Swiss Women Use Assisted Suicide to Combat Male Snoring

WINTERTHUR, Switzerland.  Selina Bless used to arrive at her job as a pastry chef every morning at 6:30 a.m., tired and haggard-looking.  “Once I am up, I am up,” she says with resignation, “and my husband Lukas, he snored so loud, I couldn’t sleep through the night!”

But that was before she spoke to her friend Nina Blauch, who told her of a treatment that sounded worse than the ailment it was designed to cure, but which has been a godsend to the 39-year-old, who has two children in gymnasium, the equivalent of American high school.  “Now I sleep soundly and wake up refreshed,” she says with a sigh of relief.  “The kids say I am not so crabby anymore.”

The Bless family had tried everything to reduce Lukas’s snoring, from nose strips, to a mouth guard, to a chin strap, but none was as effective as Selbstmord Assistiert, or assisted suicide.  “The mouth guard was always falling out, and the nose strips were useless,” Selina says as she rolls her eyes thinking about the years of sleep she lost.  “The chin strap was so goofy looking I couldn’t fall asleep for laughing.”

Switzerland was the first nation to adopt an assisted suicide law, and experts say it has helped the mountainous central European country keep its health costs under control.  “We were spending too much on heroic measures to extend life for the elderly maybe six months at most,” says Dr. Elias Zercher, a professor of public health at Thurgau State University.  “You don’t buy a new suit for your 86-year-old grandfather, do you?”


“Give it a try.  If you don’t like being dead I’ll ask for a refund.”

 

Religious groups have criticized assisted suicide laws as a slippery slope to euthanasia, but Selina Bless says the after-Christmas mark-downs at Winterthur’s “Little House of Death” were too good to pass up.  When this reporter asks whether she obtained her husband’s informed consent she nods her head enthusiastically.  “He always loved a bargain,” she says, “I know he would have approved.”

For Freedonian-Americans, Lack of Own Holiday is Gauling

KNOB NOSTER, Missouri.  For Zliewg Norblek, the dead of winter is always more painful than it is for most people, a fact he tries without success to conceal.  “First Columbus Day, then Martin Luther King Day, and I have St. Patrick’s Day coming up,” he says over a lump in his throat.  These are all holidays, this reporter asks–what’s so bad about that?


Vertical mobile home park, where Freedonian-Americans live in crowded conditions.

“There is nothing–no day–for Freedonian-Americans,” he says, biting his hand to fight back the tears.  “My children will grow up thinking less of themselves, they already think less of me.”

Norblek’s complaint is a valid one, as the U.S. Congress has consistently refused to grant holidays to immigrants from fictional countries.  “They’re lazy, they don’t write to elected officials or offer bribes the way other ethnic groups do,” says Emil Nostrand, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Chillicothe.  “Yes fictional immigrants vote in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, but so do dead people and pets.”


Stores in “Little Freedonia” stock foods from the “old country.”

Freedonia was formed after World War I from abandoned Sears Tool Sheds, windblown mobile homes scattered by a tornado, and a Six Flags Over Minsk amusement park that became insolvent.   The metal of the rides was melted down to make the nation’s currency, leaving  its first citizens with nothing to spend their money on.  “For years the people walked around making change with each other,” says Nostrand.  “Then they discovered that stamp collectors around the world hunger for cancelled postage from obscure third-world countries, and they’ve had a balance of payments surplus ever since.”


Train wrecks provide wholesome diversion for local residents

Part of the problem, say Washington lobbyists who have attempted to aid Freedonian-Americans on a sliding scale pro bono basis for $700 an hour, is that Freedonia hasn’t produced any heroes such as Christopher Columbus, Dr. King, or St. Patrick who could serve as symbolic representatives of their countrymen and women.  Norblek insists this is a pretext, however, citing the valiant resistance offered by Kowlak Mailwke at the Battle of Blzieka in 1692.  “Freedonian forces were retreating across the Valkeokwo River, with the Ruritanians in hot pursuit over the Bridge of Sorrowful Sighs and Eye-Rolling,” he says angrily.  “Mailwke had the presence of mind to stand his ground and impose a 73 vladek toll to cross, and the Ruritanians turned tail and ran.”

