Posters for the musical Avenue Q were rejected for bus shelters in Colorado Springs because they showed the cleavage of a fuzzy pink puppet.
The Boston Herald
It was a cold day, but I’d promised Spot–my free speech libertarian wingnut of a sock puppet–that I’d take him for a ride on the “T,” the Boston public transit system. It’s a big treat for him, and I don’t think it’s fair to keep an animal–even an inanimate animal–cooped up in a sock drawer.
“It’s an underwear drawer,” Spot said sharply.
“Hey–you’re not supposed to interrupt my interior monologue,” I said.
“Gimme a break–I’m nothing but your interior monologue.”
We took a seat at the bus shelter, and Spot began to crane his neck.
“Ouch,” I said. “You’re twisting my finger.”
“I wanna see the Avenue Q ads,” he said.
“You won’t see any ads at T bus shelters,” I said, trying to read the hockey scores over his head.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Don’t ask me. A private advertising company offered to maintain them–for free–in exchange for the right to put up ads, but the public employee unions shot them down.”
He gave me one of those looks from the old RCA Victor “His Master’s Voice” ads; it said “I hear, but I don’t understand.”
“Whiskey-tango-foxtrot?” he said finally.
“That’s a euphemism for a commonplace expression in the form of a question that includes a vulgar term for sexual intercourse that is barred by this social network site’s Terms of Service.”
“Oh–I got you. Well, rather than let somebody actually save the public money, the monopoly provider of labor created by a collective bargaining unit against the state . . .”
His eyelids drifted lower and he began to make a faint snoring sound, like the noise one of New England’s “no-see-um” flies makes when it’s circling your ear. That’s what he does when he wants me to know I’m boring him.
“Okay, I got the message. You’re not interested in my theory . . .”
“Excuse me–your crackpot theory.”
“My theory that no man nor group of men may have a monopoly against the state. Call me crazy, but it’s in three state constitutions that predate the U.S. Constitution. It was so important to the colonists that they dumped tea into Boston Harbor rather than live under the commercial monopoly of the East India Company that . . .”
Spot began to make a little flapping motion with his paw. He’d heard it all before, and he wasn’t interested. Thankfully, the 505 Waltham express bus arrived to interrupt our looming argument.
I stuck my monthly T pass in the slot and it popped back out, paying my fare. “How much for the puppet?” I asked.
“Is it a seeing-eye dog?” the slightly somnolent driver asked.
“How old is it?”
I had to think about that for a moment. My wife had given me Spot back in the internet boom of the late 90′s, when pets.com went bust and she picked him up for a song. “He’s around ten, I guess.”
“Then he rides free,” the driver said as he pulled onto the Mass Pike.
“Great,” I said, but Spot piped up, “You didn’t convert to dog years.”
“Oh, right,” the driver said.
“You stupid finger-mutt!” I said under my breath.
“How many dog years in a human year?” the driver asked.
“Seven,” Spot said, giving me a smarmy I’m-more-law-abiding-than-you look. He must have picked that attitude up from my Presbyterian in-laws.
“That would make him, uh,” the driver began–
“Seventy,” I said, reaching into my wallet. “How much?”
“I guess he’s a senior citizen, so he gets the reduced fare for outer express buses–two bucks.”
I gave Spot a look of muted disapproval, but forked over the two bills. I turned to look for a seat, but the bus was packed.
“Don’t even think about it,” Spot said, referring to the metal bar that ran the length of the bus to give a handhold to riders who are forced to stand.
“You can sit there in the senior citizen seats,” the driver said. I looked down at the specially-designated seats near the front of the bus reserved for the handicapped and the elderly. Everyone sitting in them was older than me except for one young man with a dog collar and a spiked Mohawk.
“Hey youse,” the bus driver said. “Scoot over for the elderly, would ya?”
The young man moved maybe a foot to his right, scooching a man with a white cane into a grandmotherly type with a veiled hat–the kind women used to wear when they were in mourning.
There was no point trying to read the paper, so I stared over the shoulder of the man sitting across from me, while Spot scanned the ads overhead.
“Holy-freaking-cow!” I heard him murmur in a hushed tone.
“What?” I asked.
“Look at the bozungas on that babe!” he said, jerking his head at the Avenue Q ad.
“Pretty sweet,” I said. “Just be thankful you don’t live in Colorado Springs.”
“Because they rejected that ad for the city’s bus shelters.”
Spot turned his head slowly and stared at me, incredulous. “Why?”
“It didn’t comport with the community’s high decency standards.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but Spot’s face took on a look that was even incredulouser, if that’s a word. “How can they do that?” he asked.
“Do what, Elrod?” Spot said, mocking my Missouruh accent. “How could they ban something as innocent, as wholesome, as voluptuous . . .”
He was becoming louder as he became more emotional, so I shushed him. He doesn’t get out much, and he doesn’t know that the etiquette of the early morning bus ride is to speak softly or not at all.
“I don’t know why you’re surprised,” I said. “It’s not Lady Chatterly’s Lover up there. It’s an advertisement.”
“So? What difference does that make?”
I sighed, a bit disappointed in him. “You remember the case of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, don’t you?”
“The one that permitted all those tacky late-night lawyers ads on cable TV?”
“That’s the one. What did Justice Blackmun say in the majority opinion?”
“Uh . . . ‘Melts in your mouth, not in your hands!’”
“No . . .”
“You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent?”
“No–he said that commercial speech was protected by the First Amendment, but that it was not ‘particularly susceptible to being crushed by overbroad regulation’ and could be limited in ways that non-commercial speech could not.”
I could tell from the look on Spot’s face that he was trying hard to process Blackmun’s somewhat convoluted legal principle.
“So you’re telling me that Boston is less uptight than Colorado Springs?” he asked after a while.
“Yep. We’ve come a long way since the days of The New England Watch and Ward Society, when it was a producer’s fondest wish to be able to put ‘Banned in Boston’ in advertisements.”
“I guess we’re really lucky here in America, aren’t we?” Spot said, his eyes misting over from what I assumed were the stirrings of patriotic sentiments in his little cotton-poly heart.
“Yep. Freedom of speech is precious,” I said, patting him on the back with my other hand.
“Who said anything about freedom of speech?” he asked. “I’m talking about the freedom to look at puppet tits.”