For Some Eclipse Watchers, Safety Came First and Foremost

DORCHESTER, Mass.  Mike Doyle’s Kinvarra Pub in this gritty Boston neighborhood is the sort of “third space” that sociologists say is essential to bringing community and a sense of belonging to urban residents.  “You can tell them sociologists they got that one on the nosey,” said pub regular Ernie Sullivan with a laugh.

bar
The Kinvarra: Red Sox highlights on one TV, eclipse on the other.

The parochial character of this particular watering hole doesn’t mean its customers aren’t up on what’s happening in the world around them, however.  “Oh yeah, we watch the news every so often,” says Sullivan.  “Sometimes when we’re changing the channel from the Bruins to the Red Sox in the spring Mike will hit the wrong number and we’ll get CNN.”

It was just such a fortuitous slip of the remote control between baseball and a New England Patriots pre-season game that alerted the Kinvarra’s patrons to yesterday’s solar eclipse.

“Jesus, that’s gotta be a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Sean “Butchie” McGrath when he heard the news, a statement that may be accurate for most of the men in the bar since there won’t be another solar eclipse visible in New England until 2024.  “I’m interested in science,” he adds, “like if Bob and Dave are on a train going 80 miles an hour, how many beers can they drink before the bar car runs out?”


“What eclipse?”

Despite their seeming indifference to anything beyond the high-speed roads that ring their close-knit neighborhood, when this reporter returns to the bar today to ask customers their reactions to the singular astronomical phenomenon, he finds them awed by the rare alignment of heavenly bodies.

“That was freaking awesome,” Butchie McGrath replies without hesitation.  “They oughta have them more often, it was good clean wholesome fun–and they didn’t charge admission.”


“I’m goin’ outside for a smoke.  I’ll let you know if it’s eclipsin’ yet.”

When asked what steps they took to avoid damage to their retinas when they looked at the sun during the rare solar phenomenon, patrons belie the stereotype of ignorant barflies unconcerned with their health and instead offer a thoughtful recounting of the precautions they took.  “You gotta listen to them guys at NASA ’cause eclipses are really dangerous,” says McGrath.  “I sat in a booth over there along the wall and got a great view of the totality on the TV that wasn’t showing sports highlights.”

 

The Carnival Barker: Recalling a Dying Art

Fairs–that is, open-air public festivals at which entertainment is provided for a price–are both a current phenomenon and a tradition dating to ancient Rome. Fairs tend to be held in rural areas–there is already sufficient amusement in cities–and they serve as occasions for the loosening of inhibitions that bind fairgoers in their everyday lives.


Southwark Fair by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

 

There to encourage the fairgoer to depart from his workaday virtues of thrift and reserve is the carnival barker. At the lowest level of the profession, he encourages children and adults to part with their money in the hope of winning hopeless games of chance. At the higher reaches of the guild, he entices farmers and tradesmen to inspect deformed beasts–the six-legged pig, the two-peckered billy goat; to contemplate without embarrassment a human oddity; or to purchase a ticket to a show featuring music and dancing girls.

Barkers are, within the world of the traveling carnival, the most learned of professions, glib persuaders. The grizzled carney who takes tickets on the Tilt-a-Whirl is a ditch-digger compared to the lawyerly status achieved by a barker who can coax people into a tent to look at Lizard Boy, the bearded fat lady, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, or the bored hermaphrodite.

The licentious atmosphere that fairs create has historically resulted in public disturbances, causing governments and the respectable burghers whom they serve to regulate fairs by means of charters; one town is granted the right to hold a fair for a certain number of days, usually at the end of the summer harvest, since fairs often include competitive exhibitions of farm animals, produce and rural crafts and skills.

In fair towns such as the one I grew up in the annual event would attract 100,000 people to a county seat whose normal population was 23,000, transporting the residents from rural slumber to a moderate-sized city without moving an inch.

Left at liberty to wander the carnival midway, an impressionable young mind with an ear for a well-turned phrase becomes a connoisseur of carnival barkers. The man who claims that, within his tent, there is a boy who walks, who talks, who wriggles on his belly like a reptile, is to be avoided. We know who’s inside; it’s Brad, the kid with the bad eczema, finally turning a profit from his affliction–with the addition of a green rubber mask.

