As Whole Language Yuppies Move In, Phonics Junkies Are Forced Out

BOSTON.  The neighborhood here known as the South End has historically been a transitional stop on the way up–or down–the social ladder.  “We got the winos and junkies who lost their last best hope of realizing the American Dream,” says long-time bar owner Michael “Mickey” Flaherty, “and then we got the freshly-minted MBA’s who work long hours and can’t afford the suburbs yet, or ‘yuppie scum’ as I affectionately refer to them.”


Boston’s South End

The clash between those on the rise and those who have fallen off the treadmill of the American economy has been exacerbated of late by a different dimension of assessment besides education and income, however; younger residents who learned to read by the “whole language” method, which allows children to select their own reading matter and emphasizes recognition of words in everyday contexts so that teachers can have more and longer breaks, and older residents who learned to read through phonics, a form of corporal punishment inflicted by sadistic instructors that actually works.


“If you can read this sign you probably took phonics.”

“It’s sad to see what happened to my older brother,” says Nora Gilson, who at the age of 60 harkens back to the watershed point when elementary school teachers gave up on phonics and turned to whole language instruction because they were tired of drumming syllable sounds into impressionable young heads.  “He learned to read, and now can’t watch television for thirty seconds without turning it off in disgust.”


“Listen, pal–if you pronounce it ‘ven-TIE’ one more time I’m throwing you outta here.”

The addictive power of phonics has led to an underground black market in “Hooked on Phonics” tapes, which phonics “junkies” use to “shoot up” in dark alleys so narrow that quotation marks are often scraped off of words that pass through them.  “It’s a real shibboleth,” says Armand St. Gregoire, a professor of linguistics the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk campus, referring to the word used to distinguish Gileadites from Ephraimites in Biblical times.  “A yuppie will walk into Starbucks and pronounce v-e-n-t-i as ‘VEN-tea’ because they know the culture while some homeless guy will say ‘ven-TIE’ and get thrown out of the place.”


“Will read your homeowner’s insurance policy for food.”

The scars that phonics leaves on its victims are worn as badges of pride by some, who point out that whole language learners are more likely to watch “The Bachelorette” or think Marcel Proust is a goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  “Sure I coulda been successful and spend all my time in airports and lobbies watching drivel on TV screens,” says a man in a green “snorkel” coat who identifies himself only as “Marty.”  “But then I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of making fun of the guys on SportsCenter.”

There’s Nothing Rougher Than a Genteel Crowd

It’s springtime, which means that across America, crowds are filling auditoriums with the sound of their voices, yelling loudly–sometimes angrily–as they watch young people crash into each other.  I’m not talking about the NBA Playoffs.  I’m referring to spring dance recitals.

I was introduced to the rough and tumble world of youth dance recitals nearly two decades ago, and yet the memory is still painful.  My wife, who taught introductory ballet, thought it might be fun if I brought our two sons to watch the end-of-season extravaganza, in which children (mainly girls) dress up and dance to songs from Disney movies.  Thematic unity among music, costumes and dance is not required, nor even encouraged.

At the last minute my wife asked if we would change seats with a woman whose failing vision made it difficult for her to see the stage.  As we stood up to do so the lights went down, causing momentary disorientation as our eyes adjusted to the dark.  We moved hesitantly up the aisle and across a row of seats, and as the curtain went up we heard the tender expression of a mother’s love.

“Sit down, fer Christ sake!” a woman yelled at us, her video camera rolling.

“Get out of the way, you idiot!” another screamed.

I don’t want to sound judgmental, but the crowd at a Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight I once attended seemed decorous by contrast.


“No way.  I ain’t goin’ to no youth dance recital.”

 

The incident recalled another encounter with the madness of genteel crowds I experienced at a recital by Gustav Leonhardt, world-renowned keyboard player, at Harvard.  Leonhardt was to perform on a specially re-constructed 18th century harpsichord, but it was a cold night and the heating system in the concert hall–only slightly newer than the harpsichord–wasn’t working well.  Leonhardt came out and announced that he was sorry but the cold temperature made the instrument unplayable and he would perform instead on a modern instrument.


