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.”

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.”

New England Ends Suicide Watch as Patriots Even Record

SAGAMORE, Mass.  Richard “Richie” Guertin is a forlorn-looking figure as he sits in a police cruiser sipping a cup of coffee while Adele Smithers, a volunteer from a local suicide prevention charity, assures him he’s made the right decision.  “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you,” she says cheerfully.  “A meaningless job, annoying neighbors, a crappy 2019 Kia Ray–what’s not to like?”


“Don’t do it!”

The source of Guertin’s despair that caused him to contemplate a leap to his death from the Sagamore Bridge, the #1 site for suicides in New England?  “You can’t really blame me, can you?” he says to Sergeant Dan Hampy of the Massachusetts State Police.  “I woulda had nothin’ left to live for if the Patriots opened the season 0-2,” he says of his abandoned effort to kill himself.


Kia Ray EV: Something to live for.

 

Hampy surveys the scene and decides to let Guertin off with a warning.  “People like you cost the state a lot of money in overtime for people like me,” he says tersely.  “If it keeps up, I may be able to buy a place on Lake Winnipesaukee and retire early.”

Law enforcement officers have been on high alert since the New England Patriots, winners of six or seven Super Bowls, no one knows for sure, lost their opening game to the Miami Dolphins, a group of highly intelligent aquatic mammals.  Because of the Patriots’ past success, fans have grown complacent and feel entitled to regular season victories and at least one (1) home playoff game per year.

Disaster was averted when the Patriots squeezed out a 17-14 road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team whose own glorious past has faded due to competition from low-cost, high-tech steelmakers in other countries.

The New England professional football team provides vicarious meaning to the lives of men in the region who otherwise suffer from the quiet desperation spoken of by Henry David Thoreau, a local 19th century sage who died shortly before the merger of the AFL into the NFL.

worcester1
Thoreau: “Take the points on the road.”

The Patriots went two decades between losing seasons before falling to 7-9 in 2020.  That disaster set off an extended period of soul searching that ended only when television re-runs of “Soul Train,” a dance show that aired from 1971 through 2006, had been replayed in their entirety on the region’s cable TV stations.

worcester4

Grief counselors say it is unrealistic to expect spoiled Patriots fans to recover immediately from the team’s fall to mediocrity following the departure of quarterback Tom Brady, and that the healing process will take time.  “In a situation such as this a change of scenery is critical,” says Dr. Linda Sentri of MGH-Brigham-Pilgrim-Vanguard-Partners, the region’s sole remaining health care provider following a series of mergers.  “If Mac Jones gets a supermodel wife like Brady, male fans can find closure by ogling her.”

Mud Lizards Decry Political Environment as Mid-Terms Approach

FRAMINGHAM, Mass.  It’s 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and Jim Glzorp readily admits he’d rather be in bed than standing outside in the cold handing out leaflets at a strip mall.  “I’ve successfully avoided politics all my life,” he says, as his 9-year-old son Jim, Jr. hugs his leg.  “When I read about all the crazies out there these days, I had to start getting involved–for my kid’s future.”

Glzorp is referring to a recent poll showing 4% of registered voters believe lizard people control American society through political power, a number that shocked him into action.  “I really don’t know where we went wrong,” he says.  “That number should be much higher.”

Glzorp is a shape-shifting mud-lizard, one of the two main reptilian political parties who vie with each other for invisible dominance of humans.  “We take a more laissez-faire approach,” he says, after giving his son a $5 bill for a frozen yogurt cone.  “The Annunaki Party wants to run your life down to how many times you floss, whether you wear boxers or briefs, and what kind of vacuum cleaner you use, upright or canister.”


“I’m glad we could reach a bi-partisan compromise that puts lizards’ interests above those of humans.”

In the past, lizards have been content to control the world on a top-down basis, infiltrating the United Nations, the Freemasons and senior management of Starbucks, but many are starting to question that approach after learning of the dismal 4% number.  “We really haven’t gotten out into the communities where we live,” says Mike Axzliia, who lists himself as an “independent” lizard but who leans towards shape-shifting mud lizard positions on major policy issues, including his personal environmental “hot button,” the wide-spread use of insecticides by humans that keeps lizards’ food costs high.  “We should be running for school board, town council, those humble offices that touch humans’ lives directly, so we can make a difference,” he says.


