For One Young Director, Film Noir’s as Dark as Crankcase Oil

SOMERVILLE, Mass. When Evan Winslow earned his bachelor’s degree in film from New York University last spring he had visions of being the next John Huston, or at least Peter Bogdanovich. “You spend four years in college exposed to nothing but works of genius,” he recalls a bit ruefully. “I must have missed the class about earning a living.”


Bogdanovich: “You have to start at the bottom, like I did, manning the popcorn machine.”

After receiving either form rejections or no response at all to some seven hundred resumes he sent out, he had exactly zero job offers in the film industry and his share of the rent coming due for the three-bedroom apartment he shared with his girlfriend Mindy Heinz, a budding actress, and two graduate students. “I’m not proud,” he recalls, “but I think filming weddings and bar mitzvahs would be a poor use of my cinematic training.”


“Un Chien Andalou is good–also Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Determined to put his artistic skills to use, he started his own video production company, borrowing money from his parents and maxing out several credit cards he’d received upon graduation. He found work almost immediately, but the subject matter was something of a comedown from the lofty themes of love and despair he found so compelling in the films of La Nouvelle Vague, the “new wave” French directors of the 1950’s and 60’s.


“At Mike’s Collision Repair, your car comes out smooth with no unsightly dents like Moose the auto body guy has in his head.”

“Basically, Somerville is the re-built engine capital of New England,” he notes with visible disdain. “Owners of auto body repair shops like to feature wives or girlfriends in their commercials, gracefully waving their arms like auto show girls.”


Dream scene: “I am floating in either used 10W40 oil, or the bad coffee in the customer waiting area.”

Evan tries to persuade his clients to “push the envelope” aesthetically, and to use Mindy in the commercials he makes for them, but he finds them resistant to change. “My girlfriend Debbie is better-looking and less depressing,” objects Tony DeMarino, owner of a towing business. “She also has bigger tits, but I suppose I’m not allowed to say that on the internet.”


Mindy, at a casting call.

So Evan and Mindy do what they can to enhance the film noir aspects of their 30-second spots, panning up from a running oil spill under a service bay to a graphic depiction of the grimy underbody of a Ford Taurus station wagon up on a rack, or enlivening a head shot of a used car dealer with a fleeting image of a wan and naked Mindy running along the back wall of a garage, beneath a rack of hanging fan belts.


Fan belts: Rarely used in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, despite his proletarian sympathies.

“I got that idea from Los Olvidados,” the Luis Bunuel classic, says Winslow. “I wanted to use the eye-slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou, but I decided to save that in case I move up to opticians.”

Available in print and Kindle formats on amazon.com as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”

With B.B. King and Jane Austen at The Burning Spear

“Jane Austen! I love Jane Austen!”

             B.B. King, quoted by Claire Harman in “Jane’s Fame.”

Image result for burning spear chicago

When I first met Jane Austen in 1972, in a classroom in Chicago discussing “Pride and Prejudice,” I have to say I wasn’t impressed. She was pretty in a frail sort of way but mousey, and I found her mind to be rather trivial. When the professor asked us for our impressions, I couldn’t restrain myself; I put up my hand and said something along the lines of “All of her characters are so petty!” A black woman on the other side of the room began to laugh, but after a moment I realized it wasn’t because she disagreed with me; it was the laugh of recognition, that I’d hit the nail right on the head.

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony,” I heard Jane say, and I realized as I looked at her flushed cheeks that I’d gone too far.

“Sorry,” I whispered, as the discussion continued with Austen defenders mounting a counter-attack on the position I’d staked out. “But this is a class in literary criticism. If you can’t stand the heat, go outside and get flash frozen by the wind off the Lake.” I was referring, of course, to The Hawk, as Lou Rawls called it, the gale that gave the city its nickname. “And you’re in Chicago—a place that chews up the proud and the vain and spits them out.”


Smokin’ hot!

 

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously,” she said sotto voce. “A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

“Whatever,” I said. The class began to break up—the professor said we’d be moving on to Othello next week, people began to file out. “Listen,” I said after a moment as she sat there packing her highlighter in her purse, obviously biding her time hoping she wouldn’t have to walk with me. “I’m sorry if I was a little harsh. Would you like to get a cup of coffee or something?”

She gave me a look that could have cut the pages of Northanger Abbey. “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others,” she said defiantly. “My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

“I wasn’t trying to bully you. It’s just that—well, I’m from Missouri. You know what Mark Twain says about you, right?”

“How he wants to dig me up and beat me over the skull with my own shinbone?”

“No, the one about how you could start a fairly good library even if you had no money by not buying any Jane Austen books.”

She made a sickly little smile and shook her head like a lamb shaking its tail, as if to say, in the old grade school put down, “Ha ha—so funny I forgot to laugh.”

