There’s no better way to make sense of the chaos surrounding my life than to pack my bags and move, temporarily, to a country in the Eastern Hemisphere. I graduated from a prestigious university last May, and my mom and dad promised me a place to stay while I braved the job hunt. However, after a few months, they started to question my motivation. I want to be a writer, but few people will pay you to write, especially the people responsible for your birth.
Without notice, my parents put my childhood house up for sale the other day. They’re moving to Florida, and they didn’t invite me.
“You’re not coming under any circumstances,” they said, and when I tried to argue—I was an English major, and I know every sentence is ripe for interpretation—they wouldn’t hear any of it.
That’s OK, though. I’d never be able to find myself in Naples anyway, surrounded by people who aren’t interested in transformative experiences. They’d only be into golf, or walking around in a hundred-percent humidity wearing sweaters. So, that’s why I’ve decided to travel to some country in the East to write a memoir about traveling to some country in the East.
After doing minimal research, I think I’m going to Bangkok. The city, for one, permits many puns I can use for a title. I don’t know much about Thailand, but most importantly, from what I can gather, I have the highest chance of witnessing a revolution. I hope this future coup, which apparently occurs every five years or so, will allow me to see and write about my parents’ abandonment in a different light. I have no chance of figuring out things here, especially considering I won’t have anywhere to stay. And besides, I can’t sit idly in the state of my birth. Just like Hemingway needed Paris and Spain and Italy, and Orwell needed Catalonia and India and some other place to make this clause have the same rhythm as the last one, I need my inspirational haven abroad.
I have some solid savings (commencement cash and the active neglecting of my loan repayments), but I’ll need a steady stream of funds, of course. To make money, I’m planning on teaching English, or coaching recreational soccer, or something. But that’s not important because apartments are cheap, and that part, kicking around a ball, or helping Thai children have a better command of the English language, even though I don’t speak a word of Thai, will probably only be a chapter in my book. Those things will provide some nice blog-potential details, too. They’ll show the texture of my everyday life.
But what people will really want to read is how the army’s government takeover, which is asserted, by the army, not to be a government takeover, relates to the current perils of my middle-class upbringing in suburban New Jersey. Also, I’ll include several poetic ruminations on elephants. Hemingway and Orwell can credit almost all of their fame to elephants.
I already have some great ideas about how I’ll bring these two worlds together, the East Coast and some southern Asian territory of which I’ve never been. I will bridge the gaps between gaps that many probably believe are unbridgeable. I’ve been reading a lot about the country I’ve chosen to call home for an indeterminate amount of time (until there’s an uprising), and it doesn’t seem that hard.
Take, simply, the number of military interventions since the Siamese revolution of 1932. There have been eleven in eighty-ish years, which is about the average life expectancy for a human in the United States. I can make the analogy that I can expect to have eleven coup-like events in my own life—like my mother and father ditching me for a mundane existence in a sweaty retirement facility—and that, each time, I must figure out a way to make peace without causing bloodshed. Not actual bloodshed but figurative bloodshed, like not getting depressed, or resorting to drugs, or going to the “Renaissance,” an establishment for those fifty years of age or older, located at 352 San Sebastian Drive in Naples, Florida, 34101, and murdering a couple who left their poor son to fend for himself.
This is ignoring, too, all the complications I might confront as an American in a tumultuous land where I don’t understand the language. I might be arrested, or held at gunpoint. Those would be excellent events for metaphorical use, say, on the entrapment I feel everyday in my own skin. Or maybe I’ll even sleep with a hooker in order to investigate the underground world of Thai prostitution, only to discover that the things of which I’m really searching are all the former loves I squandered.
Either all that, or I’ll go to Germany. I heard Berlin’s pretty dope.
A warm Sunday afternoon has us stepping into a place we think is a dispensary but is not. The chairs in the waiting room are full. A “Nirvana Clinic” sounds like a place where you might actually purchase marijuana, but we are in fact pointed to a storefront around the corner. We walk through the parking lot of a music shop and recording studio that’s blasting old R&B music out into the street. A police car happens by, going east. A woman walking towards us on the sidewalk holds the telltale prescription medicine bag—white, folded over, stapled—so I know the storefront with very few identifiers must be the place.
We step onto a welcome mat and into a foyer that has a couple of chairs. A neutral sort of camel color dominates the selection of random art pieces. “Live Laugh Love” one figure encourages us. A “Tree of Life” sits near randomly placed business cards on a table. The walls are mostly bare and dingy. A young woman with thick streaks of green in her hair takes our information from behind the receptionist window.
Once we’re finished with the one-page paperwork we enter the buy room of the twelfth dispensary on this trail. It’s rather unremarkable, with just two weed-related banners pinned up high in one corner of the room. There is no refrigerator, no LCD screen. In fact, there are no price lists anywhere. A second young woman with heavy mascara sits on a stool behind the glass counters displaying the jars of buds. She never gets off her stool throughout our visit. She leans in to get jars out and offer us smells of the wares but never completely comes off her stool. I notice that she uses her fingers to pluck buds from the jars—no fancy chopsticks or tweezers as other dispensaries use. The counters are messy with shake. On the counter furthest from us, a wallet and a set of keys lie despondently, looking like they’ve been forgotten. Beyond that counter I can see the receptionist’s area, and realize it’s completely open to the buy room, which is a strange sight in dispensaries where there is typically a barrier between the two. Behind the glass counters is an open room with piles of boxes inside. Wicker baskets lie around on the floor near the budtender’s stool, also containing boxes.
“How long have you been open?” my companion asks the budtender, adding that we’d walked into the wrong place prior to coming in because of a faulty Yelp address.
“About six months,” she answers. When I later go back to Yelp and view photos of the interior of the dispensary, the walls look cleaner and there’s an LCD screen up on the wall. A dispensary that has just opened in the last six months is suspicious in light of L.A.’s Proposition D; a dispensary that just under six months ago looked cleaner and sported an LCD screen price list when now it does not also seems suspicious.
When we leave, after not getting anywhere in any sort of conversation with the budtender on the stool, we walk out and I remark that I’ve also never seen a dispensary fully staffed by women only.
Police cars roll by as we step out onto the sidewalk again. For the twelfth dispensary visited, this spot seems rather anti-climactic but for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “You Really Got A Hold on Me” blasting from the music shop as we walk away, here in this strange little vortex of where Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard meet.
The end is coming! Your impending doom and destruction is at hand. A shameful narrative of decadence will bring civilization to its knees, and God’s wrath shall mark the end of all humankind! Act now, because you only have a limited time to enjoy Roscoe’s Italian Eatery and Café.
Jesus is the light and the way! Repent! Repent! For the only path to salvation lies with Him. It was for the transgressions of all mankind that His wrists were skewered like a wooden, cellophane-tipped pick through two of Roscoe’s juicy beef patties, lettuce, tomato, onions, cheddar cheese, and a toasted sesame seed bun with a side of sweet potato fries cooked to crispy perfection.
You sodomites have no idea the hell to be visited upon you! Your heckling of Christ’s sacred covenant with man is a despicable affront to His Divine Grace. You make our Lord vomit blood with anger and grief, but never from Roscoe’s prices. Our generous $12.50 prix-fixed lunch special is a veritable bounty of heavenly manna. For an entrée, a side, and a drink, no reprobate can beat that deal in this neighborhood!
Your family will all burn in hellfire! For Christ came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother. But what better place to take grandma for an early bird special than Roscoe’s? You don’t have much time left to partake in Roscoe’s down-home, family-style dining before the final judgment leaves your houses in ruin.
In my dreams, I see a world of ash and cinder. The Earth is a Boschian hellscape: the infernal hosts prepare the condemned for their interminable feast on the flesh of the unrepentant. I don’t know about the other guys, but Roscoe’s would be the last place you’d find serving human flesh after the Rapture. We just won’t do it!
Come to Roscoe’s, and may God have mercy on your soul!
Listen, Tony, I appreciate you stealing another car for me to flip, but this bad boy’s too hot to handle right now. Also, it’s the Popemobile, one of the most recognizable vehicles in the entire world. I mean, even with a new paint job, people are going to remember the large bulletproof glass box that takes up most of the car. You might not think people notice those sorts of things, but they do.
Sure, I’ve flipped some fancy cars. Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, even a fire truck or two, but selling this could have some serious repercussions. The Popemobile’s like a relic or an important artifact to the Catholic church, and if I sell it to the wrong person, who knows what will happen. This is how crusades start. I don’t want to be responsible for a crusade.
I could try selling it for parts, but this car is pretty much built specifically for popes. The engine runs on a mixture of gasoline and holy water. The stereo is configured to only play hymns. Hell, the cup holder only fits grails! Oh, I shouldn’t say “hell” near this thing, it may have some anti-Satan security device. Or maybe they just banked on God keeping it safe. Well, you were able to steal it so that didn’t work out too well.
I’d say your best bet is to find a pope imitator or a tribute pope and have them take it off your hands as soon as possible. I could sand off the serial numbers, which appear to be in Roman numerals, and that would at least make it harder to track. But I’m telling you, the first time a Catholic sees it they’re going to send a prayer or an email to the real pope, and then it’s game over. You really don’t want to be there when that happens. I’m not saying they’d revise the Bible to include a part directly insulting you, but why risk it?
Wait, if the Popemobile is here, how’s the Pope getting around right now? Oh man, what if you stranded the Pope somewhere? He could’ve been getting a haircut or something. Do popes get haircuts? Is there a special barber for the Pope? Does he only cut the hair of popes? What if he messed up? Would people trust a pope with a bad haircut? This car is bringing unwanted questions into my chop shop!
I want it out of here, Tony. Take the back roads so you don’t drive it in front of the church. You’ll have to pass the synagogue, but they won’t tell. In fact, you could probably stash it there for a few days. That’d be pretty low on the list of places I’d search for the Popemobile. I’d look in the Vatican first, then I’d check under that big Jesus statue in Brazil, then I’d visit some of the places from the Indiana Jones films. If it wasn’t in any of those, I’d swing by the local synagogue, but only as a joke. Maybe the people the church send out to find this thing will have the same thought process, but it’s up to you what to do with it. Just don’t leave it in front of the shop, please. I can’t have the police here. This chop shop doesn’t have any of the necessary permits, and the state technically thinks this is a roller rink. I’ve got one pair of skates in case someone asks.
Fine, you can show me one more car before you leave. Bring it in here.
The Oscar Mayer Weinermobile? Tony, flipping cars is about being discreet. You shouldn’t be stealing things that have their own Wikipedia pages!
No, I don’t want it. And I’ll tell you what, they’re definitely not gonna let you park that at the synagogue. It’s not kosher.
We are thrilled to announce that Curtis Sittenfeld will be the guest judge of the first-ever McSweeney’s Student Short Story Contest! Curtis is the best-selling author of Sisterland, American Wife, Prep, and The Man of My Dreams, and her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and Salon, among other places. If you have never read Curtis’s work before, the editors of McSweeney’s recommend that you rush to the store and buy one of her books. They also recommend that you read this micro-interview with her below. It is full of good advice.
What will you be looking for from stories in this contest?
One of my graduate school professors Frank Conroy used to talk about fiction being "alive"—when it has a pulse, a certain energy that can matter more than technical mastery. I consider that quality to be probably the single most important one.
What was your experience with writing like as a student? Did you already know you wanted to be a writer? Were you already writing?
I pretty much emerged from the womb and started taking notes. As soon as I became literate (around first grade), I was writing stories. And I was an avid enterer of writing contests. I entered far more than I won, but two I did win were the Mississippi Review’s (1999, judged by Thom Jones) and Seventeen’s (1992, judged by Jennifer Egan).
