Fake Your Way With Biz Cliches

If you want to get ahead in business, it is not enough to be intelligent, hard-working, and decisive.  The Great Plains of Commerce are littered with the corpses of men and women who possess these qualities, and who were nonetheless stung to death by a swarm of buzzwords.


“. . . at the end of the day, it’s the end of the day.”

 

My own shortcomings in this regard became apparent a few years ago when I made the mistake of saying in a meeting that a proposed course of action, while potentially sound, might be perceived as a bit too–I groped for le mot juste; aggressive? greedy? rapacious?  Everybody ignored me and we plowed ahead until a v.c.–that’s a venture capitalist, not a Viet Cong–who had arrived late stopped us in our tracks.  “I don’t like it,” he said.  “The optics aren’t right.”

Of course! everyone agreed.  How dense we’d all been! What were we thinking? How did we lose sight of long-term fundamentals?  It’s the optics, stupid!  Deep down, we’d been very shallow.


“. . . in order to interface our core competencies with our first-mover advantage . . .”

 

In the mad scramble to the top of the heap, it is thus important that you know just the right thing to say if you want to avoid claw marks on your back and inflict them on others.  Thankfully, the friendly folks at MSN CareerBuilder.com have compiled “12 Workplace Phrases You Probably Don’t Know . . . But Should,” so you can acquire a core competency in first-mover advantage while you bladda-bladda . . .


“Let’s all touch the screen on Bob’s laptop and leave greasy fingerprints!”

 

Wait a minute.  The first rule of business is–you don’t have time to read!  That’s what assistant vice presidents are for!  That’s why they put business books on tape, or edit them down to the length of a candy bar wrapper.

In the interest of saving your valuable time, I have distilled the top 12 workplace phrases currently in circulation down to the really top 4.  After all, you don’t want to be in the lower two-thirds of anything!

Let’s Not Boil the Monkey:  In order for a business phrase to achieve widespread usage, it is essential that it be both colorful and obscure.  Thus when Todd Breathmintsky from the Midwest regional office flies in to corporate headquarters to propose a consolidation of distribution centers to maximize supply-chain efficiencies (yawn), the only way to cut off his path to the promotion that is rightfully yours is to furrow your brow, purse your lips, put your fingers together in a little church-and-steeple and drop this stink bomb on him:  “That’s all well and good, Todd, but let’s not boil the monkey, okay?”


“Todd is such an idiot!”

 

What does it mean?  Who cares?  The all-knowing way in which you say it will cast doubt upon everything Todd has just said, and will ever say again in his miserable career.  In six months he’ll be sleeping under a bridge.

Who screwed the iguana?  A few years ago the phrase “screw the pooch” became popular, for reasons that remain obscure.  It meant “make a terrible mistake,” but this wasn’t always apparent from the context of the discussion, or the tone of the speaker’s voice.  As a result, those who didn’t “get it” would return to their offices and search for “screw the pooch” on their computers.  When they were directed to bestiality websites, the guys in the information technology department would report them to compliance, and security would usher them out of the building after giving them just enough time to remove family pictures from their desks.  Maybe that was the plan all along.


“Officer, I never met that pooch before in my life!”

 

A backlash resulted, and “screw the iguana” was eventually accepted as a conversational safe harbor because there are no pictures of anybody screwing an iguana on the internet–yet.  Even iguanas don’t like to screw iguanas.

Sparadigm.  Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is a highly-readable work of philosophy, and for that reason alone we ought to cut him some slack.  But his term “paradigm shift” entered the business world and became an all-purpose chew toy, something to gnaw on when your jaws needed a workout.

As a result of overuse, there has been a paradigm shift away from “paradigm shift” towards “sparadigm,” which refers to a course of action that, while it may not be the best, is the only one your company can afford.

It’s not rocket surgery.  When sniveling, weak-kneed, limp-wristed eunuchs in the engineering department raise objections to your Five-Year Plan for Market Domination, saying it can’t be done without an investment of resources comparable to that which went into the Space Race, turn your most withering gaze upon them and say “It’s not rocket surgery, you nimmy-not!”


“No, really, it’s safe.  You go first!”

 

Like a sucker punch, this out-of-the-blue non sequitur will stun your critics, who will be left scratching their heads, while you torpedo their careers by whispering to the CEO “I think you’d better check those engineers for head lice–they seem to scratch a lot.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Take My Advice–I Wasn’t Using it Anyway.”