But—she agreed to come with me to The Bandersnatch, the student snack bar named after Lewis Carroll’s fictional creature. She got a cup of tea, I got a strawberry yogurt and coffee, and we sat down.

We began to palaver back and forth, trading generalities about the sexes. I didn’t believe half of what I was saying, but I said it just to annoy her and keep the conversation going. After a while she’d had enough, and the outburst that had been building up within her erupted like a volcano. “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures,” she said. “None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”

“Oh really?” I asked, raising my left eyebrow to form the expression that Thorstein Veblen, big University of Chicago hero of mine at the time, called “the physiognomy of astuteness.” I figured I had her. “Okay, so if you want a break from the placid surface of your provincial existence, how about you and I go down to The Burning Spear tonight to see B.B. King.”


                Thorstein Veblen

Much to my surprise, she agreed right away. I had inherited my sister’s crappy green 1965 Oldsmobile Delta ’88, and I told her I’d pick her up at 7 for the 8 o’clock show at the blues landmark at 55th and State, where King had recorded a live album in 1966. “Don’t wear that goofy Regency get-up you’ve got on now, okay?”

She blushed and I realized too late that we were from different centuries; I was in the twentieth, she was just barely into the 19th.  She wasn’t used to men making direct and unflattering remarks about women’s appearance. It was the feminist double standard, transported back in time; she didn’t want to live in calm waters, but she also didn’t want to hear any discouraging words. English romantic novelists—you can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em.

I picked her and we stopped at Burger King on Stony Island Avenue for a bite to eat. There’s a two-drink minimum at The Burning Spear, and I’m just a college student, so I didn’t want her to order a slab of ribs or something. I’d be out of money by Thursday next week, and I’m somewhat proud of the fact that I’ve yet to bounce a check in my career as a penurious undergrad–that came later.  She screwed up her face as she bit into the Whopper Junior™ that she ordered on my recommendation. “It’s not that bad,” I said.

Image result for theresa's chicago blues club

“Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.”

We got in line and got in after a half-hour wait during which we drew a lot of stares—me in my Steve Miller wannabe Space Cowboy outfit, she in her high-waisted gauze gown. The locals must have thought I was a hippie who’d taken a wrong turn into the ghetto, and that she was a cult member with her long-sleeves and bonnet.

We took our seats and the waitress was on us like a duck on a June bug. They need to push the booze to make money to pay B.B., who’s at the peak of his popularity right now. White kids with discretionary income have discovered him, and he’s making more money than he ever did before, but he’s also able to charge the highest appearance fee of any blues guitarist.

I order a beer and the waitress asks to see my ID. I’ve just turned 21 so I’m finally able drink in a club. Jane orders a glass of claret.

“What’s that honey?” the waitress asks.

“That’s what the British call red wine from Bordeaux. Bring her whatever you’ve got open,” I say, figuring the wine list at a blues club is probably its weak spot.

“We got Riunite on ice, thass all. Can I see some ID baby?”

Jane fishes in her purse and pulls out her Oxford student identification card.

“A hunnert and twenty-seven? Woowee!” the waitress exclaims when she sees the 1775 birth date. “I didn’t think noboby lived that long since Methuselah died.” She goes off to the bar and just in time, because the emcee has come on stage and started a typically florid introduction for The King of the Blues.

King comes on stage and, unlike the college concerts I’ve seen him at before, there is no immediate standing ovation by a bunch of white punks on dope whose opinion has been formed by reading Rolling Stone magazine. These are the people King built his career on; there’s a relationship of respect but not adulation. The audience has come to hear B.B. play and to tell the stories of the blues that reflect the tough lives they lead.

He launches, as always, first of all into an extended guitar solo, horns blaring behind him, building dramatic tension. After five choruses of tasty licks, punctuated by the facial expressions that he mugs more broadly at bigger venues, he finally begins to sing:

In vain have I struggled.
It will not do.
You must allow me to tell you
how ardently I admire and love you.

 

(All Austen dialogue and B.B. King lyrics guaranteed verbatim Jane Austen.)

Fake Your Way With French Cliches

We Americans, we are so narrow-minded, so unsophisticated, so provencal!  We are opposed to cliches, which are the fat in the boeuf bourgignon that is the French language, giving it the savory taste that is loved by people around the world.


“Vous etes such a stupide dingbat to lose les car keys again!”

In France a cliche is not frowned upon, as here.  In French, cliche referred originally to a frequently-used printing plate, comparable to what we call a “dingbat” in America, but different from your wife’s dingbat friend with the yellow Volkswagen.


Dingbats

Thus, the French use cliches as keys to understanding in everyday speech.  Par example, you will often hear one of those slim, stylish French women who are the fashion conscience of the world exclaim “Mon Dieu!  I have lost les cliches to mon Citroen!”


“Ou est les cliches a la tractor?”

