My young friend next door, the product of a lawyer and another lawyer, has decided to betray the family legacy. He’s going to journalism school.
“My parents are all upset,” Jimmy told me over a double latte something or other at the local Starbucks.
“Well, they are proud lawyers,” I said.
“Sure, full credit. But they act like I was going to become a, a, I don’t know, a writer.”
I almost spilled my almost-coffee. “Mercy! I can see how that would upset them.”
“I know, I know. But I told them I had no intention of being a poor writer. You know, I mean, not making any money.” He sighed. “They just don’t see the difference.”
“They’re old school, like me.”
“Yeah. What was that like? Kind of primitive, huh? Typewriters and stuff?”
I tried not to sink into a nostalgic haze for the good old days. Big black Royal and Underwood typewriters that built bulging little muscles on my fingers. Writing to deadline every day at 11 in the morning. Grilling politicians, local ones, national ones, big ones, small ones. Fighting for the truth. Those were the days. Oh yes.
“Hello! Hello!” Jimmy was snapping his fingers in my face when I came to. “Whew, I thought you were a goner,” he said.
“Just reminiscing,” I muttered.
I said it louder.
“No,” he said, “what’s that word mean? Remincing?”
“You’ll have to investigate it with a dictionary,” I said a tad sharply.
“I can look it up on my computer. The internet.”
“Typerwriters didn’t have dictionaries. We kept a Websters in the desk drawer.”
“The good old days, huh?” he said, looking quite concerned.
“They were.” I sipped whatever I was drinking. It wasn’t that old newsroom coffee, that’s for sure. “Where are you going to school?”
“Giant Journalism School, in the MidWest.” His eyes lit up as he no doubt reveled in fantasies of hot journalism chicks pursuing him while he broke the big stories.
“And once you get your degree, then what? You have a plan, right?”
“Of course. I’ll go to work for the New York Times or the L.A. Times, and work my way up to foreign correspondent.”
“Ambitious. How long will that take?”
“I figure a year. Yup, a year. And then I’ll come back and get work at one of the big TV networks covering the big stuff.”
“You’ll want to get friendly with the powerful people in Washington, no?”
“Well, sure, you got to do that to succeed.” He leaned back, looking at me appraisingly, which didn’t work too well because he has a lot of freckles. “It’s not like the old days.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling suddenly creaky. “What do you think they were like?”
“You guys made it hard on yourselves, always being antagonistic to the politicians and the like. That just makes it difficult to get them to tell you anything.”
“Ah. It’s true. We had to work at it. Get down in the dirt and dig.”
“Yeah, see. That’s the old way.” He pointed a finger at my chest. “We journalists work smarter these days.”
“We get friendly with the powerful people. Don’t ask questions that upset them. Shake their hands. Bow our heads. Agree with them. That’s the real key to winning their confidence. You got to agree with them.”
“Ah. And once you’ve won them over, then what?”
“Well, then they tell you what’s going on. They give you information, instead of making you dig for it.”
It was quite an improvement on the old ways, I had to admit. The money these modern reporters must save on antacid pills and blood pressure medicine must be huge.
“Jimmy,” I said, “how do you know that they’re telling you the truth?”
“Simple. Do you lie to your friends?”
Well, sometimes, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “Of course not.”
“So if I’m their friend they’ll deal straight with me, right?”
I nodded my head sagely.
“So getting the straight dope from them will help me move up the ladder in my career, right?”
“Sounds like you’ve got the process nailed, Jimmy. How high do you think you can go?”
“Oh, all the way, all the way. I’m a smart guy, you know that.”
He was. I’d known him since he was a first grader. He always seemed to know the angles that got him ahead in grade school and beyond. Must be those lawyer genes.
“How will you know when you’ve reached the top of your profession?” I asked. It’s important to set markers so you’ll know when you’ve accomplished your goals.
“Oh, that’s easy. Remember that correspondent’s dinner a while back, the one where Karl Rove was dancing?”
“Uh huh,” I said, suddenly wishing for some stomach medicine.
“And remember David Gregory, that big time news guy, the one who has such a big future at the network?”
“Sure,” I mumbled.
“Well, when I’m up there dancing with Karl Rove like David Gregory was, that’s when I’ll know.” He sat back and beamed at me.
I wished him luck and gave him what was left of my coffee drink.
“I have to go read a book,” I said.
“What’s that?” he called out.
My young friend next door, the product of a lawyer and another lawyer, has decided to betray the family legacy. He’s going to journalism school.
My neighbor, Charlie, the accountant, has thrown his hat in the ring. Actually, it’s a baseball cap for the Mets, but he never wears it backwards.
Charlie is certain he has the right stuff to be President.
“On September 11 I was walking around New York City, brushing the dust off myself. I led a small group of people into a storefront, so I was in charge,” Charlie told the local news reporter, Miss Emma Fitzfitz, an octogenerian with bad hearing.
“Were you ever cruel to animals, sir?” Emma asked.
“I certainly was. I yelled at my dog once for hiding one of my slippers.”
“How does that qualify you?” I asked.
