Whatever You Do, DON'T LET THEM EAT CAKE!
As 2004 lurched to its conclusion I found myself in the mens room at the gym, grateful I didnt suffer from some kind of obsessive / compulsive disorder. You know, one of those poor people (like Monk on TV) who have to check the pilot light on the stove 60 times a day and start hyperventilating if all the pens on the desk arent lined up just so. Because I noticed that the urinal cake was a little off-center and I know stuff like that really bothers people with OCD, and really, what could they do about an off-center urinal cake? I mean, what would MONK do? What, when you come right down to it, can anybody do about such a dilemma? Nobody wants to mess with urinal cakes but people with OCD, I mean, some of them wash 25 times a day and thats if they dont mess with ANYTHING. BOY was I grateful that I dont have some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder. Anyway, I spent the next 20 hours wondering if the urinal cake were still off-center or if maybe the janitor had noticed and fixed it. Around the 20th hour I was back at the gymI dont generally go two days in a row, but I wanted to work on my triceps or my delts or somethingand it turned out that the cake was still off-center. Boy, I said to myself, somebody with OCD would be puh-ritty upset about that. Puh-RITTY doggone upset. I wondered if I should let tell somebody at the front desk. "You know," I might say, "that could really make somebody with OCD... you know... OBSESS." I actually started for the front desk but when I was almost there, I went back to the mens room, just to check one more time that it was still off-center. I mean, Id look like a real idiot if I reported an off-center urinal cake and then it turned out that somebody had fixed it while I was reporting it, right? But it was still off-center. So I headed back to the front desk, but as soon as the bathroom door was out of my sight I was faced with the same dilemma. Then I had this brilliant idea. I realized if I wedged a piece of cardboard under the door, nobody could open the door without removing the cardboard, and that would give me enough time to report the urinal cake problem without having to worry about someone fixing it.
Well, its not like theres a stockpile of cardboard wedges at the gym. So I went home and sliced up a couple of shoeboxes and made three wedges of varying thickness. By the time Id cleaned up the cardboard Id trimmed off the wedges (one of them didnt come out exactly even on both sides and I must have taken half an hour getting it right) the gym was closed for the day. Which meant yet another day had evaporated without the urinal cake problem being addressed. No big deal for me, of course, but imagine how somebody with this obsessive / compulsive thing going on would react. They wouldnt be able to stop thinking about it. I could only hope no one so afflicted had noticed it.
That night I had a dream about it. Now, heres the thing that alarmed me when I woke up: if someone like ME, with no OCD, ends up having a disturbing dream about something like this, what must it be like for someone with OCD? So I gathered up my wedges and went straight to the gym.
Do I need to tell you that the cake was still off-center? But of course now I was prepared. I wedged the door shut and all but trotted to the front desk, and I said, excuse me, but theres a problem here. Now you may not think this is a big dealand for that matter I may not think its a big dealbut for someone with obsessive compulsive disorder its a big deal indeed. Im talking about the off-center urinal cake in the mens room. Last night
Im sorry, said the man at the front desk. The what in the mens room?
Theres an off-center urinal cake in the second urinal from the right. Its supposed to be sitting right in the middle just a hair above the drain, but its off to the side by a good three inches.
Im sorry, but... you mean those little deodorizing disks?
YES! I said. Its off by three inches. Now, to someone with OCD, this is just maddening. And bear this in mindlast night I had a dream about this. Me, a normal guy who couldnt care less about whether the urinal cake is correctly situated or not. I dreamed I was playing a video game where the object was to move the off-center cake back to where it belongs, but the cursor kept sliding off the cake. This went on for hours, it seemed. And then when I finally got the cake right in the center, you know what happened?
The cake slid right out again. I could have screamed. In fact I did, and then I woke up. And I went back to sleep and I had exactly the same dream. And were talking about me. And Im pretty much the mental health poster child. Just imagine would somebody with OCD would have experienced. You know, the gym may even have legal obligations here. When you some right down to it, whats the difference between an off-center sanitary cake and an ice covered stairway?
Well, you got me there. You know, until we get this thing straightened out, maybe you should used a different urinal?
This isnt about me, I said.
No, no, of course not. Well, let me take care...
But at that moment a gentlemen with a towel over his shoulders came in and said, Bob, the mens room door is locked or something. I cant get it open. Bob sighed and said he might was well take care of all the mens room problems at once.
It turned out the fellow with the towel had yanked the door so hard he had wedged my wedge completely under the door and the three of us couldn't budge it at all. So Bob allowed the man with the towel to use the employees bathroom and said well, I guess that solves this cake problem for the time being since were not going to get that door open till the clean up crew comes and since were closing up this afternoon until January 2nd nobody with OCD is going to see it in the meantime and Ill leave the guys a note about, uh, making sure all the cakes are, uh, in place.
I nodded but I felt sick. Finally I said, That means that the cake is going to remain off-center until the 2nd of January! And what if somebody with OCD has ALREADY SEEN IT? Hell go crazy! I sure hope nobody with OCD has seen it!
Lets hope, said Bob.
An Underdog Christmas
When I was 9, I got an Underdog alarm clock for Christmas and all that winter I set about scientifically proving that the alarm worked for every single quarter hour between 3:30 and 9:30. If I set it real early-- 3:45, say-- I'd just make the proper notation in my Underdog notebook and go back to bed. (I received eight Underdog related items that Christmas, all of which had been purchased together as the Official Underdog Junior Executive Overnight Kit. It came in a very spiffy Underdog Carrying Case. My parents unpacked it and then wrapped each item separately, including the case, so I got to thank them eight times. In fact, allow me take this opportunity to thank them again. Thanks, Mom & Dad!). But if I set it for a semi-normal waking time, I'd pad downstairs and turn on the TV and try to catch the test pattern switchovers. We received seven channels, and none of them broadcast round the clock; at the end of the day, which might occur at 2 AM, the station would play the Star Spangled Banner against stock footage of air force jets zooming around and then sign off, at which point a test pattern would appear, accompanied by a 'boooooop!' on the audio track. When the new broadcast day began a few hours later, the test pattern would be replaced by a reprise of the zooming jets and the national anthem, followed by the first show of the day. This would be something very bizarre and/or boring-- a farm report, a Christian Puppet Theater Lesson, or Yoga for Health, a strange exercise show hosted by a guy who got into The Lotus Position at the start of the quarter hour (it was a 15 minute show) and then never moved. It was always fun to watch these shows, but the real thrill was racing down the dial as one station after another switched off its test pattern and began the broadcast day. Four of the stations kicked off at 5 AM, but in these pre-computer days they were often off by several seconds (channel 11 was capable of missing by as much as three minutes) and nothing filled me with such a sense of accomplishment as catching ALL FOUR STATIONS at the exact instant of switchover.
One morning I trotted downstairs at 4:45, determined to hit all four at the instant of switchover, and I turned on the set, and the channel 9 test pattern was out of focus and rimed with video static. Channel 11 was a little better, channel 13 didn't come in at all, channels 2, 4, 5, and 7 were completely scrambled, and there was some GUY talking to the camera on channel 9 but the sound was just white noise. I went upstairs and woke my parents.
"It's the big one," I said. "Duh-Bow-You Duh-Bow-You Three. Russkis took out New York. ABC, NBC, CBS, all gone. Ka-blooey."
"They get the one that shows Soupy Sales?" asked my father.
"Lot of static but it's still there. Studio must be deep underground."
"Wake me up if they get that one."
I went outside. We'd been hit with an ice storm during the night, and our TV antenna was dangling over the edge of the roof. This probably accounted for our lousy TV reception, I reflected, but I consoled myself with the thought that perhaps the antenna had been dislodged by the shock wave when Manhattan was leveled. I took a picture of it (the antenna, not the Manhattan Crater) with my plastic Underdog Camera. The snow from my mitten got on the Underdog decal and by the time I was back in the house, it had peeled off a little and I could see there was a Shelley Fabares decal underneath it; This was my first inkling that the world was not all it was cracked up to be.
Later that morning my dad went up on the roof to fix the antenna while I soaked the decals off my Underdog stuff. My Underdog notebook was actually an Underdog notebook, everything else had begun life promoting Shelley Fabares, Crusader Rabbit, or Charley Weaver. I couldn't tell about the alarm clock because the decal was under the glass. I was able to salvage the camera because Shelley's decal came off as easily as Underdog's, but the carrying case had to be dumped because the Shelley logo was embossed. Crusader Rabbit was not a problem, I was a fan, though of course I preferred his sidekick, Rags the Tiger. I couldn't figure out what to do about the Charley Weaver stuff; I still can't.
Adjusting a roof top TV antenna is now a lost art, like using a slide rule or threading a 16mm projector. The tines had to be oriented (or, as the kids say, orientated) in such a way that as many channels as possible came in clearly, and to do this, you needed someone watching the TV and hollering "THAT'S GOOD! NO, YOU HAD IT BUT YOU LOST IT. THAT'S WORSE. BACK! PUT IT THE WAY YOU HAD IT WHEN THE PICTURE WAS GOOD. NO. IT'S GETTING EVEN WORSE." Often a perfect picture could be obtained only when someone was actually in contact with the antenna, or when Mr. Donaldson, the gym teacher who lived up the block, was walking his dog; he had a metal plate in his head and reception perked up noticeably whenever he was in the vicinity. My father was an excellent antenna jockey, lost his footing only two or three times that morning on the ice coated slope of the roof, and was back inside for some hot chocolate shortly before lunch. "How many channels we got?" he asked.
"Everything's okay except channel 7 and channel 13."
"How bad is channel 7?"
"Fuzzy but you can sort of see what it is."
"Good enough," he said, nodding. "Hey, where did this mug come from?"
"Never saw it before," I said.
"Your mother must have picked it up at the Acme. Charley Weaver?? Why on earth would somebody make a Charley weaver mug?"
"Dunno," I said.
"Well, I bet it was cheap."
"Bet it was," I said. I hunkered down in front of the TV to see if anybody was going to mention the devastating nuclear war we'd just come through but nobody did. How could they expect to keep something like that a secret? I peeled the decal off my Shelley Fabares pen, not sure I really wanted to know what was underneath.
Calvanos Chemistry Set
One Saturday morning there were, inexplicably, no Japanese monster movies on TV so Picarillo, Calvano and I did the Neolithic equivalent of channel surfingPicarillo went over to the TV and served as our voice-activated clicker, flipping through the channels by hand. Since the dial only went up to 13 (there was a separate dial for UHF channels, but since as far as anybody knew UHF channels did not actually exist, no one ever bothered with it) it didnt take long to check out our options. "Wait a second, Picarillo, go back. Its that guy from last weeks STAR TREK!"
Last weeks Star Trek episode had been "Charlie X," starring Robert Walker Jr. as a human raised by aliens, who consequently has developed incredible super powers, which he employs appallingly during a sort of cosmic temper tantrum. This, of course, is precisely how the three of us would have employed our incredible super powers, had we any, so we talked about the episode incessantly.
We had never seen Robert Walker Jr. before, and suddenly here he was in some movieand in old one, by the look of it. It happened to be "Strangers on a Train" and the Robert Walker we were watching was in fact the father of the one who had recently run amuck on the Starship Enterprise, but they were dead ringers. We were fortunate to catch it from the pivotal early scene in which Walker and total stranger Farley Granger share a train compartment and in the course of chatting Walker proposes that, since they have no connection to each other, they could each murder someone the OTHER person wants murdered, and they would never be suspected. Despite the absence of radioactive dinosaurs and Japanese people whose mouths sometimes did not move while they were talking, we were mesmerized.
"You know," Calvano said later, after Robert Walker the Elder had come to a bad but well-deserved end under a merry-go-round, "WE should do that."
"Kill somebody a stranger wants dead?" I said, I regret to say without the slightest trace of disapproval in my voice.
"Nah nah nah. Look, its just a couple weeks till Christmas. Theres probably some stuff you want for Christmas your parents arent gonna get you, right? Stuff you WANT, right? But its..." Here Calvano affected an elevated tone of voice to indicate he was imitating a grown-up, although the only grown-up who sounded remotely like that was Margaret Rutherford"...too DANGEROUS, Robert, we can NOT buy THAT. Or its too ADULT or too SHODDY or too DISGUSTING or too..."
"Poisonous," said Picarillo. We stared at him. "Well, thats what my mom said about the non-flexible collodion I wanted so I could paint REAL-LOOKING fake scars on my face."
"Thats EXACTLY what Im talking about," said Calvano. "The FACT is, its only REALLY poisonous if you forget to wash it off after a couple hours. If its only on for a hour or so, you just get hives."
"I got a kind of crust that one time," said Picarillo.
"Well, it happens. But the point is they all have their little QUALMS about this or that. But heres what Im getting at, from the movie. MY parents qualms are probably way different from YOUR parents qualms. My parents might say, "Non-flexible collodion? How many gallons, Robert?"
"They would??" said Picarillo.
"Well, nothey remember about that time you got all those blisters on your face. But theres other stuff."
"It was a CRUST," said Picarillo.
"Yeah, yeah. But say my parents wont get me a... a... well, lets say some sneakers with a picture of a MONSTER on it."
"Whoa!! I WANT those!"
"They dont exist, Picarillo, Im just using it for an example. And lets say your parents wont get you a skateboard."
"They WONT," said Picarillo. "I could get hit by a TRUCK."
"But. Listen, okay? YOUR parents might get you the monster sneakers, and MY parents might get me a skateboard."
"My parents probably WOULD get me the monster sneakers."
"But lets say they wouldnt. So I get a skateboard you dont want, and you get monster sneakers YOU dont want, and AFTER CHRISTMAS WE TRADE."
Picarillo opened his mouth but I said, "Picarillo, dont say you WANT the monster sneakers. Its just an example." Picarillo sulked.
So the three of us sprawled on the indoor-outdoor carpet in Calvanos basement, bathed in the blue light of the TV, and tried to think of things our parents wouldnt get us for Christmas. There were a lot of possibilities but most of the items MY parents wouldnt buy were also items Mrs. Calvano and Mrs. Picarillo would draw the line at as well. Flame thrower? Live iguana? Real shrunken head?
"My parents wont get me a Chemistry set," Calvano finally announced. "I really stunk up the house with the last one, a couple years ago."
"I guess... a VENUS FLY TRAP," I said. "I had one in 5th grade, but my parents made me get rid of it."
"I had it on the back of the toilet because the bathroom gets a lot of sun. But my sister would make my mom take the Venus fly trap out every time she had to use the bathroom. And once I stuck it on her nightstand and when she woke up she started screaming. And I said I didnt put it there, it must have WALKED in and she screamed some more." My sister, by the way, was 6 years older than I, and therefore in the 11th grade when this occurred.
"Okay, that should be no sweat. What about you, Picarillo?"
"I want... um... a pocket knife with a CURLY thing."
"He means a cork screw," I said. "Why? Whats the deal about a cork screw?"
"Its curly," Picarillo explained. "I got a pocket knife with a blade-type blade and a screw driver, but no curly thing."
"Why wont your parents get you one?"
"Well, they probably would," Picarillo conceded.
"But you..." began Calvano, but I cut him off.
"Let it go. Ill ask for the pocketknife, Calvano. Picarillo asks for the chemistry set. You ask for the Venus Fly Trap."
"Its a knife with a CURLY thing," Picarillo reminded me.
In the end, the curly thing was my downfall. My parents asked why I was so adamant about a corkscrew? Just what was I planning to uncork? What REALLY went on when we said we were just "hanging around?" I had no real answer, since if Id said "Its CURLY" I would have sounded as insane as Picarillo. "I just WANT one, thats all," I said. My parents looked at me the way that Farley Granger had looked at Robert Walker when he first suggested trading murders. But Farley Granger eventually came around, while my parents, it turned out on Christmas morning, did not. It would have been utterly humiliating, but Calvanos parents had not come through with the Venus flytrap, either; theyd come up with a cactus, figuring it was lower maintenance and thus more likely not to be dead by New Years.
Picarillo got the chemistry set, though. Since no knife with a curly thing was forthcoming, he set it up in his bedroom and dutifully went through the experiments in the enclosed booklet one by one. Calvano, who had limited his own chemical experiments to free-style lets see what makes the biggest stink combinations, turned his nose up at Picarillos book chemistry, but Picarillo didnt notice. Every now and then he would offer to let Calvano hold a test tube steady while Picarillo added some carefully measured powder, but Calvano always declined. He had his pride.
ASK THE FRUIT CAKE EXPERT GUY
DEAR FRUIT CAKE EXPERT GUY:
Ive heard through the grapevine that my Aunt Dorothy is planning to bake a fruit cake for my Christmas present. I have an etiquette question: Just how long should one keep a fruit cake in the fridge before throwing it out? I certainly dont want to offend Aunt Dorothy, but on the other hand I dont want this thing in my refrigerator for the next six months, either.
Only interested in doing the right thing
Discretion is the key here. If Dorothy lives in the neighborhood, youll want to keep the fruit cake on hand for at least a couple of weeks in case she drops by, and it wouldnt hurt to chop off a slice or two to make it look like youve sampled her masterpiece. This probably wont fool herno doubt folks have been not eating her fruit cakes for decadesbut shell appreciate the effort. If Dorothy is an out-of-towner, you can dump her abomination as soon as she hits the town limits. You dont want to do as my mother did 40 years ago, when her cousin presented her with an immense fruit cake on Christmas Eve. "Why Dinah," she said, "What a lot of time and effort! Im truly touched. You shouldnt have!" and slid the cake into the kitchen garbage. Although my mother certainly meant no disrespect, she later conceded that this was something of a faux pas.
DEAR FRUIT CAKE EXPERT GUY:
While we all know that fruit cake is inedible, isnt it also extremely flammable and therefore dangerous to have around the house?
Always looking for another reason not to have a fruit cake in the house
Excellent point. All that fruit has been soaked in some sort of alcohol. One spark and the whole thing could go up in a jet of flame like Daffy Duck in that Warner Brothers cartoon ("...I could only do it once..."). And thats assuming that the recipe has been followed precisely and a relatively expensive alcohol, such as brandy, is employed. But lets get real heresince everyone knows that no human being is going to sample a fruit cake, we can assume that many cooks save a little money by substituting rubbing alcohol or even the one of the cheaper grades of gasoline. Lets ask ourselves: Is that reeking glob of inedible slop on the kitchen counter worth losing our HOME and perhaps our LIVES?
DEAR FRUIT CAKE EXPERT GUY:
You are always ranting about how many calories a fruit cake has, but you are also always ranting about like how nobody eats one. So if nobody eats it who cares how many calories it has?
Discerns a flaw in your arguments, perhaps
When Im wrong, Im wrong, and never let it be said that I hesitate to admit it. You are correct, Discerns, and I will stop ranting about how many calories the average fruit cake contains. After all, a new Buick contains even more calories, and yet it will not add a single ounce to your frame, since you arent going to eat it. Although if you did, it would taste better than a fruit cake. (Of course Im only guessingnobody knows what a fruit cake tastes like, except for contestants on Fear Factor).
DEAR FRUIT CAKE EXPERT GUY:
Couldnt we just BAN fruit cakes? Wouldnt that solve all the fruit cake-related problems?
Ready to take drastic measures
It sounds good, but remember: If we outlaw fruitcakes, only fruitcakes will...uh... I mean, only outlaws will... no, that doesnt work either. But neither does fruitcake prohibition. Believe me, its been tried. Just as there are dry towns and counties around the country (meaning alcohol is prohibited), there were once fruitless or uncaked areas. It was a good idea that didnt work. Nor, incidentally, did fruitcake bootlegging, as there were no customersjust rival gangs fighting over territory. And once they found out that nobody wanted their black market fruit cake... well, lets just say it wasnt pretty.
DEAR FRUIT CAKE EXPERT GUY:
I dont understand. Fruit is good. Cake is good. Why is fruit cake bad? It makes no sense.
Confused and disoriented
The idea that "X is good, and Y is good, so X and Y together must be really good!" is widespread, but its a fallacy. MEAT is good, cake is good, but would you want to eat a meat cake? And I have serious doubts as to whether fruit cake is a cake in any meaningful sense anyway. "Cake" is a word with many meaningsit can be a noun ("That is some cake!") or, when combined with blood and used to describe the hands of flesh-eating zombies, a modifier ("The flesh-eating zombie ran his blood-caked hands under the tap following a hearty repast."). Even when cake IS a noun, its not necessarily a dessert. After all, we speak of a cake of soap and even a urinal cake, but it wouldnt occur to us to eat them (and if it would occur to YOU, please keep it to yourself. Or write to the Things You Dont Want to Know About the Mens Room Expert Guy). I cant help but wonder if the fruit cake was never intended to be food at all, but was created to serve some other purpose, and then the creator got hit by a bus or something before he could tell us what it was.
I guess it was in 1986, when Halleys Comet returned, that I realized I didnt know everything. Or rather I realized that a lot of what I knew was wrong. Id spent mumble mumble years reading and hearing about "Haileys Comet." That was the way it was pronounced until 1986, when it was due for a return trip and suddenly there were all these newspaper articles and magazine features and TV specials about it. And everybody in the TV specials was saying "HALLEYS Comet," as though it belonged to Halle Berry, which made no sense since she was about 13 then and no one had ever heard of her. I would have sworn that until that news cycle it had even been spelled "Haileys Comet," but no. It turned out to be "Halley" in the pages of the elderly encyclopedia at my parents house and in the 1964 Information Please Almanac and at that point I was forced to admit that Id been misreading and (apparently) mishearing it for decades. I was gratified to find that other people had also been seeing "Hailey" for "Halley," notably my father, who turned purple whenever anyone used what he considered "this fruity new pronunciation." "Oooh, HALLEY! Woo woo!" he would sneer at Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov when they were being interviewed on some National Geographic astronomy special, sometimes going to far as to lift his pinky delicately from his beer mug, to subtly indicate what he thought about the masculinity of anybody who employed the sissified "Halley" in place of the down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes "Hailey."
Anyway, within a year of that celestial event, I discovered that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Hiroshima" and "A Bell for Adano" was John Hersey, not John Hershey. In this case I assume thirty odd years of chocolate bar consumption had thrown me off, but it was still a bit disconcerting to find that Id been inserting that phantom "H" into his name while reading a dozen or so books over the course of 20 years, and to realize that I would have gone to my grave mispronouncing it had I not stumbled across Mr. Hersey being interviewed on NET. As it happened, my father (who had also been calling him "Hershey" forever) was watching as well, and this time he could not accuse Hersey himself of mispronouncing his own namewell, he could have, but he didntbut he still turned purple and projected a sense of having been somehow deliberately mislead and betrayed.
He hadand I share thisa real problem with what the kids call "new paradigms." That is, you know whats what, and then suddenly somebody pops up to tell you that what is NOT what, and in fact it never was. But if what ISNT what, then what the hell IS?
Case in point: my father did not believe in wind chill factor. The weatherman would say, "Its 25 out there, but with the windchill factor, it feels like 5 below." And my father would respond, "When I was a telephone lineman, I was up on the pole in weather colder than this with harder winds, and if it had been 5 below, my nose woulda been frost-bitten." The interesting thing about this observation is that my dads nose had indeed clearly sustained some serious cold weather damage at some point. I brought this up during one of his windchill factor tirades ("Now that you mention it...") and he said maybe hed bumped into HALLEYS Comet. Discussion over.
This brings me somehow or other to the topic of tryptophan. I never heard of tryptophan until maybe 10 years ago. What is tryptophan? Tryptophan is the long-awaited answer to a question nobody was asking: "How come I feel so wiped out after Thanksgiving dinner?" Nobody was asking this because the answer appeared to be self evidentit would have been like asking, "How come it hurts when I hit myself in the head with a hammer?" or "Why does everybody in the car go Eeeewwww! when we run over the dead skunk?" (A BETTER question might have been, "Geez, Dad, how did you manage to run over that dead skunk on the way to Aunt Janes AND on the way back?" But the answer would have been "I guess I was blinded by HALLEYS comet La-de-da! Woo-woo!" So even though it was a better question, we never asked that one, either).
Everyone always thought we were wiped out after Thanksgiving dinner because wed eaten too much. After all, when I was six, I ate myself into a stupor by devouring an entire box of Milkbone™ dog biscuits. But it turns out that what knocks everybody out is TRYPTOPHAN. Tryptophan is an enzyme that makes you sleepy, or at least TURKEY tryptophan does. Its unclear from my researches (which, technically, have not actually occurred) whether turkeys always contained this stuff or whether its added to their diet just so everybody in America can be completely unfit to drive on the BIGGEST TRAVEL DAY OF THE YEAR. You think Im kidding? ONE SERVING of turkey contains so much tryptophan that youd have to drink THREE SIX PACKS OF BEER to be that impaired. Two servings is equivalent to three weeks in an opium den. Three servings, and you might as well remove your brain and stick a sofa cushion in your skull, because that will function as well as your brain at that point. Im not making this upthese are scientific facts, possibly.
Assuming this so-called Tryptophan really exists. Im not convinced. It sure doesnt work on kidsthey can eat all the turkey you can stuff down their throats, and they still bounce off the walls like the bird was stuffed with amphetamines.
For another thing, the name sounds totally fake. It sounds like some drug Jack Webb made up for one of those episodes of "Dragnet" where Sgt. Friday raids a hippies pad.
[FRIDAY and GANNON, watching hippie (Bradford Dillman in a four dollar wig) freak out]
GANNON: Any idea what hes on, Joe?
FRIDAY: (sniffs baggie) Smells like... tryptophan, Bill.
GANNON: Tryptophan? Never heard of it, Joe.
FRIDAY: Its the latest kick, Bill. 80% addictimol, 20% far-outium.
GANNON: Powerful stuff.
FRIDAY: The kids say it sends you on a groovy trip. But theres one thing they didnt tell this kid.
GANNON: Whats that, Joe?
FRIDAY: Sometimes its a one-way trip. (They shake their heads as hippie is lead away in a straight jacket).
And this is what theyre putting in our turkeys! Whatever happened to GOOD enzymes? They stayed in our detergents like they were supposed to and made our whites whiter and our colors brighter. Now THOSE were enzymes, dagnabbit.
A CABIN IN THE WOODS
My mother was sighing that it was barely going to be Thanksgiving at all this year, what with her sister Alma and family relocated to Texas, and her sister Jane and family visiting Uncle Charlies relatives in Upstate New York. I was watching "The Flintstones" and eating tiny little pepperoni pizzas the size of silver dollars. My Uncle Tug, who had stopped by to drop off the jumper cables hed borrowed from my dad, was watching the TV but talking to my mother.
"Well, you could have dinner at... hey, you know this show is like "The Honeymooners," only its a cartoon? These guys belong to a lodge just like Ralph and Norton. What was the lodge Ralph and Norton belonged to?"
"The Raccoons," said my mother. "What were you saying about dinner?"
"Nah, I ate already, thanks. Amos and Andy, they went to some lodge to, didnt they? The Mystic... The Mystic something..."
"The Mystic Knights of the Sea," said my mother.
"Yeah! You know, its like EVERY SHOW IS THE SAME SHOW. Its two doofy guys and they belong to a lodge."
"I mean about Thanksgiving dinner," said my mother.
"Oh yeah. I was gonna say, if you wanted to do something a little different, you could have Thanksgiving at my place in the woods. You know, a real old fashioned kind of Thanksgiving with an open fire place and all that stuff."
"Really?" said my mother. "That sounds like fun."
"You oughta do it," said Tug. "I got no plans. Itll be family fun. Listen, I got to run."
"Wait!" I said. "What about Bonanza? Its FOUR GUYS, and no lodge!"
"I gotta think about that," said Uncle Tug. He left and Im certain he never thought about it again.
"What about Little Women," said my sister Pam. "Its all girls!"
"Youre an idiot," I said. "Thats a MOVIE."
"MOM!" My sister was six year older than I was (and I was about 11 at the time) but she was utterly helpless in the face of my relentless logic.
When my father got home my mother told him that Tug had invited us to share Thanksgiving dinner at his place in the woods. My father had been up there once and said he thought it would be an excellent idea. Later my mother called Tug and asked if she should bring a pie up to the cabin. "Absolutely, if you like pie," hed said. "Bring whatever. Its your call." And what time should we be there? "Up to you. Depends on what time you wanna eat, right?"
"Well, what if we get there at two oclock?"
"Itll be there," said Tug.
But at two oclock on Thanksgiving Day, we were on the road and had been for several hours. My dad had been to the cabin once and was absolutely certain he knew how to get there again, so he saw no need to ask Tug for directions. Even after another hour of driving through what seemed like several different forests, he saw no need to ask for directions.
"Its right up this street," he said. He slowed down and steered the 55 Bel-Air onto an unmarked side road so narrow that branches scraped against both sides of the car. "Its like going through the car wash," said my sister, "except theres no soap and water!"
"And no building," I pointed out. "Yeah, its EXACTLY like going through the car wash. Or you could say its like going through a bowl of cereal, only theres no milk or cereal."
"MOM! Hes being SARCASTIC!"
"And also no bowl," I said, "to make the comparison absolutely perfect."
"Stop being sarcastic," said my mother. "Its Thanksgiving." The gravel road had now given way to a dirt road and my father was no longer quite as sure that we were on the right path. He said the game plan was to turn off as soon as we came to an intersection and make a right, which would put us definitely going where we wanted to go. The flaw in this game plan turned out to be a complete absence of intersections. Eventually the dirt road gave way to underbrush, and we drove for a while over that until my father conceded the road had ended a ways back. He put the car into reverse and we traversed the entire length of the unmarked road backwards, very slowly. My father was humming "All or Nothing at All," and no one spoke until we were out of the woods and back on the main road.
"There was a gas station back there about two miles," my mother said.
"I KNOW where we are," said my father in a jovial voice that was belied by the pulsing vein in his temple.
"Yes, dear," said my mother. "But I need to use the ladies room."
My father opened his mouth but said nothing. "I need to use the ladies room," my mother repeated.
"Well," said my father, "If you need to use the ladies room..."
"And I do..."
"Then leave us proceed forthwith to yonder gas station."
We pulled up to the pumps. My mother got out of the car and asked the gas jockey, "Excuse me. Were looking for Bassetville Road."
"I KNEW it!" cried my father, pounding the wheel with his fist. "I KNEW it!" My mother and the gas jockey spoke for about three minutes, and then she got back in the car. "Were in Delaware," she said. "You know, I didnt THINK you could drive for four and a half hours and still be in New Jersey. Those woods back there were in Maryland."
"Then where was the SIGN?" demanded my father.
"I dont know. Maybe they didnt feel it was necessary to stick a Welcome to Maryland sign on every single sticker bush. You know these crazy politicians."
We crossed some state lines and re-entered New Jersey. It was getting dark. "Tug must be worried to death about us," said my mother. "We should call him and..." She reflected that he would be at the cabin, without a phone. She sighed, imagining Tug alone in the cabin waiting for the guests who never arrive, like Charley Chaplin in "The Gold Rush." She had my dad pull over to the shoulder and she cut up the pie. Although generally we were forbidden to eat in the car, an exception was made, since this was Thanksgiving. When we pulled into a rest stop to throw out the napkins and wax paper, something about the place made the right relays click in my dads brain. The cabin, he swore, was two right turns away.
The second turn was indeed Bassetville Road. There was a little logging road off it, and Tugs cabin was waiting at the end. Dark and clearly empty.
"Did he go home?" said my mother.
"I dunno," said my father. "No. Nobodys been here for a while."
"I hope Tug is okay," said my mother. We were home in just under an hour and she quickly picked up the phone.
"Tug!" she said when he picked up.
"Hiya, Annie. How was the cabin? You have a good time?"
"Tug, you werent there!"
"Nah, I had PLANS. I didnt wanna intrude, anyhow. You get the fire goin okay?"
My mother was speechless, more or less. We heated up the meatloaf from Tuesday. There was a long pause before grace, when we were all supposed to be thinking of things to be thankful for. "My thoughts were going in other directions," my father confessed later, speaking, I think, for all of us.
The cold snap hit while I was searching for a job. Some people might dispute my right to use the word searching, since my search consisted of occasionally glancing at the want ads my girl friend circled and left on my kitchen table, following which I would decide, for one reason or another, not to call any of the them. But to be fair, if any of the advertisers had called ME and offered a job, I would have certainly heard them out.
It was just too cold to go outside. It was only late November, but the temperature was well below freezing. When I woke up in the morning there was ice on the windows of my ground floor apartment, and the ice remained there until early afternoon, when the sunlight hit it directly for 45 minutes or so.