A sprinkling of French cliches in your everyday speech can make you seem worldly and cosmopolitan, and let’s face it–anybody who spends as much time at tractor pulls as you do could probably use a conversational makeover, if only to impress your snooty neighbors with the matching National Public Radio tote bags.  Ooo–big spenders!

Thankfully, much of the French language consists of “cognates”–words that look and sound alike in two languages, and mean the same thing.  Thus, Les Miserables in French refers to same overpriced Broadway show in English!


“Anybody wanna buy a ticket to ‘Les Miserables’?”

That makes it easy and fun to pick up French cliches you can use to lend yourself an air of, how you say, je ne sais quoi. Ready?  Allons-nous! (Let’s go!)


“Usez exactement changez, s’il vous plait!”

Exactement!  Use this word to indicate emphatic agreement with another speaker who has just  comprendezed something you have said.  When it appears on the screen of a machine de vendant du Coca-Cola, it means you must deposit exact change.

Vraiment (?) (!) This word may be used to express either surprise–spoken with an interrogatory inflection–or affirmation, as in “I kid you not!”  Like the Hawaiian expression “aloha” it can also be used to mean “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Your slip is showing,” and “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.”


Jack Paar:  I kid you not–he coined the phrase “I kid you not!”

Chacun a son gout! The French are a tolerant people, and this phrase is the Gaullic equivalent of Sylvester “Sly” Stone’s saying “Different strokes for different folks.”  If your gout worsens, be sure to have your carte d’insurance ready when you check in to the emergency room.  Use this phrase after you say “Non thankez-vous” when someone offers you une escargot.


Sly Stone

Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose! The Cleveland Indians won’t make the playoffs.  The Republican Party nominates its oldest white guy to run for president.  Your brother-in-law Darrell asks for a loan to start a chinchilla farm in his basement.  Some things never change, and no one knows it better than the French!  This phrase, uttered with a mixture of resignation and amusement, can get you through the most boring reception at a French embassy.


“Une escargot est crawlant dans votre salade.”

Hors d’oeuvre. This phrase refers to a pre-dinner snack that whets your appetite for the main course.  Translated literally, it means “out of work” and in the current financial environment, it can help mask the pain of being downsized.  Here’s an example of how you can use this expression in a sentence:  “My sister’s husband Duane got laid off out at the binder clip plant and has been hors d’oeuvre for six months.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Those Crazee French.”

Football Team Triumphs Over Adversity for First Bowl Bid

NEOSHO, Mo.  This city in southwest Missouri sits smack dab in the middle of “Tornado Alley,” a well-worn path taken by twisters as they rotate out of Oklahoma into the Kansas City area.  “I thought tornadoes were a fairy tale, like the Wizard of Oz,” says Southwest Missouri Teacher’s College quarterback Justin Fairweather, who grew up in Pennsylvania.  “Then I showed up for two-a-day practices in August.”


“Holy cow–can I get my tuition deposit back?”

What he found when he arrived on campus was a scene of devastation out of a disaster movie.  “There were mobile homes flipped over like they were flimsy metal boxes,” says defensive tackle LaRoi Englander, who came to Neosho from the South Side of Chicago.  “When I got up close I saw that they were flimsy metal boxes.”

But the Hilljacks, as the school’s team is known, persevered despite the fact that their tackling dummies and blocking sleds had been blown across a three-state area.  “These kids, I can’t say enough about them,” says coach Jim Ray Howell.  “They were faced with a human tragedy of immense proportions, and they were able to completely ignore it and focus on football.”

While many families lost their homes and loved ones when one of nature’s most violent storms hit this quiet community of 10,000, the young men faced another kind of devastation; the town’s fast food strip on Route 60 had been demolished.  Where once there had been a Domino’s, a Pizza Hut, an Arby’s and other franchise outlets, there was nothing.  “I don’t want to suggest that other people suffered less than me,” says tight end Mo Grant, Jr., “but have you ever had the Quizno’s Honey Bacon Club?  I would kill for one right now!”

“The only fast-food joint left was the Tornado Dog,” a local hot dog and root beer chain, notes Englander.  “I thought about transferring, but I decided to suck it up and eat nothing but dorm food if that’s what it was gonna take.”


Stuckey’s:  Try the peanut brittle frozen latte smoothies.

Other recruits agreed, and the Hilljacks recovered from an 0-2 start to finish the year 6-6 and win an at-large bid to the Stuckey’s Praline Mediocrity Bowl, the first bowl game in SMTC’s history.  The Hilljacks will face the South Central Carolina State Brush Hogs, another Cinderella team that overcame adversity in their quest for a post-season bid.  “We started the year with 23 players on academic probation,” says Brush Hogs’ coach Wendell Evans.  “It took a heap of Driver’s Ed and Introduction to Hand Fishing courses to bring everybody’s GPA up to passing.”