“Well, terrifying my dog shows that I do what’s necessary, no matter what, doesn’t it?” Charlie said.
Miss Emma nodded her head. I shook her awake.
“Where do you stand on evolution, sir?” Miss Emma said.
“I can pander to the religious right just as well as anyone.”
“But where do you stand on evolution?” she repeated.
“I think I’m quite evolved,” he said, breaking a little sweat.
“Of course you are, sir” Miss Emma said. She said to me, “He’s quite wonderful, isn’t he?”
“What’s your religion, Charlie?” I said.
“I’m glad you asked that. It’s very important.” He fiddled with his cap. “What else do you want to know?”
“I want to know what your religion is.”
“Well, I’m a Morchrisjewian. But that’s not really important. I would never let all of my faith’s tenets dictate my actions in office.”
“Just some of them, then, sir?” Miss Emma said.
“How will you fight the war on terror?” I asked.
Charlie brushed some dandruff off his plaid shirt. “Well, I’ll fight them in Iraqistan so they don’t come over here and marry my daughter.”
“You don’t have a daughter,” I whispered to him.
“Shhh,” he whispered back. “My people are going to rent one.”
Miss Emma chimed in with, “Sir, should we attack Iranistan?”
“Of course. We have to keep them from building nuclear power plants and getting all modern and then coming over here to marry my daughter.”
“What about the illegal immigration problem, Charlie?”
“That’s an easy one. Round them up, send them home, collect a fine, and make them come back in later.” He grinned and waved at the crowd. Well, at me and Miss Emma.
“But, sir, the Congress just rejected that approach.”
“Well, harumph, then I’d build a fence along the entire Canadian border. What did you think of my harumph? I’ve been practicing.”
“Good harumph, Charlie. But it’s not Canadians crossing the border. It’s Mexicans.”
“Well, we have to start somewhere. And I love Mexican food. Canadian food, too.”
“Sir, would you pardon Scooter Libby?”
“I’d pardon all my friends. What’s a President good for if he can’t pardon his friends? It’s the American way, right?”
Miss Emma wrote that down, and announced that she had to toddle off to cover a flower club luncheon.
“Well, I think that went okay, didn’t it?” Charlie said, watching Miss Emma toddle away.
I nodded sagely. “You’ve got all the important things down, that’s for sure, Charlie. But what about money? It takes a lot of money.”
“Oh, no problem. Remember? I work for Incredibly Huge Accounting Company. We have government contracts. There’s lots of money there for the taking.”
I cocked my head and stared at him. “Republican, right?”
“Of course,” he harumphed.
[The following is a verbatim copy of a speech given by a top Republican strategist at a secret policy meeting of key Republican leaders, in and out of government. The meeting was held deep in a redwood forest, at a secret enclave. While rumors of human sacrifice cannot be confirmed, it is true that a young redwood tree was felled to cheers and dancing, and a spotted owl was sliced open and its internal organs read by a practicing necromancer.]
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this refresher session on the principles of our great Republican party. I hope you’re all enjoying the hospitality of our hosts, and the really delicious food. Wasn’t that Polar Bear Flambé delicious? (Standing ovation and rousing cheers.) And the Baked Alaska? Wonderful. (More cheers.)
Alright, settle down folks, settle down. It’s time to get down to business. We’ve called this little gathering because it’s apparent that there’s been some slippage in the practice of putting our sacred Republican principles into action, and our enemies have taken advantage of our negligence in order to further their own nefarious ends. You all know who I’m talking about. (Boos and hisses.) That’s right, that’s right, you know who. That’s what I’m talking about.
Now then, our first principle states “I BELIEVE the strength of our nation lies with the individual and that each person’s dignity, freedom, ability and responsibility must be honored.”
Now then, notice that word there, responsibility. We want to honor responsibility, right? Of course. What we’re saying there is that everyone is responsible for their own dignity, freedom, and ability. We’re not responsible for other people. We’re not reponsible for their problems. We’re not required to help every little person who’s behaved irresponsibly. The individual is completely responsible for everything that happens to him. Republicanism firmly supports the principle of individual responsibility. If Joe Lunchbox gets flooded out of his home, well, he shouldn’t have bought a house near the coast or the river, should he? And by the way, for those of you who have expensive houses on the shore, we’ve arranged for the government to pay you to rebuild should anything untoward happen.
Our next great principle states, “I BELIEVE free enterprise and encouraging individual initiative have brought this nation opportunity, economic growth and prosperity.”
Of course it has. The man who builds a business from the ground up is the hero in our America, and he should absolutely get all the praise and perks. He’s entitled to the wealth that he alone creates. It’s absolutely wrong for anyone to try and take that from him, especially with sneaky, extralegal devices like minimum wages and social security and health benefits for ungrateful workers and unemployment insurance and workers compensation. And unions. (Boos and hisses, foot stomping) Owners are the ones who do the real work of building America. Owners are the only ones who express the real America. They make it possible for the less fortunate to make a few bucks and pay taxes to live in this great country. Here’s to the owners! (Cheers and whistles.)
