Dinner With the Footnotes

My wife’s phone gave off a strange sound and, after she’d looked down at its screen, she said “Oh no,” and not in a cheerful way.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“It’s Pam Footnote,” she said as she picked up her mobile device, the better to see the full text of the message that lay concealed beneath the placid green screen.  “They want to have us over for dinner.”

I groaned, inwardly and outwardly.  “I thought we were done with them,” I said, recalling my Reverse Triangular Strategem for Getting Two Annoying Couples Out of Your Life With One Fell Stroke; I had invited them to dinner with our most liberal friends, hoping that the latter twosome’s strident political approach to all issues great and small would cause them to permanently break off our friendship, and that the former’s indifference to anything other than conspicuous consumption–golf, decorating, travel, etc.–would constitute a bridge too far for the leftie couple.

“Your brilliant idea completely backfired,” my wife said, and with more than a little smug satisfaction.  “Both couples left congratulating themselves on how tolerant they were, and how they’d made friends of people who were totally at the opposite end of the spectrum from them.”

“It was worth a shot,” I said, as I stuck my nose back into my glass of Malbec, hoping the vapors would send me to a place far, far away, where scents would overrule sense and the irrational would ride astride the rational mind like a child on a supermarket mechanical horse.  “So, do we have to accept?”

“I can hardly say no,” my wife said.  “I saw her in the grocery store the other day and let slip . . .”

“The dogs of war?” I asked, reverting to Shakespeare, the last grip I had on Western Civ before I fell asleep.

“No, silly, that we were in town for the weekend and didn’t have any plans.”

“You know, if this were a World War II movie, I would have you prosecuted for treason, and maybe even shave your head.”

“Like Sinead O’Connor?”

“A little.  That’s how they punished the French women for sleeping with Nazis.”

“The Footnotes aren’t that bad,” she said as she tapped a reply to the distaff half of the couple.

“History has yet to hand down its judgment,” I said as I finished my wine and toddled–as if I were the City of Chicago–off to bed.

I should provide some backstory, as they say in Hollywood.  The Footnotes–Pam and Dave–go by a different surname, which shall remain undisclosed for fear of libel claims and social retribution.  We gave them their nomme de whatever after sitting through too many dinner and cocktail parties with them, and enduring their dreadful conversation.  They are a mutual perpetual emendation machine, hitting on two cylinders at all times to refine, improve, expand or correct each other’s bland and boring statements.  If Dave says they joined the Woronoco Country Club in 2002, Pam immediately jumps in to say no, it was 2003, that was the year her mother died, she remembers it well.  If Pam says their favorite restaurant Estella’s is at the corner of Clarendon and Newbury Streets in Boston, Dave swoops in like a red-tailed hawk on a field mouse to insist that Dartmouth is the cross-street, don’t you remember, that’s where that parking lot is located.

“Oh yes,” Pam will say, and they’re off, pulling each other further into the Labyrinth like Hansel and Gretel off to find the Minotaur.  A private conversation in a nearly-private language ensues while everyone else sips their drinks, too polite to change the subject, too embarrassed to try and direct them back to the main path of the evening’s discourse.  After awhile the Footnotes emerge back into the sunlight, like cheerful kittens kept in the basement overnight, and blurt out “So how’s work going?” to the first male who catches their eye, or “What’s new with Chloe/Caitlin/Chelsea?” to the first female.  By then the rest of the crowd is too deep in their cups to say anything other than “Fine.”

In short, they are a walking illustration of Noel Coward’s gibe about footnotes: “Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love,” and so we thusly christened them.  In fact, I have often wondered what love-making might be like at Chez Pam et Dave:

Pam:  (. . .) What are you doing?

Dave:  But . . . you like that.

Pam:  Since when?

Dave:  Don’t you remember?  That time in Bermuda, right before we were married?

Pam:  At the little inn that was once a provincial courthouse?

Dave:  Right.