Gustav Leonhardt:  “Why don’t you come up here and say that, punk?”

 

A fellow came in after this announcement and sat listening for a while, growing more agitated by the moment.  Finally, after Leonhardt had performed three pieces on the newer keyboard, the man stood up and yelled “PLAY THE F _ _ KING CLAVICHORD!”  Then, to everyone’s relief, he stormed out.

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Classical music fight, Boston Pops

 

And I’m sure you recall the incident in 2007 when a fight broke out between two well-dressed audience members at a Boston Pops concert.  It seems one guy was talking and another guy asked him to please be quiet.  Let me tell you, at a classical music performance, them’s fighting words.


“Fer christ sake–this ain’t the goddamn Symphony!”

 

I don’t know what it is that makes crowds at hoity-toity events lose their cool, but I have a theory.  It’s all the excuse-me-pardon-me-oh-I’m-so-sorry sheen they put on their personalities when they get all dolled up to go out.  Unlike spectators at, say, a Boston Bruins game, among whom it is considered the height of pretension to tuck in one’s jersey.  The more refined the spectators, the more easily they snap.  Fans at baseball games may yell “Kill the umpire!”, but this is a critical judgment, not a call to arms.

Maybe if classical concert-goers would let go with a “Kill the conductor!” every now and then, we could all listen to the effing clavichord in peace.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Genteel Crowd: It’s So Much More Fun Being Vulgar.”

Some Cry Foul as Skinny Guys Again Dominate Marathon

BOSTON. The Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon, attracts runners from around the world every Patriot’s Day, a holiday on the third Monday in April that serves as an excuse for local bureaucrats to take the day off.  “Running Boston is my dream,” says Ngtmbe Jpksgzi of Kenya, whose name was cobbled together from surplus letters left behind by American “eco-tourists.” “Perhaps if I win, I can afford a few more vowels.”


McKelvey: “It’s not fair!”

 

But local runners are beginning to chafe at what they say is a system that results in skinny guys and gals winning the event year after year, leaving them with nothing to show for their half-hearted efforts to stay in shape.

“I musta done ten, maybe twenty situps since last year,” says Chuck McKelvey, a regular at the Kinvarra Pub in East Roxbury. “They told me to forget about entering.  Me–who grew up here!”


“That guy’s so skinny he has to pass a place twice to make a shadow!”

 

So regulars stage a “drink-in” at the bar every Patriots Day, refusing to move from their seats until all the free snacks have been consumed and all runners have crossed the finish line.

“It’s tough, believe me,” says Bob Wychekowski, a long-time patron whose loyalty caused him to adopt the pub as his mailing address last year when he was going through a divorce.  “I know the runners are in excruciating pain, but on the other hand they don’t start serving lunch here until twelve o’clock on the dot.”


Pizza-flavored goldfish on Salisbury Steak

 

Until then, customers depend on a subsistence diet of honey-roasted peanuts and pizza-flavored goldfish served free at the bar, or garlic and onion potato chips and Andy Capp Pub Fries purchased from a vending machine next to the men’s room. “You got to suck it up,” says Mike Donahue, pronounced “DONE-a-who.” “Those urinal deodorizers can kill your appetite if you get a Bubble Gum or Wild Cherry scent.”

Advocates say they will push for the creation of a new category for participants, just as the Boston Athletic Association, the marathon’s sponsor, eventually recognized female and wheelchair partipants. “I don’t see why they can’t have a separate Couch Potato Class,” says McElvey, whose weight tops out at around 250 pounds during the off-season. “Don’t they understand I have an eating disorder?”

For One Marathon Runner Race is Not Always to the Swift

HOPKINTON, Mass.  The rows of portable toilets that line the streets of this bucolic suburb on the morning of the Boston Marathon see heavy duty just before the starter’s gun goes off as runners nervously empty their bladders before the race, but one contestant who emerges from the turquoise and white enclosure stands out from the crowd.

Image result for porta potties hopkinton

“I know I’m different,” the male runner who identifies himself only as “Sam” says to this reporter, “but my needs are the same.”

Sam is conspicuous by his shortcomings; he’s not nearly as tall as any of the other entrants, and despite a diet that consists entirely of seafood, he’s nowhere near as slim as the world-class competitors who will line up against him this morning.