For now, however, Freedonian-Americans suffer in silence, or at best express their anger and frustration under their breath.  “It is about the dignity of all God’s children on this earth,” says Miroslik Venuvva as she emerges from St. Glzilsk’s Church in this small midwestern town, which boasts the largest concentration of Freedonian-Americans outside of Cazenovia, New York.  What about France, known in ancient times as “Gaul,”  this reporter asks; it has never had a day to honor the contributions its natives have made to American life.  “Pah,” Venuvva says as she spits on the ground.  “The French are a bunch of cheese-eating demi-weasels.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Hail, Freedonia!”

Estate Planning for Cats

The Massachusetts legislature has passed a bill allowing residents to write pets into their wills and leave trust funds behind for their care.

               The Boston Globe

Image result for lawyer will signing
“There–Kitzi is all provided for!”

Every year about this time I take stock of my family’s financial situation–how much life insurance we have, the allocation of my retirement plan between bonds, stocks and 60’s era collectible plastic model cars, what would happen to everybody else in our household if I should die before them.

I was sitting at my desk trying to figure out the pie charts on my monthly statement when Okie, the older of our two cats, jumped up on my desk.

“Whatcha doin’?” he asked, mustering as much wide-eyed innocence as a creature who likes to rip the guts out of chipmunks can possibly manage.

“Just my annual financial self-check-up,” I said, reaching into the drawer for an extra box of hyphens.

“I don’t mean to sound . . . crass . . . but have you taken care of me?” he asked.

I gave him a withering look. “You’ll be fifteen years old this year,” I said. “That’s 105 in human years.”

“So? You’re the one who rides his bike on state highways.”

Rocco
Rocco: “You made mom the trustee? Good grief!”

“I wear a helmet,” I said, turning back to something called the PIMCO Variable Rate Long-Term Investment Grade Bond and Baseball Card Fund.  “I don’t think you’re going to outlive me.”

He’s not the brightest cat in the world; he’s gone a long way on looks alone, with females rolling over and swooning at the black stripes in his short grey fur. I could literally feel him trying to figure out an innocent-sounding way to restart the discussion.

“Not for me,” he said, even though I seemed to recall that he’d used the word “me.”  “For the children.”

“You mean Rocco? He’s going to be 9 this year, so he’s 63.  Sorry, I think the humans around here come first because of their longer life expectancy.”

He turned away, a bit miffed.  “Did you see The Globe today?”

Okie
“I can’t go out and get a job at my age!”

“That was their advertising slogan back in the 80’s,” I said.  “Which part?”

“An article that tells how you can set up a trust fund for me and Rocco.  Just in case something tragic–God forbid–happened to you.”

All of a sudden it clicked. There’d been a segment on “Biography” last night about the Menendez brothers, the Beverly Hills teens who killed their parents to get at their assets.

“Forget about it, pal,” I said, and I tried to put some starch into my voice.  “I don’t have enough money to make it worthwhile to bump me off.”

“What are you talking about?”

Rocco came in the room and, as always, sized up the situation in the bat of an eyelash.

“Is he trying to talk you into a trust fund?” he said before sprawling on his back legs to lick his crotch. “I told him you wouldn’t fall for it.”

Image result for radiator

Okie emitted a hiss like the radiators in my first apartment.  “You are so cynical,” he said.

“Am not,” Rocco said, “unless you mean that I’m dog-like.”

“I think he means you mistrusts his motives,” I explained, switching to the figurative from the literal.

“I’m not greedy,” Okie said. “I’m not like Leona Helmsley’s dog, Tycoon.”

“The one who was bequeathed $12 million, later reduced to $2 million?” I asked, although I knew the answer.

Image result for tycoon helmsley
Tycoon, with Helmsley: “He’s the only one who really loved me for the bitch that I am.”

“Yeah–pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered,” he said, using an old country expression popular among big city lawyers.

I reached over and scratched Okie on the head.  “Don’t worry, if mom or I died you could stay here until the other kicked the bucket.”

“What if you died together?” he asked. He’d apparently thought this thing through thoroughly.

“Well, I’m sure one of the neighbors would take you.”

Image result for jack russell terrier
Jack Russell terrier: Yip, yip, yip.

“Ix-nay on the olstead-Hays,” Rocco said, not even bothering to look up from his nether regions.  “I can’t stand their stupid Jack Russell terrier.”

I looked at the two of them, and realized they had a point.  “Tell you what–you guys can make out living wills, saying who you’d want to live with if we died. How’s that sound?”

“Is that enforceable?” Okie asked–he wasn’t completely on board yet.

“With two witnesses and a notary,” I said.