“We’ve been at this for several hours.  Let’s take a break and go eat some bugs.”

But lizard leaders agree it will take a lot of effort on the part of volunteers in “retail” politics to bring about change, a fact that doesn’t seem to darken Jim Glzorp’s mood as he watches his son return followed by a human child, 8-year-old Jimmy Cagnetta, whom he met inside the mall.

“He followed me back!” Jim Jr. says to his dad with a big smile.  “Can I keep him?”

Dinner With the Footnotes

My wife’s phone gave off a strange sound and, after she’d looked down at its screen, she said “Oh no,” and not in a cheerful way.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“It’s Pam Footnote,” she said as she picked up her mobile device, the better to see the full text of the message that lay concealed beneath the placid green screen.  “They want to have us over for dinner.”

I groaned, inwardly and outwardly.  “I thought we were done with them,” I said, recalling my Reverse Triangular Strategem for Getting Two Annoying Couples Out of Your Life With One Fell Stroke; I had invited them to dinner with our most liberal friends, hoping that the latter twosome’s strident political approach to all issues great and small would cause them to permanently break off our friendship, and that the former’s indifference to anything other than conspicuous consumption–golf, decorating, travel, etc.–would constitute a bridge too far for the leftie couple.

“Your brilliant idea completely backfired,” my wife said, and with more than a little smug satisfaction.  “Both couples left congratulating themselves on how tolerant they were, and how they’d made friends of people who were totally at the opposite end of the spectrum from them.”

“It was worth a shot,” I said, as I stuck my nose back into my glass of Malbec, hoping the vapors would send me to a place far, far away, where scents would overrule sense and the irrational would ride astride the rational mind like a child on a supermarket mechanical horse.  “So, do we have to accept?”

“I can hardly say no,” my wife said.  “I saw her in the grocery store the other day and let slip . . .”

“The dogs of war?” I asked, reverting to Shakespeare, the last grip I had on Western Civ before I fell asleep.

“No, silly, that we were in town for the weekend and didn’t have any plans.”

“You know, if this were a World War II movie, I would have you prosecuted for treason, and maybe even shave your head.”

“Like Sinead O’Connor?”

“A little.  That’s how they punished the French women for sleeping with Nazis.”

“The Footnotes aren’t that bad,” she said as she tapped a reply to the distaff half of the couple.

“History has yet to hand down its judgment,” I said as I finished my wine and toddled–as if I were the City of Chicago–off to bed.

I should provide some backstory, as they say in Hollywood.  The Footnotes–Pam and Dave–go by a different surname, which shall remain undisclosed for fear of libel claims and social retribution.  We gave them their nomme de whatever after sitting through too many dinner and cocktail parties with them, and enduring their dreadful conversation.  They are a mutual perpetual emendation machine, hitting on two cylinders at all times to refine, improve, expand or correct each other’s bland and boring statements.  If Dave says they joined the Woronoco Country Club in 2002, Pam immediately jumps in to say no, it was 2003, that was the year her mother died, she remembers it well.  If Pam says their favorite restaurant Estella’s is at the corner of Clarendon and Newbury Streets in Boston, Dave swoops in like a red-tailed hawk on a field mouse to insist that Dartmouth is the cross-street, don’t you remember, that’s where that parking lot is located.

“Oh yes,” Pam will say, and they’re off, pulling each other further into the Labyrinth like Hansel and Gretel off to find the Minotaur.  A private conversation in a nearly-private language ensues while everyone else sips their drinks, too polite to change the subject, too embarrassed to try and direct them back to the main path of the evening’s discourse.  After awhile the Footnotes emerge back into the sunlight, like cheerful kittens kept in the basement overnight, and blurt out “So how’s work going?” to the first male who catches their eye, or “What’s new with Chloe/Caitlin/Chelsea?” to the first female.  By then the rest of the crowd is too deep in their cups to say anything other than “Fine.”

