Facing Budget Cuts, Schools Hire Samurai Crossing Guards

SHAWNEE MISSION, Kansas.  Ed Rehnert thought he’d found his dream job when he signed on as a school crossing guard at Jo Jo White Middle School after retiring from his job at a local Ford plant.  “I loved seeing those kids every morning,” he says as tears well up in his eyes and a lump forms in his throat.  “I thought I’d be a crossing guard until I keeled over and died,” he tells this reporter.  “I figured I was immune from foreign competition.”


Ed Rehnert

 

But Ed will find himself out of job next Tuesday morning, replaced by a ronin, a wandering samurai displaced by the defeat of his daimyo, or master, in a battle with a rival.  “Out-of-work samurai have a choice,” says Bobby Ito, a specialist on Japanese-American cultural differences.  “They can either terrorize local peasants at county fairs, or underbid low-skilled workers for menial jobs such as school crossing guard.”


“Stay on the curb until I say it’s okay.”

 

So when Tokugawa Ieyasu offered to man the corner of Third and Lamine Streets here on a twenty-four hour a day basis, school superintendent Morris Blyrum jumped at the offer.  “School crossing guards aren’t covered by the collective bargaining agreement,” he notes.  “We hired Tokugawa–or is Ieyasu the first name?–for a handful of rice and a cents-off coupon at Sushi Express,” a new Japanese restaurant in town.


“You kids should wear yellow in the rain!”

 

Samurai were members of the Japanese military class of Japan during the period beginning in 792 and ending with the issuance of the Closed Country Edict by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1639.  Most became bored and aimless following the passage of a law in 1650 that banned them from dueling, and took jobs as Walmart greeters or grocery store baggers.


School crossing guards, Danny Manning Middle School

 

But over time, samurai came to scorn such indoor jobs as too tame for former mercenaries, and turned to the more dangerous work of protecting school children from the threat of passing cars, often throwing themselves in front of speeding Toyotas to save a student’s life.


“You in the freaking Prius–slow down!”

 

“If I fail in my duty to protect the children of Danny Manning Middle School,” says Kosaka Danjo Masanobu, “I will perform seppuku,” or ritual suicide, “right after I turn in my bright green school crossing guard belt.”


“Bobby Salmon threw a snowball at a car–I must die!”

 

Parents say they appreciate the commitment of the new cadre of crossing guards, even if they find the language barrier daunting.  “I asked Hattori Hanzo to take my daughter the goldfish she forgot for her school science project,” says Kimberly Weston, a perky blond mother of two.  “He threw some soy sauce on it and that was the last we saw of Skipper.”

Aging Chanteuse Hot Again With Tribute to Internet

SAN ANTONIO, Texas. Vikki Flores is an 80 year-old chanteuse who has sung for five vice presidents, but she hasn’t had a top-selling record in over two decades. She hopes to end that losing streak with her new CD “That Crazy, Wacky Thing We Call the Internet,” an attempt to re-position herself for a youthful audience “hip” to technological innovation.


Vikki Flores

 

“I was in my urologist’s office and I read an article that said the internet is here to stay,” recalls her manager, Del Floyd, Jr. “So I figured–what the hey!–let’s do an album around it!”


See Vikki this August at the East Texas State Fair!

 

In addition to the title song, Flores sings a soothing lullaby called “I Caught Daddy Bookmarking Victoria’s Secret,” a fast-paced polka titled “I’ve Had it With My Dial-Up Connection,” and “I’ve Got So Many Passwords, I Can’t Remember Them All,” a bluesy song about a woman who forgets her six-letter combination for shopping on-line at the Metamucil website.


“Vikki, you have two very nice chimichangas.”

Flores sang for Vice Presidents rather than Presidents, according to her manager, “because her act was so hot she was a security risk.” She changed the course of history when she asked Vice President Gerald Ford to name the dish he liked best, according to Ford’s autobiography “A Time to Heal.” “I like you,” Ford replied within earshot of his wife Betty, setting off a drinking binge by the First Lady that resulted in the founding of the Betty Ford Clinic.


Dino!

