Day in the Sun Shadows His Twilight Years

NEW YORK. Mel Sewanicki, Columbia class of ’47, still can’t buy a drink in this town even though it’s been sixty-nine years since he made “The Catch,” a diving grab of a fourth-quarter pass that enabled the Lions to defeat Army, 21-20, ending the Cadets’ 32-game unbeaten streak. It put him in the College Football Hall of Fame along with the pigskin that he clutched to his chest as he hit the cold October turf. The victory is still counted as one of the greatest upsets in college football history.

“Everywhere I go, that’s all people want to talk about,” he says with a smile and a shake of his head. He moved on to a successful career as a banker with four kids and now thirteen grandchildren. “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” he says, and it’s clear from the expression on his face that he means it.

As he strides powerfully into Dominic’s Steak House in Manhattan it is par for the course that other men signal their waiters or the bartender that they want to buy Mel a drink, and by the time he reaches his regular table and sits down there are six vodka martinis, two beers and a glass of merlot waiting for him.

“Hello, Adolf,” he says to the waiter who regularly patrols Sewanicki’s corner of the room. “Take care of these in the usual manner, please.” “Yes, Mr. Sewanicki,” the club employee says as he places them on a tray and takes them back to the kitchen, where he will pour them into empty milk cartons and return them to Sewanicki’s table when he finishes lunch.

Sewanicki has a passion for New York’s homeless but he refuses to indulge in euphemisms. “They’re winos, plain and simple,” he says bluntly. “My old man had the same problem–he could never get enough to drink–so I know what they’re going through.”

More drinks arrive as Sewanicki makes his way through a Cobb salad with smoked scallops on top, and with each delivery Adolf appears as if by telepathic command to take the libations back to the kitchen. “I like a glass of wine with lunch,” the ex-football great says, “and a scotch when I get home at night, but that’s it.”

Sewanicki dabs at the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin as he finishes his meal, and Adolf reappears bearing four gallon jugs filled with a dark brown mixture composed of beer, red wine and hard liquor. “If you served this at one of my grandkids’ parties they’d call it ‘Long Island Iced Tea’, drink too much of it and puke their guts up,” he says with a tone of disapproval in his voice. “But for the guys out on the street who know how to handle it, this can be a life-saver.”

We leave the restaurant and Sewanicki hails a cab. His long arms extended over his 6’4″ frame make him an easy figure to spot, and in half a minute we are sitting in the back seat of a taxi. “Take us down to the Bowery,” Sewanicki barks, the New York neighborhood that has traditionally been the home of the transient, the vagrant, the down-on-their-luck. “We used to call ‘em bums,” Sewanicki says. “Now they’re ‘homeless’,” he says with evident distaste for a feel-good sociological term that he says carries the implication that all a man needs is a roof over his head. “A man is more than flesh and blood,” Sewanicki says with almost religious fervor. “He’s got a soul, too.”

We stop at a red light and one of the neighborhood’s “squeegee” men comes up to the car to wipe the windshield, hoping to cadge some change out of us. Sewanicki rolls down his window. “Here you go, buddy-try some of this!”

The ex-football great takes a plastic cup from a bag and pours out a slug of the brownish liquor mix that resembles the water in the East River.

“What is it?” the hobo says. “Diet Coke?”

“Name your poison and it’s in there,” Sewanicki says with a sympathetic smile. “Whatever they want you to remember, it’ll help you forget.”

The man takes a sniff and, after the alcohol fumes hit his olfactory cells, begins to drink.

“Ah,” he says after taking a long pull. “God bless you, sir.”

“Don’t mention it,” Sewanicki says. “Let me pour you another–I’ve got to make my rounds.”

He refills the man’s cup and the grizzled denizen of the streets accepts it with gratitude. “Take it easy, partner,” Sewanicki says as we drive off.

“I’ll be here tomorrow, too!” the man yells after us.

Sewanicki instructs the driver to slow down as we roll through the dark streets where hope returns only rarely, like a prodigal son with a maxed-out credit card. “You see those guys sitting over against that building? They’ll probably spend the rest of their lives within a block or two of here. Think of that.”

