There’s Something About a Billionairess . . .

There are three of them, very different in many ways, but they share one common feature; they’re all worth at least a billion dollars.  Well, maybe two common features; for reasons not altogether clear to me, I’m strangely attracted to them all.


“If that nerd thinks I’m going to tote binders around all summer, he’s got another think coming.”

 

The first I met when she was a summer intern at a firm where I worked. She was ushered into my office one June morning because the powers-that-be—or were—wanted someone to give her work to do for the exorbitant amount of money we were paying her.  I said I’d be happy to assign her something basic to get her going, and after we’d chatted a bit and traded pleasantries, I spelled out the job for her.

It was something I didn’t want to do, but which had to be done, and which a young person just starting out could be expected to master before moving on to more difficult and more boring tasks. I meant less boring, sorry.

After I explained it to her, she asked “Hasn’t anybody around here done that before?”

I was a bit taken aback, and tried to explain to her that we were asking her to do the work so she could get the experience of . . .

“But that’s a waste of my time. Surely somebody around here has some experience with it.”

“Or course we have, we all have.”

“Then why don’t you ask somebody who’s already done it to do it again—seems more efficient.”

“We want you to learn how to do it.”

“All right,” she grumbled. “Give me a form then.”

“I don’t have anything handy right at the moment, but why don’t you take a crack at . . .”

“Why don’t you call around, or send an email to everybody, it would save a lot of time.”


Abbott and Costello:  “Give up, man–you’ll be working for her someday.”

 

We continued in this Abbott and Costello fashion for a few more rounds, me making polite and professional suggestions, she acting as if she didn’t understand and was about to fire me for incompetence. I could see she was going to go places, whereas I—if I continued to play the criminal suspect to her bad cop interrogator–would soon end up eating out of a dog dish on her kitchen floor.

Several years later I was scanning the business pages and saw that she was now a “C suite” executive—chief something-or-other officer–at a database company.  I did not know then what a database was, or whether it came after third base, or before first.  But I could tell from figuring her eye-popping net worth that whatever a database is, I should get one. I have, ever since the fateful day when I watched her take her first baby-steps on the road to billionairesseville, admired her from afar. I know she probably thinks of me from time to time, and of the help I gave her to get the old filthy lucre ball rolling.

She is my only self-made billionaire, but I say this not to stigmatize her.  The other two made their money the old-fashioned way; they chose the right parents. One—I’ll call her Chloe, since her name in real life is one of those alluring French nommes that somehow lose their cachet once they cross the océan.  She was the wife of a guy I worked with and, because she had taken her husband’s name, her glittering genealogy was hidden from view.  If I were to mention the brand that her family is associated with, you’d recognize it in an instant.


“Tell that dweeb to get out of the shot, please.”

 

I didn’t know that at first, but still, I was attracted to her. When someone told me sotto voce what her balance sheet looked like, I slapped my forehead, amazed. That explains it—I should have known, I said to myself.  Me and billionairesses go together like moths and sweaters, like linguini and clam sauce, like those little black and white Scottish terrier magnets that whirl around to kiss when you sneak one up behind the other.  They have a certain je ne sais quoi, also pas de fumez–that exerts a powerful force on me, like the tides in the Bay of Fundy.  She has gone on to a glittering career directing movies with her family money, and for some strange reason, she’s never offered to buy any of my screenplays.  Maybe she has my old email address.  I’ll send her a Christmas card this year, just to–you know–“touch base” with her.

I can’t quite put my finger on the biological basis for my preference for billionairesses over millionairesses. I suppose it comes down to a matter of taste, like favoring brown hair over blonde.  Of course, I’m a married man, and I would never try to break up a happy home, but I think nombre deux knows from the fun we had that night—the laughter we shared, the knowing glances we exchanged—that I’d be there for her if anything . . . unfortunate were ever to happen to her husband . . . and my wife. I can be as loyal as those stupid golden retrievers WASP women favor—to the right billionaire gal. Don’t know why that is, but there you have it.


“Go ahead.  I have drinking fountains in all forty-six rooms of my house.”

