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.”



“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.”

The Master of the Air

He was, the local newspaper said, a man of vision.
It was he who had seen, back when no one else did,
that even a small town could have its own TV and
radio stations.  He’d been around—Kansas City,
St. Louis.  He knew how to do it, and he got it done.
You could see his handiwork from miles away—
the lights on his tower gleaming in the night.

He was smooth, his dark hair slicked back, and
always well dressed.  He was a booster—if you
believed in our little town, you’d advertise your
business on his stations, and everybody would prosper.
He belonged to all the clubs: Optimist, Rotary, Lions,
Moose and Elk.  He knew the value of getting out
there, shaking hands, being a regular guy.

Some nights he’d look down the boulevard on which he
lived with his wife and admire what he had built;
the square brick studio with the shining glass front,
green, red and blue lights making it glow from behind.
Overhead, reaching almost into the clouds, was the spire
of steel and lights.  You didn’t need to be in a big city;
it was a big country, and you could reach it through the air.

He thought of it as magic, but magic that he understood,
the way a magician knows about the hidden compartments
in his hat and trunks.  All it took was power and equipment;
if you had those, as he did, you could broadcast your sonorous
voice to places you’d never seen and never would see.
You could send your image to other towns and other states.
He was the master of the air, and the waves that ran through it.

When he’d arrive to broadcast from a hardware store opening,
he’d be greeted like a god you’d read about in a sacred text.
“It’s the man from TV,” someone would say, and he’d say
“Howdy—glad to meet you!” with a smile on his face.
He started looking for new sites for new stations.  If he
could do it once, he could do it twice, he thought, then
again, until he’d be master of all the air he surveyed.

He lived with his wife and their little daughter, the joy
of his life.  She was a happy little girl who loved to dress
in frilly clothes.  She was, they knew, the only one they
would ever have, and for that reason all the more precious.
He would swing her high above his head when he got home,
and she would laugh.  Then she started having seizures, and
his wife said maybe he should stop—maybe it would help.

He did, and the little princess of the air was grounded.
“Daddy, swing me,” she would say, but he would say
no, I don’t want you to get excited again.  “But I like to
get excited,” she would say, and so he would take her and
rock her in his arms, singing to her she was daddy’s girl,
daddy’s girl, daddy loves his daddy’s girl.  She would calm
down as he slowed down, and he’d carry her up to bed.

The business grew, and with it the demands on his time.
He had to spend time with advertisers, or fill in for his
newscaster, who was also the high school volleyball
coach, when he was away on a road trip.  He resented
it, but it was the price he had to pay for success, he
told himself.  If the girl was asleep when he got home,
the agreement was he’d leave her be, she needed the rest.

One night he came home to find his wife waiting for him
at the door, a look of panic on her face.  “She’s having
a seizure,” she said.  “We’ve got to get her to the hospital.”
He rushed inside, slipped his arms under the girl, and held
her while his wife threw a blanket over her.  He ran out
the front door but, before he even reached his car, he
felt her kick one last time, and the life go out of her.

In his arms, as he ran, she became dead weight.  He had
heard the term before, but he felt it now.  She was unliving,
like a fifty-pound sack of grain, and a burden he could
hardly bear.  He almost stumbled but he made it to the car,
where he rested her on the trunk; less a body than an object.
He looked up to where the tower stood, and thought of what
had gone out of her; the breath of life, the buoyancy of air.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

Pscooter & Pskipper Get Psychedelic in Pseattle

The kids are getting older–they’re in high school now–and with summer jobs and college campus visits, every year it’s harder to squeeze in the special family time of aggravation and bickering we used to experience during summer vacations.

“We need to get away and just do it,” my wife said. “Someplace far, like the west coast.”

Wax Jimi Hendrix: Do not place near burning guitar.


“Well, we’ve both got friends in Seattle,” I said, “and they don’t have an NBA team anymore, so there will be fewer tattooed millionaires crowding the nicer restaurants.”

Seattle Supersonics commemorative dish towel


To our mutual surprise, we quickly agreed for once and made plans that came to fruition this week when we touched down at Seattle’s internationally-renowned “Sea-Tac,” which sounds like something you take for seasickness but is actually an airport.

The kids had already done their on-line research and wanted to go to the Fun Forest Amusement Park for go-kart rides and the all-sugar luncheon special, but I was insistent that we sample the area’s educational and cultural attractions first.

Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame and Stuff


“You kids need to learn some history while we’re out here,” I said sternly.

“Aw, dad!” Scooter, our seventeen-year-old, groaned.

“Don’t start, young man,” I added firmly.