“And we can choose anybody we want?” Rocco asked.

“Sure–who did you have in mind?”

“Aunt Chris–she sends us Friskies Cat Treats!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Chronic Dead Rock Star Fatigue Syndrome Spreads

ALBANY, New York.  When Cynthia McDonald finished pouring her first cup of coffee this morning, she padded into her den in bedroom slippers, turned on her computer and checked her social media accounts, like any other day.  “I’m a creature of habit,” she says with a smile.  “I enjoy catching up with my friends–most of the time,” she adds with a hesitant tone, before allowing this reporter to look at the tribute page that some of her friends and former classmates at Plattsburgh State College have set up overnight.

earworm1
Tom Freeb with bass guitar, left, Tim Freeb on rhythm guitar, right.

 

A glance over her shoulder reveals that Tim Freeb, former rhythm guitar player for “My Unicorn’s Knightmare,” an antacid rock group of her youth, died yesterday of Osgood Schlatter’s Disease, a semi-debilitating condition that is exacerbated if a sufferer does not take illicit drugs in sufficient doses.  “I’d like to commiserate and join in all the caterwauling,” McDonald says of her friends’ overwrought reactions to a decidedly minor musical figure, “but I can’t.  I’m exhausted.”

fantods
“Maybe this inhaler will help me give a shit.”

 

McDonald suffers from Chronic Dead Rock Star Fatigue Syndrome, an ailment that prevents her from feeling grief at the death of a musician who is mourned by others of her acquaintance.  “CDRS Fatigue Syndrome is becoming a national crisis as the rock musicians of the 60s reach the end of the normal life expectancy of a drug-addled libertine,” says Dr. Philip Saleri of the Home for Aged Bass Players in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.  “In the fifties you had to be an Italian and live in Philadelphia to be a teen pop music star, but after The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, suddenly you had a flood of white kids whanging away on guitars, often without appropriate musical training.”

doowop
“To be young, Italian, and from Philly–it don’t get any better than that!”

 

Others say a recent upward spike of CDRS Fatigue Syndrome is driven not by demographics, but by a catastrophic period in which an inordinate number of rock stars have passed away, including surf-rock drummer Leonard Delany of The Tornadoes, Johnny Ray Allen, bassist for The Subdudes, and Jim Keays, singer for the Australian garage band Masters Apprentices.  “When you think of the heavy toll the past two years have taken on the rock pantheon, it’s hard to even get out of bed in the morning,” says Keith Soppo of Rave! magazine.  “I mean, it’s hard for me to get out of bed to begin with, then throw in the loss of an immortal like Gary Burger of The Monks and it’s nearly impossible.”

herman

But no amount of statistical analysis can help McDonald, who says she has to feign grief in order to maintain good relations with her friends when a titan of rock ‘n roll such as Freeb dies.  “It’s sapping all my energy,” she says as she hits her “enter” key to “like” a post in which her friend Audrey Friedman recalls the night she slept outside the Albany Civic Center in order to be first in line to buy tickets when My Unicorn’s Knightmare opened for Herman’s Hermits.  “I hope they can come up with a drug that would help me care just a little.”

For One Crime Reporter, Trail of Death is Getting Fishy

BOSTON. Pete Boyle has been a reporter for the better part of three decades on a succession of newspapers in New England, but he says he has no fear he’ll ever be out of work. “I cover crime,” he says in a voice roughened by years of cigarettes and cheap coffee consumed on all-night stakeouts. “I never run out of inventory.”


Stakeout.

But beneath Boyle’s hard-bitten exterior lies a soft, mushy center today as he lays to rest Goldy XIV, the latest in a succession of goldfish that have died in mysterious circumstances. “He was a good one,” Boyle says, fighting back tears. “I mean all of them were, but I got kind of close to him in the two days I had him.”


Scene of the crime

Boyle is a committed bachelor, having decided long ago that his subject matter made him too much of a target for retaliation by organized crime for a conventional home life. “It wouldn’t be fair to a woman,” he says looking off into the distance after he turns the last shovelful of dirt into his goldfish’s grave. “She goes off and buys percale sheets with a high thread count, a new dust ruffle and duvet, and next morning the stuff is ruined because some mook dumped a horse’s head in your bed.”

But a few years ago, finding himself growing older–and lonelier–Boyle decided to acquire a pet. “I put a lot of thought into it,” he says. “I decided since I keep odd hours I shouldn’t get a cat or a dog cause they’d tear up my apartment. Goldfish seemed the best bet.”