 

While her music is decidedly middle-of-the-road, she attracted the attention of Rat Pack charter member Dean Martin in the late 60′s as the boozy Italian crooner called her “the best girl singer in the business.” Martin was hospitalized from the blow to his head that Flores landed after she learned of his patronizing remark, but he recovered and was eventually able to drink without the use of a wheelchair.


“Need to write your doctor about your cramps? Try email–you’ll save on stamps!”

 

The senior citizen singer consults with the recording engineer as she tries one last take of a “big band” flavored number with a bridge that tests her “pipes.” After she adjusts her headphones in the isolation booth, she finally “nails it” as her manager beams with pride:

From late at night,
to early morn
You can “surf the ‘net”
for all kinds of porn.

Flores admits her technological skills aren’t “up to snuff,” but says she’s experimenting with email as a way of keeping in touch with her grandchildren. “They’re just adorable,” she says as she affixes a “forever” stamp to her computer screen and hits “Send.”

Paging Lima Peru

I was, throughout my childhood, a cut-up.  From the time I was lined up next to Darrell Dunham in first grade as part of the Pageant of the Saints and told to portray St. Sebastian (who died from arrow wounds) and went “Gack!” while Darrell succumbed to an imaginary onslaught of stones (in his character as St. Stephen), I never missed a chance to make a smart remark or a face behind the back of a member of the constituted educational authorities.


St. Sebastian: Gack!

 

On the other hand, someone near and dear to me who is related to me by marriage and who shall remain nameless–like my wife–has been a goody-goody all her life.  She is a member of an ethnic group–Scots Presbyterians–that goes around looking for rules to obey.  She once threw her parents out of the house at the tender age of twelve because she wanted to clean and they were getting in the way.


“Go away–I’m cleaning.”

 

And yet we both, in our otherwise dissimilar childhoods, indulged in the same form of grand-scale mischief: using a public address system to broadcast a joke name to a mass audience.


Missouri State Fair

In my misspent youth, I lived in a town of 20,000 whose population was increased six-fold for ten or so consecutive days in August as hordes of carnival workers and carnival goers, 4-H youths, stock car racers, sulky drivers (I’m speaking of their vehicles, not their moods) and other human flotsam and jetsam came to town for the Missouri State Fair.


Sulky

 

The fairgrounds had a central administration building, to which lost children were brought and from which announcements of varying import were made, e.g., “The free country music grandstand show will be a little late getting started tonight because Conway Twitty’s bus ran into a Black Angus cow just this side of Marshall.”


Conway Twitty

At some point, I and the other budding wags who I counted among my friends decided it would be fun to see if we could trick the man at the microphone into making an announcement that had no basis in fact, and whose only purpose was to hear him repeat a funny name.  For some reason the first personality we fastened upon was Newton Minow, FCC chairman under President Kennedy, who had made headlines by denouncing television as a ”vast wasteland.”


Newton Minow:  “Television is a vast wasteland.  Boys and girls should be out in the fresh air, making gag announcements.”

 

I don’t recall the precise form our maiden gag took, but it was something along the lines of “Newton Minow, Newton Minow.  Please come to the Administration Building.  Your television has been found.”

Once the boy who had gulled the announcer made it outside with a straight face, we burst into laughter and ran off, only to return a few minutes later, determined to build on our early success.  Bill Fold, Chuck Roast, Jim Shoe and Douglas Fir were all duly paged, but never responded.  At some point I’m sure the poor shlub who manned the microphone got wise, and cut us off.

Fast forward–or slow forward, I don’t care–to the 1980s, when I succumbed to the charms of the woman whom I would marry.  While a smart-alecky sense of humor is not necessary for a woman to be a good wife and mother, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to overlook her extreme, and apparently genetic, irony deficiency.  But then, as on late-night cable TV steak knife commercials, I learned there was more.


“You’ll also get this homicide-quality meat cleaver!”

 

As a teenager working the night shift in a department store, she told me, she and her girlfriend had taken turns walking the floor helping customers while the other stayed upstairs on a sort of observation deck, making change and processing charge slips that shot around the store through the pneumatic tubes that were the precursor to today’s electronic point-of-sale machines.  Along with this high fiscal responsibility came control of the store’s public address microphone, which she and her girlfriend used to try and make the other crack up while waiting on a customer.