After a couple of weeks of this I finally saw a want ad worthy of a response. It was not the want ad my girl friend had circled in red and further decorated with arrows and exclamation marks. No, the ad that caught my attention requested volunteers for unfolding the huge Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons on the evening prior to that event. Never before had I seen help sought for this, and never since. I suspect the sub-zero weather had scared off the previously committed volunteers. Or anyway the sane ones.
Volunteer is a word with ominous overtones ("unpaid," for instance) but the work itself sounded interesting and a hot meal was promised on the night itself, so I put on pretty much every piece of clothing I could find and hiked uptown to the grounds of the Museum of Natural History to apply. A fellow covered in so much Gore-Tex that he looked like the Michelin Tire Man directed usus was roughly a dozen volunteers, nowhere near the number they would need to a vast sheet of mylar, or rubber, or rubberized canvas, or whatever the balloons would be made out of. He lined us up and explained how to unfold this material. Incredibly, the material seemed colder than the ambient temperature. We could not make it unbend to our will. Nobody wanted to be the first one to punk out so we were there much longer than we wanted to be, but eventually somebody groaned, "Thats it for me!" and we all left at once.
Although this hadnt turned out well, my girlfriend saw the abortive balloon unfolding venture as a sign of better things to come, and as a reward, sewed me a window snake. This was a corduroy tube filled with beans or cotton or something, and it was intended to seal up my kitchen window. The window had been painted shut, but not quite: there was a ¼ of an inch of open air between the bottom of the window and the sill. A lot of heat escaped through that quarter inch, and the snake remedied that to a substantial degree.
I had a lot of problems with the heat. My radiator got very hot, but did not really radiate. Maybe it radiated in instead of out. I would prop my boots on it and read (generally very long books about Martians) and once I fell asleep and the rubber melted off the heels of my boots. So the radiator must have been very hot, and yet my toes were still numb from the cold. The snake helped with this sort of thing, but not enough, and I decided to scrape off the paint and close the window all the way.
It turned out that the paint was the only thing keeping the window shut at all. Once the paint was gone, I could close it, but it would suddenly spring open6 inches, 3 inches, ten inchesat unpredictable moments. When this happened, it would make a scring! sound and the temperature would instantly drop thirty degrees. Frost would form on the snake. I thought about nailing the window shut, but the wood was so rotten this was out of the question.
I thought I had solved the problem by wedging playing cards into the space between the two halves of the window, but one morning I heard the familiar scring, cursed, got out of bed, walked over to shut the window, and found myself face to face with a junkie. We stood on either side of the open window blinking at each other for a few seconds. I assumed he was the same junkie who had robbed me a few months earlier and left me a note in Spanish, apologizing for taking my guitar. So I told him to get lost, in Spanish. His face twisted up and he snarled: "Hey, man, if youre gonna live here, learn to speak ENGLISH!" I demonstrated that I spoke excellent English, using in fact several words that had been in the language since Anglo-Saxon times. In reply he grabbed the snake and put it into his sack full of stolen toaster ovens and TV sets and disappeared down the alley, like a reverse Santa Claus. My apartment was now about 20 degrees Fahrenheit and not getting any warmer. I forced the window down and re-wedged the cards.
I hit the local pawnshops in search of the window snake but had no luck. Window snakes were hard to fence, I surmised. Then as I passed the Russian church half a block from my apartment, I saw my window snake sitting on the inside windowsill of what must have been the priests study. "Its MINE!" I screamed. The priest did not bother to look up. People in my neighborhood were always screaming "Its MINE!" I saw a patrol car parked by the corner and ran down to explain to the cops what had happened. If I had stuck to the factsi.e., my window snake was stolen by a junkie and now it was in the window of the Russian churchthey probably would have assumed that the junkie had tossed it away and that the priest had found it and used it to insulate his leaky window. Maybe they would have explained the situation to the priest and he might have even returned my snake. But what I said was, "Officers! The RUSSIAN PRIEST sent a JUNKIE out to ROB my apartment! He STOLE MY SNAKE!!" They werelets sayunsympathetic.
Just like my girlfriend. She felt I had violated her trust by letting (her word) the junkie steal the snake. "And if you hadnt sworn at him and honked him off, you probably could have hired him to steal it back from the priest." Since the only reply I could think of was, If I hadnt sworn at him and honked him off, he wouldnt have stolen it in the first place," I didnt say anything.
Later that week, the balloons got aloft on Thanksgiving without my help. I watched the parade on my portable back and white TV set until so much ice formed on the antenna that I couldnt pick up the signal any more.
EMMA IN 2020
[In which I phone my daughter to ask whether the money I deposited in her account arrived, and she attempts to talk politics...]
EMMA: The money is not there. Put in more money. Are you interviewing me?
ME: I could. What do you want to talk about?
EMMA: The election.
ME: Old news now, Im afraid.
EMMA: Not THIS election. The 2020 election. The one IM going to run in.
ME: The one...
EMMA: Im going to run in AND win handily. I have all these angry away messages now, because all these people are upset I didnt name them to my cabinet.
ME: Away messages?
EMMA: Hel-LO. When people Instant Message me and Im not there. I listed all the people Im going to put in the cabinet on my AIM profile. Brittany is really mad shes not in the cabinet. "Im your HOMEGIRL," she said. But all I had open when I got to her name...
ME: What do you mean, got to her name?
EMMA: In my address book, when I was figuring out who to put where. The only position I had to fill when I got to Brittany was Secretary of Commerce and I couldnt see her THERE.
ME: Who did you see there?
EMMA: Mariska Hargaty.
ME: The actress? From Law and Order SVU?
EMMA: No, the TOOTHPASTE. Yes, the actress. And when you write it down dont put Law and Order SUV like last time. Thats a car. Shes Hungarian, and she should have won the Emmy. Im not knocking Alison Janey, but it should have been Mariska.
ME: How is it you have Mariska Hargaty in your address book?
EMMA: Shes not. EVERYBODY in the cabinet is not going to be my personal friend. That would be an invitation to... um...
EMMA: No, but something bad. Anyway it assures me of the Hungarian vote.
ME: Right, youve got to nail down that all-important Hungarian vote.
EMMA: Go ahead and make fun of it, but...
ME: What other non-friends did you put in your cabinet?
EMMA: Just Mariska. She should have won the Emmy.
ME: I see.
EMMA: Its a very non-partisan cabinet. Democrats AND Republicans and whatever Mariska is. H. Mac is going to be my Homeland Security Advisor.
ME: Who is...
EMMA: H. Mac is HEATHER. You remember. She borrowed your Nietzsche book three years ago.
ME: Ah. Since she borrowed it, I assume Im going to get it back, then.
EMMA: You know what they say about assume making an ass of u and me.
ME: Well, I guess I approve of a Homeland Security Advisor who knows her Nietzsche.
EMMA: Actually I think she switched her major from philosophy to... um... some other thing. Anyway, the rumor is, she postponed her SORORITY MEETING to confirm her appointment.
ME: What do you mean the rumor is?
EMMA: I mean thats what she did. We politicos say things like rumor has it because thats the way we talk. My veep is going to be Inna. Shes Russian.
ME: Of Russian descent, you mean?
EMMA: No, she was born there.
ME: I think since the only vice presidential function mentioned in the constitution is hanging around in case something happens to the president, the vice president would have to be native born, just like the president.
EMMA: Well, she AGREED to be veep, so that cant be right. She wouldnt have agreed if she couldnt do it. Originally I was going to have her be Defense but people got honked off so I made her veep. Then people started campaigning and like one girl got people to IM me to endorse her? So I appointed Inna. People said you wont win the Bible Belt if Innas your running mate, but I WILL. Now Gamble is Defense. Hes strong on borders and stuff and a Republican. Hes scary, which is good in a Secretary of Defense. And my Secretary of Interior is, um... Hey, before I forget, mention the Chocolate bulldog I followed, okay?
ME: Sure. What about Interior?
EMMA: Im THINKING. I saw "Love Story." Whats up with that? Ali McGraw is a beast. It made no sense. It was like "When Harry Met Sally" which didnt make sense because Billy Crystal was so ugly. Do you think I can get elected?
ME: Depends on who your Secretary of the Interior is.
EMMA: Its, um... hes down the hall. Hes South African. I forget his name...
ME: You have a lot of people in your cabinet who seem to be, how shall I say, not American...
EMMA: Well, do you know how many cabinet posts there are? What should I have done, put BRITTANY there? In COMMERCE? Please! Hey, mention Michelles roommate. We think shes a serial killer. She drinks tea with vicodin in it, which is a drug and her boy friend... Well, she shouldnt even HAVE a boyfriend, it makes no sense. Anyway, HES addicted to Godsmack.
ME: Is that another drug?
EMMA: No. Its the worst band ever. Oh, wait. Can we talk about Tara Reids boob?
ME: Not for publication, no.
EMMA: But... all right. Fine.
ME: Did you say boob, singular?
EMMA: Too late. Did you get my email about what you should buy me on eBay?
ME: Any email with eBay in the subject line is automatically deleted before I see it.
EMMA: But thats stupid! Half the emails I send you have eBay in the subject line!
ME: Huh. Imagine that.
EMMA: Well, I wanted you to get me the Bayside Tigers hoodie. Thats the team from Saved by the Bell. Have you mentioned my tattoo yet?
ME: What tattoo.
EMMA: Um. Nothing.
ME: No, no. I want to know...
EMMA: Its a HYPOTHETICAL tattoo, okay? Im sure I mentioned this before. I want to get a tattoo of the bar-code for "Atlas Shrugged."
ME: Oh. Yes, I think we covered that before. What was that about Michelles roommate being a serial killer?
EMMA: You had to be there.
ME: Is she going to be in your cabinet?
EMMA: Not for my first term. Oh, I forgotget me Pepsi. You can get like a twelve pack at WalMart for two dollars. If I buy it in the city itll run me five dollars, honest. Did I tell you on Halloween I saw a black French bulldog in a costume? I followed it.
ME: What kind of a costume?
EMMA: A small one. I have to go now.
UN-DEBASING THE CULTURE
"I am anxious," wrote longtime reader C. K. of Pittstown, "to have your thoughts on this, and on what should be done about it." This was a hyperlink, which brought me to a wire service article about the years most popular childrens Halloween costumes.
The years most popular Halloween costumes, it said, were pimps and hos. I blinked several times and then I Googled "Halloween costumes" "pimps." I got 3490 hits. Some were news articles ("Trick or Treat 2004: 'Pimp and Ho' Kids Provocative Costumes for Children Spark Outrage Among Some Parents") and some were websites which sold the costumes in question.
"I shudder to think," my correspondent continued, "which side of this you will come down on. I suppose you will find this amusing."
Well, you are mistaken. In fact I find the whole thing reprehensible. Dressing up a kid as a pimp or ho shows an appalling lack of taste.
I know that some of you just spit your coffee all over the editorial page. Some of you always do when I accuse someone else of displaying an appalling lack of taste. "Good grief," you say, "Year after year you write about trick-or-treating while dressed as the most DISGUSTING creatures imaginable! Youve written that you sometimes spent three hours mixing and remixing the ingredients for your fake blood so that it would be just the right color and consistency dripping out of your faux-gaping head wound (in which the meat cleaver was STILL EMBEDDED, for Petes sake!!). And yet you have the GALL to say that dressing up your kid as a PIMP DADDY is TASTLESS??"
Q: Dressing as a pimp debases the culture, but dressing as a flesh-eating animated corpse with a meat cleaver sticking out of your skull DOESNT debase the culture??
Q: Why not?
A: Because it doesnt.
Q: Why not?
A: BECAUSE, thats why!!
Q: Thats not even an arguOW! You kicked me in the shin!! What do youOW! Stop that!!
NEW VOICE: Hey youstop kicking my grandma!!
A: Whos gonna make me, Four-eyes? Anybody else want a piece a me?? How about YOU?? Or YOU??
OTHER NEW VOICE: Watch out!! Hes got a lava lamp and hes GONNA THROW IT!!
Ahem. The point isone moment while I put the lava lamp back downthe point is, pimps and hos have NOTHING to do with Halloween.
Now there have always been some children who have gone trick-or-treating as non-monsters. We have all had the disheartening experience of opening our doors on Halloween, joyfully anticipating a snarling werewolf, a rotting animated corpse, a cackling witch. Instead we find ourselves confronted by... a ballerina. Or a hobo. Or a superhero.
And we do our best to disguise our disappointment, we say, "Ooooh, what a pretty ballerina!" and we drop a little packet of candy corns into the open bag. We shut the door and we shake our heads. Its not, we tell ourselves, the fault of the child. Its the decline of the culture. Once upon a timeand it wasnt all that long agoeveryone knew that Halloween was about witches, Frankenstein monsters, and insane, chainsaw-wielding psychopaths. Oh sure, even back then youd get the occasional princess. But you knew the poor kids had screwed-up parents. I mean, these were obviously the same kids who came to school in poodle skirts and white bucks when it WASNT Halloween. You just knew their moms were exactly like Sissy Spaceks mother in "Carrie," only with better southern accents and fewer telekinetically-inflicted knife wounds.
But for all that, it never got to the point we have reached today, where the most popular Halloween costume is a non-monster.
Well, what is the solution? Is there some way to have it both ways? Can we dress our children up in the pimp and ho costumes they covet, and yet still preserve our precious Halloween traditions?
The solution occurred to me while I was channel surfing the other day around 3 AM and came across the classic film "Vampire Hookers," starring the late John Carradine. I had seen this in the theaters 25 years ago and I had not been overly impressed with it, although I do recall wondering how the leading lady managed to stand upright, but now I realized the title itself supplied the answer to all the problems we have been contemplating this week. After all, before you become a vampire (or werewolf, or flesh-eating zombie), you have to be something else. The law of averages suggests that there are a lot more vampire plumbers, gas station attendants, and computer programmers than vampire counts. Just as surely, there is nothing inherently absurd about a WEREWOLF pimp-daddy or a decaying flesh-eating zombie ho. There are probably plenty of both; indeed, science suggests that, if anything, people in such professions are even more susceptible to being infected by werewolfism or vampirism than are (say) dental receptionists or aluminum siding salesmen.
So if your 8-year-old absolutely HAS to go trick-or-treating in a pimp outfit, theres no need to wring your hands. Just say something like, "Youre looking extra fly all right, Otis, but I think it needs just one more thing to give it total street cred." And thats when you produce the plastic fangs. (Or, if you want to go for the ever-so-chic fifties Japanese monster movie look, you could have a second head sprouting from the shoulder of your lil Pimp Daddy, a la "The Manster." This is totally appropriate. But for the classic look, fangs are definitely the way to go).
Remember, for vampires, the teeth point DOWN, for werewolves the teeth point UP. Some traditons must be preserved at all costs! Take back the culture NOW!!
THE LEGENDARY PROFILE
The Dick Smith Monster Make-up Book had been published that summer, just as we were gearing up for Halloween. Dick Smith was a professional Hollywood make-up artist and his book was a copiously illustrated step-by-step guide to making yourself or your friends look exactly like a real Hollywood-type monster; everything from mummies and vampires and rotting corpses to genetic mutants and space creatures with extra eyeballs. It contained invaluable tips about making great looking fake scars-- morticians wax would work for raised scars, and you could embed shards of glass or razor blades in it; non-flexible collodion from your local drug store could be brushed on and then, when dry, would make state-of-the-art sunken scars, though if you smiled they would crack off. As you can see, wisdom of this caliber stays with you a lifetime.
The book started off with simple make-up jobs and climaxed with an amazing version of Frankensteins Monster. Smith had gone back to Mary Shelleys novel and discovered that her monster looked nothing like the familiar Boris Karloff version; The jolt of electricity that brings the creature to life had jellied the skin of the face, made it translucent and yellow, and the veins and muscles were visible beneath it. This image had inspired Smith, and he created a remarkably hideous Frankenstein Monster.
We were all going to go out for Halloween as Dick Smiths version of the Monster. Calvano, Picarillo, and I were all going to get started gluing red and blue yarn to our faces (to simulate the pulsing veins and arteries) as soon as we got home from school; Dick Smith had estimated that the make-up job would take 4 hours, if done correctly. We had managed to get all the necessary ingredients a good week before hand, and had done a preliminary monster face on Picarillo to make sure it looked good. It looked great. We were confident that, with a little practice, we could get our faces on in less than three hours and be on the street before six. The stuff we used to make Picarillos translucent skin (corn syrup, gelatin, and egg whites were among the many ingredients) tended to melt under the heat of the high intensity lamp we were using so we could see what we were doing, but we assumed that the stuff would be stable on a cool late October evening.
Then, two days before Halloween, Picarillo got sick. He had a horrible cold, bad enough so that his Mom actually kept him home from school; his nose was gunked up, his face was blotchy, he couldnt even drag himself out of bed to watch "Rat Patrol."
"Ibe stiw goink owp for Allo weed," Picarillo vowed when Calvano and I called on him.
"Thats the spirit," said Calvano. "You wont even need make-up. You look really disgusting as is."
But it was obvious to me and Calvano that Picarillos mother would not let him out of the house in his current state. "Youre going to have to pull yourself together and make it to school tomorrow," I said. "Your mom isnt going to keep you home from school and then send you out at night."
"Ill dake gare ob id," he said. His eyes burned with a fiery determination that betokened hundreds of millions of brain cells being charred to burnt carbon in the furnace of Picarillos skull.
He did not make it to school on Halloween.
Calvano and I stopped by his home after school to see what, if anything was up. Picarillo was even sicker than before. His pillow was soaked with sweat, his eyes were red, the floor around his bed was covered with used tissue paper.
"Well?" said Calvano. "Are you coming or not?"
"Ob gorse Ib gumming," said Picarillo. He wrenched himself out of bed, hung onto the bedpost to keep from falling to the floor, and cried, "Bob! Bob!"
"Whos Bob?" I said.
"Dot Bob, BOB! Ib galling by buther."
"His mother," explained Calvano.
"Bob! Good dews! By feber brogue! I feel find! I can go owd for Alloweed!"
Picarillos mom was delighted by this news. "Im so happy about your miracle cure. Get back in bed, you moron."
"She dint buy id," Picarillo said sadly. Calvano and I helped him back into bed. The bedclothes, we noted with approval, were littered with Frito crumbs. "Bake be ub eddy way," said Picarillo. "Eben if I gant go owd, I still wanda bead a Bonster for Alloweed."
"Youre too sweaty and gross," said Calvano. "Everything would just slide off your face."
"I thawed yoog eyes were by frengs," said Picarillo.
"We are your frengs," said Calvano.
"Well glue the veins and arteries to your face," I said, "but thats as far as we go. We gotta get ready ourselves."
"Yoog eyes are grade," said Picarillo. Calvano opened his big Macys shopping bag and took out a jar of glue. He had a coil of red yarn soaking in the glue, and, while I held the Dick Smith make-up book open, he began applying this to Picarillos face. This took rather more time than usual, because every time Picarillo sneezed, he blew the veins and arteries off his face.
"You good pood sub muscles odd by face, too," said Picarillo.
"Cmon," said Calvano, "We aint got all night."
"I good be dying," said Picarillo.
We began applying the sub-dermal musculature to Picarillos face. This was a very time-consuming process. Picarillos mother came into the room with Picarillos medicine. "He just wants to greet a few trick-or-treaters at the door in his full Frankenstein make-up," Calvano explained. "Hes not too sick for that, is he?" Picarillos mother said she guessed it was all right, but wed better not get any of this glop on the sheets. To be safe, we packed paper towels around Picarillos head.
We were now committed to completing Picarillos make-up. There would not be time to do two more Frankensteins before dark. I began mixing up the disgusting yellow translucent skin in Picarillos bathroom. We could hear trick-or-treaters ringing the bell downstairs.
By now Picarillo had fallen asleep, or perhaps lapsed into a coma, and the last stages of the Frankenstein face went on with little fuss. Picarillos mother wandered into the room from time to time, shook her head, and walked out. "I let your parents know youre over here," she said at one point. We nodded, busily deforming her son.
When we finished, it was obvious that we had a masterpiece on our hands. Calvano thought Picarillo looked far grosser than the photos in the Dick Smith make-up book. We woke Picarillo and walked him down the stairs. He moaned in a convincingly Frankensteinish voice that he just wanted to sleep. "Just greet ONE lousy trick-or-treater," said Calvano. "Youll scare some kid to death. Itll be great."
When the bell rang, Calvano threw the door wide. A kid in a Casper the Friendly Ghost mask stared up at the tottering, repulsive form of Picarillo. Picarillo looked down at the kid. The kid opened his bag wide. Picarillos face dropped into the bag with a horrible splat. The kid screamed. Picarillo rocked unsteadily in the doorway, said something that sounded like "Ib dubba zig," and then threw up into the still-open bag. The kid screamed again, and began punching Picarillo in the stomach. "You big fat goon!" the kid said, pummeling Picarillo. The kid was 6 years old, tops, but Picarillo was no match for him in his weakened condition. Mrs. Picarillo had to pull the kid off her son and throw him out. He pounded on the door for ten minutes before he gave up, screaming some remarkably accomplished invective the whole time.
"Just think," Calvano said much later, "We did the greatest Frankenstein make-up of all time, and the only person who saw it didnt even appreciate it. Its like a parable of art."
"Yuh," I said.
I had no one to blame but myself. All that Mulberry Street Joey Clams wanted was a pumpkin, and any pumpkin at the vegetable stand down the block would have been fine. It was a couple of weeks before Halloween and he just wanted a pumpkin to carve into a jack olantern and stick in the window of the Custom Neon Sign Shop. But every time he picked one up Id say, "Geez, in JERSEY they wouldnt even let em sell a pumpkin that small. Its a fifty-dollar fine for trying to sell a pumpkin that weighs less than 35 pounds. Fact."
Each time I said this he gave me the fisheye and told me I was full of it, but he inevitably put the pumpkin back.
"Fifty bucks a pound," I elaborated. "In Jersey, they take the whole pumpkin thing seriously. All vegetables, but pumpkins especially. Its The Garden State."
"Yeah, yeah, Ive seen the license plates," he said. We were now visiting our third vegetable stand and had come across no pumpkins of Jersey quality. "It never made any sense, because The Garden is on 34th Street. But I figured they meant most of the season ticket holders were from Jersey. I figured they were rubbin our noses in it. But youre saying theyre talking about GARDEN gardens? Like tomatoes?"
"Absolutely," I said. "In fact, these pumpkins youre looking at here, in Jersey, these would be moderately passable tomatoes. In size, I mean."
"What a stupid thing to put on a license plate. We got lotsa GARDENS. Its like something the Donato kid would say." The Donato kid was always saying things like, I know the names of all the crayons! or Three days ago I ate a chocolate donut. Two days ago I ate a SECOND chocolate donut. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I suspected something might be amiss with the Donato kid. His comparing my home state with this unfortunate youth did not sit well with me, and I was working up a devastating comebacksomething along the lines of "Oh yeah? Well, South Carolina is called The Palmetto State!when Mulberry Street Joey Clams took his hand from the (quite huge) pumpkin hed been contemplating and said, "Okay! Were going for the real deal! None of these pathetic cripple pumpkins is good enough to be the official Custom Neon Sign Shop NEON PUMPKIN. Lets go!"
I had no time to absorb that ominous neon pumpkin stuff before I found myself behind the wheel of the Custom Neon Sign Shop van, taking Mulberry Street Joey Clams on his first ever visit to the magical state of New Jersey, where vegetables the size of Volkswagens awaited us.
"Whoa! Incredible!" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams as we emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into the blinding Garden State sunshine. "Its like a whole other world! Theres, like, ROCKS!!"
"Welcome to Weehawken," I said. I moved into an exit lane and in short order the van was chugging down the streets of Hoboken, the most densely populated city in the most densely populated state in America.
"So this is what its like in the country," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, nodding appreciatively at the rural apartment houses and rustic office buildings and bucolic fast food restaurants that stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see (roughly 6 blocks). "Its not exactly the way I pictured it... you know, like the way farms look on TV."
I nodded. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I were both fervent admirers of the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons that ran on Channel 5 each afternoon at 3 PM, usually a non-busy hour at the Custom Neon Sign Shop. "This guy kills me," Mulberry Street Joey Clams would say when Foghorn Leghorn whacked a sleeping hound in the rear end with a 2 X 4. I hadnt realized till now that this sort of thing provided Mulberry Street Joey Clams with his entire frame of reference vis-à-vis farms.
"Hey!" he cried. "Look over thereon that stoop. Theres a pumpkin thats no biggern the ones we were lookin at on Broome Street. Whats goin on?"
"Its a snob thing," I said. "That guy obviously went into New York to buy his pumpkin. Its a lot smaller than a Jersey pumpkin, but its from, you know, The Big City, so he thinks hes, you know, a hep cat."
"Gotcha," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Like people who go to restaurants and order non-Italian food and pretend it tastes good."
"Well, we need the biggest pumpkin we can findI got this idea. Little letters." He sat back with a satisfied smile. "Did you hear what I said? Little letters. What do you think?"
"Um," I said.
"Im talking about IN the pumpkin."
I didnt say um because I was allowed only one um per conversation with Mulberry Street Joey Clams. If I broke the One Um rule, he got testy. But um was the only response that seemed to make any sense, so I was silent.
"Little letters! Like in one eye, Happy and in the other eye Halloween. You following me?"
"You want tiny little neon letters inside the pumpkin eyes," I said.
"Right. And the bigger the pumpkin, the bigger the eyes, so the bigger the letters. Little tiny letters in little tiny eyes would be cute, but Im not totally sure we could pull it off."
Since about 70% of our full size neon signs either did not light up at all or blew apart when they were plugged in, I was not totally sure we could pull it off either, and said so. "You got a bad attitude," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "and not the GOOD kinda bad attitude, like me. Yo! Stop the truck!"
I pulled to the curb. A scarecrow of sorts had caught Mulberry Street Joey Clams eye. Nothing specialjust a pair of pants and a shirt stuffed with newspaper and straw, topped by a jack olantern, the whole thing sitting on a folding chair at the entrance to a small apartment building. The building janitor was finishing it off with a straw hat, tilting it at various angles.
"Thats what I want," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He was barely breathing.
"Its not even a particularly big pumpkin," I pointed out.
"Its a pumpkin GUY," he said. "Ive seen the heads in the city alla time, but out here they got the whole GUY. Ask the farmer there how much for the whole thing."
"Mulberry Street Joey Clams, its a three dollar pumpkin and some old clothes! We could just..."
"Offer him twenty bucks," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Lookit the smile! It goes UP and then DOWN, like a sideways S!"
There was nothing I could say to that, not even um. I got out and told the janitor there was a crazy guy in the van who wanted the pumpkin head guy and was offering twenty dollars. The janitor said, "Sold!" I went back to the van and told Mulberry Street Joey Clams the janitor wanted fifty bucks. The sale went through for $35, although the janitor absolutely refused to let us have the folding chair.
I did my best to convince Mulberry Street Joey Clams to put the pumpkin guy in the window of the Custom Neon Sign Shop but he insisted on propping it up on a stool by the front door, right on the sidewalk, "Jersey style," as he put it. It was a terrible idea. I think some kid stole the head before we even got back in the shop. "We could just buy a new pumpkin," I said, "and put the whole thing inside," but Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, "Not with that SMILE." His heart was broken. The headless pumpkin guy sat in front of the store for two days before somebody walked off with the clothes.
ASK THE COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
Do you remember how, back during the 500th anniversary of Columbus first voyage, they released all those movies (Well, two, anyhow) that kind of made him look like a creep? Now that we have celebrated the 512th anniversary, I think it is maybe time for some new movies in which Columbus is shown to be a cool guy after all and not a creep. What do you think?
Didnt like the movies where Columbus was kind of a creep
I agree wholeheartedly. And amazingly, Hollywood agrees with us! One idea the folks in tinseltown are kicking around is a gritty urban mystery where Columbus (Jim Belushi) is a streetwise but sloppy older cop in LA who gets teamed up with a visiting Hong Kong detective (Jackie Chan). Readers are invited to send in their own suggestions, although not to me.
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
Isnt columbus a type of cloud? And if so, which came first, the cloud or the man?
Man or cloud
There is no cloud called columbus. You may be thinking of cumulus. As individual cumulus clouds last only a matter of hours at best, the man Columbus predated any current cumulus cloud. On the other hand, cumulus clouds as in general have been around for eons, long before the birth of Columbus.
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
I have heard news anchors refer to Columbus as "Christopher Colon." Was that his real name? Why do we call him Columbus, if so?
You misheard the news anchors in question. They were calling Columbus Colón, not colon. A colon is the reason why you want to make sure you eat plenty of fiber. Anyway, Colón is not really Columbus read name. His birth name was Bernard Schwartz.
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
I do not think Columbus, Ohio deserves to be called "Columbus." There are a lot of much more deserving cities in the US. Did they win a lottery or what?
Suspects they won a lottery or something
Yes, they won a lottery. No city is less deserving of being named after Christopher Columbus than Columbus, Ohio. You may have heard (in the song "New York New York) that New York is The city that never sleeps. Columbus, on the other hand, is The city that doesnt fall asleep for quite a while and keeps looking at the alarm clock and finally kind of dozes off for about an hour and then the next door neighbor makes a lot noise stumbling in around 2:30 in the morning and Columbus never really gets back to sleep until 45 minutes before the alarm goes off. Thats what it says on the city seal. Fact.
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
In a smack down between Columbus and Leif Erickson, wouldnt Leif win?
Proud to be of Italian Descent but under no illusions about who was tougher, Columbus or Leif Erickson
Leif Erickson was a Viking so the odds would certainly favor him. Any intelligent odds maker will tell you that when a good BIG man faces off against a good SMALL man, bet on the big guy. You are to be commended on not allowing your ethnic heritage to interfere with your common sense.
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
What about a smack down between Columbus and Duane "The Rock" Johnson?
Proud to be of Italian Descent but under no illusions about who is tougher, Columbus or Duane "The Rock" Johnson
Lets take it as a given that anybody who outweighs Columbus by more than 30 poundsespecially when its 30 pounds of muscle (and in the case of the Rock its probably more like 70 pounds of muscle) is going to handle Columbus pretty easily in a fair fight. And I believe Columbus WOULD fight fair, despite what the people who want to turn Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day would have you believe.
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
Did Columbus have any piercings? I would like to get my nostril pierced but my parents say no. But if Columbus had his nostril pierced I think it would go a long way towards convincing them it wasnt so bad.
Its possible Columbus had a pierced ear, since sailors often wore earrings back in the day, although Ive never seen anything to suggest that he did. It is very unlikely that he had a pierced anything-else, including a nostril.
COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY LATE BREAKING BULLETIN: The Columbus Day Expert Guy was kidding about "Bernard Schwartz" being Columbus real name. It was actually Tony Curtis real name. No more phone calls or emails about this, please!
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
Last week there was a married couple on Dr. Phil, and the wife was upset because the husband only showered once or twice a week and only brushed his teeth when he wanted to have sex and never picked up after himself and he said it was because he worked really hard supporting the family and he thought SHE should have to pick up. But what does that have to do with him not brushing his teeth? I am asking you because Dr. Phil kind of took his eye off the ball on that one if you ask me by concentrating totally on the fair share of the housework aspect and mostly ignored the hygiene issues.
Not happy with Dr. Phil this time out
Im with you 100%. The fact is the guy was a lazy slob and you zeroed right in on the proof: when a guy doesnt brush his own teeth it has nothing to do with even the most Neanderthal concept of The Womans Place. But I guess it would be tough to fill up an entire hour show by saying Youre a slob. Brush your teeth. Although that would have pretty much nailed it.
DEAR COLUMBUS DAY EXPERT GUY:
Why dont we combine Columbus Day and Halloween into one super nutty coo-coo holiday? You could keep the spirit of both holidays intact by having everybody go trick or treating dressed as Columbus. The other thing on my mind, Columbus wise: You know the joke Q: What is the biggest pencil in the world? A: Pennsylvania? Well, there is one about Columbus tooQ: What is the biggest bus in the world? A: Columbus. But I would think Columbus would actually be smaller than even a mini-bus. Your thoughts, please.
Lets have Columboween.
Thanks for writing
FAREWELL TO THE MASTER
Several years ago I received a video tape urging the re-election of Representative Dick Zimmer. I did one of those o brave new world columns at the time, noting that while the tape was pretty spiffy as such things go, if he was really serious about getting my vote, hed send me a copy of "Super Vixens."
