“Ripping Good Poetry” Punishes Boys Who Curse With Verse

WHARTON, Mass.  This bucolic town north of Boston is home to one of the oldest private schools in the country, the prestigious Pringy Preparatory, whose graduates include two vice presidents and a secretary of commerce, but as yet no president.  “It’s kind of a sore point,” says assistant headmaster Lyman Norton, alluding to the glittering alumni of its nearby competitor the Groton School, which has produced a president, a governor, two U.S. senators, a secretary of state and Fred Gwynne, the actor who starred in “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “The Munsters.”


“You get in the middle of the circle and we make fun of your family tree.”

 

But Pringy practices an aesthetic variant of the “muscular Christianity” that is a tradition at Groton; a program of Sunday poetry classes for boys who violate the school’s ban on swearing.

“There is so much that is beautiful in the English language,” says Norton.  “We try to teach the boys that there’s no need to use vulgar language to express themselves when they’re angry or frustrated because their date won’t perform a particular sex act on them.”


“Instead of ‘f**king,’ say ‘tupping’–Shakespeare did!”

 

Norton’s tastes run to classical narrative poetry of manly deeds, “not the obscure, self-centered cr . . . stuff that passes for poetry these days,” he says, catching himself just before committing the crime he’s been charged to punish.  The classes are known derisively as “Ripping Good Poetry” among students because they are “about as pleasant as a fart,” according to Todd Sneed, who’s already been required to get up early three times this semester for what he feels were “ticky-tacky, Mickey Mouse” violations; a “hell,” a “goddamn,” and a “your sister sucks donkey d***s” that he yelled at an opposing player during a squash match.

Today’s inmates include Todd, his friend Harrison Leathers, III, and Oliver Westcott, bound over until 1 p.m. today with Norton while classmates play on the greensward outside.


Trash talk, squash-style

 

“I hope you came prepared,” Norton snaps with the fury of a drill sergeant, “because if you didn’t, I’ve got all afternoon since I don’t give a rat’s patootie about the stupid professional football games you miscreants seem to find so fascinating.”

“Yes Mr. Norton,” the three violators intone with a decided lack of enthusiasm as they open their notebooks.  Each boy will be required to recite twenty lines of masculine poetry from memory, then give a report on some facet of the poet’s life or work they have dredged up from a compulsory stint in the school’s library.

“You first, Leathers,” Norton says.  “What work emplifying the manly virtues have you chosen to inspire us with today?”

“‘The Ballad of East and West,’ sir,” the boy replies without enthusiasm.

“Ah, Kipling–the master!  Proceed.”

Leathers selects lines from the poem’s conclusion, including the stirring coda that launched the memorable phrase “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” upon the world.

“Done, but just barely,” Norton says, noting that the boy dropped two lines and had to be prompted with the words “Belike they will raise” when he was stopped cold at one point.  “Now–tell us a little something else about Kipling.”

“Did you know,” Leathers begins, “that in Kipling’s poem The Ladies he says it’s a good thing to sleep around with yellow and brown women so that you’ll learn things that will ”elp you a lot with the White!’”

Norton is nonplussed for a moment, but recovers quickly.  “Well, yes, indeed.  That is one of Kipling’s lesser-known works.  I’ll mark you down as complete.  Westcott–let’s hear from you.  Who’s your poet?”

“Alfred, Lord Tennyson, sir,” the boy replies.

“Good choice, let’s hear it,” Norton says, and the boy recites five stanzas of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the poem about an ill-fated sortie in the Crimean War in which hundreds of British soldiers lost their lives.  “Well done,” Norton says when he finishes.  “Now, if you will, a little something about the great poet.”

“Well, I read one of his other poems, The Lotos-Eaters, which is about sitting around and getting high by eating a natural narcotic.  It seems these natives get like totally wasted.  When they talk their voices are thin, as ‘from the grave; And deep-asleep they seem, yet all awake,’ and . . .”

“Very good, that’s enough, thank you,” Norton says before the boy can delve any deeper into the poem which seems to glorify a mindless escape from realty.  “Now, my best customer, Mr. Sneed,” Norton says sarcastically.  “What do you have for us today?”


“What’s with the smirk?”

