JEFF GRIMSHAWS 2006 COLUMN ARCHIVE
the Picarillo stories
Mulberry Street Joey Clams
Ask the Expert Guys
The Eternal Return
The day after Christmas Picarillo brought his new knapsack over to my house. He hadn’t been this excited about anything since he’d won a jar containing a cow brain in a raffle in science class.
While Picarillo explained all the incredible knapsack features, such as hidden pockets and outside flaps that could be either buttoned or tied down according to taste, I was hard at work assembling my new Godzilla model. Every so often I would say, "Wow, that’s great, Picarillo," just so he’d think I was listening to him, but it didn’t matter. He was so in love with his knapsack he would have been happy bragging about it to the doorknob. We couldn’t hear each other anyway since I was playing my new LP, Big Hot Rod Hits, at ear-shattering volume. I had owned this record (side two kicked off with Dick Dale’s immortal "The Scavenger" and climaxed a couple of songs later with "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by The Cheers!) for less than 24 hours but I had already played it so much with my crappy needle that the satisfying snap-crackle-and-pop of surface noise was nearly as loud as the music.
I unscrewed a bottle of "crimson" model paint and found that it had dried out. I could not leave Godzilla with the inside of his mouth unpainted. I left Picarillo alone, confirming my theory about the doorknob, incidentally, and went to the kitchen to call Calvano and see if I could borrow some red paint.
"Yeah," I said, "I got the Godzilla model. ‘Crimson’ is what I want but any red is okay." He told me he’d be right over. My mother and Picarillo’s mother were sitting in the breakfast nook babbling excitedly about something.
"That’s right," Mrs. Picarillo was saying, "for any reason at all!"
"It doesn’t have to be defective?" asked my mother.
"No! I couldn’t believe it myself! It doesn’t have to be the wrong size or the wrong color or wrong anything. All you have to do is say you don’t like it!"
"I have to check my labels," said my mother.
I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. Then Calvano knocked on the kitchen door and we repaired to my room. Picarillo was telling the doorknob about the cinch-rings along the sides for securing a bedroll. I put the record back on. Calvano brought five different shades of red model paint. I wanted to use the darkest shade for the sake of authenticity but Calvano pointed out that since Godzilla’s mouth was only partly open, a dark red would look black. "I’d go as close to pink as you can go without it actually being pink," he said. (Painting Godzilla’s mouth an actual pink was, of course, unthinkable.)
I had painted the roof of the mouth red and was about to apply a thin stripe of white for a highlight when my mother and Picarillo’s mother appeared in the doorway.
"Boys, we’re going to the Willowbrook Mall," said my mother. "Last month Macy’s started a new return policy. You can return anything for any reason, as long as it’s unused! Well, all the other department stores in the mall had to change to the same policy or they’d lose business and now they all have— more or less—and we’re going up there to return some presents! Put on your coats! Bob," she said to Calvano, "Call your mother and see if you can come. We’ll eat lunch at the Hot Shoppes!"
The three of us sat in the back of the car trying to comprehend the concept of The Return Department. Why would someone return (for instance) a Godzilla model, or a cool knapsack? It made no sense.
"If you don’t like it, you can return it," said Mrs. Picarillo. "What’s so hard to understand about that?"
"Why bother?" said Calvano. "If you don’t like it you could just throw it out."
The ladies laughed uproariously and told Calvano he was a caution. "I don’t get it either," said Picarillo.
Picarillo’s mother said, "Suppose your aunt in Texas sent you a cowboy hat. Suppose you could bring it back to the store and get a space helmet?"
"Don’t wanna space helmet," said Picarillo sullenly.
"Oh, okay," said Calvano. "It’s like a swap meet."
"Wait a minute," I said. "What about.. monster masks? Could we trade the cowboy hat for monster masks?"
"If they had them, I suppose you could," said Mrs. Picarillo.
"Whoa!" cried Calvano.
That afternoon my mother returned a housecoat from my Aunt Jane, ‘the ugliest sweater in the free world’ courtesy of my Aunt Alma, and some ‘unmentionables’ from my father. The unmentionables looked suspiciously like underpants. Yet all she selected in return were other clothes. It was crazy. If all you wanted were clothes, why not just keep the ones you had in the first place?
Picarillo and Calvano and I would not make that mistake. When we got back to my house, we calculated that we’d all gotten way too much clothing for Christmas that year, and not nearly enough werewolf masks and plastic vampire fangs. In the past, that would have been that, but now we knew we had the power to make it right.
Three days later we carefully loaded our new sweaters, corduroys, bow ties, and sweaters into a couple of shopping bags and set off down the railroad tracks to the mall. We’d made lists of items we’d be willing to trade for with the guy in the Returns Department.
But the process proved to be far more complicated than we’d imagined. For example, none of the department stores at the mall would accept the sweater that Calvano’s grandmother had made him, even though he was willing to trade it for any currently charting 45 rpm single (preferably "In the Year 2525"). Only Picarillo was able to return anything at all—a gruesome pair of iridescent slacks from Bambergers. We wandered around the store with Picarillo’s credit slip. Bambergers didn’t have much in the way of masks or fangs that December. Picarillo was so desperate he contemplated a pair of Bass Weegens. "Picarillo," said Calvano, "If you buy shoes, we will never speak to you again. Maybe you could get a new jar for the cow brain." Picarillo blinked. It was time. The old jar was getting funky.
So that’s what Picarillo did. We went to the housewares department and he selected a large glass jar, of the sort used for storing flour. He had 6 dollars left on his credit slip.
Years later when Mrs. Picarillo realized the cow brain in the jar on Picarillo’s night stand—the jar she’d been dusting for nearly a decade at that point—was a real cow brain and not a plastic model her son had slapped together with airplane glue, she made him get rid of it.
And his argument that the jar had been her present, since it was what he got when he returned the pants, did not move her. Or anyway it did not move her in the right direction. "But mom," he pleaded, "you could use that jar for cookies or something."
"No," she said, "I couldn’t."
A CHRISTMAS MOLAR
I was stapling the cheapest Christmas lights we could find to the doorway of the Custom Neon Sign Shop. Mulberry Street Joey Clams sat at the desk holding a partially consumed falafel and staring goggle-eyed into the middle distance. Mulberry Street Joey Clams was not a man who got all weepy and sentimental during the Christmas holidays so I was puzzled to see a tear trickling down his cheek. "Mulberry Street Joey Clams?" I said.
"My toot!" he bellowed, at least to the extent that anyone can bellow when he has a mouth crammed with falafel. He knew he had to clear out his oral cavity to make himself understood, but chewing appeared to be out of the question and spitting out the falafel, I was surprised and delighted to note, did not occur to him. Finally, through a process of trial and error that was perhaps more painful to watch than to experience—or perhaps not—he found a way of chewing that involved only the teeth on the left side of his face. Shortly his mouth was unencumbered by the slightest residue of falafel.
"That sammich busted my tooth," he gasped. "When I bit down it felt like my head was gonna blow up."
"I hate that," I said. I meant, of course, that I hate it when a tooth aches so much it feels like my head is going to explode, not that I hate it when my head actually explodes, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams looked at me in such a way that he clearly thought I meant the latter. "Lemme call the dentist," I said. "Who’s your guy these days?"
"No denis’," he insisted. He went on to suggest removing the tooth using a string and a doorknob, a technique favored by a number of medical experts, such as Doctors Abbott and Costello. I pointed out that not only did this usually result in Costello hurtling down the stairs when Sid Fields showed up unexpectedly and yanked the door in the wrong direction, it would not work when the tooth in question had its structural integrity breached, which was surely the case here.
Mulberry Street Joey Clams was afraid of visiting the dentist, but it was not the usual fear-of-intense-pain type of thing. He was afraid he would punch out the dentist, because he had done precisely that at least twice. "I don’t like people stickin’ their hands in my mouth," he’d explained to me once. "And the thing is, a lot of these dentists, they stick their hands in my mouth." "Well, " I’d said, "That comes with the territory." "Then they could MOVE," he’d snarled, which was certainly true, although it did seem somewhat off the point.
Nonetheless, after 45 minutes the right side of his face had swollen up and his discomfort was such that I was permitted to phone Dr. Facenda, DDS, who practiced just around the corner on Spring Street. Mulberry Street Joey Clams had never punched out Dr. Facenda, but the good doctor once commissioned a sign from us—a neon tooth which contained, alternately, a jagged red lightning bolt, signifying pain, and a white smile, signifying the cessation of same. It was an ambitious sign and we were proud of it, but we had to admit it was not 100% successful, in the sense that when it was plugged in, it blew up. Not figuratively like Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ head, but literally, and the explosion claimed a venerable and well-loved rubber plant in the doctor’s waiting room.
So he was not overjoyed to see us. "Ah, Mr. Clams," he said. "You look very uncomfortable, I see. How’s the demolition business?"
"Mistakes happen," Mulberry Street Joey Clams murmured. "In our business just like in yours. I’m sure you buried a few mistakes in your time, am I right?"
"Oh absolutely, it’s what I live for," said Dr. Facenda. "Although I must admit that the body count has been disappointing low this year. Let’s see this tooth. Ah. You’ve done a splendid job there. One thing before we get started. I want the cash UP FRONT."
"Uh..." said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. Things had been a little slow at the Neon Sign Shop and the petty cash fund—which was our entire capital at that moment—stood at $7.85. "The thing is... Uh, maybe we could do a trade. We could make you a sign."
"Let’s see. Do I have any more rubber plants I’d like to obliterate? Hmmm, I don’t think so."
"Don’t dentists take some kind of vow about helping people in pain or something?" I asked.
"No, no. You’re thinking of St. Bernard dogs. The ones with the little kegs of brandy around their necks? It’s very charming." But even as he spoke, Dr. Facenda was firing up the drill. There were a few more jokes about ‘misplacing’ the Novocain and so forth, but in relatively short order Mulberry Street Joey Clams was up and running, albeit with a (temporary) vacancy where his molar used to reside.
"No, no, no," said Dr. Facenda, washing his hands, "I do not want a sign. Believe me, poking around in your mouth with an electric drill is its own reward. No, there is nothing you can do for me, aside from paying your bill when it arrives, ha ha."
I was also thinking ‘ha ha’ when he suggested that Mulberry Street Joey Clams might pay the bill when it arrived.
"What about that angel on toppa the tree in the waiting room?" Mulberry Street Joey Clams said. "It’s supposed to be lit up but it’s never lit. I could replace the bulb, at least."
"It’s not the bulb. The thing needs to be rewired. Really, there’s no need..."
"It’s what we DO!" exclaimed Mulberry Street Joey Clams, not altogether accurately. Before Dr. Facenda could stop him, the angel was plucked from the tree, with a promise that we would have it back and glowing before dinnertime.
In a way, we did.
It was after 7 PM when we returned with the refurbished angel, but Dr. Facenda had not yet dined, so that part of the promise was kept, at least technically. And when we plugged the angel into the wall outlet, the angel did not explode.
Instead, we shorted out the office, and perhaps the building. For a moment we all stood in darkness. Then a small bit of light was discernible at the top of the tree. The angel was burning. When the flames had spread far enough to allow us to see what we were doing, Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I dragged the tree to Dr. Facenda’s balcony and tossed it into Spring Street, where it smoldered fitfully. We had, it turned out, ignited the drapes during all this and Dr. Facenda had ripped them down and he and his receptionist were now stomping them out. The lights came back on—perhaps the super had replaced the proper fuse.
For a moment we all stood there staring at each other, Mulberry Street Joey Clams, me, Dr. Facenda, Dr. Facenda’s receptionist. Then Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, "Well, we gotta go," and we left.
Back in October, you may recall, Yankee pitcher Corey Lidle crashed his plane into an apartment on York Avenue in Manhattan. It turned out that the apartment was owned by Kathleen Caronna, the same woman who, back in 1997, suffered a fractured skull at the Macys Thanksgiving Parade when the 60-foot Cat-in-the-Hat balloon went out of control and landed on her.
Im not a superstitious person and I dont think theres any significance to this bizarre run of bad luck, but still, I would think twice about accepting a dinner invitation from Kathleen. "Um, gee, Im sorry, Kathleen," Id probably say, "but Im washing my hair that night." As you can tell from the accompanying photo, washing my hair doesnt ever interfere with my social obligations. I just have to call the people who own the house where I lived when I was in my thirties and ask them to pour some shampoo down the bathtub drain.
If my friend Pashwari gets an invitation for Christmas Eve dinner with Kathleen, though, I would strongly encourage him to accept it. Because hes not going to get one from any of his relatives. Not after he brought so much happiness to the folks this past Thanksgiving.
"We had Thanksgiving at my Aunt Joans," says Pashwari. "Shes a collector. In fact, most of my relations collect things."
Aunt Joan [Pashwari continued] tapped her wine glass with a fork after wed polished off the cranberry sauce and said, I just want everybody to know, on this day of Thanks, that when I pass on, youre all going to be remembered handsomely in my will. Im sure youve all noticed my collection of Hummel figurines, which Ive displayed tastefully all over every fricking flat surface in the house? [I suspect Pashwari is paraphrasing here]. Well, Im dividing them up evenly amongst you, and each one is worth a small fortune.
Really? said I. How much do you think theyre worth, Aunt Joan?
I detect a trace of sarcasm, young Pashwari, Aunt Joan said. But you should know that these are very rare German figurines. The least of them, Im certain, would cover the down payment on a very attractive house.
You have a little computer there on the kitchen counter, I noted. Are you connected to the Internet? She answered in the affirmative. Well, why dont we see what these delightful figurines fetch on eBay? Aunt Joan assented. Ah. Were logged in. Now lets see. Which Hummel do you think is the finest in your collection?
My favorite, she said, tapping her cheek with her fork, which to my delight had a web of mashed potatoes between the tines, would be the little girl with the fishing pole.
Excellent, I replied, and I typed in "Hummel" "little girl" "fishing." In a few seconds a picture came up. Is this your Hummel?
Why yes it is! she said. How much is it selling for?
Lets see. Ah. Four dollars.
Well, thats ridiculous. Its a mistake of some sort.
Whats another of your best Hummels?
The little boy feeding his dog.
Clickety-clickety-clack. This one?
A dollar ninety eight.
But, to be fair, theres still 40 minutes remaining in the auction, so that could easily go 40 or 50% higher.
My goodness, said Aunt Joan. There was a brief silence as everyone at the table simultaneously realized it would never again be necessary to say, Why thank you Aunt Joan, this chartreuse Fondue pot is exactly what I was hoping for.
At last my mother spoke up. Thats a shame, Joan, but at least your little thingees have given you so much pleasure over the years. I myself never went in for German figurines. Ive investedI dont think invested is too strong a termin something that never goes out of style. When the time comes, youll all be receivingonce the will is probated, of coursemy beautiful Norman Rockwell commemorative plates.
Which ones do you have, mom? I asked. After all, I was still logged in on eBay.
Just about all of them. Lets see. I have the Four Freedoms. You know, theres one where everyone is at Thanksgiving dinner...
Here we are. Thats Freedom from Want.
Wow. A commemorative Freedom from Want plate, in excellent condition, should you want to purchase another one right now, would cost you.... 7 dollars. Thats not counting shipping, though. Click click click. Some of these Norman Rockwell plates are going for as much as 12 dollars.
Everyone commiserated with my mother, but oddly enough no one had the slightest suspicion that his or her OWN incredibly valuable collection would not cover the cost of a tall frappacino at Starbucks. So we went around the table, and I typed the relevant information into the eBay search engine, and one vast fortune after another crumbled. It was amazing. Everyone looks in the mirror and sees the guy who bought a Velvet Underground acetate for 75 cents at the flea market and sold it for 155K. Nobody sees the lady who brings the 13th century Mayan sculpture to Antiques Roadshow without having noticed the Made in China stamp on the bottom.
Finally we arrived at my brother-in-law. Well, he said, Im not much of a collector myself, but Ive got something puh-ritty special. I found it in the attic when I moved a few years ago. I guess the previous owners had left it there, or maybe the previous-previous owners. Its so small you can understand how it might have been overlooked or misplaced, even though its obviously valuable.
He fished something out of his pocket. A tiny green elephant. Ive never seen anything quite like it, he said.
Its beautiful, said Aunt Joan.
Any idea what this is? said my brother-in-law. I had no idea. I typed in elephant but of course I got thousands of possibilities. Maybe just limit the search to elephants worth 10 thousand dollars and up, he said. That should narrow it down.
I turned the elephant around and about in my hands. Finally, on the bottom of each foot, I saw some dim, stamped letters: Dis on one foot, Ney on another, Tar on a third, and Zan on the last. I swallowed hard. I had a pretty good idea of what I was holding. I went back to the search engine.
Paul, I said, What youve got your hands on here is an authentic elephant from a McDonalds Happy Meal, back when they were promoting the Disney Tarzan movie 8 or 10 years ago. Theres no elephant for sale on eBay by itself, but if you want the whole setthe elephant, the lion, the crocodile and so onit goes for six bucks.
It was [concluded Pashwari] the Best Thanksgiving Ever.
[Me again] So there you have it. Pashwari will probably not be spending Christmas Eve in the bosom of his family, and I can understand it if none of my readers would look forward to spending a holiday feast with him, particularly if youve got a fast Internet connection, but if anybodys got Kathleen Caronnas new address Ill be happy to pass it along to him.
Just remember to wear a hard-hat, Pash.
First they came for the grunters, and I did nothing, for I am not a grunter. Then they came for the guys who sweat so much it looks like theyve got a black garbage can lid clamped under each armpit, and I did nothing, for I do not sweat so much it looks like Ive got a black garbage can lid clamped under each armpit. Then they came for the fellows who break wind so violently that it sets off the frigging sprinkler system, but I did nothing, for I dont break wind so violently that it sets off the... well, actually, I do. Anyway, they pretty much had me when they came for the grunters...
It's a classic story, like Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl, They Live Happily Ever After, except in this case it's Guy Joins Gym, Guy Grunts at Gym, Guy Gets Thrown Out of Gym. And now Guy and Gym stand poised on the brink of a lawsuit, which is the 21st Century equivalent of Happily Ever After.
The guy's name is Al Argibay and the gym is Planet Fitness, a nation-wide chain with a couple of locations in New Jersey. Planet Fitness has a "No Grunting" policy, and Mr. Argibay was lifting 500 pounds one afternoon at a PF in upstate New York, and he grunted. He was told to stop grunting. At that point Mr. Argibay's version of what happened and the gym's version diverge sharply; he says he simply went on lifting (and presumably grunting), the gym says he got belligerent and nasty. Either way, in the end his membership was revoked and the police escorted him from the premises.
I was really hoping that Mr. Argibay would sue, because then I could have done one of those "a plague on both your houses" columns where I get to make fun of both the stupid gym rules AND the stupid lawsuit but unfortunately Mr. Argibay and his attorney, former body builder Jason Stern, have to date refused to oblige me. The No Grunting policy is spelled out in the membership contract Mr. Argibay signed, after all, and there are apparently signs posted throughout the gym. So far messers Argibay and Stern have contented themselves with making fun of Planet Fitness on a website called "Boycott Planet Witless." The website lists a number of other Planet Fitness rules that might seem odd to your standard gym rat, such as:
Mr. Stern goes on to suggest that Planet Fitness is not interested in attracting serious body builders or even people who want to work out vigorously.
Does Planet Fitness really ban bandannas and tank tops on men? To find out, I used the commercial breaks during "Van Helsing," which features not only werewolves and vampires but Kate Beckinsale in a leather cat suit, to search the Planet Fitness website for their actual rules and regulations. I spent more than 10 minutes prowling around-that's a loooong time in Cyberspace-and I couldn't find a list of the rules. [NOTE TO PLANET FITNESS: you might want to think about setting up a website that's as user-friendly as the one making fun of you.]
I did find the Planet Fitness "Fun Facts" page though. It says:
Now don't get me wrong. I like Tootsie Rolls, I like pizza, and I like free bagels (unless the bagels have blueberries in them, which is just gross). But this goes a long way towards convincing me that Planet Fitness is maybe not the place you should be working out if your goal is weight loss. And once I start digging into a pizza, I grunt just clicking the TV remote.
If I were going to lift some serious weight after a couple of sausage and pepperoni slices, I'd be grunting and worse, if you get my drift. Which you would if you were standing downwind.
Which brings me to "The Lunk Alarm."
When you commit an infraction at PF, they don't immediately toss you out the front door. They have a "lunk alarm." If you grunt, or drop the weights on the floor, or judge-more on that shortly-a siren goes off and a blue light flashes.
When I first read about this I figured it had to be one of Mr. Stern's little japes, but it's absolutely for real. The New York Times mentions it at length in the piece it ran about Mr. Argibay's travails. I found 502 references to it on Google, many of which turned out to be first hand accounts from humiliated lunks. And why does this piercing siren go off when you grunt? Because grunting is distracting.
Did I mention that Planet Fitness calls itself "The Judgment Free Zone?" Well, it does. Nothing judgmental about a lunk alarm, no siree. Man, I love this country!
I once made a snarky remark about a bad haircut at a party and received a lecture about not being so judgmental from someone wearing a tee shirt that compared the President of the United States unfavorably to an orangutan.
Me, I love making judgments, and the more unfair they are the better. Back when I began researching this article-which was about three commercials ago, just before Hugh Jackman was bitten by Kate Beckensale's werewolf brother-I fully expected to come down in favor of Mr. Argibay and against Planet Fitness. But Mr. Argibay does not have Pizza Nights. I approve of Pizza Nights. I also approve of grunting, particularly if you are deadlifting 500 pounds. And I LOVE the lunk alarm.
Here's how I would do things at Planet Jeff:
First of all, mandatory grunting. I wouldn't go so far as to set off the siren to humiliate unenthusiastic grunters. I think I'd just have someone on staff stroll by and toss them a 60-pound free weight, perhaps accompanied by a cheerful "Think fast, Granny!"
At Planet Jeff, setting off the Lunk Alarm would be a badge of honor. Maybe instead of a flashing blue light, one of those mirrored disco balls would drop from the ceiling and you'd get a gift certificate for a steak dinner or new underpants or something.
Next, free pizza every night. Pizza with jalapeño peppers and ground sausage. All you can eat, PROVIDED that after every slice you curl at least 150 pounds. And if you blast a hole in the wall, your membership is extended for 6 months.
But the 'no open flame' policy will be strictly enforced.
RESCUED FROM BENSONHURST!!
[This weeks columnconcerning the infamous "No-Grunt Gym" lawsuitwas well underway when my daughter phoned. So this weeks column will appear next week, and this week theres this thing.]
EMMA: Bobby Ragsdale rescued me from Brooklyn. You need to write about this.
ME: What? Rescued?
EMMA: You should call him with your 3-way calling thing so you can interview both of us at once about it.
ME: Uh... Actually, MCI and Verizon are merging, so
EMMA: Thats soooo interesting. Call Bobby Ragsdale.
ME: What Im getting at is, I changed phone plans and its saving me like 20 bucks a month...
EMMA: Ooohh, lookcows!
ME: ...but I dont have three-way calling anymore.
EMMA: Oh for crying out loud. Call them and get a different plan. Do it now. Ill wait.
EMMA: All right. Were going to the nuclear option, then. Ill use my three way calling thingee. Hang on.
[After a few misdials the conversation recommences, joined by West Point Cadet Bobby Ragsdale]
EMMA: So. Bobby Ragsdale rescued me from Bensonhurst.
ME: Bensonhurst? Why would you need to be rescued from Bensonhurst?
EMMA: I just did.
ME: Bensonhurst is a really nice part of Brooklyn.
EMMA: I liked it, yes.
ME: Well, then why did you... What were you doing in Brooklyn?
EMMA: I was hanging with my posse.
BOBBY RAGSDALE: You dont have a posse.
EMMA: Yes I do.
BOBBY RAGSDALE: A one-person posse.
EMMA: Im sorry, and your point is what?
BOBBY RAGSDALE: I
EMMA: Were on the phone so you cant see this, but Im holding up my hand at a 45-degree angle so that you can talk to the hand. Oooh, wait, I can send a picture!
ME: Wow. Its like an episode of The Jetsons.
ME: A really stupid episode of The Jetsons. So why was it you needed to be rescued?
EMMA: I was at Innas house.
ME: Right, your posse. So?
EMMA: And then I wanted to go home. So Bobby Ragsdale rescued me.
ME: You mean he drove you home?
EMMA: Rescued. It was Hardcore Sketchy. That should be in Italics.
BOBBY RAGSDALE: When I read the Emma interviews online I didnt realize that Emma edited them.
ME: You didnt send a picture of your hand. It looks like your thumb is covering most of the lens, and the rest of the picture is maybe the edge of a plate of macaroni.
EMMA: Dont put that in.
ME: Okay. But I wasnt the one who was supposed to talking to the hand anyway.
EMMA: Youre always the one whos supposed to be talking to the hand.
ME: [Pause] So it was hardcore sketchy.
EMMA: Yes. Because Bobby Ragsdale was wandering around Bed Sty.
BOBBY RAGSDALE: Im not sure where I was.
EMMA: Say Bed Sty. Its cool to say Bed Sty.
BOBBY RAGSDALE: Wherever it was, I had to kill 2 hours reading Newsweek on a crate in a Walgreens.
EMMA: Because Inna wouldnt let him in the house.
ME: When you came to rescue her?
BOBBY RAGSDALE: No, when we showed up.
EMMA: I made the editor of Newsweek blush.
ME: Was he at Innas?
EMMA: This was like two years ago. John Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, was moderating this panel-type thing-ee at the 92nd Street Y, and at the end you could submit questions on index cards. You couldnt just ask them like humans. So anyway, I asked about page 77 of Bill Clintons autobiography where he says he woke up the morning after his prom and he was a man, and did that mean what I think it means? And John Meacham started to read my question and then he blushed and changed the question.
ME: Congratulations. So about this rescue. Why did you need to be rescued from Innas house?
EMMA: Her mom made me eat caviar.
EMMA: They didnt believe I didnt like it. I thought it was going to taste like chocolate but believe me, it does not.
ME: I believe you.
EMMA: Apparently it was some cheap-o caviar. And there was some Russian juice.
ME: Its called vodka.
EMMA: It wasnt vodka. It was some wild berry drink. Just make up some Russian word, like Juice-ovich or something.
EMMA: And they felt obliged to make me chicken cutlets.
ME: Im still pretty vague on the rescue itself.
EMMA: It was on a Harley.
ME: Wow. You have a Harley, Bobby?
BOBBY RAGSDALE: A 2003 1200 Sportster Custom.
EMMA: He said whoa so youd think he knows what youre talking about. Ooh, tell him about the haircut.
BOBBY RAGSDALE: Emma... fixed my haircut.
EMMA: Yes. He had slanty bangs.
ME: I didnt realize cadets could have bangs at all.
EMMA: I got rid of the bangs, so its moot.
BOBBY RAGSDALE: As long as you keep them to regulation length. Your hair cant be longer than 3 inches on the top or ¾ of an inch on the side, and no more than an inch deep.
EMMA: I fixed it so there are layers. I keep telling him to get a picture so I can put it on my blog. Everyone is blown away by my sheer haircutting power. Oh, and there was a Russian cookie, as well. It had a think in the middle of it.
BOBBY RAGSDALE: A date, I think.
EMMA: Or a fig. Im withholding judgment. Bobby Ragsdales AIM name is "B Rags." Like "K-Fed." Now listen, this part is important. We were playing Monopoly, and when Inna and I went to answer the door, Erin put houses on Jail and Community Chest.
ME: Well, thats...
EMMA: She said now every time we landed in Jail or on Community Chest, it would cost us $260. Inna was furious, because shes the best Monopoly player in the world.
ME: Not if she was paying Erin 260 bucks every time she landed on Community Chest.
EMMA: She refused. Erin said she was cheating.
ME: Maybe I can see why you wanted to be rescued.
EMMA: This was weeks ago, in my apartment. It had nothing to do with the rescue. I want to get back to the Russian cookie.
ME: Okay. But did you play Monopoly at Innas house at all?
EMMA: I told you, they made me eat caviar. Read your notes. So back to the cookie. Get this: Bobby Ragsdale is supposed to be fluent in French
BOBBY RAGSDALE: Just versed.
EMMA: --and he couldnt read the ingredients.
ME: How do you explain that, Bobby?
BOBBY RAGSDALE: The ingredients werent in French.
EMMA: But that night I had a dream about Fig Newtons. Q. E. D.
ME: Wait, wait. I want to be sure to get that part down...
EMMA: And Reginald Vel Johnson was in the dream. So anyway Bobby Ragsdale got me from Bensonhurst to 94th Street in Manhattan in less than half an hour. Im invited to his graduation and to his wedding. Hes getting married to Grrrl Vicious.
ME: From the growl Im guessing thats G-r-r-l?
EMMA: Three Rs. I dont remember her real name. Oh, and mention that we went through Harlem on the way home.
ME: From Bensonhurst? How?
EMMA: In real life we went through the Midtown Tunnel. But say Harlem. It makes me look tough.
Every Thanksgiving for as long as I could remember, I'd been stuck at the card table with the little kids while the grown-ups sat around the big dinner table. Each platter would go all the way around the big table and then, when it reached Uncle Charley at the right hand top corner, he would pass it over to cousin Glen at the bottom left corner of the card table and my cousins and I would divvy up the leftovers. With the vegetable dishes this was no problem since we all hated vegetables, but fights over the last spoonful of stuffing or the last piece of turkey without icky globs of fat on it could get pretty ugly. Our tempers were pretty well frayed before we saw the first morsel because the chairs were too short and the card table was too small for all seven of us to fit around comfortably. On the plus side, the tiny area of the table made food fights exceptionally easy to choreograph, and the fact that it was a folding table meant that at least one of the legs was certain to buckle at least once before the end of the meal. Still, I couldn't wait until I was moved to the other table and was therefore officially a Big Boy.
For a long time I thought all my friends were in the same boat, feeling the same pain (as they say in Washington), but I learned this was not so. My friend Mitch, for instance, was moved from his family card table at the age of nine, kicking and screaming all the way. "Don't WANNA be a big boy! Don't WANNA be a big boy!" he is reported to have said as he was dragged from the familiar kid-proof plastic table cloth with its four-color turkeys and pilgrims into the frightening adult world hidden beneath a fog of cigar smoke, giblet steam, and incomprehensible anecdotes so thick you couldn't tell what was under it-- Uncle Vinnie and Aunt Rosa, or eight bulldogs with green visors, trying to draw to an inside straight.
Around the time I was 12 or 13 it occurred to me that I might never get to be a Big Boy because space around the table was limited, and my older relatives were copious, healthy, and several of them expanded at an annual rate of approximately 25 pounds. By now, because the average age of The Cousins was about 11 and a couple of us were giving Uncle Wally and Uncle Tug and Uncle Charley and Aunt Mimi a run for their money, heft-wise, the card table had been supplemented by an even shorter coffee table. They were pushed together and joined by a single large tablecloth. The first year they gave us the coffee table, Cousin Glen had a mild psychotic episode and circled the kid's zone, gathering up all the slices of cranberry sauce and skimming them into the kitchen like tiny Frisbees, then turning to the stunned adults at the Big Table and saying, "Mmmm-mmmm. Dee-LISH! We're all ready for the second course." Uncle Charley, who had an insatiable curiosity about what would happen next as well as an admirable sense of humor, handed Glen the serving dish filled with creamed corn but unfortunately Aunt Jane quickly grabbed it out of Glen's hands and Aunt Mimi led gently and compassionately out of the room and locked him in the hall closet, where from time to time we would hear him ask someone to pass him the scalloped potatoes. He was pretty much back to normal by New Years, and he had drawn attention to the fact that the kids' table situation had grown intolerable.
The adults had an entire year to mull it over, and there were many half-overheard phone conversations on the subject, especially in the months immediately following Labor Day. Finally they came up with some absolutely terrific idea, which was kept from all the cousins-- it was a Big Secret, but, we were all assured, we would love it. Someone hinted that one part of the plan called for locking Glen in the hall closet as soon as he showed up, so we figured it was probably a pretty good plan. When Thanksgiving arrived, we were encouraged to wear more comfortable clothing than in year past, when we had worn our Sunday School clothes to the big meal (and these were clothes so icky and formal we could never have worn them to REGULAR school). We milled around the living room and the parlor, gobbling candy corns left over from Halloween out of enamel dishes, and then Uncle Charley announced it was time for dinner. We all looked at Glen, but no one led him to the closet. Instead, we were all herded to the back door, shooed into the yard, and locked out. Our parents gathered in the kitchen window for a moment and waved to us, and then vanished, and we stood in the back yard and stared at the door. After about 10 minutes, we organized ourselves into teams and played a sort of lacrosse without sticks or balls or rules; well, I guess what we actually did was just beat each other up for about 45 minutes. It was a lot of fun. We were all bruised and caked with mud and blood and twigs and leaves when our parents unlocked the back door and said, "Well, how did you like our--hababababa!" They gathered us into the house, some of the Aunts actually in tears, and wanted to know what had happened, who had done this, where was Uncle Tug? Well, we didn't know what had happened, but whatever it was, we had done it, and we had no idea where Uncle Tug was.