The man who drones into the microphone outside the show that promises “Live models, in the nude, definitely not for Junior!” loses our interest after awhile. Because of our age, we won’t be able to get in to see whoever’s on display inside, and the customers who do part with their money are a forlorn crew; hare lips, club foots, and teenaged boys in blue jeans and white t-shirts with rolled-up sleeves, trying to prove they are men. No wonder they have to pay good money to see a naked woman.

No, the best show, even if you can’t afford it or they won’t let you in because you’re too young, is the Club Ebony. The barker’s patter is the best on the midway, and it is recited over a thumping backbeat, a precursor of sorts to Jamaican dub and rap. Jimmy Rushing, the rotund singer who is featured on some of Count Basie’s most memorable recordings, called the come-on before the black revue the “bally-hoo.” Rushing was a product of the traveling “territory” bands of the midwest, and knew whereof he spoke.


Jimmy Rushing

 

The revue you will see more of–if you part with the price of admission–is brought out one by one; the ribald comedian, the dancing girls, the R&B house band, a soul shouter, a sultry female blues singer. Each gives a tantalizing taste of the full range of his or her talents, then stops; you don’t give away what you can sell.

When the crowd has been whipped to a froth of anticipation, the barker makes his final pitch; “It’s showtime–if you’re in line you’re in time,” he begins to call. The entertainers leave the stage and disappear behind the curtain, and the rubes follow them into the tent if the barker has done his job.

The air of sadness that hangs over a fairgrounds at night is a reflection of its artificiality; beyond the tents and the rides one can see farmland and the road out of town, and the hard work that is to be done the next day looms over the gaiety. The spectacle of the carnival is a momentary illusion for the fairgoer, and for the hard-bitten men who must strike the tents and hit the road for another town soon, it is just a job. Their manufactured enthusiasm is sustained by electricity, like the calliope one hears from the merry-go-round that the children ride.

The patter of the barkers is heard less frequently these days; traveling carnivals have nothing to bring to a small town in the summer that can’t be found on the internet every day of the year. Traveling side shows are expensive, because they require a number of talented or unique human beings, unlike automatic games of chance or carnival rides, which can be operated by a single person, unskilled and normal.  A carnival that stopped in a town not to far from where I raised my children featured a barker whose patter consisted entirely of imitations of characters from South Park; as Charlie Brown used to say, good grief.  The genus has thus evolved, and the descendants of the pitchmen of the midway can be found on Rush Street in Chicago, luring convention-goers into nightclubs to drink overpriced beer and watch pole dancers.

As a matter of fact, the last time I saw Brad the Lizard Boy was on the northside of Chicago. He was on his way to an underground film festival, and was excited about a particularly grotesque childbirth film that he’d heard about.

A taste for bizarre spectacle, once acquired, can apparently be refined but is never lost.

Summer’s End Finds Grade School Cougars on the Prowl

NATICK, Mass. Emily Adams is a twelve-year-old who will be entering sixth grade at Mosi Tatupu Middle School in this western suburb of Boston next month, and today finds her with her mother shopping for back-to-school needs.


“Let’s see–Artgum eraser, backpack, boyfriend . . .”

 

But Emily’s eyes aren’t on her new pencil box and three-ring binder as she waits for the cashier to ring up her purchases. Instead, she’s looking at rising fourth-grader Timmy Fallman, who’s with his mother two cash registers to her left. “He doesn’t know it yet,” she tells this reporter, “but he’s going to be my new boyfriend.”


“Sure it’s fine . . . if you want me to marry the manager of a Jiffy-Lube.”

 

Like penguins, Emily practices a form of serial monogamy, dumping her boyfriend for a new one every fall, but this year she has sworn off boys in her own grade and is looking for a younger man. “It’s due to a constellation of factors,” says her mother Trish, an assistant producer of Nova, the public television science program. “Boys in her grade learned how to belch on cue and make armpit farts last year, so she’s looking for someone . . . how shall I put this . . . more malleable.”


“My fifth-grade boyfriend could never satisfy me this way!”

 

Emily and girls like her form a new sociological group within the K-12 demographic; pre-teen “cougars” who seek out younger men rather than put up with the gross habits that boys acquire as they near puberty.  “In many ways, it’s a wise choice,” says actuary Mike Mildam of Modern Moosehead Life Insurance, whose headquarters is just a frisbee toss away at the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike. “A young girl can expect to live five years longer than a boy her age. What’s she going to do for the last half-decade of her life–twiddle her thumbs and watch Wheel of Fortune?”


