Me and Barney the Purple Dinosaur

The weekend is my time to give back to my community and my favorite institution within it–our local public library. I remember when I was young how much I loved Story Hour on Saturday morning. Kids would assemble in the library basement to hear a story read to us by Miss Sharp, the lavendar-scented bibliophile who was the gentle cop of the Children’s Room beat; shushing us when our volume exceeded a library-voice level, looking the other way when we returned “The Witchcraft of Salem Village” two days late, cutting one’s chewing gum out of one’s sister’s hair when one stuck it there. She was special.


“A book is your friend, you wouldn’t wipe a booger on your friend–please don’t wipe your booger on a book.”

I’m not reading a story today, however. My job is to pick up Barney the Purple Dinosaur and his first wife Baby Bop, who will be participating in a “Use Your Imagination!” session for the kids of our town. If you have children under the age of say thirty-five I’m sure you know Barney, the sickly sweet tyrannosaurus rex who first appeared on public television in 1992.

Barney’s 50 in t-rex years this summer, and his career has been on the skids since his show went on “hiatus” in 2009. Since then, he’s joined the ranks of the “working famous”; actors from cancelled sitcoms, one-hit wonder bands and comedians who’ve been on The Tonight Show a few times but haven’t made it big. For a while he was able to eke out a pretty good living doing so-called “skip and wave” shows at big venues like the Boston Garden, but it was a grind. Two performances a day, then hit the road to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or wherever he was scheduled to appear next.

But those gigs looked good when he was downgraded to the “B” circuit in smaller auditoriums like The Centrum in Worcester, Mass. The money wasn’t as good, and he was forced to scale back, selling his condo in Cambridge, Mass. right across the river from the studios at WGBH, the public TV station in Boston that gave him his first break in educational show biz. He now lives in a crummy two-bedroom apartment in Allston, a grimy neighborhood in Boston that is best described as a college student ghetto.

I pull up to Barney’s “triple-decker,” a somewhat run-down example of the three-floored apartment buildings that make up much of Boston’s older housing stock. On the front porch I see Baby Bop, the thirty-five year old triceratops who rose to fame with Barney, then divorced him when his personal life spun out of control. They have recently reconciled, but “Babe,” as we all knew her back in the day, says she’s not getting hitched again.

“Hey,” she says as she comes around to my driver’s side window. “I wanted to get to you before you rang the doorbell.”

“He’s hung over again?”

“Yep. He’s having a cup of black coffee and a donut. He needs to shave, but at least he’s up.”

It’s sad to watch a great artist in decline, but youth is fleeting, and with it the fickle favors of pre-school fans.


The other Purple One.

I look up and see The Purple One–not Prince, Barney–come out the front door. He’s always been a trouper–I shouldn’t have doubted for a second that he’d make it.

“Hey Barn–what’s shakin’?” I say.


In happier times.

He winces visibly. “Keep your voice down, would you?” he says as he gets in the “shotgun” seat for the drive down the Mass Pike.

“You . . . party like it was 1999 last night?” I ask, teasing him gently.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, holding his head.

“We had half a liter of tonic left,” Baby Bop says. “He’s so cheap, he didn’t want it to go flat, so he had three more G&T’s.”

“Ouch. I did that one time, but I was going away for a week. Totally missed my plane the next morning,” I say, trying to commiserate.

“Am I talking to myself, or did you not understand what I said before.”

“Sor-ree!” I say, and drive in silence.

Thankfully, the toll booths on the MassPike have been replaced by electronic toll monitors so Barney doesn’t have to hear me throwing quarters in the metal bucket. When we’re out on the highway, he falls back against his window, sound asleep, and Baby Bop and I have a chance to catch up.


Screwed, just like Barney

“How’s he doing?” I ask.

“Still bitter. He never got a dime’s worth of royalties from the licensing deals.”

“Like all the old doo-wop groups, huh.”

“Yep. I’m trying to hold things together for him, but it’s been hard.”

“You’re a saint,” I say, and she gives my hand a squeeze.

“I love him, what can I say,” she says with lump in her throat.

The big guy stirs as we hit the Weston exit.

“Sorry, pal, I had to change lanes and slow down,” I say.

He grumbles a bit, but he appears refreshed. “I just needed a little cat nap,” he says as he stretches. “What god-forsaken hell hole am I performing in today?”

“You’re not going into the children’s room of my local library with that kind of attitude, you dig?”

“‘You dig?’” Barney says, mocking me in the sing-song hyuck-yuck-yuck voice that is part of his stage shtick. “What are you, a beatnik?”

“Just trying to get my point across,” I say, but I figure it may be time for an intervention. I know from personal experience that there’s nothing that works better with someone who’s slid into cynicism, as I did in my twenties, than to confront them with the facts, as directly as possible. “Why are you so bitter?” I ask.

Moi–bitter?” he says, a look of offended dignity on his face, but I know it’s just a pose. He knows he’s bitter–and he doesn’t care.

“Who wouldn’t be bitter?” he says after a beat. “‘Use your imagination!’ That’s what I get paid to say, one Saturday story hour after another. But you should take a look at the parents who’ll show up today. If any of them ever used their imagination, they’d call their accountant first to see if it was deductible, then their HMO to see if the imagination is covered in case they sprain it. They so rarely use them, they know they’re out of shape.”

