"I didnt want to get out of the car because it was raining."
"Oh. I thought perhaps you were this big deal YOGA guy and you figured you could twist your way around the steering wheel. Become ONE with the steering wheel or whatever you guys go with steering wheels."
"Um," I explained.
"Just kidding. Actually, sir, I would have thought youd have wanted to get out of the car because of the smell."
"Something very... funky. Possibly THAT." He pointed to my morning class t-shirt, which I had draped over the passenger side headrest in the hope that it would dry. Which hope had not yet been fulfilled. This is probably the point where, had I not been made nervous, the t-shirt would have gone into my gym bag. "Well, youve got your foot out of the steering wheel, so I suppose its safe for me to send you on your way."
"I would suggest-- I say suggest, but its really more than a suggestion-- that you either get the pants all the way on or all the way off. Im not certain this is actually required by law, but I feel its a very good idea."
"Yes, officer, I agree."
"THAT is a comfort, I must say." The cop stepped away from the car and averted his eyes discreetly while I shucked the pants and put on my sneakers. "Please drive carefully, sir."
Several hours later I was telling this amusing anecdote-- the one youve just read-- to my charming and lovely dinner companion as I drove her back to her home, and as I got to the part where the cop was saying Something... funky. Possibly THAT," I pointed to the head rest which she happened to be at that moment resting her head on, and I noticed that the t-shirt was still there, as did she.
On the plus side, this lent a great deal of verisimilitude to my story.
The minus side is FAR too extensive to go into here, and besides, it would only depress you.
THE FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUY
In general my "Ask the Expert Guy" columns get very little feedback, as most people stop reading them as soon as they realize its an "Ask the Expert Guy" column, but last weeks "French Toast Expert Guy" triggered a torrent of abuse the likes of which I havent seen since 1987, when I suggested Mother Theresa might be pretty hot if shed do something with her hair. Anyway, last week I, or rather the Expert Guy I was channeling, suggested that French Toast batter and pancake batter were essentially the same thing. I suppose I could try to weasel out of it by saying that I knew very well that this is not the case, and that my assertion was just one more knee slapper in a column crammed with them. "That so-called French Toast Expert Guy," you were possibly intended to say as you wiped the tears of laughter from your eyes, "doesnt even know how to make French Toast!"
Well, I have to admit thats simply not the case. Like the Expert Guy himself, I didnt do any research on French Toast before launching to the column, and it turns out that, as the most civil of my critics said, "F.Y.I. French toast is made with bread, eggs, a little milk and a splash of vanilla if you are brave. No waffle batter involved at all..." Or, as the least civil of my critics said, "...this was the worst column ever and thats really saying something. Only a moron would say you make French toast with pancake batter. Its not funny its just stupid, JUST LIKE THE AUTHOR. Sometimes I am ashamed to be your daughter." In all, no fewer than 9 people wrote (or stopped me on the street) to share their French toast recipes and a few paragraphs of semi-literate invective.
I mentioned in the column-- and this happens to be true-- that while I was in Boy Scouts, I did indeed make French Toast using pancake batter and it was perfectly okay. Nonetheless, when nine people take the time to tell you how to make French Toast, you better pay attention. So I had planned to take spend perhaps two sentences giving the real recipe for French Toast, and then launching into something else entirely.
And then I decided to take a look at the ingredients of my own pancake mixes. As it happens, I have two: Aunt Jemima, and Bisquick. It was an eye opener.
First of all, the Aunt Jemima box is labeled "PANCAKE AND WAFFLE MIX." I mention this because in my column I said pancake and waffle mix were the same thing. Now, no one disputed this, but I wasnt 100% sure, and its nice to be proven right. Second of all, Aunt Jemima isnt wearing that thing on her head any more, and shes lost a lot of weight. She looks kind of like Oprah in the after pictures in this weeks National Enquirer cover story-- "Oprahs New $250,000 Body." If they do an Aunt Jemima movie, Angela Bassett could play her. In fact, I dont know if even Angel is buff enough or young enough to pull it off. Maybe Venus Williams, although theres no question Angela has the acting chops. Third of all, the recipe on the box calls for: MIX (mostly flour, a little sugar, some leavening) (and it doesnt count anyway), MILK, and EGGS. (plus a little oil). Got that? MILK, EGGS, and mix. Hmm, MILK AND EGGS. Where have I heard THAT before?
Now we move onto the Bisquick box. Just for the record, theres no picture of anybody on the box, unless you count FDR, whose profile is (badly) rendered (twice) on the drawing of two dimes which for some reason illustrates step three ("Your School Gets a Check") of the "Earn Cash for Your School-- Box Tops for Education" advertisement on the back of the box. This recipe calls for mix (which doesnt count), MILK and EGGS. Not even a little oil. Hmm, milk and eggs, milk and eggs... Gosh... thats definitely ringing a bell... let me see... wasnt that... THE RECIPE FOR FRENCH TOAST?
It seems to me that A LOT OF PEOPLE owe me an apology. Im not saying youve got to crawl on your belly like a reptile. But I AM saying that most of you signed your names, and I have a weekly newspaper column.
Now you may be thinking, "Well, YOU didnt know you TOTALLY NAILED the French Toast recipe, you were just guessing and you ACCIDENTALLY GOT IT 100% CORRECT except for the oil (if you go with the Aunt Jemima recipe)." True. But my CRITICS, who all thought THEY were REALLY THE FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUYS (although a lot of them were chicks), turned out to be WOEFULLY IGNORANT ABOUT PANCAKE MIX.
Now, this is not a crime. Im ignorant about a lot of stuff myself. Super string theory? Beats me. Lacrosse? Just looks like a lot of guys running around whacking each other with sticks to me, unless its an all girl team. That stuff that you use to clean out those things that look kind of like enormous pieces of pasta which they have on battleships in old World War II movies? I dont have a clue. But I dont go around WRITING TO PEOPLE WHO ARE EXPERTS ON THESE SUBJECTS AND TELL THEM THEYRE MORONS, either. You folks-- you know who you are, and so do I-- actually did know about French Toast. But you DIDNT know about pancake batter. So.
As I said, you dont have to abase yourselves in order to keep your names out of next weeks paper. A simple, "Im so sorry, Jeff-- I mean Mr. Grimshaw-- I had no idea what I was talking about! And when I dont, I... I guess I should keep my big mouth shut. Sometimes I forget that youre a PROFESSIONAL type columnist and if there was really something wrong in one of your columns, it would never possibly get into print, as you write for a professional newspaper. I just wish there were some way to make it up to you. God, I feel like such a fool! And-- you know, I was thinking about saying well, the pancake recipes call for MIX, so pancake batter and French Toast batter really arent the same thing --but Ill just get myself in even more trouble if I say that-- especially if Im one of the people who included his or her phone number along with my ill-considered criticism-- so I guess I... I... OH GOD IM SORRY! IM SO SORRY! PLEASE FORGIVE ME!!"
And I probably will. But the Clock is ticking...
Ask the French Toast Expert Guy
DEAR FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUY:
You know, the thing about the French, I mean your average French guy, when hes not writing some snotty polemic about how we Americans are SO unsophisticated and lack nuance and subtlety and culture and dont use the right fork, hes walking on his ankles and screaming "Mrs. LADY!" like Jerry Lewis. So whats the deal on French toast? Its really delicious. So how did these cheese-eating surrender monkeys come up with it?
You will be relieved to know that they DIDNT come up with it. French toast is named for its inventor, Mr. French, from the old TV series Family Affair. The versatile valet also invented bubble wrap.
* * *
DEAR FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUY:
What is the exact difference between French Toast and waffles? They taste awful similar to me.
LIKES THEM BOTH BUT WANTS TO KNOW SO WHATS THE DIFFERENCE ANYHOW
Dear me, the French Toast Expert Guy hardly knows where to begin, so he has enlisted the aid of the Waffle Expert Guy. Take it away, Waffle Expert Guy:
I am surprised [this is the Waffle Expert Guy talking now] that you are confused by the similarities between French Toast and Waffles, when of course the REAL waffle doppleg䮧er, taste-wise, is the pancake. In fact, you can make pancakes and waffles from precisely the same batter-- no difference is apparent until the actual cooking stage, when either a waffle iron (if its going to be a waffle) or a pan (if a pancake is on the agenda) enters the equation. Your confusion might derive from the fact that French toast is made by dipping bread into a batter-- there are special French Toast batters available, but pancake batter will do just fine-- and then cooking almost exactly as you would a pancake. The difference is, with a pancake, there is no bread involved. You are simply COOKING THE BATTER. Now-- you might be wondering: what if I put a slice of French Toast Bread (that is, bread soaked in batter) into the waffle iron? The Waffle Expert Guy, who loves talking about himself in the third person, does not recommend this. In fact, he prefers the type of waffle iron where the batter is poured into a small opening at the top of the already closed waffle iron, so this isnt even an option in the Waffle Expert Guys Kitchen. But even the more conventional-- or anyway cheaper-- waffle iron which opens and shuts like a suitcase-- the Shroud of Turin Expert Guy and the NASCAR Logo Cap Expert Guy both own this type-- will not produce the Super-Dooper-Combination-French Toast-and-Waffle that you might be imagining. It will just make a big mess. And as the Toe Nail Clipper Expert Guy can attest, it can even result in a nasty kitchen fire.
* * *
DEAR FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUY:
Is French Toast a vegetable?
Hoping it is, because in my new diet I get to eat a lot of vegetables.
Yes it is.
* * *
DEAR FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUY:
Do other countries besides France have some sort of equivalent of French Toast? It seems like such an obvious idea, I would think it must be nearly universal, like the wheel.
STUDENT OF CULTURE
So you didnt buy the Mr. French story, eh? Well, as it happens, many (but by no means all) other countries have come up with a variety of French toast. In most cases, these developed after the real article from France was introduced, but in a few cases-- Easter Island, Lapland, and Pittstown, NJ being the most notable-- it appears to have developed independently. Bulgarian toast is an interesting case, in that the traditional slice of bread is eliminated and in its place, a large sofa cushion is substituted. In Lithuania, neither the bread nor the batter is employed in the creation of French Toast. Instead, two scoops of ice cream are placed in a bowl, and then topped, as they say in Lithuania, with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. This is said to be quite tasty.
Thank you-- now its me, the French Toast Expert Guy, again. Im sure you all join me in a big thank you for the Waffle Expert Guy-- wasnt he great? Well be sure to have him back for a visit again real soon.
* * *
DEAR FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUY:
If you are the French Toast Expert Guy, shouldnt you be talking with a Fraunch ak-SENT?
Ooh la la! You hef caught se Fraunch Toast ExPAIRT Guy with his pants down aroun his an-KLES-- just ze way your Jerry LewIS would wear zem! Zut alors! Tres bien! May wee! * cough * In fact, if I were the French Toast Expert Guy in the sense that I were the TOAST expert guy who happened to be FRENCH, I would be talking in a French accent, but a quick glance at the other questions and answers here will show you that this is not the case. And even if I did speak with a French accent, I wouldnt write with one. But thank you for adding a bit of levity to a sometimes far too serious column, Suspicious. Please write again!
* * *
DEAR FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUY:
Is it considered gauche to add blueberries or other fruit to the French Toast batter? After all, its not unusual to find such things in pancake batter.
Wondering about the cutting edge of French Toast
It wouldnt be considered gauche, but heres the problem: with pancakes or waffles, you have a relatively thick layer of batter in the pan or the iron, with plenty of volume to hold a blueberry, especially one of those gross little dried ones such as they put in pancakes or waffles. With French toast, the batter soaks the bread but clearly no blueberries can get inside the slice, and any blueberries in the mix would have to stick to the outside-- not a likely scenario, given the constant flipping of the slice. Any berries that did manage to cling to the French toast would almost certainly be charred beyond recognition, and not very palatable. Sorry.
* * *
DEAR FRENCH TOAST EXPERT GUY:
What was the name of the actor who played Mr. French on "Family Affair," anyway?
Its on the tip of my tongue
That was the beloved character actor Sebastian Cabot, who later went on to even greater fame as Miss Ellie on the popular prime-time soap opera "Dallas." Interesting factoid: For one season he was replaced in the role by Donna Reed, but there was such a hue and cry from his devoted fans that he was brought back the following season-- in effect, he REPLACED HIS REPLACEMENT. The versatile valet also invented bubble wrap.
JOEY CLAMS' PLACE
The pet food store up the block was closed, since the guy who ran the pet food store was now doing 15 years upstate for activities probably unrelated to pet food. "This is not good," Mulberry Street Joey Clams remarked as the pet food store guy was handcuffed and deposited in the back seat of a police car. "People would come down to Mulberry Street to buy pet food for their pets, and they would pass the Custom Neon Sign Shop. They would think to themselves, Maybe next time I come down here I ought to order one of those neon signs. Perhaps a sign explaining how much I am attached to the pet which I am currently down on Mulberry Street buying pet food for. But now that Gino has closed up shop, this will no longer happen."
In fact, it had never happened, since no one ever ordered any signs from our Custom Neon Sign Shop. "Maybe Gino himself will order a large neon sign," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Maybe a REAL BIG neon sign that says I am so stupid I cant tell an undercover policeman when I see one even though Mulberry Street Joey Clams, watching the aforementioned undercover policeman enter my store from a block away, said to his partner Jeff, I wonder why that undercover policeman is going into Ginos pet food store."
For several days Mulberry Street Joey Clams enlarged upon this theme of the symbiotic relationship between the Custom Neon Sign Shop and Ginos pet food store. "Since the pet food store has closed, weve had no business. By the same token, if WE had closed up, the pet food store would now be in dire straits financially because of OUR customers who either own pets and would want to buy pet food as long as they were already down here buying a neon sign, or dont yet own pets, but would see the pet food store and think a pet would maybe be nice to have, and convenient in that there is a pet food store right near the place where they get their Custom Neon Signs."
A couple of months went by, and then we noticed some action at the pet shop. The sign was taken down. The windows were soaped up. Men in overalls were installing drywall and bribing the building inspector. Mulberry Street Joey Clams wandered over and discovered that the pet food store was going to be reborn as a restaurant.
"I left my card," he said. "I told the gennelman with the cigar that I would give them a tremendous discount if they chose to employ us regarding the neon sign they will certainly require." Mulberry Street Joey Clams was always giving his card to the gentlemen with the cigars, but they never took advantage of his generous discounts. I saw no reason to think this gentleman would be any different, but to my amazement, the next afternoon we were interrupted in the middle of "The Young and the Restless" by the entrance of a cigar, to which was attached a gentleman.
"Theres no rush on this," he said by way of introduction, "but Im thinking of a large neon sign. Im thinking those curly letters such as one sees on classy menus."
"Our specialty," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, which was a lie if he were referring to the curly letters, but at least debatable if he were referring to menus. We had quite a collection of them, in fact.
"This neon sign would be an outdoor sign and perhaps the letters would go on one by one and then suddenly shut off once the entire name was spelled out. Then, one by one, the letters would blink on again."
"I love it," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Jeff here is the king of blinking letters." As if in acknowledgment of this insane statement, I blinked several times, rapidly. "And what would these letters spell out?"
"The NAME of my restaurant... Joey Clams Place."
Mulberry Street Joey Clams was now blinking. "J-j-j," he said. "Uh. You know... I dont..."
"Whats a matter?"
"The thing is... well. The MAIN thing is, see, MY name happens to be Joey Clams."
"So you want, like, complimentary trips to the salad bar or something, on account of your name is Joey Clams?"
"N-no," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Im just wondering if... the thing is... how many Joey Clamses can there be on ONE BLOCK of Mulberry Street, you know what Im saying? I mean, if I made your sign, wouldnt I be saying to the world, I am not the REAL Joey Clams?"
"Well, ARE you?"
"Are I what?"
"The REAL Joey Clams. Because I gotta tell you, I must know 10 guys named Joey Clams."
"I know a lotta Joey Clamses, too." He began to tick them off on his fingers. "Theres that rat bag Lafayette Street Joey Clams. Theres Joey Clams the Midget, over on Delancy..."
"Wait a minute-- I know Delancy Street Joey Clams, and he aint no midget..."
"Nah, nah-- Delancy Street Joey Clams is a totally different guy, I know him too. Joey Clams the Midget just LIVES on Delancy. Technically, hes not actually a midget, though, hes one of those scrunched up guys..."
"So why isnt he Joey Clams the Dwarf?"
"Maybe there already was a Joey Clams the Dwarf. Anyway, my POINT is, Im Mulberry Street Joey Clams, and if MY NAME goes up on that restaurant--"
"So change your name."
"CHANGE my name??"
"What about... Joey Clamato. You know the Clamato? Its like half clam, half tomato. Its BETTER than a clam, and also better than a tomato. Thats SCIENCE. Someday," said the gentleman with the cigar, "theyll have a cure for rickets."
"I am not gonna be Joey Clamato. Why dont you change YOUR name?"
"My name is Mitch Dinato."
"Then whos Joey Clams?!"
"You said YOU were, big shot. Me, Im just using it for the name of the restaurant. If you dont wanna do the sign, Im not gonna put a gun to your head."
"Just TRY it," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
Mr. Dinato did not try it, whatever it was. He left, and in due time Joey Clams Place opened, with a non-neon sign. Friends of Mulberry Street Joey Clams would stop by the Custom Neon Sign Shop and tell him that the seafood was excellent, especially the shrimp scampi. "Whatever you do, dont lose that chef!" Every compliment was like an ice pick in Mulberry Street Joey Clams heart.
"If the pet food store was still here," he sighed, "Wed be on Easy Street."
The Key Factor
Usually when I lose my keys it turns out that I have left them dangling in the lock of my post office box. Occasionally I drop them on the floor of my apartment and then kick them under the bed. When Fate somehow contrives to separate me from my keys in some other way, it is PANIC TIME, which means: it becomes the Subject of This Weeks Column. So those of you who were hoping for ruminations on the dueling Miss North Carolinas, the 80 year old woman who went into the hospital for a hip replacement operation and awoke the proud possessor of two brand new Britney-sized breasts, or the South American man who drilled 3 holes in his head to release the demons that had been whispering "Drill a hole in your head!" will have to go elsewhere. All youre going to find here is keys, keys, keys. If you dont want to read about keys, this is NOT the column for you. Non-key-type wacky stuff will be back next week. See you then.
As for the rest of you: fasten your seat belts, its time for a fabulous trip to the world of keys and adventure!
But first I want to just mention these alligator can openers. I have two of them, and they are some sort of metal (painted gold) with red glass eyes and a large square display thingee in the middle of their backs on which is displayed a tropical vista and the word "Florida" [see figure 1]. When you turn them over, you discover that the mouth is actually a bottle opener and the tail a can opener [see figure 5]. A friend of mine runs an antique shop and I brought these to her figuring she would jump at the chance to sell them and at first she acted like I was trying to make a joke and then she appeared to be horrified but while we were talking these two guys walked in the store and one said "Oooh! Alligators! How camp!" and she took the alligator can openers after all. That was a couple of months ago and when I stopped by the store to see if maybe they had sold for enough to take care of my daughters college tuition next semester, she gave them BACK TO ME and said that her partner, who NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN, said she was too embarrassed to put them in the display case. She said maybe it was because one of them was missing an eye [see figure 6, which I probably am not going to draw but looks like the top part of figure 1 only one of the eyes is missing]. So I still have both these can openers if anyone is interested. They are not only really cool but they are fully functional as well, and will be on display at the Delaware Valley News reception desk (for the address, see part of paper that lists the address) for your perusal. Best offer.
Because of my interesting work schedule, I awoke around 2:30 on Thursday afternoon and I have no idea what I did for the next several hours, although I know that whatever it was it didnt involve my car because if it had I would have realized my keys were missing (and I wouldnt have been able to do it anyway). When I did realize my keys were missing, I looked under the bed, and then I looked at the clock and saw that the post office was now closed. It was not yet Panic Time, just Minor Annoyance Time. My daughter has a spare set of car keys-- I was sure she must have left them at home in Holland rather than taken them to NYU with her. (I was also once sure that Betty Sikora would never never tell anyone I threw up on her moms petunia plants after drinking only one (1) glass of beer). The apartment keys were not a big priority yet since I had no car and couldnt wander very far from my apartment. At the local Post Office, keys that have been left in the box lock are placed in the box until the... left-ee? lefter? ...comes back to the Post Office looking disheveled and insane, like Kevin McCarthy at the beginning of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." But he is NOT insane, the pods really ARE here (in the movie, I mean), which is something the people at the post office might want to keep in mind. So: with a phone call I could ascertain that the spare car keys were sitting on the desk in my daughters room ten minutes away in Holland Township; and no doubt a stroll down to the post office in the morning would restore my keys to my pocket.
Well, that would be a scintillating column, wouldnt it? As it happened, the keys were not in my daughters room at home, where they would have been useful to both of us, but in her dorm at NYU; and my keys, I ascertained by strolling down the block and looking in the door, were not in my post office box. And when I showed up at school the day after taking out the petunias, I was addressed by several wags as "the two-fisted beer drinking maniac."
It turns out-- I had no idea of this, but my ex-wife told me, and it turned out to be the fact-- you can get replacement car keys from the car dealership by giving them the vehicle identification number, so my mobility issues were quickly solved. As for the rest of my keys, all of which I should have copied long ago, I would scour the town diligently come the dawn.
The next day, I went to the post office and asked if any keys had been turned in and NOT placed in the box. They had not. No keys had been turned in anywhere in Milford.
Now I remembered rooting through my gym bag early the day before, wadding up some gummed labels I had abstracted from a loaf of bread to make a temporary repair on a rip in said gym bag. Had I inadvertently tossed away my keys in that wad of labels? I was certain I had. Something I forgot to mention about the alligator bottle openers is theres a kind of easy-grip texture not apparent in my drawings. Once I notified everyone that I had probably thrown my keys in the garbage and made arrangements for replacements, I returned to the post office to mail some bills and the (possibly disgruntled) post office employee on the other side of the counter tossed my keys to me with a cheerful "Here ya go, bonehead." No explaination about where the keys had turned up or why they hadnt been in my box earlier was forthcoming.
Youre probably thinking Ive learned a valuable lesson here about keeping duplicate keys on hand but in reality I never learn anything. I have been trying to juggle three balls in an overhand cascade for 5 years. No dice.
SQUID BOYS IN NEW YORK
Mr. Price, the 7th grade science teacher, informed us that the first class trip of the year would be occurring in just two weeks-- the Museum of Natural History in New York. Since we had been making class trips to the Museum of Natural History (and, after lunch, the Hayden Planetarium) every year, this announcement was met with glazed stares by most of my classmates. But Calvano and Picarillo and I exchanged excited glances. We hadnt been sure that the annual trip to the Museum would continue once we were in junior high, and this had concerned us, because during the summer we had become... The Squid Boys.
Periodically we would decide that we were not just three guys who hung out and grew acne together, we were A Gang. Wed argue about what we should call ourselves, grow some more acne, etc. This past summer we had discovered cans of calimari in Picarillos grandmothers kitchen cabinet-- that is, squid. There were pictures of tentacles on the labels, and inside there were... the tentacles themselves! From that moment on, we were The Squid Boys. We had thought about getting our moms to buy us black leather jackets and stitch squids on the backs, but theyd demurred. So we made our own colors-- white t-shirts with stills from the giant squid movie "It Came from Beneath the Sea" on the chests. I think iron-on transfer technology may have existed at this time (1966 or 7) but it was still fairly primitive and expensive, so the stills were literally stapled to our t-shirts. And the stills were not exactly stills, they were photos clipped from the cheaply printed pages of Famous Monster of Filmland Magazine. If you were more than three or four inches away from the t-shirt all you could see was a muddy blur of newsprint. Above the terrifying newsprint blur we had written "The Squid Boys" in magic marker. We tried to make the letters look like tentacles but they probably didnt. Probably they looked like letters with acne, which may be why we never wore our shirts in public.