As Boyle took his leave the morning after setting up his fish bowl, he gave the first Goldy an ample supply of food. “I was scheduled to listen in on a Mafia initiation ceremony that night, so I knew I’d be getting home late,” he recalls. “I shook Goldy out a bowl full of fish food–he seemed really happy.”

When he returned home that night, Boyle was devastated to find Goldy floating lifelessly, the apparent victim of a mob snuff-out while he was gone. “I knew they were trying to send me a message,” Boyle says as he tears well up in his eyes. “The Mafia will leave a dead fish on a stool pigeon’s door step as a warning to keep quiet or you’ll sleep with the fishes.”


Fish on–no wait–that’s a toad.

But Boyle didn’t back down, and his friends on the police force were glad to help. “Pete gets our names in the paper,” says Sergeant Jim O’Hanlon of the Boston Police Department. “It was the least we could do.” So his apartment building was put under twenty-four hour surveillance, with teams of police watching the front and back entrances except when forced to leave for coffee and donuts. “I didn’t mind sticking around even if it meant my cuppa Joe wouldn’t be hot when my partner got back,” says Patrolman Richie Guerin. “We all have to make sacrifices.”

But the crimes continued, even with the police presence, making the serial killings Boston’s biggest unsolved crime since the 1960′s murders attributed to Albert DeSalvo, the “Boston Strangler.”


Boston Strangler: “You got nothin’ on me, copper. I was watching the gerbils the whole time.”

But DeSalvo died in 1973, and police say every lead they’ve developed has turned into a dead end. “We have a profile of the killer,” says the BPD’s O’Hanlon. “We cruise the frozen food section of local supermarkets, looking for guys with an unnatural interest in Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks.”


Fish sticks: Could there be a link?

Boyle appreciates the work his pals on the force have done, and says their failure to nab the culprit won’t stop him from living his life just the way he wants. “I’m off to get Goldy XV,” he says as he hops into his car and writes down something in his reporter’s notebook. “I’ve got to remember to stock up on fish food–I’m running low again.”

Available in print and Kindle formats on amazon.com as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”

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 suddenly, 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 slyly, 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.”

How to Cheer Up a Sad Song

It is one of the most difficult problems of aesthetic philosophy: What do we mean when we say that a song or poem is sad? I’ve read Aristotle, Kant, Croce–Benedetto, not Jim–all the big names. As far as I can tell, nobody’s come close to answering the question.


Benedetto “Don’t Call Me Jim” Croce

 

More important—it seems to me—is why isn’t anybody doing anything about it. You’ve got all these sad songs out there—from the peaks of “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn to the swamps of “Feelings” by Morris Albert—walking around depressed, ready to do something drastic if somebody doesn’t cheer them up.

The main reason I ended my career in philosophy when I graduated from college is this do-nothing attitude. I’m sorry—you can’t just write A Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics like Kant and leave people hanging. You’ve got to deliver on your prolegomena, otherwise you’re just a tease.

That’s why I’ve gathered the Kindertotenlieder–“Songs on the Death of Children,” poems by Friedrich Ruckert set to music by Gustav Mahler, probably the five saddest songs in Western culture–for a holiday excursion.  School vacation doesn’t end until next Monday, I’ve got to get them out of the house, take them shopping, do something to snap them out of their morbid mood.


Mahler:  “What a bunch of brats.”

 

We pile into my Ford Taurus station wagon with the fold-up rear seat. It’s not the nicest car in our garage, but it’s the only one that will seat six comfortably.

“Where’s the seat belt back here?” It’s Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n, who’s always a whiner.

“The clasp is under the seat, the belt’s on the side rail,” I say, trying not to snap. It could be a long afternoon.

“I want to stop for coffee,” says Nun she’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen.  “And not at Dunkin’ Donuts.” Mr. Picky.

“Does this car have GPS?” Wenn dein Mutterlein asks. “Because you know you’re going to get lost.” I’m beginning to question why I thought this was a good idea.

“I know where I’m going,” I say, a bit testily. “We’re going out to the candlepin bowling alley on Route 9. They’ve still got the Santa’s Village display up!”

“I hate Christmas.” It’s Oft denk’ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen, who’s pouting in the back because In diesem Wetter! called shotgun before he could.

“I think you’re going to like this place. It’s got candlepin bowling . . .”