And so, as one or the other tried to keep a straight face while telling an overweight women that a chemise dress was indeed flattering on her, the other would intone, in a voice redolent of official indifference, “Paging Lima Peru.  Lima Peru, please come to the loading dock.”

Or “Melba Toast–Melba Toast.  Please report to the kitchen on the basement level.”

So remember–it’s the little things that can make the difference when you’re trying to attract a potential mate.  Never underestimate the romantic attraction that a high-risk childhood prank may have on a future marriage prospect.  Your happiness may depend on it.

The Carnival Barker: Recalling a Dying Art

Fairs–that is, open-air public festivals at which entertainment is provided for a price–are both a current phenomenon and a tradition dating to ancient Rome. Fairs tend to be held in rural areas–there is already sufficient amusement in cities–and they serve as occasions for the loosening of inhibitions that bind fairgoers in their everyday lives.


Southwark Fair by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

 

There to encourage the fairgoer to depart from his workaday virtues of thrift and reserve is the carnival barker. At the lowest level of the profession, he encourages children and adults to part with their money in the hope of winning hopeless games of chance. At the higher reaches of the guild, he entices farmers and tradesmen to inspect deformed beasts–the six-legged pig, the two-peckered billy goat; to contemplate without embarrassment a human oddity; or to purchase a ticket to a show featuring music and dancing girls.

Barkers are, within the world of the traveling carnival, the most learned of professions, glib persuaders. The grizzled carney who takes tickets on the Tilt-a-Whirl is a ditch-digger compared to the lawyerly status achieved by a barker who can coax people into a tent to look at Lizard Boy, the bearded fat lady, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, or the bored hermaphrodite.

The licentious atmosphere that fairs create has historically resulted in public disturbances, causing governments and the respectable burghers whom they serve to regulate fairs by means of charters; one town is granted the right to hold a fair for a certain number of days, usually at the end of the summer harvest, since fairs often include competitive exhibitions of farm animals, produce and rural crafts and skills.

In fair towns such as the one I grew up in the annual event would attract 100,000 people to a county seat whose normal population was 23,000, transporting the residents from rural slumber to a moderate-sized city without moving an inch.

Left at liberty to wander the carnival midway, an impressionable young mind with an ear for a well-turned phrase becomes a connoisseur of carnival barkers. The man who claims that, within his tent, there is a boy who walks, who talks, who wriggles on his belly like a reptile, is to be avoided. We know who’s inside; it’s Brad, the kid with the bad eczema, finally turning a profit from his affliction–with the addition of a green rubber mask.

The man who drones into the microphone outside the show that promises “Live models, in the nude, definitely not for Junior!” loses our interest after awhile. Because of our age, we won’t be able to get in to see whoever’s on display inside, and the customers who do part with their money are a forlorn crew; hare lips, club foots, and teenaged boys in blue jeans and white t-shirts with rolled-up sleeves, trying to prove they are men. No wonder they have to pay good money to see a naked woman.

No, the best show, even if you can’t afford it or they won’t let you in because you’re too young, is the Club Ebony. The barker’s patter is the best on the midway, and it is recited over a thumping backbeat, a precursor of sorts to Jamaican dub and rap. Jimmy Rushing, the rotund singer who is featured on some of Count Basie’s most memorable recordings, called the come-on before the black revue the “bally-hoo.” Rushing was a product of the traveling “territory” bands of the midwest, and knew whereof he spoke.


Jimmy Rushing

 

The revue you will see more of–if you part with the price of admission–is brought out one by one; the ribald comedian, the dancing girls, the R&B house band, a soul shouter, a sultry female blues singer. Each gives a tantalizing taste of the full range of his or her talents, then stops; you don’t give away what you can sell.

When the crowd has been whipped to a froth of anticipation, the barker makes his final pitch; “It’s showtime–if you’re in line you’re in time,” he begins to call. The entertainers leave the stage and disappear behind the curtain, and the rubes follow them into the tent if the barker has done his job.

The air of sadness that hangs over a fairgrounds at night is a reflection of its artificiality; beyond the tents and the rides one can see farmland and the road out of town, and the hard work that is to be done the next day looms over the gaiety. The spectacle of the carnival is a momentary illusion for the fairgoer, and for the hard-bitten men who must strike the tents and hit the road for another town soon, it is just a job. Their manufactured enthusiasm is sustained by electricity, like the calliope one hears from the merry-go-round that the children ride.