Even though we were not going to wear our colors to the Museum, The Squid Boys were looking forward to the trip because the Museum had a huge plaster giant squid hanging from the ceiling, right down the hall from its arch-enemy, the huge plaster sperm whale. The Squid Boys were planning to stand in the middle of the hall and holler, "Go, Squid, Go!" and say rude things about the huge plaster sperm whales mother. Thus would we show solidarity with our totem animal.
We were also going to bring cans of calimari with us. Maybe we would open them up and throw the tentacles into the projector beams at the Planetarium and it would look like earth was being attacked by giant squids. Or maybe not.
We put all three cans in one paper bag, and Picarillo was designated the Official Squid Can Guy. We figured that since he was the fattest, he would look the most natural carrying two lunches. Then, when we all went outside and ate our lunches in the park, each of us would look at a can of calimari while we ate.
Our chaperones were going to be Mr. Price and the new music teacher, Miss Gaita. It was already assumed there was some sort of thing going on with those two. When Mr. Price spoke to Miss Gaita in the hall, he appeared to be enveloped in the same fog of desire that surrounded Picarillo when he was ordering a Hot Texas Wiener at Duckys Luncheonette. And one of the girls had seen their hands brush each other when they passed in the hall one afternoon-- an indiscretion so glaring the principal might as well have concluded the morning announcements with "...The Chess Club meeting scheduled for Tuesday after school is canceled. And please avoid the supply closet during 4th period today while Mr. Price and Miss Gaita consummate their charming but illicit relationship..." In any event, we reasoned that they would be so wrapped up in each other that the three of us could sneak away and cheer on the squid without even getting in trouble.
Following an exciting morning filled with dinosaur skeletons, cross-sectioned geodes, and a remarkable number of old ladies who smelled like cabbage and looked liked theyd spent the night in a trash compactor, we spilled from the Museum into the park to eat lunch. Calvano and I were punching each other on the arms because our encouragement of the squid had gone so well-- it had been witnessed by some of our classmates and wed been chastised by a guard, but Mr. Price and Miss Gaita had missed the whole episode. (Ahem). Which meant it would not Go On Our Permanent Records and/or Follow Us for the Rest of Our Lives, or even make it through the Lincoln Tunnel with us. The Squid Boys had triumphed!
We looked around for Picarillo. He was near the water fountain, and appeared to be talking to a bum-- or rather, a bum was talking to him. Then he handed the bum one of his paper bags. We raced over.
"Picarillo! Did you give away THE SQUID CANS??"
"Huh? Nah--" He displayed the remaining bag; the three tentacle-packed cylinders were visibly straining against the brown paper. "Th guy said he hadnt eaten in a week and I had two lunches so could he have one. He said samwich. Lemme have a samwich, Big Boy. He called me Big Boy."
"You gave him your whole lunch? Why didnt you give him a can of SQUID?!"
"He didnt have a can opener, probly."
"Neither do you, ya moron!"
Calvano and I ostentatiously ate our sandwiches in front of our fellow Squid Boy. He looked miserable. "Ask Mr. Price if hes got a can opener," said Calvano.
"Nah, hes a SCIENCE teacher," he said, as if the NJEA contract prohibited science teachers from carrying can openers. Why Picarillo was focused on the idea of obtaining a can opener is hard to understand, even at a distance of 35 years, because he would not have eaten calimari even at gun point.
"Do I hear my vocation being invoked?" said Mr. Price, suddenly looming up behind us. Miss Gaita giggled. "Good grief Picarillo," Mr. Price said. "What have you got there? Calimari? And youre going to eat it right out of the can? Unheated?"
"Hes a fiend for it," said Calvano, "but he forgot his can opener."
"Eww," said Miss Gaita. "Squid!"
"Actually, with these commercial brands, its often cuttlefish," said Mr. Price.
"Well, theyre just little squids," said Miss Gaita.
"No, no-- totally different genus..."
"Thats so interesting," she said with narrowed eyes and a sweet smile which, I learned much later, meant, "I hope you dont find the couch too uncomfortable." The lovebirds wondered away, leaving Picarillo as hungry as ever.
"Picarillo," said Calvano. "They SAW the cans! Now we cant throw them into the projector beams cuz theyll know its us!"
Picarillo could have replied, we couldnt do it anyway because we dont have a can opener, but hunger had shriveled too many of his brain cells. We sat through the birth and death of the universe with the useless cans of squid in our laps. At the end of the day we returned the calimari to Picarillos grandmothers kitchen, where their New York adventure must have made them the envy of the other canned goods.
Mushroom Clouds, Thirty Years After
Sunday my daughter Emma left for college and I found myself overcome with emotion. I know some of you are thinking (or dreading) that this is going to be one of those heart warming father-daughter bonding type columns, but Im afraid its not. Its a heart-warming Im-finally-getting-my-car-back, father-Toyota bonding type column.
It turned out that my daughter was not only going to be living in the same NYU dormitory where I had spent my own freshman and sophomore years, she was going to be on the same floor. "What are the odds?" I said, marveling, and a passing math major snapped "Five to one." I have never had any use for math majors.
It had been 30 years since I moved in, and of course there were substantial changes. For one thing, thanks to Moby, for the first time in my life my haircut was in style. For another, dorm check-in had become much more user-friendly. On the door of each room there were nametags for the incoming residents-- cardboard cutouts of the appropriate state (or country), with the hometown marked. Milford was correctly placed on the Delaware River, within 5 miles of its actual location. I was impressed, but a little sad for my daughter, who would not, after all, be able to speak in a cheesy Russian accent and try to convince her floor mates her real name was Ludmilla Torshovlosky.
Emma was assigned to room 503. I had been in room 513 as a freshman and then moved next door into 515 when I returned the following year. My roommate and I had pulled a lot of strings to do this. We wanted 515 because someone had painted an atomic mushroom cloud on the toilet seat cover there, while the toilet in 513 was of no aesthetic interest at all. I was unable to check and see if the atomic mushroom cloud in 515 had remained undisturbed for 30 years, although I did note that the two girls who inherited my toilet-- "Stephanie" and "Rose"-- were, respectively, from Ohio and whichever state it is thats shaped like a sort of squarish shark head with a bunch of teeth missing from the lower jaw. Having established to my satisfaction that those girls were not going to let me look at their toilet, but uncertain as to whether they were alerting security, I returned to my daughters room. Emma was in the hall telling some kid in a "Ask Me If You Need Help" t-shirt that "...mah passPORT says mah name ees EMMA, but it ees really... Natasha." Here I noticed another change wrought by 30 years of things happening while I was not paying attention: students now bring a lot more things that need to be plugged in. Id brought a record player [long extinct], a clock radio, and a black and white TV. My daughter brought a TV, a VCR [blissfully unaware that its seconds away from being obsolete], a computer, a printer, and a telephone. Id had a phone as well ("in my day," I nearly wrote, but the stars began blinking out one by one before I hit the d so I stopped) but it didnt belong to me, the phone company leased it to me. Interestingly, despite the 6 or 10 fold increase in the number of probably objects to be plugged in, there didnt appear to be a 6 or 10 fold increase in places in which to plug them. In point of fact, there were no outlets visible at all.
I crawled around on the floor looking under beds and behind dressers for an electrical outlet and thought I had found one-- a red, pancake-sized circle about in inch thick, stuck to the wall a couple of inches above the floor. I assumed-- dont ask me why, Id never seen anything like it before-- that it was some sort of electrical outlet covering. I yanked it off the wall and found that it was a roach motel. A pretty spiffy one, I must admit, and the rates were affordable, judging by lack of vacancies. A little masking tape, and I had it back on the wall in a trice (= 17 minutes), by which time Emma and her mom had discovered three standard electrical outlets, two Internet connection thingees, two telephone jacks, and the Cable TV port. These required a variety of cords, some of which we had neglected to pack and some of which we might as well have neglected to pack since the ones we brought turned out to be exactly three inches too short. So there was a brief trip to the Most Expensive Hardware Store in America (at least I think thats what it said on the sign) to buy slightly longer cords. The store was crammed with frantic incoming students and their parents and I was relieved to see that many of them were buying even more cords than we were. In short order everything was plugged in, and after extracting from my daughter a promise to pretend to be friends with Stephanie and Rose at least until she found out about my atomic toilet seat, her mother and I took our leave.
Sitting on the car seat was a small draw string bag containing Emmas fish food, or rather, the food for Emmas fish. "Ill just swing past the dorm and you can leave it at the desk for her," I said. It turns out that something else has changed-- the folks at the desk were not enthusiastic about being handed a bag full of white powder by a total stranger. But as soon as laboratory tests established that the fish food was in fact fish food and I paid the extremely reasonable fine, we were on our way once again.
My car, which I had seen only now and then since Emmas high school graduation -- usually by chance, at distant intersections-- felt unfamiliar. It needed a trip through the car wash, too. And I cant help thinking a nice mushroom cloud decal on the hood would spiff it up considerably.
PREDICTIONS FROM THE LAST ICE AGE
Upon my desk is a big fat yellow book entitled "The Peoples Almanac Presents THE BOOK OF PREDICTIONS." I found this book while cleaning out my parents' basement, saw it was published in 1980, and immediately thought, "Wow! This weeks column writes itself!" Writes itself is writer talk for this will be much more fun to write than it is to read. But fortunately for me, Im doing the writing.
This book contains 475 pages not counting glossary and index and while there are some articles about (cough) great predictors of the past and things like that, the bulk of it is taken up with predictions-- mostly about events scheduled between 1980 and 2030, but heavily weighted to the near end, which means that most of them have already not happened. Some of these events were predicted by psychics, but many were predicted by various experts in various fields. And virtually all of them are wrong, aside from a few extremely broad generalizations along the lines of "conflict in the Middle East will continue."
I know what youre thinking. "I cant believe these damn ball players are talking about going on strike. What planet do they live on? Two million is the AVERAGE salary and theyre ready to walk??" But another thing youre thinking is, "Nothing is easier than making fun of old predictions that didnt come true. Any jerk could flip through this book and come up with a facile, snarky column full of cheap shots." And youre right, but Im the jerk who did.
Well, lets get started. First, here are some predictions about your favorite celebs:
BY THE YEAR 2000, RICHARD NIXON will have a serious problem with his eyes. [Well, I guess a case could be made for this one]. MARCELLO MASTROIANNI will use his charm and renown to rescue hostages from their kidnapper. JOHNNNY CARSON will become chairman of the board of NBC. HENRY KISSINGER will become an important filmmaker. BOB DYLAN will write a book about happiness in the year 1988. By 2000, hell be rescued from a plane in a real life drama when it makes a forced landing due to weather conditions. No one will be hurt, and a film will be made about this. [The psychic doesnt say whos going to make the film, but my moneys on Kissinger]. Also in the 1980s, FIDEL CASTRO will fall in love with BARBARA WALTERS and move to Florida in order to be closer to her. This sounds like a better movie than the forced landing where no one gets hurt, although it kind of screams chick flick, and maybe Kissinger is into action movies. If Kissinger were directing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of Dylan (or Castro-- hed be equally excellent in either role), and Henry and Arnold both happened to close their eyes at the same time, would they know which of them was talking?
Well anyway. Those were all predictions from what the Book of Predictions calls leading psychics. Also represented in bulk throughout the book are assorted experts in assorted fields. The sub text of almost all these predictions is more or less "by the year 1990, everyone in the world will realize that I have been correct all along and they will start to do what Ive been suggesting. Shortly after that, most governments will make it mandatory." I guess its more fun to write that than "The world will continue ignoring my advice. My 1975 almost-best seller that got the attention of the Book of Predictions in the first place is out of print for keeps by 1982. If you are reading this prediction your parents basement in 2002, I am probably back working at the filling station..."
The geo-political predictions by real life diplomats, military men, and politicians are almost without exception intelligent, interesting, and dead wrong. About 70% of these folks predicted a nuclear exchange between either the US and the USSR, or the USSR and China by 2000. No one predicts the end of the Soviet Union, tho Amory and Hunter Ivens think it will suffer economic and political collapse in the 90s. Several science fiction writers also make extensive political predictions, some of which are eerily accurate-- Philip K. Dick more or less predicts Chernobyl right down to the year [but loses points for not knowing on which side of the iron curtain it will occur]-- but most of which are even loopier than the psychics: PKD also suggests that in 2000, an alien virus brought back by an interplanetary ship will decimate the earth although it will leave our colonies on Luna and Mars intact. This didnt happen. OR MAYBE IT DID-- because in 2010, he continues, the USSR (using Tachyons-- particles that move backwards in time) will attempt to alter the past with scientific information. Im not even sure what alter the past with scientific information means, if anything, but if they did, possibly one of the things they changed was that alien virus. Which might also make a pretty decent movie, although the Castro/Barbara Walters romance is still my pick to click, given the right casting. But you know-- most science fiction movies about viruses and stuff also need to have a romantic sub plot. Theres no reason why it couldnt be the Castro/ Barbara thing, especially with Arnold as Castro. Hes got the cigar thing pretty much nailed already. Im thinking Renee Russo for Barbara. I could see real on-screen chemistry between Arnold and Renee. I predict it will be the biggest hit Arnold has had in nearly a decade. He was going really good there for a while-- hed do a serious Arnold, then a funny Arnold. Serious, then funny. Then the funny ones started getting crappy. Then, possibly so the funny ones wouldnt seem so bad, he started making the serious ones crappy, too. This was a huge tactical mistake in my opinion. Its like when youre not too good looking so you decide to get a ride to the party with somebody whos really ugly thinking youll look good in comparison. But people just think, "Wow, those two guys who came in a minute ago are pretty ugly." So if youre thinking about making the Castro / Barbara / Virus thing crappy, Arnold, dont do it. Just do what Kissinger tells you and I predict this will be the high point of your career.
My parents were in Bamburgers, selecting horrible clothes for my annual First Day of School. I was in Bamburgers, pretending I wasnt with my parents. I was 11, and it just seemed totally humiliating that my PARENTS were still dragging me through department stores buying me clothes. Bamburgers was filled with 11 year old boys, all trying to appear that they were strolling around the Boys Clothing Department by themselves and that it was just a bizarre coincidence that every few minutes their mothers would call out "Ooh! A polka dot shirt with a REAL BIG COLLAR! Try this on, sweetie."
Well, to tell the truth, many mothers were simply selecting what we then called school clothes, which back in the days of (loose) dress codes meant slacks and shirts that buttoned down the front, either all the way or for a few inches, like a polo shirt. This was the mid sixties and the total melt down of taste and style ("The Seventies") had not yet occurred, although there were harbingers everywhere. In my closet, for example, and, at this moment, in my mothers hands.
Most of my school clothes were perfectly normal, but every so often my mother felt the need to unleash her wild side, and the First Day of School shopping expedition was inevitably the scene of an unleashing. Whatever was new, whatever was Now, that was what I had to waddle off to school in, and Im sorry to say I have the pictures to prove it. The Nehru shirt I found myself crammed into one year was probably the ne plus ultra of this, but it was hardly the only time I entered the school yard dressed like I was on my way to frug with Judy Carne and Richard Dawson on the Laugh-In set.
This year my mother was holding up a pair of gruesome bellbottoms with, perhaps, flowers on them. As the perhaps indicates, Im not entirely sure-- some details have been mercifully blurred by time. Maybe it was something even worse than flowers. I looked over at my father for help, but he knew better than to get in my mothers way during these frenzies and was pretending to be looking at belts. Hmm, yes, this belt is very brown. Why, hmm, so is the back of it...
There was simply no way out. If I were lucky, I would come out of the changing room looking so grotesque that even my mother would shudder. Then anything could happen. She might pick out some bell-bottoms with even bigger flowers. "Lets see what they have in the HUSKY section" was another possibility-- I was on the, uh, husky side in those years-- husky being a sixties euphemism for so fat they push you through the Lincoln Tunnel to clean the chewing gum off the walls. Many of the more horrible sixties fashions were not even made in my size, at least for 11 year olds. One now-forgotten fashion statement that did lurk in the husky section: iridescent pants. These were actually dress pants, which I wore not only on a First Day of School, but to church. Attendance at the Little Falls Methodist Church dropped off instantly and has still not recovered. I dont know quite how to describe them. If the light caught them from one angle, they appeared to be ugly gray pants, and if it caught them from another, they appeared to be ugly green pants. Both the green and the gray had ugly blue overtones or undertones and I dont know WHAT the hell they were thinking when they designed them, when they manufactured them, when they displayed them, when they sold them. I only know what they thought when they wore them, since as far as I know they is me. I am the only person I know who wore them, though I once met a girl in Cooperstown New York who claims to have seen a pair. She was probably mistaken, unless she caught sight of me at the 1964-5 Worlds Fair, another venue graced by my iridescent pants. Maybe they even made some sort of sense, trundling along between the (ugly) GM Pavilion and the (pretty neat looking Bathysphere.
Incidentally, I was never beaten up for the clothes I was wearing on the First Day of School. I dont know if it was pity (probably not, since lord knows I was beaten up enough otherwise), or if the bullies had just too many kids in horrible clothes to choose from. I dont remember anyone else showing up in shoe-horned into some Carnaby Street atrocity, but my fashion sense was not so highly developed as it is now, so who knows.
Once the clothes had been selected and I was resigned to my fate, we went to a different store and bought school supplies. Every year we bought (1) soft plastic pencil cases with three ring binder holes. These went into the three ring binder and were never seen again. (2) an assortment of erasers. We used the ones on the ends of our pencils so these were either craved into monster heads or eaten. Or carved into monster heads and THEN eaten. (3) Book straps. These were rubber straps for strapping up books. I never strapped up books. You could use them as giant sling shots, but I never did. One of my many eternal regrets. I could mostly get my way on school supplies, my mother having shot her bolt on the ugly clothes. Id be picking out some useless rubber artifact and my mother would be already dreaming of next years First Day of School shopping spree. Possibly she phoned the clothing designers with ideas. "No, thats not ugly enough... think of something more like a suit... only in pastels.... with big flaps on the pockets... lots of pockets... we could call it... a leisure suit..."
The more I think about it, the more certain I am thats exactly how it must have happened.
* * *
Which One Give You The Two Dollars?
WARNING: I must apologize in advance for the article you are about to read. It presents your undersigned in a rather unflattering light. At times, he will appear to be downright rude, even belligerent. It is with great hesitation that I make this account public, because I know that to many if not most of my readers, I am an important positive role model. I suppose it wouldnt be too much to say "a beloved icon." Theres simply no way of knowing how many parents throughout Hunterdon and Bucks Counties count on me for uplift and moral instruction. "What would Jeff Grimshaw, humor columnist for the Delaware Valley News, say if he could see how youre behaving?" is something that countless area mothers probably say to their unruly children each day. These mothers should read this weeks column themselves before letting their impressionable children read it. This is especially true in those households where reading the weekly Grimshaw column aloud just before or after dinner is a Thursday tradition. Older children-- those in their mid to late teens, and perhaps very mature younger children as well-- might be permitted to read the column after a little discussion about how even the best and wisest people have flaws. Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Speck, Albert Schweitzer, me-- we all have our off days.
And now, this weeks column:
* * *
I had been selling owls all day and I was a little frazzled. This was the second day of a four-day owl sale, and things had been rather slow compared to the first day. "Things will pick up again towards the end," the Owl Expert explained. "Yesterday we got the owl dealers, on the last day well get the bargain hunters. Today and tomorrow... well, I dont want to cast any aspersions, a lot of these people are good folks. Good owl folks. But a lot of them are dilettantes, just kind of dickering for the sake of dickering." I had noticed this. Near the end of the day, one of the dickerers had dickered a large ceramic owl down from 82 dollars to 72 dollars. It took her nearly 55 minutes (not, I hasten to add, all at once; there was a lot of wandering away and wandering back between bouts of owl wrangling), and she seemed well satisfied, although 10 dollars for nearly an hours work didnt seem like that great a deal to me. Then she paid with two-dollar bills.
"We just been down to Monticello," she said. She got points with me for pronouncing the name Italian style, but I confess I was not thrilled about the 36 two dollar bills. At the end of the day when we totaled up the proceeds and split the take, my partner and I each took 18 of the Jeffersonian bills and I thought nothing more about it until several hours later when I put most of the money in a deposit envelope, dropped it at an ATM machine, and went to get some dinner at a fast food place.
I ordered 5 dollars worth of food, it duly appeared on the tray in front of me, I handed the counterman the money, and he said, "Hey, whatta ya trying to do here?" He held up the three two dollar bills and waved them.
I confess that when Id decided to keep ten dollars worth of twos, I had anticipated some by-play with merchants and cashiers, along the lines of "Say! A two-dollar bill! We dont get many of these." And then I would tell my anecdote about the owl sale and the woman from Monticello. I had kind of anticipated the merchant or cashier would be a cute female who would be kind of tickled by the story and perhaps even a regular reader of mine who couldnt believe her luck ("I read your column every week! I cant believe this! You look so much younger than your picture!"). On this score, my anticipation turned out to be incorrect. On various other scores as well.
Before I could explain what I was trying to do there, the counterman said, "Cut the comedy and gimme five dollars."
"Thats six dollars," I said.
"I see what it is!"
"Are you having trouble with the math? You owe me a dollar."
"Awright, if youre gonna--" He made a move to pull my tray back, so I grabbed a cheeseburger and took a bite out of it. "Awright," he said, "I wanna see some money now."
"Look in your left hand. The one over there," I added helpfully.
"You either come up with some real money or Im calling a cop."
"Go ahead and call a cop, you moron," I said. "I want to see the manager."
"I AM the manager."
"Its good to see your company hires the handicapped."
"Jeanette, call the cops. Im warning you, mister, you might think this is just a cheeseburger but THIS--" he held up the two dollar bills again-- "Is gonna get you in a LOT of trouble."
"Im going to sit over there and eat my food and wait for the cops," I said. He didnt interfere with my taking the tray to a near-by table.
"Dont try and leave," he said.
"I wont. I want a vanilla cone, too." He made no move to get the vanilla cone. I ate my food and shortly after I bused my tray, a policeman arrived.
"The guy is over there," said the counterman. "He tried to pass counterfeit money."
"You told the dispatcher it was two dollar bills."
"Why the hell would anybody counterfeit two dollar bills?"
"Ask HIM." I waved at the officer. The officer said, "Lets see the bills." The counterman handed them over. The policeman looked at them. "These look good to me. Why do you think these are counterfeit?"
Exasperated, the counterman said, "Theyre TWO DOLLAR BILLS!"
"He wont give me my change," I said.
"Give him his change," said the cop. I can not here reproduce the countermans rejoinder for reasons of both length and content, but eventually I got my change.
"He called me a moron," said the counterman. "Hes got no call."
The cop made no comment, but looked at me for confirmation or denial. "Yes," I said, "But I apologize. I thought he wasnt giving me change because he couldnt do the math."
"Okay," said the cop. "Now everybodys happy."
I wasnt really happy, because I hadnt gotten my ice cream cone, but I was probably happier than the counterman. I went home and went without ice cream. This owl selling is a tough racket.
* * *
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
12 years ago I wrote a column about my own personally designed weight loss plan, which I called the ELF diet. ELF was an acronym for Eat Less Food, and that was pretty much the gist of my plan. To quote my favorite living author: "...quite by chance, the Diet Expert Guy discovered that when he eats less food, he loses weight, and when he eats more food, he gains weight. This discovery is going to revolutionize the Diet Industry."
