Burned by Shoplifters, One Store Turns to Higher Power

BOSTON.  It’s the height of the Christmas shopping season in Downtown Crossing, and the usual crush of office workers on the streets of Boston is made worse by suburban mothers and children in town to see the “Santa’s Workshop” display in Macy’s window.  But there’s another, more ominous addition to the typical workday crowd–extra security guards, hired to minimize shoplifting losses that can eat away at retailers’ critical December profits.


Da Sistahs:  “One of the ballers tried to rip this off.”

 

Most wear standard-issue rent-a-cop outfits, but two stand out from the bland crowd; Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea and Sister Mary Clarus, who wear the grey, white and black habits of the Little Sisters of Inventory Loss Control.


“They’re two tough hombresinas.”

 

Bob Duffy, Macy’s Director of Security, says he brought the two nuns on board last year after seeing their handiwork across the street at Sheehan’s Church Goods, Boston’s leading provider of religious artifacts and supplies.  “Some kid tried to boost a pack of Upper Deck All-Star Martyrs Trading Cards,” he recalls wistfully.  “The sisters were all over him like a cheap suit.  When he walked in he had the face of an angel, and when they got through with him he looked like he needed Accutane.”


“You hold him–I’ll hit him.”

 

The two got their start as a tag team handling a rough crew of boys who moved through Sacred Heart Grade School in Sedalia, Missouri, like a rat through a snake’s digestive track.  “The gang that graduated in 1965, they were sent to us from hell,” Sister Mary Clarus recalls with disgust.  “Dick Walje tried to knock my wimple off one day, and Scotty Lilja drew a picture of St. Agnes in a Speedo for his fifth grade art project.”


“You’ll never take me alive, Sister Joe!”

 

The two moved on from those humble beginnings to work security for Pope John Paul II during his American tour in the fall of 1979.  “There were always groupies and lepers trying to get backstage for blessings after gigs,” says Arimathea, known to those she has collared as “Sister Joe” for her no-nonsense approach, modeled after Sgt. Joe Friday of the “Dragnet” television show.


“Put down the holy water and nobody gets hurt.”

 

The two stand a watchful guard over the Winter Street entrance to the store, leaning back against an Elizabeth Arden bath oil bead display to make themselves inconspicuous.


What do you do with the thick, rubbery skins after the water runs out of the tub?

 

“Our job isn’t to wait until trouble happens,” says Clarus.  “Our job is to stop it before it starts.”  As she finishes, she casts a jaundiced eye at Tiffany Uxbridge, a twenty-something secretary who’s brought her Starbucks peppermint mocha into the store with her.  Sister Joe nods her head, says “Let’s roll,” and the two make a bee-line for the perp.

“Excuse me, young lady,” Clarus says.  She grabs the elbow of the arm that isn’t holding the cup, an incapacitating martial arts hold that she first used on Con Chapman, a second-grade spelling champ, to keep him from a life of crime that was about to begin with the misdemeanor of talking in line during a fire drill.  “Aren’t we forgetting something?” Sister Joe says as she sets a pick directly in front of Uxbridge.


“I’m going to need to see an ID.”

 

“What?” the girl replies, not removing her ear buds.

“Your coffee, dingleberry!” Clarus shouts, growing angry at the woman’s apparent indifference.  “If it don’t say ‘coffee shop’ on the outside, it ain’t a freakin’ coffee shop.”

Some shoppers slow down to stare at the stop-and-frisk that follows, while others give the trio a wide berth, hoping to avoid trouble.


“These are my jeans–I wore them into the store!”

 

Arimathea writes the woman up with a warning and escorts her to the exit.  “Take your damn shopping list to Filene’s,” she says with a sarcastic laugh, referring to a competing department store next door that was demolished.  “Maybe they’ll want your business.”

The two take a turn down to corner, where the store’s back entrance faces a less savory streetscape.  “Isn’t that D’Angelo?” Arimathea says, referring to a young man with low-slung jeans and a flat-brimmed New York Yankees cap.