The patter of the barkers is heard less frequently these days; traveling carnivals have nothing to bring to a small town in the summer that can’t be found on the internet every day of the year. Traveling side shows are expensive, because they require a number of talented or unique human beings, unlike automatic games of chance or carnival rides, which can be operated by a single person, unskilled and normal. The genus has evolved, and the descendants of the pitchmen of the midway can be found on Rush Street in Chicago, luring convention-goers into nightclubs to drink overpriced beer and watch pole dancers.

As a matter of fact, the last time I saw Brad the Lizard Boy was on the northside of Chicago. He was on his way to an underground film festival, and was excited about a particularly grotesque childbirth film that he’d heard about.

A taste for bizarre spectacle, once acquired, can apparently be refined but is never lost.

For One Writing Coach, the Political is Personal

SOMERVILLE, Mass.  Maggie Turbek once had hopes of making a living as a writer, fueled by a $700 check from The Atlantic Monthly for her first short story, “Goodbye Mrs. Pizzoni,” a taut re-telling, roman a clef style, of being thrown out of her first apartment when her landlady discovered she and her boyfriend weren’t married.  “In retrospect it probably would have been better if they’d turned it down,” she says today without a trace of self-pity.  “If they hadn’t got my hopes up I probably would have gone to law school and have a house and a place on the Cape today.”


Turbek:  “I want you to keep writing until the brown shirts show up at your door–and I don’t mean UPS.”

Turbek’s clear-eyed view of the scribbler’s life is now available for hire, and she has become the “go-to” coach for young writers who find themselves too distracted by the roller-coaster ride of American politics to buckle down and finish what they started back when they were working towards worthless Master of Fine Arts in Literature degrees from top programs.  “I don’t know what I’d do without Maggie,” says Ginger Everwarst, who is trying to complete a soul-baring chapbook of poems that traces her life from precocious summer camp writing prodigy to distrait and anxious artiste, constantly on edge from the high vulgarity of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.  “She keeps me focused on what’s most important in this world, which is peering into the dark chasm of my soul.”

Turbek, along with her young assistant Lorna Twellman, a recent summa cum laude graduate of Tufts University with a B.A. in English, uses an internet-sweeping algorithm to scour social media sites and writers’ discussion boards in an attempt to keep her clients from wasting their time in pointless political arguments.  “It’s sad, really,” she says, shaking her head as she scans a computer print-out of one of her charges’ on-line activity.  “You might as well re-arrange grains of sand on the beach for all the good your hyperventilating about politics does.”


“I can’t write today–Bernie Sanders is making a major minor announcement!”

 

“Maggie, can you come here for a second?” Twellman asks Turbek softly, nodding her head side-wise at her computer screen.

“Who is it?” Turbek asks as she puts on a pair of reading glasses she bought at Walgreens for $12.79 earlier in the day.

“Everwarst,” Twellman says as she turns her monitor so Turbek can see more easily.

“Jesus Mary and Joseph,” Turbek mutters when she sees the political poem that the young woman has posted on Writer’s Cafe, a website that rewards budding litterateurs with points they can redeem for espresso drinks at selected independent coffee shops.  “This is so bad I should call the Federal Election Commission,” Turbek says then begins to read aloud:

I feel the long dark night of fascism falling upon the land, the poem begins.
Tinglings of frustration like acupuncture needles in both my hands.
If Trump is elected, with God as my witness I swear,
I’m packing up my Toyota hybrid and moving out of here.

Turbek uses the direct “instant messaging” feature of her service to interrupt the young woman.  “Ginger–sweetie, listen:  Nobody gives a rat’s ass what you or any of the other two million unemployed MFAs think about politics.  And your poem stinks.  ‘Fascist’ is just another word for somebody you disagree with.  Be like the sidewalk outside your crappy apartment–specific and concrete!”


“I don’t want to see any of you complaining about Hillary’s pant suits–got it?”

