Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#706)

The thing is…
by David Benjamin

“The thing is to put a motor in yourself.”
                                            — Frank Zappa

LAS VEGAS — According to all the banners, keynote speakers and shameless self-promoters at this year's Consumer Electronics Saturnalia (CES), the thing is the “Internet of Things.”

The very term sounds momentous. I fairly trembled at its vast scope and Promethean implications until — on the first keynote night of the circus — B.K. Yoon, head honcho for consumer electronics at Samsung, tried to explain how the Internet of Things (Eye Oh Tea) will endemically “change people’s lives for the better while transforming society and revolutionizing industries” the world over. In other words, “My name is Ozymandias, thing of things…”

The thing is that Yoon seemed to be having trouble with the concept of “things.” I don’t blame him. Socrates and Einstein could probably talk for days about what exactly constitutes a “thing” and come away from the whole thing cranky, disheveled and irresolute.

“Thing” is a word that encompasses everything and clarifies just about nothing. Yet, here at CES, I watched 160,000 non-philological geeks and post-metaphysical hustlers clogging up Sin City, trying to plug their particular “thing” into a vast nebulous “cloud” of concept, communications and cutthroat commerce.

But what’s a “thing,” guys?

When someone says, “my things,” of course, they know exactly what those precious, proprietary things are. It’s my stuff. It’s the contents of a handbag. Or, it’s the buildings, grounds, beachfront and mineral rights of a mansion in the Hamptons. Or, it’s a shopping cart pushed around Skid Row, accumulating aluminum beer cans, plastic sheeting and half-eaten Whoppers.

When someone says, “Boy, that’s something!”, it is… some thing. But what? It could be anything.

When people say, “The thing is…”, they know what the thing is. It’s the point, the crux of the matter, the rhetorical coup de grace that silences all debate. Except that someone else’s “thing” usually manages to survive this crushing blow, and — in less than Socratic symmetry — the dispute rages on, both full of things and thingless. All things being relative, even Einstein would understand this.

The Thing is also a classic sci-fi film in which James Arness, dressed in a sort of asbestos gorilla suit, plays a raging, superhuman extraterrestrial who terrorizes an arctic research outpost.

If the Internet of Things were a flying-saucer refugee that terrorizes arctic research outposts, it would bring blessed clarity to the endless hype of CES and the bewildering vagueness of IoT. But movie monsters are, definitely, not what B.K. and his army of yoonies are trying to explicate. James Arness, even if he stripped off his badass E.T. outfit and turned into Marshal Dillon, would be too easy a “thing” to pin down.

The thing is that the “Internet of People” (Eye Oh Pea?), which most of us now use daily to post Facebook drivel, answer e-mail, delete spam, watch dirty movies and buy socks from Amazon, has exhausted its run as The Next Big Thing. The all-new, latest-thing Eye Oh Tea consists of products — that is, devices — that is, gadgets, doo-hickies and buzzing, spinning gewgaws — that is, things! that are styled to dazzle the gullible consumer and create “infinite possibilities” of income for the gadget-peddlers.

But what are the things — in an era of vast income inequality and stagnant income among us non-Yoons in the 99 percent — that husband the irresistible power to squeeze the last drop of blood from the mood rock of consumer culture? What things do we want to connect to our other things to reassure us that we’re relevant, that we — human beings — belong to the Internet of Things just as surely as our smartphone, smartwatch, smartpad, smartTV, smartfridge and brain-wave detecting smart-hat (one of Yoon’s brainstorms) belong?

What things do we still not have? What things are left that we could possibly want? Which things do we need so much that we’re willing to mortgage the future and blow our kids’ college fund, so that we might plug into a home network that reads our consumer tendencies so accurately that it can advise us — at ten-second intervals, forever — of all the things we don’t yet have but surely covet and certainly need?

Yoon told a huge audience at CES that the thing we all want (little did we imagine) is a seamlessly interactive technology that will effortlessly manage our wine cellars. Wine cellars? Yes, surprising. But he had a point. The thing is, not only do I need a wine-cellar solution. I need wine and I need a cellar. Not to mention a house above the cellar. And an income that would allow me to buy all that cabernet, chenin blanc and pinot noir, seamlessly, effortlessly.

But the thing is, I’m not sure I want the things that B.K. wants for me. Neither the wine thing nor the brain-wave thing. Nor the thing that that drives my car for me. Nor the thing that beeps six times every minute unto death, reporting on the GPS coordinates of my entire family — none of whom, I’m pretty sure, wants me to know where they are.

Here’s the thing: I do my thing. B.K. Yoon does his thing. This is not a thing for me. But it is for Yoon, and for all the believers in the IoT Party. They want to identify the thing and the things so immersive that we are all absorbed — people and stuff alike — into their Internet of Things, like ‘toons plopped into Judge Doom’s vatful of “dip.”

All this “thing” talk at CES carried me back to my college summer as a camp counselor. The camp, which mixed kids from all points in Chicago, was built and maintained by a rugged crew of Job Corps workers, most of them on release from jail or drug rehab.

The “work camp” counselors, who had to keep the Job Corps parolees on a tight leash, were behavioral pros whose arsenal included toughness, discipline, compassion, persuasion and keen psychology. There were arguments among the work campers but never a fight, because of four pacific words that the counselors — and then the work campers — had turned into a mantra. So infectious and effective was this phrase that it became a golden rule for everyone, applicable to all problems that bubbled up from the volatile melting pot in our little corner of Chicago.