Now here’s a really important idea. It’s how we’ve made America great. “I BELIEVE in equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, creed, sex, age or disability.”
Of course we all believe these things, don’t we? These ideals apply to Republicans of all races (chuckles from the crowd), creeds, sexes, ages, and disabilities. Just remember, as regards creeds, only Christians have creeds. And since Republicans are completely responsible for themselves, no Republican can possibly have a disability that might require assistance from government. Hell’s bells, you don’t see anyone here in a wheelchair, or using crutches, do you? (Cheers) Damn right, people! We Republicans staqnd on our own two feet. (Wild applause) And talk about equality, why, just look at the wives here. They’re good Republican wives. Now that’s equality!
And never let it be said that Republicans don’t understand money, because “I BELIEVE government must practice fiscal responsibility and allow individuals to keep more of the money they earn.”
We think it’s only fair that the people that make the money, you know, the haves and the have mores, who have done the really hard work of building this country, should get to keep their money. We can pay for the wars we start and the perks we want by borrowing from around the world, and since we’re magnanimously doing it for the lower classes, they should carry the burden of paying it back. After all, we’re giving them a free and democratic country, and they owe us for that. We make the money and we’re responsible for the money. Now that’s fiscal responsibility.
This next one is really important, so pay attention. “I BELIEVE the proper role of government is to provide for the people only those critical functions that cannot be performed by individuals or private organizations, and that the best government is that which governs least.”
Since we haven’t been able to get the government off the people’s back by getting rid of social security and the minimum wage and welfare and all the rest of the Stalinist programs, we’ve gone ahead with programs to remove money from government and thus starve those programs out of existence. One is called Iraq, the other is called tax cuts. It’s perhaps a little unfortunate that some of the lower classes will experience some food insecurity and money insecurity, but it’s all for the best, the best being us of course. (Rousing cheers, wild applause) And by turning things over to private companies, which we own, we kill a couple of birds with one stone. Now you’ve all heard a lot of whining from places like New Orleans about the failure of government after that little hurricane. (Boos, hisses) Those people don’t realize what a favor we’ve done them by making them solve those problems on their own. As they come to see that government isn’t competent to interfere in purely local matters, they’ll come to thank us, and the Republican party will be enriched by them.
Pay attention now, because this is really important. “I BELIEVE the most effective, responsible and responsive government is government closest to the people.”
Well, of course it is. And who is closer to the people than Republicans, who really understand money and the getting of money. Isn’t that what the people want? Of course they want to be ruled by those of us who understand money. Money makes the world go ‘round, right folks? (Cheers, foot stomping, applause) And since Republicans got more of it, we make the world go ‘round. So stay close to your money, folks, it’s the most important thing you can do.
Now some bedrock thinking, folks. Cotton on to this. “I BELIEVE Americans must retain the principles that have made us strong while developing new and innovative ideas to meet the challenges of changing times.”
We’re talking about the power of positive greed. Greed is not a bad thing. It built America. We know what’s best for America and the world, because Republicans made it work here in America. Look at us! We’re wealthy and powerful and we don’t have to take crap from anybody. When someone criticizes you about the Kyoto agreement, you have only to tell them that America didn’t get to be a beacon of power in the world by letting other countries tell us what to do. And for that matter, these whining scientists, they’re all from left-wing schools and institutions. They have an agenda, and it’s not about keeping America strong and powerful and, well, just plain scary. That’s how we keep our enemies in line. Why, that Obama character that attacked New York, you can bet he’s hiding over there in whatever that country is he’s hiding in because he’s scared of us. That’s right! We’re big and strong and we will prevail, and those little people know it. Republicans know that the best innovations are the things that have always worked – that’s why we’ve got the biggest military in the world.
We’re almost at the end, folks, and this one brings tears to my old eyes. “I BELIEVE Americans value and should preserve our national strength and pride while working to extend peace, freedom and human rights throughout the world.”
We have only to look to Iraq to see the full success of our policy of enforcing peace, freedom, and human rights. What better example of Republicanism at work? Of course those weenies on the other side, you know who I mean (Boos, whistles, hisses), they don’t have any stomach for the tough decisions. But we know that this America doesn’t kill innocent people, America doesn’t torture people, that’s just vicious propaganda and lies. We’re the good guys, and maybe people don’t like Americans so much, but by God they respect us and they fear us, so when we say we’re bringing democracy to the dark places of the world, they welcome us with open arms, don’t they? (Cheers)
Well, that’s all, folks. Remember these principles. Remember how great this Republican party is, and how good we’ve been for the country and the world. One last note. I want to thank all these little brown people who’ve been serving our food and drinks and taking care of our needs these few days. Don’t they look snazzy in their little white uniforms? How about a round of applause? (Mild applause, sound of conversation increasing, chairs scraping back.)
Everybody remember now, you can deduct this gathering from your income taxes. See you next year!
I got the phone call from Johnny Ball at two in the morning. At first no one said anything, but I quickly figured it was Johnny because in the background I could pick out the sounds of an NFL game, a baseball game, a basketball game, and underneath it all the buzz of stock cars. Only Johnny had enough digital video recorders to do that all at once.