Pam:  No, that was the time we went down with the Palmers, we didn’t have sex that vacation.

When the night for the Dreaded Encounter came, I steeled myself ahead of time with a rye on the rocks, like some character out of a John O’Hara short story.

“You’re drinking before we go?” my wife asked.

“It’s the only way I’m going to get through the evening.”

“Just let them talk, eventually they’ll wear themselves out.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said.  “You can always go fuss in the kitchen over the pre-fabricated Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres you bring.”

With the ground rules thus established, we found ourselves soon enough on the Footnotes’ doorstep and, after the obligatory exchange of air-kisses, made our way into their overheated living room, whose walls are covered with the sort of conventional prints a conventional New England couple inherits from their conventional parents when they suffer the end to which we are all headed by nature, not convention: sail boats, a Cape Cod sunset, one vaguely experimental painting purchased on a madcap weekend in New York and, off to the side, the poorly executed work of a relative whose sense of perspective could trigger an LSD flashback.


The kids

“How have you two been, it’s been ages!” my wife asked with an air of conviviality that, God love her, sounded sincere.

“Oh, puttering along,” Pam said, and I hoped Dave wasn’t going to make some stupid pun about golf, a subject that always sets off my narcolepsy.  “Have you two taken any vacation lately?”

On my scale of Universal Weights and Measures of Boredom, the surest sign that two couples have nothing left to say to each other is when one side asks the other this question, but that may just be me.  My wife pounced on it like a duck on a June bug, as they say where I come from.

“We went to Saratoga Springs last summer to see ballet,” she said, and we were off to the races.

“Oh, I love dance!” Pam said.  “I wish Dave would take me.”

“I took you once,” her worse half said.

“No you didn’t!” Pam countered, with mock outrage.

“Yes I did, that time with the Nugents.”

“When?”

“At that big auditorium.”

“The Convention Center?”

“Not the new one, the old one, on Boylston Street.”

“That wasn’t ballet, that was some Chinese cultural thing.”

“You said ‘dance.’  There were dancers on stage.”

“You had to go because of work, it was free, so that doesn’t count.”

I stared down into my drink and, seeing that it was both half-full and half-empty, got up to refresh it in the kitchen.  I figured by the time I got back the Footnotes would have reached the intermission of the long-forgotten event, and we might have a chance to get things back on track.

Sure enough, when I returned the Footnotes had stopped for re-fueling, and had turned over the conversational driving to my wife.

“How are the kids?” she asked innocently, perhaps thinking that it would be hard for any couple to disagree as to the basic facts of their children’s existence.

“Oh, Jeremy’s fine but he quit his job at the consulting firm and is working on an ‘app’–whatever that is.”

Risky life decisions by offspring–while rich fodder for conversation among our other friends–struck me as a cue for infinite regression on the Footnotes’ part, so I quickly interjected with something less sensitive, and more quantifiable.

“Where’s he living now?” I asked.

“In South Boston,” the husband said.

“It’s not South Boston where he lives, it’s something else,” Pam corrected him.  “The South End . . .”

“That’s not the South End,” Dave said.  “The South End is way the hell over on the other side of the Turnpike.”

“Well, it’s the Seaport, or the Innovation District, or the Waterfront or something, but it’s definitely not South Boston.”

“South Boston is trendy now, they should stop trying to name it something else,” Dave said in a voice devoid of defensiveness.  That’s how the Footnotes are; never contentious, always dry, academic, just-the-facts-ma’am, the Joe Fridays of social chit-chat.

“Well, I think he calls it something else.  Fort Point Channel?”

I looked at my watch, and I didn’t try to hide it.  I felt as if we were trapped inside an encyclopedia, and were only halfway through the volume with Aa-As on the spine.

“What’s that I smell from the kitchen?” I interjected.  No one’s ever actually died of starvation at the Footnotes, but I didn’t want to take a chance.

“I’m making noisettes du porc au pruneaux,” Pam said.