“She’s a year older than me. What would we talk about?”

 

There is a financial aspect to the trend as well, as many older boys are saddled with obligations to “legacy” girlfriends that act as a drag on their spending power, like alimony. “Brian Forsh asked me to go to the movies but I said no,” says Vicki Swinson, who will be head cheerleader for the Oil Can Boyd Middle School Vikings this fall. “He gave his old girlfriend a ring over the summer, and I know he hasn’t got two Chuck E Cheese tokens to rub together now.”

Emily knows her younger man will eventually acquire all the nasty traits of boys her age, but she hopes to teach and guide him as he matures in order to modulate their more baleful aspects. “He’s a guy, so I know he’s going to pick his nose,” she says with resignation. “But if I get to him when he’s young, maybe he won’t eat it.”

Sunrise Service With the Don King Worshippers

A South Seas island tribe worships boxing promoter Don King. 

                                             New York Times


Praise the Lord!

I have come to Vanuatu as so many pilgrims have before me, seeking religious freedom.  The freedom to worship as one chooses is a basic human right, and yet people of my faith–the Church of Don King–are persecuted wherever we go.

Just as the Puritans were driven out of England, just as the Mormons were driven out of Missouri, just as the early Christians were offered as guilt-free low-salt snacks to carnivorous lions in the Roman Coliseum, we few, humble Don King worshipers must practice our religion and the rituals of our forefathers in hiding, in exile.


“Let us pray.”

And so it is with a gigantic breath of relief that I look out over the assembled masses of Kingons–Kingites?–Kingians?–who are gathered here for an inspirational sunrise service.  We face east, back towards Cleveland, Ohio, our Mecca.  It was there that our Lord and Savior was born on Kingmas Day.

What’s that you say?  Didn’t our God kill two men?  Well, yes he did–but who among us hasn’t?  As Jesus said, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  We’re talking about a God here–a member of the Gaming Hall of Fame.

And anyway, the Christian God kills people all the time with floods and avalanches and hurricanes and tornadoes.  At least our God has the decency to shoot them in the back or stomp them to death on an individualized basis–it’s the personal touch that makes the difference!

Besides, our God was pardoned when he got letters of recommendation from Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King.  Your God gets recommendations from–Jimmy Swaggart.  ‘Nuf said.

A hush falls over the congregation as acolytes bearing candles, incense and free throwback “Rumble in the Jungle” t-shirts emerge from the sacristy to the altar.  They make their way up the aisles with collection baskets in their hands.  Sure it’s cheaper to watch at home on Pay-Per-View, but nothing beats the experience of a seeing a figh–I mean a religious ceremony live.

I give the guy five bucks and he hands me a slightly faded but still crisp “Thrilla in Manila” one-size-fits-all cap.  Sweet!  Unlike a lot of your establishment religions that offer you nothing but pie-in-the-sky, worship at the Church of Don King produces immediate and tangible rewards.

We bow our heads, fold our hands and kneel in anticipation as the God Who Walks the Earth and Controls All Weight Classes appears.  He makes a grand entrance, clothed in a multi-colored robe and stars ‘n stripes accessories.  He raises his hands heavenward and intones the familiar words that, like the referee’s injunction to “Protect yourself at all times” begins a boxing match, serves as introit to our worship.  “Let us pray,” his Donhead says.

“Let us pray,” we all repeat.

“Only in America–could a South Seas island tribe worship an ex-convict!”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Oh . . . My . . . God.”

Highway Poet Tells Bureaucrat to Hit the Road

ENFIELD, Connecticut.  Mike Abruzzioni is Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Roads and Bridges at State Highway Department District #2 Headquarters here, a position he earned after many years of service, plus frequent contributions to state legislators.  “It ain’t what a lot of people think,” he says of the keys to his success.  “In addition to hard work, there’s a lot of ass-kissing you gotta do.”

Image result for led highway sign

Still, after two decades climbing the bureaucratic ladder he thought he had achieved some measure of personal freedom to do his job as he pleased, including some latitude as to the messages he posts on the Department’s LED message signs.  “Frankly, I didn’t even know Connecticut had a poet laureate,” he says ruefully.  “Seems like a waste of money to me at a time when I got to lay off two brush-hog cutters.”

Image result for brush hog cutter
“I leave a wake where’er I go/That’s what you get whene’er you mow.”

