This is the place where old humor columns from the Delaware Valley News come after they've been posted on THE CRYSTAL DRUM PAGE for a while. This is NOT a complete collection by any means-- I've been writing the column since August 1986, after all-- but it IS the MOST complete collection of my columns currently available on the web.



"Have you ever heard some guy say "Go camping in the winter! Are you out of your ever lovin' mind?" Well, maybe, but only if you don't know how to camp in the summer and aren't prepared for the differences between warm- and cold-weather camping... Summer weather is kind and forgives poorly prepared and trained campers, but winter is cruel and unforgiving. You can get by with improper gear and inexperience when the mercury is above 40 degrees, but it can be pretty miserable when it's below freezing... Sounds like winter camping isn't so hot, doesn't it? Well, it isn't as far as the temperature is concerned, but it's real hot in the fun, adventure, and satisfaction that comes from knowing you can take care of yourself outdoors under extreme conditions..." -- From the Boy Scouts of America Fieldbook, 1967.

Virtually all of the camping and hiking we did in Troop 11 took place in the fall and the spring. Our winter activities were limited to weekly meetings at the Methodist Church, and the Klondyke Derby, a council-wide cross-country sleigh race that took place on a Saturday morning in February. The adult lack of enthusiasm for outdoor winter fun was due to the fact that, as the excerpt from the Fieldbook above indicates, in the winter it gets cold, and adults don't like being cold. Kids stay can warm outdoors in the winter by having snowball fights and running around like idiots, but adults are pretty much stuck with standing around in surly, miserable groups, taking surreptitious naps from the flask, and wishing they were inside.

But we badgered our Scout Master relentlessly, and finally a winter camp-out was scheduled. It was going to take place in two stages: in stage one, we would hike into the woods and actually pitch tents in the snow (yeah!); in stage two, we would break camp and hike onwards to Mr. deYoung's cabin, and spend a more comfortable night inside, but still in the woods.

During stage one, it was about 10 degrees out and the snow was nearly two feet deep. We quickly discovered that if you dropped anything smaller than a Volkswagen into the snow, was gone forever. Setting up the tents was like one of those dreams, where no matter how fast you run, the finish line keeps getting farther and farther away. We had to dig down to the bare ground in order to drive the tent stakes, and the bare ground was so hard the stakes bent. We had cans of food, but the snow had eaten our can opener long ago. We dined on potato chips and marshmallows, which were indistinguishable in taste until they thawed in your mouth for at least 30 seconds. "Winter is the perfect time to start a bird's nest collection, boys," said Mr. deYoung, who brandished an example of same retrieved from the crotch of a nearby tree. We blinked at him. Night fell. There was some sort of attempt to get a campfire started. My most vivid memory of the ensuing 10 or so hours: needing desperately to get up and go to the bathroom, and not doing so because it would have entailed getting out of my sleeping bag, which was almost warm.

Come morning, to our horror, Mr. deYoung had planned "activities." There was some sort of snipe hunt, and then a spectacular game of 'capture the flag.' If memory serves me, neither team won. After lunch-- somehow Mr. deYoung breached the cans, and kindled a fire-- we struck camp and made for the cabin. With hot food in our stomachs, our spirits were absurdly high and we sang ("Theme from Fireball XL-5") as we trudged through the woods. Eventually we stumbled across a road-- which had actually been plowed! -- and followed this directly to the cabin. As the building came into view, a car cruised alongside us.

"Hey, Freddy," called the driver. "Right on time!"

"It's post time!" responded Mr. deYoung. The car stopped at the cabin, and Mr. deYoung went to speak to the occupants. He tossed one of the kids a key to the cabin. "You boys go on in," he said. "Be right there."

We crossed the threshold and dropped our packs and collapsed on the wooden floor. We didn't realize how tired we were until we stopped moving. Moments later, Mr. deYoung stuck his head in the door. "Boys, I'm going into town to pick up some supplies. I'm gonna get some decent grub for us. Can I depend on you to warm this place up?"

"You bet!"

"Atta boys. I'll be back in two shakes."

A good-sized fireplace dominated the room, but the cast iron log carrier contained only a few hunks of kindling, and a small hatchet. We could hear the wind screeching across the top of the chimney. Now that we'd been inside for a while, it was clear the temperature wasn't much warmer than the outside. "There's probally a wood pile out back," said someone. We forced a couple of 11-year-olds to check. They couldn't find it. A couple of older kids went out, also failed. It was growing dark.

At some point we realized this was a TEST. Mr. deYoung was gone for a very long time-- later we learned he had attempted to draw an inside straight, dropped a substantial piece of change, and was trying to get even. It was getting colder and colder. "Hey-- I got it!" said someone. "It's lookin' us right inna face-- look at all this crappy wooded furniture!" It made perfect sense-- fireplace, no woodpile, small hatchet, crappy wooden furniture.

In short order, we had reduced the crappy wooden furniture to fire wood, stacked it in the fireplace in a classic criss-cross pattern, and then...

And then nothing, because Mr. deYoung had all the matches.

We huddled together in the dark, told stories about cattle mutilations and cannibals, and waited for Mr. deYoung to return.

When he walked in the door with two bags of groceries, he said, "It's freezing in here!" and turned on the thermostat. Then he clicked on the light.

I give him a lot of credit for not dropping the groceries.




I need some expert advice about the preparation of peccary for a salad. In general I find it-- and other dark green leafy plants-- a bit too bitter for my palate, but my fiancee adores it. If there isn't some peccary in her salad, I receive a raised eyebrow, followed by an evening of mopery. Is there a dressing I can apply that will do something to mitigate the bitterness? I've tried most of the standard flavors and none of them seem to do the trick.


Less bitter, please.


Your problem might be that peccary is not a dark green leafy plant. It's a pig-like animal found in South and Central America. The flavor is quite tangy but I would not describe it as bitter. I would advise against using it in your salad no matter how much your girl friend likes it.

* * *


In general I enjoy your column but one thing about it bothers me. You are always saying that peccaries are 'pig-like' or 'they look like pigs, but they are not,' and once even 'though they look and behave like wild swine, they are not members of the pig family.' Well, who says so? Seems to me if it looks like a pig, acts like a pig, and something-or-other-else like a pig, it's a pig. Am I wrong?


Not wrong


Actually, yes, you are wrong. "Looks like, smells like, acts like, therefore is" happens not to be the way animal taxonomy works, in general. I once went on a blind date with a young lady who was in almost all respects identical with Ernest Borgnine. Nonetheless, she was not Ernest Borgnine. At least I hope not. * * *


I have always thought that a peccary was a little cigar. No?


Isn't it?


No. I believe you're thinking of a cheroot.

* * *


I just saw a picture of a peccary and, dude, they have MAJOR tusks! I always thought that warthogs were IT, as far as tusks go, but peccary tusks are definitely much more radical. I have several questions. (1) Do peccaries have the best tusks out there, or is there something even better? (2) Who would win in a fight between a peccary and grizzly bear, assuming they were about the same weight? (3) This human genome project thing that I have heard people talking about having heard about other people having read articles about-- will this allow us (humans) to alter our genes so as to have peccary-type tusks?


Fan O' Tusks


You ask many questions, grasshopper. But they're all good questions. (1) While The Peccary Expert Guy yields to no one in his admiration for the peccary tusk, honesty compels us to admit that we find the tusks of the babirusa (an actual member of the pig family) far more impressive. For one thing, there are four of them, and for another, two of them actually grow right THROUGH the snout. These are tusks to die for, no doubt about it. (2) The peccary vs. grizzly question has been debated for as long as human records exist, and there is no clear answer. Even allowing for all my pro-peccary inclinations, I would put my money on the peccary. If we assume a peccary that weighs as much as a good sized grizzly, we are also assuming tusks of a size that haven't been seen since the heyday of the saber tooth tiger. If we assume a grizzly as compact as the average peccary, we can also assume a conflict lasting about 25 seconds and a peccary who didn't even break a sweat enroute to victory. But I'm sure the Grizzly Expert Guy would give you a completely different (and totally wrong) answer. (3) Yes, the human genome project will indeed permit us to customize our off spring in all sorts of interesting ways, and within 50 years I suspect many of us will be sporting, as you put it, "major tusks."

* * *


How much money can I deposit in my IRA?




You can deposit as much as $2000 per year, though there is an effort underway to revise the regulations to allow for $4000. Thanks for writing.

* * *


Would a peccary make a good pet? The lady who used to live in the apartment upstairs had a pot-bellied pig and it was just the sweetest thing, and as clean as a cat. But I like the look of a peccary better-- much more streamlined, and-- tuskier. What would you advise?




I would advise against it. Peccaries, unlike pot-bellied pigs, are not known for their gentle dispositions, and while I don't know for a fact they can not be house trained (because no one has ever attempted such a thing), I would bet against it. Then there is the matter of the tusks you admire so much (as do I), which are capable of giving a whole new meaning to the words "I just love what you've done with the place." I would go with the pot-bellied pig. Not much you can do about the tusk factor, but perhaps with a vigorous exercise regime you might be able to achieve that streamlined look.

* * *


That blind date who looked like Ernest Borgnine-- do you suppose she was a relative of Ernest Borgnine? I ask because I am a big fan of his.




I doubt it. However, it isn't entirely out of the question that she was a peccary.

* * *


I don't know how many songs there are about hearts, but I know there are too many. Songs about breaking hearts, cold cold hearts, stolen hearts, I gave you my heart, etc. Not to mention songs that just MENTION hearts. My heart skipped a beat. My heart stood still. And if they were actually about HEARTS, you know, those wacky and wonderful muscles that pump the blood through our bodies, that would be one thing. If Tony Bennett really left his HEART in San Francisco, and now he had to get it back fast or he'd drop dead, that would be a song to remember. I'd buy that song. That would be a song to make you THINK. "Geez, how's he singing if his heart is some place else? Is he hooked up to a mechanical pump of some sort?" But no-- I forget what the hell he actually did leave in San Francisco, if anything, but it definitely wasn't a heart. I left an Evergreen/Black Cat paperback called "Brick Red-- Her Lusty Adventures" there in 1969. I had about 3 chapters to go and I never found out how it ends. It's been driving me nuts.

But anyway.

Now, I realize that most songs nominally about hearts are actually about love. Still, even when writing a love song, it's possible to say HEART and actually mean HEART. There's an old Abe Burrows song that goes "You put a piece of carbon paper under your heart / And gave me just a copy of your love." It's a love song, but it's also a HEART song; I mean, if the carbon paper is a real piece of carbon paper, the heart has got to be a real heart. And who ever heard of a METAPHORICAL piece of carbon paper? I don't know how the girl in the song manages to pull off this carbon paper / heart trick, but you can bet it's something to see.

Real or metaphorical, it's time to give the heart a rest. For one thing, this whole heart-is-the-seat-of-emotions thing is just a TAD out of date. When they transplanted that chimp's heart into that guy around 15 years ago, he didn't ditch his wife and head for the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo with a box of chocolates and a Johnny Mathis tape. According to an article I read recently in the World Weekly News (which certainly would have reported on the chocolate box thing if it had happened), TOP SCIENTISTS have located most human emotions, as well as many thoughts, and also big globs of gray stuff that looks like macaroni salad, in the BRAIN. Yet song writers never say "I left the convoluted mass of brain matter, in which are contained my feelings for you, in San Francisco."

Or maybe they do, but not when they're writing a song. Yet 'Brain' is at LEAST as easy to rhyme as 'Heart.' Pain. Stain. Chain. Great Dane. Drain. Vein. Jack LaLane. It practically writes itself!

But it's not going to happen. As long as people keep writing love songs, they're going to keep dragging out the old heart. So the question is really: how many more love songs do we need? I have to admit it is a big, wide diverse world. There are literally billions of people out there. But I think you'll agree that 8, or at most 11, love songs would pretty much cover the whole range of humanity. After that-- and we're WELL past that-- it's time for songwriters to move on to other emotions and other internal organs.

With this in mind, I turned to the best friend of the weekly columnist with a deadline two hours away and 400 words to go: The Internet Search Engine. I went looking for songs about various internal organs, and I think I have stumbled across the Wave of the Future.

I had not much luck with lungs, kidneys, livers, spleens, or stomachs; nothing doing with the pancreas, or either the large or small intestine.


I came up with EIGHT SONGS about bladders. Or at any rate, eight songs with 'bladder' in the title. (And also a group called "Bladder Bladder Bladder," but they don't sing about bladders, so they aren't really germane to this discussion). I listened to each bladder song, in an effort to figure out which emotion the bladder was associated with. I think we can safely ignore "Seal Bladders" by an artist who identifies himself only as "MIKE!," since only human bladders need concern us here. We can also ignore most instrumentals and go directly to the top four bladder songs, which are: (4) "The Bladder" by Alain Lemay and Micheline Allaire, of Quebec. Says here: "...The Sacred Temple was written to stimulate and harmonize different parts of the body." I don't know what The Sacred Temple is, but when I read stuff like this I immediately lock all the house up tight and string tin cans across the back door just in case. (3) "Bladder Hostility" by desktop science, of Austin, Texas. I have NO idea what's going on in this one. The words appear to be 'found sounds' sort of tossed into the mix around 5 minutes in: ". . .you sayin' that you're not tryin' to be silly, but you are." "If you choose to be silly, be silly." "If you choose to be serious, be serious, but do what it is YOU want to do, and what's pleasing in your eye." "Thank you. Bye" "No comment." I'm not sure which speaker is the bladder, but it's probably one of them. (2) "Bladder" by Gurgleburger, of the UK. I'm sure THIS one features a talking bladder. This bladder-esque voice keeps going "Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Hello?" while the keyboards play a goofy little tune in the background. Then it just stops. (1) "Bladder (What Shall I Do?)" by R. Stevie Moore, of Bloomfield, New Jersey. Now, you're probably thinking I'm prejudiced because this is a quasi-local artist, but the fact is THIS IS THE GREATEST BLADDER SONG EVER, and, as with all the other bladder songs, there's no mention of a bladder in it. I'd venture to say that one of the defining characteristics of Bladder Music is the refusal to mention an actual bladder in the course of the song. Anyway, this one is the HIT. Great guitar hook, driving rhythm, and two voices, one of which might or might not be a bladder, I guess. Probably the one in the background with the Bergen County accent. But it's a terrific song. It's the first masterpiece of Bladder Music. I have seen the future of Bladder Music, and its name is R. Stevie Moore.

We are clearly still in the dawn of Bladder Music, and we haven't quite figured out which emotion it's hooked up with. What's more, we probably don't want to know. What we really want to know is how "Brick Red: Her Lusty Adventures" ends.

I do, anyway, but I bet I never find out.

to hear all this great BLADDER MUSIC, click on INTERNAL ORGAN MUSIC




"I got us invited to a New Year's Eve party," said my friend Barry. "Lots of girls gonna be there."

"Hang on one second," I said, and I put down the phone and quickly tightened the cap on the soda bottle I had been drinking from. I slammed the bottle onto the kitchen counter. It was a 32-oz bottle, and I flattened around 40% of the cockroaches that had been doing a hoochie-koochie dance on the remains of last night's attempted meat loaf. A year earlier I couldn't have done it, but now soda came in plastic bottles. O Brave New World!

"...only thing is," Barry was saying when I retrieved the phone, he having as usual completely ignored my request to hang on, "the neighborhood is really kinda bad. 13th Street and Avenue C..."

"Yow," I said. I was on 10th St. and Avenue A, which was about a minute and a half from the site of the party, and 99.9% of the world's population would figure I was in the same neighborhood, but I was not in the sane .1 % who realized that three blocks north and 2 blocks east it was a whole different world. The surviving cockroaches in my apartment were still hiding out; on 13th Street, they would have wrestled the soda bottle out of my hands and stuffed me inside it. Or vice versa. It was a tough neighborhood. About 4 years earlier I had been at the infamous 'Puerto Rican-Canadian Unity Day' debacle, when my friend Sam Konkin (Canadian) had held a party in his 13th St. apartment, to which he invited the neighborhood (Puerto Rican), via a large banner hung out of his window proclaiming 'PUERTO RICAN- CANADIAN UNITY DAY--FREE BEER.' The neighborhood did not attend, but a passing motor cycle gang (ethnic heritage unknown-- in fact, I'm not 100% sure about the species) did. We escaped to the roof next door via Sam's bathroom window. The gang would have followed us, but they were all too fat to fit through the window. I wasn't real anxious to revisit the scene.

Still, there were going to be lots of girls...

"...and Yvette says we should bring our guitars."

Well, that settled that. During this phase of my life (to be covered in Vol. 3 of my autobiography, "Grimshaw: The Grotesquely Stupid Years") I never passed up an opportunity to play the guitar and sing at a party, especially when Barry, my some-time songwriting partner, was also going to play the guitar and sing. I wasn't exactly good, but Barry was really terrible, so I figured I would sound like Django Reinhart in comparison. This was one of my many misfigurings during that golden age.

Around 10 PM on the big night-- unseasonably warm for midwinter-- Barry stopped by my apartment, I tuned both of our guitars, and we walked to the party, which was on the 6th floor of a six-story walk-up. There were about 25 or 30 people on hand. I didn't know anybody, and Barry only knew a couple of people. We mingled, we ate crackers, we tried to talk to girls. At some point we took out our guitars, and people began requesting songs, none of which we knew. "We write our own material," said Barry, and all interest in us immediately died. It was like we had suddenly become transparent. While Barry strummed aimlessly, I told the story of Puerto Rican-Canadian Unity Day, figuring it would go over pretty well, as it had occurred on this very block. A couple or three people who were unable to get away from us because of the crowding listened to the story, including our hostess, Yvette, who was attractive, and her room mate, Terry, who was downright pretty. "That's such a cool story," said Terry. "Hey-- it's too crowded in here to hear your cool songs. That story gives me an idea. Why don't we go up on the roof?"

"It's kinda chilly," said Barry. I stomped on his foot.

"Great idea," I said.

"Yeah!" said Yvette. "We might even be able to see the ball drop on Times Square from there."

"I'll get a couple of cans of beer," said Terry.

So the four of us wormed our way to the door of the apartment and out into the hall, and from there to the little stairwell that accessed the roof. It was chilly, but not uncomfortable. "Look," said Yvette, "Times Square!"

"Wow, can we really see it?"


"I think that's the clock tower in Union Square," I said.

"I think so, too," said Barry.

When we turned around, we were alone, and the door was locked. We could hear giggling on the other side. Which grew fainter and fainter.

"They'll come back in a couple of minutes," I said. "They probably went to get some, uh, chips or something. Look--" I pointed to a paper bag. "They left the beer."

Barry looked inside the bag. "Hey-- these are cans of mushroom gravy!"

Somehow the idea that they had left us on the roof with cans of mushroom gravy made the situation seem far crueler than if they'd just left us on the roof with nothing at all. We stomped on the roof from time to time but it didn't disturb the party, which got very loud somewhere around midnight. We figured they would surely come back for us once it was officially the New Year. They did not. At one point Barry screamed incoherently for about 10 minutes, but that sort of thing was pretty common on East 13th Street and it attracted no attention. I hunkered down near a heat duct and got some sleep. I came awake when I heard the unmistakable sound of a beer can tab being popped. "MUSHROOM GRAVY?!" I yelled, and hurled myself across the roof at Barry. The open can spun away, it's contents briefly describing a foamy arc against the East Village sky.

"I was afraid if you knew it was beer you'd drink yourself into a stupor and freeze to death," Barry said. I tried to wrestle the bag with the remaining can from him. It bounced off the roof and landed in the back of a pick-up truck parked at the curb. We stared at each other. At some point we fell asleep. We woke up sometime after dawn, when the truck started up. We hung over the side of the roof and watched our beer roll down the street, in the direction of the FDR Drive. "Happy New Year," said Barry.

I don't remember when or how we got off the roof, but we aren't there any more, so I'm sure we did.



Calvano's dad was a cautious man, so it took us about an hour to tie the Christmas tree to the roof of his car. We used a clothesline, which was passed over the tree and through the open windows of the car over and over and over. Calvano's dad sat behind the wheel and directed everything; I sat next to him in the front seat and when the end of the line came through my window, I passed it to him, and he passed it outside to his son, who passed it over the top of the tree and through down through my window again. Mr. Calvano was neat as well as cautious: we made sure that with each pass, the new strand of rope lay neatly against the previous one, with no messy overlap. Slowly, over our heads, a new, lower ceiling made of rope slowly edged its way towards the rear of the car. "Geez," said Picarillo, who sat in the back seat. "You know what this looks like? A GIANT PAIR OF CORDUROY PANTS. Only white." Picarillo loved talking about his pants. Mr. Calvano looked pained. "You know what? I GOT a pair of white corduroy pants!" Mr. Calvano looked even more pained. But the clothesline ceiling eventually came to an end-- there was still a foot and a half of the original ceiling exposed by the back window, and Calvano the Younger climbed in through the back window. He had to, because the rope secured all of the doors. We rolled up our windows as high as they would go-- not far enough, since it was about 10 degrees out-- and Mr. Calvano lurched into gear. To make sure the tree didn't slip its bonds when we hit an irregularity in the asphalt, Mr. Calvano drove home at a brisk 7 miles an hour. We were about 8 miles from the Calvano homestead. On the Pompton Turnpike, where Mr. Calvano somehow made his way into the fast lane ("This is the safest lane, boys, because those eighteen wheelers aren't allowed here..."), we quickly acquired a festive train of furious honking drivers. The guy behind us --the vein in his forehead visible even from my position in the front seat-- screamed dementedly for a full 5 miles, but the words were drowned out by his own honking.

When we arrived, many minutes, hours, perhaps days later, it took us a very long time to get the tree off the roof. We had to repeat the entire process of snaking the rope through the window and over the tree, this time in reverse. Mr. Calvano forbade the use of Picarillo's Scout knife. He was not only cautious, he was thrifty, and that clothesline had "given many years of good service, and has a good many years of service left in it." (Following the spring thaw Picarillo and I swiped that clothesline and burned it. It was one of the three most satisfying experiences of my life.) We set the tree up in the Calvanos' den, and then Mrs. Calvano gave Picarillo and me brownies. Your average brownie recipe is pretty hard to screw up, but Mrs. Calvano was an amazing cook and managed to produce, time after time, cookies, cakes, and (alas) brownies that tasted remarkably like electrical insulation. Don't ask me how I know that.

Picarillo prided himself on being able to eat and enjoy anything more edible than a cinder block, but Mrs. Calvano's brownies defeated even him. We both made "mmm-MMM" noises and then crammed our brownies into the soil of the potted plant by the door as soon as no one was looking. Mrs. Calvano saw our empty plates and said, "My, you boys made short work of those brownies. Here, have some more! We've got plenty! I love to see boys with such a good appetites!" "Oh, gee, we're STUFFED, Miz Calvano! Please! Please!!"

We set to work helping the Cleverness trim the tree. First a string of lights was wound around the tree, then the Christmas garlands, and finally the individual ornaments-- many of them in the family for decades. Some of these were the old blown glass figures, and some were the newer reflective globes, and all of them instantly turned into powder if you breathed on them. Then we finished up with the candy canes. There was a box of candy canes, and while we were looking for suitable branches, Picarillo said, "these look almost like REAL candy canes."

"They are real candy canes," said Calvano.

Picarillo was dumbfounded. "That's incredible. Gee. Christmas tree ornaments you can EAT."

Mrs. Calvano held up a dark little Santa with a loop of wire coming out of his head. Now that we looked at him carefully, he was obviously chocolate. "Oh, there's plenty of Christmas tree ornaments you can eat," she said. Now, what she meant, of course, was: There are many EDIBLE Christmas tree ornaments. However, Picarillo understood her to mean: you have our permission to eat the Christmas tree ornaments. The distinction is subtle, perhaps, but it made all the difference between Picarillo eating every candy cane on the tree while the rest of us were in other room watching the Andy Williams Christmas Special on TV, and Picarillo NOT eating every candy cane on the tree while the rest of us were in other room watching the Andy Williams Christmas Special on TV.

It took the Calvanos a day or so to realize that the candy canes were gone, and another day or so to figure out where they had gone. No one was exactly incensed, but it was felt that Picarillo should replace the candy canes. He agreed to this, more or less. "I'm really sorry, Miz Calvano. Do the new Christmas Ornaments you can eat gotta be EXACTLY the same as the old ones?" No, no, of course not, she told him. Fatal words, as it turned out.

The next day Picarillo arrived and replaced the candy canes with beef jerky. Each strip of beef jerky-- still in the cellophane-- had a bright red ribbon tied around it. They probably supposed to be bows-- a few of them were-- but most were square knots. Mrs. Calvano allowed Picarillo to hang them on the tree, and at the end of the holiday season, she had Calvano shellac the beef jerky. They were hung on the Calvano Christmas tree for many years thereafter. They probably would have lasted longer in the cellophane than with the shellac. But of course the shellac wasn't hadn't been applied to preserve the beef jerky strips. It was just to keep Picarillo from eating them.




I need a new pair of glasses. It's not that my prescription has changed drastically (though it has) or that my frames are a touch out-of-fashion (in point of fact they are so far out of fashion they are on the verge of being back in fashion). It was the lenses, which have taken such a beating from the microscopic particles in the atmosphere that they are criss-crossed with countless scratches. These scratches are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye-- well, my vision is so bad that everything smaller than Minnesota is invisible to my naked eye-- but that they exist is beyond doubt. When I look at a point of light, it flares immediately into a little asterisk. When I look at a lot of points of light at the same time, I see so many asterisks that it looks like the Readers Digest transcription of the lyric sheet for the last Eminem album. And when I was walking down Bridge Street in Milford at 11 PM recently, I saw enough asterisks to expurgate the next 20 Enimem albums.

These asterisks were courtesy of the Christmas lights festooned along Bridge Street, both on private dwellings and on public works. There were jillions of them, and amazingly, they were all white lights. Of course white Christmas lights aren't white white, like the paint used to delineate cross walks. They're the color of white wine, which is to say, a delicate shade somewhere between bone white and pale amber. In aggregate these lights-- some hanging from the sills like icicles, some outlining doorways, some curling around lamp posts or trees-- are really lovely. If anyone had stapled a strand of blinking red and green lights over the door, the effect would have been as tasteless and shocking as someone wearing a necktie with florescent letters reading KISS ME IN THE DARK, BABY to a funeral. And let me tell you, I'm never going to do THAT again.

The lights of Bridge Street were not just pretty; the effect was absolutely tasteful.

Which is the whole problem.

Since when is the holiday season about TASTEFUL? For countless generations it has been about bright, multi-colored flashing lights. It's been about big plastic and / or aluminum trees with so much glowing junk on them that they look like an aerial view of Las Vegas (or would, if Las Vegas were built on a very large tree). It's been about unbelievably garish outdoor displays on the front lawn, illuminated by so many searchlights people driving past think a new mall is opening. And now we've got these WHITE LIGHTS everywhere, and we're in serious danger of forgetting what Christmas is all about.

I'm not opposed to good taste; far from it. But it needs to be kept where it belongs, which is definitely someplace or other, but not here. Good taste is so tasteless. I don't mean in the GOOD sense of tasteless, like the aforementioned glow-in-the-dark tie, but in the bad sense, like stuff that has no taste. Like vegetables that have been boiled too long, or certain kinds of cardboard.

I'm not saying that there's no place at all for white lights at holiday time. Far from it. In the town where I grew up, there was a family which covered its entire house with white light bulbs every Christmas. There was not a square inch of this house not covered with light bulbs. Was it tasteful? Nope. It was INCREDIBLY tasteless. They couldn't have made their house any more tasteless without ripping off the aluminum siding and upholstering he exterior walls with checker-pattern polyester. Result: the house SCREAMED Christmas. So white lights can work, but you need a lot of them, and the electric bill must be murder.

Other folks in my hometown were able to achieve a staggering level of tackiness without employing a single light bulb, white or otherwise. The Moncato family, for instance, used to erect a holiday display on their front lawn that remains unique in my experience to this day: LIFE SIZE cardboard cut outs, mounted on plywood, of the Three Wise Men, as well as various Hanna-Barbara cartoon figures such as Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, all sort of teaming up, sacred and secular icons alike, to wish everyone a happy holiday. And just a few blocks away there was a dentist who would stuff a Santa Claus suit with old newspapers, slap a beach ball on top for a head, and stick this grotesque figure in an obsolete dentist's chair out on the curb in front of his office. And the bigger and gaudier the beach ball, the more Christmas-sy it was. (I feel confident in making that judgment; the average beach ball usually lasted less than a week due to the large number of BB guns in the neighborhood, so over the years I saw a lot of beach balls on top of Santa).

Well, I feel the point has been made. Now you must be asking: but what can I (that is, YOU) do to restore a proper level of crassness and near-psychotic tastelessness to the Christmas season?

First of all, we need MORE COLORED LIGHTS. Lots of flashing and blinking. And not merely standard Christmas lights, either. Garnish neon signs, especially advertising various brands of beer, would be a good start. Lots of ugly plastic crap on your roof, lit up by two or three different searchlights with different colored gels, is always an excellent addition to any household. If the objects (Santa's sleigh, for instance) develop cracks, effect repairs with LOTS OF DUCT TAPE and try not to be overly neat about it. Redoubled blobs of silver tape are very festive.