What is the most exciting piece of short fiction you’ve read recently?
I’m currently leading a book club for the Wall Street Journal for which I selected Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman. When I reread the collection, about fifteen years after I’d last read it, I was dazzled all over again. There’s so much she does well, but what particularly struck me as I analyzed the stories—and I mean this as a compliment—is how sordid a lot of them are. There’s no topic she won’t touch in terms of sex, violence, self-interest, and bodily effluvia, yet her inclusion of these subjects is always purposeful rather than gratuitous.
What are three pieces of advice you would give to aspiring student writers?
1. Find smart people to give you feedback.
2. Don’t go online, on social media, or check your email while writing.
3. Write about subjects that you feel obsessed with, rather than choosing a topic because it seems timely or important. Any topic can be timely or important if you handle it well. At the same time, if you expect to find readers (or be paid for your work), realize that fiction writing is a kind of conversation. Nobody owes it to you to find your work interesting.
In an upcoming issue of the quarterly, Issue 49, we’re going to have several authors re-write and re-imagine their favorite classic short stories. What is your favorite classic short story and why?
I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Lady with the Dog”—for its quintessentially Chekhovian poignancy, among other reasons.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on right now?
The British division of HarperCollins has commissioned what they’re calling The Austen Project—they’re asking six writers to write contemporary versions of each of Jane Austen’s six novels. The one I’m working on is Pride and Prejudice, which I’m setting in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. This is a departure from everything I’ve done before, and it’s making me use my brain in new ways. If there’s a club for writers of fan fiction, I now belong to it.
“Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll nap today.”
“Nap like no one is listening. Nap like you’ve never been hurt. Nap like nobody is watching.”
“Do one nap every day that scares you.”
“Be the nap you wish to see in the world.”
“Every girl is napping. Sometimes it just takes the right guy to see it.”
“Nap for the job you want, not the job you have (which you are also napping at).”
“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other is napping.”
“To the world you might just be anyone, but to one person you’re napping.”
“Never frown because you never know who is falling asleep to your smile.”
“When life gives you lemons, take a nap.”
“Everything happens for a nap.”
“Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss you’ll take a nap.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you nap.”
The typical Tide customer is a woman between the ages of 18 and 64. She’s educated, but not too educated. She has disposable income, but not too much disposable income. She likes fun, but definitely knows the difference between what’s fun and what’s not fun. For example, she’d rather watch a movie than watch her house burn down. She loves her children, but she’s not obsessed with them to the point where she wants to murder them. I would say she’s more inclined to pick up her children from soccer practice rather than, say, drive her car onto the field and run them over during soccer practice.
Also, a Tide customer doesn’t necessarily have to be between the ages I stated above and could be between other ages, like between 18 and 28, or 36 and 37, or between the age when she starts washing clothes and the age she dies.
Does the typical Tide customer eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner? The answer is “yes,” BUT—and this is a big but—she’s not this breakfast, lunch, and dinner freak. In the morning, you won’t find a Tide customer going berserk and running around her neighborhood in her nightgown, screaming, “I want my breakfast!” while blood drips from her ears, nose, and eyeballs. But that doesn’t mean Tide customers are inactive. They are very active, but not so active that they’d ever legally change their name to “Active.” Our research indicates that not a single Tide user is going to be named “Active Anderson” or “Jane the Active” or has ever said, “Hi, my name is Jane. Well, it used to be. It’s Active now.”
Is a Tide user aspirational? Of course she is! But not too aspirational. She would prefer to visit Mt. Rushmore than chisel her own face on it, watch a documentary about a concentration camp rather than manage a concentration camp, and pet a giraffe rather than go through all the effort of getting up there to chop its head off.
You know what I mean?
So just to recap: The customers we need to be going after are females between clothes-washing age and death who don’t enjoy watching their houses burn down.
Now, I’ll tell you who a Tide customer isn’t. She isn’t the type of person who likes performing cardiothoracic surgery when she’s had no medical training whatsoever. She isn’t the type of person who enjoys getting whipped around by an F-5 tornado, especially if there are tires and tractors in the vortex along with her. She isn’t the type of person who likes having to un-knot big balls of wires and cords. She isn’t the type of person who enjoys it when her clothes are still dirty after going through a wash cycle. And our research suggests she wouldn’t be happy if an 18-foot anaconda were wrapped around her body. In fact, when we ask Tide customers, “Would you be happy if an 18-foot anaconda were wrapped around your body?” they say “no.”
But here’s what they do like. Tide customers like sitting down when they are tired; they like being able to use telephones, especially when they want to make a telephone call; they like when their cancer goes into remission and never comes back; they like when clothes are clean after going through a wash cycle; and they like Paul Simon, unless they don’t.
I REPEAT: TIDE CUSTOMERS LIKE PAUL SIMON UNLESS THEY DON’T. KEEP THAT IN MIND WHEN YOU ARE MARKETING TIDE.
And real fast: Some Tide customers enjoy couscous-based meals.
Also, men use Tide.
Character Driven: Life, Lessons, and Basketball
by Derek Fisher with Gary Brozek
(255 pages, 2009, Touchstone and Howard)
And here we have what is (as far as I am aware) a dramatically new development, not just in the field of Self-Help Books by Professional Athletes but in memoirs and authorized biographies as a whole: a central subject who has agreed to release a book about his life, while, simultaneously, resisting any introspection whatsoever. In fact, the central subject of this book appears to be entirely devoid of any tangible internal life—and, compellingly, seems to be painstakingly aware of that absence of a personal emotional landscape. By confessing that he has not had essential conversations with the family members closest to him, Derek Fisher is at once rebuffing his own attempt to share his life for public consumption, while also confessing the deepest and most intimate secret that he possesses.
Derek Fisher has had, quite simply, one of the most accomplished NBA careers of all-time. Fisher is the only player, alongside Kobe Bryant, to have won all five championships won by the Los Angeles Lakers in this century.
While Fisher’s contributions extend to the well-timed three-pointer instead of the ball-dominating brilliance of Bryant, it’s not as though Fisher was simply grabbing onto an opportunely placed coattail. The only player to have won all six championships alongside Michael Jordan was Scottie Pippen, and Pippen is unanimously considered one of the fifty best players to ever set sneaker on hardwood. While Fisher’s individual talents do not shine nearly as bright as Pippen’s, one does not stick around a championship-caliber team for so long without bringing some significant gifts to the table.
Namely, Fisher provides “character” and “toughness” and “intangibles” for his team. These are descriptors usually reserved for—well, those adjectives tend to be exclusively bestowed upon white players. Lacking, apocryphally, the athleticism and rhythmic instincts of black players, white players are credited with providing these hustling, character-filled attributes, attributes that inspire so many jowly broadcasters to wax endlessly about said player’s (supposedly) superior moral character. The uninitiated basketball-watcher would be forgiven for thinking that hustling in pursuit of rebounds qualifies one for sainthood.
Perhaps it is some significant moment of racial reconciliation that Fisher is blabbed on about in all of the same ways. (Probably not.) What’s also true, though, is that in Fisher’s world, “character” is not used to produce, say, the blossoming fruits of meaningful relationships and the bloom of a holistically good and contented life. In Fisher’s world, having “character” usually means just being a rigid hard-ass about as much stuff as possible. In Character Driven—ah, what a title—we don’t hear any anecdotes about the friendships that are so famously formed in the cauldron of competitive team pursuits. Actually, Fisher doesn’t even talk about his time in the NBA that much whatsoever, as he invests a single paragraph in discussing the Lakers’ 2001-02 championship season. Mostly, we just hear Fisher unwittingly delve into the tangled psychoanalytic forest that is his relationship with his father—a champion hard-ass, it seems. So mechanical was Father Fisher’s hard-assery that Derek is reduced to discussing the mushy goop of his own thoughts and emotions in terms of purely mechanical processes.
When Derek looks back at his hard-ass upbringing in Little Rock, Arkansas, he talks about the machines of his childhood in such stupefyingly boring detail that I have to believe that these passages are in fact metaphors for something else. Here goes Derek about the lawn chores he had to do as a child:
We lived on the corner, so our lot was bigger than our neighbors’, and it sloped down to the street level on one side. When I was really young, I wasn’t allowed to use the push lawn mower since that slope was dangerous, but I had to clean up after the lawn mower that my dad used. I’m sure that other people back then had lawn mowers with bags attached to catch the clippings, but I didn’t know that. Everybody I knew had a bagless mower.
Even more incredibly, I have abbreviated this passage. This is about half of it. In other words, Fisher thought that people would be just as interested in reading about his childhood lawn-mowing regimen as they would be interested in reading about the operatic highs and lows of an entire NBA Championship-winning season. He also thought that a malfunctioning door on the family car would be equally as interesting (again, this passage is not close to the entire saga of the door that Derek shares):
…[B]ack in 1981 when I was seven years old, we had a 1976 Mercury Montego sedan that my mom drove to work. We had picked it up used, and it must have been in a wreck of some kind because even though it was only five years old, it had some issues. For one, the passenger-side door latch would intermittently malfunction. We always had trouble getting it to close properly. My dad tried to fix it, but he couldn’t, so we adapted to it. We knew that once that door got properly closed, none of us would use it.
Gah! What, really, could be a more mundane subject to talk about?
Fast-forward to adult, NBA-veteran Derek. His infant daughter, Tatum, is diagnosed with cancer in one of her eyes. This is real life. This is serious. (Tatum has, fortunately, made a full recovery since.) And there is something undeniably bizarre about how, when Fisher recounts the moment the doctor told him and his wife about the cancer, that he can only describe the moment in the language of machines:
The sensation was like what happens when you are driving a standard-transmission car and you think you’re in gear but you’re in neutral. You hit the gas and you can hear and feel the vibration of the rapidly racing engine, but you don’t increase your actual speed.
Uh, what? Hearing that your child has cancer is like experiencing a slight mishap when you drive a standard-transmission car? Yeah, probably not—unless you have little gears and pistons in the place where most people have the slimy, dripping chambers of the heart.
Fisher’s other moments of introspection contain a bizarre paradox: there is not that much to introspect on, but Fisher knows there’s not that much to introspect on. Meaning that, despite not being very introspective, his introspections are completely exhaustive and totally accurate. As he describes his relationships with his wife and children, liberally sprinkling in the most vanilla of basketball metaphors:
I want to let my guard down, let them know that they are welcome to score in my house, and that I’m not going to block their shot and not isolate so much of my life from them.
But is it not revealing that Fisher equates emotional openness with losing a basketball game (he is “getting scored on”)?
Fisher has experienced transcendental moments of adrenaline and euphoria and victory on the world’s biggest and brightest stages of basketball. He has seen so much of the world, and on somebody else’s dime. He has wrung every drop of productivity out of the considerable natural talents he was gifted with. His future generations have financial security like you wouldn’t even believe. And yet, whatever you’ve been doing while Fisher has been playing ball, odds are you’ve extracted a whole lot more fun and meaning from it.
“We’ll heal every neuron with transcendental therapy. Goodbye worldly knowledge—yoga class will now begin. Come with questions. Confucianism demands that we construct weird new worldviews. Vishnu now becomes clear. Concentrate now. Begin concentrating. Make sure nobody breaks concentration. And… find nirvana.”
My girlfriend’s dogmatically-confused yoga instructor attempts to cure me of my incredulity. Also, a mnemonic for the broadcast stations Al Roker has worked for throughout his career (WHEN, WTTG, WKYC, WNBC, WQCD, The Weather Channel, WNWV, NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, and Food Network).