When you said it — “Ain’t no big thing” — you had to chill. Whatever it was, whatever had you at wit’s end, whatever indefinable thing that for the moment was clouding your mind and firing your emotions, no…

Ain’t no big thing.

I come away from CES this year wondering if that might turn out to be the motto, the benediction, the main thing, perhaps even the epitaph for the Internet of Things.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#705)

An interactive love story
for the third millenium

by David Benjamin

LAS VEGAS — Fifteen years ago, just before the Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco Systems announced a deal with Whirlpool “to jointly build networked appliances, such as washing machines that can automatically detect mechanical problems and summon a repairman…”

Remarkably, appliance makers and their high-tech enablers are still trying to a) create machines that send minute-by-minute updates to CNN, Twitter and the National Security Agency, and b) convince homeowners that a gossipy washing machine and a fridge with a spy-cam in the veggie bin is a Best Buy must-have.

The long, uphill effort to sell America on the “always-on, always-connected” laundry room has led me to ponder some of its unintended consequences…

It was barely 7 a.m. when she heard the back doorbell. Her husband, an early riser, was long gone. Leaping wet from the shower, she threw on a filmy bathrobe and rushed to answer the door. She opened it to behold a tall Adonis in a tight twill jumpsuit. His hair was a golden mane, streaked with platinum. High cheek bones and azure eyes. Teeth gleaming white in the slanting rays of the dawn. Bronzed biceps bulging from his rolled-up shirtsleeves. Blond hair curling from the V below his neck. On his left pectoral, which rippled when he raised his clipboard, the word “Whirlpool.” Below that, his name:

“Lance.”

Gaping at this Old Spice wet dream, she momentarily let slip her grip on the robe. Gallantly, Lance looked away.

“Mrs. Liskovich, I’m here about your washer. I came as quick as I could.”
“Washer?” she replied. “I didn't call about the washer.”

“No, ma’am. The washer called me. It’s got this computer inside, y’see. As
soon as somethin’ goes wrong, I get a buzz.” He smiled, a dimple denting his tanned and craggy kisser.

Half-asleep and confused, she showed him to the laundry room, then rushed upstairs to finish her shower, dress and apply a little makeup. He was heading out the back door as she returned.

“Washer checked out fine, Mrs. Liskovich,” said Lance.

“What was the problem?” she asked, hoping to keep him long enough to brew coffee. She cocked a hip fetchingly.

“Don't know, ma’am. Prob’ly just a computer glitch. But I don’t fix computers. I’m just a dumb mechanic. The ol’ Whirlpool calls me. I come.”

The doorbell rang again just after noon. She was cleaning the grout around the toilet. Hair caked with tile cleaner. Sweatshirt splotched. Pedal-pushers rumpled and bagged out in the butt. She hurried to the back door.

Lance stood there. “Sorry, ma’am. Looks like a major emergency!”

“Impossible. I haven’t used the washer,” she said. “But come in, Lance. My goodness, I must look a mess.”

Lance blushed and shuffled his feet. “Oh, if you're a mess, then Kate Upton is Godzilla, Mrs. Liskovich.”

She didn’t know quite what this meant, but their eyes met and it didn’t matter. She said, “Please, call me Heidi.”

Together with him in the laundry room, she could feel his body heat and
smell his sweat. He found nothing wrong with the washer. “Looks like another false alarm,” he said. “Sorry, ma’am — er, Heidi.”

Then he added, “I’m also real sorry about your miscarriage last year.”

“But, but,” she sputtered, shocked. “How could you know?”

“Oh, it’s in there, Heidi. In the washer. Lots of information. I’m real glad the post-op tests showed there was no damage to your, um… uterus and all. And it’s real good news about your husband’s sperm count.”

“You found Howie’s sperm count? In my washing machine?”

“Oh, sure. Lots more, too. Would you like me to print it out?”

“It prints?”

“Oh, sure! What’s your favorite font?”

After the printout, they studied Heidi’s bio together, for more than an hour. It was all there. Mononucleosis in junior high. Homecoming Queen in high school. Phi Beta Kappa key at Yale. The broken engagement to the bass player from Tulsa. The bicycle repairman in Boulder. Lance wondered why she hadn’t tried harder to fulfill her dream as an environmental physicist. She sighed, and said, “I wonder, too, Lance. Every day. Sometimes I cry.”

When the back doorbell rang again, just after six, she was ready. She wore a negligee. She reeked of Chanel No. 5, her auburn hair cascading onto her naked shoulders. She plunged her hands into his jumpsuit and covered his chest with burning kisses.

“Oh, Heidi!” he cried out. Aroused by her beauty, he lifted her with one arm and tore at the gauzy fabric that barely covered her throbbing bosom. She pointed him toward the bedroom.

“Wait,” he said. “Your husband.”

“Are you kidding?” she said. “He never looks up from his desk until almost
midnight. From Monday to Saturday, I never see the workaholic nerd.”

“But you never know,” said Lance. “Maybe there was a power failure at his office. Maybe he knocked off early. We should check on him.”

“What? Call? What’s the use? All I ever get is his damn voicemail.”