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Training run.

“Lotta people are counting me out,” says the three-and-a-half foot emperor penguin.  “I’ve never let other people’s opinions hold me back.”

The Boston Marathon is the nation’s oldest, and it has gradually expanded from an event for able-bodied men only to one that features ten different divisions, including male and female runners, male and female handcyclists, male and female wheelchair competitors, and unisex categories for cosmetologists, osteopaths, calligraphers,  Aleutian Islanders and excommunicated members of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.  “The race now reflects the colorful tapestry that makes Boston such a vibrant city,” says Chamber of Commerce Spokeswoman Edie Miniscus.  “I just hope the penguins don’t litter the streets with krill.”

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Switzer:  “Get out of my way–the penguins are gaining on me!”

 

There was no official bar to penguins entering the historic race, which is patterned after the 26.1 mile course run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a military victory, but a culture of anti-penguin sentiment worked to discourage the aquatic birds from entering.  “In high school I showed up for track and field and the coach told me I’d be better off on the yearbook staff,” says a determined Sphenisciform wearing bib number 16,001 named “Lyle.”  “I went to one meeting and couldn’t get away from those goody-goody types fast enough.”

And so it took guerilla action similar to that employed by Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the race with an official number that she obtained by the subterfuge of signing her registration papers as “K.V. Switzer.”  Sam and Lyle mingled with other runners at the starting line last year and jumped into the field as it took off, only to be accosted by Boston Athletic Association officials when they slowed down to climb “Heartbreak Hill” in Newton, Mass.

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“Guys–remember to stretch!”

 

“I don’t mind them birds racing,” said Jock Semple IV, great-grandson of the race official who tried to remove Switzer from the race course.  “As long as they remain flightless, which I figure ain’t gonna change for a couple million years of evolution.”

The penguins make good time through Ashland, Framingham and Natick, but begin to slow as they reach the half-way point, alongside the campus of the all-female Wellesley College.  There, young women lavish attention and affection on them in addition to the customary cup of water as the birds re-hydrate in style, then linger longer than their race-day game plan calls for.

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“Penguins!”

“How you feeling?” Sam says to Lyle as the latter climbs onto the lap of Meredith Gersh, a senior English major from Nyack, New York.

“I’ve got a cramp,” Lyle replies.  “I think I’d better drop out.”

Avant-Garde Director Has Some Green With Envy

BOSTON.  Evan Zaremba is a cutting-edge director who is sought out by theatre companies around the world.  “He brings a very personal approach to everything he does, even the oldest warhorses,” says Donald Mayerson, a theatre critic here.


“Twelve Angry Men” as cast by Zaremba.

 

Zaremba’s specialty is reworking plays in a unique and often controversial fashion that departs from the playwright’s direction, such as his “Oedipus Rex” set in a St. Louis bowling alley and an all-white “Porgy ‘n Bess.”


“Shh!  The play’s about to begin!”

 

“Evan’s intent is to shock people into reexaming the classics,” says Morgan Danielson, an actor who has performed in several of his more outlandish productions, such as a “King Lear” in which Lear is the Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio.  “It may be because he has no original ideas of his own, which can be a good thing for an artist.”


“Romeo, Romeo–wherefore art thou Romeo?”

But Zaremba’s latest re-imagination of a classic may be his most daring yet–a full-scale production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” performed entirely by “Chia Pets,” the collectible figurines whose green coat is formed by shoots of grass.

“Evan is out there, no question about it,” says Malcolm Ernest, a producer who has bankrolled some of Zaremba’s past efforts, with moderately successful results.  “I think Evan’s audience will be able to handle this one, but I don’t know how many classically-trained Chia Pets will audition.”


“Maybe I need a pair of hedge trimmers!”

 

Chia Pets achieved widespread popularity in the 1980′s but have declined in popularity, as has Shakespearean drama, because young people view both as requiring more work than video games and other pastimes.  Their signature green covering is achieved by applying moistened seeds of “chia,” a sprout-like plant that my wife puts on her cereal, to the grooved terra cotta bodies of the figurines, and adding water.  The green, filmy substance on the covers of paperback copies of Shakespeare’s plays in high school libraries is mold.


