When I came home for Christmas break during my senior year in college, I knew it was my last Christmas break ever—after this, I was officially a grown up, forever. I made a real effort to call as many of my old high school friends as I could and planned for one final adolescent winter blow-out. It was going to be the stuff of legends.


As it happened, virtually all of my old high school friends were out of town, visiting their girl friends, hitting the ski slopes, or too broke to do much of anything. In the end I managed to get hold of Zack, who had been the other worthless teenage temp at the Passaic County I.D. Bureau when I’d spent a summer there, filing finger prints and photographing autopsies. Zack was surprised to hear from me, since we barely exchanged a word the entire summer.


It turned out that he had gone back to work at the I.D. Bureau after graduation and was now, he said, in charge of the drunk tank. “You should stop by,” he said. “The drunks don’t do Irish ballads any more. They do, like, show tunes.” Number One on the Drunk Tank hit parade at the moment: “The Impossible Dream.” This did not seem to me like a good reason to stop by the drunk tank. Quite the contrary, in fact, and I said as much. Well, Zack said, in any case there was going to be quite a blow out at the I.D. Bureau on New Year’s Eve and I was welcome to stop by (with a bottle of the bubbly) if I were so inclined. I said I’d try to make it at some point during the night’s festivities.


As New Year’s Eve approached, the I. D. Bureau began to sound like a distinct possibility. I was not being overwhelmed with party invitations. Humiliatingly, my parents were getting more invitations than I was. It got to the point where I checked the TV guide. Channel 11 was ringing in the New Year with “They Saved Hitler’s Brain.” I gave up and went to the supermarket to stock up on corn chips. Me, corn chips, and Hitler’s brain. Hello, 1976!


And there, among the corn chips, was my cousin Low-Low. He had roughly 500 pounds of chips in his cart. “Comin’ to the party?” he asked.


“No,” I said. I had long ago learned that there was no point in keeping my options open when Low-Low was involved.


“It’s at the D’Amato’s house on Prospect Street,” he said. “The D’Amatos are in Florida and they got their nephew Mikey Wally watching the place.” Mikey’s last name was not Wally. ‘Wally’ was a corruption of ‘Wall eye,’ a nickname he got in first grade when it was first noticed that his pupils drifted in opposite directions unless he concentrated.


“And you’re picking up the snacks for the party?”


Low-Low looked puzzled. “I’m just doing the Wednesday shoppin’.”


“Ah,” I said. “So what time does the party get rolling?”


“Nine?” said Low-Low. Question mark and all, it sounded better than “They Saved Hitler’s Brain.”


And yet it wasn’t. I know this for a fact, because the high point of the party was, in fact, “They Saved Hitler’s Brain.” There were maybe 6 hefty guys crammed together on the D’Amato’s crappy sofa with a bowl of pork rinds and Cheetos watching it, enraptured. The rest of us could barely make out the dialogue over the chomping and crunching. People stopped in, surveyed the appalling ‘refreshments’ table, and left as soon as politely possible. I was getting my jacket when I saw Janine.


I had not seen Janine in nearly ten years. When I was 12, she’d been the spooky beatnik girlfriend of Calvano’s older brother Duff. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that she was closer to my age than Duff’s—she didn’t attend public school, but Holy Angels Catholic School. All the spooky beatnik girls went to Holy Angels. I don’t know why.


“Janine!” I said.


She clearly didn’t recognize me. “Jeff!” I said. “I used to hang out with Duff and his brother.”


“Duff!” she said, and laughed uproariously. Apparently she wasn’t Duff’s spooky beatnik girlfriend any more. In fact, she didn’t look spooky. She looked great. She was maybe two years older than I was, and I was still young enough to think that was exciting. She noticed I had my jacket half on and asked me if I was going to a party that didn’t stink. I said I sure was, did she want to come? My heart was going “badda-chunk-whack-BAM-badda-ba-chunk,” like a box of pots and pans being dropped down the cellar stairs.


The only party I knew about was at the I.D. Bureau, so that’s where we were headed. I grabbed a bottle of what turned out to be Tom Collins mix. On the way she told me she’d just busted up with her boy friend Rudy last week and she wasn’t even going to go out tonight, but she was glad she did, and another bag full of pots went flying down the cellar steps.


“Party? Oh yeah, party’s down the hall,” said Zack. “Did you bring some libation?” I held up the Tom Collins mix so he couldn’t see the label, but nothing else looks like Tom Collins mix. He led us down the corridor towards the drunk tank. “This is pretty wiggy,” said Janine. I put my palm gently on Janine’s back, just like The Playboy Advisor recommended.


Technically the party was Zack and three drunks sleeping it off. “When that guy wakes up, he’s gonna start singing ‘The Impossible Dream,’” said Zack. “Here, pull up a stool.” I let Janine have the stool. Always the gentleman. “Aren’t you supposed to mix this with something? Like, oh, alcohol?”


“You don’t have to,” I said.


“Fine.” He took a swig, made a face. “You want to man the hose?”


“Okay,” I said.


“What’s with the hose?” asked Janine, taking a sip from the bottle.


“In case somebody throws up, I hose them down. Unless you want to do it.”


Her eyes were wide. I thought she might say something like, ‘Gee, this is the best New Year’s Eve party ever!’ but she didn’t.



It was Thursday after Christmas—garbage day. There was no recycling in 1967, so the curbs were lined with enormous unflattened cardboard boxes, already broken toys, and dented metal garbage cans stuffed with unbagged wrapping paper and rotting party debris. Calvano and Picarillo and I were winding our way through the streets of Little Falls, checking out the trash to see what our friends had received for Christmas.


“What is this?” said Calvano. In front of Steve Novak’s house, there was a box that looked like it had been ripped open in a frenzy. It had contained an electric guitar. Not a toy electric guitar, but an actual musical instrument. Another box had the words “Amplifier” stenciled on it. That box looked like Novak had torn it apart with his teeth to get at the contents.


We weren’t sure how to react. We’d been making snarky or approving comments all morning about how our peers had fared this Christmas—the unfortunate Kenny Krall had received a toy truck, like he was an eight year old or something. But Novak had gotten stuff that was totally off our Christmas radar. He was our age but he’d gotten, like, teenager presents. We couldn’t have been more dumbstruck if he’d gotten a car. We weren’t sure what an ‘amplifier’ was, but we knew it had something to do with the guitar. And an electric guitar was obviously cool. It wasn’t like he’d gotten a, you know, flute or something. You know, some stupid instrument your mom made you practice. An electric guitar was as cool as a drum set.


We continued silently along Warren Street, ignoring several boxes that cried out for ridicule, and turned onto Stevens Ave. There we saw something more startling than Novak’s electric guitar box.


Someone had thrown out a Christmas tree. Two days after Christmas.


“Wow,” said Picarillo.


“It’s crazy. Nobody throws out a Christmas tree now. Something must have happened,” said Calvano.


I shook my head. I would think of this moment years later when I was reading Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. He writes about a speech Stalin gave before the Party Congress in the thirties, and of course it was received with a standing ovation. The ovation went on for half an hour, because everyone was terrified to be the first person to stop applauding.


And in the same way, nobody wanted to be the first person to throw out the Christmas tree. In my home town, Christmas trees stood rotting in the living room at least until New Year’s Day, and often well into mid January. One family on Center Avenue kept the tree up and decorated until March, by which time so many needles had dropped that it looked like it had been skeletonized by army ants.

“This is just wrong,” said Picarillo. “Look, there’s nothing the matter with this tree.” It did seem to be in excellent repair.


“I have to think there was some sort of accident,” said Calvano. “Probably the father was electrocuted when he plugged in the lights. The mother couldn’t bear to look at it the tree any more. Yeah,” he said, nodding, “It’s gotta be something like that.”


“It’s not the tree’s fault,” said Picarillo. “I could see throwing out the lights…”


“There’s just no accounting for the actions of a grief stricken widow,” said Calvano. “I saw a show once where this guy dies, and then his wife goes nuts and chops up the sofa with an ax. Fact.”


“Was there something inside the sofa?” asked Picarillo.


“Nope. She was just nuts.


“Whoa,” said Picarillo. “So then what do they sit on to watch TV?”


“I don’t know,” sighed Calvano.


“Well, all I know is, I’m not leaving this hear. It’s not right.” Picarillo grabbed hold of the trunk near the top and tried to drag the tree out of the gutter, but that didn’t work very well. In the end it took all three of us to drag the tree to the end of the block. We stopped there. We had no idea where we were going or what we were doing. We just knew we couldn’t leave the tree in the gutter. Not two days after Christmas.


We left it (temporarily) against the fence of the School # 1 playground, and went to our homes for lunch. We’d made no specific plans to meet again that afternoon, but at 1 PM we all found ourselves standing in front of the tree, and we had a kind of a plan.


There was a creek that ran through the woods behind the houses on Second Avenue, and there was a hollow surrounded by sticker bushes near a bend in the creek. We didn’t think anyone else knew about this hollow, and we may have been right about that. Our plan was to drag the tree there, and let it molder away with some dignity, in the company of its fellow trees.


That was the plan when we started, anyway. By the time we’d breeched the sticker bushes, we had revised this considerably.


Over the next few days, we borrowed some shovels and spades from our various garages and chopped out a hole, about a foot deep. We stuck the bottom of the tree in this, and filled it up. The packed dirt didn’t hold the tree up very well, so we hauled large rocks out of the creek bed and braced them against the tree. Eventually, the tree stood up without any of us holding it, although it listed severely to one side. Had anyone been watching, I suspect they would have been confused. I suspect they would have been even more confused had they seen us watering the tree, which we did faithfully all through January and February. We trudged with our buckets past Steve Novak’s house. He’d mastered “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Valentine’s Day.


“The tree should be totally okay by the spring,” said Calvano. “It’s like when you put a dead fish in the water. It wakes up. Same deal.” When spring came and the ground thawed a bit more, the rotting tree fell over. Calvano was furious. “I don’t see what happened,” he said. “We did everything right.” It was baffling.


Turns out the fish thing doesn’t work either, by the way.



I just looked it up, and winter does not begin until 1:08 AM on December 22nd. Well, excuse me, but somebody better tell the weather. If I spent the afternoon scraping ice off my windshield and shoveling snow off the front walk—and I did—it’s winter. It’s been winter for a couple of weeks at least. Yeah, I know, winter begins when the winter solstice blah blah blabbity blah. But you know what? I don’t care about the winter solstice. Nobody cares about the winter solstice except Druids, and there aren’t any. I think we should start winter whenever we get either (1) the first decent snow fall, or (2) we get three consecutive days where the temperature doesn’t get above 36 degrees. If the Druids don’t like it, well, too bad.

Which brings me, believe it or not, to Donna Tillman and her GTO. This is my favorite lawsuit of the holiday season so far. Donna won a 2004 GTO on “The Price Is Right,” back in June 2004. According to Reuters:

“She was told after she paid the taxes and license fees that the vehicle that appeared on the stage had mechanical problems… When the car was delivered about eight weeks later, it was not the model that had been displayed on the show and it had more miles on the odometer than the car she had been promised… Several months later when Tillman took her prize for a service at a dealership in her hometown of Puyallup, Washington, she learned the car had major damage to its frame that had been repaired and concealed, the lawsuit said… Tom George, the owner of Pontiac dealership Thorson Motor Center, said Tillman received “a brand new car” and only claimed it had been previously damaged after she wrecked it herself…”

I probably wasn’t going to compete on “The Price Is Right” any time soon any way, but now that I know they make you pay the taxes and license fees on the stuff you ‘win,’ forget it. Either I win it, or I don’t. You may think that if I get a car for the price of the taxes and fees I’m getting a great bargain, but I WASN’T DRIVING A BARGAIN, I WAS WINNING A CAR. (I’m using the editorial “I” here).

I always preferred the other show, the one where you’d guess what was behind door number three, and sometimes it turned out to be a new kitchen, and other times it turned out to be a 600 pound peccary. It seems to me that’s a more exciting concept than guessing how much a box of Brillo costs. Also, I understand that if you win the peccary, they give you the option of taking cash instead, and they strongly advise you to take the cash. And if you’ve ever seen the tusk on a peccary, believe me, you’ll want to take the cash.

In fact, always go for the cash option. Maybe Donna Tillman wasn’t offered a cash option. Or maybe she really wanted that GTO. I sympathize, but go back to that paragraph from the news story and count the red flags:

(1) She’s getting a 2004 GTO in June 2004. At that point, the 2005’s were just about ready to ship to the dealers.

(2) The vehicle she actually saw on the show had “mechanical problems.”

(3) The vehicle she got was a different model. The story doesn’t say what model it was. If it was, say, a ’92 Ford Escort, that counts as like a double-dog-dare-sized red flag.

(4) It had more miles on the odometer than it was supposed to.

Despite all that, I’m also sympathetic to the idea that if you win a (more or less) free car, maybe you shouldn’t whine too much if it turns out not to be absolutely cherry. Don’t get me wrong—I understand the underlying legal concept here, which is that there was this something or other and then blah blah blah but it turned out that yadda yadda instead.

To put it in layman’s terms, let’s say you win a date with Jessica Alba. Only when Jessica shows up, it’s actually Angela Landsbury. The dealership keeps insisting that it’s really Jessica Alba, but you’ve got your doubts. But you’re not totally sure until you take Jessica in for x-rays and the doctor says, this is Angela Landsbury, dude. Angela may be a great date, terrific anecdotes, snappy dresser, knows what Roddy McDowell was really like, etc., but you’ve got a right to be miffed.

Also, I have to admit I really like the idea that “The Price Is Right” took some $1200 lemon, polished it up, and tried to pass it off as a 2004 GTO.

If indeed they did. Because buried in the text of the article is this throwaway line:

“Calls to the vehicle delivery service were not immediately returned.”


Which makes me wonder if there’s a delivery guy with a spiffy 2004 GTO in his driveway who figured “It’s a chick! She’ll never figure out this is a Chevy Nova!”




According to what is probably my favorite poll ever, 94% of all drivers rate themselves as “excellent.” This result was so absurd that the pollsters conducted a second poll to find out what all these excellent drivers meant by the word “excellent.” It turns out that if you are a very careful driver, being careful is the Most Important aspect of driving. If you are a very skillful driver, skill is the main thing. If you can’t turn the corner without taking off somebody’s side view mirror, the number of mirrors you collect becomes the measure of excellence. Really, it’s a wonder that only 94% of us think we’re great.


I am, of course, an excellent driver, being careful, skillful, and the proud possessor of several dozen side view mirrors, but my main claim to excellence is my courtesy. My bumper sticker says “Après Vos.” Road rage is not in my lexicon. Honk at me and I wave jauntily. Cut me off and I chuckle. Courteous, that’s me, and calm.


Because nothing annoys people more than courtesy and calmness.


This weekend I was driving past a strip mall and there was a gentleman in a Chevy waiting to pull out into traffic. So I yielded to him.


He was dumbfounded. He goggled at me. I smiled and gave him an ‘after you’ motion with my hand, like a friendly maitre d’. He continued goggling, and made a ‘what the heck?!?’ gesture, pointed down the road behind me, where there was no traffic whatsoever, and then, shaking his head, he pulled out.


Well, I’m used to people being surprised by my courtesy, but they generally aren’t quite so emphatic about being surprised. Usually I get a raised eyebrow, a smile, a nod, a tip of the hat. Well, we all react to courtesy in our own way, I suppose, just as we are all excellent drivers in our own way (except for that inexplicable 6%).


Five or ten minutes later I pulled into a convenience store to get a cup of coffee, and as I was unclogging the sugar dispenser, a man in a windbreaker said, “You’re the fellow just waved me out of the parking lot.” He was still goggling a bit, but not as much as he’d been. Apparently he always had a bit of a goggle going on.


“Yes,” I said. “It was my pleasure.”


“You know,” he said, “there was nobody behind you for about a quarter of a mile. If you’d just driven past me, I’d have been out of there about 2 seconds later. When you stop and give me this wave and there’s nobody behind you, you know what that does? That slows me down. I have to think, ‘what’s going on here? Why is this guy waving me in when there’s nobody behind him?’ How long did all that waving and counter waving take? 15 seconds? However long it was, I’m never going to get it back. Neither of us is ever going to get it back.”


“You’re welcome,” I said, but that turned out to be the wrong thing to say. He explained that he wasn’t thanking me. He was letting me know I’d cost him some time he was never getting back. He went on to say that if there had been a line of cars behind me, it would have been a nice gesture to let him in like that, but as it was, it just slowed the two of us down for nothing.


I pointed out that if I had not waved him in back there, we would not be having this scintillating conversation now. He replied that we were not having a conversation; he was just letting me know how it was. I thanked him.


That seemed to end our interaction, but at least twice more before I managed to pay for my coffee, he said, “And another thing…” Only it wasn’t another thing, it was precisely the same thing, in just about the precise same words. I sensed he was looking for some kind of closure. So I said, “I promise, in the future, I will not yield right of way to you again.”


“It’s not just me,” he said. “Don’t do this to anybody.”




“Unless there’s a line of cars.”




“At least three. Less than that, and I can still pull out in less time than it takes for you to stop and me to figure out what the heck it is you’re doing.”


“Understood,” I said.


“I mean it,” he said.


All the way home I kept expecting my cell phone to ring and I’d hear, “And another thing…”


That didn’t happen, but what did happen was this: I opened my mail when I got home and I got one of those ‘free gifts’ from a charity I don’t contribute to—a page of address labels.


My address was wrong. How is it they got my address right on the envelope they sent to me but wrong on the address labels inside?


Well, they didn’t cost me anything. I could just throw them away. But I asked myself: What Would The Jerk In The Windbreaker That I Yielded To Do? He would call that charity and give them a piece of his mind. W.W.T.J.I.T.W.T. I. Y. T. D.? It’s the question I’m going to ask myself all the time from now on, now that I understand that the Courteous and Calm thing isn’t working.





I had to write and tell you that the routine in last week’s column was totally the best core body work out I have ever tried, and I have tried them all. The only thing is, that fourth exercise, the Reverse Crunch Performed With Knees Hooked Over the Chinning Bar? There is no chinning bar in my living room so I tried it with my knees hooked over the back of the couch, but when I don’t brace the legs of the couch against something the couch falls on top of me when I’m at the peak of the crunch. And then when I do brace the legs of the couch I hit my head on the radiator. Every time. I’m okay going down but on the way back up, WHAM! And you say to do 5 sets, with 10 reps in each set. So the couch is busted, the radiator leaks, and my head is killing me. What is your advice?








My advice: get that radiator fixed, dude, it’s December! No, seriously, that needs to be taken care of, and you should think about a new couch. And as much as I admire your determination, a new head wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Concerning a substitute for the R.C.W.K.H.O.T.C.B., it was designed to be exercise 4 in that 7 exercise routine and if you don’t have access to a chinning bar, you need to change to a different routine. Check out the “Best Ab Toner Routine Ever” column from three weeks ago.







Is a six pack the best we can hope for? Is it possible to get an eight pack? What is the absolute highest number we can have in our pack?








First of all, let’s define what we’re talking about. The so-called “six pack” refers to the way the rectus abdominus muscles look on a well-defined midsection. The muscle is divided into 6 (or more) sections that look like the tops of beer cans, only without tabs. The fact is, no one knows how many ‘cans’ you can divide your abdomen into. Eight packs are relatively common. I have seen one or two people with ten packs. I’ve seen photographs of 12 packs and 14 packs. But at some point, a paradox kicks in. In order to have, say, a 28 pack, you would need a substantial amount of abdomen. You would need an abdomen roughly the size of a Buick, in fact. And if you have an abdomen big enough for a 28 pack, you are not about to get a 28 pack or even a 6 pack. (Although you could get a 2-Pac if you order a copy of “All Eyez on Me” from Amazon.com) (Um, it’s a CD by Tupac Shakur) (Dead rap guy.) (He was nicknamed “2 Pac.”) (Crickets).


Okay. Some guys, eager to have more ‘cans’ in their pack than anyone else at the gym, have resorted to cosmetic surgery and had their abdominal muscles reconfigured but this is not a good idea. You really don’t want somebody slicing and dicing your stomach muscles, trust me. If you’re that desperate (not to say impatient) (not to say rich) you might as well get abdominal implants—which I regret to say, actually exist.






Who! Abdominal implants actually exist?? So I don’t have to do all these stupid sit ups and crunches and reverse wood choppers?? I can just BUY abs?? Where?? How much??








Just Google “abdominal implants” and you’ll find dozens of doctors willing to perform this ‘service’ for you. But you really want to think this through. This is surgery. They put you under general anesthesia. It involves cutting. It involves sticking foreign objects underneath your skin. This is insane. Unless you are a girl and we’re talking about a boob job. And by the way, Sign Me Up, one question mark per question will suffice for even the most frantic question.






What is that song in the diamond commercial that goes, “I've seen the path that your eyes wander down / I wanna come too / I think that possibly maybe I'm fallin' for you”?








It’s called “Coffee Shop.” I know it sounds kind of like the guy who sings the song in the candy commercial about how the specks in our eyes are perfectly aligned when we kiss but it’s somebody else.






I sure don’t want to get cut up to get my six pack, but on the other hand I don’t want to do these abdominal exercises, either, and in any case six weeks is a loooong time. What if I want to get my six pack, say, tomorrow, but don’t want to go under the knife? What are my options?







One possibility is ‘façade work.’ Many celebrities who look like they have six packs really have ‘façades.’ How does it work? Surely you have seen ‘fake brick’ façades—buildings are coated with a sort of plaster, and then ‘bricks’ are carved into the surface, and then painted to look as much like brick as possible. You often can’t tell the difference unless you’re standing six inches away. Well, your typical lazy-I’m-too-good-to-read-the-Rock-Hard-abs-in-Six-Weeks-Expert-Guy celebrity has his mid section coated with a similar substance, which is then ‘detailed,’ and is indistinguishable from a real six pack, except for its total immobility.






I recently started a yoga class, and the instructor said something that kind of shook me up. She said, “We want abdominals that are strong and flexible, like a cat. We’re not going for a six pack. Have you ever seen a cat with a six pack?” Well, I never have. Is she on to something? Should I stop doing all these crunches and forget about the whole rock-hard abs thing?








Your yoga teacher needs to get out more. I have seen MANY cats with a six pack. And quite a few chicks, too.

Secret Beatnik Carpet


I was, I think, about 7 years old when I decided I was going to be a beatnik. I started saving up for a set of bongos and dropped the word “like” into my sentences at random. I still drop the word “like” into my sentences as random, and I own a set of bongos—several in fact—but the demand for beatniks dried up when I was about 8 years old (or anyway, that’s when they stopped printing up entire magazines full of beatnik cartoons). I slowly came to accept that I would end up doing something else.


Ten years later, I became a movie usher. Problem solved! Aside from the minor drawback that it paid next to nothing, it was the greatest job I could imagine. I got to watch movies for free, over and over. Since my middle name is “Inertia,” I would still be ushering happily today if the Park Theater had not burned down on July 14th, 1974.


I fully intended spending the rest of the summer getting back to my beatnik roots—wearing the same gray sweatshirt day after fragrant day, reading comic books in the basement by the light of a candle jammed into the neck of a wine bottle and so forth— but my dad insisted that I look for work.


I felt this was unfair; I’d had a job, the job had ended because the place burned down through no fault of mine (probably), so I should be allowed to hang out in the basement for the rest of the summer listening to Miles Davis records. Q. E. D.


My dad didn’t see it that way. He thought I was goofing off. But it wasn’t as though my post-conflagration summer was unproductive; my friend Dave had dropped by the basement, like often. His heart also beat in time to the pulsing of the bongos, and we spent much of July and the early part of August producing some absolutely excellent beatnik comic strips and cartoons. I can’t vouch for the quality at this late date, not having seen them in more than 30 years, but the sheer volume was mind boggling. We must have turned out 500 pages in three or four weeks.


How did we do it? In the immortal words of Norman Mailer: “You can produce any amount of work at all, provided it’s not the work you’re supposed to be doing.” Word to that, as my daughter would say.


So I would get up in the morning and find the classified section of the paper neatly folded on the breakfast table, with three or four ads helpfully circled. For the first few days the circles were lightly tossed off with a ball point pen but they got thicker and thicker and by the end of the second week it looked like my dad was using a laundry marker. One afternoon he stomped down into the basement while Dave and I were inking the word balloons of a particularly hilarious comic strip—I don’t remember anything but the punch line, which was, “Like it’s not my aardvark, man.” I thought, well, this is it, my dad is going to throw me out and my beatnik days are over again.


That may well have been my dad’s intention, but he was stopped in his tracks—overwhelmed, I guess—by our comic strips, or perhaps just by the sheer mass of them. We had dozens of them tacked to the crappy fake wood basement paneling. He stood there on the bottom step with his mouth agape, staring at them. Then he said, “Meet me down at the Masonic Temple in half an hour,” and shot back up the stairs.


Dave and I looked at each other. Neither of us could imagine why my father wanted us—both of us, mind you—to meet him at the Masonic Temple. “Do you think he’s, like, gonna make us be Masons? Can they do that?” said Dave. I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t sure. I had heard stories about guys who committed some minor crime or other and were given the option of prison or the army, but did drawing a zillion beatnik comics constitute a crime? Still, I was uneasy. I didn’t know anything about the Masons, aside from the fact that my father was a member. And they had something to do with bricks.


So we drove to the Masonic Temple (no suits), and when we stuck our heads in the door, my father hollered for us to come upstairs. We made our way up to the second floor, where perhaps no non-Mason had ever been before. My dad was dragging something out of a closet. It appeared to be a rolled up old rug. He unrolled it. I don’t know what it was made of—maybe canvas, sewn or stapled to 15 or 20 feet or carpet. It was painted to look like a flight of stairs, and there was a word printed on each riser. I don’t recall what the words were—various ologies and onomies, I think. There was various symbols painted on the steps, and I was specifically instructed not to recall those.


“I’ve got a job for you, if you want it. This has pretty much had it,” he said, and the carpet-thing was certainly in bad shape. “We’ve been shilly-shallying around, talking about hiring somebody to make a new one. Well, I just spoke to Warry Blauvelt, and he agrees with me that we want to get this done sooner rather than later. We want one just like this, only better.”


Dave and I nodded. My father probably thought those were very clear instructions, and so did Dave and I. The Masons would pay us 200 dollars, and of course provide the materials. We agreed to start work the following morning.


We began work at 8:45 AM. We were fired at 11:15 AM, when Warry Blauvelt arrived to see how we were coming along.


When my father had said, “…just like this, only better,” he meant he’d like to see somewhat better draftsmanship. The design itself was unimprovable, as far as he was concerned.


Dave and I had assumed that by “…only better,” he wanted us to swank it up a little. To add stuff. The kind of hilarious stuff my dad had seen on the walls of the basement which gave him the idea to hire us. Half naked girls, gangsters, flying saucers, and of course beatniks. I think we were in the middle of painting a beatnik on the third “step” when Warry Blauvelt gave us the heave-ho.


I’ve often wondered whether the Masons ever found anyone to complete the project, and if so how it came out, but my dad never volunteered the information and somehow I could never quite bring myself to ask.

In which I interview my daughter about the meaning of Thanksgiving…



ME: I’d like to do an interview with you this week, on a, um, Thanksgiving theme…


EMMA: Well, you need to also interview Alexis. We should do it right here, right now, because I can’t get any cell phone reception in your apartment.


ME: We’re in the Dollar Store. I don’t think…


EMMA: They won’t care. Ooh, look, cat wands! Only a dollar!


ME: What is it? It looks like a cat o’nine tails, only colorful. Kind of mod, actually…


EMMA: I can’t believe you said that. There is a technical name for this.


ME: What does it do?


EMMA: Devra and I went to a cat agility race where they used these. Different breeds of cats respond to different types of wands.


ME: Cat agility…


EMMA: The winner was a Burmese named Zoom. Very appropriate as he was the world’s fastest cat. But there’s a technical name for these things. Wait. It’s the same name as the things on Jennifer Aniston’s sash in “Office Space!”


ME: What?


EMMA: Did you see the movie “Office Space?” There’s a scene where they tell Jennifer Aniston that she doesn’t have enough of these things on her sash, and whatever it is they call these things, it’s the same as the technical name for a cat wand. I remember thinking that when they talked about the cat wands at the cat agility race.


ME: I don’t understand a word you just said.


EMMA: She’s an actress. She was in Friends. It’s a TV show.


ME: Well, I know, but…


EMMA: Wait. I have to call somebody about this. [Dials cell phone] Yo, it’s me. ‘S up. Yeah, I know I don’t talk like that, it was totally for my father’s benefit. Anyway, listen, in the movie “Office Space,” do you remember they tell Jennifer Aniston she doesn’t have enough somethings on her sash? Do you remember what they were called? FLARES! YES! Thank you. [Hangs up]. They are called Flares. I’m going to get two of them, one for each cat. Although they would work better if the cats were Burmese.


ME: But what do they do? How do you use them?


EMMA: If you aren’t going to pay any attention, there’s no point in carrying on a conversation. [Dials cell phone] I’m going to use the three-way calling, so we can all hear each other. Do you think they have coffee makers here?


ME: For a dollar? No.


EMMA: Alexis? Hi. Do you want to be interviewed now for something? …I have no idea. …I have no idea. Maybe. Something about Thanksgiving. Okay, hang on, I’m going to get my dad. [Dials me. Shortly we are all connected]. Alexis, did you see the movie “Office Space?”




EMMA: Well, then the first twenty or thirty things I was going to say won’t make any sense. Tell me something. Is it or is it not totally unfair that animals can not compete for the Academy Awards?