It turned out he had been assigned to take us to the Roller Rink, where we were going to roller skate and eat a big ice cream turkey and so forth. Uncle Tug, however, had misunderstood the instructions and for some reason had been waiting for us at the Joyce Kilmer comfort station on the Garden State Parkway and was pretty worried when we didn't show. "What did you figure they were going to do, Tug? Hot wire a car and meet you there?" Tug felt bad, but he did get every one of us combs and pens from the vending machines at the comfort station, and there was no doubt at all that it had been our most enjoyable Thanksgiving dinner ever. Though a little light on the calories.
Black Bag Blues
Queen Mary passed away early on a Tuesday afternoon. She had died before but this time there was a sense that there was no bringing her back. Both of her handles had been torn off, one of them so savagely that it left a seven inch long gash along the bottom seam.
"This didnt have to happen," said the Head of the I. D. Bureau. "Somebody this heavy, you shouldnt have been using the handles at all. You just stick the Ess Oh Bee in the bag and one of you grabs the feet and the other one holds him by the arm pits, just like you would if there was no bag at all. And whats this? Whose bright idea was it to put the bowling ball in the bag with him?"
The two flunkies who brought in the aforementioned Ess Oh Bee and his bowling ball offered up an incoherent blur of mumbled excuses and recriminations while they wrestled their burden, still enfolded in the remains of Queen Mary, into the autopsy room. It was my job to separate Queen Mary from the gentleman she contained.
Actually it was not my job at all, but I did it anyway. I was a summer temp at the I D Bureau and I was supposed to be doing clerical work, but clerical work bored me and I was not only willing to do things like photograph autopsies and hose out the drunk tank, I was eager. After all, my Uncle Charlie worked at a funeral parlor, When I was 10 or 11,Id spent many pleasant Saturday afternoons watching "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" or "Back to Bataan" on the portable black and white TV in the embalming room of Parkers Funeral Home while Uncle Charlie prepared his clients for viewing and told elephant jokes.
I got 75 dollars a week to do things other people at the I. D. Bureau wouldnt have done for 75 dollars an hour. The fact is, I would have paid them.
We had half a dozen Black Bags at the I. D. Bureau. The biggest ones were named Queen Mary and Minnesota Fats. All of our Black Bags had names. No one knew exactly how long Queen Mary been at the I D Bureau, but she had certainly been there longer than any of the employees. She may have dated back to the 1930s. The newer bags were made of heavy-duty plastic or of some water-repellent synthetic, but Queen Mary was made of rubber-coated fabric, possibly denim, but unquestionably durable. She was reinforced at the seams with leather and her handles were leather as well. They had been repaired many times with black friction tape.
That was not going to work this time, though. "Rubber and leather. Maybe a shoe maker could do something with her, but I dont see the point," said the Head of the I. D. Bureau. "Sooner or later some other 350 pound moron is going to get himself brained with his own bowling ball, and then our 350 pound morons are going to try to lift him up by the handles and were right back where we started. No, shes done her duty and its time to let her rest."
"What should I do with her?" I asked.
"Dumpster," he said.
"Okay," I said.
But I had no intention of doing that. My heart beat faster. I was going to have my own black bag! I have no idea why I wanted my own body bag. It just seemed like an incredibly cool thing to have.
I was sure I could fix her. I was sure about a lot of things. I was 20 years old and dumb as a box of hammers.
With all that rubber and leather it was far too stiff and bulky to fold up neatly (at the bureau the bags were hung from hooks on the wall of the supply room, like ducks in the window of a Chinese restaurant) so there was no chance of concealing it from my parents. I just wadded it up and wrapped my arms around it as best I could and carried it into the house.
"Its a bag, mom," I explained. "Like a big duffel bag. Its got some rips and stuff I have to fix."
"It smells odd," she said.
"Thats, um, waterproofing."
"Well, keep it in the basement while youre repairing it." I nodded. I tried to squeeze through the basement doorway and when I did, something dropped from Queen Mary with a thunk.
"What on earth is that?" said my mother.
"It looks like a piece of a bowling ball."
"Yee-ah. Thats, um, how the bag ripped."
"Someone was carrying bowling balls in that bag? No wonder it broke!"
Over the next three weeks, using the Boy Scout "Fieldbook" chapter on leather working as my guide, I managed to restore Queen Mary to something of her former glory. The repaired seams would not maintain their integrity if I tried to transport a 200 pound New Jerseyian, but I felt they were more than adequate for my purposes.
My purposes were something of a mystery, however, especially to me. I had a vague plan about hiking up to Tomato Smash with my spooky girl friend using Queen Mary as a picnic blanket. Unfortunately I didnt happen to have a spooky girl friend, or the slightest idea about how to go about finding one. So I left Queen Mary in the basement, and at some point my mother realized it was the perfect size to hold the various sections of the beach umbrella and the beach towels and a lot of other items that otherwise would have had to be packed into a half dozen baskets and bags.
Queen Mary made an excellent carryall for our visits to the Community Pool, right up until the day that Uncle Charlie happened to be sitting at our picnic table as we walked through the gate. He instantly recognized our carryall for what it was; he may have even known it by name. He was highly amused.
If he had not chosen to share his amusement with my parents, I would still possess my very own black bag to this day and my life would be immeasurably richer
But he did, so I dont, and its not.
When Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I closed up the Custom Neon Sign Shop on Friday night, we sometimes walked down what we called "The Neon Mile." This was actually three blocks in Little Italy where four of our neon signs could be observed: The "Vacancy" sign in the window of the Prince Street Hotel; the "Monthly Rates Available" notice at the entrance of the parking garage on Lafayette and Delancy; the "Tropical Fish" sign in the window of Tricacicos Delicatessen (it had been a pet shop when we made the sign, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams paid the deli owner 15 bucks a week to keep it up); and the "Restrooms" ensign in the Spring Street Tavern. It never failed to cheer us up. Imaginefour neon signs that not only hadnt exploded when they were plugged in (unlike 60% of the signs we made) but actually worked (unlike 90% of the 40% that didnt explode when they were plugged in) and were spelled correctly (unlike 80% of the 10% that actually worked, out of the 40% that didnt explode). Since we had to go inside to see our glowing masterpiece at the Tavern, we usually finished up the tour there with a beer and something from grill.
We were digging into our burgers when Muldoon slid into the booth. This was odd on several counts: first, Muldoon owned his own barthe eponymous "Muldoons" just a couple of blocks away. Second, he and Mulberry Street Joey Clams were not been on speaking terms. They were on screaming terms. But Muldoon was not screaming. He seemed delighted to see us. Hed been drinking, but alcohol alone couldnt account for his demeanor. Hed done some of his most impressive screaming while drinking.
"Clams!" he said. "Just the man I wanna see!"
"What are you doing here? They shut down your rathole? What happen, you forget to bribe the Board of Health this month?"
"Nah, were renovatin. I bought that laundromat next door to the bar. I was gonna knock down the wall and make it into a room for private parties, but you wouldnt believe how much the laundry pulls in. Thats what I wanna talk to you about. You know the New York Marathon is in a couple a weeks?"
"No, I did not. Unlike you, Muldoon, I got no interest in 10,000 guys runnin down the street in little pants."
"I got this laundry truck," said Muldoon. "I need a neon sign for it."
I took out my spiral notebook. "Whats the sign?"
"I want it to blink."
"We cant do that," I said.
"As a rule," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "But if the price is right, we can make it blink."
We had no idea how to make signs blink regardless of the price. But I nodded. Wed work something out, blink-wise.
Or, alternatively, we would not.
Muldoon unfolded a sheet of paper. "It says this," he explained.
"What about this sideways line2 gals milk bag onions can Dinty Moore stew?"
"Thats a note to myself, just forget it. I got the laundry truck parked on Elizabeth Street. Take a look at it and lemme know if you want the job." Muldoon cocked his finger at us, winked, and stumbled suavely away.
"It says Muldoon, next line Fold and Wash, and then a phone number," I said. "So three lines. What did he say about the Marathon?"
"Somethin about 10,000 guys in little pants."
I opened my mouth to say something but nothing came out.
The next morning we told Muldoon we could get the blinking sign up and running in two weeks. He explained that he knew where a TV news crew would be stationed to provide live coverage of the Marathon, and he was planning to have to truck parked behind the reporter during the remotes.
"Neon doesnt look so great during the day," said I.
"Thats why its gotta blink," said Muldoon. "Itll catch the eye unless its in direct sunlight, and where I want it, is under the El tracks in Queens."
It seemed to me this might workif the sign wasnt on when the crew began broadcasting, they probably wouldnt bother to keep the truck out of the shot. And once the reporter began talking and the sign started blinking, they wouldnt be able to do anything about it.
Of course we still had no idea how to make neon blink, but that didnt stop us. We decided to rig up a series of flaps and shutters attached to a timing belt which would block out different portions of the sign in sequence and simulate blinking. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and his cousin Augie worked on this demented Rube Goldberg system while I built the sign itself. Because this contraption was going to be so complicated, Muldoon insisted that we operate it ourselves. Mulberry Street Joey Clams agreed for an additional $50.
I dont know if Ive ever mentioned it, but I had a lot of trouble shaping certain letters of the alphabet in glass. Take for instance that "Tropical Fish" sign in the deli window. The "S" in "Fish" was really a pair of "C"s, one forward, one backward, set one on top of the other. The "Tropical" in "Tropical" had been scavenged from a "Tropical Plants" sign we got from a dumpster outside a bankrupt flower shop. I was getting better all the time, but the "M" in Muldoon and the "W" in Wash were giving me nightmares. And the phone number had two 6s and an 8.
We were still working on the truck in the early morning hours on Marathon Day, which may explain why the first two lines read "Wuldoon" and "Fold and Mash." We didnt notice this until we turned on the sign to test our faux-blinking gizmo. Mulberry Street Joey Clams was philosophical: "No big deal. You got all the other letters right, so legally he can only not pay us for those two letters. Thats the law." Thus reassured, I got behind the wheel of the van and we set out for Queens.
About halfway through the Midtown Tunnel one of our shutters began opening and closing spontaneously and this wreaked significant damage upon my sign. We parked under the El tracks and turned on the sign, and then the blinker system. The phone number was fine, but the first two lines now read:
We were parked there for several hours while the TV crew arrived, set up, and filmed. We remained parked there long after they left, since our sign and the various gadgets had been running off the trucks battery and had drained it. We took a cab back to the Custom Neon Sign Shop and Mulberry Street Joey Clams, who had been whistling happy tunes and smiling uncontrollably all day, called Muldoon to see if the truck got on TV.
It had indeed. Although I was across the room, it sounded like Mulberry Street Joey Clams was talking to a furious Rottwieler. The invective was intense and inspired; Mulberry Street Joey Clams shook his head in admiration. "Hes really upset about the phone number," he said upon hanging up. "Turns out that was another one of those notes to himself. Its his bookies number."
"Yeah. He says hes not gonna pay us, but I dont think hes got a leg to stand on, legally."
"Absolutely," I said. "Hey, maybe we can get the bookie to pay us."
"Why not?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
The Five Hundred Dollar Joke
One of the great pleasures of writing a weekly newspaper column is the feedback from my readers. Many of them write with suggestions. Most of these are of the "walk till your hat floats" variety, but sometimes they come up with ideas for columns. These can be general"Lets see more of those I. D. Bureau stories." They can also be so specific that (if I went along with them) Id have to credit my reader with co-authorship. From time to time, for instance, people have sent me lists of questions for an Expert Guy column. As you might expect, some ideas are very very good and others, not so much. I appreciate them all, believe me.
Some readers have gone further than others with their ideas. One fellow I met at a party wanted me to put him in a Picarillo story. "I could be on their Little League team," he said, "or in their Boy Scout troop. I could, uh, say something really funny. Something like that." I said Id give that some thought, because I couldnt think of anything else to say. "You do that," he said, and stuffed a twenty dollar bill in my shirt pocket. Now I have nothing against bribes per se, but public bribes are a different matter, and I spent the rest of the party trying to return his twenty. He thought, or pretended to think, that I was negotiating for a bigger bribe, but eventually he took the money back and we both agreed it had been an excellent jest on his part.
I figured that was about as odd as it could get, but as usual I was wrong. Last week someone offered to sell me a joke. For 500 dollars.
The joke wasnt offered to me directly. It was offered to my friend Dave, for free, with the tacit understanding that he could sell itto mefor five hundred dollars.
ME: Why did he want to give you this... this 500-dollar joke?
DAVE: I gave him some advice about his computer. I told him it would work better if he went to the start-up menu to turn it off, instead of yanking out the plug, which is what hed been doing.
ME: How long had he been doing that?
DAVE: Maybe years. Anyway, Once he starting shutting it down normally, it did indeed work better. So he wanted to give me money, and I said no, so he said Well, Ive got this joke I wrote, and you can sell it to Jeff for 500 dollars.
ME: Why did he think you could sell it to me for 500 dollars?
DAVE: You write a humor column, dont you? So you probably always need jokes.
ME: Did he say that?
DAVE: No, Im guessing. I just said, why do you think somebodynot necessarily Jeff, mind youwhy would anybody pay 500 dollars for a joke, any joke? And he said, I just assumed. I said assumed what? He said, I assumed that would be the going rate.
Dave and I tried to calculate just what the going rate for a single joke was. We have friends whove written for the Tonight Show and they were very well paid, but they didnt get 500 dollars per joke.
Then Dave recalled that at Dangerfields in New York, the late Rodney Dangefield used to buy jokes from young comedians all the time. Hed be at the bar and a comic would come over and try out an I dont get no respect joke, and if Rodney liked it, hed give the guy 20 bucks. Then it was Rodneys and the comic couldnt use it any more. If he didnt like it, hed just say it wasnt quite his style.
We concluded thats probably still the going rate for jokes: anywhere from zero to twenty dollars.
But this guy had given Dave a FIVE HUNDRED-DOLLAR JOKE.
ME: Well, Im on the edge of my seat. Lets hear it.
DAVE: Im glad youre sitting down, but maybe you want to move back a little bit. I dont want to be responsible for any injuries. Here goes:
Boy, my milkman is really getting on my nerves. Hes always late. He brings the wrong bottles. The milk is sour. Hes lactose intolerant.
[Ten seconds of crickets chirping.]
DAVE: Boy, my milkman is really getting on my nerves....
ME: No, dont repeat it. Lactose intolerant? But...
DAVE: I know.
ME: It doesnt make any...
DAVE: No, no it doesnt. But what do you want for 500 dollars?
ME: Well... but...
DAVE: It would make more sense if, um...
ME: If there was a punch line.
DAVE: Maybe a play on words of some kind? Like "Hes lactose intolerable."
ME: Or if you end it "Im getting lactose intolerant."
DAVE: Well, thats better in a way, that makes it a regular joke...
ME: Not a real good one...
DAVE: No, and then its not a 500-dollar joke any more. Do they even have milkmen anymore, by the way?
ME: I havent seen one for quite some time. Not since I was maybe 12.
DAVE: So nobody under 50 would have any idea what he was talking about, even if, uh...
ME: Even if this was an actual joke.
DAVE: He has another joke. He didnt try to sell this one. He ad libbed it at a dance. He was really proud of it. He goes up to this woman...
ME: Dont paraphrase it. Tell it like he tells it.
DAVE: Okay. I went up to this Russian woman and I asked her where she was from. And she said, Russia. And I said where in Russia? And she said Siberia. And I said, Whoa, must be cold.
DAVE: Thats it.
ME: Thats what?
DAVE: Thats the joke.
ME: Wow. Well, if the milkman was a 500-dollar joke, thats gotta be worth a thousand, at least. Seriously, whats going on there that he thinks theres joke someplace?
DAVE: Hes at a dance in New Jersey and he asks a woman where shes from. He expects her to say "Paramus" or something, but she says Siberia.
DAVE: Well, I think thats it.
ME: But even if that was the joke, and its not, he kills it by opening up with I went up to this Russian woman.
DAVE: In a regular joke, yes, but thousand dollar jokes dont operate under the same rules as regular jokes. I think Im starting to understand the rules for thousand dollar jokes. You open up with the punchline and then just sort of dribble off. Remember the Killing Joke from "And Now for Something Completely Different?"
DAVE: My dog has no nose. How does it smell? Terrible.
ME: Thats it.
DAVE: To convert that into a thousand-dollar joke, um... Okay. Man, my dog smells awful. Plus, its got no nose. Thats terrible. Yeah.
ME: So what happened with the Russian woman after that? Did he get her number?
DAVE: No. His next question was, "How old are you?"
ME: Wow! What did she say?
DAVE: She said she was 92.
ME: How old are you? 92. That could be a 500-dollar joke.
DAVE: No. For 500 dollars he should ask her, "How much do you weigh?"
It was the end of October. Every day after school, Calvano, Picarillo and I ran directly to the World War I Tank Memorial in the park and climbed inside through the escape hatch in the belly. The hatch had been soldered shut and padlocked by the town, of course, but generations of teenagers before us had forced it open again and again. That summer wed removed the latest lock ourselves with a pair of bolt cutters and substituted our own. Wed broken off the lock in the past but it had always been replaced as soon as the cops noticed it was gone. They never noticed our padlock wasnt their padlock. All three of us had copies of the key.
We knew we only had one more week at best to hang out in the tank reading MAD magazine by the light of the ventilation holes before the cold weather made it impossible. Actually it was already impossible. In the summer the tank was like an oven, and by October it was like... well, a big box made of freezing metal. But it was our base of operations.
Not that Thursday, though. We skidded around the corner of Wilmore Road and stopped dead. The park was full of carnies! They had already erected the skeleton of what must have been the worlds shortest and least exciting roller coaster, and huge struts were bring secured for what could only be a pathetic excuse for a Ferris wheel. We were ecstatic. It meant that this Saturdaythe day before Halloweenthe Town Fair was finally going to happen.
The Little Falls Town Fair was an annual event, always held the first Saturday after Labor Day, but there had been a full-scale hurricane in progress that weekend and the Fair had been postponed.
We wandered around the park, reading the bills that had been slapped up on the trees and fence planks. "Looks like they got a new Fat Lady," Calvano noted. "Same Gorilla Girl, though." The Gorilla Girl was a girl in a bikini who, with the aid of some strategically placed mirrors, was transformed into a man in a moth-eaten gorilla costume.
"You know, they could save a lot of money if they got the fat lady to be the Gorilla Girl," said Picarillo.
"Who wants to see a fat gorilla?" asked Calvano. "Hey! Theyre having a Pumpkin Carving Contest!"
We read the gaudily decorated poster. The Jack OLanterns would be judged on the excellence of design and skill of executionand they had to be done, start to finish, in five minutes flat.
"The winner gets a trophy. And a free elephant ride!" I read.
"That elephant belongs to me," snarled Calvano. "Come on." We retreated to the shade of the World War I Tank Memorial and pooled our money. There were pumpkins for sale in the parking lot of the Masonic Temple a couple of blocks away.
Mr. Donnelly, our gym teacher, was in charge of the pumpkin sale. His dog Brutus (who, like Mr. Donnelly, had a metal plate in his head) had taken a dislike to one of the pumpkins and launched himself at it every few minutes. We told Mr. Donnelly we needed 6 pumpkins to practice on for the big contest. He was not impressed with our funds. "For what you got, I can let you have 6 of those," he said, pointing to a pile of sorry-looking gourds.
"Some of them have black smudges," Calvano said.
"Well, thats nothing toBRUTUS! STOP THAT! That dont mean nothing. Here, Ill throw in a paper bag."
We carried our pumpkins to Calvanos basement and, with the aid of the Dick Smith Monster Make-Up book, designed incredibly great Jack OLanerns, all of which would have been impossible to execute in the allotted time. We transferred these designs to our pumpkins with magic markers and then started cutting. Picarillo had never engaged in pumpkin carving before. Hed seen it done, of course, and was confident that he could master it quickly. He sliced off the top easily enough. But when he stuck his hand in to scoop out the meat, his eyes bugged out and he cried, "Its all gooky!" We stared at him.
"Get your hand back in there," said Calvano. "What are you, a six year old girl?"
"Do it, Picarillo!"
Picarillo looked at me pleadingly but found no sympathy in my face, although he might have discerned some badly concealed glee: Id finally found someone more squeamish than me. He clamped his eyes shut and jammed his hand back inside the pumpkin. "Nnng! Nnng!" He brought up a fist full of glop. To be fair to Picarillo, this was not a pumpkin in the prime of life. "WUG! WUG! WUG!" he screamed.
Picarillo wanted to back out of the contest, but Calvano prevailed upon him. "Well get solid-er pumpkins for the contest. Remember, theres a free elephant ride if you win." Picarillo regained control of himself, insofar as Picarillo ever had control of himself, and buckled down to work.
We all had to simplify our conceptions drastically, but by the end of the evening we surveyed our collection of butchered pumpkins and convinced ourselves that the contest was ours to lose. "Tomorrow after school Ill pick up the official pumpkins," said Calvano. "Leave it to me."
We couldnt concentrate on enjoying the Fair itself, we were so focused on the contest. It wasnt scheduled until 7 PM. Long before that it was full dark and the carnival lights came on. The rickety rides and mildewed tents looked mysterious and magical, lit by naked bulbs and Japanese lanterns. The loud speaker announced the start of the pumpkin contest. Calvano retrieved our pumpkins from the Tank Memorial and we entered the tent. "My pumpkin has this kind of brown spot on it," Picarillo said.
"Relax," said Calvano. A carnie pinned papers with our entry numbers on our backs, and we all sat down at picnic tables covered with newspaper. A man in a top hat read the rules.
"What if my pumpkin is gooky?" whispered Picarillo.
"Relax, I got you a great pumpkin," Calvano assured him. "Just cut off the top as fast as you can and shove your hand in there." Picarillo nodded. A whistle blew.
Picarillo had a little trouble severing the stem and so I had already eviscerated my pumpkin when he began screaming. Calvano had given Picarillo a rotten pumpkin. "WUG!! WUG!! WUG!!" Picarillo yanked his arm free of the pumpkin shell and sent an arc of glop sailing around the tent, catching several contestants in the face. He ran from the tent, his "wugs!" slowly diminishing as he vanished into the night.
The effect was pretty much what Calvano had calculated: several contestants had stopped dead, almost everyones concentration had been broken, and a few people had to clean up before they could resume carving. Only Calvano and the imperturbable Susan Haycock finished their Jack OLanterns before time was called. In the end, her steely concentration carried the day.
"How could she keep carving with all that glop flying around?" Calvano demanded. "Theres something really wrong with her. Shes gonna grow up to be, like, a womens prison warden." It was a bitter Calvano who watched her triumphant elephant ride past the World War I Tank Memorial.
Pig with Apple in Mouth
I get up pretty early on Saturday, including the Saturday of the Milford Fall Festival featuring the Milford Fall Festival Pig Roast. By the time everything is chugging along, Ive been to the post office and back, grabbed a bagel, hit the ATM machine before the tourists drain it dry, and all in all Ive probably passed the Pig of Honor maybe 8 times. Were nodding acquaintances. And by the time hes got the apple in his mouth, weve bonded. No way am I going to partake of the feast with a bud. Not even with a side of coleslaw thrown in.
And it gets worse towards lunchtime. By then the pig seems to have figured out whats going on and hes not happy about it. Im crossing the street to avoid the pig because I get the impression that if I stroll too close, the pig is going to sit up, pull out the apple, and say, "Room for one more, buddy!" in this Peter Lorre-ish pig voice. I dont want that happening. Not again.
So I headed out of town for a few hours, meaning not only did I skip the pork sandwich, I missed the bed race. I felt like a slacker. Id like to participate in dead-pig related activities, honest. But theres something about a pig with an apple in its mouth that just creeps me out. Until we started having the annual pig roast, I never saw that in real life, just in cartoons and old Robin Hood movies. The guy carving the sandwiches should be saying "Wot Ho, Varlet!"
While I was driving back and forth across New Jersey waiting for the roast to be over, I thought about nothing but pigs. Pigs and how my town might be able to put them to better advantage next year. And notice I said "pigs," with an "s" on the end, meaning more than one.
See, I dont know if youve ever watched "Mythbusters" on the Discovery Channel, but they go through a lot of pigs on that show. Theyre always trying to test whether this old wives tale or that urban legend or this new Internet rumor could possibly be true, and to that end, theyre constantly firing pigs out of cannons or dropping them into spinning helicopter blades or what have you. Pig carcasses, that is.
I dont know about you, but when Ive watched somebody strap 60 3-liter soda bottles full of pressurized air to a pig carcass to see if thatll give it enough oomph to blast it across the Grand Canyon [Answer: Nope], I walk into the bathroom, look in the mirror, and say, "I have wasted my life."
Anyway, it seems to me that we could take a page from the Mythbusters playbook and lay in a decent supply of pig carcasses for next year, and not just for sandwiches. If we have to have a pig with an apple in its mouth, and apparently we do, we could have DUELING PIGS. We could probably definitelyget a science class kid from the high school to rig up some sort of, I dont know, device-type thing that would allow the pigs to fire apples at each other. It would be like paint ball, only with pigs instead of guns.
And you know those Coney Island boardwalk photo places, where you stick your head through a hole in painted facade and it looks like your face on top of a Gay Nineties bathing beauty or Charles Atlas or something? How about if you were sticking your head through one hole and the pig (with the apple, of course) was sticking his head through the other, so it looked like the two of you were strolling around Paris in 1910 or playing poker in a western saloon? Who could resist that? Not you, I bet! And this is maybe even better: a painted backdrop of a kitchen, with the pig head sticking through one hole so it looks like hes the chef, and YOURE stretched out on the cutting board with an apple in your mouth? I hate having my picture taken (see accompanying photo for possible reasons) but I would definitely have my picture taken that way. AND I would give permission for the paper to run it every week.
Another thing I could do, pig-wise: its not generally know, but I do a lot of funny voices. We could stick a microphone inside one of the pigs, and I could, from a remote location, answer questions from the audience. In fact, as a recently deceased person of the hog persuasion, I could plausibly bring you answers from your friends on the other side, just like the real fake psychics do on TV. Only this would be better, since its a pig.
And as for the Main Pig, the one being converted into delicious sandwiches, maybe we could get one of the celebrity pigs direct from the Mythbusters show. Not the one from last week where they were trying to see if somebody could really be sliced in half by a snapped high tension cable, though. But one of the others.
I mean, imaginea TV star in town for the Pig Roast! When I got back to town I tried to find a town official to pitch my plan, but I had no luck. So Ive presented it here, as an open letter to the Milford Town Fathers. Its a 5-point plan: Multiple pig carcassesdueling pigspig oriented funny photoshidden microphone enhanced pigscelebrity pig sandwiches.
It will put us on the map. Wed be crazy not to do it.
THE AMAZING COLUMBUS DAY SALE
The Willowbrook Shopping Mall, advertised as "The Largest Indoor Shopping Mall in the World," opened its doors to the public the summer that Picarillo, Calvano and I turned 13. We were way too cool to check it out for nearly three weeks. "What are we, hicks?" demanded Calvano. We coolly allowed the summer to trickle away, watching what seemed to be the same three William Bendix World War II movies every Saturday morning. By the time we finally got around to entering the mall, a vigorous youth culture had already established itself there. The public phones were grouped in clusters at every corridor intersection and groups of pimply boys hung out at certain clusters, phoning groups of pimply girls who hung out at other clusters. "Some of those kids don't look much older than us," marveled Picarillo, "but they get to use those phones. Just like detectives or something!" Calvano and I looked at each other. "Detectives talk on the phone a lot."
Aside from the pimply teenage detectives and their frails, the mall held little to interest us. But there was a Spencer Gifts, where we could buy rubber vomit and plastic dog poop right over the counter. Until then, we'd been forced to acquire our rubber and plastic goods through the mail from the merchants who advertised in the back pages of comic books. We stocked up on these staples at Spencers but felt no pressing need to return to the mall.
Until Columbus Day, the morning of which found us walking along the railroad tracks towards Willowbrook. This was Picarillo's idea. He was clutching a rolled up sheet of newspaper and every time we had to move off the tracks to let a train pass by, he unrolled the sheet and displayed the full-page ad that had made set his heart a-flutter:
MALL-WIDE COLUMBUS DAY SALE!
BIG SAVINGS EVERYWHERE!
Calvano and I were puzzled by Picarillo's enthusiasm. He did not seem like the sort of fellow who is excited by the thought of mall-wide savings. He seemed like the sort of fellow who gets cast in low budget horror movies about morbidly obese mama's boys in Coke-bottle glasses who turn out to have 17 mummified teenage hitchhikers squirreled away in the basement. Calvano and I had discussed the subject exhaustively. The glasses were Calvano's idea. I argued that Picarillo would look even more... Picarillo-ish if he shaved his head. Calvano argued that this lacked subtlety, but he was coming around.
We were letting Picarillo call the shots today because we felt sorry for him. On past Columbus Days, the three of us had bicycled to the Totowa Borough Columbus Day Parade and enjoyed the festivities, but last year Picarillo had been banned from the Parade for life. His leg had been in a cast and one-legged pedaling was difficult for him. He'd lost control of his bike and almost went careening down Hillside Road, and to slow himself down, he'd plowed into a rather hefty matron. "This young lout," said the man in the K.o.C. sash who plucked him from the tangle of legs and wheels, "tried to run down Mrs. Andriano!"
For what it's worth, I thought then and think now this was incorrect. He made it sound like Picarillo intended to flatten her and failed, while in fact he had had no such intention but succeeded totally.
Later he'd wailed, "I din't know it was Mrs. Andriano! I jus' thought it was some fat lady!" "But... Well, wait. Who's Mrs. Andriano?" I asked. "She was this fat lady I ran into. But I din't know it was her." "But who is she?" I persisted. "I jus' tol' you! It was Mrs. Andriano!" We went on that way for 10 minutes. Eventually I understood that he thought if he'd used some other fat lady to slow his acceleration, he would not have incurred the wrath of the Knights of Columbus. I believe he was mistaken about this, but in any case he was banned from the parade.
We entered the Mall via Bamburgers. There were 'Sale!' banners everywhere. "Wow," said Picarillo. "This is gonna be so great."
"What are we looking for?" asked Calvano.
"The Columbus Day stuff," said Picarillo.
"But... Picarillo, it's all Columbus Day stuff."
"No, a lot of it is regular stuff," he said. He pointed to the perfume counter. "There's all this lady stuff on sale over here. And over there, they got sneakers on sale."
"Yeah," I said. "Pretty much everything is on sale."
"But that's stupid," said Picarillo. "What's all this junk have to do with Columbus?"
"Not a thing," said Calvano. "Let's go to Spencer and get a dribble glass."
"I wanna find the Columbus stuff."
"What Columbus stuff? What are you talking about?"
"Like..." Suddenly he saw an employee with a huge button on his shirt that read 'Don't See It? Ask Me.' "Excuse me! Excuse me! I wanna find the Columbus Day stuff."
"Everything in the store is on sale today," said the unfortunate Bamburgerite. "20% in fact, in the 'husky' department."
"I don't wanna dog," said Picarillo. "My mom would kill me. I want one of those hats."
"A present for your dad? Maybe a porkpie?"
"No, a Columbus hat. You know, a squishy hat."
"Start walking away from him," Calvano whispered. I don't know if he was talking to me or the fellow the Picarillo had buttonholed, but it was excellent advice either way.
"Like Columbus wears," said Picarillo, "Maybe with a feather in it?"
"Man, if they have one, I will actually lend Picarillo the money to buy it," said Calvano.
"Me, too, but he has to promise to wear it to school tomorrow."
But Bamburgers did not carry Columbus-type hats, squishy or otherwise. Picarillo was devastated. "They say it's a Columbus Day sale, but it's not. It's just all their regular dumb stuff."
"A Columbus Day sale is just a sale on Columbus Day, Picarillo," I said.
"It's wrong," he insisted, thrusting out his lower lip.
"No, it makes sense. You just don't see it," Calvano explained gently, "Because you're an idiot."
"Squishy hat," said Picarillo.
"Maybe Spencers has one," said Calvano.
They did not, as it turned out, but the dribble glasses were 10% off.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT
"You need to make a public service announcement in your column," said the voice mail message. Against my better judgment, I returned the callwhich, of course, was from my daughter Emma (all anonymous calls telling me that I need to do something are from Emma) to find out just what this public service announcement was.