The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem

It was one of those dinner parties where everyone had had a little too much to drink, and the conversation around the table had grown more . . . shall we say, spirited. Changes were being rung on the usual male-female antinomies–shopping, burping, etc.–when one of the wives went a little too far.


. . . and don’t get me started on his back hair!”

 

“Jeff doesn’t know which end of a hammer is up,” a woman named Sally said with a laugh, which the other women joined in. The men, however, did not. They knew that no matter how inept your husband may be at home repairs, the male ego is such that you don’t embarrass him in front of other men on this score.

A chilly silence descended upon the male half of the table, which the women–insensitive clods that they can be sometimes–eventually noticed. I considered my usual gambit for diverting conversation from an uncomfortable topic–”How ’bout those Red Sox?”–but it seemed too transparent. I considered bringing my philosophical training to bear on the subject–”Does a hammer really have an ‘up’ and a ‘down’ end, Sally?”–but decided it would only prolong the agony.


“Thanks for screwing in that light bulb–my husband could never do that!”

 

No, what was needed was “direct action,” as the Wobbly Party used to say. “Sally, I know you probably didn’t mean to, but I think you’ve hit Jeff where it hurts–bad.”

“Well,” she replied, a trifle defensively, “it’s true.”

“There are many true things that needn’t be said.” I could feel a breeze on my legs from my wife’s efforts to kick me, but she was sitting too far away to make contact. “If this matter isn’t put right, I’m afraid you two won’t have sex tonight, then Jeff will be grumpy next week, his productivity will fall off, his year-end bonus will be inadequate, you two will end up getting divorced, and your kids will drop out of school and end up collecting deposit bottles and sleeping on heating grates for the rest of their lives.”

“Gosh, I didn’t know it was that serious,” she said.

“It is, and drastic measures are called for.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

Carwash2
The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem (drawing by Sage Stossel)

 

I looked around the table and saw only blank stares. “I guess this means none of you read my first novel,” I said, and I had a hard time keeping the bitterness out of my voice.

“Uh, I didn’t,” Jeff said.

“Sally–I thought your book group was going to read it,” I said sharply.

“We . . . we have so many other books to read first.”

“Chick lit,” I spat out with contempt. “Let me guess: in this week’s selection, a husband cheats on his wife, or he dies.”

“Actually both,” she said. “We wanted something with a happy ending.”

“You know, if just one of you would buy a copy of A View of the Charles I might move into the coveted top 8 million books on amazon.com–but no.”

“But–you have so many unsold copies in your garage,” the guy to my left said. “It seems such a waste of natural resources to have your print-on-demand publisher crank out another one.”

“I’d like you to know,” I said defensively, that it’s now in a second edition, with a new cover, a new title–’Making Partner’–by a new publisher.”

“Why’s that?” Jeff asked.

“So it won’t be associated with the failure of the first edition,” my wife said unhelpfully.

I could feel my face reddening, but I couldn’t let my personal embarrassment get in the way of my mission; to save a marriage that was in trouble.

“C’mon everybody–into the living room for the Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

“How do we do it?” my wife asked, finally joining in the fun against her better instincts.


The Stroll

 

“Do any of you remember ‘The Stroll’?”

“Remember, you’re the oldest one here,” my wife reminded me, so I had to explain.

“On American Bandstand, the guys and gals would form two lines, and dancers would take turns strolling down between them.”

“That’s it–a dance?” Sally asked.

“There’s more. As the people make their way through, they close their eyes and we touch them.”

“Like running the gauntlet?” Jeff asked, “the Native American form of torture in which an individual runs between a double file of men who strike him with clubs or other weapons?”

“Sort of, but no weapons, and gently, like the soft foam scrubbers in a car wash.”

“That wouldn’t do much for my self-esteem,” the guy to my left–who was now standing to my right–said.

“That’s not all we do. We also murmur . . .”

“Murmur?”

“Murmur . . . words of encouragement and support. In Jeff’s case, something like ‘You did a great job screwing in that light bulb last weekend sweetie,’ or ‘I can’t believe you know how to pump your own gas!’ Something like that.”

Everyone exchanged looks of bemusement that seemed to say “What have we got to lose?” and “Well, I guess I’d do it for Jeff and Sally,” also “This is stupid but what choice do I have?”