 

The third leg of my billionairess stool—a skinny leg, but shapely nonetheless–is the daughter of a man who made the lives of many people richer through a financial innovation that was just lying there, waiting to be invented, if only they’d checked with Ruthie, the little old lady who was in charge of business trusts at the Secretary of State’s office.  I knew Ruthie, knew her well.  She had a little plastic fan on her desk, and a spider plant that looked like it was on life support, since her desk faced the dark north side of the building in Boston.  Tough luck, little plant, but it’s survival of the fittest here in the Hub of the Freaking Universe.

But to return to my narrative–no one before the Daddy Warbucks of billionairess #3 had the foresight to come up with his innovation.  He did, however, and now his daughter—an only child—is the steward (stewardess?) of his great fortune. She works out at my health club, always accompanied by a bulky he-man trainer, whose efforts so far have produced no noticeable improvement in her musculature. Perhaps he’s an incognito bodyguard, there to protect her in case someone tries to kidnap her when her attention wanders reading People magazine on the treadmill. Still, you’d think she’d demand results—personal trainers are expensive!

I could show her a few tricks. I used to do 100 push-ups a day in response to a challenge from my maternal grandfather that if I wanted to grow up to be big and strong like Bronko Nagurski, I needed to work hard at it.  At the time I didn’t know Bronko Nagurski from a database, but believe you me, I can tell the two apart now. A database is worth a lot of money, while Bronko Nagurski is dead.


Bronko Nagurski (not shown actual size).

 

I think she likes me. One day I was standing in front of the drinking fountain, finishing a little paper cup of water, and as she approached to fill her bottle she said “Excuse me.” Just like we’d known each other all our lives! VERY simpatico.

But I’ve learned that you have to approach billionairesses cautiously, quietly, or else they’ll skitter away like a startled fawn back into the woods of their wealth. When that happens, society as a whole suffers, since they might not return in time to buy a table for the biggest charity ball of the season.

I don’t by any means pretend to know everything about billionairesses, other than the fact that they all have a billion dollars. They remain inscrutable in many ways.

Why, for instance, I find them so darned attractive is a mystery to me.

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As Year Winds Down, Crowdfunding Comes on Little Cat Feet

HAZELWOOD, Mo.  Mark Verblanian is a long-time employee of Applied Widgetronix in this suburb of St. Louis, but he owes his longevity not to productivity–which he admits is sub-optimal–but to his ability to ingratiate himself with a wide variety of co-workers.  “I try to support everybody’s fund-raiser,” he says with the warm, open smile that makes him a consistent runner-up for employee of the month.  “It helps every time there’s a round of layoffs because people can’t imagine this place without me, even though they can’t figure out exactly what it is I do.”


“Wait’ll I tell Mr. Whiskers how generous you guys are!”

 

But now the shoe is on the other foot as the 29-year-old finds himself in a tight economic squeeze; his 8-year-old cat “Mr. Whiskers” needs an operation, and like most private health insurance plans, those offered by his employer don’t extend to pets.  “I guess I should have paid more attention during open enrollment period,” Verblanian says, an expression of self-disgust twisting his mouth on one side.  “It’s all so complicated and Vicki, the Assistant Benefits Coordinator who explained the different options, had on this really tight sweater that day.”


A young Mr. Whiskers

 

But the distraught cat-owner–a rarity among single men–responded with a 21st century form of outreach to everyone at his firm, and some beyond.  He started a “crowdfunding” appeal on INeedMoney.com, which helps those in need raise funds outside normal charitable channels without the benefit of a tax deduction, but also without the scrutiny that organized charities are subject to.

“It’s been a godsend,” Verblanian says, as he posts a daily update about Mr. Whiskers to keep his “page” fresh to potential donors.  “Hey everybody,” he writes, “thanks for all your support to date, we’re at 21% of our goal and momentum is building.”


“You’d do the same thing for us if we had cats with only one liver!”

 

He leans back in his chair and casts a sorrowful eye at the picture of his cat he keeps on his desk.  “Mr. Whiskers is suffering, but he’s counting on you to help get him through this rough patch of catnip!”