“Sounds yummy!” my wife said.  “What’s that?”  I’m the Francophile in the family.


Yum!

“It’s a six-day bicycle race in France,” I said.

“Oo, you’re bad!” Pam said to me, then to my wife, “It’s pork with prunes.”  To my shock and surprise, the next words out of Dave’s mouth didn’t include a correction.

“We tried it when we took a tour of the Loire Valley in 2005,” he said.

“It wasn’t 2005,” Pam replied, “that was the summer right before Jeremy graduated from college, so it would have been 2004.”

“It wasn’t 2004, I would remember.  That’s the year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.”

I was tempted to jump in with some sports talk and break the mind-forg’d manacles that always seemed to lock up the Footnotes’ talk, but I hesitated and was lost.

“It had to be 2004, he graduated from high school in 2000, so . . .”

“You’re forgetting,” Dave said, gently reminding her.  “He got that F in biology on his junior year abroad, so he didn’t graduate until 2005.”

Pam was, for just a moment, speechless; there it was, out in the open, for all to see, like an upchucked chipmunk from their cat Mitzi on the rug in front of us.  The shame, the embarrassment that our children can cause us, we who like to present a placid exterior to our social equals, betters and inferiors.  I could detect in her face the hot flush of blood rushing to her cheeks.  It took her a moment, but–like the dinner party trouper she was–she shook off the blow and in a second had her wits about her again.

“It wasn’t biology,” she said finally.  “It was organic chemistry.”

Gritty City Creates Knowledge Zone, But Some Feel Left Out

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

worcester
Miss Worcester Diner

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

worcester1
Historic scenes of picturesque decay

 

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

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

worcester2
Worcester pigeons visit Boston to look resentfully at swans.

 

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

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

Competition Rough as Cats Fight to Keep Control of Internet

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

cat2
“Damn corgis!”

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

cat3
“You humans are so naïve!”

 

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

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

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

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

corgi
Corgi:  Oh, put a sock in it.

 

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

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

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

 

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

krugman

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

cat4
“Bears in swimming pools are killing us.”

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

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

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

 

 

 

Koga the Gorilla Takes a Break

Koga, a 24-year-old male gorilla, escaped from his cage at the Buffalo zoo and was captured in the staff lounge.

Associated Press

Koga
“How come stupid humans get lounge Koga no can go in lounge?”

 

Cold cold cold cold cold.  Why does anyone live in this godforsaken place, it’s cold ALLA TIME!  If stupid humans had more highly-developed brains they never would have left Africa for upstate New York.

How do they freaking stand it?  You’ve got winds howling off the lake, nothing but hockey to watch all winter long.  I wonder if they’re hiring at the St. Louis Zoo?

Koga2
“Excuse me–is there a Starbucks around here?”

I’m busting outta this joint–gotta find someplace warm.  Maybe giraffes are stuck here, but I’m a goddamn great ape–I can climb!  Do they really think a little thing like a ten-foot high metal fence is gonna stop me?

There we go.  MUCH better!  No barriers between me and zoo-goers now.  Breaking down curatorial walls between the spectator and the exhibit–hey, where’s everybody going?  Used to be they all took my picture, now they run away.  Gotta check mirror–maybe that candy bar the kid threw me made me break out.

Hmm–zookeepers running to building.  Wonder what in there.  Huh–staff lounge.  Hey, how come animals don’t get lounge, gotta be exposed to elements all day long.  No fair!

zoo staff
“Hey–where’s everybody going?”

 

Oh well, I’m part of the staff here at the Buffalo Zoo, might as well take a load off my feet, get a cup of that black stuff the humans drink, schmooze a bit.  Only way to effect change in an organization is to make it happen yourself.  “Management by walking around,” blah blah blah.

Hey Nate–how they hangin’ buddy?  Nate–it’s Koga.  You know me.  What’s the matter?  You still sore about the time I grabbed you at feeding time?  And kept you hostage overnight?  C’mon, lighten up.  You probably went through something tougher to get into your college fraternity.

