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2003 column archive

The Passion of Moskowitz

 

New Year’s Eve is not, traditionally, a popular night for going to the movies. Even people who generally have nothing better to do have something better to do. It would have been a good night to close the Park Theater early, or (better) simply not open at all, and have the seats repaired, which is what we did the previous year. But this year we had a double feature booked and nobody was happy about it, especially Moskowitz the projectionist. He liked working holidays (insofar as Moskowitz could be said to "like" anything) because he got time and a half, but New Year’s Eve is not technically a holiday. Moskowitz was going to be stuck in the projection booth all night, working the arc lamps for his usual pittance (which was about 20 times what the rest of us made combined). He lurched into the lobby about 10 minutes before the first feature was scheduled to begin, clutching a shopping bag with "Friendly’s Liquor" imprinted on the side, and responded to Chuck’s "Top o’ the mornin’!" with a muttered obscenity.

Chuck had been greeting everyone with "Top o’ the morning’" but it didn’t endear him to the rest of us either. "You’re all acting like a bunch of babies," said Chuck. "Stop pouting. The second feature ends at 10:00 and then you can all go home and hit all the parties anyway. Nothing good happens at a New Year’s Eve party before 11."

This is true but it didn’t make us like Chuck any better. This evening’s double bill had been Chuck’s idea. This was 30 years ago, before anyone owned a VCR; Chuck basically used the Park Theater as his own gigantic VCR and not infrequently booked movies he was in the mood to see. Not infrequently, the movie going public of Caldwell, New Jersey was in the mood for something else. He’d had an interesting discussion with the owner of the theater the day before.

OWNER: So whose bright idea was it to book these two wonderful movies for New Year’s Eve? Let’s see. ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’ Just what everybody wants to ring in the New Year with. And I’m looking at the cast, and everybody’s name is French. Would I be mistaken if I suspected this might be a French movie?

CHUCK: Sort of.

OWNER: Meaning what? Somebody in the movie accidentally utters a syllable of English at some point?

CHUCK: Um, meaning it’s a silent movie...

[OWNER nods, stands up, begins beating his head against the door jam.]

CHUCK: ...But the subtitles are in English.

JOHN THE ASSISTANT MANAGER: I was going to talk to you about that. They didn’t have the print with English subtitles available.

OWNER: So they [BONK!] have to [BONK!] READ French?

JOHN: Uh, no. Danish.

OWNER: [Bonks plaintively for a few moments. Then:] And this other movie? Also silent? Let me see... ‘M.’ Starring Peter Lorre. And what language are the subtitles here?

JOHN: Oh, they’re in English.

OWNER: I was kidding. This is ANOTHER silent movie??

CHUCK: No, no. It’s in German. [Bonk]. But it’s really an exciting movie. See, Peter Lorre plays this child killer, and, uh...

OWNER: [Bonk. Bonk. Bonk. Bonk.]

But ultimately, the owner conceded, if Chuck had "his heart set on child killers and chicks on fire," New Year’s Eve was probably as good a night for it as any.

So "The Passion of Joan of Arc" unwound silently in the auditorium for an audience of one. The rest of us—cashiers, candy girls, ushers—slouched around sullenly, opening up the jujubes boxes and helping ourselves to four or five candies from each box. About 40 minutes into "Joan" we heard Chuck scream. I wandered in to see what was the matter. The screen was blank.

"Moskowitz missed the reel change," said Chuck. He stomped back to the office and attempted to raise Moskowitz on the intercom but Moskowitz would not respond.

"Chuck," one of the candy girls called, "the movie is back on." Chuck returned to the auditorium, and then immediately ran out again. "It’s the beginning of the movie again!" He ran upstairs and pounded on the projection booth door, but Moskowitz didn’t answer. Eventually Chuck came down and returned to his seat.

The rest of us went back to our jujubes. Since no one was calling up to see what was playing, and no one would, we amused ourselves by redoing the message on the Park Theater answering machine. Jay started things off by recording a message while gargling. The candy girls erased that and sang "Bye Bye Love." Pam the cashier had just begun to record her comedy stylings when Chuck screamed from the auditorium.

Once again, reel one had ended and reel two did not begin. Once again, there had been a pause of three or four minutes while Moskowitz rewound reel one and then restarted "Joan" from the beginning.

"I sense a pattern here," I said.

The candy girls took out the Scrabble game they kept behind the candy counter. We all planned to leave at 10 PM even if Moskowitz was still showing reel one of "Joan." But we felt so bad for Chuck, and the game was so engrossing, that we didn’t. One of the candy girls spelled "taxometer" but there was no dictionary on hand and we weren’t sure it was a real word. "Maybe Chuck knows," I said. I went into the auditorium.

"Would you know if taxometer is a word?" I asked. "And if so, how it’s spelled?"

Reel one ended again. The auditorium was illuminated by the soft glow of the pulsing vein in Chuck’s forehead.

"I’m not sure," he said.

Reel one began again. "You want to play Scrabble for a while?" I asked. "It’s not like you haven’t seen this part before."

"I can take it as long as Moskowitz can take it," he said.

I went back to the lobby and resumed the game.

In this manner we greeted 1974.



ARTIFICIAL CHRISTMAS TREES

My father hated shopping for Christmas trees. The whole family would jam itself into the '55 Bel Air--which, at the time, we thought of as "the old bomb," little realizing that it was the most beautiful car ever produced in America or anywhere else--and drive to a tree lot behind the Masonic Temple. My sister and my mother both had this idea that there was a perfect tree somewhere in every tree lot, and that this perfect tree was huge. The huger, the better, because they wanted the actual decorating to fill up an entire evening.

MOM: What about this tree? Is this one too scrawny?

DAD: No, it's fine. Let's get it. [Begins counting out 7 bucks]

MOM: It doesn't seem full enough on this side.

DAD: We'll turn that side to the wall.

MOM: No. This one is no good. Do you think so, Pam?

PAM: It's all lopsided. People would laugh at us.

MOM: Here's a good one... But I don't know about those forked branches near the top. See how up near the top there's a couple of branches that are too long? They should be lower down. They'd be fine halfway down the tree, but they're just too long for up at the top.

DAD: I could prune those two branches a little.

MOM: Let's get a good tree, not one you have to bang and saw and chop at.

DAD: I'd just...

MOM: A good tree costs no more than a poor tree, you know. Now this is a good tree! Look, Pam.

PAM: Ah!

DAD: It's 11 feet high.

MOM: More for the money.

DAD: Well, the ceilings don't happen to be 11 feet high, is all I'm trying to point out.

MOM: I see. And I suppose that's MY fault.

DAD: I didn't say that. I just mean we can't fit it into the house, not without chopping a few feet off the tree or cutting a hole in the ceiling.

MOM: Fine. Pam, look for another tree. A smaller tree. Something scrawnier. A scraggly little tree. Something pathetic. See if you can find a horrible little tree with some tree disease and no needles. That's fine. But make SURE it isn't too BIG, because we just can't have THAT.

Sometimes we would go to three or four different places before we found a tree that was both full enough to satisfy my mother and sister, and short enough to fit into the house.

Then one year, my father brought a tree home in a cardboard box. "We'll never have to buy another tree again," he announced. "Wait till you get a load of this baby."

It was a silver tree. It took 15 or 20 minutes to put it together. It needed no water. And best of all-- in the eyes of my father-- it required no ornaments; it came with a color wheel. This was a circle with four triangular colored gels which rotated slowly in front of a high intensity lamp placed on the floor, a few feet from the tree. It took about a minute to make a complete revolution, during which time the tree would turn from red to blue to gold to green.

To my shock, and probably to my father's as well, both my sister and my mother loved the silver tree. They insisted on hanging some sort of garland around it, but otherwise left it alone, and did not seem to miss the tree-buying expedition, or the 6 hour decorating binge. Perhaps my mother found the whole magilla just as stressful as my father had, and was happy to have the thing taken out of her hands.

Christmas tree assembly remained fun and easy for a couple of years, and then, sometime during the off season, a squirrel got into the attic and decided to use the tree box for its final resting place.

We could smell that something was wrong when Dad opened the box, but he doggedly continued assembling the tree right up to the moment when he reached into the box and plunged his hand into the mortal remains of the ex-squirrel. "Wagga!" he yelled. People in my family were always yelling things like "Wagga!" and "Wug!" when startled.

After a very long, very hot shower, he hosed down the tree out in the driveway, and disposed of the box. The smell was pretty much gone and what remained, he and I agreed, was kind of pleasant in an authentic frontier kind of way. The color wheel was plugged in. The tree began to go through its changes. This year the gold seemed to be especially striking; the color had a richness, a flickering quality, we had never noticed before. That was because the squirrel had damaged the mechanism during its death-throes and the wheel had jammed and the gold gel was burning. The burning gel, I must say, looked beautiful superimposed on the silver tree; kind of like when the film got stuck in the projector at school and the actor playing Benjamin Franklin would freeze, distort, and turn black as the frame melted and the class cheered appreciatively; an experience lost, alas, to a generation weaned on video.

When the fire had burned itself out, and the melted gels had filled the house with noxious fumes that made the stench of rotting squirrel seem like Pine Sol, my father tried to fix the color wheel motor. My sister and I played Monopoly. All the little metal shoes and thimbles had been lost and replaced by acorns. About the time I was wiping out my sister by putting a second house on Park Place, my Dad announced that this year we'd have to do without the color wheel, but that the tree looked very pretty anyway.

It didn't, actually. Without the color wheel it was stupid looking. It looked like one of those newspaper trees that magicians make at kids' parties, only made out of aluminum foil. We got the old ornaments out of the attic and tried to decorate it as if it were a regular tree, but it looked even more ridiculous. Best of all, the squirrel smell had not been completely eradicated and my dog, an elderly shetland sheepdog named Cinderella, who had been sniffing and whining all evening, finally hurled itself at the silver tree and tried to tear out its throat. Being a tree, of course, it didn't have a throat, but Cinderella gamely tried to tear it out anyway.

"This is a sign," said my sister.

"No," said my father, "THAT is a sign." He pointed out the window at a street sign which said SLOW CHILDREN. "THIS-- is a dog eating a Christmas tree. Learn to tell the difference." He left and returned an hour later with a box containing a new artificial tree. This one was green and, when assembled and decorated, looked like a real tree to everyone but the dog. The dog had acquired a taste for artificial Christmas trees that could never be sated; while it never actually launched itself into the air against this tree (which lacked the essence of squirrel which made the old tree so irresistible), it did growl and snap at it for many years to come, making all out Christmases much more interesting than they otherwise might have been.



WHERE'S YOUR PARROT?

 

"Time! Time! Time!" called Calvano. "Dr. Kovelesky’s gone crazy again!" We interrupted our snowball fight with the kids from Great Notch to watch Dr. Kovelesky dragging an ancient wringer-washer out of his basement storm doors. He was over 80 years old and if the objects collecting on the frozen lawn were anything to go by, he had never thrown anything away in his life. There were galoshes, punctured Model A tires, a Philco radio, a horse collar—everything looked like a prop from "The Little Rascals."

"He’s setting up for a yard sale," said Calvano. It wasn’t yard sale time, since the mercury was hovering around 20 degrees, but then Dr. Kovelesky was crazy. He vanished back down the basement steps and we crossed the street to examine the goods. The kids from Great Notch sent a few desultory insults and snowballs our way and then went in search of worthier opponents.

"Whoa! A stuffed owl," sighed Picarillo.

"I call dibs on the radio," said Calvano. If you turned on that radio, you couldn’t possibly pick up Tommy James and the Shondells—the thing would blurt out whichever episode of "Inner Sanctum" or "The Shadow" had been in progress when Dr. Kovelesky consigned it to the basement in 1938. Dr. Kovelesky reappeared with an armload of cigar boxes.

"How much for the owl?" said Picarillo.

"Nothing’s for sale! I got a burst pipe in the basement! Make yourselves useful and bring up that radiator before it’s ruined!"

Dr. Kovelesky was nuts but he was a grown up so we had to do what he said. The radiator in question was standing in six inches of water and weighed about a thousand pounds. I would guess that the three or four bullet holes in it had already ruined it, but we managed to get it onto the lawn anyway.

"What we’re really interested in," Calvano explained, "Is brains. Picarillo got a cow brain from Mr. Paisley’s yard sale a couple years ago and he keeps it in a jar by his bed, and Jeff and I were wondering if you had any? I mean, you being a doctor and all. That way we could ALL have a brain."

"They don’t have to be cow brains," I said. "Any kind of brain is good."

"That’s right. As long as it’s as big as a cow brain and..."

Suddenly Picarillo groaned and dropped to his knees. One of the departed (we thought) Great Notch kids had fired a snowball and caught him in the eye. The snowball must have been mostly ice, because Picarillo was bleeding profusely. "Bring him inside," said Dr. Kovelesky. "NOT the basement! To the office."

We escorted Picarillo through Dr. Kovelesky’s waiting room (like virtually all doctor’s offices in those days, it stank of stale tobacco—during office hours there would be a blue cloud hovering in the air) and then flipped through copies of magazines that had ceased publication prior to the Eisenhower administration while Dr. Kovelesky worked on Picarillo’s eye.

"I called his parents," he said. "You boys give me a hand with the chifferobe in the basement till they get here."

Calvano and I maneuvered the chifferobe out of the basement while Dr. Kovelesky stood in the yard with a shotgun in case the Great Notch kids returned. Since by this time the furniture was floating, it wasn’t that difficult. Mr. and Mrs. Picarillo showed up—Mrs. Picarillo wailed when she saw the bandage over Picarillo’s eye. "Don’t SMOTHER the boy," said Dr. Kovelesky, brandishing the shot gun.

When Picarillo showed up in school on Monday he was wearing an eye patch. "Whoa!" cried Calvano. "Picarillo lost his eye!"

"No, I didn’t," said Picarillo. "I just scratched the... the thing."

"Too bad," said Calvano. "Cuz if you did lose it, you could get, like, a GOLD one."

"A gold eye?? Wow! So everything I saw through that eye would look gold??"

"Not exactly," said Calvano.

For a couple of days Picarillo seemed to enjoy the attention that his eye patch was bringing him. There were endless pirate jokes, but by the end of the week no one paid much attention to it any more except for Mr. Donnelly, the gym teacher, who greeted Picarillo with "Yo ho ho! Arrrr! Where’s your parrot?" Over and over. Mr. Donnelly had a metal plate in his head. He would bonk you with it if you talked back to him. He implied the plate was the result of a war injury, but his dog also had a plate in its head so it probably wasn’t. My uncle said Mr. Donnelly and his dog got the metal plates when they were fighting over a bone, but that probably wasn’t true either.

"You know," said Calvano, "The next time he says ‘where’s your parrot,’ it would be pretty cool if you whipped out a parrot."

"Well, sure," said Picarillo. "But I’m only gonna have the patch for another week and a half." There was an unspoken assumption that he if only had a little more time he could have come up with a parrot no sweat.

"How about the owl?" said Calvano. "Remember the stuffed owl Dr. Kovelesky had? That’s nearly a parrot. I bet Donnelly wouldn’t know the difference. He teaches gym. It’s not like he’s this BIRD expert."

"Yeee-ah," said Picarillo, his one visible eye gazing into the middle distance. "But how do we get the owl? It’s not for sale."

"We might be able to borrow it. We could tell Dr. Kovelesky it’s for this OWL project we’re doing. In school, I mean. He’d HAVE to let us have the owl then."

We worked up an elaborate story about the owl project. I remember it involved South American orphans. Anyway, the three of us tucked in our shirts and rang the Koveleskys’ bell. Mrs. Kovelesky answered the door.

"The doctor is taking his nap," she said. "Is there something I can help you boys with?"

"We are inquiring about the availability of the owl," said Calvano.

"The dead one," explained Picarillo.

"We would just need it for a day or so."

"Cuz a the ORPHANS."

"Exactly," said Calvano.

Mrs. Kovelesky seemed a bit puzzled, but she had us wait in the living room and returned with the owl—which was visibly a bit worse for having been in a flood and then left on the lawn for a couple of days.

"You can have it if you promise never to bring it back," she said. We were speechless. It wasn’t till we got back to Calvano’s house that he slapped himself in the forehead and said, "I shoulda asked about the radio!"

We planned to have Picarillo carry the owl around in a bag and when Mr. Donnelly popped his question, Picarillo would cry, "HERE IT IS!" and hold it high.

Unfortunately, by the time we had the owl, Mr. Donnelly was no longer asking, "Where’s your parrot?" But the plan seemed too good to abandon. People were asking Picarillo what he was carrying in the bag, which would not do. "Ix-nay on the ag-bay, Picarillo," said Calvano. "You can see the outline of the owl." As gym class approached, Picarillo decided upon the extraordinary strategy of stuffing the owl in his pants. This did stop people from asking what was in the bag.

We went down the corridor towards the locker room. Picarillo was walking as if he had an owl stuffed down his pants. We saw Mr. Donnelly writing something on his clipboard by the locker room doors.

"Hey Mr. Donnelly! HERE IT IS!"

Picarillo reached into his pants and attempted to pull out the owl, but it caught on his waistband. Mr. Donnelly stood goggle eyed while Picarillo struggled with the owl. Finally with a mighty effort, Picarillo yanked the owl free. The structural integrity of the owl had been breached, though, and the head flew off, spewing sawdust in an arc around the hall. Mr. Donnelly staggered backwards.

"W-w-w-w-wuh," he said. He backed all the way to the door of the locker room, lost his footing, and nearly became the first gym teacher in the district with two metal plates in his head.

Picarillo would have probably been punished if they could have figured out how to write up the incident, but since they couldn’t, he wasn’t.



SNOW: PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

 

Snow is just a really stupid idea. I don’t like shoveling it. I don’t like walking through it. I don’t like it.

QUESTION: Didn’t you think snow was really neat when you were a kid?

ANSWER: Yes, I did. I also thought "Invaders from Mars" was really scary, even though you can see the zippers on the backs of the Martian costumes. Well, I still think it’s pretty scary, so that’s probably not a good example. But I thought Milkbone™ dog biscuits were delicious when I was a kid, and now I wouldn’t eat one on a bet. Except maybe the green ones.

Or possibly the maroon ones. Anyway, virtually all of the problems with snow can be overcome through the application of HUMAN INTELLIGENCE.

DESIGN FLAWS IN SNOW

PROBLEM: Color. On the one hand, white goes with everything. That’s good. On the other hand, nobody says, "Let’s invite the Good Humor man to our next party because he’s such a snappy dresser!" Your brand new spiffy blinding white 2004 Saturn looks positively celestial when you drive it off the show room floor; but encounter one puddle—one dust cloud-- and it looks about as spiffy as the grill on your hibachi 47 burgers into a Tex-Mex barbecue. Plus, since everybody’s snow is the same color, you could easily get confused and accidentally shovel part of your neighbor’s sidewalk. Interestingly, your neighbor does not ever seem to have this problem.

SOLUTION: Designer Colors. In the mid 1990’s the four-color map theorem (which states that only four colors are needed to color any map on a flat surface or sphere) was finally proven mathematically. Therefore even communities with limited resources should be able to ensure that every property owner has snow of a color different from his neighbor. These should be primary or secondary colors, such as red, blue, orange, etc. Householders who wish to pay for classier colors, such as periwinkle or flesh, may do so. Of course people will have to register their colors with the municipal authorities to prevent, say two consecutive addresses with lavender snow. I’m not sure about whether it would be sensible to permit different shades of the same color in direct juxtaposition or not. I don’t think there would be a problem with, say, midnight blue snow next to aqua snow. But blue-green next to green-blue could lead to conflict. Another movie I thought was really scary when I was a kid is "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

PROBLEM: Clumping. Snow clumps together. This is great if you’re having a snowball fight but if not, then not.

SOLUTION: Each snowflake must be covered with a non-stick coating. Whether this would be a permanent coating such as Teflon™ or something more along the lines of Pam™ non-stick spray coating is something that remains to be worked out. There can be little question that the spray option will result in better tasting snow, particularly if the jalape񯍊pepper flavored variety is used. In fact, flavored non-stick sprays should probably be encouraged, as they would help settle property disputes when adjacent homes have similar snow colors (see example of blue-green / green-blue above).

PROBLEM: Cold. Snow is cold.

SOLUTION: Warmer snow. Two obvious answers present themselves. First, we could make it a matter of law that snow ONLY fall when the temperature is above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I think this would result in warmer snow by definition. If that proves unworkable, then the individual flakes must be equipped with a warming device of some sort. This could be added to the flake at the same time as the non-stick coating in order to save money. It may be objected that all these accessories will make the snow much heavier and hence even more trouble to shovel, but there are two answers to this. First, we could use very light weight stuff. Second, see the solution to "Problem: Snow weighs too much."

PROBLEM: Snow gets tramped on and turns to ice. Also snow melts and then refreezes and turns to ice.

SOLUTION: I have one, but it also clears up the next problem, so skip ahead to "Problem: Snow weighs too much."

PROBLEM: Snow weighs too much.

SOLUTION: Much of the weight in snow comes from water. If the water component is extracted from snow, not only will the snow be much lighter, but there will be much less chance of it melting and then freezing into ice. The WARMING DEVICE postulated in the solution to "Problem: snow is cold" could be modified to remove the water using HEAT. The water could then be stored in a removable compartment—kind of like a fanny pack for snowflakes. The water would be available in case of drought or extreme thirst.

No problem is too difficult if you just put your mind to work.

 

Late Fall Semester Report

This week I was going to report on my high school class reunion but no sooner had I booted up the computer and typed in the words "blinding headache" when my daughter walked in the door and informed me that her Thanksgiving visit was at an end and I had to drive her to the bus stop. "Well," said I, "then I’ll do one of those ‘interview with Emma’ columns this week. You’ll have to supply me with some scintillating conversation on the way to the bus."

"Whatever," she agreed. We got in the car.

"So," I said.

EMMA [13 and a half minute pause]: I’m not speaking to Eileen at the moment.

ME: Why?

EMMA: She said, "Have a GOOD semester."

ME: That doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that makes you decide you’re no longer on speaking terms with someone.

EMMA: It was the WAY she said it. Anyway, she was at the Bridgewater Mall at 6 AM the day after Thanksgiving and there was nothing in particular she wanted to buy. She called her mother at nine o’clock and said she’d bought some underwear and she was coming home for lunch and her mother said, ‘No, plough on, plough on.’ So I don’t think she’s got the RIGHT to say ‘Have a GOOD semester’ to ME.

ME: Well, when you explain it like that, sure.

EMMA: Don’t patronize me.

ME: You have what? Three room mates this year? And they’re all named Megan?

EMMA: Hel-LO. There are two Megos and a Malzda.

ME: Are the Megos really Megans?

EMMA: Yes. There’s Blue Mego and Crazy Mego. Blue Mego is no longer blue, though. Now her hair is natural color, which is blonde. Says HER. Crazy Mego works out three hours a day but the other day she took a shower and THEN went to the gym. It’s like brushing your teeth and THEN eating dinner. Which in her case would be something with no carbs. Ick.

ME: What is ‘Malzda’ short for? Or is that actually her name?

EMMA: Her real name is Mallory. She was named after the sister on ‘Family Ties.’ Hence ‘Malzda.’

ME: That’s ridiculous. She must be your age, so she’s almost twenty. That show isn’t anywhere nearly old enough to, uh...

EMMA: Hel-LO.

ME: Oh. Well, maybe it is... huh...

EMMA: Could you stop contemplating the specter of your own mortality long enough to not hit the bus please?

ME: He’s not beeping at me. I’m going to call you when I get home and we’ll resume the interview.

BUS DRIVER: What’s a matter with you? You didn’t notice there was a BUS parked here?

ME: Who is he talking to? There’s nobody here but us.

[Later, on the cell phone]

ME: Okay, we were talking about your roommates...

EMMA: Mom says if you get killed I’ll inherit 2 million dollars.

ME: Not to disappoint you, but it wouldn’t even be close.

EMMA: She said you would say that. Crazy Mego got us a Christmas tree! It’s fake and small. It’s Canadian. And she got these big candy canes. They look like regular candy canes that somebody put that PATCH on.

ME: What patch?

EMMA: The one you keep getting emails about. You know, ‘I Got My Man THE PATCH And Now He Can Finally Satisfy Me.’

ME: Did YOU put me on those spam lists??

EMMA: No. I also get a lot of those Nigerian emails that say like ‘I am the wife of a Nigerian senator and we managed to smuggle 100 million dollars out during the recent revolution but we need to deposit it in a safe bank account and if you will let us put it in yours for just a month or so we will let you have 30 million of it.’ I wrote back and said I felt really bad for them because they’d lost their home in the revolution. They said thank you, what is your bank account number.

ME: Did you tell them??

EMMA: Of course not. What’s your bank account number? I would never tell anyone, I just want to be reassured that you trust me. Dr. Phil would tell you to let me know.

ME: Ask Dr. Phil what his bank account number is.

EMMA: I had to call up Blue Mego to ask if I could wear her Dr. Seuss bathrobe. It’s got the Cat in the Hat on it. The real one, not the new one. I’m not wearing the thing you use to tie the bathrobe as the thing you use to tie the bathrobe. I’m wearing it on my head like a FREEDOM FIGHTER HEADBAND. Hey, did you see ‘Master and Commander?’

ME: Yes.

EMMA: I heard Russell Crowe isn’t BUFF in it like in ‘Gladiator.’ Hey, Crazy Mego is reading the same book I am. ‘100 Years of Solitude.’

ME: You sound offended.

EMMA: I’m not offended because she’s not REALLY reading it. She just HAS it.

ME: If she were really reading it, would you be offended?

EMMA: Yes. Mal just drank SOY NOG out of a carton. It was funny. She’s gonna stab whoever took her vegan burgers out of the wrappers.

ME: Well, how many of her roommates are vegan?

EMMA: Only one other roomie is vegan but the other one might as well be cuz she doesn’t eat carbs. Mal says, you know what is the funniest word ever?

ME: No.

EMMA: Honk.

ME: Honk?

EMMA: HA! Blue Mego’s got this picture of Ewan McGregor on the wall. From ‘Trainspotting.’ He looks all wet and Scottish. And there’s an iron mark on the carpet.

ME: An iron mark?

EMMA: From an iron. I saw a music video today with Penguins. They were holding up anti-Communist signs? You know what I think when I see a music video with penguins and no band members, it makes me think the band is really ugly. Crazy Mego made the iron mark, but she wasn’t ironing clothes. She was ironing her hair.

ME: That’s very sixties. My sister used to do that.

EMMA: We will NOT tell Crazy Mego. It would make her sad.

 

WHO IS IT??

 

At least once a week I will be walking down the street or waiting for a seat at a restaurant or buttering a bagel at the deli, and someone I have never seen before will address me by name and engage me in a conversation. This happens all the time to people like George Clooney and me; it’s part of the tremendous price we pay for being enormously famous pop culture icons. People read our columns and see our movies and they come to feel like they know us personally, which in a way they do. And a small but not insignificant number of these people go on to draw the understandable but, alas, incorrect conclusion that since they know me and George, George and I must know them. So instead of introducing themselves with something along the lines of "Excuse me, but I just had to tell you that I read your column every week and it is not only the best thing I’ve ever read but I really don’t think I could go on living without it," they say, "Hey, Jeff. I got that donut shaped balloon thing I was thinking about getting last week, because my piles were killing me. Hey, you gonna finish that bagel?"

As I said, it’s the price we pay and for the most part we celebrities pay it gladly. Since this is (technically) a Thanksgiving column, I might almost say that George and I are THANKFUL that we have established such a personal rapport with our fans. And yes, I am going to finish that bagel, thank you very much.

So when, two weeks ago, I was browsing in a bookstore during a break between the morning and an afternoon classes of my annual yoga intensive weekend [this is not just a colorful detail, but its relevance to the rest of the story will not be obvious for a couple of paragraphs], and a nearby gentleman did a double take and said, "Jeff?" and held out his hand, I first assumed it was (as usual) one of my fans, and I was appropriately grateful. But as the conversation progressed, he began to seem oddly familiar. "This is someone I know," I said to myself, and myself answered, "Well, who is it?" And I said, "I don’t have the faintest idea."

I knew the face and I knew the voice, but I couldn’t place the body language. "I didn’t know he was this tall," I told myself. The fellow told me he was killing a little time in the bookstore with his two kids, and I realized (somehow) that I hadn’t been aware that he’d had two kids. So he was probably not a close relative. Our conversation lasted less than a minute and when he strolled away I had no idea who he was or how I knew him, but there was no question that I knew him. It wasn’t someone I hadn’t seen in 20 years, because we weren’t having that kind of a conversation. It was someone CURRENTLY in my life, but not someone I see everyday. At least I was hoping it wasn’t someone I see every day, because that would probably mean I had lost even more brain cells than I thought.

Concentrating a little, I was able to "hear" his voice in my head. "Hear" is couched in quote marks because I couldn’t call up any words, just the tone of voice and general tenor of the conversation. Sort of like when I trip over the surge suppresser and knock out the power to the computer, which then attempts to retrieve the document I was working on but informs me ‘file corrupted.’ In my memory’s corrupted file, the fellow was deferring to me, and yet he seemed to be in a position of some authority.

What could that possibly mean? Was he my personal trainer? I don’t think I have a personal trainer, but with my brain cells fizzing away like Alka Seltzer bubbles it’s possible that I do and just don’t remember. For that matter, maybe I was HIS personal trainer. Or, he could be one of the many whose lives I saved during the Milford earthquake this summer, or would have, had their lives actually been in danger and had I been in Milford at that time. I wandered around the bookstore with one half of my brain going, "I have no idea who that guy is," and the other half going, "I know, but I’m not going to tell YOU." I was listening to this argument and wondering, since I obviously wasn’t either one, just how many of me there were. And, I’m sorry to say, at least one of us is a real jerk.

So there I was, in the same bookstore where, just about a year earlier, I had been killing time between the morning and afternoon classes of my annual yoga intensive and had decided to change into my gym shorts in the parking lot and got my leg caught in the steering wheel and was pretty much stuck there until a not entirely sympathetic cop set me free. And now here I was, and although I had my pants on, something seemed wrong with my mind. Aside from the usual, I mean.

Then, suddenly, the half of my mind that didn’t know who I’d been talking to DID know who I’d been talking to and said (to the other half): "It’s my DENTIST! There’s nothing wrong with my brain! I didn’t know who he was because I’d never seen him without the white smock! HAH! I’m COMPLETELY SANE!"

Unfortunately, that half of my mind said all this aloud. It attracted a lot of attention from my fellow customers. On the plus side, this time my humiliation didn’t involve the police.

It’s like the old saying: I was sad because I had no pants, until I met a man who had no brain.

HOW TO PICK UP CHICKS

 

Mulberry Street Joey Clams was squinting at the menu from the take-out place on Elizabeth Street. "Prosciutto bread, yeah," he murmured. He started to dial the number and I told him to hold up for a second because I was going to order something, too. He skimmed the menu across the room to me like a rectangular Frisbee, and like a rectangular Frisbee, it flipped end over end and bounced under the desk.

"Hey, I see London, I see France," he called as I retrieved the menu. I grunted. "Hey again. How come your girl friend doesn’t make you sandwiches any more? "

"Um," I said. I almost never discussed my personal life with Mulberry Street Joey Clams, but occasionally he asked about my girl friend Jeanette because she’d agreed to provide a home for our erstwhile shop cat. The cat was an advertising gimmick, sort of—it was supposed to lounge cutely in our window, licking its paws and sunning itself, and passersby would say, oh what a cute kitty and then (the theory went) enter the Custom Neon Sign Shop and order a custom neon sign. There were several flaws in this theory, but the main problem wasn’t theoretical at all. The main problem was the cat waned to kill Mulberry Street Joey Clams. The cat hid in the bowels of the shop waiting for Mulberry Street Joey Clams to lower his guard, at which point it would launch itself at his face. So the cat had to go, and Jeanette took it. It was a perfectly sane cat when it wasn’t around Mulberry Street Joey Clams. Jeanette had no problem with the cat.

She had other issues, let’s say.

"Well, she kinda dumped me," I explained.

"What’s ‘kinda?’ You mean she’s blowing you off when you call, sayin’ she’s gotta go wash her hair, et cetera?"

"I mean she moved to New Mexico."

"Ah," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Ah. Well... well, that’s not necessarily a DUMP. It mighta had nothing to do with YOU, you know? Maybe... I dunno, maybe there was a warrant out for her, or..."

"She left with a guy named Raoul," I said.

"Well, maybe... nah, forget it, you’re dumped."

"Yuh," I said. "I want the tuna salad platter."

"Well... it’s not the end of the world, ya know."

"I know. I want the tuna platter."

"Yeah. Gotta keep eatin’. I know food doesn’t seem important—"

"Actually it kinda does."

"Well... that’s good. The human body—whoa!" His entire body stiffened as a terrifying thought occurred to him. "She didn’t... she didn’t LEAVE THE CAT, did she??"

"No. She took it to New Mexico. Anyway, this was about 6 weeks ago. It’s ancient history."

"Ye-ah... Well, good, good. You know, I noticed you been depressed lately, but I didn’t wanna say anything..."

"And I appreciate it. I would also appreciate the tuna platter."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know what we’re doing after work? You’re gonna get snapped outta this funk. "

"I’m not in a funk."

"Tell it to the judge. We’re goin’ to Muldoon’s Bar. Nothing cheers a guy up like buying drinks for his buddy."

Since I was (presumably) the guy who needed cheering up, I assumed that he had put the subject and object of that sentence in the wrong places, but I was mistaken. When we entered Muldoon’s Bar after an exhausting day of not making any neon signs, Mulberry Street Joey Clams asked for a draft beer, jerked a thumb at me, and said, "Run a tab for this gent, would ya? He’s gettin’ over GIRL TROUBLE tonight."

For a while—quite a while—I got over my girl trouble buying drinks for Mulberry Street Joey Clams and the occasional Friend of Mulberry Street Joey Clams, and then I paid for a pool game between Mulberry Street Joey Clams and a buddy of his. Curiously, spending all this money did not snap me out of my funk. The buddy kept missing the cue ball. He reversed his stick. Then he missed the cue ball with the fat end of the stick. When these hilarious antics did not noticeably improve my disposition—quite the contrary—Mulberry Street Joey Clams abandoned the game and rejoined me at the table.

"I know the problem here, and I know the solution. When you find yourself suddenly chickless, the obvious thing is to get rechicked as quickly as possible."

"Don’t try to set me up with Augie’s sister again," I said.

"No, no, no. BETTER than that. You know the old saying: ‘give a man a fish, and he eats today. Teach a man to fish, and he eats alla time.’"

"Uh-huh..."

"Now I know you’re not EMOTIONALLY ready for a new relationship—"

"Well, actually..."

"But the game plan for tonight, before you got all depressed and I hadda take you out here to Muldoon’s bar, was, I was gonna pick up chicks. Normally I wouldn’t do this, but under the circumstances, you can tag along and watch. Then when you aren’t depressed any more, you’ll basically know the drill."

"Uh..."

Muldoon, the owner of Muldoon’s, had been listening to this touching monologue and said, "Clams, if you bother any of the ladies here, I’m tossing you."

"You know, Muldoon, you shouldn’t worry about me BOTHERING any ladies, you should worry about maybe ordering a neon sign for this joint..."

"I got a neon sign."

"Sure, an OLD FASHIONED neon sign..." By which I assume he meant it lit up when it was turned on, unlike our ultra modern custom signs, which tended to explode when they were plugged in. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and Muldoon went back and forth about neon signs and the exact meaning of ‘bother’ for several minutes. Eventually Muldoon tired of this and turned his attention to other customers. "We’ll head over to Fandango’s," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "They got a better juke box." I paid the tab and we left Muldoon’s. Geez, I thought to myself, I’m bar hopping with Mulberry Street Joey Clams. I did my best to suppress this thought, since, like most of my thoughts during the past few hours, it did not cheer me up.

"When we get there, I scope out the place and select the proper chick. BIG HAIR is always a good sign. Then you go up to the chick..."

"I go up to the chick?"

"Key-rect. You go up and act like a jerk for a minute."

"Um..."