I do as instructed while Sewanicki tells the driver to stop and he opens his door. I follow him, party cups in hand.

“How we doin’ today, guys?” the aging athlete calls out as he approaches three men sleeping under an arch. One looks up warily and starts to scramble away before Sewanicki reassures him. “No need to get up,” he says, “my partner here’s got the cups.”

“Oh-good. I thought you was the cops.”

“No–just a humble little mission of mercy.” I again hold out cups as Sewanicki fills them up. The men each shiver a bit as their first sip goes down; one polishes off the remainder in a single gulp. “That’s the spirit,” Sewanicki says, then reaches into his pocket. “Here, I forgot,” he says. “I’ve got some beer nuts.”

“Thanks, man. I haven’t eaten for days,” one of the men says.

“Then you better take it easy–go slow at first,” Sewanicki says. “You want to lay down a good foundation of liquor. Otherwise, it’ll come right back up.”

“Okay-thanks for the tip,” the man says. We leave them with one of our four jugs–”They need it,” Sewanicki declares–and climb back in the cab.

How exactly did you come to adopt this particular mission as your life’s work, I ask Sewanicki as he scans the streets for more mouths to fill.

“Well, I got so tired of people buying me drinks, knowing it was just going to be poured down the drain. I’d say to myself–there’s people going to bed sober all over this city tonight, and you can’t finish half the booze that people put in front of you.” The lessons of his hardscrabble youth have stuck with him. “‘Waste not, want not’, mom used to say,” he says with a audible lump in his throat. “I had to eat what was put in front of me, even if it meant I missed The Lone Ranger” in the early days of television.

That thought–the waste of precious alcohol and the potentially harmful effect it was having on oysters and other shellfish in the Hudson River watershed–persuaded Sewanicki to take the unpopular step of seeing to it that no man goes without a nightly drink in lower Manhattan. “Not on my watch,” he says with unmistakable seriousness.

We turn a corner and Sewanicki sees something that causes him to lean forward in his seat. What is it, I ask?

“The enemy,” he says. Two women and one man dressed in practical clothes make their way deliberately down the street, looking for “homeless” men they can persuade to give up lives of freedom on the street in exchange for food and shelter. “Do-gooders,” he says with undisguised contempt.

He rolls down his window and, as we pull even with the three, lets go with a shout.

“Hey–why don’t you leave them in peace,” he yells.

The three–not social workers, as it turns out, but N.Y.U. students doing field research for an advanced sociology lab–turn with looks of surprise on their faces.

“Yeah, you,” Sewanicki continues. “Do you think those guys want to go back to living with people like you watching them all the time?”

“Well–yeah,” the male says hesitantly, his world-view suddenly called into question.

“Gimme a break,” Sewanicki continues. “They’ve spent their whole lives running away from milquetoasts and school marms. They haven’t got much longer to live-let them drink themselves into oblivion if they want.”

The three are quiet for a moment, as they consider the public policy and philosophical aspects of what they are being asked to do.

“You mean–do nothing?”

“Right–just . . . go . . . away.”

The three look at each other, then the male looks at his watch. “There’s a 2-for-1 Bud Light special at McSweeney’s in the Village tonight,” he says to the women. “You guys up for it?”

“I’ve got a mid-term in Stochastic Variables in Quantitative Research,” the woman begins, but Sewanicki cuts her off.

“Listen sweetheart,” he says. “Once you get a job you’ll never touch another stochastic variable in your life. Believe me–I worked for four decades, and the only thing I needed to remember from college was one lousy football play.”

“Is that so?” the male student asks.


“In that case,” he says to the women, “let’s party!”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “The Spirit of Giving.”

In Lean Times, Football Coach Takes Hard Look at English Department

KALISPELL, Montana.  Joe Ray Diggs, head coach of the Western Montana State University Mountain Goats, is regularly mentioned when a school with aspirations on cracking college football’s top rankings is looking for someone to turn its team around.  For his part, he makes no secret of his aspirations.  “I love Mountain Goat football,” he says, “but I’d love to get a chance to coach a BCS team on New Year’s Day.”