“Johnny,” I said, stifling a yawn. “What’s up, John?”
“There’s something terribly wrong.”
Stroke? Heart attack? Ex-wives stoning the house and cutting the cable?
“Help me. Please help me,” he whispered.
Johnny Ball was a sports freak, always had been. Played three sports in high school, lettered in all of them, married a cheerleader. He exuded all the confidence of a jock his whole life. He could recite detailed statistics from baseball, football, and basketball, and was one of seven Americans who knew the names of all the pro hockey teams. He loved sports. But on the phone he sounded like a wreck, a pathetic empty hulk with an ego shrunken to the size of a marble.
“I’ll be right over, Johnny. Hang on.” I grabbed a bottle of American beer I kept for emergencies such as home team losses and suchlike. Never touch the stuff myself. It’s all commercial and no flavor. Johnny loved it.
When I got to his house the front door was wide open. I thought maybe he had been burgled and someone had stolen his sports equipment. The televisions and stuff. But that wasn’t the case.
I found him in his Sports Den, slumped in his super recliner, in the flickering lights of half a dozen television screens, a half-full beer bottle dangling from one hand, the universal super multi-remote control clenched in the other.
He looked up at me. A single tear coursed down his cheek. I took the remote from him, gently unclenching his fingers.
“It’s all gone,” he said. “It’s gone. My whole life’s work.”
“Johnny, what are you talking about?” He didn’t have a life’s work. He managed a bank.
He waved loosely at the bank of televisions on the wall. “Omigod! Gone, all gone. I’ve lost the edge, pal, I’ve got nothing to live for anymore.” He dropped another tear.
“Did you forget to pay your cable bill?”
“No,” he moaned. “No no no. It’s much worse than that, much much worse.”
I couldn’t conceive what might be worse in his life than that.
“Look, let’s turn on some lights, maybe you can relax some, and tell me what’s going on, okay?”
He looked awful in the light, so I turned the dimmer down some. “What’s happening, Johnny?”
He looked at me with the face of a little boy whose dog has gone missing. “I, I, omigod, I had an epiphany.”
Johnny was not given to epiphanies.
“A sports epiphany,” he said.
“I don’t understand. Epiphanies are illegal in America. Only effete Europeans have epiphanies. Does Homeland Security know?”
“No. Listen, I was flipping through the channels, very innocent like, and I stopped on a soccer game. A European one. Just out of curiosity, you know. Not out of betrayal.”
“You’re treading a very fine line.”
His lower lip trembled. I feared for his manliness.
“I- I couldn’t stop watching.”
I felt his forehead. “No fever. Maybe something you ate?”
“The worst part? I liked it. I got excited. I cheered.”
“Who was playing?”
“I don’t know. It was blue uniforms against red uniforms. English teams. But they never stopped. I only caught the second half. They never stopped.”
“Now, see, it must have been a hallucination. They would have had to stop for commercials and referee conferences.”
“No, no, no.” He grabbed my arm and squeezed. “There were no commercials. None. Zip. Nada. Nought.”
“That’s impossible. What’s a ball game without commercials?”
“And did you hear me say ‘Nought’?”
“I tried to ignore it. You are my best friend.”
I tried to reassure him. “Look, fire up an NFL game on the DVR and in a few minutes you’ll forget all about soccer.”
“I tried that. It didn’t work. I started timing the game. Do you know that a play averages about three or four seconds? That during a three hour NFL game there’s only about fifteen minutes of actual play? Fifteen minutes!”
I had been suspicious of the NFL for a long time, but had never been able to put my finger on what was wrong. But Johnny was right.
“And another thing,” he said, starting to get wound up, “why are there seven referees on the field? Soccer has one guy running the whole game. Twenty-two players. One ref. And everybody runs for ninety minutes.”
“Well, sure, okay, but there’s not much scoring, you know. That’s not so exciting.”
“What’s exciting about the score? It’s the play that matters. And soccer is all play, up and down the field. My emotions were swinging constantly, and when the red guys scored it was huge. That’s when I had my epiphany. One to nothing.”
“C’mon, Johnny, one to nothing?” I scoffed.
“Did you ever watch a three nothing NFL game?” he countered.
I shuffled my feet and looked away.
“Look,” he said, “one ref. No commercials. Constant play. Everybody gets to work the ball. What’s not to like?”
“Well, it’s kind of an effete game.”
“The goalkeeper had a fractured skull two months ago. He’s in there playing. No pads. Nobody has pads.
“And,” he went on, “if you do something really bad, the ref throws you out of the game and you can’t be replaced. Your team plays short. And you don’t get to play the next game. Break someone’s leg in the NFL and it costs the team fifteen yards.”
“Jeez, Johnny, next thing you know you’ll be raving about rugby.”
He grinned. “They play eighty minutes, nonstop, no pads, one referee, no commercials, and those guys are tough.”
“C’mon, they can’t be as tough as NFL players. No way.”
“NFL guys are sissies compared to these guys. They’d never keep up.”