With this update typed Verblanian hits “send” and returns to the backstory behind the looming tragedy.  “Mr. Whiskers was born with only one liver,” he reads aloud over a lump in his throat.  “For those of you who like liver and onions, you know what this means: an inability to cleanse his system of impurities or go to the bathroom or something.  At some point, his little body–which actually is pretty big at twelve pounds but still smaller than yours truly!–will just shut down.  I’d hate to see that happen, when most of the 1% of this country are all walking around with two healthy livers!”

Depleted by the emotionally charged task of composing his heart-rending appeal, Verblanian goes to get a package of Chuckles candy from the vending machine in the employee lounge.  “Hey guys,” he says as he greets Tina Laughlin and Aaron Swelting, the former a “floating” secretary and the latter an in-house accountant, generally known as the company’s cynical office wag.


Mr. Whiskers–after years of suffering.

 

“I am so sorry to hear about your cat,” Laughlin says, her heavily made-up eyes glistening as she fights back tears.

“Thanks, Tina–appreciate it.”

“How’s it going?” she asks with an optimistic tone she hopes will give her co-worker encouragement.

“Good, good.  Two weeks to go, if I don’t hit my goal I still get to keep the money net of a service fee.”

“Cool,” says Swelting, as he looks through the steam rising off his free but awful cup of office coffee.  “So there’s really no downside for you, is there?”

“I guess you could say that,” Verblanian replies, “although Mr. Whiskers will be taken from me if he doesn’t get the treatment he needs.”

Swelting says “Um-hmm” in apparent agreement, then pokes at his phone to search the internet.  “You know, it says here that cats only have one liver.”

“Really?” Verblanian says, with as much feigned innocence as he can muster.

“Yeah,” Swelting continues.  “So what’s so special about your cat only having one?”

Verblanian’s face clouds over at the question, and the implicit suggestion that his motives are somehow less than pure.  “Did I say liver?” he asks.  “I meant kidney.”

The Day After Ignacio’s Special Christmas

This is a story of a teenaged boy whom I will call Ignacio. He was brought to America from a village in South America to live in a small town for a year as a foreign exchange student.

He lived with the Cash family. Mr. Cash owned a feed and grain store, and Mrs. Cash was a homemaker. They had three children, a boy about Ignacio’s age and two girls, one older and one younger.

Mrs. Cash wanted to climb the social ladder in the small town where they lived. The family could not yet afford to join the town’s sole country club, and she was concerned that even when they had accumulated enough money to do so, they might be turned down. After all, the owner of a feed and grain store did not occupy the same stratospheric social altitude of a chiropractor, a funeral director or a lawyer.


“. . . and this is our beautiful new sewage plant!”

So Mrs. Cash sought out opportunities to improve the family’s status. She chose the right church, played in two bridge clubs, and did charitable work. She volunteered to lead tours of the many recent improvements that made the town a wonderful place to live, taking visitors to see the new sewage treatment facility north of town. It was brand, spanking new–and you could hardly smell a thing!

Mr. Cash worked hard for every nickel he made, and he hated the thought of ever having to give one back. If a customer brought back an auger or a drill that didn’t work, he’d say “Sorry–store credit only.” Some people grumbled that the only time you ever got any cash out of him was when he gave you his business card.

As the holidays drew near, Ignacio was feeling homesick, and Mrs. Cash tried to cheer him up with the prospect of Christmas Day. “It will be wonderful,” she said. “There will be many, many presents under the tree.”

“Even for me?” Ignacio asked.

“Especially for you!” Mrs. Cash said, because Ignacio’s presence in the house had brought a great deal of notoriety to the family. A reporter from The Smithville Picayune-Item had written a story about Ignacio and the Cash family, and it had appeared in the paper with a large photograph–on the front page!

All of this was new to Ignacio. In the humble village in South America where he came from, they knew the story of the birth of Jesus, but nothing about the giving of gifts. Christmas morning was a time to celebrate with family and play, and later to eat a big meal.

“Where do these presents come from?” he asked Mrs. Cash.