Well, that was a few election cycles back, the VHS tape has joined the vinyl LP in the Museum of Quaint Technology, and Mr. Zimmer no longer represents my congressional district. From this last fact you might infercorrectlythat my advice was not taken. If it had beenif the Delaware Valley had been flooded with cassettes of "Super Vixens"Dick Zimmer would probably be occupying the White House today.
I found myself thinking of this turning point in American political history because of this years Ghoul Pool. The Ghoul Pool is a venerable American tradition in some of the rarefied circles in which I travel. At the start of the year, everybody in the Pool selects ten candidates who, in the opinion of the pooler, will (a) shuffle off this mortal coil before years end and (b) make the wire services in the course of so shuffling. There are 11 folks in this years pool, so each *ahem* candidate who is translated to a Higher Plane is worth 11 points. If two people have bet on the same horse, said horse is worth 5.5 points to each person, and so on.
I was the only person in the Ghoul Pool who guessed correctly that Russ Meyer, the man who created "Super Vixens," would cash out in 2004. It happened a couple of weeks ago. Russ netted me the full 11 points and moved me into 4th placejust one more thing among many for which Im grateful to Russ. Some of the others are the aforementioned "Super Vixens," "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," and "Faster Pussycat Kill Kill."
"Faster Pussycat Kill Kill" alone would justify Russ Meyers claim to the title of Greatest Filmmaker of the 20th Century. The Academy Award for the Best Picture of 1966 went to "A Man for All Seasons" (???), but anyone whos seen even the first ten minutes of "Faster Pussycat Kill Kill" knows there must have been a miscount at the offices of Price-Waterhouse. "Faster Pussycat" is not merely the best picture of 1966; it is without a doubt the best film ever made about homicidal drag-racing go-go dancers.
And yet, Meyer was just hitting his stride when he made "Faster Pussycat." The next ten years saw the premieres of "Vixen," "Cherry Harry and Raquel," "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," and "Super Vixens." Honest men may differ about which of these is Russ Meyers masterpiece. I would cast my vote for "Super Vixens," but I must say a word about the oft overlooked "Cherry Harry and Raquel."
"Cherry Harry and Raquel" doesnt play like any other movie ever made. This is because the laboratory accidentally ruined somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes of the negative. Since the whole thing was supposed to clock in at around 80 minutes, this is a pretty substantial hunk of missing narrative. A lesser man might have thrown in the sponge at this point, or at least tried to reshoot the thing. Meyer took the film hed salvaged, and to bridge the continuity gaps, added footage of (for instance) a naked woman operating a telephone switchboard sitting on the railroad tracks, people running around in the desert with tubas on their heads, and so on. On first viewing, you spend a lot of time saying, "Did I just see what I think I just saw?" If you thought you just saw someone running around in the desert with a tuba on her head, the answer is "yes." But by the time your brain has processed this information, the narrative has been interrupted by another demented visual non-sequitor. This is probably the way that people with severe head trauma see the whole world, except for the part about the tuba.
I would be hard pressed to think of a movie that has less in common with "Cherry Harry and Raquel" than Mel Gibsons "The Passion," but they share one extremely rare distinction: their directors put up their own money to get them made.
Thus, had Meter abandoned "Cherry Harry and Raquel," hed have lost his entire investment. In fact, Meyer financed all but three of his movies (he was also generally the editor, cinematographer, and writer) and routinely made personal appearances at the movie houses which showed his wares, and mixed with his fans.
Thats how I was able to meet Russ Meyer in person, when he was barnstorming New Jersey in support of his film "Up." I have to admit it wasnt one of his best; after "Super Vixens" the decline in quality is pretty steep. But Russ himself turned out to be a delightful raconteur, who answered all of our questions (Q: Is the Harry in "Cherry Harry and Raquel" the same Harry in "Super Vixens?" They are both played by Charles Napier, but hes a good guy in "Cherry" and the villain in "Super Vixens." A: No, but I think he wears the same hat) and happily posed for pictures with us. We (12 or 15 of my closest friends and I) saw him in Paramus for an early afternoon matinee and then drove to Morristown to catch him at an after dinner show there. To our shock and delight, he recognized us. "Wow," he said, "You guys really ARE my biggest fans!" And we were, too.
Now Russ has passed on at the too-young age of 82. He will be missed. But I have to admit that those 11 points have softened the blow quite a bit.
THE ROAST BEEF SANDWICH USHER
The Park Theater was a slightly seedy second-run movie house when my friend Chuck got a job there as the assistant manager. Chuck had big plans for the place. A second-run house showed recent movies you might have missed and generally charged considerably less than the first-run theaters the ecological niche currently filled by places like Blockbuster. Chuck wanted to turn the Park into a repertoire house, changing the bills a couple of times a week, showing all kinds of movies, even real old onesthe function currently performed by channels like Turner Classics. The Park had been limping along, sometimes breaking even, sometimes not, for at least 15 years, and Chuck didnt have to work hard to convince the owner to give his idea a shot.
Chuck also wanted to staff the place with people who "shared his vision," which is a euphemism for "hire his friends." He wasnt cold-blooded enough to simply fire all the townies who worked there as ushers, candy girls, and cashiers, and the owner probably would have balked if hed tried to. It wasnt necessary; the Park paid minimum wage and the turnover was considerable, so Chuck was able to replace everybody there, one at a time, with his buddies, like a virus taking over a healthy organism. Within six months all the ushers were old friends of Chucks.
Except Tommy, who was there when Chuck was hired and had apparently decided upon ushering as a career. In the normal course of things, when another friend of Chucks needed a job, Chuck would have cut Tommys hours back to the point where Tommy would have quit, but that didnt happen because Tommy made himself indispensable to the smooth running of the Park Theater. He became the Roast Beef Sandwich Usher. That is, he was the guy Chuck sent out to the roast beef sandwich place across town to bring back his (Chucks) roast beef sandwich.
The rest of us refused to become the Roast Beef Sandwich Usher. This was not (just) laziness. We didnt object to lousy jobs, like mopping up the vomit in the balcony. We didnt like it, but we all recognized that it had to be done. And of course when youre doing a really miserable job, you get to brag about it, the way that my friend Victors brother used to brag about his draft number being 4. People would give a low whistle and sometimes buy him a drink, where if he had been 37 or something, nobody would have been impressed (although he still would have ended up in the Army). Similarly, I dined out for years on my story about unclogging the ladies room toilet when somebody crammed a stuffed elephant down there during a matinee of "Pippi Longstocking."
But even though we were willing to mop up vomit and uncram elephants, we all drew the line at delivering Chucks roast beef sandwich. It would have altered the relationship in some unhealthy way and Chuck (who never grasped this) only made it worse by telling us we could "keep the change."
So Tommy ended up keeping the change. His whole function was getting Chucks roast beef sandwiches.
You might get the impression from this that Tommy lounged around reading the Racing Form between roast beef runs while the rest of us slaved away, working ceaselessly to keep the Park Theater running smoothly, like the sailors in "Master and Commander"polishing the brass, stitching up the mainsail, trepanning the odd skull and so forth. In fact, unless someone had just thrown up, we didnt really do much of anything, except watch the movies when they were interesting and hit on the candy girls when they werent. Thats what Tommy did, too, in addition to his roastbeefing.
One evening a neatly printed cardboard sign appeared on the candy counter:
Last Sandwich Run 7:40
Please Place Your Orders by 7:30
Sign Up Sheet by the Milkduds
There in fact was a sign up sheet by the Milkduds, as well as a menu from the sandwich shop taped to the popcorn machine. The candy girls made change for people who ordered from the menu, and at 7:35 the cashier called the order in. Tommy made sure that "his" customers all had aisle seats (or close to it) and marked them (the seats, not the customers) with small peelable glow-in-the-dark stickers little blobs of color that said "groovy" or "flower power" or some related inanity, with which the candy girls decorated their text book covers. Tommy never had more than four customers (not counting Chuck) and never collected more than $1.50 in tipsnot a whale of a lot, but I suppose that was inevitable since everyone had paid up front (and most people had eaten dinner less than an hour earlier). But it was $1.50 more than the rest of us made.
This went onwith Chucks approval, since he felt it kept Tommy from asking for a raisefor about six weeks, and then the sandwich shop, recognizing a go-getter when they saw one, hired Tommy away. "This makes no sense," said Chuck. "Why would the sandwich place hire Tommy? They got the roast beef sandwiches RIGHT THERE." Nobody stepped in to fill the void Tommy left. The menu from the sandwich shop remained taped to the side of the popcorn machine for a couple of weeks before someone finally took it down. Chuck started to brown bag it. The golden age of roast beef sandwiches was over.
Crazy Crazy River
I live in a pretty quiet neighborhood, but every eight years or so a propane tank comes hurtling down the Delaware towards us and the joint starts jumping. Im not sure if its the same propane tank every time or not, but if it is, I think maybe its time for whoever owns it to start thinking about getting an oil burner or even just buying some extra blankets this winter.
I got the heads up on the water-rising-and-propane-tank-on-the-way thing pretty early this go round, which gave me time to secure my belongings and move them to safety. I didnt actually secure my belongings and move them to safety, but I did have the time.
As the Delaware rose, I wandered over to the nearby creekI believe on maps its called the hoojafoojakanetskapoojamiskatowakkajawakkittalonganetcong, for shortand noticed that there was a considerable backwash from the river. The ducks were not at all put out by this. They didnt have to chase bread crumbs down stream as usual, they just had to bob around and wait for the backwash to send the bread crumbs upstream. Well, if the ducks are happy, Im happy.
I made an educated guess that the Delaware was not going to rise enough to flood my living room (my educated guesses, I should mention, are based on absolutely no data whatsoever and tend to favor my burning the fewest number of calories possible in any given situation) and went about my daily business. Then about 1 AM I saw one of my neighbors driving out of town at an unduly high speed, with what appeared to be all of his earthly belongings wrapped in a tarp and tied to the roof of his car. Later I discovered that what I had taken for all of his earthly belongings was a "Chuck E. Cheese" sign he had borrowed from said venue as part of a fraternity initiation and that his speed was a function of police pursuit, but at the time I had no way of knowing this and reassessed my strategy for dealing with the rising R. and the hurtling tank of P.
I took an inventory of my apartment contents, with special attention to stuff on the floor, since in the event of actual flooding things on the floor were more likely to get wet than things not on the floor. I then concluded that nothing more than two inches or so off the floor was going to get wet (this was one of those educated guesses referred to earlier). So now it was a matter of dividing that stuff into three categories: (1) Stuff currently on the floor that would not get ruined if covered with water and therefore didnt have to be moved, such as underwear and dumbbells. (2) Stuff currently on the floor that would get ruined if covered with water and had to be moved, such as guitars and food. (3) Stuff currently on the floor that would get ruined if covered with water but didnt have to be moved, such as everything else. Once I had mentally consigned everything on the floor into one or another of these categories, I realized I only had to concern myself with category (2) items. These were going to go on the couch for the duration of the emergency. Also, as a precaution, I turned all my broom upside down so that the part with the bristles was in the air and wouldnt get soaked. A lot of people are probably surprised to learn that I own a broom, but I do. I am, as has often been said, a man of hidden depths.
I half-expected to run out of room on the couch, but it turned out that a lot of the food I had assumed to be category (2) was pretty much category (3). In fact all of it was aside from some Doritos and they had definitely seen better days, too. In the end I didnt actually move anything onto the couch, aside from a cushion and the guitar. I actually took a pair of jeans out of my drawer and put them ON the floor, since they were a little too big and needed to shrink a bit and getting flooded would require a wash n dry that might do the trick.
Then I went off to work and didnt give much thought to the approaching deluge-with-propane-tank until my lunch break, when I realized my collection of Metamorpho the Element Man comic books was under my bed in a cardboard box and that the cardboard box would probably not afford much deluge protection. It wouldnt hurt, I reckoned, to put that box on the couch before it was too late.
There were a variety of cops and people in reflective vests in the vicinity of my apartment, watching the river cresting. "Whats up, chief?" said one of the people with the reflective vests.
"Gotta get my Element Mans out from under the bed," I explained.
"Your Elephant Man?"
"Element Man," I said. "And theres six of them [There are in fact a total of seven, but Im missing issue 4] so its Element Mans."
"No, its Element Men," he said. "The plural of man is men."
"Not if its a title," I said.
"That has nothing to do with it."
"Well, would you say The Grapes of Wrath ARE my favorite book?
"No," he said.
"All right then."
"My favorite book is Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Trakakris. It was a hell of a movie, too."
At that point I decided I didnt care if my Metamorpho comics got wet after all and I went back to work. While I was at work the propane tank passed by but missed the bridge and the river crested well short of my living room. When I got home I almost picked the jeans off the floor and put them back in the dresser, but according to the Weather Channel theres another tropical storm brewing out there somewhere, so I left them right there just in case this time the place actually gets flooded. They dont look completely ridiculousdespite what SOME people thinkbut they are a tad too roomy in the seat and another trip through the drier wouldnt hurt a bit.
I was rummaging through my garage the other day, looking for something nasty to use on the ragweed in the pumpkin patch. As I bent down, the bill of my cap intersected the thread of a descending spider, who stopped descending and hung from the bill of my cap, thinking things over.
I continued rummaging, found some brownish gunk guaranteed to make the demise of the ragweed long and painful, and set to work.
Later, as I waited for the weeds to start screaming, I noticed that the spider and I were eye to eye. Or rather eye to eyes, since the spiders got eight of em. Soon we came to an understanding and went into partnership. We decided to collaborate on a web.
The secret of any successful collaboration is that one of the collaborators does all the work. In this case, it happened to be the spider. Its not that Im lazy. Or anyway, its not just that Im lazy. The spider can spin webs out of its abdomen and I can not, much as I would like to. My contribution consisted of providing interesting things for the spider to weave the web around.
If your first reaction to all this is "Ick!" and your second reaction is to wonder aloud who my shrink might be, Im afraid you are the victim of Hollywoods vicious anti-spider smear campaign.
Youve seen too many bad giant spider moviesbad in that the movies stink, and bad in the sense that the giant spider is rarely, if ever, the hero.
You know the way it goes. Some spider grows to 1000 times its normal size and runs amuck, and then we kill it. No one involved in making these movies (or in watching them) (except me) ever entertains the theory that the giant spider is running amuck not because its a spider but because its a giant. What would you do if you were suddenly 1000 times your normal size? Head down to the neighborhood bar and shoot a few racks of pool? I dont think so. Youd run amuck. So lets not have any double standards for giant spiders.
Before you start flooding the newspaper office with angry letters, YES, the spider in "Charlottes Web" is sympathetically drawn, and YES, the Spiderman movies are a step in the right direction. But Charlotte the Spider and Toby McGuire are not, when you come right down to it, really very spider-ish. Neither one has enough eyes, for one thing. And Toby not only never bites the heads off flies or anything, but he was firing his viscous webbing from his wrists, not his abdomen. Where was he storing all that stuff? He should have had forearms like Popeye. I realize they needed the PG rating, but come on.
I first became a fan of spiders many years ago when one took up residence under my bathroom sink and singehandedly (or eightlegged-ly) eliminated my cockroach problem. Since then, Ive always thought it a good idea to have a spider or two on the premises, not only for insect control, but for purely esthetic reasons. A first-rate spider web is beautiful.
One day I turned a milk carton on its side, put some junk inside, and added a spider. The spider built her web between two pieces of junk I had selected. I felt like I had made a major contribution to the final product.
I used more care in selecting the objects for my next box. At first my arrangements were heavily influenced by the remarkably assembled glass-fronted boxes done by Joseph Cornell (who never worked with spidersanother great artist ruined by Hollywood). My best web (done in tandem with a feisty little brown spider) was in a box containing only an empty tomato juice can, a three sided metric ruler, and a scattering of childrens building blocks. The spider was so inspired she came close to describing a double helix with her web.
With OUR web.
So, the new spider and I are set up now. Every so often, if I notice a cloud of flies in the vicinity, I casually stroll over and remark, " I understand theres some swell decaying food in that milk carton under the back steps."
Theres a very promising web under construction between an old paintbrush I forgot to clean a few weeks ago and a beer bottle I found near the railroad tracks. (So far, the burned out light bulb has been relatively unwebbed).
And, in a few weeks, Ill preserve the whole assemblage for posterity with a light spray of shellac.
My new partner will be preserved for posterity as well, but like I told him when we were setting up the partnership, no sacrifice is too great for our art.
It was the morning of the big Labor Day block party (to be held, as always, in the DeYoungs yard, since it had an inground pool) and my dad led me and Picarillo and Calvano into the basement, where a big cardboard box sat beside the oil burner. The box was full of empty plastic dishwashing liquid bottles, 25 or 30 of them. "These bottles have already been rinsed out," said my father, "but you boys rinse them out again. Keep rinsing them until there are no bubbles. Then when youre absolutely sure theres not a molecule of soap left, fill them up with water and take a sip. If you taste any soap, rinse them again. So far so clear?"
"Then dry them." He tossed a roll of paper towels to Picarillo. "Inside and out. Holler when youre done." He vanished up the steps and we set to work.
My mother had been saving plastic bottles for a long timenot just dishwashing liquid bottles, but bleach, detergent, chocolate sauce. She started doing this when my sister was in Brownies, and the troop cut up bleach bottles to make flour scoops. It was a crafts project. My mother continued saving plastic bottles just in case another crafts project requiring plastic bottles happened to come along. So far it had not. My sister was now 17 and we owned the largest collection of plastic bottles in the world.
During this years Fourth of July block party, however, someone knocked a bottle of gin off the picnic table, the clean-up had been a tad inefficient, and by the end of the festivities 17 pieces of glass had been removed from 13 different feet.
There had been some talk about banning liquor from the Labor Day bash, but one day as my mother was tossing another empty bottle of Ivory Liquid into the box, a synapse fired and a glowing 60 watt bulb popped into view above her head. Not only would plastic bottles not break if they fell off the picnic tables, but since they had squirt tops, they wouldnt even spill!
So here we were, re-rinsing the bottles in preparation for filling them with gin, vodka, and Tom Collins mix. The three of us would not be allowed to do the actual filling, but we did get to write the names of the various spirits and mixers on the bottles with Magic Markers. We mostly used squiggly "monster" letters patterned after the logo of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine, but there were also dripping blood-style letters and even flaming letters inspired by the spiffy graphics of "CarTOONS" and "Hot Rodders," two excellent periodicals Calvanos brother Duff subscribed to.
The plastic liquor bottles were an instant success. "Very nicely done," said my Uncle Tug, cradling bottles of gin (in blood letters) and vermouth (robot letters, studded with excellently rendered nuts and bolts). "Too bad your pop didnt purchase gin worthy of these superb bottles. Ah well." We tagged along as he retreated to a table under the decaying elm tree near the corner of the DeYoungs yard. He ignored the hot dogs and hamburgers charring on the grill; he had brought a picnic hamper of his own. "Boys," he said. "Labor Day happens to take place in the month of September. And September contains the letter r. Therefore..."
He reached into the hamper and brought out what for a second we thought was a seashell. But there was some... glop or something on it...
"Theres something wrong with your shell," said Picarillo.
"Yeah? Nothing a little lemon wont fix," said Uncle Tug. He deftly coaxed a few drops from a lemon wedge, brought the shell to his lips, and tipped the contents into his mouth. Picarillo screamed. In fact, we all screamed. Uncle Tug chewed a couple of times and swallowed. "Blue point," he said, dabbing his lips with a napkin. "Never had one? I know your mother swears by the Olympia, but I never cared for em, myself. Blue points got a real tang to it. Let it rest on your tongue a minute and theres a sort of cucumber undertaste to it." He held out a half shell towards Picarillo, who was changing from one unhealthy color to another at remarkable speed.
"Whats all the yelling about?" said my mother. "Oohoysters!"
"Just blue points, Annie," said Uncle Tug.
"Well, theres nothing wrong with that," she said. My father and several other adults had now wandered over to Tugs table, and Tug graciously shared the contents of his hamper.
Watching my parents suck down one oyster after another was horrifying and utterly disorientingthey might as well have been eating kittens, or aluminum siding.
"All right," my father said finally, "Enough screaming."
"You fellahs need to educate your palates," said Tug. "You eat plenty of stuff thats a lot more disgusting than oysters."
"Like what?" said Calvano.
"Candy corns," said Tug. We were thunderstruck. How could anyone thing CANDY CORNS were disgusting?
The adults were now sated, and drifted away.
"Theyll never make me eat oysters," said Picarillo.
"Well," said Calvano, "what about if you got a job as a geek?" Million Dollar Movie had been showing Tyrone Power in "Nightmare Alley" recently and wed done a lot of thinking and talking about being geeks. It seemed a likely career path for Picarillo, in fact. "Then youd HAVE to eat oysters, if somebody gave you a bucks and said eat this oyster."
"I wouldnt do it."
"Youd have to or theyd FIRE you!"
"I could do it," said Calvano. "You gotta be PROFESSIONAL, Picarillo!"
So we decided to have an oyster-eating contest right then and there. "I say I can eat TWICE as many oysters as you can, Picarillo," said Calvano.
"Go ahead," said Picarillo.
"You go first, and Ill eat twice as many."
"Im gonna eat EIGHT. Theres no way youre eating 16."
"You arent eating eight."
The argument continued. Finally Picarillo agreed to waive the double requirement; whoever ate the most oysters, wins. When 11 minutes had passed and no one made a move towards the hamper, we decided that whoever ate ANY oyster would be the winner. More time passed.
"Whoever puts an oyster in his mouth," I suggested.
"Okay," said Calvano.
"Fine," said Picarillo.
20 minutes went by, and the Oyster Eating contest did not have a winner.
It still doesnt.
ASK THE PEROGIE EXPERT GUY
Big doings here at Perogie Expert Guy Headquarters (AKA "cubicle D")! Not only has the management FINALLY gotten around to fixing the corner of that linoleum tile which kept curling up and tripping your correspondent at inopportune moments, but the grungy old waste basket has been replaced by a tres eleganté little number with an art deco motif! Woof! Woof!
Unfortunately, we still have not quite ironed out the little email contretemps with the Olympics Expert Guy who has been a tad miffed ever since I changed my email address to OEG@expertguy.com (O for onion, E for egg, and G for goat cheese, the Perogie Expert Guys THREE FAVORITE PEROGIE INGREDIENTS!!) I have been getting some of the Olympics Expert Guys mail (his address is OEGuy@expertguy.com) (VERY imaginative! NOT!) and although he CLAIMS he has not been getting ANY of mine, which is ridiculous, since I have not received a single perogie-related letter since the changeover. "You werent getting any before either," huffs Mr. Olympics Expert Guy. Me-ow! I think I know whos favored in the 5000 meter SULK! Anyway, until he starts fessing up and delivering my perogie mail, I am just going to answer the Olympics questions which have landed in my inbox. So THERE!
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
I guess international crime-fighting organizations such as Interpol have no fashion police. Some of the colors of the uniforms of the participants didn't even match nor correspond to the colors on their flag. Why do so many countries parade around in the opening ceremonies in such ugly uniforms?
Appalled and confused, both.
EXCELLENT question. Which reminds me, a few weeks back I said that the "samosa" was the Indian subcontinents answer to the perogie. While the stuffing is (or can be) similar to that of the perogie, the perogie is an al dente PASTA pocket. The samosa is more of like a turnover. Sorry about that!
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
Is the earth growing? It was reported that there were more countries competing than ever beforewhere did they come from?
No idea where they could be coming from
Some of them are former Soviet Republics, some of are newly formed African states, but ALL of them have a perogie or perogie-like item in the national cuisine. "Even countries from the Far East, Perogie Expert Guy?" Yes indeedwhat, after all, is a WON TON if not a Chinese perogie? ("Is the earth growing?" indeed!! LOVE it!)
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
Why aren't the Greek people filling the venues of many of the events? There are a lot of empty seats. And if I may, a follow-up question. Why do they use the word venue and not just call it what it isa pool, a stadium, an arena etc.?
One must assume that various Greeks have various reasons for skipping the games this year and leave it at that. As to your follow-up: YOU tell them, Dave! Lets get these Olympic whoever-they-ares to start calling a pool a pool (and a perogie a perogie!!) "Venue" indeed!
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
There are hundreds of products that are the "official" products of the Olympics. Everything from mattresses to credit cards to certain car manufacturers is an "official" product. How can I get one of my products named "official"?
Because I have many many products believe you me
Is this a trick question? Obviously, you outbid your competition, and/or bribe someone in a position of authority. DUH, as the REAL Olympic Expert Guy would (and does!) say. Perogie Trivia Tidbit: I did a quick Internet search and discovered there was NO Official Perogie of the 2004 Olympic Games. I dont know if this is because the perogie is just not considered a summer food or what. Anyway, clever readers will be able to tell from my email address what ingredients I think should be in the Official Perogie of the 2006 games!
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
The announcers on television do a very good job of pronouncing names of people from different countries that spell their names without vowels. Examples are the Slovakian gymnast Dffrntslchmtvz Kzykwlsky, or the Chinese volleyball player Xn Ng. Where do these announcers learn this craft - can I learn too?
Envious of their incredible ability to pronounce names without vowels
And just what makes you think those names are being pronounced correctly? How would you know? For that matter, who knows if they are even spelled correctly? "Perogie" has a dozen or more correct spellings, depending upon whether the perogie in question hails from the Ukraine, from Poland, from Prussia (Eastern Germany) or wherever. Who cares about the spelling? Its the INGREDIENTS that matterthe potatoes, the real aged cheddar cheese, onions, roasted garlic, bacon, sauerkraut, mushrooms, spinach, seasoned ground beef or fresh jalepeño peppers. And it goes without saying that the same principle applies to... whatever it was we were talking about.
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
Ancient Olympians never wore clothes when they competed in the Olympics. I noticed that some of the athletes are wearing very little in the way of athletic uniforms. An example of this is beach volleyball. Are Olympians slowly reverting back to competing in the nude?
Not really interested, just wondering in a purely academic sense.
Such a turn of events would undoubtedly please the gentleman who wrote earlier about the ugly uniforms on display in the Opening Ceremonies. I have no real opinion on the subject, other than to reiterate what I said about samosas.
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
I get dizzy on a slow moving teacup ride at the local carnivals. In certain track events they run many many laps in the same directiondont they get dizzy going so fast going in circles?
Probably not, if the circle is large enough. This may be a good place to remind everyone that while the perogie and the perogie-like food item are appropriate in most circumstances, you want to avoid them (particularly the cheese-filled varieties) just prior to vigorous athletic exercise, most definitely including those involving racing around circular tracks at high speed!
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
When I stay in the pool for more than a few minutes my fingers become "prune looking" most Olympic swimmers spend hours training in the pool, wouldn't their whole bodies look like one big wrinkled prune?
And just who says they DONT look like one big wrinkled prune? Remember, we the viewing public are not privileged to watch these athletes during all those hours of training, just during the SECONDS of competition, which doesnt permit much pruning. (Quotes around the pruning because without the quotes it would mean lopping off limbs, and they dont do THAT in the Olympics!) (At least not yet!!)
DEAR OLYMPIC EXPERT GUY:
There has been a lot of media about Olympic athletes using "performance enhancing" drugs. Wouldn't most employers want to give them to their employees to get better performance at their jobs?
We are most definitely not going to show THIS letter to the Chief Executive Expert Guy! Or wait a minutemaybe we should show it to him. Say, Olympic Expert Guyso you suppose that are "performance enhancing" drugs that might make SOME PEOPLE less annoying? (Just KIDDING!!) (NOT!!)
JOURNEY INTO MADNESS!!
I have (ahem!) a new book out, and you can read all about it elsewhere in this weeks paper. In fact, go ahead and do that, and let me know whether or not they used the picture of me where Im standing on my head. Ill be right here.
Finished? What Id like to discuss now are the illustrations for the book and how they got there. Paul Proch did the drawings. Paul Proch (rhymes with "roach") is probably the least-known famous artist in the world. Hes been in a number of art gallery group shows, including one in Eeklo, Belgium. He had two animated films shown on "The Uncle Floyd Show." He illustrated my two most recent books, including "Cthulhus Back in Town," which to date has sold almost 9 copies. The "Cthulhu" drawings comprised Pauls most celebrated work until this year, when Paul designed and drew the sketchbook for the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." All those creepy sketches of Kate Winslet with bat wings and skeletons that you saw Jim Carrey laboring over, that was Pauls doing. Paul then parlayed this Big Time Hollywood Celebrity-Studded Breakthrough into the plum assignment of drawing all the pictures for my "Custom Neon Sign Shop" book, for a cool thirty dollars, of which most has already been paid with the balance ($7) on the way just as soon as we sell a few.
Just how did Paul manage to fall so far, so fast? Youd better sit down for this. Its a sordid tale indeed, filled with sex, murder, and insanity.
THE PAUL PROCH STORY
I met Paul nearly 30 years ago, at the NYU Science Fiction Society, where he never spoke and drew a lot of robots and mutants. His robots always had a sort of forlorn look about them, like they had been badly repaired with shoddy parts. I dont even want to think about the mutants. While at the NYU film school, Paul hooked up with Charlie Kaufman and in due course they began collaborating on all kinds of things; Paul shot his senior film at Charlies parents house with Charlie as his cameraman, and eventually they started publishing stories and one-offs in the old National Lampoon (including a Stephen King parody called "Egg Boiler" in which (cough!) I make a cameo appearance as CIA agent Billy-Jeff Scrimshaw). They wrote a play called "The Fat Zip" which was performed in Madison, Wisconsin to (says Paul) "glowing reviews," and a screenplay called "Purely Coincidental," which they sent to Alan Arkin to see if he might be interested in directing it. Arkin sent back "a really nice letter" (says Paul) telling them it wasnt a screenplay but "an insane tone poem." He was at least half-rightI dont know about tone poem, but insane is putting it mildly. Its been 20 years since I read it, but I believe that one of the characters is Don Knotts, and theres another character who looks exactly like Don Knotts, and theres an execution where the cleric administering last rites reads, instead of the traditional sacrament, Dr. Seuss "Green Eggs and Ham." The WHOLE book.
Undaunted, or at least not totally daunted, they worked on a book for a Minneapolis publisher while they both worked in a Minneapolis art museum (Paul was a guard) but abandoned it halfway through because "the publisher was a nut." Considering the source of this observation (Paul), the mind reels. They wrote spec scripts for "Married... with Children," and "Newhart" and a pilot based on "The Fat Zip," and Paul was the best man at Charlies wedding, and finally Charlie broke through as a writer for the sitcoms "Get a Life" and "Ned and Stacy" and from there to the astounding screenplays for "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
Paul, meanwhile, descended into insanity and murder, by day a high-ranking government official and man-about-town, by night a blood-crazed cannibal serial killer.
Or to put it another way, he did the illustrations for my books. He did one for "Wing Ding at Uncle Tugs," for a Calvano and Picarillo story, that creeped out the publisher and me so much we just couldnt bring ourselves to use it. Then Charlie asked him to do the drawings for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and he did. Although Paul and Charlie both adamantly deny that the Jim Carrey character is based on Paul, Carrey employs so many obvious Proch-ismsbody language, vocal tics, facial expressionsthat my ex-wife called after seeing a 30 second TV commercial for the movie and said, "Did you see the ad for this new Jim Carrey movie? He looks and sounds exactly like Paul Proch!"
Anyway, once the film was completed, Paul returned to his normal routine of murder, cannibalism, and spot illustrations for my books. The new one contains among other things, a picture of me drawing a monster face on a Spaldeen, and regardless of what the police find when they dig up Pauls basement, I will always be grateful that he drew me with HAIR. You can see it on page 48 of "The Custom Neon Sign Shop, now available at the Delaware Valley News office and perhaps in Eeklo, Belgium as well.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
At risk of sounding even more obnoxious than usual, I must admit that I hate buying presents for my relatives. Birthday shopping for relatives used to be a minor annoyance, like waiting on line at Motor Vehicles behind some dork who didnt fill out form A457-h correctly and has now spent 15 minutes fruitlessly trying to convince the clerk not to make him do it over and get at the end of the line. Then birthday shopping for relatives became a major annoyance, like BEING the dork who hasnt correctly filled out form A475-h. You remember your sister remarked that she loved this cute picture of the cottage with the light spilling out of the windows when you found yourselves outside the Thomas Kincaid Painter of Light store at the mall last October and so you bought a copy and then three days before her birthday you stopped over at her house and there it is, up on the living room wall, where, you suddenly realize, shes been loving it for about 5 years now.