Did the Godfather of Soul Broker Richard Nixon’s Pardon?

As the year comes to a close, my mind harkens back to the dark days of December, 2006.  On Christmas Day of that year James Brown, the singer who rose from humble origins to become “The Godfather of Soul,” died.  The next day Gerald Ford, the only unelected President of the United States, met his end.

Image result for nixon james brown
Nixon and Brown:  “I hope you brought that brand new bag I’ve heard so much about!”

A decade and a half later, the time has come to ask the question that only conspiracy theorists were heard to mutter during the nation’s early days of mourning; to wit, did soul singer James Brown persuade Ford to pardon Richard Nixon for crimes committed as part of the Watergate break-in and cover-up?


Ford: “Our long national nightmare is over.  Now everybody, get up offa that thang!”

It doesn’t take a paranoid schizophrenic to see more than mere coincidence at work in the nearly simultaneous deaths of the two great men.  They were linked during their lives by a shared intimacy with Richard Nixon, the only American president who ever received a presidential pardon.  Ford, his hand-picked successor, granted that pardon.  Whether Brown brokered that deal is now beyond the power of a living human voice to answer.

Image result for gerald ford football
Ford:  “Helmet?  No thanks.”

On the surface of things, Ford, a former college football player whom his Congressional colleague Lyndon Johnson once accused of playing too long without a helmet, and Brown, the dynamic entertainer, seemed an unlikely pair.  But it is always a placid exterior that conceals the twisted truth of a Republican-Rhythm ‘n Blues conspiracy.  Consider the similarities:

•           Each man’s name contains ten letters.  Get a pencil and count them off:  G-E-R-A-L-D-F-O-R-D.  J-A-M-E-S-B-R-O-W-N.  Damned suspicious.

•           Ford was not elected to the office of either president or vice president; neither was Brown.

•           Ford was not invited to the White House during either Reagan administration; neither was Brown.


Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme

•           In songs such as “Cold Sweat Part I” and “Cold Sweat Part II” Brown’s voice turns squeaky.  Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to assassinate Ford.  Curiously, there is no “Cold Sweat Part III.”

•           Both Ford and Brown were the targets of jibes by late-night comedians, Ford because of his lack of physical coordination, Brown despite his physical coordination.

•           In 1963, Ford was appointed by President Johnson to the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy.  Ford outlived every other member of the Commission, as did Brown.

•           Ford was the 38th President, Nixon the 37th, James Brown was Soul Brother #1.  Add the three figures and you get–76.  The United States was founded in 1776.  Two hundred years later in 1976 the nation celebrated its bicentennial–and Ford was President!

•           Brown was christened James Joseph Brown, Jr., but later changed his name to drop the “Jr.”  Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr.  His mother divorced Ford’s father, and in 1916 married Gerald Rudolff Ford.  She began to call her son “Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr.”  Ford did not officially change his name until 1935–nearly two decades later–and when he did, he omitted “Jr.”


“I, Gerald Ford, do solemnly . . . could you repeat that, please?”

The lives of Brown and Ford first began to intersect during the turbulent sixties.  In 1965, Ford became minority leader of the House of Representatives.  In 1968 Brown released his first song that portrayed him as a representative of minorities–”Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”  Brown was subsequently invited to perform at Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, where he encountered Ford for the first time.

Following the meeting, Brown was named Minister of the New Super Heavy Funk, a cabinet-level position.  Some three decades later, Lisa Agbalaya-Ross, a former employee, alleged that Brown claimed to have “powerful testicles given to him by the government.”  The Food and Drug Administration claims to have no record of ever approving such a procedure.

What Ford and Brown discussed on the night of Nixon’s inauguration has never been revealed, but in 1974–just five short years later–Ford pardoned Nixon and Brown released “The Payback (Part I)” and “Funky President (People It’s Bad),” commonly known simply as “Funky President.”  According to Brown, the “funky president” of the title was meant to refer to Ford, who had taken over from Richard Nixon shortly before the song was recorded.

Coincidence?  Please–don’t make me laugh.

For One Business Black Friday is Grimmer Than Others

FRAMINGHAM, Mass.  This town of 68,000 in the suburbs west of Boston is home to Shopper’s World, the nation’s oldest shopping center.  Once Thanksgiving dishes are done and locals have woken from tryptophan-induced slumbers, it becomes ground zero for “Black Friday,” the busiest day of the year in retail establishments across the country.

“Our forefathers fought and died for the right to shop,” says local historian Armand LaLiberte, himself a descendant of yeoman farmers who tilled the soil to produce the first harvest of fresh, native New England rocks.  “Yes, they had to burn some witches in the process, but that’s a small price to pay for Wal-Mart’s One-Hour Guarantee on Top Items.”