Our dinner guests formed themselves into two lines, and it was up to me as host to designate the first human car to be scrubbed. “I think Jeff’s entitled to go first, since he’s the one’s who’s hurting right now.”

“Okay,” he said, a bit chagrined to be put in a position of weakness, but still needing the help that only the Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem can provide.

“Go ahead, sweetie,” Sally said with an audible lump in her throat.


Go ahead–you’ll feel much better when you’re through.

 

“Okay,” he said, as he closed his eyes and began to make his way through the scrubbers of his friends’ arms.

“I’m sure you’re not as bad as Sally says,” the wife of the guy to my left said.

“You can’t be any worse than my husband,” another said.

As Jeff was softly stroked by his friends, you could see a smile come to his face. When he emerged into the drying zone and opened his eyes, he was a new man, no longer sullen and brooding over the uncalled-for insult to his manhood. “You’re right,” he said. “That was great!”

“Who’s next?” I said, beaming with pride over the one thing I’ve invented in my life.

“Me, me!” Sally said. She was like that, a real trouper, always ready to make a party truly special.

“Okay,” I said. “Any fears, insecurities or troublesome issues we need to address?”

“Well, Jeff did make a crack about my weight last weekend.”

You could almost feel a wave of female hormones about to crash on the beach of our living room, like the roar of a distant tsunami that is faintly heard from afar–not to wax too poetic.

“Jeff!” the wife of the guy on my left said.

“It’s not my fault–she asked me the trick question: Does this outfit make me look fat?”

There were nods of sympathy from the other two husbands. “It’s a no-win situation,” one of them said.

“All right, let’s put the past behind us,” I said. “Sally–start strolling!”

She closed her eyes and stepped forward gingerly, where she was met by the soothing caresses of her girlfriends.

“Don’t you listen to him when he answers a loaded question,” one of them said.

“You’re so beautiful–inside and outside,” another said.

It was my turn and I struggled for something to say that would comfort her and at the same time wouldn’t show up her husband.

“You know,” I began tentatively, “the top is the best part of the muffin.”

 

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

 

Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good

In the film The Third Man, Orson Welles plays Harry Lime, a black marketeer in post-World War II Vienna.


Orson Welles as Harry Lime

When he is confronted by his friend Holly Martins, Lime excuses his misdeeds with a speech that Welles himself contributed to Graham Greene’s screenplay.  “In Italy,” Lime says, “for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland they had brotherly love–they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”


Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins

While the requirements of dramatic tension compelled Greene to make the results of Lime’s crimes as horrible as possible–children crippled by meningitis they contracted due to his diluted penicillin–the principle pronounced by Lime has a curious element of truth to it.  Consider not the Borgias’ Italy, but Kansas City, Missouri.


Tom Pendergast

From 1925 to 1939, Kansas City was ruled by “Boss Tom” Pendergast, a Democratic politician who allowed alcohol to flow freely despite Prohibition, and who averted his gaze (and no doubt profited) from illegal gambling.  Pendergast achieved Sadam Hussein-like victory margins by a combination of payoffs, fraud and intimidation.  Under his rule, the bars never closed and musicians jammed all night long and into the morning.  The neighborhood that fanned out from the intersection at 18th and Vine became known as a reincarnation of Storyville, New Orleans’ red light district where live music was the come-on to more intimate pleasures during the infancy of jazz.

There developed out of this ever-simmering heat–like a barbecue pit that never went out–a distinct Kansas City sound that changed the course of American music at the same time that it gave birth or schooling to jazz masters such as Lester Young and Ben Webster on tenor sax, and Charlie Parker on alto.


Bennie Moten, by R. Crumb

Claude Williams, a violinist who played with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, summed up the competitive nature of those all-night cutting sessions thusly:  “Kansas City was different from all other places because we’d be jamming all night.  And [if] you come up here . . . playing the wrong thing, we’d straighten you out.”  The story is told that the first time Charlie Parker got up at such a session to take his licks, his failing grade was communicated to him by drummer Jo Jones, who crashed a cymbal over on him to tell him to get off the stage.  A guild of musicians with the chops to tell Parker–the most protean improvisator of the bebop era–to come back when he’s ready is one tough union.