Twelve years and approximately 624 columns later, nothing I have written has produced anything like the blizzard of abuse unleashed by that rather innocuous column. Some of my disgruntled readers wrote more in sorrow than in anger, some of them wrote in crayon because they werent allowed to have sharp objects, but most of them just called me names. I wasnt doing my periodic "from the mailbox" columns at that point, but since most of the letters were unprintable, it wouldnt have made much difference. I was accused of nastiness, of stupidity, of not being funniness, of insensitivity, of mean spiritedness, and (this was several pictures ago) of ugliness. And I had HAIR then.
The one thing I was not accused of was being wrong.
Although many of the "Ask the Expert Guy" columns I write tend to concern subjects which I am completely and happily ignorant of (see "Ask The How Come You Shouldnt End Sentences or Clauses with a Preposition Expert Guy"), I happened to have been a fat kid. I mention this because many of the people who wrote to me were certain I was whippet thin and had been blessed with a hummingbirds metabolism. Alas, no. I really had done a lot of dieting, and I really did discover that when I ate less, I weighed less, and when I ate more, I weighed more. Is it really that simple? Yup. Of course simple isnt the same thing as easy, but there you go.
I bring this up because a lawsuit has been brought against four fast food chains by a gentleman named Mr. Barber, who suffers from obesity and a variety of obesity-related problems. Hes 56 years old, has high blood pressure and diabetes, has suffered two heart attacks, and says: "I trace it all back to the high fat, grease and salt, all back to McDonalds, Wendys, Burger King -- there was no fast food I didn't eat, and I ate it more often than not because I was single, it was quick and Im not a very good cook. It was a necessity, and I think it was killing me, my doctor said it was killing me, and I don't want to die."
The wire stories about this also quote his lawyer, who hopes this suit will compel fast food restaurants to offer healthier fare.
Actually fast food restaurants have been offering salads for years and in some cases for decades, Burger Kind has a veggie burger (and so does McDonalds near some college campuses and other places where theyre likely to be popular), and out in the non-fast food universe IT HAS NEVER BEEN EASIER TO BUY AND EAT HEALTHY FOOD. Im sorry for yelling, but some people are apparently under the impression that there was a golden age when everybody in America ate lots of vegetables and people were extremely healthy and only when the sinister Golden Arches were erected on the corner of Main and Elm did Americans start eating this evil fat-saturated glop.
In point of fact, Henry Adams "America During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison" reports that a pretty hefty percentage of Americans ate pork pie for pretty much every meal if they could manage it. Ive never had pork pie myself, but I suspect it contains pork, and probably lots of it. I grew up in a house-- in a neighborhood-- where there was meat on the table every night, not infrequently in the form of Jersey comfort foods like Taylor Ham. People cooked with LARD.
"It was a necessity," says Mr. Barber, but it wasnt. These days I can walk into the supermarket and there are scores of tasty vegetarian meals, not to mention endless variety of low-fat and / or low calorie entrees. Even though fast food is cheap, home cooking is even cheaper. Mr. Barber may be the worlds worst cook, but he can probably boil water, which means he can make pasta and cook frozen vegetables. And if hes got a microwave, he can make almost anything. Im not claiming a microwave meal is the most delicious thing on the planet, but then were talking about an alternative to McDonalds, not Le Cirque. Mr. Barber has always had plenty of options, and he has always had access to the information that fast food isnt health food, and that maybe it would be a good idea to get some exercise once in a while. In filing this lawsuit Mr. Barber is proclaiming himself to be at best astoundingly ignorant, at worst amazingly stupid. Hey, no argument here.
Of course you dont get into the papers by saying "I ate too much and exercised too little and now my health is suffering for what I did and didnt do." The amount of money at issue in this suit has not been disclosed, but whatever it is, I guess it must be substantial if Mr. Barber is willing to go through what remains of his life with what amounts to a neon "Im With Stupid" arrow pointing in his direction. But then a few years ago a guy got breast implants and kept them for a full year in order to win a bet-- seven figures if memory serves. We are supposed to evince a kind of grudging admiration for people who abase and debase themselves if, in the end, the pay off is big enough. Heres hoping youre going for the jackpot, Mr. Barber.
* * *
For once things were busy at the Custom Neon Sign Shop. It was not that we had any signs to make-- it was more than six weeks since our most recent sign had been commissioned, five weeks since it had been completed, four weeks since it had been completed again with everything spelled correctly, three and a half since it had been picked up and paid for, three since payment had been stopped on the check because it sort of blew apart when it was plugged in. So we were not busy making Custom Neon Signs, but with removing the shop cat from Mulberry Street Joey Clams face.
The shop cat had been Mulberry Street Joey Clams idea. Hed seen cats sleeping in the windows of various stores in Little Italy and Greenwich Village and thought if we had one it might lure customers who would come to look at the cat and then stay to order a tavern sign. Hed told his friends and relatives he was looking for a cat, and in due course one of his cousins had delivered a cat. We never found out what the cats name was, or if it even had one; seconds after being released from the burlap sack, the cat had disappeared into the depths of the shop, emerging from time to time to eat our lunches or to suddenly and without warning hurl itself, claws out, at Mulberry Street Joey Clams face. So on this particular afternoon Mulberry Street Joey Clams was screaming and bleeding and I was trying to separate the cat from the face while still leaving as much of the face as possible intact. I wasnt very good at this despite much practice, but eventually the cat got bored and disappeared once again, and we cleaned up what was left of Mulberry Street Joey Clams face, and decided to take the rest of the afternoon off at the movies, where the early stages of healing could take place in the dark.
I dont remember which movie wed intended to see, but it was sold out so we opted for a French movie next door. The actress in the poster was showing a lot of cleavage and it looked promising, but about 8 seconds into the movie Mulberry Street Joey Clams snarled "What the HELL. Theres WORDS onna picture. And nobodys talkin in ENGLISH."
"Well, its a French movie, Mulberry Street Joey Clams, and--"
"Lemma EXPLAIN something here. If I wanted to READ, which I do not, which is why I said lets SEE a movie, I would have said, Lets go to the liberry and rent a BOOK..." His monologue on the difference between movies and books went on until the lead actress took off her clothes, when it stopped, and started again when she put her clothes back on. At some point two actors were exchanging quips and the subtitle read "Here follow untranslatable French puns," which I must admit was a bit much even for me. Anyway, when the movie ended, or when the actress hadnt taken her clothes off for at least twenty minutes, we left.
Mulberry Street Joey Clams Uncle Danny was waiting for us back at the Custom Neon Sign Shop. Since he was bankrolling the operation he had a key and was often waiting for us back at the Custom Neon Sign Shop. The shop cat was rubbing against his leg and purring, but when it caught sight of Mulberry Street Joey Clams it went instantly into Attack Mode and launched itself into the air. Mulberry Street Joey Clams screamed and ducked, and the cat bounced off the fire extinguisher and vanished behind some boxes to sharpen its claws and perhaps dip them in poison.
"Gennelmen," said Uncle Danny. "I have a commission for youse."
"Give it to him," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "I dont handle the spelling any more. Besides, he likes to READ."
"Nah, this isnt a sign," said Uncle Danny. He reached into his coat and removed a small bundle of postcards. "Its a lot easier, actually, since theres no spelling involved." He spread the post card out on the table. "As you can see, all of these are invitations to examine the * cough * facilities, or in some cases, the accouterments, of many time-share condominiums, summer homes, and so on, in the quint-state area."
"Quint state?" I said.
"From the Latin "Quint" meaning five and the English "State" meaning places where you can not be arrested and sent back to wherever it was you knocked over the Seven-Eleven unless they got an extradition agreement, or unless you violated a Federal statute. The five states involved here are New York, New Jersey, New England, Connecticut, and Long Island. You show up at these places, they take you on the tour, and then they give you a free gift. If they think you are a live one, meaning you are probably going to buy a share in the Condo, they will give you a car. If they think you are a non-live one, they will give you a refrigerator magnet or a piece of rubber with bumps on it that you can use to open jars when the lids have been screwed on too tight." He paused as the shop cat suddenly shot out of an open cabinet and flew past Mulberry Street Joey Clams head, deftly removing (or almost removing) a dime sized portion of Mulberry Street Joey Clams ear. "Stop yellin like that. What are you, a WOMAN? So. Take these cards, they got directions on em, and tell them youre whoever it says onna cards."
I looked at one of the cards. It was addressed to Morton and Gertrude Finkleman. I said nothing.
"So. The way this works, Any cars or microwaves, that goes to us..."
"Us?" I said.
"By US, I mean me. You can do what you want with the rubber sheets things. But I wanna see them so I know you actually went to all 18 of these places..."
I thumbed through the cards. "All of these tours are scheduled for tomorrow and the day after."
"Well, I dont wanna tie you guys up for the whole weekend. Id start in the most distant places and work your way back, so at the end of the day you got less driving to do."
We got up very early the next morning and drove the Neon Custom Sign Shop van to Long Island. The man in charge of handing out gifts at the condo did not believe we were the Finklemans, but he was nice enough to give us the address of the local Woolworths, where bought 18 pebbled rubber jar-lid looseners. Uncle Danny was philosophical; he hadnt really been counting on a new Mazda. "I knew it was at least a 25-1 shot," he said. Mulberry Street Joey Clams face healed up nicely, and I have never had a problem with a stuck jar lid since.
Getting A Head with Ted
I have to think Ted Williams son isnt doing him any favors by freezing the entire Ted. He probably didnt select the just the head, please option because he was afraid people would think he was cheap. He shouldnt have been concerned, because people are far too busy thinking hes crazy to worry about how cheap he is. The fact is, Junior ignored all of my advice. "The HEAD!" I yelled at the TV screen, "Not the body, you moron!" If they do manage to defrost Ted-- the whole Ted, including the opposable thumbs-- Junior is going to be kicking himself, since Ted will be able to sign more Ted™ Williams™ memorabilia and drive the price down. Thats the trouble with physical immortality-- it really screws up the market for autographs, since supply can always keep up with demand.
But thats in the long term. Short term, Junior missed a real opportunity by not freezing the head alone and donating the leftovers to the Baseball Hall of Fame. First off, there would have been a MEGA tax write-off, because who knows what the non-head portion of Ted is worth? Second, if were talking Ted Williams memorabilia, how could you top Teds own BODY? MLB, which recently demonstrated an amazing lack of shame with its never-to-be-forgotten All Star Game That Never Finished But Only Stopped Dead (and it was DEDICATED TO TED, appropriately enough), could either sell off Ted by the pound (fortunately for them, the Splendid Splinter was pretty unsplinter-like by his ninth decade among the unfrozen)... or, they could offer him by the portion. There is, after all, a restaurant in New York where you can dine on Zebra, Siberian Tiger, and so on. So why not a little bistro tucked away in a corner of Cooperstown where, for a SUBSTANTIAL price, you can, since You Are What You Eat, become One With Ted? Or, in keeping with MLBs ever increasing regard for the fans, Ted appetizers could be provided gratis for corporate clients in Luxury Boxes. "Yeah, they called the game after 11 innings because otherwise it would have had to CONTINUE, but we had some of those miniature hot dog hors doeuvres and they were made out of Ted Williams-- and REAL SOURDOUGH BREAD!"
"You know," youre probably thinking, "thats all well and good if they never revive Teds head, but what if they did? What if they figure out how to defrost him and he wakes up and says Geez, wasnt there more of me than this? What happened to the parts that I used to run with and throw with and so on? Isnt he going to be miffed when he finds out it was served with lima beans or auctioned off on eBay?" And the answer is, yeah, probably, but then Ted got miffed pretty easily anyway. I think hed be a tad more honked if he wakes up and hes still attached to that 83-year-old carcass. Lets face it, hes seen enough of that thing. More than enough. In the year 2525 if man is still alive and theyve managed to return Ted to 98.6 without turning his brain into potato salad, they will certainly be able to bolt his head onto a new body. Either an organic one, cloned from his own cells, or a synthetic one, which will be able to perform incredible physical feats even Ted in his prime was incapable of, but then it will turn out to be an EVIL android body and Ted will have to struggle to keep control of it and it will look like hes lost and the evil android will be driving a truck right at a bunch of school kids in a crossing, cackling evilly, but then TED will gain control of the body for just a minute, crying "NO!" and hell jerk the android arm and send the trunk crashing into a wall, destroying the evil android body and sacrificing himself to save the kids. So probably we want to go for the clone option, although there is always the possibility of an evil clone body, too. But science tells us this is much less likely than the evil android body. Another possibility is that by the time Ted is back among us, bodies per se will be totally pass鮠Maybe everybody will be just a head by then, although as I understand it, if this happens, the heads will be gigantic and bald. Many of us are already halfway there. Anyway, at that point in human development, baseball will be played by MENTAL POWERS-- we will use our mind to swing the bats and throw the balls and so on, and we will have precognition so we will all know the outcome of the game before it is played and therefore wont even bother and everybody will just sort of loll around saying "Theres nothing to do around here." In that event, Teds appearance will be a big deal, since we (that is, they, the big heads) will ask Ted what it was like back when people had bodies and had no idea how a game was going to turn out until it was over, or until the commissioner of baseball called it on account of its getting pretty late and the puffy shirt episode of "Seinfeld" is on in half an hour.
Of course, the odds are that you and I will never find out which of these possible futures for Ted will come about. All we know for sure is that no one will ever be able to write a biography of Ted Williams, the best pure hitter in the history of baseball, without mentioning this grotesque (and fortunately posthumous) coda.
Thanks so much, Junior.
ASK THE SOAP ANIMALS EXPERT GUY
AN ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE MANAGEMENT: We are sorry to announce that the Soap Animals Expert Guy has called it a day; after 17 years of tirelessly answering your questions about carving animals out of bars of soap, he has decided to move on to other, non-soap animal, things. He will be missed, and we hope youll join us in wishing him the best of luck in his future endeavors. But we are excited to introduce the new Soap Animals Expert Guy, formerly the Sub-Particle Physics Expert Guy. We are sure that his unique perspective on Soap Animals will delight all the regular readers of this column and attract many new ones.
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AN ANNOUNCEMENT FROM YOUR NEW SOAP ANIMALS EXPERT GUY:
In order to facilitate the transition to the NEW, HAPPENING Soap Animals Expert Column, please compose all questions Chico Marx style. Like-a DEES. That-a way, Im-a know you payin attention to-a wotta Im-a talkin here. And if appropriate, I will respond to the questions Chico-style as well. I look forward to answering you queries and bringing you the most up-to-date Soap Animals information available. Thank you.
The Soap Animals Expert Guy
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DEAR SOAP ANIMALS EXPERT GUY:
When carving soap animals, such as Octopi, with multiple appendages (especially thin appendages), it was suggested in this column that the appendages be reinforced with wire. I have two related questions: first of all, what sort of wire should be used, and second, whats the best way to insert it into the soap? My experiments along these lines have inevitably resulted in the soap splintering or shattering and Im tempted to simply leave well enough alone and leave my soap animal appendages un-reinforced.
Im-a sorry, but-a you no write-a duh letter like-a Chico Marx. Wazza matta? You no can-a read-a? Try again-a, an a-maybe you make-a bad-a pun about-a the octopi, or about-a SOME kinda pie, an a-we think about-a answering your letter-a.
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DEAR SOAP ANIMALS EXPERT GUY:
I thought your readers would like to know the outcome of the Soap Animals Competition Finals in Doylestown this past week. In the category of Most Ornate, the winner
EXCUSE-A ME FOR-A INNERUPTTING-A, but you no write-a like Chico either. An-a you no askin-a no question! Say, Boss, Dese-a Soap Animal people isnt-a payin no attention! What-a we gonna do??
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AN ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE SOAP ANIMALS EXPERT GUY:
Eet-a looks-a like-- Er, I mean, it appears that we have gone as far with the Soap Animals Expert Guy Column as possible, and its time for a change of direction. From now on, this space will be devoted to...
ASK THE MEAT PANTS EXPERT GUY
Send in all your questions about pants made out of meat to me and I will do my best to answer them. Hey, heres one now!
DEAR MEAT PANTS EXPERT GUY:
Wow, what a great idea. This is much better than that Soap Animals Column. I dont know what they were thinking giving you a stupid column like that to write. They really dont appreciate you. Especially the Chief Executive Expert Guy but then he is three sheets to the wind half the time anyway. Keep up the good work!
Thanks for writing. Your support means a lot.
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DEAR MEAT PANTS EXPERT GUY:
Lets have more letters about meat pants themselves. What are they, anyway, and how did you become such an expert on them?
Meat pants are pants made out of meat. In an emergency where you had no access to food but were wearing meat pants, you could eat the pants and keep yourself alive. Of course it would not be necessary to eat the entire pair of pants. You could just eat the leg parts until they were cut offs. That would probably give you enough energy to survive until you could get to a store. You also ask how I became an expert on them. Well, I didnt actually become an expert on them, but then I didnt become an expert on Soap Animals before I started writing the Ask the Soap Animals Expert Guy column either. I just came into work one day and was told the old Soap Animals Guy had hit the bricks and I was taking over and I could kiss my sub-particle physics column goodbye because there were more people interested in soap animals than in sub-particle physics. The Chief Executive Expert Guy (HIC! HIC!) explained the economics of this decision eloquently. You bet.
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DEAT MEAT PANTS EXPERT GUY:
All well and good, but I and many other people happen to be vegetarians. Is there a vegetarian alternative to meat pants?
Yet a Third Fan
Yes indeed. Veggie Burger Pants are just what the doctor ordered. These, of course, are made out of soybeans. Many people who are not vegetarians buy them just for the delicious taste, but they dont wear as well as real meat.
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DEAR MEAT PANTS EXPERT GUY:
Do any celebrities wear meat pants? Or even have their own lines of designed meat pants?
Even a bigger fan than the other fans
Yes, many celebrities wear meat pants, notably William Shatner ("Captain Kirk") and Martha Stewart ("Just Mention Her Name for Cheap Laugh"). Well, to be perfectly honest, no celebrities wear meat pants at the moment, largely because meat pants dont actually exist, although Angelina Jolie has a veal-cutlet mini dress she wears to awards shows. I just made the whole thing up to honk off the Chief Executive (HIC!) Expert Guy. But I am informed that this brief noble experiment in free speech has come to its conclusion and the Soap Animals Expert Guy must return to duty unless he wants his checks made out to Meat Pants Expert Guy, which he doesnt. So be it.
DEAR SOAP ANIMALS EXPERT GUY:
Is it legitimate to carve a profile of an animal from a soap bar, or does one really have to do the entire animal, like a miniature sculpture?
Hey, you no write-a like-- Oh crap, Im not allowed to do that anymore, either. Anyway, Tired, this isnt Ancient Egypt. You want to do profiles, work in another medium. Soap animals ARE miniature sculptures.
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Well, thats-a all the time-a we have-a this week. Joost got a memo sayin I would-a still be the sub-particle physics-a expert-a guy eef-a I could-a show a little-a reSPEC. Yeah Im-a show you some-a respect-a, you fat-a stupid-a piece of-a
DUE TO TECNICAL PROBELMS THIS COLUMN HAS BEEN DISCONTINUED. PLEASE STOP BY NEXT WEEK FOR OUR NEW ASK THE VINTAGE RUNNING SHOE EXPERT GUY FEATURE.
From the Mail Box
My indefatigable correspondents have been busy these past few weeks. As usual, there have been helpful suggestions ["...maybe you should stick your head in the doorway and slam the door on it a couple times it would probly (SIC) improve your writing..." -- from a fan in Pittstown], useful criticisms ["...I hope you are not under the impression you do not stink..." --words to live by from a reader in Alexandria], and many, many suggestions about future directions the column could take ["...Stop. Stop! Just STOP..." --J. L., a long-time devotee of your humble undersigned].
Mitch K. of Doylestown PA wrote in to request a column about anocadas. He didnt say why he wanted to read a column about them. I was game, but unfortunately he also didnt say what they happened to be, and even my unabridged dictionary was no help. I wrote back to Mr. K. asking for more details-- and possibly a variant spelling-- but to date I have received no reply. So for the moment Im going to have to beg off. I say that with some trepidation, because in my heart I know an anocada column could be a total killer with a belly laugh in every sentence.
Melissa [who requests no further identification in the paper] wrote in to ask why I dont run book reviews in my column, or mention the books I happen to be reading. As a matter of fact I do occasionally mention the books Im reading, or have recently read, or maybe read quite a while ago, or anyway heard about. Since these books all tend to have floating eyeballs and /or giant insects on the cover, I try to limit my references to them, lest my readers come to the (correct but embarrassing) conclusion that my recreational reading is limited to books with floating eyeballs and/or giant insects on the cover.
Some readers-- well, okay, one reader-- wrote in to ask for Calvano and Picarillo stories that take place after their junior high school days. I wont categorically rule such a thing out, but I must warn you that Picarillo in the throes of puberty was not a pretty sight and this is, ostensibly, a humor column, after all.
Charles Smith of Easton thinks I use too many adverbs. He wonders if I get paid by the word. Well, yes I do, and in fact for each adverb I use, I get an extra 20 bucks. I get 20 bucks for gerunds, and if I can work soir饦amp;#146; into the column somehow, I walk home with a cool 50 bucks.
Noreen Ealer of Ferndale Pa, wrote regarding my column about TV reunion shows, in which I mentioned my fondness for chimps. On TV, that is. "It reminded me of a show back in the sixties called Lancelot Link. The show was a simian version of "Get Smart." And of course, every episode featured Lance and friends playing a super groovy tune, a la The Monkees (no pun intended). Anyway, that got me to thinking, why couldnt old episodes of The Love Boat and Mary Tyler Moore be reshot using chimps? Technically [an adverb! Ka-ching!!] these would be new shows, not reruns or reunions. The entire cast of The Love Boat could be played by chimps, except for Gopher, who would be played by a gopher (he might need a hibernation clause written into his contract). Perhaps Jack Jones could be persuaded to rerecord the Love Boat theme in Chimpanese. Best of all, the studios could use the same scripts, sets, and costumes, eliminating the expense of writers, set designers, etc. If this idea were to catch on, one day there might even be a Chimp Channel (all chimps, all the time!)" We can only hope, Noreen, we can only hope.
Someone in Tinicum sent a postcard, which reads, in its entirety: "Say something about how expensive weddings are." Your wish is my command. Weddings are very expensive. And hey, how about that inflation? Prices just keep going up and up.
Finally, there were several letters concerned with the Ask the Expert Guy columns we run here from time to time. One person-- I have the name and town, but will *ahem* withhold them because Im a really nice guy-- wrote to the Remaindered Three Stooges Calendar Expert Guy with a question. The Remaindered Three Stooges Calendar Expert Guy doesnt live here any more, Im afraid, but the answer to your question is: The movie was "The Three Stooges in Orbit," and the subtitles were in Martian. Its not unprecedented for people to suggest ideas for the Expert Guy, but only rarely do people go through the trouble of actually sending me what amounts to half a column-- that is, sending me a dozen or so questions on some inane topic which I then answer. The last person to do so (and get into print) was Dave Pratt of somewhere or other; more recently A. Kessler of somewhere else or other sent me several pages of "Ask the Salad McShake Expert Guy" and the only thing which has prevented me from running it for your enjoyment is the little TM that has to be inserted after Salad McShake like so: Salad McShake™. My reluctance to publish the piece should not be construed as a criticism of either A. Kesslers work, which is excellent, or of the SMcS™ itself, of which ditto. But my journalistic integrity requires me to refuse to print what would amount to a 2000-word advertisement. Unless somebody forks over a lot of bucks. I mean a lot of bucks by MY standards. It would be chump change to the McDonalds corporation. They would be getting their moneys worth and then some. And let me tell you, when Im bought, I stay bought. You want Picarillo and Calvano to get jobs at the take-out window at the McBride Avenue McDs? Say the word. You wont be sorry.