"You know, you go, ‘hey baby, I got a real YEN for you.’ Something like that. But maybe not that smooth. Anyway, then I come over and go, ‘this guy bothering you, miss?’ and she says yeah, and I throw you out of the bar. At this point your job is over and you can head for home. Get a good night’s sleep, cuz I think Muldoon is primed to come in tomorrow and order a Custom Neon Sign."

At Fandango’s, Mulberry Street Joey Clams immediately zeroed in on the young lady with the largest hair. She was muttering darkly into her drink, which did not strike me as a good sign, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams insisted, "She’s sad. That’s good. That’s VERY good."

She didn’t look sad to me, she looked angry, but I made my way to the bar, stood beside her, cleared my throat, and said:

"Excuse me, miss, I—"

At which point she threw her drink in my face.

Mulberry Street Joey Clams seemed flabbergasted, but once he had a plan, he liked to stick with it. He grabbed my arm and said, gruffly, "This punk bothering you, miss?"

She picked up the 7 & 7 the guy next to her was drinking and threw it in Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ face. The guy who’d had the 7 & 7 didn’t say anything, perhaps because he sensed that she was not in the mood for talking. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I left Fandango’s. Around Spring Street I said, "You can let go of my arm now."

"Right," he said. He let go. "You know," he said a few blocks later, "I bet that chick’s got a story."



ASK THE LUNAR ECLIPSE EXPERT GUY

 

DEAR LUNAR ECLIPSE EXPERT GUY:

I really enjoyed the recent lunar eclipse! Thanks! My question is, would it be safe to be on the moon during an eclipse? When we were sending astronauts up there, did an eclipse ever occur while they were moon walking and if so, what happened? In closing, thank you again for a great Q & A column. I never miss it!

(signed)

Concerned about the dangers but still excited

DEAR CONCERNED:

Your kind words are appreciated, but there is no need to thank me for the eclipse— goodness knows I had nothing to do with it, aside from parking myself outside for the climactic moments and soaking up the excitement. In answer to your questions, a lunar eclipse did not coincide with any of our moon landings (how odd to think we now live in the "post-lunar" era, eh?). As to whether it would be safe to walk on the moon during an eclipse (not ‘moon walking,’ please, which is an eighties dance step), I was about to write ‘it is perfectly safe,’ but in fact the moon is a very hostile environment and potentially fatal if your training and equipment are inadequate. But it is no more dangerous during an eclipse than otherwise, which I believe was the point of your question.

*

DEAR LUNAR ECLIPSE EXPERT GUY:

Last week’s lunar eclipse was the third one I have witnessed. It is also the third one where the shape that blotted out the moon was a circle. I sense a pattern here. Is it ALWAYS a circle, or are there eclipses where the moon (or other body) is eclipsed by a triangle or square or some other shape?

(signed)

Getting a little bored

DEAR GETTING:

The Lunar Eclipse Expert Guy suspects you are having a little ‘fun’ here, but just in case you are in earnest: the moon is eclipsed by a circle because it is eclipsed by the earth, which is a globe (or to be more precise, an oblate spheroid, but that’s close enough) and casts a circular shadow. If I may be so bold as to anticipate your next question, there are no known naturally occurring heavenly bodies that could conceivably cast a triangular shadow. The only UN naturally occurring heavenly body which casts a square shadow is the Bizarro World, as detailed in Adventure Comics #285 (June 1961) through 299 (August 1962). The Bizarros created a cube-shaped planet, thought it is unclear from the stories exactly how this was accomplished.

*

DEAR LUNAR ECLIPSE EXPERT GUY:

What happens to werewolves during a total eclipse? Your column is great, keep up the good work.

(signed)

Astronomy major, but also interested in werewolves

DEAR ASTRONOMY:

Authorities are divided on the question. Ultimately, it comes down to what, precisely, triggers the metamorphosis from man to wolf. If it is moonlight—presumably a critical mass of moonlight, since the light generated from a half moon or even a not-quite full moon won’t do it (and PLEASE hold your letters—I am well aware the moon does not ‘generate’ it’s own light, but that isn’t the issue here)—then even a partial eclipse of the moon should reverse the lycanthropy for the duration of said eclipse. Yet if this were the case, wouldn’t the simple act of GOING INDOORS also reverse it? If, on the other hand, lycanthropy has nothing to do with moonlight PER SE but is simply coordinated with the lunar cycle, the amount of moonlight would not be an issue. Werewolf attacks occurring indoors (i.e. "Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory," 1963) would seem to militate towards the latter theory. But some scholars believe that once the transformation has been achieved, it is can not be reversed until it has run its course (until the dawn, that is), which once again throws the question open. Science has no definitive answer at this time.

*

DEAR LUNAR ECLIPSE EXPERT GUY:

How do you do the moonwalk? It looks so cool but I’ve never been able to figure it out.

(signed)

Wants to moonwalk but no sure how to do it

DEAR WANTS:

Stand with your feet about hip width apart, the left about 12 inches ahead of the right. The left should be flat on the floor, the right ‘flexed’ so that the heel is up but the toes are down. DRAG the left back until the left toe is even with the right heel, then FLEX the left foot while flattening the right. Now drag the right foot back. With practice you will be able to gradually increase the distance of the ‘drag’ and add various grace notes to your moonwalk. Good luck!

*

DEAR LUNAR ECLIPSE EXPERT GUY:

We all know what a lunar ECLIPSE is, but what about a lunar ECLAIR? I guess that would be a MOON PIE! ("luna" is another word for moon). You can use this in your column. You don’t have to pay me. Just say like ‘according to reader Toby Pantowski, we all know...’ etc.

(signed)

Toby Pantowski

DEAR TOBY:

Thank you for writing. But an eclair is really a cream-filled pastry, not a pie, so the joke doesn’t quite work.

*

LATE BREAKING NEWS: I am reliably informed that a ‘moon pie’ is not really a pie, either. But the joke still doesn’t quite work.

*

DEAR LUNAR ECLIPSE EXPERT GUY:

In Mark Twain’s "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court," there is the famous scene where the time-traveling hero is about to be burned at the stake but remembering that an eclipse of the sun is about to occur, convinces his captors that he is responsible for it and they release him. Has anything like this ever happened involving a LUNAR eclipse in real life?

(signed)

Kind of hoping it has

DEAR KIND:

No, it hasn’t. And would it be churlish of me to point out that nothing like this has ever happened in real life involving a SOLAR eclipse, either?



A JEALOUS SNIT

 

I woke up happy on Halloween. It’s my favorite holiday—the only one where I can wear my Tor Johnson-with-the-gross-crack-in-the-forehead mask without making a fashion faux pas (as the other people in my pew this past Easter were only too happy to point out). I had already purchased bags of delicious hydrogenated palm oil, each nugget in a festive orange and black wrapper decorated with badly drawn pumpkins, bats, and witches silhouetted against the moon. The television programming executives had scheduled more good monster movies than I could possibly watch. The weather was brisk but sunny—perfect for Halloween, I said to myself, as I laced up my new sneakers.

And I would be lying if I said the new sneakers weren’t responsible for some—no, let’s be totally honest—much of my happiness. After three or four years of wearing comfortable but, well, FRUMPY sneaker wearing, I decided that enough was enough. I wanted HIGH TOPS.

Regular black or white high tops would have been fine. In fact, that was what I intended to get when I set out for the shoe store. I want so far as to pick up a black high top (left) and was going to hand it to the clerk with instructions to see if they had it in a size 11, when a splash of color caught the corner of my eye

It was a pair of high tops identical in style to the one in my hand in all respect save one: they were bright red.

Now, I am not a ‘fashion plate.’ While I do dress with a certain panache, bright red shoes are surely beyond the pale. Or so I thought. But THESE red sneakers "spoke" to me. I couldn’t quite place the accent, and I thought I detected a very faint lisp, but there was no doubt that they were addressing ME. I replaced their dusky cousin and carried a crimson sneaker to a nearby clerk. "I’d like to see a pair of these in size 11, my good man," said I. He blinked and then covered his mouth in the way that all clothing store salespeople, I’ve noticed, cover their mouths when I point out my selections to them. Sneaker in hand he hurried to the stockroom, pausing at the entrance to nudge one of his co-workers, display the sneaker, and jerk a thumb in my direction as if to say, ‘now THERE’S a man who knows smart foot-apparel when he sees it!’ I could tell from the co-worker’s enthusiastic thigh slap and his infectious smile that he agreed 100%.

The transaction proceeded without incident: the size 11 fit perfectly, the clerk asked if I would care to try on the same shoe but in a polka-dot pattern, I declined, and moments later I walked out of the store with my new red sneakers on my feet. I couldn’t help but notice the approving glances my new footwear drew in the mall, on the escalator, out into the parking lot. "Woo woo!" called some admirers. I responded with a friendly ‘thumbs up’ sign and was rewarded with applause as I got into my car.

If anything, the approving glances proliferated over the next few days as I strolled about Milford in my new sneakers. Children followed in my wake, like the tail of a sneaker-clad comet. Sometimes they sang "Billie Jean" or "Beat It," occasionally interjecting "Who’s bad? HE’S bad!" (‘Bad’ is the hip new teen lingo for ‘spiffily dressed’). So overwhelmingly favorable was the response to my sneakers that I half-considered returning to the shoe store and taking a look at the polka-dot ones, after all.

This was my state of mind as I unlaced my sneakers and prepared for bed on the night of October 30th, Halloween Eve.

Mischief Night.

Regarding my state of mind upon awakening Halloween morning, you have already been informed in the opening sentence of this piece. My emotions mirrored the bright, brisk weather. I laced up the high tops and went outside, crisp autumn leaves blowing along the sidewalk, sunlight reflecting off the hood of my car. And then as I came around to the driver’s side of the car, the weather broke. Oh, not the EXTERIOR weather, which continued sunny and cool for the rest of the day, but my INTERNAL weather. It darkened instantly. My inner sky (somewhere in the vicinity of my gall bladder) was filled with roiling storm clouds.

Someone had vandalized my car.

Along the side, someone had written in soap: ASK MY ABOUT MY PRETTY NEW SNEAKERS.

I felt sick. In the course of nearly a week, I had not been given a hint that anyone found the sneakers less than delightful. If I had a nickel for each polite young person who called out "Nice shoes!" as I walked past, I would have 50 or 60 cents. Yet some demented individual had been so disturbed by the sneakers—and by the public reaction to them, I’m certain—that he had committed this crime. He MOCKED the sneakers. (You may be thinking, ‘but he said they were ‘pretty.’’ Yes he did, but I am sure the compliment was intended sarcastically).

Well, WHAT IS TO BE DONE? I have scrubbed off the offending graffito. I suppose there is already a shake-up underway at police headquarters, as they try to establish just who was asleep at the switch and allowed this thing to take place. When I told my editor what had happened, he was so overcome that he had to turn away. His shoulders heaved with emotion. When he finally got himself under control and turned around—his face was bright red, as though he had been weeping—he looked down and said, "THOSE shoes??" and had to turn around once more. It was a good lesson: crimes of this sort affect not only those of us who are their direct victims, but all those around us, too. I'm sure the paper will be setting up a ‘tip line,’ where readers with information may anonymously call in. And no doubt the paper will also establish a considerable cash award should this information lead to the arrest and conviction of the culprits. I imagine the pertinent information is on page one. And a blistering editorial elsewhere on this page, to be sure.

Will I stop wearing the bright red sneakers? On the contrary! Do your worst, Mister Sneaker Mocker! These sneakers are here to stay! Get used to it!



Cry of the Werewolf

It was two days before Halloween and our six-month library ban was over.

Calvano, Picarillo and I had been barred from the stacks the previous spring for engaging in a water pistol fight in the reading room; we hadn’t planned to have a water pistol fight, we had just wanted to fill up the water pistols there because the water fountain water was freezing cold. But we found ourselves incapable of not ambushing each other (and various innocent bystanders) from behind the shelves. Then Picarillo hit a reading lamp bulb, which exploded, and Mrs. Hoonhout banished us for 6 months.

But now we were back. We had come to resolve a dispute about our Deluxe Over the Head Rubber Werewolf Mask with Real Hair (which we had all chipped in to purchase from an ad on the back cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland three years earlier; this year, it was Picarillo’s turn to wear it on Halloween). Picarillo claimed a werewolf sprouted hair that was the same color as his normal hair; Calvano and I took the contrary position. At first I had sided with Picarillo but Calvano said, "Have you ever seen a blonde werewolf? No? How about a werewolf with FRIZZY hair, like Mrs. Suglia?" So here we were.

Calvano looked up from the card catalog. "NOTHING under ‘werewolf.’"

"Try ‘lycanthropy,’" I said.

"Mmmphh uuhhpphh nnngghhff," added Picarillo.

"Will ya take off the mask? You’re gonna get us thrown outta here," said Calvano. "And it’s got a MOVABLE MOUTH FEATURE, you moron! You should be able to talk clear as a bell!"

"Mmmnnrrpphhh?"

Before Calvano or I could address this, Mrs. Hoonhaut loomed up over the card catalog and told Picarillo to remove the mask. We were all well past the age when you look sort of cute wearing a monster mask at the library. We might have passed for teenage gang members, if there had been teenage gangs full of fat kids with glasses. Picarillo draped the mask over a reading lamp. It looked really cool, illuminated from within. We occupied ourselves by looking through the card catalog for books with "naked" or "bone" in the title and snorting loudly when we found them. Calvano discovered the amazingly titled "Lay of the Last Minstrel" by Sir Walter Scott. We bit the backs of our hands and trembled with suppressed (but wholesome) laughter. Then it was time to go, and Picarillo pulled the mask off the reading light, only most of the mask stayed behind, slowly melting over the globe. Picarillo screamed. Mrs. Hoonhaut opened her mouth but, upon seeing the mass of hair and rubber dripping off the lamp onto Sir Walter Scott, no words came out. We ran for the exit.

Three blocks later we paused to catch our breaths behind the barbershop. "Okay, let’s see it," said Calvano. Picarillo handed him the remains of the mask. Most of the mouth was still intact, and the bottom quadrant of the nose. But the entire top half and most of the left side of the face were still at the library, perfuming the stacks with the scent of charred hair and burning rubber.

"Well, to begin with, I vote that the mask now belongs totally to Picarillo, even after Halloween," said Calvano. I agreed. That made it unanimous, since Picarillo’s vote no longer counted. Then, to soften the blow, Calvano said, "Well, you could be a BURNED werewolf. That could be good."

Picarillo whimpered noncommittally. The death of the werewolf mask would not affect Calvano’s plans, or mine—we were going trick or treating as The Manster, as he appeared at the exact instant of splitting into MAN and MONSTER. We would tie our ‘inside’ legs together, as in a three-legged race, and each wear half of a sweatshirt cunningly bisected. We had solved the problem of Who Gets To Be The Monster by deciding we would BOTH have monster faces. And, in an especially good touch (this was my idea, by the way) we would have eyeballs sticking our of our exposed shoulders, as though we were each about to sprout a new Manster head and start the process all over again.

So we were set, but Picarillo now had less than 48 hours to come up with a new monster costume.

When Calvano and I stopped by to pick him up for trick or treating, we were appalled to find him wearing a sailor suit. "What th—Picarillo, you aren’t even a DEAD sailor! You should have like a spike in your eye or something! This is awful!"

"It’s my mom’s idea," he said. "She says I look like a REAL SAILOR!" We just blinked and stared in disbelief.

"All right, let’s get going," said Calvano at last. "You can come with us, but you have to walk at least 15 feet behind us."

"But—"

"And when we stop at a house, you have to wait in the bushes or something till we’re done before you ring the bell."

"But—"

"No buts, Picarillo, no buts! Let’s GO!"

After the first couple of houses we relaxed our rule about making Picarillo wait in the bushes while we rang the bell. We were missing all the insults.

"Excellent costume, Picarillo," said our scoutmaster, Mr. Appledorn. "You’re what? A mental case?"

"I’m a sailor," said Picarillo miserably.

"Yeah, we all wore shorts and knee socks back in the Navy," he said. And then, a few houses further on:

"Hey, Marge, check this out! It’s SHIRLEY TEMPLE! Hey, Shirley—sing ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop!’"

Picarillo didn’t know it, fortunately. (Actually he didn’t look much like Shirley Temple, but he could have passed for Mussolini in DISGUISE as Shirley Temple). Calvano told him if he got any more requests he should sing SOMETHING. "As long as it’s something everybody knows. Like ‘Theme from ‘Mannix.’’ Everybody likes that." Picarillo glowered but kept his own counsel. Then we stopped at a house where there was a Halloween party for grown-ups in progress. The door opened and Mrs. Ruffalo, high ball glass in hand, looked down at Picarillo and burst out laughing.

"Hel-LO, Sailor!" she screamed.

Picarillo beamed. Mrs. Ruffalo dumped about ten pounds of candy into his bag, and then a whole bunch of those little bottles of scotch you get on airplanes. Then she closed the door, completely ignoring Calvano and me. Through the door we heard "...and I said ‘Hel-LO, Sailor!’ "

"I think I’m calling it a night," said Picarillo. "My mom collects those little bottles." Calvano and I soldiered bravely on for another half hour or so but didn’t come close to matching Picarillo’s haul/

"He woulda done twice as good if he had a spike in his eye or something," said Calvano. I said yeah, but I didn’t believe it.

35 years later we are still banned from the Little Falls library. Fact.



Bruce Lee Sign

 

I was drawing a monster face on a Spaldeen with a magic marker. "Something stinks," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. I stopped drawing and stared at him. "No, I mean besides the usual-type stinks. Remember when you put the penny in the fuse box and almost burned the place down? Kind of like THAT. Only chocolate."

"You ORDERED me to put the penny in the fuse box, Mulberry Street Joey Clams—what do you mean, chocolate?"

"The issue isn’t who ordered who to do what. It’s a long time ago and I’m not the guy who carries a grudge. Grudge is not a word in my whatchamacallit."

"I guess ‘Vocabulary’ is not a word in your whatchamacallit either."

"Thank you. You don’t smell the chocolate? And the stink?"

"You mean the magic marker?" I was using a purple magic marker to limn the larger features of the monster face—the eyes, fangs, scars and so forth—and the dye in the purple markers was unusually pungent. If I inhaled while drawing I could feel brain cells vaporize and see psychedelic colors pinwheel across my field of vision.

"Nah, but that’s probably why you can’t smell anything else. You made the left fang too big."

Before I could respond to this, a Chinese kid wearing what a decade or so later would be called a ‘do rag’ entered the Custom Neon Sign Shop. "I gotta get a Bruce Lee sign," he said. "Hey, what stinks in here?"

"You smell the burning-insulation-and-chocolate thing?"

"Nah, it smells like a purple magic marker. Anyway, I see it like this." The kid went into a crouch and held up both hands, like a mime pressing against an imaginary plate glass window. Then he kicked out to the side and chopped down with one hand. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I looked at each other.

"What is it that you see like that?" I asked.

"The sign. He’s not wearing a shirt. Can you show all the muscles in his stomach?"

"You want a sign... that shows Bruce Lee kicking and punching?"

"Yes. I have some photos here so you can get the face right in both the crouch and the strike." He unbuckled a large portfolio but before he could show us the pictures, Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, "Nope."

"Nope?" said the kid.

"We just do letters," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. I was amazed. I had never heard Mulberry Street Joey Clams turn down a commission before. It was true that we could never have produced the sign the kid wanted, but on the other hand we couldn’t produce 90% of the signs we did agree to produce. And of the 10% we did produce, about 80% of them blew up when they were plugged in.

"You don’t know how to do human figures?" said the kid.

"Nah, we COULD do it no sweat, kicking, punching, doing the Watusi, whatever. But here’s the thing," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "We charge by the letter. Your sign doesn’t have any letters. So we’d have to do it for free. We can’t do that. It would be insane."

The kid lowered his chin to his chest like a bull getting ready to charge. "Bruce Lee... does not do... the Watusi."

Mulberry Street Joey Clams was taken aback but recovered quickly. "Are you saying Bruce Lee COULDN’T do the Watusi?" he said.

"I did NOT say that," said the kid, now off-balance himself, realizing he had almost been maneuvered into committing blasphemy. "On the contrary. He was the 1958 Hong Kong Cha-Cha Champion. If he had wished to, he could have been—" He picked up the spaldeen with the monster face. "Wow! This is excellent!"

Up to this point I had more or less written the kid off as a nut case, but now I realized he was okay. And quite intelligent.

"Nah," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "The one fang is longer than the other."

"Well, that’s authentic," said the kid. "Everything in nature isn’t perfectly symmetrical, you know."

"That’s true," Mulberry Street Joey Clams conceded. "Anna Marie Spolacci, one side was perfectly okay, the other side she had to stuff like a whole BOX of Kleenex in there to make it come out even or— YAAAA!!"

A hideous head has snaked around the open door. "Yo!" said the hideous head.

"Don’t do that, Augie," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "This is my cousin Augie," he explained to the kid.

"K.D.," said the kid to Augie. It wasn’t immediately apparent whether he was introducing himself or just citing random letters of the alphabet. Different people reacted differently to Augie’s hideous head.

"Pleased d’meetya," said Augie. "The candy store is on fire."

Who can resist a burning candy store? We all raced out the door. There was an old Dodge parked in front of the Custom Neon Sign Shop with a dog in the front seat. It threw itself against the window and barked insanely. "Stop it, Wong!" said K. D. The dog bounced around the front seat so furiously I wasn’t even 100% sure how many heads it had.

"He gave the dog a Chinese name, but it’s not a Chinese dog," Mulberry Street Joey Clams whispered as we jogged up to the candy store. "That’s why the dog’s nuts." The fire had been put out already and the firemen were coiling the hoses. The owner, Mr. Donatello, was sitting on the curb with his head in his hands. Mulberry Street Joey Clams sat down next to him and they spoke intensely for about three minutes. Then they shook hands.

"What was that all about?" I asked.

"I just made a suh-weet deal," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Alla the so-called DAMAGED candy for $5! We can go around the back and pick it up when he gives us the high sign." The high sign wasn’t long in coming. For five bucks, we got two enormous cases of candy. The cases appeared to have been both fire and water damaged.

"Mulberry Street Joey Clams, what are we gonna do with this?"

"Until Donatello reopens, which is at least two weeks away, we will be providing all of Mulberry Street’s CANDY BAR needs, as well as it’s neon needs. We can charge incredibly low prices for the candy, since we paid next to nothing!" As soon as we were back inside the shop, we opened the cases.

"Geez, Mulberry Street Joey Clams—this stuff is all MELTED. Some of it’s been charred, it looks like. We can’t sell this to humans. I don’t think it’s safe."

"Huh. Wait a second." He called K.D., who was still remonstrating with the dog outside. "Listen. We gotta borrow your dog for a little bit here. We gotta make sure this candy is okay, you know what I’m saying?"

"Dogs can’t eat candy," said K.D. "They get sick."

"Hmm. Well, wait a second. If that’s what happens with GOOD candy, then BAD candy is probably safe for them. That’s logical. So if the dog gets sick, we CAN sell the candy, and if the dog DOESN’T get sick, we CAN’T sell the candy. Where’s the downside?"

"Uh..." said K.D.

"And to make up for the sick dog, we’ll do your Bruce Lee sign. It’s win-win."

"Um..."

"Mulberry Street Joey Clams, this stuff isn’t candy. It’s high-calorie charcoal briquettes. SMELL it."

He smelled a chunk of what had once, perhaps, been a Mars bar. "Yeesh. Wait a minute. What was that crap we ate at the sea food restaurant? It was burnt to a crisp and you said it was on PURPOSE."

"Cajun catfish," I said.

"Well, this is CAJUN CANDY! Make a sign! I smell MONEY!"

It wasn’t money, it was just the burnt insulation and charred candy. K.D. did not get his Bruce Lee sign, but he did buy the spaldeen with the monster face for $2, an incredible bargain. No one bought the Cajun Candy. Ever.

Letting It Be

 

The occasion for the 5th annual Diner Symposium was the imminent release of "Let It Be Naked," the de-Phil Spectorized version of the Beatles’ 1970 swan song. "Plenty to discuss here," said my friend Rory, the organizer of the event. You bet.

"Let It Be" is nobody’s favorite Beatle album (despite boasting three number one singles), and the blame for this is often laid at the feet of producer Phil Spector, brought in long after the recording sessions had ended and the album was more or less abandoned. His major sins (aside from the ones that have him cooling his heels in the jug in LA, I mean) are generally said to include (1) using inferior takes of some songs (2) adding superfluous strings and choirs to otherwise perfectly good takes (most egregiously on ‘Long and Winding Road’) and (3) leaving out some great stuff that would have improved matters immensely. The opposing viewpoint (shared by at least two Beatles) is that Spector did the best that could be done, given the hundreds of hours of recordings he had to sift through, the tangled legal situation, and the time constraints.

Rory tends to the former position: "A brain-damaged monkey could’ve put together a better ‘Let It Be’ than Spector," he said, and then put that proposition to the test by inviting me to give it a shot. In fact he invited me and four other brain damaged monkeys to slap together alternative versions of ‘Let It Be’ on audiocassettes, and unveil them at the diner symposium. I was invited to participate not just because of my always informed and engaging opinions on all things musical, but because I was the only person in Rory’s address book who owned a cheap battery operated cassette player. There are still some (pathetic) advantages to being way behind the curve of cutting edge technology.

Hmm. ‘Unveil’ doesn’t seem quite right, but what is the audio equivalent of ‘unveil?’ ‘Un-earplug?’

Eh. I think we’ll go with ‘unveil.’

His other brain storm was bringing a pair of fresh ears into the mix—his 22 year old friend Max, who had never even heard the "Let It Be" album (aside from the hits, of course), let alone the hours of bootlegged out takes that the rest of us—all Gentlemen of A Certain Age—had been obsessing over for the past three and a half decades. Rory supplied Max with about 5 hours of PRIME unreleased Beatle material, as well as the relevant portions of the official discography, all on tape. All of which ended up on eBay about three days before the symposium, incidentally, but hey.

"Parameters?" I asked.

"You’re limited to material Spector could have used. No using anything recorded after the Let It Be sessions, in other words. But no limits on time or space, except it’s all got to fit on one cassette."

It was a lot of fun to do. It was like shedding 30 years and 20 IQ points all at once. Nothing turns your brain into rancid potato salad like listening to 5 blown takes of "Take This Hammer." (There are no UNblown takes of "Take This Hammer," by the way).

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that a diner is not the optimum place to play audiocassettes, even at 2 AM. Maybe even especially at 2 AM. There’s a lot of DINER NOISE, and this diner also had a jukebox that was getting a heavy workout at times. We didn’t realize until well into the evening’s festivities that Max was the one who was giving it the heavy work out; we just thought he kept getting up because he had a weak bladder. We felt sorry for him since he’s so young.

Well, actually we didn’t. Every time he got up we kind of nudged each other and said things like "I was 34 before my kidneys were shot," and chortled merrily, but later on we WOULD have felt sorry for him. If it hadn’t turned out that he was responsible for all the P. Diddy or D. Piddy or Biddy Boody or whatever it was that kept drowning out The Beatles.

Also he had a THING stuck in his nose.

But neither the thing in his nose or the background noise was the problem. The fact is, nobody wants to listen to somebody ELSE’S version of ‘Let It Be.’ They just DON’T.

So in the end we just passed around our track listings and grunted a lot. It should come as no surprise that my selection was the best by several orders of magnitude. It was not only definitive, it was PERFECT. None the less, some of the brain-damaged monkeys disputed my list, both the tracks I chose and the order I put them in. I will spare you both my list and the stupid criticisms that were made of it.

One of my fellow monkeys simply kept the original LP order and said, "I say we let ‘Let It Be’ BE." He said it about 7 times over the course of the evening, although sometimes he varied this with the more concise "I say, just let it be." Interestingly enough, it did not get less annoying with each repetition.

Max’s list was frankly, appalling. He chose all the cuts that just SOUNDED good, regardless of whether they made sense in CONTEXT. He said he thought the version of ‘Two of Us" where John and Paul sing in fake Scots and Pakistani accents was "dopey," and he was scandalized by the early "Get Back" take with the verse about ‘Don’t want no Pakistanis / Takin’ all the people’s jobs." He put the HIT version of "Get Back" on his comp. BOR-ing. He didn’t use a single incomplete take, no matter how INTERESTING it was. His tape was nothing but EAR CANDY. But then, what more could we expect?

At one point another monkey jabbed a fork into my cheeseburger to emphasize some stupid point he was making. "Whoa," said Max. "You guys sound like a bunch of 10 year old girls going ‘Eeekk! MY favorite Beatle is PAUL! Eeek!’"

"What do you know about it, Slacker?" said Rory. "You weren’t there. You have NO IDEA." Like Rory was a veteran of Iwo Jima shutting up some snotty punk at a VFW picnic. We all nodded. Yeah, what does he know about it? HE wasn’t there. He has NO IDEA.

Although no one’s list approached the excellence of mine, all but Max’s were WAY WAY better than Phil Spector’s. We all included the endless (well 4 minutes), unedited "Dig It" jam, for instance, while Phil included only a brief fragment of it. One of the things we touched on in our discussion was how inexplicable it was that none of us had turned out to be famous record producers. It is truly a mystery. My sequencing of three different blown takes of "I’ve Got a Feeling" in a row for easy comparison ALONE establishes my credentials And yet... Well, go figure.

"It’s almost tragic," I said. "In fact, scratch that ‘almost.’ Here’s EMI wanting to do the right thing and fix "Let It Be," and here WE are, with the CORRECT SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM [tapping my list with fork I retrieved from the cheeseburger]. It’s so frustrating. It’s like there’s a drowning man and we’ve got the perfect life preserver, but the lifeguard doesn’t see us because we’re in this DINER. So he throws the guy this crummy old lifesaver... Um... and, uh..."

"Exactly," said Rory.



A SUNDAY KIND OF LUNCH

 

I am standing in line at a fast food restaurant. In fact, I AM the line at a fast food restaurant. It is a few minutes before 5:30 on Sunday afternoon, and I am uneasy.

I have learned through bitter experience that Sunday afternoon is not the time when—how shall I phrase this? —"The A Team" is operating at most fast food restaurants. A couple of years ago it seemed that my daughter got the urge for fast food every Sunday. Since your standard McSchlagger was health food compared to her usual Dinner of Choice [a bag of cheddar cheese-flavored goldfish crackers, a bottle of soda, a half-pound of chocolate, and then something for dessert], I happily acquiesced.

The ‘happily’ was short lived. My daughter liked her Blech-burger PLAIN. That is, no ketchup, no onions, no sauces, no pickles, nothing but a bun and a chunk of charred cow. Now, six days a week this is no problem; every chain has a simple way of meeting this (very common) request.

But Sundays, it turned out, things were different. The first time I returned a plain burger because it was caked with pickles and ketchup I wrote it off as the inevitable once-in-a-blue-moon miscommunication. The kid behind the counter pleaded with me to accept the burger as it had been prepared. "You don’t unnerstand... the pickles an’ crap is FREE!" It would have been almost charming (almost) if it didn’t happen again three of the next five weeks. At which point I told my daughter that if she was going to order off menu, she would have to return the botched meal herself, and she resumed her default Sunday dinners of goldfish crackers and Pepsi.

But. It is Sunday, and here I am at a fast food restaurant. I know the dangers, but I’m in something of a hurry, and the restaurant shares a parking lot with three of the four places I must stop this evening, so I’m taking the chance. After all, the place isn’t very crowded. Which makes it all the more unusual that I have been standing at the counter for two minutes without attracting the attention of the staff. Every so often an employee wanders past the register, some making eye contact with me, but no one has yet shown any curiosity about just what it is I’m doing there. One promising young man walks past me, nods, smiles, grabs a tray, puts a cheeseburger on it, and finds himself a table in the dining room. It’s an excellent choice, I must admit. The very table I would have chosen for myself, had I something to eat.

While this thought is rolling around in my head, another employee, a young lady, takes note of me, leans across the counter, and says, "Did you need more ketchup?"

"More?" I say.

"Oh Gawd, didn’t I give you any??" She reaches under the counter and grabs a fist full of ketchup packets and holds them over the counter, and she waits for me to put my hands out so she can drop the condiments into them. I do not put out my hands. She pleads with her eyes.

"I haven’t ordered anything yet," I explain, and then I do put out my hands because otherwise, it seems to me, she will never ever figure out what to do with all that ketchup.

"Oh Gawd, you look just like that OTHER GUY." She points with her chin. The person she’s pointing toward, it goes without saying, looks nothing at all like me. It’s some middle aged bald guy. But all this Gawding has brought another curious employee to the counter. "Gina, look, he looks just like that other guy!"

Gina looks at me but does not follow the jutting chin to the gentleman chowing down on his onion rings. "Wow, he does," says Gina. "Just like... what is that guy’s NAME!"

"How would we KNOW what his NAME is?"

"Because we watch it EVERY WEEK," says Gina.

"Watch what?"

"SVU," says Gina. "Duh! Yeah, Joanne, he does look just like that guy, though."

"Hel-LO," says Joanne, who finally deposits the ketchup packets in my hands. "That guy has HAIR. And he’s kind of creepy, if you ask me."

"YOU are thinking of CSI. I am talking about SVU," says Gina. "I thought that’s what YOU were talking about because he does look just like the guy on SVU."

"Oh! The BALD one, you mean!"

"Duh!" This ‘Duh’ is so devastating that Joanne simply yields the field of battle and vanishes into the back. Gina has a big smirk on her face, which she does not bother to alter one iota when she turns to me. "Did you want more ketchup?" she asks.

I am holding about a dozen packets of same in my hands, but it is all I can do to retrain myself from saying, "Yes—more ketchup! MUCH more ketchup!" Instead, I say: "Actually, I wanted to order some food."

"JO-ANNE!" calls Gina. "Cuss—Tumor!" Joanne re-emerges from the bowels of the eatery and actually looks PAST me.

Suddenly the intercom from the drive-thru comes alive. "I’d like a cheeseburger meal. And I’d like the cheeseburger on a sourdough bun, please."

"Oh GAWD!"

"We can’t do that!" agrees Gina. "Ricky! The guy wants a cheeseburger on a sourdough bun!"

Ricky comes into view. I am reminded of an old "Far Side" cartoon. There’s a guy in a donut shop musing, "Gee, we’re moving 900 donuts a day and we’re barely scraping by. I don’t get it." In the foreground a kid is sweeping up. The kid sweeping up weighs about 800 pounds.

Anyway, Ricky leans across the counter and tells me, "I’m sorry, but we can’t do that."

Well, what the heck. "Why not?" I ask.

"The bun is THE WRONG SHAPE. See, the sourdough buns are kind of oblong, because they’re for THESE sandwiches. The cheeseburgers are round. It just won’t work."

The fellow at the drive-thru window is saying "Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?"

"Oh GAWD," says Joanne. "The guy at the drive-thru wants the cheeseburger!"

Ricky opens his mouth but nothing comes out. I suppose he’s trying to think of something to say to me, but in the end he simply waddles over to the intercom and says, "Sorry about the delay, sir. Um, I could explain this a lot easier if you were looking at the picture menu..."

"Okay," says Joanne. "So. Now. What can I get YOU?"

I have no idea. I just say the first thing that pops into my head, which is:

"Some more ketchup, please."



CELLING OUT

 

I don’t really keep up with the latest technology. My toaster had two slots long after the world went to four. I got my first CD player about 5 years after everybody else, ditto my DVD player, and Jeff’s First Computer had to wait ten years before I removed my collection of Godzilla models from the table in the guest room and reluctantly called, "Okay, you can come in now."

It’s not that I’m a Luddite. I like technology. For instance, I’m really glad I don’t have to put on my snowsuit if I have to use the toilet in February. And it’s a rare February when I don’t have to use the toilet. And it’s not that new technology baffles me; far from it. I mastered the key pad on my first touch-tone phone within a month of installation, and when I finally went to the four slot toaster (see above), I was toasting 4 slices simultaneously from Day Twenty Four.

No, my reluctance to invest in cutting edge gizmos has two main sources: my inertia, and my... uh...

Hang on a second while I check the thesaurus...

There we go. My frugality.

The inertia needs no explaination or apology; physics tells us that it’s simply part of the package when you are A BODY AT REST. The frugality may seem to some a character flaw, but is it?