Abruzzioni is referring to the run-in he had with Tristram Morgan, the state’s official poet until December 31, 2017, after he posted “Stay awake/take a break/for safety sake” along Route 1 over the July 4th weekend.  “I didn’t think nothin’ of it, then I get a call the Monday morning after from the Arts & Cultural Council saying they’re filing a grievance against me.”

Image result for led highway sign
“Zombies ahead/fear and dread/pretty soon you’ll all be dead.”

The complaint referred to the terms and conditions under which Morgan took the largely honorary position of state poet laureate, which pays only a stipend of $2,000 plus a 5-minute shopping spree at Annie’s Gently Used Romance Paperbacks in West Harford.  “POET,” the rider to the standard state contract terms and conditions reads, “shall be the official source of all poetry purchased by the STATE until the expiration of the term hereof,” which the assistant professor at Trinity College says entitles him to craft the traffic messages that are flashed to motorists.

“I found Mr. Abruzzioni’s little doggerel to be deficient in many respects,” Morgan sniffs when the question “Who cares?” is put to him by this reporter.  “An elementary, almost banal rhyme scheme.  The abbreviated line length–surely the marks of a poetaster.”

Image result for state highway headquarters command center
“Take the detour round West Hartford/or what the hell is all my art for?”

In its place Morgan began to post verse that, in the formulation suggested by Archibald MacLeish, tended to “be” rather than “mean” and echoed the work of the state’s most famous poet, the notably obscurantist Wallace Stevens:

Nutmeg State, Dunkin’ Donuts
Please slow down folks, and don’t go nuts.

When Abruzzioni objected, saying his work was protected by civil service regulations, Morgan began to write poems that crossed the line into advocacy, as Byron’s late work was enflamed by his support of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey:

Poems written by highway hacks–
They give me bad gas attacks.


Image result for highway line painter truck
“Hey–slow down/What the fuck?/Don’t you pass my/painting truck!”

Ultimately the conflict between the two public employees will be resolved by binding arbitration before a three-member panel composed of a writing instructor from the University of Connecticut-Storrs, an industrial accidents court judge, and Bob Nash, the driver of a line-painting truck who is hoping to move up from two-lane state roads to four-lane highways eventually.  “I’m gonna try to be an impartial judge,” he tells this reporter as he squints into the sun at the end of the workday.  “On the other hand, that D I got in senior English means I can never get a job at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.”

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

One Dirty Old Man’s Bucket List is Only Skin Deep

BRYN MAWR, Pa.  Doug Dickerman was a man who, until six months ago, seemed to have it all.  A good job, two high-achieving kids in college, and a wife–Meg–who tolerated his tendency to defer life’s pleasures.  “He’d never completely unplug on vacation,” she says, growing wistful.  “I had to make him put his cell phone on vibrate when he came to bed.”


“He’s a horndog–but he’s my horndog.”

But all that changed when Dickerman was diagnosed with Fahrquahr’s Syndrome earlier this year.  “Farhquahr’s is a wasting disease that slowly constricts the nostrils until the victim can’t breathe,” says Dr. Nancy Wilbur-White, a research physician at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school.  “There is some trade-off in that you can’t smell people with pepperoni pizza aura in an elevator, but most people would just as soon live longer.”


“So–neither one of you is free tonight?”

 

Meg made her husband a promise–that she’d help him do all the things he’d been putting off while he climbed up the corporate ladder, his so-called “bucket list” that she understood customarily included thrilling activities such as parasailing and driving a Formula 1 race car at Watkins Glen, New York, even though she herself is not adventuresome.  Doug, however, gave his wife a pleasant surprise when he told her he wanted to go back to college to take English classes he’d foregone in favor of accounting and business courses as an undergraduate.

“I realized that the things I’d mentioned to her over the years were rather shallow,” he says as he gazes off into the distance.  “What I really wanted to do–down deep in my heart–was something extremely shallow.”

So Doug arranged a special program at Bryn Mawr College, the all-women’s school near Philadelphia, in which he audits courses in romantic poetry and modern American literature with one fervently-held goal in mind.  “I’d like to shack up with a really hot co-ed for just one weekend,” he says, his outdated slang revealing how long he’s been away from the dating scene.  “Is that too much to ask?”


“Who’s the creepy guy with the Cliff’s Notes?”