ALEXIS: What animals do you think should win Academy Awards? I can’t think of any. Well, wait, what about the monkey on “Friends?”


EMMA: That’s TV so it would be an Emmy. Marcel the Monkey. BUT. He was also the monkey in “Outbreak,” with Dustin Hoffman.


ALEXIS: I don’t remember a monkey in that.


EMMA: He’s the whole movie! The monkey starts the outbreak in “Outbreak.”


ALEXIS: Oh! And it’s the same monkey?


EMMA: If it’s not, he could make a living going to parties and pretending to be Marcel the Monkey. They are that close. Other Oscar worthy animals, it seems to me, would be “Baby” the leopard in “Bringing Up Baby” and Toto from “The Wizard of Oz.” Oh, you know what? I just saw that the other night, for the first time in years, and you know at the beginning, when she’s on the farm in Kansas? All the farmhands are the same guys she meets in Oz later! Not only that, but they make all these references to it, like the guy who plays the scarecrow says “You gotta have BRAINS to do this,” and stuff like that. I wonder if anybody else has ever noticed that.


ME: [silence]


ALEXIS: [silence]


EMMA: Also, the cattle from “Red River.” All of them. Remember, they have like this cow rumble? Like West Side Story, only it’s a Western, and it’s cows.


ALEXIS: I would nominate the bears in “Grizzly Man,” or anyway the bear who ends p eating him. He was great. Also the fox who steals his hat. He was like an animal method actor.


EMMA: Exactly, yes! Now what about cartoon characters who deserve Academy Awards?


ALEXIS: Much more interesting.


ME: I feel we’re getting a little off track.


EMMA: What about the adult Simba [in “The Lion King”]? He’s always reminded me of Dawson Leery.


ALEXIS: Oh God, Dawson Leery is the worst character ever!


EMMA: YOU know what I have never understood about him? Season after season he has awful hair, awful hair, awful hair…


ALEXIS: … and that dopey smile…


EMMA: And then in the last season, he has legitimately great hair and no more dopey smile. Plus that really hot permanently unshaven thing.


ALEXIS: Dawson’s dad died the worst way ever on a TV show.


EMMA: Now what about Flounder [from “The Little Mermaid”]?


ALEXIS: I like him, but I don’t know about an Oscar.


EMMA: You know that song Ursula sings when she’s looking in the mirror? I met this girl in Italy who said she had that song stuck in her head for 10 solid years.


ALEXIS: I don’t believe that.


EMMA: No, of course not, but isn’t it a great story? Do you remember when we were talking on the phone in 8th grade and we both turned on our Spice Girls albums at the exact same second?


ME: You know, we really haven’t touched that much on Thanksgiving per se here…


EMMA: I am thankful for creepy Hollywood couples. Remember Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts?


ALEXIS: Very creepy.


EMMA: Oh, and that reminds me. That girl in Italy—I told her that there was a passage in “Gulliver’s Travels” that made me cry, and she laughed at me. It’s in the last part, where he’s in the land of the talking horses—the Houyhnhnms—and he writes: “As I was about to prostrate myself to kiss his hoof, he did me the honor of lifting it gently to my lips.” That is so noble! And she laughed at me. Should we see the Cholera movie tomorrow, or the one where Kerri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers give up their baby?


ME: Eww. That’s a creepy couple. What is he, like 40 years older than her?


EMMA: No. You’re thinking of John Rhys-Davies. He was the dwarf in “Lord of the Rings.” But they did it with special effects. He’s a faux dwarf.


ALEXIS: Let’s see the Cholera move anyway.

Adjudicate This


I wanna say right up front that this new law allowing idiots and insane people to vote was totally not my idea. Yes, I know that in theory nothing has changed except the language of the state constitution, and if you were too stupid or too crazy to vote before, you still are.


Well, in theory this Ab Exerciser that costs just three easy payments of $19.95 (plus shipping, which is where they really nail you) was going to melt away these love handles. In reality, however, (a) it didn’t, (b) I didn’t pay the shipping because I found it on the curb on big clean up day, and (c) even though it was in the Ab Exerciser box it turned out to be part of one of those lamps you sort of clip to the edge of table, which is why I had so much trouble putting it together and probably also explains (a).


It’s exactly the same deal with this so-called mere change of language. Now, instead of ‘idiot or insane person’ it says ‘person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting.’


HELLO?? First of all, that doesn’t even make sense, since ‘adjudicated’ means something like ‘resigned from being the king,’ like when the king of England adjudicated the crown to marry the Duchess of Whosis. There might be some other meaning I am unaware of, but I doubt it. And what was the deal with him, anyway? Did he look at her before he bailed out? I don’t wanna sound ungallant, but I mean sheesh. In any case, there’s something about a court, which sounds to me like you have to pass a test in order to be officially declared an idiot or insane. Now, the whole point of being an idiot is that you aren’t too good at passing tests. If you were, you would not be an idiot. FACT. So nobody is going to qualify for this.


SECOND of all…


Well, there is no second of all. That was all I had to say.


But as long as I’m here, I want to make it clear that I was in favor of HALF of this law. I agreed that the language about idiots and insane people should be changed. Maybe they actually used those terms when the law was written back in whenever that was, but nowadays it is totally archaic. The proper term for idiot (in the state of New Jersey) is “moron.” “Idiot” is a little bit too la-dee-da, (“Imbecile” is only used by snooty French waiters). And the fact of the matter is, “moron” would represent an upgrade to the average idiot, since technically an idiot has an IQ of 20 or below while a moron has an IQ between 50 and 69.


Similarly, nobody says “insane person.” The correct term is “maniac.” If they were going to amend the language to read, “No voting for morons or maniacs,” I would’ve been behind it 100%.


No, wait. I would have been behind it about 80%, because I do not favor banning ALL morons and maniacs from the voting booths. Just the really stupid morons and the really crazy maniacs. If you’re wearing a tin foil hat to keep the CIA from controlling your thoughts with their mind control satellites, I have no issue with you. In fact you have probably written some of my favorite episodes of “24.” On the other hand, if you’re standing in front of the drug store arguing with the gum ball machine, I feel you should find some way to occupy your time on Election Day that does not involve a voting booth. That’s all I’m saying.


Technically, morons can be divided up into three categories. (1) Morons. They drive 10 miles under the speed limit on Rt. 519 but otherwise they’re usually fine people. (2) Frikkin’ Morons. 15 miles under the speed limit, and they hold up the check out line looking for exact change even when the frikkin’ total is $64.97. (3) Total Frikkin’ Morons. You know who you are.


It’s the same for maniacs, but one problem here is that in the state of New Jersey, “maniac” is often a term of praise. Like when Bob O’Neill walked into Nikko's

Tavern with his underpants on his head, we all went, “What a maniac!” And when he drank a beer through the underpants, which were still on his head, we all went “What a frikkin’ maniac!” And then Donny Nortangelo set Bob’s underpants on fire and the bartender had to douse him with a pitcher of ale, we shook our heads in awe and declare that Donny was a “total frikkin’ maniac.” So while a total frikkin’ moron is at the bottom of the moron scale, a total frikkin’ maniac is pretty much the king of the maniacs and should not only be allowed to vote but should probably be on the ballet. But still, there are some maniacs involved in non underwear-on-fire related activities which should be actively discouraged, and in the interests of public safety I would have supported an amendment saying ‘no frikkin’ morons and no frikkin’ maniacs.’


Now I know what you’re thinking. There’s a slippery slope. Once they start banning the frikkin’ morons and the frikkin’ maniacs, what’s to stop them from banning the frikkin’ mooks? And this is an important issue, because let’s face it, if you ban the frikkin’ morons, the frikkin’ maniacs AND the frikkin’ mooks from voting in New Jersey, that’s pretty much the whole frikkin’ ball game. Who’d be left? Maybe 6 accountants and a couple of nuns. We must draw a line in the frikkin’ sand and say: Hands off the frikkin’ mooks.


Maybe we need to draw the line before that. Maybe I’m dead wrong about the frikkin’ morons and the frikkin’ maniacs. It’s like that old saying:


“They came for the frikkin’ morons, and I did nothing, for I am not a moron. Then they came for the… oh, never mind. Actually, they got me when they came for the morons.”

Too Many Movies


This week I threw out more than 50 of the best movies ever made. I needed the space for light bulbs, paper cups, and disinfecting wipes. I don’t feel bad about it, but I am a little bit bewildered.


When I was four years old, my dad unpacked an elderly 16 mm projector from the attic, set up a screen, threaded a silent “Our Gang” comedy through the projector mechanism, and turned off the lights. For a few seconds—maybe three— I watched a blurry figure sit on a bunk bed and yawn elaborately. I never found out who this was because the projector bulb burned out before my father had time to focus. We didn’t have spare projector bulbs so that was it; the show was over. And although I had an incredibly low threshold for frustration when I was four and might have been expected to burst out yowling, I did not. I was too amazed at the idea that we had an actual motion picture in the house. It didn’t seem possible. It didn’t seem possible to any of my friends, either, because when I told them about it the next day they didn’t believe me. I had to show them the projector, still sitting on the card table in the dining room, and when I did, they were absolutely staggered. They were as unconcerned as I was that the movie couldn’t be shown—the very fact of its existence in my house was a near miracle


Some time during the next year or so I noticed that the back pages of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine were full of ads for monster movies. I brought these to my father’s attention, and he explained that these were 8mm movies, and they wouldn’t fit on our (defunct) projector. In addition, he said, reading the ad copy, these movies (which retailed for $4.97 each, plus postage) were 15 minute ‘condensations’ and silent to boot, with silent movie-type dialogue ‘title’ cards. Most of the available movies were from the Universal Pictures library—the various Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. vehicles from the thirties and forties, and a few of their more science fictional fifties fare like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Tarantula.”


That Christmas the family got an 8mm projector from Santa, and a few of these movies. For the next several years, every birthday and Christmas brought at least a couple of black and white silent 15 minute monster movies. I showed these to my friends at any opportunity—at Cub Scout den meetings, or when our Little League games were rained out—and the cachet I got from this would astonish you. It was incredible that we owned these (mostly awful) (and thoroughly butchered) movies and that we could see them any time we wanted. Kids would watch these over and over with me, even though these movies were rerun endlessly on TV every afternoon on channel 11 and channel 5 and channel 9. Once 8 or 10 kids showed up to watch my silent, brutally truncated version of “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” even though the real thing was on TV that very afternoon, intact.


Of course by the time I was in 5th or 6th grade the novelty had largely worn off and threading the projector and setting up the screen and so on no longer seemed worth the trouble. Around this time I noticed that now entire movies were advertised in the back pages of some magazines—silent, public domain stuff like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Metropolis”—but these cost between sixty and seventy five dollars—the equivalent of several hundred bucks today. It was totally beyond the pale. And yet I wondered—was it possible that someday I would own a complete movie?


Less than ten years later, some friends of mine bought the earliest video tape machines—huge reel to reel jobs that had to be threaded and lubricated. One of my friends managed to tape almost an entire movie with one of these dinosaurs—he was missing about five minutes, at the point where the tape ran out and he had to thread up a new reel. This all seemed to too labor intensive to me, but now I was certain that eventually I would have my very own movies. Maybe a couple dozen, in time.


And then there was the excitement of getting my first VCR, and taping all this great stuff off the old AMC, uncut, uninterrupted copies of “Bringing Up Baby” or “Strangers on a Train,” and buying ‘budget videos’ of Betty Boop cartoons and “The Third Man,” and occasionally even watching them.


Occasionally. Well, some of them. Once or twice. Well, once.


I’m not sure when I realized that although I never watched my copy of “Bringing Up Baby,” I always watched it when it was on TV. And I have no idea what this means.


That’s not true. I have some idea what it means. It means that I have maybe… 200? 300? movies that I don’t watch unless they happen to pop up on TCM or something. Movies that I can’t even give away, because anybody who wants them can get them even more easily than I did. They can TiVo them, or shell out 12 bucks for a remastered DVD with a bonus disc containing two alternate versions and three behind-the-scenes documentaries, or get a used copy on eBay or Amazon for a couple of bucks.


So when I needed space, the movies— not all of them, but a lot of them—went. I had them outside in a “FREE!” box over the weekend, but I might well have been giving away free botulism.


You know, forty years ago I might have predicted that someday I would own 200 movies. But I’d never have guessed I wouldn’t care. Geez.

The Day after Halloween


It had not been a good Halloween, and the following day was worse.


Of course we felt a little sick the next morning. We always felt a little sick the next morning. How can you devour 3 or four pounds of candy in 45 minutes and not feel a little sick the next morning?


“I have no sympathy for you,” said my father, after commenting upon the unusual shade of green my face turned when I got a whiff of the breakfast bacon and eggs. “You and your idiot friends were too old for this trick or treat nonsense five year ago.”


“Four,” I gasped, lurching back to the bathroom. We were in 8th grade. The fourth graders still came to school in their costumes. Therefore we were only four years too old for trick or treating. Q. E. D.


Two Halloweens ago (that is, two years after we were too old for trick or treating), Calvano and Picarillo and I had actually been refused candy at some houses because we were so big, although Mrs. Ferguson had given us extra candy because she thought we were ‘special’ children. Most kids would have been sufficiently humiliated at that point to renounce trick or treating forever, but we were not most kids. For one thing, we were both world class stubborn and world class stupid, which is a lethal combination. For another, we had just pooled our funds to purchase an Official Don Post Studios Deluxe Genuine Latex Rubber Over the Head Werewolf Mask with real hair from an ad on the back cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. It cost us 25 dollars plus shipping, a small fortune to 11 year olds in 1966. And it was worth every penny. It was the same mask used in the film “Orgy of the Dead,” which we’d read about in (how’s this for an incredible coincidence?) Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. (At the time I couldn’t understand why “Orgy of the Dead” never played at the local movie house, although when I finally saw it 30 years later on cable—it was the “Embarrassingly Bad Nudie Movies from the Sixties Featuring Strippers in Werewolf Masks and No Plot at All” Channel—I pretty much figured it out).


We calculated (I have no idea how) that we’d have to each wear the mask on 5 Halloweens to make it worth the 25 bucks. In other words, we would be trick or treating until we were 26 years old.


Last night it had been Picarillo’s turn to wear the mask, and it did not go well. No one wanted to give us candy, not even Mrs. Ferguson. We were too big even to be mistaken for ‘special’ children.


On the other hand, we weren’t too big to be attacked by even bigger kids. We made excellent targets. The surly teenagers who, in past years, had ignored us as unworthy of their attentions, this year did not. They chased us with the idea of stealing our candy, and when they caught us and found out that we didn’t have any, they were not happy. They were not happy, and they had eggs.


They had eggs, we had underpants, and I don’t think I need to say anything further.


So we cut the evening’s festivities short and went back to Picarillo’s house to change, and then we binged on the left over candy. The Picarillos always bought 8 or 10 pounds of candy more than the number of trick or treaters visiting strictly required. We always over did the candy eating on Halloween, but this time we really outdid ourselves.


We were all still green when we met up the next day at the World War I Tank Memorial in the park. The town had soldered the hatch shut, so we were unable to get inside. Our Famous Monster Magazines and some rubber monster hands were in there, so we chiseled it open a few days later, but for now we settled for climbing on the turret and being green.


“I think this might be it,” said Calvano. “I don’t think we can trick or treat any more. I think from now on if we go out for Halloween, we hafta be teenagers and scare little kids or something. Nobody’s gonna give us candy.”


“I don’t want any candy,” I said.


“Me neither, but we’ll feel differently about it once we stop wanting to throw up,” Calvano said wisely.


“What about the werewolf mask?” I said.


“We could wear it when we’re chasing little kids. Or maybe at costume parties.”


“There’s a problem,” said Picarillo. We stared at him. “They got egg on the mask. It got in the hair.”


“So? Wash it.”


“I tried that. It isn’t coming out.”


We told Picarillo how worthless he was and went to his house to assess the damage. It was bad. Although the Don Post Studio werewolf mask had ‘real hair,’ it was in fact real ‘synthetic’ hair. Whatever petroleum byproduct it had been made from had chemically bonded with the eggs and it was just a mess. Picarillo was soaking it in the sink but it did no good. We went to his laundry room and tried to figure out how to work the washing machine. The directions seemed self evident. We put the werewolf mask through the wash cycle and watched a William Bendix movie.


Most of the egg had some off. Also the hair. It no longer looked like a deluxe genuine latex rubber over-the-head werewolf mask with real hair. “It’ll probably look like its old self when it’s dry,” said Picarillo, audibly on the verge of tears. He put it in the drier. That turned out to be a mistake.


What came out of the drier was unspeakable. We should have thrown it away then. Instead, Calvano cut it into three pieces. We argued about who would get the piece with most of the fangs. In the interests of fairness, Calvano sliced out all the fangs and threw them away. None of us wanted what was left. Halloween was over forever.

Lock Out


Mulberry Street Joey Clams was hurt when I told him I wouldn’t drive him to Philadelphia. “It’s the Mets,” he said, incredulous. “And I’ll pay for gas.”


“That’s real generous of you, seeing how it’s your idea and your van,” I said, “but the answer is still no. Let me show you something.” I retrieved an issue of Sports Illustrated from the john. It was full of lists—the 10 worst this in the NFL, the 10 best that in pro hockey, and so on. One of the lists was “Worst Fans.” It read:


1.    Philadelphia

2.    No

3.    Other

4.    City

5.    Even

6.    Comes

7.    Close.

8.    We

9.    Mean

10.                       It.


It was accompanied by a Jack Davis drawing of bleary eyed, hulking, inbred troglodytes wearing Fliers and Phillies caps, throwing (and in some cases eating) broken beer bottles. They got letters about this.


“My experience backs up the list and the picture,” I said. “And you’re going to wear your Mets hat, aren’t you?”


He replied in the unprintable affirmative.


“Forget it,” I said. “I’m not going. Have fun.”


“You don’t hafta come to the game. You could just sit in the van.”


“Thank you, no,” I said.


He brooded. We both knew there was no way he was going to drive himself to Philadelphia. He had no driver’s license, and he was sure that Muldoon (his arch enemy, the proprietor of the Muldoon Saloon on Spring Street) had some secret way of knowing when he, Mulberry Street Joey Clams, was driving the van. (When he said ‘secret way’ he narrowed his eyes and glared at me). Then, obviously, Muldoon called the cops to be on the look out for him, which accounted for why the cops inevitably pulled him over within half an hour.


Actually Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ driving style—which involved sudden bursts of speed, riding with two wheels up on the sidewalk, knocking the side mirrors off parked cars, etc.— probably accounted for whatever interest the police showed in him once he got behind the wheel.


In the end, Mulberry Street Joey Clams decided he would take the train. He would make a mini vacation of it, in fact. He booked a hotel room. He would see not one but three Mets-Phillies games.


And I was going to be in charge of the Custom Neon Sign Shop while he was away. He gave me his keys. “I have keys,” I said.


“These are the real keys,” he said. “Not just the shop, but my apartment. I need you to water my plant.”


“You have a plant?”


“Yeah, it’s a wachamacallit.”


“Ah,” I said.


“You know the word!” he snarled, shaking the keys in my face. I did not know the word. I had never been to Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ apartment, but the key had a piece of masking tape on it with “43 Spring Street, Apt. 4B” scrawled on it. This was going to be an adventure.


The adventure began bright and early when I arrived at the shop the next morning and opened up with Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ key. Or tried to: the key seemed to be a little sluggish and promptly snapped off in the lock when I tried to force it.


I was not upset, much. As usual there was no work to be done at the shop; we had not received an order for nearly three weeks. Mulberry Street Joey Clams would probably call the shop to check up on things, but when he got no answer he would eventually try my apartment and I’d let him know about his crappy key. Meanwhile, I did what I always did when faced with circumstances beyond my control. I walked to Chinatown and watched some Hong Kong Kung Fu movies in the original Chinese. When I was all kung-fued out, I went to Mulberry Street Joey Clams apartment building to tend his plant.


The door to the building worked fine, but when I got to Apartment 4-B, the key simply did not fit in the lock. I took out my own keys. The apartment key looked suspiciously like my shop key. He had mislabeled the keys, which explained why the one had snapped off in the lock and the other didn’t fit.


I couldn’t imagine what to do. I had seen all the Kung Fu movies I could manage for one day, and I knew no other way to deal with frustration. I wondered about the three other locks on Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ door. Did one key open them all? Did he leave the rest of them unlocked? Were they decoys? I was suddenly exhausted. I leaned my forehead against the door.


It swung open. None of the locks had been locked. He’d jammed a piece of cardboard between the latch and the doorjamb to keep the door shut. “He’s out of his mind,” I muttered. I walked in, expecting a booby trap. Multiple booby traps.


His apartment looked nothing like I had imagined. It was clean, for one thing. The furniture was like old lady furniture, with those little rugs on the arms. I was astounded. I looked for his ‘plant.’


In fact, he had what amounted to an herb garden. He was growing parsley, rosemary, all kinds of things. I was certain he made his own tomato sauce, from scratch.


After I watered his plants I plopped myself down in his overstuffed chair and turned on the TV. My soap opera (The Bold and the Beautiful) was long over but I found the Mets. Maybe I’d catch a glimpse of Mulberry Street Joey Clams. I found some Neapolitan ice cream in the freezer and was just getting down to business when the old lady who actually lived in apartment 4B walked in from next door, where she’d been visiting with her neighbor, and began screaming. She threw something at me that bounced off my head and I tore out of there. Several other things bounced off me before I cleared the building.


When Mulberry Street Joey Clams returned a couple of days later we got a locksmith to take care of the key broken off in the lock. His plant—in fact a Chia Pet—had survived in reasonable shape without being watered during his Philadelphia sojourn. I asked him was why he had the wrong apartment number on the key. “That was in case it fell into the wrong hands,” he explained. “Which it did.”


“Why didn’t you tell me the number was wrong?”


“Yeah, right, like this is my fault,” he said. “Can I tell you something? You gotta learn to admit it when you’re wrong, you know?”


“That’s excellent advice,” I said. We glared at each other. Everything we’d said for the past ten minutes had been said through clenched teeth. Our cheek muscles ached. Neither of us would unclench for several days. It was the October When Nobody Unclenched. My face still hurts when I think about it.



Every year, the night before the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced, I take the tux out of the closet and hang it up on the back of the bedroom door. Then in the event I am awakened by a reporter from Reuters or the Associated Press calling to tell me that I am indeed this year’s laureate, I can, after feigning total surprise (“I had no idea I was even under consideration! I’m all but speechless!”) and getting off the phone, take the tux to the dry cleaner that very morning, before the inevitable deluge of interview requests and TV appearances makes such mundane tasks impossible.


The Prizes are handed out on December 10th. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, if any one happens to be throwing a party that evening, feel free to invite me. I do not have a prior engagement in Stockholm. Once again the Swedish Academy has given Jeffrey the bird. The prize has gone elsewhere. In fact, adding insult to injury, it has gone to a chick.


It has certainly been an interesting decade for the Literature Prize. Among the laureates since the turn of the millennium: Orhan Pamuk, Elfriede Jelinek, Imre Kertész, and Gao Xingjian. I mean, seriously, are those actual names? Or did the Swedes just get a monkey to pick random letters out of a Scrabble set? Maybe I should change my name to kflkMng Scbhdó2w. In fact, better make that Ms. kflkMng Scbhdó2w.


So once again I put the tux back in the closet and went to the bar—a place where, generally speaking, excellent literature is appreciated, unlike certain Scandinavian countries I could name. I was grousing to the guy next to me about getting stiffed again, and he said, “Did it ever occur to you that maybe these people they give the award to might be better than you? I mean, did you ever read any of their books?”


“A random handful of Scrabble tiles can not write a book. And if some of these Scrabble tiles actually have produced books, the odds are they are not in English.”


“Well, the woman who won this year writes in English,” said the guy.


“Really?” I said. I announced to the entire bar that the gentleman next to me appeared to be familiar with the oeuvre of Doris Lessing. (I believe my exact words were, “This guy reads chick books!”) That pretty much ended the conversation.


But it got me to thinking. Perhaps I was being unfair. I decided that I would make a concerted effort to familiarize myself with the new Laureate’s books.


A visit to Borders put the ka-bosh on that idea. Some of her books are really thick. I skimmed a couple of them, but I gave up quickly. It’s been my experience that if the werewolf doesn’t show up by chapter three, the werewolf is not going to show up. I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but not many. And certainly there are excellent books which do not contain werewolves. But there are no books, no matter how excellent, that would not be improved by the addition of at least one werewolf. Fact.


My next stop was the thrift shop, where I did not find either a skinny Doris Lessing book or one with the words “Blood” or “Moon” in the title.


Instead I picked up a copy of “Four to Score” by Janet Evanovich, which had been recommended to me since the main character is a lady bounty hunter who lives in New Jersey. It wasn’t exactly a book by Doris Lessing, but it was pretty close and, I felt, should give me a fair idea of whether she deserved to get my Nobel Prize.


Well, it was a perfectly okay lady bounty hunter book, at least until page 49, when I read the following sentence:


After graduation, she’d gone on to become a professional cheerleader for the New York Giants.


Now, according to her bio, Ms. Evanovich grew up in New Jersey, but I find this very hard to believe, since everybody who has ever lived in New Jersey knows that the Giants do not have professional cheerleaders and never have. Also, I doubt that anyone from New Jersey would refer to the Giants as “The New York Giants” since they have been playing in the Meadowlands for, oh, thirty years. Yes, I know the corporate HQ is in New York, and I know the helmet says “NY” on it (it used to just say “GIANTS”) but I don’t care about that, and neither does anyone else in New Jersey.


And it goes without saying that there were no werewolves.


It also goes without saying that I was totally gypped out of my Nobel Prize. I can’t believe they gave it to somebody who doesn’t even know that the Giants don’t have cheerleaders.


Well, the chick who actually won didn’t technically write the book where the Giants have cheerleaders, but still.


It’s the principle of the thing.



The little kids—you know, the first graders, the second, third and fourth graders—had to paint their jack o’lanterns with acrylic paints. The teachers spread newspapers over the Art Room tables and passed out smocks that were stiff with dried pigment despite having been laundered 8000 times, and they played a scratchy recording of “Puff the Magic Dragon” over and over while everybody painted fangs on the pumpkins. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun, especially the surreptitious contest to see who could get the most blue paint into Thomas Carlock’s blonde hair before he noticed, but we all knew that real jack o’lanterns were carved, not painted.


You didn’t get to carve until you were a big kid—a fifth grader. In fifth grade, they gave you knives and let you go nuts.


But our fifth grade class didn’t get any knives. It turned out that last year Bruce Ekroat had sliced open his thumb, and now they were saying no knives till sixth grade.


When I reported this to my parents, it led to some friction at the dinner table. My mother thought it was awful that Bruce had cut himself, and said it was a good idea to wait until we were a little more mature before they let us run amuck with knives. My father, in contrast, felt that cutting one thumb open was not even worth talking about (“That’s why you got two”) and said if they weren’t going to let us handle blades in 5th grade they might as well make us wear tutus and practice saying ‘Hello, Sailor!’ “Hello what?” I said, but he declined to elaborate. He had a lot of reservations about the educational system. He said if we just dumped every kid into the wilderness at the age of seven with nothing but a Bowie knife and a carton of unfiltered Camels, they’d educate themselves but quick.


I asked him to intercede with the principal to get those knives into our hands as soon as possible, but he did not.


So we began our Sixth Grade school year with trepidation. “What if some other moron chopped off his thumb?” said Calvano. “We could end up painting pumpkins again. This could keep happening until the morons run out of thumbs. We might not get our knives until we’re fifty.”


We had been designing our jack o’lantern all summer long. In one respect, at least, the year’s postponement had been to our advantage. The jack o’lanterns we’d designed last year were far too elaborate and complicated. We’d never have been able to carve them during a single art class. This summer we had gone back to basics, concentrating on fangs and sinister slanting eyes. Our one baroque touch was a lightning-shaped scar that was supposed to extend from the upper orbit of one eye socket to the top of the pumpkin. A tributary scar snaked from the main scar down to the corner of the scowling mouth, and we’d established to our satisfaction that we could pull off this tour-de-force without violating the structural integrity of the pumpkin.


Notice that I say “our pumpkin.” Although Picarillo, Calvano and I would all be expected to carve our own pumpkins, we’d designed a couple of perfunctory jack o’lanterns that would be executed quickly (we estimated 3 minutes each), freeing the three of us to lavish all of our skills on the pumpkin that mattered.


But Calvano and I had doubts about Picarillo. Since the school year had begun, he’d been spending less and less time practicing his pumpkin customizing and more and more time ‘train wrecking.’


‘Train wrecking’ does not actually involve trains or wrecking. It involves food. You’re sitting at the lunch table and you casually ask the person next to you, “Wanna see a train wreck?” and when that person says “Sure!” you open your mouth to reveal your chewed up food.


Now, no one appreciates a good ‘train wreck’ more than I do, but the law of diminishing returns sets in pretty quickly. One train wreck every two weeks is excessive. Picarillo was wrecking 5 or 6 trains every lunch period. No one had said “Sure!” for weeks but this did not stop him.


On the plus side, you could get Picarillo into a near-panic by asking him for a train wreck when he wasn’t eating. Once at Calvano’s house he tore a page out of the phone book and frantically chewed it to produce the requested disaster. “I sense this is something I can make use of,” Calvano said to me at the time.


In a sense he did, but the results were not what he anticipated.


Despite all our misgivings, when the time came at last to carve our pumpkins, Picarillo was focused and energetic. Because the art room was being painted, our class met in the library across the street, in the vast children’s section, with newspapers spread over the entire floor and tarps covering the book shelves.