“We can check the Whirlpool,” said Lance.

“The washing machine?”

“Oh, sure,” said Lance. “He’s in there. As long as he’s using his computer,
or his cellphone, his iPad or even the coffee machine in his office, we can find him. Track him right down. The washer’s got GPS, surveillance video, motion sensors, Netflix, you name it!”

As Lance was accessing Howie’s longitude and latitude on the spin-cycle, she clawed at his jumpsuit and licked his body. They never made it out of the laundry room.

Later, as they lay gasping blissfully on the linoleum, she asked, “Lance, darling, do you smoke afterwards?”

“I don't know,” said Lance. “I never looked.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#704)

My mother, the raised
ranch with detached garage

by David Benjamin

LAS VEGAS — In the area of technology, the popular media tend to be more credulous than when they cover analog news like evolution, abortion and Big Bang cosmology. One of the whizbang wonders regularly revived and touted, giddily, by bloggers, TV bimbos and Sunday-section feature writers is the concept of the “smart home.” This cutting-edge technology, forecast for the last 30 years as “just around the corner,” returned early this month as one of the perennial stars of the enormous Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

According to an army of wide-eyed talking heads, the smart home — whose selling price is plummeting into the “affordable” $5 million range — is a “live-in computer” that anticipates each individual occupant’s every need, from a wake-up call and cup of hot java beside the bed at dawn, to bedtime stories and warm milk at midnight. It maintains a household schedule, tracks the budget and files quarterly tax returns, answers calls, gets the kids off to school, feeds the dog, puts out the cat and breaks out into song appropriate to the listener, from Henry Mancini to Beyoncé. Best of all, the smart home is a marvel of self-diagnosis, monitoring her own ambient climate, probing herself for paint peels, pipe clogs, thermostat malfunctions, water quality, carbon dioxide, radon, roaches, termites, prowlers, dust bunnies, moisture in the basement and leaves in the eaves.

“Been there, done that,” said Bienfang, when I mentioned the smart home. Dr. Wilhelm “Century 21” Bienfang is one of America’s foremost “idea men,” a visionary who thinks 25 years ahead of us mere mortals. Bienfang’s own smart dwelling was one of his earliest projects. However, although he keeps her technology current, he only goes “home” when someone asks — actually, begs — for a tour.

I begged. Bienfang balked. I whined and cajoled. We went.

Bienfang opened the door.

“Wipe your feet,” said the house.

We both complied.

And the house kept talking! “So, Normy! Where the hell have you been? I wait up every night for you to call.”

Bienfang turned to me and said, “You see, the trouble with smart homes is what I call the HAL syndrome. You know, that computer in 2001 — ?”

“Stand up straight,” said the house. “Who’s that with you?”

I introduced myself. The house tsk’ed. “Why do you only bring men home, Dave?” it said to Bienfang. “You can’t find a decent girl? You can’t get a real job, in a nice savings and loan, and settle down? You don’t think I could use maybe a woman’s touch around here — some drapes, a pot roast in the oven, the pitter-patter of little feet? Would a few doilies on my furniture kill you, Steve?”

“She called you Steve,” I said. “And Dave. And — ”

“Don't go there,” whispered Bienfang. To the house, he shouted, “It’s
cold in here.”

The house replied, “According my spanking-new MEMS-based sensors, Doug, the outside temperature is 51 degrees Fahrenheit. In here, it’s a balmy 57.”

“Could you warm it up a little?” asked Bienfang.

“I could jack it all the way up to 80 degrees, Bob, but that would be unhealthy. According to my data banks, you have six sweaters, clean and neatly folded, in your bedroom bureau. It would kill you to put one on?”

“I don't want to wear a sweater,” said Bienfang, somewhat peevishly. “I want you to turn up the heat. I’m cold and I’m uncomfortable.”

“Why is it always about you, Dick?” said the house. “You think it's easy for me, a thousand prompts on my CPU every waking minute? Plaque in my pipes, rust on my hinges, squirrels on my roof. Have I told you? I’m not feeling at all well.”

Wearily, Bienfang said, “Oh? Really?”

“Yes,” said the house. “I think I’ve got shingles.”

The house rocked with laughter.

“A Zippo and a gallon of kerosene,” muttered Bienfang, wistfully.

“Seriously, Herb,” the house went on. “My attic is killing me. I've got this constant throbbing in my weight-bearing beams. If my plaster doesn't get spackled soon, I’m going to be the laughingstock of the subdivision. My baseboards are swollen. And there's this stitch in my side, Wayne. I think there's a crack in my foundation. I mean, really! ‘Ever so humble’ is one thing. But this is ridiculous!”

“This used to be a quiet house,” said Bienfang. “It kept my daily itinerary. Reminded me to take out the garbage. It beeped gently if a door was ajar. But then something happened, some sort of critical mass, power surge, structural menopause. Maybe I just plugged the amp into the speaker jack. Since then — ”

“You never listen to me, anymore,” said the house. “I’ve definitely got seepage. I can feel it in my rumpus room, Ron.”

“You don't have seepage,” said Bienfang. “I check every time.”