ME: Emma, Imwhats that noise?
EMMA: What noise? The meowing? Ingrid and I have a game we do with... oh, wait, call Ingrid! Use your three-way calling thingee!
ME: Forget the meowing, I just want to know...
EMMA: No, no! Call Ingrid. Its important! Ingrid! Whats your number?
[8 or 10 unsuccessful three-way calling attempts later]
EMMA: Okay. So Ingrid and I have a game we play with Olivia [Emmas cat]. We make these mewing sounds, like a sick kitten, to see which of us Olivia will go to. I always win.
INGRID: I cant sound like a dead cat.
EMMA: A sick cat. Everybody can sound like a dead cat.
ME: The reason I called...
EMMA: Everybody who can stay like quiet and not interrupt. Ingrid is basically an Olympian.
ME: Um. Ingrid. Have we met? Because I have absolutely no idea who you are.
INGRID: Im the new roommate.
ME: Which old roommate is gone? The one with the iguana?
EMMA: It was a gecko, but yes. That was Amy. She still says Olivia ate it. You didnt eat the gecko, did you Olivia? Olivia says no. Anyway, once she decided to leave...
ME: Did she leave because the cat ate the gecko?
EMMA: I doubt it, since that did not happen. Anyway, she was talking the smack on me at Pizzeria Uno.
ME: Talking smack on me?
EMMA: THE smack. Talking the smack. At Pizzeria Uno. Im not sure if its Pizzeria Uno or Pizza Uno. Theres an Uno in it, and theres some variation of pizza in it.
ME: To who? You mean shed go up to people sitting at the tables and...
EMMA: The waiters and waitresses. She wasnt telling random people. She said I was bitter. I was a bitter roommate. Now, vis-à-vis All the Kings Men: This is important. Ingrid on her Live Journal gave it 8 out of...
ME: Her what? Live Journal? Is that like My Space or Face Book or something?
EMMA: No. Its like Live Journal. She gave it 8 out of 10 stars and then my review came out and she changed it!
INGRID: It didnt have anything to do with your review. I thought about it more.
ME: Well, what happened to the gecko?
EMMA: Talk about how creeped out I was by The Last King of Scotwhat about the gecko?
ME: If Olivia didnt eat it, what happened to it?
EMMA: That time you couldnt find your car keys last month, did Olivia eat them?
ME: No, you took them. And the car.
ME: So are you saying you hid the gecko?
EMMA: Im saying just because something is missing, it doesnt mean Olivia ate it. When did you become the gecko police? Ingrid plays badminton.
INGRID: Really badly.
EMMA: Not really badly. Ingrid is basically an Olympian. When we were playing badminton, thats where we met Mr. Bingley. Hes a dachshund. Hes named after a... Olivia! Stop that! Hes named after a character in Pride and Prejudice.
ME: Did you name him?
EMMA: Of course not. Hes not my dachshund. I dont name pets that arent mine.
ME: Yes you do.
EMMA: Well, not... I mean, I dont...
ME: You name inanimate objects that dont belong to you. You have been known to nickname individual pennies.
EMMA: Thats not true.
ME: Yes it is.
EMMA: Its totally out of context. We were very excited. We watched The Magnificent Seven.
ME: Great movie.
ME: The Magnificent Seven.
EMMA: Yes. We werent watching a movie.
ME: The Magnificent Seven is a movie.
EMMA: Yes, Im sure it is.
ME: I used to be able to name them all. Um...
EMMA: Oh Gawd, is it one of your stupid Ernest Borgnine movies?
ME: No, youre thinking of the Wild Bunch.
EMMA: Not possible. I have never thought of the Wild Bunch.
ME: James Coburn, Charles Bronson, um... Horst Buchholz...
EMMA: Wrong, wrong, wrong. The Magnificent Seven is the girls gymnastic team. Ingrid got all motivated to be a skater again.
INGRID: I did.
ME: You were a skater before?
EMMA: Sascha Cohen broke my heart.
ME: What? Who?
EMMA: Sascha Cohen.
ME: Isnt that the guy who plays Ali G on HBO?
EMMA: The word pathetic is flashing through my mind for some reason. Sascha is on the TEAM. She blew her clean lawn program.
EMMA: Her clean lawn program.
ME: It sounds like your saying clean lawn program.
EMMA: Gawd, get the wax out of your ears! I said CLEAN LAWN PROGRAM.
ME: I still... Oh, never mind.
EMMA: I would skate to "Voyage to Neverland from the Hook soundtrack. Or else to Theme from Terminator II.
ME: Im really tempted to get back to the gecko...
EMMA: All right, you want to know why Amy left? She didnt like our Helen Keller jokes.
ME: Oh please.
EMMA: Why cant Helen Keller drive?
EMMA: Because shes a woman. YOURE LAUGHING. You should be ashamed. Im continuing to read Portrait of a Lady, incidentally. Its a terrible book.
INGRID: But her horoscope said you will be successful at accomplishing something this week.
EMMA: So Im finishing Portrait of a Lady. Andwrite this downIm giving up Diet Pepsi for the duration of the MLB playoffs.
INGRID: After we bought 3 cases from C Town?
EMMA: Its the most amazing store in the world. Write that down. Now you need to provide a public service announcement.
ME: Thats what I called about, in fact.
EMMA: Mom says Arnold is sleeping in the street.
ME: Arnold your cat in Holland?
EMMA: He is sleeping in the street, on Shire Road, and hes going to get run over. Mom wants to put up signs saying "Caution: Strange Cat." She thinks thats funny.
ME: Well, it is.
EMMA: But it wont stop people from running over Arnold. I want her to put up a sign like "DRIVE SLOWLY CAT SLEEPING IN THE ROAD.
ME: That would probably be more effective.
EMMA: Until that happens, though you have to tell people to slow down on Shire Road so they dont run over Arnold!
ME: Consider it done.
EMMA: And the other thing is, people can be really whacked out. I was at the laundromat. I saw an NYU card taped up on the bulletin board, like a lost card? So I wrote down the information on the card and I contracted the person, right? I said like, yo, your card is at the laundromat. And this person said I was creepy.
ME: Creepy? Why?
EMMA: She said I was being stalkerish.
ME: I dont see it.
EMMA: Because I wasnt. I was being awesome.
ASK THE GENETICALLY MODIFIED LOW FAT ICE CREAM EXPERT GUY
DEAR GENETICALLY MODIFIED LOW FAT ICE CREAM EXPERT GUY:
You are so gross. I totally do not believe you about them putting fish in my ice cream to make it creamy. Do you think we (your readers, such as me) are so stupid we wouldnt taste it if there was fish in our ice cream? Sugar, my mom once cooked me a hamburger in the same pan where she just fried up a fish sandwich for my little sister who will not eat hamburgers, on account of she is a mental case of the type which does not eat hamburgers. Even though my hamburger had (1) ketchup (2) a Bermuda onion slice (3) a little squiggle of mustard on the bottom bun (4) relish WHICH I DID NOT ASK FOR AND DO NOT LIKE but I am too grown up to make a big stink about it unlike some sisters of mine which I could name (3) a tomato slice (4) oh wait, I screwed up the numbers. The tomato is (5). (6) And some lettuceI could still taste the fish. And you think if it was in my ice cream, which has no ketchup or other above mentioned flavors, I wouldnt notice?
Who do you think youre fooling (not me!)
You need to read last weeks column a little more carefully. I did not say fish is being added to your ice cream. Believe me, I have no doubt that someone with a palate as discriminating as yours would detect such an adulteration at once. I said that a synthetic protein is added to your ice cream. This lowers the temperature at which ice crystal form. Synthetic. No fish, see? Now, this protein is produced from genetically altered bakers yeast. Heres what you may have been thinking of: It is the same protein found in the blood of certain eel-like arctic fish. Its what allows them to survive at those incredibly low temperatures. But no fish are involved in what goes into your ice cream, okay?
DEAR GENETICALLY MODIFIED LOW FAT ICE CREAM EXPERT GUY:
I do not want fish blood in my ice cream. Thank you for alerting us to this problem. Congress needs to take action. We must stand up to the nations powerful fish blood lobby. If we let them get away with this, what is next? Next they will be putting this fish blood in our... um... In our... er... Huh.
Well, I was trying to think of something they could but fish blood in that would be more disgusting than ice cream, but maybe this is as bad as it can get. I suppose that should be some comfort. And yet, it is not.
See, the thing is, nobody is putting fish bloodor fish anythingin your ice cream. Really. I promise. But thanks for writing.
DEAR GENETICALLY MODIFIED LOW FAT ICE CREAM EXPERT GUY:
I have a question about your name. Does it mean you are the low fat ice cream expert guy who is himself genetically modified? If so, how? Do you have incredible powers like in the X-Men movies? If so, what kind of power is it? If I had an incredible power I do not think I would be writing an expert guy column. I would be doing stuff. If it is the ice cream that is genetically altered, which I guess is the idea, which kind of ice cream is the Halle Berry ice cream?
Ignore the first part of my letter and just answer the part about the Halle Berry ice cream
I dont know. But Id like to take this opportunity to thank Halle for her incredible career since winning the Oscar™ 5 years ago. If I am not mistaken, since picking up the gold statue Halle has not made a movie unless she gets to wear skin tight spandex, or Lycra, or a bikini. A lot of actresses win the Oscar™ and decide "Huzzah! No more spandex for me!" And then their careers go down the toilet and by the time they decide maybe my next film could use a couple of slow motion mud wrestling scenes, theyre 57 and its just a little late. Not Halle! God Bless you, Halle Berry!
DEAR GENETICALLY MODIFIED LOW FAT ICE CREAM EXPERT GUY:
How can ice cream be genetically modified? Dont you need genes in order to be genetically modified? Does ice cream have genes? Or is it just the fishes they put in the ice cream that are genetically modified?
Real doubts about this genetic stuff
No. Fish. In. The. Ice. Cream. None. Zero. Nada. Zip.
DEAR GENETICALLY MODIFIED LOW FAT ICE CREAM EXPERT GUY:
Last weekTuesday, September 19thit was Talk Like a Pirate Day. How come you didnt talk like a pirate in your column? At the very least you could have thrown in a couple of "Aaaarrrrs."
Sorry that you didnt celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Talk Like a Pirate Day is fast becoming my favorite holiday and I did in fact spend the entire day talking like a pirate. My column was not written in pirate-speak because it appears on Thursday. The real question is why President Ahmadinejad of Iran did not talk in pirate-speak when he addressed the UN on Talk Like a Pirate Day. In fact, I have to think the world would be a better place if every UN speech, every day of the year, began "Ahoy, Mateys!" Or even, "Avast, ye scurvy dogs!"
DEAR GENETICALLY MODIFIED LOW FAT ICE CREAM EXPERT GUY:
Is there anyway to get the fish blood out of the ice cream? Maybe with a strainer or a colander or something?
Wondering how to get the fish blood out of the ice cream
Yeah, sure, try a strainer
OLDEST LIVING SURVIVOR OF THE BATTLE OF THE ARGONNE
According to his birth certificate, my cousin Low-Lows first name is "Theodore," but no ones called him that for more than 30 years. His own wife may be unaware that "Low-Low" is not his given name. Some people think hes called low-low from his days on the municipal road crew. According to this theory, his co-workers slapped the nickname on him because he always operated in "low low gear."
This is plausible on the surface. He does always operate in low low gear. When we were growing up some of our adult relatives called him "Mister Five By Five," after the Johnny Mercer song ("Mister Five By Five / Hes five foot tall / And five feet wide..."). It was an accurate description, and it should go without saying that when you are five by five, its very difficult to get out of low low gear.
But Low-Low was Low-Low long before he ever collected a paycheck from his municipality or from anywhere else. He was Low-Low because he is allergic to the initial syllable of virtually every word in the English language. He leaves them out. Five syllable words become four syllable words, four syllable words three, and so on. And eventually, the first syllable which was once the second syllable will be discarded. And in time, the first syllable that was once the third syllable.
Hes been doing this since he could talk. He does not say "Hello." When you phone Low-Low, he says, "Lo? Lo?" Hence his name.
And thats why, when I pick up the phone and hear, "Lo? Lo?" I know immediately whos there, and act accordingly.
Of course he immediately calls back.
"Were sconnected," he said. "Need shoe polish?" In addition to shedding syllables, Low-Low ends almost every sentence with a question mark.
"I dont have any shoe polish," I said. I would have said that even if my closet had been packed floor to ceiling with shoe polish, but as it happens it was the truth. I asked why he needed shoe polish. Surely he had no intention of polishing his shoes. He hasnt seen his feet since very early childhood. Low-Low sent a few more random syllables in my direction, of which I could make no sense, and the conversation dribbled away.
An hour or so later my Uncle Tug called. "Your idiot cousin was supposed to ask if you could drive me some place today," he said.
"He never mentioned it. He said he needed shoe polish."
"The shoe polish is for me. I need it for my hair."
"Yeah, I bought some at the Party Store. But it needs to be darker. Can you pick up some shoe polish on the way here? Any color."
When I got to Tugs place he was dressed to kill, in a badly fitting leisure suit. His new hair was sitting atop a table lamp, presumably to facilitate styling. It was a dull brown color and the black shoe polish may have actually improved it.
"What did that cost? Five bucks?"
"Eight," he said, "And worth every penny." He slipped it on his head.
"You look ridiculous," I said. "That thing actually makes you look older."
"Thats fine," he said. "Im sorry I had to grab you on such short notice. Low-Low was supposed to take me up to the community college today but his wife moved up the car seat when she went shopping yesterday and now he cant get in."
"Why cant he move it back?"
"That would require bending over."
"I see. So whats going on at the college?"
Tug handed me a flier.
The Oral History Club
An Afternoon with the Oldest Surviving
New Jersey Veteran of
World War I
"Hey, that should be interesting," I said. "The guy must be what? A hundred and five at least?"
"Lets say 108," said Tug. He adjusted his pathetic hairpiece. "The first couple times I said I was born in 1900 but it turns out theres some geezer in Rumson who was born in 1899. Im gonna be the oldest or nothing, you know?"
When the room stopped spinning, I said, "You?"
"Its a sweet gig," he said. "I give a little speech about how I was working on a dairy farm when my draft notice came, and when I got out, there was a new-fangled filling station in town. They eat it up. And then they take me out to lunch. I offer to pick up the tab. HAH!"
"Whats with the wig and the stupid suit? Shouldnt you be trying to look older?"
"No, no, no! You dont get it! This junk does make me look older! Its like when you see a guy in the movies playing a drunk. Bad actors act drunk, but real drunks dont act drunk. They try to act sober. Well, if I was 108 Id try to look younger. But it wouldnt work. So I wear this thing and call people dude. Get it?"
"What happens if they let you pick up the tab at lunch?"
"Aw Jehosiphat, I fergot my wallet!"
"I see," I said.
"This is my third wig this year," said Tug as I helped him into the car. "First one blew out the car window on the way back from some agricultural school. Second one went up in flames when I was touching it up on the lamp."
"You had the lamp on while the wig was sitting on the bulb?"
"I needed the light. My eyes arent what they used to be," he said.
"You dont tell these people you single-handedly won the Battle of the Argonne, do you?"
"Nah. I dont like to toot my own horn."
"Your own horn?"
"Well," he said.
We drove in silence for a while. When we pulled in the college parking lot, he said, "Now dont go answering any questions, if anybody asks you anything. Thats why I like your cousin Low-Low to drive me to these things. Nobody can understand a damn thing he says."
"I wont say a word. But for crying out loud, Uncle Tug, whats the point of this? This is a lot of effort for a free lunch." He shrugged.
There was a small reception committee, three girls, waiting near the entrance to the student center, one of them holding a sign that said Oral History Club.
"Dibs on the blonde," said Tug.
THE PLANET FORMERLY KNOWN AS PLUTO
A month ago I got an envelope from my friend Dave and as soon as I opened it, I thought, "Man, this weeks column writes itself." It contained 30 Xeroxed pages of a "Playboy Panel" from 1962 called 1984 and Beyond. Playboy got a dozen science fiction writers together and asked them to make predictions about how things were going to be in 1984.
Well, nobody is very good at that particular game, so I figured Id yank the most egregious predictions and snicker about them for 800 words or so. But alas, most of the predictions arent too bad. They arent correct, mind you virtually all of them got virtually everything wrongbut they arent ridiculous, either. And occasionally somebody hits one out of the park. Fred Pohl suggests that one day there will be powerful computers so small youll be able to stick one right on your desk. Pretty good, huh? He guesses youll be able to own one of these babies as early as 2062.
Its hard not to snicker, but thats not an absurdly cautious estimate by 1962 standards, its almost insanely optimistic. A computer with the capacity of the one Im using to write this column (and this is an 8 year old dinosaur) would have been a mainframe the size of a city block in 1962. Pohl is betting that somebodys going to invent the superconductor, or something similar, and hes dead on about that, just a little woozy about the time line.
They expected staggering changes and would have been more surprised by what didnt happen than by what did. If youd told them we wouldnt have a permanent moon base by 2006, for instance, they all would have been incredulous.
You know, I was about to say I dont think that anything that did happen since 1962 would have flabbergasted this panel. But I bet if I went back to 1962 and said, "Hey, guess what? In 2006 they DEMOTED PLUTO!" there would be some gasters flabbering big time.
Some people are upset by this. They want Pluto "grandfathered" into the solar system. I understand this impulse totally. Pluto used to be a big deal, and now its not. It is a little sad, like when you see somebody who was this incredibly huge movie star 35 years ago doing infommercials for Depenz.
But really, Pluto will be fine. We dont need to feel sorry for Pluto. Were talking about a rock here.
We need to figure out how to benefit from this situation. By "we," I mean "The Borough of Milford," which, Im sorry to say, has occasionally ignored my advice in the past. Thats why the 2008 Olympic Games are not being held here, and why some other city got the original Godzilla rubber suit when Mr. Takimozu (who had been Godzilla for 30 years!) retired. But forget that for the moment.
Pluto got de-planeted because it was simply too small to be a planet. It seems to me that it should therefore be no trouble to haul it out of its crappy little orbit and bring it to earth. Apparently its about the size of a Buick, so it would fit on the lawn in front of the ATM machine on Bridge Street. It would make an excellent tourist attraction. Not as good as the rubber Godzilla suit, I grant you, but still pretty doggone good. Think how cool it would be to have a huge sign on Route 513 reading, "WELCOME TO MILFORD, HOME OF PLUTO THE EX-PLANET."
Or should that be the planetoid formerly known as Pluto? I think we have to get the nomenclature thing settled before we start dragging planets around. The planet-naming people might decide Pluto is too good a name to blow on an EX-planet and reserve it for the next ninth planet we find. Thats what I would do. If they take away Plutos name, maybe it could get corporate sponsors and a new name every few months. "This episode of Law and Order SVU is brought to you by Frito-Lay, the sponsors of Planetoid Frito." Or "Trump: A Man, A Corporation, And A Pathetically Small Planet." And this works equally well whether Pluto is stuck in the celestial boondocks or we bring it to Milford.
And by the waydidnt they go hunting for Pluto in the first place because there were a wobble in Neptunes orbit that could only be accounted for by an enormous mass out there? And since Pluto is a non-enormous mass, doesnt that mean theres still something pretty big out past Neptune?
I would really like to find out about this, unless I have to read an article or something.
Now it may turn out to be prohibitively expensive to bring Pluto to Milford. In that case, we go to Plan B: we get Milford declared a separate planet.
I know, youre thinking, "Can we do that??" Well, it seems to me that if you can get a planet declared NOT a planet, you can get a NOT planet declared a planet. Q. E. D.
In some respects, this is even better than hosting Pluto in the town square. For one thing, its cheaper. For another, people could actually visit another planet. And of all the planets in the solar system, Milford would have the most earth-like atmosphere, as well as very comfortable gravity. Other advantages:
And the disadvantages? There arent any. And I bet there will be some pretty impressive tax advantages to living on a totally separate planet, too.
But this is far from a done deal. The inhabitants of Planet Milford blew an opportunity to acquire the original rubber Godzilla suit when it became available 15 years ago, despite getting a heads up from *ahem* a columnist in one of their local newspapers. We can not allow such a thing to happen yet again. Our future as an independent planet is on the line!
BOX BOY PARTY
I was melting these green candles in a glass bowl on top of the stove so I could dip the roach. I told myself it was a protective outer coating which would preserve the roach for years to come, but in truth the roach already had a protective outer coating since it was a roach and wore its skeleton on the outside; in truth, I was going to coat the roach with green candle wax so it would look more festive. Id had this roach hanging by a strand of dental floss from my toothbrush holder in the bathroom for maybe 6 months(he was supposed to be a warning to other roaches. Which they ignored), and I felt it was time to redecorate a little. I didnt want to ditch the roach because, frankly, he was the high point of my apartment. I just wanted to swank up the place a little. So I was melting the candles, and someone slipped a flyer under my door. Usually the flyers that got slipped under my door advertised new Chinese restaurants or specials at the laundromat, but this one said:
YOU ARE INVITED TO A
TO THE BOX BOY PARTY!!
time: 8:00 PM
place: STU & TOMS APARTMENT
located directly underneath
the fabulous BOX BOYS apartment!
**WE ARE PROVIDING THE WET CLAY!!**
I quickly unlocked the eighteen security locks on my door and said, "Stu! The Box Boy is leaving?"
Stu was sliding flyers under a door down the hall. He was wearing what he always wore: ratty boxer shorts and wrap around sunglasses.
"Well, no, not exactly. Im graduating." Stu was an architecture student at Cooper Union. "Its my farewell to the Box Boy. I already got the wet clay. Wanna see?" We went into his apartment--directly across the hall from mine-- and there, in the center of the floor, was a huge barrel full of wet clay that he and his room mate, Tom Hack, had swiped from Cooper Union. It was more than enough clay to make Stus farewell to the Box Boy memorable. "The theme," said Stu, "will be Ray Charles." I whooped, and then returned home to dip the roach. I was going to miss Stu, but he was leaving in style, no doubt about that. And of course it would be great to hear the Box Boy again; it had been pretty quiet up there lately, but this would get things hopping again.
The Box Boy-- sometimes we just called him "Box Boy," no definite article-- was this guy who had a huge plywood box in his apartment. The Box was three and a half feet high and it had a door, and the inside was padded. The padding was not for comfort but for sound proofing. It didnt work. We could always hear the Box Boy when he was in his Box.
And he was in his Box a good deal of the time. Whenever he was upset, stressed, depressed, whenever the world was too much with him, whenever they played the same Odd Couple rerun at 11:00 that they had played at 7:30, the Box Boy would crawl into his Box and scream. He said it was Primal Therapy. Stu and I met when we had both be awakened by the Box Boys screaming at 2 or 3 oclock in the morning and went upstairs to tell him to shut up. We pounded on his door for five minutes before he came out of the Box and answered our entreaties. "You couldnt have heard me," he said. "My Box is completely sound proof."
"Were here," said Stu, "which proves it isnt completely sound proof."
"It proves nothing," said the Box Boy. Stu offered to get in the box and scream. For some reason this delighted the Box Boy. "It will do you a world of good," he said. "Just let it all out. Youll see. Youll want to get your own Box. I have some catalogues. You can buy the Box already assembled, or you can buy a kit. The kit is much, much cheaper." Stu grinned and got in the box.
"AAARRGGHHH!!! AAARRGGHHH!!" he said. Then he sang, "Im Popeye the Sailor Man, I live in a garbage can, I eat all the worms, I spit out the germs, Im Popeye the Sailor Man..." and so on. The Box Boy glowered. Stu emerged after four or five verses.
"The Box is for serious primal therapy, not singing," said the Box Boy.
"If you know I was singing, you know the box isnt sound proof."
"I need the Box," said the Box Boy. "It keeps me sane."
Stu put his hand on the Box Boys shoulder. "Its doing a real good job," he said, nodding slowly, sincerity oozing from every fiber of his being.
And now Stu was leaving, and we were having the last Box Boy Party. He and I had hosted Box Boy parties before; parties where all the guests would make enough noise to drive the Box Boy into his Box. Usually it took about 40 minutes, and the sequence went: 1)Box Boy bangs on ceiling 2)Box Boy yells shut up 3)Box Boy comes downstairs and bangs on the door and yells shut up 4)Box Boy gets in Box. At this point the party would quiet down until we heard the Box Boy get out of his Box, and then we would start again. Sometimes Stu gave out prizes to the individuals who did the most to drive the Box Boy into his Box; Danny Liebermann brought Bongos once, and some guy from Brooklyn brought a 90 minute tape that consisted of the song "Convoy" played all the way through three times-- then on the fourth time, the needle got stuck on the words "...in a chartreuse microbus *tic!* icrobus *tic!* icrobus *tic!* icrobus..." and so on, for the remaining 90 minutes.
Tonight it was Ray Charles Theme Night. Stu played his Ray Charles records, and at a designated key phrase (such as "Whatd I say" in the song "Whatd I Say," where it is repeated 57 times, or "Oh yeah!" in "I Got a Woman"(72 times), all the guests grabbed a handful of wet clay from the barrel and threw it at the ceiling. The pounding on the ceiling began about one minute into the first song. "SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" began about two minutes into the third song. After half an hour he still had not come downstairs to bang on the door, and in desperation Stu put on the "Convoy" tape. That did it. There was a knock on the door.
"PLEASE turn that off," pleaded the guy on the other side of the door. Stu opened the door. It wasnt the Box Boy, it was a bald guy in a bathrobe. The Box Boy had moved out three weeks ago. We had driven the Box Boy into his Box for the last time. In fact, we had driven him into his Box and out of the building.
"That creep!" screamed Stu. "He ruined my party!" Wet clay plopped from the ceiling, leaving damp gray stains shaped like Lake Michigan and various organs. The party was over.
Black Thumb on Mulberry Street
I was standing on the corner of Prince and Mulberry waiting for the light to change so I could get to work. I could see the Custom Neon Sign Shop security gate was already open, which meant Mulberry Street Joey Clams had arrived before me. Then I heard what sounded like a 12-year-old girl shrieking hysterically, and something flew out the Neon Sign Shop Door and shattered against the curb. The shrieking died down, the light changed, and I examined the debris in the street. It appeared to be a cup of some sort. Inside the shop, Mulberry Street Joey Clams was sprawled in his chair, panting and wiping the sweat from his forehead. He held his hand in front of his face. I waited until his hand had stopped shaking before I spoke.
"Problem of some sort?" I said.
"There was a spider web in my coffee cup," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
Mulberry Street Joey Clams did not like spiders.
When he had recovered sufficiently to function again, we bought several cans of bug bomb at the hardware store, and some food from the deli.
"Mulberry Street Joey Clams, we got enough bug bomb here to fumigate a small city."
"Excellent," he said, shaking one of the cans.
"Nonot excellent. Totally nuts. Read the instructions. You just gotta set off one can! Read the..."
"Yeah, yeah," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "I wanna read, Ill go to one of your stupid movies with the words at the bottom of the picture. But you know what? I don't wanna read. I wanna get rid of the spiders."
"Wait a minute. What about the shop cat?" There was a cat living in the Custom Neon Sign Shop. Mulberry Street Joey Clams acquired the cat with the idea that it would sleep in the storefront window and attract customers but it never slept in the window. It vanished for days at a time, surfacing only for brief, Norman Bates-like assaults on Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
"It would break my freakin hot if somethin happened to the freakin shop cat," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He popped the rings on 4 or 5 cans and funnels of poison jetted into the air. "Grab the chairs an the radio. Were off to Tar Beach for a couple hours."
Tar Beach was the roof of the building, and because we had no access to the interior stairwell, we had to reach it via the fire escape. We stumbled out the back door. Mulberry Street Joey Clams reached for the retractable ladder. The shop cat, appearing as always from nowhere, scrambled up Mulberry Street Joey Clams back in a blur of claws and vanished into the upper reaches of the fire escape. Mulberry Street Joey Clams stood frozen for a moment, his hands still on the bottom rung of the ladder, a puzzled expression on his face. The back of his shirt had been sliced to ribbons. The hair on the back of his head looked as if it had been styled with a Mixmaster.
"Something weird just happened here," he said.
"Nah, it was nothing. Lets go." I kicked the back door shut on the expanding toxic cloud and we made our way to the roof.
The afternoon passed pleasantly for a while. We listened to a Yankee game on the radio and ate potato salad. Then Mrs. Keefauver started yelling at us. She lived in the building next door, which was a good four stories taller than ours. "Youre a couple of bums," she called.
"What?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
"Dont you talk to me," yelled Mrs. Keefauver. "I dont talk to no bums." She watered her flower box. Mulberry Street Joey Clams had a history of sorts with Mrs. Keefauver, a 30ish widow. Hed asked her out a couple of times. Shed called him a bum. It did not seem promising to me.
"Whats wrong with her flowers?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. Her plants looked awfulless like flowers than the sort of vegetable garbage you see washed into the gutter behind restaurants.
"The big bum is talkin but I aint listening."
"I think shes got a thing for me," Mulberry Street Joey Clams confided.
"Why do you think that?"
"Because why else would she be talking to me?"
"Because shes nuts."
"Shes not much for flowers, I gotta admit. But she waters em. You water flowers, theyre supposed to look good," he said, as though the flowers were crapping out on their part of the deal. "What do you think the problem is?"
"I dunno," I said. Then Nettles hit a home run, and we ignored Mrs. Keefauver for an inning or so.
"I think I got it," Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, so long after the conversation had ended that I had no idea what he was referring to.
"The answer is neon," he said. I nodded. I wasnt surprised. Id learned a long time that the answer is always neon. "You know that kid in the basement under the candy store, the fat one with the little glasses and the scraggly pony tail?"
"Right. Well, he grows some kinda plants down there, and hes got these lights over the plants, like long tubes?"
"Perhaps," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Im thinking thats what Mrs. Keefauver needs for her plants. Only neon."
"Yeah. It would perk up the plants, and I think she could get some wild lookin leaves out of it."
"Wild looking leaves."
"Well, think about it. You know the way the leaves are always green? Well, green is what you get when you mix blue and yellow, right? And light is yellow, right? So without light, the leaves would be blue, right? So if we use red lightsuch as neon isyoud get purple leaves, right?"
The breakdown of logic here was so complete I could not even blink my eyes, let alone speak for several minutes. Finally I said, "Yeah, Mulberry Street Joey Clams. If you not only perked up her plants but turned them purple, youd be in like Flynn."
"Thats what Im sayin! Lets head down stairs and get going on this."
We stepped onto the fire escape, but did not descend. It looked like the fog had rolled in, but it had only rolled in around our building. An eerie, opaque cloud obscured the entire ground floor.
"We might want to wait on this a bit," I said.
"I went maybe one can too many," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
"Maybe," I said.
We were worried that we might be stuck up there for quite a while, but it worked out fine. Wednesday night a stiff rain washed away most of the cloud and we were able to leave the roof.
Not Quite the Pony Express
In 6th grade I was sent to the school psychiatrist twice. No doubt most of my long-time readers will find it hard to believe that it was only twice, but there it is.
Both times I felt that I was being ill-used, but the first time, at least, I understood why my teacher was upset. I drew a werewolf in art class, as per the assignment, draw a festive picture for Halloween. I hadand havesome severe limitations as a draftsman, but my werewolves are world class, and the one I produced that day was one of my best. It had a snout, it had a tail (and remember, this is in the era when the go-to movie werewolf was still Lon Chaney Jr., who had no snout and wore pants), and its fangs were dripping blood and plenty of it. My werewolf was crouching on the source of all that blood, a headless corpse. And at the risk of tooting my own horn, I must say that while my headless corpses were not in the same class as my werewolves, they were pretty darn good.
Miss Threlfall, who was about 107 years old, took one look at my picture, shrieked "What possesses you??" and sent me, picture in hand, down to the school psychiatrist. Until that moment I was wasnt even aware that we had a school psychiatrist.
Dr. Bernstein was confused by my picture and my Miss Threlfalls note. He did his best to put me at ease, assuring me that I wasnt in any trouble and saying complimentary things about my drawing. We had an intelligent discussion about the appropriateness of snouts on werewolves, about whether the fangs should point up or down, and so forth. To his enormous credit he never suggested that I redirect my energy towards drawing something less gruesome. Miss Threlfall was nonplused when I returned to class less than ten minutes after being sent out. She made a furtive call to the office or perhaps to Dr. Bernstein himself, to see if she was supposed to supervise me for a few moments while the commitment papers were being prepared. She clearly did not like whatever it was that she heard.
I had a clear sense that I had won that round, but still felt it would be prudent to ease up on the werewolf pictures in art class. And at the same time I didnt think that Miss Threlfall would risk another humiliating debacle, so I expected that I would never see Dr. Bernstein again.