So its back to the end of the line, and this time you make sure you dont write in the space that says "Office Use Only." And eventually, if you have to fill out form A457-h enough times, you see the sense of sticking to gift certificates.
But the thing is, my sister LOVES unwrapping presents and carefully folding up the festive wrapping paper and saving the bows and all that stuff. There is palpable disappointment when she gets just an envelope with a piece of paper in it, even if that piece of paper cost upwards of a hundred bucks. And this IN SPITE of the fact that YOUR birthday present (by which I mean MY birthday present I dont know what possessed me to start writing in the second person, but they dont pay me enough to revise these things, so youre just going to have to live with it) in spite of the fact that MY birthday present from my sister is a check, every year. I get a dollar for every year I manage to survive, $45 for my 45th, $46 for my 46th and so on. I would respond in kind, but my sister is six years older than I am so not only would this result in a net loss of six bucks a year, but... well, come to think of it, the net loss of six bucks a year is the only result I can think of. But its enough.
So I go with gift certificates. Sometimes for restaurants, sometimes for stores. And, in the fall of 2002, for an hour and a half massage.
"Ive always wanted a massage," she said upon opening the envelope, which made me think Id done the right thing. "I cant wait till the school year is over so I can do this." My sister is a kindergarten teacher. If I taught kindergarten I would not wait till the school year had run its course before I got a massage. I would probably get an illegal sublet at the massage therapists office. But thats just me.
Fall became winter, which became spring and blah blah blah, in due course the summer of 2004 arrived and my sister had still not taken advantage of her massage certificate. "Its probably expired," she said. I called the massage therapist to make sure the certificate hadnt expired (it had not) and gave my sister the good news. "Well, thats... thats good. So I can do it. When can I do it?"
"Well," I said, "You can make an appointment for any time that..."
"I mean, you have to come with me."
"Um. Why is that?"
"Because Im NERVOUS. Ive never had one of these and I dont know what to do!" This was said in a tone of voice that you dont hear much outside of 911calls about chain saw mishaps. I said there really wasnt much to it, aside from showing up, but Id be happy to drive her to her appointment if it would make her feel better.
The appointment was made, and so began three solid weeks of increasingly bizarre phone calls from my increasingly bizarre sister. "What should I wear?"
"Whatever you like."
"But arent some kinds of clothes easier to get a massage in than others?"
"Well, see, theyll be on a hanger during the massage, is how it generally works."
"Do I have to take my clothes off??"
"I believe it does facilitate things."
"I dont know if I can do that!!"
"Just close your eyes and think of England."
And so on, until M-Day dawned. I arrived at my sisters house and I was met at the door by her dog, which greeted me as only a neurotic, senile, incontinent dachshund can. "Bad dog," said my sister. "Well clean that up later. Do I have to take my clothes off?"
"Its up to you. I usually just wear rubber gloves when Im dealing with this sort of thing."
"I mean for the massage!"
"You can wear as much or as little as you like," I said.
"Well, I am a very private person." This is the first time Id ever heard anyone say this in real life so I blinked several times. Usually only celebrities ever say theyre very private people, usually to a film crew from Entertainment Tonight, usually while speculating about how their Honeymoon Video got on the Internet. But I digress.
The trip to the massage took about 25 minutes, during which time I was asked at least four more times about the dress code. I left her in the capable hands of the massage therapist and left to kill the next 90 minutes at a local bookstore.
Where, about half an hour later, my cell phone rang.
"Im in the bathroom down the hall from the massage office," said my sister. "I cant get the door open."
"Most public bathrooms lock from the inside," I said.
"I dont think its LOCKED. Its STUCK. Its been very humid, you know."
"Uh-huh. Well, how long have you been in there? What? You had to interrupt your massage after 15 minutes to go to the bathroom? You must have a bladder the size of a walnut."
"Im a little nervous, thats all."
"Look, Im sure shell come to check on you soon. How are you enjoying the massage so far?"
"Did she lend you a robe to go to the ladies room or what? How is it you have your cell phone with you?"
"I got dressed! I hate leaving my purse..."
"Uh-huh, uh-huh. You want me to give you the massage therapists number so you can call her?"
"No! I dont know what to say! Can YOU call her?"
"Certainly," I sighed.
"You wont tell anybody about this, will you?"
"Not a soul," I said.
4TH ANNUAL LETTER WRITING CONTEST AUGUST UPDATE
I have been flooded with calls and emails from my readers, all wondering, "just how is the 4th Annual Emma Grimshaw Letter-Writing Contest proceeding?" [By "flooded," of course, I mean "the column I was writing about the kid getting bit by the monkey wasnt working out."] So I phoned the Contest Coordinator to find out.
ME: Hows the letter writing contest going?
EMMA: I thought you were writing your column about that monkey that bit the little boy in New York.
ME: Its coming along fine, Im just taking a short break.
EMMA: Not gelling, huh?
ME: No, not at all. So whats up with the letter writing contest?
EMMA: Well. Theres been a surprise entrant.
EMMA: But enough about that. Lets talk about monkeys. Lets talk about YOUR monkey, and then about monkeys in general, because I have a lot to say on the subject. You know that seeing-eye monkey in New York that attacked that kid?
ME: As a matter of fact...
EMMA: Well, I PREDICTED that.
EMMA: Seriously. I realized a year and a half ago that all monkeys are inherently evil, so essentially I predicted it.
ME: I dont recall this particular prediction...
EMMA: ExCUSE me. I received a SEVERE ALLERGIC SKIN REACTION to a rally monkey. Its the Anaheim Rally Monkey. Maybe it doesnt have a name. But it probably does. Like the Taco Bell Chihuahua. Everybody just calls it "The Taco Bell Chihuahua." But its real name is... uh... Giggli?
ME: Isnt that the Ben Affleck movie that nobody saw?
EMMA: ONE of them. No, wait, its "Gidget." The Chihuahuas name is Gidget. Same deal with the rally monkey. I mean it has a name, not that the name is Gidget.
ME: My readers will want to know: what is a rally monkey?
EMMA: In 2002, during the Anaheim Angels championship run, I was watching a game where they were losing in the 7th inning, and they brought out this trained monkey that had a sign that said, "Believe in the Power of the Rally Monkey." And they won. After that, they kept on bringing out the rally monkey. One moment while I check on my popcorn chicken in the microwave. [27 minute pause, during which the interviewer hears the TV being turned on, and an apparently uproarious episode of Leave It To Beaver airs.]
EMMA: Hello? Is there somebody on this phone?
EMMA: Hello? Oh.
ME: I have some more questions about the rally monkey.
EMMA: The what?
ME: THE RALLY MONKEY. In Anaheim. Did you happen to be at the game?
EMMA: No. I saw a picture in the NY Post.
ME: Well, did you ever attend a game where the rally monkey was present?
EMMA: Hel-LO! Do I live in Anaheim?
ME: So how did you manage to get a skin reaction?
EMMA: I bought a t-shirt at RallyMonkey.com and I got a skin rash. I went to the NYU Medical Center, and when I got there they punched in my name on the computer and said, were you here in August, 1984? And I said, I was BORN here in August 1984! Anyway it turns out Im ALLERGIC to rally monkeys. And Pepto Bismol. Also Italian deodorant, but dont say that. I dont want to talk about that. Wait, "Leave It to Beaver" is coming back on. You know whos HOT?
EMMA: Wally. Did you hear what I said?
ME: I... did you say, Wally?
EMMA: Yes. Beavers older brother. Is he STILL hot? Sometimes they dont stay hot. Marlon Brando started out really hot but then he got extremely UN hot.
ME: I believe that time has taken its toll on Wally, though not to the extent that it did on Marlon.
EMMA: They should have a Law and Order SVU channel. I mean literally nothing but Law and Order SVU, 24 / 7. USA is ALMOST the Law and Order SVU channel, but they show "Monk," which is like, "Oooh, lets give Tony Shalub an Emmy for not TOUCHING anything!"
ME: Were kind of getting off the track here. Are you channel surfing or something? Could we get back to... I was going to say, monkeys, but...
EMMA: I knew you wouldnt be able to do your column about the seeing-eye monkey biting the little boy. Its not FUNNY.
ME: Well, it wasnt actually a seeing-eye monkey...
EMMA: THAT is not the issue.
ME: I wanted to get back to your letter writing contest.
EMMA: Did I mention theres been a surprise entrant? J**** wrote me from Prison.
ME: J**** is in prison?? Why is she in prison??
EMMA: No big deal, just a PAROLE VIOLATION. Anyway, she...
ME: What was she on parole for?
EMMA: The POINT is, so far shes written me three letters. But she only started last week, so shes on pace to finish up with 15 and take the contest by storm. She says that all the women in prison wear GRANNY TYPE nightgowns to bed. Is that possible?
EMMA: Hey. If theres anybody reading this who has a pug dog, an American Bulldog, or a Boston Terrier, I would like one, if you have a spare.
ME: Im serious, why was she on...
EMMA: And a DVD of "The Wild One." I would like that, as well.
EMMA: WALLY is back. This conversation is OVER.
Id just returned from a visit to my parents and I had the feeling that Id left something behind, something vital, something...
"The Bullworker!" I screamed, and I ran back to the car and looked behind the seat, and in the back, and on the floor, and it wasnt there. Id left the Bullworker at my parents house, 70 miles away.
My first thought was to hop immediately in the car and go back for it. A man without a Bullworker... can he really call himself a man? For more than a few days, anyway? After which time the muscle tone acquired through daily use of the Bullworker for 15 years quickly fades, and he slides from buff to bluff to bleff to blech to Chris Farley? But time, despite the Bullworker, has taken its toll on Your Reporter, and I was not up to hopping immediately in the car and going back for it; I just called, confirmed it was there, and said Id pick it up next weekend.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BULLWORKER
END OF A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BULLWORKER
The next weekend I got up early and drove back to my parents, and they told me Low-Low had borrowed my Bullworker. I said "Why? Did he think it was edible?" Low-Low is my cousin and is also called Mr. Five-By-Five, after the Johnny Mercer song that describes his appearance perfectly. He has a real name, too, but I forget what it is.
"No, he just want to try it out. I thought it would be okay, since you werent coming back till today." I pretended it was okay-- these are my PARENTS, after all-- and I went over to Low-Lows to get the Bullworker. As soon as he opened the door, I saw the Bullworker sitting on the coffee table. I was so relieved I actually smiled at Low-Low.
"Really work up a sweat with that thing," said Low-Low. I nodded happily, picked up the X-5, checked it for teeth marks, kept smiling, backed up towards the door, and then Low-Lows wife said:
"Low-Low, did you ask him about the cat?"
"Nooooo, honey," said Low-Low. "Im sposed to ask if you can go get the cat. Colleens worried about the cat. The cats up on the roof for, I dunno, three days? Colleens worried."
"Um," I said, and Low-Low continued:
"See, Im sort of too big for the ladder?"
"Even after a week using the Bullworker?" I marveled.
"Colleend really like it if you could go up on the roof and check on the cat."
"You got the ladder set up?" I said.
"See, Im sort of too big to set up the ladder."
So I set up the ladder and went on the roof to check on the cat. Colleen stood at the bottom of the ladder twisting a kerchief. The cat was curled up near the base of the chimney. It blinked its eyes.
"Cats alive," I said. "Can I come down now?"
"He must be terrified," said Colleen. He didnt look terrified. He blinked again. "Could you bring him down?"
"I think if he wants to come down, hell come down."
I advanced on the cat, who continued blinking. I reached out and gently picked him up. "Good kitty," I said hopefully.
My hope was misplaced. He immediately grew about seven extra claws and began aiming them all towards my face. He was like a Cuisinart with fur. I held him at arms length and backed up, congratulating myself that he hadnt scored a hit. I was still congratulating myself when I took another step backwards and found that I had run out of roof.
Even as I found myself in mid air, my only thought was of the poor kitty. "If I can just twist like so," I thought, "Ill land on the cat, and hell cushion my fall." To my eternal regret I lost my grip and the cat did not cushion my fall. Instead he dropped to the ground in slow motion, landing about 7 minutes after I did. I stood up. The cat was nonchalantly licking its paws.
"Dont stand up!" cried Low-Low. "You just fell two stories! We gotta get you to the hospital!"
But Low-Low wouldnt take no for an answer, and I soon found myself in the emergency room, getting x-rayed. "Your blood pressure is very low, considering you just fell off a roof," said the doctor.
"Bring the cat here, and Ill show you some blood pressure," I said. Since nothing hurt, they x-rayed everything. Then, when the x-rays came back, and showed nothing amiss, the attending physician decided that they must be the wrong x-rays. So they x-rayed everything again, and got the same results. Then they yelled at me and sent me home, and returned their attention to a young man who had had some sort of mishap involving a peppermill.
"Geez," said Low-Low, "I cant believe you fell off the roof and didnt break anything." At that moment I wanted very badly to break something, but restrained myself. I slid the X-5 behind the seat and headed for home, reflecting on my miraculous two-story fall. How to account for it? Was it due to the hours spent working with the Bullworker? To an exemplary existence? To thinking happy thoughts on the way down [all concerning the cat]? Personally, I lean to the exemplary life theory.
If I had my entire life to live again, Id do everything the same except next time I would go back and get the Bullworker right away. Also I wouldnt rent "Billy Madison." But getting the Bullworker right away would be the main thing.
The Writing on the Wall
I was sitting in the mens room at a Beds Baths & Beyond in downtown Manhattan this past weekend, where I found a heartening message on the wall to my right: "Everybody at 126 East 17th Street stinks." Below that, slightly larger but clearly written by the same hand with the same red Sharpie, "Mitch Vogel forgets NOTHING." Written on the toilet paper dispenser, possibly although not definitely by Mr. Vogel, were the words, "KILL KILL KILL KILL."
Granted, Mr. Vogel is not much of a threat to breach the covers of Bartletts Familiar Quotations any time soon, but his writing has a certain undeniable energynot to mention pithand in time he could develop into a formidable literary stylist, assuming he remains at large and untreated.
I was heartened because it had been years since I had come across any original restroom graffito at all. It was not always so. Once, not all that long ago, some of the best writing in America could be found on rest room walls. And much of the worst toolets not gloss over the fact that at least 90% of the stuff on those walls was witless, unoriginal, lacking in panache.
But who can forget the thrill of watching a vigorous debate unfold slowly over the course of a month or two on the wall above the toilet dispenser in your favorite stall. On Monday there would be a premise written in Black Flair:
"I like grils!"
On Thursday, a blue all point would respond:
"Dont you mean girls?"
The following Tuesday, Black Flair would concede:
"Yeah I meant GIRLS."
And after a pause of two or three weeks, purple crayon would enter the discussion with:
"But what about us grils?"
The great thing about an exchange of this sort was the slow tempo. You read the most recent posting, ruminated, went about your daily tasks, and five hours lateror five daysLE MOT JUSTE would spring to mind. In a real-time conversation, when the perfect response occurs to you five days after the conversation ends, its a tragedy. Not so with a discussion conducted on the wall of a toilet stall. And you are not only winning an argument with someone you dont know, youre defacing public property. Talk about win-win!
So what happened? Why has it become so rare to encounter a first rate graffito in a public restroom?
To begin with, we need to examine what is necessary for graffiti to blossom in a culture. You need (1) reasonably widespread literacy (2) cheap writing implements (3) lots of walls (4) no death penalty for defacing same, or alternately, overweight cops.
Many toilet stalls are now constructed of graffiti-resistant material, so that even if the wall can be marked, it can be easily removed. This all but eliminates the slow-motion conversations, and of course the knowledge that your witty bon mot will be gone as soon as the janitor shows up tonight is a powerful deterrent. Who wants to write something nobody will read except the guy who cleans it off?
Of course the Internet has siphoned off much of the literary talent that was once restricted to committing its best work to dry wall and cinderblock. Now when you break up with your girlfriend, theres no need to scrawl "for a good time call Zelda" and her phone number in the Bijou mens room. Not when you can post her picture and email address, on a "Crazy Chicks Looking for Ugly Guys to Satisfy Our Demented Urges!!" website and sell her underpants on eBay.
Yet, at the same time, the Internet has served to preserve many specimens of graffiti that would otherwise be lost. When I first googled "graffiti," I got 8 straight pages of outdoor urban graffitithe panoramic, spray-painted tags found on subway trains and tunnels, executed in Brooklyn-style bubble letters or Bronx-style spiky letters. This is often excellent as vandalism, but this sort of graffiti is not what concerns me in this essay. I almost despaired of finding what I was looking for, until I changed my search to bathroom graffiti, at which point I found endless sites devoted to documenting this vanishing art form.
I liked this, from first floor mens restroom in the science block at The University of East Anglia, in Norwich UK:
Don't beam me up Scottie, I'm taking a du
And, from the 2nd floor womens room in the Library building at University College Dublinwritten on the left wall:
Written on the right wall:
This, notes the cultural anthropologist who recorded it, could keep you going for a while.
I would like to close with two favorites, unrecorded until now, from my own observations. On the inside door of stall three in the bathroom on the 8th floor of the NYU film school circa 1976, someone had written, in a clear, tight hand:
"We hate you."
Who were They, and why did They hate Me? I have no idea, but it has given me food for thought for nearly 30 years.
And about 20 years ago, a brief exchange above the urinal in my workplace. In red marker: "SPRINGSTEEN IS NUMBER ONE." Below that, in black: "No, what youre doing now is number one. Bruce is number two."
One does not have to agree with the sentiment to appreciate the skill with which it was expressed. Mitch Vogel himself could not have put it better.
It was raining and we were sprawled out in the Picarillos rumpus room, looking for a monster movie. It didnt take long, since it was 1964 and there were only 7 channels, and two of them didnt come in at all unless Mr. Picarillo was actually up on the roof holding the antenna.
"Wait, wait," said Picarillo. "Go back one. I heard monster-lurking music." Calvano flipped the switch back. It was a black and white movie (good sign), with a womanalonewalking through a dark room (very good sign) and, on the soundtrack, the strings were playing a tense obligatto which, as Picarillo noted, often terminated with a werewolf leaping out of the shadows.
But not this time. The tense music ended with the phone ringing and the woman saying, "Yes? Yes? I see..." Then, after replacing the phone in the cradle, she sat down and cried. Picarillo exhaled a long stream of breath rife with cheese doodles and disappointment. "Change the channel," he sighed.
"Wait!" said Calvano. "See who it is??"
We squinted, which did nothing to improve the bad reception, but as the woman looked up we made out her face: it was Joan Crawford.
"All right!!" cried Picarillo. "Yeah!!" I concurred. Calvano relinquished his grip on the dial and joined us on the floor, where we still sprawled, but now in rapt anticipation.
We had a vague understanding that Joan was a movie star of very long standing, but we knew next to nothing about her career, aside from what she had been doing lately. And lately what she had been doing was chopping up people with an ax. She had shown up just a few months before at the Oxford, our only local movie house, in the low-budget schlockfest "Straightjacket," with its indelible slogan "Just tell yourself its only a movie... its only a movie... its... STRAIGHTJACKET!!"
This afternoons Joan movie was slow getting into gear. Her husband had just died, there was something about a troubled daughter, blah blah blah, but pretty soon, we knew, something was going to push her over the edge and the ax was going to start swinging. How could it not? We may not have had a firm grasp of film history, but we understood the concept of typecasting.
On a very few occasions, its true, we had been disappointedwe once sat all the way through "High Noon" because Lon Chaney Jr. was in it, and he had NOT turned into a werewolf (even though it would have pepped things up considerably if he had). But in general Hollywood threw us few curves of this sort. So there we were in the rumpus room, patiently waiting for Joan to flip out, and urging her on with "Chop him up, Joan!" whenever somebody gave her a hard time. Eventually we attracted Mrs. Picarillos attention.
"What kind of movie are you boys watching?" she asked.
"A scary movie," said Picarillo. "With people getting CHOPPED INTO LITTLE PIECES!!"
"What POSSESSES you boys??" she cried. Mrs. Picarillo did not approve of scary movies in general, and ax murder movies in particular. She looked at the window. The rain had slackened, but not enough for her to throw us out. "Whats playing at the Oxford?"
"Theres no monster movie matinee," said Picarillo. "Its just the regular movie."
"Yeah," I said. "My sister saw it. That guy from that Breakfast at Tiffanys movie is in it. She likes him."
"Well, that sounds like... like a lot of fun," said Mrs. Picarillo, hurriedly rummaging around in her purse. "Why dont you boys... run down to the Oxford and see that?"
"As soon as this is over," said Picarillo. "I think shes going to decapitate somebody any second."
"No no no NO!" said Mrs. Picarillo. "Go see the NICE movie at the Oxford! Go!" She had fished four or five dollars in change from her pursemore than enough to get us into the movie and keep us provided with soda and jujubes for the duration. "Go! Waittake the umbrella!" Calvano and I looked at each other, amazed she was letting Picarillo go out into the rain. Normally she wouldnt even let him venture into a damp fog, for fear he would come down with pneumonia. She thrust an umbrella into Picarillos hands and sent us on our way, even as the musical score of the Joan Crawford movie teased us with an ominous arpeggio.
"Somebodys getting his head shopped off right now, I bet," grumped Calvano as we turned the corner and headed towards the Oxford, 6 blocks away in the middle of down town.
If Mrs. Picarillo hadnt been a very conscientious mother, the afternoon would have probably passed without incident, aside from the periodic kicks Calvano and I administered to Picarillo to get him to stop TWIRLING the umbrella. But Mrs. Picarillo was on the phone as soon as we were out the door, informing our parents that we were going to the movies. She called Mrs. Calvano first, and the conversation went, more or less:
Mrs. Picarillo: I just wanted to tell you, the boys went to the movies, so"
Mrs. Calvano: The movies?? They went to the Oxford??
Mrs. Picarillo: Yes, and they should be home by...
Mrs. Calvano: The Oxford is showing THE CARPETBAGGERS!!
Mrs. Picarillo: YAAAAAAAA!!
The MPAA rating system was still half a decade away and The Carpetbaggers was about as steamy as it got in 1964. It had a much bigger budget than "Straightjacket," which perhaps accounts for the fact that it had not one but two slogans: "This Is Adult Entertainment," and "It Is Unlikely That You Will Experience In a Lifetime All That You Will See in The Carpetbaggers." The cover of the paperback of the Harold Robbins novel it was based upon featured a girl in a slip sitting on a mattress. One strap of her slip had fallen off her shoulder. Hubba hubba! Its no wonder that Mrs. Picarillo thought she was going to draw a substantial jail term for paying our way into such a thing.
To this day I havent seen The Carpetbaggers so I cant tell you whether it lived up to its book jacket and its slogans. We were still a block away from the movies when the Picarillo family station wagon cut us off and Mrs. Picarillo screamed, "Boys! Boys! Get in the car! Get in the car!" We assumed there was some dire emergency and piled in. "Mom, whatsa matter?" Picarillo asked over and over, but Mrs. Picarillo just shook her head. She pulled up to the curb outside their house and we got out, totally baffled. "What about the movie?" said Picarillo.
"Its... they CANCELLED it," she said. "but you boys keep the money. Its yours. Im sorry. Im sorry!!"
She went into the kitchen and called Mrs. Calvano, to tell her that we had not been exposed to the salacious George Peppard movie after all. We went back into the rumpus room to watch the end of the Joan Crawford movie. When the credits rolled we tried to figure out if shed chopped off any heads while we were walking to the movies or not.
"Of course she did," said Calvano. "Otherwise the movie woulda had no point at all."
It was impossible to argue with that.
I had been the Assistant Senior Patrol Leader of Troop 11 for nearly a year, and Im afraid I did not take the burdens of my office as seriously as I might have. I had no interest in being a Troop Leader. Id have been perfectly happy remaining in the Panther Patrol for my entire tenure in the Boy Scouts, happily ignoring the Scoutmasters instructions about pulling up my knee socks and making "Blatt!" noises with my hand in my arm pit when he turned around. But the previous June the adults who ran the troop announced that Bobby Appledorn was going to be the new Senior Patrol Leader and that I was the new Assistant Senior Patrol Leader. I dont know if this was some sort of character building idea or if the grown-ups had opened one six pack too many during the deliberations, but there it was. I was flattered. It didnt occur to me that I could refuse. So I spent the year with my hand in my armpit a little less frequently than I might have, but otherwise unchanged. This made me popular with a certain unsavory element in the troop, and I suppose it may have paid dividends now and again since it allowed the Senior Patrol Leader and me to play good cop / bad cop when some minor mischief arose, but by and large I was useless and I knew it. I had completely lost interest in Boy Scouting by the end of the year.
Traditionally the Assistant Senior Patrol Leader became the Senior Patrol Leader, and I had decided that I would, when the time came, regretfully announce my retirement.
It turned out that these things were decided at a yearly Organization Meeting, where the Scout Master, his associates, the Senior Patrol Leader, and, I discovered to my surprise, the Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, would choose the new ruling hierarchy. It was relatively informal, with lots of things along the lines of "Lets put Jimmy Emerson in as the Raccoon Patrol Leaderhes finally gotten that hair cut, and Id like to see what he can do." But when the time came to discuss the new Senior Patrol Leader, the tone changed. The Scoutmaster said, "Are there any nominations?" To my amazement, someone nominated my cousin Glen. "Any more nominations?"
Well, it was one thing to retire, and another thing to get pushed out and replaced by your own cousin. Perhaps noticing the deer-in-the-headlights look on my face, the Scoutmaster told me that I was more than welcome to stay on as Assistant Senior Patrol Leader. This was even more insulting, although Im sure it wasnt intended that way. I nodded. I thanked him for his offer and declined it. I had come to the meeting with every intention of announcing that I was stepping down, but now I was furious. I spoke for about three minutes, and I must have been pretty good because when I was done I was the new Senior Patrol Leader. A job, I realized as I walked home, that I had no interest in or aptitude for whatsoever. But I didnt care. Id WON.
Like a number of peoplethe late Idi Amin comes to mindI was a lot better at getting power than I was at figuring out what to do with it once I got it. I understood that I couldnt make Blatt! noises with my armpit and expect to keep the Troops respect. I pulled a near total 180 and became, instantly, the kind of no-nonsense martinet I had always despised. This earned me quite a few blatts of my own. Unlike Idi, I could not actually EAT the people who failed to show me the proper respect, but I could (at least on camping trips) make them scrub pots and pans and police the campsite. Of course no one would pal around with me, so I would periodically relax. Insanely strict one week, absurdly permissive the next, nobody knew which Jeff was going to show up, and eventually they didnt trust either one of us. I became virtually Nixonesque in my paranoia, although I wouldnt develop the hairline for 25 years.
Redemption came at summer camp. None of the usual adults wanted to ride herd over us that year, so they engaged the Stiles brothers, Richie and Brad. They were twins, 18 or 19 years old and projected a kind of effortless command that I envied. Everybody did what the Stiles asked, and yet they werent jerks. They were loose but completely in charge. I couldnt understand it.
Every evening just before dinner all the troops would assemble and Uncle Bill, who ran the camp, would cry, "Troop 7!" The Senior Patrol Leader of Troop 7 would reply, "Troop 7 All Present and Accounted for SIR!" There were ten or a dozen troops in residence that week, including (honest) Troop X, from Paterson. Then the trumpeter would play "Taps" and we would retire to the mess hall for the worst meals of our lives. The trumpeter happened to be Troop 11s own Mike Zinis; he was awful, but at least you could tell the 24 notes he played were intended to be "Taps."
"You know," said Richie one night around the campfire, "I really hate that whole Troop 11 all present and accounted for! junk. I think we ought to shake things up a little." We all hung on his words. "What if, tomorrow night, when they call our name, Zinis blows Da-dah-DAH-dah-DAH [the notes preceding the cry of Charge! at a football game] and YOU [that is, me], scream, YEAH!!"
"Well, uh..." I said.
The Troop would have none of my uh-ing. "Be a man!" "Do it!" "The OLD Jeff woulda done it!" I understood that this was going to be my only chance to earn the respect of the troop.
"Okay," I said, and for the first time since my elevation to Senior Patrol Leader, they cheered me.
Twenty minutes before Assembly, Zinis came down with, or claimed to come down with, a sore throat. "We cant do it tonight," he told me.
"If we dont do it, theyll think IM chickening out," I pleaded. He wouldnt budge. I knew this was something I had to do or I could never show my face in front of Troop 11 again. "Well, if you wont do it, Ill do it! Lemme have that trumpet!"
He laughed, but he gave me the trumpet. He offered me no advice about playing, and I didnt ask for any. After all, how difficult could it be? I realized that I wasnt going to reproduce the Charge! fanfare, but that was okay. I was going for loud.
We were the 5th or 6th troop numerically, and I got more nervous with each "All present and accounted for SIR!" Finally I heard, "TROOP ELEVEN!"
My hands shook.
I blew into the trumpet.
It turns out that you dont get any noise at all out of a trumpet just by blowing. I blew harder. Nothing. Finally I inadvertently pursed my lips and made a tiny "poot!" noise. All right, nobody could blame me for screwing up the trumpet part. I was determined to make my "YEAH!" reverberate over the lake for decades. I filled up my lungs and screamed. Unfortunately, what came out was "WUUGG!"
Later, around the Troop campfire, Brad said, "The trumpet was a good try. If anyone is at fault trumpet-wise, its Mike, and hes got a sore throat. But the wuugg is something else."
"I meant to say, Yeah," I explained.
"Indeed," said Richie. "Well, in some ways, I think the wuugg was better than the Yeah. With Yeah Uncle Bill wouldve just thought you were disrespectful. But with the wuugg, he thinks youre crazy."
"We kind of think youre crazy, too," said Brad.
I nodded happily. Id redeemed myself in the eyes of Troop 11.
The week before the Fourth of July, the Ukrainian coffee shop down the block from my apartment was offering what they called a "Red White and Blue Breakfast"Eggs Any Style (white, more or less, though with strong yellow highlights), a glass of tomato juice (red), and home fries, to which had been added blue food coloring. It cost $1.50 and I could not resist it. I arrived at the Custom Neon Sign Shop morning after morning with blue lips. Blue lips were not all that unusual in the East Village, where I lived, but they did raise some eyebrows in Little Italy, where (in theory) I designed and constructed neon signs for a living.
"This is Day Four with the blue lip thing," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Its not attracting customers. Not the kind of customers we want, anyway. And, we are about to expand into a lucrative sideline where blue lips are even less of an asset." I scrubbed my mouth with Listerine while he explained. "Were selling fireworks to teenagers from New Jersey. You gotta get that stuff off your mouth because youre the main sales guy, on account of you speaking the lingo."
"You grew up in New Jersey, you tole me. Youre one a THEM. Theyll trust you. Anyway, thats the way Unca Danny sees it."
I nodded. There was a lot of blue streaking the sink, but my lips were still blue. Light blue now, like an asphyxiation victim. "I thought selling fireworks was illegal."
Mulberry Street Joey Clams laughed uproariously. "You kill me. I gotta tell that one to Unca Danny. I thought selling fireworks was illegal. Hah! Seriously, though, its a great opportunity, because A, its something the public wants, especially the teenage New Jersey public, and B, theres no overhead. Everything is profit."
"We dont pay for the fireworks? We get them on consignment?" I was prepared to hear that hed found them in the back of a station wagon or something like that, because he was always finding things in the backs of station wagons. But it was nothing so shady.
"Nah. See, I send the prospects to you. They tell you what they want. You say, Yeah, we can help you out there or whatever that would be translated into Jersey talkand you collect the money. Usually whatever they want is something you have just a few of left, so its gonna run them some bucks. You follow?"
"Then you tell them youll be back with the fireworks in 45 minutes. And thats that."
"Wait... When you say, thats that.... You really mean thats that, dont you? They dont get the fireworks? And we just keep their money?"
"In a sense."
"In a sense?"
"Well, eventually well spend the money on something, so were not technically KEEPING it. Also, we gotta give Unca Danny 20%. But the part about them not getting the fireworks is correct. And why should they? Fireworks are illegal." He punched me on the arm and laughed uproariously again. "Well. Your lips look almost normal. Lets get to work."
We first set up for business outside by a used record store on Bleeker Street, well known for attracting teenage Jersey-ites with too much money. Mulberry Street Joey Clams would strike up conversations with likely prospects inside, and send them out to me, and I would close the deal. Then we would move to a new location while the kids from New Jersey waited for us to return.