“You guys are tackling like a bunch of English majors today!”


Last year Diggs led the Goats to 7-5 record and a come-from-behind win over Middle Kentucky State in the Craftsman Weed Wacker Bowl, a victory that he thought would result in a raise and an upgrade in the facilities he needs to attract top recruits.  “Two of our fans who had a little too much to drink sprained their ankles on the same play,” he recalls, “and the Weed Wacker people sent out a separate motorized cart for each of them.”

Ridin’ in style.


Diggs contrasts that type of top-quality service with the primitive vehicle he must make do with for home games.  “They gave one of the ag students a scholarship on the condition that he bring his vegetable cart to school with him,” Diggs says, shaking his head.  “Sometimes there’s no room for a middle linebacker if he’s got a load of potatoes on there.”

Like a number of other up-and-coming college football coaches, Diggs is taking a hard look at the budgets of other departments at his school, trying to find areas where they can cut back in order to cover his $400,000 salary, plus the other items he considers “essential” if Mountain Goat football is to succeed.  “I tell our alumni, the problem is simple–we don’t pay our players enough.”

Diggs’ game plan?  To attack the weakest spot in the arts and sciences line.  “That would be the English Department,” he says with a mischievous smile.

“Somebody cover that adjunct professor in the slot!”


Western Montana has a ten-member English department, with salaries ranging from $34,000 for an assistant professor to $70,000 for the chairman of the department.  “There’s a lot of duplication there,” Diggs says.  “I went to the book store and somebody named Shakespeare is assigned reading in six courses,” he notes with a laugh.  “I mean, hello?  Use single coverage on the guy.”

English department members are understandably upset by the attention Diggs’ scrutiny has brought them, saying they are only following standards set by the Modern Language Association, the leading professional organization for English instructors.  “Just like Coach Diggs, we need to have qualified personnel at every position from Beowulf to the present,” says professor Ewell Lee, a specialist in Victorian novelists.  Checking the department roster, Diggs disagrees.  “They’ve got one guy who specializes in Middle English,” he says, growing angry.  “Do I get a separate coach for middle linebackers?”

Diggs says he holds no grudge against the language of Milton and Hemingway, and is only trying to make Western Montana a stronger institution.  “I want to have an English department,” he says with a serious expression, “that our football team can be proud of.”

With Robert Frost, at Walmart

          Town officials are considering zoning changes that would permit strip malls, fast-food outlets and big-box stores to be built a short distance from Robert Frost’s farm.

                   The Boston Globe


It’s Friday, the day I check in on my fellow rustic poet, old man Frost, who lives down the road less travelled. He’s a cranky old cuss, but you would be too if you’d fallen as far as he has. In 1960, he was America’s most revered poet and spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. Today, he’s seen his star eclipsed by a Republican surety bond lawyer, Wallace Stevens, whose poetry Frost dismisses as “bric-a-brac.” You’ve got to love the old fart. Frost, that is, not Stevens, who’s an unloveable old fart.

Wallace Stevens, going out for ice cream.


I stop at Frost’s mailbox. A few flyers, an oil and lube job offer from the local tire and battery store, an expiration notice from plangent voices, the quarterly journal of avant-garde poetry edited by my former lover, elena gotchko.

“my love is like a red, red rose, that’s somehow stuck inside my nose.”


elena and I had parted ways when she showed up at our little apartment with a skunk-streak dyed into her hair a few years back to announce that she’d had the capital letters removed from her name–and was leaving me.

“you stultify me,” she had said, eschewing the upper case as she spoke with emotion not yet recollected in tranquility. “you’re holding me back–you with your insistence on meter and rhyme.” Fine, I said, and I’d never regretted it. How she ever roped Frost into subscribing was a mystery to me, although he was a sucker for those Publisher’s Clearing House come-ons.

“This Frost guy’s apparently gone for a walk in woods. Who’s next on the list?”


I knock on the door and Frost opens it up right away–he’s always eager for a little company and to get out of the house. It must be lonely out here, living all by himself with nothing but the sound of cars rushing by.

