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.”

Gritty City Creates Knowledge Zone, But Some Feel Left Out

WORCESTER, Mass.  This gritty central Massachusetts city is known to some as the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World, and to others for its numerous railroad car diners.  What it is not known for, to the dismay of many, is its educational and cultural attractions.

worcester
Miss Worcester Diner

“We’re sort of a country cousin to Boston,” notes civic leader Emil Niland, and even though Worcester is the second largest city in New England, it is the Rodney Dangerfield of the region, getting less respect than Hartford, Connecticut and even Providence, Rhode Island.

worcester1
Historic scenes of picturesque decay

 

But a new generation of boosters is out to change that by creating a multi-pod “Knowledge Zone” around the city in recognition of the many institutions of higher learning located here, including Clark University, Holy Cross College, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Assumption College and UMass Medical School.  “People need to know we’re a world class intellectual center,” says Niland, before excusing himself to yell at his daughter.  “Karen, take that pigeon out of your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been!”

But some are feeling slighted by the designation, and even a bit miffed.   “If they’re in the Knowledge Zone, what are we–the Ignorance Zone?” asks Richie Stevens, a carpenter, as he downs a shot of ginger brandy and sips a Narragansett beer chaser.  “Those guys can kiss my ass and call it a love story for all I care.”

worcester2
Worcester pigeons visit Boston to look resentfully at swans.

 

Town-gown tensions between students and academics on the one hand and blue-collar residents on the other, tend to remain submerged beneath the surface of everyday life until a minor incident at a neighborhood bar located near a campus flares up.  “You get a lot of New Yorkers here who couldn’t get into Tufts or Brandeis,” notes Brian Padraic “Smitty” Moynihan, proprietor of Moynihan’s Tavern in the tough Main South district.  “They’re insecure, and all hell will break loose when they make some condescending crack about an industrious yeoman carpenter like Richie here,” he says, and it is clear that he is kidding about his patron’s work ethic.

What makes matters worse is that Moynihan, Stevens and the other customers in the bar are fictional characters in a play–“Breakfast at Moynihan’s”–by this reporter, and thus are ineligible to vote out members of the City Council who approved the Knowledge Zone concept.  “It’s not fair and it’s not right,” says a long-time patron known to one and all only as “McNiff.”  “My grandparents came here from Ireland long before a lot of your Johnny-come-latelys,” he says with a trace of bitterness as others nod their heads in agreement.  “Just because they live in a prose world doesn’t mean they’re better than us.”

For Mary Agnes O’Keefe

You always said you’d put a brick on my head
to stop me from growing;
this, even after you were confined to bed,
grandfather long since dead,
and the youngest of us knowing
you’d gone round the bend,

accusing him of having an affair.
To you I owe what Irish I have;
your wit, the crooked smile from here to there,
irony beneath a head of white hair,
that said it’s a complicated thing, a laugh;
part truth, part jest, best kept between friends.

You were buried in your Altar Society dress we were told;
it was a long way, not a trip for children.
What sins, I wonder, did you confess to the priest
at bedside for last rites, as he blessed you.
Was there one last quip as your life came to an end?

An Indifferent Irishman Signs My Petition

I ask if he can spare a minute and he says yes.
This is about your ancestors and mine, I say,
how, forced off the land, they sailed west
to Boston where, if they didn’t die on the way,
they and their faith were scorned in the schools.

He listens, a bit distracted I can see.
He has work he’d rather do
than listen to a lurid history
told by a man too full of rue.
He lumps me with the zealots and other fools

who have yet to learn that the fight is done;
they won, but so did we, and a truce was called.
We have the jobs they kept us from
if we want them; why should history be recalled
when there is now a fair if tenuous set of rules?

He hears me out and signs the sheet;
it costs him nothing but a moment’s scribbling.
He hands it back, I sense his need to be discreet
with one who holds a grudge–there’s no use quibbling.
What would his forefathers say, the fierce O’Tooles?

Competition Rough as Cats Fight to Keep Control of Internet

SOMEWHERE NEAR BOSTON.  It’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, but you wouldn’t know it from the hum of activity here in the basement of an undisclosed location in the western suburbs of Boston.

cat2
“Damn corgis!”

In front of computer terminals sit two night owls who will only allow themselves to be referred to by their first names–Rocco and Chester–if this reporter is to be permitted a look at the fascinating and frightening world of an internet “bucket shop,” a generator of memes and videos that captivate lonely people around the world whose “eyeballs” on their screens translate into big advertising dollars.

cat3
“You humans are so naïve!”

 

Those illicit revenues in turn fuel a world-wide ring of drug “buys” that keep the masterminds behind this unnerving look at the seamy underside of the world wide web fat, happy–and high as kites.

“C’mere,” Rocco says to his partner in crime, a scruffy-looking creature whose orange exterior makes him look like a fugitive from a tanning parlor, or a President of the United States.

“What is it?” Chester says, slowly raising himself up from his keyboard.

“It’s those damn Corgis again!” Rocco hisses, and indeed when Chester looks over his partner’s shoulder he sees a pair of the adorable dwarf Welsh herding dogs that have lately soared in popularity due to widespread exposure in videos and photographs on the internet.

corgi
Corgi:  Oh, put a sock in it.