 

There is no response at first, then Everwarst meekly taps out “Sorry–I’ll get back to work now.” “Attagirl,” Turbek replies.  “Writers WRITE, if you want to talk politics go into radio.”  She leans back in her chair and takes a sip from a Mount Holyoke coffee cup she received for a $250 donation, “the largest I’ve ever given,” she says, but her brief moment of relaxation is interrupted by the constant demands of her business.

“Excuse me, Maggie, here’s something you should see,” Twellman says as she cuts and pastes a link to a “spoof” written by a young man Turbek has taken on, then sends it across the room where the older woman squints as she tries to read it on her outdated phone.

“Is this supposed to be funny?” Turbek asks Twellman after reading a bit, thinking she may have missed some nuance that the younger woman caught.

“I guess so.”

pigeon

Turbek’s left eyebrow crawls up her forehead as a skeptical reaction overtakes her.  “Woodrow Wilson gets a private carrier pigeon . . . so he won’t have to turn over his ‘p-mails’ to the government.  And when he’s caught he says all the messages were about–yoga classes?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Twellman says, trying to maintain the dispassionate approach that Turbek promises her customers.

“Good grief,” Turbek says as she closes out of the post and scrolls through her contacts to find the cell phone number of Tony Vlasick, who should be working on a science fiction novel but is instead fooling around on his blog.  She purses her lips together and begins to tap on her phone’s keyboard with the same force she used on her first manual typewriter forty years before.  “Tony–remember what Oscar Wilde said.  ‘I don’t care if the Cavaliers or the Roundheads win, I just want them to keep fighting.’  You’ll never finish ‘The Red Clouds of the Planet Eenore’ if you don’t ignore politics and buckle down.”

A little row of bubbles appears on Turbek’s phone, indicating that her student is preparing a response.  “Sorry Maggie.  I promise not to give a shit about the fate of our nation ever again.”

Turbek is taken aback at the young man’s sarcasm.  “If this was a brick-and-mortar school, I’d send him to the principal’s office to be paddled by the vice principal,” she says, and this reporter notices that a bit of color has flowed into her face.  “This calls for a more emphatic response,” she says, and instead of texting back Turbek switches to vocal mode and calls the young man, putting him on a speaker phone.

“Hi, Maggie,” he begins a bit sheepishly, but she cuts him off.

“Listen, you dingbat.  I lived through Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, LBJ and Nixon, okay?”

“I’m sorry, Maggie, I . . .”

“No, you listen up and listen good.  ‘The dogs bark, the caravan moves on,’ understand?  What you think about politics doesn’t matter to anyone but you.  If you want the congratulations of all your ‘bros’ down at the sports bar, keep it up.  If you want to be a writer, get your ass in your chair and start writing.”

There is silence, and then finally a meekly-voiced question.  “Do you think I should name the princess of the Plutarians Ee-ka-Nora, or Ee-ka-Phyllis?”

At the Junior Algonquin Club

It’s getting close to Labor Day, time for me to check on the kids to see how they’re doing with their summer reading lists. Things haven’t changed much in our little town since I was a boy; every spring when school gets out a prim, lavender-scented woman at our local library draws up a list of ten categories, and parents agree that each boy and girl who reads a book in all of them by Labor Day gets a reward.


Summer reading fun!

 

There’s fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, science, sports, biography, hobbies, geography and romance. I was kidding about that last one just to see if you were paying attention; the tenth category is mystery/free choice, so the aging Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew hardbacks on the shelves still get a workout, as does Duns Scotus, the Scholastic philosopher generally known as the Godfather of Free Will.

I call the boys into the den—they know what’s coming. I never actually got a cupcake when I was a kid, because—story of my life—I’d choke on one single category (usually poetry) rather than sucking it up and reading “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” My sons are the product of breeding–as you might expect–and have acquired the stick-to-itiveness of their mother’s side of the family; finish the job, no matter how inconsequential or boring, for somebody might be looking, or it could come up on your performance review.


Stevenson: “God, I was hoping I wouldn’t appear in this post.”

 

“Let’s see what you’ve got here, Skipper,” I say to the younger of the two, a “rising” fifth-grader to use the new performance-enhanced lingo of the education profession. “Well, looks like you’re going to get a cupcake, young man!” I say proudly.

“He didn’t finish ‘The Witchcraft of Salem Village,’” his big brother Scooter says, tattling on him. I’m projecting him to be a first-round draft pick by the National Security Agency in about ten years.