Montagues and Capulets.

 

Theatre-goers who prefer experimental works to more traditional fare are eagerly anticipating opening night, as indicated by healthy advance ticket sales.  “We are so looking forward to this new twist on Romeo and Juliet,” says Emily Dyson of Lincoln, Mass., a suburb where organic gardening is popular.  “I’m bringing a watering can and a box of tissue, because I always cry at the end.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Genteel Crowd: Being Vulgar is So Much More Fun.”

My Poetic Nemesis

April is the cruelest month, wrote T.S. Eliot, and as a poet he knew whereof he spake. (Archaic past tense provided at no extra cost.)  April may be Poetry Month, but April is also the month in which the rejection letters and no-you-didn’t-win-the-Alice-Wambsley-Memorial-Poetry-Competition notices from the autumn submission cycle arrive in the mail.


Eliot: “Darn it—I lost again.”

 

But I’d been through all that before, so last fall I put on a Bush-Obama-Petraeus Verse Surge, sending out over 400 poems. I would become a published poet before turning–well, I won’t tell you what I’ll be turning–or expire tragically trying.

The fruits of my labor arrived yesterday. “We are pleased to inform you that your poem Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune has been accepted by plangent voices. Due to our extensive backlog, it is anticipated that publication will not occur until the fall 2019 issue.”


A (much) younger Hazel Flange

 

This, I thought, called for a celebration. I got in the car and headed over to the Coach & Four, the faux-colonial watering hole where the elite of our little exurban town—insurance salesmen, CPAs, the local zoning attorney—meet to eat and greet. And to confront my poetic nemesis, Hazel Flange.

Hazel has been lording it over me for years. She’s got all the good accounts in town: McBride’s Super Market, where she composes rhymed couplets for the flyers and paper shopping bags (“Looking for something to eat on Easter—Our ham and lamb will make a feaster!); Olney’s GMC-Chevrolet (“If you’re going to a gala, best that you should buy Impala!”); Muckerman’s Funeral Home (“We’ll bury your kin with quiet dignity—we promise our bill won’t be very bignity.”)

Then there are the special commissions—birthday, anniversary and pet poems. Have to hand it to the old girl, she was the one who came up with business model. Go to another biddie’s house for bridge club, compliment the household dog, cat or goldfish, write a poem about it for the local paper. Then, when the owner is basking in the reflected glory of compliments from all her friends, offer to make her a laminated copy, suitable for framing—for ten bucks. “I just love your little Poodie, he is such a darling cutie!” Gag me, as the Valley Girls used to say, with a spoon.

But now the shoe is on the other foot. With Kosher Vegetarian Commune I’m not only published, I’ve introduced a genre of my own creation to the world of verse; poems whose titles are at least 75% as long as the poems themselves! Count them off:

This is kosher, this is trayfe,
One unclean, the other sayfe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.

Pretty neat, huh? So it is with a new confidence that I stroll into the bar at the Coach & Four.  It’s not Les Deux Maggots, or The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death—but it will do. Except for the bathroom stalls—you know the one that begins “Here I sit all broken-hearted” don’t you?—the only poetry in the house is composed by Hazel, recited to a table crammed with her fawning sycophants.

I wave my hand as I stroll up to the bar and make the announcement I’ve been dying to proclaim for lo these so many years. “Marty,” I say to the bartender, “potato chips and snack foods for everybody—and see what the boys in the back room will have!”

With that a scramble the likes of which have not been seen since the Oklahoma land rush begins; there are only so many bags of Cape Cod Parmesan & Roasted Garlic Chips on the Snack-Rack, and it’s every man for himself.


Eyes on the prize.

 

I order my usual—a Smutty Nose Elderberry Lite I.P.A.—and lean back to take in the room, holding the tall-boy bottle Jeff Bridges-style, oh-so-casually around the very tip of the neck. I cast a glance in Hazel’s direction—she gives me the steely-eyed gaze that has caused so many budding young aethetes to realize there’s room for only one poetess in our town, and she’s not going anywhere.