 

The request took Meg by surprise, but she stood by her promise to her husband of thirty years.  “If he went to his grave without satisfying his dream, I could never live with myself,” she says, fighting back tears.  “On the other hand if he survives, I won’t be able to live with him, so it’s a fair trade.”


“Don’t you have some Wite-Out or something?”

 

Thursday morning finds Doug in The Bandersnatch, the undergraduate coffee shop where he sits ogling women who are four decades younger than him, trying to make eye contact.  “I’m out of practice, but I had a movie date last weekend,” he says as he rubs a Band-Aid over a new sleeve tattoo he’s sporting, an attempt to relate to a younger generation of women who are into “body modification.”  Did he cut himself, this reporter asks.  “No, I guess I misread what Valerie was looking for in terms of a commitment,” he says a bit ruefully.  “Apparently getting your girl’s name tatooed to your bicep doesn’t mean as much as it used to.”

One Prospect Is Hot Because He’s So Cold

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.  Lyle Carroll is the starting left fielder for the Cape Girardeau River Rats, a AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, but opponents’ scouting reports paint a pessimistic picture of his chances of reaching the big leagues.  “Can’t hit curve ball,” says one in the telegraphic style favored by monosyllabic baseball lifers.  “Weak arm–we can run on him,” says another.

But Lyle has been getting an entirely different message from River Rats’ management and the parent club.  “This kid is gonna have a long career,” says General Manager Tom Browning.  “He may not stay in our organization, but he’s the kinda long-term prospect a lot of teams would ask for as a throw-in on a big trade.”

Carroll began to attract attention in 2016 when he was a role-player on the University of Central Missouri Mules team that won the regular season championship of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association.  “He caught an easy pop fly in left field for the third out,” recalls River Rats owner Bud Schmeling.  “Kids were begging him for the ball the whole way into the dugout–he didn’t flinch.”

Instead, Carroll kept the ball and politely handed it back to the umpire as he ran to the dugout.  “Those things are expensive,” he explains.  “Some woman in Haiti spent a lot of time sewing it for subsistence wages–who am I to just give it to some snot-nosed kid?”


“Ramirez walks down to first–high throw–he’s still out.”

 

That sort of sentiment is music to the ears of long-suffering billionaire owners of major league teams, used to being abused by abrasive agents who obtain multi-million dollar contracts for players who refuse to run out ground balls.  “Every baseball that kid saves drops straight to the bottom line,” notes Erwin Mayerson, a professor at Mt. Holyoke College who studies the economics of professional sports.  “Over a long period of time–say 200 years or so–it could result in real savings.”


“My deodorant really, really works.”

 

Carroll majored in sports management at Central Missouri, where he was on the Dean’s List all four years and received the August A. Busch Achievement Award–a used bat autographed by Cardinal semi-great Mike Shannon–for his senior project, “Enhancing Revenue Opportunities Under a Salary-Cap Regime.”


“Get your autographs here, only two bucks!”

 

“Lyle’s got all the tools,” notes Baseball Business Today’s Bud Schieffer.  “A lot of guys will refuse to sign autographs at the park, then turn around and charge for them at a strip mall three hours later,” he notes.  “It was Lyle who came up with the concept of carrying a portable point-of-sale terminal with him during batting practice, so he could accept credit cards right there on the field.”

His swings in the batting cage complete, Carroll greets a line of young fans as he makes his way back to the dugout, including 10-year-old Timmy Wardkopf, who suffers from Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease, a debilitating knee ailment whose victims are predominantly young boys.

“Would you sign my program, please?” the boy says, the expression on his upturned face a mixture of hero-worship and hope.

“Sure, kid, sure,” Carroll says sympathetically.  “You got $2?”

The boy digs in his pocket and pulls out two crumpled bills.  “That’s my popcorn money,” he says, his face clouding over.

“You don’t want the husks to get stuck in your teeth, do you?” the ballplayer asks.

“Well, no.”

“Then fork it over,” Carroll barks.  “What’s your name?” he asks as he signs the boy’s program.


“Give up soccer and play baseball, the sport where you don’t have to run.”

 

“Timmy.”

“Okay–there you go,” he says affably as he hands the program back.  “Maybe you’ll be a big leaguer some day!” he adds as he begins as he walks off.

“Wait, mister,” the boy calls after him.  “You spelled my name wrong–it’s ‘Timmy’, not ‘Tommy.’”

Carroll turns, his face clouded over with regret.  “Sorry, kid,” he says.  “It’s three dollars to get your name right.”