“From Santa Claus, but we buy them ourselves, too,” she explained. “We have charge accounts at all the nice stores in town. You go downtown and pick things out, all right?”

And so Ignacio put on his wool coat with the sheepskin lining that he had brought with him from his native country, and walked downtown. He went from store to store, picking out things that looked nice. When he was asked how he wished to pay, he would say “Put it on the charge account of Senorita Cash.” “Excellent,” the sales clerk would say, and would throw in gift wrapping for free.

As Christmas approached, excitement began to build at the Cash house as everyone admired the many beautiful presents under the tree.

“Oh, Ignacio,” said Ruth Ann, the younger daughter. “I can’t imagine what’s in all those boxes!”

“It is a surprise,” he said. “You will see soon enough!”

The children and Ignacio were old enough to wait until Mr. and Mrs. Cash had woken up before going downstairs on Christmas morning.

“Well,” said Mrs. Cash. “Since this is Ignacio’s first Christmas in America, we should let him go first.”


Sweet!

“Yes,” said Norberta, the older daughter, as she picked up a package and handed it to him. He opened it up and inside was a lovely sweater. “Gracias, Norberta,” he said.

The gift giving continued around the room until it was Ignacio’s turn to give someone a gift. “Now you pick out one of your gifts,” said Mrs. Cash.

“All right,” Ignacio said, and he took a box wrapped in red ribbon from under the tree, returned to his chair and began to open it.

The members of the Cash family looked at each other with surprise, but said nothing. When Ignacio had finished unwrapping the package, they saw that it was a pair of festive red pants.

“Those are very nice,” said Mrs. Cash, with a tone of repressed disapproval in her voice. “Perhaps you did not understand me when I explained Christmas to you.”

“No?” he asked her with a puzzled look on his face.

“Apparently not,” she replied. “When you buy a present, you buy it for someone else.”

Ignacio looked around at the others.

“Ah,” he said. “I buy–for you!”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Cash.

“Oh–the present is not for me?”

“No,” said Mrs. Cash.

“Ah,” Ignacio said, pursing his lips and nodding his head as if to show that he understood. “This is . . . how you say . . . “

“Unfortunate?” asked Ruth Ann.

“Yes,” said Ignacio. “I have bought many things for myself–accidentally?”

Mr. Cash gave out a little snort. “Well, that’s a fine how-de-do.”

Mrs. Cash intervened in the hope of preserving the spirit of good cheer that had prevailed only moments before. “That’s all right,” she said to Ignacio. “You just pick out the thing you like the most, and we’ll take the others back when the stores open tomorrow.”

“All right,” Ignacio said, and proceeded to open up the other boxes. There was a pen and pencil set, a pair of warm pajamas, a funny Chia Pet of a little dog–so many nice things!

After much deliberation, Ignacio decided to keep the Chia Pet, and to give the other gifts to Mr. Cash to return. He had received so many gifts from the members of the Cash family, he wasn’t even disappointed to lose the items he had shopped for with such great care for himself.

The next day, Mr. Cash hit the streets of town bright and early, grumbling about how much time his unexpected chore would take away from his duties at his own store. He stopped first at Pattison’s Department Store, where Ignacio had bought the bright red pants.

“Say,” Mr. Cash said as he accosted the first sales clerk he saw. “I’d like to return these pants.”

“Do you have the receipt?” the clerk asked.

“Well no, but you can check our charge account.”

“Hmph,” the clerk sniffed. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Well, uh, nothing. It’s just that our foreign exchange student didn’t understand what the deal was when he bought them.”

The clerk looked at Mr. Cash skeptically. “And what was the deal?”

Mr. Cash grew angry. “The deal was, it was Christmas, and he was supposed to be buying presents for everybody else!”

“But he could have walked in here and bought a pair of pants for himself–right?”

“Well, right. But he didn’t know. He’s from some godforsaken village in the Andes, where they burn llama turds for fuel.”

The clerk examined the pants for rips or stains, then, when he was satisfied that they were undamaged, he spoke. “I can give you store credit,” he said, “but not cash.”