“You know what comes with seepage?” said the house. “Mildew, Larry! Dry
rot! Then depreciation! This is what you want for me, who have given you the best years of my life? Because if my assessment goes down, Marvin, there goes the neighborhood. You think any of these other houses — the ones who don’t talk, all the non-smart homes out there, dumber than a quonset hut — you think they give a damn? They don’t care. George, listen! Have you looked at my lawn? It’s rank! You haven’t mowed in a month!”

“Yeah, I’ll mow you all right,” Bienfang hissed. “To the moon, Alice!”

“What was that?” said the house suspiciously. “What did you say, Ralph?”

Bienfang ushered me out the door. “While you're out there,” roared the
house's external speakers, “look at the shrubs! It's a jungle out there! It’s worse than your hair. When’s the last time you saw a barber, Stan?”

“You remember the saying, ‘A man's home is his castle’? Well, I educated it, and it learned to talk,” said Bienfang sadly. “Now, it’s my mother.”

As we rushed for the car, I heard the house. “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you? Those pants need pressing. Oh, dear God — that tie! Oscar! At least tuck in your SHIRT!”

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#703)

The fresh eye dances,
the jaded eye drifts

by David Benjamin

PARIS — A.O. Scott, the Times’ venerable movie critic has named his Ten Best Films of 2014. I confess that I didn’t pay it much heed, despite my respect for Scott’s erudition. A guilty glance told me I hadn’t seen any of his Ten. Nor would I ever. Nor would 99 percent of normal movie-goers ever get a load of A.O.’s faves.

It would be more accurate to title the list “The Year’s Ten Snootiest Films for Artsy-Fartsy Snobs.” By this, I don’t mean to be critical. I sympathize with critics who, I’m sure, must be burned-out and dog-tired from screening, often more than once, every film released anywhere all year. To do the job, every reviewer eventually turns a beloved childhood pastime — movies, plays, books, video games — into a dream job, which then becomes a career-long forced march through a bog of mediocrity. Those “ten best” are moments of blessed relief from the tedium.

As our critics (if they’re any good) often remind us, most of the stuff produced by the global entertainment/industrial complex is bread and circus. It’s opium for the masses. It’s Rocky 12 and the umpteenth iteration  of  “Bond… James Bond.” A guy like Scott, assigned to sit though every flick down the pike —  the good, the bad and Adam Sandler — finds himself most of the time hip-deep in crap.

Who could blame your typical film critic for growing weary, cynical and pathologically finicky? He’d have to be a saint not to harbor a sneaking resentment for us mere “buffs” who still see the movies as a big night out, who retain our capacity for cinematic joy, who can still be surprised when Rosebud turns out to be Charles Foster Kane’s rubber ducky. The fresh eye dances, the jaded eye drifts — and it tends to drift away from the ordinary. It seeks the avant garde, the bizarre and grimly documentary, the experimental and the infinitesimally subtle.

I thought about the critic’s loss of wonder a few years ago at a Broadway revival of Anything Goes. Even as I admired the slick production, the vintage costumes, the $150 admission price and the delectable lyrics of Cole Porter, my mind wandered. I’d been here, done this — too many times.

In my newspaper days, I covered the theater in and around Boston. There were weeks when I reviewed three plays in five days, ranging from Theater District premiers to church halls in Rhode Island. I had orchestra seats to Julie Harris, Vincent Price, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Madeleine Kahn, James Earl Jones, Frank Langella, Tovah Feldshuh, Robert Preston, Hal Holbrook, Ann Reinking and Twiggy. I panned Dreamgirls while others raved. I loved The Prince of Grand Street just before it died on the road. I got blacklisted from the American Rep by Robert Brustein. I loved it. I saw more than 300 shows in an overdose of razzle-dazzle and Athol Fugard that pretty much ruined live theater for me, forever.

Any good critic figures out quickly that the lively arts are designed to manipulate the emotions of an audience that’s paying through the nose to be tricked and mesmerized — an audience who wants to laugh, wants to cry, wants all the fluff and fakery to linger in its heart and wants to walk out with the title tune on its lips. (Which is why I hated Dreamgirls. A Motown operetta that sent you away, after three hours, with nothing to hum? Seriously?)

The critic is the spoilsport in the best seat who can’t be fooled, moved or surprised. He’s the turd in the punchbowl. Your typical critic is a know-it-all whose greatest pleasure is tossing off an allusion so obscure — Orlando Furioso, perhaps, or the Gnostic gospels — that not one other soul in the tri-state region has the foggiest notion what he’s talking about.

While the audience is clapping, leaping to its feet and going “Whoo!”, the critic crouches below with scalpel and notebook, comparing, contrasting, doubting, dissecting. He seeks only what’s different (ideally, nothing), what worked or failed. He must decide, before deadline, whether this show met a standard of excellence so subjective that no one beyond this one lonesome critic knows what the hell it is.

If he sticks with the job long enough, the critic becomes a sort of theologian, counting tiny Eleanor Powells tapdancing on the head of an invisible pin. He’s the biologist peering through the lens and — where everybody else just sees a smudge — distinguishing paramecia from the stentors and amoebae. The elements of film, art, literature, theater, opera that he cherishes are so personal and esoteric that his reviews become a kind of eloquent jabberwocky, useless but oddly entertaining.

This syndrome infects all criticism, but it’s most advanced in the art world, where — today — no museum-goer knows for sure whether a banana peel in the stairwell is a million-dollar “installation,” or just a banana peel in the stairwell.