In short, they are a walking illustration of Noel Coward’s gibe about footnotes: “Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love,” and so we thusly christened them.  In fact, I have often wondered what love-making might be like at Chez Pam et Dave:

Pam:  (. . .) What are you doing?

Dave:  But . . . you like that.

Pam:  Since when?

Dave:  Don’t you remember?  That time in Bermuda, right before we were married?

Pam:  At the little inn that was once a provincial courthouse?

Dave:  Right.

Pam:  No, that was the time we went down with the Palmers, we didn’t have sex that vacation.

When the night for the Dreaded Encounter came, I steeled myself ahead of time with a rye on the rocks, like some character out of a John O’Hara short story.

“You’re drinking before we go?” my wife asked.

“It’s the only way I’m going to get through the evening.”

“Just let them talk, eventually they’ll wear themselves out.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said.  “You can always go fuss in the kitchen over the pre-fabricated Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres you bring.”

With the ground rules thus established, we found ourselves soon enough on the Footnotes’ doorstep and, after the obligatory exchange of air-kisses, made our way into their overheated living room, whose walls are covered with the sort of conventional prints a conventional New England couple inherits from their conventional parents when they suffer the end to which we are all headed by nature, not convention: sail boats, a Cape Cod sunset, one vaguely experimental painting purchased on a madcap weekend in New York and, off to the side, the poorly executed work of a relative whose sense of perspective could trigger an LSD flashback.


The kids

“How have you two been, it’s been ages!” my wife asked with an air of conviviality that, God love her, sounded sincere.

“Oh, puttering along,” Pam said, and I hoped Dave wasn’t going to make some stupid pun about golf, a subject that always sets off my narcolepsy.  “Have you two taken any vacation lately?”

On my scale of Universal Weights and Measures of Boredom, the surest sign that two couples have nothing left to say to each other is when one side asks the other this question, but that may just be me.  My wife pounced on it like a duck on a June bug, as they say where I come from.

“We went to Saratoga Springs last summer to see ballet,” she said, and we were off to the races.

“Oh, I love dance!” Pam said.  “I wish Dave would take me.”

“I took you once,” her worse half said.

“No you didn’t!” Pam countered, with mock outrage.

“Yes I did, that time with the Nugents.”

“When?”

“At that big auditorium.”

“The Convention Center?”

“Not the new one, the old one, on Boylston Street.”

“That wasn’t ballet, that was some Chinese cultural thing.”

“You said ‘dance.’  There were dancers on stage.”

“You had to go because of work, it was free, so that doesn’t count.”

I stared down into my drink and, seeing that it was both half-full and half-empty, got up to refresh it in the kitchen.  I figured by the time I got back the Footnotes would have reached the intermission of the long-forgotten event, and we might have a chance to get things back on track.

Sure enough, when I returned the Footnotes had stopped for re-fueling, and had turned over the conversational driving to my wife.

“How are the kids?” she asked innocently, perhaps thinking that it would be hard for any couple to disagree as to the basic facts of their children’s existence.

“Oh, Jeremy’s fine but he quit his job at the consulting firm and is working on an ‘app’–whatever that is.”

Risky life decisions by offspring–while rich fodder for conversation among our other friends–struck me as a cue for infinite regression on the Footnotes’ part, so I quickly interjected with something less sensitive, and more quantifiable.

“Where’s he living now?” I asked.

“In South Boston,” the husband said.

“It’s not South Boston where he lives, it’s something else,” Pam corrected him.  “The South End . . .”

“That’s not the South End,” Dave said.  “The South End is way the hell over on the other side of the Turnpike.”

“Well, it’s the Seaport, or the Innovation District, or the Waterfront or something, but it’s definitely not South Boston.”

“South Boston is trendy now, they should stop trying to name it something else,” Dave said in a voice devoid of defensiveness.  That’s how the Footnotes are; never contentious, always dry, academic, just-the-facts-ma’am, the Joe Fridays of social chit-chat.

“Well, I think he calls it something else.  Fort Point Channel?”

I looked at my watch, and I didn’t try to hide it.  I felt as if we were trapped inside an encyclopedia, and were only halfway through the volume with Aa-As on the spine.

“What’s that I smell from the kitchen?” I interjected.  No one’s ever actually died of starvation at the Footnotes, but I didn’t want to take a chance.