I consider this, and have to admit he has a point. “There’s nothing stopping you from changing your act,” I say. “We have a pretty good library–lots of poetry, both print and audio books. The newer fiction is mainly best-sellers, but you can find the high brow stuff shelved by author in the Literature section.”


“You’re wrong–I returned ‘Invisible Man’ last Saturday–plenty of time to spare.”

He purses his lips as if he’s actually thinking about this, and looks out his window wistfully. “You just may have a point,” he says. “I guess it’s partly my fault, not adapting my act to changing tastes over the years.” He pulls out a pack of Newport Lites and pushes in my cigarette lighter.

“I really wish you wouldn’t smoke in my car,” I say.

“We’re on local roads, I’ll roll my window down,” he says as he fires up. “It relaxes me before I go on.”

I turn onto the road by the reservoir, hang a left past the community farm, then pull into the parking lot.

“This is it. It’s not Madison Square Garden, but the road back has to start somewhere,” I say.

“Okay,” he says, and he is transformed suddenly from the crabby mope he’s been for most of the ride into the consummate performer that he is. Think Elvis in Vegas, Richard Pryor on Sunset Strip. I can tell from his stride past the book return box that his hair’s on fire and he’s ready to burn the place down, as we say in show biz.

We stop in the vestibule where we’re met by Patricia Dineen, head librarian. She can’t restrain herself from the sort of star-struck gushing that Barney gets wherever he goes. “I’ve been a big fan of yours forever,” a dubious claim since she’s a fifty-year-old who would have been in grad school when Barney first came on the air. “Would you mind autographing something special for me?”


“Write ‘To Trish–my favorite head librarian.’”

“Sure,” Barney says. He holds out his hand, expecting maybe a VHS tape of “Barney & Friends,” when he sees Dineen lift up her blouse to reveal a white camisole.

Barney looks at me, and I shrug my shoulders with a look that says “The customer’s always right,” but Baby Bop intervenes.

“I have some autographed 8 1/2 x 11 glossies–take one,” she says sharply, then pushes Barney forward to a waiting crowd of fifty or so infants and toddlers.

“Yay–Barney!” one little boy screams, touching off a near riot. The kids crowd around, and it is all that Baby Bop and I can do to form a flying wedge and push our way up to the dais. I feel like a Hell’s Angel at Altamont.


“I love you . . . you love me!”

Barney launches right into his act, assisted by a boom box with his sound track that Baby Bop takes with them on the road. He has the kids clapping and singing along and, after he brings his big hit “I Love You, You Love Me” to a conclusion, he turns it down a notch for the spoken word segment–the important part of the program.

“You know boys and girls, you don’t need a TV or video games to have fun.”

“We don’t?” a precocious little boy down front asks.

“Nope. Each one of you has something more precious than any electronic gizmo, right in . . . here.” He taps his big purple head on the temple.

“What is it?” a girl asks.

“It’s your imagination. You can use your imagination to go anywhere you want. When your friends are off skiing at Gstaad over Christmas break, or on Nantucket for the whole month of August, and you’re stuck here in town–just use your imagination and it will take you anywhere you want to go!”

The kids are spellbound. Nobody’s ever put it to them this way–no one’s ever even taken the time to try. They hustle around like FedEx delivery men from soccer, to piano lessons, to hockey, to Scouts, to play dates. Nobody’s ever told them they can sit on their butts like zoned-out drugheads and just . . . imagine things.

And then comes the turning point–the moment when Barney transformed himself from the Jerry Lewis of the kids comedy circuit, all sappy, treacly schmalz, into its Lenny Bruce. “And you,” he says, turning to the parents. “You can use your imaginations too, if you have any left after all the getting and spending you do.” I’m impressed. I didn’t know Barney knew any Wordsworth.

The moms and dads in the back row shift uncomfortably, not used to having their lifestyles put under the microscope by a fuzzy purple dinosaur. “When have you ever picked up something totally crazy, like Edgar Allan Poe, when you came to the library with your kids? No, it’s stupid sports biographies for the men, and for the women, chick lit that’s one step up–and a very little one at that–from bodice rippers.”

There is a murmur of dissent from the adults, but no one wants to prolong the discomfort, so they say nothing that can be heard down front.


Joris-Karl Huysmans

“Try a little J-K Huysmans, fer Christ sake,” Barney says. “That’s using your imagination. Or how about Les Fleurs du Mal, by Baudelaire. That’ll rock your world in a way that Jodi Picoult won’t.”

I had no idea that the Barn Man had become such a litterateur in his years of obscurity. I guess he had more time to read without a one-hour episode to tape every week.

“Yes, Barney, thank you for calling attention to our somewhat underutilized Literature collection,” Dineen says, trying to pour some oil on troubled waters. “Why don’t I lead the parents on a tour of the stacks while you continue with the children?” She may be star-struck, but she’s still got her sensible shoes on.

The parents nod in agreement and follow the librarian out of the room, and Barney quickly downshifts to the happy-talk patter he’s perfected over the past two decades.

Baby Bop gives me a look of relief, and we step outside into the sunlight.

“Does he go off like that very often?” I ask.

“Not since he’s back on his medication,” she says.

“What’s that?”

“Nesquik Chocolate Milk, in the convenient one-pint Grab ‘n Go bottle.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

“Re-Gifted” Children Get a Second Chance to Disappoint

WESTLAND, Mass.  Twenty-year old Todd Blinstrup, Jr. is, in the words of his mother Elaine, the “spitting image” of her mother, a former stewardess who at the age of 89 retains the striking good looks of her youth.  “Unfortunately, he got my mom’s brain as well, which hasn’t worked out so well for him.”