Down at ground level, take a tip from the Moncatos and set up lots of large figures. Mix two-dimensional cut outs with three-dimensional objects, such as discarded department store mannequins. These later can be "Christmas-ed Up" up the simple addition of a Santa hat and bright green boxer shorts. And don't be in too much of a hurry to pack everything away when Christmas is over. Your neighbors will want to enjoy the sight as long as possible. Let's say mid April.

It's not too late to salvage this holiday season. But we've got to get started now, before another precious tradition is lost forever.



In late September of 1981, my Uncle Tug drained his swimming pool for the winter, as he did every September.

In the early spring of 1982 he drove down to Vic's Pool Center, discovered that the price of a box of chlorine tablets had increased by 5 bucks, and vowed that he would never-- NEVER-- pay that kind of extortionate price. A lesser man might have driven down the road to Frank's Pool Center in the hope of finding a better deal on chlorine tablets, but Uncle Tug felt he had done enough driving for one day, and simply never refilled the pool.

He repainted the bottom, from the traditional sky blue to a sort of camouflage pattern of greens and browns. "It's for the birds," he explained. "They expect this thing to be full of water, it's all blue like water, they come swoopin' in like a B-1 bomber, and then I gotta scrape 'em off the cement. Breaks my heart."

Next he purchased a large fishing net from a local sea food restaurant (they didn't actually catch fish with it, it was strictly for decorative purposes) and draped this across the deep end of the pool. At first he tried to complete the camouflage effect by sticking tree branches and hunks of bushes into the net, but as the food and foliage rotted, it began to attract insects and other things he didn't particularly want around.

So he removed the debris and went with plastic: he dragged the cardboard box containing his plastic Christmas tree out of the attic, and tossed the various branches onto the net. This looked pretty cool; some of the branches even had ornaments wired to them, since Uncle Tug felt wiring and unwiring all that stuff every year was a waste of time.

Then he moved his lawn chairs and a little table into the pool and under the net, and bought several heavy-duty extension cords so he could watch TV and have a small refrigerator and a couple of fans down there. As the summer of 1982 progressed, he made various alterations in what he had come to call his "bunker." For instance, it turned out that the fishing net was not much protection against rain, even with all the plastic Christmas tree branches in it, so Tug bought a big beach umbrella. He borrowed a big rubber plant from my mother, placed it next to his lounge chair, and jammed the beach umbrella into the rubber plant's flowerpot. When it rained, he would open the umbrella. Of course, when I say he 'borrowed' the rubber plant, I'm using his terminology; my mother didn't find out she'd lent him the plant until he called up and said, "I got that big, dopey looking plant of yours."

"The rubber plant?" said my mother.

"The one that looks like one of those Dr. Seuss plants."

"Are you holding it for ransom?"

"Nah. Just hanging on till the rainy season is over." The rainy season lasted until later that afternoon, when I was dispatched to bring back the rubber plant. Tug went out and bought his own big flowerpot. Uncle Tug (who had now spent several hundred dollars to keep from shelling out 5 extra bucks for the chlorine tablets) went into the bunker every morning with his foul smelling cigars and didn't emerge until dark. From time to time a Christmas ornament would work itself loose and smash on the cement. "In the event of The Big One-- I'm talking Dub-a-yoo Dub-a-yoo Three-- I figure I'm sitting pretty," he said on more than one occasion.

Sometime around 1995 or 6 Uncle Tug lost interest in the bunker (or perhaps stopped worrying about The Big One) and the pool sat there, unfilled and uninhabited. The fishing net had been removed and packed away in the garage, with the plastic tree branches (with the remaining ornaments) still caught in the mesh. The TV, which didn't stand up very well to the weather even with the umbrella up, had long since passed away, and the furniture was gone, and the camouflage pattern on the pool bottom, while still visible, had begun to flake quite a bit. Uncle Tug talked about filling in the pool and starting a garden.

Then this week, I received a flier in the mail:

Visit the Actual Labyrinth


Where the Minotaur (Guy with Bull head)

Lived in BC

Recently moved from


original location in Greek or egypt



Admission $3.00

There was an address, which happened to be Uncle Tug's.

"Uncle Tug," I said, when he picked up the phone, "I got this flier--"

"That's your cousin Low-Low," he said. "His idea. I just supply the labyrinth."

"Where's this labyrinth?"

"It's the POOL. Wadda ya think? Low-Low cut up some cardboard boxes and stapled 'em together and made a sort of a maze down there. It looks pretty, uh..."


"Yeah. He's trying to get the grammar school in town to take the kids here for a class trip. He's gonna give 'em a 50% discount if they come up with 100 kids or more."

I then did something I swore I would never do-- I called Low-Low.

"What I can't figure out," I said, "is how you came up with the idea. I never had you pegged as an aficionado of Greek mythology. Or anything else ending in 'ology.' "

"Saw a show about th' Minotaur on TV," he said. "Ever'thing just kinda clicked."

"Discovery Channel?"

"Cartoon Network. There was a guy with LAMB LEGS, too," he said. "But he wasn't in the labyrinth."

"How's business?"

"Not so hot yet. It's December, you know, so out door exhibits like this tend to suffer a little."

"What happens if business doesn't pick up in the spring?"

"Just hate to see that pool go to waste," said Low-Low. "If the labyrinth doesn't work out, I'll think a something." Ominous pause. "I got a lot of ideas," he said.



I had just begun to draft this week's column when the phone rang. It was my daughter Emma, and her friend Compton. The conversation that ensued is presented here for the edification of my readers. Well, actually it's presented here because I accidentally deleted the real column.

E: Dad? We just wanted to express our opinion about, about--

ME: We?

E: Compton is on the line, too. Say something, Compton.

C: Hello?

ME: I'm writing my column, girls, so I--

E: Well, we were-- this is FOR your column...

ME: Uh--

E: It's ARNOLD. In his new movie, he...

C: I thought you we were going to talk about the cake mix party.

E: We are. But first I want to get the Arnold situation taken care of.

ME: Cake mix?

E: I'll get to the cake mix.

C: She wants chocolate, and I want vanilla.

ME: Wait, let me write that down...

E: Never mind that yet. We are UPSET because Arnold has boobs and neck rolls.

ME: I'm sorry?

E: THIS is what has got us upset.

ME: I take it the Arnold you're talking about is Arnold Schwarzenegger?

E: Yes.

ME: Just wanted to be clear, since your cat is also named Arnold...

E: My cat is NAMED after Arnold Schwarzenegger.

ME: I remember. Now, Arnold-- the non-cat-- has... did I get this right? Boobs and neck rolls?

E: Yes. In his new movie.

C: I didn't notice.

ME: You didn't notice the boobs, or the neck rolls?

C: Either.

ME: Okay. Now, I'm not sure about the neck rolls, but didn't Arnold always have boobs?

E: He used to have pecs.

ME: Aren't pecs basically male boobs?

E: Not at all. Pecs are not DROOPY. Arnold's pecs have become droopy.

ME: Well, he must be well over 50 now.

E: But he doesn't look it. He's still HOT. Except for the boobs.

C: And the neck rolls.

ME: I thought you didn't notice the neck rolls.

C: I didn't. But if they're there, they would not be hot.

ME: Well, what can I, in my capacity as a member of the working press, do about this situation?

E: Arnold needs a lift.

ME: A boob lift.

E: Yes.

ME: He needs more plastic surgery, you're saying.


ME: So you think the sudden absence of wrinkles in the movie ERASER was the result of what?

C: It was Avon Skin Cream.


C: You apply it and the wrinkles disappear.

ME: Oh, that stuff. Isn't that basically Preparation H?

E: That's disgusting.

ME: Well, that's what I heard.

E: And another thing is, the back of his head looks mangy.

ME: Mangy.

E: Like he's losing hair in the back. I mean the back back back.

ME: Hold on, let me write that down... 'back back back.'

E: The FAR back.

ME: uh-huh.

E: Not where you usually get a bald spot, but down where the neck grows into the back of the skull.

ME: The neck grows into the back of the skull. That sounds really painful.

E: Anyway, those are the issues as we see them.

ME: I'll see what I can do. It sounds like Arnold is falling apart, all right. No other problems with the movie, aside from the way Arnold is decaying before your very eyes?

E: The movie was fine, otherwise. Except Arnold didn't take his shirt off.

ME: Wait a minute. If he didn't take his shirt off, how do you know his pecs are drooping?

E: You could see it through the shirt.

ME: I seem to remember he did take his shirt off in the movie.

E: No, he wore a muscle shirt.

C: The problem could be the quality of the shirt.

ME: Quality... of the... shirt... Well, I think that about covers the situation. What was it you were saying about cake mix?

E: I'm having a cake mix party. All my friends hate cake, but we love cake mix. So we're just going to make cake mix and eat that.

C: Brownie mix is even better than cake mix.

E: That's ridiculous. Brownie mix is too thick.

C: That's GOOD.

E: You totally don't grasp the whole IDEA of mixes.

C: That is so not true. Banana bread mix is the worst.

E: That's absolutely right.

ME: So you agree on banana bread mix.

E: Yes.

C: Bananas are gross.

E: No they aren't. Just the banana bread mix.

C: I hate the taste of bananas. I had some banana flavored Chapstick once. It was horrible.

E: Why did you have banana flavored Chapstick if you hate bananas?

C: Somebody GAVE it to me.


A word from the management:

After an extensive search, we have managed to find a replacement for the Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy. Get well cards for the old Thanksgiving Day Expert Guy can be sent care of this paper, and will be forwarded to him at the rest home where, we are certain, he is making a complete recovery. Since we would not like to see this situation repeated again, we would request that you observe the following rules when writing to the NEW Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy. (1) Please stay on topic. (2) Do not send in gratuitous insults. For that matter, do not send in ANY insults. (3) Keep it short. And now, your letters, and answers from... THE NEW THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE EXPERT GUY

* * * *


You stink. The old Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy stunk, too, but you stink more.



Another word from the management:

The above is precisely the sort of letter we do NOT want to see. It is both off topic and insulting. On the plus side, it is short. But that is not much of a plus, frankly. And it does not even ask a question. The whole point of having a column entitled "ASK the Thanksgiving Day Expert Guy" is, you ask questions, and the Thanksgiving Day Expert Guy answers them. We would have thought this was self explanatory, but apparently not. We will no longer print letters that are not framed as questions. This should eliminate the pointless invective that has been plaguing this column for so long. And now, over to you, New Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy!

* * *

I'm pleased and delighted to be here. It's kind of daunting, being asked to step in for a distinguished figure such as the old Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy, especially given the tragic circumstances under which he was forced into retirement. But I fully intend to do my best to live up to the high standards he set (before he, you know, ran into those problems) and I look forward to serving the needs of all the Ask the Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy readers. Thank you.


The N.T.D.P.E.G.



How come you stink so bad?




I will answer this question, even though it isn't really a question, it is just an insult with a question mark at the end. I will say the same thing to you that I would have said to Terry, who wrote the letter above to which I was not permitted to reply. I refuse to be drawn into an insult match with readers. This is the mistake my distinguished predecessor made, and I will not make this mistake. I will just ignore letters like this. Do not even bother sending them in, because I'm not going to answer them. Don't waste your time. Space in newspapers is precious, and it shouldn't be wasted in saying the same things over and over and over, especially when they (the same things) didn't need to be said in the first place. So just forget about it.

* * *


When did the Thanksgiving Day Parade get started?


History Buff


This is an excellent question. Every year, the Thanksgiving Day Parade gets started at approximately 8:00 AM, up by the Museum of Natural History. Thanks for writing.

* * *


Um, I meant how long has the Thanksgiving Day Parade been going on.


History Buff

An entirely different question, but still good. It lasts for about three hours. It would be much shorter, but it keeps stopping so that various Broadway Show casts and marching bands can perform their specialty acts for the cameras in Herald Square. And of course, occasionally it is delayed by malfunctioning balloons.

* * *


How do they select the balloons for the Thanksgiving Day Parade?


Wants to know


Competition, as you might guess, is brutal. Over 25,000 balloons enter contests at the local level, where they are judged on the basis of size, colorfulness, flammability, and poise. The talent, swim suit and evening gown competitions are given the most weight. The winners of the local contests go on to compete at county, regional, and state levels. Extensive background checks are made of all balloons reaching this point, to prevent any recurrence of the 1983 Parade, when compromising photos of the Bullwinkle balloon appeared in Rubber World Monthly. Finally a few dozen or so winners are selected, always including Underdog, a cartoon character whose show has been off the air for over 30 years.

* * *


Do you have Prince Albert in a can?





There is no point in sending in letters of this type. As I said above in my response to Erry-tay, I will not even deign to answer things like this. It is off topic for one thing, and for another, I am informed that it is the set-up to a very old joke. Not only that, but it makes no sense because you're supposed to PHONE this question to a drug store. Only it such an old joke they probably won't even know what you're talking about, since I doubt that most drug stores carry Prince Albert (a pipe tobacco) these days. (The way the joke works, you call up and ask if they have Prince Albert in a can. Then if the druggist says 'yes', you say 'Well, let the poor guy out!' and hang up). So it would seem that the 'joke' is on YOU, Yrret. The New Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy is not going to fall for this kind of thing and waste all his space on nonsense when there are serious Thanksgiving Day Parade questions to be answered. The Old Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy let you bums get under his skin, but that's not going to happen with The New Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to put one over on The New Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy. He is not going to let his column degenerate into an endless rant like the Old Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Guy. This kind of thing is like water off a duck's back to the N.T.D.P.E.G. He just ignores it, is the way he handles it. So forget it. No point in trying to get him upset. He's as cool as a cucumber.




Because of the current constipational crisis, come this January something or other we may not have a dully-erected precedent. In order to prevent this occurrence from outcoming, I have agreed, after searching my heart and my medicine cabinet, to accept the office of President of the United States, should anyone offer it to me. For one think, I can not see how I, as a weekly humor columnist, could refuse to swerve when my country needs me, and for another, I can not see much of anything since my daughter drank about half the bottle of Hawaiian Punch that was in the refrigerator even though I told her not to, and then filled up the bottle with cough medicine so I wouldn't figure it out. Shortly afterwards I drank about two liters while watching an NFL game. As a result of this I am (1) seeing very bright colors, some of which talk, and (2) losing brain cells at a prodigious rate. Thus I should be fully qualified to lead the Free World soon. Thus I should be fully qualified to lead the Free World soon. Thus I-- *smack* Excuse me, my needle was stuck.

Americans are entitled to know what their new precipice intends to do for the upcoming four years. They may rest easy. I will do absolutely nothing. My philosophy is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it; and if it IS broke, don't fix it either." Same thing applies to slapping a coat of paint on stuff. It is only the POWERFUL COAT OF PAINT LOBBIES that keep pushing us to paint things over and over, when everybody knows stuff looks much cooler when the paint starts to flake off and you get weird animal shapes and faces and things. That is the first thing my administration will provide. Third, we will also not propose any legislation. Ideally we will replace both houses of congress with a large cage of marmosets. We know the risks; too many marmosets, and they will go nuts and start trying to bite each other in the head. But we believe these risks are worth taking, although we forget why. Another thing we forget is, what is the name of the actor who played Sergeant Carter on "Gomer Pyle USMC"? It's on the tip of my tongue. No wait, that's a piece of pretzel. In any case, if you know, please send the answer to: PRESIDENT GRIMSHAW // 1600 PENNSYLVANNIA AVENUE // WASHINGTON DC. Write "Please Hold For Arrival" on the outside of the envelope.

On second thought don't send it there. Because we will also in our capacity as president NOT move into the White House but stay right here in our apartment. We could put the Presidential Seal up behind the couch. We could, in fact, use a new couch, since the upholstery on the old one was pretty much ruined when we nodded out after drinking the most of the bottle of Hawaiian Punch and about half of the rest of it went all over the cushions. We are saying 'we,' incidentally, because the effects of the accidental cough medicine overdose appear to have caused us to split into TWO PEOPLE, one of which is me and the other of which is this kind of iridescent monster-type guy, exactly as in the Japanese movie "The Manster." Let me clarify that: 'exactly' is the wrong word, because in "The Manster," the Manster starts out as an eyeball growing on the guy's shoulder which then blossoms into a head with big teeth, and so on, and that is not what happened here. And I do not understand how it is that when the guy splits into two creatures, one man, one Manster, both of them are wearing pants. Nonetheless, OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH JAPAN MUST BE STRENGTHENED. But first they must stop making these stupid NORMAL movies and go back to making movies like "The Manster" and ones about giant monsters (such as MOTHRA). Also really good was "Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla." The spot where the paint is peeling over there looks like a little duck.

So much for foreign policy. I must now address DOMESTIC ISSUES. Since I will be staying in this apartment, I will require very little in the way of domestics. One could stop by once a week and straighten up the place. Maybe twice a week if it turns out The Manster is a slob, which is certainly a possibility. The worst thing is the gunk in the kitchen drain. It's really gross and I don't want to deal with it. If the domestic could just take care of that, it would be a big help.

Over the corpse of the next few days, the Manster and I will be working out our economic policy, our stand on education (which we favor in the event the life of the mother is threatened), and the decision about who is responsible for replacing the toilet paper when it runs out. And so on. In addition, the Manster and I shall be slowly moving our hand back and forth in the air, because it leaves this really neat rainbow after-image.

On a more solemn note. It must be admitted that the 'I-agree-to-be-president' routine is one of the most obvious bits in the world and in all likelihood, every humor columnist in America is going to take a whack at it this week. I myself did it before, back in 1996. The Manster and I would like to assure the public that OUR 'I agree to be the president' routine is in fact the best one. Because this column does not appear until Thursday, other humor columnists (some, we believe, working without the aid of the Hawaiian Punch-Cough Medicine mixture) (Of which we are running very low) may see print with their versions before we do. This is appalling, and speaks directly to the issue of HUMOR COLUMNIST DISENFRANCHISEMENT. I call upon my fellow humor columnists to think of the good of the country, and withdraw their "Okay-I'll-Be-The-President" columns. SOMEBODY around here has got to start acting like a grown-up. And I promise you-- it's not going to be me.

I have just had another swig of the Hawaiian Punch bottle and my transition team is beginning to take shape on the back of my retina. These trusted advisors-- Elisha Cook, Jr., Poppin' Fresh, and a talking waste basket-- will ensure an orderly transition from the living room back into the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the Manster and I would like to thank you for your time and interest, and we have agreed to be president as long as the cough syrup holds out. FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YEARS!


There was apparently a meat loaf surplus, because the lunchroom had served it 6 times in 10 days. By Day Five of what was starting to look like The Era of Eternal Meat Loaf, things began to get ugly. There was a queue, grim but orderly, which made it kind of eerie, of kids moving directly from the serving line to the garbage can, where slab after slab of meat loaf was being deposited. If you closed your eyes, you just heard sshhhooom--poot! sssshhhooom--poot! as the meat slid down the plastic liner of the can and hit the (ever-diminishing) bottom.

"What's everybody doing that for?" asked Picarillo. "This is really good meat loaf."

"Here, have mine," said Calvano.

Picarillo nodded appreciatively, unable to convey his thanks any other way because his mouth was full. He seemed unconcerned that Calvano had picked up the meat loaf slice with his bare hand and given it a good squeeze before depositing it on Picarillo's plate. Hence it tapered in the middle and bulged at the ends, like a dog biscuit.

On Day Six, meat loaf slices took to the air.

It should go without saying that one or two entr饳 went flying across the lunch room during any given lunch period, even at the best of times, but this went well beyond that. It was as if a clumsy hunter had stumbled into a duck blind full of sleeping ducks, and, panic-stricken, they all took to the air at once, flying off in every direction, quacking insanely. Only instead of ducks, they were slices of meat loaf, and there was no quacking. (Well, there was some quacking, but it wasn't the meat loafs, it was David Stickle, doing his Burgess Meredith imitation). And of course, with ducks, once they take off in a panic, they tend to get away as fast as possible and keep going until they're out of sight, so if you can avoid a duck collision for about 10 seconds, you're home free. But the meat loaf slabs would fly, hit something, and then immediately find themselves airborne again. If meat loaf slices had the structural integrity of ducks, there's no telling how long the blizzard of tomato sauce-coated meat and breadcrumb would have continued, but after three or four voyages they completely disintegrated. Every kid on the lunchroom was covered with fragments of meat loaf. There was the silence that comes after a great commotion; no talking, just the sound of labored breathing, and Stickle cackling "Quack-quack-quack! Very clever, Boy Wonder! Quack-quack-quack!" The teachers emerged from beneath the tables and, after a hasty conference, announced that everyone in the lunchroom was getting detention. Except Picarillo.

He was the ONLY kid in the lunchroom with meat loaf on his plate. In fact, Picarillo had three slabs of meat loaf on his tray, which had been salvaged from the meat tornado-- perhaps literally plucked from the air. Calvano later suggested that Picarillo might have intercepted and devoured as many as five other slabs before the fracas ended.

The following Tuesday, all of the kids in Lunch Period 3 were the subject of a harangue from our belov養principal, Mr. Yorkowsky.

"Something happened last week... something so... disappointing... that I hardly know where to begin... I hardly know what words to employ to describe it... Perhaps one word will suffice... anarchy."

"Who?" whispered Picarillo.

"Ann somebody," said Calvano.

"Annie Oakley, stupid," I said. "The girl cowboy."

Mr. Yorkowsky continued: " the poet Yeats said: 'The center will not hold... mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...' "

"Mayor Ann Archy?" said Picarillo. "A girl mayor? What's he talking about? Can they do that, have a girl mayor?"

"Don't be an idiot," said Calvano.

"Well, what's he talking about?"

"I dunno." I glanced over at Mr. Schoppe, the gym teacher, who appeared to be as confused as we were; he caught the eye of his female counterpart, Miss Henderson, and then, cocking an thumb in the direction of Mr. Yorkowsky, mimed taking a swig from an imaginary bottle. This didn't clear things up for me at all. But soon Mr. Yorkowsky abandoned Yeats: "Last week, the children in Lunch Period Three engaged in a revolting exhibition. DESPITE the fact that children are STARVING in many parts of the world, they threw their lunch food at each other like so many SAVAGES. They-- who is making that QUACKING sound?-- they disgraced themselves. And they have been punished. They have all been given two weeks of detention. But. Just as POOR behavior needs to be punished, GOOD behavior needs to be rewarded. ONE boy in lunch period three did NOT engage in this ORGY of FOOD WASTE. One boy stood alone against what the poet Yeats called, uh, MERE ANARCHY. Would... [he glanced at an index card] MICHAEL PICARILLO please join me on stage?"

"What'd I do?!" whispered Picarillo. "I thought I WASN'T in trouble! What's he saying??"

"He said you did something that got the mayor really mad," said Calvano.

"Huh? Huh? The girl mayor?? I didn't KNOW!" Our homeroom teacher was urging Picarillo to get up and head for the stage. Picarillo's head was swiveling around, as he tried to find some clue about what was going on somewhere. Picarillo's eyes bugged out and his panic seemed to redouble as our homeroom teacher lead him up to the stage. There was thunderous applause from the student body, surely sarcastic in intent.

It's hard to imagine a greater stigma than being singled out as The Bestest Boy in the Sixth Grade by the principal, and as Picarillo stumbled up the steps to the stage, there were probably scores of kids making a mental note along the lines of 'Note: Make Picarillo's Life a Living Hell Starting Today'. Mr. Yorkowsky stuck out his hand.

Picarillo screamed.


Then he threw up.

The applause now was even more thunderous then before and this time, I have no doubt, it was completely sincere.


"I was wonderin'," my cousin Low-Low said, "did you buy anything last week?"

"Yes," I said. Now, if anyone else had asked me that question, I would have continued with something along the lines of 'why do you ask?' Low-Low is not anyone else, though, and what I desperately wanted to do was hang up the phone on him. Unfortunately, this was not a phone conversation; I was at my father's house, standing on a ladder cleaning leaves out of the rain gutters. Low-Low was at the bottom of the ladder. I was trapped.

"Th' reason I'm askin'," he said, answering the question I had been afraid to ask, "is I need some more receipts. Watch out. Almost hit me with that buncha wet leaves."

"Geez, I'm really sorry," I said. He was about 8 inches to the left of where I had aimed. I made a mental adjustment and balled up some more leaves.

"I need receipts for each day of the Series."

"What do you mean, receipts?" I had given up. Clearly there was going to be a conversation regardless of whether I contributed or not; there was nothing I could do about it, but I figured if I plugged the correct questions into the correct pauses, it might go a little faster.

"Little pieces a paper? With like a price on it, and a date?"

"Yeah, I know what receipts look like. What kind of receipts? I mean, receipts for what?"

"Wall. It doesn't really make that much diff'rence. The absolute BEST kind would be receipts from the George Washington Bridge, or the Turnpike. But anything is okay, 's long as it doesn't say what it's a receipt for."

"But it's got to have a date."

"Nah. It's okay if there's NO date, but if it's got a date, it's gotta be for a Series Day. Ack! Hey, you almos' hit me AGAIN."

"I'm really sorry," I said. "You moved."

"If I HADN'T a moved, it would a hit me square inna head."

"Gee, I guess so. Well, anyhow, I'm fairly sure I bought some things last week. I don't know if I kept any of the receipts, though. What are you paying?"


"For the receipts."

"Wall." Low-Low has been starting sentences with the word 'wall' for about 30 years. For a long time I assumed it was simply the way he pronounces 'well,' but about 2 years ago we were in a restaurant together (something that will NEVER happen again, by the way) and when the waitress asked him how he would like his steak prepared, he replied, "Wall, I'd like to have it well-done." That seemed to shoot the 'wall = well' theory right out the window, and I've been at a total loss ever since. Anyhow, he went on: "I wasn't actually plannin' to pay for them. I mean, you were jus' gonna throw 'em out, weren't you? See, I-- AACKK!"

"Oh geez," I said. "What a mess. That kind of landed right smack in the middle of your head, huh? Hey, you better go in the house and clean up."

While Low-Low was inside, I scuttled down the ladder and went over to his car to see if I might accidentally dump a few bushels of smelly wet leaves in the back seat or something, but he had locked the doors. My father, who left the house a few seconds after Low-Low entered it (Low-Low takes up a lot of space), wandered over. I explained what I was doing, and he offered to get a wire hanger from the house to facilitate access to the car interior, but then Low-Low came out and we abandoned the plan. Or postponed it.

"Unca Jim," said Low-Low, "You mind if I borrow these receipts?"

"What are they?"

"They was in the grocery bags. They got the right dates on 'em."

"Say no, Dad. I don't know what he's doing, but whatever it is, if they can trace those receipts back to you, there's probably jail time."

"Don' be silly," said Low-Low. "This is strictly legit."

When my father and I stopped laughing, Low-Low said, "I'm sellin' SUBWAY SERIES COLLECTIBLES."

"I'm going downtown and buying some donuts," said my father.

"You are? I could go fer one of the ones with pink frostin'."

"I'm not really going downtown," said my father. "I thought we were just swapping non sequitors."

"Nah, I'm not swappin'... whatever they are. I'm SELLIN'. Subway Series Collectibles." He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a very ratty looking piece of paper, upon which was written:


Get 'em while they last

Actual TICKETS, etc.

Purchased on Days 1-4 of 2000 World Series

Call [Low-Low's phone number]

"Gonna drop this off at the paper in a little bit..."

"You have unused World Series Tickets?" asked my father.


"How much are you selling the tickets for?"

"They're sorta already gone."

"In the sense that you never had them?"


"So these receipts would be the 'etc.' noted in your ad?"


"Low-Low, you've still got some of those disgusting leaves stuck in your hair," I said. "Lemme brush them off."

"Hey, watch out-- some of 'em went down the back a my neck, it feels like."

"Geez, I'm really sorry," I said, thinking of the ones that missed.

"So how 'bout some of those receipts?"

After we stopped laughing Low-Low left, which was pretty much the idea, but later my father said that if we'd told him 'yes,' we probably would have had time to get the car open while Low-Low was rooting around the house for receipts.

We're kicking ourselves now.


I'd had to go to the bathroom, and while I was there, the phone rang. "Phone!" cried Mulberry Street Joey Clams. At the Custom Neon Sign Shop I was supposed to answer the phone, because I had what Mulberry Street Joey Clams called "a good phone-side manner." When I picked up the phone, I would say "Custom Neon Sign Shop, Jeff speaking. How may I help you?" Although Mulberry Street Joey Clams wanted me to say 'how CAN I help you,' rather than 'MAY,' he still conceded that it was better than picking up the phone and saying "What?!" which is how he answered the phone. Also, I had reasonably legible handwriting, so if a customer ordered a sign, I would write down what the sign was supposed to say and we would be able to read it later. This may not sound like an especially rare skill, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams did not possess it and hence valued it very highly. Which is why he was screaming "Phone! Phone! Phone!"

But it was useless; I was where I was, and I was going to be there for a while, thanks to the slightly undercooked porcitto ham I'd had for lunch.