As I said, everything was going fine. Then Calvano said, “Hey Picarillo—let’s see a train wreck.”


Picarillo popped a small amount of pumpkin pulp into his mouth. He was smart enough to realize he didn’t even have to chew, but not quite smart enough to anticipate that Calvano would whack him on the back, causing him to swallow the train wreck.


Of course the train wreck is generally swallowed, but the train wreck does not generally consist of raw pumpkin pulp. There was a brief pause, and then Picarillo and the pumpkin pulp parted company. I had never seen anything quite like this before, and did not see anything like it again until I saw Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” But where Miss Blair required a battery of special effects people to achieve her aesthetic triumph, Picarillo managed his unaided, unless you count Calvano’s whack on the back.


Art class was abruptly terminated. We were the last 6th grade class ever handed knives during school hours. From that day on it was all painted pumpkins, forever.

See Through Frogs


A couple of week ago in this space I mentioned— very nonchalantly— that (1) my birthday was coming up, and (2) that I did not happen to own an iPod. Apparently I was a little too nonchalant. Not one of my readers seems to have made the proper connection between these two facts, or even figured out that there is one, even though I mentioned these two facts in the same sentence.


So that upshot is that my birthday has come and gone and I still do not have an iPod. But that’s fine. I’m an adult. I had an excellent birthday. My daughter took me to lunch at a Chinese buffet. She forgot her wallet, but she’s going to pay me back. I don’t want anyone out there to feel guilty about not buying me an iPod for my birthday, in return for all the countless hours of pleasure I’ve provided you with this column. I don’t want an iPod anyway.


I want a transparent frog.


If you are around my age (52 since last Friday, my birthday, when I didn’t get an iPod) you probably recall “The Visible Man.” This was a plastic model you assembled from a kit. The outer body was completely transparent, but you were supposed to paint the internal organs before you glued everything together, so when you were done you could see the skeleton, the digestive tract, the lungs, and so on. I believe there was even a plastic brain you were supposed to stick inside the skull, even though the skull wasn’t transparent. (There was a “Visible Woman” to go along with the Visible Man, but she wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous, nor was she advertised as aggressively on TV, perhaps because even a transparent naked lady with a visible large intestine was still a naked lady).


The Visible Man remains a plastic model, but the Visible Frog is here.


Professor Masayuki Sumida and his team at Hiroshima University have bred mutant frogs with transparent skin. I’m not making this up— go online and Google “transparent frogs” and you can see the actual photos. The skin is really more translucent than transparent, but you can see the muscles and the icky little frog organs very clearly. The British journal where I found this story kept calling them “sunroof frogs” but I’m not sure if that’s what the researchers call them, or if the writer (one Lewis Page) was just being madcap. He included a footnote when he mentioned Hiroshima University which reads, “There's no connection between local availability of mutant frogs and the 1945 bucket of sunshine from the States, apparently,” so I’d say it’s even money either way.


Ostensibly, the idea here is to facilitate all sorts of biological and medical research—if you want to know how this or that new drug affects a frog’s gall bladder (assuming frogs have gall bladders), you’ll no longer have to dissect the frog. You just shine your penlight at the gall bladder and look. This is definitely good news for the frog.


In the normal course of things you’d figure we’d be able to stock up on cheap see-through frogs in the pet department of Target in 6 months, but Professor Sumida has figured out a way to keep his amphibians from being bootlegged. While he was fiddling with the skin pigment, he was simultaneously diddling elsewhere, and although the children of his frogs are viable, the grandchildren are not. So the price is not going down any time soon.


I still want one, though.


All of the articles I’ve found on the subject insist that there’s no way this sort of transparent skin modification can be made to work with non-amphibians, but I don’t believe that. I guarantee you that within five years there will be ‘skin clearing’ parlors, where you’ll be able to transluscify large or small areas of the old epidermis to afford the rest of us a glimpse of your gorgeous pancreas. Maybe you’ll have the option to make these windows permanent or temporary, like henna tattoos. I bet they’ll have stuff you can drink to make this or that internal organ glow for a few hours.


I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to it or not. Will Chuck’s day-glo appendix distract you from his love handles, or will it just give a whole new meaning to “keep your shirt on, Chuck?”


I don’t know. At any rate, that’s all still years in the future. The transparent frogs are here now.


It’s too late for my birthday, but Christmas is just around the corner.



One morning I woke up and realized that I was not ever going to play right field in Yankee Stadium. I don’t recall what triggered my little epiphany that morning. I was 47 years old, so the thought probably should have occurred to me a little sooner. And I suppose if you had asked me about it earlier that same week, or even that same decade, I would have said, “Why no, I don’t imagine I ever will.”


On the other hand, if the subject had come up when I was 27 or 28, I would probably have told you, “You never know. It just might happen.” Considering that I didn’t even play high school baseball, this was… I was going to say ‘unduly optimistic,’ but ‘stark raving bonkers’ is probably more accurate.


Playing right field in Yankee Stadium was one of the many things on my ‘that would be cool’ list. A ‘that would be cool’ list is like a ‘to do’ list, except you don’t make the slightest effort to accomplish anything on it. Since most things that are really cool require a considerable amount of effort, nothing on the ‘that would be cool’ list ever comes to fruition, but it would be cool if one of them did.


You might think a ‘that would be cool’ list just gets longer and longer, or at least stays the same, but it is not so. When you are 47 and wake up and realize there are no 47-year-old rookies in major league baseball, for instance, all the major league baseball related items on the ‘that would be cool’ list must be moved to the ‘that would have been cool’ list. That list isn’t as much fun to read. In fact, it’s a little depressing.


Of course, things do get added to the ‘that would be cool’ list from time to time. Some of these things come from other lists. Guys like me make a lot of lists. Some are the kind of lists everybody makes—shopping lists, lists of bars where I don’t owe any money, lists of movies where Jamie Lee Curtis is naked and what the exact time is on the digital readout when it happens, etc. Some of my lists are real ‘to do’ lists, both short term (“Scoop green stuff off tomato sauce before pouring into sauce pan”) and long term (“Get new sauce pan”). When something stays on the long term ‘to do’ list long enough, it’s transferred to the ‘that would be cool list.’


Which brings us to “Finnegans Wake.


“Read ‘Finnegans Wake’” was on my long term list for 35 years. For 35 years, that is, since I was 17 years old, I have been telling myself that one of these days I was going to get around to reading ‘Finnegans Wake,’ [No apostrophe, by the way] James Joyce’s monstrous half-million word dream book, despite the fact that maybe two thirds of those words are not English. (Wikipedia’s plot synopsis begins with this: “Because Joyce's sentences are packed with obscure allusions and puns in dozens of different languages, it remains impossible to offer an undisputed and definitive synopsis…”). I made a few attempts at it over the years, unsuccessful ones, but I figured eventually I’d have the maturity, patience, and brains to plow all the way through it.


And I really wanted to, because, even though I never got very far in my expeditions into deepest “Finnegans Wake,” I thought it was pretty funny. For instance:


Mutt—Mukk’s pleasurad.

Jute—Are you jeff?


Jute—But you are not jeffmute?

Mutt—Nono. Only an utterer.

Jute—Whoa? Whoat is the mutter with you?

Mutt—I became a stun a stummer.


I’ll put up with all kinds of trouble for any book that uses the term ‘jeffmute.’


But the sad fact is, your brain cells start flaking off like dandruff when you hit 30 and I hit 52 last week, and I hit it good and hard. I think I have to accept that I am not going to get any smarter than I am now, and right now I am barely smart enough to make it through “Assignment: Nuclear Nude” by Edward S. Aarons. So “Finnegan” moves to the ‘That Would Be Cool’ list. I’m afraid I’ll just have to make due with “Finnegans Wake, The Movie.”


Which actually exists.


I’ve never seen it, but I’ve owned the sound track LP for over 30 years, and in celebration of “Finnegans Wake” moving from my long term ‘to do list’ to the “That Would Be Cool’ list, the fine folks at WFMU have permited me to post this album to their website as part of the 2007 365 Days Project. If you go to The WFMU Blog you can not only download all 50+ minutes of the music and dialogue, you can read all about where I found the record, my (so far) fruitless search to view the movie itself, and what I was able to discover about it. Which is not much.


If you don’t want to read the book or even sit through the soundtrack, I have taken the liberty of preparing an abridgement of “Finnegans wake”myself, based mostly on random pasages I didn’t understand at all and several extremely uneducated guesses. I may have left out some details, but space is at a premium. And since this is an Irish book, I’ve written it in Limerick form:


Said Shemus to Shaunus, “’tis troublin’

“An oddness has come over Dublin!

“My brother, it seems

“We’re in one of Pop’s dreams—”

--Whorezat? Shib your grop and Schtüp mubblin!



Whenever I write about spiders here, I get letters.


I am, in general, in favor of spiders. I like the webs, the bigger the better. The symmetrical ones are my favorites, but there’s also something to be said for the really berserk ones that look like they were spun after the spider had one vodka tonic too many. (Just as I like Mozart better than Charles Ives, but I want both of them on my iPod). (Or I would if I had an iPod, which I don’t) (My birthday is September 21st). (That’s Friday). I like the markings on the backs of the spiders. I like the way they move. I like that they stay out of my way, mostly, except for the rare times when one of them will suddenly be dangling from a single filament right in front of my face. I get the impression that the spider is thinking, “Yeah? What are you looking at?” And since I outweigh the average spider by a factor of approximately 800 zillion percent, I like that cocky attitude, too.


But some people just don’t want to hear anything nice about spiders at all. If you say (as I did a few years ago) “I saw a pretty cool spider web last week,” you’ll get some very angry mail. “Do you know what those spiders do to the things they catch in those webs? How would you like to be caught in one? Do you know the spider’s jaws go the wrong way? Do you know how gross that is?” Et cetera. The only times I have gotten angrier letters were (1) when I wrote a column suggesting that one way to lose weight would be to eat less food, and (2) when I wrote a column that argued maybe, just maybe, cats might not be the bestest, most wonderfulest creatures in the whole world. Spider haters are not as, um, excitable as cat lovers (and they are far more likely to use the spell-check feature on their computers), but I still have no wish to rile them.


And yet…


As the weather grows brisk, which it has been doing recently, the average spider begins to think about moving indoors. I believe this was the proximate cause of the phone call I received from my daughter last week.


My daughter has been spending the summer living in a tree house. I’m not sure why, but she is. The tree house is in the woods.


Around 11:20 PM, my phone rang and Emma (my daughter) asked me if by any chance I was planning to stop by that evening. I said, why no, in fact I am getting ready for bed. She said, well, why don’t you not do that, and instead drop by here for a few minutes? Because, I said, it’s 11:20 PM and you are living in a tree house and I don’t want to drive out there and then go stumbling through the woods in the dark. And she said, PLEASE. There is a very big spider in my window and I think he’s trying to get in.


Just how big is this spider? I asked. And she said, It’s as big as my hand.


(Now, this is the point where you have to remember my position vis-à-vis spiders.) Wow, I said, Cool!


This was not, it was swiftly apparent, the thing she expected to hear from a loving father. When she stopped screaming, I said, well, look, if he is trying to get in—and he’s probably not, he’s probably just, I don’t know, checking out the view—he’s not going to be interested in you, anyway. He just wants to get in some place where it’s warm.


She did not find this comforting, probably because the warmest place in the tree house was under her quilt.


Do you think he’s making a web in the window? She asked. I asked her to describe the spider, and from the sound of it, her guest was a wood spider. Actually, I said, I’m not sure wood spiders use webs to gather food. I think they might be jumping spiders.


You know, she said, you aren’t really helping matters here. So I’m going to hang up now. Good night.


I was really impressed with how I was able to understand every word, even though she was clearly speaking through clenched teeth.


The next morning the spider was gone, and so far it has not returned to the tree house. (One of the other things I’ve always liked about spiders is the way they can usually tell when the welcome mat has been rolled up). I wasn’t sure if Emma had been exaggerating how big the spider was, but she says not. She says that she could tell it was quite hairy, that the hair was both black and brown (in a kind of striped pattern) and that she could count the eyes. When you can count the eyes, you are dealing with a substantial spider.


And I must admit, that’s a little too substantial even for me. They’re cute when they’re little, but if it looks like we’re going to be wrestling over who gets the last drumstick, no thank you. Once the spider is bigger than my thumb, I’m afraid I get a little brusque and I tell it, “Your money is no good here, my friend. Finish your drink, take your flies, and hit the bricks.”


If I were the kind of guy who felt guilty about letting his daughter tough it out all night with a giant spider in her window, I’d be feeling pretty guilty right now.


Fortunately, I’m not. So you can save your stamps.

Collect Call


“You need to get out more,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. There was Coca Cola dripping from the walls and ceiling of the Custom Neon Sign Shop. Also from Mulberry Street Joey Clams, and from me.


I had been teaching myself to juggle for the past few months, and slowly progressed from three bean bags to three rubber balls, to three 12 ounce soda bottles. A few months earlier I would never have dared tossing soda bottles around, but the Coca Cola Company was now using plastic bottles. O Brave new World! I no longer had to worry about muffing my overhand cascade and ending up with an explosion of carbonated liquid and shattered glass.


It turned out that what I’d needed to worry about was Mulberry Street Joey Clams not screwing the cap back on. “I don’t wanna spend my life screwing it OFF and then screwing it ON,” he said, in answer to my polite query on the subject.


“Well, why didn’t you just leave the cap OFF, instead of resting it on top of the neck and making it look like the bottle wasn’t open?”


“Some guys see an open bottle a soda and they can’t resist taking a swig,” he said, wiping soda from the screen of the portable TV we used to watch Mets games and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”


“Well, other guys see a closed bottle and can’t resist juggling it,” I said.


“I’m betting they can now,” he said. “Anyway, you’ve been promoted.” He pulled open the drawer of his desk. The drawer made an interesting sound, as various pencils, paper clips and erasers swished around in a tiny ocean of cola. He removed a dripping sheet of paper. “These are accounts overdue.”


All of our accounts tended to be overdue, since our customers often refused to pay the balance of their bills, once they plugged in our signs and they blew up. Some of them even wanted their deposits back.


“You want me to call these people?”


“Naw, we’re way past that. I want you to pay them a visit.”


The sinister way he pronounced ‘pay them a visit’ made it sound like these deadbeats would take one look at me, swallow nervously, and fork over the money.


I had my doubts. In general, people were not intimidated by me. Even when I was not dripping with soda.


“Start with the church,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. “They never paid for that ‘Bingo Every Tuesday’ sign we made.”


“Well, it shorted out and set the curtains on fire, Mulberry Street Joey Clams. They want us to pay for recharging the fire extinguishers.”


“Yeah, fat chance. They used three fire extinguishers to put out one lousy set a curtains? I don’t think so. Anyway, go over there and tell them to pay up or else.”


“Or else what?”


He signed. “Look, I’d do this myself, but I’m Catholic and I could get in trouble if I come on too strong, you know? You, you’re, you know, whatever you are…”




“So you’re toast already, as far as they’re concerned.”




“I’m just saying. I mean, let’s face it, you aren’t even from New York.”


The logic was indisputable. Or something. So I went home to shower and change, and then stopped by the church. Father Jimmy was not one of those Bing Crosby or Spencer Tracy-type priests. He was kind of a Steve Buscemi-type priest (think “Fargo” especially), but this was the early 1980s so I had no idea. “Clams said ‘or else??’ Wadda ya mean, ‘or else?’” he snarled.


“Well, I guess, or else, you know, uh, no more bingo signs.”


“What’s that smell?”


“Coca Cola,” I said. “I couldn’t get it out of my shirt.”


“Don’t you have any other shirts?”


I was wearing my purple Hawaiian shirt with chartreuse palm trees despite the fact that it had been saturated with soda, and despite the fact that it was a purple Hawaiian shirt with chartreuse palm trees, because it was still the least objectionable shirt I owned.


“Not really good ones,” I said.


“What’s that piece of paper you keep looking at? It looks like it went through the washing machine.”


“It got Coca Cola all over it, too. It’s our, uh, list of overdue accounts.”


“Son, you’re a mess. Lemme see that. How did you get soda over everything?”


“I was juggling and I didn’t realize Mulberry Street Joey Clams hadn’t screwed the top on the bottle.”


“You should always realize that, son. MULDOON owes you money? Muldoon of the Muldoon Saloon?”


“He won’t pay for the ‘pointers’ and ‘setters’ signs we made. They didn’t blow up or anything, either.”


“Why don’t he pay?”


“Well, technically they don’t work. I mean they don’t glow. But you can still read them.”


Father Jimmy rapped a single knuckle on the edge of his desk. “You juggle, you say? Can you do it without drenching the whole room with soda?”




Rap. Rap. Rap. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. This Saturday for the Youth Group fund raiser, you do your juggling—nothing involving any kind of fluids—and I’ll get Muldoon to pay up. Deal?”




“Say DEAL!”


“Uh.. deal.”


“Excellent. We had a clown, but he punched a cop in Stamford. Son, never involve yourself with clowns if you can avoid it.” He picked up his phone. “Muldoon. This is Father Jimmy. Listen—you know that money you owe Mulberry Street Joey Clams? For the signs? Well, you got ‘em on the walls, don’t you? Now listen. You know how he’s handling the debt? His uncle is covering it... No, it ain’t fine. Listen. His uncle is charging interest. No, you still don’t get it, moron. He’s charging you. I don’t know what the vig is. Could be 20% per day for all I know. You wanna pay this one off, Muldoon, and fast. That’s right. That’s right. Yeah yeah. And don’t forget, you’re bringing the ice and the soft drinks to the Saturday fund raiser. Well, now you do know. All right. My love to the missus.”


I went back to the Custom Neon Sign Shop and told Mulberry Street Joey Clams the church was a no-go, but Muldoon was going to pay up. “I’m impressed,” he said. “And I can’t believe you’re still wearing that shirt.”



“I scored a juggling gig, too,” I said.

Rescue of the Summer Pumpkin


My daughter told me she’d had three incredible dreams that she’d be happy to share with me, so that I could share them with my readers (you). But as always when anyone is about to share a dream with me, I had something extremely important to do and just no time to listen right now. So I hung up and took care of business—I believe the forks in my utensil drawer needed straightening out—and didn’t give the three dreams much thought until four or five days later when my deadline was looming, and the column I was writing wasn’t really gelling (it was about the utensil drawer). So I figured why not? Maybe they’ll be interesting.


But when I called, Emma couldn’t talk. “A dump truck just dumped like 3 tons of dirt on Monty and I’ve got to dig him out before he dies.” Click.


If anyone else had told me that a dump truck had dumped 3 tons of dirt on Monty I would have been concerned, even though I had no idea who Monty is. But that’s one of the things about my daughter; I knew it probably wasn’t a matter of “who” so much as “what.” My daughter compulsively names every inanimate object she owns, and many that she doesn’t. I had a pick up truck she named “Jello,” for instance.


I know you’re thinking, well, a lot of people name their cars and their houses. And so they do. Emma names toasters. She names… well, she names everything.


Let me tell you about St. Penny’s College, for instance.


One morning about many years ago I pulled back the curtains in one of the upstairs bedrooms and on the window sill there were several stacks of pennies. It was a fairly wide sill, so she—I had no doubt that this was the work of my daughter, as it proved to be—had been able to arrange these stacks in a series of concentric semi-circles. These stacks, I later learned, were the classes at St. Penny’s College. I don’t recall the curriculum, though I do remember that there were far more than four classes. St. Penny’s campus clearly included a graduate school and perhaps several of them. Eventually the stacks of pennies would work their way to the front of the semi-circle and from there make their way out into the world. There were always new students matriculating, since I didn’t empty the change in my pockets into a safe every night. The scariest thing about all this—well, one of the scariest things—was that Emma had named each individual penny.


Being a conscientious parent I considered getting her some sort of help, but it turned out that this required explaining to the therapist why I thought she needed help, and I just couldn’t bring myself to say the words “St. Penny’s College” to another adult. So she went on blithely naming everything that crossed her path, and graduated from high school, and then college (NYU, not St. Penny’s) and that brings us to the dump truck dumping all that dirt on top of poor Monty.


Her mother confirmed that a lot of dirt had indeed been deposited on their property, and by a dump truck. I have no idea why. Apparently some people need dirt, and other people need to get rid of dirt, and her mother happens to be one of the former, while the guy in the dump truck happens to be one of the latter. It’s one of those things, like the St. Penny’s curriculum, that I don’t understand and never will.


By the time I got over there, all the excitement was over. It had taken her two days, but Emma had rescued Monty, who turned out to be a pumpkin. She also rescued a second pumpkin to which she had no yet given a name, maybe because it was still green.


“All right,” I said, “So tell me about these dreams.”


It turned out that while a couple of the dreams were interesting, especially the one where she gave birth to a litter of kittens, and also the one with Lauren Bacall, they were not really appropriate for my column, since my column does not run in—well, I can’t even print the name of a magazine that would run a column about these dreams. “Look,” I said, “You said you had dreams I could share with my readers, and you didn’t, and now I’ve got an hour and a half to write my column. I need some content.”


“I don’t think I can help you,” she said, brushing some top soil off Monty.


“Maybe I could write about how you name every drab-dram thing you lay your eyes on,” I suggested.


“It’s your column,” she said.


“Maybe I could write about… St. Penny’s College,” I continued.


“You wouldn’t dare,” she said with a smirk. “Anyway, no one would believe you.”


“Yeah, you’re right. It’s just too crazy,” I said.



One night more than 30 years ago I was driving along a back road somewhere in New Jersey with a couple of friends, listening to the radio. This was back when ‘talk radio’ meant some guy fighting his hangover with a thermos of coffee, free associating and periodically interrupting himself to announce that “…the lines are open. We are taking your calls. We want to know what you think.” I spent many nights—way too many nights—driving along the back roads of New Jersey listening to that sort of thing, hoping the host would flip out and start babbling incoherently or swearing uncontrollably. This rarely happened, but every now and then it did, and if you were a regular listener you could get a feel for when the host was on the verge of losing it. On this particular night the host did not, but it is the show I remember best anyway. It stands out because a gentleman actually called in and, apropos of nothing, told the host that he was an avid reader of the works of Edward S. Aarons. The host was unfamiliar with the name. “He writes the Assignment books,” said the caller. “You know, ‘Assignment: Bangkok.’ Or ‘Assignment: Budapest.’” These, it developed upon sharp questioning from the host, were spy novels featuring CIA agent Sam Durrell. The caller had read them all, and at that point there were nearly 40 of them. Mr. Aarons, he said, set each novel in a different part of the world and researched them extensively. “And although I myself have never set foot out of the U.S., and only a half a dozen times out of Yonkers, as a result of my having read the works of Mr. Aarons, I consider myself something of an expert on many foreign cities and cultures.” There followed a very long pause, perhaps 7 seconds, which is an eternity on radio, and the host said, “Why did you call me?”


I don’t recall the answer, or if there was one. My friends and I had already internalized the call, and for years afterward we could send each other into uncontrollable fits of laughter by saying “I consider myself something of an expert…”


This constituted the whole of my relationship to Edward S. Aarons and his collected works for over 30 years.


Until this past week, when I accompanied my daughter to an auction.


They were auctioning off box lots of books, magazines, and ‘ephemera’ that had belonged to a recently departed collector of same. My daughter was mostly interested in the ‘ephemera,’ specifically an 8 X 10 of Arnold Schwarzenegger from his late 1970’s salad days, although she also had her eye on a 1952 issue of LIFE magazine with Marlon Brando on the cover. I was a little surprised at her interest in the Arnold photo, since he had fairly long hair then, and she has a visceral negative reaction to long hair on men. When she was 7 or 8 she went though my high school yearbook and, with a bottle of white our and a magic marker, obliterated the portraits of guys in my class whose hair length violated her standards of good taste. (Since this was a 1973 yearbook, that included pretty much everybody but three or four guys on the football team).


Well, she got neither the lot containing the Arnold nor the lot containing the Marlon, but her strategy was to bid on every single lot until she got something.

She would bid five dollars (which was the floor the auctioneer set), and usually someone else would immediately counter with ten, and she’d be out, but eventually, on a lot consisting of six boxes of paperbacks, no one else bid, and she was suddenly the owner of six boxes of paperbacks.


After I loaded six boxes of paperbacks into the rear of the car, I had a pretty fair idea of why no one else bid on the six boxes of paperbacks.


The boxes were delivered to my apartment, since paperbacks would not find the climate of the tree house where Emma is spending the summer congenial. We set about cataloging the books, and swiftly found they broke down into x categories: (1) books-one of-us-was-interested-in-reading-type books (approx. 4 books each); (2) books-we-figured-we-could-sell-on-eBay-type books (approx. 30 books) (She’s already got “The Man from P.A.N.S.Y” by Don Rico and “The Coven” by E. Howard Hunt (cover blurb: ‘A sensational novel of Washington intrigue and witchcraft by the Watergate conspirator’ up on eBay as we speak).; (3) books-where-we-couldn’t-figure-out-why-anybody-figured-it-would-be-a-good-idea-to-write-this-book-type books (approx. 5 and a half boxes), and (4) EVERY FREAKING ‘ASSIGNMENT’ BOOK BY EDWARD S. AARONS.

A quick check online showed that these sell for about 10 cents per hundred, which normally would be a one-way ticket to the recycling pile, but somehow I can’t bring myself to do it. For 30 plus years, without my having read a word of them, these books have been bringing me pleasure, albeit a really stupid pleasure. Bundling them up to be pulped and reconstituted as next week’s issue of People Magazine just seems wrong. So unless I can find them a home—and I mean a good home, not some place where they’re going to end up chained to the radiator—I guess they’re going to remain here, boxed up, behind the kitchen door. Perhaps I will be tempted to read “Assignment: Ankara,” and become something of an expert on Ankara, or “Assignment: Palermo,” and become something of an expert on Palermo, or “Assignment: Nuclear Nude,” and become something of an expert on nuclear nudes.


I will resist the temptation.


Well, except for the nuclear nude one, which I started this afternoon.


But all the other ones, absolutely.



Black Velvet Elvis, And Me


When I was 15 I cultivated an air of sophistication and cool urbanity. My strategy was simple. I refused to admit I was impressed by anything, no matter how impressed I actually was. Yes, this new Kubrick movie is good in its way—not up to his early stuff, of course, but not nearly as bad as I’d anticipated.

I really said things like that. It’s amazing that I lived to be 16; every one I met must have wanted to throw me off a roof.

The only way you could get me to abandon my been-everywhere-seen-it-all-and-it doesn’t-quite-come-up-to-my-standards persona was to shock me. You had to show me something I’d never seen before, or even heard about.

Which is what Dave Willinski, who sat behind me in Earth Science class, did when I dropped by his house one day after school. I probably came over to make a few condescending remarks about the guitar playing on his new Led Zeppelin album or something, but when I walked into his living room, I saw something amazing.

His parents had just returned from a trip to Mexico and they’d purchased this amazing thing there. They’d hung it over the couch. It was a painting, but unlike any painting I’d ever seen before. “Pretty cool, huh?” said Dave, and he flipped a wall switch. The painting had its own light source, just like in a museum.

Despite the fact that it was an incredible painting, Dave explained, his parents had paid next to nothing for it. “The frame cost more than the picture!” he said. “You know why it looks so different?” I shook my head. “Touch it.”

It was not painted on canvas. The incredibly beautiful picture was painted on black velvet, and Mr. 15 year old Urban Sophisticate was blown away by it.

The Willinskis’ painting had probably been produced in the black velvet painting factory in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where the things were turned out daily by the hundreds on an assembly line, like cars. I don’t remember the subject, only how bright the colors seemed against that black velvet.

Within a matter of months, it seemed, cheap black velvet pictures were everywhere. The Willinski’s picture went from being an exotic novelty fit for the living room wall to the visual equivalent of a can of aerosol cheese. The painting came down and asking about it was a sure way to get the fish eye from Mrs. Willinski.

After that I don’t know that I gave black velvet painting any more thought at all until Elvis died.

That was 30 years ago last week, and suddenly black velvet Elvises were everywhere. It was like congress had passed a law declaring that if you were going to paint Elvis, it had to be on black velvet.

I was not nearly as pretentious and insufferable as I’d been at 15, but I was still too pretentious and insufferable to own a black velvet Elvis. And I’ve paid the price—thirty straight years without a black velvet Elvis.

I started to admit to myself that I wanted a black velvet Elvis about 15 years ago. What is it about Elvis—and, I think, no one else—that absolutely demands black velvet? Has anybody else ever looked so perfect on black velvet?

So as the 30th anniversary of the passing of Elvis rolled around I started looking for one.

Well, they’re out there, but I discovered something: Elvis has been trademarked. The Elvis estate apparently owns Elvis’ image. Or at least aspects of Elvis’ image. There have been tons of lawsuits, but the upshot, if I’m reading these decisions correctly, is that you can’t set up a factory producing black velvet Elvises without the permission of the Elvis estate.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want an authorized black velvet Elvis. I’m not sure why. There’s just something about it that rubs me the wrong way.

And on the other hand, I sure don’t want to buy an unauthorized black velvet Elvis if it means I’m going to lock horns with the Elvis estate. They are very aggressive about defending their trademarks.

So that would seem to be that—but a kind of compromise occurs to me. All those black velvet Elvis factories that have been out of action because of the Elvis estate need a new subject, and I think I’ve got an excellent one.


It may be argued that I have not achieved the iconic status required for black velvet. But it won’t be argued by me.

It’s true that my face does not precisely scream to be reproduced on black velvet the way that Elvis’ face does, but on the other hand, I will not send an army of bilingual lawyers with restraining orders to shut you down.

The black velvet Jeff is the black velvet future, and the future starts now. Start sending them in.