In this high-achieving suburb, where failure is defined as not getting into an Ivy League school, Todd was carried along by the rising tide that lifts children from affluent households into competitive colleges and rewarding careers, but he eventually found out that he wasn’t equipped to, as he puts it, “swim with the sharks.”  “We all had programmable calculators in 8th grade,” he recalls, “but I re-programmed mine to play video games.”

So the Blinstrups, who had paid for various private schools and enrichment programs designed for “gifted” children throughout Todd’s youth, eventually decided to “pull the plug,” in the words of his father, Todd, Senior.  “You wouldn’t buy a diamond collar for a mutt,” he says with readily-evident disgust.  “Why would we pay top dollar to educate a kid who’s never going to be more than a middle manager,” he says of the decision to take his son out of an expensive private liberal arts college and put him in the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk, the least prestigious campus of the state university.

Todd Jr. is one of a growing number of “re-gifted” children; young people who are given every advantage starting out in life but nonetheless blow it, and are then downgraded in their parents’ expectations and budget.  “Regifting has become more and more acceptable,” says etiquette expert Priscilla Mainwaring of the practice by which the donee of a gift becomes a donor and passes it on to a third person.  “Rather than taking a gift–or your child–to the town dump, you simply re-purpose it in order to pay the disappointment  forward.”

Emily Froshtat’s parents had hopes that she would become a concert violinist and with that goal in mind paid for lessons and exposed her to the Boston Symphony children’s matinees throughout her childhood.  “We did everything we could for her,” says her father Joseph, an amateur flautist.  “The poor kid can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” he adds as he shakes his head ruefully at the thought of the time and money the family wasted.  And how, this reporter asks, have they re-directed her artistic energies?

“Her stage name is Lady Disaster,” her father says with relief if not pride.  “She’s a rapper.”

I Wish You Loved Me as Much as Your Phone

We’re here together, but I’m all alone.
Your body’s here, but your mind is gone.
I might as well be in The Twilight Zone–
I wish you loved me as much as your phone.

You call me baby, you call me doll–
And then you say “I gotta take this call.”
You talk to someone from parts unknown–
I wish you loved me as much as your phone.

When we get home from our evening date
I think of romance as it’s gettin’ late.
And then I hear that little nuisance ring
I don’t know why you can’t turn off that thing.

You say you love me as you stare at your screen
The way you treat me is beyond obscene.
When you look up you’ll see this bird has flown–
‘Cause you don’t love me as much as your phone.

Ask Mrs. Cheese

Miffed that a deli charged you extra to add a slice of Swiss to your ham-and-cheese?  Angry that your mother called your new outfit “cheesy”?  Ask Mrs. Cheese, they don’t call her a cheese-monger for nothing.

Dear Mrs. Cheese–

My boyfriend is very worldly, having traveled to Canada, the Caribbean, and Chicago, while I have had to stick “close to home” to mind my father’s tire and battery store whenever he is off at trade shows.  “Hal”–that is my boyfriend, not my father–has a very sophisticated “palate,” by which I mean sense of taste, not those wooden skids they use in warehouses or those things artists stick their thumbs in.

Anyway, I was invited to “Hal’s” house to meet his parents–he lives at home to save money even though he is a member of the “Platinum Circle” at the insurance firm where he works, having sold over a million dollars worth of property and casualty coverage in fiscal year 2021.

Hal’s mother prepared a cheese board before dinner and to show my appreciation for her hospitality, I dove right in and cut off a slice of the “edam” in its festive red coating, put it on a Triscuit and started to take a bite.  Hal’s mother yelled “Stop, don’t eat the wax covering!” and his father grabbed the “hors d’oeuvre” out of my hand.  An awkward silence followed because I didn’t know what to say:  “Sorry”?  “Thank you”?  “Close one”? “My bad!”

The evening ended pleasantly enough given my “faux pas,” but I think I may have ruined my last chance at marital bliss as Hal is pretty much the only eligible bachelor left in my age group here since Donnie Bruker, the son of our local Chevy-GMC dealer, was “taken off the board” by Mary Lou Pfenniger.

Is there some sort of “pocket guide” to when you eat the skin off the cheese and when you don’t?  If I ever get another chance with Hal and his parents I want to get it right.

Crystal Brucheimer, Ottumwa, Iowa


Sorry, he’s taken.

 

Dear Crystal–

Sadly, this is one of those situations governed by “unwritten rules” in much the same way that the programs for orchestras don’t tell you not to clap between movements of a symphony.  Why the “authorities” in these areas never write down these unwritten rules is beyond me, seems like it would help everybody.

Anyway, your letter caused a light bulb to go on over my head and create a handy dishwasher-safe guide that gives the do’s and don’t of when you eat the “rind” of the cheese.  As a general rule, if the skin subtracts from the overall enjoyment of the cheese, stop immediately, but if it enhances the flavor, go for it!  You can order one of my “cheat sheets” with a major credit card for only $14.95 when you “check out” of my website.

This “rule of thumb” does not apply to cream cheese, which should always be removed from its cardboard box and foil wrapper before consuming.