“Store credit!” Mr. Cash exploded. “We just spent a bundle in here on presents! I want cash.”

“Sorry,” said the clerk. “No can do.”

Mr. Cash was stunned, and angry. “To hell with you!” he shouted, then spun on his heels and walked out.

At the next store, the story was the same; no cash, just credit. And at the next, and the next, all down Ohio Street, from Broadway to Main Street. The after shave, the model car kit, the fancy Italian loafers. No one, it seemed, ever gave cash refunds.

And so Mr. Cash headed home, loaded down with Ignacio’s presents. He trudged up the front sidewalk, climbed the steps and, working one hand free under the armful of packages, pushed the doorbell.

Ignacio came to the door, his Chia Pet in hand, and opened it. When he saw Mr. Cash standing there with the presents that had been carried away that morning, his eyes lit up in wonder.

“This,” he said, “is the most wonderfullest Christmas ever!”

Moral: Do unto others and, first chance they get, they’ll do unto you.

The Year the Meanest Man Stole Christmas

There is a little town not far from here, a very prosperous town, one that people aspire to live in. Couples scrimp and save to build up a down payment on a house there, knowing their children will receive a good education in its schools, and their old friends will say “They must be doing well if they can afford to live in Swellsville.”

Another thing that people like about Swellsville; town officials are just as thrifty as the people who live there. They work hard to keep taxes low, for which they are justly praised. They know that if they slip up and spend too much money on storm drains or fire trucks or playground equipment, it can mean the end of a very good job for them, and they’ll end up at a less affluent town, at a lower salary.

One such town is Needsville, right next door to Swellsville. Town fathers and mothers in Swellsville keep an eye out for rising talent in the competitive crab bucket of municipal managers, and when they heard that Mike Macree had kept costs so low that Needsville’s bond rating had gone up, they made a discreet inquiry as to whether he’d like to make a switch to Swellsville.

“How much does it pay?” Mike asked, and when he was told, he said “That’s not enough for me to buy a house in Swellsville.”

“That’s okay,” they said. “One of the many advantages of our town is that the help can’t afford to live here.”

Mike thought about it for a while, and decided he would take the job after he was told that, as a town employee, his kids could attend Swellsville schools even if he didn’t live there.

Mike set to work with the high energy he’d brought to every job he’d ever had before, poking and probing for fat to be cut. He deferred some maintenance on street lights, cut a position at the Department of Public Works, and talked a principal into early retirement. He wasn’t ready to pat himself on the back, though. “I’ve just skimmed the surface,” he said one night as he made himself another cup of coffee for a final pass through the budget, determined to deliver the goods for his new employer.

As the clock ticked past seven and he began to get bleary-eyed, Mike’s energy flagged. “Maybe I should go home and start again tomorrow,” he said to himself, but he only had thirty-four more pages to go; best to soldier on, he thought, hoping to find some hidden pocket of waste, fraud or abuse the good government types are always confident can be eliminated to keep taxes low and the level of services high.

Then, like a hidden figure in a children’s puzzle that suddenly stands out from the background, he found it: “Christmas lights–$50,000! Good gravy! I should be able to cut that by more than half!” And so he fired off an email to the head of Swellsville’s Department of Public Works. “No overtime for Christmas tree lighting this year. Put a string of lights on the tree in front of Town Hall, and call it a day.”

The next morning when town offices opened and the Director of the DPW turned on his computer, he was shocked and saddened. “So this is what we have come to,” he said, shaking his head. “They’re going to take Christmas away from the people of Swellsville, just to save a measly five figure sum!” He clicked “Reply” and typed “Will do—although I’m sure this will generate a lot of controversy among people who are opposed to merciless budget-cutting that kills the spirit of Christmas.” He sent a copy to himself, and when it popped up in his in-box, he sent it to every town employee and to the town’s listserv. First shock, then disbelief, then outrage radiated outwards across Swellsville, like rings from the spot where a rock hits the surface of a pond. “How could he?” wrote one. “How DARE he!” exclaimed another. “Who IS this Mike Macree guy?” asked a third.