Roman Shades


I was dining out, and I put my bleach stick on the table, right next to the salad fork. If you’ve ever seen me eat, you know why. And what’s more you’ll always know why, because the image of me going to work on a bowl of tortellini in marinara sauce is absolutely indelible.

Anyway, one of the other folks at the table commented on my bleach stick. Not in a snotty way—just a good-humored remark about how if I had to have that thing within reach like that, maybe nobody at the table was safe; just how much collateral damage should be expected before my pasta was consumed? I chuckled appreciatively, and then vanished in a blur of tomato sauce and grated cheese.

When I was done, there were no more attempted drolleries about my bleach stick, just polite requests to borrow it. One person contented herself with dabbing at the marinara with a napkin dipped in water. “To tell the truth, I’ve ruined way more blouses with those things…” –Meaning my bleach stick—“than I’ve saved. But I did get a nasty stain out of my Roman Shades with one.”

Believe it or not, I was not familiar with the term “Roman shades.” As the conversation progressed I realized they are window shades, but initially I pictured Marcello Mastroianni in “8 ½,” wearing those glasses with the big thick black plastic frames.

The rest of this column is going to concern those glasses, but before we leave the subject of bleach sticks entirely, I want to say that as far as I’m concerned bleach sticks represent the greatest scientific advance made in the 21st Century. They allow vigorous eaters such as myself to wear classy shirts (= retails for at least $25) in Italian restaurants without fear. They are the greatest thing since The Salad McShake, which was the best thing McDonalds ever came up with. You got a salad in a big clear cup, with a tightly fitting dome cap. You poured your dressing over the salad, snapped on the cap, and shook it up for about 30 seconds, and every fragment of the salad had dressing on it! Needless to say McDonalds jettisoned this idea after about 45 minutes and went back to regular stupid salads in a bowl. We must not allow this to happen to the bleach stick!


Where was I? Oh right, glasses with thick clunky frames. You know the ones I mean. Buddy Holly wore them. Clark Kent wore them. Dennis the Menace’s father wore them. And, as previously mentioned, Marcello wore them in “8½.” Cary Grant wore them in real life, at least after he retired from the movies.

Now if it had been just Buddy, Clark, and Dennis’ dad, we could safely say that these were the glasses you got if you wanted to look like a geek. But Marcello and Cary were not geeks. Marcello was, in fact, the ne plus ultra of Cool, and Cary, arguably, even ne plus ultra-er than that.

Incredible as it may seem, glasses with big clunky black plastic frames were considered the epitome of style for ten years, from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties. Simple! Elegant! Clunky! Molded from Today’s Miracle Substance, Cheap Plastic! Buddy Holly wasn’t trying to look like a geek; he was trying to look cool. But those glasses were so intense, so overwhelming, that they eclipsed your entire face. You had to have a face like Marcello or Cary to pull off looking cool with those glasses. Otherwise, you were basically the mayor of Geektown.

All this is obvious with 50 years of hindsight. It wasn’t obvious at the time.

Then one day circa 1966, (maybe the same day everyone realized that the cheap wood paneling they’d put up in the basement looked like cheap wood paneling), everyone in America woke up, put on their clunky black glasses, looked in the mirror, and went “Whaaaaa?!?”

Well, not everyone. Cary Grant, for instance, didn’t seem to notice anything was amiss, since he continued wearing his hideous glasses for another 20 years. And my parents didn’t either, since they continued forcing me to wear geek-frames until I was in high school. My dad insisted that only ‘hip cats” (SIC!) wore anything but clunky plastic glasses, and he wasn’t about to have a ‘hip cat’ living under his roof. The only reason they relented was because Bill Bixby wore aviator frames on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” “See?” I cried, pointing to the screen. “HE’S wearing really sharp glasses and he’s not a hip cat!”

So I got aviator frames, just like Bill Bixby and my cousin Bill Beckwith (who was an aviator). As I got older, I got different frames from time to time, but always metal ones with thin earpieces, and while my glasses may not have always been at the cutting edge of style, they suited my face.

But now, after decades of eyewear sanity, big clunky plastic frames are making a comeback, and they’re being marketed as DESIGNER FRAMES. Don’t fall for it! You will look like a geek, unless of course you look like Marcello, and you don’t.

And I don’t either, so I’ll look like a geek too, because after the big clunky black frames have been in style for ten or fifteen years I’m going to break down and get them and I DON’T WANT TO.

Don’t let this happen. First they’ll take our aviator frames, and then they’re going to come for our bleach sticks. We’ve already lost our Salad McShakes.

It’s time to draw a line in the sand.

Letters from Home


Everybody needed paper, and I was the guy who had it.

My mom was a judge’s secretary and we always had thick yellow legal pads all over the house. I drew my monster comics on them, and also posters for non-existent monster movies. A lot of the comics were about giant insects or flying saucers, since I could draw pretty good insects and flying saucers, but inevitably the bugs or Martians would attack somebody who turned out to be… a werewolf. I drew great werewolves, and it just seemed crazy to draw an entire two or three page comic without including one.

This was not a seasonal thing; I drew my comics all year long, summer included, and saw no reason not to draw them at summer camp, so I brought a dozen legal pads to Camp Altaha, and a variety of black and red pens. When I wasn’t paddling a canoe around in circles or throwing Picarillo’s underpants down the latrine, I was sprawled out on my bunk bed happily drawing werewolves. The other guys in my tent—Calvano and Picarillo, and some kid with thick glasses we called “Mr. Peabody” because he looked kind of like the talking dog of the same name on the Bullwinkle and Rocky Show—encouraged this. They often made suggestions about just how many werewolves I should draw, and how long the fangs should be, and Calvano even came up with the brilliant idea of having the Martians in one story also turn out to be werewolves.

Then one evening, just before the marshmallow roast, our Scoutmaster Mr. Appledorn called the entire troop to attention and told us how disappointed he was in us. “You scouts are not fulfilling your scout duty,” he said, stabbing the air with his foul stogie. (Every time Mr. Appledorn said “duty” half the guys in Troop 11 cracked up because it sounded like “doody”). “You have all promised to send your parents at least two letters a week, and so far only two scouts have sent one letter! The only scout who has sent two letters—in fact he’s sent four, and is an example to all of you, is Raymond Melville. As for the rest of you—I want to see a letter from every one of you after breakfast tomorrow morning, stamped and addressed and ready to mail! That is all! DO YOUR DUTY!”

“B-but Mr. A.,” said a kid in the Fox Patrol, “What if we don’t have any paper?”

“WE can help you out there!” cried Calvano. “Come by our tent and we’ll fix you up!” He nudged me. “We’ll clean up,” he whispered.

Calvano’s first idea was simply to charge a nickel for a sheet of paper (my paper), and a dime for a sheet, an envelope and a stamp. But the second kid who came in complained that he had no idea what to say, and Calvano told him that for a quarter, we’d write the letter for him. “Done!” said the kid—his name, alas, is lost to history—and that was it. We were ghost writers.

And then we realized we were faced with exactly the same problem the kid who’d commissioned us had been faced with—we had no idea what to say. “Well,” I said, “we don’t want to get too specific, because we may have to write a bunch of these…” “Right, right…” “So we say, you know, I’m having fun, the weather’s been nice…” “Wait, let me write that down…” “…Uh, and I miss you. Guys! I miss you guys.” “That’s good. The ‘guys’ makes it not mushy.” “Exactly,” I said. Soon we had what amounted to templates for two different letters.

“This is like a license to print money,” said Calvano. We figured everybody would be coming to us for their letters once word got out, but either word didn’t get out, or most scouts decided they’d rather save a quarter. Only George Miller, a 14 year old thug we called “Bluto” because, well, he looked like Bluto, chose to take advantage of our offer, mostly because he’d been too busy to write a letter; he’d had to tie up and gag Ray Melville and leave him under a running shower head.

But Miller didn’t want to pay us a quarter. He wanted us to write his letter and supply a stamped envelope for free. He didn’t come right out and say there were plenty of unoccupied shower stalls available if we’d rather not, but that was clearly the subtext.


At first Calvano and I were disheartened and wrote out a perfunctory ‘having fun, miss you guys’ letter, but then Calvano starting to think about what a REAL letter from George Miller would be like. He wrote one, which went more or less:

Dear Mom,

Keep this under your hat, but I killed Ray Melville and chopped him up and put him in six paper bags and left him all over the woods. It was fun but don’t tell nobody, this is strictly on the Q. T.


P.S. I mean it, don’t talk or else. This ‘mom’ stuff cuts no ice with me.


We thought that was just hilarious, but our second version was even better:


I am so lonely! I miss you so much! I cry myself to sleep every night! I wish I had a pink stuffed bunny to sleep with! I would call him Mr. Snuggles!! Please mommy buy me a pink bunny! I am so sad and lonely!

Your sweet Bunny Boy




We laughed ourselves sick and stuffed that in an envelope and mailed it in the morning, the entire time knowing that when Miller got home and found out about the letter, he would kill us.

And in fact, that’s exactly what happened. He tried to make Calvano and me eat the pink stuffed bunny his mother had bought him (his mother apparently had a great sense of humor). In fact, I’d have to say he succeeded in making us eat the pink stuffed bunny. It was almost worth it.




The golden age of journalism is officially over. The Weekly World News, which is arguably the greatest publication ever – and inarguably the greatest publication ever to feature the World’s Biggest Baby on the cover (many times) – ceases publication with the next issue. I blame myself.

I have deliberately joined the longest line at the supermarket checkout, sometimes even seeking out old ladies pushing carts filled to the top with individual cans of cat food, just so I could flip through the Weekly World News while the cashier tries to explain that the “Save $2 on Nine Lives” coupon doesn’t have anything to do with all these cans of Fancy Feast and even if it did it expired 6 months ago.

By the time the cat food cat fight is over, I’ve usually finished the entire issue. Which means I have no reason to buy it, so I put it back. Of course if Bat Boy was on the cover, I plunked down my three bucks, but otherwise I freeloaded.

And the result? No more Weekly World News. No more “Arkansas Duck Hunters Capture Hitler.” No more “Nine Month Old Baby Gets Black Belt in Karate.” No more “Big Foot Kept Lumberjack as Love Slave” (sub headline: “Outraged Wife: He’s No Longer the Man I Married.”)

Of course, as sad as the passing of the Weekly World News is, the paper is a pale shadow of what it once was. When the WWN began in 1979, it wasn’t much different from the rest of the supermarket tabloids—or rather, they weren’t much different from the Weekly World News. There were UFO abductions, demonic possessions, and 200 pound infants everywhere. Then for reasons that have never been clear to me, the other tabs put more and more emphasis on celebrity gossip, diets, and various things that maybe actually happened. They all turned into sort-of trailer park versions of People Magazine. It makes no sense to me—Paris Hilton is not nearly as interesting as Big Foot, and he doesn’t even exist (or anyway he doesn’t teach Kindergarten in Manitoba as the WWN claims). Well, the People Magazining of the Supermarket Tabloids was an appalling turn of events for the culture at large, but it left the Weekly World News with its own ecological niche and no direct competitors to speak of.

When I was younger and even stupider than I am now, I read the Weekly World News ironically. I blush to admit that I thought there were people out there who really believed that the stories in the WWN were true, and I had the twin pleasures of enjoying the hilarious stories for their own sake while at the same time feeling superior to the morons who fell for them. Eventually I came to the realization that nobody fell for them. The morons was me.

And in time, the WWN lost some of its edge. The stories didn’t seem quite so dead pan any more. No one could pretend they were getting the jokes that went over the heads of the hicks any more. In 2004, they began running a disclaimer at the bottom of the colophon: “Weekly World News articles are drawn from different sources and most are fictitious. WWN uses invented names in many of its stories, except in cases where public figures are being satirized. Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental. The reader should suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment.” Yeesh. Is there a better way to kill a joke than to keep reminding people you’re telling a joke, and it’s really funny? No wonder that circulation declined from 153,000 to 83,000 between 2004 and 2006.

So now it’s over.

But it seems to me that the niche I spoke about, which the Weekly World News filled so well for so long, and then maybe not quite so well for a while, still exists. And it remains for us to fill it. ‘Us’ as in ‘you and me,’ I mean, not US the magazine. The Delaware Valley News needs your Elvis Sightings. I know you’re probably thinking, “But I’ve never had an Elvis sighting.” How do you know? Who knows what he looks like today? Maybe he looks like that chunky guy who moved in over the pizza place.

Same thing with space aliens. Milford and Kingwood could be loaded with them. It’s up to you to write in and let us know where they are. Tell us what their bumper stickers say.

And we haven’t had a good Mysterious Beast in these parts since the Nocomixon Panther was on the loose 20 years ago. At the time, I remind you, I insisted that there was plenty of evidence it was a were-panther. Did something overturn your garbage cans this week? Can you prove it wasn’t a were-panther? I didn’t think so. Well, write and tell us about it.

And if your letters rhyme, so much the better.

My Fabulous Harry Potter Adventure


I was visiting my home town this past weekend and after lunch I accompanied an old Buddy to the local bookstore, where he was going to pick up the new Harry Potter book. It was quite a scene. There were four or five tables piled high with copies of the book, and there were several employees who did nothing but bring out more copies as the ones on the tables were depleted.

I picked up a copy of the book and opened it. This was the first time that I have ever been in contact with a Harry Potter book, although I accidentally saw 10 or 15 minutes of one of the movies one afternoon while I was clicking around the dial. (I mistook the Harry Potter movie for one of those werewolf movies with Kate Beckensale in a skin tight leather cat suit). (Now that’s magic).

I’ve heard the books are excellent but I haven’t read them because, well, I just haven’t. For reasons that are unclear to me, many people seem to find this unacceptable. “Oh,” said one friend of mine, “I guess you think you’re just too good to read Harry Potter.” Speaking as someone who owns DVDs of “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” and four (4) movies about Mexican wrestlers fighting werewolves, mummies, and vampires, I can truthfully say that no, I do not think I am too good to read Harry Potter.

Anyway, I turned to the end, cleared my throat, and announced, “I will now read the last page of the new Harry Potter book, unless I get 20 bucks.” The reaction was gratifying. Some people smiled indulgently, some groaned, some rolled their eyes, and my friend Chuck grabbed me by the elbow and more or less frog marched me into the cook book section before I knew what was happening.

Rachel Ray has written a lot of cook books.

“Hey!” I said.

“I just saved your life,” said Chuck. He kept me away from the Harry Potter tables for ten minutes or so, by which time the crowd had turned over completely and no one who had witnessed my brush with death remained.

Like many immature borderline psychotics, I learn absolutely nothing from any of my mistakes and repeat them over and over again, until either the police arrive or I run out of tomato sauce. (Many of my mistakes involve pasta, usually the ones shaped like little radiators).

So as soon as Chuck was safely on line, I picked up the book and said exactly the same thing again. This time an enthusiastic young woman of 89 or so hit me with the book. This was not one of those playful ‘oh you, you’re such a caution, tee-hee’ taps. This was pretty much an all-out Babe-Ruth-swinging-for-the-right-field-wall sort of whack, directly to the back of my skull.

You know how in cartoons people get hit in the head with a baseball bat and they see stars and hear tweeting birds? I can vouch for the stars. I didn’t hear any tweeting. The birds were saying, “If you want some more of that, go ahead and read, smart guy.” Well, just one bird.

Actually it was the old lady who had just decked me, although she looked more like a peccary in orthopedic shoes, or would have, if her tusks had been a little less prominent.

Regular readers of this column know that I am not the kind of guy who can be intimidated by anyone, and especially not by some crazy old lady.

Not unless she’s holding a five pound Harry Potter book and has shown that she’s willing to use it.

“Okay,” I said. “The second she puts that book down, I’ll show her a thing or three.” I’m not sure if I said this out loud, because my brain (or what passes for it) was still ricocheting around inside my skull, but she got the message all right. Because she never put the book down, she just got on line, bought it, and left. When she pulled out of the parking lot, I said, “Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s right, you’re lookin’ at it.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, but I sounded kind of like Christopher Walken, so I assume it was something I heard in a Christopher Walken movie.

Later Chuck was telling me I was an idiot and I had to agree, because I realized that what I should have said when I opened the book to the last page was, “What?? ‘To Be Continued?’” That would have gotten a good reaction I’m sure. Also: “What?? It was all a dream?!”

If you happen to find yourself in a bookstore in the next few weeks, you can use those. You don’t have to give me credit.



Shortly before deadline, my daughter Emma phoned to say she had a scoop for me. –“I was at the Mets game last night—it was Ralph Kiner night—and there was a rumble. I’m going to get my friend Ally on three-way calling. She can corroborate what I’m saying. She was with me, in the middle of the rumble. I’ll call back in a minute.”


While I was waiting for the return call, I did a quick online search for news about the rumble. I had no trouble finding accounts of Ralph Kiner night at Shea and of the Mets-Reds game played that evening, but somehow the rumble escaped the notice of every news source I could turn up.


EMMA: Okay, I’m back. Ally?


ALLY: Yes, I’m here.


ME: You know, I couldn’t find a word about this rumble…


EMMA: Which is why this is a SCOOP. Okay. Let’s start with some background. Ally likes David Wright. Put that in.


ME: Who?

EMMA: He’s on the Mets. She likes him. Put that in bold.


ALLY: He’s amazing.


EMMA: Put that in bold too. Okay. So we were at the Mets game, and there were 51,743 people there. Fact. They announced it.


ALLY: The crowd at Shea was really mean. When Carlos Delgado popped up, someone yelled “What are we paying you for?” I think he cried when he went in to the dug out.


EMMA: The guy in front of us looked like Skeet Ulrich. We yelled ‘Skeet!’


ALLY: And there was a guy who looked like Prince William, only ugly. The same features as Prince William, only ugly. He had man boobs, too.


EMMA: What was really creepy was he had a side kick who looked like an ugly Prince Harry. It was very disconcerting. And the third baseman for the Reds had a name like an elective medical procedure. What was it?


ALLY: Norris Hopper.


EMMA: Exactly! And immediately after the game, there was a rumble on the subway. Fierce. We almost got sucked into it but we did not. I kept my composure.


ALLY: She has an amazing amount of self-control. Now which rumble are we talking about?


EMMA: We’re talking about the one on the subway. Even though there were 51,743 Mets fans there, we got on the train effortlessly. Then the trouble started. The doors are about to close and these people get on.


ALLY: The conductor said, “Get in,” and this girl was straddling the door. She was holding it for a gang.


EMMA: An entourage of annoying people. Annoying drunk people. I mean, how can you get drunk at Shea Stadium? They charge $7.50 for a small bottle of beer.


ME: Do they sell beer in bottles at Shea now?


EMMA: Yes. Little plastic bottles. Because glass bottles would become dangerous flying objects in the hands of drunk annoying people.


ALLY: They’re very cool little bottles.


EMMA: Cool and yet edgy.


ME: Wait, let me write that down. “Cool, and yet edgy.” Okay, go on.


EMMA: It was this drunk girl and her drunk posse. They were having a conversation and they wanted everyone to know they were having a conversation. They had that thing.


ME: What thing?


EMMA: That thing that drunken gangs have. Didn’t they Ally?


ALLY: Yes, absolutely.


ME: But…


EMMA: There was a girl near me with no chin and she said she was going to punch them, they were so obnoxious? But I didn’t believe her because she had no chin. You need a strong jaw line to back up those kinds of proclamations.


ME: You do?

EMMA: Yes. Then one of the drunk guys starts bragging that he was the smartest guy ever. I paraphrase.


ALLY: What he said was, he was awesome and knew all the state capitals.


EMMA: He said he totally nailed the state capitals quiz in 5th grade. This guy was pushing 30. He had this edgy receding hairline, though.


ME: Edgy?


EMMA: It was like… let me see. Like Dawson Leery’s dad’s hairline on Dawson’s Creek.


ALLY: It wasn’t as good as Dawson’s dad’s hairline, but it was similar.


EMMA: No, no, no, it was buzzed. It was a good receding hairline. I approved of the hairline, but yes, it wasn’t that amazing. So one of the drunk wenches says, ‘you think you know all the…’


ME: Did you say ‘wenches?’


EMMA: You’re killing my momentum here, killing it. She says, ‘You think you know all the state capitals?’ and she starts naming states. Vermont. And he says, “Montpelier.”


ALLY: It started out more general than that.


EMMA: It started with New Mexico, and then after a while it moved to Canada. He claimed to know all the provinces.


ALLY: He said the capital of Canada was QUEBEC.


EMMA: Can you believe it?


ALLY: And I said ‘What’s the capital of Africa?’ but he didn’t hear me.


EMMA: If you were going to pick one city to be the capital of Africa… it would have to be the one African city the Spice Girls are going to play on their Seven Continent Tour. Excuse me, six continents. No Antarctica. 11 cities on 6 continents. You know how much each Spice girls gets for this? 20 million dollars.


ME: When you say 20 million dollars, do you mean “a really high number,” like a gazillion?


EMMA: No. I would be willing to pay up to 300 dollars for a ticket. As would most people, I believe. If you want tickets you have to sign up to be picked to be in a lottery, just to have the opportunity to buy tickets. You tell them which city you want. This one girl I know said she was going to put in for Sydney because she figured New York would sell out.


ALLY: Then this girl said “What’s the capital of Delaware?” and he changed the subject!


ME: Was this the girl who’s going to see the Spice Girls in Sydney?


EMMA: We’re way past Sydney. We’re back in the rumble. Focus, please. I kept muttering, “Dover! Dover, you fool!” And then they all got off at, um, I think 60th Street in Woodside. Everyone applauded when they left.


ALLY: We theorized he would not know the capital of Nevada. Most people thing Reno or Las Vegas but it’s Carson City.

EMMA: Few people realize that
Reno is actually WEST of Los Angeles.


ME: I believe I was aware of that.


EMMA: I’m sure you were. Do you know which state Capital is closest to Africa?


ME: Well, the obvious answer would be Florida, so I assume that’s not it.


EMMA: Maine. And, if you measure Tennessee West to East, the distance is longer than the distance from Tennessee to the Canadian Border. I could have cleaned this guy’s clock in State Capitals.


ALLY: When they left, somebody yelled “Go back to Long Island!” because they totally gave off Long Island. All the way home we talked about the rumble.


ME: What about the rumble? When does that start?

EMMA: Hel-LO. We just covered the whole thing, start to finish!


ALLY: I didn’t have a shower today. I’m baby sitting a miniature Doberman named Chimi. Short for Chimichanga.


EMMA: Ingrid takes two showers a day out of boredom.


ME: Ingrid who?


EMMA: You know, if you aren’t going to pay attention, you shouldn’t do these interviews.



Once summer vacation began, my mother threw me out of the house after breakfast and didn’t let me in again until dinner time unless I had to go to the bathroom. My friends all operated under the same rules. That was how it worked then. At dinner my dad would ask me what I did all day and I’d say “hacked around,” and he’d snort and ask somebody to pass the lima beans.


“Hacking around” could mean damming the creek that ran behind the backyards on Second Avenue and emptied into the Peckman River, or spitball fights at the library, or following the railroad tracks out of town and around the abandoned quarry, or catching crawfish and salamanders. It very seldom meant pick-up games of baseball because you needed so many kids and so much space, but every now and then the stars would swing into alignment and we’d manage. We played these either on asphalt in the School Number One playground, if the janitor forgot to chain the gate, or on grass in the park next to the firehouse. Sliding was murder on the asphalt but if you didn’t slide you got called “Betsy” for a week, so everybody slid.


This changed when I was about 11 and we discovered the edge of town was lousy with abandoned baseball diamonds. There was one with an enormous backstop just beyond the junkyard across the railroad tracks. The grass was waist high in places and it was full of debris that had drifted down from the junkyard. We guessed it had been abandoned 50 years earlier, although the fact that the bases were still intact and even the baselines were discernable through the weeds argued that it was more like a year or two.


A second diamond—slightly weedier but mostly free of garbage—turned up near the banks of the Peckman, just upriver from where the Little Falls Laundry jettisoned its soapsuds. I had vague memories of having watched twilight ball games at this one at the dawn of time, when I was 4 or 5—perhaps the high school team had used it before they bulldozed the woods behind the cafeteria and built new playing fields. (And yes, I was roaming around town at twilight even at 4 or 5. Boot the kids out of the house after breakfast and don’t let them in till dark for 12 or 15 summers and you don’t have to worry about any obesity epidemics.)


We decided to use this one for our baseball games. Most families were now using gas-powered mowers, but everybody had an old rotary mower in the garage as well, and we dragged a dozen of these down to the diamond to get it into playing condition.


The high weeds kept jamming the (dull) blades and fouling the gears, and we stirred up a lot of very hungry flying insects, and when we sat down to rest, we stirred up more of them, and it felt like it was 110 degrees, although possibly it was not. Even if we hadn’t really done much real mowing, we had done a lot of tromping, and judged the diamond to be ready.


During the third inning of the first game, a kid named Gary Rinfrett overshot second base, sliding feet first into some overgrowth we had theretofore ignored, and dislodged a wasp’s nest.


Nothing good happened after that. Wasps can both bite and sting, and these guys did. I got away with just one nasty welt but at least two kids required medical attention, beyond the iodine- and-a-Band-Aid that the rest of us got.


There was an uproar, or what passed for an uproar in my town circa 1966, and the town sent the road crew down to take out the wasps. They also took out the baseball diamond.


What followed still amazes me. The town council decided we kids needed safe outdoor sports facilities. Less than two months later, not far from the formerly wasp-infected former baseball diamond, they officially unveiled… a bocce court. In fact, two bocce courts, about 20 feet apart.


No one—certainly no one connected to the town council—was ever able to explain how or why the bocce courts came about. Letters to the local paper suggested darkly that the mayor had a controlling interest in a bocce-court building company; that the bocce people had bribed the town council; that we should all shut up because bocce fever was about to sweep the nation and for once we were ahead of the curve; that the town had considered a baseball diamond or basketball court but a bocce court was about 100 times cheaper and almost maintenance free.


Bocce is a game with a long and storied history. When I lived in Brooklyn, I would sometimes see elderly Sicilian gentlemen playing it in the park on Sunday afternoon. They looked like they were enjoying themselves. As far as I could tell, you play by tossing a little silver ball into the far end of the court, and then take turns bowling or tossing big silver balls near it, knocking away your opponent’s big silver balls and trying to get as many of your silver balls closer to the little silver ball than the other guy. I’m reasonably sure I’ve never seen anyone play bocce, aside from elderly Sicilian gentlemen.


As far as I know, there were no elderly Sicilian gentlemen in my home town, which may explain why I never saw anyone at all playing bocce in our bocce courts.


Not in the summer of 1966, when I was 11. Not in the early 1970’s, when I was in high school. Not in the 1980’s and 90’s, when I would bring my daughter to town to visit my parents. A few years ago, after four incredible decades of bocce-free existence, the two bocce courts were converted to flower beds.


It was a sad end to a glorious tradition.



At a very early age I found that I was possessed by what the French call esprit d’escalier.


This sounds like it means “The Ghost on the Escalator,” and I wish it did, but the best English rendering is probably ‘The wit of the Backstairs.’ It means that when I lose an argument, I keep replaying it in my head until I think of exactly what I should have said in order to have won it. In France the right words apparently occur to the loser on the way downstairs; with me it takes a little longer. Several hours at the minimum, sometimes a few weeks, and in many cases I am still waiting. But the words will come.


“Let me tell you something, Mr. Blauveldt,” I say in a deceptively gentle voice. “Number one: you r argument is strictly ad hominem, and therefore logically worthless. Number two: ‘hopefully’ is an adverb. And number three, that necktie is simply appalling.”


An appreciative murmur runs through the crowd. Someone gives a low whistle. Blauveldt blinks and stars down at his ugly necktie. I chuckle at how foolish Blauveldt must be feeling now.


Actually, though, Blauveldt is probably not feeling very foolish since he made me look like the village idiot in front of 20 or 30 people, while I demolished his argument somewhere on Rt. 287, where only the fuzzy dice hanging from my rear view mirror could appreciate it.


I have occasionally tried to shrink the gap between the time when the other person stops talking (let’s say Tuesday, 8:30 PM) and the time I come up with the withering rejoinder (let’s say Saturday, 10 AM). I read everything I could find by the Algonquin Round Table wits in the hope something might rub off. I purchased a book called “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” to stock my arsenal with ready-made come-backs.


But it seemed useless. From my first argument (the first I can recall anyway, at age six or seven) right up until today, I have almost never come up with the right words at the right time.


Take that earliest argument, for instance. In many ways it’s typical. I was wearing a Lone Ranger hat and a fellow I’d never seen before sauntered over to me and asked, “Do you like the Lone Ranger?”


“You bet!” I cried.


“Well, you smell like dog doo,” he said, and sauntered away while I gaped after him.


Hours later the proper response occurred to me (“Eat lead, varmint,” followed by six bullets in the gut) but by then it was too late. As much as I hoped for a continuation of the discussion, I never saw the kid again.


But there was one occasion when I responded instantly with exactly the right words.


I was driving along one Sunday afternoon last summer. It was a sweltering hot day. There was a car in the breakdown lane ahead of me, and half a dozen or so burly youths were trying to flag down passing motorists. I coasted to a stop. One of the guys ran up to my window and said, “Do you have a spare?”


“A spare tire?” I asked.


Now in retrospect, seeing how hot it was and assuming that these guys had been stuck there quite a while, the testiness of his response is understandable, but at the time I felt it was uncalled for. He said: “No, a spare HEAD, you [explicative deleted] moron.”


Normally I would have gawked stupidly while the other guys laughed at their buddy’s great put down, and then I would have driven slowly away and waited—hours? Days? for the reply to develop but this time the words came instantly.