“History sucks!” Skipper, the fifteen-year-old said with a disgusted look on his face.

“Kids, I agree that nothing takes the irrational exuberance out of a family vacation like the dead hand of the past,” I said, trying to calm everyone down a bit, “but irrational exuberance is a bad thing, and history can be fun!”

“Please, everybody–calm down!”


“No way!” Scooter said.

“Oh yeah?” I countered. “Have you ever been to a history museum that looked like a car wreck?”

They were silent now–I had their attention.

Designed by Frank Gehry, before the acid wore off


“I didn’t think so,” I said as I set the GPS for “museum paid for by a Microsoft billionaire that looks like the architect was on drugs.”

“Do you want,” came the disembodied voice over the instrument, “Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame?”

“YES,” I said loudly and clearly.

The computer directed us through a series of turns until we reached the weird-looking structure designed by noted architect Frank Gehry that resembles nothing so much as the stucco walls along the stairway of my boyhood home during one particularly bad acid trip. “Here we are, kids!”

“Neat!” Skipper exclaimed.

I could have said “I told you so”–but I didn’t. To me, it’s more important to see the wonder in kids’ eyes as they learn American History in a safe, controlled environment, with no risk of a “bad trip” or an Iron Butterfly interlude, than score intra-family “points” for being right about the importance of Our Nation’s Psychedelic Era.

Iron Butterfly: Do NOT put this album on while tripping.


We let the kids wander around for awhile, taking in the amazing sights and sounds, reading the explanatory text next to the exhibits. “Did you ever drop acid?” Scooter asked after he’d learned a little about the importance of hallucinogenic drugs to the crappy art, literature and music of the sixties.

“Scoots,” I said as my wife discreetly absented herself from a conversation she wanted no part of, “I took LSD ten times–but I didn’t inhale.”

“Oh,” he said thoughtfully. “So that makes it okay–like President Clinton?”

“I did not have sex . . . with that drug.”


“That’s right. I maintained my deeply-held skepticism throughout the experience. So I became experienced, but the experience didn’t become me.”

That last bit of psychedelic babble threw them for a loop, and the potentially-embarrassing questions stopped. “Listen, kids,” I said after a moment. “This museum is all about the ‘experience’ of drugs, and I want you to be inoculated by the sensory impulses without running the risk of adverse pharmacological consequences. So why don’t we take a ride on Jimi’s Wild Trip!”

“Yay!” Skipper nearly shouted. He’s the one member of the family who really enjoys scary amusement park rides.

We headed over to the ticket counter, passed muster next to the “You Must be THIS Tall to Ride THIS Ride” stripe painted on the wall, and got in one of the four-seater gondolas.

“Everybody strapped in?” the grungey carney said as he locked the safety bar.

“All set,” I said, and we embarked on a tour through a tunnel with a mind-blowing barrage of lights and sounds that left the kids’ ears ringing and their previously static views of reality challenged.

“See, kids,” I said as we got off. “Everyday reality can be a downer, so sometimes it’s good to go outside through the Doors of Perception.”

“I’m hungry,” Skipper said.

“How can you be hungry?” my wife asked. “I’m nauseous from that ride.”

“He’s a teenaged boy,” I said. “Let’s stop into the Munchie Zone.”

We got some food and grabbed a table, where our shared experience led to the kind of intimate conversation that great family vacations inspire.

“I notice your band plays a little Hendrix,” I said to Skipper–he’s a drummer.

“Yeah, he’s cool,” Skipper said. “He died young, so he’s not around anymore to turn groaty and hit on girls five decades younger than him like Nick Jagger.”

“It’s Mick,” I corrected him, but his mistake was telling. For a group that humbly refers to itself as The World’s Greatest Rock Band, The Rolling Stones don’t seem to be inspiring many imitators among the younger generation of rock musicians.

“Did you ever burn your guitar, dad?” Scooter asked with wide-eyed ingenuousness and an expression that revealed his admiration for his father’s amateur musical skills.

“No, sweetie, it just sounds that way when he plays in the basement,” my wife said.

Scooter started to laugh and milk came gushing out his nose, which brought back happy memories of family meals past.

“Don’t do that,” his mother said with furrows of concern ploughed across her forehead. “You’ll choke.”

“It’s okay,” a busboy interjected. “Every employee of ‘The Experience’ is Heimlich-trained to prevent patrons from choking on their vomit the way Jimi did.”

As we left the museum we stopped to pick up souvenir tie-dyed flower-power t-shirts, personalized with the kids’ names spelled “Pscooter” and “Pskipper.”

“So–the ‘p’ is silent?” Scooter asked.