An object of criticism in many quarters for its emphasis on acquisitiveness, “Black Friday” remains the turning point for many businesses, which literally began to operate “in the black” with the crush of year-end consumers that signals the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.  “I’m thinking next year of just laying people off until the day after Thanksgiving,” says Neil Clesko, owner of Clesko’s Ladies-Ready-to-Wear.  “Take your days off during the summer, when I have to play nothing but polkas on the piped-in music to keep the salesgirls awake.”

Image result for 50s ladies store

The lucre that comes with the lucrative day isn’t distributed evenly, however; many service businesses that can’t package their wares with Christmas wrapping paper and bows have been left out of the action, including the legal profession.  But that’s about to change as the law firm of Brenton, Kressler & Fishback LLP steps to the plate with its first-ever promotion in the Black Friday field.

“We’re retailers, too,” says Morton “Mort” Fishback, the firm’s managing partner.  “For too long we’ve sat on our fat duffs and watched people rushing by to buy fun stuff when they could have been spending money on depressing legal services.”

Fishback is a personal injury lawyer, and this Black Friday he’s offering an initial free consultation and a complimentary cup of coffee for all non-employment related dismemberment claims.  “People get excited when there’s an accidental death in the family because it means a big payday,” he says thoughtfully as he makes a little church-and-steeple with his hands.  “Dismemberment can be just as rewarding for me, if not for you.”


Buy now, and get 10% off on prosthetic limbs with our mail-in-rebate!

Not to be outdone, Fishback’s partner Bob Brenton, a suave rainmaker and business lawyer, says he’ll contribute to the day’s grim overtones with a special on Chapter 7 liquidations, the fatal counterpart to Chapter 11, which provides some hope for failing businesses.  “You wouldn’t buy a new suit for your 80-year-old father, would you?” he asks rhetorically.  “It’s the same with your crappy franchise–get out now before the roof caves in.”


“This appears to be a memo to me–FROM the file.”

 

Black Friday wouldn’t be truly black without a touch of death, of course, and estate planner Phillip Kressler offers what he calls the perfect stocking stuffer for kids just beginning to comprehend their mortality after the death of a favorite goldfish.  “We have the Pet Estate Plan for only $19.95, batteries not included,” he says as he arranges some gaily-wrapped boxes under the Christmas tree in the firm’s reception area.  “It features a will and a pour-over trust, so the little scuba diver and bubbling castle decoration can pass to another goldfish in the tank estate tax-free!”

Last Tango at Quiznos

In 1973, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci shocked the world with Last Tango in Paris, a film whose disturbing theme–anonymous sex involving the use of high cholesterol solid fatty oils–caused it to be banned in many countries and applauded by the American Dairy Council.


Maria Schneider:  “Put your clothes on–the internet’s been invented.”

Bertolucci said that the idea for the film–starring a 48-year-old Marlon Brando and 19-year-old Maria Schneider–grew out of a sexual fantasy; his dream of “seeing a beautiful nameless woman on the street and having sex with her without ever knowing who she was.”

I have a fantasy somewhat similar to that of the great Italian director’s; I want to eat in a restaurant without knowing who the waitress is.


“We’ll give you a bigger tip if you don’t tell us your name.”

Around the time of Last Tango’s release, waitstaff in restaurants began to importune customers by announcing their first names–the waitstaff’s, that is, not the patrons.  “Hi my name is _ _ _ _ _ _ and I’ll be your waiter/waitress this evening” became restaurant fare as standard as creme brulee.  The goal, one presumes, was to enhance the evening’s experience by persuading diners that they were on a first-name basis with the help, thereby justifying higher “price points” for the owner and bigger tips for the servers.

The insincerity of this ploy was apparent from the fact that there was never any attempt at a bilateral exchange; no waitress ever asked you what your name was.  If she did, she might have to send you a Christmas card, or buy you a birthday present.  You can be sure she didn’t want that to happen.

As a result of this enforced familiarity I have, over the past few months, been waited on by an Antonia, a Celeste, and a Gloria.  I’ve met a Brittany and a Chelsea; I’m somewhat surprised I haven’t encountered a Liverpool as well.  In every single instance, the freighted and flirtatious subtext that name-exchanging inevitably carries with it, like so much ballast in a cargo ship, has led to precisely nothing.  Not even a come-hither look as I walk past the cash register, or a 2 cent peppermint instead of just a toothpick.  Just a happy face next to the signature of “Chelsea!”


“Come hither–for a complimentary toothpick!”

The disappointment that I’ve felt over and over again has caused me to turn in upon myself and withdraw from the world; I want, like Greta Garbo, to be left alone.  I want to eat in silence, not to be reminded again and again of the many women who have told me their names, then dropped me like a hot rock.  I want the joy of anonymous dining.


“You’re right–the service is lousy here.”