“Candlepins is hard!” says In diesem.

He’s right about that. “I’ll ask them to put the bumpers in, so you won’t throw any gutter balls.” He’s mollified, but he’s still got a grumpy look on his face. “Santa’s Village is cool,” I say, hoping to get them to think happy thoughts. “All the reindeer move their heads, and the elves in Santa’s workshop swing their hammers.”

“Is there food?” Wenn asks. That’s one thing I made sure of. The last thing I need is five German lieder with low blood sugar on my hands.

“There’s the usual assortment of soft drinks and candy in the vending machines, plus they have pizza.”

“Yay–pizza!” yells Oft denk’ich. Maybe there’s hope.

We pull into the parking lot and the songs pile out of the car. These guys have been around for over a hundred years, and yet they shuffle into the bowling alley like sullen teenagers. If it weren’t for my strong commitment to volunteer work, I’d say that no good deed goes unpunished.

We go up to the counter to rent shoes. I look down at their liederfüße and see that Nun will has forgotten to wear socks. “That’s going to cost us an extra buck-fifty,” I say with an upraised eyebrow to express my disappointment.

“It wasn’t my idea to come here,” he says as he checks his iPhone.

We have to wait for a while to get a lane with gutter bumpers. There’s evidence that Germans have been bowling since 300 A.D. so you’d think these guys would have picked up the game by now, but no, they still need a crutch that was invented for toddlers. I chalk it up to their lack of social skills. Don’t sit around the house like a gloomy Gus if you don’t have a date–get your friends together and make your own fun!

I get them Cokes—probably not a good idea with the caffeine–and let them have the run of Santa’s Village.  After a while I see them start to smile a bit, and I begin to sing—“I often think: they have only just gone out, and now they will be coming back home.”

“What?” says Oft denk’ich.

“Nothing,” I say. “Finish that soda–our lane’s ready.”

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

The Most Wonderfullest Christmas Ever

In that year, I was a young man on the verge (at least in my mind) of getting old.  It was Christmas time, which made the passing of youth that much more painful; I remembered the year I found both a basketball and a bb gun under the tree, and all the bright promise that lay ahead of me as a gun-toting sports hero, blasting into some one-gas station town like Knob Noster, Mo., to shoot free throws and squirrels.

But now I was, as Chuck Berry might have said, almost grown. My boss had said no vacations until the end of the year, there were too many deals to close. My girlfriend had taken off to see her parents with the suggestion that when she came back, our relationship would be over. I was alone in Boston, and none of my local friends had invited me over for Christmas dinner.

After feeling sorry for myself for a while, I harkened back to the teachings of Christ: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what” . . . wait, that was President Kennedy’s speechwriter.  Jesus said “Truly I tell you, whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). It was time for my annual trip to Boston’s principal homeless shelter, to give something back to those less fortunate than myself.

I packed up a box of clothes and headed down to the South End, Boston’s counterpart to the Bowery in New York. Here is where those who have dropped out of or been eliminated from the rat race of capitalism had historically congregated because of the area’s cheap single-room occupancy housing. The yuppie condo boom was still a few years in the future, so the area’s charming urban blight was unsullied by low crime rates and highly-educated newcomers who recycled their wine bottles instead of throwing them in the streets.

As I approached the Pine Street Inn, an old Dickensian hell-hole that would be replaced in a few years by a brand, spanking-new Dickensian hell-hole, I saw two familiar faces—Mitch, a grizzled white man with tobacco-stained teeth, and Tyrone, a non-grizzled black man who was missing a front tooth.

winos
Tyrone, Mitch, and their Boswell.

“Well hello governor,” Tyrone said. I don’t know how he does it, but he always maintains a positive attitude towards life.  Maybe the cheap “bum” wine he and Mitch drink all day has something to do with it.

“You dropping off some Chriffmuff presents?” Tyrone said, his tongue poking through the hole where a tooth once lived.

“Sure am,” I said. I looked at Mitch and couldn’t stop myself from clucking my tongue. “You know, guys, the economy’s booming . . .”

“Talkin’ Reaganomics!” Tyrone sang in a fair imitation of the “B” side of Johnny Taylor’s semi-hit “What About My Love?”

clinton2
“Reaganomics,” greatest supply-side R&B song of all time.

“If you’d only spruce yourselves up a bit, I’m sure you could find a job.”