Soon, the humble city manager became an object of scorn by all right-thinking residents of Swellsville. After it had been determined by universal acclamation that the man’s heart was as small and black as a Spanish olive, he passed into the realm of ridicule. Someone noticed that his initials were the same as “meanest man,” and he came to be called “Meanest Man Mike Macree.” Another noticed that he had not two but one eyebrow, and he was reviled as “Monobrow Mike Macree.” “In fact,” one person wrote in her blog on local affairs, “his eyebrows seem to form one big ‘M’ on his forehead, like a mark of the monomaniacal monster that he is!”

Thanksgiving passed, and all lamented the lack of lights on the town green and on Main Street, where in years past the little white bulbs had lent an air of homespun commercialism to the scene. “What are we going to do about this jerk?” one burgher—the owner of an upscale cheese shop–asked another.

“We need a grass-roots movement,” said the other, who owned a high-end jewelry shop. “The man is menace to society, and society should hold him accountable!”

And so a social media campaign began to speak truth to power, and a march was organized. With candles in hand, hordes of angry citizens descended upon Town Hall, where they demanded Mike Macree’s head, or at least his job if his head wasn’t available under the terms of his employment contract.

“WE WANT CHRISTMAS BACK!” they chanted, louder and louder. The town clerk, an elderly woman, slipped out the back door, not wanting to be associated with the executioner-style budget cutter who was in charge of things.

“WE WANT CHRISTMAS—NOW!” they screamed, and the bookkeeper in the assessor’s office decided to take a personal day to get in a little shopping.

“WE WANT OUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS!” they shouted, loudly enough to wake the napping in their chairs at the town’s senior center.

Mike Macree looked up from his work and out the front window and exhaled deeply. “Well, it isn’t pleasant, but I guess it comes with the paycheck.” He took a last sip of soda, tossed the can into a blue recycling bin, and strode forth down the hall with the aspect of a man who has an irksome but necessary job to do, like a sheriff in a western movie who’s forced to confront a lynch mob, or a gang of outlaws—he wasn’t sure which.

As Macree stepped out onto the wide stone steps that led up to Town Hall, he was met with a crashing wave of obloquy the likes of which hadn’t been heard in Massachusetts since 1693, when the last witch was hanged in Salem. “WE DEMAND OUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS BACK!” screamed one particularly obstreperous group of older women wearing red hats, which were designed to convey that they had unimpeachable moral authority—or something.  One of them stepped forward and shook her finger in Macree’s face, saying “You’ve stolen our Christmas!”

Macree was taken aback by the vehemence of the angry people, but he collected himself. “Folks,” he said, “if you’d like to hear what I have to say, you’ll have to quiet down just a little, okay?”

An embarrassed silence descended upon the crowd—perhaps they had been a tad importunate.

“All right—go ahead. Speak,” said an elderly gentleman who’d been caught up in the madness of the crowd.

“Thank you,” Macree said to the man. “Folks, it’s like this. I was hired to do a job. Nobody likes it when their favorite program is cut, or eliminated, but we all have to make sacrifices. Like you,” he said, pointing to the head of the DPW.

“Me?” the man replied, with feigned innocence. “I was only trying to give the people a warm and wonderful Christmas feeling that they’d remember long after I’m gone.”

“And enjoying the pension, paid for by all the same folks, that grows larger each year with all the overtime you make—am I right?”

The DPW Director looked down at his feet, and shuffled them back and forth. “Well, there’s that too.”

“We could be spending that money on our schools—right? Maybe hire another kindergarten teacher?”

The DPW Director was silent for a moment, then was recalled to the train of his argument by an irrelevant whistle of a non sequitur he heard in his mind’s ear: “But–it’s the spirit of the thing that’s important!”

“Yes, the Christmas spirit!” someone shouted, and Macree turned to address her.

“Great—Christmas spirit!” he said. “Who could possibly object to that—unless one of the many Hindus and Muslims and Jews and atheists and agnostics who live among us?”

“They’re just . . . lights,” the woman said.

“If you believe that, you should probably go home and get in bed.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because Santa won’t come down the chimney until you’re asleep.”