NEW CHANGES IN THE TAX CODE
There have been over 27 BILLION changes in the federal tax codes for 2002 and you could lose enormous amounts of money unless you hire someone to pretend to be you and confuse the government while you hightail it to New Zealand. DO NOT LET THEM WEAR YOUR SHOES, as this is extremely unsanitary, as Ray Beamer in my 8th grade gym class discovered. But what CAN you do to protect yourself, your money, your family while still complying with the law? Unfortunately, nothing at all.
First, make note of these NEW DEDUCTIONS:
For FIRST TIME HOME BUYERS, there is a one-time 20% deduction if your first name has a z in it. Examples: Zeke, Jabazz, Buzzy, Zippy, Ted, Zero. QUESTION: What about a middle initial Z? ANSWER: Only if the middle initial Z stands for your first name. If you think your parents screwed up and put your first name in the middle on your birth certificate, you may file a form 27xhhgfkfmlzzy79djd, "Request to shift middle name to front on account a thats where it was spoze to go inna first place." Attach this to your Unreported Farm Income report, Form Wfhjglkgjg767fjfj [See schedule 398958676768797898 for instructions]. QUESTION: What if my name does not have a Z in it? Can I still claim this deduction? ANSWER: Yes.
For each time you use the self-serve soda dispenser at a fast food restaurant and DO NOT take any ice, deduct $7 from your total taxes owed (no more than 29,000 times). There is no way we can check this, so please dont cheat.
Under an amendment to the Deferred Income Defense Initiative Set-aside Preferral Act, you may deduct $250 for each leaky Air Jordan. You may also be eligible for the That Is So 1989! deduction. ALTERNATIVELY, you may want to itemize your sneaker repair supplies if the total works out to more than $250.
If you have not filed a schedule D-5895 EZ tflkg during the past 9 years and you have an old box of candy lying around and all the candies inside are stuck together so the box doesnt even rattle any more, you may be eligible for this. You will need to keep the box for 7 years in case of an audit. The auditor also says you will want to keep maybe a six pack of Coors around too, and you could possibly send out for some Chinese? Is there a good place in your neighborhood? CANDY STUCK TOGETHER IN JARS is not eligible for this but if it looks really cool you may want to say its an installation and apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship.
All money spent on Girl Scout Cookies is deductible, except for Thin Mints. The auditor wouldnt mind capping off that Chinese take-out with a few Thin Mints, to tell the truth. So youll want to have a quart of milk around, too, to wash them down. 2% is fine, 1% is okay, but keep the skim for people who really like drinking blue milk.
The IRS has been using a budget printer in order to save money recently and some instruction forms have going out to tax prayers with important instructions ending in mid sentence. If this happens to you, you should file for an interruptus deduction. All you need to do is
If you brought your lava lamp home and you thought "now what the hell was I thinking??", file for the LLDD (schedule qwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnm 2-B478576078-9). You will get no money back for this but under the new tax code you may be eligible to re-file under the Wetlands Preservations Act if lava lamps are reclassified as medical supplies.
This is a typographical error for something having to do with floop. If you are eligible for this, you may deduct 15% of the initial Gax fee so long as it does not exceed the Floop allowance by more than $487. See, but do not read, schedule 37B-yoobawoobafooba
AVOID SOME OF THE MOST COMMON TAX PREPARATION ERRORS
Some people write down that they made a lot more money than they actually did so the tax people will be impressed and think you are a big shot. DONT DO THIS. It is a little known fact that the money you pay in income taxes is DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE AMOUNT YOU EARN. So you might want to write down that you actually earned LESS than you did. Under the new tax codes, this is legal, so long as you actually DID earn less than you did.
While computing travel expenses, many people forget to add time spent watching trailers at the movies, including not just coming attractions but trivia questions and adds for local business. This is in fact not permitted under the IRS code but if the guy who is checking your form is about to go to lunch or something he might just check it off and give you the money anyway so go for it.
Taxpayers often forget to say "except anchovies" when ordering a pizza with everything.
Depreciation on pencils is often neglected. Pencils can last for decades, especially if they fall behind the radiator.
Some guys answer personal ads from women who describe themselves as voluptuous. Uh-uh. When you see voluptuous, do not think Sophia Loren circa 1964. Think Chris Farley circa 1993, in a dress.
Many people look under "IRS" in the white pages instead of the blue pages. This is a big mistake because the one in the white pages is the Independent Republic of Swaboola. This is located in Kingwood and is actually this guy Terry Swaboola, who is a total nut case. But his tax advice is pretty solid.
My game plan for this weeks column had been to conduct one of those inimitable (I almost typed interminable) interviews with my daughter and run it verbatim. Since this column will be making its way into print on the penultimate day of her high school career, I thought it would make an excellent an excellent graduation present-- certainly superior to that 1981 Datsun that shes been drooling over. And far more fuel efficient, too.
"Just think of a subject," I said. "Something you and perhaps one or two friends can wax droll over for ten minutes or so. Current events, favorite foods, boy crazy friends... anything goes."
"No holds barred this time," I said. "Anything the libel laws will allow. After all-- it will be the last time you can appear in my column while youre still a high school student."
There were several more questions, all terminating in "nahs." I have to admit I wasnt entirely surprised. Once upon a time my daughter was eager to be interviewed for this column and so were most of her friends. But the last time I tried to initiate one of these things-- which was late March-- I was nahed into little pieces. Being interviewed by her father was just one more thing my daughter had outgrown, like The Babysitters Club books, eating nothing but Doritos for an entire week, and The Spice Girls. (Although I may be giving her a little too much credit vis-୶is the Spice Girls, who managed to squandered their allotted 15 minutes of fame in less than three). So I hung up the phone, reluctantly abandoned this idea, and went out for an evening walk.
Im going to interrupt myself here for a warning. You may be thinking that this is going to turn into one of those heart warming columns where daddys little girl comes through and does that one last incandescent interview for the old man and blah blah blah. Well, in the immortal words of my daughter, nah.
Often while Im out for my evening walk inspiration strikes. Usually this inspiration is along the lines of "Hey-- if I stick all those little slivers of soap in the soap dish together, I can put off buying a new bar for ANOTHER WEEK!!" But sometimes Ill be strolling along and a classic "Ask the Broken Toe Nail Clipper Expert Guy" column will take shape in my brain, to burst out of my skull fully formed by the time I arrive home. Yes, its messy, but I just fill in the gaping hole with a little wood putty and Im as good as new.
This time the column was still at the guess I better write something or other stage when I got home, but when I opened the door, I found my daughter in the living room, talking on the phone and watching TV.
"Hey. You decided to do an interview after all?"
"No. It was an emergency," she said. "I had to come here. Mom is watching some STUPID TV show. So I had to come here, because the greatest movie EVER is on."
I turned to look at the screen. I did not recognize the greatest movie ever. Which, I learned, was something called "Atomic Twister." Emma was not just watching "Atomic Twister," she was discussing it with someone on the other end of the phone. Traditionally people who tell you that this-or-that is the greatest movie ever (and these people are always wrong unless theyre talking about "Super Vixens," by the way) have at least seen the movie in question. But as I learned from listening to Emmas half of the phone conversation, neither she nor her friend had seen this movie before, since this was its world premiere. Not only that, but the movie had only been on for about 15 minutes. While I think its generally true that you can tell whether a movie is going to be great or terrible within ten or fifteen minutes (just good or bad can take a while longer), I think 25 minutes minimum is required before you even start thinking greatest movie ever made. Otherwise its like watching the second inning of a ball game and announcing "Wow! Both these guys are pitching no hitters!"
"Why dont we do an interview about what you think about this movie?" I asked.
"Well, you and your friend, who ever it may be, just seem to be talking about this movie and I could just write down what you say. Except Ill have to guess a little as far as your friend is concerned, since I cant hear what shes saying. Not being on the phone myself."
Loving father that I am, I decided to do it anyway. But here we are, 800 words into a 1000-word column, with the bottom of the page hurtling towards you like a runaway freight train. Something, you must be saying to yourself, went horribly horribly wrong.
Maybe one horribly covers it. My daughter kept saying the same thing: "This is so LAME. This is the greatest movie EVER!" And then her friend on the phone would say something-- possibly "Yes, it is very lame. Yes, it is the greatest movie ever." Then a character in the movie would say something or do something, and my daughter would say, "This is so LAME..." Et, you know, cetera.
I was about to give up the whole thing and start "Ask the Greatest Movie Ever Expert Guy" when a commercial came on-- for what I have no idea-- with a sound track of the late great Mel Torm頳inging "It Dont Mean a Thing if It Aint Got That Swing." Emma, speaking into phone: "Dont SING!" But her friend paid her no mind. Emma handed me the phone and I heard someone-- I cant identify the voice with 100% accuracy or rest assured it would be here-- singing "...that swing-- doo wah doo wah doo wah doo wah doo wah..." Many more doo wahs than were strictly necessary, in fact. I handed the phone back to Emma, who was now laughing uproariously and said, "I handed the phone to my DAD while you were doing that!"
I could probably have heard the scream without the phone.
It was a wonderful shared father-daughter moment, possibly the last of my daughters high school career and certainly the last one to appear in print while shes still a student at Del Val. Happy Graduation, honey.
You wouldnt have liked that Datsun anyway. Trust me.
Clean Up Time
It was time to clean up my dads office. We called it the office because thats where all the filing cabinets were, but after he retired it was basically the room where he taped hockey games. The office had a terrible TV set but an excellent VCR. The good TV set was in the TV room. I could never convince my father that he could toss the crummy TV set and still tape his hockey games using just the VCR. "Where do you think the picture comes from? The air?" That, of course, was exactly where the picture came from, at least until he got a cable hook-up, at which point it came from the cable. He taped hockey games that happened to be on while he was out, or while he was asleep, and brought the tapes into the TV room to watch on the good TV. He also taped all the Giants Football playoff games starting in 1981, although he was watching them live at the same time (on the crummy TV) and never rewound them, let alone watched them. At some point over the course of 20 years he must have realized he would never watch them, but it made him feel good to see all those games lined up on the book shelf, and he continued to tape them right up to and including that debacle against the Ravens. I couldnt bring myself to throw them out.
The first things I tossed were the phone bills from the old house. I couldnt figure out why my parents had brought ten and twelve year old phone bills when they moved. Did they anticipate sitting in front of the fireplace one day and nostalgically glancing at that bill from Sept. 1965? "Look at all these calls to Margaret Schuller... and I hardly ever speak to her now... Hmmm, 256-1135. We called it twice in one day but I cant for the life of me remember who that is..." Or maybe it was just in case one day the phone company showed up at the door and said, "You never paid the June 1962 phone bill and now with interest that comes to $25,000! Pay up at once... unless you can produce the ORIGINAL PHONE BILL..." My father happened to work for the phone company and I couldnt help but think that if he was holding on to these things for 40 years there must be a reason. But there were the electric bills, too, and invoices from plumbers who ceased plumbing right around the end of the Johnson administration. No, he just kept everything that looked even vaguely official. So into the wastebasket it all went.
No, thats a lie. Some of it went into the wastebasket-- a mere fraction of a smidgen of an iota of all these bills and statements. The rest of it went directly into 30-gallon garbage bags. Many, many 30-gallon garbage bags. Some future anthropologist will read these words and curse me for destroying this treasure trove of mid-late twentieth century minutia, but you know what? Too bad.
Then I found the audio cassettes. They were unlabelled or labeled so cryptically they might as well have been unlabelled. One said "A.H." I put it into the tape player and for a while all I could hear was a TV playing in the background. Finally I realized it wasnt the background, it was the whole point of the tape. It was an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" that my mother or my father had decided to save for some reason. Before the days of VCRs, that meant an audio cassette. The sound quality was so poor I couldnt make out what was going on. I wonder how many people did that? Are there basements and attics scattered all over America with unlistenable reel-to-reel tapes and those miserable first generation audio cassettes that jammed if you blinked too violently, on which are hour after hour of "I Love Lucy" and "The Twilight Zone" audio tracks? Who in the late fifties imagined that some day youd be able to buy this stuff at the supermarket for 5 bucks a pop-- probably about 42 cents an episode in 1956 money? Certainly not me-- when I was in high school I shot the shower scene in "Psycho" right off the TV screen and unspooled it after school one day for the Film Club, horizontal scan lines included, with the volume controls of the TV hugging the bottom of the shot all the way through. Nobody complained. It was a triumph of technology. Honest.
And finally I found the tracing paper. It was a large piece. Someone-- undoubtedly my mother-- had traced two or three dozen cartoons onto it. I was flabbergasted. Why would anyone take a cartoon book and TRACE the whole thing? I took a closer look. These were Eggbert cartoons. I was even more flabbergasted. My mother had traced every line of these things. They were awful cartoons, although I remember my parents and their grown-up friends liked them because they were naughty. Each one showed a little kid in the womb-- sometimes two little kids-- making some sort of womb-related wise-crack or off color remark. (First kid to second kid: "Now remember-- first one out yells surprise!") And as I looked from cartoon to cartoon, I remembered that there was no Eggbert book, or at least my parents didnt have it. Eggbert, who was far to risqu鍊for the cartoon syndicates in 1959, appeared on... cocktail napkins.
And if my parents wanted to preserve his antics for future generations, tracing was really the only way to go. Copy machines existed, of course, but they were far from ubiquitous and took a million years to run off a picture. 36 cocktail napkins would have taken someone the better part of the morning to duplicate, and in all likelihood the machine would have crashed under such a heavy demand. My mother probably managed to trace the whole set of napkins in half an hour or so. To preserve forever such hilarious gibes as (Eggbert cocking his thumb outside the womb): "Get her-- now she wants a salami sandwich!" and (Eggbert counting on his fingers): "Near as I can figure... it all started right after Randolphs cocktail party!" Maybe they thought without evidence no one would believe the kind of licentious humor you could buy over the counter in 1959. "It was too hot for reputable publishers to touch, of course, but for a brief moment, things loosened up enough so that the authorities winked at this kind of thing, as long as it was printed on a napkin or an ashtray or something..."
Maybe thats why they hung onto this tracing paper for more than 40 years. As for why I havent thrown it away, youre guess is as good as mine.
CAR ON THE STAIRS
The night the car went down the stairs I was wearing my new sweatshirt, which I had received a few days earlier as a Christmas present. Every year I was given a sweatshirt for Christmas, and every year it was a mouth-dropper. My mother was a very resourceful and imaginative shopper. I liked werewolf movies, so this year I got a sweatshirt with a wolf baying at the moon on the front. You might be thinking "Cool! A wolf baying at the moon!" but this wolf had a little fuzzy pompom on his tail --and the shirt itself was "shocking pink," just in case I still entertained thoughts of wearing it in public. Even the 8-year-old girls on the street would have beaten me up if Id appeared in that thing.
But even though I couldnt wear it outside, I didnt raise any objection to wearing it while sitting in the living room, where I was helping my mother balance the accounts in her Christmas Card Book. This was an enormous ledger which listed every single human being my mother had ever met, and whether or not (1) they had sent us a Christmas card and (2) we had sent them one. I was reading off the return addresses on envelopes and my mother was making the appropriate notations in her book. "Barton," I read, "97 Third Avenue." My mother flipped several hundred pages back to the Bs. "Barton," she repeated, and then marked it down: "1969-- sent AND received."
Now, in those days many people kept a list of who sent a card this year since that would automatically earn the sender a card in return next year. But glancing at the Bs, I noticed entries for folks like the hapless Bagdens, which read: "1959: sent YES / received YES. 1960: sent YES / received NO. 1961: sent YES / received NO. 1962: sent YES / received NO..." and so on.
"Mom," I said, "How many years do they have to miss before you stop sending them Christmas cards?"
"They can go to hell," she said. "Theyll NEVER stop getting cards. I wouldnt give them the satisfaction."
"You look SO NICE in that sweat shirt," she said, engaging in one of her hairpin changes of the subject. "The other kids at school will be jealous."
"Uh-- were not allowed to wear sweat shirts at school," I said. This may have actually been true. The school dress code probably saved me from countless humiliations.
"Well, dont worry. You can wear it on your next Boy Scout camping trip." Oh yeah. The other guys in the Panther Patrol would be awestruck...
Before I could quite wrap my brain around this proposed woodland fashion disaster, there was the sound of squealing breaks, and a crash. We lived at the top of Third Avenue, which terminated in a dead end. There was a large wooden barricade, painted bright white, at the end, and on the other side of that, the hill sloped down to a creek that emptied into the Peckman River. To reach the creek, a set of rickety wooden steps had been erected on the hillside long ago. I ran out the door to the curb and saw the rear end of a car, taillights blinking festively, sticking up at the top of the stairs. "Wow!" I cried, and raced back into the house to get the Polaroid. I was 12 or 13 and had visions of Assistant Patrol Leader of Panther Patrol Wins Pulitzer Prize for Photography dancing through my head.
"Whats going on out there?" asked my father. "What was that noise?"
"The steps broke," I explained. I ran back out, slipped around the barricade, worked my way downhill using an overgrown path parallel to the ruined stairway. It was bitterly cold, but there was no snow on the ground. The car was a 63 Ford. The headlights made a pool of light at the foot of the steps. I crouched in this to take my picture, a head-on shot that included not only the (barely damaged) grill but the shattered railings of the stairs and a few steps below the wheels. I hoped it would look like the car was still in motion when Id snapped my picture. FLASH! I yanked out the film and counted off the seconds before I could strip off the negative and watch the snap shot develop. "...six...seven...eight..." I panted, as I made my way back up hill and trotted home. Now there were sirens approaching. I was vaguely puzzled about why the car hadnt exploded in a fireball, since that was what always happened in car accidents in the movies.
"The stairs just BROKE?" my father demanded. I showed him the picture. The image was just starting to resolve itself. "A CAR went over the hill?! Was anybody hurt?"
"Huh?" I said. "Uh..." It hadnt occurred to me that there might be someone IN the car. This was my first ever car accident, and I suppose I thought drivers were optional.
"Well, he looks okay," said my mother. "Just a little startled." The snap shot revealed, seated at the wheel of the car, a very baffled looking middle-aged man, eyes wide, staring right into my flash. The sirens outside changed pitch as the police and the ambulance arrived. We looked out the window.
There was a man standing in the road, talking to the cops. It was the guy in the snap shot, still looking baffled. "Its the DEAD GUY!" I cried. "I mean, the guy in the car. Hes OUTTA the car! But hes NOT GETTING THIS PICTURE!"
"It must be 10 degrees out," said my mother. She told my sister to ask the two cops and the man from my soon-to-be-classic photo to come in while they took his statement. "Ill make some coffee," she said.
"And give them those crappy cookies your sister sent us from Texas," said my father. Then, with great presence of mind, he motioned me into the dining room and pulled off my pink sweatshirt. I had completely forgotten I was wearing it. "Put on something normal," he said sotto voce.
I was buttoning up a blue work shirt when the guy from the car was saying, "Im not sure what it was... it seems like it was AFTER the accident, but Im all... mixed up, maybe... it was BRIGHT PINK. Just horrible. And then there was a FLASH... these cookies taste really, uh, funny..."
My father casually wandered into the dining room where my pink sweatshirt was balled up on the floor, and stuffed it into a bag. "The guys a little confused, and of course Jeff had nothing to do with the accident-- probably"... he whispered, "but just to be on the safe side, maybe we ought to hide this in the attic for a while..." My mother nodded.
Apparently the gentleman had simply not realized he was on a dead end street and reacted a bit slowly when it finally dawned on him. The stairs were eventually rebuilt. I did not win the Pulitzer for my photo. There was nothing in the official police report about the hideous pink vision the man saw in his headlights after the crash-- despite which the sweatshirt was never seen by human eyes again. And the Bagdens continued receiving Christmas cards from us until they finally surrendered and moved away, leaving no forwarding address.
a Loveboat on the Seas of Time
As my long-time readers know, I make very few New Years Resolutions, but when I do make one, I stick to it. Its easy. Because the fact is, I HATE asparagus.
This year, I also resolved to avoid all TV reunion shows. Well, if they do a reunion for whatever that show was where they said "Winky Dink needs a ladder to get out of the hole!" and I stuck a piece of wax paper on the TV screen and drew a ladder on the wax paper and then Winky Dink used my ladder-- which never looked much like MY ladder-- to get out of the hole, Ill watch that reunion.
Also, any show with chimps.
But I really have no desire to see what my favorite TV characters look like 15 or 25 years after they shuffled off into the ether. If I want to see receding hairlines, sagging flesh, and enormous liver spots, Ill just look into the side of my toaster. And if I want to see these things on old TV stars, well, wasnt that the whole point of "The Love Boat?"
I was thinking of "The Love Boat" --if youll forgive me for using Love Boat and think in the same sentence-- because I was surfing around the dial recently, actively avoiding the Mary Tyler Moore Show 87th Anniversary Reunion, and suddenly there it was: The Love Boat.
I suppose I will never be able to do an Ask the Love Boat Expert Guy column because Ive never seen an entire episode [Hmm. Come to think of it, maybe that DOESNT mean I will never be able to do an Ask the Love Boat Expert Guy column...]. I sort of know the concept, Ive seen little bits and pieces of it from time to time, and its simply not to my taste-- No chimps, no wax paper, etc. But this time I paused for a few moments because the captain is Gavin whatshisname who played Murray on "Mary Tyler Moore." As I watched the credits unspool, I had a weird sense of dislocation. If youd asked me when I thought "Love Boat" originally aired, I would have guessed very late sixties, very early seventies. Yet it was Gavins POST "Mary" show, which means it must have been late seventies-early eighties-- as the TSOP-flavored theme song, the brightly colored polyester leisure suits, and the endemic sideburns all but proclaim. Yet even watching it for the few moments I did, it still seemed like something that must have predated MTM by a good half -decade. Of course the theme song features the disco-stylings of Jack Jones, who must have last graced the pop charts around 1962, but what really dates the show is the genre-- they literally dont make shows like this anymore.
Like what? Well, for one thing, big budget prime time shows catering to a * cough * MATURE demographic. All the receding hairlines, sagging flesh, and enormous liver spots previously noted as residing in my toaster are present in "The Love Boat" in abundance. I wouldnt be surprised if a considerable number of mid-level movie stars from the thirties and forties made their final public appearances on "Love Boat." You would think there must be a sort of ecological niche somewhere in the network TV schedule for a show that has such a high where are they now component-- I guess the last such show was "Murder She Wrote" -- but maybe not. Maybe all the actual Where Are They Now and Backstory programs on cable have taken care of that need. But surely theres something to be said for a show that allows you to see the favorites of your youth back in action one more time.
I realize this is an odd sort of complaint, since Im more or less lobbying for a type of program I have no interest in. If I start sending out letters that say:
Dear Major Networks: I noticed that there are not many crummy shows featuring washed-up old actors and actresses in the guest slots. I dont like those shows anyway. Please add some to your schedule, and I wont watch them. Your friend...
The major networks in question may feel justified in ignoring my suggestions. "Sure, wed LOVE to slap some crummy shows (featuring washed-up old actors and actress in the guest slots) on our schedules," they would probably write back. (Apparently they are saving money by replying with a single joint letter). "We love those shows, and our moms would start talking to us again. But we are concerned about the part where you say you wont watch them. What can we do to make these shows attractive to people like YOU-- young, hip, vibrant consumers who wear really cool hats [see photo]?"