When I finally emerged, Mulberry Street Joey Clams was sitting back in the swivel chair, totally spent. It had indeed been a customer-- our first in at least four weeks-- and Mulberry Street Joey Clams had transcribed the words we were supposed to preserve forever in neon. The words were legible, because he had printed each letter two inches high, on a sheet of legal sized paper, and the effort had exhausted him.

The letters spelled out...

Well, I'm not 100 percent sure what the letters spelled out, because the next morning Mulberry Street Joey Clams put a cup of coffee down on the middle of the paper and a few moments later the coffee leaked through. All we could read was "For Mau [big brown blot shaped kind of like the USSR] ony."

I was fairly sure it said:

"For Maureen--

I told you I'd put

your name up in lights



But Mulberry Street Joey Clams, while agreeing that was more or less the gist of it, insisted that the actual message was supposed to rhyme. He also thought the first name was "Maura" and the second name "Antony."

"Well," I said, "Call the guy up and just tell him you're double-checking the spelling of the names or something. Where's his number?"

He pointed to the USSR, right about at the spot where you would normally have expected to find Leningrad in those days.

"Okay," I said, "so when we get his check, he'll have his name on it and probably his phone number, but even if he doesn't, it'll have his address on the envelope."

This served to calm him down considerably. He scrutinized the blotch. "I know its gotta rhyme. It's prob'ly like, 'For Maureen / I told you I'd put yer name in lights / er, you queen.' "

"Didn't you think the name was Maura?"

"Don't be a jerk. What rhymes with 'Maura'?"

"Uh," I said. "Well, when we get the check..."

But the following day we arrived at the shop after lunch to find an envelope jammed under the door. It contained a money order and a note, which read: "Here's half the money for inv. # 0541 [the numbering on our invoices began at 0536]. I'll pick up Tues. and bring balance. (signed) A. " No address, no phone number, no name.

The name on the 'from' section of money order said "A. P." and the address was blank.

"Okay," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "Let's not panic. Let's think about this. He stuck it under the door, so he must live someplace around here. At least somewhere in the city. First name Anthony or Antony. Last name starts with a P. Okay. So how many Anthony or Antony P guys can there be in this town? What's the population, maybe 8, 10 million? So maybe a million Ps, which is a very popular last name letter. Awright. So. And out of all those, HALF of them are chicks. So we're already down to half a million people at most. And of those, only ONE in TWENNY FOUR has a name starting with A. Which comes to..."

"20,833.3," I said, looking up from the calculator.

"Okay, we're gettin' there. How many ANTHONY P guys do you think?"

"Several thousand more than I'm even gonna think about calling," I said.

"Don't turn into a WOMAN on me," he snapped. "Think. Think. How many guy first names start with A?" We came up with about 60, figuring diminutives like 'Al' (which we listed six or seven times, counting it as a different name depending on whether it was short for 'Alan' or 'Albert' or 'Aldous' or whatever) and "Arn" and the ever-popular "Ap" (I forget what this was short for, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams swore he knew two Aps.) Working under the assumption that all 'A' names were evenly distributed, we divided 20,8033 by 60 and arrived at 347. "Now. You take 173 names and I take 174 names, and we start calling. We'll probably hit the guy in ten minutes."

I flat out refused to do this. We glared at each other. Someone rapped on the door. Mulberry Street Joey Clams sprang up and threw the door open.

There was a kid dressed as Spiderman standing there with a plastic pumpkin. "It's Halloween!" cried Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "We got no candy! We can't stay in the store with the lights on calling people if we got no candy! They'll soap our window!"

"Trick or treat," said the kid.

"Gimme your candy," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He jammed his hand into his pocket and came up with a 5-dollar bill. "Here, gimme the pumpkin!"

"Whoa! Thanks mister!"

"Yeah yeah, go nuts, get outta here." He grabbed the pumpkin and shut the door, but even before the door was closed his eyes bugged out. "Hey! There's only TWO CANDY BARS in this thing!"

"It's only 4 'clock," I said. "The kid's just starting out."

Mulberry Street Joey Clams shot out the door and tried to catch the kid, but the kid had a half a block lead on him.

"Kid's too fast for me. Hey-- are you EATING the candy bars?"

"I saved one for you."

We exchanged some harsh words. I seem to recall there was an attempt to bite off my nose. Another trick or treater showed up, got the remaining candy bar, and we made a candy run to the corner grocery, which had no candy, so we bought a bag of potato chips and each of the next few trick or treaters got a single potato chip. The rest of them didn't get anything, because we ate the rest of the bag ourselves. They soaped our window. Neither of us would phone any of the Ant (h)ony Ps in the Manhattan White Pages. We decided to throw the dice and go with 'Maureen' and 'Anthony,' which turned out to be half-right.

Anthony P refused to give his girl friend Maura the sign or to pay the balance of his bill and it turned out his father was a friend of Mulberry Street Joey Clams' uncle, so we actually had to refund his deposit. It was a dark day for the Custom Neon Sign Shop but at least we got to keep the sign, which was really beautiful, if I do say so myself.


The first day I went to work at the ID Bureau, I was given a brief tour of the office ("Now this over here is the file cabinets.... this is another buncha file cabinets...") and then assigned a desk where I was supposed to bring the file cabinet drawers (they were tiny drawers, used for storing index cards) while I was checking the jury duty lists to make sure no convicted felons were being chosen to sit in judgment on their peers.

The second day I was there, one of the older guys took me aside to "show me the ropes."

"Now, right over here, this is where we fingerprint the customers--" customers in this case being the folks who had been arrested-- "and take their pictures, front and side view. You'll probally get to do some of this, on account of Joe Billings who usually does it is going on vacation in a couple weeks. See, the fingerprints go in one a these cards, and the pictures go up here on the same card, and then ya take it over here to the LAMINATOR."

The Laminator: 25 or so years later, I type that out and can't help picturing Arnold Schwarzenegger, but in fact there wasn't much resemblance. The ID Bureau Laminator looked much like the ones you could find in the vestibules of super markets at that time, next to the gumball machines. There was a crucial difference, however: it cost something like a dollar to laminate your driver's license in the super market; at the ID Bureau, you could do it for FREE. Well, not free, but at taxpayer expense, which was even better.

"Now, with all these cards and laminators and so forth, I guess it's pretty obvious that... Lemme put it to ya this way: someday some friend a yours is gonna ask ya for a fake ID..."

My eyes probably bugged out at this point. This had simply not occurred to me.

"You're gonna be tempted to just walk over here and print one up and give it to your buddy as a favor--"

"No, I--"

"Hey, it's human nature. But don't do it. What you do, you just tell 'em..."

"I'll tell 'em for GET it!"

"Nah. Tell them it's 25 bucks. Cash."

I opened my mouth to say something-- I don't remember what-- but I was again waved to silence.

"Well, wait a second, I if you want to take somebody's check, that's up to you-- but I work strictly cash. You keep five bucks. I get 20, is how it works. That's the way I do it with everybody-- it's not like I'm stiffin' you because you've only been here a coupla days. Billings, he's been here since 1951, he just gets 5, too. And doesn't kick about it, because it's a good deal. Five bucks for doing nothing, basically."


"Now. You might be tempted to charge your buddies 30 bucks and keep 10. Nothing I can do to stop you, but I advise against it. Everybody else charges 25. Your buddies find out you're charging 5 bucks above the standard rate, they ain't gonna be your buddies any more, you know what I'm saying? And ya gotta ask yourself-- is it worth losing friends over a lousy five bucks?"


"Ya can't put a price on friendship. Well, you can, but my feeling is it's more than 5 bucks. A lot more. If you could get 500 bucks for one of these cards, I'd say go for it. But here's the thing--" At this point an avuncular arm was draped around my shoulders-- "If a guy's got 500 bucks... I mean a young guy, you know, one a your buddies... odds are, he's got something on the ball, right? So you tell him a fake ID costs 500 bucks, he'll know right off the bat you're puttin' the screws to him, and he'll just take his business elsewhere. You know what I'm saying?"


"So instead of making 5 bucks you made zip-- and you lost a friend. And this kind of friend, with 500 bucks in his pocket, he's the kind of friend ya wanna KEEP..." The conversation, such as it was, continued in this vein for another ten minutes or so, and then my would-be mentor wandered off to spread his special brand of cheer in some other corner of the ID Bureau. I decided immediately that I would not be selling any fake IDs-- or doing anything else that would require me to come into contact with this guy.

However, since my table was adjacent to the Laminator, I did MAKE a lot of fake I Ds. Mine were doubly fake, since not only did they have no legal status, they were for people who did not exist. They had names like "Mad Dog Kowalsky" and "Ricky Bokasokalokamokatokawoka." Since these people did not exist, I had no photos to affix, so I drew pictures. Many of my people had more than two eyes, and meat cleavers stuck in their heads. In fact, even when I wasn't making my fake-fake IDs, I was drawing guys with 3 eyes and meat cleavers on the blank cards. And a really incredible looking giant cockroach.

The actual fake ID s, by the way, were not driver's licenses or anything or the sort; they were simply official looking cards, slightly modified versions of the information cards on convicted felons which I was theoretically checking through all day long. One side listed the name, address, and date of birth, and the other side had an official looking 'ID Bureau' seal on it (The Laminator could add that at the same time it was laminating).

One morning towards the end of my tenure, I arrived at work to find the Laminator had been moved across the room. I couldn't think of a plausible reason to complain, so I didn't mention it, but the Fake ID tycoon went out of his way to show me why it had been removed from my vicinity. Without uttering a word, he took four or five cards from his pocket, all perfectly acceptable looking IDs, until you turned them over, and saw that the ID Bureau seal had been stamped not on a blank card but on a drawing of a guy being bit in the head by a werewolf, or something along those lines.

"I had to refund their money."

I was going to say 'didn't you check the cards before you handed them over?' but decided, I think wisely, against it.

From time to time over the years I've wondered whether there might be other fake IDs out there with my drawings on the back, so far unnoticed. If anyone's got an ID with a drawing of the giant cockroach on it, I'll pay 25 bucks for it.


Customers had been complaining about the soda machine in the inner lobby of the Park Theater all week. The way it was supposed to work, you put your quarter in the slot, made your selection, a paper cup dropped under the nozzle, and it dispensed the soda. The soda machine was doing all these things, but the sequence was a little off, in that it was occasionally dropping the paper cup under the nozzle after the soda had beendispensed. The first guy to complain snatched the empty cup from the holder and stormed into the manager's office.

"The soda machine didn't gimme no cup," he said.

"And what would that be in your hand?" asked Chuck, the manager.

" What does it look like? It's a cup."

"And where did you get it?"

"The soda machine!"

"I see. Well, thanks for stopping by, it's been a pleasure," said Chuck, who gently ushered the guy out of the office, locked himself in, and conducted the rest of the evening's duties, such as they were, via intercom.

The really devilish thing about this particular mechanical malfunction was it's intermittence: you could go 5, 10, 20 perfectly sequenced transactions before the machine decided to drink the soda itself and present you with a nice clean cup with which to remember the occasion. Still, by the third or fourth day, even Chuck had to admit there was some sort of a problem. He hung the 'Out of Order' sign on the soda machine and notified the main office of the situation.

Those of us who were ushers ignored the sign, or perhaps you might say we took it as a challenge. We figured the odds were somewhere between 5 to 1 and 30 to 1 in favor of getting a soda for a quarter, so we fed the machine all night, went to the bathroom frequently, and eventually, to make things interesting, hit on the idea that the first guy to get an empty cup for his quarter had to spring for the sack of White Castle hamburgers which had become a last-show-of-the-night tradition for the Park staff. At this point in history a sack of White Castles didn't cost a whole lot more than the empty cup, anyhow.

The more or less non-stop use of this supposedly out-of-order soda machine did not go unnoticed. One of the folks who noticed it brought it to Chuck's attention. "You know," he said, "it seems to me that you've got quite the little racket going on here. A soda at the candy stand costs 35 cents, and a soda from the soda machine costs 25 cents, so I guess it's good business practice to declare the soda machine is busted and force everybody to buy from the candy stand, huh?"

"Actually, sir--" Chuck was one of those people who had the ability to call you 'sir' and make it sound worse than if he'd called you a rancid sack of rat droppings-- "the soda machine IS out of order."

"Seems to work okay for the ushers..."

"Sometimes it does. Sometimes it just eats your quarter. So you see, sir--"

"It seems to me, sir--" the guy shared Chuck's virtuoso 'sir' talent -- "that you owe me ten cents, since I bought my soda at the stand while under the false and misleading impression that the soda machine was out of order."


"ACTUALLY, if I don't get my ten cents, I plan to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Sir."

"Well, in that case...." Chuck held his hands out before him, palms up, in the classic, 'well-I-guess-I-have-no-option-left gesture-- "I'll get the forms for you to fill out."


"You'll need to fill out the standard 'customer complaint form,' and also the 'request for refund form.' And I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to sign a waver, as well."

"A waver."

"You're asking for a refund because the soda machine is out of order, and I need you to sign a waver stating that the machine is clearly labeled out of order."

"The machine is NOT out of order, that's my whole point!"

"Exactly. So I need you to sign something explaining to my employer that you didn't believe the sign. That IS the case, isn't it?"

"That makes it sound like I didn't believe the sign so I put a quarter in the machine and lost the quarter-- and in fact, I DIDN'T put the quarter in it, I went to the candy stand!"

"Exactly. I'll go get the forms."

"I just want my ten cents!"

One of the candy girls, who was watching all this with an entranced expression on her face, said "Wait." She dug into her pocket. "Here. Ten cents. Be my guest."

"I don't want YOUR money," said the customer, "I want MY money, from the THEATER."

"I'll get the forms," said Chuck, "and Sandy, do me a favor and write a little note explaining that you offered to give the gentleman the ten cents, and he refused to accept it."


"I DID not refuse to accept a refund, I--"

"Refused to take it because it was offered by a candy girl," said Chuck.

Sandy pulled out a sheet of notebook paper. "Can I just say I tried to give him his money but he wouldn't take it?"

"Make sure you say he INSISTED that the money not come from a GIRL. No, say from a 'female,' that sounds more..."

"Report-like," said Sandy.


"Is 'insist' two esses or a 'c' and an 's'?"

"Two esses," said Chuck, "but you could say 'demanded.' 'Demanded the money come from... not come from...' Let me see... REFUSED to take it from a FEMALE, DEMANDED that a MAN give it to him."

"Don't think I don't know what the game here is," said the guy. "I wouldn't take the ten cents from HIM either." Him being me.

"You want me to give you the ten cents?" I said.

"Don't give him a penny, Jeff. This is really something. You know, the ushers here make minimum wage."

"I don't want HIS money!"

"What's wrong with his money?" asked Sandy. "Just because he's only an usher doesn't mean he's like DIRT." I was touched, I have to admit.

"Jeff," Chuck said to me, "before he starts shaking down the other customers, could you go in the office and get the forms for this gentleman to fill out?"

"You haven't heard the last of this," said the guy, shaking his finger and then stomping out into the night. And a good thing, since none of the forms I was supposed to get from the office existed. The disgruntled customer did not, as far as we were able to determine, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, but we had Sandy's report framed and hung in the office. The soda machine was repaired about 10 days later, and just in time-- I was going broke springing for all those White Castles.

The Greatest Diner in the World

The greatest diner in the world-- excuse me, I mean to say The Greatest Diner in the World-- was the subject of the discussion. We weren't talking about our favorite diners, or the best diners we'd ever been to, although those were touched on. The idea was to build a picture of perfection-- to design the Platonic Ideal Diner. The discussion was prompted by the fact that we'd just been thrown out of a diner while in the midst of another, unrelated discussion; we had been engaged in this discussion for approximately four hours, although there was later some disagreement about just how approximately. One of us estimated our actual time in the diner at six hours and some change. Time, we all agreed, moves at a different rate in a really good diner. Which the one that threw us out was not. There were four of us and we had spent collectively about 11 dollars over the course of that four or six hour visit. We all agreed that at the Greatest Diner in the World, 11 bucks would guarantee that you remain unmolested, aside from periodic visits from the waitress to fill your Bottomless Cup of Coffee, for at least three days. Even a Pretty Much Okay Diner wouldn't toss you out after a measly 4 or 6 hours when you'd dropped 11 bucks there. The Bottomless Cup of Coffee was the next thing everybody agreed on. The Greatest Diner in the World would be really happy to keep refilling your cup of coffee. They would consider it a PRIVILAGE. The waitress might even come over after a couple of hours and say something like, "Listen, you guys-- I'm sorry to interrupt-- but we've got that plate of donuts over here on the counter, and in a little while they're going to be technically YESTERDAY'S donuts and we won't be able to sell them, so how about if I just bring that plate over here and you guys help yourselves?" I didn't exactly object to the free not-quite-stale donut idea, but as I personally prefer bagels to donuts as a general rule, it seemed to me it wasn't absolutely necessary that a place provides free donuts in order to be considered the Greatest Diner in the World. [One of the others pointed out that while he agreed with me vis-୶is bagels vs. donuts, a stale donut is still pretty good, while a stale bagel is pretty much indistinguishable from a bagel-sized ring of pinewood. And while I would never say anything bad about bagels, except for blueberry bagels and others of that sorry ilk, I have to agree that a stale bagel has nothing to recommend it.] Next we tackled the question of design. While all of us agreed that a diner could be a great diner no matter what sort of structure it was housed in, three of us insisted that the Greatest Diner in the World would be in an actual diner-type building-- that is, a building that looks kind of like a giant art-deco toaster. One of us insisted that ALL buildings should look like giant art-deco toasters, but it was very late at night and come the dawn I no longer felt that way. There was no disagreement at all on the question of booths vs. tables: booths. It would be acceptable to have tables in the middle, but the Greatest Diner in the World would always seat us at a booth without even asking. These booths would be padded like crazy and really comfortable. And each one would have those little jute boxes mounted on the wall. A lot of thought went into the jute box phase of the discussion. The jute box would NOT play CDs. It would play 45s-- VINYL 45s. (100% agreement on this point). While there would be some songs rotated in and out of the playlist for the sake of variety, there would be a definite core collection of approximately 50 songs. I won't list all 50 songs, but we all agreed on: "Hit the Road, Jack" by Ray Charles, "A Boy Named Sue / Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash, "The Summer Wind" by Frank Sinatra, "Train in Vain" by the Clash, "Cantaloop" by Us3, and, of course... "Convoy" by C. W. McCall. "Convoy" earned that 'of course' because three of us had been thrown out of a diner in 1976 because we played "Convoy" 7 or 8 times in a row. At the Greatest Diner in the World, the management would be charmed by this sort of thing, at least when WE were doing it. And the management would be a guy named Gus. Well, it doesn't have to be precisely Gus, but it has to be a Gus-like name, such as Tug or Yogi. Gus would have an accent of some sort, but we wouldn't quite be able to place it. This is absolutely essential at the Greatest Diner in the World. We had some conflict about the place mats. The prevailing opinion was that the mats had to have a lot of ads for beauty parlors and muffler shops on them. I have to say that while this was my opinion as well, it's not written in stone. It's possible that you can have the Greatest Diner in the World and have place mats without lots of ads. The jury is still out on this one. The only thing we agreed about as far as the waitress goes: if you walk in and she doesn't call you 'Hon' or something like that-- as in "Be right with you, Hon"-- forget about it. Not only are you not in the Greatest Diner in the World, you should run for the hills. No agreement about food. Probably they should have some, we agreed. Again, not written in stone. And possibly the most important thing of all: The Slogan. A great diner needs a great slogan. Such as "Good Eats," "Fill Your Face," etc. (If one of those is the slogan, the place really must have food, no question about it). "Open 24 Hours" is also a good slogan, and this might be the place to mention that the Greatest Diner in the World HAS to be open 24 hours. If I get hungry at 4 A.M. and the diner closes at 2 A.M., who cares how good it is? Plus, if they close at 2 AM, that means at 2 AM we get thrown out even if we don't want to go. And frankly, we've all had enough of that, thanks.


The current Olympic Games have achieved the lowest television ratings in the history of the Games-- anyway that's what I read in the papers, although I suspect that the since the modern games predate television by several decades, this is not precisely true. But the ratings are undoubtedly real low. I have several theories about why the Olympics are tanking, and what we can do about it. THEORY NUMBER ONE: The Cold War is over. It was really cool when we were going head-to-head with the Russians every four years. The science fiction writer Bruce Sterling once suggested that the race to be first on the moon was "a touch-football version of World War III," and so, I would argue, were the Olympics. And since in those halcyon, pre-drug test days, the Russians were fielding teams of female athletes with five o'clock shadows and (rumor had it, at least in MY grammar school) male athletes with stainless steel skeletons, when we won, it was all the sweeter, and when they won, it didn't count because they were cheating. It was win-win. Now, who cares if we beat Russia? It's like beating Tierra del Fuego or Lapland. WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT: Nothing. We could start up another Cold War, but it's tough when you're the only Super Power on the block. I had high hopes for Mars at one point, but apparently it's not going to happen. THEORY NUMBER TWO: Too many Olympics Too Soon. When the Olympics happened once every four years, it was pretty special. When the Olympics happens every two years, that means it pops up more frequently than a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Which, by the way, is a big mistake for Arnold, as well. It used to be you'd get one EXCITING Arnold movie every year and one FUNNY Arnold movie every year, and now you just get one CRAPPY Arnold movie, and you gotta wait about 18 months, and then you go 'What the hell??' Anyhow, the point is, if the Olympics isn't special, it isn't anything at all. If you've only got the opportunity to watch synchronized swimming once every four years, you figure you better take advantage of it; if there's going to be some more synchronized swimming in just a couple of years, you'll watch reruns of The Simpsons. (I realize that the Summer and Winter Games alternate, so you still only get synchronized swimming every four years, but since I don't watch the Olympics anymore it doesn't matter). SOLUTION: Arnold should go back to the old 'one exciting movie, one funny movie every year' schedule, and not make any more crappy movies. THEORY NUMBER THREE: There's too much other stuff on TV. Back in 1968 and 1972 and years like that, you had a mere three networks plus four or five local stations that didn't show anything during the day except Merv Griffin and reruns of the Abbott and Costello show. Now you have 6 or 7 broadcast channels and about 25,000 cable channels. At any given moment, one of them is possibly showing something better than whatever is happening at the same moment in the Olympics, in which case you may be tempted to watch it. SOLUTION: Show the Olympics on every channel. THEORY NUMBER FOUR: They keep taking the medals away from athletes who use drugs. It's really frustrating watching a competition and then finding out that the guy you thought was the winner isn't, because he tested positive for cough medicine or something. This year new Olympic records have been set for the number of athletes stripped of the medals or banned from competition for testing positive for one substance or another, including steroids, diuretics, and decongestants. The list of substances that get you booted from the competition is endless and includes caffeine (which is why there are no newspaper columnists on the Men's Gymnastic Team) and heroin (not generally considered a performance enhancing drug, except for competitors in the 400 meter nod-out), as well as some substances which are produced naturally by the human body. SOLUTION: Rather than banning athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs, the results should just get an asterisk, indicating "Winner Was Doped To The Gills During Competition." Also, as far as I can determine-- as noted, the list of banned substances is enormous-- HALLUCINOGENS are not proscribed. I would watch Hallucinogenic Synchronized Swimming, even if they showed it every night, like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" In fact, I would watch Hallucinogenic "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (What I'd really like to see would be Hallucinogenic Presidential Debates, though given the phantasmagorical rhetorical flights of the one candidate ("We want them to know how to teach the science of reading in order to make sure there's not this kind of federal-- federal cuff-link") and the equally phantasmagorical autobiographical revelations of the other ("I invented the Internet"), it might be redundant.) THEORY NUMBER FIVE: The Olympics have gotten away from the basics. Back in ancient Greece, the Olympics was basically track and field, and wrestling. Now you have everything except hacky-sack and paint ball, and I'm not 100% sure about hacky-sack. WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT: The Olympics should consist of boxing and football. And biting should be allowed. Of course, the Olympics are in fact going to ADD lots more sports, since nowadays when people lose interest in something because it's gotten too big and complicated, we fix it by making it even bigger and more complicated. But they should still allow biting. THEORY NUMBER SIX: The Olympics have gotten away from the basics. I know this sounds just like Theory Number five, but stay with me here. Back in ancient Greece, athletes competed in the nude. A return to this venerable tradition would serve two purposes: First of all, even NON-HALLUCINOGENIC synchronized swimming would be worth watching, and second of all, nobody could wear a sneaker company logo. (Though it occurs to me this might inspire Nike to tattoo or brand its athletes) In any case, I guarantee that ratings would improve.



My Dad is a real big baseball fan and I thought it would be really cool if for his birthday I could get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I don't mean to visit, I mean get him IN, like with a plaque and everything. Can fans get into the Baseball Hall of Fame? I know broadcasters and owners and people like that can, so I think my dad should, too. Does it cost a lot? And how long does it take?



It's great that you think you're dad deserves a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Unfortunately, fans are not eligible at this time. You could petition the selection committee about admitting fans, but it's a long shot at best. Perhaps you could just buy a plaque at a local trophy shop and have it engraved to say that your father is The World's Biggest Baseball Fan or something like that. This would probably be a lot cheaper than bribing all the people on the Selection Committee, and you won't have to fight the traffic in Copperstown, which is really starting to get out of control. Another thing you could do is start your own Baseball FAN Hall of Fame and make your dad the first inductee. Since you would make up all the rules, you could force him to pay a hefty admittance fee and buy his OWN plaque. * * *


My family and I are planning to drive cross-country this fall and thought it would be cool to visit as many Hall of Fames as we could. Of course we are familiar with the Baseball and Football Halls of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but can you recommend some lesser-known (but still good) Halls of Fame, especially in the mid-west?

Travellin' family


Three Halls of Fame you will not want to miss: The Hurricane Hall of Fame in Treefork, Indiana. (Admission: 75 cents) Run by Mitch Gorman, this museum contains water collected from some of the most famous hurricanes of the 20th Century. A pint of dank water from Hurricane Donna (1965) is kept in a mayonnaise jar, and a more substantial amount of water from Hurricane Curley Joe (1992) is stored in an 'institutional' size spaghetti sauce jar. These in fact are the only two exhibits at the museum, because Mr. Gorman hasn't experienced all that many hurricanes, but it's a one of kind Hall of Fame for sure. The Dog Biscuit Hall of Fame (Admission: 75 cents), also in Treefork, also run by Mitch Gorman, has a considerable collection of dog biscuits of many different shapes and varieties, including several which belonged to celebrities (including Edith Piaf, William Randolph Hearst, and Sal Mineo), as well as some very rare 'misprint' biscuits, upon which the 'k' in 'Milkbone' is reversed. Don't miss this one! And finally, the Teen Age Caveman Hall of Fame in Nobebosco, Wyoming (Admission: $3.00). Dedicated to the cast and crew of the 1958 film "Teen Age Caveman," inductees include star Robert Vaughn; this year the old timer's committee has voted long over-looked 5th billed Frank de Kova into the Hall. Festivities begin on October 22nd. * * *


My little brother keeps using my toothbrush and it's driving me crazy! I've told my parents, and they yell at him, but it does no good. Do you have any suggestions?



I assume there is nothing wrong with his own toothbrush, and he's just doing his best to annoy you. But what your brother is doing is not just annoying, it's unsanitary. Perhaps rather than keeping it in the bathroom, you might store your toothbrush in your dresser somewhere. I realize this is an inconvenience for you, but I believe it will stop the problem. * * *


Who is in the most Halls of Fame? I think of someone like Bo Jackson, who played pro baseball and pro football, and I wonder if anyone like that is in multiple Halls of Fame.



There are a number of athletes who have been inducted into both college and professional halls of fame-- far too many of them to list here, in fact. Aside from that, a search of my data base turns up the fact that the late Chuck Connors, professional basketball player and baseball player and later TV's "Rifleman," as well as the star of this movie about these teenagers who stop at a creepy motel which turns out to be run be an insane puppet maker (Chuck) who kills almost all of them to use them for puppet parts, is not in any Halls of Fame at all. * * *


If the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Football Hall of Fame got into a fight, who would win?