 

“Edgar Allan Poe, sir,” Sneed says.  “‘Annabell Lee.’”

“Ah, very good.  Begin,” Norton says and Sneed does a passable job with the well-known poem about a beautiful maiden’s tragic early death, and how the poet seems to see evidence of her continuing love in nature.

“And now if you will, please complete your assignment by telling us something we didn’t know about Poe.”

“Did you know that when he was 26, he married his 13-year-old cousin, and . . .”

“That will be all.  Why don’t you three go outside and throw a frisbee or something?”

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

Advertisements

With Robert Frost, at Walmart

Town officials are considering zoning changes that would permit strip malls, fast-food outlets and big-box stores to be built a short distance from Robert Frost’s farm.

                   The Boston Globe


Frost

It’s Saturday morning, time for my weekly check on my fellow rustic poet, old man Frost, who lives down the road less travelled. He’s a cranky old cuss, but you would be too if you’d fallen as far as he has. In 1960, he was America’s most revered poet and spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. Today, he’s seen his star eclipsed by a Republican surety bond lawyer, Wallace Stevens, whose poetry Frost dismisses as “bric-a-brac.” You’ve got to love the old fart. Frost, that is, not Stevens, who’s an unloveable old fart.

Stevens
Wallace Stevens, going out for ice cream.

 

I stop at Frost’s mailbox. A few flyers, an oil and lube job offer from the local tire and battery store, an expiration notice from plangent voices, the quarterly journal of avant-garde poetry edited by my former lover, elena gotchko.


“my love is like a red, red rose/that’s somehow stuck inside my nose.”

 

elena and I had parted ways when she showed up at our little apartment with a skunk-streak dyed into her hair a few years back to announce that she’d had the capital letters removed from her name–and was leaving me.

“you stultify me,” she had said, eschewing the upper case as she spoke with emotion not yet recollected in tranquility. “you’re holding me back–you with your insistence on meter and rhyme.” Fine, I said, and I’d never regretted it. How she ever roped Frost into subscribing was a mystery to me, although he was a sucker for those Publisher’s Clearing House come-ons.


“This Frost guy’s apparently gone for a walk in woods. Who’s next on the list?”

 

I knock on the door and Frost opens it up right away–he’s always eager for a little company and to get out of the house. It must be lonely out here, living all by himself with nothing but the sound of cars rushing by.

“I’m ready,” he says, the cheap polyester “gimme” hat already on his head. I don’t know what it is with old men and free baseball caps–they can’t resist them.

“Hey, Bob,” I say as I try to straighten his cockeyed hat a bit. “I got your mail.”

He looks at it without interest and, as usual, launches into perfectly-formed verse:

A hushed October morning mild,
with leaves as frail as Kleenex tissue;
tomorrow’s mail, if it be wild
would bring, perhaps, a swimsuit issue.

I allow myself a little laugh. There are two things about being an old man I’m looking forward to: one, you can wear just about anything you want; and two, you can be a complete lecher, and say just about anything you want to women, and no one seems to mind.  At some point, you become entitled to a presumption of not innocence, but incompetence.

“No, that won’t come until February,” I say to him.

“Okay,” he says after he absorbs this information. He turns to close the door and his cat, an orange tabby named Demiurge, stakes out a wary watch on the threshold.

“I shan’t be gone long,” he says to the cat. “You come too.”

“Bob, we’ve gone over this before,” I say with repressed exasperation. “You can’t bring a cat into McDonald’s.”


Senior citizen coffee at McDonald’s

The thought of the golden arches causes him to lose interest in his cat. I can see by the far-away look in his eyes he’s thinking of the Senior Citizens coffee special and again, he can’t deny his muse.

I’m going to get my elderly java
by riding with you over dales and hills.
It tastes like ash and is hot as lava
but I can’t resist those free refills.

We head out towards State Highway 28 with the more distinguished poet in the car staring out the passenger side window at the bright fall colors; the orange of Home Depot, the red of Staples, the yellow Walmart smiley face on a billboard.

“Turn here,” Frost says sharply.

“Don’t you want to get something to eat first?”

“Depends.”

“Depends on what? Your only choice is fast food.”

“No–I need some Depends.”

Dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say in New England.