Dear Mrs. Cheese–

My fiancee Janine says that Velveeta is a disgusting food that barely qualifies as cheese, while it is my understanding that it is native to the Velveetian region of Switzerland.  I should add that Janine went to a hoity-toity private girls college, and when she’s had a few drinks at a social occasion will disparage the “cow college” that I attended, North Central Alabama University.   I am just waiting for the chance to throw her “education” back in her face next time she tries this with some on-line authority to back me up.  “If anybody should know something about cheese,” I’m going to say, “it should be somebody from a ‘cow college’ since cheese is coagulated milk.”

We don’t have money down on this because Janine is a Baptist and so doesn’t gamble, but I’m thinking I might trick her into a friendly wager involving my favorite sexual position, the “Mongolian Cartwheel.”  And yes I know the old joke about Baptists not engaging in pre-marital sex because it might lead to dancing, but four years at an all-women’s school turned Janine into a nympho.

Thanks for your time,

Dwight (“Ike”) Flournoy
Decatur, Alabama

 

Dear Dwight–

I’m sorry to disappoint you but Velveeta processed cheese was invented in 1918 by Emil Frey in Monroe, New York, not in Switzerland.  It was nonetheless considered a “cheese” until 2002, when the buttinskies at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent in their jackbooted henchmen and forced Kraft Foods to re-classify it as a “pasteurized prepared cheese product”–whatever that means.  Velveeta is nonetheless the source of fond memories for many–including me–as it was our first introduction to the Wonderful World of Cheese.  Tell Janine to “come down off her high horse” and support the hard-working men and women of the American cheese industry.

Dear Mrs. Cheese:

My son “Greg” and his girlfriend “Mindy” just got engaged, and their friends threw a party for them featuring “fondue,” which I understand is a trendy food that young people are wild about.  That is fine with me–if it keeps them off meth and the other crazy drugs that are ruining our nation, I am all for this fad.

My problem is this: I gave “Greg” my grandmother’s engagement ring to give to “Mindy” since at present he is just a sales associate at an office supply chain store and can’t afford anything nice.  When they got back from their party Mindy tells me she is sorry but she dropped the ring into the fondue pot and because the melted cheese is very hot, did not feel it was safe to stick her hand in and grab it.

Mrs. Cheese–I am literally beside myself because we are talking about my maternal grandmother Francine Kukas, not my father’s mother Ethel Weininger, who was a mean-spirited battle-axe.

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Gloria Nuxum
Battle Creek, Michigan


          It’s in there somewhere.

 

Dear Gloria–

I know this is not the news you want to hear, but your son and daughter-in-law-to-be will probably die of metal poisoning because fondue is typically heated to temperatures not found in our solar system until you reach the planet Venus.  While it can never replace the sentimental value of your grandmother’s ring, you should be able to finagle a payout from your homeowner’s insurance policy.  When you file your claim, be sure and include that exercise bike in the basement you never use and the snow-blower you have listed on eBay.  No sense in letting a minor personal tragedy go to waste!

I Wear My Erudition Lightly

I wear my erudition lightly,
or at least I really try.
If you put on a heavily learned cloak
folks won’t think you’re a regular guy.

So I drop bon mots at cocktail parties
when the conversation starts to flag.
Like “Didja know that a guy named Tiresias
used to walk around all the time in drag?”

Or the fact that Lincoln crossed the Rubicon
to end the Peloponnesian War?
It was either that or the French Revolution,
I’m sure I read it somewhere before.

I’m also good with orthography,
I’m a former spelling bee champ.
I’ve never misspelled H2SO4
And I know why the lady’s a tramp.

I know about quantum mechanics,
Which is a concept thought up by Niels Bohr.
I take my quantum in every three thousand miles
and they lube my four-on-the floor.

I took some classes in vers libre,
which I found to be most stimulating.
I also drink mojitos and daiquiris,
and I find them all very intoxicating

If you want to display your brainpower,
don’t be afraid to let it all out.
When people say they think I’m unlearned,
I don’t leave any room for doubt.

Me and My Unthinking Lobster

Orson Welles wrote a spoof of Hollywood titled “La langouste qui ne pense a rien” (The Unthinking Lobster).

David Hadju, Lush Life

lobster4

As I turned the knob of the door to my house and looked into the living room, I was overcome with disgust and frustration.  There sat Eloise, my lobster, just as I found her at the end of every other day; spread out on the couch, watching soap operas, popping sea urchins into her mouth.  She didn’t even look up at me as I came in.

“Hel-lo?” I said, hoping to express with my lilting tone the disappointment I felt towards her.  I’d rescued her from the seafood department of our local grocery store on the recommendation of Orson Welles, the man who caused a nation to crap its pants with a fictional account of a Martian invasion, but instead of enriching herself by perusing the many books that lined the walls of our house, she just sat in front of the TV, slowly molting her life away.

“Oh, hi,” Eloise said.  I don’t think it was just coincidence that a commercial came on at the very moment she looked up at me.

“Busy day?” I asked, and I infused those two little words with as much sarcasm as I could.

“Yes,” she said, and apparently without irony.  I know it’s tough to crawl out of bed when you’re a ten-legged marine crustacean, but she’s got that muscular tail as well.  It wouldn’t be so hard to just flip herself upright and get on with her life, but no, she’d rather take her own sweet time and e-a-s-e her way into the day, while I’m up at 4:30, on the train by 5:45 and at my desk by 7:15.

“Do you mind if I switch to the nightly news?” I asked as I grabbed the remote out of one of her claws.

“Hey!” she said.  “I wasn’t through watching As the Tide Turns,” her favorite soap opera.