“I’m ready,” he says, the cheap polyester “gimme” hat already on his head. I don’t know what it is with old men and free baseball caps–they can’t resist them.

“Hey, Bob,” I say as I try to straighten his cockeyed hat a bit. “I got your mail.”

He looks at it without interest and, as usual, launches into perfectly-formed verse:

A hushed October morning mild,
with leaves as frail as Kleenex tissue;
tomorrow’s mail, if it be wild
would bring, perhaps, a swimsuit issue.

I allow myself a little laugh. There are two things about being an old man I’m looking forward to: one, you can wear just about anything you want; and two, you can be a complete lecher, and say just about anything you want to women, and no one seems to mind.

“No, that won’t come until February,” I say to him.

“Okay,” he says after he absorbs this information. He turns to close the door and his cat, an orange tabby named Demiurge, stakes out a wary watch on the threshold.

“I shan’t be gone long,” he says to the cat. “You come too.”

“Bob, we’ve gone over this before,” I say with repressed exasperation. “You can’t bring a cat into McDonald’s.”

Senior citizen coffee at McDonald’s

The thought of the golden arches causes him to lose interest in his cat. I can see by the far-away look in his eyes he’s thinking of the Senior Citizens coffee special and again, he can’t deny his muse.

I’m going to get my elderly java
by riding with you over dales and hills.
It tastes like ash and is hot as lava
but I can’t resist those free refills.

We head out towards State Highway 28 with the more distinguished poet in the car staring out the passenger side window at the bright fall colors; the orange of Home Depot, the red of Staples, the yellow Walmart smiley face on a billboard.

“Turn here,” Frost says sharply.

“Don’t you want to get something to eat first?”


“Depends on what? Your only choice is fast food.”

“No–I need some Depends.”

Dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say in New England.

“Okay,” I say, a little chagrined that I’ve forced him to disclose the one aspect of growing old I’m really not looking forward to.

We make our way through the parking lot and enter the store where we are met by one of the chain’s ever-present greeters, a white-haired old man in a blue vest festooned with inoffensive buttons. I try to avoid eye contact and accelerate past him when I hear Frost’s voice boom out–to the extent that he’s capable of producing such a sound, even metaphorically–”Well if it isn’t The Emperor of Ice Cream–Wallace Stevens!”

Stevens’ face registers the shock of recognition that Herman Melville spoke of, when a man of letters comes face to face with one of his rivals while working a minimum-wage job to make ends meet. Being the darling of the academy doesn’t do you much good if you have to mix wet cat food and pinto beans to make chili.

“Hello, Frost,” Stevens says in a frosty tone. “How’s the poet of–subjects.” He says this last word with a sneer.

“Fine,” says Frost. “Tell me, since you must know–down which aisle would I find–bric-a-brac?”

Stevens draws himself up to his full six feet, seven inches, looks down at Frost as if from Olympus, and begins to speak:

I placed a Hummel figurine,
Down to your left, in aisle three.
‘Twas much too tacky for myself
But not too gauche for one such as thee.

I can tell that Frost is pissed, but he’s trying hard not to let it show.

“C’mon Bob–we haven’t got time for this nonsense,” I say as I take him by the elbow. “We’ve got miles to go, and . . . ”

He cuts me off and glares at Stevens, not about to back off in this mano-a-mano poetry throwdown.

He squares his shoulders and even I can’t believe the fearful symmetry of what comes out of his mouth next:

Two aisles diverged ‘neath a yellow face,
that bore a sickly, foolish grin. And I–
I took the one marked “Incontinence,”
and that has made all the difference.

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

Just in Time for Mother-in-Law Day: Matter-Sucking Mini-Black Holes

As every good son-in-law knows, Mother-in-Law Day is rapidly approaching.  It’s the fourth Sunday of this month, October 23rd.

Mother-in-law (not shown actual size)


What-you haven’t started shopping yet?  The good presents may already be gone!

What do you get for the mother-in-law who has everything?  Under the laws of physics, it can only be something that has not previously appeared in a Restoration Hardware catalog.