It depends on whether you're talking about the pro Football Hall of Fame, or the college Football Hall of Fame. The Baseball Hall of Fame could probably take the college Football Hall easily, but the pro Football Hall would in all likelihood make short work of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unless the Baseball Hall could use their BATS. And if they were allowed to use bats with spikes in them, look out! * * *


The school year had commenced a couple of weeks earlier, and now we were all engaged in our Fall Projects in shop class. Calvano was going to make a chair leg, a very ornate one, requiring the use of the lathe. If this leg turned out okay, he would make another leg for his Winter Project, and a third for this Spring Project, and, if could induce the proper authorities to keep him in the 7th grade long enough, he would have a complete chair in a year or two. Picarillo was making a board with holes in it. He'd found the board in the alley behind the barbershop. One side had a coat of bright green paint on it, and the letter 'd,' in white, with a black border. In all likelihood it had once been part of the old 'Oxford Barber Shop' sign, which had been replaced over the summer by a spiffy new aluminum sign. Picarillo was in love with the green board, and had already drilled out the hole in the 'd.' We were required to get the approval of Mr. Joworsky, the shop teacher, before beginning our projects, and Calvano and I listened to Picarillo's proposal with great interest. Mr. J: What are you going to make, Michael? Picarillo [holds up board]: I'm gonna do THIS. Mr. J: Do what? Picarillo: Gonna make some more holes. Mr. J: Why? Picarillo: Huh? Mr. J: I said, why? Picarillo [holds board up to his face, looks through the hole with his left eye]: See? Mr. J: Uh-- Picarillo [moves board. Looks through hole with RIGHT eye]: I got TWO eyes. Mr. J: So you're going to, to, to make a second hole... Picarillo: I'm gonna make FIVE holes. Picarillo then winked at Mr. Joworsky through the hole. This so unnerved Mr. Joworsky that he had to excuse himself from class for a few minutes and smoke a cigarette in the teacher's lounge. When he returned, he went on to the next kid (Steve Brooks, who was going to make a kitchen cabinet) without ever having actually given his stamp of approval to the board-hole project, but, as Picarillo said later, "He didn't NOT approve it," so Picarillo hunkered down to work the next day. (Just for the record, my project was tumbling some stones. My cousin Billy had attended the Colorado School of Mines and had sent me a tumbling set-- basically a jar full of abrasive slush and a motor that turned it; you stuck some ugly old rocks in the jar, plugged in the motor, and in a few days, your rocks would come out with all the edges worn down. You polished them up, and they looked sort of cool. Since I had absolutely nothing to do between the time I put the stones in and took the stones out, I spent shop class drawing pictures of bug monsters. However, I used a clipboard to hold my paper and wore a green visor and Mr. Joworsky never bothered me.) Every other class (we had shop twice a week), Picarillo drilled a new hole in the board (or, as we had come to think of it, The Board). When he was done drilling, he would sand the edges of the new hole, then outline it with white paint, and then outline the white paint with a thin black line. Then the following class he would put a new coat of shellac on The Board. By the time he had finished with hole # 4, Calvano estimated that shellac constituted approximately 30 % of the weight of The Board. In all this time Mr. Joworsky steadfastly refused to even glance in Picarillo's direction. Meanwhile, all around us, lamps and chairs and cabinets and knick-knack shelves were coming into existance. Danny Novak, who was to shop class what Mozart was to music, was making a drawer for an old dresser that had been in his family for many generations; the original drawer had been broken or lost, and his replacement was not only going to fit perfectly, but was going to be artificially 'antiqued' to look perfect as well. Of course Calvano, Picarillo and I held him in utter contempt because he measured the pieces of wood he was using before he cut them, and even made marks on them to guide his cuts. "Measure twice, cut once," Mr. Joworsky said. In contrast, Calvano was making his first chair leg for the third time because of what he thought of as his principled refusal to 'cheat' like Novak. The Board was nearing completion. The 5th and final hole had been drilled and painted, and the fifth and final coat of shellac had been applied, and was rapidly drying. "As soon as it's done and I test it out, I'll let you guys try it out," he said. "You mean it actually does something?" said Calvano. We scrutinized The Board, trying to figure out what Picarillo had done. The holes were not arranged symmetrically-- there seemed to be no pattern at all. Some of the holes were an inch in diameter; some were two inches, some half an inch. "Geez, Picarillo, we thought you were just, you know, drilling holes." "Oh, yeah, THAT would make a lot of sense," said Picarillo. "Well, what's the idea?" "Hang on. It'll knock you out." When the shellac was dry, Picarillo held up the board. "Don't you get it? All the holes have ANOTHER hole that's just an inch away. See? This big one is just an inch from THAT one. This little one is just an inch from THIS one. And then this one down here is just an inch away from THAT one." "What about this one over here, in the corner?" "Well, that one is all by itself. But all the other ones are just an inch away from another hole." "Okay. So?" Picarillo held The Board up to his face. He peered out through two of the holes. Then he turned it about 40 degrees and peered out of two different holes. Then he moved it another few degrees and peered out through the hole in the corner with one eye. "Get it now?" "No..." "You can LOOK OUT ALL THESE HOLES!" He shifted the board around in front of his face, but there was always at least one eye, and usually two, peering out at us. We stood transfixed for a few seconds while our brains refused to process what we were experiencing. "You wanna try it?" "You better let Mr. Joworsky know you finished your project first," said Calvano. "Mr. Joworsky! Mr. Joworsky!" Mr. Joworsky approached with great reluctance. "Yes, Mike?" "It's all done! You want to try it out?" Picarillo shifted the board around his face. Whenever an eye appeared at a new hole, he would bug his eyes out to emphasize it. Mr. Joworsky's eyes were bugging out, too. "Go ahead, Mr. J-- give it a shot!" Mr. Joworsky excused himself and went to the teacher's lounge, and when he returned, Picarillo again offered to let him try out The Board. Mr. Joworsky returned to the teacher's lounge and this time he didn't come back for quite a while.


A week or so ago I received a puzzling email. It was from my friend "Ed," whose name is in quotes because his name is actually Bob Trauber and I promised I wouldn't use his real name when I wrote about this. The message was addressed to "Ed's" girlfriend "Janet," and it was quite brief: it said they'd been talking on the phone and then "Janet" had hung up on him and kept hanging up on him when he called back, and he couldn't stand it and hoped she felt better soon and would talk to him because he loved her, blah blah blah kiss kiss kiss, ad nauseum. It was signed "Huckle-Ed." (Actually "Huckle-Bob," but that's probably covered under the promise, too.) I read it a couple of times, wondering why I'd been "CC-ed" to receive this message. In fact, I noticed, it looked like several other people had also been CC-ed; I scrolled down the address slot. I kept scrolling; there were dozens and dozens of people who'd received this message. At this point I realized that he'd clearly hit the wrong 'send' key-- instead of clicking on Janet's addressed, he'd clicked on 'Send to All,' meaning everybody in his data base, which appeared to be an awful lot of people. I was torn between a desire to delete the message and a desire to forward it to everybody in MY database. A few minutes later I received a second mass e-mailing from him. This one had a red exclamation mark beside it, the only such email I've ever got which wasn't from someone trying to get me to invest in time-share condos. This one, which I have his permission to run verbatim, went: Dear Friends: Oops! Please delete and ignore the terribly personal letter you just received from me. I was trying to send an e-mail to my girlfriend and it accidentally went out to my ENTIRE MAILING LIST. Needless to say, I'm extremely embarrassed. I guess this is one of those things that is only possible with e-mail. Maybe this is a lesson to all of us. I hope I live long enough to get over this embarrassment. "Ed" I love that "Maybe this is a lesson to all of US." Anyway, because I'm a sensitive and caring guy, I wrote back immediately to put his mind at ease: Dear Ed: Just got your 'Ignore Previous Email' note. Fortunately I hadn't checked my email for a while and I hadn't read the first message, which pursuant to your instructions I have deleted without opening. Whatever is going on, I hope it's nothing too serious. I'll talk to you soon. Huckle-Jeff Not long after that, the phone rang. "So," I said, "How many people got that email?" "Well, my server cuts off mass emailings after 100 to discourage spamming. So just 100..." "Including Janet, of course..." "Uh..." "She can't be too happy about this." "She's not. I called her right away to let her know what happened and she started to hang up on me before I could tell her so I had to just sort of scream it all out in one fast sentence. Boy, she was mad. There were 3 of my former girl friends on that list. Well, really 5 or 6, but 3 that SHE knew were old girl friends. There were lots of mutual friends. There were CLIENTS of mine ("Ed" runs an ad agency). There were... well, just an awful lot of people." Pause. "What's that noise?" "Wha-what noise?" "That SNORTING noise. You were SUPPRESSING LAUGHTER." "Well, you have to admit this thing does have it's, uh, amusing aspects..." "So I've heard. From several people." "Well, at least Janet is speaking to you again." "I think she feels sorry for me." "And well she should. You know that part in your second email, where you say you hope you live long enough to get over the embarrassment?" "Yes." "It reminds me of a story from the Arabian Nights. You know the story of Abu Hasan?" "Uh--" "This guy Abu Hasan at a wedding feast. He gets up to propose a toast and he breaks wind. Everyone stops talking for just a split second, but then they all go back to chatting, like nothing happened. But Abu Hasan is so humiliated that the next morning he leaves town; he goes to India, he becomes a body guard of the king, he has all kinds of adventures, but after 40 years he gets homesick and decides to visit the old town. Everything has changed so much he can't even find the street where he used to live. There are new buildings everywhere. There's a huge new palace in the middle of town. He goes up to a little girl and he asks, "When was that palace built?" And she says "Let me think-- It was completed 27 years, 7 month, 2 weeks and 6 days after Abu Hasan broke wind." " "Thanks for sharing..." "No, no-- thank YOU for sharing. Anyhow, the point is, every person who got that email is going to date all the events of his or her life from the receipt of the Huckle-Ed email." "Uh--" "You are THE MAN!" As he said in his second email, this is the kind of thing that simply couldn't happen before the days of email. I am so glad I live in these times. I'm typing this on Monday, September 4th, 2000-- or as I like to think of it, DAY NINE, H.E. Mark your calendars.

You're In For It Now!

"Who runs this place? A monkey?" said my Uncle Tug. The bartender glared at him. "Something wrong, sir?" "Whoever is in charge of refilling the peanut bowl put pretzels in it. I'm eatin' pretzels and I'm tasting peanuts. This is peanut dust at the bottom of the bowl, and peanuts are a legume, and lemme tell you, you don't wanna know what happens to my digestive system when I accidentally eat legumes because some chimpanzee can't keep the bowls straight." "I--" "Or because the chimpanzee's BOSS is too lazy to rinse out the bowl before he refills it." "Just a sec," said the bartender. He retreated to the other end of the bar and made, or perhaps pretended to make, a quick phone call. When he returned, he said, "You're in luck. My lawyer says there's apparently some state or local ordinance which prevents me from putting rat poison in your drink. But I'm planning to contact my congressman and see if we can do something about that." "Why bother your congressman? Just talk to the keeper when he drops off your bananas." "So," I said, "how about this large cat everybody's been seeing around here, huh? Anybody got any ideas about what it might be?" I was trying to change the subject because I was concerned that when Uncle Tug finally succeeded in provoking the bartender to violence, the violence, because of Uncle Tug's extreme age (87 and counting), might be directed not at Uncle Tug but at the rather more youthful person who drove him to the bar, that is to say, me. "Better not be a lion," said Uncle Tug. "They eat chimps." "I wonder if it might be the panther or whatever it was that people were reporting in Nockamixon 10 or 15 years ago," I continued doggedly. "Or maybe a descendent of it?" "Well, then where's it been for 15 years?" said a man in a beige cap a couple of seats away. "Hibernating?" "If it was a WERE-PANTHER," said Uncle Tug, "that would explain everything. You just look for somebody who was living around here 15 years ago and then moved back. Then to double check, you find out where the fellow was living for those 15 years, and if it was Buffalo and there was a were-panther on the loose in Buffalo, you got your were-panther. Look at this." He licked his index finger and poked it in the bottom of the pretzel bowl. "Sure looks like peanut dust to me." "I don't know what's going on around here," said the man with the cap. "First it's bears all over the place, and then you've got big cats. It's like New Jersey is turning into a jungle." "Should make SOME folks feel right at home," said Uncle Tug. The bartender, from the color of his face, was pretty close to the you-can-fry-an-egg-my-forehead-now phase, which comes just before the I-can't-hit-an-87-year-old-man-but-I-can-hit-his-nephew phase. The man with the cap said, "Not me. I'm thinking of moving back to Hoboken." "Well, I'm not sweating it," said the bartender. "They ain't coming near my property." "Why's that?" Uncle Tug opened his mouth, but I put my hand over it before anything dangerous could emerge. "Wolf urine," said the bartender. "Beg pardon?" "You can buy it at any good garden center. You sprinkle it around the yard, and it keeps deer away. Got a canister in the car. I dunno if there's really any BIG CAT out there, but since your wolf is basically a big dog, it oughta work on them, too. Ought to work even better." "I never heard of anybody sprinkling wolf urine around the yard," said Uncle Tug. "But if somebody was going to do it, it doesn't surprise me that it's you." "Go ahead and make fun of it. It works." "Let me ask you something-- how do you suppose they collect wolf urine?" "Huh?" "You figure they go, 'Here Mr. Wolf-- please go in the other room and fill up this jar?' " "Uh--" "I don't figure that. I figure they go to the sink, turn on the water, maybe add a little food coloring, and sell it. How many bananas do they charge for a can?" "Hey, I've had just about enough--" "Enough fake wolf urine? I dare say." "It's the real deal," snarled the bartender. "So says YOU," replied Uncle Tug. "Aw right. Barney--" He waved over the kid clearing off the pool table. "Stand in for me for a minute. Aw right. Now we'll see what's what." He tossed his apron down on the bar and Uncle Tug, the guy in the cap, and I followed him out to his car. "See? See? What's it say? See that? 'Wolf Urine'. Just like I said." "Nobody's arguin' about what the can SAYS, just about what's actually IN it." "Aw right. I'm gonna pop the top. NOBODY can fake the smell of wolf urine." "Lead on, MacDuff," said Uncle Tug. The bartender pulled at the lid without any results except some entertaining grunts. "Gotta get a little more leverage," said the guy in the cap. "Here." He pulled out a Swiss Army knife and stuck one of the blades under the lid. "Now..." "Let's bring this outside," said the bartender. "Brace that baby with your foot, like so," said Uncle Tug, who attempted to demonstrate the proper technique for prying the lid off a container of wolf urine, but was unable to lift his 87 year old foot more than a couple inches off the ground. "I got it," said the guy in the cap. "I really--" said the bartender, just as the guy in the cap demonstrated-- spectacularly-- why you don't want a guy who's just had several beers pry the lid off a container of wolf urine in the back seat of your car. "Aw geez," said the guy in the cap. Actually he didn't say that, but I can't print a single word any of us actually said for the next 4 or 5 minutes. "Well, I have to admit," said Uncle Tug a few moments later, "there is no doubt in my mind that that was real wolf urine. OH yeah. OH yeah. My doubts are LAID TO REST." Then followed many words from the bartender, none of which I can get into print here. "Well, look at the bright side," said the guy in the cap after a few moments had gone by. "You don't have to worry about a deer stealin' your car." "Or a big cat either, probably," said Uncle Tug, but the bartender seemed to take no comfort from the fact.

Back to School Sale at the Custom Neon Sign Shop

"You know what I just saw on the way over?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "You know the Restaurant Supply House on the corner of Delancy and Ludlow?" "Not really," I said. "It's right across from where Tommy the Horse used to park his car," he said. "Only it wasn't the car he actually DROVE. You know what I mean?" I didn't (and don't), but I felt that if I said so he might explain it to me, so I nodded. "Okay. So anyway, the Restaurant Supply House has a big sign in the window-- 'Back to School Sale.' Like kids going back to school are going to buy..." [Here there was a long pause] "...whatever it is you get at restaurant supply stores." "Restaurant furniture," I said. "Furniture? There's no furniture in restaurants!" "Tables," I said. "Also, they sell--" "Tables count as furniture? I don't think of tables as furniture." "What do you think of as furniture?" "Hassocks," he said. "And certain kinds of chairs." "Certain kinds?" "The kinds like my grandmother has in her apartment. She's got like little RUGS she drapes over the arms. Those kind of chairs are furniture. THIS--" He whacked an aluminum folding chair we had salvaged from a dumpster. "--is not furniture. You see what I'm saying?" "Um. Well, the Restaurant Supply Houses also sell pots and pans--" "Tables," Mulberry Street Joey Clams said dreamily. "Hey-- you think restaurant supply houses have those PICTURES of Italian stuff they have on the walls at all the pizza places? You know, like those pictures of the Leaning Tower, and those maps of Italy with the big FISHES and things?" "Uh, probably..." "We should get some of those. But anyway. The point is, if a restaurant supply company can have a back-to-school sale, so can WE." We-- Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I-- were the Custom Neon Sign Shop. (I'd had to fight like a pit bull to keep him from spelling 'custom' with a 'K,' incidentally.') "Um," I said. "I can't help wondering what it is we're going to sell at the back-to-school sale." "What do you THINK we'll sell? All the SIGNS that people commissioned and then they never paid for so we're stuck with them." "By my count that would be 4 signs." "Sounds right." "One of these signs says 'Floral arrangements by Betty Jean.' " "Yeah. I'm REAL sick of seeing that one." "Me, too. I'm just trying to figure out who's going to buy it." "I'm willing to sell it for LESS than cost." "Mulberry Street Joey Clams, nobody is going to buy a 'floral arrangements by Betty Jean' sign' for any price at all, except possibly a florist named Betty Jean. And since the one florist named Betty Jean we have ever met did NOT, when all was said and done, buy it..." "She ever asks for her deposit back, she's in for a shock." "Actually, as I recall it, her store burned down." "Well, don't look at ME. I didn't do it. Even if I'd wanted to, I'd have waited till she paid the balance of the--" "I KNOW you didn't. I'm just saying there's a limited market for an item like that. There's a limited market for all of the left over signs we have. It's limited to the people who ordered them in the first place and then skipped town." "Mr. Genero didn't skip town," he reminded me. "His wife pushed him out the window." "I remember." "Got a real snotty letter from her lawyer when I sent a letter telling her to pay up if she wanted the sign." "I remember that, too." "Guy's got an ATTITUDE." "The average person just doesn't have much use for somebody else's neon sign, Mulberry Street Joey Clams." In fact the average person doesn't have much use for a neon sign, period, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I refused to acknowledge this, since if we did, we would have had to seriously consider shutting down the Custom Neon Sign Shop. "Well, that's where the back-to-school thing comes in handy. We'll give away some kind of real cool back-to-school type PREMIUM with each sign." "I keep coming back to the idea that we only have four signs to put on sale." "Fewer premiums-things to buy," he said. He made a trip to the Job Lot Trading Co. on Canal Street and purchased the premiums-- pencil pouches. That is, transparent plastic pouches with a zipper and holes punched in one side so it could be inserted in a three ring binder. These retailed for about 20 cents, and it was hard to see how a free pencil pouch would make a "Floral Arrangements by Betty Jean" neon sign seem like a good idea, anyway. Nonetheless, I found myself with a piece of cardboard and a magic marker, printing "FREE PENCIL POUCH WITH PURCHASE OF NEON SIGN. YOUR CHOICE." We placed it in the front window and waited for the crowds to assemble. Sometime around Day Four of our wait, someone stopped by to ask what a pencil pouch was. "You need a pouch for your pencils, it's the thing to get," Mulberry Street Joey Clams told him. "You can fit... what do you think, Jeff? Ten pencils?" "Ten or twelve," I said. "Pencils OR pens, or a mixture. And a couple of those flat pink erasers, too." "You can't go wrong," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He held one up. There was a goldfish design stamped on the transparent plastic. "Pretty sharp, huh? And you see these holes? Fits right in your three ring binder." The man seemed impressed, but he didn't buy a neon sign. "I think we could have sold him the pencil pouch," I said. "How about this?" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He grabbed a memo pad and quickly printed: FREE NEON SIGN WITH PURCHASE OF A PENCIL POUCH. YOUR CHOICE. "Uh--" "We could charge FIFTY CENTS a piece for the pencil pouches-- net profit--" he quickly did the math-- "30 cents... and who wouldn't buy a pencil pouch if you got a FREE NEON SIGN, no matter what the sign said?" "Uh--" "Man-- it's been staring up right in the face! I'm gonna go back to Job Lot and buy a ton of these pencil pouches!' "But we only have four signs, Mulberry Street Joey Clams!" "Well, we're a NEON SIGN SHOP," he said. "We'll MAKE SOME MORE!"

Conversation Piece

Before the Ravages of Age reduced it to a grotesque parody of its former self, I had one of those faces that people sometimes describe as 'open' and 'affable.' [For the grotesque parody, see accompanying photo]. In practice, this meant that people on subways and buses would zero in on me and start talking, apropos of nothing. This is a plus, of course, when the people zeroing in happen to be super models or eccentric millionaires, but of course the very fact that I was on a subway or a bus kind of militated against that possibility. In general, I attracted three kinds of people: (1) those who had an inside line on when the end of the world was arriving [generally it was going down within the next two weeks] and wanted to share the information with someone; (2) escaped mental patients; (3) otherwise normal people who had just had a delicious lunch of which garlic was an indispensable and still quite apparent ingredient. On a subway, this wasn't too much of a problem, since there was another station (and an opportunity to flee into a different car) no more than a few minutes away, but buses were a real problem. I might be an hour away from my destination when someone would plop down in the seat next to mine and announce: "I know the names of ALL THE KNISHES." [Pause.] "There's a BLUEBERRY knish, and a CHERRY knish, and a POTATO knish..." And the string of knishes would extend itself across two or three county lines while I brooded on the certainty that when the knishes ran out, the conversation would not cease. I found that if I squinted with one eye while at the same time making the other eye bug out, most people would avoid sitting next to me. There were two problems: after a while it made my head ache, and while most people avoided the seat beside me, the people who didn't often had one eye squinting and the other eye bugging out. I started bringing a book with me, initially with the idea that I could ignore whatever was erupting from the seat beside me by reading. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes the escaped mental patient would be polite enough not to disturb me, but more often the book was taken as an invitation to ask questions about the book. "So what cha reading? Is it good? What's it about? You read a lot? I read a book once. It was blue. There was this BOY. Something happens to the boy. Did you read that book? No? I thought you said you read a lot..." So I experimented with books-- or book covers-- which I felt would discourage conversation. Some people, of course, can not be discouraged by anything, but I figured I would be satisfied with a 75% success rate or better. Cookbooks actually increased the number of people who talked to me. I don't know why. Maybe because everybody eats? Math books worked pretty well. It was a real pleasure to reply "The invariant means of topological functions" when someone asked, "What's it about?" On the downside, I was reading about the invariant means of topological functions. Books with floating eyeballs on the cover-- always a major part of my recreational reading-- brought me in contact with a variety of interesting people; generally they would hand me religious tracts, but sometimes they would ask me if I were interested in investing a small amount of money in a company that was about to revolutionize food with pizza in a can or something along those lines. On one memorable occasion a floating eyeball cover compelled a gentleman to sit next to me, untie and remove his shoe, and say "Excuse me-- you look like an educated man... you got any idea what it is that I stepped in here?" As a matter of fact I did. Finally I hit upon the idea of a book within a book, just like in old sitcoms, where kids hid their comics inside their massive history books. I would have a small-- that is, rack-size-- paperback, which I would actually be reading, but this would be hidden inside a copy of "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr. Seuss. Very few people will risk sitting next to a grown man reading "Green Eggs and Ham." Once a guy stood all the way from Hoboken to Clifton rather than take a chance on the seat beside me. And on the rare occasions when someone did feel compelled to strike up a conversation, the book provided me with useful responses to all inquiries.

ESCAPED MENTAL PATIENT: Excuse me, is this seat taken? ME: Do you like green eggs and ham? Do you like them here or there?

That usually ended the conversation. Sometimes I would have to go so far as to ask if he would like them in a box or with a fox, but not often. Once or twice the escaped mental patient was conversant enough with the book that he would respond correctly ("I would not, could not, in a box / I could not, would not, with a fox...") and then I was forced to keep going all the way to the end, but it's a short book.

The St. Patrick's Day Parade

"Something's wrong with Picarillo," Calvano said to me. Picarillo was loading his tray with extra pats of butter for his roll. It was an enormous roll. Picarillo was the pet of the cafeteria staff, because he was always telling them how great the food was. "Geez, this is THE BEST MEATLOAF EVER, Mrs. Gorman!" he would say. This relentless sucking-up brought him extra desserts and other bonuses, such as enormous rolls and extra pats of butter. I watched him for a moment and didn't see anything wrong, aside from the usual things. "Look at him. He's got that big stupid smile on his face. He's really happy about something," said Calvano. "It's that big roll." "Nah. It's something even stupider, I bet." When Picarillo sat down, we put the question directly to him. At first he denied there was anything special about his smile, but after 5 or 10 seconds he could restrain himself no longer. "I got green pants," he said. "For St. Patrick's Day!" "Told you," Calvano said to me. "Well, do tell, Picarillo. We want to know everything there is to know about these green pants." Irony was lost on Picarillo. He happily went on about his new green pants. His mom had bought them 'specially for St. Patrick's Day. They weren't just ANY green, they were KELLY green. And they had a shamrock stitched on the back pocket. Calvano and I listened to his breathless description of this sartorial atrocity silently. Mrs. Picarillo kept Picarillo's closet and his dresser drawers filled with brightly colored fuzzy socks, candy-striped shirts, "mod" jeans, and all sorts of things made from that new miracle fabric, polyester. This put Picarillo in the same boat with countless other unfortunate children of the sixties; the thing that made him special was: he loved it. Bright orange socks and a purple pullover with a picture of Underdog on it? Thanks, Mom! Wait'll the guys see it! So they fact that Mrs. Picarillo was planning to stuff her gourd-shaped son into these grotesque pants for St. Patrick's Day was par for the course. "Too bad St. Patrick's Day is on Saturday this year," said Calvano. "We'll have the school party on Friday," Picarillo responded, "so everybody'll still get to see them." "You know, Picarillo, it's too bad you don't live in New York. Then you could wear those pants to the St. Patrick's Day parade and everybody in the world would see them," said Calvano. "Well, I'll wear 'em to the one in Paterson." Calvano was taken aback. "I didn't know there was a parade in Paterson." "Oh yeah," said Picarillo. "Every big city has a St. Patrick's Day parade. It's the law." "Where's it go?" said Calvano. "Down McBride Avenue, past Ducky's Hot Texas Wiener Emporium." Picarillo came out with this information so confidently and fluently that it didn't even occur to us to suspect he had no idea what he was talking about. What's even more amazing is that it didn't occur to Picarillo, either. We immediately made plans to attend the parade. "Man," said Calvano, "That's great! Right outside Ducky's! We can sit there watching the parade and eating Hot Texas Wieners all day!" "Hey," said Picarillo, "that's right!" "We gotta get there early, so we're right on the curb." "Yeah. We want to see all the balloons." This made me and Calvano blink-- was Picarillo confusing the St. Pat's parade with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade? -- but we shrugged it off. "What time does it start?" I asked. Picarillo squinted, which is what he did when he wanted to give the impression he was thinking, and said: "11:00." "Well, we better be outside Ducky's by 8," said Calvano. "It's bound to be a prime location." We all nodded. Right. Three hours early. So bright and early on St. Patrick's Day, we tied three folding chairs to Picarillo's back and rode our bikes to Ducky's Texas Wiener Emporium, a diner near The Great Falls. "Man! What a break! Nobody's here yet!" We set up the chairs and excitedly watched the traffic for a few moments. "Hey," said Picarillo, "Let's have some breakfast Hot Texas Wieners." "Good idea," said Calvano, "but we don't wanna lose our place." We played rock-scissors-paper to determine who would guard the chairs while the other two went to get the wieners. Picarillo. It was 8:10 when we made the first wiener run of the day. Calvano and I told the counter man how we'd pedaled all the way from Little Falls to watch the parade. He nodded, sauced the dogs, lit a new cigarette with the stub of the old one. "We'll be back for more later," said Calvano, "once the parade gets going." The counter man nodded again. By 10:30 we had made three more wiener runs and were feeling a little queasy, and beginning to wonder why no one else was showing up for the big parade. It was a beautiful sunny day. At this point a couple of Paterson cops who had been drinking coffee at the counter during our last run emerged and approached us. "Waiting for the St. Pat's parade, boys?" "Uh-- yeah, officers." "Well, it's the best spot for it. Ain't it, Doug?" "Oh, yeah," said Officer Doug. "You wanna make sure you don't lose your spots, tho, boys. I'll tell you what…" He took a piece of chalk from his blouse pocket. "Now don't move…" He drew a square around each of our chairs. "Now these are your official Paterson PD spots. NOBODY can watch the parade from these spots but you boys," he said. "Geez," we said. "And by the same token, you guys have to watch the parade from right here. These are the best spots in town, though, so you wouldn't wanna move anyway, right?" "Uh-- right," said Calvano. "Well, we'll be back later, boys, to make sure nobody takes your spots." "If anybody tries to, you just give a holler," said Officer Doug. Then the two most evil cops in the history of the world got in their car and drove away. "Wow," said Picarillo, "Our official spots!" By 11:30 the parade hadn't started, and our bladders were full, but we were too scared to move out of our official squares and use Ducky's rest room. At one point two kids went by on bikes that had baseball cards clothespinned to the spokes to make a "ratatatatatat" noise. "I think the parade is starting!" cried Picarillo. A couple of old Buicks went by. Moments later they went by again, slowly, probably to get a better look at Picarillo's pants. At 1 PM Calvano went to Ducky's rest room, despite near hysterical pleading from Picarillo: "You're gonna ruin it for ALL of us, you crazy fool!" When Calvano came back, I went; and when I came back, Calvano folded up his chair. "Come on, Picarillo, nothing's gonna happen here." "I'm not moving outta my square!" cried Picarillo. "Picarillo--" "I'm not missing the parade! I'm NOT LOSING MY SPOT!" "Well, we'll see you later--" "You guys are gonna get in BIG TROUBLE!" he called as we pedaled away, awkwardly balancing our folded chairs on the backs of our bikes. We stopped at the curve of the road and looked back. More cars were slowly passing Picarillo to look at his pants. His arms were crossed defiantly. I would like to say "and he still there to this day," but I don't think he is.