“I’m making noisettes du porc au pruneaux,” Pam said.

“Sounds yummy!” my wife said.  “What’s that?”  I’m the Francophile in the family.


Yum!

“It’s a six-day bicycle race in France,” I said.

“Oo, you’re bad!” Pam said to me, then to my wife, “It’s pork with prunes.”  To my shock and surprise, the next words out of Dave’s mouth didn’t include a correction.

“We tried it when we took a tour of the Loire Valley in 2005,” he said.

“It wasn’t 2005,” Pam replied, “that was the summer right before Jeremy graduated from college, so it would have been 2004.”

“It wasn’t 2004, I would remember.  That’s the year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.”

I was tempted to jump in with some sports talk and break the mind-forg’d manacles that always seemed to lock up the Footnotes’ talk, but I hesitated and was lost.

“It had to be 2004, he graduated from high school in 2000, so . . .”

“You’re forgetting,” Dave said, gently reminding her.  “He got that F in biology on his junior year abroad, so he didn’t graduate until 2005.”

Pam was, for just a moment, speechless; there it was, out in the open, for all to see, like an upchucked chipmunk from their cat Mitzi on the rug in front of us.  The shame, the embarrassment that our children can cause us, we who like to present a placid exterior to our social equals, betters and inferiors.  I could detect in her face the hot flush of blood rushing to her cheeks.  It took her a moment, but–like the dinner party trouper she was–she shook off the blow and in a second had her wits about her again.

“It wasn’t biology,” she said finally.  “It was organic chemistry.”

Volunteers Raise Like Millions for Liberal Arts Major Disease

LAS VEGAS, Nevada.  It’s Sunday morning in this desert city and the streets are quiet.  Inside the casinos, where there are no clocks, gamblers who have played through the night order breakfast at blackjack and craps tables.

At the edge of town in the studio of channel KQJA (for “King-Queen-Jack-Ace”), a small crew of technicians is working as comedian Sheldon “Shecky” Felton begins the final day of his national telethon to raise funds for his signature charity, which doesn’t have enough clout to pay for air time on Labor Day weekend.

“Ladies and gentlemen out there in the television land–I’m begging you,” he says, exhausted from two straight days of singing, cracking jokes and talking to guests.  “Liberal Arts Major Disease cuts down our kids in the prime of their youth, just as they’re about to begin their journey into adulthood.  It’s the saddest thing in the world.  So please-give and give generously.  Now we have two little girls who’ve come all the way from Calumet City, Illinois to dance for us–please welcome–The Tapping Twitchells!”

Liberal Arts Major Disease–the delusion that all big numbers are essentially the same–is an affliction that affects more than 80 million Americans.  Its onset can be traced to the realization among high school upperclassmen that they have completed the minimum number of math classes required in order to graduate.

“A lot of kids basically shut down the left side of their brains as soon as they finish Algebra II or Geometry,” says Dr. Philip Heyman at the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk.  “The degenerative process begins the moment they know they’ll never have to take another math class.”

Experts say that Liberal Arts Major Disease, or “LAMD,” effects America’s productivity as well as its long-term future.  “You look at China and India, they are cranking out more engineers and obtaining many more patents,” says Erskine Hollins of the Council on Economic Progress, a business-government group.  “Of course those kids have been chained to their desks for two decades, but we should be able to overcome that competitive advantage with a little more discipline.”

Back in Las Vegas, a contingent from the National Council of Plumbers and Pipefitters makes their appearance on the KQJA set to present an oversized check in the amount of $1,500, which Shecky Felton, who himself suffers from LAMD, graciously accepts.  “Guys–this is just fantastic.  Fifteen hundred dollars!  Wow!  Let’s see-we had a million nine hundred thirty-thousand before so now we’ve got, let’s see . . .”  His voice trails off and the producer, sensing trouble, cuts to a commercial.

Meanwhile, across the country in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a stream of volunteers is holding a walk-a-thon along the 26.2 mile route of the Boston Marathon to raise money for LAMD.  “Hey look, everybody,” says Meghan Morrissey, a first-year student at Wellesley College from Saratoga, New York.  “The sign says its 13.5 miles from here to Hopkinton,” the walk’s starting point.  “That means we’ve only got like-uh-15 more miles to go!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Spirit of Giving.”