Thanks to the friendly physicists who created Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, an $8 billion machine that smashes protons together at the speed of light, there is something new in the universe; mini-black holes that could all get together and turn into a “matter-sucking maelstrom” someday, according to a law suit filed against them recently.  The physicists, not the black holes.  No lawyer with half a brain is going to file a lawsuit against a black hole.

Technically speaking, a black hole is a region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful nothing can escape from it.  To get a feeling for what one is like, hold your hand up to a vacuum cleaner suction tube, flip the switch, then spiral inward along with light and hot gases from nearby orbiting stars.  Pretty neat, huh?

The new mini-black holes are being funded by top research universities.  Wouldn’t you know it–the people who have learned how to vacuum all the money out of our wallets for college tuition are using that knowledge to suck all life out of the universe.  Who says science doesn’t make our everyday lives better?  I mean, in addition to Tang.

Aside from their inherent wicked awesomeness, single-serving black holes are a great gift for a mother-in-law who already has a donut-maker and all the other counter-top appliances she’ll ever need.  Imagine your ”second mom’s” surprise when you hand her the gift box:

Good if she already has one of these.


MOTHER-IN-LAW:  What’s this sweetie?

SON-IN-LAW:  Something I picked up for Mother-in-Law Day.

MOTHER-IN-LAW:  Well, that was awfully nice of you!


MOTHER-IN-LAW:  What’s this?

SON-IN-LAW:  A mini black hole!

MOTHER-IN-LAW:  Honey, you shouldn’t have!

SON-IN-LAW:  Aw, you’re worth it.


SON-IN-LAW:  Here–let me show you how to turn it on.

MOTHER-IN-LAW:  Does it need batteries?

SON-IN-LAW:  Two size D’s.  I already put them in.

MOTHER-IN-LAW:  You think of everything!

SON-IN-LAW:  Like the Boy Scouts say–be prepared.  Let’s turn it on “Low” for starters.


WIFE (from kitchen):  What’s that noise?

SON-IN-LAW:  I’m showing your mom how to use something that will keep her busy for a while.

WIFE: How long?  I’m about to put dinner on the table.

SON-IN-LAW:  Oh, until the end of all life in the universe as we know it.

For Some Office Holdouts, Charity Begins at Home

LAKE FOREST, Ill.  Chuck Schwermer is a 52-year old unmarried video game aficionado who writes code for Aviatrix Technology, a leading maker of air traffic control software.  “It’s not a job that exercises the full range of my intelligence,” he says, “but it sustains me while I implement my five-year plan for world domination.”

Viewed as a loner, Schwermer is nonetheless subject to a constant barrage of charitable appeals from colleagues, a fact of life in the modern workplace.  “If employers would simply bar employees from fund-raising on the job, we wouldn’t have to outsource jobs to Upper Volta or Indiana,” notes Illinois Department of Labor economist Martin Gyorgy.

“Make it out to ‘Walk to End Shin Splints’ and leave the amount blank.”


But Schwermer and others like him are at the forefront of a new trend that is addressing the problem of intrusive office charitable appeals in guerilla fashion by using a sort of mental jiu-jitsu to repel donation-seekers.  “I put the onus on them to change the world, one Chuck at a time,” he says with a sardonic smile.

“Has anybody seen my giant pen?  I need to write the amount in my giant check register.”


Alison Boul is a relative newcomer to the company, and she approaches Schwermer with a request that he sponsor her participation in a Saturday “Walk to End Shin Splints.”  “That sounds like a good cause,” he says as he eyes the leggy 26-year-old, “but I don’t have shin splints.”

“Oh, you don’t have to, Mr. Schwermer,” the woman begins, but he cuts her off.  “You know, there’s a Star Trek convention downstate in Danville this Sunday,” he says.  “That’s about 150 miles each way.  Most guys won’t have dates.  I’d pay you–I don’t know–$1 a mile for your shin splint charity if you’d come with me.”

The fun she’s missing out on.


Boul is taken by surprise, and begins to backpedal from Schwermer’s cubicle.  “Uh, thanks, but I think I’ll still be pretty sore from the walk,” she says.