“The same,” Clarus replies, and like birds flying in formation they fall in behind a dropout from St. Columbkill’s High School in Brighton, a suspect who has eluded the sisters to date.

They watch as he walks through the glass doors, and note a curious departure from his usual manner; he removes his ever-present hat and hands it around the anti-shoplifting device.  “Something’s not right,” Arimathea says, and the two move in for the kill.

“Hel-lo D-Angelo!” Clarus says as she applies her vise-like grip to the man’s elbow.  “Nice to see you doff your hat when you come to visit us.”

“I ain’t done nuthin’,” the man says.  “You can’t arrest me coming in to your store.”

“Why don’t we do an instant replay,” Arimathea says as she steers him back to the entrance.  “Let’s just ‘pass the hat,’” she says as she removes the man’s baseball cap and holds it between the transmitter and receiver antennae of the anti-shoplifting device.

A loud “BLONK” sound is heard, and Clarus brings her 12-inch metal edged ruler down on the thief’s right ear.

“Ow!” he screams and falls to the floor.  Arimathea moves in, slaps handcuffs on the young man and begins to recite his rights.

“You have the right to burn in hell forever,” she says, reading from a plastic card that she pulls from the front marsupial pocket of her habit.  “You have the right to suffer in purgatory until the end of time.  You are not entitled to a lawyer if you can’t afford one.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fun With Nuns.”

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.”

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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.”

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“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.”

A Letter

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the football team had gathered to check in their equipment at the stadium. The atmosphere was a mixture of chagrin and relief; the team had lost the last game of the season and finished 5 and 5, no great shakes, but at least all the hard work was over. There hadn’t been that many seniors on the team—only five—so that was some kind of excuse. There had been six sophomores who saw a lot of action on offense or defense, and a couple of others who played on special teams, so the coaches were optimistic about the future and in a good mood.

Joe was one of the seniors, and the only one who hadn’t earned a letter at the start of the season. He was a bit undersized, but there were smaller kids who were better than him. He was fast enough—technically he was a halfback and defensive back—but he didn’t seem to make good use of his speed. He tended to run in a straight line, as if he were a chalk mark on the coach’s blackboard, and so when a hole closed or never opened he went nowhere, and on defense, he’d run right at a guy who’d put a move on him and be gone.

He’d done everything they’d asked all four years he’d played, but he was still on the junior varsity the year before. He got a dinky junior varsity patch that he put on his right breast, but on his left all he had was a letter for speech and debate. From a distance they all looked the same, and so Joe would pal around with the other four seniors and hope that their reflected glory would shine a little status on him.

He thought he’d built up a fair amount of goodwill with the coaching staff, then the school had gone and fired the head coach from the year before and replaced him with somebody from a junior college in Kansas. It was the man’s first head coaching job—he was apparently an offensive genius—but it meant that Joe had to start over and show the new man what a hard worker he was even if he wasn’t that good.

The coach had laid down the law the first day of practice, August 15th. He’d handed out a mimeographed sheet telling you what the rules were; everybody had to get a crew cut, coats and ties on game day, no alcohol, no smoking, and an eleven o’clock curfew. There was to be an honor system—if you saw one of your teammates break the rules you had to turn him in. And you had to run a six-minute mile with your equipment on—after practice. You had to keep trying until you could do it.

Joe had accomplished the feat the first day—he’d been in training all summer long—but the coach barely noticed it. He just made a check next to Joe’s name on his clipboard and yelled at the others who came in behind him.

It had continued like that the whole season. Joe was on the scout team, but he was never called upon to play the part of the other team’s number one back; when the head coach stepped in to demonstrate something, he was always directing his instruction towards the first team. Joe might have been just a cog in the machine, his dad told him, but machines still needed every one of their cogs. Hang in there, he’d said; hard work is the one thing that’s always rewarded in this world.