Well, yes, but it does save me money. Cutting edge stuff tends to be pretty expensive, while stuff that was cutting edge five or ten years ago tends to be pretty cheap and can often be found on the curbside on Big Clean Up Day. Most techie stuff actually gets both cheaper and better, so it pays to wait; sometimes if you wait long enough for something you want, it turns out you don’t want it any more and can save EVEN MORE by not buying it. I have fond memories, for instance, of not buying laser discs or the equipment with which to play them. I have even fonder memories of walking into Tower Video with my friend Chuck—who at that point had collected about 1,000 or so movies on laser disc—on the day they put up their first DVD display. Chuck grabbed one of the bespeckled teenage clerks by the collar and snarled, "When I bought the laser disc player, You SWORE to me there would be NO MORE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES!"

"Dude," said the clerk, "I am nineteen and I work at a video store! I know BLEEP about it."

I, of course, know even less than bleep about it, but that was one instance where my combined inertia and frugality made me look like a visionary.

Of course inertia and frugality are not always the determining factors in my resistance to this or that new piece of technology. I avoided owning a cell phone long after I conceded the potential usefulness of the thing because, well, I just didn’t want to be the kind of person who owns a cell phone. It wasn’t the near misses on the Interstate with people carrying on animated conversations as they drifted into my lane (by the way—shouldn’t they be called NEAR HITS? Somebody who ALMOST avoids creaming me had a ‘near miss,’ it seems to me).

I’m afraid it was rather the sight, first in NYC and then closer to home, of DOZENS of people in my field of vision yacking away on cell phones as they strolled down the street. "Cripes," I thought (Well, actually I thought "Bleep."). "Can’t you people exist FIVE MINUTES without being plugged into something? Are your own thoughts so boring you can’t stand to be alone with them for more than 10 seconds?" (Heaven knows MY thoughts are, and yet I put up with them).

It was pure snobbery, in other words, and I would still be resisting the siren call of the cell phone had I not locked myself out of my car this summer. I locked myself out with the car running, in fact, which I did not discover until I returned to the car two hours later (Went to see FINDING NEMO, which is only around an hour and a half, but the film broke and it took them forever to get it running again) and could not get in. I had to go to the cashier at the parking garage and have her call security, who called the police, who opened my car for me. If I had a cell phone, I could have... well, I could have locked it in the car, probably, but I decided it was time to get a cell phone anyway.

I confess I feel much more secure now that I have the cell phone in the car with me. If I’m going to be ten minutes late for something, I can call ahead, let them know, and frantically swerve back into my own lane.

Or anyway I was feeling much more secure until I tried to make a call a couple of weeks ago. I was in a thrift shop, looking for something spiffy to wear to my upcoming high school reunion, and I was taking longer than I had anticipated so I figured I’d better let my daughter know I was running late and she might want to go ahead and have lunch without me. I punched in the correct speed dial digit, and nothing happened. I mean nothing. Not only did it not connect, but the screen didn’t even light up. In fact, I couldn’t find the screen. Up to that moment I hadn’t realized the screen could be closed. I couldn’t find a ‘display screen’ button or anything of the sort. I laboriously punched out my entire phone number, and still nothing. I went outside. Still nothing. So I drove home, still punching away at assorted phone numbers the whole way, and I guess somewhere around the time I got to my living room I noticed my cell phone had a heretofore unnoticed "fast forward" button, and a "rewind" button, and that it was in fact my TV channel changer. Talk about technology run amuck.

Well, the situation has been taken care of, I guess, and if you were watching Oprah a couple weeks back and I accidentally shut off your TV set while I was dialing home, I’m sorry, but hey, I didn’t design the bleeping thing.



The Milford Earthquake Commemorative Monument

Long time reader DAVE PRATT writes: "There should be a monument commemorating the recent Milford earthquake, placed at the epicenter. It would be a great way to attract tourists."

Actually, he didn’t precisely write that. He kind of grabbed me in a parking lot. I just said "writes" because it makes it seem like I get a lot of thoughtful correspondence. Of course I do, but most of it is along the lines of "yor last collum stonk. So [do] all yor other 1’s." In any event, I see a great deal of merit in Mr. Pratt’s idea, even though, as he pointed out just after the woman in the SUV nearly flattened us because she found her call phone far more compelling than her rear view mirror, the epicenter is located well outside the town limits of Milford, in Pennsylvania or some other nearby state.

I don’t see this as a real problem. The Milford town council could simply vote to annex wherever the epicenter is, thereby MAKING it part of Milford. Now, to nervous nellies who say: can that possibly be legal? I respond, the Milford town council could pass a law MAKING it legal. That takes care of the legal issues. The next thing to be dealt with is logistical. All well and good, you say, to declare that three blocks of downtown Someplace, Pennsylvania is now Milford, but building our earthquake monument there will not bring any tourists into the regular part of Milford. True enough, so we will have to move the epicenter HERE. Maybe put it where the Vend-O-Bait machine outside the filling station used to be. There are some further details to be worked out, but I am a distinguished author, not an engineer. Suffice to say, I’m certain it can be done easily and cheaply. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it is already a fait accompli.

Next, we must decide what shape the monument should take. We could have a competition and various monument designers could submit their designs. Or we could just go to one of those monument placed on Route 32 and buy one. If that’s the way it’s going to be done, I would cast my vote for that really neat one of the bulldog with its tongue hanging out. Gargoyles are also good. But personally, I think an original design is the way to go.

It should probably be a statue of me. First of all, today (September 21st) is my birthday. I could have taken the day off and just spent the afternoon happily downloading crappy songs from the Internet, but did I? I did NOT. Well, I did, but I ALSO wrote this article. Second of all, I could have been killed. My copy of "The Last Whole Earth Catalogue" was knocked off the shelf and plunged 8 feet to the floor. Yes, it’s a paperback but it’s frigging HUGE. If I had been in Milford at the time of the quake and at home and standing there next to that book case, it would have come crashing down on my head. There were about 600 TV reporters in town, and I TRIED to get this story on the air, but I was repeatedly ignored, even though I am a JOURNALIST MYSELF and there is, or is supposed to be, such a thing as PROFESSIONAL COURTESY. I had been planning to sell the book on eBay, but now it’s got a crinkle in the cover and won’t be worth nearly as much. Needless to say, the insurance company did NOT make good on the damage, even though I explained the situation in considerable detail. "If you don’t bother to insure the item, there’s nothing we can do about it," said Miss Snot-nose Insurance Claim Adjuster (not her real name). And then the big insurance companies wonder why everybody hates them. Hey, big insurance companies: READ THE LAST COUPLE OF SENTENCES TO LEARN THE ANSWER!

So I think the only remaining question is, how exactly should I be portrayed in the Milford Earthquake Commemorative Monument? A lot of people, no doubt, would think it appropriate if I were shown straining to hold up a load-bearing beam that was propping up (say) a collapsing school house. Maybe holding it up with ONE hand while I was kind of urging the children to flee to safety with the other. The sculptor might even include some fleeing children, unless they distracted the viewer from the focus of the monument. Which they would, come to think of it, so scratch the kids. And probably my shirt should be all ripped, like I’d been nearly buried in rubble myself during the initial shock wave but dug myself out when I heard the children crying. I’m kind of going back and forth on whether I should be wearing a hat. I guess if we are going to make the monument as accurate as possible, we should go with the hat, since I would have been wearing one had I been in Milford during the quake and buried in debris and then dig my way out when I heard the children crying. Some people may think the hat looks silly, but that’s just too bad.

Well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. There are probably countless valid ways that I could be portrayed on the Milford Earthquake Commemorative Monument. Readers are invited to send their designs and suggestions to EARTHQUAKE MONUMENT, care of this paper. And remember, spelling counts!



ASK THE MERINO SWEATER EXPERT GUY

NOTE TO READERS: Please join with the management in welcoming back the Merino Sweater Expert Guy, following a much-needed vacation to "recharge his batteries." It’s a thrill to have him back dispensing merino sweater advice and answering your merino sweater questions. We hope you’ve enjoyed his summer replacements, the Plastic Utensil Expert Guy and the Il Barbiere di Siviglia Expert Guy. And now, over to you, Merino Sweater Expert Guy!

(signed) The Management

Thank you, and thank you readers for your patience and indulgence this summer. As usual, I took on a few too many obligations, and things just got... well, crazy. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have all that behind me, and to get back to the fabulous world of merino!

(signed) The Merino Sweater Expert Guy

*

DEAR MERINO SWEATER EXPERT GUY:

Why are cashmere sweaters so much softer than merino sweaters? Believe me, I’m not knocking merino! It may not be as soft as cashmere, but it’s plenty soft enough, and it lasts longer, if you ask me. I’m just wondering, that’s all.

(signed)

Confused about the cashmere.

DEAR CONFUSED:

If you take a look at cashmere under a microscope, you’ll see that the fibers are smooth and rounded. Merino wool, on the other hand, is both less smooth and less rounded, and considerably thicker. This last quality is what gives merino the durability you noticed. An excellent question! Thank you for writing.

*

DEAR MERINO SWEATER EXPERT GUY:

I certainly hope you enjoyed your "vacation." I’m only sorry that it didn’t last for 15 years, which is what the district attorney asked for, although even that isn’t long enough for the horrible things you did. I guess you are an expert in bribing juries, too. At least they put away that insane plastic surgeon of yours. You should be ashamed of yourself!

(signed)

DISGUSTED

DEAR DISGUSTED:

I am ashamed of nothing that Dr. Fong and I did. Celebro-chimp Enterprises was a legitimate business serving a public need, no matter what a few powerfully connected "animal rights" "activists" may say. When Dr. Fong is released—which I am certain will be soon, the attorneys are working on the appeal even as we speak—we will resume serving the public. You can count on it!

*

DEAR MERINO SWEATER EXPERT GUY:

Just wanted to add my 2 cents to the Cashmere vs. Merino discussion. I wonder if all these cashmere fans would be so high and mighty if they knew that their precious sweaters were made from goat hair?? Something to think about, eh?

(signed)

Make mine Merino!

DEAR MAKE:

A good point! For my part, I don’t think there is any shame in wearing a goat hair sweater, but certainly it’s nothing to brag about. either. Thanks for writing!

*

DEAR MERINO SWEATER EXPERT GUY:

Is your Celebro-chimp business going to trade publicly anytime soon? I would love to invest in it. My wife and I rented one of your Celebro-chimps for a party this past May, and it was our most successful ‘do’ ever! Tell me, was it you or the good doctor who came up with the idea of having chimpanzees surgically altered to look exactly like miniature celebrities? How can these animal rights nuts say it’s "cruel?" What chimp wouldn't want to look like a movie star? I tell you, when my mother-in-law turned to me and said, "I had no idea you knew Julia Roberts. But she’s much shorter than I thought," I nearly died.

(signed)

Major fan of yours

DEAR MAJOR:

Thank you much. Your kind words could not have arrived at a better time. At the moment Celebro-Chimp Enterprises is in a sort of legal limbo, hence there are no plans to offer public shares at this time. (By the way, lest anyone think this is "off-topic," I should mention that all of our Celebro-chimps do indeed arrive at your location wearing merino sweaters!)

*

DEAR MERINO SWEATER EXPERT GUY:

Your Justin Timberlake Celebro-chimp ruined my couch. On the plus side, all my guest think Justin Timberlake is three feet tall and not housebroken.

(signed)

Mixed message

DEAR MIXED:

My apologies. However, the order form clearly has a ‘housebroken: yes / no" line. The housebroken Celebro-chimps are a little more expensive, but many customers think the slight extra charge is worth it, hint hint.

*

DEAR MERINO SWEATER EXPERT GUY:

When I was following your trial on Court TV this summer, I did a lot of channel surfing (that animal rescue guy was boooooor-ing) and once I saw part of this, like, reality show, with Paris Hilton on a farm? I thought it was her sister with her, but it turned out to just be a sister-like chick. Anyway, another time I saw part of this movie "Freaks" from 1932 or something, and it’s got these Siamese twins in it, real ones, and their names (in REAL life) turn out to be Daisy and Violet Hilton. So there were these Hilton Sisters BEFORE there were the Hilton Sisters, only they (the first ones) were Siamese twins. Now I have this idea: How about a MOVIE WHERE THE NEW HILTON SISTERS (the non-Siamese twin ones) PLAY THE OLD HILTON SISTERS (the Siamese twin ones)? I think that idea in itself is enough to sell the movie, but where you could come in, if Dr. Fong gets out of the slammer, maybe he could temporarily Siamese-ize the new Hilton sisters? Or would that be too much of a good thing? Another way to go: We could do a reality show about you and me trying to convince the Hilton girls to do the movie, and the audience could vote on whether they get surgically attached or not. What do you think?

(signed)

LOTS MORE IDEAS WHERE THIS CAME FROM

DEAR LOTS:

There is no conceptual flaw in your ideas—the only problem is, Celebro-chimp Enterprises had a bit of a contra temps with les Hiltons, specifically about our Celebro-Chimp versions of same. It is unlikely that the young ladies would chose to work with us any time in the near future, alas. Ah well. Had our customers gone with the ‘housebroken’ option, the defamation suit would probably have been thrown out of court. C’est la vie.



THE RETURN OF SPEEDY ALKA SELTZER

 

The Panther Patrol had been hiking along the Nature Trail that morning, the Nature Trail being a ribbon of more or less dry ground, three feet across at its widest, which wound its way through a pestilent swamp at the edge of Camp Altaha. It took about 40 minutes to negotiate the whole thing, and you could count on seeing a variety of snakes, spectacular butterflies (not just the usual monarchs, but some enormous blues with visible black and gold markings), and (if you were lucky) rotting animal carcasses. But the Panther Patrol hiked it every morning because the other thing you could count on was Picarillo slipping and landing in a pool of foul, muddy stagnant water and then yelping "Crisp!" or "Shuck!" This was the summer he had promised his mother that he wouldn’t curse (or as he put it, "say swear words"), and he was determined to keep his promise. The rest of us, needless to say, found his efforts hilarious and were sure that given enough swamp mud in his underwear, he would fail. One thing we had plenty of was swamp mud.

When we got back to our campsite Picarillo made his usual post-Nature Trail trip to the showers (a roofless structure with lots of exposed plumbing and seemingly random panels of wood providing the illusion of privacy), and Calvano and I rinsed out Picarillo’s muddy underpants and hung them on the tent guy line. Ostensibly we were drying them in the sun, but in truth we were showing off the amazing underpants Picarillo’s mother had provided him with—brightly colored boxers with the days of the week and a different smiling barnyard animal for each day. He ALWAYS wore the correct day, at least until the Nature Trail hike.

You would think all this had provided a sufficient amount of entertainment for one day, but shortly after Picarillo changed into dry clothes, the whole troop was called to assemble.

"Men," said Richie, the Explorer Scout who really ran the troop (at least until two or three in the afternoon, when the grown-ups had recovered from their hangovers), "we’re going to the mess hall for a special event. Line up by patrols!"

"We’re not going to get shots, are we?"

"No—this is a SHOW."

The sound of barely repressed excitement. We lined up and marched through the woods towards the mess hall. If we were lucky, the ‘show’ would be a scratchy 16mm movie—maybe even in (faded) color. We had all been suffering from TV withdrawal since we arrived at camp. A couple of kids had battery operated tape players, but this was early in the cassette age, when every third cassette stopped dead in the middle of the second song and 30 feet of accordion-folded tape sprang out of the machine when you checked to see what was wrong. Any kind of show would be welcome.

"A very SPECIAL treat," said ‘Uncle’ Bob, the camp—I want to say ‘commandant,’ but that’s probably not correct. Anyway, as the dozen or so Scout troops filled up the mess hall tables, ‘because our guest today is someone you all know—even if you don’t know you know him! I guarantee you know his VOICE. Because he’s the voice of... SPEEDY ALKA-SELTZER!"

Here followed a stunned silence. I think Alka Seltzer had already passed through their ‘talking stomach’ ad campaign and was well into the ‘Whatever Shape Your Stomach’s In’ era. I don’t know when Alka-Seltzer retired Speedy as their mascot, or whatever you call him, but it had been a looooong time ago.

"Boys," said Uncle Bob, perhaps mistaking our bafflement for awe, "a big Camp Altaha welcome for DICK BEAL!"

We were doing our best to comply with a vigorous round of clapping and cheering as Mr. Beal emerged from the kitchen. His appearance silenced us for an instant, and then we redoubled our cheering. He was 4 feet tall! He was a midget! He even had what I thought of as ‘midget hair’—hair so slicked down it looked like patent leather. He climbed onto a box to speak into the microphone (RE-redoubled applause to that) and said hello. We said hello back. He had a very high voice, but it got even higher when he asked us to say hello to Speedy Alka Seltzer. Calvano whispered the thought that must have been occurring to every one in the room: "He’s a grown up, but we could beat him up!"

His act consisted of several dozen characters talking to each other, all in very high voices. To give him his due, the high voices were all distinct. On the other hand, once you got past the idea that he was 4 feet tall, it was a pretty terrible act. At one point he went into a dramatic scene from a radio play he’d done about a scientist who gets smaller and smaller. His voice got higher and higher until I guess only dogs could hear it. But when he recited one of his Speedy Alka-Seltzer commercials, something clicked for Calvano.

"The stuff fizzes when you put it in water," he said later, back in the tent. "If we could get our hands on some, we could all pop it in our mouths at dinner, and we’d all be foaming at the mouth! They’d think the whole Panther Patrol had RABIES!"

There was a general store about two miles down the county highway from camp. We could get there just by walking out the camp entrance, but we could also access the highway by going on the Nature Trail and then cutting through the swamp. This would take longer, but it was an opportunity for an unprecedented two-underpants-on-the-guy-line day.

Three hours later, with Picarillo’s bright green Friday smiling cow boxers flapping next to his bright yellow Wednesday smiling pig boxers, we began the Alka Seltzer experiments. Yes, they did foam if you put one in your mouth. Yes, they tasted terrible. Yes, it looked like rabies (well, we thought so). All 6 member of the Panther Patrol would proceed to foam at the mouth exactly 30 seconds after we were given permission to start on the entree.

By the time we entered the mess hall the next day, two Panthers had ‘lost’ their tablets (i.e., they had been foaming without permission) and had gone to Calvano for replacements. "You know," he said, "It would be kind of unbelievable if we ALL starting foaming at the same time. Nobody would really think it was rabies. It would be much more effective if just one guy started foaming at the mouth. And Picarillo definitely looks the most rabid." He got no argument there.

"I’ll tell him about the change in plan," I said.

"Nah," said Calvano. "No need. It’ll just make him nervous."

Calvano was correct about the effectiveness of just one kid foaming at the mouth. And Picarillo’s look of horror, when he realized he WAS the only kid foaming at the mouth, made it all the more effective.

He may have broken his promise to his mother right about then, although with all the foam it was hard to say for sure.

FOOTPRINTS IN THE SANDS OF TIME

 

Although it has nothing to do with the rest of this column, I just wanted to mention that my daughter left for her sophomore year at NYU last week, and she took all my Q-tips. BUT, she left me a bag of tampons. I suspect that a bag of tampons retails for more than a box of Q-tips. If so, perhaps she thinks I got the best of this deal. In point of fact, though, I don’t have much use for tampons, and there is no market for them second hand. When you come right down to it, there’s no difference between swapping a bag of tampons for my Q-tips and just taking my Q-tips. Except if she just took my Q-tips you wouldn’t be reading about it here. In other Emma news, her summer letter writing contest has dribbled to its conclusion and I will share the results with you as soon as I know them.

And now, this week’s column.

One day Mr. Force, my 10th grade English teacher, asked the class how long we thought we would be remembered after we died. "Anybody think they’re going to be so famous that they’re going to make the history books?" Actually several of us did, but no one would admit it. "Okay. So at what point do you think not a single person in the world—not one of the let’s say 5 billion people on earth—will have any idea you ever lived?" Nobody wanted to hazard a guess, but that was okay, because Mr. Force was by nature a monologist anyway. "Well, most of them won’t have any idea you’re alive while you’re here, right? But let’s limit it to people who will. Let’s say you die at, oh, let’s give everybody a nice long run—85. Let’s say you had two kids before you were thirty, and five grand kids total, and 11 or 12 great grand kids before you cash in your chips. So the kids and grand kids will certainly all know who you are, right? You know all your parents and grand parents. How about your great grand parents? You’ve got eight of them. How many of you can name all eight? How many of you know the maiden names of your four great grand mothers? No one? And yet, I bet most of them were born less than 100 years ago, and a lot of them were probably still alive when you were born. And totally forgotten by their direct descendants—that’s YOU—already. So. Does anybody here have any reason to think he or she will be remembered longer than his or her great grandparents were?" The class was silent, aside from Bob Sindorf, who sat in the back row quietly singing the chorus of "Smokin’ in the Boys Room" as always. For the first time ever—and the last-- Mr. Force had managed to shut the class up by making it think! And not just about eventually being dead (a concept most of us hadn’t totally come to grips with yet) but about being totally and utterly forgotten—every act of our lives totally obliterated from human memory. This was probably good news for Joey Lobello, who had a little bladder malfunction one afternoon in our 6th grade science class and was ever after known as "Dr. Leaky," but the rest of us (again, aside from Sindorf) found it sobering. I don’t think I ever had quite so powerful a sense of my own mortality until I was 43 and it dawned on me that I was never ever going to play left field in Yankee Stadium.

Mr. Force was not trying to traumatize us, by the way—he was preparing the class for a discussion of W. H. Auden’s "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," particularly the lines "Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and innocent / And indifferent in a week / To a beautiful physique / Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives..." The discussion (well, if you can call it a discussion—he did all the talking) emphasized the ‘worships language and forgives’ part, but those of us not singing "Smokin’ in the Boys Room" thought more about time being intolerant and indifferent. To us?? Was it possible?? Yeesh!

So I was comforted—somewhat—last week when I stumbled across Chris Palestis. I found him at the February 25th entry in the 365 Day Project, an amazing website ‘curated’ by someone named Otis Fodder (you can find the archive at www.otisfodder.com/365days/365dayarchive.html). Mr. Fodder posts a bizarre recording for each day of 2003—stuff like William Shatner talking his way through the lyrics of Elton John’s "Rocket Man," high schools concert recordings, strange old commercials, 50 year old Sunday School records. Chris Palestis, a stock clerk at the Sam Goody’s in Livingston NJ, died twenty years ago, but for some reason we will never know, he recorded himself singing and playing the guitar along with the hits "Don’t You want Me Baby" and "I Love Rock and Roll." He has the most adenoidal voice ever captured on tape, and he plays the guitar like he just saw one for the first time minutes before he hit the "record" button. This thing should be horrible, but it’s totally charming. Chris gave his tape to a co-worker, who hung onto it for 20 years, as if waiting for the 365 Day Project to materialize (it’s hard to imagine any other venue for this thing). Thus Chris Palestis conquered intolerant, indifferent Time! There is hope for all of us.

Except of course for those who do things like take somebody’s Q-tips and leave them with a bag of tampons. There is no hope for THEM at all.

BR>

BURGER RUN

 

I had been hired for the summer as a clerk for the Passaic County ID Bureau, and ostensibly I was going to spend all day comparing the names on the jury duty lists with the names in the ‘felon’ file and removing convicted criminals from the jury pool. The Old Hand who showed me how to do this—think James Whitmore in "Shawshank Redemption"—expressed the view that criminals should not only be permitted on juries, they should be required to serve several times a year. Not only would it teach them a valuable lesson in civics, it would keep them from committing more crimes while they were stuck on jury duty for days or weeks at a time. "And career criminals would have a hard time getting excused. What are they gonna say—‘I can’t serve this week, your honor, I’m knockin’ over a bank on Wednesday?’" Since it was my first day I chose to find this ‘real witty,’ as we used to say. It occurred to me that The Old Hand ran through his jury-duty-for-criminals routine for every new employee; probably word for word, if the sour expressions on his co-workers were anything to go by. This was the last intelligent deduction I made that summer, before the job turned my brain into macaroni salad.

Scouring the files is every bit as boring as it sounds and within a day or so I was running as many errands as possible for my superiors. I made coffee runs (there was a coffee pot in the office, but the fluid it contained looked and smelled exactly like transmission fluid), lunch runs, I picked up laundry, I delivered boxes of evidence and documents to the court house across the street. This last sounds like official business and I suppose it was, but I did it anyway; anything, even actual work, to get out of the filing cabinets. Soon I was hosing down autopsy tables. I did all the crappy jobs that no one wanted to do. I thought this was because they all recognized my initiative and gumption, but actually it was because they were crappy jobs that no one wanted to do.

By the end of the first week I was fingerprinting and taking mug shots. There’s an art to proper fingerprinting—you ink the whole finger and roll it over the fingerprint card like a—well, I was going to say ‘like a baker rolling a French bread stick,’ but actually it isn’t like that at all. In fact, I was pretty bad at it and if they ever had to rely on the prints I took to convict anybody, they were in big trouble.

But the fact that I was terrible at everything I attempted (I more than one convicted mass murderer received his summons to jury duty that summer on my say-so) did not prevent the ID Bureau from presenting me with more opportunities to screw up. I photograph autopsies, I black-bagged bodies, and eventually, I was assigned to interview suspects. I had seen many interviews before I ever conducted one, of course; they were pretty brief and usually took place while I was fingerprinting or taking a mug shot.

My first solo interview was with a gentleman I had already seen three or four times; he was called ‘The Cosell Fan,’ because every week or two he would throw a bottle or an ashtray or a shoe at a TV in a bar when Howard Cosell was talking. This was the mid-seventies, and Howard Cosell was talking a lot, especially on TVs in bars. The Cosell Fan, an elderly Ukrainian, was probably not the only guy in Paterson who had smashed a TV to shut up Howard Cosell but he was certainly the only one who made an avocation of it. If a local bar owner wanted his insurance company to pay for a new TV, he just had to wait till the Cosell Fan was on hand and then turn on the TV to whichever sporting event Cosell happened to be covering that night. Then nature would take its course.

I asked the same questions I’d heard him asked before—just the usual name and address stuff for the paperwork, but I asked them in the deepest voice I could muster, speaking s-l-o-w-l-y, trying to sound as much like Jack Webb as possible. He asked me if I’d ever been kicked in the head by a horse. I said no. "You talk like my fren’ Matty. A horse kicked him inna head and he’s no good upstairs no more. He talks the same way you do. He got a metal plate in his head." This pretty much set the standard for all my subsequent interviews.

Several weeks and approximately 240 interviews later, I arrived at my interview room one morning and the first person escorted in by the guard was not the usual surly, disheveled, unshaven lout, but a dapper fellow with a steely glint in his eye. He nodded at the guard, and said "I’ll take it from here, thanks."

"Detective Borowsky," he said when the guard was gone. "Sorry to be... stealing your thunder, as it were, but the first character on your list today is of special interest to Homicide."

"Homicide?" I looked at my paperwork. "Mitch Vogel? It says he was arrested for bunco?"

"A busy, busy fellow," said Detective Borowsky. "Listen—Mr., uh..."

"Grimshaw."

"Grimshaw. Could I impose a bit? We’ll need some sandwiches. Let’s see... could you grab two burgers and some onion rings? I suspect our Mr. Vogel is going to be on the hungry side after a night in lock up—I’m dead certain he didn’t touch the swill they call breakfast around here— and some grub showing up at the right time could make all the difference." He reached for his back pocket. "Darn! I forgot my wallet! Could you cover the tab, and I’ll pay you back later out of petty cash?"

"Sure thing," I said. Wow, I thought. If I show up with the GRUB, I’ll technically be the ‘Good Cop’ in the ‘Good Cop / Bad Cop’ game that Detective Borowsky was playing with Vogel! Cool! "Should I tell the guard to send Vogel in?"

"Nope—just tell him you’ve got to get something for Detective Borowsky."

"Right," I said in my Joe Friday voice, and set out on my mission. Of course when I got back with the burgers Detective Borowsky AKA Mitch Vogel had already been interviewed by Terry, the other teenage clerk, and returned to the holding cell. "Vogel tries that with every new guy, but nobody’s ever been stupid enough to fall for it before," said Terry, helping himself to the fries. The gang at the office chipped in and had a little sign made up that said "Special Assistant to Detective Borowsky." It would have been stuck on my desk, but fortunately I didn’t have a desk.



THE SIGN

 

Thursday, August 21st, 2003, is the 30th anniversary of The Sign. I was instructed to make The Sign by the manager of the Park Theater in Caldwell, NJ, following a particularly raucous midnight show.

Well, wait a minute. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t a particularly raucous midnight show. People sometimes trashed the bathrooms during midnight shows, but not that evening. There had been some popcorn thrown around, and some soda cups, but all in all it was a standard midnight show crowd. There was just one truly untoward episode, but it was a doozy, as they no longer say (but should).

The Sign had been conceived because about half way through the movie, a young man got up from his seat, wandered over to the exit door, and proceeded to relieve himself. His bladder must have been prodigious, because the audience reaction—cheering, applause, et cetera—continued for a good two minutes. Long enough for the staff to realize what was happening, inform the manager, and carry out his orders. The orders (to me) were: "He can’t do that! Throw him out!"

So that’s what I did. I waited until the young man had finished his task and I strode resolutely down the aisle, took him firmly by the elbow, and, as I lead him out, said, "You can’t do that!"

To which he replied, at the top of his voice, "There’s no SIGN, maaaaaann!" [Ah, for the halcyon days when drunken teenagers expressed their contempt by calling me "maaaaaaaan" instead of "duuuuuuuude."] "You can’t throw me out because there’s no siiiign that says it’s against the rules!"

The audience suddenly morphed into the Park Theater chapter of the ACLU and began yelling things like "Hands off, pig! There’s no siiiiign!" Yes, they were honked off at me, although HE was responsible for the fact that they were now watching a movie in what amounted to a urinal with a 650-person seating capacity. Go figure. The man with the magic bladder and I were pelted with empty Milkduds boxes all the way up the aisle, at which point the leading lady in "WR: Mysteries of the Organism" (don’t ask) took off her blouse and rescued us. Shortly afterward my fellow usher Jay and I were the targets of a few more empty boxes while we mopped up, but this was strictly pro forma. Ushers at the Park always got pelted with empty boxes at midnight shows.

When the audience had scattered, the manager decided we needed The Sign. Not for legal reasons; after all, the young man had been violating several local ordinances, all of which are in force throughout most of what we used to call the civilized world. But, reasoned our fearless leader, a sign couldn’t hurt, and it might help. At the very least, he said as I raised a skeptical eyebrow, it would prevent any future violators from saying, "There’s no SIGN, maaaaaann!"

So for the next couple of days we discussed exactly what the sign should say. We didn’t want anything vulgar, but on the other hand anything that wasn’t vulgar might not be understood by the people we were trying to reach. Some thought was given to a long verbose sign—something like "WARNING: It is a violation of town laws and health department regulations to [insert so-far undecided euphemism], and any such activity will be dealt with by immediate ejection from the theater without refund of ticket price, and/or filing of a complaint with the Caldwell Police Department..." But ultimately was decided that pithy was the way to go. After rejecting a slew of technical terms, gutter slang, and coy paraphrases, the manager decided on "Empty No Bladders." I guess it was inspired by "Post No Bills." In any event, I now had my assignment, and set to work in my basement with a large piece of posterboard and a battery of magic markers. The finished product [finished at 6:47 PM on August 21st, according to the demented journal I was keeping that summer] was a thing of beauty—golden letters outlined in jet, with emerald highlights, against a pale blue background. The manager was delighted. He just needed to get the owner’s approval to hang the sign.

The owner did not approve.

"It’s a lovely sign, and a... uh. a fine thought," he said. "But there’s three things. First of all, the people who do what you are telling them they can’t do here, they know perfectly well they aren’t allowed to do it. Second of all—it only happened once and will probably never happen again, knock wood. Third—everybody who reads the sign is going to know... well, everybody with any brains—that you don’t put up a sign saying "DON’T DO THIS" unless somebody’s been doing this. Whatever ‘this’ is. I know you mean well, boys, but this sign might as well say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, People Pee in the Aisle at the Park Theater.’ They don’t need to know that."

All this brings us, believe it or not, to Malaysia. According to the wire services, this past week, Low Boon Hong, a government official of the Johar state in Maylasia, announced a new law had been passed which prohibits, among other things, cooking in public toilets.

Just as theaters don’t put up "DON’T DO THIS!" signs unless somebody’s done it, countries don’t pass laws like this unless there’s a need.

Well, way to go, Malaysia—you saw what was necessary and you did it. But if it were ME, it would be the kind of law I’d slip in as a rider on, say, a bill about agricultural subsidies in Sarawak. I certainly wouldn’t have a guy named Low Boon Hong announce it at a press conference. I think it’s safe to say that not one person in America read that and then cried, "Hey honey! In Malaysia they aren’t allowed to cook in toilets anymore! LET’S GO!" And Malaysian cuisine is one of my favorites, too. In general I think slogans are better when they are specific, but in this unusual case, I believe that something like "Come to Malaysia—it’s better than ever!" is going to be more effective than "Our vegetable curry is no longer cooked in toilets!" Trust me.



EARS TO YOU, STELARC!

 

I think it’s safe to say that no other film quite captured my 8-year-old imagination like "The Manster." As regular readers of this column know, in this 1958 classic of Japanese cinema, a Japanese guy gets injected with some Japanese science STUFF, which makes his body grow an eyeball on his shoulder, which then grows into a complete head, which eventually grows into a complete other body, which splits off from the original guy. Even at 8 I couldn’t help wondering which body was going to end up wearing the pants, and where the camera was going to be pointing. As it happened, they both ended up wearing pants, but neither one ended up with a shirt. It just goes to show, that as the late biologist J.B.S. Haledine said, the universe is not only stranger than we know but stranger than we CAN know.

In any case, while I have nothing but admiration for the mind-boggling man-splitting-from-Manster scene—not to mention the parts where the actor is walking around with a coconut sticking out of his coat pretending to be a monster head—they were nothing compared to the scene where the guy just has an eyeball on his shoulder, occasionally blinking. It looked really cool. And later, when I was old enough to send for the crappy stuff advertised on the back covers of comic books, I sent for a ‘third eye.’ This was half a ping-pong ball painted to look like an eyeball, with a suction cup on the back. You were supposed to stick it in the middle of your forehead, but I ignored the instructions and wore it on my shoulder. Unfortunately, unless you were staring directly down upon it, the thing looked like a huge boil and did not win me the admiring cries of "Ooohh! You look just like the guy in the first 20 minutes of ‘The Manster!’" that I had anticipated, and by the second semester of my junior year in college I stopped wearing the eyeball on my shoulder except on very special occasions.

But now science has almost caught up with "The Manster," or at least with the back cover of "Tales from the Tomb." In far off Australia, top scientists are working with the artist "Stelarc" to grow an ear on his arm! According to the UK newspaper The Observer, "Samples of Stelarc's cartilage and bone marrow will be taken and grown in a laboratory. The cartilage will be nurtured into the shape of an ear, similar to the technique used to grow ears on laboratory mice. The ear will then be surgically placed under a flap of skin on Stelarc's arm, where it will develop its own blood supply."

Stelarc originally wanted to grow the ear on his face, which would have been way cooler, but there were concerns that it might damage his facial nerves.

Hey Stelarc—no guts, no glory!

None the less, this is clearly a step towards my being able to grow an eyeball on my shoulder, and as impatient as I am, I can see why they would want to start with an ear. While I am not a medical expert, I can’t help thinking the ear may have some hearing impairment. Especially since it’s not an ear per se but cartilage ‘nutured into the shape of an ear.’ But it would still look like an ear even if it were totally deaf; only Stelarc would know his forearm wasn’t hearing anything. He could plug an earphone into his forearm and pretend to be listening to ball games or whatever, and no one else would know the difference. But a bunch of cartilage shaped into an eye wouldn’t blink or wiggle its brow or tear up; it would just seem sort of pathetic. Yes, the ear was definitely the way to begin. One of life’s great forbidden pleasures is ramming a cotton swap in your ear and gently cleaning out the crevices, but if you haven’t developed the perfect touch, you could do yourself permanent damage. Well, once Stelarc’s forearm ear is in place, he can jam the swap and there and really go to town with it. I might get one just for that, if my insurance covers it. WHICH IT SHOULD. Should people be denied the RIGHT to have big stupid ears growing on their forearms merely because they are poor? Where do you stand on THAT, Mr. Schwarzenegger?