“Not a problem,” he responds.  “We’d drive down and I could carry you fireman’s style around the convention,” but the woman is gone, having fled down the hallway as fast as office decorum permits.

Fireman’s carry:  A real turn-on for some guys.


Other “charity refuseniks” resort to deception to repel solicitations, such as Ned Philburn of the Keokuk, Iowa, Consolidated Water District.  “I’ve never understood why I have to support your damn kid’s Pop Warner football team,” he says as he takes a bite of a Snickers bar while watching a pressure valve fluctuate.  “I’ve got enough problems of my own,” he adds just as Jim Vlisbek, a father of twin girls, rounds the corner carrying a box of chocolate bars.

Sort of a  good cause


“Hey Ned,” Vlisbeck says as Philburn crumples up his candy wrapper and tosses it in his wastebasket.  “I’m selling chocolate bars to raise money so my daughters’ U-12 soccer team can go to Disney World,” he continues.  “It’ll be the trip of a lifetime for us, so I hope you can buy a couple.”

“Gee, Jim, I’d love to,” Philburn says as he wipes his mouth with a napkin, “but I’m diabetic.”

“Oh, gosh, Ned, I had no idea,” Vlisbeck says with a look of concern on his face.  “You’re a real trouper the way you come into work every day and never complain.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Philburn replies with a look of contrived humility.  “I tell you what though–my gutters need cleaning now that fall is here.  I’ve got a bad knee so I really shouldn’t get up on a ten-foot ladder, but maybe your girls could come over this weekend and earn some money that way.”

“Gosh, I think that would be kinda dangerous, Ned,” Vlisbeck says with an air of fatherly concern.

“Well, you don’t want me to climb up there and risk my neck, do you?” Philburn asks in an offended tone.  “Isn’t my life just as valuable as your kids’?”

“Yeah, sure, you’re absolutely right,” Vlisbeck says sheepishly.  “They’ve . . . uh . . . got a tournament this weekend, so they’ll be busy.”

“But we don’t want to clean gutters!”


“Well, maybe in February if I get ice dams,” Philburn says, and Vlisbeck is visibly relieved at this cue that the conversation is at an end.  “Sorry I can’t help.”

“Sure, Ned, sure.  I’ll talk to you later,” Vlisbeck says as he waves and scurries away.

Alone again, Philburn pulls out another Snickers bar and gives himself up to a contemplation of our imperfect world.  “You know if everybody would just give a little bit,” he says reflectively, “we could accomplish so much.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “The Spirit of Giving.”

One Stand-Up Comic Never Counted Out His Dream

PARAMUS, New Jersey.  Mike Ross, Jr., comes from a long line of entertainers.  His grandfather, Aaron Ross, was a tap dancer, his father Mike Sr. a slick-haired crooner in the 50′s, and his mother Annette a ventriloquist.

Annette Ross and “Woody”:  “Don’t touch me there, lady–I’ve got termites.”


“I was encouraged to go into show business,” he says as he waits in the wings of The Comedy Corner, a bar that is considered a stepping stone for comics on the way up to the big time in Manhattan, or on their way back down.  “Actually, ‘pushed’ is the better word,” he adds with a professional’s timing.

“But seriously, folks.  You should consider a Roth IRA.”


Mike has flirted with fame in the past, logging a Tonight Show appearance and a week-long engagement opening for Celine Dion in Las Vegas, but he says the applause and the laughter left him strangely unfulfilled.  “It was what my parents wanted,” he says ruefully, “but it wasn’t what I wanted.”

“This stuff is a scream!”


And so Mike studied on the side, sneaking off to night school when he didn’t have a gig, sometimes telling his wife Mona “little white lies about where I was going,” he says with obvious embarrassment.  Then one night last month, after she caught him with a roll of calculator tape in his pocket, he was forced to confess.

“I want,” he told her tearfully, “to become an accountant.”

After a heated exchange in which she threatened to leave him, Mona gradually came to understand that “‘for better or for worse’ means you’ve got to let your husband follow his dream,” she says with a look of hopeful resignation on her face.  “I’ll miss the free cocktail napkins,” she adds.