And so I have come to my local Quiznos, a restaurant so low-down that the counter help does not tell you their names.  Here, I hope to enter the realm of the forbidden, the unknown.  The woman behind the counter has no nametag, but begins to speak as I approach.

“Welcome to Quiznos, may I take your . . . ”

“Please–no names.”

“I need to know the name of your sandwich.”

“My sandwich has no name.”

“Then you can order by number.”

I look up on the board and see what I want, or at least what I want that doesn’t come in the form of a woman.

“Number one,” I say.  The Honey Bacon Club.

“Small, medium or large?”

“What does my size matter?”

“The manager’s special is a medium toasted sandwich with a bag of chips and a large fountain drink.”


Manager’s special

I consider her generosity, her openness to a total stranger.  I find this–strangely alluring.

“You have been most helpful,” I say with sincere gratitude.  “Medium it shall be.”

She begins to cut the bread on the specially-marked Quiznos cutting board that makes proper sizing of sandwiches a matter of mathematical precision.

“What do you want on it?” she asks.

It is a question she must ask, and yet I think she knows the answer.  “I must have–everything.”


Hopelessly humdrum non-Quiznos single-warhead condiment dispenser:  Don’t make me laugh.

She takes the high-speed condiment dispenser, specially manufactured for Quiznos with not one, not two, but three spouts, and squirts it over my bread.  It is over too quickly, and yet I am satisfied.

She slides the sandwich wordlessly into the Quiznos oven, then disappears–only to re-appear on the other side, like a startled wood nymph!  She’s a one-woman assembly line!


Wood nymph: Do I get extra credit for working her into a post about Quiznos?

The sandwich emerges from the mouth–uh, actually, I guess the other end is the mouth–of the oven, and she wraps it with brutal, almost sadistic efficiency.  She turns, gives me a look that I think is more than the perfunctory expression of fast-food commercial gratitude–and is gone.

I am awoken from my reverie by the voice of the butt-ugly shift manager.

“For here or to go?” he asks.

“Did you say tango?”

“No–to go.”

I look after her.  She is lost to me already–waiting on someone else.  Someone she just met.  Someone–like me–she doesn’t know.  I am crushed, like the ice that comes tumbling out of the soft drink dispenser.

“If you don’t mind,” I say to the manager, “I’d like the extra large fountain drink.”

“That doesn’t come with the special.”

“Yes, but I want the plastic souvenir cup–to remember her by.”

Bike Gangs Show Sensitive Side With “Baiku”

MAYNARD, Mass. It’s Thursday night at the Sitting Duck Pub, a biker bar in this Massachusetts town of 10,000. A reporter asks Darlene Rivers, a thirty-something woman in a tube top, whether anyone is sitting on the empty bar stool next to her. “Not right now,” she says after blowing cigarette smoke out of the side of her mouth, “but if my old man comes in and sees you sitting there, you’d better have good dental insurance.”

Darlene is here because of her self-proclaimed “artistic” side, which she says finds expression in the many Harley-Davidson tattoos on her upper arms and her love of poetry. “I’m here every week for the verse,” she says as she flips her long hair back over her shoulder. “‘Oh what a tangled web we weave’ and all that jazz.”


“If you even so much as touch my hog/I’ll come to your house and poison your dog.”

As she takes a sip of her beer, Gene Dominici, the first performer of the evening, takes the stage to read a sampling of his biker poetry, a gas, chrome and rubber genre of folk verse that has become popular as a result of the publication of the anthology “Rubber Side Down,” a collection of poems written by bikers.

Domenici leads with a “baiku,” a variation on haiku, the Japanese short-poem format.

Full tank, old lady
on the saddle. I turn, she
says “Let’s go, Pig Pen.”

A murmur of appreciation rises from the crowd. “Sweet,” says Oran “Big Dude” Swartski, who has ridden his 2012 Indian Chief Roadmaster over 150 miles to be here tonight. “Give the man a Slim Jim,” Swartski calls out to the bartender, who tosses one of the convenient beef jerky sticks that many bikers subsist on over long road trips onto the stage.

Next up is Floyd “Hard Times” Daniels, whose Harley-Davidson Low Rider FXRS announces his approach from several blocks off whenever he has a new poem ready to read to the Sitting Duck aficionados. He takes a swig of his Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, clears his throat, and adopts a pastoral tone that reveals the beauty of the world as seen through the bug-splattered goggles of a biker:

Some guys ride hills up and down,
Then stop to terrorize small towns.
Me, I’d rather have my fun
On a summer day for a poker run.

“That was so–freaking–beautiful,” Darlene says, and it is clear that she has been touched by the emotions that Daniels has so skillfully evoked by the image of a biker with his girlfriend picking up the winning hand at a motorcycle club’s fund-raising event.


“I promise I won’t call your bike a scooter/if you won’t refer to my breasts as hooters.”