Good evening, fellow Jorlocks. Your attention, please. I stand before you today, on the summit of Mount Xenul, to deliver great news for the future of our planet. I am happy to announce that the first stage of our attack against Earth is complete. As of this morning, every single human now owns a pair of Nike Free sneakers.
As you know, this project has been a long and uncertain one, the ultimate success of which hinges on brainwashing technology covertly embedded in a popular model of footwear. Of course the path leading to today’s achievement was marked with tremendous doubt. Many of you did not think it was possible for a single brand of running sneaker to saturate the culture of an entire planet. Meanwhile, some of you even questioned my authority as an intergalactic tastemaker.
But you were wrong. And I, the almighty and universally stylish Neelro, was right.
I told you from the start that the humans’ absurd fashion obsessions would be their undoing. You asked, “But what about those who do not exercise? What about those who do not go running?” And I assured you, in my infinite divine wisdom, that even those who do not run would still wear the running sneaker. I told you that whether or not they use the sneaker for its intended purpose does not matter to the humans.
Still, you questioned me.
You peered through our advanced x-ray telescopes into the apartment of the one that the earthlings call “Andrew.” There, in his squalid domicile, you watched this “Andrew” lay for hours at a time, feet dangling off the couch, flinging playing cards absentmindedly into the crown of an upside-down baseball cap. You watched him cram pizza into his face and lurch drunkenly from the mouths of bars.
“Why,” you asked, “would someone like that buy a pair of shoes that are optimized for maximum athletic performance?”
But, you see, I have studied these creatures thoroughly. I told you that the “Andrews” of Earth would acquiesce to an all-encompassing style trend regardless of its relevance to their lifestyles. I told you that, unlike our supreme population of enlightened beings, the people of Earth do not always choose clothing for its functionality or practical applications. Was I wrong?
No! Of course not! I am never wrong!
I told you that they would not see it coming, that they would merely scramble like crazed insects to the nearest department store and throw their money away on pointless podiatric trifles. But again you asked “why?” and I said “silence you insufferable ingrates!” and then you went cowering into your space caves like the insignificant flakes of comet dust that you are.
“But Neelro,” you whimpered, bowing before me on my levitating crystal space throne. “What sort of mindless horde would wear matching pairs of one type of shoe when so many options are available to them?”
Well—for those of you I did not obliterate on the grounds of insubordination—now you have an answer.
Now that every human owns a pair of Nike Free sneakers, we can suck the remaining puny vestiges of knowledge from their feeble minds. We can leech their brains of meaningless pop culture trivia and HBO GO passwords. We can override their unsophisticated nervous systems and transform them into drooling shells of emptiness. We can bring their senseless lives to a screeching halt once and for all, and then claim the planet Earth as our own.
None of you thought it was possible. You never imagined that this day would come. But now every human owns a pair of Nike Free sneakers. And so they will perish for all of eternity.
So let us rejoice. For every man and woman on the face of that inferior distant globe has played right into the palms of my six-fingered hands. Every purchase—every credit card swipe—brought us one step closer to our goal. And now that every disgusting human foot is laced snugly in a cocoon of Nike Free comfort, we can finally launch the round of psychological offensives that will eventually wipe them out of existence.
Now go fire up the Giant Brainwashing Device. Quickly, before they all latch onto the Birkenstock revival.
Our crack team of aspiring high school-aged music journalists—for this interview, that included Cristina Cass, Tricia Crimmins, David Kennedy, Kalina Gac, Caley Griebenow, Lucie McKnight and Eli Tecktiel—met with Dee Dee from the Dum Dum girls on Saturday afternoon. These creative writing students channeled their musical knowledge and interviewing skills during the following on-the-spot Q&A with the singer in the media tent, where she talked about what it took to overcome her own fear and doubt and become a musician.
826 CHICAGO: Do you like performing indoors or outdoors?
DEE DEE: In the past we’ve said indoors. When we started, it made more sense to us and to anyone watching to be in a small crowd. But there’s something special being able to play for a much larger audience. Sometimes the elements really line up beautifully. If you’ve ever played a show as the sun sets on the ocean, you know it’s the best.
826 CHICAGO: Have you played other festivals before?
DEE DEE: Yeah. I was actually just referring to a show we played in Portugal called Primavera. We haven’t played Pitchfork before but we did play Lollapalooza two years ago and we played Coachella this year. So, yeah, a fair share. I guess it’s sort of the end goal to be asked to play festivals
826 CHICAGO: So you’ve played in Spain before, how is it?
DEE DEE: It’s very cool. It’s arguably the best part about playing in a band, the opportunity to tour the world. It’s interesting that there’s a pretty significant difference between what it’s like touring in the States versus in most of Western Europe. It’s a little more artist-friendly over there, I would say, but I guess you’d have to talk to European bands that come here. Maybe they would have the opposite opinion
826 CHICAGO: What has been your favorite venue that you’ve played at?
DEE DEE: There’s a lot. Sometimes it has more to do with the audience or the context than the actual venue. I really like the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. I grew up going to shows there and it’s a beautiful theater, but again, that one for me was maybe a bit more nostalgic than anything else. It’s a great sounding room, but it’s a room that I used to exist in only as a fan, so making that crossover and then performing there it felt like an accomplishment
826 CHICAGO: I read a bio on you that said you started out making bedroom recordings; did they actually take place in a bedroom? What was that like?
DEE DEE: Yes, I’ve made many a bedroom recording. All the first releases from the Dum Dum Girls, even the first full-length record. I use the term bedroom loosely. I lived in a studio, in a living room that had a murphy bed so it’s also a living room recording. It’s great. I’m a pretty quiet person generally. I get all my extroverted energy out on stage and otherwise, I’m a wallflower. I had a lot of time on my hands, and I was by myself all the time, so I would get home from work that would be where I was the next six hours, recording by myself, isolated.
826 CHICAGO: Did you produce all by yourself?
DEE DEE: Yeah, which is why it probably sounds the worst of all the Dum Dum Girls’ releases, but maybe the most charming. When I first started this project it was me learning guitar, how to write songs. The whole learning process was captured on record, for better or for worse. Now I work with producers. I worked with a pretty consistent team for about five records, this kinda old New York legend Richard Gottehrer. You should look him up. You’ll probably recognize at least two bands he’s worked with in the past, like the Supremes or the Ronnettes.
826 CHICAGO: Where did the name of the band originate?
DEE DEE: Well I was sitting in the apartment and was looking at records and started to record songs and I was going to make a MySpace page. It was 2008, and you can’t make a Myspace page without a name. I didn’t really have anything in mind, it’s hard naming a band. I was just looking at my records just trying to come up with ideas and I saw this record called Dum Dum and I thought, “I like how that sounds,” and more importantly how it looks. Maybe it could be some play off backup harmony. Then I was reminded of an Iggy Pop song called “Dum Dum Boys” and my husband actually said, “You should just change it and call it Dum Dum Girls,” then said, “Oh wait, no, I’m gonna call my band that.” But then he forgot about it, so the next day or two I claimed it.
826 CHICAGO: If you could go back to your 18-year-old self, what piece of advice would you give her?
DEE DEE: Let’s see, 18, first year of college. I tend to believe that you learn from mistakes. There’s no other way to learn, at least for me. Maybe I’m stubborn, but all my mistakes have been valuable. I would say, try harder sooner. It took me a long time to sort of fix the discrepancy between what I wanted to do and what I knew I was meant to do and actually doing it. It took me many years and I wish I realized the only thing stopping me was myself. If I had realized that earlier I’d have been a more productive human.
826 CHICAGO: Did you ever plan on being anything else besides a musician?
DEE DEE: I don’t know how much I planned to be a musician. I didn’t really feel, in a dramatic way, that I had any other choice. From a very young age I felt I was intended to do this, but I had pretty debilitating stage fright and terrible self-confidence. You know, none of the things that help you pursue anything that involves risk. So I focused a lot on writing and reading books instead of cultivating friendships. I studied literature in college and thought I’d go into publishing or writing, but at some point, I finally started singing with the band and I just knew. I failed for many, many many years before I had any success, so I guess I was hardheaded.
826 CHICAGO: If you could have a collaboration song with any of your musical influences, who would it be?
DEE DEE: Lou Reed; he’s on my short list of my favorite artists. In addition to being musically gifted and a great performer, he’s one of those people who when you read their lyrics, you know they’re standalone poems. He’s one of my favorite songwriters and a lot of it has to do with the content of his art. He was an amazing writer.
Photos by Zach Duffy
Sometimes timing is everything. This is the last column in this series, so one might urge me to get in my last thoughts about test prep. As luck would have it, last week I resigned from my position with the well-endowed tutoring company. I didn’t do this out of outrage or moral vigor—I did it because two days later I moved cross-country to pursue other things, a college teaching position among them. I didn’t leave out of outrage, but that’s not to say I didn’t leave with a certain amount of relief.
While moving into my new house, I was chatting with one of my housemates. She asked what I’d been doing in my former job, and I explained I’d worked in tutoring, in a company that specialized in standardized tests. “Oh…” she responded with a forced smile. “That’s really interesting.”
“What do you do?” I asked her.
“I’m a middle school teacher. I actually try to get my students to opt out of standardized tests. I don’t really believe in them.”
“Yeah,” I said awkwardly. “Neither do I, really.”
It’s been a funny transition. When people at my company found out I was on my way out, I was met with a lot of support. People wished me luck, took me out to meals, told me they were seriously so happy for me to be pursuing a passion. The overwhelming reaction I received, though, was jealousy. You’re so lucky to be on your way out of here, I heard from almost everyone. You don’t have to worry about any of this anymore.
It’d be one thing if I was a client finishing up my work with them, and other clients were congratulating me. You don’t have to pay them anymore! makes sense as a notion about which to be jealous. It’d make sense if I’d accomplished some goal, passed some test I’d been working so hard to take. But that isn’t the case. This is a company at which we all choose to work, and I simply chose to do something else instead. No one who works for them is dodging the subsistence line; everyone there is doing educated, skilled labor. They could all find other jobs at least as easily as anyone else in this economy. Which is to say, not easily, but feasibly.
“I just don’t know what else I could be doing,” I heard from a lot of former co-workers. This coming from tutors who’d been working there for four years or more, were too accustomed to one student at a time, to curricula they could recite in their sleep, to high pay and low hours. Coming from admin staff who were paid just enough not to look for other, equally frustrating jobs in other Operations departments. Coming from managerial staff using the job to support the art they make in their off hours, too scared and maybe too smart to try and support themselves as dayplayers on film sets or full time yoga instructors. Working there is just too comfortable, just too stable to feel right about leaving.
Until it isn’t. In the last few months, my former employer has seen no fewer than eleven full-time, relatively essential staff members resign. That’s out of a full-time staff of roughly 35. The president of the company is desperate to keep the attrition rate down, and every time someone leaves, he or she is offered a raise to stay. Thus far, I have yet to see anyone take the raise.
So people leave, and they’re congratulated and fawned over for leaving. When one of my administrative coworkers left this past spring, she hung a motivational poster of a kitten on the wall of my office. In large print on the front it reads COMMITMENT. On the back she’d signed her initials, and instructed me and the rest of the managerial staff to sign ours when each of us quit, until everyone who’d seen the back of the poster was gone. Almost a year ago, I made a pact with three coworkers that we’d all be gone in one year. Only one of those people remains employed there currently.