“Okay,” I say, a little chagrined that I’ve forced him to disclose the one aspect of growing old I’m really not looking forward to.

We make our way through the parking lot and enter the store where we are met by one of the chain’s ever-present greeters, a white-haired old man in a blue vest festooned with inoffensive buttons. I try to avoid eye contact and accelerate past him when I hear Frost’s voice boom out–to the extent that he’s capable of producing such a sound, even metaphorically–”Well if it isn’t The Emperor of Ice Cream–Wallace Stevens!”

Stevens’ face registers the shock of recognition that Herman Melville spoke of, when a man of letters comes face to face with one of his rivals while working a minimum-wage job to make ends meet. Being the darling of the academy doesn’t do you much good if you have to mix wet cat food and pinto beans to make chili.

“Hello, Frost,” Stevens says in a frosty tone. “How’s the poet of–subjects.” He says this last word with a sneer.

“Fine,” says Frost. “Tell me, since you must know–down which aisle would I find–bric-a-brac?”

Stevens draws himself up to his full six feet, seven inches, looks down at Frost as if from Olympus, and begins to speak:

I placed a Hummel figurine,
Down to your left, in aisle three.
‘Twas much too tacky for myself
But not too gauche for one such as thee.

I can tell that Frost is pissed, but he’s trying hard not to let it show.

“C’mon Bob–we haven’t got time for this nonsense,” I say as I take him by the elbow. “We’ve got miles to go, and . . . ”

He cuts me off and glares at Stevens, not about to back off in this mano-a-mano poetry throwdown.

He squares his shoulders and even I can’t believe the fearful symmetry of what comes out of his mouth next:

Two aisles diverged ‘neath a yellow face,
that bore a sickly, foolish grin. And I–
I took the one marked “Incontinence,”
and that has made all the difference.

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

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.”

Female Scent-Marking in the Suburbs

Several cats can make use of the same hunting ground without coming into conflict by using it according to a timetable, in the same way as housewives use a communal washhouse.  An additional safeguard against undesirable encounters is the scent marks which these animals–the cats, not the housewives–deposit wherever they go.

                                               On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz


Lorenz:  “Sweetie, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t spray my favorite chair.”

 

Saturday night, and for once we get to go to my favorite restaurant, the one my wife hates.  “What is it you don’t like about it?” I asked her as we drove up.

“We never get a good table,” she said.  “It feels crowded.”

As we approached the hostess station I could see that there might be a problem.  One couple ahead of us, two open tables.  One table is next to the kitchen with fluorescent bulbs shining through swinging doors, the other a quiet corner booth under subdued lighting.  It seems like we just can’t get off the schneid at this place.

The hostess told the couple in front of us their table would be ready in just a moment, then greeted us.  I gave her our name, she scratched us off her list, then said “I’ll seat you right after this couple.”

My wife gave me a look that could have microwaved a potato, said ”I see somebody I want to say hi to,” then scooched past the couple ahead of us with an “Excuse me.”

I watched her, puzzled, as she headed to the booth where the bus boy was clearing away the dishes.  She removed an atomizer from her purse and squeezed out a few puffs, then retook her place in line.  “Ding dong–I was wrong,” she said with a smile.

“Right this way,” the hostess said to the couple in front of us, and the trio walked over to the booth where the female of the couple hesitated.  “Actually, could we have the little table over by the kitchen?” she asked apologetically.

“No problem,” said the hostess, leaving the prime spot open for us.

A few moments later when we were seated, I asked her “What’d you just do?”

“I scent-marked the table,” she said.  “I can’t depend on you to exercise our territorial imperative, so I have to.”


Try the pad thai!

 

So she had finally adopted the principles of animal behavior that I’ve used for dinner table anecdotes over the years.  “Fine with me,” I said.  “It’s not like I want to butt antlers with some hedge fund manager over a lousy Saturday night dinner reservation.”

I’ve been “hip” to animal behavior ever since I took a college class in the subject, and it has stood me in good stead.  Whenever I see somebody bare their teeth or flare their nostrils in a business negotiation I take evasive action, retreating to my lair–boring legal boilerplate–where I have a distinct tactical advantage.  I’ve learned to recognize threat postures and dominant-submissive patterns that have enabled me to play three-dimensional chess with my adversaries, while they in their benighted ignorance of animal behavior have been playing checkers.