You had to play twenty quarters—half the season–to get a letter; Joe didn’t know if the assistant coaches kept close track, but he knew he had been in nineteen. There were three quarters—two of them mopping up–against a weaker team the first game, and he’d allowed himself to get his hopes up. Then there were three non-conference games that he got into for two quarters each on the kick-off team. He figured if the team played halfway decent ball he’d get at least two quarters a game the rest of the way, once when they kicked off at halftime or the beginning of the game, a second time when they scored. By the end of the fourth week he had nine quarters.

The fifth week the conference schedule began, and the coaches began to pit one player against another for playing time to see who was tougher. They had “hamburger” drills halfway through practice every day; one-on-one challenges to see which kid would drive the other back, no “cupping” around because there were tackling dummies on either side so you had nowhere to run. Joe didn’t see what that had to do with his position; he was a back, not a lineman.

Some of the younger backs were sturdier, more compact than Joe, who was wiry. He’d tried everything to put on weight, drinking milk shakes and supplements, but then he’d run it off trying to stay in shape. He told himself it was better to be lighter and quicker and in good shape when August rolled around than to be heavier and puke up your guts the first week.

And so when it came his turn for the hamburger drill he got pushed around, and would grow frustrated that a bunch of sophomores were gaining on him, then passing him on the depth chart. He couldn’t believe the coaches would put some younger kid into a conference game that counted against a good team, he who’d been working so hard for so long.

So at the halfway point in the season he had eleven quarters, then he only got into two quarters the next three games, then only one quarter the last two games–that was nineteen. He figured they’d round up, or cut him some slack because he was a senior. It was no skin off their nose whether they gave out one more letter, he figured.

He sat on the bench next to his locker and fiddled with his stuff, waiting for the head coach to come out of his office so he could say goodbye and thank you, maybe talk to him for a second. His dad had told him that was important, that was something you’d learn in life; to make a connection with people, look them in the eye, make a good impression so they’d remember you when the time came to make an important decision. Joe knew his dad was talking about adult things like raises and promotions, but there wasn’t anything more important to him in the world right now than getting a football letter.

He saw the coach emerge from his office with Don, one of the sophomores, a little water bug of a kid with acne and glasses who didn’t look much like a football player, but who played with a reckless abandon that scared Joe a bit, and the defensive coach named Skip.

“Love to hit, love to hit, love to HIT!” Skip was saying as he put his arm around Don and clapped him on the shoulder. The head coach shook Don’s hand and said “You’re gonna be the first kid lined up outside the gate the first day of practice next summer, aren’t ya?”

“I’m gonna sleep outside the night before,” Don said with a big smile on his face. He shook Skip’s hand and walked off looking down at a piece of paper the head coach had given him, and the two coaches watched him go with obvious appreciation of a fine piece of football flesh.

“Coach?” Joe said softly and then, when he saw the two men talking to each other, “Coach?” a little more firmly.

“Huh? Oh, hi Joe. What can I do for you?”

“I . . . uh . . . just wanted to say thank you and I . . . uh . . . enjoyed playing under you, even if it was only this year.” He stuck out his hand and, after the coach looked down, they shook.

“Well, thanks, Joe, nice of you to say that. I came in not knowing anybody and it’s nice to hear I had some impact on people.”

“No, really, it was a great year even though we coulda done a little better, I think you’ve got a nucleus here for next year’s team.”

Skip interrupted to say “I’m gonna go to the equipment room to start taking inventory.”

“Okay,” the head coach said. “I’ll be in the office for awhile.”

The head coach turned and started to walk away as Joe spoke, after swallowing a little.

“Coach?”

The coach didn’t hear him at first, so he spoke again.

“Coach?”

“Yeah? Oh, sorry, I thought we were through here.”

“I was wondering . . .”

“Yes?”

“I was wondering whether I was going to get a letter.” Joe looked straight ahead at the coach, but he felt the eyes of the players behind him trained on his back.

“A letter?”

“Right. I’m a . . . senior, and I think I got into enough quarters to get a letter.”

“Well, Joe, I don’t know what being a senior has to do with it. It’s not a perfect attendance award. You get a letter in football for accomplishing something, not just showing up. You have to get into the games and knock somebody on their butt.”

Joe inhaled, even though his lungs already felt full. “I think I had enough quarters, coach . . .”