Our Hypoallergenic Night Out

Saturday night found us–we hadn’t been missing that long–with our friends Ted and Sally at Nourriture, which is French for “food.”  Tres simple! as we used to say in Madame Clooney’s 10th grade classe de Francais when we wanted to show off our knowledge of cognates.

After we were seated the water boy came by and asked if we wanted still or sparkling, then a comely young woman named Claire stopped tableside to say she’d be taking care of us tonight.  If only, I thought to myself as I shot a glance at Ted.

“First I must ask if anyone has any allergies,” she asked with a hint of chagrin, sprinkled with cumin and cardamom.  “It is, you know, ‘the law,'” she said, making little air quotes.

That’s what makes the Commonwealth (not a state–please!) of Massachusetts such a great place to live.  Founded by nay-saying Puritan divines, we’ve got laws for everything, and some for nothing at all.

Claire surveyed our faces and with that semi-apologetic air that comes over Presbyterians whenever they cause the least inconvenience, my wife spoke first.

“I’m allergic to some of my husband’s jazz,” she said, almost sheepishly.

“Okay,” Claire said.  “Any particular kind?”

“It’s strange,” my wife said, “but I have a particularly strong reaction to jazz violin–which he loves.”  I patted her hand to re-assure her that, despite our differences, my love for her was unlimited.  Up to a point.

“But you like classical violin, don’t you?” Sally said, and she was right.  Check her Pandora settings and you’ll find “Violin, classical, heavy on the schmaltz.”

“I do, but jazz violin–it’s so hectic and scritchy-scratchy.  It drives me nuts.”

“Even Stephane Grappelli,” I said, shaking my head.  “And don’t get her started about Stuff Smith.”

Stuff Smith 3
Stuff Smith:  “Why me?”

 

“Oh God,” my wife groaned.  “Just the mention of his name makes me want to cover my ears.”

Claire made a little moue with her mouth–what other facial feature was she going to make it with?  “That’s too bad,” she said as she jotted something on her little pad.  “And you madame?” she asked, turning to Sally.

“I’m allergic to guys yammering about football as if everyone cared,” she said.  I looked around quickly and saw there was only one television in the place, and it was over the bar in a spot where Sally couldn’t see it without turning around.  So we were probably in the clear on that one.

“Is it . . . just on TV, or do live human beings have the same effect on you?” Claire asked in a deadpan, just-the-facts-ma’am tone, like Sgt. Joe Friday’s sidekick Harry Morgan in Dragnet.


“I think the team that scores the most points is gonna win!”

 

“Both,” Sally said.  “Although the ones on television seem to have no necks, while the ones around here”–she turned to look at her husband, then me, then around the room generally–“they all seem to have body parts that connect their heads to their torsos.  Why is that?”


“Do you have the same reaction to pre-season games?”

 

“It’s because the ones you see on TV played football too long, and they have no necks left from ramming their heads into each other,” Ted said.  “Guys like us got out while the getting was good,” he added, and I nodded in agreement.  As I often say, the three happiest days of my life were my wedding day, the day I got out of the University of Chicago, and the day I quit high school football.

“Duly noted,” Claire said.  “Gentlemen?”

“You first,” I said to Ted.

“I’m very allergic to decorating magazines,” he said, and I could tell by the look that passed over his face–like the shadow of a storm cloud on a sunny day–that his pain was real.

“Ted,” Sally said with genuine concern in her voice.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was only recently that I hit my saturation level,” he said.

“Like the point where Stevie Wonder and I had both smoked so much pot that the THC in our systems turned us paranoid?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Ted said.  “I mean, we get Southern Living and New England Home.”

“That’s why we fought the Civil War,” I said to Sally.  “To preserve this great nation of ours.”

“We get House Beautiful and Beautiful Home,” Ted said.

“Almost a decorating palindrome,” I said.

“What’s an arena for bicycle racing have to do with interior decorating?” my wife asked.