All right, fine–be that way.  I’ll just s-t-r-e-t-c-h out on this luxurious burnt siena sofa and de-frag the old simian brain.  Man, these guys don’t know how tough I’ve got it.  They sit in their warm little offices all day, pushing paper around.  Me, I’m ON all the time; monkey see, monkey do, gotta do monkey stuff all day long for the paying customers.  And when the trustees come out for the annual meeting?  Man, I gotta whoop it up, do the whole Tarzan thing–it’s embarrassing.

Might as well catch up on my reading.  Hm, what we got here.  Buffalo Bills 2016 Yearbook, Marie Claire–ah, here we go, People!  The magazine that’s just right for frazzled ape brain looking for a little mind candy.

People

Best & Worst Dressed issue always fun.  Can’t believe some of these outfits!

I mean, I hate to be anti-science, but how you expect me to believe in evolution after reading this?

Voodoo Makes Inroads in Stressed-Out Suburbs

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


Her pride and joy

 

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


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

 

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


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

 

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

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


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

 

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

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

Me and Barney the Purple Dinosaur

The weekend is my time to give back to my community and my favorite institution within it–our local public library. I remember when I was young how much I loved Story Hour on Saturday morning. Kids would assemble in the library basement to hear a story read to us by Miss Sharp, the lavendar-scented bibliophile who was the gentle cop of the Children’s Room beat; shushing us when our volume exceeded a library-voice level, looking the other way when we returned “The Witchcraft of Salem Village” two days late, cutting one’s chewing gum out of one’s sister’s hair when one stuck it there. She was special.


“A book is your friend, you wouldn’t wipe a booger on your friend–please don’t wipe your booger on a book.”

 

I’m not reading a story today, however. My job is to pick up Barney the Purple Dinosaur and his first wife Baby Bop, who will be participating in a “Use Your Imagination!” session for the kids of our town. If you have children under twenty-five, I’m sure you know Barney, the sickly sweet tyrannosaurus rex who first appeared on public television in 1992.

Barney’s 50 in t-rex years this summer, and his career has been on the skids since his show went on “hiatus” in 2009. Since then, he’s joined the ranks of the “working famous”; actors from cancelled sitcoms, one-hit wonder bands and comedians who’ve been on The Tonight Show a few times but haven’t made it big. For a while he was able to eke out a pretty good living doing so-called “skip and wave” shows at big venues like Boston’s TDBanknorth Garden, but it was a grind. Two performances a day, then hit the road to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or wherever he was scheduled to appear the next night.

But those gigs looked good when he was downgraded to the “B” circuit in smaller auditoriums like The Centrum in Worcester, Mass. The money wasn’t as good, and he was forced to scale back, selling his condo in Cambridge, Mass. right across the river from the studios at WGBH, the public TV station in Boston that gave him his first break in educational show biz. He now lives in a crummy two-bedroom apartment in Allston, a grimy neighborhood in Boston that is best described as a college student ghetto.

I pull up to Barney’s “triple-decker,” a somewhat run-down example of the three-floored apartment buildings that make up much of Boston’s older housing stock. On the front porch I see Baby Bop, the thirty-five year old triceratops who rose to fame with Barney, then divorced him when his personal life spun out of control. They have recently reconciled, but “Babe,” as we all knew her back in the day, says she’s not getting hitched again.


“We camped out all night–this is Barney’s first Worcester appearance ever!”

 

“Hey,” she says as she comes around to my driver’s side window. “I wanted to get to you before you rang the doorbell.”

“He’s hung over again?”

“Yep. He’s having a cup of black coffee and a donut. He needs to shave, but at least he’s up.”

It’s sad to watch a great artist in decline, but youth is fleeting, and with it the fickle favors of pre-school fans.


The other Purple One.