Charlie Parker

For the most part the Kansas City sound was a product of musicians born in the central or southern midwest; Bennie Moten, Parker and Webster (Kansas City Kansas or Missouri); Jay McShann (Oklahoma); Andy Kirk (Kentucky); Hot Lips Page (Texas); Lester Young (Mississippi); Walter Page (Missouri).  But it began to reach a greater share of the nation’s ears when a transplant from the east coast–Bill “Count” Basie–collected several personnel from Bennie Moten’s band following the latter’s death in 1935.  John Hammond, who would later discover Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen among others, heard a short-wave radio broadcast of the band from New York and went to Kansas City to check them out.  He described their 1936 sessions for him–the first on which Lester Young was ever heard–as “the only perfect, completely perfect recording session I’ve ever had anything to do with.”


Lester Young

The Kansas City sound moved at a loping gait–a 4/4 beat rather than the 2/4 time that had characterized jazz recordings up to then.  Kansas City bands often played according to so-called “head arrangements,” communal affairs composed and arranged collectively, changing every night on the fly, rather than sight-reading composed music.  Basie’s band began to go downhill musically once it was financially successful enough to purchase the services of outside arrangers.  Finally, Kansas City jazz was a counterpoint of “riffs,” with one section playing a repetitive, rhythmic line behind a vocalist to add energy, or two sections–sax vs. trumpets–alternating and competing with each other, driving the music without exhausting it.


Jay McShann, leader of the first band in which Charlie Parker played

Could Kansas City jazz have evolved without vice and corruption?  Perhaps, although it was a wide-open laissez-faire attitude towards man’s ineradicable taste for forbidden pleasures that brought it to a boil.  Where moral strictures are tight, art tends to wither.  You won’t find any jazz of consequence in Utah, for example, even though that’s the name of their pro basketball team.

I’ll bet it’s a great place to shop for cuckoo clocks.

This article appeared previously, in slightly different form, in Brilliant Corners

Flogging by Blogging

New guidelines released by the Federal Trade Commission say bloggers must disclose any money or freebies they receive in exchange for writing product reviews.

                                                                                       The Wall Street Journal


“Komodo dragon attack–I’m ON IT!”

It’s 7:35 a.m., time for me to start tapping out the fresh, insightful content that’s known the world over by readers of Gerbil News Network.  I turn on my Dell desktop–for personal computing to small, medium, large, extra-large or XXL businesses, Dell Solutions come fully stocked!

I’ve poured myself a cup of Starbucks new Ready Brew Instant Coffee, made with the highest-quality 100% arabica beans.  Bleh–it’s awful, but of course I can’t say that on my blog, not if I want to keep the product samples and Starbucks “Bearistas” stuffed animals coming.


Something’s missing on this Bearista–no nose ring!

I scan the pages of the morning papers, looking for some quirky, off-beat news items I can twist into a fictional extrapolation that will be misinterpreted by a literal-minded doofus in New Zealand or Bayonne, New Jersey.  Ah–just the thing!  The Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that never rests in its quest to find something–anything–to justify its existence, is going after bloggers who fail to disclose compensation they receive from their subjects.


Lizard of the Month:  Attends UCLA, majors in psychology.

I look around my office.  There’s the Lizard of the Month calendar I got from the Komodo Dragon Society of America.  Is the FTC going to begrudge me that little lagniappe?  I should hope not.

There’s this month’s Cat Fancy Magazine–the annual Kitten-Up-a-Tree Rescue Issue.  Let me tell you, it breaks your heart to see those little guys stuck high above the pavement, staring fearfully down as a ladder truck snatches them before they fall.  I can’t believe some junior bureaucrat at the FTC is going to go after my free subscription at a time when so many American industries have been reduced to an oligopolistic handful of predators.


Help!

There’s my Don King Chia Pet, a joint promotion of Joseph Enterprises and King’s Only in America Productions, which I received for blogging about the Halloween Thrilla “Fright Night” fight between Joseph “King Kong” Agbeko and No. 1-Ranked mandatory challenger Yohnny “El Colombiano” Perez.  You can hardly say that little trifle has affected my coverage of King, the greatest boxing promoter in the history of mankind and quite possibly the universe.  Did I mention that he’s a sharp dresser, too?  And the guy he pistol-whipped back in Cleveland–well, if you’re going to play the numbers, you’d better be ready to pay up when you lose.