“Right,” I said. “As in ‘pseudointellectual’.”

“What’s that?” Skipper asked.

“Someone like your father,” my wife answered helpfully.

“So I can take a ‘p’ and add it onto a word that begins with an ‘s’ and it’s okay and nobody will know?” Skipper asked.

“That’s right, sweetie,” my wife answered.

Skipper turned to his older brother with a malevolent look and yelled “You’re a pshithead!”

Available in print and Kindle format as part of the collection “Scooter & Skipper Blow Things Up!” (Humor Outcasts Press).

A Day at the Fair

The bus came by to pick the residents up early, around seven, so they could make the half hour drive to the State Fair and get them down to the carnival before it got too hot. They would all want to go down to the midway, where the calliope music and the rides got them excited; they were all just children, Sue Ellen thought, and she wanted them to get their fill of it before the sun was too high in the sky.

The residents had been allowed to withdraw ten dollars each from their accounts at the State Home for the Retarded; the nurses would bring a picnic lunch that they would spread out under the trees near the gate. After lunch they would walk through the Arts and Crafts building—the men liked to look at the model planes and cars and the tooled leather belts, the women liked the needlepoint and flower arrangements–and then head back.

Furman was one of the oldest of the males; he had been released to a job as a dishwasher at a country club where he could live in a spare room over the kitchen, but he had wandered off twice, once ending up in a whorehouse in a converted drag strip south of town. It was decided he needed to be back at the school.

Sue Ellen took one group of ten and entered the midway through the left entrance; Mary Louise took the others and started at the right entrance so that they wouldn’t block up the midway for the rest of the fairgoers. Sue Ellen was conscious of the stares as she made her way through the crowds, but her job was to watch her charges, and not worry about whether people thought she was retarded too. Still, every now and then she barked out an order—“We’re not going in that show, Nae Ann”—and she found herself wondering whether she spoke louder than was necessary in order to broadcast to the crowd that she was normal, like them.

She herded her group into a tent with coin-operated games. It was cool there, the games only cost a quarter, and there were no carneys to persuade the patients to spend more than they should in the hope of winning a big stuffed animal.

Lyle, a sandy-haired man of around twenty, went straight for the peep shows, the hand-cranked machines that showed an undressed woman who used curtains, fans and beach balls to conceal her breasts and groin from the viewer’s eye.

“Don’t spend all your money in one place, Lyle,” Sue Ellen said.

“Huh,” Lyle laughed back at her. “Why not?”

“Because there’s other things to do.”

A group of women was playing skee-ball, and strings of tickets issued from the coin box at the end of the game. “I get a prize!” one screamed as she pulled the tickets out.

“We all played,” another said. “We share.”

“Why don’t you let me hold them,” Sue Ellen said as she took the tickets from the woman. “We’ll get a prize on the way out. Okay, let’s buddy up for a second,” she called out to the group scattered throughout the tent. The teenagers firing guns at screens didn’t even look up.

“Who’s your buddy, everybody,” she said when the residents had assembled before her. Two by two, the men and women raised their hands to signal that they had found the person who they were assigned to as a partner. Everyone but Lyle, who remained at his peep show.

“Lyle, come over here.”

“In a minute.”


Lyle made his way over to where the others were standing. “Who’s your buddy?” Sue Ellen asked.


“Where is he?”

“Don’t know.”

“Aren’t you supposed to stay together?”

“We were, then everybody came in here.”

“All right. Everybody go back to what you were doing,” Sue Ellen said. “I’ll look for him—stay with your buddies.”

The group dispersed back to their games, with the women who had been playing skee-ball rushing into a photo booth to have their picture taken. Sue Ellen went to the entrance of the tent and spoke to the man who was selling tokens.

“Did you see a tall man with a crew cut walk out of here?” she asked.

“What was he wearing?” the man asked.

“Grey pants and a white T-shirt.”

“I ain’t seen him.”

“I’m here with a group from the State Home for the Retarded. Can you watch them for a minute while I scout around a bit?”

“We’re not responsible for lost stuff.”

“They’re human beings—they all have tags on them so people will know where they’re from.”

“If I see any I’ll tell ‘em they can’t leave, how’s that?” Sue Ellen couldn’t tell whether the man was being sarcastic behind his sunglasses.

“That’s fine, thank you.”

“But we’re not liable if one of them wanders off, understand?”

“I understand.”

She walked out of the tent and looked back towards the midway entrance, trying to see if Furman had lagged behind them. She didn’t see him, and turned her head to look up at the half-way point of the midway where the “Club Ebony” show was set up at the bend. The show had apparently begun, as there was no one—not even the barker—in front of the stage.