Mulberry Street Joey Clams emerged from the record store about three minutes after I had sent his first prospects on their way. "Where are they?" he asked. "Did you get the money?"
"I couldnt make the deal," I explained.
"They wanted M-80s. You could blow your hand off with one of those."
"Okay. Okay. Okay. Joke time is over. I unnerstand whats going on here. These are your PISANS. You can't bring yourself to rip them off. Im the same way when it comes to... uh... Well, anyway, I unnerstand. But YOU gotta unnerstand: we cant give Unca Danny 20% of nothing. Because," he said, doing a rapid-fire mental calculation, "that would work out to nothing. He wouldnt be happy." I nodded.
"Ill do better," I said, but in fact I did not. I was a terrible fireworks salesman. We tried switching. I went into the record store and Mulberry Street Joey Clams stood on the corner waiting for prospects. After about half an hour he came in to see what was going on.
"Check this out," I said, "An album by JACK PALANCE! And he wrote all the songs HIMSELF!" I had discovered quite a lot of interesting vinyl, in fact.
"Back outside," he said. "Look, I just talked to Unca Danny. Hes worried about us. Hes wondering why so far weve managed to not sell any fireworks at all. This is not good. In five minutes Im going to send you that fat kid with the crew cut over there. You will collect $20 minimum. "
Once again, though, I was unable to consummate the deal. The fat kid with the crew cut emerged from the record store, looked around, asked me if I was the guy with the fireworks. I pretended I couldnt speak English. He looked puzzled. Mulberry Street Joey Clams, watching from across the street to see if he could figure out what was wrong with my sales pitch, looked even more puzzled.
"It sounded like you were talking Pig Latin or something," he said.
"It was Jersey talk," I explained. "Turns out HE didnt speak the lingo. Maybe hes from Long Island?"
"I sense your heart isnt in this. But anyway, we gotta go back to the shop. Unca Danny wants to talk to us."
Uncle Danny was sitting at the Custom Neon Sign Shop desk. He narrowed his eyes as we walked in. "Whats the matter with your lips?" he said.
"I had blue homefries," I explained.
"I would avoid them in the future. So why is it you two could not sell any fireworks?"
Mulberry Street Joey Clams shrugged, but it was a shrug that might as well have been a neon sign reading, Its Jeffs Fault. Ask Jeff. Unca Danny turned to me. "I hope you got an excellent explaination. Because otherwise Im inclined to collect 20% of what I figure you SHOULDA sold, which would come to around five hunnerd bucks."
Mulberry Street Joey Clams made an eep noise.
"The fat kid..." I said. "We were gonna sell him some fireworks..."
"But I couldnt sell to him."
I took a deep breath. "I think he was wearing a wire."
Uncle Danny nodded. At first I thought that meant he had judged it an excellent explaination, but in fact it did not. Not only did he make us pay 20% of what we should have sold, he charged us a hefty fee for storing the fireworks.
THE MARK OF EMMA
I walked into my apartment and found the New York Times in very bad shape. At first glance I thought it had been torn asunder in a rage, but upon examining the fragments I found it had been slashed to pieces with a very sharp blade, like a new guest at the Bates Motel. "Emma?" I said.
There was a grunt from the other room, where the aforementioned Emma was watching TV. "Whats the story with the newspaper here?"
"The one thats sort of cut up and scattered all over the place."
"Oh. Oh yeah. I was, you know, making the Mark of Zorro."
"The Mark of Zorro."
"Yes. Its a Z," she explained.
"I know its a Z. But..." My but hung in the air for several minutes...
No, hold on. That didnt come out quite right. DO OVER.
"I know its a Z. However..." My however hung in the air for several minutes. There was no point in asking why she was making the Mark of Zorro nor in asking any of the other questions that were bobbing around on the surface of my brain. Kids just DO make the Mark of Zorro. And, occasionally, they leave the Times in 80 pieces all over the apartment.
But kids who are 19? Kids 2 months away from their Junior year in college?
I went into the other room and took a look at the TV. She was watching "Rocky III." So it didnt appear to be one of those media-driven frenzies. Unless, perhaps there was some sort of psychic misfire, and some kid in Omaha watching a Zorro movie was seized with an inexplicable urge to beat up Mr. T. I picked a slice of Times off my bed.
"Emma," I said, "Where did you make the mark of Zorro?"
"Front page of section B," she said.
"Were you by any chance, I dont know, stretched out on the bed when you were Zorroing around?"
"Thats not a real word. But yes, I believe I was."
"I believe you was as well. There appears to be a Z carved into the surface of my comforter."
Silence from the other room, broken eventually by a chorus or so of Eye of the Tiger.
"You know, as bizarre as it would be to slice up the Times ANYWHERE, its really NUTS to do it using my BED for a cutting board!"
"Oh, right! Blame ME!"
I made a sputtering noise for quite a while. "Well," I said at last, when I was able to hold the sputtering in check, "See, the reason for that is, you did it, and you admitted doing it. So I thought I was apportioning the blame pretty accurately."
"How do you know there wasnt a Z on your comforter already?"
"Because there wasnt."
"How do you know it wasnt made during a previous Zorro-ing, as you call it?"
"Have there been previous Zorroings on my bed?"
"There... MAY have been."
"Thats interesting, I guess, but I dont see how that changes the situation. Whats the difference whether you sliced up my comforter THIS time or during some previous episode?"
"You cant basically go, Oh, go ahead, make the Mark of Zorro on the bed, its fine, like 800 times and then on the 801st time go, "AAAAHHH! Youve been making the Mark of Zorro on my bed! AAAAAHHH!"
"I DIDNT say go ahead and make the Mark of Zorro on my bed. Not 800 times. Not once!"
"I said BASICALLY. Silence implies consent. You LET me do it over and over and over, and so I naturally assumed you were fine with it. Then suddenly youre all, Eek, a mouse! about it."
Although we continued in this manner for a while, eventually I coaxed an apology out of somewhere and there the matter would have rested had I not then decided to make some toast. Although I had dropped four slices of bread into the slots of the toaster, it was not the smell of toast that rose to my nostrils. It was, I quickly discovered, the smell of a plastic soda bottle which someone had deposited in one of the slots sometime earlier. Fortunately it had not melted enough to wreck the toaster, only enough to stink up the building for a week or so. Let me spare you the preliminaries this time and go directly to the defenses closing argument:
"Its possible that I accidentally dropped the Pepsi bottle cap into the toaster. The box of straws is right there, so I was, probably, in the area. Plus, I was looking for a cap for the two liter bottle and I couldnt find it, which supports your theory, and also explains why I was forced to drink the entire bottle. But you said yourself you hadnt made any toast for two or three days. A lot of people could have had access to the toaster in that time. No, I cant NAME anybody off the top of my head. But you werent here for all of the previous 48 hours. Neither was I. How can either of us say FOR SURE whether or not someone else put the cap in the toaster? Id have to agree its a good bet that I could have done it... by accident... but is that the standard of proof here? Shouldnt we be ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN before we begin discussing consequences?"
The judges ruling: "No."
The combination of an intelligence finely honed by endless reruns of "Law and Order" with a sensibility that discards bottle tops in toasters and slices little "z"s all over my comforter does not bode well for my peace of mind this summer.
Eight more weeks till school starts.
A man walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender says, "You might say this is none of my business, but Id say you need a bath a lot more than you need a beer."
The man nods and says, "Is anybody here a lawyer?"
"It was just some free advice, friend," says the bartender, putting a beer in front of the man. "You can follow it or not follow it but it was meant in a spirit of constructive criticism. I dont see any grounds for a law suit, especially since you are more than a little on the ripe side."
"Ive had several baths already today. If Id walked in here three or four baths ago, the smell wouldve have blistered the paint off the walls and peeled the labels off your bottles. Im thinking of strapping myself to the roof of my car and going through the car wash a time or two to see if that might do something to alleviate the problem. Im thinking about talking to a lawyer because I want to sue the florist for delivering the wrong flowers."
"If they smell like that, they were the wrong flowers indeed," says the bartender.
"Well, it started on Valentines Day," says the man, although nobody has asked him. "I ordered some flowers to be delivered to my girl friend at her office. That afternoon I gave her a call and she sounded about 12 dollars more pleased than I thought she should. It turned out that instead of the 28 dollar "Cute n Sassy" arrangement, theyd sent the "Q-T Pie" special, which included two kissy bears and should have cost me 45 dollars."
"So your girl friend should have been even five dollars happier than she was."
"Correct, but I couldnt rightly complain about getting only twelve dollars more enthusiasm than I paid for rather than seventeen dollars more."
"So your contemplated lawsuit is not against your girl friend."
"Not hardly," says the man.
"Yet I cant imagine you could sue the florist for giving you even better flowers than you asked for," the bartender rejoins. "Not to mention two kissy bears, whatever they might be."
"They would be two little stuffed bears joined to each other at the lips, as you might suspect..."
"Do bears actually have lips? I mean, can they pucker up and so on?"
"I suspect not. Anyway, what actually connects the kissy bears is a string, which has an end terminating in each bear-head. You pull the bear apart as far as the string will allow, and then the tension on the string draws them back together, As they move back together, a recorded voice inside one bear or the other says, I wuv you! followed by a long smooching sound."
"That sounds pretty awful," the bartender admits.
"Truth be told, the girl friend is not really a kissy-bear sort of person, which probably accounts for the five dollar gap between the cost of the arrangement and the actual enjoyment derived there-from. The kissy bears came close to being discarded along with the flowers themselves when the latter began to wilt a week or ten days later, but I said, Well, wait a minute. My sister likes stuffed animals and things like that. If you dont mind, Ill just pass those on to her."
"And of course your sisters reaction would probably more than cover the five dollar enthusiasm gap."
"You know," says the guy, "Im really sorry I mentioned the 5 dollar thing. Its not the point."
"I apologize," says the bartender, though the guy kind of doubts the bartenders sincerity on this count. "So did your sister love the kissy bears? How old is the tike, by the way?"
"56, and already reading at a third grade level, thank you. My sister has not yet made the acquaintance of the kissy bears. I brought the kissy bears home, with the idea that I would wait until a suitable occasion, such as a birthday, to present them to the sister. Well, from time to time Id pull the bears apart and make them perform their little routine, and..."
"To amuse yourself?"
"Sometimes to amuse myselfit doesnt take much..."
"...And sometimes experimentally. For instance, when I received a call from a telemarketer, I would answer the phone and engage the bears repeatedly to see how many I wuv you! * smoooooch!* repetitions it would take to make him or her hang up. The record was 19 times. Well, one afternoon I was sitting on the front porch reading a book, bears handy in case the phone rang, and a large dog belonging to one of my neighbors happened by. In the spirit of scientific curiosity I said, "Brutus! Look at this, boy!" and pulled the two bears apart. As soon as the bears began saying I wuv you! Brutus did that akimbo look that dogs are so good atthe cock-eyed thing with one ear up and one ear down? And you know that puzzled "yarf??" noise they do? He did that. And when the bears made the smooch noise, he took off at a dead run, absolutely terrified."
"So of course you decided you would never do THAT again, because it would be cruel."
"Well, sort of," says the man, "in a way. I mean, there are many breeds of dog, and some might react differently than others to the same stimulus, if you know what I mean..."
"I think I know what you mean..."
"I mean, I dont want to give you the impression that I got some sort of enjoyment from getting dogs to make that "Yarf??" face and then run in terror..."
"Yet that is the impression Im getting."
"Do you know how many people are mauled by pit bulls every year? Yet imagine, if everyone had a pair of kissy bears, that number, whatever it is, would absolutely flatline. Assuming that it works on pit bulls, which is one of the breeds I did not manage to kissy-bear-ize. But the incidence of Chihuahua assaults would drop to zero, guaranteed, at least if Zuzus reaction is anything to go by. Anyway, I carried out these experiments for several months, and then I saw this ad in the paper for a Cutest Kitten contest. Send Us a Picture of Your Cute Kitten & Win $1000. Now, I dont happen to have a kitten, but my upstairs neighbor does, and a day or so before garbage collection day it visits my back porch and tries to get into my garbage. My plan was to wait until I heard the kitty, and snap a picture. BUThow to guarantee the kitty wouldnt take off before I got the picture? Answer: Kissy bears! Id hear the kitty rummaging around, creep up to the screen door, pull the bears apart, and while the kitty was making the kitty equivalent of the yarf! face, flip on the porch light and get the picture. What could be cuter than a kitty doing the yarf! face? My only problem was to get the picture before the smooch began and sent the kitten racing away in abject terror.
"Well, to make a long story short, everything went according to plan up to the moment I snapped on the porch light. Turns out it wasnt a kitty making a yarf! face, it was a skunk. I dont know what kind of face it was making because the face wasnt pointing in my direction. Anyway, Ive been bathing for three days now and since none of this would have happened without the florist screwing up and delivering the wrong flowers, I think Ive got grounds for a lawsuit. What do you think?"
"I think your idea about strapping yourself to the car and going through the car wash was better."
"I was kidding about that,"
A few weeks ago I was dining out with some friends and the song "MacArthur Park" was mentioned. Whenever "MacArthur Park" is mentioned the conversation rapidly zeroes in on the melting cake which figures so prominently in the chorus. What, everyone demands, is going on with that cake? Why was it left out in the rain, and who did it? Why did it take so long to bake? And why is the singer so certain that he will never have that recipe again?
And so I organized one of my periodic Diner Symposiums, inviting several erudite friends to meet at an all-night diner and drink a lot of coffee until we could definitively answer all these questions. We arrived at the designated diner at about 10 PM. At about 10:20, the manager stopped by the table. "I know you guys," he said, "The last time you bums were here the five a you spent 8 bucks in 9 hours."
"That is not true," I said. "The last time there were six of us. Kovalesky couldnt make it tonight." The manager did not ask us to leave in so many words, but our coffee contained a lot more salt than I personally like, so we left. The evening might have ended right there, with the secrets of "MacArthur Park" forever locked away, but Rory called his buddy Max, who lived only 15 minutes from the diner, and he graciously invited us to conduct our musicological investigations at his place. We got several quarts of coffee at a donut place and proceeded to Chez Max.
It turned out that Max, who is considerably younger than the rest of us (you may recall that he lent his Generation X ears to our "Let It Be Naked" symposium last year) lives with his parents, who were a tad nonplused at our 11 PM arrival. We adjourned to the basement and got down to business.
Although we were eager to get right to the cake, we popped the cassette into my cheap portable tape player and began with verse one, which goes:
"Spring was never waiting for us, girl / It ran one step ahead / As we followed in the dance / Between the parted pages and were pressed / In love's hot, fevered iron / Like a stripéd pair of pants."
Me: Comments, anyone?
Rory: Dont know if I quite get that. Pages of what?
Chuck: Why does he say "stripe-ed" in two syllables like that?
Rory: The pants should either be pressed in a press or ironed by an iron. You dont press pants IN an iron.
Toby: I agree.
Me: If were all agreed, onto the chorus.
Which, you will recall, goes: "MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark / All the sweet, green icing flowing down / Someone left the cake out in the rain / I don't think that I can take it / 'Cause it took so long to bake it / And I'll never have that recipe again / Oh, no!"
I will omit the protracted discussion of why Richard Harris sings "MacAthurs" instead of "MacArthur." It was not edifying. And I will summarize the conclusion, which, I believe to be correct. (1) "MacArthur Park is melting in the dark" means that night is falling, and the Park appears to be melting away. (2) "All the sweet green icing flowing down" follows from that initial image, and a lesser lyricist might have stopped right there and gone on to something else. (3) But, having now compared the parks vanishing greenery with melting icing, author Jimmy Webb asks himself: WHY would the icing melt? And he concludes: (4) "Someone left the cake out in the rain." (5) Um. (6) This, he realizes, raises more questions than it answers. Go back? Rewrite? Nah! (6a) In fact, I suspect that once that cake got out in the rain, Mr. Webb may have murmured the 5 most dangerous words in the English language: "Hey, this thing writes itself." Anyway... (7) "I dont think that I can take it." "It" is the melting cake. BUT. Not really. The cake has now become a (8) METAPHOR (Literally, Greek for "The Author Is On Drugs") for... (9) the stuff the song is really about, which is (10) um.
Here we paused because Maxs mother called down, "Would you boys please not make so much noise?" This was, on the one hand, a blast from the pastI havent someones mom say that to me in about 30 yearsand on the other hand, very very weird, because Maxs mom is a good ten years younger than all of us boys except Max.
So we listened to the chorus again, this time at a much reduced volume. We concluded that the cake is a metaphor for the whole MacArthur Park experience in the song. Which, once you get past the stripéd pants and the question of just how to get the wrinkles out of them, appears to be about romping with a hippie chick in a yellow dress while simultaneously waxing bitter sweetly nostalgic about same, even though its STILL HAPPENING.
And there matters would be left, had it not been for the amazing cover version of "MacArthur Park" by Frank Sinatra, which clarifies all these matters once and for all. This is not the cut on his 1980 "Trilogy" album but an unreleased rehearsal (I assume) with a completely different arrangement, circa 1969, judging from the voice. How this got into Rorys hands I know not, since its almost inconceivable that it could ever have been released commercially. ("Almost," because there is, after all, Franks official recording of "Mrs. Robinson," which includes such remarkable lines as "The PTA, Mrs. Robinson / Won't OK the way you do your thing / Ding, ding, ding / And you'll get yours, Mrs. Robinson / Foolin' with that young stuff like you do / Boo, hoo, hoo; woo, woo, woo" and "So how's your bird, Mrs. Robinson / "Dandy", Mrs. Robinson you'd say / Hey, hey, hey / Well have you heard, Mrs. Robinson / Mine is fine as wine, and I should know / Ho, ho, ho."
My transcription of some selected verses of Franks "MacArthur Park" follows. For my money, THIS is the definitive version:
Spring was never waiting for us,
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance
Uuuuuuhhhwas it somethin that I said?
Yeah Ive seen that look before, uh-huh
Aw gimme one more chance...
MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
That coo-coo nutty cake
There must be some mistake
And I'll never have that recipe again
(spoken) The rain in Spain falls
mainly on the cake. (laughter)
There will be another swingin chick
And I will digherthe most
And if that swingin chick dont dig me back
That swingin chick she willbetoast
I will have another glass of vintage wine
Dont mind if I doo-bee-doo-bee-doo
And after all the loves of my life
After all the loves of my life
I am stillthecatforyou
There will be another coo-coo cake
Yeah, I will frost it
But I wont take this cake into the park
Thats where I lost it
I will have the things that I desire
Oh baby I am goin outta my tree
And after all the chicks I have known
After all the chicks I have known
I'll be thinking of you
You are the one for me
MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Has there been a cake so nutty?
It aint cake its Silly Putty!
Mama dont you make that recipe again!
A-CAULKING WE WILL GO
"When I was a child I spake as a child," said Shakespeare or somebody who used words like spake, "I [something] [something] [something]; but [something] [something] [something about putting away childish things]."
What he meant by that is, at a certain age, you just cant get away with squirting Silly String anymore. Its not that you dont want to squirt Silly String, or that the opportunities no longer arise. But youre now a grown-up, spaking like a grown-up. And instead of being grounded for a couple of days, you get a dry cleaning bill and possibly an afternoon in small claims court where the judge is apt to rule that "I thought it would be pretty funny if I shot a big blob of Silly String down the front of his pants" does not constitute a mitigating circumstance. In fact, once you get to be 40 or 45, you cant even have a can of Silly String sitting around the house without raising eyebrows. You can get away with a can or two of aerosol cheese, maybe, but it doesnt have the same propellant you find in Silly String and if youre not in point blank range, forget it.
No, if you have the irresistible urge to squirt glop out of a can and youre older than the Olsen twins, you have to grab a caulking gun and CAULK something. Something like an attic. Which is what I was asked to do, and just in time, because Id been resisting the urge to squirt glop out of a can since 1978, and if you said the tension appeared to have taken its toll on my hairline, I could not swear you were wrong.
You dont want to go caulking alonecaulking is one of those male bonding things, like scrambling the letters on a movie marquee so they spell something dirty, or turning off the sound during "Nightline" so you can say rude things about Ted Kopels haircut. On the other hand, you dont want to go caulking with too many guys. Three guys heading up to the attic with caulking guns will create in onlookers the desire to say things like "Nyuk! Nyuk! Nyuk!" You dont want that.
So it was that I went caulking with Dom. Appropriately enough, it was the eve of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Dom is not technically a D-Day veteran, but he did have a traumatic date with Mary Reparata 40 years ago, from which he still hasnt quite recovered.
The roof of the attic had recently been replaced, and there were a couple of vents that kept that place from feeling like a convection oven. There was wasps nest in the roof of one vent, but since the vent was screened off, Dom and I were able to make some choice comments about the wasps, and their mothers. The wasps were not amused, but they couldnt get through the screen. Dom and I high fived. Thus, with the preliminary male bonding ritual concluded, we inserted our caulking tubes into the chambers of our guns and got to work.
There were some interesting floorboards, as there often are in old attics. In addition to the usual sheets of plywood, random 2 X 4s, and aluminum "Win with Wilkie!" signs you always find, there were also sheets of glass. Glass being more or less transparent, I did not notice some of these sheets immediately. In some cases I did not notice them until, like butterflies emerging from cocoons, they abandoned their boring rectangular shapes and blossomed forth into a plethora of brilliant triangles and dazzling trapezoids. If anything, they were made even more brilliant and dazzling by the streaks of blood I contributed to the spectacle.
Most of the cracks in the walls were easily sealed by a thin bead of caulk, usually no more than four or five inches long and frequently less. Daylight was visible around some of the window frames, and sealing these required a bit more caulk. In fact, it required a lot of caulk.
"Man!" said Dom. "I used a whole tube of caulk on this one window, and I can still see daylight! This is a thirsty attic, lemme tell you!" I reluctantly picked a few festive shards of glass from my knees and joined him. I placed the nozzle of my gun at the space between right side of the frame and the wall, and Dom placed his between the left side and the wall.
"We have to use a light touch. We dont want this to shoot this stuff through the wall so you can see it from the outside."
In the end, it took slightly more than three tubes to seal off that insatiable window. We rested for a few moments, and then Dom, using a mummified squirrel, applied direct pressure to one of my severed arteries.
We had to cross the street to get a decent view of the attic window that had absorbed so much caulk. I confess there was still a fear that some of the caulk had leaked all the way through the openings and would be visible from street level. This fear was misplaced, Im happy to report. Aside from one tiny dab of white that might have been the work of a pigeon (albeit a pigeon with a caulking gun), the window looked fine.
Almost as fine as the porch roof, where, directly below the now-sealed attic window frame, two huge piles of white glop sat, like three-foot high servings of Mr. Softee, slowly drying in the afternoon sun.
ASK THE PINEAPPLE CORE EXPERT GUY
A NOTE TO OUR READERS FROM THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE EXPERT GUY: Im sure you all join me in extending a warm welcome back! to the Pineapple Core Expert Guy, who returns after nearly a month of gallantly filling in for the Successors to Shemp Expert Guy (now back on the job, following a nasty case of food poisoning). And a big thanks! to the Pineapple Core Expert Guys intern, Jorge, who kept this column up and running in the meantime!
DEAR PINEAPPLE CORE EXPERT GUY:
I followed your advice about carving festive little animals from pineapple coresremember your pineapple scrimshaw column? And while the results are certainly cute (not to say adorable!), they are getting a little pungent. The whole house smells like over-ripe pineapple. I suppose there are worse things for a house to smell like, but still. What is to be done?
Getting pretty good at seeing the inner hippo or whatever in a given chunk of pineapple core
Apparently the column was edited for space in your local paper. I noted that the core of the pineapple, while inedible, was still pineapple, which is to say still a fruit, and that those little yellow figurines are not going to last forever. People, they are ORGANIC, which is a GOOD thing, but listen up: they aint Fisher Price toys! The ever-resourceful Jorge has suggested dipping them in polyurethane, which would certainly extend the life of your new tchochke, but if youre going to do THAT you might as well carve them out of styrofoam peanuts in the first place, nest pas? And by the way, while were on the subject of Jorge, I must second the Chief Executive Expert Guys Thanks! As one of my readers wrote, "We could barely tell you were gone!" Here here! And as another remarked, "Lets see some stricter immigration laws!" (Just kidding, Jorge!) (See the editorial page of the paper for the addresses of your state and local legislators).
DEAR PINEAPPLE CORE EXPERT GUY:
I for one think you did a great job over at the Successors to Shemp column. So many people act like the series went totally down hill after Shemp left the Stooges (in fact, a lot of people act like the whole franchise came to an end when Curly stepped down!). I was not one of those people, but you still opened my eyes to an oft neglected chapter in Stooges history. Loved the Pineapple Core Origami column, too!
Big Fan of Yours Wherever You Go
DEAR BIG FAN:
Thank you so much. The fact is that I learned a great deal during my brief stint in the Stooge department, and Im delighted to report that I put the time off to good use: my new book, "The Man Who Would Be Shemp: The Life and Art of Joe deRita" has been accepted for publication by the University of Hoboken Press. (And by the wayCamille, where IS that forward??) Jorge wrote the origami column. Thanks for writing.
DEAR PINEAPPLE CORE EXPERT GUY:
Whats your take on genetically modified pineapples? I was opposed until my idiot boyfriend cut up a pineapple and didnt realize there WAS a core, leading to a mighty interesting eating experience. I would have no objection to coreless pineapples, or at least pineapples with cores that were a different color. Your thoughts, sir?
Time for a New Core
My thoughts: scary. What if something went terribly wrong and instead of a delicious pineapple, you got something where the whole pineapple was hard and spiky like the outside? Is it worth the risk? No, rather than start splicing pineapple genes, you might think about getting a genetically modified boyfriendone with a BRAIN.
DEAR PINEAPPLE CORE EXPERT GUY:
I know you keep saying its inedible, but dont you mean the pineapple core is tasteless? Which prompts me to wonder: might it not be an excellent LOW CARB treat, if properly prepared?
Lots more energy since Ive been low-carbing
The pineapple core is low carb only in the sense that the upholstery on your couch is low carb, or the transmission of your car.
DEAR PINEAPPLE CORE EXPERT GUY:
Who is the good looking fellow who plays Audrey Hepburns boyfriend in "Breakfast at Tiffanys?"
I pity the fool who doesnt recognize handsome George Peppard, quite the dish in his youth. You may also enjoy ogling the Georgester in "The Blue Max." [Note: I am note actually calling Hubba a fool. I pity the fool was the catch phrase from Mr. T, George Peppards co-star on the TV Show "The A Team."]
DEAR PINEAPPLE CORE EXPERT GUY:
I know you are a fan of using citrus zeststhe outer layer of the citrus rind, which can add such flair to even the simplest dish or cocktail. I cant help wondering if the pineapple has a zest, and if it might not be located at the junction of the core and the meat?
Zesty Pineapples in Our Future, I Hope
Wouldnt that be lovely? Alas, the problems are two fold. Fold number one: The pineapple is not a citrus fruit. Fold number two: The zest is activated by rubbing the rind of the fruit against a cheese grater to release the delicious essence (while leaving the foul pith on the fruit). The junction of the core and the meat of the pineapple is not the rind, and what you would get by rubbing this on a cheese grater is the OPPOSITE of a zest. You would get a tsez. Thanks for writing.
We had beige aluminum siding installed around the time I was ten; before that, my father painted the house bluish-gray every couple of years. "No more scraping," he said as the aluminum guys slapped the sheets up against the back of the garage, "no more mixing, no more nothing." He sounded sad.
"How come were getting pink aluminum siding?" I asked.
"Its not pink, its beige," he said.
"Its not beige, its on sale," said my mother. "But its a very attractive color for all that."
"Yeah," said my father. He enjoyed painting the house. And not only did he enjoy the actual painting, he enjoyed antagonizing Mr. Burnett, a professional house painter who lived on our block. Whenever Mr. Burnett spotted my father on the ladder, he would stroll over and harangue him.
"What youre doing there, theres no reason for it. It aint right, Grimshaw. There oughta be a law about this. An honest working man is goin without work because of what youre doin, yknow."
"Are you saying Im doing a lousy job?" said my father.
"Im saying good and lousy dont enter into it, is what Im saying. You dont see me down at my house doin whatever it is you do instead of hiring a... whatever it is you are, to do it."
Mr. Burnett knew very well that my father worked for the phone company, but apparently felt that pretending to be ignorant of this really stuck the needle into my father.
"What is it you do again, Grimshaw?"
"I shovel ashes in the ship yard," my father said.
Mr. Burnett paused for a moment to regather his thoughts. "Well, youre takin the food outta the mouth of an honest working man and his family when you do this kind of thing."
"Jeff!" my father would say, "Mr. Burnett is hungry. Go in the house and get him a cracker."
"You keep your cracker," snarled Mr. Burnett. "I aint begging for crackers. I aint beggin at all. Im just SAYIN."
This conversation, with some unimportant variations, could be repeated anywhere from three to 15 times during the course of applying a coat of paint to the house. But if my father was afraid that putting up the aluminum siding would end these discussions, he was afraid for no reason. As soon as Mr. Burnett saw the aluminum siding truck, he was in the front yard grousing.
"Now this is really something. These boys sold you a fat bill of goods. This stuff is no good. You get one drop of water under here, and in six months your house is rotting away. One good rain, and itll be like living inside an old tree stump in the middle of a swamp. And the fact is, it dont last as long as a good honest paint job that youd get from a good honest working man. Stuff looks tough, but its just like that aluminum foil your wife bundles the turkey in. Two hot weeks in the summer, and the whole housell be hottern a baked potato. Fact. No, I DONT want no cracker! Im just SAYIN!"
Now reassured that he need not forgo the pleasure of Mr. Burnetts company because of the siding, my father concentrated on finding something around the house to constantly repaint. Eventually, he settled on the front porch trim. This was just a few strips of wood surrounding the front door, and a pair of trellises at either end of the porch. Some variety of ivy climbed up through the trellises so that they were pretty much hidden from view, but my father decided that it was necessary to paint them every spring. And this was a major job; he didnt just scrape, he actually burned away the old paint with an acetylene torch before he started the first coat. It was a delicate job, because the trellis was made of very thin wood, and the application of the acetylene flame had to be done very carefully; a couple of seconds too long, and the wood would be charred; a couple of seconds longer, and it would burst into flame.
This meant that I had to hang around as long as the torch was lit, or I wouldnt see the conflagration which, Mr. Burnett assured me, was bound to occur sooner or later according to the law of averages. Unfortunately (for my purposes), my father was a meticulous workman, and the wood rarely even darkened beneath the expertly applied flame of the torch.
But one day, when my father needed to go inside to get a wider scraper, he asked me to watch the torch for a moment. "I dont want to shut it off, Im just going inside for a second. Can I trust you to watch it, make sure nobody touches it, including YOU?"
"You sure can!" I lied eagerly. He gave me a pat on the head and went inside.
I hadnt anticipated this opportunity, so I had to improvise; I rooted through my pockets to find something useful, and came up with a small plastic dinosaur-- a triceratops, if memory serves-- a green one. The all-but-invisible flame of the torch was pointed up, off the porch, towards the side yard. I held the triceratops head in the flame for a second; to my delight, the head vaporized in the heat. A spray of green plastic was instantly blasted through the air. Tiny green beads sizzled briefly in the dirt a few feet away. I had time to dispose of the entire dinosaur in this manner before my father returned; only the tail and a tiny section of the rump remained.
I had no further opportunities during that particular spring, but that gave me an entire year to plan exactly what I would do the next time I had 3 minutes alone with the torch. I figured out exactly what I was going to melt, and how much, and whatever I could not fit in my jacket pockets, I stored in a cigar box which I stashed in the pachysandra undergrowth at the side of the porch.
These were not, I should emphasize, merely objects I was planning to destroy frivolously. I had a GI Joe, for instance, which I was going to disfigure in precisely the manner described in a Readers Digest "Drama in Real Life" article about a soldier who picked up a burning phosphorous bomb in his bare hands and dropped it out of the door of the plane, saving everybodys lives and getting the Medal of Honor. Does that sound frivolous? And I was going to melt down some of my sisters troll dolls, because there was a rumor that a certain number of them were actually made from plastic explosive and these would turn blue if you melted them. This was serious science type stuff. I had matured considerably from the thrill-crazed kid a year earlier who had been vaporizing toy dinosaurs. Though I did have half a dozen toy dinosaurs (in several different colors) stuffed in my pockets at all times.