Daniels graciously cedes the microphone to Jim “B.S.” deJong, a symbolist whose bike of choice is a Kawasaki ZX-6R Ninja.

deJong is a devotee of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and like the author of “Kubla Khan,” he’s not above a little chemical stimulation to get his creative rivers flowing:

Whose hog this is, I think I know
His straightpipes have that healthy glow.
He will not see me stopping here
To deal a little high-grade blow.

Last, but certainly not least, is last week’s winning poet Carson “Mudflap” Poquette, who honed his literary skills while incarcerated for aggravated assault in a medium-security prison. His style is edgy, fueled by rage and the ravages of social diseases he’s picked up over a long life of drunken one-night stands.

When down I bring my pool cue (maple)
Upon a roadhouse bumper table.
Be sure upon the felt of green
Your head ain’t sitting, or your spleen.

The crowd is quiet for a moment, then the sound of applause is heard, soft at first, then building to a crescendo as the audience absorbs the delicate tracery of Poquette’s four-line, a-a-b-b rhyme scheme over the subtext of a not-so-thinly veiled threat.

“You’ve got my vote,” yells Dominici as he heads for the exit.

“Mine too,” calls out Daniels, who quickly settles up with the bartender.

The only poet to stand his ground, however unsteadily, is deJong, who rises and staggers to the stage with menace on his face. “You call yourself a poet,” he fairly spits out.

”You got a problem with that?” Poquette snarls back at him.

”Yeah,” de Jong says. “You put a period at the end of the second line–it should have been a comma.”

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

All the Charisma of a Shark

The great white shark is “one of the more charismatic, popular sharks in the world.” Greg Skomal, Senior Biologist, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

The Boston Herald

I was walking along the beach in Hyannisport, enjoying the warmth of the fall sun, when I spotted a basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, lying propped up on one fin, staring out at the Atlantic.

It’s the time of year when folks on Cape Cod are more outgoing since the tourists are gone, so I sidled up to him.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Okay,” he muttered. I could tell he wanted to be left alone, but the Cape has a fairly high suicide rate, and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t so depressed that he’d try and end it all. If he made it to the Sagamore Bridge, the most popular place around here to commit self-slaughter, to wax Shakespearean for a moment, he’d tie up traffic for hours and I wanted to drive home around 2.

“Just okay?” I asked, hoping to get him to snap out of his melancholy reverie.

He let out a sigh. “‘Okay’ is exaggerating,” he said finally. “Pour some water on my gills, would you?”

I picked up a styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup and filled it with water. “Yuk,” he said. “French vanilla.”

So what’s the matter?” I asked.

“Did you see The Herald the other day?” he asked. We’re still a two-paper town; sharks read The Herald, dolphins read The Globe.

“It’s the first thing I read in the morning,” I said. “Was it something on the op-ed page?”

“No, a news item. Some ‘Senior Biologist’–whatever that means–said that the great white is one of the ‘more charismatic, popular sharks in the world.’ I nearly sprayed my chum all over the sports page.”

“You’re exaggerating,” I said. “I happen to know you’re a passive filter feeder whose diet consists exclusively of zooplankton, small fish and invertebrates–you don’t eat chum.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so blunt, but sometimes that’s the best way to handle a mopey shark.


“Ooo-you make me so mad!”

 

He was silent for a moment, except for a hissing sound that put me on notice that an explosion was on its way.

“Goddamn it!” he shouted, slapping his fin on the wet sand. “I can’t catch a break. The whale shark is the biggest shark–I’m number two–and now I find out the great white is Mr. Popularity, Mr. Charisma.”


Miss Popularity, board game once owned by my sister.

 

“The guy didn’t say the great white was the most charismatic or popular shark. And I can think of lots of sharks with less charisma than you.”

“Like who?” he asked.

“Well, to be completely bipartisan about it, there’s Rahm Emanuel for the Democrats. And Ted Cruz for the Republicans.”


Emanuel: “You say I’m a shark like it’s a bad thing.”

 

I let him stew for a moment, then began as quietly as I could. “You know, being charismatic and popular isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

He rolled over and gave me a look; receding hairline, big forehead, nerdy glasses. “And how exactly would you know?”

“How do you think? I read about it in a book.”


Dale Carnegie

 

“Which one–‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’?” he asked with a snort.

“Did you know that Dale Carnegie was born in Sedalia, Missouri–the town where I grew up?” I said, with no small amount of misplaced pride.

“Who cares?” the shark said. He was really in the dumps–I decided to stop being so flip for once.

“No, it was Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building. Did you ever read it?”


Max Weber

 

“I’m not a big reader. The only reason I finished Jaws was some doofus threw it at me when I got too close to his kayak.”

“That was a very successful book,” I said. “You can’t begrudge the guy a little positive p.r.”