She looked across the midway through the electric cables and trailers to see if she could see Mary Louise and her group. As she did so, she saw Furman standing talking to a man running a dart game, with big stuffed animals hanging down inside his booth.

“I’ve found him,” she said to the man selling the tokens. “I’m just going over there to bring him back.”

“Okay. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Sue Ellen scurried across the gravel to the booth where Furman was standing, his back turned towards her. The carney was talking patiently to Furman, explaining something to him, as Sue Ellen approached.

“You just missed that last time,” the carney was saying as Sue Ellen walked up. “Give it one more try and I’ll bet you get your girl a big teddy bear. C’mon.”

“Furman,” Sue Ellen said sharply as she approached. He didn’t turn around, and when she stood next to him she saw that his face was contorted with a look of doubt and regret.

“I don’t know,” Furman said to the carney. “I only got a dollar left.”

“Furman! You spent your entire allowance here?”

“Why don’t you just butt out, miss,” the carney said. “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

“He’s from the State Home for the Retarded. It’s not fair for you to take his money.”

“It’s a free country—let the man play.”

“He has the mind of a boy.”

“There’s plenty of fun for everyone,” the carney said into his microphone. “Win your girl a teddy bear, right here. Step right up.” The carney looked straight at Sue Ellen with dead eyes as he spoke, as if she were a lamp post.

“How can you live with yourself, taking money from the feeble-minded?” Sue Ellen said.

“Money was burnin’ a hole in his pocket,” the carney said. “I just put the fire out.”

“I think you owe him a refund.”

“No refunds. I’m just a poor-struggling carney, trying to make ends meet.”

“I want you to give him back his money.”

“It’s a dart game, ma’am. The rules are clear. You don’t need to be a genius to play darts.”

“I’m going to report you.”

“The office trailer’s up that way,” the carney said, apparently unconcerned. “If you have any complaints take ‘em up with management.”

“I will. Come on, Furman.”

Furman was in tears, aware that he had lost his money and afraid that he would be unable to buy a snow cone. “I only have a dollar left,” he said.

“I’ll take care of you,” Sue Ellen said.

As they made their way back to the game tent a shrill whistle went up and a cry of “Hey Rube!” was heard over the carney’s microphone. People stopped and turned towards Sue Ellen and Furman, and watched. She turned around and looked at the carney, who glared back at her with a grim smile.

Furman was crying now, embarrassed that he had lost all his money after being warned on the bus to be careful. “Can I get my money back?” he asked Sue Ellen.

“I don’t know. You stay here and when the others come around I’ll go to the office.”

Mary Louise and her group approached from the turn in the midway, and Sue Ellen beckoned to her. “Bring everybody into this tent.”

“Is something the matter?”

“Furman lost all his money at a clip joint. I’m going to the office to complain.”

Mary Louise ushered her people into the tent and Sue Ellen took off towards the office trailer, which was parked behind a row of game tents. She walked up the metal steps, opened the door and saw an overweight man seated at a round table, counting money as he smoked a cigar and cradled a telephone on his shoulder.

“Tell them they don’t play shifts like it’s a junior prom—they’re supposed to start playing when the place is empty, and stop when it’s filled up, okay? Talk to you later.”

The man snapped the phone shut and finished counting a handful of bills before looking up at Sue Ellen. “Can I help you?” he asked without looking up.

“I’m Sue Ellen Walton—I’m here with a group from the State Home for the Retarded,” she began.

The man rolled his eyes up and cut her off. “You don’t look it.”

She felt a surge of heat flowing upwards from her chest. “I’m a psychiatric nurse there . . .”

“Oh, okay, I got ya. Sal Giokaris. What can I do for you?”

“The man at one of your . . . clip joints took one of our residents for all his money.”

“Was it a game of chance?”

“It was some kind of dart game.”

“Did your . . . fellow say he’d been cheated?”

“No, he was in tears.”

“No use cryin’ over a silly game of darts. How much is he out?”

“Almost ten dollars.”

The man smiled, then started to laugh. “You gonna complain about ten lousy bucks?”

“It may not seem like much to you, but it was all this man had.”

“In the world?”

“No—all he brought with him today.”

“That’s different. If he lost his life savings I’d feel different.”

Sue Ellen stared angrily at the man, whose impassive face absorbed the force of her glare without changing expression. “So what do you want me to do?” he asked.

“I want you to refund his money.”

“I can’t do that. I got a lot of hungry carneys out there who need to eat.”

“You don’t have to cheat people to make money.”

“It ain’t cheatin’ just cause you don’t win. If I give him his money back, what’s to stop every hick on the midway from comin’ in here and asking for his dough?”