A collective gasp escaped from the lips of the crowd. “There’s no need to be sarcastic!” a man snapped.

“You’re right,” Macree said. “This is a serious matter, and no one knows that better than me.”

“Well, you sure don’t show it!” one irate man said with a scolding tone.

“Maybe that’s because I still haven’t gotten over what happened in Needsville a few years ago.”

“What was that?” a woman asked.

“We were putting up the Christmas lights on the town square as we always did. The men were working away, using a cherry-picker truck. A young man was up in the basket, stringing the high branches, when a gust of wind came along. It toppled the truck over on its side, and the man died.”

The crowd was silent, and if one looked closely there could be seen on the necks of those that weren’t concealed by scarves big lumps of sadness sliding down their throats.

“Did he . . . leave a family.”

“Yes. A wife and three little kids.”

An audible groan was heard.

“But—isn’t that sort of thing covered by insurance?” asked a man with a worldly air that signaled he understood such things.

“Yes, of course. There was $250,000—not a penny more–to take care of those four. For the rest of their lives, or until the mother could afford childcare and go to work.”

“That was it?” the worldly man asked.

“Well, you want to keep your taxes low, don’t you?”

“Didn’t they take up a collection for the poor people?” a woman with a saintly manner asked, her voice infused with sympathy.

“Sure they did—they had a bake sale, and a charity basketball game. Raised another $837. With that kind of generosity, that poor mother should be all set, right?”

The crowd was silent. “If I’d had the money that town paid to put up Christmas lights to give to her, I’d have felt a lot better,” Macree said.

The crowd began to dissolve, first at the fringes, then throughout the mass of humanity that had been so strident and unified in purpose just a few moments before.

“Just a moment,” Macree called out over the backs of the heads that were now moving away from him slowly. A few turned, others stopped still in their tracks, while some just kept going.

“Go home to your families,” Macree said, “and give them all the love you’ve got. That’s what Christmas is about, not a bunch of crappy plastic lights.”

Moral: Sometimes it’s the hard candy that has a soft, gooey center.

For Those Who Take “Literally” Literally, Outrage Isn’t Figurative

NEEDHAM, Mass.  It’s 6:58 a.m.and Dan Klosterman is running behind schedule this morning as he boards a train that departs for Boston an hour later than his usual commute.  “Damn cleaning people, they always screw up my alarm clock,” he says to Tom Clister, a friend who remarks that he hasn’t seen him in a while.

Because the two want to catch up on family and mutual acquaintances, they don’t take seats in the “quiet car,” where cell phones are banned and conversations that rise above a whisper are likely to draw stares, corrections from a conductor and, in egregious cases, verbal scoldings from other passengers.

“How’re the kids?” Clister asks Klosterman, who shakes his head and says “Thanksgiving was so bad, I literally exploded at them over the way they were looking at their cell phones under the table the whole meal.”

The two continue to chat but Klosterman is interrupted by a tap on the shoulder from Maeve Clonigan, a bookish-looking woman with an ill-fitting stocking cap on her head.  “Excuse me,” she says.

“Yes?” Klosterman replies.


“So then this guy says that he ‘literally’ couldn’t wrap his mind around a problem–DUH!”

 

“You didn’t literally explode, otherwise you wouldn’t be here today.  So you can’t say that in here, this is the Literally Car.”

“The what?” he asks, incredulous.

“You can’t ride in this car if you’re going to misuse the word ‘literally.’  The word means ‘factually true,’ it’s not just something you say to add emphasis to a figure of speech,” she says, politely but smugly.

Klosterman looks at Clister, who looks back at him.  “She’s right, Dan,” he says.  “We should go to another car if you’re going to do that.”


“I’ll be late.  A woman said she was literally swept off her feet, they’re taking her to St. Metaphor’s Hospital.”

 

Klosterman starts to laugh, thinking he’s being “punked,” but when Clister gets up he follows him to the next car, while mouthing an abashed “Sorry” at the woman who stopped his crime in progress.