I maintain a “bright line” between the reporting and the business sides of my blog.  When the monthly $1.05 check comes in from Google Adsense I have no way of knowing which ads readers have clicked through.  I write without fear or favor, and never hesitate to complain if the cover of a Mariah Carey CD fails to adequately disclose her, uh, endowment.


Carey:  If she were a Hawaiian apartment building, that deck would be called a “lanai”.

No, this time the government has gone too far.  They’ll take away my Kate Spade for Men Tote Bag, a handy carry-all that’s both stylish and convenient–when they pry my cold dead fingers off of its colorful red handle.

Enjoy free shipping when you order on-line through Gerbil News Network!

Tom Freeb, Antacid Rock Bass Player, Dead at 71

SEPULVEDA, California.  Thomas “Tom” Freeb, bass guitar player for My Unicorn’s Knightmare, an antacid rock band of the 60′s, died yesterday of complications from adenoid surgery.  He was 71.


Tom and Tim Freeb with guitars in their first  combo, The Castaways

 

With his brother Tim, Freeb is given credit for developing “Antacid Rock,” a sub-genre of sixties music played by and for those too scared to experiment with the hallucinogenic drugs that gave birth to so-called “psychedelic” music.

“We read the exposes of LSD and marijuana in Time and Life magazines,” Tim recalls with a look of relief on his face.  “We decided to experiment, but play it safe.  We didn’t want to get kicked off Student Council.”

There followed a period of artistic growth for the two brothers, who tried cigarettes dipped in paregoric, smoking oregano, and drinking rum Cokes with aspirins really fast through a straw to see if they could achieve enlightenment safely.


Non-psychedelic solo

 

The two changed their group’s name to “My Unicorn’s Knightmare” to symbolize  their conflicting desires to explore the mind-bending realm beyond the humdrum reality of their suburban lives, yet retain their innocence.  Derided by their  hard-rocking competitors as teeny-boppers, the Freebs had the last laugh when their non-psychedelic anthem “High on Life” hit #1 on Billboard Magazine’s  National Honor Society chart.  A follow-up song, “Tripping Through the Pet  Store,” which celebrated the joys of smoking catnip, a close relative of marijuana, reached #4, giving the Freebs a hit-making scorecard that surpassed Buffalo Springfield and even The Jefferson Airplane.


Mrs. Freeb’s casserole:  “I . . . I think I see the  face of the godhead in there.”

 

“Guys in other groups would brag about dropping Owsley acid,” Tim says to  this reporter as he fiddles anxiously with his aging love beads.  “We’d ask mom to put an extra can of cream of mushroom soup in her tuna noodle casserole.  I don’t think even Hendrix could have handled that dose.”

In an interview with Modern Maturity magazine in 2010, Freeb expressed no bitterness that in his later years My Unicorn’s Knightmare could find work only  in chain hotel lounges and other out-of-the-way venues.  “Look at The Doors,” he said at the time.  “They’re all dead now.”  When it was pointed out that three of the original Doors are still alive, Freeb became impatient.  “Dude,” he  snapped at the reporter, “those are hallucinations!


Not so far out!

 

Freeb is survived by his wife Patty, his cats Jimi and Janis, and a spider plant that he successfully repotted and moved with him on tour.  In lieu of  flowers, the family requests that donations in Freeb’s memory be made to the Home for Aging Bassists in Chico, California.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fauxbituaries.”

Great Gatsby Roulette

It was May of my senior year in college. Everybody was coasting, knowing either what they were going to be doing the next year, or that they’d be doing nothing. Except for one guy, Tom.

Tom had been accepted at medical school–Harvard, no less–so his future was pretty much mapped out for him, assuming he graduated from college first. Med schools are funny that way. They make you dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s” before they let you cut body parts off cadavers and stick them in the purses of the secretaries.


Fitzgerald: “The road to med school goes through me.”

 

And so as we assembled for one of our last nights of drug-enhanced conviviality, we felt a general sense of relief and hopeful anticipation–except for Tom, whose face was clouded by a look that suggested he had a lot of work left to do.

“What’s eating you?” somebody finally asked.

”I need to finish one course in the humanities to graduate,” he said.

“So–what’s the big deal?” came the question from one to whom a course in literature was a day at the beach.

“I need to write a paper on The Great Gatsby,” Tom said.

“Christ, I’ve probably read that book for three courses the past four years,” said somebody else.

“Well I haven’t,” Tom said.

“Haven’t what?” I asked. “Haven’t read it three times?”