“Sorry,” I said. “I have a spare tire, but no spare head. (pause) I can see why you’d want one, though.”


The rest of the gang howled. I stepped on the gas.


And immediately stalled out.


What followed is something of a blur, I’m happy to say.


There are some advantages to not being quite so fast on your feet, after all.

Farewell to the Couch


For a long time I used to plan my year around the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. I’d start laying in bags of Doritos and cases of diet soda with the spring thaw, and shortly after the Fourth of July I’d send out invitations to everybody I knew who might plausibly want to spend Labor Day weekend at my place, staying awake, gorging on junk food, and watching a sleep-deprived Jerry Lewis edge ever closer to a total psychotic breakdown.


But eventually I realized it was time to put away childish things (I was 47 years old) and I had to find something else to give some structure to my pathetic (but none the less highly entertaining) life. What I found was Big Clean Up Day, the Saturday each June when all the residents of Milford can finally throw out the things that the garbage men refused to take during the rest of the year.


I always look forward to strolling around town and counting all the treadmills, exercise bikes, and ab machines. I bet most people figure out that they are never going to use that treadmill within an hour of delivery. But it seems so wasteful to throw out a brand new treadmill. So they let it sit in the basement, curing like a ham, for 5 or 6 years before they can bring themselves to heave it.


This year I didn’t have a disposable treadmill, but I did have a couch with which I no longer wished to cohabit. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. I was unable to fit it through my door, so it was sitting on my back porch. I broke off the legs on one side trying to force it through the kitchen threshold and had it propped up on phonebooks. I was proud to have something so large and worthless to put out for Big Clean Up Day.


Well, a week or so before the couch was going to make its public debut on my curb, I got a phone call from my cousin Low-Low. He opened with the words, “Read your article about the couch. Want it.” I was a little taken aback—after all, if he’d read my article, he knew the couch was broken. But then all of his furniture is broken—Low-Low last saw 300 pounds 30 years ago, and it was rapidly receding into the distance even then. Maybe he figured the couch was pre-broken, like the brand new blue jeans you can buy already frayed at the cuffs and worn at the knees.


I told him sure he could have the couch, as long as he took it before Big Clean Up. He told me I could bring it over to him whenever I wanted. I laughed heartily and hung up on him. He called back and said he’d be at my place Friday, on Big Clean Up Eve.


If you were out and about that evening and you saw what looked to be an enormous beach ball, dressed in bib overalls, with a human head balanced on top, that was Low-Low. He backed his pick-up truck to my porch around 6 PM. He broke a sweat opening the tail gate. By 6:30 we had managed to break the other leg off the couch, but neither of us saw that as an issue, albeit for totally different reasons. Low-Low explained his theory that I could be somehow violating the federal minimum wage laws by not paying him minimum wage while we moved the couch. When I didn’t respond to this at all (aside from a lifted eyebrow), he remarked that he might speak to a lawyer. “I insist,” I said.

Anyway, by 7:15 we had muscled the couch aboard his truck and that was the last I expected to see of it.


Around 9 PM my enjoyment of some Law and Order rerun I’d already seen about 50 times was disturbed by a commotion on my back porch. Low-Low was returning the couch.


“What are you doing?” I said.


“Found a better one, but no room with this thing inna truck.”


Truth to tell, I was not surprised that Low-Low had found a couch more to his liking somewhere in the streets of Milford. There are always many excellent couches out there on Big Clean Up Day Eve. I just couldn’t figure out why he was bringing MY couch back here, when he could have dumped it on the curb anywhere and instantly made room for the couch of his dreams. I pointed this out to him.


“Thought you’d want it back. It’s your couch.”


I said okay, look, just pick up that end and we’ll drag it over to the sidewalk. He said I could do that myself, it was getting late and he had to snatch the other couch and get home. So I stole his car keys and kept swatting him on the butt with my baseball cap until he helped me drag the couch out to the sidewalk.


Half an hour later he rang my bell. He wanted help putting MY couch back on the truck.


“What happened to the BETTER couch? Somebody take it while you were busy being a moron over here?”


He said that while the other couch looked good, it smelled bad. Like it had been used for a cat box. I nodded. While we were chatting I emptied a can of clam chowder into a sauce pan and heated it up. “We eating?” he said hopefully. “Oh yeah,” I said. I took the chowder off the low heat, went outside, and dumped it over my couch in a criss cross pattern. “Now let’s get this thing on the truck,” I said.


“I’ll see if I can find another one,” he said.


“Good idea,” I said.


I slept in on Saturday and puttered around, and went to the gym and did some grocery shopping, and sometime in the late afternoon, long after all those orphan treadmills and obsolete computers had been hauled off, I detected the scent of clam chowder emanating from the rear of my place. The couch was sitting on my back porch. Low-Low, a subsequent phone call revealed, had hung around Milford until about 2 AM to make sure I was asleep and then single-handedly moved my couch from the sidewalk to the porch. I was impressed. This is a guy who, in the normal course of things, can not single-handedly open a cereal box.


So I have my couch until The Next Big Clean Up Day, and it’s already attracting a lot of attention from the neighborhood cats, thanks to that clam chowder patina.


I don’t know if Low-Low ever found another couch to his liking somewhere in the streets of Milford. I rather hope not.

Fat Camp


“I can’t wait to see my new summer pants,” said Picarillo. Calvano and I couldn’t wait to see them either. Every year, as soon as Picarillo got home on the last day of school, the Picarillos crammed themselves into the Picarillo station wagon and drove out to the ancestral Picarillo homestead on Long Island for a family reunion / kick-off-the summer Blow Out.


But of course Picarillo couldn’t go in his school clothes. His mother always had some incredible summer ensemble laid out on Picarillo’s bed.

This year she had outdone herself. The legs of the Bermuda shorts were two different colors—one was chartreuse, the other a sort of day-glo purple, and each one had a hula girl. Those shorts remain the ugliest article of clothing I have ever seen. “Wow!” said Picarillo.


A few minutes later Calvano and I waved goodbye as the Picarillo-mobile vanished down First Avenue. We walked around to the garage to see if the Picarillos had thrown away anything good before leaving. Nothing of interest except a rubber chew toy that the Picarillo’s elderly retriever, Bongo, had gnawed so thoroughly we couldn’t tell if it had been a rubber bone or a rubber duck. It might come in handy for something. You never knew. “If it turns out we need it and we don’t have it,” said Calvano, “we’ll feel stupid.” We carried it around all weekend to avoid feeling stupid.


Early Sunday afternoon, less than 48 hours into our summer vacation, Calvano and I were so bored that when my Uncle Tug asked us to hose off his back porch we jumped at the chance. There were some strange hard globs all over the steps, like blisters “What is this stuff?” said Calvano. “It smells like Chow Mien when we turn the hose on ‘em.”


“Could be. I’m a little hazy on the details,” said Tug. “But I know they weren’t here when I moved in. That was right after Korea. I don’t recall them out here last Wednesday, either. Everything after that is a blank.”


In the end Calvano and I had to scrape the emulsified Chinese takeout from the porch with a lawn edger. Tug nodded his approval and went back to his newspaper, which he was reading in a lawn chair at the edge of his pool. He hadn’t filled the pool yet. Some years he didn’t get around to it at all.


“Is that today’s paper?” said Calvano. “Can we have the comics?”


“You can have the whole thing,” said Tug, “but there’s no comics. This is the New York Times. No comics, no late sports scores. Should be ashamed to call itself a newspaper.” We didn’t believe him. A Sunday paper without comics? Ha! We took the paper and repaired to Calvano’s basement. No comics. Finally we came across the Times Magazine and decided the comics must be in there, but they weren’t. We were reduced to looking at the ads, since none of the articles concerned werewolves or hot rods, which were the only things we were interested in.


“Look at this,” I said. In the last dozen or so pages of the magazine, there were endless ads for summer camps. But all the kids in the ads were fat.


“All these kids look like Picarillo,” I said.


“Yeah, said Calvano. “’Camp Highmount for Husky Boys.’ Geez. Parents send their fat kids there to lose weight!” It seemed totally bizarre, like the lumps of egg foo yung on Tug’s back porch. Calvano clipped out the ad, stuck it in an envelope, and we mailed it to Picarillo. We didn’t have any specific plan at that point. We forgot about the ad until Picarillo mentioned it a week or so later.


“It’s the first letter I ever got,” he said. “But it’s just a picture of a fat kid in a canoe.” He took out his wallet and unfolded the clipping he’d been carrying.


“Hmm,” said Calvano. “Very interesting. You know, I bet this means your parents are planning to send you to fat kid camp.”


Picarillo looked horrified. “I wanna go to Boy Scout Camp, with you guys, like every year!”


“Well, why else would you get that in the mail, Picarillo?”


Picarillo thrust out his lower lip and insisted he wasn’t going to fat kid camp, but he had already convinced himself that he was. That was the great thing about Picarillo. When you wanted to drive him crazy, he did all the work for you.


Right after the Fourth of July we were all scheduled to go to Boy Scout Camp for two weeks with the rest of the Troop 11. For a week or so before our departure date Picarillo began to think maybe his parents had changed their mind about Fat Kid Camp, but Calvano suggested that they might be telling him that he was going to Camp Altaha so he wouldn’t give them any trouble about getting in the car.


In fact, Picarillo’s dad drove the three of us to Camp Altaha. Even when we were dragging our bedrolls out of the station wagon Picarillo was sure this was all just a ruse, and at some point he’d be waylaid and transported to Fat Kid Camp. He tried to persuade himself (and us) that Fat Kid Camp was going to be more fun than Boy Scout Camp.


“Look,” he said, unfolding the ad for the 8,000 time. “They got volley ball. We don’t have volley ball here. And their canoes have hawk heads painted on the sides!”


Finally, two days before the end of camp, Picarillo asked, “Why do you think they changed their mind about Fat Kid Camp, you guys?”


“Well, Fat Kid Camp is probably really expensive,” I said. “Maybe your parents couldn’t afford it after all.”


“Yeah,” said Calvano. “Probably what happened is, your dad lost his job.”


Picarillo gaped. “Aw geez,” he said. “Now I’ll never get to Fat Kid Camp!”



I was picking up two Wednesday Lunch Specials at Buffa’s Luncheonette—the tuna salad platter for me and the antipasto for Mulberry Street Joey Clams. I think it came to eight dollars and change with the sodas, and I paid with a twenty. Buffa gave me a sour look. He did not like twenties, or perhaps he simply did not like me. “Hang on a minute there, Diamond Jim Brady,” he said. He turned the twenty over and scrutinized it as though he was looking for a ‘Made in Taiwan’ sticker, and then ostentatiously played the beam of an ultra violet penlight over my Andrew Jackson for what seemed like several minutes. “It seems to be legit,” he muttered, and slowly made change. The transaction was nearly complete when I was poked in the back with a rolled up newspaper.


“Jeff! My man! My main man! My numero-uno cat!”


I had met Ray Storch in high school, and later he had started a package tour company called Good Buddy Tours, operating out of the Flatiron Building. I had been his ‘head tour guide.’ Actually I had been his only tour guide. It would have been a pretty good job except for all the rubber checks he paid me with. Even though I had not been associated with Good Buddy Tours for years, I still occasionally found messages from Ray on my answering machine telling me that 50 tourists from Guam were arriving at JFK in 45 minutes and if I’d meet them he’d cut me a new check to make up for that last one that had somehow ended up bouncing so high it cleared the Flatiron Building.


“What’s the good word, my man?”


“Eh do note sprick Engrich!” I said, and bolted out the door. When I got to The Custom Neon Sign Shop I pulled the shade on the door down and said, “Mulberry Street Joey Clams! You know that guy Ray I told you about?”


“The guy who owes you all the money?”


“Yeah! He was at Buffa’s!”


“Hey, great. Did you get the money?”


“No! Of course not! I pretended I didn’t know who he was and hightailed it out of there!”


“You know,” sighed Mulberry Street Joey Clams, “traditionally, since he owes you money, he’s the supposed to be hightailing. When you run away from him, it’s a breach of etiquette. Not to mention really stupid.”


“You don’t understand…”


“Yeah, yeah. So where’s lunch?”


“Um,” I said. “I, uh, left it at Buffa’s.”


There was a rap on the window. There was Ray, holding the bag with our lunch in one hand and waving with the other.


“Pretend we’re not here,” I said.


“He’s looking at us,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He opened the door. “Hey, that’s a classy suit!”


“Shark skin,” said Ray. “When I told that guy Buffa I’d deliver your lunch, you know what he said? ‘Go ahead and take it, but don’t eat the tuna salad. I put something extra in it!’ Funny guy.”


“I told you,” I said to Mulberry Street Joey Clams. “You said it was my imagination, but I know Ex-lax when I taste it.”


“Yeah, yeah, cry me a river.”


“This is a sweet little location,” said Ray. “You ever think about subletting? You’ve got a lot of unused space here.”


“We don’t have any unused space here,” I said. “You lose your lease or something?”


“There were… some issues with the folks at the Flatiron Building…”


“Well, of course,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, “This would have to be a cash-only arrangement…”


“Of course…” said Ray.


I began pounding my head against a tank of compressed air. After a while I stopped. I couldn’t make the tank explode and my head was starting to hurt.


“You know,” said Ray, “In addition to the rent, I could throw you guys some work from time to time. As tour guides. You know the city, right?”


“Absolutely,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


“Are you out of your mind!?!” I said. They both looked at me.


“Which one of us are you talking to?” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


I had to think. I wasn’t sure. Mulberry Street Joey Clams was crazy for thinking about working for Ray. Ray was insane for thinking about hiring Mulberry Street Joey Clams. It canceled out. “Never mind,” I said.


Two days later, Ray moved his file cabinet into the Custom Neon Sign Shop, and a few days after that, Mulberry Street Joey Clams took his first tour group—three dozen Japanese tourists—out to see the sights of Manhattan.


Ray’s first hint that something was amiss came when the bus driver showed up at The Custom Neon Sign Shop, without the bus. “I went to the bathroom at the Automat, and when I came out, everybody was gone. Clams, Mr. Yakamoto, the bus, everything.”


“How long were you in the can?” asked Ray.


“Three minutes. Well, maybe five, because somebody shoved a chair under the door handle and I had to holler for help to get out.”


Four hours later, Mr. Yakamoto, the head of the tour group, arrived in a taxi.


“Mister Clams dropped us off at a video arcade in Times Square. He said he would be back shortly. He did not come back. He did not take us to Studio 54. He did not take us anywhere except the video arcade.”


Five hours after that, Mulberry Street Joey Clams arrived. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. “I made a few changes in the itinerary,” he explained.


“You dumped all the tourists in a video arcade.”


“That was one of the changes.”


“Uh-huh. Then what happened? Where did you go? Where is the bus?”


“You ask a lot of questions, Storch.”


“Yes I do.”


“I had some time to kill, so I took a bunch of people to Atlantic City.”


“That’s nuts!” cried Ray.


“No, they got casinos there now.”


“Wait a minute. You took my bus and ran your own tour while you were supposed to be taking my group on a tour?”


“Hey. What I do on my own time is my business.”


“How do you figure you were doing this on your own time?”


“The way I figure it, if I’m doing something, I’m on my own time.”


“I see.”


That was essentially the end of the sublet. Ray did not want to pay for the week he’d been there, especially not in cash, but since Mulberry Street Joey Clams knew where the bus was, he did.

The New Couch


You can bond with a couch in ways you can bond with no other piece of furniture. You spill a can of beer on the bed and you’ve got to gather up all the sheets and blankets and cram them into the washing machine, and hope the beer didn’t soak the mattress, and what were you thinking you idiot, drinking a can of beer in bed? You spill a can of beer on the couch, you turn over the cushion and get another can of beer. When the cushion has been turned over enough times, the couch gets moved into the basement where it will have a long, pleasant retirement. The deep recesses of the couch will continue to yield dimes and quarters till the end of time, like the bottomless purse in a fairy tale. You’ll find Doritos and pretzels and Cheezits, too, and while they may not be pretty, they’re still edible; downright tasty, in fact, if the Giants are fourth and goal with 8 seconds on the clock and no time outs left. (If you find, say, old potato salad or pasta under the cushions you probably want to steer clear). (Unless it’s a playoff game). I was on a couch the first time I saw the Beatles, the first time I stayed up to watch election returns, the first time I was slapped by a girl. I was under the couch when I discovered dust bunnies are nowhere near as delicious as they look. Now that I think of it, I was on a couch (or under one) when anything of the slightest interest happened to me.


If you have a couch, you don’t need any other piece of furniture. It can fulfill the function of a bed, a chair, a step ladder, a trampoline, a dinner table, a coat rack, a pantry, and a work bench. If you have relatives who drop by without advance notice, you can kick all your underpants under the couch while you entertain them, or you can hide behind the couch till they leave. When the couch cushions fit tightly into the bed of the couch, the spot between the cushion and the arm rest provides a secure holder for cell phones, TV remotes, and beverages.


I have been without a couch—a real couch—for nearly five years. I had a pretty good couch, with a busy enough pattern to alleviate the need for turning over the cushions every time I spilled the duck sauce. The problem was comfort. It was too comfortable. I’d wake up on Sunday afternoon, and my daughter would be sprawled out on my couch reading one of my books. The TV would be on, because she is incapable of sharing a room with a dark TV, but in “mute” mode. And although the written word has no greater champion than your humble undersigned, I would have much preferred it if she’d been watching a TV show, even one with a talking car or precocious twins, because TV shows like that end in thirty minutes while books can drag on for hours if not months. So I threw out my comfortable couch and replaced it with the world’s most rear-end unfriendly love seat, and the next Sunday my daughter sat down, said “Eeww!” and went off to college for four years.


At that point, it was pretty much “mission accomplished!” and I could have ditched the love seat and gone after another comfortable couch, but I didn’t. For one thing, my middle name is inertia. For another, if I got rid of the love seat I’d have to deal with all the underpants I’d kicked under it and I really didn’t want to.


But a couple of weeks ago my ex-wife called me from an auction. The contents of a bed-and-breakfast were being sold, and she thought the couches—there were three identical ones—might go cheaply. “Okay,” I said. “If you can get one for fifty bucks, I’m in. If it’s 100, no. In between, call me.”


Well, fifty bucks it was. And how I would love to be telling you that I’ve already bonded with it. That the couch and I are Bee Eff Effs. That I’ve rotated the cushions 14 times already and the smell of the spilled soy sauce has exactly canceled out the smell of the crashed cheese doodles.


But there’s another aspect to the couch thing I haven’t touched upon. They tend to be on the large size.


My largest exterior doorway was not adequate. At first it seemed about three quarters of an inch too small in the vertical direction. Following a great deal of tilting and nudging, we (Pete, who delivered it, and I) figured half an inch more would do it.


So we unscrewed the edging of the aluminum siding that framed the doorway. And even though that gained us more than half an inch, the couch was still half an inch too tall.


So—and I do not recommend you try this at home—not at your own home, anyway, but if you have a relative you dislike, you might try it at his home—we unframed the door. With a crowbar. We now had three inches more leeway in the horizontal plane and an inch and a half in the vertical.


But we did not count on the Incredible Expanding Couch, which was still half an inch too tall. It was now obvious that if I enlarged my doorway by running a freight train through it, the couch would still be half an inch too tall.


So we walked the couch back a few yards and tried to force it through the doorway like a battering ram. This is the couch-moving equivalent of trying to get someone who doesn’t speak English to understand you by yelling at them (in English). As my father discovered many times (but never fully accepted), this does not work, and neither did the battering ram strategy, although we did manage to snap off one of the legs.


Which still did not give us enough clearance.


So we put the house back together—more or less—and I left the couch out on the back porch, substituting a pile of phone books for the missing leg.


It really is a comfortable couch, and I actually took a nap on it out there the other night. But I woke up with this… well, raccoon, sitting on my chest, giving me this sort of ‘so what do you think you’re doing on my couch?’ look.


So I don’t think I’ll do that again.

All About PULP


Few things are as disturbing as the sudden realization that the thing you just put in your mouth is, in fact, not the thing you intended to put in your mouth. You know what I mean—the potato salad that turns out to be cottage cheese, the spoonful of raspberry yogurt that turn out to be 16 weeks past its expiration date, the toothpaste that turns out to be pimple cream, and so on. We’ve all had this experience. Some of us have it several times a day, at least during football season.

One of the downsides of being a grown-up is that you no longer have the option of spitting out the Magical Mystery Food, at least not if you want to be allowed back at the sports bar. (Exception: you are allowed to spit out the pimple cream, unless you’re one of those people who do their tooth-brushing while wandering around the house picking up underwear and socks).

I mention all this because I just found myself with a mouth full of defective orange juice.


By “defective,” I mean it contained pulp. In fact, a quick perusal of the carton revealed that it contained “EXTRA PULP.”


It’s like advertising that a leg of lamb has “EXTRA GRISTLE” or that a meatloaf “NOW CONTAINS 20% MORE UNIDENTIFIABLE GLOBS!” And yet when I tell people I accidentally bought a carton of orange juice full of pulp, they don’t say “Eeww! Gross!” Almost invariably, the reaction is, “Oooh, I love pulp!” And when I respond by saying that I don’t, I get this look. Sometimes I get a little lecture about how pulp is the best part, and how healthy it is, and so on.


I’m not surprised that some people like pulp. It’s a big world. You can probably find somebody out there who says, “Hey, this check engine light is a great idea! I feel so much safer knowing that this thing will pop on if I look at it sideways and then I can pay 60 bucks to get somebody to turn it off.”


But it’s not some people who like pulp. Everybody wants pulp in their orange juice except me, apparently. I feel like I just found out that everybody else in town is a werewolf. And not only is everyone a werewolf, they’ve always assumed you must be a werewolf too. They’re confused, maybe even shocked that it isn’t so.


“Jeff, it’s a full moon. How come you’re not wolfing out, dude?”


“Uh… I’m not a werewolf, Russ.”


“Ha! You had me going for a minute there, dude. You slay me.”


“No, seriously—I’m not a werewolf.”


“Seriously? But… why? I mean, you get all covered with hair, you get this cool little snout, and these excellent teeth…”


“Yeah, I see…”


“You’re up all night, your knees bend the wrong way, and you smell like a wet dog. I mean, it’s awesome!”




“So you want me to bite you? Just a nip on the shin? And next moon, you’ll be wolfing it up. You’ll love it!”


“No thanks.”


Actually that’s not a very good analogy because I’d really like to be a werewolf, but you see my point.


So what’s to be done about this problem? There will always be the chance that someone will accidentally buy the pulpy orange juice because the cartons are the same size and they sometimes put the pulpy ones right next to the unpulpy ones. My solution? I’ve already written my congress person suggesting a ban on retail sales of pulpy orange juice.


But wait, I hear you say. Shouldn’t people be allowed to have pulp in their orange juice if they want it?


No. We tried that, and it just didn’t work. The time for a total ban has come.


But wasn’t the carton clearly labeled? Isn’t the problem that you weren’t paying attention at the grocery store?


No, the problem was that there was pulp in my orange juice.


The long term solution, of course, is to develop an orange without pulp, the way we’ve developed poodles that grow their fur so it looks like they’re wearing little tutus. If science can do that, surely it can come up with a pulpless orange. In fact, for all I know there already is a pulpless orange. Maybe the pulpy orange juice comes from one kind of orange and the pulp-free variety comes from the other. Maybe the only reason we have to put up with this insanity is because no one has had the guts to stand up to the PULP lobby.


Until now.


Together I think we can do this. Just say it with me: “NO MORE PULP! NO MORE PULP!”


And then maybe we can get started on the werewolf thing.


Snouts! Yeah!



Every summer my daughter Emma holds the annual Emma Grimshaw Letter Writing Contest…



Emma: The letter writing contest is starting. So what I need you to do…


Me: Yeah, I know. Announce in the paper that…


Emma: …Buy me some sealing wax.


Me: What? What’s wrong with your ceiling?


Emma: [pause] We’ll just pretend you didn’t say that.


Me: You know, I really used to think it was ‘ceiling wax’ with a ‘c.’ The first time I ever heard about ‘sealing wax’ was in “Puff the Magic Dragon.” My second grade teacher played it for us and I think we all thought it was ‘ceiling wax’ with a ‘c.’ Because who ever heard of sealing a letter with wax when you’re 7 years old?


Emma: Whoever heard of wax for the ceiling? What does that even mean? Enough about your horrible childhood anyway. I just saw “Basic Instinct.” Who’s the killer?


Me: Um. I think… Jeanne Tripplehorn? I mean it’s been 15 years since I saw it, but isn’t there a blonde wig or something?


Emma: That could have been planted. By Sharon Stone. I think Sharon Stone did it. Because, look, everybody she knows turns out to have killed their family. Not just the lesbian lover, but also Hazel Dobkins. Seriously, I need sealing wax.


Me: Who? And where am I supposed to get sealing wax?


Emma: Hazel Dobkins. The old lady. Michael Douglas is following Sharon Stone, and she goes to this house to visit an old lady. When he checks on who she is, it turns out she killed her husband and three kids back in the fifties.


Me: I don’t remember that at all. Do they show this in a flashback?


Emma: Nooooo. Look, forget the movie, which clearly you already have, and just focus on the sealing wax. If Sharon Stone didn’t do it, what’s with the ice pick under the bed at the end?


Me: You know, I’m still a little vague about how your letter-writing contest works.


Emma: It’s working fine. I’ve got 14 letters already and it’s only the second week of the competition.


Me: People just write you letters, and the one who writes the most letters wins? Is that it?


Emma: No. You enter the contest. You say, “Emma! I want to be in the letter writing contest!” Then I write a letter. Then you write back. Then I write back. The person who writes back the most times wins an autographed copy of your book.


Me: You have an autographed copy of my book?


Emma: You are to supply that.


Me: Ah. You know, it occurs to me that you could control who wins by writing back quickly, or not.


Emma: That’s true but I wouldn’t do that.


Me: Of course not. How many of these letters are actually worth reading?


Emma: Many of them. I’ll read you Steele’s letter. He’s a good writer. [Clears throat.] “Dear E. E.: It is I—that Monopoly-master / Hockey God, Steele. When I got your letter I was a bit nervous, as my epistolary skills…”


Me: Enough. That’s just brutal.


Emma: Is that like your ancient hippie slang for really good?


Me: Not exactly.


Emma: We have a couple of cheaters this year, one of them deliberate, the other not. The deliberate cheater is Rachel. The reigning champion. I don’t see why she feels the need to cheat. I sent her a letter on Tuesday morning. I got one on Thursday. It’s technically possible. BUT.


Me: Let me write that down. But.


Emma: Exactly. So I was suspicious. For one thing, she didn’t reply to anything in the letter I sent. So I text messaged: ‘No reply till Monday.’ And you know what?


Me: No.


Emma: I found a secret dog run. Apparently Rudy Giuliani converted a garbage dumping site into a dog run. There’s a plaque that says it was part of the urban renewal project of 1995. It’s next to the 59th St. Bridge. Off York Avenue, by the FDR Drive, between 59th and 60th. It looks like a highway ramp but it doesn’t take you up to the bridge, it takes you up to this dog run. There’s no restriction sign.


Me: Restriction sight?


Emma: A lot of dog runs have signs saying you aren’t allowed without a dog. But not this one. It’s like, once I went swimming in the creek with Andi? And the next week they put up a sign that said ‘no swimming in the creek?’


Me: It’s exactly like that.


Emma: Rachel disavowed cheating but she admitted to writing the letter beforehand. But didn’t mail it till she got mine. So it’s still cheating.


Me: Did she cheat the year she won?


Emma: Don’t’ be ridiculous. She was in MICHIGAN. The other cheater is Kristen. She misunderstood the concept. She was just writing me every single day. I had to write and say, ‘this is not how it works, girl friend.’ But I gave her the option of continuing to write every day, although the non-reply letters wouldn’t count towards the total. After all, I’m trying to encourage people to use the epistolary form. And I always feel bad for Morgan. She’s like the Chicago Cubs of the letter writing contest. She never wins. But she’s so scrappy in defeat. She faxed her last letter to me. Well, she tried to. It didn’t work so she scanned it and sent it via email.


Me: Couldn’t she just have sent an email?


Emma: An email would not have been eligible.


Me: But the scanned copy sent via email was?


Emma: No. It was so sad. In the Second Annual Emma Grimshaw Letter Writing Contest, the winner sent only two letters. This year I anticipate several people breaking into double digits. We’ve got entrants in 4 countries and 10 states so far. The USA, Germany, China and Italy. The Italian is engaged to a guy she met at a discothèque in Florence. We have 28 entrants so far. Technically 33, but I ignored several people I know are not going to write back. Listen, Mom said she’d get me some sealing wax. But she’s in Pittsburgh this week. I’m watching season 2 of The Sopranos and now I have a favorite character. Janis. Tony’s sister. I heart her. She has moxie. She’s like if Harry Truman was a hefty Italian woman.


Me: I’m guessing there’s no sealing wax within 30 miles of me.


Emma: Great. Now you’re going to make me go to Kate’s Papery. They have my French sealing wax.


Me: I can’t believe you seal all letters with sealing wax.


Emma: Yessssss. This is not your mother’s letter writing contest. And I stamp the wax with my “E.”


Me: I’m sure my readers would love to enter your contest and get a letter with that lovely “E.” Address, please?


Emma: Emma Grimshaw (slash!) 329 East 94th Apt. 25 (slash!) NYC NY 10128. Somebody in said apartment wrote on the bathroom wall. We have bathtub crayons and somebody wrote “Sharon Stone didn’t do it.” Couldn’t have been me because I think she did. Now however, it says “Sharon Stone did do it.” Ingrid, who wrote it in the first place I’m sure, erased the ‘n apostrophe t.’ She’s basically caving to popular opinion.