 

“We’re going to have to do something,” Rocco says, and it is apparent that his partner not only shares his concern, but feels he’s understating the problem.

“That’s nothing,” he says.  “Google ‘cute sea otter’ and see what you get.”

corgi1
“2,946,328 pages views–and it’s still early!”

 

The two anonymous monitors of web traffic are members of the species Felis catus, the common housecat, who until recently have had little competition for the hearts and minds of bored web browsers of the human variety.  “The internet grew out of the Arpanet, which was designed solely for military uses,” says technology historian Milo Iyakaris.  “If it hadn’t been for pornography and cat videos, the internet would today be as useless as a fax machine, as Paul Krugman once memorably predicted.”

krugman

At stake are the millions of “clicks” each day that advertisers pay for in order to promote their products in banner ads to unsuspecting consumers, who associate the pleasure they derive from cute animals to the merit of a particular brand.  “I saw the cutest video of cats jumping on Christmas trees the other day,” says Myrna Lynn Goshke of Glasgow, Missouri.  “I rushed out and bought three boxes of Triscuits, the delicious and surprisingly wholesome snack cracker, I felt so bad about getting to see it for free.”

cat4
“Bears in swimming pools are killing us.”

The virtual lock that cats have had on the adorable critter market for the past two decades seems likely to hold for at least the near future, but cats like Rocco and Chester are taking no chances that the revenue stream that keeps them in catnip will continue to flow.  “Oh my God,” Rocco exclaims as he scrolls down his “wall” on Facebook.

“What now?” Chester asks, his shaking voice revealing his concern.

“What kind of sick individual would give a prairie dog a vanilla wafer?”

 

 

 

Telling Colleen the Truth

Walt Whitman reserved particular scorn
for the members of that accursed race,
the Irish-born.

“A filthy rabble” he asserted,
he who celebrated all races and kinds
couldn’t find it in his heart to tolerate thine.

He envisioned America as a great big goulash
into which all should be mixed
except me and you, lass.

I can’t imagine what we did or said to merit
his antipathy; we apparently gave him
a case of sympathetic paralysis.

And then there’s Freud, who said the Irish were
the only people unsusceptible of psychoanalysis.
Maybe we just don’t like nosy questions.

Perhaps some drink and talk or, for the writers,
some solitary gloom is all it takes to chase
away the blues, or get them down on paper.

It seems self-pity and truculence are our lot,
my dear, and we’ll just have to stand apart
from the world.   Sing a too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra

for your old Irish great-grandmother, who
would have told you “Don’t break your arm
patting yourself on the back.”

The O’Keefes who you come from also said
if they’re going to call you a horse thief
you might as well steal some.

And we might as well love
each other if they won’t.

Voodoo Makes Inroads in Stressed-Out Suburbs

WELLESLEY FALLS, Mass.  Marci Scribner looks like a typical housewife in this affluent suburb of Boston as she climbs into her forest green Range Rover, Kate Spade handbag in hand.  “I’m always on the go,” she says with a smile as she drives her 17-year old son Tyler to his weekly appointment with a tutor who she hopes will increase his SAT scores and get him into Dartmouth, where she went to business school.


Her pride and joy

 

But if that fails, Marci has an ace up her sleeve.  “We know two other kids in Tyler’s class are applying there, and they won’t all get in.”  So while Tyler studies, she’ll keep an appointment of her own with voodoo priest Togbui Assiogbo.  “We need to use every trick in the book, because Dartmouth is Tyler’s ‘reach’ school.”


“I’m praying for Tyler, and praying against his little maggot classmates.”

 

And what does the priest have in mind?  “Let’s just say when he gets through with those other two kids,” Marci says with a sly smile, “their minds will function like they sniff a tube of glue for breakfast.”


“You got your kid an SAT coach?  We’re trying something stronger.”

 

Voodoo, once confined to West Africa and the Caribbean, is spreading to American suburbs and displacing traditional Protestant denominations such as Episcopalianism as the affluent look for a religion that can give them tangible results, not the pie-in-the-sky of an afterlife.  “The whole ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy is a boatload of crap, if you ask me,” says Marci’s husband Dennis, a venture capitalist who works in the Route 128 technology corridor that rings Boston.

Other families are using voodoo for less intellectual pursuits.  Alicia and Tom Phillips, friends of the Scribners in this town where fixer-upper homes start at $1.3 million, say they used Mr. Assiogbo last year when their next-door neighbor bought a new Jaguar.  “We couldn’t stand how he looked down on us because we drove a two-year old Saab,” says Alicia.  “Mr. Assiogbo gave us a menu of options ranging from a broken driveshaft for $1,000, a fender bender for $2,500, or the ‘VIP’ combo for five grand.”  They opted for the most expensive package and were “extremely pleased” when the Jaguar was totalled and the owner’s golden retriever died mysteriously after chasing a tennis ball into a wooded area.


“Do you Jonathan, take Cynthia and the entrails of this chicken . . .”

 

Local ministers say they will fight to maintain their congregations, even if that means incorporating some of the more dramatic elements of voodoo into their traditional liturgy.  “If we have to add a little spectacle to your typical Protestant christening or a wedding to draw a crowd, that’s what we’ll do,” said the Rev. Oliver Westling, pastor of the United Church of Christ here.  “I’m not above a little animal sacrifice, as long as it’s done tastefully.”

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