The more I think of it, the more I like the idea of multiple ears. If we grew an ear on each elbow, you could sit at a bar, plop your elbows down and hold your head in your hands, and then not worry about the elbows sliding out and you end up smashing your face on the bar, and then I have to cram a napkin up my nose to stop the bleeding. I mean ‘you.’

The suction cup-ear idea could be useful for people who, for instance, accidentally fall down an elevator shaft. If you had 8 or 10 ears on each arm, or a whole bunch on your back, you could, I don’t know, kind of slam yourself against the wall of the elevator shaft and stop your acceleration. Even if your weight kept peeling the ears off the walls, you could slam yourself against the walls again and again, slowing your descent and saving your life, although the ears would probably be pretty sore by the time you reached the bottom. Maybe they could come up with really TOUGH, INSENSITIVE ears for this sort of thing.

Then there are the implications for ear piercing. Some people have rings or studs in every available millimeter of ear space. With the possibility of adding multiple ears, these people will never run out of virgin territory. As soon as one ear is filled up, just add another. And since these ears are specially grown, you could, in theory, get really huge mutant ears, too. Once the technology has been mastered (again, I’m no medical expert, but I would think this can’t be more than 6 or 8 weeks away), people will be able to swap ears. If you don’t like your own ears, you can get a surrogate to grow a new one for you, and EVEN HAVE IT PIERCED BEFORE YOU GET IT GRAFTED ONTO YOUR HEAD. It would be like having a surrogate mother not only bear your child, but turn it over to you toilet trained and with a graduate degree from Harvard. Only it would be, you know, an ear.



WAITING FOR GRISHKIN

I started writing about how these kids today, they run out the door and they don’t close it, what the heck, were they brought up in a barn?

Then I changed it to "in a barn OR WHAT," because when I read the sentence back in the original version, I heard the unmistakable voice of Walter Brennan. Whenever I read my stuff back and hear Walter Brennan, something is amiss. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Walter Brennan fan if ever there was one. Remember when Henry Fonda (as Wyatt Earp) is facing down the Clanton gang at the end of "My Darlin’ Clementine" and asks, "Which of yuh killed my brother James?" And Walter, as Old Man Clanton, snarls, "I DID! An’ th’ OTHER ONE, too!" Man, even after seeing it 15 times, I get chills. One of the half dozen greatest line readings in film history. Any good actor could nail the nastiness, the hate, the evil, but only Walter could pull off the extra ingredients of PRIDE IN A JOB WELL DONE and PURE HAPPINESS that make it indelible. What a voice!

But still, it’s not the voice I want my readers to hear in their heads when they’re reading my, you know, cutting edge humor. So I added the "or what," a phrase it’s impossible to imagine Walter Brennan saying.

It didn’t help a bit. The ‘or what’ just sat there, slapped onto something it would never really be a part of, like an organ transplant that didn’t take, or the ‘this groo-vy chick is a c-h-a-m-p-spells-CHAMP!’ that Frank Sinatra interpolated into his late sixties re-recording of "The Lady Is a Tramp."

Well, fine. If writing about how these kids today, they never shut the door, means I’m going to have a Walter Brennan cackle running through my prose, so be it. It’s no shame. He won THREE OSCARS, after all.

Of course, maybe if I got some fresh perspective on the not-closing-the-door issue, I might just possibly avoid the Brennan trap all together. I decided to ask my daughter about it, since she IS, when you come right down to it, these kids today who run out the door and don’t close it.

"There’s something I want to ask you," I said to my daughter, who was on the phone speaking to her friend Eileen.

"Is this going to be an interview? For your column?" She used the same facial expression and tone of voice that most people would use to ask "Is that an air sickness bag? Is it full?" at a potluck dinner.

"Well," I said, "it was really just something I wanted to know for my own edification."

She held up her hand and turned her full attention back to the phone. This means ‘talk to the hand.’ Among the cognoscenti (i.e. everybody younger than me) the phrase has been pass頦or about ten years and if her peers found out she was still using it, she would be ostracized at the very least. I was touched that she was willing to take the chance and employ obsolete slang in order to communicate with her father.

"I suppose we could put the conversation on the record, if you like."

"This conversation [the one with Eileen, not the one with me] is too important to interrupt, so you have to interview Eileen, too."

"Fine. What I want to know..."

"Hey dad, Eileen wants to know, do you know who GRISHKIN is?"

"Yes, of course," I said. "He’s a cheesy magician. And his name is pronounced ‘Kreskin.’"

"No, no," said Emma. "This is Grishkin. G-r-i-s-h-k-i-n."

"Well, then I guess I don’t."

Uproarious laughter from my daughter, and from the phone receiver.

"HE DOESN’T KNOW! THE GREAT JEFFREY GRIMSHAW DOESN’T KNOW WHO GRISHKIN IS!"

"Well," I said, "Who is he?"

"He’s a very famous literary critic," said Emma, following the briefest of tele-conferences. "And YOU never heard of him. He’s mentioned in a book Eileen in reading. Somebody says, ‘I bet you read all the footnotes, Grishkin.’ Only the character isn’t named Grishkin. They’re just CALLING him ‘Grishkin,’ like you would say, ‘you forgot to carry the 3, Einstein.’ So EVERYBODY knows Grishkin. EVERYBODY EXCEPT YOU!"

"Well, that’s fine. Now may I ask a few questions?"

"...and then later, somebody says, ‘I don’t know what’s more distracting, Grishkin’s pneumatic bust or the actual scent of me in the dining room...’"

"Well, then Grishkin is a GIRL," I said. I had an epiphany. "Oh geez. Grishkin," I said, "is a CHARACTER is ‘The Cherry Orchard’ by Chekhov." Emma stared at me.

"Ohmygod, he KNOWS WHO GRISHKIN IS! ...yeah, I’m really depressed, too..."

My pride was limitless. The Great Grimshaw wins again!

Needless to say, Grishkin is not a character in ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ but it certain sounds plausible and they’ll never check it. Most of my epiphanies are of this type. "Now it’s MY turn to ask some questions." I decided to work up to the door-not-closing question gradually. "First, I wanted to know about the mute thing."

"The mute thing?"

"You walk into a room, turn on the TV, put it on ‘mute,’ and walk out of the room."

"Yes."

"Well, why do you do that? You do it all the time. It’s not a generational thing. I ask other parents if their kids do it, and they look at me like I’m insane. You’re the only person who does it. Sometimes you leave the TV on ‘mute’ and leave the house and I come home and don’t walk into that room for a couple of hours and when I do, there’s Judge Judy silently tearing somebody a new one. Why?"

"It varies from case to case, but she doesn’t have much patience with whiners."

"No, I mean why do you turn on the TV, turn off the sound, and leave? I understand turning on the TV and leaving the sound ON and going into a room to do something else while you listen to the TV. That’s perfectly normal. I also understand turning on the TV with the sound off and doing something in the room, like making a phone call, but what you’re doing is something else all together. I’m trying to figure out what."

She pondered this for a moment. "Next question."

"That’s it? We’re done? You won’t tell me?" No answer. "You don’t even know why you do it, do you?"

"Eileen just looked up Grishkin in ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ She says you’re WRONG."

"If Eileen is such a big Chekhov expert, ask her if she knows why you turn on the TV, hit ‘mute,’ and walk out of the room."

"She just looked through the character list in front of all the plays. NO GRISHKIN!"

"Uh... maybe I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky."

"AND MAYBE YOU JUST MADE IT UP!"

I terminated the interview without finding out why these kids today, they go out and don’t shut the door. I didn’t want to, but I was too upset about being accused of ‘making it up’ by my own daughter. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful child, as someone or other says. Maybe Grishkin. Or Walter Brennan.

EPILOGUE:

I googled "Grishkin" and "pneumatic bust" and discovered that Grishkin is a character in T.S. Eliot’s poem "Whispers of Immortality," where she gets 12 lines devoted to her, including "Grishkin is nice: her
Russian eye/ Is underlined for emphasis;/Uncorseted, her friendly bust/Gives promise of pneumatic bliss," which is the T.S. Eliot go-to stanza when they get the urge to put something classy on the sign at the local Hooters. B. C. Southam, in A Guide to The Selected Poems of T. S. identifies Grishkin as "Serafima Astafieva (1876-1934), a Russian dancer with the Diaghilev company who opened her own ballet school in London. Ezra Pound introduced her to Eliot, `with the firm intuito that a poem wd result & intention that it should’



DO IT YOURSELFING

Somebody was throwing out a radiator—an ancient mass of twisted and folded cast-iron tubing. It looked like the digestive tract of some enormous metal monster, or maybe the world’s largest piece of pasta. "Geez, it weighs a ton," Calvano grunted. We were making our Saturday morning garbage run—we had long ago discovered that the people in our town were insane and often put incredibly valuable things out on the curb. Over the years we had recovered an untold number of broken radios, shattered birdcages, and unstrung tennis rackets. Once we came across the rubber seal from a refrigerator door, inexplicably peeled from the refrigerator itself (which was nowhere in sight) and miraculously still maintaining it’s rectangular shape (more or less). We nearly came to blows over who would get to keep that—or, more accurately, who would get to bring it home and have it tossed out by his parents that night.

But we had never come across anything as cool—or as heavy—as the radiator. "It... Ugh... probably dates from... uuummpphh! —Pre-colonial times," Calvano theorized. "A lot of the silver paint is flaking off."

"And there’s no electric cord," Picarillo pointed out.

"Well, we’ll have to come back with help," said Calvano. "It’s too heavy. But that’s good, because the garbage men won’t take it." We all nodded; American civilization had not reached it’s current glittering heights and garbage did not yet have to be sorted, arranged in alphabetical order, and bagged to be accepted for disposal, but there were some limits, and the radiator definitely exceeded them. A lot of things did, but most people still put their old stoves and obsolete bathtubs out on the curb for at least one collection day just to make sure, before hauling them off to the dump at the edge of town. In fact, even as we tried to figure out how to move the radiator, we could hear Pete Cook arguing with the garbage man on the very next block, and we rushed over to see.

"I toe joo, mon," the Jamaican garbage man was saying, "I and I can note take de tire! It will boss de trock!"

Pete Cook glared at the garbage man. Pete was about eighty years old at that time, but, despite a diet that consisted entirely of rubbing alcohol and moldy insulation (if his breath was anything to go by), he looked much, much older. "Okay, College Boy," snarled Pete Cook, apparently mistaking the garbage man’s Jamaican dialect for a Harvard accent.. "Then I’ll KEEP the tire. How about THEM apples?!"

The garbage man emptied another trashcan into the back of the truck and hopped on the back as it swung around the corner. Pete turned and saw us staring at him. As far as anyone knew, he had never held a job or washed during the entire 20th century. He was incapable of constructing a sentence without interlarding half a dozen obscenities in it (I have cleaned up his language considerably for publication) and he smelled like something that had been fished out of the Passaic River after a couple of weeks on the bottom. He was what we all aspired to.

He offered us a dollar to chop up the tire into little pieces so the garbage man would take it.

"Oh yeah!" cried Calvano. "Man, this is gonna be the easiest buck we ever made!" We were twelve years old and we all had our Scout knives in our pockets, and not a clue that chopping up a tire with a Scout knife is about as easy as chopping up a radiator with one.

We rolled the tire into Pete’s garage and were immediately assailed by a horrible smell. Well, several horrible smells. One was surely emanating from a bag that was suspended five feet over the ground from a collar beam. Flies buzzed around it. Pete had scrawled ‘Mem. Day Pic.’ on the bag, in red crayon or marker. "Church ladies brought it over after their picnic," he sneered. "Potato salad, I think." He laughed and staggered away. We set to work on the tire as far from the bag o’ salad as we could. We set to work and within 5 minutes we were streaked with dirt and sweat, our knives were ruined, and the tire seemed to be unscathed. "You know," said Calvano, "This is a blessing in disguise. Once we carve off enough rubber, we can melt it down and make our own Deluxe Werewolf masks!"

We had one Deluxe, Over-The-Head Werewolf Mask With Actual Hair, which we had jointly purchased for $25 from an ad on the back cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. We rotated possession of the mask every four weeks and nobody was happy when the time came to surrender the mask. If we could make our own Deluxe Werewolf masks, a great deal of friction would be eliminated.

"What about the hair?" said Picarillo. "If it doesn’t have real hair, it isn’t a DELUXE mask."

"We could use our own hair," Calvano said confidently. "Once the rubber is soft enough, you simply slip a hair into place and there you go. It’s so simple it’s amazing we didn’t think of it years ago." The plan was flawless, except we couldn’t make a nick in the tire. I flopped down on the filthy garbage floor and stared up, and saw that there were many, many bags of food hanging from the beams and rafters, some probably dating from the McKinley administration.

"We need softer rubber," said Picarillo.

"Whoa!" cried Calvano. "The Picarillo brain flickers briefly to life! Let’s go find an inner tube!" We bolted from the Meat Garage and down Walnut Street, trying to beat the garbage truck to any inner tubes that might have been discarded. But the Jamaicans, possibly energized by their encounter with Pete Cook (or maybe just trying to get away from the smell), had swept up the day’s debris in record time. Nothing remained of the morning’s glorious treasure throve of garbage except the radiator.

"I guess we could get one from the bike store," said Picarillo. This was a good idea, but Calvano and I both scorned it automatically, since it was inconceivable that Picarillo could make sense twice in one week, let alone in one morning.

"You know," I said, "maybe we’re doing this wrong. Instead of cutting up the tire and then melting it, why don’t we heat the tire first? Then it’ll be easier to cut."

"Yeah," said Picarillo. "We could even stick some hair in it to make sure it’ll work."

"Of course it’ll work," said Calvano, "but yeah, it can’t hurt."

Calvano and I decided that Picarillo had the most werewolf-like hair of the three of us, so we yanked some out, and returned to the garage.

"If this works, we can make HUNDREDS of Deluxe Werewolf Masks," said Calvano.

"Maybe just a couple," said Picarillo, still rubbing the spot from which we had collected the werewolf hair. I went to the back door to ask Pete Cook for some matches and newspaper. He handed me the matches without a second thought, but he had no newspaper. "Ask the college boy for a newspaper," he said. "They’re big readers."

We realized we would need some paper to kindle a fire hot enough to make the tire pliable enough to shape into a Deluxe Over-The-Head Werewolf Mask, and I think Calvano and I simultaneously realized there was plenty of it dangling from the beams. I grabbed the lowest one—the "Mem. Day Pic." package—and tossed it to Calvano, who unwrapped it and screamed. Aficionados of grossness though he was, Calvano was not prepared for the remains for the Memorial Day Picnic Potato Salad. None of us were. Calvano threw the hideous mess out the door.

"Okay," said Calvano, "We’ll have to..."

Suddenly we were aware Pete Cook was standing in the door of the garage, staring at the Memorial Day Picnic glop at his feet. "What are you doing?? I said I’d give you a dollar, not give you lunch! These here is EMERGENCY RATIONS!"

We were all speechless. Picarillo stood there, holding a hank of his own hair.

"Well, I don’ mean to be hard on you guys. You’re doin’ a good job here," he admitted, looking at the tire, whose structural integrity had yet to be breached. Maybe he had forgotten we were supposed to be cutting up the tire and thought he had paid us to pull out Picarillo'’ hair. We were doing a pretty good job of that, anyway. "Tell you what. You want some lunch, you can help yourselves to anything where I made an "X" on the paper. I’m probably not gonna eat them. I hate horse radish." Picarillo started to ask a question but I kicked him. We thanked Pete, he swore at us cordially, and as soon as we could, we bolted out of the garage, leaving the tire and all of our plans for Deluxe Over-The-Head Werewolf Masks behind.

"Let’s move that radiator," said Calvano, but we didn’t.



ASK THE CARPET STAIN REMOVAL EXPERT GUY

 

DEAR CARPET STAIN REMOVAL EXPERT GUY:

Help! We returned from a two week vacation last night to discover that our teen age daughter had thrown a party in our absence—in fact, from the look of things, she may have thrown several parties. The wall-to-wall carpet in the living room is a disaster area—it looks like a relief map of the Amazon basin. We can identify most of the stains but a couple of them look like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We have enclosed a couple of samples in the hope you can, first of all, tell us what they are, and second of all, tell us how to remove them.

(signed)

Horrified Parents

DEAR HORRIFIED:

And Dear Readers: If you get back from a two week vacation and find that your teenage daughter has been throwing parties in your absence, BUY A NEW CARPET. It might not be a bad idea to simply move to a new house. And DO NOT send the Carpet Stain Removal Expert Guy samples of your stains. Just don’t. One of the samples Horrified Parents sent was not really a stain at all, it was a melted compact disc. To be precise, it was "Chet Baker with Strings." I would compliment the children on their surprisingly sophisticated taste in music, but I guess the fact that the CD was melted indicates their taste isn’t all that sophisticated after all. While I was examining that stain, the second stain woke up and leapt at my face. It made a noise something like "Wugga!" I managed to duck and it scampered away and hid under the radiator, where it remains as of this writing. I suspect it is also not a stain in the commonly understood sense of the word.

*

DEAR CARPET STAIN REMOVAL EXPERT GUY:

During a recent visit, my sister’s pug dog Beezer had ‘an accident’ on the dining room carpet. I did not discover this for several days, unfortunately. Is it still possible to remove the stain at this late date?

(signed)

Sure hope it’s possible at this late date

DEAR SURE:

You don’t say what sort of accident Beezer had. Did he knock over a wine glass? Did he upset a soup tureen? Did he spit out his coffee when you came out with a particularly amusing quip? Stains from all of these things can be mitigated (at least) even weeks after the event but it’s always better to get to work before the stain has set. Well, that’s not much help to you now. For the USUAL canine accident, soak the area with paper towels (by "the area," I mean the section of the carpet with the stain, not, say, the 11th congressional district). Rinse with water, and soak it up again with new paper towels. Then work in a little vinegar / water solution (about 4 parts vinegar to 3 parts water), let it sit a while, then soak up again with even NEWER paper towels. Since several days have passed, this may not work all that well for you, so I recommend soaking the stain with Coca-Cola and leaving it overnight. In the morning the stain (and the odor) will be gone. To repair the resulting hole in the carpet, just trim some hunks of carpet from the edges and stick them in the hole until it’s filled. Then cover the spot with Scotch tape, so it stays together.

*

DEAR CARPET STAIN REMOVAL EXPERT GUY:

Thanks for your suggestion last week about removing bloodstains. Unseasoned meat tenderizer—who would have figured, huh? And as you said, everything the tenderizer didn’t handle, the detergent with enzymes did. Now the only thing is, does this also take care of the DNA?

(signed)

You are a national treasure

DEAR YOU:

The enzyme bleach won’t eliminate the DNA—you’d need a strong chlorine bleach, which would also take out the color in the carpet, and even then you can’t be sure you’ve got at all. There’s just no way to know without subjecting it to laboratory analysis. Your best bet would be to corrupt the DNA with some other DNA—some baboon or orangutan DNA would be especially confusing. (After which, of course, you’ll need to go through the whole meat tenderizer / enzyme bleach thing again if you want to keep that carpet looking spiffy. Oh well!)

*

DEAR CARPET STAIN REMOVAL EXPERT GUY:

Doesn’t "nova" mean new? So "bossa nova" means "new bossa?" So what the hell was the OLD bossa?

(signed)

Completely baffled

DEAR COMPLETELY:

Eet-a was-a Bruce-a Spring-a steen-a. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. You know, we’re all sorry the Bossa Nova Expert Guy had that contretemps with the oil derrick, and we’re all hoping he’s back on the job soon, but there’s really no point in sending Bossa Nova related questions to the rest of us. I don’t know anything about the Bossa Nova. The Famous People Who Were Born with an Extra Toe Expert Guy doesn’t know anything about the Bossa Nova. The Monkey Disease Expert Guy doesn’t know anything about the Bossa Nova. (But—he was of invaluable assistance when I had to answer the DNA related question above).

*

DEAR CARPET STAIN REMOVAL EXPERT GUY:

My husband sits in front of the TV pretty much all weekend watching sports, and he manages to make quite a mess on the carpet, between the spilled beer, the ground-in Doritos, and so on. Then he insists it’s MY job to clean it up since he works all week and blah blah blah. I know how to get the stains out—I’d like to know how to either convince him to be a little more careful, or to pitch in and clean up his own messes.

(signed)

It’s hopeless, isn’t it?

DEAR IT’S:

Yes, of course. You’ll never convince him to sweep up or vacuum, if that’s what you’re thinking. But while no men like to vacuum or sweep, many of them love to paint. I suggest you buy a bucket of indoor paint, either the same color as the carpet or something that would look good with it, and when the day’s sporting events draw to a close, ask your husband to paint the carpet around the couch. He’ll remove the debris from the carpet before beginning, because that’s what a competent painter does. As soon as the crumbs, etc., have been removed, you have the option of either letting him actually paint the carpet, or hitting him in the head with a tire iron and then denying everything when he wakes up 4 hours later with a killer headache. Which way you go depends mostly on whether or not you like the smell of fresh paint. I like it a lot, myself.



DO NOT ASK FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS—IT TOLLS FOR BUDDY

 

Has there ever been a month like this before? First Buddy Hackett passes away. Then, before there was even time to remove the black and purple crepe from the capital dome, Buddy Ebsen, who I’m pretty sure was already dead, died.

Well, as Shakespeare put it, "[something] [something] [something] [something] the loss / [something] [something] can not be measured out / [something] [something] [something] [something] [something that rhymes with ‘loss.’] [Or else ‘measured.’]" We are all a bit diminished by the sudden death of these men—as artists and as individuals, they were unique and irreplaceable—and yet, even more tragically, we are now OUT OF BUDDIES. That was it. They are kaput. There are no more. Certainly there are no FAMOUS Buddies left, and if there are any up-and-coming Buddies on the brink of stardom, I haven’t heard about them. (And I don’t want to, either. I treasure all the letters I get from my readers, including the ones that say "I have eaten sandwiches that write better than you," but please keep your "what about Orioles pitcher Buddy Groom?" emails to yourself, thank you very much).

How did it come to this? Once, the world was hip-deep in Buddies. You couldn’t throw a stick into the crowd at Jones Beach without hitting six of them, at least one of whom would spend the rest of the afternoon stomping around the beach snarling, "Did you see who hit me with that stick?" And many of the Buddies became celebrities. There was Buddy Holly; there was Buddy Bolden, the legendary trumpet player. There was the song "My Buddy." There was Buddy Berkeley. I know his first name is allegedly ‘Busby’ and not ‘Buddy,’ but that’s absurd. What the hell kind of name is ‘Busby?’ It’s obviously a typo. There was Buddy Clarke, who was pretty famous for something, I believe. There was Buddy Rogers the wrestler, and Charles "Buddy" Rogers, the star of ‘Wings’ (1927) and the last husband of Mary Pickford. Although I have mixed feeling about him, since he kept his regular name and put quote marks around the ‘buddy,’ like he wasn’t totally committed to Buddy-dom. There were THREE DIFFERENT Buddy Bakers. There was Buddy Sorrell, the comedy writer for the Alan Brady Show played by Morey Amsterdam on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." There was Buddy Love, Jerry Lewis’ chemically induced alter ego in the original "Nutty Professor." There was Buddy the dog in the Clinton White House, as well as my Uncle Doug’s incontinent hound dog Buddy, who ruined enough upholstery to cover the entire state of Utah six times over. He wasn’t precisely famous, but he was very well known around Walnut Street. There were OCCASIONAL Buddies, too—for instance, in his version of "I Can’t Get Started," Frank Sinatra sings "When I chanced to see Franklin D. / He always said, ‘Hi Buddy,’ to me." (It’s not clear from the context whether President Roosevelt called Sinatra ‘Buddy’ because he thought it was his nickname, or because he was mistaking him for an actual Buddy, such as Buddy Clarke. Or maybe he called everyone ‘Buddy.’ History is silent on the subject. Which in itself is quite suggestive).

Now some of these Buddies were much more famous than others, and others are technically fictional, and some are my uncle’s hound dog, but they are all Buddies and there were a ton of them, and now there aren’t ANY. How did this happen? How did we ALLOW this to happen?

It’s not like there wasn’t any warning. Prior to this past month’s double Buddy catastrophe, the last Buddy of Entertainment Tonight obituary caliber to pass away was the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich, in 1987. With his passing, two things happened: William Shatner became the undisputed holder of the Worst Toupee in the Universe title, and the world was reduced to TWO Buddies—Hackett and Ebsen, and they were both pretty long in the tooth even then. THAT was the moment when we should have been replenishing the Buddy pool. Instead, four presidents and 8 congresses twiddled their thumbs while our precious Buddies lurched towards extinction.

I know what you’re thinking: "Goodness gracious, can’t anything be done to reverse this awful trend and improve the Buddy situation?" Unless of course you’re Swedish, in which case you are thinking, "Guudness greceeuoos, Bork-bork-bork! Coon’t unytheeng be-a dune-a tu referse-a thees evffool trend und imprufe-a zee Booddy seetooeshun?"

In fact, the situation is far from hopeless, but we must act NOW. First of all, people should volunteer to be nicknamed ‘Buddy.’ It’s easy. Unlike, say, ‘Bob,’ where you are required to first be a ‘Robert,’ you can be nicknamed ‘Buddy’ no matter what your given name is. Buddy Hackett’s real name was Leonard Hacker; Buddy Ebsen’s real name was Prestiphillipo Citronella Candle Abramowitz. FACT. Second, there must be a Buddy "expansion" draft from the ranks of celebrities. At least two dozen celebrities must either chose or be chosen to become ‘Buddies.’ Toby Maguire, for instance, would be an excellent Buddy. Same thing for Randy Quaid. Gary Busey LOOKS like a Buddy, and of course there’s the Buddy Holly connection, but he’s already got two names ending with "y" and would be exempted from the draft on that basis. However, there is no lack of potential Buddies in the worlds of literature and the arts— Salmon "Buddy" Rushdie. Buddy Kurasawa. Yo Yo "Buddy" Ma.

And what about women? No reason why they should not be permitted to participate: who could resist seeing the next film starring Selma "Buddy" Hayak or Dame Buddy Dench?

And lastly, congress must enact a law whereby all declared presidential candidates must legally change their names to include either a Buddy or a "Buddy." Buddy Gephardt. Al "Buddy" Sharpton. The debates would DE FACTO become more civil with all the candidates calling each other "Buddy."

We will come through this crisis stronger and more Buddied than when it began. The Golden Age of Buddies is just ahead!!



THE CAT WINS

 

Mulberry Street Joey Clams was sitting at the big roll top desk playing the accordion. Well, he was pressing the keys and buttons, and alternately squeezing and releasing the accordion, but the noises produced were not the noises usually produced by accordions. "This can’t be good for business," I said.

"What are you saying?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

I was saved from saying what I was saying by the shop cat. It suddenly appeared from behind a radiator and launched itself at Mulberry Street Joey Clam’s face. He screamed and ducked, and the cat sailed over his head, vanishing behind some furniture or debris the instant it hit the floor.

The cat had no name. Months earlier, Mulberry Street Joey Clams got the idea that a cat sleeping in the window of the Custom Neon Sign Shop would attract potential customers, and an associate of his uncle’s had shortly afterwards appeared on the scene with a bag containing a cat. As soon as the cat had been released from the bag it vanished into the nether reaches of the Custom Neon Sign Shop, reappearing periodically to hurl itself at Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ face. We left open cans of cat food around because Mulberry Street Joey Clams was afraid that hunger might increase the frequency of the cat attacks; otherwise we ignored it. But the cat hated the accordion—or anyway it hated the noises that Mulberry Street Joey Clams coaxed from the accordion—and it was a rare musical interlude at the Custom Neon Sign Shop that did not include a visit from the insane cat.

"That thing is going to kill you if you keep playing the accordion," I said.

"For your information, MR. EXPERT, animals find music SOOTHING."

There were a lot of things I could have said at that point, but all of them would have been drowned out by the sound of the accordion. It sounded like some huge prehistoric beast, a stegosaurus perhaps, slowly but loudly dying. As the stegosaurus’s digestive tract shut down ("MmmmrrrrAAAAAggggghhhh..."), and then its nervous system ("...KkkkwwwrrrUUUUgggggggllll..."), Mulberry Street Joey Clams crooned, "Th’ loveli-ness of PAR-is... is somehow sadly gay... Th’ glory that was ROME... was OF a-NUTH-uh DAY..." It was Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ Tony Bennett Medley. It lasted for about 12 minutes. Further words fail me. "You know something? I NEVER TOOK A MUSIC LESSON IN MY LIFE." It was about 97 degrees. I kicked off my shoes and opened the door of the mini-fridge, and stuck my feet in it. That was what we did to keep cool. We tried getting an air conditioner but it pulled too many amps. The mini-fridge kept our feet comfortably chilly, with the added bonus that any food we stored in it smelled like our feet. We had planned to get two mini-fridges once business picked up so we could both keep our feet cold at the same time, but business had never picked up.

The next day the mercury was hovering around 105 degrees Fahrenheit at 9:30 AM, and Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I had an argument about who would get to put his feet in the fridge first. As it turned out, it was a pointless argument because the mini fridge no longer worked. During the night the shop cat had chewed or clawed through the electrical cord. The cat had not incinerated itself because we kept the fridge unplugged at night to keep the electric bill down. "Well, then we’ll... GO TO THE BEACH!" screamed Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "This place stinks anyway." In fact, the place was exceptionally pungent that morning.

We were both wearing shorts so there was no need to go home and get bathing suits. Mulberry Street Joey Clams grabbed the accordion and we climbed into the Custom Neon Sign Shop van. "I’m just bringing it so the cat doesn’t do anything crazy to it," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. We drove through Little Italy and across the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn. We rolled up the windows and turned on the air conditioner. We were suddenly aware of an unspeakably foul odor.

"Mulberry Street Joey Clams—it’s the accordion!" Horrified, he leaned down and smelled the musical instrument sitting on his lap. He screamed. The cat had had a busy night. Not only had it destroyed the mini-fridge, it had, uh, MARKED the accordion as its own possession, in the inimitable way of cats. Although I suppose ‘inimitable’ is the wrong word, since I’ve seen human drunks do the same thing, albeit seldom with accordions.

"Agghhh! Agghhh!" cried Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Pull over! Pull over!"

"We’re on the Belt Parkway," I said. "Just throw it out the window."

"Are you NUTS?? Throw it away?? Get off the Parkway!" I took the next exit and shortly we found ourselves rolling down a suburban side street in Brooklyn. I pulled over to the curb in front of a ranch house.

"Well, now what?"

"We just gotta air it out a little, that’s all," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He hopped out of the van, holding the rancid accordion tightly but as far away from his body as possible. "Just gotta... let it kinda dry out in the sun a little... get a little air and sun..." He walked around the van a few times, letting the air and sun work their magic on the accordion. If anything, the stench grew worse. I saw curtains moving in the windows of the ranch house.

"Just leave it and let’s get out of here," I said.

"We do that an’ the cat wins," he muttered. "Lemme tell you something: THE CAT DON’T WIN!" He shook the accordion for emphasis, inadvertently bringing it too close to his nose. "Aaggghh! Aaggghh!"

"Well, it’s not just the cat, Mulberry Street Joey Clams. If we leave that accordion here, we ALL win. You, me, the cat, Tony Bennett... maybe Tony Bennett most of all..."

"I think it’s gettin’ better."

"I don’t think it is."

A police car parked in front of the van. At the best of times, Mulberry Street Joey Clams was, uh, anxious in the presence of the police, and this was far from the best of times. "Oh man," he said, "what are we gonna do? If he smells this accordion..." He paused. He couldn’t think of what the policeman would do if he smelled the accordion. Neither could I. Both cops got out of the car.

"It wasn’t me," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. The cops looked at each other. "It was THE CAT." The cops looked at me. I jerked a thumb at Mulberry Street Joey Clams and tapped my head. "If you take it in and have the lab boys test it, they’ll TELL you—it’s not a HUMAN which has done this. But it’s getting better. We’re airing it out. It’ll be as good as new in a couple a minutes." He held the accordion out to the police. I thought I heard their nostril hairs shrivel. The cops backed up, got into their car, held a brief conversation, and drove away. Mulberry Street Joey Clams went to open the door of the van, but I had locked myself in.

"Leave the accordion," I said.

"It’s getting BETTER," he said, but we both knew it wasn’t, it would never get better. Finally he let the accordion drop to the sidewalk, and I let him in the van.

"The cat wins," he said, "I hope you can live with yourself."

"I’ll do my best," I said.



IMPROVING THE TONE

 

The ladies room looked like the scene of a ritual murder. Red viscous glop was all over the walls, and something disgusting was slowly sliding down the mirror, leaving a maroon smear in its wake. At first I thought it might have been a human brain, but it turned out to be bits of cooked cauliflower, held together with a paste of mashed potatoes and gravy. Mushroom gravy, unless my taste buds were very much mistaken.

"I’ll clean it," I said, "but I’m going home to change first, and I want 10 bucks."

The owner of the theater made a pro forma protest—"It’s extortion, you must think I pull money out of my ear..." but he knew it was a bargain and couldn’t quite suppress his smile. "What’s the red crap? Do I want to know?"

"Cranberry sauce," I said. "The way I see it, the one girl was standing here at the sink, throwing the cranberry sauce at the girl with the mashed potatoes and cauliflower. No way to tell who started it without a witness." It was almost 3 AM, and the thought that somewhere nearby there were two teenage girls coated with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes caused my synapses to fire in ways that I am not proud of.

"In my day we didn’t bring mashed potatoes to the movies," said the owner. "It just wasn’t done. We were happy with popcorn. And we ate it," he added wistfully, "we didn’t throw it at each other. Well, sometimes we did, but it was CUTE. Somebody tell me, whatever happened to CUTE?"

"There’s a new take-out place in town," said Chuck, the manager. "Roy Rogers the singing cowboy has moved into the fast food business, and they have mashed potatoes and things like that."

"They sell them to teenagers?" said the owner. "It’s insane. Teenagers would never buy mashed potatoes unless they were planning to use them as weapons! What’s WRONG with people?" He shook his head. "You know Roy Rogers had his horse stuffed when it died? A man who would do that is capable of anything. He’ll probably start including a can of spray paint with each order of mashed potatoes. He’s insane. And he’s right here in TOWN?"

"Er..."

"Maybe we can get him to do a personal appearance. We could show one of his old movies, and... No, what am I thinking? He’s INSANE."

We tended to have rowdy crowds at the Park Theater midnight shows, but tonight had been exceptional. We didn’t know why. Perhaps the local teenagers had been crazed by the sudden availability of cheap mashed potatoes, perhaps it was the movie itself—"Pink Flamingos." The mens room was not the disaster that the ladies room had been, but that was because the males do not feel any need to retreat into a lavatory before going berserk; the auditorium had been festooned with popcorn, Silly String, etc. Here and there one might espy a dollop of cranberry sauce or mashed potato, but for the most part entrees and side dishes had been confined to the ladies room.

"You know," said Chuck, "it might be time to try... a different kind of movie."

"Different," said the owner.

"Classier," said Chuck.

"Classier," said the owner. At this point I left to change into clothing more suitable for scrubbing potatoes off the wall, so I don’t know if the owner simply repeated random words of Chuck’s for the rest of the conversation or not.

Chuck had been thinking about making some changes—"improving the tone"—since we had begun showing Midnight Movies on weekends. Chuck’s initial idea had been ‘Cool Movies for Cool People’—stuff like "Putney Swope," "Greaser’s Palace," and "200 Motels," culminating in the unspeakable "Pink Flamingos," and in me scraping cranberry sauce off the toilet stalls in the ladies room. Now Chuck was thinking about appealing to a different, CLASSIER clientele— upscale suburbanites with leather patches on the elbows of their jackets, sipping espresso in the lobby as they discussed the Fellini double feature they were about to see.

"We’ll need different popcorn," Chuck said. This was several days later, and the stink of mushroom gravy had been almost obliterated by repeated applications of Lysol. "We have the WRONG POPCORN for the crowd we want to attract. We need... GOURMET POPCORNS." This was 1974, so Chuck may have been the first person to utter the words ‘gourmet’ and ‘popcorn’ in the same sentence. He was a visionary in his way, and like all visionaries, deserved every miserable thing that ever happened to him and then some.