“Tough noogies,” I snapped.  “I work my butt off all day, I’m entitled to a little consideration around here.”

lobster

A story came on about a guy who caught a blue lobster off Plymouth, on Cape Cod.

“That’s ironic,” I said.

“What?” Eloise asked.

“They caught a blue lobster down where the Mayflower landed.  That means that both the descendants of the Pilgrims and the lobsters down there have blue blood.”

“All lobsters have blue blood,” she said, and rather haughtily, I might add.

“Well ex-cuuuuse me!” I said, and got up to go to the kitchen.

“Geez, somebody needs a little fiber in their diet,” she said, as she picked up the remote where I’d thrown it and started channel-surfing: reality show, soap opera, dumb sit-com, professional wrestling.  Newton B. Minow called TV a “vast wasteland” in 1961, and sixty-one years later it had only gotten vaster.

lobster1
Newton B. Minow:  “My favorite Howdy Doody character is Flub-a-Dub.”

 

“You know,” I said finally, as I watched the passing parade of photonic idiocy, “it wouldn’t kill you to pick up a book and read every now and then.”

She gave me a look that could have steamed a cherrystone.  “Easy for you to say,” she said.  “You think I can turn pages with these?” she asked, holding out her six legs with claws, assuming I’d have no answer.

“As a matter of fact, you could–if you’d only try.  Instead, you just let your mind rot watching this drivel all day.”

I thought I heard a little sniffle come out of her gills.  I was just about to say “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it,” when she blurted out the sad truth of her apparent lack of intellectual curiosity.

“I . . . never learned to read,” she sobbed, and I scooched across the couch to comfort her.

lobster2
The Magnificent Ambersons:  Bo-ring.

 

“I’m sorry–I never knew.”

“That’s okay,” she said over an audible lump in her throat.  “It’s been my deepest secret for a long time.  I’m tired of holding it in.”

I patted her greenish shell on the little orange freckles and tried to think of something I could do to brighten the dark corridors of her tiny mind.  “Hey, you know what?” I said when inspiration struck me.

“What?”

“You don’t need to be able to read to sample the rich stew of American culture–you can watch movies on TV!”

“You . . . you actually sprang for cable?”

“Just sports and basic, but that means we can watch classics, like Citizen Kane.”

She rolled her little eyes.  “I’ve only seen that like a million times.  Remember–I used to hang out with Orson Welles.”

“Oh.  Right.  Well, how about The Magnificent Ambersons?”

“From the novel by Booth Tarkington?”

“That’s it.  C’mon,” I said as I grabbed the remote and tried to remember how to get on-demand movies.  “Is it this button?” I asked aloud, but Australian rules football came on the screen.  “Maybe it’s this one,” I said, but I got some kind of shopping channel.

lobster3
Sea urchins–crunchy!

 

“Gimme that thing,” she said, and before you could say “Peter Bogdanovich” she had found the film I wanted and paid for it with my credit card.  We snuggled back into the couch to watch what Welles always thought was his greatest triumph, but which is actually a crashing bore on a scale almost as big as Welles himself.

“You want some popcorn?” I asked as I got up to go to the kitchen.

“No, but if you wouldn’t mind, I could go for another bag of sea urchins.”

My Gall Bladder is Really Warm Today

The English phrase “Nice to see you” translates into “My gall bladder is really warm today” in Berik, a language of New Guinea.

                                                    What Language Is, John McWhorter

I’ve never been very good at small talk, I just don’t have the ”gift of gab.”  But I know I’ve got to get better at it if I’m going to advance within Conglomerated Widgetek, the world-wide leader in whatever it is we make.

I did what career coaches say is essential for advancement up the ladder of a multinational corporation; when a promotion became available in a far-flung outpost of our empire, I jumped at the chance.  I’m single, so I didn’t have to uproot my family, and I knew it would help me leapfrog ahead of guys like Dwight Van de Velde, a brown-noser of the first water who I had to listen to yapping to his skanky girlfriend on the phone in the next cubicle over for two years in Keokuk, Iowa, where we have our test labs.

But it hasn’t been easy getting acclimated to the American scene after ten years in Papua, New Guinea.  When I left in the summer of 2004, the Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series in 86 years.  Now I find out they’ve won it four times!  And I bought a bunch of pleated slacks that are now totally out of style!

I’ve got to get back in the swing of things, so tonight I’m going to a networking event at the Marriott Hotel.  Press the flesh, trade some business cards, maybe even meet a nice woman!  Hey, you never know–it could happen.

I plunk down my $25, get my name tag, fasten it to my left lapel so that people can get a good look at it when they shake hands with me, then begin the uncomfortable–but absolutely necessary!–task of greeting my first stranger, a loser–I mean–up and coming business-type like myself.

“Hi there!” I say with enthusiasm, establishing eye contact and extending my hand prepared to grip-and-grin with alacrity.  “Ed Dworpkin, Conglomerated Widgetek!”

“Mike Bluverski, Sheehan, Flark & Greunberg, Councillors at Law.”

Luck of the draw–I had to pick a lawyer, the least desirable type in the room.


White is all right between Labor and Memorial Days in the Southern Hemisphere.

“What kind of business are you in?” he asks.  Desperate for a client is my guess.

“My company makes high-speed pneumatic and electronic widgets for commercial and industrial applications,” I say, repeating the first line of my “elevator speech.”  “We have sales offices in over forty-eleven countries.  How ’bout you?” I say, hoping to get this tete-a-tete done and move on to a more profitable one.