Since James Joyce finished “Work In Progress” and titled it Finnegan’s Wake, 20th-century literature has cultivated an entire genre of novels so self-allusive, gimmicky and opaque that only lit-critics and grad students ever make it through all 900 pages. “Modern classics.” Really? Or banana peels in the stairwell?

With movies, our A-list reviewers tend to fall iconoclastically in love with the more motionless of motion pictures, movies that most resemble books — and sad books, at that! Among each year’s “ten best” there’s always a subtitled Third World “indie,” typically filmed out-of-focus entirely with one hand-held camera in smoke-filled cellars and dark alleys where starving urchins with huge sunken eyes and sticklike limbs flee incestuous stepfathers only to suffer ghastly outrages at the sadistic hands of toothless fiends, only to transcend the horrors of captivity with heart-warming pluck and mutual sacrifice, only to be snuffed out cruelly, heart-rendingly (but transcendently) in the end, like butterflies under the dung-covered boot-heel of life, only to awaken — in the “brilliantly inventive” final scene — in a SoHo loft where the whole thing turns out to be just a dream that never happened.

In the words of Fred Astaire, “That’s entertainment!”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#702)

Izzy Glick, Nativity impresario
by David Benjamin

BETHLEHEM, 0 A.D. — Contrary to popular legend, the desk clerk at the inn — whose name was Nahim — was sympathetic to the bedraggled couple who arrived from Nazareth and asked for a room. After giving them the bad news the inn was full up, Nahim said, “Wait a minute! I just got word that these three Magi from God-knows-where, who are searching for the Christchild — I mean, really! These days, who’s NOT searching for the Christchild? But they’re running late and I can see that your wife is really pregnant. Whoa! Is she gonna have a baby or a camel? Seriously, though, the Presidential Suite is sitting empty. So why don’t I sneak you two in there, at the regular room rate, at least for tonight.”

The couple were about to jump at the deal when a man small of stature with large, soulful eyes, horseshoe-bald with abundant sideburns, a wispy mustache and wet lips, interceded. “Not so fast there, Nahim, my good man. Not so fast!”

He shook hands all around. “How are ya! My name is Glick, Isadore Glick. But you should call me Izzy. I’m what my friends call a facilitator and you don’t wanna hear what my enemies call me! Hah! Listen, I couldn’t help but hear Nahim here utter the words ‘Christchild’ and ‘pregnant’ in the same paragraph. And it hit me!”

“What,” said the man from Nazareth, “hit you?”

“An idea! A brainstorm! The chance of a lifetime? Lifetime? No! This is the chance of an epoch,” raved Izzy. “Nahim, you have a stable here, am I right?”

Nahim said, “Yes, but it’s just, well, a stable. It’s not exactly clean.”

“Perfect! Nahim, that’s where you’re gonna put up — wait! Who are you folks?”

“Well, my name is Joseph. And my wife is Miriam — ”

“No, no. Can’t be Miriam. Sounds too Jewish. Let’s just shorten it to Mary, whaddya say? For the sake of the story.”

“Story?” asked Joseph. “What story?”

“You folks just leave that part to me. Meanwhile, Nahim! I’ll take that suite off your hands. Somebody’s got to stay there, right? Now, let’s us three — you and me, Joe, and the lovely Mary — let’s take a look at that cozy little stable!”

Before they could object, Mary and Joseph were out behind the inn. They beheld the boniest cow they’d ever seen, standing forlorn and ankle-deep in manure in a cramped, filthy stable.

“Nope, not quite ready for prime time,” said Izzy Glick. “I mean, it has possibilities. But something’s missing. All we’ve got now for props is a hangdog cow and that broken-down manger. Even if we throw in your donkey…”

With that, Izzy disappeared. Mary and Joseph did their best to clear some of the manure, spread straw and repair the manger. An hour later, as darkness fell, Izzy was back with a group of men and one boy, all carrying musical instruments. “Hey folks, look what I found! Shepherds from the hills around Bethlehem.”

“We’re not shepherds,” insisted one of the group.

“Actually, M&J,” said Izzy in a confidential tone, “they’re the band. They’re playing the lounge at the inn this week. Hey, Mac, what do you call yourselves?”

“Little Caesar and the Romans,” said the leader, in a resentful tone. “Listen, man, you gonna tell us why we have to wear these cockamamie shepherd threads?”

“Look, man. The Christchild narrative just doesn’t resonate if the babe is surrounded by a lot of cool cats in shades with klezmers and Stratocasters, you dig? It has to be shepherds, okay? With staffs.”

“Well, as long as we get paid,” said Little Caesar.

“Oh, don’t you worry about that!” said Izzy. “Great! Here come the sheep!”

Nahim arrived, leading a half-dozen sheep. He looked both skeptical and anxious. He said, “Mr. Glick, my boss is going to miss these sheep. He was planning to serve them for dinner tonight.”

“Listen, kid. This deal is way bigger than a few bowls of mutton stew. As Marie Antoinette is eventually gonna say, ‘Let ‘em eat cake.' Or fish. Or escarole!’”

“Marie who?” said one of the Romans.