 

I look up and see The Purple One–not Prince, Barney–come out the front door. He’s always been a trouper–I shouldn’t have doubted for a second that he’d make it.

“Hey Barn–what’s shakin’?” I say.


In happier times.

 

He winces visibly. “Keep your voice down, would you?” he says as he gets in the “shotgun” seat for the drive down the Mass Pike.

“You . . . party like it was 1999 last night?” I ask, teasing him gently.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, holding his head.

“We had half a liter of tonic left,” Baby Bop says. “He’s so cheap, he didn’t want it to go flat, so he had three more G&T’s.”

“Ouch. I did that one time, but I was going away for a week. Totally missed my plane the next morning,” I say, trying to commiserate.

“Am I talking to myself, or did you not understand what I said before.”

“Sor-ree!” I say, and drive in silence to the Allston toll booths.

We zip past the Fast Lane coinless toll monitor so Barney doesn’t have to hear me throwing quarters in the metal bucket. When we’re out on the highway, he falls back against his window, sound asleep, and Baby Bop and I have a chance to catch up.


Screwed, just like Barney

 

“How’s he doing?” I ask.

“Still bitter. He never got a dime’s worth of royalties from the licensing deals, you know.”

“Like all the old doo-wop groups, huh.”

“Yep. I’m trying to hold things together for him, but it’s been hard.”

“You’re a saint,” I say, and she gives my hand a squeeze.

“I love him, what can I say,” she says with lump in her throat.

The big guy stirs as we hit the Weston tolls.

“Sorry, pal, I had to change lanes and slow down,” I say.

He grumbles a bit, but he appears refreshed. “I just needed a little cat nap,” he says as he stretches. “What god-forsaken hell hole am I performing in today?”

“You’re not going into the children’s room of my local library with that kind of attitude, you dig?”

“‘You dig?’” Barney says, mocking me in the sing-song hyuck-yuck-yuck voice that is part of his stage shtick. “What are you, a beatnik?”

“Just trying to get my point across,” I say, but I figure it may be time for an intervention. I know from personal experience that there’s nothing that works better with someone who’s slid into cynicism, as I did in my twenties, than to confront them with the facts, as directly as possible. “Why are you so bitter?” I ask.

Moi–bitter?” he says, a look of offended dignity on his face, but I know it’s just a pose. He knows he’s bitter–and he doesn’t care.

“Who wouldn’t be bitter?” he says after a beat. “‘Use your imagination!’ That’s what I get paid to say, one Saturday story hour after another. But you should take a look at the parents who’ll show up today. If any of them ever used their imagination, they’d call their accountant first to see if it was deductible, then their HMO to see if the imagination is covered in case they sprain it. They so rarely use them, they know they’re out of shape.”

I consider this, and have to admit he has a point. “There’s nothing stopping you from changing your act,” I say. “We have a pretty good library–lots of poetry, both print and audio books. The newer fiction is mainly best-sellers, but you can find the high brow stuff shelved by author in the Literature section.”


“You’re wrong–I returned ‘Invisible Man’ last Saturday–plenty of time to spare.”

 

He purses his lips as if he’s actually thinking about this, and looks out his window wistfully. “You just may have a point,” he says. “I guess it’s partly my fault, not adapting my act to changing tastes over the years.” He pulls out a pack of Newport Lites and pushes in my cigarette lighter.

“I really wish you wouldn’t smoke in my car,” I say.

“We’re on local roads, I’ll roll my window down,” he says as he fires up. “It relaxes me before I go on.”

I turn onto the road by the reservoir, hang a left past the community farm, then pull into the parking lot.

“This is it. It’s not Madison Square Garden, but the road back has to start somewhere,” I say.

“Okay,” he says, and he is transformed suddently from the crabby mope he’s been for most of the ride into the consummate performer that he is. Think Elvis in Vegas, Richard Pryor on Sunset Strip. I can tell from his stride past the book return box that his hair’s on fire and he’s ready to burn the place down, as we say in show biz.