“I don’t think so Joe. I’m pretty good at arithmetic. Even if you did, hell, son, you have to make a difference out there on the field.”

The room had grown quiet as the man and the boy spoke. “Coach, I tried to make a difference every time I got into a game.”

“This is a good lesson for you,” the coach said, then turned to face the boys sitting on the benches that ringed the room, “and for all of you boys. This is a life lesson for you all, right here. Don’t ever confuse effort with results—got it?”

Joe couldn’t see the boys behind him but he could feel them exhale, as if relieved that they were being spared as another was sacrificed.

“Before you got here . . .” Joe began, but the coach cut him off.

“It doesn’t matter what happened before I got here, son,” the coach said with a half-measure of empathy in his voice. “The only thing that matters is what I think because I’m the head coach now. If you can understand that, you can understand why I can’t just hand out football letters like they’re penny candy. That wouldn’t be fair to the other kids who came out and worked just as hard as you—maybe harder–but who got better than you, see?”

Joe looked down and said “I see,” and then “thanks.”

“No problem. Hey, good luck in college next year wherever you go, okay?”

“Okay,” Joe said.

The coach stepped into his office and Joe walked over to the bench and stuffed his gym bag with the few items of equipment that were his to keep; his mouth guard and his jockstrap and an extra pair of socks he kept in his locker.

He knew all the other boys in the room to call them by their first names, but he said nothing to them as he walked out.

My On-Line Degree in Philosophy is Really Real!

Love Philosophy? Get a Master’s or PhD online. Fill out a short form and compare top schools.

Banner advertisement, Facebook.


“C-o-g-i-t-o . . . e-r-g-o . . . s-u-m.”

 

I never used to pay any attention to those ads for on-line degrees until the other day at work. Sheree Lynn, the boss’s daughter, is supposed to report to me in human resources but her dad left early to play golf and all of a sudden she’s prancing around like she’s Assistant Director of Benefits!


Socrates: “Take my On-Line Philosophy course, and in a few short months you’ll have a Plato of your own to write stuff down for you!”

 

I tell ya–that kinda insubordinate crap royally frosts my ass. So I decided right then and there–enough is enough! I’m getting my on-line degree in philosophy and busting out of this sweatshop.


“Should we be willing to call anything a thing? Show your work.”

 

I’d been thinking about it for a long time and if you think, therefore you am–Descartes said that. I’d see those little emoticons for “Law Enforcement” and “Nurse” in the ads when I’d check out singles in my area, and I was always intrigued by the one for “Philosopher.” The ones for the other top professions were smiley faces, but the one for Philosopher was a frowny-face. I liked that–it must mean philosophers don’t have to suck up to their bosses!


Arthur Schopenhauer: Wrote In-a-Gadda-da-Vida, later recorded by Iron Butterfly.

 

So I been saving up for the course, and today I took the plunge. Philosophy’s a profession that’s almost recession-proof. For other jobs, the unemployment rate goes up and down all the time, but for philosophers like 90% are unemployed all the time. You can’t beat those odds!


“What is truth? Well, like if a guy says he ‘needs some space’ but he’s actually porking your best friend, his prior statement was false.”

 

The first course they sent me was epistemology–maybe because I’m studying to get an e-Ph. D. Anyway, epistemology is the study of how we know we know the things that we think we know. It’s really interesting, but it’s like a House of Mirrors! You can’t think or say anything without immediately questioning it. Makes me glad I’m taking the course on-line. What if I was in a real class and had to go to the bathroom and asked to be excused and the professor said “How do you know you have to go to the bathroom?” I could wet my pants before I thought up an answer!


Spinoza: Z-z-z-z-z . . .

 

But it got me thinking–how do I know that my on-line degree in Philosophy is real? I mean, if I went to a real school I’d see other kids and a professor in class, even though the testimony of the senses is notoriously unreliable. But as a student in an on-line Department of Philosophy, the things I see when I look around me are my crappy couch that my ex-roommate Cindy spilled Diet Pepsi on, my sick spider plant that seems to occupy a crepuscular netherworld between death and life, and my cat Kitzi. Is that sufficient for me to be able to assert without fear of contradiction that my degree will be the real deal?