Mitch looked at Tyrone for a second, who returned his bemused gaze—then the two burst out laughing. “What the hell would I want a job for?” Mitch said. “Last job I had they wouldn’t let me drink between nine and five. What kinda crazy rule is that?”

I just shook my head. “So you don’t want first dibs on my swag? I’ve got some nice transition-to-self esteem items in here.”

“What you got—‘cause I know you too well,” Tyrone said, “is this year’s power ties you gettin’ rid of ‘cause they got soup stains on ‘em.”

I blushed a little. “You’re only half-right,” I said. “Some have chili stains.”

“Man, I told you not to be eatin’ chili at a business lunch!” Tyrone snapped, and I had to admit he was right.

“You know, come to think of it, we didn’t get the Arabesque Modeling Clay account.”

“See—I was right,” Tyrone said, and a bit smugly I might add.

“Okay, well if you guys are all set, I’m gonna let everybody else have a crack at ‘em,” I said.

“Go ahead,” Mitch said. “Check back with us next Christmas—we’re on sabbatical this year.”

“Right,” I said, laughing at his facetiousness.

“No, seriously—it’s a great way to refresh an employee who’s become burned out by mindless routine.”

“I’ll tell that to my boss,” I said, and I headed for the entrance.

The Inn keeps a well-manned front desk for security reasons and so that donors don’t have to make their way through the smell and visible misery of masculine failure and hopelessness.

“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” said the young man on duty. “You’re here to make a donation, not to spend the night—correct?”

“Very good!”

“I have a graduate degree in social work. What have you got for us?”

“Here, take a look.”

The kid began to paw through my discards. “This white-on-blue shirt—you’re giving that away?”

“Somebody told me it makes too much of a fashion statement for a junior person like me.”

“Okay—what else? What’s wrong with these tassel loafers?”

“They’re starting to pinch in the toe. I figured I should give them away before I busted through the front.”

“A lot of our ‘clients’”—his air of dubiety, not mine—“could do with an upgrade to their casual wear. Anything else?” he asked as he dug down to the bottom of the box, then said “Holy cow—look at this!”

shirt
“You’re giving that away?”

The security guard came over for a peek, and shared the young man’s enthusiasm.

“Those are some nice power ties, man!” he said to me, then to the attendant: “You don’t think I . . .”

“Forget it, pal,” the kid said. “All donated items are solely for the use of the under-privileged, not the moderately-privileged like you.”

“That’s a sucky policy,” the guard said, then moved swiftly to calm a bearded man who claimed the Pope was hiding under his bed. “How many times I gotta tell you–the Pope left town in 1979!”

“You want a receipt for tax purposes?” the attendant asked.

I looked off into the middle distance, and I saw a future in which an Ivy League-trained lawyer who would run for President and lose would take a deduction for underwear of her husband—who would become Presidentthat the couple donated to charity. But that someday of unalloyed generosity had not yet come.

“No, no, I don’t need it thanks. In my mind, it’s not really charity unless you’re willing to forego the $3.16 difference in your income taxes that a box of clothes you don’t want any more will make.”

clinton
“Yes we wrote off my underpants, but they were in good shape.”

“Thanks, man,” the attendant said. “That money will help pay down America’s deficit, and that means more money for social service workers like me.”

“My pleasure,” I said, and we knuckle-bumped—way ahead of our time on that score, and I walked out into the cold December air.

I passed Mitch and Tyrone—they were arguing about who was entitled to the “spit hit,” the backwash in the bottom of the bottle—and stopped for a moment. I stared off into the deep, blue-black night sky. I was feeling somehow—incomplete.

Maybe I should have gotten a receipt, I said to myself. It would be embarrassing if I came back next April, trying to reconstruct my donation. Somehow just giving useless crap away had left me—unfulfilled. What I wanted, what I needed, was human companionship on Christmas Eve, the one night of the year—other than New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, and maybe Valentine’s Day—when nobody wants to be alone.


Visit colorful Lower Washington Street!

But where was I going to go? Christmas Eve is also the one night of the year when everything is closed—it being Saturday night made it doubly worse.  I walked up Lower Washington Street—usually a festival of lights and gaily-dressed hookers—and saw nothing but darkened restaurants. Even Fuddruckers—the restaurant chain that was born to create the World’s Greatest Hamburgers™—was shuttered.

And then I noticed it—a star in the West, shining brightly over Tower Records. And I heard the strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” What did it mean? Was I supposed to “ransom captive I-i-israel?” I checked my wallet. I had sixty bucks—you couldn’t even buy one of the Golan Heights with that kind of money.