Me: Who don’t you just melt the bathtub crayons and use them for sealing wax?


Emma: We’re done.

Ask the Thirty Second Meal Expert Guy


Thanks to all the readers who wrote in after seeing the Thirty Second Meal Expert Guy co-hosting E!’s "100 Biggest Celebrity Pigouts" last Friday evening. Yes, that was an Armani jacket I was wearing, and no, I did not get to keep it! And please, people—I (and my celebrity co-hosts, Tina Yothers and that Italian guy whose name I didn’t catch) had nothing to do with selecting the clips for the show, or for ranking them. We just read the TelePrompTer, kids. I totally agree with everyone who felt that the clip of Joy Behar and Tony Danza polishing off six plates of calamari in less than 7 minutes should have finished in the top ten at the very least. Anyway, it was a wonderful experience, and I’m glad I did it, but I’m thrilled to be back. "There’s no place like home," as Judy Garland says at the end of ‘Cannonball Run II. And how right she was! And now to this week’s column.


A lot of your "30 Second Meal" recipes call for ‘ingredients’ that are already complete meals, like last week you had that ‘Peking Duck on the Go’ recipe that called for ‘one serving of Peking Duck’ (and step two was "put in microwave until hot." I mean come on!). Isn’t this cheating? Shouldn’t your recipes start from scratch? But if they did, they wouldn’t be 30-second meals, would they? The Peking Duck would be about a 5-hour meal, wouldn’t it? WOULDN’T IT?




The Thirty Second Meal Expert Guy’s ARE from scratch. But even in the ‘scratchiest’ recipes, many ingredients are pre-prepared. When a recipe calls for salt, you don’t expect the recipe to begin, "Get a pick and shovel and drive to the salt mine," do you? When it calls for a tomato, you’d be a bit put out if the recipe said, "Prepare a 10 X 10 patch of soil for planting. Plant some tomato seeds. Wait about 2 months," wouldn’t you? Really, let’s don’t be ridiculous, GET.


Time and time again you have made the claim that "any meal can become a thirty second meal if you’ve got a Cuisinart (or a cheap knock-off) and the will to make it so." This is flat out not true. It took me nearly 4 minutes just to chop up a single serving of pot roast and get it in the blender. Just what kind of cheap knock off do you have that will get the job done in 30 seconds or less?


Calling You Out on This One


ME-ow! Is it just me, or are some of my faithful readers just a leeeeedle bit JEALOUS that the Thirty Second Meal Expert Guy got to hobnob with the lovely Tina Yothers and that Italian gentleman last week while wearing an actual Armani jacket? Put your claws away, people! YES, you’ve caught me. If you want to cram a 48-course meal into your Cuisinart, it WILL take more than 30 seconds. Boo-Flapping-Hoo. But please remember, gentlefolk, that sometimes when we say "Thirty second meal," we mean a meal you can EAT in 30 seconds rather than PREPARE in 30 seconds. And sometimes we mean the meal you eat after the thirty-first meal but before the thirty-third meal. The Thirty Second Meal Expert Guy is nothing if not flexible!

That’s all the time we have for letters this week. Now, on to the heart of the column—the recipes! I hope you brought your appetites!




1 slice meatloaf

1 slice bread

1 tablespoon ketchup

Preparation time: 8.53 seconds

  1. Place slice of bread in right hand.
  2. Place slice of meatloaf on top of bread
  3. Add tablespoon of ketchup to top of meatloaf
  4. Make a fist.

When properly executed, this provides you with a sandwich you can carry around in your pocket all day, although if it’s after Memorial Day and you’re wearing white trousers, you’ll want to go easy on the ketchup. Perhaps an additional slice of bread is worth considering as well. In fact, it’s advisable to add a slice of bread each time you replace the THIRTY SECOND OPEN MEATLOAF SANDWICH in your pocket.




1 can of pineapple chunks packed in water (already open)

1 packet strawberry flavored gelatin dessert mix

1 aerosol can artificial whipped cream

Preparation time: 15 seconds

  1. Pour contents of strawberry flavored gelatin dessert mix into can of pineapple chunks (already open)
  2. Squirt blob of whipped cream into can, to taste.

The most time consuming aspect of gelatin dessert mix preparation usually involves adding the mix to boiling water and then allowing the resulting mixture to ‘set’ in the refrigerator. But this step can be entirely omitted once we realize the gelatin dessert mix is already a delicious strawberry flavored powder. Because the dessert mix powder is condensed and therefore the flavor is so intense it will make your brain melt and shoot out of your ears if eaten straight, we do not advise consuming it unless you add the pineapples and aerosol whipped cream.




1 cup commercially prepared pasta salad

1 tsp. grated Parmesan cheese

1 jar tomato sauce

A pinch of oregano

Preparation time: 28.67 seconds

  1. Remove cup of commercially prepared pasta salad from refrigerator and put in serving bowl
  2. Look at picture on label of tomato sauce to see how much Parmesan cheese and oregano to sprinkle on top of salad
  3. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese and oregano on commercially prepared pasta salad
  4. Put tomato sauce jar back in cabinet (or in refrigerator if previously opened)

NOTE: Some commercially prepared pasta salads come already garnished and therefore there is no reason to add cheese and oregano. If this is the case, omit steps 2-4.



Every spring we were forced to raise money for the PTA. Sometimes we sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door; one year they stuck us at intersections with traffic lights, where we were supposed to walk up and down the line of stopped cars with orange plastic buckets. The orange plastic buckets matched our orange plastic vests. The whole thing was mortifying, at least as far as Calvano and I were concerned, but Picarillo loved his orange bucket and his orange vest and he moved from car to car with a bounce in his step and a smile that seemed somehow larger than his head. He was terrifying. Calvano and I sat on the curb watching while Picarillo tapped on car windows. "Yoo-hoo!" he cried. "We’re collectin’ money for the STP!" Abbreviations were not Picarillo’s strong suit.

Most drivers were confused. These days it’s not unusual for adults to force children to beg for money in busy intersections, but it 1966 it was practically unheard of. It was one thing for kids to raise money by selling candy bars so ancient and musty that they tasted like cardboard, but it was totally beyond the pale for them to simply beg for money from stopped cars.

Some drivers asked Picarillo what he was selling. "Nothing!" he cried, and extended his orange bucket towards them. If there were small children in the backseat, Picarillo tap on the rear window. They would cower, and sometimes burst into tears.

"You want something for nothing," yelled Mr. DeLorenzo, the town plumbing inspector. He looked remarkably like his pet bulldog, Sam Huff, who was sitting in the passenger seat of his pick-up.

"Yes!" Picarillo said, delighted that somebody finally understood. "Put the money inna bucket!"

"You’re a bunch of bums," Mr. DeLorenzo snarled. Sam Huff also snarled. Mr. DeLorenzo pulled over to the shoulder. He was stopping just to yell at Picarillo. I nudged Calvano. This was going to be good.

"You should be ashamed, you bums. What would your parents say if they knew you were out here begging for money from honest working men?" As a matter of fact, out parents had pretty much signed off on this idea as soon as it was proposed. Certainly the Picarillo’s were not about to agree to another chocolate bar sale, not after Mike had eaten his entire allotment and stuck them with a bill for nearly 30 bucks as a result. "It’s a disgrace, you bums in your sissy orange blouses!"

I couldn’t help but notice that Calvano and I were included in this sweeping indictment. "Well, we’re not begging. Just Picarillo," I said. Mr. DeLorenzo was silent for a moment, as if trying to figure out whether being too lazy to beg made us better or worse than Picarillo.

"Bah," he said, climbing back in his truck. Sam Huff’s stumpy tail beat a tattoo on the seat. "You should all just get some Sterno and head out to the railroad tracks, like bums. Because bums is what you are!"

"What’s this ‘Sterno’ stuff?" I asked.

"Puh-thetic! It’s liquid fire. Fire in a can. Bums use it to keep warm and cook the food they beg off honest working people, just like you’re doing. They sit on the tracks and warm their hands over the Sterno, that’s what it is."

"Liquid fire," whispered Calvano.

"Bah!" said Mr. DeLorenzo. He put his truck in gear and the transmission made a noise like a bag full of tin cans thrown down the stairs. Sam Huff gave one gravelly bark as they drove off.

"Did you hear that about the Sterno?" I said.

"Yeah. Where do you think we can get it? You think you have to be a bum to buy it?" mused Calvano.

"I doubt it. It’s not like they have membership cards. But maybe you have to be a grown up."

"We can handle that," said Calvano. He and I checked our pockets. We had about two dollars and eighty cents between us. Calvano looked in Picarillo’s bucket, but he’d only managed to get 65 cents. "You stay here, Picarillo, we’re gonna check out this Sterno thing."

Calvano and I walked down East Main Street in search of Sterno. We found it at the hardware store. At first Mr. Joworsky was reluctant to sell it to us, but Calvano explained it was for Mr. DeLorenzo. "He’s the new Scout Master," he said.

"Why, what happened to Jim Appledorn? I thought he was your Scoutmaster."

"Um," said Calvano, thinking fast. "He’s in jail. And um, Mr. DeLorenzo says we need a book of matches." I’m glad it didn’t occur to Calvano to say that Mr. DeLorenzo said we need a few sticks of dynamite to blow up some tree stumps, because he probably would have gotten it.

We went back to the intersection to collect Picarillo. I think his total was holding steady at 65 cents.

"Come on, Picarillo, call it a day," I said.

"You guys didn’t get any money at all," said Picarillo.

"We got something better. We got Sterno," said Calvano.

We hiked to Montclair Ave., where the commuter train line that ran parallel to Main Street all through Singac swung south into the woods. We walked along the tracks until we couldn’t see the street any more, and sat on the tracks in our orange vests. Calvano lit the Sterno. It smells a bit like the lighter fluid our dads squirted on the charcoal briquettes at summer barbecues. The flame was blue.

"Whoa!" said Picarillo. We nodded and watched the flame.

After a while I said, "Well, now what?"

"Now I guess we’re bums," said Calvano.

"Cool," said Picarillo. We nodded again. We sat on the tracks for a while being bums. Then Calvano put a rock on top of the Sterno can and put out the fire. Then we stopped being bums and went home.



Unless the Park Theater threatened to sell out, the balcony was officially closed. We had a pair of thick velvet ropes, three feet or so in length, which we clipped into place at the foot of the two stairwells that led upstairs. You could step over or slip under these without much trouble, but most people didn’t bother to try. Those who did were rewarded for their trouble with uncomfortable seats that were in even worse repair than the ones downstairs, which is saying something.

Aside from the balcony itself, there were three rooms upstairs. The projection booth, of course. Then there was the popcorn closet where pre-popped popcorn was stored in clear plastic 55 gallon bags. I worked at the Park for nearly two years and some of the same bags were up there during my last week that had been there during my first. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that popcorn predated the invention of the plastic bag.

The other room, directly across the balcony from the popcorn closet, was a small storage room. We kept old posters and one-sheets there. The Park Theater had started life in the first decade of the 20th century as a vaudeville house before converting to a movie palace sometime after World War I and there were posters in that room that went all the way back to the beginning—advertisements for long forgotten comedians and chautauqua circuit performers, for silent movies by D. W. Griffith and Allan Dwan, all the way up to—to down to—the lobby card for "Dirty Little Billy," a movie about Billy the Kid starring Michael J. Pollard. We threatened to show this during my first summer at the Park but never made good on our threat. I’m not sure the movie was even released, but it existed, because we had the poster. The progression from "Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms" to "Michael J. Pollard in Dirty Little Billy" was interesting, although not entirely pleasant to contemplate.

By the time I arrived at the Park Theater in 1973, it was functioning as a revival house, with split week double bills—the movies changed every Saturday and Tuesday. We sometimes used posters from the closet instead of getting new ones from the distributors. This may have been a money-saving strategy, but I think all of us loved pawing through the old ads and it was always a thrill when we turned out to have the poster we were looking for. We showed a Humphrey Bogart triple bill once and all three posters came from the Park Theater’s personal collection—at least on the first night. The poster for "Action in the North Atlantic" reeked of mildew and we had to ditch it.

Since we didn’t have time to order a replacement, we took another poster from upstairs, and my fellow usher / draftsman Frank Mancinelli and I copied the "Action" poster pretty much line for line on the back of it. We did a spectacular job if I do say so myself. I believe the poster we used was for a wiggy little b- picture called "Gun Crazy," and if you can find a poster for it without our drawing on the back you can probably put your kid through college with it. (If you find the poster with our drawing on the back, you probably can’t put your kid through college with it).

We had such a great time making the poster that we started doing it on a regular basis. There was absolutely no reason to use a priceless collectable from upstairs for this; there was a stationary store a block and a half away, and you could pick up a sheet of 5 foot by 3 foot posterboard, guaranteed completely mildew free, for about 85 cents. But hey—the stuff upstairs was right there, and it was free!

Some of the movies that Frank and I (and Mike Sidorak) made were not really coming to the Park Theater any time soon. Some of them, like a remake of "King Kong" starring Al Pacino and Bruce Dern, did not even exist and never would but the poster looked really good. Some times we had what amounted to a competition—two posters for non-coming attractions in opposite corners of the lobby. Frank and I fumed when Mike’s poster for "Russ Meyer’s ‘Vixen in Vegas’" attracted considerably more attention than our poster for The Marx Brothers ‘long lost classic’ "I’ll Say She Is." Ours was clearly the superior poster, while his was nothing but cleavage.

I mean come on.

When these faux-coming attractions had been on display for a week or so, they did not go back into storage. Mike and Frank and I gave them to the Park Theater candy girls. (Which got us exactly nowhere with them, by the way). They gushed over our bee-you-tee-ful drawings and took them home, and, we later learned, flipped them over to decorate their rooms with the original vintage posters.

I would feel considerably worse about rendering all those historical posters worthless if the Park Theater had not burned down, on Bastille Day 1974, completely destroying all the historical posters we did NOT render worthless.

And the ones we drew on—they aren’t really worthless (assuming they still exist at this late date). After all, those are original drawings on the back. If I become a world famous artist, those are going to be worth a lot of money.

Get that look off your face. It could happen.



It has been a while since I organized a symposium, where several congenial souls join me for several hours at a diner—preferably one featuring a Bottomless Cup of Coffee—to hash out some question of enormous import.

This past Monday night we convened to discuss whether or not there were too many NFL teams now, and should they be allowed to move around all the time instead of staying put like they used to. In attendance were Rory, Chuck, Toby, Toby’s friend with the puffy vest whose name I did not catch, myself, and Max, who is no longer Rory’s 22 year old buddy as he was when we discussed the proper sequencing of the Beatles’ "Let It Be" album 4 years ago. Now he is Rory’s 26-year-old buddy. But he still lives with his mom and we invited him in case we were thrown out of the diner like last time (the discussion of the true meaning of "MacArthur Park"), when we were able to continue the discussion in Rory’s mom’s basement. The rest of us are slightly over than 26 and our moms will no longer let us bring our friends over to hang out in the basement all night.

This time we did not get thrown out of the diner since the diner where we agreed to meet was now an Indian restaurant and (a) was closed since it was Monday night and for some reason lots of restaurants close on Monday nights and (b) probably did not feature a Bottomless Cup of Coffee.

Toby’s friend with the puffy vest knew about a sports bar that also probably did not feature a bottomless cup of coffee. But it was deemed semi-appropriate since this was going to be a sports-related symposium.

FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS was to order a big bucket of Buffalo wings. Max did not want Buffalo wings because he does not eat meat. I on the other hand do not eat Buffalo wings because I am not 100% sure that they are meat. As far as my palate there is not much difference between a bucket of Buffalo wings and a bucket of Buffalo chips, if you follow my drift. Max and I split an order of nachos, which I mention because various members of the Buffalo wings faction of the symposium managed to consume roughly 40% of the nachos, in my estimation.

Rory opined that we should be discussing major league baseball rather than football, as it was baseball season. He pointed out that one high definition TV was playing the Yankees at Minnesota while on another the Mets-Phillies game from earlier was being shown. Toby replied well do you think there are too many baseball teams? Rory said no. Going around the table it turned out that none of us thought there were too many baseball teams, which, Toby pointed out, would make an account of a symposium on the subject pretty dull.

At this point the TV showing the taped Mets game was changed to "24." I said: by show of hands how many of us think there are too many football teams? Chuck said Shh, they’re going to nuke Fayad’s country. And by the way, we need more dipping sauce for the Buffalo wings. And more nachos.

Toby said that first of all he didn’t care if they nuked Fayad’s country because nobody seemed to know the name of the country, including the president who was nuking the country and the ambassador from the country. Second of all, this season "24" has jumped the shark.

Too many teams? I said. Or just about enough teams?

Chuck said he agreed that "24" had jumped the shark but if any show could UNjump the shark, it was "24" and he had a feeling tonight was night it would unjump. Rory said he thought the expression "jump the shark" had pretty much jumped the shark. Toby’s friend in the puffy vest said you can never unjump the shark. He said "24" was now at the point where the writers were so desperate that either Jack Bauer was going to adopt a spunky 8 year old street kid through whom Jack would learn to get in touch with his own feelings, OR they were going to start having a lot of celebrity guest stars playing themselves, like when "Will and Grace" really started going down the toilet. The rest of us all pretended we had never seen "Will and Grace" and had no idea what he was talking about.

Take Jacksonville, I said. If Jacksonville is going to have an NFL team, why not Pohatcong, for crying out loud?

Wait till this is over, said Rory. Jack Bauer is biting Fayad on the arm! He’s wrapping a chain around Fayad’s neck and hoisting him up off the ground and telling him ‘Say hi to your brother for me!’ Gentlemen, said Rory, I believe we have seen an UN-JUMP.

But, said Chuck, we have not seen MORE-NACHOS.

That is correct I said. And as long as we’re off topic, and apparently going to stay there, I just want to say that while "Grindhouse" is the best movie ever, I was still disappointed because the N Y Post said that Rose McGowen and Rosario Dawson both have guns for legs, but they don’t. Just Rose. Rosario isn’t even IN that part of the movie.

Max said whoa, that’s bogus because Rosario would have an awesome gun for a leg.

Yes, I said. It was like when I saw "Alien Vs. Predator" and the ads all said, ‘Whoever wins, we lose,’ when in fact if "Alien" won we lost but if "Predator" won we also won. But on the other hand, that was a pretty crappy movie, whereas "Grindhouse" is the best movie ever.

It only made 11 million this weekend, said Chuck. It was only number four at the box office last week.

How can that be? said Rory. Doesn’t it have flesh-eating zombies?

It does, I said.

Gentlemen, said Toby, I have grave fears about the future of our nation.

 An Awning of Our Own


The Custom Neon Sign Shop had an awning, but Mulberry Street Joey Clams did not realize this until the shop had been open for about 5 months. Then one afternoon he was standing in the doorway checking out the new meter maid. It was a warm day and he was wearing his Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt and he sort of stretched his arms up ‘casually’ and leaned them against the metal crank sticking out of the side of the building a foot or so over his head. He felt this interesting and, from the look of it, extremely uncomfortable pose showed his physique off to good advantage. In my opinion it did not, but he did not ask for my opinion so I did not offer it.

In any event the new meter maid did not so much as glance in his direction while she wrote out a ticket for the Buick parked across the street, so Mulberry Street Joey Clams pressed his arms against the metal crank with a bit more force—to "show off the muscle definition better," he explained later—and the crank moved with a noise rather like the one the Tin Woodsman’s rusty elbow makes after Dorothy oils it for the first time. "Wuuggg!" cried Mulberry Street Joey Clams as he stumbled forward. The awning had come unfurled about a quarter of an inch, but that was enough for Mulberry Street Joey Clams to see that it was an awning. Or, as he excitedly said to me seconds later, "Somebody stuck one of those things on the front of the place!"

"One of what things, Mulberry Street Joey Clams?" I asked.

"With the stripes," he said, and dragged me away from the sign I was making to see for myself. "Why would somebody do that?" he said.

My first impulse was to tell him that the awning had been there when we opened for business and probably for several generations prior to that, but I had learned early on never to go with my first impulse while talking to Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

"The awning people probably delivered it to the wrong place," I said. "They’re always screwing up like that."

He nodded. "Well, it’s ours now, that’s all there is to it." He eagerly set about cranking awning. This would have shown off his muscle definition to the new meter maid even better than just leaning against the crank if he’d had any muscle definition and if the meter maid had still been across the street but he didn’t and she wasn’t.

The awning was no longer making Tin Woodsman noises. Now it produced a sound more like the screeching made by the giant flying reptile Rodin when he’s trying to intimidate Godzilla in the classic Japanese film "Godzilla versus Rodin." Well, Godzilla was not intimidated and neither was his American counterpart, Mulberry Street Joey Clams. In less than half an hour the awning was open.

It was unbelievably ugly. Yellow and green stripes, and the words "BEST SAUSAGES" in what might have been red before the sun got to work on it. Now it was a pale violet and looked really striking against the yellow and green stripes.

"Woo-hoo!" said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "The sausage people are gonna be furious when they find out we got their awning!"

"Absolutely," I said.

"But what we gotta do is get some paint and change that to "CUSTOM NEON SIGNS."

I said okay, but I was seeing some problems with the repaint-the-words-on-the-awning plan. The awning was in the kind of condition you’d expect in a very old awning that had been rolled up for years, including several very wet ones. There were holes, there was mildew, there was evidence that birds had set up housekeeping in it from time to time.

And, you don’t paint awnings.

"Great idea, Mulberry Street Joey Clams," I said. "What color do you want the letters?"

"Well, what’s good with green and yellow stripes? I guess some other kind of stripes to go with that."


"Only the stripes should go in the other direction, so people don’t get confused."

"Good thinking, Mulberry Street Joey Clams."

He was silent, and for a moment I thought maybe I’d gone too far. Sometimes when I told him his ideas were really good he got suspicious. But he was just pondering.

"Black and white," he said at last. "Simple. And we don’t have to buy the white paint. We can just leave that part blank." This seemed like another excellent opportunity to say nothing, so I did.

I did convince him to purchase only a quart of black paint, which was lucky since the awning turned out to be so rotten that the black paint might as well have been sulfuric acid. This lead to a decision to remove the awning entirely. This lead to a fairly large chunk of the building facade separating itself from the building.

"We can touch that up with the black paint," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. "It’ll look fine."

We stuffed the awning, including the mechanism for opening it and closing it, or as much as we had managed to rip out of the wall (and quite a bit of the wall) into the back of The Custom Neon Sign Shop van, and went looking for a dumpster in which to deposit it. We found a suitable one alongside an old factory being gutted prior to condo conversion.

Most people go through life and don’t really deal with awnings, aside from standing underneath them now and then. You don’t think of them as being incredibly heavy and awkward, yet they are. And when you add mildew and fresh black paint to the equation, you’re talking about a Day to Remember.

We managed to hoist part of the awning over the edge of the dumpster but it snagged. Mulberry Street Joey Clams, still clad in his Dodger t-shirt (for the last time ever, thanks to that mildew and black paint), pulled himself up the side to disengage it and gave out with an exclamation of sheer delight. "WHOA!" he cried. He jumped into the dumpster. "Mulberry Street Joey Clams?" I said.

"Just drop that thing," he said. "Look at this!"

‘This’ was a sign—not neon, but a large plastic sign that said simply: CLAMS! Later we learned it had been thrown out by Umberto’s Clam House when the management suffered a momentary attack of good taste.

"This is no accident," said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.

"What are you going to do with that?" I said, as he loaded it in the back door of the van.

"You know what the problem with the Custom Neon Sign Shop is?" he asked. "Nobody likes the name. It needs a new name. Something CLASSY, and that tells people exactly who’s running the place."

"Like ‘Clams!’" I suggested.

"You read my mind," he said.

For nearly a month The Custom Neon Sign Shop was called "Clams!" We had a spiffy plastic sign and a facade that looked like it had (just barely) survived a mortar attack. Towards the end of the month Mulberry Street Joey Clams got tired of telling the people who came in to buy clams that we didn’t have any. And then we went back to being The Custom Neon Sign Shop.



What is the ugliest thing you own?

I ask because once again it’s time to do the spring-cleaning. And every year I try to get rid of the ugliest thing in my apartment. This was a tradition my college roommate introduced me to over 30 years ago. It seemed to be predicated on the idea that most people don’t have that much really ugly stuff, and in (say) 10 years, your home would be ugly-free and a veritable shrine to good taste. You might argue that if you were capable of telling the difference between ugly stuff and non-ugly stuff, you wouldn’t have any ugly stuff in the first place, but I don’t think that’s true. Some ugly stuff we buy because we need an electric pencil sharpener, and the one shaped like a woodpecker is actually 8 bucks cheaper than the rather elegant art deco number, so why not? Then we spend 3 weeks sticking our pencils in the woodpecker’s open beak, and despite the unquestioned excellence of the sharpening, we realize that’s why not. Other ugly stuff is given to us by relatives, and you aren’t allowed to get rid of it for at least 2 years (if it cost less than 20 bucks) or 5 years (more than 50) unless it’s so ugly it makes the vein on the side of your head pop out every time you catch a glimpse of it.

So for one reason or another, there is never a lack of really ugly stuff on the premises here at Chez Jeff. Every year I go through this ritual. This forces me to look at everything here, and invariably I find that the competition is fierce.

Well, not invariably. One year there was an oil painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware that I bought at a yard sale for 25 cents. George’s head was about three sizes too big, and there were other questionable aspects as well. I thought it was pretty funny so I bought it, but it turns out that something can be ‘pretty funny’ at a yard sale and ‘what in the name of God was I thinking’ when you get it home. The only reason I didn’t throw it out immediately was the sure knowledge that it would make my annual ‘what is the ugliest thing in my apartment’ decision effortless.

This year I think my Niagara Falls souvenir plate is the one to beat. It is the Babe Ruth of ugly. I got it, you will not be surprised to learn, at a souvenir stand in Niagara Falls. I was working as a tour guide for the company I call "Good Buddy Tours" when I write about it, and the bus driver I was saddled with had a kick back deal with pretty much every souvenir shop and tourist trap on either side of the Falls. When I figured this out—it didn’t take me long, but it took longer than it should have—I made a stink, and to placate me, he had the manager of the stand where I was stink-making gift me with the Niagara Falls plate. It was breathtakingly ugly, even by the standards of souvenir Niagara Falls plates, but the clincher was that "Niagara" was spelled "Niagra." It was love at first sight, and second and third. It differed from the George Washington oil painting in that I didn’t ask ‘what in the name of God was I thinking’ when I got it home. I knew exactly what I was thinking.

My problem now is that I’m not sure it qualifies as the ugliest thing I own for technical reasons. It was the ugliest thing I owned in 1999, when I put it up on eBay and sold it for 4 dollars. I immediately came down with Seller’s Remorse and refunded the money, claiming that I’d broken the plate while packing it up. So the ugly prize reverted to the runner-up and I threw out a flashlight shaped like a smiling whale.

In 2003, I once more convinced myself that the plate had to go. I tied it up in a garbage bag and put it outside. In the morning, I saw the perfect outline of the plate pressing against the side of the bag. I slit the bag open with my penknife and retrieved the plate. I brought it in and washed it thoroughly, and then restored it to its place of honor beside the whale flashlight from 1999, which I had also retrieved the day after I threw it out.

In fact, the only ugliest things I have ever thrown out and NOT retrieved are the George Washington oil painting and a paperweight shaped like a 1955 Chevy Belair.

I rooted around in the garbage for 45 minutes but I just couldn’t find the paperweight. The bag was ripped, I thought at the time by a cat or something, but maybe somebody else wanted the paperweight. Why, I have no idea. It was incredibly ugly. Some people are just nuts, I guess.

Post script one

This was almost a column about me going to the supermarket with a little Tupperware container full of pennies and nickels, with the idea that I’d dump them all into the coin-counting thingee there and use the proceeds to pay for my groceries. And how the coin thingee wasn’t working so I just stuck the Tupperware container in my cart and did my shopping and blah blah blah, and it was starting to get dark when I was loading the groceries into the car and I *cough* seem to have left my Tupperware container full of coins in the shopping cart. I’m not sure how much I had in the container, but if anyone out there happens to have found it, please don’t tell me. The reason I didn’t write the column about that is, I couldn’t figure out how to do it without making myself sound like an idiot.

Post script two

Thanks to everyone who read the column about my Ed Wood Zone songs two weeks ago and stopped by the WFMU 365-Day Project website to download them. It was a roaring success, and you can still visit it at http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2007/03/365_days_76_the.html.

The fine folks at the 365 Day Project are interested in some other items in my collection of * cough * musical treasures, but unfortunately these are on vinyl and I have no way to rip mp3’s from them. If YOU happen to have both a turn table and a computer and can use the latter to make mp3’s from records played on the former, and you’d like to help me and the 365 Day Project, please send me an email at jgrimshaw@blast.net with "Rip Your Vinyl" in the subject line, and for your troubles you will receive profuse thanks in both this column and on the WFMU website.



The first winter storm of 1971 dropped 8 inches of snow over everything, and school was canceled. Just after 9 AM it began to snow again. By early afternoon another two inches had been deposited.

Around three o’clock my father came into my room and asked me was I going to get out of bed or what.

I said I didn’t think so, and went back to the book I was reading.

"Let me ask you something," said my father. "Why is it that every book you read has a picture of a floating eyeball on the cover?"

I opened my mouth to answer but he held up a hand. "No, I don’t want to know. Just get dressed. Your Uncle Tug was just here and he wants you to dig his car out."

