It’s noontime on Wednesday, time for me to head over to the Bothner Hotel for the weekly meeting of our local chapter of the Bizarro Rotary Club. It’s a great bunch and when you’re a small business man in a small town, you’ve got to get out and press the flesh if you want to be seen as a regular guy–and keep the big chain stores at bay.
I wave to Ethel, my top salesgal, and even though she knows from many years of habit where I’m going, she asks “You heading over to Bizarro Rotary?”
“How’d you guess?” I reply facetiously–I’m known as a great “kidder” around town.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says coquettishly. “A little birdie told me.”
“I’m expecting Jackson”–our desultory trashman–“to come by to haul away some cardboard boxes.”
“I’ll look out for him,” Ethel says.
“He’s like the Abominable Snowman,” I quip. “If you blink–he’s gone and you may never see him again.”
We share a laugh and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail I’m out on Indiana Avenue and headed over to the meeting. A lot of guys would view membership in Bizarro Rotary–the contrarian doppelganger of Rotary International–as a mark of failure, but not me. Sure, I’m an upbeat, can-do, go-getter, but everybody needs a little negativity to recharge their battery from time to time. I mean, if all you have is a positive charge, you’ll never get anywhere!
I recall my first apartment after college, with a roommate named “Ed” from Chicago. Ed and I were friendly, but there was a wide gulf that separated our tastes in music. Mine ended with bebop, and I leaned–quite dramatically, I might add–towards Clifford Brown on the trumpet and Johnny Hodges on alto sax. Ed, by contrast, liked to listen to stuff that struck my ears as sandpaper Q-Tips: Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra. To me, hearing McCoy Tyner recalled the sound you’d get if you dropped a piano out a third-story window. And Sonny Sharock? What he did to a guitar should have been illegal.
Sonny Sharrock: Worst jazz guitar player ever?
“You know what you need?” Ed said to me late one night, dropping the quotation marks that he habitually wore around his name since we’d been deep into drink and drugs for some time.
“You need some chaos in your life,” he said with finality, setting off one of life’s little epiphanies for me. Perhaps, I thought, he’s right. Maybe I did need some unbridled, in-your-face, don’t-stint-on-the-hyphens Dionysian disruption to balance the rational, orderly side of my psyche.
Of course, I’d had a germ of the Bizarro in my being from boyhood, perhaps best revealed by an unprovoked wise-crack I made in the very building I was about to walk into, in the Bothner Hotel Barbershop. After getting my usual mortifying crew-cut, which my mother had trained the barbers to give me even if I asked for a flat-top, I hopped out of the chair, accepted my stick of Juicy Fruit gum and put on my cool crew jacket.
What I WANTED to look like.
“You’re looking pretty sharp there, young man!” the barber named “Frosty” said as I walked towards the door.
“Forms a nice contrast, since you’re not,” I cracked, causing audible gasps to escape from the gaping mouths of the assorted idlers assembled in the little white-tiled shop.
“That boy’s headed for trouble!” a hare-lipped farmer said as I walked away, as if to put a gypsy curse on me.
“Pah!” I pahhed. What did I care for the opinions of a bunch of yahoos, rednecks and hilljacks? I was above all that, a Nietzsche in short pants.
But when I came back to my little home town after college, I found out that my reputation formed in childhood had hardened with time; I was, forever and irredeemably, The Kid Who Cracked Wise.
I tried to join the Lions, the Moose, the Elks. Nothing. I called up the Shriners, the Masons, and the Odd Fellows. Nada. Desperate, I called the Extremely Odd Fellows. Even they turned me down.
But then one night when I was in my cups–or more precisely in my longneck beer bottles–a fellow embittered townsman “pulled my coat tail,” as they used to say in Harlem.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree, man,” he said as he reached in front of me for the last of the Pizza-flavored goldfish.
“You should try the Bizarro fraternal societies.”
I was vaguely familiar with the concept of Bizarro culture, the alternative universe created for Superman’s mirror-image antagonist. Where Superman fought for truth, justice and the American Way, Bizarro fought for falsehood, injustice, and–uh–I guess the un-American Way.
“There are–Bizarro lodges?” I asked, incredulous.
“Sure–how do you think I can stand living in this boring burg?”
I looked him over and sized him up; an embittered post-adolescent like me.
“Do you think,” I began hesitantly, “I’d qualify?”
“Let’s see,” he said. “Are you shunned for your grotesque appearance?”
“Look at me!” I said, pointing to the numerous scars on my face. There was the one from a football helmet that cracked during a freshman game, giving me a cut that required six stitches to close. There were chicken pox and acne scars. I hit myself over my left eye playing tennis–not an easy trick–three more stitches. There was the one on my upper lip from a punch. Finally, there was one from a potato rake; don’t ask me how I got that one, but it involved a tree, a dare and some youthful hijinks. It was the 70s–everybody else was having sex.
“Okay,” he said, “You’ll pass that test. Do you have strange speech patterns?”
I thought of the many hours I’d spent with crackpot speech therapists as a child; forced to recite poetry in the hope that it would untie my tongue, to this day I can recall entire stanzas from Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel on a bet.
“I got that one covered,” I said. “What else?”