“A beefalo tax shelter?  You’re cracking me up!”


Mike is blunt about what he saw before him if he stuck with comedy for the rest of his life.  “Sure, maybe I’d get a guest host slot or a special on Comedy Central, or maybe even my own telethon for a crippling disease,” he says.  “But in the back of my mind, I’d always know that I could be preparing K-1′s for a wealthy family’s limited partnership, or consoling a young couple who were late with their estimated tax payments.  Making people laugh pales beside that kind of responsibility.”

“ . . . and the guy from the IRS says ‘You call this a home office?’”


Mike’s apprenticeship with a six-man accounting firm hasn’t been easy, but he says he’s willing to “pay his dues” in order to earn the coveted designation of C.P.A.  “Some of the senior tax guys heckle me when I’m filing an extension with the IRS, but it’s something you have to put up with when you’re a nobody just starting out,” he says with a smile.  “I don’t mind as long as they don’t throw the federal tax code at me–that thing’s heavy!”

For Infinite Thank You Victims, Syndrome Just Keeps on Giving

WELLESLEY FARMS, Mass.  It’s 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, and Bill Wainscot, an estimator at a local construction company, is already in bed after a weekend in which–he admits candidly–he “over-imbibed.”  “We had a tailgate party Saturday afternoon, then a cocktail party Saturday night,” he says ruefully.  “After the Patriots game Sunday, I could barely force down two glasses of Malbec at dinner.”


But just as he is ready to go to sleep, his wife Cindy sits bolt upright in bed and says “I think I forgot to run the dishwasher, you don’t need to leave a light on for me.”

“Okay,” he says just before they kiss and she leaves to go downstairs, where she has planned a clandestine mission she hopes to conceal from her husband.

“I’m not going to sleep until you do.”


As she makes her way into the kitchen she turns on the low-wattage light over the stove and tries to make as little noise as possible as she removes scissors, tape and wrapping paper from behind boxes of cereal and baking goods in a pantry cupboard, but she is caught in the act by her husband, whose suspicions were aroused when she didn’t return to bed promptly.

“Cindy,” he says with a tone of censorious gravity after he flips on the overhead lights.  “No.”

“But,” she begins in a repentant tone, “it’s just a little something I got for . . .”

“Just . . . stop.”

“All right,” she says finally, although she allows her fingers to linger on the white bow she had been tying around pink wrapping paper to wrap a thank you gift to her friend Marcia, who had sent her a thank you note for a hostess gift Cindy had given her when Marcia had Cindy over for drinks after Cindy watched Marcia’s cat for three days this Columbus Day weekend.

“Just one more–and that’s IT!”


Like thousands of other suburban women, Cindy Wainscot is a victim of ITYS, an acronym that stands for “Infinite Thank You Syndrome,” a debilitating ailment that eats into the retirement savings of many households at the same time that it fuels the retail sector of the economy.  “ITYS strikes at a woman’s sense of self-esteem,” says Philip Levin, an anthropologist who has studied the Wainscots for two years on a Ford Foundation grant.  “The last woman to receive a gift in the daisy-chain fears a loss of caste, and so keeps the streak alive by inventing some excuse–however flimsy–to give a gift back to the most proximate gift-giver.”

“Oh, Marci–you shouldn’t have!”


The practice has cross-cultural parallels in the Pacific Northwest, where a gift-giving ritual known as “potlatch” is used by Native American tribes such as the Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw to shame or even socially destroy one’s rivals by giving a present that is too expensive for the donee to reciprocate.  “It is a form of malice masquerading as goodwill,” says Levin as he peers around the Wainscots’ living room sofa to take notes.  “As an alternative to violence I suppose it’s okay, but it’s really scalp-taking by another name.”

The Wainscots lower their voices once they realize a reporter and an anthropologist are observing their tense little stand-off, and Bill announces that they’d better turn in since he has a long Monday ahead of him.

“Before you go up . . .” Cindy says hesitantly.

“Yes?” Bill replies with an upraised eyebrow.

“Could you do me a teensy-weensy favor and hold your finger on this bow?”