“You’re thinking of a velodrome,” Ted said.  “A palindrome is a combination of words that reads the same forwards and backwards, like ‘A man, a plan, a canal–Panama!'”

“Oh,” my wife said.  She’s the math major, I’m the word guy.

“But yesterday,” Ted said, then paused for a moment as if the difficulty of what he was about to say took the air out of his lungs.  “I saw a copy of Vestibule magazine on the coffee table.”

“It’s free,” Sally said.  “I didn’t buy it–it comes with . . .”

“It doesn’t matter, it was the tipping point for me,” Ted said, color rushing into his cheeks.  “What’s next–Den Magazine?  Foyer Magazine?  Sears Tool Shed Magazine.”

Claire waited a second for that storm to pass.  “Et vous?” she asked, turning to me.

I swallowed, and hard.  When one suffers from a crippling disability, it isn’t easy to admit it publicly.  “I,” I began, but stopped, all choked up.

Lady Di
We really have one.

 

“Yes?” my wife said, her eyes little pools of sympathy.

“I’m allergic to Anglophiles.”

You could have heard a breadstick hit the richly-carpeted floor of the little boit de nuite (literally: “box of night”).

“Sweetie,” my wife said, her face a map of anguish.  “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because,” and here I was gasping for breath, “I know how much the little princess in you loves British royalty.  I’ve overcome my deep aversion to landed gentry and upper-class British twits and learned to live with you and your Lady Di-Prince Charles fruitcake tin, but . . . it’s hard.”

“Isn’t there something you can take for it?” Sally asked.  She’s a doctor, and thinks that Western medicine has a cure for everything.

“There’s no drug strong enough to counter-act the pervasive Anglophilia around here,” I said.  I tried not to be curt, but people have no idea what I go through every day.  “Channel 2”–our award-winning public TV station–“would have nothing but dead air to broadcast if it weren’t for tepid British dramas.”

“They never show any sports, that’s for sure,” Ted said.

“And if they did, it would be cricket,” I said.  There was a lump in my throat, and you could hear it in my voice.  “We fought a freaking war to rid ourselves of the dead hand of Albion . . .”

“Who’s Albion?” Sally asked.

“A poetic name for England, much used by William Blake.”

“I thought he was one of your jazz violists,” my wife said.

“You’re thinking of Al Biondi–different guy.”

“O-kay,” Claire said.  “Is that it?”

“That’s it for me,” I said as I dabbed at my eyes with my napkin.

“Excellent,” Claire said.  “Excusez-moi for a moment, I must speak to the owner.”  With that she turned and headed towards the maitre’d’s station, and returned with our host, a suave-looking man in a dinner jacket, tuxedo shirt and fake bow tie.

“Bon soir,” the man said.  “My name is Emile.  I am the proprietor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, not sensing any trouble.

“I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave,” he said.  I’d say I was speechless, but I found my tongue and palate and asked him “Why?”

“Because, my friend, you are all so–how you say–allergic, there is nothing on the menu we can serve you.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”

Fantasy Football, Existentialist Style

At first, I had no idea I was in hell.  I was lying in the same street I walk every day at noontime on my way to lunch.

“What happened?” I asked the man who helped me up.

“You stepped off the curb without looking over your shoulder.”

It’s a tricky intersection, especially for Boston, the Jaywalking Capital of America.  Pedestrians flow to the left to get where they’re going, but traffic enters from the right.  I’ve often told myself that it was the place where I was going to die, and I was finally right.  I guess when you’re dead “finally” is the only option.

“Who are you?” I asked the man.

“Beelzebub.”

Image result for downtown crossing

The fallen angel who ranks below Satan in Paradise Lost. “So–I’m not evil enough for the Big Enchilada himself to grace me with his presence?”

“Not even close.  You’re going to hell for some pretty minor stuff.”

“Like what?”

“That weekend where you had . . . uh . . . ‘dates’ with three women.”

“I was in my thirties.”

“And that AIDS joke you seem so fond of.”

“The one where the health worker sees a bunch of junkies sharing a needle, and says ‘Stop that, you’ll get AIDS.’”

“. . . and one of them answers, ‘It’s okay, we’re wearing condoms.’  Yes–that one.”