One afternoon at the Custom Neon Sign Shop, I was doing a crossword puzzle and I was stumped by 13 down. "Mulberry Street Joey Clams," I said, "I need a nine letter word for 'dromedary.'" "Look," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "I know you're an okay guy. So that's not the issue. But what if a customer came in right now?" I said nothing, but if we had been characters in a comic strip there would have been half a dozen big question marks popping up around my head. "You're doing a crossword puzzle," he explained. This was indisputable, but as explanations go, it left something to be desired, so I said, "Huh?" "It's a chick thing, man," he explained. "Guys don't DO crossword puzzles. Geez, what if my UNCLE came in right now? He'd have a stroke. My Aunt Teresa does crossword puzzles. You-- what word was that?" "Dromedary. Nine letters." "You know, my cousin Frank was one of those." I must have appeared puzzled, or perhaps the comic strip question marks actually manifested themselves, because he went on. "Yeah, I know, it's hard to believe, huh?" "Uh--" "When he, uh, passed on, I inherited his seal, which has certainly come in handy." He winked. "I think I got it in a drawer here, as a matter of fact…" He began rooting around in the desk, and in a moment produced his cousin's seal. "Oh," I said, "he was a notary public!" "Earth to Jeff," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, "that's what I just SAID." He tossed the seal back into the desk and I stared at the crossword puzzle, unable to continue. Was it a chick thing? Would his Uncle have a stroke if he caught sight of me working on it? Was his cousin not only a notary public, but a dromedary as well? I stared at 13 down for a few more moments and then Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, "We need a shop cat." "What?" "A shop cat. A cat that sits in the window and licks its paws and stuff and people think it's really cute and then they come in for a better look and we make them buy a sign. A lot of crazy old ladies who own antique stores stick a shop cat in the window, and they clean up on that old junk." "Uh--" "I shoulda thought of this YEARS ago." "Uh--" But all the uhs in the world would not stop Mulberry Street Joey Clams when he was in this state of mind. He was already scribbling furiously on one of the yellow legal pads he kept piled around the shop. "Okay," he said, still scrawling. "I figure with the cat in the window, we can increase sales upwards of… 70%. Where's the yellow pages?" I pointed numbly at the phone book on his desk. I wanted to ask where that figure of 70% had come from, but I didn't, because I was afraid he would tell me. Would two cats in the window increase business upwards of 140%? Another question I couldn't bring myself to ask. Mulberry Street Joey Clams was looking under 'Shop Cats,' and not coming up with anything. "Is there some stupid TECHNICAL NAME for cats I don't know?" he said in despair. "Mulberry Street Joey Clams," I said, "Why don't we BORROW a cat to stick in the window before we invest in our own?" "I dunno… Well, maybe that's a good idea… yeah… a TEST cat." He picked up the phone and dialed a number. "Hey, Joanne. It's Joey Clams… No, MULBERRY STREET Joey Clams. Hey listen, you still got that cat? Yeah, Snowball. Listen, you think I could borrow Snowball for a day or two? Hello? Hello?" It turned out to be very difficult to find anyone willing to lend Mulberry Street Joey Clams a cat even for a day. No one even hung on long enough to find out why he wanted the cat. Finally his Cousin Augie said he would lend Mulberry Street Joey Clams a cat. Augie showed up a couple of hours later with the cat. It was being transported in a gym bag, which it seemed not to like much, judging from the sounds it was making. It did not sound a great deal happier when Augie let it out. It leapt straight at Mulberry Street Joey Clams face. It was a very big, very scruffy cat, and the momentum of the leap carried Mulberry Street Joey Clams backwards over the top of a table. Now that Mulberry Street Joey Clams was down, the cat decided to finish him off. If the cat had had opposable thumbs, it would have picked up the nearest blunt object and done to work on Mulberry Street Joey Clams' skull, but since it didn't, it made due with all four claws, which functioned and sounded rather like a QuesinArt. "Hey. Hey," said Augie. "None of that now." Mulberry Street Joey Clams tried to escape by crawling under the desk but the cat blocked him off and threw a wicked combination. Augie and I intervened at this point and the cat, incorrectly figuring the three of us would be a match for it, scurried away and hid somewhere in the shop. Mulberry Street Joey Clams' shirt was in ribbons, as was Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "He's kinda a nervous," explained Augie. "He'll be fine once he gets used to the place." "What's that smell?" I said. "Oh, that's the dead fish in the bag. How do you think I got him into the bag?" "What's his name?" asked Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "How do I know?" said Augie, who then took his leave. "Well, we got a cat," I said. Mulberry Street Joey Clams nodded. "Now what?" Mulberry Street Joey Clams shook his head. And he was right. From time to time the cat would suddenly appear out of nowhere and attack Mulberry Street Joey Clams, but otherwise we never saw him. Mulberry Street Joey Clams developed a nervous tick. We left food out for the cat (he seemed less belligerent when he wasn't hungry), and after the first couple of days we got a litter box. He never slept in the window. Business did not increase 70%. A nine-letter word for dromedary is gallifant.


We (that is, my husband and I) are going to be parents soon, and we would like to give our child a really wonderful name with which to start his (it will be a boy) life. We would like a name that is virile yet sensitive; that betokens strength, and yet has no unwanted overtones of brutality; that betokens intelligence, yet does not suggest elitism; that is unique, yet will not invite derision. What do you suggest?
Proud parents to be

I think the name "Zeeboozeejahfahgala" will fill the bill admirably. Thank you for writing.
* *

My baby is due in about three weeks, and we had decided on the name "Michael." However, my husband's Uncle Herman passed away recently, and we are under much pressure from his family to name our Michael "Herman." I don't want to start a firestorm in the family, or hurt anyone's feelings, but I really do not like the name Herman and do not want to saddle my child with it. And NO, not even as a middle name, which probably would not mollify my relatives anyway. Do you see a way out of this morass? (signed)
No Hermans, thank you

There is no way out. Either you will give your child a name you don't want, or you will anger your relatives. The only compromise that occurs to me, since you have ruled out the obvious 'middle name' gambit, is to combine the two names-- Mikeman? Hermeal? -- but this would probably satisfy no one at all. I think the best bet is to name the child Michael but tell your relatives you named him Herman. He will find this confusing when he's visiting your in-laws, but that can't be helped. "Oh," you could say, "your grand mother calls EVERYBODY Herman."
* *

My name is Alice. I have always wondered-- what does my name mean? I know what names like "Prudence" and "April" mean, but Alice doesn't seem to mean anything at all. Does it?

* *

We are trying to come up with a name for our daughter (due in 6 weeks) and I like "Jamie," but my husband says it's short for 'James' and people will make fun of her. I knew a couple of Jamies in my school days and nobody made fun of them. Well, they made fun of one of them, but that was because she had this big icky mole right next to her nose. It had a hair growing in it. I can't imagine why her parents didn't get it lasered off. Maybe it was for religious reasons. She dressed funny, too. But I need to know: Is Jamie short for James, and will people make fun of our daughter if we name her that?
Really like the name Jamie

Jamie is short of James, but it can also just stand alone. The world is full of people who have names on their birth certificates which, even 20 years ago, were strictly nicknames. Girls often spell it "Jaime," by the way, buyt if your heart is set on "Jamie," make sure you only spell it with one 'm,' because otherwise it will be pronounced Jammie, and people will think it is short for pajamas, and they will certainly make fun of her.
* *

Would it be stupid to name our child after the city in which she was conceived?
Think it would be poetic like

Not at all. It would be a charming way to name your child-- if she was conceived in Gwen, Montana, or Betty, Florida. On the other hand, if the spark of life was kindled in Sheboygan, Wisconsin ("The City of Cheese"), or Mission Viejo, California, you might want to give it a little more thought.
* * *

I would like to give my baby a name that's unusual, but not toooo unusual. What's the best way to do this?
Need a good one

One popular method for achieving this result : take a perfectly common name and alter the spelling a bit (e.g. "Jimi" "Cyndi" "Bob" etc.). Or just stick some extra redundant letters on the end (e.g. "Susannnnnnn.") Another popular method is to name your child after Cher.
* * *

My wife and I want to name our children 'Indian' style-- you know, give them real cool names like 'Running Bear' or 'Two Clouds.' My question is: Do you have to be an actual Indian in order to do this legally? And just how are these names selected? Are they arbitrary, or are they supposed to mean something?
Actually, that's three questions. If you had been named 'Indian' fashion, you might be called 'Takes Off Shoes to Count.' You can legally name your child just about anything at all, as the children of hippies know all too well. Native American names were chosen in different ways depending upon the tribe, and often were not decided upon until adolescence, or even later. Since you need something to put on the birth certificate rather quickly, you might name your child after the first thing your wife sees following the birth ("Acoustic Tile Moskowitz" has a nice ring to it, I think.)
* * *

The Reynolds Factor

I used to work on a loading dock with a guy named Reynolds. If he strung three sentences together, at least one of them would contain a lie. I could never tell whether I was supposed to believe these lies or not; they were often pretty entertaining, but they were never even remotely believable. The radio would be playing some piece of classic rock from the late seventies or early eighties and he would announce, "Good tune. I played bass on that cut." Or someone would mention he'd been watching the women's finals in figure skating at the Winter Olympics on TV, and Reynolds would say "I have a lot of respect for those girls. I was a professional skater myself, until my knee went out, and I can tell you it's tough to skate like that, no matter how easy it looks." He would hear urban legends and repeat them, with himself in the main role: "…So we get home, and she's still shaky, and I go around to open the car door for her, and I swear to God, hanging on the door handle, there's a hook. Man, I nearly lost it…" Once I watched him cleaning his fingernails with a blade of a Swiss Army knife, and when he noticed me, he nodded and said, "I've had this for years. Wouldn't part with it. See, I was part of an elite commando unit." I resisted the temptation to say "In the Swiss Army??" and instead listened while he went on: "I'm not really at liberty to say more than that, but once…" He got a far away look in his eyes, and then went into a plot synopsis of "The Dirty Dozen," told in the first person, with Reynolds in the Richard Jaeckel part and World War II transmuted into the Gulf War. His eyes got misty when he recounted the death of the John Cassevettes character ("We were almost home free, man!") He had gone to both law school and medical school, and only an unspecified scandal-- he took the rap for a buddy-- had prevented him from taking his rightful place at the head of the legal and/or medical professions. His high school girl friends had all become world famous actresses or Super models; his childhood buddies included Sean Penn, Mike Tyson, and George Stephenopolis; and so on. The world is full of guys like Reynolds, but the thing that put him in a class by himself, and for which I will always be grateful, was the Reynolds Factor. There was a digital scale on the loading dock, and Reynolds, who was a roly-poly sort of guy (to look at him you'd have never guessed he'd been a commando/figure skater/former boyfriend of Kathy Ireland and so much more) used to step on the scale several times a day. He usually weighed about 230 pounds, according to the scale. The number would come up, he'd look at it, and announce "230… so… that comes out to… 214. Excellent." In fact, no matter what the scale said-- and sometimes he came in as heavy as 255-- his "actual weight" was always 214. Even though I knew he was trolling for it, I finally asked him how he figured he was 214 when the scale said otherwise. "You got a number of factors to consider," he answered. "Clothes, for one thing. Are your clothes weightless? Of course not. So you factor in the weight of the clothes. And then you got to figure in how much the clothes are being multiplied by the scale." "Multiplied?" "Let's say the clothes themselves weigh 5 pounds. When you WEAR them, the weight gets distributed all over your body, and you've got to add approximately one pound per item of clothing." "Why?" "It's like sales tax," he said. "If the sales tax is, say, 10%, and you buy something that costs 50 cents, you pay 55 cents. But if you buy something that costs a dollar, you pay around $1.12." "You do?" "Absolutely. Where does the other two cents come from? It's just the way the math works." "It does?" "Yup. And the clothes thing works exactly the same way. So you got a shirt, a pair of pants, an under shirt, two socks, two shoes, underpants. Eight items, eight pounds. So already you're up to 13 pounds." "Uh--" "You know what it's like? You know how they say the camera adds 15 pounds to you? It's like that. So we're up to 13 pounds, and then you got to figure HEIGHT." "Height?" "Clothes that are higher up weigh more. It has to do with gravity. A shirt is about four feet over the ground, so it's pressing down on the scale with more force than your socks, which are right there. I mean, think about it. You throw a rock up in the air 20 feet, it makes a bigger splash than a rock you just toss underhand into the pond, right?" "Uh," I said. "Anyway, you have to add about half a pound for every six inches above the floor any item of clothing is." I stepped on the scale. "You know, according to what you're telling me… I actually weigh about 105 pounds," I said. "But when I step on the scale at home, stark naked, I weigh about 155." "This is a professional scale," said Reynolds. "You got to go by the professional scale." "So you're saying I actually weigh 105 pounds." "You could definitely afford to put on a few pounds," he said. "But nah, you're not 105. See, your weight on the scale is close enough to your true weight that you can dispense with certain factors. You're 155 and the scale reads 158. So right away we can forget about the height thing, and the distribution allowance, and just figure in the clothes. I'm guessing your clothes weigh 3 pounds. So you only have one variable to worry about. You're lucky. For me to get a true reading, I practically need a doctorate in math. "So it's a lucky thing," he continued, "that I majored in calculus for a couple of years when I was at MIT…"

Spielberg's Kidney

A couple of weeks ago, famed director Stephen Spielberg had his kidney removed. While the prognosis for Spielberg himself is excellent and no further treatment is scheduled, the fate of his kidney is by no means clear. A bidding war erupted immediately for the celebrated organ. Some of the bidders were collectors of show biz memorabilia who thought a Spielberg kidney might be just the thing to crown a collection of autographed 8 X 10 glossies and reproductions of Judy Garland's ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz; others were serious film historians and archivists who were still kicking themselves for having missed out when John Ford's left eye went on the block back in 1964. Still others were working professionals in the film industry hoping to get the kidney "on board," as they say in Hollywood, some project still in the development stage. "If you can't get Spielberg," said one industry insider, "his kidney is definitely the next best thing, since it's one of his internal organs." Several independent studios were interested in the kidney; unable to afford Spielberg himself, they were hoping the kidney might lend some much-desired respectability to certain upcoming productions. "A movie directed by Spielberg's kidney would be essentially critic-proof," said one unnamed source on the board of directors of one unnamed studio. "You've got the art thing because of Spielberg, and you've got the sympathy thing because it's a kidney. It's win-win." One studio rumored to be in the thick of the bidding is Troma, known for such features as Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, Fat Guy Goes Nutso, Cannibal: the Musical, and Surf Nazis Must Die. While they would not confirm they were in the kidney hunt, an unnamed source said, "If we were going for Spielberg's kidney, which I'm not saying we are, it wouldn't be to have the kidney direct something, like that other lame brain you were talking to said. That's ridiculous. We would use the kidney to make a clone, and have the clone direct something. Maybe Toxie Part VI or VII, whatever we're up to then. The big problem would be: is the clone a member of the Director's Guild of America or isn't it? We're not sure how the membership rules work with clones." I suggested the Guild was probably unsure as well. I also suggested that the Toxic Avenger series might be somewhere around XVII or XXIII by the time the clone would be old enough to direct an episode, as the clone would begin life, like everyone else, as a baby and then grow up at the usual speed. "That can't possibly be true. I've seen several movies about clones, and they are full-grown adults unless it's a kid that gets cloned, in which case it's a kid. The only thing we'd be worried about, aside from the DGA thing, is if it turns out to be an EVIL Spielberg clone. That happens sometimes. Then we would have to hire the REAL Spielberg to fight it to the death." "Why?" "It's just the way it's done. And then when the fight is over, you can't really be sure which one really won. Except if it's the evil clone, when it thinks nobody is looking, it will smile this kind of evil clone smile. And there's another thing we have to work out with the legal department: if we clone a Spielberg from the kidney, does the clone legally belong to us, or to him?" I said that it was my understanding that the clone would be technically a human being and therefore would not be owned legally by anyone. My source laughed uproariously and rang off. In late breaking news, it was learned that Troma was considering picking up the stalled Hannibal project from Universal. Hannibal, the eagerly awaited sequel to the acclaimed cannibal epic Silence of the Lambs, has run into several stumbling blocks over the past several months when SotL director Jonathan Demme, scribe Ted Talley, and star Jodie Foster all pulled out, charging that the sequel was "too gross." "Obviously," said my unnamed source, "that would not be a problem for Troma, and if Universal drops the project, we feel it would be the perfect film for the directing debut of the Spielberg clone, as he would have started life as a kidney and all. And speaking of that, there's an excellent role in the film for the kidney itself." At this point your reporter thought it imprudent to ask any further questions, so he did not. * * Regular readers of this column will note that this is the FOURTH piece I have written about kidneys in the past 6 months. Too many? Not enough? Write to me care of this paper and let me know if you want to see MORE kidney columns!


During most of my tenure as an usher at the late, lamented Park Theater in Caldwell, New Jersey, we showed the same movies at the weekend matinee that we showed in the evening. The Park was a repertoire theater, and while we showed too many science fiction movies and Marx Brothers triple bills to be considered a real "art house," we ran plenty of black and white subtitled stuff, too. It should go without saying that when the regular features were, say, "Yellow Submarine" or "Curse of Frankenstein," the matinees were packed. On the other hand, "Wild Strawberries" and "The Seventh Seal" did reasonably well at 8 PM, but at one in the afternoon they played to empty seats. As an usher, I didn't mind this at all, since it made my job, which was pretty easy anyway, even easier: I would come in, sit in the back of the theater until the movie was over, and go home. But clearly this wasn't cost effective; not that the owner begrudged the ushers their 75 cents an hour, but the projectionist was pulling down 40 or 50 bucks. At first there was some talk of eliminating the matinees completely, but first we experimented with special 'children's movies.' Common sense would tell you that if you filled the place with kids showing "Curse of Frankenstein" and "Yellow Submarine," you should book movies like that, but common sense is so uncommon it should probably be called exotic sense. But if we called it that everybody would think it was a perfume or a Cable TV movie or something. Anyway, we began by booking movies like the 1971 Duddly Moore version of Alice in Wonderland (bet you didn't know there was one, did you?) and the late sixties Swedish version of Pippi Longstocking, and the kids just stayed away in droves. We finally hit pay dirt with a couple of old monster movies, and while every so often we would experiment with an afternoon of cartoons, we stuck mainly to monster movies from then on. Then one afternoon our projectionist put the wrong reel on in the middle of Robinson Crusoe on Mars. It was not exactly unprecedented for our projectionist to put the wrong reel on, though as a general rule when he did it was at least from the right movie. (With some of the stuff we showed, it didn't really make a whale of a lot of difference what order you showed the reels anyway) In this case, it was not from the same movie. And again, as a general rule when you are watching one movie and suddenly the reel changes and you are in a different movie, you figure it out pretty quickly-- generally three seconds will suffice. Not in this case, however. In Robinson, the Martian landscape was portrayed by one of our southwestern deserts (and excellently, I might add). As reel two is about to change, our hero, marooned on the red planet, is looking out over vast Martian desert and squinting his eyes as he sees… something. When reel three began, the camera was still panning through the desert. And panning. The pan went on and on. There was a mysterious figure out there! In chinos! He was approaching… a house! The audience was rather mystified. More shots of the desert. Clouds over the desert. The shadows of big cacti in the desert. Everyone was waiting for the camera to cut back to the hero and see what he made of this. But the camera never cut back to him. This was because the projectionist had put on a reel of the evening's feature, Michaelangelo Antonioni's Zabreski Point. There was lots more wandering around in the desert. Lots more desert sky. I was standing in the back watching this, debating whether to run back to the office and tell the manager what was happening, or just let it play out and see if anybody ever noticed a different movie was now playing. I decided to let it go, since the music in Zabreski was better than the music in Robinson. Robinson and Zabreski are two movies not usually discussed in the same chapters of most books about film, but they would be if most of these books had chapters on "The Most Boring Movies Ever Made" or "The Most Boring Movies Ever Made That Take Place in a Desert." But while Robinson Crusoe on Mars is just boring in the way that most mediocre movies are boring, Zabreskie is boring in a completely different way. It could actually affect your brain and put you in a trance state, perhaps permanently. I wondered what these kids were thinking about what was happening (nothing) on screen right now. I thought they were probably bored, but I was wrong. They were terrified. A kid about 9 years old came up to me and said "Mister, I want to go HOME." He looked like a shock victim. If the audience had been a little older they might have been catcalling and throwing popcorn at the screen (as the evening audience in fact did), but this audience was ominously silent. Years later I managed a movie house in New York and we showed a 'family-friendly' documentary called "Just Crazy About Horses" or something, which the largely pre-teen audience was charmed by, up to the point when we saw, in amazing detail, how horses are bred-- I mean we saw everything, while off-screen narrator Tammy Grimes explained precisely what we were seeing-- and incidentally, everything you've heard about stallions is true, and then some-- and the kids watching it were wide eyed with shock, but honestly, it was not even close to the reaction of the kids watching Zabreski Point. After about seven straight minutes of watching clouds slowly modulating over the desert I could hear sobbing. These kids could not have been more traumatized if we'd slapped on a reel of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Deep Throat. Then the reel ended and we were back on Mars, right where we left off twenty minutes earlier. The movie plodded on to its conclusion, and the kids left the theater, still silent. "What happened back there?" said one kid. "Just don't talk about it," said his older sister. "Ever." The manager had emerged from the office half an hour before the end of the movie, expecting it to be nearly over, and assumed the advertised running time was simply wrong. "Man, if we'd booked this on a double bill, we'd be in trouble," he said. I nodded. Neither the projectionist nor I ever mentioned what had happened. Attendance dropped to almost nothing at the kiddie matinees for weeks. Somewhere, there are a couple of hundred people, most of them now in their mid-to-late thirties, who are probably still wondering what that guy in the chinos was doing wandering around the Martian desert.


One afternoon back in the late seventies or early eighties I was hanging out at the Rousers Club House, which was the fourth floor of a four story walk up on St. Marks Place in the East Village. I'd dropped by to play some demo tapes for the Rousers, hoping to convince them to record some of my songs. The Rousers were a terrific but thus far unsuccessful quasi-rockabilly unit, and I was certain that all they needed to hit the big time was one (or more) of my songs in their repertoire. But they were beginning to doubt themselves and wonder where they'd gone wrong, and as one of my songs played in the background, rhythm guitarist Bill Dickson got a sort of far away look on his face, sighed, and said: "Do you think we could have made it as Beatniks?" I was quite startled by the question. Before I could collect my thoughts and essay an answer, the phone rang. Bill picked it up and said, "Like, hello." Which got me to thinking about that 'like.' Why did our Beatnik forefathers insert the word 'like' into their sentences at seeming random? What did it mean, and where did it come from? I never found out, and the Rousers never hit the big time (they're still out there trying, though), and I put the question out of my head until I received a book in the mail from my friend Dave:

To Jive with the Hi! De! Ho!

The Cab Calloway Glossary of Jive Expressions

Cab, of course, was the great band leader and singer whose Minnie the Moocher should have been in the top ten on all those Greatest Songs of the Twentieth Century lists that inundated us for the last few months of 1999, but it wasn't. Cab's book, published in the thirties and out of print since, is fascinating. Some of the jive slang has been absorbed into the mainstream and barely seems like slang anymore; some of it is completely obscure, at least to me: BLAP (noun) Something very good. Example "That's a blap." IGG (verb) To ignore someone. Example "Don't igg me." V-8 (noun) A chick who spurns company, is independent, is not amenable (Cab doesn't say whether this is a reference to the car or the drink, or to something else altogether). JELLY (noun) Anything free, on the house. OFF THE COP (adjective) corny, out of date. Some of it is obvious but maybe too much of its time to have passed into everyday usage: ARMSTRONGS (noun) Musical notes in the upper register; high trumpet notes. DILLINGER (noun) A killer-diller; (adj.) too hot to handle. And some of it is so colorful and funny I plan on working them into my vocabulary as soon as I can: BEATUP (noun) Small change. Example "Can you lend me a little beatup?" GOT YOUR GLASSES ON (phrase) You are ritzy or snooty, you fail to recognize your friends, you are up-stage. SET OF BRIGHT SEVENS (noun) One week. And my personal favorite: TWISTER TO THE SLAMMER (noun) The key to the door. It makes you wonder why some slang makes it and some doesn't. My parents, born in the 1920s, were comfortably using the 60s slang "rip-off" and "bummer" by the early 70s, although they were both appalled when my sister used those expressions just a couple of years earlier. Both words were as drenched with flower power as "groovy," but groovy never quite made the leap to the mainstream (despite a long pre-hippie lineage) and to use it much after 1970 was to date yourself instantly. I guess if you didn't know what groovy meant you wouldn't be able to figure it out without a context, while "rip-off" expresses its meaning so clearly most of us wouldn't blink if we came across it in Geoffrey Chaucer. It's, like, perfect. Which is how Cab uses like in his book: It's an intensifier. "She's, like, young" means "She's real young." Somehow when this use of 'like' made its way from jazz musicians to beatniks to the kids in my elementary school, the meaning was completely leeched out of it. By the time my friends and I were inserting it helter skelter into out conversations it meant, like, nothing. And there it sits to this day, still meaning nothing, sometimes 4 and 5 times in a single sentence. For this alone I would recommend Cab's book, assuming you could find it, but there's a lining to this sliver cloud. Fans of Frank Sinatra and his rat pack are probably familiar with the term "Clyde." The rat pack used it to mean someone who Was Not With It. What we might call, depending on the milieu, a nerd, a dweeb, a dip, a dork, a drag. But Clyde, it turns out, was not always Clyde. Once upon a time, before Frank and Dean and Sammy got together… well, here's what Cab has to say, in the lines that pretty much ruined his book as far as I'm concerned: JEFF (noun) a pest, a bore, an icky. Got that? An icky. A Jeff is an icky. Thanks, Cab, thanks a lot. Like, ow.

Vintage Vinyl

My friend Jackson has an enormous record collection, thousands of 12-inch vinyl disks, each in the original cardboard sleeve. The collection started 30 or 35 years ago and he didn't even think of it as a "collection" for a long time. It was just "my records." When we were in high school he kept them in an old orange crate in his bedroom, in no special order. When he was looking for something to throw on the stereo while he was doing his homework, he'd flip through the albums in the crate, the same way he'd flip through the 49-cent cutout bin at Harmony Hut. About halfway through our junior year the records were packed so tightly in the crate he couldn't flip through them anymore, so he started lining them up on the floor. Over the next year or two the line of records expanded in both directions and turned one corner and then another and finally all four walls were lined with them, like the world's deepest wainscoting. By that time he had long since had to organize it or he'd have spent 20 minutes finding whatever he was looking for. They were alphabetical by artist, and the albums by a given artist were lined up chronologically. We hanging out in his room one day and he asked me if I thought that Let It Be should come before or after Abby Road. "It was released later, but recorded earlier," he pointed out. I think it's safe to say that when you start concerning yourself with matters like that, you are officially a nut case. Well, maybe that's not fair; maybe you aren't officially a nut case until you start concerning yourself EXCLUSVIELY with matters like that. Jackson didn't reach that point for several more years. Meanwhile the ever-growing record collection went to college with him, and from apartment to apartment. I had a lot of vinyl myself-- I wasn't in Jackson's class by any means, but I still had way more than a normal person-- and though I finally broke down and bought a CD player around 12 years ago, I didn't dump all my old LPs. I've been conscious for the better part of a decade that all those old records in the bookcase make me a dinosaur, but since I spent the better part of my childhood wishing I was a stegosaurus, I didn't much care. I have friends who went out and basically re-purchased their entire record collections on CD but I never quite saw the point. Some of my old records have sentimental value and some of them have never been released on CD and the rest of them still play perfectly well on my crappy 25-year-old Panasonic stereo. Or they would if my crappy old stereo wasn't quite so crappy. The real crappy part is the needle, and I have no replacement on hand. The halcyon days when you could walk into a record store and buy a needle for 5 or 10 bucks, I discovered, are long gone. To be sure, stereo needles-- and for that matter vinyl records-- are not quite extinct; there are audiophiles out there who hate digital sound and swear that vinyl is the ONLY way to hear music. You can buy a brand new state-of-the-art record player for your old analog vinyl and it will cost you less than a new BMW. But not a lot less. And of course a lot of house and hiphop and assorted other genres and sub genres of music come out on vinyl so they can be spun by DJs at clubs-- you can't get that scratch sound on a CD-- and you can get yourself a pair of professional turntables and the needles to go with them. Again, cheaper than a new car, and again, more expensive than a used one. So here I am, wanting to listen to Dizzy Gillespe's "Grooving High" or "Shazam" by The Move (neither, incredibly, currently on CD) and unwilling to risk their grooves to a needle that is about 5 years younger than my 16 year old daughter. What to do? I went to Jackson's, to ask him where I could get a (relatively) cheap stereo needle. "Let me ask you something," he said about 5 seconds after I crossed the threshold of his apartment. "Do you think I'm a mental case?" I think this is one of those questions to which a 'yes' or even a 'no comment' can lead to immediate difficulties, so I lied. "Of course not," I said. "Because Becky just broke up with me because I number my socks." "I'm sorry?" This was an 'I'm sorry?' meaning 'I didn't hear you right, please repeat the question,' but he took it as an 'I'm sorry to hear that,' and gave me a 'thanks buddy'-type punch on the shoulder. "She said it made her nervous." "Why, uh, do you number your socks?" "Well, I hate matching them up when I wash them. You have three pairs of white socks, and they aren't quite identical..." "They aren't?" "The stitching is different or something, you know?" I didn't, actually, but I nodded as if I did, and he continued. "Anyway, I number the socks so when they come out of the dryer, I can match them up immediately. Number 15 with number 15. Number 33 with number 33." (You have 33 pairs of socks? I thought, but did not say aloud). "They have these sort of little clips that you can use to clip you socks together when you wash them and they theoretically stay clipped till you take them out of the dryer, but in my experience they don't. There must be a 30% failure rate for the clips." "And Becky dumped you." "Yes." A pause followed, and I took advantage of it to ask about phonograph needles. As it turned out, he had no idea where to get replacement needles. I asked what he played his records on. "I don't play them, uh, much at all, actually." "You must have about 3000." "I have 2,761, actually," he said. "But you don't play them." "Well, they'd, you know, wear out," he said. "Even with a new needle. So I don't play them." There were questions and comments that sprang to mind but I did not articulate them. I was talking to a guy with 2700 records he never played. At some point his record collection-- a collection which no longer has anything to do with the music preserved in the grooves-- had eaten his brain, and now he wrote numbers on his socks with a laundry marker. I wondered how he had finally resolved the Let It Be/ Abby Road issue. I was afraid to ask. If he hadn't told me about the socks I might have said something. . I would have filed them in order of release date, I guess. I still don't know where to get a needle for my stereo, but I might give those sock-clips a try.