“I wanna be a Superman–just like Nietzsche!”

 

The critical thinking skills I’ve developed so far tell me no. So I look around my kitchenette for additional evidence in support of what I believe is a synthetic versus an analytical proposition. Let’s see–CD player, unicorn poster, blender for margaritas, bills, more bills–even more bills.

Wait–that’s it! I rip open the envelope from Mastercard and there it is! $89.99 to eUniversity.com, Introduction to Philosophy. Just like Samuel Johnson refuting Bishop Berkeley by kicking a rock or a dog or something!

It doesn’t get any realer than a bill, unless you dispute something or somebody stole your credit card, which never happened to me, although sometimes I’ll dispute something if like I buy a pair of capri pants and take a ride on some guy’s motorcycle and they get a bunch of those little pilly things on the seat. The seat of the pants, not the seat of the motorcycle.

I bet I get an A++!

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Let’s Get Philosophical.”

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.”

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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.

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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 government 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.

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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.

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“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 unpleasant 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?”

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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.

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“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.

The Penguin Corrections Department

A review of four children’s picture books on Nov. 13 referred incorrectly to the little penguin who is the main character of one of them, “Penguin Problems.”  In the book he is unnamed; he is not called Mortimer. (That is the name of another penguin in the book.)

The New York Times Book Review

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Chilly Willy, Chill Wills

In an article on television icons of the 1950s in Monday’s Arts & Leisure section, a photograph of Chilly Willy, the anthropomorphic penguin character who was second only to Woody Woodpecker in popularity among devotees of Walter Lantz cartoons, was mis-labeled Chill Wills.  Chill Wills was a character actor known for his Western twang who provided the voice of Francis the Mule in a series of popular films.  The times apologizes to Mr. Mule.

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Francis, a mule not a penguin.

In an article in last Sunday’s Lifestyle section penguins were likened to Mormons and Muslims for condoning polygamy.  Penguins are in fact serial monogamists, like American college students, changing mating partners once each year.  The Times regrets its error.

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An editorial in last Sunday’s Times referred to Beethoven’s nine symphonies as the crowning achievement of the Western musical canon.  In the view of scholars who study the musical tastes of marginalized peoples, Rufus Thomas’s “Do the Funky Penguin, Part I” and “Do the Funky Penguin, Part II” have surpassed Beethoven’s fourth and eighth symphonies, which nobody used to listen to anyway.  The Times apologizes to Mr. Thomas’s penguin.

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A consumer product review in last Saturday’s special, glossy Christmas pull-out shopping section referred to the “Playful Penguin Race” toy as a hazard because the penguins are so darned cute and small children might eat them.  After consultation with the manufacturer’s lawyers, The Times stands corrected and can verify that the Playful Penguin Race toy provides hours of innocent fun to children ages 3 to 65.  One “D” battery required (not included) and it would help if you’d feed your kids regularly so they don’t try to eat plastic toys.

My Octopus Girlfriends

Octopuses have “three hearts. . . .and their reproductive life seems cool and distant: The male hands the female a sperm packet from a safe distance, and then she wanders off to fertilize and hatch her eggs alone.”

                              Review of “Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith

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I wish, like an octopus, I had three hearts.
I’d have three girlfriends who you couldn’t tell apart.
Saturday night when it was time for a date
I’d let each of them know that they shouldn’t be late;
If they weren’t ready when I dropped by to woo-
I’d just go out with the other two.

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I’d be a perfect gentlemen, and wouldn’t maul them
With lecherous tentacles, or whatever you call them.
And when it came time for each to, uh, sample my wares
I wouldn’t make a pass at her, or muss up her hair.
No, the suave approach is best; put on a smoking jacket
and hand the female octopus a little sperm packet.

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Keep your distance and extend it arm’s length,
Allowing the female to conserve her strength,
For when girl octopuses perform erotic arts
They sadly are forced to play both parts.