“Skip—is that true?” I ask. This is a subject close to my heart, as the book in question was one of my favorites growing up.

“I got too scared,” Skipper says, stiffling a snife—I mean stifling a sniff.

I lift him up on my knee to impress upon him the importance of the matter.

“Skip,” I say with as much fatherly gravity as I can muster, “it’s important for you to understand just what happened here in Massachusetts back then.”

“What?” Skip says—he’s fighting back tears.

“Here in the cradle of liberty, one of our most precious freedoms is the right to harass our neighbors if they’re really weird.”

“Like how?” Scooter asks—he’s interested now.


                         “More rocks!”

 

“Well, crazy old women, men who own land you want—you call them names, pretty soon everybody hates them, then you burn them at the stake.”

“Cool!” You know that was Scooter.

“Or you crush them under rocks until they confess,” I add.

“What if they don’t?” Skipper asks.

“Well, they’d better, because until they do, you just keep piling more rocks on them.”

I can tell from Skip’s furrowed brow that he’s somehow troubled by the superficial unfairness of our unique system of justice, admired the world over. “You don’t have to worry about somebody innocent dying,” I tell him as I plop him back down on the floor. “Once our elected officials and newspaper of record and blow-dried TV reporters start a witch hunt, they’re never wrong. Just ask them!”


Coakley: “We all make mistakes–but I don’t have to admit them.”

 

He’s mollified, so I turn to his big brother. “Let’s see, Scoots.”

He hands me his card and I have to squint to make out the title in the Poetry category. “What’s this say—‘Arsenal and Other Poems’?”

“It’s Ariel,” he says correcting me, referring to the landmark second volume of poems by Sylvia Plath, the overrated poetess who grew up one town over from us.

“Really?” I say, and I try to work as much skepticism into that word as I can. “Who suggested that book?”


Plath: “What’s your problem–everybody else likes me.”

 

“Ms. Frobisher,” he says, referring to his fifth grade teacher, a young woman whose hyper-political approach to earth science caused our little elementary school to crap out of the pâpier-maché volcano regional tournament without making the finals for the first time in the 21st century. That’s what you get when you blame dinosaur extinction on George W. Bush.

It’s time for Scoot’s Little Lesson in Life from dad. “Scoots,” I say gently but firmly. “That book has a lot of racist and anti-Semitic images in it.”

His faces clouds over. “That means it’s bad, right?”

“I don’t think so—all the critics thought it was great.”

“But–they told us on Diversity Day,” Scoots begins, but I cut him off.

“Diversity is for saps,” I tell him. “When you’re a liberal poet—like Plath or Tom Paulin–you can say anything you want!”

I’m not sure they’re persuaded, but I’m the only published poet in the house, so they defer to my aesthetic ruling.

“Well, an objective judge might disagree with me, but I’m your dad so I’m going to sign your cards.”

“Yay—cupcakes!” Skipper yells.

“Not so fast, young man,” I say, putting the brakes on his enthusiasm. “Cupcakes are dessert. First you have to have a wholesome dinner.”

“But we get an afternoon treat,” Scooter says.

He’s right, and I see from the fancy faux-antique clock that my wife bought to make my man-of-letters cave less comfortable that it’s three o’clock, the Pavlovian point at which by routine the boys’ mouths start watering for a snack.

“All right. But you can’t have a cupcake on an empty stomach. First you’ve got to have cocktails.”

The two look at each other as if I’m daft–they score very high on aptitude tests, by the way. “We can’t drink anything in the liquor cabinet—you told us,” Scooter says.

“We’ll make some play cocktails. Why don’t you call up Mary Beth Schoenen and Tommy Valvo and ask them to come over.”

“If we do, there won’t be as many cupcakes for us,” Skipper says.

“I knew you guys would come through, so I got enough to go around. I want you kids to learn how to have a literary soirée.”

“What’s a . . . swa-ray?” Scooter asks.

“Since you’re both so literate, now you ask your friends over for a Junior Algonquin Round Table Party!”

“What’s that?” Skipper asks.

“Well, the Algonquin Round Table was a bunch of funny men and women, all very well-read. They’d get together and make smart remarks about each other.”