I had been sitting on the porch reading "War of the Wing Men" and handing my dad a rag or a scraper every now and then for days when he finally left me alone with the burning torch. As the front door closed behind him, I sprang into action. I quickly established that my sisters trolls were all non-explosive; the G.I Joe modification project did not work out as hoped, because the head simply melted away before I realized what was happening; and I vaporized four dinosaurs before my father came out. I stuffed what remains there were into the cigar box and ditched it in the pachysandra. Sometime later-- it may have been 15 minutes, it may have been an hour-- I noticed that there had been a miscalculation. Where last year the flame had been pointing straight out from the porch and all waste products had simply leaked into the soil as Nature intended, this year the flame had been angled differently, and several blotches of plastic, all over-lapping, in several different colors, had dried on the side of the house. I panicked. I decided the only way to get the plastic off the aluminum was to MELT it off with the torch the next time my father left me alone for a minute.
With the nonchalance of the completely demented, I walked over to my friend Mitchs house, told him to wait ten minutes and call my dad and try to sell him some magazine subscriptions, and went back home. I waited for the phone to ring. It didnt ring. The blotches on the wall seemed to grow. Suddenly Mitch walked up the drive. "Mr. Grimshaw! You want to buy some magazines?"
"What magazines are you selling?"
"I dunno," said Mitch. "Um... Boys Life?"
"We get that."
"Oh. Well, see you." He walked away. I ran after him.
"What are you, stupid? I said CALL!"
"I forgot your number. He dont want nothing anyway."
Suddenly my father screamed. I trotted to the porch. He was staring at the spot where the plastic blotch had been. It was no longer. Now there was a hole the size of a half-dollar in the siding. "I saw something out of the corner of my eye on the wall. I think it was a wood spider. Big one. I got him with the torch. Scared me to death." He fingered the hole. "Have to do something about this."
Mr. Burnett, walking past with his asthmatic dog, shook his head. "I told you. That stuff is no good. Two years and its already full of holes. Outta be a law, is what I say."
Today the towns where I grew up blend seamlessly into each otherwithout the "You Have Just Left Cedar Grove / Little Falls Welcomes You" signs youd think you were driving through one vast suburban megalopolis. But 40 years ago houses began to peter out several blocks from the town limits, and then there were vacant lots, warehouses, and even weird little forests replete with snapping turtles, skunks, and soggy old issues of Playboy. If you kept going, trees, reptiles, and waterlogged magazines eventually gave way to warehouses again, and soon youd be in the middle of the next town. Of course all this undeveloped land minutes from the throbbing Route 46 / Route 3 corridor could not remain undeveloped for long, and by the time I was 11 or so, there were industrial villages springing up on these frontiers. You werent supposed to cut through them because they were private property, but they would build the things right between the prime snapping turtle creek and the trees where the big kids stashed their fireworks, and what were you supposed to do? Go AROUND them?
So it was that one weekend my cousin Glen and I were strolling through one of these newly constructed complexes. Glen was such a straight arrow that Id literally had to shove him past the no trespassing sign. "Are we going to get in trouble??" he said. "Just stick wid me," I assured him. I was pretty much of a straight arrow, too, but hanging around with Glen made me feel like James Dean in "Rebel without a Cause," which was why I hung around with Glen. It also made me talk like Leo Gorcey, but at that point in my life Leo Gorcey and James Dean seemed equally cool. A late model sedan appeared from behind one of the buildings, coasted in front of us, and cut us off. From previous experience I knew this had to be a security guard, so I quickly whispered to Glen, "Hes gonna ask us for our names. DONT TELL HIM YOUR REAL NAME!"
"Uh uh... what should I..."
"Just make one up," I said. Glen was sweating bullets. The guard, a young man in civilian clothes, packing, as far as I could see, no heat, got out of the car with his clipboard. He seemed a little embarrassed about what he was doing. He said hello, asked us how we were doing, nodded at our answers, and finally explained that this was private property and we really werent supposed to be there. I said Oh geez, we had no idea, he said Well, there you go, and headed back to his car.
"He didnt ask our names!" said Glen.
"Well, sometimes they dont," I said with a shrug.
"I couldnt think of one," said Glen.
At which point the guard got out of his car again, and apologetically told us that his boss said he had to write down our names, purely a formality, just in case, you know, there had been some vandalism or something...
"Sure," I said. "Im Jerry Smith."
"Im Jeff Grimshaw," said Glen.
The security guy wrote down our names and we walked to the woods at the edge of the property. "What did you say that for?" I hissed.
"I told you I couldnt think of a name!"
"You thought of mine!"
"Well, you were right there!"
"All right," I said. "You go back there and you tell that guy you gave him the wrong name! Just do it! What if somebody like committed a MURDER in one of these buildings or something? The cops would call my mom and dad!"
"I cant go back there!!"
"DO IT!" I said, and shoved him back onto the forbidden property. He hesitated. I gave him another shove. "I am not taking the rap for this!!" He trotted towards the car. I watched as the security guy rolled down his window and Glen engaged him in conversation, and then Glen returned to the woods at a dead run.
"Cheese it!" he cried as he ran past me. I caught up with him by the crayfish pond a few minutes later.
"He got really mad," said Glen, who was out of breath, but didnt seem upset.
"Because you gave him a fake name? What did you say?"
"Well... I said, do you remember my name, and he looked at his clipboard and said, Jeff Grimshaw, and I said..."
What Glen said can not be printed in a family newspaper even now, 40 years later, when Dennis Franz bare butt has been a staple of prime time television for the better part of a decade. Glen had sworn a blue streak at the baffled security guy. Glen was not much of a swear-er, so his profanity was not exactly state-of-the art; some of it was downright inept. But it was still pretty foul stuff.
"Hes gonna think JEFF GRIMSHAW swore at him!" And, I realized with dismay, he was gonna think Jeff Grimshaw didnt know how to swear!
"Thats right!" said Glen, and was off on another dead run. My head swam. I had given Glen one shove too many. I had pushed him over the edge. I trudged homeward, certain that the security guy had already contacted my parents. Your son was trespassing, he would have told them, and he called me a big hell.
But there was no mention of any high crimes and misdemeanors at dinner that evening, nor the next day, or the day after that. I thought I was home free.
Nearly a week later, my father passed me the string beans and said, "Whats going on with your cousin Glen?"
"I dunno," I said. "Why?"
"Well, the reason I ask, hes been running around town swearing at people and yelling, My name is Jeff Grimshaw! It seems odd."
"Yuh," I said.
"And you dont have any idea why hed do that."
"Not a clue," I said, but they didnt believe me.
"You must have done SOMETHING," said my mother. "People dont just yell Im Jeff Grimshaw! and swear at people for no reason at all."
"How many people has he sworn at?"
"A lot," said my father.
"Do they think IM doing it?"
"No, of course not." My mother paused over the carrots. "Did you... MAKE him do it?"
"No! How could I MAKE him do it? Why would I want to have Glen run around yelling Im Jeff Grimshaw and swearing?"
"I have no idea," said my mother, "but it certainly sounds like one of your ideas."
"We dont know what youre up to," said my father, "but youre going to get your cousin in trouble, so I want it to stop NOW."
I was speechless.
"Pass the mashed potatoes," said my father.
THE RETURN OF EMMA
A few weeks back I did a column about an 88 pound Romanian woman who had a 176 pound tumor removed from her back, and since then many of my readers have decided that I am the go-to guy when it comes to tumors. "Really liked the tumor story," begins a typical note. "My aunt had one (a tumor) the doctors took out which you could write about. I dont remember how much it weighed but the doctor said it was the size (almost) of a large marble. This may not sound that big, but it was very serious." Other readers forwarded wire service stories about tumor operationsmany of them, I am sorry to report, unsuccessfulwhich, they felt, I would find useful for future tumor-themed columns.
Although I am always happy to hear from my readers, and grateful for their suggestions, I must announce with some regret that there arent going to be any more tumor-themed columns, at least not for a while. This means that you may all now stop sending me tumor stories.
In other news, my daughter Emma has returned from her semester abroad in Italy, and agreed to be interviewed.
ME: Let me begin by asking about the 4th annual Emma Grimshaw letter writing contest...
EMMA: Its been going on for a week now, ever since I got back to the Homeland. Capitalize "Homeland."
ME: Consider it done. Wait a minuteyou never said who won the THIRD annual Emma Grimshaw Letter Writing Contest.
EMMA: Dave Frenson. Psshh! [Possibly a euphemism for duh, but Im not certain].
ME: How many letters did Mr. Frenson write?
EMMA: Eight or nine. Morgan probably would have won but Dave had the advantage of living one town closer than Morgan so he got answers earlier. If Morgan had been living one town closer, SHE would have won. I got disillusioned a little in July because people no longer seemed to be writing letters for the sake of the letters. They were just writing to win the contest. But this year will be different.
EMMA: Now well talk about Florence. They should have passed a doggy-do law. Theres a LOT of doggy do.
ME: This is Florence Italy, where you spent the Spring
EMMA: Yeah yeah yeah. They dont have any cool dogs in Florence, although there were two cute pugs. I named them Brownie Bojangles and Amerigo Vespucci Bojangles officially. Wait, back to the letter writing contest. I have two international entrants. One from Hong Kong and the other from Russia, although the one from Russia is actually from Saudi Arabia. Well, not anymore I think. He looks kind of like Trent from "Daria" only without the gross stuff.
ME: Gross stuff?
EMMA: The sharp chin, the gross goatee, the too-many piercingsthere IS such a thing as too many piercings...
ME: I daresay.
EMMA: I am TALKING. Ooh, mention my tattoo!
EMMA: The one Im going to GET. Its going to be really cool. Its going to be the BAR CODE for a bag of goldfish crackers, or possibly the bar code for the book "Atlas Shrugged." Im not sure which one is more Bad.
EMMA: REALLY expensive things, like cars, dont have bar codes. I dont know if youve noticed. When Im older, I have some other ideas for tattoos as well. Like on the middle knuckle of my right hand, I would like a question mark with FIRE shooting out of it. Get it?
EMMA: Its a BURNING QUESTION. And then maybe... no, not maybe... and then I want to tattoo, on my wrist, streams of orange and blue coming out of my veins. See?
EMMA: Its symbolic. It means I bleed orange and blue, for the Mets. Isnt that cool? Wait, THIS is incredible. I asked all my roommates in Italy to go to a Mets game with me on my birthday and they said okay? So I went online to check and make sure there was actually a game that night? And there is? And its a PROMOTION NIGHT. You know which one? ITALIAN NIGHT!
ME: What do you get on Italian Night?
EMMA: I dont know. On FUTURE NIGHT everybody got these sort of futurish Mets caps...
EMMA: The LOGO was Futurish. Future-y? Anyway, I think on Italian Night theyll give out Mets caps with the letters in Italian letters. You know, the national colors of Italy. I went to a Mets game this week, I went with Malsta and Blue Mego [NYU roommates]I finished the year on May 1st because I was doing the semester in Italy, but they dont finish here for another weekand the dorm room smelled really bad. We were watching Dawsons Creek Season 1 Episode 12 The Beauty Contest and we smelled... Oh, you should mention that thats the best episode EVER, Katie Holmes does her own singing, which isnt that good, but she should get credit anyway, and it has the best line ever from a Dawsons Creek, this is so incredible"Im sitting next to my best friend, and my palms are sweaty." Its SO amazing. Anyway, there was a dead mouse.
ME: In Dawsons Creek?
EMMA: No, in the dorm room. Behind the couch. Apparently it was crushed during the I Still Believe You Winona Movie Marathon. Thats our theory, anyway.
EMMA: She was so totally NOT GUILTY!
ME: Winona Ryder? They had her on tape cutting out the...
EMMA: Dont be naive. Are we done?
ME: I believe so.
ASK THE GIBBON EXPERT GUY
DEAR GIBBON EXPERT GUY:
Is it legal to have a gibbon as a pet? What about if you had it wear diapers?
Thinking about a gibbon for a pet.
You should check into the laws concerning the ownership of exotic animals in your area, but in general, gibbon-owning is frowned upon in the U.S. In my opinion, the gibbon does not make a good pet. The gibbon does not understand the function of a diaper and would remove it at the earliest opportunity.
DEAR GIBBON EXPERT GUY:
Are their any cases of Siamese gibbonsI mean gibbons that are physically connected, like so-called Siamese twins? This is not just idle curiosity on my partI think a well publicized operation separating a pair of twin gibbons would create a great deal of interest in, and sympathy for, gibbons in general. Another thing which occurs to me on this subjectas tragic as most of these unfortunate twins are when they are connected at the head or abdomen, a pair of gibbons sharing a single tail might actually be more efficient in some respectsthey could hang from the same tree branch, for instance. Your thoughts?
Wondering about Siamese gibbons
No cases of conjoined gibbons have been recorded.. Although the term Siamese twins is now frowned upon, its use by Wondering is not entirely inappropriate, as the gibbon is indeed native to the part of Southeast Asia once known as Siam. The problem with two gibbons sharing a single tail (aside from all the standard problems faced by conjoined twins): if they were hanging with the tail draped over the same branch (the only way they could hang, obviously) they would smack into each other, like a pair of sneakers thrown over a telephone line, and it would be far less efficient than if each were hanging from its own discrete tail. Which would also be impossible, as the gibbon is a tail-less monkey. Thank you for writing.
DEAR GIBBON EXPERT GUY:
Are their any HERO GIBBONS? We are always hearing about heroic dogs that rescue children from fires and such. I would think that gibbons, with their incredibly long arms and remarkably speed, would be well suited for such rescues.
Eager to hear of gibbon heroics
No examples of gibbon valor are recorded, perhaps because so few gibbons are in close enough proximity to people to be of such service. Some, however, have been taught to roller skate and are quite adept at it.
DEAR GIBBON EXPERT GUY:
I recently saw a show about gibbons on the Discovery Channel. Much of what I learned from the show seems to be at odds with what youve said about gibbons in your column. For instance, in the show we see gibbons carrying their young in pouches, like kangaroosand it is the male of the species who does this. The gibbons were hairless (except for the top of the head). They did have very long arms, just as youve mentioned, however. I am at a loss as to the discrepancies between the gibbons we were shown and the gibbons youve written about. Are they different species of gibbon? Also, I have always been under the impression that only marsupials carry their young in pouches. Arent gibbons primates?
The show you saw was not on the Discovery Channel; it was an episode of The X-Files. There was no mention of gibbons. That was not a gibbon, it was the actor Steve Buscemi. In real life Mr. Buscemi does not have a pouch to carry his young but if he did, he would indeed be a marsupial. His very long arms were probably some sort of Hollywood special effect, but I am not certain because his representative has so far not returned my calls. Thank you for writing.
DEAR GIBBON EXPERT GUY:
I liked your column better when you were the EDWARD Gibbon Expert Guy and you would get really mad when people asked you about the other kind of gibbons and you would swear at them and everything. But even though your column isnt as good anymore I think its to your credit that you started answering questions about the other kind of gibbon.
Not interested in either kind of gibbon but reads your column anyway
Thanks for your support.
DEAR GIBBON EXPERT GUY:
I have invented, if thats the word, a plastic honey bear jar like the ones you buy honey in, only mine is shaped like a gibbon (the extra long arms allow for more storage space). My question is, (a) can I patent this and (b) what would be an appropriate condiment to keep in a jar shaped like a gibbon?
I dont think you can obtain a patent for a jar just because it has an unusual shape, but that question is better addressed to a patent attorney. There are no condiments appropriate to a jar shaped like a gibbon.
DEAR GIBBON EXPERT GUY:
Two quick boxing-related gibbon questions: First, how much does the average gibbon weigh? I.e., what weight class would gibbons fight in, if such fights could be sanctioned? And, COULD such fights be sanctioned? Is there any rule barring gibbons from competitive boxing? With their enormous reach, they would have a tremendous advantage.
Fan of boxing AND gibbons
Gibbons average about 40 pounds, which makes them tiny even by bantamweight standards. And they are very short, which probably negates the advantage of that tremendous reach. They are about the size of human toddlers. I doubt that any boxing sanctioning body would permit a fight between a gibbon and a toddler, but who knows. Now that ABC-TV is basically raffling off babies on 20/20, perhaps THEY might go for it.
It was usually a waste of time to root around in the Salvation Army clothing dump in the Acme parking lot. The clothes rarely fit us, and they always smelled like the parlor in Picarillos grandmothers house. But today we struck gold. Someone had discarded a whole bunch of vests.
We poked our heads out of the bin to make sure the coast was clear and then raced across the parking lot with our swag. Not only were these vests, of the type worn by George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in 1930s gangster movies, but they were moth-eaten vests. We climbed into the World War One tank memorial in the town park and hunkered down to convince ourselves that the moth holes were, in fact, something else.
"The guy wearing my vest was tough," Calvano said. "You got one hole here, one hole here, another one under the arm pit, and a couple in the back. He wouldnt go down. The bullets spun him around like a top but he wouldnt drop."
"The ones in the back could be exit wounds," I ventured.
"Theyd be much, much larger," he explained. "No, there arent any exit wounds, which tells us two things: First, they were DUM-DUM bullets, which you make by notching like an X on the tip of the bullet, so it blows apart inside the body instead of going right through. They really wanted this guy dead, no question about it. In fact..." He sniffed one of the moth holes. "Yeah, I thought so. Not only were they dum-dum bullets, they were garlic-tipped dumdum bullets, so even if he survived the shooting, hed get blood poisoning and die in the hospital. Its diabolical."
"My vest has nine bullet holes," said Picarillo.
"Huh. Actually, those look kind of like moth holes," said Calvano. "Let me see that... yeah, see how the edges are all uneven? Moth holes."
"B-but... well, the holes in your vest are all uneven, too..."
"Picarillo, the edges of the holes in my vest have obviously been cut away, to remove the blood stains."
"No question about it, Picarillo. Those are classic moth holes. An expert could tell you the exact species of moth. Hey, its still a really sharp vest. Much nicer than my vest, except for the moth holes..."
I was not about to let Calvano speculate about the holes in my vest. I had already decided that when I got home I would use a red magic marker to stain the edges of each hole. Subtly, of course. Ideally, at some point Picarillo would observe this and mention it. I would pretend not to have noticed. "Geez, now that you mention it, it does look like theres some sort of... reddish stain around these holes... say, do you suppose it could be..."
This reverie was interrupted by a clank. Someone was climbing the tank. Two people. "Sshhh," said Calvano. We contorted ourselves to look through the ventilation holes and see who it was, but to no avail. One of the climbers sat on the metal mesh access panel near the turret, blocking our view and plunging us into near total darkness.
"Theres some places a man has to go alone, Jeannine," said a familiar voice. It was Calvanos older brother, Duff. We all admired Duff, even though he barely tolerated us. He had long ago moved out of his bedroom and into the BASEMENT, which he had converted into a PAD. Sometimes he let us visit the pad, where he would play be-bop records and say things like "chick" and "dig." And now he was sitting on top of the World War I tank memorial, talking to his spooky beatnik girl friend, Jeannine. The thought that maybe it was Jeannines butt blotting out the sun made the darkness much more tolerable. "I mean, one more night in this place, waking up and seeing my sad pachysandra and the frantic mailbox and the whole mad Lincoln Ave. scene, and then going to sleep again knowing when I wake up itll all still be sad and crazy and..."
"Uh-huh," said Jeannine.
We all listened carefully. Perhaps someday we, too, would have to tell our spooky beatnik girlfriends we were taking off for a while to play Jack Kerouac. We had no idea that the whole beatnik thing had been pretty much over for nearly 10 years at that point. Duff told Jeannine she was one frantic brunette, man. I fingered the bullet holes in my vest and filed one frantic brunette away for future reference. I could tell it was a phrase that was bound to come in handy someday. It seemed to placate Jeannine, anyway.
Duff and Jeannine climbed down and wandered away. We were in awe of Duff, lighting out for the territory ahead like that. We got out of the tank to breathe some non-stale air. "Hey!" said Calvano. "While Duff is gone, we can USE HIS PAD FOR A CLUB HOUSE!" We broke into a run, our absurd moth-eaten vests flapping in the wind behind us. I called dibs on the be-bop records. I hated them, but I knew I was supposed to think they were cool, so I did.
Calvanos mother was making dinner when we burst into the kitchen. "Mom!" cried Calvano. "Can we play in Duffs PAD while hes gone? Huh? Can we?"
"Oh, you heard?" said his mother. "Were so proud of him. Imagine that, hes going to Boys State for two weeks!"
"Huh?? Boys State??"
"Its a GOOD CITIZENSHIP award. The American Legion selects TWO GOOD BOYS from the high school every year, and they go to a college campus and meet all the other good boys and they learn about government and..."
Our heads were in a whirl. Good boys? Award? American Legion?? DUFF???
"MOM!!" Duff thrust his head out of the basement doorway. "I TOLE JA not to TELL them!! Doggone it!!"
"You should be PROUD!"
"Hey, Duffwe wanna take care of your PAD while youre at Boys State," said Calvano. Duff cringed.
"You dont set FOOT in my pad," he snarled.
"Okay," said Calvano.
"You dont even THINK about my pad while Im gone."
"We wont," said Calvano. "Well hang out with Jeannine. I bet shes really PROUD youre going to Boys State."
Duff turned white.
"Hey mom, isnt this a good idea? Me and the guysll send Duff a post card at Boys State saying how proud we are, and well get JEANNINE to sign it, too."
"Thats nice," agreed Mrs. Calvano.
Duff choked. Words seemed to form in his mouth but could not escape. He motioned us to the basement door.
"All right," he muttered. "You can hang out in the pad while Im gone. But you dont say a word about Boys State to Jeannine. Got it?"
"And we get to look at your back issues of Cavalier," said Calvano. Duff nodded. He actually seemed relieved at this. Nothing cements a deal like a bribe.
Wed hang out in Duffs pad in our crappy vests for two weeks, thumbing old magazines and listening to music we hated. It was sweet.
The flea collar didn't work. It had been on for maybe a week, and the cat was still scratching like crazy. So I figured, okay, it's a defective collar, and I got another one. And that one didn't work either. So I got the heavy-duty purple flea collar. This costs like a buck and a half more than the regular white flea collar and when you stretch it to activate the super special flea killing ingredient, you can actually see a fine white powder form on the surface. And it smells pretty bad, too. It smells like the old purple Magic Markers from the early seventies, when science had managed to develop relatively odor free Magic Markers in every shade of the rainbow except purple, which smelled like rotten eggs and then some. You would figure this smell alone would drive the fleas away. But it doesn't. For all I know, your average flea may not even have olfactory organs. But your average cat does, and mine was trying to get that flea collar off its neck. It would slide one paw up inside the collar and yank. Sometimes the paw would get stuck up there, and then Nicky the cat would lurch around the room as if it were doing a bad Jerry Lewis impression. The fleas didn't mind this at all, since it gave them one less paw to worry about.
And the other cat, Arnold, was downright delighted by all this. He seemed utterly immune to fleas. When his younger sibling went into that one-man three-legged race, Arnold would watch politely for a few minutes and then stroll nonchalantly into the kitchen and scarf down Nicky's cat food. All in all, it was an ideal situation for Arnold, for the fleas, even for me. But Nicky was getting eaten alive.
The flea powder didn't work, either, and then I got the flea spray, which is so strong it took the rose petals off the wall paper when the cat figured out what was coming and ducked just as I hit the button. I finally managed to squirt the cat, at a considerable cost to the finish on the floors, the pattern on the rugs, and the entire CBS Thursday night line up, which was canceled mere seconds after the TV screen caught a blast of the flea spray. But the fleas didn't care; these were rough tough mutant fleas, and a look under the microscope would reveal that they were wearing striped shirts and derbies cocked at a rakish angle, sporting a three day growth of beard, smoking stogies, and trimming their fingernails with switchblades. And what was worse, they had finally begun to colonize Arnold, who was not happy about the situation at all. He held his brother personally responsible. Arnold followed every session of scratching with a spirited attempt to fit Nicky's entire head in his mouth.
So I got the flea shampoo. If this didn't do the trick, I was afraid to think what the next step would be. The flea blow torch, maybe?
Because giving a cat a bath is a two-person job, I enlisted the aid of my daughter. That was mistake number one. She thinks the only thing funnier than a soaking wet cat is a blow-dried cat with its fur all fluffed up like a four legged chunk of cotton candy. Mistake number two was my decision to shampoo both cats at once.
This was so stupid I even hesitate to put it down in cold print, but there it is; most people don't do anything this stupid once they hit the age of, say, 7. My only excuse is that perhaps I had ingested so much flea spray and flea powder that my brain was malfunctioning.
I shut the door of the bathroom. I had cleverly taken off my sweatshirt and put on an old T-shirt, since I assumed there would be lots of water being splashed about. This turned out to be true, of course, but why in heaven's name was I more concerned about water on my skin than claws in my flesh?
HOW NOT TO GIVE TWO CATS A BATH
STEP ONE: when you fill the tub, make sure you don't check the water temperature before inserting the first cat. Because unless the water is exactly cat temperature, the cat will jump as soon as it hits the water and will cling to the nearest object into which its claws can find purchase, which will be your forearm.
STEP TWO: While the cat is swinging from your forearm by one claw and trying desperately to grab hold with the other by any means necessary, make sure your daughter is holding the shower head attachment and THE WATER IS RUNNING. She won't be able to take her eyes off the blood spurting from your tattered flesh, and the shower spray will consequently be directed in all sorts of interesting places, none of which will be the tub.
STEP THREE: Make certain that you have not removed the top of the shampoo bottle before starting; this will ensure that you will have to do it with one hand while using the other hand to keep the cat from ripping up the forearm to which both the hand and the cat are attached.
STEP FOUR: Also be sure to have the clock radio in the bathroom tuned to a station that is playing "Lucas with the Lid Off" so that you not only have swell back ground music playing, but your daughter can not make out your increasingly frantic and incoherent instructions, and the neighbors can not hear your screams as the cat begins to dismember you in earnest.
STEP FIVE: Forget about the other cat until you step on it.
STEP SEVEN (you don't want to know about step six, believe me): be sure to rinse the cat right away; the flea shampoo only works if you leave it on the cat for about 20 minutes, so if you rinse it right away, you'll have to do the whole thing all over again, probably before the wounds have fully closed, and definitely before the cats have forgotten what happens when you carry them up to the bathroom.
IS THAT A 176 POUND TUMOR OR ARE YOU JUST GLAD TO SEE ME?
Longtime reader David B. of East Stroudsburg PA forwards an interesting story from Romania, via the Associated Press. A 46-year-old Romanian woman had extensive surgery to remove a 176-pound benign tumor from her back. Sans tumor, the woman weighed 88 pounds. A team of Romanian and American surgeons operated without a fee. Shes doing well and appears to be in excellent spirits. My correspondent notes that the tumor weighed 200% more than the plucky Romanian lady, and with the rest of us, he wishes her a quick recovery and a pain free convalescence. And yet...
"What I don't understand is how somebody lets a tumor grow to 176 pounds before getting surgery," writes Mr. B. "Do you walk around with a 175-pound tumor on your back and say, Man, this tumor is getting unsightly and inconvenient. If it grows one more pound, that's it, I'm going to a doctor? Or did the doctor say, Hey lady, I've seen much bigger tumors than that. Go home and take an aspirin. Don't come back until it's at least 176 pounds? Or maybe it didn't bother her until somebody else mentioned it. Like on a blind date a guy says, Lucica, I like you. You have a great personality and you're a good dancer but, well, it's that giant bleeping tumor. It's more than twice your size and, well, I'd feel like I was dating a tumor with a girl attached, not the other way around."
Mr. B. asks some good questions here, although, when you come right down to it, they are all the same question ("Huh??") which I will endeavor to answer. Thats what Im here for.
Before we get started, I would note that the benign isnt the word that I would use in this case. I understand the difference between benign and malignant when were talking about growths, but still, once the thing hits about 20 pounds, benign just doesnt seem to cut it any more. I think benign and I think, I dunno, Spencer Tracy in "Boys Town" or Bill Cosby in one of those hideous sweaters.
Next, I would like to thank Mr. B. for the generally snotty and exasperated tone of his letter. As a humor columnista BENIGN humor columnist, thank you very muchI would be treading on very shaky ground indeed by getting snarky about a woman who just had a 176-pound tumor removed. But this way I can quote Mr. B. being snarky as all get out about it and still maintain my warm and fuzzy imagesort of like the straight actor playing a gay character on a sitcom who goes on Leno and says, "and my AGENT sent me a note reminding me to mention my wife and kids," thus getting a chuckle at the expense of that unenlightened troglodyte of an agent, while at the same time following his instructions to the tee.
Bearing in mind that medicine is not my main field of expertise, I would have to say that in general, if something growing on you is bigger than you are, it might be time to think about seeing the doctor. I suspect that in the future medical science will call this Grimshaws Law. Or maybe Grimshaws Second Law, since Grimshaws First Law would be Never Get in a Checkout Line at the Supermarket Behind an Old Lady Buying More Than Two Cans of Cat Food.
What Grimshaws First and Second Laws have in common is that they would seem to be self-evident, and yet they are not. The number of times I have seen someone move into line behind an old lady with a fistful of expired coupons and a shopping cart crammed with cat food cans is beyond calculation. Sometimes these people are distracted by cell phones playing the Theme from Star Wars, or by toddlers gnawing at their calves, but in general they see an elderly woman with blue hair right in front of them, piling can after can of cat food on the conveyer belt, and it just doesnt register with them that THEY ARE IN DANGER. Similarly, as the AP story sent by Mr. B. suggests, there are folks who have something roughly the size of John Goodman growing between their shoulder blades, and the reaction seems to be, "Hmm. These shoes totally dont match my purse." With all due respect, thats the wrong attitude.
Some of you are already reaching for the crayon to write who does this guy think he is, telling people how they should react to giant tumors? Where does HE get off? Youre thinking Im not empathizing enough with the unfortunate Romanian lady.
You are SO wrong. Not only do I empathize, I HAVE BEEN THERE.
Not with a giant 176-pound tumor per se. But I did experience the (in some respects) IDENTICAL or even WORSE trauma of a slightly receding hairline. I can remember well the 8 classic stages of coming to grips with my impending loss: (1) Is there a little more skin up there this morning? (2) Nah. (3) Well, maybe... (4) Nah. (5) Theres DEFINITELY a little more... (6) Shut up shut up shutupshutupshutup! (7) IS THAT MY HAIR IN THE DRAIN?? (8) Lookcows!
So I understand how some horrible condition can be allowed to progress untreated. I may not TECHINCALLY be a doctor, but I know a little about the human heart anyway. I have learned it the hard way. And the human scalp, too.
In MY case, there was no team of American and Romanian surgeons offering their services for free. Unlike Miss Oh-Im-So-Special-My-Tumor-Is-the-Size-of-a-Buick, I came to grips with MY affliction without any outside help aside from the occasional baseball cap. But is the AP doing any stories about ME? No, they are not. The press is way too busy in Romania. Well, fine. I dont care. Actually a lot of people think I look BETTER with the close-cropped-hair-on-the-sides look. If a team of American and Romanian surgeons DID show up tomorrow and say, lets do something about that hair loss, you know what Id tell them? Forget it. Go find another Romanian woman with a giant tumor. Stick to what you know, sports. I have other fish to fry. They could BEG me and I would be unmoved.
They made their choice, now let them live with it.
Many years ago my friend Chuck became an ordained minister by responding to an ad in the back of a comic book. It cost him 5 dollars, and he got a certificate suitable for framing and an ID card for his wallet. The Universal Life Church did not inquire about his religious beliefs or lack thereof; his check cleared, and he was in. It doesnt get much more ecumenical than that.
During the period of Chucks, um, ministry, we would supplement our pathetic incomes every summer by leasing a table at the New York City Comic Book Convention (held over July 4th weekend) and sell our comics. The other comic book dealers would widen their eyes when Chuck introduced himself as "the Reverend Mr. Ward." "Theyre really impressed," he told me. I had other theories to account for those wide eyes. I was pretty credulous in my salad days (a few years later I actually paid to have a star named after me) but I was not so credulous that I believed Chucks five dollars had actually made him a minister. "Youre telling me you can do weddings and stuff?" I said.
"Absolutely," said the Reverend Mr. Ward. "The ad says so. If it wasnt true, they could get in a lot of trouble." I suspected that there were a lot of things advertised in the back of our comic books that might not have lived up to the promise of the ad copy. Would those X-ray Specs really allow you to see through girls clothes? Would the rubber vomit really permit you to Astound Your Friends? I had my doubts.