It had been a long winter with lots of snow and we made over 18 dollars shoveling people out. We were rolling in money. If we'd been a little older we would have blown it all on records or girls before the first thaw, but instead we went for novelties. We'd been scrutinizing the ads on the inside back covers of our comic books for years, wondering about the x-ray specs, the onion gum, the sea monkeys... and now we could afford to find out. "We can buy everything on this page for less than TEN BUCKS," said Calvano. Picarillo jabbed a stubby finger at one of the advertisements. "Look! Look! Get this-- 'the Incredible Assortment of Novelties BOX!' It's only 3 dollars." "Yeah, I said we can get every--" "This IS everything," said Picarillo. "See? '25 Different Gag Items! Terrific Value!' It's gotta be all the other stuff on the page, and only THREE BUCKS." There was an illustration, very badly reproduced, of various items spilling out of a box; most of the items were too blurry to make out, but the 'Big Nose & Glasses' disguise --on sale near the top of the page by itself for 75 cents -- was discernible. "I think you're right," said Calvano. "We can just spend 3 bucks and get--" "We could spend NINE BUCKS and EACH get a BOX!" I said. There was something about having all this stuff in its own box that appealed to me. It appealed to Picarillo and Calvano as well, so we bought a money order at the post office and sent away for three Incredible Assortment of Novelties boxes. Then, with half the money still unspent, we returned to the comic books for other items to buy. We were tempted by the ad for sea monkeys. The ad said they were great pets, very intelligent and trainable, and it showed these monkey-like sea creatures happily turning somersaults. A lady sea monkey wore an apron and was bringing a cocktail to a male sea monkey, who was sitting in a big overstuffed chair smoking a pipe. "No," said Calvano. "It's a lie. Duff has sea monkeys. They don't wear dresses or anything, and they're really stupid." Duff was Calvano's older brother and lived in the basement. "Wow," said Picarillo, "Let's see!" We went down to the basement and knocked on Duff's door. Duff's 'room' had been created by slapping up some 2 X 4s and nailing left over sheets of crappy wood paneling to them. The door was also a piece of wood paneling. It had no knob; when Duff said 'come in,' you pulled it out of the frame and stuck it behind the furnace, and you put it back when you left. "We want to see the sea monkeys," said Calvano. Duff was listening to his Nancy Sinatra record. He had 'programmed' it by running a nail across all the tracks on side one except the first two ("As Tears Go By" and "Day Tripper") and the last ("These Boots Are Made for Walking.") He jerked a thumb in the direction of a fish tank hear the casement window. "Yeesh," said Picarillo. "They don't look like the picture in the comic." "They're brine shrimp," said Duff. "They don't do any tricks?" "They're brine shrimp," said Duff. "They don't do anything except eat. They get bigger and bigger, though. They used to be real tiny." The largest sea monkey was now the size of a thumb. "Well, then let's not waste our money on any sea monkeys," said Picarillo. "Everybody shut up!" cried Duff. The descending bass riff of "Boots"-- sort of a "boing boing boing boing boing boing boing boing boing"-- played. "I like that part," said Duff. "We just gonna--" "Nobody leaves till the song ends!" As it played ("You been lyin' / when you shoulda been truthin'...") the three of us whispered to each other, and decided by the time Nancy sang "Are you ready, Boots?" that we would, not sea monkeys, but a Venus fly trap-- "It's like something in a MONSTER MOVIE," said Calvano. As we walked to the post office, Picarillo brought up the possibility that Duff's sea monkeys were perhaps not up to snuff, intelligence-wise. "I mean, maybe REGULAR sea monkeys are a lot smarter. Maybe they can wear clothes and stuff, but Duff's are... you know, SPECIAL." "I don't think it's worth the risk," said Calvano. "Hey," I said, making a last minute check of the ads, "There's an ant farm here, too. Only 4 bucks." "Ant farms stink," said Calvano. "It's the kind of stuff kids who wear GLASSES get." "Yeah," I said, "but we could maybe hook it up to the Venus fly trap." I moved my hands energetically about, trying to describe my vision. "You'd have the ants HERE, and the Venus fly trap HERE, and we could sprinkle some sugar or something HERE, and the ants would have to pass by the fly trap to get the sugar..." "Wow!" said Calvano. "And BAM!" His right hand, standing in for one of the Venus flytrap heads, swooped down and grabbed an invisible ant from mid air. We could all see the whole thing vividly. We wondered if, after a few ant-generations had gone by, the ants would have legends about the incredible plant monster that lived at the top of the ant farm. Would they tell stories? "We each carried a grain of sugar... and the slow ones, they did not return at all-- a GREAT GREEN MOUTH SWOOPED OUT OF THE SKY..." We had a somewhat romantic picture of just how active the average Venus fly trap is; they tend not to swoop, or for that matter, to move at all. In my experience, they tend to pretty much drop dead about three days after being planted. This Venus fly trap, which we named "Arthur," after the rubber plant of the same name which appeared as a frequent non sequitor in the pages of MAD magazine, lasted long enough to see the ant farm arrive, at any rate. It turned out that the ant farm consisted of two sheets of glass, some dirt, and a number of dead ants. The instruction book said they were "dormant," but they never undormanted, and shortly afterwards Arthur passed on as well, perhaps in sympathy. A few days later our Incredible Assortment boxes arrived, and on the whole, I think we got more fun out of the dormant ants. We should have gone for the sea monkeys.


My daughter Emma and her friend Katie spent the spring break in Great Britain, visiting Emma's mother. I thought the readers of this column would enjoy hearing about their adventures, so I conducted the following interview with Emma. Katie was not present at the interview, but her sister Steffie, 11, was, although she didn't say anything, since she hadn't been in England.

ME: So tell me about about England, Em.

EMMA: It was weird. There were transvestites all over the place.

ME: Uh. I was thinking we'd start out more with, like the weather... stuff like that...

EMMA: It rained.

ME: [pause] The whole time?

EMMA: Yeah. Once it was sunny for about 10 minutes, but then it rained again.

ME: [pause] Okay. [Pause] mmm. [pause] So what did you DO while you were in England?

EMMA: Well, we tried to make friends, but no one would talk to us. I asked Mom why, and she said it was because we looked like gypsies.

ME: You and your mother looked like gypsies?

EMMA: No, me and Katie.

ME: How were you dressed?

EMMA: Like this.

ME: [long pause] Well, how did you attempt to make friends?

EMMA: We'd walk up to kids our age and say 'hi.'

ME: How were they dressed?

EMMA: Like Ricky Martin.

ME: [very long pause]

EMMA: It was gross.

ME: The way they were dressed?

EMMA: Yeah.

ME: [pause] Well, our readers will probably be interested in the differences between British and American television. Did you watch a lot of television over there?

EMMA: Yeah.

ME: And what was the difference?

EMMA: America has like 500 channels, and England has 4. And all they show is snooker.

ME: On TV?

EMMA: Yeah.

ME: What is snooker?

EMMA: It's like pool, only stupid.

ME: Is this like a snooker CHANNEL?

EMMA: It was on ALL the channels. It was the snooker championship. England comes to a standstill for it. It was on all the time.

ME: On all the channels?

EMMA: Yeah.

ME: And you watched a lot of television, you said?

EMMA: Yeah

ME: [pause] What were the other differences? Were the British kids on spring break, too?

EMMA: I think so. They were stupid. They talked loik these Oi Oi Oi Yoi oi.

ME: Did you happen to be wearing that HAT when you were trying to talk to people?


ME: When did you get the hat?

EMMA: The last day.

ME: What about the blue hair?

EMMA: The last day.

ME: What color was your hair prior to that?

EMMA: Blonde, kind of.

ME: So the problem wasn't the hat or the hair...

EMMA: No. Are you going to talk about my Scooby Doo boxer shorts?

ME: I don't think so, no. Well, we've talked about British television... what about British music? Do they listen to the same things we do over here?

EMMA: No, it's all gross. It's all techno and dance music. And it's really bad. Techno is really big. Rap isn't, which really surprised me...

ME: What about British food?

EMMA: I ate at Burger King every day. British food was not an issue.

ME: [pause] And the Burger King in England was the same as over here...

EMMA: The French fries were slightly soggier but still tolerable. We also went to Pizza Hut four times. Pizza Hut is actually BETTER in England, except they don't put as much cheese on the garlic bread.

ME: Oh.

EMMA: It should be dripping over the sides but it wasn't.

ME: Uh. Let's see... TV, music, fast food... What did you actually do, what was a typical day? Did you go to the movies?

EMMA: We saw "American Psycho." Katie kept laughing, and all the British people kept glaring at her.

ME: So the British audience didn't get the humor of it?

EMMA: Well, it wasn't funny.

ME: Then why... oh, never mind. So all you visited was fast food places and movie theaters? You didn't see any of the traditional sights?

EMMA: I went to Kensington Castle.

ME: How was it?

EMMA: Stupid. It was just a big house with a gate. There was no MOAT or anything like that. We couldn't get to see Prince William, who is THE MAIN ATTRACTION anyway. He would be cute if he were American...

ME: He's probably busy with Britany Spears--

EMMA: Shut up! [chair grazes the top of interviewer's head] That's not true. [pause] Can I tell you about Wally?


ME: Who?

EMMA: Well, Katie and I were in the train station? We hung out there every night because we were bored? Well, one night I was in this photo booth and Katie was outside and this Australian DRUNK GUY came up and said "HOI! MOI NOIME IS WALLY, MATE, WHAT'S YOURS?" and Katie is like, "Katie," and he says "Well that's GREAT, Katie, wudder yer doin' here?" And she says "I'm waiting for my friend Emma, she's in there," And he opened the curtain and stuck his head in and said "HOI, OYM WALLY!" And then he just waddled away and we never saw him again.

ME: Was he really fat?


ME: Oh, because generally you have to be pretty fat in order to waddle...

EMMA: No, it's not true. Australians can waddle if they've had enough to drink. We saw it with our own eyes.

This concludes this issue's report on the British Isles.


Last year we had the amazing "niggardly" controversy, where a public official in Washington DC was castigated for using the English language correctly; even after it was established that "niggardly" has no etymological relationship to "nigger," his accusers did not back off, insisting that the word should have been avoided because it sounded like it did anyway, so there. He was asked, in columnist Tony Snow's witty (and accurate) phrase, "to apologize for their ignorance." Grotesque as that situation was, at least we could console ourselves that everyone involved was a politician, and if nothing else, it established once and for all something we've all suspected for a long time-- that a nodding acquaintance with the English language is actually a handicap for folks in that profession. THIS year's grotesque etymological controversy established something else we've all suspected for a long time: the only milieu where knowledge of the English language is more of a handicap than the world of politics is the college campus. Last week there was a picnic scheduled at SUNY's Albany campus, to celebrate the anniversary of the smashing of Major League Baseball's color barrier. A protest ensued. Why would anyone protest an event honoring Jackie Robinson? Who would do such a thing? The SUNY chapter of the Ku Klux Klan? Nah. In fact, it wasn't the event itself which drew the protests, but the fact that it was called a "picnic." "Picnic," according to the 40 SUNY students who lodged the complaint, derives from "Pick Nic," antebellum gatherings where white folks would get together and "Pick Nics" to lynch. Actually it doesn't. The real etymological roots of "picnic" are French, as a matter of fact, and have nothing at all to do with lynching. This information is available in any decent dictionary. Of course, the definition of "niggardly" was available in any decent dictionary, too. And as in that case, the straight dope didn't make the slightest difference. Zaheer Mustafa, the SUNY student assembly affirmative action director, forbade the use of the word (although it's not clear from the news stories I've read whether it was only forbidden in relation to the Jackie Robinson event, or if the word is literally banned on the SUNY campus). Said Mr. Mustafa: "Whether the claims are true or not, the point is the word offended." With all due respect to Mr. Mustafa, there are several points. (1) There is in this case no "whether or not." The claims are not true, period. The picnic/lynching story is an urban legend. (2) The word therefore did NOT offend. "Picnic" is a completely inoffensive word --unless you happen to object to the importation of French words into our language. But I'm afraid it's a little late in the day to worry about THAT. (3) The underlying premises in Mr. Mustafa's sentence are absolutely chilling. If "X" is offensive --presumably to ANYONE, presumably for any reason, including in this case NO REASON-- the fault lies with "X." Taken to its logical (or illogical) conclusion, this policy means accusation of offensive language = conviction even if the accusation is proven false. Another underlying premise would seem to be that there is some sort of inherent right NOT to be offended. No such right exists, nor should it. We all harbor opinions and convictions that are surely anathema to someone, somewhere. Most of us figure this out pretty quickly, long before we are old enough to matriculate at SUNY, and soon cease to be horrified that the world is full of people who sometimes disagree with us. Some of us even find it kind of bracing. And some of us, clearly, don't. Meanwhile, back at the campus, the "picnic" was relabelled an "outing." Act two. A gay student leader objected to this, because "outing" is a term used when someone is publicly revealed to be gay. You'll have to excuse the "because" in the previous sentence. I know it makes no sense, but that's the way the story has been reported. "Outing" does have this meaning now, but why it can not therefore be employed in the older meaning of "a trip in the open" has not been explained. It seems to be a total non-sequitor. (Maybe the guy thought they were going to "out" Jackie Robinson, but I don't think so. It could be that no explaination was offered. Or it could be that he has unilaterally decided that from now on there will be just ONE meaning for the word. Incidentally, even this meaning of "outing" has evolved, and no longer refers strictly to exposing someone as a homosexual; one reads of a prominent rock critic, for instance, "outed" as a closet Britany Spears fan. In any case, since (as noted above) when anybody at SUNY objects to anything for any reason the source of the offense must be immediately purged, the word "outing" was scratched, and the Jackie Robinson event went on, namelessly. Whether Mr. Mustafa himself ordered the expunging of the word or not (again, news reports are unclear on this point), it was certainly done in the Mustafa spirit. Maybe we should immortalize Mr. Mustafa in the form of a new verb. Mustafy: to ban a word or phrase which has been declared offensive by people who are too lazy to open a dictionary and find out what it actually means.


It was the first day of the Easter Vacation and my cousin Low-Low and I were heading to the police station. Low-Low's parents-- my aunt and uncle-- were attending an anniversary party for some friends, and Low-Low was going to have dinner at my house tonight. My mom worked in the tax assessor's office, which was located in the same building as the police station, and sometimes after work she would earn extra money by strolling down the hall and typing up accident reports and witness statements for the cops. That's what she was doing this afternoon, and that's why Low-Low and I were meeting her there. Low-Low had never been to the police station before and was pretty excited. I affected a blas頭an-of-the-world attitude for his benefit, but I was excited, too. The last time I'd been there, one of the cops had shown me a holding cell where someone had thrown up earlier and it had not yet been cleaned up. I think this was to impress upon me what a horrible thing jail was and how I'd better walk the straight and narrow unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life locked up in a room furnished with yesterday's luncheon special. "Geez," I said, "How come nobody cleaned it up? Is it EVIDENCE?" The officer had found this extremely amusing, and later my mother told me that "evidence" had become a catch phrase down at the police station, as in "Somebody get the mop, there's some evidence in the toilet stall downstairs." Anyway, the visit to the dirty cell had convinced me that the Police Station was an incredibly exciting place where anything could happen. My mother was filing some carbons when we came in. Low-Low made a kind of barking sound, and pointed at the desk. There were three chocolate rabbits sitting there. These were medium-sized chocolate rabbits, about seven inches high. Low-Low and I made a dash for them, but a cop hollered "BOYS! STOP!" Actually he yelled something like "Boysh! Shtop!," not because he was doing a Humphrey Bogart impression but because he was chewing on a cigar butt. In any case, we stopped. "It's a good thing you didn't touch those rabbits. Those are evidence." [Snickers from somewhere in the back of the room.] "Your mother has to bring those rabbits home and write up a report on them, isn't that right, Annie?" "That's right, Jerry," said my mother, obviously not sure about where this was going. "They're evidence in a big murder trial coming up soon," Jerry went on. "The chocolate in ONE OF THESE rabbits has been impregnated with a deadly poison." I have to say, that 'ONE OF THESE' was a stroke of genius. "That's true, boys," said my mother. She dropped the three rabbits in a paper bag. As we were leaving, Low-Low noticed that on the desk sergeant's counter top there was a cardboard carton containing dozens more of the chocolate rabbits. "Hey! How about THOSE rabbits?" he cried. "More evidence," said the desk sergeant. "Except this one," he noted, indicating a half-eaten bunny on his blotter. Low-Low and I were silent most of the way home, but shortly before turning onto Third Avenue I said, "There is no way any of that poison stuff is true." My mother was probably going to say something like 'did you just figure that out?' but before she could, Low-Low cried: "It HAS to be true! He's a POLICEMAN! They CAN'T lie or they get FIRED! It's the LAW! They CAN'T lie!" Somehow my mother managed to keep from going off the road, and we got home. My mother placed the three rabbit, still in the bag, on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, near the glass jars containing flour and sugar and assorted kinds of pasta. This seemed to me an extremely unlikely place to store evidence, especially poisoned evidence, but nothing I said could convince Low-Low that the chocolate rabbits were just chocolate rabbits. I found this fascinating, because under normal circumstances, Low-Low would have already come up with a plan that called for me to distract my mother while he grabbed the bunnies. I was 100% certain the rabbits were safe, and I wanted one. "Listen," I said. "Didn't the cop say one of the rabbits was poisoned?" "YES!" He was defiant, his arms crossed on his chest. "Well, doesn't that mean the other two are NOT poisoned?" "YES!" he cried. Those two 'YES!'es look exactly the same in cold print, but what a difference there was to the ear. We made our move shortly after dinner, while my parents were watching some gruesome variety show ("...and special guest star SAMMY DAVIS JR!"). By the time the Swingin' 'Carousel' medley was underway, Low-Low and I were in my room, with the three chocolate rabbits lined up atop my dresser. "Now," said Low-Low, breathless, "How do we figure out which one is poisoned?" "Hmmm," I said. "Well, the odds are in our favor, since two of them should be good, right?" "Yeah..." I grabbed one of the rabbits and ate the head. "Now, " I said, "we wait." Low-Low stared at me goggle eyed. "How long do we wait?" "One minute," I said. "The cop said it was a fast acting one minute poison." "He did?" "Yes," I said. The seconds ticked tensely by. "How do you feel?" Low-Low whispered. "Pretty good," I said. "I think this one is safe." I took another bite from the rabbit. "Yeah, I feel pretty good." "Hey-- lemme have some of that rabbit!" said Low-Low. "Get your own rabbit," I said. Low Low made a grotesque sound and grabbed for my rabbit, but I stuffed as much of it as I could in my mouth. When I had eaten the rabbit, I said: "Look, the odds are still 50-50. That's petty good. Just pick one." "But--" "All right, you big sissy!" I said, and bit the head off a second rabbit. A few seconds went by. "How do you feel?" said Low-Low. "N-n-not t-t-too g-good," I said. "Are the l-l-lights d-dimming?" "Oh man," Low-Low whimpered, "Wrong rabbit, man!" "I g-g-guess s-sooooo..." I went into a swoon and stretched out on the floor, and waited for Low-Low to start screaming for my parents. And waited. And waited. Finally I opened my eyes. Low-Low was eating the last rabbit. He seemed surprised to see me, and not, I think, precisely overjoyed, either. Later, he told me, "I was gonna get help just as soon as I finished the rabbit. I SWEAR!" but I don't believe him.


I'm walking down the main drag in Milford, New Jersey, surreptitiously scanning the faces of the people I pass, wondering: Is that HIM? Because I know he's here somewhere; although, come to think of it, I can't be entirely sure about that "he"-- the person I seek could be a female, for all I know. All I have to go on is a name. I came across the name while I was prowling around the MP3 site on the web. MP3s are extremely condensed audio files, and there are endless places on the World Wide Web where you can find them and download them for free, and then play them on your computer whenever you want. If you have the right software and hardware, you can burn them on a CD-R and play them on a portable MP3 player, too. Because MP3 files take up so little space, you can easily fit well over 100 songs on one CD. The flipside of this-- (Hey, remember flipsides, when discs had two sides?)-- the flipside is, if you happen to be an aspiring recording artist and you have access to the right software and hardware, you can UPLOAD your music onto the web and make it available to the entirely wired world. There are some very intense legal battles going on because of this; whatever the eventual outcome, the music industry is going to change in many unforeseeable ways over the next few years. Well, back to the name. The name I stumbled across on the MP3 site was Homie G. Funkotron, and in the normal course of things I wouldn't have paid the slightest bit of attention to it, because there are about 8 zillion Homie G. Funkotrons out there, or near enough as makes no difference. What made this HGF stand out was his (or her) location. See, you can search this site using all sorts of criteria, and one of them happens to be geographic. You can punch in "New Jersey" and see what your fellow Garden State musicians are up to; you can punch in "Middlesex," which is how the site happens to define the area in which you and I live (note: gotta do something about that), and find out how your fellow central Jerseyians are doing; and you can get even closer than that, and check out specific towns. The town closest to me with a listing on the site happens to be HOLLAND. So I clicked on that, and I found that as far as is concerned, Holland includes Milford (note: gotta do something about that, too). There is only one artist listed for Milford (or Holland, for that matter): Homie G. Funkotron. Here's what HGF says about him (her?)(it?) self:

Artist description: It's just me and my computer and my keyboard.
Music style: Techno/Dance
Musical influences: The Orb, FSOL, RoughCut, Vapour Space
Similar Artists: don't know...
Artist history: just started
Group members: me mem me meme me me e (SIC)
Instruments: Yamaha DJX, Creative Sound Blaster Live!, more soon!!
Albums: none
Press reviews: none
Additional info: none
Location: Milford New Jersey USA

. All those 'nones' are a little frustrating, but something of a relief, too, since it's not unusual for the unknown geniuses on the MP3 site to tell us ALLLLL about themselves, at stupefying length. HGF is nearly as cryptic when it comes to talking about the music-- which, so far, consists of a single track, Bouncy Balls1 (He spells it just like that, no space between the 'Balls' and the '1'): Description: My first attempt at recording a song. I really need a copy of soundforge as the quality of the recording is AWFUL. [I have no idea what soundforge is, but frankly, the sound quality is far from awful. It could be a crisper, but even on the lo-fi setting it's far from awful, let alone AWFUL.] He continues: Song Lyrics: none. all electronic. songs with lyrics coming soon! Story Behind The Song: one rainy day .one boring day. 2 takes. 12 minuets long. The "12 minutes" is unduly modest, by the way-- the track clocks in at a stunning 13.02. This works out to 11.9 MB, and probably takes about an hour to download with my 56K modem, so I just play it when I'm online. I've been playing it a lot lately. After all-- this is the SOUND OF MILFORD! And just, you may be asking yourselves, IS the sound of Milford? Here I'm afraid I'm gong to have a hard time describing it without sounding like a total ignoramus. The artist's page says it's "techno/dance," which sounds right, but it shows up this weeks on the MP3 "Dancehall" chart (number 92, right between "Y2K" by Dynamic and "Just for You" by the Spear), and "Dancehall" is a genre I have never heard of until this moment. (About two years ago I wandered into a very large record store in New York and discovered, to my horror, that there were about 50 genres of music that had sprung up when I wasn't looking). I am also completely unfamiliar with all of the artists that HGF names as influences. Anyway, "Bouncy Balls1" one starts off with a nervous electric keyboard riff that plays (or is looped) through most of the entire 13 minutes, sometimes briefly fading out and then fading back in; there's a synthesized bass riff that more or less mirrors the keyboard riff, and lots of synthesized percussion, and a secondary 7 or 8 note theme, played in the synth voice one of my old keyboards used to hilariously call "cello," that keeps popping up; after about 5 minutes, everything fades out for a while except the keyboard riff, and then a synth string section comes in briefly; then the rhythm section pops back up, and the keyboard riff goes through some odd changes. For a long time it's just percussion and the keyboards, and the strings drift in and out, and there's a long section where a variation of the keyboard riff is taken over by a different keyboard voice, there's a sort of a recapitulation, and eventually it ends. So there it is; I have no idea how it stacks up against other works in the genre, but I have to confess I've grown pretty fond of it, particularly that goofy secondary theme. 13 minutes seems a bit excessive, but duration seems to be a defining characteristic of this genre-- I suspect a two and a half minute techno/ dance cut would be as absurd as a 13 minute doo-wop single. I started listening out of curiosity (or patriotism?) but I'm a fan now. It is amazing and wonderful that I can access music (and all kinds of other things) from all over the world on the web, but just as amazing and wonderful that I could discover Homie G. Funkotron on it, who for all I know lives on the other side of my apartment wall.


[Note: the Daylight Sabings Time Expert Guy must apologize, because the 'b' on his computer is not working right and keeps coming printing as a 'b.' So wheneber you see a 'b,' it will probably be a 'b' (since 'b' is much more common in English than 'b') but it may in fact REALLY be a 'b' and not a 'b' at all. Thank you for bearing with us. And now, this week's column.]

Why do we have daylight sabings time, anyway? Isn't it really stupid? I think it is really stupid.
Thinks it's stupid

In all honesty, no, it isn't stupid at all. We have Daylight Sabings Time because daylight is one of our most precious resources. We can not afford to waste it; the sun is not going to last foreber, and when it goes, that's that. No more daylight. Unless, that is, we start conserbing it NOW. Thank you for writing.
* * *

Are we the only country that has Daylight Sabings Time? And if other countries habe it, do all other countries habe it, or just some of them? And what about on other planets?

Most other countries habe Daylight Sabings Time. The exceptions: Burma, New Guinea, Hoboken, Tierra del Fuego, East 15th Street between Flatbush and Nostrand in Brooklyn, the continent of Mu, and my cousin Chet. We do not know about other planets yet. It is exciting to think that one day we may know the answer for sure! Thank you for writing.
* * *

Is it a law that you have to pay attention to Daylight Sabings Time? If you don't set your clock back when they tell you to, can you go to jail?
I set mine back,
just wondering

Yes, it is the law, you must pay attention to it. In some states you can go to jail for it, but in New Jersey you will only be fined.
* * *

We set the clock BACK in the fall and FORWARD in the spring and BACK in the fall and on and on. Why don't we just keep setting the clock back? This way we would all get an extra hour of sleep every six months, AND in a lifetime lasting 100 years, we would all libe 4 extra days, and THINK WHAT WE COULD DO IN FOUR DAYS.
Just imagine

First of all, Just, check your math. If we set the clock back twice and year and thus gained two hours a year, we would all get 200 hours in a hundred years, which works out to 8 extra days of life. While this would be just ducky for the aberage indibidual, it would be a disaster for society as a whole. The strain on the Social Security System of 350 million people living a little ober a week too long-- which I calculate at approximately 37 HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS per year-- would certainly bankrupt the nation. And plus, what would you do with the extra 8 days anyway? You don't know what to do with yourself half the time NOW.
* * *

Can you get an exemption from Daylight Sabings Time?