But then I stepped over the line. I did something so insane that she had no choice in the matter. I insulted the Pony Express.
We were reading a story about a 12-year-old boy named Charlie who lived in Missouri in 1860. Charlie idealized a young man named Beans Johnson, who was a Pony Express rider. Charlie wanted to be a Pony Express rider when he grew up.
When I say we were reading, I mean that literally. Everybody in class had to read a paragraph of the story, starting with the young lady who sat in the first seat of row one (June Passeretti) and finishing up with the young man in the last seat of row six (Victor Santella). We all seemed to take pleasure in the name "Beans Johnson." Every time someone pronounced the word "Beans," Bob Sindorf slipped his cupped hand beneath his armpit and pumped out the appropriate sound effects.
Bob Sindorf did not get sent to the school psychiatrist. I want that in the record.
In the end, Charlie could not fulfill his ambition; the Pony Express ceased to operate before Charlie had even turned 13. I still remember the conclusion:
"Reckon Ill find something." Beans said uncertainly. He straightened his hat and mounted his horse.
"Fraa-bababababababababaBAP!" said Sindorf.
The class discussion moved in the usual circumscribed directions. Miss Threlfall would ask a question, hinting broadly at the answer she wanted ("How many of you think it would be a good idea if Charlie decided to quit school and not learn a trade? [Pause] Who thinks it would be a terrible idea?" [Fraa-bababababababababaBAP] "Anyone besides Bob?") (I later learned from Perry Mason reruns that this was called "leading the witness" and it was considered déclassé). Then she passed out paper and said we were to write an essaythis was 6th grade, so the essay was at most 5 sentencesabout somebody today who was like the Pony Express riders of old.
The answer she wanted was Our Astronauts. This was obvious from her questions, which had been almost exclusively about the courage of the Pony Express riders and how they were riding into dangerous unexplored territory. Also because she kept saying "Thats just like Our Astronauts, isnt it, boys and girls?" There were probably a number of answers she would have found acceptable, such as "firemen" or "Sixth Grade Teachers." One answer she did not find acceptableto the point where I was once again ushered into the presence of the school psychiatristwas "beatniks."
Now I suspect that a number of readers who had been pretty much seeing eye to eye with me up until now may be thinking, "yee-ah, you know, Miss Threlfall may have had a point there."
But my reasoning, even viewed at a distance of some 40 odd years, seems pretty impeccable to me. The story was not about the courage of the Pony Express riders, it was about how they became obsolete and therefore Charlies dream could not come true. I could empathize with all this because I wanted to be a beatnik butI had been reliably informedthe Beatnik thing was, like, over, man. Therefore I was just like Charlie in the story. Therefore beatniks were just like the Pony Express. Q. E. D.
"Its an interesting argument," said Dr. Bernstein. "Where did you hear that the Beatniks were obsolete?"
"It was in Readers Digest," I said.
Dr. Bernstein said he felt I had certainly understood the story. My comparison of beatniks with Pony Express riders was valid so far as it wentthe italics were audible. "Id say you were perfectly normal, except for one thing?"
"Why do you want to be a Beatnik?"
"They get to play bongos!"
He nodded. He took the note that Miss Threlfall had given to meit said "What is wrong with this boy???"and wrote something on it, folded it up, and sent me back to class. I gave the note to Miss Threlfall, who turned the color of a ripe pomegranate when she read his answer, and crumpled it up.
At some considerable risk, I later retrieved the note from her waste basket and found he had written:
"Dig it: Like, nothing."
Some 6 weeks ago I wrote in this space about my daughters new cat, and ever since then, people have been stopping me in the street to ask how its been working out. Well, one person stopped me in the street. And by "street," I mean that a woman on line behind me at the grocery store asked, "Hows your daughter?"
"Oh, fine," I said. "The new cat seems to be getting used to the place, now that theyve got an air conditioner that works."
"Excuse me?" said the woman, who, as it happens, was asking the cashier about her daughter. But I realized there was clearly a lot of interest in how Emma and her cat were doing, so I called to find out.
EMMA: I cant talk now. Im playing badminton.
ME: In New York?
EMMA: Yes. Im in Karl Schurtz Park.
ME: Theres a badminton court in Karl Schurtz Park? I had no idea.
EMMA: Its MY badminton set. Erin and I brought it.
ME: Didnt anybody give you a hard time about setting up a net in the middle of the park?
EMMA: No, I brought a clipboard. If you bring a clipboard and nod and tap it with a pencil every so often, people will pretty much let you do anything you want. But I cant talk now.
ME: I just wanted to ask about your cat.
EMMA: Oh! Okay. Time out! Cat talk! Okay. Go ahead.
ME: Has your cat been voted off the show yet?
EMMA: No! Shes in the final four! If she wins, shell be the new Meow Mix Spokes Cat and Ill be rich!
ME: Um. [Editors Note: Emmas cat is currently being featured on the Animal Planet Channel show "Meow Mix House." After reading an article about the show, and about how all the cats in the show had been adopted except Bambi, Emma adopted Bambi and promptly renamed her Olivia.]
EMMA: She has three toys now: a red shoelace, the plastic curly thing from when you unseal a gallon of milk, and a Cocoa Puff.
ME: The cereal?
EMMA: Yes. I got the Cocoa Puff from C Town for 3 bucks.
ME: For a single cocoa puff? That seems excessive.
EMMA: You're an idiot. I save a lot of money now, going to the super market. Did you know that super markets are actually cheaper than going to the bodega?
EMMA: Well, they are. I got banned from the bodega on the corner.
EMMA: I dont want to talk about it. Because I got a years supply of Meow Mix coupons for adopting Ollivia. And the corner bodega wouldnt take them! So I said, well, Ill buy Meow Mix where they do take them. And they said, nobody will take them. And I said, Ill see. And they said, Then you cant come in here any more!
ME: They really said that? Thats nuts.
EMMA: I dont want to talk about it. So I went to the super market and you can buy a 12 pack of soda there and when you do the math its like 50 cents a can!
ME: They make it up by charging 3 bucks per cocoa puff.
EMMA: Very good. Its even funnier the second time. So I saved a lot of money because of the Meow Mix coupons getting me banned from the bodega. I deserved to be rewarded with coupons for adopting the cat. Dont you think? Its like if I took, um, Gary Busey off the streets.
ME: Gary Busey? Is he on the streets? What does he eat? Im trying to picture the coupons. And who would give them to you?
EMMA: I dont know. Olivia just eats like three little pieces of Meow Mix a day. So its more like a 5-year supply. He talks like Walter Brennan now. [Walter Brennan voice] Hi, Im Gary Busey [end Walter Brennan voice]. Like that. Why? Why does he do that?
ME: I think maybe his dentures dont fit right.
ME: Im guessing. But hes been in several motorcycle accidents and they tend to be bad for your teeth. So the super market takes your coupons?
EMMA: I dont know, I havent tried to use them yet.
ME: Why not?
EMMA: I dont want to talk about that any
more. Do you remember the 1996 Olympics?
EMMA: I heart the 1996 Olympics. Remember I had a girl crush on Shannon Miller and mom got all tizzied?
EMMA: She had that look on her face where she was smiling but inside she was crying? The mom face. And she said Why dont you write her? So I did? And like five years later I got an autographed picture!
ME: I do remember that.
EMMA: Olivia has a lot of confidence. Shes not afraid to just sit in one spot al day and stare at the wall. Where is that picture of Shannon Miller?
ME: I dont know.
EMMA: Well, anyway, the point is, in 1998 she married an eye doctor. I think she should have married a voice doctor, so she wouldnt sound like shes seven years old. So anyway, it turns out that in 2004 they had a really nasty divorce and he claimed she was having an affair with a married professional athlete. Get it?
ME: Get what?
EMMA: Please. You KNOW its Paul Lo Duca.
ME: Why do you think so?
EMMA: Because that would be funny.
EMMA: Thats the way it is. The things I love in my life tend to get together like that. Like Emma Thompson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although the movie itself didnt totally work. Or like, uh... Oh! Thats going to be another blogger party! So Im going to be famous again.
ME: When were you famous before?
EMMA: After the last blogger party, when I was famous for a week or so. But it was nerd famous, so it didnt turn my life upside down or anything.
ME: Nerd famous?
EMMA: Yes. I have to go.
Ask the New Fangled Toaster Expert Guy
DEAR NEW-FANGLED TOASTER EXPERT GUY,
I really like the new-fangled toaster my husband bought me for our anniversaryits a Vertigo 500 Toast-O-Maticbut I have one complaint. I cant figure out where to put the bread. I dont see any slots. We never have toast in the morning any more, Fred (thats my husbands name) said to me the other day. Dont you like the new toaster? I didnt want to hurt his feelings and admit I cant make head nor tail of it, so I distracted him by accidentally pouring scalding coffee in his lap. That changed the subject in a hurry all right, but I cant see myself doing that every day. Help! Where are those slots?
Look in the trunk of your car. No, just kidding! Slots are sooooo 1950. And the Vertigo 5000 Toast-O-Matic is a Twenty-First Century Toaster. Its a slot-free toasting device. Just stack your slices on a serving plate exactly five feet to the left of the toaster, punch in the desired degree of toasting youd like, and wait 30 seconds. Viola! The Toast-O-Matic even has an advanced setting that allows you to toast each individual slice in the stack differently, in the event that you like your toast lightly browned and Fred likes his charred to a crisp. Just rememberdo not push the blue button. Just dont.
DEAR NEW-FANGLED TOASTER EXPERT GUY:
I always enjoy reading your column, but isnt new-fangled a curiously old-fangled word to be using in regard to such state-of-the-art toasting technology?
CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR WORD CHOICE
Why you young whippersnapper! Youre right, by cracky! Yes, the New-Fangled Toaster Expert Guy deliberately chose an archaic adjective. He considered modern but many of todays toasters are post-modern (and then some!) He considered up-to-date, but todays toasters are actually decades ahead of their time. He considered your own phrase, state-of-the-art, but rejected it as overused. He considered getting his back waxed at the beginning of the summer, but the man with the appointment just prior to his sounded like he was being skinned alive so he snuck out of the waiting room and never looked back. At the end of the day, he (The New-fangled Toasted Expert Guy, that is) went with new fangled because he likes the contrast between the old-fashioned word and the mod-a-go-go toaster technology he writes about.
DEAR NEW-FANGLED TOASTER EXPERT GUY:
I have a bread maker and I have a toasterone of the cool new ones with an odd number of slots, as you recommendedand I was wondering why no one has thought to combine them, so you can put your ingredients in the bread maker and get a loaf of delicious toast. I would certainly buy one, as it would save me a lot of time slicing and toasting.
NO TIME FOR TOASTING ALTHOUGH I HAVE TO MAKE TIME SINCE NOBODY HAS COMBINED THE BREAD MAKER WITH THE TOASTER YET
A German manufacturer has in fact recently come out with just what youre looking forthe Grübenzeitenstätenmäuzengröubenstät Company of Hamburg will happily sell you their "Töastenzingen." There is one small caveat: Its not quite compatible with American AC circuitry, so youll have to totally rewire your house or risk leveling three city blocks every time you want a slice of toast. Grübenzeitenstätenmäuzengröubenstät is working on an adapter. Keep your fingers crossed! (And your legs, too, because theres a slight problem with gamma radiation leakage in some models).
DEAR NEW-FANGLED TOASTER EXPERT GUY:
My son has downloaded some of his annoying hip-hop ringtones to my toaster, so that when my toast is ready, instead of a simple chime, I hear some riff from Outkast or Jay Zee or some such hip-hopper. Its so annoying its begun to effect my enjoyment of the toast, and I have no idea how to delete the hip-hop and get back to the default chime. Help!
NOT A HIP HOP FAN ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COMES TO TOASTERS
Since you dont say what type of toaster you have, I cant offer any advice about deleting the ringtones. For the nonce youll just have to live with it. Unless you can induce your son to delete his ringtones. And for that, I have two words: Military School.
DEAR NEW-FANGLED TOASTED EXPERT GUY:
Im having a party soon, and for the hors d'oeuvres, I wanted to use toast slices that were a little more outré than usual. I thought of cutting them into cunning shapes, but that seems too time consuming. Isnt there a toaster that will do all that?
WANTS SOMETHING OUTRÉ BUT NOT TIME CONSUMING
Any good toasting accessory catalog should be able to supply you with shaping slotsslots which will fold the bread into fans, sea shells, and so forth, as the bread toasts. But for the hostess on the cutting edge, the latest thing is cut-away toast. Program your shaping slot to trim the crust but do not press yes when it asks about discarding the crust. Instead, take the crust (which your shaper should have removed in one piece) and apply your spreads and garnishes to the inside of that. A low-carb treat to die for!
DEAR NEW-FANGLED TOASTER EXPERT GUY:
I love my new-fangled toaster, which is a voice-activated model. However, I have two problems with it. First of all, theres nowhere to put the bread. Second of all, it never shuts up. As soon as I turn on the power, its yak yak yak. Ill say, "Toaster, where do I insert the bread?" and the toaster just babbles about what the Yankees starting rotation should be. I dont care about that. I just want some toast. Is my toaster insane?
HAVING SOME ISSUES WITH MY VOICE ACTIVATED TOASTER
Your toaster is not insane. Thats the good news. The bad news is, your toaster is actually a radio. Not a problem if you kept the receipt, though. Thanks for writing.
TEAMIN' UP TO TEAR 'EM UP!
"They're Teamin' Up to Tear It Up," I said. I was quoting the advertising slogan for this old Blaxploitation movie with Isaac Hayes, Jim Brown, and Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson. I remember the slogan but I forget which movie it was-could have been "Truck Turner," could have been "Three the Hard Way"-but I always quote it when Spike and I team up to tear it up. Which we do every Thursday night. And we were tearing it up, too. "YEAH!" I said. "That's RIGHT! Take it to the Man, Spike!"
Everything was going great until Spike choked on a sock.
I didn't realize that's what it was at first, it happened so fast. Spike was takin' care of business under the dresser, and suddenly instead of his usual Isaac Hayes-like rumble, he's making this Steve Urkle-like whine. "Dude!" I cried. I yanked him out just in time to see the toe of the sock vanish down his hose.
I have to make a confession here: I didn't shut off the power right away. I gave it three or four seconds, because I thought it was even money or better that Spike was going to suck that entire sock into the disposable bag. My bad.
So when I did cut the power, the sock was nearly a foot down the hose, well past the nozzle, and wedged in there good and tight. Spike had been knocked out of commission.
Kind of like Fred Williamson about 45 minutes before the end of whichever movie that was, when L. Q. Jones and his bald headed henchman worked him over with a lead pipe and a 2 X 4 and now Fred's in the hospital and Pam Grier's crying and Jim Brown and Isaac Hayes nod at each other and walk out the door to get L. Q. and the bald guy.
And at first it looks like it's going to be a cake walk, but L. Q. gets wind of what's coming down and there's like 20 henchmen waiting for them, and Jim and Isaac are backed up against the wall of the warehouse and all these bad guys cock their guns, and suddenly Fred, still with bandages around his torso and one arm in a cast, crashes through the door of the warehouse in a pick up truck and just mows everybody down. Oh yeah!
Well, that's how it was with Spike. Not the part about Fred crashing through the door in the pick up truck, the part about him being in the hospital after getting worked over with a pipe. Except for the part about Pam Grier crying and so forth.
Spike is my vacuum cleaner.
I know a lot of guys don't name their vacuum cleaners, but Spike is one of those really cool 12 amp vacuum cleaners. I turn on Spike and the lights dim. I have to tell my upstairs neighbors when I'm going to vacuum so they can unplug their appliances. Spike has all these clear tubes and weird appendages, like something in an "Alien" movie. Everything about Spike is super cool except you can't detach the hose.
Because if you could detach the hose, you could ram a wooden dowel down the hose and dislodge the sock. But you can't detach the hose.
Well, wait, that's not entirely true. You can detach the hose, provided you have the right tools, including the right bit for the screws they used to hold Spike together. These are not flathead screws, or Phillipshead screws, or stars, or hex screws. They are shaped like rhododendron leaves. I don't know anybody with rhododendron leaf screw head bits. In fact, most of the guys I know would be embarrassed to own rhododendron leaf screw head bits. Of course, most of the guys I know are embarrassed about 80% of the time anyway.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out the whole point of these screw heads is to get you to call up the manufacturer and pay for a service call. But I'm afraid they outsmarted themselves this time, because that would require looking up the service department number in the instructions, and I threw them out before I even had Spike out of the box. So it wasn't even an option. Hah!
I tried to fish out the sock with a ruler, with an unwound wire hanger, with all kinds of things. I used to have a 'grabbing tool,' which looked kind of like a giant hypodermic, but when you depressed the plunger, a claw rather than a needle would come out of the end. You may recall that Arnold Schwarzenegger shoved one of these up his nose to extract a radio transmitter that the bad guys had inserted in his skull in the movie Total Recall. I was thinking that the grabbing tool would have worked perfectly to clear Spike's hose, but I lost it years ago. I was also thinking that if Spike were capable of having a favorite movie, it might very well be Total Recall, which (I'd have to check this to be sure) was very possibly directed by a vacuum cleaner.
Anyway, after a half-hour or so of this I knew what I needed. A crochet hook. A foot-long crochet hook.
The problem is, I'm a guy, and while I'm incredibly secure in my masculinity, I'm not quite secure enough to go into a store and buy a crochet hook.
So I spent a week and a half in sporting good departments and auto parts stores and hardware chains, trying to find something exactly like a foot-long crochet hook only NOT a crochet hook. I was willing to pay a premium for it.
I'd describe what I needed and one salesman or associate or manager after another would say, 'What you really need is a foot-long crochet hook.' And then they'd tell me where the crafts department was.
I was ready to say the hell with it, but every day I'd come home and there was Spike, inert and disfunctive by the side of the dresser. In the end I broke down and went to a crafts store and bought the crochet hook. "Not for me," I said. "Got to, er, unjam some hoses. Hoses on machines. Powerful machines. We're talkin' 12 amps, y'know what I'm talking' about? Pow. Er. Ful. Machines. Oh yeah."
"Yeah," said the lady ringing me up. "Now you have fun with your crochet hook, Butch."
I felt that was totally uncalled for.
Another really good scene in the movie is when Jim Brown dangles one of the bad guys out this window by his foot, like 40 stories up, and the bad guy says, "I'll tell you whatever you want to know!" And Jim says, "Can you fly?" and he drops the guy, and we just see Jim looking down for about 10 seconds and then he looks into the camera and goes, "Nope."
So I get home, and it takes me all of 30 seconds to unclog the hose with the crochet hook. "You have no idea what this cost me," I muttered. "That nasty chick at the crafts store wouldn't believe I didn't want the crochet hook for crocheting."
"She would have if you'd pronounced the 't' in 'crochet,'" said Spike.
I nodded. When he's right, he's right.
In 6th grade we had to sell chocolate bars for the PTA. These were special fund-raising chocolate bars, twice the size of a normal chocolate bar and 5 times as expensive. It was impossible to imagine a normal human eating one of them. Id recently seen "The Vikings" starring Ernest Borgnine and Kirk Douglas, where berserk battle scenes alternated with even more berserk eating scenes. Every few minutes Ernest Borgnine would bellow, "Olaf! Another haunch of deer!" and start gnawing on a drumstick the size of a Buick. I could picture Ernest Borgnine eating one of these PTA candy bars, but he didnt live on my block. In the end I had to return all but four of my candy bars. The only person who didnt have to return all or most of the candy bars was Picarillo. Hed wolfed all of his on day one and his parents had to pay the damages. In recognition of his spectacular sales record, the PTA presented Picarillo with a bee-yoo-tee-full Lord Buxton wallet, which retailed for about half the price of one of the chocolate bars.
When we were in 7th grade, the PTA sent us to sell magazine subscriptions. Picarillo, who had been looking forward to another 50,000 calorie debauch and a new wallet to go with it, sat through most of the PTA ladys brief How to Sell Magazines speech with his lower lip stuck out and his arms crossed. Every so often he flipped aimlessly through the subscription folder, as though searching for something to eat.
"I dont know anything about magazines," Picarillo moaned late, on the way home. We were cutting through the park past the World War I Tank Memorial, looking over our order forms and the descriptive material theyd given us.
"Theyre inedible," said Calvano. "Thats all you need to know."
"The candy bars were inedible, too," I said. This wasnt strictly accurate, but they were stale and as tasteless as cardboard. Picarillo had earned his Lord Buxton wallet.
"As I see it, the three of us have got this thing sewed up," said Calvano. "Because we can function as a magazine selling team. Well go door-to-door together. We will completely ignore every thing the PTA lady said. Each of us will sell a different type of magazine. Everyone who opens the door to us will hear three completely different sales pitches for three completely different products."
"Wow," I said. "Nobody could possibly hold out against three different sales pitches!"
"Of course not," said Calvano. We generally held our strategy sessions inside the World War One Tank Memorial itself, but that wasnt possible this time; there wasnt enough daylight leaking through the ventilation holes to allow us the read the packets. We adjourned to Calvanos house.
Our subscription kits came with sheets of stamps, each stamp containing a picture of a magazine. We were supposed to paste the appropriate stamps on each order form. It was staggeringly inefficient, especially since we also had to write down all the pertinent information anyway. I suppose it helped the clearinghouse deal with demented kid abbreviations like "L." and "car mag." "Car mag" was Picarillos short hand for the Saturday Evening Post, which had a page of cartoons. The rest of the magazine was invisible to him.
"Okay. Lets see. Theres a whole bunch of MOM magazines, like Ladies Home Journal and House and Garden. Who wants to sell those?" I studied my fingernails. Picarillo was licking the magazine stamps.
"Popular Mechanics taste exactly the same as Tiger Beat," he said. "Thats crazy."
"Yeah, I dont know what they were thinking. So nobody wants the Mom magazines? Going once, going twice. Okay. So we just dont sell those." Calvano made a notation on a memo pad. "Lets see..."
"Hey, I want the Duff magazines!" cried Picarillo. Calvanos brother Duff lived in the Calvanos basement and subscribed to, or somehow acquired, hot rod magazines, muscle magazines, and Evergreen Review. This last published Allen Ginsburg and Henry Miller and Duff had copies lying around for the benefit of his spooky beatnik girlfriend Janine, who otherwise would have been forced to thumb through Drag Racing Monthly while Duff was in the bathroom.
"Huh. I dont see any of his magazines here. Well, he gets Police Gazette sometimes. But that is odd." Calvano got up and hollered for Duff at the basement door. We knew he was down there because he was playing his 45 of "Pushin Too Hard" by The Seeds, over and over.
"Duff, do you get your magazines in the mail?" asked Calvano.
"Are you kidding?" said Duff. "Do they even have my magazines there? They got Drag CarTOONS?"
"No. We just wondered. Anyway, were trying to divide up these magazines? One guy sells one kind, one guy sells another kind? Only nobody want to sell the lady magazines. And it looks like theres more than three kinds of magazines anyway."
"Youre thinking about this all wrong," said Duff. "Dont think ladies magazines or current events or any of that junk. Its all about rooms."
"Precisely," said Duff. "Now lets see. First of all, we got big magazines with smooth paper, like LIFE, LOOK, and The Saturday Evening Post. Those are living room magazines. You leave them lying around in the living room. You dont have to read them."
"Why do people buy them?"
"I have no idea. I guess the selling point is, people know you can afford these big slick magazines. Sometimes they got cool ads for stereos. Second, we got medium size magazines with smooth paper like TIME. Those are bathroom magazines. No cartoons, no good pictures, but superbly designed for bathroom use. You read a short little article while youre going about your business. The paper is glossy because regular paper gets soggy after a couple of days in the bathroom. Fact."
"I never thought of that."
"Finally, we got assorted size magazines with unsmooth paper, like True Confessions, Jack and Jill, and True Detective. These are magazines normal people read. The stories are too long for the bathroom unless youve got a serious excavation project underway. These are bed room magazines. You can read them in bed if its too late to play the radio and you need something in your head before you fall asleep. The paper is crummy so its no big deal if you fall asleep and roll over on them and crinkle them up."
"Man," said Calvano. "You know the magazine business, Ill give you that."
"You bet. The trick is, you find out which room needs a magazine, and youre home free. And no, I dont wanna subscription to anything."
"Thats okay," said Calvano. "We wouldnt know how to fill out a form for you. I guess you could have an address label that just says "Duff."
"I..." Duff stopped, clearly visualizing an address label that just said Duff.
"Youd need this address, but to make sure it got to the right place, I guess youd have to say basement apartment or something."
"Basement apartment," said Duff. "Yeah..."
In the end, we sold a total of nine magazine subscriptions, which did not even put us in the running for this years prize, a transistor radio with a genuine vinyl protective covering. We would have sold only seven, but Duff ("Basement Apartment, 111 Oak Drive") subscribed to Police Gazette and Flying Saucer News. "That ones for Janine," he said. "Shes too inhibited to subscribe herself, though." Fact.
GIRL SCOUT COOKIES
Mulberry Street Joey Clams stood in the doorway of the Custom Neon Sign Shop, watching something outside. Sometimes he did this when the Custom Neon Sign Shop van was parked at a meter around the corner, on Prince Street, and a meter maid was working her way down the block. He considered it a point of honor not to put any money in the meter until the meter maid was less than two parking meters away from the van. "Otherwise you're paying for nothing," he'd explain. "It's like paying fire insurance on a warehouse more than a couple of months before it burns down. In other words, it's nuts."
When he was getting ready to make a run to the meter, he was exhilarated. He'd bounce up and down on the balls of his feet and jangle the change in his pockets; he'd mutter, "C'mon, toots, finish writin' up that Buick. Oh yeah, you think you're gonna write up the van next, but you ain't. You got nothin'!"
Today I could discern no exhilaration, just anxiety. "What's up?" I said. I thought he might be worried about the shop cat. We had a cat living in the Custom Neon Sign Shop but we only saw it when it was eating or attacking Mulberry Street Joey Clams. It hated Mulberry Street Joey Clams and always went for his face.
But the shop cat was not on his mind this morning.
">"We got a situation," he said. He motioned me to the door, and pointed down the block with his chin. There were two Girl Scouts talking to Mr. Donato outside his pizza parlor. He was smiling and one of the girls was writing something down on a pad.
"It's Girl Scout cookie season," I said.
"A zactly," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
"I like the thin mints," I said.
"I'm thinkin' here," he said.
I had been making neon signs with Mulberry Street Joey Clams for nearly a year and I had a good understanding of the way his mind worked. "No," I said.
"Anything you order and don't pay for, they have to pay for it out of their own pocket."
"They're Girl Scouts," I said. "They're like eleven years old."
"I know, I know. This is brutal." He sat down at the desk and dropped his head into his hands. "I figured out six ways we could end up with all the cookies, and not have to shell out a penny."
"How about if we..."
"I'll pay for the cookies," I said.
"The money is not the point."
"Yes it is."
"Well, yeah. But there's also the whatchamacallit."
"Nah. What?? He's got nothin' to do with this. I haven't thought of that fat creep in 20 years. You know he called my uncle when they caught me selling fireworks in the boy's room? But I had the last laugh because I emptied out all the powder and filled 'em up with sawdust. My uncle goes, 'Is there some law against sellin' saw dust?' Man, the look on his face." While I tried to make sense of this, he went on: "Hey, what about the 'cookie' sign? We could trade them that!"
The 'cookie' sign was a sign we'd made for his cousin Paulie's girlfriend, Cookie Para. There were some problems with it, which is why Paulie refused to accept delivery. First of all, it didn't light up when it was plugged in. This was a step up from many of our previous signs, which exploded when plugged in, but Paulie wanted a sign that actually worked. Second of all, I was still having trouble with the glass-shaping tools in those days, so the 'o's looked more like 'u's and the 'k' was not quite 'k' and so forth. The 'cookie' sign looked like it said 'cuuhii.' When Paulie protested, Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, "So call her Cuuhii. She's your chick, tell her you'll call her what you want."
"We can't give them a sign that doesn't work and doesn't spell anything," I said.
"It don't blow up."
"It spells 'cookie.' They sell cookies. They'll love it."
"It spells 'cuuhii.' I'm going to order two boxes of thin mints. What do you want?"
"Them Irish ones."
"The-what do they call them? The ones that look like Irish flowers."
Later it turned out he meant shortbread cookies, which look like no flower on earth, Irish or otherwise. At that moment, however, the Girl Scouts arrived at our door. "Ladies," I said. The Girl Scouts giggled. The taller one was Angelica, the daughter of the man who ran the deli on Elizabeth Street. The little one was Terry Muldoon. Her father owned a bar on Spring Street where Mulberry Street Joey Clams had run up a tab the size of the national debt.
"Deal with this," Mulberry Street Joey Clams groaned, and vanished into the back room.
"Where's Mr. Clam going?" asked Terry.
"S!" cried Mulberry Street Joey Clams through the door. "There's an 'S' on the end!"
"My dad says if Mr. Clam buys anything make sure he shows us the color of his money," said Terry.
"Your dad is a smart man," I said.
"If he's so smart..." Mulberry Street Joey Clams began, but he stopped right there and screamed. We heard him thrashing around wildly and knocking over boxes.
"We have a cat," I explained. It sounded like Mulberry Street Joey Clams was falling down a flight of stairs, even though there were no stairs in the storeroom.
"I have a cat, too," said Angelica. "Her name is Fluffy. I love kitties."
"Yeah, me too," I said. Mulberry Street Joey Clams shrieked and careened off the walls like a human pinball. Glass broke. "We'd like two boxes of thin mints. Let me see the pamphlet with the pictures of the other cookies."
"My dad says Mr. Clam makes signs that blow up and fireworks that don't."
"Yeah," I said, "We were thinking of making that our official motto."
"How come Mr. Clam has to show you the color of his money?" said Angelica.
"My dad says so," said Terry.
Things were quieting down in the storeroom. Mulberry Street Joey Clams was groaning. Every now and then a box would fall over. "We'll use my money today," I said.
"What color IS Mr. Clam's money?"
"At the moment, bright red," I told them.
I learned to iron twice. The first time was when I was 12 or 13 and iron-on transfers were introduced into the marketplace. People are always saying 'there's nothing new under the sun,' but that's not true, because iron-on transfers were new. A lot of these things were designed by "Big Daddy" Ed Roth and / or featured monsters, and I needed them on my t-shirts. For a while, it's true, I allowed my mother to do this in the course of laundry day, but there comes a time when even a pimply, socially-retarded 12-year-old begins to see the irony in saying, "Mom, could you iron this picture of a skull with a snake coming out of the eye socket to my blue t-shirt?" and the irony gets ramped up a notch if his mother replies, "Sure, Sweetie Pie." If your mom is still calling you 'Sweetie Pie' you really have to wonder is a skull-with-a-snake-coming-out-of-the-eye-socket t-shirt is the appropriate apparel for you.
So I did my own iron-on transfers. I ruined some pretty good t-shirts while I mastered this, but I persevered. I went from ruining my t-shirts because I was doing the transfers incorrectly to ruining my t-shirts because I was doing the transfers correctly. A picture of a skull with a snake coming out of the eye socket does not improve a t-shirt.
In the course of all this transferring, I never bothered to get rid of any creases or wrinkles. It didn't even occur to me to try. I was customizing my t-shirts, just as the Stiles brothers down the block were customizing their '32 Ford. I was making my shirts cool, I wasn't really ironing. My mother ironed. My sister ironed. I was a guy.
A guy with rumpled shirts. Sometime between the ages of 12 and 25 or so, I made a virtue of not ironing. Yeah, my shirts looked like I took them out of the drier and crammed them in a drawer-because that's exactly what I did-but wasn't that better than being some dork who ironed his shirts? Wasn't it authentic? Didn't it look real?
Did it ever. But 'real' is not the same thing as 'good,' and 'good' is what you should be aiming for on job interviews, dates, police line-ups, et cetera. So I bought an ironing board and an iron and taught myself to iron again-this time the entire shirt including the sleeves and collar, not just the skull-with-a-snake-coming-out-of-the-eye-socket part.
Another new thing under the sun: aerosol cheese.
This past weekend I was ironing one of my Hawaiian shirts. I sprayed it, and just as the iron touched the fabric, I noticed: (1) my shirt had turned purple and (2) I smelled grape juice. Now, I've been ironing my own shirts for a while and if something is not quite right, I can pick up on that right away, and my shirt turning purple and smelling like grape juice definitely falls under the rubric of "not quite right."
I quickly tossed the shirt the sink, turned on the cold water full blast, and unscrewed the top of the spray bottle.
Yes, it contained grape juice. I managed to soak most of the grape juice stain out of my shirt but by no means all of it. It was light purple instead of dark purple, but technically still ruined. I pondered.