I seriously contemplated calling Homeland Security and turning in my best friend. I never thought I would be put in a position like that. But it seemed like a serious breach of patriotism. After all, the NFL, with its rigid rule structure, its authoritarian hierarchy, its social hierarchy where only a few got to handle the ball, its finely honed consumerism, its constant graphics and replays that fool us into thinking we’re actually watching a lot of football… umm… well, anyway, the NFL is one of the highest expressions of American values and to turn away from it for a foreign game… umm… well, maybe baseball is a better exemplar, with its rigid rule structure, its authoritarian hierarchy… umm.
Johnny offered me a European beer, sat me down in the guest recliner and said, “Watch this.” He worked the remote and soon had an English Premier League soccer game on one set and an international rugby game, with Australia playing New Zealand, on another.
Several hours later we went out for breakfast. Next week we’re going to Europe to follow the soccer season. Nuts to the NFL and Homeland Security. They deserve each other. We deserve better.
On a fine Spring morning, late morning to be exact, when the tree leaves glowed light green and birds chirped annoyingly, I was walking slowly down Ferbish Street, enjoying the warm air and the scent of automobile exhaust when the kid skidded around a corner, almost coming out of his sneakers, ran up to me, took my hand and said, “Pretend like you know me, please.” He was about twelve years old. I was too taken aback to mumble anything coherent and the day had been boring, so I said okay.
A beefy gentleman wearing a tight suit and an oh-so-military haircut rumbled around the corner a moment later, stopped, looked around, and then looked suspiciously at me. For a second I thought he might ask to see my turban and my Koran. Then he looked suspiciously at the kid. Then me. Then the kid. I was getting dizzy.
“I was chasing a kid. You seen one?” the haircut said.
“It’s probably not a good idea to be chasing kids. People might get the wrong idea.” I think the hair at the front of his head stood at attention.
“I’m a truant officer, pal. It’s my job. Now, you seen any suspicious kids?”
I looked down at the kid. I said, “Only my nephew. Morty. We were just enjoying a walk in this fine Spring weather.”
The haircut eyed Morty. “Why ain’t he in school?”
“He’s from out of town,” I said. “From Maine. Northern Maine.”
“Yeah. Maine,” the kid said. “Aroostook County, where the potatoes come from.”
“Yes,” he said, “yes it is.”
“Hmmmph. Alright. But you guys didn’t see a kid come running around the corner?”
The kid said, “He went down that alley there. Really fast. I wish I could run that fast.”
“Yeah. Thanks, kid.” The haircut took off and rumbled into the alley.
“Up that alley it’s a maze that puts the Casbah to shame,” the kid said.
“And how would you know about the Casbah? You’re apparently allergic to school.”
“I spend a lot of time in the public library. Reading. Come on, I’ll buy you a coffee. Mr. Dallagento’s got a nice coffee shop about a block from here.”
I had never been able to find Mr. Dallagento’s, though I had heard of it. It was down a tiny side street, well hidden from all but the cognoscenti and the neighborhood folk, and inside it smelled of strong coffee, pastry, cinnamon, and fresh bread. And the coffee was real. You could get it black, with sugar, or with milk or cream, or with sugar and milk or cream. In one cup size. Real ceramic cups. That’s all.
We sat at a small table in the window.
“You gotta love this place,” the kid said.
“Mmmmph,” I mmmmphed, washing down a bit of fresh warm bread and butter. “Listen, kid, what’s your name?”
“Morty’s good. Call me Morty.”
“Alright, Morty. So tell me, why aren’t you in school?”
He bit a piece of cheese danish, chewed thoughtfully, and swallowed. “Because I’m smart and I’m bored and I don’t test well.”
“Well if you’re smart I should think you’d test very well.”
“No, you don’t get it. See, that’s all they do at school, ever since Bush suckered everyone into supporting that No Child Left Behind law.”
“I thought that was supposed to help. Make poor schools better. Get everyone on the same page, testwise.”
“Testwise? You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
“Most assuredly not. I just heard a bureaucrat say that on television. I thought it was a technical term.”
Morty laughed. It was a bitter laugh, but quite infectious and in a few seconds we were both laughing bitterly.
“Why are we laughing?” I asked him.
“Probably because we both know how bad things are.”
“So do you go to school at all?” I didn’t see how he could not.
“Nope. No point to it. I told you I don’t test well.”
“I don’t get it.”
“See, it’s all about numbers. I bring the numbers down, so they would rather I didn’t take tests.”
“But they sent Mr. Haircut out to find you.”
“That’s just for show. He does it once a year. They send me an email telling me when. Otherwise, they don’t bother with me.”
“Once a year? Morty, how long have you been out of school?”
“Let’s see, since third grade.” He slurped his coffee. “Yeah, third grade. About four years.”
I couldn’t comprehend how a kid could be out of school since the third grade, and nobody would notice or care.
“What about your parents? What do they say?”
“They think I’m doing fine. I make up report cards on my computer. They both work two jobs. They tell me ‘Study hard, Morty, and you’ll get a good job and not have to work like we do.’”