And while Im on the subject, why dont they advertise trusses any more? I think they ONLY advertised in comic books, but I havent seen an ad for one in 30 years. Have Americans just stopped rupturing? Are we such wussies that we no longer do the kind of heavy lifting that leads to truss-wearing? Or did it finally dawn on the truss companies that the 12 year old boys who made up the bulk of "The Legion of Super Heroes" readership probably werent buying many trusses? Its a mystery.
ANYway... As far as I know, Chuck never conducted a wedding but it made him happy to believe he could if he wanted to. Well, happy is probably the wrong word. Smug is more like it. Still, five bucks to feel smug doesnt seem like much of a bargain to me, even now. After all, its not like the comic book dealers ever said, "Oh yeah? Lets see your OFFICIAL MINISTER CARD." Not that they had toChuck invariably had the card out as soon as introductions commenced. He could have told them he was the Reverend Mr. Ward and kept his five dollars. For that matter, he could have told them he was Secretary of State Ward or Pope Chuck XIV or Ambassador Gorlock of the Saturnian Empire. Of course, he wouldnt have been able to flash the (cough) official I D card. Flashing that card around was like wearing a t-shirt with a big "Im with Stupid" logo and an arrow pointing up at your own face.
In Chucks defense, I have to admit that he did not pay the additional two dollars that would have made him a bishop, with the power to ordain his friends. Although that may have been a matter of under-capitalization. Or he might not have wanted to share his HUGE TAX ADVANTAGE with his friends. And what an advantage it was.
The advertisement strongly hinted (but did not quite state) that once you became a minister you would no longer have to pay taxes. There was certainly no clerical exemption on the tax forms we had to fill out at the comic book convention, but that didnt prevent Chuck from ostentatiously writing REVEREND in big block letters before his name and listing his occupation as "minister, Universal Life Church." I like to think the guys and gals at the IRS got a big charge out of his tax forms during the days of his ministry. ("Hey, Lou! The REVEREND MISTER WARD cleared a COOL TWO HUNDRED SMACKEROOS selling comic books!" "Whoa!! Is that IN ADDITION to what he made tearing tickets at the movie house??")
What brings all of this to mind now is an invitation I received via the Internet this week.
"Become a legally ordained minister within 48 hours," it begins. "As a minister, you will be authorized to perform the rites and ceremonies of the church!" (It doesnt happen to mention which church were talking about, but as always I have my theories). "Perform Weddings, Funerals, Perform Baptisms, Forgiveness of Sins!" it says, and then the clincher: "Visit Correctional Facilities!"
Although I was vaguely aware that ministers visit correctional facilities now and thenyou cant spend as much time as I have watching old George Raft movies and NOT be aware of itit never occurred to me that this was a selling point. It seems to me kind of like recruiting nurses with EMPTY BED PANS!! SOMETIMES FOR HOURS AT A TIME!" It just doesnt strike me as a, you know, perk.
On the other hand, I havent clicked on the link that would take me to the website where I could learn how to become a minister (or even, says here, "Start My Own Church!") so its possible that Visit Correctional Facilities isnt a come on at all. It might be a case of Truth In Advertising. It could be that, like the folks who ordained the Reverend Mr. Ward, theyre offering some interesting tax advantages, and when they say visit, they mean for, oh, five to ten years.
The Ties That Blind
When I worked as an usher at the Park Theater, I wore a clip-on bow tie. Then, I was promoted to assistant manager and my clip-on bow tie days were at an end. But the transition to non-clip-on, non-bow ties was not without bumps.
"Let me tell you about that tie," said the manager. He was talking about my necktie, which was one of three neckties I owned. I was 18 years old and these were the same three ties Id worn to Sunday School. My Sunday School days had been over for a very long time. "A," said the manager, "Your tie is telling me way too much about your diet. Im standing ten feet away from you and your tie says youre a man who likes his pizza. Theres nothing wrong with pizza, its a delightful food, but that should be none of your ties business. B, which is related to A, your tie has not been to the cleaners for a while. Nobody says you have to have your ties cleaned every ten minutes, but a good rule of thumb is, if theres a piece of pepperoni stuck to it, the time has come."
"Theres no pepperoni stuck to my..."
"No, theres not. You probably knocked the pepperoni off when you were tying the tie. Well get to that interesting knot a little later in the alphabet. I do seeand remember, Im ten feet awaya small clean spot in the middle of the splotch of pizza sauce, though, so Im guess there was, however briefly, a fragment of pepperoni there at one time. You ARE a pepperoni man, are you not?"
I said nothing.
"You can make that tie keep its big mouth shut if you send it to the cleaners more than once a decade. C, ties need to be hung on a tie rack. If you yank them off and throw them on a chair or something, they get wrinkled. AND they tend to pick up things like the little smear of Cheeto powder down there. Unless that happened while you were eating the Cheetos. The tie tells much, but it does not tell ALL. D, the aforementioned knot. Your tie is too wide for a four-in-hand knot. Its too wide, and its a lousy four-in-hand knot anyway. Do you know how to tie a Windsor knot? Well, that should be a priority. But not the top priority, which goes to (E) making sure the skinny end is both behind the wide end, and shorter than the wide end. Youve mostly got the behind part, but if you look carefully, youve notice the skinny end of the tie is sticking out about three inches. Its not the style just now. For the moment, just stuff the protruding end inside your shirt. No, wait." The manager closed the distance between us, unknotted the tie, deftly retied it. "A major improvement, although the pizza issues remain unresolved. You arent wearing a tie tack?"
I shook my head.
"Do you own one?"
"I think... I might..."
"Well, for now, for one night only, allow me." He removed his own tie tack and used it to stabilize my tie. "Youre about 80% of the way there. Whereas I lose perhaps 8% of my own dapperness, but its a sacrifice I make willinglynay, cheerfully. How deep into the alphabet have we penetrated?"
"I, uh, dont remember..."
"No matter. The rest of the consonants and most of the vowels would concern the tie itself, which simply wont do. You need something with a busier pattern, for one thing. A solid color like that is going to be trouble until you resolved the pizza-related issues. I mean, something with little clocks and checks and that pepperoni residue might have gone unseen for hours. AND, the material. Im not telling you to run out and buy a silk tie, but Im not 100% sure that thing is even CLOTH, technically. It feels sort of like Saran Wrap."
"I appreciate all this," I said. "Im learning a lot about ties here."
"De nada. Its what Im here for."
"I would appreciate it more if I werent learning it right in front of the candy girls, though," The candy girls, who had been avidly watching all this, now focused their attention on assorted napkin holders, Milk Dud boxes, and fingernails.
"Hey, theyre learning too. In any event, later tonight we will make our first night deposit of the days receipts, and that definitely requires a snappy neck tie, but for the nonce I will be straightening up the mens room and you will be checking the ladies room, two activities for which neckties are strictly optional, since the locales are on the grungy side. I recommend we de-tie before we commence, and then re-tie afterwards." He undid his necktie and draped it on a hanger in the back of the ticket booth. I did likewise. We also left our jackets in the booth.
I finished checking the grungy ladies room long before the manager finished in the mens room, even though I had to change the toilet paper and clean up the sinks. I went to retrieve my tie, which was right where Id left it. The managers tie was there as well, although his tie had been snipped neatly in half.
"Chucks tie!" I said. "Its chopped up!"
"We dont know a thing about that," said one of the candy girls, admiring the sheen on her thumbnail.
"But we do know he was acting like a big jerk. Ooh, my tie is so cool, and everybody elses tie is like, stink city."
"That is SO exactly what he was saying," said the other candy girl.
"Hes gonna think I ruined his tie!" I said.
"Well, hes gonna be WRONG," said a candy girl.
"Whoa, like THERES something new under the sun," said the other. "Gawd, he needs to lighten UP."
"Quickgimme the scissors. I gotta cut my tie in half so it looks like, uh..."
Like what? Like a serial tie-mutilator was loose in the theater? I was unable to finish the sentence coherently in 1974, and thirty years on Im still unable to finish the sentence coherently. "Just gimme the scissors!"
The candy girls were amused by my panic and did another minute and a half of scissors? what scissors before handing them over, which why I was still struggling to sever the bottom of my tie when Chuck walked into the lobby. It may have been a crappy tie, but it was TOUGH.
In this manner did my brief career as assistant manager of the Park Theater conclude.
The Mulberry Street Relief Station
I unwrapped the loaf, sliced it in half, and triumphantly displayed the spongy core of the bread. Kelly green. Mulberry Street Joey Clams nodded.
"Well, I gotta admit, you were right. Does it taste green?"
"Nah," I said. "Its just food coloring. It tastes like regular bread." I hand him the bread knife. For some reason, perhaps because the loaf was round, he carved a wedge out of it rather than a slice.
"Its good," he said. "I wouldnt say like regular bread. Theres definitely something..."
"Buttermilk," I said.
"Green," he said. "Definitely green. But good. Irish bread is always green on the inside, huh? I had no idea."
"Actually, no. This is from Mancusos bakery. Authentic Irish soda bread doesnt have any food coloring in it."
"So youre saying Italians actually make BETTER Irish bread than the Irish. Huh. Inneresting."
We were indulging in Mancusos Kelly green Irish soda bread to get in the mood for the St. Patricks Day parade, which was commencing uptown in roughly an hour. We had already stapled a variety of cardboard leprechauns and shamrocks around the Custom Neon Sign Shop, and cleaned and disinfected the bathroom. The clean bathroom was at the very heart of our St. Patricks Day plan.
Last year we had gone to watch the parade and learned several important lessons. Lesson one: the huge Bullwinkle balloon is not a part of the St. Patricks Day parade, not ever, only the Macys Thanksgiving Day parade. I was pretty sure of this before we even got there, but we were unable to confirm it without asking somebody, and its just not possible for a grown man to ask a total stranger, "Excuse me, but what time is the Bullwinkle balloon pass by?" Lesson two: there are an awful lot of parade watchers who are quenching their thirsts with perhaps more beer than is wise, especially since (lesson three) there is an astounding shortage of public bathrooms in the city of New York. Some of the bitterness that Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I felt because the Bullwinkle balloon was out of action had been mitigated by the sight of all those people, many of them young, many even less articulate than usual, begging restaurants and movie theaters to let them in to use the bathrooms. A large percentage of the people in need of a bathroom were cute Irish girls. Despite this, the managers of the restaurants and theaters were united in their lack of sympathy. "Begorra," many of them said, "And would you mot be readin our Rest rooms for customers only sign?"
"You know..." said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "I sense an opportunity to perform a public service here."
"You mean tell them about the rest rooms at Grand Central Station?" Which named edifice was all of three minutes from where dozens of parade-goers were in various stages of bladder-induced agony.
"Something like that," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Only I was thinking of a way to perform a public service, earn the eternal respect of various cute drunk Irish chicks, AND make a little bit of money as well."
"????" I said.
"Maps," he answered. "Maps with the locations of all the public bathrooms we can think of. 364 days a year, such a map would be worth exactly nothing. But on St. Patricks Day..." He paused dramatically. "The SKY is the limit!"
"Well," I pointed out, "I think the limit is probably a lot less than the sky. Probably its about half the price of a movie ticket, since they can buy one of those, use the bathroom, and then see a movie, too."
Thats excellent thinking. The problem with it is, our customers are all by definition not thinking too excellently. Our customers are by definition both two and a half sheets to the wind PLUS they have just discovered that their bladders are about 80% smaller than they thought."
"Good point, Mulberry Street Joey Clams. But by the time we get the maps made, these people wont be needing them any more."
"True. It is too late for this years crop of cute drunk Irish chicks. But NEXT YEAR, we will be ready."
When we got back to the Custom Neon Sign Shop we made some preliminary notes towards the list which, a year hence, would make our fortune, but suddenly a dark cloud passed over the features of Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "You know... once we sell a few maps... whats to prevent people from... sharing them?"
"Whoa," I said.
"I mean, obviously, if somebody showed the map to somebody else who, you know, hadnt PAID for the information, we would have grounds to sue..."
"But that would probably mean going to COURT."
"We gotta think of something else."
And so was born the MULBERRY STREET RELIEF STATION. Which was the bathroom of the Custom Neon Sign Shop. The plan was simplicity itself: We would indeed distribute maps to cute drunk Irish chicks up and down the parade route, as planned, but the maps themselves would be free. And the maps would provide directions only to the Mulberry Street Relief Station, admission $1. Perhaps a discount for really cute drunk Irish girls. We printed up 500 maps.
"Hey, that stuff you put in the toilet tank turned the water blue. I like it."
"Very festive," I agreed.
"But you know what Im thinking? Wouldnt it be more festive if it was green? And more Irish, too. Like the bread. Do they have stuff that turns the water green?"
"Yeeee-ah," I said. "But, uh, no."
We went uptown to watch the Bullwinkle-less parade and passed out our maps to likely looking prospects. After about 10 minutes Mulberry Street Joey Clams decided it would be more business like to give some Irish teenagers 5 bucks to pass them out while we raced back to the Custom Neon Sign Shop and waited for the cute drunk Irish chicks to start lining up.
After about two hours it was apparent that something had gone terribly wrong. No cute drunk Irish chicks appeared at our door. Nobody appeared at our door.
We were never quite sure what happened. Maybe the kids we hired had passed the maps out to the wrong people, or had not passed them out at all; maybe all the cute drunk Irish girls had gotten lost on the way (certainly possible, since the subway trip from midtown to the Neon Sign Shop required them to change trains twice and then hike four blocks through Little Italy).
We ate green bread and moped. "Hey," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "Maybe we could make a deal with Mancusos. What about if next year we give away a loaf of green bread with every trip to the relief station? I mean, theyd actually have to SHOW UP here to get the bread, you know?"
"Its a thought," I said.
FINDING MY VOICE
The fun was gone. Once upon a time there was no greater delight in my life than getting a call from a telemarketer. I had developed an amazing array of character voices and no telemarketer could disengage from a conversation with me before hearing at least three of them. The Deaf Old Yiddish Waiter, The Teenage Dork With a Speech Impediment, a whole slew of people with different regional accents but identical (and very severe) cases of Torettes Syndrome... ah, those were the days. The Teenage Dork once kept a real estate salesman on the line for seven minutes asking about acne medicine ("Im too young to buy condos, but I need something for these ZITS!"). I didnt know it at the time, but it was a golden age.
Then, a few years ago, I realized that a moment of dead air when I answered the phone meant the caller was actually a telemarketer, and I would hang up the phone before the conversation even began. I had a lot more free time, but something important evaporated from my life. In recent months I would wait for the pause to end and the telemarketer to say, "Hello, Mr. Greenstraw?" and I had every intention of answering with (for instance) "Dey Ess No Juan Har Wid Dot Nam. Wid dju lak to spreak to Missus Yamagucci?" But I never did. Too much time had passed. I contented myself with making moose ears at the receiver and hanging up. I could no more invoke the Deaf Old Yiddish Waiter after a hiatus of three or four years than I could walk onto my high school football field, lace up the cleats, and run a post pattern.
Well, if you want to get technical, I couldnt lace up the cleats and run a post pattern when I was in high school either, at least not without colliding with the other receiver, who was running the CORRECT pattern. But you know what I mean.
Incidentally, the other receiver, Dave Stradler, was a total dipwad even if he did run the correct pattern.
Anyway, I had just about given up all hope of experiencing the joy of responding to an unwanted phone call when I was cleaning up behind the couch and found my daughters old VOICE MODIFIER, which had gone missing around 1998. It looks like a blue bullhorn, but it has three voice settingsRobot, Alien, and Kid. Robot and Alien sound like youd expect a robot or an alien to sound, more or less, but Kid sounds like Alien, only an octave or so higher. (This is not a complaint).
I replaced the long-depleted battery and was sitting on the couch, watching "Inside the Actors Studio" and saying rude things to James Lipton in a robot voice when the phone rang. I put the receiver to my ear, and I heard the familiar sound of nothingof dead airof a telemarketer. And the Voice Modifier was in my hand.
"May I speak with Jeffrey Greenshaw, please?"
"YOU HAVE ACCESSED A FORBIDDEN AREA," said the robot voice. "YOU MUST HANG UP AT ONCE!"
HANG UP AT ONCE OR WE WILL BEGIN THE DESTRUCT SEQUENCE! TEN! NINE"
He hung up. I clicked off the robot voice and took a deep breath. I felt a warmth spreading from the center of my being to the extremest extremities. The old feeling was back. I was back. I felt the way I imagine Billy Crystal felt after hosting the Oscar show following a four year lay off.
When the phone rang again some hours later, I didnt wait for the telemaketer to begin his sales pitch; as soon as the dead air gave way to the unmistakable sound of a PBX room, the Alien Voice announced:
"WE ARE TRACING THIS CALL. DO NOT HANG UP. YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF SECTION 4-34-B OF FCC REGULATIONS. WE HAVE NOT YET COMPLETED THE TRACE. AS SOON AS THE TRACE IS COMPLETE, WE WILL DISPATCH POLICE OFFICERS TO YOUR LOCATION TO PLACE YOU UNDER ARREST. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR LOCATION. DO NOT HANG UP!"
My caller hung up. I was on a roll. I was averaging two or three telemarketing calls a day, so I expected to continue improving as I got more practice. By the end of the week, with another 10 or 15 interactions under my belt, I figured I would be at the top of my form.
Then some odd things occurred. Instead of getting two or three calls a day from telemarketers, I was receiving 6 or 8, then more than a dozen. I just didnt have the stamina to engage each of them with a state-of-the-art robot voice performance. I mean, Im good, but even Mozarts energy levels probably dropped off a bit after the tenth piano concerto of the day. In addition, I would get some unusual calls from NON-telemarketers. The phone would ring, Id pick up, there would be no dead air, so Id say, "Hello?"
"Um... uh.. Sorry. Wrong number..."
Everybody gets calls like that from time to time, but four or five a day? And all from different callers? The conversation generally ended at "wrong number...", but finally I managed to keep one caller on long enough to ask:
"Well, who did you want to speak to?"
"The, uh... the recording that says your phonell blow up if you hang up. My girl friend said it was this number."
As far as I can determine, every telemarketer who heard my robot voice gave my phone number to everybody in his or her address book including, of course, other telemarketers. Several of my * ahem * performances were recorded and have been posted on line, some of them with added musical backing tracks.
Aside from the fact that I dont get any credit or money, its the most successful work of my entire career.
That being the case I decided to go out at the top. I retired the Voice Modifier. Now I just hang up on telemarketers. It doesnt matter. The calls continue, more and more of them each day. Sometimes I shout, "I dont do the robot any more!" before I hang up. I dont expect it to stop over night.
Thats how it goes when youre the best. When Garbo retired, they begged her to come back for DECADES.
Calling all guys! I know you dont want to hear this, but I need to say a word about your noses. Not the entire nose, just the part you keep forgetting to prune. Thats right, I mean you, and you, and especially YOU.
Nobody likes to think about the inside of his nose. If everything is working right it doesnt occur to us to think about it, and when everything isnt working right, we dont dare think about it. But the fact is, its a jungle in there. And once that jungle starts encroaching on the your upper lip, it doesnt matter whether youre thinking about it or not. Trust meeverybody who encounters you is thinking about it. In fact, they cant think about anything else, especially if they happen to be of the female persuasion.
You might be telling yourself, "Hey, if a chick is going to pass me by because of something like a little NOSE HAIR, so be it. That just means we are talking about a SHALLOW CHICK." Right you are. And you know what? Shallow chicks are the way to go. The shallower the better. Lets face it: even if you meet a DEEP chick whos willing to overlook those twin rain forests poking out of good ol Mr. Honker as long as you REALLY TOTALLY GET "Le Sacre d Primtemps," youre STILL out of luck, because you dont even know what I just said, do you?
Hey dude maybe it was "cool" to bop around the mall in 1998 with a crop of nose hair so luxurious it looked like you had a tarantula crammed into each nostril, but... Times Have Changed. Todays cutting edge nostril is lean, mean, and exceedingly UNgreen. But what can you do about it? Take it from One Who Knowstheres nothing sadder than a guy standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a pair of tweezers, defoliating the nasal jungle one branch at a time. It takes so long that by the time youve got nostril number two under control, nostril number one is already overgrown again and youve got to start the whole thing over. Anyway, you are a GUY, and guys need MACHINES. Note the plural, because this is a multi-part job requiring a highly specialized, state-of-the-art, easily broken tool for each part.
STEP ONE: PREPARATION. You wouldnt consider shaving without first scrubbing the face with a foaming cleanser, exfoliating, rewetting the whiskers with a damp wash cloth, applying a pre-shave oil, and brushing on an emollient, would you? I didnt think so. Well, your nose hair is just as something or other as your facial hair. First: Clear the channels of all foreign matter. Take you time. Most of this will be disposable, but every now and then a rare misprinted postage stamp or a collectable Fisher-Price toy will show up among your tangled follicles, so it pays to put everything carefully aside until youre finished and you can separate the junk from the stuff youll be putting up on eBay.
STEP TWO: MORE PREPARATION. Now that the debris has been carted away, a brisk vacuuming, followed by a thorough hose-down. There are some clever devices on the market which are capable of fulfilling both functions, but I tend to be a purist here, and for the first task I go with the traditional NASAL-VAC MAC VII. You want to be careful about the power setting anything above "4" (it goes up to "27") and you could be trying to retrieve your medulla oblongata from the filter. For the wet work, your undersigned is totally sold on the pithily named NOSE HOSE, which can pump 20 gallons a second when its revved up all the way. You probably wont require that much water to get things spic-n-span in there, but its nice to know that ya got it if ya need it.
STEP THREE: A LEETLE BIT MORE PREPARATION. If you could turn your nose inside out, you could take care of that unsightly hair simply by shaving it off. But then youd have the problem of turning the nose outside in again, and what if it didnt work? Youd be walking around with this inside out nose, and probably talking lige you heb a terribu code. "Doe," youd be explaining all the time, "I dode hab a code, by DOSE is IDSIDE OUD!" So dont even consider it. Where was I going with this?
STEP THREE: A LEETLE BIT MORE PREPARATION: Oh yeah. So, you cant turn your nose inside out (and if you can, please dont tell me about. Write to Betty Orleman). Yet the next step is precisely what you would do if you could: lather up those bristles. The Nose Hose can be easily modified into a foam delivery system. Just fire away. Twice. And once the foam has been applied, you can sit back and relax a bit while the foam gets to work softening up the stalks. Because nose growth is considerably tougher and denser than the stuff on your chin, it needs to sit a bit longer to be effective. 30-45 minutes will usually do the trick.
STEP FOUR: CHOP CHOP! Now its time to fire up the Weed Whacker, put on your miners helmet, and get to work in there. How ruthless should you be? Think Peter OToole flipping out in "Lawrence of Arabia": TAKE NO PRISONERS! TAKE NO PRISONERS!
STEP FIVE: Cauterize. Youve been relentless and everything has been sliced down. But if you dont want it poking out again by dessert, youve got to burn it right to the ground. Ends of every follicle must be seared. Once again, there are a number of excellent nose torches that will get the job done, but be careful: after all, you are basically sticking a tiny blowtorch up your nose and things could go wrong. What to do? The safest, most humane thing to do is practice first on somebody elses nose. Preferably somebody you dont like, and who isnt that bright. Once you can incinerate your buddys nose thatch without having the neighbors banging on the door and screaming, "What are you doing in there, Mr. Greenstraw?? Whos screaming like that?? Im calling the police!!" well, then its safe to take care of your own nostrils.
STEP SIX: SEAL IT. Now the whole nasal interior needs to be sealed, in order to retard regrowth. Sand it. Spackle it. Two coats of primer. A good latex-based indoor / outdoor paint. And hey, dont be afraid to go with a different color for each nostril! Then apply three coats of polyurethane, making sure to allow each one to dry completely before applying the next. Yes, all this is a lot of work, but unless your nasal passages are extremely fertile, you shouldnt have to bother with it more than once or twice a week.
MAINTAINENCE: But how do you keep everything hunky dory between grooming sessions? You might think about installing a bug zapper. The babes dont want to see the Forest That Time Forgot when they look at you, but I doubt that anyone can resist that soft purple glow spilling out of one or both nostrils, punctuated every now and then by a reassuring fffzzzt! to let you both know that All Is Well in the olfactory channels.
FROM THE MAILBAG
Last year we reached a milestone when your undersigned received, for the first time, more email regarding this column than snail mail; this year that trend intensified. Only two readers made contact with me via the U.S. mail. Geez. Virtually the whole world is now part of a vast cyber-village. Or, alternatively, only two people on Planet Earth think the column is worth blowing 37 cents on.
The epistical year began promisingly enough with a postcard from S. K. of Reigelsville PA, who wrote regarding last years "from the Mailbag" column. "Thought I would drop you a line," said she, "since you seem to enjoy hearing from yr readers." That is the entire text of her postcard. Pithiness, thy initials are S. K. In a way it reminds me of the letters I used to send my parents from summer camp, which generally went: "Dear Mom & Dad, they are making us write home today, Love, Jeff." But S. K. just wrote out of the goodness of her heart; I was being threatened with latrine duty.
R.R. of Easton PA sent a polite email questioning my grammar. "You say so-and-so gave such-and-such to Picarillo and me," he wrote. "It should be Picarillo and I. Im surprised your editor didnt fix it." I wrote a polite note explaining that my editor didnt fix it because its quite correct. He responded politely that his 8th grade English teacher said "you and me" is ALWAYS incorrect, and she knew her beans. I politely explained that his 8th grade English teacher may have known her beans but she was a tad shaky in the grammar department. He politely replied that I should be a man and just admit I made a mistake. I politely admitted that I have made a great many mistakes, but that this did not happen to be one of them, and cited Fowlers articles on "me," "between," and "I" from the indispensable Modern English Usage. He politely suggested some interesting recreational activities for me and the horse I rode in on. And, not having a horse, there we let the matter drop.
Not to bore you with technical matters, but: to see whether you should use "Picarillo and I" or "Picarillo and me" in a given sentence, just remove the Picarillo. In general its always a good idea to remove the Picarillo. You dont want to be in a sentence with Picarillo if you can help it. Trust me, you just DONT.
As always, there were a number of suggestions for Expert Guy columns. Douglas H. of Phillipsburg thought I might be able to get some mileage out of expensive sneakers. M. E. (of parts unknown) felt pizza toppings would provide plenty of mirth. And H. J. of Alexandria said that he had several ideas for excellent columns but wanted to know if I would give him credit. Ah, H.J., my man, my main man, (I replied), just remember: there is NO LIMIT to what you can accomplish if you dont care who gets the credit. Alas, H. J. did not write back so I dont know whether he took this excellent advice to heart.
Other subjects brought to my attention by readers eager for my take on them: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, "P. Diddy running the Marathon," and (deep breath here) "the current political scene." In a sort-of related vein, Joe P. of West Paterson, New Jersey, asked whatever happened to the Old Duffer at the End of the Bar columns that I used to do from time to time. The "Old Duffer" was how I generally tackled topical stuff like QE and "the current political scene," but, said I, I felt that I had run the concept into the ground and there was nothing more I could do with it. "Hate to break it to you," said he, "but youve run all of your concepts into the ground & theres nothing more you can do with any of them." Well, I have long suspected as much. Its good to finally know for sure. Thank you, Joe, thank you very much.
No fewer than THREE local bands wrote asking to be mentioned in my column. Lets seehow can I phrase this? I cant just drop your names into the middle of a column. Theres a principle involved. If you want to be mentioned in the paper, you have to do something noteworthy. For instance, send me money. Fifty bucks gets you two full paragraphs. A hundred bucks, and you get to be Calvano and Picarillos favorite band.
The most email was generated by a column I didnt writemy daughters pinch hit while I was recovering from appendicitis. "Your column is way better when you dont have anything to do with it," said K. N. of Milford. "You should give her a shot every year." I would love to, but Im afraid I cant spare any more internal organs just now. D. F. of Holland asks if the periodic interviews with my daughter are accurately transcribed or if Im just making it all up or what. Me? Make things up? Never. And if you (this you is plural and refers not just to D.F. but to anyone reading this) would like to confirm that, you could write to my daughter, who (as reported in the last interview I did with her) is spending the spring semester in Florence. The address is: Emma Grimshaw // Villa Natalia // Via Bolognese 106 // 501 39 Florence Italy. Me and her is always up for fan letters.
LAST RITES FOR PETER LORRE
I picked up the phone. "Peter Lorres dead," Calvano said.
"Yuh," I said. "In like 1963. No, 64. I remember because it was the main story in Famous Monsters of Filmland number 16."
"The cover had, um, um..."
"Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman."
"Yeah! But inside they APOLOGIZED for not having Peter Lorre on the cover. They said the cover was already at the printers when he died."
"I never held it against them."
"Me neither. But I mean the OTHER Peter Lorre is dead now."
The other Peter Lorre was Calvanos goldfish. The details: Peter Lorre had been fine when Calvano had turned off the light on his nightstand (which had a picture of Peter Lorre (the one without gills) scotch taped to the lampshade). But come the dawn, the unfortunate gold fish was floating on the surface of his bowl.
"So you want me to come over for the Big Flush?"
"Well, come over, but Im not flushing him. Peter Lorre was a GREAT gold fish. Full honors in the backyard."
In Calvanos backyard, there was a spot behind the forsythia which, unbeknownst to his parents, was the final resting place for many of his beloved but short-lived pet chameleons, turtles (the dinky ones you could buy at the pet store for 48 cents, which had a life expectancy of about 45 minutes), and crawfish. The departed would be placed into a matchbox with due ceremony, the matchbox would be closed, and then it would be buried, although not too deeply, since we liked to check on them from time to time. One of the chameleons had been wrapped in a white shoelace (actually a sneaker lace, since they were longer) in the hope that this would permit the chameleon to mummify rather than get all gross. It turned out to be a vain hope, even though we changed the shoelace at least three times during the 5 days when we were checking regularly.
Calvano was already in the backyard when I got there, and to my surprise, Peter Lorre was still in his fishbowl, floating on the surface above the crappy little plastic castle which must have provided him so much comfort and entertainment during his stay with the Calvanos.
"Grounds kind of hard," said Calvano. I nodded. Calvano had bent the end of a trowel establishing just how hard the ground was. Just about as hard as you might expect, given that it was the middle of February and temperatures had been in the low teens for about 8 weeks.
"So were going to do the Big Flush after all?"
"Nuh," said Calvano. "I wanna show you something in the fridge first. I got an idea."
We left Peter Lorre floating behind the forsythia. If someone had wandered into Calvanos yard and seen a goldfish bowl rimed with frost, this person might have thought it was strange, but surely he would have thought it no stranger than what Calvano showed me in the refrigerator.
"What IS that?" I said.
"It was a recipe from a booklet my mom sent for. There was a coupon in the Jell-O box."
What I was looking at was Jell-O, all right. But it was not just Jell-O. First of all, it was shaped like a... well, like a small dome atop a slightly larger dome, atop an even larger dome. Three stories of Jell-O. And inside the Jell-O...
"I think its radishes," said Calvano. I peered more closely. It was indeed radishes. Mostly. There were also crescents of celery. It was some sort of Jell-O SALAD.
"Is your mother crazy?" I said.
"I dunno," Calvano said, dreamily.
"Is she gonna make you EAT that?"
"She might try," he conceded. "Theres another recipe with little cauliflowers in it."
I shuddered. "Well, what do you want to do with Peter Lorre?"
"Youre looking at it," he said. "I was sort of thinking about just leaving him outside in the bowl, and hed end up inside a block of ice? But this is better." He picked up a package of Jell-O and read the instructions on the back. "Yeah, we can do this. The trick is to add Peter Lorre at the right time not too soon or hell float to the top and end up stuck on the outside."
"Yeah, we wouldnt want that."
"Well, we got a choice of Strawberry, Lime, or Orange."
"Orange might be the best," I said. "Hed kind of blend in."
"We should also add some STUFF," said Calvano. "Not necessarily chopped up vegetables..."
"...Peter Lorre wouldnt like that. But maybe... you know, like the skull head eraser on the end of my SPECIAL pencil? Things like that. Things Peter Lorre would kind of enjoy..." He paused and turned away, as if contemplating something outside in the yard. I think he was getting a little choked up and didnt want me to see. "Rubber spiders," he continued, when hed gotten control of himself. "And then in the spring, well bury the whole thing, the way hed want it."