A bit harsh, if you ask me, but on the other hand, I wasn’t sure I really cared.   Some people want to go to heaven, I’d rather be with my friends.

“Okay–so take me away.”

“Actually, you’re slotted for a place right near here . . . “–-he looked down at his clipboard–-”Tony’s Deli.”

“You’re kidding!” I said.  “That’s where I was going.”

“Funny how that works out.”

“What’s so hellish about going to my favorite diner?”

“Nothing much.  You’ll sit there, day after day, nothing will ever change.”

“What day is today?” I asked, my head still not clear.

“Wednesday.”

“Yes!” I exclaimed, and did a little fist pump.  I’d be feasting on the special–-cranberry-walnut chicken salad sandwiches–-until the end of time.  “Lead the way.”

chicken salad
Cranberry-walnut chicken salad–yum!

Tony’s is something of a hole in the wall since most people get their sandwiches to go and take them back to their desks.  There’s just a skinny counter, which was last wiped down during the first Obama administration, and three tiny tables crammed into a corner.

I felt magnanimous, so I offered to buy my devilish friend lunch.  “Anything you want,” I said expansively.  He got the special on my recommendation, and we sat down at one of the tables.

“So hell is just like Sartre said it would be in No Exit, huh?” I asked him.

“Yep–one of the few things he was right about.  You’re confined to one space, but it’s not like there’s a lake of fire or anything.  Just your normal, everyday environment.”

sartre
Sartre:  “I’ll have tuna in a pita pocket, lettuce and tomato.”

“Huh,” I said.  In retrospect, I was glad I’d set my high school Current Events teacher’s woodpile on fire at the urging of my buddy Ronnie McClary, who ended up going to reform school.  I wouldn’t have missed out on that for all the cherubim in heaven.

We talked about this and that, and three young men sat down next to us.  They were joined in turn by two more at the other table.

“Who you pickin’ at quarterback,” a beefy fellow with his necktie loosened at the collar yelled at one of his friends.

“Gardner Minshew,” the other said.

A third cleared his throat.  “O-kay,” he said dubiously.

“Fantasy football,” I muttered to Beelzebub in explanation.  “This is the time of the year when people pick their teams.”

“Um-hmm,” my satanic lunch mate replied, not wanting to talk with his mouth full.  Apparently there are table manners even in hell.

Lively discussion ensued among the group about shut-down cornerbacks, run-stopping linebackers and third-down backs.  If I weren’t already dead, I’d rather have been dead in a ditch than to have to listen to this self-important drivel.

“If there’s anything in the world that I hate,” I whispered to Beelzebub as he dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin, “it’s listening to people yammer on about their stupid fantasy football teams.”

“I’m with you,” he said.  “Isn’t the game itself–-with its speed and athleticism . . .”

“Don’t forget the violence . . .”

“I was just about to say that–-isn’t that enough?  Is your life so pathetic that you need vicarious gratification running some stupid fictional football franchise.  Go out and get laid every now and then, fer Christ sake.”

darth
“If those guys don’t shut up about Tom Brady, I’m going to whack them with my light sabre.”

Unlike me, Beelzebub had been less than circumspect about keeping his views to himself.  Whenever one of the thick-necked louts would look at him, however, he would glare back with a mind-melting stare, sort of like Darth Vader on the bridge of the Death Star, and the guy would shrink back into his cotton-poly blend shirt.

“Well, you’re all set,” Beelzebub said as he stood up.  He picked up his plate and soda can and deposited them in the trash.

“Yeah, thanks for everything,” I said as I stood up to shake his hand.  “I guess this place will be clearing out pretty soon after the lunch crowd leaves.”

“Leaves?” Beelzebub asks.  “No, I don’t think anybody’s leaving.”

I looked at him, then at the fantasy football general managers sitting at the table.  They looked back at me with malevolent smiles, then started in again.

“Brady’s over the hill,” one young fellow in a garish purple shirt-and-tie combo said.  “You need help on special teams.”

“Excuse me,” Beelzebub said as he scooted behind their chairs on his way out.  And then to me–-“Have a nice eternity.”