For once we ate in peace without her rolling her eyes at my lack of “street smarts,” by which she means not my ability to find my way out of neighborhoods she’d never get within a howitzer’s range of, but my inability to successfully pull off dinner reservations at a fancy restaurant.  Somehow, I don’t think that’s what the author of the phrase had in mind, but let it pass, we’re having a good time.

Afterwards we strolled the streets, doing a little window-shopping, when something caught her eye as we passed Talbots, the upscale clothing chain that 85% of American women think is for customers older than them.  “There’s that sweater I asked you to get me for our anniversary,” she says.


Talbots:  “Haven’t you got something a little more expensive?”

 

“You gave me three choices, and I got the cheapest,” I said, an eminently reasonable defense if you ask me, but it didn’t sway her.

“I’m going in to take a look at it,” she said, and I dutifully followed, like a sheep following the Judas goat.

“Excuse me,” she said to a saleswoman after she’d examined the price tag.  “Is this on sale yet?”

“It will be marked down next Saturday,” the saleswoman said.

“Can you hold it for me?”

“I’m sorry, we can’t do that.”

“That’s all right, thanks,” my wife said, and the saleswoman wandered off to help someone else.

Again, she pulled the atomizer out of her purse and gave the sweater a squirt.

“It works on clothes too?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” she said as we walked out.


“Put the cable-knit cardigans on the sale table–they’re not moving.”

 

We stood discretely out of the line of view as we looked through the plate glass window, like kids watching a mother guppy eat her young in an aquarium.  A woman approached the sweater rack but stopped suddently, as if she sensed a dark force like that which Darth Vader projects in Star Wars movies–and backed off.

“I think it will still be there Saturday,” my wife said slily, and we got in our car to go home.

We exited off the highway and I was just about to turn onto our street when my wife said “Hold it–stop here” in front of the house of friends who, for some reason, we haven’t seen much of lately.

She checked the driveway–looked like they were out for dinner, too–then got out of the car and applied several liberal squirts to the rhododendrons and holly trees.

“Okay–I think you’ve officially gone round the bend now,” I said as she got back in the car.  “You’re a respectable, upper middle-class woman–not a feral cat.  What the hell did she do to deserve that?”

“She came to our Christmas party two years ago–and she didn’t compliment me on the decorations.”

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

Jimi Hendrix at the Supreme Court

“What about Jimi Hendrix?”

    Question by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts during oral argument in a copyright case. 

COURT CRIER:  Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court and stay away from the brown acid!

CHIEF JUSTICE:  Who’s on first?

COURT CRIER:  Case number 10-545, Golan vs. Holder.

CHIEF JUSTICE:  Cool–let’s rock ‘n roll.  Counselor?

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, sir.

CHIEF JUSTICE:  Please–call me “dude.”


“Hmm . . . Marbury vs. Madison?  Or the Slaughterhouse Cases?”

 

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  You got it.  May it please the Court.  Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act did something unprecedented in American copyright law.  It took millions of works out of the public domain, where cover bands at Holiday Inns across the country had been playing them on “Rockin’ With the Oldies” night for years.  That violated the Copyright Clause, the First Amendment and the Rule in Dumphor’s case.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG:  I like Carole King’s “Tapestry.”  Did you know it’s the biggest-selling album of all time, and yet my “macho” colleagues on this honorable court will never let me play it in the Justice’s Lounge?

JUSTICE GORSUCH:  That is such a chick album.

JUSTICE GINSBURG:  Well, I am a chick.

JUSTICE JOSEPH ALITO:  I’d say you haven’t met your burden of proof.

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  If I could get back to my argument.


“Okay–you’ve had your fun.  Now can my cat and I get out of this post?”

 

CHIEF JUSTICE:  Proceed.

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  Section 514 “restored” copyright protection to foreign works–

JUSTICE ANTHONY KENNEDY:  That was cool how you got those quotes of dubiety into your argument without using your fingers . . .

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  It’s kind of like ventriloquism.

JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER:  I used to love Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney . . .

CHIEF JUSTICE:  And Knucklehead Smith?

JUSTICE BREYER:  I’m glad we could finally agree on something.