“Whenever we do that mom tells us not to be ‘fresh.’”

“I know, bub. She’s just trying to make sure you grow up to be a well-behaved, respectful young man so you can toady up to people who have more money than you.”


Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley

 

“Why would I want to do that?” Skipper asks.

“So they’ll give some to you!” I fairly shout. I’m tempted to say “Duh,” but I refuse to corrupt the boys’ speech the way I undermine their morals.

“Oh, I get it,” Skipper says.

“Great. Well, let’s get going—you call your friends, I’ll set the kids’ table and put out the Hostess snack treats.”

The boys’ friends arrived in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, and Mary Beth Schoenen almost wouldn’t come in when she saw the mess the lamb had made on the floor. “Eww,” she said. “Lamb doody!”

“I’ll clean it up, you kids sit down and start being witty.”

Each of the boys took a card from our Junior Algonquin Club deck; Skipper draws Robert Benchley, my favorite because we both lived in Worcester, Mass., one of two—count ‘em—two Roundtable members to come from the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World, the other being playwright S.N. Behrman. Scooter picks George S. Kaufman, another playwright and author of several Marx Brothers screenplays; Tommy Valvo goes last because he’s guest—the transvaluation of values as my buddy Fred Nietzsche would say–and selects . . . Harold Ross.

“Who’s he?” Tommy asked.

“Only the greatest editor The New Yorker ever had.”


Harold Ross

 

“What’s The New Yorker?” Tommy asked.

“It’s the magazine that keeps turning our dad down,” Scooter said. He really knows how to twist the knife.

Mary Beth has only two choices, Ruth Hale and Dorothy Parker. I cross my fingers and hope against hope that she won’t pick Hale, a tiresome feminist and a freelance writer more successful than me.

“Turn it over, Mary Beth,” I said. Yes—Dorothy Parker!

“I don’t want to be her,” Mary Beth said, her little mouth turned upside down into an exaggerated frown.

“Why not, sugar?” I asked.

“She was unhappy.”

I don’t have any daughters, so I was a bit uncertain as to how to proceed. “Mary Beth—think of all the happy women you know, like your mom and her friends.”

“Yes?”

“Don’t you think they’d be much happier if they knew that people would be repeating their funny jokes nearly a half century after they died?”

She thought about this for a second; I could tell she was struggling with the concept of posthumous fame. “I don’t think so,” she said finally.

“Why not?” I asked, genuinely interested in the workings of the female litterateur’s mind.

“Because my mommy wants a new Sub-Zero refrigerator—she told my daddy.”


“Hmm–more venom, or more spleen?”

 

“Oh, okay,” I said. I should have known that people in our wealth-obsessed suburb would make bad choices and prefer material comforts while they were alive to acclaim that they couldn’t enjoy once they were cremated and their ashes scattered over unsuspecting sunbathers on Cape Cod.

“Well,” I said to Mary Beth, “in Junior Algonquin Club, as in life, you have to play the cards you’re dealt, so you’re going to have to be Dorothy Parker, okay?”

“Fudge!” she said bitterly, and then—much to my surprise—blurted out a little quatrain that sounded like something Parker might have written when she was a girl:

You tell me how I should prefer
Future fame to stuff in the present,
I disagree, and I demur
I’m not a stupid peasant.

“That’s very good for a little girl,” I said. “Where did you learn that?”

“We did a unit on Depression as a Fuel to Creativity in Language Arts,” she says, before excusing herself to bang on the bathroom door. “I’m not through!” Skipper calls out from within.

Things settle down in a bit and I make the kids a pitcherful of lemonade “martinis” that I serve with a raisin garnish. Skipper starts to gulp his, but I remind him to observe ceremonial conventions. “Somebody needs to propose a toast.”

“I had toast for breakfast,” Tommy says.

“Not that kind of toast—you say something fitting about the occasion.”

“Like what?” Mary Beth asks.

“Well, for example, if one of you got an A on a paper . . .”

“We all get A’s on our papers,” they say in unison. I’d forgotten about grade inflation.

“Okay, well, if one of you just got a big part in a school play, or won the talent contest.”

I see four sets of lips purse together as they think for a moment. “I got a gold star on my drawing the other day.”