“Those people are different. Our residents don’t have the mental capacity to understand they have no chance of winning.”

“No chance? You see these girls walkin’ around the fairgrounds with those big teddy bears? Their boyfriends won ‘em fair and square.”

She started to speak, but stopped for fear she’d begin to cry. “Give me five dollars,” she said finally.

“No can do.” The man looked down and began to count his money again. “I’ll give you two tickets to the grandstand show.”

“We have to get these people back to the home this afternoon.”

The man gave out a sigh and looked up again.

“Two dollars. Take it or leave it.”

She looked him in the eye, and the warmth that had reddened her face flowed down into her knees. “I’ll take it,” she said.

The man pulled two singles off his pile of bills and laid them on the table. “I hope your day with Midland Amusements is a pleasant one,” he said mechanically.

Sue Ellen looked at the bills, then at the man’s head as he resumed his counting, trying to force him to acknowledge her anger. When he didn’t respond, she picked up the bills, turned around, and walked out onto the steps. She looked down towards the game tent and saw Furman standing outside, looking back at the booth where he’d lost his money. She felt a bit nauseous, and unclean.

For Grammar Samurai, Failure Comes With a Fatal Price

YPSILANTI, Michigan.  It’s 11 a.m. on a Monday morning, which means that the language skills of knowledge workers such as Mike Rehnstein haven’t reached the pre-weekend peak he scaled last Thursday, when he composed a lengthy email to his regional manager at LogikTek, a company that writes on-line manuals for computer software.  “That was a beaut,” he says as he leans back in his ergonomically-designed office chair.  “If I don’t get a 2% raise in December, there is no justice in the world.”

24-beer “suitcase” pack: suitable for traveling.


But the quality of the work Rehnstein’s cranking out today reflects the effects of the 24-beer “suitcase” pack of Bud Light beer he consumed over the weekend, in addition to several gin and tonics and half a jug of Gallo Chablis.  “Nobody really gets serious around here until Monday afternoon,” he says with a breezy air as he hits the “send” button on his computer, adding a “post” to his blog “Mike’s Twisted Mind” that contains a misuse of “there” for “they’re,” a misspelling of “mischievous,” and a failure to use the subjunctive mood for a verb in a contingent phrase.

“Fool!  You should have said ‘If I were,’ not ‘If I was.’”


Half a world away Tokugawa Ieyasu, a so-called “grammar samurai,” pounces, shredding Rehnstein’s work like a Kitchen Magician cutting through a head of cabbage to make cole slaw.  “What kind of drugs you on, man,” Ieyasu writes, setting off a “grammar war” in the white comment boxes that follow the post.  Soon, “eyeballs” attracted to the language brawl are clicking on links for Japanese consumer products, such as a combination digital camera/donut maker and a rice steamer that tells housewives when their husbands will be home from after-work karaoke sessions under current traffic conditions.

“‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ or when sounded as ‘a’ in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh.'”


Ieyasu would normally be in line for a daily volume bonus and possibly a promotion to a managerial spot, but he makes a fatal error; he lets a subject-verb disagreement creep into a reply when he changes the personal pronoun “I” to the plural “we” in order to avoid the charge that he is egotistical, but then forgets to change the verb to a plural form.  “We have made great progress but am not satisfied,” he writes, and the obloquy of a thousand internet grammarians rains down upon him.

“Tokugawa,” his daimyo Kosaka Danjo Masanobu writes somberly after seeing the comment thread, “you have brought shame upon our usage, grammar and orthography dojo.  For this you must die.”

“Dear Diary–Today I killed myself.  Probably won’t be writing you tomorrow.”


And so the younger man begins to prepare himself for seppuku, the ritual disembowelment that a samurai traditionally performs on himself after failure, commission of a serious offense or conduct that brings shame on his master.

“Search engine optimization is a very serious matter,” says Colin Peterson, a scholar who specializes in social media and the code of the samurai.  “Tokugawa–or is Ieyasu the first name?–really had no choice after giving the enemy such powerful ammo in an on-line grammar battle.”


Masanobu tries to ease the sting of the ritual suicide for his remaining employees with an after-work get-together that features sushi and a coconut-frosted bunny cake, but an undercurrent of fear pervades the gathering despite festive crepe-paper decorations in the normally drab employee lounge.  “I know it is tradition, but still it is harsh,” says Hatori Hanzo, a wandering ronin–or samurai without a daimyo–who was hired a year ago and has progressed up the corporate ladder to hold the title of Assistant Vice President-Terrorizing Peasants.  “We lose a lot of good interns that way.”