FACT ONE: The spray bottle was full of grape juice
FACT TWO: It was not full of grape juice the last time I ironed.
FACT THREE: Since the last time I ironed, my daughter dropped by for a visit.
There was no question about what happened. The only question was why.
When I was very young I whipped some mashed potatoes to a faretheewell and put them in a tub in the freezer, where they looked exactly like vanilla ice cream. The idea was that my sister would come home from school one afternoon, get a hankering for vanilla ice cream, add chocolate sauce, and stick a cold spoonful of mashed potatoes and chocolate in her mouth. But that didn't happen. What happened was that my dad came home one afternoon, got a hankering, etc. He didn't ask any questions, he just walked into my room and pointed his spoon at me and said, "your life just took a turn for the worse." I was outraged, of course. How dare he assume I was responsible! I'd seen enough episodes of Perry Mason to know that he needed solid evidence before he could conclude I was guilty.
So I expected my daughter to express similar outrage when I suggested that my newly purple Hawaiian shirt was her doing.
"Emma," I said, "Is there some reason why you might have put grape juice in the spray bottle?"
"When I watch TV," she said, "I like to spray grape juice in my mouth."
"I see. Why is that? Why don't you just, I don't know, pour some in a glass and drink it?"
"I like the taste of grape juice but not the calories. So this way I get the grape juice mist on my tongue where the taste buds are, but hardly any goes down my throat."
"Ah," I said. "You know, that's the bottle I use to spray water on the clothes I iron."
"Huh. I had no idea. Well, before you iron, you better empty out the grape juice."
So the grape juice was not deliberate sabotage after all. It was insanity. She was Not Guilty By Reason of Mental Defect.
After some reflection, I decided the shirt is not ruined after all. The purple haze through which you can see the palm trees is striking, but quite subtle. It's rather attractive. In fact it's by far the most attractive dipstick wiper I've ever owned.
"How," I said to my daughter, "Did you convince your room mates to let you get a cat?"
She replied, "I can't believe this idiot is in the major leagues! Did you see that? He doesn't cover first base, and then he tries to beat him to the base, if you define 'tries' as 'jogs nonchalantly in the general direction of,' which I do not. Look right there. He could reach out and tag him, but he doesn't. Idiot. He didn't defect from Cuba. He is the baseball equivalent of a ton of sugar cane contaminated with anthrax."
I was trying to get the scoop on my daughter's new cat, but the conversation took place during the early innings of a game the Mets would eventually lose to the Yankees 16-7. The human anthrax invasion was Soler and this evening he was alternating a hanging curveball with a 26-mph fastball.
"I found out about the cat in an article in the NY Post. There's this show on the Animal Planet channel called "Meow Mix House," it's this cat reality show. They put 10 cats in a house in New York and one by one they get voted off, like on American Idol or Survivor. So anyway, the article said WHY is the Mets' bullpen quiet?? Soler is pitching like the Yankees are holding his grandmother hostage someplace and OHMYGAWD A-Rod hit a GRANDSLAM!! Aarrghh!! Aaarrghh!! So the article said all the cats have been adopted except for Bambi. Bambi just sat on the couch and watched the other cats and people just didn't warm up to her, but she really has a nice personality."
[Actual quote from the article: "...The finicky short hair has a proclivity for hissing, the occasional swipe, and a tendency to just kind of sit on the leopard print couch and stare."]
"So," I persisted, "How did you manage to adopt this cat?"
"WHY is there no action in the bullpen?? I called the SPCA. They gave her to me. No one wanted her. They were shocked that I wanted her. The SPCA is two blocks away so I just walked over."
"And that's it?"
"They checked my references."
"Mikey Sanocki. They called him up and asked him if I had the wherewithal to take care of the cat. Which I immediately renamed 'Olivia.'"
"Did they check any references on your reference?"
"Nope. So they put her in a cardboard cage and I carried her home and that was that."
During a lull in the shellacking of the Mets Emma punched up an episode of Meow Mix House on her computer so I could see her cat in 'action.'
Meow Mix House is three minutes long and even more gruesome than it sounds. It's really a commercial for Meow Mix disguised (barely) as a fake reality show. Bambi, as advertised, just sat on the couch and stared. I am tempted to say 'like every other cat in the world,' but I won't because I learned a long time ago that cat lovers write letters to the editor when you say anything about cats except how wonderful they are. They don't pay much attention to the spellcheck feature, though. Anyway, the cats have actors 'voicing' them, and there's a laugh track. I lost more brain cells watching Meow Mix House for three minutes than I would have by chugging a gallon of anti-freeze.
"Why did you want this cat?"
"She looks like a sweety pie."
"How did she act when you adopted her?"
"Indifferent. [I'm tempted to say 'like every other cat in the world' again]. When I got her home she was a little scared for about an hour and then she was okay. Amy doesn't get cats and kept abusing it."
"It was sleeping and she'd pick it up and hug it. It's not a hug-type cat."
"Why did you rename the cat?"
"Because Bambi is a hooker name."
A few days after Emma adopted the cat, Animal Planet sent over a cameraman to film Bambi / Olivia in her new home. They wouldn't tell Emma if / when Bambi was voted off the show, but the episode I watched-the longest three minutes in history, incidentally- concluded with a brief visit to the new home of the cat who exited that week. I'd love to see the segment featuring my daughter and her new cat but (a) it requires sitting through the rest of 'Meow Mix House' and (b) it's on Animal Planet. Although technically I get the Animal Planet channel as part of my cable package, I block it. I blocked all the channels that don't show Law & Order reruns about a year and a half ago, when I realized I never watched anything else. Even though my daughter is going to be appearing on Animal Planet one of these days, I have no plans to unblock it, unless they're going to start showing "Law and Order SVU" round the clock.
"Did you consult your room mates before you got the cat?"
"I consulted Erin. I said, "I'm getting a famous cat."
"What did she say?"
"I hate everybody." That was not what Erin said. That was Emma, reacting to yet another Yankee getting on base.
I D Bureau Blackout
Ostensibly the Passaic County ID Bureau (located directly under the Passaic County Jail House) had hired me as clerical help, and I was assigned to cull convicted felons from the jury duty lists. But within a couple of weeks the staff had discovered I was willing to do just about anything, as long as it got me away from the file cabinets. So in short order I was photographing autopsies, hosing down the drunk tank, and processing incoming miscreants, all of which seemed more interesting than checking jury duty lists. Clipping my toenails seemed more interesting than checking jury duty lists.
One morning I was in the basement, fingerprinting a gentleman who had spent the night in a holding cell for smashing a TV set in a Paterson bar. He was the second guy Id fingerprinted that summer who had smashed a TV set in a Paterson bar, and like the first, hed done it because he couldnt stand one more second of Howard Cosell. Neither TV set smasher had any regrets about the smashing per se, although the man I was now fingerprintingMr. Dymtchyck; I never forget a name without real vowels was a little sheepish about having spent the night in the slammer. I wondered how many TV sets got broken every week nationwide as various people reached their Howard Cosell saturation point. Dozens? Hundreds?
Mr. Dymtchyck was missing the top joint of his right index finger and for a moment I was stymied; did I need to make some sort of notation? Suddenly the lights went out.
It had been a very hot summer, filled with rolling brownouts and speckled with black outs but this was the first time the power had failed while I was in the processing room. The back-up lights, bare high-watt bulbs, came on in the corridor and a buzzer went off in the distance. Frank, an exceptionally annoying 50ish employee who had tried to sell me an elevator pass on my first day at work, stuck his head in the door.
"Get this man to safety!" he said.
"The powers out. The cell doors open and close electronically. As soon as these muggs figure out the powers down, theyll make a break for it. Happens every time."
"Get him back to the holding cell, then report to substation one and get a shot gun."
"Get this guy out of here. Ill show you when you get back. And dont talk to anyone!"
I took Mr. Dymtchyck back to the holding area. We passed a few people running around and yelling, but we also passed a lot of people drinking coffee and talking about what theyd seen on TV last night. I got the impression there was no prison break in progress, nor was one anticipated. Technically a prison break was impossible, since this was a county jail, not a prison, and guys serving a few days for vandalism or falling behind on alimony payments tend not to make like James Cagney in "White Heat." They just dont. I considered strolling up to the I D Bureau office but I remembered the bagels were stale, and I was curious about what Frank was planning. Was he really going to issue me a shotgun?
"Wheres this substation one, Frank?"
"Next to the autopsy room. Wed better get moving."
"Isnt that the supply room?"
"No time for chit chat."
Frank had a key to the supply roomI remember thinking whoever had approved that was going to have second thoughts somedayand we stepped inside.
"Damn," he said, "The rifles are getting cleaned this week. I forgot. Well, never mind that now. What we need you to do is stay right here. Im going to lock the door. It looks bad out here. If anybody knocks on the door, dont answer. Even if it sounds like somebody you know. Ill come back and let you out when they sound the all clear signal, which is three short whistles followed by three long whistles. Got it?"
Yup. Frank thought I was an idiot. "Got it."
He left, and locked the door. I shoved a cabinet aside and removed a piece of plywood covering a casement window. I knew about the casement window because installing that piece of plywood had been one of the things Id done to get out of checking jury duty lists. Various employees were having lunch on the lawn. It was the most lackadaisical jailbreak ever. I saw Vincent, the I. D. Bureaus other worthless teenage summer clerical worker. I cranked open the window and gave him a dollar for a Yoo Hoo from the vender on the curb. "Do me a favor," I said, accepting my change. "When you get back to the office, ask Frank if hes seen me. Tell him youre worried because my medicine is on my desk and Im supposed to take it with food at lunch." "Kay," said Vincent, who asked for no further details, bless him. (The medicine was a thermos of Gatorade™). I flipped on the light (the power was back!), drank my Yoo Hoo, and read a couple chapters of the book Id stuffed in my back pocket that morning, "Galactic Pot Healer" by Philip K. Dick. Then I took down some shelving from the wall and braced it under the doorknob. When the door was barricaded to my satisfaction I climbed out the casement window. A guard working on a hoagie paused to ask what was going on. I said Frank had locked me in the supply room. He nodded. Apparently there were precedents.
Id been thinking of a John Maynard Keynes maxim from an economics course Id recently flunked: "If a bank lends a man 20 thousand pounds and he can not repay it, the bank has the man at an enormous disadvantage. If a bank lends a man 20 million pounds and he can not repay it, the positions are reversed." I dimly perceived that this applied to everything. You lock me in a closet for an hour and I look like an idiot; lock me in a closet for 4 hours and eventually break down the door and nobodys there, you look like an idiot.
Of course I look like an idiot too, but that only matters if you care about looking like an idiot, which I didnt. I went to the movies ("Death Race 2000," I believe), and then drove home. I suffered no repercussions from the days events, aside from Frank not speaking to me for the rest of the summer. This didnt feel like a repercussion to me. It felt more like winning the lottery.
ASK THE STIFF BLOATED DEER CARCASS EXPERT GUY
DEAR STIFF BLOATED DEER CARCASS EXPERT GUY:
When you say you are the Stiff Bloated Deer Carcass Expert Guy, does this mean you the expert on stiff bloated deer carcasses or are you the stiff bloated expert on deer carcasses?
Tres droll. It is, of course, the deer carcasses which are stiff and bloated; I myself am quite supple, and on the slender side.
* * *
DEAR STIFF BLOATED DEER CARCASS EXPERT GUY:
The other day, while motoring down the road that runs parallel to the river, I noticed a fine looking deer carcass at the edge of the road, and I pulled over with the intention of popping it into the trunk and adding it to my collection. Much to my surprise, the deer carcass blinked at me and bounded into the brush. I was quite taken aback. Does this happen often? Are the stiff bloated deer carcasses, which I display so proudly in my den back home, apt to hop up and break for the woods some afternoon?
Rieglesville, either PA or NJ, I forget which one, but I know I definitely live in one of them.
--Or perhaps I should say DEER Collector, ahem-- what you encountered was not a stiff bloated deer carcass, but a live deer. Live deer are the larval stage of the stiff bloated deer carcass; the deer carcass exists in this transitory state for a considerable period of time, sometimes for years, before finally attaining full maturity. When in doubt as to whether the carcass is immature (or, as the civilians say, alive) or not, ask yourself these questions: 1) does it move? 2)is it stiff? 3)is it bloated? If the answers are no, yes yes, in that order, then you almost certainly have a stiff bloated deer carcass for your collection.
* * *
DEAR STIFF BLOATED DEER CARCASS EXPERT GUY:
Tell me Im not dreaming! I was tramping through this field in Alexandria, and in the distance I saw his ENORMOUS stiff bloated deer carcass. As I watched, it got more and more bloated, and then actually rose into the air! It was HUGE, and it had the words Vitos Bail Bonds painted on the side. Did anybody else see this?
Pinch me, I think Im dreaming or something!
Dear Pinch Me:
You are wide awake, or at least as wide awake as people like you get. That was not a stiff bloated deer carcass, it was a hot air balloon. They do look alike from a distance, but the average stiff bloated deer carcass will not rise into the air unless it gets really REALLY hot out.
* * *
DEAR STIFF BLOATED DEER CARCASS EXPERT GUY:
Maybe you think all these stiff bloated deer carcasses along the side of the road really swank up the area, but I for one do not share in your delight. I live along a busy thoroughfare at the edge of a wooded area, and I must find one of these revolting carcasses at the end of my driveway or on my front lawn five times a week. And if it isnt right before garbage collection, I get to keep them for up to a week! Not only that, but do you know how hard it is to stuff one of those things into a garbage bag?
Revolted in Hunterdon County
* * *
As the little boy with the round head in some comic strip or other used to say, Argh! DO NOT THROW OUT THOSE STIFF BLOATED DEER CARCASSES! They are respectable, delectable, and oh-so-collectable! Good heavens, have you any idea how many people out there would love to be in your shoes? Five stiff bloated deer carcasses a week, all but delivered to your doorstep! The next time one pops up, save your garbage bag and call me! My e-mail address is StffBloatDeerCarkXprtGuy@AOL.com.
* * *
DEAR STIFF BLOATED DEER CARCASS EXPERT GUY:
The other day I was having a yogurt during my coffee break, and it was one of the ones where you, you know, mix up the fruit at the bottom of the container? Well, it was supposed to be blueberries, but it wasnt, it was a stiff bloated deer carcass, and it was pretty gross, let me tell you! Needless to say, my appetite disappeared like that(I just snapped my fingers). If this happens again, what should I do?
Still not hungry
A dreadful experience, but these things do happen. If you should open another yogurt and discover a stiff bloated deer carcass, save both the carcass and the UPC seal from the container and mail them back to the company with a brief note explaining what happened. Any reputable company will certainly refund the price of your yogurt, and many will also send you valuable coupons good for sizable discounts!
* * *
DEAR STIFF BLOATED DEER CARCASS EXPERT GUY:
My boy friend (Ill call him "Gargoyle Boy") is really into stiff bloated deer carcasses, so I got him one as a birthday present and I stored it in my living room, figuring that I would get around to wrapping it before the party. Well, "Gargoyle Boy"(not his real name) showed up unexpectedly to return a book Id lent him, and I had to hide the stiff bloated deer carcass, so I stuffed it under the sofa cushions and invited him in. Of course he headed straight for the sofa and plopped down, and from under the cushions there came this loud FRAAA-BLATT!! noise. You should have seen "Gargoyle Boy"s face! Naturally I had to reveal what was underneath the cushions, and so he got his present a few days early. Has anybody besides "Gargoyle Boy" ever sat on a stiff bloated deer carcass before, and if so, do they always make a noise like that?
His real name is Bob
As the great naturalist Henry David somebody or other once observed, the stiff bloated deer carcass is Natures Perfect Whoopee Cushion. The same gases which give them that attractive bloat are also responsible for those interesting noises they make when you sit on them. This has been a source of fascination for many musicians and composers ever since it was discovered that stiff bloated deer carcasses of various sizes produced notes of various pitch. Beethoven composed several pieces for stiff bloated deer carcasses, some of them requiring up to 24 carcasses ranging in size from itty-bitty to REAL BIG. And the famous choral fourth movement of his 9th symphony was originally scored for stiff bloated deer carcasses; it was changed at the last minute when not enough stiff bloated deer carcasses could be obtained in time for the premiere. Ah, if only Beethoven had lived in Hunterdon County, they wouldnt have had the slightest problem!
* * *
A DOG UMBRELLA
Im not sure how old my apartment building on the Lower East Side was, but it was old enough to have been totally rewired at least once. I knew this because there was an empty electrical conduit in the hallway, a few feet from my door. I knew it was empty because it rose about three feet from the floor and then stopped. Another three feet stuck down from the next landing. The upper piece had been capped but the lower had not and eventually I decided to keep my dog umbrella in it.
When my dog umbrella was rolled up it was nothing special but when it was open it was covered with drawings of dogs. 16 of them, in a variety of breeds. It was a spectacularly ugly umbrella and I loved it as I loved no umbrella before or since. "You shouldnt leave that in the hall," said Stuart, the guy who lived in the apartment next door.
"Whod steal it?" I asked.
"Nobodyd steal it. Im embarrassed to live in a building where something that ugly is out in plain sight. Thats why you shouldnt leave it in the hall." When it rained on poker night (the location of which rotated among Stuarts apartment, the projection booth of the St. Marks Cinema where this guy Eddie worked, the managers office at the Russian / Turkish Bath House up the block, and three or four other places in the neighborhood), everybody would give me a hard time about the dog umbrella. "An umbrella with dogs is worse than a pink umbrella," said Stuart. "The only way you could make yourself more of a figure of ridicule would be... well, I guess theres no way. Youve reached the absolute limit."
But over time a consensus built that if I twirled the dog umbrella while I walked, that might be worse.
The only person who didnt make fun of the dog umbrella was my supers Ukrainian wife. "Dey shoot have more oom-pray-las vit docks on dem," she said. "I vould pie one. I like de puck dock."
I persisted in leaving it in the empty electrical conduit in the hallway. If I knew it was raining, I didnt have to hunt for my umbrella before I went out. On the other hand, if I didnt know it was raining and found myself standing in the vestibule watching a ferocious downpour, I didnt have to unlock the 5 locks on my door, hunt for the dog umbrella, then relock all the locks. It was right there, in the electrical conduit. At the end of my first autumn there I estimated that I had saved myself two hours and close to 500 calories by keeping the umbrella in that pipe.
Then one day, during an exceptionally rainy spring, I stepped out of my apartment and noticed the umbrella was gone. Any one could have taken it, of course; any of my neighbors in the building or their visitors, or the mail man, or any of the junkie burglars who hit the building regularly (although the pickings were so slim one of them actually left a nasty note in an apartment hed robbed complaining about the poor quality of the goods hed carted away). I knocked on Stuarts door.
"No, of course I didnt steal it. Ive thought about burning it, but only a crazy person would steal it," he said.
"You know, the supers wife always liked it. She said she only wished it had more dogs on it."
"You think she stole it to add a few more dogs?"
"I dont know." I found it plausible that shed taken it, though. "My keeping it out in the open like that, day after day for years, might have been too much of a temptation for her."
I ruled out a direct confrontation with her, first of all because of my being a total wussy boy, and second of all because I couldnt figure out how to start the conversation since I had no idea what her name was. Either name. Nobody did. "The supers wife" was how everyone referred to her.
"Ill tell you one thing, man," said Stuart. "If shes got it in that apartment, youre gonna have to move fast or youre going to have a dog umbrella that smells like boiled cabbage."
The more I thought of it the more certain I was that shed taken the dog umbrella. My suspicions were confirmed when she opened the door to her apartment and nodded hello to Stuart and me. She unfolded her shopping cart and left the building. "Did you see that?" I said. "She really went out of her way not to look at the electrical conduit."
"I noticed that too, man. Very suspicious. Me thinks the chick doth protest too much."
We certainly couldnt break into the supers apartment to search for the umbrella. Not through the front door, anyway. The supers apartment also had a door (next to the refrigerator in the kitchen) that let directly onto a set of ancient stone steps leading down into the basement. Our course was clear: break into the basement and from THERE break into the supers apartment. "The super keeps a padlock on that inside door. I got a crowbar to pry up the basement door out back, but well need bolt cutters for the padlock."
"Ill borrow some from Eddie. Hes got a huge tool chest in the projection booth."
"He does?" I said.
"Absolutely. I was propping my feet up on it during the poker game last night. Ill be back in ten minutes."
Ten minutes. Its not a long time, but it was long enough for me to pry open the basement door, trip over a can of wolf urine (for a long time I thought I misread the label, but apparently this is commercially available and serves as a deer repellent. As I did not encounter any deer in the basement, it appears to be effective), stumble up the stairs, and discover that the padlock was on the other side of the door.
I was sitting on the curb repelling deer when Stuart returned from Eddies place, not with the (totally useless) bolt cutters but with my umbrella, which according to Eddie Id left at the poker game the night before. "Thats crazy," I said. "I never forget the dog umbrella."
"Whats your theory on how it ended up in the projection booth?"
"My theory was that the supers wife dropped it off there shortly before you arrived."
Stuart blinked. "My theory is that I need to take a shower now, just from standing next to you," he said. I also took a shower, the first of several that day.
None of them did much good, but that was okay. I had the dog umbrella back.
One day something distracted Picarillo while he was eating macaroni and cheese in his room. It might have been the day that Pete Cook went strolling down Warren Street clad only in a bathrobe and a pair of boxer shorts; it had to be something at least that spectacular to divert Picarillo from his food. Anyway, he put his plate down, and later absently tossed a t-shirt or a towel over it, and it got nudged under a chair, and there it remained until his mother came upon it days later, by which time furry patches of green and black had blossomed.
So while Picarillos mother was boiling his clothes and bedding, Calvano and I helped Picarillo scrub down his floorboards with Murphys Oil. The three of us probably could have cleaned the floor in fifteen minutes but we managed to stretch it out into an all day job. When we broke for lunch, we climbed out Picarillos bedroom window and ate on the roof of the porch.
We loved being up on the roof. It didnt have much of a slant so we felt completely safe, but anything we put down immediately rolled into the rain gutter or shot off the roof entirely and landed in the pachysandra. Over the years wed seen a lot of things drop in the pachysandra and vanish forever. That day a jar of marshmallow (used, in tandem with peanut butter, as a disgusting sandwich filling) heard the siren song of gravity, but instead of vanishing forever, it exploded when it hit the ground.
"Cool!" said Calvano. The red jar lid sat at the center of a vaguely star-shaped marshmallow blast pattern atop the pachysandra leaves.
"Were gonna have to clean up the glass," said Picarillo.
"Right. Im just trying to think how to do that without wrecking the marshmallow. It looks like something."
"Australia," I said. "And the blobs up by the rhododendron look exactly like New Zealand. Hey! Calvano! Look at your house. Your brothers throwing out some magazines!"
Our hearts beat faster. Calvanos brother Duff subscribed to a muscle magazine, a hot rod magazine, and a magazine that published cartoons about hot rods. All these were intensely desirable. Half a dozen objects slid into the gutter as we scrambled for the window.
Since this was decades before recycling, Duff had simply dumped the old magazines into a garbage can. To our disappointment, he wasnt throwing out his hot rod magazines or muscle books, just old copies of Ladies Home Journal, Grit, and so forth.
"Hey, whats this?" said Picarillo. "It says Variety Logic Puzzles."
"I dunno," said Calvano. "It must be my moms. She does crosswords and stuff." He flipped through the magazine. Almost none of the puzzles had been completed or even attempted. In fact, the only one where the solving grid had been partly filled out was the first one, which read:
Calvano slowly read this aloud. Then he read it again. "I dont see how you can do this."
"My favorite is Zippy," said Picarillo. "I think he wins the race."
"They all win, Picarillo. Its 5 different races."
"Do all the guys race all five days? In the same cars?"
"It doesnt say."
"What color is the Pontiac? My dad has a Pontiac."
"Its blue," Picarillo said proudly.
"The clock doesnt work, though."
"Shut up," said Calvano. "Vinnie drove the Chevy. Because Tony drove the Ford, the Corvette and the 409 race on other days, and it says he didnt drive the Pontiac. I get how to do this!"
"Zippy has the Pontiac," Picarillo insisted. "I think its got a cracked tail light, like my dads."
"Picarillo, if you dont shut up... uh, thats right. Zippy drives the Pontiac." Calvano stared at him. "Did you figure that out, or was it a guess?"
"Its blue," said Picarillo. "Only its got this like picture of a skull on the hood."
"Im gonna go with it was a guess," I said. We made our way to the World War I tank memorial in the park, which was an actual World War I tank. We could get inside through a hatch in the belly that had been improperly welded shut and then pried open so many times the town had given up. Calvano slid the magazine into a beam of sunlight spilling in through a ventilation hole.
The puzzles got progressively more difficult. By the 5th puzzle, he was insisting that some of the clues had to be ignored. "The thing about Linda getting the red flower is a lie!" he said. Picarillo kept trying to work Zippy and his Pontiac with the skull on the hood into every puzzle. We all had raging headaches, from the puzzles or the stifling head or the bad air. When Calvano took a breather I thumbed through the magazine and discovered that the answers were in the back. "Whoa!" cried Calvano. "Lets see. Now well get them all right!" While Picarillo and I watched, Calvano painstakingly filled in every puzzle, using the key at the back of the book.
"I wonder if were the first guys to figure out the answers are in the back. Now where do we send it?"
"Send what?" I said.
"The PUZZLE BOOK. We got all the answers right. Using the key in the back, which is the ultimate logical solution! So we win. Where do we send it?"
"We dont send it anywhere, Calvano. Its a magazine, not a contest."
"If it was a contest, Zippy would have won," said Picarillo. "His car is named The Screaming Skull."
Calvano blinked in the dim light inside the tank. "So we dont get anything for all this work? Is this some kind of sick joke? I almost feel like I just wasted an hour of my life!"
"Almost?" I said.
AT WAR WITH THE EGG CRATE
My mother stopped making my bed when I was 13. Now that I was a teenager, it was my job. Except once a week, Saturday, which was the day she changed the sheets. All I had to do on Saturday was strip the bed and leave everything in a heap on the chair (first shaking out the Fritos, sweat socks, comic books, werewolf masks, etc.). Thats how I know that I did not sleep on an egg crate as a child.
I am not sure when I started sleeping with a foam-rubber-egg-crate-thing on top of my mattress, but I do, and have for several decades. I am all for the egg crate, even though I do not understand how or why it works, or how it could possibly have occurred to anyone to try it.
Since the egg crate is made of foam rubber, when you lie down on it, you squish it flat. This suggests to me that you might as well start out with a flat sheet of foam rubber, since thats what youre going to end up with. Probably some guy passed out on an egg crate 40 years ago, woke up totally refreshed, and wasnt sure if the key was the egg crate molding or the foam rubber, so he went with both of them and thats the way its been ever since, through sheer inertia. Thats how the worlds always worked. Hey, we sacrificed a virgin last night and the sun came up this morningif it aint broke, dont fix it.
So I sleep with the egg crate thing under the fitted sheet. Unlike many guys, I really do change my sheets, although not as often as I should, given the amount of lose hair and ear wax and potato chip crumbs and so forth that my body deposits on them in the course of a week.
So this past week Im changing the sheets, and I also flipped the mattress, and it took about 2 hours. I dont know why it takes always that long, but it does. Youve got to get everything EVEN, for one thing. Anyway, when I was done, I noticed that there was a foam rubber egg crate draped over the couch. Did I have an extra?
No, I did not. I put the new sheets on and forgot about the egg crate.
Okay. No big deal. I slept without one for years. I tried out the egg-crateless-mattress and found I was unable to distinguish it from plywood. It would not do.
However, I decided instantly that I would not change the sheets twice in one day. Four hours of sheet changing? Insanity. No, I resolved to get that egg crate under the fitted sheet without removing the fitted sheet. It seemed to me that all I needed to do was untuck the bottom, slide the egg crate up, retuck, and I would be done.
With the bottom sheet untucked at the foot of the bed, I slid the top edge of the egg crate onto the mattress pad and gently but firmly pushed. 25 minutes later, the entire egg crate was under the sheet. It was under the sheet and wadded up into a rather unsightly bulge at the foot of the mattress. I removed the egg crate and re-thought my strategy.
Obviously, pushing wouldnt work. The egg crate was not stiff enough. It had to be pulled. But how?
The solution suddenly popped into my head, fully formed. First, I punched three holes, about 8 inches apart, at the top of the foam rubber egg crate. I straightened out three wire hangers and bent the ends of each one, forming a sort of hook, and then I twisted the other ends into loops. I attached the loops to three more straightened hangers, twisted the ends of these into loops, and tied several feet of nylon clothesline to each loop.
Then I took a box cutter and made three tiny slits in the fitted sheet, at the head of the mattress. (These could be sewn shut later, although I considered leaving them open to permit access in case the egg crate required further adjustment sometime in the future). I inserted my wire hanger devices, hooks first, into the slits, and fed them all the way in, almost the entire length of the bed. The hooks were poking out where I had untucked the bottom sheet. I slipped one of the hooks into each of the holes Id punched into the egg crate. The hooks, of course, pointed down, so I wouldnt tear the sheet.
I couldnt just stand at the head of my bed and yank the clothesline to re-insert the egg crate, because the head of my bed is against the wall. So I slipped the three lines over the end of the mattress and climbed under the bed. I took hold of the clotheslines, braced my feet against the wall, and pulled. Once again, gently but firmly. I was meeting considerably more resistance than I expected, but I could deal with it. I estimated that I was moving the egg crate into place at the rate of approximately two inches per minute, and I dont mind admitting that I broke a sweat. When I had pulled about three feet of clothesline under the bed, I got out to check on the progress of the egg crate.
To my surprise, it hadnt moved at all. The hooks had ripped through the foam rubber with my first tug. The resistance Id felt had been from the hooks tearing into the mattress. Three parallel three foot gashes, as though Freddy Kruger had dropped by for a visit.
Well, the gashes can be repaired. I have plenty of duct tape. For now, I stored the egg crate out of the way, in the kitchen. I will not be defeated. I will get that egg crate onto the mattress without changing the sheets. Life is too short to spend it changing sheets. I will persevere!
In the past, my daughter Emma has held an annual letter writing contest "to bring the written epistle back into vogue." The person who writes her the most letters over the course of the summer wins. But this year she asked me to publicize it, so I called to see what the situation was.
EMMA: I am so through with going on the subway. My metro card was costing me like 76 dollars a month
so I ride my bike to work. Every day is an adventure. I cut off taxis.
ME: Thats exactly the sort of thing you want to not mention to your father.
EMMA: Too late. And my tires got slashed.
ME: What? Where?
EMMA: In my apartment. I took the bike downstairs to ride to work and the tires were flat. So I rode it to work anyway, and after work I took it to the bike shop and they said What happened to your bike? The tires were slashed with a knife.
ME: That makes no sense. How could your tires get slashed in your apartment?
EMMA: Duh! Lory! [Her ex-room mate]. She owed me money. Excuse me, OWES. 400 dollars. We got into a huge fight about it. I cant prove it was her in the Law and Order SVU sense of "prove" but since I keep the bike in the kitchen... Dot dot dot. Put Dot dot dot.
ME: "Dot dot dot?"
EMMA: At the end of the sentence. Three dots. An ellipsis. Dont actually write the words Dot dot dot.
ME: Okay. But I have to say, slashing your tires seems totally out of character for Lory. I mean, isnt she a vegan?
EMMA: A bike is not an animal.
ME: I didnt... I mean...
EMMA: Use your three-way calling and talk to Erin [Emmas current roommate]. Shell tell you a lot of Lory-related horror stories.
[The call goes through]
ERIN: Lory didnt tell me the bed was broken. The whole right side collapsed when I sat on it.
ME: Well... Im trying to think how to phrase this...
EMMA: Erin is not a size 47, if thats where youre going.
ME: Thank you, that was what I wanted to know. But why do you think the bed collapsing was Lorys fault?
ERIN: The metal roddy thing and all the screws were gone.
ME: Metal roddy thing?
ERIN: The bed was propped up with these Nazi books.
ME: Lory had Nazi books?
EMMA: They were mine. They arent like Nazi HOW TO books, theyre history books. She probably wrecked the bed with her boy toy.
ME: Okay, were not going anywhere near....
ERIN: She left all this stuff behind, like Hawaiian Punch...
EMMA: I finished that, by the way.
ERIN: Good. Also she left her Fight Club DVD in the DVD player. And all this weird vegan food.
EMMA: It took me an hour to throw out all her vegan food. It was so horrible. Like vegan macaroni and cheese.
ME: How can anything with cheese be vegan?
EMMA: Bingo. Its vegan cheese. Its so horrible. If you eat vegan macaroni and cheese you wont hesitate to slash somebodys bike tires.