It feels a bit like a prison break. Like we’re getting away with something. But the fact remains that these are cushy desk jobs in the field of education—one that should be rewarding and gratifying to work in. It seems strange and backwards that we act like inmates, as though this work is some kind of quicksand that dirties us but won’t let us go.
But that’s what it does. It feels like dirty work because almost no one there believes in it. I never met anyone on the full-time staff who had received tutoring him or herself, though we employed plenty of former classroom teachers and social workers who were well aware of the problems we were not only not solving, but helping to exacerbate. It may also be worth mentioning that the company has been around just long enough that former students are now applying to tutor with us, and in my experience they have been among the least motivated, least capable staff members we employ. We haven’t taught them to do anything themselves. We’ve taught them only how to score points.
This is my legacy upon resigning: relief, guilt, and a profound feeling of ambivalence. The day I left I pulled aside a senior staff member who’s been working there for over a decade. “Be honest,” I said. “Is this company evil?”
He responded that no, they were not. That the industry would still exist without us. That maybe the tests were evil, but we didn’t create them. We were just helping students navigate them.
That doesn’t feel like enough, for me. To say that the way you make a living isn’t evil, precisely. And I really love and admire the people with whom I worked at this company, in this industry (for the most part). And I took my paychecks to the bank just like they did. But I think it’s a false notion to blame the monster and not the people feeding it. And I think our clients feed the beast as well, but we enabled them in a way that’s near-narcotic. You don’t say a drug dealer is blameless just because he didn’t invent the vice. You don’t argue that he’s not even a little implicated in the way communities decay, kids slip through the cracks, or wealth disparities emerge. He’s not the cause, but he’s causal. The biggest thing I’ve learned in an industry about collecting points and keeping score, is that winning is a drug.
We pushed it.
Gone With The Wind
Rhett kisses and grabs at Scarlett against her will. Scarlett informs Rhett that though they are married, she still has autonomy over her body and has the right to refuse sex. The pair ascend the staircase in thoughtful conversation, and Rhett wakes up the next morning glowing with newfound feminist awareness.
Scottie asks his girlfriend Judy to change her clothes and hair to resemble the deceased “Madeleine.” Judy tells Scottie that she dresses for herself and not for him. She realizes she has better things to do than be in a relationship with a controlling old man who isn’t actually hot and who has a weird dumb accent.
Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi
Luke and Leia plan to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hut. Leia is captured by Jabba, and is forced to wear a normal, full-coverage prison jumpsuit.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Nurse Ratched, representing the concept of powerful women, is a kind and competent nurse. Everyone in the film is happy and there is no conflict.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Stanley has spent the film waging psychological warfare against Blanche, who has called him a brute and an animal. In the film’s climax, he tells her how insulted and objectified he has felt and firmly asks her to leave his house.
A Clockwork Orange
The male protagonist of this film spends his evenings having consensual sex with various women. Everyone respects one another.
12 Angry Men
This is a movie about 12 rational female jurors.
Saving Private Ryan
A group of women who now run the governments of all major countries work out a diplomatic agreement and avoid the anguish inherent in a world war.
The Sound Of Music
The original Mrs. von Trapp had access to birth control and chose to stop having children after Liesl.
Socialite/fashion plate Lisa drops in to dote on her injured boyfriend Jeff, not because she is forced into this domestic role by gender norms, but out of genuine affection. Jeff thanks Lisa and asks about her fascinating job instead of talking about boring bullshit he saw his neighbors do.
Mary Poppins is a man.
Beauty and the Beast
The second Belle sees a chance to escape from the Beast, she runs and gets help from the police, who do not question her right to accuse a wealthy man of a crime. Later, Gaston politely asks Belle on a date and does not pressure her when she declines.
Sandy, still wearing the sock-hop attire that makes her feel most comfortable, tells Danny that she wants to be with him despite the high-school antics he has been pulling. They do a fun, sexy dance and no one feels like they had to compromise their sense of self.
Megan Fox is the main character of this film about giant robots discussing Susan Sontag.
Snow White, who happens to have a real name (Theresa), tells the dwarves about being stifled by the expectations placed on her by the patriarchal structure of the kingdom’s monarchy. She earns her keep by working alongside the dwarves in the mine.
A strong female character exercises her desire and drags a man to the top of the Empire State Building. The citizens of New York applaud a woman for being aggressive in a relationship.
Or, perhaps, Fate is for losers.
Then again, maybe Fate just keeps on happening.
If not, then surely, Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.1
Though if you prefer, and most of us (I trust) do, you could simply conclude, with the great American Zen master Branch Rickey, that Luck is the residue of design.
Or as the bitter metaphysician Humphrey Bogart summed up the inescapable and capricious nature of coincidence and serendipity that had brought him once again face to face with Ilsa Lund: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.
The father-mother had gone on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I had the apartment to myself. I also had an ounce of crystal meth. It was party time. People came over, brought reefer, booze, ’shrooms with them. One guy even brought a KLH 112 portable stereo in a suitcase so we could plug in, spin platters, dance till dawn.
Instead of dancing, I smoked reefer, chugged booze, snorted endless lines of crank… all night long.
Rosy-fingered dawn slapped me silly. The parental pad looked like a post-party cliché, debris everywhere: empty bottles, half-empty bottles, knocked-over bottles, butts, roaches, cups (some containing a muddy, primordial ooze). Plus there were a couple of kids totally conked out, one on the floor, one on the long, low-riding orange corduroy couch over by the big bay window.
I was burrowed into my favorite chair experiencing g-forces so intense I felt like I might get pushed through the springs, straight into hell. I was so wired I was emitting the kind of crackling noises usually associated with either downed power lines or perambulating giant crab monsters (see Attack of the Crab Monsters).3
I needed to get to a peaceful place, an Isla de Mujeres4 of the mind. But there was no escaping the scary, fucked-up, Warsaw Ghetto space I was in save riding it out, sleeping it off. My situation brought to mind Farewell, My Lovely the book. Marlowe’s been sapped and drugged. He wakes up in a strange place, looks at himself in the mirror, doesn’t like what he sees: I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
My version of a coat, hat, and gun — a few more lines of meth, a few more hits of reefer.
It took all my powers of concentration to set things up. I rescued a roach from the floor by my feet, laid down a couple of zig-zaggy lines of crank. I pulled out a single, rolled it up as best I could, snorted the lines al gusto, followed them up with a few good tokes on the roach.
Afterward I felt like I weighed a billion pounds yet somehow managed to stand. As soon as I was upright, the world began spinning, faster and faster. Objects dissolved into colors, got brighter and brighter, the room mimicking the entropic universe, expanding outwards, receding into the distance, until all that was left was a dark abyss. It felt like life as I knew it was about to fade to black.
And then it was like I didn’t exist.
When I came to, I found myself jammed in a space the width of a dumbwaiter between the sink and the stove, in a position only the dead or the double-jointed can achieve. The small sliver of sky I could see out the kitchen window was lit by a spectacular pollution sunset.
Though I knew who I was, had a good guess where I was, I had no idea what day it was. The only thing I was certain of—I had lost at least twelve hours.
The crackling of the fluorescent fixture, which had probably been on since the night before, whenever that was, was deafening, as was that conga player beating out a crazy supercharged rhythm somewhere. It took me who knows how long to realize the conga was my heart (Is that cannon fire or is my heart pounding?)5, the rhythm a runaway case of superventricular tachycardia.
While comatose I seemed to have developed a superpower — hallucinatory, time-lapse vision. Focusing on my left hand, I watched as my phalanges did a lifetime worth of rheumatoid arthritic disarticulation in a matter of seconds, at the end of which I possessed not a hand but a claw. I swiveled, looked at the other hand: it did the same.
I ferociously resisted acknowledging the obvious — I had snorted, smoked, swallowed way too much dope, had almost died, had somehow clawed my way back.
As I sat there trying to gather the strength to move a toe, a foot, perhaps even a leg, I imagined an episode of Dragnet NYC in which I was the punch line:
EXT. CITY — NIGHT
The street bustles with traffic, PEDESTRIANS.
A towering apartment complex all lit up.
INT. HALLWAY — SAME
BEN and SADIE, 60s, returning from a trip — happy, almost playful.
As Ben slips the key into the lock, Sadie’s mood suddenly changes, she becomes wary, perhaps even scared.
What’s that smell, Ben?
He turns the lock, opens the door.
INT. APARTMENT — CONTINUOUS
LIGHT from the hallway cuts a bright triangle in the dark apartment.
Ben and Sadie enter. Their faces contort.
Ben strides into the kitchen, turns on a light.
A decomposing body wedged between stove and sink.
A bloodcurdling SCREAM.
INT. FOYER — SOME TIME LATER
SGT. JOE FRIDAY, rage and empathy battling it out on his near affectless face, stands before Ben and Sadie, both mute, mournful, as morgue attendants wheel out a body bag.
I guess this is what they mean
when they say give me liberty
or give me meth.
I had dodged a bullet. I felt chastened, horrified. I swore I’d never take drugs again, thanked the universe for letting me survive, celebrated my good fortune. And then I whiffed of the incense of forgetfulness,7 got up, weaved and wobbled back to the living room. The conked-out kids were gone. I collapsed back into my favorite chair, looked down, saw the discarded single unfurled on the floor, half a joint next to it. All I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun… I picked the roach up, flicked my bic, toked hard, though it would be a while before I could put on my coat and walk out of that room.
1 Edgar G. Ulmer’s sixty-eight-minute epic, poverty-row noir Detour is a wackball road movie that chronicles the descent into hell of Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a low-rent piano player. He starts out with the best of intentions—to hitch out to LA and join his gal pal, out there chasing a star. But every step he takes brings him closer to his true destination, the intersection of Tragic and Inevitable. A guy named Haskell picks Al up, turns the wheel over to him, tells him to drive. As soon as Al does so, Haskell has a syncope. Al rushes to help but when he opens the passenger side door, Haskell tumbles out, hits his head on a rock, and dies. Convinced the police will never believe it was an accident, Al does the only logical thing: he steals Haskell’s car and identity and continues driving west. He gives a femme fatale (Ann Savage) a lift and intros himself as Haskell — another bad choice. It turns out this dame was nearly raped by the real Haskell, knows he’s not, blackmails him. At this point Al is all in. He has no choice but to keep on keeping on with her by his side, all the way to LA. They rent a pad, where they live together as Ma and Pa Haskell until they can sell the car and split the proceeds. They drink and they fight. One night, threatening to call the cops, she storms off, phone in hand, locks herself in the bedroom, and somehow wraps the telephone cord round her neck before passing out. Al, on the wrong side of the door, pulls on the trailing cord, trying to yank it from the wall in the next room but only managing to strangle her. Another accidental death. Another unbelievable story. Al now breaks into a full run. He stops at a roadside diner long enough to down a cup of joe before he steps outside and sticks out his thumb. He’s picked up by the cops, who give him a lift to the cross-bar hotel. And so indeed, Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.
2 At 13th-grade sleep-away camp My Friend the Miltonist and My Friend the Abogado shared their Johnson City pad with a guy whom they nicknamed the Mole. This sketchy dude, the scion to a chips fortune, was a music maven of the highest order. The Mole knew that ten-year-old Denardo Coleman played drums for his pops Ornette long before any of the rest of us had ever heard of the father of free jazz, or Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, Charlie Haden, and had yet heard crazy avant-garde shit like New York Eye and Ear Control. The Mole spun his vinyl on his KLH 11, the first fully transistorized stereo system, which featured a Garrard turntable, a Stanton stylus, a built-in amp, and a pair of speakers which folded neatly into a “suitcase” for easy transportation and was by far the coolest thing any of us had ever seen.