“That’s all right,” she says as she sits down again.  “Just don’t let it happen again,” she adds with a steely glare over the cover of “Love’s Tender Eyedrops,” the “bodice ripper” novel she’s reading.

The misuse of the word “literally” as either a verbal intensifier or to signal its exact opposite–“figuratively”–is on the rise in America, triggering a backlash comparable to those that resulted in bans on smoking and cell phone use in enclosed spaces.  “It sets my teeth on edge,” says Norman Calustra, a reference librarian at Blair Junior College here.  “Of course, my teeth are on an edge to begin with, that being the edge that’s in my gums, so it’s literally true, but you know what I mean.”


“Okay, so I meant figuratively!”

 

Those who say language purists overreact to what they call a minor error in usage fear a “witch hunt” much like that which ended in the hanging of many innocent women and the crushing of an innocent man in Salem, Massachusetts, 325 years ago.  “Of all the things to complain about,” says Elinor Olmstead of nearby Wellesley as she watches Klosterman go, “at a time when we literally have a madman in the White House.”

Clonigan, the little old lady who serves as the unpaid “Conscience of the Literally Car,” gets up to correct Olmstead but, just as she’s about to lower the boom on the offender, she hesitates.  “As much as I’d like to ring her chimes,” she says, “I guess she’s entitled to her opinion.”

 

 

Volunteers Gird for Busy Season Saving “Rescue Fruitcakes”

FRAMINGHAM, Mass.  In a non-descript building in this western suburb of Boston, the stress of the holiday season is apparent on the forehead of Mark Foutreau as he barks into his landline.  “We need somebody to cover the South Shore,” he says with a no-nonsense tone.  “I can’t spare anybody in MetroWest until after Christmas.”


Framingham, Mass.: They could afford nicer offices if you’d donate some money.

 

Foutreau’s mission is not retail sales, however, despite the many shopping plazas that line the busy state highway where his non-profit’s office is located.  “It’s the neglect that breaks your heart,” he says with a pained expression.  “People buy them as presents, never asking themselves whether the person they give them to can take care of one.”

But the gifts he’s talking about aren’t puppies or kittens or rabbits, which are often given at Christmas and then abandoned to die quickly in the cold New England winter.  “Those animals are part of the circle of life,” he says, drawing a deep breath as he looks at pictures of rescues his organization made last year.  “Coyotes get them, but no coyote is going to eat this,” he says, as he thrusts a disturbing image in front of this reporter.

The photo shows a discarded fruitcake lying in a drainage ditch, where it would have triggered spring floods and sewer clogging if it had been left in an undigested lump.  “Poor kid,” he says, shaking its head.  “We found it a good home, a 73-year-old man who actually likes the stuff.  He finished it off by Easter.”

Foutreau is the passionate Executive Director of Fruitcake Rescue, whose mission is to stop fruitcake neglect both after the fact by placing “rescue fruitcakes” in caring environments, and before it happens by raising public awareness of the problem.


Pediatric Fruitcake Rescue Poster Child

 

A fruitcake is a cake made with fruit, nuts and spices, often soaked in spirituous liquors, which can lead to impaired motor skills and low standardized test scores.  “Growing up in an alcoholic environment, many fruitcakes start off several steps behind other baked goods,” says Amy Bilboff, a professional fund raiser brought in to help Foutreau with a fund-raising drive.  “Yes there are a lot of other great charities out there asking for your money, but this is the only one doing the Lord’s work of getting me a new Audi.”

Fruitcakes date from ancient Rome, when pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins were mixed into barley mash to form circular objects that were used as chariot wheels when they went unconsumed despite being distributed in “bread and circuses” government welfare programs.  “How can this stuff be any good,” a character in a play by Roman satirist Juvenal says, “they’re giving it away.”


“You’re not sticking me with that damn fruitcake!”

 

Because of their alcohol content fruitcakes can remain edible for many years, a phenomenon that was brought home to American television viewers in 2003 when talk-show host Jay Leno ate a piece of an 1878 fruit cake kept as an heirloom by a Tecumseh, Michigan family.  “It’s good,” he said, “but not as good as the one Juvenal sent me.”