We stop in the vestibule where we’re met by Patricia Dineen, head librarian. She can’t restrain herself from the sort of starstruck gushing that Barney gets wherever he goes. “I’ve been a big fan of yours forever,” a dubious claim since she’s a fifty-year-old who would have been in grad school when Barney first came on the air. “Would you mind autographing something special for me?”


“Write ‘To Trish–my favorite head librarian.’”

 

“Sure,” Barney says. He holds out his hand, expecting maybe a VHS tape of “Barney & Friends,” when he sees Dineen lift up her blouse to reveal a white camisole.

Barney looks at me, and I shrug my shoulders with a look that says “The customer’s always right,” but Baby Bop intervenes.

“I have some autographed 8 1/2 x 11 glossies–take one,” she says sharply, then pushes Barney forward to a waiting crowd of fifty-some infants and toddlers.

“Yay–Barney!” one little boy screams, touching off a near riot. The kids crowd around, and it is all that Baby Bop and I can do to form a flying wedge and push our way up to the dais. I feel like a Hell’s Angel at Altamont.


“I love you . . . you love me!”

 

Barney launches right into his act, assisted by a boom box with his sound track that Baby Bop takes with them on the road. He has the kids clapping and singing along and, after he brings his big hit “I Love You, You Love Me” to a conclusion, he turns it down a notch for the spoken word segment–the important part of the program.

“You know boys and girls, you don’t need a TV or video games to have fun.”

“We don’t?” a precocious little boy down front asks.

“Nope. Each one of you has something more precious than any electronic gizmo, right in . . . here.” He taps his big purple head on the temple.

“What is it?” a girl asks.

“It’s your imagination. You can use your imagination to go anywhere you want. When your friends are off skiing at Gstaad over Christmas break, or on Nantucket for the whole month of August, and you’re stuck here in town–just use your imagination and it will take you anywhere you want to go!”

The kids are spellbound. Nobody’s ever put it to them this way–no one’s even ever taken the time to try. They hustle around like FedEx delivery men from soccer, to piano lessons, to hockey, to Scouts, to play dates. Nobody’s ever told them they can sit on their butts like zoned-out drugheads and just . . . imagine things.

And then comes the turning point–the moment when Barney transformed himself from the Jerry Lewis of the kids comedy circuit, all sappy, treacly schmalz, into its Lenny Bruce. “And you,” he says, turning to the parents. “You can use your imaginations too, if you have any left after all the getting and spending you do.” I’m impressed. I didn’t know Barney knew any Wordsworth.

The moms and dads in the back row shift uncomfortably, not used to having their lifestyles put under the microscope by a fuzzy purple dinosaur. “When have you ever picked up something totally crazy, like Edgar Allan Poe, when you came to the library with your kids? No, it’s stupid sports biographies for the men, and for the women, chick lit that’s one step up–and a very little one at that–from bodice rippers.”

There is a murmur of dissent from the adults, but no one wants to prolong the discomfort, so they say nothing that can be heard down front.


Joris-Karl Huysmans

 

“Try a little J-K Huysmans, fer Christ sake,” Barney says. “That’s using your imagination. Or how about Les Fleurs du Mal, by Baudelaire. That’ll rock your world in a way that Jodi Picoult won’t.”

I had no idea that the Barn Man had become such a litterateur in his years of obscurity. I guess he had more time to read without a one-hour episode to tape every week.

“Yes, Barney, thank you for calling attention to our somewhat underutilized Literature collection,” Dineen says, trying to pour some oil on troubled waters. “Why don’t I lead the parents on a tour of the stacks while you continue with the children?” She may be star-struck, but she’s still got her sensible shoes on.

The parents nod in agreement and follow the librarian out of the room, and Barney quickly downshifts to the happy-talk patter he’s perfected over the past two decades.

Baby Bop gives me a look of relief, and we step outside into the sunlight.

“Does he go off like that very often?” I ask.