“We’re personal injury lawyers,” he says, scratching his nose.  “We typically sue companies like yours, but we’re always willing to change sides.”

“Well, suing somebody is no way to win friends,” I say with a hale-fellow-well-met sort of cheer.  “Gotta run–my gall bladder is really warm today!” I say as I shake his hand.

The shyster looks at me as if I’m a fly in his Miller Lite Beer, but I’m already on to my next prospect, a tall, silver-haired guy who looks like what central casting would send you if you asked for a CEO.

“Ed Dworpkin, Conglomerated Widgetek,” I say, a big you-know-what-eating grin on my face.

The guy shakes my outstreched hand.  “Morris Dane–Superior Flange & Hasp,” he says.  That’s more like it, I say to myself.  Flange and hasp makers are the biggest customers for widgets, domestically and internationally.

“What kind of quality controls do you have at Conglomerated?” he asks, giving me the opening of a lifetime.

“We’re Six Sigma, ISO-certified and Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” I say, taking my handkerchief out of my pocket just in case I’m watering at the mouth.  “Also, Underwriters Laboratory.”

“Gee, that’s great,” he says.  “But when I establish a relationship with somebody, I want to know that the person I’m dealing with is level-headed, stable–somebody who’s not just in it for the commission, and will jump ship for a bigger paycheck across the street.”

“Oh, that’s me all right.  Been with the company all around the world!”

He cracks a smile, and I think I may just have made a sale, if I can s-l-o-w-l-y reel him in.  “How ’bout those Patriots?” he says, touching upon sports, the one subject–other than politics and revenge–that is dear to all New Englanders’ hearts.

“Well, they need to find a new quarterback with Mac Jones out, but I whenever I think about what happened when Drew Bledsoe went down and a guy named Tom Brady got the start, well, the gastric secretions from my spleen get ripe!”

Dane seems to be–ill all of a sudden.

“Yes, well.  Maybe you should see a doctor about that,” he says with a distracted air as he looks over my shoulder.  “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go try some of that shrimp.  Nice to meet you.”

“My gall bladder is really warm today!”

I try to shake his hand, but he’s off like a shot.  Sales are funny.  Just when you think you’ve got a hot prospect, they turn cool on you.

I amble over to the cash bar and order a beer, when I detect the most heavenly fragrance wafting up to my nostrils from my right.  I turn my head slowly and see the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever laid eyes on.  Blond hair, blue eyes, blue eye shadow–lots of it, just like I like ‘em.

She gives me a smile, but I can’t tell whether it’s a “I’m networking” or “I’m looking for love” expression.  It’s a good thing I came prepared.

I reach discreetly into my briefcase and pull out my penis sheath gourd, a handy dating tool I picked up in New Guinea to telegraph to eligible females just how strong and sexy I am, how I’m capable of giving them the many, many children that I know women are just dying to have!

“Eek!” she cries.

“What is it?” I ask urgently, hoping to play the role of rescuer of a damsel-in-distress.  “A mouse?”

“No–more like a snake.”

I look under the buffet table–nothing.  I scout the room and, when I turn around, I see her, running away.  I also notice that everyone is looking at me with, as John Keats would say, a wild surmise.

“What?” I say, genuinely perplexed.  “I was just trying to help that nice young lady.”

“What company did you say you were with?”  It’s the lawyer again.

“Conglomerated Widgetek,” I say.

“So that’s what a widget is,” he says.  “I always wondered.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Let’s Get Primitive.”

My Lunch With a Nobel Prize-Winning Author

“Did I ever tell you about the time,” I began, but before I had a full sentence out of my mouth my wife stood up and blew past me into the kitchen of our neighbors, Carl and Jen Sitzfleisch, to refill her glass of chardonnay.

“Yes?” the distaff half of the other couple asked in an encouraging tone.

“. . . the time I had lunch with a Nobel Prize-winning author?”

“Good heavens!” Carl exclaimed.  “You unsuccessful writers lead such interesting lives.”

Xavier Cugat Siboney

“Actually, it was back when I was in college, when I had a serious case of Pediatric Writer’s Block.”

“Tell us about it!” Jen exclaimed, and I could hear my wife yawn in the kitchen over the refrigerator door slamming shut and our hosts’ chosen background music: Xavier Cugat Plays Songs for Repressed Suburbanites.

“It was 1970,” I began.  “I walked into the faculty club at the University of Chicago and saw  him.”

“Who?”

“Saul Bellow, author of The Adventures of Augie March.  Surely you know its famous opening line: ‘I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style.'”

“Wow!”


Bellow: “Actually, I’m not hungry.”

“I didn’t actually have lunch with Bellow.  I had lunch beforehand, in the kitchen with the rest of the help.  I was just a waiter, not a member of Bellow’s inner circle of friends.”

“Still, that’s a big deal!” Jen exclaimed.

“I wasn’t even a member of his circle of enemies, which may have been a slightly larger group, if one reads his works as romans a clef.”

“Let’s get your wife back in here to hear this story.”

“That’s okay, she’s probably plucking her eyebrows.  She’s heard it before. ”

Image result for plucking eyebrows
“Yes it hurts, but it’s less painful than listening to that story again.”

“Eyebrows make the woman!”  That was Jen, in case you hadn’t guessed.