"He walked here?"

"The phone lines are down."

"Where does he want to go in the car?"

"That’s not the point. The point is, you’re going to get dressed and dig the car out."

Uncle Tug had a ’55 Bel Air, a beautiful car which for some reason he had been trying to destroy for years. He hauled rocks in it, drove it into ditches, and ran it without oil for weeks at a time, yet it refused to die.

I remember vividly sitting in the front passenger seat, absolutely terrified as Uncle Tug drove the car through a row of small trees and bushes just off the shoulder of the road. When I say ‘drove through,’ I mean he plowed right into and over each tree and bush.

"How do you like that, you miserable piece of garbage?" he yelled as bushes went "whump!" and trees went "snap!" The Bel Air threw a rod in 1974 and died for good. Tug cried for a week.

Anyway, I went to Tug’s house, 10 blocks away, to dig out the car. "What kept you? Well, you’re here. Good, good. Go to it, kiddo." He shoved a 5-dollar bill into my hand, which astonished me. Usually the honor of working for Uncle Tug was considered payment enough.

Intoxicated by the five bucks, I set to work with a crazed intensity and had the car liberated within ten minutes." Good!" cried Tug, pushing another five into my hands (now I was really baffled) and off he drove. Where the Be Air had been was a Bel Air-shaped hollow, the only curbside parking visible on the street, with four feet of snow piled around it on three sides.

On the way home I realized that with the phones out, Uncle Tug couldn’t call his bookie. He had to drive all the way to John Dark’s barbershop in Paterson and get his bets down in person.

Shortly after dinner, Uncle Tug showed up at the house looking like a storm cloud. "I need the kid. Kid—get in the car."

We drove back to his street. There was a car parked in the spot I had carved out. "The dog-faced boy took our spot." The ‘out’ in that sentence was not lost on me. "What do we do, kid? I went next door, I said my nephew dug out that spot, it’s mine. The dog-faced boy said hey, it’s a free country. You like that, kid? It’s a free country, so he can steal our spot. He says if I don’t like it I can call the cops. So. What are you gonna do, kid?"


"You dug out the spot, right? You did the work, now the dog-faced boy has the spot."

The guy next door was not, of course, a dog-faced boy. Tug called all his enemies ‘the dog-faced boy.’ I don’t know why.

"Well, I don’t see what I can do."

"You can do anything. You’re a juvenile. Plus, they probably won’t even catch you."

"Uncle Tug!"

"Okay, fine. Forget I said anything. The man insults your family, so you let Uncle Tug take are of it. Fine. Just remember—no matter what the cops tell you, it’s against the law to testify against your uncle. Fact. Unnerstand?"

I figured I’d be reading about Uncle Tug soon in the National Enquirer (this was before the Enquirer began concentrating on celebrity weight loss and rehab, and instead featured four or five ax murders per issue—the Golden Age of the Enquirer).

But Uncle Tug didn’t make the Enquirer. He set his alarm for 1 a.m., went outside and built a fourth wall of snow around his neighbor’s car. Now the car was in what amounted to a four-foot deep hole.

The Tug hooked up his garden hose and filled the hole with water to the level of the car door handles. It was about 10 degrees out then and dropped to 5 below shortly before dawn. The dog-faced boy awoke to find his car encased in a block of ice.

"Crazy weather, eh?" said Tug, while his neighbor stared at the ice bound car. "Well, it just goes to show ya." The car would remain there until late March.

Later that day, Tug stopped by the house to take back one of the fives.

"The second one was in case somebody took my spot—which he did—so you would do something about it—which you did not. So you own me five. Also I got to look at his stupid car every time I look out the window now. So technically there’s no spot in front of the house and you owe me the other five, too, but we’ll forget it. After all this is family, right?"



One rainy Sunday afternoon in the late spring of 2000 I was poking around on the old MP3.Com site looking for songs from Milford. MP3.Com allowed unsigned artists to upload their music to the Internet, and you could search by song, by artist, and even by town. If I found anything from Milford or Frenchtown, I was going to do a column about it. Eventually some local folks did post music there, and I did write about it, but that Sunday MP3.Com suffered from a dearth of music from the Delaware Valley.

So I typed the name "Tor Johnson" into the search engine. I don’t know why. Tor was the enormous Swedish wrestler who appears in several movies by Ed Wood, lurching around with his eyeballs rolled up and tripping over the cardboard tombstones. I like to think I’m not the kind of guy who types "Tor Johnson" into a search engine apropos of nothing, but maybe I am.

To my surprise, there was a song on MP3.Com called "Tor Johnson!" At this point I think most people would have said, "Imagine that!" and called it a day, but I am not most people. I typed the names of other actors from Ed Wood movies, and the names of the movies themselves, and I got hit after hit. There must have been 5 different bands named "Plan Nine" or "Plan 9"; there were not one but two different songs called "Orgy of the Dead," tons of songs about Bela Lugosi (virtually all of which, I discovered upon listening, were largely concerned with his Ed Wood period), songs about Vampira, about Criswell (including a great song called "Criswell’s Corpses" from a band called Kill Machine out of Phillipsburg). In 40 minutes I’d assembled maybe a dozen Ed Wood songs. This became the first version of my Internet radio station, The Ed Wood Zone. (The Mp3.com "Internet Radio Stations" were really playlists with options to "play all" or download selected tracks).

Of course everybody knows about Ed Wood now, 15 years after Johnny Depp played him in a big budget Hollywood movie and his movies have been released in an angora-lined box set, but I’d been fascinated by him ever since I was a film student at NYU 30 years ago. Ed Wood was the ultimate There-but-for-the-grace-of-God example for all aspiring moviemakers. It wasn’t so much that the movies were bad—lots of people make bad movies, and his were a lot more entertaining than most of them. No, there was a story about Ed that haunted all of us: supposedly he’d shot a sequel to "Plan Nine" but it had been sitting in the lab for over 20 years because he didn’t have enough money to pay the lab fees. At age 19 I could not imagine anything worse than making a movie that remained unreleased for 20 years because I was broke. Could the story possibly be true?

Not quite. It was really a sequel to "Bride of the Monster." It’s called "Night of the Ghouls" and decades after Wood’s death some enterprising fan paid the lab fees and put it out on VHS.

It’s incredibly bad. Well, it’s from the mind that conceived "Plan Nine from Outer Space," after all.

Do you remember what the ‘plan nine’ in "Plan Nine from Outer Space" was? Why, it was the plan to reanimate a couple of dead bodies and make them stumble around a Hollywood cemetery so the earth people would be too scared—or something—to develop a solaronite bomb (don’t ask). I’m guessing ‘plan eight’ was setting a bag of manure on fire on somebody’s doorstep and then ringing the doorbell and hiding in the bushes.

Yet as bad as all the Ed Wood movies are—and without exception, they are very, very bad—there’s something there. The same demented enthusiasm that makes them ridiculous saves them from being contemptible.

Or maybe not.

But enough musicians found something to respond to that I never ran out of Ed Wood songs on MP3.Com. I was constantly finding new ones. The denizons of MP3.Com were so cool they not only wrote about Ed’s famous science fiction debacles, and of course his proto-gender-bender "Glen or Glenda," but about his later forays into cheesy exploitation movies ("The Violent Years," "Orgy of the Dead") and even his berserk novels ("Killer in Drag," "Hell Chicks"). When I ran out of Ed Wood movie titles, I typed Ed Wood related phrases into the search engine— I’d recall, for instance, the cardboard tombstones flapping in the breeze in "Plan 9," or Martin Landau battling with a totally inert mechanical octopus in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood movie because nobody remembered to bring the motor. I’d type in "Cardboard Tombstone" or "Octopus Motor"—and I’d find "Cardboard Tombstone" by The EndS or "Octopus Motor" by SpEnt FiXer. Both groups had odd ideas about where capital letters are supposed to go but they wrote great songs. In fact, a lot of the songs in The Ed Wood Zone were really good—not "so bad it’s good," but genuinely good. Yeah, some of the folks in the Ed Wood Zone were teenage metalheads with 3 chords and the inability to come up with a rhyme for "Wood," but others were wonderful musicians. And I... well, maybe "loved" is too strong, but I was really happy to have them all in the Ed Wood Zone, from the kid who called himself "Trashface" and posted a song called "Jailbait" (it was 45 seconds of wordless grunting and screaming) something like 40 minutes after I complained in my weekly update that nobody on MP3.com had recorded a song called "Jailbait," to the Trenton-based classical composer Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, whose contribution "Brand Nine from Outer Space" was a 5 minute chamber piece scored for piano and string quartet.

And some people actually wrote songs specifically for the Ed Wood Zone—not just the aforementioned Trashface, but the group Prewar Yardsale, and a fellow called Godmonster (he came up with three numbers!), and the 16-year old wunderkind Naomi Hall, whose totally off-the-wall "Bride of the Monster" is my favorite Ed Wood Zone song, bar none.

Eventually I had so many great Ed Wood songs that I felt I must share them with the world. So I selected an hour's worth of my favorites, added some Ed Wood-related songs from elsewhere, and sent a proposal and a CD-R to Rhino Records. I felt Rhino was an ideal choice because they’d recently released the aforementioned angora-lined box set of Ed Wood videos.

Rhino sent my CD-R and my proposal back with a polite note. When I opened the letter I must have had that look on my face you see on American Idol contestants when they find out for the first time that they’re totally tone deaf. How can this be??

Not long after that MP3.Com was sold and the Ed Wood Zone came to an end.


This Saturday [March 17th 2007], as part of WFMU’s 365 Day Project 2007, The Ed Wood Zone is back! If you go to


you will find not only my liner notes but SIX GREAT ED WOOD SONGS FROM THE ED WOOD ZONE! (you’ll also find all the other stuff from the 365 Day Project, and boy will you be sorry). Yes, you can download them and make your very own Ed Wood Zone CD, and there’s even a spiffy cover illustration by the cartoonist Libby Reid, and you can download that too. And you don’t have to rush. It goes up Saturday March 17th (Day 76) but it’s going to be there forever.

Or at least as long as "Night of the Ghouls" was locked up in the lab.



I was visiting my sister last week because, well, for one thing it’s been a while since I visited, and for another I kind of wanted to get out of my apartment. I’ve been having a little trouble with the plumbing. Something’s amiss. Every so often—maybe once or twice every 7 minutes or so—my toilet makes a gurgling sound and suddenly it smells like a couple cubic tons of raw sewage was just deposited in my kitchen. The plumber is scheduled to drop by as soon as he finishes up his current job. For the past couple of weeks he’s dealing with a flooded basement. In Aruba.

So there I was, talking to my sister Pam and her husband Wayne and there was a lull in the conversation. As my readers know, when there’s a lull in the conversation I can be counted upon to get things moving in the right direction again.

At such times my brain works, I’ve discovered, just like The Terminator’s brain in the first Terminator movie. You may recall the scene where The Terminator, following an unsuccessful assassination attempt, is in the bathroom of his fleabag hotel room cleaning the wounds he’s received, evidently a procedure not entirely devoid of odor, since the manager of the hotel knocks on the door and asks, "Hey Buddy. You got a dead cat in there?" At this point we get what amounts to a Terminator’s-Eye-View of his own thought process: a green-tinted fish-eye lens shot of his immediate environs, with a grid superimposed upon it (presumably to facilitate accurate terminating), and to the right, a pull down menu of a half-dozen possible responses to the manager’s inquiry. One of these suddenly glows like the "check engine" light on your dashboard, and that’s the reply he makes to the manager, who shrugs and wanders away. The verbatim response can not be printed in a family newspaper, but it was clearly Le Mot Jus.

And that’s exactly how my mind works. There was a pause in the conversation, so I quickly glanced to the right side of my own target grid and selected the ‘amusing anecdote’ best suited to the place and the present company. And believe me, it was glowing like a son-of-a-gun.

"Funny thing about my toilet," I said, "It makes this gurgling noise, and then..."

My sister got this look on her face she often gets when I’m discussing my toilet, and cut me off. "Sometimes Wayne and I smell smoke," she said.

I nodded. This was plausible. Sometimes I smell smoke as well. For instance, when something nearby is burning. I couldn’t see what this had to do with my amusing adventure with the plumbing, though. Which is what I told my sister.

"No, no," she said. "We smell cigarette smoke. Only we don’t smoke. And nobody on either side of us smokes. But we smell it, definitely." She leaned in close. "We think we’re being haunted. Because you know who smoked?"

Well, I am over 50 years old and I know of quite a few people who smoked. Humphrey Bogart. FDR. The guy who drove the Number 4 Singac bus I used to take to the Willowbrook Mall when I was in high school.

"Mom and dad," said Pam.

This was true. My parents did smoke, and pretty heavily, although my father stopped a few times for 4 or 5 years, and they both quit more or less for good after my daughter was born. I say "more or less" because my mother used to sneak cigarettes in the basement now and then.

"I’m absolutely sure that Mom and Dad are haunting me," said Pam. I usually try to keep my head totally free of thought as all times, but several thoughts occurred while I was listening to my sister, despite my best efforts. Is there smoking after death? I suppose the health issues aren’t particularly pressing at that point. I don’t happen to believe in ghosts, but in most of the ghost stories I know—the ones purporting to be true, at any rate—ghosts haunt specific places rather than specific people. My sister lives a good 15 miles from the Old Grimshaw homestead. I could understand my ectoplasmic parents stepping outside for a smoke so as not to annoy the new owners, but stepping 15 miles outside? Few things annoy my sister more than smelling smoke, and she made this known to my parents pretty early in the game (around 1956 if I recall correctly). I couldn’t see any reason why my parents would schlep 15 miles to stink up my sister’s living room.

Unless they wanted to annoy her.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I did, I would totally believe that my parents were haunting my sister as payback for all those faux-coughing fits at the dinner table, all the "pee-yews" and "icks!" and "Eeeewwws!"and the Readers Digest articles about lung cancer and left open on the coffee table.

Although I never cared for the smell of smoke myself, I never annoyed my parents that way. I hardly annoyed them at all, I’m sure. Oh sure, every now and then I’d ask one of them to pull my finger or something (I always knew how to take care of a lull in the conversation), or I’d fire off a flurry of arm-pit ‘fra-blaats’ when my dad’s boss was over for dinner, but it was all in fun. I’m sure they didn’t mind. And if they did, they certainly wouldn’t come back and haunt me with unfiltered Camels. The fact is, I can’t think of any appropriate way to haunt me.

And I’m not going to worry about it. I have my own problems. The toilet is gurgling like a son-of-a-gun and the smell is puh-ritty intense.

...and some Recent Columns...



One of my favorite news stories from last year concerned one Paul Van Valkenburgh, who died in September at the age of 68. His obituary (prepared by his widow) mentioned that he had written the immortal hit song "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" as a teenager, using the pseudonym "Paul Vance," though he’d never collected any royalties because he’d signed away the rights. The Associated Press picked up the story, and shortly thereafter the real Paul Vance, the one who really did write "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," had the strange experience of opening his local newspaper and reading "Author of ‘Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ Dies at 68." (This was doubly confounding because Mr. Vance was 76 and if he’d been dead for 8 years somebody probably would have mentioned it to him earlier).

Mr. Van Valkenburgh had been dining out on his authorship of the song he didn’t write (and the subsequent non-signing away of the rights he never owned) for decades. His widow was so adamant that her husband was the mastermind behind "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" that Mr. Vance, whose extensive list of songwriting credits includes "Catch a Falling Star" for Perry Como and a dozen or so other million sellers, felt compelled to produce not only his royalty statements for "Bikini" but testimonials from collaborators, officials of ASCAP, and so on that he was the real deal. The widow’s final word on the subject—"The more you stir this up the more you'll smell."—would seem to indicate that she’s not totally convinced.

I hadn’t given the story any more thought since the flurry of stories died down, until this past week when someone mentioned, apropos of nothing in particular, the song "My Baby Loves Lovin’" on the WFMU website. Shortly thereafter, "Listener Bell" commented:

  • "...on the subject of my baby loving loving. I actually knew the guy who wrote that song. I used to wait tables with him at a restaurant in the Evanston, IL. Nice guy. I think his name was Matt, but this was over a decade ago... Anyway, Matt also wrote the song that goes "sign, sign, everywhere a sign, breakin' up the scenery, breakin' my mind..." or something like that. The baby loves lovin' song was one side of a phone conversation he overheard at an airport. Not sure about where he got the idea for the sign business. He answered an ad in the back of Rolling Stone and sold both of them (rights and all) for like $50. Gotta love the music biz."
  • Well, you see where this is going. "Listener Bell" was informed, politely, that "My Baby Loves Lovin’" was written by the team of Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook, who also wrote, among many other things, "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" for the Hollies, "Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart" for Gene Pitney, and "I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing" for the Coca-Cola Company. And "Signs" was the product of Les Emmerson, who was the lead singer of The Five Man Electrical Band which took it to number 3 on the charts 20 years before Tesla’s redo.

    Two thoughts: (1) If you’re going to claim authorship of a Greenaway and Cook song, why would you pick a stink bomb like "My Baby Loves Lovin’" when "Long Cool Woman" is available? (2) How many other guys are there out there claiming to have written hit songs for which they receive no royalties because they signed away the rights? My guess: lots of them.

    After some consideration, it makes perfect sense that Matt chose "My Baby Loves Lovin’" to be one of his tragically ill-compensated hits, rather than something better and more famous. If you tell someone, "That song they just played, ‘Long Tall Woman in a Black Dress’ by the Hollies? The number one hit that hasn’t been off the radio since it was released 35 years ago? I wrote that. Got screwed out of the rights, though," they’re going to answer, "Yeah, great, Matt. Take this grilled cheese to booth 5." But "My Baby Loves Lovin’"? Much more plausible. Nobody even knows who’s singing the thing (a group called "White Plains"). Claiming two hit songs might be pushing it, but I like it. It shows some thought. I imagine Matt had a pretty good rap about how getting burned twice made him steer clear of the music industry forever. "Signs" doesn’t have much in common with "Lovin’" but they’re both pretty much cheese-in-a-can (albeit from totally different cows). I also like that "Signs" would seem tacitly dismissive of intellectual property rights. How ironic.

    In contrast, Mr. Van Valkenburgh was a one-trick pony with just the one goofy novelty song to his credit. I bet some girl in his drivers ed class noticed the "Paul Vance" writing credit on her copy of "Polka Dot Bikini" and brought it to his attention (I have a hard time imagining a 16 year old guy buying that record) and saying, "Wow, Paul, for a second I thought it said ‘Paul Van Valkenburgh,’ not ‘Paul Vance!’ It’s ginchy!" The news stories say he was working as a salesman when he met his wife and the "Polka Dot Bikini" story must have been a great icebreaker. Maybe it was playing on an oldies station during their first date and he remembered that song writing credit and made up the story on the spot. Then he was stuck with it for over 40 years. I wonder if they had arguments about it. "It’s on the Coppertone commercial, Paul! At least talk to a lawyer!" "Aahh, been there and done that. The contract was ironclad."

    Both Matt and Paul instinctively hit on the "I signed away all my rights" gambit. This has two functions. It explains why you’re still cleaning tables at the Taco Bell despite turning out hit songs, AND it makes the whole thing a bit more plausible in that you’re telling a self-depreciating story about yourself ("I’m such an idiot! I sold all the rights for 50 bucks!") rather than bragging. And of course there is no shortage of true stories about composers and performers signing extremely bad contracts with record companies and music publishers.

    The question I mostly ask myself about this is, why did it never occur to me to do this? I have an encyclopedic knowledge of bad pop songs, with special emphasis on the years I was in high school, and I lie at the drop of a hat. I could have spent the last 30 years telling chicks in bars, "’Smokin’ in the Boys Room’ by Brownsville Station? That’s one of mine. I sold all the rights when I was 17. I was a moron. Got less than 500 hundred bucks and it went to number 5. Ah well. Bartender, another beer for the young lady who just told me I’m totally full of crap."

    I haven’t figured out what my other hit song is yet, but I think I definitely wrote two.



    Until he died last week, I’d never heard of Robert Adler but he was one of the three or four most important people in my life. He was the co-inventor of the TV remote control. It was first marketed in 1956, when I was a mere tike, but I did not actually hold one in my hand until I was 8 or 9 years old, and my Cub Scout den was meeting at Billy Fincher’s house.

    The Finchers’ house had an outdoor deck you could reach only via sliding glass doors in the living room and a hi-fi system that played reel-to-reel tapes rather than clunky old vinyl. Mr. Fincher had mounted the speakers high on opposite walls of the family room, and you could not visit the Finchers without getting a demonstration of the incredible stereo separation. All the reeds and horns in the Gil Evans Orchestra were playing in the right speaker, and the rhythm section was bopping away in the left. Like wow!

    On this particular day, Mr. Fincher did not turn on the stereo. He stood grandly at one end of the room, held his hand out towards the TV set at the other end of the room, and the TV sprang to life. "Sprang" may be pushing it a little, since in 1964 TV sets required a little warm-up time. But we were staggered.

    We knew about TV remotes because they were a staple of late fifties and early sixties situation comedies (a favorite trope involved someone with a new remote inadvertently switching the channels of the next door neighbors’ TV, to their total befuddlement). But we never expected to see one in action, in real life. Mr. Fincher graciously allowed all of us to take turns switching the channels from across the room. It was incredible. When I switched from channel 5 to channel 7 I got what, a decade or so later, I would have called "a rush."

    Naturally this (the remote control, not the rush) was my main topic of conversation at the dinner table that evening. "What on earth would anybody need something like that for?" asked my mother.

    "Apparently," said my father, "George Jetson [his pet name for Mr. Fincher] can’t deign to get up from the couch and turn the channel himself, like a normal human. He needs a shiny new toy to do it for him." My father took a sip of his coffee and extended his pinkie. Sipping coffee with an extended pinkie was his way of subtly expressing his disapproval at the dinner table. If he were feeling especially jocular, he would add, "Very petite, Betsy, very petite."

    Yes, here at the Grimshaw homestead men were men and did not need any new-fangled remote controls to turn the channels! By gum, when we were watching a program, that channel stayed put to the bitter end, no matter how lousy the show was! We didn’t go flippity-flapping around the dial like a bunch of dad-burned Finchers!

    This was my introduction to an ironclad rule of life: anybody who buys a new piece of technology before you do is a flibbertigibbet who can’t resist spending good money on flashy, expensive junk he doesn’t need. (The flipside of this is that anybody who doesn’t buy a new piece of technology that you already own is a pathetic Neanderthal with his knuckles grazing the ground, subject to taunts about how it must be great living in the Coolidge administration).

    I do not recall my father ever getting up from the easy chair to change the channel. That was my job, or, if I were ill, my sister’s. If my sister and I happened not to be home when the channel needed changing, I’m not sure what happened. Maybe he called around to see if one of the neighborhood kids was available.

    My father was not done critiquing the Finchers’ new folly: "What is the point of changing the channel from across the room when you have to get up and tune it anyway?"

    My younger readers—those born after the Coolidge administration—may be wondering what he could possibly have meant by that. Well, once the channel was changed, there was the matter of adjusting the rabbit ears on top of the TV to get a clear picture. For channel 2, the rabbit ears had to be canted slightly towards the northeast and set to a form a "V." Channels 5 and 9 meant a bit more of a north-northeast tilt, and the shape was more of a sloppy "L." Channel 7 was a total prima donna, requiring different shapes and directions depending upon factors we could not guess, and it often took more than two minutes to get an acceptable picture. We rarely watched channel 7.

    Once the channel was changed and the tuning adjusted, if I did not scramble out of the way quickly enough, my father would rumble, "Sit down. You make a better door than a window."

    The fact that I made a better door than a window may be why my father finally succumbed to the siren song of the remote and spent the last 25 years of his life with one more or less permanently glued to his hand. Needless to say it was usually the wrong remote, but that was all decades away. "The Finchers’ remote adjusts the rabbit ears, dad," I said. My father raised his eyebrows, but otherwise did not respond. I’m not sure he believed me.

    In a few years it would all be moot. Antennas would come off the roof, TV sets would be constructed without rabbit ears, neighborhoods would be wired for cable, and TV stations would multiply. Once we went from 6 channels to more than 50, the remote went from a cool novelty to a necessity.

    Unlike my parents, who could sit in front of the television and watch—believe it or not—the same show for an entire hour, I have the attention span of a gnat and have not seen more than 8 consecutive minutes of any TV show or movie since 1979. When I was a teenager I would annoy my parents by pointing out the plot holes in their favorite shows. Now I don’t annoy anyone, because I can’t sit through a show long enough to figure out what the plot is. And I have the late Robert Adler (and his partner Eugene Polly) to thank for it. Here’s to you, fellows, for making my life infinitely richer.



    When I was 13, I was the senior patrol leader of Boy Scout Troop 11. One night I discovered that I had just presided over a 90 minute awards ceremony (during which I had presented more than a dozen scouts with an assortment of merit badges, certificates of merit, and Order of the Arrow sashes) in front of more than 60 scouts and their parents with my fly down. I was mortified.


    "What are you sulking about?" asked my Uncle Tug. I explained. "Ah, that’s nothing," he said. "You didn’t see anybody laughing or anything, did you?" No, I agreed, I had not. So did that mean nobody had noticed? "Nah, everybody noticed. You couldn’t miss it. They weren’t laughing because who cares if your fly is down? After all," he concluded, "who the hell are you?"


    I was confused. On the one hand, I felt that I should have been relieved. On the other hand, I wasn’t, because after all, "Wudda ya mean who the hell am I? I’m the senior patrol leader!"


    "Nobody cares," he said. That certainly gave me pause. "Everybody’s the star of his own movie. You’re a bit player in everybody else’s movie. You’re not even ‘Jeff’ in most of them, you’re ‘boy scout number seven’ or something. Believe me, in 20 minutes nobody is gonna remember your fly was down, including you."


    I was flabbergasted. Could that possibly be true?


    NO, of course no. He was totally wrong. That was nearly 40 years ago and I’m absolutely sure that everybody who was there that night remembers my fly was down, and they all probably talk about it all the time. I have been told over and over again by well-meaning people (so called) that ‘we would worry less about what people think of us, if we knew how seldom they did,’ but once you’ve presided over an awards ceremony with your fly down, that simply does not apply, ever again.


    The most recent occasion to which it does not apply was a wedding I attended this past weekend.


    The wedding was so classy I was lucky they didn’t confiscate my invitation and send me home when they saw my tie. My tie was red, with a lot of little white hearts, which I thought appropriate for a wedding in February. Or at least I thought so until I had occasion to visit the men’s room. Which was not labeled ‘men’s room’ but rather ‘accommodations for men.’ There were ornately carved oak doors on the toilet stalls, and the most distinguished-looking washroom attendant I have ever seen. I had about 50 bucks on me, and I wasn’t sure it would cover the tip if he handed me a towel.


    "I’m the fodduh of the bride," he said when I tried to discreetly hand him two dollars. As it turned out, he was the father of the bride for a completely different wedding than the one I was there to celebrate. I knew the reception hall was huge, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it was so huge that multiple enormous weddings could be going on simultaneously. Usually when you have multiple weddings going on simultaneously the minister is dressed like Elvis.


    "Maybe you don’t want to keep standing next to the towels like that," I said.


    "Yes I do," he said. His arms had been folded across his chest but now he fidgeted with his tie, which was purple, with a green palm tree on it. I felt better about my little white hearts. If worse came to worse, I could follow the lead of the fodduh of the bride and fold my arms across my chest.


    Well, the wedding took place, and the reception followed, and I forgot about my tie. There were champagne toasts, and I noticed something odd. I’d have my napkin on my lap, protecting me from the lobster bisque, and someone would propose a toast and I’d stick the napkin on my chair while I stood up. But when the toast was over, the napkin would be perfectly folded and back under my cutlery. Huh?


    After the second or third time this happened, I whirled around in the middle of the toast and caught a waiter refolding my napkin. Until then, I hadn’t noticed there was a waiter lurking at the edge of my table, just out of my peripheral vision. This was not the waiter who’d brought the wine, nor the one who’d filled the water glasses, nor yet the one who’d brought the bisque. This was apparently the napkin-folding waiter. Could there really be such a thing?


    He moved silently, almost invisibly, like a ninja. As long as I left my napkin on my lap, it was safe. If I happened to place it on the table, it would be perfectly refolded the next time I looked at it. It was uncanny. The technique must have taken years, perhaps decades to perfect.


    I was tempted to play around and untuck just a fraction of a millimeter of a corner, just to see what would happen. What happened was the napkin was refolded while I was in the middle of a blink.


    Everyone at my table was in awe of the napkin-folding ninja waiters. Everyone but me, because by this time I had realized what was going on.


    "It’s very impressive," said one of them. "What I don’t quite understand is why they do it. What’s the point?"


    "Isn’t it obvious?" I said.


    "Not at all."


    "They’re making fun of my tie," I explained.


    "Your what?"


    I pointed to the little white hearts.


    "What about it?" he asked.


    "Yuh," I said. So not only were the ninja waiters mocking my tie, so were my tablemates. Nice. I couldn’t make up my mind which was worse—openly making fun of tie by endlessly refolding my napkin, like the ninja waiter, or pretending not to notice the tie, like my tablemates.


    "You don’t really think all this is about you, do you? Honestly?" asked a woman across from me.


    "No, of course not," I said. "It’s obviously about my tie."


    I excused myself and returned to the mens’ room, stationing myself next to the towels. I was going to miss out on the swordfish, but that was okay. Maybe I’d be mistaken for the mens’ room attendant, but that was okay too. I wasn’t too proud to hand out towels. I might even pick up a few dollars.