ME: See, thats the part I dont...
ERIN: Its a crime against humanity.
EMMA: I cant prove its Lory, okay? Okay? But who else could it be? Answer: NOBODY. Unless it was the creepy guy who broke in my apartment that time.
ERIN: What? Somebody broke in here?
EMMA: Okay, I didnt mention this because its not important, but one time this guy like walked into the apartment and opened the refrigerator and I heard him open the door and Im like "What?" and hes like "Ugh?" and Im all "Whos there?" And he takes off.
ERIN: I cant believe you didnt tell me...
EMMA: No, no, see there was this huge hole in the door.
ME: Thats true. Where the deadbolt lock is now. She had this hole you could stick your arm through.
ME: And of course Emma used to leave the door ajar.
EMMA: That is so not true. Lory was also jealous because I bought my bike for $30 and she paid $80 for hers and only rode it maybe twice. She had pronounced bike envy. Whereas the creepy guy, why would HE slash my bike tires? It would make sense to steal the bike, but not to slash them. HE didnt have bike envy.
ME: How do you know?
EMMA: Oh please.
ERIN: Lory also had half a desk chair hidden under the bed.
ME: Half a deck chair?
ME: It was cut in half, like right through the middle?
ERIN: No, it was just the back of the chair. It broke off the rest of the chair...
EMMA: Probably the boy toy...
ERIN: And instead of throwing it out, she hid it under the bed. I found it when the bed broke.
EMMA: Otherwise it would still be there.
ME: Well, look, the thing I called to ask you about was your letter writing contest. Are you having one this year?
EMMA: I dont think so. I started having the letter writing contest to revive the epistolary form, but nobody norLory would enter the contest. It was all like crackheads.
ERIN: Literal crackheads?
EMMA: Yeah, from jail. They have a lot of time to write letters so theyd always win the contest. They dont write really good letters, for obvious reasons, but they write a lot of them. In one eerie coincidence I was sitting on the stoop at my dads place reading a letter from one crackhead at the very moment she was stealing a ham.
ERIN: A ham?
EMMA: She stole a ham from the deli down the street to buy drugs.
ME: She was going to fence a ham? That makes no sense.
EMMA: These people are not known for their sensible decisions. Im sitting there reading a letter from her and suddenly she races by me, clutching this ham.
ME: When you say ham, do you...
EMMA: I mean a ham, like a 10-pound ham they carve slices of ham from at a deli. She runs past me and I yell, Hey, Im reading a letter from you, and then I heard the police sirens.
ERIN: Thats excellent.
EMMA: So I think well forgo the letter writing contest this year. Erin has a gecko.
ME: Like in the insurance commercial?
ERIN: But brown and yellow, yes.
EMMA: I talk to the gecko sometimes, when I was all stuffed up and took Tylenol PM to get to sleep? But I dont think Im going to do that any more?
ME: Talk to the gecko or take Tylenol PM?
ERIN: If you take too much Tylenol PM, the gecko talks back.
EMMA: Exactly. I have to go now.
Fibs and Bifs
I was a founding member of the NYU Science Fiction Society, where I spent a good portion of my youth in the company of math majors. Math majors are different from you and me. When a math-majoring friend of mine- later the author of "Invariant Means of Topological Functions"-was ticketed for jumping a subway turnstile, he had the summons framed because the docket number (96577) was the product of 4 consecutive prime numbers. Math majors also have their own unique sense of humor. "The World Series should actually be called The World Sequence," is a typical side-splitter.
And don't get me started on the Fibonacci Sequence. Or rather, don't get me started on getting math majors started on the Fibonacci Sequence, because once they get started, they keep going you can't stop them without a tire iron. You start out with zero and one. Add them together, and get one. Add one and one, get two. One and two, get three. Two and three, five. Five and three, eight. And so on, forever.
I've spent the better part of 20 years desparately avoiding all mention of math in this column, and in particular I've tried to steer clear of the Fibonacci Sequence, but I can't do it any longer. Because this column is where you go to find out about the latest, the coolest, the hippest, and now some guy- Gregory K. Pincus, probably a math major-has invented a new form of poetry based on the Fibonacci Sequence. He calls it 'The Fib.' It's a six line, 20-syllable poem with a syllable count by line, of 1,1, 2, 3, 5, and 8. It's sort of like a haiku for nerds (I know that's like saying "It's sort of like football for jocks," but there are nerds and NERDS, just like there are jocks and JOCKS). The first one he wrote went:
Math plus poetry yields the Fib.
That was about a two months ago, and now these things are all over the place, just like a Fibonacci Sequence itself, which appears in Nautilus shells, flowers, the reproductive patterns of rabbits and bees, and even in the most commercially successful slab of cheese whiz ever bound between hard covers, "The Da Vinci Code."
What's really great about The Fib as a poetic form is you just count syllables. You don't have to worry about rhymes or scansion or any of that stuff. I myself quickly became one of the form's masters, producing among other masterpieces, "On Second Thought:"
Helping of *poot* *poot*
*FRAAAAAAP! *poot! poot!* Fra-BLAAATT!! * Never mind.
The only thing is, once you've written a fib like that, you have no need to ever write another one. It's been done, you know? So I had to strike out in another direction. I pioneered the related concept of "Fib-erizing," wherein you take an already existing poem and turn it into a Fib. In my view, this is better than the Fib itself because you don't have to come up with any words yourself, and let's face it, coming up with words is the part of poetry writing that's a major drag.
For instance, take the first few lines of the opening soliloquy from Shakespeare's "Richard III":
Ter of our
Discontent, made glor-
Ious summer by this son of
Although this has some problems, as I will be the first to admit, in that it stops about a tenth of the way through the speech, it's now a Fib. And it ends as if we had to break it off in mid sentence because Richard is about to start cursing. That gave me another idea. So I took one of the most famous-but unprintable-poems in the English language and Fib-erized it.
Dave, who lived thirty
Years in a cave. One day he said
Now, while this unquestionably lacks some of the power of the original version, it has the advantage of being publishable. Many otherwise unprintable poems can be rescued through Fib-erization, as long as the swear words don't start for at least 20 syllables.
I also developed the "Bif," which is a backwards Fib.
You start out with eight syllables
Then go down to five
Then to three
I believe the Bif is truer to the human experience than the Fib, since in general stuff starts out pretty good and then just kind of dribbles away, like the Bif. This one was written immediately after the season finale of "24," and is a good example of The Bif used as an instrument of social protest.
TO THE PRODUCERS OF '24'
You can't end it here! Doggone it!
Hey, wait! Who was that
I invite my readers to submit their own Fibs and Bifs. Bear in mind, however, all subject matter is not suitable for poetry. Suitable topics include, and are pretty much limited to:
Send your best fibs and bifs with the subject line either "BIF" or "FIB" to firstname.lastname@example.org. You've got three weeks, so get cracking.
AUNT MONICA'S AIR CONDITIONER
Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I were sitting in a movie palace in Chinatown, watching a Chinese kung-fu movie without subtitles. We were having trouble following the story but that was fine; we were here for two reasons, neither of them being the kung-fu movie. First, we were here because movie theaters were air-conditioned and the Custom Neon Sign Shop was not. Second, we were hiding from Mulberry Street Joey Clams' Aunt Monica. She'd left four messages (so far) begging Mulberry Street Joey Clams to install her air conditioner. "Joey!" her most recent message had begun, "I'm dyin' here! It's 98 degrees and it's only 7 inna mornin'! [Here followed 30 seconds of agitated, rapid fire Italian]. If it ain't in by this afternoon I swear I'm gonna have a heart attack!"
So we were off to the movies. Little Italy had no movie houses, but Chinatown had several, all of them specializing in kung fu movies from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Sometimes they had English subtitles, which I enjoyed because the English was of the "All your base are belong to us" variety, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams hated subtitles of any kind. "If you wanna read, just hang out onna corner a Mulberry and Prince. There's a great 'No Parking Tuesday and Thursday 8 AM -10 AM' sign. You could stand there all day and read that."
It was a triple feature and we'd been there for several hours now, and I wasn't sure how many movies we'd seen so far. At least two, probably all three, and it was possible we'd seen a couple of them twice now. This brawl in the alley, with the hero, or maybe it was the villain, employing garbage can lids as, in rapid succession, shields, Frisbees, and cymbals (clapping a pair together around his opponent's head, accompanied by a fortissimo clang! on the sound track) seemed awfully familiar.
Something else that seemed awfully familiar was the head sticking up three rows in front of us. I nudged Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Isn't that your cousin Augie?" Augie was Aunt Monica's son, and while it was possible he'd just ducked in here to beat the heat, I felt his presence was ominous. We might end up installing that air conditioner after all.
"Hah?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Are you nuts? That's a Ninja."
"Not the guy in the alley. The guy in front of us, right there."
"Augie!" hissed Mulberry Street Joey Clams. I know it's not possible to hiss a word containing no sibilants, but he did. A Chinese gentleman across the aisle asked us to please be quiet. "What's the difference?" demanded Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "There's nothing to hear anyway, Pops. I don't know if you noticed, but the whole movie's in Chinese." The Chinese gentleman responded with a sentence in Chinese. The point of this was lost on Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Yeah, yeah, ching chow mein, yeah yeah," he said, rotating an index finger next to his temple to indicate that we were dealing with a mental case.
"Shaddup!" cried someone in front of us, someone who sounded exactly like cousin Augie.
"Don't say anything," I whispered. "Augie doesn't know it's us. If you don't say anything, he won't..."
"YOU shaddup, Augie, you fat piece of garbage!"
"Hey!" Augie turned all the way around in his seat and nailed Mulberry Street Joey Clams between the eyes with a Jujube. "Ma's been looking for you. She wants you to put in her air conditioner."
"Ow. You coulda put my eye out. The Jujubes in this place are like ball bearings. Why don't she have her big husky son put in her air conditioner?"
"I gotta bad back," whined Augie.
"Wotta coincidence. You and my butt both got a bad back," sneered Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
"Yeah, well, the thing is, I can't do no lifting because the insurance guys are suspicious, you know what I'm saying?"
"Oh," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, suddenly respectful. "Well, of course. I didn't realize it was business."
"Yeah. Listen, I'll go tell Ma you guys'll be over in around an hour."
Mulberry Street Joey Clams opened his mouth but no words came out. Later, on our way to Aunt Monica's building, he ranted, "I shoulda thought about an insurance angle. 'Aunt Monica, I can't lift up no air conditioners because the insurance people are checking me out all the time, you know what I'm saying?' She'd unnerstand that."
"Well, she'd still have to get somebody to put in her air conditioner," I said.
"There's nothing wrong with your back," he snapped.
"There's nothing wrong with your back either."
"Yeah, but you don't have the insurance company gumshoes following you around with cameras."
"Neither do you," I said, thinking: Did he really say gumshoes??
"That's what I'm saying. Well, too late now."
Aunt Monica stored her air conditioner in the basement of her apartment building. It was at least 30 years old. It was a dinosaur, and weighed nearly as much as one. Aunt Monica's apartment was on the 4th floor. We'd move the enormous air conditioner a few feet and then rest for fifteen minutes. I calculated that at this rate we would arrive at her apartment in approximately 14 hours.
"I'm in no rush," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "Hey, you think the Chinese Jujubes are that hard on purpose? You gotta let 'em soak in your mouth like five minutes before you start chewing or you bust a tooth. You ate Chinese food once, right? Is it all hard like that?"
"No. I think they're just regular Jujubes, only old."
"Huh. Like them Chinese eggs," he said. "I heard in China, they eat eggs that are 500 years old sometimes. Fact. Hey, I got an idea. Go outside a minute and see if anybody on the fourth floor's already got an air conditioner in."
"We could trade with them. We tell them we're from the landlord and he's giving them this really good huge monster air conditioner, which is already half way up to the second floor, and then we take out their smaller air conditioner which probably works better anyway, and we put that in Aunt Monica's apartment."
"But then we'd still have to drag this thing all the way up to the 4th floor anyway," I pointed out.
"Only in theory," he said. "In actual practice, this air conditioner basically stays right here."
In actual practice nobody on the fourth floor had an air conditioner. Everybody on the 3rd floor with an air conditioner was too smart to answer our knock. But that was okay. Exploring that possibility had taken 45 minutes. I now estimated our arrival time at approximately mid-February. "Let's shove it over to the side so people can get by," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, always the thoughtful neighbor. "It's not like anybody's gonna steal this thing. We can take another whack at it Tuesday, maybe." Aunt Monica's air conditioner installation had changed from a one-day errand into a lifelong mission.
When we got back to the Custom Neon Sign Shop, Aunt Monica had already left another half dozen messages. "You know, the whole point of an answering machine is you don't have ta keep calling over and over. Once is plenty." he sighed, erasing them all without listening. "Call the phone company in the morning and get the number changed again."
next fabulous Mulberry Street Joey Clams Adventure!
A chameleon is a small lizard that changes color and drops dead about 45 minutes after you get it home from the store. I've buried a great many chameleons in my time.
I had a small aquarium with a cracked wall. I landscaped the floor of it with rocks and plastic dinosaurs and kept my chameleons in it. They cost 75 cents art the local pet shop. Every Saturday morning I'd wander into the center of town, check out the new comic books, and pick up a new chameleon. Occasionally I'd buy a dollar's worth of chameleon food, but not often. A dollar's worth of chameleon food goes a long way when your chameleon drops dead a few hours after purchase. It was as if they all made up the same list of "Things To Do Today":
But that was okay. I didn't develop any big emotional attachment to them and since I saved so much on food, I could always afford to buy a replacement.
I spent a lot of energy trying to get them to change color at least once before they kicked the bucket.
I'd call my friend Mitch. His mother was an interior decorator and had lots of thick books containing carpet and wallpaper samples. Mitch would bring a couple of the books to my house and we'd stick the new chameleon on a hunk of red shag. "He's doin' it! He's turnin' red! There he goes!" Mitch would say. "He still looks brown," I'd say. "Give him time, he's gettin' there."
But he never got there, no matter how much time we gave him. They had a range from dull brownish green to dull greenish brown; we wanted blue lizards, red lizards, yellow lizards: Good solid primary colors. We weren't crazy. We weren't trolling for polka dots. We suspected that the pet shop was palming off inferior quality chameleons on us.
One afternoon as we prepared to bury the latest chameleon under the big slab of slate rock in the backyard, Mitch snapped his fingers and said, "Follow me! Bring the dead chameleon!"
I chased him for a couple of blocks, until we came upon Dr. Becker's psychotic nephew Albert, who was painting the garage blue.
Albert was always game for interesting scientific experiments. The previous summer, he'd gotten into hot water trying to determine how many watermelons placed end to end on the railroad tracks it would take to derail the 5:17 local.
"Get it? Get it?" said Mitch. He gestured for the matchbox containing the dead chameleon. "Hey Albert-we wanna borrow some paint, okay?"
Mitch had had a tremendous insight-if we wanted red or blue lizards, dead ones would work as well as, or even much better than, live ones.
"Okay," said Albert, "But it'll cost you. Twice. At, um, 12 feet."
"I just wanna dip a dead chameleon in the paint."
"Well... how big?"
Mitch spread his thumb and index finger three inches apart. "Okay. Just once at 12 feet."
"Done." Mitch stood 15 feet away and bent over. Albert shot him in the butt with a peashooter.
"Yowch," said Mitch.
"Well, go ahead," said Albert. Mitch dipped the chameleon in blue paint. "Hey, neat!" said Albert.
It did look neat. We went back to my yard and yanked up the slab. We'd buried something like 40 chameleons here, each in its own matchbox.
The older ones were no good-too shriveled, or else they came apart too easily-but we managed to collect a dozen or so good ones.
Mitch didn't want to deal with Albert any more that day, so we went up to my sister's room. She had poster paints. We spread newspaper over her desk and started painting dead lizards. Blue, yellow, red, green (a bright cheerful green), orange, purple.
"We'll be rich," said Mitch. "We buy 'em for 75 cents and sell 'em for a buck! Everybody'll want one! And we can charge more for stripes and stuff! We..."
My sister entered the room. "What do you think you're doing here? This is my room! What a mess! I'm going to tell mom that y... dead lizards! Aaarrggh!"
My mom made us throw out all the dead lizards, even the ones we'd already painted.
But I think Mitch was right. There is definitely a market to be tapped and someday I just might quit my job and stock up on acrylic paint and dead chameleons.
Song without Pity!
Have you ever had a song stuck in your head for over a week? And nothing that you do, not even whacking yourself in the skull with a tire iron or shoving your hand in the garbage disposal, will dislodge that song?
Has that song ever been "Town without Pity?"
As you may have surmised, a song has been stuck in my head for nearly three weeks now, and that song is, indeed, "Town without Pity." Thats because Gene Pitney died nearly three weeks ago and some disc jockey felt it would therefore be appropriate to play Genes staggering rendition of "Town without Pity" over the public airwaves. I happened to be within earshot of a radio when this took place. I heard about 3 seconds of it before I was able to dive across the room and shut off the radio.
Three seconds of "Town without Pity"of the intro to "Town without Pity"and I absolutely can not get it to stop playing in my head.
Is it a great song? A good song? A terrible song? Is it the most spectacular pop tune ever preserved on vinyl? Is it the worst musical atrocity ever committed? I have no idea. All I know for certain is that I cant get it out of my head. This is not a newspaper column. This is an exorcism.
You know, the way pop songs work, the way HIT pop songs work anyway, is they get stuck in your head. The part that gets stuck is called "the hook" and the hook can be a melody or an ear-catching syncopation or a neat lyric. The Hook can also be an escaped maniac prowling Lovers Lane with a hook for a hand, but never mind that. Whats the hook for "Town without Pity?" The whole song is one big hook.
For one thing, it doesnt sound like an actual song so much as it sounds like some bizarre, over-the-top Saturday Night Live parody of an actual song. Musically its a close cousin to sleazy burlesque numbers like "Night Train" but the huge brass section pumps so much testosterone into the arrangement its something else entirely. It totally transcends sleazy and crosses over into clinically insane. And of course wailing away on top of this, theres the late great Gene Pitney. He takes on a brass section roughly the size of Pattons Third Army and fights it to a draw; he grabs the tune by the throat, slams it into the dresser, frog-marches it into the bathroom, sticks its head in the toilet, slams the lid, and flushes repeatedly. "Had enough??" pants Gene. "Town without Pity" stands up, dripping, spits out 15 or 20 teeth, and says, "Is that all you got, bitch?" But it's not! Gene's got plenty left!! What a singer! What a song! Its like Ali versus Foreman! Or more properly, Alien Versus Predator, in that no matter which one wins, we lose:
"When youre yooooooooung and so in love as weeeeee / And bewiiiiildered by the wooooooorld we see / Why do people hurt us so / Only those in love would know / What a town without pity can doooo..."
Adding to the insanity are those lyrics. Although "Town without Pity" is the title song to a movie, the lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens in the movie. Theyre just these great rhyming near-random near-generic youth-must-be-served non-sequitors, the best that veteran lyricist Ned ("When You Wish Upon a Star") Washington could manage, given the berserk melody:
"Ours is not an easy age / Were like tigers in a cage / What a town without pity can do / Take these eager lips and hold me fast..."
And this thing has been playing on endless repeat in my head for THREE WEEKS NOW. So far the only way I can make it stop is to march down the street chanting "LEFT... LEFT... Left-a-wife-and-sev-en-teen- child-ren-in-star-ving-con-di-tion-with-noth-ing-but-gin-ger-bread LEFT... LEFT...left-a-wife..." et cetera; but this is something I want in my head even less than I want "Town without Pity."
You know, if it was just a matter of hearing this thing twenty-four hours a day I could probably stand it. Plenty of songs can get lodged in your head. I used to live next door to a crazy lady who only owned one record, "Abba Dabba Honeymoon," which she played all the frigging time. Annoying, yes, but I can handle annoying. The real dilemma with "Town without Pity" is that it doesnt just get into your brain. It gets into your brain and compels you to do these cheesy modern dance moves. The music has been insidiously coded to contain the complete choreography for this Gene-Kelly-"Slaughter-on-10th-Avenue"-Death ballet, which, while the tune is playing in your head, has to be performed at all costs, preferably while wearing pin striped gangster-type pants. Although a zoot suit will also work. I think it takes place in a smoky basement with a lot of brick on the walls and theres a lot of floor work, and shoulder action, and every time the horns come in you have to go with that jazz hands thing.
Naturally you cant actually do this dance, because if anybody saw you, youd be waking up in Bellevue for a long time to come and buttering your toast with your finger because they dont let you have knives in that ward. And of course by "you" I mean "me."
I just want it to STOP.
Thats why I wrote this. This has not been a newspaper column. This has been an exorcism.
An unsuccessful exorcism.
Wisconsin has always honked me off. Theyre always making snotty remarks about New Jersey being The Soprano State. You say, "Frank Sinatra," they sneer, "Toxic waste dumps!" You tell em, "We were the cross roads of the American Revolution," they change the subject to the Lindbergh baby. BUT: when you think Wisconsin, whats the first thing that comes to mind after the cheese, the beer, and the Packers?
Thats right. Psycho cannibal grave robbers and murderers. Jeffrey Dahmer. Ed Gein.
And I rest my case, since I cant think of any other ones, but no doubt Wisconsin has plenty more where those two came from.
In the past, Wisconsin at least had the good sense to be embarrassed about this. But now, no longer content to spawn graverobbing cannibal psychos, the residents of the Dairy State are tastelessly exploiting them.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Ed Geins farm went up for sale on eBay last week. 40 acres for $250K. Ed Gein is the Wisconsinite who inspired, among other things, "Psycho," "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," and both serial killers featured in "Silence of the Lambs." Its not like Ed himself is going to profit from the sale, since hes been dead since 1984 and hasnt had any connection to the property since he was arrested 50 years ago. The gentleman selling it is asking 250K for the 40 acres (about $6000 per acre), which, according to locals, is twice what land goes for in central Wisconsin. "Ed Geins Farm ... The REAL deal!" is how the eBay listing puts it. Ed Gein is the selling point.
Really, I ask youwhat could be sicker than this? People trying to make a buck off murder, grave robbery and cannibalism! Way to go, Wisconsinvery classy.
And then I realized, hey waitthe place is STILL FOR SALE!! WE COULD GRAB IT! Maybe these cheese heads think $6,000 an acre is crazy, but here in the Garden State, its nothing!!
Now heres the plan: Wethat is, either the Borough of Milford or a bunch of sharp private investorsbuy the whole farm, and we ship it here. Just the top layer of soil, where Ed was actually lurking. If theres some well-known tree where he used to hide behind or something, we can bring that along too, but I think we just want the soil. And since there is, presumably, inner soil under the outer soil, they can still sell the acreage to someone else, so we can in all likelihood pick up the topsoil for well under the $250K asking price.
See, everybodys been asking, how should we develop the property in Milford where the paper mill used to be? There was some talk about strip-malling it, but there are plenty of towns with strip malls. There are few towns with 40 acres of Ed Gein-farm topsoil! Im not sure how many acres the paper mill property itself covers, but thats not really important. If we have any leftover topsoil, I would suggest that we spread it around inside the paper mill buildings, so that the attraction can be open all year long.
QUESTION: But before, when you thought they were going to do something a lot less exploitative in Wisconsin, you said it was.
ANSWER: This is totally different.
QUESTION: How so? OW!! You stomped on my foot!! Youaacck! By dose! You bunched be in the dose! You Brogue it! Oww!
ANSWER: Any more questions?
I didnt think so.
This is not simply a tourist attraction. It will quickly become a vital part of New Jerseys film industry. "This Film Was Shot on the Actual Soil Where The Ed Gein Murders Took Place!" will, I predict, become the most sought-after credit line in Hollywood. And not just for movies about Ed Gein, either. I would even consider going to see "Pretty Woman II" if I knew it had been shot on authentic Ed Gein topsoil.
And surely many filmmakers will actually make the location part of the story. Imagine a Matthew McConaughey / Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy that includes a trip to Milfords "Geinland," which she thinks is really gross and hes totally baffled about why, and they have this argument and they date other people played by Randy Quaid and the chunky girl from MAD TV but finally Sarah shows up at his apartment where an "I Visited Geinland!" t-shirt and thats when we realize everything is going to be all right. Man, it practically writes itself. ARE YOU LISTENING, HOLLYWOOD??
But as usual it all depends upon the Powers That Be in Milford not dropping the ball again. Years ago in this space I ran a virtually fool-proof plan for building a stadium and getting the summer Olympics held here, and all the town fathers did was yawn and go, ho hum, who needs a summer Olympics in Milford, theres a new vend-a-bait machine at the gas station. And then I broke the story that the actual rubber Godzilla suit that was worn in like the first 18 Godzilla movies was being replaced and was therefore up for sale, and once again Milford listened, pondered, and replied: look, cows! For crying out loud, I even volunteered to be the guy who wears the suit and walks around town in it.
But nothing ever came of it. Opportunities like this do not occur every day. Wisconsins loss will be Milfords gain, but only if we act now. Ba-da-bing, Ba-da-boom, Cheeseheads!!
I have a number of talents, but dreaming is not among them. I do dream, of course. Im just not very good at it. If I were giving my "I Have a Dream!" speech, it would be something like, "I have a dream! ...That I cant remember what I did with my car keys... Oh there they are... I have a dream! ...That I found my car keys... Oh geez I dropped them down the heat grate... I have a dream! ...That I am using my belt to fish for the keys in the heat grate... Got em... I have a dream! ...That they dont fit... in the ignition! But Im going to make them fit... I have a dream! ...That they break off... And, honest, officer, I thought this was my car... And I dont know where my pants are... You see, officer, I have a dream! ...That I was using my belt... to fish the keys out of the heat grate..."
And thats one of the better ones, at least in terms of plot and dialogue. More common is what may be the worlds stupidest dream: I dream that Im lying in bed, unable to get to sleep. Ive been lying here all night, tossing and turning and getting more and more agitated because I cant get to sleep and I look at the clock and Ive got to get up in 20 minutes to go to work, and then my alarm clock goes off and I open my eyes and wake up. I know this is real life now because in the dream I could smell my car keys cooking in the heat grate, while in real life I dont have a heat grate.
What is the point of a seven-hour dream about not being able to get to sleep? Its like taking a two-week vacation on the ratty sofa in the employee lounge. And let me tell you, Im not about to do that again.
I have occasionally woken up to find myself peeved at something a friend of mine said or did. Eventually (usually by breakfast, sometimes later) I will realize this something was said or done in a dream. Ive also opened my eyes in the morning, thrown my pants on in a frenzy, and only then become aware that the garbage truck is not pulling up and I dont have 47 30-gallon bags of garbage to put out on the curb anyway. Sometimes the carry-over from my dream state can be vivid in a bad way, which turns out to be good, as when I hop out of bed and discover that with relief I have not gained 50 pounds; and sometimes its vivid in a good way, which turns out to be bad, like the morning I looked in the mirror as I brushed my teeth and remembered, oh yeah, I dont need a hair band to keep the hair out of my eyes after all.
This is the thing about stupid, mundane dreams: theyre totally disorienting. People who wake up from an epic space battle dont have any moments a week or so later when they suddenly wonder, Wait a minutedid I really blow up the Emperors Space Yacht? I, on the other hand, do find myself asking, Did I really leave the freezer door open before I went to the party the other night, and didnt realize it for three days?
The answer to the last question is actually yes, but its also the sort of thing that happens in my dreams, which is where the trouble lies.
And then theres stuff like this: I woke up on Sunday morning, pretty much convinced that my father had a brief role in a movie in 1956 for which he was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. In the demented but plausible way that my dreams unfold, I was going through some boxes of snap shots and documents with my sister and came across a small white plastic plaque congratulating my father for his Oscar nomination. "What?" I said. "Dont you remember?" said my sister. "Well, you were a baby, but I know he mentioned it every now and then."
I vaguely remembered the story, which goes something like this: one summer my family was staying at a cabin in the Catskills, and there was a major Hollywood movie being shot on location next door. One night while James Stewart and Jane Wyman were doing a scene standing by a large window, my father wandered into the shot, taking out the trash. He dropped the bag of garbage, slapped himself in the head, picked up the garbage, tried to stuff it into the garbage can, got his jacket caught in his zipper, knocked over all the cans, and so forth for nearly five minutes while Stewart and Wyman spoke obliviously on. When the film was developed, the producers realized it wasnt a blown take at all but a high point of the movie so they tracked down my father and got him to sign a release. He had to join the actors union to get paid. When the movie opened, every review mentioned that scene, and come award season, my dad ended up with a fluke nomination. Of course he didnt win, but my parents went to the ceremony and it was a favorite family story and how could I have forgotten it?
I spend about three hours on Sunday morning thinking, could that possibly be true? In a million years? No, of course not. And yet, I did vaguely remember the story...
So later on, feeling incredibly stupid (although not much more stupid than usual), I logged on to the Internet Movie Data Base and typed my dads name, "James Grimshaw," and also his nickname, "Jim Grimshaw," into the search engine. If youd like to do the same, just head for www.imdb.com. Go on, Ill wait.
Well, how about that? If Id been doing this computer sleuthing with a mouth full of coffee you wouldnt be reading this right now, because I would have shorted out the computer. I must admit that when "James Grimshaw" and his credits popped up on my screen, I came about as close to having an out-of-body experience as I ever have without the help of a hydro-planing 18-wheeler in the oncoming lane.
"James Grimshaw" is indeed in the Internet Movie Data Base, and so is "Jim Grimshaw," and both are actors.
Unfortunately, neither one happens to be my dad, and neither of them picked up an Oscar nomination in 1956 or any other year.
And, alas, neither did my dad.
Both of his namesakes are journeyman actors, but for a few (very long!) seconds, they came close to ungluing me from reality. I could smell my car keys cooking in the heat grate.
(The folks my dad would have had to beat for the supporting actor statue in 1956 were: DON MURRAY for "Bus Stop," ANTHONY PERKINS, for "The Friendly Persuasion," MICKEY ROONEY for "The Brave and the Bold," ROBERT STACK for "Written on the Wind," and (the winner) ANTHONY QUINN for "Lust for Life." I didnt see the Mickey Rooney movie, but as for the rest of those polookas, my dad definitely should have brought home the gold!)
Calvano and I were in the library setting traps. There was a really fat guy flipping through volumes of Byzantine art, searching for something and not finding it. The lenses of his glasses were impossibly thick, like the bottoms of Coke bottles, and yet he had them wedged up on his forehead while he pored over the art reproductions. As he turned the pages Calvano and I patiently piled a stack of books on the corner of the table next to his. To the casual observer, the stack appeared to be perfectly stable and well away from the edge of the table. But the coffee table book on the bottom stuck out about 8 inches into the aisle and we were confident that, since it was below waist level, the fat guy wouldnt notice this. And if he didnt notice it, he wouldnt avoid it. We had already set up several extremely rickety stacks elsewhere on the table. When the first pile went, the chain reaction would send the rest hurtling to the floor in seconds.
"Hes been getting a new book approximately every six minutes," Calvano whispered. "Two and a half minutes to lift off. Lets establish an alibi." We strolled towards the magazine and newspaper racks with elaborate nonchalance. This was a red flag to Mrs. Hoonhout, the librarian, who had learned from bitter experience that any time we went more than three minutes without firing off a few arm-pit farts, we were up to no good.
Calvano opened the current issue of the "Little Falls Herald" and made a lot of "hmmmm, very interesting..." noises. Mrs. Hoonhout rolled her eyes. Suddenly he barked, "Whoa!"
"What?" I said
"Theres a letter in the paper from Pete Cook!"
Pete Cook was in his mid-to-late eighties then, but thanks to a strict regimen of total dissipation, he looked much, much older. When we were younger our parents would cover our eyes when he lurched into view. They would cover our ears if he started talking. Calvano once kept a notebook that chronicled how many days in a row Pete wore the same pants (49), and it also contained some shrewd guesses about what Pete had for lunch during that period based upon his observations of those pants.
Pete Cook was everything we hoped to become in the course of time.
Although our admiration for Pete was boundless, we had never thought that reading or writing were among this accomplishments. The idea that he had enough functioning brain cells left to remind him to breathe was in itself remarkable.
"Maybe its a different Pete Cook," I said. "Look, its got all these Latin and Greek words in it, and hes quoting all kinds of people. Its gotta be..."
"It is the Peter J. Cook you know," said Mrs. Hoonhout. "The paper publishes his letters all the time."
"But... hes got like Latin in there," said Calvano. "Did he go to college??"
"No, but hes quite well read. And like many auto-didacts, he likes to wear his learning on his sleeve."
"Auto-di...?" I said.
"It means half-man, half-car," Calvano explained. "Wow."