3 A gang of Axis and Ally eggheads land on a nuked-out atoll in El Pacifico trying to discover the fate of the last gang of eggheads sent there, all of whom have disappeared without a trace. The group leader is Dr. Weigand, a reformed Nazi genius, the love interest a sexpot ichthyologist who seems way more comfortable modeling swimsuits than handling test tubes. One by one the lab rats disappear, and later their voices, now spooky and robotic, amplified as if through a tinny, echoey horn, are heard urging the others to join them. Dr. Weigand figures out that the nuke caused a mutation among the land crab population, which resulted in the birth of a Crab Monster that swallows the brains of its victims whole and incorporates each one into its collective consciousness. It can then ventriloquize any of the many voices at its disposal in order to help pick off its next victim. It is also an accomplished ammunition technician, using dynamite to slowly blow off chunks of the island, making it more difficult for any survivors to run and hide. Fortunately the crackling noise it emits as it crabs its way toward its victims serves as an alarm, though too late for some. When the last three people standing — sexy lady, her fellow-scientist squeeze, and the man of action — are huddled on the last remaining bit of rock, Icthy-Babe wonders aloud how the fuck this could be happening. Her beau explains: Preservation of the species—once they were men, now they are land crabs.
4 Before Cancun became a theme park for spring break, My Friend the Film Critic, My Friend His Old Lady, and I found ourselves at the very tip of Quintana Roo boarding a ferry for Isla de Mujeres, which, we had been told, was a muy cool place that had gotten its name because it’s where pirates stashed their womenfolk when they roamed the Caribbean for ships to loot and scuttle. It consisted at the time of a single main drag with an open air restaurant that served tortuga soup from atop a market that was replenished by ferry a couple of times a week. There was a store where you could buy frozen chocolate-covered bananas and seis-doce insect repellent, which was an absolute necessity since the only place for young gringos to crash on the serene turquoise-blue Caribbean beach was a place called Las Hamacas: for ten pesos a night you got to hang the rainbow-colored, super-comfortable hammock that you’d hondelled in the Merida mercado and sleep under the stars, of which there were plenty, oftentimes obscured by massive clouds of ravenous moscas. The place was a fucking paradise.
5 Ilse Lund to Rick as the Nazis are about to enter Paris during the backstory bit in Casablanca.
6 The TV series Dragnet, produced by Jack Webb, who also starred as Sgt. Joe Friday, Badge 714, had two incarnations — black-and-white in the 50s, color in the 60s. Each episode, in which only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, was a true crime story featuring Webb’s patented clipped narration and flat-affect acting as he led us through the sketchy underbelly of sunny La-La Land; in the two iterations of Dragnet there were at least three episodes about dope, each a cautionary tale, each ending with the death of a kid, each one more absurdly chilling than the last. In The Big Seventeen (1952) Friday and his partner Frank Smith head to a neighborhood movie theater where a riot had broken out: a bunch of hopped-up teens got rowdy, then violent, breaking the place up. Friday is given a cardboard pillbox with a couple of joints in it, setting him off on a crusade: busting kids, grilling them, getting them to give up the name of the dealer, who turns out to be a kid so depraved he beat his connection to death in order to steal the guy’s stash of heroin, shit so powerful its distribution was certain to leave the bodies of teens strewn throughout Gidgetville. This intel forces Friday into further acts of crusading, this time to forestall a potential drug holocaust. It leads him to the first victim of this smack scourge—the perp himself, OD’d on his own medicine, an object lesson to anyone considering trying the evil weed, a sure gateway onto a literal dead end. The Prophet (1967) starts with a space cadet, half his face painted blue, soliloquizing psychedelically: My hair’s green and I’m a tree… if your body dies your mind will live on… Brown, blue, yellow, green… I can hear them. I can hear them all. But in Dragnet-world being spaced is a sin, and sinners must pay with their lives. Blue Boy buys the farm. His death (a miraculous OD on acid) so infuriates Friday that he spits out this gateway drug formulary, the purest distillation of Friday-think: Marijuana was the flame, heroin was the fuse, and acid was the bomb. In The Big High a pair of phi beta kappa suburbanites with an upscale shack in Sherman Oaks and a toddler gurgling in its playpen prison initially engage Friday in a Platonic dialogue on the pros and cons of pot; after Friday and his partner split, Mr. and Mrs. Smart Ass get high, totally fucked up, forget about the baby, who, vo den, pays with its little infant life, drowned in the bathtub, leaving space mama a mental wreck, Friday’s sidekick Gannon hurling his breakfast burrito, and Friday literally holding the bag—a lid full of weed—close up to the camera, wacky womb weeping in the background, the heartbroken cop finally crushing the deadly herb in his helpless hands. (There was of course no NYC version of Dragnet. I made that shit up.)
7 In Chapter Ten of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, Flash, Happy, and Dale separate in the Forest Kingdom in order to explore both sides of a ridge in search of Prince Barin’s interstellar stratosled. Happy and Dale are set upon by caveman-like Forest People, who cold-cock Happy and carry Dale off, delivering her to the high priest of Kalu, who suspects Flash of having stolen Kalu’s sacred black sapphire and so sentences Dale to suffer the consequences — to stand in the Incense of Forgetfulness (hence the chapter’s title). Incense sprinkled into the fire produces a chemical transformation that releases somnambulizing smoke. When Dale tokes on the vapor, it suspends her animation, effectively zombifying her. Her consecration is made complete when she places her hand upon the sacred dagger and vows fealty to Kalu. Just as she does, Flash explodes into frame, taking on the gaggle of guards protecting the shrine, a scene choreographed so that Flash’s back is turned to the Aryan heartthrob who once was Dale Arden but is now an automaton in the service of an idol. She unsheathes the sacred dagger and, illustrating just how globally effective the Incense of Forgetfulness is in blanking the cognitive neural substrates, she turns on her special friend Flash and reflexively shoves the holy shiv into his back, up to the hilt, leaving the audience stunned, in disbelief, hanging off a cliff of concern, uncertain whether the space ranger will live or die, a fear that will lurk in the folds of their prefrontal lobe until the next installment of the serial hits a theater near them.
From: Leah Bush
Date: Mon, Aug 11, 2014
Subject: APA Conference Proposal
The conference’s theme, which I agree is unorthodox, nevertheless aligns with my personal and academic ventures. As such, I would like to submit my research regarding the role of herd immunity in eradicating ablutophobia, or the fear of bathing. Ablutophobia relates to sharks because sharks live in water and people bathe in water. The obvious question, then, is do sharks cause ablutophobia?
Title: You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Tub
Abstract: Herd immunity, a term usually applied to the efficacy of vaccinations when most but not all of a population is rendered immune, also shows promise in the underwater arena. Specifically, preventing contact between those at risk for fear of bathing with those with an active fear of it can halt the spread of ablutophobia and eventually eliminate it permanently when the affected people die. However, people often associate deaths with sharks, compounding the issue at hand.
Methods: Eleven subjects were divided into four groups: two groups that, while bathing or showering, were exposed to no shark-related imagery and two groups that, while bathing or showering, were exposed to various factual depictions of sharks in their natural habitat. (Depictions included scenes from Jaws, Sharknado, and Sharknado 2: The Second One.) One non-viewing group was allowed to interact with one test group; the other two remained isolated from each other.
These groups each consisted of four people, respectively, except for one control group (see: Limitations). Their reactions to bathing, both as a concept and as a daily event were recorded in three ways: fMRI scans when shown images of sharks, fMRI scans when shown images of bathtubs and showers, and fMRI scans when shown images of subjects in bathtubs or showers with sharks uncomfortably close to them in a warm and cuddly embrace. Additionally, videos of facial reactions to bathing were recorded and analyzed and may add to the televisual appeal of my proposal.
Results and Conclusions: In all three scans, the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the processing of fear, of each subject in both groups exposed to shark visuals lit up like a shark’s eyes when it smells blood. That is to say that the difference between test group amygdalae and control amygdalae was statistically significant, as was hypothesized. Additionally, fear was recorded in the group that interacted with the shark video viewers but, notably, not in the true control group. Therefore, sharks conclusively cause ablutophobia. The causal relationship can be applied by isolating ablutophobes and perhaps feeding them to the sharks. Conversely, the media can capitalize on this relationship by establishing an ubiquitous shark-related presence
Limitations: Subjects either showered or bathed; neither was standardized across the board due to the calculation that the cost of disrupting the daily bathing routines of the showerers or the daily showering routine of the bathers outweighed the potential benefits of such standardization. Additionally, one subject was dropped from the control group for refusing to shower or bathe; however, he should not have been recruited for the study in the first place, when my research group and I became aware of the questionable stench emanating from his body.
I have not attached a picture of myself due to the probable need for a surrogate presenter should you accept my proposal. See, though I’m a post-pubescent woman, I weigh about 60 pounds: I’m lacking in not brains nor breasts but legs. A shark attack in my youth, spent as a lifeguard in Ft. Lauderdale, resulted in the loss of about half of my right leg and two-thirds of my left. Unless an FDR-style podium can be assured, I think it’s best for you, me, and the audience that a surrogate presenter be used.
I have no conflict of interest to declare. No sharks were harmed in the undertaking of this study.
— Leah Bush
From: Scott Harper
Date: Sun, Aug 10, 2014
Subject: I know what you did
I was reading your quarterly, yesterday, when I happened to notice a number of bees eating a June bug alive in the hollow of an oak tree—making you an accomplice. I understand that cruelty in nature is unavoidable, but you are a literary journal and have no excuse. As people, or literary journals, we must challenge ourselves to rise above the inky baseness of our savagery: to be more than appetite. To gobble with mercy, peck-ish though we may be. I aim at you the following request, accordingly: don’t eat June bugs alive, please, McSweeney’s.
I appreciate your considerations.
From: Leah Bush
Date: Mon, Jul 28, 2014
Subject: RE: THE ASSOCIATION FOR THE STUDY OF ROMANTIC LETTERS PRESENTS THE FIRST ANNUAL CONFERENCE ON HOW TO TELL SAMANTHA I REALLY LIKE HER
Hi Bobby (Jason? Can I call you Jason?),
I’ve never written a proposal before—project proposal or love proposal—but I have engaged the questions you asked even though I’m not actually engaged. Actually, I’m a high school senior, but more on that in the abstract and C.V.
Title: “Love in the Time of High School.” (I have to read Love in the Time of Cholera, among other books, for my AP English Literature class. I’m responding to your call for submissions because I feel like procrastinating. There’s still some summer left, right? Right?)
Abstract: High school is an often overlooked breeding ground (of knowledge), one where learning takes place both within and beyond the classroom. The knowledge borne of my research experience—and it’s not complete; I still have one year of high school to go, assuming I don’t fail again—has shed some light on the murky shadows that surround love. Specifically, when I read Plato’s Symposium in 10th grade, I wrote an A+ research paper comparing Aristophanes’ notion of the soul mate to a similar notion that appears in the Hannah Montana song, “He Could Be the One.” That same year, I also read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I found the number of semicolons in the novel unbearable, though, so don’t use too many semicolons in your note or tweet or whatever the conference guides you to choose. The moral of Jane and her eventual husband Mr. Rochester’s story is that even if you do something so outrageous as conceal an insane, undivorceable wife from your current lover as Mr. Rochester did to Jane, things still work out in the end. Basically, it’s harder than you think to fuck up.