“Haven’t read it at all,” Tom said sheepishly.

Like many pre-med students, Tom had spent so much time taking organic chemistry and other hard science courses that he hadn’t had time to take any electives to round out his personality, and his heavy load of classes, labs, shooting pool, going to the race track and Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park and staying up all night playing poker had left him little time to read for pleasure.

“You’ve only got, like, two days, right?” a guy named Alan asked.

“One,” Tom replied, like a prisoner on death row who’s just finished his last meal.

A collective gulp of five Adam’s apples was heard. “You have to read it and write a paper about it . . . tonight?

He was silent for a moment. “You got it.”

The gloom that had, just a moment before, been one man’s burden spread like a contagious disease on the wings of a sneeze. We all felt terrible for Tom, but we were on the South Side of Chicago, home of Saul Alinsky, inspiration to generations of radicals and later even a President of the United States!


Saul Alinsky

 

What we had learned from the example of Alinsky was that there was a time for talk, and a time for radical social action to improve the everyday lives of ordinary people. We looked at each other and at Tom’s downcast head and as if by telepathy, formed a common purpose.

“We’ll help you write your paper!” someone said emphatically.

“Yeah–all of us–together!” said another.

“Guys–I couldn’t ask you to . . .” Tom began, but I cut him off. “You were there for me in Rocks and Stars,” the elementary science course for English majors, I said. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have gotten that B that kept my grade point average where it needs to be in case I ever figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”


“You gotta work the shirt scene in there somewhere.”

 

Tom looked around the room and we could see his eyes misting over. “You–you would do that for me?” he asked, a lump in his throat.

“You’d do it for us, if you’d read the book and we hadn’t and we had screwed around like you and left the paper to the last minute,” somebody said.

By now Tom’s eyes were red. “You guys–you’re the greatest!” he said. He’d had a few beers.

“C’mon,” a guy named Bates said. “No time for emoting–we’ve got a lot of writing to do.”

As the only guy in the room who had mastered touch typing, I was assigned the role of scrivener. I loaded a manual typewriter with a sheet of white paper, rolled it up, and centered it for the title.

“Okay–’The Great Gatsby–colon,” I said. “What comes next, and it has to be a question.”

“Why’s that?” Tom asked.

“Because if it’s a question, you don’t have to have a thesis,” Bates said. “You’re just raising an issue . . . ”

” . . . for consideration by future generations of scholars,” said a guy named Jack.

“Uh, let’s see–Threat or Menace?” I offered.

“Too sociological. How about–’Process or Event’?” Jack suggested.

“You used that for your Haymarket Anarchist Bombing paper,” Bates said. “What about–’Icon or Shibboleth’?”

“Great,” I said and typed it in. “Okay–we’ve got to be organized, otherwise you’re going to drive me crazy,” I said. “We’ll go around the room–Russian Roulette style–and take turns. One sentence per person, then on to the next–okay?”

“I’m in,” said Bates, as he put on the Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation” album at a volume just slightly below the level that would attract the attention of a resident assistant.

“You really think that’s a good idea?” Tom said. “Don’t we have to like–concentrate?”

“Dude, you took too many science classes,” Bates said. “This is how creative-types do their thing.”

“First sentence–somebody, anybody,” I called out.  Bates had already taken a few tokes on a reefer on the quad below, so his creative juices were flowing freely.

“Uh, ‘The Great Gatsby is a seminal work that calls attention to, and plays upon, class distinctions that are customarily submerged beneath the surface in America due to the leveling pressure of democratic principles.’”

“Great start!” I exclaimed as I tapped out the opening lines. “Next.”

“The narrator, young Nick Carraway, serves as the . . . uh . . . sounding board for Fitzgerald’s critique of the American dream, as he is alternately attracted to and repulsed by the materialism with which Gatsby has surrounded himself,” Alan said.

“Got it–who’s next?”

“I guess me,” Jack said. ‘Carraway is sucked into’ . . .”

“Scratch that,” Bates said. “Not high-toned enough. Say ‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life’–something like that.”

“Okay,” Jack said, a bit peevishly I thought. Pride of authorship. “‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life because he is second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, whom Gatsby desires because she is from a social class above his, and thus unattainable.”

I looked over at Tom as I typed and noticed that his mouth was hanging open. “You guys are–incredible!” he said, a big smile on his face.