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  Anyway, Congress passed the law because some countries voiced skepticism that the U.S. was in compliance with the Berne Convention and . . .

CHIEF JUSTICE:  What about Jimi Hendrix?

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  What about him?

CHIEF JUSTICE:  Isn’t he like the most totally bitchin’ guitar player of all time?

JUSTICE ELENA KAGAN:  Guys who are into overwrought guitar solos are just transferring their masturbatory tendencies from the bathroom to the concert stage.

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  Is she really allowed to talk like that?

CHIEF JUSTICE:  I think it’s a First Amendment thing.  Anyway, to get back to Hendrix–do you think more people would pay attention to the Supreme Court if I set my gavel on fire, the way he did with his guitar?

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  You mean when he played “Fire”?


The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.  It was the sixties–you had to be there.

 

JUSTICE THOMAS:  You’re thinking of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.  The correct name of the Hendrix song is “Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire.”

PETITONER’S COUNSEL:  I stand corrected.  Anywho, Section 514 could cause American works in the public domain abroad to have their copyrights restored.  It’s a slippery slope from there to . . .

CHIEF JUSTICE:  I want to get back to Hendrix.  He was left-handed, but he played a right-handed guitar.  Freaking amazing if you ask me.

JUSTICE GORSUCH:  He was a switch-hitter?

CHIEF JUSTICE:  With power to all fields.  He could change from soft, deeply soulful songs like “And the Wind Cries Mary” to the dark, forboding “All Along the Watchtower” faster than you could say “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.”

JUSTICE KENNEDY:  Hey–you can do that quote thing too.  Why am I always the last to know?

JUSTICE GINSBURG:  You want soft and soulful?  My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue . . .

JUSTICE GORSUCH:  Here we go again . . .

JUSTICE GINSBURG:  An ever-lasting vision, of the ever-changing view . . .

JUSTICE ALITO:  I’m going to fwow up . . .

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  Your honors, with all due respect, I get the impression that somebody dropped some Owsley acid in the SCOTUS water cooler this morning . . .

JUSTICE THOMAS:  No, it was in the Mr. Coffee machine.  When I filled my cup Mr. Coffee had been staring at the Cremora container for half an hour, humming “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”

CHIEF JUSTICE:  That’s a very serious charge, counselor, and one that is likely to undermine your argument.

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  What was it Justice Potter Stewart said?

JUSTICE BREYER:  “That place is so crowded nobody goes there anymore?”

JUSTICE KAGAN:  That was Yogi Berra.  Or Victor Hugo.

PETITIONER’S COUNSEL:  No, I was referring to “I know it when I see it.”

CHIEF JUSTICE:  You say you know it when you see it–but are you experienced?

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Supremes’ Greatest Hits.”

Speaking Truth to Librarian Power

The mid-1980s were a time when, due to several unsettling changes in my life, I did not have much confidence in myself, personally or professionally.  My long-time girlfriend had moved out of our apartment and taken up with a guy who ran a bike shop, leaving me with a big rent check to write each month for our expensive Beacon Hill apartment.  I had just changed jobs, leaving a small, unpleasant firm for a much bigger one whose unpleasantness was more widely-dispersed and thus, in a way, more treacherous.  In a place with ten professionals you knew where the enemy was at all times; at my new job, danger lurked unseen, like those punji-stake traps the Viet Cong used to set for American soldiers in the jungle.


“Are you sure that’s a ‘U.S.’ cite?  Sounds more like a ‘Sup. Ct. Rptr.’ to me.”

 

And so I sailed into what appeared to be a congenial port in a storm.  I found in the firm librarian a smiling buoy in a sea of unknown hazards, if I may be allowed to extend my nautical conceit.  I liked books, she was surrounded by books!  I needed help with my research, she could provide it!  I favored the Dewey Decimal System while she was a firm devotee of Library of Congress Classification, but sometimes a little difference like that can be the spark that starts the fire that consumes two . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.


“Is it just me . . . or is it hot in here?”

 

Over time, we became more than mere office acquaintances.  She’d invite–perhaps “direct” is the more accurate term–me to take a seat in her office to discuss knotty questions of citation, then subtly steer the conversation towards topics more social in nature.  Did I have plans for the weekend?  Was I dating anybody?  Did I know that my fly was open?  That sort of thing.