The owner was wide eyed with wonder. "Is ‘popcorns’ a legitimate plural?" he asked.

"EXPENSIVE gourmet popcorns," Chuck continued. "to make up for the free coffee."

"Free..." The owner blinked rapidly, perhaps fighting off an aneurysm brought on by contemplating the idea of free coffee. Of free ANYTHING.

"We have to do this in phases. Phase one would be the Gourmet Popcorns. Maybe four or five flavors—almond, uh, maybe some kind of cheese..."

"Not that GLOPPY cheese my parents eat," called one of the candy girls. "It smells like dirty socks."

"Does this... gourmet popcorn... actually exist?"

"We can take regular popcorn and add flavors," said Chuck, "just like we add butter. Then when we’ve had the gourmet popcorn for a while, we go for the free coffee."

This schedule turned out to be unfeasible because as it turns out, you CAN’T just take regular popcorn and add flavors just like you add butter, or at least we couldn’t. Part of the problem may have been the flavors we chose. I did develop a taste for, or perhaps a tolerance to, the chocolate popcorn, but nothing that we made with Italian Ice flavorings worked. So the free coffee came first. We booked an appropriately coffee-friendly Ingmar Bergman double feature for our experiment with

The ‘cafe cinema’ was set up in the inner lobby, next to the phone booth. It consisted of a card table with an old quilt thrown over it in lieu of a tablecloth. One of the cashiers had used her calligraphy pens to create a ‘complimentary coffee’ sign. There were two pots of coffee, a pitcher of milk, and cardboard cups decorated with angular jazz musicians and abstract musical notes. Pammy the candy girl had been assigned ‘cafe cinema’ duty-- ostensibly she was on hand to pour the coffee, but in reality her presence was intended to inhibit our regular customers from overturning the table or setting the quilt on fire. She had been chosen because the owner felt she had "initiative."

"We need something else," said Chuck, "Something, I dunno, CLASSY..."

"I have a little sculpture I could bring in," said Pammy, demonstrating her initiative.

"Like a bust of someone? Like Einstein or something? That might work."

"Something like that," she said. The ushers were chortling and snorting because Chuck had said ‘bust.’

"As long as it isn’t Roy Rogers," said the owner. "He’s a mad man."

The cafe had been open for about 20 minutes before Chuck noticed what Pammy had brought in to enhance the cafe.

"This isn’t a sculpture of somebody. This is a CHIA PET."

"It’s just getting started. It’ll look better when the leafy stuff grows out a little." Chuck told her it had to go. She said that if he let her keep it on the table she would name it after him. He said no. She said she was going to keep it there anyway. Chuck’s head blew up to the size of a basketball and he stomped out of the lobby.

It was not a full house, and the Bergman movies were low key to say the least, but about 20 minutes into the second feature, the some members of the audience began behaving oddly. "Hey! There’s LITTLE WORDS at the bottom of the screen!" someone called out. Shortly after Max von Sydow began an impassioned monologue, another voice in the audience answered him in faux-Swedish: "Ya-hoo-da-hoi-da-eeda-hooda-how-da-yoo-da-hoi-da..." Some people shushed him, others added their own "hoo-da-hoi-da"s to the conversation. You don’t generally get folks talking back to the screen during "The Seventh Seal," so we were puzzled. "Even during freaking INGMAR BERGMAN," muttered Chuck. "Maybe it’s something in the water here. Well, tell them to keep it down." I had never told anyone in a jacket with leather patches on the elbows to keep it down before. And judging from his reaction, it was a first time for him as well.

"Yes SIR," he sputtered, saluting me as he stumbled to his feet. "Gotta freshen up the coffee!" Chuck and I watched him lurch into the inner lobby.

"I swear that guy is three sheets to the wind," I said.

"Well, then getting some coffee is a good idea," said Chuck. "I could use some myself. C’mon, I’m buying." He was my boss, so I decided to think this was pretty hilarious. As we entered the inner lobby, the Bergman fan was saying, "A little more Irish, darlin’." Pammy was pouring an amber liquid into his coffee cup, from a flask. The gentleman handed Pammy a dollar bill. She thanked him and added it to a very healthy looking roll in her purse.

"W-w-w-we don’t CHARGE for the coffee," muttered Chuck.

"I accept tips," said Pammy.

"I knew we couldn’t do the coffee before we did the popcorn. We’ve got the wrong popcorn... the wrong popcorn..." said Chuck.

I went back into the auditorium and listened to the drunks "hoo-da-hoi-da-hoo" each other as the cafe cinema closed forever following a brief but glorious run.



The JAWS of Stupidity

 

I usually write my column Sunday afternoon or Sunday evening. I’ll write for ten or fifteen minutes, hit an impasse –should I say, "The Mets stink like a bag of garbage?" "A RANCID bag of garbage?" "A rancid SACK of DRIPPING garbage?"—and then wander into the other room to channel surf for a few minutes while I ponder le mot juste. This has made me an expert on Sunday afternoon TV, where, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, "A Few Good Men" has taken up near permanent residence on TNT and "Jaws" seems to turn up with alarming frequency around the dial, most often on AMC. I can’t afford to get caught up in what I’m watching so these are perfect little pauses in the midst of my literary endeavors, songs I’ve heard so often I can switch off anywhere and not feel I’ve missed a thing. But I do try to catch Jack Nicholson’s climactic courtroom flip out in "A Few Good Men," and I do my best to be on hand for Bruce the Shark’s demise in "Jaws." My Sundays are not complete if I haven’t seen at least one of these.

Today was a "Jaws" day, and as it turned out, a jaw dropper as well. I’m going to give away the end of the movie here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading, go out and rent it and watch it, and then start reading again. I’ll still be here.

Okay. So Chief Brody (Roy Schieder) is perched on the end of his sinking boat and Bruce the shark is making his final charge. Brody’s got a high powered rifle and he’s firing away, and at the last instant one of his bullets strikes a tank of compressed air poking out of Bruce’s mouth and KA-BLOOEY! Bruce disappears in a big red cloud.

The way the movie sets this up is very economical: a couple of reels earlier when they’re loading the boat, Schieder knocks over the tank and Richard Dreyfuss tells him to be more careful "That’s a tank of compressed air!" A clumsier, less confident director would have included half a dozen further references to the air tank, but that was it; then, shortly before the final scene, Bruce devours most of the boat and one of the items that he scarfs down is the tank. (I should probably mention here that a friend of mine who professes to know about such things says that if you puncture a tank of compressed air, what actually happens is the air leaks out. However, the film makers probably decided that a climax in which the bullet hits the tank, the air leaks out, the shark’s pupils dilate briefly as he mutters, "what a rush!" and then eats Roy Schieder, wouldn’t play as well).

The reason my jaw dropped: as Scheider is blasting away at the shark, where once upon a time the sound track contained was nothing but "Jaws" music and sound effects, there is now the voice of Chief Brody yelling, "Show the tank! C’mon, show the tank! Let’s see that tank! Blow up! Blow up!"

We know the tank is stuck in the shark’s mouth like a cigar butt because we’ve just seen a close up of it. But Brody isn['t watching the movie. He's 100 yards away from the shark, and the SHARK IS UNDER WATER. "Show the tank?" Why would Brody even think that was a possibility? He would assume the tank was either in Bruce’s gullet or had dropped into the water. In any case, the shark is swimming towards him and the mouth wouldn’t be visible to him anyway. But those minor objections bring us to a major objection, namely: Brody isn’t AIMING for the tank in the hope that it will blow up. He’s shooting at the shark because it’s the only thing he can do. He doesn’t expect to kill the shark. He’s just trying to go down fighting. "Show the tank," etc., completely changes the dynamic of the scene. He’s firing from a projecting hunk of bobbing flotsam. It’s completely unbelievable that he could hit the tank if he were aiming at it. It’s a fluke shot, and in this context a lucky hit requires far less suspension of disbelief than a deliberate bullseye.

So why this absurd and damaging addition to "Jaws?" Have IQs declined so much in the past 28 years that audiences can no longer follow the action? Does AMC (or whatever entity is responsible for this revised version) simply think that’s the case? Are we really that much dumber?

Yeah, probably. Certainly I am. And it’s not just us. The modern SHARKS are pretty pathetic, too. Last week, according to Reuters, a 12 year old hound shark DROPPED DEAD FROM STRESS (maybe) two days after comedian Guy Venables jumped into it’s tank as a publicity stunt. "This variety of shark is susceptible to stress. We are very concerned he died as a result of seeing Mr. Venables jumping into the tank," said someone or other at the aquarium where it all happened. "The shark is being examined by our biological services team and if it is found that he died from stress, we will prosecute Mr. Venables for criminal damage."

So here we are: we’re too stupid to follow "Jaws" unless they dumb it down, and the sharks are such sissies they go "Eek!" and drop dead if they see a naked man. Welcome to the modern world, kids.



SCRIMSHAW BY A NOSE

 

I was not in a good mood when I walked into the bar, and my mood did not get any better when I realized I was the oldest person there. Even the bartender was young enough to wear his baseball cap backwards. It was inevitable that if I sat down, sooner or later someone would call me "Pop." I sat down.

"What’ll it be?" asked the bartender.

"These aren’t pretzels," I said, tapping the edge of the bowl in front of me.

"Yeah, they’re fried vegetable slices. Like potato chips, only they’re carrots and stuff."

"Y’know, people don’t go to bars for the health food..."

A youth playing pool somewhere in the dimness behind me said, "Nah, they’re fried in fat and drenched in salt. One of those little suckers and your cholesterol goes up 25 points. Three, and you’ll be lucky not to stroke out."

After that recommendation how could I not toss one of them into my mouth? They were a little thicker than potato chips and much sturdier. Sturdy can be a good thing if we are talking about shoes, but it’s not something you look for in a snack. It took a while for my teeth to violate the structural integrity of the fried vegetable slice, but once I did, another quality became apparent.

"These are awful," I said.

"I hear it’s an acquired taste," said the bartender. "So what’ll it be?"

"Something strong enough to get the taste of this thing out of my mouth."

"Could you be a bit more specific?"

"Well, Liquid Plumber might work..."

"You sound a little morose, friend," said a man sitting to my immediate right. He was wearing very big glasses—not quite Elton John circa 1975, but close. He didn’t call me ‘Pop,’ so I resolved to cut him a little slack on the glasses. "All this rain got you down? What’s it been? Rain on 28 out of the last 32 days?"

"Something like that?"

"But did you notice there’s no flooding? We’ve had floods with a lot less than 28 days of rain. It makes no sense."

"It’s lousy rain, that’s the secret," said the bartender. "It’s like in baseball—theoretically you could have a 50 game hitting streak and be batting under .200 the whole time."

"If you were batting under .200 they’d sit you down a long time before 50 games went by," said the man in the glasses. The bartender opened his mouth and then decided whatever he was going to say wasn’t worth saying. "What I want to know is, where is all this rain going?"

I said, "When I was about 10, I read a comic book where aliens drain the Great Lakes, and the Nile, and the Mississippi, and somehow we defeat them, and we ask them why they were taking all our water. And they say their planet is in the midst of a horrible drought and they need water desperately. And the earth scientist interrogating them says, "You didn’t have to empty our lakes! You could have had all the water you wanted! All you had to do was collect our rain!"

"Um," said the man with the big glasses. This is usually my line and it felt good to hear it coming out of someone else’s mouth for once. "How did we defeat them?"

"I don’t remember."

"They must have been pretty advanced if they were draining our lakes like that. I don’t think we could have defeated them."

"Maybe they were far ahead of us in terms of lake-draining, but not so far ahead militarily. Anyway I’m not depressed about the weather. I just watched the Belmont Stakes, and there was a horse named Scrimshaw. I had no idea about that when I turned it on. And when I saw this Scrimshaw, I thought, hey, I’m gonna root for that horse..."

"Why?"

"Because my name is Grimshaw. It seemed like the right thing to do. We have similar names. Anyway, he finished out of the money. Not that I had actually bet anything. But it just reminded me that I can’t do limericks about myself."

"Why’s that?"

"Because ‘Scrimshaw’ is the only word in English that rhymes with ‘Grimshaw.’ You can get like ‘There once was a fellow named Grimshaw / Bah-BAH-bah bah-BAH-Bah bah scrimshaw / He da-da-da-DOO / Till he da-da-da-DOO / and he....’ but that’s it. I need a third word."

"I see some other problems with it. First off, the whole ‘bah-BAH-bah’ thing is pretty lame."

"No, I’m just..."

"And second, the Scrimshaw angle isn’t going to help you either, because it’s a proper name, and it’s just some horse who LOST a race. Nobody’s going to remember it tomorrow."

"Well, no—see, ‘scrimshaw’ is an actual word."

"Oh REALLY," he said.

"Yes," I said. I began to regret my recent resolution about cutting him a little slack on the glasses.

"And what, pray tell, does it mean?"

"It’s whalebone carving."

"Hey, you didn’t even pause to think about that. You were ready. ‘It’s whalebone carving.’ You’ve got a gift."

The bartender put a drink in front of me—not Liquid Plumber, but probably, I discovered after a sip, a fairly close relative—and I said, "Do you have a dictionary here?"

"Nope."

"A lot of bars keep dictionaries and almanacs and the Guinness Book of World Records behind the bar to settle bets," I said.

"And whale bones," said the man with the glasses, "in case somebody wants to do some scrimshawing."

"It’s a REAL WORD. Ask anybody."

"Did you ever hear of scrimshawing?" he asked the bartender.

"Nope."

Emboldened, the man with the glasses called over to the pool table. "Scrimshaw? You ever hear of it?"

One shook his head and the other said, "Ten to one. Finished out of the money. Not a muddier, for sure."

"I guess that settles THAT," said the man with the glasses.

"Rickshaw," said the bartender. "You could end the limerick with ‘rickshaw.’

"Well, that isn’t too bad, but I really need a two syllable rhyme..."

"It is two syllables. Rick," he said, holding up a finger, "and shaw," holding up the other.

"But even if you accept ‘rickshaw,’ that still leaves you with only two rhymes," said the man with the glasses, "since we’ve established that ‘Scrimshaw’ is just the name of a horse."

"He can still use it," said the bartender.

"Well, he won’t go to JAIL if he does, but then he ends up with a limerick about this horse nobody ever heard of."

"So what? It’s better than not having a limerick at all," said the bartender.

"Hey, wait. How about this: There once was a person named Grimshaw / Who said whale bone carving was scrimshaw / When we proved it is not / He became very hot / Under the collar and, uh..."

"...did something to a rickshaw," said the bartender.

"What can you do to a rickshaw? He was so mad he went out and sat in a rickshaw? The rickshaw thing won’t cut it."

"I’m outta here," I said.

"Hey!" said the man in the glasses. "This is for YOUR benefit!"

"Maybe his name isn’t even Grimshaw," said one of the pool players. "Maybe he’s been playing you guys for total suckers, trying to get you to come up with this rhyme when he knows there isn’t one."

The man with the glasses cast a baleful look in my direction. "That’s a pretty sick game you’re playing there, pal."

"I bet there’s no comic where the aliens steal all our water, either" said the bartender.

"And you know what?" said the man with the glasses. "The rain water idea wouldn’t work. If they collected the rain water, we’d still end up with our water gone because LAKE WATER and RAIN WATER is the SAME WATER."

"That was my POINT in telling the story," I said.

"Yeah, yeah. Go carve a whalebone, Scrimshaw." Here followed a great deal of amusing by-play where my fellow patrons attempted to guess my REAL name. None of them managed it, of course, since they’d already eliminated ‘Grimshaw’ from the list of possibilities. But at least nobody called me ‘Pop.’



THINGS CHANGE

There were two really interesting things about "Goliath Vs. The Vampires," the Saturday matinee at the Oxford Theater. First, the vampires were hideous, with enormous fangs, bald heads, and skin the texture of burlap. Second, when people talked, their mouths didn’t quite match the words they were saying (except for Goliath, and then only in close-ups). Both of these things were functions of "Goliath" being an Italian movie, although I didn’t realize it at the time, being 9. The non-sync sound was making my head hurt, but I liked the vampires. The usual domestic vampires were basically guys in dinner jackets with maybe the hint of a fang peeking out beneath the upper lip. These Italian vampires were definitely MONSTERS, who would’ve looked stupid in dinner jackets. They were almost as cool as werewolves.

Goliath had just killed a bunch of vampires and rescued this Italian lady with such astounding cleavage even my 9 year old eyes were bugging out of my head, and the music had changed from tense and creepy to sweet and romantic, which meant there wouldn’t be any action for several moments. Time to race to the bathroom. When I emerged from the mens room, a little kid was telling an usher the machine had eaten his money and wouldn’t give him the soda. "What did you put in?" asked the usher.

"Ten pennies," said the kid.

"Oh NO!" cried the usher. "Ten Pennies! THIS MACHINE DOESN’T TAKE PENNIES!!" He ran down the corridor to get help. Before help arrived, a sinister glissando on the soundtrack signaled that the love scene was over, so I returned to my seat.

The intervening decades have erased the end of "Goliath Vs. The Vampires" from my memory but the kid who fed ten pennies into the soda machine remains vivid because the next week the Oxford Theater shut its doors forever and I was absolutely certain it was because the kid had broken the soda machine. I told everyone who would listen, and many who would not. It was obvious to me: Kid breaks soda machine—theater shuts down. And I HAD BEEN THERE WHEN IT HAPPENED.

"They closed the whole movies because a kid busted the soda machine?" asked one incredulous classmate after another.

"Yes," I said. "I was there. I SAW IT."

Being The Guy With The Inside Scoop almost made up for the loss of the Oxford Theater, the town’s only source of high-quality badly-dubbed Italian vampire movies, and the first town landmark to vanish during my lifetime; within a few weeks of closing down, the Oxford became a parking lot—indisputable evidence of the horrible truth that Things Change.

More evidence arrived about two years later when Fiegleson’s, the local department store, went out of business. In this case The Guy With The Inside Scoop was Calvano. We were inside the World War I Tank Memorial in the town park, using a crappy 5 dollar telescope to look through the gun turret and see if stars were visible during the day time, Because the barrel of the gun was pointed more or less horizontally, there wasn’t much sky in our field of vision, just the Q U I in the Friendly’s Liquor Store Sign across the street, but someone had recently thrown a rock or a bottle through the middle of the "Q" and we thought we discerned a little patch of blue. It was hard to say for sure because it was early afternoon and the sun was at its apex and the inside of the tank was about 250 degrees so we were losing brain cells at a prodigious rate. "I think I see a star," said Calvano. "No, wait—it’s Friendly’s cat."

"You can’t tell the difference between a cat and a star?" I said.

"It’s only got ONE EYE," explained Calvano. "Hey, you know what happened to Fiegleson’s? They got SUED and now they’re shutting down."

"How’d they get sued?"

"This kid bought one of those little turtles from the pet department, and after a couple of days it died."

"They got sued for THAT?? Those little turtles ALWAYS die in a couple of days."

"I guess the kid’s parents didn’t know that."

"How could they not know that??"

"Maybe they were foreign."

For a moment I pictured the kid’s parents asking, "What is the matter, Beppo? Why are you weeping? Why does your turtle not move?" Their mouths didn’t match their badly dubbed voices. I tried to shake the image out of my head, probably dislodging a few more shriveled brain cells in the process. Yes, they must have been foreign. It was the only answer that made sense.

"But here’s the GOOD thing about it," said Calvano. "When they go out of business, they gotta throw away everything inside. And everything—even the stuff from the toy department—is gonna be in the garbage..."

"Whoa!" I said. There was no need to say anything else. Fiegleson’s was about to close, and all their toys, all their sports equipment, all their STUFF was just going to be dumped. The idea that they might, oh, SELL their inventory never entered my rapidly-shrinking brain, which was still trying to expel poor little Beppo and his turtle. Calvano opened his secret notebook (he had actually written "Secret Notebook" on the cover), and we made a list of items we would scavenge from the Fiegleson dumpster. And why (we asked ourselves as even more brain cells vaporized) not make some money from this? Fiegleson’s failure would be our fortune!

The next day we began taking advance orders from our classmates in the cafeteria. "Anything you want," Calvano said, "at incredibly low prices! Sporting goods, toys, the rubber turkey that was in the window last Thanksgiving—all items only 25 cents each!" The Secret Notebook pages were filled with orders, although nobody was quite insane enough to pony up any cash. I remember that Victor Mirshicenko wanted a "new wallet & a barber chair." (Fiegleson’s had contained an instore barbershop, so this wasn’t completely out of left field).

The day Fiegleson ended it’s final sale and closed up, Calvano and I were in their back alley at 11 PM. There was a large garbage bin behind the store, and it was filled to the brim with boxes. I boosted Calvano up. "Aw cripes! These boxes are EMPTY!!" He threw one down to prove his point. It was indeed just an empty box.

"Go deeper, Bob!" I cried. He burrowed into the mountain of cardboard and began making disgusted noises.

"There’s all GARBAGE down here!! This is really gross!!"

All of our noise attracted the attention of someone inside the building. The back door opened and a portly gentleman in a three piece suit (but a loosened tie) burst out. "Get outta there! What’s a matter with you!" He spit out his words so rapidly that I had the odd sensation—odd but not unfamiliar—that his voice had been dubbed into English and wasn’t matching his mouth.

"Get your own garbage," said Calvano.

"That IS my garbage!"

"Not anymore! You dumped it and we got DIBS! It’s the law of SALVAGE! I saw it on ‘Sea Hunt.’"

The man—perhaps Mr. Fiegleson himself? —was taken aback by this, but soon recovered his poise and threw us off his property. As we walked home Calvano mused, "It’s too bad none of the kids who ordered stuff gave us any money. Cuz if you get PAID to recover stuff and then you can’t do it because of something like this, you get to KEEP the money. That’s the law."

"It is??"

"Yup. Technically, it’s considered ‘an act of God’ and you’re covered. " He was so sure of himself it didn’t occur to me to doubt him, anymore than it had occurred to Calvano to doubt me when I’d explained the Coke machine-related demise of The Oxford.



THE THIRD ANNUAL EMMA GRIMSHAW LETTER WRITING CONTEST

ME: I couldn’t help noticing that you’ve been, uh, writing a lot of letters lately. Because I have no stamps...

EMMA: I was going to mention that you need more stamps. It’s for the Third Annual Emma Grimshaw Letter Writing Contest

ME: [pause] That just brought my mind to a complete standstill...

EMMA: Emails are taking over the world. They’re no fun. They’re not like LETTERS. I do this to remind people how much fun it is to get a LETTER... which you can actually hold in your HAND... not just click on it. I mean what fun is that? And this year the letter writing contest is not only bi-coastal, it’s gone international. Because I’ve got connections all over the world...

ME: ...still at a complete standstill... uh, how does it work?

EMMA: Your questions just get lamer and lamer... Well, they give me their address, I write them a letter, they write back, and so on and so on.

ME: How do you win?

EMMA: The one who writes the most letters by the end of the summer wins.

ME: Do the other people in the contest write letters to each other too?

EMMA: No! That would be like a chain letter. It would be gross. They all just write to ME.

ME: If everybody else is just writing to you, and you’re writing back, wouldn’t, uh, YOU end up writing the most letters...

EMMA: I don’t mind. It’s worth it.

ME: ...hence winning the contest?

EMMA: I’m not a contestant. I’m like a... facilitator.

ME: Boy, talk about Le mot just...

EMMA: What?

ME: Nothing. What does the winner win?

EMMA: They get mentioned on my info.

ME: What’s your info?

EMMA: [sighs] on AOL! On my info now I have a quote from Crazy Mego. It says, "I miss you more than carbs."

ME: Cards??

EMMA: CARBS. Carbohydrates. She hasn’t eaten carbohydrates in years. She’s on the Atkins diet.

ME: Didn’t that diet just kill Dr. Atkins?

EMMA: Yeah. No, wait, he slipped on ice.

ME: He was too weak to stay upright from not eating enough carbohydrates is my guess. Is Crazy Mego ridiculously thin?

EMMA: No, she’s like solid muscle. She goes to "Crunch" for three hours a day.

ME: Did I meet her?

EMMA: It wouldn’t have been a good idea. You would have been frightened.

ME: Probably. When you send out the first letter, do you use a template? I mean is it essentially a form letter?

EMMA: No. I make an effort to make each one deeply personal. Like I’ll say I just saw "Beaches" and cried and cried because the best friend looks exactly like Eileen.

ME: The best friend who dies or the other one?

EMMA: Who dies. Otherwise it wouldn’t be sad.

ME: Did you tell EVERYBODY you saw "Beaches" and—

EMMA: NOO!!

ME: How many people have written back... well, wait, how many letters have you sent so far?

EMMA: 32.

ME: How many people have written back?

EMMA: So far?

ME: Yes.

EMMA: To date... one.

ME: Who would that be?

EMMA: Dave Frenson. He used skull stationary.

ME: What’s skull stationary?

EMMA: It’s stationary with a skull in the background. It’s noticeable but not noticeable enough to distract you from the actual content of the letter.

ME: What country does he live in?

EMMA: Frenchtown.

ME: So he’s not one of your many international connections.

EMMA: No.

ME: How many other countries are involved in this?

EMMA: Canada is involved. I got in trouble with this one girl because I said now that we have contestants from Canada the contest is sweeping the globe and she said you can’t sweep the globe north to south you can only sweep it going east to west. Or west to east. And I said NOT TRUE because the earth doesn’t just REVOLVE, it also ROTATES.

ME: Uh...

EMMA: You can look it up.

ME: Uh...

EMMA: [making hand gestures impossible to describe] it does THIS but also THIS.

ME: [pause, during which I attempt to assimilate both ‘this’ and ‘this]. This is the Third Annual Emma Grimshaw Letter Writing Contest...

EMMA: Yes.

ME: What were the outcomes of the First and Second Annual Contests?

EMMA: Mikey won the first one, and Jon won the second one. But Jon was the only one who wrote back last year. He wrote two letters. But THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE DIFFERENT.

ME: Why is this year going to be different?

EMMA: Well, with all of the cosmopolitan, international people involved, people with LETTER WRITING INTEGRITY...

ME: With what?

EMMA: Shhh. But I suspect that the winner will be someone local, because once word gets out that there are all these people from around the world involved...

ME: By ‘around the world’ you mean Canada.

EMMA: I was SPEAKING, thank you. Anyway. I think the local contestants will rise to the occasion, once they realize the caliber of the competition. Stop looking at your reflection in the computer screen.

ME: I’m not...

EMMA: You’re PREENING.

ME: I have NEVER preened.

EMMA: Oh please. You are one big preen. You now need to put my address in so that people from around the world reading this will write to me.

ME: And, if they win, get mentioned on your info...

EMMA: Preen! You’re PREENING again.

ME: I don’t know if I can do—

EMMA: 499 Shire Road. In, uh...

ME: The world is waiting. You don’t remember your town?

EMMA: MILFORD. Well, not really, but that’s the post office involved...

ME: And proud to be, I’m sure.



ASK THE WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY

 

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

How much did William Howard Taft weigh on December 15th, 1905?

(signed)

On the edge of my seat

DEAR ON:

On December 15th, 1905, at 8:30 AM, Taft recorded his weight as exactly 305 and 7/8ths pounds.

*

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

Do you have any idea how much William Howard Taft weighed on April 19th, 1907?

(signed)

Wonders about how much Taft weighed on April 19th, 1907

DEAR WONDERS:

I’m sorry to report that Taft stopped taking daily note of his weight by the summer of 1906. From examining photos taken in the spring of 1907 (the cherry blossoms are visible, so it was probably May—spring came late in 1907), I would estimate that on the 19th of April he was between 310 and 312. If I may interject a personal note here: while I am grateful for all the correspondence I receive, I would like to think that Mr. Taft’s weight was among the least interesting things about him, and I feel it’s time to move on to another topic.

*

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

How much did Taft weigh on March 22nd, 1897?

(signed)

Perfectly happy with this topic

DEAR PERFECTLY:

Taft was certainly well over 300 pounds by then, but as he had not yet become concerned for his health, he was not keeping records of it and therefore we just don’t know for sure. Sorry.

*

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

Who was the second fattest president of all time, and what was his peak weight?

(signed)

Who was number two

DEAR WHO:

I really don’t know. John Adams looks pretty hefty in most of the pictures I’ve seen, and Grant also appears to be a bit husky by the time he assumes the mantle of the presidency, but these are just guesses. Thanks for writing.

*

NOTE TO READERS OF THIS COLUMN: I have received many letters about my answer to "Curious" in last week’s column. "Curious" asked when Mr. Taft served as President of the United States. It should go without saying—though apparently it doesn’t—that when I replied, "Taft was the President of the United States? I’m sure if this were true, I would have heard of it, because I am the William Howard Taft Expert Guy!" I was being sarcastic. I am well aware of Taft’s tenure as U S President and make frequent references to it, as my regular readers know.

*

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

Are there any photos of Taft wearing pants with a checked pattern? I think really fat guys in checked pants are hilarious.

(signed)

Hoping for an affirmative on this one

DEAR HOPING:

No such photos exist to the best of my knowledge. Thanks for writing.

*

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

I hear that Taft was so fat they used to shove him through the Lincoln Tunnel to clean it. True?

(signed)

History buff

DEAR HISTORY:

When Mr. Taft was at his heaviest the tunnel had not yet been conceived of, let alone built, so the answer is almost certainly no.

*

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

Do you think William Howard Taft would be as bummed as I am by the end of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer?" It’s my favorite show. Why are they taking it off the air?

(signed)

Don’t care about Taft’s weight

DEAR DON’T:

Sarah Michelle Geller was tired of the weekly grind and wanted to go out before the inevitable decline set in. I’m sure Taft would have admired her good sense and wished her the best of luck in her future endeavors, as do we all.

*

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

Everyone knows that Taft was the fattest president, but after leaving office, he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I wonder: was he also the fattest Chief Justice? The fattest Supreme Court Justice period? And prior being elected President, he was the Secretary of War. Fattest one of those, too? Also: If Taft were alive today, do you think he would prefer Sponge Bob Square Pants or the Powder Puff Girls?

(signed)

Wants to know more about my main man, William Howard Taft

*

Good questions all! In fact, by the time Taft was elevated to the Supreme Court, he’d lost an enormous amount of weight—he was down to about 250 pounds, which, given his height and build, was not bad at all. Unfortunately, I can’t find the weights and heights of any other Supreme Court Justices, but I would be very surprised if 250 pounds were the record—after all, we’ve had scores of them over the past 200 years and surely there was a chub or three among them. Ditto Secretaries of War / Defense. Finally, it’s not POWDER Puff Girls, it’s POWER Puff. In any event, Taft would certainly prefer Sponge Bob for its buoyant sense of life, while he would be less enthusiastic about the Power Puff Girls because of the cheesy Japanese animation, although he would grudgingly concede that it was empowering (a word he would surely not have used, incidentally) for young girls, and perhaps also have enjoyed the titular pun. Thanks for writing.

*

DEAR WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT EXPERT GUY:

All my friends said, ‘Go see The Matrix sequel! Go see The Matrix sequel! You don’t need to have seen the first one!’ Well, I couldn’t follow it. It didn’t make any sense, and it ends with a big TO BE CONTINUED, which ought to be against the law. PLUS, there’s this scene where Keanu Reeves is fighting like 800 Agent Smiths and then, after about 45 minutes, he escapes by flying away. Well, if he can fly, why didn’t he just take off in the first place?

(signed)

Wish I’d gone to see the X Men sequel instead

DEAR WISH:

I haven’t seen the film myself so it’s probably unfair for me to comment, but if your description is accurate, Keanu’s failure to escape by immediately flying away would appear to be a serious flaw in the script.

THIRTY SEVEN REASONS WHY IT'S COOL TO BE A GUY

"37 Reasons Why It’s Cool to Be a Guy" landed in my inbox recently. The author is anonymous but definitely a woman, since many of the 37 reasons either make no sense or are simply incorrect. (What does "No Maxi-Pads!" mean? It’s not even a sentence. If Maxi-pads are those things you press down on your nose to pull out blackheads, it’s true that we don’t use them, though). The ones that I do understand paint a picture of male privilege, obviousness, and bad hygiene that have nothing at all to do with the reality of My Life As a Man.

There are some things here I can’t quarrel with because they’re true: "Christmas shopping can be accomplished for 25 relatives, on December 24th, in minutes." (Number 35). "You don’t have to stop and think of which way to turn a nut on a bolt." (Number 30). "The world is your urinal." (Number 37).

There are others I can’t quarrel with because this is a family newspaper and I can’t even paraphrase them here. But I’ll do my best to answer the others.

To begin at the beginning: Reason Number 1 reads, "Your ass is never a factor in a job interview." Say WHAT, boss?? Let me tell you—the average male rear end is no where near as comfortably padded as the average female rear end. Hey, ladies, when WE’VE been sitting down for a 40-minute interview, we KNOW it. This is why a lot of guys are getting butt-augmentation surgery these days. It’s not vanity. It’s necessity, like comfortable shoes or ESPN-4.

Number 2: "Your orgasms are real. Always." News flash: EVERYBODY’S orgasms are ‘real, always.’ Otherwise they aren’t orgasms, they’re just somebody going ‘oh baby oh baby oh yessss.’

There is an implication here that guys CAN’T fake their orgasms. WRONG. Believe me, if the Nets play-off game is going to start in three minutes, we can do the Meg-Ryan-"oh-yeah-oh-yeah-uh-uh-uh-uh-ooooh-yesssssss-yessssss-aaahhhhhhh-OOOHOHHH-AGGAGAGAGAGAGAGA-WHOA-AAAAGGGGGGGGHHHH-WWWAAAAUUGH-GAAA-FAAAA-NNNNNNN-PPPPPPAAAAAAGAGAGA-AH-OOGAH-uuuuuhhhhhhhh-yessssss-that-was-innnnncredible" thing just as convincingly as you can. In fact, even MORE convincingly. (Although no woman has ever faked an orgasm with me, I am certain I would be able to tell at once).

Number 6: "You never feel compelled to stop a friend from getting laid." Really? Some of us have been known to break into gym lockers and smear Crazy Glue™ inside our buddies’ underpants, which can effectively stop them from getting laid for 6-8 weeks at a time. I guess you could argue we aren’t actually COMPELLED to do this, though. Then again, I would argue that some of us are.

Number 7: "Car mechanics tell you the truth." Uh. Well, girls, this may be hard to believe, but car mechanics who lie to you will also lie to us, on the assumption that our money is just as good as yours is. However, it IS true that they won’t amuse themselves by telling us "The Photon Deviator is out of adjustment with the Turkistan Bivalve." Or anyway they won’t tell ME. No way am I falling for that one twice.

Number 13: "Wedding Dress $2000; Tux rental $100." I think the next thing in the series would be something like "clip-on bow tie $5."

And the point? Your guess is as good as mine.

Number 15: "People never glance at your chest when you're talking to them." This is not true. A quick peak at the chest pocket could, by a quick estimate of how many pens (and how many DIFFERENT KINDS OF PENS) are in the pocket pen protector, give you good idea of whether or not you’d just met a kindred spirit. And once we turn 40, we are always glancing at each other’s chests. Few things are more satisfying than the knowledge—to be shared at the earliest opportunity with everybody—that Bob or Chuck or Ed (or anybody but you) should maybe start thinking about wearing a sports bra.

Here’s one that I find totally baffling: "One mood, ALL the damn time." (Number 17, if you’re keeping track). Oh, of course. We guys feel just as buoyant and full of life whether the Giants cover the spread or not.

Number 23: "If you are 34 and single, nobody notices." Nobody notices WHAT? I have no idea. The end of the sentence is missing.

"Hot wax never comes near your pubic area." (Number 9) Any of you guys who dated Sharon Bolger know this is not true. I’m too much of a gentleman to say anything else, except she is a total mental case. And she said, "Maybe that was a little intense, but the BLUE wax will feel cool and soothing, I swear," but it’s a lie. It feels exactly like the other colors—it hurts like a bastard, if you want to know, and she thinks it’s funny. And then she won’t untie you until you talk to her stupid moose hand puppet. "Don’t ask me, ask Mr. Antlers." And then when you do, she goes, "I can’t believe you talked to a MOOSE PUPPET." CONFIDENTIAL TO SHARON BOLGER: If those pictures show up on the Internet there is going to be BIG BIG trouble.