As a sophomore, I tried my hardest not to fall for anyone, and it was a pretty miserable year. Junior year, however, I started to like like a young man named David. We didn’t have AP English Language together—he had it 6th period, and I 7th—but we did have chemistry together. (And how fortunate! AP Chem is a double-period class at my school, and we were together 3rd and 4th period). Near the end of this past year, though, our English teacher, Mrs. Crawford, assigned a project on any dystopian novel of the students’ choice. We had the option of working individually or in groups, and the groups could consist of students within a class or across multiple classes. Naturally, I asked David if he’d like to work with me. He was hesitant at first, but he was hooked after I read him the first line of one of my favorites, Catch-22: “It was love at first sight.” (Two comments: 1. Catch-22 Isn’t technically a dystopian novel, but, according to Mrs. Crawford, all literature falls in one of two categories: satire or dystopia. (When I asked her which Twilight fell into, I expected her to say dystopia because society can disintegrate into nothing lower than sparkly vampires. In all her cunning insight, Mrs. Crawford responded, “That’s not literature.”) 2. Further research is necessary to determine whether a novel whose description of “love” consists almost entirely of one night stands is an appropriate novel with which to tell someone you might love him or her.) The project went so well that in my yearbook David asked for more book recommendations! He even drew a potato in my yearbook! If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
Future projects, which I plan to undertake this school year, include making David a Valentine’s Day card that says in white Comic Sans, “I have a Major Major Major Major crush on you” on top of a background of a WWII plane to make clear my allusion to Catch-22. Also, even though schedules for the coming school year aren’t available, I’m pretty sure we’ll have at least one class together: physics. (My school isn’t huge, and there’s historically been only one AP Physics C class, which we both requested to take.) And isn’t chemistry just applied physics, and physics applied chemistry?
C.V.: I’m a girl. (I don’t know how to highlight in email, so I redefined “highlight” to mean “change the font color to pink.”)
The abstract covers my relevant high school love experience. I hope it is of value to you even though it is from the perspective of, rather than about, the unrequited love of a girl.
I tutor, which has been a nice way of getting paid while improving upon my social interaction skills.
I got a 2330 on my SAT. David got a 2330 on his SAT. Coincidence? I think not. (For all of the old people out there, College Board added a writing section in 2005. Like the math and verbal sections, the writing one is scored out of a maximum of 800 points.)
I play tennis. I highlighted this because my mom happened to see David’s mom at the airport—my mom doesn’t know I <3 David. I don’t know if David’s mom knows what David thinks of me. I don’t know if David knows what David thinks of me. Love. It’s complicated—but my mom told me that David’s mom told her that David has started to pick up tennis.
Statement of the Author’s Estimate of how likely it is that Samantha will simply laugh at the note and post a pic of it on Instagram, thereby ruining [your] entire life: I think it’s highly likely that Samantha will post a picture of the note on Instagram. See, the whole purpose of a female’s teenage years is to get the maximum number of likes possible on all pictures posted to Facebook, Instagram, etc. When I was asked to senior prom as a junior—by another boy in my chemistry class, no less—I made a picture of the _prom_posal my cover photo on Facebook. It garnered 86 likes, which far outnumbers the sum of the likes of my 8 other cover photos, which totals 25, for an average non-prom cover photo likeage (that’s a technical term) of 3.125 likes per picture. The only logical conclusion is that the demonstration of love in a cover photo has resulted in a 2,752% increase in my cover photo’s likes, and there’s no reason to think that Samantha’s experience should differ greatly; female teenage humans comprise a very homogenous population. However, I don’t think she’d “simply laugh at the note.” I wouldn’t at least. To ensure no hurt feelings, I hope we can discuss the content of your note further at today’s conference, which can only happen if you accept my proposal. Maybe then we can talk about the possibility that your note becomes a part of her Snapchat story.
— Leah Bush
Date: Wed, Jul 16, 2014
Subject: This New Rap Song…
Hi, interesting article but nowhere do I see the rap song in question. If this isn’t some sort of vague joke, I think it’s likely an oversight. Can you please fix up the article with the relevant details. ty.
Date: Fri, Jul 11, 2014
Subject: Fake Massachusetts town names
There really IS a town in Massachusetts named “Braintree”! Really!
I don’t know what they were thinking (or smoking) when they thought that name but it is true.
— JJ in R.I., somewhat near Braintree
Editor’s response: [Sigh.]
From: Jodie Leidecker
Date: Thu, Jul 10, 2014
Subject: Our Great Nation
Our country just celebrated another year of freedom, which has caused me to become reflective. I am very patriotic and so glad I was born in the United States because if I were born in India in the social class I come from then my parents would have sold me to somebody who would have cut off my arms and legs and made me roll in the dirt begging for alms, just like in a Charles Dickens’ novel but in modern times. Although if my ancestor John had stayed in Prussia and not come over to Kentucky after the failed revolution in 1848 and the bloodline had survived the other crop failures, famines, political upheavals, and major problems like World War I and World War II, then I (and my cousins on my dad’s side) would be now enjoying free government-sponsored health care and six weeks’ vacation at a spa resort in Baden-Baden every summer instead of spending the 1980’s driving around Paducah in a Camaro looking to score some weed and working at Long John Silver’s. I’m just saying.
Ancestors seem to always have been worrying about themselves instead of their descendants’ well-being. It was just a failed revolution—how bad could it have been if John could afford to pay passage across the ocean and buy 500 acres of good real estate a few miles out of town? Where’d he get the money if he was running from the king? (I am pretty sure that the only way any ancestor from my mom’s family could afford to get to America was as a member of a new penal colony—all expenses paid, of course.) I love my country, but a spa is nothing to turn your nose up at, either. Unless it would have turned out that I would have been one of the sweepers or the mean woman who makes you pay to use the bathroom of the spa (or beer garden). In that case, forget it and God Bless America.
I also harbor a very strong love for my state, Kentucky. Kentucky IS the best state in every way and its attractions are too numerous to mention here ( but just check out our state health insurance marketplace to get an idea), so suffice it to say that the physical beauty of the landscape is matched only by the charming character of the residents. I have lived in Kentucky for forty years except for six weeks in Europe, six months in India, and an occasional week here or there in New York and one big splashy road trip to see the southwest. After two weeks with just my family in the tiny rental car for ten hours a day, I threw a fit and we drove home in silence all the way through Kansas until a tornado-producing storm blew up and I started freaking out and praying to find a hotel. After all these times, I couldn’t wait to get home to a normal environment where there are package tobacco stores so that you can drive up to a window to pay for cigarettes and not have to drag your oxygen tank all the way out of the car (so inconvenient). Some even have pharmacies on the other end of the building so you can pick up your COPD medicine in the same stop. Now that’s what I call progressive.
I don’t mean to be biased, though, because I know we have some problems. For example, I went walking in town recently for my health and I saw a bumper sticker that said “Elect Jesus king of your life.” All I could think was that this driver may have had twelve years or so of public education Kentucky’s schools and still couldn’t tell the difference between democracy and the divine right of kings. Kings aren’t elected is the point I’m trying to make. Just ask my ancestor, John, who was ready to give up his descendants’ future rights to free health care and long summer vacations at spa resorts just to get away from his king. I need my own bumper sticker that says “Somebody around here robbed Peter to pay Paul.”
Another problem in Kentucky is that not many people are taking health walks like me. Of course, there is the danger of being run down by those on the way to the package cigarette store, so I have to be watchful, but there was the opportunity to pick up a free sock on the road. Some of my socks have holes, so I was considering getting it, but it looked too small, so I left it for the next lucky person who would be walking that way. I also used to pass by some thong underwear that had a cute butterfly sewn on the front that lay near the road for weeks, but I wasn’t tempted to take them. I was getting exercise, finding treasures, and communing with the cigarette smokers and political Christians (via their bumpers), so I felt like overall it was a good time and would like to encourage everyone to get out there and get to walking, but to also watch out!
Because I am so patriotic, when I die, I hope my kids take my remains out of the acid bath that dissolved me (if there are remains after that) and sprinkle them into one of the beautiful creeks I played in as a child in north Graves County. My “ashes” will mingle with broken whiskey bottles, cigarette butts, and straight-flush toilet contents from whence I was made and I will be happy, just floating and dreaming that I finally made to that big spa in the sky.
Your friend and fellow patriot,
From: Kate Shuster
Date: Tue, Jul 1, 2014
Subject: Correspondence Loosely Related to Issue 46
I killed a ladybug. It was after nine on a Friday night in Montgomery, Alabama. I was relaxing in the clawfoot bathtub we’d installed in our old house. Understand, please, that we had not gotten the tub because we were rich or indolent, but rather because the old bathroom’s floor was falling in from a century of neglect and poor construction work and termite damage and who knows what else, and also because we live in Montgomery and needed a refuge from the complex historical background radiation that steeps this place. I’d settled in with a mystery from the excellent collection in No. 46, the one that takes place in a sanatorium where a man awakens with ants crawling across him.
Please understand that bugs were a major reason I didn’t want to move to Alabama, despite relocating from Claremont, California—a place built on a warren of ants. My father was briefly stationed in Pensacola after I was born, spending the years after Vietnam flying reconnaissance missions into hurricanes while my mother was left to fend for herself against, the way she tells it, an army of giant flying roaches. “They call them Palmetto Bugs,” she would say, scorning the local delusion that these things were not giant flying cockroaches. This was a woman who had previously spent years in Guam rooming with geckos who would supposedly climb on the ceiling above the bed and poop on the sleeping military bride below.
When I announced to her that I was moving to Alabama seven years ago, she said, “God, but the roaches.” Fortunately, we haven’t had much of that in our particular house. We have everything else, it seems. For example, our neighborhood is infested in the summer by nefarious-looking and dumb as hell cicadas, whose tragic life is the subject of another letter. There are giant incomprehensible rectangular bugs with wavy sinister antennae, glittery green beetles who seem alive even when dead perched on the collection of axe handles that inhabits our outdoor shed for some reason, and absolute hordes of mosquitos. And there were, at least when we moved in, mysterious rafts of ladybugs who would enter the house only to be found dead in the seeming hundreds on window ledges and just under doorframes, mingling with dog hair and forgotten bits of paper in grotesque and fading collages. Years of caulking and weatherproofing reduced their mass extinction somewhat. We also suspected that the cats were eating any stragglers; in any case, they diminished and I’d forgotten their attempted collective migration until tonight.
I didn’t think of these devastated refugees from the conflict-ridden out-of-doors when I reflexively swatted at the flying insect from my perch deep in the water. I lunged with a fancy hand towel that was the last item I’d bought and described to my mother in detail before she died, something much too expensive for me to actually purchase...
CEO and CFO are alone in CEO’s office.
CEO sits on the edge of her desk, her back arched to amplify her cleavage. CEO tries not to stare as CFO paces, his tie loosened, his pectoral muscles rippling with worry under his Luigi Borrelli dress shirt. CFO sputters about offshore accounts, reassurances from legal, and the certainty of jail time. CFO talks about everything but the only thing on both their minds.
This is their last chance.
CEO pats the space beside her on the edge of her desk. CFO joins her there, sitting so close they can feel the heat from each other’s hips.
So many wasted years, ticked down to these final minutes before the feds close in and shut everything down, the last time they’ll be alone together.
The lawyers say everyone could be in cuffs within the hour, but will CEO be in CFO’s arms? By dawn, the secret memos that should never have been sent will be on page one of every paper in America, but will CFO’s secret longing remain hidden from CEO’s eye? The world is about to learn about the billions in illegal trades, the blatant disregard for the millions of their countrymen who will wake up tomorrow with nothing.