“Why don’t you take a turn?” Bates asked, as he passed the joint to Tom.

“Me? But . . . I only read the first chapter!”

“That’s enough man–go ahead,” Bates said. “Give it a shot!”

Tom inhaled, held his breath for a moment, then opened his mouth to allow the smoke to escape, along with these words. “In this respect, Daisy represents the American Dream, always luring us onward, always receding as we draw near it.”


Arnold Rothstein, fictionalized as Meyer Wolfsheim

 

“See–you don’t need to read the book,” I said. “It’s in the air you breathe.”

We continued in that vein for several hours until we had collectively banged out three pages–double-spaced, inch-and-a-half margins–of the most bogus symbol-spotting literary claptrap that ever issued from the mind of an American undergraduate. As we wrapped things up with the obligatory analytical pecking and poking at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, I pulled the last sheet of paper out of the typewriter, and everyone gathered around to admire our work.

“You know,” Bates said as took a final hit on what was left of the joint, “it’s true what they say about art having a cathartic effect.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. He was a little blissed out, but recovered enough to realize he may have missed something. “What exactly does that mean?”

“I dunno,” Bates said. “But it sounded good.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddling Anymore.”

Quitting Smack

It was the early 70’s. The Vietnam War was just coming off its peak, and the traffic of young men back and forth between America and Southeast Asia brought new, cheap and exotic goods back to the states for consumption by those deferred, rejected or too young to fight. The products of that trade consisted primarily of stereo equipment–cool-looking Pioneer brand speakers were one particularly hot item–and heroin.


Listen to Blue Cheer through these bad boys and your brain will never be the same.

 

I was introduced to heroin–a/k/a smack, junk–by my friend Bobby, when we worked at his father’s appliance store. Bobby had a big brother Tommy, who was right in the middle of the draftable bandwith. Tommy knew more than his share of servicemen returned or on leave from Vietnam, and one day Bobby surprised me in the delivery truck by unfolding an aluminum foil package containing brown powder.

“Dig this,” he said, or something similarly prideful as he showed me the stuff.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Heroin–from Vietnam. You want to try some?”

I knew of the dangers of heroin–addiction, a life of crime and so forth. On the other hand, a number of the men and women I looked up to were known users, current or former: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, Keith Richards, Durward Kirby, William Burroughs, Ben Franklin.


Ben Franklin, stone junkie.

 

Just kidding; I threw Durward Kirby in there just to make sure you hadn’t nodded off. As junkies are wont to do.

“Will I get . . . hooked?” I asked nervously.

“No way, not from one snort.”

That sounded promising. “You mean you don’t have to shoot it up?”

“Nope. Tommy tells me up the nose is the safe, easy responsible way to take heroin.”

That sounded good to me, but we had a refrigerator to deliver, so I stopped him as he rolled up a dollar bill. “You’re going to do it now–before the last install?” I asked.

Bobby’s face took on a look of deep thought as he considered the issue of timing. “I don’t know. I think it’s like acid or pot–it takes a while to kick in. I think we should do it beforehand.”


“We’ll have you set up in a jiffy, Mrs. McKelvey . . . bluagh!”

 

I figured he knew what he was doing–he was the crazy one, after all, not me–so we took turns snorting lines of equal volume, then drove over to the house of an old woman who’d bought a brand, spanking new frost-free refrigerator.

We got the appliance out of the truck, with me pulling the dolly and Tommy doing his best to avoid heavy lifting; I, after all, was the former middle linebacker, while he was the kind of kid who’d lie on his stomach while everybody else was doing push-ups in gym class.

We got the refrigerator up the porch stairs when I felt even the semblance of effort from Tommy’s end cease. I heard a noise like a sink backing up, and saw Tommy puking his guts out over the railing onto the shrubs below.

“Jesus–are you all right?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” He leaned against the rail, whiter than the underbelly of a trout, and tried to collect himself.

“You’re not going to die or anything, are you?”

“No, I feel better now. Must have been the cheeseburger I ate for lunch.”

I looked at him to make sure, then rang the doorbell. At this point, I was clearly the more presentable of the two representatives of the appliance store on the porch.

The old woman greeted us and showed us into the kitchen, where what should have been a routine hook-up job was made more difficult by the effects of the drug that supplies pushers around the globe with their daily bread.