Number 28 declares: "If another guy shows up at the party in the same outfit, you just might become lifelong friends." This one might really be intended as a subtle dig at girls, who, according to Archie Comics, are absolutely mortified if they attend a party where someone else is wearing the same dress. Just for the record, I have attended three parties where this happened, and all three times, the dress-alike girls thought it was hilarious. But that isn’t the problem with this one. The problem is, guys don’t wear outfits. We wear pants and a shirt, unless it’s a classy party requiring a tie, in which case we just wear underwear (see number 22) and watch TV, having politely declined the invitation and stayed at home.

Let’s take a look at number 32: "The same hairstyle lasts for years, maybe decades." Yeah, I wish. Please glance at the photo accompanying this article. Note that I am wearing a hat. There is a reason for this. The hairstyle, which was supposed to last for years, maybe decades, did not. It ceased to exist just about the same time that my hair did.

"You can open all your own jars." (Number 20). Huh? I don’t even know what this one means. I guess it’s true, but why on earth would I want to open all my own jars? I don’t even know how many jars I have. I rarely open more than one at a time. I can’t deny that if I want to put all my jars on the kitchen counter, open them all, and enjoy them, I will darn well do it. And yet I never have. It’s never occurred to me. Is this something women think about? "I wish I could open all my jars now, but... what would the neighbors say? Ooooh, it’s times like this that I wish I were a man!" Earth to chicks: Just go ahead and open them. Nobody cares. Go nuts.

Number 12: "You don't have to leave the room to make emergency crotch adjustments." Absolutely true. And you know why? Because there’s no such thing as an emergency crotch adjustment. Well, wait a minute; I might be wrong about that, because I get about 30 emails a day telling me that I need an emergency crotch adjustment ("Don’t kid yourself, jgrimshaw!! SIZE DOES MATTER!!"). But I don’t think this is what number 12 is talking about.

"You can quietly watch a game with your buddy for hours without ever thinking ‘He must be mad at me.’" (26) I don’t know what to make of this. I have never watched a game quietly with or without a buddy, and neither has anyone else. Hey, whoever wrote this thing: does the name GENE BARTH mean anything to you? Let me refresh your memory. Gene Barth was the NFL official who worked the 1983 Giants-Bengals game where the Giants were 3rd and 10 inside the Bengal 15 and Scott Brunner goes back to pass when a Bengal nails him as he releases the ball and the ball arcs like 8 feet into the astro turf in front of Brunner. Another Bengal jumps on the ball. Barth rules it a FUMBLE and grants the Bengals possession but the rule is, if the QB’s arm is moving forward when he drops the ball it’s an INCOMPLETE PASS hence a DEAD BALL hence NO FUMBLE hence GIANTS RETAIN POSSESSION 4th and 10 hence YOU SUCK BARTH, YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK.

But. Let’s assume you and a friend are watching a game that isn’t officiated by Gene Barth or one of his fellow mongoloid idiots. You’re still going to have a commercial break every 4 minutes, which absolutely necessitates a discussion about who gets to use the clicker.

Number 5: "Wedding plans take care of themselves." Yeah, whatever. Listen, I’m not being an asshole about this. If the ball landed in FRONT of Brunner, his arm was going forward. QED. It’s not a matter of opinion. Try it yourself, or Check out a physics book. If the arm is going back when he’s hit, the ball lands behind him and it’s a fumble. THE BALL LANDED 8 FEET IN FRONT OF HIM.

"Same work ... more pay." (Number 10) Sure. But here’s the kicker. The NFL selects the officiating crew for the Superbowl on the basis of season-long excellence. So who’s the HEAD OFFICIAL of the ’84 Superbowl? Ding ding ding!! You guessed it! GENE BARTH!

Number 16: "New shoes don’t cut, blister, or mangle your feet." And another thing: no guy has ever thought, "he must be mad at me." Let’s say you, I dunno, smeared Crazy Glue™ on the crotch of your buddy’s underpants. Now the odds are he WOULD be mad at you, but you wouldn’t think about that. You would be thinking about the look on his face and (if you happened to be drinking Pepsi at that moment) shooting Pepsi out of both nostrils.

Number 25 says, "Three pairs of shoes are more than enough." Okay, no argument there. In fact, I did a well-regarded (by me, anyway) article on the subject many years ago, "Sneaker Rotation: Theory and Practice." BUT: Number 35 insists: "One wallet and one pair of shoes, one color, all seasons." Now which is it? One pair or three? And is the author of this list under the impression that guys color coordinate their shoes and wallets? Some of us, I am reliably informed, don’t.

Speaking of colors: "You are not expected to know the names of more than five colors." I don’t know about "expected," but try this on for size: Red-violet. Maroon. Periwinkle. Indian red. Burnt Orange. The Color Formerly Known As ‘Flesh.’ News flash: OUR crayon boxes have all the same colors yours do, girls. (Although I personally would never actually USE ‘periwinkle.’ There are limits. That goes double for ‘bittersweet’).

"You get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness." (21) HA! When I got my (now ex) wife a BOX of new vacuum cleaner bags for our anniversary one year, with a cute note saying maybe the place wouldn’t look quite so much like the set of "The Grapes of Wrath," I did not get extra credit. What I got was hit in the face with a loaf of bread. It bent my glasses a little so one lens was pointing up a little and I refused to get it fixed so that every time she looked at me she would feel a sharp pang of regret. Well, all she did was laugh and call me a moron and after about a year and a half the eye started focusing weird. THAT’S what we get for the slightest act of thoughtfulness.

Number 22: "Your underwear is $10 for a three-pack." Where, at TIFFANY’S?? Why would anyone in his right mind spend $3.33 for a pair of underpants? Maybe Bill Gates can toss away his money this way, but the average guy making less than 250K a year isn’t about to invest in diamond-studded underpants, believe me. This attempt to paint men as fashion-crazed spendthrifts is possibly the most absurd item on the list. Like most of my brothers, I of course purchase my underpants in a "Bag O’ Briefs" budget 20-pack ($5). I don’t go for boxer style underpants myself, but for those who do, there are several low-cost options available at the Flemington Boxer-Palooza! Outlet Center. "$10 for a three-pack" indeed!

Number 35: "You can "do" your nails with a pocket-knife." If we "did" our nails, I daresay we could "do" them with a pocketknife. But we don’t "do" them. We cut them, using nail clippers. Nobody has tried to trim his nails with a pocket knife for about 60 years, which is why you no longer run into guys with nicknames like "Three Fingers Kelly" or "Thumbless Joe Scaponella."

31: "You are unable to see wrinkles in clothes." WRONG WRONG WRONG. We just don’t OBSESS over them. We can put on a slightly wrinkly shirt because we know in a couple of days the wrinkles will mostly work themselves out.

There’s more, but that will have to do. I have done what I could to defend the honor of my sex. Read it, ladies, and LEARN.

(‘Flesh’ is now called ‘peach,’ by the way. Feh!!)



A LITTLE SOMETHING ABOUT DERBIES

 

Recently my friend Gerry Festa from Wisconsin called to say that he had a line on an absolutely fabulous interview, if I were interested. Gerry works for a small town paper out there and a fellow had been writing letters to the editor, suggesting that men start wearing derbies again. Letters? said I, because it seemed like the sort of issue that would be exhausted after the first letter. After the first 20 or 30 words of the first letter, in fact.

14 letters to date, said Gerry, and most of them actually published. You, said Gerry, meaning me, will really want to talk to this fellow. You will thank me, said Gerry. I didn’t think I would, but finally I gave Gerry permission to pass on my phone number to the gentleman who wants us all to start wearing derbies, and waited for Leonard Townsend Cooper to call. A couple of days later he did, and this is what we said.

ME: Well, Mr. Cooper, why do you think we should start wearing derbies?

LTC: I’ve written several letters to the editor about this. Haven’t you read them?

ME: No, I haven’t.

LTC: I don’t have time to waste on reporters who don’t want to do their job. [hangs up].

Most of the interviews I conduct work out like that, but they usually take an hour or more to do so. I was emotionally spent, but grateful. It had been a clean break, and I was able to get on with my life. Spring arrived, and with it, new phone books; I replaced my wiper blades, as recommended by the manufacturer; I flipped the page of my Shagg Party calendar and welcomed the month of May. And then the phone rang, shattering my bucolic existence. Leonard Townsend Cooper had re-entered my life.

"I spoke to Mr. Festa at the paper. I want to apologize. I didn’t realize you were from New Jersey."

I accepted his apology. I suspect that a lot of the people I meet want to say, "You’re from New Jersey? I’m sorry," but so few of them do. Now that we both knew what states we were in, I recommenced the interview. I didn’t want to, but it seemed the only polite thing to do.

ME: Back to the topic of derbies. Again I ask: Why derbies?

LTC: I like the way they look.

ME: Do you wear a derby yourself?

LTC: I... why do you want to know that? I mean, why would that be important?

ME: Uh. It just seemed a natural question.

LTC: Look, I don’t want this to be about me. Who cares what I wear? Nobody picks up PEOPLE magazine to see if Leonard Townsend Cooper is wearing a derby, or... I don’t know...

ME: ...Dating J. Lo...

LTC: That’s not what I was going to say.

ME: Okay.

LTC: Mr. Festa say’s you’re a busy man. I’m a busy man, too. Let’s stick to derbies.

ME: Okay. Uh. How successful has your campaign been so far? Have derbies made any sort of come back in Wisconsin?

LTC: No. And look, it can’t be a grass roots thing. You can’t make your own derby. That goes for hats in general—fedoras, pork pies, etc. What I’m trying to do is get retailers to stock derbies. I’m not the hat police. I just want people to have the option.

ME: Are you writing to hat manufacturers and retailers as well as newspapers?

LTC: I have spoken to people at the local WalMart.

ME: That would be quite a coup if you got WalMart on board with the derby thing. But I think of a derby as being a sort of dress hat. I don’t see it with a t-shirt and cut offs, for instance.

LTC: No. Of course I’m talking about wearing derbies with suits and jackets. Anything else is silly.

ME: Although... Well, didn’t what’s-his-name wear one?

LTC: Who?

ME: Stymie. Stymie wore one. But he was a little kid, so it was for comic effect, I guess. And didn’t Charlie Chaplin wear one?

LTC: I don’t know. I think it would be the right period.

ME: When were derbies popular?

LTC: I’m not really sure.

ME: Well, you just said Charlie Chaplin...

LTC: You brought him up. I don’t know. I said ‘I think.’

ME: The other thing I’m wondering is how are they worn? Do they sit on top of the head? That always looks kind of funny. But a big derby seems odd, somehow.

LTC: It’s like anything else. You don’t want it to be too big or too small.

ME: And this is only for men you’re talking about?

LTC: Yes.

ME: Although some women could probably get away with a derby. In fact... I’m picturing... Ahh, lost it. But I’ve definitely seen some woman in a derby. Oh, wait. "Cabaret."

LTC: I didn’t see that.

ME: I haven’t seen the whole thing, but I’ve seen bits and pieces while I’m channel surfing. You know, I don’t think I’ve eve seen anybody wearing a derby except in the movies.

LTC: Most people haven’t, unless they’re fairly old.

ME: Fairly? Like what, 110? I’ve seen PIANO PLAYERS wear them, in bawdy houses. In the movies, I mean. Hey, are they an Irish thing? Because doesn’t the Lucky Charms™ leprechaun wear one? You always see those green plastic derbies on St. Patrick’s Day.

LTC: I don’t think those are derbies.

ME: Why, because they’re green?

LTC: It’s a different style of hat, I’m sure.

ME: I’m sure it’s not. You always see like, Irish toughs wearing them in the movies.

LTC: I can’t think of...

ME: Did you see "Gangs of New York?"

LTC: No.

ME: Me neither. But I hear there’s a lot of Irish toughs in that, and I vaguely remember seeing clips of some of them wearing derbies. I have some friends who love that movie, and other ones who walked out. It’s one of those movies you either love it or you hate it.

LTC: People always say that about movies, but then I see those movies and I don’t love them OR hate them. I think, ‘not too bad,’ or ‘pretty good...’

ME: What movie did everybody else love or hate but you thought ‘not too bad?’

LTC: Uh. "Charade."

ME: With Audrey Hepburn?? Nobody hates that.

LTC: I didn’t say I hated it. I said, I thought it was a ‘not too bad.’

ME: But NOBODY ever said they hate it.

LTC: How do you know that NOBODY did? That’s a little presumptuous I think.

ME: I... okay. All right. Back to derbies. What’s the relationship between ‘derby’ the hat and ‘derby’ the race, as in Kentucky Derby?

LTC: I’m sure there isn’t one. They’re spelled differently, for one thing.

ME: No they aren’t.

LTC: I think if you look it up, derby the race is spelled with an ‘i.’

ME: The reason I even thought of it is I’m looking at the back page of the paper and it’s a big headline about the Kentucky Derby, D-E-R-B-Y.

LTC: Well, then I don’t know.

ME: Do you suppose the jockeys wore derbies at one time?

LTC: I don’t know.

ME: Of course they don’t any more. They have to wear helmets.

LTC: Yes. In the race itself, you mean.

ME: Yeah. Oh, I didn’t even think to wonder if they wore derbies off the track, like at the... is there some kind of big jockey party before the race, do you know?

LTC: I don’t know. I would think so.

ME: I wonder if they wear derbies there?

LTC: Possibly.

ME: It would explain... well, nothing at all, would it?

LTC: No.



IF THE SHOE FITS

Just over a year ago, I stopped by my Aunt’s house to drop off some birthday presents for a couple of seven-year-old girls who are somehow related to me—they’re my Aunt’s daughter’s daughters, which I think makes them either my second cousins or my first cousins once removed. Either way, I get "uncle" status as long as the presents cost at least 20 bucks. Their actual uncle, my cousin Low-Low, has been in relationship limbo vis-୶is the twins since their 5th birthday party, when he gave one a flashlight and the other a tube of liverwurst. For the next year he endlessly whined, "It’s spoze t’ be th’ thought that counts." Which was precisely the point.

As I chatted with my Aunt I heard a car door slam. My cousin Low-Low was sitting in the passenger seat of my car. "Aunt Jane," I said, "Have you put the winter boots away already?" She said she had, so I sighed and went out. Low-Low rolled down the window a crack. "I wanted t’ talk t’ you about somethin,’" he said.

"Roll it down all the way," I said. As he rolled, I untied my left shoe. When the window was down, I bounced my shoe off his head. I retrieved the shoe and was already tying the laces when he finally said, "Ow."

"Don’t be such a baby," I said, "It was a just a sneaker. Your mom put the boots away already."

The thing is, I wanted Low-Low to get out of my car, but I know from past experience that if I just said, "Low-Low, get out of the car, please," it wouldn’t work. Some people understand a polite but firm request, some people understand reasoned argument, and some people only understand shoes. Low-Low is one of the shoe people.

Low-Low rubbed the spot where I’d hit him with the shoe but he made no move to get out of the car. Now you may say, ‘If the shoe idea was correct, how come he was still sitting in the car after you hit him in the head with the shoe?’ And I would reply, ‘Maybe you should just shut up.’ I blame myself. I should have insisted that Aunt Jane dig out the boots, but sometimes I’m too easy going. I went with half measures and now I was paying the price. I got in the car.

"’Lo," said Low-Low, which made me wonder about his name. For decades I’d been under the impression that everyone called him ‘Low-Low’ because, as my Dad used to say, ‘he’s in low, low gear.’ Not surprising, since his other nickname is ‘Mister Five-By-Five,’ a pretty accurate description of his height-to-width ratio. Yet now that I was thinking about it, I’d called him ‘Low-Low’ since childhood, when he was at most Mister Three-By-One-And-A-Half. Had his nickname come about because of his propensity for dropping the first syllable of ‘Hello’ (among many other words)? Should I really be calling him ‘Lo-Lo?’

"How come you hit me with the shoe?"

"I TOLD you. Your mother put the boots away."

"Uhhh...."

"Look, I’d love to continue chatting, but I have to take off. Give me a call and we’ll do some catching up."

"A lot a times when I call you onna phone, you hang up on me."

"Well, I have Caller ID now, so that won’t happen."

"Oh. Wall, I’ll call you tonight."

I said that would be great. I managed to avoid his calls for the next year. My Aunt called at one point and said, "Low-Low is very hurt that you won’t answer the phone when he calls. And he says you deliberately..."

"Listen Aunt Jane, I don’t want to worry you, but Low-Low told me you hit him in the head with a shoe." (While I would never lie to my Aunt, I did stretch the truth a little here, as Low-Low had in fact never said any such thing).

"Why, that’s ridiculous! He told me YOU hit him in the head with a shoe!"

"Geez. He’s a mental case, Aunt Jane. Remember when he gave the twins liverwurst and flashlights or whatever it was?"

She remembered. Low-Low didn’t call for a long time after that—possibly he’d been put on some sort of medication—and I didn’t see him again until a week or so ago, when I ran into him at the shopping mall food court. "You tol’ my mother I was crazy," he said. "An’ you hit me with a shoe."

"Well, I’m willing to let bygones be bygones," I said.

"How’d you like to be hit inna head with a shoe? Huh?"

"Hey, take your best shot. Ten bucks says you’ll miss by ten feet at the minimum." Low-Low grunted and tried to wrestle one of his shoes off, but his girth didn’t permit him to get the leverage he needed. I made a few choice remarks to that effect. "Here," I said finally, and slipped off one of my sneakers. "Be my guest. The only stipulation is that you’ve got to be at least 12 feet away when you let it fly."

He got up and started walking away. I kept expecting him to turn around and throw it at me, but he didn’t. Then I realized he was going to leave with my shoe. "Hey!" I called. He stopped, looked around, and tossed the shoe. It went way up, and not even in my direction. He continued walking. I was laughing hysterically at his pathetic throw as my shoe dropped into the open salad bar, splattering two women and a burly security guard with cottage cheese. It didn’t take the security guard long to spot the only person in the food court with one missing shoe. "This looks bad," I said, "But I can explain it if you give me thirty seconds." Unfortunately he was pressed for time and couldn’t. I didn’t much like cottage cheese before and I like it considerably less now.

The way I see it, Low-Low owes me ten bucks, but he isn’t returning my calls.



DUMPSTER ENVY

 

Twice a week I emptied all the garbage generated at the Custom Neon Sign Shop into a large black garbage bag and put it out on the curb. One bag usually sufficed, because we didn’t generate much garbage, aside from fast food wrappers and empty cat food cans.

We bought 7 cans of cat food every week because there was a feral cat loose somewhere in the shop. We could go three weeks without seeing it, but every now and then it would scream and throw itself at Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ face, a blur of slashing claws and fangs. This happened more frequently if it were hungry—at least that was our theory—so we opened a can of cat food every day and left it under a table, and the next morning, it would be empty.

We didn’t make much of a mess working on neon signs because we very rarely worked on neon signs. "It’s been 3 weeks [or 5 weeks, or two and a half months...] since we got a commission," Mulberry Street Joey Clams would say, his tone betraying confusion, amazement, and pain—as if the reason for our lack of success were some sort of mystery. It was almost certainly a result of how lousy we were at making neon signs; they often did not work, for one thing. There were other problems with them, but that was probably enough to account for the permanent state of inactivity (aside from the occasional feline bonzai charge) at the Custom Neon Sign Shop. Although I frequently pointed this out to Mulberry Street Joey Clams, he did not accept it. "Nah, it’s that we don’t have a good SLOGAN." Or "If we let the customers have free coffee with some gourmet crap in it [e.g., milk], we’d have more work than we could handle." So we would correct the problem—we’d devise a slogan, buy a coffee pot, advertise in the local giveaway papers, put up a bullfight poster—and remain as unemployed as ever. Eventually he exhausted all the semi-plausible rationales for our failure, and I found myself standing in the alley behind Mulberry Street while Mulberry Street Joey Clams explained that the secret to success in the Custom Neon Sign business was Respect.

"And how do you GET respect?" he demanded.

"Uh, you earn it, Mulberry Street Joey Clams?"

"Key-rect! And how do you earn it?"

"Can we go back inside, Mulberry Street Joey Clams? It stinks back here."

"Key-rect again! And why does it stink?"

"Because of all the rotting garbage in these dumpsters."

"A THIRD key-rect! Now— put it all together!"

I couldn’t. Respect... stink... rotting garbage. Try as I might, I couldn’t get my brain to process this into a sentence that would make sense or satisfy Mulberry Street Joey Clams, let alone both. Disgusted at my slow-firing synapses, Mulberry Street Joey Clams dragged me back into the shop.

"Let me spell it out for you in three words: All these other businesses are successful and they all got dumpsters. People RESPECT that. If we had a DUMPSTER, we would have RESPECT! Don’t look at me like that. I told you before about that look."

"Why would people respect us if we had a dumpster, Mulberry Street Joey Clams?"

"Who can unnerstand the human heart? It’s not important WHY. The important thing is, they WOULD."

"Well... how would they know we had a dumpster?"

"How do they know those OTHER places have dumpsters?"

"Uh..."

"KEY-rect yet again! Who knows? And yet... they do. Otherwise, how do you explain that people patronize THOSE businesses, and yet pass us by?"

Before I could explain, the shop cat hurled itself at Mulberry Street Joey Clams and by the time the melee was over and I’d finished sticking half a roll of toilet paper to the various lacerations in his face, I lost the thread of the discussion.

One enormous advantage of the Dumpster Theory of Business Success: it would cost us nothing, since Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ uncle, who bankrolled the Custom Neon Sign Shop [on the condition that we kept the radio tuned to WNEW-AM when William B. Williams’ "Make Believe Ballroom" show was on] had, uh, connections in the waste disposal industry. In fact, he seemed touched that Mulberry Street Joey Clams wanted a dumpster.

"Now, this is not some crummy dumpster such as we would leave behind a non-Italian restaurant in Jersey or something. Note that it has two handles, one on each side; plus no dents; plus also a fresh paint job. Now, over here, to the front." He didn’t need to say anything about the front. The beautiful giant flower decal spoke for itself, as did the elaborately designed "Gladiola Waste Inc." logo below it. I could tell that Mulberry Street Joey Clams was proud and happy, although he didn’t dare smile since the little hunks of toilet paper would have popped off his cheeks and he’d have started bleeding again.

As it happened, the little hunks of toilet paper popped off anyway, shortly after we opened up the shop the next morning and Mulberry Street Joey Clams went out back to check on the dumpster. "Somebody threw GARBAGE in our dumpster!!" he cried.

"Well, that’s kind of par for the course," I said. "People throw garbage in dumpsters..."

"Not OUR dumpster," snarled Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He pulled on a pair of canvas gloves and ran back outside. Moments later he returned with the offending debris: a brown paper bag with an empty styrofoam coffee cup and some fragments of a bagel. "Here. Put this in the garbage bag. I’m gonna go hose out the dumpster."

"Well, this may sound stupid, but if I’m just going to put it in the garbage anyway, why not leave it in the dumpster? And why are you going to hose..."

"The dumpster is only free as long as we don’t let it get all crapped up," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Unca Danny’s gonna CHECK it every couple a days. Wadda ya think he meant when he said ‘Take good care a this dumpster?’"

"You mean we can’t even put our OWN garbage in the dumpster?"

"This is not a dumpster for GARBAGE. This is a dumpster for RESPECT!"

And so the dumpster indeed changed our lives in many ways. It seemed that whenever I was not applying toilet paper to Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ face, I was fishing wet cardboard or bags of rancid Chinese food out of the dumpster. We hosed it down at least three times a week and repainted the inside four times before the summer was over. Since it was the world’s cleanest dumpster we certainly should have had the respect of the entire neighborhood, but I have a feeling we didn’t.



EASTER ACHES

 

We’d started the afternoon at Calvano’s house, stretched out on the sun porch watching the portable black and white TV. The reception was terrible, but it didn’t matter because the movie—"Frankenstein Conquers the World"—was actually improved by bad reception. We were thrilled because it was a NEW movie, which had played at the local drive-in just last year. None of us had been able to see it there because none of our parents wanted to accompany us to see a really bad Japanese monster movie, even if it did star Nick Adams. Our parents were all fine people and would have happily given us the money to see it had it been playing indoors somewhere, but they were not about to blow an evening watching something this crappy. The crappiness was apparent even to us— but it didn’t matter. The heart of the Frankenstein monster is shipped out of Germany to Japan as the Third Reich collapses. Then in the ruins of Hiroshima, a starving little Japanese kid finds the heart and eats it and grows to be 60 feet tall, in addition to having a square Frankenstein-type head. "How come his pants grew too?" said Picarillo.

"It’s One-Size-Fits-All," said Calvano. Before Picarillo could ask another question and further disrupt the fog of aesthetic bliss that enveloped us, Calvano’s brother Duff appeared on the other side of the sunporch windows, dropping a bundle of magazines atop a garbage can. Duff’s taste in periodicals was unsurpassed. We waited until he had vanished down the block and raced outside to retrieve the treasure trove of discarded literature. But when we tried to bring it across the threshold of the Calvano home, Mrs. Calvano shrieked, "Out! Out! Don’t you DARE bring GARBAGE back into the house!" "Mom, it wasn’t in the garbage, it was just ON the garbage," said Calvano, but as far as his mother was concerned, one preposition was no better than the other. We didn’t even bother to shut off the TV, we just backed out the door and raced to Picarillo’s house, leaving Nick Adams to deal with the giant Japanese Frankenstein kid by himself.

It was, as always, a perfect mix of magazines: Dragcartoons, which was devoted to cartoons about drag racing (and often featuring the adventures of Wonder Wart Hog); ‘classy’ cheesecake venues, such as Swank and Cavalier (including an issue with Yvette Mimeaux on the cover!!); muscle magazines, which inspired us to think about firming up those delts and pecs even as we wolfed down bag after bag of Fritos; and an issue of The New Yorker, which made us think Duff possessed heretofore hidden depths, until we realized it had a Charles Addams cover. As we turned the pages, Picarillo’s mother called up the stairs: "Michael, I need you to go to the store and get some Easter Egg dye!" Calvano and I locked eyes. OUR mothers had never entrusted US with buying the Easter Egg dye. "Your friends can go with you," said Mrs. Picarillo, and handed me and Calvano each a shiny dime. Ten cents may not seem like much today, but back then it didn’t seem like much either. "They can be your LITTLE HELPERS."

Calvano and I muttered and grunted all the way to the A & P. The dimes were bad enough, but the real humiliating part was, we were Picarillo’s de facto side kicks for the duration of this chore. "This is awful," said Calvano. "How could this happen? It’s like this EVIL FAIRY touched us with a magic wand and said ‘You are now Picarillo’s LITTLE HELPERS.’" When he said ‘evil fairy,’ I pictured Farina from the Little Rascals, in a tutu. I don’t know why. I shuddered.

Picarillo checked out the varieties of Easter Egg dye while we seethed. "Hey, you know what? If you stick your finger in Easter Egg dye, your finger turns blue and it never ever turns back."

"What if it’s not blue dye?" asked Calvano.

"I dunno. My finger was in the blue dye when my mom told me about it."

"Is your finger blue?"

"I got it out JUST IN TIME," said Picarillo. Calvano bit the insides of his cheeks to keep from replying. He did that a lot. I sometimes wondered if, eventually, he would get so annoyed at Picarillo that he would gnaw away the entire inside of his head. We’d say "What’s up, Bob?" and he wouldn’t reply because he had EATEN HIS OWN BRAIN.

"I think I’ll get THIS one," said Picarillo. He held up a box. Calvano pointed out, with great relish, that the box was covered with duckies and bunnies, but Picarillo pointed out that all the boxes were covered with duckies and bunnies. He got on the check out line.

"Hey," said Calvano, examining the dye boxes, "these are really cheap! They’re only 89 cents! I thought they’d be... you know, like GROWN UP prices. We could buy these and..." A far away look came into his eyes. "Dye stuff that ISN’T EASTER EGGS." He reached into his pockets and counted his change. MORE than enough. (It would be sweet to report that Mrs. Picarillo’s dime put us over the top, but it wouldn’t be true). He got on a separate line. Picarillo, in Picarillo fashion, had gotten in the longest line behind a crazy lady buying about 1000 cans of cat food with an immense wad of expired coupons, so we were outside on top of the Salvation Army Clothing Dump for nearly 15 minutes before Picarillo finally emerged from the supermarket. By that time we had already decided upon several experiments. Experiments that Picarillo would not be allowed to participate in. HAH! We’d show him.

Calvano and I walked Picarillo home and then parted company with him. We retreated to Calvano’s house and began the Egg Experiments.

"There’s no time to hard boil the eggs," said Calvano, although actually there was plenty of time, "so we’ll freeze them." Of course freezing takes far longer than boiling, but we knew how to freeze stuff, while our understanding of ‘boiling’ was vague. It involved heat, and possibly water, but we weren’t sure about the proportions. In any case, we removed the eggs from the freezer as soon as the dyes were ready—about 12 minutes. The eggs hadn’t frozen solid but the shells were pretty cold—cold enough to blow apart like hand grenades when we dunked them into the dyes.. Then we attempted to dye a variety of objects, with mixed success. The liver-flavored Milkbone ™ dog biscuits took the dye very well, although the taste suffered.

The day after Easter we decided to share the fruits of our experimentation with Picarillo. Specifically we were going to let him try the white chocolate bunny we had dyed blue. It was a very pale blue, but still blue, at least if you put it next to something white. We were going to let him have some of the pretty blue chocolate, but only if he ate the ugly blue dog biscuit first. In this way, the Evil Fairy’s curse would be lifted and we would no longer be Picarillo’s Little Helpers.

We were about to knock on Picarillo’s kitchen door when we caught sight of him shambling up to his refrigerator and removing a large chocolate bunny. He bit the top off one ear, put the bunny on the counter, and poured nearly a quart of milk into the hollow rabbit. He swished this around and took a swig. He gnawed a little more off the ear and took another swig. Then, sated, he poured the remaining milk BACK into the milk carton and replaced the rabbit in the refrigerator. In its way it was as horrifying as the Japanese kid eating Frankenstein’s heart, although Picarillo did not grow 60 feet tall. We couldn’t bring ourselves to knock on the door. "We’ll come back when we’re sure he’s eaten the whole bunny," said Calvano.

But I’m still not sure. And sometimes I dream about Farina in a tutu, and I wake up screaming.



FROM OUR FAITHFUL READERS

The mailbox has been ringing off the hook recently. Social historians take note: this past year for the first time I have received more email than snail mail from my readers.

Danny R. of Doylestown wants to know how he can "get in on" those occasional diner symposiums I chronicle here, where half a dozen sharp-witted guys get together around a booth in a diner and argue about the greatest giant spider movie of all time until they throw us out of the diner. "I feel I would bring a lot to the occasion," writes Danny, "being especially well-versed in epidemiology [degree from Johns Hopkins] and doo-wop." I wrote back asking if he happened to be well-versed in picking up the check, which is an indispensable credential for getting invited to diners, but I have not heard back from him yet. Come on, Danny, we’re getting hungry.

L.L. of Pittstown wanted me to know that recent column about the Huge Monster Cheeto was my "worst column ever." Sorry, L.L., but aficionados generally agree that my worst column ever dates from 1988 and was entitled "Baby Chicks, Crutches, Help Cure the Rainy Day Blues."

Which makes a decent segue to a question from Joan O’Connor of Philipsburg, who wants to know if I title my own columns. Well, no. Titles are left up to the editor, and words get crammed into them or sliced out depending on whether the piece is stretched across the whole page or scrunched into two long columns. That’s why you’ll find your favorite syndicated columnists have the same piece under 5 different titles in 5 different papers. Note to the editor: Joan likes PITHY titles rather than ‘long lumpy ones.’

J.M. [who doesn’t wish to be identified further even though he lives in a Pennsylvania city with scores of J.M.s, if not hundreds of them] asks what my ethnic background is so that he can send in the correct insults. I have no idea, J.M., because I was raised by wolves. The she-wolf who taught me the Law of the Forest had a gray streak in her tail, if that’s any help.

B. McD. of Baptisttown wrote that she likes my Valentine’s Day columns and was disappointed that I didn’t do one this year. I wrote back enclosing a copy of "Ketchup Fails as a Valentine’s Gift," this year’s Valentine column. She replied that she’d seen it but meant that she likes my REGULAR Valentine’s Day columns.

While I appreciate it when my readers go to the trouble of putting pen to paper and paying 37 cents to get it to me, I must admit that a short note reading "Love your fidge" is a bit puzzling. It really does look like "fidge," although it might be "pidge." I don’t have a fidge OR a pidge, at least to the best of my knowledge. It might be "fridge," I suppose, but first of all even I don’t LOVE my fridge. It’s a perfectly good fridge, but it doesn’t make my heart skip a beat when I walk into the kitchen. Second of all, how would K.P. of Alexandria know what my fridge is like anyway? Or for that matter, my fidge?

Of course emails can be cryptic as well, and P.A.’s plaintive "What about the water table?" kind of stumped me. While all the words in it are English and it is even a coherent sentence, I really don’t know what to make of it. I approve of the water table, if that’s what you want to know.

I received 2 emails in "leetspeak," which is "spelled" 1337Sp3@l< and is short for "elite-speak." "Y d0^I+ j00 R1+ 4 I-I OL Ko1M N 1337 i+ i$ 834Utyf0L," asks... well, I’m not going to type out his name the way he wrote it. But in answer to his question, I’m not going to write a whole column in leetspeak because I’m not a LEET. I was raised by wolves and wolves think leetspeak is about as elite as writing [eyeball] [heart] U, without the charm. Sorry.

ACTUAL FAN MAIL: Janet Green of Brookline, Massachusetts picked up an issue of the DVN while passing through the area and sent me a nice note-- on a card with a picture of a kittens frolicking-- to the effect that I am much funnier than the columnist in HER local paper. Well, thank you, Janet. Although since you say that he is "always writing about sports," it’s possible that he’s a sports columnist and therefore not required to provide the sort of laugh-a-minute entertainment that is my m鴩er.

From Alan Runfeldt of Frenchtown comes this heartening note, apropos of my column ‘The Game Is a Foot’: "Finally, after years of poring through your always wacky, occasionally deathly-boring column, I found one today that just forces me to send my kudos to you for a clever, clever twist on a strange tale... Perhaps this is why I've read your column nearly every week for the past (up to 8) years. At times, it's been great, at times, it was a struggle. But I kept going back to it, week after week, in hopes that this day would finally come. It has..." Well, we aim to please. At least once every eight years or so.

Note quite as easy to please: Jerry G. of Montclair, who writes, "I have a suggestion. How about something funny every so often, just for a change of pace?" Hey, Jerry, what am I, a machine? Alan says I just nailed it a couple of months back. Keep your eyes on the this space and you’ll get your ‘something funny.’ By 2011 at the latest, I promise.



RALLY ROUND THE FLAGPOLE!

 

I’m sorry if this week’s column seems a little perfunctory but it was unavoidable. I was reading various news stories online a few days ago, looking for something to riff on. It had to be kind of wacky, but not so wacky that late night comics were already mining it for material. I found this great story on Yahoo! News about a guy arrested for insider trading who was trying to get off by claiming he was a time traveler from the year 2256. A couple of days went by and nobody was writing about it, I couldn’t find any jokes people were doing on it. I couldn’t believe my luck. I roughed out the column, came up with some really dynamite jokes-- I mean, I don’t like to blow my own horn, but I was IN THE ZONE.

So when the time came to do my final draft, I banged it out in about 40 minutes. I couldn’t hit a wrong note:

He says he’s from the future [I wrote]. So how come he knew these stocks were going to go up but he didn’t know he was going to get arrested for insider trading? What’s up with THAT?

The whole thing was like that, I swear. I was hitting on all cylinders.

And then I did one more search to make sure the story wasn’t the focus of, for instance, Dave Barry’s column this week. And then I checked the financial news to see if there were any late breaking developments I could add-- putting, of course, my own hilarious spin on them.

No late breaking developments. No references to it AT ALL. Hmm.

So I went back to Yahoo! and reread the article and when I got all the way to the bottom I found that the source was not AP or UPI but WWN-- the World Weekly News.