“Okay, let’s work with that. Guys—anybody?”

Skipper, the natural gentlemen, rises to the occasion: “To Dorothy,” he says as he stands up and raises his glass. “On her latest, but most assuredly not her last artistic triumph!”

“Hear, hear!” I say. We all take a sip of our lemonade-tinis.

“Now what?” Scooter asks.

“Now you all make cutting remarks about each other. Mary Beth—why don’t you go first?”

She looks around the table until her eyes lock on Scooter, as if he’s an animal caught in the crosshairs of her rifle scope. “You stink!” she cries out.

“Do not!” Scooter fires right back.

“Kids, please,” I say, intervening as a thoughtful, conscientious parent should when a party game threatens to spin out of control.

“But you told me to!” Mary Beth pleads by way of excuse.

“I should have made myself more clear. You have to proceed by indirection if you want to be known as a wit.”

“What does ‘indirection’ mean?” Skipper asks.

“It means you have to insult your friends in an obscure, roundabout way. So if Mary Beth thinks Scooter stinks, she can say ‘I think I’m going to change seats. Being downwind from Scooter is like walking along the beach at low tide.’”

“Ew!” Tommy says, holding his nose. “P.U.!”

They all giggle except Scooter, who is not known for his adherence to high standards of personal hygiene.

“Okay, Skip—why don’t you give it a shot,” I say, encouraging my younger son who can be something of a wallflower in grade school social settings.

He looks around the table, and both Tommy and Mary Beth put on their most innocent faces, hoping to divert whatever spleen Skip may be capable of venting onto someone else.

That someone is, naturally, Scooter, who has made his little brother’s life a living hell for the better part of a decade, what with noogies, wedgies, Indian sunburn and—most painful of all—“monkey bites,” a hard clamp with the hand to the region of the thigh right behind the knee.

“Can I have your cupcake, Scooter?” he asks after a moment, in the sweetest, most genial voice you can imagine.

“No, dubohead,” Scooter snaps. “Why would I do that?”

“I didn’t think you’d still be hungry,” Skipper says, “after picking your nose and eating it all day.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Scooter and Skipper Blow Things Up!”

Salad Lovers Fret as Crouton Shortage Looms

GREEN RIDGE, Mo. Sam Jones has been a grain buyer in this small town for nearly four decades, but he wears an expression of concern as he watches farmers arrive at the local grain elevator to sell their crops. “If I had the money right now, which I don’t,” he says with a knowing look, “I’d be buying up all the croutons I could find.”


Ripe croutons, ready for harvest

 

Croutons–sauteed or rebaked bread that is seasoned, cut into cubes and added to salads and soups to provide texture and flavor–are a reliable cash crop in the Midwest, where school children have historically been excused from class during spring planting and fall harvest times.  “It’s a way of life,” says Marilee Dunham, whose husband Darrell puts their five sons and two daughters to work in early June “de-tasselling” crouton plants to enhance fertilization. “It teaches the kids about the rhythms of nature and the seasons, and the role of the Caesar salad in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.”


Harvest time

 

But some fear the salad days of croutons are ending, with demand for biodiesel fuels eating up available acreage. “It’s sad,” says Wayne Durrell, Mayor of Green Ridge, whose seven year-old daughter Kylie was named Little Miss Crouton during the town’s annual Crouton Festival last summer. “To see a way of life wither away and die all because a bunch of goo-goo liberals want to feel good about what they put in the gas tanks of their hybrids.”


World’s Largest Crouton, Missouri State Fair, Sedalia, Mo.

 

As with all changes in economic trends, this one produces both winners and losers. While biodiesel producers benefit from government-sponsored tax breaks, small towns such as Green Ridge find their traditions threatened by agribusiness giants that buy up land at distressed prices and convert them to open-air factories, where a former independent farmer often finds himself tilling a field he once owned for a distant–-and faceless–-corporate crouton enterprise.


Bumper crop from 2014

 

“I’ll do what I have to in order to feed my family,” says Wendell Baker, Jr., whose family has raised croutons for three generations but who is now a contract employee for a commodities producer headquartered in Chicago. “But the pride we used to feel when we walked by the salad bar at Wendy’s is gone.”