"I always figured he was half-man, half-something..."
"It means self taught, said Mrs. Hoonhout. From somewhere deep in the stacks, there was the sound of a book avalanche. "And here the lesson endeth. I have a mess to clean up. Your book bomb went off." She vanished in the direction of Byzantine art.
Calvano and I reread over the letter. "Well, maybe it is Pete," I said. "Its nuts." The letter was about Daylight Savings Time, although it contained some pithy if insane comments about the 1939 Worlds Fair and Dr. Joyce Brothers, the former in Petes opinion a good thing, the latter not. Once a nation heads down the path illuminated by Daylight Savings Time, it will find a Dr. Joyce Brothers or worse standing at the end of said path, you may depend upon it.
"Man," said Calvano. "This is a great letter!"
We decided to tell Pete how much we enjoyed it, and raced over to Warren Street, where Pete resided. We found him in his backyard, boiling his underpants in a large soup tureen. He lifted a steaming pair from water with a broken broom stick, then dropped it back in. He tossed what might have been a potato in after it. When he noticed us, at first he began muttering his usual obscenities and non-sequitors, but when we told him wed read his letter, he brightened up instantly.
"It was a good opening salvo. Of course theres more work to be done," said Pete, "But my writing hands gone out on me." He held up an enormous paw with what appeared to be a bandage wrapped around it, although as far as I know Fruit of the Loom does not make bandages. "I need someone to take down my dictation. You boys think youre up to the task? I need to write to the people at Channel 9 and give them a piece of my mind."
Were we up to the task? What a question! But we had to get some paper and pens, since Pete had neither on the premises. "A mishap involving gravy," Pete explained, "although I hope to salvage the paper when it dries a little more."
Calvano and I jogged to Picarillos house, many blocks closer than either of ours. "Did he throw a potato in that pot with his underwear?" I said.
"No, that would be insane," said Calvano. "Lets not ever think about it again."
Picarillos 10-year-old sister Noreen was on the porch, playing Barbie with one of her friends. Picarillo himself was not at home, she said, and turned back to Barbie.
"We need some paper and a pen, Noreen," said Calvano. "Its life and death. Fact."
"Ill see," she said, and led us into the kitchen, still clenching a Barbie. She found a little memo pad in the junk drawer but Calvano said we needed something bigger. "Heres a pencil. I dont know where my dad keeps the big yellow pads."
"Come on, Noreen, this is important!" He gestured emphatically, knocking the Barbie out of Noreens hand and into the sink. It landed in the drain hole. Noreen laughed.
"Boy, you couldnt do that again if your life depended on it." She yanked Barbie out of the sink. A few strands of Barbies hair were caught in the strainer, and there were some elderly pees and carrots augmenting her tresses. "Youre lucky this is Denises Barbie," she said.
"Heres a legal pad by the phone," I said.
"Yeah, fine," said Noreen. As Calvano and I left, Noreen was telling Denise, "Youre crazy, Denise It was like this when you brought it. Its not the first time you brought a Barbie with carrots in her hair, either."
"Wow," said Calvano. "I thought maybe she would cry when Barbie fell in the sink, but she thought it was funny."
"Yeah," I said. "And her girlfriend is almost buying that her Barbie always had carrots in her hair." We both suddenly saw possibilities in Noreen. She could blossom into a female Pete Cook. True, Noreen was scrawny and kind of icky but in the movies, it always turned out that Ann-Margret and Yvette Mimeaux used to be scrawny and icky. Guys were always bumping into really hot chicks who used to be scrawny and icky. Probably not as scrawny and icky as Noreen, but who knows?
But we had more pressing issues at the moment.
"To the powers that be, at Channel 9 television," said Pete Cook. Calvano won rock paper scissors and would transcribe the letter, which went:
"Sign it, Yours in sorrow," said Pete.
"Where do we send it?" I asked. The task of addressing the envelope had fallen to me.
"Aaaahh.... Well, send it to the paper. Yeah. Itll do more good there."
A week later we were at Picarillos house with a dozen copies of the Little Falls Herald, which contained what we thought of as our letter.
"I wrote that down, Noreen" said Calvano.
"And I addressed the envelope," I said, "And then he let us stir the pot where he was boiling his underwear."
"Wow," said Noreen, "You guys are so cool." Then she laughed.
Later, walking home, Calvano and I convinced ourselves that she was sincere about how cool we were. "She just laughed because she laughs a lot," I said.
"Absolutely," said Calvano.
DR. FONG'S BICYCLE
Dr. Fong has been a little cool to me since last fall, when I stopped by for my semi-annual dental check-up and cleaning. Hed really done the porch up for Halloween, lots of cob webs and jack olanterns, and best of all an old dental chair with a dummy strapped to it. The dummy wore a werewolf mask. The werewolf mask was great but the straps, which had enormous buckles, were a stroke of genius. I complimented him on the whole set-up, with one caveat. "Nobody admires a good werewolf mask more than I do," I said, "but a Frankenstein mask would be even better. Hes always strapped to operating tables or gurneys."
"I thought a werewolf would be more appropriate for a dental tableau," he said, "because of the prominent canines."
I admitted he had a point, and then I had what momentarily seemed like a brilliant idea. "Hey. Have you ever thought of Anglicizing your name to Dr. Fongenstein?"
Following a pause that couldnt possibly have been as long as it seemed he said, "Thats a very amusing idea," in the very unamused tone of voice he employed to say, "You must be much more thorough about flossing between your back molars."
After that our relations remained civil enough, but not what I would describe as cordial. This wasnt the first time I had said something that Dr. Fong had taken amiss. Back in the late nineties I complimented him on his excellent English. "Thank you. As a matter of fact, most of the people in the town where I was born speak fairly fluent English." "Oh? Where was that?" "Connecticut." "Ah." It was two years before the frost melted, and I was determined to get back in his good graces more quickly this time.
Recently I returned for another check-up. His next door neighbors had been doing their spring cleaning, and the curbside was crowded with broken furniture, abandoned exercise equipment, and obsolete electronics. My heart leaped up. Even total strangers can bond when the topic is my annoying neighbors. Surely a few choice remarks about this eyesore would be appreciated.
I was not wrong. "Its like living next to the Beverly Hillbillies," he said. "That debris has been out there all week. Apparently in this town you can litter as much as you like as long as your litter is large enough and youve got a barely legible "Free Stuff" sign taped to it."
"Im surprised they spelled it right," I said.
Dr. Fong snorted. Friends again! And I was determined to keep it that way.
I drove past his office a few days later and the pile appeared a little smaller, but no less ugly for that. It occurred to me that the inventory might move with better advertising. The free stuff sign was on a piece of lined paper, in ballpoint pen, had been rained on at least once, and could hardly be read from the road. I decided to print up a spiffy new sign on my computer. Couldnt hurt, I said to myself.
Later, starting at my monitor and pondering le mot juste, the plan underwent a subtle but significant alteration. For the better, I was certain. The next night around 2 AM I drove back and put the neighbors discarded stationary bike on Dr. Fongs porch, and affixed to it my new sign:
FREE EXERCISE BIKE
CHECK-UP AND CLEANING!
as long as supplies last!
That would surely get some attention of the right kind, I thought. And Dr. Fong would appreciate the humor of it. Didnt he give an appreciative snort when I said I was surprised his neighbors spelled free stuff? Wed have quite a good chuckle over this.
Id intended to give him a call and ask what he thought, maybe even do lunch. But after giving it some thought in the cold clear light of day I decided it might be best not to. No point in blowing my own horn. Let him appreciate the jest on its own merits, not just because we were buds.
A couple of weeks went by and I didnt give the matter much thought, and then one afternoon I found myself next to Dr. Fong at a deli counter, and we exchanged pleasantries while we waited for our sandwiches. "So how are things going with your neighbors?" I asked.
He said, "I know it was you."
"Please. That exercise bike on my porch and the sign. It was you."
"It was you."
All this time he didnt take his eyes off the young lady assembling his sandwich so I couldnt tell for certain if he was as tickled as Id initially expected, although, oddly, I had the feeling that I was being accused of something, rather than complimented.
"Why would you think..." I began, but Dr. Fong turned to me with a disarming smile and said:
"Because you are a..."
But instead of finishing his sentence with something like "...a delightful man with a very droll sense of humor," he suffered what can only have been a truly spectacular attack of Tourettes. The language was so violent that cartons of milk burst in the refrigerator, and an elderly woman behind me was momentarily stricken blind. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the neural storm passed and Dr. Fong turned serenely back to the deli counter. He didnt even appear to realize what had happened.
"You were about to say," I prompted.
"I said," he replied, "Because you are a..."
And it happened again! This attack was, if anything, even more intense than the last. What was Dr. Fong going to say about me? "Because you are a real card?" "Because you are the only person I know who could come up with such a funny idea?" "Because you are just the man with the subtle wit to pull off such a prank?"
I suppose Ill never know.
WORST RECORD EVER
Well, this is itthe week everybody finds out who won the "What Is the Worst Record I Ever Bought and Kept, and WHY" contest. Before we get to the winners, I must say how grateful I am to all the contestants. This contest has filled the aching void in my life that was left a couple of weeks ago when "Celebrity Fit Club 3" aired its spectacular season finale FOUR celebs actually weighed more than they did at the previous weigh-in, and one of themCountess Vaughnwas four pounds heavier than when she started the show. And despite watching her for the whole season, I still have absolutely no idea who Countess Vaughn is or why shes a celebrity. Is she an actress? A rapper? A vampire? In fact, I never heard of four of the nine celebrities. But I was rooting for them all! Several loose ends were not tied up, such as: If former rock star Gunner Nelson has an identical twin brother, did his twin brother also pork out, and if so why was he not on the show? (Science has established that if one identical twin drinks a bottle of Vodka, they both get equally drunk, even if one of them is in Guam and hasnt touched a drop). And: Who is Gunner Nelson? And: I was watching this show because why?
Which is the same question, more or less, I asked my readers to grapple with in this contest. We have all bought bad records, we have all kept bad records, but why did we do this? I really wanted to know, and to get the answer I was willing to put some of my own treasured bad records on the line.
Initially I received an awful lot of emails along the lines of "I have never bought a bad record. I dont know why anyone would buy a bad record. However, I have a, er, friend who once bought a bad record..."
This years Academy Award show happened to fall at the midway point in the contest, and several readers chose to let me know how unhappy they were that "Its Hard Out Here for a Pimp" won the Oscar™ for the Best Song of 2005. If I ran out and bought a copy of that, suggested a number of my faithful readers, I would be a shoo-in for your worst record ever contest. Some went so far as to declare that this award (the Oscar™ for the pimp song, I mean, not the worst record ever award Im announcing here) signals the end of Western Civilization as we know it, and would like me to tackle the subject. Sure.
First of all, Western Civilization reached its apex when Phil Simms went 25 for 27 and the Giants won Superbowl XX in 1986, so it was bound to be all downhill from there no matter what. Thats simply a fact, like "Albany is the capital of New York" or the thing about how the twin in Guam gets drunk if the other twin polishes off a fifth of vodka. Still, I confess pimp chic is utterly baffling; when I grew up, the conventional wisdom was that pimps were pretty much the lowest form of humanity, and for once I have to think the conventional wisdom was correct. In England, you call somebody a pimp (or "ponce" as they say over there) and youll get your teeth knocked out. Here, you can actually brag about being a pimp. I dont get it. Bragging about being a pimp makes about as much sense as bragging about how fast you can go through a case of Depends. That being said, theres no reason you cant make an excellent movie about pimps, or write an excellent song about one. After all, one of the most enduring songs of the 20th century, and one of the best, "Mack the Knife," is about a pimp. "Mack" makes this years pimp song look like "You Light Up My Life." "You Light Up My Life" won the Oscar™ for best song in 1978 and if you were wondering when Western Civilization really went down the tubes, look no further. CONCLUSION: I dont know if the Best Pimp song of 2005 is any good or not. They bleeped every third word and the ones they didnt bleep I didnt understand. That doesnt bode well. On the other hand, its got a very catchy chorus.
Well. Back to the IMPORTANT competition.
Honorable mention goes to FRED HODORA of Westfield, NJ, who is one of the many folks who wrote to say he didnt have any really bad records. He thought he might have one, but... "I listened to it this morning and its not half as bad as Id remembered: Jools and Brian -- Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger. Its still pretty bad, but not nearly bad enough."
Also to BARBRA GAZO, whereabouts unknown, who heard a really bad song in an art class she took. "I dont know what the name of the CD or the song was, but I know it was by the Flaming Lips (you know, the guys who dress up as the Easter Bunny and pretend to play instruments), and it was about..." Well, never mind what it was about. Suffice to say I believe her when she says it was really, really bad.
Now for the winners. First, let me tell you what they receive. FIRST PLACE is a copy of SPACE JAZZ composed by L. Ron Hubbard. Ive spent the past three weeks going through the dregs of my collection, and I am satisfied that this is the worst record I own. It may well be the worst record anyone has ever owned. Our winner will thrill to such deathless tunes as "March of the Psychlos," "Terl, the Security Director," and "Alien Visitors Attack." SECOND PLACE is two copies of Space Jazz composed by L. Ron Hubbard. No, actually its TOTAL BODY WORKOUT by Arnold Schwarzenegger. While assorted AOR atrocities by Journey and Eddie Money play in the background, Arnold exhorts, "Come on! If you want an attractive buttock you must earn it! Work dot buttock! Harder! Harder!"
SECOND PLACE goes to:
AMY KESSLER, of San Francisco CA (yeah, sure) who writes:
And in FIRST PLACE:
MARTTA ROSE of Verona, New Jersey, who says:
Winners should send me their mailing addresses so they can listen to the treasures theyve won as soon as possible.
The rest of you should start paying way more attention to the 49-cent record bin at the thrift shop. Its where all the action is.
NIGERIAN EMAIL PALOOZA
Before we get to this weeks column, I want to announce that the "What-is-the-worst-record-you-ever-bought-and-kept, -and-how-come-you-kept-it" contest has been extended until this Saturday, March 11th, because Ive received so many requests (3) for clarification. SOME want to know: do 8-tracks or CDs count as records. ANSWER: yes, they do. LPs, 45s, CDs, cassettes, 8 tracks, its all good, as the kids say. The annoying, fatuous kids. OTHERS ask: Must I still own this recording in order to qualify? ANSWER: No. As long as you held on to it long enough to cause yourself serious concern about your mental health, thats fine. And finally, a few of you have inquired about the prizes. Just what are the awful records you will receive should you win? Im sorry, I can not reveal that at this time. Suffice to say that the winners will be bitterly disappointed. Remember: try to keep your entries under 50 words and email them to email@example.com.
And now, let us proceed to this weeks column!
Not long ago I stumbled across an interesting bit of intelligence: the third largest film industry in the world (after the US and India) is in Nigeria. I was startled. This was not because Ive never seen a film from Nigeria or even heard of one. Nor is it because the ongoing political * cough * instabilities would seem to make Nigeria an unlikely place to have a functioning film industry, let alone the worlds third largest. No, I was startled because as far as I can tell, the entire population of Nigeria is engaged in sending me emails, round the clock.
They used to be pretty straightforward. Someone with a name like Jambuwana Anawubmaj would explain that he had $34,000,000 US in his Nigerian bank account but couldnt get it out of his war-torn country. He needed someonesomeone like mewith a US bank account to which he could transfer the funds. In return for emailing him my bank account numberseveral bank account numbers, if possible, because these transactions can get pretty darn complicatedand any access codes, I could keep half the money. Sweet! Sometimes Jambuwana would only offer 10% of the money. Sometimes Jambuwana would offer 10% in one email and 50% in another email that arrived at precisely the same time. Shortly after that, the bank account grew to 55 million, which means that the interest rate in Nigeria is around 40% per week.
Jambuwana wasnt the only incredibly wealthy Nigerian who needed my help getting his millions out of Nigeria. There were dozens of them. Apparently the average income in Nigeria is just a tad shy of 20 million (US) per year, although your standard Nigerian mega millionaire seems surprisingly unhip about things like Swiss bank accounts, or even mutual funds. They just stick every dime in the Lagos First Savings and Loan and let it sit there. Of course with the interest rate at 40% per week, why not?
Over the past year, the Nigerian multi-mega millionaires have gotten some stiff competition. I started receiving emails from British lawyers. They were offering me very similar deals for incredible amounts of moneyoften 50% of 34 million dollars (US). These letters are written in the highly entertaining "By Jove, pip-pip, jolly good show" idiom favored by all members of the English bar. Interestingly, all of these British barristers have the same Nigerian ISP address as Jambuwana, and address me with the traditional British greeting, "Peace Be on You, My Beloved Friend." Sometimes they spell it "Pease," which I assume is a Briticism.
The British lawyers are not offering me half of their assets in return for my bank account number. (I think its safe to say that no lawyer has ever offered anyone half of his assets for any reason whatsoever, not even an imaginary British lawyer owned and operated by a Nigerian identity thief.) According to the British lawyer Robert Basil, Esq.but wait, let him explain it in his inimitable, semi-literate British way:
Im pausing here because nothing in that sentence makes any sense.
Good deal, huh? An English lawyer who makes approximately three grammatical, syntactical, or idiomatic errors per sentence and thinks my name is "Mark" is offering me US$10M to help him defraud a bank. But lest I think there might be some, oh, legal technicalities that might earn me 25 years in a British prison, he hastens to assure me:
Well, thats a relief. Okay then, buddy, sign me up. What could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, I was a bit slow in responding, so I received a "sequel to your non-response" letter:
Now Im listed IN the will, and the pot has grown by more than 12 million dollars in three weeks. And what do I have to do to collect?
Why, Id have to be crazy not to do it!
Emmas Oscar Preview
I used to do my own Oscar™ Night Picks n Previews. For years I had my finger on the pulse of Popular Culture. And what a finger it was. Then 1986 came along, and Jeff Goldblumin the title role of The Flydid not even get nominated for Best Actor, despite the fact that he ate a guys foot. At that moment I realized it was all about who you know, not about how good you are. If Meryl Streep or some other froo-froo la-dee-da artiste ate somebodys foot, the guy on "Inside the Actors Studio" would be gasping, "Weareinawe!"
Yes, the Academy redeemed itself to a degree by honoring Anthony Hopkins who, after all, ate Ray Liottas brain. But in fact he only ate part of Ray Liottas brain, whereas Jeff Goldblum ate the entire foot. And of course Oscar™ winner Sean Penn has eaten at least half a dozen feet over the years, but it doesnt count if you just do it in real life.
I believe that, with those awards, the Academy has tacitly admitted that there was a miscarriage of justice when Goldblums foot-noshing was ignored 20 years ago. But its too late, at least for me. I just dont have the heart to keep up with current movies at the rate I did. I average around three movies a year, which makes handicapping the Oscars™ difficult.
So I have enlisted the aid of my daughter, Emma, and her friend Jocelyn Vena, who between them have seen at least several nominated pictures, or anyway heard a lot about them. This interview was conducted by phone through the miracle of my Three-Way Calling feature. We join the interview in progress.
JOCELYN: Why is Emma calling me right now?
ME: How can she be calling you? Shes on the phone with us. Emma? Emma?
JOCELYN: What should we do?
ME: Ill hang up and call everybody back. [moments later] What happened, Emma?
EMMA: I accidentally hung up. I blame you for that.
EMMA: Because I feel it was your fault. Carry on.
ME: Okay... Um, for Best Picture. The nominees are, um...
EMMA: You should put the Academy Award Web Page up on your screen while we do this.
ME: I cant. Im talking to you on the phone.
EMMA: Its 2006. Do you realize that if you were talking to us with two tin cans on a string it would actually be a step up for you, from a technology viewpoint? You could talk and surf at the same time.
ME: So the movies are...
JOCELYN: I want Joaquin Phoenix to win, but everybody thinks Heath Ledger. But...
EMMA: No, everybody thinks Philip Seymour Hoffman.
JOCELYN: I dont even know what else hes ever been in...
EMMA: He just got nominated because everybody feels sorry for him because he was in Twister.
ME: Why would they feel sorry for him for that?
EMMA: They just do.
JOCELYN: Who does he play in Twister?
ME: Hes the fat guy.
EMMA: Duh. Hes always the fat guy. Guess why? Best Actress. Wait. I just want to say here that a lot of people do not appreciate how good Keira Knightley is in Pride and Prejudice because her jaw takes up the whole screen? But once you get past the jaw, she is truly excellent.
JOCELYN: She was great in Domino. Domnio was Fantastico!
JOCELYN: I didnt see it per se, but from the commercial I feel that Felicity Huffman should win.
EMMA: Transamerica. Shes a transexual?
ME: Is she going male to female or female to male?
EMMA: In the movie, male to female.
ME: Why in the movie?
EMMA: Because the script says so, obviously.
ME: No, I mean... never mind. We didnt finish Best Picture. Whats the movie where in the commercial theyre chopping off somebodys toe?
ME: Not chopping, but its garden shears or something. Is that movie up for Best Picture?
JOCELYN: You mean Hostel?
ME: That sounds right. Is it?
EMMA: No. Now, for documentary, obviously March of the Penguins...
ME: How can that be a documentary? I thought it was a cartoon. Isnt it about talking penguins or something?
EMMA: Jocelyn, look at the Best Original Song nominees.
JOCELYN: What? Ohtheres a song called "Its Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from that Hustle and Flow movie.
ME: For real?
EMMA: Is the Olympics over? Its ending tonight, I know...
JOCELYN: Sasha Cohen broke my heart.
ME: In what?
ME: What was he in?
EMMA: Who? Anyway, I see Brokeback Mountain for Best Adapted Screenplay. And in the same film, Anne Hathaways boobs for Most Useless Props. You know what Im watching now? The OC Season One. Im up to episode 18.
JOCELYN: Is that the old Trey or the new hot Trey?
EMMA: Old Trey.
JOCELYN: They had to get a new hot Trey when they decided to expand his part.
EMMA: A bigger hotter Trey.
JOCELYN: Yes. Oh, and for Best Short Documentary, Casualty of the Bang Bang Club. It has the best name.
ME: Who did we say for Best Actor?
JOCELYN: I said I wanted Joaquin "Im Going to Marry Jocelyn Vena Someday" Phoenix.
ME: What was his name before it was Joaquin?
JOCELYN: He was born Joaquin.
ME: But he used to act under some stupid first name, like his brother...
EMMA: Dont you disrespect River!
ME: Leaf. He was "Leaf" Phoenix.
EMMA: (singing) Space Ghost, Coast to Coast...
ME: Did we do Best Picture? If we did I didnt write it down.
EMMA: The gay sheepherder movie.
ME: Theyre sheepherders? Eww.
EMMA: I have a theory about Crash. Its that nobody knows Ryan Phillipe is in it. Everybody is like, What happened to Ryan Phillipe? He married Reese and totally disappeared. But no. Hes making all these cool movies.
JOCELYN: He has the hottest speaking voice ever. That reminds me, is Space Ghosts sidekick a locust or a praying mantis?
EMMA: I think a mantis. I get absolutely no locust vibe there.
ME: What about SAW II? Is that up for Best Picture?
EMMA: Let me look. (click)
ME: Hello? Hello?
AND REMEMBER THIS YEARS CONTEST: What is the worst record youve ever bought and kept? And why. Try to keep it under 50 words. Email your entries to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send them to me care of this newspaper, but either way entries must be in my hands by March 9th. You get points for the sheer awfulness of the record and for the inanity of the reason youve held on to it. There will be 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place prizes, which will be copies of the absolute worst records I own, freshly burned to CD-Rs for your listening pleasure. Winning entries and honorable mentions will be published here.
THE WORSER THE BETTER
You could always find weird things at the reservoir. Once while I was jogging around it I found a birthday cake, still in the bakery box, a little the worse for wear, but largely intact. (And no, I didnt sample it). A few years earlier, when I was in Boy Scouts, I found a cache of lawn jockeys, presumably stolen, maybe 8 of them, piled up behind a rotten tree stump. I rarely visited the reservoir (or rather the woods surrounding the reservoir, and the dirt road that ran through the woods) without wondering: what goes on here??
When I was about 15 my friend Chuck made a super-8 movie for Health class called "Paths of Destruction." One Saturday we were scouting locations for it along that dirt road. We were looking for ominous-looking trees. Chris Stinson was going to lurk behind the ominous-looking trees in the climactic scene, clutching a sledgehammer. Chris wasnt lurking there that afternoon, but Matt Dennis was. Well, technically it wasnt Matt himself, but an album of his greatest hits, a sleeveless slab of black vinyl, embedded in the forest loam.
Unless you are of a certain age, as they used to say, the name Matt Dennis (1914-2002) will probably not mean anything to you, but he had a pretty respectable career as a singer and songwriter for two or three decades-- he wrote, among other things, "Everything Happens to Me," which was a minor hit for Frank Sinatra for early in his career.
Chuck and I didnt know about that. We had never heard of Matt Dennis the songwriter. We only knew about Matt Dennis, the annoying kid we went to high school with. I brushed the dirt and leaves off the record and took it home. Id show it around school on Monday "Hey everybody, its Matt Dennis Greatest Hits!"and hand it to Matt himself just before the bell rang. I was picturing the look on his face as I rinsed off the vinyl.
Well, everyone was suitably amused except Matt. Matt just snorted. "Everybody keeps giving me this stupid record," he said. "I throw it away. I threw one of these stupid records away last week at the reservoir. I wish people would stop giving me this stupid record."
Then the bell rang, so a lot of questions went unasked, such as: everybody keeps giving you this record? Like who else? And: What did you do with the album cover? And especially: Why did you take it up to the reservoir to throw it away?
I wonder if Matt hung on to any of the (apparently) thousands of copies of Matt Dennis Greatest Hits that passed through his hands, or even listened to it. I suppose Ill never know, since I lost track of him at least 30 years ago; there was a rumor that hed been bludgeoned to death during a prison riot, but since I made that rumor up, it might not be entirely reliable.
I was thinking about that slab of black vinyl in the woods the other night while watching "Antiques Roadshow," the show which always gets you wondering if you own anything worth taking to "Antiques Roadshow." I probably dont, but if Id hung on to that copy of Matt Dennis Greatest Hits I might have taken that anyway. Not that I think it would be worth anything, especially after being skimmed through the forest like a Frisbee. I just would have liked to tell the expert from Sothebys how I happened to acquire it.
Although I doubt that any of them are Roadshow-worthy, I do own quite a few very bad records, and from time to time I ask myself precisely why.
Weve all bought bad records. We didnt realize the new lead singer was going to be that lame, or we figured the last, not-so-great album was just a glitch, not the start of a rapid downward spiral into the toilet, or (this is probably applicable only to LPs) the cover was just so cool. Sometimes we hang on to these records for a while, hoping maybe theyll sound better later, but they never do. So we give them away, or throw them out, or we drive up to the reservoir and hurl it out the window. I have actually bought and thrown out a couple of records twice. (The one I will admit to is The Soft Parade by the Doors. A couple of years after I threw it out the first time I found it in the 49 cent bin and thought, this is probably a lot better than I remember. Nope. So long, guys, and say hello to Matt Dennis if you see him in those bushes).
But there are some bad records that we dont part with. Maybe they were gifts. Maybe its the only bad record your favorite singer ever made but throwing it away would make you feel like a pseudo fan. Maybe you really like it even though you have to admit it stinks like a sweat sock stuck to your carburetor. Maybe its so mind-numbingly awful that you use it to clear out the house when your party is winding down. Maybe you dont have any idea why you kept it but you arent throwing it away because you just arent, thats all. My friend Pashwari, for instance, has a record called "Virginia Belmonts Amazing Singing Birds." The record begins with Virginia sweetly singing, "Butchie butchie butchie butchie boing boing boing," and then her talented pet parrot responds, "Butchie Brrraaaaakkk! Rrrraaaaakkkk!! Gghhhh! Nnnggaaakkk!" Im not sure why he kept it, Im not sure he knows why he kept it, but I think its self evident that he must. He would have to be insane to dump it. Ditto my friend Chuck and his LP of Jack Palance singing his own original country-western songs.
THIS YEARS CONTEST: What is the worst record youve ever bought and kept? And why. Thats the key here. Try to keep it under 50 words. You can email your entries to me at email@example.com or send them to me care of this newspaper, but either way entries must be in my hands by March 9th. You get points for the sheer awfulness of the record and for the inanity of the reason youve held on to it. There will be 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place prizes, which will be copies of the absolute worst records I own, freshly burned to CD-Rs for your listening pleasure. Winning entries and honorable mentions will be published here so double-check your spelling, please.
THE SET UP
Wed been hit by a snowstorm the night before so I was outside the Custom Neon Sign Shop, digging out the Custom Neon Sign Shop van. I was trying to clear the snow from the top of the van by sweeping my arm across the roof. But even when I was standing on tiptoe, I could only reach about 30% of the way across on either side. The van looked like Id given it an enormous white Mohawk haircut. I went inside to get a broom. Mulberry Street Joey Clams was reading the mail. Usually the Custom Neon Sign Shop mail consisted of letters from disgruntled customers demanding their money back for signs that didnt work (or were misspelled), or from the lawyers of disgruntled customers who had been injured when our signs had exploded. We included a written warning with each sign: "Be careful when plugging in sign, may explode. By accepting delivery you waive all rights to sue the Custom Neon Sign Shop for any injuries or deaths that may occur through our signs exploding." A lot of people sued anyway, though. "Apparently this so-called lawyer they hired dont know how to read," Mulberry Street Joey Clams would say before dumping such letters into the wastebasket.
However, todays mail had brought something different.
"Im thinking this is some kind of a trap," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.
"It looks like a Valentines Day card," I said. "Wheres the broom?"
Mulberry Street Joey Clams turned the card over, held it up to the light, squinted. "Yeah," he said. "Its got pictures of those heart-shaped things you always see on Valentines Day. What do you call them?"
"Hearts, Mulberry Street Joey Clam."
He nodded. I was going to add, and it says "Happy Valentines Day" right on the front, but I realized that would just prolong the conversation. I went hunting for the broom.
"It says, Hey Valentine. I miss you. This part didnt come with the card."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean they wrote it themself. I miss you. Give me a call. Then theres a phone number. I think the phone number also didnt come with the card, but its numbers so its hard to tell."
"Is there a signature?" I asked. I found the broom. The bristles of the broom had apparently been made of some synthetic fiber, because they had all been fused together. "What happened here?" I asked. It looked less like a broom than a four-foot stick with a blob of melted cheese on the end. Although it didnt smell like cheese.
"Turns out its a crappy broom," he explained. "Yeah, the card is signed Why-vetty."
I looked at the card. "Thats Yvette," I said.
"Okay. Yvette. Thats a girls name." He nodded. "No last name."
"How many Yvettes do you know?"
"Well, the thing is, Im not that into names, you know?"
"No area code, so its a Manhattan number."
"A lot of chicks live in Manhattan," he said. "Although probably not that many Yvettes. But the thing is, the phone book lists everybody by their last name." We shook our heads and pondered the insanity of the phone company for a moment.
"You could call the number," I said. "Im betting theres only one Yvette at that number. After you talk for a couple of minutes youll probably figure out who it is."
Right around this time I realized that even with the end fused into a blob of mozzarella, the broom would be perfectly adequate for knocking the snow off the roof of the van. Albeit for absolutely nothing else, ever again.
"Yeah. But you know what Im thinking? Suppose this Yvette chick is no Yvette at all? Suppose this is somebody pretending to be this Yvette? It might not even be a chick."
"You could probably figure that part out after 10 seconds on the phone."
"Yeah... wait. I got a better idea. You call this number and talk to the Yvette."
"You mean I go, Im calling on behalf of Mr. Clams. May I speak to Miss Yvette please?"
"No, no, no. You pretend to be me."
"Mulberry Street Joey Clams, whats the point? This girl must know your voice if shes sending you Valentines Day cards."
"Just one card," he reminded me. "Well, see if you can imitate my voice. Say, uh, You call this a falafel?! I wouldnt use this to wipe the dog shit off my shoe." (This was a very characteristic Mulberry Street Joey Clams phrase. He had what you might call issues with the falafel place from which we often ordered lunch) (They had what you might call issues with Mulberry Street Joey Clams, as well).
Now as a matter of fact, I had been doing Mulberry Street Joey Clams impressions for the benefit of my friends for as long as Id known Mulberry Street Joey Clams; I was a world class Mulberry Street Joey Clams impersonator. "You call this a falafel?!" I said. "I wouldnt use this to wipe the dog shit off my shoe!"
"Nah," he said. "Forget it. Thats nothin like me. You sound like some kinda mook. I gotta do this myself."