“Would you help me re-shelve ‘Chapman on Brain Injuries’?”

 

And so it developed that, into one of these little “chats,” she dropped a casual invitation.  “Would you like to go see The Sick Puppies with some of us this weekend?”

“Who are The Sick Puppies?” I asked, all wide-eyed innocence and wing-tip-shod boy with cheeks of tan.

“You don’t know who The Sick Puppies are?” she asked, with unaffected incredulity.  “They just signed a record contract, they’re about to hit the big time,” she said.  “This is your last chance to hear them before they become famous, playing before sold-out houses in gigantic mega-venues!”

With a bally-hoo like that, it was hard to say no, I had weekend plans to alphabetize my collection of Johnny “Guitar” Watson albums.

“Who else is going?” I asked, dipping my toe in the potentially dangerous waters of intra-office dating.

“Charlie and Sharon are coming, and Anne and Michael,” she said, naming two long-time couples of about our age.

“So it’s not a date, it’s more like the National Honor Society all going to see Simon & Garfunkel together?”

“Right,” she said, drawing on her cigarette and blowing out a little ring of desire.  You could smoke indoors back then, and those who did so were able to envelop themselves in an air of mystery, like a noir movie set–with file cabinets.


“We have a three-volume treatise titled ‘Couch on Insurance.’  Want to give it a try?”

“Okay, sure,” I said.  I didn’t want to become known as a joyless stick-in-the-mud of a wet blanket party pooper around the office.  It would seriously inhibit productivity if every time I passed a little group of colleagues they had to repeat that scornful mouthful of epithets.

 

And so I arrived at my librarian’s apartment punctually at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, ready for some fun with the gang, but I noticed as I entered her apartment that the gang was not all there.

“Where are Charlie and Sharon?”

“Something came up with Charlie’s family in Maine.  Somebody died or got married or something.”

“Oh.  Too bad.  How about Michael and Anne?”

“You know those two,” which I did–sorta.  Always squabbling at summer outings over badminton, or volleyball, or croquet.  Then, they’d withdraw from the group to work out their differences, and would end up leaving early to go have mad, passionate make-up sex.

“So–they had an argument?”

“Yeah.  By now they’re probably listening to Marvin Gaye and making the beast with two backs.”  You know how librarians are, always with the literary euphemisms for sex.

“Oh, okay,” I said, and so off we went to hear The Sick Puppies.  They were your typical Cambridge band of the era.  They couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be rock stars or novelists, and so instead of producing music people might actually want to dance to, they sang lyrics that my former neurotic girlfriend would underline on the cover if she ever bought one of their albums.  Which she wouldn’t.  She had better taste than that–why else would she dump me?

“Did you like them?” my librarian asked as we walked out.

“Like them?” I replied.  “If you ever ask me to see them again, I’ll be washing my hair.”

She put on a little pouty face and said “I’m sorry.  Would you like to come back to my place for a drink?”

“Sure,” I said, sorry that I’d been critical of her fav rad group, as Tiger Beat would say.

We had a drink or two at her tiny home down a cul-de-sac in a quiet little neighborhood, then I stood up and said I should probably be going.

“It’s a long walk back to Harvard Square,” she said.

“Yeah, but I want to get up early tomorrow.”

“It’s kind of late.  There are some rough characters who hang out in the T station.”

“I can handle myself,” I said.  “When I scream, it’s really loud.”

“We could do something else,” she said, as if she found the prospect of a dull Sunday ahead of her depressing.

“Like what?” I asked.

She was quiet for a moment.  “Like have sex.”

I was, to say the least, taken aback.  “But . . . we work together.”


“I’d like to break the Rule Against Perpetuities . . . with you.”

 

“That doesn’t stop anybody else,” she said, and began to tick off the names of co-workers who were sleeping with each other across several pay grades–administrative, exempt and non-exempt, summer associates, associates, equity, non-equity and contract partners, temps, etc.

I stopped her–I didn’t want to hear any more.  “You mean . . . there’s no rule against it?”

“That’s how Anne and Michael met,” she said, “and Ariel and Clark, and Bob and Marie–she was his secretary first, and Susan and Jeff, and . . .”