Yes-- IF you weigh more than 350 pounds, or have bision which is 20/200 or worse, or your car is more than 6 years old and looks pretty crummy, you may file for an exemption. If the exemption is granted, you can show up for work an hour late, and your cable TB company will send you a special TB Guide with a conversion chart, so you can find out what time your faborite shows are playing on standard time.
* * *

What happens to all the daylight we sabe? Does the government keep it, or do we get it back?

Take a wild guess.
* * *

Whose idea was this, anyway?
Wants to know
Who to thank

The amazing truth is, Daylight Sabings Time was the brainchild of fifties crooner JULIUS LA ROSA, otherwise best known for being fired on the air by Arthur Godfrey. Julius was also a popular DJ on WNEW AM for many years.
* * *

If we kept turning the clock back an hour ebery hour, would it neber become night?
Wish it was not
night time

Actually, since we set the clocks back (and forward) at 2 AM, it would neber become DAY. If this worked, that is, which it wouldn't. Probably.
* * *

Didn't you think that little kid in Sixth Sense should habe won the Oscar instead of that old guy?
Thought the kid
should have won

I didn't see any of the nominated movies this year, but when they come out on bideo, I plan to.
* * *

Could we set the clock back TWO hours this year and then just skip the whole thing next year?




Bernie, the number two man at the Passaic County ID Bureau, had been kicked upstairs and morale was low. The Bureau was in the basement of a massive building that also held the coroner's office, the county lock-up, and assorted other cheerful venues, and prison trustees were used to sweep up the place and do similar trustee-type jobs. Bernie, who was an idiot, used one of the trustees to pick up the lunch order from a local restaurant. The trustee, perhaps suspecting it was some sort of trap, performed this task efficiently and honestly, not even keeping the change, but word of this staggering breach of the rules (not to mention common sense) traveled quickly and Bernie was gone. As punishments go this one was not exactly Draconian, since his new position paid more than his old one had, but it was viewed as a dead end job and the effective end of Bernie's career. So morale was low (some folks depressed because Bernie had gotten off so lightly, others because he had been punished at all), and to cheer things up, the Powers That Be decreed that there would be an ID Bureau Picnic. I spent most of my time at the Bureau combing through old file cabinets, making sure that there were no convicted felons on the jury duty lists, but every so often the head of the ID Bureau gave me a special assignment; because I had evinced a flair for drawing insect monsters in the margins of the jury duty lists, for instance, I'd once been assigned to illustrate a report he was presenting on cockroach control. So it fell to me to draw the sign announcing the upcoming picnic. My final (approved) version read:

Come One, Come All!

First Annual ID Bureau Picnic!

Family Fun!

Food, Fun, and Frisbees!

Sunday the 18th

From 11 AM until ???

Be There!

Though you can't tell from the transcription reproduced here, it was a very festive sign, each line of it rendered in a different Magic Marker color. There was a pretty good drawing of a zipping Frisbee cutting through line 4, too. The "Be There," you will note, does not specify exactly where "there" might be. Because I had signed my poster rather ostentatiously (my signature was slightly larger than the "Food, Fun and Frisbees!" line), several people asked me where the picnic was going to be held. So I went to see Frank, the Bureau chief, who nodded thoughtfully and said, "Just tell 'em to show up here, and we'll take it from there." "Whoa!" I said excitedly, "Did you guys, like, charter a BUS to take us to the picnic?" Frank again nodded thoughtfully. "We'll take it from there," he repeated. Whether the actual location of the picnic had been planned from the beginning, or whether Frank had given it no thought at all until I brought up the subject, is one of those questions to which we will never know the full answer. In any case, I duly reported to everyone who asked me that the plan was to show up at the Bureau by 11:30 AM, and then we would be transported to the Elysian environs of the actual picnic. Transported, as it turned out, was not precisely the word I should have used, though I guess that walking is a form of transportation, too. It turned out that "there" was "here"-- that is, at the ID Bureau. There was a small courtyard, visible from our casement windows, with some brownish-yellow grass growing on it, which turned out to be the picnic site. It could be accessed by shuffling through a long, foul smelling, dimly lit corridor and then up a concrete stairwell. It was bound on one side by the drunk tank and on the three other sides by very tall brick walls. Thanks to these walls, it received about 45 minutes of direct sunlight each day. Our picnic was commencing at around minute 42. There was room to toss a Frisbee, as long as no running was required to catch it; a run that lasted more than 3 seconds would end in a collision with a brick wall. By 11:40 there was approximately 30 people in the courtyard, most of them not looking particularly happy. "Don't worry," said Frank, "The Chow is ON THE WAY!" Right about then two kids began tossing their Frisbee, in a resigned sort of way. They stood about 15 feet apart (20 feet apart would have put one of them on the other side of a wall), and in short order the Frisbee slammed against the screened and barred window of the drunk tank. The inhabitants had been unaware of our presence prior to that moment, but now that they had been alerted, they decided to join in the festivities, to the best of their ability. One fellow hoisted himself up and began to sing: "Abba dabba dabba dabba dabba dabba dabba said the MONK-ee to the chimp! Dabba abba abba abba abba abba abba said the CHIMP-ee to the Monk!" These were the only two lines of the song he knew, so he repeated them happily for about 25 minutes. He was still serenading us when 'the chow' arrived. The event was being catered, it turned out, by our friends at the coroner's office. I suspect they volunteered for the job. "Who wants DEVILED EGGS?" cried the coroner himself. He opened the picnic basket and pulled out a plastic jar. The ID Bureau employees instinctively flinched. We recognized the deviled egg container as one of the specimen jars in use at the coroner's office. Whenever an autopsy was performed, the coroner would use these jars to send any suspicious item he uncovered-- say, a discolored kidney that hinted at poisoning-- up to the lab. Now, the jars in the picnic basket were certainly not 'used'. Whenever a new shipment of plastic specimen jars arrived at the county ID Bureau-- and the arrived every couple of weeks, because we jarred a lot of specimens-- the boys in the coroner's office would put aside three or four for "utility" use. These fresh jars would then be used as condiment containers-- for sugar and cream, mostly-- and as coffee cups. There was, of course, no shortage of regular paper coffee cups (the Bureau was cheap, but it wasn't that cheap), but the boys liked to wander through the building sipping from the specimen jars. A guy might stop by a secretary's desk, ostentatiously sip, arrange his face in a puzzled expression, and say something like "Hey, Betty-- does this coffee taste funny to you?" Betty wouldn't sample the coffee, but she wasn't naive enough to think this guy was drinking from a jar that had recently held some "evidence," either. Nobody, not even the maniacs in the coroner's office, would do that. And the jars in the basket were UNQUESTIONABLY brand new jars. We were still hesitant about eating out of them. The coroner said, "What's the matter with you people? WE RINSED THEM OUT!" He probably meant that they rinsed out the new jars, which of course you should do before you use them, as any competent housewife knows. However, not being competent housewives, we simply stared in horror while he unscrewed a jar and began gnawing on a purple egg. "What's the MATTER with you people?" he said, between swallows, "They're DELICIOUS." There was still a steady refrain of "dabba dabba dabba" in the background. A light rain began to fall, and we retreated to the dingy corridor, and went home. It was a memorable picnic, but I don't recall that morale was improved much.


This Sunday will once again be the 233rd annual Academy Award ™ Oscar ™ telecast, and what a treasure trove of award-winning™ memory-type rememberances this event brings to mind! All the Golden Moments of Hollywood History featuring many of your favorite Superstars™ of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, as well as famous bygone illuminaries yet to be conceived! Who could ever forget them all, or even recall their unforgettable Names™? Let us take a magical trib down Memory Lane which is paved with gold and stars in which the names and also sometimes the hands of the immortal figures of motion picture are forever preserved in cement! The first question everybody can not help but wonder about the answer to which is: HOW did the Oscar™ get it's name? The actual true answer is even more incredible than the facts! It seems that shortly before the first annual Academy Awart Banquet back in 1928 a unknown secretary to someone or other picked up one of the newly delivered but unnamed statuettes and quipped, "This thing wieghs a ton!" And when the appreciative laughter had died down, A TRADITION WAS BORN! Another question everyone wonders is: Just what is The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? What exactly are the arts and sciences are they talking about? We phoned the Academy itself and asked this question to the person at the Academy who is the one who answers the phone and we were told: The Seven Motion Picture Arts Are: (1) penmanship (2) running really fast (3) glass blowing (4) synchronized swimming (5) Uncle Tanoose (6) [can't read my writing for this one. It looks like "Glubb tink"] (7) funnel cakes. The Seven Motion Picture Sciences are: (1) embryology (2) scientology (3) magnets (4) phys ed. (5) tire regrooving (6) lunch (7) another one. But on to the memories themself! Who can forget the incredible evening at the 3rd annual Awards show when dapper WILLIAM POWELL announced the Best Comedy Sound Editing In A Musical or Non-Documentary Performance and lost his place while reading the nominees from the still uninvented teleprompter? A priceless chunk of Hollywood Gold (which, tragically, was later STOLEN and melted down and cast into a cunning DOG FIGURINE of some SORT). And of course people are still talking about the fabulous night when charming GREER GARSON coyly refused to announce the name of the winner for the 1943 Best Actor unless everyone in the hall got up and danced "The Hokey Pokey." Thanks to spoilsport SIDNEY GREENSTREET, we still don't know who won! Greer took the secret with her to her Superfabulous™ GRAVE a few year back. Remember the most HONORED film in Motion Picture History™? Who will ever forget the year that WEEKEND AT BERNIES II pulled in a record 457 Oscars including BEST PICTURE™ and MOST ORIGINAL RECIPE USING CHEX™ PARTY MIX? They don't make 'em like THAT™ anymore! Was there a dry eye in the house the night that screen legend KEENE DUNCAN accepted the long overdue IRVING PICKELBERG LIFETIME HUMANITARIAN ACHIEVEMENT AWARD for the ailing CHAD LOWE? And when the camera panned over to Keene's estranged galpal™ GLORIA GRAHAM as she gallently wiped an eye from her tear, you could have heard a pine droop in the crowded auditorium, which was packed with packed crowds! Or how about when the late great PETER LORRE was wheeled onstage 3 years after his demise™ to a 38 minute standing ovation in order to fulfill a PROMISE he had possibly made to producer 'SHARKEY' CORRIGAN, the point of which no one has EVER DISCOVERED? Yet another moment to treasure forever! And let us not forget CLEAVAGE! Who can not fail to not unrepress the memory of JANE DARWELL at the 1946 ceremony with her groundbreaking SIX BOSOMS of which at least three were ARTIFICIALLY ENHANCED? Or when demure DIANA DURWOOD changed her image™ forever by arriving dressed only in a TWIST TIE? A twist tie, which, we might add, recently went for over 18 BILLION DOLLARS at Sotheby's just this past October! But ultimately it is the winners and losers we remember-- though remember, if you got nominated in the first place, you are not a loser, even though everybody will think you are once you are HUMILIATED in front of half a billion people when you lose. RICHARD BURTON was nominated for seven Oscars but lost all seven-- twice to a talking poodle! "BEN HUR" was nominated for a record 18 Oscars but was completely shut out when Bowery Boys classic "Spooks Run Wild" took home all the gold. What will happen this year? As usual, it looks to be the most classic Oscar year ever, chok full of stars and movies! There will be laughter and tears, there will be gaffes and glory, there will be lots of commercials! You can never tell what's going to happen once the lights go down and™ the cameras start rolling and the memories start being memorized, but there is no doubt that once again it will be the best Oscar cast ever!

The New Mall

We happened to be in the cemetery visiting Calvano's brother Duff, who cut the grass there, the day they winched up the moose statue and moved it about 50 feet back from the edge of the property. Actually it wasn't a moose, it was the statue of an elk, but as far as we were concerned-- "we" being Calvano, Picarillo, and I-- anything with antlers was de facto a moose. "What's going on?" Calvano asked Duff. "Gimme the can opener," said Duff. He opened the soda can we'd brought him (we had to bring him something if we wanted him to let us hang around the cemetery) and explained that Interstate Route 80, currently under construction a few miles away, was going to be skirting the edge of the cemetery and the spot currently occupied by the moose was just days away from being ripped up and turned into an embankment; when the highway was complete, the Moose would be overlooking this incredible 6 lane super highway as it curved along the Passaic River. This information made no particular impression on us until the highway finally snaked its way-- if a concrete ribbon six lanes wide can be said to snake-- past the cemetery a few weeks later. Then we discovered that on days when there was no work going on, we could hang out on the highway. We did this fairly frequently, often bringing Hot Texas Wieners from Ducky's Hot Texas Wiener Emporium, and sprawling across a couple of lanes while we scarfed them down and read comic books. "I read an article," Calvano said one day, "about how there are these time warps you can stumbled into, and all of a sudden you're like 5 years in the past or the future? Man, if all of a sudden we stumbled into one while we were here, and suddenly we were 5 years in the future, we'd be FLATTENED like THAT. [He snapped his fingers.] Fact." We never did stumble into a time warp, but time dribbled along anyway, and Route 80 was opened to traffic, which meant that we could no longer hang out on it (unless we moved very very fast). But, as if in compensation, we learned there was going to be a new place to hang out. The Biggest Mall in the World was being built on the outskirts of town, near the conjunction of Routes 46, 23, and 80. Prior to this, the Biggest Mall in the World had been in Paramus, which was a murderous 25-minute car ride away; we would be able to walk to the New Mall. The Biggest Mall was being erected on the site of an old skating pond-- or, to be a little more precise, part of the parking lot was covering the old skating pond. We discovered this one afternoon when we made the mistake of discussing the mall while cleaning leaves out of my Aunt Jane's rain gutters. "You couldn't pay me to go to this 'mall,' " said Aunt Jane. "Do you know what happened at that pond in 1926, when I was a little girl? A BOOTLEGGER was fleeing the police, and they shot him down and he fell into the water." "So what?" "So you couldn't PAY me to go to this mall," she said. "Didn't they fish this boot guy out?" said Picarillo. "Of course they did." "So what's the problem?" "I could never go to a place knowing a man had been KILLED under it, possibly on the very spot where I was parking my car!" Later we discussed the matter. There some disagreement as to whether the ENTIRE mall was going to be haunted by the bootlegger, or just the parking lot. "It's gotta be the whole mall," Calvano reasoned, "because how can you haunt a parking lot?" "You can like MATERIALIZE in the back of people's cars," said Picarillo, "with an AX." "Good point," said Calvano. We also debated whether you would be charged an admission fee, and if so, how long it was good for; Picarillo thought you could probably buy a season ticket good for the entire summer. When the mall opened and we made our first visit, we were amazed. We had waited for a couple of weeks, partly to allow the crowds to abate slightly, and partly to make sure people were not mysteriously disappearing or being chopped up in the parking lot. First of all, it was an INDOOR mall. The huge Paramus malls had been essentially villages comprised entirely of stores, and while they were all cheek by jowl, you had to go outside to pass from one to the other. Second, there were two movie theaters. This being the late sixties, both theaters had only one screen each, but it was still pretty breathtaking. Thirdly, there was no admission fee. And fourthly, there were large banks of pay phones all over the place. "Hey," said Calvano, "I bet if you went over to THAT phone, I could call you from THIS phone, and we could SEE each other while we were talking to each other!" We performed this experiment; it was successful. The three of us positioned ourselves at various phones and took turns calling each other and waving. "Hey, Picarillo-- it's ME. How's it going?" In this way, much of the afternoon was profitably spent. We did not find any evidence the place was haunted, although there was some static on one of the phones Picarillo used which may have, he felt, have had an ectoplasmic source. "It would be pretty creepy if I picked up the phone and instead of Calvano, the dead BOOT GUY was on the other end," said Picarillo. "There's so many people here," Calvano pointed out, "that half of them could be this dead boot guy and you'd never find out." Pregnant Pause. "Until it was TOO LATE." But the Dead Boot Guy was never on the other end of the phone, nor did we ever run into him over the course of a half-decade or so of hanging out in the mall. We were pioneers, the first generation of teenagers who could hang out in malls. And the last generation who could safely take a nap in the fast lane of Route 80 East at 3 in the afternoon, in the shadow of the Moose.


Recently while browsing in an antique shop, I came across a framed poster from the 1920's depicting an Argentine Cowboy-- it appeared to be an advertisement for something, perhaps a brand of cigarettes, but I don't have enough Spanish at my command to say for sure-- and I was struck by the distinctive trousers worn by the figure. Is there a technical name for these pants, and are they still part of the Argentinean cowboy costume? And if so, are you aware of an American distributor of them?

Sure like those pants


Search me. Probably there's some Spanish name for them, but I can't imagine what it is. Perhaps something like "Los Pantos." (Many Spanish words end in 'o'). I don't know if the kind of pants you are talking about are still worn by Argentine cowboys, or if they can be obtained in this country, but if you find out, please write back and let us know.
* * *


Please settle a bet for me. My friend (I'll call him "Bucky") says that GAUCHO refers only to Argentine cowboys, and that they have a different term for the North American variety. I say GAUCHO simply means "cowboy," and that the Argentines refer to our famous cowboys as gauchos. who is right?

Cowboys are gauchos

I'm afraid you're both mistaken. To the best of my knowledge, 'gaucho' is a kind of dip. I've often had it at parties. I think it's made from avocados, and it's quite delicious.


When purchasing chips for dips-- 'gaucho' or otherwise-- avoid REGULAR chips and go for those specially designed for dipping. In potato chips, look for ridges; in corn chips, the product is often marked "GREAT FOR DIPS." Regular chips are too fragile for serious dipping and often shatter, leaving shards in the dip.
* * *

Does the 'Golden Age' of the Argentine Cowboy correspond to the 'Golden Age' of the Cowboys in the Old West? Or did their hey day arrive a little later (or earlier) than ours?

I really have no idea. Thanks for writing.
* * *

Did we come up with the idea of cowboys and then the Argentineans stole it, or did we get it from them?


This is probably an example of what anthropologists call 'parallel something-or-other.' This is when two different cultures come up with the same idea independently-- for instance, the prehistoric Tasmanians and the prehistoric Eskimos both had cultures which involved eating food, although there was no contact between the two lands until much later. Or more recently, like when Liebnitz and Newton both developed calculus, or the way that Siam and Persia both invented cats. In this case, according to some theories, both Argentina and The Old West had many boys and many cows, and the result was all but inevitable. According to other theories, both Argentina and the Old West got the idea from the lost continent of Atlantis, which also explains how Mexico and Egypt both have pyramids and camels.
* * *

How many people are employed as cowboys in Argentina?

I'd like to know

Quite a few would be my guess, but I can't say for sure.
* * *


Do Argentine cowboys ride llamas?

If not, then why are there all those llamas there?

No, they ride horses, just as our cowboys do. Llamas are very slow moving and would not be of much use in cattle herding. (In the interests of clarification, I might note here that it is possible that some Argentine cowboys may own llamas and ride them for pleasure, but they are not used for cowboy work).
* * *


Does the water in toilet bowls in Argentina (and other places in the Southern Hemisphere) really go counter clockwise when the toilet is flushed (ditto the water going down the drain)?


Science student

I forget whether it's clockwise or counterclockwise, but, yes, whichever way the water swirls down the drain up here, it swirls in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. In the Western Hemisphere and Eastern Hemisphere, it goes midway between clockwise and counterclockwise, but in directions opposite to each other.
* * *

Trouble in the Balcony

Being an usher at the Park Theater was a perfect job for me because the skills required dovetailed perfectly with the skills I possessed-- none. I had few duties, and they rarely interfered with my movie watching, which after all was the raison d'괲e of working as an usher. You showed up at work, hung around for four hours, went home. From time to time you might be required to clean up spilled popcorn, or less frequently, mop up a mess in the bathrooms; or stand in the lobby and rip tickets; or, once in a great while, you might actually click on your flashlight and guide a late comer to a seat after the lights had gone down and the feature had started. That was about it. Except-- sometimes the manager would tell us to throw somebody out. In order to get thrown out of the Park Theater, you had to be behaving pretty badly. Tossing popcorn kernels into the projector beam or smoking in the no smoking section wouldn't do it. During midnight shows, of course, where normal rules of human behavior were suspended for 90 minutes, nothing short of running amok with a chain saw would do it. But in the course of the regular feature, setting off fire crackers (which happened twice during my tenure), throwing soda on other patrons (three times), or urinating against the wall of the auditorium (once) were offenses that would get you surrounded by ushers and escorted out the front door. We always arrived in groups of at least three, the thinking being that a surly 17 year old might challenge one or two ushers in order to save face in front of his peers, but could legitimately back down when confronted by a small mob. This usually worked. Unless there was Trouble in the Balcony. It's one thing to grab somebody by the arms and hustle them down the aisle and out the door; it's something else when there's a twisting stairway involved. And the thing is, troublemakers naturally gravitated to the balcony. It was the High Ground. You could sit up there and throw things at the people below, and if the place was crowded enough, you were certain of hitting somebody. Not only that, but by the time an usher or three had raced up the stairs, everyone in the balcony would be innocently watching the movie, and you'd never know who did it. Well, you WOULD-- the guys in the front row dressed like the Marlon Brando's gang in "The Wild One" obviously did it-- but (1) you couldn't prove it and (2) there were too many of them and (3) even ONE of them was too many because they were really BIG. The best you could do at this point was station an usher conspicuously nearby and hope they didn't set him on fire when the other ushers left. We usually tried to prevent this situation by roping off the balcony and hanging a 'balcony closed' sign at the foot of the stairs. People sometimes ignored this, but only one or two at a time and then it was pretty easy to deal with. (When Marlon and the rest of the Wild Ones ignored it, it was pretty easy to deal with, too-- we just stayed out of the balcony). But one day one of the candy girls went upstairs to get some supplies from the popcorn closet, and she told the manager that there was someone sitting up there, watching the movie. So the manager told us, "Go up there and tell him the balcony's closed." "It's a she," said the candy girl. "Well, tell HER," said the manager. I went up with another usher, and we quickly spotted the person-- it was a woman of "a certain age"-- in this case, about 70-- sitting in the back of the balcony. "Excuse me, ma'am," I said, "but the balcony's closed." "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. But she made no move to get up. The other usher and I looked at each other, and then I repeated that the balcony was closed. "Yes," she said. "Thank you for telling me." And made no move. "Ma'am," I said, "You'll have to go downstairs." "I understand," she said. No movement. The other usher and I retreated to the corner and discussed strategy. Then we went downstairs and explained the situation to the manager. "I can't just GRAB her and drag her downstairs," I said. "No, of course not. Well, let me go up and talk to her." He went up, and more or less repeated the conversation I'd just had with her. Then he came downstairs. "She just keeps saying 'Yes, I understand. The balcony is closed. Thank you. I understand.' " "Well, what should we do." "Nothing," he said. "Just let her sit there. What else can we do?" We were treating her exactly the same way we would treat a belligerent motorcycle gang. The next day, she was back in the balcony. "Ma'am," said the manager, "The balcony is CLOSED. You are not allowed to be up here. Do you understand what I'm saying?" "Oh, yes, certainly." [No movement] "You'll have to leave." "I understand." [No movement] "You have to go downstairs." "Yes." [No movement] "Are you going to go downstairs?" "Yes, I am, certainly." [No movement]. "You have to go downstairs NOW." "Yes. " [No movement]. At this point, the Park Theater more or less admitted defeat. The old lady, whose name we never learned, usually showed up between 3 and 5 times a week all summer long, though there were a couple of stretches where she was on hand daily for a week or ten days at a time. If we had an usher posted by the stairs, she would sit downstairs, but sooner or later the usher would be called away or distracted and she would attain the balcony. Sometimes people like this become a sort of staff pet, but this didn't happen in this case. We just found her too creepy. And we weren't the only ones. A couple of times, kids snuck into the balcony, only to find themselves alone with the old lady. They quickly came back downstairs, visibly shaken. Sometime in late August or early September, she stopped coming. It's possible that the kind of movies we were showing we no longer to her taste. More likely, though, she just found another balcony somewhere else that she liked better.


In which your reporter quizzes his daughter in an attempt to figure out exactly what a mosh pit is, and fails.

ME: You got these bruises from... mashing...?

EMMA: Moshing. In the mosh pit.

ME: What is... well, what is a mosh pit, exactly? Could you describe these 'pits' for our readers? I'm a little vague about exactly, uh, what they...

EMMA: They're just MOSH PITS, that's all.

ME: [long pause]. Okay. Well, let's start over. So you went to Warp Tour yesterday...?

EMMA: WARPED. There's an "Ed" on the end.

ME: Who did you see?

EMMA: A lot of people. There were a lot of HOT GUYS in their twenties with like TATTOOS and nipple piercings-- they bumped into me, but it was okay because they were hot.

ME [long pause]: I meant what BANDS did you see. How could you tell these *cough* hot guys had their... their... these piercings... I mean, you could see it through their shirts?

EMMA: They didn't have SHIRTS.

ME [longer pause]: Okay, I think that concludes the interview...

EMMA: NO! I have a LOT more to say. There were a LOT of bands there. Maybe 20. But not all at the same time.

ME: How many stages?

EMMA: Four or five...

ME: Did you see all the ones you'd been planning to see?

EMMA: No. I didn't get to see NOFX. And technically... Well, I was right in front for Green Day, but I didn't see that much because I kept getting punched.

ME: I beg your pardon?

EMMA: Guys were punching me..

ME: GUYS were PUNCHING you?? These were the hot guys, with the... the pierced...

EMMA: Are you gonna start saying 'You know in MY day, we knew how to have fun without getting anything PIERCED?'

ME: [pause] Why were they punching you?

EMMA: Because they were morons. But it was okay. I punched back. You know, not PUNCH punch. Mosh pit punching.

ME: We're back to the mosh pit again. What IS it, exactly?

EMMA: It's not a PIT like a hole in the ground. It's a bunch of guys with no shirts on, pushing other guys. Although sometimes they would push me. And there's a lot of crowd surfers.

ME: What's a crowd surfer?

EMMA: What do you think it is? It's a guy who surfs a crowd. He's on top of the crowd and they pass him around.

ME: How many times did you go in the mosh pit?

EMMA: Maybe 4 times...

ME: Did you get punched all four times?

EMMA: I didn't get punched in the Papa Roach pit. I was surprised.

ME: Me, too. Uh. What does "mosh" mean?

EMMA: It's what you do in the mosh pit.

ME: Yeah, but... what I'm getting at, why do they call it a MOSH PIT? Where does the word "Mosh" come from?

EMMA: It doesn't COME FROM anywhere. It's a WORD. It's not like, you know, a CHUCK.

ME: A Chuck?

EMMA: Like "Hi, I'm CHUCK, from BAYONNE." It's a WORD.

ME: Okay. So what else happened?

EMMA: I met some bands, too. I met Millencolin, Dilated Peoples... we almost met MXPX but we didn't because Megan was impatient... And we met this guy after the concert, this Muslim-Islamic dude? He made us buy one of his books for a dollar. It was really strange...

ME: He MADE you...?

EMMA: This Islamic Dude. He said it was about YOGA and stuff, and that all famous people do yoga. But all the famous people he named were GAY.

ME: Who did he say?

EMMA: [names three famous people, none of whom are rumored to be gay].

ME: He said they were gay??

EMMA: No, but everybody KNOWS.

ME: I've never even heard rumors about [name deleted]...

EMMA: It's a fact. Or wait, maybe I'm thinking of that OTHER guy.

ME: The other...?

EMMA: You know, the OTHER famous guy.

ME: Wait a minute-- why is this ISLAMIC guy pushing yoga? Traditionally, isn't this a Hindu discipline?

EMMA: Well, I guess it crossed over.

ME: What was he wearing?

EMMA: Jeans and a t-shirt.

ME: What makes you think he was Islamic?

EMMA: He said so. He had a ponytail. Up here [taps top of head].

ME: And was the rest of his head shaved?

EMMA: Yeah.

ME: He sounds suspiciously like a Hari Krishna, is why I ask...


ME: Well, was he in the mosh pit?

EMMA: No, he was outside.

ME: And he made you buy a book?


ME: What was the book called, do you remember?

EMMA: No, it was some glooby-globby-glibby title.

ME: Was it the Bhagvad Gita?

EMMA: No, but it was LIKE that. Like "oob-la gloob-la glooby."

ME: This guy really sounds like a Hari Krishna. Okay. But he's an ISLAMIC guy with a ponytail and a shaved head... hanging out outside Warped Tour to get you guys to buy "Oob-la glooby glooby."

EMMA: Exactly.

ME: Did he seem to approve of Warped Tour?

EMMA: He seemed pretty... what's that word... like he didn't care. But he had a backstage pass taped to his wrist. We said we would give him a dollar if he gave us the pass, but he wouldn't.

ME: Did he have anything pierced?

EMMA: This interview is OVER.