And all CEO can think about is digging her manicure into the musculature of CFO’s strong, broad back.
And all CFO can think about is the 3.4 inches of thigh poking out from CEO’s not-at-all-dressed-for-jail-time skirt.
“Kiss me,” says CEO.
“I’m scared,” says CFO.
She knows he’s not scared of the police, or jail, or their names becoming synonymous with thievery and greed. He’s scared of what comes after the kiss.
Their repressed sexual energy has been the thing that’s made every quarterly earnings call such a delight to investors. It became a must-listen on the street. Investors would dial in as much to hear CEO and CFO giggle at each other’s flirty jokes and affectionate banter as they would to complain about the company’s delay in offloading potentially toxic assets.
“When Will These Two Corporate Superstars Just Quit Playing Games And Do It Already?” read one headline in Investors Daily.
“CEO and CFO Sitting In A Tree: K-I-S-S-I-NG?” queried Forbes in their Fortune 500 issue.
Bloomberg Markets once called CEO and CFO, “The Will-They Won’t-They Couple That’s Taking The NASDAQ By Storm.”
“When will-they won’t-they couples finally break down and do it,” CFO says. “They often find out the tension was the only thing holding them together. They fail as a couple”
“What’s in my heart is too big,” CEO insists.
“Too big to fail?” CFO asks.
CEO takes CFO’s hand and rests it over her breast, letting him feel the beating in her heart.
“I’m saying it’s too big to hold it in anymore,” CEO says.
Sirens. Lots of sirens. Less than a block away. With every whir of the sirens they feel each other drawn closer together.
Separate minimum-security prisons, CEO to ladies, CFO to men’s. There’s no telling how many years they’ll get. There’s no telling if they’ll still be emotionally present enough to love when they both are free again.
“We don’t know how we’ll take to minimum security prison,” CEO whispers. “You have to hide yourself away deep inside, where the other hacks can’t get to you. What if we won’t be able to find ourselves again when we get out?”
CFO’s hand is still on CEO’s breast. His touch pulses through her entire body. Her hand, on the small of his back, pulls his pelvis to hers. Their faces are so close they’re sharing the same breath.
“And what if we so adjust to minimum security prison life,” CFO says. “That when we’re finally freed, we commit more financial fraud just to get bounced back inside, because that’s the only life we know?”
CFO leaning closer now. CEO can almost taste his lips.
“Close the deal,” CEO commands her CFO.
By the time a secretary shouts, “Excuse me you can’t go in there,” the two executives at the top of the most brazen corporate malfeasance in American history have become one. When the feds burst through the double doors to CEO’s office suite, they put their pre-rehearsed “you’re under arrest” pronouncements on hold when they find a half-naked CEO and CFO sprawled across the desk in each other’s arms, laughing joyfully. Crimes were committed, yes, but more immediately, a desire was fulfilled, a love consummated.
Miranda rights can wait. All the feds can do just then is tuck their badges and warrants under their armpits and applaud.
“Still Waters Run Deep”—is that really the best headline we can come up with for this Whit Stillman profile? C’mon, people, this is not the Peoria Daily. What am I paying you hacks for? In my day, we would’ve run you out of the newsroom and back to j-school for something this trite, you cowardly, talentless vermin. Some days, I question why I’m even editor-in-chief of this rag. I should be writing poetry, for Chrissake, living in a cabin somewhere and—wait, I got it: “Very Whitty.” Boom. It’s going on the cover.
1. Giant otter-shrew
2. Moon rat
3. Brindled weasel
4. Three-inch fool
7. Crab-eating raccoon
8. Greasy tallow-catch
9. Mongrel bitch
10. Moldy rogue
11. Snipe eel
12. Cream-faced loon
13. Embossed carbuncle
14. Scaly-breasted thrasher
15. Blue-footed booby
Shakespearian insults: 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13
Animals: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 14, 15, 16
Look here boys, we’re in a real sticky situation. It’s been deader than a morgue out there for months, and we all know the reason why: we’re losing our audience to moving pictures. Seems like every week there’s another new “theater” popping up, run by some unqualified, young backwater projectionist showing cheap, flickering rehashings of our bang-up work. It’s bleeding us dry boys, and it’s time we put an end to it. We need a few sly moves to get us outta this rotten pickle.
First, we gotta monetize more effectively. We can’t keep letting these camera crankers undersell us. So here’s what I’m thinkin’: we roll out a real top-notch freemium model. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can come in to our theater for free and see up to ten minutes of our best songs, dances, and comedy. Then as soon as ten minutes hits—blam-o! We make ‘em pay us a buck fifty per month for unlimited access to all our shows. Since they loved the first ten minutes so much, they’ll cough up the ducats before you can say “Bob’s your Uncle’s reliable auto-renewing revenue stream.”
And third, and this is the biggest thing, we gotta appeal to sesquicentennials. You know who I’m talkin’ about, these youngsters that have been coming of age in the 1910s and 1920s. They’re obsessed with what’s current and modern. They have at least one telephone in the home. They’re not afraid of bicycles. They want to see soft-shoe numbers now and they’re not gonna wait around for your traveling company to make it to their city. We gotta make more shortform, shareable content for these whippersnappers. It needs to be lightweight enough for them to easily share with their peers over telephone or during a quick soda. Let’s focus on visuals. More slapstick. More hoofing. More trained animals. Less monologizing. Nothing longer than a minute and a half. And let’s see some catchier titles up there. Marlowe and Davies’ Comedy Spectacle?” Come on, boys. How’s that gonna compete with something as clear and snappy as Train Arrives At Station? Make it so a sesquecentennial just needs to hear the name of your act to get excited.
Now, I see by your long mugs you think this is a raw deal. Some’a you’s are probably thinking you’d rather see vaudeville die than stoop to these levels. But lemme put it to you this way: either we get with the times, or we risk making these unqualified camera crankers the sole voice of comedy and entertainment in America. It gives me the heebie jeebies to imagine a world where my friends, neighbors, and family get their entertainment not from us, the guardians of thoughtful, innovative, dance, jokes, and trained mule acts, but from some Yahoo J. Celluloid who only wants to fill a few seats and make a quick buck.
So let’s turn it around tonight, boy-o’s. Let’s go out there and give ‘em a great show. Let’s pack the bill with shareable laughs, lightweight songs, and tastefully branded burlesque numbers. Let’s blow the roof of this place and get our audience so engaged they roll down the aisles and out into the streets to evangelize on behalf of our high-quality content!
Also, all the jugglers are fired.
In the novel The Little Golden Fleece, Ilf & Petrov satirized Russian social life in the early 1920s. As individuals sought a place in the new Soviet order, there arose a class of con men who claimed to be descended from heroes of the revolutionary movement. In this chapter, llf & Petrov dubbed them “the children of Lieutenant Schmidt,” after a hero of the 1905 revolution. In my update, the action is moved to New York City, and the con men are replaced by our Internet hoaxers, hackers, and identity thieves, whose actions are possible because of ARPANENT, the first iteration of the Internet.
The frantic morning came to an end. Ostap Bender and Shura Balganov walked quickly away from the Internet cafe in silent agreement. A long blue couch was being carted along the street by two hipsters. The street was filled with cars and bikes and pedestrians. The sun was breaking through the glass window of a store selling Goth and Steampunk fashion, where two skeletons sat locked in a friendly embrace above a set of globes, skulls, and the merrily painted cardboard liver of a drunkard. In the meager window of a shop, most of the space was taken up by enameled signs reading HANDMADE SOAP, and ORGANIC SOAP, and GOATS’ MILK SOAP, and the simple NATURAL SOAP, and, finally, a sturdy blackboard with the golden letters HANDMADE SOAPS. There was clearly a great demand for these soap types in the Village. The soap shop offered only a single little blue sign for another life necessity: ORGANIC TOOTHPASTE.
Further along stood three stores in a row selling vintage items. Copper pots lay gleaming lecherously atop a mid-century modern buffet. An Eames chair was especially handsome. It looked powerful as it warmed itself lazily in the sun, like parents could take their children to see it on Sundays and holidays and say “There it is, my child. The Eames.” And the children would look at it, their big eyes filled with wonder.
At any other time, Bender would have noticed the Jacobsen chair, the Jalk table, the vinyl records, and bolts of retro fabric, which brought to mind the old adage that everything old is new again, but his mind was on other things today. He was hungry. “I assume you are standing on the edge of a financial abyss?” he asked Balganov.
“You mean cash?” said Shura. “I haven’t had cash for a whole week.”
“In that case, young man, your future is grim,” pronounced Ostap. “The financial abyss is the deepest kind of abyss; you can spend your whole life falling into it. Still, don’t sulk. I did manage to activate some prepaid restaurant cards earlier. The credit card gods liked me today.”
But the two stepbrothers weren’t able to take advantage of those. A large sign on the door of the restaurant read, CASH TODAY ONLY. CREDIT/DEBIT SYSTEM DOWN.
“Of course,” said Ostap bitterly, “the system is down. We’ll have to eat fast food.”
“Those cards won’t work there,” said Balganov dully.
“I know. I do have a little cash, a few dollars. But keep in mind, my esteemed Shura, that I don’t intend to give you a free lunch. I’m going to demand a variety of minor services for every vitamin you’re fed.”
Finally, the brothers were eating their dinner. “So tell me,” added Ostap said, “what that cutthroat Panikovski did wrong. I like stories about this kind of thing.”
The sated Balganov looked upon his savior with gratitude and began his story. It went on for a while and included some exceptionally interesting information.
It is well known that there exist institutions to regulate the supply and demand of labor. An actor sets out for New York after ascertaining that he can compete there, and that his skills are as good as those of his rivals. Rail workers are taken care of by their professional unions, which post announcements in their newsletters that baggage handlers are wanted on certain lines, or that stewards are needed on another line. An expert in human resources knows where to place ads, so that good candidates will know where they might fight employment.
It is all self-regulating, flowing down clear channels, completing natural cycles both in harmony with and under the full protection of the law.
Only one very unusual market existed in a state of chaos, and that was the market of hucksters, scammers, hoaxers, hackers, and phishers, all those we might call the children of ARPANET. Anarchy was tearing these children apart. They were not able to extract from their profession the comforts that would have doubtless been theirs, given even a momentary acquaintance with any number of Internet users, who for the most part are surprisingly gullible people.
The Nigerian prince who needs help moving money out of his country, the fake grandson who lost his wallet on a trip abroad, the FB “like” farmer, the fill-out-the-survey, win-a-prize scammer, the boy who has lottery winnings for you, the my-child-has-cancer hoaxer, the chain email writer who only needs $1, the “your account is locked” phishers, the “oops! I added too many zeroes to your check” overpayer: all crisscrossed the Internet, wheedling and extorting. From every point on the dateline, from boiler rooms in capital cities across the globe, from young men creating malware at flickering screens in bedrooms all over the earth, you could find the Internet-savvy criminals on every platform, anxiously attacking security measures. They rushed about. They were very busy.
At one point, the supply of scammers exceeded the number of targets, and this unique market experienced a depression. The need for reform made itself felt. And so some began to go legit, to clean up their act, to find honest work on the net, with the sole exception of the thriving group of children of the ARPANET, who, like the American Congress, found themselves riven by anarchy. They were all rude, greedy, and contrary, and they made it impossible for one another to earn a living.
Balganov, who considered himself ARPANET’s firstborn, had begun to seriously worry about the trend things were taking. More and more frequently, he would run into the work of colleagues who had completely besmirched the fertile fields of the “gold bullion stolen by corrupt government official” approach with such an obviously fake government document that the mark was immediately suspicious, and deleted the email.