“So I didn’t eat with Bellow, but I was at a lunch that he attended, which was as close as I’d ever been to literary fame at the time. And probably ever will be.”


Joseph Conrad: “Bellow? Never heard of him, but then I’m already dead.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Bellow,” Carl said.

“I hadn’t either at that point in my life.  He wasn’t on my freshman reading list, and maybe he’ll never displace Faulkner, or Joseph Conrad, or Scott Fitzgerald. But he was a living, breathing novelist with an international reputation, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize six years later. It was all I could do not to rush up to him like some stupid Hollywood autograph hound and say ‘Mr. Bellow, you’re one of my biggest fans!'”


“Why is that waiter staring at me?”

“So . . . did you talk to him?” Carl asked.

“Nope.  I respected his privacy and stuck to my role, bringing out the food, filling water glasses, sneaking a peek at the two greatest hits underneath the blouse of the Barbra Streisand look-alike on my shift.”

“She does have a balcony you could do Shakespeare from,” Carl added with a leer.

“I watched his every move, because I wanted to see how a famous novelist looked and acted. Would he be ferocious, skewering the chalky professors at his table?  Would he be captivating, regaling his listeners with stories of his years in Europe? How exactly was a minor living legend supposed to behave–just in case I ever needed to know.”


Dog-and-pony show

“And?”

“He acted . . . bored.”

“Bored?”

“He sat down at an empty table, crossed his legs, folded his hands in his lap, and looked around the room with an expression that said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than where he was just then. My guess is the luncheon was a dog-and-pony show for potential donors–just the way a guy who probably had to fend off high-brow literary women with a stick would want to spend his day.”

“That’s a nice problem to have,” Carl said.

“Being a big-name author in academia isn’t a bad gig. You give a graduate seminar every semester, boff a couple of coeds–it’s in the contract, right after the ‘Whereas’ clauses–get your picture on the cover of the alumni magazine.  But you’re also there for some contact with actual human beings, like say a wealthy alumnus/alumna who’s written a first novel.”

“I see,” Jen said.

“Bellow’s aspect was distant, reserved,” I continued.  “Everyone who passed by knew he was–famous. So no one joined him at first.”

“Writers must be such lonely people!” Jen exclaimed.

“It’s their lack of social skills,” my wife said as she rejoined the group.  I noticed she looked at her watch as she sat down.  “Our reservations are at 7:30,” she said.  “How much longer is this story going to run?”

“It’s interesting,” Carl said.

“To each his own,” my wife said, then checked her phone to see if it was her move in the eight different games of Words With Friends she has going at any one time.

“After a while Bellow took his butter knife, stood the pat of butter on his bread plate up on edge, and put his knife down again. A few people eventually sat down at his table, introduced themselves, and he broke into a slight smile, which did nothing to dispel his air of ill-suppressed discomfort.”

“It would have been sad if he’d had to sit by himself,” Jen said.

“Not sure he wouldn’t have preferred that,” I said.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.  I was distracted for a moment by someone at another table and when I turned around–he was gone. The only evidence of his brief presence that remained was that pat of butter on its edge, as he must have been the whole time he was there.”

bellow
Cheese Stonehenge

“So, a Literary Man of Mystery, huh?” Carl mused.

“On the nosey,” I said as I took a sip of my Malbec.

“Has this close encounter with fame ‘informed’ your work?” Jen asked.  She’s taking an adult education course in The Literature of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

“It has, it has,” I said, putting my glass down and making a little church-and-steeple with my hands as I looked off into the middle distance.  “I learned a valuable lesson that has come in handy over the years.”

“C’mon–spill the beans,” Carl said.

“Just this: If you want to be a successful writer, you have to appear superior to everyone around you at social gatherings.”

“How do you do that?” Carl asked.

“Look bored–and play with the stuff on your table!”

“Gosh,” Jen said.  “I thought it was about the beauty of the writing, and the universality of the themes, and the feelings of sympathy for the characters a good writer can elicit in the reader.”

“Nope.  All that stuff is for saps, as Nelson Algren, another Chicago writer, might say.”

“Can you tell us how, exactly, you do it?” Carl asked.

“Sure.  Here are a few of the techniques I’ve perfected that lend me an aura of literary snootiness at gala dinners, business lunches and power breakfasts.”

“Honey,” my wife interjected, “we’ve got to go soon.”

“My favorite is to balance two forks on a toothpick.”

“How do you do that?” Carl asked.

“Snap a toothpick at its mid-point and stick one end in a salt shaker. Join the forks at the tines, and suspend on one end of the toothpick.”

“Where are you going to find a toothpick in a faculty club of a major university?” Jen asked.

“Just ask the Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking sitting next to you.”


Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking

“Still, that sounds hard.”

“If you can’t handle that one . . .”

“He’s kind of a klutz,” Jen said.

” . . . try balancing  your fork on your index finger at a right angle.”

“Like a teeter-totter?”

“Right.”

winecork
One out of three ain’t bad.

“I can’t see how that’s going to impress anybody,” Carl said.

“I agree, it’s too easy.  One that’s easier than it looks–and my personal favorite–is to drop a wine cork so that it stands up on one end.”

“I could never do that!” Jen exclaimed.