“Maybe they have a point?”
He sneered. “Do you know how many Master’s and Doctorate degrees are driving cabs these days? See the pretty woman behind the counter? She has two Masters. She’s working a coffee shop. The only people making money are politicians, lobbyists, and obscenely wealthy people.”
“True enough.” I nodded sagely. “But still, don’t you miss being with your friends?”
“My friends are out here with me. We go to the library and read. I’m in the middle of Don Quixote. It’s overrated. My friend Fernando is teaching me Spanish. Tomorrow three of us are going to the art museum for a new opening. This afternoon I get to watch the city orchestra practice. I do some errands, they let me watch. One woman is going to teach me violin, just to see if I like it. We make up our own field trips. We play pick up sports where winning doesn’t matter near as much as playing does.”
“Sounds like fun, but school?”
“Look, mister, all they do in school now is teach kids how to pass The Test. That’s it.”
“Surely. It’s Washington, it’s a numbers game. It’s just to make things easier for the bureaucrats. Give them one or two numbers, then they don’t have to really look, don’t have to really think or figure anything out. Bad number, bad school, they take away some money until you get better.”
“But, but, that’s backwards. You can’t run a school without money.”
“That’s the idea. Republicans don’t like public schools. They can’t make a profit off them.”
“Well what do the kids in school think about it?”
“That’s just it. They don’t think anymore. Nobody’s teaching them how to think, how to be independent. Just how to pass The Test.” He waved his hand dismissively. “They’re zombies.”
“You shouldn’t call them zombies, you know.”
“Yeah? You know what the schools do?”
“Not so much, apparently.”
“They give the names and addresses and phone numbers of the kids to military recruiters. It’s the law. So it’s perfect. Teach them not to think so they can be good little workers and good little soldiers. A zombie army to go out and Bushify the world.”
“Hmmm. But how did you figure all this out when you were eight years old and decided to drop out?”
“Oh that’s easy. I used to watch the news programs before the zombies took them over. There used to be news then. Didn’t take a genius to see what was coming.”
“So you’re not a genius?”
“Good grief, no. I’m just a kid.” He paused. “A really smart kid.”
“And you’re the child left behind.”
“Yeah. Ironic, ain’t it?”
Sunday morning, on my way home from not going to church, an activity which I observe religiously, I stopped at Arnie’s Sidewalk Café to partake of his generous Atheist Coffee Hour. As I munched on an Atheist Cinnamon Bun, shaped like an angel, the J-Man sat down at my table.
“J-Man, how you doing?”
He looked puzzled. “You recognize me?”
“Sure. The white robe, the long hair, the silky beard, the healthy glow. And that little halo thingie up there.”
“Damn. I thought I had that taken care of.”
I shrugged. “Hard to get good help these days.”
“I just came from church. Nobody recognized me. They looked at me like I was a freak.”
“It’s the clothes, J. Robes are out. Tell you what, I’m almost finished here. Let’s go over to Wal-Mart and get you some jeans, a nice shirt. You want shoes or keep the sandals?”
“Sandals are good.” He peered down at his toes.
“Umm. How about underwear? You wearing any?”
“That’s sort of personal, don’t you think?”
“I’m cool with it.”
He looked around nervously for a second. “Maybe we could skip Wal-Mart and go to, oh, I don’t know, maybe that store over there.”
He pointed across the street at Joe and Annie’s Good Time General Store and Computer Repair.
“Sure. I know Joe and Annie a long time.”
“Good. Good. It’s just that the Old Man doesn’t really approve of Wal-Mart. They don’t treat people right.”
“Amen,” I said.
I bought him some nice Pakistani jeans and a white shirt with just a touch of red and yellow embroidery, and we went for a walk in the city park down the street.
When we settled into a nice walking rhythm, I said, “So J-Man, what are you doing here? You didn’t come to try to convert me again, did you, because we had that talk when I was twelve.”
“You were thirteen, and no that’s not why.”
“Okay. What’s up then?”
He fidgeted, picked up a rock and threw it in the lake. It skipped all the way to the other side and hit a duck. “Damn. You think he’s alright?”
“You hit him in the butt. His dignity’s ruffled is all.”
“Everything’s out of quack.” He smiled, then shrugged.
“It’s all these people going around asking ‘What would the J-Man do?’”.
“Yeah, that would get annoying.”
He smacked his forehead. “It’s getting worse than all the praying. You don’t know how many times I’ve had to listen to the Old Man rant about that. ‘Why don’t they get off their asses and their knees and do something instead of whining to me? Tell me when I designed pathetic whining into them, tell me! Whine, whine, whine. Please fix Aunt Jean’s liver. Please kill the dictators. Please get rid of Bush. Please kill all the Muslims. Please help Anna Nicole’s baby. Please find money for heat. Please fix my car. What in Hell do they think I am?’ Yada yada yada. He goes on for years sometimes.”
“Must be tough in the god business these days.”
“You’ve no idea. Oy!” He shook his head. He looked at me curiously. “You’re an atheist. Why are you even listening to me?”
“You’re an interesting guy. You tell some funny stories.”