One Hurt in Collision at Intersection of Art and Commerce

WELLESLEY FALLS, Mass.  Beth Upshaw is both a painter herself and an intrepid soul who helps others make a living in the hand-to-mouth world of the arts by operating a gallery in this upscale suburb.  “I know I could make more money at a nine-to-five job,” she says as she adjusts the frame of a work by her friend Cecilia Carver, “but I wouldn’t get that little glow you feel when you make the world a more beautiful place.”

art

Image result for suburban art galleryThat can-do attitude is what led Upshaw to take money out of her retirement plan–at a tax penalty–to open bEth uPshaw sTudios, as her stylized logo expresses it.  “It throws people off their guard for a second–they stop, look and hopefully come in.”

But Upshaw is off her game a bit as she opens up this morning; a fight with her boyfriend Kurt Mergen Saturday night has put a damper on her spirits, and she has to work harder than usual to greet customers pleasantly, much less cheerfully.  “Kurt didn’t like his wine at Boit de Nuit,” she explains of their dinner date gone wrong, “and things spiraled downhill from there.”  Upshaw took a sniff and told him not to be a whiner because the restaurant was busy and a woman she knew was waiting on them.  Mergen got defensive, saying he knew more about wine than she did, and Upshaw reminded him that she’d been a sommelier in a previous life in 19th century France.

Image result for art gallery
“The catalog says this is the air conditioner vent.”

That was the last straw for Mergen, who rolled his eyes and then struck at her most vulnerable spot; her own art, which she describes as “post-neo-pop-Abstract Expressionist.”  “I have a hard time imagining you in that context,” he snapped as he tore a piece of baguette in half.  “You, who produces the kind of art that wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of a bank lobby.”

Color rushed into Upshaw’s face, and her eyes narrowed to grim little slits as she hissed “You son-of-a-bitch!”  Diners seated nearby who didn’t hear her realized there was a problem when she stood up, put on her coat and scarf and stormed out of the restaurant, stopping only to take a mint at the cash register.

Image result for art bank lobby“I’m fine now,” she says as she excuses herself to wait on an elderly couple who’ve come in to browse, “but that bastard has had his last free plastic cup of chardonnay and cheese-on-crackers at my gallery openings.”

Image result for art bank lobby
“Excuse me–none of these pens work.”

The customers–a man and woman who have moved into a +55 year-old condominium complex up the street from Upshaw’s gallery–congratulate Upshaw on the life and color that she brings to their new neighborhood.  “People who think the suburbs are boring should come see your little place!” the woman gushes.  “I had no idea we were moving into a Little Bohemia here.”

Upshaw demurs appreciatively and leaves the two to themselves, offering to help them if anything “catches their fancy.”  After a turn around the gallery the man comes back to her desk and asks about a piece that holds pride of place on the largest wall in the all-white space; a striking red, yellow and blue work that Mergen once compared to a Wonder Bread bag on acid during a previous argument between the two young lovers.

“Number 43?” Upshaw inquires hopefully.

“Yes.”

“Well, that one’s by me!” she says with a note of modest self-approval in her voice.

Image result for wonder bread bag
Wonder Bread bag (not on acid)

“Oh, you’re an artist, too!” the woman exclaims, and Upshaw blushes just a bit.  “Well, I’d better be after what my parents spent on my MFA!”

The older couple laughs, and the man explains that they just wrote their last tuition check the previous spring.  “How much is this one?” he asks as his eye roams over the canvas.

Upshaw gulps just a bit; she can tell the two aren’t hagglers, so her fear is they will walk out if she tells them that she was hoping to get $5,000 for it.  The bitter memory of the night before has given her a stiffer spine, however.  “I am an artist, dammit!” she says to herself as she recalls Mergen’s brutal put-down.  “And I deserve to be paid what I’m worth!”

She surprises herself by blurting out “Five thousand” before her resolution can become sicklied over with the pale cast of modesty, and is shocked when the man says “That sounds reasonable–I’ll take it!”

The transaction is concluded happily at the gallery’s point of sale terminal, and Upshaw says she hopes the couple will enjoy the painting in their new home.

“This isn’t for the condo,” the man says.  “I’m the president of the new bank that’s going in up the street–I’m going to put it in the lobby.”