“Sure you could.  You hold the cork horizontally, so that it ‘s parallel to the surface of the table.  My preferred grip is between the outstretched second and fourth fingers, although this leaves the middle finger pointing across at your tablemates, which may lead to misunderstandings. Hold the cork gently, then release both fingers at the same time. At first, if you succeed in making the cork pop back up on its end just one time in ten you’re doing fine. With practice, you should be able to do it in three tries or less, causing ingenue poetesses to look on you as a God of Belle Lettres.”

bellow1
“Do the wine cork trick again–it drives me wild!”

“Sweetie,” it was my wife again.  “We really should be going.”

“Is there any way you can get others involved?” Jen asked, and I noticed she blushed just a bit.  “In case there’s . . . another budding writer at your table.”

“Well, you could try the matchbook field goal trick.”

“I like football,” Carl said.  “How does that work?”

“You can’t smoke in most fancy restaurants and clubs anymore, but for some reason you can get a book of matches–what you’re supposed to use them for is not exactly clear.”

“Except play football?”

“Right.  You stand the matchbook on edge and flick across the table at finger goal-posts set up by a table-mate.”

“So you need the cooperation of another bored person?” Jen asked.

“Right,” I said, “but the Nobel Prize in Literature is optional.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

To Make Ends Meet, More Poets Turn to Discounters

NEEDHAM, Mass.  Curtis Bascomb, Jr. is a third-generation family business owner, so he has more than just his time and money invested in his workplace.  “Grandad founded this place on a promise,” he says with a trace of a lump in his throat.  “He believed no poet should ever go without a figure of speech because of high prices.”


“I’m looking for a synechdoche for wine.”

 

And so the Poets Discount Supply House was born, a harmonic convergence of New England thrift and the historically impecunious nature of the poet’s trade.  “I’m entering my coming-of-age collection in twenty chapbook contests at an average of $22.50 a pop,” says would-be poet Todd Heftwig, who prowls the aisles looking for bargains.  “If I can pick up a slightly-used simile or metaphor at half-price, I may be able to recoup my investment.”

poetry1
“There’s a size 7 and a half sestina back here with seagulls in it.”

 

In addition to garden variety figures of speech such as similes and metaphors, the Poets Discount Supply House carries more exotic forms such as synechdoches and metonyms, as well as a deli case stocked with onomatopeia and tropes.  “We buy this stuff fresh every day,” says Bob Vibeck, who started with the company when it was run by Bascomb’s father, Curtis Sr., in the 1960s.  “That’s why poets come back to us even when they hit the big time, which is really still the little time.”

The store is located in an undistinguished warehouse off a busy commercial street, part of the family’s business plan to keep costs down.  “We can sell you a package of three generic themes–seagulls, unrequited love, the effect John Coltrane’s music had on you in college–at half the cost of the high-end retailers,” says Curtis Senior.  “That’s our sweet spot.”


“If you need a rhyme for the word ‘love,’ line up on the right.”

 

The store is ramping up for what is usually its busiest time of the year, as shoppers stop in for a turn of phrase for a Thanksgiving toast, or get ready for Christmas proposals, when the family will bring in temporary sales help to handle the crush of smitten but unlettered Romeos.  “These guys come in here with something scratched on a cocktail napkin looking for le mot juste,” says Curtis Junior, shaking his head.  “I tell ‘em you can’t bring in your own stuff, you got to buy it here.”

 

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Knee-Jerk Moderates Caught in Political Crossfire

NEWTON LOWER HILLS, Mass.  This quiet village just west of Boston looks much like any other suburb on a rainy Tuesday; well-tended lawns sprinkled with a few early-fallen leaves that are sent swirling by a gust of wind.  There’s one striking difference however; yard-signs, considered a tacky declaration of partisan politics in Wellesley Falls, one town further west, are par for the course here as election day approaches.


Home in Newton Lower Hills, Mass.

“I’m caught in the middle,” complains Carol Pierce.  “To my left I’ve got Marie Sansone,” the wife of a firefighter whose family would benefit from a proposed budget override that will be on the ballot next week, “and to my right I’ve got Polly Endicott,” a widow on a fixed income who wants to stay in the house she’s lived in for forty years.  “If taxes go up, Marie’s happy, but Polly’s pissed.”

Carol suffers from OSV, for “omnisympathetic vision,” the ability to see all sides of an issue.  Her warring neighbors have forced her to make a choice, however, as the Sansones have placed a large “We Support Our Firefighters!” sign on their lawn, while Polly Endicott has joined the “No New Taxes!” movement that is fighting to keep municipal assessments low.


“I like the platform of this None of the Above fellow.”

Carol, who prefers to stay out of local politics, agonized over her dilemma until she came up with what some are hailing as a grand compromise: “Knee-Jerk Moderates,” a loose coalition of similar-minded folks who are somehow able to live their lives without getting bent out of shape by local, state or national governmental issues.

Image result for angry neighbors
“Either you compromise with us, or we crush you like a bug just to watch the juice run out.”

 

“I had a nice sign printed up that said ‘I Support Our Firefighters–Up to a Point,’” Carol says, and passers-by began to wave and honk their horns.  “The Sansones are nice people, but so is the kindergarden teacher who’ll get laid off if the override passes.”

Pollsters say this state, whose elected officials are almost exclusively Democrats but which also has large numbers of independent voters, may be the launching pad for a nationwide movement of people who are indifferent to political controversy.  “Exit polls in 2020 showed that voters thought the economy was the most important issue,” says Charles Culver, president of Opinion Research.  “After that there was no consensus, with national security, healthcare and long lines at Chinese restaurants tied for second place.”