    Ostensibly—it’s remarkably how many columns about my daughter open with "ostensibly," isn’t? —I called my daughter to see if she’d seen the Super Bowl opening kickoff run back for a touchdown.

    ME: Hey, did you—

    EMMA: You know, I’ve just about had it with this whole drunk roommate thing. I don’t like having drunk roommates. You can’t leave them alone. They don’t cope. You live on liquor and pizza and believe it or not you turn out to be not so good at reacting to real life situations.

    ME: I thought you just had one drunk roommate.

    EMMA: The other one has social issues. If the drunk one tells her to get drunk, she will. How do you peel a blood orange? I’m having trouble.

    ME: Is it different than a regular orange?

    EMMA: Dunno. That’s what I’m asking. It’s... ah, there we go. Why is it a blood orange? I thought it was going to be red inside. So anyway, Drunk Erin’s radiator hisses. It hissed when Mal lived there, too, but Mal would just ignore it and turn on the fan. But Erin pulled the knob out of the radiator and SUPRISE! All this hot steam came boiling out. Who would have thought, huh? It was like a sauna. She screamed and cried and she told Ingrid to call 911. Ingrid does whatever she’s told so she started to dial and I said don’t be insane, just call the super, it’s his job. So Erin tried to put the knob back in and burned her hand. So I called the super and he came up and fixed it. He was just staggered that Erin tried to put the knob back in. He said, "That knob is like M. C. Hammer. Don’t touch this."

    ME: What?

    EMMA: I think there’s an M. C. Hammer song called "Can’t Touch This."

    ME: So he should have said ‘can’t touch this,’ then.

    EMMA: Don’t tell me, tell him. So...

    ME: Wait. I’m still trying to process this M.C. Hammer thing. How old is your super?

    EMMA: I don’t know. He’s Spanish, so he could be 20, he could be 50.

    ME: M.C. Hammer was big when you were, what? Six years old?

    EMMA: How do I know? I was six. All I remember from when I was six is my baby sitter told me to buy New Kids on the Block, and then she got pregnant. So listen. I had a birthday party for Olivia.

    ME: Who?

    EMMA: Olivia! My cat! The cat you’ve written about 80 columns about. I should have a co-author credit on these. She’s 8 years old. She was in the shelter for 7 years so she probably never had a birthday party before. Since she’s named after Detective Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, I felt it was appropriate to hold it on Mariska’s birthday.

    ME: That’s M-a-r-i-s-h-k-a?

    EMMA: I knew that was coming. No, it is not. The "h" is unsilent.

    ME: What?

    It’s the opposite of a silent ‘h’. There’s no ‘h’ in it, but you pronounce it anyway. It’s some kind of Hungarian thing. Don’t judge. They probably think the second ‘f’ in ‘Jeff’ is ridiculous.

    ME: Or the second "m" in "Emma."

    EMMA: Oooh, slap! The blood orange looks like my bruise when I gave blood at the high school and the guy who took the blood had the shakes. Do you remember that? It took him three tries to find the vein and I had a bruise from wrist to elbow. I named it Philbert.

    ME: You named what Philbert?

    EMMA: The bruise, Philbert the Bruise. The guy who took blood had the shakes, and also I think he may have been ‘special,’ if you know what I mean. I knew three other people who had huge bruises because it took him three or four tries to find the vein, assuming he ever did. I invited... let me see. Ten or fifteen people to the party, and I said bring animals. Stuffed ones. Not real ones, because Olivia doesn’t like real ones. But we felt it would be psychologically beneficial to have a good animal-to-people ratio. So it wouldn’t freak her out.

    ME: Did you say ‘freak her out?’

    EMMA: We watched the 1996 Olympics Women’s Gymnastics finals and listened to music from the nineties.

    ME: Huh?

    EMMA: We wanted to hear what we would have played if it was like our 8th birthday parties. Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, and Mariah. Olivia just sat on the red sheet on the side of my bed and ignored every one. Three people brought cards. Devra got her a cat sack.

    ME: A cat sack?

    EMMA: It’s like a crinkle bag, only with no mirrors or peepholes.

    ME: But... oh, nevermind.

    EMMA: She didn’t pay any attention to it. I told people to bring milk rings. The plastic rings from when you open a gallon bottle of milk? She liked those. Those were the only thing she liked. However: Two stuffed animals were left behind, and I have it on good authority it was deliberate. People brought over stuffed animals they were tired of and just abandoned them. In my apartment. I am not happy. My cat’s birthday party was not a ‘Toys for Tots’ event.

    ME: So are you throwing them out?

    EMMA: I’m thinking I might cut the heads off and just mail the heads back to the people who sent them. Actually it’s just one person. Both the animals are hers, but she had an assistant bring one.

    ME: An assistant? Who was this, Anna Wintour?

    EMMA: Quiet, please. Alternatively I might put them in a box and leave it at their door, with a note pinned on the animals that says, "Emma touched me down there and I want to come home." I’m trying to figure out which is more disturbing. I think there are a lot of good arguments to be made for both.

    ME: I think you’re right about that.

    EMMA: Yes. Oh, and Weenie Brian has a new girl friend. It turns out that she is my platonic soul mate. Item: she also saw "Spice World" three times in the theater. Just like me. Just like me, she knows the names of all 100 U.S. Senators. And just like me, she knows that the Magnificent Seven is not some crappy western with Ernest Borgnine, but the 1996 Women’s Gymnastic Team featuring among others Shannon Miller.

    ME: Ernest Borgnine isn’t in The Magnificent Seven.

    EMMA: That’s very interesting. You should do an article about all people who aren’t in The Magnificent Seven. Ooh, commercial. I heard a rumor the naked sheep from last year’s commercial will be back. Must go!




    Every morning for the past I don't know how many days I've been getting up and there has been ice on my windshield. Sometimes it is only a little ice, & that is okay because I can just scrape it off one-two-three with my plastic scraper, but sometimes it's a quarter of an inch thick & then I am kind of stuck because the plastic ice scraper won't do the job. Is there some kind of way to keep the ice from forming on the windshield in the first place?


    Sort of sick of all this scraping


    There are two main ways of keeping ice from forming on the windshield. Number one, you can leave the car in the garage. Number two, just leave the car running over night with the 'defrost' switch on. The only downside to number two is, some cars can sustain engine damage if you keep the motor running for long periods of time without depressing the gas pedal. But this is not a problem if you have kids; just work out a schedule where one kid goes out to give the car some gas every 15 minutes or so.

    * * * * * * *


    I heard that if you rub an onion on the windshield, this will prevent ice from forming. True or false?


    Wants to give onions a shot


    The Ice-on-the-Windshield Expert Guy had never heard this about the onion, but he is an open minded guy and doesn't like to dismiss any theory, no matter how stupid, out of hand, so he went out and bought an onion, and he spent about 20 minutes rubbing it on the windshield like a son-of-a-gun, and as far as he can tell, it made no difference at all.

    * * * *


    You are supposed to SLICE the onion first.


    Maybe I Should've Made Myself a Little Clearer


    Okay, okay, okay. The Ice-on-the-Windshield Expert Guy has now sliced up the onion and rubbed it on the windshield. Only then the phone rang so he went in to get the phone and it was this guy Herb who wouldn't let him off the phone for like 20 minutes and when the Ice-on-the-Windshield Expert Guy came back out the two halves of the onion he'd been using were both frozen to the windshield like big yellow warts and that is where they still are and the Ice-on-the-Windshield Expert Guy certainly thanks you for this excellent suggestion.

    * * * *


    Perhaps your readers will learn from an unfortunate experience of mine. When the windshield on my station wagon was far too iced over for the scraper to be of use, I took a hammer and gently tapped the ice. This worked extremely well; 16 little taps, 16 large slabs of ice slid off the windshield. However, on the seventeenth tap, not only did a slab of ice fall off, but a small, web-shaped crack appeared in the windshield. In fact, I noticed that all together there were 17 small web-shaped cracks in the windshield. In fact, some of them were not so little. In fact, I am giving serious thought to replacing the windshield, or would, if my station wagon were worth more than the 300 bucks it would cost for a new windshield, which it is not. (signed)

    Name Withheld So Nobody Knows Who This Is


    Thanks for the tip.



    What about onion juice on the windshield? Because it would seem to me that if you rub the sliced onion on the windshield and that prevents ice from forming, it's not the onion per se, but the juice of the onion that's doing the job, so what if you just pour onion juice over the windshield? Good idea or what?


    How about the Juice?



    Great idea. The Ice-on-the-Windshield Expert Guy recommends that everybody toss a dozen onions into the blender and use onion juice instead of windshield wiper fluid. I myself can not do this because my onion is kind of bonded to the windshield, but I tried it with tomato juice and that won't cut it. You end up with red ice. But by all means use this onion juice idea, I'm 100% sure it will work.

    * * * *


    Last week you advised us to "just heat up some pennies in the oven and toss them at the windshield, and that ice will crack and fall off with no effort at all." Well, Mr. big shot super genius ice expert, that’s what I did. It turns out that half the pennies end up in that grill under the windshield wiper and make the car sound like a cement mixer every time you turn on the heat. And it didn’t do diddly about the ice on the windshield, which I ended up scraping off with an ice scraper anyway. Thank you so much.




    We aim to please. Thanks for writing.



    The Devil’s Earhole


    I woke up the morning of the Winter Weekend Jamboree and immediately checked the outdoor thermometer in the breakfast nook window. If it said 25 degrees, which is what it had been saying every morning for nearly eight days, this was going to be a miserable camping experience for the Panther Patrol. Winter camping meant perpetually cold feet and a perpetually full bladder. We’d be driving tent stakes into rock-hard ground and tying tautline hitches and sheet bends to adjust the guy-lines. You can’t tie a tautline hitch or a sheet bend with mittens on.

    The thermometer read 5 degrees.

    This was actually good news. Below 20 degrees meant that we’d be in the hunting cabin, which had bunk beds, a kitchen, and a fireplace. I put my Scout uniform over my thermal underwear, grabbed my knapsack, and hiked to Picarillo’s house, and Mr. Picarillo drove Picarillo, Calvano and me to the campsite. Picarillo had a pair of ice skates on his lap. The ice skates had hand-rendered lightning bolts on the sides. Calvano and I looked at each other, but we couldn’t say any of the things the lightning bolts demanded because Picarillo’s father was right there. It was murder.

    Perhaps if we’d been able to express ourselves verbally on the ride up, the horrible events of the weekend would never have occurred.

    A few hours after arrival Calvano and I were gathering firewood and we came across what seemed to be an abandoned truck tire near the picnic tables. When we moved it—maybe we were hoping to find the rest of the truck? —we uncovered a flat, recessed circle of earth, slightly bigger than a manhole. I suppose it had been a flowerbed, and the tire had served as a border.

    "We can use this," Calvano said.

    "The tire?"

    "No, no—this circle. I think we need to bring Lightning Lad here. Later. I’m getting an idea."

    We brought the firewood back to the cabin, and prepared dinner, and all the time Calvano’s brain was clickity-clacking away. Picarillo brought his skates to the dinner table and was proudly showing off his lightning bolts ("I drew these myself!"). Calvano and I volunteered for kitchen clean-up. Calvano filled a gallon jug with water, and grabbed a packet of the pink powder we added to water in order to turn it an undrinkable ‘fruit-flavored’ concoction universally known as ‘bug juice.’ Once we’d stowed away the pots and pans, Calvano went outside. In theory he was disposing of the garbage; in fact he was filling the round flowerbed with bug juice. One gallon of water was not enough, even though the circle was only an inch or so deep, and Calvano had to make a couple of surreptitious return trips until bed was iced over to his satisfaction.

    That night, as we roasted marshmallows in the fireplace and took turns reciting Bill Cosby routines we’d memorized word-for-word from his LPs, Calvano told the story of The Devil’s Earhole.

    "It’s right around here somewhere—a strange, perfectly round pond. Nobody knows how deep it is. Once they stuck a 60-foot flagpole down it and it never touched bottom. Another time, some pilgrims tied a rock to a rope and threw the rock down. The rope was 500 feet long, and it just kept going down, down, down! When it got to the end, they tried to pull it back, and they couldn’t! It was like something grabbed the rock! Something huge, with bat wings and tentacles! But maybe it was just stuck on something. Nobody who ever fell in it has ever been seen again. The Indians called it ‘Mooka Kahlua Mocha’—‘The Devil’s Earhole.’ Some say in the winter, it ices over and the ice is red.." etc. etc.

    It was just before lunch the next day when Picarillo came bounding into the campsite crying, "Guys! Guys! I found the Devil’s Earhole!"

    "You’re an idiot, Picarillo," said Calvano. "There’s no such thing. It’s just a made-up story." But eventually, we let Picarillo persuade us to follow him to the circle of crimson ice.

    Unfortunately, the crimson was not apparent to my uneducated eye, but at least the ice was totally opaque. "You know, Picarillo, it’s so cold, that ice must be a couple of feet thick. You could go skating on that thing. There’s not much room, but you could do one of those twirl-around things."

    There was a sentence on the tip of my tongue about how it was too bad Picarillo forgot to bring his tutu that I forced myself to repress, at enormous psychic cost.

    Picarillo said, oh no, he wasn’t getting on that ice, and Calvano said he didn’t blame Picarillo a bit, he’d be scared too, and Picarillo said he wasn’t scared and Calvano said he believed him, and Picarillo said well let’s see you stand on the ice, and Calvano stood on the ice and said he didn’t think Picarillo was a big chicken for not doing it, and then Picarillo gingerly stepped onto the ice, and just as his body language seemed to indicate he was over his nervousness, Calvano tossed the truck tire at him and yelled, "THINK FAST!"

    Picarillo caught the tire and the ice made an audible "TISCH!" There was a single crack running through the ice. "Don’t move, Picarillo!" I said. "Don’t take any chances. Hand me the tire." I took the tire from him. "We’ll come back with help," said Calvano, but Picarillo said "Nnnggghh!" so we each grabbed one of Picarillo’s arms and pulled him from the ice.

    "You know," said Calvano, "you’re probably the only guy who ever stood on the Devil’s Earhole and lived to tell the tale."

    "Yeah," said Picarillo.

    Back at the cabin, our scoutmaster Mr. Appledorn had some news for us. Somehow we’d run out of water, and the pipes were frozen, so we’d be eating the ‘emergency grub.’ This was okay with us, since ‘emergency grub’ was Boy Scout talk for ‘Cheese Doodles.’ "But it would be nice to have some water so we could make the hot chocolate for later," he said.

    Picarillo’s fear of The Devil’s Earhole was trumped by his love of hot chocolate. Without confiding in the rest of us, he returned to the scene of his near-disappearance with a bucket, figuring on chipping away enough ice for hot chocolate. To his amazement, the entire circle came up in two large pieces, and beneath it, there was dirt!

    "Guys! The Devil’s Earhole is all filled up," he whispered to us as Mr. Appledorn set about melting the ice. "I even stood on it!"

    "You’re out of your mind," said Calvano.

    "Go see for yourself," said Picarillo.

    "Okay, come on."

    "I’m not going out there again," said Picarillo. This was the best of all possible answers. Calvano went out by himself and returned a few moments later.

    "It’s water," he said. "There isn’t even any ice on top. But I think I heard something. Something from under the water."


    "It sounded like, ‘Tell the fat kid to come back. We’re hungry.’ But... it might have been the wind."

    Picarillo refused to have any of the hot chocolate made with water from The Devil’s Earhole (which, inexplicably, had a faint undertaste of bug juice).

    "You know, I should feel really bad about that," Calvano said to me, years later. "And yet I don’t."

    Have I Kept My New Years Resolution?


    With each passing year, I do my best to make my New Year’s resolutions easier and easier for myself. I don’t mean I go the traditional *ahem* humor columnist route of making resolutions I can’t possibly fail to keep, such as "This year I will not learn to speak Polish" or "I resolve not to eat Brussels sprouts except at the point of a gun." Nor I do mean that I make resolutions so vaguely worded that success can’t be measured by any objective standard—"I will try my best to become a better person this year." As my sixth decade dribbles pathetically down to its conclusion—still a good many years distant, thank you very much—I make resolutions that are concrete, measurable, and well worth doing.

    They are also few in number. Once upon a time I would spend part of New Years Day sitting across the dining room table from my sister, and the two of us would compile a full page of resolutions on our identical legal pads. When you have 30 or 40 resolutions, it’s very unlikely that all will have been kept when the year ends. The odds are that one or two will have been broken by the end of the week, if not the end of the day.

    This year I made just one: I will not go to bed until the dishes are done.

    Simple. Direct. Do-able. It’s satisfying to hit the sheers with an empty sink and a full dish drainer. (Possibly it’s even more satisfying to hit the sheets with an empty dish drainer, but let’s not go nuts here).

    I kept this resolution for 11 days. It’s not as impressive as it sounds: I had a couple of dinners at the homes of friends, a couple of nights out, a night or two with a box of pizza. I don’t want to give the impression I was suds-ing up the pots and pans for a 12 course dinner 11 nights running. But still, for 11 nights I was doing what I set out to do.

    On the 12th of January, I got into bed, started reading a book about this detective who figures out that the killer he’s been searching for since 1988 was hiding under the bed of his murder victim, and that the victim’s mother has kept the room untouched since then and that the killer’s fingerprints might actually still be on the floorboards or the bed slats.

    At that point I realized I’d left the pan and the pot from my dinner—and the colander—in the sink. I got out of bed, went into the kitchen, and took care of business. I felt pretty good about myself. I dodged a bullet there. If I’d gotten up in the morning to a sink full of dirty dishes, I would not have been happy.

    So the fingerprints were under the bed, and it turns out to be this guy who wasn’t even a suspect in 1988.

    The next day I was bragging about how I’d managed to keep my resolution at the last possible minute, and the guy I was bragging to said, "Hey, Dude, no way. You broke your resolution." I looked perplexed, I suppose, so he explained that I went to bed without doing the dishes. Then I got out of bed and did the dishes. In his strict reading of my resolution, there was no difference between my getting out of bed to do the dishes after 10 minutes and my getting out of bed to do the dishes after 8 hours. I said that was a ridiculous way to look at it. He said that I was responsible for the wording of my resolution, he wasn’t. If I’d said ‘I won’t go to sleep before the dishes are done,’ I’d have been fine, resolution-wise. But the fact is, I’d gone to bed, and then I did the dishes. So I blew it, Q. E. D.

    "Look at it this way. Let’s say you resolved, like, ‘I will not shoot anybody unless they shoot at me first.’ So you shoot this guy, who doesn’t even have his gun out of his holster. But you shoot him anyway, and you turn to leave the bar room, and with his dying breath he manages to yank out the gun and fire at you. Did you keep your resolution?" I wanted to know, when he fired, did he hit me, but this was waved away as somehow irrelevant. "By your logic, you kept the resolution because he fired at you and you shot him, and it doesn’t matter what happened first, even though it says it does in your resolution."

    "Well, no," I said, "For one thing, in the actual dish washing event I fully intended to do the dishes all along, I just forgot. In this gun fight scenario of yours, I’m just walking in and capping this guy for no reason."

    "I didn’t say that. For all we know, he provoked you. Maybe he provoked you to the point where no man could have walked away and still called himself a man."

    I was silent for a moment. I was trying to picture this. I kept picturing Chuck Connors instead of me, though. And Lee Marvin as the guy I shot.

    "The fact that the man you shot had it coming..."

    "Lee Marvin," I said.


    "Nothing, I’m sorry. Go on."

    "Well, it had nothing to do with whether you kept your resolution or not. You flat out did not. It doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing. It could mean you made a badly thought-out resolution. Maybe it should have been ‘I won’t shoot anyone unless provoked beyond measure’ or something. But that’s not what you said."

    "What I said was, I’ll do the dishes before I go to bed."


    We left it there, not because I feel that he won the argument but because I was starting to like the idea that I’d blown a hole in Lee Marvin and it made me a little uncomfortable, like when I found out I liked the taste of asparagus after 40 years of making "eeewwww" noises every time it was mentioned.

    So I leave it to you: I feel I certainly kept the spirit of the resolution, if not the letter of the resolution, but is that good enough? Did I crap out on my one and only 2007 New Years resolution already? And if so, does that mean I don’t have to worry about it any more and I can just let the plates pile up in the sink till April?

    I need to know. So let me hear from you at

    [Editor’s note: Mr. Grimshaw originally included the editor’s home phone number here, but we’re not falling for that again. You can email him at jgrimshaw@blast.net with "New Years Resolution" in the subject line and let him know what you think about it. Results will be published here in the unlikely event that there are any].



    I hope you’re all sitting down. I have some terrible news: Cereal City USA, home of the world-famous cereal museum, is no more. It closed its doors forever this past Friday.

    When I read the news I couldn’t believe it. "No world famous cereal museum? Now what am I going to do on my vacation?" I muttered.

    Actually, traveling 1000 miles to visit a closed and shuttered cereal museum would be an improvement on my last vacation, which commenced with my toilet sinking into the basement and concluded with my purchasing a tube of acne medicine in the belief that it was toothpaste, a mistake I did not notice until I had been brushing with it for three days.

    It may not surprise you that a man who can brush his teeth with pimple cream for three days was totally unaware of the existance of the world-famous cereal museum until it was gone. Then every newspaper, magazine, and cable news show in America ran a story on its demise. And they all went with the same headline: "Cereal Museum Loses Snap, Crackle and Pop."

    Not really. A couple of papers went with "Snap Crackle Flop." You know what they say about great minds thinking alike.

    The museum was located in Battle Creek, Michigan, which is where all the big cereal companies are located. I guess if you’ve lived your entire life in Battle Creek and you’ve never been anywhere else, you might think that people everywhere are just fascinated with the very concept of cereal. You might think, ‘Hey, you know what would be great? A museum dedicated to cereal! It would be like a license to print money!’

    I myself am a big fan of cereal. I eat a lot of it, I suspect more than any adult I know. I have 7 boxes of various cereals in my kitchen cabinet as we speak, and while they tend towards the crunchy unsweetened end of the cereal spectrum, I have been known to go on the occasional Count Chocula binge. I grew up glued to the TV and made little or no distinction between Bugs Bunny and The Flintstones on one hand, and Sugar Bear and the Lucky Charms Leprechaun on the other. They were all part of the same endless Saturday morning cartoon show as far as I was concerned. I am, I suppose, the ideal patron for a cereal museum. Except for one thing: I have no interest whatsoever in patronizing a cereal museum. I like to eat cereal. I don’t care about the history of cereal, or how cereal is made, or anything else you would discover in a cereal museum. I bet that’s true of most of the ideal patrons of the cereal museum, which is why we never bothered to drop by. Well, that, and the fact that we never heard of it.

    Perhaps I’m being unfair. It wasn’t just framed boxes of cereal and statues of John W. Kellogg. Every article I read about the demise of the cereal museum mentions "interactive exhibits." Unfortunately, nobody mentions what they were. If the interactive exhibits were bowls of cereal, and the interaction consisted of eating them, all well and good. That’s just about the only way I’m interested in interacting with cereal. Maybe if I’d lived 10 minutes from the cereal museum, I’d have dropped by from time to time to interact with the cereal. If I lived 12 minutes away, I’d have to think about it. Any further than that, and I would have stuck with the cereal museum in my kitchen cabinet.

    But geez, the thing was in MICHIGAN. I’ve never been to Michigan, but I did visit Minnesota once, and I believe they’re in the same general area, to the left of Pennsylvania and then up a few ticks. Minnesota was really cold, and there were all these Swedes. They weren’t actually from Sweden, they were two or three generations away, and yet they were still totally Sweding it up, "Ve-a’re-a pleesed tu meet yuoo, Jeffff! Velcume-a tu Meennesuta! Yuoo’re-a frum Noo Jersey? Du yuoo knoo Tuny Spurunu? Ha-ha! Joost keedding. Bork-bork-bork! Nu sereeuoosly, du yuoo?"

    I’m sure Michigan is basically the same deal. No wonder nobody visited the cereal museum. You go all the way out to Michigan and you’re stuck on line with 15 Swedes going "Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom" every time you open your mouth. Who needs it?

    The answer, given everything I’ve said to this point, may surprise you.

    WE need it. The town of Milford. We could probably pick up the cereal museum for next to nothing. My guess is that Battle Creek is so heartbroken about its failure that they’d be willing to pay for the shipping. And then we could get it up and running again. In Battle Creek, Michigan, it’s just a cereal museum nobody wants to visit, but in New Jersey, it’s this cool ironic cereal museum. We could hire some not-quite A-list celebrities to hang out there and have parties where they eat cereal. Ironically. It could be a reality show. I’m serious. I don’t see why this wouldn’t work.

    Milford has already passed up the opportunity to buy the late cannibal Ed Gein’s farm and ship it here from Wisconsin. When that happened, I figured, okay, Milford is totally over for yet another millennium. But here’s another chance to join the 21st century, folks.

    Some people see what is and ask, "Why?" Others see what might be and ask, "Yuoo’re-a frum Noo Jersey? Du yuoo knoo Tuny Spurunu? Ha-ha! Joost keedding. Bork-bork-bork!"



    2006 was the year that I realized I was a dinosaur. If you phone me and I don’t pick up, you’ll get my voice mail message, which goes, "Hi, you’ve reached 908-995-****. I’m not able to take your call right now, but if you leave your name, number, and the time you called when you hear the beep, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks. BEEEEEEEP."

    That’s the same message I’ve been leaving on my answering machines and my voice mail for about 20 years. When I first got an answering machine, I left entertaining little skits or snatches of songs on the tape before you got to the beep. You’re spared an example because I don’t remember any of them. I just know they were killer.

    Wait. I do remember one. I said, "Hello," and then paused for about 8 seconds, during which time (I hoped) the caller, thinking that I’d picked up the phone myself, would begin talking. Then I said, "Oh, wait, wait. You think I’m here right now, but I’m not. This is just a recording. Leave your message when you hear the beep." At least three people fell for it.

    Like I said, killer.

    A lot of people had funny recorded greetings back then, in the late 70’s and early 80’s. And if you didn’t have the chops to make up your own funny answering machine message, you could buy one. Maybe you still can, but for a while it was an industry. You could buy a package of ‘outgoing message’ cassettes with a dozen different wacky greetings, just to show your callers what a nutty, free spirited person you were—not some dull old ‘square’ who just told you his name and asked for your number and a good time to reach you. (I put inverted commas around ‘square’ so you’ll know I didn’t actually say ‘square’ in real life back then). Some of these wacky greetings went on for 30 seconds or longer. Some of them were pretty funny.


    And then, one day—it really seemed like it happened overnight—everybody realized they didn’t want to listen to any wacky skits or funny songs when they called, they just wanted to leave a message and get the hell off the phone. My epiphany came when I was calling 15 or 20 people one afternoon to tell them that a party invitation I’d sent out had the wrong date on it. Somewhere around the third madcap laugh-a-minute answering machine greeting, I realized that making these calls was going to take all afternoon instead of 15 minutes. One guy played a full minute of "Light My Fire" before he said, "Wait for the beep." You really don’t appreciate how long a minute is until you spend one waiting say, ‘The party’s on Saturday, not Friday. Bye,’ while you’re listening to ‘Light My Fire’ Another answering machine had a message from the couple’s cute four-year-old, complete with blown takes and audible prompting from the proud parents. That was probably only 30 or 40 seconds but it was the longest 30 or 40 seconds in the history of the universe.

    When I finished with that, I erased whatever side-splitter I had on my machine and recorded the earliest variation of the message currently on my voice mail. Simple. Direct and to the point.

    And it seemed to me that most of my friends, in fact most of the people I called in any capacity at all, did the same thing. Wacky answering machine messages were as dead as Disco, which at that point—1986, 87 at the latest—was pretty dead.

    Of course just as there was always some girl in your building who continued playing "I Will Survive" and "The Hustle" right through the turn of the millennium, there were still a few souls out there who expressed their creativity through the medium of answering machine greetings. One gentleman of my acquaintance opens his greeting with an acapella rendition of his ‘theme song’ (to the tune of ‘Wabash Cannonball’), "My Name Is Chuck M******." He sings two verses before you get to leave your message. During the holiday season he sings "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." In a way it’s almost charming, like the old beatniks who used to live in my neighborhood on the Lower East Side, still wearing berets and goatees decades after even MAD magazine had stopped printing beatnik jokes.

    But mostly it’s just annoying. 

    So I was talking to another friend, mentioning Chuck M’s Christmas greeting and how I just wanted to leave my message and get off the phone, and he said, "So why do you have all that junk on your message?"

    Junk? I said. Why, I just say my name, and tell them when they hear the beep, leave—

    He asked me did I think they would leave their name before the beep? Did I think they wouldn’t leave their name if I didn’t tell them to?

    Um, I said.

    He had a point.

    All that boilerplate made sense a million years ago when many people weren’t used to answering machines and you had to explain what was going on. Older people especially had a problem with answering machines. They just didn’t get the concept. My mother used to call and leave 15 messages in an hour. "Oh, you’re still not home... I’ll try again later..." Later being maybe 7 minutes down the road. It used to drive me crazier than the wacky greetings.

    But everybody, even folks born during The Spanish American War, now understands that you wait for the beep and you leave your message. And if I don’t have your number, it’s a good idea to leave that, too. Which is why when you call somebody under 30 your apt to hear something like, "Hi, it’s Jen! BEEEEEEP!"

    And that’s what should be on my machine (only "it’s JEFF," not Jen). Instead everyone sits through my pointless instructions looking at the clock and making the same face I was making 20 years ago while I was listening to that cheesy instrumental version of "Light My Fire."

    I should change the message. I should do it now. But somehow, just barking out my name and going right to the beep seems... wrong.

    Which is how I realized I’m a dinosaur.


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