That pretty much killed my column, since the WWN... how can I put this without sounding like a snob? -- makes up their news.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. There is never a slow news week at the WWN, since they’re always free to report that SENATOR’S WIFE PREGNANT WITH BIG FOOT’S BABY or whatever. But obviously I can’t riff on how nuts it is that this insider trader is claiming to be from the future, since he doesn’t exist. Or at least I can’t do it without violating a copyright and getting into a lot of trouble.

I’m not saying that I blame either Yahoo! (which labeled the story ‘entertainment,’ although I missed that the first time around) or the World Weekly News for screwing up my column. In fact, if I were the sort of person who blamed himself, I would blame myself. Fortunately, I am not.

I just want to say this to whoever IS responsible for this debacle: you may have the upper hand right now, but sooner or later you’re going to slip up. And when you do, I’ll be there. And I hope I’m in my car when you do, because I’ll have a tire iron. Anyway, I think that bar holding down my spare tire in the trunk is a tire iron. Even if it’s not, it’s a metal bar, and I’ll have it if I happen to be in my car when you slip up.

ATTEMPTED COLUMN NUMBER TWO

Anyway, in the course of looking for column fodder, I accidentally stumbled across actual news from time to time. In the course of reading about the Supreme Court hearing arguments on Lawrence v. Texas, I found the following:


"[Justice Anton] Scalia sarcastically posited a hypothetical in which laws in many states against "flagpole-sitting" are repealed. "Does that make flagpole-sitting a constitutional right?"

It is not clear from the article-- and I was unable to determine by press time-- just how hypothetical this hypothetical question is. By which I mean: ARE there laws in many states against flagpole sitting? Flagpole sitting was a national fad about 80 years ago. Some people sat on flagpoles for months at a time. I have no idea why. In order to engage in flagpole sitting, all you need to do is locate a flagpole and then sit on it, so it’s not like you have to train for it. I can’t find a record of anyone falling off a flagpole while engaged in flagpole sitting. Still, it probably made a lot of, you know, NORMAL people nervous, so it’s possible that some states really did enact legislation that banned it despite the lack of casualties. On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago, three people died trying to retrieve a cell phone from a latrine in Kenya, and there’s no law against THAT.

I was also unable to determine exactly what the answer to Scalia’s hypothetical question was. If a bunch of states repealed their flagpole-sitting bans, would flagpole-sitting be a constitutional right or not?

To find out the answer, I called three friends of mine who were either lawyers or might have been lawyers since I had no idea what they did for a living. The one definite lawyer wasn’t home and neither was one of the other ones, and the one who was home hung up on me when I told him what I wanted. So the constitutional issues are still unresolved as of this writing.

In my opinion as a layman, if there are laws banning flagpole-sitting, we should do whatever we can to get them repealed. At least then we would find out if flagpole-sitting was a constitutional right or not. And it would probably illuminate the constitutional status of other stupid defunct fads as well.

You may be saying to yourselves, "Well, I don’t sit on flagpole sitting and neither does anybody else, so who cares if it’s constitutionally protected or not?" This is the wrong attitude. It’s not just about flagpole sitting. As a famous person once said (more or less): "They came for the flagpole-sitters and I did not protest, because I am not a flagpole-sitter. Next they came for the streakers, and I did not protest, because I am not a streaker. Then they came for the guys who cram themselves into telephone booths, and I did not protest, because I am not a guy who crams himself into telephone booths. Then they came for me, and there was nobody left to protest. Well, there were still the people who bought pet rocks, and the toga partiers, and the goldfish swallowers, but these lists get really boring after the first three items."



LAND OF SEVERAL DANCES

 

The first couple of 6th grade dances had not turned out well for Picarillo. At both gala occasions, he had been the designated icebreaker. There we were, boys skulking against one wall of the gym, girls gossiping and laughing at us against the other. And then Picarillo, blushing so furiously it seemed impossible there was enough blood below his neck to keep his heart pumping, the crossed the vast expanse and asked some horrified 12 year old female to dance with him.

At the first dance, perhaps moved by pity, the young lady had agreed. They began to dance to "Happy Together" by The Turtles. Strictly speaking this (great record) isn’t much of a dance tune, so I suppose Picarillo isn’t entirely to blame for his showing on the dance floor. "He dances like he’s got three legs," said Calvano. "And one of them is too long, and there’s no knee." "Happy Together" only lasts for about 3 minutes, but I have had four-hour waits at the DMV that didn’t last as long as those 3 minutes. When the Turtles finally faded out to the "Shhhhh CHHK!! Shhhhh CHHK!" of the phonograph needle reaching the end of the record, there was dead silence and Picarillo came back to the boys’ side, and the mortified girl (I remember her name, but decency prevents me from revealing it here) went back to the girls’ side, and no one took the floor as "Crimson and Clover" began playing. Picarillo not broken the ice, he had just deposited another 10 inches of snow on the glacier.

Picarillo was the first man across the gym at the next dance as well. This time no member of the fair sex chose to join him on dance floor. He asked three or four girls before giving up and returning to our wall. We all stood against our own walls, staring at each other, as though we were about to erupt in a boys-against-the-girls game of bombardment. "Picarillo," said Calvano, "that was pretty rude. There were a lot of girls you didn’t ask to dance. Now their feelings are hurt."

Picarillo gasped. "You think I should go back and ask the rest of them??"

"Absolutely," said Calvano. "Unless you want it on your conscience that HALF THE GIRLS IN THE SIXTH GRADE CRIED THEMSELVES TO SLEEP TONIGHT." Picarillo gallantly dashed back to the scene of his recent humiliation and managed, against seemingly impossible odds, to deepen it by several orders of magnitude.

It’s hard to imagine that Picarillo went home and actually told his parents what happened, but somehow his mother found out. Possibly his little sister heard about it in lunchroom and passed it on. In any case, Mrs. Picarillo decided the problem was that Picarillo didn’t know how to dance. Her solution:

"My mom is teaching me all the latest dances," Picarillo announced at our lunch table.

I had just taken a sip of Yoo Hoo, and Picarillo’s nine magic words rerouted it through my nostrils. I was a little embarrassed until I glanced over at Calvano, and found that the spell worked on liverwurst sandwiches, too.

Well. As it happened, we were living at the moment when "all the latest dances" had more or less ceased to exist. We were 5 years past the last gasp of The Twist; the Mashed Potato (a favorite of my sister, who is six years my senior) and all of the other dances named in "Land of a Thousand Dances" (if you listen to the lyrics, it should really be called "Land of Maybe Seven or Eight Dances, Tops") had been pass頦or quite a while, without having been replaced by anything else. Oh, there was The Frug, but that was pretty much restricted to "Laugh-In." I don’t recall ever seeing anyone do it in real life.

What we did at the school dances-- once Picarillo’s debacles were over, and time began to flow again-- was move more or less rhythmically, more or less in time to the music. This isn’t really something that can be taught, especially to someone with an invisible, unjointed third leg, especially by his mother.

She didn’t try. I was going to write "fortunately, she didn’t try," but there was nothing fortunate about it. Mrs. Picarillo would have none of this ‘rhythmically moving’ nonsense, but Picarillo would not give us any more details than that.

The dance lessons were closed to the public, so I fear I can’t give you any more information about the process that turned Picarillo from the walking disaster of those first two dances into the figure who dazzled us at the third dance.

A girl actually agreed to dance with him. Pity? Bribery? Insanity? We shall never know for sure.

The needle dropped on "Daydream Believer" by the Monkees. A terrible look crossed Picarillo’s face-- he’d never danced to THIS SONG before! The girl blinked at him, gave him a shy, encouraging smile, and began to move rhythmically in time to the music. Picarillo pulled himself together and began to dance. It was stunning. As was his singing.

He was not singing along with The Monkees. He was singing:

"You put your RIGHT FOOT in-- you put your RIGHT FOOT out-- you put your RIGHT FOOT in-- and you SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT..."

No one could believe it. And then, just when we were certain that things couldn’t get better, The Monkees ended before the Hokey Pokey, and Picarillo continued gamely on, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of the white noise from the record player. I don’t know what happened to his partner-- whether she had stopped earlier and fled, or been abducted by a flying saucer, I have no idea. I couldn’t take my eyes off Picarillo. When he finally stopped, that was it. It was the end of dancing as we know it. Nobody in America danced again for 12 years.

Fact.



I WIN THE SONG POEM CONTEST!!

 

One evening in 1979 I was watching the First Annual Disco Awards (which, alas, also happened to be the Last Annual Disco Awards), and while I have forgotten most of the awards, presenters, nominees, and winners, I will never forget the moment when the prestigious "Disco Life-Style Award" was announced. The winner was the late Sammy Davis Jr., and as he accepted the DL-SA, he shook his head in disbelief and said, "You know, man... you cats are too much. I have won... a LOT of awards... in my time... but THIS... [shakes his head again] ...is SOMETHING ELSE."

Never did I suspect that someday... a mere 24 years later... I would experience those same emotions that gripped Sammy. But last week I was awakened by a phone call from Jodi Epstein of Independent Television Services and informed that I was the winner of the ITVS/PBS SONG-POEM CONTEST for my song-poem "Rubber Martian Song."

You’re probably wondering: How did I do it? Where did I get my inspiration? What is a song-poem? What am I talking about? What did I do with the remote?

Well, the remote is in the bathroom. I was trying to turn up the volume from in there so I could shave and listen to The Simpsons at the same time but it didn’t work. A song poem is...

I wrote a column about song-poems about two years ago. As my favorite author said then:

"If you've spent as much time as I have scrutinizing the ads in the back of comic books, you've come across advertisements that say "WANTED: YOUR POEMS" and invite you to send in your lyrics for a 'free appraisal.' If you do, you'll get a letter back telling you that your stuff has real hit potential, and for around 200 bucks, a demo with the full studio treatment will be made and distributed. This ‘industry' thrived for decades, and needless to say not one of these potential hit songs (hundreds of thousands? millions?) came within a mile of hitting a radio station playlist, but the songs actually were set to music and recorded though distribution was pretty much limited to the folks who paid for the full studio treatment."

And yes, the average song-poem is every bit as bad as you probably suspect. After all, these things are called ‘song-poems’ because the companies believe, as American Song Poem Archive founder Phil Milstein put it, "...their typical customer is too dumb to grasp the meaning of the simple English word ‘lyric.’"

But if the average song-poem is trite and forgettable, the UN-average song-poem is weird in ways that PROFESSIONAL weirdos seldom approach. It’s a uniquely American weirdness, too, which may be why President Bush declared February 11th 2003 "American Song-Poem Day." To coincide with the official festivities, a compilation of 28 really amazing song-poems was released for public consumption, and a song-poem documentary, "Off the Charts," premiered on PBS.

This is where I come in.

I didn’t watch the documentary because I wasn’t home when it was on and I accidentally microwaved my VCR instructions, but I did visit the website, where I learned there was... a SONG POEM CONTEST. The winning song-poem would be set to music and recorded by an ACTUAL SONG POEM COMPANY. In fact, this would be done by Art Kaufman, who has been doing this for 25 years and whose r鳵m頩ncludes the music for such song poems as "Non-Violent Taekwondo Troopers," and "Masakay Demoken." (I’m pretty sure there should be some "SIC"s in there, but once you start inserting "SIC"s into song-poem titles, there’s just no end to it).

I don’t generally enter contests but an opportunity like this was just too good to pass up. So I set out to write a song-poem. At first I thought about writing about those sneakers you always see tied together and hanging over power lines. But once I had the first lines ("We’ll probably never find out why / People take a couple of old sneakers and tie / The laces together and, bolo-like, chuck / Them over the power lines where they dangle, forever stuck") I realized I had said pretty much all I had to say on the subject. In the end, I went into my trunk and dug out a brief lyric I’d written a few years ago about those little rubber Martian toys that you squeeze and the ears pop out. And, to make a short story even shorter, I won! As thrilled as I was, I was even more impressed with myself when I learned that there had been OTHER contestants. Possibly several. But in the end, "Rubber Martian Song" took top honors, and as I type, an actual CD-R with the * ahem * full studio treatment is winging its way to me.

But enough about me. How can YOU enjoy my song poem?

Well, as a matter of fact, you probably can’t. I haven’t heard it yet, but even Art Kaufman can only do so much with lyrics like "Rubber eyes on rubber stalks / Filled with rubber scented air /Eyes that dance like Fred & Ginger / (Fred the Martian-- not Astaire)."

But you can listen to it if you go to THIS PLACE. (Note to the ladies: there’s a PICTURE of me there, too!)

I hope this will inspire future generations of song-poets. And not just song-poets, either, but untalented people of EVERY stripe.

It just goes to show, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish, as long as it’s pretty easy to do and it’s okay if it stinks.



ASK THE ANKLE WEIGHT EXPERT GUY

DEAR ANKLE WEIGHT EXPERT GUY:

I began using ankle weights about 18 months ago and now I always wear them while engaged in my daily 5 mile run. I wear 2.5-pound ankle weights, and I’m more than ready to move up to something heavier. I was going to purchase a pair of 5 pound weights, but I wanted to get some input from you first. Does it make sense to wear ONE set of heavier weights, or should I wear MULTIPLE sets of light weights? What are the pros and cons?

(signed)

In a tizzy

DEAR IN:

This is one of the great quandaries of ankle weight training—go with one BIG pair of ankle weights, or with several LITTLE pairs? Let’s look at some numbers. A pair of 250-pound ankle weights of good but not deluxe quality will cost something in the neighborhood of $360. 125 pairs of 2-pound weights, each retailing for $10 (and we’re really talking the low end of the spectrum here, believe me—you can spend $25 or $30 on even PRETTY GOOD 2-pound ankle weights) will cost you $1250. So if money is your main concern, the single pair of 250 pounders is definitely the way to go. AND, with 125 pairs of ankle weights, you are going to have them all the way up and down your legs, two and three deep—and you KNOW at some point you’re going to lose count and end up with 123 on one leg and 128 on the other, which means at the end of your run, you’ll be totally unbalanced. If it remains uncorrected, over time one leg could be this big muscley tree trunk of a leg, while the other one would end up scrawny and flaccid and not even be thick enough to keep your socks up. One solution: As soon as you buy a pair of ankle weights, paint one blue (or another color). Then put all the blue ones on one leg and the non-blue ones on the other. But you have to do this with EVERY SINGLE PAIR or it’s pointless. That said, there is one big advantage to running with 125 pairs of ankle weights: As you tire, you can discard them, a pair at a time, and remain fresh. And if you’re running through a dark forest or something and get lost, you can follow the trail of ankle weights back home.

Well, wait a minute. You could only do that if you started removing them the second you got out the door. If you started removing them when you were already in the middle of this forest, you’d end up lost in the middle of the forest with 125 pairs of ankle weights.

*

  • DEAR ANKLE WEIGHT EXPERT GUY:

    If you wear an ankle weight some place besides your ankle, is it still an ankle weight?

    (signed)

    Don’t want to upset the apple cart

  • DEAR DON’T:

    Yes. It’s still an ankle weight when you take it off and put it in the drawer, isn’t it? You don’t get ready for a work out and say, "Guess I’ll put on my drawer weights now," do you?

    *

    DEAR ANKLE WEIGHT EXPERT GUY:

    I like to go out running with my dogs, and I’m wondering if I should get ankle weights for them, too, so they can enjoy the benefits of ankle weight training.

    (signed)

    DOG LOVER

    DEAR DOG:

    No. No, you should not.

    *

    CELEBRITY ANKLE WEIGHT SPOTTERS SPOTLIGHT!! Ask the Ankle Weight Expert Guy reader MITCH FARNESI writes in to say: "Last week I was watching Seinfeld and it was the episode where George gets in trouble for not wiping down the health club equipment after using it. In the back ground of one of the medium shots at the club, if you look BETWEEN George and Jerry, there is a guy wearing ankle weights (they look like 5 pounders to me)."

    *

    DEAR ANKLE WEIGHT EXPERT GUY:

    I know this is a little off topic, but I was wondering if you could put me in touch with the Egyptology Expert Guy? But only if he’s really a chick? Which I’m 90% sure is the case, since I get a real chick vibe from "his" column. I would write directly but do not want to look like a nut case or a stalker, especially if it turns out I’m wrong about the chick aspect of this thing. Thank you.

    (signed)

    Mike

    DEAR MIKE:

    All we Expert Guys are instructed to keep our identities secret and refrain from ‘fraternizing’ with our readers, so I’m afraid I must refuse your request. But I suppose there is no harm in telling you that the Egyptology Expert Guy is indeed a female. In fact, she is the Chief Executive Expert Guy’s Girl Friend. She looks exactly like a young Ernest Borgnine, only with hairier forearms. And she has this big mole with a hair sticking out of it just over her right eye, too.

    *

    DEAR ANKLE WEIGHT EXPERT GUY:

    I have ankle weights with pictures of ducks on them?

    (signed)

    Has ankle weights with pictures of ducks on them

    DEAR HAS:

    Although your letter ends with a question mark, it isn’t really a question? So I’m not going to answer? But thank you for writing?

    *

    DEAR ANKLE WEIGHT EXPERT GUY:

    I have two ideas for variable weight ankle weights. Number one is ankle weights made up entirely of dried fruit strips, which you would peel off like Kleenexes and eat as you ran,. thus reducing the weight of the ankle weight and also restoring much needed body things which are contained in fruit. Number two is ankle weights which are basically regular ankle weights only you remove the sand and fill them up with fruit juice (in the amount of weight which was previously the sand) and then as you run you could sip out the juice via very long straws, this thus reducing the weight of the ankle weight and also restoring much needed body things which are contained in fruit juice. The only thing I am worried about, what if someone else has already thought of this? Do you know, has anyone else thought of this? This is the only thing I am worried about. Which idea is better, number one or number two? Also, in the juice one, if you wanted to lighten the weights without ingesting the juice, you could open a plug at the bottom of the weight and release the desired amount of fluid.

    (signed)

    Inventor

    DEAR INVENTOR:

    To the best of my knowledge, you are the first person to have proposed this design. In my opinion, both of your ideas are number two. Thanks for writing.

    *

    DEAR ANKLE WEIGHT EXPERT GUY:

    Is there any advantage to wearing ankle weights to bed? I’m wondering if it might be like sleep learning, where you play a record of, say, Spanish grammar and then wake up knowing Spanish grammar. Only this would be more involving muscle tone and ankles, in the sense that you would wake up in the morning and your ankle muscles would be more toned.

    (signed)

    The future belongs to me

    DEAR THE:

    In the first place, the purpose of wearing ankle weights is not to tone your ankles. In the second place, they only function if your legs are moving, which they generally aren’t when you’re sleeping. Thanks for writing.



    A CHEETO FOR MILFORD

     

    About 6 months ago I realized that, when I answered the phone, there was a brief moment of silence when the caller happened to be a telmarketer. It wasn’t just a pause before speaking-- it was a total, complete silence, as if I’d picked up a dead phone. Then suddenly my ear would fill with the unmistakable ambiance of a roomful of telemarketers. It’s hard to describe, but it’s instantly recognizable-- a sonic background of nearly infinite unctuous voices and soft electronic switching and buzzing. It is to the sense of sound what a whiff of an overflowing septic tank is to the sense of smell: a stimulus that makes every cell in your body want to tuck its head under its armpit and scream, "Lemme outta here!" And while my cells were doing that, a voice in my earpiece would say, "How are you today, Mr. Greenstraw?"

    At this point, I like most civilized people, I would reply, "Aaggaawaauughh abbbuuukka Ffoooggaa!!" Sometimes this cuts the sales pitch short, and sometimes not. There are telemarketers who can improvise brilliantly when they aren’t fed the correct line, and others who blandly continue reciting the play as written, and still others who simply freeze up and stare out at the audience. My all purpose response is to count to 15 in silence and then gently replace the phone in the cradle. But the thing is, my cells have all been screaming and trying to cram their heads under their armpits for around 30 seconds now, and they don’t have heads or armpits. It’s frustrating for them, and the human body has thousands, perhaps zillions of cells. That’s a lot of frustration, and frankly, I don’t want to deal with it.

    So that PAUSE is a godsend. I’m told that what’s happening is a computer is dialing several phone numbers simultaneously and the telemarketer gets plugged into whichever one happens to answer first. This takes a couple of nanoseconds-- not long, but long enough to allow you to hang up the phone, or to already be screaming, "Aaggaawaauughh abbbuuukka Ffoooggaa!!" when the telemarketer comes on.

    Occasionally I have mistaken a normal HUMAN pause for the computer-generated pause and have found myself screaming, "Aaggaawaauughh abbbuuukka Ffoooggaa!!" to confused friends and relatives. Nothing to be done at that point, I’m afraid, except yell it a couple more times and hang up. Then when they call back and say, "What the hell was THAT all about?" I just deny everything. "No, I didn’t just answer the phone and scream incoherently. This is the first time the phone’s rung all day. You must have gotten a wrong number. I can’t imagine why anyone would scream incoherently at you, though. Maybe they thought you were a telemarketer..."

    Well, that portion of this week’s column was brought to you as a public service and I want to get it over with quickly so I can talk about something that’s been on my mind all week: The Huge Monster Cheeto. Some guy in Hawaii opened a bag of Cheetos and got this big ugly deformed one. It happens to all of us, and most of us shrug it off and eat it. Maybe if it’s a SUPER big ugly deformed one, we call it to the attention of somebody as far away as the kitchen before eating it. If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime jaw-dropping monster Cheeto, and we’ve had one beer too many, we might even call somebody to brag about it or perhaps take a picture.

    But this guy auctioned it off on eBay. And it sold. A radio station in Iowa bought the Huge Monster Cheeto, and now THEY’RE auctioning it off.

    Meanwhile, the original Huge Monster Cheeto guy-- who hasn’t sent the Cheeto out to Iowa yet-- is now auctioning DIGITAL IMAGES of the Huge Monster Cheeto, minimum bid $4.95 as I type this. This seems excessive for a picture of even a Huge Monster Cheeto, frankly.

    But that’s not important. What is important is, MILFORD MUST GET THE CHEETO. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad tidings, but ever since they removed the Vend-O-Bait machine from the gas station, this town has been dead, dead, dead. It used to be that if it was 3 AM and you needed some bait, why, you could wander over to the gas station, fish a few quarters out of you pants, and ka-CHING-- you’d have it. And everybody knew it, for miles around. But now? You go out on Bridge Street at 3 AM and you might as well be in a Ghost Town.

    Well, the Vend-O-Bait machine is gone, and let’s face it, it’s not coming back. But just imagine if the Huge Monster Cheeto was here in Milford. For one thing, at the town limits, we could have a big sign that says, "Welcome to Milford, HOME OF THE HUGE MONSTER CHEETO." For another thing... well, nobody else could have a sign like that.

    I trust everyone remembers that five years ago the actual rubber Godzilla suit that was worn in the Japanese Godzilla movies was UP FOR SALE and I urged my fellow townspeople to float a bond and buy it. I even offered to wear it and walk around in it. My advice was ignored and the proposal was not even voted on. Result: No Godzilla suit in Milford.

    My friends, are we going to allow this to happen again? The Huge Monster Cheeto is out there. It is our destiny. But only if we act now. Don’t let Milford be Godzilla-suitless AND Huge Monster Cheetoless. The time is NOW!!



    WELCOME BACK, HANK!

     

    Hank, the manager of the Park Theater, had a nervous breakdown in late 1973, and went on an extended leave of absence (in fact it extends to the present day, and will extend indefinitely into the future, since the Park Theater burned down on July 14th 1974). Chuck, the assistant manager, was faced with the problem of what to do with Hank’s goldfish.

    The goldfish is a notoriously low maintenance pet. It is so low maintenance that a lot of people don’t think of it as a pet at all, but as a sort of organic interior decoration, like a very lo-tech lava lamp. You sprinkle some fish food in the tank from time to time, and that’s really all there is to it.

    Or perhaps that really ISN’T all there is to it-- because the goldfish is also a notoriously short-lived pet; feed them a little too often, let the water get a little too foul, allow the slightest bit of ice to form in the fish bowl, and ZORP-- the goldfish goes into a diva-like snit and drops dead. Incidentally, I did not mean to type ‘zorp’ back there, I meant to type ‘zip,’ but now that it’s there, what the heck.

    If Hank had left on a two-week vacation, or had gone into the hospital for a broken bone, or had left for any reason except a nervous breakdown, no one would have much cared about the ultimate fate of the fish. I’m sure Chuck would have done his best to care for it, but if he had come into work and found it floating belly up, he would have flushed the dear departed away, rinsed out the fish bowl, and given Hank the bad news upon his return, secure in the belief that Hank would shrug and buy a new goldfish, or shrug and not buy a new goldfish.

    But Hank’s precarious mental state worried Chuck. What if Hank returned, found the fish gone, and... you know, FLIPPED OUT AGAIN? So Chuck took extra special care of the fish, and of course that was that; the fish didn’t stand a chance and dropped dead in two days. Rumor had it that Chuck placed the fish bowl on a still-pretty-warm hot plate while cleaning the spot on the file cabinet where the bowl was displayed, and when he turned back the fish was ready-to-serve. However, I started that rumor, and it’s probably not true.

    I was the head usher. Chuck called me in for an emergency damage control meeting. "We could go to a pet store and buy an identical goldfish," Chuck said.

    "That would be exactly the way to go if this were The Lucy Show," I said. "But this is sort of real life."

    "Uuuhh. Okay. I think we should write a series of letters to Hank, and in each one we could mention the fish isn’t feeling too good. Gradually we could imply it was really sick. Then after about 12 letters we could say it looked really REALLY sick. Then he wouldn’t be too shocked when we told him it died, around letter 15."

    I agreed that it was a great idea. So Chuck set to work on the first letter. Meanwhile the fish bowl was put away in the storage closet, and after a couple of months it became more or less apparent that Hank would not be returning to work. The Park Theater ran smoothly, but goldfish-less.

    Then one afternoon when I was in the office refilling the water cooler, the cashier strolled in. She told Chuck that Hank had just called the box office to say he was going to stop in and catch the 7 PM show and say hi.

    "Geez, that’s great. How did he sound?"

    "He sounded fine," she said.

    "Well, it’ll be good to see him," said Chuck.

    "Did he ask about the fish?" I asked. Chuck sort of froze up.

    "I completely forgot about that fish," he said.

    "You’d better hide the hot plate," I suggested.

    "That story is total garbage! The stupid fish just died!"

    "Me thinks someone doth protesteth too mucheth," said the cashier.

    "Hey, I believe you, Chuck," I said unctuously. "Didn’t you ever send him those letters about the fish being sick and all?"

    "It was really tough. I’m still working on the first letter," Chuck admitted. "The only thing I really want to say is, the fish is looking a little under the weather. And that was supposed to be a PS. But you gotta have the REST of the letter before the PS. It’s just so hard to avoid talking about the fish... "

    "Well, he probably won’t remember it anyway. Unless the smell of the cooked fish is still clinging to the drapes and reminds him... I mean, we’re probably so used to it we don’t even notice it anymore..."

    "We’ll DISTRACT him," said Chuck. "He won’t get near the office because we’ll have a, uh... CAKE. Yeah! That bakery down the block makes those cakes he really likes, with the white frosting and the raspberry filling? We could get them to write ‘Welcome Back Hank,’ or something."

    "Great idea," I said. "I’ll take a few bucks out of petty cash and take care of it." Chuck gave me a ‘way-to-go’ shoulder punch, and I was off. I ordered the cake, returned to the theater to clean up after the matinee, and then picked the cake up just before the bakery closed for the day. Things were getting a little hectic as we prepared for the evening shows. I put the cake box in the cooler behind the candy counter.

    Hank arrived, looking fit and happy, in an incredibly ugly leisure suit. "Hank!" cried Chuck. All the candy girls kissed Hank on the cheek and Chuck brought out paper plates and plastic forks. The cake box was retrieved from the cooler.

    "I don’t believe you guys," said Hank. Chuck opened the box with a flourish and revealed the cake, with its heartwarming message:

    HANK--

    SORRY ABOUT THE FISH

    (signed)

    CHUCK

    Hank was a little puzzled, but suffered no relapse. On the other hand, the vein in Chuck’s forehead swelled to the thickness of a fire hose and he turned the color of plums.

    As we sampled the cake, Chuck snarled, "I said I wanted ‘Welcome Home Hank,’"

    "You said, ‘...or something,’" I said.

    "I think it’s nice that you’re apologizing about boiling the fish," said one of the candy girls. "It’s the first time you’ve even ADMITTED it."



    MASTER OF FENG SHUI!

     

    The other day I noticed a guy in a sort of TOUGH GUY sweatshirt eyeing me at the grocery store. He didn’t say anything, but I had just placed the last bag of 99-cent salt-and-vinegar potato chips in my cart, and it was obvious that he wasn’t happy about it. I’ve been writing this column for years, and after a while you just get a feel for what people are thinking. Clearly HE was thinking about following me into the parking lot, whacking me in the head with a tire iron and then stuffing me into the trunk.

    Oh sure, I would probably be able to signal somebody at a gas station by tapping out a message in Morse code or something and then there would be this high speed chase and the cops would take him out and then I’d sell the movie rights and then Bruce Willis would play me, and then after dazzling the network suits with my poise during talk show appearances, I’d get my OWN talk show. All well and good, but the fact is I’m basically a private sort of person; unlike SOME humor columnists I could name, I don’t crave the media spotlight.

    So I put the salt-and-vinegar chips back and got these nacho things instead. They weren’t exactly what I wanted, but they were okay.

    Well, actually, they weren’t. They were pretty lousy if you want to know the truth. I wouldn’t have even finished the bag except I kept telling myself, "Well, at least I’m not in the TRUNK trying to remember Morse code." I decided right then and there that it was time to get TOUGH. Time to learn to stand up for myself. Time to be BORN AGAIN HARD. Time, in short, to STOP TYPING IN ALL CAPS and become... a Master of Martial Arts.

    So I thumbed through the fliers at the local community center to see what sort of martial arts classes were offered. Nothing wrong with karate or kung fu, but you have to buy these pajama things to wear, and you’re supposed to sign up for a minimum of 12 classes.

    I chose the ancient and deadly art of Feng Shui. For one thing, I had never heard of it and I am always trying to broaden my horizons. For another, it was really cheap. When I asked the guy at the desk with the ponytail if I needed non-chukkas or anything, gave me this kind of raised-eyebrow look and said no, feng-shui wasn’t ABOUT that.

    I like to acquaint myself with a subject before I begin taking formal classes. So I went to the video rental place and looked for some feng shui flicks in the Martial Arts section, but there weren’t any. I must confess that my heart began to beat a little faster. Could it be that NO ONE had corners the feng shui action market, at least in the US? I went home and called my friend Chuck, who is heavily into Hong Kong action movies and asked him about it. "As, uh, far as I * snort * know, there are no feng shui action movies, Jeff. Not even in Hong Kong."

    Even though, as noted above, I have no desire to step into the media spotlight, it seemed to me there was an ecological niche that needed to be filled in the action movie eco-system, and I might be just the guy to fill it. I mean, I have an extensive back ground in film and television-- I’ve seen a LOT of movies. And while it wasn’t going to happen over night, I was maybe six weeks away from being a master of feng shui and having the rock-hard abs that must go with it. Once I had a few classes under my belt, feng shui movie plots would probably begin popping into my head unbidden. I would need a hip young sidekick. Maybe L L Cool J, somebody like that. He’d help supply... well, I was going to say "Street Cred," but frankly, I’ve got that to burn. Anyhow, we’d probably have great screen chemistry. He would say stuff like, "My MAN [meaning me] is gonna unload a can of FENG-SHUI on your sorry butts!" Critics would be saying I was a young Jackie Chan. Well, actually I’m older than Jackie Chan, in certain ways (such as chronologically), but still. The studio would probably insist on a friendly ‘rivalry’ between Jackie and me. Though of course our respect for each other would be obvious. His work ethic is incredible. I mean it. Even though he’s basically an entertainer and I’m a master of feng shui, I wouldn’t condescend to him.

    Speaking of which, I wondered how to pronounce it. I was hoping it was "Feng SHOE," because then in the movies I could say "Feng Shui very much," like Elvis. Maybe it would be a catch phrase. I made a mental note not to wear it into the ground.

    Unfortunately, I learned about 8 seconds into the first class that it was pronounced "fung shoy." The teacher was a nice enough guy, but he went into this long stupid digression about harmony and balance and the yin and yang and blah blah blah. He went on for about 10 minutes without ever mentioning exactly how this feng shui allowed us to KICK SOME SERIOUS BUTT, as my side kick L L Cool J would put it.

    But finally he said something that got me to stop drawing werewolf faces in the margins of my notebook. "Have you ever walked into a house or an office, and things just didn’t feel right? You couldn’t put your finger on it, but you were just very very uncomfortable?"

    We all nodded.

    "You were INTUITIVELY noticing the place had BAD FENG SHUI," said the teacher.

    So ‘Feng Shui’ was apparently a lot like Spiderman’s ‘Spidey Sense.’ So far, so good. But then he lost the thread again and started talking about yin and yang and yadda yadda yadda. I figured this was an attempt to provoke the class, to get one of us to attack him in frustration, and then he would apply the feng shui and send the attacker right through the wall. But no one rose to the bait, so I figured I’d better get the class back on track.

    "Are we going to be doing a lot of ab work in this class?" I asked.

    "Uh... no. No, we are not. Any other questions?"

    A girl in the back said, "If your house has a lot of stagnant chi, because, let’s say, it’s L shaped, is there anything you can do about it?"

    I thought he was going to lose it for sure, but he restrained himself (probably because it was a girl) and said, "An L-shaped house is very unbalanced. You can plant bushes to balance it, and I would also suggest getting an aquarium-- the bubbling water can stir up stagnant chi. You’d be surprised."

    I wasn’t following all this ‘chi’ stuff, (my guess is "chi" = bad guys, "stagnant chi" = bad guys just hanging around) but I think I did get the general drift, which was: Use EVERYTHING AS A WEAPON. If you’re attacked, and all you have is an aquarium, hit ‘em with an aquarium. And if you don’t have an aquarium-- GET one. Because you never know when you’ll have to lay somebody out with it. I’m pretty psyched for next week’s lesson.

    Maybe in the first movie we do, L L Cool J and I could have a fight scene set in a PET STORE.



    A Vague Sense of Disquiet

     

    I had a feeling that I had forgotten something. I slapped my pocket to make sure I had my keys. Yes. I checked the bathroom and the stovetop to make sure I had put out fresh Roach Motels this morning. I had, although from the look of things the one on the stovetop would be hanging out the ‘No Vacancy’ sign shortly. I checked that I had set my clockradio to go off (loudly) at 4:45 PM-- exactly two hours after my next door neighbor, who worked odd hours, went to bed. It seemed that everything was koposetic, a word that always made me think, for some reason, of mouthwash. I left.

    The feeling of disquiet did not evaporate in the crisp February air, but I pushed it to the back of my mind, where it briefly dislodged long-dormant thoughts about Russ Meyer movies, pasta shaped like little radiators, a cow brain in a jar of formaldehyde that a boyhood chum bought at a yard sale over a decade ago and then kept on his night stand for 6 years. With all this to consider as I strolled up Avenue A towards the deli where I was planning to have lunch, it is no wonder that I missed all the pink and red signs festooned with hearts that would have alerted me to the fact that it was Valentine’s Day.

    I brushed past an urchin crying, "Buy a buncha flowers for yuh sweetie?" and stopped at the Used Book & Magazine Exchange. I thumbed through the boxes of paperbacks, looking for covers with pictures of floating eyeballs or bloody meat cleavers or both. As always, I found several. And then, among the magazines, I found a copy of "Swank" with Shari Eubank on the cover! Shari Eubank, the star of Russ Meyer’s immortal ‘Super Vixens!’ And I had just been thinking about Russ Meyer movies moments earlier! Even though I never bought * cough * THOSE kinds of magazines, surely this was a sign that Providence wanted me to have THIS one. I thanked Providence, purchased my meat-cleaver-and-eyeball books and the "Swank," and continued obliviously on past half a dozen florists and chocolate shops to the deli.