Still, I was led onward, as if by some magnetic force, through the darkened streets, towards the MBTA’s Green Line. I paid with a token—and not a token token, but a token that was as good as any of the others, even though it wasn’t the brightest token in the fare box.


“Stupid car crossed in front of me while I was eatin’ my donut!”

“Where is this train going?” I asked the conductor, who had a donut, a cup of coffee and a copy of the Boston Herald–the paper I would begin to write for a decade later–spread out in front of him in order to insure passenger safety.

“This is a ‘C’ car,” he said, not looking up from his paper.

And so it became clear. I was headed to Brookline, the clean little disproportionately-Jewish town I’d lived in during graduate school, where if you ain’t pareve, you ain’t nothin’. I took it as a sign.

I rode in silence for awhile until the driver said “This is probably where you wanna get off,” as we hit the intersection of Beacon Street and Harvard Ave. “Thanks,” I said, and stumbled off, zombie-like, to an unknown fate.

I turned right, as if drawn by some magnetic force, and then I saw it; a star shining brightly above Ho-Toy Chinese Restaurant, another atop Mr. Chang’s Kitchen, a third blinking its welcome from Sichuan Gourmet. It was like a Henny Youngman joke: how do you know you’re in a Jewish neighborhood—all the Chinese restaurants. And every one open for business!

Why didn’t I think of it before? And what mysterious force had drawn me hither—or was it “thither”?

An embarrassment of riches—like finding a three-pack of gold, frankincense and myrrh under the tree! Which one to choose?

Ho-Toy was first on my route, so I opened the door to find it packed to the gills with members of the tribe of Abraham, being served by Confucians—everybody merry, nobody celebrating Christmas.

My glasses fogged as emotions welled up inside me—or was it the dumplings on the steam table?

I looked around the room with satisfaction. The hostess walked up to me. Table for one? she asked.

“Yes,” I said, and I couldn’t keep a tincture of sadness out of my voice.

“Oh, so sorry,” she said. “You should try buffet, maybe you meet nice person in line.”

“Good idea,” I said. I took off my coat, picked up a plate and got in line behind a short, bearded man wearing a black hat. I guessed he was a rabbi, and I was right.

“Nobody’s eating the pork ribs,” I said to him as he surveyed the fare. “Something wrong with them?”

“Nothing that isn’t prohibited by the Book of Leviticus,” the man said. “You alone for Christmas?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Gotta be tough,” he said as he helped himself to a heaping spoonful of the chicken fried rice. He turned to me, his eyes welling over with ecumenical sympathy. “You can join my family at our table if you’d like.”

“Really? You’d do that for someone whose co-religionists have harassed your people for two millennia?”

“It’s Saturday, and three stars have yet to appear in the sky,” the rebbe said. “We need a shabbas goy to open the fortune cookies.”

Your Christmas Etiquette Advisor

Fending off unwanted advances beneath the mistletoe?  Wondering whether you can re-gift that chafing dish you got for your second marriage?  Ask Ms. Christmas Etiquette Advisor–she always minds her manners!

Dear Christmas Etiquette Advisor:

Christmas is always such a harried season, and today I made a terrible mistake that may cause us to lose face in the upscale suburb where we live.  I needed to drop off our expensive family photo Christmas cards at the post office, and to return my book-on-tape at the public library.  In my haste, I accidentally dropped off our Christmas cards at the library, and “Love’s Tortured Yearnings” at the post office.  The dingbat librarians won’t let me go through the book return due to “chain-of-custody” rules they must observe in order to assess library fines, so now I will have to go buy cheap substitute cards and start all over.  Is there a graceful way to say “I didn’t mean to slight you with this terribly down-market greeting card from Wal-Mart”–our application to join the country club is pending this spring.

Mrs. Veronica Taussig, Wellesley Hills, Mass.

Dear Veronica–

Your little “miscue” has apparently caused your self-esteem to plummet.  What you wrote would be perfectly acceptable in all but the most snobbish–wait a minute, I just noticed your address.  In India, this is referred to as “loss of caste,” but think of all the money you’ll save on application fees to Ivy League colleges!

The Postmaster General will be in touch regarding your transmission of obscene materials through the mail.


“Come on, Sholom–loosen up!”