THE BIG PICKLE has arrived. You probably didn't even know you were waiting for the Big Pickle. You probably thought you were perfectly happy with the standard sized pickles. You might even be thinking 'Eh, so what, I've seen big pickles before.' But you haven't. And I haven't either. We thought we did, but we were wrong. Think of the biggest pickle slice you ever saw, and then double it, and then slap some extra pickle stuff around the edges, and you still aren't even CLOSE to imagining THE BIG PICKLE. Maybe you've felt a vague sense of malaise, of ennui, of assorted other French words that I can neither spell nor pronounce correctly. And you weren't sure what the source (or as the French would say, "Ze Source") of this feeling was. Well, according to top scientists, it turns out that this feeling was caused by the subliminal knowledge that pickles just aren't big enough. You need 5 or 6 slices to cover your burger. You never complained about it, because that's just the way it is. You couldn't even IMAGINE a pickle slice large enough to cover a burger patty, not even one of those teeny burger patties at the White castle. And of course, as long as it couldn't be imagined, it couldn't happen. You know what they say: "The first step to creating a better world is to IMAGINE a better world." I don't know who 'they' are or why they say that, but they do. Whether it's true regarding a better world is not within the province of this column, but there's no doubt that it's valid as far as giant pickles go. For years-- perhaps centuries-- pickle experts have wanted a big pickle. We're not talking about a STUPID big pickle, so big you can use the slices for Frisbees. Just as long as the slices were big enough to cover a burger, it would be fine. And it had to be crunchy, and it had to NOT have a zillion seeds, since nothing is grosser than biting into a pickle slice and getting a mouth full of seeds. Wait a minute, strike that. Actually, I just thought of about seven things that are grosser than that. But none of them has anything to do with pickles. Anyway, that was the challenge. I don't want to turn this piece into a de facto page of free advertising, so I won't mention which giant pickle company has come up with the Big Pickle. The search, according to reporter Barbara Hoffman of the NY Post, took over 4 years and terminated in the discovery of a huge mutant cucumber in the Netherlands. (Apparently there is some sort of relationship between cucumbers and pickles, but the article did not explain what it is. From what I could determine reading between the lines, the cucumber may be the LARVAL stage of the pickle). After many set backs (several of which bear a striking resemblance to the events of a 1962 science fiction story by Theodore Sturgeon called "When You Care, When You Love," in which this rich girl clones her dead boy friend and then puts herself in a deep freeze with instructions to wake her up in 20 years when the re-grown boyfriend, who is going to be raised EXACTLY the way the original boy friend was, is the same age he was when they first met, at which point they'll meet again, only this time he's not going to die, but the story just ENDS at the point where a viable embryo boy friend has finally survived; Sturgeon said at the time it was just the opening segment of a novel, but as far as anybody knows he never wrote the rest of it and he's been dead now for about 20 years so we'll never find out what happens), THE BIG PICKLE was developed, and now you can buy GIANT PICKLE SLICES at the super market. One slice covers the whole burger, and it looks really, really stupid. Of course, once you put the top of the bun back on the burger it won't matter how it looks. What will matter is how it tastes. And from all accounts, it will taste like a pickle. Which is good news for those of you who really like pickles. I don't, particularly, but if I ever do, I guess I'm all set. We can all go home now. Civilization has reached its apex. This, by the way, is the SECOND Big Pickle I have encountered. The previous one was the first baseman for the Pius X girls' softball team of Bangor PA. I'm pretty sure that "Pickle" was just her nickname, not her name, but maybe her parents were hippies. In any case, when she came up to bat the first time she hit one into deep right field and the right fielder's throw was a tad off-line but my daughter, who was the defensive first baseman, stretched and caught it anyway and The Pickle was OUT.


A couple of days before the 4th of July Calvano and I were on our way to Ducky's Hot Texas Wiener Emporium for breakfast and we stopped to pick up Picarillo. His mother was shaving his head. He had been chewing gum in bed, had fallen asleep, the gum had ended up on his pillow, and after several hours of tossing and turning, had worked itself into his hair so thoroughly that Mrs. Picarillo had no choice but to cut it out. Picarillo was whimpering. "Just cut off the parts that have gum stuck to them," he pleaded. Mrs. Picarillo was dubious but gave it her best shot. This resulted in a pattern of hairlessness that looked rather like Georgia's 13th Congressional District. "That looks really great," said Calvano. "Let's go to Ducky's." But Mrs. Picarillo frowned, and commenced shaving the Picarillo head. "You're very lucky," said Mrs. Picarillo. "If you were a girl, this would be a tragedy. I remember a girl in my town got paint in her hair and it had to be cut off." "What happened?" asked Calvano. "She went insane," said Mrs. Picarillo. "Wow! Cool!" said Calvano. "I mean, what a terrible tragedy." In short order Picarillo's head was hairless. Calvano and I tried to convince Mrs. Picarillo to cut off the eyebrows as well, but she wouldn't hear of it. We went to Ducky's, where Calvano and I tried to convince Picarillo to let us paint his head. "We could paint it all one color," Calvano explained, "or we could CUSTOMIZE it, with some kind of a pattern, like stripes or go-go checks --or we could do pictures, like a guy with an AXE in his head screaming." Picarillo was tempted; several of the patrons at Ducky's had commented on his 'haircut'. But the day ended with his head still uncustomized. It was a frustrating situation. You could no more look at Picarillo's head and not feel an irresistible urge to paint it than you could look at a freshly poured sidewalk and not feel an irresistible urge to write your name in it. The roof of Picarillo's front porch could be accessed from his bedroom window, so that's where the three of us were on the evening of the Glorious 4th to view the fireworks, which were shortly to be set off from the high school football field. By now a faint peach fuzz had taken root on Picarillo's scalp, to Calvano's dismay ("If he'd let us paint his head, the hair would have DIED and he'd be PERMANENTLY bald," he lamented), but if anything, Picarillo was even more self conscious about appearing in public. "I don't wanna be onna roof where everybody can see me," he said. Calvano went into the bathroom and emerged with Mrs. Picarillo's shower cap. "I dunno," said Picarillo. "It's got little flowers on it." "Nobody'll see the flowers from up here," Calvano lied. "Just kind of tuck it in, in the back, so it's real tight around your head and it looks like a swim-cap instead of a shower cap. Yeah, that's great." "Are you boys up on the roof?" called Mrs. Picarillo from somewhere below. Picarillo quickly stuck his head inside his window. "No, Ma'am, I'm in my ROOM." "Okay then." "Picarillo, only your HEAD was in your room," said Calvano. "The head is where the BRAIN is located," Picarillo explained. "And besides, when she said 'you boys,' she didn't say which boys she meant." Before Calvano or I could comment upon this dazzling bit of logic, the fireworks commenced. While we enjoyed the fireworks, we were eager for them to end, so that we could race down to the field and get rich. Last year, Mr. Ventris, the 80 year old biology teacher, had showed up on the field the following morning with a metal detector and, if the rumors were true, had walked home with a cool seventeen dollars in change. While we didn't have an official metal detector, we had tapped several powerful magnets-- the 75 cent monster-sized ones from the hardware store-- to a garden rake. We figured a quick dash up and down the field would net us at least as much as Mr. Ventris had cleared, and we weren't going to wait until daylight. It would have made sense to have simply watched the fireworks from the field with everyone else and thus cut out the travel time, but Calvano had argued that if people saw us there with our jerry-rigged metal detector, many would quickly run home and slap together their own and we'd end up with only a dollar or two at most for our trouble. The field was almost empty when we arrived. Picarillo was still wearing the shower cap, to the delight of Calvano and myself. There was a single figure down at the edge of the bleachers, and in the near-dark (there was a little illumination from the parking lot lights), we thought at first it was Mr. Ventris, because it was holding a metal detector. "We'll start at the other end of the field," said Calvano. "He won't notice us, and--" "HEY! Show's over! You boys hit the bricks!" It was not Mr. Ventris; it was Mr. O'Malley, the grammar school janitor. "What do you got there?" "It's a rake," said Calvano. "We're supposed to clean up the field. It's a project for Boy Scouts." The end of Mr. O'Malley's cigar glowed redly for a minute. "Well, okay then... but-- hey, wait a minute. What's that junk on the rake?" "They're magnets," explained Picarillo. Calvano groaned. "Magnets, huh? Boy Scouts, huh? Why, I oughtta-- get outta here. I got dibs on this field." "Hey, Mr. O'Malley," said Picarillo, finally recognizing our interlocutor, "It's me-- MIKE." Mr. O'Malley occasionally paid Picarillo fifty cents or so to run errands for him at the school. But friendship cut no ice with O'Malley when money was at stake. "Mike, huh? Well, you boys run on... what's that on your head?" "Huh? Oh, uh, nothing..." Calvano pulled the shower cap off Picarillo's head. Even in the dim light, the lack of hair was obvious. O'Malley gasped. "Hey!" said Picarillo. He grabbed the shower cap from Calvano's hand and stumbled a short distance away to recover his scalp with some degree of privacy. "See, he's got a THING in his BRAIN," Calvano said softly. "Aw, geez! I didn't know," said O'Malley. "I'm sorry!" Another red glow. "Listen. You boys go ahead and have a good time. I'll just... I'll work over here on the right side a the field, okay?" "Sure, Mr. O'Malley!" said Picarillo. "What a great guy," he said, as we picked up the first of what turned out to be a great many bottle caps.


Although the Battle of the Little Big Horn took place in what is now the state of Montana, in 1876 would this have been Montana Territory or Wyoming Territory, or would it have been part of the Great Sioux Reservation?
Where was it?

I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. Certainly it was somewhere out west, because in this movie I saw about it there were these mesa-type things in the background, although that might have been some kind of special effect.
* * *

Is it true that Custer's horse survived the battle, and is currently stuffed and on display somewhere? How much does it cost to see him? Can you sit on top of him and have your picture taken? Do they rent out costumes? Wouldn't it be a good idea to rig it up to a motor so it would kind of "buck"?
Wants to ride Custer's horse.

I don't remember what happened to Custer's horse in the movie. I saw it a long time ago. But I remember he (Cutter) was on foot at the end, so probably the horse didn't make it. I believe that Roy Roger's horse, Trigger, has been stuffed and is on display somewhere, though I doubt if you can pose atop him. While the motor idea sounds like fun, it wouldn't be very practical, as the wear and tear on the horse would be incredible. Thanks for writing.
* * *

This is a two-part question. Part one: Did they have laser weapons at the time of Custer's Last Stand, and if so, why did Custer not avail himself of them? Surely they would have had a decisive effect on the outcome. Part two: Is LASER an acronym, and if so, what does it stand for?
Wants the poop on lasers

They did not have laser weapons in 1876, although it's possible that they did have weapons with laser TARGETING. I'm sure Custer would have used laser weapons had they been available to him, and I must agree with your premise-- certainly laser weapons could have turned the course of the battle, had they been employed intelligently. "LASER" in indeed an acronym, and it stands for "Light [something] [something] [something] [something] [something]." By the way-- did you notice that each part of your "two part" question was itself a two part question, so you were really asking a four part question?
* * *

Please settle a bet: did General Custer INVENT frozen custard, or was it just named in his honor? There's 10 bucks riding on this, so please reply!
Answer soon please

I think a little common sense is called for here: If Custer has INVENTED frozen custard and named it after himself, don't you think he would have spelled it correctly? Obviously it was named by someone else. But before we start pointing fingers because of that "ARD" instead of the "ER," we should remember that computers did not come equipped with Spellchecks until fairly recently.
* * *

I just saw the oddest movie-- Tom Hanks was living down the street from some crazy people who everybody thought were murderers. It also starred Bruce Dern and one of those Corey kids-- I'm not sure if it was Corey Feldman or the other Corey. Do you know which movie it was, and which Corey?
Driving me crazy

Sounds like "The Burbs" (1990). The Corey in question would be Corey Feldman-- interestingly, the other Corey, Haims, was his frequently co-star in such films as "License to Drive" and "Stand by Me." Thanks for writing.
* * *

Although Crazy Horse is often credited with the victory at Little Big Horn, my brother-in-law, who considers himself something of an expert on the subject, says Gall was at least as responsible for the Sioux triumph, and is considered by most military authorities the better general. Your thoughts, please?
Crazy Horse? Gall?

I take it from your question that Crazy Horse and Gall were Indian military leaders. I'd say, in the interests of fairness, they both deserve some of the credit, though in my opinion most of the credit goes to Crazy Horse since he is more famous.
* * *

From your knowledge of Custer's personality, what would you guess his favorite Beatle album would have been?

Custer was a man of wide ranging interests, so it's a safe bet that his favorite Beatle album would have been The White Album (1968). He would have especially enjoyed side two, as it starts off with "Martha My Dear" and that was his wife's name.
* * *

I thought his wife's last name was Elizabeth.
Even more curious

Um, as a matter of fact it was, you are correct. I was thinking of someone whose wife's name was, in fact, Martha, which is why I made the mistake.
* * *


I almost threw the envelope out because my name was spelled wrong. Both of my names, in fact-- JEF GRINSHAW. I tossed it towards the waste basket but it skimmed over the top and came to rest against the wall, and for the first time saw the sticker on the back-- DON'T MISS THE WOODLAWN POOL REUNION PICNIC. Woodlawn was where I used to go swimming when I was a teenager. It was located less than ten minutes from home, and aside from my cousins, I hadn't seen any of the other kids who went there since the place folded, more than 25 years ago. I opened the envelope. Even invitations to kids' parties look sharp and professional these days, now that personal computers are nearly ubiquitous and desktop publishing software costs less than a large pizza with two toppings, so I did a double take when I saw the flier was type written. Of course it could have been done with a computer and a crummy looking take typewriter font (the one on my computer is called 'teletype') but it wasn't: the 'h' key was damaged and the other keys needed cleaning and the ribbon was shot. It said: come to the woodlawn pool reunion & meet with old friends who you haven't seen since years ago! fun for the whole family. hamburgers, hot dogs, ect. don't forget to brig your bathing suit also a desert or salad which serves ten people. It gave directions to the picnic site and an address to RSVP. Total cost (aside from the dessert): $5. Which seemed to good to pass up. I decided that the type writer and the assorted misspellings and typos were an attempt to be quaint and further decided the attempt was successful. I made out my check to the REUNION COMMITTEE, mailed it in, marked my calendar, and figured I'd pick up a cake or something on the way to the picnic. I put it more or less out of my mind until a few days before hand, when my cousin Low Low called. "You goin' to the Pool Picnic?" Those were his opening words-- not "Hello," or "This is Low Low," or any of the traditional greetings that normal people employ when speaking on the phone. "Yes," I said, and hung up. I unplugged the phone for an hour or so and puttered around, doing the dishing, sorting laundry, changing a blown bicycle tire. He called back about two hours after I plugged the phone back in. "Y'phone's on the Fritz again," he said. "Disconnected." "No," I said, "I hung up on you because you didn't identify yourself." "This's Low Low," he said. "Ah. Well, what can I do for you?" "Wanted to know if you were goin' to the Pool Picnic." "I am," I said. "Are you bringing a dessert or a salad?" "I was thinking a dessert." "That's good." "I'm glad you approve." "What 'zactly are you bringing?" "A cake, I think." "Chocolate?" "I was going to play it pretty much by ear and see what looked good at the bakery that morning, to tell you the truth." "I like chocolate." "I will bear that in mind." "'Kay," he said, and hung up. I think 'Kay' was short for 'Okay,' though it may have been the letter 'K.' As in 'this conversation was brought to you by the letter K.' I confess that while I was not surprised that Low Low was attending the picnic-- 5 bucks for hot dogs & hamburgers & "ect"-- I was not precisely delighted. I once had the misfortune to accompany Low Low to an 'all you can eat' Chinese restaurant. Think of all the sitcoms, cartoons, comic strips and so forth that you've ever seen about hefty guys running amuck at the All You Can Eat place. In all honesty, the most exaggerated and grotesque of these do not even approach the reality of Low Low at the feed trough. Not even close. Although this event was not advertised as 'all you can eat,' ALL events at which food is present are All You Can Eat as far as Low Low is concerned, unless there are armed security guards are also present. But at least he didn't ask to bum a ride with me. That didn't happen for another couple of days. Then the sequence, as usual, went something like: I say no. Low Low calls back. I say no again. My Aunt calls me and asks me what she has ever done to make me hate her so much that I won't even give my cousin a ride. High point: "I'll give you GAS MONEY if that's what the problem is!" And so it was that I set out for the Woodlawn Pool Picnic bright and early, since I was making a 75-mile detour to pick up my cousin. "This is gonna be great," said Low Low. "Didja pick up that cake yet?" "No, not yet." "I was thinking I could go in with you on the cake," he said. "So this would be a JOINT offering," I said. "Wall," he said. This is probably Low-Low-ese for "Well," though perhaps he was just ticking of the various things that you slap together to make a room. We stopped at a bakery, and selected a chocolate cake. When I went to pay for it, Low Low said, "Listen, I'm a little short this week. Kay if I pay you back on Thursday?" We arrived at the picnic site-- a public area near a small lake, with picnic tables and no other humans in view. There were no signs reading "Welcome to the Woodlawn Pool Reunion" or anything of the sort. I fumbled in the glove compartment for the invitation. "Geez, Low Low, did we show up on the wrong day?" "Nah. This's it." I took out the letter and it was the correct day, at the correct time. "Well, where IS everybody?" I said. "Wall, the thing is, nobody else is showin' up, is what it is," he said. "How do you know that?" He unfolded a sheet of paper. "Cuz I got 6 RSVPs, and 5 of 'em said 'no.' Including the ones I said were suppose to bring the hot dogs and hamburgers." "Low Low-- YOU'RE the Reunion Committee?" "Wall. In a way, I guess." "In what way?" "I sent out all the invitations and stuff, if that's what you mean." "Who else was involved?" "Wall, nobody exZACTly." The wind blew a page of newspaper across the clearing. We both watched it for a moment. "Listen-- y'know that check you sent the PO Box that's made out to 'Reunion Committee'? You think if I gave that back you could make one out to me in my name? Th' bank is givin' me trouble." "No." "Wall," he said. "What th' heck. So. LET'S HAVE SOME OF THAT CAKE." I gave him the whole thing, though perhaps not in precisely the manner he would have wished.

New Talent Needed All the Time

Of all the books published in this millennium, my favorite so far is Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious World of Outsider Music by Irwin Chusid, which concerns the bizarre music composed and performed by homeless schizophrenics, nursing home residents, drug burnouts, and other folks who tend not to show up on TRL or get major label recording contracts. I recommend it highly; for one thing, it's often very funny, and for another, I finally found out what musical genre I've been toiling in all these years. I'm sorry to say I don't even show up in the index, but after reading the chapter on "The Song Poem Industry" I had the feeling I came pretty close. If you've spent as much time as I have scrutinizing the ads in the back of comic books, you've come across advertisements that say "WANTED: YOUR POEMS" and invite you to send in your lyrics for a 'free appraisal.' If you do, you'll get a letter back telling you that your stuff has real hit potential, and for around 200 bucks, a demo with the full studio treatment will be made and distributed. This 'industry' thrived for decades, and needless to say not one of these potential hit songs (hundreds of thousands? millions?) came within a mile of hitting a radio station playlist, but the songs actually were set to music and recorded though distribution was pretty much limited to the folks who paid for the full studio treatment. Not even hinted at in the book, however, is the song-poem SUB industry. After all, not everyone can afford 200 bucks for the full studio treatment. It's so unfair. All these mute inglorious Miltons, don't THEY deserve to have their worthless lyrics set to music too? You bet. As I discovered in the late 1970's, when my friend Chuck Mulrooney decided to have his words set to music. He came across a company willing to set his poems for a mere 20 bucks. It was called STERLING MUSIC and located in Texas. Chuck sent in his two poems and his 40 bucks (nothing about "free appraisal" at Sterling; you sent in the money, they set your words to music). The tape he got back was quite something. The house composer at Sterling sang both of Chuck's songs-- acapella. 'Sang' might be the wrong word; they were sort of chanted, in what sounded to me like the Texas equivalent of someone doing a Peter Lorre impression. It was actually kind of scary. When it was over, Chuck excitedly told me, "And for another 20 bucks, he'll add a GUITAR TRACK with [he glanced at the cover letter] AN ORIGINAL MUSICAL CHORD PROGRESSION." For reasons now lost in the dim mists of time, I told Chuck to save his money; I would add guitar chords for free. To my mortification, at first he balked-- "Well, I mean, that's really nice of you... but I mean... it's not like you're a professional..." I pointed out that since I was doing it for free, he had nothing to lose and if he didn't like it, he could always pay to have the creepy Texan add his own (undoubtedly creepy) chords. With enormous reluctance, he finally agreed. I jettisoned the Texan's 'melodies' and sang what amounted to a couple of default tunes over a couple of standard I-IV-V progressions. I had a lot of fun with it, despite, or perhaps because, of couplets like "To be a man who can find his own truths / Now I'm willing to win and lose." Chuck was delighted. "The tunes sound TOTALLY DIFFERENT when you play the guitar with them," he said. At this point it occurred to me, as it has to so many others throughout history, that I was GIVING away something people were willing to pay for. Thus was born SWELL MUSIC INC. I already had a guitar, a crappy electric keyboard, and a mailing address. I bought about 50 of the cheapest cassettes I could find, took out an ad (I was going to charge 15 bucks for the full treatment) in a couple of give-away weeklies, and waited for the money to pour in. After six weeks, 11 customers, 3 bounced checks, and one death threat, Swell Music Inc.-- which of course was never incorporated-- closed up shop forever, but not before I encountered the amazing lyrics of Irwin Mitchell Johnson. Irwin Mitchell Johnson sent me four songs to set; three of them were 'title songs' to 1950s Sci-fi movies: "I Married a Monster from Outer Space," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and "Invaders from Mars." The fourth was a song called "The Only Irwin in the World," a plaintive ditty about how there were several kids in his school named Bill or Tom, but he was the only Irwin. ("Should I fly my Irwin Flag Unfurled? /Am I the Only Irwin in the World?") In all honesty, I did a great job with these. Especially considering the words I was working with:

Invaders from Mars

It looks like mommy but it's not
It looks like daddy but it's not
See their eyes? It's very plain
Someone else controls their (SIC) brain!
Invaders from Mars! They've landed! They're here!
Invaders from Mars! They're under the ground!
Under the golf course is where they are found
Invaders from Mars! They've landed! They're here!
Why won't you believe me? Does nobody care?
Invaders from Mars! Run! Get away! Scream!
Invaders from Mars-- or is it a dream?
[dreamy instrumental music](repeat chorus).

IMJ was so delighted by my work on these that he asked me to set a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky called "Brooklyn Bridge." (Apparently he didn't have enough lyrics of his own to fill out a standard five-song set)."You will find a copy of Mayakovsky's book The Bedbug [a play] and Selected Poems at the Barnes and Noble sale annex on 18th St.," he wrote. "It is 25 cents. Go to the wall of 25-cent books. Third shelf from the top, all the way to the right. So that it will not be purchased by another, I have secreted the book behind three diet books with pink covers. The poem is one pg 173." (Emphasis Irwin's). Why he didn't simply buy the book himself and send it to me-- or just send me a copy of the poem-- is another of those mysteries to which we will never know that answer, but it was right where he said it would be, and I did the best I could with the poem. Since it's a translation from the Russian, it neither rhymed nor scanned, which made things kind of difficult. About two weeks after completing this job I got a tape from Irwin, with HIS performances of the songs, which he sang with my tape playing in the background. Before each song he had a long explanation of why he had written it; I remember he saw the three sci-fi movies as an "unofficial 1950's paranoia trilogy, from the viewpoints respectively of a bride, a man, and a child." The tape was labeled "Opus One." Shortly after that a disgruntled customer (incredible as it sounds, not everyone appreciated my talent) wrote a letter to the (non-existent) president of Swell Music complaining about my work. "THIS BUM HAS MADE A MOCKERY OF MY WORDS, MRS. YAMAMOTO!" (For some reason I felt that company would seem more, I don't know, classy, if it were run by an elderly Japanese widow. I'm not sure why.) "While I harbor no ill will towards any living person, I sincerely hope he dies.") and I decided to close up shop. Somehow I always expected to hear more about Irwin Mitchell Johnson some day. I'm almost surprised he didn't make an appearance in this book by this other Irwin. Who knows what opus number he's up to by now?


I was in the mood for a falafel, so I decided it was Falafel Day. I called the falafel place and ordered falafels and when the delivery guy showed up half an hour later, Mulberry Street Joey Clams hit me in the head repeatedly with a big stuffed panda he'd scavenged from a dumpster two days earlier. "I [wham!] told you [wham!] I [wham!] don't [wham!] like [wham!] FALAFELS [whamwhamwham!] !" He examined the panda carefully, making sure my big ugly stupid head had not injured it. The panda was going to be a surprise gift for his niece. It smelled pretty bad from being in the dumpster, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams was sure that a few more days airing out in the fresh air of the Custom Neon Sign Shop would restore it to an olfactorilly presentable state. When he was satisfied that the panda was okay, he sat down and we ate our falafels and went through the day's mail. As usual, the mail consisted of bills, reminders that we had not paid bills, and letters from disgruntled customers. "Mulberry Street Joey Clams, Mr. Dinato says that "Happy Birthday" sign we made for him doesn't work. It wasn't properly sealed, and all the neon leaked out." "Well, we better resolve this right away. Write down that I died, and things are a mess, but you'll get back to him as soon as possible." "What should I say you died of?" "Say I was like saving a KID from being hit by a train or something. The kid's name was, uh, Binky. No, make it Betty-- it's better if it's a girl. If he's got any class at all, he won't ever write back. what else we got there?" "An invitation to The Neon Workers of America Convention." Mulberry Street Joey Clams motioned for the letter. "I don't get it. What is this? A union? Are we in..." He scrutinized the letterhead. "NE-WAC?" "Of course not," I said. "Well, it's moot anyway. The registration is 15 bucks A PIECE. And it's way the hell uptown." "Hey," I said, "It's not us. Look. They got the wrong name here. They mixed us up with the Neon Shop on West Broadway." "Ha! I HATE those snots." Mulberry Street Joey Clams had a healthy contempt for our competitors, all of whom, in his view, employed unfair trade practices, such as making signs that actually worked. "Well, too bad for them! They're gonna be waiting for their invitations to show up, while WE'RE living the high life uptown. Gimme the check book. Lemme see... We could get rooms at the hotel... but MAN! I can't believe what they want for a room... And this is with a NE-WAC discount..." "We live in town," I pointed out. "We don't need to get rooms." "There's no point goin' to a CONVENTION if you don't get a ROOM. You know what I'm saying?" "I know what you're saying, but since we live in town, we GOT rooms." "We got ROOMS, but we don't got room SERVICE. We don't got--" he began to tick off the assorted things we didn't got on his fingers-- "An ICE MACHINE. Elevators. Soda machines. This is all stuff they got at hotels. what we'll do, we'll find a cheap hotel in the neighborhood and stay there, while we go to all the NE-WAC events at the Hilton." Within minutes, Mulberry Street Joey Clams had reserved us a room at the beautiful Hotel Dixie. Whether the Hotel Dixie, located just off Times Square, still exists, I don't know; if it does, perhaps fortune has smiled upon it and it is now an excellent place to spend the night. At that time, it was renowned for inspiring such famous NY Post headlines as "Headless Hooker Found in Fleabag Hotel." It located a good 15 blocks from the site of the Neon Workers Convention, but it did have an ice machine in the hall. On the opening day of the convention, we took the subway from Little Italy to Times Square. Mulberry Street Joey Clams looked around at the various all-night grind houses and novelty shops with such wide-eyed wonder I had the suspicion that despite his life-long residency in Manhattan, he had never before journeyed more than 6 blocks north of Umberto's Clam House. This suspicion was deepened when we checked into our room and, observing the wall-to-wall carpeting (but not, apparently, the interesting stains on same), he said "Whoa! Pretty swanky, huh?" The NE-WAC convention itself was no where near as exciting as the Hotel Dixie; we both came close to nodding off during a 45 minute Keynote Address, and at the 'noon mixer,' Mulberry Street Joey Clams nudged me and said, "What's the story with no chicks here?" "I guess the Neon Workers Union is mostly guys," I said. "Well, this is for the birds. Let's get some ICE." We went into the hallway and got some ice. Suddenly two oddly attired middle-aged men came careening around the corner. The one in the lead was laughing uproariously, while his pursuer yelled, "You're gonna get it now!" One, or possibly both of them, had aerosol cans of whipped cream and had clearly been using them. We watched them race out of sight. "This place gives me the creeps," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "What are those guys? Turks?" "Uh--" "They're wearing TURK hats." "I think they're Shriners. There's a sign in the lobby about a Shriners Convention going on here today." "Well whatever they are, they scare me. I don't like guys wearing HATS." "Maybe we could sell them some signs," I suggested. "Turks don't go for neon," he said. "It's a religious thing." I could think of nothing to say to that, so I didn't. We went back to the Hotel Dixie and had some lunch. We kept meaning to return to the convention, but never got around to it; we just watched TV and from time to time I went into the hall for ice while Mulberry Street Joey Clams marveled at our posh digs. "I bet the NEON SIGN SHOP BOYS are wishing they were here now," he said, dumping another bucket of ice into the sink. "I guess so," I said. It was a great weekend, if you like ice.

Enough already! Take me back to the


and I mean NOW!

Not quite enough-- let's read


before we go home!