You know, as much as I like to think Im not susceptible to flattery, that reply just might do the trick. So here goes--
"Dear Major Networks: Well, if you add some chimps to the mix, I might click it on now and then out of curiosity, but this isnt about ME. And many of the older people this show is intended to reach are frightened of chimps. No, sprinkle the chimps throughout your shows, but leave THIS one relatively chimp free. A chimp every four or five episodes, just roller skating through a boring exposition scene, would liven things up for me and probably not upset your target viewers too much. Nobody pays any attention to exposition anyway. But basically, forget I exist. You guys think older people are unimportant because your advertisers dont like them, but your advertisers are missing a real bet here. I just straightened up my dads TV room and I found SEVEN-- thats SEVEN-- remote controls crammed down in the seat cushions. Every time the batteries wear out in one, he buys a new one. Every time the cable company changes the channels around, he figures the remote is broken and buys a new one. Every time he loses one under the seat cushion, he buys a new one. And every time he buys a new one and it turns out not to work because it isnt compatible with his TV... he buys a new one. The amazing thing isnt that hes got seven, its that he doesnt have 40 or 50. None the less, seven is pretty good. It means that when he watches "Gilligans Island," hes got a separate remote for each castaway.
So the solution to the problem is, sell your commercial time to the people who make remotes. Their stock will go through the roof. They will get into bidding wars to advertise on your new crummy show, which I will not watch except when there is a chimp on it. (You might want to superimpose a little banana or something in the lower right hand corner during the chimp shows, so I know to pause while Im channel surfing). And remember-- no reunion shows. Not even if its got chimps on it. I have a resolution to keep.
Year of the Crappy Panel, Day of the Giant Frisbee
The spring I was 8 or 9, all the grown-ups decided they didnt like their basements. Until then basements were dark grungy places with cement or even bare dirt floors. If the house was old enough-- and all the houses in my neighborhood were-- there was often an obsolete coal chute fixed to one of the casement windows. The furnace or the oil burner dominated the place, and all sorts of pipes, wires, and ductwork snaked across the ceiling and up and down the walls. There were usually lots of boxes stored down there, but nothing valuable, because all the basements were damp, and many of them flooded at the first distant rumble of thunder. Some dads had workbenches down there, but by and large they were places to be avoided. We had a washing machine and later a drier in one corner of ours, so my mother was down there a couple of times a week at least, but my sister and I might go a month and a half without venturing down there.
Then one spring it all changed. The entire neighborhood and perhaps the nation was gripped by the desire to finish the basement. This meant, among many other things, lining the wall with ugly grooved paneling. The stuff was hideous but it did hide the concrete walls. It was thin and cheap and you could frame the basement with two by fours and then slap up the paneling in a couple of days. My father used real nails but I think staples or thumb tacks or possibly even Scotch tape would have worked just as well.
Once the paneling was up and the oil burner had been sealed off in its own little room, the grown-ups would have parties in the basement. A lot of people installed bars down there. Everybody would drink out of little plastic glasses and talk about how great the paneling looked. It was a very strange era. When youd had so much to drink out of the little plastic glasses that you could no longer praise the paneling, you would play darts. A lot of the throws were inaccurate and the paneling, being so cheap and thin, quickly took on the texture of a cheese grater for three or four feet around the dart board. About two years later the madness passed and one morning everyone woke up and realized how ugly the paneling was. People went back to storing boxes in the basement and having their parties in the living room. But the dart boards stayed in the basement.
For a while I occasionally went to my basement and tossed darts at the board. It hung in the middle of the pitted paneling until The Summer of the Frisbee.
I suppose Frisbees had been around for a long time before they finally made their way to my neighborhood. Certainly they seemed to be something new under the sun when we first noticed them in the town park. Calvano and Picarillo and I were on our way to the World War I tank memorial one sunny afternoon with a stack of hot rod and monster magazines, which we planned to read inside the tank. For about three hours there was a shaft of sun pouring through one of the gun ports just big enough to illuminate a page of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" or "CARtoons" (featuring Wonder Wart Hog). All literature was vastly enhanced by being consumed within the tank, even though the lighting scheme (and the oven-like heat, and the lack of ventilation) resulted in a pounding headache within two paragraphs of prose (or five comic strip panels).
Calvano was easing open the escape hatch when a plastic disk shot past Picarillos head. All our heads swiveled as we tracked its progress. The two teenagers tossing it back and forth seemed to be having a great time. We were fascinated by the way the thing seemed to curve around in the air, like a boomerang in a movie (in real life, wed discovered, boomerangs just wobbled in a straight line and thunked into the grass, like non-boomerangs).
"What are those things? Where can we get one?" asked Picarillo.
"Frisbees," said one of the teenagers. "And YOU cant get one-- you have to go to school in Cedar Grove." Cedar Grove was the next town over. Although it was an absurdly stupid lie, we bought it totally. It was so unfair, therefore probably true. We were horrified that they could get these Frisbee things and we couldnt.
We retreated to the interior of the tank but could not concentrate on either Wonder Wart Hog or the photo spread on "Caltiki: Immortal Monster." "You think we could call the cops and tell them theres some kids from Cedar Grove playing in OUR PARK?" asked Picarillo.
"Well make out OWN... friz-things," said Calvano. "In fact-- well make, like, SUPER ONES." He hopped out into the blinding sunlight and raced to my house. He removed the dart board from the basement wall.
"See, those guys were just throwing the thing back and forth. But well add the element of hitting it with darts while its in motion..." We went out to the street and practiced throwing the dartboard back and forth like a Frisbee. It wasnt working too well. "Okay, I think you guys got it down pat," Calvano said. "Next throw, Im gonna hit it with a dart."
Within 2 minutes we had lost all the darts without coming close to hitting the moving target. We found one dart in the pachysandra, but were loath to throw it at the sailing dartboard-cum-Frisbee. We tried rolling the dart board to each other. This was very unsatisfying, but Calvano was able to hit it. Unfortunately, we discovered that hitting a rolling dart board with a dart is no different than hitting it with a rock-- it simply knocks it over.
A few days later we found we could purchase Frisbees at the A & P. We were ecstatic that the ban had been lifted. Calvano resumed his experiments with the dart. When he found that a hit with a dart merely knocked the Frisbee down, he ripped some foam rubber air conditioner insulation out of Picarillos sisters room and stuffed it inside the rim of the Frisbee. He had Picarillo hold the Frisbee at a bizarre angle while he tried to toss a dart into the foam rubber. Unfortunately, precision was not Calvanos forte, and Picarillos scream still occasionally makes an appearance in my dreams. That was the end of the Frisbee-dart cross-fertilization. I sometimes wonder what the people who live in my old house make of the thousands of holes in the basement wall, and if Picarillos sister ever figured out why her room never got any cooler, no matter how high up she turned her air conditioner.
Ask the Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
How do you say Can you direct me to a moderately priced hotel in Finno-Ugric?
Planning to visit Finno-Ugricland
I have some bad news for you. First of all, there is no such place as Finno-Ugricland. Second-- although maybe this should have been first-- Finno-Ugric is a family of related languages, not a single language. I suppose to prevent confusion I might better be labelled the Finno-Ugric Family of Langauges Expert Guy, but the little sign on my desk is long enough as it is. [Note: This is a joke. I do not actually have a sign on my desk. In fact I share a cubicle with the Pomeranian Expert Guy and the Silent German Expressionist Film Expert Guy, and we all use the same desk, though we each have our own drawers.]
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
Is Chinese a Finno-Ugric language?
In the mood for General Tsos Chicken
No. Chinese is a sub-family of languages in the vast Sino-Tibetian Language family. It has no relation to the Finno-Ugric family.
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
I find it ironic and a little amusing that you, whose expertise concerns a vast system of languages, share a desk with the Silent German Expressionist Film Expert Guy, whose subject invoves an art form in which no words at all are spoken.
Yes, very ironic. Thanks for writing.
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
What are the words to Besame Mucho?
Not sure what the words to Besame Mucho are
I think it goes (more or less) "Besame-- besame mucho." Then theres a la-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da da-DA-dah-DAH part that seems to be in some foreign language. Im really not that familiar with the song-- sorry.
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
Why does William Shatner talk like that? I mean the whole bizarre cadence thing he does. Instead of saying "Would you mind passing me the basket of bread," he goes "WOULD-- youmindpassingmethe... BASKET... of-- bread!" Does he think its funny, or did he have a stroke. or what?
Please make him stop
It may be a Canadian thing, although Ive never heard any other Canadians do it. Well, except my friend Leo, but he was making fun of William Shatner at the time.
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
Is Pig Latin a Finno-Ugric Language?
Sure hope so
No. Pig Latin is not a real language at all. Its just a screwy form of English. Anks-they or-fay iting-ray, oh-thay.
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
Are you good friends with the Pomeranian Expert Guy? How old is he? Does he really look like the picture of him that they printed with his column last month? He is really cute. I wrote him a letter asking something about Pomerians but he never answered it. Did he figure out I do not really have a Pomeranian and just wanted to start talking to him? Does he hate me? He is really cute so I hope not. Thank you
The Pomeranian Expert Guy is in his late forties or early fifties. We are not close friends but our relations are cordial (which is more than I can say about my relations with the Silent German Expressionist Film Expert Guy, but thats neither here nor there). The picture that ran in the April 1st issue was not the Pomeranian Expert Guy, it was the actor Ethan Hawke. I actually look much more like Ethan Hawke than the Pomeranian Expert Guy does. But they ran Steve Busemis picture with my column in that issue. The Pomeranian Expert Guy receives about 30 letters a day and can not reply to them all in his column. He probably doesnt hate you but he is married. So is the actor Ethan Hawke, incidentally. Youre welcome.
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
Im going to go out on a limb here and guess that the finno part of Finno-Ugric has something to do with Finnish, but Im at a total loss about the Ugric part. Can you help me out?
Whats the story about Ugric?
As you have surmised, Finno refers to Finnish and several related languages, such as Lappish, Estonian, and Mordvinian. These are distantly related to the "Ugric" languages, the most well known of which is Magyar or Hungarian. Ugric shouldnt be confused with Ugriatic, an ancient Semetic language native to Syria, nor with Urga, which is another name for Mongolia.
Dear Finno-Ugric Language Expert Guy:
Have you seen my car keys anywhere? I thought I had them right here and now I cant find them. The key chain has a rabbits foot on the end, if thats any help.
Cant find the darn keys
You should always have a spare set in the house. In any case, I would check under the sofa cushions. Even if the keys arent there, youll almost certainly find some loose change.
Damon Knight, R.I.P.
There was a kid named David Enright who lived a couple of blocks away from me. When I was 12 and he was 11, I stole a book from him. I told him I just wanted to borrow it but even when I was saying it I knew I was lying.
We had been in his room listening to an LP of "Batman"-inspired instrumentals with titles like "Batmobile Wheels" and there was a crappy looking paperback on his bed, with a generic astronaut firing a generic ray gun at a generic giant insect on the cover. It was called "The Worlds of Science Fiction." I had idly picked it up and opened it more or less at random and started reading. I didnt flip to the beginning of a story, I just started reading at the point where my eyes happened to land:
Thats just about 100 words on the nose, and I think there is something that brought me up short every ten words or so. Id never read a story about a comic book artist before. Cool. And he was indifferent to it?? Huh? Table-top what? And what, for that matter, was this story doing in a book with giant insects and ray guns on the cover? I read the next two paragraphs, which described one of the tableaus Cavanaugh was photographing, and then turned back to the beginning, and after about 5 pages I asked David if I could borrow the book and he hasnt seen it since. About a year later I gave him a box full of old comic books, ostensibly because I had outgrown them. Some of them are worth 50 and 60 bucks now if he held on to them, so I dont feel particularly guilty about the book.
The story that triggered my maiden voyage into larceny [a few months later I left summer camp with another purloined anthology, "Monster Mix," but the kid who actually owned it had left it behind when he went home a week early so it was either stick it in my knapsack or leave it for the squirrels] was "Babel II" by Damon Knight, and he died last week at the age of 79.
His death made the wire services because when he was a very young man he wrote a story called "To Serve Man," which served as the basis for one of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone, as well as a great parody on "The Simpsons." It also inspired the only cartoon I ever managed to place in a science fiction zine -- a not-very-good drawing of a woman racing up to a man boarding a space ship and yelling, Dont get on that ship, professor! To Serve Man is a TENNIS BOOK!
Well, I guess you had to be there.
"To Serve Man" got him onto the AP wire and makes him a Possible Future Jeopardy Answer [P.F.J.A., pronounced PUFF-Jah!"] but it was written very early in a career than eventually produced close to 20 novels and another hundred or so stories and in my humble opinion it doesnt even crack the Damon Knight top twenty. He actually got better and better, almost to the very end.
But its possible that his most valuable contribution to American culture isnt a story at all. He was also feisty book reviewer ("This eloquent novel, says the jacket of Taylor Caldwells The Devils Advocate, making two errors in three words...") and, with his friend and colleague James Blish, popularized the term idiot plot.
This is defined as "a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot." I remember any number of evenings sitting before the TV set and asking my parents why a character in some TV show or movie was or wasnt doing something. The conversations always went more or less like this: ME: "Why dont they just call the police?" DAD: "Because then the movie would be over." I always found this a less-than adequate explaination. (My sister, on the other hand, would simply scream "Make him stop!! Hes RUINING THE MOVIE!!" whenever I asked a question). My dad and my sister both appeared to believe that because the movie would be over was a perfectly legitimate motivation for otherwise inexplicable character behavior. I dimly sensed it made sense only if the character in question knew he was in a movie, which kind of spoiled the whole thing for me. Once I had digested the concept of the idiot plot, I felt much better. I understood the problem wasnt ME.
I still have David Enrights copy of "Worlds of Science Fiction." When I walked out of his house with it crammed into my back pocket, all of the 16 writers represented in it were alive and well and still producing. A couple of weeks ago there were only 3 left, and now there are 2, and I guess thats pretty solid evidence that, no matter what anybody says, Im not 12 years old any more.
"Like, why is your dad laughing at that?" said my daughters friend.
My daughter didnt answer, just stared at me. It might have been a stare of annoyance or it might have been disgust. It was hard to say because she was upside down. Or rather I was upside down, but from my point of view her eyes were on the bottom and her mouth was on the top and the subtle nuances were hard to determine. I had a pair of ropes hanging from the transom between my living room and the front hall, and I hang from them for about 10 minutes a day because its supposed to help me get the arm extension I need to do Gomukhasana in my yoga class. Im not quite sure why I want to do Gomukhasana. I dont even know what it is. My yoga teacher is probably pulling a fast one on me and there is no such thing. Its probably the name of the Klingon ambassador or something.
"That woman had like CANCER," said my daughters friend. I nodded, but even upside down I couldnt entirely suppress my chortling.
The woman in question was on a TV commercial which youve probably seen dozens if not hundreds of times, though even now Im not sure exactly what its a commercial for-- possibly a pharmaceutical company. The woman, either a cancer survivor or an actress playing a cancer survivor, is talking about advances made in research and development over the past decade and says:
"If this were ten years ago, I wouldnt be sitting here today."
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you need a heart of stone to hear than sentence and not laugh. My daughter and her friend didnt see it that way.
"Im not laughing because she was sick and got better," I said. "Im laughing because what she said is so..."
I paused as if trying to come up with le mot juste. In point of fact le mot juste-- "stupid" -- had been on the tip of my tongue and Id had to snap it off. Le mot, not le tongue.
"...so, uh, tautological," I concluded lamely. "A tautology is--"
"We KNOW what a tautology is," said my daughter.
"A needless repetition in different words of the same idea in the same sentence," said her friend, for the benefit of anyone who happened to be hiding behind the couch or under the kitchen counter and didnt know what a tautology was.
"Yeah. Thats what Im laughing at," I said, and went back to laughing. Or rather chortling, since Ive seen the commercial about 5 times a day for the past 6 months and dont find it quite as hilarious as I did the first few times. Though of course its still pretty hilarious.
"Well, in the first place [this is my daughter talking], theres nothing funny about tautologies. Theyre just redundant. And in the second place, she didnt say anything tautological."
"Yes she did."
"She said if shed gotten sick ten year ago they wouldnt have been able to cure her and shed have died. Whats redundant? Wheres the joke?"
"She didnt say that. She said If this were ten years ago, I wouldnt be sitting here today."
"I know what she meant to say. I also know she didnt say it. What she did say was, if it was ten years ago, it wouldnt be today. To which the only possible reply is, as you folks say: DUH. What she SAID is no different than if shed said, If I were in Milwaukee, I wouldnt be standing on top of my car in a parking lot in Budapest. Or, if I..."
"You know what?"
"Youre NOT standing on top of your car in a parking lot in Budapest."
"So your whole argument totally falls apart."
"No it doesnt."
"I always get Budapest and Bucharest mixed up."
"Let me relocate my car, then, to make the analogy a little clearer. Its like saying If I were in Milwaukee, I wouldnt be sitting here right now. Okay?"
"You left the car out."
"I know. Im trying to streamline things. The point, to the extent that I have one, is that Im doing in SPACE with MY sentence what shes doing with TIME in hers. Okay?"
"I liked it better when your dad was on top of the car. Is Budapest the one in Romania or Hungary?"
"Budapest is Hungary, and Bucharest is Romania."
"Do you think Budapest is Hungarian for whatever it is that Bucharest means in Romanian?"
"You know... I think it MUST be. It would be too much of a coincidence otherwise. Maybe its a guys name. Some guy who like Lafayette, you know, whos got a city in Indiana named after him as well as a pastry shop in Hackensack."
"Is it a French pastry shop? I guess it must be."
"We didnt go in, we just drove by, but Im sure."
They never quite returned to the subject of the woman in the commercial and her brilliant observation that if it were 10 years ago, it wouldnt be today. I lowered myself from my ropes and did whatever it is that I do when Im not upside down while my daughter and her friend speculated about the identity of this impressive personage who had two European capitals named after him, as well as who knows how many pastry shops. Shortly after that they left, although I suspect before they did I must have wandered out of the room for a moment or two.
The reason I suspect this is that the next day I pulled myself into that upside-down position and one of the ropes snapped. No, dont worry, Im fine. I was unconscious for less than an hour, probably. At first I chalked it up to rope fatigue but when I examined the parting, it appeared to me that the rope had been cut about 90% of the way through.
I have a pretty idea of just who did it, and I dont think it was Ambassador Gomukhasana. It may not have been a Klingon at all. I dont want to make any accusations in print. All I can say is, if this were ten years ago, I wouldnt have landed on my head this morning.
She wouldnt have been able to reach the rope.
KOMODO BILLY BOB
Many readers have expressed an interest in knowing just how I go about writing these columns week after week. Of course when I say "many readers," what I mean is that my daughter agreed to do one of those interviews where she and a friend call me up and I write down everything they say, and then she crapped out on me so now I'm facing deadline without an idea in my head and about 45 minutes to do something about it.
"I had a fight with the girl who was going to do the interview," my daughter explained.
"So call ANOTHER friend."
"None of my other friends will do it. They say you change what they say and make them sound dopey."
"That's ridiculous. So just find one who doesn't know I do that."
"Everybody knows you do it."
"Well, then solo. I'll just interview you."
"Talk to the hand, the ears aren't listening," she said. I talked to the hand for a while but I didn't get any further with the hand than I did with the ears, so here I am.
I quickly reviewed my day's reading to see if there was something in the papers or on the wire that I could work into a column. This is one of the answers to the oft-asked question 'where do you get your ideas?' In general, I steal them, and the newspapers are one of the places I steal them from when I don't have the energy to dig out my old Robert Benchley books and retype one of his articles, sprinkling words like "New Jersey" and "Picarillo" in at random so no one will suspect a thing.
I found two promising stories in the papers: a Billy Bob Thornton interview from the London Daily Telegraph, and a cat-bites-dog story from the Wall Street Journal. The cat story was interesting because the owner of the dog was suing the cat for committing a 'hate crime,' but the Journal's slant on the story-- that it was really stupid-- pretty much pre-emptied anything I was likely to come up with.
Billy Bob was waxing elequent on the subject of his dislike for komodo dragons. Quoth he: "More than anything on this earth, more than any being that exists, they are the creature that represents evil... if it were up to me, I'd just go to that island and kill them all. I would just shoot those sons of bitches."
When I read those words, Iimmediately called UPS and pleaded, "DON'T DELIVER THAT KOMODO DRAGON to Billy Bob after all!"
Well, actually I thought, wow. I've never heard of anybody who had issues with Komodo dragons before. And I have to admit that in this age of politically correct tree-hugging PETA-joining celebrity goo-goos, it was pretty bracing to encounter somebody who not only didn't love a (sort of) endangered species but wanted to speed it on its way to oblivion.
I considered doing a 'Komodo Dragon Expert Guy' thing, where Billy Bob sent in all the letters. So I did a fast web search on both "Billy Bob" and "Dragons." And also one on "Billy Bob AND Dragons," in case there he'd gone on a toot about this before. To my amazement, "Billy Bob AND Dragons" got more than 350 hits. But it turned out the dragons in question were not of the komodo variety-- most of the hits were from a 'Dungeons and Dragons' movie Billy Bob had been involved with. And several mentioned that Billy Bob's wife Angelina Jolie had dragon tattoos somewhere or other. I have to guess that she got them BEFORE she married Billy Bob, although it's possible that one of Billy Bob's 12 or 13 ex-wives sand bagged her with something like "...we'd still be married today if I'd gotten those Komodo dragon tattoos like he wanted..." Either way, though, given Billy Bob's dragon problem, you have to think the tattoos would be a deal breaker. He must be a patient and loving husband, no quesiton about it.
Non-Billy Bob-related Komodo Dragon websites are legion and full of fascinating Komodo Dragonfactoids that would have been a boon to the writing of an "Ask The Komodo Dragon Expert Guy" column, had I chosen to write that, instead of this. It turns out that the komodo dragon is not really a DRAGON-dragon, with the little bat wings and smoke coming out of the nostrils. But it's pretty close-- a 10-foot long meat-eating lizard from Bali. And it's been around since the Jurassic Period. The komodo dragon (real name: Varanus Komodoensis, in the monitor family, Varanidae) is basically the Strom Thurmond of the lizard world. Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't say they haven't had a great run.
But nary a hint about why Billy Bob can't abide them. The Telegraph notes that he once woke his wife and insisted on spending the rest of the night in a hotel because he'd dreamed the house was infested with Komodo Dragons, but Billy Bob's dream seems to have been the fruit of his dragonophobia rather than the cause of it.
Ultimately, my own failure to imagine a reason why Billy Bob flips out over Komodo Dragons is why you're reading this column rather than one that begin:
DEAR KOMODO DRAGON EXPERT GUY:
What is the name of that island where the komodo dragons live? And do they have any gun shops there?
Billy Bob Thornton
As soon as I typed that out, I had a wave of deja vu-- had I done a komodo dragon expert guy column before? (Or, even worse, a BILLY BOB THORNTON-KOMODO DRAGON EXPERT GUY column?). Then I realized that there was a
classic Bob and Ray routine about a Komodo Dragon Expert, which goes more or less:
R: Today we have with us the world famous expert on komodo dragons. Tell me, what is a komodo dragon?
B: A komodo dragon is a large lizard of the species Varanus Komodoensis, indigenous to Indonesian islands east of Java.
R: And where do they live?
B: The komodo dragons live on Indonesian islands east of Java where they grow to a length of ten feet.
R: Do they get very big?
B: Yes, they grow to a length of ten feet and they eat mostly small rodents.
R: Ten feet? Wow! And what do they eat?