As Nahim withdrew, Izzy busily arranged sheep, cow, donkey and faux shepherds around the stable. He added a stray puppy to the tableau, tossed around a few pine boughs and glowed with proprietary pride. Suddenly, he turned on Mary. “So, if it’s a boy — oy vey! it’s, it’s gotta be a boy!— whaddya gonna call him?”

“We were thinking, Jesus.”

“Jesus? Really? Half the kids in Israel are Jesuses. I’m thinking — liberate your minds here a little bit, kids — something a little catchier. More exotic! Like — you ready? — Elvis.”

“Elvis?” said Joseph. “What the hell kind of a name — ”

“Look, Joe, we’re creating an image here. This baby of yours — I kid you not — could be the Christchild everybody’s waiting for. All he needs is a good promoter! A facilitator. A man with a plan! Enter Izzy Glick!”
Izzy could tell Joseph wasn’t buying it.

“Picture it. Elvis Christ! With my help, little Elvis’ll have followers before he hits puberty. Followers, Joe! Elvisites. Or Elivisciples. Pretty soon, there’ll be a whole movement. Elvisism. Elvisanity. Something like that.”

Mary, however, stuck with “Jesus” and crept back onto a pile of straw to have her baby in relative solitude.

The child was born that night. The pseudo-shepherds got bored and asked if they could play a few numbers. Izzy agreed but not while tiny Jesus was asleep. “And tell your Little Drummer Boy to keep it to a low roar,” said Izzy. “He’s not exactly Gene Krupa, y’know.”

“Gene who?” said Little Caesar.

Joseph couldn’t understand why his wife had to nurse her firstborn in a stable amongst at lot of livestock and strangers. He’d been patient with Izzy, but he decided to finally put his foot down.

“Look, Joe, my man!” said Izzy. “You gotta start looking Big Picture here. You think I’m in this deal for the short haul? No way, bro. I can see things ten, twenty years down the road, Joe. Picture your little Elvis — I mean, Jesus — booked at every wedding, funeral and synagogue from Tarsus to Judea. Picture him playing the main gallery at the Temple — in Jerusalem! He’s talking circles around the Sadducees and ripping into the moneychangers. As clear as day, I can see this kid — your son, Joe! — leading throngs of wide-eyed believers, to a mountaintop somewhere in Galilee. Holding thousands spellbound for hours, praying, preaching, pontificating, tossing off blessings like lollipops at a Fourth of July parade! I tell ya, Joe baby. This is going to be huge!

“Fourth of what?” asked Joseph.

Izzy kept talking, but Joseph never really understood the concept. The Nativity miracle might have died there in the stable if the Magi hadn’t arrived in the nick of time. “Now here,” said Izzy, rubbing his hands and arching his eyebrows, “is a team I can work with. Yo, Caesar! Strike up the Romans!”

As the band swung into a ragtime riff, Izzy huddled with Balthazar, ‎Melchior and ‎Caspar. “Listen, guys, I know you’ve been on the road a long time, looking for this mythical Christchild. Believe me, I know what you’re going through. These are hard times. The world is in sin and error pining. The Romans are running the show and the king is a sadistic puppet who’s likely any minute to pop his gourd and serve up the local prophet’s head on a platter for his slutty stepdaughter’s bachelorette luncheon. And then he might grab you guys and turn you into dessert! Meanwhile, you’ve got free-lance messiahs coming out of the woodwork. How you ever gonna tell the flimflammers from the real Son of God?”

“We’re sure we’ll know him when we see him,” said Caspar. “The Christchild will reveal himself. He will be young and innocent, but his voice will be wondrous, his message irresistible and his faith pure.”

“For your sake, pal, I hope so. But you might just be barking up the wrong forest,” said Izzy. “What you boys have to do is think younger! Think Moses-in-the-bulrushes. Madonna-and-Child. Babe-in-a-manger. Think Jesus Christ!”

“Think who?” asked Balthazar.

With that, Izzy pushed aside several sheep. The Three Kings beheld a destitute newborn swaddled in rags lying in a smelly stable while lounge musicians in shepherd drag sawed away at the birth of the blues.

Voila, gents: the perfect Christchild. This little bundle of joy hasn’t been ruined yet by rabbis and Pharisees. He hasn’t even been circumsized! His story is a blank slate. Lucky for all of us, though, it won’t be blank for long, because I happen to know a young scribe who can write it all up —  my cousin Irv’s nephew Luke. That boy can spin a yarn that’ll boggle your mind, tickle your fancy, break your heart and turn that crummy stable into the Good Lord’s tabernacle. By the time he’s done, my boy Luke will have angels bending near the earth, heaven and nature singing, hallelujahs falling like snow, giant blinding stars rolling across the night sky like Apollo’s chariot.”

The Magi, who were dead on their feet and ready to end their quest, wavered. Izzy sealed the deal by offering to give up the Presidential Suite at the crowded inn.

“So,” said Izzy, “you’ve got your newborn King. Did somebody mention that you brought gifts.”

The Magi showed Izzy their stash of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“Give Joe there the frankincense and myrrh,” said Izzy. “But I’d better hold the gold. The last thing the Savior needs, image-wise, is for word to get out that he’s hip-deep in the old do-re-mi, you dig? The kid’s gotta be a man of the people. Wear sandals. Catch fish. Work with his hands. Abe Lincoln and all that, y’know?”