“I’m supposed to be your God.”
“You hit a duck in the butt.”
“Look, even if you did a miracle right here in front of me, I’d just shrug and tell you that David Blaine can probably do it better.”
“You know, him and Copperfield have really messed up the miracle business. I saw Blaine levitate once, on the street, in front of people. He had me convinced.”
“He has a god-given talent.”
“I should mess up your karma for that one!” He laughed. It was good to see him laugh. When I was thirteen he had been so serious I was sure he was headed for a heart attack or a stroke.
“So what about this WWJD stuff?” I said.
“Well! I mean, it’s ridiculous isn’t it? First time I’m back I see a 747 roaring in over my head. I was terrified.”
“Probably not a good idea to come back in an airport.”
“Yeah. And trying to cross a city street for the first time? No oxen, no horses, no asses.”
“You haven’t seen some of the girls, have you?”
“Whole other story. I actually tried to chastise some of them for their immodesty. They laughed.”
“They ask to see under your robe?”
“The redhead did.” He paused. I think he blushed. “I was tempted. She was really very pretty.”
I let him have his moment.
“And TV. First time I saw TV I tried to find out how the little people got in the box. And where’d they come from? We didn’t make them. I told people it was sorcery, and they threw me out of the bar.”
“Yankees, playoffs, right?”
“Oh yeah. I learned not to mess with people’s Yankees.”
We walked on in silence for a few minutes along the edge of the lake. Lots of people were out enjoying the sunshine, walking, jogging, playing with their dogs. Several of the women cast appraising glances our way. Well, his way.
“J-Man, you should pick up one of these women, have a few drinks, go out on the town, relax.”
“I know, I know. That’s what my therapist tells me. Loosen up, loosen up, she says. But this WWJD stuff…”
“Well, what would you do?”
“What difference does it make? They know what to do. They don’t need to be pinning it on me and the Old Man. They’ve got science and reason. Can’t any of these people think through a problem and come up with solutions? They have to whine to us about it? It’s pathetic.”
He said, “The world’s going to hell, they’re responsible, and they won’t do anything about it. Look at me. I come from a two thousand year old village barely out of the freaking Stone Age, and they want me to fix the world. They think that the stuff written by a bunch of post-Stone Age fanatics, neurotics, psychotics, poets and essayists is what ought to govern the world. These people are on drugs.”
“And I thought I was alone in thinking that.”
“Nah,” he said quickly. “But don’t tell anyone I said so.”
“My lips are sealed.”
“Do you think that duck is really okay?”
“Sure. Trust me, they see worse every day.”
“Yeah, I guess. Want to go to the Yankees game today? Double header. Drink some beer, flirt with the girls a little.”
“How’re we gonna get tickets?” I said.
“Dude, I’m the J-Man.” He flashed a couple of tickets seemingly out of nowhere. “I may not be David Blaine, but I’ve got some pull.”
One sunny day I was walking along the beach with my friend, Jerry. Jerry’s a nice guy, decent sort of fellow, and a pretty good thief. He makes a living. He’s also a profoundly devout follower of one of those one-god religions. I’m not allowed to say which one anymore, but it begins with a C. Jerry never misses a chance to convert me, but within a couple of weeks after he tries we can be friends again. This time it was the watch thing.
Jerry stopped, bent down and picked up a watch from the sand. “Look at that!” he said. “Someone threw away a perfectly good watch.”
“Maybe they just lost it,” I offered.
“Well, you look at it. Maybe it’s engraved.” Jerry’s eyes weren’t so good, but they weren’t that bad.
I looked it over and didn’t find anything. No name. It was an old piece, one with gears and hands. “Here,” I said, handing it back to him. “You get to keep it.”
He put his hands in his pocket, refusing the watch. “Doesn’t it tell you anything?”
“Yeah, it says it’s two-thirty.”
“No, something bigger, something about the universe.”
“Okay, it says it’s two-thirty here on Cape Cod.”
I could see it coming. His eyes glazed a little and started to vibrate in their sockets. A little bit of drool started from the corner of his lip.
“Don’t you see?” he said. “We find this precise little instrument on the beach, in this vast sea of sand, like the Earth in space. How did it get here?”
“Someone dropped it. Or maybe they threw it away. Or maybe you came out here this morning and planted it so you could do a religious riff.”
“I did not.”
I believed him. Jerry was a packrat. He wouldn’t risk losing the watch by leaving it on the beach. He’d sell anything, but never throw stuff away. His wife nagged him constantly about cleaning out the garage. He’d tell her that one day eBay would make them rich.
“Okay, Jerry, do the thing.”
He knew it was pointless but he had to do it. Pushing his religion was like obsessive compulsive disease.
“Someone had to design it, didn’t they? It didn’t just create itself out of iron ore and plastic.”
“You’re absolutely right, Jerry.”
“Same thing with the Earth, isn’t it? This great complex universe. Someone had to create it, design it, right, it didn’t just create itself. It’s too complicated.”
“But wait a minute, Jer. Back to the ore and plastic. Didn’t some miners go down and get that ore? And some oil drillers get the oil for the plastic?”