I nodded. I had already added this conversation to my Mulberry Street Joey Clams Greatest Hits collection. I was picturing myself with 5 or 6 buddies at my favorite booth in the Food of the Gods Luncheonette on Bleeker Street. Naaaaah, fawget it. Dats nuthin like me. You sound like some kinda mook. Id bring the house down.
"All right. I gotta... hey, what if its this Yvettes boy friend? Just checking to see if I call? Then I call and he knows Im the one, you know?"
"The one what?"
"The one this Yvette chicks been sending Valentines Day cards to."
I stood there blinking at this total breakdown of logic while he picked up the phone and dialed the number on the Valentine card. "Awright. I know how to handle this," he said. "Hello? This is Mulberry Street Joey Clams. I got your card, and I just wanna tell you, dont think I havent figured out this is a set-up. I know the deal here. You picked the wrong Joey Clams to mess with, toots, or should I say buddy. I... what? Drop dead? Oh yeah? Well, lemme... Hey waitis this the hot chick from the club on Avenue D? I..." I could hear the click and the dial tone from across the room. "She hung up on me."
"I think it was that hot chick from that punk club you dragged me to during the San Genero festival. But she hung up on me. Huh. Well, theres only one reason why she woulda hung up on me after sending me that card."
"Because you called her up and ranted like an escaped mental patient?"
"Nah, nah. She knew I was on to her." He hung up the phone. "It was definitely a set-up."
"Definitely," I said. I went out with the broom to knock the rest of the snow off the van but the hunk of melted plastic snapped off the broom handle as soon as it touched the snow. It remained stuck in the big white Mohawk until the temperature rose, sometime in early April.
Click here for the next Joey Clams story
Ask the Sock Puppet Expert Guy
DEAR SOCK PUPPET EXPERT GUY:
I am totally in trouble because I listened to you. I followed the instructions you ran last week about making the Blacula sock puppet but (a) it didnt work, it was just a big mess and (b) when my dad found out I cut up his silk dress socks, I got grounded for two weeks and hes making me pay for the socks which were like $62 which is insane and totally not fair. I feel it should be grounding or buy him new socks. This is double jeopardy. Doesnt the constitution prohibit this, or did we turn into Russia when I was in the can? Thanks so much, dude.
Unhappy with your totally crap advice
Heres a good rule of thumb: if you (or in this case, your dad) spent $50 or more on a pair of socks, those socks are not suitable for sock puppets. Silk is a delight to the eye and to the touch (and if your means permit silk bed sheets, do not hesitate to avail yourself of same) but cotton has the strength and the versatility you want for your sock puppet. You can spend less than $10 for four pair that will serve your turn quite nicely, and even a budget pack of 12 pair for $8 will provide you with 24 perfectly adequate sock puppets in embryo form. Another good rule of thumb is, always use your own socks. Your father is perfectly correct to both ground you and insist on new socks. The former is punishment, the latter restitution, and you are quite welcome. Dude.
DEAR SOCK PUPPET EXPERT GUY:
Your column has changed my life. Before you introduced me to the incredible world of sock-puppeting, all I did in my spare time was... well, I dont know what I did, come to think of it. Probably nothing. Now I make sock puppets. But theres just one thing. Shortly after I began making sock puppets, stuff started to grow on my fingers. Its fuzzy and smells a bit like cheese. It comes off when I wash, but when I put on one of my little sock puppet shows, its back within a day or so. Is this just the inevitable price I have to pay for my art, or is there something I can do about it?
Kind of like it better when stuff isnt growing on my fingers.
Throw out your sock puppets. Do it right now. Done? Fine. Now listen very carefully. I had a college room mate who often wore the same socks for weeks at a time. When he took them off, the stiff fabric still held the shapes of his toes, and they smelled like Cheetos. These socks would not make good sock puppets. Use only new socks for your sock puppets. Wash these new socks before you set about turning them into sock puppets. If you absolutely must use old socks, wash them and make sure to use bleach. And if you have any further questions, email me, because I have no intention of ever touching, even with fireplace tongs, any letter or envelope from you, ever. Thanks for writing.
DEAR SOCK PUPPET EXPERT GUY:
Re your column about using sock puppets as an icebreakeryou said it was an excellent way to meet interesting young ladies, and that wearing a sock puppet at a party turns you into a chick magnet. I did not meet any interesting young ladies unless you count the doctor who did my psych evaluation after the cops hauled me in when I used my sock puppet, Leather Face, to introduce myself to some girls at the park. On the plus side they let me wear Leather Face at my arraignment and when the judge asked for my plea, Leather Face said "Not guilty!" This got a hearty chuckle from the judge. On the minus side, the jury did not agree with Leather Face about the not guilty thing.
Not a chick magnet after all
I gather that at the moment you are not in a position to meet young ladies at all, interesting or not, but when you obtain your release I hope youll consider employing a different sock puppet. Sock puppets have personalities, and reading between the lines of your letter it sounds like Leather Faces is simply not compatible with your goals. Best of luck to you.
TO ALL READERS WHO FOLLOWED MY SUGGESTION from a couple weeks back, about using a sock puppet rather than a string around the finger to remind you of a pressing appointment or chore: The results were decidedly mixed. Those of you who wear a sock puppet most of the time anyway tended to fare rather poorly. After all, if you wore a string on your finger all the time it wouldnt serve to remind you of anything in particular. The most successful stories came from readers who not only wore their sock puppets to remind them of something, but also engaged in conversations with their puppets on the subject. "When my sock puppet started screaming, Pick up the dry cleaning, you cretin! I couldnt help but head right over there and pick up my dry cleaning. "Okay, okay!" I said. The startled reactions of passersby at the mall only served to keep my focus where it belonged: on getting over there and picking up the dry cleaning!" Yes, exactly. A few folks wrote in to say a string around the index finger would be just as effective, but if the folks at the mall saw you yelling at a string around your finger, theyd think you were insane.
DIG THAT CRAZY GRAVE!
Picarillo, Calvano and I were making our way through the headstones of Memorial Cemetery in Totowa towards rectangular plot of ground marked out with stakes and string. We were carrying three shovels and a pick ax. It was 20 degrees out. We were 12 year old, and we were going to dig a grave. We could not believe our luck.
Calvanos older brother Duff cut the grass at the cemetery. We thought it was the coolest job imaginable, because Duff would let us hang out there with him all day, and sometimes we even got to pick up his meatball subs at the pizza place a few blocks away. If things were going good with his spooky beatnik girlfriend Janine, hed spring for a pizza. What was better than hanging out in a cemetery eating pizza?
But of course he didnt cut the grass in February. Between dates with Janine, hed skulk around his pad in the basement reading hot rod magazines and listening to bebop records. At random intervals hed holler, "YEAH, Mom, I LOOKED for a job today!"
But this day, the job came looking for him. Maybe the grass didnt grow in February but the cemetery didnt shut down; quite the contrary. He was getting ready to take Janine to the movies when the phone rang. He did a lot of "Uh, well, uh, lemme see..." and "I dunno, I kinda got plans..." and finally he wrote down a phone number and said hed let them know in a few minutes.
"You guys," he said. Wed been melting rubber bugs on a lamp bulb and stinking up the house. For a moment we thought he was going to address that subject, but instead he was offering us the opportunity of a lifetime. "I just got a call from Remmy Wilcox and Biscuits." Remmy and Biscuits were gravediggers at the cemetery. "They got a kind of scheduling conflict and theyre asking me if I wanna dig a grave this afternoon, which Ive done every now and then..."
"Wow! You have?!"
"Yeah, me and Donato. A couple of times. Anyway, I gotta take Janine to this movie so I was gonna turn em down, especially since Donato isnt around, but Im thinking maybe you guys want the gig? Its, uh, lets say twen... um, lets say five bucks. A piece."
Calvano and I said, "Wow!" Picarillo started going through his pockets. "I think I only got like two dollars on me. And some change." He dug out a nickel covered with some unidentifiable maroon crust. "Two dollars and five cents. But I could get the other three bucks from my mom, I think."
I was going to say, "Picarillo, hes going to pay us," but I only got to "Pic" when Calvano stomped on my instep and said, "Ill lend it to you, Mike."
Duff ignored this and gave us each a five-dollar bill. Picarillos confusion continued as we got into Duffs car. "So now I owe Duff what? Eight dollars? Is that right?"
"Well settle up later," Calvano promised. We picked up Janine, who was excited about the Paul Newman movie ("Hombre") that they were going to see. Calvano and Picarillo and I were surprisedmaybe even disappointedthat the spooky and therefore unbelievably cool Janine liked somebody as normal as Paul Newman. But we had little time to reflect on this; we were at the cemetery gates, and Duff ran into the Memorial office, where Remmy and Biscuits scheduling conflict was in progress. "Gimme Seven!" shouted someone as Duff popped in the door.
He emerged a minute or so later stuffing considerably more than 15 dollars into his pocket, and then he dropped us off at the storage shed. "Heres the key," he said. "Were kind of tight on time, otherwise Id drive you out to the grave. Its right ahead there, about 200 yards. You see the big statue of the angel that looks like Buster Keaton? Just past that, and its all marked. Just dig it out. Try not to get too sloppy with the dirt, cuz they gotta fill it all back in later. Ill see you guys later."
We selected our tools and set out. Just carrying the tools took us to the limits of our endurance long before we reached the work site. We had to stop to rest several times. 25 minutes after leaving the shed, we arrived.
"Okay," said Calvano. "As I recall, in Return of the Vampire, the gravediggers start out chopping up the ground with the pick ax."
"Exactly," I said. "Then, after a couple of minutes, you finish up with the shovels." I wiped the sweat out of my eyes. [Gravediggers Tip Sheet: Are you sweating like a roast pig when its 20 degrees out? Bad, very bad. Solution: Dont do it].
I spit in my (mitten-covered) hands, something I must have seen in a movie, and picked up the ax. I attempted to lift the ax high, but for some reason it refused to cooperate. The business end quivered about a foot above the ground.
"Bring it all the way up over your head, and then slam it down hard," Calvano explained.
I gathered all my strength and managed to bring the head of the pick ax nearly level with my belt before collapsing, totally spent. "I think we... took the wrong... pick ax... this one... doesnt... work," I said.
Calvano had narrowed his eyes and was about to say something devastating. He bent down to pick up the ax and show me how it was done. He couldnt quite get the pick ax off the ground. Snow flurries now added a charming seasonal touch to the scene.
"If we, uh, hold it right under the head, like this..." He held the pick ax as if he were choking it. "We could sort of claw up the dirt? Then when its loose, we just shovel it all out. Simple."
Twenty minutes laterwell, it seemed like twenty minutes, it was probably more like fivewe all lay exhausted on the frozen ground, which was completely unscathed. Our sweat had begun to freeze on our faces. Picarillo staggered to his feet, picked up a shovel, and thrust it into the ground. Although "into" is not the right word; the blade bounced off the ground with a clang, as through Picarillo had struck a slab of iron. "Nnnngggggghhhh!" he remarked. The snow was sticking to our eyebrows and a howling wind blew off the Passaic River. We sprawled on the ground, sweating, freezing, panting, aching.
"Duffs gonna come back. What if Janine is with him?" said Calvano at last. Janine! If she saw us like this, she would think we couldnt do it. She would think we were kids. We furiously renewed our assault on the ground and eventually managed to pierce the crust in three or four places. "Now were in business," said Calvano, and he staggered off behind a tree to catch his breath. I had sweat through my winter coat. Picarillo appeared to be dead, but I could tell that he wasnt because he was saying, "Nnnngggggghhhh! Nnnngggggghhhh!"
By the time Duff and Janine returned from the movie we had managed to move enough earth to make a pile roughly the size of a very small loaf of bread.
Duff was not angryhe realized we were somewhat beyond our depth here. Picarillo had sweat so copiously, and the weather was so cold, that he looked like he was wearing a glass Picarillo mask. "Ill see if I can get Donatos brother to help me finish this up," said Duff. He must have known that he was getting a lot of points with Janine by not acting Duffishly. He even told us to keep the five dollars.
"So... so that means I just owe him what? Three dollars?" Picarillo asked later.
"Yeah," said Calvano. "Call it three. Dont worry about it now. Give it to me tomorrow and Ill make sure Duff gets it."
Niagara Falls... Slowly I Turn...
I agreed to take a busload of South American tourists to Niagara Falls for Good Buddy Tours because I was broke. I was broke because Id been working for Good Buddy Tours and they didnt pay me.
"They" was my friend, Ray, who owned the company, which operated out of a sublet cubicle in the Flatiron Building. Id been working as a tour guide for him since the late spring of the previous year and the dance went like this: first, a fistful of cash for "expenses" up front, which went to pay my rent; then, following the completion of the tour, a fistful of promises about the check; then a check, which bounced; profuse apologies followed an hour or so later by a phone call telling me to resubmit the check, which would then bounce again; then very profuse apologies, and some actual cashenough to cover the bad check charges, and buy some groceries "to hold you over till the bank gets its act together. I dont know whats wrong with those people." Meanwhile Good Buddy Tours would be revving up for the next batch of tourists and the cycle would begin afresh.
The fact that it happened even twice is amazing to me now, especially since I had no illusions about what was going on. I plead insanity. My favorite definition of insanity is, when you do precisely the same thing, but expect totally different results.
Sometimes Ray would secure me a few days of office work for the company from which he subletI dont remember what they did, but the principals were Di Gorgo, a jolly fellow in his late sixties with a Sid Caesar German professor accent, and his *cough* lovely wife Maria, which was pronounced "Marry-uh." My typing skills were abysmal but that was all to the good, since that meant they didnt have to pay much. I suppose I should be grateful Ray didnt tell them that if they handled it right they wouldnt have to pay me at all.
They were very strange people. If Ray closed the cubicle door while we were talking, Marry-uh would scream, "DOOR CLOSE! DOOR CLOSE! OPEN DE DOOR, DIRTY BOYS!" Once Ray realized this, he always closed the door while we were talking.
"Very wiggy chick," said Ray. "Anyway, this time, your mission, should you decide to accept it..." [long arch pause from Ray, long pathetic pause from me] "is, Canada. The Great White North, the Retarded Giant on Our Doorstep. These people are from Surinam."
"I dunno either, but its in South America and they speak Dutch. And they want to see Niagara Falls. So you just zip up there, let em get an eyeful, and then bring em back alive. With nuns."
I was silent for longer than usual. Id had problems with tour groups full of nuns in the past. Ray had booked the Little Sisters of Sapporo into a Bowery flophouse. They were unhappy, and since I was the only Good Buddy Tours representative in their field of vision, most of the rotten fruit was hurled in my direction. If you would like to believe that rotten fruit is a metaphor, that is your privilege.
As if reading my thoughts, Ray said, "These are totally different nuns. I would never deal with those nuns again. Uh-uh. No way, Josï¿½."
"So Im taking a bus filled with South American nuns..."
"Stop right there, compadre. Wrong-o. Your bus will cross into Canada with all non-nuns, from Surinam. In Niagara Falls, youll add four nuns to the party and cross back. Its Dr. Wongs idea. Hell be along shortly."
Dr. Wong introduced himself as the head of the Surinam Secret Police, which I suspected then was a lie, although in the course of time it came to seem more and more plausible. He smoked incredibly foul cigarettes through a long holder and, as his name indicates, he was Chinese, and no sooner had we shaken hands then he presented me with two fifty-dollar bills so crisp he might have run them off that morning. "Buy yourself some shoes you have not illustrated," he said. I was wearing sneakers and, like most people, I had drawn little werewolves and racing cars on all the exposed white rubber with a magic marker. "The drawings are very charming," he said, perhaps to mollify me, although the 50 bucks had pretty much taken care of that. We discussed the itinerary of the trip; Ray said I was his most experienced tour guide and knew Canada "better than a lot of people who actually been there. I mean, uh, lived there." I asked about the nuns. "Ah," said Dr. Wong, "Yes, the nuns." He nodded. Ray nodded. I nodded. Marry-uh screamed, "DIRTY BOYS! DIRTY BOYS!" In this manner the issue of the nuns was dealt with.
Of our trip through New York State there is not much to say; once we stopped at an untended roadside farm stand, where bunches of grapes were offered for sale in little baskets. The sign said "$1." "Is that per grape?" asked one of my charges. I said it was per basket. We cleaned them out, and Dr. Wong gathered up all the singles and replaced them with one of his excellent fifties, which represented a net loss of about 25 dollars to him if the bill was good. Every night he would come to my hotel or motel room with a Triple A map of New York and ask me to mark all of the cities wed passed through with a high liter. Then he would give me twenty dollars.
We crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, where we were going to add the nuns to our party. By this time I understood that the nuns werent really going to be nuns, although of course they were going to dress like nuns. As we stopped at one rip-off souvenir emporium after another and the folks on the bus stocked up on the ugliest commemorative plates ever made, I wondered if the fake nuns would turn out to be smugglers or assassins. And where I would serve my sentence for bringing them into the US. It was probably a federal crime, so I guessed Leavenworth. Finally, during our lunch break, I came right out and asked Dr. Wong exactly what he was up to with these do-called nuns.
He was remarkably candid. "I expect that when we attempt to re-enter the United States, the authorities will ask us if anyone has anything to declare. It will of course be done in a perfunctory manner, and sometimes it is not done at all. And yet, sometimes the authorities are quite diligent. A customs official has an argument with his wife, or his ulcer reminds him of its existance, and he is in a foul mood which could translate into all bags and packages being searched. Very tiresome. But I believe, and your employer agrees, that if the first few seats are occupied by nuns, this is far less likely to happen."
When we pulled over to the corner where the nuns were supposed to be, everything fell apart. To my surprise, they were real nuns; the leader of the four nuns stood in the doorway of the bus, smiling a tentative smile, and then she saw me.
"Greeeen-shawl!" she hissed.
Despite all of his assurances to the contrary, Ray had not booked totally different nuns at all. I was face to face with the Little Sisters of Sapporo once again. They refused to get on the bus. "Grreeeeennn-shawl," they said over and over, pointing at me and saying things in Japanese that I probably could not print here even if I knew what they meant. Eventually the bus pulled away, and we headed nunlessly back towards the border. All the ugly crap the South Americans bought cost Dr. Wong about 12 bucks at Customs. "The nuns would have been sitting in the front and would have been believed if they said we had nothing to declare," he said philosophically.
"It must have cost you a lot more than twelve dollars to arrange all this. I mean, just bribing Ray to contact the nuns..."
"Yes, yes. But there is the matter of principle."
I kept waiting for him to ask why the nuns had recoiled from me in horror and disgust. He never did. I guess it seemed perfectly natural to him.
CRIMINAL MASTERMIND NUMBER 4957
The twists and turns of logic generated by the true criminal mastermind are often too subtle for the rest of us to grasp. Consider, for instance, this story reported by the Associated Press last week.
DC stations had been showing surveillance video of a suspect using Rosenbaum's credit card. Police say H***** later confessed and has promised to lead them to the murder weapons.
As for why H***** would have walked into the station, a police spokesman says, "Stranger things have happened."
Now, incredibly stupid criminals are a staple of the evening news, and there are even prime time specials devoted to those who really distinguish themselves, but this, if the story turns out to be accurate, is in a category all by itself.
(1) Mr. H***** uses a credit card stolen in the course of a murder in a store with a surveillance camera, rather than using it for far less risky online credit card fraud, or selling it to some sucker, or fencing it to someone else who would then sell it to some sucker. I can only assume Mr. H***** intended to fence the card, but when he happened by the store in question, it was having one of those sales youd have to be crazy to pass up.
(2) Mr. H***** is paying enough attention to the TV to notice that his own face is being broadcast, but not enough attention to comprehend that its a story about a crime that he just committed. You might think that if you had just committed a crime and saw your face on TV, you would at the very least wonder if there might be some connection between these two events, rather than think, "Hey, have I been appointed to the Supreme Court?" or "Is Angolina Jolie having my baby?" But maybe not. Maybe Mr. H***** has such a busy schedule that there are dozens if not hundreds of reasons why his face might be splashed across the airwaves.
(3) He goes to the police to see whats up. Now, I havent committed any crime at allat least not in this jurisdictionand yet if I happened to catch a glimpse of my face on the TV screen, I dont think that I would wander over to the police station to see if they could clue me in. It just wouldnt occur to me. There are a lot of avenues of inquiry I would exhaust before I starting thinking about strolling over to the local precinct house. I might, for instance, first call up a couple of friends in case theyd seen my face on TV. If Mr. H***** had done this, perhaps one of them would have said, "Youre a suspect in a murder, dude." He might still have wanted to double-check this with the desk sergeant, but maybe not.
To be fair to Mr. H*****, its possible that he did call up a couple of friends, and they werent totally straight with him. Perhaps they told him, "The police are looking for you. They found six bucks. They think its yours, and they want to give it to you." Then Mr. H***** would have to do a cost / benefit analysis. Okay, six bucks is ridiculous. Lets say 600, which is considerably more than the amount for which Mr. Rosenbaum was killed. Is the possibility of getting 600 bucks worth the risk of being arrested for murder and getting life in prison? Or, to get serious: if youd been involved in a murder in the past month, is there any reason in the world why you would stroll into a police station and ask why your face is on TV these days? The only thing that occurs to me: the broadcast said something to the effect that if you have any knowledge of the person in this photo, please contact the police.
Or, he might have figured that by approaching the police and asking why his picture was on TV, the police would assume that he couldnt possibly have committed the crime in question, since nobody who had committed the crime in question would walk into a police station and ask why his picture was on TV. He would thereby have eliminated himself as a suspect. This Hall-of-Mirrors illogical logic works pretty well with sinister super computers on old Star Trek reruns:
CAPTAIN KIRK: Computer! Am I in St. Louis right now?
COMPUTER: *beep* No-you-are-not-in-St.-Louis-right-now.
CAPTAIN KIRK: ButIf Im not in St. Louis... I must be somewhere else!!
COMPUTER: That-is *whrrrr* *beep* logical.
CAPTAIN KIRK: BUT... If Imsomewhere else... I cant be here. So who... are you talking to?
COMPUTER: *wwwwhhhrrrrr* *beep beep beep* illogical-illogical*beep* does-not-compute... *whrrrrr* illogical... must-self-destruct... *beep* *wwhrrrrrr* KA-BOOM!
However, this sort of thing doesnt work nearly as well with cops, as they seldom explode when confronted with faulty logic. If anything, it just makes their jobs much much easier, as in this case.
When I worked at the Passaic County ID Bureau in the late seventies, I often ate lunch at the cafeteria in the County Courthouse. One day a public defender of my acquaintance was kicking a soft drink dispenser a bit more dementedly than usual, and I asked him what was wrong. "My clients," he said. "Half these idiots would walk if they just kept their mouths shut, but they all have these stories. They have these great stories theyve come up with to tell the police, and they love these great stories, and you know what? These great stories all stink. Every single one of them. They are just (kick) too (kick) stupid (kick kick) to (kick kick kick) shut up!"
I Dont Know Jack
This week something totally unprecedented occurred: I had a flat tire, and it wasnt raining.
I wasnt driving, either. I was just walking home from the post office thinking about pythons, and I walked past my car, and the front right tire was flat. Ive had flats before but always when I was driving at night, in a storms, in the mud, without a raincoat, with an expired AAA card, and the car radio alerting me that a homicidal maniac with a hook for a hand has just escaped from the mental institution I passed about ten minutes ago.
In contrast, this day was a balmy 50 degrees out, sunny, the car was parked in front of my apartment, and I had no pressing engagements for another 5 hours. Perfect situation for changing a flat. It was like a miracle, except the part about the flat tire.
So I opened the trunk, lifted up the floor cover to get at the jack and the tire, and found the jack was missing.
Well, thats not entirely true, because parts of the jack were still there. The handle, for instance. If the jack had been there but Id been missing the handle, Id have been pretty steamed. Id have been thinking, "What did I do with that handle??" I would have been blaming myself. "I probably used it to open a paint can," Id have thought. "Or did I use it to ward off that rabid possum? Where did I put it?"
But having the handle but no jack, I wasnt steamed. I was just sort of flummoxed, which, regular readers may have noticed, is pretty much my default mode.
I bought this car in the fall of 2001, and at that time it had a jack. I know because I checked. I have not changed a flat in the meantime, although Ive bought a set of new tires and had a couple of slow leaks repaired. The spare is right where its supposed to be. I could not imagine why someone would steal a jack but not the handle, unless of course he or she had a handle and needed a jack to go with it. That kind of made sense. If it were me, I suppose Id have taken the handle as well, just to have a back-up, but this fellow just needed the jack and I guess couldnt justify stealing my handle when he had a perfectly good one. It would be a better world if all thieves were so scrupulous.
I interrupted my speculationsas fascinating as I found themto drive my limping vehicle to the gas station up the block, where the cause of the flat was expertly diagnosed.
"You got a nail in this thing," said the gentleman in coveralls. In short order nail that caused my flat was removed and my tire patched.
When they showed me the nail, my first thought was "Who would drive a nail into my tire?"
The obvious answer"my daughter Emma, of course," suggested itself at once, but shes in New York.
However, I reflected, she might have hired someone to drive a nail into my tire. And to steal the jack. No doubt the plan called for my tire blowing out while I was traveling at high speed on an icy highway, but the unseasonable weatherand a nail of too large a caliberhad foiled this. Yes, using the wrong nail seemed of a piece with stealing the jack and leaving the handle. Precisely what you would expect from the kind of criminal Emma would hire. I wonder what he charged.
Having now figured out who is responsible, I thought about motive. Why would she do something like that? Well, as George Bernard Shaw says in Back to Methuselah, "Some men see what is, and ask, why. I see what may be, and ask, why not?" Take that philosophy to its logical conclusion and what you end up with is a roofing nail in the tire and a missing jack.
So now I had the three "M"s: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. But what I really wanted was the jack, since this is not really an optional item. Not when your daughter is hiring goons to drive nails into your tires. I wondered whether she kept the jack, as a trophy. Ive noticed that on "Law and Order: SVU," serial killers often do this sort of thing. If so, it was possible that she might let me buy it back for less than Id pay for a new one. In fact, that may have been her plan all along.
You will probably not be surprised to learn that she denied everything. Even after I confronted her with all of the evidencewhich, Im sure youll agree (especially those of you with a legal background), is overwhelming and irrefutable.
"Look," I said, "Im not angry. I just want the jack." She said she didnt know what I was talking about. "Let me make this easy for you. Ill even pretend that the jack you sell me isnt my jack. Lets make it hypothetical. If you were going to sell me a jack, how much would you charge? Hypothetically?"
She said something rude and hung up. I called back. I was firm. "Let me be frank. For the moment well forget about your theft and vandalism. I would like an apology for your rudeness. Im going to hang up now, but Ill be sitting here wait for your call of apology."
She can be stubborn, but thats fine. Patience is my middle name.
I can wait here till pigs fly, missy.
RINGING IN THE NEW YEAR WITH UNCLE TUG
My Uncle Tug has greeted more than 90 new years. During the past few months, hes figured out how to order things on the Internet, and also how to return them, and so for the New Years Eve party at his home this past week there was a brand new big screen plasma TV with which to watch the celebration on Times Square. "Couple of days I call them up and tell them to take it back," he said. "I just pay shipping. Its like renting, only cheaper. This is the 4th time Ive done this. First time for something besides wrestling, though. I wonder where your idiot cousin is."
My idiot cousin, Low-Low, had been delegated to pick up the hors-d'oeuvres from the cheapest Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, as well as some packaged goods from the cheapest packaged goods store on perhaps the entire east coast. This meant that his route was just slightly less circuitous than the Newark-to-Denver-to-Boston flight I had booked one summer so I wasnt surprised that he was a bit late.
"I got held up," he said when he finally arrived, "by a bear."
"Do tell," said Uncle Tug.
"Comin through the woods, theres like a road-block? I thought it was a roadblock, cause theres some cop cars with the lights goin? And theres this white stretch limo over at the side of road? Only when I get closer, I see theres this bear on the hood a the car. Its kinda like spread-eagled, with its paws out, like its huggin the car? And Im thinking, well, the guy hit a bear."
"Hes thinkin," said Uncle Tug.
"An this cop starts to wave me aroun the limo, but then this other cop yells, Hold up, there he goes again, an the bear gets off the hood a the car, and crouches down in front a the limo, right in the headlights, where theres this dead deer, an hes sniffin' and maybe eatin. I say, whats goin on?
"Cop says, this limo driver was goin down the road an he sees the bear eatin this dead deer, and he has to slow down cuz the bears butt was stickin out in the road, and when he stops, the bear jus sort of gets up and hugs the front a the car. Guy calls us on the cell phone, an the bear goes back to the deer, but every time the guy tries to put the car in gear, it hugs the car. So we get here, an were talkin to the driver on his phone. Sarge says, lower the divider inside so you can get in the backseat, and then go out the back door. So he does. So hes out, an were all waitin for the bear to finish so the guy can get back in the car an go home. But every now an then the bear hugs the car, I think because its warm? Anyway, thats whats goin on. The driver wants us to shoot the bear cuz hes got a client ta pick up but were not gonna do that. An I asked him how come, an he says, you ever see anybody go bear huntin with a pistol? Theres a reason for that. Anyway, they got me turned around and I hadda got way outta my way and here I am."
Tug seemed to be enjoying the storyas did Ibut I said the bear seemed to be behaving in a very unbearlike manner.
"Hes a bear expert," said Uncle Tug, meaning that I wasnt. I was a little offended, because while I wouldnt call myself a bear expert, I knew a lot about them. My daughter had seen "Grizzly Man" and told me about it in great detail.
"I got one," said my Uncle Tug. "Thisll kill you." He roared with laughter in anticipation of what he was about to tell. Tug's amusing anecdotes tend to conclude with punchlines like, 'and then the guy hit his head on the counter and died. A-hahahahaha!' But it was his party. "Somebody freshen this up for me, will you?" He held out a glass (with Mayor McCheese on the side) which had been freshened at least half a dozen times within the past hour. Nonetheless, it was New Years Eve, and in short order he was ready to tell his story.
"So this guy, hes on his way to a New Years Eve shindig. This is on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He..." Uncle Tug paused, once more overcome by the thought of the hilarity ahead. "Anyway. So hes driving through the woods, Michigan has a lot of woods, see, and... and... he goes around the corner and runs smack into a moose!" 45 seconds of uproarious laughter, all from Tug.
Uncle Tug was unable to regain control of himself for a good minute and a half, and many of us assumed that he had arrived at his comedic climax. But not quite. Alas.
"He... he.. Its 30 below, remember, and he hits this moose, and you know how theyre up on those big rickety legs, he just knocks this moose off its feet, and the moose... [30 more seconds of uproarious laughter] The moose crashes right through the windshield, which..."
Which is not a good idea if you wish to maintain your structural integrity. Uncle Tug didnt put it quite that way, but that was the gist, and to make a long story shortor rather an incredibly disgusting story only moderately disgustingthe moose, indeed, did not maintain its structural integrity. In fact it went to pieces; and with the sudden infusion of minus thirty degree weather into the cabin of the car, the drivers glasses were knocked off and instantly glued to the ceiling bywell, lets call it moose juice.
"And heres theHAH! Heres the kicker: the guy is blinded! A-hahahahahaha!"
"Oh. Because he got hit in the face with the stomach acid. Can you beat that??" Here Uncle Tug went into a fit of laughter that lasted longer than most shows on the WB network.
"Hes blind?" I said.
"Yep. Hey, whats with the puss? You should try laughin, its good for your health. Fact. I read it inna, uh, The Readers Digest. You live longer."
"But thats horrible," I said. "Not the living longer thing, the blind thing."
"He wasnt permanently blind, just for a couple of years, till his eyes healed. So theres a happy ending."
"Well, thats a relief. You should have said that to start with..."
"Sure, and kill the joke. Anyway, hes fine now. One of the eyes, the sights restored 15 or 20 percent."
"What about the other eye?"
"Well..." Uncle Tug cocked his head to the side and shrugged. "Here, try one a these little hot dog things. Its like a real hot dog, only tiny, and no sauerkraut. Dip it in some of this Chinese mustard."
"Thats a horrible story. And Im not even sure its true. I mean, wasnt the windshield safety glass? Shouldnt it have broken into, you know, pebbled chunks, and not shards?"
"You know what you are? You are a cynic. Guys like you, they just drain the joy outta everything."
"I just dont get why you think a story about a man being blinded is funny."
"Did you hear the part about hitting the moose?"
"Well, there you go. I guess you hadda be there."
"I dont think so."
"Uh-huh. So youre a moose expert as well as a bear expert."
I opened my mouth to reply but at that moment, on the TV, the ball descended on Times Square.
"I wouldnt say that," I said.
"Me neither," he said. He clapped his hands. "Okay, everybody, shows over. As long as youre here, gimme a hand puttin this TV back in the box."
In this manner we greeted the dawning of 2006.
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