Dear Christmas Etiquette Advisor:

“Diversity” has finally come to our little town as we have hired several “ethnic” types this year, including a very nice Jewish man.  All well and good, but this is a workplace “minefield” since our Christmas Party is this week and we are working overtime trying to come up with inoffensive small talk.  Are there flash cards or other study aids to help us get through this event without getting sued?

Sue Ellen Turbot, Director of Human Resources, Bag-Nap Snap Ties, Kalispell, Montana

Sue Ellen–

Yours is a very tricky situation, as the Jewish people have both “happy” and “sad” holidays.  Most of us “goyim” (what they call us behind our backs) don’t know the difference, as I once found out when I innocently said “Happy Yom Kippur” to our accountant.

Thankfully, Hanukkah is one of their joyful occasions, so you should be safe keeping things light and pleasant with questions like “Say–you people control the weather, are we going to have a White Christmas or what?”

Dear Christmas Etiquette Advisor–

I am involved in a dispute with our new next door neighbor “Chuck” who put up a gaudy Christmas display this year.  I just came back from the doctor who says I have cancer of the armpit, which I did not have last year.

Ms. Christmas Etiquette Advisor, I have read stories about people getting sick from electro-magnetic fields generated by power lines, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the Santa and his elves and the eight reindeer and the Christmas creche including wise men this dingbat put up is to blame for my illness.

Is there any class action going on about this where I could file a claim and not have to pay a lawyer?  They have them for everything from Cheez-Its to Milli Vanilli, whatever that is, so I figure I might have a shot.

Earl Furlong, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Dear Earl–

Electricity is our friend–remember, it toasts your English muffin every morning–so I’m going to side with “Chuck” on this one.  The jury is still “out” on the issue of whether power lines cause cancer, and I don’t think you should spoil anyone’s holiday by making a questionable “junk science” deathbed self-diagnosis.

I know I’m going to get a lot of nasty letters from “environmentalists” over this answer, but they’ve been saying the world’s going to end since the ’70’s and it hasn’t yet, so sit back and enjoy the season of lights and leave the damage claims to your heirs.

For One Fashion Plate, Cupboards Are Bare This Christmas

DOVER, Mass.  Todd Englund achieved success at an early age as a bond trader, but he hasn’t let the comforts of affluence dull his feeling for others at this special time of the year.  “Todd has a heart as big as the glove compartment in a MINI-Cooper,” says his wife Chloe, referring to the sporty British two-door she drives around this suburb of Boston.  “He’ll see a story on the news about a family who lost everything in a fire at Christmas, and the next day he’s down at Goodwill with a load of last year’s power ties to give away.”

christmas
Bare ruined shelves, where late the sweet sweaters sat.

 

But this year Englund finds the tables turned as he himself became the victim of tragic circumstances in the form of a lethal predator; the Tineola bisselliella or common clothes moth.  “I started to go through my clothes to get ready for the holiday party season,” he says, visibly choking back tears.  “And what I found when I looked was that my life’s work in assembling a really cool collection of sweaters had been completely wiped out.”

His wife moves to comfort him, placing a hand on his shoulder and trying to bring him back down to earth.  “Sweetie, you’re exaggerating just a tad.  They didn’t eat your cotton tennis sweater,” she says, but that exception merely proves the rule in her husband’s mind.  “My pink and purple argyle–gone.  My shawl collar cardigan–chomped like a half-price bucket of chicken wings,” he says before blowing his nose into a handkerchief.

This year’s damage by moths to clothing in the Northeastern United States alone is expected to top $6 billion, according to entomologist Michal Klesko of New England School of Design, with sweaters hardest hit.  “We’re looking at a plague of Biblical proportions,” he notes as he checks historical data going back to the Little Ice Age, when sweaters were first invented in Greenland.  “As a nation, we’d better hope for significant after-Christmas mark-downs, otherwise we’ll face a growing ‘sweater gap’ with coming superpowers such as China, which fashion mavens used to scoff at.”

christmas1
“Yum–Fair Isle crew neck!”

 

For victims such as Englund, the only hope is to start over after throwing out all sweaters, since female moths lay eggs in clusters of up to 200 which quickly turn into wool-eating white caterpillars.  “It makes me mad to think that my hard-earned dollars are going to a bunch of disgusting baby worms,” he says, growing agitated again.  “I never would have considered it in the past, but if I have to beat this menace by making the ultimate sacrifice, I’m ready to do it.”

And what, this reporter asks, would that entail?

“Switching to polyester.”