So the Komodo Dragon Expert Guy bit was definitely a non-starter.
All in all, I would rather have done the interview I'd been planning. The subject was going to be 'Spring Break.' So you probably lucked out after all.
Discourse on Glop
My parents watched me warily as I dug the chocolate Easter bunny out of the basket. It was huge. I suppressed a look of disappointment as I hefted the bunny in my right hand and judged it to be hollow. It was still a substantial chunk of chocolate. "Now dont go crazy," said my father.
That hurt. Crazy? Me? Just because last year I had wolfed down my chocolate Easter bunny-- a SOLID one, thank you very much-- before the afterimage of the thing had faded from my retinas. "Just a small piece now," I said, "so I dont spoil my appetite for lunch." I broke off a fragment of the left ear and gnawed it thoughtfully. "Excellent chocolate," I said. "Now Ill just stick this up in my room for later..."
"Dont eat the whole thing at once..."
"No, no. Ill make it last all through Easter break..."
Needless to say, most of the bunny was gone before I was halfway up the stairs (though to be fair, I was walking very slowly). The rest was began a whirlwind tour of my digestive tract just as my rear end sank into the beanbag chair under the Nancy Sinatra poster.
Later that afternoon I met with Picarillo and Calvano in the park. The town had padlocked the World War I Tank Memorial which served as our headquarters during the temperate months and we were forced to hold our meetings on the turret, at least until some enterprising teenager employed the bolt cutters and we could get inside once more. We were all sick. Gloriously sick. We estimated that we had eaten approximately 5 pounds of chocolate apiece. I suspect now that the estimate was off, though Im not prepared to say in which direction.
"My mom gave me another bunny, too," Picarillo said. "I had to give it to Noreen. It was WHITE CHOCOLATE."
Calvano and I shuddered. White chocolate was an abomination. But girls liked it for some reason, despite the fact [and it IS a fact] that it tasted like cardboard.
"Ive noticed a definite uptick in white chocolate this year," Calvano said. "Although I have to admit that the bulk to the white chocolate bunnies were solid."
"But small?" said Picarillo. "At my house the white chocolate bunnies were about two thirds the size of the regular chocolate ones."
"Definitely smaller." But this, we decided, was probably a function of their being solid, rather than their being white chocolate.
"You know what the best thing about Easter chocolate-- I mean chocolate-type chocolate, not white chocolate-- is?" asked Calvano. We shook our heads. And instantly regretted it, since the chocolate-induced nausea was aggravated by head shaking. "It doesnt have any STUFF in it. The problem with Valentines Day candy is that you gotta throw out around 90% of it out, because its got glop inside it."
"Cherries are the worst," said Picarillo.
"Maybe. ALL that stuff is bad. Cherries, syrup, nuts..."
"Coconut is okay," I ventured.
"Well, you dont have to throw them out," Calvano conceded. "Theyre okay if theres nothing good left. But regular chocolate is the way to go. Which is why Easter beats Valentines Day, candy-wise."
"Marshmallow," said Picarillo. "Sometimes the chocolate Easter eggs have marshmallow in them."
"True," I said.
"And sometimes you cant tell until its too late, and then you gotta eat them anyway. I mean unless youre alone and nobody can see you spit them out."
"You know," said Calvano, "you gotta wonder why ALL the holidays dont have official candy. I mean, Easter is chocolate Easter bunnies..."
"Chocolate eggs, too, but to a much lesser extent. Valentines Day is all that crappy chocolate nobody likes. Lets see... Well, Halloween is candy corns. Thats a good one, definitely."
Picarillo and I nodded. You either love candy corns or you hate them, and we loved them.
"Christmas is candy canes..." Here there was a long pause. Nobody wanted to say anything bad about Christmas, but none of us cared much for candy canes. "...and, uh... is that it? Is there a special Thanksgiving candy Im not thinking of?"
"Circus peanuts," said Picarillo.
"You know, theyre kind of like big THUMBS but made out of soft candy?" We had no idea. "Well, I always eat those for Thanksgiving."
"Picarillo, this isnt about YOU."
"Im just saying."
"Yeah. So theres no official Thanksgiving candy. Nothing for Columbus Day. New Years? Anybody think of anything for New Years? St. Patricks Day?"
"Some green candy," Picarillo suggested.
"What green candy?"
"Well, I dont know. But green would be appropriate. Maybe something MINTY." He got a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were thinking about mint.
"Veterans Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day: nope, nope, nope," said Calvano. "Whats left? Fourth of July?"
Picarillo opened his mouth.
"We dont want to hear it," said Calvano. Picarillo shut his mouth. "You know... I think its time for us to put away childish things..."
"Its this quote. When I was a child, my spokes were a childs... Uh, wait a minute, theres more... Uh..."
"The whole BIKE would be a childs," Picarillo pointed out.
"Wait a minute, okay? I think in the quote it talks about the rest of the bike, but then it says its time to put away the bike and act like a grown up. Not WORD FOR WORD, but thats the gist of it."
"My uncles got a bike," said Picarillo. "Hes 47. Where did you hear this quote?"
"I think on Bonanza. Anyway, I think what we ought to do... as, like, our civic duty..."
"DUTY!" cried Picarillo, and laughed hysterically.
"Ahem. What we want to do, is MATCH UP ALL UN-CANDIED HOLIDAYS WITH THE PROPER CANDIES. Then we can write a petition and get people to sign it."
"And then what?"
"Then, when a certain number of people sign it-- I think its thirty or thirty five-- it becomes the LAW."
We set about deciding which holiday got which candy. We came close to blows when Picarillo insisted that pistachio ice cream was candy, hence appropriate for St. Patricks Day. I recall that we assigned some really terrible candy we all hated to Labor Day, the holiday that more or less rang in the school year. Calvano wrote up the petition, and we actually went door to door trying to get people to sign it.
No one did. So if youre wondering why everyone isnt out buying malomars [yeah, its a cookie, but that was part of the compromise we worked out with Picarillo in return for dropping the pistachio thing] for Memorial Day, dont blame us. We tried our best.
I had been a teenage summer temp at the Passaic County ID Bureau for about three weeks when I was offered my first bribe. The prisoner mopping up the floor tapped his mop handle gently against my cubicle and whispered, "Got three dollar here. You bring me back two dawg alla way, slim."
I was so startled that I made the right eye of the cockroach I was drawing twice as big as the left eye. "Aw geez," I muttered. My cockroach looked like Popeye the Sailor. Well, maybe that wasnt such a bad thing. I started to draw a can of spinach in one of the cockroachs claws. I wasnt sure what cockroach claws looked like so I drew lobster claws. It didnt look right, somehow. Nobody looking at the drawing would be able to figure out that it was a cockroach.
"Yo, slim," said the prisoner. Since we were located in a jail and not a prison, the prisoners who did the mopping up were all short timers, most of them in for public drunkenness or failure to pay alimony or (once Monday Night Football started in the late summer) hurling a beer can at the TV set at the local bar when Howard Cosell said something particularly annoying. "I jus put the money on toppa the file cabinet. Bring me back two dawg when you come back from lunch. Okay?" I kept my eyes on my mutant cockroach. You couldnt really tell it was a can of spinach in his claw. I wondered if Id left myself enough room on the can to write "Spinach." Would "Spin" work? Or would it just make everything even more confusing? I blinked a couple of times and looked at what I had drawn. I had no idea where I was going with the drawing. I finally allowed myself to glance over to the file cabinet, where three dollar bills were indeed folded up. The man with the mop had moved on to the next aisle. My heart was racing. I folded up the sheet of paper with the spinach-eating cockroach and trotted over to the desk where the other worthless teen age summer temp, Isaac Duquesne [pronounced "Doo-CANE"] was crossing names off the jury duty list. Which is what I had been doing before the cockroach had demanded that I draw him.
"Zack," I said, "the mop guy gave me three bucks to get him some hot dogs for lunch!"
"The MOB GUY??"
"Mop," I said. "The guy mopping up. He stuck three bucks on top of the cabinet and told me to get him two hot dogs all the way for lunch."
"Holy crow. You didnt touch the money, did you?"
"Thats a break. It could be a SET UP. You stick that money in your pocket and when you step out the door, the feds grab you and the next thing you know, YOURE mopping up the place."
"I know," I lied. "I thought exactly the same thing. But what should I do?"
"Well, you might turn him in. But..."
"Well, if its not a sting, then youve made a VERY POWERFUL ENEMY. He gets thrown in solitary for three days and when he comes out, your name is added to The List. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah," I said, wide eyed. "The List!" I stumbled away from the desk and found my way to the water color, where a couple of autopsy photographers were discussing last nights episode of "Fantasy Island." "Hey," I said, "I have a theoretical question. Suppose a trustee offered you some money to get him some hot dogs--"
"How much?" said one autopsy photographer.
"Well, just three bucks-- The dogs cost $1.25 each, so I guess the, uh..."
"...Uh, bribe, would come to 50 cents..."
"Not enough," agreed the second photographer. "The vig should be a dollar per dog."
"Minimum," said the first photographer. "I mean, youre taking a big risk. You smuggle in contraband dogs, youre looking at 25 years in the can."
"Twenty five YEARS??"
"Minimum," he said. "And more if he uses these hot dogs in a criminal act. Because I assume youre not just talking hot dogs QUA hot dogs-- youre talking Hot Texas Wieners?"
"Uh... well, yeah. How did you..."
"A buck twenty five. Thats a PREMIUM price. GOTTA be the H.T.W."
"Should I... I mean, if this wasnt totally theoretical... should I report this to the authorities?"
"Authorities... Well, I wouldnt," said the second autopsy photographer. "I think the safest thing to do would be to just..."
"Quit," said the first autopsy photographer.
"I was going to say something else, but youre right, quitting would be even safer than what I was going to suggest."
One of my co-workers, an older man who spent the mornings fingerprinting new arrivals, had been listening to this conversation. "The shutter bugs are right. If you take the money and buy the wieners, and he DOES something with the wieners, youre an accessory before the fact."
"If he does something with the wieners?"
"Yup. An if you throw the money back in his face-- I dont mean literally, you know what I mean? -- You better be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life. These birds NEVER forget."
"So what should I do?" I said, all pretense about theoretical issues going totally out the window.
"You could get him the hot dogs and eat the money," he said. I must have looked confused, because he continued: "When I say eat the money, I mean you pay for the dogs out of your own pocket."
"Wont help him with the DA when this character uses that wiener to hide an ice pick or something," said one of the photographers.
"But what should I..."
At that moment the head of the ID Bureau called out from across the room: "Hey-- who left this three bucks on top of the file cabinet?"
"I did," called the prisoner with the mop. "I wanted that kid to pick me up some lunch but I guess he forgot."
"What did you want, Danny?"
"Two dawgs alla way."
"Okay. Ill be back in around 45 minutes."
"Keep th change," he called.
I stood where I was, blinking several times. This helps me process information sometimes. Though not this time.
"Just goes to show you," said the second autopsy photographer.
"Show me what?" I said.
"The rich get richer. He who hesitates. The early bird."
"Yeah," I said, and I went back to my cubicle and my cockroach.
ASK THE REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
What's the Three Stooges movie where they are plumbers and they are working in a house where there is this sort of real posh dinner party going on? I think it's a Curly movie.
Wracking my brain
I'm sorry. I'm not really that familiar with the Three Stooges' oeuvre. My area of expertise is this remaindered Three Stooges Calendar. It was purchased in February at an enormous discount at the bookstore in the mall. The fact is, the person who purchased it had his heart set on the remaindered "Dilbert" calendar, but they were all gone by the time he went calendar shopping. Such is life.
* * *
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
What happened to the Hemingway Expert Guy? The Hemingway Expert Guy was interesting, at least sometimes. At least he wasn't an expert on one stupid calendar. What a stupid thing to be an expert on. You are really stupid.
I hate you
We all miss the Hemingway Expert Guy. But he felt it was time to move on. He had one boilermaker too many at the Expert Guy St. PatrickÂ’s Day party and told the Chief Executive Expert Guy that he could make ANY topic interesting. 'How about this stupid calendar I picked up at the mall today?' said the Chief Executive Expert Guy. Before the Hemingway Expert Guy knew what had happened, he had signed a new contract. He's not going to complain about it. He will make the best of it. If you know of any decent jobs with a dental plan and a 401K, please write care of this paper.
* * *
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
My girl friend and I really enjoy the remaindered Three Stooges calendar. The only thing is, we are at heart Curly people. He is by far our favorite Stooge. The remaindered Three Stooges calendar has several Curly photos, but there are almost as many Shemp pictures. Are there other Three Stooges calendars with fewer Shemp pictures?
This is the only remaindered Three Stooges calendar I've seen. Let's all be grateful for the Curly pictures that we do have, and just thank our lucky stars there are no pictures of Joe DeRita or Joe Besser.
* * *
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
How many Stooges were there altogether? Were all the extra stooges Curly replacements, or were there alternate Moes and Larrys as well?
Not really interested, just asking
Once again I am being quizzed about something just a tad outside my area of expertise, but I'll give it a try. To the best of my knowledge, Moe and Larry were never replaced even for a single episode.
* * *
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
I don't know who you think you're kidding. You are the worst Expert Guy ever. Why don't you get a real job? Or at least find a different subject. There are a lot of really crummy Expert Guys out there, but you are the limit.
IÂ’m sorry you feel that way. But at the risk of sounding like a cliché, remember that no one forces you to read Ask the Remaindered Three Stooges Calendar Expert Guy. If you don't like it, turn the page and read the Sub Particle Physics Expert Guy or the Translucent Food Storage Tub Expert Guy or something more to your taste.
* * *
FUN REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR FACT: Each month is illustrated by a different still from a Three Stooges short subject-- and each still is framed by a group of mediocre line drawings of the Stooges!
* * *
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
In my opinion it is quite a rip that it's an 18-month calendar but the extra 6 months are (1) all on one page and (2) ALREADY PAST. Your thoughts, please?
I couldn't agree more about the shameful cramming of the extra 6 months onto one page. On the other hand, the fact that those months are already past is a big part of the reason why the calendar has been remaindered. If this calendar still had more than a year to go, it would have cost substantially more. Everything in life is a trade off, Ripped.
* * *
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
Do any celebs use the remaindered Three Stooges Calendar?
Loves those celebs
One of the few things celebrities do not reveal to the general public is their calendar of choice. Nonetheless, we obtained several tapes of MTV's "Cribs" show and after careful scrutiny of various celebrity walls while the VCR is in 'pause' mode, we were able to determine that none of the carefully scrutinized walls happened to display a remaindered Three Stooges calendar. Of course 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,' but even so, we are quite disappointed.
* * *
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
WouldnÂ’t it be really cool if the dates on the remaindered Three Stooges calendar were wrong? Like there were 30 days in February or something, or Halloween in June? That would be so totally Stooge. And the other thing I wanted to ask as long as I'm here-- well, I mean, I'm always HERE, in the basement, but I mean like while I'm writing this letter-- what is the relationship between the comedy group the Stooges and the band the Stooges? At first I was thinking there kind of wasn't one, but then I noticed on the first stooges album (the one with "I Want to Be Your Dog") Iggy has a kind of "Moe" haircut. Is this just a coincidence? Anyway, keep up the good work
Enjoys your column
Don't write to me any more. Just don't.
* * *
DEAR REMAINDERED THREE STOOGES CALENDAR EXPERT GUY:
Are there any special months named for the Three Stooges?
Yes. The VERY SPECIAL month of Shempuary was named for one of the Stooges.
* * *
BEST OF SHOW
Once upon a time, girls sports was an oxymoron. At least at my high school. At least intermurally. What the girls at Passaic Valley High School had instead of field hockey and softball was Girls Show --a sort of all-girl mini-Olympics held in the gym over the course of two action-packed evenings.
Nobody knows exactly how it started. My father claims that Girls Show dates all the way back to the earliest days of PVHS, and he was a member of Passaic Valley High Schools first graduating class in 1943. "It was a big deal," he says. "For the, you know, girls."
By the time my sister entered PVHS in the mid sixties, Girls Show had become the pivotal event of the school year (for, you know, girls). Incoming freshman girls had to declare their colors during the first weeks of school-- Green or White (the PVHS school colors). The breakdown was more or less geographical; Little Falls was mostly Green, Totowa was mostly White, and West Paterson was split down the middle. Green and White rivalries were intense. Life long best friends who found themselves in opposite camps sometimes didnt speak to each other for four years. Greens and Whites were like crips and bloods, only much more insane and far less forgiving. And instead of shivs or guns, they used hoops.
Hoops? Well, yes. According to one of my sisters antediluvian Girls Show programs, competitive events included Exercise, Dance, and Hoops. I know that hoops is a slang term for basketball, but I have been assured that in Girls Show it refers to something else. Im not quite sure what. In my yearbook there are Girls Show photos in which girls are indeed holding large hoops but its not clear what they are doing with them. One reason I decided to attend this years Girls Show was to discover just what it was they did with those hoops.
Another reason is that (in theory) you spend three hours watching teenage girls flip out, and this weeks column basically writes itself. I was pretty sure teenage girls would be flipping out, because thats pretty much the raison dê´²e of Girls Show. You have all the high emotion, nervous breakdowns, and psychotic episodes we normally associate with beauty pageants, but Girls Show makes them available to all girls, not just the beautiful ones. I guess thats commendable.
To my dismay, Hoops is no longer included in the competition, and even my sister isnt sure what it was. This is surprising; she was a Green Hoops committee head. She was involved in a major scandal. The Greens and Whites spied on each other incessantly in those days; for one thing, they wanted to steal each others routines, and for another, they wanted to catch their rivals in a breach of the rules. For instance, one rule allowed only a certain amount of money to be spent on each costume. It was a very small amount, less than ten dollars, and a receipt had to be presented for every buttonhook and zipper. This rule was flouted almost openly. My sister and her friends were penalized because they held an illegal practice. For reasons that make absolutely no sense to me, the teams were permitted only a limited number of practices. Penalizing athletes for practicing too much seems to me like penalizing students for studying too much, but that was the rule, and one of the White committee heads photographed the Greens practicing whatever it was they were doing (apparently not Hoops), and the event was forfeit. 35 years later my sister still can not say the name of the White spy without turning a deep purple and ripping a chunk of Formica from the kitchen counter.
When I was at PVHS a few years later Girls Show was still a huge extravaganza, but during my junior year intermural girls sports were established, and so there were other outlets for girls who wanted to have nervous breakdowns and psychotic episodes. By the mid eighties, Girls Show had dwindled in importance to such an extent that it was actually skipped for a few years. And then, inexplicably, like toga parties or reruns of The Monkees, it was back. It was a little different-- no hoops, and everything was crammed into one night-- but it was back.
This years theme-- did I mention that theres always an over-riding theme?-- was "Simply the Best." As far as I could tell, absolutely nothing in the show had any relation to this theme, which is pretty amazing when you think how vague a theme it is. The White cheerleaders, for instance, dressed as apes from the recent remake of "Planet of the Apes." They even wore ape masks. The combination of ape masks, mini skirts, and go-go boots (go-go boots are back too, I guess) was pretty amazing. The Green Cheerleaders were dressed as astronauts, but regular astronauts, not the kind in "Planet of the Apes." (Not the kind in outer space, either, come to think of it, unless our space suits are made of spandex now). The Exercise event (actually a sort of cross between modern dance and calisthenics) was performed by wooden soldiers (White) and Gene Kelly-type sailors (Green). The Pom-Pom competition was once more between Apes and Astronauts, though these may have been special pom-pom apes and not the same apes who had been doing the cheers earlier. Dance, which was pretty much the same idea as exercise only without the jumping jacks, was a duel between a platoon of Janet Jacksons and a platoon of Madonnas. The Madonnas were all early model, circa 1984, Madonnas. But the wigs were so bad they looked more like the Florry-Dorries. They won anyway-- one of two events the Greens took in an otherwise all-White evening.
After the dancing, large portions of the audience left. Dance, Exercise, and Pom-Poms were the events everyone came to see. Why they put the big events up front is a mystery-- who would watch the entire Oscar show if they gave out all the acting awards in the first hour and saved Best Short Subject (Live Action) for the climax? The Girls Show equivalent of Best Achievement in Sound Editing was CAGE-VOLLEY-- volleyball played with a huge ball the size of a compact car. You could hit it as often as you needed to keep it off the floor. That seemed to be the only rule. It took eight or ten girls hitting it simultaneously to get or keep the ball in motion. This went on forever, and when it was over there were some relays, and then the snotty kid behind me informed me there was no event called hoops scheduled, and then the winners were announced. The Janet Jacksons more or less flipped out when the Madonnas walked off with the Dance event, but the Janet and Madonna committee heads (they had HEADS spelled out across the rear ends of their shorts, which made me wonder what their hats would have said) hugged briefly when they were introduced-- Im sure photos of that are popping up all over the Internet even as you read this.
The next morning my sister casually asked me who had won, and I told her the Whites had taken everything but Dance. I said I was sure that if theyd still included hoops in the show, the Greens would have coasted to victory but she thought I was being sarcastic. Even over the phone, I could hear the Formica being snapped off the kitchen counter. My sister is 53 and probably due for a new counter anyway.
Blue No More!
My loyal readers will be happy to hear that my butt is no longer blue. I think it was blue for about 2 days. You probably think that isnt very long, but youre wrong.
The household plumbing was acting up. And acting up is exactly what it seemed like-- Id turn on the shower, and the water going down the bathtub drain would re-emerge in my kitchen sink; Id turn on the faucet in the bathroom sink, and the bathtub drain made a noise like the Phantom of the Opera slamming his forearm down on the keyboard of that pipe organ. (How did he get that organ down into the sewer, anyway?). Id do the dishes, and moments later find my toilet bowl full of soapsuds.
It was kind of entertaining, to tell the truth. Guys at work would say, "Lemme tell ya, my crazy kid went out and got a silver bone in his nose --on purpose," and I could reply, "Ahh, thats nothin, my nutty toilet thinks its the kitchen sink." Then the guys at work would all look at each other and go, "Uh... yeah... yeah..." and slowly back away. Productivity on the job went way up. And did I get a bonus?
When the toilet wasnt filling up with suds-- BLUE suds, incidentally, for reasons I shall explain shortly-- it was flushing itself. Id be in the other room sitting at the computer not writing my column, and suddenly the toilet would flush. Again, it was kind of entertaining. I had a poltergeist, and it had to go to the bathroom. How cool is that? One night the toilet flushed itself seven times in half an hour. Obviously my poltergeist had ordered the Frisco Melt for dinner, and reacted the same way I had. It was nice we had something in common, even if it was a digestive tract totally unreceptive to Frisco Melts.
But over the course of a week, these flushes started getting a bit more... emphatic. I thought that the flushes were getting a little louder. Then I noticed that the excellent reading material I keep in the bathroom was sort of water-damaged, and a bit blue around the edges. Then, following my bi-weekly dishwash, there was an unscheduled flush and on my next visit to the bathroom I found blue suds on the walls, on the tiles, on Miss February.
It was now obvious to me that the flushes were getting out of control. I had let things slide in the hope that the toilet would get bored and go back to being a good little bathroom fixture. As every parent on the planet learns, THIS NEVER HAPPENS. A line had to be drawn.
"Look," I said. "Fun is fun, but this really has to stop." Well, I didnt actually say that to my toilet. I said it to my daughter about 6 years ago, in regard to her cramming Doritos between the couch cushions as a hedge against a Dorito famine. While I was not saying it, the toilet flushed itself again. The water formed itself into a large blue mushroom cloud, with the suds taking the role of the mushroom cap. It was kind of like a large blue portobello mushroom cloud. (I am an expert on portobello mushrooms, as my digestive tract reacts to portobello mushrooms in the same way it reacts to Frisco Melts).