I stand up and begin to work the room—suddenly I’m every man’s hero now that the out-of-work “consultants” and “advisors” in town are chowing down on Andy Capp Pub Fries on my nickel. After many slaps on the back and congratulations, I mosey over to Hazel’s table and, with an affected look of surprise, greet her.

“Why, Hazel,” I say, beaming, “fancy meeting you here! How’ve you been?” I don’t try to party-kiss her—in her dotage she has taken to applying rouge to her cheekbones. She read in Marie Claire that Celine Dion does something similar to make her nose look smaller.

“Hello,” she replies in a measured tone and just the hint of a combination smile-sneer—a “snile,” a “smeer”?—on her lips. “I see you have something to celebrate—finally.”

That hurts. Hazel had her first poem published when she was in fourth grade. I spotted it for the rip-off that it was—“Who can see the wind, neither you nor me, but when the wind is blowing, it tickles both my knees”—but apparently the editors of My Little Messenger weren’t as well read as me.

“Yes, yes, that I do,” I reply, trying hard to retain my composure. “Of course, it’s nothing to compare with the success you’ve had. Writing rhymed couplets for discount tire and battery stores.”


“Whence from your car you do dismount, check our snow tires at deep discounts.”

 

There is a collective intake of breath by the circle of admirers at Hazel’s table, but she’s as cool as a poker player sitting on pocket aces. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” she says, going all Dr. Johnson on me.

The flow of air is reversed—the little group explodes with laughter—but I ignore the obloquy they think they are raining down on me. I’m after the Big Tuna Salad on White Toast Sandwich her own bad self.

“How’s about a little mano-a-womano verse battle—right here, right now, you and me?”

“Une petite slamme de poesie?” she replies, using up all the French she knows outside a Chef Boyardee can.

“That’s right. Winner take all. Must be original, spontaneous work, rhymed and metered.”

“My apartment has a separate meter,” one of her followers says, displaying the level of ignorance that is required in order to appreciate Hazel’s verse.

“Stifle it, Maeve,” Hazel snaps at the woman, and then says to me—”You’re on.”

“Peachy,” I say with a smarmy smile. “Ladies first—and no crib notes.”

The room is so quiet you can hear a chip drop, and from the bar I detect that Bob Smuldowney, head of the Public Works department, has let one fall to the floor.

“If I’m not mistaken, that was a Cool Ranch Dorito?” I say with a note of expectation in my voice as I wait upon the answer, showing off my ear.

“That’s amazing,” Smuldowney says.

That’s the kind of ear it takes to be a first-class poet,” I say smugly. “Hazel—your serve.”

The dowager versifier clears her throat. She cocks her head a little to one side, like a parakeet—my guess is what she comes up with will be as derivative as “Polly want a cracker?”

She steadies herself by putting her fingers on the table, closes her eyes, tosses an errant spit curl aside and begins.

How lovely to be a poet
How wonderfully rewarding
It is like a free vacation trip
On a cruise ship you are boarding.

But each night when I’m finally done
I brush my teeth and floss.
A poetessa’s job is this:
To pluck wheat from the dross.

I’m tempted to yell “mixed metaphor,” but it’s the playoffs, and I know I’m not going to get the call.  No ref wants to blow a freestyle poetry battle in front of a big crowd and I have to say, even though it’s against my interests, that I agree—let ‘em play.


Woman with distaff: Whence it came, hence the name.

 

Hazel’s toadies are applauding politely but this is a bar, the audience is disproportionately male, and most of the guys are sitting on their hands, waiting to hear something from the non-distaff side.

“Great stuff, Hazel,” I say magnanimously. “I’ll give you the email address for The New Yorker when we’re done.” This is known as “trash-talking,” and as a Celtics fan during the Larry Bird Era, I learned from the master.


“Shhh—Larry’s going to recite now!”

 

The guys at the bar are looking at me with a mixture of hope and trepidation. They’re the ones who’ve been scratching doggerel on the walls of the stalls in the men’s rooms, inking haiku above the urinals, suffering under the yoke of genteel feminine poetry for so many years as Hazel asks them to turn down the games on the four giant-screen TVs so her umpty-dumpty-dumpty/umpty-dumpty-dump lines can be heard. If I can take her down, it will be a Spartacus-like moment; the joint will once again be free for belching and bad language worthy of Dizzy Dean, who drew the scorn of St. Louis English teachers for saying “He slud in there” on the Baseball Game-of-the-Week.