“Are you habitually contrarian, trying to make a joke out of everything, making cutting remarks . . .”
“You’re looking at the King of the Gratuitously Smart-Aleck Comment.”
And so I was inducted, after a brief instructional course, payment of first month’s dues and purchase of a goofy hat–a prerequisite for membership in any self-respecting men’s lodge–into Bizarro Rotary.
Loyal Order of the Blue Buffalo
Bizarro Rotary, as the name implies, is the obverse of normal Rotary. The Rotary Pledge is an inspiring set of principles that have seeped out of that order’s meetings into the broader stream of American life. They are, quite frankly, words to live by, at least as far as idle remarks go. And believe me, as the guy who once referred to one of his law partners as “The Blanche DuBois of the Boston bar” because he always depended on the kindness of strangers–idle remarks can go a long way.
Surely you have heard the Rotary Pledge, even if you don’t observe its tenets. It has been translated into over a hundred languages, so you can’t say they don’t apply to you because you only speak Urdu. Before a Rotarian says, thinks or does anything, he must ask himself these questions:
1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
(As you can see, the “Caps Lock” key gets stuck a lot at Rotary headquarters, but you get the drift.)
If the answer to any one of these questions is “no,” a regular Rotarian may not say, think or do what he was ever-so-close to saying, thinking or doing just moments before.
At Bizarro Rotary, on the other hand, it works the opposite way. If the answer to question 1 is “yes,” and the answer to any of the next three “no,” the Bizarro Rotarian must plunge ahead, consequences be damned. Do think Jerry Spagnola’s tie is ugly? It may be true, but it may not build a better friendship, so you’d better tell him so.
Do you think it’s likely Al Urquart’s daughter will never get married because she looks too much like him, instead of his gamine-like wife Marjean, who possesses a prize-winning collection of thimbles? Sorry, but you’re going to have to break the news to him.
“Shore is purty at sundown, ain’t it?”
As I walked into the lobby of the Bothner I spied Bob Gramach, our local Chevy-GMC dealer.
“Hey Bob–still selling those crappy cars like the lemon you unloaded on me?” I say by way of greeting.
“You better believe it,” he says with a smile. “Are you still stuck in that dead-end job you hate?”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” I say. I push the button on the old-fashioned elevator with the brass grillwork and we glide slowly up to the second floor, where we see a number of our fellow local bad-handers palavering about things.
“Des Moegelin!” I say when I spy our local farm implements dealer. “How’s you’re inadequate sexual equipment hangin’?”
“A little to the left, but my little looks big next to yours!” he says and his buddies erupt in laughter–that’s the Bizarro Rotary spirit!
“Good to see you again,” says Mike Dworpkin, an insurance agent for Modern Moosehead Indemnity. “That bump on the side of your nose is getting bigger all the time!”
“Thanks,” I say proudly.
Many people mistake the blunt honesty of Bizarro Rotarians for some sort of disorder, like Asperger’s Syndrome, but our demonstrated lack of empathy is our way of steeling each other for the hard rows we all have to hoe; if you want a lodge that’s going to give you a false sense of comfort, like life’s a big bag of marshmallows, get your ass over to the Knights of Pythias.
Knights of Pythias: What the hell–are you guys a glee club or something?
We begin to take our seats at the round tables that are set up for lunch and our Grand Scorchmaster, Ted Wyboldt, offer’s the day’s invocation.
“Heavenly Father,” he intones as we all bow our heads, “you have made one gigantic hot steaming mess of the world.”
“A-men,” we all murmur humbly, recognizing that our pitiful inadequacies in the here and now are nothing compared to the way the Creator of All Things has screwed things up. They say on the seventh day he rested, but my guess is he looked upon his work and decided it was too broke to fix.
The speaker on program today is the new head coach of the Oklahoma A&M Fighting Stinkbugs, Joe Ray Diggs, an up-and-coming offensive genius who has turned around every team he’s touched so far in a career that has every appearance will end up with him on national television some New Year’s Day. After the obligatory business part of the meeting–unpaid dues, recognition of how poorly the winners of our local oratorical contest did in the regionals–it’s time for some game film and football talk.
“Thanks for having me today, Ted,” Diggs says as he fumbles with the remote that turns on the projector. “How many A&M grads we got here today?” he begins, using the old public speaking gimmick of getting the audience on your side from the get-go. Approximately a third of the hands in the room go up, and Diggs smiles. “That’s good,” he says with a smile. “May I remind you that every check you write to the Booster Club does not have to be reported to the NCAA.”
The crowd laughs appreciatively, and Diggs moves on to his pitch. “Folks, I know A&M has let you down over the last few decades,” he says. He’s been told to tell the truth and not sugarcoat it. “My predecessor was the kind of guy who couldn’t find his ass with both hands, to tell you the truth. He couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if there was instructions on the heel.”
Diggs plays these for laugh lines, but when he realizes that such rough talk is permitted–even expected–he continues. “Me? I’ve got a different philosophy,” he says.
“What’s that, coacher?” ask Gene Haskins, a beefy man down front who played for the Fighting Stinkbugs during their last winning season a decade-and-a-half ago.
“If you want to win,” Diggs says with squinting eyes that evince his seriousness, “you’ve got to pay your players enough.”