And so I succumbed (succame?) to her wiles.  What else could I do?  She held my entire future as a researcher in her hands.  Wanna know about the Rule in Dumpor’s Case?  The Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?  The holding in Hadley v. Baxendale?  The road to that knowledge ran right through her office, and there was no way around it.

It ended badly, as these things tend to do.  When she was done with me I still needed to use the library, and she knew it.  “I’ll be with you when I get through with these people,” she’d say, pointing to interns, senile partners, the maintenance guys changing the fluorescent light bulbs.  “You should check the card catalog before you come to me,” she’d say with haughty disdain.  I was cruelly cast aside, like an outdated paperback copy of the Internal Revenue Code.

Eventually, one of us had to go, and it was me.  I was forced to take a job for twice as much money at a place where–I kid you not–there was no librarian.  If you needed something, you looked it up yourself, and fetched it from the shelves.  I had had it with the nightmare of librarian harassment she’d put me through.  I wasn’t going to go down that road again–Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress.

As for her?  Well, I see her in the train station every now and then.  She got married and late in life had a daughter to whom she’s a devoted mother.  When she posted a picture of the young woman’s graduation from college on Facebook, I asked whether she’d be going on to get a Master of Library Science, like her mother.

“No,” she replied tersely.  “We’re trying to make an honest woman out of her.”

Across US More Teens Dump Family for Olive Garden

FRAMINGHAM, Mass.  It’s Saturday night at the Olive Garden restaurant here, and as the line snakes up to the hostess station, Emily Nilson is offering some helpful but pointed criticism of her daughter, Alicia.  “You need to pluck your eyebrows,” she says.  “That zit on your forehead just won’t go away, will it, sweetie?” she adds as she brushes her daughter’s bangs downward.

“Mother–please!” Alicia seethes through clenched teeth, then folds her arms across her chest to express in body language that she doesn’t want to talk about beauty right now.

The Nilson’s table is ready, and after they are seated, veteran bread-and-water man Tony DiFillipo appears to fill the glasses and drop off some rolls.  “Hey, Princess,” he says to Alicia.  “How’s my little beauty queen?”


“Your momma–she’s got a poker up her butt.  Stay with us!”

 

“Hi, Tony,” Alicia says as she smiles for the first time tonight.  “I’m okay–except for le genitori”–her parents.

“Eesa no gooda to notta respecta your momma and-a poppa,” Tony says in the bogus Italian stage accent that Olive Garden employees are required to use during working hours.  “Onna the other handa, soma-times these things don’ta work out,” he says with an arched eyebrow, a veiled threat to Alicia’s parents.

Alicia is part of a growing phenomenon across America; sullen teenagers of the “baby boom echo” generation who have sought sanctuary among waitstaff and kitchen help at Olive Garden, the Italian restaurant chain whose slogan–“When you’re here, you’re family”–appeals to youths whose high-pressure upbringing results in frequent disputes and intra-family sniping.

Alicia disappeared for a week last November before the Nilsons obtained a court order forcing her to return to the family home.  “It was terrible,” says her father, Lloyd, an executive at an insurance company.  “All that pasta–she gained ten pounds.”

Three tables over, seventeen-year-old Charles Barker, whose parents are hoping he’ll get into one of two Ivy League colleges at the top of his list, buries his head in his entree when his father peppers him with questions about his essays.  “Dad, I don’t want to talk about it all the time!” he snaps as Maria della Famina appears at their table.  “Wassa matter?” she asks in a display of warmth that the chain’s “hospitaliano” policy requires staff to display, if not feel.

“He won’t shut up about my Harvard and Penn applications,” Charles says, a bit mollified by the waitress’s friendly tone.

“You no need to go to college!” she says, gesturing broadly with her hands.  “My brother Gaetano, he no go to college–he’s inna crushed stone business.  My father, Giuseppe–he no go to college.  He make-a good-a living in hees-a shoe repair business.  Fugeddabouta da college–do whatta makes-a you happy!”

A look of enlightenment comes over the young man’s face.  “You’re right,” he says, half to himself, looking off into the distance.  “I’d like to take a year off, learn how to make stained-glass windows.”

His father, sensing trouble, looks desperately around for the owner, then spotting him at the cash register, yells “Check please!”