“Well, of course.”
“And some more people had to smelt and refine the ore and do stuff to the oil?”
“And then someone had to have the idea for the watch and someone had to draw up the design and the plans and someone else had to plan the manufacturing processes and someone else the distribution and sales end of things, right?”
Jerry mumbled something.
“So, I mean, Jer, really, it wasn’t just one guy. And who built all that mining and drilling equipment?”
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“What, building watches? Jerry, it’s a ten dollar watch. All it does is tell time, and not very well, either. Look,” I said, waving the watch at him, “It still says two-thirty.”
“Yeah, well what if it were a Rolex?” he huffed.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation. You’d be running down to your fence.”
“Never mind that. God could have done all those things to build the universe, all by himself. He’s big and smart and knows everything.”
“How’d he get smart?”
“He’s a lot more complex than this stupid watch.”
“So who built god?”
“Nobody built God. He just is.”
“But you’re trying to tell me complex things have designers. Who designed god?”
“Stop it. You’re being sacrilegious.”
“Of course I am. But if the watch is so complex it needs to be designed, and god is more complex than the watch, right, then you have to have something to design god. And something to design the designer of god. You can’t claim complexity requires a designer and claim that god doesn’t require a designer.”
Jerry kicked at some sand and started to walk away.
“And Jer, what was there before god did all this?”
“There was nothing.”
“Just lonely old god making something out of nothing?” I called to him.
“You cheat at golf. I know you do,” he shouted.
After a while I couldn’t hear him anymore. I put the watch back on the sand. It started ticking. Good old American design.
Hell, I don’t even play golf. Too many priests and ministers on the course cursing at the ball, which by the way is a technological marvel all by itself.
I was drinking a late coffee last night with Marley at a little diner that’s not on the FBI’s watch list. Let’s just say it’s located in DC.
“How can you drink coffee this late, Marley?” I said, wondering at his capacity.
“I got to stay alert, even when I sleep.” He looked over his shoulder.
“But how do you sleep? How can you sleep with all that coffee?”
He shrugged. “Well, I take my cue from the boss. No matter what happens, he sleeps very well. He doesn’t let stuff bother him.”
“You mean like Iraq and global warming and the economy?”
“Sure, but that’s all history to him. He doesn’t even let the new things get to him.”
My ears perked up.
“Man,” Marley said, “that’s creepy when your ears do that.”
“Sorry. I thought maybe you knew something about something.”
He looked over his other shoulder.
“Yeah, well, I do, but you can’t tell anybody.”
“Okay, but can I maybe hint at it?”
“Of course. This is Washington. You can say you got it from a highly placed government source.”
“But you’re a janitor.”
He wasn’t offended. He was a janitor and a very good one and he knew it. “Yeah, but I work on the top floor of the White House.”
“That’s fair,” I allowed. “So what’s the news?”
“George is going to attack Iran.”
I felt a little let down. Marley’s information is usually very good. “Marley, everybody knows that. He’s put two carrier groups into the Gulf and is trumping up phony evidence.”
“You don’t get it. Those things are feints. The real attack is going to be totally unexpected. Even the CIA doesn’t know about the real thing.” He looked over his other other shoulder.
“Yeah, well,” I said knowingly. “And you know what’s going to happen?”
“I’m the janitor. Janitors know everything. We hear stuff. We see stuff. We know what’s in the wastebaskets. We have our ways, you know.”
“Okay. How did you find out?”
“I noticed that the boss ordered a sword. Genuine Samurai sword, from Japan, made by a little swordmaker on Okinawa.”
“How’d you find out?”
“It’s in the budget. You’ve read the budget, haven’t you?”
I bowed my head. No one reads the budget, except Marley.
“He put in an item for $75,000.”
I whistled. “Seventy-five grand for a sword. Taxpayers won’t like that.”
“No, the sword was three thousand. The rest was shipping and handling.”
“You got it.”
“Okay, but what’s a sword got to do with Iran?”
Marley looked at me as if I were in fourth grade.
“You know that George has an image problem, and that he’s not feeling too good about himself because of all the stuff that’s coming out about his incompetence and arrogance and suchlike?”
“Sure. It’s all over the news. Even Fox mentioned it at 2 a.m. Friday.”
“That’s what the sword is all about.”
“Getting on TV?”
“No. Fixing his self-image. What better way than with a big macho Samurai sword? I saw him one night practicing with it, swinging it around, making weird noises like in those martial arts movies.”
I tried to visualize the scene in my mind. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
“He damn near cut off his foot,” Marley said, grimacing.
Not pretty at all. I said, “Okay, so now he feels better about himself now that he’s pretending he’s a Samurai. What’s that got to do with Iran?”
“Simple. While everybody is watching the aircraft carriers and keeping an eye on Darth Cheney, George is going to fly into Iran at night, find that fellow I’m a jeannie dad, and challenge him to a duel. If George wins, Iran will give up trying to be a modern country and will leave Iraq alone.”
“And if George loses?”
“He’ll nuke Tehran.”