I wiped the blue suds from my glasses and decided to take some action. I picked up the phone, dialed, said "Terry! Can I borrow your video camera? My toilet is erupting into big blue mushroom clouds!"
Terry said, "Uh... yeah... yeah..." and backed away slowly. At any rate he didnt lend me the camera. I knew I would have to document this, though, in order to cash in. And cash in I would, because I clearly had the NUMBER ONE TOURIST ATTRACTION IN WESTERN NJ, sitting in my bathroom. I started writing ad copy.
My header was "The Big Blue Experience," and I suppose this is a good place to explain why the big experience was blue. I put those blue toilet things in my toilet tank. They turn the water dark blue, and then nobody can tell you never clean the bowl. Its the greatest boon to guys living alone ever invented. I happen to use the incredibly cheap generic kind. Youre not supposed to touch them with your bare hands, because the main ingredient is indelible blue ink.
I had about 2000 words written about the wonders of my toilet bowl-- I was trying to work out a tie-in with the Tonya Harding-Amy Fisher smackdown-- and I was about to email it out to my mailing list of Japanese Travel Agencies, when I had to employ the toilet bowl in its all-but-forgotten capacity as a toilet bowl.
Seconds later, my toilet flushed itself while I was aboard, and I had what might be described as an out-of-toilet experience. I rode the mushroom cloud about 8 feet into the air.
I had NO idea how cold toilet bowl water was. How cold is it? My scream was heard as far north as Morris County. I dont remember the scream myself because the intense cold apparently destroyed large portions of my brain, including the part where scream memories are stored. When I came out of my cold-induced coma, Amy Fisher had pulled out of the fight and my butt was blue. A deep, Royal Blue, like a baboon. I spent a considerable chunk of the next two days trying to do something about that, and I learned a lot in the process (Ill spare you the details, but from now on I will remember to use Drain-o ONLY as directed on the label). The strange behavior of my plumbing-- rather of my apartments plumbing-- was due to what is technically known as gunk in the pipes, and its been cleared up. All the water goes where I tell it to, and no longer makes any rude noises while its going.
Its a little disappointing that my bathroom is no longer the 8th wonder of the world; but on the other hand, neither is my rear end.
Observations on the Passing Scene
[25 words into this weeks column the phone rings. Stupidly, I answer it.]
EMMA: Hi Dad!
ME: Hi, Emma. I cant talk right now. Im writing my column.
EMMA: Well, stop. Interview us.
EMMA: Me and Holly. Holly is on the phone, too.
ME: Hi. And what is the interview about?
EMMA: YOURE the interviewer. Its up to you.
ME: Im kind of in the middle of--
EMMA: I thought you were a PROFESSIONAL.
ME: Well, live and learn. Ive got to get back to--
EMMA: Ask Holly about the Britney Spears movie. She saw it.
ME: * cough * How was the Britney Spears movie? I didnt know there was a Britney Spears movie...
HOLLY: I liked it, actually. Im a big Britney fan. It was pretty good...
ME: Just pretty good? Geez...
HOLLY: Well, I thought it was weird that she was the prettiest one in the movie. There are three friends, and shes way the best looking one. It was kind of weird...
ME: You felt they should have cast girls better looking than Britney as her friends.
HOLLY: Well, no... Im not even going to try to explain...
HOLLY: She was kind of too perfect. And flawless...
ME: Perfect AND flawless. Wait, I have to get that down...
HOLLY: And the most innocent. The three girls are all best friends and they make this pact that when they grow up, theyre going to open their THING.
ME: Hold on. I dont think--
EMMA: She means a TIME CAPSULE.
HOLLY: And Britney was going to see her mom. They have issues. It wasnt really for little kids...
EMMA: And yet, it was directed towards them.
EMMA: You know, whatever you want to say about it, "SPICE WORLD" was not directed towards little kids. It had a lot of subtle things only a sophisticated audience would pick up on.
ME: Excuse me, I just dropped my jaw and it rolled under the couch. Hang on...
HOLLY: I saw Britney Spears in concert. Her jacket caught on fire. She was, like, stripping, and she threw her jacket and it landed on a pyro and it burned up, and she made a bitchy face. I havent seen the Mandy Moore movie. But I hear the GUY in it cries. I want to see it.
EMMA: The only think I like about Mandy Moore is the disc player she has in her first video? Its BLUE. I loved that.
HOLLY: My AMIGO is the same color as that disc player!
EMMA: A lot of people think the Amigo is gross, but--
HOLLY: WHO thinks its gross?
EMMA: I dont know.
HOLLY: Well, who? Im really hurt.
EMMA: Hey, I like it.
HOLLY: I know. You got to ride around in it with the top down. Not many people get the full AMIGO EXPERIENCE.
EMMA: Oh wait. Lets tell about the virtual kitties.
ME: Im still writing down the Amigo Experience. This is a car?
HOLLY: The virtual kitties are Emma and Holla.
EMMA: Holla. Mine is a virtual month old.
HOLLY: Mine is a virtual year old. It got mad today. It didnt want to cuddle, it wanted to sleep. It went down to zero happy faces. Theyre the ugliest cats. Theyre like pencil drawings.
EMMA: I think mine died. Its Holla, not Holly. Holla holla-- Like the Jah Rule song.
HOLLY: My hair right now is pretty ghetto. Because Loren cornrowed it. We watched "Now and Then."
EMMA: While she was cornrowing your hair.
EMMA: The girl in the movie has to eat every hour or she gets sick.
ME: Which girl?
EMMA: The fat girl. I dont remember her name. She says if she doesnt eat every hour she gets nauseous. One time me and Holly went to the pizza place and tried to pay with pennies and the guy said Do I look like a bank?
HOLLY: Tell about the time we went to Phillipsburg and almost got killed.
EMMA: No. Oh okay. We yelled at the guy with red hair. Then we stalled at the red light. Because you distracted me.
HOLLY: That is so not true!
ME: What guy with red hair?
EMMA: Hey, we forgot-- Theres this site for gay and lesbian virtual pets. I think my cousin Michael thinks hes hermaphrodite.
HOLLY: Wouldnt he KNOW?
EMMA: Hes very naive in many ways... He used to wear red ruby slippers. They werent really RUBY, of course. They werent really slippers, either...
HOLLY: Were they at least red?
EMMA: I think so. Or very close to it. Maybe not pure CRAYOLA red, but within a crayon or two of it.
HOLLY: Not red-violet...
EMMA: No, much closer than that. Hey dad, tell her about how your toilet blew up. Oh, crap, I have the hiccups.
HOLLY: I know what to do. You have to get a glass of water...
HOLLY: And drink from the opposite side.
HOLLY: You have to drink from the side you dont usually drink from.
HOLLY: I mean from the TOP. You have to, like, bend over, and drink upside down? That makes your hiccups go away.
EMMA: Aaagghh. Im all wet.
HOLLY: Youre doing it wrong. You have to practice.
EMMA: Okay... Hey. It worked.
HOLLY: Well, tell everybody I told you.
EMMA: But this is really HARD. Ill just hold my breath.
HOLLY: That doesnt work.
EMMA: Yes it does!
HOLLY: No-- you always cheat when you hold your breath.
EMMA: If youre with your friends and youre trying to see who can hold their breath the longest you cheat. Not if youre trying to get over hiccups. What would be the point? It would be insane.
HOLLY: Eating a spoonful of peanut butter works, too.
EMMA: I seriously doubt it. Dad, we want to talk about your bathroom.
SPECIAL GETTING REALLY HONKED OFF ABOUT STUFF EDITION
Boy, people are really losing it this week.
I havent even seen 5 seconds of Olympic figure skating this year, but the general consensus seems to be that it should have been obvious even to a blind, brain-damaged tree frog that the Canadians skated the pants off the Russians. (Not literally, of course, or Id have been glued to the Olympic figure skating. In fact, Im ready to subscribe to the "Pants-Off Figure Skating Channel"). So when the Russians ended up with the gold medal on a 5-4 vote from the judges, there was such a stink that an actual investigation was launched and it turned out the Russian and French judges had made a deal and now both the Canadians AND the Russians have gold medals, as if the Olympics was one of those dopey kids birthday parties where everybody gets a present so nobody feels bad, and the French judge is in disgrace (which is the crucial first step to a book deal and her own talk show). What Im still kind of confused about is, if the Canadians were so clearly superior, how come the vote was 5-4 instead of 7-2? I mean, my math is a little rusty, but by my count there were three other judges who voted for the Russians. As far as I can determine, this isnt a scandal. And apparently its not a scandal because those three judges werent expected to vote for the Canadians even if they levitated. All I can say is: Huh? Wha?
Well, anyway, Im confused (as always) but not particularly mad about this. I have other things to be mad about, such as the lack of the Pants-Off Figure Skating Channel on my cable service. And other people have plenty to be mad about, too. This week Karen M. of Lowell Massachusetts was accused of attacking another woman because she (the second woman) brought 13 items to the "12 Items or Less" checkout line at the supermarket. First, according to press reports, Karen said the other woman couldnt count and swore at her. Then, as the unfortunate mis-counter was walking home, Karen is reported to have pulled alongside her, "exchanged words," gotten out and beat her up before driving away. Ont he one hand I want this Karen person, assuming she did what shes accused of doing, locked up, and on the other hand I want to turn my baseball cap around and put on a pair of pants 5 sizes too big so I can say "You GO, girl!"
Well, not really.I think the reaction was extreme. I have been behind people on that line who have 25 or 30 items in the cart. Instead of beating them up, I have become an expert on the Worlds Fattest Baby. I have never even said "Excuse me, but it seems to me you have more than 12 items there." I never say anything. Oh, sometimes I say, "Wow, this baby weighs over 300 pounds!" or something like that. But this never results in the person in front of me slapping himself in the head and going "Oh no! I didnt realize this is the express line! Excuse me while I put all my stuff back in the cart and go to the rear of one of those really long lines full of old ladies buying an 18 months supply of cat food and Depenz." Personally, I feel that violence is never the answer and you should not be beat up unless you bring at least 15 items to the "12 Items or Less" checkout line.
The weeks most amazing flip-out-- actually the flip out itself occurred a couple of years back, but the denouement was just days ago-- took place in Houston, Texas, where a 54 year old man was convicted of aggravated assault for shooting his girl friend because he thought she was about to say "New Jersey." (The Associated Press headlined the story "Word Rage"). It turns out there are a whole bunch of words that cause this guy to react like the guy in the Abbott and Costello movies who turns into a maniac when he hears "Niagara Falls." ("NIAGRA FALLS! Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch..."). Besides "New Jersey," you dont want this dude within earshot when you say "Mars," "Snickers," or "Wisconsin," either. Im not sure what the story is with Wisconsin. If it had been just Mars, Snickers, and New Jersey, Id say we were dealing with a former employee of the Mars candybar factory in Hacketstown NJ. [A friend of mine from, as luck would have it, Wisconsin, says: "I have had the same response to the word Snickers.
But only in the context of when I hear someone say, I ate the last Snickers."] What the wire services dont explain is why he thought she was about to say New Jersey. Perhaps she got that look on her face that people always get when theyre about to blurt out the name of the Garden State. Or perhaps she was in the middle of a sentence that could only end with New Jersey, such as "The third state admitted to the union was..." or "I understand that both Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen are natives of..." or "Its really stupid that Staten Island is part of New York City when even a moron can look at a map and see theres like a whole BAY between it and New York, while theres just this little creek separating it from..." or "The most wonderfulest place on the whole planet is..." Maybe she just wouldnt shut up about what a terrific place this is. I can see getting annoyed, but still.
No word yet about the sentence. The guy could spend the next 20 years in prison. And they tend to be pretty tough about things like that in Texas. Unless of course the Texas judge makes a deal with the French judge, in which case all bets are off...
"You know," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "Im trying to be reasonable about this." We were in the midst of circling the block for the 4th time. Once again, a green Chrysler was occupying the space in front of the Custom Neon Sign Shop where Mulberry Street Joey Clams intended to park the custom Neon Sign Shop van. I pointed out that there were plenty of spaces further down the block, and there was even one directly across the street from the Custom Neon Sign Shop, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams was not interested in any of them. "This is a matter of principle," he said. "Its like... you know the way those two countries are always fighting?"
Stupidly, I said, "Which two countries?"
"You know. Theyre always fighting. One of them is the country where they wear those hats."
"Oh. Of course."
"Right. So anyway, you could stop them from fighting in two seconds if you had everybody in the one country just pack up and move to some place else. And theres a lot of places where theres a lot of room. My cousin Frank drove to Vegas once, and he says once you get out past like Philadelphia, theres maybe 3 towns. Its all cows and stuff till you hit Vegas. You could move everybody in that one country some place like that, and nobodyd even know they were there."
"The people with the hats."
"Nah. THEYD never move. But the other ones... well, I think they wear some kind of hats too, now that you mention it..." We were coming around the corner for the 5th time now, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams had calmed down a bit. He was thinking about hats. "...anyway, the point is, NEITHER of them would move, even though it would stop all the fighting, because first of all... is that guy pulling out?" A fat guy had waddled over to the Chrysler and unlocked the back door. He tossed a bag of oranges in the back seat. Then he waddled away. Mulberry Street Joey Clams pounded on his horn without getting the attention of the fat guy. "Un. Be. LEAVE. Ay. Bull. You ever see anything so rude? Well, now we know hes at Angelos Bakery." Mulberry Street Joey Clams pulled the van up to the curb near the intersection of Prince Street. I started to open my door but he grabbed the collar of my jacket. "Were not parked. Were just PAUSING for a second."
"Weve parked this far away from the Shop before," I pointed out. "Many many times."
"Not today. ORANGE BOY does not get my space today." He tapped the steering wheel. "What kind of a guy throws a bag a oranges in the back seat of the car and just WALKS AWAY like nothing happened?"
"Uh, I dont know, Mulberry Street Joey Clams."
"Ill tell you. A guy who needs to learn WHATS WHAT. Lets go." He got out of the car and strode resolutely towards the bakery. I uncrumpled the collar of my jacket and followed.
The fat guy was seated at a little round table sipping a cup of espresso.
"Excuse me," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "I believe you would be the gentleman with the green Chrysler across the street?"
"I would be? Nah. I WOULD BE the gentleman with the Lincoln Continental parked three blocks down, but things didnt work out. So I ended up with the green Chrysler. Anyway, its not for sale."
"I dont wish to BUY it," said
Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "I would like you to move it.
Its in my space."
"I must have missed the sign." Mulberry Street Joey Clams did not say what sign? on cue, but the fat guy covered for him like a pro. "The sign that says no parking unless youre the hep cat with the sharp jacket and the bad hair cut." He took another sip of his espresso and said, "Ill be wanting another of these, Dolores."
"Hey," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "Im attempting to be civil here, but--"
The fat guy made a dismissive motion with the hand not engaged in bringing the cup to his lips. "Thats all for now, Hep Cat."
"I guess I didnt make myself clear. I--"
"You made yourself clear. Now make yourself, like, invisible. Mmm. One of those delicious eclairs, Dolores."
"Hey," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "Theres a PRINCIPLE involved here!"
"Theres always a principle involved when it comes to Hep Cats. Well, lets see if I cant figure out what the principle is here. Could it be..." He shifted his bulk and gained his feet, and took in the view from the plate glass window. "Ah. I believe the principle is, the Hep Cat doesnt know how to parallel park. Well, fear not, Hep Cat, I shall be moving my car after one or two more espressos, and then theyll be plenty of room for you to slide your vehicle into place..."
"I can parallel park," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "I just want my spot."
"Of coooooourse," said the fat guy, sampling his drink once again. "Of cooouurse you can, Hep Cat."
There were more cars parked now and fewer spaces as a result. But there was now a space directly behind the green Chrysler. "I know whats goin on here," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "This is reverse psychology. You think Im gonna move my van and parallel park just to prove to you I can do it."
"Not at all," said the fat guy. "Youd have to know how to parallel park in order to do that."
"HA! Now youre doing REVERSE reverse psychology. But Im waaaaay ahead of you!" He ran out to the van, put it into gear, pulled catty-corner across the asphalt until he was parallel with the Chrysler, and expertly shot back into the space behind it. He honked the horn so the fat guy would look up. The fat guy paid no attention. Then Mulberry Street Joey Clams pulled out of the space, backed across the street, and pulled into his original spot.
The fat guy patted his lips dry with a napkin, left some change on the table, and nodded to Mulberry Street Joey Clams as he left the bakery. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I leaned against the van as we watched the fat guy start up his car and pull away.
"We win," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams succinctly. We got in the van and pulled out. A Mustang pulled into the spot the Chrysler had just left. The space behind it had already been taken by a sub-compact. Mulberry Street Joey Clams glanced into the rear view mirror just in time to see a Chevy taking the spot hed just vacated.
"I thought any second you were gonna tell that guy to stop calling you a hep cat," I said, partly to get his mind off the fact that we were going to be parking about 6 blocks away.
"I kind of liked it, actually," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. But he didnt sound happy.
THE MONEY SHOT
When I was 14, I got a super 8 movie camera for Christmas, and I spent the rest of the winter making movies. This was back when it snowed more than once a month during the winter, so many of these movies featured snow.
The other thing I did that winter was ride my sled down the hill at the end of Brookhill Place. Brookhill Place was maybe the most perfectly named street ever: it terminated in a hill with a brook at the bottom. It was a steep hill, but not too steep, and if you had enough velocity and aimed correctly, you could shoot right over a little foot bridge and end up on the other side of the brook. I spent a lot of time sledding that winter because I sensed that pretty soon I was going to be too old to do any more sledding, and I wanted to get as much of it in as I could before I looked like a complete idiot. It was about 3 years too late to start worrying about that, but I didnt realize this at the time.
The first super 8 movie I made was called "Ice" and it was 49 seconds long. We had an ice storm the day after Christmas and I went out and shot two rolls of film showing all these things in my neighborhood coated with ice. When I got the footage back from the drug store, I found that all the stuff Id photographed with the sun shining directly through the ice looked really neat, and everything else didnt, so I cut out all the non-neat stuff. I went through my records looking for a 49-second song to play behind my movie-- this was well before the days of sound-on-film home movies-- but there arent very many 49-second songs. The best I could come up with was my sisters copy of "Stay" by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, which was 1 minute and 39 seconds (and still the shortest single ever to hit number one on the charts). It didnt make a great deal of sense behind the images. My sister said, "Whos supposed to stay?? The ice?? Its dangerous! When you get a car and have to pay your own car insurance premiums, youll understand!" I shot a title card-- "ICE"-- and held it for 50 seconds. The title was on screen one second longer than the movie itself, which is probably another worlds record. My sister had some choice comments about that, too.
At that point I ran out of ideas for new movies. I did a kind of sequel called "MORE ICE," but like most sequels, it was basically a retread of the first one, and considerably longer, since I now realized I would need at least two and a half minutes of film in order to find a suitable piece of music. This time I set it to Simon and Garfunkels "Hazy Shade of Winter," which turned out to be longer than two and a half minutes. "So is this like your signature, holding the title on screen until everybody in the audience starts throwing stuff?" asked my sister. "Or is that just what youre going to do with your "Ice" movies? Is the next one going to be Still More Ice?"
Well, there was no way I would give her the satisfaction making another ice movie. I junked the plans for "Ice III" ["Still More Ice" indeed! What a stupid title! Girls!]. Maybe it was time to start including humans in my movies, I thought. So I slapped a roll of film into my camera and went outside and found two kids. They were about 10 years old. "Im going to make a movie," I said. "Whats your name? Eric? And you? Tommy? Okay. Tommy, hit Eric." Tommy hit Eric. "Okay. Now, Eric, hit Tommy." It was so. At that point my inspiration more or less evaporated. "Okay, uh, now keep hitting each other..." So they wailed away at each other for about three minutes, at which point I was out of film. They kept punching each other and I walked towards home. I figured maybe I could salvage the film in the editing. "You look pretty glum," said Mr. DeYoung, the local plumbing inspector, who was on his roof adjusting the TV antenna (the ice storm had knocked it out of whack). I explained the problem. "Well, if you cant figure out how to end a story, the way the pros handle it, they have everybody killed in an accident. Ties up all the loose ends." In a flash, I saw how my film had to conclude. I grabbed my sled, pulled Tommy and Eric apart, and dragged them to Brookhill Place.
Tommy and Eric stood at the top of the hill. Following my directions, Tommy pushed Eric, and as Eric lost his balance, he grabbed Tommy and hung onto his coat, and they both rolled down the hill. THATS going to look great on the big screen, I thought with satisfaction. They were still punching each other at the bottom of the hill. I chugged down and took some close shots of them mixing it up. Then I went back up the hill to where a large rock was embedded in the ground. Perhaps 80% of the rock was below ground and it couldnt be budged without a stick of dynamite, but the audience wouldnt know that. I shot it, gently rocking the camera back and forth, to make it appear that the rock was shaking from the stupendous blows being delivered by Tommy and Eric 50 yards down the hill. Then I got on my sled and stuck the camera in front, and pushed off and hurtled towards Tommy and Eric. The idea was, the camera was showing things from the rocks point of view. Id get closer and closer, faster and faster, and then Tommy and Eric would notice I was about to hit them, and Id cut to black at the moment of impact. It was going to be, I dunno, symbolic of the futility of something or other. I decided that Simon and Garfunkels "I Am a Rock" would be the perfect music for this movie. So I got closer and closer, faster and faster, and they noticed I was about to hit, and Tommy and Eric stepped apart, and I shot right part them and went into the brook. "Wow, thisll be a great shot!" I remember thinking as I went over the edge It may well have been a great shot, but since the camera snapped open and the film was ruined, Ill never know. I got out of the creek bed and dragged my sled and my camera home. I wasnt yet aware that the film was ruined. Tommy and Eric were still punching each other. Maybe theyre still punching each other; I dont know for sure, because that was the last time I went sledding there.
THE PHANTOM OF BROWERTOWN ROAD
Main Street in Little Falls ran parallel to the Passaic River for about three-quarters of a mile. For most of that stretch, there was nothing along the north side of the street except the sidewalk and a waist high wire fence separating the sidewalk from a steep hill sloping down to the river. But the last couple of blocks before the river took a hard left turn towards Paterson and the Great Falls, this changed drastically. To the naked eye there was not much difference between the north side of the Main Street and the south side. They were both crammed with shops, little restaurants, and storefronts. To the, er, UN-naked eye, however, they were practically on different planets. The buildings on the north side had been erected on the edge of that precipitous hillside, and from the rear everything was a jumble of support beams, jutting platforms, overhangs, and crude jerry rigging. Since the general public never saw it (the other side of the river was an intractable wilderness surrounding a sewage treatment plant), structural repairs were haphazard and ugly, with plywood or sheets of scrap metal nailed over rear windows. Paint was allowed to flake off for years at a time, and when repainting was done, it was slapdash and often done with whatever colors happened to be at hand, leading to some really interesting effects.
Calvano, Picarillo and I had first stumbled upon this vista during a drought that allowed us to cross the Passaic River hopping from rock to rock, following a pleasant morning at the sewage treatment plant, where we had been picnicking and wearing rubber monster masks. At first we couldnt believe our eyes. We knew we were looking up at the rear of Main Street, but it was grotesque beyond our wildest dreams. It looked like a Salvador Dali version of a Colorado mining town circa 1850. The contrast between the spiffy, neatly painted facades and the ramshackle back ends was staggering.