    I regret to admit I did not yet have the self confidence and poise to read-- if "read" is the word I want-- a Sherrie Eubank pictorial while eating a tuna salad platter in public. So I slid my bag of literature under the table and kept my mind-- if "mind" is the word I want-- occupied with the day’s NY POST. Which had a pink and red banner over the headline saying, "TODAY-- SPECIAL VALENTINE’S DAY PULLOUT SECTION!" In fact, I removed this very section and discarded it while I checked the movie times, since I was an hour or so away from picking up my girlfriend (who lived just up the block from the deli) and taking her to a matinee. An old guy in a hat with big furry ear flaps sat down across from me, ostentatiously set down his shopping bag, and tried to engage me in conversation between bites of his pastrami sandwich. "You might as well take some of these babies," he said, grabbing several packets of ketchup from the container on the table. "They figure the cost of it into your bill, so if you don’t walk out with at least 10, and some sugars too, you’re not getting what you pay for. You gonna eat that pickle?"

    "No," I said, taking a bite of it. I refused to make eye contact and kept my eyes on the tuna salad platter as much as humanly possible.

    "Some of the nuts they put in chocolate is actually beans," he said. "Fact." This reference to chocolate was the last clue I would receive that it was Valentine’s Day before meeting my girl friend. Moments later I stepped out of the deli and saw her kicking the snow off her boots on the stoop of her building. She looked up and waved.

    "Wow," she said, "I have to admit, I thought you were going to forget it was Valentine’s Day again."

    "--" I said. I blinked several times. She was smiling-- maybe ‘beaming’ would describe it better-- and looking at my bag.

    "Flowers would have been nice, I admit. But I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Whatever it is, I’ll love it. I hope it’s not TOO MUCH chocolate..."

    "Not... too much..."

    She grabbed the bag playfully away from me and looked inside. She stared at me. "What the hell is all this KETCHUP??"

    I took the bag back. The old guy had dropped several dozen packets of ketchup into my bag while I was engrossed in my tuna salad platter. I was utterly dumbfounded. And must have looked it.

    "My God-- did you pick up the wrong bag?"

    "YES!! Yes, I must have grabbed the wrong bag!!"

    "You’re a moron," she said.

    "YES! I’m a moron!! Oh, I’m so sorry. I got you a, uh, box of chocolate, uh, things-- gosh, I feel so, so stupid--"

    "Well, you should. But at least you..."

    At which point a shambling figure in a hat with big furry earflaps lurched up beside me and said, "Hey bub-- I give you some of them KETCHUPS. You wasn’t takin’ any. And I was just takin’ a peek at this and you took off ‘fore I could put it back in your bag." He handed me the "Swank" with Shari Eubank on the cover.

    The rest of the afternoon is a little hazy. It’s not one of those sweet nostalgic hazes, either. It’s more like a ‘I don’t remember much after she hit me in the head with a garbage can, officer’ kind of haze.

    Although I do remember thinking, some hours later, ‘At least I won’t have to buy any ketchup for a while...’



    Turtle Art

     

    In theory, we were in the Calvano kitchen to help ourselves to some more of Mrs. Calvano’s scrumptious holiday mix, which consisted of various pretzel sticks, nuts, and breakfast cereal squares, all mixed up, seasoned and baked together. The cereals were all members of what Picarillo called the "plaid" family (Rice Chex, Wheat Chex, etc.)-- okay in a pinch if you added a couple of pounds of sugar to the cereal bowl, but not something you’d actually want to eat. And while we liked pretzel sticks and nuts, the seasoning had imparted some sort of grown-up flavor that ruined everything. So we were actually dumping our plates into the garbage, and rooting around in the refrigerator for something to cleanse our palates, such as black cherry soda. Calvano turned on the faucets to cover the sound of our dumping, rooting and cleansing.

    "Do you have the water on?" called Mrs. Calvano.

    "Yes’m," said Calvano. "We’re WASHING THE PLATES."

    That was the moment when Picarillo, who spent most of his waking hours with his eyes on the ground in search of dropped nickels and slow moving crawfish, noticed the loose linoleum tile near the kitchen waste basket and brought it to our attention. One of the corners had lifted a fraction of an inch, revealing the plywood beneath.

    Calvano squatted and lifted the corner further. Nearly a third of the tile was free; Calvano could slip all four fingers beneath the filthy, flexible linoleum square with the sprightly floral pattern. "Not a word of this to ANYONE," he hissed. "We’ll come back later and chop some of the plywood out, and then we’ll HIDE something here. In case of an EMERGENCY."

    "Like what?" whispered Picarillo.

    "Like... a spare set of monster fangs. Or that really cool rubber spider we got in the gum machine at Two Guys."

    "The one where the rubber is BLACK AND RED, kind of swirled together?"

    "Yeah." We nodded. We could hide the cool black and red rubber spider in a hidden compartment under the tile, glue it back down and no one would ever suspect a thing. We strolled nonchalantly back into the living room, Secret Masters of the Universe.

    "Boy, you just missed it," said Mr. Calvano. "There was a story on the news about this chimp, they let it slop some paint around on a piece of canvas, and then they showed the canvas at some gallery and didn’t tell anybody it was done by a monkey. And some bozo bought it for $1200! And the CRITICS loved it, of course."

    "What was it a picture of?" said Picarillo.

    "Nothing," said Mr. Calvano. "It was ABSTRACT."

    "Huh?"

    "It’s another word for stomach," Calvano explained.

    "Say, Mr. Calvano," said Picarillo, "do you have some kind of tool for chopping a secret compartment in the plywood under a loose tile?"

    "HOW MUCH did the monkey picture sell for?" cried Calvano.

    "$1200," said Mr. Calvano.

    "And it looked just like the other pictures in the gallery," Mrs. Calvano said. "Just blobs of paint all over."

    "I always said a monkey could do it," said Mr. Calvano, in the unmistakable tone of a man who knows he can now fill a pause in any conversation for the next 15 years with ‘say, I saw where this MONKEY painted a picture and...’

    After a polite pause filled with interesting observations on modern art, we adjourned to Calvano’s room. "The secret compartment can wait. This monkey art thing is too big. $1200! And it was just blobs of paint. Can you imagine what it would have gone for if it was a PICTURE of something?"

    "Like a dinosaur," suggested Picarillo. "Or... TWO dinosaurs fighting. And one is like biting the other one on the back of the neck. And then the one getting bit claws the first one in the stomach. And then this TRICEROTOPS comes charging out of the bushes--"

    "Triceratopses are murder to draw," I said, "and we’re talking about a monkey, you know."

    "Well, I think any kind of animal is okay, as long as it’s smart enough to learn how to draw," said Calvano.

    "Rabs is pretty smart," said Picarillo.

    "Picarillo, in the first place, your dog’s name is RAGS, not RABS. Nobody is named Rabs. In the second place... Nah. Forget it. I’m not going to waste another place on you."

    "We should use some kind of little animal," I said. "Like a gerbil? We could like, DIP it in one color paint, and then kind of roll it around, until we got all the red parts done. Then we rinse him off and dip him in another color. Until it’s all done."

    "We could dip Rabs in paint."

    "Picarillo, the rest of this conversation is open to non-morons only. Look, we can’t just roll the gerbil around. Because then the gerbil isn’t painting, we’re just using the gerbil as a brush."

    "We could outline the picture in gerbil food crumbs and then the gerbil-- let’s say he’s all blue this time-- would follow the trail around the paper, until the picture is done."

    "I like it," said Calvano. "We come up with the IDEA, but the gerbil does all the work. Like when the Pope tells Charleton Heston what he wants on the ceiling."

    "Exactly!" I said. "Who’s got a gerbil?"

    "I think that stumpy little kid Richie on Park Lane has one, or else a hamster."

    "The one with the glasses? Okay, we’ll check with him tomorrow after school. We’ll offer him part of the profits."

    The next afternoon Richie listened to our proposition impassively. "I will not let you borrow my gerbil," he announced at last. "A, you’d never get the fur clean, and B, he’d never follow your trail of crumbs the way you expect. And there are-- this would be ‘C’ -- hygiene issues you can’t imagine. But I have a solution." He directed us to a small glass tank in a corner of his room. "In the spirit of inquiry, I will lend you one of these miniature turtles. Rather than the trail of crumbs, I would suggest that you moisten his feet on an ink pad and then place him on the paper, and let him walk about, and see if the results are such that you wish to continue with more complex designs. Perhaps involving multiple amphibians."

    We accepted the tiny turtle and rushed to Calvano’s room. After inking the turtle feet, we set him down on a piece of oak tag paper. The turtle stood there for several moments, then withdrew his head and feet into his shell.

    "This could take a while," said Calvano.

    We returned the turtle to Richie the next day; he was as unimpressed as we had been with his turtle’s drawing: a white field with four extremely faint blue dots slightly to the left of center. We decided to get to work on making the secret compartment under the loose linoleum tile, but Calvano’s father had apparently noticed the raised corner and glued the whole thing down securely. It was a week of bitter disappointments.



    Uncle Tug's Refrigerator

    It was morning, and I slowly emerged from a dream about having very cold feet. Many elements of the dream, such as my space helmet and my trusty sidekick Bullwinkle J. Moose, had evaporated, but my very cold feet had followed me into my waking life. I’d have preferred the space helmet, which had some pretty neat rubber gaskets and an antenna that doubled as a (fully functional!) helicopter blade. There was ice on my bedroom window. I had a full bladder, but there was nothing I could do about it unless I was willing to get out of bed and risk my very cold feet getting even colder on the bathroom tiles. I could probably generate some heat by rubbing my feet together, but this would make the bladder situation even worse. There was no solution that did not involve enormous hardship and sacrifice. Through my fog of pain and frostbite, I dimly perceived the sounds of the house-- the furnace kicking in at regular intervals, the barely audible radio in the breakfast nook (William B. Williams’ "Make Believe Ballroom" on WNEW AM-- so I knew it must be after 10 AM), the phone ringing, and inscrutable fragments of conversation slipping through the pauses in the big band music.

    "Hey, Sleeping Beauty," said my father, suddenly looming over me. "Your presence is urgently requested at La Casa de Tug."

    "Huh?"

    "Your Uncle Tug’s house. He needs another set of hands. He’s cleaning out the refrigerator."

    "He doesn’t need another set of hands," I said. "I’m not moving."

    My father yanked the covers off the bed, balled them up and carried them out of the room. "Suit yourself," he said. My pajama-clad body was exposed to the frigid 70-degree air of my bedroom. He might as well have dumped a bucket of ice water on me. I staggered shivering to the bathroom and, after biding a fond but extended farewell to the 12 or so cans of Dr Pepper I had invited on a tour of my digestive tract the previous evening, I got dressed.

    Normally I would not have hesitated to visit Uncle Tug’s place; even serving as an "extra" pair of hands-- the pair on the ends of his wrists being engaged in turning the pages of the Racing Form-- was a lot of fun. Sometimes I was asked to help clean up after a party, and I was not only allowed to keep anything edible, but I got a percentage of all the money under the sofa cushions, and once 15 dollars from a wallet that had turned up in the fish tank. "This is not stealing," he’d explained. "He coulda beaned one of the fish. To you or me it’s a wallet but to a fish it’s like getting hit in the head with a, uh... real big wallet. The 15 bucks is what you earned as a FISH RESCUE GUY, and he’s lucky I don’t give you the other 30 bucks." He put Mr. Lucky’s other 30 bucks in his pocket.

    But this day I would not be cleaning up after a party. Once a year, Tug cleaned his refrigerator. He always chose an incredibly cold day because he felt that the best way to ensure that none of the GOOD food went bad during the cleaning process was to keep the ambient temperature of the kitchen low, and the best way to do this was to keep the kitchen door open. Knowing this, I entered his house that way. The doors leading from the kitchen to the rest of the house had been shut, of course, and when I banged on them, Tug called, "Go around to the front! I don’t wanna let any cold air into the WARM!"

    I went back out and reentered through the front door. Tug was keeping the temperature in the living room a balmy 99 degrees. "This is the most comfortable temperature for humans," he explained, mopping the sweat off his forehead. "It’s the temperature of HUMAN SKIN. Anyway, everything that’s no good goes in the big garbage bag on the kitchen table. How’s your honker?" he asked, tweaking my nose.

    "Good, I guess."

    "That’s too bad, because some of this isn’t gonna be exactly pleasant." This was some years before all perishables carried expiration dates. Unless they had actually begun sprouting mushrooms, I wouldn’t be able to tell whether any given item had gone "a trifle gamy" without smelling it. The intense cold in the kitchen would mitigate the stink a little, but not much.

    "Now, if your parents ask why I couldn’t do all the heavy lifting..."

    "All??"

    "Don’t get wise, it don’t become you. Anyway, tell them I was wearing this." Tug brandished a bizarre looking thing that looked like a cross between a harness and a double-barreled slingshot.

    "What is it?"

    "It’s called a truss," he said, tossing it onto the ottoman.

    "But you’re not wearing it."

    "You have passed the eye exam. Now onto the refrigerator." I went back out and reentered the kitchen. One bottle of milk smelled okay, the other one did not, and the contents were green and not especially fluid. There was an unmarked container of Chinese food-- no, wait, there was a date scrawled on the side in grease pencil-- "7/12." July. But maybe Chinese food stayed good for 8 months. Better open it and see.

    Nope.

    There was half a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. It looked okay. I sniffed the sandwich and suddenly a burst of day-glo color pinwheeled through my field of vision as several million brain cells instantly vaporized. I dropped the sandwich into the garbage bag.

    Uncle Tug was just a few feet away, on the other side of the door, but he was in a totally different environment. You could grow orchids in that living room, the tropical fish were probably boiling in the tank-- while I had frost forming on my eyebrows. In many respects, my situation was much as it had been three hours earlier: my feet were freezing, a furnace was chugging away in the distance, and from time to time the phone rang and a few random syllables would leak through-- "...and what’s the spread on Green Bay... Lemme have 25 on the Colts..." But when I’d been in bed, I did not have my head in a carton of rancid egg foo yung, so in that respect at least, my situation had altered. Eventually the garbage bag contained everything that had been in the fridge except for that one bottle of milk, and a jar of pickles. As I tied up the garbage I noticed a small unmarked paper bag on the kitchen table. I unfolded the top and sniffed. A little pungent, but could be worse. I considered untying the garbage and tossing in the little bag, decided against it, put it in the refrigerator. It was probably good.

    "Mission accomplished," I reported to Tug. He nodded, barely looking up from the phone. He had sweat off about 7 pounds since I’d last seen him 20 minutes earlier. I went home.

    "Your Uncle just called," my father greeted me. "He was wondering-- and I admit to a little curiosity myself-- why you put the vacuum cleaner bag in the refrigerator."

    I blinked a few times. It didn’t help.

    "I didn’t want it to go bad," I said.

    He nodded, and we left it at that.



    ASK THE PATCHES ON THE JACKET ELBOWS EXPERT GUY

     

    DEAR PATCHES ON THE JACKET ELBOWS EXPERT GUY:

    I have to admit I do not get the whole ‘patches-on-the-jacket-elbows’ thing. I know it’s supposed to look really classy, but when I see patches on the knees of someone’s pants, I don’t think, ‘hey, classy,’ I think, ‘must be a hole in the knee of that pant leg.’ I bet everybody else thinks that, too. So why do people think patches on the elbows look classy, rather than ‘time for that guy to buy another jacket?’

    (signed)

    Nothing personal, I just wonder about it

    DEAR NOTHING:

    Style—for the ‘patches-on-the-jacket-elbows THING,’ as you call it, is not about fashion, which is trivial and ephemeral, but about style, which is eternal—is not integral calculus. We can not remove our slide rule from its cunning leather sheath and PROVE that something is or is not an aesthetic delight. It is within our power only to bring the delightful object to your attention, and record our own impressions of it, and hope that we have persuaded you to open yourself up to the charms of said object. After that you are on your own, and either the two of us are SIMPATICO or we must agree to disagree, and turn the discussion to more fruitful matters. Thanks for writing.

    *

    DEAR PATCHES ON THE JACKET ELBOWS EXPERT GUY:

    I followed your advice about getting a jacket with patches on the elbows and I am really glad I did because this week it has been one cold mother, and without those patches my elbows would have been mega cold. They were mega cold anyhow, but I mean without the patches they would have been mega MEGA cold. And another good way to keep warm is to wear two pairs of underpants at the same time.

    (signed)

    Totally glad I bought the jacket

    DEAR TOTALLY:

    Although warmth is not the purpose of patches on the jacket elbows, we can not help but be delighted that they provided whatever comfort they did.

    *

    DEAR PATCHES ON THE JACKET ELBOWS EXPERT GUY:

    I really like your column and would like one of those jackets that you are always writing about with the elbow things, but the stores here do not have them, or if they do they are in the back or something. Would it be okay if I added the patches myself to already existing jackets? I have some pretty crappy ones that it wouldn’t hurt much. I was figuring what I would do is glue a couple of DUST MASKS to the elbows, but first I would cut off the rubber bands and tear off the metal thingee you squeeze around your nose so it fits good. And I would color them brown, using some coloring stuff.

    (signed)

    Really wants one of those jackets but can’t find one around here

    DEAR REALLY:

    While we sympathize with your yearning for a jacket with patches on the elbows, we must advise against the course of action you propose. The only materials suitable for patches are leather and (for our vegan friends) felt. More to the point, a jacket is designed to receive elbow patches from the moment of conception, or it is not. We suspect you would be mutilating what is perhaps a charming garment already, and ruining a pair of safety devices which might preserve your life at some future date, or at the least provide some relief in a dust-filled environment.

    *

    DEAR PATCHES ON THE JACKET ELBOWS EXPERT GUY:

    I have a pretty intense idea for the next phase in elbow patches. You’ve got this jacket with patches, and then you make ANOTHER pair of patches, only a little bit smaller, and you glue those over the first pair. Then you make ANOTHER pair which is a little bit smaller, and so on and so on until you’ve got like 8 or 10 concentrically smaller patches on each elbow. I have enclosed a drawing showing how this would work. [See figure 1] Obedience School for Sharks cartoon My next question is, can I copyright this idea, and if so, does it cost a lot of money? I also have some ideas about beatniks.

    (signed)

    21st century elbow patch designer

    DEAR 21ST

    You can not copyright clothing designs. Possibly you can patent them. Since you did not ask for an opinion about your idea, it would be presumptuous of me to volunteer one. Best of luck.

    *

    DEAR PATCHES ON THE JACKET ELBOWS EXPERT GUY:

    I saw a talk show and William Shatner was wearing a jacket with elbow patches. Please explain.

    (signed)

    Giving serious thought to not ever wearing a jacket with elbow patches ever again

    DEAR GIVING:

    Calm yourself. We have obtained a tape of the program in question, and it is our considered opinion that Mr. Shatner is not wearing a jacket with elbow patches. Television’s ever-resourceful "Captain Kirk" was using his jacket elbows as a convenient place to store his spare toupees in the event of an emergency. There is no need to make a wardrobe change at this time.

    *

    DEAR PATCHES ON THE JACKET ELBOWS EXPERT GUY:

    I was attending a cocktail party recently-- wearing a jacket with elbow patches, it goes without saying-- and after some time had passed it was brought to my attention that someone had drawn ‘smile faces’ on my elbow patches. From the distinctive style, I suspect it was my 11-year-old daughter. Should I have these faces removed, or so you think there’s a chance that I have perhaps set off a new style, and at the next cocktail party, all the elbow patches will display various decorations?

    (signed)

    Awaiting your counsel

    DEAR AWAITING:

    There is no chance whatsoever that you have set off a new style-- or rather a fad (see the question from Nothing Personal above) and you should get the happy face removed from your elbow patches as soon as possible, although if you have waited this long we are not optimistic about the chances for a complete recovery. If, at the next party you attend, it DOES turn out that every elbow patch is sporting pictures of Sponge Bob Squarepants, "Keep on Truckin’" signs, NASCAR logos, etc., it means that you are living in a very bad sitcom and it’s not unlikely that your upstairs neighbor is Jerry Van Dyke. Either way, get that jacket to the dry cleaners.



    WINTER BREAK REPORT

    EMMA: I can’t believe you actually WANT to interview me for your column this week.

    ME: Well, I thought--

    EMMA: I bet you thought, ‘gee, it’s two hours to deadline and I haven’t written anything because I keep going in the other room to watch "VH1 So You Think You Know The Eighties."

    ME: Uh--

    EMMA: Well, fire away.

    ME: Well, uh, you’re about midway through your winter break. How have you--

    EMMA: God that’s lame. Wait, I’ll turn up the TV for you. They’re up to 1987.

    ME: Thank you. How has the winter break been going?

    EMMA: I don’t do anything. It’s glorious.

    ME: Aren’t you supposed to be reading something? For school?

    EMMA: No. But I’m reading a book Laura told me to read. She told me SHE read it but she didn’t read it. She SKIMMED it. She admitted it at the Poops concert.

    ME: We’ll return to the Poop’s concert shortly. What was this book?

    EMMA: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Which is a Magic Mountain of crap as far as I’m concerned.

    ME: How far did you get?

    EMMA: 500 something pages.

    ME: I guess if you got that far you must have liked something about--

    EMMA: No.

    ME: Well, why did you keep going?

    EMMA: Because I can’t--

    EMMA’S FRIEND: Because she’s not a quitter. Once she starts reading something she keeps going. She’s like RAIN MAN.

    ME: Before we get to the Poops concert, is there anything else you’d like to say vis-୶is the Magic--

    EMMA: No.

    ME: Nothing at all?

    EMMA: You want me to talk about part where the witch eats the baby but I won’t.

    ME: Fine. Anyway, it’s just a VISION of a witch eating a baby. Let’s get to your party.

    EMMA: It was 2nd annual Poops concert. It wasn’t really a party.

    ME: But it was in your room. How many people were there?

    EMMA: There were about 30 people, counting the Poops. They brought about 10 people with them, so somebody would applaud. They had to. They were really terrible. They were really terrible last year too, but we figured this year they would be better because it’s a year later. But they were still really terrible.

    ME: Are you sure you want me to put that in the column? Because they might read it and not want to do the THIRD annual Poops concert in your room. And their feelings might be hurt.

    EMMA AND FRIEND:[uproarious laughter lasting about three minutes]

    ME: Well, they might be more sensitive than--

    FRIEND: We’re laughing at the idea of the Poops READING.

    ME: Where did you first encounter the Poops?

    EMMA: I am SICK TO DEATH of talking about the Poops. We saw them at the talent contest in May. The lead singer was really skeletal. He weighs like 95 pounds.

    FRIEND: He had no shirt on and he was going like this [pantomimes guy with no shirt on doing this MOVE]. Then we would grab the mike and yell "SALT WATER TAFFY!"

    EMMA: No-- "PIRATES eat salt water taffy." Or "LIKE to eat."

    FRIEND: And there was some RAMPANT cowbell on stage...

    EMMA: Then their last song was like they said, "This is an oldie but goodie." It was just noise. They smashed all their instruments. They beat the drums with the sledgehammer.

    ME: At the talent show or in your room?

    EMMA: In my room.

    ME: Did they bring their own sledgehammer?

    EMMA: Yes. And the one guy tried to steal my Arnold Schwartzenegger poster.

    FRIEND: I stopped him.

    EMMA: He probably doesn’t even LIKE Arnold. He probably wanted to deface it. Tell him what happened in the mall yesterday,

    FRIEND: I was in line to Auntie Anne’s, to get a pretzel. You know how there’s piercing pagodas and things in the middle of the mall? Well, they had this carousel up? There was this ENTIRE FAMILY with this little girl in a kind of poofy dress....

    EMMA: A pinafore.

    FRIEND: NOT a pinafore, but LIKE a pinafore.

    ME: How old was she?

    FRIEND: Four?

    ME: And she was getting a PIERCING??

    FRIEND: Yes. But that’s not the POINT. There was a CAROUSEL.

    ME: But--

    EMMA: Dad! Look at the TV! It’s ALF!

    ME: Uh...

    EMMA: Oooh! And Val Kilmer!

    FRIEND: Well, anyway, THE WHOLE FAMILY gets on the carousel. They make a big pile of all their STUFF, and they get this STRANGER to watch it! The mother puts her WALLET on the top. Then the grandmother puts her CANE on the pile--

    ME: The grandmother got on the carousel?

    EMMA: Yes. And when they got off, the grandmother is like HOBBLING towards the pile, but the grand daughter gets there first and she THROWS the cane to the grandmother.

    FRIEND: And she goes like [pantomimes an old lady dodging a cane]. And the mother says--

    EMMA: Let ME say it!! She says, "We don’t throw canes at grandma!" Then I was talking on the phone and this guy with no teeth...

    FRIEND: No, I was talking on the phone. And he had TWO teeth.

    EMMA: Oh, right. He started talking to me... hey, do you have enough yet?

    ME: Yes.



    THE GAME IS A FOOT

    When a cult run by an ex-bicyclist who changed his name following an encounter with space aliens claims to have successfully cloned a human being, it’s just too much of a good thing. My job is done before I even sit down at the word processor. I spent a few minutes mentally casting the movie-- when I got my first look at Clonaid CEO Brigitte Boisselier’s hair, my first thought was "Divine, thou shouldst be living at this hour," --and then, not without regret, decided to look elsewhere for inspiration this week.

    It arrived, as so many inspiring things do, via email. But this email did not say either ‘REFINANCE NOW AT THE LOWEST RATES IN YEARS’ or ‘NOW AT LAST-- ONE PILL FOR BOTH INCREASED SIZE AND STAMINA!!’ It was a news dispatch from Reuters:

    "Staff at a laundry washing hospital linen found a human foot, a Swedish newspaper said on Friday. The foot, with painted toenails, was found on December 10 at a commercial laundry in Eskilstuna, west of Stockholm, which washed linen from several hospitals, Eskilstuna-Kuriren said on its Web site. A local police officer told the newspaper police were waiting for a medical report on the foot and how it had been separated from the leg before deciding whether to open a criminal investigation."

    I don’t want to tell the Swedish police force how to do its job, but it seems to me that while they’re waiting for that medical report to come in, they might want to call up some of those hospitals and see if they’re looking for any feet. Because odds are, either it’s a foot somebody at the hospital cut off, on account of there was something wrong with it, or it’s a foot they were planning to sew back ON. If it’s the former I guess it’s no big deal and I would imagine the laundry could keep the foot if they want. If the latter, SOMEBODY’S in big trouble. There must have been a tense moment in the operating room when the Swedish doctor said, "Ookey, ve-a’re-a ell reedy. Bork bork bork! Sumebudy let me-a hefe-a thet fuut. Um de hur de hur de hur."

    There’s also the possibility that more than one hospital is missing a foot, but since the toenails on this one are painted, the cops can simply ask each one to describe the toenails on its missing foot. Years ago people tended to either go natural or some shade of red, but these days pretty much anything goes-- my yoga instructor had little FLOWERS on her toenails one week, and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura favors a cunning art-deco look on his. So the actual owner of the foot should be easy to establish.

    Or perhaps not. The news report does not say that this is a SEVERED foot we’re talking about, only that it’s a foot. True, medical tests are underway to discover how the foot was separated from the leg, which implies that it used to be attached to a leg. But in my experience, there are a limited number of ways a foot can be so separated. (1) CUT, by a sharp object. In which case there are cut marks, so no medical tests are needed. (2) BIT, as by a monster. In this case, there are bite marks, so again no tests are necessary, unless they are trying to determine the exact type of monster. But it’s a little late in the day to be concerned about THAT, at least as far as the guy who used to be attached to the foot is concerned. (3) PARTIALLY DISSOLVED by Jeff Goldblum secreting digestive juices on the ankle in the remake of "The Fly." And then he eats it, so possibly this is covered under (2), but if this were the case, there wouldn’t be any foot left to do medical tests on, so forget this one.

    So why are they doing these tests? CONCLUSION: Because there are NO bite marks or cut marks. QUESTION: Huh? Then... uh... er...

    That’s right: it was a NON-SEVERED foot. A foot without the icky gross part on the top where the ankle would have come off, had there been an ankle, which there was NOT. Not yet...

    Because this was a CLONE FOOT. We keep thinking that when you clone somebody, it grows like a regular human, starting out as a baby and then getting bigger and older. And yet, genetic science tells us this is not necessarily the case. In the 1959 Japanese movie ‘The Manster,’ for instance, this Japanese guy gets injected with this stuff and HIS clone starts out as an EYEBALL on his shoulder and then grows into a second head, and finally he splits in half, so there is a full grown MAN and a full-grown MANSTER, and somehow both of them are wearing pants. If a clone (The Manster is a MONSTER-type clone, with really bad teeth, but the principle is the same) can start out as an eye, it can also start out as a foot.

    Now think back to everything you’ve heard about the cult run by the bicyclist who met the space aliens. First of all he’s from France, which is not too far from where this foot was found. And if any cult were going to start growing new people from the feet up, it would be this one. It also does not seem unlikely they would accidentally toss the clone in the laundry hamper, either.

    I’m not quite sure how to explain the painted toenails, just as I can not explain the pants on both the man and the Manster. It’s simply a fact, and for now all we can do is accept it and WHAT THE HELL!! INELIGIBLE MAN DOWNFIELD?? YOU’RE IN A PLAYOFF GAME YOU MORONS!! YOU JUST BLEW A 24-POINT LEAD!! YOU STINK!! YOU STINK LIKE A SACK OF RANCID GARBAGE! AND SO DO ALL YOUR MOTHERS!!

    But I digress.

    Even though there are still many things we have yet to learn about the Swedish cloned foot, it’s clear that we should be afraid. Be VERY afraid.



    NEON NEW YEAR

     

    "You know what I been thinking?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. I scraped the ice from the windshield of the Custom Neon Sign Shop van. We had not moved the van in nearly two weeks and as I dislodged the slabs of ice, I uncovered a bouquet of frozen parking tickets beneath one of the frozen windshield wipers. "Just leave them where they are. They’re city property and we could get in trouble if we start moving them around before we figure out what the idea is."

    "What the idea is?"

    "You know, you got this HABIT where you repeat the last four or five words I say, only with a question mark on the end. The Dinato kid who got hit inna head when the fire hydrant blew up last May does that, too. I was gonna borrow him and take him to the Chinese movies on Canal Street to see if he could do it with CHINESE talking, but his mother gave me the fish eye and said no. Anyhow, I been thinking, one of the reasons the Custom Neon Sign Shop isn’t as successful as it deserves to be--" He paused, I suspect to see if I would say ‘as it deserves to be?,’ but I didn’t, so he continued. "--is that our sign is not a neon sign."

    I had to agree. Prospective customers undoubtedly wondered why a shop that made custom neon signs had paid someone to design and hang a painted wooden sign rather make their own blinking, flashing, multi-colored display. The reason was two-fold: first, Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ uncle had a cousin whose son was a (very bad) sign painter. Second, our neon signs often didn’t work, and Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I both agreed that a non-blinking, non-flashing, no-color tangle of glass tubes hanging over the door would attract even fewer customers than the ugly wooden sign.

    "So what we’ll do is, we’ll BUY a neon sign from some company that makes them. We’ll keep Cousin Augie’s sign inside, maybe run some glass tubes around the edges so if Unca Danny comes by it’ll look like we’re swanking it up. Now, buying the neon sign will require MONEY. So we’ll have a big New Year’s blow-out sale."

    We had blow-out sales all the time. A "Big Blow-Out Sale!!" sign in the window didn’t generate any more business than a "Back in 25 Minutes" sign, but the atmosphere was more festive. Since all of our signs were custom signs, our blow-out sales were mostly things like "Happy 25th Anniversary to Marge and Tony," which Marge and Tony had not received because the check bounced. The appeal was limited.

    But we had never held a NEW YEARS Blow-Out Sale, so I dutifully broke out the magic markers and set to work designing the fliers.

    HAVE A NEON NEW YEAR! I wrote across the top of the paper. Mulberry Street Joey Clams punched me in the shoulder. This meant that I was hitting on all cylinders and when feeling returned to my arm I should continue.

    Let the Boys

    at the Custom Neon Sign Shop

    Fill Your New Year’s Eve with Neon!

    DAZZLE Your Guests with

    An INCREDIBLE Display of Neon!

    BLINKING! FLASHING! DAZZLING!

    Like FIREWORKS

    only SAFE Because It’s

    INSIDE GLASS TUBES!!

    YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES!

    CALL NOW!! [followed by our phone number]

    I drew fingers pointing at some lines, stars exploding around others, and cockroaches here and there, since I was really good at drawing cockroaches. We had 1000 copies printed up and shortly we were back on the freezing streets, sticking them on telephone poles, inside store windows, and under windshield wipers. We split up and I worked my way west into SoHo, slipping fliers into the accordion gates protecting freight elevators that carried various quasi-famous artists to their lofts. I slipped some into the backseat of a cab stuck in a snow bank near Houston Street. My fingers were numb, and I knew there was no chance anyone would read our flier and order a neon sign for New Year’s Eve. I returned to the Custom Neon Sign Shop. Mulberry Street Joey Clams was standing by the van, talking to the meter maid and waving a handful of frozen parking tickets around. I started making coffee. Mulberry Street Joey Clams swaggered through the door. "She gave me her phone number. I think she’s probably really cute. It’s hard to say with all those CLOTHES. Too bad it’s not summer when the meter maids wear hot pants."

    "Meter maids don’t wear hot pants, Mulberry Street Joey Clams. Meter Maids are traffic cops."

    "Well, what am I thinking of? Who wears hot pants?"

    "I think nobody anymore, except in made-for-TV movies about teenage runaways. Maybe you’re thinking of CARHOPS. In maybe 1957."

    The phone rang before Mulberry Street Joey Clams could process all that.

    "Is this the NEON BOYS? The boys who can give my guests a NEON NEW YEAR’S EVE?"

    I signaled Mulberry Street Joey Clams to pick up the extension. "Yes it is," I said.

    "Well, I WANT IT," said the caller. "I want your BEST NEON BOYS at my party on New Year’s eve and I want my guests DAZZLED."

    "How many guests are we talking?" asked Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

    "Oooooh," said the host. "Let’s say 350 and let’s say the loft is 80,000 square feet, if that’s any help. It’s the next-to-the-top floor of the OCELOT Building."

    "Okay," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "And what did you have in mind? Signs for everybody?"

    "I want the FULL TREATMENT. What do you boys usually get? About 5K for the night?"

    There was a sudden silence as both of our hearts stopped beating at the same instant.

    "About," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Well, okay, hell, for YOU, 5K period." Mulberry Street Joey Clams and the host dickered a little and worked out what time we would arrive. When he hung up, Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, "That was TERRY OCELOT HIMSELF."

    "Geez," I said. "But... uh, I don’t think he gets the idea that we make signs. I get the impression he thinks we DO something."

    "Impressions," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "My cousin Leo does impressions. He walks around on his ankles like Jerry Lewis. You know what I’m saying?"

    "No."

    We decided to bring the "Happy 25th Anniversary Marge and Tony" sign because it actually worked when it was plugged in. We taped cardboard around it for protection. Terry Ocelot was delighted we had brought so little equipment. We ate his hors-d'oeuvres for about an hour, mingled with the guests, including a dozen or so fairly major celebrities, and finally Terry Ocelot announced that the New Year was only an hour away and we [well, THEY] were about to be DAZZLED by an incredible display of pyrotechnic neon wizardry. "I read about these gentlemen in Paris Match, and you can be sure I was AMAZED and DELIGHTED to discover they were at work in New York. They took Munich and Milan by storm. Ladies and gentlemen, the Neon Boys!" Enthusiastic applause. Mulberry Street Joey Clams had a sort of ‘maybe they think we’re somebody else’ look on his face. Nonetheless, with a great flourish, he tore the masking tape off and removed the cardboard from "Happy 25th Anniversary Marge and Tony." There was a great deal of chuckling from the crowd. "Now, if I can have just a minute of your patience, the action must begin in TOTAL darkness. Could we have the lights off, please-- wait a minute, my partner and I need to be in the elevator as this begins... Mr. Ocelot, could you plug in the sign, then shut off the lights. My partner and I will DESCEND to the street level--or so it will appear-- and seconds later... well, you will be AMAZED."

    We took the elevator down. Despite the 20-degree weather we waited on the street corner to see how long it would take for them to turn the lights back on. 13 minutes. "That’s a long time in the dark," Mulberry Street Joey Clams said.. "I vote we let them keep the sign. They, you know, EARNED it." Back at the shop he called the metermaid, but she already had plans.



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