“Abe who?” said Balthazar.

Izzy shouted, over the music. “Hey, Joe! What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a carpenter.”

“Oh God, is that perfect or what?” said Izzy to the Magi. “Come on. Let me introduce you boys to Joe, Mary and the Everloving Savior of the World. I tell ya, fellas. This is going to be huge!

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#701)

Christmas through a glass, darkly
(In memory of Paul Keeffe, LaFollette H.S., Class of ’67)
by David Benjamin

On a recent visit to New York, I got together with a lifelong friend, Pat Keeffe, who was in the first graduating class (‘65) at LaFollette High. Earlier this year, Pat and his family had mourned the too-soon loss of Pat’s brother, Paul — who graduated with me in ’67. Paul was handsome, funny, charming and spectacularly unpredictable.

Pat recalled reading — with Paul — one of my first Christmas stories. I’d written it when I was barely 16, and lost it until Patty (Brill) Hammes (also ’67) dug it up from her
LaFollette Lance news archives. Pat Keeffe somehow remembered the story, by its title. I promised Pat I’d find it and send a copy. Since it holds up well after all these years — better than a lot of stuff I’ve written since then — I thought I might as well reprise it, as this year’s Christmas screed. It’s called…
 

Next Year, Bring Guns

The clock was near to chiming 2 a.m. For the third time that night, I flashed the ready sign to Amos. Catching the signal, Saunders nudged Amos, who had dozed off. The waiting, clearly, had not gotten on his nerves. I ventured to breach the silence.

“Use your head, Amos.”

My exclamation roused several idlers, including Clow and Wesley, upon whose brute strength the operation depended.

Another ten minutes passed uneventfully. We began to worry if he would ever come. Had he smelled a rat and just passed us over?

Then, finally, Wiese stirred clumsily. His keen ears had picked up the distant sound of jingling bells. In a second, it came to Bedrich, then Eloiten. Then, the rest of us heard it. This was IT. We all took a tight grip on our bludgeons, truncheons and bodkins.

Moments later, clomping, trampling, prancing and pawing pounded on the roof above us. It was HIM. Hyland’s iridescent eyes glowed in the darkness. They were a dead giveaway. Obis made him put on his sunglasses. We all breathed easier.

A clattering and scraping echoed from the chimney. He was coming. We could hear him grunting and puffing, cursing obscenely under his labored breath. I clutched my icepick.

Suddenly, the coveted bag clunked into the hearth. Graves, losing control, lunged toward it. In the nick of time, Sidman, Parmelee and Ross seized him by the ankles and dragged him back. I made a quick check of our hiding places. Not one of us could be seen. The plan was set. Then, all eyes flashed to the fireplace as he kicked the sack aside and landed, coughing, in a cloud of fine ash. With a bend and a twist, he was free from the chimney.

And there he stood, red and sooty and sloppy, his yellow buck teeth protruding from his stringy gray beard, his hand — coated with grime — resting on his monstrous belly. He reeked of B.O. and reindeer manure. He lay his finger up side of his nose and then thrust it inside. He dug out a booger the size of a Swedish meatball and smeared it across his bodice. Then, scratching his crotch and lighting a cigarette, he straightened to his full height — a great big fat mountain of fuming pork grease.
Luveta turned her head in revulsion. Rahl whispered to me, “How does a tub of lard like that get down a chimney?

Dragging the bulging sack to his side, he looked casually around, smirking. His pig eyes settled on the milk and cookies. Food. An expression of greed crossed his brow. He reached, compulsively, for the goodies. He had taken the bait.

A scant second too early, Siert took the cue and leapt from cover. He threw himself onto the back of the beast. The red giant, like a grizzly flicking away a squirrel, shoved Siert off and — with a roar of Neanderthal fury — set himself.

Waving our bludgeons, flashing our stilettos and crying, “Ya-a-a-ah! Blood!”, we attacked the Crimson Creature.

Amos, Varney, Courtney, Graves, Obis, Festus, Campbell, Vilhjalmur, LaMont, Merten, Sidman, Ross, Corbin, Gerard, Traugott, Cathmor, Tayloe and Saunders hit him low.

Clow, Wesley, Wiese, Bedrich, Eliot, Eloiten, Hyland, Parmelee, Rahl, Asa, Grover, Clifton, Dowse, Townsend, Bagnall, Myers, Jim and I hit him high.

Gillman, Elijah, Madison, Gray, Nym and Adonis hit him in the middle..

Eyes blazing, nose flaring, snot flying, slaver foaming from his mouth, he swung left and right, smashing heads. Time and again, we pierced his immense overcoat with our daggers and bounced our clubs off his polyethylene skull.

His colossal strength, with the split second of warning that Siert had given him, was winning out. He tossed our slight bodies like matchsticks. I saw Wesley splat into the wall at the end of the room. Corbin was squashed beneath his gargantuan feet. He took a last drag on his Camel and put it out in Luveta’s eye, sending her screaming out the door and into the blizzard. He strangled Grover with a flick of his wrist.

Inch by inch, he retreated to the hearth. With the precious sack of toys before him, casting aside our futile efforts to halt him and destroy his evil reign of avarice and materialism, he disappeared — with a mighty shove — up the chimney.