We boiled some water, as per the instructions. Well, not exactly according to instructionsCalvano, not wanting to get in trouble for using one of his mothers good bowls, used an empty tomato sauce jar. "Now we add the powder. Okay. Now this is the tough part. We gotta add either ice cubes or really cold water and then we put it in the fridge and let it gel. Then when its around halfway there, we add Peter Lorre."
It was an instruction that stuck with me for decades. When the Jell-O is halfway there, add Peter Lorre.
We decided the water in the fish bowl was probably colder by now than anything we could get out of the tap. The fact that it was, you know, goldfish bowl water and would render the whole thing inedible wasnt a factor, since nobody was ever going to eat it. I retrieved the bowl from the back yard. We set Peter Lorre aside, added the cold water, put everything in the fridge and frantically ran around the house looking for things to accompany Peter Lorre on his journey into an orange-flavored afterlife. Mostly rubber bugs, of which there was no shortage in the Calvano household.
"Aw, we got too many. These would fill the jar like six times over," said Calvano. "Just use half of them."
We were dropping the bugs into the Jell-O (which was nowhere near halfway there) when we were interrupted by Mrs. Calvanos scream. It was a multi-part scream. Part one was because of the bugs we were adding to the Jell-O. Part two, about an octave higher, occurred when she caught sight of the recently departed fish on the kitchen counter.
"Ma," Calvano said, "Its what PETER LORRE WOULD HAVE WANTED!"
Calvano had never bothered to tell his mother that hed named the goldfish Peter Lorre. She stopped screaming and stared at her son as if he were insane. "Have you lost your mind?" she said. With uncommon restraint, Calvano did not bring up the radishes suspended in lime Jell-O.
We rinsed out the tomato sauce jar and recovered the rubber spiders. Later that day Peter Lorre was given the Big Flush. We got in trouble for locking the bathroom door. "Nobody uses the bathroom for half an hour," Calvano yelled to his brother, frantically pounding to get in. "Lets see a little RESPECT for the dead, huh?"
Here we are, more than 10 days after the Wardrobe Malfunction That Shook the World. You would think that there would nothing more to say about Janet Jackson at this point, or anyway nothing that hasnt already been said better by the fat lady behind you in the checkout line at WalMart.
I certainly never thought I would have anything original to add to Sargasso Sea of post Super Bowl breast commentary. And yet, after reading dozens of pundits and listened to hundreds more, I found my viewpoint was not represented anywhere. There were two basic positions: (1) The culture is going to Hell in a handbasket and this incident is just further evidence, or (2) Oh, get over it, its just a breast, in other, more civilized countries, theyre much more sophisticated about such things.
Now, these are both perfectly respectable positions; in fact, my own position embraces aspects of them both. It is (3) WOO HOO! BOOBS! But apparently nobody shares my point of view here.
Well, I shouldnt say "nobody." No sooner had Mr. Timberlake established once and for all that Miss Jackson is, indeed, a mammal, than my phone rang. It was a Distinguished Journalist; in fact, a great many of my friends happen to be Distinguished Journalists. We naturally gravitate towards one another, like fat bald guys at singles mixers.
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Whoa! Dude! Did you see that??
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST [me]: Her boob!
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Her BOOB!
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: I cant believe we saw her boob!
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: On regular TV!
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Yeah! It was FREE!
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Her BOOB!
Having now determined what it was we had seen, and gotten corroboration, we set about reviewing what we knew of what we journalists call Deep Background.
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: I thought it would be bigger. Didnt you think it would be bigger? I mean, that things shes wearing kind of pushes it up...
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Yeah...
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: But didnt you think it was bigger?
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: No, its about what I thought. And
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Hey! The boob is posted on Drudge!
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: God I LOVE the Internet. Hey, whats that THING on it?
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: It looks kind of like a hubcap.
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: I think it looks like a ninja star.
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Kind of. I dont like it.
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: No. It obscures, uh...
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: It INTERFERES with our seeing the COMPLETE BOOB!
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: EXACTLY! Hey, do you think theres one on the OTHER BOOB??
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: I dunno. Can you buy just ONE of those things?
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: I dunno. What is it?
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: I dunno.
This phase of the investigation had reached an impasse. We were forced into other lines of inquiry.
(If I may be permitted a brief digression: both the Distinguished Journalist and the Other Distinguished Journalist are well over 40. When they started calling each other "dude" a couple of years ago it was ironic and funny. Now its just kind of pathetic (Sort of like that edgy bump-and-grind, pelvic thrust Super Bowl half time choreography. Geez, it gave off a whiff of stale cheese 35 years ago when Bob Fosse was pumping it out, and he was actually GOOD). Anyway, now that Distinguished Journalists of a Certain Age are now calling each other "dude," its time to say goodbye to "dude." Hip young dudes need a new tag. Maybe "Chum.")
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Do you think its real?
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Do you mean natural, or do you mean actually existing?
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Natural. What do you mean, actually existing? As opposed to what?
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Digital.
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Digital boobs? Can they do that??
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Of COURSE they can do that!! They can do ANYTHING!
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Well of course its not DIGITAL. There were 100,000 people there!
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Unless of course they were all digital...
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Dude! Focus! Boobs!
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Boobs!
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Real or fake?
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Fake.
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Agreed. But theyre still...
OTHER DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Boobs!
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: Boobs!
I hope you were paying attention to that exchange about digital boobs. The Other Distinguished Journalist is quite correct: digital boobs are well within the range of current technology, and in fact, they have been for years. There is no reason at all why the digital Hooterization of America can not now proceed at a rapid pace.
You may recall, about 20 years ago, the "colorization" flap. Ted Turner was taking old black and white movies and, through digital magic, turning them into old COLOR movies. Like all visionaries, he was attacked. Some accused him of defacing masterpieces, as if he were slapping a disco rhythm track on Beethovens Fifth Symphony. Also the colors happened to be crappy. Except for a pretty decent deep blue, the colors were washed out, like a magazine cover thats been left in the display window too long.
The technology just wasnt up to the task. But now it is. Only we dont need a full color (for instance) "Its a Wonderful Life." We need a HOOTERIZED "Its a Wonderful Life." Like many old movies, its got a great script, great acting, great everything... but NO BOOBS. Now we can digitally fix this. The fact is, there is no movie, no matter how good, that wouldnt be immensely improved by hooterization.
We can start out tentatively, with the odd boob here and there, among the residents of Bedford Falls; eventually, everybody can be digitally enhanced. Even Mr. Potter. As the events of Superbowl Sunday showed, it doesnt really matter if the emergence of this or that particular boob makes dramatic "sense." As long as its a boob, and its out there, thats enough.
(for an excellent Janet Jackson Exposed Right Breast Cupcake recipe, see
Santo y Blue Demon Contra El Dr. Frankenstein!
I got up early to watch the announcement of the 76th Annual Academy Award nominations. Its always exciting, but this year especially so, since I was actually rooting for a movie, for the first time since 1986. And just as in 1986, when "Pee Wees Big Adventure" did not make the final cut for Best Picture, I was bitterly disappointed. "Santo y Blue Demon Contra El Dr. Frankenstein" was not nominated for ANYTHING.
I was given a DVD of the film as a belated birthday gift, part of a box set of Santo movies. I had never even heard of Santo before, but it was obvious 15 seconds into the first scene that I was watching the greatest movie ever made.
A young woman is walking down a dark street. Its very late and she is so nervous that she looks into the camera 5 times in less than 20 seconds. And her nervousness is not without foundation, because SUDDENLY SHE IS KIDNAPPED BY A HUGE GUY IN J.C. PENNY LOAFERS!
Next, we watch while DR. IRWIN FRANKENSTEIN performs an operation on her: he is SWTICHING HER BRAIN with another young woman. The operation is a failure! Both young women die. But, says Dr. Frankenstein, "It does not matter. My technique is being perfected." His assistant asks how they will dispose of the bodies. "¡Like all the others! ¡They will WALK OUT OF HERE UNDER THEIR OWN POWER!" But why? asks the assistant. It would be much easier to cremate them. "Because," says Dr. Frankenstein, "¡I want to show the police what kind of genius theyre dealing with!" The two dead girls lurch out into the night, showing quite a bit of zombie cleavage. They go to their respective homes and strangle their husbands.
A special news bulletin: "¡A group of distinguished scientists has examined the victims of this diabolical genius! They have established their brains were switched and both girls died during the operation. What has perplexed them is both young women were able to walk home after they were already dead. The city is filled with Terror."
Dr. Frankenstein regards the news report with satisfaction, then switches to the Wrestling Channel. He watches SANTO, THE MULTITUDES IDOL for a moment, and announces, "I need that mans brain!"
And who wouldnt? We watch a tag team matchSanto (who always wears a silver mask, the kind favored by guys who knock over 7-11s) and his pal BLUE DEMON (in a blue mask) vs. a couple of UNMASKED wrestlers. We watch the ENTIRE THREE ROUND MATCH. From the same camera angle. The play-by-play announcer says, "Santo, the Multitudes Idol, uses his knowledge and intelligence to dominate Mendoza," and "The beautiful girls applaud."
After the match Santo and Blue Demon go on a double date with their girl friends. (Interestingly, even though the movies are in Spanish, Santo always calls Blue Demon "Blue" rather than the Spanish word for Blue, "Azul."). They are still wearing their masks, but nobody pays any attention. Santos girl friend, Alicia, wears a pink pantsuit like the ones my mom wore when she was about 65. "Your father, who taught Blue Demon and me the locks with which we won the match tonight, would be so proud that you are a bacteriologist," says the suave Multitudes Idol.
In order to get Santos brain, Dr. Frankenstein sends some thugs to kidnap Alicia. Santo and Blue Demon go to the police (still wearing their masks) and offer their assistance. "We can always use your help," says the commander. "Here are two beautiful and skillful detectives to aid you."
That night there is another match scheduled. "To think Licia is in that maniacs hands or that he has turned her into a zombie," muses Santo. "And we will have to go out and wrestle." Blue Demon shakes his head: "We have no choice." Here follows another three round matchif anything, even more exciting than the first!
Dr. Frankenstein sends his goons out to kidnap those two beautiful and skillful detectives but Santo and Blue Demon foil them. But he wants that brain! So he sends Santo a note"Turn yourself over to me or I will turn Alicia into a zombie. (signed) Dr. Irwin Frankenstein." "¡Dr. Frankenstein!" exclaims Santo. "Incredible, but we have to believe it," says Blue Demon. "I must agree with Blue Demon," says the police commander.
Santo appears at the designated location and is taken to the secret lab. BUThe is wearing a RADIO WRISTWATCH. And so is Blue Demon. Even though he is in the middle of dinner with his girl friend, when Santo calls, Blue Demon springs into action. "I must go. Please pay the check."
Dr. Frankenstein gets ready to operate, informing his minions, "¡Tonight I will be attempting a surgical prowess of great importance and I wont want any interrumptions! ¿Understand?" Perhaps not, but in any case the minions do not interrump him.
Blue Demon drives to the old warehouse where the secret lab is hidden and picks the lock with his pocketknife. Santo is on the operating table being prepped for the brain operation. Brain operations apparently do not require mask removal. And then...
Well, I dont want to spoil the climax, or even the final three round tag team match. (I have to say that I was rather astonished to see Alicia sitting ringside between the two beautiful and skillful detectives, all of them smiling and cheering Santo onthe clear implication is that Santo possess some hitherto unsuspected, Hef-like powers). Although "Santo y Blue Demon Contra El Dr. Frankenstein" is my favorite among the four DVDs in the set, the others are also excellent and should have been nominated for Oscars™ as well. In one of them, Santo and his girl friend (theres a different one in each movie) and another woman are escaping from some monsters and they flag down a passing jeep. "Excuse me, could you take the girls to town? They are in danger." "Of course, Santo," says the motorist, "You are my favorite wrestler!" "Next time you see me fight, please come to my dressing room, it would be a pleasure to see you again," says Santo, the Multitudes Idol.
I wrote to the Academy to express my outrage about Santo being totally shut out of this years Oscar ™ competition and I actually received a reply. "The films you inquired about were not ELIGIBLE because (among OTHER THINGS) they were released OVER 30 YEARS AGO. "Santo y Blue Demon Contra El Dr. Frankenstein" dates from 1972." And they must have assumed the I myself was Blue Demon because they concluded with "Thanks for writing, Azul." Although they spelled "Azul" wrong.
I was a bit reassured to learn that Santo had not been deliberately snubbed by this years Academy Award™ votersand delighted to discover that there are literally SCORES of Santo movies I have yet to see!
Santo is the greatest hero! Or, as they would say in Mexico: "¡Soy la bonita hermonita de Santo!"
[Editors note: Actually that means "I am Santos pretty little sister," but... whatever].
ASK THE COLD REMEDY EXPERT GUY
DEAR COLD REMEDY EXPERT GUY:
Ive got a cold that I cant shake. Ive been drinking plenty of liquids, gotten plenty of rest, and all the other stuff everybody (including you) says to do, and nothing works. This is the third week now. What do you do when nothing works to relieve your cold?
What do I do when nothing works to relieve my cold? I generally act like a cranky, foul-tempered old coot to anyone dumb enough to get within earshot. There are myriad techniques for this, which can be custom tailored to fit your personality and situation; for more information, you should contact my colleague, the Royal Pain in the Keester Expert Guy. Ask for his free pamphlet, "Really Annoying Passive Aggressive Strategies & Psychotic Temper Tantrums for Beginners." Tell him I sent you.
DEAR COLD REMEDY EXPERT GUY:
Is it feed a cold, starve a fever, or is it starve a cold, feed a fever? I can never remember. Thank you.
WANTS TO GET IT RIGHT THIS TIME
Its "Feed a cold..." but so what? Maybe if you would stop deferring to your colds, they wouldnt stick around for six weeks. Maybe instead of "feed a cold," it ought to be "Grab a cold by the lapels and slap it around for ten minutes and then when it starts blubbering slap it some more and say what are you? A frigging WOMAN? and then shove it out the door." Seriously. Thats the way I handle my colds, and do they like it? They do not. Colds cant wait to hit the bricks when they mess with me.
BUT. People are different. Lets say for the sake of argument you like your colds and you want them to stay as long as they can. Maybe you love your colds. Well, then by all means you should feed them. But what should you feed them?
This depends on the individual cold. Most colds in this part of New Jersey have relatively simple tastes. You can serve your cold foi gras on truffles, and your cold will go "Oooh, how elegant!" but as soon as you turn your back to uncork the wine, your cold is going to fold that truffle in his napkin and slip it into the wastebasket. Go with traditional NJ comfort foods: Hot Texas Wieners, Taylor Ham, Rt. 12 Roadkill, etc. And put some mellow sounds on the hi fi.
DEAR COLD REMEDY EXPERT GUY:
Last week you said if I put a half a lemon in my mouth, sealed my mouth with duct tape, and sat with my feet in a tub of fruit salad all night, my cold would be gone by morning. Well, I did all that, and my cold wasn't gone by morning! Explain, please.
WAITING FOR YOUR EXPLAINATION
I meant the other half of the lemon. My bad. Im sorry, I should have been more specific. This time, please have someone take a photograph and mail it in so that I can properly evaluate your technique, just in case something goes amiss again.
DEAR COLD REMEDY EXPERT GUY:
I dont see how you can call yourself the cold REMEDY expert guy when everybody knows there is NO CURE FOR THE COMMON COLD. It seems to me all your so-called remedies are either old wives tales or stupid jokes you made up yourself, but none of them will have the slightest effect on a cold, which after all is caused by a virus.
THINKS MAYBE YOU ARE FULL OF IT
I am going to be civil even though your rude letter places me under no obligation to be so. For your information, remedy has many meanings, only one of which is cure. And for that matter, even if I did mean cure, cure has a number of meanings as well. It can mean to pickle, for instance. Or put a The in front of it, and its a rock band with the singer who does a guest vocal on the new Blink 182 CD. Its also the priest who runs an abbey, if you put one of those little French do-hickeys over the e. And so on. Maybe YOU think that when I say remedy Im talking about counteracting a virus, while in fact I am talking about pickles; how do you know? Did you take out a sublet in my brain? I dont think so.
DEAR COLD REMEDY EXPERT GUY:
Heres a tip you might pass on to your readers: my grandmother used to say that if you wanted to get over a cold quickly, drink a couple of glasses of hot wine. Then climb into bed. Pretty soon youll start sweating. Youll konk out, but youll keep sweating, and by the time you stop sweating, in a day or so, youll have sweat out the entire cold. Just remember to have some clean sheets ready, because youll probably have to change them three or four times!
GOOD ENOUGH FOR GRAMMA
Excellent advice. The only thing I can add: once the person with the cold has konked out, the process can be speeded up further by slipping one of his hands into a glass of lukewarm water. In fact, you need not limit this to people with coldsits an excellent preventative measure.
DEAR COLD REMEDY EXPERT GUY:
You lied when you said that during the average 3 day cold your nose produces 150 gallons of mucous. It does not. A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds at sea level. Even if m. weighed half as much as water, that would come to 600 pounds. Its absurd. Care to try again?
DISAPPOINTED IN YOU
DEAR COLD REMEDY EXPERT GUY:
Why is it that when I have a cold, one nostril will be all stopped up, and then after a while it suddenly clears up, and the other one gets stuffy? Whats going on, and how do I keep this from happening?
First of all, you probably want it to keep happening; youve got a cold, so it isnt a case of one clear nostril at a time vs. two clear nostrils, its one clear nostril at a time vs. NO clear nostrils. Total no brainer, from where the Cold Remedy Expert Guy is sitting. As to whats going on, the germs that cause your nose to stuff up are heat sensitive; that is, when the temperature in your nostril reaches a certain temperature, they have to get out of there or die. And when the right nostril gets plugged up, it starts getting hot in there. So they race next door, and clog up the left nostril while the right one unclogs. Then when that one clogs up, its back to the other one. Its kind of like a very boring, very stupid video game, only in a nose instead of on a video screen. But then nobody ever said your average virus was particularly bright, so perhaps they find it really amusing.
Calvano and I walked home from Picarillos house shaking our heads at the unfairness of the world. It was bad enough that Picarillo had a cow brain. Hed bought it from Mr. Paisley, the grammar school science teacher, at a yard sale a year or so earlier for about 75 cents. It was in a jar full of alcohol. For nearly two decades Mr. Paisley had kept the brain on a shelf near the front of the science room, right beside the stuffed gibbon. But the cow brain had been showing signs of wear and tear so hed decided to part with it in favor of a plastic replica. Calvano and I gave Picarillo a hard time about not having dickered over the price, but the fact was we would have paid anything for the cow brain and Picarillo knew it. We told him the brain was in ratty shape and he got taken, but the little fragments of bovine cerebellum bobbing around the jar only added to the charm in Picarillos eyes, and in ours.
We wanted the cow brain, but what we really envied was the way Picarillos mom seemed so unfazed by it. "If I had a cow brain on my night stand, my mom would have a stroke," said Calvano. "But did you see Mrs. Picarillo with it?"
"Yeah," I said. We had been sprawled all over Picarillos bed room floor listening to his record "Theme from Batman and Other Groovy Tunes Inspired by the Hit TV Show" (Pick to Click: side one cut two, "Batmobile Wheels") when his mother had walked in and actually dusted the jar with the cow brain. We couldnt have been more flabbergasted if shed picked up the brain and taken a bite out of it. She was the coolest mom we could imagine, and it stung.
"You know, I tried to talk my mom into letting me get a brain, and she just. Would. Not. Listen."
"Did you tell her it was really educational and crap?"
"A course. I told her it could make the difference between me getting into a good college or ending up regrooving tires with Uncle Angelo at the Jiffy Wheel, but it was like talking to a fire hydrant."
Calvano and I resigned ourselves to a life without brains and continued to be amazed at Mrs. Picarillos tolerance for Picarillos auxiliary gray matter, right up to the day that she came into the bathroom while we were changing the alcohol in the jar.
"What are you boys doing with the rubbing alcohol?"
"Mr. Paisley said I gotta change the alcohol every couple a months for to keep it as fresh as possible," said Picarillo.
"Whats wrong with water? Would water hurt the rubber or something?"
"What rubber, ma?"
I was not looking at her at that moment and so I missed what must have been a remarkable series of facial expressions, if it matched the series of sounds she produced, culminating in a blood curdling shriek.
Mrs. Picarillo had just realized shed been dusting a jar containing an actual cow brain for the past 18 months.
The next few minutes are rather a blur. Im not sure if Mrs. Picarillo was speaking English or Italian. The syllables poured out at such high speed that it didnt matter. Picarillo was crying, "But MA! I TOLE you it was a cow brain! A COURSE it was a REAL cow brain!! You know how much a rubber one woulda COST??"
Calvano alone kept his head about him; he nudged me and I held the jar steady while he finished filling it with rubbing alcohol. Mrs. Picarillo was slowing down. A variety of saints were invoked. Picarillo said "But MA! MA!" I resealed the jar, and Calvano said, "Excuse me, Mrs. Picarillo, but would you like us to funnel the alcohol back into the bottles? The alcohol the cow brains been soaking in, I mean?"
"No! No! No!" she said. "Just get it out! Out of my house!"
Calvano wrapped his arms around the coveted brain and we sprinted down the stairs. He had to put it down to put his coat on, but as soon as that was accomplished we shot out the door into the frozen afternoon. Picarillos little sister Noreen was building a snowman on the front lawn. "Is that my brothers stupid brain?" she said.
"Its one of em," said Calvano.
For an hour we wandered through the streets with the brain. "And he cant even get mad at us," sighed Calvano. "His MOM made us take the brain!" "Yeah." We continued wandering. We knew we wouldnt be allowed to bring the brain to either of our homes. Our moms wouldnt even tolerate rubber brains. After a while we found ourselves back on Picarillos street. It was getting dark. The light in Picarillos window seemed melancholy, now that none of it was being refracted off the jar containing the cow brain.
"So what are we gonna do with it?" said Calvano.
"For now, I think we should just bury it in the snow by Mrs. Picarillos roses. Nobodys gonna go near them till spring. Well figure something out before then."
"Well, you know," said Calvano, "If were gonna leave it in Picarillos yard..." He put the brain down, and lifted the head off Noreens snowman. There would have been more room in the middle section of the snowman, but it was a brain, so it didnt occur to either of us to put it anywhere but the head, even thought we had to add a considerable amount of bulk to the rest of the snowman to keep it from looking hydrocephalic.
We went home with the sense of a job well done. Over the next week or ten days, we occasionally added snow to the snowman to make it more secure. Calvano stuck a rather spiffy pork pie hat on it.
This turned out to be a mistake, since the dark cloth of the hat absorbed heat more efficiently than the snow. One Saturday towards the end of January I awoke to a frantic phone call from Calvano. "Its 40 degrees!" he said. "Lets move it!"
I got to Picarillos house first, but the Picarillos were already in the yard, looking at the snowman. Most of the head had melted and the jar with the brain had sunk three or four inches into the next section. The brain was bobbing sluggishly in the jar. The pork pie hat was sitting atop the jar.
"Wow," I said.
"Any thoughts on how this came about?" said Mrs. Picarillo.
"Uh," I said. "Uh..."
"Its an, uh, experiment," Calvano announced, out of breath, as he jogged into the yard.
"Is it a success?"
"All right," said Mrs. Picarillo. She tugged on Picarillos scarf. "Bring it in. You can put it in your room, but you cover it with a cloth when Im cleaning up. Capice?"
Picarillo nodded happily. Calvano bet me 2 bucks that Picarillo would trip and drop the jar before he got to his room but it didnt happen.
"The hat changed her mind," I said. "It looked kind of goofy with the hat, instead of, you know, like gross."
"What hes gotta get is a really COOL piece of cloth, with a picture of like a dead guy with a snake crawling out of his eye socket or something," said Calvano, brushing snow off the pork pie hat. "Then it would be a total victory."
NEXT STOP: FLORENCE!
[The eve of my daughters last night in New Jersey, prior to her leaving for Florence, Italy for the spring semester. She is watching television. I am attempting to tie up any remaining loose ends.]
ME: Did you double check to make sure youve got all your paperwork like I asked?
EMMA: I think so.
ME: You think so?
EMMA: But I need a... what do you call it when you have money from one country but youre in another country so you have to change your money into their money? I need that, but for my laptop.
EMMA: They have different PLUGS in Italy.
ME: You need an adaptor. We can pick one up tomorrow morning at the mall.
EMMA: Il Mallo.
ME: Is that actually what they call the mall in Italian?
EMMA: I have no idea. I know exactly three words of Italian. Pizza. Ravioli. And, uh... Well, maybe I know exactly two words of Italian. No, wait, I know some cheeses as well.
ME: You know, Im surprised you havent tried to pick up a little more. Did you check out any books on Italy or anything?
EMMA: [points to the TV screen] Im boning up right now.
ME: Thats "Gladiator."
EMMA: Correct. All those people are Italians. They seem to be a feisty people.
ME: I hear things are a little different there now.
EMMA: Oh sure, youd know. Have YOU ever been to Italy?
EMMA: THANK you. Why doesnt Russell Crowe get that mole removed? Hes a big star. Do you think they let him keep the clothes from his movies?
ME: What mole?
EMMA: Hes got this big mole between his eyes. Its gross. Otherwise hes great. This is his buffest role. Although the scene where he teaches math in a white t-shirt in "Beautiful Mind" is very good, too. Are Italian men all like him?
ME: Hes not Italian. Hes Australian.
EMMA: [holds up hand, forms it into a C and opens and closes it, the universally known sign for yack yack yack]. I think he got fat for "Master and Commander." His face looks fat. And he doesnt take his shirt off.
EMMA: I wonder if the script called for somebody with a big stupid mole between his eyes. That would explain why he didnt get it lasered off between movies.
ME: I guess it would.
EMMA: Dont patronize me. You know, I asked you to bid on that toothbrush on eBay. You didnt bid on the toothbrush.
ME: No, I didnt. I HAVE a toothbrush.
EMMA: It was for ME.
ME: You have a toothbrush too.
EMMA: I dont have that toothbrush. Did you read what it said? It comes with a certificate of authenticity. How can you NOT WANT Jeffrey Dahmers toothbrush?
ME: I dont want somebody elses toothbrush. I especially dont want Jeffrey Dahmers toothbrush. I especially dont want Jeffrey Dahmers toothbrush when theres a minimum bid of $500.
EMMA: Nobody is bidding. You could click the click here to purchase NOW button and get it for $620.
ME: The fact that nobody is bidding on Jeffrey Dahmers toothbrush gives me a faint sliver of hope for the future of humanity.
EMMA: You know, I dont think Ive ever seen a picture of Jeffrey Dahmer smiling. I have no idea if he took good care of his teeth or not.
ME: I guess he just wasnt a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.
EMMA: But youd think, given, you know, his line of work and all, hed be real diligent about oral hygiene.
ME: You know, I wouldnt think that at all. Quite the contrary.
EMMA: Oh I forgot. Youre an EXPERT on cannibals and oral hygiene. Cannibals, oral hygiene, Italy, you are the go-to guy when somebody wants to know about any of them.
ME: Im just saying... Oh, never mind. So we need an adaptor for your laptop. Anything else we have to take care of?
EMMA: We need to get that mole lasered off before he does another movie. AND, no more fat face movies. Hes done one, we know he can do the fat-face movie thing, now its time to get back to buff movies.
ME: Let me make a note of that. No more fat face movies... back to buff movies... Did you finish packing all your clothes?
EMMA: All the ones Im taking. Im taking all summer clothes, obviously...
EMMA: This is SUNNY ITALY.
ME: This is northern Sunny Italy. You know the first scene in "Gladiator," where youve got all those snow flakes and frost coming out of everybodys mouths? Its kind of like that.
EMMA: That was in Germania.
ME: Whatever. Florence is roughly the same latitude as Milwaukee. Its not nearly as cold, but it aint tropical. Trust me.
EMMA: Did you say Milwaukee because thats where Jeffrey Dahmers from?
ME: No, of course not. Well, actually, yes. But it really is about the same latitude.
EMMA: Im thinking if the toothbrush doesnt sell this time... maybe I can get everybody in the dorm in Florence to bid on it next time. We could pool our funds and form a syndicate.
ME: A syndicate.
EMMA: And everyone would have the toothbrush for a day. Wed have to work out some sort of schedule.
ME: Would you all be brushing with the toothbrush?
ME: You know, a communal toothbrush is a terrible idea. And THAT communal toothbrush is just totally beyond the pale.
EMMA: Well, if youd bid on the toothbrush like you were supposed to, it wouldnt even be a possibility. You have nobody to blame but yourself. The Jeffrey Dahmer Toothbrush Syndicate would not even exist if not for you.
ME: Not to rain on your parade or anything, but at the moment the Jeffrey Dahmer Toothbrush Syndicate DOESNT exist.
Most of the neighborhoods in my brain are pretty respectable places. Oh, there might be a few pink flamingos on the lawns over there in my cerebral cortex, and maybe the folks in the ol frontal lobe do think the three wittiest words in the English language are "pull my finger," but by and large its a nice place to live. There ARE some rather... unsavory areas... but I try to steer clear of them, and the residents mostly leave me alone.
But every now and then a synapse misfires and suddenly some guy from skid row in a raincoat and boxer shorts is in charge of the whole brain for a while. When this happens, I find myself thinking things like "Mmm, dinner at Taco Bell sounds good tonight!" or "I bet Id look pretty good with a Mohawk!" or "Wow! Mountain Dew on sale! I better buy TWO!"
For most of my adult life, I have been protected from the direst consequences of these brief mental short circuits by a lack of disposable income. No matter how intensely I yearned for an original oil painting of poker playing dogs, on black velvet if possible, if I didnt have the cash, my walls remained a poker-playing-dog-free zone.
But every now and then the synapse will go nuts on payday, and then bad things happen. Hence the inline skates in the closet. Hence the Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower commemorative plate in the kitchen. And hence, perhaps, the bongos I am looking at right now.
I say perhaps because to be honest, Im not sure if the bongos are the result of a mental hiccup or if I have finally gotten in touch with my inner beatnik.
I was sipping coffee in a friends kitchen a few days ago and there, at the edge of the kitchen table, was a set of bongos. I absently slapped one of the bongo heads and instantly it was, like, wow.
I NEEDED bongos.
So I went to a toy store and bought a set.
The fact that I went to a toy store and bought beginner bongos, rather than went to a music store and spent 200 bucks on custom bongos from Argentina, makes me hopeful that my bongo mania not the result of a crossed wire in the cerebellum.
The first thing I did upon getting my bongos home was figure out how to play the "Twilight Zone" theme. Just the bongo part, not the melody or anything. I did this for about four hours. After a while I heard my upstairs neighbor stirring. I guess its hard not to move your feet when you hear the happy sound of a bongo playing the theme from "Twilight Zone."
Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the joys of bongo-dom. The next day, my daughter stopped by to play "Boggle." She was way ahead of me after just three rounds, even though I was cheating pretty shamelessly. Generally I can clean her clock by inventing words like tildophont and then intimidate her into not checking in the dictionary. Not this time, though. "You arent concentrating," she said. "You keep looking at your stupid bongos. Stop looking at the bongos. And stop talking like a beatnik."
After she left I went back to my bongos. I was interrupted by a phone call from a telemarketer. Instead of hanging up as I usually do, I responded to each question with a flourish on the bongos. The telemarketer hung up after about a minute and a half. It was incredibly satisfying.
I went back to practicing the Twilight Zone theme, and once more I heard my upstairs neighbor moving about. "Stop stop stop, oh dear God, stop!" I heard her exclaim, although in what context I have no idea. I try not to pry into the personal lives of my neighbors. I wasnt 100% sure she could hear the bongos so I began to hit the skins a little harder, in the hope that the soothing rhythms of the bongos would provide some relief for whatever was stressing her out.
About 1 AM there was a knock on my door. I assumed it was my neighbor, probably come to ask if I would mind if she listened while I practiced the bongos. I brought the bongos with me to the door and beat a kind of badda badda badda badda BAP" before I threw open the door.
"Like hello," said the cop. There were in fact two cops at the door.
"Um," I said.
"Yo, Maynard," said the second cop, "Its one oclock in the morning. Time for all cats and chicks to, like, put their bongos down for the night and get some shut eye."
When the cops left I could TELL that my upstairs neighbor was still listening for the bongos. I felt terrible about cutting the music short, but what could I do? After a while I heard her shoes drop to the floor as she sadly went to bed. It was kind of heart breaking. My only consolation is that, although I will have to restrict my playing to the hours before midnight, there will be PLENTY of bongo music in her future.