"This is just like that story in Creepy # 7," said Calvano, "where the guy accidentally puts on special glasses that allow him to see that half the people in the world are actually MONSTERS." Picarillo and I nodded. It was EXACTLY like that story. We felt like we were being vouchsafed a glimpse of the TRUE Little Falls. We had no idea that Friendlys Liquor Store, so cheerfully lit, and with those tasteful pictures of smiling bottles with big eyes in the display windows, had a back door with a huge crack in it and a set of shoddy wooden stairs that ended abruptly after four steps and went NOWHERE.
"When I grow up Im gonna live back here," said Picarillo.
Calvano and I nodded. We would all live back here. We had never suspected there was anything this great in our stupid hometown. And best of all, some of the merchants piled all their unwanted crap in wooden boxes or metal cans and just left them on the hillside! We scrambled up the slope to examine these treasure troves.
By far, the best box had been discarded by the Class-A Photography Studio: broken picture frames, empty chemical bottles, rolls of film negative... Calvano and I battled over the negative rolls. "Let GO! Im gonna strap em across my chest in an X, like BANDIT AMMO, only its gonna be * grunt * film!" We rolled down the slope and divided up the negatives. Back at the box, Picarillo was examining the photograph of a young girl. Calvano and I looked over his shoulders.
"Oh, yeah. Thats Mary Flowers," said Calvano. "She was kidnapped and murdered 30 years ago. She was never found. It was cannibals. They say that people see her ghost walking down Browertown Road, where she used to live. And if she sees YOU and waves at you, it means the cannibals have their eye on YOU. Fact."
"Wow!" said Picarillo.
"I wouldnt take that picture, Picarillo," said Calvano, adjusting his negatives slightly so that they no longer chafed his armpits. "Taking home that picture can only lead to heartbreak, terror, and a long painful death."
"Im gonna put it in my room," said Picarillo. We hopped the fence and headed for home.
When Picarillo split off at the Park, I said, "Where did you find out all that stuff about Mary Flowers?"
"Who? Oh, the picture? I just made that up. Geez, didnt you LOOK at it? Shes got a button on her sweater that says My Favorite Monkee is Peter. Anyway, its Amy Anderson. She lives next to my cousin Frank on Browertown Road."
One end of my film-negative ammo belt had come loose. I tucked it back into my pants. "Well, whats gonna happen if Picarillo sees her? Hell know you just made it all up."
"Youre exasperating. Were talking about Picarillo. But thats a really good idea. Come on!" Calvano and I took off at full speed towards Browertown Road, negatives flapping in the breeze.
It was tough coming to terms with Amy Anderson; she insisted on 10 feet of film negative and one of Calvanos rubber spiders (his collection was immense and news of it had even reached Browertown Road) before she would agree to help us. But it was worth it. A couple of days later, as we were eating lunch at Mainline Pizza, Amy walked up to the window, stopped dead, and stared at Picarillo. It took him about 2 minutes to register her presence. Suddenly he choked on a pepperoni. "Its THE DEAD FLOWER GIRL!" he cried.
"Where??" said Calvano. Picarillo pointed. "Huh? Theres nobody there, Picarillo. Cut it out." Amy backed out of sight, still fixing her eyes on Picarillo.
"Yeah, there was nobody there, Picarillo," I said.
Picarillo ran to the door, but The Dead Flower Girl was nowhere to be seen. "You guys are trying to make me think Im crazy, but I know YOU SAW HER TOO!"
"What did she look like, Picarillo? I mean, did it look like shed been... you know, CANNIBALIZED?"
"Yes!" he said. "Well, you couldnt actually SEE it... but you could TELL..."
For the next couple of weeks, Amy would drift into Picarillos line of vision at odd moments and then vanish as he flipped out. Once she came up behind him while he was on line for the matinee at the Oxford Theater and whispered "...They HUNGER for you..." and then walked away.
"Did you see that??" he yelled excitedly. "Anybody? Did anybody see the Dead Flower Girl?"
"That was Amy Anderson," said a kid in line behind us.
"No," said Picarillo, angrily, "It was THE DEAD FLOWER GIRL!" They nearly came to blows. But it was the last straw. After the movie, Picarillo took the photo and returned it to the mini-garbage dump behind Main Street. He took a bad tumble in the process and almost landed in the Passaic River but as he said, at least the cannibals didnt get him.
The Mad Projectionist
"It is with great reluctance that I impart this sacred trust to you," Chuck, the manager of the Park Theater, said to me. "Dont screw it up this time." He handed me a ten-dollar bill. "We already called the order in. You just have to drive down there and bring the food back. It shouldnt take more than 10 minutes."
I nodded earnestly. Or rather, in what I hoped was an earnest looking manner, since I had already calculated that the trip to and from the roast beef sandwich shop was going to take about an hour. There were two incredible new games at the drug store down the block-- they were sort of like pinball machines, but the action took place on a sort of television monitor. One was called "Pong," which had been out for a while (though not here in Caldwell NJ) and the other was called "Tank," and they were unbelievably exciting. In "Pong," when played solo, you bounced a video ball against a video wall until you missed. Then the game was over. In "Tank," you and an opponent each maneuvered video tanks (well, it SAID they were tanks-- they were actually video rectangles, if you want to get technical) into position, and then fired at each other until one of you blew up. The tanks didnt actually blow up, but after a certain number of direct hits the game would abruptly end and the words "PLAYER TWO IS BLOWN UP" would appear. As I said, they were unbelievably exciting. And I fully intended to play both games several times before picking up the roast beef sandwiches. I was figuring on 8 sets of "Pong," and then I would call Chuck from the pay phone and tell him Id sustained a flat tire on the way to the sandwich shop but I was almost done changing it and everything was under control. Then Id challenge one of the locals to "Tank," play a couple of rounds, and get the food. Cold roast beef was still pretty good.
Everything went according to plan until I made my call and got a busy signal. In disgust I aborted the plans to play "Tank," got the food, and arrived back at the Park Theater a mere 40 minutes or so after departing. There was a crush of disgruntled patrons outside the office door, and Chuck was scrawling out passes and handing them to the surly citizens. There were more than a dozen people clamoring for refunds or passes, and this was all the more impressive because there hadnt been much more than a dozen people at the show. When the last angry customer had been appeased, I gave the bag of sandwiches to Chuck.
"What was all that about? Ive been waiting out here to give you this stuff for almost half an hour." (This was sort of true, since five minutes is almost half an hour, kind of).
"Schtopowitz," said Chuck. It was all he needed to say. Schtopowitz was the projectionist, and hed been a little slow on the reel changes lately; at least once a night, there would be a blank screen between reels lasting anywhere from a second and a half to 20 seconds. More than a couple seconds of blank screen would get the audience yelling rude things, but no one had asked for his money back before (at least for that-- The Park was a revival house, and about once a month we had someone demand a refund because the feature was in black and white).
"How long was the movie off?"
"He put the WRONG REEL on," said Chuck. "Twice."
"Wow," I said. "What did he say went wrong?"
"He wont talk to me. He wouldnt answer the intercom so I sent Tommy upstairs. He says Schtopowitz has barricaded himself in the projection booth. He told Tommy hed talk to Dick. I called Dick." Dick was the owner of the theater, and he arrived a few minutes later.
"If hes gone crazy, I can maybe get rid of him," said Dick. "I have to check the contract. The union is tough. Its impossible to summarily dismiss a member of the projectionist union. I can file a report, but if I remember right, he has to eat a baby in Macys window in order to get fired." He looked at Chuck, and then at me. "Not literally," he explained. "Not quite... Speaking of eating, how long has this sandwich been here? Its ice cold. And is this horseradish? I hate horseradish."
"If Id known you were going to be eating my sandwich, I would have ordered one more to your liking," said Chuck.
Dick nodded. He hit the intercom button. "Schtopowitz, this is Dick. OVER."
"You dont gotta say over," said Schtopowitz. "Thats for jet pilots."
"Were gonna get you some help, Murray. Just unlock the door, and--"
"I dont need HELP," said Schtopowitz. Im sick of these crappy pictures. I dont like em."
"I dont like these movies we show. They all stink. We should show something good. We should show Four for Texas. Did you ever see it? Joey Bishop plays an Indian. Its a riot."
"...Wait a minute. You DELIBERATELY screwed up the reels??"
"Ive had enough--"
"...Because we dont show enough JOEY BISHOP movies??"
"Joey Bishop and OTHER HIGH QUALITY MOTION PICTURES."
Dick nodded. "Murray," he said, "The only reason Im not going to tell the union you deliberately fouled up the picture tonight to protest no Joey Bishop movies is because were old friends..."
"...TELL EM. Theyd never believe you!"
"Murray, I TAPED EVERY WORD WE SAID."
"I dont believe you."
"Nonetheless, its true," Dick lied. "So you promise me no more funny stuff with the reels, and well forget the whole thing. But Ill think about this Texas movie."
"The sequel, Texas Across the River, is also excellent."
Dick clicked off the Intercom. "No Joey Bishop movies here, ever," he said to Chuck. He was about to deposit the cold roast beef sandwich in the wastebasket but before he could, Chuck said, "Mind if I finish that?"
"Help yourself," said Dick. "Its all yours."
"Exactly," said Chuck.
There were no more strange reel changes (at least deliberate ones); I was never sent out for roast beef sandwiches again. Joey Bishop never appeared at the Park Theater, ever.
ASK THE ANCHOVY EXPERT GUY
DEAR ANCHOVY EXPERT GUY:
Something I have always wondered: are anchovies (when used as a pizza topping, for instance) full-grown? Or are the anchovies we are familiar with baby anchovies? In which case just how big is an adult anchovy?
Its a constant source of wonder to me
I dont have the faintest idea. What the hell is the difference, anyway?
* * *
DEAR ANCHOVY EXPERT GUY:
What is the difference between sardines and anchovies?
Not sure about the difference between sardines and anchovies, if indeed there is one.
Sardines come in little cans. Anchovies dont. Or maybe they do, I dont know. You might want to check with the Sardine Expert Guy. He has all these FACTS right at his fingertips, which is why he was recently given a substantial raise. It had nothing to do with him being the cousin of the Expert Guy Chief Executive. People who spread these nepotism rumors are just plain SICK. I have a memo from the Expert Guy Chief Executive that says so. By my count it contains 6 misspellings and at least 3 egregious grammatical errors in the space of two paragraphs.
* * *
DEAR ANCHOVY EXPERT GUY:
We all know that anchovies are indigenous to the Mediterranean. What I wonder is, can they be hatched elsewhere and thrive? It seems to me that the time has come for us to reduce our dependence on foreign anchovies.
Hatch, yes, thrive, no. Well, in point of fact, they will live long and happy lives in some domestic waters, but they will also lack the tangy taste that makes them sought after in the first place. There must be (cough)... SOMETHING IN THE WATER (in the Mediterranean Sea, that is) that imparts the distinctive flavor. Whether its literally some substance in the water itself, or some as yet undetermined sea-creature the anchovies feed upon, we simply dont know as yet. But the SARDINE EXPERT GUY probably knows. Hes really smart. He knows everything.
* * *
DEAR ANCHOVY EXPERT GUY:
Im amazed when I shop at the gourmet specialty store and find "flavored" anchovy paste. Why am I amazed? Because anchovy IS a taste, and a great (albeit acquired) one. Yet I go to the shop and I am confronted with smoked anchovy and anchovy / onion and heaven only knows what else. Can the day be far when the people who ruined bagels for us come out with BLUEBERRY anchovy paste?
You ask two questions here, and I will answer them in reverse order. In re: can the day be far blah blah blah blueberry anchovy paste?, yes, the day can be far. In re: why are you amazed?, I dont know. Maybe because you have a well-developed sense of wonder and are amazed at all sorts of things. Or maybe because you are a total freaking ding-dong. You would know better than I, which it is. And I know which way Im betting. Thanks for writing.
* * *
DEAR ANCHOVY EXPERT GUY:
Do anchovies taste as gross as they look?
Yes. If anything, they taste even grosser. Hey, my spellcheck thinks I want to say, "they taste even grocer." My spellcheck would love the Expert Guy Chief Executive. If my spellcheck and the E.G.C.E. hit it off, maybe the Sardine Expert Guy and his ugly girl friend could double date with them.
* * *
DEAR ANCHOVY EXPERT GUY:
Im very fond of the taste of anchovies (well-- of course! Otherwise I wouldnt be reading your column!), especially on a pizza. But my husband cant stand them. I thought the ideal solution was to order half anchovy, half something else (pepperoni is about his speed * groan *). But he says the anchovy taste (or maybe smell-- he isnt consistent about it) infects the whole pizza. Is this even possible? I think he just doesnt even want to look at anchovies while hes eating, the big wuss.
Thinks hes a big wuss
Well, infects is probably the wrong word, but anchovies do have a pretty strong flavor and it could well extend beyond the invisible line dividing your halves of the pizza. On the other hand, it could also be that youre right and he doesnt want to look at your anchovies. So what? In the end, it comes to the same thing-- your anchovies are spoiling his appetite, and whats the difference whether its the taste, the smell, or the sight? Id suggest getting two pies and refrigerating the uneaten portions of each, but anchovies do not preserve well even in the fridge for more than a day or two. Maybe you could compromise and do Chinese takeout next time.
* * *
DEAR ANCHOVY EXPERT GUY:
Just to clear something up-- one of your readers recently asked the difference between sardines and anchovies, and you were uncertain about it. In fact, many sardines are herrings, which are closely related to the anchovy. Anchovies are sold in tins just like sardines, and often packed in oil or tomato sauce or mustard, just like sardines. And some companies market anchovies as sardines, though if you read the labels carefully youll find the word anchovy somewhere. Well, thats all I wanted to say. Keep up the good work.
Thanks for writing. Bite me.
The Third Collyer Brother
In my youth I was not the worlds most organized individual. My room was often in a state of mild disarray. From time to time my father would poke his head in to speak to me and would suddenly stop in mid sentence. "The condition of this room brings my mind to a complete standstill," he said. "Ive never seen a mess like this in my life. Youre like the third Collyer Brother."
I had no idea who the Collyer Brothers were. For some reason I thought they had something to do with cough drops, or possibly Arrow Shirts. Or maybe they were a 3rd rate comedy team, like the Ritz Brothers. I didnt know how many of Collyer Brothers there were, and couldnt imagine why he thought I was like the third one. More to the point, I never bothered to ask, and put them out of my mind for 35 years or so, until my friend Andy Robinson (not the one who played Liberace, though he still gets some unusual phone calls about it from time to time) and I were talking about an acquaintance who never throws anything away. "You cant move in his apartment," said Andy. "I wont go there anymore. Hes got old newspapers stacked up along the walls. Its like the Collyer Brothers."
"Huh?" I said. I was instantly plunged back three and a half decades to my room on Third Avenue in Little Falls. I could smell the Fritos I had dropped behind the radiator a few months earlier, or perhaps it was the socks I had crammed among the science fiction paperbacks the previous summer. "Who ARE the Collyer Brothers?" I asked.
"The Collyer Brothers [said Andy] were these two rich guys who lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York, and they were really rich and had all the electricity and water and heat turned off and they never ever threw anything away. The younger brother, Homer, went blind at some point and the older brother, Langley, fed him oranges, and peanut butter on black bread to restore his sight. Langley would only leave the house to scavenge stuff to bring into the house. He saved every newspaper, so when Homer got his sight back he could catch up on the news. He started saving the papers in 1914 and kept it up for over 30 years. The house had some much junk in it that he sort of quarried it into tunnels, and bobby-trapped it in case robbers broke in. One day in 1947 while Langley was crawling through one of the tunnels of crap to bring his brother dinner, he set off one of his own bobby traps and died under tons of debris. Homer starved to death. When workmen cleaned out the house, they found among other things 3 dressmakers dummies, 14 grand pianos, the chassis of a model T Ford, the jawbone of a horse, 8 mummified cats, 2 seven-foot sections of a tree, a broken scooter..."
"Wow. Thats really NUTS," I said.
"Yeah. Imagine saving NEWSPAPERS. I mean, I collect things..."
"Well, sure, I do too..."
"But thats nuts..."
"...I save TV Guides."
"Ive been collecting them since 1966."
"The first issue was the one before the one with Batman on the cover. I guess I decided to save the Batman cover and last weeks issue was still around, so I decided to save that one, too."
"Back when I started, TV Guide was totally different. It was saddle bound, and stapled in the middle. Now of course, it has a flat spine and its glued. It used to be a signature, and youd have the glossy color pages at the beginning and the end. Now all the color is in the front. And way back in the day, they would put a little icon next to a show if it were in color. At some point they started noting it if it was in black & white."
"I mean, the Collyers were nuts, but you can sorta see why they couldnt stop collecting the newspapers. Once youve got all the papers from 1914, why stop? What possible reason can there be to say, yeah, Ive got all the papers from 1914-1928, but Im not going to save any of these papers from 1929."
"Actually, it doesnt come to that many TV Guides. Ive got them in the dining room. Well, it would be the dining room if I ate there. They dont really take up that much space. Everything fits in 13 boxes. Ten TV Guides equals on bundle. I put a rubber band around the bundle, and put it in the box. It works out to about 3 years per box."
"Do you ever look at these?"
"Hell no! Well, I recently put new rubber bands on the bundles, because the old ones tend to kind of decay after about 20 years..."
"Did you look at them then?"
"Did I mention," he continued, "That the stacks are numbered? Box 13 ends with stack 151. I just bundled the George Harrison issue up, that was stack 153."
"So... youve got 2 stacks unboxed."
"That is correct."
Long pause. This was like one of those pauses you have when youre talking to someone who just had a growth removed from his gums and youre moving youre tongue around thinking poor guy, thats too-- hey-- whats this?? Is this a bump??
"So," I said at last, "Do you collect the TV Guide collectors editions? You know, the variant covers? I think there were four different Harrison covers, for instance..."
"Oh, no. Geez." Relieved laughter. "No, that would be nuts."
I decided that GOOD THINGS to collect were things that were finished, like original Monets. There's a set number of them, there aren't going to be any more, you know when youre done. No chance of collecting Monets and waking up one morning with so many youve got to tunnel your way through them to reach the orange juice. BAD THINGS to collect are things that they send you every week, like, oh, TV Guides. A definite fighting chance of waking up someday in 2010 and seeing The Third Collyer Brother in the bathroom mirror. Assuming you can find the bathroom mirror. Or the bathroom...
I was trying to come up with a list of New Years Resolutions and I wasnt having much luck; I was 14 and it was inconceivable to me that I was not already The Summit of Perfection. What could I possibly do or not do that would make me BETTER? Obviously nothing. But my sister-- six years my senior and unaware of my flawlessness-- insisted that we make our resolutions and then exchange lists. I peeked over her shoulder. Shed written "Be More Patient With Those Less Mature Than I."
Yeah right. I was PLENTY patient with the immature, thank you very much. If anything I was too patient. I had recently come across the phrase "...does not suffer fools gladly..." (I think in a profile of George C Scott in Parade Magazine) and I thought, thats for me. People watching me saunter down the street would nudge each other and say, "Nice guy, but he does not suffer fools gladly." But I couldnt think how to frame that as a New Years Resolution. "Get People To Murmur Does Not Suffer Fools Gladly" seemed a bit cumbersome, not to say absurd. Wracking my brain for a way to improve that which could not be improved, I finally lit upon: "Hang up towel after taking bath more often." Just this evening, my father had stomped into my bedroom and thrown a soggy towel at me, saying "Would ya for crying out loud hang up your towels after you take a bath??" Not that I regarded leaving the towel on the bathroom floor as a problem-- after all, somehow or other it always got picked up by SOMEBODY, so I had no idea why he was complaining-- but it was evidence that I could correct things-- or rather "correct" things-- which other people believed to be faults. While I did not suffer fools gladly, I was willing to cut the old folks a little slack around the holidays. Why not? And of course, my careful wording ("...more often...") meant that if I hung up the towel EVEN ONCE, I had kept my New Years Resolution. As the kids today say (or anyway said a couple years ago), sweet.
It occurred to me that I could resolve not to do things I wouldnt do anyway, and bulk out the list that way. I wrote, "Do not soap up Mr. Gigers windows this Halloween." Then I crossed it off. I had never soaped up Mr. Gigers windows and had no interest in doing so, but why, I said to myself, limit my options? "Dont swear in church." Much better. And easily achieved by sleeping in on Sunday morning...
A heavy hand fell upon my shoulder. "Makin up the old New Years Resolutions, eh?" said my Uncle Tug. Uncle Tug had wondered over to the house, whence he would accompany my parents to the neighborhood New Years Eve bash at the Masonic Temple. Tugs car had been repoed recently ("A tragic bureaucratic error...") and he was wondering over to the house a lot.
"Yuh," I said.
"Lets see... Hey, Pammy, these are good. Although I think you need to work on your grammar-- Thats gotta be "those who is less mature than ME," Im sure." Pam made a non-committal noise deep in her throat. Uncle Tug turned his attention to my list. "These are even better. I mean, this one means you basically avoid going to church, this one means you stay away from your Aunt, who is well worth staying away from, this one means you dont take messages for your sister..." To my horror, I felt my ears reddening. Uncle Tug had somehow divined the secret subtext of my resolutions! "But you know... you kids could stand to make a little money. Your great Uncle Wally is on his way over, to give everybody a lift to the party and not incidentally show off his new Cadillac--" (Tug had a real knack for divining secret subtexts) "--and if you play your cards right, you can probably parlay your resolutions into some bucks. When your Mom and I were kids, Wally gave her 10 bucks one New Years when she resolved not to chew our fingernails any more. I remember he HATED people chewing their nails. So what we did, well, your mom bit her nails, but I didnt, see? And he was always telling her to knock it off. So I overheard him telling my folks he was going to give your mom ten bucks if she resolved to stop gnawing the fingernails. If the next time he stopped by there was no sign of chewing, hed just give her the bill RIGHT ON THE SPOT. And thats what happened. And when I saw him unfolding that Hamilton, I thought, Tuggy, you missed a bet here! You shoulda chomped on your nails New Years Eve, and then resolved not to do it anymore, and Old Wally-- he wasnt quite so old then, but he was up there, let me tell you-- woulda given YOU ten bucks, too. Well, its not too late for you two to learn from my mistake. If I were you, Id stick "Stop chewing fingernails" at the top of the list and then start chewing away for dear life. And make sure Wally gets a look at those mutilated nails when he gets here. Then watch what happens. Itll be the easiest money youll ever make.
There was no telling when Wally would arrive-- it could be any second. Pam and I raced to our rooms and started chewing away. I was working on a stubborn pinky nail when the doorbell rang. Pam and I raced downstairs. I shoved her out of the way to open the door. "Unca Wally!" I cried. "Great to see you!" I grabbed his hand and pumped it. "Hey, nice watch," I said, so we both looked down at the watch, and at my fingernails.
"Rolex," he said.
"Nice," I said. I held on a moment later, waiting for him to berate me for my nails. Nothing. My sister threw her arms around Wallys neck and gave him a peck on the cheek. Id already used the watch gambit so she was reduced to holding her hands up to her face, palms in, to display her ragged nails. "Im so glad youre here," she said. It looked pretty bizarre, but it afforded a great view of her nails.
"Thanks," said Uncle Wally, clearly puzzled.
I looked pleadingly at Uncle Tug, who seemed as baffled as we did.
"Hey, Unca Wally," he said. "Remember when Annie and I were kids and you gave her ten bucks for not biting her nails one year? Those were the days, huh?"
"It was for not SMOKING," said Wally, who then scooped up some dip on a potato chip and sampled it.
Pam and I stared at Tug.
"Well," he said, "I knew it was for SOMETHING."