Dizzy Dean: He really said it.

 

“Hazel,” I begin with an off-hand, informal air that catches her off guard,

this is stupid stuff;
your pansies and violets—
your fairies at dawn or later in
the gloaming.

what the hell is a gloaming anyway?
and why would you bother to use it when poeming?
I do not like it, and no man could;
find another word please, if you would.

but in the meantime, hear me out;
the matter, we say, is free from doubt.
a bar’s not the place for poems like lace doilies,
and also I noticed your nose is quite oily.


Kudos!

 

I hesitate to use the word “claque,” but the guys are behind me all the way on this one, and the place erupts with a noise not heard since Jason Varitek stuffed his catcher’s mitt in Alex Rodriguez’s mug. They don’t call it “home court advantage” for nothing.

The ladies’ table is a bit taken aback by the rough tactics and the thunderous acclaim, but Hazel recovers like the pro that—I have to admit—she is.

“Nicely done,” she says, although I can tell that it pains her to put a smile on her over-glossed lips.

“Thanks—you’re still my favorite poet named Hazel,” I say. Good sportsmanship is contagious, I guess. “Have a drink on me, okay?”

Hazel considers this for a moment, then says “Yes—I think I will,” and advances to the bar where Marty says “What’ll ya have?”

“I think,” she says as she eyes the racks of expensive liquor behind him, “a Brandy Alexander—with Courvoisier VSOP Cognac.”

“Hey,” I say quickly before Marty can pour. “I meant anything under five bucks.”

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

Guide Dogs Help Color-Blind Avoid Tragic Fashion Mistakes

BOSTON.  Mark Overton is about to complete the purchase of a pricey white-on-pink French-cuffed shirt at the Brooks Brothers store located in Boston’s financial district when Niles Howard, the salesman who is waiting on him, suggests that he add a $75 yellow foulard tie with miniature red and blue figures to complement it.

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“Check for mark-downs.”

 

“This is a very fashionable pattern that is quite popular these days,” Howard says, but Trixie, a German shepherd who has accompanied Overton into the store, registers her disapproval with a growl.

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“I tried to stop him, but no–he just had to have a robin’s egg blue short-sleeved shirt.”

 

“What’s that Trix?” Overton says as he looks down at his constant companion.  The dog barks twice, and Overton attempts a translation.  “Red and pink don’t provide sufficient contrast within a single color group?”  The dog opens its mouth in what appears to this reporter’s eye to be a smile, and Overton pats her on the head and hands her a doggie treat.

“She’s a lifesaver,” says Overton as he pays the disgruntled cashier, who had hoped to add to his commission.  We leave the store together, and on our way out Howard snarls “Next time leave your dog outside,” to which Overton responds angrily by snapping “Discrimination against the handicapped is illegal!”

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“Where did you get that skanky tank top?”

 

Overton, like many males, suffers from red-green color blindness as well as a general inability to coordinate colors when choosing his outfits.  “If I mix and match, I always clash,” he says.  “If I wear blue on blue, people tell me I dress like a bus driver.”

Trixie is a graduate of the Farkness School for the Colorblind in Watertown, Mass., where she underwent a rigorous six-month training course that taught her not only to identify potentially fatal color combinations such as yellow/brown and pink/red, but also such fashion basics as not to mix stripes with plaids.  “Trixie is a natural,” says headmistress Heidi Hagerty.  “We knew she was ready for her placement when she dashed into the street to save a woman whose skirt was hiked up in the back due to static cling.”

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“I don’t think the belt is helping that look.”

 

Guide dogs for the colorblind still face resistance from some people who view fashion handicaps as less crippling than other disabilities.  “I don’t mind that dog coming in here if she sticks to the color-blind guy,” says Pete Famiglia of Napolitano Pizza on lower State Street down a block from the Brooks Brothers store.  “It’s when she barks at me for my tank-tops that I get mad.”