“Hey–look me up in Wikipedia. It says I’m a ‘cosmopolitan species, found in all the world’s temperate oceans.’

“Well, you’ve got that going for you. On the other hand,” I said in a voice that reeked of reasonableness, “the great white has been glorified in movies and ESPN 2 fishing shows.”

“Big freaking deal,” he said.

I thought his defensive tone gave him away. “You’re just jealous,” I said.

“Jealous?” he said. “You think I’m jealous of a mackerel shark that’s so dumb it can’t tell the difference between a boogie board and a seal?”


“Say ‘Ahh’.”

 

“Here’s the deal with charisma,” I said. “Weber said that in a democracy it’s difficult to maintain because it’s based on short-lived mass emotion.”

“So that would explain Biden’s approval ratings right now.” he mused.  I was glad to see that he wasn’t so depressed that he’d stopped paying attention to current events.

“You got it. You can’t help but like the guy, but the Kool-Aid’s worn off for some of his cult-like followers.”

“The New York Times turned on him the other day,” he said.  I was impressed–not that many sharks read the Times on the Cape because they add a dollar to the cover price for transit costs.

“And some comedians are starting to mock him.”

“Get out.  Like who?”

“Not just Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, too,” I said, then was silent for a moment.  “Maybe you should stop worrying about other sharks, and work on your own personality.”

He rolled over and looked at me. “You think so?”

“Just a suggestion,” I said. “Every summer you float into Boston Harbor and people panic even though you’re harmless, all because you come on like you’re going to bite the ass off of every bikini-bottomed babe on the beach.”

“I’ll give you props for alliteration,” he said. “But the great white is scary. How did he get to be so popular?”

“What works for him may not work for you,” I said. “You’ve got to be yourself.”

I started to fill the cup again, but he spoke up. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Nope–all set. I think I’m going to swim over to the fish pier, entertain the kids a bit. Give me a push, would you?”

“Okay,” I said.


Sly Stone

 

I got him back into the water and he turned to say goodbye. “This has been very helpful.”

“No problem.”

“Where’d you pick up the shallow, pseudo-psychology that reduces apparently complex problems to simple answers composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.”

“Sixties hit machine Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stone, that’s where,” I said, not missing a beat.

“Really?”

“Yeah–‘Different strokes for different folks.’”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Wild Animals of Nature!”

From T.S. Eliot’s Copybook

T.S. Eliot was placed on academic probation while at Harvard and almost flunked out.  His final transcript included six C’s and one D.

                                                         The Boston Globe

 
T.S. Eliot

Lab Report, Biology 101, Professor Evarts                             September 15, 1904

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Mr. Eliot–

Please see me after class on Tuesday.  The assignment was to write a lab report on the dissection of a frog.

* * *

The frog lies on his greenish back
awaiting vivisection.
I fondly and I truly wish
That I could take this class at Radcliffe in a coed section.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.

Dear “T.S.”–

Thanks for the invitation, although you don’t make the Undergraduate Verse Society Ice Cream Social and Poetry Slam sound very appealing.  When boys court me, they usually ask me to go sit out under the moon in June so they can croon a tune to me–no disgusting images of yucky sick people on examining room tables.

While I would love to accompany you, I notice that we are scheduled to play Vassar in the annual spring “March Madness” women’s half-court basketball tournament, so I will unfortunately be very busy this month.  I will of course have to wash my hair and bathe afterwards, and then spend a few weeks recuperating so that I don’t get the fantods.  I hope we are not disappointed in the tournament as we have been so often in the past–April is always the cruelest month!

Yours ’til cats kill mountains!

Hermione Stimson, Radcliffe Class of ’06

Introduction to Physics, Section II                                   January 13, 1905

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Mr. Eliot–

I’m afraid this won’t do.  I asked for an explication of the Law of Entropy, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  I am going to give you a D, and that’s being generous.  What is all this stuff about “hollow men” and “stuffed men”?  If you don’t like the meal plan you are currently on, talk to the bursar’s office, or there are vending machines with Cracker Jack and jujubes in the basement of your dormitory.

/s/Professor Lyne

Grishkin is nice; her Russian
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

Dear Dean Briggs:

I wish to lodge a complaint against a Harvard man, a Mr. Thomas Stearns Eliot.  He has apparently written a nasty quatrain with an a-b-c-b rhyme scheme about me in one of the bathroom stalls at the Widener Library.  Because it will many years before women are admitted to Harvard, and even then many more before there will be coed bathrooms, I must ask that you dispatch a custodian to erase it as soon as possible, or write over it if that would be simpler.  Might I suggest the following:

I’ve attracted the attentions of one Mr. Eliot,
a fellow from St. Louis, an awful little twit.
He says one day he’ll be a world-renowned poet
but from the stuff he’s cranking out as an undergraduate
you’d certainly never know et.

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