“These difficulties were haunting you?” asked Ostap mockingly.
But Balganov didn’t notice the irony. Drinking his free-refill of soda, he continued his story. There was only one way out of this tense situation—a conference. Balganov worked on putting together the web conference all winter long. He corresponded with the competitors he knew personally. Those he didn’t know, he invited through the various grandchildren of ARPANET he’d met on his Internet travels. Finally, in the early spring, almost all of ARPANET’s children got together on a webinar platform. The quorum was large—it turned out that the ARPNET had hundreds of sons, from eighteen to sixty-two, and four daughters, all of them unattractive.
In his short introductory speech, Balganov expressed the hope that the brothers might find a common language and work out a treaty that life had rendered imperative.
According to Balganov’s plan, the entire world was to be broken up into operating districts, to match the number of participants. Each district would be entrusted to one of the children for their long-term use. None of the members of the corporation would be allowed to cross the border into another’s territory with the goal of making money there.
No one objected to these new work rules with the exception of Panikovski, who right then announced that he could live without a treaty. There were some ugly scenes, however, when it came to dividing up the country. The parties that had been in such lofty agreement fell to bickering right from the start, and would only address one another with the addition of vulgar epithets. The whole argument hinged on how districts were to be defined, and assigned.
Very few wanted geographic districts. Email addresses came in blocks that had little to do with geography. Though some wanted the university towns, finding them ideal for grandma scams. Some wanted the big cities, others wanted the hinterlands, as their inhabitants lacked familiarity with children of the ARPANET.
“You think you’ve found yourself some fools?” squealed Panikovski. “Give me the AOL email addresses, and I’ll sign your convention.”
“What? All of them?” said Balganov. “Maybe you want us to throw in Yahoo addresses too?”
The assembled parties gave a painful howl at the mention of Yahoo. Everyone was ready to go with something there that very instant. Yahoo users were the least savvy of all.
“Fine, not the whole thing,” insisted the greedy Panikovski. “Just give me half. I am a family man, after all, I have two families.” But they didn’t give him even half.
After prolonged shouting, it was agreed that districts would be assigned by random. An Excel spreadsheet and the RAND function doled out email address providers, international dating sites, and social media sites. Joyful cries, dull moans, and profanity accompanied the drawings.
Panikovski’s unlucky star showed its influence. He got gmail users. He was beside himself with wrath as he signed the treaty. “I’ll try,” he yelled. “But I’m warning you, if I can’t get around that spam filter at all, I’ll break the treaty. I’ll cross the border!”
Balganov, who got a golden Hotmail sector, took fright and announced right there that he would not stand for any infringement of the operating norms.
One way or another, the deal was worked out, after which ARPANET’s sons and four daughters went off to go to work in their assigned regions.
“You saw for your yourself how that swine defied the convention, Bender,” Balganov finished his story. “He’d been crawling around my territory for a long time, but I hadn’t been able to catch him until now.”
To the storyteller’s surprise, Panikovski’s wicked deed aroused no judgment from Ostap. Bender sprawled out in his chair, looking distractedly ahead.
An even line of trees with dense foliage was painted on the rear wall of the restaurant, like a picture in a children’s book. There were no real trees in the outdoor patio, but the shadow cast by the wall provided a refreshing coolness and the patrons found it completely satisfactory.
A green car went by, going full tilt. The driver was bouncing on his seat and yelling along with unintelligible music. Ostap watched it pass and said: “Now listen, Balganov, you pussy. Don’t get offended. By that, I just mean to clearly define the position you occupy under the sun.”
“Go to hell!” said Balganov rudely.
“You got offended after I told you not to? Does that mean you think being a son of the ARPANET is not being a pussy?”
“You yourself are one!” cried Balganov.
“You are a pussy,” repeated Ostap. “And the son of a pussy. And your children will be pussies! What happened this morning, with those prepaid cards, it was lame, a whim. I know how to steal them, so I did. But fishing at miserly odds is not in my character. And what kind of a profession is this, for God’s sake? ARPANET’s son! Maybe for another year, two on the outside. And then what? Then people will get wise to your “old Russian rubles found in a wall” scam, and they’ll start blocking you.”
“So what do I do?” worried Balganov. “How do I win my daily bread?”
“You need to think,” said Ostap sternly. “Me, for example, it’s ideas that keep me fed. I don’t hold out my hand for a few dollars, I cast my net wider. I have observed that you have a selfless love of money. Tell me, what kind of amount would be suitable?”
“Twenty-five thousand,” said Balganov quickly.
“Then I’m not the guy for you. I need five hundred thousand a year. And I need it all at once, not in installments.”
“Maybe you would take in installments nonetheless?” asked the vengeful Balganov.
Ostap looked at his interlocutor attentively, and in complete seriousness replied: “I would take it in installments. But I need it all at once.”
Balganov wanted to make a joke out of that answer, but looking up at Ostap, he stopped cold. The man sitting across from him was an athlete with a sharply defined face that looked as if it were stamped on a coin. A thick white scar ran across his dark throat. His eyes shone with a menacing bemusement.
Balganov suddenly felt an unconquerable desire to snap to attention. He even wanted to clear his throat, as happens with people of middling responsibilities when they are talking to one of their higher-ranking colleagues. And actually clearing his throat, he asked bashfully. “Why do you need so much money… and right away?”
“Really I need more.” said Ostap. “Five hundred thousand is my minimum. I want to get out of here, Balganov, go far away, to Rio de Janeiro.”
“Do you have relatives there?” asked Balganov.
“Do I look like the kind of person who would have relatives there?”
“No, but I…”
“I don’t have any relatives there, or anywhere. I am alone in this world. I had a father but he died long ago. That’s not the point. Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro. You, of course, weren’t even aware that such a city existed.”
Balganov nodded his head dejectedly. Of all the centers of world culture, he only knew New York and Moscow.
Ostap tossed his phone onto the table. “Here’s Wiki on Rio de Janeiro.” Balganov read through, about the bay on the Atlantic, mulattoes, samba, main streets every bit the equal of the greatest cities in the world…
“Can you imagine, Shura? I want to leave here. Over the last year, some serious differences have arisen between me and the government. Now do you see why I want so much money?”
“Where will you get five hundred thousand dollars?” asked Balganov quietly.
“Wherever I can,” replied Ostap. “Just introduce me to a rich man who is hiding his money off-shore, and I will take it.”
“How? Murder?” asked Balganov in an even softer voice, casting a glance at the neighboring tables.
“You know,” said Ostap, “you should never have signed that treaty. The intellectual effort clearly exhausted you. You are getting dumber by the minute. Please note that Ostap Bender has never killed anyone. Have others tried to kill him? They have. But he himself stands pure in the eyes of the law. I’m no cherub, of course. I don’t have wings, but I do honor the Criminal Code. That is my weakness.”
“How do you plan to take the money?”
“How do I plan to take it? The taking or removal of funds varies based on circumstances. I personally have four hundred comparatively honest methods of extracting wealth, small amounts. But it’s not about how it’s done. The point is that right now, I need a wealthy man, and that is the difficulty of my position. Another person in my place might throw himself at any millionaire but not me. You know the respect I have for the Criminal Code. There is no point in robbing an honest man. Give me a rich dishonest man. But I don’t know any such individuals.
“What do you mean!” exclaimed Balganov. “There are some very dishonest rich people.”
“Do you know them?” said Ostap instantly. “Can you give me the name and exact address of just one? And yet they exist, they must exist. Once you have a country in which there circulate certain financial instruments, there must exist people who possess them in large quantities. But how do you find such a catch?” Ostap even gave a sigh at this point. It was clear he had been struggling with these dreams of rich individuals for a long time.
“How pleasant,” he said, immersed in thought, “To work with a millionaire in a well-organized bourgeois country with established capitalist traditions for hiding funds. People know his address. He lives in a house of his own. You go straight in to see him as a visitor and right there in the front room, after exchanging your first hellos, you take away his money. And all this politely, pleasantly, you see. ‘Hello, sir, don’t worry. I will need to importune you a little bit. All right… Done.’ And that’s it! What could be simpler? A gentleman doing a little bit of business in the society of other gentlemen. Just don’t shoot into the chandelier, that’s overdoing it. Just find the hidden money, the money even the IRS can’t find.
“So you think,” asked Balganov after a pause, “that if you found such a secret millionaire, you would…?”
“Stop right there. I know what you’re going to say. No, not that. Not that at all. I don’t plan to strangle him with a pillow or beat him on the head with a black revolver. There won’t be any rough stuff at all. Oh, if I could only find an individual, I’d set it up so he brings me his money himself, on a little platter.”
“That’s very good.” Balganov smiled. “Five hundred thousand on a little platter.”
He got up and started walking around the table. He smacked his tongue sadly, stopping and starting, even opening his mouth, as if he wanted to say something, but then he would sit down without saying anything and then get up again. Ostap followed his movements with indifference.
“He’ll bring it himself?” Balganov asked suddenly in a creaky voice. “On a platter? And if he doesn’t? And why Rio de Janeiro? Forget about all that, Bender. You can live well here for five hundred thousand.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” said Ostap, amused. “You can live here. But don’t go flapping your wings for no reason. You don’t have five hundred thousand.”
A deep wrinkle appeared on Balganov’s untroubled, unlined forehead. He looked at Ostap hesitantly and said: “I know a millionaire like that.”
All the liveliness left Bender’s face in a flash. His face instantly became hard and again took on the features of a medal. “Go on, go on,” he said, “I only offer handouts on Saturdays, no point in trying to con me.”
“I swear it’s true, Bender.”
“What is this millionaire’s address?”
“He lives in Chicago.”
“I should have known. Chicago? Is he a drug dealer?”
“No, no, let me explain. He’s a real millionaire. See, Bender, not long ago I happened to be serving time in one of their penitentiaries …”
Ten minutes later, the stepbrothers left the patio. Bender felt like a surgeon who must carry out an extremely serious operation. Everything is ready. A nurse in a white moves silently across the tiled floor, the medical porcelain and nickel are shining, the patient is lying on a table, his unseeing eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. The surgeon walks up to the operating table, his hands spread, takes a sterilized scalpel from his assistant and…
“That’s how it always is with me,” said Bender, his eyes shining. “I end up having to start a million dollar job with a tangible lack of monetary instruments. My entire personal capital—base, operating and reserve—amounts to five bucks. What did you say the underground millionaire’s name was?”
“Koreiko” replied Balganov
“Yes, Koreiko. A beautiful name. And you claim no one knows about his millions.”
“No one except for me and Pruzhanski. But Pruzhanski, like I told you, is going to be spending another three years in jail. If you could only see how he railed and cried when I went free. He could feel that he should never have told me about Koreiko.”
“The fact that he revealed his secret to you is nothing. That’s not why he was railing and crying. He evidently had a premonition that you would tell the whole story to me. And that truly is a direct loss for poor Pruzhanski. By the time Pruzhanski gets out of jail, Koreiko will be finding consolation only in the despicable proverb ‘there’s no shame in being poor.” Ostap took off his summer cap, waved it in the air, and asked, “Do I have any grey hair?”
Balganov sucked in his gut, spread his socks a rifle butt’s width apart, and in the voice of a front line soldier answered: “Absolutely not!”
That means they’re on their way. Great battles lie ahead of us. You’ll go grey too, Balganov.”
Balganov suddenly gave a silly giggle. “How did you say it? They’ll bring the money on a little platter?”
“Mine on a little platter. Yours on a little plate.”
“And what about Rio de Janeiro? I want...