“Not since he’s back on his medication,” she says.

“What’s that?”

“Nesquik Chocolate Milk, in the convenient one-pint Grab ‘n Go bottle.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

Remotary Publics Bring Stamps, Seals to Those in Distress

JAFFREY, New Hampshire. Beverly Huber thought she was ready for an early spring climb up New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock by the White Dot trail, the steepest ascent to the summit, after a year spent hiking and training on easier peaks. “I guess there’s nothing like the real thing,” she says as she rubs her sprained ankle while her boyfriend Jonathan Peters elevates her leg.


Mt. Monadnock

 

The two have called for help on a cell phone, and they look up when they hear the sound of a rescue helicopter overhead. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” Peters says. “You’re going to make it.”

A ladder descends from the chopper bearing Niles Gilbert, a notary public trained in remote document authentication, with a pack on his back holding the tools of his trade; pens with black and blue ink, his notary seal, and a rubber stamp that says when his commission as a public official authorized to certify legal papers will expire.


Remotary Publics

 

“How’s she doing?” Gilbert shouts over the roar of whirring blades overhead.

“She’s in a lot of pain–I don’t think she can make it down on foot,” Peters replies.

“Okay, we’ll do it here,” Gilbert says, as he opens up his backpack.

“You’re not going to operate, are you?” the fallen woman asks in an anxious tone of voice.

“No, I’m just going to witness your signature on some documents. There’s a rescue reimbursement form and a medical waiver in case you need to go to the hospital later,” the notary replies.


“Are you sure that’s your signature?”

 

“What the hell are you talking about?” Peters screams at Gilbert.

“Well, it will save a lot of time when you’re standing at the admissions desk and there’s a kid with pink eye in line behind you.”

Having asserted his authority, Gilbert goes to work on the young woman, asking to see her driver’s license for positive identification before he pops the question that will insulate her waiver of rights from future attack if life-saving ankle surgery goes awry. “Is this your free act and deed?” he says, looking her straight in the eye so that there’s no confusion.

“Not really,” she answers, “but if I have to say it, I guess so.”

“I’ll take that for a yes,” Gilbert says, then directs her to sign the forms where he makes an “X.” The woman barely has the energy to scribble her name as her strength fades in the cold mountain winds. As soon as she’s done Gilbert gets to work filling in the “jurats”–the printed text by which he certifies to the authenticity of her barely-legible scrawl–before he stamps and seals the documents.


“Hurry–this pen’s almost out of ink!”

 

“There,” he says with satisfaction. “That ought to hold you for now.”

Remote notary publics, or “remotaries” for short, are finding themselves increasingly busy as hikers and climbers seek help by cell phone or personal digital assistants from mountain peaks and white-water rafting excursions when they find themselves in over their heads, sometimes literally. “It’s expensive to go in and save someone’s life,” says New Hampshire Public Safety Director Armand Hershum, a state known for its parsimonious approach to public services. “I want to make sure somebody’s going to cover overtime and coffee breaks for my rescue workers.”


“I’ve got the documents-let’s roll!”

 

Gilbert has come prepared with extra copies of the various forms and waivers that are required in order to dispatch an EMT to the scene, and he leaves the young couple with a set. “These are for your files,” he says as he puts the cap back on his pen. “It’s been nice taking your acknowledgement,” he says as he stands up and straps his pack on his back and prepares to climb back up into the helicopter.

Huber is barely conscious, but fueled by outrage, she regains her voice. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” she asks sarcastically, causing the notary to turn around and take in the scene of distress before him.

Gilbert bites his lower lip in embarrassment. “You’re absolutely right–I’m so thoughtless sometimes.” He removes his pack and rummages through it until he finds a waterproof plastic card.

“Let’s see,” he says as he scans down his rate sheet. “You signed two documents at $1.25 each, so the notary fee is $2.50.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the “Notary Bonus Pack” included in the collection “Lawyers Are People Too–Sort Of.”