“Would you boys like some lemonade?” I recall her saying as I tried to properly position the refrigerator, using a bubble level. My guess is given my condition, she never saw a well-formed ice cube out of her freezer compartment until the day she died.

“No ma’am, but thanks,” I said, trying to bring the transaction to a conclusion. I got her to sign the receipt and we headed off to the truck, with Tommy a festive combination of green, blue and white hues.


Bob Seger

 

We went back to Tommy’s place–his parents weren’t home–and listened to “Stone Junkie” by Curtis Mayfield, over and over. I don’t think it was by choice; back in the day, as they say, a properly screwed-up record player would repeat an album over and over again until you got up to turn it off. Which, if you’re on heroin, you’re incapable of doing.

That was the sort of trouble you could get into in a small town in the summer, surrounded by kids who were, in the words of the Bob Seger song of the time, young and restless and bored. When I returned to college at the University Chicago in the fall, I genuinely believed I would never get near the stuff again, but I fell in with a bad crowd; pre-med students.

There is probably no more daring group of drug consumers among the undergraduates of this country than the boys who will some day become men with the power to dispense pharmaceutical products to average schmoes like you and me. Their willingness to risk their lives by exposing themselves to drugs in varying dosages, or dubious purity, and unknown origin is admirable. By the time they get their long white coats and stethoscopes they will have sampled just about every item in the Physician’s Desk Reference pharmacopoeia–and then some. It’s almost saintly, when you think about it; these guys wouldn’t expose a patient to a substance they hadn’t tried–in highly excessive quantities–first.

I had immediate credibility with the Doogie Howsers avant la lettre; I had not only taken heroin, I’d installed a major, big-ticket item “white goods” appliance while under its influence. I wasn’t some tyro, I was–as Jimi Hendrix might say–experienced. A drug kingpin among mere wanton boys.

Leopold and Loeb: I named my cats after them.

 

Why, you might ask, was a group of high-SAT scoring undergraduates driven to such desperate pastimes? I can’t answer that. Perhaps it was because we lived in the dormitory that had housed Leopold and Loeb, the UofC thrill-killers whom Clarence Darrow spared from the electric chair after their botched attempt to commit the perfect crime. With that sort of aura permeating the halls, you needed to do something more dramatic than play “Gimme Shelter” so loud the graduate dorm monitor told you to turn it down in order to assert your innately stupid young manhood.


Curtis Mayfield

 

But these guys were serious technicians, not two kids slurping stuff up their noses in a delivery van. They had hypodermic needles and syringes, and could calibrate dosages with precision. I trusted them the way you trust your family doctor. If your family doctor sells controlled substances out the back door.

And so I became–off and on, over a period of months–a more-or-less regular user of heroin. You learned to spot other users; the willowy blond in 20th Century French Drama with the little bruises on her feet, where she had to shoot up because she couldn’t find a vein in the crook of her arm and didn’t want the marks to show on her hands. We had gone out on a couple of dates the year before–then she discovered she knew more about jazz than I did. She ended up becoming an anchorwoman in L.A.

With that descent into the hell of heroin, dramatic changes in my life occurred. I got involved in a steady relationship for the first time in years. My grades improved dramatically; straight A’s in Aesthetics and Ethics–bringing me closer to Phi Beta Kappa than I’d ever been before. Those hopes were dashed when I earned my customary B in Genetics, but I had an excuse–my high school biology teacher had gone walkabout when he suddenly came down with amnesia. When my girlfriend broke up with me, a girl I’d been friends with in high school sent me a postcard saying she was coming through town, and we hooked up. I was rolling in it; the Big H, horse, whatever you wanted to call it–it was like pixie dust!

But despite all the positive changes that heroin produced in my life, I knew I couldn’t continue to use it as a crutch that helped me focus on my studies and improve my interpersonal skills. For me, smack had one fatal flaw; it was expensive, and was starting to crimp my budget for record albums. That’s right; the most powerfully-addictive drug known to man was no match for my deep-seated cheapness.

And so I sit before you–actually, before my computer–clean and sober tonight. Straight edge, hard core, as they say. I went cold turkey and got the monkey off my back, to mix my animal metaphors. I can laugh about it now, sure, but back then it was a serious thing. I still can’t believe how close I came to a life of complete and utter degradation, dissolution, and depravity.

If I’d done just a little better in Genetics, today I’d be one of those dorks wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key in his lapel.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”