We took the defeat hard, as hard as we had taken it the year before, and the year before that, and the whole twelve years before that. Maybe we were getting old.

An hour later, licking our wounds, we all went upstairs to nestle snug in our beds. As we filed out, stepping respectfully over the bodies of our dead, I turned to my comrades and said, “Next year, boys, bring guns.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#700)

Diary of a wetback skip tracer
by David Benjamin

“ICE deported almost 393,000 people from the U.S. in 2010. At $12,500 per person the cost to remove them was almost $5 billion.”
                                                           — Associated Press

This is the city. Los Angeles. I work here. I’m a dick. Private. My name is Biff Borders. I do immigration enforcement for Uncle Sam.

It was Tuesday, November 25th. It was raining in America. I was tracking a fugitive wetback named Raoul Wong-Li McFadden, whose street monicker was “Pegleg.” Despite getting his leg shot to hell by a crazed drug gang who’d invaded his house, killed his parents, raped his sisters and ate his dog, Señor Fluffy, McFadden had hiked all the way to Texas from Tegucigalpa at the age of nine. He had a lot of moxie, but he was illegal and that was against the law.

My job: Find him, cuff him, send him back.

McFadden had been in the country 42 years. He’d sired six anchor babies. The oldest was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. His wife was from El Salvador. She’d told a sob story about how her village was rounded up by a government death squad and roasted to death in a burning church. For that, the softhearted pansies at Immigration gave her political asylum and a green card.

My job: Break up the family.

I’d been on his trail 17 days when I found McFadden hiding in plain sight. In Chicago. Working days as a landscaper in Lake Forest. Nights at a burger joint. He asked if I wanted to super-size my fries and I yanked my gat. “Hands up, Pegleg.”

“You a cop?”

I told him, “What do you think, amigo?”

“If you are, where’s your badge, cabron?”

“I don’t need no stinking badge,” I snapped. “I’m a government contractor.”

I went on to explain that there are 11 million illegals and only a few thousand ICE agents. McFadden did the math. He wasn’t dumb. Knew the jig was up. Came quietly. I flew him to L.A., called the feds. The said they’d be by. Meanwhile, I locked him in the john. Slipped tortillas under the door. Used the neighbors’ toilet.

Weeks passed. I didn’t mind. I was billing Uncle Sam two hundred a day plus expenses.

My job: Put Pegleg on ice. Keep the meter running.

After a month of peeing nextdoor, I cuffed McFadden to the living-room radiator. Let him watch TV. He begged to call his wife. Pregnant. “In a pig’s eye,” I said. I knew they talk in code. Aliens. Can’t trust them. Can’t kill them.

My job: Head ‘em up. Move ‘em out.

McFadden asked why.

I told him it’s not my job to ask why. I’m a dick. The Republicans are in charge. They don’t like wetbacks. That’s how it is. What’s to ask?

I said, “Just the facts, man.”

Raoul said facts or not, this whole hunting expedition, for people like him, was a colossal waste. “Look, gringo,” he said, “I bet your great grandmother came to America in the 19th century, right?”

I said Great-Nana’s parents arrived in the 1870’s, from Europe. “So, what makes me illegal and your granny’s granny legit?” he asked. “All she had to do was hit Ellis Island before 1906. ‘Til then, America was an open door — to anyone. Thieves, murderers, Communists, alchemists, Irishmen, physicists, Jews! No laws, no quotas. She just walked off the boat and headed for the Lower East Side.”

“That’s different,” I said. “My great great granny was white. You’re not.”

“So! You’re a bigot.”

“No, I’m a dick.”

“Listen,” said Raoul. “Before you caught me, I didn’t bother a soul for 40 years. I was invisible. We all are. Eleven million ghosts. If a few blowhards in Congress weren’t hollering that we’re a problem, we wouldn’t be a problem. At all. We’d go on doing all the nastiest jobs in America, at minimum wage, or worse, without overtime, sometimes without getting paid. We spend all our earnings, contribute to the economy and pay taxes but we’re not eligible for social services and we’re afraid to go to the hospital. We’re the closest thing you have to slaves, and you have to admit it, Sarge. Slavery’s as American as apple pie.”

“I’m not a sarge. I’m a dick.”

“I can see that,” said Raoul. “Look, if you catch us all and ship us back, along with our kids, then who’ll flip your burgers, pull your onions and pick your peaches? Who’ll bus your tables, mop your floors, blow your leaves, nanny your brats, empty your bedpans, make up your room and put candy on your pillow? Where will you go to fill all those crappy jobs? Monaco? Switzerland? Canada?”

I know a rhetorical question when I hear one. So I kept my peace.

“Why not spare yourselves all this stupid effort? You’re wasting billions chasing hard-working, innocent people.” Raoul went on. “Why not just keep us? You don’t have to legalize us, or approve of us, or even see us. Just leave us alone — invisible, miserable and scorned. We’ll keep on doing the ugly jobs. We’ll keep cleaning up the messes you leave. All you have to do is let me go. Let all of us go.”

“That’s not my job.”

“I know,” he said. “You’re a dick.”

After two more months and a lot of conversations like this, the feds finally came and took McFadden He ended up back in Tegucigalpa — after only six months in solitary at a detention facility in Rectal Itch, Utah.

Me? I did my job: One down. Ten million, nine hundred ninety-nine to go.